Monday 28 February 2011

Does the turnout really matter?

There seems to be general agreement that we can expect a pretty low turnout for Thursday’s referendum; and there’s no surprise at all that the expected losers are already positioning themselves to challenge the legitimacy of the result on that basis.  But does it really matter how many turn out and vote?
I’m not a supporter of compulsory voting, and without compulsory voting, the decisions will always be made by those who participate.  Whilst it might be fair to conclude that those who decide not to vote at all probably don’t feel particularly strongly either way, there is really no merit in the argument that their failure to vote for any given proposition means that they should be counted as being against it, which is what calls for a threshold amount to.
And outside the small circle of pundits and professionals, who really cares how many have voted?  It's mostly the politicians who seem worried about it, but the problem of low turnout is one which the politicians themselves need to solve, by given people a good enough reason to go out and vote.  The most important element of that is convincing people that voting will make a difference.
The problem with this referendum is that it’s being held for the wrong reason on the wrong issue.  If the turnout is as low as predicted, it’s not the voters who should take the blame, but the politicians who insisted on holding a referendum on the wrong issue.

Friday 25 February 2011

More bad economic news

Another set of comparative economic figures, another dose of bad news, and another chance for the yah-boo of politics.  “It’s your excessive cuts”, say the Tweedledees, but “It’s your mismanagement of the Welsh economy”, say the Tweedledums.  Economic truth is an elusive commodity, but economy with the truth seems to be available in abundance.
What we know for certain is that Welsh economic performance continues to lag behind the rest of the UK, that the gap is getting wider, and that Wales' poor economic performance is a long term trend – predating the establishment of the Assembly as well as the terms of office of either the current or the previous UK Government.  I think we can also safely conclude that none of the parties or politicians involved have actively set out with the deliberate intent of ensuring that Wales’ economy underperforms, although that is nevertheless the clearly visible outcome.
Whilst economic development is a devolved matter, all the most important levers remain in London, so it’s a classic opportunity for everyone to blame someone else.  Instead of playing the blame game, let’s just recognise that – or, even better, change it.  I’m pretty confident that arguing over who is most responsible, however many juicy headlines that might get for the politicians, is a wasteful diversion from the real task of doing something about it. 
We know that what we’re currently doing isn’t working.  Wales has, seemingly, frittered away two enormous rounds of European funding on a whole series of projects which, although intrinsically useful in themselves, have really not reached the parts that previous initiatives also failed to reach.  They have simply not delivered on establishing a long term increase in GVA per head, which was what they were supposed to be used for.  We have a plethora of strategies from the factory in the Bay, but, as the First Minister himself has admitted, implementation has not been as good or as consistent as it could have been.
I had hoped for some rapid delivery from the Economic Renewal Programme; the underlying principles as stated seemed to be an attempt to move in quite a different direction.  But most of the six months since its publication seem to have been taken up by appointing panels and experts and rearranging the internal departmental deckchairs; and as Dylan J-E has painfully highlighted on a number of occasions, in a number of respects, the change seems to be rather less sweeping than the hype suggested that it would be, and particularly unhelpful to a lot of indigenous SMEs from which the new jobs are most likely to come.
With hindsight, bringing the activities of the WDA into the Civil Service looks like one of the worst decisions taken by the Assembly Government; and I don’t think it’s too late, even now, to try and resurrect the culture of that body even if the targets given to it need to be refocused onto building a more sustainable and localised economy.
And giving Wales more power to vary rates of business taxation – a proposal put forward by Plaid in the past, and encouragingly receiving some Conservative support this week – would probably be one of the most significant ways in which government(s) could act positively.  What we need is action; what we really don’t need are the accusations and counter accusations which we’re getting.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Eradication vs amelioration

