21 April 2013

Rhetoric and Retaliation: North Korea’s Nuclear Gamesmanship


Joint military drills on the Korean peninsula involving Seoul and Washington are a regular occurrence, taking place annually as a show of continued co-operation between the United States and her South Korean allies.  Equally predictable is Pyongyang’s response, regularly denouncing such exercises as covert preparation for combative engagement.

Foal Eagle operations began this year amidst elevated tensions.  As anticipated, North Korea’s reaction entailed vociferous objection.  That the antagonism and posturing attributed to Kim Jong-un has been particularly acute this time around, however, is symptomatic of a young leader attempting to demonstrate proficiency beyond his years.

Supplementary drills, termed Key Resolve, have involved 10,000 South Korean troops and 3,000 Americans, as well as the 10,000 US personnel involved in Foal Eagle.  In response to increasingly fiery rhetoric from North Korea, the US also deployed sophisticated military technologies and advanced delivery systems over the peninsula: during March, Washington co-ordinated flights of nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth fighters over South Korea, dropping munitions on a South Korean island range in a demonstration of military superiority and a timely reminder of the pinpoint accuracy of American weapons technology.

Kim Jong-un condemned the sorties as an “ultimatum that they will ignite a nuclear war at any cost on the Korean Peninsula” and ordered the Korean Peoples Army (KPA) to ready strategic rockets to stand-by, declaring that North Korea should “mercilessly strike” the US and her military outposts.  The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland similarly described Key Resolve exercises as “a clear declaration of war”.

The increased bombast reverberating from Pyongyang comes at a time of strengthened UN sanctions, designed to prohibitively increase the cost of illicit nuclear programmes following a third nuclear test in February and a three-stage rocket test in December 2012.  That the Kim dynasty has been able to oversee these developments is testament to the laxity with which previous rounds of sanctions were administered.

In the weeks since tighter sanctions were imposed, numerous threats have been directed towards both America and her allies; a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” was promised against the US, while once more threatening to dispense with the Korean War armistice and cut diplomatic ties with Seoul.  When these provocations went unrewarded, Mr Kim announced plans to “readjust and restart” nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.  Refusing to bow to Pyongyang’s ostentation, the US called Mr Kim’s bluff: Chuck Hagel vowed to “make clear” that such provocations “are taken ... very seriously”, while John Kerry affirmed that Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Washington had “committed to take action together” and to “making that goal of denuclearisation a reality”.

The 15-0 vote at the UN Security Council in March is particularly significant insofar as China, despite being North Korea’s only ally, co-sponsored extended sanctions.  This is a strong indication that pressure on the Kim regime is beginning to escalate.  Encouragingly, in a display of continuing displeasure, Beijing appears to have stepped up inspections of cargo bound for North Korea, though must now proceed cautiously so as not to upset the perceived regional balance of power and risk triggering a North Korean implosion.  As Pyongyang’s lifeline, China must make careful calculations concerning the cutting of vital supplies; to restrict aid too far, particularly in terms of fuel or food, could spark a chain reaction of instability and volatility.

Recent political transitions across the region have seemingly been central in efforts to enhance Pyongyang’s regional standing.  Both Japan and South Korea have recently elected new premiers who, like the young Kim, are still in the process of consolidating power and finding their political footings.  Similarly, in Beijing, the Communist Party has recently undergone the decennial process of political handover, with a new staff now manning the Politburo Standing Committee.

Surrounded by leaders of equal inexperience, Mr Kim has attempted to seize an opportunity to assert himself and bolster support at home by demonstrating strength on the international stage.  By conducting further rounds of nuclear and weapons tests, Mr Kim would have hoped to exploit any resultant response from the international community as a rationale for readying the troops, denouncing the armistice agreement with southern neighhbours, and threatening to strike the US.

Such shows of perceived strength, along with any associated concessions secured or repercussions avoided as a result, appear designed to cement confidence in Mr Kim’s leadership at home.  Indeed, with Washington announcing in early-April the postponement of planned Minuteman 3 ballistic missile tests to prevent misinterpretation, Pyongyang will likely wax lyrical about an enforced American climbdown following diplomatic and military pressure.

However, this is a principal reason to suspect that threats emanating from Pyongyang are bravado; efforts to secure political power through military means have been intended primarily for domestic consumption by a leader whose rapid rise through the KPA has led to questions concerning his ability and qualification to lead.  Given countervailing sentiments from both Washington and Seoul, the Kim regime is highly unlikely to escalate the current situation beyond hostile rhetoric and chance the assured destruction that provoking a retaliatory onslaught would bring.  While the US is not ignoring threats emanating from Pyongyang, spending $1 billion to strengthen ballistic missile interception systems in Fort Greely, Alaska, that this additional capacity will not become operational until 2017 indicates strong doubts over Mr Kim’s intentions and the abilities of Pyongyang’s military hardware.

