Thursday, 30 January 2014

Can we really give sanctuary to at-risk groups?

I  recently commented in passing on Labour's record of looking after female refugees. It seems from this report that their travails persist under the coalition: being locked up indefinitely, under supervision (sometimes intrusive) by all-male staff (who may be contractors rather than directly-employed people) and at risk of being sent back to the states where they were imprisoned and/or abused. In today's Commons debate on the Immigration Bill, Sarah Teather fought in vain against clauses which would have unwound some of the protection for refugee children which she and other Liberal Democrats had achieved in the early days of the coalition. These are the reasons for my querying the degree of extra safety which Syrian refugees could claim in this country rather than in the camps and elsewhere in Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.

This point was made by Bob Stewart in yesterday's Commons debate:

In April 1993, I took an orphan girl into my house when I was the British commander in Bosnia. My soldiers looked after her. Her parents and her brother had been shot dead in front of her. We thought that we should take her out of the country and that that was the right thing to do. In the end, we found a distant uncle and she stayed in Bosnia. The Home Secretary has said that that is the best option. We should bring people out of the region only if no other option is available to save their lives or look after them properly.
Also Stephen Metcalfe (with an intervention by Stuart Andrew):

As I have said, I am pleased by today’s announcement. I have no objection to playing our full part in the UNHCR’s call for countries to take a number of refugees. Indeed, I feel that it is our moral and ethical obligation to play our part in helping the weak and the vulnerable, the displaced and the war-weary, but I do not want our action to be tokenistic. I am also concerned that we are taking people away from their natural communities and local support networks just to salve our consciences. I still believe that, as I have seen, the best place to provide the widest possible support to the largest number of people is on the ground, locally, within the region.
Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I was also on that trip and what struck me most was the fact that the camps were so well organised in providing education for the many children who are there and who want to go back and rebuild their country once the regime has gone. Does he not think that the investment in providing education to those children is a crucial element of the support we offer?
Stephen Metcalfe: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One feature of the camp we visited is the service the Turkish are providing in education and access to skills learning. Unfortunately, however, only 14% of children receive any form of formal education. The Turks are doing their best, so if we really want to help we could expand such services on the ground.
All that having been said, however, there are some who would truly benefit from the security and safety that Britain can offer. I support that, but we must remember that whatever we do will be only a small drop in a very large ocean and that by far the best way to help the largest number of people is, as we have heard, to bring all the sides together to resolve the conflict so that the poor souls we met on our trip who have been displaced can return home and start to build the secular, democratic and secure country that I am sure the majority desire.

My other objection to signing up to the tokenism of the UNHCR programme is that it elevates refugees from Syria above those from other conflicts, who are suffering as much if not more. An instance is that of the Palestinians. Gerald Kaufman's credentials, as a son of refugee Jews from Poland, are impeccable. He put the case in yesterday's debate:

[They] are refugees twice over—from their own country and now from a war for which they have no responsibility, with which they have no connection and in which they have not taken a side. They are enduring death and deprivation in Syria.
The al-Yarmouk camp, just outside Damascus, has been under siege for six months. It was inhabited by more than 155,000 Palestinian refugees, but of those fewer than 20,000 now remain. A list has been published, which is in my possession, of the names of those who have died in the camp and the causes of death. Again and again, that cause is listed as starvation. Refugees in this camp are surviving on grass, animal feed and spices dissolved in water. Extreme human suffering in primitive conditions is the norm. Only 200 food parcels have been delivered to the remaining 20,000 people marooned in the camp.
Some 560,000 Palestinian refugees are living in Syria, and more than half of them have been displaced. Their restrictive travel documents mean that the majority would be unable to leave the country and seek safety abroad even if there were an opportunity for them to do so. Neighbouring countries—I pay tribute to them for the help that they have provided—are overwhelmed by Syrian refugees who have managed to get into their territory.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Let me compliment my right hon. Friend on his speech, and on the work that he has done on behalf of Palestinian refugees. Is it not also the case that tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees have recently arrived in Syria, mainly from Iraq but also from other countries, and that they are in a very dangerous and very vulnerable situation? Some have not even received permanent settlement in Syria, and are therefore particularly vulnerable both to the civil war and to any refugee programme that may ignore them in the future.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. No one—apart from the Syrian Government and another authority [Israel] can be faulted for the efforts that are being made, but the situation on the ground is exceptionally difficult.
One can add the plight of refugees in Kenya and Sudan and from the Central African Republic, to name just a few.

