Thursday, 16 May 2013

Quick fixes to fix the blame: Dodgy sources to villify the public sector

It seems that when it comes to facts and figures, as far as the government is concerned anything goes. From the beginning of this coalition’s reign, there has been a propaganda campaign which has somehow managed to convince the nation firstly that the national debt is the most significant problem the nation faces, and secondly that the cause of this problem is almost exclusively the public sector and welfare.

How have they managed to achieve this? Well, doubtless in many complex ways, but certainly one of them has been a steady procession of sensationalist headlines (usually from the Daily Mail) citing terrifying amounts of money which the NHS is costing us (bunch of selfish poor people going and getting unwell), that education is costing us (lazy, layabout teachers who would clearly do a far better job if they were working for a profit), that welfare is costing us (scroungers, and probably foreign to boot), and that immigration is costing us (coming in here and nicking all the jobs we don’t want).

The question though, is where do all these sensational statistics and figures come from? Are they just made up?

Well, possibly. If you cast you mind back to the numbers being flagged up in relation to ‘NHS tourism”, the disparities were so ridiculous that you can only imagine somebody was guessing. In case you have forgotten this sorry saga, the story really starts in March 2011, when the then Health Minister announced figures that EU and non-EU residents were costing the NHS a little under £7 million each year.

A little later, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt turns up on Radio 4 and claims the cost is actually £200m.

Of course the Daily Mail reported this story as foreigners “bleeding the NHS dry”, but clearly being unimpressed by the degree of scandal this headline caused, the paper went on to claim that the real cost of NHS tourism was “billions

So who is right? And how in the hell did we manage to get all the way from £7m to “billions” within the space of a week? 

Our old friend Michael Gove has perhaps shed a little light on this. Rather magnificently adding to his growing reputation as somebody who manages to form public policy out of nothing more than random scraps of information and sheer self-confidence, Gove recently went into a full attack on the teaching of history in the UK. This was, of course, an attempt to demonstrate how supremely qualified Gove himself was to re-write the curriculum. So, Gove used the platform of the BBC to launch a full attack on the a lesson plan by designed by highly qualified and experience history teacher Russel Tarr, in which he used Mr. Men cartoons to teach about Hitler. Gove described this as ‘infantile’. Unfortunately for Gove though, he had not actually bothered to find out very much at all about this apparently infantile teacher. Turns out it was not, actually, a lesson about Hitler but about The Weimar Republic 1918-33. Golly Mr. Gove - I thought you were the expert? Certainly since you so proudly declared to the University of Brighton how familiar you are with Richard J. Evans’ book The Third Reich at War, so I might have thought you would have been able to differentiate. Perhaps Gove knows a little less about wartime history than he would like to make out? One thing’s for sure, if he thinks that reading Evans’ book is a more appropriate activity for GCSE-age pupils then he clearly knows even less about teaching.

The ignorance of Gove’s point of attack was rebutted rather comprehensively by Tarr himself, and after a few rather unconvincing attempts to defend his comments, Gove was probably happy to let the issue drop.

Instead, Gove (in his infinite wisdom) decided to try and attack the teaching of grammar - which brought him into a headlong confrontation with a children’s poet laureate sporting 40 years of experience as a writer and champion of children’s literacy. Again, Gove’s tactic was to try and present himself as the expert, and in this case Michael Rosen as a ‘hindrance’ to children’s literacy. There was only going to be one winner in this competition, you can read Michael Rosen’s comprehensive shredding of Gove here.

Of course, after all this we were probably expecting Gove to come out and accuse Sir Chris Hoy of being a bad example to cyclists, or to boldly declare that five-time World’s Strongest Man Mariusz Pudzianowski is a big Polish wimp who he could beat at arm-wrestling any day of the week.

