Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Count to 10...

The Standard Board has spoken and made its decisions. Those who entered into that process need to stop seeking alternative restitution and move on. By posting open letters on the local blogs, they seem to be making the point that they were never going to trust to the Board and that they were always going to go for this unsavoury manner of getting their own back which indicates a lack of respect to the institutions that they involve themselves with. The open letters (which make some rather serious allegations of their own not discussed by the Board) is the first black mark against Labour on this issue, who should have plenty on their plate already trying to regain their losses from last year and holding the Council to account. I for one would like to know how they would improve Thanet.

I don’t care who started it. It must end now. I’ll be thoroughly disappointed if any Councillor tries making a smart arse remark about this pathetic incident, one that has received far more attention than it deserves. Some closer to the action on this one may well think I’ve no clue what I’m talking about and will ignore me as is their choice. However, as anyone who has ever gone for public office and seen the sharp end will know, once an incident has gotten to this point, to push further undermines the initial argument and just erodes your position. Best to be the first to pull from the fire and to receive small injuries, than to ignore advice to do so and burn yourself irreparably.

So the question is, who is going to be adult about it and move on?

Monday, 28 April 2008

Tories in Sunshine?

With Labour stumbling from crisis to crisis, attention is turning to the Conservatives with many pointing out the key weakness of a lack of narrative or sense of purpose about what they want to do. Its definitely not their only problem though.

Firstly they have a problem with policies. Not so much that they don’t have any, because they actually have a number of them. Their problem is that they need to communicate them clearer to the public so that the voters know straight away the aims of the Conservatives. Political anoraks like me know the policies but I would bet the average person in a pub couldn’t name 5 specific policies. Thought needs to be given to the policies as a package, which they seemed to be doing through the idea of social responsibility. However that idea seems to have been dumbed down in favour of the horribly clunky phrase “post-bureaucratic age”.

Disappointingly in some areas of policy there has been no announcement of the existence of a Conservative policy at all, for example looked after children is shadowed by Michael Gove who has never mentioned the issue in Parliament and has not brought the issue up with his team in order to discuss the Conservative position. I understand there is a review on the issue but if its anything like its report on social workers some time ago, there wont be a lot of coverage of it or discussion at any point afterwards.

Secondly, they lack depth in numbers of frontbenchers good enough to be able to be effective Cabinet Ministers. This has become very plain to see with those pushed to appear on TV and has also been evident in exchanges in Parliament. Cameron understandably doesn’t want to have to reshuffle his team but too few are on top of their briefs and have been very quiet outside of Parliament leading to very high ‘Don’t Know’ figures in ConservativeHome.com surveys.

There seems to be a distinct lack of drive and energy. While Labour looks like it is losing the will to lead the country, the Conservatives don’t seem to be gunning for it, seemingly happy to wait. Tortoise tactics may well work, but given how quickly the political tide can turn, the Conservatives really need to seize the moment and explain to the public why they should give their support. Being not Labour really isn’t enough.

Self-inflicted crises still occur, from the grammar school policy farce, arguments over tax to the leadership’s policy of undermining of local Associations through preferring equality over meritocracy with regards to MEP and Parliamentary candidate selection. Cameron and Osborne’s attack on Brown and Darling over the 10p tax rate faltered when the response came “So what would you do?” helping Brown avoid a case of happy slapping at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. This is linked to the first problem. The Conservatives have had plenty of time to consider what they would do and to come up with a solid package of their own in response, but it seems at present they are more than happy to complain and shout about how bad it is but with pledged tax cuts for those who would be impacted by IHT (a number falling due to the house price falls) and those with shares, the message about helping the poor is compromised.

The chances of a Conservative victory at the next General Election are certainly on the up but there are serious questions of credibility as a Government-in-waiting hanging over them.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Time Flies...

Today marks the 2nd anniversary of moving to Cliftonville. It’s certainly been a change of scene but the community has been far more friendly and welcoming than I expected. One of the things that showed that despite the unsightly appearance of parts of Cliftonville, generally the area was nice and the people well meaning, was sitting on the steps of the house currently being rebuilt on the corner of Surrey Road with a tenant of the Leslie Hotel, drinking beer and chatting about the area.

