Monday 26th March 2007
The Government challenged support sustainable communities
Tonight speaking at a rally to promote the Sustainable Communities Bill, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell will challenge the Labour government to support it. The Bill, now in its Committee stage thanks to the support of opposition MPs, aims to give more power to local communities to counteract the influence of multi-national business and central government. It was originally introduced by Liberal Democrat MP Julia Goldsworthy in 2002, the bill has already been defeated once by the government.
Speaking at the rally Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell said :-
"This bill will put the interests of local people at the forefront of policy making. And it will put the heart back into local communities throughout this country. I am proud to support it. And I challenge Ruth Kelly and the Labour Government to do the same".
Creating a sustainable community is an essential ingredient to make a better society; where there is a greater sense of a shared community; where people respect and tolerate differences; where the only anti social behaviour is not helping your neighbour. Therefore it is also good today that a truly historic deal has been done in Northern Ireland, as devolved government is to return to Northern Ireland following an historic meeting between the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, sitting side by side for their first news conference in Stormont, confirmed that power-sharing would begin on 8 May.
Commenting on the Northern Ireland power sharing deal Liberal Democrat Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Lembit Öpik MP said:
"The people of Northern Ireland will be delighted to see that the DUP finally feels able to join a devolved, power-sharing executive. This historic decision is to be applauded. However, it's not at all clear why this won't happen for another six weeks. The government must now move to clarify what will happen until then, as only yesterday it claimed an executive must take over today."
This is the first step to creating a sustainable community devolving more power to the local people so they have more control over their own future. The problem in Northern Ireland has been to get the structure and voting system correct. There the failure to have the correct structure and voting system led to one community dominating the other and in the end led to conflict. To build a viable community everyone must feel that talking to the local authorities about their problems will help and that the local authority has the power to help. All too often people do not feel that and that is why turnout at local elections in the UK is so poor.
The system must change to devolve more power on local matters to local people and local authorities; the Sustainable Communities Bill is but a first part of that.
Friday 23rd March 2007
Devil in the detail - Brown's budget hits Young Workers, Army Personnel and Charities
Brown's budget condemnation continues today with a study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that exposes budget impact on young workers their analysis of Gordon Brown's latest budget published today, which shows that young workers earning else than £18,500 will be among those worst hit by the budgets effects, commenting on this Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable said :-
"This shows the real impact of Brown's Budget. He is clobbering those on low pay who are often just starting out in the working life. It is totally unjustifiable to hit this group of people, who are already having difficulty coping with rising council tax, student loan repayments and who can't get on the housing ladder because property prices are so high. It is a slap in the face to all those young people who have studied hard and now can't make ends meet."
Also in further study of the detail by the Liberal Democrats reveals that Gordon Brown's budget means almost 70,000 Armed Forces personnel will see less money in their pay packets when the abolition of the 10p tax rate takes effect in 2008. Armed Forces personnel of private rank who get a starting salary of just £14,323 (effective from April 2007) will see an income tax hike from April 2008. Even the National Audit Office has released a report highlighting budget problems it has claimed significant number of UK service personnel could be living in poor quality accommodation for the next 20 years or more as says more than 40% of military homes are sub-standard with no final date for an upgrade.
Commenting on theses issues Liberal Democrat Shadow Defence Secretary, Nick Harvey said :-
"This is a disgraceful way to reward our armed forces for the fighting they are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq on this government's behest. Offering a decent standard of living for soldiers and their families is the very least we should expect from the MoD. The government should be ashamed of the way the bravery of our soldiers is consistently rewarded with ministerial incompetence."
And finally it appears Gordon Brown's tax 'cuts' could cost charities £70m a year as Liberal Democrat Peer Matthew Oakeshott has revealed that Gordon Brown's enthusiasm to hit poorest in our society knows no bounds, as the cut in income tax announced in the Budget will lead to a big cut in the amount charities gain from gift aid donations. Lord Oakeshott said :-
"Gordon Brown has blown a £760m hole in the budgets of Britain's charities. They currently reclaim about £625m in tax relief in Gift Aid donations. This will fall by 11.4% next year when the standard rate of income tax falls to 20%. Oxfam alone will lose £1.8m a year. Yet again, when you read the small print, you see a Brown Budget hits those most in need."
Thursday 22nd March 2007
Greenpeace criticise Brown over "faint-hearted" approach to environment
Today the condemnation of Gordon Brown's 11th budget continued with Greenpeace's director calling yesterday's Budget a "faint-hearted affair" for the environment despite what the Chancellor thought was a bold move in the Budget for car tax to almost double to £400 by April 2008 for drivers of the biggest and most polluting vehicles, Greenpeace's director John Sauven said :-
"The urgency of climate change requires bold measures and not timidity on cars and planes. No Budget which claims to be green can ignore the huge impact planes are set to make on the climate as New Labour feeds the growth of aviation."
The director of Greenpeace is exactly right, climate change has been a growing problem for the last 25 years at least, back in the early 1980's on my electrical certificate, diploma and degree courses we looked at the need to increase the use of renewable energy from both a sustainable viewpoint and the fact that oil sources would decrease and so other sources of energy were required. Now the need to switch is urgent after the Conservatives failed to do anything to tackle the problem in the 1980's/1990's and Labour for the last 10 years have also failed to take the bold measures necessary to address this problem.
This of course reflected exactly the comments made by Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, Chris Huhne yesterday when he said:
"Gordon Brown has introduced more half-hearted half-measures on green taxes. The increases in VED are so small that they will encourage just a third of people to switch to environmentally friendly models. However, they will hit many people who already have cars and cannot easily change. The Liberal Democrat plan for a £2,000 duty on new purchases of gas-guzzlers would cause 72 per cent to choose a different vehicle and would hit only new car purchases, and not penalise people for old decisions. When the Chancellor has modestly raised green taxes, as he did again today, he gives them a bad name by failing to hand back the revenue in tax cuts elsewhere."
