Tag Archives: government

Student Guest Post: Does Diversity Aid Representation?

This is another insightful student guest post by First Year Politics and International Relations student Horatio Georgestone.

The cabinet is supposedly at the heart of our representative democracy in the UK. The best political talents are appointed by the Prime Minister to create policy that represents the best interests of our diverse society. The coalition cabinet comprises of Twenty-nine. Twenty-three cabinet members are millionaires (79%), twenty are Oxbridge educated (69%), twenty-five are male (86%), and twenty-eight are white (97%). This does not paint a picture that is in any way reflective of the diverse, British population that it intends to represent.  However, does this lack of diversity prevent the cabinet from being an effective representative body? Does it actually matter if few cabinet ministers are from a working class background or that most of them are Oxbridge educated? Why isn’t the cabinet more diverse?

The common saying goes: “a doctor does not need to have malaria to be able to treat it”. True as this may be in a medical sense, does this actually follow in a political sense? Can a body of politicians effectively deal with the problems faced by a young teen growing up in a council estate in East London if none of them have ever experienced anything similar? Would plans to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) go ahead if there were many politicians who once relied on collecting it themselves? If the EMA had previously bought them stationary, paid for their transport, or incentivised their attendance at school; how many would still call for it to be scrapped? There is an increased use of think tanks and similar organisations to assess public opinion. However, can these organisations ever be an effective substitute to cabinet ministers actually having firsthand experience?

Is it increasingly difficult for a person of a non- Oxbridge educated, working class background to make it to the top of British politics? When John major became Prime Minister in 1990, it was an illustration that a person’s background could not prevent them from excelling in politics. It signified an era in British Politics where social mobility was rife; an age where someone who had not even gone to university could become Prime Minister. Two decades later, have we progressed or regressed in terms of social mobility? Are we seeing a greater number of cabinet ministers from working class backgrounds? Are women still under-represented within the cabinet?  Is the cabinet being drawn from a wider range of ethnic groups?  The composition of the current cabinet does not seem to suggest much progression.

In the last labour led cabinet, John Prescott and Alan Johnson were both cabinet ministers who had completed incredible personal journeys. Who would have predicted that Prescott, a working class boy who failed his 11+ exams in 1949, would go on to become Deputy Prime Minister? When Johnson was stacking shelves at Tesco or delivering mail as a postman, who would have guessed that one day he would be Home Secretary? The concern is that top flight of politics has become less accessible for people from a large section of society to reach and those who create policy are increasingly being drawn from a narrow social elite. The ensuing issue is this; can a narrow social elite effectively represent the best interests of a diverse modern British society?

Undoubtedly, the role of a Cabinet Minister is challenging. The world of economics and social policy is tricky and requires the selection of our best minds. Is it the case that the UK’s best minds all originate from a small section of society? Could it be that we do not have enough women, ethnic minorities or people of working class background with intellects that are up to the job? In reality, this is highly unlikely.

A more plausible argument may be that the system of selection favours people from a particular social group who have access to contacts. The party machine selects which candidates will contest safe seats and the Prime Minister appoints Cabinet Ministers. Perhaps a lack of connections plays an integral role in isolating candidates outside of a social elite, who find it difficult to network and obtain the contacts they need to progress in politics. Family ties and university ‘hook ups’ both play a part in boosting a person’s chances of rising through the ranks in politics. There is no question that ability will play a role in political progression. However, at the point where there are many talented competing candidates, having a few contacts certainly wouldn’t harm a candidate’s chances.

Returning to why we may require diversity amongst our representatives, I would say this. The study of politics can often lead to the reduction of citizens to rational actors; factors that fit into an intellectual exercise. In the pursuit of deficit reduction or efficiency savings it is possible for policy makers to overlook how citizens feel. There may be endless intellectual reasons why a specific proposal may be a good idea in theory, but in practise, the success of that proposal will depend on the feelings of the public that receive it. The coalition cabinet may feel that in theoretical terms, tackling the budget deficit quickly is the right thing to do. However, do they really understand how cutting so deep, so quickly has affected the most vulnerable in our society? Having a diverse mix of ministers who can personally relate with how sections of society will react to a particular policy could clearly be advantageous in establishing a cabinet that truly understands the public.

