Following their election victory last year, Islington Labour set up the Islington Fairness Commission. Great news, I said. I am entirely in favour of fairness; after all, where would we be without abstract nouns?

The Commission’s job was to investigate how Islington could be made a fairer place, and, familiar as I am with Islington Labour’s incredibly high opinion of itself, I anticipated that they viewed it as something that should eventually be rolled out across the country, and to be something that people should think of in the same way that we now think of the NHS. If you think I’m exaggerating, you should check out their record on free school meals for all, which they genuinely viewed as the triumphant capstone of the welfare state.

Party politics aside, the Commission was designed to be inclusive, incorporating inputs from a variety of stakeholders including Lib Dem councillors and the Chamber of Commerce. This was the right thing to do – my cynicism aside, a better society can only be built by bringing everyone with you. The news of this approach cheered me. I was less cheered when I heard that the chair of the Commission was to be Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level.

For those who haven’t read it, The Spirit Level is an attempt to explain every social ill as a product of inequality by comparing countries with different levels of inequality against different social ills, like crime or ill health. As with most theories of everything, the book starts off in its comfort zone, attempting to explain increased mental illness as a product of increased social anxiety brought on by increased inequality. This sounds at least mildly plausible, but then the book goes on to try to claim that everyone is made more unhealthy by increased health inequalities and it devolves into a series of scatter graphs with questionable ‘best fit’ lines running through them. Gerry Hassan has this to say about it:

Yet, it is almost impossible to compare these countries on equality; they are very different in their cultures, values and histories. Wilkinson and Pickett claim that ‘more equal societies almost always do better’—a universalist, sweeping statement—which cannot be substantiated by most of their data…. Part of the success of The Spirit Level is liberal guilt, part the retreat of the left, part wish-fulfilment and projection.”

There’s a good series of eviscerations over on The Spirit Level Delusion, a blog by Christopher Snowdon. Despite being a libertarian, Snowdon appears to like proper facts rather than the made-up research fond of the climate sceptics so dominant in his creed.

Given that the Commission was to be chaired by Wilkinson, I anticipated that its product would be a combination of wishful thinking and impractical suggestions. Its final report has now been released, and it contains 19 recommendations. Let’s go through these to find out how right I was.

Recommendation 1: Wages
No-one in Islington should do a hard day’s work for less than they can live on.

– Employers in Islington should pay all their directly employed staff as a minimum the London Living Wage (currently £8.30/hr). Employers should also review their procurement, contract and best value policies to ensure that, as far as possible within UK and EU law, the London Living Wage is the minimum paid to all their contracted staff as well.

There is literally no recommendation about how this is to be achieved. None. The only body this could apply to is the Council as a consequence, which while being a step in the right direction was already a Council policy.

Recommendation 2: Pay differentials
Tackling income inequality is crucial to forging a fairer Islington.

– All major employers in the borough should publish their pay differentials to enable them to be scrutinised and challenged where appropriate. In the case of Islington Council, this should mean establishing a formal subcommittee, including officer, member and union representation, to review pay differentials within the organisation with a view to reducing income inequality where possible.

Nothing wrong about transparency in the private sector around pay, but again there’s no recommendation as to how you’re going to get them to do this. The report also recommends that the pay differential in the Council should be 1:12 between the lowest and highest paid, which is an odd ratio and nothing at all to do with new CE’s salary level.

Recommendation 3: Debt
Personal debt compounds poverty and inequality, and may worsen as people in Islington lose their jobs.

– Islington Council should explore the possibility of passing a by-law to prevent payday loan companies from operating in the borough. And it should vigorously use its enforcement powers and those of its partners to take action against illegal activity by loan sharks who prey on vulnerable Islington residents.

Ah, an actual policy! And I bet it’s one the pawn shops lobbied hard over. This will make them a fortune, as people trade in Granny’s silver until payday at similarly usurious rates of interest as the now banned payday loan companies. I’m also disappointed to learn that the Council isn’t already using its powers of enforcement vigorously; the implication being that previously it just couldn’t be arsed to take action.

This one really annoys me, actually; people sometimes need payday loans, and there’ll always be a market for them. Why they didn’t want to encourage existing credit unions to expand is beyond me, but of course it has nothing to do with credit unions being genuine examples of civil society that aren’t Council-driven.

Recommendation 4: Employment
Employment for Islington’s residents is the best way to tackle poverty in the borough.

-Employers in Islington should, by means of legitimate positive action (such as advertising job opportunities in local media before national media) increase the proportion of local people they employ, especially among currently under-represented groups, such as disabled people. In the case of Islington Council this should mean increasing the proportion of Islington residents in its workforce from 23 per cent to 30 per cent by 2014.