Former Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt, while wishing to see a more wholehearted adoption of the UNHCR programme, warned against the appearance of discrimination:

The Government’s basic position is absolutely correct, as all colleagues have tended to endorse. It is best to help in the region where people are concentrated, and the extraordinary efforts being made by neighbours have been helped by the most generous contribution that this country has ever made to such a crisis abroad. However, as times and needs change, a bit of flexibility is not always a bad thing. Therefore, the response to what the UN has been saying has been important.
One or two colleagues say that we should take special notice of Christian victims. I have not spoken much on the matter before. It was a policy I was looking after, but I want to make two or three quick points because it is an important issue. It is undeniably true that the Christian community in the middle east has been under particularly severe pressure in a region where lots of people have suffered, but the answer is not to single them out but to say that the rule of law has to protect all. The importance of that is that it is not being politically correct; it is ensuring that Christians are not identified with the false claim of the extremists that it is a western construct and a western religion. To give any sense to that and to say, however well meaning, that there is a welcome for them in a “Christian country” feeds that narrative and assists the extremists. Therefore, I urge colleagues and people outside who are rightly concerned about the Christian community to take a lead from his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and Prince Ghazi of Jordan, who are working with Muslim leaders in the region to recognise the particular issues facing Christians and to work through those leaders to provide relief there.

I am aware that I am at odds with Sir Menzies Campbell and Nick Clegg in being wary of endorsing the UNHCR demands. I would like to see an extension of the UK's acceptance of refugees generally, including giving at least those applicants with special skills the right to earn a living rather than subsist on handouts. We should look again at the bar to higher education. I would give more resources to the UK Border Agency in order for them to distinguish forensically between genuine cases and those in no way oppressed. The arbitrary and unjust processes currently used to hit the government's targets should end. I would even welcome our government's transporting the most deserving cases from refugee camps, as is proposed for Syrians. Perhaps the latter will set a precedent.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Congratulations to Malcolm Bruce, commiserations to Lorely Burt

Liberal Democrat MPs yesterday elected Sir Malcolm Bruce as deputy leader of the party in succession to Simon Hughes who relinquished the post on his translation into government.

I have mixed feelings about this. I gave him my first preference (when he was just plain Malcolm Bruce) in the leadership election which saw Charles Kennedy triumphant. I saw him as a more serious candidate than the others, especially in view of his business experience. Subsequent events would seem to have vindicated my decision.

However, Lorely Burt - a graduate of Swansea University, by the way - was also in business at the time of her election to the Commons. Electing her to the deputy leadership would have signalled that women are not disadvantaged within the party and, in view of Sir Malcolm's decision not to contest Gordon at the next general election, would also have been a more forward-looking move.

What seems to have told against Lorely is that she was favoured by Liberal Democrat ministers. In the peculiar circumstances of the coalition, the deputy leader has come to be seen as an unofficial "shop steward" for the back-benchers, and perhaps the majority of the latter believe that Sir Malcolm will be more prepared to hold ministers to account. His vigorous opposition to Alex Salmond's SNP may have been a factor, too.

In the end, Sir Malcolm's majority was just two votes. There is a movement among rank-and-file members to have the deputy leader appointed on the same basis as the leader and I would not be surprised to see a motion along those lines at the 2014 AGM.

