Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Shooting from the lip: another day, another dodgy Conservative policy

I have, in the past, commented on the weakness of Conservative Party policy making. Putting aside for the moment their tendency to deal in gut reaction responses to often quite difficult problems, the suggestion that, were they to be in government alone, they would be minded to remove the right to housing benefit for those under the age of twenty-five, is a sign that their instincts remain suspect.

It often appears with Conservative policy that it is made by, and for, the upper classes, and the notion that people don't live orderly lives out of Conservative Party central casting appears beyond their comprehension. It is almost as though someone has a bright idea, it is examined by a group of similar people through the prism of their own life experience, and then broadcast without any concept that the real world isn't like that.

In the world of Conservative policy making, everybody comes from a nuclear family, where mummy and daddy have a spare bedroom for each of their children, where family life is sepia-tinted, and where domestic violence, poverty and unemployment don't exist.

So, from that perspective, the suggestion that housing benefit might be withdrawn from the under 25's makes perfect sense. After all, in such a scenario, nobody gets hurt, and the State is freed from the burden of supporting a group of people who actually have somewhere safe and cheap to go to.

I won't tear this policy to pieces - too many other people have done so already for me to add much - but, once again, it demonstrates the advantage of a more robust policy making structure, the like of which Liberal Democrats still cling precariously to. And it is noticeable that, where Liberal Democrat Ministers have gotten into trouble, it tends to be when they have gone 'off piste' on a matter of policy.

However, as an attempt at differentiation, I have to admit that it has worked. There can be no doubt now, although the Left will doubtless continue to muddy the waters, that the Conservatives would make far more painful cuts than anything the Coalition is doing, given the opportunity. And given that the cuts are pretty painful as it is, it perhaps does put the cries of Liberal Democrat betrayal into perspective...

Monday, June 25, 2012

David Laws and the (unnecessary) target culture

I was not entirely surprised to hear that David Laws believes that public spending should represent about 35% of GDP. The fact that Danny Alexander then responded by suggesting that 40% would perhaps be more appropriate merely indicates that Liberal Democrats disagree amongst themselves as to the optimum size of the State. And, whilst I am more likely to be on Danny's side of any debate on the question, I do find myself wondering whether or not David has missed the point.

For it is not the amount of money spent that should be the starting point for the debate, it is a question of what we, the people, believe that government is for. And part of that debate is, are we willing to pay the price for what we want?

It is a debate which has gone unargued for too long, almost entirely because it is an increasingly difficult one. At one end, the focus is on maintaining a welfare state that was never designed to cope with the burdens now placed upon it, one that presumed jobs for most, if not all, one that presumed that most people would be pensioners for relatively short periods. This has led to the creation of a 'client state', reliant on the State for sustenance, as a level of poverty which would have been described as luxury by our grandparents (certainly so in the case of mine). At the other, an assumption that all of those on benefits should just "get off their backsides and find a job", that the State should not play a role in providing a wide range of services, and that tax is something to be minimised using whatever means possible.

Of course, life is more complex than that. Many of us have concluded that the prospect of the poor living on the streets demeans us as a society, we believe that our nation should play a part in making the world a better place, both environmentally and socially. All of this comes with a price tag. We believe that libraries are part of a civilised society, that the elderly should be protected and allowed to live with dignity, that people should not be excluded from opportunity just because they are poor, or disabled, or simply 'not like us'. And that costs too.

So, instead of setting an entirely arbitrary target, perhaps David Laws ought to consider this bigger, more complex question. Because government should be like Goldilocks and the porridge, neither too big nor too small, but just right...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What happened to the Communist Party of Great Britain's millions? Stop me and ask...

It would appear that my guilty past has caught up with me, in that I am a fellow traveller with the Communists.

Yes, you read correctly. For years now, I have been part of a secret team responsible for the management and direction of the resources of the former Communist Party of Great Britain, in the hope that one day, a Stalinist regime will come to power, and this country will become a beacon for wistful Communists everywhere. Naturally, as a bureaucrat, I'm not responsible for the delivery of the political element of our programme for power, but I'm sure that those who are are doing the best that they can.

And now, we have been exposed by the BBC. Again. Actually, it hasn't been a secret for rather a long time, in that a minor amount of research will uncover the truth for anyone that can be bothered.

Somewhat unexpectedly, it turns out that the Communist Party of Great Britain held a property portfolio (well, you have to have a headquarters) and, when it gave up the ghost after the fall of the Soviet Union, the members decided to transfer the assets to an organisation called 'Democratic Left', which was a leftist campaigning group. Unfortunately, its membership gradually faded away until the point where the remaining members decided to reform the organisation as a campaigning thinktank for democratic reform. This became the New Politics Network and, some time later, I joined it.

