The Polifix: 18th – 24th June

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This week has seen Jimmy Carr embroiled in a row over his tax avoidance schemes, whilst drastic changes to secondary education suggested by members of the government threaten  future social mobility. Further afield, Syria shots down a Turkish fighter yet, claiming rather unbelievably that it wasn’t political statement against one of their most ardent critics.

Jimmy Carr & the morals of tax avoidance

Comedian Jimmy Carr has come under fire this week for using a legal tax avoidance scheme which allowed him to pay as little as 1% on his earnings. The comedian, who has in the past lampooned Barclay’s about their tax avoidance measures, has faced criticism from seeming everyone in the media in the last week, from David Cameron to Lily Allen.

Cameron, whose family the Guardian have alleged to have made a fortune out of tax havens (read here), has insisted that “some of these schemes we have seen are quite frankly morally wrong”. Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, has made clear his view that tax avoiders are the “moral equivalent of benefit cheats”.

Given the expenses scandal is still fresh in the minds of the British public, it is not surprising that politicians’ apparent moral views are hard to stomach. If anyone wants reminding of some of the more ridiculous expenses claimed by our moralising politicians, click here.

Fleet Street Fox, a political blogger, responded to the situation with a view reflecting the view over much of Britain. “The true hypocrisy is not to be found in unimportant, unfunny Jimmy Carr and his couple of mill. It’s sitting behind a desk in the Treasury, pilfering the pockets of the lower orders and stroking the egos of big, fat men with big, fat bank accounts.”

Lily Allen even got involved in the argument, tweeting: “How are tax avoiders “the moral equivalent of benefit cheats? … Surely they’re a hundred times worse?”.

A just money saving measure, or just morally wrong?

The creation of a two-tier education system?

Documents leaked to the Daily Mail suggested Michael Gove, Education Secretary, is considering replacing GCSEs with O-Levels in traditional subjects, such as English, maths, the humanities and science. This would mean that ‘less-abled’ pupils would be able to take simpler qualifications; and the national curriculum for secondary schools would be abolished.

School leaders and teaching unions are warning that this move would create a two-tier education system, further crush opportunities for social mobility, and even write off the more disadvantaged swaths of the population.

Clegg has announced that he is against “anything that would lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrapheap.”

Clegg vented his anger on Radio 4 on Friday over these plans, claiming that Gove’s proposals had not been done “subject to a collective discussion in government. Neither myself nor the prime minister were aware of it.” Downing Street has since denied Cameron’s ignorance over the matter; and Cameron has announced his support of the policy, subject to consultation. However, Downing Street has made it clear that plans will be held back until after the next general election, in large part due to the resistance from the Liberal Democrats.

Ed Balls gleefully tweeted a video of him quizing Gove with GCSE questions in 2009, saying: “Good to see my GCSE House of Commons Quiz with the out-of-touch Tory ‘hero’ Michael #Gove getting a re-airing” . Whatever side one may take on this issue, the video does little to dispel the caricature of parliament being dominated by schoolboy-like behaviour.

Social mobility further threatened by rumours of A-Level funding cuts

There are further fears that changes to educational funding will further hamper social mobility and prevent state school pupils from being accepted into top universities.

It is believed that a change to funding may be introduced where funding is calculated on the number of students in a school, not on the number of qualifications studies for.If so, this change to funding will significantly impact state schools with funding just covering the cost of three A-Levels or one vocational qualification, such as a BTEC.

State schools would be left with a disadvantage against the private sector when applying to top universities, who would continue to be able to fund further qualifications. Although top universities only expect three A-Levels from potential applicants, the average student applying to Cambridge achieved the equivalent of five A-Levels.

“All colleges have at least some students who are doing a larger than normal programme of A-Levels” said Martin Ward, the deputy general secretary of the Association of Schools and Colleges said. “If that’s not funded it will work against social mobility”.

A Department for Education spokesman denied these reports; “These stories are not true. There will be nothing to stop schools and colleges from entering outstanding students for more than three A-Levels. There should be no caps on aspiration.”

Whether this is true remains to be seen. However, with fears that the drastic shake-up in education planned will create a two-tier education system, this news only adds further worry that opportunities for social mobility will be drastically cut by a predominantly Conservative government.

“Dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton”?
With over 34% of MPs attended fee paying schools, compared with the national average of 7%, cuts which will affect state schools demonstrate a worrying disregard for social mobility.

Syria shoots down Turkish jet

Syria is facing further international condemnation after shooting down one of Turkey’s war places on Friday.

The Syrian government has upheld its claim that it is within its rights to shoot down the plane, which they claim was flying low through Syrian airspace. However, the plane was shot down with no warning after violating Syrian airspace for a very short period of time, something Turkey’s president Abdullah Gül says is “routine” for jets flying at very high speeds. Syria has so far claimed they are innocent of any political message, and did not identify the place as Turkish before they shot it down. Syrian foreign ministry spokesperson said “There was no hostile act against Turkey whatsoever. It was just an act of defence for our sovereignty.”

The fact that Turkey has been one of the Syrian regime’s strongest critics over their domestic crackdown following internal revolt suggests otherwise however. Turkey also gives refuge to the rebel Free Syrian Army on its frontier with Syria.

The foreign secretary, William Hague, said the “outrageous” act underlined the need for Assad’s regime to go. “The Assad regime should not make the mistake of believing that it can act with impunity. It will be held to account for its behaviour. The UK stands ready to pursue robust action at the United Nations security council.”

Nato is to meet on Tuesday at Turkey’s request to prepare a response to an article of Nato’s founding treaty, that allows members to “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened”.

Tune in next Sunday for your weekly political news fix…

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