Objective 5

A Cohesive and Tolerant Society

The fundamental aim of the Radical Party is to help to build a just, cohesive and tolerant Society by changing the balance of power in favour of the electorate, reforming our democracy, and adopting an enlightened and evidence-based approach to tackling the most serious social problems affecting ordinary people, especially where such problems are linked to failures in our laws and our political system.

Housing

In the 1950s and 1960s, with the support of all the main political parties, local authorities played the central role in pulling down slums and war-damaged properties and in building millions of new homes, which led to a huge improvement in housing standards. Social provision in the form of council housing was expanded making it possible for families on low incomes to move into homes of a guaranteed standard on secure tenancies at affordable rents. Mrs Thatcher’s move into Downing Street in 1979 with a new free-market agenda put an end to this cross party consensus with far-reaching consequences. The capacity of local authorities to borrow to build was progressively restricted and Right to Buy legislation led to erosion of the social housing stock.

These factors have prevented local authorities from providing appropriate social housing to those in need, resulting in many vulnerable families living in cramped and sub-standard accommodation. They have contributed to a rapid increase in house prices, preventing many lower-income families from getting on the housing ladder, have fueled social tensions and have exacerbated inequality as between those who can afford to buy, or whose parents have bought, their homes, and those without access to the necessary capital and income.

Initially, as promised, the right of council tenants to buy their homes contributed to a substantial rise in home ownership. More recently, however, the failure of the private sector to build affordable units has squeezed young people out of the housing market, forcing them into expensive and often poor quality privately rented accommodation. The promise of a new home-owning democracy that was used to justify the selling off of the public housing stock has been betrayed as the proportion of younger people able to get on the housing ladder has plummetted. The failure of successive Governments to tackle the issue effectively has very significantly contributed to growing inequality. According to Shelter, the lack of sufficient houses and flats is now the main reason for the rise in the number of people facing the extreme hardship and dangers of being homeless and of living on the street.

Empowering local authorities to address housing need 

The problem is fundamentally the result of a failure of political will to tackle powerful vested interests and allow local authorities to address the most pressimg problem affecting their communities.  The solution must encompass a rapid increase in the availability of good quality, affordable accommodation to rent, and a return to the aim of making it possible for as many young people as possible to buy their homes. But despite rising public concern, the “public is bad, private is good” consensus that has dominated Westminster since the time of Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair has prevented successive governments from taking the three steps needed to solve the problem: reforming the law on planning permission; allowing local authorities to borrow to build affordable homes; and addressing the economic imbalance between the South East and the rest of the country.

Since 2012, local authorities have responded to the crisis by increasing the number of planning permissions by 40%, but house building has increased by only 25%: to 164,000 in 2015-16, about half the number estimated to be needed. Over the period from 2010/1 to 2016/17 there was a shortfall of over half a million units coming onto the market once conversions of existing buildings are taken into account. With no direct role in construction, local authorities in wealthy areas have responded to lobbying by existing residents by using their planning powers to impede private sector housing developments, which often mainly benefit people from other localities. Meanwhile, the number of homes built by local authorities has fallen progressively from an average of 130,000 in the 1970s to 2,500 since 2010.

Reflecting the hold of powerful construction companies over the Conservative Party, billions of pounds has been wasted through the Help to Buy home equity loan scheme, whose main effect has been to push up the cost of housing and inflate the profits of the large house building companies. Profits which are graphically illustrated by the £100 million long term bonus paid to the chief execuive of housebuilder Persimmon.  Meanwhile, nothing has been done to tackle the underlying need to prevent construction companies buying up land and hoarding it in the hope of speculative gain, or using it to build high margin luxury accommodation.

According to a recent study by Civitas, 80% of new homes in London are currently only affordable by 8% of the population. The profits generated are basically not the result of risk taking or innovative construction technology but of the granting of planning permission. A hectaire of agricultural land is currently worth an average of £21,000, according to the Financial Times, but if consent is granted to build houses on it, the value of the same piece of land rises to over £2 million. This windfall gain results from decisions taken by local authorities on behalf of the community in order to address housing need. Land reform legislation is urgently needed to ensure that planning permissions are used in a timely manner to achieve their intended purpose and are not misused to generate exaggerated profits through hoarding and speculation.

The current means by which the community claws back some of the gain created by the granting of planning permission involves local authorities negotiating investment by developers in local infrastructure and low cost housing on a piecemeal basis, but this does nothing to discourage them from deferrring development.  A much more effective means of protecting the community interest would be to impose time limits on planning permissions for housing, or simply to revert to the system which set the scene for the post-war housing boom by giving local authorities to power to buy back housing land at its original price, in areas of shortage, should the developer delay unreasonably.

