Question Time

I haven’t had an opportunity to blog on much in the past few weeks having been in Vancouver on business, so I thought I’d have a look at Question Time to get me back up to speed.

Many others have already blogged on the matter and I’m still a bit tired from travelling so I’m just going to post the body of my own complaint to the BBC, and a couple of other points that I didn’t include as I don’t believe the BBC can be held directly responsible for them.

I wish to complain about the lack of impartiality shown by David Dimbleby and the BBC in the episode of Question Time broadcast from Glasgow on the 28th of October 2010.

Firstly when the panel is introduced, the Glasgow audience is informed that Simon Schama has recently been appointed by the government to advise on the teaching of history in schools, but fails to mention that the appointment only applies to schools in England as Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish education systems are all devolved. Mr Schama’s appointment, is a matter exclusive to England, but is being referred to a manner that gives it the appearance of applying to the entire United Kingdom.

Roughly 39 minutes into the episode, Nicola Sturgeon is called upon to answer a question, and begins talking about measures the Scottish government has taken, and would like to take in future and is promptly told by Mr Dimbleby that matters exclusive to Scotland are not to be discussed as the program is being broadcast across the entire United Kingdom.

This is of course despite numerous examples of discussions relating to the English health and education systems in previous episodes, as well as episodes concerning Northern Ireland’s unique politics when the program is broadcast from Belfast.

Further around the 44 minute mark, Ed Davey begins to criticise the nations of Ireland and Iceland and argues that had Scotland been independent before the financial crisis it would not have survived, and it is not until Nicola begins to counter that Mr Dimbleby informs us that they are “not here to discuss Scottish independence”.

As the show begins to wind down, at around 54 minutes during a discussion on whether or not the use of torture by the defence community can be justified, Mr Dimbleby brings in his own question to change the course of the conversation:

“Simon Schama, do you think in that context the decision made here in Scotland to release the man found guilty of the bombing at Lockerbie was a sign of being soft on terrorism and sent the wrong signal?”

In addition to showing Mr Dimbleby’s ignorance of the case (there wasn’t a bombing at Lockerbie) this is clearly a deliberate attack on the SNP government’s decision, with Mr Dimbleby then proceeding to ask all the panelists bar Ms Sturgeon their view on the matter. To his credit Chris Bryant found this so shocking he does not answer initially as he believes Mr Dimbleby is giving Ms Sturgeon right of reply rather than looking for another person to criticise the decision. Before Ms Sturgeon is given a chance to comment, further questions are taken from the audience.

I would further like to complain that around 27 minutes in, Mr Dimbleby stops the discussion, to take a question submitted in advance by David Meikle, Mr Meikle is Glasgow City Council’s sole Tory councillor. Had Mr Meikle made his point by catching the eye of Mr Dimbleby, I could perhaps be expected to believe that the BBC were unaware that they were taking the question from a Tory, but in order to take part in the audience of question time, one must fill in a form including your occupation and political persuasion, it is therefore an inescapable conclusion, that the question was chosen by the BBC in full knowledge that he was a Tory plant.

Anyone who wants to submit their own complaint can do so here.

Before I came across Moidura’s own post on the matter I had tried to time it myself and found that Simon Schama spoke for 6 minutes 55 seconds, Hugh Hendry for  10 minutes 19 seconds and Nicola Sturgeon for only 6 minutes 13 seconds.

Amongst the pearls of Wisdom that Mr Hendry came out with, there was:

[Nicola Sturgeon] isn’t going to employ your kids, I might, but she ain’t

As anyone who managed to watch until the end found out, “Hugh Hendry lives in London and is the father of 3 small children”, what he didn’t mention however is that his Cayman Islands registered hedge fund employs a grand total of 11 people. Nicola Sturgeon on the other hand, is Deputy First Minister of Scotland and is responsible for the NHS, the largest employer in Scotland. I know who I’m sending my CV to!

The World’s Real Oldest Profession

Plymouth Council's view of the Sandercocks

This week the Daily Mail wrote a piece about how an unemployed couple living in a house in Devon with two bedrooms and 6 children under 7 years old have been denied a 4 bedroom house. This topic has already been covered by Caron who highlights the need for more council housing and by Malc who questions the “irresponsibility” of having such a large family while living on welfare and who brought my attention to Caron and the original article.

What I want to discuss however is not the “irresponsibility” of the couple in question, but instead the state’s need for people like them, and its irresponsibility in instituting a system that both creates and demonises them.

