Feeling cynical?


Only a really cynical individual would read this about Marks and Spencer’s “Shwopping” idea and think ‘Of course, if a major retailer starts losing business in a recession to the charity shop sector it would make sense to

a) take control of the stock and flow of donations into the charity stores (both in terms of quality and quantity), and

b) make sure charity shop customers pass through the retailer’s doors on the way to the charity shop to try to divert them into a ‘new’ purchase.’

But consumers probably wouldn’t fall for that. Unless – maybe – you labelled the scheme ‘green’.


Giving your children their ‘Five a Day’

In my now-traditional Sunday morning Twitter rant, today’s target was Nick Clegg, and specifically some of the nonsense he was reported as saying in the Independent here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/exclusive-cleggs-drive-to-recruit-65000-state-nannies-7645973.html

I won’t rehearse my cynical tweets in this blog. 

What followed was one of those very enjoyable Twitter conversations in which many of my Tweetmates got involved, sharing views about teaching, learning and caring in the early years of a child’s life and about how good support at this crucial time can make for better life chances. 

Though there was a whole load of bunkum in the Indy article, Clegg is right when he says: 

 “If you are a bright but poor kid, despite all the good intentions of the last decade or so, you are still more likely to be taken over in the classroom by a less bright but more affluent child by the age of six or seven.”

This point is illustrated clearly in screengrab below from p23 of Sir Michael Marmot’s Public Health review “Fair Society Healthy Lives”. (Source: http://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/Content/FileManager/pdf/fairsocietyhealthylives.pdf)  It shows how the high cognitive potential of children from the lowest income levels of our society tails off over time, whereas children in high income families who start life with low cognitive abilities find this deficit is remedied in the same period.



This is one of the most profound injustices of our time and Marmot himself insists that giving every child the best start in life is the first priority of his public health strategy. 

Clegg’s answer to this problem (which would not be mine) is what takes him to the proposition that 65,000 new ‘state nannies’ is the answer. He is focused on ‘school readiness’, described like this: 

“What do you do to make children school ready? So even before they hang up their coats they are ready to learn; they are ready to mix with other children; they are enthusiastic, able to be disciplined in class. That’s a really big undertaking.

I don’t know any young children who aren’t learning all the time (never mind ‘ready to learn’), but ‘school ready’ is something else. If we do decide to care about ‘school readiness’ there are some basics we need in place first. It’s not an ever-earlier formal education that makes children ‘school ready’. 

The Coalition does spout a lot of punitive, judgemental rubbish about early intervention (including regularly forgetting that early intervention applies throughout life and not just in the early years), but, although their proposed 5-a-day recommendations on this subject aren’t a full answer, they are good. So – to give credit where it’s due – here they are: 

  • Read to your child for 15 minutes.
  • Play with your child on the floor for 10 minutes.
  • Talk with your child for 20 minutes with the television off.
  • Adopt positive attitudes towards your child and praise them frequently.
  • Give your child a nutritious diet.

If you want to know more about the detail behind these, you’ll find it here in the Centre Forum’s report Parenting Matters: http://www.centreforum.org/assets/pubs/parenting-matters.pdf

This report also devotes some space (e.g. p11) to cognitive outcomes by age and socio-economic status, but to my mind doesn’t illustrate the frank injustice of the current situation nearly as well as Marmot’s review does.

Based on both my own parenting experience and my professional involvement in Early Years, I would add to the above list: Make sure they can get a good night’s sleep

I tweeted this list of 5/6 ‘must dos’ for child development using the hashtag #5aday4childdev and got a great response.

@CriminologyUK said that the 5-a-day thing made her very sad; the fact that it was necessary to say something so basic was a real shame. 

Others had additions they wanted to make to the ‘must do’ list:

@DearDaveandNick  May I add: Ask open ended questions of your children.Encourage their natural curiosity.Read in front of them

@Lamagretch and answer their questions!

@loftspace if you can

, if you can’t find out together.

@Mairemd 7) allow them to get dirty. (clothes should be practical & washable therefore)

@SuperlativeC proper shoes, warm coat.

@SZeitblom We made sure we had proper family mealtimes – time to eat and talk together. I know it’s hard for parents but so important

@Tigersue66 totally agree with all of those. And would add go out as a family and enjoy the simple things on the fresh air.

@rebelraising How about “Go outside with your child no matter what the weather”?

