Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday 23 April 2013

The state's your mother, your father...

There are times when I feel like the small boy who wonders why the Emperor has no clothes on.

With unemployment for recent graduates running at 20% (and a further 40%  in low-skilled work and unable to secure what the ONS defines as 'graduate jobs'), and in the general population at 8.6%, why does the government seem hell-bent on getting mothers of young children into the workplace?

Every morning this week, while one in five of last year's final-year students is still curled up in bed with nothing to look forward to but a day of sending out yet more CVs or signing on once again, an army of working mothers will be frantically trying to orchestrate the demands of preparing for a day's work with childcare arrangements for their infants.

Don't get me wrong - I am all for equality in the workplace and believe that men and women should be treated the same way;  it's just that, when it comes to child-rearing, it seems that my priorities, based on personal and professional experience, differ somewhat from the prevailing Zeitgeist.

Having taken on the responsibility of bringing a new human being into the world, I cannot imagine willingly deciding that his need for consistent care and personal contact during infancy should be subordinate to my right to a career, even had I been prepared to entrust his earliest intellectual and moral development to someone else.

It was, admittedly, easier to be a stay-at-home parent in a deprived area during the 1990s recession; having one stable, albeit modest, household income meant we were relatively privileged and the necessary economies and self-denial were nothing out of the ordinary for the community in which we lived - although they might seem extreme to today's smartphone-and-Sky-TV generation.

Over the intervening years, the arrival of tax credits has dramatically skewed the picture, as have the abolition of MIRAS for the family home and the inability to transfer tax allowance to non-working partners. Successive government policies, aided and abetted by consistent media bias, have attempted to portray the working mother as the natural default setting.

We've been treated recently to abundant media exposure of 'welfare queens', flaunting vast broods that, judging by the closeness in age of the children, owe as much to modern anaesthesia in childbirth and the loss of the natural contraceptive effects of breastfeeding as they do to a flawed benefits system.

The aim of much of the 'Woman's Hour' and media-led 'having-it-all' propaganda appears to be to tar all stay-at-home mothers with the same brush as these largely ill-educated women with a suggestion that they are wasting their time and abilities.

It's hard not to see it all as a general condemnation of all parents as unfit to bring up their own children, a suggestion that state-approved institutions or individuals will do the job better than the biological parents, even when this is achieved at the cost of mass unemployment among the single and childless at the start of what should be lifelong careers.

While there are undoubtedly people out there who embark on parenthood with less forethought and consideration than they would give the purchase of a new television set and whose children could well be be better off in a secure and stimulating nursery, it seems wrong to rig the system so that caring for your own child becomes a luxury available only to the rich or those in receipt of state benefits, including the tiny minority who exploit the tax credit scheme.

It may generate plenty of economic activity in the childcare sector, but to subsidise childcare for working parents while paying to maintain the childless in enforced idleness as they look for work surely makes very little sense. Why not use the same money to give stay-at-home mothers an income that recognizes the importance of their work and free up the jobs for new workers?

And what of the children? Studies suggest that nursery care before the age of three may contribute to insecurity, aggression and an inability to concentrate - characteristics that any teacher can tell you are rife in today's classrooms. Naturally, the defenders of early daycare are up in arms at this - 'my child is perfectly well-adjusted!', they exclaim - but where's the control for this massive social experiment? In any case, what suits one child may be completely wrong for another.

Despite government claims of one million would-be working parents deterred by childcare costs - cited as justification for the latest tax breaks - no one really knows how many mothers (or fathers) would choose to stay at home with their under-5s, given better financial provision and a society that appreciates and supports the role that parental input plays in a child's emotional, social and intellectual development.

Surely the many rights and liberties which we expect from a civilized society should include the freedom to raise one's own child without financial penalties.

Sunday 14 April 2013

You think the horse meat was bad news?

A spokeswoman from the Florida Department of Agriculture has this to say on the source of the giant African land snails and other exotic pests infesting Dade County:
"If you got a ham sandwich in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, or an orange, and you didn't eat it all and you bring it back into the States and then you discard it, at some point, things can emerge from those products."

Saturday 13 April 2013

Darwin's hair straighteners

Ladies beware! If you think The Only Way Is Essex, then you could be on the road to disaster, according to an alert published on the Council's website.
Trading Standards officers issued the warning after receiving concerns about counterfeit goods, some potentially dangerous, being sold at ‘ladies pamper night’ events in Essex.
These thinly-disguised marketing opportunities for peddling counterfeit goods are a shameless exploitation of a growing trend which combines entitled self-indulgence with the narcissistic Zeitgeist.

