Thursday, 29 June 2017

Leviticus weaponised: the assassination of brother Tim

Tim needed to talk about Brexit ...
As leader of the Liberal Democrats for the 2017 election, Tim Farron needed to talk about the party’s offer to anti-Brexit ‘Remainers’ – a second referendum - and how income tax was the fair and realistic way to pay for better healthcare.

Instead, he was relentlessly pressed for his analysis of Leviticus. You work on the Sabbath (yes), you eat shellfish (no, actually) so why won’t you say if gay sex is a sin? Eleven times in four minutes, LBC radio’s Vincent McAviney demanded this instant, on-air exegesis of the third book of Moses.

...but Vince had other ideas
Tim Farron’s commitment to equality is unquestionable – he voted in favour of same-sex marriage, and Pink News found him ‘outspoken and consistent’ in backing equal rights as party leader. To Vincent of LBC, he tried to explain the principles of church-state separation, and the consequent inappropriateness of politicians issuing judgements on matters of faith, but it all seemed futile. What sex does Tim bless? He doesn’t answer! He won’t say! Eventually, like a broken hostage dragged from his cell to face the video recorder, Tim uttered the words his tormentors demanded: Gay sex is not a sin.  

One attacker was David Laws, the former Liberal Democrat minister and MP suspended from the House of Commons in 2011 for ‘a series of substantial breaches’ of expenses rules when he claimed ‘rent’ paid to a ‘landlord’ who was, in fact, his partner. The reason for the deception, he said, was being ‘very keen not to reveal information about my sexuality - not least to MPs from other parties.’ Now he accuses his leader of merely ‘tolerating’ and ‘forgiving’ him while promoting ‘the dangerous myth that our society can respect and embrace people in same sex relationships, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral’. But if Laws wields the bludgeon, a more subtle thrust comes from the rapier of Vince Cable, now back in Parliament and Farron’s likely successor as leader of the Liberal Democrats. He gave Sky TV this analysis of Tim’s position:

The problem he has as an individual, and it’s true of a lot of evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics, is that their religious faith has a certain approach to these problems but they are also public figures who have to represent their constituencies, which are much more diverse.

Tim Farron does not say that he ‘tolerates’ or ‘forgives’ gay colleagues or that he advocates any public sexual morality. He says that his liberalism means all are equal; as a Christian he does not judge anyone. Vince Cable suggests that he is not being truthful about his position: that actually he wants to enforce a ‘certain approach’ but cannot do so because of social diversity.

What is going on? The Liberal Democrats won 57 seats in the 2010 general election, then lost all but 8 of them in 2015. In between, they sat in Coalition government with the Conservatives. Tim Farron was not a Coalition minister, and voted in Parliament against his leadership on two controversial Coalition policies: increased student fees (a policy directly contradicting the party’s election promise) and the ‘bedroom tax’ (reduced benefit for tenants with ‘spare’ bedrooms). He won the leadership in 2015 against Norman Lamb, a former Coalition minister. Free of Coalition baggage, Tim Farron could purge the party of its stain while big-hitting former ministers like Vince Cable served time outside Parliament. Theresa May’s snap election promised an early return, but a strong showing by Farron’s Liberal Democrats would have been a rebuke to big-name ex-ministers. The outcome – the party still standing, but Farron dead and buried – is ideal. Leviticus was just the weapon.

But, when all is said and done … IS gay sex a sin? Why is this so hard to answer? ‘Sin’ in the bible means ‘missing the mark’ or falling short of God’s standards. Jesus faced, and denounced, a dominant religious elite holding that the Law of Moses defines a series of actions as ‘sins’, so conforming to a set of rules is the way to avoid it. Christians deny this. Sin is an intrinsic condition of humanity, basically consisting in rejecting the true God and making false gods (idols); it is not possible to live free of sin but it is possible to be forgiven through faith in Christ. The idea that a particular sexual practice is ‘a sin’ is meaningless: sin, at root, is disbelief, and things flow from that. But the New Testament also says that when people become Christians, they join free associations of believers known as churches. There are standards of conduct that distinguish those groups, and sexual behaviour is part of those. Here the question ‘is gay sex a sin?’ acquires meaning, more precisely as: ‘is a faithful sexual relationship with someone of the same gender compatible with a Christian profession of faith?’ Asking the leader of a Parliamentary party to comment implies that it is the job of the state to arbitrate on theological matters – as in the times of Emperor Constantine or King Henry VIII.

This is what Tim Farron means when he says that he is not a theologian, and that as a liberal he believes in church-state separation and equality. Vincent’s on-air question is an internal matter for churches, and the correct position for a church member when acting in the capacity of a public office holder is ‘no comment.’ He expects a liberal society to uphold his own, and others’, right to maintain this view. The demand that he answer is a violation of his rights, of liberal principles, and of religious freedom.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Mis-step on Maycare?

In Britain now, about 10 million people are aged over 65, traditionally time to retire from paid work. In 2017 these ranks are swelled by those born in 1952 - men and women who turned eleven in 1963, the year the Beatles began their string of chart-topping hits. 

Welcome, generation Please Please Me, first fruits of the post-war welfare state. It is a good time to join us!

Since 2008, the real household incomes of over-65s have risen by around 10%, while the rest have mostly flat-lined. One reason is a transfer from workers to pensioners through a political promise called the ‘triple lock,’ implemented by the 2010-15 Coalition government: this guarantees an annual increase in the state pension by the greatest of price or wage inflation or 2.5%. 

Politicians long ago worked out that the way to win elections was to please the older people who are much more likely to vote than younger generations.

