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New Year Message

It is worth looking back at 2010 before we look forward for 2011 and onward.

locally
The last case reference of 2009 was 13945 and the last reference of 2010 is 17452. That is over 3,500 cases handled for people in Yardley.

These vary as to how many people are affected and how important the cases are to those households. Constituency casework is important so that an MP can see what is actually happening as opposed to what they are being told by Civil Servants and Ministers. It also allows people a last resort which is at times their only way of getting their issues resolved.

Thanks are due to my constituency team. This year they have had to cope with some unusual situations including protestors shutting the office down. However, they have all done a good job for Yardley. There have been no personnel changes during the year.

The biggest local issue is the redevelopment of The Swan. We agreed to forgo the inflation/interest on the money due for the local park in order to speed up the development and to get the £3,000,000 for the park so that things progress.

The development will provide an additional 600 jobs in the area as well as a new road and sorting out the piles of rubble. Residents who have driven past will have seen that now the rubble is being used as hardcore for the road and the car park. The centre should open in 2012. However, I have had all sorts of problems with predicted start dates on the past and although this is now the final stage I would not suggest anyone bets the farm on this.

The Labour Party decided to make political capital out of our decision to forgo £300,000 in the interests of getting £3,000,000 and speeding up the development. They voted to put the development on hold by rejecting the change. This would have put the project at risk and could have stopped it for a long time. At an absolute minimum it would have delayed commencement. I don't think local residents will agree with Labour on this.

The initial local consultation has also gone out about the redevelopment of The Poolway. The initial project involved the demolition of the Meadway blocks, but now has expanded to rebuild the shopping centre and put in the council hub. The Swan Development has been on the cards for over a decade. I would expect The Meadway to run faster than this.

It is also nice to see some of the other projects (such as the development of sheltered housing on Sheldon Heath Road/Meadway) come to fruition. The redoing of the street lighting to LED and improvement of the roads will also be a positive step. There have been good reports from the early part of Amey's taking over of responsibility for roads maintenance.

Nationally
Nationally the big issue is the financial situation of the country. Labour's currently espoused strategy of not cutting anything ever would have led to the country following Greece and Ireland down the route of international financial rescue with much more severe cuts.

There has been a lot of ill informed debate about this. The underlying issue is that of solvency and the rate of interest charged when the government borrows money. I personally was supportive of introducing £6bn of cuts in this financial year. That was because it was necessary to drive down interest rates on government debt. It is important to remember that 1% of interest on £1tn is £10bn that has to be found in either additional tax increases or additional cuts.

Those people in Ireland who are arguing for Ireland to renege on its debt obligations have to remember that if government's refuse to pay their debts then people won't lend them money. The only way to avoid being "in hock to the markets" is not to borrow.

I have been quite surprised at how Labour have opposed every cut proposed through parliament. One of the most surprising was their opposition to cutting the child trust fund scheme. This is a scheme where the government borrows money to put it in an account that is put away for 18 years. These accounts have not been that financially successful - so that is not a justification for the scheme. Labour have not explained why they think additional government borrowing in order to do something which has no real effect for 18 years is a good idea.

I did not get involved in politics to cut things. However, it would be completely irresponsible to allow the country to go bust. That strategy would involve greater cuts.

It has been interesting how many Labour MPs fail to understand the difference between deficit and debt. They talk about "paying down the deficit" when actually the deficit is the amount added to the debt each year.

We cannot avoid the fact that some real services will be cut. We are proposing fewer cuts at 19% of departmental totals than Labour were. We are also proposing to ring fence the NHS. Labour would have cut the NHS as well.

However, some bad things will happen and some services will face real cuts in frontline services. What we need to do is to be equitable about the way in which the burden is shared. I think that is being done. Sadly some good people will lose their jobs. That, however, is inevitable.

One example is EMA. The government is concentrating the funding for 6th form students on those students that need it for their courses. That, of course, is bad news for those that bought CDs and DVDs with their EMA. However, those that use it for travel costs should find that they continue to get funding. The funding, however, will be via the college through the discretionary scheme. Any constituents who are having a problem with this (remembering that you don't have to be an adult to be a constituent) should contact my office.

There were, I suppose, two ways in which the current financial mess could have been avoided without a lot of pain. The first was to not have the property bubble that has driven much of the banking crisis. This was in part a failure of regulation, but also arose from the tendency to have a herd mentality in business where everyone makes a similar mistake at the same time.

The second, and one which really we should have followed, was to avoid building up the deficit from 2005 to 2008. I did try to get access to the Treasury figures during that period, but was refused access. The creation of the OBR has the potential of avoiding this mistake in the future. However, responsibility for both the mistake and the refusal to provide the information lies directly with Gordon Brown and the Labour Party - as has been recognised by Tony Blair and Lord Turnbull (the top civil servant in 2005).

There have been lots of rows about student finance. The issue has not been resolved fully as yet and I am working to try to move the system away from debt. However, it is quite clear that the proposals from the NUS for a "progressive graduate contribution" with an effective tuition fee of 5K are not massively different to those from the government for a "progressive graduate contribution" with an effective tuition fee of 6-9K.

Given that the proposals from the NUS appear to fit my interpretation of the NUS pledge (which I believe is the only rational interpretation) I find it sad that we have allowed the argument that we have broken a pledge to get acceptance. However, what we really need to do is to get the debt scrapped. Once that is done then the rest can be argued about. It is in some sense shocking that a scheme which results in the poorer graduates paying less over their lifetime is thought by anyone to act to prevent the disadvantaged from going to university. That, however, is a failure of communication.

The question is also asked as to whether the coalition is the Lib Dems proppoing up the Conservatives or a true coalition with policies from both parties.

The question has to be asked as to whether anyone would have expected a Conservative Government to do any of the following:

  • Cut income tax on earnings up to £10,000 (gradually happening)
  • Increase CGT
  • Keep the 50% tax bracket.
  • Bring in fixed term parliaments.
  • Reform the House of Lords
  • Stop imprisoning children for immigration contraventions
  • Have a referendum on AV
  • Bring in a general power of competence for local authorities
  • Have a referendum on increased powers for the Welsh Assembly (not a big issue in Birmingham).
  • Crack down on tax avoidance and evasion.
  • Link the state pension to earnings and propose a basic pension of £140.
  • Bring in a universal credit
  • Cancel the like for like replacement of Trident in this parliament.
  • Bring in a banking levy to fund Child Tax Credits.
  • Bring in the pupil premium (£2.5bn by the end of the parliament).

There are other things which were in the Lib Dem Manifesto that are being delivered.

  • Scrap the requirement to buy an annuity at age 75.
  • Pay compensation to those who lost funds in Equitable life.
  • Establish a Banking commission
  • Establish a Green Bank
  • Get superfast broadband across the country
  • Establish a mutual scheme for the post office
  • Extend the right to request flexible working to the parents of children up to age 18.
  • Confronting bullying in school including homophobic bullying.
  • Expanding Teach First
  • Expand the Graduate Teacher Programme
  • Slim down the National Curriculum
  • Reform league tables
  • Greater flexibility for schools on pay
  • Slim down the Early Years Foundation Stage
  • Get politicians out of the day to day running of schools
  • End Train to gain for large companies
  • Integrate Health and Social Care
  • Scrap Strategic Health Authorities
  • Remove geographical constraints on GP lists
  • Priority for dementia research
  • Expanding CBT
  • Keep free entry to national museums
  • Review the money in dormant betting accounts
  • Extend 15 hours free early education to all disadvantaged 2 year olds
  • A week's respite care for carers. This affects 1 million carers. £400m
  • £800m to help families with disabled children.
  • End child poverty by 2020.
  • Publish anonymised serious case reviews
  • End the compulsory retirement age
  • Stop wheelclamping on private land
  • Protect feed in tariffs
  • The Green Deal for home insulation.
  • Assistance for poorer people with energy bills
  • A route map to more renewable energy.
  • No new coal without CCS.
  • Protect overseas aid.
  • An inquiry into torture
  • 150,000 new affordable homes
  • Scrap HIPs
  • Defining gardens are greenfield sites
  • Promoting "home on the farm".
  • Working prisoners to contribute to victims
  • Establish Neighbourhood Justice Panels for Anti-social behaviour.
  • More restorative justice
  • Better recording of hate crime
  • Promote safer cycling and walking
  • Switch off contact point
  • Implement the Calman Commission about devolution for Scotland
  • Scrapping the government offices for the regions and regional ministers


There is a more detailed document with explanations of the above that I can send to anyone who asks for it.

The key is that the above are proposals that were in the Lib Dem Manifesto that have been implemented.

There remain some areas which need to be sorted out. One is the reduction of the period for which someone can be imprisoned without charge. Another is dealing with the issue of control orders.

Some of the above proposals were ones which were also in the Conservative Manifesto. Others were not. However, those people that voted for the Lib Dems in the general election have had delivery on the above proposals.

Parliamentary Activity
I sit on 4 Select Committees. Regulatory Reform, Procedure, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments/Select Committee on Statutory instruments and the Back Bench Business Committee. I have also been on a number of bill committees and SI Committees.

