Sunday, November 30, 2008

A law that should be repealed

The more I read about the common law offence of “aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” the more I am convinced that it is dangerously vague and bad law, and should be abolished.

A number of journalists including Sam Coates and Matthew Parris in The Times and Nick Cohen in the Guardian have written very powerful articles on this. With superbly ironic timing, a case which had been brought involving the same charge against journalist Sally Murrer collapsed the day after Damian Green was arrested. Nick Cohen writes a damning and frightening account of the way that case was prepared here.

Some of the reactions to the Green arrest comparing the present government to Robert Mugabe are a little over the top. But it is not exaggerating to say that if you could ask the people of my father's generation who fought and in many cases died to defend this country from Hitler what they were fighting for, some of them would have listed keeping this the sort of country where you could not be arbitrarily arrested for criticising the government as being one of those aims.

The arrest of Sally Murrer shows that this is not just about defending the privileges of politicians, but about keeping Britain a free country for all of us. As Matthew Parris writes,

"The common law offence of “aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” sets such a ridiculously low hurdle that thousands of my colleagues in the newspaper industry, many MPs, most Opposition spokesmen, and innumerable helpfully indiscreet police officers would be behind bars if every offence was investigated and prosecuted. Much journalism would become impossible, legitimate questioning and debate by MPs would be ruled out, and activity in the public interest would be outlawed."

You can read his full article here.

A law that can be used to arrest anyone from a senior opposition politician to a part-time journalist on a small local newspaper on what appears in both cases to be wholly inadeqate grounds has no place on the statute book of a modern democracy.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cross party concern at arrest

It is not just Conservatives who are extremely concerned at the way shadow cabinet member Damian Green MP was arrested and had his home and parliamentary office searched.

I don't aften agree with former Labour minister Denis MacShane but I did agree with his response to the Green arrest. He said that the Speaker should make clear that MPs were entitled to hold sensitive material in the same way as lawyers and doctors, and added:

"To send a squad of counter terrorist officers to arrest an MP shows the growing police contempt for Parliament and democratic politics," he said.

"The police now believe that MPs are so reduced in public status that they are fair game for over-excited officers to order dawn raids, arrests and searches of confidential files held by MPs or those who work for them.

"I am not sure this is good for British democracy."

Tony Benn, not someone you would expect to rush to the defence of a Tory MP, said

"I may sound strangely medieval, but once the police can interfere with Parliament, I tell you, you are into a police state."

The Lib/Dems were equally incredulous, calling the arrest a "Mayday Warning" for democracy. Both their Home Affairs spokesman Chris Huhne and leader Nick Clegg expressed concern at Thursday's events: Nick Clegg told the BBC that he was "really shocked" by Mr Green's arrest.

"This is something you might expect from a tin-pot dictatorship, not in a modern democracy," he said.

Given the culture of "extraordinary secrecy" in Whitehall, it was getting harder to hold the government to account and opposition MPs had a constitutional duty to keep "ministers on their toes", he added.

He called on Gordon Brown to "rule out any further use of anti-terrorism powers in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism."

The Daily Mash on the Damian Green Arrest

"The Daily Mash" has a satirical view of the arrest here.

News - War

THE Prime Minister last night began the elimination of his enemies as he pledged to cleanse Britain of the virus of dissent."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Statement by Damian Green M.P.

Speaking outside the House of Commons, Mr Green said: "I was astonished to have spent more than nine hours today under arrest for doing my job.

"I emphatically deny I have done anything wrong. I have many times made public information that the government wanted to keep secret - information that the public has a right to know.

"In a democracy, opposition politicians have a duty to hold the government to account.

"I was elected to the House of Commons precisely to do that and I certainly intend to continue doing so."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Green arrest raises disturbing questions

Damian Green MP, Conservative front-bench spokesman on immigration, was arrested today, apparently by nine anti-terrorist policemen, in connection with home office documents allegedly leaked to him by a home office whistleblower.

His home and office have been searched, but he has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.

I have met Damian Green on several occasions, and I like and respect him. I do not believe for one second that he would have put into the public domain any information he had received unless he was convinced that it was in the public document to do so.

For the police to arrest opposition politicians for releasing to the media documents critical of the government is not the way we do things in Britain.

All governments have people working for them who disagree with some of the things they do and leak them to the opposition. All oppositions make use of the information. All governments get cross about this, and order leak inquiries. But it is unprecedented in Britain for a senior opposition politician to be arrested for it. This raises disturbing questions.

When the Conservatives were last in power, many members of the then shadow cabinet, including Gordon Brown, quoted from leaked information. It was said of the late Robin Cook in particular, by one Conservative minister, that he seemed "to have an inexhaustible supply of stolen documents."

But I'll tell you this. If Robin Cook had been arrested for releasing leaked documents from the then Conservative government, I am absolutely certain that half the Tories who grumbled about him would have been on the phone to the then Home Secretary Michael Howard, demanding that charges be dropped before Britain was made to look like some sort of authoritarian banana republic.

And I am even more certain that most of the Labour politicians and sympathisers who have been defending the arrest of Damien Green would have accusing Michael Howard of running a police state if the same thing had happened to Robin Cook.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Darling Tax

I am still fuming at the size of the mess the Labur government is leaving for the incoming government to clear up. Perhaps one of the new taxes that will have to be introduced to get the nation's finances back on an even keel should be named "The Darling Tax" to remind everyone whose fault it is that these tax rises are necessary.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Andrew Rowe RIP

I was sorry to hear that Andrew Rowe, who served as the MP for Mid-Kent from 1983 to 1997, has died.

Andrew was one of my heroes when I was a young man. He was living proof that you could be a moderate Conservative without being "wet" and that you could be civilised without being soggy. I gather that he was also a very effective constituency MP.

Rest in Peace.

Quote of the Day

"This year alone, the £78 billion borrowed by the Treasury is more than Winston Churchill needed to fight the Second World War."

George Osborne

PBR = Preposterous Borrowing Requirement

PBR is supposed to stand for "Pre-Budget Report" but it could equally stand for "Preposterous Borrowing Requirement".