As a couple, at least one of whom (I am assuming as no ages are provided) is over 25, and are out of work, they will be in receipt of two sets of Job Seeker’s Allowance, one set of housing & council tax benefit, six sets of child benefit, and child tax credits which tots up to somewhere in the region of £25-£30k a year.

Of these only the Child Benefit is guaranteed, and if Mr Sandercock sought out a job, even paying at Iain Gray’s proposed “living wage” would barely make up for the shortfall, the loss of housing & council tax benefit alone would result in. This is just one example of what is known as “the benefits trap”, a subject on which far too much has been written already for me to provide a single link providing more information.

As my father says “people aren’t stupid: only those who think people aren’t going to take advantage are stupid”, so why does our government allow this to happen? The Universal Child Benefit (UCB) was introduced after the Second World War, as part of the raft of measures in the Beveridge Report that form the core of what we know and love today as the Welfare State, and one of the principal aims of the measure, was to help replace the millions of citizens who gave their lives in the struggle, to discourage people from putting off starting a family until the country was rebuilt and rationing had come to an end, and to act “irresponsibly”. It was this measure in part that triggered the post-war Baby Boom.

I’m sure you are already aware that birthrates are falling and the population is ageing. At the age of 30, my grandmother had 6 children, my mother had 2 and my sister has none. Between my gran’s 55th birthday and my mother’s the number of pensioners had risen by 1.7 million, while the number of children under 16 had dropped by 3.4 million, and by the time my sister reaches her 55th it is forecast that almost a quarter of the population will be over 65, and only 18% will be under 16. Without a dramatic increase in the birth rate to compensate, over 40% of the population will be too young or old to contribute to the workforce, not to mention those like the Sandercock’s unable to do so due to the benefit trap.

I mentioned earlier how although it is unlikely that Mr Sandercock will ever find an entry-level job which better provides for his family, he still receives benefits and is treated as a “job-seeker”, but what is still more ridiculous is that so is Mrs Sandercock. The state insists that in order to receive £65 a week, between breakfast, taking the eldest three children to school, nappy changes, cleaning, washing, ironing, and then picking the kids up from school again, she should be keeping up the charade that she is sending away application forms to Argos for Christmas staff or checking the Plymouth Herald for vacancies and reporting to her local Job Centre Plus to speak to an “advisor” once a fortnight.

I defy anyone to say that raising six children is not a full-time job, and yet we have developed a system where this woman is forced to engage in the pretence that her plate is not full, she is “actively seeking” something to do and that until she finds it the press will call her and her husband “spongers”, “wasters” and “work-shy”. The likes of the Star and the Mail fill their column inches with examples like this, and politicians inform us they will be as tougher than the rest in their pursuit of those “inappropriately claiming benefits” and more forceful in their efforts to get these people back into work, all the while green-lighting white elephants like Trident and submitting dubious expenses claims far in excess of even the most ambitious estimations of what they’ll save by tackling benefit fraud.

The fact of the matter is that looking after children is work, it is an economic activity that adds value to the economy, improving the lot of the nation. If one of those six children, worked for 40 years in a minimum wage job, they would pay almost £120,000 in income tax and National Insurance, in addition to taxes such as VAT being paid on the products they buy and the added value their occupation provided to the economy at large in the first instance. What’s more, if something happened to Mr & Mrs Sandercock and the children entered the foster care system, the state would be paying somewhere in the region of £20-30k per child per year to their foster parent.

Our government should follow Venezuela's example...

In Venezuela, article 88 of the constitution recognises:

“The equality and equity between men & women in the exercise of their right to work. That work within the home is an economic activity that creates added values and produces social welfare and wealth. Housewives are therefore entitled to remuneration through Social Security.”

From February 2006, mothers are no longer pressured to look for work, and instead of receiving benefits and the stigma that comes with them, are now in receipt of a salary, equivalent to the minimum wage (as it is not taxed) and the dignity that comes with that. These payments are guaranteed whether their husband is out of work or not, providing no incentive for him not to look for work, as children grow older and attend school freeing up more of the day time for mothers, they are able to look for work during the day, or as many choose to do, volunteer at local community projects around their town. Those women who choose to re-enter the workforce no longer have a blank space on their CV to account for, with “mother” being an accepted occupation providing skills and experiences that employers regard highly, to quote Selma James of the Global Women’s Strike

“Caring for others is accomplished by a dazzling array of skills in an endless variety of circumstances. As well as cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundering, planting, tending, harvesting for others, women comfort and guide, nurse and teach, arrange and advise, discipline and encourage, fight for and pacify. Taxing and exhausting under any circumstances, this service work, this emotional housework, is done both outside and inside the home.”

