28 January 2012

Benefits: To Cap or not to Cap

Is it right that a small minority of people should receive more in benefits than the average income in the UK? Is it right that children might be plunged into poverty and even homelessness because a parent has lost their job and benefits will not cover their housing?

These are just two of many arguments swirling around the government’s proposal to place a cap of £26,000 on the benefits any family can receive. Why, they argue, should hard earned taxpayers money go to supporting those who choose not to work?

Let’s deal with a couple of important facts before I plunge into the thick of the controversy. First the number of families involved is just 67,000, meaning this is hardly the most widespread of problems. Secondly this is not about tackling the government budget deficit: the saving expected is around £290 million, which is less than 0.25% of this year’s deficit - no this is about sending a message that welfare doesn’t pay.

But is that message of any relevance? A key argument made by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, in favour of the cap is that it will play a positive role in getting people back to work and enable them to avoid being trapped in benefit dependency. In a world of full employment it could be argued that this has some relevance, but with nearly 2.7 million people unemployed, the idea that these people can just go and get a job if they are given the incentive to do so is plainly ridiculous.

So let’s look at the two factors which lead to some families receiving such large benefit payments; the number of children they have and their housing costs - not wholly independent factors clearly as the first will influence the second. The child benefit system has supported families having children and helped prevent much child poverty over the years. It could also be seen as state support for the idea of having children and it would surely be wrong to punish those who have reacted accordingly and expect the benefit to be available throughout their children’s upbringing.

I have to ask the question though, is this what the state should be encouraging in an already overpopulated island such as ours? While fully supporting the right of everyone to have a couple of children and receive state help to raise them, I do not believe that should extend beyond a second child. Obviously you cannot cut such benefits retrospectively (though actually that is what this proposal effectively does) but an announcement that there will be no child benefit for any third or subsequent children born after the start of 2013 would be entirely fair in my opinion. Coupling the savings from this with increasing the payments for the first two children could reduce rather than increase child poverty.

Even more important than the number of children involved though, is that at the root of the payment of high absolute levels of benefit, is the excessively high cost of housing. The idea that these benefit recipients are living the high life off other people’s taxes is nonsense, because a large part of their money goes straight out to finance their housing. And if we follow the money, rather than being obsessed with the benefit issue, then another story altogether emerges, because the chances are that those hard-earned taxes are ending up in the pockets of landlords who own large numbers of houses and are themselves multi-millionaires. Now that really is a scandal.

Only today The Independent highlights that one landlord, Victor Tchenguiz, plans to sell a portfolio of 250,000 houses which he owns. That astonishingly, means that one man owns 1% of the entire housing stock in the UK. The speculation in housing which has driven prices, and thus rents, to their currently unsustainable levels was not just a key factor in the economic collapse which we are still suffering from, but is also at the heart of this issue.

Why then does the government do nothing to tackle this issue? The only measure we have seen proposed is to open up land previously protected from development to new housing. This delights the developers, but does little to address the underlying shortage of supply. Before Christmas Channel 4 ran an excellent series of programmes entitled The Great British Property Scandal, which highlighted that there are a million empty homes in the UK. Renovate those and bring them back into the market and you could have a real impact on homelessness and maybe also help to bring down the excessive level of rents and those high benefit payments too.

22 January 2012

How to take care of our children's children...

By Rupert Read

Last week, the new ‘Green House’ thinktank launched, at Parliament, a new report that I’ve written about how to restructure democratic institutions, to take care of the people of our kingdom who are not here yet: future people.

Here are some pictures of the event. Have a butchers!

The starting point of my thinking on all this is this question:
‘Democracy’ means ‘government by the people’, but who are ‘the people’?

I insist, following Burke, that society exists over time and decisions taken today can have significant consequences for people yet to be born. My report argues therefore that the interests of future generations should be formally represented within our existing parliamentary democracy. Building on the philosophies of Plato and of deliberative democracy, and on the precedent of Hungary’s innovative office of Ombudsman for Future Generations, my report proposes the creation of a new legislative house, to sit above the upper house – ‘Guardians’ of Future Generations. The members of this body would be selected by ‘sortition’, as is current practice for jury service, in order to ensure independence from present-day party political interests.

The Guardians would have a power of veto over legislation that was likely to have substantial negative effects for society in the future, the right to review major administrative decisions which substantially affected future people and perhaps also the power to initiate legislation to preserve the basic needs and interests of future people.

I proposes the creation of such ‘Guardians’ locally, nationally, and internationally (e.g. at the U.N. level). A modest version of such a proposal (for an international ‘High Commissioner’ for future generations) is going forward to the Rio-plus-20 governance discussions (see http://rio20.net/en/iniciativas/zero-draft-and-sustainable-development-goals ).