In any complex package like the one which the government announced in the PBR, almost everyone is going to find some things they like and some which they don't. But it is the overall picture which appalls me, and particularly the enormous debt mountain.

All governments will automatically tend to go into spending deficit in a recession. In fact, fiscally progressive income taxes and a social security net are often collectively called "the stabilisers" as they tend to take proportionately more money off people when the economy is charging ahead while forcing the government to pay out more as it goes into recession. This will tend to moderate both inflationary booms and recessions even before and additional government action.

But for a government which was already expecting £30 billion defecit when they thought the economy was still growing, and knows perfectly well that the recession will make it much worse, to further build up the borrowing requirement in the way that they have put forward in the PBR is not just gambling, but completely reckless.

If the government is right that the recession will only last until next summer - and many experts think this is optimistic - they will still have landed the economy with annual borrowing peaking at £100 million, total national debt in excess of a TRILLION pounds, and it won't just take until after the next election, but until after the election following that, to get the national finances back on an even keel.

And if the recession lasts longer than the government now predicts, that debt mountain will be even worse.

Whoever wins the next election taxes will have to go up. Britain will be paying for the profligacy of Brown and Darling for many years after the voters have sent them to well deserved oblivion.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Misuse of the MPs "Communications Allowance"

The Lib/Dem MP for Cheadle, Mark Hunter, also PPS to the Lib/Dem leader, has been criticised by the impartial parliamentary watchdog for misusing his "Communications Allowance."

Mark Hunter MP, who is PPS to Nick Clegg, was ordered to repay £500 after having allowed a constituency-wide survey on the NHS, paid for by the Communications Allowance, to be contaminated by party political messaging.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards concluded:

"I conclude, therefore, that the way Mr Hunter deployed this survey in his Liberal Democrat newsletter was a breach of the rules since he was using the product of material paid for from the Communications Allowance for party political or campaigning purposes."

He continued:

"I do not believe it was a calculated breach. But this was more than a series of isolated misjudgements or individual mistakes. The evidence suggests that at its heart lay a confusion in Mr Hunter’s approach between communications with constituents as their constituency Member of Parliament and communications with them as a member of his political party. The former is properly a matter for support from Parliamentary allowances; the latter, not.

While minor misdemeanours in themselves, the party reference in the survey’s end note and its description as a Liberal Democrat survey in the party newsletter are in my view symptomatic of a failure to make a sufficiently clear distinction between the Parliamentary and the party political. The line between the two can be difficult to draw but in my view the successful drawing of that line is central to the public acceptability of these allowances.

In this case, Mr Hunter did not distinguish clearly enough between his Parliamentary and party political roles and as a result I conclude that he breached the rules by using the Communications Allowance, albeit largely indirectly, to support his party political or campaigning activities."

Previously Labour MP and former cabinet minister Ruth Kelly had to issue an apology for spending part of her parliamentary communications allowance on a constituency newsletter that, in clear breaches of guidance, boasted of Labour Government achievements. The guidelines state that "no party political or campaigning material is allowable in any part of a publication funded, in whole or in part, from the allowances."

Mrs Kelly told the newspaper that broke the story - The Mail on Sunday - that she apologised unreservedly. Her newsletter included the following sentences:

“This reaffirms Labour’s commitment to investing in the NHS”
“The Labour Government has invested so much in improving early years’ services"
It boasts of “the difference made by Labour’s commitment to investing in and modernising our NHS"
It includes the slogan from her website “Your NHS. Better with Labour”
It also promoted the work of Bolton West Labour Party.

Mr Hunter and Mrs Kelly are not the only offenders. CCHQ has identified other leaflets - paid for by taxpayers - but which appear to be in breach of parliamentary guidelines:

* Bridget Prentice, a Minister for Justice, has the Labour Party logo on every page of her newsletter – and even includes a photo of her local Labour Party HQ.

* Gisela Stuart, majority 2,349, also uses the Labour Party’s colours across the entire leaflet, including photographs with Gordon Brown and claims Gordon Brown is ‘delivering a fair deal for pensioners today’.

* Julie Morgan includes a section in her leaflet celebrating the arrival of ‘a new Prime Minister’ who has seen ‘many testing occasions’ as well as pointing out she supported Harriet Harman for Labour’s Deputy Leadership.

More details are given on the Conservative Home website - see link at right, or go to

Commenting on the Labour abuse cases, Francis Maude said:

“The Communications Allowance was deliberately created to enable sitting Labour MPs to protect themselves against their democratic opponents. This is further evidence of how Labour voted through taxpayers’ cash to bankroll their political campaigning in marginal seats. If Gordon Brown is serious about restoring trust in politics, he should scrap this unfair Allowance now."

Labour MPs frequently bleat about the money which Lord Ashcroft, about whom they are completely paranoid, gives to support Conservative candidates.

It is worth stating that the money given to most Conservative candidates such as myself from the target seats fund which Lord Ashcroft runs in his capacity as a party deputy chairman - not all of which comes from him personally - is considerably less for most of us than the amount of taxpayer's money which our Labour or Lib/Dem incumbent opponents are entitled to claim via the Communications Allowance.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

ICM reports an 11% Tory lead

After a week in which the Conservative lead in the opinion polls has ranged from 11% down to 3%, it bounced back to 11% in the latest ICM opinion poll.

This ICM poll gives the party shares as:

LABOUR 31% (+1)
LIB DEMS 19% (+1)

Practically every opinion poll for a year has estimated the Conservative share of the vote at 40% or above, including all the polls in the past week, but Labour has been between about 31% and 37% and the Lib/Dems between 12% and 19%.

So the range in Conservative opinion poll leads in the past week - 11%, 5%, 3%, and back to 11% - has largely been due to different estimates of how support divides between Labour and the Lib/Dems.

It is also noticeable that the media has given much less attention to the opinion polls showing the Conservatives still more than 10% ahead than to those with a narrower lead.

