Angela

This post is about a friend of mine who has agreed, up to a point, to let me write about her situation.

Angela suffers from a number of conditions, including peroneal muscular atrophy, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and other complicated medical problems relating to a road traffic accident she was the victim of some years ago.

Due to some personal tragedies in her life, Angela now lives alone in an adapted two-bedroom bungalow which she rents. Angela loves being able to see and chat with friends, reading, listening to U2, and also enjoys watching soaps and ‘Countdown’ on TV.

Until 2009, Angela was able to work. However, her condition worsened and she is now unable to work at all. She pays for a carer via benefits to come and help on certain days with some of her basic care needs, including washing, laundry, hoovering, dusting, tidying and some aspects of shopping.

Since then, Angela has had no other choice but to exist on benefits and receives Income Support, Housing Benefit and Disability Living Allowance (DLA).

Her Housing Benefit, when it was based on the 50th percentile, was paying for most of her rent – yet she still had to find just over £50 per month to top up her Housing Benefit in order to pay the rent in full.

Her home is not huge and (as Angela would be the first to say herself) not what one would call luxurious. In the past, she had to use money from DLA to top up the rent.

This is not unusual, as most people on Housing Benefit have to top up to meet their rent, as Housing Benefit rarely covers the entire rent, as it was based on the 50th percentile.

Angela’s home has been adapted – and Angela paid for this herself when she could work. She uses her 2nd bedroom to store various equipment, including a commode, hoist, a specialized wheelchair, other medical equipment and a special bed. There is nowhere else of this to go or be stored.

However, Angela’s life and way of life is now at risk. The recent Housing Benefit cuts (not caps), and changes to the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) to the 30th percentile from the 50th, mean that her Housing Benefit is much lower.

That now means that, on top of the £50 she had to find before, she also now has to find an extra £35 per week.

This is also because the amount of Housing Benefit is now partly determined by the number of rooms and people in a property. The reforms have no exemptions for disabled people, who often need an extra room (this is also often the case for families with a disabled child who cannot share a bedroom).

Angela simply does not have this extra money or any means to earn it.

After a number of discussions with her local council, consultant and doctor, it seems she has few options.

As she simply cannot make up this huge financially gulf that the Government has inflicted on her via the welfare reforms, she can either move or look at some form of care.

Angela approached the council about this last year (2011). Unfortunately, the council have no suitable homes for Angela and there is no social housing or housing association properties anywhere nearby. In addition, any new home would need adaptations prior to her moving in (in Angela’s case, the adaptations cost around £30,000).

Angela is reliant upon local neighbours and friends for essential day-to-day help and social interaction. They provide this help for free and gladly. These are also her friends, the people she mixes with, shares her time with, socializes with and the people she cares about.

If Angela is forced to move, she will be ripped away from her community and the place she loves so much. She will lose contact with her friends and lose her support network. In effect, and in her own words, she will lose what independence she has left.

This cannot, and should not, be tolerated by any of us.

Although people receiving DLA may be exempt from the benefits cap, they are NOT exempt from the Housing Benefit cuts and the Local Housing Allowance now being based on the 30th percentile, rather than the 50th percentile. They are also not exempt from the new rules on bedrooms and people living in a property.

I find this wholly wrong and very unsavory.  Angela, and people in similar situations, should not have to cope or deal with this on top of their problems.

Angela also does not have the money to move or relocate. She also has no money for adaptations, some of which are specialist and expensive.

Who is supposed to pay for such a move?

Who would pay for the adaptations?

Many people have to turn to the private rental market – but that costs a lot more money due to extortionate rent prices – and where would a deposit or bond come from?

Like so many disabled people who cannot work, Angela no longer has access to credit cards, overdrafts or loans; her income is fixed.

As Angela said to me, “I couldn’t afford credit if I could get it. At the end of each month, all the money I get is spoken for – it’s all gone on bills. People don’t realize how much more expensive life can be with a disability. They don’t have these bills. It’s the same with all the bills. I’m on the cheapest tariff with my gas and electricity company but I’m still £40 short every month. I’ve no idea what to do about that debt because it’s an ongoing problem. People don’t realize, I HAVE to use equipment and the cold affects me badly – I have to keep warm to avoid getting very ill. I only use the TV and household things, it’s the heating that ramps it up and the fact I’m at home most of the time. I never used this much when I could work because I was not at home anywhere near as much. I don’t think people understand how much more I have to use just because I now have to be at home most of the time. If I had a choice, I’d love to use less, I don’t have a choice, though.”

At the time of writing this, Angela’s only real option is a care home. It is outrageous – nobody like Angela should be faced with no choice or the prospect of having their independence taken away due to welfare reforms. The safety net of welfare should be there to serve and protect Angela and others like her.

It’s with perverse irony – with having a tory-lead coalition Government – that Angela is left with no choice.

‘Choice’ was something the Conservative Party ranted about for decades; yet here they are, taking choice away from the most vulnerable and those with the fewest options in the first place.

In her day, Margaret Thatcher offered a theological justification for her ideas on capitalism and the market economy.  She claimed, “Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform.”  She even quoted St Paul by saying, “If a man will not work he shall not eat”.

Hmmnn. But what if a man (or woman) can’t work?

This is central to the concerns many disabled and vulnerable people have. I include children in that too.

Nobody is saying that we should do nothing about the people who won’t work.

However, it’s all to easy to say ‘get a job’, when we know few jobs are out there. We have rising unemployment, a high level of graduate unemployment and businesses unwilling or unable to invest in jobs due to the economic situation and poor growth.  Since being in power, the government has done little to really help improve the economic landscape (employers and employees say the cost of living must come down).

I do not think the government has done enough research or analysis. It seems to me that without establishing the requirements sufficiently, it would be foolish and very risky to devise policies and select models for benefits and any assessments.

For example, government data on Housing Benefit has missed some vital points. Only 1 in 8 are not working, only a small proportion of private landlords take Housing Benefit tenants, and few people get Housing Benefit that pays all of their rent.

We know that when Housing Benefit was based on the 50th percentile, there were not enough properties available for people and families at that level. We know this because most people still had to top up their Housing Benefit (from other income or benefits) in order to pay their rent in full.

This was wrong in itself for disabled people – after all, disabled people need DLA to pay for the increased and often high care and mobility expenditure when living with disabilities. To then have to take some of that money just to make up the rent cannot be right.

Yet now, with no exemptions from the Housing Benefit / Local Housing Allowance cuts for DLA claimants, that financial burden is so much higher for the most vulnerable. This hits disabled people disproportionately.

There is no question that welfare reform and modernisation is needed.

Neither I nor anybody I have come across argues with that.

However, these reforms, I feel, are outmoded and do not cater for a wide variety of situations. For that reason, on PiP/DLA, many more assessments will be necessary, which is a very costly process. It may also see the number of applicants rise – especially with increasing media coverage that could yet follow.

There are many disabilities and conditions where “care and mobility needs” have different relationships with the actual “medical condition”.

Sometimes there is a direct relationship and it is obvious. In other situations, though, it may be quite different; it may be indirect, consequential, fluctuating, immeasurable or “hidden”.

What this means is that a person might have a NEED due to disability because of a condition (as opposed to their typical everyday “care and mobility needs”) that is not obvious, detectable, always present or predictable.

This need could be far greater than they would have typically, but is a need that does repeat and also produces further, consequential needs. And with such needs come high costs.

For example, Angela has “flare-ups”. These occur entirely at random but only a few times each year. However, when they do occur, Angela has to use a hoist, special chair, commode, other equipment, and adaptations in her vehicle. In addition, her mobility is greatly impeded and some of her medical conditions worsen. She also becomes susceptible to other medical problems. These “flare-ups” can last a few hours, a few days or a few weeks. They are completely unpredictable.

During these times, her life is completely altered and her needs far greater. But these are totally unpredictable. This is due to her combined medical conditions – it’s not part of her regular care and mobility needs but it is still something she needs vital help with – all of which costs money. This is why Angela’s DLA is so vital to her.

Considering this therefore, assessing people via a model on just (or predominantly) care and mobility needs will inevitably mean genuine, deserving people will be excluded.

In the new Personal Independence Payment(PiP) system, there is talk in the PiP consultation document about whether one is affected for 50% of the time within a 12 month period.

However, as in Angela’s case, sudden changes and “flare-ups” can occur which mean that, although a person might only need the expensive equipment and care for 10% or 20% of the time in a 12 month period, the fact is that the time percentage has no bearing on the need or cost. In these scenarios, the person still needs the expensive equipment or extra or intensive assistance.

These are not problems or episodes that anyone can predict. This is also the same for people who suffer from disabilities or conditions where the severity fluctuates at random times between extremes.

There are a lots of disabled people like this and the Government MUST listen to disabled people and organisations.