Islington jobs for Islington workers! It’s a good thing that Islington isn’t surrounded by similarly deprived boroughs containing people desperately in need of work within travelling distance.

Shit, Hackney exists. Someone should’ve told them that. Luckily I’m sure better-off people in Islington won’t go for lucrative Council jobs just along the road from them, and will certainly defer employment to poorer people from other boroughs.

Recommendation 5: Jobs for young people
No young person in Islington should be altogether out of education, employment and training.

– Employers in Islington should do more to support young people who are at risk of falling into the cycle of poverty. In particular, they should support the new initiatives being developed to this end by Islington Business Board, including their programme of mentoring and work experience which will support young people into employment or training or help them to start a business of their own.

Ah, that Wilkinson, he does love his wishful thinking. On the other hand, the Council offering more mentoring and work experience placements isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Recommendation 6: Corporate social responsibility
We need businesses and charities in Islington to be on the side of fairness.

– Islington Chamber of Commerce and its partners should develop a plan to promote the following important activities among businesses and charities in the borough, for example through a Fair Islington kitemark scheme:
o Pay at least the London Living Wage to all staff
o Have a pay differential of less than 1:20
o Ensure access to both premises and opportunities for disabled people
o Offer apprenticeships and/or paid internships
o Offer work experience placements
o Have employee representation on remuneration panels
o Recognise trade unions
o Offer family-friendly employment practices, including flexible and part-time working and job-sharing opportunities
o Offer support for childcare, including childcare loans
o Support workless people to prepare for the world of employment

Ah, so this is their enforcement mechanism. A badge. Schumpter was taking the piss out of socialists using badges as a reward for good behaviour in their ideal societies back in the 50s, which as a scholar I’m sure Wilkinson is well aware of. But, to give the scheme its due, let me tell you exactly what’s going to happen. Businesses invited to take part in this will add up the cost of all the above against the extra trade attracted by having a badge in their window. The ones that do do this will be businesses catering to middle-class customers who can afford the extra cost, and who already do most of these things already, especially with regard to pay. The least well-off, those family members working for poverty wages in their uncle’s takeaway, will not be affected. But little Johnny who’s working during his summer holidays will be quids in.

Recommendation 7: The first year, and before
What happens during pregnancy and a child’s first year is crucial to a child’s life chances.

– There should be a major review, convened by the new Health and Wellbeing Board, of all public, private and voluntary sector activity in Islington to support parents, and parents-to-be, from the point of a child’s conception to his or her first birthday. In particular, this should look at significantly improving the coordination of services, especially those delivered by GPs, Midwives, Health Visitors and the Council.

Shit, they’re having a review. Well, I bet child poverty will just give up and go home. The reason quoted for better co-ordination between various services is to reduce the complexities encountered by new parents. This is a laudable aim, but it falls under the heading of, “You mean they’re not doing this already?!”

Recommendation 8: Affordable childcare
A lack of affordable childcare is a serious barrier to parents returning to work.

– Islington Council and its partners should establish a local ‘Childcare Coalition’, involving schools, public sector organisations, the voluntary sector, for example Islington Childcare Trust, and employers to increase the amount of affordable childcare available in the borough, especially during school holidays. This should include, for example, protecting the extended schools offer despite cuts to its funding. The ‘Childcare Coalition’ should also work to persuade employers to support parents in working flexibly around childcare provision.

Actually, this is a really good idea. I’m not going to knock it. To be fair to socialists, they’re normally pretty good at looking after kids, whereas child poverty is something the Right really doesn’t understand.

Recommendation 9: ‘Islington Reads’
The ability to read is essential for a fairer Islington.

– A new community collaboration should be set up, organised by a partnership of public sector and voluntary sector organisations, to share reading skills across communities in Islington. This will help both children and adults to improve their literacy.

On the other hand, this is utterly meaningless. I presume they mean some sort of voluntary teaching arrangement – I did this once for kids that had difficulty reading – but given they’re wrapping it up in Council clothes I’d bet that it’ll be nearly impossible to engage with. This is something that’s really better left to the schools and the voluntary sector.

Recommendation 10: Giving time, giving money
Giving time and giving money is a good way of challenging poverty and inequality in our borough.

