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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Government response to my Downing Street petition

The Government has published a response to my 2009 Downing Street Petition against Gordon Brown's cuts to Territorial Army (TA) training. The petition, which thousands of you signed, was part of a successful campaign against the cuts, on which the Labour Government eventually backed down. I welcome the Government's response, which says: "Territorial Army routine training was reviewed and savings were identified as part of an in-year savings package during the last financial year. All routine training has now been reinstated and training programmes have resumed. The Strategic Defence and Security review, published on 19 October, announced a 6-month review of the future structure and role of the Reserve Forces, to be led by General Sir Nick Houghton. That work will ensure that we make the most efficient use of their skills, experience and outstanding capabilities." I shall continue to monitor developments regarding the future of the TA.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Daily Mail on Lib Dem achievements in the CSR

The Daily Mail's website has listed lots of Lib Dem achievements in the CSR, in a column by Edward Heathcoat Amory. Who am I to argue with the Daily Mail? According to Mr Heathcoat Amory, we can thank the Lib Dems for the following CSR measures:
  • International Aid: A massive increase in funding for the Department for International Development, up from £7.9 billion to £11.4 billion over four years, an increase of 44 per cent in cash terms
  • Green Investment Bank: £1 billion in cash plus the proceeds of future asset sales to fund investment in offshore wind farms and other projects
  • Carbon Capture Storage: A £1 billion investment in a ‘carbon capture’ scheme, to take the carbon emissions from a power station and store them deep underground
  • Child Tax Credits: Available to families earning under £41,329 from April and under £23,275 from 2012, will go up by £30 in 2011 and £50 in 2012, at a cost of £560million a year by 2014
  • Sure Start: The Coalition has chosen to protect its budget in cash terms
  • Regional Growth Fund: A taxpayer-funded pot of cash, worth £1.4 billion over three years, with the aim of pumping money into areas of the country especially hard-hit by cutbacks in the size of the state
  • Childcare for two-year-olds: From 2013, disadvantaged two-year-olds will be entitled to 15 hours or more of childcare paid for by the taxpayer a week
  • National Scholarship Fund: Worth £150million a year by 2014, this will help pay for higher education for poorer children
  • Museum Charges: The Government is still funding free entry to museums in Britain.
This is a terrific list, demonstrating the influence exerted by Liberal Democrats within the Coalition Government. Would these things have happened if the Conservatives were governing without the Lib Dems? I have my doubts.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Could nobody be bothered to vote in Tower Hamlets?

I am deeply disappointed that Lutfur Rahman has been elected as the Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets. Sure, people can elect who they like, but only 25% of people bothered to vote at all, despite the huge publicity for this mayoral race, particularly in the local area itself. Well, to the 75% who could not be bothered to vote - don't now bother complaining about the outcome. If your new Mayor does things that are not to your liking, then - since you all chose not to vote, in such overwhelming numbers - you will only have yourselves to blame. What more, precisely, did Mr Rahman have to do to inspire people to go out and vote for any candidate who was not Mr Rahman? Churchill said that people get the politicians they deserve. To the apathetic burghers of Tower Hamlets, then, I say: "Congratulations. You've got Mr Rahman. And if you didn't bother to vote, then maybe you deserve him."

Newsnight report on Barnet Council

One of my favourite journalists, Michael Crick, went to speak to the Leader of Barnet Council for Newsnight (the bit on Barnet's about 30 minutes in). Having said that she would speak to Mr Crick, the Leader (and every other Conservative councillor) then refused to speak to him after all, leaving him stood waiting outside Hendon Town Hall. He wanted to speak to her because she had written a letter to a Conservative minister attacking the Coalition Government's Housing Benefit reforms. Having written this letter, I am surprised that she was then unwilling to defend it on Newsnight. If this is easybarnet, I'd hate to see difficultbarnet.

So Mr Crick then went to Barnet Council's Hendon Residents' Forum in search of a Conservative councillor, and he found one: John Hart, chairing the Forum in his best Terry-Thomas style. Actually, that's unfair - Terry-Thomas was funny. You may recall that I've previously described these meetings as being very badly run and this was no exception. A crowd of people shouting down the Chairman, including, as Mr Crick noted, some obvious Labour activists - among them my defeated Labour opponent, Hendon's former MP, Andrew Dismore. OK, so I personally didn't defeat Andrew Dismore, he was defeated by the Conservative Matthew Offord - who was not visibly present at the Forum, incidentally. Neither was I, but then I'm not Hendon's Member of Parliament, and he is.

