Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Real C-word

On hearing the news that The Sun is supporting the Tories in the can’t-be-called-soon-enough General Election, Lord Mandy of Pandy, Peter Mandelson is alleged to have referred to the newspaper as “c*nts”.

All I can say is: it takes one to know one.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Return of the Newt

The Daily Red Rag has published yet another article by the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (why is the Inebriated Newt still given the oxygen of publicity?)

He uses this diatribe to broadcast his tired, mixed-up views of congestion charging and emissions control. In a predictable response to yesterday’s announcement from the present Mayor that the Western extension to the London Congestion Charge may not be scrapped any time soon, Livingstone argues that the zone should be expanded to include punitive charges for large vehicles. What he doesn’t argue of course, is for the zone to be extended North or East into the heartlands of his core voters.

The CC is all about reducing traffic levels; if it reduces emissions too, then that may be a good thing, but since London gets as much pollution from Rotterdam, Paris and Manchester, we needn't worry too much about a few Tonka toys dropping off Tamsin and Tarquin.

And unfortunately, the CC has completely failed to reduce traffic levels. Traffic levels are up and jams are worse than ever. I walk from Fleet St to Charing X every evening, and can get there quicker than any car or bus. However, this is not caused by volume of traffic, but poor management of the traffic that is there. Livingstone failed to introduce any legislation to prevent multiple holes being dug up in the same area. Livingstone ordered the installation of traffic lights every 100 yards on main roads to help pedestrians cross streets at any opportunity, and to frustrate motorists out of their cars (and for cyclists to ignore completely).

Unfortunately, like the Treasury’s addiction to using road tax and fuel duty to bail out every other government department, TfL is now dependent on whatever income it can get from road pricing. This means the CC is being used primarily as a revenue source for a quango, rather than as a means of alleviating traffic. TfL is short of cash because less people are working in London. Therefore fewer commuters are using the antiquated, unreliable tubes and buses, so TfL need to steal some money from elsewhere.

If we take a reductionist view of the Congestion Charge and it achieves it stated (original) aim, then less traffic will drive into London and therefore less money will flow into TfL’s coffers. This means that TfL needs to look for another source of revenue. Their current thinking is to maintain the Western Extension, which Ken famously instated against public will purely to upset the residents of Kensington and Chelsea. The fact that he killed off numerous businesses at the same time was less important than sticking two fingers up to the toffs in West London. In which case, let’s extend the CC across the whole of London and make it equally unfair for all. That will raise even more money, which can be invested in CrossRail and keeping the existing transport infrastructure going.

Or how about reducing the extortionate prices charged to travel on the tube? That would encourage people out of their cars, who reason that spending £8 a day to travel into London is only a bit more than £5.80 for a return ticket on a cramped, hot, unreliable train. Air-conditioning and listening to Radio 4 in private, versus cattle-transportation conditions and being forced to listen to someone’s Nokia playing the latest atonal catawauling from the Top 40? No contest.

And as for Livingstone: you lost – get over it and leave us alone.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Lib-Dems are the new Monster Raving Loonies

The Lib-Dems seem to have adopted a new tactic in their campaign to not get elected or become the official opposition in 2010: announce radical, vote-losing policies that no-one in their right mind would support.

At yesterday’s conference session, their leader, Nick Doodah – can never remember his name – declared that anyone with a property costing more than £1m would be taxed annually at 0.5% of the value. This is so that the “low paid” can be removed from the income tax system completely, although in reality the money will go to those on benefits and other forms of income support. Wonderful – so someone who has paid attention at school and worked hard to buy their dream house, now has to subsidise the workshy. All very socialist; all very certain to consign the Lib-Dems to another period in the wilderness.

At the same conference, Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, announced that the much-needed and even much more delayed CrossRail project would get the axe if the Lib-Dems get into power. This is the Vince Cable who is held up as an economic guru, for his ability to voice the most loudly what most of us knew about the New Labour boom – it was a sham built on unrealistic house prices and over extension of debt. Cable was supposedly a “chief economist” for Shell, which probably translates to Assistant Clerk to Head of Logistics Supplies (Paper Clips) London (West).

What this country desperately needs after nearly 13 years of public sector growth in personnel and salaries is for spending on core infrastructure projects. It does not need backward-thinking 3rd rate politicians to spout on about re-distributing non-existent wealth or threaten to cancel upgrades to the creaking transport system.

However, none of this is likely, unless by some freak of politics Labour win a fourth term in government and steal the Lib-Dem’s ideas, as they tend to do with anything that is short-term and populist. What Cable and his boss appear to have forgotten is that they have as much chance of being in No’s 11 and 10 Downing Street as Laurel and Hardy. Although at least the latter pair were entertaining.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The C-word

Like the S-word before it (“sorry”), the soon-to-be-replaced-one-way-or-another incumbent of No. 10 is now having trouble with another alphabetic conundrum. How to present the withdrawal of funds to government departments as anything but a cutback, or “cut” for short.

Brown and his cronies have spent their way through nearly 13 years’ worth of tax receipts and have little to show for it, unless you consider 1.2m additional civil servants and more than 630 new quangos to be good things. Where is the new rail infrastructure promised by John Prescott in 1997? Where is the world class education (education, education) system? Where are the clean, queue-free hospitals? Where is the healthy economy, complete with built in lack of boom and bust?

What we do have is an army of civil servants – 6m at the last count, 6 times larger than the Chinese military – most of whom have good salaries and final salary pensions. All of this costs a lot of money (your tax) and when combined with the £175bn lobbed at the banks to stop them from going belly up, there is not a lot of money left for the important things in life, such as trains, schools and hospitals.