Wednesday 21st March 2007
Budget 2007 - Brown announces Income Tax cut paid for by the poor
Today was Gordon Brown's 11th and probably final Budget. So what did he do well he announced a cut in basic rate of income tax by 2p to 20p from April 2008. But the chancellor also raised the lower rate up to 20p, which critics say means most people will not be better off. Overall, Mr Brown said the British economy was growing faster than all the other G7 economies and also claimed that interest rates will fall back to 2%. Other proposals in the Budget were:
- A 2p cut in corporation tax to 28p from 30p.
- This year's 2p fuel duty rise will be delayed for six months.
- Beer and cider up 1p, wine 5p, spirits duty frozen, 11p on cigarettes.
- An increase in road tax on highest-polluting vehicles up to £300 and £400
- No stamp duty for carbon neutral homes under £500,000
- Tax-free allowance for pensioners under 75 will rise in three stages from £7,280 to £9,770 in 2011. For over-75s, the tax free allowance will rise annually from £7,420 to by £10,000 by 2011.
- More cash for schools and hospitals, public services, intelligence and counter-terrorism
- A £6bn sale of the student loan book
So what do I think it was. Well :-
- It was another wasted opportunity to simplify the tax & benefits system
- It was another wasted opportunity to take steps to use the taxation system to reduce waste and improve the use of renewable technologies.
- It was another wasted opportunity to devolve tax raising powers to local government.
The Chancellor has every year the opportunity to make the financial systems in this country work for the benefit of the people of this country and every year he has failed to deliver; so millions are tied up managing a ever more complex system of tax and benefits but to the benefit of no one; so the marketplace is not used to promote a sustainable future for us and our children; and so local people's concerns are overridden by the budget constraints that central government puts on local government.
This condemnation of the budget was echoed by leading figures in the Liberal Democrat Shadow cabinet :-
Leader Sir Ming Campbell said -
- "The Chancellor had the chance to use this final budget to show that he was listening to the voices of the people of Britain. But he has delivered a budget of missed opportunities. He had the chance to create a greener Britain by taxing pollution - but he shunned it. The 2p cut in the basic rate is welcome, but let us be clear this is an income tax cut for the wealthy dressed up as a tax cut for the poor. While the Chancellor has taken some of the key headline policies from the Liberal Democrats, he has got the fundamental point wrong, we need tax cuts for the low and middle income earners now."
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary David Laws said -
- "Today's announcement on occupational pension compensation is just more half-measures from a government which is having to be dragged kicking and screaming towards a fair solution. Furthermore, throwing ever more money at the failed tax credits system, is not the way to eradicate child poverty."
Shadow Health Secretary Norman Lamb -
- "Despite enormous investment, productivity in the health service has gone down, while deficits are affecting an increasing number of NHS organisations."
Shadow Education Secretary Sarah Teather said -
- "Gordon Brown has once again missed the opportunity to live up to Labour's promise of putting education first."
Shadow Environment Secretary Chris Huhne said -
- "Gordon Brown has introduced more half-hearted half-measures on green taxes."
Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary Simon Hughes said -
- "The Department for Constitutional Affairs will have a 3.5% real terms reduction. This Budget is not good news for those concerned about the pressures on the courts and the threats to access to justice."
So in a word was this a budget to promote fairness, make a more equal and just society, and create a sustainable future for all - NO.
Tuesday 20th March 2007
Liberal Democrats protect the vulnerable from benefit privatisation
The government was last night forced to back down on plans that could have given private contractors the power to cut benefits after Liberal Democrats raised concerns that without these changes, the Bill leaves possible the wholesale privatisation of the benefits system. A joint Liberal Democrat / Tory amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill ensures that any privatisation of the benefits system specifically excludes the powers to sanction an individual's benefits.
The tax and benefit system is not an area of government that should be opened to private competition. Private firms basically exist to make money for the shareholders and it should never be the aim of private firm to make money from the most vulnerable people in our society who are on benefit. Yet it took a Liberal Democrat / Tory amendment in the House of Lords of all places to stop this Labour Government who have really lost all touch with their roots.
Commenting on the victory in the House of Lords Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Spokesperson in the Lords Matthew Oakeshott said:
"Vulnerable people must be protected from private contractors cutting their benefits. Privatising these powers would be an unacceptable abdication of responsibility by the Government."
Monday 19th March 2007
Iraq Four Years on: Campbell warns Labour & Tories over Iran
Four years on from the invasion of Iraq, Sir Ming Campbell has warned the government and the Conservative Party against supporting any future military action against Iran and reiterated his demand for a full inquiry into the disastrous invasion of Iraq. In warning the other two main parties Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell said :-
"Four years on from the invasion of Iraq, the suffering of the Iraqi people demonstrates the devastating consequences of ill-thought out military action in violation of the UN and international law. Messrs Blair, Brown and Cameron must give a firm commitment today that they will not support or play any part in an attack on Iran. In place of military action we need to see a commitment to meaningful regional engagement from all parties including the US, allied to a tough and credible sanctions regime."
On the fourth anniversary of the day Labour and Conservative MPs voted for the invasion of Iraq, the Liberal Democrats released figures on the cost of the war both in terms of lives lost and resources:-
- £5 billion has been spent by the UK on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the bill continues to rise
- 134 British soldiers have lost their lives and hundreds have been wounded or maimed
- 34,452 Iraqi civilians died in 2006 with at least an estimated 50,000 since the war began
- One third of Iraqis are now living in poverty
Also today a new survey carried out in Iraq for the BBC suggests people are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the future and unhappy about their lives. Less than 40% of those polled said things were good in their lives, compared to 71% two years ago. And commenting on this BBC survey Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell said :-
"The war in Iraq was illegal. President Bush made the decisions, the Prime Minister argued the case, the Chancellor signed the cheques and the Tories voted it through. The Prime Minister should apologise to the country for taking us into an illegal war that has cost all sides dearly. Military action against Iraq has practically brought the country and people to its knees. It is now time to plan for an orderly withdrawal that should begin on 1st May and no British troops should remain after the end of October."
This 4th anniversary comes a week after former United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has accused Tony Blair of "exercising spin" in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. Asked if Mr Blair had acted in bad faith, he said:
"I do think they exercised spin. They put exclamation marks instead of question marks. Both Bush and Blair lost a lot of confidence."
Commenting on Hans Blix statement Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell said :-
"These conclusions from Dr Blix, who was right at the very heart of these issues, are compelling. History will accept his judgement in preference to that of the Prime Minister and the President. The combination of illegality and spin has undermined the stability of an already precarious region."
It is now clear to me that President George W Bush wished to take military action in Iraq for his own political reasons. Tony Blair said to his mate George I will back you because either he did not wish to stand up to the America President; or thought wrongly he had influence to change things in US foreign policy by working with the America President rather than against him; or worst still he actually believed George Bush's neo-conservative foreign policies but whatever Tony Blair's reasons were he backed Bush. Then Blair said we should at least try and get UN backing for this first. They failed to get full UN backing and then went ahead anyway as they had planned to do.
The course of events is something which is clear to most people and should be admitted by Tony Blair while he is still is office if he waits until his memoirs are published the shame of the war will haunt British foreign policy for years to come and cause long term damage with many other countries.
Saturday 17th March 2007
Liberal Democrat condemnation for British recycling ending up in Chinese landfill sites
New figures compiled by the Liberal Democrats show that there has been a massive growth in the amount of recycled material being sent to China from the UK since 1997. Reports suggest that many of these materials are ending up in illegal waste dumps, despite the fact that many of them include lead.
This highlights how thin Labour's commitment to the environment is talk and targets are no substitute for real policy action. There must of course be targets set to guide improvements however there also needs to be practical action. Central government must either change the local government framework to allow them to raise the finances through normal loans or provide central government finance to provide enough recycling plant and capacity in this country. This country does not even have the capacity recycle plastic bags the supermarkets use, which of course an environmentally friendly Chancellor could almost remove completely from the waste stream by use a plastic bag tax as they have done Ireland.
An increase in recycling capacity and a environmental reform of the tax system is what is required yet for ten long years this Labour government has done neither. Even after other countries like Germany with their "Grüner Punkt" system in 1991 or Ireland with their Plastic bag tax in 2002 have shown better ways to go this government refuses to tackle the waste stream problem with practical measures.
Commenting on these new figures Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary Chris Huhne said :-
"It is no good recycling more here if this simply ends up in a landfill site somewhere else. The government should set a target of zero waste for all municipal rubbish by 2020. This would mean more doorstep collection of dry recyclables and reforming the landfill tax into a broader waste tax."
Friday 16th March 2007
Liberal Democrats force publication of Asylum Report
A highly critical official report into the Government's asylum dispersal policy has been published following a Freedom of Information request from the Liberal Democrats. The report revealed that ministers pressed ahead with a programme to disperse 50,000 asylum seekers across the country despite internal research admitting that some were being sent to "highly volatile" and "extremely dangerous" parts of Britain where police could not guarantee their protection. The report highlighted the problems and racial tensions created by the policy, which was implemented without prior planning, or consultation with other departments.
This report highlights what many people who have come into contact with the asylum system have known for ages that it is in many ways an inhumane and impractical system. One case which I know in Southampton involved a man from Rwanda who was housed in Southampton when his wife and four children arrived in the country they were housed in a flat at the top of a tower block in Glasgow and this despite the Southampton house been suitable for the whole family. The asylum system in this country has compounded the distress this person felt by :-
- losing all his wealth including two houses;
- been beaten by the authorities so he almost losing his life;
- fleeing a country he loves so much he even stayed in throughout genocide of 1994 and would return to today if he did not fear for his life;
- being a loving father and almost losing contact with his family who could have also been under threat after he fled the country;
The asylum system has compounded this distress by having a system which :-
- has terrifying dawn raids families with young children;
- fails to even understand the basic problems in Rwanda;
- requires documented proof of Police beatings;
- prisons whole families including children has young as 12 months old in Yarlswood Detention Centre even though they have broken no law
- prevents people from working to help look after their own family and then punishes them for not working by paying them a level of benefit about half the level that is described as the minimum level required of a person living in the UK;
- splits families up on a regular basis.
This government report quite rightly condemns the current asylum system which appears more intent on keeping the headline writers of the Daily Mail and Daily Express appeased rather than providing just and humane treatment for those who reach our shores having survived persecution in their home country.
Commenting on this report Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Clegg MP said:
"No wonder the Government buried this report. It is a devastating condemnation of its centrepiece asylum dispersal policy. Breaking up families and then dumping asylum seekers in sub-standard accommodation in some of our poorest communities was always bound to backfire. It was a policy that was neither humane nor practical."
Thursday 15th March 2007
Government to face International Investigation into BAE Inquiry
Britain's commitment to fighting bribery is to be investigated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The move is prompted by the UK's decision to drop a probe into defence firm BAE Systems.
The biggest problem in the third world today is poor governance. The problem of lack of clean water, lack of food, lack of good housing, lack of health care, lack of education and poor economic growth would all be greatly reduced or removed completed if all levels of government in the country work for the interests of the people first without corruption and self interest as the main reason for doing the job.
In Britain we must aid this process of reform stamping out any corruption involving British firms, even if it involves short term problems for UK firms. In the longer term properly functioning countries with well run governments and economies are far better for the financial health of Britain PLC than a series of dodgy deals.
Commenting on this OECD's announcement Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, Vince Cable MP said:
"This news is particularly significant as it represents the views of other western governments, all of whom are trying to implement anti-bribery laws. These countries clearly believe their attempts to tackle bribery are being undermined by the refusal of the British government to pursue a prosecution."
Wednesday 14th March 2007
Nuclear Deterrent vote a poor decision ahead of its time
The Government's proposals for renewing Trident have passed through the House of Commons, despite 95 Labour MPs joining the Liberal Democrats in voting for the decision to be delayed. This was the biggest revolt since Iraq, but the motion got through because the Conservatives backed the government. Sir Ming Campbell challenged the Prime Minister over the decision during Prime Minister's Question Time, saying "a hasty decision to replace Trident is bound to undermine our ability to have influence at the [non-proliferation] conference in 2010 and shouldn't we not now be offering to reduce the number of warheads on Trident in order to give a lead to others?"
The wise voices on the subject of Trident renew came from the Liberal Democrat benches led very well by the Liberal Democrat leader and respected foreign affairs expert Sir Ming Campbell. He quite rightly pointed out that making the decision to renew trident prior to the scheduled multilateral disarmament talks 2010 review conference and before the system technically needed to be replaced was at best premature and at worst counter productive to the aim of removing nuclear arms from the world.
Commenting on the renewal of Trident vote, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell said:
"It is a humiliation for the Prime Minister that he has been unable to take this through without the support of the Conservatives and with such a large rebellion from the Labour benches. It is indicative of the extent to which the Prime Minister's authority is draining away that he couldn't take his party united through the lobby""
Yesterday commenting on the possibility of the biggest Labour backbench rebellion since the Iraq war The Independent also concluded that it would leave Tony Blair facing the humiliation of relying on Tory support to win. Particularly as a poll for The Independent found only 49% of Labour MPs agree "the UK should continue to maintain a nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future", with 39% disagreeing and 12% don't knows.
Commenting ahead of the vote on a possible replacement for Trident, Liberal Democrat Shadow Defence Secretary, Nick Harvey said:
"It is clear that the Prime Minister is going to have to rely on the Conservatives if this part of his increasingly tarnished legacy is to make it through the House. Making this decision now will prevent Britain from playing any constructive role in multilateral disarmament talks, particularly the 2010 review conference."
Tuesday 13th March 2007
Climate Change makes it to the top of the political agenda
Today the government has unveiled its draft Climate Change Bill, which plans to set a "legally binding" target to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. It also calls for investment in low-carbon fuels and technologies, "carbon budgets" to be set every five years and for ministers to give annual progress reports on cutting emissions. However it rejects proposals for annual targets to be set. The full Climate Change Bill is to be published in the autumn.
This Climate Change bill is a step in the right direction but only a small one it falls far short of the proposals already published Liberal Democrats, we would :-
- give everyone a green income tax cut, of 2p in the pound, giving the average family an extra £1,000 a year in their pocket. (Liberal Democrats will also scrap the unfair Council Tax).
- increase green taxes as a share of national income. (Green taxes have fallen from 3.6 per cent of GDP in 1999 to just 2.9 per cent of GDP in 2005). The more people switch their behaviour, the more of the tax cut they will save.
- keep fuel duty in line with inflation to ensure there is always an incentive to save fuel.
- abolish Airport Taxes, which tax each passenger, and instead we will tax each plane that takes off on its emissions. This would reward full flights and penalise half-empty ones.
- raise Vehicle Excise Duty on the most polluting cars to £2000, and have lower bands to reward clean cars. The Chancellor has increased VED on high polluting vehicles by less than the cost of half a tank of fuel. If it is to be effective as a measure to reduce emissions and encourage greener transport, VED has to be radically redrawn to reward greener drivers.
- provide help for rural drivers where cars are essential due to the lack of public transport, with an amendment to the Finance Bill introducing a 50 per cent discount on all but the top rate of VED for one car registered in such rural households.
- reform the Climate Change Levy as a tax on carbon across the economy, so that the true cost of any bad impact on the environment is reflected in the price paid.
- tighten allocations in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, and auction 10 per cent of the permits. The recent fall in the price of carbon for industrial users reflects the unambitious overall cap set by the EU.
The only main party with a comprehensive program of environmental legalisation are the Liberal Democrats and so commenting on the draft Climate Change Bill Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, Chris Huhne said:
"The Bill is a step forward because we need a framework to sustain a decades-long march towards a non-fossil fuel economy, but it is too weak in failing to set annual targets. The overall target cut of 60 per cent of carbon dioxide by 2050 fails to take account of other greenhouse gases, and it is also at the unambitious end of what the science now suggests is necessary. Moreover targets must not become a substitute for serious proposals to cut carbon emissions. Sadly the government has been cutting the green taxes necessary to help shape our behaviour, while the Tories have failed to put forward a single firm proposal. Only the Liberal Democrats have suggested fairer, greener but not higher taxes."
The Conservative party complete with their new logo have also been setting out their vision of the way forward in tackling climate change. David Cameron is used a speech to a Conservative Party environment summit yesterday to call on the government to publish annual (not just long-term) targets for the reduction in carbon emissions, and to outline Conservative proposals for a tax on air travel. Also yesterday Gordon Brown, addressing a similar meeting in London, argued that it is essential to work through bodies such as the European Union to reach international agreements, and that the Conservatives' isolation there will undermine the chances of success were they to be in power. Sir Ming Campbell also met with representatives of leading environmental NGOs and said the Tories were "all targets and no teeth", and that the Liberal Democrats remain the only party to have put forward substantial proposals on the environment.
I must say strangely that all three are correct, annual targets are required and it is Liberal Democrat policy; full engagement with the European Union is also necessary and it is also Liberal Democrat policy; and substantial proposals on the environment are necessary as only the Liberal Democrats have. It is good that both Tory and Labour figures agree with Liberal Democrat policy it is a pity that their actions do not measure up so well.
Commenting on Conservative green tax plans, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable MP said:
"Liberal Democrats fully support the policy of taxing pollution in aviation and switching the revenue to tax cuts elsewhere. However, unlike the Liberal Democrats, the Tories have not committed themselves to saying how the tax will be applied - we say there should be a tax on the aircraft, not the passenger. They will not say how much they expect to raise, and they will not say what they expect to do with the revenue. If the Conservatives are expecting to be taken seriously they will have to be much more specific in the way the Liberal Democrats have been."
Also commenting on the government's draft Climate Change bill the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen MSP has welcomed it as a "step in the right direction", highlighting that with Liberal Democrats in government, Scotland is already "well ahead of the rest of the UK when it comes to tackling climate change". If made First Minister, he has pledged to go even further and make Scotland "the renewable energy powerhouse of Europe", with plans for decentralised energy, micro-renewables, and a bold policy to provide 100% of electricity from renewable sources by 2050. Ross Finnie MSP has challenged Gordon Brown and David Cameron to follow Stephen's lead unfortunately a doubt they will.