A consultation is doing the rounds regarding development in Cliftonville. Anyone who hasn’t already done so, please give your views to TDC. The consultation can be found pretty easily on the Council website. It seems a pretty solid report, though aspects of it could be improved. Given the serious issues Cliftonville faces, I would prefer it if a tighter line was taken for the time being.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Double Whammy

The arguments over the 10p income tax band continue with Brown begging Labour MPs to hold firm. You know when it’s serious when Denis McShane (former Europe Minister and Labour hardcore loyalist) is in front of TV cameras to fly the flag for Brown. It looks bad inside the Commons Chamber and it looks bad outside it.

“Fiscal drag” is an issue linked to this. In short, it’s where increases in wages are greater than increases in the personal tax allowance. The personal tax allowance is automatically linked to the Government’s preferred inflation figure (around 2.5%). Wages have increased by somewhere closer to 4%. Due to this imbalance, many peoples incomes will increase above the personal tax allowance limit and will end up paying tax for the first time, or will end up paying more in tax, even though they are working the same number of hours. The National Minimum Wage is a case in point, having increased way above inflation since its creation.

The brilliant thing as far as the Treasury is concerned is that it gets more tax revenue without having to actively tax for it and therefore having to point out how and why the public is suddenly paying more tax, leading to such outrage as we are seeing from many low paid workers and Labour MPs. It’s part of the reason why the problems with the wider public finances has held back as long as it has. The bad thing is that the Government forgot that the economic cycle cannot be abolished. At some point there has to be a downturn and the Government needs to have sound finances to ensure they can ride it out. Their high spending has left public finances in a less than pristine state, particularly dangerous if the downturn is delayed.

The Government has realised this but only as the credit crunch slammed into the American housing market and has found itself rushing to restrain public sector workers wage increases, with multi-year deals at a mid-2% increase. The Unions though aren’t happy, giving the Government another problem since Labour needs the Unions onside in light of a General Election in the next two years.

Fiscal drag has been of enormous benefit to the Treasury, giving it billions of pounds it could have used to balance the books. Removing the 10p band simply makes the problem of fiscal drag worse by beating the low paid again.

Stephen Ladyman MP has commented on the “fuss” saying “it is wrong that even this small group should be worse off” and that he will be bringing his concerns of this group to the Chancellor. Will he explain why he didn’t bring these concerns up before and instead voted in favour of the changes without question when they came through Parliament last year?

Monday, 21 April 2008

Budget Blowback

The big news story this past weekend is surely the angst of Labour MPs directed at Gordon Brown over the abolition of the 10p starter income tax band. 6 Parliamentary aides have expressed serious anxiety at the change (one of which has to be persuaded by Brown not to resign over the issue) and even David Blunkett has spoken out. Brown is said to be angry that this flared up while he was in America, as if public objection to Government policy should only be shown while he is in the country. Downing Street has made it clear there are no concessions to be given such as increased tax credits despite (Treasury busybody) Angela Eagle’s comments to “watch this space”. Chancellor of the Exchequer Darling has said that he cannot re-write the Budget but that in future budgets it might be possible, which for me doesn’t exactly sound like reassurance for those who lose out as a result of the changes.

The thinking behind the policy is that it pays for a tax cut for Middle England who get a 2p cut in their income tax. It also gets the added benefit of giving the pensioners a one time only increase on their winter fuel payments. Unfortunately it has the side effect of doubling tax on the lowest paid. The Government has argued that the band abolition isn’t that bad since those who lose out immediately can offset it with tax credits. All fine and dandy you’d think. Well that would be true, if you are in a position to claim them. Not everyone earning below a certain level of income can claim them. People like me for example. I have no children and work less than 30 hours a week, therefore I don’t qualify.

