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Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Have the Tories backtracked on Nick Clegg's flagship tax-free childcare scheme?

I was having a discussion on Saturday with a constituent who was finding the cost of childcare to be crippling.  Both he and his wife worked but despite accessing the Government's voucher scheme they were finding it increasingly difficult to pay

It was because of people facing these sorts of pressures that Nick Clegg made it his mission, whilst in government, to improve support for child care. As this Guardian article makes clear he came up with a scheme to replace the existing childcare vouchers whilst at the same time offering a larger tax saving:

From autumn 2015 parents will be able to buy vouchers online to pay for childcare. For every 80p they spend, the government will add 20p. The scheme is available for up to £10,000 of childcare costs per child each year but there is no limit on how many children you can claim for.

In the case of a parent claiming the full £10,000, he or she will pay £8,000, while the government will give a £2,000 subsidy (previously the cap was £6,000, meaning a £1,200 tax subsidy). The vouchers, which will be held in an online account run by National Savings; Investments, can only be used to pay for Ofsted-regulated childcare, not for care provided by friends or relatives.

The scheme will work in quarterly entitlement periods – once eligible, parents will continue to be entitled to support for three months, regardless of any changes in circumstances. They can pay in a lump sum of £2,000 each quarter and get £500 from the government in one sum, or make monthly payments.

One parent will need to make the claim, but if they are part of a couple they will need to give details of their partner's income.

This government website confirms that the scheme was due to start in the autumn of this year.

However, it seems that since the General Election new Tory Ministers have started to backtrack on this commitment and have done so by the back door rather than through any public announcement.

The latest version of that government website now says that Tax-Free Childcare will be launched from early 2017. That is a slippage of about 16 or 17 months, possibly longer. Because there has been no announcement we do not know the reasons for this delay nor have we been able to scrutinise it. In fact if I had not been carrying out some research to help my constituent I would have been none the wiser either.

It seems that under a Tory majority government working parents are to be abandoned to their own devices, without the additional help and assistance with childcare that Nick Clegg had secured for them.

Monday, July 06, 2015

A part-time commitment to tackling domestic abuse?

For a Welsh government that prides itself on its anti-domestic violence agenda, the decision to make the first ever statutory national advisor on the subject a part-time post was an extraordinary gaffe. The question is whether a part-time advisor will have the time to carry out the tasks created for him/her.

The Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 was controversial from the outset as many people felt that it did not go far enough to tackle domestic abuse and sexual violence. In particular, all three opposition parties were concerned that sufficient and appropriate mechanisms were not being put in place to mainstream education on relationships in schools and only agreed to vote for the bill as a result of last minute assurances by the Minister.

I am shocked therefore that the recent advert for the National Advisor states: "The hours expected to fulfill this role will be part-time".  It seems to me that coordinating the various bodies involved in delivering this service, advising Ministers on important issues such as funding and overseeing the important education agenda is in fact a full time job. We need much more information and assurances on this matter. Will the National Advisor have a team of staff for support for example or will they be expected to fulfil the role individually? The government must not backtrack on this vital role.

The statement is revealing the government’s failings, by its lack of content. The duty to prepare and report on national strategies and local strategies were a main part of the Act yet we learn nothing about them.  When will the national and local strategies be published?  One of the biggest amendments to the Bill at Stage 3 was the inclusion of education but the statement is failing to tell us what action is being taken.  We are told that the curriculum review will include healthy relationships education but how will this happen?  Will it be mandatory for all schools, as recommended by the UN?

This Act is essential, but to achieve its aims we need more than words from the Minister.  We need to see progress on actions, and change.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

How to solve the MPs' housing crisis

Changes to MP's expenses regime have meant that they can no longer buy properties in central London with taxpayer's money. Instead they have to rent or use a hotel. This has caused some angst for many MPs but also some controversy, with some honourable members letting properties they own whilst renting another one nearby with their allowances.

