Saturday, November 29, 2008 

Weekend links.

Despite the attacks in India, there has only really been one story this weekend, and while the coverage of Damian Green's arrest could be described as furious, it's hard to believe that it will do anything to bring the police themselves down from their apparent idea that they can do whatever the hell they like.

One of the reasons is because they can rest assured that the likes of the Daily Mail will never scream "POLICE STATE UK" about anything other than journalists or politicians being arrested. Even considering the paper's generally good record on opposing New Labour's anti-terror laws, its support for authoritarian crime policies has just as much of an effect on the police's self-worth. From the bloggers, Justin, Bob, Jamie, the Quiet Road and Heresy Corner all reflect on the powers of the police and the sudden discovery of some politicians that we are suddenly living in a police state, while Rhetorically Speaking notes that the leaker in question seems to have requested a job from Damian Green, although he was turned down. The hacks are pretty much united in their contempt also, Matthew Parris calling it an outrage but blotting his copy book somewhat by almost claiming that this will have been orchestrated by an outraged Gordon Brown who is apparently meant to care deeply about leaks concerning the Home Office that occurred months ago, Nick Cohen thinks similarly, while the Observer and Independent produce almost boilerplate editorials.

Away from Green, the pickings if you don't much want to read the predictable claims that Mumbai will never be the same again are somewhat slim. Paul Linford has though changed his mind somewhat over the pre-budget report, David Semple writes of Chavez, the Yorkshire Ranter bucks the trend for an fascinating piece on the attacks in Mumbai, by way of a Frederick Forsyth novel, and Joan Smith picks up on the Fritzl coverage compared to that of the Sheffield incest case.

Piece of the weekend is undoubtedly from the always excellent Daniel Davies, who notes that commentators of all shades for some reason seem to see their own views in that of the white working class.

Worst tabloid comment piece of the weekend then goes for once to an actual tabloid comment piece, with Richard Littlejohn, commenting doubtless from his mansion in Florida, that Damian Green's arrest is a "monstrous abuse of power by the same gangsters who hounded Dr David Kelly to death." Except that Blair and Campbell have gone and Hoon is currently the transport secretary. Doubtless Melanie Phillips next week will similarly declare that Green's arrest is all the fault of the progressive intellectuals that undermined the family.

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Friday, November 28, 2008 

Green and a very suddenly established police state.

The arrest of Damian Green is understandably raising major questions about how much the government knew and when it knew it, but far more pertinent from my perspective is both what it tells us about the power of the police in today's Britain and how some of those who have given the police such power react when they find themselves under scrutiny.

As long as it turns out that both the police and the government are telling the truth, in that ministers were not informed of what was taking place until it was taking place, then this is not something that is yet truly unprecedented. Extraordinary and deeply troubling yes, but not unprecedented. Examples from decades past have already been regurgitated to show that leaks and governments both knowing and not knowing are hardly new: Churchill in the late 30s, Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting in the 80s, right up to Katherine Gun and David Keogh and Leo O'Connor this decade. Keogh and O'Connor's case was especially politically lead, with utterly disgraceful evidence given against them by government officials.

More analogous to Green's arrest though was the 6am raid on the home of the fragrant Ruth Turner, which the Labour party complained bitterly about. Noses were put out of joint throughout Whitehall over the police investigation into cash for honours, which many thought heavy-handed, even while the rest of the country smirked. It's with Turner in mind that we ought to, for now, accept both the accounts of the Metropolitan police and the government that there was no warning given to ministers over what was going to happen until it happened. We have to assume not that just one side is lying, that but both sides are lying, which would in itself suggest open collusion between the two sides. However friendly some of the discussions between government and the police are, for the Met to suddenly start acting as Labour's personal leak stopping organisation takes a lot of swallowing.

