I share Zoe Williams’ dismay at the manifest immorality of a society in which one person’s wages can be 185 times the average – and the gap is still widening (The debate about wealth must start with morals, 8 November). But I’m worried that she regards this as a moral problem when the solution can only be political; the great majority of us are doing it to ourselves, not to other people, by tolerating successive governments that allow “markets” to determine wage levels.
It may be true to argue that the members of the political-economic power elite are immoral in their disregard of social and economic inequality. However, it is those voters who act against their own self-interest in supporting the incredible policies of the rich and powerful who must be encouraged to change. Refusing to be led by a rich elite who act in their own self-interest would certainly be moral, but it will only happen when the vast majority of people in the UK recognise that they have their own self-interest in common and take appropriate collective political action and insist on returning a government that taxes the rich, redistributes wealth through benefits and services, and ensures fair pay for workers.
•?It is nonsense to suggest that EU procurement rules make it impossible for the government to pay a living wage (Johnson urges PM to follow suit and pay living wage, 6 November). But nowhere in your editorial (The shame game, 6 November) or Polly Toynbee’s piece (The wage tide is turning, but there’s more to be done, 6 November) is there any sense of the history behind the issue.
In 1891, the Commons passed the fair wages resolution, which was passed again in 1945. This provided that contractors working on government projects should observe terms and conditions of employment no less favourable than those in relevant collective agreements. This formed the basis for the International Labour Organisation’s labour clauses convention in 1949. The UK was the first country to ratify the convention – and shamefully the only country to renounce it, in 1982.
To their shame, the Labour governments of Blair and Brown rejected calls to ratify the convention again. The European commission has made it clear that ratifying the convention does not contradict the public procurement directive.
•?Ed Miliband tells us he wants a “living wage” for all as part of his vision for “One Nation” Britain. Yet, astonishingly, he does not want the living wage to be legally binding. Instead, he says he would try to “name and shame” companies who do not pay the wage. We already have a non-legally-binding living wage. Thanks to the campaign launched by London Citizens in 2001, a number of employers are already paying it. The problem lies with those who do not. Recent figures suggest that there are five million people in work who do not earn enough to live on. The only way to ensure that employers do the right thing in these difficult economic times is to require them to do so.
•?Polly Toynbee is right to ask “why should taxpayers subsidise Scrooge employers?” As a basic minimum employers should be paying their staff enough to live on – it is the right thing to do. For many it also makes business sense. Recent research by Queen Mary, University of London, shows that when a living wage is paid the reputational benefits help to win new clients; staff leaving rates fall by 25%; and employees are more loyal and positive.
This is not to deny there are wage costs attached. For organisations employing large numbers of low-paid staff, the worries about costs need to be listened to and managed. Research by the Resolution Foundation shows that for listed firms in construction, software and computing, banking and food production, average wage bill increases from implementing a living wage are small – around 1% or less. Why are we subsidising these firms to pay poverty wages?
Chief executive, Trust for London
•?Executive pay up 27% to an average of £4m (Report, 6 November), living wage up by 25p. So pleased “we are all in it together”.
David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell rule for ‘people like us’. The Lib Dems should never be complicit in their attacks on the poor
Until Andrew Mitchell swears that he never used the word pleb, we assume that he did. Until the chief whip has the police officers sacked for giving false witness, we assume that he did. His carefully worded non-apology dared not deny he said it – so he did.
The Sun, with its notoriously close contacts inside the Met, produces chapter and verse, written down by the officers in self-protection after Mitchell’s parting shout: “You haven’t heard the last of this!” Downing Street briefers’ claiming that this is all a Police Federation scam won’t wash. Why not? No one thinks those police officers invented that particular word. “Best learn your fucking place” and “You’re fucking plebs” is Flashman public school bully-speak of Mitchell’s generation, far too authentic to fake. If he was younger, Mitchell might have said “chav”, as Princes William and Harry do: remember their chav party, dressing up in what they imagined were lower-class clothes.
David Cameron should have sacked Mitchell instantly to stop that word dogging his government for ever. “Pleb” says not just how Cameron and co think, but it defines with deadly accuracy who they govern for. This stamps them as a Mitt Romney regime – not bothering with the plebs, not with the bottom half. This crystallises how they ignore those who are not their voters, not their leafy shire constituents. They govern for those who their class sometimes calls PLUs – “people like us”. The social class of Cameron’s crew hardly matters: what counts is whose side they are on. Without a shadow of a doubt, they rule for their own ruling class.
