Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Paying your dues

So its the rich that get the pleasure and its the poor that foot the bill. That seems to be the way of things. Not only under this government but it was true in the Blair/Brown era too.
The wealth of the twentieth richest people in the UK has increased over the last year by about a billion quid. 
The Guardian recently reckoned that the richest 1000 people had seen the wealth increase by a staggering £155b during the time that austerity was the one word for the rest of us.
Austerity ain’t going to hit the rich anytime soon. It looks as if the good times will continue for the rich. All earning over £1m an year will get a bung of £42,000 in tax cuts courtesy of George Osborne’s next Spring 
Now there has been a great deal of anger against the bonus culture and the complex ways companies and the super-rich avoid paying tax. 
Anger there may be. But there’s little sign that its having any effect on policy. The Starbucks, Vodophone and Amazons of this world continue to cream it. They continue to avoid paying  a proper tax on profits. Profits made at our expense. 
It was a fine mess that the City slickers got us into. But are they paying for it. Not a bit. It’s the other end of the social scale that the burden falls. 
A catologue of cuts have ensued. 
Health in Pregnancy payment of £190, abolished. Child Trust Fund, gone. No new applicants for Educational Maintenance Allowance. Child benefit rates frozen for three years. Major changes to housing benefit that amount to significant cuts. And this is only the start. 
Treasury wants to continue to swing its axe to the welfare budget until it knocks off £18b of the budget. £18b out of the pockets of the poor. £18b of spending power from the economy. 
Strange that there isn’t the same determination to clobber the rich tax dodgers.
Charlie Elphike a Tory MP and a tax lawyer reckons that nearly 20 American multinations operating in the UK are only paying an effective rate of tax of 3% on profits made here. The rate should be 26%.
Its reckoned that Treasury is shortchanged by about £120b each year. This is done by the various tax wheezes and yes, by downright tax fraud. Where’s the urgency in tackling this. You can take £18b from the poor, but God forbid that you should collect tax from the rich.
It’s been said you can’t take money off the rich because they’ll lose any incentive to invest. Strange isn’t it that the poor have their money cut in order to give them an incentive to work. One rule for one, me thinks. 

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Party time

Don’t Welsh institutions love to celebrate their being. This week it’s the turn of S4C to celebrate 30 years since its establishment. So just to get in on the act the Welsh media have devoted a fair amount of time looking at the campaign that led to the channel’s establishment.  

Inevitably, the attention is devoted to the role of one man. The man, elevated to a saintly status in the eyes of many, Gwynfor Evans.

Many  remember him more for his role in the creation of S4C than for being the first Plaid Cymru Member of the United Kingdom Parliament. 

The reason that he’s achieved iconic status amongst nationalists at least, is because the ex-Carmarthenshire MP said he would starve himself to death if the Thatcher government did not provide the country with a Welsh language television channel. 

His declaration skewed the argument immediately. At the time there were two schools of thought about Welsh language television. The Gwynfor Evans camp wanted the shortly to be established fourth channel to be  a welsh language one. 

The other camp wanted BBC1 and ITV to continue to broadcast programmes in the Welsh language. Their worry was that an all-welsh channel would become a ghetto channel for Welsh speakers and non-welsh speakers would have little contact with the language in future.

This latter argument tended to be undermined by many a viewer simply turning their backs on Welsh output by turning their aerials to face the English transmitters. 

However, It seemed that the one channel solution had won the day. Both Labour and the Conservatives fought the 1979 general election with a manifesto promise to establish a Welsh language channel.

But such is the way of politicians, no sooner had Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives gained power that they reneged on their manifesto commitment. Willie Whitelaw the new Home Secretary decided against a Welsh forth channel. His solution split Welsh-language programmes between HTV and BBC Wales.

Understandably, those that wanted an exclusive Welsh language were up in arms and that’s when Gwynfor Evans intervened with his death threat. There’s some evidence to suggest that as leader of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans saw this more as an opportunity of raising the profile of his party after the real disappointment of losing the referendum, than on the narrow issue of broadcasting. 

To some Gwynfor Evans’s intervention was pivotal. Whitelaw recommended to cabinet that they ditch the plans and go to their manifesto plans. So S4C was to be given the go-ahead without Evans missing a single meal.

Was it the threat of a fast until death that did it? Indirectly, yes. 

At the time another of the Welsh political greats, Cledwyn Hughes saw what Evans’s game was and was determined not to give him the political advantage. 

He persuaded the Principal of Aberystwyth University, Sir Goronwy Daniel, and the Archbishop of Wales, Gwilym Williams to lead a delegation to see Whitelaw. It did the trick, Whitelaw went into reverse. 

It happened so quickly that Gwynfor Evans himself was disappointed that his cunning little plan of winning the hearts and minds of the Welsh had to wait for another day and another issue. 

And as they say the rest is history.

So for better or for worse, 30 years on, S4C celebrate. 
Mr Evans is a national hero, and the shrewd and affable Cledwyn Hughes simply a footnote in S4C’s history.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

An Olympic legacy?

“The Good news is going to keep coming.” So shouted the Prime Minister at Miliband in that cockpit that is Prime Minister’s question time in the House of Commons. And if hyperbole was an Olympic sport the two would be competing for that elusive gold.
As it is the Olympics delivered not an extra medal for Cameron but something much more valuable, growth. 
This has just been confirmed by the Office of National Statisitics(ONS). Their first look at the figures show that the economy grew by 1% in the three months of the third quarter of the year. This follows a 0.45% contraction in the GDP in the previous three months.
So the ticket sales for the Olympics and the Para Olympics helped the country move out of the longest double dip recession since the Second World War. The quarter gave the country the strongest growth figures for five years.
Although economy expanded larger than expected, all the signs are that it is unlikely to be repeated. 
Looking closely at the figures construction, which is a recognised barometer of how well an economy is doing, suffered a 2.5% decline in the quarter. But the Olympics would surely have contributed to the increase of 1.8% in distribution, hotels and restaurants and also to the 0.8% increase in the transport sector.
But just as quick as a ferret down a hole, the chancellor was hailing it as evidence that his policies had put Britain “on the right track.”
He went on to say "There is still a long way to go, but these figures show we are on the right track. This is another sign that the economy is healing and we have the right approach." 
But that’s politician speak. The reality is that further lapses are likely. There are plenty of potential iceberg's that could puncture his optimism. The first being his continuing austerity programme. Add to that tight credit conditions against the backdrop of a world economy that is sluggish and the still unresolved serious problems in the eurozone. All in all a very toxic mix.  And all factors that are likely to burst the growth bubble.
The danger is that the Chancellor believes his own spin and thinks that we're out of the woods.
The cost of the Olympics was £9 billion. Now that produced growth. Classic Keynes. 
Now there’s a lesson there for our dear Chancellor. If he wants growth to continue, his austerity policy needs ditching. He needs to upgrade more than his travel arrangements.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

An historic agreement?

As the the Spanish would say “maƱana”. Sometime, perhaps, the day after tomorrow.This is exactly what was offered in what was trailed as an historic agreement by the Westminster and Welsh governments. 

How many Ministers does it take to make an historic agreement? In this case it took a Liberal Democrat Minister, a Conservative Minister and a Labour minister. Sounds like a joke. But the agreement doesn’t offer much laughs.

