Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Loose Cable?

So the Sage of Twickenham is as mortal as other men - a couple of young ladies simpered their way into recording Vince talking up his latent power and his ability to bring down a government with a single stroke of his resignation.

We can argue about whether stalking LibDems to get their real opinions of the coalition is really worth such subterfuge - it hardly qualifies as serious crime, regrettable as their alliance with the Dark Side may be. I know that I have had private conversations with political opponents which would make uncomfortable reading for them and their parties, but I wouldn't dream of revealing them, still less of recording them, without their permission. It may inform my writing, but I prefer to work with public statements of policy - I do actually grasp the concept of collective responsibility. Vince should certainly have checked that these two were constituents of his - the electoral roll is available to confirm that fact - rather than just showing off his political virility. On the other hand, Labour can be grateful to Vince for letting slip Tory plots to cut back on the winter fuel allowance - any cut to that will cost lives amongst the fuel poor, a category that includes a lot of elderly people. But that is for another day...

I'd question whether Cable still has the capacity to bring the government down by resigning. Certainly, he provides a measure of gravitas and credibility to Clegg and Co - his performance during the banking crisis gained him widespread respect and his knowledge is certainly excellent, but that is a dwindling credit. As Clegg, Alexander and the rest of the Liberal Democrat ministerial team become more confident in their own abilities, the need for a credible elder statesman decreases. Indeed, one may question how much credibility actually remains, given that Cable has reversed course on the scale and timing of the cuts, has supported a VAT rise that he had previously campaigned against and has, most shamefully, led the imposition of higher tuition fees against a very specific pledge that he signed. Does he have any principles left that would justify resignation after that?

Surely, if he had refused to implement the increase and resigned, he would have emerged far more powerfully as a force on the backbenches, sitting beside Charlie Kennedy and Ming Campbell, glaring disapprovingly at the young whippersnappers playing at being in government. But he didn't and today's events have left him a dead man walking as well as raising serious questions about his judgement.

The Telegraph knew that the revelations about Murdoch and Sky were dynamite and that is almost certainly why that part of the story was spiked. In common with other elected offices, there are times when a secretary of state has to act in a quasi-judicial role, where a matter has to be decided on the facts as presented and not on the basis of prejudices and preconceptions. In
Local government, planning or licencing matters are typically regarded in this manner. Failure to adhere to those principles will lay any decision open to judicial review and this is precisely what has happened to Cable, who has been comprehensively outplayed by the journalists and whoever passed the full tape to Robert Peston - shrewdly giving it to the BBC and not to Sky News.

The clear winner, of course, is Rupert Murdoch, who can now rely on the suitably pliable (and anti-BBC) Jeremy Hunt to nod through the Newscorp takeover of Sky.

The losers are manifold. Clegg looks weaker for feeling that he has to hang onto a wounded beast like Cable. Cameron doesn't come out of it well - he hasn't shown the steel needed to demand Cable's head on a plate, prederig to vacillate and delay rather than take a firn decision - dithering being an accusation levelled against Brown by the Tories. Cameron will also have longer term problems ahead - his treatment of Cable has not gone unnoticed by his own party and the view there is clearly that if this had been a Tory minister, then the decision would have been different. That is the kind if discontent that builds and broods - insignificant now, but continued fuelling of that discontent will eventually cause serious party problems for the Tories. There have been rumours of further entrapments of other Lib Dems and certainly any more revelations from Cable would force his immediate resignation. The only bright side for Clegg and Cameron is that Cable has effectively neutralised himself as a future focus for opposition.

And what of Vince? I think that this reprieve is merely temporary and once David Laws completes his spell in exile - assuming the investigation into his expenses is squared away - he can expect a return to ministerial office, which will necessitate a reshuffling of the Lib Dem ministerial pack and I would expect Cable to be dumped before Spring as part of a general - although not seismic - reshuffle, thus ensuring that he is denied the opportunity to find a point of principle which is worth his symbolic martyrdom by resignation. He has served his purpose as a lightning rod and has exhausted his credibility with the nation over the tuition fees debacle. His egotistical dream of going down in a blaze of glory looks like vain posturing in the cold light of day and seems destined never to become reality.

Strange really - the only person who has gained anything today is someone who didn't even figure
In the original story - Rupert Murdoch. Even the Telegraph have lost out, because while the original story fed their anti-coalition agenda, the upshot has been to damage their commercial interests in taming Newscorp.

Funny old world, isn't it?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The NIMBY's Charter for Chaos

Perhaps Eric Pickles genuinely believes that empowering small communities to decide on their local development plans will lead to a blooming of housing proposals from the grassroots to help resolve the national housing crisis. But that would make him a very stupid man indeed - and I don't think he is.

Jeremy Cahill, a specialist planning lawyer from Birmingham's No 5 chambers, explodes this little gem of hope

In my twenty-five years experience in handling planning matters, I have only experienced one occasion when a proposal for new housing either promoted at appeal or through the development plan process has been welcomed by local people
Grant Shapps even has the nerve to support these proposals, when he is tasked with resolving the housing crisis - even though the development proposals within the Bill are likely to prove a significant obstacle to the building of new homes on the scale required, particularly social housing. Paul Smith in the Guardian writes
...there is one group of people largely overlooked by the new bill, those desperate to get their first foot on the property ladder or hoping to rent from a social landlord. Localism cannot wish away the need for more homes in this country. According to the National Housing Federation, the average English house price is 10.3 times the average income and over 4 million people are registered on council waiting lists. Government figures are now showing homelessness on the rise. These people are also angry and frustrated but they are not organised, don't march through the streets or lobby council meetings as the anti-development groups do. Their voice is not heard in the government and the localism bill will not provide them with the homes they desperately need.

You have to question whether a neighbourhood forum or a parish council has the necessary skillset to assemble a credible and legally defensible development plan - especially as a forum could consist of as a few as three people. As Left Foot Forward's Eleanor Besley points out, the legislation does not provide for any funding for these groups and it leaves their constitution wide open

Those communities higher in social capital will undoubtedly be first in line to set up a neighbourhood plan. Additionally the Bill welcomes commercial participation on forums; indeed it could be argued that a forum entirely made-up of commercial interests would be considered legitimate. As such, communities lower in social capital would become increasingly vulnerable to the impact and will of commercial interests in their area. Add to this the fact that local authorities are due to receive £20,000 for every plan which they adopt (after a lengthy process including a referendum). The cynics among us may be able to see how big business could influence the process as much as they could the actual planning arrangements.
It does not take a great leap of imagination to realise that those communities with the inbuilt wherewithal to organise will create development plans that may allow a limited amount of new build housing, but only that which is designed to attract the right sort of people. Affordable or social housing is unlikely to be top of their agenda - much as we might hope that they will take a broader view of housing needs. Whether the temptations of incentivised council tax will be sufficient for the Big Society to prove genuinely inclusive remains to be seen, but the evidence to date isn't encouraging. Indeed, these incentives will actually encourage the building of homes liable to larger council tax. Top down targets may prove unpopular at a local level, but they do recognise the need for housing at a level broader than just a neighbourhood. I'm all for greater local involvement in planning and for community agreement, but there will be a need for compromise on all sides for the good of society as a whole, not just one or two streets.

By the way, before the Tory and Lib Dem trolls start whinging about what Labour did over thirteen years, I'm the first to state that I don't think we did enough, that our failure to build sufficient social housing was a huge mistake on our part.

These development plans are even likely to impact on the development of renewable energy, as we can expect a raft of rural communities bringing in plans to exclude wind farms, such is the general anger when one of these is proposed in most localities.

Everything about this huge confection of a bill points towards a continuation of the 'creative destruction' theory espoused by former Tory candidate Danny Kruger - a proposal that saw him unceremoniously dumped as candidate from the unwinnable seat of Sedgefield in 2005, a local difficulty that hasn't stopped him from being a close advisor to Cameron. We've seen the start of this period of destruction in health and education and the localism bill sees it come to how your community is organised, as Nick Boles revealed in a flash of honesty
Do you believe planning works? That clever people sitting in a room can plan how people's communities should develop, or do you believe it can't work? I believe it can't work, David Cameron believes it can't, Nick Clegg believes it can't. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.... Chaotic is what our cities are when we see how people live, where restaurants spring up, where they close, where people move to. Would you like to live in a world where you could predict any of that? I certainly wouldn't. So I want there to be chaotic in the sense I want lots of organisations doing different things, in different areas.
Be afraid - they mean this, no matter how much positive language they deploy to hide the truth.