There has been extensive coverage of my proposal: including for example in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Liberal Conspiracy, & www.politics.co.uk . The House of Commons launch last week was attended by an extensive range of journalists, politicians and civil society representatives. Speakers at the launch included Caroline Lucas MP (Leader of the Green Party), Jon Cruddas MP (a leading Labour intellectual), and Norman Baker MP (of the U.K. government). The Hungarian Ombudsman for Future Generations sent an explicit statement of support (for the proposal) to the meeting.

If you want to read my report, which I prepared with the assistance of the new ‘Alliance for future generations’ umbrella-group of NGOs, here it is.

And comment below, to let us know what you think of the idea!

7 January 2012

ONEWORLD NEWS: Welcome to 2012!

Today's post looks at some of the subjects we will continue to report and reflect on during this crucial year.

As the struggle for global resources - energy, minerals, agricultural land, water - increases we'll look at the widespread pressure for social justice and protection of the earth. As the corporate control of the world tightens (1%), we'll reflect on the collective movement for democratic change that began in 2011 with the (99%) protesters of the Arab Spring and continued with the indignados of Spain and Greece, and the occupiers of Zuccotti Park in New York and hundreds of cities around the world.

As the government continues its austerity drive and support of the City of London and the banks, we'll keep supporting those involved with land rights, community ownership, and defence of our public services. As well as facing the hard and difficult issues, we will include the positive moves that are changing the restrictive patterns within our social fabric. We'll be looking at the grassroots movements that create an alternative infrastructure as the global economic systems falter, a "downshift" culture of sharing resources and skills: neighbourhood energy schemes, alternative currencies, community kitchens, CSAs.

We will be looking at the bigger picture set within a local framework and highlighting subjects that are often ignored or minimised in mainstream culture, from climate change to nuclear energy. We will be making links between all these subjects in order to further strengthen our common intent to bring about a fair, sustainable and connected OneWorld. We hope you will join us!

Writing on the Edge, 2011

In 2011 we relaunched ourselves as a blog with a party at the EPIC Media Centre in Norwich and decided we would keep posting our columns each Saturday and also invite guest writers to contribute and include occasional news and events posts.

We started the year reporting from the front line of the cuts, as the February demonstration in Norwich rallied on the steps of County Hall. Guest writer, Andrew Boswell, wrote about the closure of essential child protection services, Jan Ainsley about the threatened NHS and Mark Watson about the Lowestoft Against the Cuts Public Workers Strike Rally later in November.

2011 was an activist year, in which progressive groups came together as never before, and though we continued to write on traditional OWC issues, such as military power and parliamentary reform, there were unexpected events appearing in the world and in our columns - most strikingly the people's movements in the Arab nations and the Occupy movement in the West. Trevor Philips wrote from the squares in Athens, Charlotte Du Cann from Hay Hill about Occupy Norwich. It was a year where the word capitalism no longer belonged to the rhetoric of the left. People started to look at the economic system by which we have lived our lives, discuss systemic collapse, responsibility and solidarity. Mark Crutchley reflected on financial tipping points and peak oil, Rupert Read asked: Are we a consumerist or a producerist society?

None of us had any anwers.

But one thing we knew: like all civilisations who have risen and fallen, our future will be determined in terms of our relationship with food and energy. As land grabs increase in Indonesia, Africa and China and climate change destabilises the growing patterns of many of the world's staple crops, we looked at the depletion of fish in the oceans, the diminishing water tables, protests against the proposed introduction of GM farming into Britain and the agricultural lobbying that goes on behind the scenes. Marguerite Finn looked at the way food is treated as a commodity and speculated on in the global markets, as we considered the warning signs of collapse in the decline of bees and the negative effects of factory farming on our collective health and well being.

Some of our 2011 posts concerned peak oil and looked at the accountability of the companies still making huge profits from fossil fuels and the cost to the environment, the climate and local people. At the same time we celebrated the resistance to this, such as the KEYSTONE XL Pipeline campaign. This protest against tar sands oil had its first success last year as 10,000 people surrounded the White House and the proposal to run a pipeline from Canada to Texas was delayed, awaiting further research. This was the biggest environmental protest in the United States since the 1970s and over a thousand people were arrested including 350.0rg organiser Bill McKibben and James Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist.

There was also widespread protest mounted against the equally "unconventional" shale gas extraction, a process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", which halted excavations in many places in the US and also in Britain where the process is being trialled in Lancashire. There were several national campaigns launched, as the countryside came under further threat for housing and road development (not least in the local NDR proposals) and bio-mass and biofuel power stations, planned to be built around the British coastline. Increasingly it became clear that these moves were sparking a popular re-engagement with politics and ethics, that had almost disappeared from contemporary culture. Reflecting on these shifts, we considered putting ourselves on the line and creating an alternative to the mainstream media that insists that the world will thrive when economic growth returns in a business-as-usual paradigm. We know it won't.

