When is it right to take a child away from a parent?

Stories in the media about children in care are seldom talked about unless a tragedy has taken place, notable examples being the case of Baby Peter or the two boys in Darlington. But yesterday saw a story that soon became a talking point on news sites: Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo’s, saying that he wants the number of UK children in care to increase somewhat from around the 62,000 mark where it is currently.

Narey said: “Contrary to popular belief, and for all its inadequacies, care does make things better and can and does create stable, nurturing environments for children.”

On first glance it would seem unbelievable that someone so well regarded would say something like that. This has much to do with the perception society has of the care system, built in part on the negative press it gets from the examples given above. Historically children in care have achieved lower academically than their non-looked after peers, and care leavers are disproportionately represented in prison or on unemployment statistics.

But what might seem like an utterly bombastic and counterintuitive statement by Narey turns out to be in fact correct. A report commissioned for Barnardo’s by the think tank Demos, published yesterday, found that delay and indecision in the care system can have deleterious effects on children in need as well as potentially costing up to £32,755 per child each year, almost four times the cost of a positive care experience.

Local authorities intervening early means problems can be identified sooner rather than later when other problems start to arise, particularly loss of attachment, which could jeopardise a child’s ability to form successful relationships with other children and adults later in life.

There are financial benefits to why early intervention is preferred for children in need. In September 2009, Action for Children, in partnership with the New Economics Foundation, published a report entitled Backing the Future which posits that investment in early intervention and universal services for children and families would save the economy £486bn over 20 years.

The report presents evidence that for every £1 invested in targeted services in crime prevention, mental health services, family breakdown prevention, and against drug abuse and obesity, a saving for the UK economy would reach around £7.60 – £9.20. A further £1 invested in an Action for Children children’s centre, specialising in identifying and avoiding family breakdown issues early on, would result in a social return of about £4.60.

There is of course a strong ethical dimension here: when is it right to take a child away from a parent? Demos in their research look at what is called ‘concurrent planning’ – designating adoptive parents who plan on being permanent carers at the same time as the local authority works with the birth parents to explore possible reunification.

As is recognised in the report ‘concurrent planning’ is based on children and families in crisis being identified very early on, which is rather idealistic, but what the report makes no bones about is that there are plenty of occasions when a child should be taken away from a parent for the safety of both.

While the Tories talk of big society, what we really should be looking at is how the state can be a responsible parent for vulnerable children for the greater good of families, as worrying as that might sound at first. While a contentious subject for many, stronger action and risk adversity today could be the best thing for the child in the future.

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LibDems on VAT rises: Then and now

In the Mail 08/04/10

Leader Nick Clegg, on the campaign trail in Scotland, insisted the Tories would have to raise VAT to 20.5 per cent if they were elected to fund their ‘tax bribes’.

He joined in the assault on the Tories’ economic plans as Labour accused David Cameron and George Osborne of ‘reckless opportunism’.

[…]

But William Hague insisted his party has ‘no plans’ to raise the tax and are in exactly the same position as the Lib Dems.

In the Indy 28/06/10

Vince Cable is set to brush off demands from restive Liberal Democrats for a rethink on the Government’s plans to increase VAT to 20 per cent.

[…]

But asked if parts could be amended, Mr Cable replied: “No, we’ve got a balanced package as it is, and we are not reopening it.”

While Vince Cable dances to the Tories’ tune, Bob Russell, the Lib Dem MP for Colchester, said he believed he and four other MPs would vote against the tabled change from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent, spelt out in the emergency budget last week.

Obama and American Foreign Policy

Focus on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy have been talk of the town of late.

David Frum for the right wing Canadian newspaper National Post, asked Obama the question “what is [your] expertise? What does [you] think [you] know … a lot about?” to which Obama assertively responded “foreign affairs”.

The G8 and G20 meetings are to begin with smiles, soon sinking into misery when the topic turns to BP and Afghanistan. This will be Cameron’s first visit on official business to the US to see President Obama, and he has already issued the fighting talk, stating his desire to pull troops out within 5 years, but not wanting to set a date for release. When Cameron meets with Obama later for a private meeting, this will surely be the most pressing of subjects.

