Sunday 28 April 2019

Britain is a country where, apparently, in fairness to the young, a few rich old Lords recommend the denial of financial benefits to the many poor old commoners

In Britain today there are still almost 2,000,000 poor old men and women, mostly subsisting on a state pension, which is the lowest of any developed country, as their sole income and are living in defined 'poverty.' Many of the old people in this group, who have worked all their lives, live out their bleak and often lonely days with little cheer. Their television set may be their only company and source of information about the outside world.

Also in Britain today, there are 781, mostly old, but all, most certainly wealthy, men and women in the House of Lords, mostly subsisting on generous, private and occupational pensions and their income from investments and property.

Eleven members of this group, sit on the Select Committee on 'Intergenerational Fairness and Provision' which has an average age of 67 and is chaired by Lord True, who sits with the Lords : Chandos, Bichard, Hollick and Holmes of Richmond alongside Baronesses : Blackstone, Crawley, Thornhill, Jenkin of Kennington and Tyler of Enfield.

The 72 year old Baron Bichard came in for criticism back in 2012 when he suggested that retired people should contribute to society by doing community work in order to help the state or lose their pension. At the time, Robert Oxley of the Tax Payers Alliance said : "it's a bit rich from a civil servant who was able to retire early to lecture us on working during retirement".

The good Lords and Ladies have just delivered a Report entitled 'Tackling Intergenerational Unfairness' in which they suggest that the state sponsored financial benefits and services currently currently paid to old people should be stopped and the money saved money be reassigned to young people instead.

In their Report the Lords warned that it was time to rebalance Government policy in favour of the young, in order to remove the risk of the social bonds between generations fraying further. It argued that because many pensioner households across the country have become better off on average than many working-age families, it was time for the Government to curtail several benefits given to all old people. These were an end to :

* the Triple Lock, which raises state pension payments in line with the highest of consumer price inflation, average earnings growth, or 2.5%

* to free TV licences for the over 75s

* free bus passes

* winter fuel payments

Lord True, said: “We are calling for some of the outdated benefits based purely on age to be removed. Policies such as the state pension triple lock and free TV licences for over-75s were justified when pensioner households were at the bottom of the income scale, but that is no longer the case.”

In response, Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at 'Age UK' said :  “Young people may well need more help but we disagree that this should be at the expense of the older generation. This underplays the extent of need among older people and skates over the great difficulty of ensuring a targeted approach  which actually reaches those older people who are the most vulnerable. All the evidence suggests that means-testing, for example, results in significant numbers of very poor older people missing out. More profoundly we reject the notion that helping younger and older people is an ‘either/or’; in practice many at both ends of the age spectrum need our society’s support and an advanced twenty first century economy like the UK is well placed to provide it.”

Anna Dixon, Chief Executive, 'Centre for Ageing Better' said that with levels of pensioner poverty on the rise for the first time since 2010,  the ‘triple lock’ on the State Pension provides “a vital safety net” for people at risk of poverty in later life. “Nor should we be complacent about changes to benefits, given the level of inequality amongst people in later life. This includes access to affordable transport, which is critical to many people’s ability to get out and about and access essential services. But none of this is as potentially catastrophic as failing to build decent, accessible homes that meet the needs and aspirations of our ageing population, or making our workplaces fit for our longer working lives.”

In addition to support from Caroline and Anna, poor old pensioners also have a A Department for Transport spokeswoman on their side who said : "We know that buses are a vital way for older and disabled people to maintain their independence, which is why we renewed our commitment to continue the free bus pass scheme last year. There are no plans to amend this legislation and we are committed to ensuring that free local bus travel continues for these groups.”

Less certain is the future of the free tv licence, witness that a Department for Culture Media and Sport spokesman said : "Following the BBC Charter Review, the Government has committed to maintain the current licence fee funding model for the BBC until 2027. The BBC will take on responsibility for free licences for the over 75s from 2020 and it is right that they have consulted the public before making any decisions. We’ve been clear that we would want and expect them to continue with this important concession."

More than 90,000 people have signed Age UK’s 'Switched Off ' e-petition calling for the licences to be preserved and actor Ricky Tomlinson and former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, have supported the fight.

Ricky, who is 79, said of pensioners :  “A shocking three in ten of this age group live in poverty or just above the poverty line, and it’s these people who will find it almost impossible to pay for a TV licence. They’ll have to find at least an extra £154.50 a year when they’re already struggling to pay for the essentials like heating and food. TV means the world to many older people, especially those who are disabled or can’t get out and about like they used to. It’s the only form of companionship for many who are lonely. Much more needs to be done to protect vulnerable older people."