I really cannot see how the above proposed criteria (or the overall model) will be workable. I do not think the Government has done enough research into medical conditions, disabilities, care needs, mobility needs, care costs and mobility costs.

The Government claims to be working with disabled people on welfare reforms. Yet so many disabled people, charities and organisations across the UK say that is not the case, and the evidence and data point in favour of the latter.

In recent times, disabled people have been made to feel demonized and persecuted by both the Government and the media. This has not helped at all with the reform process, has caused deep offense and anxiety amongst disabled people, and has risked setting attitudes towards disabled people back by decades.

Angela said to me that, as a person with disabilities, she has felt ostracized from other people and society by comments made in TV programmes and from what she’s read in newspapers.

These stories have been unnecessary, unpleasant and factually wrong. They rely on people blindly believing them, rather than checking the facts out for themselves and giving the matter due consideration.

The Government has not done enough to involve disabled people and have ignored evidence and data. As such, sadly, the attitude toward disabled people has been skewed by misinformation and misrepresentation. The picture the Government and politicians have shown does not reflect the reality or the modern world.

There are many issues that disabled people and children often face in trying to just live as normally as the next man or woman.

However, legislation cannot do the single most important thing that needs to be achieved in order to reduce the discrimination and persecution of disabled people, the elderly and vulnerable groups.

Legislation cannot alter peoples’ attitudes or their misconceptions about disability, religion, race and culture or indeed sex (in terms of sexual discrimination – which is still as much of a problem in some areas as it always has been).

That is the real challenge. That will take longer.

Welfare reform is needed but this Welfare Reform Bill in its current form is outmoded and a big step backwards.

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Housing

95% mortgages may help some people – which is great – but it is a relatively small step in trying to solve a huge problem.

I feel that many people, including the Cabinet and many members of the Government have failed to grasp the scope of the problem.

I feel that they are so far removed from everyday people (for want of a better phrase), that they are simply unable to see or accept the problems real people face every day.

I am also unconvinced that socially subsidized housing is the right way forward when it is not part of a multi-pronged sustainable approach to enabling people to have a home.

That is one of the major problems. The Government sees the problem of housing as one of bricks and mortar; as though we are all just numbers that will fit neatly into boxes.

Cllr Daisy Benson reported that there are now 9,000 people on the Council’s housing waiting list in Reading and a big shortage of affordable family homes.

There is a similar story in York, as reported by the City of York Council’s Tracey Simpson-Laing, with thousands on the waiting list but only a hundred or so houses coming up each year.

And of course, there is no guarantee that a house that comes up is suitable or has enough bedrooms etc.

In fact, the story is very similar across the UK and the Government has been far too slow to respond.

The Government must eventually see that people don’t just look for a house or a bungalow. They look at location, the local community, nearby schools, shops and amenities. They imagine themselves in that house; there belongings in there, who will have what room and where the settee and TV will go!

In short, people look for whether a house can be their home – and the two are far from the same.

This is not about being ideal – far from it. But it is about being realistic about what people need and expect in our modern world – for it is that which determines what they will spend their money on – especially when spending so much.

One has to remember, also, that a first-time buyer is not always a single person or a couple looking for their first home. Many first-time buyers are families and may need home with 2, 3 or 4 bedrooms.

It’s also worth noting two other key points: –

One, that many family homes come with one smaller bedroom or a “box room”. This means that for many families, they need a 3 bedroom house rather than a two or a 4 bedroom rather than a 3. The smaller box room bedroom has become something of a “non-room” for many families, simply because the sheer size is too small for practical usage. Personally, I can think of a few friends who use the room for storage space, which is another vital aspect needed in any modern family home.

Secondly, many newer or new-build homes are much smaller than older comparative homes. The knock-on effects of this are manifold. For example, many families have to look at houses with another bedroom. So, whereas with older houses they may have looked at a 2 bedroom house for just themselves and 1 child, they now have to look at a 3 bedroom house because in new builds there is simply not enough space in the 2 bed. And, what if they wanted another child?

In relation to this, I have read reports from Cllrs at Council’s up and down that in the UK (for years) there has been a huge shortfall in family housing, i.e., 4 or 5 bedroom houses for large families.

Large families can exist for many reasons. Sometimes, there is no doubt, it is down to parents having too many children with no thought of the consequences.

But it’s not all because of ‘having too many children’, as seems to be in the news a lot. It could be due to twins, triplets, extended family, an elderly relative living with their son/daughter, or due to the serious illness or disability of a family member or members. There are many reasons and we should not be too quick to judge without knowing specific details.

We need far more of these types of houses but the question is how many of these type of houses will be built?

We must have homes for our families, including large families; they have to live somewhere. I despise the kind of self-righteous attitude that has created a growing stigma for families with a large number of children. This stigma promotes hatred, bullying and social exclusion – and it is unacceptable.

Whilst there is something to be said about adults and parents being responsible about having children, we also have to recognize that people’s lives, circumstances and situations differ greatly and that one cannot make sweeping assumptions about people based upon the number of children they have.

More importantly, this awful stigma affects the children far more than the adults.

A child does not plan or somehow select to be born with a disability, or born into poverty, or born to irresponsible parents.

Such children should not be punished, bullied, excluded or demonized for any of these reasons.

I would ask any reader to please take a step back and just consider this.

There are wider problems that have an impact on housing. When it comes to the crunch, the Government has failed to tackle any of the big hurdles people face above and beyond finding a deposit for a house.

The most obvious that affects most people (though ironically perhaps not the policy makers themselves as many are millionaires) is the high cost of living.

Having a mortgage is one thing – but then being able to pay that and then pay expensive utility bills – especially gas and electricity – plus buying and running a car (or using public transport) and then paying council tax and other bills is simply beyond the means of a growing number of people.

And that is a large contributing factor as to why many people live at their parent’s home much longer, and why the average age of a first-time buyer is 37.

If we want to resolve the housing problem in the UK, we must equalise more the gap between earnings and the cost of living. This, in whatever form, has to mean bringing cost of living down or raising people’s income or both.

I believe this to be an inescapable problem. There are already thousands (if not more) of people and families who are simply unable to make ends meet.

By that, I do not mean that paying their bills is a struggle – I mean that at the end of their month, they have paid out ALL of their income but there are still bills outstanding. That means debts are mounting up.

This is particularly impacting on the poorest families in the country and vulnerable groups, such as disabled people and families with disabled children – the latter of which often face significant extra costs that most people are not aware of, for which they get no extra financial help. I think the costs would really shock most people.

However, another group of people who find it hard or impossible to buy are those who have had or have, for whatever reason, a poor credit history and rating.

We have to recognize that many people have been forced into this position due to economic problems far beyond their personal control and that the cost of living has a large part to play in this. In resolving this, more modern solutions are needed that accommodate this.

Having the availability of housing and the ability to get that housing go hand-in-hand – something the Government has missed altogether when it comes to people with a poor credit history or people with life-long progressive illnesses, conditions or disabilities.

There is yet a further group of people who are often unable to buy. I am not talking about a choice they have made; this is a group of people who, for some other reason or reasons, simply cannot buy.

As a result of this, they are forced to rent. As we know, with a dire shortage of housing (which is much higher than the number of new houses the Government is planning), this usually means looking to the private rental sector.

This is another huge hole in the Government’s policies. The Government wants private rent prices to go up. However, I believe their premise to be flawed.

In addition, it fails to deal with potentially millions of people. For example, what are those who are unable to buy and who cannot afford private rents to do?

We already know there is not the available social or council housing. So, what to those people do?

If rents in the private sector were more reasonable (or even capped), this would open up opportunities for thousands of people and families up and down the UK who are unable to buy.

However, the Government wants the opposite; they want to see price go up. The problem is, it’s not a solution for people, and it’s not part of a more comprehensive approach, which is why it is fundamentally flawed. Their ideology assumes we all fit neatly into pigeon holes. But people don’t.

With a shortage of social and council housing, what do people who are unable to buy and cannot afford the high private rents do?

A recent news item quoted three main reasons for rising rents.

• Not enough homes have been built
• Renting is a lifestyle choice
• First-time buyers cannot get on the property ladder

The first reason is clear and obvious and one with which few would disagree.

The second I do not subscribe to. For many people, for many reasons, renting is the only option. A choice of one is no choice at all.

The third I agree with but does not express explicitly enough the wide spectrum of personal and family circumstances that exist.

The essential problem in the private rental market seems to be one the Government fails or refuses to recognize.

People have complained about people highlighted in BBC TV programmes in London who have been paid £2K+ in Housing Benefit per month.

However, the BBC programmes, such as Panorama, have been one-sided and not objective.

For example, the programmes did not show a typical family or person in receipt of Housing Benefit and how little they receive. In fact, most dependent solely on benefits live 40% under the minimum standard of living, which is significantly lower than the minimum wage.

