Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cablegate

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.

Curious.

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 politics.co.uk 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 findaproperty.com, 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 - findaproperty.com 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.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hemmingwatch - plots thickening

A woman scorned - fans of John Hemming need to read p10 of today's Times. Now.

More later....

Possibly..

Putting the Twit into Twitter


Let's get this straight, I'm no fan of Cllr Gareth Compton. He's a Conservative councillor for Erdington and is, by default, wrong, possibly even as wrong as John Hemming.

But, sending the police to arrest him for questioning following a tweet is a waste of time. Was it offensive? Yes. Was it a daft thing for an elected representative - or anyone else - to say on what is, after all, a public forum? Undoubtedly. He has apologised for any offence caused and that should be an end to the matter. Any further punishment should be in the hands of his party - which has already suspended him - and the electorate in Erdington.
Let's bring some perspective to bear on the matter - nobody was actually going to threaten any form of injury to Ms Alibhai-Brown as a result of seeing Gareth's tweet and I think it rather unlikely that he would make the journey to carry out the deed himself.
On a day when Paul Chambers, who has been punished for an equally unfunny joke tweet about Robin Hood Airport, lost his appeal and found himself saddled with additional prosecution costs, as a further punishment for his challenge, this sort of legal behaviour brings the system into disrepute. The law needs to be changed to consider intent - neither Gareth nor Paul Chambers had any intent of causing injury or loss. Both tweets failed a humour test, but that is not cause for criminal prosecution.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Out of touch - from different ends of the spectrum

I don't always agree with Harriet Harman, but I'm on her side with regard to Phil Woolas.

His emails and campaign was unbecoming of a Labour representative and his suspension from the party was entirely justified. I have no problem with him seeking to clear his name with regard to the breaches of electoral law, but the evidence itself is damning. He does not deserve to be part of our party, which is why I've supported the open letter on Liberal Conspiracy.

I admit to concern about judges overruling the will of the electorate, but I tend to agree with Gaijin-San that the courts should step in when an election has been won under false pretences, which was essentially what was decided here.

Is the Electoral Court superseding the wishes of the public; is it, as Woolas, Leigh and Winnick suggest, an assault on democracy? I would argue quite the opposite. The Court, in protecting the suffrage of the people of Oldham East are defending democracy from those who would abuse, undermine and damage it. One cannot obtain a mandate from the people, their consent to be represented by you, by lying to them. That is the assault on democracy.
We cannot afford to be less than brutal here, even at the risk of being unfair to Mr Woolas. Blunt as that may seem, the public will not stand for self-indulgent politicians whinging about their lot. If he is able to clear his name and show that the evidence does not relate to him, then the door should be open to a return, but in the meantime, he will best serve his cause and, above all, his party by quietly departing the scene to fight his case through the appeal courts and accept that the people of Oldham and Saddleworth need a new parliamentary representative.

Elsewhere, we find another pair of politicians gloriously out of touch with reality and it features Nadine Dorries again, who has been lobbying for a parliamentary debate on the workings of IPSA, the body which manages the new expenses system for our parliamentarians. Apparently, there is nothing more urgent to Nadine and Adam Afriye than the condition of MPs expenses payments - not cuts to their local councils or the economy in general. IPSA confirm that just 3% of the claims submitted in September are outstanding - all because of errors by those who submitted them. Nadine whinged
Ipsa have been refusing a large number of claims which MPs have been putting forward, not because they are inappropriate claims, but because they have missed out a field on the form or incorrectly completed a form.

It may come as a surprise to some MPs, but if forms aren't filled out correctly, ordinary people don't get money to which they are entitled either. The consequences can be even worse - people are fined for incorrectly completing forms for the taxman. Given that filling out forms is a key role for constituency and parliamentary staff, this doesn't fill you with faith that they are best placed to help you.

You would hope that our MPs would have twigged that losing touch with the electorate is damaging to politics and I'd urge them all to reconnect with the public mood immediately, unless they have given up hope of restoring faith in politics in this country. Failure to grasp this is an insult to the foot soldiers of all parties who wear out shoe leather trying to get you re-elected and above all, it is an insult to the wider electorate. Grow up, stop gazing at your navels and get back to representing all of us.

