Wednesday, May 22, 2013

All hail to the Chair!

It is a time of great pride on Planet Bureaucrat today, as Ros is debuting in her new role today, that of Chair of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee D.

Responsible for scrutiny of EU proposals on agriculture, fisheries, environment and energy, it seems to me to be particularly appropriate for a Suffolk peer to be involved, and I suspect that Ros will prove to be rather good.

There is some travel involved, as Chairs of the various national Scrutiny Committees do meet from time to time, so I can expect to see a little less of her, and have more discussions on, for example, how best to travel to Vilnius or Riga (in the case of Vilnius, inconveniently...), as meetings take place in the country holding the six-monthly Presidency of the European Council - Lithuania from 1 July, then Greece, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

And so I can expect there to be lots of talk about fish, nuclear power and trees in my future. Hopefully, there will be reference to the pig industry too. Pork...

Friday, May 17, 2013

UK Uncut - demonstrating that bias need not be consistent

UK Uncut have been a thorn in the side of the Coalition since their emergence from anti-Vodafone demonstrations in October 2010, with their message that spending cuts were unnecessary and evil. And whilst one might agree with that, even if I don't for the most part, their argument has gone beyond politics and into sterile partisanship.

This is demonstrated by their response to the failure of their application for a judicial review on grounds concerning the governance and tax liabilities involved in an HMRC settlement with Goldman Sachs in 2010.

Anna Walker, campaigns director of UK Uncut Legal Action, said;
Obviously, while we are deeply disappointed that this deal has not been declared unlawful, the judge's ruling that top HMRC officials played politics with major tax deals to protect Osborne's reputation is a major victory in exposing the truth behind these secret deals.
Despite not having won the case today, we still feel that this judgment has demonstrated that the government is making a political choice to cut legal aid, public services and the welfare system, rather than take action to make corporate giants … pay their fair share of tax.
This case has exposed the lengths the government will go to to look tough on tax avoidance and has been vital in holding the government to account for its shameful actions.
And yet, a closer look at the judgement in this matter exposes an uncomfortable truth. At paragraph 12, Mr Justice Nicol states;
The Claimant's case is that the agreement on 19th November 2010 infringed this guidance. Contrary to paragraph 14 it was a package deal which traded a promise to pay 100% of the NICs for HMRC's promise to forego interest on those contributions. Principal and interest were effectively a single issue. In county court proceedings against Goldman Sachs which had been issued in 2003 the Revenue claimed both. The 19th November agreement "split the difference", contrary to paragraph 14. Likewise, contrary to paragraph 15, this was a situation where HMRC's case was strong, but it had accepted a settlement for less than 100% of the tax and interest.

Furthermore, Goldman Sachs had gained an advantage over the companies who settled with HMRC in 2005. It had retained the money which was due to the Revenue for another 5 years without having to pay interest. It had done so because of its aggressive behaviour. This settlement did the opposite of encouraging taxpayers to behave positively and was therefore contrary to paragraph 13 of the Litigation and Settlement Strategy.

I highlight one phrase.
Goldman Sachs had gained an advantage over the companies who settled with HMRC in 2005
Yes, this was a case taken out against a group of financial institutions, all but one of whom had settled in 2005, some five years before the Coalition came to power.

So, when Anna Walker says that the case demonstrates that;
the government is making a political choice to cut legal aid, public services and the welfare system, rather than take action to make corporate giants … pay their fair share of tax
she is wrong, and either carelessly wrong, or maliciously wrong to make such a claim based on this one case. The argument put by UK Uncut's barrister makes it clear that HMRC was treating each financial institution the same, the only difference being that Goldman Sachs resisted for rather longer than anyone else, and exposes the fact that the legal argument commenced prior to 2005.

Their argument also suggests that HMRC takes party politics into account in settling cases, yet Mr Justice Nicol confirms that this was not, and should not have been, a factor - despite David Hartnett's unfortunate turn of phrase and apparent misjudgement.

