Wednesday 23 May 2018

Bad News Barely Burried

 It was back in September 2001,  the time of the devastating terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, that Jo Moore, a young advisor to our then Labour government recommended to her boss that this was " a good time to bury bad news."  She was eventually forced to resign.

In due course I'm sure the same fate will fall on our Prime Minister Theresa May, though probably not just yet, since her rivals need her to stay in office so that she and not they take the blame for the Brexit shambles.

Last weekend, then much of the UK (and, apparently, considerable  chunks of the rest of the world) were fully absorbed in the minutiae of the  royal wedding, Mrs May chose to announce the appointment of a further 13  members of the House of Lords.

Question 1.  Why does the House of Lords need a further 13 members?  It already has over 800 members, each receiving £300 a day (tax free, I think) for signing in - they don't actually have to say anything, or even remain to sit and listen.

Question 2.  In October 2017 the  Lord Speaker's Committee  recommended that for every one new member in, two should have left, by dying or retiring from active participation, so that the membership is gradually reduced to 600, which will then be regarded as a ceiling.  Which 26 former members have left to make way for the new 13?

Question 3. The same Lord Speaker's Committee recommended that: "Political appointments should be shared between the parties in line with the result of the previous general election."   Given that in the last election Labour and the Tories were neck and neck, how does Mrs May justify nine new Tories but only three new Labour peers. And how can she possibly justify another one for the DUP, the party of the late  Ian Paisley, the epitome of neanderthal  intransigence?

Of course, Mrs May is not interested in reason or logic.

 In the past few weeks the House of Lords has defeated no less than 15 measures in the government's Brexit Bill.  So Mrs May shamelessly uses her outdated prerogative powers in a desperate attempt to reduce the likelihood of  future defeats. Power rather than principle is, as always, the Tories' guiding light.

Given the absorption of the media in Meghan Markle's wedding dress, the well behaved bridesmaids and pageboys, Mrs  Doria Ragland's dignified demeanour, and the splendid  (though long) sermon by Bishop Michael Curry, these issues have escaped serious comment.

Way back in the 1950s, when I began the academic study of  British politics, the lecturer on the British constitution was a Mr Chekanovski (I may have spelt that wrongly - it's a long time ago).  When discussion the all-important "conventions of the constitution"   he laid great stress on "The British sense of fair play."

I wonder what he would say now.

Wednesday 16 May 2018

The myth of students "burdened with debt."

The idea that since university tuition fees were raised to £9 000 a year students emerge "burdened with   debt" was effectively and vigorously demolished on BBC 1's "Question Time" a couple of weeks ago.  Please watch it on

 for the full effect.

If you haven't time, 22 minutes in a Martin Lewis, the financial guru who founded explains that,  however much is  borrowed, you pay 9% of extra tax on anything you earn over the threshold for 30 years.

Lewis  then spells out the figures for what what this actually means in practice.

At present the earnings threshold is £25 000 a year, so below that the former student pays nothing back.  If earnings rise to, say  £30 000 (nicely above both median and average earnings) you pay 9% on that extra
£5 000.

 Namely all of £450  a year.

That doesn't vary whether the amount borrowed £27 000, £50 000, £90 000 or whatever.  And if you it isn't paid off  in 30 years the "debt" it is scrapped.

Lewis calls it a "graduate contributor system."  Professor Sandford of Bath University half a century ago  (see previous post) suggested something similar and called it a "graduate tax."   Pity Liberal Democrats in government didn't catch on to that.

Lewis stops there, but if you break  that £450 a year down further it's £8.65 a week, or
  • two cheap or one good bottle of wine, or
  • three flat whites or 
  • two portions of avocado on sour-dough toast or
  •  three pints of real ale.
Examples may very depending on where you live, your definition of a good bottle of wine, or you buy your pints in a Wetherspoons or a gastro pub.

So  much much for all the fuss about students being burdened by debt.

