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Social engineering: Are they all at it?

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Mark Easton | 17:47 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

Accusations of "social engineering" have been flying around in the past day or so over Conservative plans to use the tax system to encourage marriage. Two thoughts: first, social engineering is what all politicians aim to do and, second, they are usually not very good at it.

Traffic lights in front of Big Ben"Social engineering" has a sinister tone to it, conjuring the image of some evil despot attempting to reconstruct society around a warped personal philosophy. Examples might include Mao's Cultural Revolution, Hitler's Final Solution or Stalin's Five Year Plans.

But if social engineering is defined as efforts "to influence popular attitudes, social behaviours, and resource management on a large scale", then that, surely, is what all political leaders, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to achieve. Every law they pass, every adjustment to the tax and welfare systems, every information campaign, every speech is designed to change the way society behaves.

The philosopher Karl Popper drew a distinction between the principles of democratic social reconstruction (called "piecemeal social engineering") and "Utopian social engineering". While the first might be a "reasonable method of improving the lot of man", the second "may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering", he argued.

Yesterday in the Sunday Telegraph, Children's Secretary Ed Balls accused the Conservatives of "trying to socially-engineer family life" by proposing to use the tax system to encourage marriage.

The Daily Mail responded in a leader that "(n)o government in recent history has been more obsessed with social engineering than New Labour", citing policies on immigration, the family and education.

The Telegraph echoes the criticism, arguing that Mr Balls has "spent the last decade trying to do precisely what he decries: that is, trying to re-engineer family life through tax policy". In Labour's case, says the newspaper, it is the Working Family Tax Credit, the effect of which has been to "increase the number of children raised by single mothers".

However, it is doubtful how much effect Whitehall policy wonks and zealous ministers can really have on family life. The rise in the number of lone parents probably has far more to do with contemporary expectations for domestic well-being than tweaks to the tax system.

The decline of marriage and long-term committed relationships in Britain is echoed across the Western world and has been described as a shift from "familism" to "consumerism". In other words, these days people tend to put a greater emphasis on individual autonomy than family life. Couples pursue careers to maximise income, postponing children and the long-term obligations that go with it - possibly indefinitely.

It has also been argued that people take a more "consumerist" attitude to relationships. They regard a marriage the same way they might view a contract with British Gas. If it doesn't deliver, just stop the standing order. Using the tax system to encourage people to tie the knot may push up the marriage rate, but it may also push up the divorce rate.

In England and Wales, the proportion of the married population who got divorced last year was down 7%, at the lowest level since 1984. That is not because couples found renewed commitment, but because those who were less committed were less likely to get married in the first place. Conversely, if people are pushed into getting hitched by the promise of extra cash, it is probable that more of those marriages will fail.

When the Austrian government introduced a £300 marriage grant in 1972, the divorce rate soared. The cash incentive was withdrawn a decade later. The conclusion would seem to be that you can bribe someone to the altar but you cannot buy commitment.

The so-called "tools of government" used to change behaviour come in three forms: carrots, sticks and sermons. All politicians use these tools to a greater or lesser degree. The Conservatives, anxious to encourage the development of "big society" rather than the "big state", are looking to plant carrots and preach sermons. That is why the shadow cabinet was encouraged to read Nudge a couple of years ago, a book looking at ways of changing behaviour without the need for new laws. However, trying to adjust social norms so that people live their lives more responsibly is "social engineering" by any other name.

Nevertheless, when it comes to welfare reform and anti-social behaviour, the Conservatives opt for "sticks" - just as Labour has done.

New research by academics at Nottingham Trent University examines the government's recent attempts at "piecemeal social engineering".

"Making People More Responsible: The Blair Government's Programme for Changing Citizens' Behaviour" pulls apart a long list of policies:

"[W]elfare to work, health promotion campaigns, a ban on smoking in public places, measures to combat antisocial behaviour and enforce school discipline, home-school contracts, community cohesion and neighbourhood renewal programmes, measures to encourage car sharing and use of public transport, and others to promote domestic waste recycling".

The research team defined 10 types of policy instruments to achieve behavioural change:

(1) Regulation - prohibition

(2) Regulation - administrative restriction

(3) Regulation - administrative conditionality

(4) Incentive - fiscally induced price increase

(5) Incentive - fiscally induced price reduction

(6) Practical support, counselling, in-kind resources

(7) Information - campaign to dissuade from a wanted good

(8) Information - campaign to persuade to use an unwanted good

(9) Manipulating environment - restricting opportunities for certain behaviours (will use tools of regulation, incentive, information, etc.)

(10) Manipulating environment - increasing opportunities for certain behaviours (will use tools of regulation, incentive, information, etc.)

The first three, the regulatory approaches, are described as "strong tools" and the research concludes that "those departments principally targeting people who have low incomes and/or are poor exhibit much higher strong tool ratios (0.23 compared to 0.11, which is significant at the 0.05 level)".

Perhaps politicians think the middle classes are more responsive to argument and bribery, while those in the most deprived households need a regulatory boot to get them to mend their ways. Or maybe they calculate that the poor are less likely to vote.


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  • 1. At 7:15pm on 18 Jan 2010, watriler wrote:

    The forces of capitalism, free enterprise and the market economy are arguably perverted utopian social engineering - all the more powerful for not emanating from a well defined political source unless you consider such a condition to be the natural order of society. Social engineering (both piecemeal and 'utopian') is often to combat these forces. Social engineering is categorised as a derogatory term by those who have a vested interest in not changing who benefits from the current state of society - basically the rich and propertied. So it is my view that all politicians and parties only have something meaningful to say if they wish to indulge in social engineering!

