Category Archives: london

Docking Benefits and Blaming the Poor

I know I covered this more generally on Monday in my rant about ‘benefits’ but it’s worth coming back to with the proposals explained in the Guardian

Magistrates and crown court judges could be asked to dock benefits from convicted criminals under preliminary proposals being drawn up by the government in response to the riots, the Guardian can reveal.

Ministers are looking hard at how benefits, or tax credits, could be taken away to show criminals that privileges provided by the state can be temporarily withdrawn.

Under the proposals anyone convicted of a crime could be punished once rather than potentially facing separate fines – first by a magistrates court and then a benefit office. By giving powers to the courts to strip benefits, the Department of Work and Pensions would not be required to intervene in the criminal justice system.

Yesterday, a little tardy, I know, I listened to the podcast of Pienaar’s Politics which I tend to really enjoy and I did except for the presence of Kelvin McKenzie and an odious interview with Iain Duncan-Smith in which he discussed this.

(Iain Duncan-Smith who, incidently, laughingly claimed at his constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green was ‘inner city’. Really? Waltham Forest is inner city? Really? Have I missed something? Anyway, back to the programme).

Let me explain why it is so odious if I need to.

Firstly there are the assumptions that all those who rioted are claiming benefits. Yes, I know there are links to poverty but will how will there be an equivalent punishment for someone who commits a crime and does not claim any money from the State. This is an intentional scapegoating and targeting of poverty.

The riots were awful but the causes run much much deeper and broader than ‘gangs’ and ‘benefit fraud’.

Duncan-Smith in a truly odious and preaching manner seemed to make links between ‘generations of joblessness’ and the feckless claimants. He emphasised his joy in ripping away support for those who received Invalidity Benefit and while me gave a cursory nod to those who might have caring roles – he mentioned them solely in terms of the money that they save the government.

How about truly visionary leaders that display integrity and leadership rather than those who pander solely to  the lowest common denominator of cheap ‘kicks’ at those who need to claim money for support and those who are not able to afford the lives they see the privileged lead.

This week we have seen our millionaire cabinet members talk about the ‘feral underclass’ (Kenneth Clarke who was one of the few Tories I had a smidgeon of respect for previously).  Really?

Yes, the people involved in the riots may well have been some of the poorest and most disengaged but that doesn’t mean the cause of the riots needs to look solely at those who were out on the streets looting. If it does, it allows the cosy middle classes to look on from the suburbs (or in IDS language ‘inner cities’) to preach from their own comfortable positions of superiority.

These riots, this inequity, it is the problem of ‘other people’.

Surely the riots, the way that culture has become so consumerist in its nature, the dishonesty and the lack of censorship of anything other than ‘getting away with it’ the lack of inherent understanding of right from wrong in any other terms – that is not a problem of the poor and it is not a problem which is solved by taking away ‘benefits’. That merely pushes all the problems of a society onto one particular class that will match with the photofit of ‘problems’ that rest most easily in the middle-class heads. By looking at analysis of ‘who rioted’ or rather ‘who was caught‘ and looking at lists from magistrate’s courts we provide a very narrow view of what was responsible in our society for creating a moment when people thought they could ‘get away with it’.  The riots were not about who was rioting. They were about what is and has been happening within our society from top to tail and by concentrating reasons and solutions on the lower end, we allow those more privileged  to get away with all kinds of poor behaviours and excuse the problems that their behaviours have caused which have led to such strong feelings of disillusionment.

Personally and I base this on no research base other than my gut feeling, I think the problem  and the problems in society must be examined in a much deeper and more fundamental way. In England, at least, we have seen successive scandals and betrayals from the finance services through the collapse and deceit in the banking system, the MPs fiddling expenses compulsively, the Press through the phone hacking scandals and the police for bribery.

While politicians lament of a world where people loot ‘because they can get away with it’ and only refrain from crime not because of an inherent ethical desire but because they will not be caught, it is impossible to separate those who loot shops from those who loot the public purse. Those who sit in their comfortable suburban (sorry, inner city) homes.

How can we, as a nation, allow our poorest people to be scapegoated by an establishment (financial/political and media) that has been equally deceitful but who will never feel ‘benefits’ being taken away because they are all wrapped up in each others’ collective pockets. They will never be evicted from their council houses because of the behaviour of their children because they are fortunate enough to own their own homes and they will never suffer from having child benefit withdrawn when their kids truant because they aren’t reliant on child benefit and their children have trust funds.