In 2015, for the first time in 23 years, and somewhat against expectations, the Conservative party won an election outright. One momentous outcome was the referendum leading to Brexit, hence the fall of David Cameron as Prime Minister, his replacement by Theresa May, and the ‘Brexit election’ called for June 8th, 2017. The original scale of expectations for this poll can be measured by the fact that the Opposition leader’s principal backer, head of Britain’s largest trade union, told a reporter that for Labour to win 200 seats in Parliament would be satisfactory: a result which would be the  worst for Labour since 1935, leaving May with a mandate as big as was enjoyed by Tony Blair.

On May 18th, May presented her manifesto, and Conservative expectations took a dip. After much speculation about the ‘triple lock,’ the decision to replace it with a ‘double lock’ from 2020 was no big surprise. This still guarantees a state pension rise of the greater of either price or wage inflation, which (with real incomes now falling again) could well mean a continuing transfer from workers to retirees. The ‘winter fuel allowance’ would henceforth be ‘means tested’ – this tax-free bonus (usually £200) is paid to all pensioners, supposedly to counter extra heating costs met by older people, even the ones who pass their winters on the shores of the Mediterranean. Again, no huge shock. 

The surprise, landing May in the most serious political trouble she has yet faced as Prime Minister, was to reverse the Cameron government’s policy on funding care for elderly people. Opponents dubbed her proposal a ‘dementia tax’; she countered that a review was needed because of the growing elderly population. Neither of these is, I suggest, a particularly illuminating analysis.  

What are we dealing with here? According to figures from Age Concern, about 400,000 people over 65 live in residential care homes, and another 372,000 get substantial amounts of care at home – so little more that 7% of the age group rely on such care (even among over-85s, only one in six lives in a care home). This all costs about £22bn a year, of which about £8bn is paid by the state. This is ‘social care’ and unlike health care (a fine and contested line) it is means-tested. The great majority of pensioners are debt-free home-owners, so have average household wealth around £200,000, the product of rising house values. If they go into residential care, the value of their home is used to fund their stay, down to a ‘savings floor’ which is usually £23,250. If they stay in their own home, its value is not considered part of their wealth. In twenty years’ time, forecasts are for a 40% growth in the numbers of over-65s including a doubling in over-85s. How many of these will need social care is a matter more of guesswork than informed judgment. But we do know that most will, as now, be debt-free home owners, with wealth enough to cover the need (the implications for the Health Service are another matter).

The problem is not so much the numbers as the politics. Old people want to pass their homes to their families, and the random way in which a disabling condition can wipe out this value is experienced as deeply unfair. The Coalition government passed the problem to an Oxford economist, Andrew Dilnot. His committee proposed that the savings floor be increased to £100,000, and that users be expected to pay for their care only up to the value of a cap, suggested as £35,000 for total costs over a lifetime. This, he thought, would add £2bn to public costs annually – a significant increase in the cost of social care, but a trifle against the cost of the National Health Service (NHS), which takes between four and five days to burn its way through £2bn.

The 2015 Conservative manifesto promised to implement Dilnot but with a higher cap - about £70,000 – and with the existing, rather than a raised, savings floor. Payment could be deferred until death so that ‘no one has to sell their own home’ and all would be ‘protected from unlimited costs.’ They also promised to introduce these changes in 2016. Having won the election, they deferred the changes to 2020. 

Quite unexpectedly, May chucked all this out in her manifesto for the Brexit election. The preceding proposals, it said, ‘benefited a small number of wealthier people.’ Instead, she offered the full Dilnot floor of £100,000 – but there would be no cap, and care at home would be subject to the same savings floor test as residential care, with the cost charged to the estate at death. Four days later, May announced that there would, after all, be a cap to be set after consultation, and there things rest for now.

Labour’s manifesto – presumably written on the assumption that the Cameron plans would go ahead in 2020 - suggests no early changes to the payment system. It wants to add £3bn to care budgets, mainly to pay for better terms for staff and meet less acute needs. For the long term it talks about a ‘National Care Service’ integrated with the NHS, with funding to be a matter for consultation.

Theresa May’s surprising pledge seems to reveal significant instincts in the team of close advisers said to have thought it up. The idea that a pensioner with housing equity above £100,000 is ‘relatively wealthy’ challenges the compact with the middle class that has underpinned democratic politics since 1945. Under ‘Maycare’ a modest level of protection is to be assured – this is the good the state can do – at the expense of more lavish protection shared by the middling majority. Putting such detail into a manifesto can only have been done with the intention of securing this principle against all comers in government: in conceding a possible cap, May has insisted that the ‘principle’ is what stands. If so, what next for health, education, and the rest run on the opposite principle – that the modern, democratic state is a vehicle for all citizens to share the costs of services that meet the aspirations of the ‘relatively wealthy’ majority?

So what is the answer? The central principle here is that of ‘social insurance.’ A proportion of us will face huge costs of care in the closing years of life. We do not know how many will be impacted or at what cost, making the risk uninsurable in the private market unless politicians do something to contain the long-term risk. There is an upside to this, at any rate for the next forty years or so – most of those facing the risk have, or will have, substantial equity in residential property. So what makes sense? If we do not want to share the risk, so be it – leave us with a smallish cushion and let the losers take the hit. If we do want to share the risk, then we can pay more tax. The obvious source is inheritance tax (IHT). The most recent annual figures show that, of 267,000 estates valued for IHT, 248,000 paid no tax at all. On a total worth of £80bn, the government collected little more than £4bn in tax. Housing equity amounted to £40bn, but no tax was paid on housing assets of £33bn. For me, an IHT levy to build a dedicated fund to compensate for exceptional care costs in later life is the logical way to meet the challenge. But of course, I am not the first to suggest this – when the politician Andy Burnham floated the idea, he was accused of charging a ‘death tax’ and no party has dared put it forward since. 

But what, exactly, is wrong with a death tax? As someone once said, let the dead bury the dead.