“Plebs” means the great mass of people not like them – casting all low-earners in the same pool, how cleverly Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and the prime minister elide the dysfunctional few with the great majority of the poor who work, but can’t earn enough. The media helps, even the BBC, in programmes such as Neighbourhood Watched, seeking out the telegenic worst, maddest and most helpless on housing estates: job done, that’s the plebs in social housing, that’s everyone on benefits or on credits. Little wonder the public turns against paying for them. Of course, it’s far too dull to film toiling but grossly underpaid cleaners, guards and carers.
The head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies told the Liberal Democrats some uncomfortable truths at their conference in Brighton this week. Under banners reading “Fairer tax in tough times”, Paul Johnson told them that their much-vaunted raising of the tax threshold so that no one pays tax until earning over £10,000 did little for the low-paid. The main gainers, he said, are in the top third of incomes. The bottom third already earn too little to pay tax, and the middle third gain little: the top get most. And this policy costs a monumental £10bn that could have been targeted on benefits, tax credits, housing and childcare to help the struggling 50%. But the great austerity – especially the £18bn of benefit cuts – fell on them.
What would fairer tax look like? Council tax is the most regressive – the more expensive the property, the lower the proportion of tax paid – so correct that first, and then turn to a mansion tax. Britain’s wealth taxes have atrophied. Inheritance tax doesn’t work, capital gains entirely forgiven at death. As for the 50p top tax rate, because the rich had a year’s notice they took their income in the year before it was introduced. Then, as soon as the cut to 45% was announced a year ahead, they delayed their income until it came in. This two-year tax planning, says the IFS, cost the exchequer £18bn. That’s the same as the £18bn cut from the poorest.
It shows just what colossal discretionary sums float among the few at the top: a one-off levy could solve half the national debt while barely touching their lifestyles. The rich protest it’s unfair that the top few contribute nearly 30% of income tax. But that’s because they command such a gigantic share of national income. Their plea worked and the cut brought millionaires an extra £14,000 each.
Defending that cut, David Laws, now back in government, says: “As a liberal, I feel uncomfortable at the idea of the state taking half or more of anyone’s income.” So will Vince Cable win his mansion tax? The business secretary told the BBC on Monday that he still had “some persuasion to do” with George Osborne – though he would take a quite modest £2bn.
The Resolution Foundation’s latest report – Who Gains from Growth? – shows the frightening pace at which the rich will get richer as the 50% of middle and low earners fall away over the next eight years. The IFS has calculated that even if growth leaps ahead with no more cuts, middle incomes will drop 3% while those of the low-paid will fall a frightening 15%. But those on £50,000-plus will see earnings rise. If growth, as expected, is slower, then the prognosis is worse. The squeezed middle is being crushed.
As ever, the Lib Dems strive to convince on social justice. Nick Clegg says he will block any further welfare cuts unless he gets a wealth tax: small comfort to the low-paid being hit yet again. He and his party are in denial about almost everything the coalition does to accelerate inequality. A living wage, a chance to earn, serious craft apprenticeships, an affordable home – all are slipping from the “pleb” 50%.
on Monday an attempt to slow the ferocity of the great austerity failed at the conference, though its mover said: “Keynes would have held the party’s economic policy in contempt.” Lib Dem ministers stamped on it, even the supposedly radical Tim Farron warning hysterically that only Plan A “stands between us and market chaos”. Cable spoke well, warning that any more cuts would be on a down escalator to a higher deficit – apparently not noticing that’s exactly what is happening. Social democrat at heart he may be, but like the rest he colludes in Osborne’s anti-Keynesianism that stifles growth. “As a real pleb” he joked about himself, and brought the house down – but like the rest he doesn’t govern for them.
Andrew Mitchell has made a gift to Labour. But it will need policies of unaccustomed radicalism to turn back this great tide of inequality, inheriting a country yet more deeply divided by policies that punish the plebs most.
Dogma and Disarray – Cameron at Half-Time, by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, is available from guardianbookshop.co.uk
A retired teacher, she loves Polly Toynbee but always turns first to the Guardian’s cartoons
When I was at school, we had a much admired schoolmistress who said: “Buy the Manchester Guardian,” and so I first started reading the paper at college in the 1950s. It seemed to be a moderate paper compared to others and was easier to read than the Times. I also really liked the women’s page. As a former English teacher (now retired), I encouraged my students to read it. I’ve always been interested in newspapers and reporting as I wanted to be a journalist.
Today I read the Guardian thoroughly every day. My husband and I both like Polly Toynbee: she just writes so well (I used to use her articles in school as examples of good writing). I also like Jonathan Freedland and George Monbiot. I enjoy the financial pages, letters and editorial but the first thing I look at is the cartoon. I particularly liked the royal wedding cartoon by Martin Rowson last year.