By then, it wasn't very communist - if it had, I'd have been the victim of a short, relatively bloody, show trial - and I became a bit more active. But to cut a long story short, the organisation eventually merged with Charter '88 to become 'Unlock Democracy', an organisation of which I am a Management Board member, and through that, a director of Rodell Properties Ltd, the holding company for the property portfolio.

So, there you have it, I admit, I control the 'Moscow Gold'. Except, of course, there isn't any, for as my fellow director points out, that was spent long ago. And, indeed, I'm standing down as a director very shortly, with my replacement being elected from the membership of 'Unlock Democracy'. I'm not expecting to be removed from photographs, nor am I expecting candidates to be killed with ice-picks.

It's just not like it was in the old days...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Immigration: doesn't matter, red or blue, neither of them has a clue...

Today's suggestion that only those with a certain level of income may marry non-EU nationals and bring them to this country is yet another sorry product of an initially stupid policy.

But first, a declaration of interest. I am, as noted in the past, the son of a non-EU migrant to this country who, in truth, has done more for it than most, and I then married a non-EU citizen (less said about that the better). So, perhaps, I'm better qualified than most to comment on the sheer inadequacy of the debate.

The Conservative policy of reducing net migration below a set figure was always going to be a hostage to fortune, given that emigration from the UK is beyond the control of government, as is migration from EU states. But, it was as popular as it was intellectually bankrupt, and given the damage wreaked by the media on the only major party daring to propose something workable, it ended up as the only show in town, with Labour equally adept at pandering to the mob.

There was a catch, however, as there tends to be when you substitute populism for policy, in that, having 'won' the election, they were expected to implement their proposal. And since then, we have seen a series of damaging, short-sighted ideas designed to achieve a futile goal at great expense.

Students coming to this country to study count in the migration figures, so making it harder for them to come was an obvious 'easy win'. And yes, greater scrutiny of fake educational institutions was an obvious step. However, making it much harder for genuine students to get visas has successfully reduced income for our universities as potential students go to the US, Canada and Australia. And given that a university such as University of East Anglia has a turnover of £200 million per annum, employs thousands and supports thousands more, that makes a big difference in economic terms. And as for the loss of influence when they return to their emerging markets...

And now we want to punish people for falling in love - whilst on the other hand saying how much we believe in the nuclear family (is that one that occasionally goes bang, leaving a devastated wasteland behind it?).

Yes, it may address some abuse, although 25,000 people is probably over-optimistic in terms of impact, and wildly exaggerated in terms of the level of abuse, but, as Chris Bryant notes, it does rather suggest that you need a degree of wealth to marry a foreigner. However, that's as far as his argument goes before he becomes equally wrong.

If the financial income mark is set at £20,000, that isn't rich, not by anyone's standards. And then, having set the wealth bar ludicrously low, he suggests that those wanting to bring a non-EU spouse into the United Kingdom should post a bond. And where, pray tell, would those on relatively low incomes find the money for that bond? Only those with decent incomes, or with savings, would be able to do so, and I find myself wondering how that enables Mr Bryant's 'poor people' to marry as they choose?

You could, if you are (** IRONY ALERT **) really worried about those ghastly foreigners coming over here and scrounging off of our oh so generous benefits system, set a qualifying period during which benefits cannot be claimed, which would at least remove the initial hurdle. It would risk unfairness, as bad luck can impact upon any of us at any time (and isn't that, in part, what a welfare state is intended for?), but it would at least remove the initial barrier.

But, with the Conservatives hoist by their own petard, Labour blind to anything but narrow, short-term political advantage, and the Liberal Democrats in fear of being right but providing another stick for the media to beat them with, I can see only too clearly where this is going...

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Jubilicious: thoughts on sixty glorious years

I'm not hugely fussed about the monarchy, I have to admit. I'm not hostile to the idea of a hereditary Head of State, especially as the job comes with precious little actual power. But it clearly means something to others, as demonstrated by Sunday's river pageant.

I was lucky enough to have a really good vantage point, courtesy of friends, on the elbow of a curve of the river with views from Battersea Bridge to Vauxhall Bridge, and in front of us, hundreds of people were crammed onto a narrow strip of the Thames Path, waiting for the boats to pass. And despite the rain and the cold, there was real enthusiasm, much flag waving and as much good humour.

When the Royal Barge arrived, the crowd were delighted, and it reminds me that, despite that strand of intellectualism that derides the idea of monarchy, of pomp and of circumstances, most people like the Queen, are quietly fond of her, and aren't wildly enthused by the more egalitarian alternatives to a constitutional monarchy.

It is, if you like, a reminder that we are a nation that prefers gradual change to revolution, a point which could be usefully absorbed by a few politicians I could name.

