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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Will English votes for English laws quicken the break-up of the UK?

If the easy popularism of UKIP disturbs you then pause to think how much damage David Cameron's obsession with his own popularist ideas can do now that he is a position to implement them. By far the most dangerous of these ideas is English votes for English laws.

In principle I have no issue with any part of the UK determining its own fate when it comes to issues that are most appropriately decided at a national or regional level. However, the best way to do that is through a democratically elected National or Regional Parliament, or by devolving responsibility to an elected local council.

The solution being advocated by the Prime Minister is a simplistic short cut, that fails to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of how power is currently exercised in the UK and whilst it may prove a constant irritant to Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a real danger that it may drive Scotland out of the Union altogether.

Today's Western Mail illustrates some of that with quotes from Labour MPs illustrating the complexities of the devolution settlement, even a reformed one in which Wales has a full-law making Parliament.

Putting aside the asymmetric nature of devolution across the UK, which means that different nations have powers and responsibilities not reflected elsewhere, the border issues and the impact of the Barnett formula means that virtually no policy actually is English-only.

Anglesey MP, Albert Owen illustrates this when he points out that people in North Wales depend on English hospitals for specialist services. People in Mid-Wales depend on English hospitals for standard secondary health services. Mr. Owen argues that he should not be stopped from taking part in the scrutiny of legislation during the committee stage of a Bill if it affects his constituents. He is right, certainly whilst he remains a member of the body charged with responsibility for that legislation.

But there are less obvious examples of policies that cannot be confined to just the one country due to the economic and financial impact of changing them on other administrations. Tuition Fees is a good example. Half of Welsh students attend English Universities. Welsh Universities are in competition with their English counterparts for students.

That is why former North Wales Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach, is wrong when she argues that identifying England-only legislation should not prove difficult. She believes that MPs just have to look at the Wales Act and check which powers are devolved, arguing that this is what already takes place in the Assembly.

This is such a misrepresentation of the Welsh Assembly's legislative process that I am astonished that Antoinette believes it is the case. Her misunderstanding of what happens here and of our devolution settlement is so wrong that I wonder what it was she did when she was here. Another former Tory AM-turned-MP gone native, and so soon as well.

But the most dangerous part of Cameron's EVEL plan is the creation of two classes of MPs, in which those from the Celtic fringes are curtailed in properly representing the interests of their constituents. That could prove to be the final straw for the Scottish.

If Cameron really wants to pursue this agenda then he needs to look at finishing the devolution project, put in place a Federal UK and let the English have their say through properly elected and representative Parliaments.

It is a deep irony that a so-called unionist Prime Minister has turned out to be nothing more than a second-rate English nationalist and that in pursuing that agenda could well break-up the very union he supposedly cherishes.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How a supposedly progressive tax system hits the poorest hardest

The Independent reports on official statistics that show that the poorest families in the UK are losing more of their income in tax than any other income group.

They say that while the richest fifth of society paid 34.8 per cent of their overall income in tax last year, those at the bottom of the income scale lost 37.8 per cent of their income to the taxman. This is a wider gap than last year, when the difference was 2.3 per cent.

The paper adds that this means that the richest fifth of the population paid £29,200 in all taxes last year, while the poorest fifth paid £4,900. Although in absolute terms that seems to make sense, in terms of disposable income it leaves the poorest in our society struggling to make ends meet.

The papers says that the reason why those on the lowest incomes are paying the biggest proportion of their income in tax is because indirect taxes, such as VAT and tax on tobacco, alcohol and fuel are charged at the same rate to all income groups. So although direct taxes such as income tax and national insurance contributions, both of which are calculated as a proportion of how much we earn, hit the richest the hardest, taken together, the poorest fifth of households lose the largest proportion of their income in overall taxation.

When we have a situation that over half of all households, the equivalent to 13.7 million families, received more from the state in welfare payments and pensions than they pay in tax last year then it is time for a rethink.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Veiled Government threats against RSPCA signals zero tolerance approach to opposition groups

You can always tell when the Conservatives are in government, especially when they have no other party to keep them in check, as the threats to the BBC start to escalate. It seems to be a traditional view of Conservative politicians that the BBC is run by a bunch of lefties determined to do them down. The fact that Labour Ministers, when they are in government, take a similar paranoid view of the corporation indicates that perhaps the BBC has got the balance about right.