Subjects are covered with more depth and seriousness in the paper. My son and I thought it was very fair in its reporting of the riots last year. He is a police officer – and he said the coverage was kind to police. What I like about the Guardian is its ethical outlook. It has stuck to its core principles.
In his excellent exposé of banking culture (You’ve been bankered, G2, 3 July), Aditya Chakrabortty says that Manchester University’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change revealed that three-quarters of the working lives of the Bischoff committee, which was tasked with examining the outlook for finance, had been spent in banking.
Yet many parts of the media have made snide comments that the Co-operative Bank was run by, among others, a nurse, a vicar and a plasterer, so how could it possibly take over a substantial chunk of Lloyds? Had these respectable trades been present on, for example, the board of Barclays, it is inconceivable that they would have made as bad a fist of it as the existing banking mafia. What these lay people did consistently over the years was to ensure no bailout from government was needed at any time, and their lending never exceeded funds available.
The answer to “what on earth will it take to change British banking culture?” is an exodus by individuals and companies from the guilty to the ethical. Loss of market share is one of the key indicators that motivates any industry, and losses here cannot fail to shake the complacency of the banking establishment.
•?Ethical banking is more than just an opportunity to change the way we manage our finances (Teach the banks a lesson by moving your money now, 5 July). It is a chance to inject a social conscience into banking. Unlike traditional financial institutions, schemes such as Your Credit Union, Kensington & Chelsea – pioneered by a feasibility study from the Octavia Foundation – will focus on investing in projects locally, so money stays in the pockets of members, rather than private shareholders.
Almost a quarter of all residents in the borough are marginalised from mainstream financial services and are frequently at the mercy of payday lenders, pawnbrokers and illegal loan sharks, often paying extortionate borrowing rates as high as 2,000% APR. This not-for-profit financial service aims to provide local people with an opportunity to save and borrow using a fair, affordable and local service. This defines the acceptable face of banking.
Director, Octavia Foundation
•?As vice-chair of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, I read Polly Toynbee’s article on membership of boards with more than a passing interest (The Barclays ethos infects our culture. Purge the board, 6 July). I know that the time needed to fulfil my tasks in this role can take up to two days in my week. I note that some City board members can have a role on up to 12 boards. How do they fit it all into their working week and how can they justify their role as custodians of proper scrutiny for each one?
Dr Maggie Helliwell
Keighley, West Yorkshire
•?Polly Toynbee’s article is excellent, but the real cause of the financial crisis was the decision to discard a prudent accounting system in the mid-2000s. Until then, accounting in this country was based on the UK GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Practice), where profits could only be taken when they were earned. UK GAAP was replaced by IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards), where assets are not valued at cost, but at “fair value”, which is a theoretical valuation assuming favourable market conditions. This would not be so bad were it not for increases in theoretical asset valuations being taken as profit in the income statement. Thus unrealised profits are taken into the income statement from which bonuses are paid, although no cash has been generated to support them. Imprudent accounting is the real problem.
•?It is the decisions of parliament that have led to banks’ unruly behaviour. Parliament deregulated lending and rents, and allowed the free movement of capital in and out of the UK. It was as if Moses flipped, went back up Mount Sinai and deregulated the Ten Commandments in the name of freedom, and was then puzzled by the increase in theft. Better political leadership and the implementation of rules that enable markets to function in the interests of us all seem long overdue.
Rev Paul Nicolson
Chair, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust
Paul Mason is spot on the money (Today’s young survive only in the cracks of our economy, 2 July) in identifying the margins of today’s dysfunctional economy as where much of the most interesting and innovative activity is bubbling up – often driven by marginalised but internet-savvy young people. Could this be the incubator to provide solutions to the huge problems associated with welfare and support services which Jackie Ashley addresses on the opposite page (The biggest crisis? How to fund care for the elderly)?
Already there is substantial innovation in areas such as time banking to link up the spare capacity within our communities (not least the growing army of unemployed youth) with the socially valuable work crying out to be done. The full entrepreneurial genius of our young people will be needed to address the scale of the challenges at hand. They must be given full rein within the context of a more decentralised and participatory vision of how we care for those in need.
Senior lecturer in economics, Schumacher College, Devon
•?Another “lost generation” piece by Polly Toynbee (Comment, 3 July) follows Ucas announcing a 10% drop in English undergraduate applications but still leaving 100,000 without a place. Given the lack of any alternatives, it is no wonder so many still apply, but the graduatisation of remaining jobs (barrister to barista etc) pushes those “further down the food chain”, as Polly says, into part-time, unskilled, insecure and contract working – if they are lucky.
