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Archives for October 2010

The changing popularity of baby names

Mark Easton | 12:33 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010

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Oliver and Olivia are now the most popular baby names in England and Wales [350.37KB PDF]. So what's that all about? What forced Oliver to the top of the popularity league, ousting Jack as the number one boy's name?

Baby

 

Searching for famous Olivers only deepens the mystery. I cannot imagine the late Oliver Reed is responsible. Oliver Hardy? No. Oliver Postgate? Part of me would love to think there is a quiet national tribute being played to the creator of Bagpuss and Noggin the Nog, but I doubt it. Oliver Cromwell? Surely it is not down to X Factor finalist Ollie Murs. Jamie Oliver?

As for Olivia - even digitally re-mastered pictures of Olivia Newton-John wearing "those trousers" in the movie Grease cannot provide an explanation.

I am beginning to wonder whether we are witnessing one of the subconscious side-effects of a Mediterranean diet. All that olive oil and low-fat spread. Could it be that our eating habits are affecting the way we fill out birth certificates?

Whatever happened to good old John and Margaret?

Boys names table

 

John was the most popular boys' name in Britain from 1914 until the end of World War II. From then it began a rapid decline to an ignominious 83rd today.

Girls names table

 

Margaret was number one for most of the same period but has now fallen out of the top 100 altogether.

That said, today's list does suggest that over the last 10 years there has been a resurgence in some names popular during the inter-war years.

Among girls, Evie is up 157 places to number 10, Ruby up 91 to number two and Lily up 45 to eight. Boys' names such as Alfie up 60 to four and Charlie up 25 to seven also demonstrate this trend - although on the historical records they wouldn't be shortened of course.

I sometimes curse my parents lack of originality in calling me Mark. The end of the 50s and early 60s resounded to so many vicars baptising Marks it must have sounded like a dog with a hare-lip.

PS Having read some of the concerns about my attempted joke in the last paragraph of this story, I do apologise to anyone offended. Hare-lip is a condition which can be made fun of thoughtlessly, but that certainly was not my intention. Perhaps I should also apologise for telling such an old joke.

Do they mean us?

Mark Easton | 10:19 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010

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David Cameron told the CBI yesterday that the government would pursue, in his words, "a relentless focus on growth".

Today the think tank Legatum Institute published a Prosperity Index that, in ranking countries, aims to do the opposite.

The institute is part of a global movement arguing that, in trying to nail what we mean by social progress, for too long we have had "a relentless focus on growth" rather than trying to measure a nation's well-being.

Robert Kennedy said in 1968 that "Gross National Product...measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile", and when I interviewed David Cameron in 2006 he told me that government "should be thinking not just what is good for putting money in people's pockets but what is good for putting joy in people's hearts".

Writing in the Wall Street Journal to launch Legatum's index, the former Business Secretary Lord Mandelson says something very similar:

"To use economic measurements alone to gauge the success of a nation would be equivalent to assessing the entire condition of a man simply by looking at his bank balance. True enough we may discover whether the man is rich or poor but we learn nothing about his character, his enjoyment of life, the state of his health, the quality of his education or his attitude toward the people around him."

On the day that many eyes will be looking at the GDP figures, this Prosperity Index tries to widen the focus and ask how countries around the world, including Britain, measure up based on hard data but also on public attitudes and experiences. It tries to incorporate wealth and well-being.

So, how do we do?

I don't know if you remember a TV show in the mid-'80s presented by Fleet Street veteran Derek Jameson entitled Do They Mean Us? It showed clips from around the world about Britain, about how others see us.

Reading the Legatum Institute data I am reminded of that because, viewed in a global context, Britain is a very different country from the one we might imagine.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

While UK politics has been gripped by debates about civil liberties and immigration, today's survey suggests we have "extremely high levels" of civil liberties in comparison to other countries, we rank "high in terms of perceived tolerance for immigrants" and there is "very high tolerance for racial and ethnic minorities".

Broken Britain? Not based on this report. UK citizens are "highly engaged in society", it says. We come second in the world when it comes to people believing they can rely on relatives and friends for help, and our trust levels are firmly in the world's top 20.

Britain has the fourth-largest proportion of people who give to charity. A slightly above average 53% of Britons are married.

When you look at the detail which informs our global ranking, it is often public attitudes rather than hard data that pulls us down.