The electorate has also woken up to the unfettered lavishing of money on government departments for little return and is now expecting the next administration to take a red Bic to all the non-jobs, quangos and unelected peers (watch your back, Mandy). All of which has provoked Gordon Brown to reverse his nonsensical talk of “Tory cuts vs. Labour investment”. Today he will announce that “Labour will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut low-priority budgets”. Wow, four uses of the c-word in one sentence. There is no greater joy in heaven than a sinner who repents.

There is no mention of course as to where this application of the c-word will come. I would put money on Labour’s interpretation of cutting costs as involving consultants, feasibility studies lasting 12 or more months, a large bill and the ultimate decision that in fact the department involved actually needs more staff, not less. All very “Yes, Minister” as anyone who has seen the episode The Economy Drive will attest.

There was an interesting article in The Times last week, where the newly elected, independent mayor of Doncaster remarked that he “wants to remove PC jobs but doesn’t know where they are in his council”. And that sums up the dilemma that will face the next government: where to find the waste? Well, here are a few ideas…

Firstly, remove all of the unelected peers with ministerial responsibility that have been appointed in the last 12 years by New Labour. If someone has to run a department, they should be an elected MP who is accountable to a constituency, not a sometime TV presenter or favoured crony. Next, rationalise the number of government departments and ministers reporting into No. 10. Why do we need a Treasury and a Secretary to the Treasury, both as separate departments? Why are there such large departments for devolved parliaments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?

The culling of departments should also be accompanied by a culling of quangos. There are now 1,100 of them costing £60bn annually. And no-one knows that they are doing. There is no supervision or accountability (as evidenced by the “quasi autonomous” and “non-governmental” nature of the moniker). However, they are not autonomous as they influence policy and taxation, and they are governmental as they are funded centrally by the government. What, for example, do the Zoos Forum and the British Potato Council contribute? It is also typical for the head of a quango to be a favoured acolyte of the PM or a close friend of a senior minister, thus providing yet more jobs for the boys and girls.

The last axe should fall on anyone not directly contributing to a public service. Doctors, nurses, teachers, soldiers, sailors etc should be spared (although they should all contribute more to their pensions). Staff directly supporting these professions (IT and HR) should be audited for waste, especially those spending £12bn on unused systems (step forward the NHS). But departments that are tangential to public service and provide no direct benefit to the public should be closed down. This would include the Highways Agency, "a:gender" (look at their website), the Charity Commission and Efficiency in Government (surely they should be prosecuted under the Trades Descriptions Act?), to name a few. There was even a Millennium Commission that was not wound up until the end of 2006, six years after the millennium dome fiasco.

And to think that all this talk of cuts was initiated by a slip of the tongue by Tory MP Andrew Lansley back in June. Back then he was vilified by Labour and given a fairly frosty reception by his own leader for daring to suggest that the civil service party might be over. Now it seems that his 10% cuts are the talk of the town. I also ranted about it at the time, suggesting that 10% should be a minimum target for cuts.

Although when I think of the c-word and Gordon Brown, it is a different word, and it includes the n-letter.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Gravy train comes off the tracks

One of my earliest Blog posts was on the subject of MPs expenses. Way back in April 2008, when John Lewis lists were just coming to light but before the full Telegraph exposé of free porn, duck houses and “flipping”, I posited the idea that MPs should not receive £23,000 a year in tax free income. Since there are many thousands, if not millions, of workers who regularly work away from home and incur travel and living expenses, then maybe MPs could adopt a similar scheme for themselves?

However, that would have been far too sensible and, if implemented quickly i.e. last April, would have denied the residents of SW1 another year of trough-dwelling at our expense. It would have also denied the government the opportunity to appoint one of its favoured management consultancies and auditors to commission a report on how best to overhaul the expenses system.

In a “confidential report” from “financial experts KPMG” – not so confidential that the Daily Mail have seen a copy, and the dubbing of the producers of the report as experts is similarly the Mail’s reckoning, not mine – only those MPs whose constituencies are beyond a 90-minute commute will be able to claim, and only then for rent or hotel bills.

Well, dress me in a tutu and call me Samantha if that isn’t what anyone with a shred of common sense has been baying for since the profiteering abuse of the expense system was first exposed. Why did it require a report to be written, doubtless at a cost of several million pounds, to state the blinking obvious? The MPs system of expenses should reimburse only money paid out and should not be open to the kind of exploitation that allowed certain politicians to make almost £200,000 from selling a taxpayer-funded second home.

Anyroadup, hopefully now that someone who is respected by the government have rubber-stamped the kind of expense policy that is in place at most private companies in the UK, if not the world, then we can finally see some closure on this whole sordid topic. But it will deny me a rich source of material to comment on.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Uplifting Experience

It was reported yesterday that the council in Rochdale pays some of its workers a “lift allowance” to compensate for them having to spend so much time waiting for the antiquated lifts to take them to the 10th and 11th floors. Since they spend so much time waiting for lifts, they waste precious time that could be more wisely spent in inventing new ways to consume council tax, or so the story goes. They are therefore rewarded for this lost time to the tune of two-and-a-half extra days of pay.

Leaving aside the fact that anyone could have dreamed up such a daft compensation scheme and also leaving aside the fact that anyone in a position of responsibility actually signed it off, here’s a radical idea for the lard-arsed top floor workers in Rochdale council: use the stairs! Not only will you get to work on time and save the council a bit of money, but you will also get fit.