Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Keeping it simple.

 Here’s a wonderful video from the official 'No To AV' team which demonstrates just how confusing and complicated the Alternative Vote system is, far too difficult for you to grasp – not that you’re stupid, even celebrities have a hard time understanding it.

For me, this argument demonstrates a technique that we all use to some extent to disempower each other. “They want to bring in this new fangled way of doing things but it’s so complicated that you won’t understand what They’re doing until it’s too late. The way we do things right now isn’t perfect but it is simple, and that’s how you like life to be.”

The temptation is to follow that line in explaining unfamiliar concepts to people who might be resistant and threatened, particularly concepts that ask us to look at the way we are in the world, and change.

Some months ago I wrote to the BACP about the cost of accreditation. For people on benefits it’s £110, for people not on benefits £220. The UK average wage is £499 a week so is it reasonable to expect someone who isn’t on benefits to pay £998 for accreditation? Because this is equivalent to what the BACP expect people on benefits to pay.

Of course, the BACP first ignored my letter, then misunderstood it to mean that I was asking the cost of accreditation for a counsellor on benefits, then said they’d answer ‘in due course,’ then told me that these were standard rates. There was absolutely no interest in the subject. Just keeping it simple, because we like things simple.

In a world of woefully increasing simplicity some of the most thoughtful people I come into contact with are counsellors. The majority of us are able and willing to engage in contemplation at a deep level; we’re becoming more used to concepts of privilege and passing but I wonder just how many white, straight, able-bodied, above-average-income counsellors really do get it. Frankly, I’ve never expected much from the BACP, they’ve always seemed far too concerned with status over anything else and have done more than any other group, including government, to make counsellor training and practice less accessible and more expensive.

But we join them. We jump through their hoops. We say we adhere to the Ethical Framework. The BACP itself doesn’t adhere to the Ethical Framework, it publicly humiliates counsellors who have a complaint made against them, makes counselling a preserve of the high-incomed and doeesn't have the manners to address a direct challenge to their principal of Justice

A commitment to fairness requires the ability to appreciate differences between people and to be committed to equality of opportunity, and avoiding discrimination against people or groups contrary to their legitimate personal or social characteristics.

In doing so (as I have done) we give them power so that we don’t have to think for ourselves. Consequently all employers now want accredited counsellors (even though the BACP’s own research shows that more complaints are made against this group than any other) and the BACP has become the entire professions de facto governing body.

The subject is paradoxical but where there’s paradox, there’s power. On one hand it is supremely simple: people who are poor are directly and indirectly discriminated against within counselling. On the other hand it is complex and problematic: could the BACP use a principal of proportionate paying for its services? How might that work? How do you and I address the fact that people who have very little experience of counselling often counsel people with desperate problems?

Or is it true that counsellors do, in fact, like to keep things simple and don't want any new fangled, complicated nonsense getting in the way of keeping things just as they are? Is counselling another industry, like car making, banking or construction, just using the language of reflection and philosophy rather than actually practicing it? Does counselling have anything a little more genuinely human to offer itself? Or not?

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us.

The Poverty Truth Commission has published its first report
"It is crucial that we understand the roots of what poverty is.

First, it is structural, being systemic to the distribution of power, resources and educational opportunities in society. Second, it is a form of violence that comes from a deficit of empathy between those who have much and those who have little. Third, it is intergenerational, with its life-crippling seeds getting passed on in early childhood. And fourth, it is sustained by blindness to the full humanity of one another, showing it to be a pathology of the rich and not just a deficit of the poor. 

These four drivers are so fundamental to the human condition that they require not quick fixes but an evolution in human consciousness and in how we see our national identity. To walk this path we must allow ourselves to be challenged by Truth - the truth of where we and our world stand, the truth of where we know we are called to go, and the many truths of how to bridge that gap. Truth is an active power for change. Reconciliation is what brings us back together again in our common humanity. Both spring from the sharing of community. Truth and reconciliation are about seeking that which gives life. Life as love made manifest."
Alastair McIntosh Commissioner

We call on the people living in poverty to be involved in shaping and delivering anti-poverty policy. We challenge governments to involve directly involve those who struggle against poverty in designing, implementing and evaluating solutions to poverty.

We recognise
the wisdom, knowledge and expertise of people living in poverty - the real experts without whom limited progress will be made. We challenge people who are struggling to overcome poverty to share their struggle and to work together with others for lasting change.

We challenge those concerned with injustice not only to talk about those who are marginalised but to support them to bring about change.

Where do you place yourself in relation to these words?