I don't really blame Matthew if he had better things to do, in the Commons or in the constituency, then to attend a Hendon Residents' Forum, given how badly these Forums are run by the Conservative-controlled council. If you think the shouting was just for the TV cameras, then think again - it's always like this at these meetings. I have to ask Andrew Dismore, sat there grinning on Newsnight while shouting Labour activists bring the meeting to a standstill: do you really condone your colleagues' behaviour? Is this a constructive way for people to behave at a public meeting? When I last attended a Forum, two bright young consultant types (paid for with my Council Tax) came up and asked me if I had any good ideas for improving how they are run. Has anything come of their research? Beyond this bit of fluff, has anybody actually done anything?

Actually, I wish that I had been there - then there would have been someone from Barnet who was prepared to defend Coalition Government policy on Newsnight, given local Conservatives' unwillingness to do so. Conservative voters in Barnet vote Conservative, I think, because they want low Council Tax, less red tape and prioritisation of front-line services. There might be some Conservatives who would deliver such things, but, sadly, it appears that few, if any, of them have been elected to Barnet Council. Barnet's Conservative Administration is deeply unConservative, as evidenced by the Leader's attacks on the policies of the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition Government.

Yet more nonsense talked about banks

Thursday's Question Time was full of people saying that it is outrageous that the Government's proposed bank levy will "only" raise £2.5 billion. Now, I support the bank levy, and £2.5 billion strikes me as being quite a lot of money, really. As President Reagan put it, "a billion here, a billion there - sooner or later it all adds up to real money". Actually, Reagan made that joke about millions, not billions, but that's inflation for you. OK, as a supporter of the Coalition and its debt-reduction efforts, I want the banks to pay their fair share. So, how about, not £2.5 billion, but £26 billion? Yes, £26 billion - that being the amount that the banking industry paid in tax in this country last year. So, please, can people stop suggesting that the £2.5 billion bank levy is somehow the only tax paid by banks? But, people say (cue applause on Question Time): "We must tax the bonuses." But bonuses are already taxable. People (be they bankers or anyone else) pay the same tax on their bonuses as they pay on all of their other income. I have sometimes been paid an annual bonus (not by a bank, as I've never worked for one) of a few hundred pounds and it counted towards my taxable income, just like my normal salary did. So when people say that bankers will be paid £7 billion in bonuses, that money will be taxed and so will bring in some revenue for the Government. And yes, we need to crack down on banks' tax avoidance - so it's good that the Government is compelling the banks to sign up to the Banking Code by the end of next month.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

It's all a question of priorities

I was just discussing the Spending Review with some Lib Dem friends, and one thing that came up is local government. It has to be said: there are many things that local councils do that are nice to do, but don't need to be done - and those are the things that can be cut now. To be frank, some of those things were things that the public never necessarily wanted done in the first place - not that they were ever really asked, in some cases, although they were paying for it all with their Council Tax, one of the least progressive taxes imaginable.

One Labour council organised a Sustainability Day on a Saturday morning, with a lavish buffet lunch afterwards - perish the thought that people might have left the event at lunchtime and made their own arrangements for lunch. It turns out that there is such a thing as a free lunch after all. I attended the event as I was then working for Thames Water, and I was more than happy to be there, but - nobody else was really there, apart from a few, well-off, well-educated, older people from the better-off bit of the borough. There was a video message from the borough's Labour MP (no mention of the borough's other MP, of course, because she's not Labour). The main guest speaker was a well-established broadcaster, whose fee to attend may well have been thousands - at the expense of local Council Taxpayers.

And what was achieved? Very little. Just a desultory discussion about sustainability, mostly focused on issues that the Council has no control over anyway, followed by that very nice free lunch. Sorry, but this was a waste of time and money - I don't resent going, for work, but I do resent a council having a whole department to do things like this at local people's expense, and then claiming that it does not have enough money to pay for crucial frontline services! It's all a question of what you choose to spend the money on. So, although the impact of the CSR on local government will be tough, I can think of lots of things, at lots of councils, that could be stopped tomorrow - because they are nice to have, but don't really add value in this time of national debt reduction.