It is, in many ways, unfortunate that her bias obscures a genuinely important question, i.e. what should a tax regime seek to achieve? Are rates of corporate taxation appropriate in the United Kingdom, and what action should be taken to prevent large companies from playing one tax authority off against another, or simply playing the system for personal gain or advantage?

But if UK Uncut want to take a partisan stance, opposing an administration which has done more on corporate and other tax abuse than most in the past three decades, they may not achieve much more than notoriety...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An honourable courtesy?...

In the last Parliamentary session, the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Oliver Colville, introduced a Bill to grant courtesy titles to husbands and civil partners of Peers. I have to admit to having mixed feelings on the subject, acknowledging the equality perspective whilst sceptical of the value of courtesy titles full stop.

However, regardless of my personal view, the Bill never even got as far as a Second Reading in the Commons, and was lost at the end of the session accordingly. And now it's back (although not from outer space), courtesy of backbench Conservative Peer, Lord Lucas.

This time, it comes as part of an Equality (Titles) Bill, which covers the rights of inheritance to a hereditary title as well. If passed in its current state, it would grant the use of the title 'Honourable' to husbands and civil partners of Peers, baronets and Dames.

It could be worse, I suppose. 'Honourable' is fairly irrelevant, and tends not to be used, so could be ignored by those preferring not to conform with the orthodoxy. Frankly, I wouldn't see me using it much, except perhaps in certain unlikely social circumstances where it might be 'useful', i.e. the odd 'county set' event stuffed with Tories.

Taking the Bill at face value though, if you believe that equality is important, a half-hearted reform is as bad as no reform at all. The Bill still reinforces the second class status of husbands of female Peers and civil partners of Peers generally. If the appropriate courtesy title for the wife of a Peer is 'Lady', how does 'Honourable' compare with that? The answer is, it doesn't.

So, if the House of Lords really thinks that this matters, they'll apply genuine equality. And if they don't, I for one won't fundamentally mind if it is lost for lack of Parliamentary time...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A new drink, a sea view, the lizards and me

I've always found that, after a conference, I need a little down time. Given that I'm not overburdened with self-confidence, mingling with other delegates requires effort to relax on my part. It's not because they are intimidating - far from it - but because they are high fliers, and I don't really picture myself like that. It does get easier though, as I have learned over time that it is much easier to be myself than to try too hard. Apparently, I'm quite good at being me...

So, Council finished, I have come into Pula by bus and am having a gentle explore on what has become a rather nice afternoon. The railway station, to the north of the town centre, is in a state of genteel decay, especially now that it is at one end of a completely isolated piece of track connected to a series of small towns and villages across the centre of Istria - the last through train ran in December.

Next stop, the Roman amphitheatre, which held up to 20,000 people in its heyday, and the walls of which are mostly intact. It was, as one might expect, a venue for gladiator fights. Nowadays, it hosts a film festival and pop and classical music contests. The terracing provides a sun lounge for dozens of small lizards who seemed to grow comfortable with my presence.

The Adriatic is just yards away, and is millpond flat, the sun is warm, and I'm slightly more active than the lizards (but only slightly).

Pula also has free public wi-fi in various parts of the city. This means that I can blog whilst sitting at a cafe in a square with a glass of biska (a mistletoe grappa). This I highly approve of, and it is something that I should seek for Creeting St Peter in due course.

I head for home tomorrow, in time to hurl myself back into my studies and be (hopefully) reunited with my Kindle Fire. But there are a few things that I ought to do besides...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

ALDE Council: the bureaucrat's cut...

On a pleasant evening such as this, with the church bells of Pula ringing out, and the sun slowly setting, a glass of white wine by my side, it is easy to forget that I came to the frontier of the European Union to do a job. So, given that some of you actually voted to send me here, what have I done to justify your faith in me?

Having arrived safely on Thursday evening, I attended the welcome reception and continued the lengthy process of building a relationship with delegates from our sister parties across Europe. That sounds obvious, but when you're part of a delegation as large as ours (we're the largest party delegation), there is a strong temptation to cluster together. I also remember what it was like not to really know anyone at these events, so it is nice to take the time to talk to newcomers like the delegate from the New Kosovo Alliance.