However, at least one politician has found a solution to this problem. The Black Dog column in the Mail on Sunday reports that new Yorkshire Labour MP Jo Cox has taken to living in a cosy houseboat near Tower Bridge.

Her problems came when she tried to take the idea too far and decided that the best way to beat the London traffic was to commute to the Commons along the Thames.

Unfortunately, when she asked for permission to power up the river in her dinghy and tie it up alongside the MPs’ Terrace under Big Ben she was told that this was not possible for ‘Security reasons and ’health and safety.’

One other possibility that the House of Commons authorities might like to consider is the ingenious solution adopted by Garry Monk to enable his players to rest during training.

As the Western Mail reports the Swansea City Football Club manager has introduced high-tech temporary hotels at the side of the Swans’ training pitches in order to get the most from his men this summer. The tent-like sleeping pods at the club's Landore base mean that players can rest-up in between double training sessions.

A few of these on College Green will save the taxpayer a fortune.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Photobombed by a cat

This lady tried to film a yoga video but forgot to ask permission

Exclusivity isnt what it is cracked up to be

The internet is designed to be open and accessible but what if it were the very opposite. Today's Independent reports on how Justin Foley decided to create a website that is the antithesis of that ideal.

He has set up the World's most exclusive website and so far hundreds of thousands of people have spent around 20,000 hours in the line to access MostExclusiveWebsite.com after taking a ticket and waiting to be let in.

Once you're in, you get 60 seconds to enjoy the site before the person with the next ticket is admitted.

Personally, I don't really have the time to enjoy that experience but there is a spoiler video that enables you to skip the wait. I have posted it below. All I am going to say is that there are cats...

Friday, July 03, 2015

How Government tax policies are undermining their climate change agenda

We all love our car and given the huge number of them on the roads and growing it is little wonder that the government is trying to keep motorists sweet.  However, we cannot just keep building new roads to tackle congestion as these fill up very quickly and we are back to square one. It makes sense therefore to take a carrot and stick approach, improving public transport so that it is at least as convenient as driving whilst making the car-option less convenient.

The UK Government's aspiration to improve our rail network is at least a step in the right direction however, as this article in the Independent makes clear the Chancellor's policies are hardly joined up in this regard.

The paper says that Chancellor, George Osborne has foregone millions of pounds in revenue by freezing fuel duty and even cancelling planned rises whilst at the same time there have been steep cuts to bus and rail subsidies. Fares are increasing faster than wages.

I am not advocating hitting the motorist any harder than at present but I do think that the government has to show a willingness to meet its own climate change targets by urgently cutting train, coach and bus fares and delivering some real investment in public transport routes apart from the prestigious ones, as well as walking and cycling infrastructure.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Universities must justify these results

If this article in yesterday's Guardian is not a cause for concern then I do not know what is. The paper reports the startling fact that more than 70% of graduates are now leaving university with a first or upper second class degree.

The Universities Minister says that 2:1s are now so common that Universities allow some students to “coast” and still get one. There has been a 300% increase in firsts since the 1990s whilst the 70% plus of graduates now leaving university with a first or 2:1, compares with 47% in the 90s. It has increased by 7% in the past five years alone. If that sort of imbalance was evident in A-Levels or GCSEs there would be a national outcry.

What makes it even more difficult to believe with these figures is that they sit within the context of a huge increase in the number of people going to University. Graduates are no longer as rare as they used to be. It now seems that first and upper second class degrees are far more common that in my day as well.

The real issue here of course is the way that Universities are funded. A huge part of the funding comes through the Research Assessment Exercise and Teaching Excellence Framework. That means that Universities are under immense pressure to do better than their rivals so as to maximise their income. Inevitably, this will lead to grade inflation.

It also means that pressure on individual lecturers is excessive. I would not mind betting that the other statistic that has increased in proportion to the rise in the number of higher degrees relates to more lecturers going on sick leave with stress.

