Wednesday 30 January 2013

Compare and contrast

I’ve expressed disappointment previously with the response in Wales to the plans to expand high-speed rail in the UK.  Instead of lobbying for Wales to be next in the plans, the response of those in parties which claim to be ‘standing up for Wales’ has wavered between outright opposition to an ‘England-only’ project and a demand for a Barnett consequential so that Wales can spend the equivalent money on something completely different. 

It’s worth comparing that with the attitude of the SNP Government in Scotland.  As this story shows, they have demanded a ‘concrete timetable’ for expanding the network to Scotland.  They’ve also started planning their own high-speed link between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which could be up and running by 2024 on their forecasts.
There’s a clear contrast there between being bold and having a whinge.  Yet again, Salmond and the SNP have shown us what a nationalist response, pushing the interests of Scotland, looks like.  And there’d be no prizes here for guessing which approach is most likely to succeed.  Scotland is pushing itself up the list of contenders for HS3, whilst Wales seems to be doing its best to remove itself from contention completely.
PS – the UKIP response to the HS2 announcement, as reported by David Cornock, left me more than a little puzzled.  Instead of spending the money on HS2, they say that “the UK should invest that massive amount of money in developing better infrastructure, including transport between and within towns and cities”.  But if HS2 is not about transport infrastructure between cities, what is it?  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they are calling for a programme of road-building.

Monday 28 January 2013

The problem isn't with one man

Harry Windsor came in for some criticism last week for the terms in which he described his role in hunting down and killing members of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  He made it all sound like a bit of a game.  I’m not normally one for defending members of that wealthy and privileged family, but it did seem to me that personalising the criticism in this way was more than a little unfair.

Is his attitude really any different from that of the rest of the military?  I doubt it – it’s simply that, because of his family background, he’s the one who got interviewed.  Much of the terminology used is in widespread use in the military; euphemisms such as “taking out” are the norm not the exception.  Why pick on one man for that?
Use of euphemism isn’t really surprising anyway.  Seeing the whole war thing as some sort of game – with its red team, its blue team, and its green team – is simply a way of translating theory into practice.  It makes the actual killing more similar to the exercises and war games.  And depersonalising it – dehumanising it even – makes it easier for people to kill each other without too much moralising or hesitation.
The problem is not that one individual – whoever he may be – displays that attitude openly or honestly, nor even that it is widespread in the military.  The problem is that “we”, as a society, allow, and acquiesce in, a world order which makes the training of young men to kill or be killed “normal”.  As long as we allow that, then the military will inevitably seek out ways of making the task an easier one to perform – an army whose members stopped to moralise before pulling the trigger would hardly be an effective one.
For sure there are “bad guys” out there, but the one lesson of human history that we seem unable as a species to learn is that war rarely solves anything.  Short-term victories merely sow the seeds of subsequent conflicts, and until we collectively break the cycle, we are merely perpetuating the behaviour of the past.  If we are seriously concerned – and we should be – about what Mister Windsor said last week, we need to address the causes, not attack the individual.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Let's consider both unions

I’m not sure that ‘speech’ is the right word to describe what Cameron has finally got round to saying about the UK’s membership of the EU.  Perhaps I’m too much of a traditionalist, but a speech is normally a talk given to an audience at an event of some sort – this appears to have been an extended press statement / photo op, delivered to an excited bunch of hacks, party staff, and whoever else Rent-a-Crowd could get together at 24 hours’ notice.  Another little victory for spin over reality.