What is ignored in these litanies to lost youth is the corrosion of education itself, which is in danger of losing its validity as a way forward for new generations. Unconnected to possibilities for practice, displaying knowledge for evaluation has replaced learning with test-taking. Broken down for quantifiable assessment and behavioural manipulation at one end and cramming for traditional exams at the other, this simulacrum of learning disguises the decline in achievement that all teachers recognise.
Co-author, Lost Generation? New Strategies for Youth and Education 2010
•?Polly Toynbee asks who is there to urge, entice and prod our young people into college. In response, may I introduce a programme, being piloted in Shoreditch, east London, that is doing just that and more. ThinkForward is providing 10 schools with “super coaches” who, having identified the 14-year-olds most at risk of dropping out, will “hold their hand” for the next five years, helping them move into further education and work. One-to-one support includes guidance on post-16 choices and application forms, and setting up mentoring and workplace experiences. Coaches act as advocates for young people at home and school, support those at risk of exclusion and help with everything from anger management to homelessness. They stay in touch even after a young person has left school. We aim to build on the dramatic results of a trial intervention at five schools in Tower Hamlets which all but eradicated their Neet issue at 16. As Polly says, we can do something to help stem the rising number of young people out of work and education.
Programme development manager, ThinkForward
A Guardian survey this week showed that half of teachers had brought food in to schools for children who would otherwise go hungry. Families earning up to £40,000 say they are struggling to provide for their children.
As living costs rise and wages remain stagnant the issue of poverty is affecting more and more people who are in employment. It’s a group who are often forgotten by politicians who target unemployed people for either help or blame. But what are the political implications if playing by the rules and working hard is not enough to support a family?
Joining Tom Clark to discuss this: Guardian columnists Jonathan Freedland and Polly Toynbee plus Matthew Oakley from the conservative thinktank Policy Exchange.
Also this week we discuss the late conversion of David Cameron to tax-avoidance campaigning as he singles out the comedian Jimmy Carr for a ticking off. And why does Michael Gove want to bring back O-levels?
We also get a full round-up of events in the eurozone with Europe editor Ian Traynor.
Leave your thoughts below.
Judging by the apparent makeup of the royal box at the jubilee concert (Big noise and a big gap as duke misses a date with pop royalty, 5 June), the royals have finally abandoned any pretence of fairness and neutrality. Many of the Tory hierarchy were clearly in evidence – Cameron (and Mrs), Major, Patten, Seb Coe – but I saw no representative of Labour. What is more, it seemed the royal box contained very few members of any ethnic minority, shamefully. Lenny Henry was rightly acerbic on stage about the lack of black people present anywhere.
The Queen can invite whomsoever she likes to her own private celebrations; nonetheless, the obvious snub last time to Blair and Brown was offensive to many. If she is now ignoring the claims to a seat in the royal box of Ed Miliband for what was meant to be a national celebration, then that is an absolute disgrace. If that really is the case we appear now to have a monarchy that is making its allegiance to one political party overt, and in that case it really is time once and for all to be rid of this irrelevant and objectionable family.
•?Congratulations to Michael White for quoting, in his excellent Thames pageant piece (Silly hats in the drizzle salute mistress of the radiant smile, 4 June), the off-duty Tooley Street security man’s comments on the way ordinary citizens were denied access to the waterfront. I and a friend spent more than an hour walking along that street from London Bridge past the Design Museum in an attempt to find a viewing point. Every alleyway had a security-manned crush barrier drawn across it displaying wristband or ticket-holder notices. We finally had to settle for a big screen at the southern end of Tower Bridge. Aged eight at the time of the Queen’s accession, I have attended many royal events over the years without such problems. It now seems that you have to know someone or pay money – a sad reflection on the non-“big society” that has evolved since the Thatcher era, with little attempt to change course by either New Labour or the coalition.
South Ockendon, Essex
•?Readers who are uncomfortable about the jubilee (Letters, 4 and 5 June) may be interested to know that in the village of Paulton, Somerset, we elected a “Queen for the Day”. The winning candidate, an elderly lady well known for helping neighbours, was treated to a free hairdo, a lunch, and transport in style to the jubilee day celebration, where she received probably a more enthusiastic reception than the real (unelected) Queen would have.
Cllr John Bull
Paulton ward, Bath and North East Somerset council
•?Thank you, Guardian letters. I was beginning to think I was the only person looking around in bewilderment, as the world appears to have gone mad. In the worst depression since 1929, the nation is celebrating the very epitome of class and privilege. No wonder the 1%, the landed gentry and the City boys are laughing.