How can we allow this to be the voice of ‘reason’ in the country?

I truly can’t understand it but I know it makes me angry.

Fixing the Broken not Healing the Wounded – a wrong-footed Government response

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN10 - David Cameron, Le...

Image via Wikipedia

Our wise leader, David Cameron, clearly being an iconic Philosopher King, spent many days studying the possibly causes for the devastating riots in London and across England. He concluded after much intellectually rigorous pursuit, that the causes of the ‘sickness’ of Britain are – single parents and gangs aka ‘other people’.

Oh well, maybe he didn’t put quite as much thought into his words as I credited him for after all, he’s been toting those policy aims for decades. What more could we expect of him? Complex thought processes and analysis? Don’t be silly, he’s a politician who thrives on sound-bite politics that blames others.

I’m going to share a tiny bit of my own obviously clearly thought through analysis and that is this. There are no ‘easy’ solutions to the endemic problems that created a culture where people feel they can take what they want. This was not about ‘gangs’ although I’m willing to concede that might have been a fraction of one part of a ‘problem’. This is not about single parent families although yes, there may be people who are labelled that way. It seems that when our leaders set about scapegoating some of the voiceless citizens, we are heading for more divisions and damage than healing and unity which is what we really should be seeking. I’m not saying people should not be punished according to the law but they should not have new punishments invented specifically for them just to satisfy the vengence of the middle class who suffered for the first times when Ealing and Clapham burned.

These were Cameron’s words yesterday

Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face … Our security fightback must be matched by a social fightback,” Cameron said as he described the violent disorder as a “wake-up call” for Britain.

“Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised.”

Setting out his personal priorities for government the prime minister promised he won’t be “found wanting”: “In my very first act as leader of this party I signalled my personal priority: to mend our broken society. That passion is stronger today than ever.”

There’s a lot here to get our collective heads around. A lot of dangerous assumptions and a clear view into the simplistic mind of someone who is supposed to be a leader and has proved himself beyond inadequate for the task.  The Financial Times for example, explains that these riots happened in a period where crime figures had been falling consistency? A moral breakdown? Perhaps not.

Irresponsibility? Like appointing a press secretary whom you have repeatedly been warned not to appoint and to continue to give him ‘second chances’ when you don’t consider second chances for the person who steals a bottle of water.

Selfishness? Like the MPs who gorged themselves on expense claims.

Behaving as if your choices have no consequences? Oh, well, for this one I have to reference the Iain Duncan Smith story from The Broken of Britain

Now, all those platitudes, we get onto the real meatiness that Cameron is gagging for.

Children without fathers? Excuse me? Does he realise how he stigmatises and chastises all the fine families that are raised by a single parent? Does he really think the presence of a man and a woman in a family unit regardless of whether they actually want to be together (the usual reason that splits take place) will ‘help’ the children? He is a fool and it is a dangerous message. Male or female role models do not have to be parents and unhappy parenting is not a useful environment in any circumstances. Cameron has his ideal of the perfect ‘Chipping Norton’ family just as he has his ideal of the perfect ‘Chipping Norton’ community. It is damagingly false and it seeks to further stigmatise and alienate those who for very many good reasons, do not conform to his traditional family view. Does he refer to families with two mothers or two fathers or single-father families? What about communities with extended friends as support? He is finding it too easy to paint ‘poor people’ with a brush.

Schools without discipline? Again an easy target. How about actually putting money and effort into the schools that exist then rather than trying to hive them off into ‘free schools’.

Reward without effort? Um.. Mr Cameron.. you know, you with the inheritence of millions. Can you tell us exactly what effort you put into the accident of your birth?

Crime without punishment? – Well, I suppose that depends on definitions but an awful lot of crimes seem to be getting some mightily grand punishments at the moment. Unlike the bankers who ravaged the finances of the nation.

Rights without responsibilities? Dangerous stuff here. See, he has been quoting that awfully subversive Human Rights Act. Possibly because he, in his privileged position would never have need to refer to it.

Communities without control? Interesting one. I wonder what exactly he means. Which communities are these? Poor communities? Communities of people with different minority ethnic backgrounds? Gangs? It’s pretty rhetoric and a nice alliteration but it is meaningless.

You see, I don’t believe Britain is ‘broken’. I think she is functioning as well as she can despite the government though. I think the more that the rhetoric fixes on the ‘sick pockets’ and less on the body politic the more she will begin to sicken though.