Yesterday started with a session on drafting the ALDE manifesto for 2014. It is important to establish a robust, inclusive process to ensure that we end up with a document we can all stand behind. I spoke against a proposal to elect the drafting committee here in Pula, as delegations had not been warned in advance, and they would need to consult in order to find the best people for the task.

During the Council meeting that followed, I voted with the rest of the delegation to admit applicant parties from the Ukraine and the Aland Islands as new members and to approve the draft audit report for 2012.

I supported the resolution laying out how the manifesto will be prepared, as I am keen to share the workload required more widely amongst experienced members, and was pleased to see this passed.

Finally, I spoke in the debate on how an ALDE candidate for the Presidency of the EU Commission might be chosen. It was clear that there was a split in the room as to when the process of selection might start, and I wanted to ensure that, regardless of the decision, that a 'job description' be developed as a vital first step. After all, what else could we expect from a candidate? I also noted an inconsistency in the proposal, in that only member parties from EU member states could nominate a candidate, yet a group of delegates from any member party could do likewise. Given that ALDE has member parties from a number of non-EU states, this strikes me as potentially difficult, and is a point I will be following up on.

This morning, I attended seminars on the impact of populism in the western Balkans and on policy towards illegal migration and the EU response. I am tempted to try to draft a policy resolution for the next ALDE Congress on migration policy, although we will have to wait and see.

Last, but not least, I wrote a review of the event for Liberal Democrat Voice, which I hope that you might enjoy...

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Come in number 54, your time is up!

So, I have made it to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, my 54th country visited, dragged my suitcase the short distance to my hotel, and am now at a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant in the Lower Town, with veal in my near future.

A very pleasant train journey, with some of the finest scenery that Germany, Austria and Slovenia have to offer, with a little border crossing drama to top the experience at Savski Marof. Add to that quite respectable restaurant car food, and Paulaner weissbier at €2.90 for a half-litre, and a good time was had.

My hotel has come as a bit of a surprise. The Palace Hotel was originally opened in 1907, and the lobby hasn't apparently changed much since then - very Austro-Hungarian. But on entering my room, it appears that I may have been slightly upgraded. The bedroom is large, and overlooks the square outside the hotel, the bathroom is vast, with two sinks, an enormous bathtub and enough space for a football team to change in. And then I found the corridor... at the end of which is a lounge which seats six and a meeting table which seats another six.

It's only a pity that I leave again tomorrow morning...

Not a great day in the history of travel...

I am not entirely in a happy frame of mind which, given that I am doing something I enjoy, is less than wunderbar (I'm in Germany).

The first disappointment has come courtesy of Deutsche Bahn and OBB (Austrian Railways), the first of whom has graciously sold me a first class ticket for a through train which, thanks to OBB, does not actually have a first class carriage. I am not impressed.

In fairness, my seat is comfortable, there's plenty of legroom, and the view over the Bavarian countryside is perfectly charming. And, having perused the first class carriage that will be detached at Villach, which is, by comparison, crowded and dirty looking, I may not be missing out on much.

I'll go and grab lunch after we leave Munich, which may help a bit.

The other setback is that, in a fit of genius, I left my Kindle Fire in my hotel room in Stuttgart. Again, this is not fatal, as they are making arrangements to send it back to Creeting St Peter, but my study manuals were in it, as well as some books to read and some games to play.

Ah well, time to concentrate on the journey, I guess...

The long and winding road to ALDE

I am on my way to ALDE Council, scheduled to start in Pula, Croatia, on Thursday evening - there's a drinks reception planned. And so, obviously, I'm in... Stuttgart.

Yes, there is beer, although that's entirely incidental. But I am on an adventure. Having discovered that flights from London to Pula are awkwardly timed, I was inspired to find a 'prettier' route, especially as Ros, who likes travel but not that much, wasn't able to come with me (Queen's Speech, bad flight times). And, after a lot of research, and agonising about connection viability (is fourteen minutes just too tight a connection?), I found a late enough flight to Stuttgart to allow for a London tutorial scheduled to end at 4.30 p.m., allowing me to catch a 9.58 a.m. train to Zagreb the next morning.

