Thursday 31 July 2014

Fracking: consultation discounted.

In the early 1930s the powers that be proposed that Birstall, the urban village where I live, which then had its own independent Local Government Council, should be merged with (or taken over by) the neighbouring Borough of Batley.  A referendum on the proposal was organised and the worthy burgers of Birstall voted as follows:

                                                          25  for
                                                     3 524  against
                                                        190  spoiled, abstained or did not vote.

So in 1936 Birstall was duly merged with (taken over by) Batley.

(This was followed two years later the German  Anschluss of Austria.  Whether Hitler took Birstall's experience as a precedent is not recorded.)

More recently our government has ordered a consultation on whether or not "fracking" for shale gas should be permitted.   Most of those involved in the consultation are opposed, including two of the government's own bodies: Public Health England, part of the Department of Health, are opposed  on the grounds that insufficient consideration has been given to the consequences for public health on the potential contamination of water supplies; Natural England, the environment protection agency, says that important natural habitats are insufficiently protected.  These in addition to the "usual suspects" such as the RSPB, the Green Party, and environmental groups and climate change campaigners who believe that the government should be concentrating on renewable energy sources rather than exploiting yet more carbon-based, polluting, non- renewable resources.

So, in response to a resounding "No" the government has decreed that fracking  is to go ahead.  It appears that those with the most money and the shortest time-scales, the (largely foreign owned) fracking companies keen to join the bonanza, speak with the loudest voices.

No wonder the public is increasingly, and justifiably, cynical about the political process, and their (our) disillusionment is shown by increasingly smaller turnouts in elections.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Miliband and Question Time

It's a bit rich for Ed Miliband to complain that Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) puts people off politics.  After all, he's responsible for almost half of it.  His suggestion that that parliamentary PMQs should be supplemented by a citizen's version is yet another example of our politicians, frightened of taking responsibility themselves, trying to slough it of onto someone else - as with the obsession with referendums.

The way to generate  seriousness in  PMQs and other Questions to Ministers is for parliament itself to reform the procedure.  Here are a few suggestions:

1.  Stop the silly nonsense of asking the PM for a list of his engagements, as an excuse for asking a supplementary question on any topic and thus hoping to catch him out.  We should leave "being quick on your feet" to the stand-up comedians
2.  Questions should be genuine requests for information and explanations, except in cases of emergency submitted 24 hours in advance, so that the PM or minister has time to research and give an informed response.
3.  The number of supplementaries allocated to the Leader of the Opposition, and, where appropriate, other party leaders, should be greatly reduced.
4.  More opportunities should be given for back-benchers to ask questions, with up to two supplementaries.
5.  The cringe-making toady questions organised by the Whips should be discouraged.

Something on the above lines has, I believe, been recommended by the Hansard Society.  Their adoption would help us approach "government by discussion" which is the essence of democracy.

Monday 28 July 2014

Rack renting: condemned in 1553 and still going strong.

 A report by the government's official English Housing Survey shows that it is now more expensive the average weekly cost of renting a home in the private sector, £163, is now greater than the £149 weekly cost of servicing a mortgage to buy one. Unfortunately potential new buyers are not earning enough to accumulate the deposit necessary to switch from renting to

So the rentier class has a field day squeezing the mainly young people caught in this "rent trap" for all, or even more, than they are worth.

These is nothing new  in this as this lovely prayer, presumably written by Cranmer before 1553, and found in a private prayer book of Edward VI, testifies:

The earth is Thine, O Lord, and all that is contained therein; we heartily pray Thee to send they Holy  Spirit into the hearts of them that posses the grounds, pastures and dwelling places of the earth that they, remembering themselves to be Thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their houses  and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes after the manner of covetous worldlings.

As as even the most limited A-level economics student will tell you , an increase in the supply of housing will bring the price down until people can afford it.  Builders claim that one of the main things holding them back is Britain's "over restrictive" planning laws.  This is nonsense.  A recent letter in the Guardian 
points out that builders hold "land banks" and wait for what they hope is for them the optimum, profit maximising, time to build.  The top seven  hold enough land to build 732 000 houses.  One of them holds enough land to furnish its needs for the next 33 years at its current rate of building.  Now that massive grocery stores are going out of fashion the supermarkets have vast hectares of land which they could now release for housing.