The fact that the construction sector has become increasingly disfunctional has also played a significant role in the crisis. I has increasingly become an oligopy of very large, and hence politically powerful, companies, whose interests do not coincide with the need to provide social housing and low cost housing to buy. Meanwhile, with little support being made available to the supply side, the number of small local building firms, which could provide a flexible alternative to the big operators, has dropped sharply.

The Radical Party believes that the state should recognise a fundamental obligation to ensure that the national housing stock is sufficient to meet public needs, just as much as it should to ensure the construction of sufficient police stations, schools and hospitals. As part of a determined and focused effort to ensure housing is made available, it believes that:

  • an obligation should be placed on local authorities to provide social housing for all who need it and they should be given the power to borrow for that purpose (as has recently been done for housing associations);
  • to prevent speculative land hoarding, they should be empowered to purchase land for which planning permission has been given for housing at its unimproved value if development is not undertaken promptly;
  • they should be encouraged to permit the conversion of redundant High Street premises to residential dwellings and to relax planning restrictions, subject to appropriate safeguards, to help to meet local and national housing needs;
  • consideration should also be given to how best to encourage the re-emergence of small builders and the introduction of innovative building techniques;
  • a strategy should be developd for a sustained and determined effort to raise the proportion of the population who can buy their own homes.

Tolerance and openness

The Party believes that adults should be allowed to live their personal lives with a minimum of involvement by politicians, the media and the courts. It opposes censorship and vigilantism and supports a statutory protection for individuals from interference in their private lives by the media. The regulation of consenting sexual behaviour a064nd Britain’s antiquated censorship laws should be reformed.

The Party considers that, as far as possible, sexual relations between consenting adults should be a matter for the individuals concerned. Efforts to tackle genuine trafficking should be stepped up, while those who choose to support themselves by providing personal services should be treated with respect. Current legislation which prevents sex workers from sharing premises exposes them to risk, and should be repealed as soon as possible, legitimising a range of alternatives to street work, which inevitably puts sex workers at heightened risk and impacts on the surrounding community.

The Party supports the call by Amnesty International for the decriminalisation of sex work and is strongly opposed to the suggestion that paying for sexual services should be made an offence. Such a measure, which is based on the irrational assumption that all sex workers are victims, would aim to deny the 60,000 individuals who (according to the Treasury) currently support themselves by providing personal services their means of support. It would also put them more at risk, as it has done in Northern Ireland, where this policy has had the effect of pushing commercial sex underground and endangering the safety of those concerned.

Tackling vigilantism

Recent years have seen an increasingly punitive response to inter-personal problems, which contrasts with the approach followed in progressive democracies. Changes in police practices and the law have been introduced in response to press campaigns rather than on the basis of firm evidence that they will either reduce offending or increase the safety of potential victims. Publicising the addresses of certain sex offenders has led to attacks by vigilantes and to ex-offenders going to ground, cutting them off from professional support which could help them avoid further offending.  The Party believes that:

  • prohibition and interference should be replaced by an approach which encourages transparency, reduces the incentive for criminal involvement and balances respect for public sensitivities with minimal interference in people’s private lives;
  • sex work should be decriminalised and the law changed to allow sex workers to share premises;
  • increased efforts to tackle sex-trafficking should be stepped up along with measures to encourage sex workers to access support services, pay taxes and national insurance and integrate with society;  
  • proposals to make it a criminal offence for one individual to pay another for sexual services should be strongly opposed;
  • the principle of innocent until found guilty, which has been eroded in some kinds of drug and sex cases, should be respected; suspects in sex offence cases who have not been charged should have the right to anonymity, as recommended by the Home Office Select Committee;
  • the law should be changed to make it possible for individuals who feel that they may be at risk of committing sexual offences to seek professional advice without automatically being reported to the police.

Marriage and Divorce

The handling of divorce has evolved substantially as a result of decisions taken in the courts. The changes concerned have corrected previous injustices toward the non-working partners, but they have also led to a situation where England and Wales are significantly out of line with practice in other countries and, in some cases, with a common sense understanding of fairness. The Party considers that:

  • a commission should be set up to review the priorities for reform, with a view to putting divorce law back clearly under the control of Parliament and bringing UK divorce law into line with the law in other progressive democracies;
  • the principle of no-fault divorce should be introduced forthwith;
  • the right to form civil partnerships should be extended to heterosexual couples;
  • the logic of the concept of divorce should, wherever possible, allow a clean break where issues of income and property are concerned;
  • improved rights should be given to grandparents to protect the financial interests of their children and grandchildren in the event of divorce.  