Some columnists argue that the present system discriminates against the poorest students, since they are the ones who are forced to borrow, while the children of the rich are financed by mum and dad.  I suspect that wealthy parents with accountants encourage their offspring to borrow as much as possible on this excellent deal, promising that they will save parental  largess for the deposit on their children's first mansion.

It might be thought that an additional 9% on  earnings above the threshold, on top of the 20% standard rate of income tax, making a total of 29%, is a bit steep. However my generation, which received our higher education for free, paid a standard rate of around 33% for most of our working lives,.

So these millennials are still getting a very good deal.

This is not to argue that I am in favour  of all  the system as it it stands.

Charging interest at 9%* on the loan is iniquitous when bank base  rate is a minuscule 0.5%.  And the £9 000 a year fees are being squandered on de luxe en suite accommodation blocks for students and ginormous salaries for vice-chancellors rather than improving the employment conditions of academics and the amount of academic contact time for students.

The "graduate contrition system " is based on the argument that graduates who benefit from a substantial income premium  during their working lives should contribute a bit extra for the benefit their higher education has given them. There is also a legitimate argument that higher education, whilst not exactly a human  right, is a perk of affluent societies and should be available free for those who want it.

It is these these terms  that the discussion should be conducted: not on the false argument that today's youth are being unfairly burdened with unjustifiable debt by a generation that enjoyed these advantages for free.

*  This figure is incorrect.  A friend has pointed out to me that the formula for interest on the loan,is RPI plus 3%, which, of 2018, comes to about 6%, which makes the "graduate contribution scheme" an even better bargain.

Further comment (added Friday 18th May)

The "cast-away" on this morning's "Desert Island Discs" was the successful businessman and philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl.  He perpetuated the "burden" myth by claiming that university students left with a debt of about £50 000 so urged potential students to opt for apprentices and so get paid while they trained.  I agree there's a lot to be said for apprenticeships, but his use of the £50 000  debt myth makes the comparison unfair.

Apparently Lampl's family moved to Batley (my neighbouring town) to live in his grandfather's house when Peter was a child.  He claimed it was terrible.  When asked if he meant the house, he replied, "No, Batley."  Clearly not a reliable source

Saturday 12 May 2018

Citizen's Inheritance: actully a good idea.

The Resolution foundation's proposal for a grant of £1 000 to every UK citizen when he or she reaches the age of 25 has received something of a panning on the Guardian's letters page but I think it is a good idea
 I first came across it during a "refresher week" for teachers of economics at Bath University in the late 1960s.  There a Professor Cedric Sandford argued for what he called a "state dowry" of £500 for all children when they reached  the age of 18.
 Although using the "dowry" for the  deposit for a house was mentioned  this wasn't them seen as crucial.  Back then houses were still affordable, even for those who married in their twenties,  and it was perfectly respectable for even professionals to live in council houses, which hadn’t yet been flogged off.  Council house tenancies were secure in those days, and could even be inherited, I think.
Sanford's main aim was to ease what he saw as one of the greatest  causes of inequality,  lack of capital for the majority of the population. 
The "dowry" could be used to finance further education, an apprenticeship,  set up a business, yes, pay the deposit a house, but also enable a “gap-year "style tour of the world, or whatever else took the youngster's fancy.  Sandford suggested no restrictions.  His point was, as far as I can remember, that the children of the comfortable off had these choices, the vast majority didn't, and the "dowry" would equalise opportunities

The Resolution Foundation's proposal is meaner (Sandford's £500 would be worth more like £20 000 today rather than the RF's £10 000), received later, (at 25 rather than 18) and hedged around with restrictions (to be used only for education, starting a business, housing, or towards a pension).  

How sadly both our generosity and our trust in the young has deteriorated over the years.
Nevertheless the RF's proposal has brought this hitherto obscure measure into the mainstream of thought.  Let's hope that not another half-century passes before it is put into practice.

