Second Democracy café held on Saturday 14 October 2017
The second democracy café was held on Saturday and there was an interesting debate on a variety of subjects kicked off by a discussion of the Welfare System. The café starts by people suggesting topics to discuss and then there is a vote on which one should be chosen. By a short head, the welfare system – or as some prefer to call it, social security – won although, as it turned out, other topics suggested also got caught up in the debate as it progressed.
The debate started with a discussion of the state of the social security system today and its effects on many people in need of help. Universal Credit is being rolled out and there are problems with the delays in payment as the process gets underway. Someone noted the fact that claimants have to pay 55p a minute to seek advice on the phone. Should there not be a minimum level to which anyone is entitled and not have to pass through hoops. The introducer of this topic asked whether money should continue to be spent on heritage and restoring old buildings rather than funds for helping those in need. It was pointed out that funds for heritage projects have been drastically cut and in any event were a small proportion of those spent on social security.
The debate moved on to the principle of opportunity cost i.e. the value lost by choosing one option over another. This arose particularly during times of austerity where choices on expenditure and cuts have to be made. Austerity is (was?) a choice made by politicians however. Was there in fact a shortage of resources?
Back to the idea of a minimum level and this prompted the idea of a Universal Basic Income or UBI. Experiments are taking place in some countries such as Canada and Finland¹. But is there not a problem that if everyone receives a basic income it will act as a disincentive to work and encourage ‘scrounging’? It was argued that such an income would encourage different types of work and for people to become more socially engaged through volunteering for example. It was also suggested that pride would be a factor. We needed to create the idea in the populace that there was an expectation that they should contribute in some way.
Another potential problem with UBI is that it might encourage employers to pay even less on the argument that the employee was already receiving a partial wage through the state. It would therefore have to be tied into a minimum wage. We were reminded of a Manpower Services Scheme which ran a programme called ‘YOPS’ which required young people to do work in order to receive benefits. Some people did indeed succeed in getting full time work through this programme but it was eventually abandoned.
A contrary view was expressed that someone should not live a major part of their life on state support and then retire to a pension to which they would not have contributed. Would it not be better to introduce a private insurance system? The problem would be however, with a young person in receipt of benefits because of a lack of work say, who would not have had an opportunity to contribute to a private scheme.
The debate then moved on to politicians who predictably got little sympathy. One suggestion was that they should not be paid. We were reminded that they used not to be and being an MP was the preserve of the rich and the landed. It was also suggested that MP’s should be required to live in social housing (various periods were suggested). An interesting suggestion was the selection of MPs in a way similar to jury service.
We then discussed housing and – in the midst of a housing crisis – there were still many thousands of empty properties around the country. The problem is that they were not always in places where people wanted to live or where there was work. Grenfell Tower was mentioned and that people were still not in permanent accommodation following that disaster. Some because they did not like the places suggested (possibly because of feeling socially unwelcome or out of place).
There was an acute shortage of social or affordable housing. What made matters worse were developers gaining planning permission with an element of affordable housing included in the consent and then subsequently, claiming that the project was unviable and getting the numbers reduced. Why were they not compelled to do what they had agreed? The reason, it was claimed, was a lack of ‘equality of arms’ with local authorities unable to afford to combat developers with their teams of expensive lawyers and consultants.
Would things be better if it was run locally? This suggestion arose in connection with charity shops who’s funds are often not spent locally but go elsewhere. The problem here is that Salisbury is prosperous and areas of the north are not although it was pointed out that housing costs were a lot less in the north.
Many of the arguments so far led to tax: who paid it and how much should be charged. Should the wealthier pay more tax? It was pointed out that the wealthy and the super-wealthy often paid little or no tax (other than local taxes such as excise and VAT we were reminded). Countries with higher tax rates were often said to be happier – some of the Scandinavian countries for example. Should we not concentrate more on ‘happiness’ rather than just wealth? Can we try to persuade the super wealthy that they may in fact be happier if they paid some tax?
The discussion focused thus far on individuals but we should not forget that corporations often paid little tax despite using our roads etc to carry out their businesses. They were allegedly domiciled in Eire or Luxembourg for example, so earned few profits here. Part of the problem was the perception that tax was a necessary bad thing and that the less tax one paid the better off we were. Few politicians would dare to say otherwise it was suggested – particularly not at election time.
If tax was hypothecated, that is a penny on the basic rate dedicated to the NHS say, would not people be more willing to pay it? Many agreed with this suggestion and indeed it is quite popular. The LibDems were suggesting it in a previous election. The Treasury is opposed to the idea however, one problem being that matching the tax raised to needs is difficult and what happens if taxes fall? Who chooses what to spend the money on? Children? The Elderly? Mental Health? … the list is endless. Road Fund Duty was originally an hypothecated tax of sorts but the link of the duty and what is spent on roads has long been forgotten.
Finally, we turned to social media and the malign effects it is having on society. It is providing a platform for far right groups to spread their noxious ideas. Whereas, in previous times, someone with extreme views could sound off in the pub, now he or she can write a tweet or use another platform and converse with thousands if not more. Twitter was particularly pernicious it was suggested because 140 characters did not allow for a reasoned or nuanced refutation of a simple but erroneous opinion. It gave people a sense that their views were more acceptable. Someone said it had the effect of ‘pushing out the middle’ that is, emphasising extremes. Its deleterious effects on the election (not just in the UK) was noted.
Not everything discussed can be mentioned in a brief summary. Ideas such as doing away with money were touched on briefly. What was interesting that almost all the topics suggested at the start eventually made it into the debate which goes to show how interlinked these matters are. Taxation leads to issues of fairness: housing is linked to social security. What we think about things is partly determined by social media. Fairness leads to ideas such as UBI.
Next Democracy café: Saturday 11 November Please keep an eye on this blog for the venue as we may change from the Arts Centre
Saturday 21 October at the Quaker Meeting House on the Wilton Road, we will be welcoming Peter MacFadyen, the founder of Flatpack Democracy. 11am.
- Readers interested in this may like to know there is a book on the subject Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen  by Guy Standing, Pelican Books