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Saturday, May 27, 2017

More questions about the Tory and Labour manifestos

I have already commented on the failure of both Labour and the Tories to even pretend to make the sums in their manifestos add up, but the last word as ever must go to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies.

As the Evening Standard points out, the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies hsve said that the Labour leader should abandon the “pretence” that only the rich would be hit when it came to fund his plans for more public spending:

In a damning report, it said there were “factual mistakes” in shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s budget plans and a reliance on tax revenues that were simply too optimistic, leaving a £9 billion shortfall even if a Labour government stuck to its budget.

The IFS also found problems in Theresa May's plans, saying her flagship promise to slash immigration would “cause considerable economic damage” and cost the Government £6 billion a year in lost revenues.

Benefits cuts for working people in the coming five years would be tougher than the cuts by the post-2010 Coalition, while austerity threatened “unacknowledged risks” to the quality of public services, it claimed.

In a searing conclusion, IFS deputy director Carl Emmerson said: “The shame of the two big parties’ manifestos is that neither sets out an honest set of choices. Neither addresses the long-term challenges we face.

“For Labour we can have pretty much everything — free [higher education], free childcare, more spending on pay, health, infrastructure. And the pretence is that can all be funded by faceless corporations and ‘the rich’.”

He went on: “The Conservatives simply offer the cuts already promised... with that offer come unacknowledged risks to the quality of public services, and tough choices over spending.”

Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell faced the most uncomfortable questions following the IFS study because it claimed to have found blunders in their sums.

It said tax measures that Mr McDonnell insists would hit only the “rich” earning £80,000 or more
would fail to raise the £49 billion promised for spending. The measures would instead raise only £40 billion in the short run — and less as time went by and companies invested elsewhere to avoid higher corporation tax, the IFS said.

“Their proposed plan for paying for this expansion in state activity would not work,” it said. “They would not raise as much money as they claim even in the short run, let alone the long run. And there is no way that tens of billions of pounds of tax rises would affect only a small group at the very top as their rhetoric suggests.

"The reality of Labour’s sums, said the IFS, would be “higher taxation affecting broad segments of the population”.

He continues: Tory tax plans would make 24 million basic rate payers some £33 better off a year but also see four million higher rate taxpayers gain £208 a head. But Conservative cuts to working age benefits would grab £11 billion from families and be harsher than cuts under the Coalition. They would make the lowest paid workers “significantly” less well off. 

In the longer term, Mr Corbyn’s promise to keep the retirement age at 66 despite longer lifespans would create a £50 billion black hole by 2050.

Mrs May’s abolition of the “triple lock” on pensioner incomes would save nothing in the next parliament. And Mr Emmerson dismissed her decision to means test winter fuel payments as making “a wholly trivial difference to spending”.

On immigration, the IFS said Mrs May’s plans would have harmful side-effects, while her target of cutting levels to the “tens of thousands” would “damage the economy and the tax base”. “Their continued focus on reducing immigration would, if effective, cause considerable economic damage as well as creating an additional problem for the public finances,” said Mr Emmerson. 

Some £6 billion of revenues would be lost, while choking the supply of keen young overseas workers would hamper efforts to tackle the national crisis in care provision for the elderly. “Denying entry to young, working immigrants would make that challenge all the harder to meet,” said Mr Emerson.

It seems that whoever wins on 8th June, the country is well and truly screwed.

Friday, May 26, 2017

UKIP at war during car crash manifesto launch


The photograph above is just one extract of possibly the most bizarre, xenophobic, authoritarian, patronising, illiberal and downright ridiculous manifesto so far.

Not only do UKIP wish to dictate what flags can and cannot be flown on public buildings but they even want to prevent teachers using yellow adhesive stars to reward kids because they look too much like the EU flag.

As if UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall did not have enough problems there is huge unrest within his party both about their plunging poll ratings and his performance as leader. As the Independent relates, rather predictably for UKIP, much of this unrest is expressed in ridiculous stereotypes:

Ukip activists have ridiculed their beleaguered leader Paul Nuttall, one saying he gives the impression he has “a whippet beside him”.

A second accused Mr Nuttall of overseeing a “car crash” when he stood as a by-election candidate earlier this year and called for him to quit after the election.

“He just comes across like an idiot,” said Maureen Vines, a former Ukip treasurer in Yorkshire. “We often wonder, if he came up here, whether he would wear a white cap, a white scarf and have a whippet beside him.”

And Allen Cowles, who is the Ukip candidate in Rotherham on June 8, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that Mr Nuttall should fall on his sword after the expected election defeat.

“Ukip will have to make a further change in my view,” Mr Cowles said. “I think we will have to have another leadership election.

“I think it’s very difficult to believe that someone can have the kind of car crash that happened in Stoke and then be expected to carry on.

This is a party that no longer has a role to play in UK politics. Its hankering for the glory days of empire and splendid isolation, its quasi-racist obsession with immigration and its irrational hatred of all things Europe has no place in the Twenty first century.

If they are now going to start fighting with each other then that is fine. They deserve each other. Can they not leave us out of it.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Why economic competence is the loser in this election

Ever since I have been involved in national politics, the Liberal Democrats and most of the other mainstream parties have endeavoured to produce a costed manifesto so that, if they win they are able to deliver on the promises they made during the campaign.

There have been times when this has been a hit-and-miss exercise, with the Liberal Democrats' tuition fees pledge being one of the more recent examples, but at the end of the day government is about making choices and I suspect that the party's Ministers could have insisted on freezing fees at least if they had felt strongly enough about it.

Of course broken promises are not always related to finance. After all Labour broke two manifesto promises when they introduced tuition fees and then trebled them despite the fact that they had a majority, something the Liberal Democrats did not have.

This General Election campaign appears to have changed that pattern. Not only have Labour produced a document which fails to cost key elements such as their renationalisation programme, but some of their other costings are tendentious at best.

