Howard Flight was MP for Arundel and South Downs between 1997 and 2005,
is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Deputy Chairman
of the Conservative Party, and is now chairman of Flight & Partners
Recovery Fund.

I observe that at the root of the various social territories where this country has problems, are failures in areas, largely the responsibility of the State, to accept that human nature contains both good and bad; that both “stick” and “carrot” are needed and that in both personal and collective life, greater attention should be given to what is patently right, and what is patently wrong. 

I do not see the need for, or the point of, academic debate as to what “right” and “wrong” constitute, albeit that standards and judgements on particular issues change, and have mostly improved, over time.  Rather it is apparent and substantially intuitive to most people what is patently wrong behaviour and patently right behaviour.

Starting off with children and child raising:  it is self-evident that children are better raised where there are both a father and a mother – (the exception being where widows more than compensate, out of a sense of duty, for the loss of the father).  Clearly there is also less risk of children turning to unacceptable anti-social behaviour in their teens if they are brought up with a strong sense of what is right and wrong, and if there is stick, as well as carrot in their upbringing – discipline, and punishment for bad behaviour, with incentives for hard work, helpfulness and good behaviour. 

The same very simple points hold for the school environment.  It is patently ridiculous for teachers not to have the ability to implement effective discipline and punishment for unacceptable behaviour.  While good teachers are likely to command the respect of pupils more than bad teachers, without having to exert much discipline, if children think they can get away with unacceptable behaviour it is “only human nature” to give it a try!

Much of the same, simple principles also apply to welfare.  It is right and civilised, when a country can afford it, to provide welfare safety nets, financed by taxpayers, to help people who fall on hard times through no fault of their own.  Equally, a system of benefits which leaves many no worse, and often, better off, living on benefits than working, is an inevitable disincentive to work.  If benefits are also dispensed casually and it is easy to exploit the rules, people will do so.  The constructive side of reform in this territory is obviously for there to be effective incentives to enter the work place, but I suggest some “stick” is also necessary – ultimately in people’s own self interest.

In a related territory it has always struck me that people need to be able to see that if they improve their skills, they will achieve higher living standards.  What is wrong with the concept of negative income tax, which the Labour Government implemented as tax credits, is that if take-home pay differs only marginally for many, irrespective of their skills and qualifications, as a result, there is no incentive to get educated and skilled up. 

It is observable that the Punjabi immigrant community in the UK out-performs, dramatically, in their educational achievements and career progression.  I suggest the main reason for this is that their parents or grandparents knew only too well that the path out of grinding poverty in the Punjab, was to get a good education and acquire skills in order to improve their lots.

We have a current debate about the use of prison sentences.  If prison were clearly a powerful deterrent to crime (stick) and a reformer of criminals (carrot), there would be a strong case for its widespread use.  The problems are, however, that patently prison is not much of a deterrent and it is also apparent that it has a tendency to re-enforce criminal behaviour.  The main justification for sending people to prison is where they are clearly a danger to others.  I observe that some who have broken the law are penitent where they would welcome giving back something to society. 

But for those who are not penitent, they need a form of stick which will be effective without being excessively expensive.  Here I suggest we should look at identifying contemporary measures which would apply the same principle of public shaming as was more crudely applied in the past by the stocks.  There is a particularly unfortunate and significant category and of the prison population which constitutes ex-Servicemen who are dysfunctional and turn to crime outside the protective, collective environment of the Armed Forces.  Here, what is surely wanted is the provision of an army-style organisation existence, providing both shelter and work and largely organised by retired officers, for ex-servicemen – a mixture of stick and carrot. 

While it sounds harsh to say it, the problem with prison as a “stick” is that it is not acceptable for it to be as harsh and unpleasant as it was in the past (or it still is in some parts of the world) in order to function as an effective deterrent.

Turning to the world of executives – (and not just senior bankers) – in the public sector as well as the private sector, it seems to me wrong that where people have behaved badly they can walk away with severance pay and generous pensions, and also obtain other well remunerated jobs.  There should be the “stick”/punishment of both financial loss and “blackballing” as regards alternative executive employment.  By behaving badly, I mean is acting in a way which is clearly wrong and knowingly wrong as opposed to “carrying the can” for events beyond their control.  Sadly we have plenty of the latter, but not of the former.

I must be getting old, but it seems to me that in the world in which I spent my childhood in the 1950s, most of these issues were axiomatic; stick and carrot and right and wrong were the accepted order of things – not that everyone was a saint.  Since then, sometimes well intentioned, and sometimes politically mischievous initiatives, have undermined the social order where people no longer know where they stand; carrots as well as sticks have too often been suppressed and too many people grow up without any very clear sense of right and wrong. 

Happily, notwithstanding this, the great majority of citizens seem to have their heads screwed on extremely well and to have decent values and plenty of common sense.  But, with a less homogeneous population than in the past, there is clearly the need for common, national standards of what is acceptable behaviour – what is right and wrong – and understood regimes of “stick and carrot” to provide effective incentives for desirable conduct and disincentives for undesirable conduct.

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