Monday, February 28, 2011

Damp squib of a bonfire

Andrew Sparrow of the Guardian is reporting that the Public Bodies Bill is seeing a significant government u-turn in the Lords, with the powers of Quango abolition being stripped out with government approval.

I always thought that the primary purpose of the Bill was to provide Ministers with the power to abolish 150 specific quangos without needing specific primary legislation for each one. Apparently though Lord Taylor has said "The government has accepted the argument that bodies or offices should only be listed in the schedules of this bill where parliament has given its consent in primary legislation,"

Presumably this means that for a Quango to be abolished it must either have an existing clause in the bill which created it allowing a Secretary of State to abolish it, or primary legislation must be passed for each Quango. If this is the case I can't see us abolishing more than a handful as there's simply no room for 150 pieces of primary legislation, and surely if the Bill had passed that would have been primary legislation, fully debated through the process (possibly unless the bill started in the Lords, which could be the issue).

I suspect this has come about due to the continued threat of legal action and judicial review over every ministerial decision. With Gove and Pickles both getting slapped wrists from the judiciary for overstepping their powers as Secretaries of State the government seems to be shifting to a position of wanting everything bullet proof (just look at how long it's taking to get a judicial review proof gypsy circular out). It's a commendable position but is making it almost impossible to follow a rapid and radical agenda, simply because there are only so many hours in the Parliamentary day, and in my opinion these decisions should be within the powers of a Secretary of State anyway.

Regardless of the reasoning though I worry that this decision makes the bonfire of the quangos less of a bonfire and more of a damp squib.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From the Archives: January borrowing

I thought given the fact that we have seen a £3.6bn surplus this January, that it would be useful to revist my comments from this time last year in a post entitled Double dip recession, or did it never end?

"Perhaps the most worrying economic indicator towards a double dip though is the record government borrowing in January. I say record, but for the first time since records began the UK government have had to borrow money in January which is a terrible sign. Traditionally January is a very good income month for the government with VAT from increased Christmas sales, and income tax from the self employed. In total tax receipts were down 11.8% compared to last year meaning that the self employed and businesses have been hit hard. Either they haven’t made as much money in the past year as they did the previous year or in a potentially even worse situation they can’t afford to pay the tax they already owe. Neither situation is good news"

At the time I was clearly wrong, we didn't thankfully double dip and we were out of recession. I also wrote "Brown continues to tell us that we are best placed to come out of recession and that the recovery is fragile and any spending cuts will destroy it." . Now I know technically spending cuts haven't hit yet, but clearly in annnouncing them and announcing some policies for growth what we've created is confidence for business, which is generating growth. With growth we can therefore cut government spending without fear of a collapse in GDP. Basically Brown was wrong.

The media is saying today that this is the first surplus in January for 2 years, but last year they were reporting that it was the first time we'd ever had to borrow money in January, so I'm not sure if I was wrong then, or the media is wrong now. I'm sure I could go look it up, but I've got a real job to do too!

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

How AV works

Lately quite a few people have been asking me to explain how AV works.

So for anyone who is struggling with understanding this oh so "simple" system I thought I'd share the excellent Daily Mash's explanation:

Under the AV system, voters rank candidates in order of height before ranking them again in order of stench.

The candidate with the most points goes through to round three where he must beat a pair of local schoolchildren in a Blockbusters-style quiz.

If he fails then the second-placed candidate takes on the children and if successful then goes on to wrestle a kangaroo.

The fifth round involves defusing a live feminist before the clock reaches zero and in the sixth and final round they have to sing a song in front of an audience of easily unimpressed Glaswegians.

Whoever makes it through all six rounds then gets to treat you like a child while stealing your money.

Of course you could alternatively read the No to AV campaign's explanation, or for fairness the Yes campaign's explanation, although I'm not sure either is any clearer.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

David Gauke: Inflating our way out of financial crisis is nonsense

I had the pleasure yesterday of attending part of Conservative Intelligence's Going for Growth conference.

