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Not a good start to 2013 from Mr Ian Duncan-Smith

I do really wonder who is advising Ian Duncan Smith. He is using some very spurious statistics. He is looking like a man possessed. He is on a mission and has decided not to listen to those he no doubt regards as 'on the wrong side'.  Like all missionaries he won't rest until we are all converted or damned. Some say: Stop! You are making a big mistake! But he knows what is best. He is rescuing us all from damnation. He says he has 'brought back fairness to welfare.'

Mr Duncan Smith makes the extraordinary claim that tax credits increased by 58% ahead of the 2005 general election. Working Tax Credit introduced in April 2003 was the first national in-work financial support introduced in the UK designed to help people in work. It was designed as an incentive to 'make work pay'. It wasn't seeking to drive people back to work by cutting benefits for those unemployed or disabled. On the contrary, it was keeping people in work by increasing income. So what of …

My New Year prediction for hot debate, epicure and all that.

A New Year is a time for prediction; for considering what prospect the new year holds. My prediction is that there will be renewed efforts to change the law on abortion.

A few years ago I was being interviewed about the ethics of human embryonic stem cells on the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Northern Ireland. I was presenting the standard utilitarian case for the use of human embryonic stem cells; that the benefits might be considerable in potential treatments for damaged tissues such the spinal cord or the eye. The developments of new tissue from implanted stem cells might cure paralysis or make a blind person see. A listener phoned in to ask 'where is God in all this?' A question Stephen Nolan repeated to me. It raised the question of whether there are or should be any limits to the development of new treatments; of whether there should be any no-go areas for science and medicine. Should there be a boundary that is not crossed no matter how great the potential benefits? I…

Human cloning; the good, the bad and the ugly

The prediction that human cloning will be available in 50 years raises issues, good, bad and downright ugly. Whether it is ethical will depend on whether the 'good'  is sufficient to  outweigh the potential 'bad' and 'ugly'. But good and bad in this context are not easy to define or measure. Even supposing there were good reasons for using human cloning, and that is a big if, it would need to be a pressing need to outweigh the potential for harm. Currently the risk of abnormalities is high.

It has been suggested that cloning might be used to replace a lost child with a copy. And it is here a myth takes hold: the idea that cloning produces an identical human being. This is the stuff of science fiction, not of biology.  Cloning will not produce an identical, like for like human being. A cloned human will not develop and become identical to the person from whom this being has been cloned. If we wanted to clone a person rather than an organism, it is highly unlikel…

Why the Daily Mail and government are wrong on disability benefits

The Daily Mail has given its support to the government's 'crackdown' on disability benefits. In an editorial it argued something must be awry if 'Britain spends more on disability than almost any other developed country'.

The use of the word 'crackdown' to describe the government's policy is of course deliberate. You 'crackdown' on cheats. The argument is that because Britain spends more on disability benefits, then the difference must be accounted for by benefit cheats; those who don't need or deserve them. The Daily Mail doesn't consider that perhaps Britain spends more because it has moved forward in its approach to disability.  We are not behind but ahead of the game. It is not the first time The Daily Mail has made this case. But is it true? The answer as usual depends on how you read the statistics. And it is a lot more complex than the Daily Mail would have us believe.

Making comparisons with other countries is not straightforward…

The petition to deport Piers Morgan is little short of a 'fatwa'

There is something distasteful about the way Piers Morgan is being treated both in the USA and in the UK over his vociferous position on gun control. Democracy is in a parlous state when it becomes predicated on the concept that you are only welcome to contribute if you agree. America is surely bigger than this. Wanting to deport someone because they are a threat to security or a danger to others, or that they have committed a crime, is one thing; seeking to deport them because they hold views within the mainstream is repugnant.

We might argue that it is foolish, or culturally and politically unwise, for Piers Morgan to engage in such a contentious issue as gun control in such a full-blooded way, particularly as such an issue is so divisive. But he has been doing nothing he has not been doing on other issues in his TV chat show. He is an opinionated man. I have no doubt he courts controversy. But I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of his views on gun control. There should be no &…

Mr Einstein's brain

It wouldn't be Christmas without stories appearing about Einstein's brain. It is a recurring theme; the intellectual man's chit chat about the weather. A group of scientists are studying the pickled brain of Einstein to see if they can 'discover' what was exceptional about it; something that could have given him his extraordinary intellect. I cannot think of a more potentially fruitless scientific endeavour.