As it happens, I've had the opportunity to put the "dowry" concept into practice for my only two young relatives, a great nephew and great niece The girl was born into the Child Trust Fund  era, which Labour set up to encourage tax-free savings for children and their parents with a "starter" of £250, and which Tory George Osborne abolished for new entrants in 2010 (they really aren't keen on equality). The boy  was too old for a Child Trust Find so I set up a Junior ISA for him, and I've contributed to these so that both will have a nice little nest-egg when they reach 18. 

 Given that the Daily Telegraph tells us that it costs over £200 000 to bring up a child in the UK (which seems a lot: maybe it incudes private school fees for well-heeled Telegraph readers)  my contributions have been minuscule compared with those of their parents, so I neither expect nor deserve any plaudits.  There are no restrictions on the way thy spend their nest-egg so it will be interesting to see whether they use it wisely, as Sandford predicted most would, or fritter it away on clothes, driving lessons and cars.

I agree with the RF proposal that part of the cost of their scheme should be funded by requiring pensioners who do paid work beyond retirement age to pay National Insurance Contributions: indeed I'd go further and remove the "cap" for all ages so that those on enormous salaries pay the same percentage as those on  average earnings.  Similarly I agree with their proposal that Personal Care, if required, should be paid for and again would remove the cap of "up to a quarter of property wealth."

Finally, another good idea very similar to one which the Liberal Party proposed in the 1960s: that inheritance tax should be levied not on the bequeather's estate  but on the recipients, and on a sliding scale, so that those who received small bequests would pay little or no tax, and large bequests would be hit harder.  The RF proposes that this should apply to all "lifetime gifts"

Sadly our political classes are so pre-occupied with Brexit that I suspect  these, and other constructive ideas to tackle our real problems, will be placed on the back-burner and quietly  forgotten.   

Saturday 5 May 2018

Anatomy of a Hostile Environment.

The following facts are taken from a recent article in the Guardian by Sonia Sodha.
  • The fee for obtaining citizenship for a child born  in  the UK to parents "not settled" here is over        £1 000  (The Home office makes a profit of £640 on each case).
  • If they don't obtain this such children, when they grow up, may not be entitled to work, use the NHS or:go to university (unless they pay "international  student" fees, which are astronomically higher, with no student loans).
  • For children in care, the fee of £1 000+ must  be paid by the Local Authority, which may save money by not applying, waiting until the child is 18 and must fend for her/himself.
  • Such children may need evidence, such as their parents' birth certificates - difficult if they are estranged or have otherwise lost contact, which is often the case or they wouldn't be in care.
  • Youngsters not born in the UK, but who have spent most of their childhood here, must, once they reach 18, apply for "leave to remain," which lasts for two and a half years and costs £2 000 a time. 
  • They can't apply for ""indefinite leave" until after ten years.  If they have missed out on any of the applications (there are no reminders) they go back to square one.
  • Legal Aid for help with disputes in these complicated processes has been abolished, so loan-shark style "lawyers" have evolved to fill the gap.
  • Once upon a time recollection of a childhood memory of an event in the UK, or a sworn statement from a doctor or neighbour, would have been accepted as evidence of long-term residence.  Today four pieces of documentary evidence  FOR EACH YEAR (my emphasis) are now required. 
  • According to the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the Home Office often claims that documents he been lost, or never received.
  • A simple mistake on a complex and lengthy document can result in the rejection  of an application. (I'm fully aware of the ease with which such errors can be made as I sometimes input my bank's sort code, 30/90/57, instead of my date of birth,  which has similar figures, but in a different order (cf Morecambe and Wise  and the notes of the music.)
  • Evidence of "good character" may be required.  A caution by the police (not unusual for children who have been in care or had difficult childhoods) or a previous rejection  for minor errors, can result in rejection.
  • The Right of Appeal has been scrapped in most cases (though when there are or have been appeals, around a half are successful.)
In spite of the hasty turn-round in the case of the Windrush children, the above scheme remains in place for everyone-else. It remains to be seen how much of it will be dismantled by the new broom, Sajid javid.

And it should not be forgotten that our Prime Minister, Mrs May, who flaunts her church-going every weekend, it seems, was in charge of it for six years.