Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Localism: Wake Up And Smell The Coffee

You may assume that the Daily Mail would welcome George Osborne's announcement that Council Tax would be frozen for the second year in a row. In an interesting but perverse article, Ross Clark of the Mail argues that the freeze will lead to councils increasing fees elsewhere. In fact councils will receive the full amount because George Osborne is picking up the slack by using an £800million fund of money left unspent in Whitehall to compensate local authorities for lost revenue. The amount of council expenditure covered by council tax collected varies enormously between authorities. Two London Boroughs illustrate the stark contrast with 34% of Kingston's spending coming from council tax receipts compared to a mere 6% across the way in Tower Hamlets.

The article continues by claiming that Eric Pickle's call for localism has exploded in his face because of councils increasing their parking charges by different amounts. The fact that different councils are responding to the economic climate in different ways is not new and is exactly what would be expected from a truly localised system of local government. What is new is the lack of regulation, inspection and bribery through ring-fenced grants that the previous central government used to flatten out local differences. This stifled so much innovation, and pandered to the lowest common denominator. Councillors acted as branch managers of Whitehall, rather than being able to respond to local challenges and demands.

We have a degree of choice in the education of our children; community schools, academies, Free Schools and the independent sector. The National Health Service has an increasing level of choice for patients but local authorities have remained largely untouched with the occasional tinkering around the edges and the occasional discretionary scraps of funding to give neighbourhoods the impression that they could engage with their local authority in a meaningful way.

Allowing local authorities to make visibly different decisions may startle some people, who then may investigate further and realise how long some things have been allowed to carry on without challenge. Similarly, they may discover some superb examples of innovation that have been hidden from view. Residents can then engage on the basis of full disclosure, voting less on a tribal basis and more on what effect their decision may have on their lives over the following four years. Few people would hand over £5,000 to a travel agent or car salesman without worrying about the details of the holiday or specification of the car that they will receive in return. However, a huge number of people do exactly this with their council tax over the four years of most council administrations.

It was only when councillors in Reading discovered that £1.4million of taxpayers' money had been spent over 12 years funding fulltime union representatives rather than union subscriptions that something was done about it. Sutton taxpayers are still only now beginning to realise that 10% of the entire council tax bill for the Borough was spent on a single building to service schools mainly outside the area whilst significant cuts were made. Such stories are uncovered by a handful of dedicated councillors, residents and local journalists. Greater transparency and local accountability will throw up more examples and eventually stop many more decisions being taken that are simply not in the interests of the taxpayer.

We're used to exercising choice right down to what coffee we buy in the supermarket. When presented with fifty different jars on the shelves, the decision is not always on what is the cheapest. An ethically minded shopper may spend extra on Fairtrade, someone who wants to impress may choose a coffee from a particular area. Most people still end up with the big, safe brands and this will be the case when it comes to voting. However, a choice based on the fact that local representatives will take important decisions close to the people who are most affected, must surely always be the best. Localism can be edgy, especially whilst people adjust to their new responsibilities and to greater accountability, but voters will now know where their local decision makers live and councillors will need to up their game. You cannot have it both ways. It is a case of responsive local government or highly regulated, centralised decision making from Whitehall. So, go local but then shop around. Wake up, smell the coffee and see if there's another brand that suits you better. Maybe that quietly streamlined jar in the corner will have a fuller flavour at a lower cost.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Project Maja - Conservative Social Action in Bangladesh

Politicians too often have an opinion on everything, whilst being light on experience. The Conservative Party have a volunteering programme called Social Action which turns this truism on its head. I joined 35 volunteers, made up of MPs and activists, on a trip to Bangladesh, where we spent a week undertaking four projects in the Sylhet region that will have a significant effect on some of the poorest people in the world.

I helped document the work of BRAC and Sightsavers, two inspirational organisations coming together with the ambitious target of eliminating avoidable blindness in the region by 2013. Our team, led by Nicky Morgan, MP for Loughborough, saw how BRAC were building a network of 'Barefoot Doctors', women who visited each house in a number of villages to offer advice on such medical matters as eye care and family planning. We saw the impressive number of cataract operations that were performed each day and the instant, positive effect that they had on the patients, allowing them to return to work and so provide for their families. It takes 5 minutes to restore someone's sight through a cataract operation at a cost of just £27. We'll continue to work with BRAC to raise the profile of their Vision Bangladesh programme. If you are able to help restore just one person's sight, you can donate via the BRAC website.

Andrew Stephenson MP took a team to a number of schools to teach English, sometimes in classes of 120 children. A calf nonchalantly walking into one of the classes mid-lesson, gave Andrew some material to speak to the children about. Anne Main MP helped to launch a cricket centre and conduct trials for a football team in Sylhet, all under the auspices of the London Tigers, a London-based charity which has grown from strength to strength since developing from a local football team who felt they could give opportunities to disadvantaged Bangladeshi children in London.

