Friday, 26 November 2010

The Irish medicine

It is not often you will find agreement with John Redwood on this blog, but when he writes, with respect to the Greek and Irish emergency financial measures: "these countries could get into a vicious circle of more cuts, less tax revenue, more cuts, less tax revenue. With interest rates as high as they are the country will find an increasing proportion  of its public spending absorbed on paying interest charges, leading to the need for further cuts in other spending to try to balance the books."

The Fianna Fáil government proposes (there is no guarantee that the budget will pass on December 7th) among other things to cut the minimum wage by 12% and increase VAT by stages to 23%. €7bn will be cut from government spending, including €865m from reducing public sector pensions. The income tax threshold would drop from €18,300 to €15,300 (about £13,500), but even so one would expect the tax take to fall as economic activity was inhibited.

By contrast, the raising of the tax threshold (first instalment on January 1st) and the guaranteed raising of the state pension here, both Liberal Democrat measures, should ensure a slight increase in activity.

There is one measure which will gladden the heart of many Liberal Democrat colleagues: to introduce a "site value tax" to Irish local government finance.

An argument against badger slaughter to control bovine TB

This is the most authoritative statement I have read yet against the Labour/Plaid coalition's policy of mass slaughter of badgers in Pembrokeshire.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The 80/20 principle

A contemporary of Puccini, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that the resources of his country did not follow an even distribution. He devised a series of formulae to model this phenomenon and the solution that fell out was that roughly 20% of the population owned 80% of the wealth. Later it appeared that this ratio had more general applicability and this 80/20 rule is also named Pareto's Principle. We shall probably find that 80% of the cuts in UK administration will occur in the first 20% of the coalition government's life.

There is one field to which, in my experience, the principle does not apply: computer projects. Here, the ratio is 90:10. For instance, a project becomes 90% complete in 10% of the time. The remaining 10% takes 90% of the time and effort to get working.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Back to that greater oil calamity

It's time to talk about the Niger delta again

"Plans to share petroleum wealth were meant to bring peace to Nigeria's troubled oil province. But [...] an arms amnesty is failing and the Delta remains a powder keg" Daniel Howden, in the Independent.

"Visible from space, deadly on Earth: the gas flares of Nigeria" Howden, a month later.

 "Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it" John Vidal, Observer.

"Apocalypse Now" Fred Bridgland, The Herald (Scotland)

Even the Financial Times has an article, which their policy prevents me copying here, by Patrick Dele Cole: "Leadership required to tackle delta’s oil spills", drawing attention to the effects on the people and the environment of oil company operations in the Niger delta.

BP put $20bn (£13.5bn) in a compensation fund for victims of the Gulf oil spill (BBC). So far, there has been an award of $1.5 bn against Shell (now departed the delta) in a Nigerian court in 2003, but no record that it has been paid. Deepwater Horizon has long since been capped; the pollution in the Niger delta goes on.

Friday, 19 November 2010

A new attempt to by-pass Parliament

Liberal Democrat Voice is reporting another attempt by the executive to grant itself sweeping powers. Mark Pack is hopeful that this, too, can be resisted: "The good news is that Liberal Democrat and other peers are not exactly lining up to give this legislation united unqualified backing in the Lords, and the government is also (to its credit) talking about making changes to the proposals. With the right public pressure the legislation can be made right."

At the risk of someone screaming "Godwin's Axiom" at me, I should point out that Hitler managed to acquire dictatorial powers initially quite legally by means of legislation which also allowed the by-passing of parliament in special circumstances. As Thomas Jefferson is quoted: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty".

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Glamorgan has become "a commercial operation"

Club president Peter Walker has resigned, and deposed captain Jamie Dalrymple has virtually torn up his player's contract. So far from being implicated in the decision to appoint a new county captain behind Matthew Maynard's back, Peter Walker asserted on BBC-Wales News this lunch-time that he had been completely in the dark. The chairman, Paul Russell, and chief executive Alan Hamer, had jointly taken the decision and presented it to the president and the committee as a fait accompli.