Nutley, East Sussex
•?For all its faults I love the Guardian and would never buy another newspaper, and I even love my fellow readers most of the time, but at times I cannot warm to their snide remarks about things of which they do not approve, such as the Queen. They are neither original nor amusing. And as for Polly Toynbee, I have long ago given up on her ever being right on anything or connecting with ordinary people or indeed anyone outside her own set.
It may not be very welcome, but the majority of the population respect the Queen and even the monarchy, and do not want some superannuated politician as president. Get over it and worry about things that really affect ordinary people.
Forest Row, East Sussex
•?Now it’s all over, the temptation is simply to breathe a sigh of relief. But it’s worth asking of the bizarre spectacle: who benefits? Why did the massed ranks of the media and cultural commentariat (with rare honourable exceptions such as Polly Toynbee) move as one herd to praise and support an orgy of deference to a minor royal dynasty? Who, in the British body politic, ultimately benefits from a massive celebration of inherited power and privilege? Who gains from the reinforcement of a shining symbol of social hierarchy based on land, elite schools and bemedalled militarism, of “honours” devoted to an empire that demand knee-bending before receipt, of the possession of extreme wealth and privilege without effort or merit, and of a synthetic, cheering group hug that tells us we are all in it together after all?
Hove, East Sussex
•?It is only after the jubilee weekend and its media coverage that I can really empathise with people in totalitarian states. What the media is telling us about events bears so little relation to the reality of life for the majority of citizens. That reality was one of sporadic street gatherings, few flags flying, no evident excitement (or hostility), just a massive indifference to events. Yet one senses that nothing must be said and that truth is not an option. Quite bizarre and just a little frightening.
•?I just heard the archbishop of Canterbury commend the Queen to us as an outstanding example of public service. So in the spirit of the late Elizabethan age, would it not be appropriate now to put her office out to private tender? I am sure we could procure her services at a better rate from any willing provider.
St Antony’s College, Oxford
•?Last year when we public sector workers went out on strike for the day, David Cameron et al complained about the loss to the economy as a result. So why haven’t we heard anything from them concerning the extra bank holiday for the Queen’s jubilee? Must be costing a fortune. Still, musn’t grumble: I’m being paid double time for the two days.
The employment minister attacks the ‘Toynbee left’ – but his cuts to tax credits hurt low earners most
Unemployment figures just fell by 35,000. Good! “A step in the right direction,” said Chris Grayling, the employment minister. But his press release made no mention of one important fact. Indeed, his press release bore all the fingerprints of Grayling’s well-known sleight of hand with statistics – no lies, no untruths, but a certain economy with inconvenient facts.
Examine the ONS figures and you find full-time jobs did not increase: they fell by 27,000. All the increase was in part-time jobs for men. There are now 1.4 million part-timers desperately seeking but failing to find longer hours. A part-time job is far better than no job, a step on the ladder and a release from the listless despair of unemployment. So does it matter that full-time work is still falling and only part-time jobs growing?
Until this month, it didn’t matter so much. Labour’s working tax credits made sure that part-time work always paid more than the dole by topping up low pay to help people to take any first-step job. But this month Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith abolished working tax credits for any couple failing to find at least 24 hours work a week – the deepest cut ever inflicted on low-income families, unthinkable by any previous government, including Margaret Thatcher’s. A family on £17,000 has lost £74 a week, tipping them into poverty.
In a speech this week to Policy Exchange, Grayling yet again repeated what can only be called an untruth: “Our reforms will make sure that people will always be better off in work than on benefits.” Universal credit in future may do that – if it ever works. For now, Grayling’s “reform” means 210,000 families working under 24 hours may have to abandon work altogether, as they find the only way to keep a roof over their head and food on the table is life on the jobseeker’s allowance – a tragically self-defeating policy.
In that same speech Grayling defended his work experience programme which was criticised by me and many others when it emerged that companies like Tesco were using large numbers of the young unemployed to stack shelves for free, without training or a job offer, and that anyone dropping out could lose benefits. Grayling labelled critics of this programme “job snobs”, as if we were deriding the work itself. But the protest was against large companies using a battalion of free labour as a substitute for employing people fairly on the minimum wage.
He castigated what he called “the Polly Toynbee left” for “insulting some great companies who were helping young people get a job”. He took a swipe at my book Hard Work, in which I reported on the undervaluing of essential work done by care assistants, hospital cleaners, nursery assistants, dinner ladies, call-centre and bakery workers. Soaring inequality is partly caused by the steep fall in pay for these manual jobs. Grayling said: “It is hard work. For everyone. Particularly for the low paid. But even those at the other end of the pay scale often work all the hours God sends to compete in an aggressive international marketplace.”