It is doubtful that an act of North Korean aggression will be immediately forthcoming.  At a time of heightened international tensions, and amidst promises of retaliation directed from all angles, to do so would be a seemingly suicidal move for the already-isolated regime.  At the same time, while not completely implausible, it remains unlikely that Pyongyang will seek to further intensify or extend the current bout of belligerent sentiment.  With Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing responding in kind to Mr Kim’s attempted browbeating, and possessing proven military potential to follow through with such promises, the North Korean regime is unlikely to risk actual conflict through miscalculation.

In a week where international news concerning North Korea was dominated by a breaking scandal concerning the BBC and LSE, military tensions appear to have taken a back seat.  With the Kim regime having nowhere further to go using rhetoric alone, it is likely that this is where they will remain until the next round of military drills.

4 March 2013

The Bedroom Tax: A Looming Social Security Trap


After state pensions and Tax Credits, Housing Benefit payments comprise the largest proportion of welfare spending.  In 2010/11, £21.61 billion was spread across 4.9 million claimants.  The most recent figures put the Housing Benefit bill at £23 billion.  As part of a package of reforms that will change the face of welfare, Ministers have determined that it is not unreasonable to re-examine why the state is providing funding for people renting properties bigger than they need.

The thought process is perfectly rational; there are an estimated one million spare rooms within the social housing sector, with one-third of tenants occupying properties bigger than the Coalition deem their needs to be.  With another 250,000 families living in overcrowded accommodation, the need to better allocate existing housing stock is evident.

On 1 April 2013, an “under-occupancy” charge will apply to council and housing association tenants deemed to have more bedrooms than they need.  Official figures show that 660,000 households will be affected, with savings to the taxpayer of £505m in 2012/13, and £540m the following year.  However, rigid application of new regulations, and the adverse consequences this will cause, has ensured that the policy has been the centre of discontent.  It is difficult to justify the impending chaos with projected savings, which at best amount to 2.3% of Housing Benefit payments.

The forthcoming amendments have been labelled a “bedroom tax”, though the Government has maintained that such benefits changes merely constitute a surcharge, arguing that the underlying aim is to free up more living space for overcrowded families and encourage people to get jobs through enhanced social mobility.  Indeed, during Prime Minister’s Questions on 6 February 2013, David Cameron declared that the issue is a ‘basic question of fairness’, arguing that those in privately-rented housing do not receive benefits for unoccupied rooms – a stance he reaffirmed on 27 February 2013.

Research by the National Housing Federation (NHF) shows that 95,000 people in England will be forced into arrears because there are no smaller homes for them to move into.  With deductions from Housing Benefit to be taken regardless of the insufficiencies of current housing stock, Cameron’s assertions that ‘[t]his is not a tax, this is a benefit’ could hardly be further from the truth.  The malice of this onslaught on the low paid is perfectly demonstrated by the Government’s own savings calculations, which assume by default that people will not move and will suffer a subsequent fall in income.

Further resentment will result from the uneven geographical impact of policy changes.  Largely as a result of the region’s industrial past, which saw strong traditional family values and an abundance or family-size homes, the north has not previously experienced the demand for one- and two-bedroom properties experienced elsewhere.  Consequently, the entire region will be disproportionately affected; the DWP impact assessment shows that the share of northerners disadvantaged will be 38% greater than would be expected.  This despite Coalition rhetoric that ‘we are all in this together’.

This reduction in family income will hamper opportunities to grow the region’s struggling economy, which in turn will make it difficult to attract the necessary investment to recalibrate the social housing stock by building new properties, undermining economic recovery. As Derek Long, NHF Head of Northern Operations, suggests, this may be the beginning of a vicious circle.

To highlight this, Jayne MacDonald of Endeavour Housing in Stockton has said that the majority of social housing tenants in the region ‘literally won't have a spare penny and there is nowhere for that money to come from’.  As Endeavour Housing has 153 families under-occupying two-bedroom homes but no one-bedroom properties for them to move into, rent arrears beckon unless allowances are made.  With moving not a viable option, a failure to address this matter will confirm that the “under-occupancy” surcharge has evolved into a “bedroom tax”.

New Housing Benefit rules also place housing associations in an extremely difficult position; the responsibility to safeguard tenants while continuing to provide affordable homes has to be balanced against a responsibility to assist those impacted by Housing Benefit cuts.  Housing associations, therefore, simply cannot afford to leave rent accounts unsettled.  For this reason, suggestions of reclassifying properties based on the size of any spare bedroom are unsustainable.

Paradoxically, when uncomfortable examples of eviction come to the fore, housing associations will be primary contenders for the blame while Ministers espouse the party line that Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) were made available to help the hardest cases.  While local authorities and the courts are unlikely to make tenants homeless as a result of arrears incurred as a result of Housing Benefit changes, the very existence of DHPs is an implicit acknowledgement by the Government that these cuts will cause enormous difficulties, particularly for the poorest in society. 

With the amount to be distributed totalling just 5% of projected savings, the Coalition’s hardline approach to welfare cuts becomes evident.  Reductions upwards of £500m per year will necessarily condemn many to debts and arrears – a situation made worse by the simultaneous localisation of Council Tax Benefit.  With few directives to regulate the precise distribution of discretionary funds, assistance will inevitably differ between local authorities and vary with time.  It is important, then, to acknowledge that changes are being imposed by the Government, while local authorities are being set the impossible task of dealing with the fallout.