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  • 2. At 7:20pm on 18 Jan 2010, oobuc5 wrote:

    this is difficult,from what iv seen i think prior to the north,s mfg being decemated it was the heart of our mfg,then things were changing
    the easy money was not in mfg it was in property,and wharehousesing/import
    and because the oil was seen as running out sooner than they thought ,it was the time for the big change ,the unions were to powerful ,so the dye was cast ,in order to save the coal rserves the mines would have to be shut down ,the battle would follow ,but time was on the gov,s side,once ,
    the unions were broken all the other factors would be put into place
    with out the mfg the unions would have nothing,so it was that with help
    from the gov the factories went and all of our goods were imported from china where doutless a lot of deals were done ,china was not the only
    exporter in the mix deals were done with japan ,all of this and more
    helped to shape where the elite want us to be ,for some unknown reason the economy was shaped into a boom and bust model,after a couple of these we entered into a darker time where credit was not a problem for anybody,so much so the housing market could only accelerate to point break along with the banks soon to follow,although the country was broke the gov kept giving the banks public money/mp,s were filling their pockets with public money ,anti social behavior was on the up ,the gov had taken hand guns of the public years before as they new what was comming so knife crime took a hold ,prisons filled up to the point where sentences were a joke ,police were not on the street and did not want any crime figures policing became a joke ,it would seem that the gov wanted metro england with 100,s of thousands polish and other imigrants flowing into the country,the race riots would follow ,a country that sold off its oil and gas ,then its copper/silver/to the point where even the money was taken back and then changed into the cheape base metal we use today,we have the highest taxes in the world /the most expensive fuel, along with electric and domestic gas,our council tax is the highest in the world ,the oil is running out ,this has lead to the rich being able to afford anything they want and the rest of us having to downscale our lifes while others invest in crime for their high return,
    looking around us at all of the cut backs in our lives /our work/our social life /and our finacial, its not a job to see where its going to
    but social unrest is building at a rapid rate .in ther brave new world
    self reliance and inventivness will win the day:

    it would seem that our country has been set up for the new rich to get richer ,there are no morals in their life or their bussiness ,or their politics,the country is on the edge of mad max ,if you dont learn to run with the gun your future could be short:

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  • 3. At 7:28pm on 18 Jan 2010, Briantist wrote:

    Can I recommend the works of the BBC's Adam Curtis? You can catch most of them online if you search.

    In particular Pandora's Box (1992), The Mayfair Set (1999), The Century of the Self (2002), The Power of Nightmares (2004), The Trap (2007) and the recent It Felt Like A Kiss (2009)?

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  • 4. At 8:03pm on 18 Jan 2010, CComment wrote:

    The notion of any politician advising on lifestyle is as laughable as it is nauseating. Caledonian Comment

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  • 5. At 8:43pm on 18 Jan 2010, DevilsAdvocate wrote:

    So the Rich do well and the feckless do well, and the poor workers in the middle get squeezed. It can't last, there aren't enough workers, and they don't earn enough.

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  • 6. At 11:10pm on 18 Jan 2010, Jack Moxley wrote:

    Me and my for life gf have agreed to get married if there are tax breaks.

    Being we already have just had a baby after co-habiting for 6 years and we have a mortgage together. Also I am also named on the birth certificate (I have the same rights as any married father).

    So we are slightly confused as to why getting married means we deserve tax breaks or proves anything to anyone,

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  • 7. At 00:24am on 19 Jan 2010, PaulusKeg wrote:

    I think the idea of rewarding marriage is meant to be about less family break up i.e Bad divorce cases, children being left out etc. Where as in a way single mothers are rewarded for having several children there should be an encouragement to stay with one partner rather than having children by many fathers. It is not good for the Children I have a relative in the situation and I feel that people are always having a go at decent insitutions without looking at the fact. It is i'm afraid part of are anything goes no rules society.

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  • 8. At 01:14am on 19 Jan 2010, nickmay wrote:

    Mark Easton, R.I.P. !

    > you can bribe someone to the alter but you cannot buy commitment

    Surely: "You can bribe someone to ALTER (their behaviour)" or "you can bribe someone to the ALTAR".

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  • 9. At 05:55am on 19 Jan 2010, Michael Alexander Kearsley wrote:

    What is needed is a reduction in the Social Engineering, not an expensive bureaucratic new tier of it. Cutback on the number of benefit premiums, maybe allow married couples the option of combining their tax allowances, raise tax thresholds, cutback Single Parent benefits and move to a situation where per person the differences between amounts a couple gets and those a single person gets are reduced and conditionality on each person equalised.

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  • 10. At 07:11am on 19 Jan 2010, divadlo wrote:

    Social engineering by stealth has been going on for hundreds of years culminating in the world we have today where a global elite control the majority of business led by their banking industry. This power base now controls UK, US and EU political systems as well as significantly influencing many other nations across the world. Present day politics is now no more than their most efficient tool of social engineering. And if you think this is a conspiracy theory do a little research on the Bilderberg Group.... it will open your eyes to the reality of what we believe is representative politics and show you the reality of your world.

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  • 11. At 08:15am on 19 Jan 2010, Anthony wrote:

    I've been with my partner 13 years i have 2 children a mortgage and i'm going no where, my family are my life. Im self employed and despite the state doing just fine. Me and my partner did break up on more than one occasion some years ago and have come through that to become a very strong family unit. Though i suspect we will get married some time in the future i find cash being waved under my nose to do so rather abhorrent. As one commenter touched on above i would rather see a change in the system that stops young women knocking out children and being rewarded by the state with a bigger home and more handouts. Children in many cases doomed to be the front line of social degradation. That isn't to say that there is a majority of single mothers out there doing a fantastic job equal and above of women in long term relationships and marriages.
    Wish these politicians would spend more time running down the people endlessly abusing society.
    For instance maybe a cap on rampant property development. I know of one man who owns and rents 255 houses over 2 streets in Nottingham. How is that right and good for society when young couples cant afford a starter home...

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  • 12. At 09:09am on 19 Jan 2010, Angel_in_Transit wrote:

    Oh, such cunning "social engineering" in your opening piece, Mr Easton, if you wish to split hairs that is. If we ignore the ambiguity of language then you may have a point to make; but sadly you must use language to make your point.

    A simple example. We take an indifferent human trait (i.e neither "good" nor "bad"). We manipulate it, over a period of time, to "bad". Now it is "bad", we tax it heavily. It doesn't work, so we "ban" it from public places. That doesn't work, so we "criminalise" it. And so on... It works equally well taking the "good" route too, by reversing penalties into rewards.