Another issue today bringing Obama’s foreign policy to the fore is the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, an event that some have pointed to as proof that the war effort is unpopular, unwinnable and unnecessary. Georgie Anne Geyer has made the point that “It is certainly not unusual for troops, or even officers, in an unpopular war to complain and gripe about officials back in Washington (and just about everything else).”

Obama’s foreign policy can only be understood in the context of the last nine years specifically. In 2008 when Obama becam president he promised to undo the damage of the last seven years. He made further stands against isolationism, fear of talking and negotiating with the enemy, and pledged to spend 0.7% of the GDP on foreign aid.

For some Obama has done next to nothing of any progression to the Bush era.

Frum again said:

The Afghan war is going wrong. Diplomatic outreach to Iran was slapped away. Concessions to Russia failed to buy meaningful sanctions. Pro-Obama European governments have declined to send more troops to Afghanistan. Obama’s personal relationships with leaders of Germany, U.K. and France are cool to chilly. The President’s outreach to the Islamic world has achieved nothing: In fact, more anti-American terrorist plots were launched in 2009 than in any year since 2001. When a pro-Hugo Chavez president tried to hold power illegally in Honduras, the Obama administration backed the lawless president over a unanimous Honduran Supreme Court.

But on the other hand a lot has changed.

Peter Baker of the New York Times points to Obama’s “decision to send another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan arguably returns America’s focus to what he considers the central front against Al Qaeda,” which was the reason why Obama opposed the war in Iraq even when he was a senator.

Talking to Iran, after years of Bush’s arrogant refusal, hasn’t caused a revolution, but a long term course of discursive arrangement is far preferable to full scale war, and could actually deter such an event, something Bush was almost definitely counting the days until – money permitting.

Francis Fukuyama, in his book After the Neocons, describes what he views as the four definitive American attitudes of foreign policy.

Firstly, neoconservative, whether rightly or wrongly, for the time being seen as a platform for regime change, belief that democracy can be imposed and as Fukuyama describes “benevolent hegemony”.

Secondly there are the “realists” of the Kissinger ilk, respecting of power and unfazed by nature of other regimes.

Thirdly liberal internationalists who want to transcend power politics and move to an order globally based on law and institutions.

Lastly, what Walter Russell Mead called “Jacksonian” American nationalists, narrow security based views, a distrust of multilateralism, and supportive of nativism and isolationism (which Obama stated America can no longer afford).

I think critics will want to include Obama in the third camp, on the grounds of his support for the war effort in Afghanistan, but this I feel is a most prominent misunderstanding of the war there. Afghanistan is not a colonial venture or a practice of imperial muscle, but a coalition to fight a present enemy.

This has not always been the case, and I don’t think all those involved will agree with me, but US/UK governments should not be messing around with the government structures as much as it appears they may have in the past, but promoting Afghanistan can protect itself from a homegrown enemy, flexing its own muscle on and around the border of Pakistan, where families are forced to send their only sons to join the Taliban through fear.

I think Obama has set up a fifth arm to Fukuyama’s perceptions of foreign policy. How it should be defined properly might take longer to work out.

The pinch we are feeling is not equal, thus unfair

George Osborne and the Treasury today insisted that “The top income decile [consult graph 1 here for further explanation] sees the largest absolute losses, while, on average, the bottom three income deciles experience the lowest losses”.

However, ignoring for a second the fact that VAT always hits the lowest paid in society what Osborne has forgotten is proportion and scale. If figure A earns £200 a week and the government decides to take £10 more of that away, while figure B earns £2000 a week, and the government decides to take from him the same, figure A feels more of a pinch in spite of the fact that both have contributed the same.

Now, of course, this is not a literal picture of what the government are doing at the moment, but certainly the illustration holds true, that though the top income decile will see the largest amount of money taken from them on their pay packets, this is because they are earning more. This does not represent an equal distribution of the “pinch” when you consider that those on the bottom end of the income decile, though not contributing as much in income (as they don’t earn as much as those on the top decile) do feel more of a pinch by the raise in VAT, freeze on public sector pay and freeze on benefits.