While the need to reform the social housing sector is clear, the Coalition’s policy is marred by glaring flaws and anomalies.  Foremost, despite three-bedroom properties under housing association management often being cheaper than one-bedroom accommodation in the private sector, policy changes dictate that tenants must move if they do not wish to witness reductions in Housing Benefit.  With tenants who are deemed to be over-occupying being encouraged to consider a lodger, one must question the extent of any potential savings; any lodger is also likely to receive Housing Benefit.  Counterintuitively, these cuts potentially incentivise larger families as a “solution”, in many cases attracting additional benefits and circumventing Housing Benefit cuts.

Notably, Armed Forces personnel will not receive a blanket exemption from the new rules; those serving tours of duty longer than 13 weeks will still be liable to face cuts, though it remains to be seen whether provisions in local Armed Forces Covenants will provide a buffer for Servicemen.  There will also be no mandatory protection for foster carers, while some pensioners will lose their protection when welfare benefits migrate to Universal Credit from October 2013.

With only a month until implementation, the issues surrounding Housing Benefit rules need to be addressed swiftly.  As an interim measure, the changes should be postponed until these matters have been resolved.  With DWP to “look again” at how new rules will be applied to disabled people there has already been tacit acceptance that amendments are needed; arguments that it is too late in the day for change are misplaced.

Any changes will require sufficient time for tenants and landlords alike to prepare.  To properly manage the negative impact that cuts will have, any new policy should be focussed on fresh applications for Housing Benefit and current claims experiencing changes in circumstance.  Where suitable accommodation becomes available to facilitate active downsizing, these opportunities should be taken, with penalties imposed only where transfers are refused.  At the very least, a controlled tapering period, with cuts introduced at a gentler pace and in a more targeted fashion to exclude vulnerable groups, should be considered.

A failure to act now will confirm the hardship that the “bedroom tax” is threatening to bring, potentially leading to increased spending on welfare and resulting in a social security trap – an absurdity given the professed aims of the policy.




*UPDATE*

  • On 12 March, the Government announced that both foster carers and the families of Armed Forces personnel would be protected from the upcoming Housing Benefit shake-up.  However, while the U-turn is certainly welcome, safeguarding two groups susceptible to the changes despite often relying on this financial assistance to enable their vital contributions to society, this is not to say that the policy has been “fixed”.  Indeed, with this protection being taken from the existing Discretionary Housing Payments budget previously allocated to local authorities, flexibility to help other vulnerable groups, such as those living in accommodation adapted for specific disabilities or requiring additional space for medical equipment, is necessarily reduced.  Offering these protections is certainly a step in the right direction, though is de facto acceptance of policy imperfection.  Without further amendments, unnecessary hardship is likely to ensue.

14 February 2013

Lancing the Boil: Beating Drug Cheats in Sport


During an interview broadcast around the world, one of the world’s pre-eminent sporting superstars, and a leading charity fundraiser, officially brought an end to years of intense media speculation.  However, by admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) during each of his seven Tour de France victories, Lance Armstrong has placed the issue of drug use in sport firmly in the spotlight once more.

The use, alleged or otherwise, of PEDs in sport is not a new concept, with anecdotal narrative and factual records painting a narcissistic picture of mankind that prizes victory above all else, at all costs.  From Thomas Hicks, who won marathon gold at the 1904 Olympics, through to Ben Johnson, the winner of the 100m at the Seoul Games in 1988, the use of illicit substances to enhance performance has become increasingly sophisticated.

The Tour itself is famed for its chequered past, particularly in relation to the use of prohibited performance-enhancing techniques.  As far back as the 1920s, the PĂ©lissier brothers openly admitted to carrying ‘cocaine to go in our eyes, [and] chloroform for our gums’ as a means of reducing the pain of exhaustive competition.  Since 1996, six winners of the Tour have been subjected to sanctions for doping offences.  Throughout the same period, only three have remained sanction-free.

What makes the Lance Armstrong story so disconcerting is that he was able, with the assistance and complicity of as yet unnamed associates, to cover up what the US Anti-Doping Agency has termed the ‘most sophisticated, professional and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen’.  Moreover, he did so in a believable fashion, tarring the name of professional sport in the process of deceiving fans and supporters.

It is damaging for cycling, and sport more broadly, that Armstrong has received greater media attention for admitting much-speculated wrongdoing than the countless clean athletes that work tirelessly within the boundaries of sporting conduct.  For instance, while the global media circus has swarmed to cover the implications of Armstrong’s misdeeds, Shelley Rudman became the first British woman to win gold at the skeleton world championships in Switzerland – an achievement barely recognised beyond a hard core of enthusiasts and pundits.  This retrograde outlook could serve to glamorise such behaviour if the emphasis on wrongdoing and retribution is not carefully focussed.

