Time to embrace uncertainty

How small would the risk of excessive deaths from COVID need to be, before you personally would feel comfortable with lockdown restrictions being reduced? Present discussions have focused on a date to reduce or end restrictions, provoking the understandable answer of ‘it depends.’ There is an equally understandable desire to prevent avoidable risks to the NHS and to public wellbeing, especially with the mass rollout of vaccines giving the impression that we are on the home straight.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/IFLgWYlT2fI
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Is morning coming?

“Good night then: sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly upon all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn.”

Winston Churchill, speech to the French people 21st October 1940
Photo by Rick Medlen: https://unsplash.com/photos/Erf1Kz7ZE5Y
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Opinion Polls: Bad is better than banned

Is it time to hand pollsters their notice after the industry embarrassingly failed to spot how close the 2020 American Presidential Election was? After months of telling readers that Democrat Joe Biden was on course to carry an Electoral College landslide, and that incumbent President Donald Trump had no chance of regaining the White House, at the time of writing the contest is so tight that we are not entirely sure when it will be called.

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We need to connect again

How has lockdown impacted your personal friendships and relationships? It is probably true to say that we are all past the first stage of the pandemic, where confinement was a bit of a novelty, and we were taking crash courses in video conferencing. There was a resolve to show our better side; we advised how to connect with vulnerable neighbours, volunteered for local hubs, and exchanged tips on how to stay entertained while forced to remain indoors.

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How would Jesus vote?

You may have seen a comment somewhere in your social media during this election campaign along the lines of ‘If Jesus were voting he definitely would/wouldn’t vote for [insert party/politician].’ For Christians it’s easy to understand the logic behind this; the name ‘Christian’ means ‘little Christ’ and we see imitating Christ’s actions as the best way to live – which resulted in the now passé trend to wear bracelets bearing the letters W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do?). But those of different or no faith can also identify with the sentiment, whether Jesus is seen as a worthy person to imitate or as the representation of our higher ideals.

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Why we need a change in recall petitions

UPDATED: 5 March 2018

This week twelve Members of Parliament resigned from their party, eleven of them forming the newly designated ‘The Independent Group.’ Other MPs had previously resigned the party’s whip in Parliament, mainly to vote contrary to the party’s stance on Brexit, as was the case with Frank Field (formerly Labour) and Stephen Lloyd (formerly Liberal Democrat). These resignations were notable not just for the sheer volume, but additionally because the MPs indicated that they were not prepared to bring their change of political allegiance back to their electors by contesting a by-election.

Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash
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Means, ends, and motivations

Those wondering where the expression ‘a week is a long time in politics’ comes from need look no further than the last week. Post party conference season commnetators were talking about a Conservative government lasting until at least 2025 and it seemed that David Cameron was untouchable. It took one week for that comfortable assumption to be challenged, through opposition to the government’s policy to reduce working tax credits – a scheme introduced by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was intended to effectively re-imburse low waged workers from the tax that they pay, and incentivise being in work rather than relying upon benefits. After the massive plaudits for the ‘Living Wage’ announcement in his emergency Budget, George Osbourne has instead faced accusations that he’s taking money from those in society who need it most.

To comment on this emotive topic, I felt it was best to refer to an excellent book that I had the good fortune to buy for £1.00 in a Kindle sale – easily the best pound I have spent on a book:

Blunders

The Blunders of our Governments is well worth reading, because it is a rigorous and academic study of mistakes made by British governments of all complexions, and hence is largely free of partisan bias. It lays in mercilessly to Conservative administrative blunders such as the Poll Tax, but doesn’t spare the rod for Labour administrations either. Chapter Ten indeed devotes attention to the very topic under present discussion – tax credits. Whatever impact the policy may have had (and the authors do recognise that it had some impact on relieving poverty), the chapter nevertheless observes the following:

  • The system was needlessly complicated, and often caused intolerable and unncecessary stress to poor and vulnerable people by overpaying the benefit, then demanding repayment in one lump sum.
  • By the spring of 2007, HMRC had: “in effect given up on clawing back more than £2 billion (my emphasis) it had overpaid claimants.”
  • The Parliamentary Ombudsman had reviewed 393 complaints about the system in 2006-7, of which 74% were fully or partially upheld.
  • Independent commentators (which I may say include left-wingers Polly Toynbee and Tottenham MP David Lammy) said that for all of the good done, the policy had been “an administrative nightmare” and ultimately no more than “a sticking plaster.”

The rest of the chapter (and the book) is well worth the investment, so I would encourage you to read it for yourself. As we debate the impact of tax credits however, it is entirely reasonable to make one clear point: just because a policy appears on the surface to leave a section of society better or worse off, does not mean either that the policy necessarily will have that impact, nor that the motivation behind the policy is misplaced.

One of my core convictions regarding politics is that we’re not divided in our aspirations for what we want government to achieve – only in our beliefs as to how those aspirations are to be achieved. It is entirely counterproductive to believe, as sadly significant numbers on the left do, that anyone who proposes a different policy to you must be pathologically committed to the oppression of the less fortunate.

