OK, tax credit cuts *are* wrong

Given the political landscape in the UK now looks more like two opposing student unions have been handed the keys to the wrong set of buildings, it’s getting increasingly difficult to know what to think and who to believe.

So I was shocked yesterday when, out of the blue, my mind came to a conclusion without prior warning over a topic I didn’t know it had been debating. Now I have decided, the answer is obvious: tax credit cuts are wrong and the reason why is complicatedly simple. I’m not sure why I want to tell you about it nor what I feel this blog will achieve, but here goes anyway.

Back in the budget, George Osborne made two separate announcements. One was the cut to tax credits for people who earn the least. The other was an increase in the national minimum wage.

Since then, we seem to have accepted that given that one change takes away a payment made to the low paid and the other increases a payment to the same people that the two announcements are linked – but are they?

No one has been minded to stop the connection, after all, but why would they? If it looks like a strategy, then it must be one and like most humans Politicians do like to look like they know what they’re doing.

I don’t think they are linked at all.

The ultimate aim of all this messing about is to keep everyone who works earning enough to feed and clothe themselves and their families and keep the heating on, and to increase wages paid by employers to get there instead of asking the taxpayer to step in instead.

It’s an aim we should all be united on really. No one can argue against decent wages and I suspect few would argue that taxpayers should top up wages on behalf of profit-making companies but actually, achieving that aim doesn’t need any cuts.

Tax credits have always been means-tested. In other words, they ‘fade away’ when families earn more. I can remember back to the first year my mother received them. For the several years after that she was paying back supposed over-payments because her income in the Government’s computer was a bit squiffy.

So the only thing that needs to happen for a family to ‘get out’ of the tax credit system is for their income to increase. If wages go up, tax credit payments go down. That already happens, even if we do nothing.

So unless you think that people earning just over £6,000 a year are earning too much then there’s actually very little to be done but push up wages somehow – and that’s exactly what the new National Minimum Wage does.

I’ve thought for a while that taxing people and then refunding it seemed a silly way of doing things, so I was previously actually pleased at the whole thing being fixed. Back when I was watching the budget I have to admit that I fell into the trap, celebrating George’s work on solving the other ‘half’ of this problem – but there is no half and half.

We’re encouraged by Osborne, Cameron and others to ‘look at the big picture’ and take into account the wage increases which compensate for the tax credit cuts – and they do, to an extent.

It is glaringly obvious though that tax credits are being cut because the Government wants to deliver savings more quickly.

The concept of getting working people out of the benefit system and forcing employers to pay a living wage for work is admirable, but that’s not what this does. This is about saving money.

We’ll just have to wait and see if anyone affected bothers to vote.

Stronger in, happier out?

Against my better judgement, I couldn’t let this week pass without scrawling something reasonably cohesive on my thoughts about the EU. I’ve deliberated about exactly how to tackle the topic for a few days, because it’s a difficult one.

I do think ‘against my better judgement’ is a nice way of summing up the whole referendum though – since even the man who called the thing doesn’t believe we should even be considering the door.

The EU is one of those strange things which, despite being incredibly dull, is made exciting purely because it produces endless quantities of issues which can be misconstrued for the purpose of moaning about every day stuff we all hate anyway.

You can’t have magnolia paint anymore, cucumbers have to be a certain shade of green and you aren’t allowed to put milk in the mug before the hot water either.

British people just don’t like being told what to do. Frankly, it’s not hard to believe that if we had a similar referendum on health and safety law we’d end up voting out.

The case for leaving the EU is made up of guesses at best and outright lies at worst. The remain campaign is more honest but, frankly, a little uninspiring.

No one really knows what will happen when we vote to leave the EU. The ‘experts’ we’re so sick of hearing from say it’ll be a catastrophe – but the reality is that a broadly pro-EU Parliament is likely to find some kind of fudge to minimise the impact, and the extent to which ‘leave’ means ‘leave’.