Monday 12th March 2007
Education policy appears takes two steps forward and one back
The government's education policy appears to be taking to steps forward and one back. The announcements of foreign language education in primary schools and the a limited diploma scheme are both steps in the right direction however they may be backsliding after the Education Secretary Alan Johnson said in reply to questions at the Association of School and College Leaders conference:-
- "Things could go horribly wrong, particularly as we are keeping A-levels and GCSEs."
- "The decision was taken in the interests of diversity, so young people have choice."
- "That does mean there is a danger of the Diplomas becoming if you like the secondary modern compared to the grammar."
Now reports in the Telegraph say the government is preparing to scrap its specialist diplomas designed to run alongside A-levels. Millions of pounds have already been spent planning the first five diplomas, due to be in schools by September next year. A leaked email from the government's curriculum advisers, however, shows they are running into trouble, with 61 important points still to be resolved. The scene was set for a climbdown on Friday when Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, told a conference of heads that the diplomas "could go horribly wrong".
The only reason that the diploma may have problems is because of the Governments lack of political will to follow the recommendations of the Tomlinson report and scrap both GCSEs and A Levels and replace them with a diploma. Now there great plan is to run the two schemes along side each other and create frankly a bit of a pigs ear of system that will no provide the clarity and breath of qualification that employers need. Kids do not fit neatly into academic or vocational boxes and a coherent education system should be able to cope with this natural diversity in all children. The current system does not and so children at the lower end of the academic scale get disenchanted with school and drop out of school with all the social problems that causes. The new system may help those pupils but force others into an entirely academic or vocational box with they do not fit.
The correct thing should be to follow the Tomlinson report and scrap both GCSEs and A Levels and replace them with a diploma encompassing both academic and vocation courses in one qualification.
Responding to Alan Johnson's remarks Liberal Democrat Shadow Education Secretary, Sarah Teather said:
"It was pure cowardice that this government didn't scrap GCSEs and A levels and wholeheartedly pursue a modern British diploma combining the very best of academic and vocational learning. The government's policy continues to divide pupils into academic and vocational categories, refusing the possibility that a person might have interest and skills in both. It is not too late for them to correct that error."
Modern foreign language lessons are to be compulsory for the first time in England's primary schools. Education Secretary Alan Johnson has endorsed the proposals of the Dearing Report, that all children should learn a language from the age of seven. However, there is no immediate move to reverse the 2004 decision to make languages optional beyond 14 - despite a sharp fall in the number of pupils taking the GCSEs.
This is a good step after the poor one to make languages optional beyond 14 which led to a sharp fall in the number of pupils taking a GCSE in a foreign language. However until both the quantity and quality of language education improves all the compulsion in the world will not help the numbers of foreign languages speakers to increase. This is the area that the government should really concentrate on to increase the numbers of graduates entering foreign language teaching with financial incentives and obviously we should also look aboard to recruit foreign language teachers.
We need as country to learn languages not just to have a better experience on holiday aboard but also to improve the ability of our many small and medium size enterprises to do business aboard.
Commenting on today's foreign language announcement Liberal Democrat Shadow Education Secretary, Sarah Teather said:
"The government is right that the optimum time to introduce pupils to foreign languages is when they are young. But currently there simply aren't enough modern language graduates going into teaching. Even with any new recruitment drive it will take years to get the necessary workforce into our classrooms. Primary schools are already overloaded with subjects the Government says it is vital that they teach. Only when the Government frees teachers from the burdens of the overly prescriptive curriculum will they be able to fit in exciting new language lessons."
Friday 9th March 2007
EU Leaders agree New Green Targets
European Union leaders have agreed to adopt a binding target on the use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, officials say. UK PM Tony Blair said the deal was "a major step" which put the EU in a leadership position on climate change. There had been strong opposition from some countries to the proposal to boost renewable fuel use to 20% by 2020, however EU leaders agreed to both that and a target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by the same year.
It is good that European leaders have agreed to this target. Yet it is only a step in the right direction now we must see real action to cut carbon emissions in recent years we have seen carbon dioxide emission increases undoing some the past gains, however we are still below the 1990 level, but this is only due to the 'dash for gas' in the 1990's when power stations were switched from coal power to natural gas. The real action on taxes, regulations and renewable energy is yet to start and until it does the problem of carbon emissions and the dangers climate change will continue to grow.
Responding to the agreement reached by EU leaders to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2020, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell said:
"This is a move in the right direction but Labour's record on the environment is appalling. Carbon dioxide emissions have increased and a new report shows that Britain is unlikely to meet its target to generate 10% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Summits and targets can only go so far. We need to see action from Tony Blair in areas such as green taxation."
Thursday 8th March 2007
MPs vote for elected Lords in historic vote
Last night MPs delivered a historic vote in favour of a wholly-elected House of Lords. The Commons voted by 337 to 224 in favour of a 100% elected Lords. The motion for an 80% elected house received a smaller majority of 38. While the vote is non-binding, Leader of the House Jack Straw has promised to uphold the decision. Any legislative changes would, however, need to gain approval from the current upper house first.
Electing the House of Lords is clearly the only way to remove both the unmerited power of hereditary peers and the appointed crony problem of life peers. However it should also be remembered that the aim of the House of Lords is to act as a revising chamber to the government elected as the result of a general election. Therefore a number of measures need to be put in place to ensure that the commons keeps its primacy :-
- The new elected Lords should not be able to completely reject bills it should only be able the modify them, and a complete rewrite amending more than 75% of the bill would count as complete rejection and so would not be allowed.
- The Parliament Act where by a Commons vote can be used to trump the Lords vote should be abolished and replaced by the power to delay the introduction of the bill for two years without the disliked Lord's amendments, but again only after a separate vote in the commons. This should apply to all legalisation apart from the annual finance bill (i.e. the budget bill), where the separate vote would cause the bill to be passed immediately. Not to exempt the finance bill could cause the running of the country to stop with all the serious consequences that could cause.
- The Lords should be elected using a system of proportional voting, preferably Single Transferred Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies. I would prefer it if these constituencies were the unitary authorities in Scotland and Wales plus the ceremonial counties in England i.e. Hampshire, Somerset, North Yorkshire, West Sussex, Greater London etc.
