Re-building the ship during the storm? The reform of the public revenue administration in Greece

Before ‘Brexit’, the big EU story was a possible ‘Grexit’, threatened by the Greek debt crisis. As the debate over whether Britain should leave the European Union hots up, Dr Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos, of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics (where he directs the MSc programme in European Politics & Policy) considers a key reform proposed for the troubled EU member.

Greece tax reform blogThe aim of this project,which will be carried out through 2016 with my colleague Prof. Argyris G. Passas of Panteion University of Social & Political Sciences in Athens, is to analyse and evaluate the implementation of a key structural reform introduced as part of the ‘bail-out’ agreements that Greece has concluded with its creditors since May 2010.

We will be focusing on the ongoing efforts to reform the part of the Athenian administration that has overall responsibility for tax collection in Greece and place it at arm’s length from government interference. Our project will seek to shed light not only on the origins of the very idea but, crucially, the factors that have shaped the implementation and the outcome of these efforts. These efforts appear to amount to a Herculean task in a country that – some argue – has a limited ‘reform capacity’.

Improving tax collection has been a key concern of the adjustment programmes that have accompanied the three ‘bail-outs’ (see below) provided to Greece since May 2010 but, more importantly, it is a matter of justice as well as efficiency. Moreover, it is not a new problem. Tax collection has been an enduring problem for the modern Greek state since its establishment in 1830, partly due to corruption.

Though no European state can claim to have a perfect tax collection record, in the run-up to the onset of the crisis the magnitude of the problem was unusual in the case of Greece, where the OECD reported that ‘if Greece could collect VAT, social security contributions and corporate income tax with the same efficiency as its main partners do, it could boost tax revenues by about 4¾ per cent of GDP per year’.

The main objective of the reform is to improve tax collection by placing the public revenue authority at arm’s length from the government of the day, in line with the views of the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD and the European Commission. This reflects the view that autonomous technocratic bodies will – if placed beyond the direct control of politicians – achieve policy objectives in the public interest by taking decisions that elected politicians would not normally take for fear of losing the next electoral contest. This is the logic that underpins the independence of major institutions like the Bank of England.

We will be analysing documentary material from a broad range of sources and interviewing several types of stakeholders, including current and former officials from the Greek public revenue authority, international civil servants as well as politicians. The research is being funded by the Hellenic Observatory at the LSE’s European Institute and our intention is to publish our findings in an international academic journal, and to produce a policy briefing as well as blog posts and op-eds for Greek and other European media outlets. Our findings will also be presented in the research seminar of the Hellenic Observatory in the course of the coming academic year.

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UK elects most diverse parliament ever but it’s still not representative

This post was contributed by Dr Rosie Campbell, reader in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and Dr Jennifer Hudson, senior lecturer in Political Behaviour at UCL. It was originally posted on The Conversation on May 13

Ahead of the 2015 election, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argued that voters were being given a choice “between one man who was at primary school with Boris Johnson and one man who was at secondary school with him – both of whom did PPE at Oxford”.

SNP's Mhairi Black smiles after defeating Labour's Douglas Alexander for the Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat at the Lagoon Leisure centre, Paisley.

SNP’s Mhairi Black smiles after defeating Labour’s Douglas Alexander for the Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat at the Lagoon Leisure centre, Paisley.

Throughout the campaign, we’ve been gathering data on the parliamentary candidates to see if this lack of choice plays out across the board. Do the people elected to represent the UK, bear any resemblance to the public they represent?

Women on the rise

This year saw 48 more women elected that in 2010 – bringing the total number of women MPs to a record 191. Women make up 29% of newly elected MPs, up from 22% in 2010.

The Green party had the highest percentage of women candidates selected at 38%, but with chances in only a handful of seats, they had little chance of affecting parliamentary gender balance.

Labour has the highest proportion of women in its parliamentary party. Its record number of 99 women MPs is the result of using all-women shortlists and the decision to put a majority of women candidates (53%) in winnable seats. So Labour’s conversion rate was higher, despite its poor performance in the polls.

Party breakdown (percentages are rounded). Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided

With 26% of women candidates selected, the Tories have 68 women MPs, up from 47 in the last parliament. Although there was no equivalent of the A-List David Cameron used in 2010 to increase the number of women put forward for winnable seats, the Tories did place women in 38% of their retirement seats.

One of the key reasons for the increase in the number of women MPs is the performance of the SNP. The Scottish party came second and tied with Labour in terms of the percentage of women candidates selected (34%) and added 20 women MPs to the overall total – as well as the youngest in Mhairi Black.

Ethnic diversity

Perhaps surprisingly, given accusations of racism within the party, 6% of UKIP candidates were black or from an ethnic minority group. That’s more than the SNP, the Greens and Plaid.