I don’t consider myself a burden upon the country. If anything the Government must surely make a profit on me since I barely use public services. Ive used health services twice in the last 5 years and both times were blood donations. I do not rely on welfare of any kind and I follow the rules, however stupid they may well appear and yet I have to pay double income tax so that the middle earners can keep more of their money. What gives?

There is an easy solution to this, which has been around for sometime, recommended by Lord Forsyth in a report for the Conservatives a couple of years ago and which is sensible, cutting back heavily on administration and streamlining the tax system hugely. Abolish tax credits and kick the personal tax allowance up substantially, immediately removing the poor from the tax system. There is little logic in demanding more tax revenue from the poor, only to give it back to them in the form of tax credits, which many who can claim do not. Just cut out the middle man and let the poor keep their own money. Economically, increasing taxation at the present economic situation isn’t sound since it will slow public spending, one of the constants that has kept the economy afloat when other economies have stuttered worse.

The abolition of the 10p band is completely against Labour’s principle of helping the poor and I hope local Labour will come out and admit that the changes will leave many poor residents out of pocket. Preaching about tax credits and the national minimum wage is using the two schemes as a smokescreen and is a terrible way to treat the public who deserve honesty at this time.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Gwyneth Dunwoody

Last night Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, died aged 77. She was Chair of the Commons Select Committee for Transport and entered Parliament in 1966.

It’s a terrible loss to Parliament. Even I as a small 'c' conservative blogger recognise her honesty in debate irrelevant of her own Party’s line and will miss her speeches. Her speech from the debate on scheduling of the Commons ratification of the Lisbon Treaty only a few months ago was one of the best speeches Ive ever seen. She spoke brilliantly about the changes that had happened to Parliament over the years and how what might appear to be side issues or trivialities, can actually be really important and that the processes of Parliament should not be undermined. I don’t usually have much time for Labour MPs, but for her I always paid attention.

There aren’t many MPs in Parliament like her, putting people before Party. She will be missed.

Monday, 14 April 2008

42 Days Later

In the News of the World the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith spoke out at the threat terrorism makes towards Britain and in effect asking for parliamentary support for the Counter Terrorism Bill currently before the Commons. The most contentious clause enables suspects to be held for 42 days without charge, well above any other comparable country and above the current 28 day limit brought in not that long ago.

Given recent court cases which have gone against the Government with regards to control orders and pre-charge detention (Lotfi Raissi’s life was torn apart and he was physically attacked and yet he was completely innocent of all accusations), you’d think that the Government would ensure that the legislation was watertight. Sadly it appears they will just bulldoze it through without amendment. This Government has a long and undistinguished history of this.

Lets be in no doubt, if there is a substantial case for such powers the opposition would be far lesser, but as the Second Reading of the Bill showed, the case is very small indeed with key players outside of the Westminster village rejecting the need for such powers. The Director of Public Prosecutions, who would have to approve the 42 day detention order, has been on record to say that there isn’t really a case for it. As David Davis, Shadow Home Secretary has said, “if the 28-day point is reached, and a policeman has a reasonable suspicion and expects to find the evidence in the 42-day period that the right hon. Lady wants, he can charge”. There is no explanation as to where the 42 days power has come from. Why 42?

The Government has assured MPs that Parliament will have to approve each 42 day extension, within 30 days of a request. That’s not much of an assurance if Parliament must meet at some point during that 30 day period, while someone languishes in a cell, without a charge to their name and that Parliament will not be privy to the full details of the case (understandable really, but its still a farce). An extension can be granted upon “reasonable suspicion”. So no proper evidence of a crime, just a thought that maybe the person has done something illegal? The burden of proof is far too low and available to abuse. Parliament having to deal with such a process would also mean the divide between the legislature and the judiciary being broken. This provision is a worrying idea which destroys key parts of our unwritten constitution and will allow abuse by the Governing party.

A part of the Government’s case has been the argument known as the “Armageddon Defence”, that is if Armageddon is to come surely we need all powers at hand just in case we need them. Which is why the Government has the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Its bringing up an extreme example to justify heavy actions. A desperate attempt to get support that is more of a sixth form debating tactic rather than parliamentary debating.