I don't know whether or not our affection will be transferred to any successor, but the monarchy remains a reassuring constant in an unstable world, and that's probably a good thing.

So, best wishes, Your Majesty and good health. You're an utter professional and you've served your nation faithfully and well...

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Cybernat challenge no. 1: public sector employment

The other day, I wrote a gentle piece about Scottish independence, focusing on some of the issues which should impact on any decision that Scots might make when voting in a referendum on the subject. My dear friend, and fellow Liberal Democrat Voice day editor, Caron Lindsay, very kindly tweeted that my words might be of interest and, indeed, I did trigger a response from a pro-independence campaigner, who challenged my suggestion that Scotland is perceived to have disproportionately high levels of public sector employment.

I'll be honest, trying to challenge the existence of a perception is pretty brave, especially when the perception is suggested by a formerly London-based civil servant whose department transferred all of South West London's corporation tax administration from Twickenham to Dundee (that would be in Scotland, as I recall...).

But, perhaps one should look at the facts...

Here are the numbers for public sector employment as a proportion of total workforce;
  1. Northern Ireland  27.9% 
  2. Wales 25.8%
  3. North East 24.6%
  4. Scotland 23.8%
  5. Yorkshire and the Humber 22.4%
  6. North West 21.8%
  7. West Midlands 20.7%
  8. South West 19.8%
  9. East Midlands 19.2%
  10. London 18.3%
  11. South East 17.2%
  12. East of England 17.0%

That compares with 20.6% for the United Kingdom, 20.2% for Great Britain and 19.6% for England.

At the end of the fourth quarter of 2011, Scotland had 587,000 public sector jobs, i.e. 79,000 more than it would have if it had United Kingdom levels of public sector employment, 89,000 if it had Great Britain levels of public sector employment, and more than 103,000 if it had English levels of public sector employment. For the record, as an East of England based civil servant these days, Scotland would have nearly 168,000 less public sector workers if the proportion of public sector workers was similar to that in this region.

Now, all of those numbers are significant, some more than others (I would suggest that the comparison with the East of England merely demonstrates how hard done by our region is).

So, what might cause this? Here are some suggestions;

  • large rural areas to be served - this may require greater staffing numbers
  • greater levels of deprivation - these generate significant number of social support staff
  • transfers of central government work - successive governments have transferred jobs from the wealthier South East of England to the North, to Scotland and to Wales
Now, the third likely factor is a obvious problem, as a 'rump' United Kingdom would clearly want to repatriate these jobs. Yes, a new Scottish Government would need to set up new structures, allowing some affected staff an escape, but the likelihood is that the net effect would be necessary.

As for the other two, the question would be, can a new Scottish Government raise the funds to retain a relatively high level of State provision, and would it use taxation as the means to do so. Or, would it choose not to do so, allowing public sector employment to decline? Alternatively, might economic growth be relied upon to solve the problem over time? You could use oil revenues to pay the bills, but that income stream is probably finite, merely postponing the judgment day.

In summary, public sector employment should be a major issue in any referendum campaign and the linkage to likely levels of State provision will impact on a sizable minority of the population. So far, the only response has been to rather hope that, by denying it, it will go away. It won't...

Saturday, June 02, 2012

From home to school, from school to Court... (part two)

Even the newer, redbrick universities have their traditions, and our next stop was the University of East Anglia, for University Court 2012.

This wasn't an 'official visit', although the event is an opportunity for the 'great and the good' of Norfolk and Suffolk to mingle with the academic establishment. However, both Ros and I did our degrees there, and so we were amongst the relatively small group of alumni present.

The event is formally intended to hear the financial report and to receive a presentation on the work of the University over the past year, and I have to admit that I was quite impressed by the prudent approach taken to financial management and planning.

UEA now has an annual turnover in excess of £200 million, and has generated a surplus in recent years. They are generally rather conservative in terms of risk analysis, and outturns tend to be better than budgeted figures.

There followed three presentations, one from the new Director of the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, one from the Head of Chemical Sciences and the last from a group of history students producing an oral history of the University - UEA celebrates fifty years of its opening next year.

Afterwards, there was mingling over drinks and canapes in the Sainsbury Centre. The exhibition was open for viewing, and so we took the opportunity to browse the exhibit on Japanese Manga and animation - worth a look if you're in the Norwich area. We did appear to be in a very small minority, perhaps because the free drinks were very sensibly kept away from the exhibitions, but it did seem a pity.

It was a good event though, and reassuring for alumni like ourselves that the old alma mater is in good hands. And, if the dates suit, we'll be back next year, for the fiftieth birthday celebrations.

From home to school, from school to Court... (part one)

It was an interesting day yesterday, in ways that one might not expect, especially north of the Waveney.

