Essex County Council have made a series of bids to strengthen the local government role using the new Sustainable Communities Act

Most national Governments – whatever their political complexion – over the last 35 years have been centralist rather than localist.  In May 1975, Anthony Crosland famously declared in a speech at Manchester Town Hall that the party was over for local government.  The restrictions were intensified when the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979 and Tony Blair (allegedly scarred by his experience of being rejected by Hackney Labour Party as a prospective council candidate and then by his first-hand experience as a local MP of the delights of Durham County Council) was noticeably suspicious of Labour councils from 1997 onwards.  It is only in the last few years that this trend has begun to be reversed – albeit only at the edges.

For example, the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007 enables local authorities to ask central government for additional powers to better achieve the well-being of their local communities and this can include having transferred to them the powers of other public bodies.  This is not legislation that one would have expected first-term Blair or any-term Thatcher to have promoted, but it does begin to recognise that local government does have a pivotal role in the delivery of local provision.  If local democracy is to mean something, it has to be about local people electing local councillors to determine the level of local services and local taxation.

Since the high-tide of Margaret Thatcher’s attack on local government, the Conservatives have been on a long journey regarding localism.  In recent years, their enthusiasm for devolution has no doubt been encouraged by the increasing number of Conservative councillors around the country (they were virtually an endangered species by the mid-1990s).

Essex County Council, which is of course Conservative-led (by no less a person than Lord Hanningfield currently dealing with his own “little local difficulties“), has come up with a series of bids to the Department of Communities and Local Government to use the provisions of the new Act.  (I am sure plenty of other local authorities have done the same, but I have not seen their bids reported.)

Essex have proposals on exempting the County from landfill tax, on adjusting local welfare benefits (to tailor benefit rates to reflect the local labour market and to support relevant local training schemes), on rejigging youth provision(with a view to encouraging volunteering) and on the County Council taking over the non-emergency patient transport.

They are also asking for powers (as the Council puts it) to:

” develop and agree a set of minimum standards for government agencies, non-departmental public bodies and other specified local partners. These would reflect the quality of service required in Essex and should be developed for the: Homes and Communities Agency; Environment Agency; Highways Agency; East of England Development Agency; Arts Council England East; Sport England East; Natural England; English Heritage; Business Link East; East of England Tourism and East of England International.  ….  propose that Essex County Council – as an elected community leader – be given the power to ensure that local standards are met. This might mean requiring specific action of an organisation, replacing local staff, devolving responsibility to local providers or bringing services under the control of the council itself (together with supporting resources).”

They have also asked for the power to run local referendums on key local issues.

Now I don’t agree with all of these, but what I find exciting is that the Sustainable Communities Act is doing what it set out to do: stimulating local councils to think innovatively about how they can best increase local well-being and ensure that local people get the sort of services they want.

Another achievement of this Labour Government.

Lord Myners’ call for transparency over top earners in Banks is entirely reasonable

Lord Paul Myners, the Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury, has told the BBC that there should be a requirement to list the names and earnings of the most highly remunerated bank employees below Board level.  This has provoked the predictable squeals of anguish from the British Bankers Association and the like.

However, given the pivotal nature of the banks in our economy, it is difficult to see what reasonable grounds there are for them to resist this extra transparency.

I am reminded that the collective noun for bankers is a “wunch”.

As in: a wunch of bankers.

….. Oh forget it.

Is the Conservative Party under David Cameron as happy a ship as they would have us believe?

It is, of course, fashionable in many media circles to focus on the so-called plight of the Labour Party, alleged dissatisfaction with Gordon Brown, and apparently disconsolate grass-roots.  However, I wonder if this focus is not blinding commentators to some significant rumbling discontent amongst the Conservatives.  This explains the continuing nervousness about what David Davies will say next .  (I suspect David Cameron would be well-advised to give him a big job quickly to bind him into the fold.)  It is also reflected in the Tory jumpiness that I have detected expressed in the sotto voce question on many Tory lips of “If the Government and Gordon Brown are doing so badly, why aren””t we doing better?”

Now the Conservative commentator, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, has dared to spell it out.  In an article this morning, he says:

“… there””s something not quite right about Cameron and his team, something fishy, something dodgy. … Those who treat politics as a spectator sport had to applaud his handling of the expenses scandal. “Blair””s heir” was a repellent phrase for many Tories, but in this matter it must be said that Cameron displayed a quick-witted, ruthless opportunism dressed up as sincere conviction worthy of the master.

