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.

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Nation Shall Speak Unto Nation

I came across this story about a review looking into setting up a public service broadcaster in Scotland shortly after my post last week concerning the Glasgow list. It has been sitting on the back-burner, percolating away and as I’ve been stuck for something to write here I thought I’d share my thoughts with you, perhaps generating a bit of a discussion and who knows maybe even some comments.

Whether it’s the interminable episodes of Question Time where the hour passes solely discussing matters of English domestic policy (with of course some final question about who the panel want to win come dine with me, or whether or not they are wearing tartan knickers) or a Reporting Scotland that only skimmed the surface of that thursday’s FMQs because they also had to find time to tell us about Mrs McGlumphy’s cat and what various Old Firm players are having for their tea, the level of coverage of distinct Scottish affairs simply isn’t good enough and I’m sure you remember the furore over the SNP’s exclusion from the “Leader’s debates” in May.

To give credit where credit is due though, the BBC may be seen from the above to be failing in its Reithian aim of informing the Scottish public, it is certainly still educating & entertaining, the recent series by @ProfBrianCox on the solar system, and the crowds at the St Enoch centre when Karen Gillan was there recently promoting Doctor Who are proof enough of that.

This could prove to be one of the early stumbling blocks for a new Scottish National Broadcaster (SNB), if competing with the BBC rather than replacing it in Scotland, then this new channel will have to appeal to commercial interests rather than the licence fee, it may struggle to come up with advertisers for a channel dedicated to the current events in Scotland and would certainly find it difficult to match the BBC if it chose to commission its own entertainment shows or documentaries.

There is one other area of the BBC produce that could help and that is their sports coverage, Hamish McDonnell of the Caledonian Mercury has on multiple occasions highlighted the poor treatment of Scottish rugby by the BBC (although home games for the Magner’s League are to be shown on BBC Alba this year), but just as snooker was introduced to the nation consciousness by a young upstart named David Attenborough at BBC2 in the 60s to attract people to new station, perhaps the SNB could try to use curling or basketball in the same way.

I think though, while an SNB would be welcome in the interim, the focus should really be on bringing about a successor to the BBC rather than a competitor, having the benefits of the BBC’s facilities and personnel in Scotland, as well as a share in the litany of BBC output already in existence and spot 101 on your EPG is probably going to be the only way the channel will be able to have a real impact.

You’ve got to spend money to make money

So on last night’s Newsnight Scotland, Joeseph Stiglitz, former Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, said that the UK Government’s current “austerity drive” were “mostly wrongheaded” explaining that the UK is not in the same position as Greece and still has access to capital markets and further borrowing. He went on to say:

The real point that I emphasize is, not so much how much we’re spending, but what we’re spending it on. Every business borrows, it borrows to make investments, and investments in the public sector can yield returns, every bit as high and even higher than in the private sector.

While not a Nobel prize winner myself, I have been of the same opinion as Professor Stiglitz for some time now. We know that in the past, the United States and Germany didn’t pull themselves out of depression by cutting spending but rather by increasing investment in public works, and trying to promote local industries. Roosevelt and Hitler were both responsible for setting up their respective nation’s motorway network at that time, and FDR managed to go further by encouraging parents not to take time off of work to look after their children in the summer, but instead to send them to one of the new “summer camps” the government was helping to set up all over the country – a scheme so successful, that last year 10 million American children attended one.

Now Scotland isn’t in as bad a position as the US or Germany found themselves in the 1930s, but that isn’t to say there isn’t work that could be done. All but the staunchest Greens would say that our own road network couldn’t do with vast improvements, as could our railways not only in terms of upgrades to high speed rail but also the long awaited Glasgow Crossrail that will finally unite all services up and down the West Coast without having to cross the city on foot, and if SNP plans to bring Scotrail back into public ownership when First’s franchise expires go ahead then investment now could yield those great returns that Professor Stiglitz alluded to.

There’s also the new renewables industry and it’s spin-offs, if we are soon to have whisky powered cars is it too much to ask the manufacturing plant be based in Scotland? We could even try to introduce an entire industry from nowhere like the American summer camps, there are hundreds of ways in which a government that cared about Scotland, and had the powers at its disposal could help this country.

But it obviously isn’t as simple as throwing money anywhere as Professor Stiglitz goes on to say:

There is lots of room for cutting back, in the US where I know the data a lot better, we’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons that don’t work against enemies that don’t exist. Military expenditures like that do not lead to a stronger economy, that’s something you can pull back. So there are lots of room for redirecting spending and that’s where the focus ought to be.