    The only things left to define are "trait", and, most importantly, "we".

    "Social engineering" occurs a long time before people get to the altar, Mark; commitments are made a long time before people get to the altar, Mark.

    This is just "micro" versus "macro", Mark, and where "we" wish to draw the line. At the moment "we" may be guttersnipes.

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  • 13. At 09:26am on 19 Jan 2010, If Only wrote:

    We are social engineered to death , told what to do and when , every single thing we buy is taxed to the hilt , we are told we are racist if we have any opinion on anything ! but the very folk " MP`S " run their lives how they like , they say how much they should be paid and what expenses they should have , they employ their own family so the cash still rolls in , they have in fact run this country to the brink of bankruptcy, but hey lets just sell off another British company " cadbury " Im in favour of putting the family unit in first place , and stopping the encouragement of children having children , but it will not happen ...oh my lord what am i saying this government has turned me into a moaning person , have i been socially engineered ???

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  • 14. At 09:30am on 19 Jan 2010, LippyLippo wrote:

    I don't think that any Government should quail at the idea of attempting to control and guide their population. It is, after all, what they were elected to do. We have had over a generation of what can only be described as laissez-faire governance. That is, successive governments who have failed to make and enforce their laws properly, for fear of being seen as electorally unpopular. As a result, they have instilled in us British a sense of isolationism and individualism that is quite at odds with a happy and functional society. We have become more self-serving, more fractured, more consumerist,and less able to see further than our own front doors. We won't be told what to do, we won't listen to advice, and even the merest hint that some behaviours are less acceptable than others is met with outrage at the infraction of our precious liberty. Those external factors that stop us pursuing this hedonistic view have been systematically eroded. Religion has been largely junked and more chaotic influences, such as the media, have grown massively. All this has had a dramatic effect on our society, which is more broken and unhappy than ever, by whichever means one chooses to measure. Marriage involves some sacrifices, some compromises. In a world where 'compromise' is a dirty word, is it any wonder marriage has declined? Looking at things from a purely pragmatic view, we see that married couples break the law less, they break up less than unmarried couples, and their children are more stable and less troublesome. As with any statistic, there will be examples where this is not the case, as I'm sure people will point out, but broadly speaking, marriage is a Good Thing. Why then are we so outraged when a Government (albeit far too late!), realises this and wishes to promote it? With any sensible, well-organised system of governance and regulation, the chosen 'right path' should be well signposted and every prompt and incentive needed to nudge people along it should be made. Conversely, the many 'wrong paths' - those behaviours which are less desirable - should also be made clear, along with their associated penalties. The term 'Social Engineering' has been given a negative connotation, and its association with repressive and dictatorial governments is always invoked, as if even the slightest attempt at governance must always mushroom into people being dragged out of their beds in the dead of night and sent off to forced labour camps! But without engineering, without maintenance, anything will fall apart in the end, and that is what is happening today. Our failure to show people what is right, out of cowardice, or fear of giving offence, has bitten us well and truly in the behind.

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  • 15. At 09:31am on 19 Jan 2010, John wrote:

    Surely the difference between acceptable steps to restructure society and 'social engineering' is whether public support has been sought and obtained.
    Politicians with dreams of Utopia have no right to impose these on an electorate who do not share their views. In a democracy, serious policy issues need to be decided by referendums.

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  • 16. At 09:53am on 19 Jan 2010, If Only wrote:

    Well said Johnda (15) we are never given the chance to have a say in the direction our country is taking , to many Quangos and unelected people let in by this government.. Mandy to name one , and laws passed without consultation .

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  • 17. At 10:02am on 19 Jan 2010, stanilic wrote:

    By the way Mark that table type thing at the eastern end of the church behind the Communion Rail is called an altar, not an alter. At one time people got killed messing around with altars. Such behaviour even helped to trigger a Civil War in England in 1642. It wasn't called social-engineering in those days, just sacrilege.

    For my part I wholly disagree with people setting themselves up as authorities telling how others should order their lives either through intimidation or bribery. This is monstrous behaviour as it deprives the generality with any control over their own existence.

    I have complained elsewhere that in recent times I have felt myself shut into an academic experiment of which I do not approve in either content or substance. Looking back over my life there have been times when I felt very controlled by others in society who were, and are, not motivated with keeping my best interests in mind. It has certainly alienated me from authority and induced destructive urges which have had to be disciplined inwardly. This makes me in many ways an angry man: a condition which I do not wish to inhabit which then only makes things worse.

    If the British Establishment were to stop trying to force the British people into moulds they cannot fit then quite probably they will find the degree of abuse (violence, intimidation, manipulation) and self-abuse (drunkeness, substance abuse) in society would diminish as the people would be allowed to be themselves and able to begin to take control of their own lives.

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  • 18. At 10:29am on 19 Jan 2010, Spiny Norman wrote:

    #14. LippyLippo

    "I don't think that any Government should quail at the idea of attempting to control and guide their population. It is, after all, what they were elected to do. "

    NO!! The Government was elected to serve the people. Mind you, thanks for that precise statement of the domineering attitude of the political class.

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  • 19. At 10:57am on 19 Jan 2010, Angel_in_Transit wrote:


    Indeed referenda should matter, but, then, isn't democracy just another facet of "social engineering" when the psychobabblists get to work on the word?

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  • 20. At 1:04pm on 19 Jan 2010, stronghold_barricades wrote:


    They tax and redistribute, therefore they socially engineer

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  • 21. At 2:18pm on 19 Jan 2010, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    We have social engineering, they are all commercials and advertising and we can see what that has created. The best thing about governments is their inability to get things done. Just think if the governments could implement their agendas. The lack of effectiveness and efficiencies are the only things saving the civilization. The extreme efforts of both Stalin and Mao ended up being temporary as people are people and do what they do regardless of the attempts of governments to have them do otherwise. The government can't regulate a small number of banks with the simple agenda of enhanced greed. When governments create tax incentives for something the revenues lost are made up with a tax somewhere else. Taxes are always the main purpose of governments, social policy or anything else is an excuse to collect the taxes.