The uncovering of PED usage has become progressively frequent, largely as a consequence of constantly evolving detection methods.  However, competitors often remain a vital step ahead of regulators in the race for success.  It is this predicament that partly explains how Armstrong was able to escape detection for a sustained period.

In common with competitors in the Tour’s early days, Armstrong himself believed that victory in a gruelling event of the magnitude of the Tour was possible only with assistance.  This outlook – that doping is as necessary as ‘putting water in out bottles’ or ‘air in our tyres’ – needs to be addressed immediately if popular support for sporting competition is to survive.

Incidentally, this unscrupulous mindset is one that afflicts competitors and supporters alike and has resulted in an inconvenient double-standard, albeit not yet in reference to the use of PEDs.  To highlight this point, one must look no further than Premier League football.  Were Luis Suarez, for instance, to admit to diving and be seen to “cost” his side a penalty, condemnation and denunciation would ensue from both fans and teammates.  Such pretense, while deceitful, is routinely dismissed as “professionalism”; if officials are unable to distinguish such foul play, responsibility stops with them.  However, it is these same individuals who chastise the opposition for similar acts.  To beat drug cheats, this double-standard of dishonesty cannot be allowed to spill over into the murky world of doping violations.

There are numerous and influential incentives to cheat the system, ranging from financial openings through to the honour of victory and the pride of competing on the international stage.   The likelihood of detection, and the associated scandal and opprobrium, is constantly increasing as methods of testing and prevention improve.  However, that competitors continue their efforts to circumvent the system indicates that potential gains to be had from doping frequently outweigh perceived risks in the deceit calculation.  While the reputations of specific disciplines differ, the use of PEDs in any sporting arena has a detrimental impact on the sporting world more widely.

As evidence of this unhappy state of affairs, whereby strong performances incite suspicion and accusations of cheating in one form or another, witness the outstanding accomplishment of Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen at the London 2012 Olympics.  Ye’s achievement, setting a new world record for the 400m individual medley and swimming the final 50m leg in a faster time than Ryan Lochte in the men’s event, was the subject of much disbelief and uncomfortable questioning.

What the Armstrong debacle makes abundantly evident is that anti-doping programmes are limited in their ability to identify those attempting to defraud the system.  While it is unlikely that any system can be foolproof, given the determination to evade identification that some competitors have demonstrated, improvements can definitely be made both in detection and enforcement.

A primary shortcoming of the regime has been its retrogressive nature, detecting the use of an identified range of substances, but crucially not outwitting those inclined to cheat by predicting and pre-empting the future development path of PEDs.  While the ability to backdate the testing of samples is a powerful tool, with an eight-year statute of limitations applying to sample testing to account for the frequent revisions made to the list of banned substances, such retrospective action remains reactionary rather than preventive.

The implementation of biological passports is certainly a step in the right direction, monitoring minuscule fluctuations in blood and urine profiles over a sustained timeframe that could indicate doping violations.  Movement towards universalising such a system would be a good starting point to strengthen the current system of detection, though more could be done to anticipate further developments. 

For this reason, it is important that Armstrong and his co-conspirators are compelled to give evidence, under oath, to a “truth and reconciliation” commission administered by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).  Input from those whose philosophy is underpinned by a ‘victory at all costs’ attitude will serve to bolster testing procedures and identify weaknesses with current protocols, placing regulators on an even footing with those seeking to cheat the system.

To enhance the current testing regime, blood testing needs to become the norm rather than urine testing.  As the only way to identify the ‘cocktail’ of drugs favoured by modern-age charlatans, with Armstrong admitting to using both erythropoetin (EPO) and testosterone alongside blood transfusion techniques, increased blood testing would facilitate an accurate and reliable biological passport system.

The most recent statistics from WADA, which cover 2011, highlight steps taken by cycling to address the image problem that has arisen from years of doping violations.  With the introduction of biological passports, over one-third of all drugs tests in cycling in 2011 were blood tests.  Others, however, lag alarmingly behind: athletics, another discipline whose reputation is far from unblemished, had 17.6% blood tests.  Boxing employed 3.5% blood tests – particularly alarming given the nature of the sport – while tennis stood at 3% and gymnastics recorded only 1% of drug testing as being blood tests.

With these figures in mind, WADA President John Fahey’s goal of all sports hitting a minimum target of 10% of tests conducted to use blood samples is a sign of progress.  However, despite this low initial target, WADA’s executive board recently failed to approve such a minimum requirement in the 2013 WADA Code update.

Incidentally, through extending the quota of blood testing, and with the implementation of increasingly sensitive testing procedures alongside biological passports, a lifetime ban policy similar to that previously applied by the British Olympic Association becomes more sustainable.  While arguments exist that the burden of proof necessary for such a policy would be too high for current testing methods to fulfil, rational individuals would be more likely to select against doping when assessing risk were the punishment for being caught to be enhanced.  Such an effect would be intensified further were it to occur alongside an increased likelihood of detection.