Reputedly, the big increase in the number of students going into higher education has led to universities putting on literacy and numeracy courses for their new recruits, because a small number were not up to standard. I am now told that big employers are also putting independent tests in place for graduates to test their abilities as often this is the only way to ensure that they are getting somebody of a sufficiently high calibre.

This is not to denigrate students, the vast majority of whom are working hard to succeed and are of a high quality. They are the main victims of this practise. It does though raise big questions about the system itself, in particular whether young people are being properly advised as to the most appropriate route for them at key points in their life and whether the university system is serving them at all well in devaluing degrees by awarding so many of them at higher grades.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Will English votes for English laws quicken the break-up of the UK?

If the easy popularism of UKIP disturbs you then pause to think how much damage David Cameron's obsession with his own popularist ideas can do now that he is a position to implement them. By far the most dangerous of these ideas is English votes for English laws.

In principle I have no issue with any part of the UK determining its own fate when it comes to issues that are most appropriately decided at a national or regional level. However, the best way to do that is through a democratically elected National or Regional Parliament, or by devolving responsibility to an elected local council.

The solution being advocated by the Prime Minister is a simplistic short cut, that fails to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of how power is currently exercised in the UK and whilst it may prove a constant irritant to Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a real danger that it may drive Scotland out of the Union altogether.

Today's Western Mail illustrates some of that with quotes from Labour MPs illustrating the complexities of the devolution settlement, even a reformed one in which Wales has a full-law making Parliament.

Putting aside the asymmetric nature of devolution across the UK, which means that different nations have powers and responsibilities not reflected elsewhere, the border issues and the impact of the Barnett formula means that virtually no policy actually is English-only.

Anglesey MP, Albert Owen illustrates this when he points out that people in North Wales depend on English hospitals for specialist services. People in Mid-Wales depend on English hospitals for standard secondary health services. Mr. Owen argues that he should not be stopped from taking part in the scrutiny of legislation during the committee stage of a Bill if it affects his constituents. He is right, certainly whilst he remains a member of the body charged with responsibility for that legislation.

But there are less obvious examples of policies that cannot be confined to just the one country due to the economic and financial impact of changing them on other administrations. Tuition Fees is a good example. Half of Welsh students attend English Universities. Welsh Universities are in competition with their English counterparts for students.

That is why former North Wales Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach, is wrong when she argues that identifying England-only legislation should not prove difficult. She believes that MPs just have to look at the Wales Act and check which powers are devolved, arguing that this is what already takes place in the Assembly.

This is such a misrepresentation of the Welsh Assembly's legislative process that I am astonished that Antoinette believes it is the case. Her misunderstanding of what happens here and of our devolution settlement is so wrong that I wonder what it was she did when she was here. Another former Tory AM-turned-MP gone native, and so soon as well.

But the most dangerous part of Cameron's EVEL plan is the creation of two classes of MPs, in which those from the Celtic fringes are curtailed in properly representing the interests of their constituents. That could prove to be the final straw for the Scottish.

If Cameron really wants to pursue this agenda then he needs to look at finishing the devolution project, put in place a Federal UK and let the English have their say through properly elected and representative Parliaments.

It is a deep irony that a so-called unionist Prime Minister has turned out to be nothing more than a second-rate English nationalist and that in pursuing that agenda could well break-up the very union he supposedly cherishes.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How a supposedly progressive tax system hits the poorest hardest

The Independent reports on official statistics that show that the poorest families in the UK are losing more of their income in tax than any other income group.

They say that while the richest fifth of society paid 34.8 per cent of their overall income in tax last year, those at the bottom of the income scale lost 37.8 per cent of their income to the taxman. This is a wider gap than last year, when the difference was 2.3 per cent.

The paper adds that this means that the richest fifth of the population paid £29,200 in all taxes last year, while the poorest fifth paid £4,900. Although in absolute terms that seems to make sense, in terms of disposable income it leaves the poorest in our society struggling to make ends meet.