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  • 22. At 2:26pm on 19 Jan 2010, virtualsilverlady wrote:

    They've all been at it for years.

    The married couples allowance is not new. It existed to help couples when only one was working and a transferable couples allowance where there are children would take some of the pressure off women having to return to work full time when they would rather look after their children themselves. At least until they were old enough to start nursery.

    Then there was MIRAS where the first thirty thousand pounds of your mortgage was tax exempt. This certainly helped many hardpressed first time buyers afford to buy their homes but proved to be too expensive so this was eventually scrapped.

    Good ideas for the times and easily managed through the tax system.

    Now tax credits are something else. These are the most controversial and complicated measures I've ever known and I don't even pretend to understand how they work.

    It appears to be a measure that keeps wages down but tops up the pay of low earning families.

    It also appears to be a measure that keeps the state pension low and again tops up those without additional serps or other pensions.

    This is a system which appears to be totally unmanageable judging by the billions in overpayments which they have had to write off.

    The last two were introduced by labour so Ed Balls is being totally disingenuous if he talks of tory social engineering.

    I'm sure there are so many other instances over the years that social engineering is just part of mainstream politics that will go on and on depending on who is in power.

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  • 23. At 3:01pm on 19 Jan 2010, John Ellis wrote:

    I am who I am happily living life with no worries about state branding or what it wants to waste tax payers money on doing to me.
    the list below will get anyone through life with no worries about anything.

    1 You shall have no other gods before me.

    2 You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

    3 You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

    4 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

    5 Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.

    6 You shall not murder.

    7 You shall not commit adultery.

    8 You shall not steal.

    9 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

    10 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s."

    I think that's all the law needed to life a happy life either singly coupled or as a family. Be them a bit old but when thought about and applied to today's society a total opposite is the Norm..

    I'm my own social engineer :)I don't need to be guided along like a good sheep. I see where things are wrong and fix them in a social way with other social engineers.

    Prohibition No1 on your list as defining factors of social engineering is really funny as if your not afraid of prohibition then its no longer a social tool to engineer criminals for old people to be frightened of and communities blighted with.

    No's 2-10 all sort of lead back to No1
    tax breaks for married couples is a class example and although unpopular with most I think is an excellent idea but should be extended to couples were shared income is shown and not just the Christianised idea of married couples.

    The social engineering of drugs is by far my favourite way to see how ill thought out plans work. the government has tried god bless it to look tough and moral and all they have done is created a whole new generation of drug users that use science as a basis and not hear say. I mean how did we get from cannabis to methadrone ? It was going really well cannabis use was falling the profits were falling the market was all but benign. Then Wacky Jacky comes along makes it B, says aren't I clever I made drug dealers really really rich and now put millions of people at risk from designer drugs although I'm sure in the mystical places they live politicians never thought a new drug would replace cannabis or that these new drugs in turn would be superseded by generation and generation of drugs designed around current ones, anyone that questions this is a quack in the eyes of the government or out for their own bit of social engineering..

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  • 24. At 3:18pm on 19 Jan 2010, Philip Adams wrote:

    If politics is the practice of changing society or of halting change in society, then politics is social engineering. Since I cannot see any other purpose in politics, this debate is a non-debate in my view.

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  • 25. At 8:05pm on 19 Jan 2010, Euforiater wrote:

    Everyone social engineers, it's human nature. Look at our society:
    The Governments try to create an atmosphere of fear to trigger the tribal instinct of being unanimous behind the leaders.
    The newspapers make sure you buy the next issue by starting something to worry about in this issue.
    Advertisers get you to buy the product by linking-by-association with something desirable - "The sort of man that has a penthouse and a really together life drinks glen-whatever" (!)
    Corporations create the impression that the top people's jobs can only be done by a few (to try to justify obscene earnings) but everyone else's can be done by the cheapest hired hands.
    Everyone does it, it's just that the rich do it the most because they have more clout..

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  • 26. At 02:48am on 20 Jan 2010, clamdip lobster claws wrote:

    Ghostof Sichuan is right. When times were good and the government wanted to sell more washing machines and refrigerators divorce was all the rage because divorce means two separate households hence two of everything. Now that money is tight and the government is looking for new ways to plunder the citizenry, marriage is in. Don't people see how schizophrenic these policies are? There is a much bigger picture in all of this. We need to be more critical and look.

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  • 27. At 06:53am on 20 Jan 2010, Angel_in_Transit wrote:


    Tax credits. My pet hate. So complicated even the computer programmers have not got the syntax correct; and no point asking one of the architects of this folly to explain because they haven't a clue either. The system bumbles along making huge payouts and then goes into overdrive to try to get them back. It is the idiot's guide to mismanaging taxes.

    And all because New Labour worried that a minimum wage might damage the unemployment figures if set too high. Better to indirectly subsidise poor (in one sense of the word) employers than pay people realistically? Why no one thought of lifting people on low pay (and low fixed incomes) out of taxation completely is beyond me, especially as a minimum wage should be the lowest income you can exist on. The £10k tax band was a much better idea, and at least it was simple.

    That is the problem with social engineering though, just put something in place. You never go back and check whether it worked or not, you just find something else to tamper with in as disagreeable a way as possible. Tax credits cost billions to administer - wouldn't all that money be better spent on making life bearable for some real low income people?

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  • 28. At 08:37am on 20 Jan 2010, icewombat wrote:

    Listening to Ed Balls this Morning he repeatedly stated that he didnt want to disavantacge signle parents, which he sited as devorcees, and midowers or woman who had left their abusive partners.

    What was interesting is he did not mention the vast majority of single parents who got pregnant knowing that a) they were single, b) they didnt want / need contact with the father, c: that the state would pick up the tab.

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  • 29. At 09:00am on 20 Jan 2010, jon112dk wrote:

    Absolutely - they are all at it.