Morning after


Well, yesterday's blog post about Nadine Dorries certainly caused some fuss - indeed it was a record day for visitors to my humble blog. There was entirely uncalled for praise from David Allen Green, the mysterious @theCredo and Tim Ireland as a little twitterstorm ensued. Most curious and exceptional was a brief challenge from @DarkBlondAngel, who has set herself up as a defender of Nadine and started throwing barely disguised threats around at both myself and David (a lawyer by profession and a rather good one).
I humoured her for a while, but my comments are sourced or are genuinely held opinions. As always, my policy on right to reply / correction is simple - the door is open. Where I have made mistakes, I have always admitted them and made a correction. If I have made a mistake with regard to Nadine Dorries, then she is welcome to comment and it is guaranteed to be published (presuming it doesn't break the basic rules of politeness that I apply to comments). You see, I publish comments. I welcome them. That's how a blog works.
Despite DarkBlondAngel's pseudo-legal questioning of me, she has declined to answer what is her own connection to Nadine. I don't believe - and nobody else has suggested - that anything I wrote was libellous or erroneous, so, with the proviso of the offer of right to reply, my only other reply to DarkBlondAngel and anyone else who wants to wave threats of legal action around at me is that contained in Arkell v Pressdram.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Through the looking glass

Orwell would be proud of John Hemming - trying to convince us that black is white.

Liberal Democrats in government are about to scrap student tuition fees for 54.2% of students. This may come as a surprise, but that is because this side of the story isn't really being told.

It isn't being told, because it isn't true. Student tuition fees are being hiked to cover the government withdrawing funding from most degree programmes.

People have got to get away from looking at this issue as student debt. It is not a debt, in most ways... In essence, what we have is a future tax liability
I'm not sure quite how else to look at leaving university with £30k of tuition fees behind you as anything else than a debt. This debt will attract a higher rate of interest than it does currently. While I'm pleased to see a small increase in the grants available, a thumping hike in the debt is hardly likely to attract people to university. My daughter, a very bright girl, is thinking ahead about it right now and isn't enthused by the likely size of debt she will end up with. Asking her to consider it a tax liability hasn't helped much.

In other words this new system is a graduate tax in all but name
But didn't St Vince say

While it is superficially attractive, an additional tax on graduates fails both the tests of fairness and deficit reduction
Essentially, the whole article is an attempt to rebrand a clear breach of an electoral pledge as a consistent policy. It isn't and the comments below the piece show that people haven't been deceived by this piece of sheer, unadulterated spin.

Just like other Liberal Democrat MPs, John Hemming will break that pledge he made, no matter the contortions he attempts to ease his conscience.

The day satire died

Just when you thought Nadine Dorries (currently Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire and now a nose ahead in the race to the bottom to be Britain's most ridiculous MP) could not delight us more, she plumbs new depths.

Nadine, you will recall, used her position and her website to attack a constituent for being off work as a result of a long term physical illness, for having the nerve to have political opinions in opposition to Nadine and the sheer temerity to put them on Twitter. Nadine appeared on 'Tower Block of Commons' and, while she was supposed to be living on the same amount available to benefit claimants, hid a wad of cash about her person. And most recently, it was Nadine who claimed - in evidence to the Parliamentary Commissioner in defence against an allegation of abusing her housing allowance - that her 'blog' was 70% fiction, although she has since retracted that, claiming that only 30% of her blog is the product of her fertile imagination. Another product of the septic think tank of her mind is the oft repeated allegation that Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads is known to the police and has been reported to the police on at least two occasions for stalking the blameless Ms Dorries - even going so far as to publicly warn him off a few days ago.

Tim is quite clear on this. He has never even been spoken to by the police in relation to harassing or stalking Nadine Dorries. I find it hard to believe that if the police in Bedfordshire (actually, the Chief Constable, no less) and the Metropolitan Police have both failed to follow up on the allegations made by an MP that she is being stalked by at least interviewing the accused person. Given that Nadine has misunderstood the law and repeatedly failed to produce the crime number in support of her claim and her tangential relationship with the truth, it seems rather apparent that this is part of the 70% or 30% that she is making up.