If we stay in, a quick glance at Scotland hints that we might have to see more of Nigel Farage’s baggy little face and endless headlines about poor EU families deported by our uncaring Government for not finding work quickly enough once they got here.

So what’s the best thing to do? It’s a tough one.

To me, whatever you think of the EU as it is today or as you think it might be in the future, a vote for leaving the EU is a vote for a rose-tinted dream of a past where Britain had an empire, where terrorism was more local and where the world was less global.

It’s a vote for a country where people think that building a new hospital a week is even an idea worth writing down, for people who care what colour or religion their neighbour is rather than whether they play loud music till 2am every night and never cut the grass.

For a world where helping Turkey get up to the standard expected of an EU member is a bad thing. For a country run by people who would actively accept sub-standard bananas, even though we already eat and sell them now.

Voting to remain in the EU isn’t that sexy, or that fun – and arguing for why we should stay in the EU is really hard because it’s what we’ve already got.

There’s no big promises of change, no viagra-like promise of ‘taking back control’ of anything that we’ve not really lost anyway.

Voting in means jobs are as secure as they are now – whether they rely on EU trade or not – and whether they’re taken by people who were born here or just people who think that Britain is a bloody great place to live.

Voting in means we’ll be able to work together with all those other countries to solve problems like the refugee crisis, like ISIS and like Greece’s economy for the benefit of us all.

Voting in means accepting that the best thing to do is be part of the club, even if sometimes we disagree.

I remember what it felt like being the kid stood on his own in the corner of the playground. Let’s not make ourselves that kid.

Libraries of Hampshire: I believe in you.

Yesterday I dispatched a missive on this very blog about how I, if someone were to have accidentally left me in charge, would run Hampshire’s libraries to increase their usage – not manage their decline.

I did conclude, though, that it wasn’t all the council’s fault. Despite being a member for nine months, I’ve only actually borrowed one book – and I should be doing better.

But today, instead of the usual nagging feeling I have which urges me to pop back here and delete whatever it is I’ve written, I wondered just how fair I’d been to myself.

If I’d have abandoned Amazon over the last 12 months and used the library instead, could I have read the same selection?

I don’t for a second think that my reading habits are ‘normal’, but neither do I think they’re that out of the ordinary either. I’ve a penchant for ‘bullshit to make your life better’ books, I’ll give you that, but otherwise it’s pretty straight up stuff.

And I have to admit, I completely didn’t expect what I found.

It turns out that there’s a very comprehensive collection and plenty of copies of each book – and most are also available at my local library too. I’ve done a list below, if you’re interested.

So in short, I was right. We should use our libraries more. But I was also right that the people running libraries shouldn’t be overseeing their demise because people aren’t using them – they should be asking why people aren’t using them, and fixing that instead.

My suggestions might just help.

Could I have used the library instead?
Book Title and AuthorRead DateAvailable in Hampshire?Available in Alton?
How to Be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do – Allcott, Graham18/02/16YesYes
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Ronson, Jon15/02/16YesNo(1)
Balancing Act – Trollope, Joanna11/02/2016YesYes
The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It – Jones, OwenAbandonedYesYes
The PR Masterclass: How to Develop a Public Relations Strategy That Works! – Singleton, Alex17/01/2016NoN/A
According to Yes – French, Dawn11/12/2015YesYes
A Prayer for Owen Meany – Irving, John29/10/2015YesNo(1)
Pay Me Forty Quid and I’ll Tell You – Culwick, Michael Ashcroft & Kev28/10/2015NoNo
The Unfinished Revolution: How the Modernisers Saved the Labour Party – Gould, Philip [Borrowed from Hampshire Libraries]03/10/2015YesNo(1)
Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse: And Other Lessons from Modern Life – Mitchell, David03/10/2015*YesYes
The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership – Branson, Richard09/08/2016YesNo(1)

(1) Book wasn’t available in Alton but could be requested and collected a few days later.