And so, with the benefit of some sleep, I'll be off to stare aimlessly out of the train window for eleven hours or so.

It'll be pretty...

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Crashing to an inglorious defeat, a long way from home

Oh yes, the County elections, I nearly forgot. You'll be wondering how I got on, I suppose. The answer, put simply, is badly.

In Eastgate and Moreton Hall, a division held by one of the County's two incumbent Independents, I came a very distant fifth, with 68 votes, behind the Conservative, UKIP and Labour candidates, as the Independent won fairly comfortably.

It is a sign of the times that, as a paper candidate, I only just scraped above the 3% mark, but it reflects our performance across Suffolk in seats we didn't work in. In Upper Gipping, where I managed 225 votes in 2009, my replacement achieved just 35 this time.

Europe - like hell I'm giving up, Nigel!

It is intriguing to hear Nigel Lawson suggest that the future for the United Kingdom lies outside of the European Union. Perhaps he feels that, having rather foolishly tried to shadow the European Exchange Rate Mechanism when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he needs to balance the ledger.

Naturally, the response from those more favourable towards Europe has been swift. Some of it has been personal in nature, which is unfortunate. Other responses have spoken off the number of jobs which depend on our membership of the European Union, figures which may or may not be accurate, may or may not be up to date.

For me, it is a question of honest doubt. There are certain facts that I am confident of, i.e. that non-EU investors wonder why we would leave the EU, and would be more likely to invest and locate inside the EU rather than outside. It is also true that we do an awful lot of trade with the European Union.

There are, however, a whole lot of imponderables. If we left the European Union, would we face tariff barriers when attempting to sell to EU states? What influence, if any, would we have on the future direction of the Single Market? Would potential additional costs make us less competitive? What impact would the loss of freedom of movement within the European Union have? I don't know the exact answers, but I tend towards a particular view.

Given that, when push comes to shove, there is a tendency towards self-interest, it is hard to imagine that we would be able to resume existing trading relationships without there being a price to pay. We would certainly have to compromise in order to comply with relevant European directives, without any credible means of influencing them. Bidding for public sector contracts within the European Union would need to take into account an increased risk of failure.

In our dealings with the rest of the world, why should rival nations and trading blocs treat us with the same, or greater, respect as they currently do if we stand alone? We would fall outside of the increasing number of European Union Free Trade Agreements, and would have to negotiate our own, assuming other nations were willing.

All of these things are doubts, but doubts which cannot be answered with confidence by Nigel Lawson and his sceptic friends.

I am, however, also confused. If the Anglo-Saxon economic model is so wonderful, and the deregulation agenda so seductive, instead of walking away, why can't we persuade our European partners to move that way? Why throw up our arms and concede that it is all too difficult and not worth the effort accordingly?

It is the politics of surrender, of a lack of confidence in our case and our ability to make it. It assumes that Europe cannot be reformed, has no collective identity or purpose, that there is no vision of a democratic, accountable government for Europe.

If Nigel Lawson is to be believed, there is no hope of Camelot, there is no dream of a shining city on a hill, no Jerusalem.

I believe that he's wrong. As a liberal, I believe that decisions should be taken at the most effective level, through structures that are democratically accountable and transparent. The best way to get that is to actively seek the necessary reforms, engaging public opinion and bringing the people with you.

So, I have this to say to Nigel Lawson. In the words of the Reverend Ian Paisley (a former MEP, lest we forget), "No Surrender"!

Sunday, May 05, 2013

And that's what your Parish Council is for... a playground emerges from the earth

It has been an awfully long time coming, and a lot of people have put tremendous energy into the project, but the new play equipment for the village has finally started to be put in place.

Whilst there are times when being a parish councillor seems to be about minor bureaucracy and generally being ignored by other tiers of government, it is always nice when my colleagues and I can deliver something that enhances village life, and the new play equipment, on the field that the Parish Council now leases on a peppercorn rent, will hopefully give children in our village a safe place to play.

