Thursday 31st May 2007
Number of failing Schools up 5%
Ofsted announced today that there has been an increase in the number of schools in 'special measures'. The number of schools in England judged to be failing has risen by 5% since last term. This report just underlines how far off the mark the government's education strategy is. They have concentrated school structures, types of school and centralising more and more what teachers should teach and how they should teach it.
The concentration should be on :-
- Smaller class sizes - to give the teacher more time with each pupil to help both the underachiever and the extra bright pupils.
- Good headteachers - at present the workload placed on the headteacher by the Government is making it hard in many cases to get any headteacher let alone a good one.
- Good teachers - who are specialist in their subjects and able to teach and inspire the pupils to achieve not just in their exams but in life too.
- Better curriculum - that is able to meet the needs of all pupils and enables them to combine academic and vocational subjects if required and so prevent them been turned off learning it their early teens, as the Tomlinson report said back in 2005.
These vital reforms are basic stuff yet the government is failing completely to address them. It is about time they stopped played with grandiose schemes on structures and parental choice and got down to the basics of improving the quality of education in all schools.
Commenting on the Ofsted announcement of more schools in 'special measures', Liberal Democrat Shadow Education Secretary, Sarah Teather said:
"Labour is running out of excuses for its inability to sort out failing schools. There should be greater incentives to recruit inspirational headteachers and teachers who are specialists in their subject. It makes sense for schools that have more underachieving pupils to be given extra funds so they have the resources to deal with those pupils' additional needs."
Wednesday 30th May 2007
Housing Crisis is turning Young Couples into 'Wage Slaves' say Academics
Academics from Aberdeen and Loughborough universities warned that Britain's housing crisis is threatening the future of younger generations and forcing them to become 'wage slaves' in order to meet the spiralling price of housing. The report also says parents are being forced to work longer hours at the expense of their children in order to pay off 'super size' loans.
This report underlines the lack of effort the Government is putting into tackling house price inflation, which I have mentioned before in my blog, plus the lack of progress in enabling councils and housing associations to build more affordable homes. By affordable homes I mean good quality homes with the latest environmental standards available through some kind of subsidised scheme, for example :-
- Normal Social rent housing
- Part Buy Part rent schemes
- Building up 'sweat equity'
- Buying shares a council house
- Golden Share schemes
All these schemes are possible could be to widely used given the right legalisation from the Government may be they need to examine Liberal Democrat affordable housing policy to get an idea of what to do.
Commenting on the academics from report Liberal Democrat Shadow Local Government Secretary, Andrew Stunell MP said:
"This reports underlines why the Liberal Democrats have been arguing for the Government to urgently restart the social housing programme. With one and a half million families on council house waiting lists, how much longer can ministers ignore this crisis? Britain needs a million new homes to reverse the trend where so many young people are simply unable to get on the first rung of the housing ladder. It's time the Government got serious about affordable housing by introducing innovative schemes to make home ownership a realistic possibility for everyone who wants it."
Tuesday 29th May 2007
Tories want schools to select by race
Some schools would be able to select pupils by race in order to improve community relations under plans being considered by the Conservative Party aimed at tackling racial segregation in communities. The plans come as new government figures show an increase in the number of schools in England that have an overwhelming majority of pupils of a single ethnic background.
To breakdown segregation in communities you do need to get to people to mix more and have a greater understanding of each others culture. However schools selecting pupils based on the colour of their skin is not the way to do it. Consider how such a policy would work in practise, in city areas pupils would be bussed passed their local school to go to another school and in rural areas it would be impossible to realise when there is only one secondary school in the area. In the playground there would be local and non-local kids which would naturally split into two groups.
The real way to is to have more across community activities and get people from all cultural backgrounds to mix in a more relaxed atmosphere, combined with education in schools and greater public education through the mass media. The message of "Love your neighbour as yourself" is not a new saying but there is not enough of it in today's society, yet there is great willing as events like 'Children In Need' and 'Red Nose Day' show to help those in need. This spirit of willingness to help those in need should be extended to help those from other cultures.
Commenting that the Conservatives are considering plans to let some schools select pupils by race, Liberal Democrat Shadow Education Secretary, Sarah Teather said:
"The Tories are displaying breathtaking inconsistency in their thinking on education. They continue to oppose measures such as a fair admissions code, ballots and banding, that are intended to ensure a mixed intake, but now claim to be in favour of selecting pupils by race. The real challenge is to get schools to reach out into their local communities so that no school is considered out of bounds for people, whatever their race."
Friday 25th May 2007
Abandoning Human Rights would turn Britain into a 'Renegade State'
Home secretary John Reid has made clear he would be prepared to declare a "state of emergency" to suspend key parts of the human rights convention if the law lords do not overturn a series of judgments that have weakened the anti-terrorist control order regime. Reid's stark warning to the courts follows the embarrassment of having to confirm to MPs that three terror suspects whom he had placed under control orders to prevent them travelling abroad to kill British and US troops had all absconded.
The question is simple if we a leading member of the European Union, United Nation Security Council and a G8 nation say we are not fully in favour of basic human rights, then how can we campaign in favour of basic human rights to the likes of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, the regime in China or even Al-Qaeda ?
In this case the problem is not the Human Rights act but the government's anti-terrorist control order regime. Suspicions about people often arise because of intercept communications and in some cases this is the only intelligence which the police have about an individual's activities, and at present it cannot be used as the basis for a court case.
The law should be changed so that this evidence could be used in court. Every other country (apart from Ireland) allows the use of this material as evidence. As long as there are proper safeguards, this reform could allow suspects to be tried in the proper way instead of being subjected to extraordinary and extra-judicial powers like control orders. Then people current under control orders would be subject to the normal legal process and would if guilty be jailed. That is the safe and correct way to protect the public and not the Home Secretary's plan to abandon the Human Rights Act because his woolly headed control system is not working as he wants.
Obviously in using sensitive intercept communications material, there would have to be :-
- 1 - the use of specially trained, security-cleared judges to prepare cases, which would then be heard by a different judge;
- 2 - special security-cleared juries and probably smaller juries, and
- 3 - allowing juries to see sensitive evidence without necessarily revealing the source of that evidence.