- The Lords should be elected by thirds and be elected to serve a fixed 5 year term. This measure together with the STV voting system should ensure that the Members of the elected Lord's are not too beholden to the government of the day and so can do their job of revising and reviewing the legislation put forward by the Commons.
- There is no need to limit the time of office for a member of the Lords, to do so you do limit the influence of the parties on individual members which may be seen as a good thing in a revising chamber but it would also limit the influence of the electorate on the Lords, which is precisely the that in having an elected upper chamber we wish to increase.
So I say in the 21st Century lets have both houses of Parliament democratically accountable. This of course means reform of the House of Commons as well, but I will that for another day.
Commenting on the House of Lords vote in the Commons Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ming Campbell said :-
"This is a truly historic occasion. After nearly a hundred years the House of Commons has at last taken the momentous step to reform the upper house and make it fit for a modern democracy. This is a famous victory for progressive opinion both in Parliament and in the country."
Wednesday 7th March 2007
Poll confirms public support for local income tax
In a recent NOP poll of adults interviewed across England, 60% said they were in favour of replacing the current council tax with a local income tax. 59% said that basing the tax on eight property price bands was unfair. The poll is published two weeks ahead of the anticipated publication of the Lyons report on local government finance.
Any tax bill which is not based on the ability of the person to pay it is fundamentally unfair and when it is a large bill and one which who can only avoid by being homeless person living on the street than every effort should be made to make it fair. Council Tax, like the Poll Tax before it and Rates before that is fundamental an unfair tax as almost account taken of the person ability to pay it.
The only local taxation system that is based on a person's ability to pay it is a local income tax. The only local taxation system that would simply enable a transfer of budget control from central to local government by decreasing the national tax rate by the same percentage that the local tax rate is increased is income tax. The only local taxation system that would reduce administration costs is local income tax as the Inland Revenue is already there to collect it.
There is course move in local taxation policy for other forms of taxation like Land Value Tax, particularly for the taxation of businesses and second homes but the main local tax that the most people should pay should be a Local Income Tax.
The only main party that has Local Income Tax as the corner stone of its local taxation policy is the Liberal Democrats.
Commenting on the poll report Liberal Democrat Shadow Local Communities Secretary Andrew Stunell said:-
"Council tax is unfair and deeply regressive. It hits pensioners and single income households particularly hard. A locally set income tax, which charges people based on their ability to pay, would be fairer and more accountable. This result shows that the British public are clearly supportive of our proposal to abolish council tax and replace it with a fair locally set alternative."
Tuesday 6th March 2007
Green Industrial Revolution will need more than fine words
It is reported that Environment Secretary David Miliband will use a speech tonight in Cambridge to call for a Green Industrial Revolution. This is welcome news that the secretary of state recognises that to turn the economy round from a fossil fuel driven one to a green driven one will indeed require a Green Industrial Revolution.
However it will take more than fine words from him and past good speeches from the Prime Minister to realise this. It will require the government to change the market framework before the market will react and drive the necessary changes, in particular :-
- Tax Changes - to make installation of renewable energy systems on homes and businesses financially advantageous with shorter payback periods and to make buying environmentally friendly options the cheapest option to do - as not all people are so driven by environmental concerns that they will be green if costs them money to do it
- Regulatory Changes - to ensure new building developments meet the highest environmental standards and to ensure that those products which consume power run with the lowest possible power use. And higher power consumption product would of course receive higher tax levels.
- Power Generation Changes - here the government must take the lead and start a large scale programme to build large renewable energy resources and a far greater use of microgeneration systems. The large scale systems are things like large offshore wind farms, tidal lagoons/barriers, hydro-electric schemes, large wave power systems, and tidal current schemes. The microgeneration systems are things like solar heating systems, solar photovoltaic systems, ground source heat pumps, micro wind turbines and river hydro electric schemes.
These changes will not take place unless there is a very strong government led change to the market. The regulatory changes cost the government only political will and the Power Generation Changes can be achieved by subsidy and straight forward government investment paid for by the tax changes and borrowing against the future income the large renewable generation schemes would make, plus cancelling all future build of new nuclear power stations.
The problem is, past Governments, this Government and the current 'Official Opposition', have had, and appear to presently have no clue of the scale and type of action that is required in order to have a 'Green Industrial Revolution', the only main party with the real policy action to back the fine words on environmental action are the Liberal Democrats.
Commenting on report that Labour's Environment Secretary David Miliband will call for a 'Green Industrial Revolution' Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary Chris Huhne said :-
"Unlike past examples of major technological change such as the replacement of steam with the petrol engine, the change we now need is more costly, and does not have direct personal benefits for consumers. That is why the missing element of David Miliband's vision is a strong government framework of green tax, regulation and subsidy to drive change forward. The green industrial revolution will not happen without a clear lead from the state, and occasional compulsion."
Monday 5th March 2007
Delivery not tough talk on Welfare Reform is the key
Tony Blair has announced radical plans to get the 'long term unemployed' into work, at a launch of a new report into the welfare system today. The report, by former city banker David Freud, suggests that private firms and charities should take over from Jobcentre Plus in offering help to those who find it harder to get employed - including those with severe disabilities. He also suggests making single parents look for work once their child turns 12, rather than 16 as at present.
Ever since this Labour Government came to power in 1997 they have been talking about welfare reform and getting more people into work. All they have done is make the benefits harder and complex to claim. The danger is that this latest reform will just add to this problem and not help families on benefits back into the higher paid world of work.
The key to getting more parents into work is the provision of good childcare or childminding facilities. In particular enabling the parents to tie up school times and work times and help with childcare in the school holiday periods. All too often a single parent can not enter the world of work because the only jobs which give the same holiday time as schools are jobs in schools. However the system must also recognise that sometimes the best place for the parent is at home looked after the children.
Commenting this welfare reform announcement, Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, David Laws said:
"We have heard a lot of this before. The government will be judged on delivery and not just on more tough talk. We welcome the proposals to use the voluntary and private sector to help more people back into employment, but this must be properly financed, and include provisions to help those with serious problems such as low skills or mental health problems. We also welcome the proposals to bring the rules for lone parents more into line with those in other developed countries. But the government will have to ensure that there is proper childcare provision, and that there are safeguards for parents of children whose disabilities make working impossible."