The new swings in mid-construction
In truth, my role has been predominantly as an onlooker, agreeing next steps, confirming that we have the funds to carry out various tasks. The hard work has been done by our Parish Clerk, who has driven the project on, the former Community Council, who raised so much money, to Mid Suffolk District Council for supporting us with additional funds when they were truly needed, to the Marland family whose land we are renting, and to everyone who has contributed time, money and enthusiasm.

It's a bright day in Creeting St Peter...

UKIP and the Liberal Democrats: don't worry, be liberal!

Watching the media hunt as a pack on the question of "Whither UKIP?" is not my idea of a perfect Sunday morning. Fortunately, most of their attention is on the dilemma facing the Conservative Party. "Move to the right!", "Agree to a referendum on Europe!", "Get rid of the Old Etonians!", the cries are many and slightly silly.

For, in truth, UKIP are doing well because they aren't the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats or Labour, and the public don't like politics. Or, more precisely, politicians. And, in a world of difficult questions, easy answers are seductive.

There is a catch, however. It isn't enough to say that, if exposed to a little sunlight, they'll go away. They might, they might not. Instead, as political activists, we need to be true to our stated principles. As liberals, we have a particular view of the world, and we need to express that view., via leaflets, via a presence on the doorsteps - in other words, the things that we used to be good at. It also means that we need to tell people what the liberal solutions to their problems are.

We also need to take a view of affairs that extends further than a week. I worry that politics is about tomorrow's headline, about dealing with today's crisis. And so I find myself in agreement with Simon Titley (not something that I say every day, it is true) when he says that we should "stop worrying about UKIP and learn to love Liberalism".

I would be personally happier to espouse a positive vision for my village, my community, my county and my country, rather than spend my time attempting to scare people into not voting for someone else. By all means highlight their contradictions and their failings, but say what I'd do instead and why, and if my political adversaries want to publicise their own ideas, they can bloody well put out a leaflet, or knock on some doors and say hello.

It's time to renew a conversation with the public, to address their problems but not compromise in terms of our answers. You've got to believe in something in politics, and I just happen to prefer liberalism.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

So, who is Stephen Searle, the new UKIP county councillor for Stowmarket South?

So, after a rather exciting morning at Trinity Park, and four recounts, Stephen Searle, the UKIP candidate, was elected as the new county councillor for Stowmarket South by just one vote, defeating the Vice Chair (and Chair designate) of Suffolk County Council in doing so.

I admit that, whilst I didn't have too many regrets about Anne Whybrow's loss (she is a Conservative, and their efforts to contract out key services haven't gone down too well), I do regret that it wasn't our candidate, Keith Scarff, who had the honour of being elected. Having narrowly failed twice before, he got within forty votes this time yet only came third. He'll be back, I suspect...

But having never encountered the new councillor for my neighbouring division before, I thought that I really ought to find out more about him. So, what does Google, and more particularly, Facebook, bring up?

Stephen Searle
He is a former Royal Marines Commando, now apparently working for Namco Funscape in Ipswich as a manager (think of a place to play games, go ten-pin bowling and watch sport on a big screen and you aren't far out). He's been married to Anne for thirty years, and is about sixty years old. He's pretty active, probably has a reptile of some kind, and seems like a perfectly normal human being.

So far, so harmless. If he has done, or said, anything embarrassing, there's no obvious evidence of it. In other words, he looks like just about anyone else who has run for local government in the past. Alright, he has no record, and we have no real idea what he believes in, but that in itself doesn't necessarily matter. After all, I've never been in local government, and I asked the voters of Stowupland to trust me to represent them in 2011. Admittedly, I did tell them what I was in favour of, rather than what I was against.

His only comment, other than an identikit quote to the local press, is on the UKIP Facebook page, where he says;
It superb to be fighting again for my Country, and my People.
Well, Councillor Searle, just a reminder, you're not fighting for your country, you're trying to hold a Conservative administration to account, and represent the people, not your people, whoever they might be. And, if you're up to the task, you might just get re-elected in 2017. If you're not, it won't just be the Conservatives coming to try and take it away from you...