The vote on May 7 saw 41 BME MPs elected to parliament, and increase on 2010 where 27 MPs were elected. MPs from non-white backgrounds make up just 6% of Parliament.

BME MPs. Percentages are rounded. Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided

Prior to the election, it was suggested that the Conservatives had closed the gap with Labour when it came to the proportion of black and ethnic minority candidates in the running. Our data show that the Tories led the way with 10% of BME candidates selected to stand in 2010, compared to 8% for Labour and LibDems.

But this is not the success it seems when you look at winnable seats. While 13% of Labour’s black and ethnic minority candidates were placed in winnable or marginal seats, just 5% of those standing for the Conservatives found themselves in similar positions. Labour had 16 black and ethnic minority MPs in 2010 so the increase to 23 in 2015, despite poor polling, shows the importance of where candidates are placed.

The Tories were able to boost BME representation by selecting candidates in very safe retirement seats, including Rishi Sunak in Richmond, Yorkshire – a 44% Tory majority seat – and Suella Fernandes in Fareham, a seat with a 31% majority. The Tories now have 17 black and minority MPs – an increase of six from 2010.

True representation?

The increased diversity in Westminster after the 2015 election is a success worth celebrating, but we should be careful not to lose sight of the big picture. Paxman’s general premise – that there isn’t a great deal of diversity amongst the candidates of the different parties – still holds.

Women MPs make up just 29% of the new parliament, that’s less than a third for a country where women make up 51% of the population. It also puts Britain behind many of its European counterparts (Germany, France, Sweden), and well behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba and Kazakhstan. And black and ethnic minority MPs make up just 6% of parliament, despite representing 13% of the population.

To put the progress made in perspective, the UK would need to elect 130 more women and double the current number of black and ethnic minority MPs to make its parliament descriptively representative of the population it serves – and the political parties are still not offering enough candidates from these groups in the right places to make that happen.

Chrysa Lamprinakou, Marco Morucci, Sally Symington, Sam Sharp and David Ireland also contributed to this article.

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Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914

This post was contributed by Dr Louise Hide, Honorary Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology.

In July 1905, a young draper’s assistant from south-east London was admitted to Bexley Asylum. Gertrude L. was 25 and this was her third admission into a lunatic asylum.

Initially, she was described as ‘strange and irrational in manner’. But by January 1906, she was corresponding with her friends on the outside. One letter that was copied and left in her case file provides an intriguing insight into asylum life from the patient’s point of view:

in this so called asylum … you are … treated like the worst form of cattle … We work all the hours God sends without proper nourishment or a proper bed … our hours of work are from 8 in the morn to 20 or 30 minutes past 7 in the evening … and you never see the colour of a copper coin.

From the 1960s to the late ‘80s, Marxist and feminist scholars set out to disabuse Whiggish historians of the notion that the understanding and treatment of mental illness had followed an uninterrupted upward trajectory called ‘progress’ from the late 18th century. As a result of this work, we know a great deal about why and how people were admitted to asylums, but far less about what actually happened to them once the ward door had been shut and the key turned.

What was life like inside these vast ‘monster’ institutions? And how were relationships between doctors, nurses and attendants, and patients constructed by shifting ideas around masculinity and femininity?

Book coverMy book, Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914, sets out to answer these questions through a detailed analysis primarily of asylum case notes, committee minutes and annual reports. I have focused on two institutions, Claybury and Bexley. Each was built for 2,000 patients by the newly formed London County Council and opened in 1893 and 1898 respectively.

The turn of the century was an important moment in asylum history. Late Victorian psychiatry was experiencing a ‘clinical turn’ away from the old prison-like asylums towards the new mental hospitals, from the ‘lunatic’ to the mental patient, the attendant to the nurse. That, at least, was the idea even though the reality took some time to catch up.

Location is important, too. London had far higher lunacy rates than any other part of the country. Why?

Migration into the city was one reason. Lack of space and desperate poverty was another; families were simply unable to look after members who could not contribute to the household budget. But there was another reason, too: the abhorrent notion of degeneracy, which claimed that physical, mental and moral ‘defects’ (criminality, prostitution etc.) were passed on from one generation to another, creating an increasingly ‘unfit’ population. And this hereditary ‘taint’ was believed to be particularly prevalent in large, overcrowded urban areas, such as London.

Indeed, degeneracy theory fed directly into eugenics, making the early 20th century one of the darkest periods of psychiatric history.

My book looks at the impact of some of the overarching ideologies that were circulating at the time – degeneracy, feminism, socialism, science and the medicalisation of madness – on people in the asylum.