An evidence-based approach to drug abuse

Addiction to dangerous psycho-active drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, as well as the misuse of prescription medicines and so-called legal-highs, is a complex world-wide issue. It causes enormous suffering and plays a central role in many health, social, economic, security and law enforcement problems.  In the long run, the hope must be that pharmacological solutions are found, but the present pace of progress suggests that, if indeed such a breakthrough is ever achievable, it is likely to take many years.

In the meantime, the Radical Party believes that Britain should follow a research-based approach, which starts from acknowledging that the current punishment-centred approach is not working, understands that valuable lessons can be learnt from experience in other countries, and recognises the crucial links between social deprivation and inappropriate correctional policies and drug-related criminality.

Unfortunately, experience makes clear that, at least in the present state of knowledge, there is no single silver bullet which will solve the problem of the drugs trade and drug abuse. The main reason for this is that legal restraints on the use and sale of dangerous drugs have both negative and positive effects. On the negative side, they create an opening for criminality both in consuming and in producing countries.  But at the same time, experience shows that they reduce consumption, both by pushing up prices on the street and by stigmatising drug use. In this way, they do reduce the incidence of the medical and psychological effects that addiction can have on addicts, their children and those about them.

Drug use as a medical problem

Recently, some countries, notably the Netherlands, Portugal and Uruguay (together with some US states), have relaxed controls on the use of certain drugs. No country, however, has taken the step of de-criminalising the supply of the substances such as heroin because of the evidence that doing so would lead to a steep drop in prices on the street and hence an increase in consumption, which would be difficult or impossible to reverse.

Drawing on this experience, the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) and the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) published a report in 2016 which argued that the UK should follow the example of Portugal and treat the use (but not the supply) of drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin as a medical and not as a criminal matter while at the same time increasing investment in prevention and treatment. More recently, in 2018, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) endorsed this recommendation, arguing that the change in policy would help to ensure that drug users had access to: “timely and appropriate prevention and care services”.

The Radical Party believes that policy on drug abuse should be based on the best available evidence. It supports the recommendation by the RSPH, the FPH and RCP that, while the supply of currently illegal drugs should continue to be a matter for the police, the use of such substances should in future be treated as a medical and not as a criminal matter.

Within this framework, the Party proposes that:

  • the supply of currently illegal drugs should continue to be treated as a crime;
  • in line with the recommendations of the RSPH, the FPH and the RCP, the use of such substances should be treated as a medical problem, not as a police matter; 
  • tackling social deprivation should be brought to the centre of strategy for tackling drug abuse;
  • there should be a major shift away from the use of incarceration in the punishment of less serious offences involving illegal drugs;
  • the resources available for programmes that can be shown to be effective in helping victims to free themselves from addiction should be substantially increased.

Gambling

Problem and addictive gambling is an issue which is little discussed but has a devastating impact on many individuals and families, with authoritative estimates of approximately 400,000 victims in the UK. It’s social consequences are particulary serious because a high proportion of victims are poor people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are likely to be most affected by the economic burden that it imposes.  In addition, its impact is often exaccerbated by a other handicaps including unemployment and dependency on alcohol and harmful drugs. The refusal of both the Conservative and Labour Parties to acknowledge the seriousness of this problem is highlighted by the Blair Government’s espousal of a plan by US-based gambling interests to establish a network of super casinos in seaside towns (which, to his credit, Gordon Brown blocked when he became Prime Minister). Likewise, governments since 2010 have dragged their feet over tackling the scandal of high stake machine betting despite clear evidence of the link between this kind of gambling and addiction.

The failure by politicians to face up to this problem is directly linked to the laxity of system of goverance, which encourages powerful gambling companies to put pressure on ministers and MPs. What is involved is not just direct lobbying, but also the funding of research by ostensibly independent bodies. This dominates much of the literature on the subject and tends to stress evidence that the number of victims is stable and in line with the situation in other comparable countries, rather than the devastating impact it is having on victims, children and partners.

A very high proportion of the adult population engage at some time in one form of gambling or another, and it is clear that for the great majority of participants it is simply a harmless form of recreation. It is also true, as the industry regularly points out, that the existence of the internet means that controlling some forms of betting would be effectively impossible. On the other hand, it is clear that there are steps that the Government could take which would, while not eliminating problem gambling completely, at least considerably reduce its overall extent.  With this objective, the Party considers that the Government should:

  • introduce much stricter controls on high impact advertising, for example, on television;
  • ban cash inducements, such as free plays, which are designed to encourage new customers into gambling;
  • reduce the maximum stakes allowed in high frequency machine betting to £1;
  • require promoters to provide clear, realistic and readily accessible information on the likely costs and returns of gambling to customers.