Also obviously the individuals charged to be able to see the evidence against them in the normal way, but again without revealing the source of that evidence. It is in this way that it is possible to defend freedom, justice and basic human rights whilst tackling the problem of terrorism.
Responding to John Reid's comments Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Clegg said:
"By threatening to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights John Reid reveals a mix of sloppy thinking and buck passing. It is wildly inaccurate to claim that the three escapees were somehow helped by our respect for human rights. It's time John Reid stopped blaming human rights law every time something goes wrong. There are a range of alternatives that will protect public safety without turning Britain into a renegade state."
Thursday 24th May 2007
Government Waste Strategy plan is too little too late
Households who do not recycle rubbish may have to pay more than those who do, under government plans to cut waste. Unveiling the first waste strategy for England since 2000, Environment Secretary David Miliband said English councils would get powers to charge for rubbish and "give rewards in cash" for those who recycle. However he said the overall amount of local tax raised must not increase. He also announced a clampdown on junk mail, excess packaging and plastic shopping bags in a bid to meet tough EU landfill waste reduction targets.
All the talk of clampdown on excess packaging is just hot air until the government tax excess packaging and give shoppers the right to leave it at the shop, just as the German government and Irish governments have done years ago. Talk of improving the recycling rates is also hot air until the Government too ensures that there is a dramatic increase in the number of recycling plants around the country so that that the likes of tetra-paks and all plastics can be recycled. And finally talk of improved recycling rates is hot air until all packaging and products are made in such a way that they can be recycled. All this requires Government legislation and taxation to make sure action of the ground happens and this will not happen with hot air words from a Government minister.
Commenting on the Government's waste strategy, Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, Chris Huhne said:
"This is too little and too late. The Government's 50 per cent recycling target for 2020 does not even match the best current standards in Europe such as Germany's 58 per cent and the Netherlands' 65 per cent. We need a right to return excessive packaging at retailers, trials of a plastic bag charge plus more prosecutions for excessive waste and fly-tipping. We oppose new waste tax powers for local councils, but would welcome schemes which give rebates on council tax for residents who recycle. We don't need 'pay as you throw', but councils should be able to give 'rebates as you recycle'."
Wednesday 23rd May 2007
Unnecessary New Nuclear power will divert investment from renewable energy and securing the future
The latest Energy white paper talks of protecting the environment and securing our energy supplies using nuclear power. Yet environment risk that nuclear poses and the lack natural uranium in Britain show that even a basic analysis of the problems show that this may not be entirely correct. Fifty years ago the full dangers radiation posed to human health were not fully understood and the regulations have been tightened greatly over that period as our understanding has increased.
There has not been a major 'Chernobyl' or 'three mile island' style incident in Britain but when assessing risk one must always look at two things, one the possibility of something happening and secondly the consequences if something does happen. In general if the consequences are minor is does not matter what the possibility is, however if the consequences are major then the possibilities must be low and manageable. However if the consequences are catastrophic then to proceed on a course of action the possibility of failure must be zero or there must be no alternative course of action.
In the case of nuclear power consequences of failure would be catastrophic but there is a viable alternative course of action the millions that the Government will have to pump into nuclear power would be better spent on renewable energy and carbon capture technologies. This is why the Liberal Democrats reject the use of nuclear power. The risk of accidents and the long-term legacy of waste is too high given the viable alternatives, also because it is an inherently secretive area, it is impossible to properly scrutinise the costs of nuclear power. And, in addition, putting pressure on foreign powers to limit their own nuclear programmes and halt nuclear weapons proliferation becomes much easier when we have demonstrated that civil nuclear power is not needed in the UK.
For all these reasons the, Liberal Democrat energy policies are based on five key ideas:-
- 1. Energy efficiency
- 2. Microgeneration
- 3. Renewable energy
- 4. Carbon capture & storage
- 5. Environmental taxation
If the above ideas are used a non nuclear power and low carbon energy future is possible for the UK and this is why at Prime Minister's questions, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell attacked Tony Blair for disregarding concerns about risk, cost and toxic waste in relation to nuclear power and asked him :-.
"Can the Prime Minister explain why in his manifestos of 1997, 2001 and 2005 he did not seek a mandate for a renewed generation of nuclear power stations. Why is he so hell-bent on nuclear power now?"
The reply from Tony Blair clear demonstrates he does not understand the scale to which renewable energy source could be used he believes that nuclear power is needed to help reduce carbon emissions and to ensure that the UK has secure energy supplies in the future and in reply to Sir Ming Campbell question Prime Minister Tony Blair said :-
"We are not going to be able to make up through wind farms all the deficit on nuclear power,"
Yet renewable sector is not just on-shore wind farms there is tidal power, underwater tidal current power, wave power, off-shore wind power, solar-thermal power, solar-electric power, ground source heat pumps, geothermal power, bio-fuel energy, hydro-electric river power and hydro-electric dam power. This is in addition to great use combined heat and power plants, carbon capture with the traditional sources of gas and coal and using hydrogen as a fuel. The future is in using these new technologies in a more distributed energy network and not the old nuclear option of the past.
Still maybe pigs really can fly and Tony Blair the fully qualified lawyer is right and I a mere charter engineer is mistaken over the future direction of the energy policy in this country, but I think not. Tony Blair legacy may not be a disastrous war in Iraq but actually the misdirection of the entire nation's energy network for generations to come.
Commenting on the Energy White Paper, Liberal Democrat Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, Susan Kramer MP said:
"The Government is in danger of missing the opportunity to tackle climate change without resorting to the expensive mistake of nuclear power. Directing focus and investment away from wind, wave and tidal power into nuclear will delay our ability to get to a fully-renewable system by decades. Nuclear power has a history of hidden costs and is fraught with potential dangers. There is also still the unanswered question of what to do with all the radioactive waste. Carbon capture and storage should be used as an interim technology before renewable technologies are fully developed."
Tuesday 22nd May 2007
Brown must act over £9 billon tax credit shambles
Today the Liberal Democrats have called on Gordon Brown to 'listen, learn and act', after new official Government figures showed it has wrongly paid out around £9bn of tax credits in three years - in overpayments, fraud and error. Almost £5bn of this money will never be recovered. Despite this obvious mess and an Ombudsman's report into the problems the Minister responsible for strategic oversight of taxation as a whole the Paymaster General Dawn Primarolo MP said in March in the Official Report, 15th March 2007, Col. 181 WH :-
"I do not have time to read for the record all 12 of the recommendations that the ombudsman made, but the vast majority have been implemented."
This statement is obviously rubbish how can the Paymaster General say the vast majority have been implemented after saying she does not know what they are. In fact, following a successful Liberal Democrat Freedom of information request, it has become evident that just 4 of the 12 recommendations have been fully implemented., below is a summary of the Ombudsman's recommendations:-
- 1. Steps should be taken to ensure customer facing Tax Credit Office staff recognise situations where interim payments are appropriate - Implemented
- 2. HM Revenue & Customs should not seek to recover an overpayment until it has come to a decision based on the relevant facts as to whether the excess amount should be repaid - Not implemented, in many cases recovery of excess payment is still automatic.
- 3. On the payments page of an award notice customers should be alerted that they can challenge recovery of an overpayment in line with Code of Practice 26 and to do so they need to complete form TC864 - Not implemented, although claimants are informed they may appeal, they are not told on what basis, or how to appeal.
- 4. When it is decided that an in-year excess payment in recoverable it should be done at the same rate for previous years overpayments - Implemented.
- 5. Steps should be taken to ensure customer facing Tax Credit Office staff alert to circumstances where Additional Tax Credits are appropriate - Implemented
- 6. Where an in year recovery of Tax Credits is justified HM Revenue & Customs should take steps to automatically pay Additional Tax Credits to families in receipt of income support - Implemented
- 7. Details of the availability of Additional Tax Credits should be printed prominently on the payments page of a Tax Credit award notice - Not implemented
- 8. Customers who have been overpaid Tax Credits should be sent a letter outlining how much they owe and why and when the overpayment occurred. - Not implemented, although claimants are informed of how much they have been overpaid, they are not told why it occurred
- 9. When a customer has been overpaid Tax Credits they should be immediately notified about what has happened and informed of the circumstance in which a recovery can be waived. - Not implemented; by HM Revenue & Customs own admission they often can not identify where a mistake in a Tax Credit payment has been made
- 10. Consideration should be given to writing off all excess overpayments caused by official error between 2003 and 2004 - Not implemented
- 11. Consideration should be give to the adoption of a statutory test for the recovery of Tax Credits - Not implemented
- 12. HM Revenue & Customs should consider the way in which it delivers Tax Credits, appreciating a different model is needed in complex cases where there is more sustained and informed communication with their customers - Not implemented
This current tax credit system is fundamental flawed too often it ends up penalising those it is suppose to help this is why is needs fundamental reform and so this is why the Liberal Democrats have published a five point plan to fundamentally reform tax credits and introduce greater stability and fairness. The Liberal Democrat five Point Plan for Tax Credit Reform is :-
- 1. A return to stable, 6 month fixed, awards - ending the chaos and instability of the existing system, which is particularly damaging for families on low incomes. Despite all the evidence that variable awards create massive instability and a high chance of incorrect payments, no attempt has been made to return to 6 month fixed awards.
- 2. Much simpler, clearer award notices. Although there have been some improvements made to the award notices, there is still widespread criticism of the number of and the clarity of the awards notices.
- 3. An immediate end to what the Ombudsman has called "systemic maladministration" - automatic recovery of Tax Credits by the Revenue, together with a reversal of the burden of proof. Despite the hardship it causes, HMRC tries to recover Tax Credits without proving that the claimant was responsible for the overpayment or even checking if the overpayments are actually recoverable.
- 4. Along side this, there should be a statutory right of appeal against overpayments, with a presumption that all overpayments due to official error should be written off. Despite this being one of the Ombudsman's key recommendations, no attempts have been made to implement it
- 5. A review of the extent of Tax Credits, to consider if it is sensible or effective to pay complex means tested benefits almost universally.
It is all very well the other parties having ambitions to help the poorest in our society but to achieve this help requires policies that target those in need and are practical in operation. This practical operation is the fundamental step that is wrong with the current governments thinking. All of the above five steps improve the system and would make it possible to target help to those that require it.
The above changes may mean that some people get a few quid extra over the current system because of their changed circumstances within the six month fixed period. So it may be not as targeted, but I for one have nothing against given those at the bottom of the financial ladder a bit more.
Commenting on this appalling mess Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, David Laws MP said:
"These figures are a disgrace. The Treasury is supposed to be the guardian of public money, but it has presided over waste on a monumental scale. Gordon Brown must fundamentally reform tax credits to deliver stability for those on low incomes, a fairer policy on recovery of overpayments due to official error, and an independent right of appeal. If he wants to show that he is fit to be Prime Minister, he must sort this mess out before he leaves the Treasury."
Monday 21st May 2007
Planning paper set to further disempower local communities
Gaining permission for major building projects such as airport terminals and power stations would become quicker under government plans. Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly wants to replace large planning inquiries in England with an independent commission. The planning white paper also suggests minor projects like conservatories and home extensions should no longer need planning permission where there is little impact on neighbours.
This is yet another measure which removes power from the local level and gives it to an unelected Quango and is even a quick look at the bill reveals at basic problems. The government appears to believe that removing the need for planning permission for extensions will reduce planning problems. In practice this will only cause an increase in neighbour disputes as neighbours will start to take legal action on human rights grounds to prevent loss of light, prevent overlooking and so on. There also appears to be a believe in this Labour Government that the only good planning decision is a quick one, yet in planning terms the old saying, "decide in haste repent at leisure" is never truer. The planning decisions taking will result in buildings that will hopeful last for tens or even hundreds of years so the decisions must be correct for each locality. It is far better that planning decisions are correct and timely rather than rash and speedy.
There are measures that the government could take to improve the planning system but they all involve giving local councillors more not less control, for example :-
- Greater interaction - It would be better if greater discussion was allowed between the applicant, protesters and councillors. Currently councillors are not allowed to say the application would be improved if certain aspects were changed, councillors can only accept, reject or defer for missing information. They can not change, improve and pass changed plans. At present poor plans are rejected and new plans brought forward at a later date and this could repeatedly occur. Yet for the Government such a slow repetitive process is ok if each individual planning application is determined quickly. The fact that the whole process from first plan to final plan for the applicant, protesters and councillors is a long draw out affair does appear to matter.
- Better appeals - The slowest and most unfair part of the process is the government run appeals. These are conducted in a very judicial manner between the applicants lawyers and the councils lawyers. The 'judge' is an un-elected Government planning inspector who is unaccountable to the public for they make. Again the only decision is accept or reject the plans as they stand. It would be far better if the appeals process was done an appeals group of councillors from the same council. The planning appeals committee should contain councillors who have done specialise training and they should have the ability to change to the plans and not just accept or reject the application.
- Infrastructure improvements first - it should be possible for local government to make infrastructure improvements before the planned development takes place and then charge the applicant after the development is complete. Currently no improves can be done until the development is complete, the houses sold and problems created. This would able a local council to develop a local plan, carry out the basic infrastructure changes and then permit developments to recover the infrastructure costs. It would also be a visible sign to the applicant that the council really did want the development and the request to changes to the plans were only to improve and not prevent the application.
Currently the balance of power is too much towards a judicial planning system and away from making good well balanced decisions in a timely manner.
Commenting on the Planning White Paper, Liberal Democrat Housing Spokesperson, Dan Rogerson said:-
"There's a real risk this White Paper will change the planning system to benefit the few at the expense of the many. Gordon Brown mustn't sacrifice local say in planning and sustainable development in a bogus quest for faster decisions. Local citizens need a say when big decisions are made, rather than having them imposed on high from a 'we know better government'."
Friday 18th May 2007
Shameful day as Labour and Tory MPs combine for Parliamentary cover-up
Today an attempt led by Liberal Democrat MPs to defeat a Bill which seeks to exempt MPs and Peers from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, was defeated by an alliance of Conservative and Labour MPs. The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, a private member's bill, introduced by David Maclean, a Conservative MP, passed its third reading shortly before 2.30pm and will now pass to the House of Lords, where it is likely to face a tough time. Yesterday Sir Ming Campbell wrote to Gordon Brown calling on him to publicly oppose the bill and Sir Ming also wrote to Liberal Democrat members urging them to lobby their MP against the bill.
The heart of open government is the right of the people to know what the government is doing on their behalf. At heart of the government are the Members of the two houses of Parliament. Yet today Labour and Conservative MPs saw fit to exempt themselves and the Peers of the upper house from the Freedom of Information Act. How can you have a open and free society if there is one law for us and one law for those in Parliament ?
Those members of Parliament who voted for this appalling cover-up should be ashamed of themselves.
Commenting on this bill Liberal Democrat Shadow Justice Secretary, Simon Hughes MP said:-
"This has been a shameful day for the House of Commons - MPs should set an example of open government, not apply it to everybody but ourselves. David Maclean's Bill and the way it has got through the Commons will clearly diminish respect for Parliament. But the battle will go on and hopefully the Lords will deliver us from this terrible mistake. I hope the public will make their views very clear to the MPs who supported the Bill and to the next Prime Minister that this is absolutely the wrong direction for open, accountable government."
Thursday 17th May 2007
One fifth of all remaining Post Offices to close
Today Trade Secretary Alistair Darling has confirmed that about 2,500 post offices - a fifth of those left in the UK - are to close by 2009. Mr Darling said the current loss-making network was "unsustainable" and pointed out four million fewer customers were using post offices every week than two years ago and it was losing four million pounds a week. The Liberal Democrats have called for an additional £2bn investment in the Post Office that would create a thriving network and we have said how it would be paid for.
The reason fewer customers are using the Post Office is because the Post Office is offering fewer services to fewer people because of Government changes in the way services are delivered. The Government has :-
- not invested in the services it provides through Post Offices,
- not invested in the quality of the branch network,
- not given the Post Office the commercial freedom it requires to be successful, with things like link cash machines not been allowed at branches and handling parcels from post carriers other than Royal Mail also not been allowed.
The Government is yet again clueless with no policy detail as to how to sort out a problem. The solutions are clear as defined in the Liberal Democrat's "Save Our Post Offices" Campaign yet the government refuses to act and only appears to be interested in shutting down the network.
Commenting, Liberal Democrat Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, Susan Kramer said:-
"The Government has given up on the Post Office. Ministers are now only interested in managing its decline. The Liberal Democrats are the only party with a properly costed £2bn plan to secure the network's long term future. This whole programme is driven by the need to save money and has nothing to do with guaranteeing the long-term needs of people who rely on the Post Office for essential services."
Commenting on the announcement that the contract for the Post Office Card Account has been put out to tender because of EU competition rules, Liberal Democrat Work and Pensions Spokesperson, Danny Alexander said:-
"The continuation of the Post Office Card Account is welcome, but it should never have been threatened by ministers in the first place. The way this tender has been drawn up means there is no certainty that this new contract will actually be won by the Post Office. If the contract is awarded to another organisation, it will have a hugely damaging impact on what is left of the Post Office network."
Wednesday 16th May 2007
Brown must end dysfunctional relationship with Bush
Tony Blair has flown to the US for his last set of talks as Prime Minister with President Bush. Ahead of the talks, Sir Ming Campbell said the uncritical friendship between the PM and President had severely undermined the two countries' 'special relationship', and he highlighted what Gordon Brown must do to restore balance to the alliance.
At a time when the British Prime Minister should have been a critical friend Tony Blair choose to play the role of presidential lackey. The United States of America has a proud record of defending freedom and fighting for "truth, justice and America way" yet is recent times this has come under attack not just from the terrorist forces of Al-Qaeda but also from the Whitehouse with laws and actions that have helping the terrorist cause, for example :-
- US and UK troops in Iraq - Their continuing presence is used by Al-Qaeda as a recruitment aid they call the US/UK force an occupying army from countries only interested in Iraqi oil.
- Guantanamo Prison Camp - how can you fight for truth and justice by holding people in a prison camp outside the rule of domestic and international law against the very principles of for truth and justice you are supposed to be fighting for, this action again only assist Al-Qaeda they can say they are fighting to free illegally held US prisoners. Giving terrorists a noble cause like that is madness and you can as all you want they were active before Guantanamo it does not matter they can still use it as a just cause.
