Thursday, 27 January 2011

Promoting the common good should mean higher taxes on the rich

The news that the collective wealth of the 1,000 richest people in the UK rose to £335.5 billion over the past year, provides ample food for thought at the start of Poverty and Homelessness Action Week (30/1).
The wealth of this exclusive group increased over the past 12 months by 29 per cent from its previous level of £258.24 billion. Despite the worsening economic situation, this marks the largest annual increase in the wealth of this rich elite.
Some 53 of the richest 1,000 are billionaires. The level of wealth accruing to this elite has increased incredibly over the past 13 years, going from £98.99 billion in 1997 to £335.5 billion today.
What these figures denote is an increasingly unequal society that has enriched the already mega-wealthy at the cost of the mass of people. This ongoing impoverishment is confirmed with a look at how the amount of gross domestic product (GDP) dedicated to wages and salaries has declined over the past three decades. So while in 1976, wages and salaries accounted for 65.1 per cent of GDP, this had reduced to 52.6 per cent by 1996. The election of the Labour Government in 1997 did lead to some rebalancing of the wealth indices, with the introduction of the minimum wage and improvements in the public sector. This led to wages and salaries accounting for 55 per cent of GDP. However, this was also the period when the wealth of the richest 1,000 increased threefold.
Labour MP Austin Mitchell has suggested that the richest 1,000 could easily give up 25 per cent of their wealth, providing £84 billion toward deficit reduction. “This redistribution would reduce and probably eliminate the need for draconian cuts,” said Mr Mitchell.
When other factors like the very low level of tax that many of these billionaires and millionaires pay in the UK, despite having their businesses based here, are taken into account the argument becomes all the more attractive.
The whole injustice of wealth distribution is a subject in urgent need of debate.
Never has the slogan “we’re all in it together” been less appropriately applied than is the case of the Coalition Government’s plans to reduce the deficit.
The focus has been on the need to cut public services, freeze public sector workers pay, cut jobs and reduce pension rights. The concept known as the Big Society (BS) has become the backdrop for much of this austerity package. While the BS offers an opportunity to return some power to local level, those powers when coupled with funding reductions make the concept a somewhat empty vassal.
What the aforementioned figures reveal is a society skewed horribly in favour of the rich and against the poor. There is no way that such a distribution of wealth can be said to favour the common good.
It has been extraordinary to witness the way that so many individuals and institutions, including the Church, have gone along with the government mood music of we’re all in it together. Where has the argument for higher taxation on those who earn the most been heard? It is an argument that Church leaders need to be making, rather than simply looking for crumbs to fall from the Big Society table.
Mr Mitchell’s idea of taking 25 per cent of the wealth of the richest 1,000 would be likely to prove difficult to implement but higher taxation on those who have done best out of this wholly inequitable division of wealth in our society makes perfect sense.
Back in 1976 when salaries and wages made up a greater proportion of GDP, levels of taxation were far higher on the rich. Tax rates above 80 per cent plus on those earning the most were not uncommon. The society was more equal and cohesive as a result. It has only been the tax cutting mantra, that took root under the Thatcher governments and was then continued by Labour, that led to the low level taxation regime we have today.
Yet this mantra has no logic. If the country wants better services then they have to be paid for. It is not possible to have something for nothing. And those who earn the most - and usually have got most out of the system - should pay more tax. The same argument applies to funding the deficit.
It is difficult to understand why the Church has not made the argument for higher taxation, rather than remaining silent. The Church is not a political party seeking election, so why not make the argument for higher taxes on the rich in the interests of the common good?

Friday, 7 January 2011

Time to end control orders, detention without trial and restore the rules of the game