Mr Cameron’s “Big Society” concept illustrates the importance of policy makers being able to communicate with the public effectively. What could potentially be an interesting project, is failing precisely for the fact that the coalition cabinet has not been able to effectively convey what it means to the public. We live in an age where policy makers are able to release lots of information without really connecting with vast sections of society. There are so many means of relaying information, but what is lacking is the understanding of how to reach people.  Losing someone like Andy Coulson who could genuinely relate to members of the wider public and recognised how to communicate with them must have been a big blow. The role of spin doctors is increasingly important when you have a cabinet that struggles to connect with the public.

The final advantage of having a more diverse cabinet may be the ability of wider sections of the public to identify with those who are at the top of British Politics. Not only does this give them an incentive to participate in the political system, it may inspire some to believe that one day it could be them in that position. Removing the stigma of top flight politics being reserved for a social elite may serve to increase respect for and trust in the political system amongst the wider public.

In closing, there may be benefit in a cabinet that is reflective of a diverse British public. It would be a strong indication of social mobility; and it would be useful in terms of issues relating to communication and identity. It is unclear why in the two decades since Major; the cabinet does not seem to have made much progress in terms of social mobility. Perhaps there are issues, other than ability that can act as an obstruction to political progression for some.

Student Guest Post: University, a window of opportunity for all?

This month’s student Guest Post comes from Horatio Georgestone, a First Year Politics and International Relations Student at Aston University.

University, a window of opportunity for all?

by Horatio Georgestone, Aston University

What will be the benefit of University? The answer to that question is not immediately obvious to all potential university students. Yet, the answer to this question will shape their decision to attend university. The truth is that the destination of past leavers does not reliably inform us of what will be the case for future leavers.  Projections require us to make assumptions about a highly competitive job market which is still reeling from the effects of the financial crisis.

The bigger question seems to be, to what extent is the government responsible for subsidising fees and ensuring wide participation at university?  After all, the skills gained from university are used in jobs which allow graduates to provide services to society as well as contribute to tax revenues.  Surely, if society is entitled to have a say in the way that public funds are spent, a significant amount would be invested in ensuring tuition fees remain low as it is in society’s interest to encourage and support undergraduates.

The government’s move to increase tuition fees is largely as a result of a review published in October by Lord Browne. The review was commissioned by the labour party to find out how the university funding system in England could be adapted to meet the rising demand for university places in a way that was sustainable for public finances.

The proposed system would allow universities to charge tuition fees of up to £9000 a year.  Universities charging above £6000 would have to show evidence of encouraging students from poorer backgrounds to attend such as bursaries, outreach programmes and summer schools. The government would continue to loan students the full tuition fee and the threshold at which graduates have to start paying back their loan would be moved from 15,000 per annum to 21,000 per annum. Graduates earning above the threshold would pay back 9% of their income each month. Graduates would be subject to a gradual interest system where the interest rate will rise from 0% for incomes of £21,000, to 3% plus inflation (RPI) for incomes above £41,000. Any unpaid debt 30 years after graduation would be cleared.

The average undergraduate degree costs about £7,000 a year to teach. In the current system just over £3,000 currently comes from students and the rest is covered by the government; through the means of teaching grants in particular. The Universities Minister, David Willetts, has already suggested that the teaching grant for humanities will be withdrawn. Vice-chancellors say they would need to raise fees to around £7,000 to cover the shortfall.

The coalition would have us believe that the fiscal deficit forced their hand in this decision. However, we know that what the government must cut and how rapidly they cut are normative issues. Many argue that the raised tuition fees have little to do with fiscal deficit and much to do with ideology. It is seen as a cynical attempt by the government to neglect its responsibility to subsidise education, and ensure wide participation in university in order to preserve small government.

The Liberal Democrats who have come under fire for abandoning their pre-election pledges seem to suggest that being in a coalition means compromise and necessarily the non-fulfilment of some manifesto promises. In any case, the LibDems don’t seem to think the proposal is a bad idea. Vince Cable has gone as far as to say “I think a lot of the people who are protesting actually don’t understand what’s being proposed”.  As if to say in a mildly condescending manner if students understood what was actually happening they would not protest, they would thank the government.

