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Monday, March 02, 2015

UKIP accused of breaking EU funding rules

The Times reports that questions have been raised over Ukip’s use of EU funding for general election campaign materials, after Labour accused the party of encouraging its candidates to break the rules.

They say that UKIP advised candidates in one of its confidential bi-weekly emails this month to “access materials” paid for by Brussels that argue that the EU is “damaging” to the UK’s national interests:

Such leaflets are published with funding granted to Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), the bloc of national parties that Ukip belongs to in the European parliament. Use of the money is governed by strict rules.

The email from Ukip’s Elect 2015 Campaign Team, led by David Soutter, head of candidates, conceded: “As we’re now in an election period . . . There are tight regulations on the EFDD Group about what this literature can be used for, and the rules state quite clearly that it cannot be used for domestic electioneering purposes.”

Ukip then advised: “All you need to make sure you do is put such materials out on display for people to take, rather than physically handing them out.”

The instructions appear to go against strict rules set by the European parliament, which clearly state that funding for political groups “cannot be used to fund European political parties or electoral campaigns”.

The rules also state that this funding cannot “be used to finance any form of European, national, regional or local electoral campaign”.

It seems that UKIP don't mind the European Union when they can use its resources to its own advantage.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Showing MPs the yellow card

Interesting article in the Sunday Times about Labour's proposals to make it easier for the Speaker to keep order in the House of Commons. They say that the party proposes to issue yellow cards to MPs who shout, heckle or make crude gestures.

The plan is that a first warning will see an MP banned for an hour with a second leading to exclusion for up to three sessions:

The proposal for a “sin bin” follows complaints by MPs, and research showing the public are turned off by boorish behaviour. The Labour MP Sarah Champion complained recently of a sexist atmosphere in the chamber where, she said, male MPs were “very good at gesticulating” about female MPs’ breasts and bottoms as they tried to make speeches.

Other MPs have shouted “nurse” when colleagues speak — implying they are psychiatric patients needing help — or use sign language to insult members, including the sign for bulls**t”.

Luckily the Commons is televised so they will be able to take advantage of goal line technology as well.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Labour row over Miliband tuition fee pledge

Labour's new tuition fee policy has certainly caused a few ripples in the electoral pond but not necessarily in the right places. As has been pointed out elsewhere the plan is to cut tax relief for pensioners so as to knock £3,000 off the cost of studying. However, the effect of this ruse is to help the well-off rather than those who need it most.

Labour's new policy means that only graduates with a starting salary of at least £35,000 will pay less. Much as I dislike the system it is currently working in that there are now a record number of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. If Miliband wanted to make a difference he would have done well to have used the money instead to bolster maintenance grants by a lot more than they propose instead.

According to the Independent the policy has caused unease within the Labour Party as well. They say that some senior Labour figures are believed to be concerned at the direction the policy is going in. These include Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor; Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary and Tristram Hunt, the shadow Education Secretary:

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said Labour’s sums added up but the shake-up would not help the poorest half of graduates.  He said they would not earn enough to be paying back any less under the Labour policy than under the current policy. “The group who will benefit from this are the higher earning half of graduates. So those graduates who go on to the best jobs will find that their repayments go down where as those graduates who go on to less good jobs will not find any difference in the repayments that they actually have to make.” 

All in all the whole policy looks like a mess.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Will the lights go out under Labour?

The Sun has already reported on the views of a senior energy consultant that Labour's proposed energy price freeze has already cost each household £70.

They say that Tim Ham of Pearson Ham believes that the threat of a Labour Government freezing bills meant the “Big 6” suppliers are worried about cutting bills and then being unable to put them up if costs spiralled. He estimates that average gas bill, currently £695 a year, could be around 10 per cent lower if the energy market was allowed to operate without the threat of political intervention.

He added that Labour’s claim that it only wanted to “cap” bills has exactly the same effect on suppliers as the threat of a freeze. Ed Miliband vowed to freeze domestic energy bills for 20 months if he won the Election. However, since his pledge, wholesale gas prices have tumbled by 33 per cent but suppliers have only announced small cuts from the start of January.

Now the Telegraph has joined the fray with their report of a key note speech to business leaders at which the Labour leader was present, in which Mark Carleton, services director at Mestec, a company which measures factory performance has warned that "new power investment" is "desperately needed" and that the energy companies will need to make "massive investments".

