Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tony Newton R.I.P.

Lord Newton of Braintree, the former secretary of state for Social Security who has just died, should have been remembered as one of the very, very few politicians ever to see a problem twenty or thirty years ahead and take effective action to solve it.

Unfortunately, because of the folly of a subsequent government, Tony will have a footnote in history as the man who took action which should have solved a problem, only to have the funds he had put aside grabbed and frittered away.

I knew and liked Tony Newton, who was one of the "Eastern Area Mafia" which at one point provided half a dozen members of the cabinet. He was a very loyal friend who had much less of an ego and more interest in getting on with the job than many involved in politics.

Once a mutual friend - it may have been James Blatch, my predecessor as Chairman of Eastern Area YCs who is now a journalist - introduced Tony at a meeting by pointing out that as he had gone straight from Cambridge to the Conservative Research Department, and from thence to the position of MP for Braintree, Tony had never had a proper job in his life and was therefore the ideal person to run Social Security. Some cabinet ministers would have been offended: Tony Newton laughed, and if he didn't enjoy the joke as much as anyone else there he deserved an Oscar.

Another example of Tony Newton's sense of humour: his wife was a politician in her own right and at one stage was chairman of the local planning committee. This is a job - as I know having done it myself - where you are 100% guaranteed to be involved in local controversies and arguments. On one such occasion the local press wrote the headline "Minister's wife in Planning Row." I remember Tony telling me this and saying how it demonstrated that the media had some rather unbalanced attitudes - would they write a story about him with the headline "Planning Chairman's husband in Social Security row?"

In the mid 1980's Tony Newton forsaw the demographic time-bomb which is hitting us now. He realised that the unfunded pension arrangements of the day, where each generation's pension contributions paid for the pensions and care of their predecessors, would become unsustainable two decades later and ruinous within three decades - e.g. in the present decade - as increasing life expectancy meant that people of the age at which many were retiring in the eightes became a much larger proportion of the population while those of traditional working age became a much smaller one.

His solution was to provide both positive and negative incentives for people to save more and for employers to offer generous occupational pensions schemes. As a result, over the following decade Britain built up a reserve of pensions savings which made us the one county in Europe which was largely prepared for the demographic time-bomb. At the time the Conservative government left office twelve years later, Britain had more money invested in occupational pensions schemes than the whole of the rest of Europe put together, and this was Tony Newton's achievement.

Sadly the inexcusable mismanagement of the following administration, and particularly their £6 billion a year raid on pension funds, largely wrecked the golden legacy Tony Newton left them and sent Britain nearly back to square one. As one of their own wiser MPs put it, Labour inherited one of the strongest pension positions in Europe but after a decade had one of the weakest.

After leaving government, Tony Newton chaired the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny which ran from 1999 to 2001, which concluded that Parliament was being left behind by changes in the constitution, government and society and proposed some suggested reforms for improving its function.

Tony Newton was one of the unsung heroes of politics and I will remember him with respect and affection.

Rest in Peace.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Good riddance to the standards board

If you want a practical example of why the Coalition government is right to scrap the Standards Board for England, I cannot think of a better one than the two standards board complaints which have been brought over the past few years against the present Mayor of Copeland, Councillor John Jackson.

John is a man of integrity who has worked hard for the local community over many years.

A few years ago he was falsely accused of conspiring with a council officer against the leader of Copeland council. There was not the tiniest scintilla of truth in the allegations against John Jackson at that time, but he had to put up with being "investigated" and the fact that the accusations were made was public knowledge.

(For the avoidance of doubt, I do not accept, admit or imply that the allegations against any of the other people accused at the same time, including myself, were true either.)

About the only thing of which nobody could accuse the person who made that particular set of accusations was not having the guts to openly put his name to them or of hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. Which is more than can be said for whoever is responsible for the latest complaint against the Mayor.

This year John Jackson has been accused of making a racially insensitive comment at his own charity event at the White Mare in Beckermet.

I was not at the White Mare, but none of the people I have spoken to who were present heard the remarks that the anonymous complainant has accused the Mayor of making. The following is a representative selection of comments posted on the Whitehaven News website from people who were present or know John Jackson, at least two of whom do not share his politics:

"I was present at the charity event and didnt note anything of the kind, I can only imagine whomever was alledgedly offended were so upset and outrage they chose not to say anything or intervene during the round of applause the mayor received following his closing speech."

Posted by Mr K on 17 March 2012 at 00:11

"What Tory Cllr John Jackson did or do not say will rumble on for some time. What is absoloutely beyond dispute is his record of many years of selfless service and giving to ALL the people of Copeland. This mischief making will not detract from all the fantastic charity work he and many others perform in our community.
A Life Long Labour Supporter

Posted by Paul Creighton on 10 March 2012 at 10:56

"I am a Labour councillor who was present at the White Mare on the night of the alleged remark. I did not hear any racist remark and whilst we might be on different political divides, I believe the mayor has done a fantastic job in his year of office. John Jackson is a man of integrity who is definitely not racist. Whoever made this allegation should hang their heads in shame at trying to undermine a night that was about raising money for his selected charities.