The content went further than had been foreseen by many – not least because in talking in clear terms about an ‘in/out’ vote, it was a change from what Cameron himself seemed to have been saying previously.  The much-vaunted referendum is predicated, of course, on the increasingly unlikely assumption of a Tory victory in the 2015 General Election.  Indeed, even those who aren’t particularly cynical can see that the whole speech had more to do with trying to reduce the improbability of that election result that with the question of EU membership per se.  Not exactly the best basis on which to make such a fundamental decision.
It’s also predicated on another assumption – that the other members of the UK will be willing to allow one member to negotiate a new and unique category of membership applying only to itself.  Whether that is more, or less, probable than a Conservative election victory is a matter of opinion.  I rather suspect that the other members will do their very best to kick the issue into the long grass until after that General Election.  Why bother negotiating something you don’t want with what looks like a lame-duck Prime Minister?
The reaction of one of our local Tory MPs to the unlikelihood of the EU’s other members welcoming a renegotiation confirmed, yet again, the attitude of many in his party to the EU.  “If that makes the Europeans squeal a bit, so be it,” said Simon Hart.  It’s perfectly clear from that use of language that ‘European’ is not a word which applies to ‘us’; it is something ‘other’, something external.
I don’t for one moment disagree with Plaid’s call for the vote in Wales – if this referendum is ever actually held – to be separately declared.  I suspect, however, that both Plaid and Labour are deluding themselves if they believe that the result of any vote in Wales would be significantly different from that in England.  The fact that the Welsh and English political establishments take very different views does not mean that those differences are reflected in the electorate at large.  I see no hard – or even soft – evidence of that.
Pouring scorn on Cameron for a piece of shifty political manoeuvring which is all about his own party’s political advantage is easy.  It’s a lot harder to argue against the principle of holding a referendum at some point on an issue of such major constitutional importance as this.  After all, if there is no case for a referendum on a significant constitutional issue on which both the public at large and the politicians are clearly divided, then what is the case for ever holding a referendum on anything? 
To argue that there should be no referendum, ever, appears to be saying either that the issue is not important enough, or else that the politicians don’t trust the electorate to make the right decision.  (Actually, most of them probably don’t, but they can hardly stand up and say that.)  And arguing that the issue or the timing is wrong look like fudge.  Cameron has let the genie out of the bottle; whilst he might have been trying to distract attention from an issue on which his party is rather badly split, I rather suspect that he has actually ensured that the issue will dominate much of what his own side are saying for the next four or five years.
The problem – and the danger – is that, if such a referendum actually happens, the debate will revolve around jingoism, insularity, immigration, and perceptions about bent cucumbers and euro-sausages, rather than being a serious debate about the future position of Wales.  However, if we can turn it into the latter, then it could also become – probably would also become – a debate about Wales’ position in both unions.  That’s a big ‘if’; but Cameron might just possibly have done nationalists something of a favour here, albeit entirely unintentionally.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Auditing and re-auditing

All of those involved in spending public money have a responsibility for ensuring that it is spent cost effectively and in accordance with the organisations' agreed aims and objectives.  That is as it should be, and it means that all public bodies have agreed internal and external audit processes to verify that it actually happens.

Sometimes, however, the fragmented nature of Wales’ governmental structures means that the same activities can, effectively, be audited multiple times at multiple levels.  European funding is one example which leaps to mind.
The EU of course has its own processes for verifying that money has been spent in accordance with the terms of any grants given.  And that includes the money coming to Wales under the Convergence scheme.
As a result of an attempt by the One Wales government to appear to be more strategic in its approach – which seems to have convinced the ministers but I doubt that they convinced anyone else – an extra layer of funding 'bodies' or consortia was effectively introduced; and the Welsh government audits the way the money it allocates to those funding bodies is spent.
Those bodies in turn audit the way in which the money is spent by the bodies to which it is allocated by them.  Many of those are local authorities, who again have their own audit processes.
So some European funding is being audited at least four times as it passes through different levels of public authority.  That inevitably means that less money and effort are spent on the direct activities concerned.  Even if the audit costs come out of “other” funding rather than out of the grant funding itself, it still means that money is being used to check what is being done and how rather than actually doing something.
At each level, the argument is the same – “we’re dealing with public money, and have to demonstrate that the doing it properly” – and each level has to assemble, collate, and file its evidence of what has actually been done and how.
Now if “Public Sector Wales” was a single unified structure, would we still want or need to audit the same things several times at different levels or would a unified body have just a single set of audit processes?  Could we – and would we – be able to divert more resources into doing things instead of checking up on what other people are doing?
I’m not arguing here for creating a unified structure for the Welsh public services (although the idea is not without some merit).  There is, though, an argument for looking at a single unified audit structure and process for the Welsh public sector, which means that any activity is only subject to a single audit, and that other bodies then accept the veracity of what they’re being told rather than re-check.  Excessive trust can certainly bring problems of its own; but excessive distrust is costing us time and money which could be more usefully deployed elsewhere.

Monday 21 January 2013

Let’s dump nuclear waste in Ynys Môn

That’s only a half joking suggestion.