In the case of Armstrong, a lifetime ban from all competition is the only acceptable outcome; a competitor who knowingly flouts anti-doping regulations in such a calculated manner to gain an advantage at the expense of others does not deserve the privilege of a lesser penalty.  To be sure, the strong suspicion surrounding whether Armstrong really was “clean” during his brief comeback serves only to cement this outlook amongst many in the sporting community.

With a combination of increased blood testing, both in and out of competition, alongside the universal introduction of biological passports and a pre-emptive outlook towards testing, the integrity of sporting competition can be rescued.  While the cost of realising this goal is necessarily prohibitive, sport must not be priced out of the market for integrity; athletes who truly wish to restore the honour and probity of their profession would be willing to sacrifice a purse percentage to establish such a system and foster clean competition.  To this end, both Andy Murray and Roger Federer – both Australian Open finalists in 2013 – have called for increased blood testing in tennis.  Progress towards these goals is urgently needed to restore faith.

19 October 2012

Implications of Edinburgh: The Taxing Issue of Votes at 16


David Cameron and Alex Salmond this week agreed a decision of monumental magnitude.  Undoubtedly, the “Edinburgh Agreement” – which could ultimately see the dissolution of the Union – has the potential to shape the future of the nation.  However, the stakes are far higher than arguments of economy and mineral wealth: with 16- and 17-year-olds to be granted the franchise by the Scottish Parliament, the very design of British democracy could be refashioned.

The case is often made that, at age 16, one can fight for Queen and country, running the risk of paying the ultimate sacrifice in the line of patriotic duty.  Similarly, in certain parts of the UK at least, 16-year-olds can marry and have children.  Logically, so such reasoning runs, the minimum voting age should thus be lowered to 16.

As persuasive as these arguments are, however, they do not irrefutably validate the proposition for broadening the franchise.  Indeed, such claims need to be variously qualified and treated with a degree of caution: as with marriage in England, 16-year-olds can join the armed forces only with parental consent, and even then are not eligible for frontline combat.  With other significant decisions not being taken until the age of 18, such as whether to continue into tertiary education or whether to get a mortgage, a strong defence can be mounted for maintaining current regulations.

Nonetheless, despite such rhetoric, one argument trumps all others.  Dating back to the American Revolution and forming a cornerstone of democratic society, the notion that there should be no taxation without representation is difficult, if not impossible, to disregard.  At the age of 16, individuals become liable for National Insurance contributions and income tax: to reason against suffrage being extended to the age of 16, therefore, is to devalue the concept of representative democracy and runs against the spirit of the social contract.

To be clear, expanding the franchise to include those aged 16 and 17 is a move that would not only realise this fundamental relationship between taxation and representation, but one that would, if correctly managed, strengthen the democratic fabric by maximising participation in the political process.  With this goal in mind, it is important to recognise that 16- and 17-year-olds are increasingly intelligent, informed and opinionated; when coupled with the prospective obligation to contribute to the national tax take, the case for retaining 18 as the minimum age of entitlement appears increasingly untenable. 

It is also important to recognise that 16- and 17-year-olds, just like those aged 18 and above, are direct consumers of those public services funded by the state purse.  Indeed, in areas such as education, it is under-18s that are the primary consumers of such public services.  Similarly, young people are subject to legislation passed by Parliament, as well as Government policies in areas including tuition fees, working regulations, and military engagement.

Nonetheless, young people are currently disengaged from, and many disillusioned with, the political system, not being afforded any meaningful level of input into policies or control over services in terms of design or delivery.  Broadening the franchise would represent a significant step towards facilitating a solution to this anomaly, granting young people the opportunity to participate and create a desirable societal milieu while instilling a level of civic responsibility that could begin to address long-term issues surrounding falling turnout and voter apathy.

To be certain, assertions that young people are ill-informed and lack the sophistication and sensibility required to vote responsibly are feasible, if not stereotypical and outdated.  Without doubt, there are many young people for whom the world of politics holds no allure.  However, universalising such contentions is severely flawed on two counts. First, to assume that an instantaneous moment of maturity is reached on one’s eighteenth birthday is an absurdity; the process of developing political awareness begins at an early age and continues throughout an individual’s lifetime.  Second, presenting such problems without proposing solutions is akin to declaring that young people are second-class citizens, worthy of paying taxes but not of determining how such revenue is best spent.

An obvious solution to the dilemma would entail making better use of the time allocated in secondary education timetables to Pastoral/Citizenship/PSHE lessons.  These valuable hours could be better utilised to provide lessons in civic responsibilities such as voting, providing an opportunity to promote an understanding of the political systems that shape the world we live in, as well as for debate and discussion on topical issues.  By engaging young people and educating in a politically neutral manner, the potential exists for current trends of voter apathy to be overcome and for arguments pertaining the ignorance of the under-18s to be negated.

Importantly, the ability to participate in free elections is a human right, safeguarded by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrined in the UK’s Human Rights Act.  As such, the rationale for denying the franchise to groups of individuals is required to be fair and balanced.  Allegations that these criteria are not being met carry increasing weight, with young people ever more focussed on salient issues and ambitious to have their voices heard through various alternative channels to the ballot box.