His concern is that these investments will not be made if prices are capped: He said: "Power generation capacity margins are at historic lows. Investment in new power generation is desperately needed. The Labour party's apparent position is that energy company's profit margins of between 3.5 and 4.5 per cent are excessive.

"What level of profits would you regard as acceptable, and do you believe that profit margins of below the current levels are going to be sufficient to incentivise energy companies to make the massive investments that are required to keep our lights on? Or do you believe that the funding to build new generation facilities is going to come from elsewhere."

All-in-all, Ed Miliband has a lot of food for thought as to how this cap will work, if it is desirable at all in the face of falling energy prices.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tories lost in fantasy land on badger cull again

Just in case we needed another reason not to vote for the Conservatives, the Environment Secretary provided us with a good one yesterday. She told us that if her party wins the General Election then thousands more badgers will be shot, allegedly to protect cattle from tuberculosis.

Her evidence for this nonsense is that bovine TB has reduced in Gloucestershire and Somerset following culls. However, she fails to mention that the culls in both these counties failed to meet their targets and as such the attempt to eliminate the wildlife reservoir of TB was unsuccessful.

It follows therefore that the reduction in bTB is due to something else, such as for example better cattle control measures or just a variation in the cycle of the disease.

Nor does she refer to the reduction in bTB in cattle in the North Pembrokeshire area where there has been no cull. Instead the Welsh Government has instigated a programme of badger inoculation alongside the better cattle control measures.

In short the Environment Secretary is grasping at straws to justify previous failed policies and in an attempt to win the votes of farmers who prefer a simplistic shoot first and ask questions later solution instead of one that is backed by evidence.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Barnett twist even the anoraks will baulk at

Over at the BBC, David Cornock has news of a new initiative on securing fair funding for the Welsh Assembly.  He says that the Prime Minister is happy to offer a floor below which the amount of money we receive cannot fall, but only if it is linked to an agreement to hold a referendum on tax-varying powers.

This strikes me as a step backwards in the UK Government's position, and certain defeat for any referendum held on those terms.

If a Barnett flooris justifiable (which it is) then it should be delivered unconditionally. This so-called 'offer' is tantamount to blackmail and the Welsh people will react accordingly.

I happen to support tax-varying powers for Wales because I believe that they will improve accountability but it should be up to the Welsh Assembly to determine the timing of a referendum not UK Ministers. In that way we might have a chance of winning it.

UK Government Ministers would not dare treat Scotland in this way, so why Wales?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The dangers of fluoridation

I have long been an opponent of mass medication, otherwise known as adding fluoride to our water supply and have written on the subject on this blog. Yesterday's Telegraph underlines my instinctive prejudice against such a measure.

The paper say that a study of 98 per cent of GP practices in England found that high rates of underactive thyroid were 30 per cent more likely in areas of the greatest fluoridation. They add that this could mean that up to 15,000 people are suffering needlessly from thyroid problems which can cause depression, weight gain, fatigue and aching muscles:

Last year Public Health England released a report saying fluoride was a ‘safe and effective’ way of improving dental health.

But new research from the University of Kent suggests that there is a spike in the number of cases of underactive thyroid in high fluoride areas such as the West Midlands and the North East of England.

Lead author Professor Stephen Peckham, Centre for Health Service Studies, said: “I think it is concerning for people living in those areas.

“The difference between the West Midlands, which fluoridates, and Manchester, which doesn’t was particularly striking. There were nearly double the number of cases in Manchester.

“Underactive thyroid is a particularly nasty thing to have and it can lead to other long term health problems. I do think councils need to think again about putting fluoride in the water. There are far safer ways to improve dental health.”

If this stops the fluoridation lobby in its tracks then that can only be a good thing.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A new angle on innovative thinking

The Conservative MEP for Wales has got herself in a bit of hot water today with her suggestion that bankers should be “innovative” so as to flout rules that would cap their bumper bonuses.

The Western Mail reports that the party’s MEP Kay Swinburne was caught on tape alongside a Tory MP talking to an audience in the City outlining how the Conservatives had opposed new European rules limiting how much bankers can make on top of their salaries. She told her audience there was no public appetite to revoke the cap and suggested they “get around it” instead.