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Why am I being lectured about social mobility by people who were born at the top?

Useful peice from Susanne Moore in todays Guardian

Huge income disparity ensures a complete slowing down of social mobility. The rich don't see the price we all pay. Nor do they care about the returns made on the investments that the state makes in its citizens. The state that provided my education and housing for a period of five years enabled me then to work and pay taxes for the rest of my life. Without that support I would not have been able to work and support my children as I always have. Mobility for me came from access to education, housing and childcare. It was that simple. The super-rich, however, may bypass the state altogether and, as is now clear, exist beyond the reach of government. They are untouchable.
Social mobility is fine in theory, but in practice we live in a society where it is becoming more and more difficult for many to move at all. Nudging is not nearly enough. The reality of deepening inequality is horrible paralysis. The numbing of chance is never a fine thing.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Something For Nothing

There I was, sitting with a perfectly nice group of people, eating homemade soup, discussing economics, recycling and religion and pleasantly daydreaming away when the subject turned to the lottery. “They just buy these things,” said the BACP accredited counsellor, “as a way of getting something for nothing. It's another example of their sense of entitlement.”

And not for the first time I’d just love to bung one of these smug counsellors into the life of the people they so casually, so comprehensively, so intelligently disapprove of and spitefully pity.

Why Oh Why Oh Why would anyone spend a third of their weekly income on lottery tickets? Are they just hooked on gambling and living in a dream world? Are they pig ignorant? Why don’t they just pull themselves together and get a job?

Take a look at this. The DWP are tricking people – that’s tricking people - into losing their benefits and, despite living on £30 a week, people aren’t getting a job instead. Are they mental, or evil or just plain contrary, or what? Why will people go hungry and become homeless instead of getting a job? Do they choose to do this?

I’ll make this really simple:
People are becoming homeless and desperate rather than get a job
because they can’t get a job.

The reasons for this are varied but if we have any real belief in the actualizing tendency then it’s a given that there are factors in peoples lives that get in the way of them moving towards actualizing.

Here’s another simple fact:

Job seekers are being punished.

A friend who was until 6 months ago a senior analyst for a well known private company, now is forced to spend 10 hours a week in the offices of A4E job searching. This is to support him, apparently. In fact it’s making his life a total misery. He sits in compulsory 2 hour long pep talks from ex-Nike minor executives who tell him and all the other ‘clients’ that age and sex have nothing to do with anything. My friend began to challenge these spurious assertions and soon learned that this enters his file under ‘motivation.’

Job seekers are being punished.

Another friend was told to work in a Caribbean food store. Her qualification? She’s mixed race. When she said she knew nothing at all about Caribbean food or retail and in any case didn’t want to commute for 3 hours a day (which would take her working week up to 45 hours, 15 of which she wouldn’t be paid for) to work on the minimum wage, her benefits were cut.

I’d love to bung that counsellor into a food store, on minimum wage, with the resources that long term unemployed people have, for 45 hours a week, for the rest of her smug life and see how long it takes her to turn to the lottery as a way out of an endlessly hopeless round of punishment and drudgery. As it is, she’s not fit to work with the long term unemployed, and the only consolation I can find from the whole shebang is that running a prestigious private practice, she’s never likely to actually meet any. 

You may be interested to hear that her husband paid for her counsellor training and she inherited her parents substancial estate. Something for nothing indeed.

Friday, 1 April 2011

No Dogs No Blacks No Irish

So today the changes in housing benefit come into force.

Since the government proposed this saving they’ve been told by various charities, Opposition and their own committees, working parties and anyone else with an interest in fairness, that this will force poor people out of their homes and communities, so it’ll be interesting to see what actually happens.

Which is to say that it’ll be interesting to see just how many families are made homeless, are shoved into hostels, how many children are forced to leave their friends and schools and how many people are forced to move away from their local support networks (used to be known as ‘friends and family’.)

Take a look at this
[Paragraph 59] It is difficult to predict the precise impacts of the LHA changes in London given the number of factors involved. Nonetheless it is clear that the changes in London will result, as they are intended to, in substantial levels of household movement. The Government has acknowledged this and has increased funding for Discretionary Housing Payments, in order to provide local authorities with the means to assist with the transition.  [My emphasis]

It’s fairly obvious where my political sympathies lie but I suggest that it takes a certain kind of person to consider it appropriate to bodily remove people from their home on the sole basis of their income. And yet this issue is being discussed quite openly by apparently civilized people. “Why should poor people live in nice areas? Why should poor people live in decent homes?” or as Shaun Bailey asks, "
"You can talk about your right to live in the community where you grew up, but where do you get the right to spend other people's money?”
We hear a great deal about the politics of envy and that charge is always leveled against people who object to gross inequality, but it seems that it is partly envy that motivates what passes for discourse on this subject. “I don’t get my home paid for, why should They? I can’t afford to live in a pleasant area, why should They?” The question I have never heard asked is: Why don't more people live in good rented homes that don't cost more than a quarter of their income, in pleasant areas?