Anniversary of a pioneer science journalist

Richard Arman Gregory was born on 29 January 1864 in Bristol. (There is no direct connection as far as I can make out with the later Bristolian Professor Richard Gregory.) He contributed in its early days to the science journal Nature, going on to become its assistant editor, and was also scientific editor to the publisher MacMillan for thirty-five years. He collaborated with HG Wells on the popularisation of science.

What's Left? The Future of Labour

This is the title of a September 1993 Tribune pamphlet written by Peter Hain with assistance from Roger Berry among others. It was issued a year after John Major's electoral success and eight months before John Smith's untimely demise which allowed the Blair-Brown modernisers to take over the Labour Party. It was probably the pamphlet referred to in the bittersweet 2004 farewell to Tribune penned by Mark Seddon. Seddon wrote that the pamphlet: "didn't quite offer the 100 per cent endorsement that was in future to be required of everyone in New Labour, including Peter Hain. The duo were duly defenestrated."

Flicking through the pamphlet now shows what frightened the Blairite horses. Approving references to "socialism" and "the left" appear throughout. Also anathema to the Blair project was the emphasis on devolution and decentralisation, matters on which Peter Hain and Liberal Democrats would still largely agree. (Devolution to Scotland and Wales was a John Smith project, a legacy which Blair could hardly reject, though I'm sure it went against the grain.) The pamphlet's support for trade unionism would also have upset Blair-Brown, though Hain saw the future not in terms of union militancy but in the system of worker participation so successful in Germany - something else Liberal Democrats would endorse, and something there is still a chance of introducing to the Post Office network.

Two sections ring true today. The analysis of Economic Policy includes this:

"The basic problem is that Britain still consumes far too great a proportion of its national income. The 1980s Thatcher boom was a consumption boom [...] consumption increased by an average of 2.5 per cent per annum, whereas GDP increased by an average of 1.6 per cent each year. Since 1979, consumer expenditure rose by 37.2 per cent and GDP by 22.3 per cent. The gap was bridged by increasing debt as the Government encouraged the nation to live on tick."

and this:

"the electorate don't know what Labour stands for anymore. People know what Labour's against but not what it's for. They know key policies like unilateralism, public ownership and trade union rights have been ditched. They hear that Labour is no longer the Party of collectivism. But beyond this, they sense that the glitz, the televisual smile and the sound-bite conceal a vacuum."

I have heard rumours that he is to stand down as MP at the next election. I would discount them, as long as Mr Hain still sees himself as one of the few standard-bearers for socialism on the Labour benches.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Straw man rides again

Barry Sheerman (Labour/Cooperative, Huddersfield) asked George Osborne at Treasury Questions when he was going to stop blaming Labour for causing the global meltdown. As he well knows, neither Conservatives nor Liberal Democrats are making that accusation.

The real charge against Labour is that Gordon Brown increased the budget deficit, and thus vastly increased borrowing, at a time when he should have been building up reserves. Thus, when the depression hit UK industry, there was practically no money available for Keynesian measures which would normally have been deployed to revive the economy.

Of course, it was not a "global" meltdown, but at base a catastrophic loss of confidence in transatlantic financial institutions. Far Eastern economies (apart from Japan) continued to motor along with growth over 5%. Labour has to share at least some of the blame for failure to regulate our banks (some of the largest in the world) and for not insisting on stricter accounting standards. It was this latter omission which allowed Lehman Brothers to conceal its losses in the City of London.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Sexual discrimination: reform must start at the very top

It is unfair of the Guardian's political editor Toby Helm to sub-head his Observer article "Lib Dem reforms failing". I believe that our policy (inherited from the SDP, if I recall correctly) of balanced shortlists got more progressive women into influential political positions than there would otherwise have been. Moreover, they stayed the course, voters permitting. (Where are the "Blair babes" now?) I am particularly proud of belonging to a national Liberal Democrat party which had gender balance in the National Assembly from the start of devolution until the last Welsh general election. Until our chief executive moved on to higher things recently, women had a clean sweep of top jobs: leader, president and chief exec - something of an over-achievement.