Photo credit: carnagenyc via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Libraries of Hampshire: believe in yourself

I took part in Hampshire County Council’s consultation over the future of its libraries a few weeks ago. The consultation itself has been rather controversial with many anti-cuts groups saying the exercise, which does suggest some closures, is ‘phoney’ and uses fancy words to obscure plans for closures.

The council are currently spending more than £12m a year on running 53 libraries and hope to save around £1.7m with the new strategy – the subject of the consultation – putting libraries into tiers based on how well used they are, as well as cutting the mobile library service.

Far from thinking the consultation was in any way phoney, it does – in hindsight, at least – strike me that the strategy is trying to solve the problems of today and tomorrow with the solutions of the past.

It’s unbecoming of me to be less cynical than would be appropriate of people’s motives, and perhaps the bods behind the strategy are looking to find ways to cut back on libraries completely, but it seems that whoever put the plan together had settled in the view that libraries will, in the not-too-distant future, close up shop for good.

Their job, as they see it, is to manage the decline of libraries – not stop it.

And I disagree. Library usage might have declined, but books are still in demand. So why are we looking at solving the problems of under-use by closing libraries and not, instead, focusing on increasing usage?

Like charities should automatically have ‘become obsolete’ as number one in their list of objectives – the core values of the library service should surely be ‘keep people using libraries’.

Here’s what I’d do if someone left me in charge:

Open more at weekends, less during the week

It’s being proposed that some of the least used libraries in Hampshire will have their opening hours cut back, in some cases to 5-day-a-week opening and in some cases 3 days.

To get more people in to the libraries this opening needs to be biased towards weekends – why? Well, because most council tax payers simply aren’t around during the week and the places picked – Alton, Aldershot, Bordon, Eastleigh, Hayling island, Hedge End, New Milton, Tadley, Totton – all look to me like places where people live, not where people work.

Opening Monday to Friday 9 ’til 5 when most of the adult population aren’t around seems pointless – and of course, it’s also pushing up the cost per lent book too.

Put more stuff online

No, I don’t mean eBooks. I mean develop a proper, engaging platform which not only lets me do wall the stuff I already can – like reserving books and renewing a loan – but which actively encourages me to read more.

Goodreads’ Reading Challenge would be easily implemented to encourage volume, but at the very least a weekly ‘suggestion’ based on my loan history or a tip for a new release wouldn’t go amiss.

And that feeds into…

Take a hint from LOVEFiLM

The consultation says that ‘home libraries’ with volunteers delivering books to residents’ homes will provide a more intimate and efficient service than a mobile library van.

They’re not wrong – but with 2,200ish people relying on the service it’s going to be ‘free’ labour intensive. Why not instead let people use the new online service to create a reading list and have books posted to them – for a small additional subscription?

This wouldn’t just help those who can’t get to libraries because of a disability or lack of transport, but removing the effort from going to the library would almost definitely increase usage. It’d even be possible to join forces with other councils to offer the service on a bigger selection of books.

Work out how to open 24/7 without staff

Multiple chains of gyms manage this, and they’re significantly higher risk places. At the very least, collecting books you’ve picked online and returning ones you’re done with should be possible round-the-clock – or at the very least after 5pm in some of the ‘lesser used’ areas.

There’s simply no need to have staff buzzing about a library all of the time and with more than 60% of the £12m a year going on staff, finding ways to reduce the number of people needed to deliver the same basic service will reduce costs quickest.

Stop talking about ‘branding’ until you’ve fixed things

Libraries’ brand, whether they like it or not, is ‘placename library’, and no amount of swooshing coloured lines and “Your mind, our shelves, working together” branding that will inevitably come out of any rebrand is going to change that. The problem is that libraries are currently associated with female pensioners headed in twice a month for a stack of hardback novels to pass the time and housewives looking for their free fix of Mills & Boon.

If you rebrand before you change that the new brand will end up with the same image the old one’s got. No matter how many swooshes you use.