In international terms, we have "high levels" of safety and security, but our score suffers because of public perceptions of the risk. Internationally, the chances of being assaulted in Britain are "low" but the UK ranks 40th in terms of citizens feeling safe walking home alone at night.

When it comes to another key measure, governance, the report finds Britain has "a highly effective government", a "robust democracy" and "low levels of corruption". But that is not what people think. Britain comes 74th in the world in terms of confidence in our government, again, dragging our overall score down.

The survey work was done last year, after the MPs expenses scandal and just as the banking crisis was pushing the world into recession.

On the economy, the data shows Britain has the fifth-largest market in the world, 20% of our manufactured goods are high-tech exports, we score well on inflation, well on affordability of food and shelter, and in the top 10 for people's satisfaction with their standard of living.

But read what the Legatum Institute press release says about our faith and optimism for the British economy:

"Of the 110 countries covered by the survey, Britain ranks a staggering 101st on public confidence in financial institutions, 98th on optimism about job prospects and 93rd on expectations of future economic performance - the kind of ratings usually found in the world's poorest countries."

Why are we British so much more distrusting of financial and political institutions than other wealthy, healthy and successful nations? Is it our adversarial culture? Is it an aggressive media? Is it the weather?

Overall, we are the 13th most prosperous country in the world by this index, but I can't help feeling that if we were slightly less gloomy and cynical we could give some of those Nordic countries, which always top surveys like this, a run for their money.

Social housing: A case of 'more from less'?

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Mark Easton | 12:28 UK time, Friday, 22 October 2010

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There have been some pretty gloomy predictions about the impact of the government's cuts to welfare and housing budgets for Britain's poorest communities.

Families forced from their homes, forced out of our cities, forced into debt, forced onto the streets.

Certainly we are about to see radical reform of the benefits system and social housing, but should we believe that the consequences are unremittingly negative?

Housing estate

 

The coalition's argument is that it is possible to get "more from less" public cash, and that is the trick demanded by apparently contradictory ambitions in social housing. This week's spending review has slashed the amount government spends on grants to construct such homes but simultaneously promises to increase the number built: the capital budget reduced by 75% and an additional 150,000 properties in the next four years.

The explanation for the apparent paradox is really the driving force behind the coalition's entire plan for Britain - that if the public sector withdraws, other sectors will move in to fill the vacuum and, freed from heavy-handed state controls, can actually do a better job.

"We've been planning for this moment for three years," David Montague from L&Q housing tells me. "It is a time of liberation".

Mr Montague is one of a new breed of social entrepreneur, chief executive of a housing association committed to helping provide homes for the poorest families.

But instead of just holding his hands out and pleading for public cash to build new social housing, he is devising ways of attracting private investment.

While the government's plans to charge some new tenants much higher rents have led to claims that vulnerable families will be forced out of social housing, people like David
Montague argue the opposite.

He estimates that in London, for instance, a third of those on the waiting list could afford to pay rents much closer to market rates. The freedom to charge some tenants more, creates an income stream against which he can borrow to build more homes for the poorest families.

There is great excitement at the potential of this approach, big number calculations being conducted on the back of whatever passes for a fag packet these days.

One social housing analyst has sent me his workings:

"£1pw on rent = £234 million pa (if social homes = 4.5m). Capitalised at 6% this would be worth almost £4bn. So £2pw = £8bn, £3pw = £12bn and so on. This assumes that all providers can borrow without limit at 6%."

Of course councils cannot "borrow without limit" (a source of some irritation) but housing associations and developers are not so constrained and the potential is huge.

When David Montague at L&Q recently sought £330m in private capital for a mixed-income development, he had offers of more than a billion. "Social housing in the UK is flavour of the month with global investors right now," he tells me. "With demand high and a guaranteed income, they are falling over each other to put money in."

He showed me round a gleaming development in Greenwich which exemplifies the new model for social housing. Some of the homes are for the poorest families who will be charged low rents. Others are reserved for people who can afford "intermediate" rents, up to 80% of private sector levels. The owners may also offer tenants the chance to buy some or all of their home with shared mortgage deals. Those paying more, subsidise the rents of those in most need.

