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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A question of openness?

It is the case that the major parties tend to keep their policy and spending plans a closely guarded secret until the General Election campaign. But does this amount to keeping voters in the dark on unpopular plans or is it just judicious secrecy for fear that if the voters found out how dire things really were they would punish those with the honesty to tell them?

The Resolution Foundation think tank seem to believe that it is the latter. For they have told the Independent that the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, should all be more open with the public about how they would tackle the deficit:

Matthew Whittaker, the foundation’s chief economist, said: “Meeting the fiscal targets set out by the main political parties could mean a redrawing of the boundaries of the state due to swingeing cuts, significant new taxes, or a slower path of deficit reduction and more debt – or a mix of all three. Yet no party has really made clear which it’s going to be.”

He added: “The electorate shouldn’t be subjected to another largely empty fiscal debate like it was at the last election. Currently we are facing a candour deficit as well as a fiscal one.”

Mr Whittaker admitted that uncertainty over the public finances made it impossible for the parties to provide full details of fiscal plans yet. But he insisted: “The gap between the scale of consolidation implicit in their plans and what the electorate has been told to date is just too large.”

According to today’s study, the Tories would need to find another £37bn to balance the books on top of the £8.5bn of cuts planned in the 2015-16 financial year. George Osborne has called for £12bn of welfare cuts, but has found only a quarter of this amount. The foundation said the pace of cuts would need to accelerate after 2015-16 for the Tories to remain on course to achieve their promise of a budget surplus by 2018-19, particularly as the Chancellor has said no new tax rises would be needed.

The Tories might need even bigger savings to meet the £7.2bn of unfunded tax cuts promised by David Cameron.

The Lib Dems would balance the books on day-to-day but not capital spending such as infrastructure projects by 2017-18, with 80 per cent found by cuts and 20 per cent from tax rises. The study estimates that this could mean cuts of between £15bn and £25bn and tax increases of between £4bn and £6bn.

Labour would have a “less stringent and more flexible target”, after promising to clear the deficit on day-to-day spending but not capital projects “as soon as possible” before 2020. According to the foundation, Labour would need to find savings of between £4bn and £13bn. A less severe path would mean higher levels of debt and higher interest payments for longer.

The report warned that all three parties were likely to find the next phase of cuts harder to achieve than those made since 2010. “Many of the ‘easiest’ cuts have already been made, while the parties’ assumed ongoing commitment to protect specific budgets such as health, schools and [international] development will place an even greater strain on non ring-fenced departments,” it said.

The foundation said the “already daunting fiscal challenge” could become even tougher because of weaker than expected tax revenues.

If this think tank is right then the 2015 General Election will be 2010 all over again, with everybody afraid to tell the voters the truth for fear of being punished for their candour and of being attacked by their opponents for unacceptable plans.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Are e-cigs the gateway to smoking some claim?

Given that the Welsh Government is currently considering a ban on the use of e-cigarettes in public places on the grounds that it normalises smoking, this article on the BBC website is an interesting contribution to the debate sparked by that proposal.

They say that data from the Office for National Statistics indicate those who use e-cigarettes, are almost entirely current or former smokers:

E-cigarettes were mainly used to help smokers quit and because users saw them as being less harmful than cigarettes, the ONS said.

And the proportion of adults who smoked cigarettes had fallen to 19%.

Most of the figures from the ONS are for the year 2013, so it is possible that the picture is still changing.

The proportion of smokers had plummeted from 46% in 1974 to 19% in 2013, the ONS said.

Not only had fewer people taken up smoking, but more smokers had quit. And many smokers and former smokers were using e-cigarettes.

It is still early days of course but these figures show that the Minister's position does not seem to be based on any evidence. In fact the available evidence undermines it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Pandering to the UKIP agenda

The Times reports on an interesting and thought-provoking intervention in the debate on immigration from Tory heavyweight, Ken Clarke.

Mr. Clarke argues that that stopping EU nationals from claiming benefits in Britain would be “totally discriminatory” and that in trying to “imitate” Ukip, the UK Government would only make them “more credible”:

In an interview with the Murnaghan programme on Sky News today, Mr Clarke, the Europhile former cabinet minister, said Mr Cameron’s approach was to blame for the poll surge that resulted in Nigel Farage’s party winning the Rochester and Strood by-election last week.

“I do think the tactics of the two major parties of government – the serious parties of government – of trying to imitate Ukip since then have actually made them more credible and has gifted them two by-elections,” he said.

“We were campaigning in a way that was supporting their anti-European, anti-immigration front.

“We have probably provoked a whole fresh rash of demands from Eurosceptics in the media and in parliament for yet more demands from Europe and leaving Europe.”

Mr Clarke said that the party now had to get back to a “serious agenda” where Ukip “have no policies worth talking about”.

He added that talking about the economy was “a damn sight more sensible than ‘how can we be rude to Europeans to cheer up Ukip?”’

“What we mustn’t do is keep trailing all kinds of suggestions of things we can think of that might be nasty to Europeans on the benefit front,” he added.

I am not convinced that the evidence is there to back up the Prime Minister and UKIP's assertions that European Union migrants are abusing the benefits system.

Irrespective of that, it is clear that if Cameron pushes ahead with his proposals then Britain would effectively be walking away from the European Union and all its benefits, without any attempt to negotiate new terms of membership.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Liberal Democrats kill off the Snoopers' Charter

Over on the Liberal Democrats main website there is a bit of a celebration going on as the party rejoices in the news that we have succeeded in killing off the Snoopers' Charter for the rest of this Parliament at least.

They report that although Theresa May has announced that action to match IP addresses to individuals will be included in the upcoming package of counter terror measures, the much wider and disproportionate proposals in the Snoopers’ Charter will not feature.

If the Charter had been proceeded with then it would have allowed the security services to access records kept of every website you visit and who you communicate with on social media sites.

Another Liberal Democrats success in moderating Tory excesses.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Miliband under more pressure

Having lost two safe Tory seats to UKIP and facing the prospect of more of his MPs going over to the dark side and joining Nigel Farage, you would think that David Cameron would be under pressure. He is, but it seems that Labour have once more galloped to the rescue with a display of ineptitude hitherto unseen in an opposition party this close to a General Election.

As the Telegraph reports, Labouir MPs are queuing up to criticise their leader as out-of-touch after his hamfisted handling of Emily Thornberry's resignation.

Hazel Blears, a former Labour Communities Secretary, has told the media that Ed Miliband is one of a growing number of MPs who are out of touch with voters because they have little experience of life outside the “political bubble” in Westminster.

Ms Blears, who famously had a cameo role in the 1961 film 'A taste of Honey' as a child,  believes that Parliament contains too many career politicians who have moved seamlessly from jobs as professional political advisers to gaining safe seats in the Commons and then becoming ministers.

She refused to exempt Mr Miliband, a former adviser to Gordon Brown, from criticism over his background as a career politician who has risen through the ranks of the Labour Party:

The intervention from Miss Blears, the MP for Salford and Eccles, will undermine Mr Miliband’s attempts to reassert his authority after the Emily Thornberry “white van man” row.

Miss Thornberry was forced to quit as shadow attorney general on Thursday night after tweeting a photograph of the home of a working-class voter in Rochester which was draped in England flags with a white van parked outside.

Mr Miliband, the Labour leader, said the tweet showed her lack of “respect” for ordinary voters, while David Cameron said the “appalling” message demonstrated that Labour was “sneering” at people who show pride in their country.

Miss Blears defended Mr Miliband’s response to the incident and insisted that Labour was still the party for the working classes. She said the party leader was “genuinely angry” about Miss Thornberry’s actions, which prompted claims that had lost touch with its core voters.

However, she told the BBC that there was a problem with the growth of career politicians.

“I did a bit of research. In 1979, three per cent of all MPs came through that path, the ‘transition belt’ I called it, of being a special adviser, getting a safe seat ending up in the government.

“At the last election in 2010 it was 24 per cent and rising. There is a genuine issue here,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “People right across the spectrum do feel that politician who have never done a different job somehow cannot be in touch with their lives.”

Asked whether she thought Mr Miliband was one of the out-of-touch MPs, Miss Blears said she was referring to “people in every political party… we need to have a variety of people”.

“I think the public are onto something. Politics has changed quite dramatically in the last 30 or 40 years.

“More people now have come through that route of being special advisers and I think we need more people in politics who have got a variety of different lives, who are interesting people who have got something to say.”

Mrs Blears said the public wanted MPs to live in their constituencies, and be seen use the same shops and buses to show they are in touch with reality and not locked in the Westminster “bubble”.

I think she is right,

Friday, November 21, 2014

Another victim of Twitter

Twitter has claimed yet another casualty today with the news that the Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry has resigned from that position after an ill-advised post on the social networking site.