The keynote project was working with Islamic Relief on the total refurbishment of the Hazi Muhammed Shafiq High School in Sylhet. 400 children were trying to get an education with no electricity, no fans, no proper toilet facilities a leaking roof and four children sharing each desk. We've remedied this with a little money, generously donated by four successful Sylheti businessmen, and a lot of hard work. The response from the children was worth it alone.

So why do we do it? Shouldn't politicians be chained to their office desks sorting out the deficit? Doesn't charity begin at home? These questions are valid but fail to look at the wider picture. We've spent a small amount of time, making a huge difference to people who have nothing. We have a moral responsibility to help where we can. Such programmes have a knock-on effect in the UK as well. The city of Sylhet has a population of 463,000. The Sylheti population in the UK is around 300,000. There is a well-trodden path of migration between this region and the UK, especially Tower Hamlets in East London. Bangladeshis play an important role in the UK. The vast majority of 'Indian' restaurants in the UK are owned and staffed by Bangladeshis, specifically Sylhetis and the curry industry contributes some £3.5 billion to the UK economy. However, 10% of the GDP of Bangladesh is from remittances, Bangladeshis across the world sending money back to their families. We should welcome Bangladeshis to study and gain experience in the UK, but they should feel that a return to Bangladesh is a realistic and attractive prospect should they wish to do so. Investment and improvement in their own infrastructure, education and health care will help improve the life chances of Bangladeshi people.

We can manage immigration more effectively by not simply waiting to act when people arrive at our borders. Programmes such as this can help. Bangladeshis should not feel that they have to migrate to London to find opportunities for their families. It should be more appealing for people to stay and help develop their own country, something which would be beneficial for both their country and the UK.

The work on this trip went against the grain of handouts and dependency. A Sylheti Member of Parliament, himself educated in Britain, told us that what was needed most was expertise and support, rather than simply dipping into our pockets. In our small contribution, we have given a few people a hand-up and opportunity.

The amazing scenery, the warmth of the people and, yes, the curries, left a massive mark on the group and we would all go back, to a man. Beyond the projects, the earthquake which rocked the Sikkim region of India just one hundred miles away, shook our hotel, leaving one MP to attend an official dinner in her pyjamas. We finished the week with a cricket match against a team of Bangladeshi MPs shown live on TV. I was stumped off a wide first ball. Of course, this was being polite to my hosts. No taxpayers' money was spent on this trip, nor Conservative party funds. Four generous UK-based donors made this all possible and they should serve as a great example of how to remain loyal to the country in which they live, whilst loving the country where they were born.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Big Society: Less Talk, More Action

Last Sunday, I led a group of local students to clear a Carshalton school sports pitch of rubbish.

The four Year 8 pupils from Wallington High School for Girls helped me clear the Camden Junior pitch in Carshalton in order to show that they were active in their community for a school project, collecting several large bags of rubbish and 2 fire extinguishers along the way.

In my role as Chair of Governors at Camden, I’m aware that the Junior School haven’t got the resources to clear up the mess that arises from being next to Grove Park. Making connections like this brings people together to ensure that everyone benefits.

I hope the girls will be a great example for others that just a little work from everyone in the community has a big effect on the area in which we live. Sutton Conservatives are starting a programme of social action working on a range of environmental, voluntary sector and community projects. If anyone can help me with time, money, expertise or just enthusiasm, then do please leave a comment.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

An Economics Primer Sponsored by Amstel

Suppose that once a month, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all of them comes to £100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes and claim State benefits, it would go something like this;
The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing. The fifth would pay £1.The sixth would pay £3.The seventh would pay £7.The eighth would pay £12.The ninth would pay £18.And the tenth man (the richest) would pay £59.

So, that’s what they decided to do. The ten men drank in the bar every month and seemed quite happy with the arrangement until, one day, the owner caused them a little problem. “Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your weekly beer by £20.” Drinks for the ten men would now cost just £80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes. So the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free but what about the other six men; the paying customers? How could they divide the £20 windfall so that everyone would get his fair share? They realised that £20 divided by six is £3.33 but if they subtracted that from everybody’s share then not only would the first four men still be drinking for free but the fifth and sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

So the bar owner suggested a different system. The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing.The sixth man paid £2 instead of £3 .The seventh paid £5 instead of £7.The eighth paid £9 instead of £12.The ninth paid £14 instead of £18.And the tenth man now paid £49 instead of £59. Each of the last six was better off than before with the first four continuing to drink for free.

But, once outside the bar, the men began to compare their savings. “I only got £1 out of the £20 saving,” declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man, “but he got £10!”
“Yes, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a £1 too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more benefit than me!”
“That’s true!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get £10 back, when I only got £2? The rich get all the breaks!”
“Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison, “we didn’t get anything at all. This new tax system exploits the poor!”

So, the nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up. Funnily enough, the next month the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had their beers without him.