The Tories have gone one better, they have failed to provide proper costings at all. And where they have provided costings they are disputed. It is almost as if they didn't care, as if they think they are going to be re-elected irrespective of what they promise.

The latest controversy is over the Tory pledge to provide free breakfasts for primary school pupils, a policy they resisted for years in Wales. According to the Guardian, Conservative promises to plug the hole in school budgets could be ruined by this pledge, after researchers found the policy would cost far more than the party claimed:

Figures compiled by the Education Datalab thinktank showed that even if only one in five of England’s 3.6 million primary school pupils ate just 25p worth of food, the costs for the daily breakfast clubs would cost £100m a year more than the Conservatives’ estimate.

“We think they are under-costing free breakfasts in primary schools by something like a five-fold factor. They say its going to cost £60m but we think it’s going to cost something over £200m to £400m,” said Rebecca Allen, the director of Education Datalab.

The free breakfast offer in the Conservative manifesto was to replace giving free lunches to all state school pupils up until the age of seven, with the savings used to plug the looming black hole in England’s school finances.

The analysis found the costs would far exceed the Conservatives’ estimate of £60m a year, with a 20% takeup costing more than £170m once staffing costs for the breakfast clubs – held an hour before the start of the formal school day – were taken into account.

“If breakfast clubs in schools act as a proper childcare substitute, we would presume that in the long run parents would switch from their existing provision of childminders and commercial providers into free breakfast clubs – and therefore we think takeup would be substantially in excess of 20%,” Allen said.

The researchers also found that if the offer proved more popular it could potentially wipe out savings from scrapping the free lunches.

Having abandoned the UK economy by condemning it to a hard Brexit, it seems that both Labour and the Tories have given up on economic competence as well.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Are leaks from the USA undermining our intelligence services?

There was an interesting article on Buzzfeed yesterday, which reported that UK and European intelligence officials are expressing concern over the fact that much of the information that emerged in the wake of the Manchester bombing has been sourced back to US officials.

They say that the information first came in the hours after the attack, including a US official saying that the leading theory was that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, and culminated in a report by CBS News and the Associated Press that cited US officials claiming to identify the suspect who is believed to have blown himself up during an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena, killing at least 22 people.

In contrast Manchester police would only later confirm the name of the suspect, 22-year-old Salman Abedi, to the press, and the arrest of another 23-year-old suspected in connection to the attack:

One Belgian counterterrorism official who spoke with BuzzFeed News between a series of meetings about the Manchester attack confirmed the discomfort felt in European intelligence circles.

"It happens sometimes when a larger partner like America assists on an investigation like this one," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he lacks permission to speak with the press. "You know you are trading the additional resources they bring for a chance of increased leaks. In this case, I suspect the Brits are livid — I know we would be — to have a suspect ID'd before they're ready, and obviously the recent performance of the Trump administration on leaking sensitive information can't be far from anyone's mind if they examine [the situation]."

Even US officials were frustrated by the leak. Some called the US decision to release information about an ally’s investigation before even that nation had released it “unprofessional.” Others said that if it were the US investigating an attack, they could expect the UK to not release information about the case.

“The least we can do is give them that same respect,” one US official told BuzzFeed News.

Although it is unlikely the incident will hurt the sharing and coordination of information between the closely linked UK and US intelligence services, one US-based expert questioned why US officials would leak in the first place.

“Why get in the way of what they are trying to do?” asked Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Follow their lead unless there is some good reason not to. The UK made a conscious decision to not release the suspect’s name. They have a good reason for doing that and US officials should probably wait for the UK to come out with specific details.”

Given the propensity of the President of the United States to give out classified material to representatives of other countries, just to prove that he is in charge, this sort of behaviour by United States authorities could add to a feeling of mistrust by European Countries towards the USA and undermine the work of our intelligence services.

If that happens then it will undermine efforts by everybody to fight terrorism.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Some thoughts on the Manchester bombing

There are no words. The concert audience contained children and young teenagers and yet that did not stop it becoming a target. This was a murder of innocents. There can be no justification for such a monstrous crime.

I am shocked, saddened and outraged by this bombing attack. My thoughts and my deepest condolences are with the victims, their families, their friends and their communities. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the emergency services who responded to this tragedy so magnificently.

Those behind this attack do not advance their cause through these actions, rather they demean and undermine it. Their actions make us stronger, their choice of violence over words make us more determined to defeat them.

This bombing is a direct attack on the freedoms and the democracy that we take for granted. It should make us cherish and value our way of life even more. Our resilience in the face of this evil will be what enables us to ultimately defeat it.

Those who are responsible for this deed do not belong in our society, nor to any community or any part of it. Their self-identification with any religion or faction should not be indulged. They are isolated individuals who must be brought to justice.

People of every faith and belief have come together to offer comfort and help to the victims. Our diversity, our openness, our tolerance and our resolve are what makes us unique.  It is our strength. Together we are stronger.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Are Tory social care plans threatening our homes?

Tim Farron, this morning, has highlighted the impact of Tory plans to shake-up funding for social care, which he says could see nine out of 10 English homes eligible to be put on the market to cover treatment costs.

As the Independent says, The Tory manifesto commits the party to get people to pay for their own care if they have combined savings and property valued at more than £100,000. If they wish to keep their home, payment can be deferred until after they die when it will be deducted from their estate.

Lib Dem research shows that, overall, 90% of homes in England would be liable to be sold under such conditions, and in the poorest 10% of local authority areas it would be 50%.

The party said that only one of the 356 dwellings sold in Prime Minister Theresa May's local authority area this year would be exempt from such an initiative.

This issue has already started to have an impact on the Tory poll ratings. Whether that will be enough to stop Theresa May getting an majority though, is debatable. It may though be decisive in some seats and of course when the Tories do try to implement the policy they will find some stiff resistance as a result both from their own MPs and in the House of Lords.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tory manifesto fiasco highlights dangers of no opposition

When Theresa May called this election she no doubt envisaged that her party would walk back into power with a massive majority, freed from all those pesky small-l liberal commitments hung over from the coalition and David Cameron's re-election in 2015. She would have been confident in that belief because of the weak opposition she faces both in Parliament and in the country.

It may well be that she is proved right but if she is then that victory will underline the fragility of our democracy and how much it depends on effective scrutiny and opposition.

Governments have had big majorities before of course but never in these circumstances. Labour in the House of Commons has shown that it can barely tie its own shoelaces, never mind put the Prime Minister under pressure on key policies. The other parties have been either too weak, or too obsessed with their own agenda to make a difference.

And now the UK faces an existential crisis as we look set to leave the EU and the single market on the worst possible terms, under a Prime Minister determined to turn Brexit into a test of strength of her own leadership, irrespective of the best interests of the country.

And it is not just Brexit. This week has seen a Tory Party wobble as their manifesto was published. That document demonstrated better than anything I can write here how little regard they have for the weakest and poorest in our society, and their arrogance at thinking they can get away with anything because of Labour's ineffectiveness.

Labour are making the right noises but they have capitulated on the key issues of the day  Brexit and freedom of movement. They have already signalled that they will let Theresa May get her own way on these issues, plunging the country into a potential economic crisis.

Only the Liberal Democrats are arguing against leaving the single market, in favour of free trade and freedom of movement and in favour of giving people the final say on whatever deal is struck with the EU, whilst also wanting to invest in our health service and in education.

We cannot allow the Tories to eviscerate our democracy, our economy and our future. We need an opposition who will stand up to them and hold them to account for the unholy mess they are threatening in that manifesto. Only the Liberal Democrats can do that, if we get enough MPs elected on 8th June.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

More racist nonsense from a UKIP candidate

It has been quiet recently as far as UKIP goes. All we have had to chew on is leader, Paul Nuttall taking time out from his world-saving antics as Superman to confuse Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood with Natalie Wood or some other Natalie person.

And then, as sure as night follows day, another controversy about a UKIP candidate tweeting racist and offensive things pops up to reassure us that the party is as nasty as ever.

As the Guardian reports, Paddy Singh, who was standing in Wiltshire North for UKIP, has been suspended after posting abusive messages about Jews, Africans and other groups.

Tweets from Singh’s account accused Jews and Israelis of emulating the Nazis in their relations with Palestine and wondered whether the Holocaust was a bad thing. He also attacked Pakistanis and said that Africans were animals.

The paper says that Mr. Singh told the BBC that he has “never been racist” and “condemned anyone who is,” adding that he “did not mean to cause any offence or be racist” and was “just trying to comment on certain articles in anger.

The mind boggles.

Friday, May 19, 2017

UK needs more immigrants because of Brexit

For many people the European referendum was about immigration. They were convinced by the racist propaganda of UKIP and others that if we left the EU we will have more control over our own borders, despite the fact that half of all immigration comes from outside the EU and that the UK Government had failed to use all the tools at its disposal to control EU immigration.

The reality has always been very different though. Whole sectors of our economy depend on migrants. The higher education sector needs overseas students to be financially sustainable amongst other factors and of course, any free trade deal with Europe or any other country will require freedom of movement attached to it.

That is why the Tory's manifesto commitment to reduce net immigration to tens of thousands is both unachieveable and dishonest.

Just how dishonest that manifesto is has been exposed by a report by the thinktank, Global Future today. As the Guardian says, they argue that the British economy needs a net inward migration flow of 200,000 people a year, double the Conservative target, if it is to avoid the “catastrophic economic consequences” linked to Brexit. They attribute this to the UK’s low productivity, ageing population and shortage of labour in key areas, such as the NHS.

The net migration target recommended by Global Future is broadly in line with actual levels from 2000 onwards:

The figure, covering both EU and non-EU migration, is based on macroeconomic analysis and a bottom-up, sector-by-sector examination of existing labour shortages.

The report argues the labour market crisis is likely to become acute in the short term unless ministers give an early signal in the Brexit talks on the UK’s plans for EU residents and immigration.

The report says that even with a later retirement age, Britain faces a demographic time bomb, and needs migration of 130,000 a year to maintain the working population at its current level.

“The dependency ratio – the number of people of working age (16-64) versus those over 65 – is worsening. Between 1950 and 2015 this fell from 5.5 to 3.5. Only the recent increase in net migration has prevented it from falling even more precipitously,” it says.

“Between 2000-2050, the number of people over 65 will double, whilst the number of over-85s will quadruple. The working population would need to double in order to maintain the ratio at its current level.”

The report points out that the government’s own forecasting body, the Office of Budget Responsibility, has suggested migration is critical to reducing the fiscal impact of an ageing population. The OBR had suggested “spending on pensions, healthcare and social care means that in the absence of migration, debt as a percentage of GDP would increase from 75% in 2012 to 175% by 2057”.

The report also predicts the demand for skilled labour across social care, construction and nursing alone will require an extra 47,000 migrant workers a year, higher than the current migration of skilled, predominantly EU workers across all sectors.

In unskilled industries, such as hospitality, the industry will remain heavily dependent on migration, with the report predicting a continuing requirement for an extra 60,000 migrants a year.

Global Future points out that 22,000 of the permanent workforce in agriculture come from the EU, supplemented by 60,000 seasonal workers. In food processing, 120,000 of the 400,000-strong workforce are from the EU.

Overall, it suggests, UK industry will need at least 100,000 work-related migrants a year with the remainder likely to be students and people coming to the UK for family reasons.

It is time all the political parties took a more realistic stance on this issue instead of pandering to the UKIP agenda.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

An anecdote about Rhodri Morgan

The death of former First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan yesterday was a great shock and tremendously sad. He was an intelligent, charismatic politician who took devolution by the scruff of the neck in 2000, and give it the stability it needed to bed down and become a success.

Widely respected across the political divide, Rhodri had the common touch that many politicians seek but few achieve. He was as at home in the pub talking rugby and football as he was greeting the Queen or discussing policy with other national leaders.

He had an encyclopedia-type memory and ready wit, constantly pouring out facts, jokes and anecdotes to suit any occasion. Sometimes it seemed like the whole of Wales was on first-name terms with him.

I remember the first time I met him. It was the first meeting of the Assembly in 1999. He was sitting near to me so I introduced myself and told him that his brother, Prys had been my history tutor at university. 'That's the story of my life'' he retorted, 'people only know me through my brother.'

On another occasion, he responded to a question I posed to him in Plenary with the quip that it was nice to hear from Peter Black on the black economy.

He took on the mantle of First Minister from Alun MIchael at a time when Welsh devolution was on the verge of collapse and made it his own. Every First Minister since will be measured against him and inevitably, they will be found wanting.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Two questions about Labour's manifesto

Labour's manifesto gets full marks for its sheer audacity. The document plays to the whims of every one of its core voters both in terms of the investment that it envisages and in the taking back into public ownership of key services such as water, the railways, Royal Mail and National Grid,

Money it seems is not a problem, it is growing on every tree and Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor plan to harvest it to the full. However, a number of reputable authorities have pointed out that even if you ignore the fact that it does not explain how they will pay for the renationalisation programme, there is a huge spending gap in their costings.

Together with a clampdown on tax avoidance, an extension of stamp duty reserve tax, VAT on private school fees and other tax-raising measures, Labour claim they will raise £48.6bn, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies puts the figure at between £20bn and £30bn, leaving a shortfall of up to £28.6bn.

The two big questions that Labour need to answer though revolve around the contradiction between what they are promising and their campaign slogan, 'For the many, not the few'.

The first of these is why they intend to enrich big City institutions and well-off investors by using taxpayers money to buy their shares off them so as to pursue their nationalisation programme? What exactly to they hope to achieve through this expenditure and why is that a bigger priority than investing in the health service and education?

The second question, is why, when they are splashing the cash everywhere else have Labour omitted to end the freeze on benefits? The freeze, which is due to run until 2020, is widely recognised to be a key driver behind forecasts of rising poverty to come, as the bottom 20 per cent of society sees its incomes fall.

As the Independent says, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned earlier this month, that absolute child poverty is poised to rise back to rates last seen in the early 2000s, also pinpointing the benefits freeze:

“Cuts in the real value of benefits will reduce incomes among poorer working age households,” it said. “Real incomes are projected to fall among the poorest 20 per cent of households over the next five years, with households with children being particularly affected.”

This seems to be a natural target for Labour and yet they insist that they cannot afford it, whilst at the same time spending billions of pounds on taking railways and the national grid back into public ownership, a move that will only benefit 'the few'.

This above anything else in their manifesto, suggests that Labour have lost the plot.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Social media trumps the election rules again

Those who thought that the recent investigation by the Electoral Commission into how the parties spent and declared their expenditure during the 2015 General Election was the final word on the matter may need to think again.

As the Independent reports things are moving so fast in the world of electoral politics and communications that it impossible for the law to keep up.

The paper outlines how political parties to spend millions of pounds on locally targeted Facebook adverts with national campaign funds. They say that outdated rules mean parties can tailor hyper-local adverts on Facebook as part of a spending “arms race” in marginal seats, despite rules that are supposed to limit spending in individual constituencies. Regulators do not know what adverts are being seen, creating the “potential for abuse on an unprecedented scale”, according to campaigners.

Both the Tories and Labour are believed to be investing heavily in Facebook adverts this time round but it is no use criticising the Electoral Commission despite the fact that this is the second General Election in a row where the Tories have spent heavily on Facebook adverts.

As the paper says, the Electoral Commission do not have the powers they need to deal with this issue and they, themselves are calling for changes to the law, warning that the system has not “caught up with the digital age”:

“This is a real issue, given that it’s predicted we’ll see the highest spend ever for the general election on targeted Facebook ads by major parties,” it said.

One organisation has idenified what needs to be done:

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “The regulations just haven’t caught up with the digital age – partly because of the distinction between local and national spending being hard to define when it comes to social media. Ads can be hyper-local, but also nationally funded.

“Digital is more ‘slippery’ and harder to capture than traditional activities. This is a real issue given that it’s predict we’ll see the highest spend ever for the general election on targeted Facebook ads by major parties.

“Political parties have for a long time harvested data and targeted individual voters. This is now being supplemented by on-line data gathering: email and social media. And parties are also increasingly buying in data, especially on demographics of voters to assist with targeting.

“The issue is how the sheer quantities of information are used – for example, to target messages at very select groups with potentially contradictory information. We just don’t know what the campaigns are telling these groups. That’s a transparency issue.”

Ms Ghose said that spending controls were “there to stop the arms race going too far and elections being bought” and called for a lower cap but also better rules to ensure more clarity between local and national spending. She also argued that ruled needed to be under “constant review as the digital age changes how politics is done”.

Once this General Election is over the Electoral Commission and the new Government need to do some serious thinking as to how they will update the law but also build some flexibility into it so that the appropriate body can amend the rules as things change and new innovations come on line.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Tory housing promise is built on shifting sand

All of the serious mainstream parties are keen to put forward policies at this General Election to tackle the shortage of affordable housing but by far the most disingenuous are those plans being promoted by the Tories.

As the Observer reports the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon admitted on Saturday that his party's commitment to build what they called a “new generation of social housing” has no new money attached to it. Instead they propose to pay for it from existing resources, the £1.4 billion put aside in the autumn statement.

There are currently 300,000 fewer homes for social rent than 20 years ago and yet the Tories plan to allow any new homes to be sold under the right to buy after 15 years, undermining their own inadequate initiative.

New affordable housebuilding has sunk to a 24-year low, with the latest official figures for housing starts showing fewer than 1,000 government-funded social homes being built. The number of homeowners has fallen by 200,000, homelessness has more than doubled and new affordable housebuilding is at a near record low.

Expertise and support is needed to help local authorities build new homes but without the finance which is being promised by both the Liberal Democrats and Labour, this Tory plan is doomed to be nothing more than a damp squib.

Interestingly there appears to be nothing in the Tory plans to provide support and loan finance for small builders so as to increase the supply of private sector housing. Without that boost house prices will continue to rise and more and more people priced out of having their own home. That in turn will put more pressure on the social housing sector and drive more people into the private rented sector.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Was the cyber attack on the NHS avoidable?

The backlash of the cyber attack that all but incapacitated the NHS in England has started and already questions are being asked as to whether basic precautions were being taken to protect ICT systems from such an offensive.

The Observer reports that the attack has become a hotly contested election issue with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats blaming the crisis on the government’s failure to upgrade hospital computers. And if this Private Eye piece from 18 April 2014 is correct then they have a point:


The Liberal Democrats have demanded an inquiry into why the Conservatives had cut cybersecurity support a year ago when it axed the £5.5m deal with Microsoft:

“We need to get to the bottom of why the government thought cyber-attacks were not a risk, when a combination of warnings and plain common sense should have told ministers that there is a growing and dangerous threat to our cybersecurity,” said Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Brian Paddick.

“It is worrying that in Amber Rudd we have a home secretary in the digital age more suited to the era of analogue,” he said.

“This is not the first time she has looked lost in cyberspace. The government likes to look tough, but this is an example of where it has left Britain defenceless.”

It is all very well the Prime Minister saying that this was a global attack but that does not excuse the level of unpreparedness. But the scale of the problem was revealed in comments later in the article:

The former NHS Digital chairman Kingsley Manning said a cyber-attack “was always going to happen”. Money earmarked for IT upgrades was sometimes diverted by NHS trusts because “it is very difficult to get individual trusts, even if you provide the money centrally, to actually use that money for this purpose”.

Jan Filochowski, who ran six trusts including Great Ormond Street children’s hospital in London, said: “Most of the NHS IT system is out of date. It’s been behind the curve in terms of investment in IT for years.

“But there’s a real problem in replacing it because the costs are enormous and it would involve major capital expenditure from the Treasury and that has been deeply constrained [in recent years] during the resource squeeze in the NHS.

As true as all these claims are, it does not excuse the complacency that allowed this cyber attack to succeed. In truth the NHS has been badly served by politicians and civil servants who do not understand ICT, and who consider computers to be some sort of holy grail that will solve all their problems, when in fact they are tools best used as part of a change management process.

If only the £12 billion wasted by the former Labour Government on its own failed Health Service ICT project had been used instead to upgrade and reinforce the computer systems on which the NHS relies day-in-day-out then we might not be where we are today.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Liberal Democrats propose serious measures to tackle housing crisis

It was only two days ago that I blogged here on Britain's housing crisis, highighting the appalling statistics that show how deeply we have sunk into the mire.

In particular on the issue of affordability, there is the study by Price Waterhouse Cooper in July 2015, which concluded that by 2025 half of all under 40s will be renting privately.

And of course the fact that faced with an acute shortage in the supply of affordable and accessible the UK Government is actually halving its subsidy to Housing Associations, spending just over £1 billion on helping them build new homes, whilst subsidising the growing demand for housing to the tune of £25 billion each year.

I am delighted therefore that the Liberal Democrats are taking this seriously at a UK level as shown in this article by Tim Farron in the i newspaper. Tim identifies the basic problem, that despite everybody acknowledging a shortage of homes, we are not actually putting shovels in the ground to address this issue.

The five proposals he puts forward are a sensible start to dealing with this crisis. He suggests:
Although I have reservations about shared ownership schemes and think 50,000 new social homes a year is not enough, this programme is far more ambitious than we see from the current government and more deliverable than that proposed by Labour.

Importantly, the proposal to make finance available to small builders is cricial. At present this is a major handicap to developing smaller housing schemes around the country. As I said in the article two days ago Vince Cable identified that the banking crisis has seriously affected credit to SMEs in the building industry.

In his book, 'After the Storm' he says that we have the ludicrous position where banks will lend to purchase homes but not to build them. As a result the supply of houses is now dependent on large builders that have access to equity and debt markets.

Two decades ago 50 per cent of new builds were by companies contributing up to 500 units and the level was only a little lower in 2009, but since the market crashed, the bigger builders have accounted for 70% of supply.

I am pleased the Liberal Democrats are determined to address this imbalance.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Brexit set to hit the pound in our pocket

We have not yet left the EU so it is impossible to assess the full impact of Brexit as yet, but the ramifications of the decision we took last June are starting to feed through the system. In particular they are starting to hit our cost of living.

That was certainly the message of the Governor of the Bank of England yesterday, who warned that the impact of Brexit will contribute to a dramatic drop in real-terms pay this year with average workers due to be left hundreds of pounds out of pocket.

As the Independent reports, Mark Carney predicted that Inflation is set to be higher than pay growth, marking the first year since 2013 that workers have been hit by a real-terms cut in take-home pay. It makes the Prime Minister's determination to deliver a hard Brexit appear to be even more reckless:

The warning by Mark Carney follows controversy over rising energy bills and inflation-busting increases in council tax that have already hit household budgets ahead of the 8 June general election:

At the Bank’s press conference, Mr Carney said the squeeze in real incomes was “not all because of Brexit”, because pay growth had been weak for several years.

But he said wages were falling partly because firms are worried about trading prospects outside the EU, causing them to offer “more modest pay settlements”.

The alarm over family incomes was sparked by the Bank forecasting that average weekly earnings will rise by just 2 per cent in 2017 – way down on the 3 per cent it expected in February.

At the same time, it said it now expected that inflation will hit 2.7 per cent this year, rather than 2.4 per cent.

The real question is how this will hit people's voting intentions and their perception of Brexit. It is now more important than ever that we get the final say on whatever deal is negotiated.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why isn't Britain's housing crisis a bigger issue?

I am currently reading Vince Cable's book 'After the Storm' which is excellent, if a bit technical. Although the book was written before the vote to leave the EU, the chapter on housing is as pertinent now as it was then.

In particular, the former Business Secretary's analysis of where we are now in the housing market and how successive Governments have failed those wanting an accessible and affordable home is excellent.

Vince argues that the UK has just emerged from the aftermath of a financial crisis that had a housing boom at its heart. He says that there was a near quadrupling of house and land prices in a little over a decade, from the trough of the previous downturn to the peak in 2008, with mortgage borrowing leading to historically high levels of personal debt in relation to earnings.

He identifies the problem as one of supply. Over the decade 2004-13, the UK provided 0.4 new homes for every additional head of population, while Spain, Italy, France and Holland all provided more than one.

He says that there are many complex factors driving demand including demographic factors such as aging, family break-ups, regional and national net migration, the growth of second home ownership, investment demand and the cost and availability of mortgages. The availability of credit however is crucial. But it is the lack of supply that has been so damaging.

Vince points out that at its post-war peak in the late 1960s, over 400,000 homes were being built every year, for a UK population significantly smaller than today's. Of those roughly 250,000 were privately built and the rest council houses. In the 1990s total construction was around 175,000 to 250,000 houses per year of which around 30,000 were 'social housing', the rest private.

Despite the fact that the UK population has grown by 7 per cent over the last decade, which Vince says is the equivalent of 150,000 homes, building levels continue to decline. After the 2008 crash new house building was just over 100,000 per year. That compares to the peak year for that decade, in 2007 when 143,000 homes were started and 137,000 completed.

Vince says that by 2010 this had fallen to 107,000 completions, reviving to 141,000 in 2014 of which 30,000 were social housing. The government's aspiration for 2015 is just under 150,000 which is well below the 250,000 to 300,000 new homes identified as being needed by Kate Barker in her analysis of the housing market. Vince points out that some of the new homes being built now are to supply the luxury market in London for overseas investors and do nothing for the UK domestic market.

Vince says that the failure to supply enough homes to meet demand cannot all be put at the door of the 2008 collapse. He says that the UK recovered strongly from the shock of the 1929/31 collapse on the back of a boom in housing supply. Houses built by the private sector surged from130,000 in 1931 to almost 300,000 in 1934.

The difference was that at that time there were around 1,000 mutually owned, not-for-profit building societies, which were untouched by the crisis and were willing to lend. In other words both house builders and aspiring owners were able to borrow money at reasonable rates.

Vince identifies several problems that are constraining supply. The first of these is the banking crisis which has seriously affected credit to SMEs in the building industry. He says that we have had the ludicrous position where banks will lend to purchase homes but not to build them. As a result the supply of houses is now dependent on large builders that have access to equity and debt markets.

Vince adds that two decades ago 50 per cent of new builds were by companies contributing up to 500 units and the level was only a little lower in 2009, but since the market crashed, the bigger builders have accounted for 70% of supply. This imbalance needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The most damning figures in this chapter are on the way we subsidise housing. Vince says that demand is increasingly subsidised via housing benefit to private landlords costing £9.3 billion per annum (up from £3.4 billion in 1998) and schemes like Help to Buy which cost £1.5 billion per annum.

Conversely, house building via housing associations is losing the small amount of subsidy it received. In 2014 registered social landlords received £1.1 billion from the UK Government, down from £2.3 billion in 2010. Housing Associations are also being forced to cut rents which reduces their ability to build more new homes. Vince says that subsidies for demand currently amount to £25 billion, while those for supply come to barely £1 billion.

What all this does of course is to push people into the private rented sector, which is less secure, more expensive and in many cases poorer quality. Vince points out that despite the  Conservatives' strong ideological commitment to owner-occupation, this form of housing is falling quite sharply.

He says that for 18-34 year olds, owner occupation has fallen by a third since 2003 and by 18% for 35-44 year olds. This is down to affordability. The number of 25 to 34 year olds in private rented accommodation has increased by 90% over the period 2003-2013 and by 132% for 35 to 44 year olds. Young people under the age of 25 are almost exclusively in this sector. Vince says that a study by Price Waterhouse Cooper in July 2015 concluded that by 2025 half of all under 40s will be renting privately.

The social housing stock is also declining, mostly due to right to buy. Vince says much of the old stock has ended up with buy-to-let landlords. After 2003 there was a fall in social tenancy of 21% for 25-34 year olds and 18% for 35 to 44 year olds.

All of this needs to be debated during this General Election. This has to be a major change in UK Government policy that improves the availability of credit for small builders, releases land at affordable prices for new homes to be built on and switches Government subsidy from demand-led factors to supply so that we can massively increase the number of social homes being built.

Will any of that happen? I am not holding my breath.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Will this latest split be fatal for the Labour Party?

As Labour MPs struggle to show a united front behind Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy for Prime Minister, it appears that beneath the surface more nefarious matters are being discussed.

The Telegraph reports that Jeremy Corbyn's announcement that he intends to stay on as leader, even if his party is slaughtered at the polls, has caused huge unrest amongst his Parliamentary Party.

The paper says that as many as 100 of the party's MPs are set to walk out and form their own breakaway group in an attempt to force him to quit:

Moderate Labour candidates are already in talks with potential donors about a new “Progressives” group forming in Parliament if Mr Corbyn stays on as leader after a Tory landslide.

One potential scenario is for the MPs to resign the Labour whip and become independents grouped together in the Commons under the Progressives banner.

They could then rejoin the Parliamentary Labour Party once Mr Corbyn had been replaced with a leader they supported.

Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper and Sir Keir Starmer could be asked to lead the group, although there is no suggestion they have been approached or been involved in the talks.

Whether Labour actually have 100 MPs to form a breakaway group after 8th June is a moot point. There also has to be a question mark as to whether this brave talk will actually lead to a walkout. However, the timing is not good for Corbyn as once more his future becomes the focal point rather than the policies he is seeking to promote.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Has May fallen into the Miliband trap on energy prices?

The latest attempt by Theresa May to appeal to the 'just about managing' is an intriguing one if only because she has adopted a Labour policy championed by Ed Miliband that the Tories completely trashed at the time.

As the Independent reports, the latest wheeze to cap energy prices has all the drawbacks identified when the former Labour leader advocated it including the loophole that if international prices go up then the energy regulator could allow domestic fuel bills to follow.

But that is not all. As the paper says, this particular Conservative policy was rejected by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) last summer. They warned it would backfire saying that a cap on standard variable bills carried “excessive risks of undermining the competitive process, likely resulting in worse outcomes for customers in the long run”.

The final word must go to  Doug Parr, the policy Director at Greenpeace UK. He said: “It has long been accepted that better energy efficiency is the cheapest way to cut bills, yet programmes to make homes warmer and healthier have fallen to their lowest levels in many years under Conservative Prime Ministers."

Monday, May 08, 2017

Another broken Brexit promise

I have discussed countless times here how the promise by Brexiteers to invest an additional £350m a week into the NHS if we left the EU was undeliverable. Now we have had confirmation from the Health Secretary himself, a man serving in a Government committed to a hard Brexit and the delivery of all the promises that delivered the referendum victory in the first place.

As the Independent reports,Jeremy Hunt has now admitted he “can’t deliver” the extra £350m a week promised for the NHS by Brexit campaigners. He also said that it would be a “disaster” for the health service if a favourable agreement cannot be achieved in the already-bitter exit talks:

The jobs that so many people depend on, whose taxes pay for the NHS. If we get a bad Brexit outcome, that would be disaster for the NHS,” he said.

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme, the Health Secretary was asked why the Conservatives were not promising the now-notorious extra £350m pledged during the Brexit referendum.

He insisted voters wanted a “credible promise”, arguing the Tories had already pumped in an extra £6.5bn “over the last few years”.

After the fiasco of the undeliverable Brexit referendum who can say what is credible anymore? As Lib Dem spokesperson, Norman Lamb says: “The NHS is already in crisis and Theresa May’s push for a hard Brexit will only make things worse.”

Sunday, May 07, 2017

How will tactical voting play out with Brexit?

There is an interesting article in the Independent in which they report on a poll that reveals one third of people are prepared to vote tactically at next month’s general election in order to prevent a hard Brexit.

The paper says that the survey by ORB found that 46 per cent of people who backed Remain in last year’s EU referendum would consider voting for someone who was not their first choice in order to stop a hard Brexit. They add that this high figure suggests that the country has not united behind Ms May’s version of Brexit outside the single market and customs union:

Overall, 30 per cent of people would consider voting for a different candidate to stop a hard Brexit. They include a majority (51 per cent) of 18-to-24-year-olds – a sign that a campaign to mobilise young people could pay dividends. But the over-45s are heavily against the idea.

Some 44 per cent of Liberal Democrat and 40 per cent of Labour supporters at the 2015 election might vote tactically to prevent a hard Brexit, ORB found. But only 19 per cent of Tory 2015 supporters might. Overall, 50 per cent say they would not consider doing so.

Some anxious Labour candidates who were MPs in the last Parliament now believe that tactical voting, or local pacts with the Greens and Liberal Democrats to ensure a single anti-Tory candidate, offer the best hope of saving their seats following Labour’s crushing defeat on Thursday.

If tactical voting takes place on this scale then it could be a very interesting General Election.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Is Corbyn now isolated at the top?

There is nothing that says 'lame duck leader' more than turning up for a rally to celebrate an election victory only for the victorious candidate to snub the event.

That was Jeremy Corbyn's fate yesterday when he travelled to Greater Manchester to mark Andy Burnham's election as Mayor only to fnd that the former Shadow Cabinet Member had another engagement.

The Independent has further bad news for the Labour leader. The paper says that some candidates are in near open-revolt against Corbyn following the party's battering at the polls on Thursday.

Their poll found that amajority of Labour supporters want Jeremy Corbyn to quit immediately if he loses the general election:

The survey from ORB sealed a devastating 24 hours for Mr Corbyn after his party was battered in local elections, losing hundreds of seats and the control of stronghold councils defended by Labour for decades.

The leader’s allies desperately tried to explain the mauling, but it marks a horrendous opening to a general election campaign which will see voters go to the polls in just over a month.

It seems that Corbyn is failing to convince even his own party's supporters of his credibility as a future Prime Minister.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Is UKIP on the verge of extinction?

If the local council elections were poor for the Liberal Democrats, they were worse for Labour but disastrous for UKIP.

In fact the Liberal Democrats can find some positives from the results, as can Labour (at least in Wales if not anywhere else. For UKIP however it appears to be game over.

As the Guardian reports Ukip is embroiled in acrimony after disastrous local election results saw the party win just one council seat and former key supporters declaring it finished as a political force.

The party’s sole council win was a gain from Labour in Lancashire; otherwise, by 4pm on Friday it had lost 140 seats. Its vote share in England collapsed from 22% when the same seats were last contested to a projected total of less than 5%.

Despite this the BBC continue to treat UKIP as if it was a major opposition force. Time for them to wake up and smell the coffee.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Does Brexit mean losing control?

I can still hear the mantra now, especially as those who have adopted it repeat it at every opportunity - Brexit they say means taking back control. Really?

Putting aside the rather large aberration wherein the Brexiteers tried to keep all the big decisions away from the democratically elected Parliament, at least one eminent law lord thinks that coming out of the EU will disempower Parliament, rather then empower it.

As the Guardian reports, Lord Judge is concerned that by the time Brexit is completed and the “great repeal bill” enacted, MPs and peers will have effectively given away their powers to pass laws:

Speaking at the Bingham Centre in London, the former judge said parliament was failing to scrutinise legislation in detail. The crossbench peer drew attention to the increasing reliance on secondary legislation and “Henry VIII powers” – laws allowing ministers to change primary legislation (government bills) using secondary legislation (orders that go through parliament with little or no scrutiny).

Brexit would test to destruction the way in which the Houses of Commons and Lords operate, Judge suggested. Although the number of bills passed has remained relatively steady at about 50 a year, their sections and schedules had become longer.

During the past few years, about 3,000 pages of primary legislation have been produced annually, as well as another 13,000 or so pages of delegated legislation.

The productivity was wonderful, Judge said, “but there is a deeper question. How much of this lawmaking, whether by primary or delegated legislation, has actually been read, let alone scrutinised, by how many of us in parliament in advance of the enactment coming into force?”

The government, he said, should be held to account for its actions and policies, as well as for the “laws it seeks to enact to implement its policies and legitimise its actions”.

Lord Judge believes that Brexit will produce a 'legislative tsunami' that could overwhelm MPs and Peers in unamendable secondary legislation. Given that the last time the Commons rejected a piece of secondary legislation was in 1979, whilst the Lords has rejected only six such instruments since 1968, he may well have a point.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Labour's maths problem

Not everybody can be good at sums, but when  launching a policy as the national spokesperson for the supposedly main opposition party it is expected that you know what you are talking about. Alas, the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott failed that first test yesterday.

As the Independent reports, Abbott put in a stumbling radio performance in which she struggled to explain how a pledge to hire 10,000 extra police officers would be funded.

She tripped up when asked by LBC host Nick Ferrari how much the key law and order pledge would cost. She initially suggested the bill would be just £300,000, before repeatedly correcting herself:

Diane Abbott gave several estimates of how much the new officers would cost ranging from £300,000 to £80 million.

She also made several estimates for the number of officers Labour would recruit in each year, ranging from 25,000 to 250,000.

Stumbling through an awkward exchange on LBC radio she said: "Well, if we recruit the 10,000 police men and women over a four-year period, we believe it will be about £300,000."

Presenter Nick Ferrari replied: "£300,000 for 10,000 police officers? How much are you paying them?"

Ms Abbott replied: "No, I mean, sorry, they will cost, it will cost about, about £80 million."

"About £80 million? How do you get to that figure?" he said.

Ms Abbott answered: "We get to that figure because we anticipate recruiting 25,000 extra police officers a year at least over a period of four years.

Eventually, Abbott appeared to find the right page in her briefing notes, and gave the full costing for the policy at £298m a year by the end of the next parliament.

I heard an earlier interview on Radio Wales in which she refused to accept that there would be a full year cost after the policy had been rolled out. Not only has Labour already pledged to spend the proceeds of reversing the cuts to capital gains tax but the corrected sums don't add up either.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Tory Central Office impose candidate on winnable seat

With speculation rife that the Bridgend constituency could turn blue for the first time in over 30 years the Western Mail reports that there is disquiet within local Conservative ranks at the decision by their central office to impose a candidate against the wishes of members.

The paper says that one Conservative group member in Bridgend has branded the central party’s decision to impose Karen Robson from Cardiff over local hopefuls an “absolute disgrace”:

The member of the Bridgend Conservative Association said on Tuesday the decision was made despite local activists voting to reject the centrally imposed two-candidate shortlist of Ms Robson and Dan Boucher, who is also not from the area, on Sunday.

They said the group had passed a motion asking the party “to field a local candidate in this election, not a party nominee from outside the area”.

The member added: “In the face of threats from the party about putting the association into supportive measures if they didn’t comply or having one of the candidates imposed upon them anyway if they didn’t put it to the vote of local party members, the local party voted to ask the party chairman to think again and ensure that their preferred choice of local candidate stands in this General Election – a triumph for democracy over dictatorship.

“The party will now have to impose one of the candidates on us or preferably think again and choose the local candidate that we want and is best placed to win on June 8th!”

But on Tuesday, the local association source said: “CCHQ (Conservative campaign headquarters) has imposed Karen Robson on the Bridgend Conservative Association as expected in spite of the association’s disgust at the attempt to impose a candidate on us. They have rejected our request for them to reconsider the shortlist to include a local candidate and have imposed Ms Robson against the association’s will. Absolute disgrace!”

The activist had previously said there was huge disquiet over the central party’s move, but claimed the party was closing ranks and bullying members.

Let the fun begin.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Labour split on second Brexit referendum

It has long been the position of the Liberal Democrats that the final Brexit deal, if we have one, should be put to the British people in a second referendum so that they can judge whether it is what they opted for last year. Now it seems that we are not alone in this belief.

According to the Independent they have now been joined by two senior Labour MPs. They say that Labour’s Clive Lewis and Rachael Maskell have called for a second referendum on the final terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union, putting themselves directly at odds with the party leadership:

Mr Lewis, who is seen as a potential future leader, and who voted against holding the general election, wrote in a joint article with the shadow Environment Secretary in The Guardian that holding a second referendum would heal divisions.

“We understand why the Labour frontbench does not want to commit to [a second vote] now,” they wrote.

“That destination is only now beginning to appear on the horizon. It’s one in which we are likely to endure severe economic consequences for leaving the single market with no EU trade agreement, while we pursue a pumped-up free-market alternative with Donald Trump. How many leave voters envisaged that?

“So giving the British people a chance to ‘seal the deal’ with a vote on the final terms of the Brexit negotiations is not asking the same question twice. How can it be? We stand on the precipice of a new and vastly changed political and economic reality. If they really believe their own rhetoric, even Tory Brexiteers should welcome a chance to put their Brexit before the people and get their support.”

At least somebody within the Labour Party is able to see the issues clearly. It is a shame the leadership is not amongst them.

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