Perhaps the federal party became complacent. Robust procedures for appeal when things went wrong within the party were not in place. They are now. (Again, the Welsh party handles these matters better, as the response to a muck-raking story in the Daily Mail, which only saw the light of day because of Rennard, has shown.) It is reassuring that there has been just one threat of resignation and no actual defections among women activists over the issue, and it has not been raised on the doorstep to Liberal Democrat canvassers in by-elections.

Certainly we still do not have enough women in the House of Commons. Helm identifies one cause: women are put off by the nature of what passes for debate in Westminster. The atmosphere in the Welsh Assembly, chaired by the excellent Rosemary Butler, is more congenial. You will also find more Conservative and Liberal Democrat women on local councils, where the emphasis is on action rather than on words, and, away from the headlines, more cross-party cooperation. It would reduce the air of Punch-and-Judy politics, and underline what women could bring to the chamber, if the Labour spin machine did not insist on their female MPs adopting the same hectoring tone as the men in their set speeches and questions to ministers. I also blame deputy leader Harriet Harman for setting the tone dating from her first appearance at Prime Minister's Questions.

The results of the last general election were a disappointment. However, it is fair to say that if we had made gains instead of two or three losses, around half of those would have been Liberal Democrat women. We are not in the happy position of having safe seats to which party HQ can parachute favoured (and, in the case of Labour, eye-catching) candidates. So our women have to campaign as hard as the men. I believe they had another handicap in 2010: that the British electorate is conditioned to prefer a male candidate to a female in times of trouble, which 2010 certainly was. Conservatives suffered similarly - witness the different fates of brother and sister Jacob and Annunziata Rees-Mogg in similar seats. I have only such anecdotal evidence for this assertion, but I am sure it would repay an academic study. If I am right, then 2015 when there should be continuing economic growth will create a more level electoral arena.

Another cause of women's dissatisfaction with the political process is discrimination at the very top, and here Nick Clegg has to share the blame with David Cameron. The original coalition government included too few women, and subsequent reshuffles have removed or sidelined most of those who performed well. For all my criticism of Labour, I applaud their giving keynote speeches to their women - it seems to be just over half of the introductions or winding-up in major debates. It's a pity our broadcast media don't give as much coverage to politics in our continental neighbours as they do to the United States. Borgen may be fiction, but it is inspired by fact. Currently, Denmark, Germany and Norway have women heads of government and women in other key ministries. (Norway also has a law imposing gender balance on boards of directors and the commercial sky has not fallen in there.)

(Conservatives have more serious trouble than ourselves, if the situation in Thirsk is anything to go by. There does appear to be a sexist element in the move to deselect Anne McIntosh.)

If the party leader will not be more proactive, then the grass roots in true Liberal Democrat fashion must take him on. Women Liberal Democrats have formed a group campaigning for "Women, for fairness and equality within all spheres". They organise seminars, fringe meetings, workshops and training sessions, encourage women to become and remain active members of the party, support women candidates at national and local level and campaign on issues which affect women's lives, among other things. Being an organisation dedicated to sexual equality, they allow men to subscribe, as I do.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Liveliness at the Gwyn Hall

It's a pity that Kirsty Williams had to drop out of tonight's recording of Any Questions? from Neath and that the only Liberal Democrat available on Lisa Jenkinson's standby list was Lord Steel of Aikwood rather than another member of the Welsh party. David Steel had to diplomatically decline to answer questions on Welsh education and NHS. If Kirsty had been there, she would have pointed out the big per-pupil spending gap between England and Wales. She might well have drawn attention to the demonstrably dangerous delays in our ambulance service.

We all gave Carwyn Jones a rough ride on these last two matters. In a county borough which returns two Labour MPs with large majorities, one would have expected a more sympathetic audience, but not on education and health.