It doesn’t follow that since figure A has less on his income statement than last year, that figure A is feeling the pinch more than figure B, in fact the opposite is true. This does not represent everyone taking an equal hit, and so should be opposed en masse.

Can we afford the middle classes?

In 1974, Edward Heath asked: “Who governs – government or trade unions?” Speculate as you will on whether you think the re-election of Thatcher five years later answers that question, but the relevant answer today is neither. The third choice is the complexity of the political situation, it is this which has done the most to engender the system more than the above.

For example, it is not for nothing that a repeat of Peter Griffiths‘ campaign, which featured the infamous 10-word slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,” is unlikely. Politics in this country has changed, and in many ways converged, particularly on issues such as race, culture, religion, gender and sexuality (though there are exceptions to this rule, of course).

In recent times, when austerity measures were not on the menu, harmony could be found between the Tories and Labour on the economy as well. Michael Gove spoke kind words (bordering on sickly) about Tony Blair’s academies, private capital in schools and what a business agenda in schools could bring to the country in the future. David Cameron, too, was derided for not being angry enough with Blair, on economic and other matters, across the room, frankly because Cameron admired Blair, as did most of the shadow cabinet at the time, which can be shown by the waves and cheers by them during his leaving ceremony. Many on the right complained that there was no real or effective opposition, whereas many on left moaned that both parties had merged as one.

Today’s political situation might have realised the conditions for proper political opposition, between the values which both parties were founded upon.

Today’s Observer runs an article which states:

Earlier this week, a report by the thinktank Reform, which is close to the Conservatives, called for a curb on “middle-class welfare”. It proposed reducing spending on child benefit, child tax credit, the winter fuel allowance for pensioners and more. Overall, it called for a £13bn reduction in state benefits.

Meanwhile, Policy Exchange, another thinktank close to the Tories, claimed that billions paid by better-off families in taxation is handed straight back to them in benefits. It found that last year £53.5bn – 32% of all benefits – were paid to families with a higher than average income.

These benefits were based on universal citizenship gifts. The NHS is not a gift afforded only to those who can’t afford it, and private healthcare to those who can, but is universal and free to all users. The child trust fund was another such example; an entitlement initiated by the Labour government free for all and free from means testing. But now it has been decided that perks such as this cannot be afforded any longer.

This will be the thing that properly sets the mainstream parties against each other again and restore them both to their foundations: Labour universalism verus Conservative cuts. And it has to do with the political situation, not political will. Who governs? It’s the economy, stupid.

*

George Osborne has chosen now to cut heavily and not over time steadily. He has chosen this course to deficit reduction over tax rises as well. But in his intellectual toolbox he has peculiar justifications for doing so.

Alistair Darling, also in the Observer today, noted that:

The government is fond of referring to the experience of Canada in the 1990s, where a public sector retrenchment was matched by a private sector boom. Osborne’s seesaw in action. But that experience does not offer a route map for the UK today. It provides a warning. In Canada in the mid-1990s their major export market, the US, was growing strongly. The demand a booming neighbour provided could take the place of government spending, and did so quickly. That is far from the case in the UK today. Our main export market is Europe. Growth there is sluggish. There is a new fiscal austerity across the continent. And that is exactly the problem. Governments, even with relatively modest deficits, are taking demand out of their economies.

In a piece called Budget Blunders the BBC noted in 1999:

Philip Snowden … introduced an “orthodox” budget that cut unemployment benefit and public sector pay at the height of the Depression.

The results were riots in the streets by the unemployed, and a mutiny among sailors in the Royal Navy at Invergordon in Scotland, which virtually crippled the Fleet.

Just as it doesn’t follow that Canada could do it, nor does it follow that just because Snowdon failed that Osborne will. But the question is just how much have his calculations been born of ideology. The debate between cuts and no cuts is a non-question now, but cuts as far as possible should not affect the destitute and low paid.