Talking about fracking just before Christmas, I noted that it was dishonest for anyone who supports greater use of gas in generating electricity to then oppose fracking.  If we use gas, we need supplies of gas; assuming that we can get them elsewhere is simply dumping our environmental problems on someone else.  The total availability of gas – and therefore the world price – has been transformed by fracking in the United States; and energy policy based on gas thus depends explicitly on fracking, either at home or abroad. 
There’s a similar problem with nuclear power.  Building new nuclear power stations depends on there being facilities available for storing, processing, and disposing of nuclear waste.  It’s equally dishonest for proponents of Wylfa B to make – as many seem to – the implicit assumption that those facilities will be available “somewhere else”.  Supporters of Wylfa B would sound much more honest to me if they were also lobbying to have nuclear waste stored and dumped in Ynys Môn.  I won’t hold my breath on that.
Those of us supporting renewables can’t escape a similar problem either, although some seem to believe that they can.  Building wind turbines means we need infrastructure – power lines and substations – to get the electricity into the grid.  Whilst there’s always scope for debate about the detail, such infrastructure has to go somewhere.  Arguing for wind power and then opposing the infrastructure would again be dishonest.  So as someone who accepts the need for that wind energy, I also have to accept the need for that infrastructure as a consequence of my preferred energy strategy, and I’m prepared to argue for that.
Politicians arguing for any of those three approaches to energy policy and then opposing the inevitable concomitants are not simply dishonest; they are in a sense promising something which they know to be impossible. So let’s hear the argument for nuclear waste storage on Ynys Môn.

Friday 18 January 2013

How would it be different?

Shortly before Christmas, both Labour and Plaid renewed their calls for devolution of policy over energy.  Well, actually, over planning consent for energy related developments; not at all the same thing, although one wouldn’t know that from listening to them speaking.

Leaving aside the element of point-scoring and game-playing (particularly from Plaid in this case, who seemed to be preoccupied with “putting Labour on the spot” for failing to vote for a Plaid amendment in the House of Commons), both parties implied, although wisely avoided saying directly, that devolution of consent would lead to a change in policy in some way.
Now, as a supporter of independence, I’m not going to disagree with their call for devolution of these powers – on the contrary, I’d go a lot further than either of them seems to want to.  I’m concerned though about arguing for something on the basis of a false prospectus; it’s not an honest argument for further devolution.
Let’s take for example Wylfa B.  Would a Welsh decision be any different from a UK one?  I doubt it.  With all the Tories, most of Labour, and at least a third of Plaid AMs likely to support the project, the result would almost certainly be exactly the same.
Or how about TAN 8?  Whilst some AMs make a lot of noise about the need to look at it again I don’t believe that there’s a majority in the Senedd for changing the policy.  (And there’d be no complaints from me on that score – I’m as convinced as ever that Wales does need to exploit its potential for wind energy).
Or how about gas power stations?  The Welsh government didn’t oppose the new station in Pembrokeshire despite the known environmental problems and failings.  There were some politicians in all parties actually supporting it – on the basis of jobs.  What part of that exactly would devolution of this power have changed?
Or what about “fuel poverty”?  This was the specific peg on which Carwyn Jones based his latest call for the devolution of these powers, but there was nothing at all in what he said which indicated how, if at all, he and his government could or would use the powers he was requesting to address the issue.  Energy pricing is not devolved, and neither was he calling for it to be devolved.
There’s something more than a little disingenuous about calling for more powers on the back of problems which either those powers would not solve or else those making the call would not be prepared to use those powers in ways which would solve the problems.  The danger in that is that it discredits the idea of devolution itself, quite apart from adding to the mistrust for politicians.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Heat not light

This week has seen the publication of proposals by two of Wales' health boards for changes to the way some services are delivered.  Political reactions have, more or less, been entirely predictable, and based more on political considerations than on any relating to health.  It’s one of those situations where all of the politicians in all of the parties know that there have to be some changes whilst politically they all want to appeal to the sensitivities and sentiment of electors across Wales rather than risk losing votes by saying why they support some change.