Pickles and Shapps are doing the work of two men - Laurel & Hardy

They continually put forward the idea that all the savings at this massively high level can be made by increased efficiency, cuts in a small number of salaries, raiding reserves that are not needed. In fact almost every day we get from them a new gimmick. Their behaviour is a disgrace. Either they really do not know how serious the situation is that they have created... or they are deliberately trying to distract attention from the problems that they have created... We have made 3% real savings, verified by the Treasury, every year for the last eight years. We can make more, we should make more, we will make more. But are being led like lambs to the slaughter by Mr Pickles - local government are facing the biggest cuts in our budget of any part of the public sector and we are doing it up front. And while we are doing that, we have two ministers in particular - Mr Pickles and Mr Shapps - giving a very clear impression with a series of soundbites, which don't stand up to reality, which give the impression this is all easy.

On his blog, Richard wrote:

Old Eric was so keen to curry favour with Cameron that he was the first to settle. Treasury politicians and officials were, I understand, amazed at the way he rushed to settle and then realised what bad settlement he had made. Local Government which is, according to Cameron, the most efficient part of government took a bigger hit and more quickly than any other part of Government. As Laurel contemplated what he had done he did what he is best at – he went onto the attack to try and cover up for his gross incompetence....

...I am angry about the nonsense they are talking – behind the scenes leading Tory councillors are incensed but are afraid to speak out. The facts are simple. Either Pickles and Shapps do not understand what they are talking about which would mean they are a shambolic pair; or they are deliberately saying things which are incorrect in which case they are a disgrace to their office; or they don’t know what is being said in their name by a couple of boy scouts they employ as SPADs who have no experience of running anything anywhere at any time.

The Blame Game

Today is due to be the start of industrial action by Birmingham
City Council's binmen, a strike solely the responsibility of the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat administration that set a local trend in 2004 for what we see on a national scale today.

You will doubtless be aware of the pay and regrading and the Single Status processes carried out by the City Council over the past fee years. One of the outcomes of that was a regrading of the binmen's jobs that would have seen many of them lose thousands of pounds in wages - figures of £4000 have been regularly mentioned - and when this was proposed, the binmen objected and threatened to strike. The council decided at a very high level that while they could stomach strikes by some less visible council staff, electoral prospects would be damaged by rubbish piling up in the streets. Accordingly, a dodgy deal was worked out which effectively stuffed the dustmens' pockets with cash to stop the strike. Unfortunately, this then meant that thousands of other workers - predominantly women - in similarly-skilled jobs were being paid less, a situation that could not go unnoticed for long and was rapidly the subject of legal action. Despite advice from counsel that the agreement was unlawful and obviously discriminatory, the City Council pushed on until the action was duly lost - a waste of taxpayers' money if ever there was one - delaying the inevitable defeat and ensuing pay cuts.

That has now come to pass and the strike is the result. The council did offer negotiations, delaying strike action for a few weeks, but it appears that this offer was simply a tactic to delay matters, allowing casual staff to be recruited through local agencies to temporarily replace the binmen, at a cost - the health and safety personal protective kit and clothing has apparently cost £20,000 alone.

Money well spent?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mything the point

Sharper than the ice-cold wind, the council cuts landed on chief executive desks this week, amidst a predictable blast of spin from Chairman Eric, trying to encourage his minions to welcome his benevolence. Notably, of course, the figures were framed in a new term - Total Spending Power - invented to conceal a sleight of hand that obscures the depth of the cuts, keeping them in single figures, suggesting that the pain need not be as bad as originally predicted. As we know from the ever diligent Allister Hayman at the Local Government Chronicle, a few weeks back, Eric suddenly realised that the proposed formula cuts were so serious that they would be intolerable even to someone with his taste for blood, but as he had agreed his settlement with the Treasury some weeks previously - securing his place on the Star Chamber - he was in a bind. A mission with the begging bowl to the Treasury proved fruitless, so Eric delved down the back of the DCLG sofas and turned out a further £85 million, which miraculously became a Transition Fund to ease some of the pain for the worst affected councils. However, this is exactly what it says - a temporary sticking plaster that may staunch a little bit of bleeding until the protection is removed.

The figures have been crunched by the LGC and the results are interesting. For example, Birmingham appears to face cuts of 8.32% in direct government funding for the fiscal year 2011-12 and a further cut of 4.28% the following year and these are the headline figures - repeated in the Birmingham Post yesterday. However, they conceal the truth behind this Total Spending Power line. This includes formula grant and council tax - not unreasonably - but also a new NHS grant, which is ringfenced for projects on social care with the primary care trusts. This cannot reasonably be counted as adding to council spend, as it will essentially be dedicated to new areas of co-operation. If that is discounted from Birmingham's spending, then the first year cut is 12.95%, followed by a second year cut of 6.06%. Remember that neither of these figures account for inflationary pressure, which will only heighten the effects of the cuts.

That's bad enough for Birmingham, but spare a thought for one of our neighbours, Wyre Forest, which will face some of the worst cuts in the country over two years - 15.6% for the coming year and a further 12.7%. The worst hit council in the country is Aylesbury Vale District Council, which loses a massive 17.3% of its money in 2011/12 and then 12.3% the year after - cuts so deep that they may threaten the viability of the authority without heavyweight axe swinging, which will doubtless cheer the local MP, John Bercow - Mr Speaker, no less.

It is also clear that, despite promises to the contrary, these cuts fall disproportionately on the most deprived and on the north. Barbara Keeley MP has written on Left Foot Forward about this attack on local authorities - ironically delivered by Pickles at the same time as the localism bill was supposed to empower communities. She notes that ministers have used new language to disparage councils for deprived areas

Councils serving the most deprived areas of the country were described as “dependent” and those serving affluent areas were “self-sufficient”. Councils were said to be dependent on “handouts” from central government. The Conservative/ Liberal Democrat government has presented councils in our most deprived areas with the deepest cuts ever to their budgets and then used language which stigmatises their situation.

And don't think that this is an area where the Liberal Democrats escape being smeared in blood - Clegg promised that the north would not be disproportionately affected and that pledge was honoured in the traditional way by being entirely ignored. Clegg also sat on the Cabinet committee that signed off on the final settlement. Paul Burstow was wheeled out to defend these cuts - yet another lightning rod, conducting the blame away from the Conservatives. Following the lead of his master, Burstow claimed that

there is no justification for local authorities to slash and burn or to tighten eligibility (for adult social care)
As Barbara Keeley points out

These exhortations do not work in practice. Conservative-run North Yorkshire County Council plans to close more than two-thirds of its residential care homes. Birmingham City Council, run by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has announced proposals to restrict social care funding to those assessed as ‘critical’ – the highest possible level at which to set eligibility.

There is a simple and cynical intent behind this - to localise the blame away from the government. Pickles tells us - with no evidence - that only lazy councils will have to cut front line services and that the pay of chief executives will bear the brunt of the axe. If he genuinely believes this, then he needs to seek assistance for delusional behaviour, as nobody else finds this remotely credible. The reorganisation of back office functions to share them across authorities has been suggested by Pickles, but tectonic shifts like that are simply impossible in the timescale allowed - front line services will be hit because there is no other way to achieve these cuts.

The cuts planned over the next four years are being front loaded - quite intentionally for political reasons. The coalition knows that survival in 2015 depends on the public forgetting the worst of the public sector cuts and displaying gratitude for the tax cuts to come in the pre-election budget (for Osborne will have a war chest by that point, providing forecasts are realised), so their baser political needs subjugate the demands of the greater good.

These cuts are brutal, destructive and based upon lies - hardly an unusual foundation for government policy today. For a government that trumpeted a commitment to localism, they are an insult to best champions of genuine localism, the democratically-accountable local authorities.

Court Report

The ongoing saga of John Hemming's very public love life rumbles on and will reach the big stage of Birmingham Crown Court next February, when his current wife, Christine, will face trial for burglary and theft of a kitten, Beauty, now believed deceased.

Ironically, this was the week that John declared his constituency office to be 'cruelty free.'

But hey, any publicity is good publicity, isn't it?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The things they say

“Ed Balls keeps saying we're committed to scrapping EMA. I have never said this. We won't.”
Michael Gove, 2/3/10

“We’ve looked at EMAs ... no, we don’t have any plans to get rid of them."

David Cameron, 6/1/10
As it is panto season, the only response is 'Oh yes you will.'
The IFS is likely to publish an updated assessment tomorrow which will show that EMA costs in and actually pays for itself - something that will blow large holes in the Tory/Lib Dem policy.

Altered priorities ahead

I've always been a supporter of the police - they do a tough job dealing with some of the most difficult elements of society - which is why last Thursday's performance in handling a major public order event disappointed me massively. That isn't to excuse the unacceptable, violent behaviour from a small number of the protestors, but the police are the professional keepers of public order and they crossed a line last week.