The other point that suggests that open governmental knowledge of the arrest is unlikely is that there is absolutely nothing to be politically gained by having a front-bench opposition spokesman subjected to a stay in the cells of Knacker of the Yard. As soon as it became news the fingers were being pointed and the knives were sharpened. The government might be stupid, venal and corrupt, but is it really that stupid, venal and corrupt? I would hazard not. Are, on the other hand, the police either so full of themselves or flushed with power that they now think that arresting MPs for passing on leaked information to the newspapers is something which they can both brazenly do and ultimately get away with? I would hazard yes. Until some substantial evidence emerges of government knowledge, other than that the Speaker of the House knew and that Boris Johnson knew, or that ministers must have known because Diane Abbott/Michael Howard/etc/etc say so, the latter seems the more reasonable assumption to go with.

In actuality, none of the above examples regarding leakers or arrests really fits properly to the arrest of Green. The one case which is very similar was coincidentally settled today: that involving Sally Murrer of the Milton Keynes Citizen and Mark Kearney, a police officer who was a local source of Murrer's, as well as also for a time being her lover. Kearney and Murrer were charged with aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office, the same charge on which Green was arrested on suspicion of. Like Green, the stories which Kearney supplied Murrer with were relatively inconsequential, concerning a drug dealer and a local footballer, as well as one about an inmate at Woodhill prison boasting about becoming a suicide bomber, which was not actually printed. These charges however seemed to be the cover for getting at Kearney over his knowledge of the bugging of the MP Sadiq Khan when he visited an old friend from his school days, Babar Ahmed at Woodhill prison, of which there was a highly unsatisfactory government inquiry into. Thankfully for both Murrer and Kearney, the judge has concluded that because of the inanity of the stories which Kearney supplied Murrer with, there was no justification for bugging Kearney or Murrer, which directly breached Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, the right to freedom of expression. Tabloid newspapers condemning the HRA for introducing a privacy law via the back-door should take note.

Similarly then, would the police have acted in such a heavy-handed, arrogant way against Green if this really was just about the leaking to him of documents about illegal immigrants working in the security industry, an illegal immigrant working in the House of Commons, a memo from Jacqui Smith concerning how crime is likely to rise during a recession and a document which speculated on the MPs which would oppose 42 day detention? All we have to go on is that a civil servant was suspended from the Home Office 10 days ago and also arrested, and that a complaint to the police was made by the Cabinet Office. Is it possible that Green has been supplied with something far more explosive, perhaps potentially involving the police, which he was yet to share with the media, hence the heavy-handedness and the involvement of what was Special Branch, even if this was strictly being dealt with under common law? We simply don't know. What we do know is that no one is talking about why the police might have acted as they have, simply how they have acted as they have.

And it has to be admitted, their behaviour in this instance is even by the standards by which we are becoming accustomed little short of extraordinary. Yes, whistleblowers have been arrested and persecuted down the years for supplying us with information most certainly in the public interest, but for police to arrest an actual front bench opposition spokesman, hold him for 9 hours, raid his office in parliament, as well as his home, and take his personal effects is on a whole different level to what has come before. As others have pointed out, despite the involvement of anti-terror officers, this as yet does not have anything to do with actual anti-terrorism laws, but what those anti-terrorism laws, such as Section 44 have done is imbue the police with the confidence they need to be able to act almost with impunity. Even whilst we complain that they often can't seem to be bothered to keep actual small town stations open than more than a few hours at a time, or to attend burglaries, they find the time to monitor political demonstrations while recording footage of all those taking part, just for "their records". They, along with community support officers, have routinely stopped photographers from taking shots of almost anything, on the various grounds that either those doing so could be taking part in reconnaissance missions or that they could be taking pictures of children. When it comes to actual terror raids, such as the Forest Gate fiasco, those who dare to criticise the police, of which politicians themselves very rarely if ever do, find themselves under attack for impugning on those carrying out such a dangerous job. In the name of stopping knife crime, blanket searching of those deemed likely to be carrying one has been authorised, with the forms which officers have to fill in when they stop and search someone likely to be scrapped, with even the innocent who were stopped being photographed. Even the Conservatives, opposed to 42 days, appear to support giving the police other powers of surveillance, also likely to be abused just as every other new power has been and will be abused. It is however far too over the top to suggest that we are living in a police state. We are though an undoubted surveillance society, and New Labour, through both its anti-terror laws and authoritarian crime policies has put into place the building blocks of one.

