Friday, October 29, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stuck in the corner with...

Bracknell Blog yesterday led to my doing the political compass test for the umpteenth time.

As usual I'm in the bottom left hand quadrant with Mandela and the Dalai Lama, although over the years I seem to have been drifting away from the former and towards the latter. It's a bit lonely down here. I think it would help pass the time if one of us played a musical instrument. The top right hand quadrant on the other hand seems to have a party going on, though you'd want the music turned up loud to avoid having to engage in conversation with Stephen Harper or George Bush.

My position is also a long way from the placing of the Liberal Democrats for the general election this year who were put in the rarely used bottom right hand quadrant. The Greens on the other hand are down in the secular saints' corner with me.

Cobblers. I'm not a socialist. It's a crap, biased quiz.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


The Guardian is praising George Soros. Hear, hear. Definitely one of the good guys. I recommend his dad's book Masquerade, which is about how he survived the holocaust in Budapest. It's a good read and it gives an insight into how Soros became Soros. Tivadar Soros originally wrote it in Esperanto.

More on Kelly Cottam

Let's examine Kelly's case in more detail. Why does she get such high benefits? Can they be reduced without causing undue hardship to her and her children? Is such a high level of benefit a disincentive to work? Are working parents on the median wage actually worse off than Kelly?

There are things to like and dislike about Kelly. Despite a disability and 4 kids she has done a degree and is doing a further training course. She wants to work. She's made the most of what is available and she has four presentable children. She's probably a good mother. On the negative side one wonders why a woman with an inheritable illness has had four kids and also why she chooses to be a useful fool for the Daily Mail. One also wonders where the fathers are and why they aren't paying maintenance (or are they actually paying child support direct to the CSA, which the Daily Mail has forgotten to mention?).

The Daily Mail article doesn't itemise Kelly's benefits to explain how they add up to £37,000, so I tried to estimate them using the government calculator. Incidentally, playing with the calculator will make you an instant fan of IDS's proposed simplification of the benefits system. I hadn't realised quite how Byzantine it had become.

I assumed that Kelly is paying the average rent for a 4 bedroom house in Chorley, which, using Rightmove, I estimate at £800 a month, and I also assumed that she is getting the maximum in disability benefits. Even so, I only reached a total of £34,836.88, more than £2,000 below the £37,000 she says she gets. The extra £2,000 could be because she is paying an above average rent, or because the training course she is doing is government sponsored, or she is simply taking into account the value of the benefits in kind such as free school meals for Liam and Daniel and her travel costs to hospital for NHS treatment.

So how can money be saved? The most obvious way is less expensive housing. Until Aaron is older she could manage with a 3 bed house, but it must be borne in mind that any property she is in must be adapted for her disability. It is probably cheaper to adapt 4 bed accommodation for her now, than to do it now for a 3 bed and later for a 4 bed house. Anyway, let's assume that Kelly is paying an above average rent for her accommodation and could save £2,000 a year by moving. That leaves her with an income of £35,000, still £9,000 above the £26,000 cap on benefits that is going to be imposed.

Next, could Kelly manage on less for child support? I calculate this at £10,279.36 in child tax credits and £3,146 in child benefit. Note that Kelly's child tax credits are higher because she has a child under one year old and will be going down in 6 months time. Now the really interesting thing about these benefits is that Kelly would not lose them if she started working. She keeps the child benefit as long as she is not paying a higher rate of tax. She keeps the child tax credit in full if on a low wage and it would be withdrawn in stages as her income went up. In other words the system is already designed to ensure that someone who has children is never better off not working. The rates are also already graded to take into account the economies of scale that can be made with a large family.

The final part of Kelly's income is the amount she gets for her own maintenance. I've assumed that she gets the highest rates of incapacity benefit of £4,752.80, disabled living allowance of £3,712.80 and mobility allowance of £2,592.2.

The long-term rate of incapacity benefit is significantly higher than income support. If Kelly was on income support she would only be getting £3,403.40 p.a. Whether you think that is justified depends on whether you think someone on incapacity benefit is a disabled person deserving sympathy or a work-shy scrounger. For the sake of argument we will assume that you are a Daily Mail reader and reduce Kelly's benefit by the difference of £1,349.4. But that still leaves Kelly with £33,650. We've still got to find £7,650 to dock off Kelly's income.