One area however where Venezuela’s system is found lacking, is that it is only women, and widowers, who are able to take advantage of it. There is currently no provision, for stay at home fathers to be paid this salary, while the mother returns to her higher-paying job.

If an independent Scotland, or indeed the UK as it is, wants to crack the problems of the benefit trap, it could do a lot worse than to look to Venezuela.

Going Dutch

If I asked you to think of “The Kingdom of the Netherlands” you may imagine a flat landscape strewn with tulips and windmills on its country roads and hash bars and whore windows on its city streets, rather than palm trees and Caribbean beaches.

When it's spring again I'll bring again, peanuts from Oranjestad.

The Caribbean islands to scale with the Kingdom's European territory.

However the Dutch Kingdom, much like our own United Kingdom, is a group of countries that share a monarch; as well as the European country commonly and erroneously (but for my purposes in this article conveniently) called Holland, the Kingdom also includes the European nation’s former colonies in the Caribbean, Aruba and the five island colonies which form the Netherlands Antilles.

All three countries have their own money (the Aruban florin, Antillean guilder and Euro), their own teams in FIFA and people are proud to be Aruban, Antillean or a Nederlander, but all three have Dutch (and by extension EU) passports.

The Kingdom has a similar level of asymmetric devolution to our own; like London, Amsterdam serves as the capital of The Kingdom and of Holland, the Dutch parliament in The Hague serves as both the domestic parliament of Holland, as well as dealing with the Kingdom-wide matters such as defence and foreign affairs and like England, Holland is the largest country in the Union dwarfing the others with just shy of 98% of the Kingdom’s area and just over 98% of its population.

Oranjestad and Willemstad both house their respective national parliaments which legislate on those devolved matters affecting their respective nation, and the Prime Minister of each parliament is responsible for assigning the nation’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the Dutch cabinet (the equivalent of the FM of Scotland getting to name the Scottish secretary).

As the Dutch parliament doesn’t have constituencies per se there is no “West Leeward Question”, it is simply accepted that the people of the Caribbean fringe choose to vote for parties based on reserved policies.

By now you are probably wondering why I’ve decided to bring this up on a blog that asserts to pertain to Scottish politics. On the 10th of October, most of what you learned above will no longer apply because the people of the Netherlands Antilles have voted to end their own Union. Multi-option referenda have been held on all five islands giving the islanders four choices.

  1. To remain part of the Netherlands Antilles
  2. To leave the Kingdom of the Netherlands and become fully independent
  3. To have their island recognised as a nation within the Kingdom
  4. To have their island absorbed into Holland

The two largest islands, Curacao and Sint Maarten have chosen option 3, and while St Eustatius actually voted to preserve the Union, it will be going along with the other islands Saba and Bonaire and will become council areas within the province of North Holland on the 10th, with 5 years to prepare for Holland’s laws to take effect.

Now when a friend of mine from Leiden explained these goings on to me recently, I appreciated the insight into the quirkyness of the Dutch constitution but didn’t really see what it had to do with us here in Scotland. Until she told me that in the cases of Sint Maarten and Curacao these are the second referenda within twelve years.

Sint Maarten voted / percentage in 1994 / percentage in 2000

  1. To remain part of the Netherlands Antilles / 59.6% /3.7%
  2. To leave the Kingdom of the Netherlands and become fully independent / 6.2% / 14.2%
  3. To have their island recognised as a nation within the Kingdom / 33.1% / 69.9%
  4. To have their island absorbed into Holland 0.9% / 11.6%

Curacao voted / percentage in 1993 / percentage in 2005

  1. To remain part of the Netherlands Antilles / 73.56% /3.74%
  2. To leave the Kingdom of the Netherlands and become fully independent / 0.49% / 4.82%
  3. To have their island recognised as a nation within the Kingdom / 17.93% / 67.83%
  4. To have their island absorbed into Holland 8.02% / 23.61%

These figures, particularly those of Sint Maarten are quite astonishing, within the space of 6 years, the centre of Antillean politics had shifted to such an extent that 55.9% of those who had voted in favour of preserving the Union felt such a position was no longer tenable, and that the island was ready to move on to bigger and better things.

Alex Salmond has made his position clear on holding further referenda after a hypothetical defeat in the first, believing that another referendum would not be possible for a generation but I think that these results show that such a stance is perhaps misguided. A vote to remain part of the UK isn’t necessarily a “No” vote, just a “Not Yet” vote, and that plenty of these voters can be persuaded by good governance, effective campaigning, and perhaps even some Dutch courage.