It is worth remembering that if a poll has a sample size of 1000 or so, as most of them do, the standard margin of error is about three percentage points for each party's estimated share of the vote. As the poll lead is the difference between the top two shares, the standard margin of error on a poll lead is rather more than that. For that reason anyone who is really interested in what opinion polls are saying is wise to pay more attention to the shares of the individual parties than to the lead.

The opinion poll with the latest 11% Conservative lead was ICM, while another poll which had a much lower Lib/Dem share, higher Labour share, and lower lead was Ipsos MORI.

The main difference between ICM and MORI is that the former takes measures to ensure a politically balanced sample through past vote weighting. MORI doesn’t and as Mike Smithson of the "Political Betting" website was arguing on Wednesday the latest survey simply had far too few 2005 Lib Dem voters in it to make it representative.

As Mike put it

"What’s happening at the moment is that it’s the way the different firms are polling the Lib Dems that is driving the top-line numbers."

and he added

"My view, as I have argued here before, is that the ICM methodology is sounder than MORI’s."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lest we Forget

Earlier this month on Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Dat we commemorated all those who were killed or wounded in war.

This week a plaque was unveiled to remember those people who made a special effort, sometimes at considerable personal risk themselves, to save Jewish people from the Holocaust.

The official British government record in terms of effective action to protect people from being murdered by the Nazis was mixed. There were undoubtedly some enlightened official decisions which allowed many thousands of people who would otherwise have been killed by Hitler's regime to escape to this country, to America, or to what is now Israel. However historians who examine the record as a whole will always ask whether there was more that the Western powers could have done.

That question will not be asked of Captain Foley, the British Intelligence head of station at the Berlin Embassy, who saved a very large number of people - probably thousands though nobody knows the exact number - from death in Nazi extermination camps. He was one of a number of individual British officials who saw what was coming, and granted visas for Britain to every Jewish refugee they possibly could, sometimes literally securing their release from concentration camps to leave the country. In many cases Captain Foley and his wife personally hid Jewish refugees in their own house.

Men and women like Captain Foley and his wife acted at great personal risk; but they saw a choice between good and evil and they chose the right side.

Few of us will face choices so stark, but there are times when all of us should remember the moral courage of people like the Foleys. Sometime we should ask ourselves - what side are we on?

Quote of the day

"Alistair Darling could be quite a good Chancellor if Gordon ever gave him the job."

Ken Clarke

Friday, November 21, 2008

Clarke backs Osborne

Ken Clarke has publicly supported George Osborne as Shadow Chancellor and disavowed those who have been suggesting that David Cameron appoint him instead.

In an interview in the Daily Mail, Ken suggested that his name was being used in a dirty tricks campaign against the Shadow Chancellor which was designed to undermine the party leadership. He said that Mr Osborne was being "targeted in a personalised political campaign" and added: "I think my name is being used as part of this attempt to undermine George."

Mr Clarke warned:

"I think for David Cameron to replace George Osborne with me or anyone else would be a serious political mistake. The impression it would give of self doubt, division and sudden loss of confidence in what we have been saying would be catastrophic. It would be a triumph for opponents of the Conservative Party."

Mr Clarke backed Mr Osborne's dramatic warning at weekend that soaring borrowing could trigger a run on Sterling. He accused Mr Brown of putting the economy at risk with his plan to borrow billions to pay for a tax giveaway next week worth up to £20billion. He described the crisis as "the worst in my lifetime" and said:

"It's going to be a very deep recession and a persistent one. We don't know when the recovery will start and we don't know how strong it will be."

Mr Clarke added: "We could be back in a situation where the timing and issuing of vast quantities of bonds is very difficult. That would drive up long-term interest rates for everyone. In that situation the prospects for recovery are badly damaged"

Contrary to Labour suggestions that George Osborne should not have commented on the risk to the pound as this broke some alleged convention, Ken Clarke also denied that there has ever been a convention banning politicians from commenting on the health of the Pound.

Ken has got the line right - he recognises who is putting the economy at risk, who the Conservative party should be criticising, and that is Gordon Brown. The small minority within the Conservative party which has been launching "friendly fire" at the shadow chancellor should follow Ken's example and shift their guns to the proper target.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lower spending increases are not spending cuts: 2

When I heard that David Cameron had dropped the promise to match Labour's spending increases, I had two immediate reactions

1) Given the increasingly dire financial position and Labour's reckless tax and spending plans, this is the right thing to do: it appears unlikely that the country will still be able to afford increases on the scale currently proposed.

2) We will need to be on our guard, because Labour and some of their allies in the media will dishonestly misrepesent lower spending increases as spending cuts.

The Labour MP for Copeland proved me right on the second point almost instantly. A quick look at Hansard reveals the following question which he asked at this week's PMQs (Prime Minister's Questions):

Jamie Reed (Lab, Copeland): "Constituencies such as mine are set to benefit from new schools, new hospitals, new health facilities and new social housing in the near future, but those developments will be put at risk by the public spending cuts from the Opposition. Does the Prime Minister agree that constituencies such as mine throughout the north of England would be decimated by such proposals?"

The Conservatives have not proposed "public spending cuts" in schools, hospitals, health facilities, or social housing.

We are not in a position to put forward a budget for what a Conservative government will do if elected, when the election may not take place for about 18 months, though we will do so in our manifesto when an election is called. The "decimation" which the MP for Copeland refers to exists only in his overactive imagination.

We have dropped a guarantee to match Labour increases - but if that means we end up spending less, the intention is to economise on bureacracy, regulations, and quangoes, not front line services like schools and hospitals.

If he spent more time taking up issues of concern to his constituents and less time inventing imaginary Conservative policies to attack he would be a much better MP.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A wise man shows he knows when to call it quits

I have enjoyed John Sergeants performances on "Strictly Come Dancing" and I think that up to this point, he and his dance partner have provided a lot of pleasure and amusement to viewers of the show. There is also no doubt in my mind that the panel of judges rashly went "over the top" in their criticisms of him a week ago last Saturday, and probably perversely boosted his vote in the process.

Whatever the judges said, John Sergeant's dancing performances improved greatly over the series and were fun to watch. His professional partner, Kristina Rihanoff, deserves some of the credit for that.