Undoubtedly, the Section 30 mechanism is not the ideal way to introduce the under-18s to the world of political voting; a renewed debate, both in Westminster and throughout society, on lowering the voting age would clarify the issues and add greater legitimacy.  Nonetheless, Scotland’s enfranchising of 16- and 17-year-olds is a democratic step in the right direction.  Perhaps Britain could be the next to join the ranks of Austria and Brazil (and Cuba) in recognising the rights of the under-18s.

22 December 2011

Reforming the House of Lords: Balancing Efficiency and Legitimacy

In a speech delivered at Demos this week, Nick Clegg sought to defend the precepts of the ‘Open Society’.  Aiming to reinvigorate the drive towards greater political pluralism and democratic involvement, while promoting such values as openness and equality that define his political perspective, the deputy prime minister placed reform of the House of Lords back into the spotlight.
Reform of the Second Chamber is undoubtedly a central issue, both within and beyond liberal reformist circles.  However, the matter is dominated by talk of increasing legitimacy, overshadowing the opportunity, if not the responsibility, to enhance the efficiency of the House.  Strengthening the democratic functioning of the Lords requires a broadening of their ability to act rather than solely focussing on the conviction with which they act.
Chief amongst Parliament’s many activities is the passage of effective legislation.  The bi-cameral nature of Parliament provides for an upper House to review proposed legislation, holding the government to account through deliberation and reassessment.  The incorporation of experts is therefore vastly beneficial to the process of scrutiny.  Unfortunately, the price of such expertise is democratic legitimacy, undermining any authority attached to amendments emerging from the Lords.  While the case for electing the Lords, or at least a significant majority, is therefore a strong one, insufficient attention has been paid to considering how functions could be better performed through concurrent structural and procedural reforms.
Currently, the House of Lords is chamber-oriented, relying on individuals who are both unelected and part-time.  Such working practices under-utilise the wealth of experience and knowledge of the Lords; with much time in the House being dedicated to detailed scrutiny of bills at the committee stage of the legislative process, many central issues fail to be debated by Peers.  This shortcoming adds to the case supporting reform of the House of Lords.  However, responses to questions concerning heightening efficiency and legitimacy need not be mutually exclusive.  
A reformed Chamber should complement the work of the Commons, providing an alternative perspective to legislative scrutiny.  An overriding fear of duplicating the work of the Commons has prevented the emergence of a strong committee system within the House of Lords.  Given the nature of the Lords’ remit, such a development path is peculiar; parallel departmental committees would greatly enhance opportunities for effective scrutiny, potentially producing stronger legislation, while allowing committee chairs in both Houses to coordinate workloads and avoid unnecessary duplication.  
A further advantage of allowing for a stronger committee system in the Lords comes in the shape of a solution to the trade-off between democratic legitimacy and expert input.  Rather than being permanently sitting members of the Lords, experts would continue to be integrated into the legislative process as Special Advisers or, alternatively, being called by committees considering specific legislation.  Expertise would thus remain eminent, while experts would not expected to choose between providing legislative advice and an existing career.  Similarly, the quality and relevance of legislative scrutiny would be improved, while democratic legitimacy would be revived by ensuring that the final say falls to elected representatives, suitably informed.
A revised House of Lords would, despite anticipated reductions in size, likely become more assertive in challenging government proposals as a result of Members’ knowledge that they represent the wishes of voters.  While this will ultimately improve governance through enhanced accountability, formal mechanisms above and beyond the Salisbury Convention and Parliament Acts would need to be established to confirm the continued primacy of the Commons, and to safeguard against legislative deadlock.  The House of Commons, as the driver of reform, could feasibly specify in legislation the powers of a revised Upper Chamber, for example by restricting the selection of ministers to the House of Commons.  However, the establishing of joint legislative committees to reconcile competing drafts of bills, as used in the United States, would further enhance the democratic functionality of Parliament.
With Clegg’s speech serving as a reminder that reform of the House of Lords remains a primary liberal concern, the opportunity for streamlining the structure of the Chamber as well as its composition, is one that should not be passed up.  Making such modifications simultaneously would maximise the efficiency of reform, fulfilling the desire for both democratic legitimacy and expert input into legislation.