We had one wheelchair-using protestor dragged twice from the chair and hit, 49 demonstrators injured and one young man fighting for his life after being rushed to hospital - a hospital where the police attempted to deny him treatment, claiming that it had been reserved for police casualties only, until the medical staff overruled them. That isn't acceptable behaviour.

The demonstrators have damaged their own case - the press has focussed on the attack on the royal party, diverting interest away from the policy reversal.

Now, rather than looking at the vital issues of the tactics of public order policing or even the reasons behind the protest, the Home Secretary is responding by offering police the use of water cannon - something never before seen on the British mainland. Indeed, she has said that their use is an "operational issue," rather than the political one it certainly should be - these weapons can cause serious injury. She has also supported police tactics by insisting that future demonstrations, of which we can certainly expect more, should be policed 'robustly.'

In the UK, we have a fine tradition of policing by consent and public order tactics that are seen to indiscriminately target legitimate protestors and thugs alike will erode that. I don't believe that the use of water cannon is justified on British streets, given the threat currently posed - it would be a sticking plaster to cover failures in tactics rather than a response to a specific threat.

At the start of this year, did anyone seriously believe that we would end it with a government that has already burnt up any popularity that it might once have had and which would be contemplating deploying these weapons on our streets? I also note the lack of comment from allegedly pro-civil liberty coalition partners on this disturbing development, which looks an awful lot like an attempt to suppress dissent.

Long term coalition?

Following an article by the well-connected Ben Brogan and reinforced by John Major's hints on the Andrew Marr show yesterday that the Coalition may continue beyond this parliament, Hopi Sen writes a post on the potential impact on Labour.

Unsurprisingly, the Birmingham experience is raised in the comments and I added my own thoughts. Both the LibDems and the Tories deny any electoral pact in Birmingham, although it is interesting that in almost all council seats, the only serious activity comes from the side best placed to beat Labour. Labour is the only party with a significant vote in almost all of the 40 seats in Birmingham.

An electoral pact of the nature that Hopi describes is exactly what I expect and what I fear most - it is devastatingly effective in focussing the attack on Labour and hoovering up the anti-Labour votes for what is effectively a single party. However, there are a couple of other considerations.
What may save us is the fact that the electorate may not appreciate being corralled on a parliamentary basis. Media coverage of national politics is very different to coverage of local politics, where virtually all of what most people hear about their council is filtered through their local representatives - there is little coverage on the local TV stations and the press doesn't have the coverage it once did. I suspect that it will be much harder to deliver a national message that encourages Lib Dems to vote Tory and vice versa.

If it can be made to work, then Labour is in serious trouble and will struggle to transform a national poll lead into a winning position, but remember that the informal non-aggression pact in Birmingham is the only way that the Tories and the Liberals could run the council - they each hold seats that the other side has little chance of ever taking. That isn't the case on a parliamentary scale - it will be virtually impossible to stop some of the marginal Lib Dem/Tory seats turning blue without virtually withdrawing candidates, which would raise more questions that it would solve. The Tories could potentially win a majority almost by default.

However, if the polls remain in a similar state, with the Liberal Democrats facing major reverses in the local elections between 2011 and 2015 and the Tory vote largely holding up, then the temptation for the Tories to cast aside the deadweight of their Liberal Democrat friends and push for an outright win could be irresistible. Would the backbenchers already uneasy with concessions to the Liberal Democrats be willing to let Cameron stick with the Coalition? I suspect not, especially if winning is a serious option. Cameron may feel duty-bound to stand by Clegg and his friends in the Liberal Democrats, but that might ultimately extend only to an offer of a sinecure job in Europe or crossing the floor to formally join the party with which they appear to have so much in common.

If things improve for the Coalition, then the Tories will want to push for their own majority, but if the situation remains challenging over the next five years, then the lifebelt of assuring continued government through coalition will prove a strong pull.

The other key message that Labour need to remember is that while battering the Liberal Democrats is great fun and like shooting fish in a barrel at the moment, we can only hope to win back government by taking seats from the Tories and that we will start the next campaign a few dozen seats further adrift, thanks to the gerrymandering boundary changes and the potential enforced changes through population movements. It is instructive that the national polls haven't yet shown any major shift in Tory vote - it bounces around the 39-42% level.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

John Hemming believes he's honoured the pledge - by voting for tuition fees

It really is quite sad to watch an MP floundering trying to justify the impossible, but John Hemming is maintaining - against all the evidence - that his vote on Thursday to allow tuition fees to triple is actually keeping his word. He's wrong, but won't admit it, so the prosecution calls a number of fellow Lib Dem MPs for their views:

Burnley's Gordon Entwhistle is quoted in his local paper
“Ideologically, I would want free education and so I’m not comfortable with this but it’s the best we can get in the circumstances.”
and doesn't seem to object when the paper writes
The Liberal Democrat MP broke his party’s pre-election pledge to cap higher education tuition fees, but defended his decision by saying it was the best deal for Burnley and the country
More directly, Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green) wrote on her blog
"...on breaking the NUS pledge – I can only apologise..."
Ceredigion's Mark Williams kept his word
"I will be voting against the increase in tuition fees - I can’t justify £9,000 fees to students in Ceredigion, and I do believe a pledge is a pledge"

Transport Minister Norman Baker spoke to Five Live
"We made a pledge we could not deliver which I believe is deeply regrettable and rather embarrassing"

Tom Brake certainly accepts that he did not keep to the pledge he signed earlier in the year.

Even Nick Clegg himself said that he
"massively regrets that he can't do what we promised before the election"

I have already commented that it was wrong for MPs to abstain on this issue - it amounts to cowardice. It is intellectual cowardice now not to face up to the fact that a clearly stated pledge was broken. Argue about why it was broken, by all means, but to flap around dodging the issue by claiming something that is demonstrably wrong just looks, well, silly.

On Thursday, everybody accepts that the governing parties voted to increase the cap tuition fees - that is indisputable. This was a very specific part of the pledge that all Liberal Democrat MPs and candidates signed in the run up to the May election. No ifs or buts, it was front and centre - a unique policy promise in that it was supported by personal guarantees to the electorate.

No matter how much John may complain, the fact is that in common with a chunk of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, he voted to increase the cap on tuition fees. In doing so, he clearly broke a promise. In continuing to argue otherwise, he is looking desperate and ridiculous.

His position is only slightly more ridiculous than that of Dr Evan Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP, who argues that to get rid of tuition fees, we should elect more Lib Dem MPs. Now, I respect Dr Harris' views on many things - he is an eminently sensible man - but I think he's wildly out of touch with the electorate if he thinks that there is any appetite to put more Liberal Democrats into parliament. Current polls show them with a whopping 9% of the vote, which is likely to give them just nine seats in parliament on a uniform national swing. Other polling suggests that over half of their electorate will be looking to take their support elsewhere at the next elections. The co-chair of Warwick University Liberal Democrats cut up his membership card, angry that his association had provided so much support to local candidates - Lorely Burt in particular - only to have that thrown back in their faces by ungrateful members of parliament.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A close shave

As you will know, the Liberal Democrat payroll vote carried the government through in this evening's vote to increase tuition fees - potentially tripling them to £9,000.

John Hemming, MP for Yardley, who only yesterday told the House that he wasn't going to u-turn, executed a u-turn on his pre-election pledge to vote against any increase in fees and voted alongside the cabinet and the Tories - a place where he feels very comfortable. I'm sure the reward will not be far away - either thirty pieces of silver or a place as a PPS.

On the other hand, at least John made a decision - the wrong one, but he made it. Across the city border, Lorely Burt chose cowardice and abstained. Interviewed by BBC Midlands Today, she said
"It has been very difficult for myself and all my Liberal Democrat colleagues, but what we are seeking to do is find a way that is fair and progressive, given the hand that we’ve got."
So difficult, Lorely, that you couldn't do your job and cast your vote. Members of parliament are paid to make decisions and to hide behind an abstention is an abdication of your duty. Clearly, you haven't found a way that you feel is fair and progressive, otherwise you would have voted openly for it, but neither could you vote against it. Instead, you chose to abstain - a covert way of letting the bill pass while you pretend to keep your hands clean. As part of trying to rub that stain from her hands, she has edited her website.

Previously, it showed this and the quote
"It's simply wrong to penalise people who want to make the best of themselves by saddling them with enormous mortgage-style debts from the day they graduate"

Now, it shows this.

A policy and a position airbrushed from history.
(Hat tip to Jon Walker at the Birmingham Post)

Promises and Lies XII

"I believe tuition fees are wrong"
Nick Clegg, Sept 2009

Promises and Lies XI

That's why we have always opposed tuition fees, which push up the cost and make it harder for people other than the very wealthiest to afford to get a degree.

Nick Clegg, 6 Jan 2010, Mumsnet

Promises and Lies X

It just isn't right that people are saddled with mortgage-style debts for the simple aspiration of trying to better themselves and get a degree

Nick Clegg, 6 Jan 2010, Mumsnet

Nope, he still doesn't get it.

