Friday, 30 July 2010

You know when Nick Clegg said that this was going to be the most radical, reforming government since 1911?

Well, now I believe him. Wow.

The 'Citizen's Income' model of benefits is something I've idly talked about as a lovely, lovely theory with politically-minded friends on more than one occasion.

Did you know there are 58 benefits an out-of-work person might claim, each one requiring its own mammoth form-filling task, and the presenting of various proofs of entitlement? Can you imagine what a complete and total arse-ache that is if you find yourself out of work and broke?

Now imagine that every person of working age gets a single benefit. In a similar way to the tax credits helpline, there's a number to call to inform of any change in your circumstances, and the amount of benefit you get rises according to various needs, such as disability or dependent children. If you work, your taxed wages are in addition to your benefit, making benefit fraud hotlines a thing of the past. If you are out of work, you know you won't have a lengthy wait to be assessed for eligibility for benefit, as you already receive it and will continue to do so. No stigma, less stress.

Pretty cool, huh?

Looks like we might really see it happen in this parliament!

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Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Scoring Points From Suicide. How Low Can You Go?

This article in The Scotsman has been doing the rounds on twitter this evening. It's the tragic story of a talented writer who has been having a savage time, and killed himself because his benefits were to be cut.

As a left liberal, the progress of the parliament is troubling me. I am finding the cuts in housing benefit, and rise in VAT (for example) hard to swallow even if I try to justify it with pointing out the compromises we've managed to lever out of our coalition partners like the 10% rise in capital gains tax. I do think it's the job of the opposition and the press to hold the government to account on these issues and judge them by results. I think this very important as public opinion and strong enough pressure may strengthen the case of those in the coalition who would like to see policy remain as fair as possible in the face of some damn ugly ideology coming from the right.

However, this story does nothing to help that case as it's pure screaming hyperbole. Life on benefits is brutal, and the bureaucracy and hoop-jumping involved in justifying your uselessness enough to get helped to survive when you can't support yourself is depressing even for the strongest of souls. But that's nothing new. It has been ever thus. This guy's death can't be linked to any action of the current government as reforms don't come into force yet, and weren't even announced until the day of the funeral.

Paul Reekie's death was horrible, and it's certainly a sobering reminder of the responsibility the government has to protect and support the most vulnerable. In my view though, it's nothing short of cynically disingenuous to suggest (as the deceased's social circle, this journalist, and the left-activists who have been reposting the link have done) that the current administration is directly to blame. To really believe that this "wouldn't have happened under Labour", you'd have to be quite astoundingly unaware of life at the sharp end over the last few years when the supposed progressives were running the show. In case you need reminding, the gap between rich and poor in this country, in terms of education (education education), health, and income disparity, WIDENED in the thirteen years the last government held power.

It's pretty sick to use someone's death as a means of political pointscoring, and will turn people off listening and taking it seriously when *fair* and damning commentary is made.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Cameron vs Facebook: A Moat Point?

So the Prime Minister is seemingly furious about the public sympathy for Raoul Moat, as expressed on a facebook group. I can't believe he could think ordering facebook to remove the group (as requested by Chris Heaton-Harris MP, unsurprisingly a keen brand new Tory safe-seat occupying backbencher) is any kind of answer to his problem.

There are those who are publicly sympathising with, lauding and mourning Moat. That fascination will only increase with time is the Krays or the Yorkshire Ripper are anything to go by. As much as David Cameron might not like that, the cult of celebrity killers far predates facebook. He claims to be a Morrissey fan - he probably needs to have a good listen to 'Last of the Famous International Playboys'. And then sit down and have a think about chickens and eggs. Social networking sites don't produce or manipulate public reactions, they merely provide a space for them.

Here's a thought. Maybe if you don't want the people's imagination to be caught by a tragic, horrific incident what needs addressing is the behaviour of the media. If you feel a public discussion of all possible points of view to be tasteless, why allow The Sun to publish a picture of Raoul Moat's mother with the headline "YOU'RE BETTER OFF DEAD, SON" - or is that different? What do we think caused more grief to the victims and their families? Interminable hours of rolling news channel footage that consisted of packs of reporters harassing every passer by and breathlessly repeating a heady mix of eyewitness reports and pure conjecture to camera, *live from the scene as police attempted to negotiate with the gunman*; or a few thousand idiots who are so short of a viable candidate for a hero, or the sense to distinguish real life from the movies, that they've decided to talk shit to each other on the Internet about how praiseworthy the gunman was, after he's dead and gone and the whole episode is over with? It's a horrible time for the victims and their families. But you know what's worse? Speaking for them, deciding what they should be allowed to hear. Stop bloody nannying them. There are idiots out there that have shitty opinions. You can't stop them talking shit down the pub, facebook is really no different except in the respect that if you don't like it, you can click a little 'x' in the corner of your screen and stop being subjected to it, making it that much easier than physically walking away.

