Friday, 28 August 2009

It's always families

The Times is leading on a claim that Gordon Brown "plans to take cash from the poorest families." It's an interesting story but quite complicated and significantly over-hyped.

The gist of the story is that the government, in fact the Department for Work and Pensions rather than the PM, is planning to make changes to local housing allowance (LHA). The Times claims that LHA "replaced the old housing benefit in 2007" but the truth is that it is replacing housing benefit, which is the benefit paid to the majority of people who need help with their rent. The Times says that 600,000 people get LHA, of whom 300,000 get paid, intentionally, more than they actually pay in rent. The government plans to remove that surplus income.

So undoubtedly a small minority of people will lose out and if you are on a low income, every bit of money counts. But the Times is saying that people will lose "up to £15 per week". This is the maximum surplus. How many of the £300,000 actually get this? It also reports claims from Crisis the housing charity, that "this could mean that people on £65-a-week jobseeker’s allowance losing 20 per cent of their income". Hang on a second. Crisis is a charity for single people. Who gets £65 per week? Single people over 25 - and that is their living costs, not their housing costs. What Crisis is saying is that the people worst hit by this will lose the amount by which their income after housing costs is increased by a surplus on their housing allowance. Somehow they have worked out that £15 is 20% of £80 (i.e. 65 +15), which it isn't. Undoubtedly some families will lose out but this will be a small minority even of those getting LHA and the money they lose will be a much smaller percentage of their income.

And what is the evidence to back up the article's claims of a revolt by Labour MPs? It quotes two Labour MPs who pay very close attention to this type of issue. One of them, Frank Field, plans to table an amendment opposing the change.

There is a good point in the article, made by Field, that removing the incentive for people to find a rent that is less than LHA destoys the whole purpose of the new benefit. But making it into a big political story comparable to the abolition of the 10p tax rate is way over the top.

Don't mention the fraud

The BBC has certainly made the running with its stories about fraud in the Afghanistan elections. It is now reporting an "explosive" row on the issue between President Karzai and US special envoy Richard Holbrooke. It says that Lord Ashdown has expressed concerns that undermining the election could have disastrous consequences.

He said: "The effect of it could be to de-legitimise the whole process.

"If it is the case that the Americans by some form or another have declared these elections illegitimate as it were, have undermined the legitimacy of the electoral process, then our capacity to be able to win back the support of the Pashtun tribes from the Taliban is lessened."

It's an interesting idea, that you should keep quiet about a fraudulent election, especially if your mission is to spread democracy.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

A challenge for Chilcot

In a new piece for Index on Censorship online, I describe how my latest freedom of information request has unearthed still more unpublished documents on the Iraq dossier, including some from the intelligence services that are outright exempt under FOI. The new Chilcot Inquiry must see the documents, take note of them and publish them, whatever their origin.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Make your mind up

The Telegraph has decided to re-spin Lord Adonis' comments in Beijing about the need to cut down travel to save the planet. But Adonis is in a spin either way.

Here is what Adonis said, as reported in both yesterday's report and a new one today:

“We’ll never sell a low-carbon future to the public if it depends on a deprivation model. I’m convinced that there’s no necessary trade-off between a low carbon future and more or less transport,”
“If you can radically cut emissions as a result of new transport technology it is not necessary to face people with an ‘either-or’ choice between a low carbon future and big cuts in travel.”

Yesterday, the Telegraph presented Adonis' remarks about the personal choices of consumers, claiming that Adonis

"said it was not realistic to expect people to curtail their travel habits in the name of global warming.."

Today, realising it had missed a trick, the paper presents the remarks as undermining government policies that discourage travel, claiming that Adonis:

"said emissions can be cut without forcing people to make personal sacrifices in their lifestyle."

I think today's story is a more legitimate interpretation of what Adonis said and this leaves him even more confused about his government's policy. A couple of weeks ago, I pointed out that Adonis' support for new rail links that cut short haul air travel and therefore carbon emissions undermined the government's claim that aviation emissions are irrelevant because they will be offset under a carbon trading scheme. Now - as the Telegraph points out - Adonis has undermined the rationale for taxes that seek to restrict road and air travel.

In last week's New Statesman, Dominic Sandbrook described Adonis as one of the current political scene's few "overtly intellectual politicians". Perhaps he's too clever for his own good because his main talent seems to be tying himself up in knots.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Beyond satire

In the Telegraph today, Emma Soames, editor at large of Saga magazine, begs Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary to spare a thought for second home-owners.
There are several hundreds of thousands British residents who would never have actually slammed down the money for houses in Europe if you hadn’t first torn up the rule book about how to run an airline.
So far, I have only managed once or twice a month for three or four days at a stretch
In the world of the Telegraph, we are supposed to take such whinges seriously but I still had to read it very carefully to make sure it wasn't satire. Neither O'Leary or Soames give a stuff for the damage it is doing to the planet for people to fly twice a month to second homes in France. Because they can do it and have done it, it has now become an inalienable right and we have to keep expanding airports to preserve that right.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Defending the indefensible

Both the Guardian and the Independent have the story of the MoD press officer who is suing after being forced to tell both bereaved families and the media that servicemen killed in Iraq had been properly equipped.

It's not a straightforward story as it's not clear how the press officer came to know that he was lying, other than from media reports. But the role of the MoD here looks suspicious:
his job "was to visit families just hours after an officer had called to tell them the news that their loved ones were dead." He provided a "media shield" to help them deal with the press interest.
Was his job to help the families - or to make sure they were onside?

The Indy has the best headline: "Lying about Iraq made me quit, press officer claims".
For a minute, you might think it was Alastair Campbell, John Williams or one of the other spin doctors who sexed up the dossier.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Kilfoyle on the Inquiry

The Yorkshire Post has a piece from Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle, whose book, Lies, damned lies and Iraq, is , as you might guess, "An Indepth Analysis into the Case for War and How It Was Misrepresented". Kilfoyle says of the forthcoming inquiry:
Of prime importance is the political culture within which, ultimately, all key decisions on war and peace are made. Where spin – and, at times, mendacity – is the order of the day, the truth will suffer. Without truthfulness, decisions will be hedged by other considerations, including ambition and fear.

A truly objective inquiry will point out the ease with which those in senior positions in government, in the media, and in the forces, were able to convince themselves against the evidence of the justice of this war.

Thus, the very people who should have put the brakes on the rush to an illegal and immoral war, actually facilitated its implementation.

This moral failure at the very top of our civil structures is possibly the most instructive phenomenon of all.