All the same, that episode left an unhappy aftertaste. While placating public rage by brutally discarding a few older MPs, Cameron shielded members of his own team who were quite as culpable: Alan Duncan, Michael Gove and Francis Maude. It was the action of a capo who whacks a few civilians but spares his made men, and it caused considerable, though so far private, resentment on the Tory benches.

It also confirmed a sense that, with all his political talent, Cameron is a smartyboots surrounded by a cabal of shady charlatans and shifty chancers; a suspicion not much dispelled by the latest revelations about skulduggery at the News of the World under the man who is now Cameron””s media chief, Andy “I have no recollection” Coulson. No hindsight is required: two years ago I wrote here about the “incredible appointment” of someone “who makes Alastair Campbell seem a cross between CP Scott and Hugo Young”, and Coulson was always a disaster waiting to happen.

We””ve since learned that he had been recommended to Cameron by the accident-prone George Osborne, and he was cheered by the Tory press, or at any rate by Matthew d””Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph. D””Ancona said at the time what a splendid choice Coulson was. He now writes about this “brilliantly successful journalist” – perhaps he has in mind the “Andy Coulson””s Bizarre” showbiz column that used to adorn the Sun – and he adds that Coulson did after all resign over the bugging scandal: “As they say in Essex: the boy done his bird.”

Ha ha. So now the party of Pitt and Salisbury uses the vocabulary of the criminal classes. This is precisely the problem with “Cameronism” and “the Cameroons” (and which of their number ever thought that was a witty coining, by the way?). Clinging to the Tory team is a whiff of clever-clever cynicism, of game-playing frivolity, of calculation rather than honour. But we had quite enough of that under Blair, and the public is repelled by politics and politicians for just those reasons.”

He concludes:

“Doesn””t “Dave” Cameron play a little too obviously to the gallery, and adapt his sentiments when they don””t give satisfaction? Isn””t he surrounded, if not by crooks, then by some preening mountebanks? And hasn””t he so far failed to inspire deep and widespread trust?  …

After Chloe Smith won Norwich North, she said that it had been “a vote for clean politics and for cleaning up politics”. She was quite right, insofar as it was a vote against a hopeless, tainted and squalid Labour government. But while in successive recent elections the Labour vote has plummeted, the Tory vote hasn””t soared, or even returned to its level of not so many years ago. Could that be because character still counts with the electorate?”

Oh dear!  And this is from the man who wrote the paeon to Margaret Thatcher, “The Strange Death of Tory England“.

And now another example of a Conservative candidate embarrassed by the Party Leader.

A visit to Hendon Labour Party

I spoke tonight at a meeting of Hendon Labour Party.  It has been a bit dis-spiriting of late in the Westminster bubble, so it was good to recharge my political batteries with 20 or 30 Party members who were enthusiastic about discussing policy and happy to laugh at my occasional weak jokes.

We ranged widely on subjects such as policing in London, counter-terrorism policy, youth facilities, Boris Johnson, Barnet Council, Brian Coleman (who produced the most vigorous reaction of the evening), House of Lords reform and much more.  Having arrived rather tired and damp (having suffered my second drenching of the day), I left envigorated.  I hope my hosts did too.

Still concerned about “The Geek Squad” and “The Tech Guys”

When the Digital Britain White Paper was published on 16th June, I raised some concerns about the White Paper’s apparent endorsement of “The Geek Squad” and “The Tech Guys”.

I have now received from Lord Stephen Carter a response to the points I made in the debate.  Unfortunately, the response slightly misses the point (by about a mile, actually).  It sets out the measures being introduced to improve the enforcement of consumer law applying to on-line transactions.  This is all good stuff – a single online complaints register for people encountering an online scam; investment in new equipment, training and staff for on-line consumer law enforcers; and a review of enforcement powers in an on-line world.  However, this is not really going to provide much reassurance for people nervous about letting an unknown person into their homes to fidedle around with their computer systems.

I have now written back to Stephen Carter – although my letter may well have arrived after his last day in office (he is one of the GOAT ministers who is resigning this month).  My letter says:

“Thank you for your letter of 8th July.  I am grateful for the clarification you have provided on the points I raised following your statement to the House on 16th June.


However, I would like to come back on the second issue I raised.  This related to the need to ensure that consumers have adequate protection when dealing with suppliers, such as “The Geek Squad” or “The Tech Guys” – both specifically mentioned in “Digital Britain”.


In your response, you mention the measures being taken to improve enforcement of consumer law applying to on-line transactions.  Whilst these measures are valuable, they rather miss the point of my concerns.  Both “The Geek Squad” and “The Tech Guys” involve the consumer permitting individuals to access their computer equipment (and usually their homes).  Such individuals are being given a position of trust by the consumers concerned, who will assume that they are (1) honest and (2) know what they are doing.  As far as these points are concerned, it is extremely unlikely that the consumer will have the technical knowledge to understand (or indeed to be able to detect) what has been done to their equipment – that is after all why they have asked “The Geek Squad” or “The Tech Guys” to visit or to look at their equipment.


If you engage a security guard from a security firm, the individuals engaged are required to be registered with the Security Industry Authority and will have been vetted for criminality and there are requirements relating to their training.  Yet the activities of most security personnel will usually be visible and will normally be comprehensible to the person engaging them.  Should there not be some similar system of regulation and customer assurance of the quality of work in place for those individuals engaged by “The Geek Squad”, “The Tech Guys” or any other similar service?  If no such system is in place, most customers – who are likely not to be skilled technically – will be vulnerable to data being stolen from them, to malicious code being placed on their machines or to more traditional forms of criminality.


I would welcome your comments on what can be done to address this.  I am copying this letter to Lord West of Spithead (in view of the information security implications) and to Alun Michael MP (in view of his role chairing the Tripartite Internet Crime and Security Initiative).”

I will be interested to see if the civil servants get the point this time.

Re-energising the British technology sector

This morning I took part in a breakfast discussion on the Lords Terrace (over orange juice and croissants, but fortunately under cover as it was pouring with rain) with Lord Young of Graffham and Lord Razzall about what can be done to re-energise the British technology sector.  The occasion was the launch of the Micro Focus Technology Manifesto, “Making BrITain Great Again“.  It was well-attended and the Q&A session at the end was lively and could clearly have continued for much longer.

The central theme was that Britain has the potential to generate a much larger proportion of its GDP from the technology innovation-driven sector and the manifesto is designed to kick-start a debate about what can usefully be done to create an environment in which the sector can thrive, expand and create new and sustainable jobs in the UK.  The manifesto has five strands:

  • increasing the supply of world-class technology talent in the UK
  • harnessing the expertise and goodwill of successful leaders around the world to mentor leaders of UK-based emerging technology businesses
  • changing substantially the tax incentives available to companies and individuals who want to invest in growing technology businesses in the UK
  • implementing fiscal incentives for UK-based companies seeking to take forward world-leading R&D
  • encouraging overseas technology companies to invest in a UK hub

I hope that the manifesto does kick-start a debate on these issues and that all the main Parties will commit to following the direction of travel indicated.  Indeed, I would hope that the core principle would be readily endorsed.  Future UK prosperity can only be sustained if the country is able to offer something significant to the world economy and that something in my view has to be that Britain is able to exploit innovation effectively and can deliver substantial value-added in technology and intellectual property.  The UK will never compete by trying to cut wage costs to Third World levels, we no longer have a heavy manufacturing base and there is a limit to how much national income that can be generated from tourism and heritage.  The only route to sustainability has to be through becoming a leading force in innovation and technology.

I remain concerned that too many young people do not see careers in technology as exciting, that too many further and higher education courses are irrelevant to the technology sector’s needs, and that for those who do emerge from further and higher education there are too few entry-level job/training opportunities.  Moreover, as a country we do not do enough to foster entrepreneurialism, nor to support investment in innovative start-ups and to support the growth of such enterprises as they develop.  The Micro Focus manifesto contains a number of suggestions as to how these issues may be addressed.  I am sure it is not definitive, but the future of the UK economy requires that this debate starts now and is taken seriously.

Are the BBC trying to silence all the Tory snipers by having Mayor Boris Johnson on Eastenders?

…. or maybe it is just their way of getting their own back on Ben Bradshaw.

Either way the decision to have the real-life Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (played by himself), appear on an episode of Eastenders with the not-real Peggy Mitchell (played by Barbara Windsor) sets an interesting precedent.  The BBC is, of course, supposed to be politically neutral and we are all used to the Tories frothing at the mouth about the Today programme being a nest of pinkos and Newsnight the cradle of the revolution.  So why is the nation’s most popular soap giving airtime to a Conservative (or indeed any) Mayor of London?  Will Ken Livingstone now make a cameo appearance as well?  Or is this all intended as a subtle warning to the Cameronians that the BBC can play tough, and that, if there is too much talk about creaming off the licence fee and amending the BBC Charter, they will not hesitate to promote the arch-nemesis and Tory leader-in-waiting, Boris.