In the meantime, good luck in your new role. Stowmarket deserves proper representation at Endeavour House, rather than someone to quietly wave through whatever the Conservative leadership come up with...

The afternoon after the day after the night before...

So, having had the County elections, the count, and a good night's sleep, it is Saturday, and time to think about the future. Ah, but which future to think about? 2014 and the European Parliament elections? 2015, with a General Election and some difficult District Council elections? Or 2017, when County seats are up again?

The obvious answer is all three, I suppose. For us, integrated campaigning is the key. We'll need to select a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, devise a strategy for the next four years, and ensure the means to deliver it. Naturally, as the Local Party's Treasurer, I have a role to play in that, and I have some ideas about the rest of it too.

So, a deep breath and a few weeks of quiet contemplation, and it will be time to get back onto that horse and ride.

But first, study and Croatia beckon. Oh yes, and some rather fine sausages...

Friday, May 03, 2013

A quick and dirty analysis of results in Mid Suffolk...

Well, that wasn't anywhere near as painful as I feared it would be. So, without further ado, here are the results;
  • Conservatives - 35% (5 seats, down 1 - Stowmarket South)
  • UKIP - 23.6% (1 seat, up 1 - Stowmarket South)
  • Greens - 15.6% (1 seat, no change)
  • Liberal Democrats - 13.8% (3 seats, no change)
  • Labour - 11.9% (no seats, no change)
Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceWhere we worked - held seats and Stowmarket South - we did well. Forty more votes and we'd have won 4 out of 10 divisions with just 14% of the vote (commiserations to Keith Scarff on coming so close again). Otherwise, we were massacred. So, where we work, we win.

The Greens made no real impression outside their Upper Gipping bastion, poor thirds in Hartismere, Thedwastre North and Thredling being the best of their rest. In Stowupland North and Stowupland, where they were pretty visible, they came fourth.

Labour are still pretty irrelevant - their best result was Stowmarket North and Stowupland, but they still came third behind UKIP there. Otherwise, they were fourth in most divisions and fifth overall.

What can you say about the Conservatives? The only seat that was genuinely at risk was Stowmarket South, and they lost it by just one vote. Their share of the vote fell dramatically, nonetheless. They'll lick their wounds, mourn the fallen in Ipswich, Lowestoft, Haverhill and West Suffolk, and blunder on. A majority of three, however, makes their ambition to contract out everything that isn't nailed down rather more difficult.

UKIP will be delighted with their share of the vote but, like the SDP/Liberal Alliance in 1983, will find that getting votes across the piece is one thing - getting them where they matter is another. Only time will tell whether or not their new councillors are actually capable of representing their newly won electorates.

Turnout was poor, which favoured a party whose message was, simply put, to give the rest of us a good kicking. Given the absence of a meaningful campaign, it is hard to say what else those voting UKIP wanted.

So, on reflection, we'll have to hit the ground running for 2015, but at least there are grounds for some limited optimism...

And that's why the United Kingdom needs serious investment in the energy sector...

Yes, I know, Lords European Union Select Committee, Sub-Committee D... doesn't exactly trip off of the tongue, does it? But perhaps we ought to pay more attention to it...

Sub-Committee D is responsible for the scrutiny of European Union proposals on Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy (it also deals with animal health and welfare), so includes such joys as the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy - big things in terms of EU spending and highly controversial in some Liberal Democrat heartlands like the South West of England.

Today, it published the results of its enquiry into the EU power sector, and some of the numbers are eye-watering in their general vastness. They suggest that, in order to keep the lights on across Europe, €1 trillion, or £846 billion needs to be invested before the end of this decade (I make that about £120 billion per year).

Interestingly, the money is apparently there from institutional investors to deliver these sums, but they are holding back in the absence of a clear policy, which is why the ability of first Chris Huhne, and now Ed Davey, to push for the necessary policy changes, has been so vital.