However, as yesterday's Sunday Telegraph reports, this zero tolerance of opposition by Conservative Ministers is starting to spread into other policy areas. They have been told by an unnamed Environment Department source that the RSPCA must purge radical animal rights activists from its board or face "disaster".

This Government spin-doctor believes that the charity risks “eroding its credibility” by prioritising contentious political campaigns over animal welfare and has also accused the RSPCA of opposing the badger cull just to increase donations. Really?

It could be argued that these campaigns are perfectly legitimate ones for an animal charity to take up and that on the Government's disastrous and unevidenced badger cull, they are protesting too much. It is a matter for the Charity Commission not the government whether an organisation like the RSPCA oversteps the mark or not. Perhaps the Government should stop trying to stifle legitimate dissent and get on with its job instead.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tory sell-off could fuel a housing crisis

At the last election the Conservatives made a manifesto pledge to offer 1.3 million English tenants of housing association houses and flats the chance to buy their homes at a discount. It is an innocuous looking promise but it could have huge consequences for the housing market, particularly in London and South East England.

The Observer reports that local authorities in inner London now believe that they will have to sell every new council home they build, as soon as they are ready, just so that they can finance this give-away. This is because the funding for discounts for housing association tenants wanting to buy their homes is due to come through forcing local authorities to sell their most expensive properties.

The paper quotes James Murray, executive member for housing and development at Islington council, who is spearheading the development of 20 new council houses for local residents:

The expected bounty from the sale of such high value homes is also supposed to finance the building of replacement properties to meet a desperate need for affordable accommodation.

“But the problem is that they haven’t thought it through,” says Murray. “We had a carefully crafted plan. These flats are designed for those aged over 55, and the idea is that those who want to downsize from family council properties can do so. It is on the edge of the estate, so people don’t need to move away from where they have lived. The bedroom tax doesn’t apply after you retire, but people moving in at 55 would also have got a few years of avoiding that if they moved in here out of their larger homes.

“But it looks like we will have to sell the flats when they are completed in September. Each of them would sell on the open market at £485,000. And because they are new they are within the third most expensive properties that we have. In fact, all new council homes in inner London will have to be sold off. And what incentive will we have to build again?”

Not only are homes being taken out of the affordable housing stock, reducing the opportunity for people to be rehoused in the future, but the chances of that stock being replenished is diminished as the receipt from sales will be insufficient to build more homes, even if land was available to build on. The requirement on councils to sell their highest value stock will also prevent them building new social housing.

The outcome will be even more spiralling rent increases in both the public and private sectors and rising property values, driven by housing shortages, and property speculation. The housing crisis already facing much of London and South East England could well escalate further as a result.

I don't agree with the way that the Welsh Government is approaching the right to buy here, as I am concerned that they are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and taking away the rights of existing tenants*, but thank goodness we will not have to deal with the unevidenced ideological madness being promoted over the border by this new Tory Government.

*My view is that the best way to manage the right to buy in Wales is remove it on new build social housing. This preserves the rights of existing tenants whilst removing any disincentive for local councils to build new homes.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Will Plaid Cymru's decision weaken their negotiating stance after 2016?

Like all the opposition parties, Plaid Cymru face some difficult decisions in the run-up to the May 2016 Assembly elections. Like all the other parties they have a manifesto to put together, containing distinctive policies that take account of the financial reality facing the Assembly over the next five years. But in addition they also need to set out their stall on what they will do if there is no overall majority for any party once all the votes have been counted.

It is arguable that one of the reasons Plaid Cymru lost Llanelli last time was that they failed to rule out a deal with the Tories. Today's announcement formally ruling out any coalition deal with the Conservatives after next year’s National Assembly election is an attempt to avoid that trap this time.

Leanne Wood told the Western Mail: “Plaid Cymru’s vision for Wales sees a fairer distribution of wealth, a strengthening of our public services, and ensuring that everyone is able to reach their potential.

“Since they came to power in 2010, as well as historically, the Tories have proven that they do not share these values.

“They have shown that they are intent on pursuing policies that hit people in the middle and lowest income brackets the hardest while offering the best deal for those with the most. People in Wales have always rejected Tory politics.

"I reject their politics, and so does Plaid Cymru. There is no way that I would lead Plaid Cymru into coalition with the Conservatives.”