You know what the saddest part of all this is? The lack of a sense of humour. I've had a look at the facebook group Heaton-Whatsit got so het up about. I'm fairly sure it's a parody - deliberately badly typed [EG "I DONT GET SUM PEOPLE :/ IF YOU ARE SOO AGAINST THIS GROUP Y DID U JOIN IT!?"], designed to garner the nowtrage expressed about everything by all the Daily Fail readers out there with a stick up their arses. And whoever put it together is probably rolling about laughing right now, not only at the Daily Fail lunatics but at the man who is supposed to be running the country jumping on their righteous raging bandwagon. For all their efforts to be the government of web 2.0, the coalition are hampered by the inclusion of the party that brought us the hilariously misconceived #cashgordon site and ensuing debacle a few weeks back. The thing about the Internet, and Brits on the Internet in particular, is that NOTHING is sacred, everything is up for being taken the piss out of and taken apart, all opinions are given an equal platform for expression and for ridicule. And that's exactly the way it should be. Sadly I don't think the tories are ever going to get it.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Excuse me while I bend over, I'm just being screwed by Swalec.

I don't know how many people in the UK currently or have ever used prepayment electricity meters. It's not like it's something people will readily admit as it carries a certain amount of shame. It's a dirty secret, being poor. I have one. I have it because it's the default state of things in social housing. I'm in a housing association place, it was fitted when I moved in. I was informed, when I enquired, that there would be a significant charge if I wanted to change the way I paid for my electricity supply, so I have had to put up with paying a higher price for my energy than those who can afford to pay more. And that's just financially. There's a small cost to my soul every time I have to hand over my little plastic key to be charged at the newsagent, too. I feel utterly stigmatised by it, just like the period I was unemployed when my daughter was small, and I had milk tokens to pay for part of my shopping. But I digress.. where was I? Oh yes, little plastic keys.

I'm not a particularly organised girl. My mum and dad used to go crazy about the cost of all my lost keys when I was growing up. I forget to have the toll ready when I drive over the Cleddau Bridge to work. I leave my phone at home at least once a week and get home to text messages that I'm too late to answer in any useful way. But somehow, miraculously, I have managed over five years without losing my stupid little plastic electric meter key. So I didn't know what to do when I reached for my keys as the credit ran out and the lights went off at my house after work tonight, only to find the damn thing had fallen off somewhere. I hunted through my handbag and the car and didn't find it. Boo. I felt thankful for the luck I had in at least having a functioning fully-charged phone and laptop, and set about finding a number for Swalec to ask them for a replacement key before the end of office hours. Because I've never lost a key before, I didn't know what happens next.

Apparently what happens next is you get shafted by the company who own your meter.

I was given the choice between waiting for a replacement key to arrive in the post, or having one of their engineers come and deliver me one the same day. Evidently, with a six-year-old in the house and a freezer full of food, getting an electricity supply back on would be best not left for three days, so as I said to the lady on the phone, I was faced with no choice really. She chirpily clued me in that there would be a £66 charge for a replacement to be delivered. As if £66 was not very much money for a three inch piece of plastic. Of course, in the greater scheme of things, like for example when weighed against a balance sheet like that of a company their size, £66 really isn't very much money. But for a single mum on a low wage, it's well.. I have £2.50 in my bank account right now. When I told her I wouldn't be able to pay the charge, she maintained her breezy oh-that's-cool tone of voice as she told me that they would generously allow me to spread the cost by applying a charge of £3 per week to my meter (for what would be about five months, I pointed out to her, listening to her count on her fingers so see if I was correct). Er, I already pay over the odds for the electric I need every week, I really can't afford for that cost to go up. "I'm sure you won't really notice the cost;" she blithely continued, "it is added daily not weekly in fact, so you only pay by pennies at a time". Well fuck me, I hadn't thought of it like that. You're only taking about 43p a day from me for the privilege of owning a piece of plastic that entitles me to buy something from you when I need to. That's fair. I get it. That's just like someone taking some of my lunch money for the privilege of not being beaten up.