It did not show how the levels of Housing Benefit differ around the UK (as they are based on a local percentile basis) – that in some areas, some families would not even get £280 per month towards a 4 bedroom house, leaving them with a shortfall of several hundred pounds to find somehow.

Because of these points, viewers were left with the impression that what was shown in the programme is what it is like for all people claiming Housing Benefit, right across the UK. It tarnished everyone with the same brush. But that is not the case at all.

It’s important to remember too that the Housing Benefit, directly or indirectly, goes to the landlord – and that the landlord determines his/her rent.

So, though the Government’s policy may mean fewer people can rent in expensive London, the ripple effect across the country will devastate families.

Outside London and across the UK, where Housing Benefit Local Housing Allowance levels are MUCH lower, thousands of people and families on the lowest incomes now face a huge shortfall each month that they will simply be unable to make up.

This is already making people homeless and has pushed people out of work.

The effect on families with a disabled parent/child or both has been particularly devastating.

The cost of renting in London is phenomenally high. In fact, London has some of the highest rent prices in the world.

It is for that reason that Housing Benefit levels are high there, due to the Local Housing Allowance mechanism. The local market determined the price, and local Housing Benefit levels reflected that.

So let’s be clear on this: Housing Benefit levels REFLECTED rent prices NOT AFFECTED them.

The Housing Benefit Local Housing Allowance levels were based on the 50th percentile. So you can imagine for yourself how much per month properties on the 90th percentile would rent for in London.

The Government has failed to acknowledge this and as a result, the poorest, least well off and most vulnerable are the very groups that will suffer the most, not just in London but across the UK.

These are the very people a civilized nation should strive to care for and protect – children, the disabled, long-term ill, injured soldiers, those with progressive conditions and the elderly.

Putting the scroungers aside for a second, can any of these people, including severely disabled people and children, help or influence housing rental prices?

Is it their fault that they prices have been over-inflated?

Were they the people who created this problem?

Were they the greedy landlords who were quite happy to charge extortionate rents during the boom?

I think not. So why is the Government punishing and demonizing those people now?

It is possible, feasible and affordable to put measures in place to root out scroungers and those taking advantage of the systems whilst still paying for, caring for and protecting the most vulnerable people in our country. So why have the Government not done this?

When it comes to disabled people, children, families and housing, there is quite often simply no suitable social housing available. This can be resolved via the private sector, but then the rent is much higher or unaffordable.

Quite often, such people need an extra room or bedroom. There is, for example, extra equipment that is often large, expensive and takes up space. For example, special beds, commodes, wheelchairs, hoists, special chairs, adaptations and medical equipment.

There are many circumstances, also, where a disabled child or disabled adult is unable to share a bedroom and this necessitates another bedroom.

These reasons and others often mean that a disabled person, parent or child needs an extra room. It is not a choice but a necessity due to disability and purely on the grounds of that or medical reasons. Disabled people do not chose to need another room in the same way as they did not choose to be disabled.

There are many places in the UK where there are simply no suitable properties on the 40th percentile (let alone the 30th percentile) for disabled people and families with a disabled parent, disabled child or both.

There is no provision in the Welfare Reform Bill for these situations or these people. It is almost as though the cuts have targeted the most vulnerable the most, especially as Discretionary Payments do not come close to the hundreds of pounds per month shortfall that such vulnerable people face.

Yet, the Government has failed to recognize this also – despite a plethora of evidence and impact assessments that prove otherwise.

The Housing Benefit changes and the Welfare Reform Bill will only add to the housing problems and, in the medium-long term, cost the nation far more money. It is also creating new problems that we did not have before.

However, the real cost of this is the effects on people’s health. There have already been cases of this and fatalities.

This is simply unacceptable. We have brave soldiers who have returned home injured and permanently disabled from fighting in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t they deserve more?

I am sure that those who fought for our freedom during two world wars would be ashamed of a nation intolerant of those that need help the most.

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Energy Usage

As we near the verge of an era where fossil fuels may run out, energy companies tell us that the cost of fuel – especially gas – is likely to only go one way.

However, all governments, including the UK Government, must know and realize that the subsequent increase in bills is unsustainable because people are already unable to pay their bills.

Whilst we have heard talk over the past 20 years about the ‘classless society’ and removing barriers between people from different background, the reality is that middle England is stretched and the gap between the poorest and the middle is wider. Those with the most – millionaire and the financially independent – couldn’t be further removed from most people (99%/1%).

Families with two parents working full-time are finding it hard to make ends meet, and the presence of payday loans etc proves that, for millions of people, their earning alone are not enough.

There are global systematic economic problems, some of which have been created by the greed and corruption of people in companies, banks, government and politics. However, some come down to more fundamental flaws with our type of economics. This has a top-down effect, and we all saw how the false belief in the prosperity of the boom during the noughties led to over-inflated house prices, extortionate rents and high credit spending.

There are, though, problems that are specific to the UK. Though countries share some problems, every country is different and has its own unique financial and economic problems. In the UK, for example, we pride ourselves on our free-for-all NHS (though some might argue otherwise on that point). However, that comes at a cost and this is where the dilemma begins.

I believe that our economic system (and to a degree capitalism) is outmoded. The world has moved on and the population has sky-rocketed. We trade globally and enjoy global communication. We have the ability to send money around the globe at the click of a button and can enjoy video calls/chat with relatives in far away countries via the internet. But although our trading systems, methods and economies have modernised, the underlying foundations were never conceived for such a time.

This has lots of problems and implications but that’s not what I am actually writing about in this post.

One of the problems of Government, I find, is that it is often short-sighted. Their main horizon is their term in office – or possibly two terms. Of course, there are some issues where they have to look beyond that. But overall, this is not the case and it is a fundamental problem of government in my opinion, especially when they fail to plan for growth and sustainability

The same failure of identifying problems and the lack of foresight is occurring with energy companies. Many people in low-paid work or living on benefits (for whatever reasons) simply cannot afford to pay their energy bills. This problem is starting to grow and the energy companies should do something to tackle this now before it gets worse and puts thousands or millions of people into debt.

There is also a problem with the way in which energy is billed for certain people. For example, many severely disabled people HAVE to use more gas and electricity.

This might be because they have extra, special or medical equipment at home, have extra and significant washing to do every day. However, the main reason that many face much higher bills is that they are at home far more than if they were able to work or get out and about. That could be anything from 25-60+ hours more. This is extra usage that they HAVE to use because they are stuck in their homes. They use more because they have to, not through choice.

Now, above this obvious, such as they have to stay warm and eat, extra washing, equipment etc, I also think it would be unreasonable to suggest that someone who is severely disable should just sit at home and do nothing. If their only source of enjoyment is watching television or listening to music or surfing the web, I do not think they should not do those things for fear of a bill being higher.

Severely disabled people, like anyone with a disability, long-term illness or condition, did not choose to be that way.

In many cases I have seen with people this year, their extra usage through disability means that they face bills they simply cannot pay.

They do not get any extra financial help for paying for the extra usage – so where are they supposed to get the money from?

It cannot be right that a severely disabled person, unable to work and struggling on meagre benefits, gets a higher bill than a person earning £60,000 per annum. I have seen this myself this year, with a number of disabled friends.

There are two people I have in mind; one has a disabled daughter too. They spend most days and weeks at home, as getting out is really hard, and also have extra consumption due to some special equipment they have to have at home. They have had extra insulation fitted and have had some changes to their home that their supplier suggested.

The other chap (a now mutual friend, his wife works also) has a family. I am pleased to say they are all fit and well but they are hardly ever at home. He has more children and a much bigger home but because they do not spend as much time at home, their bills are a lot less – almost three times less.

This cannot be right.

I think energy companies need to tackle this problem head on now before prices go up more and the situation gets worse and puts disabled people into a situation where they can neither afford to pay off their debt or usage. Another billing method is needed for this group of people. It cannot be right for these companies to charge severely disabled people for extra usage they have no say in using.

If we step back and consider, what will happen in the future? When prices go up again, who is going to be hit the hardest? Who is going to feel the price increase more? Who is going to be more adversely affected? Who might be potentially put at risk?

Energy companies must have foresight and policy on this. This needs addressing by the energy companies.

 

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Examining Lessons (Not) Learnt

I was somewhat surprised to read about Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, condemning the British education system at the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Not, though, that this is unwarranted; in fact, he made some very good points that should not be forgotten or ignored.

Schmidt’s main point seemed to be on our historical record of innovation in science and engineering and how we have failed (on many occasions) to capitalise on these achievements. He makes some great points – you can see/hear his comments here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/aug/26/eric-schmidt-chairman-google-education

In his comments, he also said how he had been flabbergasted to learn that computer science was not taught as standard in UK schools, despite what he called the “fabulous initiative” in the 1980s when the BBC not only broadcast programmes for children about coding, but shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes.