Last week, I commented on an article on fuel poverty by John Osmond on ClickonWales which made for gloomy reading.  John concluded, and I agreed with him, that it is highly improbable that the governments in Cardiff and London will achieve their targets to eliminate either fuel poverty or child poverty.
Yesterday saw the publication of a report by Save the Children, which drew attention to the very fact that John’s article talked about – the need to address the question of ‘severe’ poverty, rather than just respond to a target for reduction in the numbers of people in poverty.
The reactions of politicians were, I suppose, predictable, if rather less than entirely honest in some cases.  For Labour, Huw Lewis criticised the Westminster coalition for putting further pressure on families with low incomes, and vigorously defended the Welsh Government’s record. 
The opposition parties in Cardiff both saw an opportunity to attack the Labour-Plaid government, with the Tory calling it “a betrayal of the people of Wales” and the Lib Dem talking about “the lack of action and firm commitment from the Labour- Plaid Government”.  But what would they actually do themselves?  The policies being pursued by their parties will, on the whole, make things worse, not better.
The official response from the Welsh Government seemed pretty complacent to me, merely rattling off the usual platitudes about there being “no higher priority for us than ensuring that children and young people whose lives are blighted by poverty have the same life chances and opportunities as their more affluent peers”.  Well, maybe – but I’m certain that the ‘spokesman’ knows as well as I do that the targets will not be met.
It’s not that the intentions are not good.  I do not doubt for one moment the absolute sincerity of the One Wales partners in wanting to address the issue.  Nor is it the case that they have not put a lot of effort into developing a detailed strategy setting out their approach to dealing with the issue (although this may be one of those instances where Carwyn Jones’ reference to the Assembly Government as a ‘strategy factory’ will come back to haunt him). 
No, the problem is that the strategy set out cannot and will not eliminate child poverty in Wales, and the politicians are unable or unwilling to accept that, let alone start talking seriously about the changes that are needed if we really want to eliminate poverty.
In fairness, when looked at more closely, although the strategy says that it “aims to eradicate child poverty by 2020”, eliminating poverty isn’t really what the actions detailed in the strategy will achieve.  They are, rather, about ensuring that “no child or young person is disadvantaged by poverty”.  It may sound like the same thing, but it really isn’t – it is about dealing with and trying to ameliorate the outcomes of poverty, not the poverty itself. 
That’s a more limited aim, albeit a worthy one in itself, and it is a more realistic aim – but it means that the programme of interventions must, of necessity, be open-ended in order to deal with each new generation’s problems.  Against any absolute indicator of poverty, eradication is achievable; the inclusion of relative definitions as well makes it impossible without far more radical action. 
Part of the reason for that is that there are unstated underlying assumptions in the strategy.  They include the assumptions that economic growth will provide extra wealth, and that that extra wealth will be shared in such a way as to “lift families out of poverty”.  In reality, even if the government is successful in creating extra wealth (and there are limits to growth in any event), that extra wealth will also increase the average level of earnings – thereby moving the goalposts for any relative definition.
Any serious attempt to eradicate poverty and inequality has to start by recognising the need for a redistributive approach, and at present, we’re just not seeing that recognition.  There’s nothing in the strategy with which I would particularly choose to disagree – but we shouldn’t delude ourselves about what it can, realistically, achieve.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Messages in bottles

The idea that any election, referendum, protest or whatever is an opportunity to ‘send someone a message’ has become almost de rigueur.  Ed Miliband is the latest example.  Visiting the Welsh Labour Conference to encourage his party to greater efforts for May’s election, he managed to talk largely about matters which are non-devolved and then say that the election is an opportunity to ‘send a message’ to the UK Coalition Government.
What sort of ‘message’ might that be, I wonder?  Wales preferring Labour to the Tories is hardly something new or original – and I can’t believe that Cameron isn’t pretty well aware of that already.
What’s wrong with the idea that the election in May isn’t about sending anyone any messages?  Is electing the next Welsh Government really too insignificant and unworthy as an aim in itself?

Tuesday 22 February 2011

What's the end game?

It’s sometimes too easy to dismiss the arguments of ‘True Wales’ out of hand, given the extent to which they are prepared to distort and mislead.  But some of their arguments deserve a better answer than they get.
Rachel Banner had a lengthy piece in Saturday’s Western Mail, in which a lot of the hoary canards were rehearsed yet again.  There was, though, one point which I thought was well-made, and which the non-nationalist supporters of a ‘yes’ vote have not so far chosen to answer satisfactorily.
She said, “Ron Davies, the pioneer of the devolution settlement for Wales, once memorably described devolution as a “process rather than an event” – the present Yes campaign is keen to portray the referendum as an event rather than a process.  So the Welsh people must not be allowed to have a debate about where the devolution process is leading Wales and the UK…
It’s a rather more nuanced presentation of the ‘slippery slope’ argument – and a more honest one, as well (unlike the conclusions subsequently drawn from it).  Rather than simply asserting that devolution necessarily leads to independence, it suggests that we don’t actually know where devolution leads, because the devolutionists have never spelled out their end game.  It’s still utterly preposterous to distort that lack of clarity into a statement that it must be leading to independence; but there really is nothing wrong with asking for more clarity about where the process is leading.
For a nationalist, the position is quite clear.  Devolution does not lead to independence – devolved power is power retained, as I’ve said before.  But the creation of a Welsh legislature with responsibility for a range of matters does create a basis for adding more powers – and only a fool or a knave would try to argue that it doesn’t make it easier, at a purely technical level, to move towards ever greater autonomy in the future. 
What it does not do, though, is to remove the single greatest obstacle to Welsh Independence, and that is that the people of Wales simply don’t want it at present, and the prospect of that changing any time soon looks pretty unlikely.  Without the support of the people of Wales, Wales will not – ever – become independent.  (Conversely, of course, if such a goal ever does attain that support, then there can be no real argument against it, whatever the status of the Welsh institutions at the time.)
For a devolutionist, the position is a great deal less clear.  All credit to David Melding for spelling out his own commitment to a federal future for the UK – the only Tory devolutionist, as far as I’m aware, to spell out any sort of end point.  The Lib Dems officially hold a similar view, although it’s not often advocated with any real conviction.
The problem, though, is with the Labour Party, and given that they’re the largest party in Wales, that makes it a big problem.  Where does the Labour Party see devolution leading?  There is no settled view within that party, nor are individual members of that party expressing any particularly clear views as to where they want devolution to lead.  I'm quite clear that, whatever the answer is, it is certainly not 'Independence'.
I’m confident that the question posed by ‘True Wales’ about the destination of devolution will not pose too much of a problem on March 3rd; I think people will understand that it isn’t relevant to a specific vote on a specific proposal.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good question, or that it won’t return in the future.  At some point, Labour really do need to develop and articulate a more coherent statement about the way that they see Wales being governed.  Without that, the probable continuous slow change will always invite the question.

Monday 21 February 2011

Dates and clashes

The recognition by Nick Clegg on behalf of the UK Government that it is not sensible to hold the Assembly elections and the UK General elections on the same day is welcome.  Choosing the same date was a silly decision when they first took it, but the decoupling of Assembly constituency boundaries from parliamentary boundaries made it even more so.  Of course, that latter situation already existed in Scotland anyway, and the initial decision to fix the date of the election for 2015 showed a certain lack of joined up thinking from the outset.
The reaction from the Labour Party looks to me like something of a knee-jerk one – ‘you should move your election rather than expecting us to move ours’ is hardly a grown-up response.  And yet the apparently unqualified welcome from others doesn’t feel entirely right to me either.
Alwyn makes a good point, when he draws attention to the fact that an attempt to set a fixed term for UK Parliaments ends up changing a fixed term Assembly into a variable-term Assembly.  Although the suggestion is that ‘the Assembly’ can vary its term within certain parameters to avoid a clash, in practice ‘the Assembly’ means ‘the majority party or parties’, and ‘the majority party or parties’ means the First Minister.  In short, taking away the right of the UK Prime Minister to decide the date of the election on the basis of what suits his or her party’s electoral chances is being accomplished by giving that same power to the Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish First Ministers.
It would surely be more sensible to give all the bodies a term of the same length, thereby avoiding the periodic clashing of dates completely.  Whether that term should be 4 years or 5 years is not something that I could get too worked up about, but since it is unrealistic to expect the UK Government to fall in line with the timescales for the devolved bodies, 5 years would seem to be the most pragmatic response.
And it is clear that the UK Government is going to have to make changes to GOWA in order to put some sort of mechanism in place for determining constituency boundaries in future, so there is an obvious legislative opportunity available.
The other lesson that emerges from this little spat is one which reinforces how wrong the ‘no’ campaigners are in arguing that the referendum on March 3rd is another step towards Independence.  It underlines graphically that the real power still lies where it has always lain, and that the devolved legislatures will bend to the will of the central government when told so to do.
Power devolved is, and always has been, power retained.  That’s the difference between nationalism and devolution.  March 3rd is about devolution, not independence.

Friday 18 February 2011

Poverty and targets

The first half of John Osmond’s piece yesterday on ClickOnWales made for depressing reading.  At the risk of over-simplifying or misrepresenting his argument, he suggested that governments seeking to achieve reductions in the level of fuel and child poverty will find that the greatest impact for the lowest cost will be on those for whom the least needs to be done to lift them out of poverty, and thus that any reduction in numbers in poverty will be because the most marginally poor have been helped rather then the most severely poor.
I found it a compelling argument, and I agree with his conclusions that the governments in Cardiff and London are unlikely to achieve their targets, and that the result of any success in reducing the numbers in poverty is likely to be that those left in poverty will be those who are in the most severe poverty today.
John goes on to talk about two particular initiatives which he thinks would do more to help.  Both are aimed at economic development leading to the provision of jobs which would enable families and individuals to escape from poverty.  I certainly don’t disagree that people with decent jobs are less likely to be in poverty than those without; and any actions which increase the supply of well-paid jobs will undoubtedly help to address the problem.  (I’m not going to comment on the detail of the proposals here, although I do have some reservations about the idea of the Cardiff City Region.)
Whilst economic growth would certainly have been seen as the answer in traditional economics, I’m not convinced that it is a sufficiently comprehensive answer to the problem in a world where we have to accept finite limits on resources and therefore on growth itself.  We cannot avoid considering how the benefits of economic activity (and thus access to, or lack of access to, resources - which in a sense is what wealth and poverty are) are shared.
If resources are infinite, it is easy to see how increasing total wealth can lift everyone out of poverty; but once they are recognised as not only finite, but also already over-exploited, then excessive wealth for some will almost inevitably lead to poverty for others, particularly on any relative, rather than absolute, definition.  Serious action on poverty must, at some point, address the disparities of wealth within society.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Constituencies and the Assembly

It was always inevitable that the UK Coalition would get their new legislation on the numbers of MPs and the AV referendum through Parliament in the end.  For all the talk about the ‘higher level of scrutiny’ in London, the simple reality is that governments can and will use their majority to push their programme through, no matter how rushed or badly thought-through that programme is.
The immediate impact for Wales is clear – there will be 10 fewer MPs elected at the next UK General Election in 2015.  What is less clear is what the impact will be on the National Assembly elections, currently due to be held on the same day in 2015.
Clause 11 of the new Act specifically decouples Assembly constituencies from Parliamentary ones, decreeing that the existing boundaries simply remain in force until such time as Parliament decides otherwise.  That suggests that the UK Coalition is planning further primary legislation sometime between now and 2015, because only primary legislation will enable them to change what is in the new Act.
They’ll certainly need to do something if they intend to press ahead with their less than fully baked proposals to hold the UK and Welsh General Elections on the same day.  Holding them on two different sets of constituency boundaries would be a nightmare for the returning officers – and a recipe for near total chaos.
But what exactly will they change?  They’ve been less than forthcoming to date, and there’s something a little ominous in the statement that they want to see the result of the referendum on 3rd March before thinking about what to do next.  Another hint, perhaps, that the way they decide to deal with Wales depends more than a little on how confidently we ourselves respond to the referendum.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

How many councils?

I’m in danger of agreeing with both Peter Black and the CBI, which must be a first of some sort.  Up to a point, anyway.  Both of them have called for a commitment to legislation to change the number of Welsh Local Authorities. 
That is a far more honest and open approach to tackling an issue which most people recognise needs to be addressed than the backdoor route currently being pursued by the Welsh Government.  Instructing authorities to share services and resources, and seeking for itself the power to merge councils as and when it sees fit is a centralising, reactive, and ad hoc way of dealing with a serious issue, and is likely to lead to a patchwork quilt of inconsistency across Wales.
But agreeing with the principle of reforming the local authorities in an open and honest fashion is not the same as agreeing with the detail of their proposals.  The CBI propose 7 councils, and Peter Black proposes 8 or 10.  Both of them seem to be picking figures out of the air, and proposing different ideas about what responsibilities councils should have – they look like subjective rather than objective conclusions.
I’ll admit to some subjective views myself – I’m not convinced that 22 councils is the ‘right’ number, and that probably puts me in a majority – for once.  But subjective views about what is or is not the ‘right’ number are hardly a sound basis for a major and costly reorganisation.  The local government set-up is as it is today after two rounds of reorganisation in the past, both driven by what one particular party’s politicians thought was the ‘right’ thing to do.  What we need is a more objective and thought-through approach.
How about resurrecting the idea put forward by Plaid in 2007 of a commission to review the whole issue of powers, financing, numbers and boundaries of all the different bodies governing Wales with a view to putting a structure in place which is fit for the 21st century?  That has to be better than either tinkering when things go wrong (as seems likely to happen in the case of Ynys Môn), or of choosing a number between 7 and 10 because someone thinks it’s ‘right’.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

A welcome U-turn

I’m not sure that I’ve entirely understood what Leighton Andrews was saying yesterday about reducing the range of A level subjects, but it certainly sounded like a total U-turn.  The insistence, to date, of the Welsh Government that schools had to offer a minimum of 30 subjects in years 12 and 13 seemed to me from the outset to be pulling an arbitrary number out of the air.
If the Minister is now proposing to scrap that requirement, and adopt a more flexible stance, then it would be a victory for common sense.  It may not be quite that straightforward though – as I recall, the Government actually took a Measure through the Assembly making the number of 30 a statutory requirement.
There is another little issue arising as well.  Just where does that leave county councils such as Carmarthenshire which have developed and pushed through unpopular and unnecessary school reorganisation schemes justified entirely or largely on the basis that they had to close any schools which were ‘too small’ to offer the full 30 subjects?  Will the Minister at last call a halt to them?

Update:  I see that Len Gibbs (aka VoteNoDay) has tweeted a link to this post with the message "WAG passes a law, causes a load of damage now wants to undo it.".   The implicit message is, presumably, that that justifies abolition.  On that basis, we should have abolished the Westminster Parliament after the poll tax debacle.  (Mind you, perhaps that suggestion is not entirely without its merits...)

Monday 14 February 2011

Ends and means

The Jaxxlanders raise some good questions over the nature of the campaign messages for the referendum which is now a little over a fortnight away.  I’m not sure that there are any easy answers though.  And I think that some of the questions go beyond this particular referendum, and are a reflection on politics in general.
The post highlights two points in particular – the use of ‘celebrity’ endorsements and the vague appeal to patriotism.
I’ll admit to being dubious about the use of celebrity endorsements; I’ve never understood why the fact that one or another well-known person supports a particular outcome should in any way influence my own views.  We need to understand though - the simple fact is that the approach works.  If it didn’t, large companies wouldn’t be paying such enormous sums to the celebs to endorse their products.
The deeper question for me is whether we should really treat the marketing of a political viewpoint as being just like marketing a product.  The temptation of politicians to borrow proven marketing techniques and apply them to their own situation is obvious – but that doesn’t make it right. 
I suspect that one of the reasons that it works for the big brand names is that there is often very little of substance to choose between them.  Sadly, that’s increasingly true of politicians and parties as well – much of what passes for political philosophy these days consists of statements which could conceivably be made by any of the parties.  And there might well be a parallel there between Part 3 and Part 4 of the GOWA as well.  Faced with trying to explain what is not exactly a major constitutional change, resorting to proven marketing techniques is an obvious option.
As for the appeal to emotion – well, again, one would have to conclude that the approach works.  Much of Labour’s election campaigning in recent years – even as a party of government – was based around an appeal to an emotional and historical view of the Tories.  And within the target audience sector, I’d say that it worked.  The point is, though, that it doesn’t work outside that target audience – but if the target audience is big enough to carry the day, does it matter?
I think it does.  There’s a bit of ‘ends and means’ going on here.  If we focus entirely on getting the ‘right’ outcome (in this case a ‘yes’ vote on March 3rd), then the techniques being used will probably help to achieve that.  What they will not do, though, is engage people in meaningful debate.  Few, if any, minds will be changed.
From the point of view of the protagonists, the end justifies the means (and I’d say much the same about the behaviour of the other side – they are ignoring the substance of the issue to concentrate on those arguments which they believe will deliver their preferred outcome).
I’ve noted before my own view that politics should be about choosing between alternative views of the future, not just choosing which set of politicians is going to implement a cosy consensual set of policies.  And that implies that the ‘means’ are as important as the end.  Whether in an election or in a referendum, changing minds is surely as important as winning votes.
However, changing minds is a long term process; a three week campaign is about identifying supporters and motivating them to vote.  The pity, in the context of the referendum, is that we’re having the three week campaign without that lengthier debate beforehand – and it doesn’t help that the referendum is being held at the wrong time on the wrong issue as well.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Bonds, scrutiny, and trust

As is becoming increasingly common, many of the letters in today’s Western Mail focus on the upcoming referendum.  Many of the ‘anti’ letters rehearse the same old arguments, with the mythical lack of scrutiny being one of their favourites.  Indeed, I almost gave up on the first letter today, since almost every point made seemed to be a variation of the scrutiny theme.
Every time that I hear the ‘scrutiny’ argument, the counter thought that comes to mind is a very simple one – “Why does our Assembly so desperately need more scrutiny than the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, both of which have far more powers to start with?”.
I’m glad that I stuck with the letter to the end, because for the very first time that I can recall – in the author’s point 10 – we have an attempt by an opponent to articulate a reason for treating Wales differently.  In his words, “Wales enjoys a unique bond with England. This is not shared to the same degree by the other devolved nations in the UK”.
It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course – but I did wonder whether the same unarticulated reason lies behind the thinking of others.  It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t need to be articulated by those who think that way – because it’s so obvious as to be second nature.  In the same way, the counter view – that it’s simply a product of a longer period of integration – also doesn’t need to be stated – because that’s also obvious.
But failing to articulate such basic assumptions is one of the reasons that communication and debate fail – because people simply don’t understand ‘where others are coming from’.  And such lack of understanding means that the arguments are phrased in terms which are simply not comprehended by the ‘other side’.
There’s a certain irony in the argument, in a way.  It’s one of life’s mysteries that the Celtic nation which has most effectively retained a different linguistic identity for longest is also the one closest to, and most closely integrated with, England.  And therein, I suspect, lies at least part of the reassuring counter argument – taking more responsibility for making our own decisions on a range of issues, just like retaining a strong national identity, doesn’t mean a weakening of the relationships with our neighbour, it’s simply a change of the structure within those relationships exist.
At another level, though, accepting that the bond between Wales and England is particularly strong for historical reasons, why does that bond need to be expressed in a way which requires the predominantly English legislature to exercise ‘scrutiny’ over the Welsh legislature?  It seems to be a complete non-sequitur to me – indeed, one could almost stand it on its head, and ask, “Should not the very strength of the bond make it easier to develop a level of trust in the Welsh legislature?”.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

The respect agenda, and the price of fuel

The suggestion of the UK Economic Minister that the Assembly should use part of its devolved funding to address a problem in a non-devolved area of policy (fuel duty) was not the first example of a (deliberate?) failure to understand the devolution settlement, but it is no less outrageous for that.  It was rightly given short shrift by a spokesperson for Elin Jones.
Even if the devolved government had the power to adjust fuel prices in rural areas and/ or give grants to help people pay for fuel, it has not been funded for such actions.  And, in any event, I’m still far from convinced that it’s the right answer; it seems to be treating the symptom rather than the underlying problem.  Time will tell whether the limited experiment being conducted by the UK Government will work or not.  It isn’t a fuel stabiliser, of course – it’s simply a cut in duty in certain areas.
The problem of rising and variable fuel prices remains a difficult one.  It makes budgeting difficult for both consumers and businesses, so I can well understand why parties are keen to propose solutions to it.  That doesn’t mean that the solutions being proposed are workable, though.
Inevitably, the failure of the Tories to implement their election promise on a fuel stabiliser has led to criticism, and criticism for breaking a promise is entirely deserved, even if I have serious doubts about the wisdom or practicality of the promise in the first place. 
Actually, it seems that Cameron may not have fully understood his own party’s policy on the issue, and ended up presenting it in a wholly unintended way, raising unrealistic expectations in the process.  One of the original proposers of the policy has set out here his own dismay about the presentation – it was never intended either as a means to assist household budgets, nor even as a means of eliminating all fuel price variability.
It was intended, rather, as part of a green approach to taxation, and it is from that point of view that its original Conservative proposers would wish it to be judged.  In short, it was as much to do with keeping the prices up in order to incentivise greener transport options as it was to do with keeping the price down in the face of speculative pressures.
There seem to be few in the green lobby who would agree with the approach, though.  The Green Alliance’s tax expert came out very clearly against the idea this week.  As the report notes “The clear upward long-term trend in crude oil prices would mean that any fuel price stabiliser would simply allow oil producers and petrol retailers to hike prices at the pump and increase their profits, in the knowledge that the taxpayer would be left to fund the difference”. 
It’s a view which echoes my own concern that calling for the stabilisation of prices by adjusting tax on a commodity which is itself subject to an inexorable long term increase in prices amounts, in reality, to little more than a call for a tax cut.  There’s nothing wrong with calling for a tax cut, of course – as long as those making the call are prepared to say which other taxes should go up, or which expenditure should be cut.
International experience seems to be limited, to say the least.  Some countries (e.g. the US) allow local legislatures to set at least part of the rate of fuel tax, and devolving this element of taxation would enable Wales to set a different rate, of course.  That might help our more rural communities, faced with higher pump prices and fewer alternatives to cars; but it would still leave a hole in the government’s finances which would need to be plugged somehow.
I’m only aware of one attempt to use variable fuel tax as a mechanism.  Between 2000 and 2002, the French tried to use fuel tax in this way – the ‘TIPP flottante’.  It was abandoned partly as a result of a change of government, but mostly for precisely the reason that I doubt its efficacy – it became clear that, against a background of rising fuel prices, the total tax take from fuel duty was on a one-way trajectory, to the financial detriment of the treasury.  There have been regular calls for the system to be reintroduced, but it seems unlikely to happen any time soon.
The ‘TIPP flottante’ was one of a number of possible mechanisms considered by a team at Turin University who reportedOur simulations suggest that “flexible” taxation mechanisms could not be a proper policy for stabilizing price levels in fuel markets”.  (Full report available here).
It was their view that more constructive action would involve looking at the market structure of the industry, and I’d agree with that. 
It also strikes me, as I’ve mentioned before, that controlling the speculators and gamblers who are partly responsible for the huge variations in prices might not be a bad idea either.  It certainly has to be better than allowing them to set the level of taxes being collected by governments, which is a potential, if inadvertent, side effect of varying fuel duty with the price of oil.  They’re the last people that I’d put in charge of government fiscal policy!
Most important of all, however, is that we need a plan to escape from our dependency on oil, and move to renewables as rapidly as possible.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Theory and practice

I have posted previously about the re-organisation of secondary education in the Dinefwr / Gwendraeth area of the county.  The re-organisation was a consequence of piloting a 'tri-level' approach to considering systemic change in the educational arrangements.  The process wasn't actually invented here, but it has been applied with some enthusiasm by the Welsh Government.
There's a quite detailed assessment of the background to the introduction of the approach available here written by David Egan and Steve Marshall, but the approach is based on the principle that reform is best driven by partnership between the Government, the Education Authorities, and the schools themselves.
In theory, that seems to be a good basis for driving reform.  In practice, however, it has produced a set of proposals which I, and many others, find completely unacceptable.  I think that there are three main reasons for that.
The first is that the three levels involved are not exactly equal partners in the process.  Rather, there is an hierarchical relationship involved; the schools are run and funded by the LEA, and the Welsh Government lays down the rules within which the LEA and the schools can operate.
The second is that the county council selected an area of the county to participate, only including the schools in that area.  That looks to many of us to have been a pretty arbitrary decision; but once made, it inevitably constrained the range of options which could be presented.  (It’s not an unusual phenomenon, of course – he who frames the question can hugely influence the answer.)
And the third is that at least some of the parties went into the process with their own agendas. 
The county council seems to have had the objective of coming up with whatever reconfiguration was most likely to persuade the Government to agree to a major capital investment in the county's education infrastructure.  That's not necessarily an entirely bad objective, but when it becomes an over-riding objective, it can lead to where we are – a mismatch with the needs of the community. 
The government's officials seem to me to have had the simple objective of reducing the number of schools.  Again, not necessarily a bad objective in itself (albeit one with which I wold disagree, and not one that is anywhere spelled out quite that bluntly in any of the Government's official strategy documents), but when coupled with an apparent lack of understanding of the difference between 'Welsh-medium provision' and 'Welsh-medium education', it has been a major factor in arriving at an unacceptable outcome.
Where are we now?  The proposals have developed a momentum of their own despite the fact that they run counter to the language policies of both the government and the council.  And a process which seemed sound at the outset seems to have become little more than a shield to hide behind for all concerned, since everything is the fault of ‘someone else’.  
As an aside, it's interesting to note, that although what happened in Carmarthenshire was described as a 'pilot' of the process, there seems to have been little subsequent mention of it elsewhere.

Monday 7 February 2011

Roosting chickens

There’s been a lot of criticism of ‘True Wales’ for their decision not to seek lead campaign group status.  Certainly, their decision means that both sides of the argument will have to put their case without any subsidy from the public purse, but in criticising ‘True Wales’, people are aiming at the wrong target.  Why should any group feel under any obligation to apply for a particular status if it doesn’t want to?
The Electoral Commission’s hands are tied by the legislation which allows campaigners on one side of any referendum argument to be designated as the lead group only if there is a similar group on the other side which can also be so designated.  Does that mean that it’s the MPs who passed the legislation setting out the rules who got it wrong?
Possibly; but I’m not sure that that would be the right target either.  In setting up rules for holding referenda, the government of the day and the MPs who voted the legislation through probably assumed that any referendum was likely to be on a highly contentious proposal, and that there would be two strongly put sets of arguments.  It’s not an unreasonable assumption – but that doesn't make it correct.
The referendum on 3rd March is one where the arguments are overwhelmingly one-sided, and most of the counter arguments seem to be against a wholly different proposition from that which is on the ballot paper.  We are obliged to go through a referendum process because that’s what GOWA 2006 says, but it’s not the issue on which any rational analysis would suggest that a referendum is really necessary.
I can see the argument for holding a referendum in 2006, before GOWA was enacted, on the principle of moving from an administrative body to a legislative one.  That was a real step change in the nature of devolved government.  But whether the powers devolved under GOWA are passed across piecemeal or wholesale doesn’t really strike me – or many others – as the sort of major change which really requires a referendum.  And the difficulty which both sides are having in adequately explaining why people should vote one way or the other tends to support that view.
We are where we are in terms of the two campaigns over the next few weeks, but it really isn’t ‘True Wales’ who put us there – it’s the architect of GOWA 2006, and the people who forced him to include a clause mandating a referendum as the price for their support for the Act, in the belief that they could thereby delay a move to Part 4 almost indefinitely.
I wonder whether the difficulty some people are having in deciding what to say now is because they are distracted by the sound of roosting chickens.

Friday 4 February 2011

A taxing question

Everyone (except 'True Wales') is absolutely clear that giving the Assembly the power to vary taxes is not on the agenda for the referendum in March.  But most people also recognise that there is a problem for any body which can make laws and change policies in ways which affect spending without having to face the consequences of the impact of that on taxation. 
It's easy to understand why many would prefer to avoid any discussion of the issue of taxation before the referendum.  Or indeed, at all.  I fear, however, that simply leaves it as an unanswered question, and looks like a lack of honesty.  Taxation is an issue which isn’t going to go away any time soon, no matter how often some people avoid it.
Part of the problem in discussing the issue is the use of the word ‘raise’, with its two slightly different meanings.  ‘Raising taxes’ means setting the level of taxes and collecting them – it doesn’t necessarily include the other connotation of increasing the level of them.  Yet that is the connotation generally placed on the word by opponents of devolution – it’s a form of verbal sleight of hand in a way, to suggest that ‘devolution = more taxes’. 
In reality, having the power to ‘raise taxes’ also includes the power to set them at a lower level, and reducing some taxes might well be the best way of building a stronger economy in Wales.
It worries me that both Calman in Scotland and Holtham in Wales have concentrated their attention on the right to vary one tax only, namely income tax.  It is, of course, one of the largest and most easily collectable sources of revenue, but it’s also the most ‘visible’ of taxes.  It’s likely to be one of the hardest to vary significantly as a result.  Having one tax that it can vary does, of course, put the Assembly on a par with local councils – it does not, however, put it on a par with other legislatures, which can vary a range of taxes.
That isn’t just about perceived status differences.  Varying income tax does give some degree of fiscal responsibility to a body which is otherwise only spending its ‘allowance’; but it doesn’t give it the same range of options for varying policy.  The power to change income tax alone would be something of a poisoned chalice.  If we want to get to the stage where the Assembly Government can even begin to think about ‘transforming the economy’ as Peter Hain suggested it would do, then it needs to have a greater range of fiscal tools available to it.
At the moment, taxes are collected in the UK, and a portion is then allocated back to the Assembly for it to spend, on devolved matters, as it wishes.  It would surely be better for taxes to be set and collected at a Welsh level, with an agreed amount being passed on to the UK Government to pay for UK level services.  And it isn’t another step on a ‘slippery slope’ to anywhere – it’s a common-sense approach adopted by stable federal systems.
It would give the Welsh Government serious fiscal responsibility, as well as a much better opportunity to vary fiscal policy to achieve its economic objectives.  It would also clarify exactly how much we in Wales are paying for non-devolved services – and that would be no bad thing either.

Thursday 3 February 2011

The boy's got form

A few days ago, I commented on the decision of local Tory MP, Simon Hart, to vote no in the upcoming referendum.  Whether it was an entirely wise thing to do or not, he has chosen to expand on his reasons in this week’s Carmarthen Journal.
He’s also used another opportunity to do the same thing in his weekly column for the same paper – I can’t find it in the online section, so I’ve reproduced it below.  His pearls deserve more attention.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know where to start, when faced with quite so many contentious and outrageous statements.  His view seems to be underpinned by some strange paranoid belief that the evil nationalists have far more influence than is actually the case (I wish), and have hijacked the referendum as a means of dragging Wales kicking and screaming into independence.  And surely, his two final paragraphs are a classic example of what happens when a politician gets carried away by his own rhetoric.
Mind you, he has form for seeing sinister hands behind mainstream campaigning.  For all I know, he probably still believes that the RSPB and RSPCA are some sort of terrorist front organisations.

Update:  John Osmond on ClickonWales adds some comments of his own on Mr Hart's departure from reality.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Canute and the price of oil

It probably wasn’t Benjamin Franklin who first claimed that only death and tax are certainties, but it would probably be safe to add ‘rising oil prices’ to the list.
The reasons are obvious – rising world population, aspirations for a rising standard of living, finite supply, and increasingly difficult and costly extraction.  Even if we haven’t reached peak levels of production yet, we will do at some point (and it’s certain to happen before we reach peak levels of demand unless there is a rapid and radical move away from oil, which seems unlikely).  There will be price variations en route, of course, but underlying them is an inexorable upward trend. 
The problem, and the reasons, may be most acute and obvious in the case of oil, but there is a more general issue around energy prices.  As we move to more sustainable energy generation – rather than simply exploiting the apparently cheapest sources – all energy prices are likely to rise.
And we need to be clear – this will not just be an absolute increase in prices in line with inflation, we’re looking at a relative increase as well, meaning that energy is likely to take a higher percentage of disposable income for many if not all.
For a number of reasons – some of them quite similar – food prices are also likely over the long term to increase as a proportion of disposable income.
There has not, to date, been much by the way of an open and honest political response to these issues.  Some politicians still talk as though governments can and should ‘do something’ to control price rises – hence the reference to Canute in the title.  Canute, of course, sat in front of the tide to prove to fawning courtiers that he could not control it; I somehow doubt whether that is the objective of those who are calling for control of food and energy prices.
So, two absolute basics of life, food and energy, are inevitably going to take a higher proportion of our disposable income.  Most of our political leaders know and understand this, but rather than tell us how we should be preparing for it, they continue to talk as though governments can control the prices – they fear that honesty would lose them elections.  They might well be right on that final point, but that doesn’t make it a valid excuse.
What governments can do is change the way resources such as food and energy are shared out – with the aim, as an absolute minimum, of protecting the most vulnerable in society.  Sharing simply on the basis of ability to pay (aka ‘market forces’) will provide no such protection.  That actually means that the underlying problem also contains a real opportunity to move towards a more equal society – if we’re imaginative enough to seize it.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Funding Gaps

Reaction to the publication of last week’s figures comparing educational spending between England and Wales was pretty predictable, with people seizing on the headline figures – Wales average £5595, England average £6200 – to make political capital.  There was more heat than light though, I felt.
Looking at the stats in more detail, I’m not sure that the real message is quite as simple as the headlines suggested.  In the comparison between Wales and the English regions, the one thing that leapt out to my eye was the huge disparity in spending between Inner London and any other area.  In Inner London, the spend per pupil is a whopping £9156, almost 50% greater than the England average.
That prompted me to look at different ‘types’ of authority in England, and there is a consistent pattern that metropolitan areas – the big cities – have a significantly higher spend per pupil than do the more rural areas.  So, are we comparing like with like?  The category of authority in England which is most similar to Wales is probably the shire counties (average spend £5789) or perhaps the unitary authorities (£6080) rather than the overall England average, and a comparison with those would reduce the funding gap to somewhere between £200 and £500, rather than the £604 quoted.
It’s also worth noting that the use of averages can sometimes hide rather than highlight useful data.  Not all schools in Wales would be better off if they were in England, which is the message some seemed to be giving last week.  Ceredigion’s average spend is above the England average, for instance – and in the same way, I’d bet that there will be some authorities in England which are below the Welsh average, although the data isn’t detailed enough to confirm that.
A gap is still a gap, though; and there’s no question that overall Wales is spending less per head than England.  Nor is there any question that the gap has grown compared to last year.  There are, though, two things where hard fact is not so easily ascertainable.
The first is the reason for the gap, and its growth.  The statistical report itself suggests some reasons, amongst which is that pupil numbers are falling faster in England than in Wales.  Another factor is likely to be the more extensive use of PFI in England, which will manifest itself as a higher relative revenue spend without necessarily having any more to show for it.  But there isn't enough data in the published stats to assess such effects, and it would be interesting to see a bit more research done into the underlying causes rather than responding with political sloganising.
The second is the effect of the gap on outcomes.  Does the gap contribute to the underperformance of Welsh pupils compared to English pupils?  Certainly, there is a problem with educational attainment in Wales, but jumping to conclusions about the cause (and therefore the solution) is not always the most helpful response.
The rhetoric says that there has to be a connection between funding and results, but that seems to be based more on a correlation between two sets of numbers than on any hard proof of a causal relationship.  It is too easy by far to blame lack of funds for educational failings, but throwing money at a problem doesn’t always solve it.  Again, more research would be helpful in understanding whether, and to what extent, the lower level of funding actually contributes to the lower performance levels.
As things stand, I honestly don’t know whether I should be praising the Welsh Government and local authorities for achieving value for money, or criticising them for depriving our children of opportunities by adopting a cheese-paring approach.  ‘Spend per head’ is not, in itself, a valid basis for judging performance.  And simply joining in the knee-jerk ‘my side good, your side bad’ response which we saw last week isn’t good enough either.