It therefore takes some chutzpah for David Davis, whose stance I have deeply admired, to say he now believes we are living in a police state because one of his own has been raided. When other individuals have said similar things, such as one of the men wrongly arrested in connection with the Birmingham beheading plot, who said that this country was now a police state for Muslims, they have been shot down, especially by politicians. Politicians themselves after all have no one other than themselves to blame for the power the police now have and routinely wield. Only the Liberal Democrats have anything approaching a decent record on opposing the almost yearly measures brought in in reaction to tabloid demands. Like others, they don't believe that it could happen to them until it does, and when it does, they sure as hell don't like it up 'em. If you dislike it happening to you, then think how others who routinely undergo the same thing feel. Politicians have long imagined that they are above the law, but as today has shown, they clearly are not. It would be nice to think that once we truly get to the bottom of why Green has really been arrested, or why the police thought such a sledgehammer approach was appropriate, that it might make some of them think twice before inflicting yet more legalisation on us that further reduces the police's accountability while at the same time making them ever more powerful.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008 

The Sheffield incest case, Baby P and Josef Fritzl.

It would be nice to imagine that the fairly restrained coverage so far over the case of the father who abused and raped his two daughters for the best part of three decades is out of embarrassment at the tidal wave of judgemental coverage earlier in the year over Josef Fritzl. Our finest media denizens, after all, informed us that such a level of abuse going unnoticed was the kind of thing that could only happen in a closed, post-authoritarian society where questions go unasked, secrets remain secrets and cellars are permanently closed. Lorraine Kelly, getting into the spirit of such things, suggested that the Austrian police "should start arming themselves with pickaxes, torches and strong stomachs and start searching those cellars". The Daily Mail is even referring to the father as the "British Fritzl", as though his reign of terror, which lasted longer than Fritzl's, was somehow inspired or just our version of Austria's national shame.

Granted, Fritzl's was just one of three cases emerging from Austria which involved the locking up and abuse of children, although one of those was something of a stretch as it involved a mentally ill mother imprisoning her sons, rather than the more sickening caging of young women for years on end, as occurred in the Natascha Kampusch case. Even so, the coverage was predicated on the idea that this was the sort of thing that didn't and couldn't occur in own backyard, and also showcased our own understandable obsession, some would suggest even fetish for extracting every drop of retribution out of those countries which turned fascist, especially ones which have not quite faced up to their past in the way that Germany itself has, with the Nazi angle being played up as an explanation for why Fritzl became the man he did. Admittedly, he himself used it as an excuse, and that is often enough for the more lazy among us to conclude that must have been it, especially if the person themselves says so.

This though always reflected a rather deceitful decision to overlook our own "monsters", which every society, regardless of its culture, government or society creates. The ultimate example was Fred and Rose West, where a married couple connived to molest and murder young women, and which we already seem to have almost forgotten. Such crimes, and such individuals are of course extraordinarily rare, but when it came to Fritzl and Kampusch the media tended to overlook that the uncovering of such crimes close together was coincidental rather than indicative of a moral malaise in Austrian society. After all, it made for great copy, and that in our current media climate seems to be far more important than taking a step back and examining such things calmly. We connect and correlate rather than detach and research.

While the coverage yet could step up if further revelations of incompetence or failings emerge in the Sheffield incest case, for want of a better way of describing the crimes committed by the father, as all those involved are quite rightly being protected from the media intrusion which they would come under were they to be named, it doesn't seem likely to reach the critical mass which the Baby P story has undoubtedly reached. This is itself ought to be confusing: without a shadow of a doubt this is a case far more shocking, disgusting and frightening than that involving Baby P. The abuse he suffered went on only for a relatively short period of time by comparison, as did the social services involvement with him. Here we are talking about almost 30 years of continuous abuse, contact with the public services and up to 19 pregnancies, all of which went by without anyone doing enough investigation into who was impregnating two sisters on such a regular basis. Even on the lowest level, the abuse of the two sisters was more insidious than that even inflicted on Elisabeth Fritzl by her father: she was after all imprisoned in the family basement. No such physical manacles prevented the two women in this case from escaping; theirs, to quote Blake, were of the mind forged variety. The terror of their father, and what would happen to them, perhaps even to him, imprisoned them far more ably than the construction which Fritzl developed to constrain his daughter.