There is big money to be made these days in the 'beauty' industry; quite aside from the ridiculous price of cosmetics and the latest miracle face cream, there are the pointless electrical items. Hair straighteners, for example, range from £20 to over £100, which seems rather steep for what is essentially a very small sandwich toaster.
"We understand it can be tempting to purchase cheap deals but consumers should be aware of the wider implications and the risks to their own safety. These products are can often poor quality and potentially dangerous."
I can't help feeling that Trading Standards are shouting into the wind unless they spell it out more clearly than this: surely any woman who attends a 'pamper night' at the local pub and picks up a hair styling accessory for half the list price is hardly likely to be the sort who takes warning notices seriously.

All of which is quite worrying, since hair straighteners clearly have designs on humanity. Not only have they been implicated in a surprisingly large number of A&E admissions for serious burns; they have been linked to two house fires in London in the past two weeks alone.

In the hands of the careless, an appliance that heats up to 200 degrees is always going to be a hazard; add in the potential of electrical faults from a counterfeit product and calculate the likelihood that someone who buys a dodgy electrical item at a 'pamper night' will operate it safely and you surely have a recipe for a potential Darwin Award.

Friday 12 April 2013

That was then, this is now

According to a decidedly excitable headline today at the Scottish Daily Record*:
Margaret Thatcher snatched £130bn of Scottish wealth as she axed 250,000 of our jobs
Mrs Thatcher, it proclaims, 'reaped a massive Scottish tax windfall' and 'squandered North Sea oil cash on her destructive policies', which, I think, roughly translates as "Let's all share a highly enjoyable outburst of righteous indignation".

Having obligingly done so, the readers will have probably gone off the boil rather by the time they reach the explanation that:
Extra Scottish revenues handed to the UK Treasury during the Iron Lady’s 1980s heyday would be worth a staggering £130billion at today’s prices.
So the figure has been adjusted. Never mind the intervening quarter of a century and the misleading 'as' suggesting contemporaneous events; what matters is that the journalist has an attention-grabbing figure to crown a collection of loaded phrases straight out of the rabble-rouser's handbook.

But wait a minute; what's this?
Finance Secretary John Swinney claimed the figures proved that Scotland’s oil wealth had been wasted by the Thatcher government. 
He said: “The additional revenue paid by Scotland totalled £130billion during the 1980s".
So which is it? And what of the money that has travelled in the opposite direction before and since? Scots may have paid more per head, but don't they get free university tuition and elderly care now? Oil revenues are a complicated question at the best of times but understanding can hardly be helped by such apparent political sleight-of-hand.

When it comes to political speeches, most people don't listen out for the metaphorical small print; they just join in when they like the tune. Look at the crowds of under-30s out on the streets celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher and you'll see exactly what I mean.

We've become so accustomed to misdirection from our political masters on both sides of the border that
 it hardly seem worth remarking these days, but a combination of disinformation and opportunistic demagoguery cannot but harm the democratic process.

The Scottish people deserve better than this.

*Admittedly you can't judge a country by its tabloid press; the fact that the most read news story in today's online version is 'Doctors say looking at busty women for 10 minutes a day is good for your health' probably tells you more than you want to know about the readership.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Tattoo you

It's another of those questions of 'how far do you go to protect people from themselves?'
untrained tattooists are buying equipment on eBay - with terrifying consequences (Daily Mail)
As the Mail helpfully points out, with illustrations, if you fancy setting up in business, you can buy a basic tattooing kit for £20-£30 on e-bay - no need to resort to redneck DIY.

If you want that added touch of respectability, you can even get a licence from the council. Never mind that you have no experience and you're a bit rubbish at drawing; as long as you have a wipeable surface, hot water and an autoclave for sterilising your kit, you could start tomorrow.

You might think that you'd have a problem finding someone foolhardy enough to allow you to have a go, but it seems there are plenty of willing victims out there; the Mail thoughtfully provides an assortment of stomach-churning photographs to prove the point.

This lack of regulation has worried one Kevin Paul, tattoo artist to the stars (well, someone called Harry Styles, apparently), who is lobbying Parliament for legislation to regulate the tattooing industry. From a public health perspective, he's certainly got a point:
‘People who are untrained in tattooing are unaware of the infections and diseases that can be caused by using cheap and unsterile equipment. 
‘Permanent scarring to the skin can be caused if the tattoo is not done correctly and bloodborne diseases such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV can be spread.’
And it seem only sensible to ensure that councils don't hand out licences without some industry-backed proof of training in safety and hygiene, as well as using existing legislation to prosecute anyone who tattoos a child.

