Thursday, 16 October 2014

Freud's slip and the dangers of the unsayable

It’s been an Orwellian week in terms of any concept of free speech in the UK, with two rather different cases provoking the sort of widespread outrage that threatens once more to dampen the inclination to actually saying anything that might go against the accepted view of the (mostly) elite.

It can be all too easy, sometimes, to forget that the test of whether one believes in free speech is not allowing what you agree with, but what you don’t.

And there is a danger that, increasingly, social media in particular is rendering some things unsayable.

Welfare reform minister Lord Freud is under continuing fire days after a recording from a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting was released, appearing to show that he had described disabled workers as ‘worth less’ than their non-disabled counterparts – and therefore should not be entitled to the national minimum wage.

That’s a prĂ©cis of how the story has been tackled, with calls from across politics, mainstream and social media for him to resign or be sacked, and screams about how it illustrates that ‘the nasty party’ is back.

Also during the last few days, TV personality Judy Finnigan made comments on the TV show, Loose Women, to the effect that, while all rape in unacceptable, some rapes are more serious than others.

A few more tons of metaphorical bricks were rained down on her head – and now, it seems that she and her daughter have had threats of rape made against them via Twitter.

There are a number of points here.

First, the hysterical responses disguise certain nuances and therefore deplete any proper debate.

It is not the first time that the issue of disabled workers and pay has arisen.

He was, of course, roundly castigated.

But there is a certain disingenuity in the way that Freud’s latest slip has been tackled in many quarters.

It is worth pointing out that the peer was responding to a question from David Scott, a Tory councillor from Tunbridge Wells, who had said:

“The other area I’m really concerned about is obviously the disabled. I have a number of mentally damaged individuals, who to be quite frank aren’t worth the minimum wage, but want to work. And we have been trying to support them in work, but you can’t find people who are willing to pay the minimum wage.

… “And I think yes, those are marginal areas but they are critical of actually keeping people who want to work supported in that process. And it’s how do you deal with those sort of cases?”

In response, Freud noted:

“ ...You make a really good point about the disabled. Now I had not thought through, and we have not got a system for, you know, kind of going below the minimum wage.

“But we do have … you know, Universal Credit is really useful for people with the fluctuating conditions who can do some work – go up and down – because they can earn and get ... and get, you know, bolstered through Universal Credit, and they can move that amount up and down.

“Now, there is a small … there is a group, and I know exactly who you mean, where actually as you say they’re not worth the full wage and actually I’m going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally, and without distorting the whole thing, which actually if someone wants to work for £2 an hour, and it’s working can we actually …”

You can – and please do – read the fulltranscript (and listen to the audio) at Politics Home.

It’s pretty clear from reading that that Freud was thinking on his feet. This wasn’t a policy statement – but ruminating on a question.

There is no evidence that the ‘not worth it’ aspect of his comments was not an economic comment.

Let’s take issue with that by all means – discussions of economic policies and markets and goodness knows what else often flounder on a simple, basic fact: that they are abstract and exclude the ‘real world’ and real human beings.
Let’s take issue with any sort of suggestion that lowering pay even further could ever be positive. 
But frankly, the approach seen in that exchange doesn’t sound as much ‘nasty’ as just downright patronising and paternalistic.
And if anyone wants to say that ‘the nasty party’ is ‘back’, well, you’d could do rather better by looking at Iain Duncan Smith, who has repeatedly lied about matters related to welfare, and been pulled up for it by the UKStatistics Authority.
By all means disagree with the gaffe-prone Freud, who has form for cretinous remarks – and presumably, Scott, although his comments seem to have been forgotten – but screaming for resignation or the sack because you disagree with something that someone said is way over the top. 

Better, surely, to use such an opportunity to engage with the subject and, as here, ask what can meaningfully be done to help to get disabled people into work.

This case offered an opportunity to raise the issue of the abysmal treatment of disabled people by the government since 2014; the general difficulties in disabled people finding work; the very idea of seeing human beings in purely economic terms, and even a chance to raise awareness of mental illness in particular.

Indeed, one positive on the social media side was the appearance of a list of famous people who had a variety of mental illness conditions, which was an easy way to illustrate that geniuses can be disabled (in our current use of the term) too.

After all, who would question, for instance, whether Beethoven was ‘worth it’?

Similarly, in terms of Finnigan’s comments, behaving as though she has no right to voice her views is ludicrous.

In fact, it was less a view than an observation of straightforward fact.

In the context of whether Ched Evans should be able to return to plying his trade as a professional footballer after his prison sentence for rape, Finnigan observed:  The rape – and I am not, please, by any means minimising any kind of rape – but the rape was not violent, he didnt cause any bodily harm to the person.

It was unpleasant, in a hotel room I believe, and she [the victim] had far too much to drink.