So what have both governments signed up to? 
Well, they’ve both agreed that it would be good thing for the Welsh Government to be able to borrow for capital projects. A good thing indeed. 
As Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said: 
Today’s announcement agrees in-principle to devolved capital borrowing powers for the Welsh Government. This is an important step forward on the devolution journey for Welsh people, and will bring them significant benefits. I am delighted that the two Governments have worked closely together to deliver this good outcome for Wales.”
But despite his warm words there is a slight problem, the Welsh government hasn’t got any means of its own to pay back a loan.  So it doesn’t have a place at the table with the big boys when cash is handed out. Not a great place for bailiffs to plough their trade. 
So despite the warm words the reality, no borrowing without tax raising. Put in language of accountants, there needs to be a revenue stream in place before these powers are granted. 
But Wales unlike Scotland have no powers over tax. So the right to borrow awaits on the Silk Commission deciding whether Wales is worthy of having such rights.  It is not, yet, a done deal.
But not wishing to rain on the trio’s parade let them have their say, I say. 
Labour’s Welsh Government Finance Minister, Jane Hutt, said: “The statement we are publishing today includes a new commitment by both Governments to review the path of  Welsh relative funding  at future Spending Reviews. I welcome the in principle devolution of capital borrowing powers, which should give the Welsh Government an additional lever to generate economic growth.”
What does it mean? It means the government in Westminster will look at Welsh funding every time it’s making a financial settlement. It doesn’t mean that they’ll do anything about it, but they promise to look. 
As the Tory Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones, wished: “I hope that today’s announcement will reassure the people in Wales of the progress both Governments have been making on Welsh funding arrangements.”  
Well, the prospect of jam tomorrow is not a great reassurance.
Today’s agreement is not a a great deal to shout about after twelve months of bilateral talks. Despite the photo opportunity it still very much a work in progress. And a lot more progress is needed before the champagne is taken off the ice. Perhaps it will all have to wait until the Scottish independence issue is resolved before the bubbles flow. If bubbles can flow, that is.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Principles of Public administration

Joseph Heller’s wonderful novel Catch-22 was a classic of its kind and all students of government ought to read it. 

To paraphrase its essence it concerned flying dangerous missions in World war 2. 

With the death rate that bombers were experiencing you had to be crazy to want to fly more missions. And crazy people would be grounded. 

But Catch-22 was that if you expressed concern for your safety in the face of the dangers that were real this showed that you were rational. Being rational you wouldn’t be grounded. 

There you have it, you would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if you didn’t, but if you were sane you had to fly them.

Now Catch-22 is alive and well and is affecting  some of the most disadvantaged people living in Wales. 

It is connected with changes to the Housing Benefit regime and one change in particular. The change concerned is popularly named “the bedroom tax.” And there’s nothing fruity about it.

If tenants rent a house and are on housing benefit they’d lose on average £11 per week if they were under-occupying by 1 bedroom. Those under-occupying by 2 bedrooms or more would lose on average £19 per week. They’d have to make the money up themselves to pay the rent.  But they wouldn’t be on housing benefit in the first place if they could pay the rent. The Heller principle again.

So they can’t pay the rent, agreed? And the consequence? Out on their necks. Another addition to the homeless statistics.

A sensible policy I hear you saying, why should tenants continue to live in a house that is too large for them. Let them move to somewhere smaller. 

But here’s the rub. There ain’t anywhere smaller. Nobody’s been building  smaller houses or flats. At least not in the number’s that housing bodies say will be required as a consequence of the changes.

So for example  a couple that have raised a family and whose children have left the nest will have to give up on the family home, because they no longer have the cash to pay the rent. Fine and dandy but where can they go?

That’s the catch, nowhere. 

So they’ll be evicted for non-payment. Become homeless. The council will have a responsibility to house them. And where will they house them. In the housing stock that’s available. And what kind will that be? Well, it will could be a hostel at great expense to the public purse or as is most likely they’ll be put in temporary accommodation. 

And what kind of temporary accommodation, a house that’s likely to have more bedrooms than they need. 

Heller’s principle is alive and well and embedded in Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Auditor unhappy with government

The Welsh Audit Office in its report on the All Wales Ethnic Minority Association (Awema) said it "found no evidence of inappropriate ministerial influence - on party-political or other lines - in the Welsh government's decisions about Awema's funding". You can just hear that collective sigh of relief in Welsh government ranks. 

But they are not off the hook by a long shot. The report says that the "full basis of some of the Welsh government's funding decisions remains unclear and we have concluded that the Welsh government's management and coordination of its grant funding to Awema between July 2000 and December 2011 had often been weak". 

Underlining this on the radio Assistant Auditor General Anthony Barrett said “The sort of things we’ve identified are symptomatic of a weakness of Welsh government in its grant schemes.” 

He also volunteered that this was the nineteenth time the Welsh Audit Office had reported their concern at the way the government were handing out cash. 

In the case of Awema cash was used to pay for gym membership for staff worth £2,120, rugby and cricket tickets totalling £800, and a £110 parking fine. 

But the real issue is that no one in government seemed to know how much cash they really got. The auditors reckoned it was over £7m. And that was only Awema. What about the other 19?

Now if this isn’t incompetence, what is?

It seems that the government has been throwing cash around  without any real idea how that money was to be used and where it was eventually going. 

Surely heads must roll. Not only civil servants, but ministers. The buck stops with them. They’re quick to take credit when things go right, but there’s a real reluctance to fall on the sword when things go wrong. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Turning a new leaf

POW’s the initials not of prisoners of war but of the new re-branded Party of Wales formerly known as Plaid Cymru.  Whilst the rest of us were enjoying the late Autumn sunshine Plaid Cymru, oh shucks sorry, Party of Wales, Assembly Members went away to seminars to learn to love each others and to be loved in turn by the electorate.

The outcome? To try harder with the monoglot English speaking voter in Wales. And how was this to be achieved? I hear you ask.  Well, ditch the use of the name Plaid Cymru. Apparently the use of the name is a big turn off. As a political expedient they are going out of their way to appeal to the English speakers. So its Welsh out, and English in. Don’t turn in your grave Saunders Lewis.

So this week they’ve all made a special effort in the Assembly  not to use the term “Plaid Cymru” in their orations, if that is not stretching the term oratory to much. No, the party AMs were liberally spreading the term Party of Wales in their many utterances.

Although the edict hasn’t quite reached as far as Plaid or should it be Party of Wales’s Westminster wing. Hywel Williams sent a press release out with the sexy title, PLAID SAYS WELFARE OF THE WELSH PEOPLE ISN’T SAFE IN WESTMINSTER HANDS.” 

Although to be fair to him,  he tried to make amends later in the release with the new brand  "That is why the Party of Wales will continue to call for the devolution of specific benefits budgets such as those for disability, and the transfer of powers over job-creating levers in order to tackle the broken economic backdrop that leaves so many dependent on the welfare state." 

Not the most succinct sentence you’ll come across granted, but at least the latter part of the press release was now on message.

But it’s not only the name that’s had a transformation but attempts were made to change the character of Assembly Members themselves. Positiveness, now that’s the new mantra. 

If Members at the seminar had negative thoughts they had to throw coins into a hat. The Party of Wales have not released whose coins filled the hat. 

But for all their new age practises, the enterprise was almost derailed by the nocturnal drive of their youngest Member. She surely must have caused a great deal of negative thoughts within her party. However, they soldier on.

Come election time if two smiling individuals turn up at your door speaking English and being positive about the world, don’t slam the door in their face thinking they’re Mormons. Chances are they’ll by POWs not escaping but garnering votes. 

Monday, 15 October 2012

History in the making?

When Ireland went it’s separate way in the 1920’s the United Kingdom remained a viable concept. But should Scotland decide on independence in 2014, it seriously stretches the imagine to call what is left an “united” anything. 

What would be left would be a 50 million populated country called England and the rest.

What about the rest? Well, one of the rest has some choice in its future. Northern Ireland can decide whether or not to throw its lot with either England or Eire.  

And what about Wales. It will remain a very little country dominated by a very very large neighbour.  Could it really be back to the days of “for Wales read England?” 

OK, not quite. After all Wales has its National Assembly. But that only exists simply at the whim of the English dominated parliament. What they give with one hand they can certainly take away. 

Carwyn Jones is right that Scottish independence would change everything. But what it might change is the way the English see their political future. What gain is there for them to carry a heavy subsidy because of a country called Wales? 

In 2014 the Scots may change a decision that their parliament made 300 years ago to throw their lot with the English. At the time they shared a monarch.  Now they have the choice to continue with the arrangement or not.  

Should the Scots decide to go it alone the English in turn may decide being alone may not be such a bad idea for them. 

The referendum David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed earlier today gives the Scots a real choice as to what kind of nation it wants to be in future. 

Indirectly it also gives England an opportunity to look at itself. They certainly will reflect on whether the two Acts of Union that bind them to Scotland is in their interest. 

Wales as it stands will just have to accept the constitutional crumbs that fall off the top table. 