But it might just thrive for other reasons.

If you would like to contribute news or features to the OneWorld Column please get in touch at oneworldcolumn@gmail.com

Occupy Earth poster at Keystone Pipeline protest outside the White House; the ST Valentine's Unneccesary Massacre; Amazon Watch; Occupy Norwich discusses monetary reform; protest against GM potatoes, outside the Forum; Chevron lawsuit in Ecuadar; the AIRPLOT at Heathrow, reclaiming the field by Grow Heathrow

2 January 2012

Trust Us, We're the Experts

By Marguerite Finn

According to a confident statement by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 16 December 2011, Japan said that the damaged Fukushima reactors had achieved a “cold shutdown condition” on that day.

Not so, according to the Japan Times, which pointed out that: “the term ‘cold shut down’ is traditionally used to describe a reactor in normal working order that has reached a state of sub-criticality. If the nuclear fission process is stopped in such a reactor, the temperature inside the reactor falls below 100 degrees centigrade and the nuclear fuel is cooled by the reactor’s own internal cooling system in a stable manner”.

In no way at all can the Fukushima reactors be described like this. So why is the world’s premier authority on nuclear power disseminating such politico-speak? In brief, why are they lying?

Some background information may provide an answer: as long ago as 1959 an agreement came into force between the all-powerful IAEA and the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the two bodies would “consult each other regularly in regard to matters of common interest” … “with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement”. The IAEA’s remit has always been to promote nuclear power as much as it possibly can, and ever since 1959 this agreement has been used to repress all possible information that might disadvantage that cause. So the IAEA is keen to say that “Fukushima’s OK now” at the first possible opportunity.

If you doubt such crookedness could exist in such high places, how about this?

Independent scientists have worried for years that the raised child leukaemia incidence near to nuclear stations might be caused by the radiation from the stations, but it has always been hard to prove, because the stations are in sparsely populated areas so it’s difficult to get data that are statistically significant, because the health data are confidential to protect the children, and because data on radiation emissions are difficult and expensive to collect in sufficient detail and quantity to be significant. Radiation levels in vegetables near Sizewell are measured only once a year, local milk only twice, so that’s of little value.

The only data on emissions available from nuclear reactors have been those released by the nuclear establishment. These are all averaged out over long periods of time, making it impossible to see whether at any one time the emissions are higher than at others. And the industry’s experts say “Look how low the emissions have been over all that long time. They couldn’t possibly hurt anyone. Trust us, we’re the experts.” And, while not everyone agrees what constitutes a safe or a dangerous level of radioactivity, the officially accepted levels are those of a body officially backed by the IAEA, so it’s difficult to argue against that.

One body that has not been content with this is the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Their section in South Germany has joined with the Green Party to demand from the Bavarian State Parliament the release of detailed, non-averaged values of radiation emissions from a nuclear station at Gundremmingen. The normal emission concentration of released radioactive gases from this station during the year is about 3 kBq/m3 – not very much at all. http://www.ippnw-europe.org/en/nuclear-energy-and-security.html?expand=707&cHash=8752881e4a

But the situation changes significantly when the station is being refuelled. Refuelling happens about once a year and “the concentration of noble gas emissions during refuelling was 500 times greater than during normal reactor operation.”(See the graph at http://www.ippnw.de/commonFiles/pdfs/Atomenergie/Edelgasemissionen-Gundremmingen_engl.pdf

The detailed figures released show that for two days during refuelling of the station this concentration suddenly increased to an average of about 500 kBq/m3. with a peak of 1470 kBq/m3. Up till now the industry has been very careful not to include these events in the averaged data on emissions; that is all they have released to the public until now. Yet the industry, the regulators and the IAEA must all have known all about these spikes of radioactivity ever since the first stations were built and refuelled 50 years ago.

What’s more, they must know, and the IAEA better than anyone else, that this has always provided a perfectly plausible explanation for child leukaemias near nuclear stations. At refuelling times, these huge emissions of radioactive isotopes could be breathed in by pregnant women or land on local vegetables consumed by them. Transferred across the placenta, these isotopes could very well contaminate the foetus. Yet for 50 years the nuclear establishment has denied that the emissions from nuclear power stations could possibly cause any harm.

The IAEA is an agency of the United Nations. As the Vice Chair of the Norwich and District United Nations Association, I am particularly ashamed that the IAEA has behaved like this. The UNA is always prepared to criticise the UN when it is necessary. I have raised my disquiet about the dishonest pact between the IAEA and the WHO before now within our branch. I shall now insist that we object to this deception in the strongest terms.

Please raise the matter with your MPs, because our government is also complicit in trying to foist new nuclear stations on us in the full but secret knowledge of all this.