So shall we scrap Kelly's disability living allowance and mobility allowance completely, saving £6,305? Despite the fact that these are benefits that would not be withdrawn if she was working? Despite the fact that without them she would probably find it impossible to even look for work? I know someone in a wheelchair who has to pay £44 for a taxi every time she wants to go shopping, so Kelly's mobility allowance probably covers one shopping trip a week.

As far as I can estimate, the figure of £60,000, that Kelly says she needs to make it worth her while working, does not take into account the benefits she would continue to receive if she got a job.

So, in answer to the questions I posed earlier:
  • Kelly gets such high benefits chiefly because of an unusual combination of a large family and physical disability. All 50.000 of the families affected by the benefit cap probably fit this profile.
  • Can her benefits be reduced without causing her and her children undue hardship? Yes, but not to anywhere near the £26,000 level.
  • Is such a high level of benefit a disincentive to work? Apparently not in Kelly's case, and since many of the benefits she gets would be retained if she was at work, this is a question to which the answer is no. However, I wonder why we think it important to get a disabled woman with four children, two of whom are under three, into work at all.
  • Are working parents on a median wage actually worse off than Kelly? Since they have access to many of the benefits she has, I'd say probably not.
So, now I'd like you, dear reader, to explain to me how you think Kelly should adapt her lifestyle to live on £26,000 a year.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The crime of living comfortably

Being in Canada, I can't watch the news item about Kelly Cottam, but I can see the blurb: "She admits she lives a comfortable lifestyle".

Gosh -- that's appalling isn't it? The gall of the woman. A single mother with four children living a comfortable lifestyle. What can we do about that? I know. Let's make them pick oakum.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pension again

The Guardian editorial explains that the proposed change to pensions entitlement actually scraps the state second pension, and raises the basic pension reducing the need for, not abolishing, means testing. It says the Daily Mail suggested wrongly that the pension would be granted to anyone who'd lived in the UK for a certain period of time, conveniently forgetting that the piece in Monday's Guardian did the same thing, or at least that's the meaning I'd give to the words "the new system would be based on residency".

So it seems my voluntary contributions were not pointless after all.

The latest CAPP Pin-up.

CAPP's latest pin-up is John Parr. John is a hunky kind of guy, mature but still in his prime. He's wearing a crisp blue open necked shirt, that speaks no-nonsense professionalism. He has a serious, soulful look, with a slight furrow to his brow; you can tell he's deep and he cares. He's standing in front of a lake. Yes, it's that lake again. John works for Canadian Natural at the Primrose development (what a pretty name for a slice of Mordor).

The shout caps read "Through innovation we've achieved a huge reduction in fresh water use. More solutions are within reach".

One hopes he is right. Take a look at this article in The Economist. In March the Pembina Institute did a report on the steam assisted method of extracting oil from the deeper sands, which is touted as less environmentally damaging than open pit mining. "Projects were judged on general environmental management, land use, air emissions, water use and impact on climate change, and then given an overall score." Guess what, Canadian Natural's project at Primrose scored the lowest at 25%. And, they scored poorly on commitment to regional environmental initiatives.

Nobody from Canadian Natural was available to comment. Maybe they were hanging out at the lake.

The £140 pension

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for it.

But, I'm one of the thousands of people who have paid voluntary payments to make up for the gap in their National Insurance record. That option, by the way, is open to anyone not paying NI compulsorily, such as a full-time mother, and it can be done later, when she is back at work. Furthermore, a lot of the women pensioners, who are not receiving full pensions, voluntarily elected to pay the lower NI "married woman's rate" when they were working, knowing that it would deprive them of a pension.

That's not to say that the present system is fair to women who are full-time carers, but the fact is that it is possible to get a full pension even if you have gaps in your employment, and there will be a lot of people who took care to cover those gaps feeling they might as well not have bothered.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

State Pension Age

I'm grateful to Radio 4's Money Box Live for providing a calculator for the new pension ages. It was reassuring for me personally because it shows that Ian's retirement age is unaffected and mine is only delayed by a month.