That is not to say that the health boards necessarily get everything right, and that there is no scope for debate about some of the detail.  And the lack of trust which has grown as a result of previous attempts to rationalise services – sometimes for financial rather than health reasons – has left a legacy of suspicion about motives and rationales which leave a strong motivation for those opposed to any change.
Having sat through a number of meetings where some of these issues have been discussed, three things in particular have become clear to me.
  1. There are people who are inpatients in our hospitals who need not be.  With proper organisation and by putting the funding in the right place, their care could be delivered in the community – usually in their homes – with sometimes better outcomes; almost invariably with more dignity and independence for the patients; and often at lower cost.
  2. There are a number of complex cases and specialities, sometimes involving expensive equipment and needing particular expertise, which can be delivered more safely and with better outcomes from a small number of centres than by attempting to replicate services in every hospital in Wales.
  3. Medicine is becoming increasingly specialised; specialist skills need to be maintained and developed by handling a sufficient number of cases, and doctors in some specialities are in short supply.
Those three points seem to me to be unarguable; the question is about which changes need to be made to respond to those factors, and whether – as a suspicious public fears – the changes being proposed go further than is necessary simply to respond to those three factors.  That question needs more attention and debate than it is getting from knee-jerk political reactions phrased in emotional terms about ‘saving our services’.
Those proposing the changes are not infallible; and I’m not assuming for one moment that they have got it all right.  But simplistic opposition to any and every proposal is not the best way to get the health service we need and deserve.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Not about ideology

The Tories’ group leader in the Assembly has described the Government’s planned purchase of Cardiff Airport as some sort of a return to Old Labour style nationalisation.  He’s misunderstanding history – it looks more like Tory policy than Old Labour to me.

Old Labour’s nationalisation policy was based on public ownership of the “commanding heights” of the economy.  It was a deliberate attempt to ensure that major parts of the economy were owned by all of us through the state, and that all of us – rather than merely the owners of capital – benefited from the success of those industries.
It wasn’t an overly successful policy.  That wasn’t – as the Tories and New Labour claim – because state ownership is inherently doomed to failure; but it was certainly true that central control and bureaucracy didn’t produce successful enterprises.  It was, however, a way of implementing an ideological commitment to common ownership and control; a commitment finally and totally abandoned under Blair.
It was the Heath government which put the concept of nationalisation on rather a different footing.  Rolls Royce was nationalised not because it was one of the “commanding heights”, but because it was failing.  Under capitalist control, it was going broke; state ownership was the only way of saving it.
That philosophy – the state as backstop for failing capitalist enterprises, and as the ultimate guarantor of risk in the event of failure whilst the capitalists take the rewards of success – is essentially and clearly a Tory policy rather than an Old Labour one, even if polished and built upon by the capitalist-supporting New Labour.
So, when I look at the proposed purchase of Cardiff Airport, do I see it motivated by a desire to bring the assets of Wales under common ownership – or do I see it motivated by a need to deal with a capitalist enterprise which is failing?  It’s not hard to come to a conclusion that Carwyn Jones’ proposal owes more to the Tory stance than to any ideological commitment of Old Labour.
That doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong thing to do – we just shouldn’t let the Tories (or Labour, come to that) get away with pretending that it has anything to do with ideology.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Words and Narratives

The BBC news last night reported that Cameron would be "heading to Europe" this week to give his much-vaunted speech on the "relationship between the UK and the EU".  The BBC seems to have fallen into the trap of adopting the Eurosceptic narrative which is coming to predominate in the Tory party.

To be heading "to" somewhere, you can't be there already; the phrase conveys the clear message that Europe is "somewhere else"; an external place of which the UK is not really a part.  It's not true geographically, but it seems to be true culturally for many - and not just the Tory sceptics.  The use of this terminology subtly reinforces that message.

In similar vein, talking about the relationship between the UK and the EU verbally externalizes the EU as something "other"; again reinforcing one particular narrative.  It's no surprise that the other EU states react with disbelief and scorn; the narrative may play well with its domestic target audience, but it inevitably sounds arrogant and aloof from the perspective of the other EU members.

There's nothing at all wrong with a member of any club seeking to change the rules of the club by agreement with fellow members.  But Cameron and his ilk succeed in giving the impression that they aren't really interested in putting the effort into doing that.  What they seem to want, rather, is a whole new category of membership which applies to only one member of the club and which gives that member all of the perceived pluses and none of the perceived minuses.

One would have to be an extremely highly valued member of any club to pull that off, and I see no sign in this instance that the other members believe that retaining the UK as a nominal member is so important that they're prepared to suspend some of the obligations of membership.

The EU isn't perfect, by a long way.  There are changes I'd like to see as well.  But, as with any other club, members need to decide whether they want to work with others to achieve those changes or whether they want to quit.  Cameron's posturing, in an attempt to appease his own party, is simply moving the UK closer to the exit.

The underlying problem is that many in the UK establishment haven't really got their heads round the change in the UK's status.  The Empire has long gone, and there are no longer any European 'Great Powers'.  Perhaps a break-up of the UK into its constituent nations would be the greatest favour we could do these people, by forcing them, at long last, to start facing a few realities.

Friday 11 January 2013

Sharing the benefits

When I posted on fracking shortly before Christmas, one commenter said that he was against it because the benefit would go elsewhere rather than to Wales.  It's not dissimilar to the argument that I've heard used by some nationalists as their excuse to support renewable energy and then oppose every individual proposal.  It's a way of avoiding or postponing taking a stance on an issue, effectively.

In itself, though, the point is a valid one.  The natural resources of Wales are indeed being exploited in ways from which we in Wales gain little.  Wales is, however, far from being unique in that sense, and it's not a particularly good argument for opposing a proposal.  If we were to prevent, or stop, all economic activity from which the primary beneficiaries were not the people of Wales, then there wouldn't be a lot left.  And merely replacing multinational capital with Welsh capital - were there to be enough of it - wouldn't necessarily make that much difference either.  If our poor economic performance is a barrier to constitutional progress, opposing those proposals which might impact the economics doesn't seem like the best way of removing the barrier.

Scotland suffers a similar problem.  I was quite taken aback at some of the coments in this report from the BBC.  If there was one element of the Scottish economy which I'd expected to be largely Scottish-owned and controlled, the Whisky industry would be it.  But that turns out not to be the case; clearly, even added together, the myriad of small specialist distilleries are dwarfed by the big boys - all of which have their headquarters elsewhere, and the profit flows to them.

More interesting, however, was the suggestion for some sort of whisky tax, as a means of retaining part of the profit in Scotland.  And even more interesting was the attempt to be creative in order to get round the little problem that Scotland doesn't currently have the power to tax the whisky - so it could instead place a levy on the water being used to make the whisky.

The companies, of course, are up in arms at the suggestion that their right to make untrammelled profit from Scotland and syphon it elsewhere should be in any small way challenged.  Well - they would, wouldn't they?  But it looks perfectly possible that some sort of levy, set at the right level, would have little effect on jobs and sales and still provide a substantial source of additional income to the Scottish Exchequer.

The message there is that instead of a knee-jerk oppositional response, perhaps we too should be looking more creatively at how we can ensure benefit.  It's true, of course, that we don't even have the powers Scotland has presently, but that doesn't mean that there aren't ways around that if we set out to be creative instead of simply blaming someone else.

There are still some proposals (including fracking) which I'd oppose - but there are other reasons for that.  The fact that profits flow elsewhere is an argument for changing the way we manage companies and their profits, not for opposing the activities which generate those profits.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Pantomime and Theatre

If anything, I thought that Leanne Wood's description of First Minister's Questions as 'pantomime' was far too kind.  At least pantomime provides some entertainment for someone, somewhere.

It's always been something of a mystery to me that the Assembly should have decided to adopt the process in the first place - it's looked like an attempt to emulate the proceedings at Westminster, rather as though those taking the decision believed that was the way a 'proper' parliament should behave.

Certainly, there's more heat and fire in the Westminster version, but I'm not convinced that it generates any more light, or does anything meaningful in terms of 'holding the PM to account' to use one of those phrases that politicians love as an excuse for their weird and arcane procedures.  It's easy to see why the media like it; it's a ready source of sound bites and short clips which would never be available from a more serious debate.

I suppose that's why so many politicians seem to like it too - it's a chance for those few lucky enough to be allowed to ask a question to be judged on performance rather than on substance, whuilst the rest of them can bray and heckle in the background whilst waving papers around in bursts of simulated anger. 

Cardiff Bay was never going to produce the same theatrical performances.  Firstly, they are all too friendly with each other, secondly there aren't enough of them to create the background atmosphere, thirdly, the layout is not conducive to bearpit behaviour, and fourthly, there's little about which they actually disagree very much.  Calls for the Cardiff session to become more like the Westminster one are missing the point.  The point is - well, what exactly is the point?