Caroline Abrahams said: “We’re glad the Committee agrees with us that the Government should take back responsibility for funding the free TV Licence for over-75s from the BBC, but dismayed that they also recommend the entitlement should effectively end by means-testing it. The evidence is crystal clear that under means-testing a substantial proportion of the poorest and most vulnerable pensioners would miss out and it’s really disappointing that the Committee was either unaware of this or chose not to take it into account.”

Independent Age’s Director of Policy, George McNamara, said : “subsidies such as free TV licences” were  “not luxuries, but lifelines, for many older people."

Asked by MPs in September to guarantee licences will remain free, BBC Director-General and another Lord, Lord Hall said : “I can’t give you a guarantee it will continue. The concession, as formulated, comes to an end in June 2020. We have got to decide what will replace it.”

Britain in 2019 : a country with the world's 5th largest economy and one which cannot guarantee to waver the payment of an annual £154.50 licence fee to its poorest pensioners. 

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Why Britain was no country for a scarce 'old' disabled man called Stephen Smith

Liverpudlian Stephen, who has died at the age of 64, can hardly be classified as 'old'. His story began in 2017, when he had failed a Department for Work and Pensions 'work capability assessment', which meant that his 'employment support allowance' payments were stopped and instead, he was told to sign on to receive a £67 a week 'Jobseeker’s allowance', visit the job centre once a week and prove he was looking for work. The problem for Stephen was the fact that he had : chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, osteoarthritis, an enlarged prostate and used a colostomy bag to go to the toilet, meant that, with all the will in the world, he was physically unable to work.

Stephen said that at the time : “I could only make it to the kitchen to make food once a day. I had no muscles in the back of my leg, which meant I couldn’t stand up at all and had to lean or sit down all the time, but they were telling me I was fit for work.”

In desperation he contacted the Casa Community Centre and his case was taken up by Terry Craven, a benefit claims adviser. Opinions were sought from two doctors, who confirmed that Stephen experienced significant difficulty and pain when completing simple movements and daily activities. A note written by one of them stated : 'It is my opinion that Mr Smith could not walk 20 metres without pain or exhaustion.'

Despite this evidence, in January 2018, his appeal was rejected by the Department for Work and Pensions and he was told he had not scored the requisite number of points for him to be deemed as having 'limited capability for work.'

Stephen's health deteriorated further. His weight plummeted to an emaciated six stone and when he contracted pneumonia and he was taken to hospital. Despite his poor health, he was forced to get a pass to allow him to leave hospital and go to the tribunal to fight his case against the DWP. Fortunately, having seen Stephen’s condition for himself, the judge stated that his mobility and health problems meant that he satisfied the requirement for Employment Support Allowance.

The DWP apologised and a spokesperson said : “We are sorry for the experience Mr Smith has had and we are committed to ensuring that people with health conditions get the support they’re entitled to. Following the independent tribunal’s ruling, he is now receiving full ESA support. While Mr Smith continued to receive benefits and support during his appeal, we can confirm he will shortly receive all back payments for ESA due.”

Now, two months later, Stephen has died.

A DWP spokesperson said : “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Stephen Smith.We are committed to ensuring that people with health conditions get the support they’re entitled to.”

Britain in 2019 : a country where more than 70% of disability benefit rejections are overturned at tribunal and one where academics have linked 'fit for work' tests to increased use of antidepressants and suicides among claimants.

In 2017 an inquiry by the 'United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities' into progress in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, found that Britain has failed to meet its obligations.
The Committee’s chair, Theresia Degener, branded the situation in Britain a “human catastrophe.” She said : “The austerity measures that the British Government has taken – they are affecting half a million people, each disabled person is losing between £2,000 and £3,000 per year, people are pushed into work situations without being recognised as vulnerable, and the evidence that we had in front of us was just overwhelming.”

Stephen's sad story is yet one more example of that "human catastrophe."
A friend said of him that he had never recovered from pneumonia and :
“He was a good soul of the earth. He would do anything for anyone.” 

Sunday 14 April 2019

Brexit Britain is, thankfully, still a country for old sea dogs and ex-public school boys like Sir Robin Knox-Johnston

In all its present Brexit travails it is heartening to know that Britain still has the company of sailors like Sir Robin who is 80 years old and who, when he was 30, in 1969, became the first person to perform a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. Then in 2007, at the age of 67, he set a record as the oldest yachtsman to complete a round the world solo voyage.

