Wednesday 31 October 2012

It's not all London's fault

In the nick of time, the UK’s Parliamentary dinosaur managed to pass the necessary legislation to ‘allow’ us to have bilingual ballot papers in Wales for the PCC elections next month. 

It would be hard to find a better example of why the legislative processes in London are unfit for purpose.  In the first place, we have the revelation that a specific resolution of parliament is needed to enable bilingual ballots despite the fact that it has been established practice for decades, and in the second, the complete inability of the system to produce and pass such a resolution before the ballot papers were printed.
The result of this incompetence is that Returning Officers across Wales printed two sets of ballot papers, just in case the legislation was not passed in time, and will now have to pulp 2.3 million of them.  There’s an environmental cost to that, as well as a not insignificant financial cost.  It seems that £350,000 has been wasted on producing the two sets of ballot papers – and the politicians are blaming the government in general and the Home Office in particular for that wastage.
But hold on a minute – did those Returning Officers who had two sets of papers printed really believe that it was going to be acceptable to issue monolingual ballot papers?  Despite all the advances in the use and visibility of Welsh in recent decades, one can only conclude that, yes, they really did believe that they would have been able to use English-only documents if the legislation had not been passed.  If they had not believed that, then they would never have authorised the printing of two sets.
It says a lot about their understanding of where Wales is today.  Time for some new Returning Officers, perhaps.  Ones who understand the linguistic reality of contemporary Wales might be a good start.

Monday 29 October 2012

An independence dividend

According to the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, a ‘yes’ vote in the independence referendum, followed by the election of an SNP Government determined to stick to that party’s pledge to remove nuclear weapons from Scottish soil would mean that “the UK would lose the ability to operate its nuclear deterrent and effectively be forced into unilateral disarmament”, for some years at least.

I’m sure that he’s actually trying to argue that independence would be a bad thing, but he manages to make it sound even more attractive to anyone opposed to the possession or use of weapons of mass destruction.  I wish that things were that simple, but sadly they’re not, and I suspect that all those involved understand that.
Quite apart from the three big ‘ifs’ in the initial statement – ‘if’ there’s a yes vote, and ‘if’ an SNP Government is then elected, and ‘if’ that Government decides to honour the party’s pledge, there would still be a process of negotiation to be gone through before independence, and I have no doubt that the timescale for removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish soil would be part of those negotiations.
It suits those trying to make simplistic points to make simplistic assumptions about how ‘instant’ everything would be; reality is very different.  Much as the idea of Scotland forcing the rest of the UK to abandon its nuclear weapons appeals to me, I somehow doubt that life could be that easy.

Friday 26 October 2012

How to spend it

There’s a sort of a rule in politics which says that the publicity given by Ministers to their decisions is in inverse proportion to the importance of those decisions.  It’s probably the influence of all the Sir Humphreys in the background somewhere. 

Anyway, the announcement this week that the National Assembly will be allowed borrowing powers seems to fit the pattern, in terms of timing if not of principle.  Three busy minsters from three different parties and two governments assembled to tell the world that the Welsh Government will be allowed to borrow some money at some point in the future if and when they can find a way of supplementing the block grant with monies raised locally.  In the short term, it’s not much of a deal at all.
It may just be a bit of clever politics; tying three parties into the deal may make it harder for any of them to reject any tax-varying powers proposed by the Silk Commission.  Clever politics by whom is another question, with at least two of the parties involved lukewarm at best over the idea of transferring any real revenue powers to Wales.  A sort of mutual assured torture, perhaps.
It could also turn out to be a double-edged sword for most of Wales as well.  Many of the schemes being touted for funding through borrowing are highly Cardiff-centric.  We’ve already seen a pretty naked attempt by Cardiff-centric commentators to grab Convergence funding from the poorest areas of Wales and spend them in the richest, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see any available borrowed funds being appropriated in similar fashion.
It’s part of what I’ve noted before – whilst Welsh politicians are quite happy to criticise the London-centric economic policies of the UK, they seem equally happy to replicate the same phenomenon on a smaller scale here in Wales.  As we saw in another report today, it’s probable that when the statisticians say that the UK is coming out of recession, what they really mean is that London is starting to boom whilst the rest of the UK continues to be in recession.  It’s not a good outcome, and I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to replicate that in Wales.
It underlines the fact that winning borrowing powers, even if the Government were in a position to use them, is only part of the picture.  Making sure that we use them for the benefit of the whole of Wales is another matter entirely.
PS – Much of the reaction to the announcement was predictable, but I have to admit to being surprised to read an article by the former leader of Plaid in today’s Western Mail in which he described Scotland as a “white elephant”.  I can’t imagine that going down too well in SNP HQ!