One of the reasons why it might well be overlooked is that, after all, the Baby P campaign is still in full swing. The Sun is keeping up the pressure, splashing on it again today. You can only tend to keep one outrage going at a time, in the front of people's minds, about which something must be done. Moreover, because of the nature of the case, there are no faces to which the pain can be attached. It was only once Baby P's face was revealed that the witch-hunt proper swung into action. The best we have at the moment is the almost same digitally altered faces, hiding identities and rendering them inhuman as a result. Also true is that this is not the second case in the same area, as it is with Baby P in Haringey. Then there is, equally obviously, that Baby P, was well, a baby. Unable to defend himself, with his own mother either complicit or involved in his abuse, it rings the alarm bells of almost any society that the youngest and weakest can be so cruelly treated and failed by those who are meant to be there to protect him. Young mothers themselves and especially women seem to have been instrumental in the campaign, especially disgusted that someone like themselves could apparently have been so heartless towards her own offspring, or so detached as to allow such things to happen to him. Some of it can surely be placed down to the maternal instinct, to empathise with the child failed by her own mother. That the empathy does not extend to the social workers involved raises its own questions, who are derided as foolish or stupid for believing lies, with the abuse being so apparently obvious.

Those are the more prosaic reasons. Perhaps the ones closer to truth for why it will fail to have the same impact as Baby P, and I might well be proved completely wrong in this, is that while his death and mistreatment has led all the usual suspects to jump to their pre-ordained conclusions, the abuse of the two daughters in this case has no easy scapegoats to castigate. We're not just dealing with one or two doctors or two or three social workers who must be instantly sacked for all our sakes, but with officials and public servants going all the way back to the 1970s. We haven't got the evil mother who left her husband and shacked up with a simple Nazi, who browsed porn on the internet and played poker while her child suffered, but instead the more familiar abusive father. Likewise also, while even though Baby P was born into what was a dysfunctional if nuclear family, the matter of parentage didn't really matter, as single parents and the apparent loose morals of the mother, or of those like her were condemned even if they were irrelevant. In the Sheffield incest case we appear to have an extended nuclear family, which certain politicians and newspapers inform us is the only real way to bring up children, and that anything else helps contribute towards the broken society. Although benefits may have been involved, with the Mail alluding to the father collecting the child benefit from his incestuous offspring, in Baby P's case the welfare state had quite obviously contributed towards his predicament. Here instead the father seems to have been a local businessman, involved in construction, which helped him to move from place to place, evading suspicion.

Ultimately, it might come down to the fact that it isn't so easy in this instance to blame a "leftie mafia", as Trevor Kavanagh called them. The years of rape began in 1981, two years after Thatcher's victory and sixteen before the Conservatives eventually lost. Even if you want to try to blame Sheffield itself, as Haringey has been, it's not so easy to do so years after the fact, although the red flag did fly briefly from the council building during that time. They also lived in Lincolnshire, which is fairly equally split between Labour and Conservative MPs, while the council is at the moment Conservative. You can't so convincingly, as Melanie Phillips attempted, argue that those really with blood on theirs hands were the "progressive intelligentsia who have simply written orderly, married, normative family life out of the script". Orderly, married, apparently normative family life in this instance covered up the abuse. Accordingly, you can't really say that the "ultimate responsibility lies with them [Labour] and the Guardianistas they have created in every section of public life."