On the other hand I can't work out whether I'll get any of the Equitable Life compensation. I've always been confused by this issue, and I've probably made the wrong decisions. I had a small fund with a guaranteed endowment rate which does not mature until I'm 60. I lost the guaranteed annuity as a result of the collapse. I've read that anyone like me who invested before 1992 hasn't lost anything, but I don't see how that is the case. However, I also invested after 1992, so maybe I get some compensation for that. Apparently I should also have taken my fund out of Equitable Life and invested it elsewhere, but at the time there was such a whopping penalty for transferring my fund that I thought it best to leave it where it was. I suppose I should have consulted an IFA, but by that point I'd been given some very bad investment advice by an IFA that lost me thousands, so I'd decided to make my own investment decisions from that point on.

The fact is that market investments are too much of a gamble for people who are on small or medium incomes, but some of us have no choice but make our own provision if we are not in employment with a pension scheme. If I had to do it all again I would not take out a private pension policy at all, and do all my saving in building society accounts, or National Savings. Alternatively I'd just put all my money into buying a property. Despite the recent dip in property prices and the further fall we will probably have, property has been the best investment in my lifetime.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Appeal for middle-class families.

I've spent an enjoyable morning going through the Two Ronnies clips on YouTube trying to find their charity appeal for middle-class families sketch. I can't find it, which is a pity because it would be a wonderful response to the surgeon's wife (economising by growing her own courgettes), the IT consultant interviewed on Radio 4 (deserves child benefit for putting the children to bed) , and all the other rich women who've been pleading poverty because they are losing their child benefit.

As I remember it, Ron and Ron made an appeal for donations for "middle class families who haven't got quite enough", the sketch ending with a solemn reminder that "this Christmas thousands of children will go without a skiing holiday."

Since I can't find the sketch, here's Ronnie Barker as the Minister of Cuts:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Spending Review

My instant reaction.

Overall, I'm relieved that it is not as bad as I feared.

The measures for schools which show definite LD input are the most satisfactory. My two oldest friends are teachers in inner-city schools, who voted LD for the first time this year. I've been wondering if they are still speaking to me ever since, but I think they are going to be pleased by this.

However, I'm very unhappy about the prioritisation of universal benefits over welfare. I fear that British society is going to increasingly look like Canada, with an underclass who are homeless and/or dependent on charitable handouts. I don't find that remotely acceptable.

I predict that the rise in the age threshold for housing benefit will result in a flood of homeless young people sleeping on the streets as we had when Thatcher removed benefits for young people. Expect tent-cities in London parks. There will be a reduction in sex-trafficked migrants smuggled into the UK because the pimps will find plenty of recruits among our homeless young women.

The time-limited invalidity benefit together with the cap on benefits for large families is going to have a disastrous affect on the lives of many vulnerable people. It will result in broken marriages, children going into care and single parents and disabled people who would benefit from the support of a relationship being forced to struggle on alone.

Protecting non means-tested fuel allowance while slashing welfare benefits is breathtakingly cynical, and of course exactly the kind of thing Brown would have done.

I'm also very conscious that were Ian and I still in the UK, the spending review would be a disaster for us personally. We are in Canada because Ian's an historian who was made redundant by his university in 2004, but if he'd kept his job he'd be facing redundancy now, and I'd be losing my incapacity benefit, leaving us subsisting on very inadequate pensions. I used to be a legal-aid family lawyer, so even if I'd still been working, I would be hurting now. There are a lot of measures in the review that look a lot more bearable from 4,000 miles away.

Ian and I are going to be affected by the rise in state pension age. I think all people in their fifties would like the details as soon as possible so that we can amend our plans for our retirement. This is going to be a big blow for many women. However, it is also something I accept as a necessary and fair economy.

My mum is likely to be affected by the changes to social care. I'm pleased by the localisation, but if the NHS had not been ring-fenced, social care would not need this level of cuts. Should we expect a log-jam of elderly people to taking up much needed hospital beds because there are no care places for them?

What is very clear is the Liberal Democrat input into the review. That is a boost for us. I can't pretend to be happy with the coalition economic policy. I would have preferred the deficit to be reduced over 2 government terms, not one, and although some regressive measures are inevitable with cuts of this size, I think the most deprived are being hit too hard. However, the Conservatives on their own would be far worse.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dr Who again -- again.