    The new religion of 'environment' is another example. Taxes on fuel, closing down in town parking, bus lanes, charging for plastic bags, cutting back rubbish collections etc etc - obviously intended to coerce changes in peoples behaviour. Arguably far more coercive and oppressive than things like tax incentives.

    Interesting that the current regime is quite happy with their own coercive plans to manipulate society but object to an incentive based scheme to encourage marriage. Does that say something about their values?

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  • 30. At 10:41am on 20 Jan 2010, John Ward wrote:

    'Children's Secretary Ed Balls accused the Conservatives of "trying to socially-engineer family life" by proposing to use the tax system to encourage marriage..'
    Isn't this rather like accusing a policeman of wanting to catch burglars?

    I listen to Mr Balls over and over, searching in vain for a strategy behind his policy of tweeting from trains and opening schools. If Mr Balls is a social engineer, then before opening the Leggo box, perhaps he needs to have some form of end result in mind: a building or bridge or tower of Babel, or whatever.

    Mr Cameron wants to encourage marriage, but most thinking people just want parents to stay together at least until their children are socialised and ready for life as an adult. They also want communities to matter more than globalised corporate entities, and contentment to matter more than money. Mr Cameron says he wants all those things, but in an Obaman, empty sort of way. Mr Balls says nothing except he's sorry when another part of the social care system screws up.

    Not much of a choice on the social engineering front, then.

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  • 31. At 10:44am on 20 Jan 2010, General_Jack_Ripper wrote:

    Angel_in_Transit wrote:
    "Tax credits cost billions to administer - wouldn't all that money be better spent on making life bearable for some real low income people?"

    The tax credits system is a perfect example of a policy written by civil servants.
    It costs a fortune to run, takes hundreds of civil servants to administer and fails to achieve the desired results.

    Sir Humphrey would be very proud of whoever gave this proposal to the Prime Minister.

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  • 32. At 3:06pm on 20 Jan 2010, Joe Thompson wrote:

    To provide tax breaks to the married is to punish people for being single. A few phrases come to mind:
    Adding insult to injury, and
    Rubbing salt in the wound.

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  • 33. At 3:51pm on 20 Jan 2010, clamdip lobster claws wrote:

    And think of all the money that the government would save by not having to support the children of single parents. With a 52% divorce rate the savings would probably be huge. If men weren't so marginalised and made a decent, living wage for their family, they might not feel so overwhelmed and leave. If women are now the major bread winner why would she even need a husband? The policies have always been counter to the intended affect and there's a reason for it. Such as in taking away a person's allegience to their family and placing it under state control. Everyone complains about the nanny state. It's engineered for a particular reason and goal.

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  • 34. At 4:41pm on 20 Jan 2010, lukas wrote:

    I'm not sure I would define "social engineering" as loosely as Mark's article does... To my mind "social engineering" is when you put laws or policies into place to force people to behave a certain way.

    Given the above definition Labour's policies over their last term have been full of examples of what I'd call genuine "social engineering". On the other hand the Tories suggested policy (this one on Marriage) is clearly not "social engineering" since it's not forcing anyone to do anything. People will still have the option not to marry if they prefer to for whatever reasons. They will pay more tax - but surely one should not choose to have kids or not and marry or not for financial reasons alone?

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  • 35. At 5:46pm on 20 Jan 2010, Tom W wrote:

    Rewarding married couples is all very well, but what happens if one parent dies? Then their widow(er) becomes an unmarried single parent, and would be financialy punished for their spouse's death!

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  • 36. At 5:47pm on 20 Jan 2010, iNotHere wrote:

    17. At 10:02am on 19 Jan 2010, stanilic wrote:
    "If the British Establishment were to stop trying to force the British people into moulds they cannot fit then quite probably they will find the degree of abuse (violence, intimidation, manipulation) and self-abuse (drunkeness, substance abuse) in society would diminish as the people would be allowed to be themselves and able to begin to take control of their own lives."

    Well said.

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  • 37. At 5:50pm on 20 Jan 2010, iNotHere wrote:

    The Western governments are owned by the corporations who in turn are owned by the banks. We as a civilisation have made money our god then given it to the banks, is it any wonder they now have the power to say who lives and dies?
    Social engineering? You bet, until THEY have achieved their Utopia.

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  • 38. At 5:51pm on 20 Jan 2010, SandiaMan wrote:

    It is obvious that politicians have hit on the usefulness of convincing us that the process of impounding and giving out money is the key curing the ills of society. I have no doubt that this effort to change human behavior by leveling out the distribution of wealth has effects (positive and negative) in the short term. Whether it has a lasting or generally beneficial result is debatable. What is certain is that it gives great power to the politicians by appealing to the greed of the economically less successful of society. Expect it to continue for quite some time.

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  • 39. At 10:06pm on 20 Jan 2010, frenchliving wrote:

    I am unsure what the term social engineering means and to be frank I would have very little concern that politicians do either. So stop worrying ladies and gentlemen. Just today, we have a gem, sorry no - its a cracker from none other than Her Majesty's Prime Minister:

    Did a Prime Minister really say this as reported on the BBC in their headline articles.

    He also said: "There is no government that is doing more to try and protect jobs and increase jobs in this country."

    Are you puzzled? If you aren't you should be. How many governments does the U.K. have then or does he think other governments are running the U.K. aswell? I thought he was the only Prime Minister of a single government called HMG - what a buffoon. He nearly had me confused for a minute and nodding in agreement. Something out of the old television series of 'Yes Prime Minister' perhaps. It just gets more embarrassing as everyday passes to see these politicians (left, centre or right) making decisions about anything important. I would not employ them to run a corner sweetshop selling chocolate bars let alone a bank with billions of your money - would you? They are only fit for the theatre handing out flakes and crunchies.

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  • 40. At 02:34am on 21 Jan 2010, Wrinklyoldgit wrote:

    The unacceptable social engineering by NuLabour is to try to turn this Chritian nation into another home from home for radical muslims who are pariahs in their homelands, have many people have to vote BNP in protest before our out-of-touch politicians finally realise that immigrants who integrate will always find a home here, those who want to turn the UK into another intolerant Sharia Iran are unwelcome under any circumstances.