I just caught the end of John Redwood (who to the disappointment of the man from Gatwick airport failed to mention air transport in his talk on transport infrastructure, although he was apparently talking about his journey from Woking to London), but managed to catch the entire of David Gauke's speech and Q&A session.

With inflation figures announced today and the view from many (including Douglas Carswell, the Spectator and Daniel Hannan) that the Bank of England's plan is to inflate our way out of debt, his comments on this were interesting. Especially as many people seem to think that this secret strategy of Meryn King's has the approval of the Treasury.

So what was David Gauke's view when asked about inflation. "The idea we can inflate our way out of the financial crisis is frankly nonsense" was his response

Does that put this idea to bed then?

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Prisoner Votes - The problem with coalition

Prisoner votes should be an easy win for the Prime Minister. He's against them, and his Conservative Cabinet Ministers (minus Ken Clarke) are against them, but the issue is the ECHR. The solution which has been much mooted is to withdraw from the ECHR and replace it at the same time with a British Bill of Rights (which presumably by some clever wording would make sure prisoners couldn't get voting rights).

This is a fantastic solution, which also delivers a Conservative manifesto pledge, that would also appease the eurosceptics amongst the base and the backbenchers. It may not be an in out referendum on the EU that they all want so much but it would stick two fingers up at the EU for meddling in British affairs, plus resolve the issue of prisoners being given votes which is far from popular with the electorate.

Except we're in coalition and our Liberal partners rather like the EU. The question therefore becomes could the Coalition survive the PM ramming this through (and to complicate matters too, would his Justice Secretary survive) and could we get enough Labour MPs to support a British Bill of Rights (a Conservative Manifesto pledge) to make up for pro ECHR and abstaining Liberal MPs.

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bureau for Investigative Journalism founded by Labour donor, no one really surprised

Data is a wonderful thing, you can cut and slice it pretty much however you want, in order to give you the spin you want, which is what the grandly titled Bureau for Investigative Journalism have done with the freely available data on political donations.

Not a lot of investigative journalism (Step one: go to electoral commission website, step two: download political donors list, step three: Google names) has shown that 50% of Tory donors, since David Cameron became leader, work in the city. Cue headlines and the BBC talking about how this explains why the government has been “soft on banks”, seemingly forgetting that just yesterday we increased taxes on them. Strangely neither the Bureau, or any non Conservative friendly media outlet, have ever said anything about the 75% of Labour donations that come from the Unions and how that may have influenced policy during their 13 years in government.

Breaking this down, firstly you can find patterns in data pretty easily and draw wild conclusions with even less effort. For example I’m sure if I was to look at where Tory donors lived they would overwhelmingly be in and around London and the South East. However this doesn’t square with an established narrative, as of course we’re pushing spending away from the South East and actively trying to promote growth in the rest of the country instead.

But who is the Bureau for Investigative Journalism I hear you ask. Well funny that you, a mere blog reader, and not a news producer or newspaper editor should be interested in that. They were set up In April 2010 by Psion founder Dr David Potter to encourage independent serious investigations and encourage a new generation of reporters? Are they independent? Well I’m sure they’ll say they are, but at the end of the day all media outlets, be they a newspaper, or a “collection of journalists” have some ethos and political leaning, normally taken from their founder, owner or whoever pays the bills. I am sure for example that Sky news will say it is independent but the anti-Murdoch brigade would say otherwise wouldn’t they.

So which way does Dr Potter vote? I’m sure you won’t be at all surprised that he’s a Labour Party donor, having given £90,000 to the party as at March 2010, and of course the Bureau has some form on publishing stories that hit the conservatives rather than Labour, what with their election expenses investigation. An investigation which strangely only found issue with one Labour MP (now disgraced Phil Woolas), and focused predominantly on Zac Goldsmith’s expenses, claiming he had breached the law, something the electoral commission later said was untrue. In fact all MPs were cleared by the electoral commission of any wrong-doing and a simple call to them in the first place (Call it an investigation) would have cleared up the legal position of the alleged “discrepancies”.