But how much difference will it actually make? These dodgy tats are not, by and large, done in established studios; according to Mr Paul, the majority of culprits are working independently from home - or have even set up as mobile tattooists.

And anyone who chooses to get a cut-price tattoo in someone's kitchen or from a man in a van - "Burger and chips twice, mate, and can you do me a picture of Amy Winehouse just here" -  is hardly likely to be swayed by the absence of a piece of paper from the council, which leaves us with the question of enforcement; how far should the state be involved?

Penalise the tattooee and you are likely to get people refusing to seek medical help until major complications have set in; prosecute the tattooer and it becomes an expensive game of testimony and proof played out through an already overburdened legal system.

It's one of those situations where the only practical thing to do is to ensure the public are fully informed - in this case, by a rigorous licensing system - and as well educated as possible in the dangers of using unlicensed practitioners.

And those who still patronise the charlatans should have only themselves to blame.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

De mortibus...

Back in the 1980s, I was walking along a leafy suburban street with a fellow-student when my companion suddenly turned and spat viciously into an unremarkable front garden, before continuing onward as if nothing had happened.

I was appalled - although I did not know him well, there was nothing about this polite ex-public schoolboy, son of a notable academic, to suggest such behaviour was likely. I asked him what on earth he thought he was doing.

"Tory party HQ", he replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "The enemy stronghold".

Such was my introduction to the mentality that has spawned a thousand tasteless tweets since the death of Lady Thatcher. It never ceases to amaze me that a certain type of socialist can publicly vaunt his or her caring credentials and respect for mankind while at the same time heaping unwarranted and vicious personal abuse on the heads of political opponents.

Orwell, of course, had it perfectly summed-up with the concept of 'doublethink'; doubtless the left-wing politicians and comedians, who were still persisting with their tired and increasingly irrelevant anti-Thatcher jibes two decades after she left office, can see nothing inappropriate in publicly rejoicing at the death of an elderly grandmother.

I'm not advocating universal and unopposed hagiography, of course - we saw quite enough of that with the 'People's Princess' - but it saddens me to think that, while most of us can observe the decencies and respect the passing of another human being whether or not we agreed with her politics, some have clearly not yet attained that level of civilization.

One of the more depressing news stories described the cheers that greeted the announcement at the NUS conference. The vast majority of delegates were surely not even born when Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street  (unless, of course, the NUS is made up largely of mature students with a political axe to grind).

Hatred of 'Maggie Thatcher' has become a tenet of faith in certain circles; it trumps all common decency or manners to a disturbing extent. The crowds who celebrated her demise with a drunken looting spree in a Brixton charity shop may not have known any better but there is no excuse for the public figures who expressed themselves so tastelessly.

But, of course, the sentiments of George Galloway and the like were never really about Lady Thatcher; those tweets were attention-seeking of the highest order, competing to grab the headlines with the most egregious comments possible.

Still, crass and immature though it may be, there's no point in offence-seeking. I don't believe in an after-life but I'd like to think that if Lady Thatcher, restored to her full searing intellect, were reading those tweets now, she would be highly amused at the level to which her critics have sunk.

Update: if you haven't already done so, look in on Caedmon's Cat for a masterful and entertaining summing-up.

Sunday 7 April 2013

I love it when a plan backfires!

And it all looked so good on paper - a teenage crime tsar to bring policing right up to date and show that young people have a stake in society; Kent PCC Ann Barnes must have thought she had a sure-fire PR triumph on her hands.

Instead, she's landed with a year's bill for £15,000 - which will keep 17-year-old Paris Brown in rather more style than many hard-working adults - unless the girl can be persuaded to step down.

And that's not looking likely at the moment; Miss Brown has learned the lesson of 21st century media practice and has made a tearful public apology on camera so, in what is fast becoming a national tradition, she clearly feels free to carry on in the position she so dramatically disgraced.

The apology itself was a striking demonstration of the attitude engendered by modern educational theory with its incessant praise regardless of results and its focus on feelings rather than rational thought; the media, she said, had misinterpreted her words:
"...If I’m guilty of anything it’s showing off and wildly exaggerating on Twitter and I am very ashamed of myself."
Note that 'if' - by dismissing any suggestion of racism or homophobia and denying that her tweets referred to drugs, she has essentially ducked the blame completely; her public declaration of how she feels completes the winning formula.