Thursday 25 October 2012

Dangerous precedents

According to his Wikipedia entry, Lord Bichard spent most of his working life in the public sector.  During that time, he no doubt contributed to various public sector pension schemes, and now enjoys the benefits of those schemes.  I wonder how he’d feel if the managers of those schemes suggested that he should lose part of his pension if he refused to volunteer for unpaid work?

That doesn’t seem to me to be very different from what he has suggested should happen to state pensioners.  It might be argued that the state pension scheme has never been actuarially sound, and that the contributions made have never been enough to support the level of benefits promised to pensioners.  That would be true; but those in receipt of, or expecting to receive, state pensions are hardly to blame for the fact that those managing their pensions promised them certain benefits and never took enough money from either the employees or the employers to pay for them.
From the pensioners’ point of view, the two situations are very similar – they paid in what they were told to pay in, and were promised certain benefits in return.  What his lordship seems to be proposing in the case of the state pension is to breach the contract to which those paying their NI contributions over 40-50 years thought they had agreed.
His choice of words is interesting as well.  He refers to being able to “use incentives to encourage older people, if not to be in full time work, to be making a contribution”; but his proposal to reduce the level of pension paid for those who don't sounds a lot more like a penalty for not ‘volunteering’ than an incentive to do so.  The carrot looks more like a stick to me.
His comparison with the question of student fees is another notable aspect.  As the BBC put it: ‘He acknowledged it would be difficult for politicians to sell to the public, but added: "So was tuition fees."  It seemed a fair point to me – and a lesson which we should learn.
No matter how unacceptable many of may feel his latest proposal to be, the parallel with tuition fees is instructive.  All four parties in Wales opposed tuition fees at some point or another – but eventually, the majority of elected members in all four were persuaded or cajoled into voting for that which they had previously opposed.  To an extent at least, this was as a result of civil servants (such as Lord Bichard?) telling them that they had no alternative.  But by caving in so easily, they have moved the political centre of gravity to the right, and created a climate where people like Bichard can use their U-turn on one 'difficult' issue as a precedent for further movement in the same direction.
Those who said one thing in opposition and did the opposite in government have a lot to answer for.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Two sides to the equation

Fuel poverty is a real problem, and it is one which an increasing number of families are facing.  It is no surprise to see politicians competing with each other to offer 'solutions', nor to see newspapers competing to criticise the situation.  What is a surprise, though, is to see such a high degree of consensus suggesting that the 'problem' is to do with the price of fuel and that the 'solution' is therefore to find ways of reducing it.

For the Tories, in particular, such an approach seems to go against their usual belief in the ability of the market to set prices; not so long ago the idea that any government should intervene in the price-setting process would have been complete anathema to them.

It's true, of course, that the range of tariffs available is both large and confusing; it has become increasingly difficult to work out which tariff is the best one for any particular customer.  Whether that's a 'problem' or simply a 'feature' of a market in which suppliers are trying to compete whilst retaining customers and profits is a matter of opinion.

It's also true that energy prices in general have gone up significantly in recent years, increasing the number of people falling into the category labelled 'fuel poverty'. But whilst large and increasing profits may have played a part in that - blaming the energy companies is a sport that we can all play - it's not the whole truth.  Energy is a commodity of which a rapidly developing world is demanding every greater quantities, at a time when the extraction of some fossil fuels is becoming more expensive and when decarbonising the economy should be an environmental priority.  In environmental terms, using price to reduce consumption is not as entirely bad a thing as one might think from reading recent coverage.

Insofar as there is a pricing problem, it seems to me that it is partly a result of the way in which those who use the least pay the highest unit price; the worst excesses of energy wastage are happening as a result of usage by those who can afford the lower unit price they are often paying.  Adjusting tariffs so as to reverse that situation might be one useful adjustment to pricing which could be done without resorting to full-scale price regulation.

However, it is the other side of the equation, the one which is getting ignored, which interests me.  If people can't afford to buy the quantity of energy which is necessary to ensure a basic level of heating, then isn't it at least a possibility that the 'problem' is as much to do with incomes as it is with prices?  We have a very unequal - and becoming more unequal - distribution of income; wouldn't fixing that long term problem be preferable to trying to manipulate prices to provide relief in the short term? 

Monday 22 October 2012

Black spiders and transparency

Whether or not the so-called 'black-spider' writings of Charles Windsor ever see the light of day makes little difference to my view of the appropriateness of making him head of state on the demise of his mother.  My objection is to the role of heredity in making the appointment, not particularly to him as a person.  But I do find the government's reasoning in keeping his letters secret more than a little curious.

They are saying that it's important for his future role that he is seen to be politically neutral, but that it doesn't matter if that's simply an inaccurate illusion.  It's not, apparently, the holding of highly partisan views which makes him non-neutral, nor is it the sharing of those views with ministers in forthright terms.  It's not even whether we know that he's written such letters or not which damages his neutrality - it's only the publication of his actual words which does that.  'Justice doesn't need to be done, it only needs to be seen to be done' would be an odd mantra for a minister to adopt, yet that seems to be a parallel.

From a more common-sense and everyday perspective than that possessed by government ministers - past and present; apparently Labour were also consulted before the decision was taken - it's surely the writing of the letters which damages any pretence at neutrality, not their publication.

Some years ago, I worked on an IT conversion project which was officially going to be 'transparent to the users'.  That meant, said one of my colleagues, that 'the users will see right through it'.  It seems to me that the transparency of Charles' neutrality fits that definition quite nicely.

Saturday 13 October 2012

In the style of the Western Mail...

Following the submission of 40 Freedom of Information requests, one for every constituency in Wales, Borthlas can today reveal that all of Wales’ 40 MPs have been involved in a secretive ceremony involving the taking of a bizarre oath.  Within days of being elected in 2010, when all those elected had publicly pledged to serve those who elected them, every single one of Wales’ MPs had instead pledged his or her allegiance not only to the monarch, but to all her ‘heirs and successors’.
No film or pictures of this strange ceremony are thought to exist, since it was held in the offices of a shadowy character normally referred to only as the ‘Speaker’, apparently because, uniquely amongst members of the House of Commons, he is not actually allowed to speak on any issue under debate.
The bizarre garb of this ‘speaker’ is understood to include ornate robes and an elaborate wig, for no better reason that than a predecessor some centuries ago chose to dress in such an unusual fashion.  In an attempt at anonymity, the current incumbent is understood to have eschewed most of the trappings, with the exception of platform shoes, although a highly placed source told Borthlas that these have no ceremonial purpose and are merely an attempt to disguise a diminutive figure.
We have been unable to confirm whether those taking the oath did so on bended knee, or whether any ceremonial swords were used as part of the ceremony, but the speaker is known to be accompanied often by other strangely dressed attendants carrying a range of potential weapons.
A spokesman for the Taxpayers’ Alliance told Borthlas that these bizarre (note to editor – have I used the word bizarre enough times yet?) oaths clearly demonstrated that politicians had lost touch with reality and were frittering taxpayers’ money on their own grandeur.
Labour issued a strong statement condemning Plaid Cymru.  “This shows that Plaid have been hiding their real intentions from the people of Wales.  Their leader Leanne Wood should come clean on the party’s real agenda of separation and independence and clamp down on such bizarre and reprehensible behaviour by her party’s members”.
The Conservatives claimed that the fact that Labour were taking the same oath as Plaid showed that the Labour Party were secret nationalists intent on destroying the United Kingdom.
A spokesman for Nick Clegg’s office said that as far as he was aware the party didn’t have any MPs in Wales, but that if they did, their participation in the ceremony demonstrated their moderating influence on the Conservative Party.
A tight-lipped spokesperson for Plaid Cymru would only say that the party would instigate immediate disciplinary action against any of its members found to be declaring their loyalty to the sovereign instead of to the people.
I made the last one up.  Obviously.