If Osborne has a Snowden moment, it won’t just ruin his political career, it will ruin the lives of many undeserved people in Britain.

“Secular Humanists” vs. Far right extremists, or where is the EDL civil war then?

I had the great fortune to engage in a twitter debate not so long ago with a twit (or tweeter) who goes by the name Jack Kerouac and twit name @EDLDoverFerry. It was an enlightening experience as I’m sure anyone can guess, but it wasn’t entirely what I expected from someone so ardent about their support for a group that has been noted in the press for their violence, racism and Islamophobia.

Kerouac was very keen to point out that he feels the English Defence League is a secularist, humanist group with the interests of women, gays and kufr (nonbelievers, or those who deny “truth”) at heart. The oiks and thugs that the media show on the telly and in the newspapers spoil it for the other honest members, and they are the bane of the EDL security guards’ lives, for it is they who have to try and bring order and peace to the demonstrations the EDL put on, and this simply cannot be done when numpties scream colourful and vile language (“I hate P*kis more than you“) on the streets and kids with bitter eyes wave the fascist salute.

Kerouac’s point was the EDL are not the BNP and are just trying to protest against sharia law.

This would be all the more believable if there weren’t one or two problems with the EDL (see also PP on this subject):

There is a BNP presence in the EDL, and it exists at the top, not limited to those who go out on the street for the fight. The Stirrer revealed that Chris Renton, a BNP activist who lives in Weston-super-Mare, set up the EDL website. Further, Paul Ray, a spokesperson for the EDL admitted in an interview knowing about Renton’s links, and dismissed it by saying that “people’s political views are their own affair.”

Ray, during the interview conducted by The Stirrer’s editor Adrian Goldberg on Talksport, revealed, however, that it is not just Islamic extremism that he takes a disliking too. The entry explains:

During the course of the interview, it became apparent that Ray’s own view of Islamic extremism isn’t limited to suicide bombers and hook handed preachers of hate.

He argued that the Qu’ran teaches all its advocates to wage jihad or holy war in non-Muslim countries, and acknowledged that on this basis, all devout or practising Muslims in Britain, are – in his words – “at war with our country.”

When pressed, he said:  “They’re ultimately engaged in converting our country to an Islamic state…that is the religious mandate of the Qu’ran that all Muslims must adhere too.”

The EDL are bankrolled by a man who wants:

full-scale persecution of Muslims in Britain, including forcing them to live in Third Reich-style poverty-stricken ghettos within 20 years, killing any Muslims who attempted to leave these restricted starvation-ridden areas, and implementing summary executions for white British “race traitors

The EDL aim to set up a “Jewish division,” sparked off by the Gaza flotilla incident, “encouraging members of the community to “lead the counter-Jihad fight in England”.”

Jon Benjamin, Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “The EDL’s supposed ‘support’ for Israel is empty and duplicitous. It is built on a foundation of Islamophobia and hatred which we reject entirely.”

For some reason, the less proud members of this odd gang want to paint themselves as vigilantes for progressive causes like gender and sexual equality, under scrutiny by fanatics. But it doesn’t stand up when you look at the EDL for just a second.

Any group that is aware of its links with the BNP; any group that isn’t able to distinguish the minority of Islamists from mainstream, traditional or liberal Islamic movements, and certainly does nothing to attract those latter Muslims whose communities are most damaged by extremism; any group that seeks only to provoke should only be viewed with caution and disgust.

Fabian Society Labour party leadership hustings

In the copy of progress magazine that I stole from the Fabians’ leadership hustings tonight, Richard Angell interviews David Miliband about his candidacy for the Labour leadership.

In it, there is a quote that just about sums up his campaign:

In his first weekend as leadership contender, the former aide to Tony Blair appears to be distancing himself from New Labour with his call for the party to become ‘Next Labour’.

Miliband the elder is the least comfortable candidate with really identifying where the New Labour project, to which he is linked – despite what the above says – failed. He is also the least comfortable candidate when explaining where he wants to see the party go to, in order to change its image from, as Andy Burnham pointed out during the debate, “pro-big business without being pro-ordinary people”.