8 December 2011

Nuclear Fallout: Iran’s Worsening Relations with the West

When European foreign ministers met in Brussels last week, the agenda was dominated by discussion of measures to be taken against Iran.  Such considerations were primarily a response to an IAEA report, released in early November, suggesting that activities in the Republic indicate the conducting of tests necessary for the ‘development of a nuclear device’.  However, the magnitude of such discussions was undoubtedly elevated by the recent assault on the British embassy in Tehran, which has been asserted by senior figures to have been state-supported and has accordingly been interpreted as a direct attack on Western interests.    
Despite continued protestations from Tehran that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only, Britain has been particularly keen to impose further sanctions.  The storming of Britain’s embassy has done little to remedy an already delicate situation: Iranian diplomats were expelled from London on 2 December in response to the attack, with British diplomats from Tehran being similarly evacuated, while an announcement was made on 22 November that Britain was severing ‘all financial ties with Iran’.  As a result, Iran became the first country to have its entire banking sector cut off from UK financial institutions, being denigrated from all sides in the process amidst growing concern regarding Tehran’s increasingly secretive behaviour and political infighting.
The Iranian parliament (majlis) responded by voting, with a large majority, to downgrade diplomatic relations with the UK, effectively expelling Britain’s newly appointed ambassador, Dominick Chilcott.  In so doing, Tehran is teetering towards the diplomatic wilderness.  While sustaining diplomatic relations would arguably not be enough to avert mounting tensions, let alone definitively resolve the nuclear impasse, such outcomes appear markedly less likely in their absence.  
This situation has potential diplomatic implications beyond Iranian borders.  Prior to the recent restructuring of relations, Britain had played a frontline role in efforts to manoeuvre Iran into conforming with internationally agreed nuclear protocols.  While foreign minister William Hague insists that British-Iranian relations have not been cut completely, with the possibility remaining of dialogue at international meetings as occurs between Iran and the US, former minister Mark Malloch-Brown observes that London’s role in negotiations will, in all probability, shrink significantly.  By necessity, being less well-informed than previously, Britain will cease to be the primary point of contact for other nations; Britain, without an embassy to remain in the loop, will become a ‘bystander’, and a check on Iranian actions will be lost.
Elsewhere, confirming widespread objection, France, Germany and the Netherlands all recalled their respective ambassadors from Tehran for consultations on the developing situation.  Italy and Sweden both summoned Iranian ambassadors, while Norway temporarily closed its embassy in Tehran, citing security concerns.  Hillary Clinton declared that the US ‘condemns this attack in the strongest possible terms’, describing the events in Tehran as ‘an affront not only to the British people but also the international community’.  Thus, while the storming of the British embassy was a response to the decision to impose further sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme, the move could have boomeranged: many Western countries may now be persuaded that more rigorous measures are required.
Bernard Valero, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry, announced that President Sarkozy  had taken the initial step of proposing a freezing of the Iranian Central Bank’s assets and banning oil imports from the Republic – a notion that has Hague’s support as part of a package prescribing further punitive measures and an intensification of existing sanctions.  Such measures are an obvious extension of current restrictions placed on Tehran, aiming to introduce further obstacles in an economic climate that is already difficult for Iran to operate in.  However, with the developing eurozone debt crisis and parts of Europe on the verge of another recession, the potential for increased crude oil prices as the result of an EU oil embargo render such a strategy highly contentious.
The latest IAEA report reaffirms suspicions surrounding the potential for hostile ambitions to be underpinning nuclear developments in the Republic, providing greater detail than previously available.  Alarmingly, the report states that Tehran has undertaken activities ‘relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device’.  Indeed, some such undertakings, notably experiments on detonating a nuclear weapon and techniques with which to adapt a device to fit into the nose-section of a missile, are condemned as useful only in the pursuit of such an end.  While this is not conclusive proof that Iran has made progress towards successfully weaponising these technologies, such signs cast an ominous shadow over the underlying intent.  Regardless of persistent assurances to the contrary, Tehran’s prior record of concealing the enrichment programme continues to drive suspicion.  As long as such ambiguity exists, relations with the West will remain hesitant.
Nonetheless, the IAEA report failed to convince officials in Beijing, while Moscow dismissed the sanctions as ‘seriously [complicating] efforts for constructive dialogue with Tehran’.  With China and Russia remaining unwilling to allow deeper UN sanctions to be imposed, the inconsistency with which the sanctions regime is applied is gradually deepening.  Indeed, Iran’s strengthening ties with Beijing, primarily based around energy, encourage sanctions to be sidestepped.  In this regard, the direction and pace of development depends on political factors as much as on technological constraints.
Mehdi Ghazanfari, Iran’s trade minister, described sanctions as ‘a lose-lose game’ with all concerned making a loss, with the West standing to ‘lose an appealing market‘ through failing to invest in Iranian oil projects.  Rostam Qasemi, Iran’s oil minister, further suggested that Iran was willing to use oil as a political tool.  However, such concealed threats will likely be difficult to act upon.  Primarily, Iran is not capable of slowing production without OPEC co-operation – other OPEC members would willingly pick up any slack to maintain output levels.  Similarly, despite Mehdi Mehdizadeh, a majlis member, claiming that oil price rises would result if Iran closed the Strait of Hormuz, it is important to recognise that Oman, not Iran, is responsible for controlling the Strait.  Ultimately, Tehran does not have the authority to carry through this threat unilaterally, and lacks the necessary support for a collective effort at disrupting supply.  Equally, to do so would represent an ill-targeted response, impacting upon non-Western consumers and severely constraining oil income, particularly in emerging Asian markets.
The measures emerging from the meeting of EU foreign ministers were relatively weak, continuing with a sanctions regime that has thus far failed to entice Tehran back to the negotiating table while failing to agree an oil embargo.  This will do little to resolve tensions and restore diplomatic relations.  However, with the Iranian issue firmly back on the agenda,  and rumours of pre-emptive invasion led by Tel Aviv or Washington gaining ground since the IAEA report was released, this is unlikely to be the final scenario.  Accordingly, the need to push for a diplomatic solution has increased – a failure to do so could result in yet further turmoil in the Middle East, be it in the shape of direct conflict or the reincarnation of nuclear arms racing in response to a nuclear armed Iran.