– Islington Giving should be supported to:
o champion Islington’s needs and encourage residents and businesses to donate time and money to the campaign
o continue its efforts to recruit, train and deploy 500+ new volunteers in the borough by 2014
o establish a new ‘Good Neighbours’ scheme to reduce social isolation, particularly among older and disabled people, and build community spirit in the borough
– Islington Council should, with Voluntary Action Islington, coordinate the valuable volunteering time it affords its employees, so that such efforts are targeted at Islington recipients in greatest need.

The charities mentioned here are doing great work. Pity that the Council wants in on the act.

Recommendation 11: Public space
We need to reclaim, protect and maintain communal spaces in Islington for community use.

– Islington Council and partners should identify all unused communal space in Islington, especially on estates, to free it up, make it accessible and use it, following the example of successful projects such as Edible Islington and the London Orchard Project.

You mean the Council doesn’t already have a register of all the land it owns and maintains and its current status? What on earth are they doing?

Recommendation 12: Antisocial behaviour
Antisocial behaviour damages communities and contributes to social isolation.

– A single telephone number should be established for reporting antisocial behaviour, requiring collaboration between Housing Associations, Homes for Islington, Islington Police and the Council. This should improve residents’ experience when reporting antisocial behaviour and simplify the route to getting concerns addressed. The resulting coordinated response should enable a more effective and efficient approach to tackling antisocial behaviour, particularly on estates.

Actually, this is a pretty good idea. Full marks for understanding the efficient use of force.

Recommendation 13: Fallout from crime
Tackling crime is about more than just punishing its perpetrators.

– Islington Council, together with its partners in Victim Support and Islington Police’s Safer Neighbourhoods Teams, should enhance the work done with individuals and communities that are victims of crime and antisocial behaviour to resolve local problems. This should include further work to implement restorative justice, acceptable behaviour contracts, community payback and reparation, and the return of the proceeds of crime.

Aren’t all these things happening already? ‘Enhance’ pretty much means, “Keep it up chaps, well done.”

Recommendation 14: Overcrowding
Tackling overcrowding needs to be a top priority in Islington.

– Planning policies and the Council’s new-build programme should prefer family-sized housing.
– Tenancy audits should continue to establish the potential for down-sizing.
– Islington Council should do even more to enhance its downsizing offer to under-occupiers. This could include three-way swaps; holding local swap meetings; ensuring a move happens within a year; getting people who have downsized to speak to people who are eligible to do so about the benefits; and offering a tailored package of support to help older people downsize from properties they can no longer manage (while making clear to those who may be concerned that evictions and forced transfers on these grounds are out of the question).
– Each year the council should estimate the maximum potential number of under-occupation moves, based on the supply of smaller homes, and provide incentives and support to reach this maximum.
– Reviews of allocation policies and lettings processes should ensure that priority for overcrowding is maintained, and where possible increased.

Let me translate this one: “We know proper tenancy reviews are necessary for the fair allocation of a limited resource, but we haven’t got the balls to recommend anything that might possibly result in someone getting hurt, so instead we’re going to go for a rather pathetic half-way house that’ll cost more and be less effective.”

Recommendation 15: Housing supply
Increasing the supply of decent, genuinely affordable homes is essential.

– Islington Council should strive to bring empty space into residential use by:
o Eliminating empty space above shops through writing to all shop owners to discuss the opportunities and benefits and requiring relevant staff, for example Town Centre Managers, Trading Standards officers and Environmental Health officers to enquire about space above shops as part of their routine
o Identifying empty space in commercial and office buildings for conversion for residential use, especially properties that have remained empty for some time and those that are in residential rather than commercial areas
– The Council and Housing Associations should maximise their efforts to eliminate housing fraud and illegal sub-letting, so that social housing is used fairly, according to need.
– The Council should work with Housing Associations to ensure a supply of genuinely affordable social housing and discourage rent levels that are out of reach of people on average or low incomes.

God forbid that they would recommend that more houses be built.

Recommendation 16: Health inequalities
Islington’s stark health inequalities demand a more active and targeted response.

– The new Health and Wellbeing Board should draw up a clear plan of action to address well-documented health inequalities in the borough. This plan should include targeted responses to populations in need, including preventive programmes tailored to the needs of deprived or excluded groups, such as people with learning difficulties or serious
mental health problems, homeless people and older people.

While it’s a bit mealy-mouthed to say, “Other people should work out what we have to do here”, the fact that they’ve identified a body to do it is a legitimate move.

Recommendation 17: Children’s health
Good health in childhood is essential to a fairer Islington.