Cameron’s ‘solution’ to help to fix (note fix not heal)  this country is to bring in Emma Harrison from Action for Employment as a ‘Families Champion’. Really? That’s a bit patronising and it seems to dictate to us as adult citizens what ‘families’ the government approves of and disapproves of but back to Emma Harrison who has built her millions on the back of the government’s ‘Welfare to Work’ programmes. Is this really a call for more private profit-making?

What message does it send about making money off the back of so-called ‘broken families’ and trying to fix them?

For me, Cameron’s heavy-handed and quite frankly ignorant response to the riots is a sign of a far more broken element of British society. The ruling classes and their detached empathy sensors. That has already caused a lot of damage and is likely to cause far more in the future and we need to be wary of it and try and push the agenda towards healing rather than fixing.

Blame the Poor – A Riot Rhetoric

I apologise for keeping on one track in my posts this week but I am preoccupied by events of the last week. I’m not the same person I was a week ago. Some of the pillars that I held on both tangible and intangible have gone now, never to be replaced.

There is so much I’m angry about. I’m angry that our ‘so-called’ leaders were all absent and seemed happy to let Tottenham burn, only coming home when the violence spread.

Tottenham, the patter and media seem to imply is a ‘place like that’. It’s not like Ealing or Clapham or Croydon.

There is a lot of ugly rhetoric that has been stoked by the government too. The blame is afforded to poor parenting, poverty, gangs – all, of course, present in places like Tottenham and making easy armchair sociologists of us all – myself included.

The truth is far more complex though as the cases coming through the Magistrates’ Courts testify. It was obvious from Saturday that the situation was exacerbated by opportunism.

Police ‘engaged’ in one area left other areas open to be looted pretty much at will. This ‘model’ spread around London and around the country.

Is it a coincidence that the increase in policing came when the ‘leaders’ returned? I doubt it.

As for those following the story, the Guardian are updating lists of those cases brought up to the Magistrates’ Court. It will make for interesting reading but for me, for the moment, it’s all a bit raw.

The push towards taking away council housing and ‘benefits’ from people found guilty of looting or rioting is ignorant beyond belief in my very humble opinion.

Housing isn’t a treat to be dangled in front of ‘poor people’.

It is actually a basic right so is the ability to live in a dignified manner.

And what about those ‘rioters’ who live in private housing? Or is there an assumption that it must have been ‘poor people’ in ‘council estates’ who caused the trouble.

It is easy to paint broad brushes and make easy judgements – so long as they are judgements made by ‘other people’.

Our minds need to simplify often complicated issues but there’s a danger in jumping to conclusions that can be wholly damaging. My concern is that that’s exactly what the government have and are doing.

Communities

One word that has come up a lot in the last few days are discussions about communities.

Whether is it ‘affected communities’, or ‘community leaders’ or ‘rebuilding communities’ and it has made me wonder about what the meaning of the word is.

build community

whizchickonabun@flickr

Also in terms of the work I do, I think about the word and the way it is used in the personalisation agenda about ‘building community capacity’. The government uses community in terms of the ‘big society’, volunteering, giving power to communities, but they don’t really explain exactly what this means excepting the idea that ‘community’ is somehow a Good Thing. Strong communities are good.

So what is a ‘community’?

This is the definition given on Dictionary.com.

1.a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.

2.a locality inhabited by such a group.

3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually preceded by the )

The first two definitions base the term on a geographical location. Your community is the people who inhabit the world around you. The community might be all the people who live within this local area or it might be people of a specific cultural/historical heritage who live within this local area.

I wonder if the idea of splitting apart ‘community’ on the basis of cultural heritage is helpful sometimes.

What is clear is that the meaning of community is very different in Tottenham from  how it is in Chipping Norton.

The word is used in the context of building communities ‘online’. Obviously that comes under the third part of the definition. A community exists within a forum or even within readers of a blog. A community can be a Facebook group or a Twitter stream. We can belong to a range of communities. Some communities though, take more effort to join and be a part of than others.

Some communities we are born into by virtue of location and/or culture and history.

Some communities we move into through geographic location.

Some communities we actively choose to join.

The government talk about community as if it is the answer to every solution but I wonder how they feel the answers will come in areas where communities are not as cohesive as they know and are used to or not as homogenous in nature.

