Cram a load of geeks in a building...

Corbet Place in the Truman Brewery, East London is heaving with geeks and city workers, drawn by the lure of an open bar. At one end of the space people are swapping stories over a beer, while at the other handful of earnest looking men are hovering around a raised stage, with some kind of presentation projected onto the wall behind. One picks up a mike, and starts trying to draw the attention of a crowd; "Okay everybody, lets all do this together. One, two, three.... ssshhhhHHHHHhhhhhhh.." A good half of the bar joins in shushing, and the compere, Christian Alhert, introduces Minibar.

Minibar is a monthly event for designers, programmers and geeks of all kind with big ideas, to meet people with the means to turn their ideas into actual sustainable enterprises, with funding and support, and this month the line up was all about social Innovation.

From Social Innovation Camp we had the two winning teams presenting the fruits of their labours; and continuing the theme, part of the team at torchbox who worked on the Carbon Account were in appearance, along with Dan McQuillan from Make Your Mark.

First up was the team behind 'Prison Visits', working to shine a light on the conditions for people visiting loved ones in prison, by letting visitors write about their experiences, and direct that feedback to people who can make improve conditions. Improving the conditions of family visits in prison is proven to improve prisoner behaviour, increase family cohesion, reduce reoffending rates, and crucially lessen the impact that having a parent behind bars has on an inmate's children. There's also been some progress on the business model too since we last looked at it; there's talk of adapting a similar approach to that of Patient Opinion. Patient Opinion is a website that performs a similar function to the prison visits site with NHS Trust hospitals, and stays afloat financially by licensing the data feeds of patient feedback in a format the trusts can use, so the right feedback goes to the right people, and it's early days, but the team are hopeful about finding a way to make the prison visits website sustainable.

Following on came the team who worked on Enabled by Design, a site set out to use design to make lives for people with disabilities better, by offering novel solutions to mundane but necessary problems, or by giving a voice to the people who have to use the mobility aids on the market at present. Users affected by debilitating diseases like multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease have to make to do with equipment that looks and feels like it was designed 60 years ago, and by creating a shared space for the users of the tools to converse with the designers and manufacturers, Enabled by Design hope to see better designed tools that stop making user's homes look like hospitals.

The 'cram a load of geeks and designers in a building and give them 48 hrs to make the world better' model piloted by Social Innovation Camp so far has delivered some interesting projects, and while it's hardly going to replace the current government's current love of massive big budget IT projects tomorrow, the fact that some of the funding came directly from the cabinet office suggests we may see more of these kinds of events in future.

Which by and large, can only be a good thing.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle