Monday 30 April 2012

Keeping it local

The Western Mail devoted a large part of two pages on Friday to an editorial by its Chief Reporter proclaiming that the key question in this week’s council elections is the value for money which councils provide in the delivery of services.  It’s hard to disagree with the assertion that we want value for money in local services; it’s motherhood and apple pie stuff.  But is it really the main issue for local councils?
The problem for me is that it starts from unstated but implicit assumptions about what local government is for, and about how its objectives are set.  But those assumptions owe little to the concept of meaningful local democracy; they owe more to a centralist view of local councils as being primarily deliverers of services, the nature and standard of which is defined by central (in this context, Welsh) government.  Their power, in short, is derived by delegation from the centre, like their funding.
It brings me back to a point about which I’ve blogged many times before; if local democracy is to be meaningful, then it must allow the possibility of making alternative policy choices about the nature and standard of services provided.  In short, we either have meaningful local government, where councils are allowed to define their own services and obliged to raise the whole of the money needed to pay for them (with central influence restricted to a mechanism for ensuring a degree of redistribution of resources from richer areas to poorer ones), or else we should abandon any pretence that we have a meaningful local democracy and run the services centrally.  (And different ‘services’ might fall into different categories here.)
It’s a simple enough argument.  Meaningful devolution of power from level A to level B includes the possibility that level B will do things in a way of which level A would not approve.  As anyone in a large organisation would – or should – recognise, delegation of authority includes the authority to do things differently - and even to make 'mistakes'.
What surprises me is the way in which people can easily grasp that concept when the two levels involved are the UK and Wales, but regard it as alien and unacceptable when the two levels involved are Wales and local authorities.  It suggests an axiomatic approach, based on the notion that there is a ‘right’ level at which decisions should be made.
I can understand how difficult it is for the UK Government to stand aside and watch Wales (Scotland, Northern Ireland) doing things in ways which they find anathematic.  But we expect them to do precisely that, and to respect our right to adopt a different policy.  Why should we not expect exactly the same of the Welsh Government when it comes to local councils?

Friday 27 April 2012

Sacking MPs

I quite like the idea of electors being able to sack their elected representatives, and if such a proposal is to be introduced for MPs, then there is no reason whatsoever why it shouldn’t also be introduced for AMs – and indeed councillors.  The regional list system of election for AMs is a complication of course; but any system of recall should surely include them as well.
The hard part is deciding under what circumstances recall should be allowed.  Getting 10% of the electorate of a constituency to demand a recall is challenging, but far from impossible.  I haven’t checked the numbers, but I’d be surprised if there were many elected politicians who didn’t have at least 10% of the electorate voting against them in the first place, so the will would probably be there at any time.
And that’s the hard part; merely allowing those who never voted for the politician in the first place to call an election to replace him or her is something of a negation of democracy, and that would still be true even if we had a fairer system of election in the first place.
But the proposal put forward to date seems too restrictive by far.  Allowing recall only where Parliament has resolved to recall the MP, or when the MP has been banged up for a crime of some sort, is hardly empowerment of the people.  In any case, who but a politician would come up with a proposal that an imprisoned MP should remain an MP unless 10% of his or her electors demand otherwise?  Most of us would surely expect more or less automatic disqualification in such circumstances.
Nick Clegg apparently wants to rule out recall on ‘political grounds’ or in the case of laziness or ineptitude.  It strikes me, though, that those are precisely the grounds on which recall most empowers the electors.  Getting rid of representatives who do nothing and don’t turn up, or those who say one thing to get elected and then do the opposite once in power – that’s giving meaningful power and control to electors.  What is being proposed at present is just window-dressing.

Thursday 26 April 2012

More funds from the EC

Whilst the third round of European funding will be welcome in Wales, it is disappointing, to say the least, that we should still be in a position where we qualify for such aid.  We have managed, as a nation, to get through two sizeable tranches of such aid with no obvious movement towards the stated objective of closing the gap in GVA.
The first round, Objective One, seems to have been largely frittered away on a series of projects most of which looked good in themselves, but which seem to have realised little long term benefit.  At the time, the impression that I had was of a large pot of money for which projects could bid, accompanied by a complex bureaucracy, within which some of the money was spent on advising others how to apply for it and then spend it.  There never seemed to be any ‘big picture’ view of what the outcomes should be; it didn’t look joined up.
For the second round, the government said that it was going to be more strategic by having fewer and larger projects.  I wasn’t convinced that they succeeded.  The words were all there, but in some cases it looked as though having ‘fewer and larger projects’ simply amounted to giving large sums to consortia of councils which then took on the distribution to the same sort of projects as in the first phase.  The difference was simply that there was an additional layer of bureaucracy between the Government and the projects being funded.
None of those involved are likely to admit any of this, of course; they were all caught up in the spin and presentation of success, the publicity which flowed to councils and ministers from a whole stream of flashy looking projects.  But phase 2 looks to have been as big a failure as phase 1 in practice.
Perhaps there’s something in the character of Wales as a nation, or in our style of politics which made this inevitable, but it seemed at times that being seen to share the cash around fairly and evenly, to ensure that there were projects benefitting in each and every corner of the aided region, was more important than ensuring that the GVA objective was achieved.
Whatever the cause, as we prepare for a third round of funding, I cannot say that I feel any real optimism that any lessons have been learned.  I still see no ‘grand plan’ for what we want to achieve or where we want to be at the end of the next round; and I suspect that, as a result, we’ll fall back on the tried-and- found-wanting approach of saying ‘Look, here’s a pot of money, who wants to bid for some?’, and then doling the cash out to the most telegenic proposals.
It’s not as if the Welsh Government is lacking in strategies; they’ve got several shelf-fulls of them in the Bay.  It’s more that there is a complete disconnect between those box-ticking strategies and actual government action.  A government which was serious about reducing the GVA gap would, by now, have a plan for doing so, and would see the inflow of large amounts of cash as being an opportunity to implement elements of that plan.  I won’t hold my breath.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Cox's Farm

I was passing Swansea Jail last week, and I noticed that the pub alongside it – the one that stands ‘just off the Mumbles Road, at the end of Argyle Street’, as Harri Webb described it, was due to re-open last Friday evening.  It’s no longer to be called the Glamorgan Arms; it’s been re-named as ‘The Lock-Up’, presumably due to its proximity to Cox’s Farm.
I don’t actually know whether Harri’s Uncle Will really did keep the pub; I never got round to asking him.  It may just be a bit of poetic licence to fit the rhythm of the poem.  But Harri’s roots in Swansea were strong, and he often drew on his roots in his work, so it’s perfectly possible that it was indeed his Uncle Will.
The poem was set to music and sung by the Hennesseys on the Green Desert LP – essential listening for all young nationalists in the late 1960s / early 1970s.
I also noted that the building has been repainted – it’s now a bright shocking pink colour.  Somehow, I don’t think Harri would have entirely approved.  

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Off with their heads!

The hole into which Westminster politicians are digging themselves over House of Lords reform is a classic example of the disconnect between them and the rest of us.  To say that the question is not one which greatly exercises people outside the Westminster bubble is something of an understatement, yet some of those inside the bubble seem to think that the sky is about to fall in.
There’s something a little ironic about those who wish to maintain the current undemocratic system demanding a referendum so that we can democratically decide (they hope) to remain undemocratic.  But I find it hard to believe that the question of whether parliamentarians should be elected or not will be any more controversial outside parliament than was the question in last year’s referendum on the powers of the Assembly – or that it will attract any more interest.
Whilst the idea of electing parliamentarians, rather than having some take their seats through heredity and others through appointment, may look like a revolutionary idea to some of their lordships, most of the world would simply wonder how and why the current situation has been allowed to last so long.  And I have a feeling that most of the electorate will be closer to ‘most of the world’ than to their lordships on this occasion.
The reforms themselves seem to be something of a fudge.  Why are some appointees to be retained?  If we want outside experts to look at legislation and give us the benefit of their wisdom and experience, they can do that without being given a fancy title and a seat in parliament to go with it.  Why retain a special place for bishops of the CofE? 
And, most of all, have they even asked whether and why we need a second chamber at all?
The usual answer to that final question is that the first chamber seldom gets the legislation right.  But in any rational world, that would be an argument for reform of the first chamber, not for the perpetuation of a duplicate set of parliamentarians and debate.  Instead of arguing about how many ‘whatever-we-want-to-call-thems’ there should be, how they should be selected, and how much we should pay them, why not just abolish the whole thing?