It also means working with our European neighbours. The future will be a Europe-wide supergrid for electricity, allowing the most effective balance of fossil fuels and renewables to supply consumers at a sustainable price. You could link it to huge solar farms in North Africa, tidal barrages in the North Sea, wind farms in the Atlantic, even geological energy in Iceland, reducing our dependence on the OPEC states, and improving our environment.

Europe has to provide leadership though, says the report. The failure to set a minimum support price for emissions permits impacts on efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and cuts the incentive to invest in cleaner technologies.

So, when you complain about your fuel bills, just remember, it's going to cost an awful lot to keep the lights on, so best we start planning now. After all, "Revolution" should have been warning enough of what might happen if we failed to do so...

Thursday, May 02, 2013

I wouldn't want to clean his owner's bathtub...

Having spotted this in today's Evening Standard, I thought that I ought to share...

This 54 feet high piece of art is floating in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, and brought a smile to my face.

Tax evasion: the net closes a little further...

One of the things that has pleased me, but has gone mostly unnoticed by the commentariat, is the steps taken by the Coalition to address the problems caused by tax havens and banking secrecy.

Agreements with Switzerland and Liechtenstein have generated significant tax yield, all of it presumably from wealthy people with an ambiguous view on personal morality, and recent announcements of similar disclosure agreements regarding bank accounts in Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man can be expected to generate further funds. Best of all, they make it harder for criminals - and those who fail to declare income from funds held offshore are criminals - to continue to offend.

Today, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands come into the fold as well, making life even harder for those with ill intent.

Importantly for advocates of tax transparency, the information will be shared by Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, which agreed in June last year to work together to combat tax evasion.

However, we do need to be careful about the way we deal with those who hold funds offshore. The existence of bank accounts in exotic locations such as the Turks and Caicos Islands does not in itself prove wrongdoing or an intention to evade. There may be legitimate reasons why they might choose to use such facilities. Nonetheless, it is reassuring to know that the veil of banking secrecy has been lifted somewhat.

And, of course, the United Kingdom, and its fiscal deficit, will benefit from reduced tax evasion in coming years...

UKIP: even Diane James can't explain what their core philosophy is

Yesterday, I indicated some doubts about what UKIP actually stand for in terms of specifics. Today, Diane James, the UKIP candidate in the Eastleigh by-election, claims that "UKIP is more than a protest vote - we stand for something".

So, what is that something?

"It is a simple philosophy. We believe power should and must be devolved down to the people, where it belongs. Decisions made that affect any man or woman's life should by and large be made with their consent, with as little interference from the paid agents of the state as possible."

I admit that, as a liberal, I have little problem with the first part of that, as far as it goes. Yes, I disagree that power should always be devolved downwards, looking forward as I do to the prospect of Creeting St Peter Parish Council debating our Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, but in principle, there is some common ground there.

However, I'm not sure how her views on consent and interference by the state tally with UKIP's expressed opposition to same sex marriage, for example.

And that is the weakness of her argument. It is a philosophy that defines how decisions are taken, not what those decisions might be. It is a philosophy that is everything to everybody, and nothing to anyone. It allows her to support selective education, even though that will reduce social mobility and life chances based on one set of examinations at the age of 11. Although, if the people were to vote against it in a local referendum, what would she do? What would be the impact of the reintroduction of selective education in a rural area like mine?

So, when Diane James claims that her Party's philosophy is comprehensible, I agree. On the charge of being simplistic, I suspect that she, and UKIP as a whole, are guilty as charged.

Cobbett, Hume and Locke would be spinning in their graves...

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Take a deep breath... Sarah Ludford reminds me of what I left behind...

I have mentioned in the past that I still receive press releases from Sarah Ludford, London's Liberal Democrat MEP, which I read not merely as a courtesy, but as someone interested on what our Parliamentarians are doing in Brussels and, regrettably, Strasbourg (Single Seat, anybody?).

Today, Sarah has commented on the declaration of the UK Supreme Court in a case brought by environmental campaign group Client Earth that the UK government has breached European air pollution rules. The Court decided to refer the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for further clarification.