- US inaction in Israel - The Clinton Government saw peace agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians and setting up the Palestinian Authority together with the Oslo accords. There was a possible positive future to for both the Israelis and Palestinians. The Bush Government should have carried this on, they did not and they have backed Israel in very action they have taken. A true peace maker has to be even handed with both sides to make the peace and build understanding. This uneven approach is also used Al-Qaeda as a recruitment aid and a means to justify their actions.
A good critical friend with a 'special' relationship would say on :-
- Iraq - the peacekeeping and reconstruction in Iraq should be carried out by the UN with none of the countries involved in the invasion presence in the force or the reconstruction effort. The main help should come from neighbouring countries, other Muslim countries and non-involved countries like India. US government appear to see Iraq as a way of increasing presence and influence in the region. The most important thing is peace the middle-east. If that means the best thing for the cause of middle-east peace involves making the sacrifices both the US and UK have made in terms of are own armed forces and then handing the baton over to someone else to complete the task of helping the Iraqi people, then that is what we should do. The British Prime Minister should say the most important thing is peace the mid-east and for that we must get out and handover completely to the UN.
- Guantanamo - giving the terrorist such a good cause to say they are fighting for is madness and it must close. This case for closure should be pressed through every avenue possible. The British Prime Minister should say loud and clear that Guantanamo must close and the prisoners should either on through the normal criminal justice system or be freed if there is no criminal offence to charge them with.
- Climate Change - The Kyoto Treaty is still important must be signed by the Federal Government is Washington, as many individual US states have already done. The Bush administration listens too much to the oil lobby. The US as the largest polluter on the plant must take action on carbon emission. A small start is to sign the Kyoto treaty to admit carbon emissions are a problem and commit the US government to do something about it. The British Prime Minister should say the greatest threat is Climate Change not Al-Qaeda, remember 9/11 took out some buildings in New York whereas hurricane Katrina took the whole of New Orleans and part of the area surrounding.
- Israelis/Palestinians - Some of the actions that Israel have taken in the recent past are making the situation between the Israelis and Palestinians worse, in particular the attack on Lebanon in 2006 and placement of the defensive wall not on the 1967 west bank border but through many Palestinian communities. The US Bush led government have not spoken up against these and other measures. The British Prime Minister should say some of the actions of your ally Israel against the Palestinians are wrong and you should say they are and call on Israel to change them.
- Ballistic Missile Defence - Building a missile shield protecting only US is not building peace but discord. The Russians see it as an attack system not a defence system, for if one country believes their defence system so good it can't be hit then it might be tempted attack. The British Prime Minister should say look President Bush your missile defence is ill conceived and is not adding to the cause of world peace and so should be stopped.
- US/UK extradition treaty - currently a US citizen facing extradition to the UK can go before a US court and UK authorities must prove there is case to answer, but a UK citizen facing extradition to US has no such option US authorities only have to say this person a bad person please send him over to us and we must under the oblations of the treaty send them. The British Prime Minister should say the current extradition treaty values US citizens more highly than UK ones, this is wrong and must change, there must fully reciprocal conditions on extradition between our two great nations.
On these issues and more we see a dysfunctional relationship with the Bush led Government. A very one side relationship with President Bush saying jump and Tony Blair's only basic question in reply is "How high Mr President ?" when it should have been "Why should I Mr President, you make your case for Britain's support and I will consider it !" The real problem may be Tony Blair did ask why, Bush told him and then Tony Blair actually believed him, but we will never know because any criticisms have been in private not public. It is only possible to judge by actions not words and the actions have all been ones slavish obedience to a master with lots of bidding.
To be leader of the British Government as British Prime Minister is one of the most important roles anyone can have in the world. It is a position which requires someone to speak out boldly and to act with great wisdom. The British Prime Minister must act first in the interests of the British people and secondly in the interests of the wider international community. In the past few years both these principle tasks of the British Prime Minister have meant going to our great friend and ally in America and say you are wrong on a number of issues. Tony Blair has failed to do this and so he has failed in the most critical role of a British Prime Minister.
Speaking on Tony Blair's last visit to Washington as Prime Minister, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell said :-
"Tony Blair and George Bush's relationship has resulted in untold damage to our reputation at home and abroad. As new Prime Minister Brown must make clear his commitment to ending a slavish relationship which gave the impression that British foreign policy was set in the United States. Mr Brown must be a candid friend; calling for the closure of Guantanamo; setting a target for the withdrawal of British troops; renegotiating fully reciprocal extradition laws between Britain and the US; and urging President Bush to sign up to the Kyoto treaty"
Tuesday 15th May 2007
Saints and PFI deals fall short
Today Saints fell just short as they overcame a first leg deficit only to lose on penalties to Derby in the championship semi-final play-offs but a report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee has warned Civil servants are falling woefully short as they are being "outwitted by their commercially-sophisticated private sector counterparts" when Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals are renegotiated. The MPs on the Public Accounts Committee note that most of the negotiation of refinancing deals happens at a local level where staff are often "painfully lacking in commercial experience".
The examples given in the report highlight the problem well :-
- a PFI deal for the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital where after refinancing investors have increased their profit margin from 16% to 60%
- and the PFI deal where the Education authority are paying £7.4 million over the next 20 years for Balmoral High School which they are having to close next year because of the fall in pupil numbers.
PFI deals can be a good thing but the deal has to be right for both the investor and the public authority it should be a level playing field. Local authorities should have access to top financial advice and be able to risk assess all possible future scenarios. It should also be realised by this Government that PFI schemes are not the only route to invest in capital public projects; in some instances it may be better if public authorities could simply borrow the money in deals at or near Bank of England basic rate.
This is of course a problem which Liberal Democrats have been highlighting for years now, 6 years ago Ed Davey MP, when he was Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, made two points :-
- PFI should not be the only game in town, for example a hospital should able to choose funding according to the best way of getting the improvements it needs.
- Ministers must also consider how they can improve public sector managers also, not just rely on the private sector.
Sadly for the British people this Government did not listen to Ed Davey's sound advice, the spin of the deals is good, PFI could provide better efficiency and management in certain circumstances, but the detail is very important because if that is wrong as has been proven the cost to the public is very high.
Commenting on the Public Accounts Committee report into PFI projects, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable MP said:
"It is clear that those involved in negotiating PFI deals within government need more training and more commercial expertise to get the best deal for the taxpayer. Taxpayers are suffering because of a lack of negotiating ability."
And as for better deals let's hope that Saints can have one next season when hopefully they can go just that little bit extra and win promotion back to the Premier League.
Monday 14th May 2007
Labour 'Eco-Towns' Plan is good, but not good enough
In the first major policy commitment of his Labour leadership campaign, Gordon Brown has announced that a government under his premiership would embark on a major house building programme, creating five new zero-carbon towns with up to 100,000 low carbon or carbon neutral homes powered by locally generated energy from sustainable sources.
Gordon Brown's speech today had two basic themes; firstly more housing built to a better environmental standard and secondly greater help for first time buyers to increase the level of home ownership. Well the two themes are great but like much of New Labour ideas it lacks the policy depth to make a significant difference :-
- Eco-homes - The governments plans published last year are to mandate the use of today's best eco-home standards in all new build by 2016. Ten years to build what can be built today. To say this slow and pathetic response to today's climate change problems is an understatement. It will of course take time for the all the construction industry to adapt to the newer construction methods, but a 5 year timescale is more than enough for this process and so the date should be 2011 and not 2016. Secondly at least three quarters of the homes that will exist in next 40 to 50 years are already built and the Government is taking no real action to improve the eco-standard of existing homes. A far greater effort is required to improve the existing housing stock.
Yet again New Labour is seeing the problem but do not have practical action to really tackle the problem.
Commenting on Gordon Brown's announcement Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, Chris Huhne said:
"Labour is still far too slow in grasping the need for change. The government should insist on state of the art building standards from 2011, not just 2016, and use these eco-towns to boost mass production of insulating products, solar thermal heating and water units. With large numbers of eco-homes being built, costs will come down so that young couples will find it easier to get on the housing ladder as they will save more on energy bills than the extra cost of construction."
Sunday 13th May 2007
Christian Aid: Environmental Migration Crisis Imminent
Today at the start of Christian Aid's 50th annual collection week, they have published a report predicting that climate change and conflict will force up to one billion people from their homes by 2050, nearly all from poor and developing countries. In church today we saw a video of some of the work the charity is doing to help people stay in their home despite the effects of Climate Change caused by increased flooding risk. Working with the people they had build up the river back and planted mango trees. The trees would both help regulated the water level and provide a source of income and food.
The project was good and involved a great deal of work and had succeeded in protecting their village, homes and livelihood. This charity is doing a great job but the international community could do much more, as the village that they were battling to save consisted of poor quality wooden huts for houses and some had water taps added as 'mod cons'.
Commenting on this report Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Moore MP said:-
"This report rightly highlights the continuing failure of the international community to deal adequately with the migration crises which result from civil wars and violent human rights abuses by dictatorial regimes. It also underscores the potential for climate change to create humanitarian strife in areas already plagued by poverty, famine and conflict."
Friday 11th May 2007
Government to close three debt centres
The Department for Work and Pensions announced the closure of three debt centres with the loss of 380 jobs yesterday. The centres are in Makerfield in Greater Manchester, Lawnswood in Leeds and Edinburgh. The timing of the announcement has come under fire, with MPs and Unions criticising the government for attempting to bury the bad news under the coverage of Tony Blair's resignation.
This is not the action on the tax credit problem that is required, only a change in the system will reduce the level of overpayments and therefore debt. Yet the Government appears to believe that cutting the number staff investigating fraud and error problem will somehow improve things. Yet as the Public Accounts Committee said on Tuesday the level of the problem is not decreasing. The only real answer is to :-
- simplify the system so as to cut out the errors;
- then the debt centres can concentrate on removing fraud from the system;
- only when this is done will the level of error and fraud will reduce;
- then the Government can reduce the number debt centres;
- and public service staff can be re-deployed into a more positive public service role than sorting out Government mess ups.
However as normal with this Government they are doing things 'arse about face' and cutting debt centres before the debt problem has been sorted out.
Commenting on the Government announcement that three debt centres will close, Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, David Laws said:
"Not only does it show the typical cynicism of this government to sneak this news out on the same day that Blair resigns, but it also shows how little regard the DWP has to reducing the endemic levels of fraud and error in the benefits system. As Gordon Brown makes our benefits system increasingly complex, it becomes ever more vulnerable to fraud and error. If the government seriously wants to tackle this issue it should make full use of these debt centres rather than closing them down."
Thursday 10th May 2007
Tony Blair Resigns as Prime Minister…
Tony Blair has announced that he will resign as Prime Minister on June 27th. He will remain prime minister until the Labour Party elects a new leader. He made the announcement in a speech to party activists in his Sedgefield constituency, after earlier briefing the Cabinet on his plans.
So what will Tony Blair remembered for in the long term? Well I would say one good thing and one bad thing.
- On the positive side in the deal struck in Northern Ireland it has taken time but I believe it needed that time to get people talking and working together rather than fighting and working against each other.
- On the negative side is obviously Iraq, a war which has damaged our international standing with both European allies, commonwealth countries and the wider Muslim world. To build this trust and standing will take decades, and will have to include not just fine words but also a real ethical dimension to our foreign policy, real practical support for the third world particularly in the area of international trade and a huge effort to build up international organisations like the United Nations and the European Union.
In British national life the Blair years will be seen as ones that promise much at the start but had delivered little by the end. Tony Blair was given a huge mandate to reform and transform our public services in not one but two general elections, yet he and New Labour did not have and still do not have the practical policies to carry out that reform, and so his time in power on the domestic front will be seen as one of missed opportunity.
Commenting on Tony Blair's resignation Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell said :-
"Tony Blair has been the first Labour Prime Minister to win three consecutive general elections and he will be rightly remembered for this. Yet overall his period in office can only be characterised as a decade of missed opportunities in which the hopes of the British people for a new kind of politics were shattered".
Wednesday 9th May 2007
MPs give damning indictment of Brown's tax credit system
Today at Prime Ministers Questions Sir Ming Campbell asked Tony Blair why the government had failed to implement changes to the tax credit system put forward by the parliamentary ombudsman in June 2005, and has instead been chasing poor families through the courts "for money they simply don't have." "Why should the most vulnerable pay for the mistakes of the most powerful?" he demanded to know.