The present debate on the future of tax credits broadly reflects something that authors note – that governments don’t always get it right; not through malicious malintent, but because all of us are subject to human error, or on occasion the necessity to choose a course of action where the best course is not evident beforehand. That the Conservative Party dare challenge the Chancellor on this is far from a sign of weakness, nor is it conclusive proof that the policy is flawed. It shows a party so determined to do right that it will listen to dissent, recognise the right motivation, and assess if the means really will achieve the ends. Conservatives are motivated by a society where families have the dignity and security of regular work, where welfare is (as most Labour moderates would agree) as it is meant to be – a safety net rather than a foundation, and where there is no need for tax credits because only those who can afford to pay tax do so.

On the whole I support the Chancellor’s aspiration to wean the country off tax credits. While I recognise the very real pain of the potential short term cost, I believe it is both better for society and administratively most efficient that we should pay less tax on higher incomes, rather than to have our taxes recycled back to us through HMRC. Not only does it remove the unnecessary, expensive and inefficient administrative burden the authors of the book highlight, it also coincides with two basic principles – you should not pay tax beyond your means to pay, and if you are capable of supporting yourself through work, then you should not need to rely upon state support just to get by.

We must value life – and protect the vulnerable

This week former palliative care nurse Gill Pharaoh took her own life at the age of 75 at an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, despite being in reasonable health, not wishing to face the same struggles of old age she had witnessed in working life. When I started this blog, one of the aims I had in mind was to set out my own perspective on the political issues faced by our nation. This post was originally written in response to an entirely different story over a month before news broke regarding this case, but in view of the debate over euthanasia that Gill Pharaoh’s story has started, it feels appropriate to add my voice to the debate.

A bill on so-called ‘Assisted Dying’ was tabled by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer last year, and despite defeat is set to be reintroduced. At present it is illegal for a medical practitioner to assist a person in taking their own life, and (for good reasons) no family wishes to be the test case into whether the state would prosecute a family member who assisted their relation in taking their life.

The debate is heavily influenced by the fact that Belgium has not only legalised euthanasia for elderly citizens who have a terminal or debilitating illness, but has removed the age restriction entirely, thus making it possible for children with serious illnesses to undergo the same treatment. It means that we do not have to speculate on hypothetical scenarios, but have actual instances from real life to attempt to understand the very real pain, difficulty, and discomfort this issue brings.

I was provoked to write this particular post off the back of a news article, reporting that a 24 year old woman suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts was to be recommended for euthanasia by Belgian doctors. While we should of course take care to thoroughly research the news report for factual accuracy, this case struck a powerful chord with me for the implications, if it is true.

Last Easter, my GP diagnosed me with persistent low mood, and borderline depression. It was a crucial step forward for me, as I had not grasped exactly how mental illness worked – that it isn’t purely due to your circumstances, and that it does have a very real physical impact on your health and energy levels. Knowing that I was vulnerable to low mood has enabled me to know that what I feel from time to time isn’t the normal me, and to have coping strategies. I got through that time, and still do, with the love and support and encouragement of my family, my friends, and my church.

What was also crucial however, is that there was no doubt in the minds of the NHS practitioners that they could help me, and wanted to help me. My first assessment was over the telephone, and the immediate reaction of the GP was “We should definitely get you in for a proper examination – you sound like you need help.” From that point on there was clarity and support – a clear explanation of what options were open to me, and a recommendation and referral to a specialist unit (Oxfordshire Mind) who offered specific treatment for the symptoms I was facing.

During the process, they also asked questions that startled me at the time, but make clear sense with hindsight. I was asked if I had considered harming myself or others, had actually harmed myself or others, or had considered taking my own life. It is a tragic truth that for many who need this service, all of these are practical possibilities. And I am thankful that as I worked through this, the motivation of the medical practitioners was to value life – to offer hope to those who were feeling hopeless. I had black days then, and still sometimes have days which feel hopeless – I know what it is like to feel vulnerable. And it very much frightens me to imagine someone like me not being encouraged that life is worth living in the same circumstance.

I appreciate that euthanasia is a highly emotive and sensitive topic, and we do not do the persons most directly involved in the consequences of the debate any justice when we retreat to bipolar platitudes. But as the debate returns to Parliament in our nation, I would begin the debate by saying that no legislation can ever be permitted in this country that would disadvantage the vulnerable. If the recent Belgian case is true, it is not merely an appalling and shocking abuse of human rights, but a gross perversion of the medical profession. Mental illness can be as much a physical affliction as any debilitating disease, but there is absolutely no way a patient suffering from a mental illness can be deemed in a right state of mind to take such a decision. I know from my own experience that the thoughts I have thought in my darkest moments make absolutely no sense when the dark cloud lifts – and our motivation must always be passionately and determinedly to value life – the most basic human right of all.

There is good reason why we should bear this in mind as the Euthanasia Bill returns to Parliament. Several MPs who voted to legalise abortion in the UK in 1968 (including Margaret Thatcher) regretted their decision many years later – not because they thought their logic was wrong at the time, but because they did not believe that abortion would become as widespread as it subsequently turned out. I am opposed to the ending of life on principle, but even more than that, I think it would be a grave disjustice if our legislators passed a law that meant the life of a vulnerable person was now in very real danger.