"Given that most of these students won't be paying fees, I think that they don't really understand what's going on"

John Hemming MP, BBC Midlands Today 8 Dec 2010

Maybe, just maybe, students have woken up to a world beyond themselves, that there will be others coming after who will face these massive fees - fees that have only been introduced to cover up the government's abdication of responsibility for funding graduate education. Just as students in the 80s and 90s pushed back against the Tories, so the current generation have picked up that torch and are showing us that they aren't apathetic about politics.

This is the Big Society in action.

Promises and Lies IX

There is a real fear that these (Labour) cuts are preparing the ground for tuition fees to be raised. It would be totally unfair for young people, the innocent victims of the financial crisis, to be punished in this way

Stephen Williams MP, Lib Dem spokesman on innovation, universities and skills, 18 Mar 2010

Promises and Lies VIII

"Bright young people are potentially being put off going to university by the thought of being saddled with £10k in tuition fee debt."

Stephen Williams MP, Lib Dem spokesman on innovation, universities and skills, 7 Mar 2009

Promises and Lies VII

"The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good"

Nick Clegg, 1 May 2010

Promises and Lies VI

"Labour and the Conservatives have been trying to keep tuition fees out of this election campaign. It's because they don't want to come clean with you about what they're planning. Despite the huge financial strain fees already place on Britain's young people, it is clear both Labour and the Conservatives want to lift the cap on fees. If fees rise to £7,000 a year, as many rumours suggest they would, within five years some students will be leaving university up to £44,000 in debt. That would be a disaster. If we have learnt one thing from the economic crisis, it is that you can't build a future on debt. The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good, including for part-time students. We can't do it overnight, but we can start straight away with students in their final year - that means anyone at university this autumn will have their debt cut by at least £3,000. Students can make the difference in countless seats in this election. Use your vote to block unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all."

Nick Clegg, 1 May 2010

Promises and Lies V

The Liberal Democrats believe that a student's potential should not be limited by their ability to pay. Taking maintenance loans and fee loans together, many students will be starting their working lives with a debt of over £20,000. This is unacceptable and unsustainable, particularly given the current level of graduate unemployment... Labour and the Conservatives are content to hide behind Lord Browne's Higher Education Funding Review, because they know that their policies will not be popular.

Heather Kidd, LD PPC, Ludlow, 4th Mar 2010

Promises and Lies IV

"I know from my work as a lecturer that students are finding times very tough. There is clear evidence that Labour's fees are putting people off from applying to university... It's great that Nick Clegg came to Oxford to outline our plans to abolish fees. With both Oxford and Brookes in the area, students can play a crucial role in determining the next MP here and Government in Westminster"

Steve Goddard, LD PPC, Oxford East, 28 Apr 2010

Promises and Lies III

I have voted against tuition fees at every opportunity in the House of Commons and will continue to do so.

Steve Webb MP, 2003

Promises and Lies II

"Tens of thousands of students find themselves saddled with crippling debt, at a time when the vast burden of individual debt in Britain is becoming a social problem in itself... Some students have been put off applying for university and others have felt forced to apply for courses on the basis of the income they will generate rather than their intrinsic value"

David Howarth, 2009

Promises and Lies

Let me be clear. We are the only party which will scrap tuition fees. They are wrong. It’s just plain wrong that young people who are studying hard are having to leave university with this dead weight of debt around their necks before their adult life has even started. We will scrap tuition fees.
Nick Clegg, Youth Parliament Web Chat, 20 Jan 2010

Another good day to bury bad news

Of course, the focus today will be on the machinations of the Liberal Democrat party as Clegg tries to herd cats through the division lobbies. It is a mark of his leadership that he has to rely on the payroll vote to avoid a total embarrassment - marshalling the Lib Dem ministerial team through the Ayes lobby and watching some of the others head off to the other side, while others may even manage to sprint through both to register an abstention (and to conveniently be able to say in leaflets and campaigns that they voted against the tuition fees rise - although I'm sure they won't dare do that) as suggested by our very own John Hemming and mentioned in PMQs yesterday.

The whole affair has been a shambles over the past week or so - Vince has been about to abstain on his own policy without resigning his post, junior ministers are about to resign to vote against, the whole parliamentary party will abstain, now all ministers will vote for and everybody else will do whatever. Even yesterday evening, there was talk that Chris Huhne would be forced to fly back from Cancun to cast his vote in favour - nobody spotting the irony of the Climate Change Secretary burning tonnes of carbon unnecessarily solely to satisfy a political need. At 6pm, he was on his way back, but within the hour, that had been reversed and he was staying in Cancun.

Certainly, this is a defining moment for the Liberal Democrats - the point where they realise that sometimes, promises you make in opposition come back to bite you when political reality dawns. For them, I think this is their poll tax or vote on Iraq - it will cause them pain far into the future as it disappoints a vast swathe of their natural supporters, bitter that a party that ran a heavy campaign on this issue and a party election broadcast promising to keep their promises - unlike everybody else - is abandoning a totemic policy for short term political gain. This will reverberate for some time to come and will cost them seats on councils and ultimately, will cost MPs. Wednesday's YouGov poll saw them on just 8% vote share - essentially a wipeout of the party if that was replicated on a national scale today.

But there are other things afoot today.

It has been suggested that today will be the day that local authorities find out their funding settlements for the next financial year - it has been promised during December and the 9th was set as launch day. With the panic at Eric Pickles' Department of Local Government over recent weeks as civil servants tried to ameliorate the damage of the revised calculations and the agreed cut in the overall budget, the much-trumpeted Localism Bill yesterday fell by the wayside again - no legislative time, apparently. With cuts of up to 38% forecast for some of the worst-hit councils - coincidentally, also the poorest - it might not just be the students suffering from today's decisions.

As the focus will be on the demonstrations and the shameful, deceitful vote in support of trebling fees, expect other little gems to be buried today and tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Double standards?

John Hemming refuses to meet postmen's representatives because they aren't constituents:
I find it odd that on one hand the Communication Workers Union are setting out publicly to defeat me personally at the next General Election and then in the next minute they want to meet me.There is always a question of priorities. I am happy to meet constituents at my advice bureau (which does not have appointments). However, I find it a bit odd that my political opponents would expect me to find time to meet them. It is all a question of priorities.It is not possible to do everything that people ask you to do. Hence you need to prioritise. My priority is serving my constituents.

John Hemming meets students' representatives even though they aren't constituents:
I did have a conversation with the President of Birmingham University Students Union and one of the Vice Presidents a couple of three weeks ago. They asked to come and see me and I agreed to mee (sic) them and and we had a meeting.


Students of today - they just can't spell. Ask Jim Naughtie... (Pictures - @stopcutsbrum)
The forces of occupation turned up in Yardley today to take the fight to the only backbench Liberal Democrat MP to profess support for the pledge-breaking tuition fees policy. He's already turned up in the pages of the Guardian's Comment is Free with a ludicrous denial of the reality of the policy - and one that got short shrift from the legion of commenters for his claim of being about to scrap tuition fees whilst simultaneously doubling or trebling them.

Hell, not even Clegg buys that - he has expressed sorrow about not being able to keep his word
I regret of course that I can't keep the promise that I made because - just as in life - sometimes you are not fully in control of all the things you need to deliver those pledges

This from a man who fronted a party election broadcast promising an end to broken promises and then decided to break a big one. And other Liberal Democrats seem quite prepared to vote against - Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell have made their positions clear, as has the new President of the party, Tim Farron. Even John's neighbour, Lorely Burt, has been wavering from abstention in recent weeks - perhaps mindful of the significant help from Warwick University students back in May that saved her campaign from what looked like certain defeat.

On a Politics Show West Midlands debate, John snapped back at one young questioner that when he left university, he faced much higher tax rates than she would, implying that she should be grateful for small mercies.

He was interviewed on Radio 4's PM programme by Eddie Mair, who wears a light touch of wit to conceal a very incisive mind. Here's a transcript of an intriguing passage:

John Hemming: "At the moment, I'm very likely to vote for the increase, simply because we cannot reward the bad behaviour from today..."

Eddie Mair: "...part of your motivation might be to punish protestors?"

JH: "Well, if they're going to behave this bad... you see the problem you've got is this - if you reward this form of behaviour, if it has any effect which is a positive effect, you're encouraging this behaviour in the future."

EM: "So part of the reason you're going to reach your decision is based on the protests?"

JH: "Part of the reason has to be based on the protests, because I cannot allow that to influence me in any favourable manner whatsoever."
So, he is saying that he will vote in favour of a hike in tuition fees because of the protests. If he truly believed his Herculean spin, he would surely want to vote against, because his argument is that these proposals abolish fees and amount to a graduate tax - something that he apparently supports. The other point is that he will willingly punish future generations of students for the behaviour of a tiny minority who will be unaffected by the changes.