But when it came to pay for their drinks, they discovered something important – they didn’t have enough money between all of them to pay for even half the bill.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No Votes For Prisoners

There has been a lot written about whether prisoners should get the vote and what we should do about the European Court of Human Rights. Both of these are highly emotive issues and so it is important that we look at the facts and respond in a sustainable manner. There is no point kicking off about something if the Government will end up having to comply anyway.

So first of all let's look at the original ruling which was made with 12 Judges in support and 5 voting against. The Grand Committee report of 6th October 2005 said:
"The Court accepts that this is an area in which a wide margin of appreciation should be granted to the national legislature in determining whether restrictions on prisoners’ right to vote can still be justified in modern times and if so how a fair balance is to be struck. In particular, it should be for the legislature to decide whether any restriction on the right to vote should be tailored to particular offences, or offences of a particular gravity or whether, for instance, the sentencing court should be left with an overriding discretion to deprive a convicted person of his right to vote. The Court would observe that there is no evidence that the legislature in the United Kingdom has ever sought to weigh the competing interests or to assess the proportionality of the ban as it affects convicted prisoners. It cannot accept however that an absolute bar on voting by any serving prisoner in any circumstances falls within an acceptable margin of appreciation. The applicant in the present case lost his right to vote as the result of the imposition of an automatic and blanket restriction on convicted prisoners’ franchise and may therefore claim to be a victim of the measure. The Court cannot speculate as to whether the applicant would still have been deprived of the vote even if a more limited restriction on the right of prisoners to vote had been imposed, which was such as to comply with the requirements of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1.”
I have put in bold the key sentences as I see them in this ruling. It is also worth noting that the Court did not award Mr Hirst any compensation, although it was galling to see that he was awarded £23,000 costs despite the fact that he was on legal aid. His solicitor charged £300 per hour - nice work if you can stomach it.

So the Court says that it is up to Parliament to decide on whether we should give prisoners the vote but we haven't discussed the matter for a while and the Court wouldn't be happy if the UK kept a blanket ban. Can you spot the obvious contradiction here? Ken Clarke's 'best legal advice' seems to ignore the first part of this and concentrate on keeping the Court happy.

The recent motion debated in Parliament, to my mind, complies with the demand that Parliament should 'weigh the competing interests or to assess the proportionality of the ban'. Therefore we are left with the second contention, that a blanket ban is not appropriate. This isn't a ruling but clear guidance on what the Court is likely to decide should another case be brought. The motion acknowledged the treaty obligations of the UK so no-one voted on whether to ignore the Court outright, although there was very much a mood to do so from many in the Chamber.

The media have covered in detail the story of the man who brought the case to court, John Hirst. He is a particularly odious man who killed his landlady with an axe. Having a battle about human rights with someone who thought nothing of extinguishing the life of an innocent woman is simply galling. He runs a blog which, quite frankly, you can look up yourself. In it, he thinks nothing of resorting to offensive insults and meandering rants when he can't summon up a coherent argument. After calling Priti Patel a 'paki', he said of the London-born MP, ‘Unlike the foreign import Patel, I am a Brit born and bred.’ This, because she has been vociferous in disagreeing with Hirst.

My view, which chimes with the majority of those MPs who voted, is that we shouldn't give prisoners the vote, least of all to brutal murderers like John Hirst, who despite his protestations about rehabilitation and human rights is a nihilist, interested in nothing but himself and his self-gratification. Therefore, the question is do we risk a follow-up case and possible compensation payments by ignoring the ruling or do we do the bare minimum to comply?

The legal advice given to the Lord Chancellor is that the vote should be given to prisoners serving a sentence of four years or less. This seems to be on the basis that this largely excludes violent offenders. This still sounds arbitrary to me. Supporters of votes for prisoners make much of the role that this would have in rehabilitation. Former jail-bird politician, Jonathan Aitken, was very sceptical of this position in an interview with the Daily Politics. If it was decided that we should try to comply with the ruling, one solution may be to allow prisoners in the final six months of their sentence the vote, rather than looking at the sentence as a whole. This would go some way to complying with the ruling whilst demonstrating a clear reasoning behind the decision, gradually reintroducing prisoners to the idea of reentering society.

However my position is not to compromise. The Conservative manifesto pledged to introduce a British Bill of Rights. The coalition has changed this somewhat, with a Commission being set up to look into the matter. This is usually a kick into the long grass. I hope not too long. Yes we were one of the original signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights, but, as so many things European, we still remain with an out of date solution to a problem that barely exists. The EHCR was set up in the wake of a destructive conflict that tore Europe apart. Nowadays, it keeps busy by dabbling in prisoner votes and whether sex offenders can apply to have themselves removed from the register. Surely the UK legislative and judicial systems are more than capable of tackling these issues?

One final thought; the very mention of Europe gets people hot under the collar about the EU. This is not connected to that thorny issue. Yes, leaving the EHCR and so, probably the Council of Europe will get members of the EU flustered, but it can and should be done. Muddling this up with a yes/no referendum will not help solve this issue, so we ought to tackle one thing at a time.