She's also used her position to support a 'charity' - Forsaken - which is not registered with the Charities Commission and does not appear to have a charity registration number issued by HMRC, the alternative available to small charities. This charity is apparently carrying out work on post-abortion syndrome, as Nadine returns to mount her anti-abortion bandwagon, which she has now rebranded pro-woman in a US-influenced attempt to frame the argument with her language. She even claimed that the abortion business is profitable for those involved - a claim debunked by Unity (really, Nadine - you don't want to take his forensic mind on in a battle of wits).

And did I point out that she is actually a member of parliament? A legislator elected by the good people of mid-Bedfordshire to serve them all, although she appears to have difficulty with the concept that a political opponent might also be a constituent.

You see, Nadine has a problem with being held to account, scrutinised or even having her views challenged by anyone. What she calls her 'blog' is nothing of the sort - aside from the hideous pinkness, she has steadfastly declined to enable comments to allow the interaction between the blogger and the reading public. Her behaviour on Twitter is ludicrous - rather than seeking a large audience for her views, which have significance well beyond the boundaries of her constituency, she assiduously blocks those whose opinions she finds to be different from hers, as if her opinions and beliefs are so shallowly grounded that they might be shaken by the injection of any alternative view or even facts. Being blocked by Nadine has become something of a badge of honour - one I have finally attained.

A few days ago, David Allen Green, a well-respected blogger, wrote a piece for the New Statesman, which he concluded
These are not trivial matters: using any publication to mislead constituents and to make unsubstantiated allegations is possibly as serious an abuse of any medium – social or mainstream – as it can get for a politician. Even partisan Conservatives must regard this as unacceptable and, indeed, off the record many do so. For many, sadly, a once-excellent blogger has become an embarrassment and a disgrace.

His arguments are cogent and sourced, his politics are close to that of the coalition, but Nadine has dismissed him as verbally aggressive and accused him of lying - apparently a
'uniting, unique attribute of the left.'

Has she never heard of Richard Nixon or watched Fox News?

This from a woman who has admitted that some 30-70% of her blog is a lie. Someone who has consistently made unfounded allegations of criminal behaviour against others.

Let me offer you a comparison. My constituency MP is John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat, who is consistently wrong on many issues and a man who I have worked against in two elections and fully intend to help defeat in 2015. Along the way, I've been a candidate for Labour in local elections and I've challenged him here, on his blog and on other websites, as well as in person in public forums. To his absolute credit, John has always been prepared to engage with those who happen to hold different opinions and has never shied away from the rough and tumble of political interaction.

Scrutiny and accountability are part of political life. If you cannot accept that as a fact, then you have no place in elected politics - you just aren't suited to it. I agree with David - Nadine Dorries' behaviour has become an embarassment to the body politic and she should be excised by her own party.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Tories solve homelessness problem at a stroke...

...by redefining homelessness.

So if you get evicted by your landlord because your Housing Benefit no longer covers enough of the rent and he has declined your offer to renegotiate the rent downwards (yes - the Tories think this will happen), the local authority won't prioritise helping you because you won't actually be homeless.
Freud said it could be "quite valuable" to revise the current criteria in place, arguing: "We have found it very difficult to define homelessness in this country
Orwell would have been proud.
He also rejected suggestions of a new exodus of the poor from the centre of cities to the suburbs of the kind seen in Paris, pointing out 70% of tenants in the private rental sector had anyway only been in their accommodation for three years or less. He also insisted it was fair to ask low-income families to move out of homes the working poor could not afford.

These just don't follow - he states that there won't be an exodus because most tenants haven't been there long, which is a non sequitur. And as we all know, there are more working claimants of HB than unemployed claimants.

Lord Freud also told people to stop whinging

The average commuter in London travels 15 miles a day, and there was a strong likelihood that those shifted to outer London would readily find work. He said those tenants that need to move to cheaper accommodation in the suburbs will not put undue pressure on school places, pointing out that there are 50,500 surplus places in London in primary schools and 31,000 in secondary schools.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Answers - it is in the post

A few days ago, I posed a question to John Hemming on whether he supported the postal services bill, privatising Royal Mail.

And as if by magic, the answer came in the vote on the second reading.

He does.

Going further than the Liberal Democrat manifesto - yet another move away from their pre-election commitments.