Sunday 4th March 2007
Spring Conference Day 3 - Focus on housing
The policy debates were on; Green and Prosperous Communities paper - covered the few remaining areas of environmental not already covered by other policy papers, in particular enabling local communities to have greater control over their urban environment and stop the mass spread of identikit high streets; Sustainable Housing paper - called for massive improvement in the quality of the new houses to be built and an improvements to the existing housing stock; the other policy debate was an motion emergency debate on Iran which condemns any possible attack on Iran and called for a better diplomatic effort to be made to solve the current problems, particular as the current US sabre rattling is only strengthening the case of the hard elements within Iran.
For me the most interesting policy paper was on sustainable housing it called for :-
- 1. National targets to be set to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the UK's housing by at least 60% by 2050.
- 2. The Government to ensure effective compliance with the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive before further action is taken against the UK by the European Court of Justice.
- 3. The thermal efficiency standards in the building regulations to be improved from 2011 so that any new house constructed after that date achieves a 'PassivHaus' standard.
- 4. The energy efficiency of existing homes to be improved through a set of standardised packages, including a range of insulation, draught-proofing, window, heating and lighting replacement.
- 5. Those schemes used to reduce fuel poverty to be targeted at increasing the energy efficiency of households in fuel poverty, thereby reducing carbon emissions permanently.
- 6. The Energy Efficiency Commitment on the utilities companies to be used to deliver year-on-year reductions in domestic carbon emissions, along with improvements in energy efficiency, and to change energy suppliers to energy service companies.
- 7. Improvements to the building regulations themselves to make them easier to understand and use, along with improvements in the enforcement regime to ensure new homes are built to the required standards.
These seven measures should greatly improve both the existing and new house stock in the country and lead the end of bight of old and disabled people living and dying on the cold, as well as reducing the fuel bills for all and not to mention reduce the carbon foot and reverse some of the worst effects of climate change.
Party President Simon Hughes MP confirmed that the Liberal Democrats are making significant strides in selecting women and ethnic minorities in key constituencies and he said that looking to add to the Party's record number 63 MPs, over half of the selected candidates in the next batch of 63 most winnable seats are either female or from an ethnic minority.
His speech followed the policy motion on Iran and was followed by internal party reports from the Federal Executive, Federal Finance and Administration Committee, and the Campaign for Gender Balance. Then came the remaining policy motions before the big set piece from Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell.
In his speech he laid down five tests by which Gordon Brown led Labour should be judged, and he said :-
- "First, end Labour's authoritarian attack on civil liberties - Identity cards will not stop terrorism. They won't stop illegal immigration. They won't stop fraud. And they won't stop crime. Don't spend billions of pounds on an expensive, ineffective, and unworkable identity card scheme. Spend the money on our police and security services instead.
- Second, grasp the challenge posed by climate change - The environmental efforts in the Chancellor's budgets have been risible. Make the green tax switch so that we tax pollution more and earnings less.
- Third, break open the poverty trap - How can it be fair that over two and a half million pensioners live in poverty? How can it be fair that over one and a half million families are on waiting lists for social housing? And I want to ask Gordon Brown how can it be fair that in 21st century Britain six out ten children in Glasgow - the city where I was born - live in poverty? Give pensioners a proper income without the humiliation of the means test. Give families the opportunity for decent housing. Give our children a proper chance in life. End the dependency culture. Give people a hand up, not a hand out.
- And my fourth test, trust the people - Since 1997 Labour has accumulated power, when it ought to have dispersed it. Take localism seriously and free local communities from the shackles of Whitehall. Scrap the unfair Council Tax which penalises pensioners and poorer families and hamstrings local communities.
- And fifth, Britain's foreign policy should not be set in Washington - What do we know about Iraq? I'll tell you what we know. The President made the decisions, the Prime Minister argued the case, the Chancellor signed the cheques and the Tories voted it through. The British-American relationship needs to be rebalanced and sooner rather than later. There are ominous signs that some in the United States might consider military action against Iran. But strikes against Iran would buttress the regime, destabilise the region, and put British forces in Iraq at risk."
I see some headline writers see these five tests as five conditions for a possible coalition government after the next election. It is nothing of sort, it is simply there to highlight five key policies areas where only the Liberal Democrats have the policies, the political will and the political leadership to pass all five tests with flying colours. Both Labour and Tory alike will always fall short on at one of the above tests.
The Liberal Democrats have now set out clear policies on both environmental policy with the "Green Tax Switch" campaign and on crime with "We can cut crime" campaign. When are the conservative party going to have some detailed policies? They appear to wish to replace New Labour spin with nice photo opportunities. The government of this great country is too important to be left to inexperienced amateurs only the Liberal Democrats have the detail policy portfolio to tackle the needs of the nation.
Saturday 3rd March 2007
Spring Conference Day 2 - Trident and crime dominate
There were two themes today at the conference. The morning consisted of the normally mixture of set place speeches and presentation mixed with some policy motions to update the large portfolio of policies.
The speeches and presentations came from Phil Willis welcoming us the Harrogate again, the Welsh Liberal Democrats on what they doing for the people of Wales and by Dr Vince Cable MP, Lib Dem Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer who highlighted the way the government are mortgaging the future with poor financial decisions large government items like nuclear power and ID cards and the lack of effort on tackling the huge increase in personal debt.
The policy motions on some internal party reports and standing orders; 'Save Our Waterways' motion - highlighting government cuts and lack of initiative in with our great British waterway network; 'Water and Development' motion - highlight the chronic need to tackle water poverty and how in the future this could replace oil as a source of conflict; but the main debate of the morning session was dominated by the big debate on 'The Future of Britain's Nuclear Deterrent'.
The debate was good one with strong passionate speeches on both the main motion and the main amendment with leading figures from the party speaking on both sides. The turning point in the debate was Sir Ming Campbell speech in favour of the main motion. As it happened I was sitting directly behind Ming duration the debate and I could sense he really wished to enter the debate. His invention was crucial it wasn't just what he said but the manner and passion with which he spoke that was the vital ingredient to the speech. The result was the main motion was passed by a slim 40 odd vote majority in the nearly 900 votes cast.