Remember you have to use it or you’ll lose it

I don’t use my local library enough as it stands – I’ve borrowed about 3 books from it since I joined about 9 months ago – but that’s partially because I forget I can, or because it’s easier to order it from Amazon and have it delivered the next day.

I think we all suffer from a belief over public services like libraries that they will always just be there, and we instinctively jump to their defence – even when, if no one mentioned it, we might not personally notice they’d closed.

Much like local business can’t rely on screaming from the rooftops about how local business needs to be actively supported to carry on trading – instead of considering how they might change to make it more attractive to shop locally – the people running libraries really should be acknowledging that they have a future.

Providing a library service on the off chance someone wants to use it isn’t enough I’m afraid.

Don’t moan so much

I know that it’s commonly believed that train fares in this county are confusing, but it is really necessary for us to be subjected to ‘interns’ moaning about the fact they can’t afford hundred-quid plus train fares when they’ve not done their research AND refuse to travel on a cheaper route?

I’m a commuter too. I know train travel is expensive and I know that having about £400 out of my wages each month feels insulting when I think hard enough about it. Even still, I get upset when I see people moaning in the media or wherever about the amount they pay for train travel because it’s just not that expensive.

Buying a ticket for £4,760 might seem a rip off but when you consider that for that money I’ll have travelled in excess of 17,700 miles (and most of them asleep, listening to a Radio 4 download or reading) it’s not actually that bad.

In fact, it’ll have cost about 27p per mile – far less when you consider I’ve not included the tube travel that’s included in the price nor any of the ‘leisure’ journeys I’ve made and the 3rd off other rail fares that I get too.

The railway is a cruel mistress, but she can’t be claimed of not rewarding you for commitment.

So I think I was rightly enraged when I read a blog by Georgia May on HuffPost UK last week. She’s an intern in London apparently, and she wrote that she and other young commuters like her would face losing their jobs because a discount offered by a Train Operator was being discontinued.

Georgia says she travels from Rugby to London for work. It was costing her £27 per day to travel and now, she says, it’ll cost £86 after the discount was removed. She also adds that she can’t afford to move to London because of expensive rents, so I’ll give her that at least: the girl needs to commute for the job she’s worked hard to get.

But all is not as it seems, because in fact she could cut her costs down to just £24 per day with a one-operator ticket or face an increase to just £32 per day with the ‘any permitted’ option. Both on 12-month tickets, granted, but they’re available to many more than they were (even Interns on zero hour contracts) with schemes like Commuter Club. I’ll admit to anyone that I’m not the best at maths, but neither of those figures sounds anything like £86 per day to me.

In fact, even going for ‘Advance’ tickets for specific trains up to 12 weeks in advance gets the costs down to about £64 a day. Still not close to the £86 walk-on fare being quoted, even if it still seems expensive.

Georgia is by no means alone in her feeling under attack by the removal of discounts and getting media attention for it, though.

South West Trains were under fire for not extending their summer ‘travel anywhere for £15’ offer to allow veterans to travel into London for VJ Day celebrations for cheap earlier in the month too.

South West Trains rightly said they’d not offered the promotion on that day as it’d lead to overcrowding, but still got accused of trying to profit at the expense of the vulnerable who needed to travel.

I’d like to have seen the press they’d have got for offering the promotion and running overcrowded trains all day long. I don’t think it would’ve been any better, and it might even have been worse.

For some reason when an offer or promotion starts, it seems to have become ‘nasty’ to remove it again and when someone says they can’t afford something it seems to be obligatory that it comes with undertones that they should be able to.

Running a railway isn’t cheap, and running one that didn’t get the investment it needed in the past is even worse.

Given that the railways cost us all so much to run (Network Rail has £38bn of debt alone), we should be pleased that the companies we’ve trusted to run them are doing their best to fill seats up by offering attractive deals and not getting upset that when they do, it works.