However, in pulling out of the competition this week he has done something very rare: run with something as long as it was entertaining and funny but stopped before it became too much of an embarrasment.

Perhaps as a political journalist he has learned a lesson from watching politicans, who rarely know when to quit.

Lower spending increases are not spending cuts

Because of the credit crunch which has already hit us, and the recession which even the government admits is likely, Britain can no longer afford the large increases in public spending which Labour is proposing.

Labour's policy of unfunded tax cuts now combined with rises in public spending will mean even bigger tax rises after the next election if they win.

As any reputable economist will admit, big increases in public borrowing, even if temporary, will usually mean that interest rates have to be higher than they otherwise would have been. This means that if the government is already borrowing lots of money, as the current Labour government is, a further fiscal stimulus (that's economist-speak for governments spending more) can "crowd out" private spending.

That is why the Conservatives will no longer by promising at the next election to match Labour's spending plans for the first two years of a Conservative government.

This does NOT mean that we are proposing to cut spending on schools and hospitals.

Saying that we are no longer confident that the country can afford large spending increases is not the same as saying that we are going to cut the overall level of spending. And where a Conservative government does make savings it will be in administration and unproductive spending, while front line services such as schools and hospitals will be protected.

David Cameron has stressed Britain faces a clear choice: tax cons now and tax rises later with Labour, or fiscal responsibility and permanent funded tax cuts with the Conservatives.

In a press conference in London, David attacked Gordon Brown’s plans to go on a “borrowing binge”, warning that Labour’s borrowing bombshell will turn into a tax bombshell in the long run.

Labour Ministers Tony McNulty, Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson have all indicated that increased borrowing would have to be paid for with higher taxes at some point – and David said:

“Gordon Brown knows that borrowing today will mean higher taxes tomorrow. If he doesn’t tell you that he is deliberately misleading you.”

David stressed that instead of a tax con, Britain needs fiscal responsibility:

“Not spending money we haven’t got - but saving it to help people through tax relief. Not borrowing money on the nation’s credit card - but getting a grip on public spending and making sure Britain starts living within its means. That’s the only responsible way to get our economy back on the path to recovery.”

David promised to set up an independent Office for Budget Responsibility to bring stability to the public finances and open the way for permanent tax cuts in the future.

And he said he would restrain the growth of spending by not matching Labour's "unsustainably high" spending plans for 2010-11 and the years beyond.

“What once looked affordable in boom times is now clearly unsustainable. Let me put this as clearly as I can - unless we curb the growth of spending, taxes will need to rise in the future. Without such restraint, the borrowing bombshell will turn into a tax bombshell.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

MPs should be briefed on science

I broadly welcome the news that Adam Afriye MP, Conservative science spokesman, is proposing that Conservative MPs should attend briefings on scientific literacy under a plan to strengthen evidence-based policy-making.

Classes explaining scientific method and basic concepts will be included in the induction programme for all Tory MPs after the next election, and sitting members and peers will also be offered the opportunity to attend.

The policy is intended to address concerns about a lack of scientific expertise and understanding in the House of Commons and Whitehall.

Scientific challenges such as global warming, stem-cell research, pandemic flu and GM crops are becoming increasingly important political issues. Making information available to MPs of all parties about the scientific evidence on these and other subjects strikes me as an excellent idea.

This is not a problem unique to Conservative MPs - Professor Sir David King, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser, has criticised the Civil Service for a reluctance to use science properly when framing and implementing policy.

Mr Afriyie told The Times: “The evidence-based scientific approach extends well beyond subjects like embryology or GM crops. It is also critical to social policy and criminal sentencing, and it cuts across all areas of government.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

Quote of the Day: Ken Clarke

I'm indebted to Iain Dale for the following quote from Ken Clarke.

Ken said yesterday that

"The G20 thing is a bit of a circus. They decided they wanted more growth. Yes and we all love mothers too. The summit was held because all 20 of them wanted to use he word 'global' to emphasie that it wasn't their problem. I'm afraid they all went there for the photo opportunity and I fear the photo that they missed was that with President-Elect Obama."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Christmas Parking

I was hoping to be able to give details of parking arrangements over Christmas and particularly whether there will be some free parking in Copeland to try to bring shoppers into Whitehaven and our other shopping areas in the run up to Christmas.

I am advised that "the question of free car parking in Whitehaven at Christmas is currently under review and an announcement will be made by the portfolio holder, Cllr George Clements, at Council on 2nd December."

When a government is past its Sell-By date ...

A good test of when a governments has been in office for far too long, is whether they are unable to take criticism.

In particular, those who have become so accustomed to holding office that they see it as a privilege and not a right interpret any suggestion that they might have made a mistake not as criticism of themselves but as a disloyal attack on the country.

E.g. if the pound drops 25% and the Shadow Chancellor makes some comments about why this may be happening and how to avoid making it worse, and the government accuses him of "Talking Down the Pound."

You can't run a democracy on the basis that any attempt to criticise the government is immediately damned as disloyal and against the rules: that way lies the politics of Robert Mugabe.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Report back from Copeland Council O&S Management Committee

I attended the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee of Copeland Council yesterday.

Mostly an admin type meeting dealing with the sort of issues which councillors have to address but which tend to send most other people to sleep. However, one or two issues which do have an effect on people in the real world did come up. Issues discussed included

* How Copeland can feed views into the consultation by Cumbria CC about traffic in
the centre of Whitehaven - prevailing view was that we may want to discuss this
at an Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

It was noted that a lot of people may think that becase the consultation is
described as being about Whitehaven Town centre it won't affect residents of
less central areas of the town or other parts of Whitehaven. However, in practice
it will affect a lot of other people. Those who shop in the town for example.

* Questions asked about whether there will be free parking over Christmas. See
forthcoming post.

* Some early discussion about the process for setting next year's budget and
council tax. There may have to be some difficult decisions on this.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Conservative proposals on Post Office Card Accounts

Following the excellent news that a campaign by Conservatives and others has shamed the government into renewing the Post Office Card Account contract, this is how Conservatives believe that the card should be extended, helping both Post Office branches and customers.