And @Grumpyhatlady asked the question which so often comes up when discussing these ideas: isn’t all that common sense?

And of course, it is all common sense.

In a way that question is a re-formulation of @CriminologyUK‘s sadness. How can these things need saying? They are so obvious, so simple. Is it really the case that people don’t know or understand to do these things with their children? 

But they aren’t ‘common sense’ suggestions for everyone. Few of us are taught parenting at school. To know and understand that these are necessary activities of parenting, someone needed to parent us in these very basic ways when were were children. If that didn’t happen for some of us when we were little, why and how would they seem to be common sense once we become parents ourselves?   

It is also time for a little personal honesty here. In answering @Grumpyhatlady‘s question, I remarked that although these are ‘common sense’ suggestions, not everyone ‘gets’ it. And among those who do ‘get’ it, not everyone finds they can achieve it. At least not all the time. In that number, if I’m being honest, I must include myself. 

15 minutes reading, 10 minutes playing and 20 minutes conversation per child in The Shoe quickly adds up to three hours a day, not including the time spent making sure they have a nutritious diet and ensuring that they can ‘play out’ safely by supervising them or going with them as needed (‘playing out’, I do think is another one that deserves to be added to the list). It’s not a prohibitive length of time (the suggestions have been made to show that small, manageable amounts of time spent can make a big difference); it’s not an impossible length of time. But also, I’m not sure that I can say, hand on heart, I manage all five for all my children every single day.

If that’s true for me – when I know full well how important they are, when I’m motivated, educated, and ‘aspirational’; when my own parents parented me well; when I don’t have to worry about whether I can put food on the table, or keep a roof over our heads; when I’m not drunk or stoned; when I’m not being knocked about by my partner; when I don’t have an unmanaged or unmanageable mental health problem; when the loan collector isn’t knocking on my door every day – then it’s easy to see that it will take more than just a checklist and good intentions to make this possible for all our children. 

And – to get back briefly to Mr Clegg – it will take more than just creating an army of 65,000 fairly low paid, undervalued workers (however skilled and caring they are) to outsource our parenting to. The list doesn’t say “get someone else to read to your child for 15 minutes per day” or “have someone else speak with them for 20 minutes”. Woven into this set of expectations – and rightly so – is the expectation that parents will be parents; that we will build relationships with our children; share warm and loving experiences with them; cherish our moments together.

Poverty is one of the problems that undermines parents’ capacity to be good enough parents. Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ is a good place to start understanding why this is so. When @SuperlativeC remarked that children need “proper shoes, warm coat”, I replied that although I agreed, affordablity of these things is a problem for many families. And she responded: Hierarchy of need though- we see kids in secondary school too cold/ wet to learn too.

 Maslow’s hierarchy proposes that humans require their needs to be met at each of the lower levels before they can engage in meeting their needs at higher levels. A child who is hungry won’t be able to concentrate on a story, a child who is thirsty won’t enjoy a game. A child who is sleep deprived because their home is in a noisy neighbourhood, or because paper-thin walls mean that next door’s telly keeps them awake half the night will struggle to manage a warm, cozy chat. Children who have had to move often – perhaps because their family finds it hard to maintain their rent, will not feel safe or secure. In many cases they won’t find it easy to be ‘ready to mix with other children’. If we want our children to be ‘school ready’ they need their basic needs to be met. We must commit resources to making this so. 

The ‘Five-a-day’ recommendations (with perhaps the sensible additions of adequate sleep and time outdoors) can do much to help all our children get the best start in life, as the Marmot Review proposed. The Government needs to do more than commit to ‘state nannies’. It should commit to bringing child poverty to an end too.     


With thanks for this morning’s conversation to: 

@MrsBofVigo, @justjjoke, @chunkymark, @13loki, @SuperlativeC,@ianrobsons, @DominicNewbould, @Beckiebroccoli, @realacqua, @blamehound, @Heidimo, @victo1999, @huxley06, (the very magnificent and knowledgeable) @kaygeeuk, @jamg3916, @Rykalski, (the very wonderful) @helenmew, @Jodatu, (the warm and sympathetic) @langtry_girl, @Markliamb, @crowmogh, @DrLindy83, @CriminologyUK, @JackFrostMrs, @recitweets101, @rebelraising, @DearDaveandNick, @h00tings, @nicola_us, @sjksanders, @junrussell, @Mairemd, @Grumpyhatlady, @SZeitblom, @StillStandingSW, @Tigersue66, @katebentham, (excellent company on a protest x) @loftspace. 