Land value taxation,(LVT) or site value rating as it used to be called in the Liberal Party, would "nudge" these landbankers to put their land to productive use.  This solution is so obvious it is amazing that Labour did not introduce it in all those years when it had a massive parliamentary majority.

In a visionary speech  Tim Farron, our Liberal Democrat president, has called for the building of 3 million new homes in the next ten years, enabled by taxation to "flush out" the necessary land, a lifting of the cap on the ability of housing associations and local authorities to borrow to build, and the right of local authorities to suspend the right to buy so that social housing no oner leaks to the "buy to let" brigade

These measures should be in the next Liberal Democrat  manifesto. We should not allow the housing market to remain in the hands of "covetous worldlings."

Friday 25 July 2014

Three cheers for David Ward.

The Liberal Democrat hierarchy does itself and the party no favours by slapping down anyone who says what they really think about the Israel/Palestine  situation. 

Ten years ago Jenny Tonge, after a visit to the Gaza Strip and being horrified by the conditions under which the people there were force to live,  said that, whilst not condoning their actions, she understood motivations of the Palestinian suicide bombers.  She was forced to apologise for her honesty by our then leader Charles Kennedy.  Two years later Ming Campbell took similar action, and Nick Clegg sacked her from her post as a party spokesperson in 2010.  She resigned from the party in 2012.

David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, has been and is being subjected to similar harassment. Last July he was forced to apologise for speaking of the atrocities inflicted on Palestine by "the Jews."  Apparently he should have said "the state of Israel."  This week he has again been slapped down for empathising with, though not condoning, those who fire rockets into Israel.

The reaction has been totally disproportionate.  Grant Shapps, the Tory Chairman, has condemned this expression of an honest opinion as an incitement to violence and "completely irresponsible. Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander,  is even more vitriolic:  these are "vile comments" which are "as revealing as they are repellent."

Regrettably, rather than defending Ward, this Liberal Democrat party, which puts "liberty", which includes freedom of speech, at the top of its values system, notes a clarification Ward has issued:

I utterly condemn the violence on both sides in Israel and Gaza.  I condemn the actions of Hamas, and my comments were  not in support  of firing rockets into Israel.  If they gave the opposite impression I apologise.

but ominously "will decide in due course  if  further disciplinary action should be taken."

In 2006 Jenny Tonge claimed:  "The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they've probably got a grip on our party."

A similar claim could be made about the relative resources devoted to perception management.  I'm writing from memory but I think, during last year's spat, Ward claimed that any criticism of Israel was promptly met be a roller coaster of PR to discredit the critic and put the Israeli case.  The Arabs simply do not have the resources to match.

The Liberal Democrat party, as successors to J S Mill ("If all mankind minus one . . .") as well as Beveridge and Keynes, should be in the forefront of defending the expression of honestly felt opinions, not joining the well financed apparatus for squashing them.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

A questionable devolution

Devolution of power and responsibility from Westminster and Whitehall to regional and local government has been part of the Liberal/Liberal Democrat creed for a s long as I can remember.  So I suppose we should welcome the government's decision to devolve a power to local councils.

But what a daft power: the right to close roads and abandon speed limits so as to run motorcar  races.

I've never regarded motor racing as much of a sport.  I acknowledge that driving a  car very fast requires both physical and mental skill, and designing a car that goes very fast requires clever engineering.  But it is a noisy, smelly practice which isn't really much of a spectator sport.  There is a well established Formula 3 road race in Pau and I went to watch it during the "year abroad" of my French course.  The cars zoom past, you wait a bit and they zoom past again, and if you have sharp eyes (which I have not) you may notice that the order has changed.

If some people get a thrill out of that, good luck to them, but it seems a curious area for a government which promised to be the greenest ever to promote.  Surely at a time when we are doing our best to cut down pollution, including noise pollution, and conserve non-renewable resources, particularly oil, we should be taking measures to limit this "sport" rather than promote it.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Scotland too brave.

I've just returned from a week's walking holiday in Scotland, based on Pitlochry. I've made no attempt to carry out a straw poll on the independence issue but have had two in-depth conversations.