She attempted to justify the cost. "If you could wait for a replacement key to arrive in the post, that would of course be free. We can get one of our area engineers to come out to you, but they would charge us for booking that appointment". I'm sorry, run that by me again? The Swalec guy, being paid by the hour to drive the Swalec van full of tools and bits to fix your shit, including a box full of meter keys, yes? HE will charge YOU. The Swalec lady on the telephone. OK then. So you both work for the same company, but the charge isn't one from your company to me, but me covering the cost to your department of hiring your company's own engineer. I see. With perfect clarity.

She then offered me the secret difficult-caller third bonus option -- for me to drive to pick up a new key instead. From their centre in Cardiff, a mere 90 miles from where I live.

I give up. An extra £3 a week expense for nothing it is then. "Sod the expense, feed the cat another goldfish" as my mum would say. It's not like I can't afford it, right?

Edited 14/07/10 21.52 to add:

After posting this account of my problem, and contacting Swalec on Twitter, I received a phone call this afternoon during which the following points were raised in reply to the above:

  • Although the engineers who deliver replacement meter keys drive Swalec vans, I'm told they work for Western Power Distribution, who charge Swalec £66 for each callout and this was the cost passed on to me.
  • Charges for changing from a key to a credit meter are a thing of the past as Swalec reviewed some of their procedures a couple of years ago.
  • While they were growing a small amount of social responsibility, they also reviewed tariffs and set the prepayment tariff at somewhere around the median of the rates paid by credit meter customers, with no standing charge.
  • In view of the fact I had never lost or damaged my key in five years, £66 seems unnecessarily punitive, so they are going to waive half of the replacement fee.


All in all I'd say if you want to talk to Swalec and get any sense out of them, best thing you can do is skip the callcentre and contact @YourSWALEC on Twitter. Thanks guys.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Look, it takes me til this time of day to properly wake up, ok?

I was half asleep as usual when the Today programme was mumbling on at me out of my radio alarm clock today... they were talking about food labelling. I'm quite sure I wasn't dreaming when I heard someone try to make a case for a traffic light food labelling protocol by saying that tables of nutritional information are too hard for 'housewives' to understand. What? I'm sorry... what century is this?

So we're still giving airtime to ultra-patriarchal, out-of-touch misogynists are we? Oh. And here was me thinking Radio 4 was some bastion of intellectual decency as far as media outlets go in this country. Shame.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Second Hand Smoke Quiz

Taken from the comments on this page of Nick Clegg's frankly AWESOME 'Your Freedom' government website, where members of the public are invited to suggest which draconian, unnecessary laws they want to see scrapped. I hope this one makes it onto the bill, and if it doesn't I might well see about a motion to conference next year - I've long argued that it's disgusting to tell owners of pubs they can't allow a legal activity on their own premises!


Test Your SHS (Second Hand Smoke) IQ

1. Who was the first European politician to implement comprehensive smoking bans?

a) Adolf Hitler

b) Bertie Aherne

c) Patricia Hewitt

2. In the government's own survey by the ONS in 2006 what % of the public did NOT want a complete smoking ban in pubs?

a) 67%

b) 37%

c) 17%

3. Which of the following has been linked to the highest increased risk of lung cancer?

a) drinking 3+ pints of milk a day

b) drinking 4+ cups of coffee a day

c) SHS

4. In 1998 a World Health Organisation study found what link between parents smoking & the risk of their children later developing lung cancer?

a) 20% reduced risk

b) no change

c) 20% increased risk

5. What’s the minimum no. of cigarettes that would need to be smoked in a sealed 20x22x9ft room in one hour for chemicals in SHS to become toxic?

a)1200

b) 120

c) 12

6. In 2006 the NHS spent £31 million on advertising campaigns, inc. new nurses, blood donation, drugs, immunisation, sexual health, etc. What type of advertising made up 73% of the total spending?

a)smoking

b) recruiting new nurses

c) blood donation

7. Following a single complaint to OFCOM, what scenes from Tom & Jerry did TV channel Boomerang have to cut out?

a) Tom smoking

b) Tom hitting Jerry with an axe

c) Jerry plugging Tom’s tail into an electricity socket

How did you score?

Mostly a) Congratulations, you already know a lot about the SHS myth!

Mostly b) There’s hope for you yet but the truth is still out there.

Mostly c) Oh dear, you appear to have been brainwashed by the anti-smoking lobbyists :)