The papers says that the reason why those on the lowest incomes are paying the biggest proportion of their income in tax is because indirect taxes, such as VAT and tax on tobacco, alcohol and fuel are charged at the same rate to all income groups. So although direct taxes such as income tax and national insurance contributions, both of which are calculated as a proportion of how much we earn, hit the richest the hardest, taken together, the poorest fifth of households lose the largest proportion of their income in overall taxation.

When we have a situation that over half of all households, the equivalent to 13.7 million families, received more from the state in welfare payments and pensions than they pay in tax last year then it is time for a rethink.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Veiled Government threats against RSPCA signals zero tolerance approach to opposition groups

You can always tell when the Conservatives are in government, especially when they have no other party to keep them in check, as the threats to the BBC start to escalate. It seems to be a traditional view of Conservative politicians that the BBC is run by a bunch of lefties determined to do them down. The fact that Labour Ministers, when they are in government, take a similar paranoid view of the corporation indicates that perhaps the BBC has got the balance about right.

However, as yesterday's Sunday Telegraph reports, this zero tolerance of opposition by Conservative Ministers is starting to spread into other policy areas. They have been told by an unnamed Environment Department source that the RSPCA must purge radical animal rights activists from its board or face "disaster".

This Government spin-doctor believes that the charity risks “eroding its credibility” by prioritising contentious political campaigns over animal welfare and has also accused the RSPCA of opposing the badger cull just to increase donations. Really?

It could be argued that these campaigns are perfectly legitimate ones for an animal charity to take up and that on the Government's disastrous and unevidenced badger cull, they are protesting too much. It is a matter for the Charity Commission not the government whether an organisation like the RSPCA oversteps the mark or not. Perhaps the Government should stop trying to stifle legitimate dissent and get on with its job instead.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tory sell-off could fuel a housing crisis

At the last election the Conservatives made a manifesto pledge to offer 1.3 million English tenants of housing association houses and flats the chance to buy their homes at a discount. It is an innocuous looking promise but it could have huge consequences for the housing market, particularly in London and South East England.

The Observer reports that local authorities in inner London now believe that they will have to sell every new council home they build, as soon as they are ready, just so that they can finance this give-away. This is because the funding for discounts for housing association tenants wanting to buy their homes is due to come through forcing local authorities to sell their most expensive properties.

The paper quotes James Murray, executive member for housing and development at Islington council, who is spearheading the development of 20 new council houses for local residents:

The expected bounty from the sale of such high value homes is also supposed to finance the building of replacement properties to meet a desperate need for affordable accommodation.

“But the problem is that they haven’t thought it through,” says Murray. “We had a carefully crafted plan. These flats are designed for those aged over 55, and the idea is that those who want to downsize from family council properties can do so. It is on the edge of the estate, so people don’t need to move away from where they have lived. The bedroom tax doesn’t apply after you retire, but people moving in at 55 would also have got a few years of avoiding that if they moved in here out of their larger homes.

“But it looks like we will have to sell the flats when they are completed in September. Each of them would sell on the open market at £485,000. And because they are new they are within the third most expensive properties that we have. In fact, all new council homes in inner London will have to be sold off. And what incentive will we have to build again?”

Not only are homes being taken out of the affordable housing stock, reducing the opportunity for people to be rehoused in the future, but the chances of that stock being replenished is diminished as the receipt from sales will be insufficient to build more homes, even if land was available to build on. The requirement on councils to sell their highest value stock will also prevent them building new social housing.

The outcome will be even more spiralling rent increases in both the public and private sectors and rising property values, driven by housing shortages, and property speculation. The housing crisis already facing much of London and South East England could well escalate further as a result.

I don't agree with the way that the Welsh Government is approaching the right to buy here, as I am concerned that they are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and taking away the rights of existing tenants*, but thank goodness we will not have to deal with the unevidenced ideological madness being promoted over the border by this new Tory Government.

*My view is that the best way to manage the right to buy in Wales is remove it on new build social housing. This preserves the rights of existing tenants whilst removing any disincentive for local councils to build new homes.

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