Neither are good reasons to vote in a particular way - indeed, it seems immature and petulant to base decisions affecting the many on the behaviour of a few and certainly is not becoming of an elected representative. `

Nevertheless, I'm sure that there will be a reward for this slavish loyalty to dismantling what was - despite all the weaselling by various Liberal Democrats - a key manifesto commitment and which was also, uniquely, a pledge made by all Liberal Democrat MPs. No other policy had the same level of personal commitment as was shown to the promise to vote against tuition fee increases. It is intellectually impossible to portray this as anything other than a major u-turn. For the Liberal Democrats, I suspect this may be as serious a political mistake as the poll tax or - in purely political terms - the Iraq war for Labour. I hope all those ministerial chairs are worth it, because the feedback on the ground is that many are very unhappy - there are Liberal Democrat councillors in Birmingham worrying seriously about their seats over the next couple of years. Judging from the venom being directed at all things Liberal Democrat, they have good cause.

Cowardice from the Liberal Democrats

Paul Smith files a dispatch from the Wild West Country which reveals that Stephen Williams, the Lib Dem MP, did not turn up to a pre-arranged public debate about the Big Society.
... once again Stephen Williams didn’t turn up. he has alleged that the Police advised him not to go. Lets me clear the meeting was not about tuition fees and there were no demonstrators at the meeting or outside the Malcolm X centre in St Pauls where it was held. Local Lib Dem councillor and council cabinet member Jon Rogers was there and was asked to text Williams to let him know that it was safe and he could come out of hiding. He never came.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Rewiring Cable

And as fast as he considered his abstention, Vince has now realised that failing to back his own policy is incompatible with his status as a Cabinet minister and rather than doing the decent thing and quitting to abide by his pledge, he's going to support his government though the division lobby.

I suspect that this actually indicates that the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party have failed to reach agreement to abstain.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Increasingly desperate and unconVincing

Vince Cable appears to be on a mission to destroy any remaining credibility he once had as the slow motion car crash that is Lib Dem policy on tuition fees grinds inexorably onwards, a trail of bodies left behind in its wake.

He is currently proposing that he, as a Cabinet Minister, will not only abstain on a vote on government policy, but will abstain on a policy proposed by his own department. This is entirely ludicrous - there is no way that he can continue as a member of the government while evidently not supporting government policy. It sets a very dangerous precedent for the government that may even be used against them by Conservative ministers who object to a particular item of policy in the future. I know that this particular abstention was specifically allowed in the coalition agreement, but it doesn't take huge leap to imagine well-placed Tories trying to exercise the same loophole.

It doesn't help that, in typical Liberal Democrat form, he is saying different things to different audiences. In a leaflet circulating in Scotland, he criticises tuition fees
"[Vince Cable] likened tuition fees to the infamous poll tax, as the fees are seen as an unfair weight around students' necks"

But then, this is the same man who didn't understand why the students are protesting, as the changes won't affect them - that's the Big Society in action, Vince. I remember anti-loans protests being well-supported in the 1980s and 90s by students who would also be unaffected by them.

He has also said that he regretted signing the pledge - presumably on the grounds that

This Liberal Democrat councillor is keeping a close eye on the game as it develops and has a good handle on how fourteen MPs are still committed to voting against and will have to be strongarmed even into abstention.

Activists are up in arms, with 104 sending a letter to Clegg warning

that the party faced "many more years back in the political wilderness" unless the fee rises were thrown out. They wrote: "During the general election campaign many of our MPs (and now government ministers) signed a pledge with the National Union of Students that they would vote against any tuition fee rises during the course of the next Parliament. The wording of this pledge clearly
indicated that this would be unconditional, regardless of whether the party was in government or in opposition. The party has been very clear for many years about its view on tuition fees and that we feel they should be abolished."
Mind you, Clegg is equally deluded, as he believes that the demonstrations are more likely to put people off going to university than the thumping hikes in fees matched by government disinvestment.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The diplomatic cables slipping out through Wikileaks are intriguing.

On the one hand, it might make life a little difficult in the rarified atmosphere of the diplomats circulating on the party scene in Washington or Paris this Christmas season. Or will it? I suspect that most professional diplomats will shrug and think that there, but for the grace of God, go any of them. It is the job of a diplomat to speak truth to their government, even if they are more measured or reticent in public and I'm not sure that any of them would wish their unvarnished opinions revealed to their hosts. Even then, I doubt that the opinions will truly shock - foreign services typically have a pretty good understanding of how they are seen by their friends or foes. In terms of shock value - there might be some intriguing titbits, but this is the foreign service, not the CIA's message service, where the really good stuff will reside. In short, I suspect that any anger on the part of host countries who feel affronted will be largely synthesised for domestic or regional political effect.

On the other hand, although my academic sensibilities are rusty and dulled, I can't help but be intrigued at the prospect of reading the minutiae of diplomacy for the little gems that they will reveal about ambassadorial thought and function. It could prove to be a valuable archive to historians of the past forty years - arriving in an unexpected and unexpurgated way. Fascinating doesn't even begin to describe it. As something that will have informed the evolution of US foreign policy, this collection is of immense historical importance.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Nadine says no

That would be the same massive indulgence and waste of money that is government policy and for which Nadine voted at the third reading back on the 2 November then?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Vince consistent

Vince Cable used an interview on the Today Programme this morning to explain why the government had declined to introduce full disclosure of corporate salaries and bonuses within the banking industry. It has been held back - despite being a commitment from both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats - because it was felt that it might damage the competitiveness of British banks if such a measure was not introduced globally.


There was no such reticence about the bank tax when it was introduced in the UK rather than as part of a broader global or regional deal and that certainly imposes unique costs on banks in the UK.

Eric - Pickled again

Eric Pickles has revelled in his reputation as the axeman - he has gone out of his way to attract dislike from those in local government as it becomes increasingly apparent that the doctrine of localism will see attempts to devolve power below the level of local authorities, but ensure that a large chunk of the blame for local cuts sits with those same authorities. But, it seems he has engineered a problem that he is struggling to undo, which may explain his bad-tempered performance in front of an admittedly hostile crowd of Labour councillors who now dominate the London Councils group.

According to the Local Government Chronicle and referenced from outside their paywall by the Guardian, Pickles and the Department of Communities and Local Government have seriously erred. Pickles proudly offered his departmental sacrifice to the unholy duo of Osborne and Alexander and secured his place in the Star Chamber, but it has now transpired that the grants to local authorities that are about to be announced have been calculated to give thumping increases to some well-heeled local authorities, but strip massive amounts from those facing the greatest challenges of poverty and deprivation - up to 38% of their budgets, cuts that would render authorities potentially unable even to fulfill their statutory duties. Examples cited include Liverpool - the most deprived local authority in the country - which will face cuts of 25-29%, as will Wolverhampton, Hull, Blackburn and Blackpool, amongst others. Worst hit will be Hastings, Hyndburn, Barrow and Pendle, all of whom are in a group facing cuts up to 38%.

It is so bad that some of the northern metropolitan authorities have suggested that their councillors may not be able to set legal budgets in 2011 if the settlement is as forecast. What happens then is anyone's guess, as there is no process for resolving the situation if councillors vote an unbalanced budget and the finance director then refuses to sign it off - as they legally must.

With a stroke, Pickles has destroyed any claims to progressivism that this government might attempt to sustain in terms of council funding, but that is not the only political train bearing down upon him. If he attempts to rebalance funding, he can expect a storm to appear from the direction of those councils at the other end of the deprivation spectrum, who are expecting equally big rises in grant - up to 38%. And these are nice, leafy Tory councils, including West Oxfordshire, within the ten LEAST deprived areas in the entire country, but packed full of vocal Tory supporters who might complain to their neighbouring MP, one D Cameron.

Realising that this settlement was unworkable, Pickles went back to Danny Alexander and asked for a bit more cash and was apparently refused, leaving the DCLG staff running around trying to rebalance the books and make sensible settlements that will allow councils to function. With the cuts being frontloaded over the next two years - part of the gameplan to try to consign the cuts to history by the time the next election rolls round in 2015 - there are suggestions from Simon Hughes no less that the bill for cutting jobs could exceed £3 billion and from the LGA that job cuts could be as high as 40%, to allow for completion within the time frame demanded by government.

What is certainly true is that if this is implemented, these are going to be punishing cuts to local authorities. This is really going to hurt the poorest, giving the lie to any claims that we are all in this together. We are all equal, some just less equal than others.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Every little helps

Councillors in Birmingham have voted to give Tesco an early Christmas present of £300,000, which will come as a bonus to the chain that recently posted first-half pre-tax profits of £1.6 billion.