I would have to agree with his comments. I can remember this initiative and how this worked in tandem with the home computer market at the time. In that era, home computers were not just about playing games – and the internet did not even exist. Children (and parents) of that time could also learn how to write and code computer programs – all from the comfort of their homes. This was, at that time, new, fun and exciting – and the only education programme of its kind in the world.

There was significance and real inherent value of having this in schools. One not only learnt about writing computer programs but also the history of computing, which is important. As Eric Schmidt noted, the British invented computers in both concept and practice. He went on to say, “It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops. Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.”

The course that ran with this schools’ programme was usually a GCSE called ‘Computer Studies’. Schmidt is right; where is this course in our schools today?

This was a course where you learnt how computers worked; how the microprocessor worked; how to design software programs properly; how to analyze problems and use technical diagrams and flowcharts; how computers are used in business and industry; how they affect society and much more.

The initiative successfully brought together schools, education, television and business on a national scale. Together with Acorn Computers Ltd, over a million computers were shipped to schools and homes. The BBC Microcomputer was quite expensive to buy and Acorn reacted to this (plus due to competition from home computer rival Sinclair) by selling a ‘cut-down’ version, called the Electron. The Electron was cheaper but, significantly, came with the same computer programming language that children up and down the country were learning. This initiative was exciting, inspiring and opened otherwise locked doors for many children.

Acorn also developed the ARM processor, which was the first RISC processor available in a low-cost PC. ARM was then founded as a spin-off from Acorn and Apple, after the two companies started collaborating on the ARM processor as part of the development of Apple’s Newton computer system. The ARM processor, though, is a computer chip that is more important than most realize. Did you know : about 98% of the more than 1bn mobile phones sold each year use at least one ARM processor?

Yet, why does it feel as if the Brits have had little to do with this? Where is our global presence? Where is our stamp on this? How could we have dropped the ball?

In 2008, the 10 billionth processor chip based on ARM’s designs was shipped. This year (2011), Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, announced plans to base the next generation of Microsoft’s Windows operating system on microchips designed by ARM. Until now, Microsoft’s PC software had been based on chips designed by Intel in the U.S.

It seems that we started something great in our schools, something that grew global; yet, we failed to reap the benefits or sustain this as a British invention and export.

Schmidt also commented: “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage,” he said.

On this, I have to agree also. The courses “these days” have such ambiguous and cryptic names, such as “ICT” – names where it is as clear as dishwater what has actually been taught and what someone who holds such a qualification knows and can do.

Of course, learning how to use common and office software (such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, Powerpoint etc) is also very important. I wonder, though, how deep these courses are and then, in turn, how useful an average school leaver could be to an employer. From what I have seen, I do not believe they are deep enough and should include some more advanced areas, as well as the basics. I do not think we set our sights high enough; we should raise our expectations and provide more inspiration to school pupils – that they deserve better; that they can do better and better themselves.

I completely agree with Eric Schmidt; computer science should be taught in schools by default – and that does not mean learning how to do a mail-merge in Microsoft Word or set up the most basic of databases using Microsoft Access.

Computer science is an area we used to treat as significant and influential in the education of our children and future of our nation; we must return to that position again.

It is astounding that this is not a fundamental key part of the standard curriculum. With the advent of the internet, global e-commerce, websites and social networking, it should go without saying that children are not only taught how to use software but also how it is designed and made, and how the underlying technologies work. In the very least, if not a subject taught in its own right, Computer Science should be an integral part of the Science curriculum.

Schmidt made reference to a comment made by Lord Sugar in an episode of the BBC’s The Apprentice show – Lord Sugar’s comment was something along the lines of “engineers are no good for business”.

Schmidt’s own success flies in the face of this notion. However, it does not stop there. Consider other successful businessmen who began as ‘engineers’. For example, Bill Gates. He didn’t do too badly for himself. There are many more examples.

The irony is that, whilst Lord Sugar has been successful in business, his own accomplishments in the world of computers would not have been possible but for the fact that other people, such as Bill Gates, were businessmen as well as engineers and programmers.

I do not think these irresponsible and brash comments that Lord Sugar made are helpful. Such comments are negative and do not inspire young people. In fact, it may well deter people and only adds to the negative, false assumption that, if you have a scientific or engineer’s mind, you will not be successful in business. This is rubbish and history has shown this. The reality is, we need more of these minds in business. (As I recall, Lord Sugar also contradicted himself on The Apprentice, by making such comments and then going into business with Tom, himself more an inventor/designer/engineer than natural businessman).

Currently, I feel a real sense of negativity when it comes to the education of the next generation in the UK. The current government is out-of-touch. We are in desperate need of some passion, positivity and inspiration in our education system.

I fear that many your families feel a sense of disillusionment over the future, especially for their children. We have all seen what has happened to economies around the globe and, by and large, I think we all know that in the UK, the gap between the richest and poorest is huge.

It is hard for young people to be or remain positive with the few choices many face. On the one hand, they know it is very hard (if not impossible for many) to get a good job at 16. GCSEs are simply not enough anymore for many jobs, careers or employers. Yet, many young people are now faced with the prospect of not being able to go to college to take ‘A’-levels or vocational courses, simply due to the costs.

The next dilemma after that is whether to try to go to university or look for a job at 18. It is very hard – we have seen this from the sheer number of unemployed graduates. If one does decide to go to university, there is also the huge debt; for many people, just the prospect of this debt is enough to deter them.

This is a terrible situation and does nothing to encourage children or help our children reach their potential. It also does not help in narrowing the gap between the richest and poorest. We may be excluding some of the best minds from the education they deserve, denying them the education and future to which they should be entitled.

The lack of the courses we need and the standard of education we need at GCSE and ‘A’ level both need to be addressed. We should expect and command more from the British education system. The current situation is intolerable.

There has been some talk (hardly debate, though) about recent ‘A’-level papers being diluted in comparison to older ones. It is hard for me to be certain on this – though they are obviously different because of changes over the years. However, personally, I can recall taking my ‘A’-levels and I would be lying if I said that the questions in the sample ‘A’-level paper I saw from a couple of years ago were as difficult as those in the exams I sat.

I have some serious doubts over the modular GCSE courses that pupils now sit in many schools. While the principle of breaking the subject down into modules and tackling them in units is sound, it strikes me that there is not enough time or depth given to each unit. For example, when it comes to Algebra, some pupils may find this harder than others, and therefore require more teaching and learning time than allocated. The current systems does not allow for this, which means that some pupils may potentially not get the grades that they could achieve.

Another serious issue I have with the modular courses is that exams occur in Year 10 without sufficient prior preparation. This is at a critical age, especially for boys, as they mature later than girls. The difference between a 13/14 and 15/16-year-old pupil can be quite important. If your birthday is at the end of August, that make you the youngest in the school year; however, it your birthday is in September, you are the oldest. At that age, that difference of a year can also make a big difference. I think the structure of modular GCSE exams needs to be refined and should be preceded by a primer.

One last point on this relates to homework. I do not think there is enough emphasis on homework and on educating pupils on their responsibilities. I believe we need to also educate more on such things as the ‘work ethic’, self-confidence, communication skills and on why it is important to be self-motivated. I think, sometimes, it is easy to blame teachers or parents when in fact there are other aspects – the children, the government, political will, money, resources, the curriculum, teaching methods and the education system itself.

In the fast-paced modern world, where children grow up surrounded by consumerism, material possessions and the expectation of instant gratification, there is a need for people, society and our systems to adapt to this and keep up. As part of this, we have to adapt our understanding and see life and the world as our children do; their perspective and perceptions are much different to ours.

However, understanding this does not mean, for example, making exams too easy or trying to let one’s children grow up in a naive bubble. If children are not prepared for real life and the real world of work, they are bound to find it much harder. For example, not having to work or do chores at home in order to earn pocket-money could lead to an expectation of getting something for nothing.

One of the things I have noticed is that some people simply do not want to make an effort. I do not believe this is a global problem – and I think it is something prevalent more so in the UK than anywhere. Whether it’s through laziness, a sense of hopelessness or something else, we must work to improve matters. Children should not grow up believing they cannot change or shape their future; too many people seem to think ‘effort’ = ‘hassle’.

In his comments, Schmidt also said the UK needed to bring art and science back together, as it had in the “glory days of the Victorian era” when Lewis Carroll wrote one of the classic fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, and was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford.

I cannot help but agree strongly yet again. Our education system seems fragmented, multi-tiered, with options not open to everyone. The system has become dull, basic, motionless and too focussed on education for vocation. We need education that is panoptic, exciting and inspiring, with pervasive and innovative school programmes like the computer studies course mentioned above from the 1980s.