Whilst then we have an apparent mirror image of the Fritzl case, we have none of the soul-searching and introspection that country underwent following the discovery. We are perhaps exhausted from the witch-hunt over Baby P, where the underclass reared its ugly head, benefits were seen to be partially responsible and where the political correctness and naivety of social workers could be blamed for the failure to protect him. The Sheffield incest case ought to be an example of how such abuse and failings can happen almost anywhere, in the most apparently normal of families when viewed from the outside. It ought to suggest that all of our assumptions, whether left-wing or right-wing, can often be proved completely inadequate when it comes to the crunch; that we shouldn't imagine that these sort of things can only be possible in dark, uncaring places such as Austria, or only in the benighted council houses of Tottenham. All of this really ought to be just that, apparent. Instead we're so interested in finding someone or something to blame that we skip past the point where we examine why these things happen where they do and how to learn from them. There will always be cases like that involving Baby P, just as there will be those like Josef Fritzl. We create our own monsters, and only by realising that our society and culture as a whole influences them, not just sections of it which we wish to demonise, will we ever be able to move on from the blame game.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008 

Advertising bombshells.

The problem with combining political strategy with advertising campaigns is that when the facts change you can be quickly left looking daft.

This is exactly the trap that the Conservatives have fallen into. Last week, when all we had was rumours and guesswork over what was going to be in the pre-budget report, but where the inkling was that the government was going to produce a stimulus package worth somewhere in the region of between £15bn and £30bn, the Tories thought they were being incredibly clever by bringing back their 1992 tax bombshell campaign. Cheap, effective and simple, and they tried something similar back in 2003. It's partly down to this campaign that Alistair Darling had to set out in such detail how he was going to pay for it, which he did to a fairly decent extent. As it turned out, this wasn't really a bombshell budget in tax terms; yes, the borrowing figures are frightening, but this was negated by the taxing of the rich, which was the distraction measure and sop to the left rather than the main revenue raiser. The real surprise was that national insurance would go up by 0.5%, the part that could be accurately described at least as a potentially painful tax rise.

Almost all of the Conservative fire was concentrated on the national debt. The drop in VAT was the distraction, until an apparently wrongly issued, uncorrected paper on the changes to the tax system still read that VAT was to rise by 1% after 2011, to 18.5%. It was a pretty obvious mistake, as the government quickly made clear, also admitting that they had discussed raising VAT but had decided in the event to raise national insurance instead. You can't however blame the Conservatives for seizing on it, and trying to make hay with the idea that this was a secret plan to raise VAT, with the government not being straight about it. Fair enough.

What you cannot then realistically say is that a 1% rise in VAT is going to be a bombshell, especially when you have been sniffy about a 2.5% drop in the first place. True enough, VAT is a regressive tax, which hits the low paid who don't save but instead spend far harder than it does anyone else. Raising it by 1% would hurt them; Daniel Davies estimates that the cut gives someone working 40 hours a week on the minimum wage £2 a week back, so it isn't outlandish to suggest that a 1% raise would cost them between £40 and £60, possibly more, a year. Not a major sum, but for someone struggling it can more than make a difference. It is not though by any stretch of the imagination a tax rise which is going to put someone into instant penury, especially the mythologised "hard-working families" which both parties so bend over to talk about and discuss. It's equally risible that the country is going bankrupt, as Cameron also claimed at prime minister's questions.

The problem for the Conservatives is getting the balance right between such potentially damaging statements as the country is going bankrupt, which scares people, and attacking the government's lackadaisical and potentially even more damaging plans. Likewise, their own proposals are both rightly and wrongly being lost in the mire, more rightly judging by Cameron's piss-poor examples of what they would do differently, their promised freezing of council tax being revenue neutral and the other two suggestions ones that the government is already doing. Technically, all they have to do is sit and wait and see if the cut in VAT has an effect: if it doesn't, they can claim that their stance was the right one all along. If not, they might be in further trouble. Even then, there's no accounting for whether the public then decide that the softening of a recession created more than in part by Brown means that they'll vote Labour. The Conservatives might still be floundering somewhat, but the end result is still far from certain.

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God Trumps!

Via the Heresiarch, the New Humanist has come up with God Trumps, nicely illustrated by Martin Rowson. Extra points have to be awarded for not glossing over Islam:

The Jehovah's Witnesses card is highly accurate too, although not giving Scientology 10/10 for being easily offended is certainly an oversight.

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The clamour continues.