It is a similar argument from some local authorities. At a meeting in Westminster to launch Sunderland's economic "masterplan" this week, I heard Labour leaders explain how they were quite happy for the housing association which now manages all the city's former council houses to offer tenants a deal to buy a share of their home without the need for a deposit or a traditional mortgage. There was a palpable buzz as they discussed how they might look for other innovative ways to raise capital and keep costs down.

I was particularly struck by an idea that good quality social housing could be built in the same way McDonalds constructs its restaurants - in a factory. "You don't build cars outside in the street, so why do we think that is the best way to build houses?" one builder asked. He claimed that a family home could be produced for roughly £40,000 including all materials and labour.

"Won't you just get ghastly pre-fabs?" I asked. Apparently not. In fact, council leaders only concern was that, should such an idea come to pass, the factory should be in Sunderland.

Conservative councillors in Westminster are also rejecting warnings that welfare caps, the end of secure tenancies for new tenants and cuts to housing benefit will "create ghettos of deprivation and affluence" in central London.

Tory housing lead Philippa Roe tells me "that is not how it will work at all". She argues that, while a relatively few large welfare-dependent families renting privately may have to move to cheaper neighbourhoods, this is no different from the situation middle-income families are in. They cannot afford central London prices, so they commute in.

"Why should they have to do that while others who don't contribute to the local economy can live in the heart of the capital?"

But won't the new rules, allowing councils to evict new tenants if their income rises, turn public housing estates into pools of poverty? No, she tells me. The new flexibility in social housing will allow her to offer the property at a higher rent and use that income to provide homes for the poorest in the borough.

What strikes me is that, despite big cuts to council and housing budgets, there is enthusiasm where one might expect there to be gloom.

Last week I attended an international summit on social housing in The Hague. Representatives from over 20 countries from around the world attended and almost all were facing a similar squeeze to public funding.

At the end of two days discussing the huge challenges they were confronting, I asked delegates whether they felt optimistic or pessimistic. To my surprise, and perhaps to theirs, a significant majority were upbeat.

The reason, I think, is that they had realised that the sector has the capability and creativity to devise new ways of solving old problems.

Or as the coalition might put it: "getting more from less".

Will the cuts change the role of women?

Mark Easton | 20:10 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010

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As my train was pulling into Birmingham New Street this morning, a woman in the carriage was on her mobile phone. She was offering sympathy to a friend who had just been told she had lost her job. I could only hear half the conversation, but there was talk of £100,000 worth of cuts to a budget and it was clear that the person on the other end of the line was profoundly upset and angry.

There will be many more conversations like that over the next few years and most of them will involve women.

The expansion of the public sector over the last few decades transformed work opportunities for millions of women. The new jobs, many in the caring professions, were often advertised as family-friendly, a good fit for those attempting to juggle children and a career.

For single mums it often made full-time work possible. For many more households, it provided a valuable second income. Today, twice as many women as men work in the public sector and 40% of all female workers are employed by the state.

Of the half a million public sector job cuts, more than 300,000 are likely to be women. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber recently told me that the "disproportionate effect" will be unfair and said he has demanded the government conduct an equality impact assessment. So far, he says, he has had no reply.

Such a test, it might be argued, is too narrow. Men suffered more during the recession. Women may take a slightly bigger hit in the cuts. Swings and roundabouts.

But the counter-argument is that, while private sector jobs should return as the economy recovers, the plan is for the public sector to shrink permanently. What's more, there may be a double whammy for female workers. If working mums lose their jobs they will not need so much childcare - another industry very largely occupied by women.

I recently put this point to Jill Kirby, director of the influential Conservative think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. "It may be better news for women not to spend money on childcare any more and to look after their own children and fit jobs into the child's day," she told me, pointing out that "women going out to do jobs to pay for childcare generates a type of work which then requires subsidy from the state".

"Are you saying women should be looking after their children at home?" I asked.
"For women who would like to be under less pressure to work, who would rather be at home, yes," she replied.
 

For some Conservatives, it would seem, the effect of the cuts on female workers is a useful nudge to changing the role of women in society. It is not a prospect, however, that enjoys support at the TUC.

"If there's a suggestion of reverting back to an early model of stay-at-home mums, I don't think that would be seen as socially progressive at all" says Mr Barber.

It is not just the direct effect of public sector job losses that may change the role of women. Some suspect that the foot-soldiers in David Cameron's "Big Society" will be predominantly female.