I would ask that readers look/listen to the comments Schmidt made, as all of his comments are backed up by facts and I feel he hit the nail on the head with his analysis and advice.

I believe, at the moment, that our education system (not teachers) is failing our children. It is not poor but we need innovative improvements if we are to enable people to reach their potential.

We cannot permit the education system to deteriorate, let down our children and jeopardise their future.

Just as Britain’s technology innovators have to learn lessons from dropping the ball in the past, so too our children need lessons to learn for the future.

Related Links:

Guardian Story : http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/aug/26/eric-schmidt-chairman-google-education
Acorn Computers Ltd : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acorn_Computers
Micro Men : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Men
ARM : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARM_Holdings
BBC Piece : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14683133

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Phones and Tech For All?

Last year, I purchased a mobile phone made by Samsung called the Samsung Wave. It’s a smartphone but not one of the usual suspects. The Wave is not an Andriod phone; instead, Samsung have developed their own platform, called ‘Bada’. Bada was new at the time, and I was under no illusion that Bada would offer the same number and variety of apps found in alternative marketplaces. I liked the look and feel of the phone, the spec was good, and the AMOLED screen was fantastic.

However, I could not have predicted what has happened since. Whilst I expected to see a slow growth of apps (on Samsung Apps), I could never see Samsung eating into much custom from Andriod or iPhone users. That being said, that does not mean there was not room in the marketplace for another contender. But, if Samsung wanted to get a piece of the action, they needed to enable good quality apps to get to market quickly in order to gain traction.

It is certainly true that more and more apps hit Bada. I do not see, though, that they have got close to their potential. However, this is not down to a lack of developers – it is down to two other problems.

The first is that Bada (and Bada apps) has little semblance or identity. This, as I see it, is a huge problem, as it means that many people and smartphone users will have never heard of Bada. It also means that people do no know what to expect – whereas smartphone users have come to know what to expect from Andriod, Apple etc. It is also a problem for the developers, as it makes it harder to invest in and commit to development projects. On the one hand, there are some great games available for Bada – many of which, in my opinion, are far better than those available on Andriod in terms of graphics, playability and game depth.

On the other hand, some of the apps are pathetically poor; some simply do not work and the GPS related apps seem flaky, temperamental and unstable. Many of the apps are pointless and some crash regularly.

The second problem relates to updates to the Bada operating system/firmware.

The Samsung Wave shipped with Bada version 1.0, which was then upgraded to 1.2 some months later.  However, if you have a Samsung Wave on contract with, say, O2, then you cannot the upgrade to 1.2. This is because the phone has a custom branded firmware (i.e., branded to/by O2 for example), rather than a generic vanilla version.

The only way to get the upgrade in this situation is to unlock/unbrand your phone. I would never advise this on a contract phone – if nothing else, it invalidates your warranty.

If you are wondering why not having Bada 1.2 is a problem, I shall explain. First of all, Bada 1.2 is actually not the current version (at the time of this blog post, 2.0 is the current version). There are two reason why it is a major issue. First, new applications are being developed for Bada 1.2 or 2.0. You cannot download or use Bada 1.2/2.0 apps with Bada 1.0 on your handset. Second, old apps for Bada 1.0 are being upgraded to run on Bada 1.2 (or above). This means that people who paid money in good faith for a smartphone are now being deprived not only of apps but of phone functionality which they expected to get in the product they purchased.

I find it amazing that Samsung has dropped the ball on this. If they want Bada to gain traction and grow, they MUST ensure that updates are available to all customers. Now, whether the problem here lies more with the carriers is a question I cannot answer. However, reading between the lines, there is the slight odour of a rat. Bada 1.2 was made available in generic vanilla but it’s not advisable to install this on a branded contract Wave (you have to manually update the phone’s firmware). From a commercial perspective, there are a number of reasons why holding back on branded updates might be of benefit. For example, being able to get a branded update may mean many customers opt to keep their existing handset rather than getting a new one. It also gives the carrier some hold over the customer base, albeit in a negative way.

It’s also not good for developers – potential customers and users of their software are being denied to them because of Samsung and/or the carriers.

In my opinion, it is simple: when a stable update is available, all customers with compatible phones should have free access to that update, irrespective of being on contract or not.

If you have a Wave and have experienced this problem, contact your carrier and Samsung. A friend and fellow Wave owner has just got a free upgrade, despite having months left on his contract. He was not happy; he explained his experiences and the problems. He also told them that he felt that the original sale aspect of the contract was invalid, as he could no longer download apps he wanted, which was one of the features the phone was advertised as offering. He felt that this was unreasonable and not in the spirit of the sale/contract (i.e., any sale contract should have a ‘meeting of minds’ and he would never had agreed to buy a phone if he had known in advance he would not be able to use one of its major features in a matter of months). My opinion aside, it seems the company agreed and supplied a free handset upgrade.

Moving along, I have been looking at various phones recently. I am very impressed with some of the handsets available. I do feel the handset market moves too quickly, though. I love to see new, cutting-edge technology but if you have a phone on contract, it’s impossible to keep up with the latest devices. The only other option is to spend hundreds or thousands buying them sim free. I worry that young people tempted by such tech may get themselves into debt/too much debt.

Tech of all kinds has transformed our lives and the attitudes of the next generation. In the UK, children are raised with the expectation of instant gratification. There is a desire to want and own things but there is also a frustration and depression in many people who cannot afford such things – either because they don’t earn enough or have exceptional circumstances.

The proof of this is in what has happened in micro-economics over the past 15 years: the boom in borrowing and lending; having multiple credit cards and transferring the balance; loans and most worrying – ‘pay day loans’ – which are more to do with people’s earnings simply not being enough to cover their expenses than with having a one-off problem one month.

This is more than just ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. This is a sea change and so long as our celebrities, millionaire MPs and Prime Minister enjoy such tech, luxuries and multiple holidays, it’s very unlikely that attitudes will change.

Moreover, the tech, gadgetry and luxuries are not going to go away. It is not something we can ignore or repel. I also feel strongly that there is nothing wrong with wanting or desiring such items. We must embrace this but also show some maturity and exercise responsibility. However, this does not mean that one should be denied such items just because you happen to be poor, young, disabled or unable to work.

It is part of a bigger problem and if we are to embrace tech and future products in general, they must be available across the board. That means, we must reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. We must empower people to be able to earn more. Sadly, our current Government seem to be doing the opposite, which will be of huge cost to taxpayers in a few years time.

Although people might not agree, it seems clear to me that our current economic systems do not work. I am just, for this post, concentrating on one area that we must tackle and manage.

In years gone by, the notion was leave school, go to college/uni or get a job and then hopefully progress and maybe look forward to retiring early with some money to enjoy.

That has changed.

Now, people want to enjoy themselves whilst they are young, fit and healthy. People no longer wish to wait until they are older and less able. That, to me, make perfect sense.

One of the biggest changes we have to make financially and economically is that we have to understand and accept that young people not only want to spend money when they are young but they also NEED far more money than they used to. I am not just talking about the cost of college or university. The sheer cost of living is so much higher and young people not only want but demand their right to be able to buy what they want. For many, the thought of a low-paid, dead-end job and only being able to afford to get by and pay bills is just not enough – and rightly so. We should set our expectations and aspirations far higher.

Of course, this is not that black and white and I am generalizing to make a point (I am not suggesting ALL young people are like this or that they are all irresponsible).

What I am saying is that, the world is changing and so are people. There is so much more out there that people can do and buy – and people do want to buy ‘stuff’. It might be mobile phones, laptops, tablets, plasma/led TVs, PCs, XBoxs, PS3s, games, apps, gadgets etc. The consumer marketplace is huge and full of variety and choice. I do not feel it helps to expect people who have little money on an ongoing basis to simply accept they cannot get such items. In a world surrounded by so much consumerism, this is not workable and the logic does not hold water.

We need to enable a system where money is available to young people and others so that they can purchase such items and make repayments at affordable levels – even if that means repaying much smaller amounts for longer periods at higher interest rates. This should also be available to those on very low incomes and long-term disabled and ill people.  Many people in these groups cannot get credit simply because they are disabled or have a low income.

I realize there are credit unions, which are helpful, but we need a more rounded and complete solution. The current mindset is outmoded. My friend is 28 and works in computer software. Four years ago, he was unemployed (had been for 2 years) and had no prospects. The Jobcentre failed to give him the help and training he wanted. He could not afford to pay for training by himself and banks were not interested.

He got lucky.

He won some money and used that to pay for education, training and professional qualifications. He got a job and some experience. He now earns around £50 per hour. Yes, per hour. There is no doubt in his mind that had he not won that money, he would still be looking for a minimum wage job.