Now how can any half-way intelligent person conclude that those comments make Finnigan pro-rape, as was subsequently suggested on social media by some?
Disagree with Finnigan by all means, and make the case against what she said, but hysterical shouting down of comments such as that, to the extent that a row blows up and people are threatened (however credible or not the threat is), is completely detrimental to any sensible, considered public discourse. 
As is something that, in effect, would see any political meeting turned into something that has to be scripted in order to avoid something that could be jumped on in such a manner, rather than permitting open discussion that might be far more revealing of far more things.
Be Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells (or Islington) all you want, but your disgust should not stop a discussion. 
Indeed, there’s an irony in all this that seems to have rather passed some people by. 
Making certain things unsayable was a factor in the way in which the systemic abuse and rape of vulnerable girls and young women by groups of men from particular ethnic backgrounds was allowed to go unchallenged for so long in Rochdale and Rotherham. 

That point alone should be enough to convince of the dangers of making things unsayable – no matter how unpalatable they may be.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Would you trust G4S with a van Gogh?

Who wants to trust G4S with this?
It’s amazing what constitutes ‘public services’. We might be used to thinking in terms of the likes of emptying the bins and education and health care, but many more things that we take for granted come under that label too.

And many of them are increasingly under threat.

But amid the ongoing, ideological rush to sell off anything and everything – even at a cut price, as the Royal Mail debacle showed – it’s easy to forget that our culture is a public service, and it’s also under threat.

Libraries have been facing cuts for years, with politicians revealing an utter lack of understanding about the service by suggesting that volunteers could run them.

When I was doing my ’O and ’A levels at girls grammar schools in the 1970s and into the ’80s, becoming a librarian was something that was considered a good career, requiring a proper degree.

When did that morph into, ‘oh, some local volunteer can do it’?

Now that’s not an attack on volunteers, but it begs – or should beg – the question of when and how running a library ceased to need the level of education, training and skills that it did previously.

Is the writing on the wall for quality of visitor experience?
Inevitably, such an approach doesn’t simply deskill, but in doing so, it reduces the actual service. And that illustrates how little the service is understood and valued in the first place.

Now, it seems, plans are well under way to privatise visitor services – including security – at London’s National Gallery.

The gallery – just one of many such institutions that helps draw millions of tourists to the capital every year – points out that funding from government is falling, and that it needs to increase retail and commercial activities, including opening for some groups outside normal hours.

Even accepting all that, it’s difficult to see how privatisation will help – all it does is involve a private company that needs to make a profit. And one of the first things to happen when that’s the case is that wages are hit.

Claims that terms and conditions will be protected are meaningless, as has been illustrated in Doncaster, where venture capital company-owned Care UK made the right noises before taking over a contract for the care of vulnerable people with learning disabilities – and then, when the ink was barely dry on the contract, decided to slash the pay of the people who do the actual work of caring, start employing any new staff on minimum wage and deskill the workforce by, among other things, ordering staff to stop dealing with medical or violent situations and call 999 instead.

In other words, the profit is privatised and the debt socialised.

Should gallery staff know about the exhibits?
And then, of course, there’s the issue of slashed pay leading to more people needing in-work benefits – so the taxpayer is forking out to subsidise the profits of the private company.

The deskilling of the Doncaster workforce will be replicated at the National Gallery, as the Ministry of Curiosity blog, an “insider’s guide to London’s museum-centric life” explains that a lower-paid workforce will mean, “for the gallery and public, a transient workforce with less knowledge and expertise”.

The blog also makes a very interesting link between the recent decision to allowphotography in the gallery and the plans for privatisation.

The nation's favourite painting – left to the nation by Turner
The idea of putting security for some of the world’s greatest art treasures in the hands of the likes of G4S should be enough to horrify any sentient being.

What could possibly go wrong?

After all, the likes of G4S, Serco and others have great form on all manner of things, from security itself, to proving incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery (or the 2012 Olympics, as they were known), to overcharging and false charging for services provided (or not).

But in this case, the atmosphere has been sullied further by union reps being hit witha gagging clause by the gallery – even though named reps were quoted in the press during disputes at the gallery in 2010 and 2012, with no apparent problem.

Of course, this isn’t the only bit of the “family silver” that is being primed for sell-off – the country’s entire road network couldbe threatened too.

And the National Gallery it’s far from being an isolated case of how our culture is being dumbed-down, devalued and sold off.

In Manchester, for example, funding has been cut to the People’s History Museum – the only museum in the country dedicated to the history of ordinary, working people.
Profit fodder?

On a more general basis, moving further and further toward a low-wage economy is neither good nor sustainable for the economy, as shown by recent figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility, which revealed that, in spite of record levels of employment, tax revenues are down, and theneed for in-work benefits (including housing benefit) is up.

There may come a point when museums and galleries have to look at charging for entry – again.

But our history and our culture should not be seen as commodities, existing for the financial of the few, but unavailable to the many.

Plans to privatise huge numbers of jobs at the National Gallery are, at best, short sighted.

At their worst, its yet more evidence of an ideologically-based knowledge of the price of everything – and the value of nothing.

• 38 Degrees currently has two petitions running related to this topic: