Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Clarke speaks sense on prison policy, but Howard should be heard, too.

Malcolm Hewson is not the only Liberal Democrat welcoming Kenneth Clarke's seeming conversion to Liberal Democrat policy on sentencing. However, Clarke's justification is largely economic. Amol Rajan suggests that Clarke believes in the abolition of short sentences on principle, and that his stress on the money saved is merely to get the policy past the Conservative Thatcherites. I'm not so sure. There was an earlier example of a liberal policy being followed merely for its impact on the Treasury, with no attempt to address its social implications: "care in the community", which not only freed people from Victorian asylums, but also freed the asylum buildings themselves for development, as well as saving expensive staffing.

The result was, as a prison officer, " frankspence", points out in a comment to the  Amol Rajan opinion noted above, "many patients being ejected into society. They were institutionalised and unable to function and consequently many committed minor offences". He continues that they "discovered that Prison was not so different from the institutional life in a Psychiatric Unit and became recidivists, all minor stuff but recidivists all the same. There are still huge numbers of mentally ill inmates in Prison."

There is a saying attributed to GBS (though I have been unable to find it) that prisons are full of those who should never have been there in the first place and those who should never be let out. Liberal Democrats have rightly been concerned about the first category, but we should also pay attention to the latter. Michael Howard said in his Middlesbrough 2004 speech: " persistent, violent and dangerous criminals should be sent to prison. The public needs protection from them." Jack Straw explicitly endorsed this view as justification for his prison policy. But, because far too many people have been put inside on short sentences, especially under Labour, the prison authorities feel compelled to release more dangerous convicts early, or move them to open prisons.

Interestingly, the sentence before the one already quoted from Howard's speech reads: "Cautions should be for first time offenders - community penalties for less serious crimes." So even the shadow Home Secretary with something of the night about him recognised that there are alternatives to prison.

Supervision of convicts in the community is down to the probation service, but there is no sign that the coalition government is about to reverse the savage cuts started by Labour in 2008/9 and due to be completed in 2012. There is a suggestion that voluntary organisations could fill the gap, but although there are enthusiasts who are willing to donate time and money, for instance to Restorative Justice, these completely voluntary contributions must necessarily be localised, and money will be needed to roll out such schemes across England and Wales.

Rehabilitation inside gaols also implies additional staffing, if only to cut the drug culture. A huge proportion of inmates are illiterate and cannot do basic arithmetic. Correcting this would give them a good chance of getting a job, which, if held down, would virtually guarantee going straight (see Digby Jones' "Comment is Free" general election contribution). But this could not be achieved if short- and medium-term spending cuts are applied to prisons.

My conclusion is that overall cuts in the prison population will not be possible immediately. The reduction in the number of short-term detainees will be balanced by the number of those serving out their proper tariff. To be effective, punishment and correction outside prison will need additional resources. Though there should be savings towards the end of this parliament, they will only be achieved if the prison and probation services are ring-fenced like the NHS for the next two or three years.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

PFI contracts mean that NHS "front line" will suffer in England

The press release accompanying the National Audit Office's report on hospitals built under the  Private Finance Initiative is anodyne. However, there is more disturbing news in the report proper (

" Some Trusts are not, however, devoting sufficient resources to contract management. Many Trusts have recently increased the resources they devote to the management of their PFI contracts. These Trusts realised that managing the contracts was a greater challenge than they had at first thought. However, nine of the
76 PFI contracts (12 per cent) have no one assigned to contract management.

"Trusts are likely to be expected to make efficiency savings over the next few years, but their ability to make savings from their PFI contracts is limited.

 "There are several reasons why it is difficult for Trusts to further reduce their PFI spend or get service improvements through sharing in efficiency savings:
a Unlike refinancing gains, the contracts do not require investors or contractors to share gains they can generate through more efficient management or service delivery in individual contracts, or groups of contracts, where these gains are not reflected in prices offered in the value testing reviews.

b We saw little evidence of partnering work between contractors and Trusts aimed at driving down costs and producing mutual benefits.

c Although maintenance services are subject to competitive tension in the tendering process, Trusts have not been able to benefit from any efficiencies in building maintenance which contractors achieve over the contract’s life. This is because these services are not value tested and contractors do not share with Trusts
information on their maintenance spend."

So it is difficult to make savings without cutting back on services.

"Whilst some Trusts have sought to make savings by reducing the scope or performance requirements of their PFI services, there is little experience of these negotiations or their outcomes. Trusts need to ensure that any decision to reduce services is informed of the long-term consequences to costs and the impact on patients"

The Welsh Assembly Government has until now resisted large-scale PFI scenes, with the notable exception of Neath Port Talbot hospital. One would like to ask the directors of the new Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Trust whether our area is in a similar financial strait-jacket because of PFI, but unfortunately the Trust does not hold public meetings as its predecessor bodies used to, thanks Ms Hart's reorganisation.

Clegg: the omens

Jonathan Calder, in his Liberal England blog, has been making much of the Hammer film "Captain Clegg" in which the hero leads a gang of smugglers. Just recently, "Private Eye" correspondents have drawn attention to the Kleggs, a race of alien reptiles who kept a tyrant in power in 2000AD's "Judge Dredd" comic strip. In the current issue of PE, Cormac Purtill writes: "To take this disturbing parallel one step further, Judge Dredd only overthrew the tyrant with the help of Fergee, a monstrous figure who had made an unwelcome return to civilisation, some years after disappearing underground.

"I think we should all worry."

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Barry girl takes over Australia

Julia Gillard, who was born in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan,  became Australia's first female prime minister after Kevin Rudd resigned as PM and Labor leader. The Australian Broadcasting story is here.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Which governor-general is telling the truth?

The new Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, was asked at Welsh Questions in the Commons today what progress had been made in framing the question for the referendum on law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly. She informed the House that there had been none, prior to her taking office. The former Secretary, Peter Hain, MP for Neath, then came as close to House of Commons rules permit to calling her a liar.

However, he prefaced his request for an apology with the proviso that she may not have been shown all the papers by the Welsh Office civil servants. Now, there is a convention, which the civil service takes seriously, that records of policy discussions between senior permanent staff and ministers are treated as confidential. They are not destroyed, but are locked away on a change of government to resurface again only when the same party returns to office. (I wonder if Ms Gillan took as bedtime reading the minutes of the interchanges between Gwydr House mandarins and William Hague, Redwood and Peter Walker; in a sad coincidence with Ms Gillan's first Welsh Questions, the death of the latter was announced this morning.) At least, that used to be the case. Freedom of Information legislation may have shortened the period for which non-sensitive papers are sequestered, but not to the extent that incoming ministers would immediately made privy to their predecessors' confidential transactions.

So both Rt Hon Members may have been telling the truth as they saw it, but the inference must be that Mr Hain's thoughts on the question never got beyond consideration of the political implications. He had ample time to put at least a draft question on the record. If I understood Ms Gillan correctly, she has already sent, or will within days send, her proposal to the Electoral Commission.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010


Of course the VAT increase will be unfair and will mitigate the beneficial effects of the increased personal allowance. That, in turn, should have been greater and applied sooner than next April. The pressure on local councils in England to freeze council tax is, to my mind an intrusion on local democracy - though not as bad as that by Thatcher/Heseltine and Blair/Prescott.

But Harriet Harman's anger in her response was totally synthetic, as Malcolm Bruce pointed out in his contribution to the emergency budget debate. No party absolutely guaranteed, before the election, that VAT would not have to rise if the financial climate got worse, so we could hardly be convicted of hypocrisy. Labour could have restored the earnings link for the basic state pension, but didn't. Not only has the coalition done that in its first budget, but has guaranteed a triple safety lock on future increases which will improve on the situation pre-Thatcher. Labour introduced a 10p tax rate - but then took it away again. The coalition is committed to taking the first £10,000 out of income tax. Labour has never liked small business, and, in spite of the occasional lip-service to the SME sector, introduced several niggling handicaps, both bureaucratic and in terms of tax. Many of those will be removed by this Finance Act, and will give a bigger boost to the economy than all the pseudo-jobs in the quango half-world.

Of course unemployment will rise over the coming months, but this was built into the process which started with the credit crash.

 And what about capital gains tax? Labour under Blair and Brown actually reduced this, even from what it was under Thatcher. Liberal Democrats called for it to be increased again, and it will be.

The opposition (how I like writing that!) have made much of the withdrawal of the promise of a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters.  This was part of a whole slew of promises made by Lord Mandelson in his pre-election tour of Labour marginals. I think of them as Labour's fighting ships: they were never serious proposals, because the writing was on the wall for Labour when they were made. They were probably always intended as political counters, for use in debate when they were inevitably repudiated by the incoming government.

As Nick Clegg explained in deputy prime minister's questions earlier, Sheffield Forgemasters had available a loan on commercial terms. The reason they preferred the offer of a loan from the state was that this would not involve dilution of the directors' interest in the company.  Labour exaggerates when it says that jobs would be threatened in Sheffield by the withdrawal of a government loan when the company could fall back on a commercial one.

All in all, this is some way from the budget I would like to have seen. However, it is still better than anything Labour has produced, or would have produced should they have been returned to power. Moreover, the programme of debt reduction which George Osborne announced today will, if it proceeds according to plan, put UK in a position where we cannot be held to ransom by the international money market.

Let's have justice for RMJ

Refugee and Migrant Justice,  formerly the Refugee Legal Centre, is being forced into administration because of a mean-minded change to the way the Legal Services Commission pays out legal aid. As this leaflet (pdf) explains, RMJ used to get paid monthly to cover the work they do. But now they get paid only after each case has closed, which depends on the timing of Home Office and tribunal decisions.

As a charity, RMJ may not obtain bank loans. The organisation is not asking for extra money, just for Legal Services Commission to pay what is due, or, failing that, for government-backed interest-free loans.

A barrister who specialises in immigration work, but who is by no means a soft liberal, tells me that RMJ is a good organisation.  The government's rebuttal that other organisations manage is "silly", she says. Few organisations could cope with waiting 2 years or more to get paid, when they have to shell out for rent, salaries, and all the rest of it, month in, month out.

There are many ways to help, as this web page explains.

Politics and comedy cross over

Boris Johnson made his name as a comic performer on TV before being elected mayor of London. Lembit has taken the opposite path (for instance, he will be gigging at Glastonbury). Now Liberal Democrat Voice reports on the Johnson effect in Iceland.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Commons bar MEPs, Lords are more sensible

I have started looking out for relevant EU stories, and one comes this morning from an unexpected source: the House of Lords blog, organised by the Hansard Society. Lord Norton reports that the Upper House is to continue to allow MEPs to have passes to that part of the Palace of Westminster, after the Commons had earlier in the year resolved to withdraw the right. It seems that the Commons decision was not an anti-EU gesture in advance of the Conservatives coming to power (though no doubt Mr Cameron will be in no hurry to reverse it) but a move against the BNP.

What Labour and Plaid believe in

Judging by Peter Black's report on the Queen's Speech debate in the Senedd, Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru cannot be separated in their unwillingness to help the low paid, would allow the basic state pension to decline in real terms, would continue to defy the courts over Equitable Life policy holders who have suffered losses, would not hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote system for elections to the House of Commons, would not give voters the right to recall their MP where they are guilty of serious misconduct, would not reform the House of Lords, would press on with the national identity database and cards, continue to separate and lock up the children of asylum-seekers, and are happy with the present system of financial regulation which allowed insecure and irresponsible banking,

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

European Parliament

 Prompted (belatedly) by a posting of David Peter's, I have added a few links to this page, to help redress the lack of publicity accorded by the press and, sadly, the broadcast media in Wales, to the activities of our representatives in Europe.

There is a good periodic summary of European parliamentary activity in "The Record: Europe" on BBC-Parliament, but it is unfortunately routinely shown late at night. I can also recommend David Peter's "Matters European" blog.

Don't go back on the spirit of the coalition agreement, Mr Osborne

The word coming out of Cowley Street is that the promised lifting of the income tax personal allowance will not start until April 2011 and will not be complete until the fifth year of the coalition government. At the same time, there are many hard-line Conservatives calling for the capital gains measures which would have paid for it to be scrapped. For discussion on the fairness of this (and the raising of VAT rates, which the civil service mandarins would prefer), see and

I suggest another reason for taking the low-paid out of tax as soon as possible: that it is going to give a bigger boost to economic activity than all the Bank of England's easing. If you give money to poorer people they will spend it. If you give money to the banks, who have been shocked from being extremely high on risk to being extremely risk averse, they will use it to restore their reserves rather than lend it out, no matter how hard Vince Cable may urge them  to be more progressive.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Vintage Computer Festival, 19th & 20th June

To be held at Bletchley Park. Details at

Suggestions for expenditure cuts

David Cameron and George Osborne have asked for suggestions from the public for cuts in state spending. I suggest that there are too many civil service posts. Many result from unnecessary legislation, primarily under Labour, but the Major government was not guiltless. However, there seem to be areas of administration where there are just too many people for the jobs they are meant to do. Ministry of Defence staffing is a prime example.

According to Liam Fox, quoted in last year:
"there is one civil servant in the MoD for every two members of the armed forces. At the same time, the 28,000 staff working on procurement is not far short of the Royal Navy's entire staff of 34,000"

Contrast that with the days of Samuel Pepys, Charles II's secretary to the admiralty board. Defence acquisition typically involved takeing a boat over to Deptford, checking out the yards and ordering the building of a ship from the selected contractor. (To his discredit, Pepys would occasionally take a sweetener, but there is no evidence that the nation got a poor deal as a result.) This was in addition to all his other duties, assisted by just two clerks.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Some things haven't changed (2)

When references to Special Advisers (SpAds) failed to appear in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and promptings before the election failed to elicit condemnation of the appointment of SpAds, I feared the worst. Sure enough, SpAds have become institutionalised. The ConLD coalition has appointed sixty-six. This is slightly below the seventy-odd employed by Labour, to which Don Foster (LD MP for Bath) rightly took exception in 1999, but it is far above the seven created by Margaret Thatcher.

There is justification in employing a special adviser who has specialised knowledge which is deficient in the upper ranks of the civil service. Scientific and technological expertise comes to mind. There is another (rather more dubious, in my opinion) in that an incoming government feels that the civil service has become too politicised under the outgoing administration. This, I seem to recall, was Margaret Thatcher's justification. Indeed, she and her inner circle seemed to believe that the civil service was innately socialist (not my experience from the 1960s; the prevailing ethos was traditional conservativism).

But in practice SpAds are spin doctors for their respective parties. The jobs are often given as rewards to people who have contributed to political campaigns, as a step up the ladder for potential candidate MPs or, as in a failed exercise by Peter Hain to mastermind an election campaign.

It would be more honest and transparent to extend Short money (and its Lords equivalent, Cranborne money) to parties in government and abolish SpAds, except for genuine special cases. There would have been two benefits if this policy had applied to the last Labour government: it would have helped the party to reconnect to its roots (a common theme of the current leadership contestants); and it would have eliminated the turf wars between advisers to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair which were destructive of government, as well as party.

When I was a junior systems analyst in the civil service, we were taught that salaries are not the sole cost of employing people. There is a whole array of additional costs, including accommodation, furniture, pension contributions and costs of administration to be added on. A rule of thumb is that you should double the salary to assess roughly the true cost of a job.  Applying this rule to a written Ministerial Statement, of 10th June (thanks to Guido Fawkes for publicising the link), the cost of this government's employment of SpAds whose salaries are known is £4.9m. Assuming that the other SpAds whose salaries are not publicised are at the bottom of their respective pay grades - note the institutionalisation - we can add a further £2.78m (I have assumed that the Welsh Office & Minister-without-portfolio posts will be filled at PB0 level, and that PB0 equates to the UK median wage, rounded down to £25,000). The grand total, per year, is over £7.6 million. This may be less than the £13.6 million of Labour's last year in office (twice the salary cost on the last page of the document cited above), but it is still a hefty wad in these days of public financial stringency.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Some things haven't changed in the Westminster village

Prime Minister's Question Time today showed that planted questions and yah-boo politics have not been abolished under the new dispensation. Nor have over-long questions (Tim Farron rather blotted his copybook here, though this probably was not the reason for his loss of the deputy leadership contest to Simon Hughes) and answers, though Speaker Bercow is doing his best to curb these.

The interchange between PM Cameron and his temporary shadow, Harriet Harman, was a good example. It was reminiscent of the duels between Cameron and Gordon Brown in the last parliament, both making a lot of noise but consistently firing past each other. Actually, she made one good point today that she did not press home. She asked that the electoral register be cleaned up before constituency boundaries are re-drawn. It seems that millions of people who are eligible to vote are not registered, and that these are disproportionately from ethnic minorities. Since ethnic minority populations tend to be concentrated in metropolitan areas, Cameron's plan to re-divide UK constituencies rigidly and simplistically according to population would, at a stroke, change some metropolitan constituencies from being over-representative to under-representative - unless voter registration is tackled first.

Of course, the Cameron plan of 500 or so evenly-sized constituencies, if they are still to be subject to first-past-the-post voting or even alternative vote, will not solve the injustice to Liberal Democrats or, in Scotland, the Conservatives themselves, of numbers of votes not being reflected in numbers of seats. Only STV in multi-member constituencies would redress that.