What does the Post Office Card Account do now ?

POCA is a basic cash account run by the Department for Work and Pensions, which currently can only receive welfare, state pension and tax credit deposits.

How would the Conservatives extend it?

A Conservative government would expand and widen the role of POCA, both enabling it to accept additional deposits – including housing benefit and any weekly wages – and create sub-accounts which can be used for direct debit payments on a full range of public and private sector bills, including utilities.

Based on evidence from industry, vulnerable customers ‘cost’ utility companies on average double the amount of non-vulnerable customers. This is because of higher collection costs.

The running costs of the additional functionality will be met in full by participating energy companies. A number of utility companies, including EDF, United Utilities and Water UK (the representative body for UK water companies) have endorsed this proposal.

Who will benefit

According to the latest Treasury figures, over two million people do not have access to a bank account (HM Treasury, Family Resources Survey, 23 July 2008).

However, research by the social enterprise Saving for Poverty has shown that the figures for those who are unbanked or act as unbanked (because they withdraw all their cash on a week-by-week basis) is actually nearer to 8 million.

Not being able to pay bills by monthly direct debit adds a substantial penalty onto household bills – primarily because of the higher collection costs faced by energy companies dealing with unbanked customers.

Amongst the six main energy suppliers, direct debit customers save up to £80 a year over standard customers, and save £122 a year over pre-payment meter customers according to the latest available figures from Energywatch (August 2008). These figures are even higher when compared to online direct debit payments.

Save the Children has estimated that the ‘poverty premium’ costs an average £1,000 per year. This figure includes fees arising from the use of non-mainstream credit lenders who can charge as much as 170 per cent interest.

Utility companies will use the cost savings generated through these customers paying through automated direct debit style processes – estimated by Saving for Poverty to be up to £800 million a year – to offer lower rates to these users, bringing them broadly into line with traditional direct debit customers. This equates to £100 per POCA customer.

Post Offices

Fees from utility companies for this POCA functionality are projected to generate £20 million in additional revenues for post offices each year (Saving from Poverty).
Post Office Ltd. makes a saving of approximately £18,000 from the closure of each individual post office (Royal Mail). The £20 million of additional revenues could therefore help to keep more post offices open and help suspend the Labour Party’s programme of forced post office cuts.

Victory on Post Office Card Account

I was delighted to learn that the government has renewed the Post Office's one billion pound contract to distribute benefits, and abandoning a plan to offer it to the private sector which might potentially have caused the closure of anther 3,000 local post office branches on top of the 2,500 the government closed this year.

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell told the House of Commons that he was dropping the procurement process that could have led to a private company winning the Post Office Card Account contract, and that he will allow the Post Office to carry on providing the service.

Conservatives and others have campaigned to keep the Post Office Card Account with Post Offices Limited, not least because this gives some real opportunities to enhance the capabilities of the card which would simultaneously help some of the most vulnerable members of society and reinforce the economic position of post office branches.

Two million people had signed a petition and 265 MPs from all parties signed a parliamentary motion calling for the contract to stay with the Post Office.

The new contract will now run from 2010, when the current contract runs out, until March 2015, with the possibility of an extension later.

It had been widely expected until recently that the contract would be awarded to the private company PayPoint and Purnell said his decision to keep the contract with the Post Office did not reflect on the service offered by other bidders.

The decision was warmly welcomed by the National Federation of SubPostmasters. George Thomson, its general secretary, said it was the correct decision of the post office network and for customers.

"The Post Office's bid was highly competitive, and provides customers with unrivalled geographical coverage, security and peace of mind, and a seamless transition from the current card account," he said.

"The alternative to today's news - the loss or the joint award of the contract - would have undoubtedly resulted in at least 3,000 unplanned post office closures."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Keep Britain Working

David Cameron has proposed giving tax cuts to employers who hire new workers, in a move that will create an estimated 350,000 new jobs over the next year.

Tax cuts worth £2,500 per person, per year would be given to employers who hire new workers who have been unemployed for three months or more.

£2.6 billion of tax breaks would be given to employers in total – and this would be paid for using the money saved on welfare payments.

The scheme would create new jobs, boost the economy and reduce the damaging social costs associated with unemployment.

And, because it would be funded from lower spending on unemployment benefits, it would be revenue neutral overall for the Government.

David called on Labour to adopt this scheme as soon as possible, stressing, "Instead of the Government paying for people to be unemployed, it can pay for them to be in work."

He said there was a "clear choice" between unfunded "tax cons" from Labour and fully funded tax cuts from the Conservatives, and outlined our other proposals to help Britain's families and businesses:

* A 2-year council tax freeze, paid for by cutting back on government
advertising and consultancy fees
* Taking the family home out of Inheritance Tax and nine out of ten first-time
buyers out of Stamp Duty by introducing a levy on non-domiciles
* Allowing small businesses to delay their VAT payments by 6 months

* Cutting payroll taxes for the smallest companies

David stressed, "The modern Conservative Party will not stand aside and let unemployment claim livelihoods and ruin lives."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Consultation on Whitehaven Town Centre Traffic

I attended a presentation to councillors yesterday evening on the consultation which Cumbria CC is currently carrying out on options for managing traffic flow in Whitehaven Town Centre.

The consultation runs until March. It will be presented to the public at several public meetings including:

South Whitehaven Neighbourhood Forum, 7pm this evening, Mirehouse Community Centre

Hillcrest & Hensingham Neighbourhood Forum, 6.30pm on 27th November, St John's Church Hensingham.

Bransty & Harbour Neighhourhood Forum, 7pm on 2nd December, The Legion, Bransty

There will also be an interactive exhibition at the URC Church, Market Place, from Thursday 20th November to Saturday 22nd November (Noon to 6pm Thursday to Friday, 9.30 am to noon on the Saturday) and an ongoing exhibition at the Danial Hay library in Lowther Street.

The public can email questions or comments to

Essentially there are four options. Option one, the minimum change option, keeps broadly the same traffic flow but includes some enviromental and junction improvements, particularly the introduction of proper mini-roundabouts at the horrible junctions at George Street/Tangier Street and Duke Street/Church Street.

Options 2, 3, and 4 are much more radical, but all are variants on the idea of banning most traffic out of Lowther Street and Strand Street, and making most of the rest of the current ring road two-way, with a clockwise gyratory system involving the Northwestern part of Duke Street, Tangier Street, George Street, and the Northeast end of Church Street.

The aim is to get a broad public response now with a view to detailed design in about two years time and implementation in about 2012.

I would strongly urge all Whitehaven residents, businesses, and those who work or shop in the town to check out the consultation and let the County Council know your views.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Bonkers Tax Cutters"

I do not normally expect to find myself in strong agreement with John Rentoul of the Independent but he makes some very good points on his blog today here.

Not long ago, any suggestion from the Conservatives that they might cut taxes was greeted with a barrage of accusations from the Labour party in general and Gordon Brown in particular that these tax cuts were not properly costed and that "unfunded" tax cuts (or indeed "unfunded" spending) was a disaster.

Now after billions of "unfunded" spending to nationalise Northern Rock and more unfunded billions paid out to support the other banks, Brown is not only proposing unfunded tax cuts of his own, but criticising, yes, criticising the Conservatives for the fact that the tax cuts we in turn are proposing are not unfunded, e.g. that there has been an attempt to say how they would be paid for.

As Rentoul puts it

From punk tax cuts to bonkers tax cuts. I could not believe what Gordon Brown was saying this morning, that Conservative tax cuts didn't count because they were "funded" - that is, paid for by savings elsewhere.


For Brown to advocate unfunded tax cuts - that is, paid for by more borrowing - suddenly takes us into the political economy of Alice in Wonderland.


"Now Brown hints at big tax cuts paid for by higher borrowing. It is a complete reversal of his previous rhetoric, even if he hasn't stuck to it since about 2003.

"I cannot understand the current presentation of Brown as a statesman suddenly come into his own, while Cameron and Osborne are portrayed as schoolboys who have responded to the economic crisis erratically and uncertainly. Higher borrowing - on top of the much higher borrowing that kicks in automatically because tax receipts fall in a recession - will make matters worse in the long run.

"Brown is making it up as he goes along, as he has done since his golden rules were rewritten to suit his political ambitions, only now it is serious, and seriously wrongheaded."


(I will save any Labour backers reading this the effort of posting a comment to ask what I would have done about Northern Rock and the bank bail out. I would have let Richard Branson buy Northern Rock. The bank bailout, however regrettable the need for it, was necessary to prevent a serious risk of grave damage to the rest of the economy and the Conservatives supported it.)

Further reflections on Armistice Day

Standing in St Nicholas's Gardens, Whitehaven during the short act of remembrance which was held at 11 am this morning, in absolutely filthy weather, I was struck by how many people attended the ceremonies both on Sunday and today.

And in both cases many of those were young people.

As the First World War gradually slips from living memory into history, it my impression that remembering the cost of war is taken even more seriously, not less, and this is very welcome.

As a small boy I was aware that my grandfather, one or two of my older teachers, and a few of the oldest members of the congregation at Church were First World War veterans and that many of the men of my father's generation had served in World War Two. My mother was a girl at the time of the second world war, but to the end of her life she could hold an audience of children spellbound by describing some of her wartime experiences. So even though I was not born until some years later, the presence in my upbringing of people for whom both wars were a vivid and personal memory made them part of my country's recent past, not ancient history.

Having had my children relatively late in life, it was a sobering thought when I realised that for my son, veterans of the second war are rarer in his experience than those of the first war were for me.

There is a saying that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But if the young people who took part in Remembrance Services in Whitehaven this week are anything to go by (particularly the four brave sentires who stood solidly to attention on each side of the War Memorial in Castle Park on Sunday despite the bitter cold, or the children from St James's School who were very well behaved in even more horrible weather in St Nicholas's Gardens today), many young people in Britain today are in no danger of making that mistake.

Action to save jobs

David Cameron promised to do everything possible to help prevent mass unemployment in a speech to the Conservative Women’s Organisation Conference.

He stressed that unemployment is a tragedy not just for the people involved, but for all of society. He emphasised that it "isn't just an economic waste; it's a recipe for social disaster.”

And he said that, despite claims to the contrary, mass unemployment is not “an unavoidable consequence of recession”:

“The Conservative party will not stand aside and allow unemployment to claim livelihoods and ruin lives on a massive scale. We will not walk on by while people lose their jobs.”

David argued that we must show compassion during the recession, saying, “The authentic Conservative response to the pain of mass unemployment is a fusion of this compassion with responsibility.”

He stressed that women may be more vulnerable to redundancy, as far more women have part-time jobs and work in sectors likely to contract.

And he explained how a Conservative Government would ease the strain of recession:

Freezing council taxes for two years
Deferring VAT payments for small companies
Cutting payroll taxes for every business with fewer than five employees
Stopping the planned tax rises on family cars

Monday, November 10, 2008

The top ten irritating phrases

Oxford compiled the following list of their top ten most irritating phrases:

1 - At the end of the day

2 - Fairly unique

3 - I personally

4 - At this moment in time

5 - With all due respect

6 - Absolutely

7 - It's a nightmare

8 - Shouldn't of (instead of "shouldn't have")

9 - 24/7

10 - It's not rocket science

Some of those certainly irritate me, although I personally welcome the use of "With all due respect," invariably used when the speaker is about to say something the hearer won't like. First, it gives one a couple of second's warning to brace oneself for the unwelcome comment, and second, by giving the courtesy of that warning the speaker reduces the extent that making the following unwelcome statement appears directly hostile.

I'd substitute "getting on with the job" as my number five instead.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Lest We Forget

Today is Remembrance Sunday.

Like millions of other people, I will be taking part in a civic act of remembrance: in my case at the war memorial at the park in Whitehaven shortly before 11 am, followed by a procession and a civic service at Whitehaven Civic Hall at noon.

Ninety years and a few days ago, Private Robert Whiteside of the Lancashire Fusiliers, my grandfather's brother, was killed in action at the age of 18.