Geoff Mulgan, former strategy advisor to Tony Blair and now head of think tank the Young Foundation, says women will have to take responsibility as the state withdraws from childcare and elder-care.

"There's an assumption by politicians that women will be willing to bear this burden.  But many will be pretty resentful that they have to go back into the home with the disappearance of large number of jobs in the public sector, all to pay for the mistakes of a rather well-paid group of men in London."

So, one of the consequences of the shrinking state outlined today may be that women stay at home rearing children and building the "Big Society" instead of going out to work. Whether that is a good thing, a bad thing or a "fair" thing will be hotly debated.

It's not 'just the economy, stupid'

Mark Easton | 11:58 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010

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"Anyone who thinks the spending review is just about saving money is missing the point. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way that government works."

The words of a Treasury official.

Today is about ideology as much as the economy - a process underpinned by a belief that Britain must break free of its "passive dependency" upon the state. As one minister recently put it: the government wants people to stop holding their hands out and start putting their hands to work, to find answers to social problems that are not simply about spending public money.

Necessity will prove to be the mother of invention is the coalition's proverbial hope and already, in many areas of public life, fresh solutions to familiar dilemmas are being worked on.

In welfare, housing, criminal justice - innovative delivery models are being developed to lever in new finance or, in the words of the coalition, get more from less. The private sector, voluntary sector and individuals are being exhorted to fill the vacuum left by a shrinking state. But it is a package for Britain's future negotiated in secret, pitting department against department and only now unveiled with a magician's flourish.

Will it work? It is too early to tell, but it will be painful. Will it be fair? Some will be more vulnerable to a shrinking state than others. The question is how quickly Britain can adapt and whether those unable to change will be protected.

'The truth behind health and safety hysteria in the media'

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Mark Easton | 13:22 UK time, Friday, 15 October 2010

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Strange thing. When Tory peer Lord Young stood up at the Tory conference 12 days ago, he said that in Britain "we have a Compensation Culture" (his capital letters).

However, in his report on health and safety legislation finally published today [685KB PDF], he says the opposite: "The problem of the compensation culture prevalent in society today is, however, one of perception rather than reality."

Another strange thing. As Lord Young was briefing reporters and sitting on TV-studio sofas a fortnight ago, most of the resultant stories were about the "crazy" impact of health and safety laws on our lives.

Conkers

 

BBC News was among numerous media organisations that mentioned the classic stories of schoolchildren forced to wear goggles to play conkers and the banning of a traditional Gloucestershire cheese-rolling competition because of mad safety rules.

But, in an annex to his report today, Lord Young writes that "again and again 'health and safety' is blamed for a variety of decisions, few of which actually have any basis in health and safety legislation at all."

At the back of today's document one can read his "attempt to set the record straight and demonstrate that health and safety legislation already places far more emphasis on common sense than is generally perceived".

I wonder how many press stories will headline that thought.

The report points readers to the Health and Safety Executive's "successful 'myth of the month' page on its website" which reveals that neither the conker-playing nor the cheese-rolling stories have anything to do with barmy "'elf n' safety" laws.

Again and again in his report today, Lord Young points an accusing finger, not at legislation, but at the media.

"Britain's 'compensation culture' is fuelled by media stories about individuals receiving large compensation payouts for personal injury claims," he says. While the number of such claims has "increased slowly" the public believes that the number has "risen significantly".

Today's report says that the "broad consensus among stakeholders was that they did not believe there was a growing compensation culture in the UK".

The media is also blamed for "one of the great misconceptions" that people can be sued "for the consequences of any voluntary acts".

"During winter 2009/10, advice was given on television and radio to householders not to clear the snow in front of their properties in case any passer by would fall and then sue. This is another manifestation of the fear of litigation. In fact there is no liability in the normal way, and the Lord Chief Justice himself is reported as saying that he had never come across a case where someone was sued in these circumstances."

It becomes clear reading today's report that the problem is not health and safety legislation but organisations holding mistaken attitudes based on dodgy press stories. "On the back of media stories about large compensation payouts, there is a growing fear among business owners of being sued for breaches of health and safety rules," Lord Young says.

He talks of "an overcautious attitude" based on "public perception". The title of this post is the title of one of the annexes to the report.

Annex D: Behind the myth: The truth behind health and safety hysteria in the media

There is another aspect to the development of health and safety legislation in this country which the report exposes - a culture of blame and the demand for "something to be done".