John Kane

Posted by John Kane on 9 March 2012 at 08:12

Sadly the "standards board" system which was created to stop councillors from abusing their position to benefit themselves or their friends has become a vehicle for making false allegations of misconduct as a political campaign tactic, and far too often, a barrier to democracy which stops politicians from being able to implement the policies which the people who elected them wanted them to carry out.

Those who really have committed fraud or wrongdoing at the taxpayer's expense must be brought to justice through the courts the way anybody else would be. Those who are innocent should not have their names dragged through the mud. There have been far too many unjustified allegations of improper conduct against councillors of all parties which have wasted time and money and made it harder to get honest and self-respecting people involved in politics. Let us hope that the new mechanisms which will shortly replace the Standards Board for England work better, and that there will be fewer unjustified smears of the sort which have been made against John Jackson.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Air Ambulance fuel costs

A petition was put forward earlier this year on the Downing Street website, and received the necessary 100,000 signatures before the time limit ran out on 19th February, asking the government to look at exempting the Air ambulance from fuel tax in the same way as the lifeboat service.

The petition reads as follows:

"The Air Ambulance Service is forced to meet rising fuel prices year on year including VAT.

The Air Ambulance Service have saved successive governments millions and millions of pounds funded by charitable donations given by the general public to run what has proven to be an essential service.

Whilst the Lifeboat Service has been exempt from VAT on fuel costs since 1977, a similar privilege has not been afforded to the Air Ambulance Service;

We call on the government to have an urgent review of this situation and in doing so,
We call on the government to return in the form of grants to Air Ambulance Service providers all the future VAT which the Treasury collects from them so that the Air Ambulance Service is in practice exempt from paying VAT in the same way as the Lifeboat Service."

So far this has had 115,275 signatures.

The Leader of the House of Commons has written to the Backbench Business Committee, who are responsible for the scheduling of debates on e-petitions, informing them that the petition has reached 100,000 signatures, which means it can be considered for debate.

The Backbench Business Committee meets weekly to hear representations from MPs for debates in backbench time. The Committee can consider any subject for debate, including those raised in e-petitions, but an MP must make the case for their consideration. More information about the Committee is available on its website http://www.parliament.uk/bbcom

A further response from the Government on this e-petition will be published in due course.

LAST DAY to comment re radioactive Waste

REMINDER: today (Friday 23rd March 2012) is the last day to comment in the latest phase of public consultation about the long-term storage of Nuclear Waste, and whether a repository is a better solution than the present arrangements.

You can respond and find out more online at www.westcumbriamrws.org.uk.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Radioactive Waste Constulation - two days to go

REMINDER: The latest phase of discussion about what we do about the long-term storage of Nuclear Waste, and whether a repository is a better solution than the present arrangements, continues until this Friday 23rd March.

A series of Community drop-in events have been held around Cumbria, all of which are now complete.

However you can still respond and find out more online at www.westcumbriamrws.org.uk.

George Osborne writes on the Budget ...

Today I delivered a Budget that supports work. I wanted to write to you immediately to explain our plans and set out some of the key measures.

This is a radical, reforming Budget that helps Britain earn its way in the world. It is a Budget that rewards work, unashamedly backs businesses and puts us on the side of those who aspire to do better for themselves and their families.

I wanted to help working families on middle and lower incomes. That is why I today announced the largest ever increase in the personal allowance, a tax cut of up to £220 for 24 million income taxpayers next year. Together with previous increases, this means that this Government will have taken 2 million of the lowest paid out of tax altogether, and basic rate taxpayers will be up to £526 better off.

No Chancellor can justify a tax rate that damages our economy and raises next to nothing. This is why I also announced that we are reducing the top rate of income tax to 45p, so Britain no longer has the highest rate of income tax of any major economy.

This tax undermined our competitiveness and independent evidence has shown that it only raised a fraction of what was intended. The independent analysis is that the direct cost of cutting it is £100 million, and if you include the effect on other taxes it could be nothing. I am raising £500 million through new taxes on the wealthiest parts of society. We have already capped benefits, now we are capping income tax relief. We have also introduced a new stamp duty rate for properties worth more than £2 million, but we have not introduced a Mansion Tax.

It cannot be fair for someone on £20,000 to pay for the Child Benefit of someone on £80,000. This is why I announced child benefit will be withdrawn when someone in the household has an income of more than £50,000. To prevent a cliff-edge, this withdrawal will be gradual, meaning only those households where someone earns more than £60,000 will lose all their child benefit. This means that 90 per cent of families will be eligible for child benefit.