– NHS Islington and Islington Council should:
o support all schools in Islington to achieve ‘enhanced healthy schools’ status and all children’s centres to achieve ‘healthy children’s centre’ status
o ensure every child has free vitamin drops up to the age of 5 years
o undertake an inequalities analysis of immunisation uptake, to ensure that effort to support this programme is adequately targeted
o and seek to reduce the number (or at least check the further proliferation) of fast food outlets near schools

These are actually pretty sensible suggestions. I’d have preferred a stronger commitment on the opening of new fast food outlets, but hey, well done on this one.

Recommendation 18: Mental health
Times of economic hardship are particularly stressful, so we must increase support for mental health.

– NHS Islington needs to increase the number of people accessing support for depression and anxiety, particularly with levels of unemployment rising and increasing financial hardship which will increase mental ill-health in the borough.

Yes. But how?

Recommendation 19: Exercise
Islington’s health would improve significantly if more people exercised.

– Islington Council should:
o negotiate with the Mayor of London and Transport for London to make it easier to cycle in Islington by getting the Barclays Bikes scheme extended further north into the borough, by encouraging people from all backgrounds to use it, and by getting the Freedom Pass and/or other concessions to work on it
o explore with schools, Aqua Terra and other relevant partners how to make it easier for local residents to use the excellent school sporting facilities, including swimming pools, we now have in the borough
– Islington GPs should use to the full their ability to prescribe exercise.

These are all solid suggestions, but I’m surprised to see the most obvious one isn’t there – “Make it safe to use the parks when it’s darker during winter.”

Overall, it’s exactly as I expected – mostly wishful thinking with little real content. But everything in it is entirely well-meaning, and I worry that I’ve come across as snidely kicking a communist puppy. It is for this reason that I expect my fellow Lib Dems will vote that the Council adopts it on June 30th.

Ladele and all her works

August 4, 2008

Like many people in Islington, I’ve been following the saga of Lillian Ladele and Islington Council with interest. When the news reached the general public that Ladele’s appeal against her dismissal had been successful, we were inundated with many offers of support, both from individuals and from organisations such as the Nation Secular Society, amongst others. All viewed the case as being a setback for the acceptance of gay marriage in the UK, not without reason – the Christian Institute, which funded Ladele’s suit, is claiming this as legal recognition for religion-based prejudice.

We have confirmed that we’re appealing the decision. This is quite a complex issue – the grounds on which we lost the appeal were not necessarily those that the Christian Institute would like to believe, but rather that the management’s original handling of the case fell below the standards that an employee could reasonably accept. However, mishandling a case does not mean that the grounds for her dismissal do not still stand, and so our appeal may have a good chance of success.

Since the appeal came to court, a prominent case involving religious principles has been heard which may have bearing on this issue. The right of a Welsh Sikh girl to wear her kara in class has been upheld by the courts, on the grounds that the kara is an indispensible part of her faith. This stands in stark contrast to the ruling that a Muslim girl in Luton was not permitted to wear a jilbab in class. The difference here appears to revolve around how intrinsic a particular manifestation of religion is to that particular faith. In the case of the Sikh, the kara is specified within scripture as something a Sikh must carry. In the case of the Muslim, the jilbab is not specified within the Koran as something that a Muslim girl must wear, the Koran only specifying the much weaker constraint that women must not dress ‘immodestly’. Since mainstream Muslim opinion in the UK does not appear to hold that anything below the jilbab is immodest, the court found against the girl.

This has bearing on the Ladele case, as these are examples of the courts ruling on what can be properly considered to be a necessary part of a religion – in essence, the courts doing a form of theology. Now, this is where it becomes very interesting indeed. While there are parts of the Bible that clearly condemn homosexuality, there are also parts that seem to describe homosexual relationships. That’s not to even mention all the exhortations in the New Testament to look after those who are the worst off in society, who everyone else passes by.

I realise that having a judge in essence state, “I think what God meant to say,” may seem a little unpalatable to some people, but since there’s a legal precedent for this, I suspect that’s what will eventually happen in the Ladele case. The reason why this has to be the case lies in the Bible itself, specifically in chapter 9 of the Book of Genesis, the infamous Curse of Ham.

This isn’t God turning all of his enemies into vacuum-packed meat slices, but rather a curse placed upon Canaan by Noah. Essentially, God turns Canaan black because he slept with his mother. This has been used in the past to justify all sorts of racism. And that’s why it’s crucial here. An individual’s interpretation of scripture cannot outweigh that of the courts, otherwise a Christian colleague of Ladele would be entitled to refuse to work with her on the grounds that, as a black person, she has been cursed by God. Without a reference to mainstream religious opinion, the Bible permits most forms of discrimination.

However, quite frankly, given the current furore within the Anglican church over gay bishops, who knows what mainstream opinion is any more?