The main points of the motion are :-
- Retaining the current Trident system but cutting Britain's nuclear weapons by half, retaining only up to 100 warheads.
- Extending the life span of the current Trident system and keeping options open on a final decision until at least 2014 in order to allow a clearer picture to develop with regard to nuclear proliferation and to threats to Britain.
- Using the cut in warheads to kick-start multilateral disarmament talks and sending a strong signal to non-nuclear weapons states that Britain takes its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty seriously.
- A presumption in favour of the most cost effective replacement for the current Trident system being a submarine system based on the Trident missile of 3 boats carrying no more than 24 warheads each.
This is the sensible way forward there is no sense in any government taking a decision on a replacement weapons system costing billions of pounds years before that decision has to be made. The risk of making the wrong decision and either leaving this country without adequate defence or wasting billions on an unnecessary system is too great to try and guess the country's defence needs is 2014.
The afternoon followed a similar pattern to the morning session with a speech from Michael Moore MP, Liberal Democrat Foreign Secretary and presentation from Liberal Democrat Group on South Somerset District Council. The Policy debates were on "Together We Can Cut Crime" the policy paper highlighted in the rally the evening before on Crime Prevention, Victims and Justice; the urgent issue of Gun Crime following the recent spate of shooting in London; and of course some internal party reports this time from the three Parliamentary groups the Commons, the Lords and the European parliament.
The very interesting part of the afternoon session was a Question and Answer Session on Crime, which was chaired by Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary Nick Clegg MP and consisted of a panel containing :-
- Lord Adebowale - who is Chief Executive, Turning Point a charity which helps over a 100,000 people a year turn their lives around from a point where they have a problem with alcohol, drugs, their mental health or a learning disability.
- Lucie Russell - from an organisation called SmartJustice who campaigns for more alternatives to custody and promotes initiatives that are effective in changing offenders' behaviour, stopping crime before it starts and tackling the causes of crime for adults and young people.
- Frank Flood and Gary Parker - both from the Social Partnership, who work with youngsters in Liverpool to stop them following the life of crime they have until a good treatment centre service turned their lives around.
For me the key thing was hearing the experiences of Frank and Gary they had both had a life of crime and drug addiction from primary school to only a few year ago. Both Frank, aged 45 and Frank aged 38 said the prison system in this country does not work to reform people. They should know as they had both spent many years in prison, in a number of sentences and visited most of Her Majesty's Prisons in the country. Their turning point came when one sentence included the final part in a treatment centre which looked at all their problems and helped them sort them out. The centre had people in it that saw them as people with problems that needed helping, rather than people who caused problems and needed dealing with.
The result of people helping Frank and Gary are two lives and two families that are now helping society by living in a productive and not destructive manner. The best sentences are those not those which are tough or soft but those which are effective.
The debate on the Trident Weapons System neither of the other main parties have debates like it at their party conferences. Key party figures on both sides of the debate and the party decided on the policy. Liberal Democrat by name and democratic by nature.
Friday 2nd March 2007
Spring Conference Day 1 - Liberal Democrats are the real alternative to Blair's crime-ridden Britain
Today was the first today of the Liberal Democrat spring conference. In the afternoon there were party member consultative sessions on possible future policy papers on the subjects of climate change, health, better governance, and local government structures and finance. In the evening there was the traditional start of conference rally which this year was on the current Liberal Democrat campaign "We Can Cut Crime".
There were good speeches from both Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell and Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary Nick Clegg which both highlighted the real mess the this Government and past governments have made of the criminal justice system since Labour came to power.
The only real way forward on a better criminal justice system are the plans published by the Liberal Democrats as part of the "We Can Cut Crime" campaign. The other two main parties continue to rant on with the same mixture of tough talk combined with ineffective action.
The key to tackling the crime problem is cutting the reoffending rate and that will not be done unless there is proper life and job skills training in prison. This combined with better action on drugs and alcohol plus a improved educational system will dramatically cut the rates of crime.
Thursday 1st March 2007
Blair - Get serious with education and stop the gimmicks !!
The week a failed multi-million pound government scheme to encourage young people to stay in school is wound up, the Liberal Democrats have released research showing the number of the scheme's unclaimed points could 'buy' 28 million free AS study guides.
The Connexions scheme was launched to give 16-19 year olds an incentive to stay on at school by giving them "loyalty points" that could be exchanged for discounts on CDs, clothes and tickets for events. However 1.4 billion points have been accumulated but not spent.
This is another typical gimmicky government action to grab headlines, instead of making difficult decisions to fundamentally alter the examination system in schools so that it full engages all pupils and not just those interested in future degree courses.
After the age of 14 it should possible for all pupils to study the two basic subjects of Maths and English at the level most suited to the student, along side a range of other subjects such as building, plumbing, nursing, retailing, banking, hospitality, hairdressing and so on; as well as the more normal academic subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, history, art, music, geography etc. This would create a program of study which was individual, educational and interesting for the pupils. It would for bring vocational subjects on a par with academic ones and ensure that schools started to produce a complete range of young adults with the basic abilities to do the full range of jobs that society as a whole needs them to provide.
Such a change would require the government to complete re-think its current direction of education policy. It would require :-
- smaller class sizes,
- better equipped schools,
- better trained teaching staff,
- emphasis on improving all schools,
- emphasis on neighbouring schools working together - possibly sharing specialised staff and/or facilities instead of competing against each in league tables as at present.
Commenting, Liberal Democrat Shadow Education Secretary, Sarah Teather said:
"It shows how utterly shambolic the Government has been at running this scheme if teenagers aren't even bothering to collect discounted computer games, yet alone free study guides. Young people have more sense than ministers - it's not bribes of go-karting lessons that keep pupils in schools, it's interesting lessons and the chance to gain qualifications that will help get them a job. The Government needs to spend a lot less time and money on gimmicks and a lot more on reducing class sizes, tackling bullying and improving the quality of teaching in the classroom."