Note from my Dad.

I love itsgrandpaswork, as do the little shoe-dwellers.

We weren’t trying to poison him, or itsgrandmaswork, honest!

“Two months ago, we had the lounge gas fire serviced, though we don’t use it that much. Today, the gas engineer made a return visit to try to track down the smell the fire was emitting when hot, which was also causing us serious headaches. Inside the case, he found a congealed mess of plastic, the remnants of ‘a foreign body’ as he styled it in his report. Somebody’s naughty little fingers had obviously poked a Lego brick or a felt-tipped pen or a play man through the convector aperture at the top of the front. (And why not, considering we offer the little dears toys which involve putting shapes into holes and we say ‘well done’ when they get it right!) As the heat of the fire built up, the plastic began to melt and to boil off some of its component compounds. Hence the smell and the bad headaches…..

I guess there’s a moral to this little story, though I can’t for the life of me think what it is.”

A Bone to the Dog

“A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.”

That Jack London quote sums up the true nature of charity beautifully for me, and yet here we are, in a frenzy of muppetry and crosspatch headlines because wealthy ‘philanthropists’ are having their bone-relief reduced, and are being called mean names while the Chancellor goes about it.

The Gidiot

Never willingly kind to the Gidiot, it pains me to admit that he might be right about any issue, let alone about something which makes so many of my pals froth something dreadful. But there it is. I think he’s right to remove higher rate tax relief from a load of things, including the act of giving to charity. ‘Philanthropists’ (at least, those who are making their voices heard) don’t take my point of view. They are ‘enraged’ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/who-are-you-calling-tax-dodgers… …and the Chancellor has provoked ‘fury’.

And I say to myself….hmmm.

Mr Ross, an accountant who has given away £33m in recent years, told The Independent: “You want to encourage people to be more philanthropic, not limit them. [This decision] can only harm the country. They are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They are penalising everybody.”

Only they’re not.

They are ‘penalising’ only people with an income over £200k per year (because the tax relief cap bites when it exceeds £50k or 25% of a person’s income, whichever is the greater). This then is a ‘penalty’ which applies solely to the notorious top 1%.

You, Mr or Ms 1%er earn your salary (let’s leave aside for a moment whether you’re genuinely worth so much more than other mortals and assume you do actually ‘earn’ your salary), you pay tax on it (only once all your other ‘avoidance’ measures are in place, of course), and then if you want to spend it all on shoes, foreign holidays, drugs, hookers or fast cars, you can only claim your tax back if you can somehow persuade the taxman that it’s a legitimate business expense. Sheesh. The world is just so damned unfair.

By contrast if you want to give that money away to a charity, you can claim back the tax you paid to the exchequer. No other strings attached. If you want to give that extra money to a charity too, good for you, but unlike Gift Aid (the tax relief that operates at the basic tax rate that most of us pay and which takes all the rebated funds for the charity to which the original donation was made) the system doesn’t require you to do so. If you want to trouser the tax-back you can.

Mr Ross (who with £33million to give away, earns at what i imagine to be the upper end of the accountancy scale) says: “There are not enough wealthy people giving to charity and this is giving out completely the wrong message. It is saying if you give away too much we are going to penalise you.”

Once again…Er…no.

It is saying that once you have parted with your cash, that’s it. It doesn’t find it’s way back to you, like a fond cat after a house move. Most of us will completely understand this apparently unfathomable concept, and will also understand it as the normal course of events, not some sort of cruel and unusual punishment.That some ‘philanthropists’ don’t see it that way is probably because (as helpfully explained by Mr Ross) they have a “psychological barrier” when it comes to giving their money away. Many of us will recognise this psychological barrier in ourselves. And we should sympathise. Where I grew up, we called it “meanness”.

Psychological barrier.

But to apply such an epithet to ‘philanthropists’ would in itself be meanness, wouldn’t it? As Dame Stephanie Shirley, who has been fortunate enough to have tens of millions to give to charity, said: “To look at philanthropists as if they were just tax avoiders is really rather disgusting”. And this is a fair point. This finger pointing should stop. Calling people who avoid tax through legitimate avoidance mechanisms, which they are perfectly entitled to employ for tax avoidance purposes, “avoiders” would be like calling people who claim benefits to which they are perfectly entitled “claimants”. Oh. Hang on. Maybe that’s not so mean after all! What’s the ‘psychologically barriered philanthropist’ equivalent to “scrounger”? What about the equivalent to “benefit scum”. Yeah. Thought not.