It doesn’t seem strange to talk of the leaders of “Scotland’s two governments” signing an agreement today. There seems to be a mutual respect between both. Can it honestly be said that the same would apply to Wales.

And on the day Scotland is making history, what of Wales. The breaking news story here is the behaviour of an Assembly Member. 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Poll on Miliband

After his speech Ed Miliband took to the airwaves to explain what he meant by One Nation Labour. Whatever the explanation it would seem that his speech did the trick. That’s according to the latest YouGov poll for the Sun.

The poll has the state of the parties as CON 31%, LAB 45%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 7%. Stretching the lead to 14%. But you’d  expect  Labour to have a bounce after the oxygen of publicity that a conference generates..

Of much more interest to Labour Party strategist is what that speech did for the image of the leader itself.

Apparently YouGov repeated a bank of questions about Miliband before and after his speech. To Miliband’s great relief they show a positive change in the way the great unwashed viewed him. 

The percentage of people who think he has made it clear what he stands for is up 12 points from 24% to 36% (49% think he has still not made it clear). I’m not sure that the post speech interviews will have made a dent in the 49%. As they say there was a lot of noise but not much light. Dissembling was the order of the day when it came to talk about future cuts. 

There are slightly more voters that think that he’s up to the job of Prime Minister.  On that he’s up 6 points. Before the conference 25% thought he could do the job now it’s 31%. There are still an awful lot of people that don’t think he’s up to it (47%). 

As for being a strong leader, only a slight change, up three points from 16% to 19%.Miliband will be comforted that it’s still in the right direction.

A question as  to who would make the best PM, shows Cameron still in the lead. But Miliband has closed the gap. 31% think Cameron would be the best, 27% think Ed Miliband would be the better choice. 

But of some worry to Labour strategists is that an awful lot of Labour voters have reservations about whether young Miliband would be the best PM. Still only 64% of Labour voters say so.

What it shows is that it's possible for Ed to make a fist of things with the public. But it’s very much work in progress. There's still a lot of scepticism out there. But the speech moved things in the right direction. 

But it is still a fact that its governments that loose elections and all an Opposition can do his exploit government cock ups. The mess up over the west coast rail franchise debacle is an excellent example of government ineptitude. This is the kind of open goal that Opposition's exploit. 

Next week’s conference will be the last in the series. I shall be basking in the Tuscan Autumn sunshine so this blog will take a weeks break.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Miliband's speech - a hit?

Just like one swallow does not a summer make, one speech doesn’t a Prime Minister make. Despite the rave reviews for Miliband’s conference speech only time will tell whether its enough to move him into number 10.

What he certainly and rather audaciously did was move his tank very much onto the middle ground of British politics. A space that his party strategists feel that David Cameron has moved out of. And the way he did it was by conjuring up the ghost of a 19 century Tory, Benjamin Disraeli and his concept of one nation politics. So having had 'Old Labour' then 'New Labour', we now have 'One Nation Labour.'

The challenge Miliband had yesterday was to put to bed any lingering doubts within his own party about his leadership. Last year’s conference speech was a lackluster affair so the lad had to do better this year.

And better he did. In a high risk strategy, he threw away his notes and lectern and talked for about an hour from the heart. That is if you can speak from the heart after about five practice runs. One mustn’t be churlish, it paid off.

The conference and his party were delighted. Many of his own comrades didn’t think he had it in him. He proved them wrong. The lad did well.

His theme was that Labour would rebuild Britain as one nation. Just so that we all got the point, he used the term “one nation” 44 times. A demented woodpecker wouldn’t have been so repetitive.

It wasn’t just Disraeli but dear old Clem Attlee was brought into play quoting from the parties 1945 manifesto “Britain had won the second world war as one nation, and could win the peace the same way.”  In a sentimental party such nostalgia always goes down well.

The rhetoric was good. He even managed in a one nation speech to hint at a bit of class warfare courtesy of the Chief Whip. “You cannot be a one nation prime minister if your chief whip insults the great police officers of our country by calling them plebs.”

But in terms of substance apart from saying the free market would be taken from health and his commitment to those doing vocational courses there was little to chew over. It was very much commitment lite.  An acknowledgement that austerity will continue under a Miliband government.