Sir Robin has explained the secret of his success by saying : "When I was on a cadet ship and we were about 50-50 grammar and public school, there was a difference. It showed in funny ways. For instance, the bullies tended to be grammar school boys. I think if you’d been a boarder at a public school you’d been through it there. I do think they had this ethos of ‘Do it, go for it, don’t look back’.”

He maintains contact with the polar adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the broadcaster John Simpson, with whom he appeared in 2009 in the BBC series 'Top Dogs.' The three men were shown visiting the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan, Cape Horn and the tundra of  Newfoundland and he agrees that it is significant that all three of them were ex- public school boys. In addition, he said of mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington : “We go climbing occasionally. He went to private school. It is boarding, I think. But no question." 

The "no question" in Sir Robin's case was Berkhamsted Boys' School in Hertfordshire, which his parents coughed up the money for him to attend, as a boarder, from 1957 to 1968 and where he acquired the qualities which assured his success as a sailor. With its motto 'Virtus laudata crescit' or 'greatness increases with praise' it was originally founded in 1541 by the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, John Incent.

Interestingly, the foremost 20th century novelist, Graham Greene, was at the school some thirty plus years before Sir Robin. The the son of the Headmaster and a boarder in St John’s House, he  was bullied so badly that he ran away from school, toyed with suicide by playing Russian roulette and had to see a psychoanalyst. It has been suggested that this deep, school-engendered unhappiness is why Greene, as a writer, didn’t really do ‘goodies.’ Everyone seemed to be a ‘baddie’ – only some were worse than others.

Thankfully, Graham’s analyst did change his direction, encouraged him to write and introduced him to a literary circle and he returned to Berkhamsted Boys' School as a day-boy. Also, while continuing to play truant to avoid bullies he used the ‘spare’ time reading adventure stories and the tales which deeply influenced his future writing.

Sir Robin is in the news again because he is considering a drastic end to Suhaili, his 32ft ketch, which is showing its age and has suggested that perhaps he should arrange for her to be burnt with his body. “It’s something I should think about. I think it would be unfair to leave it to the grandchildren. I could have a Viking funeral, I suppose.”

It was Suhaili which was was knocked flat in the Southern Ocean in 1969 and nearly had its roof torn off, where Sir Robin was thrown from his bunk, drenched in seawater and realised that if he did not bolt his cabin back together he would die in an open boat. No doubt the old public school ethos kicked in and saw him through and privilege, once again, paid off.

Saturday 13 April 2019

Brexit Britain is no country for proud old men

Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's 1956 play : 'Look back in Anger' immortalised by Richard Burton in the 1959 film.
"I suppose people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids.... There aren't any good, brave causes left."

Those old men, now in their seventies, who were the immediate post- Second World War baby boomers and their elder brothers, now in their eighties, who were growing up as boys in the War, were justifiably proud of what their fathers and uncles had done in the Armed Forces during the War. Britain had fought the good fight and triumphed against manifest evil in the European and Asian theatres of war. They held their heads high in the knowledge that their country had been, and still was, a force to be reckoned with in an unstable world.

The phrase 'laughing stock' first appeared in the 1533 book, 'An other boke against Rastel' by John Frith, in which the following passage can be found :

“Albeit … I be reputed a laughing stock in this world.”

The origin of the phrase is linked with the medieval practice of putting errant villagers in the stocks for a certain period of time, allowing them to be hectored and ridiculed by their fellow citizens.

For almost a year now, those proud old men of Britain, along with everybody else, have been assailed in their press by articles like these and it has made a severe dent in the pride in which they once held their country :

 July 2018

December 2018

January 2019
Opinion: Brexit has made us a laughing stock around the world 

March 2018                                                                                           
April 2019

In their sadness and to their consternation proud old men find that :

* the New York Times commentator, Thomas Friedman, has said : “If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t come to London right now, because there is political farce everywhere. In truth, though, it’s not very funny. It’s actually tragic.” Here was a country “determined to commit economic suicide but unable even to agree on how to kill itself”, led by “a ship of fools” unwilling to “compromise with one another and with reality”. The result was an “epic failure of political leadership”. Scary Stuff  "but, you can’t fix stupid”.