Human rights activist Bruce Kent recently called for an Algerian man who has been held under a variety of forms of detention - including control order - to be tried or released. "It shocks me that someone can be detained in this way without any chance of defending himself against whatever accusations there may be. This is not the justice I was brought up to believe in," said Mr Kent.The call came just as the Coalition Government was debating what to do about control orders. The man, Mustapha Taleb, had been subject to a control order over the period of his detention since January 2003. At present he is being held under control order style conditions, pending the efforts of successive govenments to deport him to Algeria. Mr Taleb fled Algeria in 2000 after being arrested and tortured in that country. He was granted political asylum a year later. In January 2003, he was arrested on suspicion of involvement with what became known as the 'ricin plot' in north london. The subsequent trial in 2005 found that there was no ricin or plot, with Mr Taleb among those acquitted of all charges.Following the acquittal he was free for five months before being detained again in prison until January 2006. He was then placed under strict house arrest in north London. In August 2006, he was again sent back to prison until July 2008, before being released into control order style conditions again.He has never been told what if any accusations there are against him to justify his detention. Mr Taleb is not the only individual being held in such conditions. I visited another Algerian man known only as G some four years ago ( see Guardian 28/3/2007). He was under similar restrictive conditions, living in a flat with his wife and two children. There were limited times when he could go out of the flat. He wore a tag and had to check in with a security monitoring company several times a day. There was no internet access allowed and he could only be visited by individuals vetted by the Home Office. Today, he is in exactly the same situation as he was four years ago, still under control order style detention, living under the threat that he could be returned to Algeria where he would face torture and imprisonment. The only route out of this horror for both G and Mr Taleb appears to lie with the European Court of Human Rights. Both have been held on the basis of the oversight of the immigration tribunal the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. The crucial point about these cases and indeed the whole control order system is the dangerous precedent that has been created of detaining people without trial. The whole debate over control orders has been framed in terms of the need to find an alternative. The truly Kafkaesque situation of holding people without telling them of what they are accused, seemingly indefnitely in some cases, on the basis of unseen intelligence, has it would seem been conceded.It is this point that is so crucial, because once accepted that some people are so dangerous that they can be detained outside the rite of habeus corpus, then that principle can be extended to all sorts of categories. What the control order regime has briefly revealed is the whole paraphalia of the security state that has been allowed to grow inexorably under the aegis of the war on terror. It is a true glimpse of the authoritarian police state growing up in the shadows of our justice system. The time has come to restore the rule of law in the UK, get rid of control orders and the other hybrid forms of detention based on the same concept. The threat from Islamic terrorism is nothing like as great as this country suffered from the IRA during the Troubles, so why have measures been taken that go way beyond anything ever contemplated during that very real war. A return of the rule of law would mean that an individual can be detained only so long as the courts will allow. If the accusers do not have the evidence that will stand up in court the individual concerned should be allowed to go free. To paraphrase a former Prime Minister, it is now time to restore the rules of the game.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

High time the Labour Party began to oppose

The political landscape upon entering the new year looks uncertain. After making an assured start the Coalition Government began to rock around at the end of last year due to a number of indiscreet comments made to journalists by its Liberal Democrat members - most notably the Business Secretary Vince Cable. The comments followed growing signs of resistance from groups most effected by the cuts, like the students and public sector unions. What this spat and the resistance thus far displayed have shown is the weakness of the foundations underpinning the Coaltion Government.Given the aforesaid, it has been difficult to understand the approach of the Labour Party. After a blaze of publicity to greet his election as party leader, Ed Miliband appeared to go to ground. Little was heard from him, except seemingly when making interventions to point out he was not in the pockets of the trade unions.While the Coalition Government has been trying to dump the deficit at the door of the last Labour Government rather than the bankers, Miliband has been trying to make a clear break with new labour. This has meant denouncing certain former policies, most notably the Iraq war. This was no doubt the right thing to do but there is a very real danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It could create the perfect storm scenario of the Coalition Government seeking to lay the blame for the deficit on the last Labour Government while Miliband seeks to repudiate some of the past. The result being that much of the good done by the last government, not least in its response to the banking crisis, will get lost. In personnel terms, Miliband clearly tried to tie in the Blairite wing of the party by giving the shadow chancellor's job to Alan Johnson. He also seems to be testing the loyalty of Ed Balls by giving him the shadow home secretary's job in the short term at least - a role in which the former education secretary has remained incredibly quiet. The decision to consult over two years before coming up with clear policy can be understood but again could be construed as lacking definition. What all of this mood music suggests is that while the members of the Coalition Government are clearly unhappy with each other, the Labour Party opposition is in no hurry to exploit the divisions. Talking to many Labour Mps at Westminster it is difficult to find one who does not think that the Coaltion will run the full five year term. Yet recent events have show how brittle the Coalition really is and that it could be unseated at any time given a determined effort. The reality seems to be that the Labour Party does not want to be in government, it would far rather occupy the oppositon benches, while allowing the Coalition to impose the unpopular cuts. What signs there have been of where the Labour Party is heading have not been encouraging. When not attacking the unions, the leadership seems most concerned about what has happened to the "squeezed middle" - no doubt code for middle england. Clearly the Blairite strategists that argue the party has to take middle england to win power, never mind the traditional working class support, still holds sway.The reality is that all three parties reside on the right of centre wholly committed to the neo-liberal market agenda. They are about serving big business and capital to the cost of the mass of the working population. The Conservative Party are serving their traditional class interests. The Liberal Democrats have been exposed for the principle-less party they have always been. Meanwhile, the Labour Party continues struggling to find its soul.
The Labour Party though is not lost. What will be crucial is how it reacts in the coming months to the growing opposition on the streets from the different groups being hit hardest by the Coalition Government's cuts agenda. If it genuinely sides with the opposition and indeed is transformed by the spirit of protest, then a reconnection with its traditional values and support base is not out of reach. If however, the Labour Party continues to criticise the opposition, in the form of the likes of the trade unions and students, then it will remain a busted flush. There needs to be redefinition and clear differences established between the parties. So let's hope, the Labour Party can reconnect with its traditional base and come forward with some coherent alternative because a health democracy demands a decent opposition.