As I said you can slice and dice data however you want, Guido has pointed out that if you take David Rowland, who isn’t actually a city financier but a property developer out of the figures then suddenly the city is only 9% not 58%. I guess it’s how you define that flexible term “The City”, and why let the facts get in the way of a great anti Tory story.

And as to the independence of the Bureau and its journalists he points out that one of the journalists behind the piece is well known Labour party loyalist Yuba Bessaoud.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Media shocked that ex-Labour councillor criticises government.

Yesterday the papers and Television news was full of the enws that independent head of Community Service Volunteers, Dame Elisabeth Hoodless had criticised the government's cuts and said that the Big Society won't get volunteers becuase of them.

Except Dame Elisabeth Hoodless isn't quite as independent as she was made out to be. Why? because she was a Labour Councillor in Islington and is apparently married to a former Labour leader of Islington Council.

In May last year she was careful to distance herself from the labour Party claiming she quit shortly before Tony Blair stood down in 2007 and saying "The Labour government scrapped the 10p tax band and cut benefits for single mothers, and I had to ask myself why I was paying money to a party that behaved in that way," she says. "So I quit. I'm not a member of any party any more."

Although in May 2008 she was happy for the Islington Tribune to refer to her as a former Labour Councilor without the claim she had left the party in disgust.

Either way, I think we can stop claiming that she is some kind of independent charity figure concerned about the actual effects of policy and not just ideologically opposed to cuts.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cutting 10,000 police officers simply isn’t possible.

Today Labour have said that the 10,000 police jobs predicted to be cut as a result of a reduction in police funding (to levels of roughly a few years ago) are just the start.

The impression given by the Labour party and indeed from Police Authorities and of course ACPO and the Police Federation is that Police Forces across the country will be wielding the axe and thousands of Police Officers will be made compulsorily redundant.Except they won’t, because you can’t make a Police Officer redundant. Why? because they aren’t actually employed by anyone. Past their 2 year probation period, and unless they carry out gross misconduct, an officer’s career will simply continue until they retire which is roughly 30 years later.

The only option left open to Police Forces is regulation that enables them to compulsory retire individuals who have 30 years service, to ask people to take voluntary retirement (often on full pension as a sweetener) or to force individuals who have become disabled in the line of duty to retire. Making redundancies simply isn’t an option.

Now I may be wrong, and I’m not sure about the demographics of the Police Force, but something tells me that there aren’t going to be 10,000 of them who are already working past retirement age and so can be compulsorily retired, let alone more than 10,000.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Good MPs have nothing to fear from NHS Reforms

Benedict Brogan has posted a piece to his blog reminding us of one parliament Labour MP David Lock. Mr Lock, Brogan reminds us, was elected in the Labour landslide of 1997 and after supporting changes to Accident and Emergency services at his local hospital in Kidderminster found that he lost the next election to a local GP stood who won 60% of the vote.

Brogan suggests that many Tory MPs who have been around since the heady days of ‘97 are eyeing the Health reforms with concern and worrying that they’ll be in his words “Kidderminstered”.

Personally I think that’s rubbish. The only MPs who have anything to fear from any controversial proposal are those that are lazy and no good at the job of being a modern MP. Oh and those that are more interested in protecting their jobs by opportunism than doing what is right.

For a start the situation isn’t the same. Mr Lock was defeated by a GP, seeing as we’re putting GPs in charge of the health budgets and it will be their decision whether to use a hospital or not, I’d like to see one stand on a platform of this hospital closed because you put the likes of me in charge. If anything Lock’s experience proves why we are right to put GPs in charge of commissioning, the public believes that they know what they are doing (despite the attempted lobbying of the press of NHS managers and unions to the contrary) and trusts GPs more than it trusts either politicians or faceless NHS managers.