Excuse me for posting this, but not everyone who reads this blog reads John Rentoul. My domestic experience suggests that the humour of Questions to which the answer is No doesn't survive the Canadian irony deficit. Anyway this is my patriotic fix for the day:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fair Chance

I received Nick Clegg's email today titled "Giving a Fair Chance to Every Child". Surely that should have read "Giving a Fair Chance to Every Child except those from Large Families"?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lego Don

I love this election video from one of the candidates in the Edmonton City Election:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Universality and the Welfare Safety-Net

To me, it seems a very big leap to say that the coalition is abandoning the welfare state principal of universality, just because it is removing child benefit from higher rate taxpayers. As Michael White has pointed out the welfare state has always been full of quirks and anomalies. The way some politicians and commentators have reacted, you would have thought that Osborne had announced the introduction of means tested health care.

I'm much more worried that the coalition will do the opposite: that is maintain universal benefits at the expense of the welfare safety-net. Based on my observations since I moved here, I'd say that is exactly what has happened in Canada. Universal benefits such as education, libraries and health care are generally very good. The contribution based state pension is better than the UK's (no surprise there). But, on the other hand, the welfare safety-net fails many thousands of Canadians who need help, who end up on the streets, or dependent on food-banks to feed themselves and their families, and even more live with the stress of being just one or two paychecks away from disaster.

There are good grounds for being concerned that the coalition will prioritise universality over welfare. It is already doing so; not only is the NHS ring-fenced, but less justifiably universal benefits for the elderly are, as yet, only subject to rumours of cutbacks. It is the means tested benefits of last resort which are being reformed, and children in large families on welfare will lose the most through the cap on payments. I see absolutely no justification for this. However galling it is to see large families on benefits getting more than than the median income, the fact is there are very few such families, and the saving for the state is tiny. Since some children will probably end up in care as a result of their family's loss of income, there may even be an overall financial loss.

I don't like living in Canada. I don't like living in a society that has thousands of people sleeping on the streets. I don't like living in a society where thousands of people need help from food banks. I regard that as too high a price to pay for good schools and libraries and free health care. I don't want Britain to become like that, so I'd welcome the slashing of universal benefits, if that will preserve the welfare safety net.

Friday, October 8, 2010

My year of Shingles

I spent the first four months of 2010 nursing my mum through a bad attack of shingles. Now I've got it. On Wednesday evening I noticed what looked like a mosquito bite on my waist (we are having an Indian summer here, so a bite was not impossible). Yesterday evening the single blister had become a line running for a few inches round my waist -- a classic shingles rash. I've been feeling under the weather for a few weeks and had an itchy back; that is often how the disease starts.

I didn't catch it from mum. You can't catch shingles from someone else. I've got it because I had chicken pox as a child, because I have a genetic vulnerability, and because I've been under physical and emotional stress (I've just had two abscessed teeth treated and we've had a death in the family).

On New Year's Day I blogged about the vaccine (currently unavailable in the UK), and about the ethically dubious UK policy of not vaccinating children against chicken-pox in order to protect the older generations, so I won't repeat myself, but I will say this:

IF YOU ARE OVER 50 YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SHINGLES. The chance of getting the disease increases with age and by the time you are retired you are very likely to get it and the symptoms will be more severe. Treatment with anti-viral drugs can lessen the symptoms, but you need to start taking them within 72 hours of the rash appearing. Make sure you know how to recognise the rash.

I'm still within the 72 hours. I'm seeing the doctor at 1.30 today, so hopefully I'm not going to go through the agony endured by my mum and my brother.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Romney Marsh

National Poetry Day is an excuse to share this poem by John Davidson with you:

As I went down to Dymchurch Wall,
I heard the South sing o'er the land
I saw the yellow sunlight fall
On knolls where Norman churches stand.

And ringing shrilly, taut and lithe,
Within the wind a core of sound,
The wire from Romney town to Hythe
Along its airy journey wound.

A veil of purple vapour flowed
And trailed its fringe along the Straits;
The upper air like sapphire glowed:
And roses filled Heaven's central gates.

Masts in the offing wagged their tops;
The swinging waves pealed on the shore;
The saffron beach, all diamond drops
And beads of surge, prolonged the roar.

As I came up from Dymchurch Wall,
I saw above the Downs' low crest
The crimson brands of sunset fall,
Flicker and fade from out the West.

Night sank: like flakes of silver fire
The stars in one great shower came down;
Shrill blew the wind; and shrill the wire
Rang out from Hythe to Romney town.

The darkly shining salt sea drops
Streamed as the waves clashed on the shore;
The beach, with all its organ stops
Pealing again, prolonged the roar.