In fairness to Dame Stephanie, she is free from psychological barriers herself, saying: “If tax relief were to go, I would give the same amount, but that isn’t true of most philanthropists.” Which is a shame, because is is true of most people. £10.6 billion was donated to charity by personal donors in 2009/10, the vast majority of that unprompted by higher rate tax relief. Meanwhile very wealthy individuals gave 100 donations of £1 million or more in 2008/09 (the latest year for which information is available), with a combined value of £1.0 billion. (Source: http://uktoremet.org.uk/the-promotion-of-philanthropy/the-uk-charitable-secto… )

In total, charities received £52 billion in 2009/2010. Most of the money which goes to charities does not come from the happy, ‘philanthropic’ few.


If I can’t bring myself to feel cross on behalf of the ‘philanthropists’, I should feel cross on behalf of the charities though, right? Bearing in mind the psychological barriers that already exist for rich people thinking of giving, the sheer unpleasantness of calling avoidance avoidance, and the imposition of the draconian penalty of not getting some of your money back, there is sure to be less money going to good causes once this new measure becomes law. (Worse still, as this blog points out (http://giving-thought.tumblr.com/post/20110289856/to-cap-it-all-some-further-….T3SPGG2Q1Ak.twitter) the abolition of  all uncapped tax reliefs means that tycoons will have even less cash back and therefore even lower motivation for generosity, thanks to having their charitable tax relief “allowance” cannibalised! The horror!)

And I do feel genuinely sad for some charities who discover the conditionality that applies to the ‘generosity’ of their donors.

But I cant, hand on heart, agree that it’s more important for a charity to receive a philanthropist’s beneficence than it is for that person to pay their tax in full. If you are a culture or heritage charity, no matter how many happy, geeky hours I have spent in art galleries, museums and stately homes, I can’t prioritise your interests when there are children eating their dinner from supermarket bins (or pregnant women going without food for a week at a time: http://unemploymentmovement.com/forum/chat-a-rap/2158-food-crisis-gripping-bi… ); if you are an animal charity, I can’t value your new sanctuary higher than making sure families have a roof over their heads; if you are a sport or leisure charity, you should come lower down everyone’s list than meeting the health needs of our ageing population.

If you are a charity stepping into the space that ‘austerity’ has created because of cuts to publicly funded programmes that used to help the most vulnerable, I salute you. These are difficult times, and many of the people you work with are in increasing need because the publicly funded support they used to have has dried up, due to lack of tax revenue. Yes, that’s right. We think we need more charity, because the Government is collecting less tax and therefore providing less welfare. We won’t fix that by allowing wealthier people to pay less.

My next argument is one of the hardest ones for me to make, because currently this woeful excuse for a Government is spending what little money it does have on THE WRONG THINGS. This terrific rant from @ChunkyMark picks just one of the many examples of upside-down priority setting we currently have to endure: I sympathise with anyone with a full wallet and a good heart who thinks that they would spend their money more wisely and well than this bunch of rotten, heartless hoorays.

But it isn’t right to let the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ causes be sifted by those whose only qualification is that they’ve managed to attract the highest share of the spoils. I often reference Clem Attlee’s remark that if a rich man wants to help the poor he should pay his taxes gladly. On this occasion it’s worth quoting a fuller extract from his book, The Social Worker:

“Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim. In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community. The first way is intolerable, and as for the third: Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice.”

It would be almost too perfect to leave my thoughts of charity and philanthropy bookended by Jack London and Clem Attlee, but there’s one more thing which has to be said about the media ferment over this measure. It’s yet more coalition ‘distraction magic’.