Monday 23 April 2012

Keeping the profit

The drought in South East England prompted calls for Wales to further exploit our water resources by selling water to England at a profit.  Whilst fracking is, to say the least, a controversial process, the possibility that Wales might be rich in shale gas has led some to predict a bonanza for Wales.  And the fact that Wales has an enormous potential for renewable energy has led others to argue that we should exploit that potential to sell electricity across the border.
The three things are connected in two ways.  The first is the obvious one; they are all to do with the fact that Wales has valuable natural resources, which we can choose to exploit if we wish.  But the second is that much of the debate has effectively skirted round the question of how we ensure that the benefit of any such exploitation stays in Wales.
Of course any decision to exploit any of those (or indeed other) resources is likely to bring some benefit in terms of local jobs and services – but, as the wind industry in particular has demonstrated, such benefits can end up being a tiny proportion of the total profit generated by the activity.  The bulk of that profit can all too easily be diverted elsewhere.
It certainly isn’t as simple as having control over the relevant planning decisions, as some seem to think.  In itself, merely having the ability to say yeah or nay does nothing to ensure that we gain the benefit. 
Nor is it enough to argue for control of the Crown Estate.  That’s a worthy enough aim, but it isn’t the same thing as owning the underlying assets and the companies exploiting them.  Receiving some royalty payments is better than nothing, but it doesn’t touch the big issue of who gets the profits.
And it is that question – who gets the profit – which is the key one.  For as long as the exploitation of Wales’ natural resources is left to the vagaries of the market, the traditional capitalist approach, there is always the potential for the companies doing the exploiting to be owned and controlled elsewhere.  And thus, of course, for the profits to be siphoned out of Wales, mirroring the exploitation of the past.
Nationalization and state ownership have become dirty words in the UK.  It seems that successive UK governments are quite happy for the German state to own and operate a significant chunk of the UK’s railways, and for the French state to own and operate an equally significant slice of the UK electricity industry, it’s only ownership by the British state which is unacceptable.
But if we really want to ensure that we benefit from the exploitation of our natural resources, we need to look at the ownership and control both of the resources themselves and the companies exploiting them.  We need to ensure that we own them, in short.
Last week, Argentina aroused the wrath of many countries by taking ownership of its own oil resources and nationalising the company.  The government of that country recognised the key strategic value of those resources to its economy and decided that the best way to protect them was to own them.  Why should things be different in Wales?
Those who call for Wales to sell water, or electricity, or gas without facing up to that question of ownership need to explain need to explain how else they intend to ensure that the benefits don’t simply flow elsewhere.

Friday 20 April 2012

Vile and viler

When Peter Hain came out with his attack on ‘vile’ Tory candidates, my immediate reaction was to think that this was a man heading for a fall.  It was obvious that, sooner or later, someone would draw attention to similar problems with one or more Labour candidate.  It didn’t take long.
Anyone who has ever been involved in the process of selecting and vetting candidates will know that it is extremely difficult – perhaps impossible - for any party to be certain that one or other of its candidates will not turn out to be an embarrassment in some shape or form.  That is particularly true for local elections, where candidates number into the hundreds.
Given that, any politician choosing to attack another party in the way that Hain chose to do is simply leaving itself open to a charge of hypocrisy when one of its own candidates gets found out.  What surprises me is this:  Hain is no novice; he’s been involved in politics in Wales for decades.  He’s seen this happen time and time again in the past – what on earth possessed him to do something so foolish?
In truth, of course, it’s unfair to pick on Hain alone here.  (Almost can’t believe that I typed that.)  He’s merely the perpetrator of this week’s obvious faux pas.  But the ability of politicians to believe that it’s safe to attack other parties in this way because their own party is whiter than white isn’t restricted to Labour.
It’s as though they are afflicted with some sort of selective amnesia when the sound of a good headline gets stuck in their brains.