Liberal Democrat research shows that the Treasury pursued 38,000 of the poorest families through the courts last year alone. The Public Accounts Committee earlier today delivered a stinging criticism of the tax credit system, which they say has cost the public almost £2bn - equivalent to 1p on income tax - through overpayments, errors and fraud. They estimate that £5.8bn was wrongly paid out in the first three years, £557m of which has been written off and £1.4bn of which is unlikely to be recovered.
The system is so complex that not even the people that should know how to calculate the correct level of benefit or tax credit, so much so that billions of pounds are been paid out in error. The reason for the complex system is to target the money to the most vulnerable people in society, yet the practical effect on the most vulnerable people is to :-
- overpay them in error,
- notice weeks or months later,
- demand thousands of pounds back,
- that they don't have because they have used the money on food and housing,
- take them to court, a process costing as much as the debt in many cases,
- force them to pay it back at a level they can afford,
- as their only income is often tax credits or benefits the real effect is to reduce their benefits by £5 a week until the debt is paid,
- which can be years, I know of one pensioner couple who are looking at a reduced income for nearly 15 years,
- still the £5000 debt should paid be off before they are both 80!!
And all this is a result of the government trying to help the most vulnerable in society, it is a good job they don't mean them any harm.
Now what should happen is fundamental reform of the tax credit system. Liberal Democrats believe that the Government should accept the recommendations of the Parliamentary Ombudsman that all overpayments that resulted from official error should be written off, so that millions of families can have this burden removed. The system should return to six month fixed awards, so that families can be certain about how much income they will receive each month during this period. These awards should not have to be repaid even when the family's circumstances change in that period.
Any benefits system should remember that its chief aim and only purpose in life is to help the most vulnerable people in our society. It should be simple and fair not complex and unjust.
Commenting on this report Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ming Campbell said :-
"Today's report is a terrible indictment of a tax credit system set up with the best of intentions but which is now burdened with the very worst administration. Levels of fraud and error in tax credit payments remain unacceptably high, creating huge waste and often placing families in real distress and financial hardship. Before the Chancellor moves to Number 10, he must first face up to the very real problems his tax credit system is bogged down in"
Tuesday 8th May 2007
Both Labour and Conservative reject Climate Change plans
Today a Liberal Democrat action plan to tackle climate change was voted down by Labour MPs in the House of Commons, as the Conservatives sat on their hands and did nothing as usual to tackle this problem. The motion, proposed in an opposition day debate led by Shadow Environment Secretary Chris Huhne MP, included proposals for annual emissions targets, green taxes, and tough new efficiency standards for buildings. Neither the government nor the Conservatives proposed a serious alternative to the Liberal Democrat plan. The aim of the measure was to set targets for carbon emissions which will help to hold global warming to within two degrees of pre-industrial levels.
Yet again it is the Liberal Democrats pressing the case for action on the environment and it is this government that is sitting around doing nothing as carbon emissions rise unchecked and the conservative party just sit by do nothing and offer nothing constructive to the debate. Yet climate change is the greatest threat facing this country. When are the other two parties going to wake up and act with the Liberal Democrats to tackle this problem?
In the debate Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary Chris Huhne MP said :-
"Climate change is the great challenge of our times. We need to tackle it with urgency because any carbon emitted into the atmosphere has a long life - a century or more. Yet far from delivering cuts in carbon emissions, the Government have presided over increases in them since 1997. As the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change report shows, we need to be much more ambitious, much more focused and much more radical. Time is now running out."
Sunday 6th May 2007
Saints make it
Saints up and down season ended on a high with a 4 - 1 win against Southend to earn themselves a place in the play-offs. As if to mirror the season they first went one nil down, then as others started winning their matches out of the play off places, before a Kenwyn Jones strike on the half hour mark levelled things and gave the fans in the stadium and listening on the radio some hope. Then after the break Leon Best calmed nerves further with a second goal, but it was the last ten minutes that saw the decisive action again. However this time, unlike the Sunderland match, it was Saints who scored two goals to wrap up the match, with first Leon Best and finally Kenwyn Jones both scoring their second of the day.
So the Saints will end the season as they started playing Derby lets hope that this they are able come out on top unlike the league matches this season against them.
Come on you Saints !!!
Friday 4th May 2007
Election aftermath - Who won and lost what ?
The BBC's projected share of the vote across Britain puts the Conservatives on 40% - one point up on 2006, with Labour on 27%, also one point up and the Liberal Democrats on 26% were down one point compared to last year, therefore on the face of it the Tory party were the main gainers. However this year on year analysis is not the only thing to consider when analysing the results, for example :-
- This year's estimate for the Liberal Democrats is towards the very top of the range of estimated vote share in the last 13 years and it's just 1% below the record high level achieved by the party in last year's local elections of 27%.
- The estimated share of the vote for Labour in the first local elections with Tony Blair as Leader was 47%. Labour appears to have lost 20% of this vote share in the 13 years since Tony Blair became Leader.
- The highest estimated national vote share for the Tories in recent times was the 46% achieved under John Major in 1992 which was also the last year in which the Conservatives won a General Election. The BBC estimate for the Tories this year is 40% and still some way of winning a general election.
- Although BBC's projected share national share of the vote was 1% below last years projection the alternative 'Rallings and Thrasher' projected national share is 1% above the projected national share they gave for last year.
- Liberal Democrats increased the party's share of the vote in Scotland & Wales compared to 2003.
Above all these were local elections and in general it was fought on local issues. So in this area Southampton Liberal Democrats lost 4 seats but in neighbouring areas Eastleigh Liberal Democrats gained from both the Tories and Labour a total of 3 seats and in Winchester Liberal Democrats gained 2 more seats from Labour. This sort of performance was repeated across the country so :-
- Liberal Democrat gains meant that Labour lost Sheffield, Oldham and Ashfield (in Derbyshire) to no overall control.
- Liberal Democrat gains meant that the Conservatives lost Solihull, Salisbury and Taunton Deane to no overall control.
- The Conservatives failed to breakthrough in the great northern cities - Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle still have no Conservative councillors at all.