In both Cardiff and London, it clearly has little to do with eliciting any information; calling it 'questions and answers' ought to lead to prosecution under the Trades Descriptions Act.  And it clearly doesn't hold anyone to account for anything either.  It is, in essence, little more than a piece of theatre, and pantomime is just a sub-genre of theatre.  Trying to 'beef it up' to imitate the Westminster bearpit would simply move it to another sub-genre; it wouldn't address the basic question.

If politicians seriously wanted to 'hold ministers to account' a detailed and lengthy grilling on a focussed area of policy by a powerful and articulate committee would probably be a more effective approach.  It might also, though, expose the serious lack of divergence of opinion amongst politicians which is easily hidden in a more theatrical exchange.  I won't hold my breath.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Lack of planning

It's interesting to contrast the attitude of those living in the cities designated as destinations for the UK's high-speed rail network with that of the areas closer to London through which the lines will need to travel. Destination cities are, by and large, competing vigorously to demand that they be served; whilst those closer to London are rubbishing the whole concept.

I've never been entirely convinced that high-speed rail will be quite the panacea as which some seem to see it; I suspect that the benefits in terms of economic growth have been somewhat exaggerated. I am convinced though that once a network starts to come into being, not being on it is not a good place to be – the disbenefits of not being served are likely to be greater than the benefits of having the service. What I am also convinced about, however, is that faced with an ever-increasing demand for transport, a reliable high-speed surface system is going to be much less damaging than continued expansion of air transport.

The problem with the UK Government's approach is that, even after the routes to Leeds and Manchester (High Speed 2A) have been made public, it's still a piecemeal approach. There is no overall plan for a comprehensive UK network. The result of that is that it positively encourages those not included to oppose the whole scheme rather than to look at how they elevate themselves up the list.

Here in Wales, specifically, it's led to some arguing that Wales sees no benefit, so the scheme should either be scrapped or else a Barnett consequential paid over to us. But if what is being proposed now were truly to be seen as just one step in a process – and having laid that foundation, Wales would in due course benefit - the whole picture would look very different. It's a short-sighted approach by the UK Government.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Who's subsiding who?

A story in the Times on Sunday drew attention to a report from Oxford Economics. The report analysed the pattern of tax receipts and government spending by 'region' across the UK and came to the conclusion that only in London and the Southeast of England is the balance between the two a positive one. For the rest of the UK (including Wales, of course) the balance is a negative one.

So far, so utterly unsurprising. But the story as reported went beyond the facts by stating that it showed the "the increasing reliance of the country on the capital", and placed the whole story under a headline claiming that "Tax from southeast props up rest of welfare-hungry Britain", as though those conclusions inevitably flow from the hard facts.

It's not as simple as that, however. Let's take the example of a major retailer with stores all over the UK, but with its headquarters in London. The profits come from all of their stores, but most of their staff outside the southeast receive below the average annual salary, whilst most of the HQ staff in London receive salaries above average. As surely as night follows day, the result will be that many of their HQ staff will pay above average tax bills, whilst many of their staff elsewhere will pay low tax bills – and may even be in receipt of working tax credits.

But who's subsidising who here? For sure, that tax on those higher earnings is being used to pay benefits to the lower earners, but the money to pay those higher earners came from all over the UK in the first place. There isn't only one redistributive transfer taking place here; there are two. The first is the one which flows from the decisions taken by private companies about where to site their HQ and how to distribute salaries; the second flows from the tax and benefit system and is an attempt to at least mitigate the first.

But it's only ever the second which comes in for criticism in the media. The problem isn't restricted to the private sector either – it's also reflected in the distribution of higher paid civil service jobs, as well as jobs in all those other government agencies. Why is redistribution considered by so many to be a good thing when it's done by the private sector and when money flows from the poor to the rich, but a bad thing when it flows the other way?

I wonder where the reporters live...

Friday 4 January 2013

Abolish the fuel allowance

I've never been entirely convinced about the winter fuel allowance. It was good politics at the time, but always looked like a bit of a gimmick. If the government felt that pensions were inadequate to cover fuel costs, why not simply increase the level of pensions, instead of introducing a stand-alone, separately administered benefit?