As much as many people would like to think overwise, the truth is that money DOES make a difference. If one has a comfortable income, there is less stress in daily life, as there is not the worry about being able to pay the bills. We must invest in people if we want a more stable economic future; we must narrow the chasm between the richest and poorest; we must help enable the potential earning power of the next generation.

There is nothing wrong in young people wanting items such as phones, iPods, TVs, and other tech; it’s part of their lives as they are raised – it’s around them 24/7 growing up in the UK – consumerism, new tech, new TVs, the latest games and fashions. Times have moved on – it is a different world from the 80s and 90s.

The problems and frustrations come from our outdated system – not enabling them to flourish and grow and become the next generation of adults. If we empower young people to increase their abilities and earning potential, we help them in more ways than perhaps we can appreciate. It is not possible to compare them and their lives as young people to those of older generations in their youth. The world is simply a different place – as are their daily lives. We have to try to see life through their eyes – think about what they have seen growing up and how the world has changed in their lifetime alone.

If we can empower young people to earn more – which means investing money – we also stand a chance of crossing the road to a more sustainable economy. A generation or more of people on benefits, unemployed graduates with debt and people stuck on low incomes will not provide this.

I feel I have to also add that it seems some parents do not take enough interest in their children’s interests, education and future. Many do not support and communicate enough with schools and teachers. I think education is very important and I really feel for some young people I’ve met who find reading, writing and communicating difficult – or even a hassle.

Before I move on, I’d just like to make a simple, logical point. If we bridge the gap between the rich and poor and reduce it, not only are more people earning more but more people are paying tax and more tax. This is good for the health of the national economy, as, in basic terms, more money is needed in the pot. This also reduces the cost and strain on or welfare and support services.

One of the reasons I feel passionate about this is that I have recognized from what I have seen (and from what I have heard my own children say), that adults/people do not understand the modern world of a teenager or young person in their 20s. Having considered this more, I can now see how different the world has become and have realized that my view is coloured from my own childhood and upbringing – not just of where I grew up but WHEN. I have realized that this view is not just coloured but, in fact, is now inaccurate and out-of-date.

Tech, gadgets etc are becoming less of a luxury and more the norm. Mobile phones, microwaves, flat-screen TVs were once all, at various times, not affordable to all; they were the toys of the rich and famous. But now, they are the norm: look how many people own mobile phones and there are not many places where you can buy a new CRT television.

When it comes to a lot of tech, these items do appeal, arguably, to the young more than the old. So, if companies, people and society expect an item to appeal to ‘youngsters’, ‘kids’, or young people, one can only expect such people to desire the items. To expect them, therefore, to simply not be able to have them is just a contradiction.

When it comes to phones, there are even phones that look like portable video games consoles (see Sony Xperia Play http://bit.ly/ewBpVW) – with even more appeal to the younger generation.

The latest generation of smartphones are becoming a more developed product – though the rate of change in the industry is arguably too fast.

Some of these products are very good. I really like the phones from HTC, Samsung and Sony.

HTC used to make handsets for a number of products. These included the ‘SPV’, which was one of the first true next generation smartphones available at that time (around 2002-2004). It ran Windows Mobile and, although it had issues, it was an impressive device. The biggest problems it had were the operating system and user interface, the latter not being that user-friendly.

Two of the latest models – the HTC Sensation and Samsung Galaxy S II – offer amazing performance, high-quality big screens, great features, great cameras and video capture, and a wealth of games and apps thanks to the Andriod marketplace.

These are both dual-core (1.2Ghz) devices and so offer very good performance. I’ve been lucky enough to test both and can say neither should disappoint.

As yet, though, no company has come up with the ‘perfect package’. I am looking forward to the tech of 2012 and hoping to see less compromise and more completeness from designers and manufacturers.

Samsung let down the original Galaxy S by not including a flash and by the handset having poorer-than-expected build quality. The Galaxy S II still does not have the look and feel of a premium smartphone, though this is no deal breaker.

The HTC Sensation is fantastic. I think the HTC is the Bentley to Samsung’s Ferrari. HTC Sense – the Android user interface overlay from HTC – is a pleasure to use, with smooth animations and nice touches. The HTC feels like a more premium phone, with more elegance and subtlety.

However, it has to be said that in most performance tests, the Galaxy S II wins over the HTC.

I prefer the video on the Galaxy S II, it seemed less jerky to me in HD and looks amazing on the Super AMOLED+ display. The HTC display is also fantastic – it’s a qHD display, which means higher resolution.

The HTC has a more natural display when it comes to colour and the higher resolution means that text and photo details are a little better. They both have good points; it’s just down to preference.  Despite its failings, the HTC phone and screen have grown on me a lot.

There are two areas I have a major problem with the HTC, though. One is that the volume level of the speaker for the ringer or media player is too quiet. This can be improved slightly but it involves rooting the phone and is not really a solution. It also sounds tinny and distorts badly at high volume. The second is that, in weak signal areas, the HTC loses its signal too easily. These problems also feature in other HTC phones, such as the Desire/Desire S. It is for these reasons that I would personally choose the Galaxy S II out of the two.

These are fantastic phones; they are examples of great tech and devices that should be available to one and all – whether 60 or 19, fit or disabled, rich or poor.

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The Fog of Oblivion

I find myself unhappy to have to say that, during the past few weeks,  I have seen and come across some of the most ignorant and gullible people I have ever met.

Now, I don’t blame them, for want of a better word. After all, we are all only human and I can understand that, if one has little or no experience in something, then there’s going to be naivety, ill-considered opinions, poor judgement and mistakes made due to inexperience.

However, this goes beyond that. It even goes beyond poor character or blinkered vision.

So, what am I talking about?

Well, a few things, actually, but that share a common thread.

First of all there has been David Cameron. He has simply demonstrated such blissful ignorance when it comes to the details of various policies. It is the Government’s lack of insight, consideration and experience that has led to so many so-called U-turns.

Then, there is Coulson. This is yet a further example of Mr Cameron’s poor judgement. He cannot have it both ways; if he was aware, he showed poor character; if he was not, it was poor judgement. The lack of adequate checks also showed gaping holes; he is building quite a history of avoidable mistakes.

When it comes to Government policy details, he simply seems uninterested. But people should be more aware of the details; the Devil is most certainly in the details.

Secondly, I’ll move on to how groups like long-term or severely disabled people living on benefits are now viewed by many people. For the purpose of this blog post, I am sticking to the people who I have met face-to-face personally, despite this being more pervasive on the internet: on social media websites, web forums, chat rooms etc

As an example, I’ve met three people in the past ten days who are convinced that the majority of disabled people claiming benefits are receiving well over £20,000 per annum.

This is simply not true. It is simply not the case.

Of course, we know why they now think like this; we know why they have a figure in their heads; we know why they are now forming opinions such as those I have heard very recently.

The Government, its Press Office and the Media seem to have gone out of their way to highlight and showcase the extreme and untypical cases, where people have been in receipt of the highest levels of benefit.

This has been both misrepresentative and bias on the part of the Government and Media. One can recognize that a Government, in wanting to push through cuts, caps and changes, would obviously want to draw attention to the cheats, scroungers, workshy and those getting perhaps more than they are entitled; it would be paramount in gaining public support.

However, I find it inexcusable that the Media has gone along with this consistently but has failed to be impartial and objective. Not only are the featured cases exceptional, but in many cases some of the facts have been misreported, exaggerated or omitted.

This coverage has flavoured and discoloured many people’s opinions and views. Their views are now based on a bogus premise and their judgement clouded by hyperbole and tall talk.

The most recent example is demonstrated in this news story – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14280849 – which claims that ‘Only 7% of people claiming sickness benefits were unable to do any sort of work, new figures have shown.’

Anyone who thinks that it is possible that only 7% were unable to do any sort of work is clearly unbalanced. Just consider that figure: 7%. 7% is an incredibly low figure and is simply not feasible. Yet, because it is reported in the media, many people will simply believe this, without considering, for example, whether the criteria or tests used were reasonable, fair, comprehensive and medically sound.

When dramatic figures like that are flaunted around, one really has to question the maths and statistics. In turn, it makes the procedures and protocols that the Government and companies use look unreliable and suspect.

My own feeling is that the Government and such companies are very underhand, and I suspect that it is high on their remit to bring these figures down by whatever means necessary.

This is reflected by what disabled people report and by their own experiences.

A recent article also discussed attempted suicides – http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/may/31/incapacity-benefit-cuts-mental-health

The probability of their being a 93% discrepancy in these figures is laughable. I just hope people realize this and are not taken in by the fact it has been reported from official sources and the likes of the BBC.

Let us not forget that during the 80’s and 90’s, unemployment figures were regularly massaged. But discounting people on training courses from those actively seeking work is very different from putting disabled people in danger by forcing them to try to get work they are incapable of doing.

I would ask how a person with no experience of a rare or very changeable disorder or disability can make an accurate and comprehensive assessment of a person’s ability to work?

There are a countless aspects to disabilities that can be individual and subjective, not least of which is that some conditions and disabilities vary extremely from hour to hour or day-to-day.

I would also point out – something which the Government avoids – that if disabled people are moved from, say, Incapacity Benefit to Jobseeker’s Allowance, that this does not reduce the benefit bill. Far from it, it merely transfers the cost to a different budget; it’s still raining, just a different umbrella.

This is a significant point, as there has been a silent suggestion planted into people’s minds by the Government; that if people are no longer receiving Incapacity Benefit, that they will somehow, mysteriously, suddenly be working.

This is hogwash but serves as another example of how some people are easily mislead by the Government.

The reality is that people will not suddenly find work and will simply face an awful experience as a Jobseeker; they will find very hard to deal with Jobcentres and many will see their health deteriorate.

The bottom line, though, is that this policy costs huge sums to implement but does little to reduce the benefit bill; it merely transfers people from one budget to another.

The ignorance and malice flowing through the core of all this is staggering.

This brings me on to my next observation.

In our modern, globalised world, it still surprises me the number of people I meet that seem to have a very limited vista. To me, many people must inhabit another planet because, when they talk to me and I hear their views, it feels like they are talking about a different world completely.

I feel that many people are guilty of living in their own little ‘virtual world’.

Interestingly (at least I think), when it’s a dead-end job or something seen as one of the ‘downs’ of the ups and downs in life, people often refer to their situation as being ‘stuck in a rut’.

Yet, when times are good – when it’s an ‘up’ – many people seem quite happy to potter around in their virtual world, without a thought beyond their personal circumstances or those of their nearest and dearest.

Now, of course, we all take care of ourselves and our own first (or try to); we all, in general, want the best for our children, families and friends. This is not the point I mean.

I believe that many people (and maybe society) have lost their sense of community in many areas.

I also believe that we do not value people as we once did. I don’t see that spirit of watching out for one’s fellow-man/woman. I don’t see that once common streak of humanity and resolve that got people through World War II. I don’t see the concern that we should care for our most vulnerable first or that the needs of the vulnerable should come before personal gain.

There are many, often simple, aspects of life that people find hard to truly grasp, often because they have no personal exposure. (So why do people form opinions about things they know nothing about!??)

For example, many severe and long-term disabled people living on benefits face utility bills two or three times that of what they would pay otherwise. Yet, they receive no benefits or support to pay for these extra costs.

The bills can be higher for many reasons, including being at home when they would otherwise be at work and thus having to use more energy at home; but for the fact they are disabled, these extra costs would not exist.

For some people, equipment, due to a person’s illness, condition or disability is needed at home, which uses  extra electricity.

In addition, heating often needs to be on all the time during winter, as many disabled people are very susceptible to cold weather. Some are also susceptible to extreme heat too and as a result extra cooling is necessary during summertime and on very hot days.

Personally, I know people who have a financial shortfall, because of this, each month of £60-£100.

These people have no way to make up that hole; they cannot get extra hours, a second job or do something to improve their job prospects, as they simply are unable to work.

This is a real and growing problem. Some utility companies have had or do have schemes to help people to a degree. However, some companies have stopped this help. This is perhaps, in part, due to the fact that the help in many cases is nowhere near enough or has only been a temporary, part solution, where a full and continuous solution is required.

There are huge economic problems that will not go away or be resolved even when the nation’s borrowing deficit has been reduced and if/when the economy shows more sustainable growth.

One is that, in the UK, the gap between the most wealthy and the poorest is colossal. Such financial disparity in one nation makes living with each other very difficult on so many levels. This can be especially cruel to children and disastrous for the prospects of future generations at the lower end of the spectrum.

The second is that many people seem to have been fooled into thinking that it’s all about low wage levels and the national minimum wage (NMW).

The problem is not the NMW but the cost of living and the chasm between what people on the lowest incomes have and can afford to pay. The fact is that the cost of living is simply beyond the means of people on very low incomes.

I have personally known people who have taken out loans or money on their credit card in order just to pay Council Tax (as they would rather owe them than owe Council Tax). This is also evidenced by all the short-term, pay-day loan companies that are now around and advertising on television (not to mention their APR rates). These schemes, whilst useful, are not a long-term solution. They are also not available to everyone – for example, people living on benefits and those with bad credit. However, disabled people who cannot work on long-term benefits often face much higher utility bills with no assistance available to help pay.

This is evidence that people cannot meet their most essential financial commitments on low pay. This problem is likely to get much worse unless it is addressed. However, Governments are avoiding this, instead offering unreliable figures (often based on manipulated data) and empty promises of their concern and help.

I would ask, do you really believe that someone in Government, earning 64k+ per annum + expenses + other income, truly gives a tuppenny damn about you!?

They may say they care – but that’s easy – anyone can say that! In reality, their words are cheap and feckless.

The facts are that we live in a Capitalist country; our national economy and finances are based upon Capitalism and the competitive, free market.

This means, basically, that if you want to earn more, it is down to you, the individual, to improve your position in the job market, either by doing more hours, taking a second job, improving your skills and qualifications to have better prospects or get a better paid job – or possibly starting a business of your own.

So, in reality, whatever MPs and ministers might say, their showing of concern for the low-paid and NMW is somewhat insulting, far from benevolent and quite hypocritical.

Of course, as an individual, you are not forced to do this if you do not choose to (or cannot be bothered). However, the onus, in a competitive free market, is on you.

But there’s a problem – and anyone who has had the misfortune to be unemployed for a long period, or made redundant after many years of working in one job or for one company, will know this.

First of all, if you have come from a well-paid job, you somehow have to go from earning, for example, £37k per annum to living on £67.50 per week. I think the gap in the figures speak for themselves and are self-evident. I think upon seeing those figures, people can work out the major financial problems and knock-on effect, not least of which can be huge debt.

Secondly, if you want to get on a training course to retrain to do something, it’s simply not possible in many areas. This is usually because there is no funding for such training but it can also be that there is no appropriate training in that area.

I spoke with a friend who runs a company a few weeks ago and he echoed many people’s thoughts on this.

The training that is often available to ‘Jobseekers’ is frequently poor quality and always very limited.

Many people and companies believe that, whilst essential, basic training and education courses (which are designed to help people with basic literacy, numeracy and ICT) are vital, they are also used to manipulate figures. In other words, one, technically, cannot be counted as a ‘Jobseeker’ if you are on a training course. I am not sure about this, personally, although when I have asked questions on this, I have had vague replies from various agency staff.

We obviously need such courses. However, as my friend agreed, this is not enough alone  for that person to be considered a viable candidate or competitive. Moreover, these qualities and skills are fast becoming basic prerequisites for new jobs.

Over and above that, just to be considered for jobs, people need experience and job exposure; they need, in many jobs, a specific level of education; they need, in some jobs, professional qualifications or accreditation. Furthermore, they need to demonstrate self-motivation, self-confidence, reliability, good communication skills and the ability to work with other people.

The job market is a competitive free market and everyone has to sell themselves.

This is where there is an immense void.

The Government’s bombast has left many people thinking or saying that people should just ‘go out and get a job’, as if there are jobs for everyone and that this is something one can get as easily as a tin of soup from the local supermarket.

This is nonsense. Just on this point, one set of local Jobcentre figures showed over 20,000 Jobseekers but only around 400 jobs that month. This ratio is not uncommon and the fact is, even if the number was 4000 jobs and they somehow all got filled, that still leaves 16,000! If you think about it, 4000 jobs sounds a lot; it’s a high number. Given this, it’s very hard to see how David Cameron’s words about ‘the jobs are out there’ bears any likeness to the real world.

In certain sectors, such as bar work, rates have been driven down by an influx of immigrants who have been happy to work for the lowest wages. However, as people from overseas get used to personal UK expenditure levels, they are now  beginning to see that they cannot afford to live on such wages.

My friend told me of how, when we last recruited for a vacancy, the company received over 150 applications – for one job. So, people are applying for jobs.

However, he went on to tell me that they could only consider people with appropriate qualifications and training, relevant experience, a good work history and good references. He said that, as a business we can simply no longer afford to train people from the ground up and that, with so many applicants, they have choice from which to pick the best candidate for the job, even if it means paying a bit more in terms of a wage or salary.

He has been surprised for some time that so many of the applicants met that criteria – and many, of course, were already in work and simply looking to change job.

Over 40 people met the company’s criteria and it was, apparently, a time-consuming and difficult process getting that down to a final shortlist of five.

However, none of this should not be surprising, if one considers the number of graduates and experienced people who are out of work.

For people, though, who have been unemployed for a long time (for whatever reasons) or that have been made redundant later on in their career, especially in areas of work that are not so in demand nowadays, for these people, it can be very hard to even get into that ‘circle’ where they can compete.