That is clear and no doubt the voters will judge her party on that basis. However, where does it leave a Welsh Assembly coming to the end of another term of Labour rule, 17 years in all?

It is an Assembly where the three opposition parties have failed to work together in any significant way so as to make it difficult for Labour to rule without a clear majority.

Plaid Cymru's decision means that it is inevitable that even if Labour have a disastrous election the next Assembly government will also be dominated by Carwyn Jones' party.

Such an outcome may Plaid Cymru in their comfort zone but tactically it is a disaster for them. That is because they have effectively destroyed their own negotiating position in any talks to form a new Welsh Government.

We will now have a situation where Carwyn Jones can play off Plaid Cymru against the Welsh Liberal Democrats so as to get the best possible deal for his party in any coalition deal. Leanne Wood though will be faced with a take-it or leave it situation, in which she cannot even threaten to go elsewhere if Carwyn will not give her what she wants.

If it is Plaid Cymru's position to go into opposition no matter what then that should not be a problem. But if they are serious about being a party of government, and accepting that they will not get a majority or come close to one this time, then it leaves Leanne Wood and her party whistling in the wind. After all, why vote for Plaid Cymru as an alternative to Labour, when by that route you are going to get Labour anyway and when all the policy positions they are presenting to the electorate are not likely to be implemented because they will have no leverage to force Labour into delivering them?

This announcement could be as bad for Plaid Cymru as the failure to rule out dealing with the Tories was in 2011.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Is the Tories's EU referendum a sham?

Having gone to the country with a firm pledge to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the European Union and then put the new settlement to the country, you would think that David Cameron would want to ensure that whatever package he succeeds in getting is watertight and binding before asking us to vote on it. Today's Independent though casts doubt on that assumption.

They report that the Prime Minister has admitted that the referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union is likely to take place before the UK's new membership terms have been implemented in a fresh EU treaty.

His officials are insisting that the deal he intends to strike with the EU partners would be “crystal clear” to the public and have “legally binding” guarantees that would amount to an “irreversible lock.” but surely the only way that could happen is if all the parties have put their mark on a treaty document.

Every other country to my knowledge who have held a plebiscite on changes to the European constitution has done so in the form of a treaty ratification. That is because people then know what they are voting for and can be certain that it will not change without further reference to them.

Is it the case that Cameron, in his haste to satisfy the timetable being forced on him by his party's Euro-sceptics, is prepared to gamble on the good will of other countries in the hope that they will stick to their word when it comes to the detailed discussions on the wording of any new treaty?

The danger is that this will become a vote on whether we can trust Cameron to keep his word, whether we have any confidence in his ability to deliver what has been agreed,whether we believe that the European Court of Justice will not unpick the deal and whether the Prime Minister's very limited capital will sustain the agreement with a group of leaders who themselves are subject to the vagaries of the democratic system and who do not have Cameron's or Britain's interests at heart

And even if we swallow all that, it is likely that no treaty could be agreed before 2025, it would have to be ratified by other countries by way of a referendum and that means it would be another Prime Minister, possibly with a different agenda batting for Britain at that time.

If this sounds flaky then that is because it is. If we are going to vote on a new constitutional settlement with the EU then it needs to be a vote on a settled and legally binding package. That means that we must wait for the treaty before going to the polls.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

All roads lead to Llandudno Junction

On Tuesday the Finance Minister made a statement on her budget tour, allegedly listening to stakeholders about what should be her budget priorities. Today, in response to one of my questions she sent me the itinerary.

18 June           - Aberystwyth
2 July              - Llandudno Junction
16 July            - Cardiff
23 July            - Swansea
3 August         - Newtown
9 September   - Llandudno Junction
10 September - Merthyr Tydfil

Obviously, I am disappointed not to have received a tour T-shirt but also puzzled as to why she is going to Llandudno Junction twice.

Was the Black death really such a good thing?

For those of us with an interest in social history this article in today's Telegraph is fascinating. They report on the views of Professor Robert Tombs of Cambridge University that the Black Death actually had some rather good effects for those who survived it.

Professor Tombs says that although the plague killed an estimated 1.5 million people in England between 1348 and 1350, in its aftermath, with fewer people competing for work and land, living standards reached a height not matched until centuries later:

Peasants had increased leisure time and freedom, so pubs became places for playing games, meeting and socialising.