The Scum continues to delight in the number of signatures flooding in on the Baby P petition - it now claims that it has received over 1,250,000, up massively from the 900,000 it was claiming at the beginning of the week. It's also admitted that the signatures are coming in from across the world, from such paragons of human rights as Mexico and Dubai, which are hardly going to influence the prime minister, who has now had bags of petitions delivered to 10 Downing Street, to swiftly be discarded no doubt. The paper's at least had the sense to put them in bags which could almost pass for bin sacks, which will save even more time.

There has now been an alternate petition set-up on the 10 Downing Street site, calling for there to be a condemnation of the witch-hunt against social workers. When you're up against such overwhelming odds it might seem somewhat pointless, but it's still worth signing.

Especially when there's such mawkishness going on:

Mum Sarah Heasman, 28, was also among the hundreds grieving at the shrine yesterday — after taking her two toddlers to the North London cemetery for a second time. Sarah, from Hounslow, West London, said as her two-year-old Chloe left a pink mug: “When I told her we were going to see Baby P she thought we were going to play with him.

“I had to tell her he was asleep — it was the only way I could think of to describe it.”

Well, you could have told her that he was tortured to death, left in unimaginable agony in his blood-spattered cot, as the Sun describes it. Then though she might have been asked what tortured means, to which Heasman could have replied that it's what she is - tortured by her own inability to do anything of any meaning whatsoever except to take part in a ritual which makes her feel better. Hundreds grieving at a shrine to someone they had never known and never met, but which they imagine they could have saved or could have been saved if only something had been done differently, with children themselves being exposed to something they have no understanding of and with the parents as a result having to lie to their offspring.

And again, there are echoes of cases past:

A jail insider said: I don’t think we should be paid to stop it happening — because she deserves everything coming to her.

“Not since Maxine Carr have we had someone here so hated equally by staff and inmates.

Ah yes, Maxine Carr, whom the tabloids were determined to turn into our generation's Myra Hindley, except there was no evidence whatsoever that she was involved in the abduction or murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. She just believed Ian Huntley's lies, as she previously had, influenced also by his control over her. As a result she's been moved numerous times, women wrongly identified as her have been targeted, and all at the expense to the taxpayer which the tabloids so profess to defend. If the mother of Baby P is to be ever released - and the prison officers, let alone the prisoners themselves don't get to her first - history will undoubtedly repeat itself.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008 

The short-term effects of a witch-hunt.

The Sun is now boasting of having received 1.1 million signatures to its petition for justice for Baby P. Even accepting that some of those will be duplicates, that anyone can sign the online version with just a name and an email, with some signing from abroad and that there may well have been group efforts to get the total up, it's still a mesmerising total, helped along by the pornographic detail of much of the coverage and the almost Diana-like sense of mourning which led reportedly to up to 1,000 spontaneously visiting the cemetery where his ashes were scattered. This was after the Sun reported that he had received no proper funeral; it subsequently turned out that this was completely inaccurate, but the paper quickly adjusted its coverage and no apology was forthcoming for the father of the child, the paper having appropriated his dead son for its own means. That this resembles the "grief tourism" which resulted in crowds visiting Soham during the summer when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman went missing is unmentioned.

Also quickly becoming apparent is the effect that the media and Facebook-led witch-hunt is having on social workers themselves. As could have been expected, fearing that a terrible mistake on their part could lead to them being declared to have blood on their hands, the number of applications for child protection orders appears from evidence on the ground to have sky-rocketed. The Observer reported that in London and Leicestershire applications had as much as trebled from the usual average, while in Leeds the number of applications over a week was described as "unprecedented". Figures collected by Cafcass suggested that there had been a 26% increase in applications between the 10th and 20th of November, as compared to the number made over the same period last year.

This is institutional risk aversion. Some will doubtless argue that this is no bad thing, that when children deemed at risk are taken from their families no further harm can be done to them, and that even if it turns out to be unnecessary, it's better to be safe than sorry. Yet this is work which social workers themselves cannot necessarily possibly deal with: tomorrow's Guardian prints a diary from an experienced social worker in Scotland that simply cannot cope with her current work load. Her problem is both that she cannot provide a proper service whilst so overloaded, but that she is expected to justify her every move, all with the copious bureaucracy and paper-work which has become such a familiar part of working in the public sector.