Everyone works hard, so get over it, was his message, as if pay and prestige make no difference: Bob Diamond works hard too. Grayling laid into those “who demand swingeing taxes on wealth creators”, by which he means the wealthy. You’re a “job snob” if you criticise employers who pay too little to support a family (or pay nothing on Grayling’s programme). Is it “job snobbery” to object to insecure work with few prospects, run by temp agencies offering zero-hours contracts? Taking these jobs myself for my book, I found people doing essential work contemptuously treated and underpaid, yet still striving to offer good services caring for others. These would be good jobs if fairly rewarded in pay and respect.
After his attack on me, Grayling and I were invited to debate on Radio 4’s PM programme, but he refused. Had he agreed, I would have challenged his deeply misleading presentation of another set of figures: he said research showed “those undertaking a work experience placement were 16% more likely to be off benefits 21 weeks later than young jobseekers who don’t participate”. Not quite a lie, this was profoundly deceptive. The number “off benefits” was in fact only 6 percentage points higher than those not on work experience – 40% for the control group compared with 46% on his scheme. Six points up is a positive result, according to Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, who did the research: improvements are hard in this field. But “16%” sounds deceptively higher – and the ONS should complain. What about this? Grayling’s “off benefits” implies they all got jobs, but many simply vanished and may be adrift. Portes says 35% got jobs, compared with 27% not on the scheme – better, but not spectacular.
As a result of protests, many companies pulled out, including Sainsbury’s, Waterstones and Matalan. Tesco was so alarmed by bad publicity that it immediately promised the minimum wage and a guaranteed job for all completing work experience satisfactorily. Had we met on the radio, I would have asked Grayling why he doesn’t insist all employers do likewise. But that would too closely resemble Labour’s Future Jobs Fund, which he abolished and which Portes says was a success whose “cancellation had a worse effect than expected”. Portes says if Labour’s job guarantee was still in place, the number of young people out of work for over a year would not have tripled in the last year.
Grayling’s Youth Contract, just starting, offers a £2,200 bonus to employers taking on young people, but has places for only 160,000 of the million out of work. Portes fears it may go the way of George Osborne’s national insurance holiday for small firms taking on extra staff, which had zero employer take-up.
As for “the Polly Toynbee left”, does he imply I’m some kind of Trotskyite? That shows how far the ground has shifted rightwards in the decades since Grayling and I were both in the Social Democratic Party. I remain a social democrat. I want to see the frightening trajectory of ever greater inequality go into reverse. I want the strong, not the weak, to bear the brunt of this recession. I want Britain to aim for the social and economic balance that thrives in Nordic nations. But Grayling, with his welfare cuts, draws inspiration from all the neoliberal small statism wafting across the Atlantic, imbued with the Ayn Rand and Fox News meanness of spirit.
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Shirley Willams accused Polly Toynbee of lying. Toynbee said Williams copped out. Now, at the NHS bill’s 11th hour, they take each other on
Shirley Williams: ‘What matters is how competition is regulated’
I am sure Polly is trying to state the position on foundation trusts clearly and so am I. It is not easy to do. Let’s begin at the beginning. Polly correctly states that under Labour there was a limit on the number of private patients in foundation trust (FT) hospitals dating back to the proportion admitted in 2003. There was no limit whatever on NHS trust hospitals, many of whom treated private patients. I failed to draw that distinction and should have done. But it is not the main point. FTs cannot admit 49% private patients.
“Clear away the fog,” says Polly, “and that says the only obligation on a foundation trust is to ensure its NHS work is greater than its private work.” Not so; here is Earl Howe’s amendment, presented to the House of Lords on 6 March, six days before Polly’s article appeared:
“An NHS foundation trust which proposes to increase by 5% or more the proportion of its total income in any financial year attributable to activities other than the provision of goods and services for the purposes of the health service in England may implement the proposal only if more than half of the members of the council of governors of the trust voting approve”
Polly will scoff that governors will agree happily to any increase, so here is Howe’s response to a question by Lord Campbell-Savours on the same day:
“In particular, if a foundation trust is increasing its non-NHS income by more than 5% of its total income in a year, we will expect Monitor in every instance to review whether there is any cause to intervene in order to safeguard the ongoing provision of NHS services. … This will be in addition to the required scrutiny and approval by the foundation trust’s governors.”
Polly quotes Chris Ham (head of the King’s Fund, who worked in the Department of Health under Labour) on Labour’s earlier cap, “the price Labour paid to rebels for creating foundation hospitals”. Indeed: the 5% amendment is the price that the government has paid to the Lib Dems. On clause 164, the Lib Dems voted against Labour’s amendment, but in a confusing vote Labour voted against any cap at all.