This is a part of the detachment I feel of the government from the people who are governed.  Cameron’s ‘community’ doesn’t feel and look like my ‘community’.

My community has different needs and concerns. My community doesn’t have the resources, either in time or money that his community does.

What gives some communities more ‘value’ than others? That’s the question that I ask myself frequently. When government leaders seek out ‘community leaders’ do they prescribe value to the communities on the basis of the loudest voices or the largest numbers?

Are those who are isolated or who don’t have families or voices detached from any kind of community? I suspect they are and sometimes people don’t want to be a part of a community.

Community is always seen in terms of being a good thing, but the people involved in the riots and mass destruction across London as well as other cities, they were part of a community too. Why is community always positive? Perhaps because the experiences of those who ‘rule’ is that they come from communities, yes, that word again, where there is hope and aspiration. Communities can drag people down as well as pull people up and when we talk about ‘community building, we can’t ignore the uglier aspects of some communities.

As Cameron talks of ‘pockets of sick society’, I think we know where he is pointing the finger.  He is pointing the finger at ‘other communities’. He is pointing the finger away from himself and people like him. This is not his problem because this is not his community. Are those ‘pockets’ communities within themselves? It seems to me that they are and there needs to be a recognition that community is far broader in scope than the ‘let’s all help each other’ model.

The sooner we broaden communities and build communities across economic and cultural lines the more we improve society. If we, like the Prime Minister states, see this as a problem with ‘pockets of a sick society’ we isolate and abandon those elements and detach them from our own more mainstream society.

That is dangerous.

The sickness of society is that there are ‘pockets’ within it.  This is not simply about poverty. This is about the difference between building exclusive and inclusive societies and yes, communities.

Communities have to reach out and build bridges across them. We have to build more inclusion. We have to take responsibility and those that wish to push us into communities have to understand better the way the networks are interdependent.

My community is hurting. The only way I can see to rebuild it is to involve myself in it.

If anything indicates that there is a role for more macro social work. A role for community work  but an inclusive type of community that doesn’t self-select and is able to reach out to those who might not naturally seek to be a part.

I have felt fear this week, in a way I haven’t felt fear before. I’ve also felt anger and sadness. Now, I’m trying to find hope and I have and I will.

But I still despair of the politicians who purport to ‘lead’ us and the desperate isolation and detachment I feel between my world and the world I see and the worlds in which they move.

Community has a better hope of existing when some of the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are challenged and broken down.

That’s the real challenge for communities in these days ahead of us and we can no longer leave it in the hands of detached politicians who live in their own privileged communities.

We need to build. As the world moves on to the next News story, those of us left need to hold our attention on those around us and see what we might not have seen if we didn’t choose to look.

So what does community mean for you? Is it a useful word or has its lost it’s use through overused dullness?

I’d be interested in the responses because it’s been vexing my mind for a while.

London – Some thoughts and hopes

I didn’t sleep  much last night. Or the night before. Or the night before that. My city is burning. There is a tangible fear in the air. I’m not above it because I feel it and I see it.

I don’t want to listen to politicians being parachuted in (when they finally arrive back in the country) to talk about mindless violence and talking to ‘community leaders’.  ‘Community leaders’ who are self-appointed and seem to want to polarise and divide rather than come together and heal.

Don’t speak to community leaders, come and speak to me. Come and speak to people like me who just want to find ways for sense and our voice to be heard. I’m just as much a part of this community as ‘church leaders’. Why are they credited with greater access to the ‘influential’.

I want people who live here and love this city to find ways to heal her and pull her together. I don’t want the same ‘community leaders’ speaking to the same ‘politicians’ trying to build up their own special interests and agendas.

I want to shout and scream and rage at all those who seem hell-bent on destruction but this is a symptom not a cause.

This is and never was about race. This is about age and belonging. How can you care for a society when society cares nothing for you?

This is a disaffected youth who are devoid of a moral compass because our society values goods and monetary worth over basic humanity. This is what has been learnt. The ‘establishment’ doesn’t work for you but against you. You take what you can.

Perhaps though, these awful scenes and desperate situations will provide an opportunity to build a better society for everyone and to reach out to disaffected youth and marginalised people.

Maybe, this will be the way to build a real, true community and to build a better London.

I love this city. I was born here. It’s my home. It has its rough and smooth.  But it is a good place and it is filled with good people. There are enough of us here to force a triumph for the good.

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