David Steel gave a statesmanlike answer to a question about Chris Rennard, implying the solution that most of us want to see now, that of mediation. His opening joke that only the Liberal Democrats could be at the centre of a sex scandal where there was no sex drew appreciative laughter. The audience clearly agreed with him that there were more important issues* in the world. Jill Evans was right to point out that there was a healthier atmosphere in a Welsh party which had a female leader, president and chief executive - bravo Plaid Cymru - but Kirsty would have reminded her that Welsh Liberal Democrats got there first. I can believe Carwyn Jones when he said that if complaints about misbehaviour reached him he would have stamped it out immediately - but of course the Labour Party operates as a dictatorship, while we are if anything too democratic. The question is whether such complaints would have reached him in the first place. The pressure on young prospective candidates to keep their heads down must be very strong in Labour, where competition for the party's nominations is cutthroat.

More hypocritical was Jones' attack on David Cameron for the PM's refusal to join in the tokenism of the UN's call for developed nations to take 30,000 Syrian refugees. Cameron's answer in Wednesday's parliamentary question time was rather more nuanced than his critics make out, but I hope to write more on this in connection with next Wednesday's Commons debate on the subject. Suffice to say that he supported a government which separated refugee children from their parents and locked them up in Yarl's Wood, or reckoned that a homophobic East African state was a safe place for an out lesbian, who had already been raped to "reform" her, to return to.

The only member of the panel I haven't mentioned is Michael Fabricant. I am not saying he was under the influence of alcohol - perhaps he had been taking medication for a medical condition - but the Lichfield MP was loud, argumentative, repetitive and slightly less coherent than he is at Welsh Questions.

The programme is repeated at 13:10 tomorrow on Radio 4 and will also be available on the iPlayer.

* BBC keep worrying at this and one wonders why. A recent suggestion is that a sex scandal involving a senior Conservative back-bencher is about to break and the party spin machine is prevailing on its friends in Broadcasting House to throw as much mud elsewhere as possible.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Church of England next for state sell-off

George Osborne is said to be highly delighted with the successful privatisation of the Royal Mail and is optimistic that there will be even greater rewards (some of which may even come back to the taxpayer) from the next, the Land Registry. I confidently expect the sell-off of the Church of England to be in the next Queen's speech. Negotiations are already under way with an established brokerage, Brown Madoff Stanford Partners, which will ensure that shares will end up in the hands of hedge funds which have the best interests of the British government at heart. (This mechanism has been decided upon because of the valuation of no more than £500m which has been put on the church estate by an independent valuer, BMSP Estates Ltd. Few of the buildings can be used for other purposes, and many occupy land in run-down urban areas.) Ten per cent of the shares will be divided between communicants who can prove that they have been christened.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Abolition of price-fixing

The Second Reading of the Abolition Of Resale Price Maintenance Bill was introduced in the Commons fifty years ago today. It was a Private Members Bill, proposed by John Stonehouse who had strong links with the Cooperative movement and also sponsored by Roy Jenkins, still then a Labour MP. Although many Conservatives sympathised with its aims, the Bill was largely supported by Labour, and voted down by the parliament in which the Conservatives had a majority. However, prime minister Edward Heath saw which way the wind was blowing and introduced a government measure which became the Retail Prices Act 1964.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Sex and the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrat party sets high standards for itself and for all participants in public life. This stance is resented as "holier than thou" by other parties. Consequently, when we fall from grace, the episode is seized on by opponents. For instance, LibDems are still suffering from the perception that some leading MPs valued a ministerial Jaguar above keeping their promise to students over tuition fees. (I am proud to say that all Welsh LibDem MPs kept their word and voted against the increases, even though in one case it resulted in a check to a government career.) Some of us are niggled by the double standard this creates. When a LibDem AM was first charged with an assault on a public servant after a drunken night out, he was first suspended from the party and  in short order both dismissed from the party and forced to resign his seat. A Labour MP who is a serial offender in these matters is only suspended and will retain his seat until the next election.