Davidson was a Scotsman who abandoned a career as a teacher to write. He committed suicide aged 52 in 1909, by drowning himself at sea. When I was a small child my family spent summers on Romney Marsh, and as a London child, I loved the open space and freedom to roam there. When I was given this poem to read for a drama exam, it was the first time I'd read anything that echoed my own experience. I liked the truthfulness of including the pervasive sound of the wind in the telegraph wire in a nature poem.

Climate Prosperity

"While the phrase ‘climate change’ is familiar to many — and a scientifically accepted phenomenon — the phrase ‘climate prosperity’ is newer. It is a phrase the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy wants Canadians to embrace."

The Canadian Government's spin on climate change. Richard Littlemore dissects it here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Edmonton Civic Elections

Edmonton's civic election, which is held every 3 years, takes place next Monday. Edmontonians vote for a mayor and 12 councillors, one per ward. I'm fairly certain that the election is FPTP. Elected councillors receive a salary, currently $79,787; the mayor gets $144,061. These salaries are augmented by health care, a vehicle allowance, and partial tax exemption. The small size of the council is admirably lean and efficient, and the salaries, while good enough to attract able candidates, are not excessive.

For some reason that I don't understand, the political parties have no involvement in civic politics. All candidates are non party-political. Campaigning is very low key, which makes it very difficult to work out what candidates stand for or believe in, except for their position one or two current high-profile issues, such as whether a new sports arena should be built downtown. The elephant in the room is homelessness, which only fails to be treated as a current crisis because it is chronic; I've not been able to discover how any of the candidates in our ward would deal with the issue.

I don't have a vote (which I resent), but Ian does. So far he has not received one candidate leaflet. No canvassers have come to the door. Most candidates seem to think the watchword for success is anodyne. The incumbent councillor in our ward is Ben Henderson; view the first interview with him on this page for a demonstration of how to spend an entire minute talking but saying absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Homelessness in Canada

Edmonton is carrying out its annual count of the homeless, that is of rough sleepers or people in temporary shelters - a much narrower definition of homelessness than in the UK. The last time the count was done was in 2008 when there were 3078. It is expected that the figure will be higher this time. Edmonton has a total population of less than 1,000,000. Those homeless figures will be repeated in every city in Canada.

By way of comparison, there are around 500 people sleeping rough in the whole of England and between 90,000 and 100,000 households in temporary accommodation (many of whom would not be classed as homeless by the Edmonton criteria).

I often wax lyrical about the standard of Edmonton's public library service, and I could also praise the quality of their public buildings, and the funding for further education and the health service; but the fact is the priorities for public spending here shock and appal me. A large number of the people on the streets have obvious mental health or substance abuse problems or are learning disabled, and this is a city which in the winter can become the coldest place on the planet. Yes, people do freeze to death.

Monday, October 4, 2010


i just want to point out that david marsh in today's guardian, setting out the case against using capitals, nevertheless capitalises Estate Agents.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

More Kindling

My experiments with downloading kindle files from the Internet Archive have not been an unalloyed success. Some of them are too garbled to be easily read. Two of them were completely different books to the book described. One of them crashed my Kindle and I needed Amazon's technical help to get it up and running again. On the other hand, I've managed to get a complete collection of Peninsular War memoirs from members of the 95th Rifles and the regimental history by Sir William Cope, and it is a lot easier reading them on the Kindle than in PDF form on my computer screen.

On the plus side, I've discovered the cheap classics sold by Amazon and am building up a huge library just because I can. So far I have the complete works of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Edith Wharton. I'm disappointed that I can't find a complete Proust.

Karl Pyrdum, of Got Medieval is delighted by the Kindle screensaver from the Lindisfarne Gospels and may augment it with another 24 medieval images. I hope he does.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Religious Knowledge

Michael Tomasky didn't set a Friday quiz this week, so I searched for another quiz to do and found my way to the Pew Research Centre's quiz on religious belief, via Richard Adams blog.

I scored 100%, which apparently makes me more knowledgeable about religion than 89% of Americans, and that's despite my shameful ignorance about Cardinal Newman.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Tony Curtis

None of the obituaries I've seen so far have mentioned Tony Curtis's philanthropy. He helped restore the synagogue in Budapest. It is quite beautiful and well worth a visit.