Whether you agree with drug decriminalisation or not, shutting down the debate before it even starts doesn’t help anyone.
The comments by Bob Ainsworth - a former Home Office Minister - are certainly a notable event, as probably the most senior politician to call for an end of the war on drugs and a radical change in policy.
The last government’s sacking of Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) hijacked drugs policy as a political tool more brutally than any act before it.
The Lancet’s recent report once again highlighted the scientific basis of alcohol being more harmful than many illegal drugs, while official statistics show alcohol-related deaths now exceed 15,000. Little has been heard from politicians today on this topic, yet it is the biggest public health issue as far as drugs are concerned. Obesity is already becoming an equally significant issue, with far greater health consequences than many illegal drugs.
As the widespread response to Ainsworth’s comments has shown, it seems science has no place in ‘The War on Drugs’ and indeed any debate about the potential flaws in a prohibition-led approach is entirely unwanted.
Whatever your views on drug policy - within which we must include tobacco and alcohol - not having any discussion will not help address the real problems many face because of drug misuse and addiction. There was a time when alcohol was illegal, yet now it (along with tobacco) is such a part of the social fabric few would consider reintroducing that particular tenet of prohibition.
Bill Hicks’ always said how strange many politicians take drugs and don’t enjoy them, when everyone else seems to manage a good time, and that they must have simply had bad drugs. When drug policy is being debated, it’s one of those issues when it’s patently clear that the political classes are either out of touch with large numbers of the population, or are simply indulging in spectacular hypocrisy.
I’m a big fan of the West Wing and, as so often, President Bartlett had it right when he said: “I inherited the war on drugs from a President who inherited it from a President who inherited it from a President before that. I’m not a hundred percent sure who we’re fighting but I know we’re not winning. Ten years ago we spent five billion dollars fighting drugs and we did such a good job that last year we spent 16 billion.
“Sixty percent of federal prisoners are in jail on drug charges as opposed to two and a half percent that are there for violent crime. We imprison a higher percentage of our citizens than Russia did under Communism and South Africa did under apartheid. Somewhere between 50 and 85% of the prison population has a drug or alcohol abuse problem. We’ve tried ‘Just Say No’, I don’t think it’s going to work.”
It should be recognised that the overwhelming majority of the millions of people in the UK who use illegal drugs do so out of choice. The present prohibition, while denying the liberty of personal choice, only exacerbates the criminality, violence and chemical interference that cause the real social damage. Those suffering from addiction should be afforded the most thorough support to free themselves from their addiction.
We have a drugs policy barely fit for the 1920s, rooted in social prejudice and scientific ignorance. It’s time for a real debate on this, and I applaud Bob Ainsworth for having the nerve to say so publicly and hope many more in Westminster add their voice to the call for a debate, if not a change in the law.
Ever since it became clear that public spending was going to have to be reduced dramatically, I’ve been arguing that across the public sector ‘business as usual’ wasn’t going to deliver the needed savings.
Some departments, councils and quangos have singularly failed to evaluate how they deliver their services, simply opting to cut front-line services to deliver required reductions in cost. Those responsible for this mindset have seemingly escaped criticism, when they should be held to account for a mind-crunching lack of imagination, ingenuity or indeed talent.
One department that this criticism cannot be levelled is the Department of Work and Pensions. Under IDS’ leadership they are proposing a radical re-thinking of how benefits are delivered, with the universal credit replacing tens of other benefits as part of a massive simplification of the benefits system. (51 benefits to around 5)
Quite simply, the enormous costs of administering such a byzantine system (and the associated loss of £3bn+ in errors, treble the amount lost to fraud) is exactly the sort of spending that should be focused on as ripe for cutting. Whatever your views on the reductions in benefits, the fact the administration alone runs into billions should be reason to agree the status quo isn’t sustainable.
So, now the policy battle has been won, IDS needs to deliver the reforms. And here’s where I think an enormous political risk lies, for IDS personally and the coalition.
With the last Governments’ NHS IT debacle, the criticism was often an academic exercise around how much it cost. The ‘human cost’ was not reported, and beyond the hugely unfortunate staff trying to use the systems there were no perceived ‘victims.’
Benefits are quite different. Every IT failure, delay or error will lead to inevitable stories about families unable to feed or clothe their children, tenants being evicted and the disabled being abandoned by the state. If the error is big enough, there will be public outrage on a scale not seen since the Poll Tax. Those who are most likely to live hand-to-mouth will be left empty handed. Perhaps we might see the first deaths caused by a Government IT failure.
The systems involved are currently spread across a range of departments, from the DWP itself to HMRC, The Treasury, with probably others in Health, Education and Business. It’s a myriad web of awkward, old, complex systems many of which are utterly incompatible with others.
To deliver the needed cost savings, these need to be integrated, simplified and then a new system deployed. Not to mention the modernisation that will remove as much human administration as possible, which is where the greatest cost currently lies. As much paper as possible needs to be eliminated, preferably with online services hugely increased. This needs to happen quickly to deliver the required spending reductions this parliament.