The Times says that she went after posting a “derogatory” tweet showing a house draped in England flags with a white van parked outside under the heading 'Image from Rochester'.

As she lives in a £3 million house in Islington herself, naturally some party members, including John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, thought she was being snooty and treating working-class voters “with contempt”.

Once more it is shown that as far as politicians are concerned no good comes of instant gratification and that when faced with the opportunity to express an instant opinion many lose all sense of good judgement.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mixed messages on devolution

Now that the Secretary of State for Wales has opened up debate on what future devolution to the Welsh Assembly might look like and said that nothing has been ruled out at this stage, you would think that the rest of the Cabinet would shut up.

Alas that is not the case. The BBC report that the Prime Minister has ruled out any change to the formula by which the devolved nations are funded. And he is still obsessing about Scotland and English votes for English MPs.

How much long Cameron can continue to defend the indefensible is debatable. He certainly seems intent on driving the whole agenda into a giant cul-de-sac.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Good design standards and the basic passport

We are already used to the high standards that Scandinavians bring to design, now there is a new example with innovations introduced by Norway as to how they will present their passports in futire.

The Telegraph says that whilst EU citizens’ passports are coloured an inoffensive but indistinct burgundy, the Scandinavian nation’s new passports are distinctly finished in white, turquoise or red and contain a surprising feature that should brighten up proceedings for passport controllers the world over:

Designed by local agency Neue Design Studio, who won a competition to redesign the documents and national ID cards, the passport is based on the theme The Norwegian Landscape.

Pages feature minimalist interpretations of the country’s most striking landscapes, and show one of its most mesmerising phenomena only under specific circumstances.

Should airport security staff – or anyone else – shine the passport’s pages under UV light, the otherwise elusive Northern Lights will instantly appear as iridescent trails on the paper.

They add that the new Norwegian passport is expected to enter circulation in about two years, so for now it has been left to the Finnish passport to fly the flag for Nordic design nous.

This passport features an elk on the bottom of each page and bored travellers who flip them rapidly will see the animal amble.

I want one of each.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

And the word of the year is?

Those of us preoccupied by representations regarding the prevalence of electronic cigarettes will be heartened (or maybe not) by the conclusion of the Oxford English Dictionary that the word of the year is 'Vape'.

Apparently, use of the word, defined as to “inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device”, has more than doubled over the course of the year to win.

The Independent says that the shortlist, which included contenders such as bae, slacktivism and indyref, is compiled by scanning around 150 million words of English in use every month. They have specialist software to identify new or emerging usage. Lexicographers then select a shortlist from which the winner is chosen.

The winning word needs to “reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance”.

Well as far as the Welsh Health Minister is concerned it certainly does reflect his preoccupation. He wants to ban vaping in public even though there is no evidence to show that there is any health impact on non-users. I wonder if the OED know.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Welsh Liberal Democrats' Pupil Premium is delivering for deprived pupils

The Western Mail has a heartening story today in which they report that the pupil deprivation fund, insisted upon by the Welsh Liberal Democrats as part of budget negotiations, and designed to support Wales’ poorest pupils, is having a “positive impact” and “plays an important role” in helping to break the link between poverty and low attainment:

An evaluation of the Pupil Deprivation Grant (PDG) found its introduction had led to “a significant amount of new activity” aimed at supporting pupils identified as being disadvantaged.

Independent researchers Ipsos MORI and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (Wiserd) said the PDG had helped to engender a greater focus on disadvantaged pupils and how best to provide for them.

But while support for the PDG was overwhelmingly positive, the report warned that there was “considerable variation” in the scale and reach of programmes funded using the grant.

It said there was “some ambiguity” about how the PDG should be targeted and impact analysis was inconclusive, with improvements in pupil attainment appearing to pre-date its introduction.

The report said: “The introduction of the PDG has led to schools funding a significant amount of new activity aimed at supporting pupils they identify as disadvantaged. Over half the interventions currently funded using the PDG (58% in primary, 71% in secondary schools) were not run in schools prior to the PDG’s introduction.

“Even where activity pre-dated the PDG, it has usually been scaled up as a result of the additional funding available to schools. However, there is a considerable variation in the scale and reach of programmes funded using the PDG, particularly at the secondary level.”

Next year this grant will rise to £1,050 per pupil and then £1,150 per pupil the year afterwards. It is a sign that even in opposition the Welsh Liberal Democrats can deliver on their manifesto priorities and get things done.

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