Even supposing they did find something odd about his brain, it is difficult to see how they could now associate this with his intelligence. They might find, for example, that a particular part of his brain was proportionately large or small, but to conclude that this somehow gave him extraordinary powers of understanding would remain pure speculation. None of this is particularly new. Indeed, an odd feature has already been found in Albert Einstein's brain.

Back in 1999 it was reported in The Lancet that a unique morphological feature had been found in Eins…

Changing pension age is missing the point

I am reminded of a discussion I had recently about future welfare costs and why something had to be done now to 'prevent it spiralling out of control'. One lady in the group repeated something we hear regularly from politicians of all parties.

"We are all living longer!" She said. As if this itself was a problem.
We were in the middle of a discussion about pensions and raising the age of retirement.
"No we are not!" I replied.
"Yes we are, on average!" She persisted. Oh dear, I thought, here is that 'average person' again.
"Yes, but I don't live 'on average'" I responded. I've yet to recognise an 'average person' at, say, a bus stop or waiting for a train. I have no idea whether I have sat next to one, ever, in a plane.

There is something absurd about the general panic that seems to be settling in. The fear that the welfare budget is about to be overwhelmed by pensioners. The working population is getting …

Do Not Resuscitate and patient care; who decides?

A family's legal action to force the government to review and adopt a clear policy requiring hospitals to consult patients and relatives before making "do not resuscitate" notices has been denied by a high court judge. Nevertheless, the case highlights inconsistency in approach to these orders between healthcare trusts and a lack of guidance in the training of doctors.

End of life decisions are never easy. Advances in medicine enable clinicians to resuscitate and keep patients alive in intensive care. But it can often bring two principles into conflict: the duty to preserve life and the duty to do no harm.  One might assume it is always better for a clinician to treat a patient; but to treat badly is not in the interest of the patient or of their close relatives. Sometimes it is better to withdraw treatment that seeks to combat illness and then to move to palliative care; to reduce pain, minimise suffering, and allow the patient to die peacefully and in dignity. When tre…

Bah humbug to you too Mr Shelbrooke MP!

'Tis the season of goodwill. Bah humbug! From a political perspective 2012 has been defined by a certain kind of nastiness. It all started so well. We were all 'in it together'; austerity that is. We would all share the pain. But in 2012 it is clear we are not 'all in it together'.  Far from it.  Some big companies don't pay tax at all, yet rely on state-subsidised wages. The rich it seems pay tax on a voluntary basis, because if you tax them then they don't pay it. This was Mr Cameron's Christmas lesson for Mr Miliband. The poor on the other hand are a different matter. One thing we know already about 2013 is that the rich are set to get richer and the poor are set to get poorer. And what will happen to Tiny Tim?

This is the season of goodwill. A season to be jolly. And also a season to reflect on our fortune and the misfortune of others. So up pops Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke with the idea that those on welfare benefits should be given cash cards instead …

The WOWpetition; time for fairness for the sick and disabled

A new war against poverty has been launched in the form of a petition. The WOWpetition calls for the repeal of the Welfare Reform Act and its pernicious attack on those receiving disability benefits. If you believe in fairness I urge you to sign this petition. It is a reasonable petition.  It calls for a debate. It asks parliament to reconsider.  It asks for an assessment of the impact of the government's welfare reforms on the sick and disabled. The British Medical Association has expressed its concerns about the impact of work assessments and the role doctors are being asked to play if employed by ATOS, the company contracted to do the assessments. I have considered in a previous post the cruelty and unethical nature of the disability assessments.

This should not be a party political issue. The criteria and assessment are clearly not working. With over 40% of appeals against the decisions made by ATOS being successful, it is clear that the regime is not working. Hundreds of thou…

Unemploymment down but what lies behind the numbers?

Making sense of the unemployment figures reminds me of the song about the Grand Old Duke of York: "And when they were up, they were up. And when they were down, they were down. And when they were only half way up, they were neither up nor down!"

David Cameron at PMQs today made a great deal of the statistics showing the number of people in work has increased.  Indeed, according the the Office for National Statistics (ONS),  the number of people in work increased slightly in the last quarter to 29.6 million. The increase in number of people employed compared to a year earlier is now an impressive 499,000. Unemployment is down 0.2% compared to a year ago, or 128,000.  Now it doesn't take a mathematical wizard to realise that unemployment will fall as a percentage of the workforce if you make the workforce 'bigger'. A key issue is whether the new jobs are real. More than  20% of the increased employment was accounted for by an increased number of young people on gov…

We need social solutions for social objectives.