This is a result of the delays over the construction of the chain's new store at the Swan Island in Yardley, Birmingham, which is now not scheduled to open until Spring 2012, despite the site having been cleared in readiness for some considerable time. John Hemming waded in on the side of the developers against one landowner who was refusing to sell and found himself being threatened with libel over a Focus leaflet (which he then withdrew and for which he issued a full apology).

The original approval included a £3 million s106 agreement to compensate for the loss of part of the playing fields to allow for redirection of the road and space for car parking for what will be a giant store. All of that money has been promised for development of the Oaklands recreation ground adjoining the site, but the delays mean that this agreement has now incurred interest charges of £300,000 and Tesco doesn't feel that this is fair. The original agreeement shrewdly recognised the risk and put it fairly and squarely onto the party that will see the most profit - Tesco accepted that they would be responsible for interest on the s106 monies, which aren't due to be paid across for some time yet. Now the depth of the problem has been revealed, Tesco returned to the Planning Committee last week to plead poverty and ask that they be released from their interest charges and if they could pay the money on completion rather than when work started.

Unsurprisingly, the committee caved in, although Labour's Ian Ward argued that Tesco should not be allowed to dodge their commitments at this stage. Conservative Peter Douglas Osborne worried that Tesco might walk away rather than continue with the development - an exceptionally unlikely outcome given that they have already invested millions in the development costs and to pull out now would give a head start to Sainsbury's, who are looking at a new store not too far away.

Given that we are sacrificing playing field space and the damage that this store will inflict on local commercial centres, an extra £300,000 does not seem too high a price to extract from a store chain that makes that much profit in just 50 minutes and that proffered only the weakest of excuses for non-payment. People in Yardley have every right to feel let down by this poor decision.

Lib Dems in confusion over tuition fees

Locally, the West Midlands Liberal Democrat conference voted to continue campaigning for the abolition of tuition fees and called for a vote against any increase. Our two Liberal Democrat MPs have made their positions clear - John Hemming has already been clear that he will break his pledge, but Lorely Burt is apparently now to keep her promise, which seems to be a reversal of her views expressed in an interview with on the 9 November:

Many backbenchers are understandably reluctant to go back on their pledge, but Ms Burt backed attempts by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to bring them into line. She said the shift was justifiable because Lib Dem policy commitments from the party's manifesto did not reflect the changed realities which emerged after polling day.

"We went into the general election with the full and certain belief that what we had proposed and fully costed was doable.... What's now clear is that the position was very far from what we had originally thought so we're now in a situation where yes, we can stick to our principles, but where does that leave a first-class world higher education system?"
Within two weeks of that, she's joined the resistance, according to the Independent. That's a rapid reversal from flip-flop Lorely, who said a year ago that
It's simply wrong to penalise people who want to make the best of themselves by saddling them with enormous mortgage-style debts from the day they graduate.

New logo for Liberal Democrats?

Incidentally, Vince Cable appeared on the Politics Show to stress that the Liberal Democrats are not breaking their pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees and even if they are, they are bound by the coalition agreement.
Up to a point, Secretary of State. It was only ever likely that the Liberal Democrats were going to be in power as a result of a coalition - nobody believed that there was any chance of Nick Clegg becoming Prime Minister in May. Signing such a firm commitment amounts to obtaining the votes of students through deception - it now appears that tuition fees weren't a red-line issue for the Liberal Democrats, although you wouldn't know that from their pre-election publicity. Indeed, one of our local Lib Dem MPs wrote on her blog that

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg has announced that scrapping tuition fees would remain one of the party's most important policies...

Labour and the Conservatives refuse to address the issue of fees and there is a real danger that both of them would lift the cap on fees which could mean even more debt for students when they leave university...

It's simply wrong to penalise people who want to make the best of themselves by saddling them with enormous mortgage-style debts from the day they graduate.

Incidentally, the coalition agreement allowed the Liberal Democrats to abstain, not to slavishly adopt the Tory policy - Vince himself was making noises about a graduate tax over the summer and right up to the point where the Browne report was published.

Unpicking the narrative

Lord Young, the former favourite of Thatcher, was eventually sacked/quit following his outburst of insensitivity and honesty in a messy little performance by Cameron - the second occasion within a week when he has reversed minor decisions. But perhaps he was sacked for the truth he told.

On the one hand, you have the gross insensitivity of his comments over the coming job losses - which immediately revived the toxic brand image of the uncaring Conservative party - and on the other, you have his inaccuracy and lack of understanding of the impact.

All of the much discussed unemployment that is coming out of the cuts, the half a million, is about 100,000 a year. Well, frankly, 100,000 in 30  million is the margin of error

If you are one of those being sacked, then being part of the 'margin of error' is hardly reassuring. The evidence is also that 100,000 a year looks very low - councils are being pushed to front-load their cuts over the next two years, so as to keep the public memory of the bad news as far away as possible from the 2015 election campaign. That also doesn't account for the thousands of private sector jobs that are going to go alongside the public posts being lost, in outsourced jobs and suppliers. The effects are far deeper than Lord Young suggests. The government claims that their cuts just resets the country back to 2007 - an arguable claim - but one that Young accepts.

Now, I don’t remember in ’07 being short of money or the government being short of money. So I have a feeling and a hope that when this goes through, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.” Much of the complaining about cuts from councils and charities is driven by a self-interest, he claimed. Of course, there will be people who complain, but these are people who think they have a right for the state to support them

Clearly, a man like Lord Young - rich enough to have been working for Cameron for free - is unlikely to be affected by any economic downturn short of a total collapse of capitalism. Complaints aren't just coming from the undeserving charities and councils, of course, but from people who are going to see their essential services cut back. Some of the councils have reason to complain. Allister Hayman reports that some councils in the north are facing cuts of up to 38% to their budgets - which will force local authorities to restrict their activities to their statutory obligations. Services that many people enjoy and have come to rely upon will be closed - not that it will affect Lord Young, of course.

Now we come to something which manages to be insensitive, with a thin dusting of truth.

For the vast majority of people they have never had it so good ever since this recession, this so-called recession, started because most people with a mortgage who were paying a lot of money each month suddenly started paying very little

Of course, low interest rates don't bother those who are renting their properties - it may come as a surprise to Lord Young that not everybody is a home-owner yet - and they also adversely affect those who rely on their savings to provide an income, the elderly in particular. But, for those who have mortgages, it is true to say that low rates have been a saving grace of this recession and have allowed people to take jobs with lower pay or to cut back their hours and still retain their homes - unlike the experience during the 1980s and 1990s, when the Tories ran the economy.

The problem with that analysis is that it unpicks the carefully-woven Conservative narrative that Labour mismanaged the economy, a justification upon which hangs the cover for their ideological cutbacks. Tough as things were during the teeth of the recession, if Darling and Brown had not taken the actions that they did, things would have been far worse - although that is a tough argument to sell. At this point, it may be worth noting that the Tories dithered over the correct policy to follow, even as Labour were acting to shore up the banks (we came within hours of having the entire cash machine network shut down to stop panic withdrawals). Overall, although the indicators were poor, we came through the recession better than history would normally expect.

If Lord Young was sacked for speaking the truth, it was a truth more inconvenient to the Conservative Party than they would wish to admit.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lies, damn lies and even more lies

When the government launched its cuts to housing benefit, one of their key arguments was that rents paid by Housing Benefit were rising as the non-benefit rents were falling. To quote Ian Duncan Smith

We now know that, according to the Office for National Statistics, the private marketplace in housing - Labour Members are completely wrong about this - fell by around 5% last year. At the same time, LHA rates, which the previous Government had set and left to us, had risen by 3%. There is thus a 7% gap with what is going on in the marketplace.
This was a difficult argument to counter, as it seemed to support the argument that rapacious landlords were ripping off the taxpayer - which at least makes a bit of change from the tired argument that it is all down to lazy, good for nothing, welfare scroungers.

What we want to do, by working with councils, is to drive those rents back down. The purpose of these changes is to give a real impetus to getting the rents down to make affordable housing more available in some areas.
Essentially, the Tory plan is to use market forces to force rents down - a no-control form of rent control. Of course, if you want a market solution to housing costs, increasing the supply would work rather better than an unproven attempt to nudge rents downward. An attempt probably doomed to failure, as if those benefit claimants can be evicted wholesale, great swathes of London can be re-let at commercially-viable rates to non-benefit tenants.

Over at Inside Housing, Jules Birch has been looking into the claims about the increase in rents. Last week, he spotted that the DWP's own figures didn't support what was being claimed and when he asked for the detailed report quoted in the House, nothing substantive was forthcoming beyond a press release repeating those figures. While he found some limited justification for claims that LHA rents were increasing, they were actually increasing more slowly than those for private regulated tenants and only slightly faster than rents for those in the non-LHA deregulated markets. In fact, the biggest increase in LHA award went to housing association tenants.