The amount of free time available to 15th century workers was not equalled until the 1960s, Prof Tombs said.

“This was when the English pub was invented and people started drinking lots of beer and playing football and so on. That was in a way due to, or at least a consequence of, and wouldn’t have been possible without, the Black Death.”

He adds that people got better off, there was more land to go around, resources were not so stretched and what was later called the feudal system largely disappeared:

"Serfs became free because they could simply say to their lords, 'Ok, if you won’t give me my freedom I’ll go somewhere else’.

“And they did. So if lords wanted their fields to be tilled, they had to give their peasants or vassals what they wanted, which was essentially freedom and a better life.

“The standard of living people reached in the 15th century was not exceeded until the 1880s after the Industrial Revolution. And the amount of leisure they took was not equalled until the 1960s.”

Although people had brewed ale for many centuries, and drunk in taverns, the late Middle Ages is said to have seen the rise of the pub as would be recognised in the modern day.

“The brewing of ale was usually a cottage industry,” said Prof Tombs, a fellow of St John’s College who was promoting his book, The English and their History.

“Weak beer was the standard drink. But it’s in the early 15th century that you start getting places that are mainly, or permanently, dedicated to drinking beer that are also about playing games as well.

“That’s the origin of the pub; it’s a particular place. It’s not just that Mrs So-and-so brews berry occasionally and you can nip round to buy a farthing’s-worth of ale, but it’s now to become a full-time brewer with a public house one can go to at any time to eat and certainly socialise.

It just goes to show, some people can find the bright side to any tragedy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why we need to settle the devolution debate once and for all

Today is the day that Westminster comes to Cardiff Bay. To be precise it is the day the Secretary of State for Wales appears in front of Plenary to persuade us of the merits of the Queen's Speech. It is a tough job but somebody has to do it.

Over at the Guardian, Stephen Crabbe has given us a preview of what to expect. He tells the paper that the Tories now want to deepen devolution after what he describes as a massive mistake in opposing the process in 1997:

“Strategically we got it massively wrong in 1997 by setting our faces against devolution. There is a strong philosophical tradition within British Conservatism that supports decentralisation and localism and devolution. We have rediscovered that in the last five or six years as a government. You can see the fruits of that now with the northern powerhouse and city deals. We have got to a place where Scottish Conservatives, Welsh Conservatives – we are very, very comfortable with devolution, we want to make it work.”

He plans to tell us that about the new reserved powers we will get in the latest Wales Bill, as well as proposals to allow the assembly to change its name to a parliament and to set its own franchise. He also makes it clear that he intends this to be the last time a Secretary of State for Wales comes to the Senedd to talk down at us about the UK Government's legislative plans. He is planning to abolish that role in the new legislation.

He wants this latest bill to settle the devolution issue for Wales, arguing that the original devolution settlement has had a “long term corrosive effect” on the whole country by creating a culture of blame and grievance directed at the UK government. He tells the Guardian that the failure to ensure that the devolved bodies took some responsibility for raising taxes has created a “long running perpetual complaint” that Westminster was to blame for difficult spending decisions. Unfortunately, the proposals he is bringing forward will still leave control of the purse strings in the hands of the Treasury.

However, others have a different view. In the Western Mail, Stephen Crabbe's former deputy, the Welsh Liberal Democrats peer, Jenny Randerson says it is time to speed up the devolution process. She wants to go further than the present Government is proposing:

Ms Randerson is calling on her former colleagues at the Wales Office to devolve responsibility for policing and youth justice; to be “open to the idea” of a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales; to increase the energy powers; and to clarify whether the UK Government will be “only be publishing a Draft Bill in this parliamentary session.”

The peer said: “No ifs, no buts, Wales must have fair funding. We need clarity on this issue and the best way to tackle it head on is by entrenching it in the Wales Bill.

Jenny points out that devolution under the Liberal Democrats in Coalition Government moved faster than it had in over decade. She is now concerned that with the Tories on their own, this momentum could be lost.

She is also right that unless the funding gap between Wales and the rest of the UK is resolved then the taxation powers which the UK Government proposes to give to us will be meaningless. That is why we need a firm commitment from the Secretary of State for Wales that a funding floor will be put in place as soon as possible.