In March 1993, four teenagers attending an activity centre drowned in Lyme Bay off the south coast of England while kayaking. The tragedy led to a campaign for such centres to be subject to statutory regulation rather than being self-regulated.

The parents of the teenagers lobbied Parliament and, as the Health and Safety Executive reminds readers on its website, "were aided by a national press almost universally in support of their aims".

The HSE quotes an article from the Daily Mirror stating that:"Thousands of children are facing appalling physical dangers because of the Government's refusal to bring in laws controlling holiday activity centres."

The Conservative government initially resisted attempts to pass a law but, in the end, the pressure grew so great that in June 1995, "The Activity Centres (Young Persons Safety) Act 1995" demanded that all such organisations had a safety licence from the state.

Adventure Training: Abolish the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority and replace licensing with a code of practice.

 

Today, Lord Young proposes tearing up the licences and returning to a code of practice. His view is this:

"The running costs of the scheme are around £750,000 and the cost of a licence is £715. This seems to me to be a disincentive to new entrants to the adventure activity market, especially to small companies."

I suspect little coverage will be given to this aspect of his report and, of course, it remains to be seen whether the coalition government will accept his recommendations - although expectations are that it will.

This small aspect of the report illustrates a paradox in public attitudes, driven by the media (of which, of course, I am part).

Journalists delight in castigating the madness of "health and safety" legislation when it is, often, their own scare stories which are to blame. At the same time, when something goes wrong, they demand government action to reduce risk - creating the very legislation that they can then criticise.

Strange thing.

Turning accountability on its head

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Mark Easton | 08:32 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010

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Once upon a time, if the state machine was not working properly, the cry would go up: "Something must be done!"

And people like me would take that cry and put it to a government minister: "They say something must be done. What are you going to do?"

The minister might promise to tweak the departmental engine, to clean a couple of spark-plugs. In the end, if people didn't like ministers' remedies, they'd vote them out. That was how accountability worked.

Not any more.

This summer, the prime minister explained to senior civil servants how he is replacing "the old system of bureaucratic accountability with a new system of democratic accountability".

Whitehall's mandarins were told their job was no longer "to guarantee the outcomes" in public services. Nor "to directly intervene to try and improve their performance".

Instead, David Cameron said, national government should simply "create the conditions" for public services to improve, "by making sure professionals answer to the public."

David Cameron's Big Society launch - copyright Conservative Party, photo By Andrew Parsons

 

The prime minister is spinning the direction of accountability 180 degrees. From top-down to bottom-up. He promises "the people-power revolution" will change our country for the better. Under the new approach, when challenged as to why public services are not as good as they should be, a minister could legitimately shrug and say: "Don't ask me - I just create the conditions for others."

Accountability won't be driven by opposition politicians, quangocrats, journalists or pressure groups in Westminster. Bang go many of those expensive national bean-counters, beavering away to ensure taxpayers' money is being spent effectively and wisely. Instead, the idea is that pressure will come from the great British public - at local level.

The people will vote with their feet - competition and choice in the provision of schools and hospitals. They will vote with their hands - electing police commissioners. And they will keep tabs on how well things are going because, in what David Cameron calls the post-bureaucratic age where "information and power are held not locally or centrally but personally, by people in their homes", the workings of the machine will be open for all to see - a transparent system of government.

The response from a minister to the demand that "something must be done" will no longer be "I'm replacing the spark plugs". It will be: "The bonnet is open - here is a spanner and a rag."

It is certainly radical - but will it work?

The answer depends on how much we trust the public, how confident we are in the wisdom of crowds.

Stage dive

How much do you trust the wisdom of crowds?

The government believes that lifting the dead hand of central control will cut red tape, save money and inspire innovation.

But some worry that people power will further the self-interests and prejudices of those with the loudest voices, marginalising the vulnerable and widening inequality.

Direct democracy, critics say, produces policies which tend to be unworkable, unconscionable or plain silly.

The government's recent attempts at what's called "crowd-sourcing" have seen websites asking the British people for ideas on how to improve government and save money. Among the responses were proposals to sterilise young girls who "just breed at will", to replace MP housing allowances with tents and, helpfully, a recipe for beef and vegetable casserole. So far, not one idea from the public has translated into government action.