He was by no means the only military or civilian member of my family to die in one of the wars of the 20th century, but his death at such a young age, just before the end of the First World War, sums up the enormous and ghastly waste of life which those conflicts caused.

Today is not the day for making arguments about the best way to prevent such conflicts happening again. Today is a day when all of us, regardless of our views about those issues, should remember the cost of war, including all those who have died in every country as a result of armed conflict, and particularly those who died defending this country, our freedoms, and the rule of law.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Royal Mail should keep the Post Office Card Account

Alan Duncan, the shadow trade and industry secretary, says a Conservative Government would keep the contract with the Royal Mail.

Writing on the Daily Telegraphh website he says: "The Post Office Card Account is the lifeline keeping what is left of our post office network alive.

"If the Government pulls the plug and sends POCA business elsewhere, the whole network will be plunged into unmanageable chaos.

"Gordon Brown talks of being a friend to small firms, but it looks like his Government is prepared to drive a stake through the heart of Britain's most iconic form of small business.

"If he wants to see any future for post offices in Britain, he must award the POCA contract to Post Office Limited."

Post offices have declined in number by 40 per cent from 19,000 to just 11,500 since Labour came to power, Mr Duncan says, with rural communities hit hardest.

However Mr Duncan warns that "the worst may be yet to come" if Royal Mail loses the contract, making "previous cuts seem trivial in comparison".

The card account contract, worth £249 a month to the average post office, is vital to marginally profitable post offices which have seen revenues collapsed after losing the right to sell road tax and TV licences.

Mr Duncan says: "Without POCA, many post offices would find it impossible to survive."

There is a further risk, he says, that if the contract is taken away from the Royal Mail it could cause the "social" justification under European Union rules of network's £150million a year subsidy to be withdrawn.

"Electronic terminals in newsagents are no substitute for a local post office, and it would be absolutely false for the Government to pretend otherwise" he added.

The Local Government Association also said it would be campaigning to save post offices. In a letter to Lord Mandelson, LGA chairman Maragret Eaton said: "Councils are deeply concerned about the prospect of widespread post office closures if Royal Mail loses the Post Office Card Account contract.

"If the Government decides not to award the Post Office Card Account contract to Royal Mail, councils will campaign in force to ensure that government funds are made available so that post offices across the country are saved from closure."

A spokesman at the Department for Work and Pensions told the Telgraph that: “The contracting process remains underway. No decision has yet been made. An announcement on the outcome will be made as soon as possible.”

Friday, November 07, 2008

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes ?

Which is Latin for "Who shall guard the guards themselves?" and is a phrase that is usually written in latin because the issue has been recognised for so many years that it dates back to the days when more educated people wrote in latin than any other language.

But this ancient saying seems rather relevant to another unbelievable but true story about what passes for national security in Britain these days ...

The government has quietly released a written statement that reveals that thirty eight officials working at the Security Industry Authority had not received appropriate security clearance themselves.

The SIA is the body which checks and licences employees working in the security industry. The failure to properly vet its own officials makes a nonsense of what is is doing.

As Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve rightly said, "Thirty-eight officials have not been properly vetted at the very body hired to license those who can hold security positions in this country. And the Home Secretary has absolutely no idea how many licence applications this could have affected."

"This Home Secretary has been so fixated on gesture politics, like ID cards and 42 days, that she has been staggeringly complacent when it comes to getting a grip on basic elements of security policy that are vital to protecting the public."

Quite. Doesn't it show a remarkably skewed set of priorities that in the same week that the authorities use armed police to remind motorists to renew their tax discs, we also discover that the government did not have the basic competence to ensure that the people doing security vetting have passed the same vet themselves ?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Armed Police check tax discs ...

Even in Brown's Britain, even with the atrocious Jacqui Smith as Home Secretary, could you believe that we would see armed police checking car tax discs?

That's what was happening on the A595 in West Cumbria last week.

In a letter in today's Whitehaven News a Gosforth resident writes about how he was directed by police officers carrying guns to stop in a lay-by with other passing vehicles. One of the officers glanced at his tax disc and sent him on his way.

A spokesman for Cumbria Constabulary told the Whitehaven News "The vehicle was stopped as part of a joint six-week operation between Cumbria Constabulary and Civil Nuclear constabulary. It is called Operation Lace and finishes at the end of next week. The aim is to monitor traffic moving southbound on the A595 with an emphasis on driver education, enforcement of moving traffic offences and intelligence development."

CNC is the nuclear industry's dedicated police force. For obvious reasons they are often armed when patrolling at Sellafield and other nuclear facilites. Their involvement with this traffic check was justified on the basis that

"The focus of the CNC is the development of local intelligence in support of their national counter terrorism remit."

The police spokesman went on to say:

"With Friday being October 31st officers from CNC and Cumbria Constabulary stopped all vehicles with an expiring tax disc that day to remind the driver of this. Driving a vehicle with an expired tax disc is not an arrestable offence however should an offence have been necessary for some other reason it would have been completed by an officer from Cumbria Constabulary."

So there we have it. The latest example of "mission creep" from the government which passed laws on the basis that they were needed to stop terrorists, which were subsequently used to check up on parents suspected of playing the system to get their children into the best school, and families suspected of putting their rubbish out on the wrong day.

Now we use armed police officers used to stop traffic on the basis of counter-terrorism intelligence gathering, and we end up using officers carrying guns to remind drivers to renew their car tax discs.

I'm not sure whether the most healthy reaction to this is to roll around on the floor screaming with laughter, or to get cross. But I suspect we should probably do both.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Congratulations to President-Elect Obama

I have found the US elections gripping and fascinating. I thought the field of candidates standing was the strongest for many years and that both the Republicans and Democrats picked the best candidate available.

Barack Obama's historic election proves that the USA is a far more tolerant and open society than many people give it credit for being.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Nick Herbert on "Hate Crimes" and "Free Speech"

Nick Herbert, the shadow Justice secretary, made an interesting speech to the Bar Council at the weekend about hate crime legislation and how it should be operated.