Meanwhile, Danny Alexander, the (Lib Dem) Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has emailed Lib Dem supporters about the CSR and I thought people might find this interesting, so here is what he wrote:

When we came into office, we inherited an economy that was on the brink. With the largest budget deficit in Europe and no plan for tackling it, Britain faced huge economic risks. These could only be dealt with by a clear plan to deal rapidly with the worst financial position this country has faced for generations.

On Wednesday, we set out that plan. And while the scale and pace of the action we need to take is unavoidable, we can choose how we do it. The Spending Review sets out those choices: to spread the burden fairly, to promote economic growth, and to invest in the life chances of our children. These are hard choices that affect millions of people, but they are the right choices to set our country back on the road to prosperity.

We have spread the burden fairly by protecting the key services that the most vulnerable in our society rely on. Social Care has been given a funding boost worth £2bn, the NHS and schools have been protected and our plans for social housing will deliver up to 150,000 new affordable homes.

We have promoted future fairness through a £7 billion ‘fairness premium’ that will support improving the life chances of our poorest children from their first pair of shoes to their first pay packet.

We have promoted future growth by giving the go ahead to key transport projects that will unlock economic potential in every part of the country. We have also delivered on a Green Investment Bank that will kick start green investment and generate jobs.

And we are pushing forward with radical reform. Our decentralisation agenda will reduce the number of central government grants from 90 to fewer than 10. With the exception of schools and public health, ring-fences on council spending will disappear, giving local authorities much greater flexibility. We will deliver welfare reforms that simplify the system and make work pay. And our criminal justice reforms will roll out the community justice programmes that were pioneered by Liberal Democrats in local government.

Yes, it’s going to be tough, and everyone will make a contribution, but those with the broadest shoulders will bear the biggest burden. That’s why we’ve reduced taxes for the low paid, and increased them for the richest. It’s why we introduced a banking levy – and we’ve made it our aim to extract the maximum sustainable tax revenues from the banks that got us into this mess.

The worst thing to do would be to burden future generations with the debts that Labour left us. We have made the tougher choice, no doubt, but we should be proud of the way we have taken responsibility and we have done the right thing.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

A Spending Review shot through with Lib Dem values

I just watched the Chancellor deliver the Comprehensive Spending Review (yes, I watched the whole thing, as well as the Shadow Chancellor's response - I recommend everyone to hear or read all of George Osborne's statement, if they want to have a full understanding of it). I must say that I strongly endorse the approach that he has taken. Why would I not support a Spending Review that includes, among other good things:
  • Structural deficit to be eliminated by 2015
  • NHS budget protected; £2bn extra for social care
  • Schools budget to rise every year until 2015
  • £30bn capital spending on transport
  • Permanent bank levy

Apocalypse not now?

As a non-economist, I found this piece by Stephanie Flanders very useful indeed. I heartly recommend it - read it and then keep it at the back of your mind as discussion rages about the impact of today's Comprehensive Spending Review, which the Chancellor will be delivering within the hour.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Finkler Question

I do appreciate that the Booker Prize is not an election. It is not a contest in which one takes sides, cheering the winner and deprecating the losers. My delight at The Finkler Question's winning is not based only on its being a superb book, although it is that. No, what astonishes me is not only that the British Left's contemporary debate on Israel/Palestine can form the backbone of a truly great literary novel, but also that the novel in question could then win the Booker. The Finkler Question is a deeply significant view of life in this country today, as well as being both very funny and deeply moving. That the Booker judges 'get it' is enormously encouraging.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Lord Fowler's wise words on Murdoch's Sky bid

The senior Conservative peer Lord Fowler has written this commendable article in today's Guardian, about News Corp's bid for full control of BSkyB. This bid really matters, which is why I am pleased that it will cross the desk of a Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, Vince Cable. It's only because of the Coalition Agreement that a Liberal Democrat like Vince Cable is the Cabinet Minister handling matters such as this, and that's another reason for my supporting the coalition. The coalition is not just about long-term policy; it's also about ministers' decisions on the papers that they find in their Red Box each day. It is in making those decisions, large and small, that Liberal Democrat ministers will make much of their impact in the coming months and years. For more on the Sky bid, I was interested to read this piece in The Observer by Will Hutton.

PS on Wednesday 22 December 2010: This matter appears to have crossed Vince Cable's desk with greater rapidity than might have been anticipated. It has now landed on the desk of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. I hope that Mr Hunt will refer the bid to the relevant competition authorities; his decision whether or not to do that will be made on the basis of much legal and technical advice to which I will clearly not be privy - the decision is his, to be made impartially.