She told her audience: “I can tell you there is not a single constituent I have met that actually thinks we were right to have taken that to the courts.

“They think it was right that there was a bonus cap. So I think it’s up to everybody else to be a little more innovative as to how you get around it and I am hearing all sorts of schemes at the moment that do bypass the overall cap.”

Clearly, Ms. Swinburne cannot be talking to many constituents at all as all those I speak to think it is absolutely right to cap bankers' bonuses and want to know why the Government is wasting public money opposing this in the courts?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Greater Grimsby phenomenon

It seems that whilst UKIP are confident that they can win the Great Grimsby constituency at the next General Election, the retiring Labour MP, Austin Mitchell is not so sure.

He has dismissed the rival party’s chances of winning the Great Grimsby constituency at the general election, saying that Labour would win the hotly contested seat “even” if it had selected a “raving alcoholic sex paedophile” as its candidate:

The long-serving Labour MP, who is stepping down at the election, has represented the constituency in north Lincolnshire since 1977 and Labour has held it since 1945, but Nigel Farage’s party polled strongly in the area in recent local elections and in the 2014 European election, while a recent Lord Ashcroft poll suggested it only trailed Labour in the seat by one per cent.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday focusing on the Great Grimsby seat, he said: “There is no chance we'll lose Grimsby, even if we selected a raving alcoholic sex paedophile we wouldn't lose Grimsby”

He added: “I don’t think there is a problem in Grimsby. There will certainly be a rise in the UKIP vote now that they have a councillor and did quite well in the European elections. But when it comes down to it their vote isn’t concentrated enough to win any seats.”

And they say UKIP has got a problem with senior politicians commenting whilst having their foot firmly inserted in their mouth.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Labour faces its own tuition fees grief

I know that Liberal Democrats have nothing to boast about on tuition fees. We let people down and we are being punished for that. However, the outcome of that debacle, more by accident than design it has to be said, is that we have created an effective graduate tax, in which the principle of no up-front fees has been maintained, the vast majority of students will not repay the full amount, if they pay anything at all and which is actually leading to more people from deprived backgrounds going to university.

Labour's record on this issue is far from perfect as well. They introduced tuition fees in the first place and then brought in top-up fees. In both instances they broke firm manifesto promises, and they had a majority. How they deal with the present situation is therefore a big dilemma for them.

At first they thought that they might bring in a graduate tax, but then they realised that this is what is already in place. So they opted for the simple solution of reducing the maximum fee from £9,000 to £6,000. However, that has hit the rocks as well, for two simple reasons: they cannot find the money to pay for it and, more importantly, because that reform actually helps the better off and does nothing for students from poorer backgrounds who are unlikely to repay the money anyway because of the minimum income rule.

Now Labour have hit on the worst of all worlds. According to today's Times, Ed Balls is considering cutting some of the tax breaks handed to those saving for a pension to find the £2 billion needed each year to reduce fees.

The paper suggests that money could be saved by lowering the £40,000 that savers are allowed to put towards their pension each year tax free, or by cutting the £1.25 million lifetime limit on the amount of pension savings that are spared tax. Another option would be to change rules that allow savers to take 25 per cent of their pension pots tax-free. Capping such withdrawals to £36,000 would save £2 billion. Either way many pensioners will suffer.

And the tensions within Labour on this issue continue. The paper says that Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary, warned that cutting fees could trigger an increase in foreign students to plug the funding gap, squeezing places available for British teenagers:

In a speech that revealed the deep tensions within the party over the policy, he warned that Labour would have to make up the difference through direct taxation to ensure that universities did not lose out.

University vice-chancellors have already sounded the alarm over the policy, which they claim could leave a shortfall in their funding. In a letter to this newspaper this month, they said that the cut was “implausible” and would cost universities £10 billion by 2020.

The paper adds that Lord Mandelson suggested that cutting fees by a third could jeopardise research and teaching in science, maths and engineering, which are costlier than the arts: “I’ve no intention of going head to head with my party on this,” he said. “If any reduction in fees is announced, it is vital that replacement funding from taxation is identified and announced at the same time, not in a generalised way but in a specific way.”

Labour may see this as a totemic policy but can they really afford it and what are its consequences? Do they really want to use this money to subsidise better off students when they could for example use it to put in place grants to help those who do not have resources at their disposal to fund their time at university?

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