No-one condones the violent and dangerous actions of the 200 extremists that rioted on the 10th November, but why did media outlets choose to ignore the 50,000 who protested peacefully? Editors have the ability to set the agenda and prioritise stories. Media outlets chose to sensationalise the actions of a few, rather than accurately representing the fears and concerns that the 50,000 protested to convey.

Nobody knows for certain what the implications of the raised tuition fees will be.  There is a fear that students from poorer backgrounds will be deterred from university as the perception of a greater debt will lead them to question the benefit of studying at university. A loan of £27,000 just for tuition fees seems like a bigger risk to someone from a poorer background.  Potential undergraduates must ask themselves the question, will the repayments provide an obstacle to them living the way they wish or supporting those who need them. Will it be too expensive to live away from home? Will they have the finances to support any dependents in their care (whether they have children, elderly family members or disabled family members)? Not many students will start university with the intention of being unable to pay the loan back. Financial freedom and security is important to anyone.  A lingering student loan will restrict the options of the lowest earners and may have implications on their future financial considerations. No graduate should feel trapped by their financial circumstance.

Will we see a change in the courses studied as students opt for degrees that will be more profitable financially? Not many would complain about seeing a drop in applicants who chose to study David Beckham Studies at Staffordshire University or Golf Management at Birmingham University. But should we be worried by less students reading Art, Sociology or Land Economy? Some argue that the purpose of university is increasingly being reduced to achieving the functional basics necessary to get a well paid job. Is there still value in people studying a degree because of their love for the subject? How about the notion that university is a means of people developing into well rounded individuals who are more critical, more mature?

Will graduate debt become a problem for parents? We live in a generation of KIPPERS (Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings) and YUCK’s (Young Unwitting Costly Kid). It is ultimately parents who have to foot the bill when their children face financial difficulty. How will families on lower incomes cope? This is problem is exacerbated with multiple children. Research by Abbey Mortgages in 2009 found that almost 500,000 adults aged between 35 and 44 returned home to live with their parents. Figures from Children’s Mutual show that a third of parents are remortgaging their homes to raise money for their YUCK’s.

A mortgage for many graduates will become a distant dream. The housing market is hardly first time buyer friendly at the moment and the situation does not look to be improving any time soon. Research by the National Housing Federation suggests that millions of young people in the current climate will not be able to afford a deposit for their own home until they reach the age of 43. The situation is worst in London where it is projected that the average 21-year-old will have to wait until they are 52 to be able to afford a mortgage.

The National Housing Federation suggests that an average of £35,614 is needed as a deposit for a house. The average house cost is around £142,457. According to The Association of Graduate Recruiters, the average graduate income is currently frozen at around £25,000 a year. When lenders have to take into consideration credit situation of graduate owing in the region of £40,000 – £50,000, how many graduates will have a realistic opportunity of getting on the property ladder before 43? How long will it take to put together a deposit when in addition to living costs, graduates are paying 9% of their income every month.  Clearly if you are earning under £21,000 a year, a mortgage is even more unrealistic as the burden of an unpaid student loan taints your credit rating for 30 years.

We simply do not know how severe the implications of the rise in tuition fees will be. However, we can question the government’s true intention behind proposing an increase in tuition fees in the way that they have.  In the words of Nick Clegg: “Fairness means that no one is held back by the circumstances of their birth. Fairness demands that what counts is not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did, but your ability and your ambition. In other words, fairness means social mobility.” Not many would agree fairness or social mobility is achieved by this policy.

What Iain Duncan Smith needs to learn from Germany

Iain Duncan Smith announced last week that the unemployed will, under some circumstances, be required to undertake unpaid “community work”, with strict sanctions for those who fail to comply.  His view what that this would help people re-integrate into the labour market, by getting into the habit of work.

Interesting, a similar mechanism was included in Germany’s welfare arrangements as a result of the Hartz reforms (to the welfare state), introduced in 2005: the so-called “One Euro jobs”, or, in administrative German, “Work opportunities with additional expenses payment”.  These have been roundly condemned by Germany’s National Audit Office, in a leaked report this week.