Also this argument that Brogan puts forward that price competition will definitely squeeze out smaller hospitals simply isn’t true. If they’re well run and concentrate on specific areas then local hospitals won’t be squeezed out. As an example locally we have a super hospital in Coventry (UHCW) which is under an enormous PFI contract, and a smaller hospital at Warwick, then there are tiny local hospitals like the Ellen Badger in Shipston. UHCW has been squeezing the PCT for every penny it’s got to cover its costs, whilst Warwick offers A&E and general surgery as well as concentrating on some specific areas and is seen as one of the best in certain areas such as ophthalmology and cancer treatment. If anything I’d put my money on Warwick offering better prices than UCHW as it doesn’t have the same ridiculous overheads. In fact as most mega hospitals were built under PFI, if anything, price competition will risk the under utilisation of larger hospitals not smaller ones. Whilst at the smallest local level GP consortium are desperate to take over the running of smaller local hospitals like the Ellen Badger as they feel they can manage them more effectively and understand their place in the community.

Then there’s the issue with lazy MPs and their attitude to issues in their constituencies. If there’s a perception that something is going wrong in your constituency then it’s your job as the MP to find out about, react to it, and try to influence people to resolve it. This could be either way, if the public are misinformed or confused about government policy and the reasons behind it, then it’s your job to help inform them and change their mind, if the organisation in question (in this case the GPs) seem to be making the wrong decision then within the realms of letting them get on with their jobs, it’s your job to make sure they know. If you wait until an election time to go and try to convince them your party’s views are right then you’re toast.

Unfortunately I think too few MPs see this as their job. MPs of the old school, who have been around for a long time seem significantly less likely to have a constituency office to keep them in touch with what’s going on back where they were elected, and less likely to deal with local issues. I’m also constantly shocked by how few staff older MPs have. I constantly meet MPs who have been around for ages who have one member of staff. By comparison we have 3 and take in work experience students as well, but despite this barely keep on top of our member’s workload and particularly their correspondence from constituents. To only need one member of staff, your constituents have clearly given up trying to communicate with you and know it’s just not worth it. Now if there’s something controversial in your constituency, how likely do you think they’ll be to re-elect you on the basis of all the other good work you’ve done for them?

Then there are those MPs who are more worried about getting re-elected, or thanks to the boundary changes re-selected, than working for the good of their constituents or their country and so target their efforts at easy win opportunism rather than helping to explain government policy to the electorate. HS2 is a good example of that, it’s not going anywhere near my constituency, but I’ll oppose it because I’m getting letters on it and it might help my re-election or selection chances. The forestry consultation is an even worse examples with MPs playing both sides. Yesterday I watched Conservative MPs carefully craft lines in their speeches to fire “warning shots” at the government about a consultation that hasn’t even completed yet, that will play well in the local papers, whilst their overall speech and their final vote supported the government’s position.

So back to my point on NHS reforms, personally I think good MPs should have nothing to worry about, if they explain the reforms properly, the reasoning behind them and if they monitor what’s going on in their constituency and react to it then it shouldn’t be a problem. However if they’re lazy and more interested in looking out for themselves than their constituent and the country then they’re in trouble.

As an aside Brogan’s piece highlights the exact problem with the Comms of the NHS reforms, it’s become way too much of a process story. Every time it’s mentioned you get the process background i.e Lansley had a free reign for being quiet in the campaign, the PM wasn’t sure about his reforms, Oliver Letwin had to look at it, medical practioners aren’t sure, now MPs aren’t sure, instead of it being stories about the substance of the proposals.

It’s said that Coulson had become obsessed with the communication strategy of these reforms just before his departure, hence getting the communications maestro of the PM involved, and it’s no doubt at the top of the list for his replacement Craig Oliver. For what it’s worth my opinion is that we need to start talking about the largesse of PCTs again and the layers of management and staff within them to win the public over to the need for reform.

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