18 November 2011

A Million Man Problem: Reforming Welfare to Work

The labour market statistics released this week indicate that headline unemployment jumped from 2.57 million to 2.62 million.  Such growth is worrying: the increase of 0.2 points from the figures released in October is only the fourth time unemployment has hit 8% since the three months to November 1996.
Below the surface, two even more troubling trends emerge.  Firstly, youth unemployment continues to grow, with the number of unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds breaking the one million barrier for the first time (albeit with 286,000 in full-time education, with many seeking part-time employment to supplement student loans).  Secondly, with over 633,000 claimants having been unemployed for in excess of six months, the tendency is towards long-term unemployment.
The detrimental effects of prolonged periods of unemployment are increasingly being recognised.  This is particularly true of the impact on young people, vulnerable not only to having their confidence rocked but also to future wage scarring.  That the government is increasingly focussing attention on such groups as the long-term workless and the unemployed youth is therefore unsurprising.
Implemented this summer, it remains too early to offer a valid evaluation of the coalition’s Work Programme.  However, there are three reasons to believe that the government’s plan of action will prove fruitful in easing the growing problems.  First, the Work Programme has been devised with the benefit of prior experience, learning both from past efforts and similar ventures elsewhere.  Thus, second, contracts are constructed to encourage providers to target vulnerable groups.  Third, the Work Programme is designed in such a way that the government is able reward those providers who perform to the highest standards, while penalising those who function poorly.
Aiming to deliver sustained employment opportunities to hard to reach groups, the Work Programme uses a payment-by-results model that has become familiar in the welfare to work market.  Several of these previous strategies have been condemned as inefficient, with the Pathways to Work initiative producing results worse than would have been expected had no intervention taken place, while the Flexible New Deal resulted in average costs exceeding £31,000 per job provided.  The coalition’s strategy, however, is able to benefit from DWP’s prior experience, adopting a more targeted approach in keeping with Institute for Government recommendations.  This responsiveness to labour market trends and previous shortcomings in service provision may be the key to future successes, delivering results while achieving value for money.
The most fundamental adaptation to address these failings concerns financing which, rather than coming from the Departmental Expenditure Limit set every three years by the Treasury, will come from DWP’s Annually Managed Expenditure budget – the source of back-to-work benefits.  In effect, anticipated savings in future benefits payments will fund the Programme, with the government banking on future savings outstripping current expenditure.  This is a considerable gamble, though provides a strong incentive to make the Programme work.
The Work Programme does share common characteristics with the earlier Flexible New Deal, in particular a focus on hard to reach groups while enabling private and third sector organisations to provide employment services.  Principally targeting those claiming back-to-work benefits for a sustained period, the Work Programme operates a “black box” contracting model.  Built on the premise that local providers are best placed to identify the particular requirements of each Contract Package Area, the engagement of local organisations is encouraged, customising provision to accommodate individual needs.
DWP have paid much attention to policy design – an aspect of the policy process that is often neglected.  In the past, providers have often been guilty of “gaming” the system, focussing attention on those clients with the greatest employment potential to maximise results-based revenues.  In response, under the Work Programme, DWP will use a carrot and stick approach to incentivise specific outcomes.
For instance, a differential payments schedule will reward providers with higher premiums for obtaining results for those deemed hardest to help.  Thus, prime contractors will receive £1,200 at the 13 week stage for placing a Jobseekers’ Allowance claimant in work.  For Employment Support Allowance claimants formerly on Incapacity Benefit, the corresponding payment is £3,500, thereby incentivising against helping only the easiest and most accessible.
Similarly, to encourage competition, DWP will be able to alter the proportion of clients attributed to prime contractors after two years.  More clients will be assigned to the most successful providers, with further ‘incentive’ bonuses being payable to those surpassing set performance levels.  To promote swift action, client attachment fees paid annually by DWP to prime contractors will decrease incrementally, reaching zero after three years on the Work Programme.
The steps taken by the coalition to address the problems of youth unemployment and sustained worklessness appear to be grounded in sound logic.  A look towards Australia reinforces this positive appraisal, with analysis of an early manifestation of the Job Network programme indicating that the cost of placing a client into work fell by as much as 69% (albeit undertaken prior to modifications to prevent gaming).  Furthermore, both employers and jobseekers gave favourable feedback, indicating a potential for success.
The coming months will be critical for the future shape both of the labour market and welfare-to-work services  The Work Programme is an example of the sort of adaptive policy making which has worked well in the past.  As such, it may be able to deliver the hoped for outcomes.