She notes;
The Supreme Court declaration that the government has breached the EU Air Quality Directive is regrettable but necessary. Instead of acting swiftly to protect the public from harmful levels of air pollution, a Tory Environment Minister just last week shamefully tried to water down EU air quality rules and the Tory Mayor of London drags his feet.
Air quality is something that does resonate strongly with this country-dweller, especially as I lived in London for forty-five years before migrating to mid-Suffolk.

The notes to editors that are linked to her press release make for grim reading;
  1. Estimates of the number of premature deaths per year in London due to long-term exposure to air pollution range from about 3,000 to 8,000 (based on 2005 data).
  2. 86% of the worst areas in the country for nitrogen dioxide pollution and 87% of the worst areas in the country for particulate pollution are in London.
  3. More than 320,000 children attend schools in London within 150 metres of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles a day. This is the level of traffic that has been found to increase risk of developing or exacerbating asthma in children.

No wonder that I developed a persistent, hacking cough as years of working in Central London took their toll. It's much less annoying these days, although my weekly trips to London don't help. 

Well said, Sarah, well said...

Does the rise of UKIP spell the death of politics as we know it?

As a relative observer in this round of elections - ill health and professional study commitments have limited my availability - I have watched with a degree of bemusement as UKIP have emerged as the key theme.

I am bemused because, apart from a desire to blame Europe for most things and claim that common sense is their driver, it is very hard to tell what UKIP would do if they were running Suffolk County Council. And yet if today's ComRes opinion poll is to be believed, better than one in five of those intending to vote will support them. Given that Liberal Democrats have done quite well in a three-cornered national contest with 25%, 22% in a four-cornered contest spells success far beyond the expectations of UKIP activists previously.

And whilst we'll see how accurate that particular poll turns out to be, it does perhaps lead one to fret about the health of our local democracy.

It was always said that the British National Party performed best in traditional Labour areas where the other major parties were weak/non-existent - Barking and Dagenham, parts of South Yorkshire, for example. The most effective way to defeat them was local campaigning, combined with a relevant message. However, given that the appeal of the BNP was always limited by the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of their core philosophy, and the fact that their leaders were slightly scary and intimidating, their threat was a limited one.

UKIP, on the other hand, offer a more reputable challenge. Saying, as the BNP do, that "we don't like coloured people", is generally accepted as being offensive. Saying that "we don't like Europe", is fairly mainstream - the European Union is hardly popular, and newspapers such as the Mail, Express and Telegraph are unrestrained in their attacks upon it. And when Nigel Farage talks about 'common sense politics', it resonates with a disenchanted public. It is after all, common sense...

How to defeat them in a fair contest? Well, the answer is exactly the same as it is when dealing with the BNP, but there is a catch. They are much more acceptable to public opinion, there are many more of them, and they have a passion that, whilst it will burn out as disillusion sets in, will carry their activists quite a long way in the meantime. Meanwhile, the old political parties are slowly dying, losing members and activists, relying increasingly on the air war and on technology, a trend that shows no signs of reversal, making genuinely local campaigning that much more difficult.

If you probe beneath the veneer of truism, trying to work out what your UKIP candidate will do if elected is quite difficult. What is his/her stance on highway maintenance? On public transport subsidy? On libraries? If they're in favour of more spending on X, does that mean less on Y or a rise in council tax? And on what basis do they make any such commitments?

For there is no philosophical core against which you can measure their utterances, no policy core that might indicate a direction of travel, no key statement which implies how they would relate to their electors. And, if you're a thinking elector, wanting the best for you and your community, you do want some clues to aid you in reaching a decision on how to complete your ballot paper.

So, hopefully, you'll have met, or heard from, all of the serious candidates in your county division before you vote, i.e. those trying to win. I don't exclude UKIP from that group - their candidates genuinely wish to serve their community, just as the other candidates do. Judge them by their words and, where they have served before, by their actions.

Of course, you may just want to give the Government, or even the Official Opposition, a good kicking. But do bear this in mind, if all you want to do is "send a message", you'll have four years to reflect on whether or not it was a good idea. And you'd be amazed how much damage can be done to your county in that time...