Here is why the media coverage of the Baby P case has been so hypocritical, so counter-productive, and so potentially disastrous for those who have chosen social work as their profession. It has been led ostensibly by the same right-wing newspapers that so howl when children, especially those of respectable middle-class parents that couldn't even imagine harming their child, let alone do it, are wrongly taken into car. When this happens it's the state snatching, even kidnapping children, as the Daily Mail for example earlier in the year described the taking into care of a newly born child, thought to be at risk, as another of the mother's children was. The same newspapers are the ones that object repeatedly to council-tax rises, when resources, as the anonymous social worker describes, have been so cut to the bone or directed elsewhere that it makes it even more difficult to provide adequate supervision. Finally, who now would honestly consider the idea of becoming a social worker when the profession has become the latest soft target for the impotent rage of the nation to be taken out upon? How many, already brought to the brink of exhaustion by their work-load will see how much gratitude is given to them and finally decide that it's time to pack it all in before something goes wrong on their patch and the mob inevitably moves in? Not enough "golden hellos" in the world are going to make someone, even in an recession, want to take on such responsibility whilst at the same time being given no respect.

Even more unhelpful were last week's ridiculous headlines, including in the "quality" press, regarding 4 children a week dying while either in the care of the state or being seen by social workers. These figures, if true, would also have been unprecedented, and completely out of line with the ones produced by the Home Office. As it turned out, Ofsted had confused the number of those who had died while receiving any kind of local authority help - 282 - with the number of serious case reviews that had been taken out following child deaths, which was a far less remarkable 81. Ofsted said that the "report may have been confusing for a lay person", which it seems is a perfect description of journalists in general, with the figure subsequently being bandied about by those already highly excised by the death of Baby P as an example of the incompetence and failure of social work and child protection policies.

The furore over Baby P will eventually calm down, even if the Sun promises to "not rest until those to blame are brought to book" (pro-tip: they're already have, they're in prison), and the equilibrium will settle back down to something approaching normality. In the meantime however, children will be taken from their families when they previously wouldn't have been, further breaking down the relationship between individual and the state, and potentially loosening those families for good. This will ironically be the result of newspapers that preach the virtue of the family, moralise remorselessly about single-mothers and the "underclass", if not openly in some cases dehumanising them, all while demanding a return to traditional values, the same values which previously amounted to the goings on in someone's house being entirely their own affair. Sales, sensationalism, and giving the public what they think they want always triumph over the note of caution and waiting for the full facts before passing judgement. When the next Baby P comes along, we can look forward to going through this all over again.

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Monday, November 24, 2008 

The pre-budget report.

The media can often be accused of overstating otherwise run of the mill events, both for effect and to try to put conflict into politics which has for some time not been there, but today at least it has both been right to describe the pre-budget report as a gamble and to point to it as at least the end of a 14-year long, if not 30-year long economic orthodoxy.

Let's not get too carried away with ourselves though. This isn't, as Pollyanna herself is promoting it, the end of New Labour and the beginning of social democracy, only a year after she declared that social democracy was dead, but rather a readjustment forced on New Labour by events of their own making. Keynes may have been taken out of the box, dusted down and decorated like a soon to be hauled out of the loft artificial Christmas tree, with Friedman, monetarism and supply-side economics placed on the naughty step, but this was still a cautious, as it had to be, reappraisal of what New Labour's economic policy would become when faced with recession. If anything it was far too cautious when it came to deciding that some of the stimulus package would be paid for by increasing the top rate of tax on those earning over £150,000 a year to 45% - raising a little over £2bn, a pitiful amount. They could have surely got away with making it 50p in the £1, and dropping it to those earning over £125,000, even £100,000, as the old Liberal Democrat policy was, raising a much more substantial amount.

Even if it it is timid, it's still the breaking of the Labour promise at the last three general elections not to increase income tax; the last major shift was 20 years ago when the rate was dropped to 40% by Nigel Lawson, causing uproar on the Labour benches. It is long overdue, an overt return to redistribution, previously carried out almost by stealth on tax credits, where the scheme is so complex that the costs of running it and frustration of those on it who often end up having to pay back that which they weren't supposed to take almost do more harm than good. It also leaves the Tories in a quandary: do they attack it as a tax on wealth creation, on hard work, or agree with the progressive thinking behind it in their new, caring, tough on bonus culture way? At the moment they seem to be uncertain.