The One Euro jobs are offered to the unemployed by job centres.  Only social or public enterprises (such as local authorities, charities, schools or churches) can offer these, with such examples as reading to children, keeping an eye on quarrelling kids on the school bus, or picking up rubbish.  The idea, similar to Mr Duncan Smith’s proposals, is that everybody wins: the community wins, because useful tasks are performed that would otherwise be missed out.  Also, the unemployed worker wins, because s/he gets extra money (usually between one and 2.5 Euros per hour), without benefit entitlements being affected, and also gets social contact, professional experience and extra knowledge.

Unfortunately, the respected National Audit Office found that the One Euro jobs failed on almost all counts.  In particular, there were found to be significant “substitution effects”, whereby the unemployed ended up replacing employees doing the same work, but of course with proper pay, terms and conditions; this was particularly damaging to private sector enterprises offering the same services (for instance, litter-picking, or helping move public offices).  They also found that in most cases the jobs weren’t suitable to help people reintegrate to the labour market.

These findings reinforced a recent study by the Centre for European Economic Research, which found that those who had undertaken a One Euro job were actually less likely to find regular employment than those who had, possibly because of the jobs were perceived as a stigma by employers.

The German government is now reviewing the One Euro job programme, in particular involving trade unions and employers in scrutinising the placements made by each job centre.

It is vitally important that the British government taken some time to evaluate the German experience, before embarking upon a course of a action that will lead to see proper jobs replaced by unpaid labour in the public and private sectors, while damaging the interests of the long-term unemployed at the same time.

A version of this article appeared on the policy blog Left Foot Forward.

Housing benefit cuts: how the government is shaping the argument

It’s been an interesting time for those of us who follow welfare politics. On the one hand, we’ve seen the axing of child benefit payments for higher earners, and now further, hefty cuts to housing benefit, on top of those announced in June. On the other, the government is apparently to embrace a greater degree of universalism on pensions. In terms of Realpolitik, this isn’t much of a riddle – turnout at the last general election was highest amongst pensioners (76%), and lowest amongst the less well-off (social classes D and E had turnout of 57%) and those who rented accommodation (55%).

But there are, it seems to me, there are several interesting points to come out of this. In future pieces, I’ll write about the likely costs elsewhere to the public sector through these cuts, and the likely effect of housing policy changes upon our welfare settlement. For now, I want to focus upon how the government is trying to win the arguments for these cuts.

There’s a lively debate about when, and under what circumstances, cutting welfare payments may be popular, and what politicians can do to influence this. An assumption that permeates much academic writing on this subject is that cutting benefits is usually unpopular. There is the least resistance when there is a lower number of beneficiaries, and when they have less access to the political process (hence the relevance of lower turnout amongst poorer people).

To build public support for the measure, the government’s strategy has been pretty clear-cut: to paint a picture of housing benefit which will be deeply unattractive to the general public. This started prior to the announcement, with ubiquitous stories in the media about particular families who appeared to be getting very generous support with their rent, had no desire to become active in the labour market, and were photographed, slouching or beaming around a flat-screen television.

Latterly, in justifying the cuts, a similarly jaundiced picture has been painted. So Nick Clegg, at Prime Minister’s Questions, contrasted those who claimed Housing Benefit with those who
“go out to work, pay their taxes and play by the rules“
. This is a pretty hopeless representation of housing benefit –“the rules” dictate that people are perfectly entitled to claim housing benefit if they are on a low income, and a good many people on HB do go out to work. As the homeless charity Shelter pointed out, just 12% of housing benefit recipients are unemployed. In many of the remaining cases (i.e. excluding pensioners, parents of very young children, and the disabled), it is just that their work is insufficient to allow them enough money to live on whilst paying their rent.

Similarly, both Nick Clegg and David Cameron focused on the £400 weekly cap on housing benefit payments. In fact, this particular measure will apply to under 22,000 households, whereas some 774,000 households, according to the government’s own impact assessment, are likely to see their benefits drop as a result of reduction in rates to the 30th percentile within a Broad Rental Market Area (the area for which benefit levels are calculated).

It is perhaps no surprise that there is initial, abstract support for the government’s plans, which 57% of voters say they support. Whether the efforts to discredit the benefit and those who receive it are as successful once the full impact becomes clear remains to be seen.