That's a book unto itself, but it's interesting that Germany, with a strong economy similar to our own has a home ownership rate of around 40%. Most Singaporeans live in public housing and there's no social stigma at all. There's a real link in Europe between poverty and home ownership. Supply and demand are obvious first principals here, and in the UK we're told that one of the primary signs of being a successful adult is the possession of a morgage.

Which is what caused the financial meltdown in the US and which will cause, as it did in the 90's, huge numbers of repossessions as interest rates rise, as they must.

Another question that no one at all seems to ask is, why did councils build social housing in or close to affluent areas in the first place?

The life of Octavia Hill is a textbook example of the Big Society. She left school at 14, her father blew the family money and within 8 years she’d created 15 housing schemes with 3,000 very low paid or occasionally paid tenants. She was also a martinette and was only really interested in the Deserving Poor, making whole families homeless because the children weren’t sent to school, but she was amongst a group of social reformers who shamed society into caring for the very poorest people.   
Two decades before Hill, the destitution, disease and despair of slums had become too much too ignore and, more pointedly, an exhausted workforce was not productive, which prompted reformers and Government to address the issue. The Quakers, with a solid foundation in basic fairness, created factories with communities built around them – decent homes and schools that recognized the need for and allowed people, families and communities some dignity.
Although decent homes were originally built for workers the concept that The Poor ™ could be made better by emulating The Good (no irony intended, to be rich was to be good, with a plain opposite) but there’s always been unease about having The Poor too close. Garden Cities were a way of moving whole communities into new homes in decent surroundings, promoting self-sufficiency. I wonder what all those philanthropists, most of them steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic, would think the new housing benefit scheme shifting familes wholesale into effective slums and flophouses?
During both wars, it was noticed that poor people were simply too ill to fight and more rounds of social reform were undertaken. The Minister for Health & Housing, Aneurin Bevan, created new estates where ". . . the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to each other,” because of its basic humanizing effect for all concerned, and as a measure of the standards of building and environment. 
In Europe, we look to Paris to see what happens when we shunt poor people into miserable, low employment, low income dumps. In South America it's the favela. It’s been called Apartheid, and has a particular resonance with post-Colonial immigrant groups in France, but it’s much the same in the UK, and today’s changes make that absolutely, unequivocally clear.
The internalized self-hatred of so many low earners is depressing. I know Shaun Bailey, the Conservative ex-candidate who speaks so forcefully and endlessly about his deprived background – in Notting Hill. He now works towards dismantling the support and help his mother and he got throughout his childhood so that it can’t be afforded to anyone else. I mention Mr Bailey in particular because he’s a very public figure who seems to believe that everyone should be like him, something that so many of us seem to believe too. If you’re ill, then just get better. If you’re unlucky, well you should be optimistic and Make It Happen. If you just can’t work a 40 hour week, then you should stop being a lazy scrounger and join the rest of the Soylent Green masses. But to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, one has to have boots. 
Bailey was used this week to attempt to counter another Estate born-and-bred person, Zadie Smith and here’s his thoughtful philosophy on loneliness: 
“Say Hi. It transforms people’s worlds.”
Forget Maslow and his ridiculous hierarchy of needs. Forget the well-researched and documented causes of isolation, alienation and disenfranchisement, Just Say Hi.  
I’m deeply disheartened at how quickly our societies degrade into Social Darwinism. Advertisements for rented housing already include a long list of “No DSS” which is the equivalent of ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ and which hasn’t been objected to by anyone in anything like power, ever. Never mind that the DSS was renamed in 2001, we all know what it means. It means a great many landlords won’t touch poor people, despite the fact that they’ll be paid regular as clockwork. The majority of those that still offer people on housing benefit a roof object to having their rental income cut to £250 a week for a single bedroom and shared toilet and kitchen.
Shaun Bailey and his mum would today risk being moved anywhere where house prices, standards of living and wages are low where they’d be as welcome as any other refugee. And so could you, if you get ill or unlucky. Caring for the poor is, as well as a moral and ethical concern, ultimately a matter of watching our own back. There but for the grace of God and meaningful Housing Benefit go we.