The new Wales Bill will propose to give the Welsh Assembly reserved powers so that we will have responsibility for everything within our sphere of influence unless the bill says otherwise. The Secretary of State will no doubt argue that this puts us on a par with Scotland, but others disagree.

Over at the Pendryn Drycin blog, Phil Davies sums up much of the evidence given to the Welsh Assembly's Constitutional and legal Affairs Committee by three eminent academics on Monday:

It is to be welcomed, therefore, that the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee under the chairmanship of David Melding has started gathering evidence on the UK Government’s proposals. Yesterday they took evidence from Professor Thomas Glyn Watkin, Emyr Lewis of Blake Morgan LLP and Professor Adam Tomkins of Glasgow University, all of whom expressed concerns that the process could be hijacked by Whitehall to limit or obfuscate the power of the Assembly rather than enhance it or make it clearer, and that a ‘reserved powers model’ of and in itself was no guarantee of legislative ‘elbow room’ or clarity. “Everything depends on the reservations” was the very strong message emerging from the meeting, and in a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion which also took in considerations of sovereignty, ‘permanence’ and the Sewel Convention, all were of the opinion that the current process represents both an opportunity and a risk to Wales.

He concludes: "Rather than fighting a rear-guard action to cling on to powers that we already have, shouldn’t our leaders be ‘in the faces’ of Messrs Cameron and Osborne demanding much, much more? Silk II in its entirety for example? Home Rule perhaps?"

The Secretary of State for Wales needs to understand that he might have to go that extra mile before this issue really is settled for a generation and the Welsh Assembly is in a position to deliver its own agenda in full.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Did any UK political parties use rent-a-crowd service?

Today's Independent contains the quite startling claim that Rent a Crowd, a company that provides 'background extras and crowds of people for anything and anywhere in the UK', has claimed thatit had "provided people at different locations across the UK in the build-up to the election."

Apparently, these supporter boosts are usually arranged by the PR agencies working for the political parties, either to lighten the load of administration or to provide a convenient buffer between the party and the company.

They say that company doesn't make public which parties it works with, but the fact they have the budget to bring external PR agencies on board suggests they are probably larger than an independent candidate who comes away with a handful of votes. However, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour all say that they were not aware of having worked with the company:

The tactic is allegedly also being used in the US by both Republicans and Democrats, where companies will go as far as to create positive signs for rallies and prepare enthusiastic vox pops for the cameras. Earlier this week, Donald Trump denied paying actors to cheer at his presidential bid announcement.

Rent a Crowd maintains that it only contributes bums on seats.

"The crowds we hire are never there to voice any political opinion but simply to beef up the numbers in the crowds," the rep added. "We get very little info on these other than a simple brief of where to be and to mingle into the crowd. "

Rent a Crowd also claims to have provided general humans for Gok Wan and Fulham FC and has contributed extra mourners at funerals.

If these rent-a-crowds were provided during the run-up to the General Election, but Labour, Lib Dems and Tories deny using them, then who did? The only other party with sufficient resources would be UKIP. They are not included in the list of denials in the article. Perhaps they would like to clear up this issue.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Tories should consider tax rises on the wealthiest rather than further welfare cuts

The Guardian reports that David Cameron is to deliver his strongest hint yet that he intends to launch an assault on tax credits as part of his government's proposals to cut the welfare bill.

They say that he will make the comments in a speech in Runcorn this morning just weeks before George Osborne, the chancellor, sets out £12bn of welfare cuts, seeking to justify them in terms of both reducing the deficit and the need for further changes to incentivise work:

In his speech on “opportunity”, Cameron will say Britain needs to move from a “low-wage, high-tax, high-welfare society to a higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare society”.

“This is what I would call a merry-go-round,” he will say. “People working on the minimum wage having that money taxed by the government and then the government giving them the money back, and more, in welfare. Again, it’s dealing with the symptoms of the problem, topping up low pay rather than extending the drivers of opportunity.”

The potential impact of this approach to cutting the deficit for the working poor could be devastating. In-work poverty is a major problem in our society, whilst many families rely on help with childcare costs through working tax credits. Even then the maximum amount they can claim does not even cover part-time childcare costs. If families cannot afford childcare then they will be unable to work.

My view and that of the Liberal Democrats is that this cut in welfare is a step too far and that the Government should be looking to increase taxes on the wealthiest in our society as a major contribution to eradicating the deficit.

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