Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The 10 tax fiasco

There may be those who are not themselves on low incomes and who imagine that last week's U-Turn has solved the problems created in Cumbria and elsewhere by the abolition of the 10p starting tax rate. Sadly, it has not.

The concessions promised by Alistair Darling may have averted a government defeat yesterday, but they have barely begun to work out how the promise to compensate those who lose out can be kept of how the money required can be paid for.

For a start, until the implementation of the promised concessions, full details of which will not be released until the "Pre Budget Report" in the autumn, the five million people who were adversely affected by this tax change will still be paying more. In a constituency like Copeland that probably means that nearly 10,000 people are currently losing out by anything up to £464 per family.

Affluent and middle class people who lose some money but are promised it back in a few months can afford to borrow against that promise or reduce their savings, but for people in the income bracket affected by the 10p tax change, this is much more difficult. What makes matters worse is that Alistair Darling could not give an absolute guarantee that everyone affected would get the full amount back. So at the moment, and for the next few months, this change is causing real difficulties.

And then there is the huge amount of government and civil service time which is being spent on undoing the damage in Gordon Brown's last budget - and the vast amount of time and effort which will be reguired to make the backdated payments necessary when they finally work out what they are going to do.

None of the major changes in Brown's last budget have survived unscathed - they backed down on the Non-Doms tax regime, they have announced compensation for the 10p tax change, and they climbed down on Capital Gains Tax changes.

It is welcome that enough Labour MPs have finally recognised, a year after the decision was announced, that a tax increase specifically targeted against those on low incomes is a bad idea to force the government to change this "Reverse Robin Hood" policy. Unfortunately none of the ideas being mooted - changing payments for pensioners or those with families, changing the minimum wage or working tax credits - will help everyone affected. Not all those who lose out are pensioners or have children, only five percent are on the minimum wage and the take-up of working tax credit is only 22%. At the moment what we have is a complete shambles, and the most vulnerable hard-working families are paying the price.

A regional analysis of the best that could be achieved to compensate families in the North West using the tactics currently under consideration is as follows.

Before any concessions, approximately 565,607 families in the North West will lose out, even after tax credit changes.

Furthermore, only a limited amount can be compensated using the measures Alistair Darling has indicated:

• The maximum reduction in the number of losers is 32,016 from any changes to the Winter Fuel Allowance for women aged 60 – 64.

• The maximum reduction in the number of losers is 18,356 from an increase in the minimum wage.

• The maximum reduction in the number of losers is 128,062 from changes to the eligibility requirements (cut the age limit to 16 and the required number of hours to 16) for the Working Tax Credit.

• The maximum reduction in the number of losers is 32,016 from an increase in the Working Tax Credit

Total: This means that based on what the Government have said so far about their strategy for compensating the losers, a best estimate of the maximum total reduction in the number of losers as a result of the package is 210,450 out of 565,607.

Similar problems apply in the rest of the country.

There are only two things the government could do which would undo the damage. The simplest would have been to actually reverse the decision - but that would apparently have been too much of a humiliation for them.

The other approach, as George Osborne and others have suggested, would be to increase tax thresholds so that more of those on low incomes are taken out of the PAYE system entirely. The government have not explained how they will fund the concessions they have promised, but that would be the most effective use of whatever money they can find.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Valley Residents and Tenants Association meeting

I attended this evening's meeting of the Valley Residents and Tenants Association at St Gregory's & St Patrick's School.

The main item on the agenda was the road and traffic position in the area, with concerns expressed including -

1) The One Way system in Foxhouses Road, Calder Avenue and Esk Avenue is regarded by many residents as having failed, exacerbating the safety and congestion problems it was meant to help. (The same point was expressed local the Conservatives when we did a survey canvass of Harbour Ward). In particular it creates bottlenecks on the few legal routes out of the estate, particularly at the junctions of Calder Avenue and Station Road, Station Road and Coach Road, and the Eastern end of Coach Road.

2) The signing priority at the junction of Coach Road and Station Road results in some drivers rat-running round The Gardens into Station Road

3) Another side effect of the one-way system is to funnel a much larger amount of traffic through Calder Avenue than the foundations of the road was designed to take, which appears to be one of the reasons for problems with the drains and why the surface seems to deteriorate as soon as it the potholes are fixed.