It might seem odd that the bill does not simply impose a lower absolute cap, rather than the requirements over an increase of 5%. But this is more understandable when we consider that currently most hospitals have private income of 2% or 3%, but others have far higher proportions already – such as the Royal Marsden, which has 26% and is considered to be an excellent hospital for NHS patients.
More important than the detail is Polly’s central charge: that “the bill’s driving ideological purpose remains at its core – to commercialise the whole of the NHS”. This blithely ignores the massive changes made to the bill, resisted for so long by Andrew Lansley, such as those guaranteeing the secretary of state’s responsibility for a comprehensive health service, power to intervene if things go wrong, and accountability to parliament. Some of them were passed with the help of Labour’s Baroness Jay and her all-party constitution committee, Lord Mackay, Lord Newton and leading crossbenchers. It also ignores more recent Lib Dem amendments accepted by the government, among them the removal of reviews by the Competition Commission; keeping Monitor as a regulator of FTs beyond 2016; ensuring Monitor gives advice to the Office of Fair Trading on FT mergers; and minimising the impact of EU competition law, on which we too have had legal advice.
Polly knows that there has long been a role for competition in the NHS, in stimulating innovation and new ideas. What matters is how it is regulated, and that is what Lib Dem amendments on competition have been directed to. This is what she wrote in 2009, when Labour was still in office:
“There is no doubt that putting some services out to tender has vastly improved certain standards over the years, broken the power of vested interests and brought in competition that has sharpened up results … The wholescale mass privatisation of a service is rarely needed, but a little gingering up round the edges has an electrifying effect on sleepy outfits. Often, private provision makes sense where small units need to buy in some expertise or back-office work they can’t develop themselves.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. But what I mean about tribalism is that if Labour declares there is a role for competition, that’s all right with Polly. If the Lib Dems do, that is a betrayal of all the NHS stands for.
Polly Toynbee: ‘The only purpose of this upheaval is to bring the market into every aspect of the NHS’
On Monday David Owen makes a last attempt in the Lords to delay the health and social care bill until the risk register is made public. The government refuses an order to publish it by both the information commissioner and the information tribunal. Will Lib Dem and crossbencher peers see the wisdom of reading it before passing this bill irrevocably? Commercialised services will be near impossible to bring back to the NHS later.
It’s desperately sad to find Shirley Williams nitpicking over small concessions to avoid confronting the bill’s true nature, largely unchanged in its passage. The only purpose of this gigantic upheaval is to bring the market into virtually every aspect of the NHS. Otherwise what’s it for? Commissioners are compelled to tender out more services each year: the Guardian on Friday reported on all Devon’s child health services up for bids. Legal opinion is not in doubt that the bill opens the NHS to EU competition law: that can’t be conveniently “minimised”.
It is alarming that Shirley voted so influentially on this bill while not realising that up to 49% of a foundation trust’s (FT) income can come from private work. Now she agrees it’s so, that ought to change her mind. It abolishes the previous cap, averaging 2%-3%: critically, all hospitals become FTs shortly. She praises a clause requiring FT governors to agree any increase above 5% a year: that’s hardly a check. Earl Howe reassured the Lords – though it’s not in the bill – that “we will expect” Monitor, the regulator, “to review whether there is any cause to intervene”. How likely is that?
Monitor is now the engine for NHS competition. The only change in its purpose from the bill’s first draft was grammatical: it was changed from “promoting competition” to “preventing anti-competitive practices”, the same thing said backwards. How fanciful to imagine Monitor might step in to stop FTs using their new competitive right to 49% private work, when the regulator’s legal duty is precisely the opposite. Monitor’s chief executive is a former private equity financier and McKinsey man, seconded from a private health business. Its chief operating officer and director of strategy are both from KPMG, which has recently acquired substantial NHS contracts, with many more to come as such firms move in on commissioning.
Howe told a meeting of private health providers that they could expect “genuine opportunities” to bid for NHS work. The former NHS director Mark Britnell, now at KPMG, went further at an Apax private equity event, telling investors that “in future, the NHS will be a state insurance provider not a state deliverer” and “any willing provider” from the private sector will be able to sell goods and services to the system. “The NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years” – though he has since sought to soften those words.
Only dogmatists would stop the NHS ever using private facilities. Blair’s independent sector treatment centres did speed up surgery backlogs and ginger up some consultants’ handling of their lists, so the NHS for the first time virtually abolished waiting – now alas rising again. Shirley, deliberately or not, blurs this absolutely crucial difference: buying in extra capacity may help NHS patients, but fencing off 49% of NHS facilities to private practice risks denying NHS patients their scans, services or beds. Besides, Blair’s independent sector treatment centres ended up showing the real risk when profit drives: they cost much more and do less work. That is the fear for the whole NHS. Turn back, Shirley, while there’s time.