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  • 41. At 11:02am on 21 Jan 2010, General_Jack_Ripper wrote:

    @ polcirkel

    I'm shocked, who would have thought you'd come on here spreading your own personal brand of Islamaphobia and self-pity ?

    About 15% of our population attend Church regularly and belief in Christianity is at an all time low of about 58% and is falling all of the time.


    This hardly makes us a Christian country; we are a Secular country and have been for a very long time.

    There's only one reason to vote BNP and that is because you are a racist, all of their non-racist policies are being proposed by UKIP and other parties who are non-racist so there are many other options available to those who are real nationalists instead of being small minded bigots.
    It's also laughable that you're promoting the BNP while saying you don't want to turn the country into "another intolerant Sharia Iran" when the sort of Christianity and system of government that the BNP support and want to see introduced to Britain is just as repressive, restrictive and generally abhorrent as the systems in place in Iran.

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  • 42. At 11:32am on 21 Jan 2010, John Ellis wrote:

    GJR agree with you totally on BNP.

    We are however a Christian country as a monarchy, with the monarch head of the church of England. As a Christian country we welcome all neighbours, living secular lives with each other in peace.
    BNP ain't got no Christians in it they are all jealous of another humans hateful of their own failure and so impose that hate on others.

    9 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

    10 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s."

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  • 43. At 1:14pm on 21 Jan 2010, Rob wrote:

    Sylvia D says "We are social engineered to death , told what to do and when , every single thing we buy is taxed to the hilt , we are told we are racist if we have any opinion on anything ! "

    This is quite obviously paranoid nonsense.

    I may be told what to do at work, and at home (by my wife) but the government keep out of my life mostly. They used check me out of the pub at 11pm, but not any more. Who tells you what to do? Do you have any examples?

    Many things are taxed, correct, but VAT or equivilent is a fact in most developed countries. My income tax is 20%, less than the French and way less than my Swedish collegues (40%). We pay in other areas of course. Swings and roundabouts.

    I've not been called racist. Who calls you racist, and what did you say?

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  • 44. At 2:56pm on 21 Jan 2010, General_Jack_Ripper wrote:

    CommunityCriminal wrote:
    "We are however a Christian country as a monarchy, with the monarch head of the church of England. As a Christian country we welcome all neighbours, living secular lives with each other in peace."

    I'll concede that as our Monarch is Christian and is also head of the Church that in some official way we may then be classified as a Christian country, the reality on the streets is a very different matter and has been since the beginning of the last century.
    I can't think of many people I know who regard themselves as Christian or think they live a Christian lifestyle and for a lot of (maybe even most) people, religion simply has no relevance to their lives any more.

    The majority of people I know live Secular lives, don't go to Church, don't pray, don't read the Bible, don't live their lives according to the teachings of Christ and don't do anything else that would classify them as being Christian.
    I'd say that this makes us a Secular nation.

    I'd compare the situation with Iran and Turkey, both of them could be described as Muslim countries but anyone who has visited them would probably describe Turkey as a Secular nation and Iran a Muslim nation.

    I suppose in the end this one comes down to the definition of your terms, to you the UK feels like a Christian country and there a loads of things you could bring up to support your position while I think the UK feels like a Secular country and can also bring up loads of things to support my position.

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  • 45. At 3:48pm on 21 Jan 2010, General_Jack_Ripper wrote:

    Sorry CC;
    "I'd say that this makes us a Secular nation."
    Should have read; "If that is also the case for the rest of the country then I'd say that this makes us a Secular nation."

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  • 46. At 4:39pm on 21 Jan 2010, John Ellis wrote:

    No Worries GJR we are :) and look at the wonders it has brought us :)

    I wasn't coming down all 'this is our country' just its origins and the fact that the BNP share nothing of these values. :)

    I often wonder if people feel weak and embarrassed by older values and this is why we see such angst towards other religious groups that hold very strong core values over government and politics.

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  • 47. At 01:18am on 22 Jan 2010, clamdip lobster claws wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 48. At 07:37am on 22 Jan 2010, Angel_in_Transit wrote:

    I feel we should understand the Christian roots of the United Kingdom as a prime example of "social engineering", first through Catholic interpretation and representation of the teachings of Christ, and then through a Monarch's wish to vary those "values" for a protestant variation of a similar vein. Were we ever intended to consider "organised worship and denial" as a means of celebrating Christ's life? Has the unfailing dogma of some Christian faiths broken the backbone of our past?

    In a similar way other religions manipulate the minds of those who follow but it is always the core values that are hardest to shift, and those are generally locked into the hearts and minds of "good" people, regardless of whether or not you attend organised ceremony. It is interesting to observe how the process we saw enriching people's lives two thousand years ago is now seen as such a threat to our world at large because it involves "new" ideals. Religion has always challenged politicians because both are strong on dogma, but where would most politicians be without the advocacy of their "church"?

    Friendly countries are those with settled and secure people who fear not the new arrivals or the changes they bring. We have lost much of our community and that is why we are now so fragile, brittle, and testy at the very heart of our establishment. Politicians have a lot of work to do to repair the self inflicted damage from three decades of ignorance. Perhaps they will again turn to the churches?

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  • 49. At 1:32pm on 22 Jan 2010, Bunglebear wrote:

    It is indeed correct that a measure of social engineering is within a government's remit. Social engineering has a bad name as its mainly applied to heavy handed stick methods to force a population to change its behaviour. When the desired social change is driven by a fixed ideology rather than practical concerns, for example socialism, then an informed populace is liable to react negatively.

    An excellent example would be the left wing closure of grammar schools because of ideological issues with elitism (and yes, I know the Tories continued to close grammar schools after they were elected, but the point stands). It was a very blunt attempt to reorganise social strata based on the socialist premise that everyone is equal and of course it failed, as most blunt social engineering methods do.

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  • 50. At 1:35pm on 22 Jan 2010, DisgustedOfMitcham2 wrote:

    Mark, kudos to you for grasping the point that encouraging marriage through the tax system is unlikely to achieve anything.