Having taken the day off, we drove up to Norwich, where Ros was scheduled to take part in the Lords outreach programme (you didn't know about it?), in a visit to Notre Dame High School, right in the heart of the city. I'd not been to one of these before, so I was intrigued to see how such visits worked.

As we made our way up the A140, I read the briefing notes provided by the Outreach Office and noted that our host was Antony Little. That rang a bell in the recesses of my memory and so I checked. And lo, my suspicions were right, it was indeed Simon Wright's Conservative 2010 General Election opponent in Norwich South, and a now rather more erratic blogger than once he was. Interesting, I thought...

We found the school easily enough, and had time for tea with the headmaster and Antony, who is Head of Politics, before meeting the students.

Ros started with a PowerPoint presentation about the Lords. It's a bit heavy, and a mite ponderous for a group of eleven to fourteen years old, and Ros skated through it to an extent before opening the floor to questions. The students seemed a mite stunned by all of the information at first but, as questions came, and Ros answered them, the trickle became a flood, and the room became a forest of raised hands seeking their chance to ask a question.

And some very good questions they were too. Immigration, Scottish independence, tuition fees, all of them answered without spin and without too much simplification.

Ros does enjoy these opportunities, and there are plenty of schools who want a visit. In the East of England, however, there aren't as many Peers available to do them, as the ex-MPs are, I suspect, a bit too grand to do them, and many of the others are either too old, or too busy with other things.

And one other thing that I have noted is that the invitations tend to come from fee-paying schools or from highly aspirational State schools. Is that a sign that, as in so many things, low aspiration denies opportunity? I don't know, but I can't help but feel that if you are serious about improving social mobility, the aspirations of schools have to be raised too, as a means of enhancing the aspirations of the pupils in them.

But, all in all, it was an entertaining afternoon and I was sorry that it had to come to an end. Our day was not over though...

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Compensation Service: not good at compliance, do not trust?

I'm at home today, for a while at least, and so my morning is filled with the usual pottering about activities, catching up on e-mail, drinking tea. Actually, put like that, it sounds a bit like my office, but with a more relaxed dress code.

However, there is one more, rather less enjoyable aspect to it, the regular calls from claims management companies. Today's was a bit more fun than usual though. The phone rings, and the usual breathless message telling me that various banks and financial institutions have missold PPI follows when I pick it up. I am invited to 'press 5 to talk to an advisor', so I do, and am asked by a youngish sounding woman what sort of claim I might be making. I note that I'm not, but that she appears to be in breach of the Code of Conduct for Claims Management Companies. She hangs up, leaving a presumption of guilt hanging over her.

So, I'll assume that her organisation are guilty then.

And, because I'm a community-minded sort of person, I'll note that she was calling from 'The Compensation Service', apparently based in Hull.

No need to thank me...

U-turn? It's probably all about doubt and uncertainty...

I was intrigued by Nick Clegg's response to accusations from the Labour Party (and others) of a series of U-turns - 32, according to Labour. His suggestion that people might appreciate a Government that listens to concerns and responds with compromise appears to have been found to be a weak and ineffectual sounding one.

Which is odd really, because it implies that Governments should just do things and see whether they work or not, rather than listen to alternate views. Or, perhaps, Labour don't want to waste time coming up with suggestions of their own.

And I admit that the Coalition has been rather slow to grasp real negotiation, proper pre-legislative scrutiny, or inclusive consultation. For the most part, the Government has introduced a Bill, run into a hail of abuse and informed comment, and then realised that they might need to rethink.

That matters, because it leads to poor governance and worse administration.

On the other hand, where they have sought to float an idea, the general response by the Opposition and pressure groups has been to put the worst possible spin on the idea and condemn the Coalition as intending to drive people in poverty/pave the countryside with concrete/put our troops in danger etc. etc. As debate goes, it really does represent the lowest common denominator.

And that matters too, because our country has some very difficult issues to address. Social care, private and public pension provision, taxation and defence are just four issues that are going to involve much discomfort in the coming decades but, given the quality of much political debate, are more likely to be put into a box marked 'too difficult/electorally suicidal'.

Good policy is designed collaboratively, taking into account a range of data, assessing the potential consequences, direct or otherwise and inviting the views of experts in the field. But it also requires some space and at least a partial suspension of the usual levels of cynicism, because genuine consultation requires both sides to meet somewhere at least within sight of halfway.

It would, if attempted, represent a new politics, a less tarnished, more credible model for government, and would offer an interesting dilemma for our Great British media.

It might also offer a means for the Coalition to regain some of the credibility frittered away over the past weeks. It isn't an easy fix but, let's be honest, so-called easy fixes have rather got it where it is now...