Monday, 29 June 2009

Digital hiatus

For a while, postings may be more sporadic than usual due to meteorological conditions. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Labour don't get it

The young Labour candidate for Speaker had some interesting ideas. But heaven help us whenever Labour try to turn ideas into policy.

First there is a committee. The committee passes its ideas to a commission. The commission takes 15 months to deliver a report that repeats the ideas of the committee.

A Tsar is appointed to oversee a quango. The quango is given an enormous budget. The quango recruits lots of young people just out of school. The quango issues a public consultation document. The quango takes 15 months to filter public responses. It issues recommendations for how it will implement policy.

The Cabinet receives the quangos recommendations and passes them to the Policy Committee. The Policy Committee eliminates controversial elements of the policy and passes it to the drafting department. The drafting department takes 12 months to issue a Draft Bill.

The Draft Bill is mentioned in a Queen's Speech. A four-year Parliament passes. The Draft Bill is mentioned in the next Queen's speech. Pressure arises for something to be done. The government removes more controversial clauses from the Bill and places it in the Lords for a reading. More clauses fall but a few good intentions remain. Eventually the Act is passed unnoticed on a Thursday afternoon, after a debate with a Minister, two supporters and two opposition members.

The quango begins to implement the policy up and down the country. It promises enormous funds to local authorities, supported by eager private finance. Two years later, news reports emerge that the quango has gone bust. Local authorities are left with scores of unfinished constructions and massive unpaid bills. Questions of litigation and compensation for taxpayers are raised.

The Tsar is called before a Parliamentary Committee. The Committee asks if implementation of the policy had really been thought through. Were expectations too high? Was financial management too weak? Why did he imagine he had available a bottomless pot of money?

The Tsar replies he was merely implementing government policy. He steps down from his post with a Treasury pension of £12 million.

The government announces it will completely reform its policy and it sets up a committee...

Monday, 22 June 2009

John Bercow – Public Speaker

I remember occasional meetings with John Bercow ten years ago, when he was a eurosceptic speaker.

He was known then as a principled eurosceptic Thatcherite Tory, with a stoical resistance to traditional 'one nation' Tory pressures. I also learnt that he had a photographic memory, enabling him to quote freely from whatever, deliver forceful speeches without notes and confound opponents through his expert precision with words.

While an MP, Bercow also developed his media training business, which undoubtedly assisted the presentation skills of many fellow politicians over the years. He has also been used by the Labour government to report into facilities for children with communications difficulties.

John Bercow married in 2002. Since that time, his political views (with the possible exception of his euroscepticism) have been reported as progressively turning nearly 180 degrees. It is rumoured his wife is a Socialist.

I was always aware he was an ambitious MP, accepting junior Shadow Cabinet positions that appeared to override political reservations. But, while his political views have clearly changed over time, he has still been able to place personal principles above preferment, as with his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet over his party's support for Section 28.

His ambition to become Commons Speaker has progressed through a long campaign. It was probably sparked on first hearing the incomprehensible Glaswegian tones of Speaker Michael Martin expounding his knowledge of parliamentary procedures to the floor of the House.

The MSM, especially the BBC, consistently claims Bercow's frequent sneering from the backbenches, and his association with Labour MPs, has made him a hate figure among the whole of his party. Yet he wouldn't be where he is today if a good number of his party colleagues hadn't acknowledged the talents he has.

We await with interest to hear how Speaker Bercow's public-speaking skills are used to enhance the public interest.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

You can't get the staff these days

Expenses claims redacted to the point of invisibility make the administrative facilities at Parliament as much an embarrassment as the financial antics of some MPs.

Sir Stuart Bell, Chair of the House Finances and Services Committee, insists the Fees Office was asked to limit the cover-up of MPs' claims to the minimum necessary for security.

In my view, the excessive caution shown has more to do with the skills of the staff assigned than with deliberate intent to be obscure.

Either the staff could not be trusted to apply judgement to their task or they could not be trusted even to seek advice. So they were given blanket instructions to black out almost all sources of identification.

To follow this up with the recall of just-published details of cash repayments by penitent MPs makes the Fees Office seem a genuine Whitehall farce.

Much as I'm suspicious of the political orthodoxy of France's École Nationale d'Administration, its consistent product might provide some training lessons for Britain's civil service.

Britain's Civil Service College was first created by Harold Wilson in the late 1960s, together with a new Civil Service Department.

This was a result of the Fulton Committee report, which recommended moving beyond the Victorian 'Northcote–Trevelyan' concept of independent generalists in the civil service, and the 1918 Haldane model of a partnership of authority and expertise between ministers and servants, to the recruitment of specialised talent that could address the needs of a modern economy.

It suggested such specialists could nevertheless work across departments where similar skills were needed, thus increasing career opportunities. Individual government departments were also to be brought closer into the recruitment process so recruitment and training would better match actual needs.