General hospitals had a powerful influence on the faltering discipline of psychiatry. Gradually, a new generation of well-qualified and scientifically-minded physicians, including a handful of women, started to take up asylum posts. Nurses began to receive formal training and gain recognised qualifications. And, perhaps most controversially, female nurses were moved into male wards shaking up these men-only bastions.

As a result, the highly gendered male doctor/female nurse binary was reinforced, marginalising many male attendants and reducing some to little more than nursing auxiliaries.

To return to Gertrude L., the patient experience is an important part of the book. During a period when virtually every aspect of asylum life was intended to act as ‘treatment’, I endeavour to reveal the effects on patients of the admission process, drugs, seclusion and restraint, the ward environment, work and amusements.

Why, for example, were the ‘rougher’ women put to work in the laundry? How were ward interiors designed in order to distract patients from their dark and troubling thoughts? In what way was food rationed according to a patient’s sex? And what were the consequences of forcing pauper patients to wear communal clothes?

There was, of course, no single patient experience. However, my book does, I hope, provide greater insights into how wider social and medical discourses influenced the lives of men and women living and working inside London’s late Victorian asylums at the most quotidian levels.

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Parents in Parliament: The Motherhood Trap

This post was contributed by Dr Rosie Campbell, a Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and Professor Sarah Childs (University of Bristol). It was originally published on the British Politics and Public Life blog.

Men’s over-representation and women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is pretty well known, even if the public sometimes over-estimates just how many women MPs there are, bedazzled by their bright clothing in the Chamber.[1] In fact, men outnumber women by more than 4:1. (In his 2009 survey conducted by YouGov, Professor Phil Cowley (Nottingham) asked respondents what they thought was the correct percentage of women MPs was. At the time the average response was 26% when the actual figure was closer to 20%.)

Some people may not find this particularly troublesome. Lord Hurd has recently been cited saying that there is a “ludicrous” obsession with ensuring there is equal representation of men and woman in parliament and other areas of public life. We believe very strongly that a diversity of background and experience does matter. And there’s another serious flaw with the Hurd line of reasoning. He says that if voters didn’t want a “good looking chap from a public school” as prime minister they wouldn’t keep choosing them. But the reason feminists have campaigned for All Women Short-lists as a means to get more women at Westminster is precisely because it’s political parties not voters who choose our candidates and party leaders. We the voters don’t get to choose our parliamentary candidates, and therefore who our MPs, are. The reasons there are too few women in politics stems from both a lack of demand for and supply of women candidates: voters don’t punish women candidates. But in the absence of equality measures such as Labour’s All Women’s Shortlists, parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats, even if fewer women seek selection as parliamentary candidates overall.

Having children is frequently cited as a barrier that holds women back from seeking parliamentary selection. But of course not all women are mothers. And both men and women are parents. So we need to question whether the problem is less about the equal representation of men and women – or parents and non-parents – and perhaps more about the exclusion of mothers?

Until now, the UK Parliament simply did not know how many mothers or fathers sat on its green benches. During the new Labour years, and again since 2010, a number of women MPs have given birth: the latest being the Liberal Democrat Minister Jo Swinson, who is currently facing criticism for wanting to have her child with her in the division lobby. We doubt that the vocal hostility to the needs of a new mother, that her comments have generated, are likely to increase the supply of mothers seeking selection for the 2015 general election.

In our survey (supported by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Commons Diversity and Inclusion Unit )of MPs in 2012 we found a startling set of facts about mothers and fathers in Parliament:

• 45% of women MPs have no children, compared to 28% of male MPs, and compared to an average of about 20% of the population who remain childless. (According to the Office for National Statistics 20 percent of women born in 1966 remain childless.)
• Of all MPs with children, male MPs have on average 1.9 children, whilst women MPs have on average only 1.2
• The average age of women MPs’ eldest child, when they first entered parliament, was 16 years old ; the average age of men MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament was 12 years old
In sum: women MPs are (1) less likely to have children than male MPs; (2) more likely to have fewer children than male MPs; and (3) enter parliament when their children are older than the children of male MPs.

These staggering differences are clear evidence that there are serious barriers to Parliament for those with caring responsibilities, most often mothers.

Reactions to these statistics will likely vary depending on whether you believe that the House of Commons should look like the society it represents for reasons of justice; or whether you think that good-looking public school educated men are equally capable of understanding the complexities of juggling work and family life. There will be those who have no fear that without mothers in Parliament the soaring costs of childcare and the disproportionate effect of the economic crisis on women in low paid and part-time work (mostly mothers) will reach the top of the political agenda. We’re not so sure. And that’s why we want more mothers in Parliament.

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