But it certainly was a wake up call to the other parties who until yesterday thought Ed Miliband was their secret weapon. The geek came out fighting. He showed that he isn’t the push over they all thought he was. 

This speech got his own party on board but the jury is still out at to whether the voters perceive him as a future prime minister.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Welsh budget announced

It’s that time of year again. No not leaves dropping but the dropping of spread sheets containing the Welsh Government’s spending priorities over the next  year. 

It’s called the Welsh budget. But unlike the Westminster Chancellor there won’t be a red box and of course there won’t be any tax increases ‘cos they don’t have the powers. So Jane Hutt, the finance minister  announced what she’s to spend her almost £15bn budget on.

The important word in the last sentence is “almost” for the budget this year has been cut to £14.95. That in ordinary language is £50 million less to spend

So how did the government decide to prioritise. She declared that her aim was to boost economic growth, create jobs, and invest in schools and hospitals and protecting universal benefits. Well they always do don't they.

The jury is out as to whether these measures will match up to the rhetoric.

In her draft Budget for 2013-14 there  will be £175m in the next two years there will be a capital investment programme over the next two years. This includes:
  • £65m for improving transport – including £40m for the Brynmawr to Tredegar section of the A465 Heads of the Valley Dualling Programme and £25m for improvements to the A55 Conwy Tunnel;
  • £30m for hospitals – comprising £18m to support the redevelopment of Morriston Hospital, Swansea and £12m for adult mental health facilities in Llandough Hospital, Cardiff and Glanrhyd Hospital, Bridgend;
  • £25m for schools & colleges – including £15m in 2013-14 to accelerate a number of schemes under the 21st Century Schools programme;
  • An additional £10m in 2014-15 for high-speed broadband to ensure universal access by 2015.  This builds on the additional £10m we are allocating in 2013-14 for Next Generation Broadband Wales from the Centrally Retained Capital Fund;
  • an additional £13m for capital investment in Flying Start.
  • £12m to expand the Welsh Housing Partnership;
  • £10m domestic energy efficiency;
  • an additional £10m to support a programme of vital flood and coastal defence improvements across Wales.

On going projects that will be  funded if the budget is passed will be: 
  • Continued protection for the health budget – with plans for the second year of the three year funding package of £288m for the NHS that we announced in last year’s Budget up to 2014-15;
  • our commitment to grow the social services budget in the Revenue Support Grant – which by 2014-15 will be £35m higher each year than in 2010-11;
  • £20m revenue funding, which forms part of the additional allocation of £55m we announced in last year’s Budget, in support of our Five for a Fairer Future commitment to double the number children benefittng from Flying Start – bringing our total additional investment for Flying Start over the three years 2012-13 to 2014-15 to £74m;
  • Protecting funding for schools – which means that we will have invested an extra £185m in schools since 2010-11;
  • Maintaining our commitment to the Pupil Deprivation Grant – with funding worth £36.8m in 2013-14, an increase of £4.7m on 2012-13.  
  • Maintaining Universal Benefits – free prescriptions, free concessionary bus travel, free school milk and breakfasts and free swimming - which provide a vital shield for the people of Wales and help to mitigate the impact of the actions being taken by the UK Government, such as Welfare Reform.

This is all fine and dandy but with 30 of 60 seats, Labour must do a deal with another party to get their budget approved.

Last year it was the Liberal Democrats that cut the deal. They secured extra money from the government for deprived school children. 

The question is who’ll cut the deal this year.

Well, no one can accuse the opposition of originality. They’ve all placed the same demands as last year. Conservatives want more spending on the NHS. They claim that local health boards are on their uppers and can’t make ends meet. So need more cash.

Plaid Cymru are still peddling help for the economy, especially the “build for Wales scheme.” 

And surprise, surprise  the Liberal Democrats' having got a deal on helping kids from a deprived background are pushing the same case again this year. They take the view that why should they change a winning formula. They hope it will clinch things this year too. And of course, the draft budget shows that the government will continue with this policy. So it looks like the Liberal Democrats have a deal. 

The final vote is expected in the Senedd in December. So plenty of time for the parties to strut their stuff.