* the Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria has said in a piece entitled 'Brexit will mark the end of Britain’s role as a great power' that Britain, 'famous for its prudence, propriety and punctuality, is suddenly looking like a banana republic” and its implosion might even be the beginning of the end of the west, as a political and strategic entity.'
* Susan Hattis Rolef in the Jerusalem Post has said : Given the 'unbelievable mess that the UK has got itself into', Israelis should perhaps 'avoid wishing ourselves ‘the best of British luck’ ahead of elections this month. All in all, 'Britain seems to be short of luck at the moment.'

* even Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela's Foreign Minister, in the midst of a devastating political and socio-economic crisis, has tweeted the British Government had been “unable to meet its obligations.” The country needed leadership that, rather than intervening abroad, “takes care of the most felt necessities of the country and distances itself from political chaos.”

* Subir Roy in an editorial in 'The Hindu' has said : 'How could a modern, educated and open society have got it so wrong?' The answer, he said, was that Britons 'were deluded by their popular, lowbrow, chauvinistic, right wing press.'

* Sreeram Chaulia, Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, has said many Indians saw Brexit as the latest chapter in a "sharp decline in the place Britain commands as a great power.” Britain “is not a gold standard to look up to. We get a feeling of a sinking ship, and everybody wants to leave a sinking ship.”

* Nick Miller of the 'Sydney Morning Herald' and 'The Age' has written : To see a country 'deliberately throwing away a close, mutually beneficial partnership, wilfully damaging its economy and influence on a point of cultural principle was a surprise.'

* in Hong Kong, Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy MP, said she “used to think the Brits were a very sensible people” but added, “as a former colonial person, it’s almost like a farce. It’s sadly funny, sadly amusing. I’m baffled as to why and how things got to where they are now.”

* the 'Daily Maverick', a South African news website, has compared the Brexit saga to a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera – although perhaps 'not so likely to end the way they do, with everything nicely and tidily resolved in the last few minutes.'

* commentator J Brooks Spector, who writes for the 'Daily Maverick' has said 'Britain shrinks to a sort of economic ‘Middling Britain’, useful for some great shopping and often great theatre, but not to be seen as a serious global player any more. Even if the country is ultimately able to cobble together some kind of new economic relationship with the EU, the international reputation of its prowess as a negotiator would seem to be fatally compromised.'

* Adema Sangale in Kenya’s 'The Daily Nation' asked : 'Dear Britain, have you ever heard of project management? This discipline refers to when you set yourself a goal and clear milestones and tasks towards achieving it.'

* Nick Rowley from Australia 'ABC News' said : "How Britain resolves, or fails to resolve  Brexit and the terms of its divorce from Europe, is of more than passing interest to Australia. It is a bit like watching a loved grandparent in physical and mental decline. You care for them deeply. You appreciate all they have done for you. But each day they become more inwardly focused. Their world contracts. They seem increasingly incoherent."

Saturday 6 April 2019

Brexit Britain, anxious and fearful of the future, is no longer a country for an old, American radio broadcaster called Bill Heine, who once put a shark in his roof and a smile on its face

Thirty-three years ago Bill Heine, who has died at the age of 74, generated widespread amusement when he installed a 25ft-long fibreglass shark at 2, New High Street, Headington, an eastern suburb of Oxford, in August 1986, in a very different Britain to the Brexit Britain of today.

Mrs Thatcher, who ranks alongside Lloyd George and Winston Churchill as a 'great' 20th century Prime Minister, was at the helm. In January Britain and France announced plans to construct the Channel Tunnel, which they hoped to open by the early 1990s and in February Mrs Thatcher presided over the signing the Franco-British Channel Fixed Link Treaty at Canterbury in the presence of President Mitterrand, she said in French :

"This treaty is an important event, not only for relations between our two countries, but also for the whole of Europe, and will open up a new chapter in industrial cooperation between France and Great Britain, based on private enterprise and the competence of our heads of industry and businesses, and this will also give a unique opportunity to our businessmen and finance in order to show what they can do." 

In his speech the President said :
"You are deeply attached to Europe too and there is no going back on this, and this is the first stone perhaps. It is a French expression. The first stone has been laid. I do not know if it is a stone, but there will come a time soon when the cross-Channel Fixed Link will be part of the geological scenery of our planet and I personally think that this is very important and I want to thank you, Madam Prime Minister, for the efforts that you have made in order to bring this project to fruition." 

Fast forward 33 years to Brexit Britain, led by Mrs May, Prime Minister in name only and a 'Britain Thinks' poll of more than 2,000 people, the results of which were released this week, which found that 83% of those surveyed were sick of hearing about Brexit, while 64% thought it was damaging their mental health. The poll found that the dominant words people use in relation to Brexit have changed: in 2017, it was “confusing” or “uncertain”; now, it is “broken” and “chaos”.