Three new training centres were established under the Civil Service College – at Sunningdale, Edinburgh and a Centre for Administrative Studies in London. By 1970, 200,000 civil servants were receiving departmental training and 25,000 were engaged in external courses of varying length.

Wilson's Civil Service Department, while recognising government needed skills used by modern business and industry, ensured central management training retained the ethos of a unified service.

Since then, various half-hearted or semi-detached attempts to reform the Civil Service have been made.

Margaret Thatcher introduced the report Improving Management in Government, which resulted in considerable devolving to governmental agencies or quangos. John Major presented Continuity and Change, which created a Civil Service Code. The Conservative period resulted in shifting a previous employment peak of 571,000 civil servants in 1977, to a low of 479,000 in 1999 (two years into NuLab's initial period of matching Tory budgets).

Since 2000, NuLab have overseen a plethora of civil service policy reviews. Initially this began under the still-ongoing Modernising Government Initiative. In 2002, Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull took over control with the message that he intended holding Permanent Secretaries to account for civil service reform and service delivery. This later shifted to the introduction of Performance Partnership Agreements with departments engaging in change programmes to meet purposes and priorities.

Sir Michael Lyons next presented a report in 2004, which called for 20,000 civil servants to move out of London to the regions. Then came the Sir Peter Gershon report, which recommended 84,000 civil service jobs be cut. This was to be accompanied by the merging of several agencies and departments and the effective re-centralisation of back office functions, procurement and IT.

Gordon Brown took up this efficiency programme and eventually cut a net 70,000 jobs, particularly affecting the DWP and the newly merged Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise departments. Most of these cuts came from back office administrative staff while the number of front line delivery staff was increased.

Nearly 75% of civil servants now work in four departments – DWP, Justice, MOD and Revenue & Customs. Reports by the national Audit Office in 2006 found departments were unable to demonstrate whether efficiency gains had actually been delivered or costs of personnel had simply been cut. The risk was that the efficiency programme could result in a drop in service quality.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) later in 2006 determined that the civil service was well known to be under-performing in its core functions. It said too much Whitehall activity was undermined "by its inability to work effectively across departmental boundaries; by a narrow skills-base; and under-developed leadership ... Performance is poorly managed, and poor performance too often goes unchecked."

The report added that ill-defined relations between civil servants and ministers resulted in "a ‘governance vacuum’ at the top of Whitehall: lines of accountability are confused and leadership is weak".

The IPPR recommended reform of the governance system of the civil service. This would make politicians responsible for ‘policy’ decisions and civil servants responsible for clearly defined ‘operational’ ones. Thus, both would be independently accountable to Parliament and the public, with clear demarcation of responsibilities. However, making civil servants legally accountable for decisions made by ministers is an issue that raises much debate.

The Labour government has been promising a new Civil Service Act for more than nine years. In 2004, a draft Civil Service Bill was published for consultation but no action followed. Gordon Brown, since becoming Premier, has said he will present a Civil Service Act. But the issues such an Act are likely to focus on are those of high principle – strengthening the impartiality of the Service, the power of Ministers to make appointments rather than on merit and the role and responsibilities of 'special advisers'.

The question of 'service delivery', as the jargon has it, remains one that is very much in the hands of government itself. National government objectives, and the ways each government deems they should be brought about, will always heavily influence the public's perception of the actual outcomes being delivered by our civil servants.

More reading, if you want it, here and the Draft Civil Service Bill here.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Darling shatters Labour's spending myth

So now we have the truth.

Alastair Darling, in an interview with Faisal Islam for Channel 4 News, has finally spoken the words that Brown and Balls dared not.

Current and capital spending will increase between now and 2012.

So what's new?

All of that increased spending will take place this year.

The Chancellor did not actually use the words spending will fall from next year. He didn't need to. He simply said that Labour's spending plans for the next three years had been brought forward to the current year.

Now Labour's spending plans actually make some sense. At least, they do if you're a Labour Chancellor. Extra spending in time of recession and all that.

But the Brown and Balls story that spending will continue to rise in real terms year on year is revealed as total fantasy. Lewis Caroll might approve of such inversion of fact: political commentators certainly haven't.

Now we've stepped out from behind Alice's shattered Looking Glass, perhaps the debate between 'Labour investment' and 'Tory cuts' can assume something nearer reality.

Watch the interview: 2/3rds through this clip at 11:48

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

A wisp of smoke and mirrors

Listening to a skirmish between Ed Balls and Michael Gove on R4 yesterday was to gain an insight into the government's terminal disarray.

Ed Balls had evidently emerged from the bunker for this rare confrontation because he had an initiative to display. But it seemed increasingly likely that he had an initiative to display purely because he had agreed to appear with Michael Gove.