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I could not agree more with Polly Toynbee (Our young are being failed by these empty schemes, 10 February). Having attended several events associated with apprenticeship week, I came away only with a sense of disbelief, despair and even embarrassment at the British apprenticeship. The reality is only too apparent in the construction industry. Since 2007, the number of first year construction trainees reported to Construction Skills has fallen by 50%, more in trades such as bricklaying, where the figure is 67%. This number represents just over 1% of the workforce, compared to at least 5% in the northern European countries. Only just over half are following an apprenticeship programme; the rest are trying to learn about a particular occupation in college, though without work experience their chances of entering the labour market are much reduced.
What is needed is a comprehensive scheme of vocational education and training, integrating college, workshop and work-based elements, negotiated and agreed on by employers, trade unions and educationalists, and backed up by government regulation. Instead we have “flexibility”, which seems, at worst, to mean a £2.60-per-hour and 12-week apprenticeship, and “tailoring”, which means imparting skills for the immediate job in hand and of no necessary lasting value for the future. Isn’t it time Britain joined Europe in qualifying young people in broad-based occupations, with a definite social status and wage to give them the confidence they deserve?
Professor of European industrial relations, Westminster Business School
•?I was disappointed to read Polly Toynbee’s article on apprenticeships – it ignores some fundamental facts. This month the National Audit Office said that for every £1 of taxpayers’ money apprenticeships generate £18 for the wider economy – undeniably boosting economic growth, and providing new life chances for young and older learners alike. The average apprenticeship lasts more than 12 months and entails a rigorous period of job-relevant training. We have tightened guidance for those developing apprenticeships – those training providers that do not meet the high standards learners deserve are having their funding withdrawn.
This is irrefutable evidence that the government’s unprecedented investment, backed by tough new measures to ensure that quality matches quantity, is helping make apprenticeships the gold standard in vocational training.
John Hayes MP
Minister for further education, skills and lifelong learning
•?Polly Toynbee is right that apprenticeships have been devalued by companies using public funds to rebadge their in-house training programmes or providers taking young people on to a scheme with little chance of employment at the end of it. These distortions are diminishing the work done by the many traditional apprenticeship providers, such as Seta, where young trainees have very good prospects of being employed. The race to meet politically inspired top-down targets and endless changes in regulations and requirements are threatening to undermine a respected training programme that serves both employers, young people, and by extension, the country.
Latching on to apprenticeships as an easy soundbite to reduce youth unemployment does a disservice to those schemes that have been making a difference for young people for many years.
Chief executive, Seta
•?Polly Toynbee writes that “the new apprenticeships … are almost a lie”. I have the indentures signed by my great-grandfather when my grandfather joined the merchant navy as an apprentice: he ended up as a master mariner. My late father-in-law joined the RAF as an apprentice, and, having been commissioned from the ranks, came out a squadron leader. A good friend left school at 16, became an apprentice electrician, and retired as a director of a major electrical construction company. Toynbee is right in saying that successive governments have “devalued” and “trashed” the word. Is it too late to restore respect to apprenticeships?
•?Polly Toynbee completely ignores the value of high-quality apprenticeships and the benefits they bring to people, employers, and to the British economy as a whole.
A City & Guilds report released last week predicts UK businesses would be boosted by £459m per annum by creating an additional million apprenticeship places and more apprenticeships would also generate £1.2bn in tax revenues between 2012-20.
Everyone benefits, as long as the apprenticeship programmes being provided are of the highest standard.
High-quality apprenticeships – such as those offered by City & Guilds – guarantee that learners are not only competent to the required level, but have also received sufficient practical experience applying this knowledge and honing their skills in the workplace. That is why at City & Guilds we are constantly working with employers to redefine, re-engineer and upgrade existing training modules in order to deliver apprenticeship programmes that actively meet business needs while upskilling people. This is imperative to driving the business growth our economy needs.
However apprenticeships shouldn’t be touted as the only solution to youth unemployment; they are just one of a range of programmes that can help. The government should actively promote a range of solutions, coupled with sufficient careers advice, so young people can make informed decisions about their futures and choose the path to employability that’s right for them.
In addition, we must look to other causes of youth unemployment, such as the high proportion of jobseekers that lack the necessary literacy and numeracy skills employers need. The education system must be addressed as a priority from as young as primary age, so the next generation do not get caught in the same predicament as their predecessors.
CEO and director general, City & Guilds
•?Polly Toynbee is quite wrong to say that most modern apprenticeships are not fit for purpose. Their purpose is clearly to funnel taxpayers’ money to private companies, and they achieve this very effectively.
Dr Bob Banks