Instead, Gove managed to get himself caught up in a brouhaha after citing various “surveys” as evidence of the historical ignorance of today’s children. Thanks to the efforts of one retired teacher and some heroic blogging from PlashingVole, the truth about the ‘evidence’ Gove was referring to came to light. It turns out that the surveys which Gove uses to base his views on include one from a documentary on UKTV Gold. This survey was not only several years old, but actually not even conducted exclusively on children. Worse still, the survey itself was historically inaccurate. Another of the surveys Gove used was conducted by Premier Inns hotel chain, in order to encourage more tourism, while a third was revealed as having been conducted by a conservative think-tank commissioned by Gove’s own party, and which seems curiously unable to provide any details about the survey itself.

Perhaps now we are beginning to see how such sensational headlines come to exist. If the data doesn’t say what you want it to, then simply change it. If you want to present yourself as an ‘expert’, then all you need is a gargantuan amount of self-confidence, a decent bucket-load of invincible arrogance, and ten minutes on Google (or at least, an office assistant who can spend ten minutes on Google while you practice your smirk).

Fine. If this is how the game is played, let’s see.

I have just spent about 20 minutes on Google, trying to find out some facts and figures which support my own ideologies.

This government (and the Daily Mail) would have us believe that asylum seekers are a social concern. The Mail reported “Asylum seekers are pouring into Britain in record numbers as the immigration system spirals out of control”.

Actually, asylum-seekers make up only 0.3% of the population, and each year an increasing number of those are being held in ‘detention centres’ - including small children.

And if asylum seekers cannot provide the government (and the Daily Mail) with its zenophobic sensationalism, then immigration statistics can. If The Mail does disagree with the government on one thing, it is their softness when it comes to immigration. After all, the country is being flooded with them. Apparently over 200,000 came into the country last year - something we should all be shocked about. Of course, the Mail do also say migration levels have “remained steady” since 2004 - which begs the question of where all this flood can be going? Surely the numbers of migrants should be increasing by 200,000 each year, not remaining “steady”?

Of course, one explanation for this might be that while 200,000 immigrants are coming into the country, between 200,000 and 130,000 are leaving. This does not include the 50,000 Britains currently stealing the jobs of foreigners in other countries, or the 30,000 unemployed freeloaders clogging up the local beaches of the Spanish.

But hey, at least we can whine about the cost of benefits can’t we? After all, all those dandy academics in Universities are costing the economy 4.6bn every year!

Except that according to some ‘surveys’, those same Universities actually contribute 59bn to the economy - which makes them actually a pretty good investment.

Alright then. Let’s look at proportional GDP expenditure. 19% of the country's annual income is spent on the NHS. 17% on welfare, and 14% on education. This is simply unsustainable, surely?

Well, yes. Let’s not forget though, that education contributes to the economy as well. And as for health, we would need to balance the costs of each against the economic benefits. Sickness can, according to some sources, cost 6.5bn to the economy in terms of lost work. The less effective the NHS, the higher those costs will rise. Similarly, education is directly linked to GDP growth, so offers a clear return on any investment.

As for welfare, well it is welfare which enables people with disabilities or people with children to actually work, and contribute to the economy as well as to reduce the unemployment rates. More importantly though, welfare itself might need some re-definition here. When people talk about welfare, they use the term in relation to poor people who end up being supported by the state. However, these costs are nothing compared to the amount of money we spend supporting extremely rich people to... well, keep being extremely rich.

The current national deficit stands at around £111bn, and the propaganda would have us believe this is the fault of public spending and welfare. However, some sources have estimated that over the last few years the government has spent around £1.5 trillion bailing out banks and the financial sector.

Kind of makes child tax credits look like lose change, doesn’t it?

But if you think that’s bad, every year the economy loses an estimated £69.9 billion to big corporations and millionaires who dodge paying their taxes.

Now that makes benefit cheats looks utterly inconsequential by comparison.

I am not suggesting that any of the numbers or statistics I have used are infallibly correct. However, they are no more questionable than sources which Michael Gove seems to rely on, and perhaps more accountable than those which Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron have used. There is almost certainly no single, definitive truth about the economy out there.

However, right now we seem to be under a hailstorm of propaganda trying to convince us that there is, and that the truth is - it all because of poor people, foreigners and those damned wretched teachers.

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