More to the point, how helpful is it to further blur the distinction between show business and politics?  Maybe I am old-fashioned and at the risk of sounding like Tony Benn, but politics deals with serious matters and should be about issues.  Soap operas are about entertainment, although they may be realistic and may on occasions deal with significant themes.  Is the BBC performing any sort of publuc service by muddling the two together?

Bill Keegan gets it right on public spending and cuts

I have to admit to being a Bill Keegan fan, ever since I was a little boy in the late-1970s and worked in the Economics Division of the Bank of England and Bill was brought in as a Special Advisor to the Governor to bolster the (minority) Keynsian faction within the Bank.  He is in magisterial form in this morning’s  Observer.

He tells us that:

“Lately I have been especially worried by all these inspired reports that Messrs Cameron and Osborne are deep into the study of how the Thatcher team of 1979 approached government. It seems that for the Cameron Conservatives, the big new idea is an old idea. After a brief flirtation with Caring Conservatism, the emphasis is on cuts, cuts and more cuts. Meanwhile our beleaguered prime minister is being attacked on all sides for resisting the cuts that so many commentators regard as not only inevitable but also desirable.”

And goes on to remind us that:

“But let us be clear that the first years of the 1979-83 Thatcher period were an almost unmitigated disaster. The new government inherited an inflation rate of around 10%, promising to reduce it by means of an alchemist’s formula known as monetarism, and within a year, thanks to obeisance to that false god and other errors of policy, the inflation rate was more than 20%.  The fashion for “cuts” during that period was determined by the obsession with lowering tax rates, although the overall tax “burden” continued to rise well into the 1980s. Unemployment went up, and up, and up.”

In a few short paragraphs he spells out why the current terms of debate on economic policy are just plain wrong:

“But let us return to that wider economy to which the financial system has administered so much collateral damage. Things are rough. Consumers who were encouraged by the financial system to become overindebted are drawing in their horns. Businesses that have been hit by the credit crunch are not investing, and hardly a day goes by without our being told that a major company has, if not actually announced more redundancies, then put part of its workforce on short time or leave and/or demanded pay cuts as an economy measure to ensure its survival.

Cutting the wage bill may sound sensible for the individual firm, but across the board it does not exactly boost what economists call “effective demand”. On the contrary, it makes the overall economic situation worse, at a time when there are growing doubts about the prospects for early economic recovery.

Which brings us back to those “cuts” in public spending that are so fashionable, to deal with “the problem of the deficit”. Unless and until there are sure signs of recovery, even the Cameronian Conservatives should stop losing sleep over the government deficit.

At a seminar earlier this year Dick Sargent, a distinguished former government and bank economist, put it well: “Some people think that the national debt is like a company debt, owed to people outside the company. But most of our national debt is owed to ourselves, ie to UK residents (individuals, pension funds, trusts, banks, charities and so on). Since the government has the power to raise taxes to pay the interest, there can never be a question of default (‘the country going bankrupt’, as the media like to say).”

Another veteran economist, Professor Max Corden, pointed out in a recent paper that there is a flaw in what he calls “the Conservative allegation” that the current fiscal stimulus is bound to have adverse effects later.

As he says, this does not take into account the asset side – “the total value of the bonds [and equities] acquired by savers as a result of the rise in incomes brought about by the stimulus”. These constitute “a set of assets that exactly offsets the liabilities on which conservative critics of stimulus policies have focused”. Moreover, “one must allow for the reasonable possibility that some of the extra public investment that took place in the first period as part of the fiscal stimulus turned out to be socially productive”, thus becoming a “positive legacy”, not a future drag on the economy.”

Labour politicians may find these paragraphs helpful in stiffening their resolve that Government economic policy is unequivocally in the right direction.  And maybe others in the commentariat ought to read Bill Keegan’s words and stop feeding a consensus in favour of the “voodoo economics” (the description used by George Bush Snr to describe his predecessor’s monetarism) espoused by Cameron and Osborne.

Warning: Sugar’s about!

The clearest sign that Sir Alan Sugar’s ennoblement is now imminent were the sightings today of him being shown round the House of Lords by the Clerk to the Parliaments.  He even spent some time in one of the Galleries watching the House of Lords debate (and subsequently defeat the Government by voting in favour of) Lord Waddington’s amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill upholding the “free speech” defence against inciting homophobic hatred.  (It is not recorded whether he would have been against homophobic hatred or in favour of free speech.  Since he will be accepting the Labour Whip, I assume the former.)

The word is that he will be formally introduced into the House and take his title on 20th July.  I am sure he will receive a warm welcome ……