Thursday 19 April 2012

At it ahain

According to Hain, the council elections are both an opportunity, in that horribly hackneyed and by now meaningless phrase, “to send a message” to Cameron and the Tories, and should also be used as “a referendum on the UK Government’s budget”.
Even were the Tories wiped out in Wales – a not impossible scenario, although unlikely – I’m not sure what sort of message that would be.  I don’t think that Cameron needs any further ‘messages’ to know that people in Wales are not over-fond of his party – nor that people in Wales would, by and large, prefer to have Labour politicians cutting their services rather than Tory ones.
There’s plenty of existing electoral and opinion polling data from which he can already draw both of those conclusions, just as easily as I have.  The only clear ‘message’ to emerge from this semaphoric activity is that Hain sees local elections as essentially a side-show to the main event, which is to restore him to his rightful place at the cabinet table prepare for the next parliamentary election in 2015.
The mantra that we should vote for Labour Party politicians to cut our services, simply ‘because they’re not Tories’, is a pretty negative and depressing one, not least because it looks like an attempt to avoid any real discussion of the essentially local issues for which councillors are responsible.
It might work for them electorally, of course; and perhaps nothing else matters.  Increasingly, it seems that ‘getting elected’ is more important to most politicians than actually changing anything afterwards.  I don’t know how they’ll know whether or not it worked though.  The Tories seem on course for significant losses almost whatever tactics the Labour Party use.
It’s not particularly good for local democracy.  But given the increasingly centralist tendencies of successive Welsh Governments, perhaps local democracy is doomed anyway.  Without a radical re-empowerment of local authorities, and significant devolution within Wales rather than merely to Wales, there seems to be little chance of recovering the situation.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Taxing donations

The furore over the Chancellor’s change to the rules about tax relief on charitable donations has been confusing, as different sides play with statistics to present different pictures of the impact.  There’s been rather more heat than light on the whole. 
The charities stress how much they stand to lose, the large donors threaten to donate less in future, and the government points to the way in which charitable giving reduces the effective tax rate of some of the very rich.  And it seems to me that they’re all correct, despite drawing different policy conclusions from their differing interpretations.
If I correctly understand the tax rules concerning donations, the sums turn out to be surprisingly complex; but let’s take the grossly simplified scenario of two millionaires, M1 and M2, each of whom receive £2 million per annum.  M1 decides to ‘keep’ all his money whilst M2 decides to give half of it away to charity.  And let’s assume, again for simplicity, that the effective marginal tax rate on the whole of their income is 50%.
M1 gets to keep £1 million and the Government gets £1 million in taxes, nice and straightforward.  His tax rate is clearly 50%, and he has a million pounds left over to spend.
M2 pays £1 million to his favourite charity (which then gets a tax credit from HMRC on the basis of an assumption that tax at basic rate has already been paid, meaning it actually receives £1.25 million).  He’s already paid £1 million to the Government in tax, leaving him with nothing, but he can then reclaim tax at the remaining 30% on the grossed-up £1.25 million, so the Government repays him £375,000.  In total, therefore, he’s paid only £625,000 tax on his £2 million – an effective tax rate of only 31.25%, and he has to struggle along on a mere £375,000 for the year.
(And the government has received only £375,000 net – around a third of what it got from M1, which probably highlights their real problem.)
According to the government, M2 is a bad guy, because he’s reduced his effective rate of tax to less than those on smaller salaries will be paying, whilst M1 is a good guy because he’s paid his full whack of tax at 50%.  But which is the better citizen (leaving aside the question of whether either of them deserve to receive £2 million in the first place)?  It’s far from being so clear cut.
Part of the answer might depend on what the chosen charity or charities do, as well as on the perspective of those making that judgement.  From my perspective, a donation of £1 million to Oxfam looks a lot different from a donation of £1 million to another of the UK’s major charities, Eton School.  (And in the second case, my judgement might be further coloured if the donating Millionaire sent his progeny to said school, effectively gaining some personal, or family, benefit from his ‘charitable’ donation.) 
That, though, is really an argument for reviewing the basis on which charitable status is bestowed on organisations, rather than about the tax relief on donations to charities per se.
The more significant question for me is that whole principle of tax relief on charitable donations.  I don’t blame charities for wanting such a system, nor for making the most of it.  And I can understand why governments (of both parties) have used the system to try and encourage more charitable donations – after all, things done by charities mean that they don’t need to be done by government. Voluntary donations are always more popular than involuntary taxes.
But the granting of such generous tax relief means that our friend M2 is actually donating only £625,000 of his own money, and another £625,000 of money which would otherwise go into the government’s coffers.  Is it really his to give?  That’s a much more challenging question than the Chancellor has been prepared to ask.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Not so obvious