This is a Budget that unashamedly backed business, large and small. We are simplifying small business taxes and I have also cut corporation tax again. This means we are on our way to a 22 per cent corporation tax rate - one of the lowest in the world. We are also backing British success stories with policies to help aerospace, pharmaceuticals, creative industries and energy.

Today I reaffirmed our unwavering commitment to deal with the debts left behind by Labour, which means we are spending over £120 million every day on debt interest. So I am sticking to the plan. Our credibility is helping to keep interest rates low for households and businesses around the country. If we listened to Labour's calls for more spending, more borrowing, and more debt we would risk a sudden loss of confidence and a sharp rise in interest rates.

For more details of the Budget, you can read my statement and the full document on the Treasury website here.

Finally, I'd just like to remind you on May 3rd we have the local elections, including the Mayoral contest in London. Please support Boris and get involved by visiting www.backboris2012.com.

Yours sincerely,

George Osborne
Chancellor of the Exchequer

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lifting people out of Poverty

There is an absoutely fascinating article by Frazer Nelson,which appeared in the Telegraph this week and is accessible on their website here, called

"Sticking with Gordon Brown’s flawed policy keeps people in poverty."

It begins with the inspiring story of Stephen Stubbs, a partially sighted 47-year-old living in Darlington, who was being followed by a television crew documenting how hard it is to find work. Stephen applied for 2,000 jobs rather than sit back and accept life on benefits.

But eventually his persistence was rewarded, and he did find a position. As the article saya,

"The idea of a 4pm-2am shift working for the Student Loans Company might dismay many of us, but Mr Stubbs spoke as if he’d won the lottery. “If I can do it, anyone can,” he told Channel 4’s cameras."

Nelson's article goes on to identify a problem with the definition of Poverty in the Child Poverty Act, an piece of law, incidentally, which the Labour MP for Copeland claims his contribution towards as one of his major achievements but which Nelson says has an agenda at it's heart which

"has arguably done more damage to Britain’s social fabric than any idea in modern history."

He continues,

"It is based on the Eurostat definition of poverty: an income 40 per cent below the national average. Someone who is nudged just above this threshold, with an extra £10 a week, is deemed to be “lifted out of poverty”, although the people concerned would be astounded to hear themselves so described. If they had a family, then their children would be described as being “lifted out of poverty”. So, by precision-bombing the right people with tax credits, you could claim to have lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty."

Nelson's argument is that far too much of government policy is based on lifting the people who are just below this threshold to just above it, and not enough towards addressing the real causes of poverty - by sorting out "Education, Work, and Family."

He quotes studies such as that by William Galston

"a political theorist behind the Clinton-era welfare reforms. He identified three steps to escaping poverty: finish school, avoid teenage parenthood, get married before having children. Among those who did all three, only 8 per cent were poor. Of those who did none, 79 per cent were poor."

He concludes that

"In the last seven years of the Labour government, £150 billion was spent on tax credits. Never in British history had more been spent trying to tackle deprivation, which makes the failure to make headway all the more tragic.

"Labour fought poverty, and poverty won.

"Switching from the old, failed model of poverty to a newer one, with all of its uncertainties, is a shift that needs to happen across government. As Stephen Stubbs may well attest, successes in welfare reform deserve to be reinforced."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

My latest Poliical Compass score

My score on 15th March 2012

Economic Left/Right: 3.75
(e.g. right of centre, but not anywhere near the extremes, on economics)

Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -2.41
(In other words the political compass site classes me as a social liberal)

Friday, March 02, 2012

Davy Jones R.I.P.

As a small boy I loved "The Monkees" T.V. show, and I am astonished to learn that their lead singer Davy Jones, a Manchester lad who made it big in the US, has died at the age of 66. He was a wonderful singer but I particularly remember him for his sense of fun his comic ability.

He leaves a widow and four daughters.

Rest in Peace

Thursday, March 01, 2012

National Offer Day

If you told a hundred adults that today was national offer day, I suspect that eighty or so of them wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about.

Of the other ten, about five would be only too well aware of that today was indeed National Offer Day. They would be or parents of children aged about ten, or teachers or other staff involved in the process of "secondary transfer," e.g. assigning children in the present "year six" to secondary schools in the coming autumn, would know exactly what you meant and I suspect most will either be very pleased and relieved or extremely upset.

The ones who knew what you meant but didn't already know it was National Offer day would be the parents who had been through it comparatively recently but don't have a child going through secondary transfer this year: and they would all say something like "yes: thank goodness it doesn't affect us this year."

Certainly I and my wife, who had two children to worry about, were peering at the computer every few minutes from very early this morning until seven minutes past eight when the two emails from Cumbria County Council arrived to let us know what school places our children were being offered.

A position which will have been replicated in a million or so households.

If anyone reading this has children going through secondary transfer this year, I hope you had the news you wanted.