Landlords are hopping mad over the implication that they are ripping off the system. The British Property Federation published a detailed rebuttal last week that used the DWP’s own figures to show that almost 70% of the increase in the housing benefit bill is down to an increase in the number of claimants rather than rents. Of the rest, 17.7% is due to the increase in social sector rents (not just actual increases but the effect of stock transfer too) and only 13.2% is down to increased private rents.
He returned to the fray this week, with more detail on the issue, confirming that the statistics quoted by the sainted Ian Duncan Smith were not provided by the reliable ONS, who don't produce rent statistics at all, but from a rental index produced by, a website belonging to the publishers of the Daily Mail, no less. The figures are based upon advertised prices for new lettings - not actual rental prices - and Birch calls into question their sample size, as the average rent in March 2010 was £820, double the average amount of Local Housing Allowance paid. Essentially - and unsurprisingly - works in a different sector. To further expand, he quotes the site's own guru, who comments thus on private sector rents

Stock levels in both the home buyer and rental markets are dwindling, and would-be buyers are still having a hard time getting mortgages. This is all putting increased pressure on the available rental stock which pretty much makes it a landlord’s market at the moment as they can effectively name their price.
This does not bode well for the government's plans to force rent down, as if the market is undersupplied, then other tenants will be ideally placed to take the tenancies vacated by housing benefit claimants evicted for non-payment (and also, under proposed new rules, now regarded as intentionally homeless, just to add insult to injury).

The time has come for the Secretary of State to be called back to the House to explain why he has misled the Commons over the probity of his statistics, which have been comprehensively rubbished by a genuine expert in the field. An apology is due.

Lest we forget what they used to say - 2

A generation ago, the very idea that a British politician would go to Ireland to see how to run an economy would have been laughable. The Irish Republic was seen as Britain’s poor and troubled country cousin, a rural backwater on the edge of Europe. Today things are different. Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking, and that is why I am in Dublin: to listen and to learn.

George Osborne, 23 February 2006

A couple of fairly substantial economies, Ireland and Portugal, are teetering on the brink of collapse

Robert Peston, 16 November 2010

...official data showed that the former "Celtic Tiger" sank into a double dip recession in the spring. News of the relapse rattled the financial markets and put additional pressure on Dublin's unpopular coalition government, which had previously insisted that its tough budget cuts were helping to stabilise the economy. Ireland has also been hailed by Britain's coalition government for its
decision to tackle the double-digit budget deficit left by the collapse of its property bubble with immediate and deep cuts...

Larry Elliott, The Guardian, 23 September 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lest we forget what they used to say

What I can tell you is any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: 'Here are my plans' and they involve front line reductions – they'll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again.
Greater Manchester Police will lose a quarter of its staff, including front-line officers, as it faces a £134m budget cut in the next four years
The Home Secretary has defended cuts in police funding that could see the West Midlands force lose up to 2,000 jobs. Theresa May refused to rule out claims that the force could lose 400 officers in the next 12 months alone.

Justice denied?

I was disappointed to hear Ken Clarke on the PM programme yesterday evening, happy that Labour hadn't criticised his slashing cuts to legal aid and I wondered why we hadn't. Partly that will be because we were considering similar changes, but there will also be a significant lack of knowledge of the detail - the Guardian's law correspondent was essentially locked in the Ministry of Justice and had to distil 500 pages of text to find the changes. It is also true to say that defending fat cat lawyers is a challenging task at the best of times, more so when we are being forced to swallow cuts that will push families onto the street.

Changes are happening so fast at the moment that the very devil is in all the details - the impact of the welfare changes proposed last week will take some time to work out even for specialists - and we may not grasp the full import until all the adjustments and cuts have been implemented. On the positive side, legal aid has been retained for some of the most difficult cases - asylum issues, judicial review or cases involving forced marriage, domestic violence and children at risk of being taken into care, but that doesn't mean that people won't suffer. And it won't be the rich.

In these difficult times, finding support to argue against cuts in legal aid is difficult - there is an image of a gravy train for the lawyers (well represented in parliament, you will note) and of a 'compensation culture', an image that it suits the coalition government to sustain. However, as the Guardian puts it
There will be 547,000 fewer people each year getting help to resolve legal cases that matter to them and who can't afford their own legal advice. Many of them will be about family matters but they will also involve redundancy, housing, and debt which are all bound to get worse in the public sector squeeze.
A tip - get those union subs paid up. If the worst comes to the worst, all unions can offer workplace advice and many will also throw in some broader legal advice as well. The thing about access to justice is that it is an easy cut to make - right up until the point that you find you need it and you are blocked.

Nicholas Green is the chairman of the Bar Council and he is supportive, given the economic demands afflicting the country, but wants some security for the future and isn't without concerns.

I am sceptical that collectively they will save what the Treasury demands. If this is so, then it highlights the concern that flows from the fact that the cuts are Treasury-driven, not justice-driven. If, for instance, it takes longer to reduce prison costs, then where will the axe land in order to make up the shortfall? And how many further sections of the population will be denied access to the courts? My real concern is that at the end of four years the justice system will be in real crisis.

The new thresholds for legal aid will mean that many who must be described as poor will be denied legal assistance when they come into contact with the courts at crisis points in their lives about decisions going to the heart of their personal lives and those of their families. Legal aid will no longer be available for certain categories of cases involving education, immigration, employment, debt, and housing, all of which can involve very vulnerable people.

Justice delayed may be justice denied, but justice denied is no justice at all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cable & Pickles - closet Maoists together

Getting rid of the RDAs and bringing in LEPs has perhaps been a little Maoist and chaotic, but overall we’re giving back to councils and local authorities the powers and incentives they need to see a resurgence in civic pride.

A little chaotic is the understatement of the year. Vince also reckons that scrapping the RDAs ends years of terrible over-centralisation by London. Essentially, they have replaced mechanisms that actually worked and delivered genuine value for money with untested vague conglomerations that don't have consistent plans and don't even cover the entire country - East Anglia and Lancashire are currently excluded. In the West Midlands, the whole Black Country isn't covered by a Local Enterprise Partnership, an area in desperate need of help.

There's still no sign of a replacement mechanism to draw down the ERDF funding - which has to be match funded and works regionally (coincidentally with the old RDAs). Cable is suggesting that perhaps some of the Regional Growth Fund may be used to match European money, but this is hardly a bottomless pit and is limited to £500 million a year nationally for three years. There's about the same amount of ERDF funding available.

We actually need that money now, but there won't be a proposal on the table until next year's budget, so I doubt we'll see any new European money being used to relieve the cuts and encourage growth until 2012 or 2013 at the earliest.

And as for decentralising - the assets of the RDAs will be returned to the centre for disposal to defray costs, the Regional Growth Fund will be ultimately administered by a ministerial team in Whitehall and the LEPs won't have the same level of powers that the RDAs had - much of those are being retained centrally too. Across government, lip service is being paid to the local agenda, as all governments prove far more reluctant to release the reins of power than they were in opposition. There is a practical aspect to this for Cable and Pickles, in that as the local/national electoral wheel turns, more Labour administrations will pop up in real positions of power - Birmingham is expected to turn back to Labour control in 2012 or 2014 at the latest and London is already dominated by Labour councils. Why would they want to hand golden opportunities out to their political opponents? Whenever a minister promises local control, councils can expect to be bypassed and undermined - if anything even vaguely close to localism ever comes to pass.

If Vince thinks that the old policy was centralised, this is looking positively Stalinist, not Maoist. But then, at least Stalin had a plan. Scrapping the RDAs at this point in the economic cycle will be one of the things that this government regrets - it has been an appalling decision that will waste money, break up imperfect, but effective delivery organisations and will hinder the recovery in the regions that need every last bit of help that they can get. We must not let people forget that this was done out of childish spite and blind ideology by Pickles, entirely unmediated by Cable, who has now retreated into self-delusion about the effects and likely outturn for this policy.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I predict a riot.

Two months before the general election, Nick Clegg warned there would be "riots" on the streets if the Conservatives introduced extreme cuts. Now they have begun – and Clegg himself is the chief cutter.
Johann Hari gives Clegg a kicking. I think he's being far too kind.

Remember, it took Thatcher two years to start riots on the streets. Cameron has learnt so well, he's kicking them off in six months.

You can't lie about your opponents, but you can lie about your policies

Realistically, the Liberal Democrats only ever had the chance of getting into power as part of a coalition government, so it is very interesting to note that they laid plans to ditch the key vote-winning policy of scrapping tuition fees well before the election. Yet again, Clegg has been caught out - far from being persuaded to drop the policy because Osborne told him the truth about the economy, Clegg was always prepared to surrender it.