This is where one of the biggest problems lies. We must invest in appropriate and relevant training if we ever want to really get the unemployment figures down. If we want a modern approach that is sustainable and imbued with longevity, then we need a system that empowers people and moves with the times.

There is a financial cost here for which, at least initially, the country must recognize and pay.

If ‘taxpayers’ really want to see unemployment figures and the cost of Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income Support to come down and also profess to support keeping things that way, then they must accept the country has to invest in quality training schemes that are appropriate and relevant to modern business and industry.

It is vital to remember that there are people trying to get work but that, if they are never really on a level playing field because they lack modern skills or relevant training, then life can get very frustrating and depressing. People like this should not be made to feel bad or demonized by the Government and Media polluting people’s opinions.

As an example, the local Jobcentre has over 1,500 people in June that were refused training as a result of no funding and a lack of courses. How must each of those people feel? They are trying their best, doing what they can with very limited resources; it really is kicking a person whilst they are down.

I have two specific examples and I am hoping to post links to blogs that they intend to write in the near future.

One person local to me wishes to retrain as a software developer/programmer. He was made redundant twice in 15 years. The first time around, the skills in his trade were no longer needed by his employer, and a few people were made redundant. On the second occasion, the company was facing financial problems due to a downturn in sales, mostly attributed to the economy. So, he’s worked hard all this life, paid his taxes and done nothing wrong himself.

He has been approaching companies for over 18 months. He was told that, without relevant qualifications, training, skills or experience, he would find it very hard to get a job in the industry, as it is a saturated market and heavily competitive, with graduates and experienced applicants from within the UK and overseas. This is not unlike many other sectors.

He has tried to get funding for courses and training but has had no success. He did take GCSEs at a local college, gaining 7, As & Bs. However, there are no relevant ‘A’ levels or vocational courses at the college (and he was told there is no funding for them anyway!)

A number of companies have told him that if he can gain some further education or training and demonstrate relevant skills, he may be able to get a ‘Junior Programmer’ role or work placement. However, he has no money to purchase a computer and has struggled to find a way to raise the cash, as he himself has a £50 shortfall on his monthly outgoings. With recent changes to the Housing Benefit caps, on his new flat, this has now risen to £75 per month shortfall.

As a tangential question, how are people supposed to concentrate on trying to find work, improve their chances, concentrate on any training, learn new skills, apply for jobs and attend interview when they have to deal with such basic survival problems daily? At the moment people are more concerned with trying to minimize or deal with debt that is being forced upon them and keep a roof over their heads.

Some companies he has seen have been forthcoming and flexible in trying to help but the onus is still on the applicant to get some skills, training or qualifications; applicants need to be competitive and employers need some way of seeing and even measuring this.

With the advised required training that has been suggested by several companies, the total cost for his training just to make him have a competitive chance is thousands and thousands of pounds.

This is money he does not have and has no means to get or make. This is where the right kind of training programmes would make a massive difference. The key is to empower people – to enable them to be competitive.

It is the old phrase – ‘I don’t want a handout – I want a hand up.’  Everybody is different and some people need a little more help than others in order to flourish. After all, we are all human and have different circumstances.

So some might need just help up one rung of the ladder; for others they might need help up a couple. The problem at the moment is that, for many people, there simply is no ladder.

The money has to come from the Government, though there is also scope for the private sector to do more. However, the Government, I think on balance, has to take the lead.

One needs to remember that just getting training does not equal or mean a person is guaranteed of getting a job; that is how difficult the marketplace can be. However, it does give people a real chance by empowering them and allowing them to actually stand in contention for jobs against other applicants.

This can be applied in many areas of work – how would someone on £67 per week fund cross-training to work in engineering, aviation, finance – or become a doctor or teacher? (You need higher qualifications as prerequisite for many of these.) It is also very hard to start a business of your own these days, even when one has savings or some investment.

It is far easier to get another job when already in work than it is to when you are not. ‘Taxpayers’, as David Cameron seems to pander to, must remember that prospective employees must be employable – something which is far more than just ‘showing willing’, which is what many people seem to believe (wrongly) is the problem.

Insofar as tackling those that are lazy and ‘workshy’, cutting benefits will not work. It leads to homelessness and health problems, which puts a massive strain on the nation’s support systems and NHS. In turn, this costs significantly more.

In the 80’s & 90’s, we had a culture of families growing up in Bed & Breakfasts due to lack of available housing and benefit rates that did not come close to market prices.

This ended up costing the country billions in the medium-term, thanks to costs of all the knock-on effects. For example, both children’s health and education suffered, which put extra strain on the NHS. Many people also believe this was a significant factor in the culture of families who have 2 or 3 generations growing up and living on benefits.

If we go back to that, we will again be responsible for cultivating the same dreadful and very costly outcome for our children and future generations. This was a lesson learned and accepted, so why do it again?

This is happening again. The Government’s changes to Housing Benefit cap levels are forcing people and families into B&Bs, as their Housing Benefit is no longer enough to pay for a home. It is also forcing people and families out of areas where they have always lived; away from family and friends.

There are three areas where is going to be very costly. Firstly, our children shall suffer; having to leave their schools, their friends, their relatives. Children, parents and grandparents alike will be devastated. This is just inhumane and parents often depend on local support (e.g. child minder, grandparents, family) for temporary, part-time or full-time work.

Secondly, disabled people and long-term ill people who depend and need support from local friends, family, services and carers will suffer greatly. Many move into areas where carers are available – what will they do? The knock on costs here could much more severe than merely financial.

Thirdly, if people or families are forced to move further out-of-town, their job prospects will suffer as living further afield from a potential employer is not an advantage and there are transportation costs to consider for interviews, for example. If any of these costs are met by the taxpayer – either through a person being unemployed longer than they might be otherwise or because of transport costs – then the costs will far outweigh the savings.

Some people would argue that moving people into areas that are cheaper to live, where it is harder to get work, will significantly increase the burden to the state. Certainly, if one is a scrounger and lazy, the Government has just gifted them a justifiable excuse.

There are, undoubtedly, people who would spend all efforts to not work. I think it would be silly and unrealistic to consider that any Government could stop this totally.

However, I feel there is also an underclass of people who feel let down and betrayed by the country and Government. Whilst I do see similar things in some other countries, what I am referring to, I think, is UK-specific.

Children that have grown up in the UK under poverty can end up leading comparatively polarized lives, of equally contrasting quality. Of course, on the full-scale, there’s always the ‘ones in between’; but, by and large, they are the ones who can manage, that do okay and survive and thus are not the priority group that need the most help.

Some find something within themselves and go on to great things, starting from nothing, from scratch, all on their own merit. To those people, you have my greatest admiration; to overcome adversity and poverty is a truly admirable and deserving achievement.

However, for many others, there is often no way out of poverty. In situations where there is very bad poverty, parental neglect, growing up with crime and street gangs, health problems, drugs, disabilities – in these situations, the people and families need more help and support, especially from local family, friends, services etc. They need it now more than ever, at a time when the Government is trying to take from those that have the least.

In these situations, people are already at their lowest. They will have very low self-esteem, little self-respect and little self-confidence. Some may suffer from depression and related conditions. This is just wrong; children should not have to suffer from depression because of this.

In some situations, where there is a disabled parent, a child may have to take on some carer responsibilities. This is not unusual but in the face of a deluge of other problems, children cannot be expected to cope with so much.

We cannot go on pretending to be unaware or with blatant disregard; we should not abide the avaricious and grin and bear it. There comes a point when leaving it to someone else befalls upon you.

We must make changes to how we live our lives for the sake of our children and future generations. The events around the world and in various economies are indicators that this is overdue. We, nowadays, trade across the world in a global village, yet still maintain disparate national economies. I believe this to be a paradox; as the world becomes more integrated through technology and entwined with international trade, so our own economies become can be more influenced and shaped.

We need to narrow the gap between the richest and poorest, between the bloated and the broke. We must begin to start building bridges – not just here but between the working and the workless; between organisations and the out-of-work. We must strive to build bridges that bring disabled people closer to independence; bridges that bring wealth creation and wealth distribution together.

We must also make training, education and learning something we accept as a positive thing that is ongoing and done to better ourselves, not just our work prospects. In the modern world, it is part of life that no longer just restricted to school, college or university.

There are many areas where such bridges need building; we need ties and relationships to bring people (and businesses) closer together and prevent these gaps widening further and fragmenting. It is because people are so far removed from others that we can find such ill-feeling so quickly against others; for example, against the poorest, disabled people and people existing on benefits.

These transitions require huge changes in our attitudes – not just as UK citizens but as people. This is but the tip of the iceberg. However, these are changes, I feel, that are going to be necessary for the future economy of our children’s generation to stand a chance of success.

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