He put a case for the retention of these laws provided they are used to reinforce the legal prohibition of violence and promotion of violence and not as a means to deny free speech to those who are merely putting forward offensive opinions.

Nick said that “The balance must always be struck so that people are free, and feel free, to voice opinions and disagreement which, even if objectionable, are not directly harmful,”

and he went on to outline a need for a delineation between “temperate criticism” and “language which is so inflammatory that it causes harm or triggers violence”.

He explained:

“The balance which I believe should be struck in deciding whether a hate crime is proved, and which reflects Parliament's will, is – to use the expression in the US Supreme Court decision R.A.V. v. City of St Paul – that 'fighting words' fall on the criminal side of the line, but merely offensive comment should not. Parliament has not introduced an offence of thought crime; nor should we.

“The response of our law enforcement agencies must always be proportionate and must target the criminal, not just the immoral or unpleasant. Parliament did not intend that harmless abuse should be subject to criminal sanction. People who set out their views about gay practices in a temperate way might still cause offence, as might those who call Irishmen leprechauns, but such comment is not criminal, and should not attract heavy handed policing, still less prosecution.

“The police and Crown Prosecution Service should focus on those who seek to spread violent hatred. They should not be wasting resources on the politically-correct pursuit of neighbours who engage in tasteless insults. We must guard against a culture that allows criminal justice agencies to pursue easy targets while simultaneously allowing preachers of hate to call for the stoning of gay people”.

He also added that passing laws must not be seen as the main way, let along the only way, to change behaviour:

“Attitudes may be constrained by laws, and sometimes led by them, but ultimately it is only by fostering a shared feeling of responsibility that we can promote a tolerant society where people are considerate towards others and their feelings, and where they exercise judgement in what they say and do… So we should not believe that laws are a panacea. We will never outlaw hate, any more than we can outlaw anger. But we can set a careful framework to outlaw hatred which really harms, while protecting fundamental liberties.”

Monday, November 03, 2008

Tim Montgomerie on what Conservatives stand for

Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home had an interesting piece at the weekend which summarised in three bullet points what Conservatives should stand for in the 21st century. His three key points are

(1) We should not be resigned to the persistence of poverty in our rich and technologically-sophisticated age. The Left have run out of steam in the war on poverty. An alternative - conservative - approach to mending broken societies, rooted in the renewal of the Burkean small platoons of family, charity and strong local institutions, notably the school, is the morally right thing to do for the millions let down by state poverty-fighting efforts.

(2) Only a stronger society will produce a sustainably smaller state. Small state conservatives have long tried to cut the supply for government services but have done little about the demand for them. You cannot have a small state unless a large majority of citizens have the skills and values to live independently of the taxpayer. That means a good education, a stable family life, a respect for the law and a concern for neighbours in need.

(3) The old conservative tunes aren't electorally sufficient when centre left parties are also attempting to play them. Conservatives need to offer a broad prospectus if they are to reach the growing number of 'values voters' who want to vote for a party that isn't just good for them but also good for their neighbour.

Tim added that

On school choice, prisons reform, voluntary sector funding and welfare policy Britain's Conservatives are beginning to devise the policy responses that are equal to the challenge. Recession must not be used as an excuse to retreat from the task of going still deeper and broader.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The ASA should not tolerate bad science

I was disappointed to hear that the Advertising Standards Authority failed to uphold a complaint about an organic fertiliser company which advertised their products as containing no chemicals.

The ASA's argument to taking no action was essentially that this inaccurate description was due to sloppiness and incompetence rather than a deliberate wish to mislead, and that there were probably no potential customers who thought that the company was selling hard vacuum.

Well, they were probably right on both those counts.

Nevertheless, I regret the ASA's decision to tolerate such a blatant case of "dumbing down." The ASA is supposed to ensure that adverts are legal, decent, honest, and truthful, and this one fails the fourth test. They should have instructed the company to clarify their advertising by using an expression like "no man-made chemicals" or "no artificial additives."

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Come back, Mr Speaker, all is forgiven

The Speaker gets a lot of flak from many bloggers who think, among other things, that he should try harder to be neutral.

But credit where credit is due, this week he sat on a number of inappropriate and childish Labour attacks on the shadow chancellor which were not within the rules of parliament. Quotes below come from Hansard via Conservative Home.

Labour MP Lyn Brown fired the first salvo:

"Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I congratulate the Chancellor on the recapitalisation of banks, which has been admired and copied throughout the world, but was that task helped by the leaking of confidential documents by the Bank of England and by the hon. Gentleman on the Opposition Front Bench on “The Andrew Marr Show”? What does the Chancellor think of his opposite number’s judgment?" [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: "Order. Did the hon. Lady warn the shadow Chancellor that she was going to make an attack on him?"

Lyn Brown: "No, Mr. Speaker."

Mr. Speaker: "Well she should have done. I call Julian Brazier. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Lady must behave herself."

Then came Labour MP Karen Buck:

Ms Buck: "Mr Speaker, I wonder whether it might be possible for you to accept a note signed by everyone on the Labour Benches, because for the next 18 months we all intend to do little else other than attack the shadow Chancellor." [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: "Order. A genuine attack is one thing, but a personal attack on anyone’s integrity will be stopped. I just put that on the record, but I know that the hon. Lady will not indulge in any personal attacks on anyone."

Ms Buck: "Perish the thought, Sir."

Then came Anne Snelgrove:

"Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): "Is it bad judgment to oppose Government action to protect small savers’ money in banks and building societies, or just another example of social justice from the perspective of the Bullingdon club?"

Mr. Speaker: "Order. The hon. Lady really should cut that behaviour out."

And finally in came Dennis Skinner ...

"Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): "Is the Chancellor aware that it makes a lot more sense to borrow money to create jobs and to help small businesses rather than spending the whole summer cadging money for the Tory party to shore up its finances?"

Mr. Speaker: "Order. I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to give us a good example, but that did not happen"

My late mother, a primary school teacher, sometimes compared the behaviour of MPs unfavourably to that of the children she taught. When I read the above comments it brought back a memory of her voice saying "We've got a lot of babies running the country."