On first reading, yesterday’s report in the Western Mail, that Wales’ health boards do not know how many patients are receiving radiotherapy treatment, nor what the cost of that treatment is, seemed quite ‘shocking’ or ‘staggering’ to use some favourite words from politicians’ press releases.  It seems inherently obvious that they ought to know such things, doesn’t it?  But then I remembered a dictum of one of my old science teachers – “that which is obvious isn’t necessarily true”.
Jumping from an inability to answer some very specific questions about the detail of expenditure on one particular type of treatment to an accusation of ‘financial ineptitude’ as the leader of the Lib Dems has done might make for good headlines, but doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.  There are, as anyone managing a large budget will know, many different ways of analysing expenditure in order to manage and control it; an inability to respond to a newspaper’s request to analyse it in one particular way does not, in itself, mean that there is a lack of control.
One of the challenges for those managing a large and complex organisation like the NHS is to ensure that they concentrate their attention on key information, and don’t get drowned in mere data.  Finding the right balance can be harder than it looks.  I don’t know whether they’ve got the balance right or not – and yesterday’s story gave me no help at all to improve my understanding.  The most that I can say is that there are some questions which the external auditors ought to look at to satisfy themselves that expenditure is being properly controlled.
What I do know is that ensuring that data is kept in a format which will enable any and every question to be answered on demand is not likely to be the most productive use of resources.  And those criticising the inability to answer this particular question seem to have complained often enough in the past about the numbers of bureaucrats and managers in the NHS.  Asking for more detailed record-keeping seems inconsistent to say the least.
Oscar Wilde described a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.  I don’t want a health service which simply ignores price issues; but I do want one which understands value as well.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Gambling and trading

If I went to the Business Minister in Cardiff with a business plan that said I was going to create new jobs by training people to go into the nearest casino and place a large number of large bets, I wouldn’t really expect the Government to offer me money from the ‘Economic Growth Fund’, no matter how well-paid the jobs appeared to be.
However, if I called the casino a trading floor, and said that I wasn’t going to train the employees to bet, just to buy and sell bets placed by other people, I’d probably be in with a better chance, in the light of this story from last week.
I’m unclear at what point precisely gambling and speculating becomes transformed into ‘financial services’; the dividing line is far from clear, although whenever I hear or read the word ‘derivatives’, I start to suspect that a line has been crossed. 
At one extreme, placing bets in a casino is clearly gambling; at the other extreme, there needs to be a market in which commodities are traded.  But somewhere between the two, ‘trading’ changes from being about the efficient exchange of goods to being a mechanism for complicated gambling.  And complicated gambling was a major factor in the financial collapse.
The Welsh Government’s apparent pre-occupation with ‘financial services’ is of concern.  The argument that 'it’s going to happen somewhere, so why shouldn’t Wales benefit?' is not one with which I am comfortable – it sounds awfully similar to the argument that 'someone will sell armaments to dictators so why not us?'.  It’s an excuse for putting morality and long term considerations to one side in the name of getting whatever jobs we can in the short term.
There is a parallel, in a strange sort of way, with the support shown by some for new nuclear power stations in Wales; in both cases the big questions about the sort of economy/ environment we want to create are cast to one side in the interests of short term advantage.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Reporting or campaigning?