We weren’t really fooled by GrannyTax or PastyGate, but somehow we’re letting ourselves get really sucked into this one. While we are stamping our feet, blowing our whistles, ringing our bells and banging our drums in favour of the restoration of a BENEFIT to the 1%, p 20 of the budget lists changes to Housing Benefit and Employment Support Allowance and the introduction of the household cap (defeated more than once in the Lords) which we know will devastate countless households; it references changes to Legal Aid which will restrict access to justice for the poor, particularly in relation to matters which affect their household income; p21 invokes the universal credit with the weasel words “this will help ensure the welfare system encourages people into work wherever possible” rendering “welfare” a straightforward synonym for “destitution”. p30 brings to an end universal child benefit (while claiming that it will ‘continue to be paid universally to all those who claim it and are entitled to it’; thereby also bringing to an end the generally understood meaning of the word ‘universal’). p31 removes the 50% rate of income tax from the highest earners. p40′ reinvigorates’ Right To Buy, removing further social housing stock from the system and creating fresh conditions for a future housing bubble. As inflation races ahead of targets, p46 commits the Government to a BELOW inflation increase in the minimum wage, makes it easier to sack people and harder for the wrongfully dismissed to obtain justice; it starts a race to the bottom on regional pay rates. I’ll stop there. You get the picture.

We are a nation in thrall to Osbornomics. This year’s budget is one of the most aggressive and destructive attacks on the poor and vulnerable that I can think of and yet we are shouting for the rights of the wealthy and the charities they favour.

Well, I’m not shouting for that.

‘Philanthropists’? Pay your taxes gladly. And if that leaves you feeling a little hungry, then that’s the best time to share your bone.

What the 2012 Budget says about tax relief

Capping tax reliefs

1.191 Tax reliefs exist for good reasons, to promote activities such as business investment and philanthropy. But it is unfair that reliefs can be used without limit to reduce tax liabilities, so that some taxpayers with very high incomes have very low tax rates.

1.192 To curtail this excessive use of reliefs the Government will introduce a limit on all uncapped income tax reliefs. For anyone seeking to claim more than £50,000 of reliefs, a cap will be set at 25 per cent of income. This will increase effective tax rates and help ensure that those with the highest incomes pay a fairer share. This will not be extended to those reliefs that are already capped, as to do so would reduce the amount of support the tax system gives, for example, to enterprise and pension contributions.

1.193 The Government will explore with philanthropists ways to ensure that this measure will not impact significantly on charities that depend on large donations.

#Boatrace Roundup

Labour did terrible things to the #NHS and then let Tories (and LibDems) in to do worse things; I like watching the Boatrace (and care a little bit who wins), even if that does make me an accidental apologist for elitism; the swimmer was a self-publicising nitwit and could have been hurt, but that doesn’t make him a criminal (although his blog advocating disruption tactics could make like pretty difficult for some ordinary people working hard to make the world a better place); I hope the Oxford guy gets well soon; @AndyBurnhamMP’s tweet was just the sort of nonsense Twitter is designed for; no one should resign or be arrested for today’s antics.

The ‘Hungry Children’ headline is not hyperbole

Today this story, claiming more children than ever before will be going hungry as a result of the toxic combination of rising prices and falling benefits and frozen salaries, appeared in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/look-…

It’s not a hysterical exaggeration. Maybe too many over-polished Dickens adaptations have made us a nation that feels sanguine about hoardes of hungry ragamuffins, cheekily, chirpily fending for themselves.

It’s not OK.

I don’t work in a London borough where some of the families that are most stretched by the Govt’s pitiless attack on social security can be found, but in my own area, which is fairly affluent, there are already families where children are going hungry, and there will be more.

Only this week I found myself discussing the expected impact of the latest housing and benefit regulations with a member of our tenants services team. Not known for sentimentality, (stock phrase on reviewing a property not meeting basic living standards: “They’d kill for this in Lewisham”) his concern for the children and young people in some of the more disadvantaged parts of the borough was all the more shocking for being unusual.

We were working together with a colleague from the early intervention team to identify families who would need additional support to adjust to the changes. The tenants services officer was clear that many families could not hope to cover the gap that would open up between their benefits and the ‘market’ rent; that other families would be financially penalised for so-called ‘under-occupancy’ despite a dearth of properties of the ‘right’ size to accommodate them.

The early intervention colleague outlined the number of families where children arrive at school hungry. And the number of families already surviving on food parcels.

Working steadily through the implementation dates of the legislation, and considering the implications for our most vulnerable families, we can see that by 18 months the situation for some families will be all but impossible.

At this point we don’t know what we will be able to do to make sure that all the children of our borough can eat enough every day to be able to grow, and learn, and stay healthy, and have a bit of energy left over for some childhood fun. Our levels of child poverty are pretty low. What will they do in Newham, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Hackney?