As welcome as the shift to taxing the rich more was, the rest of the PBR was almost teeth-grindingly awful, not in the policy sense, but in the doom that pervaded it and which we have to look forward to. Darling, for his part, who I'm willing to suggest is a far more accomplished politician than he has ever been given credit for, did his best to offset this both in his familiar dull delivery, without bombast, and only a few party political jibes at the party opposite, the old style bank manager within him shining through, and in the very optimistic estimates for how quickly we will pull ourselves out of the mire. The Treasury forecast is that we will only be in negative growth for four quarters, the second of which we are currently in. Next year will see a fall in output of between 0.75% and 1.25%, which again seems highly optimistic, both by other forecasts and by the fact that the economy shrank last quarter alone by 0.5%. Equally hopeful is that savings can be found, yet again, within Whitehall which will help to lower overall borrowing, which Darling expects to reach 57% of GDP by 2013-14 - or about £500bn, which really will put us amongst the most indebted of the G7, if not the world.

All of which makes it all the more dark-eyebrow raising to see that £12.7bn of the £20bn stimulus package is to come by cutting VAT by 2.5%. Making it even less attractive is that the duty on tobacco, alcohol and petrol will rise to ensure that there is no overall difference, thus leaving the only things on which the cut will make any real difference expensive electronic goods, cars and furniture. You get the impression that they must somehow know something which we don't, as surely a far better way to have inspired spending would have been the American way of cutting income tax, directly sending cheques back out with the rebate instantly cashable. Unity argues that it will result ultimately in lower consumer prices even on zero-rated goods, which is what the government must also be hoping for. It will become quickly apparent if it has worked or not: if this Christmas is as bad as the retailers have been suggesting it might be, and their sales in January also fail to spark interest, the indication will be that it will have already failed.

The unsurprisingly unleaked other major change was that alongside the tax rises for the rich, national insurance will rise by 0.5% from 2011, which will directly hit the middle classes, and even the upper-working class, affecting those earning over £20,000 a year. With the average wage being somewhere around £24,000 a year, although if we face a far harsher recession than that forecast by the Treasury with deflation a major issue that could in fact drop, it's bound to further embitter those already fed up with Labour and who haven't benefited from the 10 years of relatively benign conditions. At least however they know what's coming: the government's spelling out of exactly what will have to rise to pay for the stimulus, as they had to do and also did to pre-empt the Tory shouts of a coming "tax bombshell" was for the most part well-handled.

George Osborne, for his part, was mostly dreadful in response. The only real hit he landed was that the gap between the stimulus ending and the tax rises kicking in signified that what they were really concerned with was the political cycle rather than the economic one, and it does indeed now look as though Brown will wait until the last moment to call the election, although any party in the same position would have almost certainly done the same thing. This was again though the blundering Conservative party which we have become accustomed to on economics over the past couple of years, decrying Labour while offering no substantive alternative, or indication of what they would do instead. Osborne gave no specifics whatsoever, surely a mistake, even if his anger may have struck a chord.

For all the talk of shifting back towards the comfortable ground on which both parties once stood, at best what they have done is take a few steps to the left in Labour's case and a few steps to the right in the Tories'. Unfamiliar to begin with, but easy to adapt back into. A far bigger change is that all three parties will go into the next election having to promise not tax cuts, or as it has been over the past three elections, the investment versus the status quo dichotomy, but instead tax rises. We will back to the biggest question being who you trust the most to run the economy. After 10 years of New Labour economics, if there is such a thing, the answer ought to be obvious. Yet whilst the Tories both fail to look convincing or offer anything even approaching an all encompassing policy, you'd still have to more than consider the odds on the devil we know. How deep the recession will turn out may will be the ultimate decider. Politics may not have just become interesting again, as per the cliché, but it certainly has, after years of economic consensus, suddenly got far more intriguing.

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