In his interview, Walker stressed that he had worked well with Russell and his vice-chairman, and that these two had ploughed much of their own money into the club. He recognised that they were due some return on their investment, but he felt that Glamorgan Cricket had become too much of a commercial operation. It was clear that he saw that he could not fulfil the task he set himself when he had been elected, of being the voice of the members in the administration and of creating greater transparency in its dealings. (There has still been no explanation for the departure of Mike Fatkin and the groundsman last year.)

There is a report by cricinfo on today's departures.

Coalition ale "bland, but good"

Jonathan Calder relays this report from the Stroud News & Journal, that Conservative minister, Neil Carmichael, and his defeated opponent at the general election, LibDem councillor Dennis Andrewartha, recently celebrated Nailsworth Brewery's new "Neil's Coalition Brew". Real ale drinker Ronald Hannan described it as "a bit bland, but it’s good".

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

What gets us in trouble...

An activist not a million miles from Oldham writes: "It seems to me that the policy plans that get the coalition in the most trouble aren't the Liberal ones, and aren't the Tory ones.  They're the Labour ones.

"AV referendum: Lots of flak: not doing what either of us proposed, should we be spending money on this in a recession, blah blah.  Whose policy was it then?   Labour's. 

"Housing benefit cuts:  As per page 20 of Labour manifesto.

"Tuition fee changes.  As laid out in Labour's Browne report.  Actually tweaked to be a little less bad.

"VAT rise:  OK, there was a 0.5% difference in it, but essentially the same plan.

"If they weren't so loud and aggressive about it, you'd be able to enjoy the irony that what the unions and their fellow travellers are campaigning and protesting against most vigorously is the coalition doing the things that they bankrolled Labour to deliver in the first place..."

One could add the revenue settlement which Alistair Darling was planning for Wales, worse than that imposed by Osborne & Gillan.

Glamorgan taking a leap in the dark

I woke this morning to the news on Radio Wales that the Glamorgan committee had sacked Jamie Dalrymple as captain and, without consulting Matthew Maynard, the county's director of cricket, had appointed the untried Alviro Petersen as Dalrymple's replacement. (It would have been courteous to members, by the way, for the committee to notify those of us on email directly, rather than telling the media first.)  The logic, apparently, is that, at the start of the 2010 season, the committee set Maynard and Dalrymple the target of winning a one-day trophy which, after a promising start, the county failed to do. For me, the advance (the county was very unlucky not to gain promotion) in the two-innings game, proper cricket and the base for our Test teams, was ample compensation and Dalrymple should have been allowed to remain in place for the remaining year of his contract. Surely what was needed was not a new captain, but finding an additional good containing bowler.

One wonders what rôle the president, Peter Walker, with his South African connections, played in this decision. Presumably he will be issuing a statement in due course, which will be read with interest. His election was supposed to have ushered in an era of increased transparency, connection with the members and erasing the old fault lines which have prevented the county maintaining a place at the top level of English & Welsh cricket.

There have been some sudden changes of direction and strange appointments as captain in the past. At least, unlike Robin Hobbs and Tolly Burnett, Petersen's best days as a player are ahead of, rather than behind, him. Let us hope that he fulfils the promise as a county captain that the committee sees in him - and that there is not another mass exodus of talent from the county.

Friday, 12 November 2010

DWP gives up on Voice Risk Analysis

Another of Labour's "Big Brother" schemes for cutting down on benefit claims has been abandoned by the coalition government. The Department of Work and Pensions and a few local authorities had been sold on the idea that a claimant's voice on the phone could betray dishonesty, lie-detector-wise, if analysed in real time by a sophisticated program. Warnings from independent researchers about the United States software cut no ice with DWP, who spent a total of £2.4million on pilot projects at JobCentre Plus and with various local authorities.

More details here.

Our dream of a "citizen's income" comes closer

Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, and Steve Webb, pensions minister, issued the following statement yesterday:

The welfare white paper we have launched today has fairness at its heart.

Our Universal Credit is a radical and liberal policy. It will simplify and amalgamate the main welfare benefits into one single system; ensure that work always pays; and alleviate poverty by boosting take-up and encouraging people into work. It is exactly the kind of change that we came into politics to make.

Labour failed miserably on welfare. During their 13 years in office the welfare bill rose by 40% to £87bn. Under their system people moving into work can still lose more than 90% of every pound they earn: a punitive tax on the shoulders of the poor.

The welfare system should not be judged on how much money is spent on it, but on how much of a difference it makes to people’s lives. We will return the welfare system to its historic mission, as articulated by the great Liberal William Beveridge, to offer security but not ‘stifle incentive, opportunity and responsibility’.

Poverty plus a pound is simply not an ambitious enough goal.

That is why the plans we are announcing today will remove artificial disincentives to work. It must always be worth working, even for a few hours. Taken together our welfare reforms should reduce the number of workless households by 300,000 within three years of implementation.  And of course any fair system must include power to use sanctions, so we are giving JobCentre advisers the powers to ensure that there are appropriate and measured steps that can be taken against the small minority who persistently refuse genuine opportunities to work or to train to get the skills to work.

Making welfare work and making it fair is a key test for any government. We are determined to ensure that a government of which the Liberal Democrats are a part passes that test.

Nick Clegg MP
Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Steve Webb MP
Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions  

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Finally, European fisheries policy could be overhauled

Chris Davies, Liberal Democrat MEP, has the following article in the latest Eurofile:

I like the new Fisheries Commissioner, and after her recent presentation to the European Parliament’s Environment Committee I guess I am not alone. Maria Damanaki is Greek, has been a socialist Member of Parliament in her country for many years, and arrived in Brussels knowing next to nothing about fisheries policy.

But she is no fool. Nor is she without courage; as a student she was a radio voice of liberation who was  tortured for her views by the military dictatorship of the time. 

I had asked that she speak to the committee about her plans for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. I hoped that its ‘greenish’ tinge would strengthen her convictions, counter balancing the less ambitious views of the Fisheries Committee with whom she normally works. She did not disappoint.

“The proposals I make next year will be ambitious. If we lose this opportunity there will be no future for fishing," she said. "We cannot ignore the scientific advice any more. 80% of EU fish stocks are not healthy. We need root and branch reform. 

“We cannot continue to give money to fishermen to throw fish back in the sea, dead. (Discards) are unacceptable. Money should be used instead to provide help with storage and market intelligence.

“Small scale fisheries are the most sustainable and provide economic opportunities for coastal areas. We want to support them while controlling industrial fishing. The owners of the big boats take most of the fish and have the loudest voices, but they employ few people.

“I do not have many allies among the EU’s governments. Fisheries ministers are not generally supportive of radical change. There will be a hostile reaction to change. The Commission has tried to achieve radical reform in the past and twice has failed. I need help.”

My number one political objective is to make sure that she gets it. So all credit to Nick Clegg for his response when I raised the issue with him.

“The Commissioner is quite right,” Nick said. “If it goes to the Fisheries Council the vested interests will block reform. Bring this to me early and I will work to get it taken up to a higher political level.”

Judging by the contributions from both Labour and Conservative MPs in recent exchanges over Europe in the House of Commons recently, Nick will have the backing of Parliament.

London-Swansea electrification

Peter Black has a piece on Freedom Central about the coalition government's consideration of the electrification of the main railway line from Paddington to Swansea. It seems that the decision which successive governments have deferred is likely to be made within the next ten days.

The point is made in the Western Mail article to which Peter refers that an electrification team has been set up as a result of London's Crossrail. Start-up costs for the upgrade of the old Great Western line will therefore be much reduced. The practical thing to do is surely to announce immediately that London-Bristol will follow on Crossrail, and, while that electrification proceeds, consider the further extension to Swansea and, in England, to the West Country, whose industry has also been blighted by poor communication. Breaking the projects up in this way will reduce the headline costs.

The trouble is that politicians do not think in terms of continuity. "Stop-start" has not only bedevilled British railways but has also added cost to our motorway network. Let us hope that a sensible decision is taken in this case.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Labour meeting sending wrong message to electorate

First, there has to be the usual warning that we are relying on BBC reports of what was a private meeting. However, the only radio interviews I have heard so far dispute only the attribution of comments to particular MPs, but not that the comments were made. The BBC informant or informants gave the impression that support for Woolas predominated, and that Harriet Harman was "attacked from all sides". The grounds for the attack appear to be the following three:
  1. In announcing that Phil Woolas was suspended from the Labour Party and implying that he had no future in the parliamentary party even if he won his appeal, Ms Harman was pre-judging the normal disciplinary machinery of the party.
  2. That no action should be taken against Woolas until all his appeals had come to an end.
  3. That judges should not be ruling on the conduct of elections anyway.
As a member of a party which often criticises its own leaders for making policy "on the hoof", I have some sympathy with the first point.It was surely right for Ms Harman to express her own distaste for the Woolas campaign's methods (good for her - but did she really not know what was going on in Oldham East?), though she must have jumped the gun in pronouncing his suspension.

However, it is totally wrong to go further than that. Labour must dissociate itself from a man who has been found guilty of what, outside the political arena, would be libel, and of using racial suspicion as a political weapon. These are points of fact. If any of his appeals succeed, they can only be on technicalities. If Woolas is allowed to remain an active Labour member, the executive is sending a message that they approve of US-style character assassination and racism as valid campaign tactics.

It is often argued by Labour spokespeople that Liberal Democrats equally "fight dirty". However, when challenged, those people cannot come up with anything which a reasonable man would describe as "dirty". Staged photo-opportunities and misleading statistics are not in the same league as Woolas's antics, or what I know local Labour campaigners say on the door-steps but daren't put in their leaflets.

It's the third ground - that MPs are beyond the law - which really takes the breath away. Labour MPs are not alone in this arrogance: a Tory MP expressed the same view at the weekend. Do they still not get it? If judges cannot rule on electoral law, then who can? If Labour back-benchers don't like the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and preceding legislation which included the clauses against false statements, why did they not object before?

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Getting rid of Welsh & Scottish Questions must save some money

Why drag the Secretary of State for Wales to the House of Commons every month to answer such questions as:

Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Labour): Given that the Secretary of State's Department does not stand up for Wales, what does it do?
Mrs Gillan: My Department stands up for Wales, unlike the previous Secretary of State, who stood back from Wales, allowed it to become the poorest nation in the UK and then compared it to Rwanda.


Neil Parish [Conservative, Tiverton]: Does the Secretary of State agree that streamlining regulation and stimulating the private economy will be essential to the Welsh economy?

Mrs Gillan: My hon. Friend needs very little reply except to say that I wholeheartedly agree with him and will do my best.

? One hoped that at least the irrelevant party point-scoring from English Conservatives would have ceased with the change of government in Westminster, but it appears not.

One could also question the existence of the post at all, but at least Cheryl Gillan has done more for Wales than the last Labour Welsh Secretary. She may not immediately have persuaded the Minister of Transport to authorise the electrification of the South Wales main railway line, nor the Minister of Defence to go ahead with the training facility in the Vale of Glamorgan, but then neither did Mr Murphy or Mr Hain. Both projects are still under consideration, and, if St Athan does proceed, then it will be on a basis of better value for money than the PFI scheme that Labour was considering. The block grant for WAG may have been cut by £1.8 billion, but we now know that Labour would have cut it by around £2.8 billion over four years.

The revival of the Welsh Parliamentary Party - a back-bench initiative - alongside the continuing Welsh Grand Committee is another reason for the abandonment of the charade of Welsh Questions.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Some prisoners to vote

As Mark Pack has pointed out, there was a brief window between 1870 and now when being in gaol was no bar to voting. Labour was responsible for opening it and then closing it again. The liberal Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, later to be a founder of the Social Democrats, oversaw the passing of the Criminal Law Act 1967 and the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland ) 1967. This legislation abolished the division between felonies and misdemeanours and, as a result, removed that ban on voting in Parliamentary elections. Two years later, when Jenkins was at the Treasury and the more conservative James Callaghan was Home Secretary, the Representation of the People Act restored the ban.