- In Sheffield - where Labour lost control - the only Tory councillor standing was defeated by the Liberal Democrats.
- In Liverpool the Liberal Democrats came first again as the Conservatives came fifth behind not only the Liberal Democrats but also Labour, the Liberals and the Greens.
- Liberal Democrats gained two seats from the BNP in Burnley and are the largest party on Burnley Council.
- In Berwick and in Taunton, the Liberal Democrats replaced the Tories as the largest party on the local council.
The other thing to consider is half full glass analyse, the Liberal Democrats won about 300 more council seats than Labour in Thursday's local government elections in England. The party gained control of 6 councils: Eastbourne and Hinckley & Bosworth (Leics) - both from the Conservatives - plus Rochdale, Kingston-upon-Hull, Northampton and Caradon (Cornwall), and held another 17. In key Westminster seats, the Liberal Democrats performed well, topping the poll in potential target constituencies such as Liverpool Wavertree and Warrington South, as well as Lib Dem-held marginals like Westmorland & Lonsdale and Manchester Withington.
The other thing to remember is opinion poll ratings. In these Liberal Democrats constantly score between 15% and 20% yet in real polls we constantly get between mid to high twenties, so however much the TV media and the newspapers try to make the political battle into a two horse Labour-Conservative contest it is not. Three party politics is here to stay and the TV media as well as the newspapers plus the pollsters will eventually have to reflect this in their coverage and predictions.
Commenting on the results Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ming Campbell said :-
"Nationally the Lib Dems have won a higher vote share than in the last General Election and the latest poll ratings. We have taken seats from Labour and Conservatives in their heartlands. Labour has been wiped out in the South and the Conservatives have failed to make any inroads into the Northern cities. These results show that three-party politics is a permanent feature of the British political landscape."
Thursday 3rd May 2007
Election day - What does a candidate do on Election day ?
So what does a candidate do on Election Day? Well some have been known to sit nervously sit at home and await the result, while others will do some telling and find a nice pub for lunch, but I :-
- started delivering good morning/good day leaflets at 6am to remind people day was election day and please go and vote,
- continued to deliver leaflets until about 5pm with a break for some telling and lunch,
- started to knock up voters whom we had no telling record of having voted from about 5pm to 9pm,
- visited all the polling stations in the ward after 9pm to thank the staff for their efforts after their long working day from before the polls opened a 7am to after they shut at 10pm,
- had 'tea' at about 10pm as the polls shut and nothing more could be done,
- went to the count from about 10:30pm to 1:30am.
After the dust had settled I had won the seat again. Thanks to a great effort by the local delivery and canvassing team and I hope good work by me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues on the Borough Council in the past 4 years.
Wednesday 2nd May 2007
Government admission of problems with Air Passenger Duty
The government has announced that it is launching a consultation on Air Passenger Duty, admitting that the current system sends 'inappropriate environmental signals and causes market distortions.' Liberal Democrats voted against the Budget resolution on Air Passenger Duty when it went through the House of Commons, precisely because the current system is so ineffective at encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviour. The Conservatives did nothing.
It is perfectly clear to anyone that looks at this duty that it is not a green tax but just a plain old ordinary tax. Air Passenger Duty does :-
- nothing to encourage airlines to switch to more fuel efficient planes,
- nothing to encourage aircraft manufactures to produce more fuel efficient planes or planes which have a non-fossil fuel based power source.
- nothing to encourage airlines to have fuller planes
Whereas a taxing the plane and not the passenger would :-
- encourage fuller aircraft - as there would effectively be a price on the empty seat.
- encourage more fuel efficient aircraft - as poor fuel efficient aircraft would be subject to a higher tax.
- encourage great use of the train - as it would discourage the rapid growth of short haul flights because they could be subject to a higher tax due to their greater environmental impact.
Taxing the plane and not the passenger is a Green Tax as it will lead to a change in environmental behaviour. Taxes are only green if they tax environmentally bad things in order to assist in changing a person's behaviour to do environmentally better things. They are not new 'Green looking taxes' to make a party look good whilst having no effect on people's behaviour, like Air Passenger Duty.
Commenting on Government announcement of a study on Air Passenger Duty (APD) Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, Vincent Cable MP said:
"Finally the government has admitted that the current system of APD is wrong-headed. A tax on the emissions of each flight, rather than each passenger, would provide a further incentive for airlines to invest in fuel efficient aircraft and fly full planes. David Cameron's Conservatives have not made any serious proposals on environmental taxes. They are just the old Tory party with a fresh face and a few warm words."
Tuesday 1st May 2007
Liberal Democrats challenge the Government on increased taxes and pollution
The Liberal Democrats policy theme on taxation and pollution is "Tax Pollution not People" yet in the budget the Chancellor did the reverse. So the day after Liberal Democrat Treasury team of Dr Vincent Cable MP, Colin Breed MP, Julia Goldsworthy MP challenged the government over the plans to double the 10p rate of income tax to 20p and Julia Goldsworthy introduced an amendment to the finance bill aiming to reduce the 10p rate to zero rather than doubling it. The Environment team have published research showing that smog and ozone are causing thousands of premature deaths, because the air quality figures for 2006 released today show an increased level pollutants.
These two incidents serve to highlight just how different Liberal Democrat and Labour policies are. Labour abolish the 10p rate increasing it 20p and using the increase to fund a 2p cut in the 22p rate to 20p. Liberal Democrats would increase taxation on those causing the pollution that kill thousands per year and then use the money raised to cut taxation from 10p to zero by increasing allowances and cut the standard 22p rate by 2p to 20p. The end result of the Liberal Democrat changes would be poorer people removed from the tax system, average Joe public paying less tax and less pollution because the tax rises of polluters would cause a change in behaviour.
Commenting, on the pollution figures Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, Chris Huhne, said:
"Summer smogs are as deadly as the peasouper winter smogs of the fifties. The government has failed to get a grip on the problem of 'invisible smog' from low level ozone which is a direct consequence of Labour's failure to tackle road traffic use. This problem is likely to get worse with predicted rises in road traffic and the impact of rising summer temperatures that will result from climate change."
The bottom line is Liberal Democrats would tax the polluter Labour taxes the poor.