    I find it very depressing how so many people (many politicians included, it seems) have missed the fundamental point that correlation is not the same as causation, and therefore assume that just because children of married parents do better than children of unmarried parents, making more people marry will be beneficial.

    However, you have missed a trick elsewhere in your post. You mention Ed Balls being scathing about recognising marriage through the tax system, but fail to point out his breathtaking hypocrisy, given that the current tax system already recognises marriage. If you are married and you die, your spouse will inherit everything free of inheritance tax. However, if you are not married and leave everything to your unmarried partner, your partner will be liable for inheritance tax in the normal way.

    Now, if Balls is so against recognising marriage in the tax system, why does inheritance tax work that way?

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  • 51. At 2:12pm on 22 Jan 2010, General_Jack_Ripper wrote:


    Don't worry mate, I know you're not some fringe lunatic from the BNP :-)

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  • 52. At 5:01pm on 22 Jan 2010, pandatank wrote:

    Married tax allowance does in no way counter the financial disadvantages of getting married in the first place! Two cohabiting workers get 3.5 x both salaries when applying for a mortgage, unlike married workers. If one of the cohabiting people becomes unemployed they can claim benefits, unlike married people. Don't even get me started on the inequality that occurs once children are involved.
    Personally, I don't want a piddly £300 a year tax allowance, what I want is the same rights and access as a single person. Married or single should make no difference, but it does. There are numerous financial disadvantages to getting married that have 'socially engineered' the break up of the family unit and have been doing so for decades and now most of the "benefits" of being married are available to cohabitees, what is the point of marrying?

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  • 53. At 07:38am on 23 Jan 2010, jobsw32 wrote:

    times and seasons. I wouldn't describe myself as a master of being all things to all people. Life is easy if you stay in the same culture and familiar groove but when you try and move from one culture to another then you start to learn more about yourself. Prejudice can close your mind or you can build up mistaken ideas about the world you are part of. If a change of clothes is all it takes to fit in?

    Well maybe!

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  • 54. At 11:20am on 23 Jan 2010, John Ellis wrote:

    Pandatank the lower down the social scale you fall the more married couples are discriminated against. Marriage is not worth jack if your now working well its more economically viable to split up and claim separately. a couple gets £10 more on average than a single person when state benefits are laid bare. They are forced from homes when children leave home to smaller and smaller properties until the couple dwell in one room as this is all they are allowed by law. When our son moves out we will be forced out of our current small 2 bedroom house into a 1 bedroom property.

    So it seems the logical thing to do is when my son leaves home is to leave the Mrs then play at being single with possible relationships with my X wife in order to maintain the roof we live under. That way we can claim for 1 bed room each get an extra £200 in rent of which we will both be able to keep an extra £15 for finding a 1 bedroom rent well under the LHA..

    So it would seem the state is the axe in most low income marriages and actively discourage marriage.

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  • 55. At 11:00am on 24 Jan 2010, BGarvie wrote:

    Mr. Easton, David Cameron is perfectly entitled to express his valid opinion about our 'broken society'. It is a term NuLabour dislikes because it demonstrates their failure. They have failed to get to grips with unrest in our society and their Fabian phylosophy has proved totally impotent. Their promotion of denegrating marriage goes a long way towards this failure.
    D.C is quite correct to express outrage at our broken society. Far from relieving the hardships of the poor, the welfare system has entrenched poverty by sapping incentives to work, while subsidising single parenthood and rewarding couples who split up. The gap between rich & poor, in 2010, is widening with 20% of children now in households where nobody has a job.

    David Cameron's speech about a broken society losing its sense of responsibility is correct and how hypocritical of Labour MPs (including Balls) for attacking him for making the same point Bliar made 13 years ago. The difference is Blair,Brown, Balls and Nulabour have wasted their chance to improve the position. They have led a failed Government. Labour has failed. Thankfully, only 102 more days left in power and then the General Election.

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  • 56. At 12:18pm on 24 Jan 2010, John Ellis wrote:

    Bgarvie '20% of children now in households where nobody has a job.'

    Think that was down to Thatcher making private our industries and moving us to a do as your told subservient service country.

    If there is no industry for NONE academics to work in you will have this effect of 20% of children. under any government labour liberal or conservative this will be true.

    For us at the bottom it wont matter what happens in 102 days we will still be called lazy work shy scum who scrounge of the state. The Media will actively encourage this along with government incentives to fiddle the numbers of unemployed through crude work trials and schemes.

    It would be nice to be proved wrong but I think cannabis will be legal before any action is taken to properly address the needs of low income and the poor.

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  • 57. At 12:22pm on 24 Jan 2010, Angel_in_Transit wrote:


    It is the essence of every political message we have heard in the past thirty years that the "poor" have been ignored, starting with "Where there is despair let there be hope". Saying it is nothing. Identifying the causes and delivering a mandate to eliminate them is something very different.

    New Labour focused almost entirely on child poverty, pretty much as an obsession, perhaps to the extent that a "child" became a valuable commodity just like discovering bullion or old gold in the loft. It was not a clever move, although nobody can fault the thinking behind the obsession, just the tactical remedial strategies doomed to failure.

    What is "broken" is the connection between those who have nothing, very little, or are not financially sufficient and those who have enough and more. Cameron is not the "connection" nor can he ever be. If New Labour's league of "working class roots" couldn't stem the tide of the corporate tsunami then what is an old Etonian to do? Surround himself with the fingers in every corporate pie, or find people who can and will connect with the disenfranchised.

    The problem with social engineering is that it is pernicious, just like water takes an age to heat up, and remedies to close the gap between the rich and poor will take a generation to enact. So the first move has to show some intensity of purpose i.e. taking everyone earning less than £15k out of tax. Is Cameron up for that; who will he encourage to pay for it; which companies will he encourage to split up their monopolies and start pay back time?