The Western Mail’s repeated return to the subject of free prescriptions is starting to look less like news coverage and more like a campaign to re-introduce charges for medicines.  This week’s story highlighted the high average number of prescriptions per head over a year, claiming that it raised “fresh questions about the flagship policy”.  I’m almost tempted to run a ‘spot the difference’ competition by comparing their story this week to one a few months ago.  The questions are not so much fresh as regurgitated.
There was something of a shortage, once again, of critical analysis of what the figures might be telling us.  The average number of prescriptions per head has also been rising in England, despite the high – and increasing – charges for prescriptions there.  That gives a context in which the increase in Wales is not solely down to the fact that medicines are now free – although you wouldn’t know that from any reading of the Western Mail’s story.
But let us suppose that at least part of the increase is down to the fact that prescriptions are free – is that a good thing or a bad thing?  Again context and analysis are everything – and were completely missing from the paper’s reporting. 
It reminds me of a statement by one of the Welsh police forces a couple of years ago that an increase in the number of cases of domestic violence was a good result not a bad one.  It made me stop and think; but the argument was that a greater willingness to report such crime showed that the force was actually being effective in tackling it, and thus creating a climate where people no longer felt that it wasn’t worth reporting.
In a similar vein, if an increase in numbers of prescriptions is because rich people are no longer paying for over the counter drugs, then it’s easy to see why it might be considered a bad thing.  But if it’s the result of less well-off people seeking treatment and taking medicines when they would previously not have done so because they couldn’t afford the medicines, then it’s a good thing – and a clear sign that the policy is achieving one of its stated aims.
It’s a distinction of which readers would be left completely unaware, however, from a report which provided the usual suspects with an opportunity to trot out their usual lines, led as ever by those persistent opponents of free medicine, the Tories.  Their health spokesperson repeats the customary soundbite about millionaires getting free paracetamol (although he varies it a bit by adding bonjela – ah the sheer inventiveness of the man!).
Does anyone know of a single millionaire in Wales who’s ever gone to the trouble of arranging a doctor’s appointment in order to get a prescription for free paracetamol?  I don’t – but then I don’t think I know any millionaires either; they’re not exactly common in Wales in the first place.  It may be a good soundbite, but it’s a deliberately misleading distraction.  They’ll carry on using it though – why wouldn’t they, when they’re being given a free and uncritical platform on which to repeat it?

Tuesday 3 April 2012

They won't give up easily

In reacting to the now infamous pasty tax proposed in this year’s budget, one former Labour minister expressed his amazement that the government hadn’t seen the reaction coming.  It was, he said, a proposal which the civil service had put before him but which he’d rejected.
There’s a similar message behind the latest proposals for more monitoring of website traffic, including e-mails.  It’s another one which was floated under Labour and has now been resurrected under the UK Coalition.  Just for a change, I agree with Peter Black’s take on this “Once an idea is fixed in the minds of advisors and civil servants, they keep revisiting it until they find politicians prepared to take it forward”.
There is a certain inevitability about the way that these things keep getting raised by our real rulers.  I don’t know whether it will actually happen or not, but past experience suggests that an alternative proposal is likely to be presented which will be less intrusive – and which will then be built on on an opportunistic basis as and when the proponents of the original idea see their opportunity.  Incremental changes always manage to look less sinister than major changes.
There’s a surveillance and control mindset lurking behind this one – and people with that mindset aren’t just going to abandon their plans because of reluctant politicians.

Monday 2 April 2012

Not just Scotland's dividend

There was a suggestion a week or two ago that Wales could gain the dubious privilege of hosting Trident if the Scots vote for independence.  It was described as Wales being the ‘winners’; not the sort of thing that I’d call much of a ‘victory’, although in the light of the St Athan debacle, I don’t doubt that there’d be plenty of politicians queuing up to welcome such a move.
I’m not over-worried about it though – I just don’t see it happening.  Firstly, it depends on the Scots actually supporting independence.  Much as I’d like to see such an outcome, I still have a feeling that the result of the First Scottish Independence Referendum will be a ‘no’; albeit by a closer margin than many supporters of the union are expecting.  Given the multi-billion pound cost of relocating the base, it’s not going to happen before a ‘yes’ vote.
But let us suppose that it does happen.  The top brass in the MoD will then be faced with deciding whether to site any new base in England or in Wales.  I can’t believe that, having seen the base kicked out of one departing country, the idea of putting it into another country where there is also a movement seeking independence, no matter how weak, is likely to come anywhere near the top of the MoD’s list.
For sure, they won’t state that as their reason, and there’ll be a Welsh site on the list for consideration before the carefully chosen experts come out with all sorts of practical reasons why the Welsh site isn’t the best one.  It’s the way they work.
However, an American Peace Institute came out with a much more helpful suggestion today.  They propose that if the Scottish base has to be closed, then the UK should be seriously thinking about nuclear disarmament, rather than relocation.  That would mean that it isn’t only Scotland which would see a significant dividend from becoming an independent state.  England and Wales could get one too.