Friday 12 October 2012

Where's the ball gone?

If there’s one issue above all others on which it seems self-evident that legislative power should reside in Wales rather than in London, it is surely the future of the Welsh language.  It is a uniquely Welsh issue in a way that many other things discussed by the Assembly are not.  It surprised even a cynic like me that the Wales Office is challenging the legality of the Assembly’s Language Act.

At first sight, it seemed to be a pretty pathetic objection as well – almost as if the mere mention of a subject which is not devolved (i.e. the English language) is enough to rule a law inadmissible.  At a practical level, it changes nothing about the status of English in Wales – it neither takes away nor adds to the rights and duties of those who choose to use English.  But on reflection, they may actually have a point - in legalistic terms at least.
If a language currently enjoys sole official status in a territory, is that status reduced by granting equal status to another language?  It doesn’t affect anyone’s rights at a practical level, but in a sense which lawyers might love to argue about, I can see that that might be seen as a reduction in the status of English, and therefore grounds for challenge.
When the first bill, on by-laws, was challenged, my view was that the UK Government was probably right in legal terms, but utterly wrong at a practical and political level.  The same applies here.  But having seen some of the line of questioning adopted by the Supreme Court, I’m now much more optimistic that they’ll take a realistic and common-sense view of the situation rather than an overly-legalistic one.  And if they do it once, any challenge to the Language Act will probably receive even shorter shrift.
That leaves the politics of it all however.  What on earth are the Tories and their allies the Lib Dems playing at?  (I’ve yet to see how the usual apologists for the Lib Dems will demonstrate conclusively that this is another example of the Lib Dems keeping the Tories in check and that it would be much worse if they weren’t there to moderate the Tories.  They’ll probably try, though.)
It’s easy to see this as simply an anti-devolution centre looking for any and every opportunity to undermine the work of the ‘subordinate’ legislature.  Perhaps it really is as simple as that.  But then I wondered what would have happened if the unholy alliance proposed by some had come into existence in Wales whilst Labour had stayed in power in London.  How different would things have been?
I can fully imagine that, faced with exactly the same laws coming from a non-Labour government in Cardiff, a Labour Secretary of State would have taken exactly the same course of action.  If that’s true, then what it would tell us is that this isn’t really about being for or against devolution, or about where power should lie, or even about the content of the laws themselves.  It’s about oppositionalist politics.  Party A must and will at all times do anything and everything it can to make Party B look ineffective and incompetent (even if Party A's B Team have associated themselves with Party B on the issue in question).
In this game, they’ve not only lost sight of the ball, they don’t even need one on the pitch.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

How on earth do the others manage?

It’s the Swedes that I feel sorry for.  And the Danes, and the Norwegians, and the Portuguese, and the … well about half the peoples of the world, to be honest.  After all, they don’t have the ‘failsafe’ mechanism which the House of Lords provides the UK, and which Wales is sadly lacking, according to our former Secretary of State. 

I’m not sure that I’d describe their lordships as a failsafe, and I doubt that anyone else has ever called them that before, but that’s perhaps an aside.  The point which Gillan was making is that the UK Government has an unelected second chamber to obstruct and delay improve on the work of elected representatives and the Assembly doesn’t, which means that there are apparently no checks and balances.
But having a second chamber to revise what the first chamber does at the behest of the government and its whips is not the natural order of things to the extent that she and those who think like her would suggest.  Around half of the world’s legislatures manage perfectly well with a single chamber, and if the House of Lords didn’t exist, it’s hard to believe that anyone in their right minds would actually sit down and invent it.
And having legislation whipped through by the majority party at the behest of the government without proper scrutiny and debate isn’t something unique to the Assembly – indeed, to the extent that it is a problem in Cardiff it’s because the system was designed and implemented by another parliament which operates in precisely that way, aided and abetted by AMs who see aping Westminster as being what a proper parliament is all about.
But my real objection to what she’s saying is that putting a second set of processes and procedures – to say nothing of a second set of politicians – in place to deal with the failings of the first lot is avoiding tackling the real issue – i.e., why the first set isn’t working properly in the first place.  The Tories are usually quite big on pointing to the private sector as an exemplar for most things; but any private organisation which put a whole second set of people in place to correct the problems caused by the first lot rather than resolving the core problem wouldn’t be in business for long.
The problem that she and those who think like her face, however, is that if they admit that the problems can be fixed in one place, it might just lead people to think that they could be fixed elsewhere.  So duplicate what Westminster does, and hope that no-one notices how anachronistic the system is, and how well the rest of the world manages without it.  Abolition of the Lords, anyone?

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Endian destiny

Persistence, they say, is a virtue; and to that extent, Cameron’s determination to push ahead with his plans for reducing the number of MPs is at least consistent.  There is also a saying about discretion and valour, however, and he looks doomed to fail.

I rather suspect that his invitation to Plaid, SNP, DUP, SDLP and Green MPs to back his bill will fall on even stonier ground than his appeal to Labour and Lib Dem MPs to do so.  Indeed, there has surely to be significant doubt as to whether even his own troops will support him, especially some of those newly released to the back benches.
His core argument, repeated regularly, is that ‘all seats should be the same size with the same number of voters’; but that is not, of course, what he’s actually proposing.  Indeed, it would be silly for anyone to propose such a thing; constituencies can never be precisely equal in either size of voter numbers. 
There will always be a quota and a variation around that quota – all he’s really proposing is to reduce the extent of that variation around the quota.  But the extent to which one should allow variation will always be a matter of opinion.  Whether they should be within 5% or 10% or 15% is essentially an arbitrary decision.  What we can say, though, is that the smaller the allowed variation, the more arbitrary the resultant boundaries are likely to be, when compared to community links, history, etc.  And the proposals produced to date seem to confirm that.
I wouldn’t particularly defend the current level of variation, but neither am I enamoured of the proposed alternative.  What is being presented as some great issue of principle is really not that at all; it’s more of an Endian debate about the ‘right’ percentage figure, ignoring issues about community and relationships.
But ‘Endian’ debates occur a lot in politics, and it’s surprising how far politicians are prepared to go in pursuit of them.  That’s something else which Cameron is demonstrating well.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Dismissive Labour