At the time the one-way system was introduced, it was promised that it would be reviewed, and this appears to have been missed. County Councillor Bernard Kirk promised that he would aim to ensure that this review takes place within the next 12 months and that there will be an opportunity for public consultation.

Panorama report on hospital superbugs

I was very concerned about the information presented in the Panorama programme last night about the c-diff superbug, which now kills about 6,000 patients a year, more than MRSA.

I have commented in more detail on the "Save West Cumbria Hospitals" campaign blog, see link at right.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The 10p tax row - the problem is not over

Gordon Brown's U-Turn on the abolition of the 10p tax band may have forestalled an embarrasing defeat in the House of Commons next week but it has not solved the problem which this regressive tax increase has imposed on 5 million less affluent people.

Many of those affected may get a backdated compensation payment later this year, but for the moment they are paying the extra tax. Since the precise details of the compensating measures have not been agreed - and at least some of those who lose out through the abolition of the 10 tax band will not benefit from the proposed corrective measures - those who are affected will suffering a significant degree of uncertainty about how much of their money Gordon will give back in the Autumn. The fact that some of them will get some jam tomorrow does not alter the fact that all 5 million of those who lose out from the change are experiencing unnecessary government-inflicted hardship now.

And in the meantime all the civil servants who are frantically working out how to undo the damage, and who will then have to do the work to provide the backdated benefits, could have been doing something useful rather than picking up the mess from Brown's last budget as chancellor.

Gordon Brown gained the position of Prime Minister partly on the basis of a supposed reputation as a good Chancellor - a reputation which had more than a little to do with the strong economy he inherited from Kenneth Clarke and beyond this was largely based on one excellent decision - delegating the control of interest rates to the Bank of England. But the 10p mess has demonstrated how bad some of his other decisions as Chancellor were. And he is no better as Prime Minister.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

European bodies infuriate both English and Scots patriots ...

It is ironic that on St George's day, European institutions have managed to annoy both English and Scots patriots.

The European Union is proposing to set up European "transnational regions" which link various areas of England and the UK with parts of other countries on the other side of the English Channel or North sea rather than the rest of our own country. Rightly or wrongly this has been seen as an attempt to wipe England off the map by breaking the country up between three regions which also incorporate parts of other nations

I'm not completely convinced that this was the intention - after all, the French are hardly going to go along with the break-up of France, which would also be implied by the proposals if you were to suggest that the transnational regions were to replace existing countries.

However, it is beyond dispute that this is another PR disaster for the EU and it is extremely likely that these "transnational regions" will be yet another bureaucratic talking shop the cost of which will outweigh any good they do.

And on the same day, Scots have been infuriated to learn that EU Health and safety noise limits have been imposed which means that bands who play the bagpipes are potentially illegal unless the musicians wear earplugs.

What an utter lack of common sense.

Happy St George's Day

Today is St George's day.

Just as Scots are right to celebrate St Andrew's Day, the Welsh celebrate St David's day, and Irish people throughout the world celebrate St Patrick's day, today we should celebrate the English national day.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What a load of rubbish

A Whitehaven man with four children has been fined because he put slightly too much rubbish in his wheelie bin and the lid would not quite close.

We have had a lot of fierce arguments at Copeland Council meetings about the refuse collection service. My colleague the Conservative group leader, Councillor David Moore, has asked on more than one occasion that the council's policies om rubbish collection should not be implemented in a draconian way.

No doubt we will hear more of this case, but at the moment the information available to me is what has been in the newspapers. On the basis of the story as reported, it appears to be unfortunate that David Moore's advice was not followed.

Swimathan completed

I completed the Swimathon on Sunday in one hour 47 minutes.

Thanks to all those who sponsored me.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Swimathon 2008

I will be taking part in Swimathon 2008 today at the Lakes Leisure pool in Ulverston.

I aim to swim 5,000 metres (200 lengths of the pool) to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer care and the Swimathon foundation.

If anyone would like to sponsor me, please drop me an email.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What the papers say

A leader in today's "Daily Star" newspaper, quoted without comment as it speaks for itself.

Darn Gord Thrashing

Gordon Brown has now been accused of trying to fiddle the forthcoming local elections.

Ministers are supposed to avoid making big policy promises in the three weeks before the poll. This is to stop them using their government powers to woo voters and gain an unfair advantage.

But yesterday they suddenly announced new anti-terrorism measures, including 300 extra police officers and support workers.

The Tories say this is shameless electioneering and have made an official complaint. But we would urge them to calm down.

Mr Brown could offer the country free beer and 10% wage rises all round ... and he would still get thrashed at next month's ballot.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Post offices, Flood prevention, Nuclear plans

This afternoon was the April meeting of Copeland Council.

Issues discussed included

* the Shoreline management plan and flood prevention (see previous post)
* proposed Post office closures
* Radioactive Waste Management
* A Copeland "Business Summit"
* Consultation on a possible Town Council for Whitehaven
* Next year's Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Copeland

On Post Offices closures, it was agreed that a special two-day meeting of the Economic Development O&S Committee will be held on 16th and 17th May. After interviewing interested parties, including the Post Office Ltd, sub-postmasters, and community groups such as Age Concern and the Disability Forum, that committee will make a response to the Post Office on behalf of the council.

Coastal erosion and a prospect which does not bear thinking about ...

During a discussion on coastal protection and flooding at Copeland Council this afternoon, Conservative group leader David Moore raised the situation of the coastal road into Eskmeals, which is likely to fall into the sea within ten years if nothing is done.

This is one of only two routes into Eskmeals, which contains a Ministry of Defence firing range, and the other road is tidal.

As Councillor Moore pointed out, the Eskmeals firing range employs a hundred people and provides a national facility. There is also a considerable amount of ammunition stored at the site.

If the coast road is allowed to fall into the sea and no alternative provision is made, that could potentially put those jobs and that service at risk. But how could we tolerate a situation where the emergency services might have to wait for the tide until they could get through.

The idea of a fire raging near an ammunition store while the fire engine is unable to get through until the tide goes out really does not bear thinking about!

The point was taken but there is not answer yet to the question of what can be done about the Eskmeals road and this will have to be pursued further.

During the same debate I asked about the funding for flood prevention measures in Copeland, and asked whether a rolling programme of pro-active flood prevention was being looked at. The Portfolio holder advised me that funding is "still tight" and added that such a rolling programme of flood prevention measures is being actively considered.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


I see that there has been some controversy over Blake's hymn "Jerusalem".

At my old school, this hymn was so popular with believers and non-believers alike that groups of boys would sometimes spontaneously begin to sing it - for example at the end of assembly on the last day of term.

Funnily enough, if you had told me that a clergyman well known to me would have been the person who started the controversy by banning the hymn from his cathedral, and asked me to guess who it was, I would have guessed right.

Canon Colin Slee, now Dean of Southwark, who according to the media has taken this step, was previously sub-Dean of St Albans while I lived there. I should stress that he was always polite when we met and I am sure he was completely sincere on the occasions, which happened more than once, when he expressed opinions which I was very surprised to hear.

If it were central to the message of "Jerusalem" to present as literally true the legend that Joseph of Arimathea brought Jesus to England as a boy, on a trading voyage, the opponents of the hymn would have a point. The bible says very little about the early life of Jesus, and nothing between the time of his visit to the Temple as a boy and the Wedding at Cana shortly before the start of his mission.

However, the hymn has always spoken to me as an allegory about the need to fight for love, justice, and the Kingdom of God. To attempt to block the use of a piece of poetry which has such power to speak of that message, including to people without any strong faith, seems to me to be a very sad "own goal."

Comments policy on this blog

This blog is meant to be capable of being read by a family audience. I will not accept profanity on it, and neither will I accept libellous comments.

I have only deleted about three comments from visitors to the site in the three years this blog has been in existence, including the one I removed today. I don't accept that blocking an average of one comment a year can be described as intolerance of disagreement.

Nevertheless, I want to reiterate my policy on comments, which is

1) Any post which contains profanity is likely to be deleted.

2) Any post which I consider potentially libellous will be deleted.