The 'initiative' was to declare he had secured £650 million extra funding from the Treasury to spend on schools and training. Apparently, listeners were supposed to be impressed with the Treasury's beneficence in finding the School's secretary yet more taxpayers' money to spend.

Balls challenged Gove to commit the Tories to similar spending. Gove challenged Balls over recent mismanagement of the further education budget. Then he discredited Balls' initiative with news that the sums were already being underplayed by Chief Treasury secretary, Liam Byrne.

Labour initiatives, such as they are, are media-driven – drawn out of the air for the positive PR impact they might deliver or to wrong foot the Opposition. It's not a new tactic, but it seems it is all Labour has left. And, of course, it's just what to expect from Peter Mandelson.

Master of crisis spin and people-manipulation Mandelson may be, but he is not a profound long-term strategist, nor yet master of all he surveys. Getting the Treasury to support announcements is one thing. Getting them to support them with money is another.

The government's new team seems increasingly lost and divided against itself. Expect more Mandelson inspired initiatives that disappear when held up to a mirror.

Monday, 15 June 2009

More cuts please

When Andrew Lansley made his infamous 10% cuts blunder last week, it is understandable he thought he was presenting a good news story.

Being wholly focused on his brief of Health, he was keen to let the nation know that Conservatives would protect the NHS and refrain from including it in future budget cuts.

Unfortunately, by backing up his statement with statistical facts, he answered a question that hadn't been asked. Only Conservative Central Office and wonks at the Institute for Fiscal Studies – or perhaps Fraser Nelson – had worked out that the government's own published figures were a plan for 7% future spending cuts across the board.

But now that Labour have a stick to jab at the Tories there is no way they will let it drop. Twelve years experience shows that Brown will never admit the true costs of his budgetary tricks. So the responsive answer is for Cameron to go on the offensive.

To deny Conservatives will need to cut public spending would be nonsense. To be precise about future budgets would be equal nonsense – the government figures Lansley quoted are likely to be the minimum estimates currently required.

But Conservatives have been recommending sensible government cuts for years. Not only should they be pointing them out now, they should be making absolute pledges to carry them out.

ID cards, regional government, endless quangos and their superannuated public servants, useless super-computer programmes, wasteful public information budgets: cutting these won't solve the government debt crisis, but pledging their axing would show a clear and popular sign of intent.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Democratic Reforms

Have we missed something?

Last week a vacancy occurred at the Europe Minister department (one Carolina LaFlint stormed out of the chorus leaving a rude message, apparently).

Mr Broon immediately replaced her with a certain Mdme Glenys Kinnock.

Mdme Kinnock was last known as a guest worker in Brussels. Previously, she had been known as wife of a Mr Kneel Kinnock, previously top Don at the European Commission, former Welsh MP and leader of the Labouring under Grand Illusions party, isn't it.

It now transpires that, in recent years, Mdme Kinnock has in fact been working as an MEP at the European Parliament.

This is quite a coincidence given her new appointment as Britain's Europe Minister. Did Mr Broon know or was it pure chance?

Anyway, this has given rise to a small problem. There is a curious convention that someone appointed as a government minister at Westminster can't at the same time be an MEP in Brussels.

At least that's probably the convention.

Or perhaps the convention is that someone who is not a Lady cannot be appointed as a government minister. Or perhaps someone who is an MEP cannot become a Lady.

Anyway, a wholly satisfactory solution has now been found. The post of Europe Minister will be given to Mdme Kinnock, but she will not in fact take up the position until a proper financial settlement is reached with her current employer.

In the meantime, by a sweep of his hand Mr Broon will make Mdme a Lady. Then when she's good and ready Lady Kinnock will be able to be a Europe Minister from the House of Lords.

This surely is the first real success to emerge from Mr Broon's National Council for Democratic Reform.

At a sweep, he addresses the expenses issue by appointing someone whose whole family has immense experience in this area (ask Marta Andreasen).

He answers the issue of public accountability by not selecting an untrustworthy MP.

And he signals that his reforms will include the House of Lords, where only people with public trust, such as television show presenters, MEPs and European Commissioners, will in future be appointed by him to govern us.

Thank goodness for democracy.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Westminster's sheep

How many of our laws are made in Brussels — 75%, 80%, more? No matter, the effect of each on democracy at Westminster is the same.

Yesterday, another unwanted, wasteful and damaging EU law passed unhindered through the House of Lords. This was the requirement for all sheep farmers to introduce electronic tagging as an identity aid in the event of an epidemic.

British sheep farmers – among our lowest income earners – already operate an efficient and effective traceability system for just this purpose. But that is not the concern of Brussels who insist each farmer must pay for a new electronic implant unit and set about re-tagging his sheep.