We need social solution to social problems. For too long society has been regarded as simply an aggregate of self-interested individuals. I would say the rot was established in the 1980s. The then British prime minister, Mrs Thatcher, famously said there was no such thing as society. We hold personal success more highly than we view social endeavour. Our attitudes to people has been dominated by consideration of financial success; we measure worth in money terms rather than the benefit others may give or receive from others; making a fast buck over social vocation. In truth we have found social excuses for the excesses of selfishness. Some even suggested that excessive selfish behaviour benefits all by some miraculous trickle-down to the poorest. Someone forgot to wave the wand because it didn't trickle down. The poor got poorer; the rich got richer.

The argument was that the rich getting richer was good because it provided jobs and opportunities for others. This has all come cras…

Free bus pass value for money. Keep your hands off Mr Clegg.

Free bus passes for the elderly are under threat with funding reduced by more than a quarter. Some transport bosses have warned that the scheme will become unaffordable.

Nick Clegg wants to restrict eligibility, arguing it is unfair that wealthy pensioners should also get the  concession. But does Mr Clegg really understand the value of the bus pass scheme for the elderly? And what of the consequences of means testing? Would it really be fair that one pensioner who judiciously saved for retirement should be denied a bus pass, while another who did not do so receives it?

Not long ago I met a lady coming off the train laden with several bags which I offered to help carry. "I'm only going to the bus stop." She explained, which was handy because I was catching a bus too.

I had daily gone to the station by car but now I was using my free bus pass. There was an hourly service that passed through my village and stopped at Leighton Buzzard station.

 "Are you going far?"…

Clegg misses the point about pensioner benefits

Nick Clegg has set his eyes on major reform. A defining moment for Liberal Democrat politics; removal of free bus passes and TV licenses from 'wealthy' pensioners. So now we know what the Liberal Democrats stand for. I expect it will include the automatic fuel allowance. Is this really what Liberal Democrats have been in politics for? And do they not understand why some benefits are universal?

It may appear unfair that rich and poor alike can receive the same benefits. But there is a good reason to give some benefits in this way. Targeting involves means testing and it involves setting thresholds. Thresholds can create a worst kind of unfairness; those just above, those just at the margin, losing the benefit. Two elderly neighbours one receiving and the other not, all for the sake of being a penny above the threshold; one neighbour now 'richer' the other now 'poorer'. But there is something more worrying about means testing. Many elderly people tend not to appl…

The Conservatives brand the unemployed as 'shirkers'

The Conservative Party has adopted an aggressive set of campaign advertisements targeted at 60 constituenciescontrasting "hard working families" and "people who don't work".  This divisive advertising represents once again their attempt to label the unemployed as lazy 'benefit scroungers'. It also demonstrates how little they understand unemployment and poverty. The notion that there are 'hard working families' and 'people who don't work' assumes these groups exist as separate social groups. One result of recession is that hard working families are affected. Company failures, factory closures and lay-offs don't just impact on 'scroungers'.  This is why the results of austerity are so devastating. It is indiscriminate in its effect. It is also why austerity doesn't work. It drives families, hard working families into poverty. 

Unemployment is a key driver of poverty.  Two-thirds of  working age adults in families where …

Tax dodging companies exploit British workers.

Unions such as GMB are campaigning for a living wage of £8.55 an hour in London and £7.45 outside the capital. A staggering one in five workers in the UK  receives less than the living wage. That is nearly 5 million people.  Yes, 5 million 'strivers'.  This is slave labour. 

A living wage is simply a rate of pay that enables a basic standard of living.  Any civilised society should aspire to achieving it.  If the government believes in markets then let's stop subsidising companies who pay low wages. We should insist that all companies should pay a living wage; it should be the minimum entry point for any worker. Not only would this be fair, a decent wage for work done, but it would also cut public spending on welfare.  It would enable people to make a difference to their lives and the lives of their families; it would provide dignity and respect for the work they do.

It is a disgrace that tax dodging companies like Starbucks exploit not only their workforce but also the Bri…

Can we afford a living wage in the public sector?

The leader of Britain's largest public sector workers union, Dave Prentis, has said the Labour manifesto should contain a commitment to pay all public sector workers at least the living wage. This would be a bold step for Labour and would determine much else in their strategy on pay. But if Labour made this commitment what would be the quid pro quo from the public sector unions?