I was more than a little disappointed with the Welsh government’s response to a question from Leanne Wood on procurement last week.  The question highlighted how much more successful some other EU countries are at ensuring their public procurement is 'internal' rather than 'external'.
That doesn’t mean that I was entirely convinced about all aspects of the question.  Whilst I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the figures quoted (Germany 98.9%, France 98.5%, the UK 97%), the precise figures may not be particularly helpful.  I doubt that they tell us much more than that a larger country with a bigger population and a more diverse economy will be able to meet more of its needs internally than a small country.  And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a breakdown of the German figures, for instance, by region and municipality showed an increasing level of external spend.
But it’s the principle rather than the detail which is important.  Every pound spent by Welsh public authorities outside Wales is a pound lost to the Welsh economy.  It represents a loss of GDP and wealth – it’s like passing that pound note out through the window.
Leanne is surely right to draw attention to that as an issue, and increasing local procurement is something within Welsh control which can help to boost our economy.  Local procurement also has environmental advantages, of course.
The Welsh government response was to say that setting a precise target for internal procurement would be against EU law.  Well yes, I’m sure they’re right – but is that really an answer to the question, or just the politicians' way of avoiding the issue?
Successive Welsh governments – involving three of Wales' four parties – have regularly talked about improving local procurement, but it’s been mostly talk with little action.  And whilst the Minister in one department talks about local procurement, his or her colleague in another has been busy pushing Welsh public authorities into bigger and more collaborative procurement arrangements which may well save money but would also make it harder for small local companies to compete.  Holding seminars to help those smaller companies to understand large and complex procurement exercises is a bit like trying to hold back the tide.  Like Canute, they merely demonstrate how ineffective the approach is.
There are things that the Welsh government could do, and it would have been better had their response demonstrated some understanding of that, and some willingness to act rather than an airy dismissiveness.
The first thing they could do is to simply stop doing those things which make it harder for local companies to supply goods and services.  Cheapest isn’t always best.
The second would be to look at what is being procured from outside Wales and ask why we can’t supply that internally.  There will always be some things that we can’t provide internally, but there are many which we can.  And targeting economic development resources at encouraging the production of goods and services for which we have a home market is probably going to give us a more sustainable economy for the long term than concentrating on activities which depend on producing and selling goods and services for which there is no – or only a very small – home market.
I was left with the impression that dismissing any suggestion from an opposition party was seen as more important than doing something positive.

Monday 1 October 2012

'Progressive' means testing

The clear difference of opinion between the Labour Party in Scotland and the Labour Party in Wales over prescription charges is quite interesting.  In Wales, where Labour is in government, they support free prescriptions; but in Scotland, where the SNP Government is following a similar path to that followed by the Welsh government, the Labour Party opposes the self same policy.  It’s the reverse of the more usual scenario where oppositions promise and governments fail to deliver – and is a curious stance for Labour to adopt.

I’m struggling to see what particular set of principles from the Labour lexicon is being followed in Scotland.
I understand the principle underlying free prescriptions, which is in general terms that there are certain services which should be available to everybody who needs them as and when they need them with no price barrier.  And they should be paid for by a taxation system which taxes according to people’s ability to pay.  It’s clear, and is a principle which I support.
I also understand the underlying principle behind the Conservatives’ position, which is that taxation should be as low as possible, people should pay for as many services as possible, and that free services should be available as a safety net solely to those most in need, with eligibility assessed on the basis of some sort of means test.
The way the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland is posing the question is very similar to the way that the Conservatives have been posing the question over many years.  Why, she asks, should a chief executive on more than £100,000 a year not have to pay for his prescriptions whilst the pensioner needing care has their home help cut.  The question could have come from any number of Conservative politicians with equal facility.  It’s hard to believe, however, that the Scottish Labour Party is really trying to take the place vacated by the meltdown of the Conservatives in Scotland by following the same policies which led to that meltdown.
I’m sure that they’d argue that they are simply being pragmatic; but it looks like the only real principle that they’re following is that they must oppose whatever the SNP proposes; and that’s not much of a principle at all.
Means-testing is a phrase which still carries a certain amount of baggage, and probably more so in Scotland and Wales than in parts of England.  Arguing for more means-testing for health service provision is an obvious position for Tories to take as part of their wish to reduce the levels of the most progressive tax, namely income tax.  But it’s curious to hear Labour politicians trying to argue that means-testing is a ‘progressive’ policy.