There's also something rather patronising about the assumption that most or all pensioners are unable to manage their budgets to cover higher winter fuel costs, and therefore the government has to do the managing for them by paying the allowance at the time it is needed. Whilst there are some pensioners who could do with help in financial management, there are many more who are perfectly capable of budgeting for the expenditure, and who would prefer not to have the government micro-managing their income to match their costs.

The status of the allowance as a non-taxable addition to income also marks it out as a target – it means that it gets paid to millionaires and paupers alike, but with no clawback through the tax system for the better-off. It encourages those politicians who've never really been convinced about the idea of the welfare state (and, surprisingly, there seem to be some of those in all parties) to see it as an extra, a bonus, rather than as an integral part of the pension.

It's a soft target for those like Lib Dem MP Paul Burstow who want to roll back the benefits system and impose means testing, and it's a hard benefit to defend in terms of cold hard logic, despite being rather popular amongst its recipients (which is why it was such good politics).

But my preference would be to reduce the number of add-on benefits like this, and simply pay a proper, higher pension in the first place, and let the tax system take care of the fact that some people don't 'need' the whole payment. Those who need it most would still effectively receive it tax-free anyway; and those who need help budgeting could be provided that help in line with their needs. I suspect that there are plenty who understand the logic, but are too afraid of the political fallout to follow through.

Thursday 3 January 2013

Right problem, wrong solution

In his New Year's message earlier this week, the Prime Minister said that the UK is competing against countries like China and India for jobs, and his implication was that those seeking the jobs need to bear that in mind and lower their expectations in terms of their pay and conditions. His statement demonstrated to me that he understands the underlying problem at some level, even if he's only dimly aware of that understanding; what he's unable to understand is that there is more than one way of responding to it.

The problem, which is implicit rather than explicit in his words, is that the current economic structures are simply unable to provide enough employment at a decent level for all those in the world seeking it. I agree; but it doesn't mean that the only response is some sort of a race to the bottom, that we have to compete with lower-wage economies for such employment opportunities as might be available.

If the pie isn't big enough to go round, fighting over the crumbs is far from being the only possible response. Indeed, whilst some might try to suggest that it is the only possible response, in the long term it's a response which helps almost no-one. Making the pie bigger would be a better response, and sharing the pie out more fairly would be a pretty good one too. Both are better than merely trying to redistribute the pie – particularly in the direction which Cameron seems to be proposing, whish is, on a global scale, from the have-nots to the haves.

Both of those alternative responses, however, require a co-operative approach rather than a competitive one towards the allocation of resources between people and countries. That's not an approach which we are going to see any time soon from politicians such as Cameron, unfortunately. Competition is almost a fetish for many of them; it's all that they understand. For the winners (and Cameron, like most politicians, is amongst life's winners), competition works of course. But it doesn't – and never can – work for everyone. A system based at its heart on allocating access to finite resources through a process of competition will always have more losers than winners.

And that's the problem with what Cameron said – his world view depends, ultimately, on most of us losing so that a minority can win.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

What is he on?

That was the question which struck me when I read what the First Minister had to say about the possibility of England seceding from the RUK in the wake of a yes vote in Scotland.  He described it as ‘highly unlikely’, admittedly, but that’s still more than a little understated.

In the process of engaging in speculation for which the word ‘fanciful’ is another gross understatement, he may – inadvertently, I’m sure – also have torpedoed one of the arguments being put forward by his own party in Scotland.  They have been arguing that any part of the UK which secedes from the rest would find itself outside the EU, with all the rights and privileges of membership remaining with the bit of the UK that’s left. 
So, following that rather dubious logic to its inevitable conclusion, if England seceded from the RUK, it too would find itself outside the EU, whilst the United Kingdom of Wales and Northern Ireland would remain inside as the successor state.  (We might need to borrow a monarch from somewhere else though if we want to go on using the word ‘kingdom’).
It’s nonsense, of course.  The reality is that who seceded from whom would be only one factor in determining EU membership status.  And English ‘secession’ is just a euphemism for the expulsion of Wales and Northern Ireland.  I suppose that being expelled might help to overcome the little problemette that independence remains such a deeply unpopular idea, but only in the strange world inhabited by the First Minister is such an outcome conceivable.
Still, if supplies of whatever he’s been taking over the Christmas period could be made more widely available, Welsh politics might become more imaginative in 2013.