For a living wage to be meaningful for the poorest workers the unions would have to agree not to seek to maintain  pay differentials, else pay would ratchet up. A key question would then be whether this was sustainable. It would involve a self-imposed pay restraint for workers up the pay order. Is Dave Prentis willing to persuade his members of such a restraint? Some might doubt it as he is already threatening future industrial action on pay. It is difficult to see how he can square this circle.

He might argue that increased pay for public sector workers would not be inflationary and would not therefore af…

Politics and the immigration game

Home Secretary, Theresa may has said that mass immigration needs to be curbed to bring down house prices, improve wages and reduce the benefits bill. Is there more to this than playing politics with a sensitive issue in the light of UKIP's growing appeal? We do need a sensible debate about immigration and one that isn't contaminated with racism. But is this another attempt to find a scapegoat for austerity along with 'benefit scroungers'?

Immigration was a major issue in the last general election. It is not a problem that will disappear. In the general election of 2010 all three main political parties, the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats pledged to control immigration, but they disagreed on how this could be achieved. It was given added fuel in the election when The Daily Mail said that 98% of jobs created in the United Kingdom since 1997 had been taken by migrant workers.

In the 1960s many of us were appalled by the speech of then leadin…

You couldn't beat mum's damson jam

You couldn't beat mum’s damson jam; damson jam doesn't taste the same now, but that is what reminiscences do; they alter your taste. Sunday roast has never been the same since either. So many differences! We didn't have a television for most of my childhood. I used to watch Popeye at a friend’s house whose mum gave us bread and jam for tea.We never had it so good! Or at least that is what Harold MacMillan told us; and in so many ways he was right. The Tories didn't taste the same either!

Not that it cut any ice with mum; she was staunchly anti-Tory; didn't think much of the Liberals either. Labour had set up the NHS and developed the welfare state.  The Tories, if you believed the propaganda, were ‘setting the people free’ from Labour’s state control.  Of course they were not; what was happening was that people felt better as war-time rationing came to an end. People had become frustrated at how long it was taking, and the Tories had been able to capitalise on it.
T…

The banks raked in the profits and sold our future.

Britain's biggest bank, HSBC has been fined a record $1.9 bn by US regulators for money laundering and sanctions busting. .Money laundering, libor fixing, skulduggery of the highest order; illegality; breaking the law; a law unto themselves. The banks let us all down badly.

Whilst some bankers were cheating and breaking the law; whilst the financial service industry was driving us to ruin, and whilst year on year huge bonuses were being taken,  year on year endowment policies were failing to meet targets,  leaving families in difficulty with their mortgages. I have an axe to grind because mine became one of them although fortunately I didn't depend on it. I started to receive the dreaded letters; first informing me that my endowment was 'on track' (great) but they would keep me informed (ah!); then to say it was 'at risk' (oh!); then to tell me it would not meet its target (inevitable!). Angrily I pulled the plug because I decided I could do better with the mon…

Marriages don't fail because they come to an end.

I am not sure I understand the opposition to same-sex marriage. It is not as if marriage as an institution has been particularly successful in recent times. But this post is not about same-sex marriage. It is about marriage in general.

Something like 33% of marriages end in divorce within a 15 year period.  The number of divorces is highest among men and women aged  40 - 44.  Marriages last on average for a little over 11 years. we talk of marriages that end in divorce as having 'failed'. But is the success of marriage best judged by its endurance? Perhaps there is a better measure of success.


Divorce is not an easy process. Half of couples divorcing having children under 16. David Cameron is pledged to 'strengthen families' by making it tougher to get a divorce.  The Tories see the 'breakdown' of marriage as symptomatic of a 'broken society'. But making it more difficult to divorce may not be the best approach to dealing with the collateral damage of d…

Presumed consent may not be ethical in setting up NHS DNA database

A key issue in establishing a national NHS  DNA database, expected to be proposed by the Prime Minister this week, is that of informed consent. It should be understood that such a database of patients' DNA is not immediately clinically relevant. The sample is not being taken for diagnostic or potential treatment of the patient; the proposed database is for genomic research. This research may identify links between specific gene mutations and risk of disease, but it is not intended that this will then be used directly in any proposed treatment of the patient. 

It has rightly become a central principle of medical research that there should be full and informed consent  from any person included in a trial or from whom personal information or samples are obtained. The proposed database, unless it is set up on this basis, would breach that fundamental principle. But one suggestion is that in this instance consent will be presumed unless the patient specifically states that they do not w…