Within weeks of agreeing to drop it, Clegg recorded a grossly hypocritical video specifically for the NUS spring conference, criticising the £24,000 of dead weight debt around students' necks and promising abolition within six years - a promise that he never intended to fight to honour.

You have to ask - why did Clegg and Co make such a fuss over a policy that they were never going to even try to defend in coalition negotiations? Apparently, there were only four keystone policies that they wanted to defend - vaguely referred to on the cover of the manifesto - and everything else was just window dressing. In future, can we ask that the Liberal Democrats (presuming that they actually HAVE a future after the next election, other than as a footnote to history) make clear which policies they really mean to implement and which are just garnish?

There may be justification for changing a policy some time after an election - even a manifesto policy - if circumstances demand it. It is much harder to retain credibility when you cynically publicise a policy that you have absolutely no intention of delivering. That is obtaining votes by deception and hardly tallies with the Liberal Democrat aim of cleaning up politics - or perhaps that was just the window dressing.

Les Lawrence - flabbergasted by Gove's policies

"What happened to decentralisation? What happened to the coalition mantra of getting rid of quangos? This is centralised control of school funding... How the hell can you fund a school in rural Devon on the same basis as inner city Birmingham?"
Conservative Cllr Les Lawrence on the proposals, revealed today as the Financial Times reports (registration required) that Michael Gove is set to impose a system that will fund all schools directly from Whitehall, bypassing local authorities completely.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that a single national formula will cut funding to 60% of secondary schools and 40% of primary schools, while potentially leaving them with the full costs and responsibilities of sickness and maternity leave. That analysis assumed no cuts in spending, but the next four years will see cuts in per-pupil spending of 2.7%, so the losses will be worse.

Cllr Lawrence was involved in a body that developed a single funding formula for further education and that took four years - Gove intends to have a new quango up and handing out funding by 2013, with consultation to be carried out in just six months next year.

The vast majority of schools have under 500 pupils and governing bodies and management teams within small schools are simply not equipped to take on the level of work now expected of them in terms of human resources issues and maintenance. This is a recipe for massive problems and runs counter to the agenda of empowering local authorities - it also strips away still further any semblance of democratic accountability for education at a local level.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred

It seems that Christina Hemming has decided that if she is going down for catnapping, she is determined to cause damage to her (current) husband, John Hemming, so is exhuming some of the bodies. The Times on Wednesday carried a three-quarter page report, sadly hidden behind a paywall, but I made the effort to actually buy a copy and here's a summary.

John claims that this is mostly based on an earlier posting of his own from May last year. It may also be worth repeating that John was not found to have any issues with his expenses as part of the Legg report in February this year. It is certainly worth remembering that John also has an extra-parliamentary income of over £200,000 a year (one of the highest in the House), meaning that his combined income is in excess of a poverty-busting quarter of a million quid before any expenses are taken into account (alongside his properties in Birmingham and London and the farmland in Devon). It can certainly be said that all the affairs in his life are complicated.

The article claims that John bought a two-bedroomed flat in Fletcher Buildings in Covent Garden in 1993 and paid off the mortgage on the property two weeks prior to his election in 2005. He also owns another flat in Brixton, which was initially rented out, but was subsequently occupied by his older daughter. Seven months after his election, he took out another mortgage from Coutts on the Covent Garden flat for £200,000, arranged by his wife Christina. The fees and legal costs for this mortgage were also passed on to the taxpayer, to the tune of £1500, including valuation and arrangement fees. This new mortgage was then used to pay off another mortgage on a property called Osmond House on the Alcester Road in Birmingham - a property well outside his constituency, but close to his Birmingham home. This mortgage was maintained for the next three years, until the start of 2009, when claim against the allowance ceased, but netted almost £30,000 in payments over those three years.

For clarity, the Additional Costs Allowance is scoped as follows, according to the 2005 Green Book (applicable to the remortgage in January 2006).

The additional costs allowance (ACA) reimburses Members of Parliament for expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred when staying overnight
away from their main UK residence (referred to below as their main home) for
the purpose of performing Parliamentary duties. This excludes expenses that
have been incurred for purely personal or political purposes.
That rubric is also reproduced in terms on the form (ACA2) that every MP had to sign to claim under the Additional Costs Allowance on a monthly basis in arrears. Examples of John's redacted forms are here.

Osmond House is home for a number of companies (defunct, according to the Times - and loss-making, according to John's under the John Hemming Trading banner and is also the home of Ernie Hendricks, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Moseley, who lives rent-free in the top-floor flat. Cllr Hendricks is one of five Liberal Democrat councillors apparently employed by John Hemming. The others are Cllr Carol Jones, Stechford & Yardley North, Cllr Emily Cox, also Moseley and Kings Heath, Cllr Neil Eustace, Stechford & Yardley North and Cllr Daphne Gaved, John's successor as councillor in South Yardley. The property is also the registered address of the Birmingham Liberal Democrat Group - which is increasingly resembling a wholly-owned subsidiary of John Hemming Trading. Cllr Cox has also lived in the the top-floor flat, but has since moved to a property bought for her by John Hemming - the father of her child and bringer of cats.

Mention is also made of the property at 1772 Coventry Road, which is used as a constituency headquarters and houses one individual, who was oddly named on the electoral roll a little while back as being resident at both 1772 and 1772a, a fact that can be reasonably ascribed to human error rather than anything genuinely sinister.

The Times claims that Mrs Hemming asked her husband to move out in September this year following the purchase of this property, a request she made as

a birthday present to herself
It is also reported that John Hemming had
previously replaced his wife as the company accountant with Cllr Cox
The article also mentions the curiosity that one of John's parliamentary staff, Tony Smith, is paid by Birmingham City Council and is allowed to lobby on the parliamentary estate on behalf of the City, something that is against the current ruling of the House of Commons Administration Committee and also against government policy - as Eric Pickles said
Taxpayer-funded lobbying and propaganda on the rates weakens our democracy... Local activism and localism don't need lobbyists. If local politicians want to change the way government operates, their council should send a letter or pick up the phone. Councillors can campaign for change at a personal or party political level, rather than throwing away other people's council tax on the corrosive and wasteful practice of government lobbying government
It should be pointed out that Birmingham has ten paid lobbyists in Parliament - we call them MPs. One of them is a current Secretary of State, no less and we had a succession of senior ministers during the Labour years, all close to the centre of government. 

EDIT: I actually now take the view that Tony's role in Westminster is rather different - he has a pass provided through John's office, but carries out a supportive role for Birmingham City Council. 

John stopped claiming for the Covent Garden flat in January 2009, apparently because he recognised that Britain was going through a recession - although his blog post at the time didn't mention this laudable self-restraint.

However, I have told the department of resources that I will make no further claims for a second home. That means also no claims for food as they go in as part of the second home claim. I went into politics to help others rather than to help myself to a cash cow. I haven't actually used the expenses system as a cash cow, but it is now tainted. There is no sense muddying the waters as to my motivations for about £10,000 a year
Coincidentally, this is around the time that it became apparent that the details of parliamentary expenses would have to be made public under a Freedom of Information Request.

John told The Times that he had to

'reorganise my finances because my income was going down. So I needed to raise cash to clear a debt and I got that agreed by Parliament, which is entirely within the rules.'
Just a reminder of the rules that applied at the time and of the statement that John personally signed whenever he claimed under the Additional Costs Allowance for:
expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred... for the purpose of performing Parliamentary duties. This excludes expenses that have been incurred for purely personal or political purposes.
John's defence, repeated in the Birmingham Post, is that
You have to look at whether it is a good deal for the taxpayer. Did it cost the taxpayer more than would otherwise have been the case? Look at how my expenses compared to other MPs in Birmingham.
He also claims that this was all approved by the parliamentary authorities at the time, which may be true, but it is a defence worn thin by all the other MPs who have buried their noses in the public trough and used parliamentary approval as a cover. I wrote earlier this week about some MPs being seriously out of touch with the reality of the public mood and it appears that we have another one with a tenuous grasp on reality. Will the public consider it appropriate for their MP to borrow money against a flat he already owned with the explicit intention of paying off a mortgage on another property unrelated to his parliamentary work? Will they consider it milking the cash cow or not?

In the Daily Mail today, he comments

It was cost-effective, because the alternative was for me to sell my Covent Garden flat to free up capital to pay the Birmingham mortgage and move into rented accommodation in London, which would have cost the public more

It was certainly cost-effective for him. The alternative might have been to sell the Alcester Road property and live in the Covent Garden flat - which would have cost the public nothing. Strangely, that thought doesn't seem to have entered his head.