Anyone who has spent any time in local government will be aware, directly or indirectly, of senior people (councillors and officers) seeking  to make use of their position either within the local authority or their party to obtain sexual gratification from vulnerable people. This concerns both sexes and both heterosexual and same-sex relationships. It concerns all parties who have a position of strength. We have the evidence of a former researcher that it goes on in parliament, too, and again that all major parties are involved. And it is wrong, no matter who perpetrates it.

The BBC and the Daily Telegraph have seized on the considered assessment by a leading barrister that the evidence of Chris Rennard's inappropriate sexual behaviour was not strong enough to support a charge, while Nick Clegg has made it clear that Chris will never again have a position of power in the party, as dithering. (He resigned as chief executive in 2009 on health grounds, which may or may not be a coincidence - stories of his misbehaviour came to public attention in 2008.) It is noticeable that no other newspaper has led on the story. The BBC may well be looking for motes in other people's eyes after it has been established that two of its stars, Jimmy Saville and Stuart Hall, misused their position of power to prey on young people. Indeed, this lunch-time's BBC TV news led with the trial of an ITV actor, while two other BBC personalities are being tried on similar charges.

It is difficult to see what else Nick can do - or could have done in 2008, when, according to his statement, no specific allegations reached him. Those who knew more at the time should have spoken up, and the complainants should have stuck to their guns rather than withdraw them, in spite of any damage which would have been caused to the party, which was then riding high. Even so, it would have been difficult to dismiss Chris Rennard, who could have taken the case to an Industrial Tribunal, whose outcome would have been a lottery given less than gold-plated evidence. It is worth repeating Mr Webster's conclusion even after practically all the evidence is in:

In my opinion, the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible. However, it is my judgment, considering all of the evidence collected, that it is unlikely that it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way. Without proof of such an intention, I do not consider that such a charge would be tenable. I stress that I am not finding that the evidence of the complainants was unreliable.

together with party president Tim Farron's response:

The Liberal Democrats have taken the allegations made against Lord Rennard extremely seriously, which is why we appointed an eminent and experienced QC to examine the evidence. As a party we have no choice but to accept Alistair Webster QC’s conclusions, but that does not mean I am content.

Nick Clegg and I are clear that we need to look again at our disciplinary procedures. Lord Rennard is not a current employee of the party and therefore the threshold that must be met for disciplinary action is higher than if this was a company HR procedure. In Alistair Webster QC’s view that threshold was unlikely to be met. While this process has not found to a criminal standard of proof that Lord Rennard acted with indecent intent, it is clear that he did not behave in the way that a Chief Executive should behave. Lord Rennard must reflect on his actions and apologise to the women involved.

These allegations prompted the party to take a long, hard look in the mirror. The Liberal Democrats are, and must always be, a party where everyone is treated with respect. The experience over the last year has been extremely uncomfortable for the Liberal Democrats. We have changed a lot of things about our party – in particular our rules and codes of conduct at every level, from grassroots members to parliamentarians, how complaints are reported and addressed, and we have appointed a Pastoral Care Officer – but we must go further. I am determined that as we continually review and improve our culture and processes we make sure that we reach the gold standard of how to protect volunteers and staff at every level of the party from harassment and inappropriate behaviour and ensure swift and just censure to those who behave in that way. 

The reforms that the party has put in place are right. They should mean that there is no recurrence of sexual harassment which is not immediately redressed. It's where we should have been in 1985. If Conservatives, Labour and Plaid Cymru have similar precautions in place, they have not made them public. I, for one, would be interested to know what they are.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The electorate does not need a referendum to force UK from the EU

If the Conservative Party wins an overall majority at the next general election, it is committed to repeal the Human Rights Act. Moreover, Theresa May - tipped by many as a Conservative leader in waiting - would also withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights. The latter move would virtually guarantee our exclusion from the EU as signing up to the ECHR is a precondition of membership of the Union, while the former would certainly ring alarm bells on the Continent. A move by one or more fellow-members to exclude us would surely follow.