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  • 58. At 1:25pm on 24 Jan 2010, DLP08 wrote:

    Everything that is done in the name of politics - which affects Education, Employment, Health, Immigration, Criminal Justice, Nationalism - all adds up to social engineering.
    The politics that we have been following (Labour>Conservative>Labour>Conservative>etc)for tens of years has led directly to the state of Broken Britain today.
    With 120 MPs stepping down in May, and the country in such a bad state (and it's far worse than most people imagine)the time for a new approach to politics and therefore social engineering is here.
    Take a look at for some radical new thinking.
    Some positive social engineering is the only hope - but it won't attract votes for any of the main political parties.

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  • 59. At 1:39pm on 24 Jan 2010, BGarvie wrote:

    Despite the protests and rants from Labour's misguided supporters and untrustworthy Fabians who try to incidiously change society, Labour has failed. They have had 13 years to change society for the better and have failed. The electorate have been more than patient with NuLabour, financing wasteful projects that have all failed. The electorate are not prepared to support more socialist engineering.The working class were abandonded through Labour's taxation and kept poorer and the middle classes have been bled dry. Enough is enough and Brown and his hard core supporters will languish in the dustbin of history for the next 50 years. For that is the time it will take to repay this unsustainable Government debt.
    Fabians and hard core Labour supporters and Labour MPs must face the facts they are all regarded as hypocrites, by the electorate, for criticising David Cameron for voicing real concern about our broken society. Afterall it was exactly what Bliar commented on in 1997...and nothing has improved since. Only 102 days to go to a General Election when the electorate will make their choice by removing NuLabour and all their rotten champagne socialist policies.

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  • 60. At 6:51pm on 24 Jan 2010, jobsw32 wrote:

    They are unhappy with what has happened it's not hard to see that there have been plenty of disasters and maybe they feel that in some way they are protecting society by keeping people contained within a certain paradigm. But I can't help feeling slightly suspicious of the motives of some religious groups. 'Shall we do evil that good may come'?

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  • 61. At 10:47pm on 24 Jan 2010, U14312556 wrote:

    ....i wish it would snow more often....

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  • 62. At 05:07am on 25 Jan 2010, TeaPot562 wrote:

    If no children are contemplated, does it make any difference to the State whether a cohabiting pair of adults is married?
    If children are contemplated as a result of genital activity by the cohabiting couple, there may be studies showing that on average, a child with two parents present does better in school, etc. than a child with just one parent. Possibly the State should either change the tax laws to increase tax credits for children, payable to the mother (or custodial parent if mother does not have custody); or change the tax laws so that adults who are married do not pay more taxes than adults cohabiting who do not marry.
    At one time Canada had a child allowance -- so much per month, payable to the mother. The thinking at the time was that Canada was underpopulated and wanted to encourage an increase in population. I don't know if this is still the case.

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  • 63. At 08:35am on 25 Jan 2010, Roy wrote:

    A raft of social engineering has taken place under the Labour government: namely a form of reverse eugenics, where the unskilled, uneducated and unwilling to work are given free rein to multiply - in fact encouraged to through a system of rewards - while the hardworking are forced to tighten their belts to the point of constricting the function of their sexual organs!

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  • 64. At 10:06am on 25 Jan 2010, John Ellis wrote:

    roy45 were I live we used to have steel works working docks a ship yard that employed many of these people you so joyfully brand 'unskilled, uneducated and unwilling to work ' I suggest you get socially aware of industrial history and its downfall under both conservative and labour governments over the last 25 - 30 years.

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  • 65. At 12:49pm on 26 Jan 2010, Bill Bradbury wrote:

    Social Engineering? Someone wants to get a grip of Ed Balls and his social "lackey's" Ofsted. They are currently being sent into schools to fail them if they have no Community Cohesion policy that does not link them to a Moslem school. So a school where I am a Governor has been put into a NIP (Notice of Improvement) to rectify this matter inspite that we are above National targets in English and Maths.
    The nearest schools with a significant Moslem population is over 20 miles away. I understand we now have to find one with which to "link".

    Long gone are th days where schools taught the 3 R's and got children to behave. We now have more important priorities so it seems.

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  • 66. At 02:23am on 27 Jan 2010, Jake Middlebrook wrote:

    Social engineering has been tried before under different guises, perhaps the most obvious and spectacular failure was US Prohibition. With the best of intentions, at least as far as those opposed to alcohol consumption were concerned, the law actually created a climate in which it became chic to go to illegal clubs. Social engineering does not work. Often the result is the exact opposite of what is hoped. Engage in Social Engineering at your peril.

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  • 67. At 10:26am on 27 Jan 2010, jobsw32 wrote:

    A crisis is only as bad as your temper.

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  • 68. At 8:13pm on 27 Jan 2010, Euforiater wrote:

    59:- "Only 102 days to go to a General Election when the electorate will make their choice by removing NuLabour and all their rotten champagne socialist policies."

    - "That was a party political broadcast on behalf of the other Conservative party. Now it's time for Top Gear".

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  • 69. At 12:02pm on 03 Mar 2010, hughbroadbent wrote:

    Can I shift the debate to another sphere of social engineering - housing. Housing providers are encouraged to develop/facilitate integrated communities (social engineering?) providing mixed income/tenure/and home size. Reaction from the "host" community has often been reactionary - starting from "nimbyism" to "who are these larger family homes being built for" and "why are social providers devaluing my home by buying neighbouring unsold homes and renting them out at affordable rent levels". Alledgedly owners in one Oldahm development claimed that tenants would be like the cast of "Shameless". Shameful I say!!. Despite these strident views the way of housing development right now is shifting rapidly to localities of multi-tenure/income with buy to let cheek by jowl with traditional owners and social tenants. Is this social engineering? Is it good for society and good for the people involved? What do those involved think about it?
    My organisation is just about to start building 32 homes for affordable rent as the final part of a regeneration project which has seen 60 homes built for sale (many sold as buy to let) alongside another 60 refurbished socially rented homes in a locality which has traditional terraced owned homes across the street. We're intending to record views from existing owners -absentee and occupying; BTL tenants and the new tenants who will live in our new homes to get under the skin of how this "social engineering" will be received. Would Mark Easton be interested in commissioning a programme on this "social engineering"?

    Hugh Broadbent

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