This comes through in the very New Labour quote above; meaningless symbolism and clap in the words “Next Labour” – it is hard to even make sense of what this could mean. Unlike what the interviewer says, it reveals no distancing whatsoever.

David Miliband went further in his soundbite babblery hatchet job with his opening statement. Among other vague notions he told the audience of Fabians:

the question for us is how we turn the poetry of values into the prose of real change in people’s lives

It didn’t get much better for him, stumbling over safe and habitual epithets, nervous smiles and uncomfortable hand gestures towards Dianne Abbott to his left (!).

A well-known blogger I got talking to recently, toying with whether to have Dave Miliband as his first choice candidate when the party comes to vote, told me that all candidates are trying to weave leftist tenets into their gamut, but nobody is reaching to the right. After wiping up the spillages I had made after hearing that, I realised that nobody else in the party but David Miliband was someone able to do both; someone to remind the party of its regretful right wing flirting past, and one who says through gritted teeth things we on the left vaguely want to hear, but see straight through it when uttered from his mouth. He reminded the audience tonight of how right I am (even if I do say so myself).

After answers to phantom questions about concerns to family life for MPs, agreement across the board about the 10p tax, Burnham’s reception of slow hand clapping for his uncommitted and nervous comments on immigration and the war in Iraq, and boring questions on women MPs and voting systems (boring, only because we already know the answer in advance; for more women; AV system) – not to mention Ed Balls’ mistimed jokes, met with flapping hands from Ellie Gellard in the front row – audience members with a little more blood lust were wondering where those questions aimed to stump our candidates were going to come from.

The best we got was a question from the audience on what measure the candidates wish they could delete from Labour’s past, which worryingly turned out to be the question all candidates had some of their finest moments with (with the exception of, again, David Miliband, who was clearly keen on being the voice of the past, New Labour legacy intact).

It was Andy Burnham, and not Dianne Abbott, who played the divider tonight, to the surprise of many people I have spoken to. He was the one laying himself open and making friends and enemies along the way, whether on the clergy in the Lords (which he opposes, but will explain his reasons in confession for, by his own jesty admission), to selection in schools to his own class and upbringing in Manchester.

Abbott was playing it far more pluralistic than many had anticipated, being personable and less antagonistic than many would hope (leaving that space for Burham).

Ed Balls was barely clear all evening, most comfortable when he was talking absolute jibberish and complaining about criticism he has had to endure as Minister. His attempts to re-write his past support for the war in Iraq, which he now admits was a mistake, were badly executed when he told the audience: “we should say sorry and move on” – if only life were so easy. These are not the words of a man in touch.

This leaves me to talk about the candidate who won the debate hands down tonight. Ed Miliband wanted to drive home the message that he was a “values driven” candidate, calling for Lords reform, a 50% female shadow cabinet, a need to govern markets by democracy, a look at top pay in the private sector, a high pay commission, a living wage, and the need to criticise capitalism from a democratic perspective.

Emma Burnell asked the pivtal question at the end of the night: “are you a Socialist – and what does the word mean to you?” David Miliband of course skirted round the issue, saying he was happy to accept what is written on the back of Labour membership cards (democratic socialist), while the others used the word to explain why they opposed social barriers. Ed Miliband used the most colourful language when he noted that:

Being a socialist for me is about being willing to criticise capitalism – and saying capitalism produces many injustices, which politics must tackle. It is not about abolishing capitalism but it is about changing it.

Balls noted having no truck with barriers, Burnham quoted Billy Bragg and Abbott spoke about the marginalisation of the minority working class.

These events are about Labour members and supporters working out who comes off best. Small-scale differences aside, the candidate scores points by saying the things you want to hear, appearing to mean it, and manoeuvering better on the spot than others. For me, Ed Miliband did this the best, not necessarily because I feel his politics are closer to mine than that of any other candidate, nor because I desire for him to be the next leader of the Labour party, but because he spoke clearly and elegantly about important matters, rallied with passion about more than just things we might want to hear him say, and did this far better than any of his colleagues.