The minister, Lord Tunnicliffe, neatly summed up the actual impact of this compulsory measure by saying: "I accept that this regulation is probably, on balance, not a good idea. It will create more costs than benefits in most of the industry". Nevertheless, both Houses are required to agree to it and it will duly appear on the Statute Book. Brussels : 1 more – Westminster : 0.

And I foresee further unwanted costs being imposed on the public with the announcement, from Lord Mandelson yesterday, that the higher and further education departments are to be merged. A sensible staff rationalisation programme one might think. But my experience while working at a charity of how further education classes can be undervalued suggests more cuts are on the way.

Lipreading classes help deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate. A little over two years ago, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority switched these day and evening classes from Life skills to Leisure studies. The impact was to triple the cost of classes as Leisure classes receive no central subsidy. Student numbers dwindled and scores of classes around the country closed.

It would be hard to think of a more appropriate term than Life skill to describe the study and practice of lipreading. Yet I imagine other life enabling classes being deemed unessential in future as the government's impractical entry targets for higher education swamp the needs of older people seeking further educational skills for life.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Ticking off politicians – and commentators

Political news this morning is of electoral doom for Labour, more resignations due and Darling to stay in post - in other words no change - so I divert to constructive comment on an even more important issue.

I refer to a link from Iain Dale yesterday to Chris Dillow's article Why I'm not voting.

Appended was Dale's summary: "explains why he's not getting off his fat arse to do what people died so that he could. Vote. Makes me sick."

Dillow's article is somewhat circumlocutional. But Dale's comment raised my ire. The prevalence of such vacuous acceptance of EU status quo is a major cause of why we find ourselves with most Westminster legislation being prepared by others in Brussels.

My comment in response was this:
I agree with Chris Dillow with respect to the European elections.

This week I have tramped about my constituency delivering Conservative leaflets for the Euro elections. Today I have spent three hours telling outside poll stations and four hours delivering further leaflets to get out the vote.

But I didn't vote for any Euro candidate, nor have I in the past. Though I have voted to select candidates to stand.

The reason I don't vote in the Euro elections is that I'm unconvinced of their UK constitutional legitimacy. To participate in the election by voting would be to submit my agreement to their legitimacy. And I just can't do that.

Other people have other ways of expressing dissatisfaction with the EU and its parliament - by voting UKIP or for eurosceptic Tories. I don't object, it's their choice. I make my protest my own way.

My conscience is personal and it won't allow me to participate in the Euro election. Even, I'm afraid, if it makes you sick, Iain.
And I added:
Furthermore Iain, I don't appreciate your point that voting in European elections was what British people died for in the World Wars. The opposite makes a more convincing case.

I know that some, perhaps many, people will disagree with my point of view.

LibDems will disagree, but I respect, if disagree, with what is presumably an issue of political conscience for them. Many ardent Tories will have voted for their candidates in the Euro elections. Others (including some Tories) will have voted for 'let's quit the EU now' UKIP candidates.

I'm in no position to challenge the wisdom of their consciences. But, for me, I've always felt uncomfortable with the notion that to remove our nation from subservience to a political process that is imposed upon us by other nations we should participate in the very political process we object to and which has been imposed upon us (notwithstanding our democratically-deceitful European Parliamentary Elections Act).

I respect the genuine belief and commitment of MEPs like Dan Hannan and Roger Helmer, who have certainly shifted the balance of euroscepticism among Tory MEPs. (I suppose I should also say that I guess Nigel Farage believes in what he says too.)

But if I chose to join the euro system by standing to become an MEP it wouldn't be because I ever imagined my presence could end the UK's political subservience. It would have to be just for the rewarding lifestyle. At which point I'd know I'd given my conscience a miss.

The search for political freedom leads in many directions. As potential electors we should try to discover whether potential politicians really believe in what they say. This discovery process is not helped by well-read commentators and erstwhile political candidates, such as Iain Dale, who claim a eurosceptic perspective yet completely miss the point about the political significance of elections to the European Parliament.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Quiet Mutiny

Seafaring metaphors are appropriate for our island nation – and I notice I use a few. Today's choice is "abandon ship" as government ministers clamber over themselves (perhaps with some help) to jump over the rails.

Yet none of them are diving straight into the briny, oh no. They are simply jumping off the Bridge onto the lower decks. Some will attempt to hang on there through the storms. Others have decided to disembark at the next port. All have given up trying to influence the Captain. Apparently he can't or won't change course.

Abandoning the bridge at sea is usually a high risk strategy. But parliamentarians like their comforts. They're clinging to the privileges they can still get. Even helpful offers for immediate rescue have been rejected. They'd rather stay to collect their baggage to be sure they can take it all when they go.

But at least the timing of this passive mutiny should give some comfort. Yes, the fiction that local and European elections are related in any way to national politics has finally been abandoned. Just as the government of our nation has been abandoned.

I'm sure current events on the good ship Labour Government won't affect the outcome of Thursday's elections in any way.