The most important findings from the research indicated that the public :

* is totally fed up with hearing about Brexit and worry about the impact on their mental health.

* blames the whole political class for the mess and both main parties are now sustaining major reputations damage.

* struggles to see a route out of the chaos.

* consists of 'remain' voters who feel disconsolate and disenfranchised by Brexit.

* consists of 'leave' voters who find their optimism has turned to desperation.

Who was Bill Heine who brought a smile to the nation's face in 1986 ?

The answer is that he was, in fact, an American, born in 1945, the last year of his country's war against Germany and Japan, in the Second World War, in a catholic family, in the small farming community of Batavia, Illinois. Where, when her family moved to Batavia when she was 12, he befriended Jackie de Shannon, who later recorded 'What the world needs now is love.'

In his teens he attended a military academy, a high school that placed a high emphasis on military preparation, academic rigour, and physical fitness where he learned how to use pistols, rifles and even howitzers. He then read 'American Diplomatic History' at the Jesuit University of Georgetown, 
Washington DC. He then worked in the United States Senate and the Executive Office of the White House before embarking on a Law degree at Balliol College, Oxford, but had to postpone his studies when he was sent home when drafted for service in the Armed Forces in the war in Vietnam. Bill avoided military service by volunteering for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and Peru before returning to Oxford.

Having completed his studies at Oxford he decided to stay in Britain and did so for the next 50 years and explained his reasons in 2009 : He later said that the “clincher” behind his decision to stay had been the National Health Service and said : “This is a country where the ideals of the people have been enshrined in the way the country organises itself and that, to me, is incredible.”

After graduation and considering his future, he noticed that, though there were three cinemas in Oxford, they only showed films “like Bedknobs and Broomsticks or porn”. As a result,  the 1970s he bought a redundant cinema off Cowley Road and in 1976 with a friend reopened it as the 'Penultimate Picture Palace' or 'PPP', because his bank manager told him that if it was not the ultimate reckless enterprise it was 'the penultimate' or next worst thing. He revitalised the frontage by installing a sculpture by John Buckley, depicting Al Jolson in minstrel make-up reaching out his white-gloved hands in a scene from his 1927 'The Jazz Singer.'

For the next 15 years, under Bill, the 'PPP', which was run as a 'members’ club', built its reputation on art house films and films that had been denied a certificate by the censor, often attracting the ire of the City Council. Bill went on to open the 'Moulin Rouge Cinema', which he later renamed 'Not The Moulin Rouge' in Headington, for which John designed a giant pair of legs.  

His shark, designed by John, which appeared to have fallen headfirst from the sky and plunged straight through the roof slates up to its pectoral fins, was erected, without planning permission, on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki. It was also intended as a protest against the American bombing of Libya and as a statement about nuclear weapons. Installed in the midst of the Cold War the shark apparently depicted how even suburban quietism was at threat from atomic holocaust. As in Jaws, nowhere was safe and Bill suggested : "It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki."

It provoked a storm of outrage in Oxford and brought repeated calls from Oxford City Council to remove it. Bill fought a six-year battle with the Council which ended in 1992 when the Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine intervened and he was granted retrospective planning permission with the decision that : 'Any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the down right quirky.'

The shark also heralded the start of Bill's media career. He began writing a column for the 'Oxford Star' and in 1988 'BBC Radio Oxford' asked him to host a lunchtime phone-in programme, his interviewer assuring him : “This is the beginning of something big. This is why we’re going to pay you peanuts.” Over the next 30 years, he became known as an opinionated and fearless interviewer willing to tackle anyone, from senior politicians to criminals. His campaigns included an investigation into a paedophile running a child model agency which, he claimed, resulted in an attempt on his life.

Bill, who died on 2nd April, knew that his shark had become a popular landmark, drawing thousands of tourists to an otherwise unremarkable suburb of Oxford and that the council had become reconciled to its existence. As a result, last year council members were reported to have backed a project to protect it as a permanent part of the city’s skyline and Bill was presented with a 'Special Certificate of Merit' in recognition of his contribution to the city.

While working at BBC Radio Oxford he interviewed David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, Ricky Gervais, Alan Bennett and Gordon Brown of whom he asked : 
"Prime Minister, are there times when you feel impotent?" 

P.S. Bill's BBC interview with Nelson Mandela's daughter, Makaziwe :