3) Posts which do not break either of the above rules and which are signed will usually be left up even if I strongly disagree with them, though of course I will normally post a reply

4) However, I reserve the right to delete posts which I consider to make unfair attacks on anyone, and I am particularly likely to delete such posts if the authors do not have the guts to sign their names.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Conservatives hold Millom Town Council seat

Congratulations to Councillor Brian Crawford, the excellent and hard-working Conservative candidate, who won yesterday's by-election for a seat on Millom Town Council representing the Holborn Hill ward.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Post Offices, Jobs, and Hospitals

Attended the Economic Development Overview and Scrutiny Committee at Copeland Council this afternoon and a meeting at Gosforth to campaign to keep the local post office this evening.

The main item at the Copeland Council meeting this afternoon was the proposals to close eight post offices in Copeland. Councillors of both Conservative and Labour parties were very concerned about this.

Other items on the agenda included

* A report on "nuclear opportunities" with a presentation on job opportunities - which included the bombshell that there is some uncertainty about whether funding is in place for the promised new hospital in West Cumbria. See item in the "Support West Cumbria hospitals" campaign blog (link at right)

* A presentation from local businesses on Whitehaven Town centre and what could be done to support more regeneration

* A presentation and report from the Cumbria Tourist board with a ten year strategy paper for tourism in Cumbria

The public meeting in Gosforth attracted about a hundred people, and it was very cleat that there is extremely strong support for retaining a post office in the village.

Set up a Royal Commission on MPs' and Councillors' pay

The constant stream of stories about what MPs are paid and can claim on expenses, and how this might change, is bringing both parliament and all MPs, including those who are reasonable in what they claim, into disrepute.

Both the Conservative and Labour leaderships have accepted that MPs should no longer be in a position to vote on their own salaries. It is time the government stopped dithering and acted on this. And they should deal with the equivalent situation for councillors at the same time.

There should be a Royal Commission to set the remuneration for both MPs and councillors. Something similar should be put in place for the devolved bodies after consultation in the constituent nations of the UK.

To ensure that Commission members do not have any axe to grind, and cannot easily be influenced by the government, its members should not be serving MPs or councillors, should serve for one, reasonably long term after which they should not be eligible for re-appointment: they would also have to agree not to stand for election as MPs or councillors for at least ten years. (The first set of commissioners would have to have terms of different lengths so that they don't all change over at the same time.) Their own remuneration should be set in advance.

The sooner this is set up, the sooner all the issues which have been the subject of debate can be subject to independent scrutiny.

However much you pay politicians there will be some, mostly actual or aspiring politicians themselves, who argue that it is not enough, and others who think it is too much. But at least let it be set in a transparent way by someone other than the MPs and councillors themselves.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Dog and the Wolf

The late Poul Anderson once finished one of his novels with the following poem

Would you know the dog from the wolf? You may look at his paw,
Comparing the claw and the pad; you may measure his stride,
You may handle his coat and his ears; you may study his jaw;
And yet what you seek is not found in his bones or his hide,
For between the Dog and the Wolf there is only the Law.

No country's legal system is perfect. But laws are one of the things which hold human society together. And one of the marks of a civilised society is that the laws apply to those in authority as well as everyone else.

One irony of this, is that sometimes it may appear to be harder to enforce the law if the people responsible for doing so also have to stick rigidly to it themselves. Sometimes it is incredibly infuriating when you see powerful people - such as developers - appear to flout the rules, and it can be very difficult for the authorities to stop them without flouting the rules themselves.

That does not mean that the effort should not be made.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Great Bus Stop fiasco - postscript

We had a report today at a Copeland Council Overview and Scrutiny Committee about the enforcement of the new smoking legislation.

So I thought I would ask if there had been a single complaint to the council about smoking in bus shelters, or any other incident where council staff had become aware of people smoking in them.

As I expected, not a single example of a problem with people smoking in bus shelters has come to the council's attention since the new legislation came into effect.

So as we said at the time, and the council eventually accepted, the idea of removing panes of glass from bus shelters to take them out of the scope of the "No smoking" legislation so the council could not be sued for failing to stop people smoking in bus shelters was completely unnecessary.

Big surprise !