More seriously, though, there is a concern that bottom-up accountability is simply not as democratic as the prime minister likes to claim because the public don't, actually, want the responsibility.

While Westminster buzzes with an impassioned and informed crowd feverishly lobbying ministers on policy, at local level the experience is of a populace apparently too busy or too apathetic to get involved.

School governors, for example, can control millions of pounds in budgets that directly affect local children and yet there are complaints that so few parents are prepared to do the job that often appointments are made without any election at all. Routine local government business rarely suffers from too much public enthusiasm.

It could change. Handed the keys to the machine and conscious that the state intends simply to stand back and watch, citizens may move into the space and quietly take control.

But unless the public can be galvanised, power won't shift to the people. It will wash over them - taking accountability with it.

Did the PM jump the gun on immigration?

Mark Easton | 12:22 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010

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"Immigration - capped!" Mr Cameron boasted in his list of government achievements yesterday. Well, not quite prime minister.

David Cameron

 

Even the Home Office does not describe the "interim measure" currently imposed on one narrow category of migrants as a "cap", and devising the kind of limit that will bring net migration below 100,000 a year remains a huge challenge.

It is also a policy goal that, while enjoying broad support, becomes more problematic politically as every "exceptional" case leads to a real person's photograph staring from the pages of the newspapers. Before ministers can claim to have capped immigration there will be more than a few difficult moments.

Today eight of Britain's Nobel laureates, including the two Russian migrants who won the physics prize this week, have written to The Times [subscription required] protesting at the effect of an immigration cap on the UK's status as a centre of scientific excellence.

"It would damage our ability to recruit the brightest young talent, as well as distinguished scientists, into our universities and industries," they write.

The newspaper highlights the case of Prashant Jain, an Indian scientist who had been offered a fellowship to study at Cambridge. The university was keen not to lose such a brain, but the 28-year-old PhD student could not muster enough points under the current visa system and has gone to Florida State University instead.

"America's gain was Britain's loss," Dr Jain's supervisor at Florida State Sir Harry Kroto told the Times.

Meanwhile, solicitors for X Factor entrant Gamu Nhengu and her family are seeking a judicial review of the Home Office decision to expel them from the UK.

The 18-year-old singer, originally from Zimbabwe and now living in Clackmannanshire, won the hearts of thousands after her appearances on the ITV talent show and campaigns are being organised to "bombard" the Home Office with e-mails protesting at her potential deportation.

Writing on Facebook, one campaign organiser Gary Spencer has written:

"This is an absolute travesty. I have a pre-written email with all the MP, Home Office and immigration contacts so I think we should email them en masse. Reply to me and I will send you this email to forward on in your name."

Scores of people had gathered outside the young singer's house as the UK Border Agency said that she and her family were "considered in line with the published immigration rules".

Rules are rules. Dr Jain did not get enough points for a visa because his post at Cambridge did not come with a salary in excess of £25,000. The visa that Gamu Nhengu's family had been given expired in August and an extension had been refused.

Capping immigration as a general idea would, I suspect, be cheered by a country which was never asked or informed about Labour's quiet policy of substantially expanding net migration into the UK. It is the human face that is tricky.

The previous government's lack of candour - a charge accepted by former ministers - made it more difficult for public services to respond to extra demand, as I reported for the BBC in two reports (Baby boom and Cost in translation) that, I am told, were influential on government thinking.

But if David Cameron is claiming "job done" in capping immigration into the UK, he is arguably displaying the same lack of candour as the Labour party.

His proposed cap does not apply to the European Union and will have no effect on the arrival of Polish plumbers or Latvian labourers. It has no effect on unskilled or low-skilled workers from outside the EU who are already barred from coming to Britain.

It will affect skilled and highly-skilled individuals like Dr Jain. The existing rules will continue to produce stories like Gamu Nhengu's.

Whether one agrees with the eight Nobel prize winners who wrote to the Times, the Business Secretary Vince Cable and the London mayor Boris Johnson about the risks of a cap to the UK economy is, perhaps, not the point. Immigration is not yet "capped" - and to claim otherwise is premature at best.