It has been a complaint long held by many brilliant MPs on both sides of the Commons that legislative scrutiny has rescinded in the past decade. When the Government get the First reading done, they already have the schedule for the progress of the Bill prepared so that they know exactly when the Bill will be debated and when the guillotine drops on them. The process leads to bad legislation.

As I have outlined, parts of this Bill will have a dramatic impact on this country and all with good intentions, but as anyone will point out, some of the worst horrors on the planet have been done with good intentions borne in mind.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Death of Dreamland

Margate needs as much help as possible with Westwood sucking the life out of the High Street and Northdown Road. The fire at Dreamland has dealt a crushing blow to any hopes of a recovery for the town. I don’t care who was responsible for the fire itself though Im sure readers have a good idea of who they think would be in the frame. The fact is that the Scenic Railway has been severely damaged and with it Margate itself.

It’s now a free for all as far as housing development at Dreamland is concerned. The Scenic Railway and its Listed status was the only obstacle. Unless the Scenic Railway can be rebuilt to the way it was, the Local Plan barrier to full development on the site no longer has any force.

Margate is dying. All the good things from Margate I remember from my childhood are fast disappearing with no substantial replacement. What is left for children in Margate today and why is so little being done to sort it out?

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Albion Bookshop closure

As numerous other blogs have noted, Margate isn’t what it used to be. The Council struggles to find a solution to this to what appears to be little effect, unless you own a cafĂ©... Yesterday saw the announcement that the Albion Bookshop in Cliftonville is to close by the end of the year. A stalwart of Northdown Road having been there for over 50 years, it has suffered from the “pressures of harsh economic reality” and the end is nigh. It’s very disappointing to see such notices up in the windows, to see another established business having to close and another blow on an already battered area which needs as much help as possible.

I really like the Albion Bookshop, just about the only shop in Thanet selling a decent range of chess books. A number of chess books I own have been bought from there and I wonder where I will have to go now. Friendly staff, always up for a chat with a large range of books and perfectly happy to help if the customer has any queries or problems. One of the few shops in Clifonville I use, but not for much longer.


Today (Saturday 5th April) EDJ Greengrocers on Northdown Road closes to move to Nash Farm near Westwood Cross. Another loss to Cliftonville...

Out of sight, out of mind?

A consultation is to soon begin on plans to force retailers to conceal displays of cigarettes in an attempt to cut under age sales of cigarettes. The idea was thrown around last year so this looks like they are going for it.

The idea though is pointless and will not deal with the problem. Legislation on this bans the purchase of alcohol for a third party who is underage. However with regard to cigarettes, such proxy sales are perfectly legal. If children want them all they have to do is ask an adult, maybe the parents, to get them and that’s it. The idea is banning public display of cigarettes to cut cigarette use is going to do nothing to deal with the real issue. Lord Darzi, Minister for Health has said that the Government will not be changing the law to clear this up as it would be “unenforceable”. Trading Standards surely could have an extended role to check proxy sales. Simply getting shops to have to find extra space for cigarettes to hide them would lead to extra burden, logistically and in cost as well. Small shops are under enough stress as it is with the Treasury pounding them again and again for more money (the Budget has a number of such instances) and the result of the policy will be that shops will cut down the number of brands they sell, leading to a cut in tax revenue for the Treasury. If access to cigarettes is such a problem, why not just ban the sale of tobacco products completely?

Furthermore, if cigarettes are a product so harmful that it should be removed from view, where does it stop? Logically speaking, alcohol should be removed from view, and so must all other age restricted goods, such as some computer games, DVDs and CDs with Parental Warnings attached to them. Top shelf magazines will have to be removed from view and so must anything else which could, in the long term, be harmful to children through obesity, such as sweets, crisps, cakes and soft drinks. Newspapers with adult content can damage children psychologically and encourage delinquent behaviour and therefore should be removed from view. Scratchcards and other National Lottery equipment will have to be removed from view as well.

Of course perhaps Im exaggerating and in reality theres no chance of the above happening. But if the Government are starting with cigarettes, what else is next and where does it end?