The first was with a well-educated professional whom I already knew slightly and whose views on most general issues I respect.  He surprised my be saying he would "probably vote 'Yes'."  His reasons were twofold.  He feared that the the Tories might withdraw the UK from the EU and that would be a bad move for for all concerned.  Better for Scotland to come out of the UK but remain in the EU.  An English friend who has lived in Scotland for several months tells me that that is a view she commonly hears.  His second argument was that he feels Scotland to be a more caring , liberal and tolerant society than England is today, and would be better able to maintain this if independent.

My other conversation was with a man doing some gardening.  Whether that was his job, or he was the owner of the property and doing some tidying-up I don't know, but he was highly articulate and enthusiastically  in favour of the "Yes" campaign.  His main reasons were also essentially twofold.  He wanted to get rid of Trident or any replacement and abandon silly pretences to being an independent nuclear power.  Then he pointed out that in the whole of Scotland there is only one Conservative MP.  Why should Scotland, therefore, be ruled by the Tories?   I was too slow to point out that that was an argument for a better electoral system rather than for independence.

Neither was impressed by my counter-arguments that independence was, apart from the Trident issue, a rather hefty hammer to crack an inconsequential nut. Scotland already has considerable independence (their own legal and educational systems, control over their own NHS.)  If  the vote is for  "No" they will achieve even more, essentially  Home Rule, now called Devo-Max:  for all practical purposes having complete control of their own domestic affairs, including taxation powers,  and remaining with the UK for defence, foreign policy, the currency, the BBC and the weather forecast. Once that had been achieved this it would strengthen the chances of similar devolution to Wales and the English regions (not least  Yorkshire, which I believe has a larger population than Scotland), on the lines of the German Lander.  So a "No" vote would be doing us all a favour.

Without having seen too much of either, I do get the impression that the "Yes" campaign is positive, cheerful and exciting.  Going it alone has panache, a sense of adventure, "Scotland the brave!"  By contrast the "No" campaign is negative, dull and dreary. My English friend tells me that she has heard of people  intending to vote "No" but reluctant to admit it or display their posters for fear of being seen as a pariah by the neighbours.

All in all I get the impression that the debate is on a far more informed,  civilised, thoughtful and factual level than political discussion in England, particularly as  now on Europe or as it was in the referendum for electoral reform.  I suspect that the negative bullying of the "No" campaign is based on the findings of these dreadful focus groups from which the parties now judge what people are really thinking.

In this case I hope they're right, and there will be a narrow vote for "No", but it is sad that a sensible outcome depends on subliminal impressions rather than open debate.

Thursday 3 July 2014

The poor we have with us.

Robert Walker is professor of social policy at Oxford University, and is to publish this month a book called "The Shame of Poverty."

 In a preview Professor Walker  points out that the policy of our politicians of both the largest parties is to demonise the poor.  The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, routinely speaks of living on benefits as "a lifestyle choice" and is determined to weed out "fraudulent claims."  Labour, in its latest attempt to seem  as tough as the Tories, bullies the "young jobless [who] must train or be stripped of their benefits."

Professor Walker's conclusion, based on systematic research rather than saloon bar punditry, is that ""the unusually vitriolic language of British politicians, amplified by the media, serves to open a psychological wound that is never allowed to heal." and that "far from being shameless, people in poverty feel humiliation on a daily basis." 
The article reminds me of a speaker I heard many years ago  in the "non-religious" slot of Radio 4's "Thought for the day."   He believed that, beyond the basics, everyone has three  psychological needs:
  • to know that at least somebody (parent, partner, sibling, friend, offspring?) cares what happens to you;
  • to feel that at least somebody, somewhere, has benefited from your having lived;
  • to pay your way.

No one wants to be thought a sponger, and certainly nobody chooses that as a life-style, although they may put a brave face on it if circumstances leave them with no other option.

Our politicians, and especially those allegedly on the left, should take note. Liberal Democrats in government seem remarkable quite on this issue.

We and should remember our heritage as the party of Beveridge.  We once had the courage to adopt, along with the Greens, the  policy of a Citizen's Income.  The Citizen's Income Trust explains how it works and how it is affordable.  Its advantage would be that, what everyone gets, no one can resent.  If some choose to live on that alone, well, that's their choice.