He's backing the privatisation of the profit and for keeping the liabilities in the public sector, as the government retains the £10.4 billion pension black hole. For all the promised protections, this opens the door to the abandonment of the Universal Service Guarantee and it will be interesting to see if the Post Office retains their preferred supplier status once the seven years guarantee expires. For all that Liberal Democrat posturing over the closure of post offices, this may prove to be a betrayal of all those promises made.

Housing thoughts - guest posting

A guest posting by Anonymous, making some interesting points about the likely outcome of the changes in council house tenancies...

Am I alone in thinking that the revision in the whole council house business is simply a mechanism to accelerate the process of council house sales?

New tenants will not receive a council property for life, they will be regularly reviewed every say 5 years and assessed as to whether they still meet "needs" criteria. This happens naturally anyway as people, as their circumstances change, exercise the right to buy. The policy is dressed up as removing a small degree of inertia where people don't move on when they could do so.

There has always been a huge incentive courtesy of Mrs Thatcher to do so, as a tenant receives a substantial discount - this used to be 70%, but it is now a fixed sum of £26,000. As your circumstances change, if you are in a position to buy, you would obviously buy the house you are in for less than the market rate - particularly if the revised rents set to 80% of the market rent are either cheaper or within margins. A large chunk of the discount kicks in after only two to three years and the maximum is at seven years, meaning that the review is simply an exercise in forcing people's hand to buy at a five year point. Given the fact that the average person who lives in a council property and has remained so, will probably only see modest changes year on year in their circumstances, the chances are that by the time of any review they won't have a sizeable deposit to buy somewhere else (bearing in mind 100% mortgages are a thing of the past and the banks' criteria for first time buyers are much stricter). However banks will of course fall over themselves to lend to borrowers who effectively have a deposit of £26,000 as there will always be equity in the property in the event of a repossession. There is therefore a huge incentive to stay put and buy your council house.

Presumably as time goes on the policy will be extended to other council tenants once people have got their heads around the cessation of a house for life. The Telegraph turned their fire on inherited tenancies a few days back, so this could be flying a flag for a change there as well. When this is coupled to a lot of misinformation about how heavily subsidised council rents are (not very, economic rents go back to the 80's) designed to outrage the faithful, the reduction in housing benefit so that many people will have to make a contribution where historically they wouldn't have and the lowest interest rates for 300 years that aren't changing anytime soon, we see yet more picking fruit from the low branches. While Councils will be permitted to keep the proceeds of sale, Eric Pickles has announced the end to ringfencing, so there is a risk that this income will just go back into the central pot, with a general promise of new houses at some time in the future, rather than being committed for new building. Local authorities, facing their finances being battered will regard housing as just another asset to be flogged off to raise revenue.

An exercise in Cameron Underlining New Thatcherism.

What we learned this weekend: Lib Dems have thin skins

We had Nick Clegg being interviewed in Esquire magazine - and covered in the Daily Mail - about how life has been. Apparently, life has been difficult following his abandonment of the Sheffield Forgemaster loan

I’m getting dog excrement through my letterbox. People are spitting at me.
I'm not going to condone that sort of behaviour - although I keep getting Focus shoved through my letterbox. What is interesting is the coda that the Mail adds to that story

Last night neighbours of Mr Clegg’s home in Putney, south-west London, said they had never seen any harassment or vandalism. And a female neighbour of his constituency home in Sheffield said: ‘This is a very respectable area and whoever has done it will not be from round here.'
Are they suggesting that the Deputy Prime Minister isn't being entirely truthful?

Cleggy also feels hurt when Labour - and others - attack him as a 'charlatan.'
I find it odd when people make personal remarks about people they haven't met. I think it's demeaning. If you take a dislike, then fine. But justify it.
Is he really so lacking in self-awareness that he doesn't understand how disappointed people are in his party's behaviour? The reversals over tuition fees, VAT and the cuts - amongst other things - have proved upsetting for many and charlatan seems remarkably mild. I'm having to review my The Thick of It box set to develop new lines of invective to hurl at the screen whenever one of the coalition puts in an appearance.

It also comes to something when Danny Alexander (pictured being reprogrammed by Vince Cable) feels hurt by a throwaway comment from Harriet Harman. Her mistake in calling him a ginger rodent wasn't insulting redheads - my own daughter felt more insulted by the thought that it might imply that redheads supported the Liberal Democrats. The error was allowing attention to be diverted from the coalition's crude economic experiment.