Update 8 October: Prashant Jain has been in touch to emphasise that the points are based on his earnings a year before his application, not the salary he had been going on to earn:

"I wanted to point out that in order to get points financially on the point-based visa process, I should have made at least £25,000 the year before during my PhD. But this kind of sum is unrealistic, especially for a PhD student. I do not know of any institution which pays that kind of PhD stipend. My Cambridge salary would have been little over £25000, though that does not affect the visa process. However the point remains the same which comes out in your article."

The big sell for The Big Society

Mark Easton | 17:26 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010

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"Voodoo politics" was how one seasoned right-leaning political hack described David Cameron's "Big Society" to me during the election campaign. Plenty of others dismissed it as a gimmick, a side-show, the irrelevant ramblings of Steve Hilton (Cameron's director of strategy) and destined to end up in a Westminster waste-paper basket as soon as real power was won.

David Cameron with cabinet colleagues behind himToday's speech from the prime minister made it crystal clear: The Big Society is not a slogan, it is a destination. And one he seems determined to reach.

When I interviewed him about his big idea at the end of March, I asked him about those people who feel they have paid their taxes so they don't have to worry about running schools or libraries and don't have to attend dreary meetings in draughty halls.

Today he gave the country a version of what he told me. "Citizenship isn't a transaction in which you put your taxes in and get your services out", he told the Conservative party conference. "It's a relationship - you're part of something bigger than you, and it matters what you think and feel and do."

Mr Cameron made it clear today, as he said in his interview with me last March, that being a citizen implied duties that extend beyond paying taxes and obeying the law. The country expected people to do their bit.

"That great project in your community - go and lead it; the waste in government - go and find it; the new school in your neighbourhood - go and demand it; the beat meeting on your street - sign up; the neighbourhood group - join up."

He described his message as "a call to arms".

"Society is not a spectator sport. This is your country. It's time to believe it. It's time to step up and own it."

There are those who suspect The Big Society is really camouflage for cuts and the shrinking of the state. I suspect they are right about the second but wrong about the first. David Cameron wants to change the relationship between citizen and state in a way that is as radical as anything seen since World War II. This is not about cuts, it is, as Mr Cameron said this afternoon "a revolution".

"We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer for power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society. That is the power shift this country needs today."

Stirring stuff. But evoking Lord Kitchener's exhortation that "Your country needs you" may not have the same resonance at the beginning of the 21st Century as it did in the early 20th.

Citizens have become consumers. They are encouraged to demand the same kind of service from the state as they do from Sainsbury's. There was a hint of that today when the prime minister talked of "new powers for you to choose the hospital you get treated in, the school your child goes to" but the speech was about active rather than passive citizenship.

The word "service" was employed not in the sense of a purchase paid from taxation but in the sense of doing your bit, of "National Citizen Service" for teenagers. For everyone.

The big question for The Big Society and for David Cameron is whether people can be convinced that, yes, it is their duty to give up their time and effort in the national interest.

In the words of the PM: "From state power to people power. From unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose."

 

PS Thanks to RWW Cardiff for pointing out my mix-up over centuries in this post earlier.  

In search of Middle England

Mark Easton | 12:39 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010

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Middle England, we are told, will suffer as a result of the changes announced to child benefit. But where is Middle England?

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

 

The phrase conjures up nostalgic images of 1950s Britain: Miss Marple keeping a close eye on the neighbours as she prunes her damson; John Major's picture of "the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and - as George Orwell said - old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist."

(It was a rather selective quotation from Orwell who also referred to the "clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges", but no matter.)

Middle England, one supposes, is a comfortable place, neither rich nor poor. Conservative. Law-abiding. Decent. It is in the middle.

For the purposes of this UK blog I am going to assume that Middle England really means Middle Britain and I suppose what we are talking about is a place where people live on middle incomes.

In the spirit of Miss Marple, I have been searching for clues to its location so I can try to divine how, statistically, residents of Middle England will be affected by withdrawing child benefit to households which include someone earning more than £43,875.

David Cameron said this week: "I'm not saying that people on £43,000 are rich - they're not" but it was clear he regarded them as "better-off" and, as such, wealthier than middle earners.

Most people have no idea what the median (middle) income for adults in the UK is. That's because, for reasons I don't quite understand, none of the thousands of official statisticians paid to keep an eye on the nation's wealth are asked to calculate it.

My search for an answer started at the Office for National Statistics and ended at the Treasury via the Department of Work and Pensions. No-one so far has been able to provide me with a number. We use the phrase all the time but it is not a recognised as an important bit of data.