And all of this when dealing with the most complex lives, in the most deprived areas, when many do not have internet access and of course not forgetting that many in the civil service have a vested interest in this failing, either at a high level enabling them to keep the armies of staff which have traditionally been the greatest measure of ‘status’ or on a lower level, their individual jobs.
Reforms of this type have long since been the cash cow of the major systems integrators, who have made huge profits delivering systems that rarely deliver their promised functionality and always cost more than expected. Britian has one of the worst track records in delivering IT projects, and much has been written on how this track record can be improved. (And sadly all too often ignored.)
IDS should heed the advice of Edward Leigh, then chairman of Public Account Committee (PAC), before embarking on the reforms. On the DWP’s project with EDS (now HP) in delivering the Child Support Agency’s IT, he said:
“The Department for Work and Pensions never really knew what it was doing in dealing with the contractors EDS and the system was a turkey from day one.”
This is exactly the kind of project for the coalition to set itself apart from Labour’s failures and ignite the British IT industry. The same approach will not work, no matter how much the likes of Accenture, HP or Capgemini promise it will “this time” and the cost could be catastrophic, both financially and politically.
Now is the time to experiment with innovation, run a series of real pilot schemes and open the doors to the best ideas in the country. If the doors remain closed to the same club, all of whom have a vested interest in blocking innovation to protect their own profits, the public will not afford the Coalition the same acquiescence afforded to Labour’s health IT boondoggle.
If the technological infrastructure is wrong, lives will be ruined. The same approach will not deliver – the choice is whether IDS allows those for whom failure is a profitable or personally preferable option to destroy the most important reform agenda for a generation.
IDS was given a huge political trophy, gift-wrapped by George Osborne and the Treasury. The question for IDS should be why it’s ticking.
We don’t need a universal benefits culture, we need lower taxes.
A week or so ago, I took part in an event in Doncaster, discussing benefit cuts. The overwhelming majority of the audience not only agreed public spending was unsustainable and cuts had to be made, but that there are many who are in receipt of benefits who simply should not be.
Whether it is in the form of overseas residents being given a winter fuel payment or MPs being entitled to certain tax credits, the one concept that was abundantly clear from the event was that benefits do not need to be universal.
Indeed, I don’t think that word was mentioned once during the 2 hours we spent debating everything from the Royal Family to bank bonuses. So, as the storm around child benefit emerged during Conservative conference, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was another situation where the Westminster media village was behind the general population.
As I said to the audience, for me there is a real question about the role of government here.
I grew up with a work ethic instilled in me by my family, one that made clear work was a noble endeavour to be respected, whatever profession the individual chose. During the election, I met countless people who shared the same view that work is not an option and it is a tragedy and outrage when the benefits system becomes an alternative to work.
Yet what strikes me about the current debate is how many simply now accept that they are taxed more and more, only to have to ask for more and more handouts from the state. As a Yorkshireman, I can’t help but ask – when did we stop believing that our wages were our own, and accept that it was perfectly normal to go cap-in-hand to the state?
We need a benefits system that helps those in real need get back on their feet to make the most of whatever opportunities they chose to pursue. That absolutely means training, rehabilitation and in some cases long-term financial support.
We need a benefits system that does not create dependency, but protects and supports in dire times. In particular, where children are concerned, we need a benefits system that recognises simply giving money to parents doesn’t always increase that child’s life chances.
We do not need a benefits system that pays monthly handouts to parents who simply do not need the money. That isn’t the point of a benefits system, it’s unsustainable and it’s right it should stop.
The bottom line is that those families working hard should not be paying tax in order to get slightly less back in benefits. Tax them less, and in doing so reward them for working more. I believe a great many people take great pride in standing on their own two feet and providing for their family. Lower taxes enable this - a bigger state, with a bloated benefits culture, obstruct it.
I’ll do another post on why the current benefit system itself is hampering the goal of a more fair, prosperous society but for now I’ll leave you with this thought - are we really so badly off as a country that the state needs to support 9 in 10 families?
Posted: October 8th, 2010
, Welfare reform
, nick pickles
Comments: 1 Comment
Not a huge post from me - just some remarkable statistics that really did make me gasp. Unbelievable one of the world’s largest economies, not to mention one of the oldest welfare states, could allow a situation to emerge where:
- 1.4 million people in the UK have been on an out-of-work benefit for nine or more of the last 10 years;
- Income inequality in the UK is now at its highest level since comparable statistics began in 1961;
- Social mobility in Britain is worse than in the USA, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Canada, Finland and Denmark;
- A higher proportion of children grow up in workless households in the UK than in any other EU country.
Iain Duncan Smith has a huge task ahead of him, and along with Michael Gove I genuinely believe he could go down as one of the great reforming ministers of recent history.
Posted: May 28th, 2010
Categories: Welfare reform
Tags: iain duncan smith
, Welfare reform
Comments: No Comments