In fact she is the victim here. To accuse her of politically incorrect opinions is clearly a hostile and subjective interpretation of her innocent words:
"I deeply apologise for any offence caused by my use of inappropriate language and for any inference of inappropriate views."
Sincere? Maybe, but you have to admit that's a suspiciously well-constructed bit of sophistry for a 17-year-old apprentice who, only a few days ago, was expressing herself in these erudite terms:
"Been drinking since half 1 and riding baby walkers down the hall at work oh my god i have the best job ever haha!!"
And therein lies the problem. Because it's difficult to see what exactly Miss Brown can bring to the table that justifies the salary she's being paid if that is how she behaves - and thinks - at work. Never mind the accusations of racism and the rest; it looks as if she is likely to be a bit rubbish at the job.

I don't want to join the media witch-hunt, which has been a far from edifying spectacle; my point is that almost any youngster barely turned 17 is bound to make a mess of something like this through lack of experience and maturity - I know I would have done.

Since Vance Packard first alerted the world to 'pester power', children have been adopting an increasingly central role in decision-making within Western families until they effectively hold the purse-strings. New Labour deliberately brought this trend into public life by repeatedly harping on about young people - or, in Blairspeak, 'yungpeeple', eliding it into a talismanic catchword to be wheeled out on every possible occasion.

And the young swallowed hook, line and sinker this politically expedient idea of their own importance. I'm sure that Paris Brown, really does believe that she is worth her hire and should stay in her post for a full year before going on to greater things. In fact she perfectly sums up a growing trend in Britain.

Given her reaction to this situation, I think it is virtually certain that she will eventually go on to join the ever-expanding army of public-sector workers promoted well beyond their competence but blissfully unaware of their own limitations.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Mick Philpott - hijacking the welfare state

The current welfare reforms have caused such an outbreak of unison knee-jerk reactions that the MSM are in danger of looking like a 'Riverdance' tribute act.

In the midst of the argument - after a startlingly short time, given the usual glacial pace of the justice system - stands Mick Philpott, appearing just in time to polarise opinions completely and give the straw men of the Left another outing.

Any suggestion that the benefits system is at fault for allowing - or encouraging - this man to treat his women as brood livestock and effectively farm their children for the income they generated is met with a barrage of hostility amid accusations of attacking all benefit claimants.

Like Karen Matthews before him, Mick Philpott embodies some of the worst aspects of human nature; someone prepared to exploit and ultimately endanger his own children for personal gain. It's nothing new, of course; it's the same behaviour that has for centuries led beggars to parade and even mutilate children to enhance their chances of soliciting alms.

But what has changed is the way that child benefit and tax credits have skewed the system. Each new child, instead of being an unwelcome extra mouth to feed, now represents a substantial and all-too-easily generated increase in income; the less you earn, the more tax credit the child brings in. Successive well-meaning efforts to tackle child poverty have led to payments at the lower end of the spectrum that can dramatically exceed the child's actual costs to the family.

Take, for example, the couple who recently appeared in the news arguing that, because of the taxes paid by their parents, they were entitled to a life of leisure on state benefits; the breakdown of their income given suggested that they receive £20 child benefit and £60 tax credit payments a week for their daughter (caveat: Mail). The child in question is all of four months old; she's hardly even on solid food but it appears that she's getting more than the jobseeker's allowance.

Equally, in the Philpott case, it's hard to see how 11 children could justify the alleged £45,000 a year allocated for their upkeep, given state-provided schooling (with meals), healthcare and housing. But, just as we saw default rates rise when social housing tenants were expected to take charge of their own finances, some of this money must be going to people who cannot - or will not - manage to put it to its proper use.

The defensive reaction against the welfare cuts has left me wondering whether many of the most vociferous critics have tacitly accepted that, because a minority of parents on benefits will misappropriate the child-related payments, the only way to avoid child poverty is to throw more public money at all of them in the hope that, when their parents' wants are met, some leftover cash will eventually filter down for the benefit of those children at greatest risk of deprivation.

The effect of this is to render young single mothers highly vulnerable to predatory older males, for whom they represent a significant source of present and potential future income. Younger men, still waiting to find suitable housing, simply cannot compete. There's a horrible irony in the way that a welfare system which should be the hallmark of a civilized country has, in effect, returned a sector of the population to the social structure of the great apes.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this media fuss is that, amid the strident criticism of the cuts and the implication that to censure a single claimant is to condemn them all, we seem to be losing sight of the way that excessively large families intentionally conceived and  reared on welfare payments must effectively reduce access to resources, both financial and supportive, for those who unexpectedly find themselves in need.

The safety net of the welfare state was devised in an age where pride and a work ethic made it a genuine last resort; now the kind of people it was meant to help - the newly unemployed or homeless and families in genuine hardship - must queue up behind those who, like Philpott, have been knowingly playing the system for years.

There are some interesting perspectives on this story at Unenlightened Commentary and Burning Our Money (which has made a welcome return).