I can tell you what the net (after tax) middle income is per week. Have a guess? Don't peek. How much do you think? The answer is...

£223 per week.

Yes, line up all the weekly net incomes of all the adults in the UK and the number in the middle is £223. But there are methodological questions about this number.

The calculation includes people who are out of work and pensioners. It also includes all those adults who rely on someone else's income. Millions of parents who look after children full or part time while their partner goes out to work count as having a low income. Lady Leisure, wife of the billionaire pork-belly magnate, might also appear to have an income close to zero.

So official number crunchers [1.20MB PDF] have come up with a way of taking account of the "household" effect. The measure is called "equivalised household income". This formula pushes up the mid-point on the line to £407 per week.

Graph showing income distribution for the total population, 2008/09This graph illustrates the income profile for Britain before housing costs but after tax. It shows that the vast bulk of people have a net income of between £200 and £450 a week. No £10 band outside this range includes more than a million adults.

Chart comparing median gross annual earnings in 2008 and 2009If one were to look at earnings - we only count those people in work - a Middle England resident [203.79KB PDF] would have a gross salary of £25,800 which comes to about £380 a week after tax. To put it another way, it would require a 70% pay rise for a 'middle earner' to get them to the point where their household might lose child benefit.

Finding Middle England, though, is complicated by the fact that local rents and house prices vary widely across the country and obviously have a big effect on a household's disposable income. One could argue that Middle Britain is the place with middling spending power.

Gross Disposable Household Income (GDHI) is an official calculation of what a household has to spend after tax and housing costs [1.77KB PDF]. The most recent figures show the average GDHI per head across the UK is £14,872.

So where in Britain would one typically find households with that level of disposable income? It is certainly not inner London where, despite some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, average GDHI is £22,135. It is not the stockbroker belt where it is between £17-18,000.

Regional gross disposable household income 2008

NUTS2 sub-regional gross disposable household income estimates 2008

The regions closest to the average are the West Country and East Anglia. Middle England is not Great Missenden. It is Great Yarmouth. It is not St Albans. But it just might be St Mary Mead in Devon. Home, of course, to one Jane Marple.

Ageing Britain

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Mark Easton | 10:28 UK time, Friday, 1 October 2010

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Have you seen that TV programme where a computer shows someone what they will look like in 20 years' time if they don't alter their lifestyle?

A brief animation begins with a young, happy face and ends with a gnarled old walnut of a visage and the sound of the distraught guest promising to change his or her ways.

Well, to mark National Older People's Day, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has produced a remarkable animated map of Britain that does the same sort of thing. And it is equally disturbing.

Although we know that the British population is getting older, there is something quite startling about watching the map change as, for instance, the proportion of children in the country shrinks.

Population 0-15, 1992

Population 0-15, 2010

Population 0-15, 2023

Back in 1992, in communities across most of the country, the sound of children playing would have rung out with roughly one person in five under the age of 15. Northern Ireland's youthful population can be clearly seen. Now such neighbourhoods are significantly rarer and will continue to become so.

The reason, of course, is that people are living longer and the birth rate is historically low. Another set of maps showing the proportion of the population over the state pension age offers the story in reverse.

Population state pension age and over, 1992

Population state pension age and over, 2010

Population state pension age and over, 2023

Back in 1992, in most of Britain, roughly one in five of the local population were OAPs. By 2023, huge swathes of the country may have a quarter or a third of people collecting their pensions, particularly coastal and rural areas.

The implications of this change are, of course, very significant. The cost of caring for the increasing elderly people in Britain will fall on a proportionately smaller working population.

The ONS maps, produced by the award-winning designer Alan Smith, allow users to see how the Old Age Support Ratio stacks up for their local area.

Old age support ratio, 2010

Nationally, there are currently 3.2 people of working age for each person of pensionable age. However, this disguises very considerable local variation. For instance, in Tower Hamlets in London, a large immigrant population pushes the ratio up to 9.2 workers for every one OAP and looks set to rise further.

Tower Hamlets

By contrast in Rother, the district around Bexhill, Rye and Battle in East Sussex, the current ratio is 1.5 and falling.

Rother

If the government's commitment to localism means that the burden of an ageing population increasingly falls on local communities themselves, then this variation could prove socially divisive.

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