Their Lordships are currently debating a Private Members Bill which passed the Commons with support from Conservative MPs. Lord Dobbs, a political novelist and former spin-doctor, introduced it with the disarmingly simple proposition that it would give the British people the right to decide whether they should have their freedom from being told what to do. As Paul Reynolds pointed out in Liberal Democrat Voice yesterday, it is not as simple as that. Dobbs also asserted that the British public had been consistently lied to over the implications of membership. I would put to him that it was Baroness Thatcher who lied to us; before her, the advocates of formal membership of the European project were clear that it was as much political as economic. It was Baroness Thatcher who pushed through the Single European Act which went a long way towards a federal Europe.

Whether or not the current Bill passes the Lords (and the signs are that it is going to run out of time), if there is another coalition government after 2015 (and the signs are that there will be), there are grave dangers in an In/Out referendum. Whether that coalition is Labour/LibDem, Con/LibDem or even Con/Lab, the government is bound on economic grounds to support EU membership, even if it puts conditions on that membership. As the AV referendum showed, the electorate will use the vote as a judgment on the government, irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the issue. The chances are high that there will be a perverse verdict.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The international aid dilemma

Last Saturday, Ian Birrell in The Independent asked (about Paul Kagame of Uganda) why we in the West "continue to sup with this devil". The answer is that, as Malcolm Bruce, the chair of the Commons International Development Committee put it in November 2012, when questioning Justine Greening over a decision to suspend UK aid, "the dilemma in Rwanda is that it is absolutely fantastic at delivering poverty reduction with the development assistance given to it - probably the best in the world, as Andrew Mitchell [the International Development minister before Ms Greening] said".

This is the question that haunts the civil servants in the IDO section of the Foreign Office. They know that no matter how hard they try, some of the aid they distribute sticks to the fingers of those in power in their target communities. Therefore, they will tend to cherish those nations where virtually 100% of UK aid ends up where it is most needed. But what if the former is governed by a model democracy, and the latter is in the charge of a latter-day Stalin?

Friday, 3 January 2014

Wages beginning to move

Guido as usual overstates the case, but it was clear that the depression of average wages could not continue as confidence returned to the economy, employment rose and unemployment fell. Ed Miliband's tactic of switching his attack to a "cost of living crisis", rather than the unequal benefits cuts, seems about to backfire. I sometimes wonder if there is a Conservative plant in Ed Miliband's office, handing the Labour leader such defective weapons as the prediction of a triple-dip recession (which never happened), abolition of the benefits cap (one of the coalition's most popular policies) and the flood of benefit claimants from eastern Europe (cue picture of half-empty Victoria Coach Station on New Year's Day).

What the opposition (and I include Liberal Democrats in this particular case) should be concentrating on in my opinion is the uneven way in which pay is rising and will rise. Certain skills are at a premium, which will be affected only slightly by immigrants from new EU accession countries. Unskilled work is another matter and I would see immigrants keeping the wage floor down at the national minimum level. Thus there will be a stratification of skilled workers and professionals doing very nicely thank you, and the rest. The calculation probably is that the former are likely to vote and the latter have probably already given up on politicians. It may be Realpolitik, but it is not right.

Some things can be done straight away. Minimum wage legislation should be enforced; too many rogue employers are ignoring it. The cost of employing extra enforcement staff will be partly offset by an increase in the tax take. The penalties could be increased, as party president Tim Farron has advocated.

But we need to go further. Not only should the personal tax allowance be raised to the current level of the minimum wage, in line with LibDem party policy, but the minimum wage level itself needs to be recalibrated. It cannot be right that, for instance, among the users of food-banks are people who actually have jobs.