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Hurricane Irma shows Donald Trump isn’t America’s only problem

“Prayer should always be a first resort,” said Florida's Republican governor Rick Scott.

As Hurricane Irma hit Florida, the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, led from the front. “The most important thing is to pray for us,” he said. “I don’t see prayer as a last resort. It should always be a first resort.”

No politician in Britain, not even Jacob Rees-Mogg, would dream of saying such a thing in such circumstances. But Scott, whose parents “introduced” him to Jesus Christ, uses taxpayers’ dollars to fund an annual “faith symposium”, in defiance of the US constitution.

Scott does not deny the existence of human-influenced global warming. Pleading that he’s “not a scientist”, he just refuses to mention it and discourages state employees from doing so.

Presumably Floridians were supposed to implore the Almighty to suspend the laws of physics. Scott has done little else to protect Florida against rising sea levels. He dismantled its energy and climate commission when he took office in 2011. Public works to improve defences against floods and high winds have been left largely to local municipalities.

Scott’s leadership in Florida shows that Donald Trump isn’t America’s only problem, or even its biggest.

Bombarded by Brexit

A manufacturer gets state support for a new aircraft that will be built partly in a Belfast factory. Brussels is expected to rule that this is unfair and impose fines. The future of the factory, which employs 4,500 people, is threatened.

Another reason to leave the EU? No, because I’ve made a tiny change to the story: the expected ruling, against the Canadian firm Bombardier after a complaint by its American rival Boeing, won’t come from Brussels but from the US International Trade Commission in Washington, DC. Brexiteers should learn two lessons. First, it’s not just the EU that imposes pesky rules on how international trade is conducted. Second, Donald Trump won’t do us any post-Brexit favours. Boeing was likely prompted to complain by his “America first” rhetoric. Theresa May’s plaintive phone calls to the White House asking the president to give us a break – and doesn’t he know her government’s survival depends on the DUP? – will almost certainly fail.

Paranoid style

For many in the West, Aung San Suu Kyi ticked all the boxes: beautiful, clever, selfless, patient, dedicated to democracy and non-violence, and a devout Buddhist. Now that she is implicated in Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of its Muslim minority, the Rohingya, Westerners react with pained bemusement. What happened to the woman whom the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, hailed as “a heroine for humanity”?

The clue is in the Buddhism. All that meditation, chanting and vegetarianism may attract some sections of the British middle classes but it is still a religion. Every religion believes that adherents of other faiths are in grievous error and that life on Earth is a transient thing, subservient to some larger purpose. (And, yes, Marxism meets those criteria, too.) Religions also incline to paranoia. They see rival faiths, equally convinced that theirs is the one true way, as existential threats.

It is often claimed that Islam is a uniquely violent religion. But Sri Lanka’s Buddhists brutally suppressed the island’s largely Hindu minority, the Tamils. Like Myanmar, the Buddhist Thailand persecutes its Muslim minority. Many Buddhists backed the Japanese military imperialism that led to the Second World War. Tibetan Buddhists – whose leader, the Dalai Lama, has become a cult figure in the West – dance in celebration of the murder of a ninth-century emperor. All religions are prone to supporting violence when confronted by assertive rivals.

Desmond’s heirs

The middle classes used to moan about the servant problem, but my worry just now is the boss problem. If you’re a news­paper journalist, you can’t get decent owners these days. The press barons of the past – Lord Beaverbrook at the Express, Lord Rothermere at the Mail, Lord Camrose and later Conrad Black at the Telegraph – were greedy both for profits and political influence. Yet at least they were engaged with journalism and, in their peculiar ways, cared about its quality.

Today, only the 86-year-old Rupert Murdoch and the Rothermere who still owns the Mail care a fig about their papers’ contents. The Express titles, it is reported, will soon be sold by Richard Desmond to Trinity Mirror. After nearly 17 years of Desmond, they are shadows of their former selves, taken seriously by nobody and with only a third of the circulations they had in 2000. Desmond has made at least £330m from the papers while cutting editorial staff by two-fifths.

However, few Express hacks will welcome Trinity Mirror, a publishing corporation that owns 240 thinly staffed regional papers – some free, others bought mainly by elderly folk who have forgotten to cancel their deliveries – as well as the national Mirror papers. It is ruled by accountants who try to make their shareholders a bob or two while managing decline. Journalists will find it similar to working for Desmond but without the swear words.

The only way is Loughton

Living quietly and unfashionably in Loughton, Essex, I expect people to look down their noses when they hear my address, associating me with the tasteless bling and vulgarities of ITV’s reality soap opera The Only Way Is Essex. But times are changing. Until recently, Loughton had three nightclubs that were apparently magnets for the Towie crowd. Now, after residents’ protests about late-night noise, they have all been closed and replaced by two gastropubs and one fairly classy Italian restaurant.

Moreover, the Guardian recently devoted a whole page to a sympathetic interview with Gemma Collins, a Towie star. With this seal of approval from a liberal, middle-class paper, stuffed with Oxbridge graduates, the series is surely doomed. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem

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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

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 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left