One of my key areas for work is in sorting out family law. The system both for public and private family law in England and Wales is a complete mess. This is not a party political area, but instead is one that I am working with politicans from all parties and non-politicians to get the system changed.

Two key things I am trying to do are to ensure that the right of constituents to tell MPs of their problems is protected by parliament and also a parliamentary inquiry into secret prisoners (that is those people whose liberty is constrained about whom the media are not allowed to talk).

There are more details about this on my weblog. In particular the comments I made to the Back Bench Business Committee are important about this they are available here

I am also working on a petition to The Speaker about protecting constituents. On this project a number of colleagues in the Labour and Conservative parties are helping. There is considerable concern in parliament about constituents being bullied by public authorities in an attempt to stop them talking to MPs. This undermines parliament.

The Speaker is advised by House Officers. They are advising him not to take action to protect constituents. This was a key issue when Michael Martin was Speaker and there was considerable concern then that he would not act to protect constituents. David Davis wrote about this in the Mail on Sunday here.

We are collecting signatures for a petition because that allows those people who don't sign EDMs to sign the petition.

All of this forms part of the work I have been doing to strengthen parliament as a body independent of the government. One thing it has been nice to see in operation is a process whereby the failure of departments to answer questions can be taken to the procedure committee. This was something I pressed for in the previous parliament.

This is key for achieving accountability of government. It can be seen in the evasive answers from the civil servants in education about adoption from care that the civil servants really don't want to account for the situation.

The objective is to stop mistakes in government more quickly than has been the case in the past.

Another useful change is that parliament can now change its standing orders without the permission of the government. The procedure select committee can come up with proposals and put those to the back bench business committee that can table them for decision and implementation.

Internationally
I have done a certain amount of work on international issues particularly relating to Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Iran.

On Kashmir I have been pressing for the UN to further the investigative work of Dr Angana Chatterjee. It is crucial, if we wish to resolve long standing disputes, to investigate and take action relating to human rights abuses. Peace is not just a matter of negotiation. It also requires the resolution of issues of concern. This has been seen in many places including Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Comments

PoliticalHack said…
You state that Tesco would have delayed their new Swan Centre store if they had not been released from a contractual requirement to pay interest on their s106 monies. The £300k amounts to 50 minutes of Tesco's profits and would equate to a few days' turnover at the new store.

Labour voted - quite rightly - in support of conditions originally imposed by the planning authority. These conditions ensured that the risk of delay was borne by the private developer who will pocket the profits, not by the wider public in Yardley.

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats voted to strip £300,000 from the community in Yardley.

Nice work.
john said…
That is in essence the argument. Labour were willing to delay the project and put the whole project at risk to get £3,300,000 rather than £3,000,000.

Delay was certain had Labour got their way. The whole project could have been cancelled.
tom said…
Hello John,
Just wondered if I could ask for some clarification on a couple of things you mentioned in that roundup..

on EMA, you say this:
One example is EMA. The government is concentrating the funding for 6th form students on those students that need it for their courses. That, of course, is bad news for those that bought CDs and DVDs with their EMA. However, those that use it for travel costs should find that they continue to get funding. The funding, however, will be via the college through the discretionary scheme.

Can I ask you, does this mean that the money that is currently being spent providing EMA will be moved to the discretionary funds for colleges, and if so does this movement form part of the vote on the 11th?

Also, do you know how the discretionary funds work? Are they hypothecated at the FE level, or will money that is currently being paid directly to students be moved into the general pot of money for FE, where it is possible that colleges/6th form would decide to spend it on teaching posts/resources/buildings rather than increase the discretionary funds, since colleges (and presumably 6th forms) have already had funding cuts I could see this as being a tempting option for colleges.


The second thing is that I notice the lack of a Right To Recall in your list of things that the Lib Dems have achieved in coalition. Does this mean that you are going to drop this constitutional reform?

I would also note that whilst you mention the banker levy and CGT rise, you choose not to mention that these are offset by reducing corporation tax.
john said…
I am not sure what vote you are referring to. I have looked at the business for 11th Jan and I don't see anything relating to EMA.

The discretionary fund is ring fenced, but less money is being put in that fund than is currently available for EMA. It has to be paid out against defined and real needs rather than just as a bonus for turning up.

As far as I know the Right to Recall is still part of the planning. That, however, has only related to people found guilty by the Standards Committee.

CGT is not related to Corporation Tax in that sense, but the Bank Levy is. The net contribution, howver, is still AFAIK positive.
tom said…
EMA vote, I got this from Unison..

http://www.unison.org.uk/education/further/ema.asp

Have Unison got it wrong?

When you say the discretionary fund is ringfenced, that means that it comes from a seperate pot of money to the college funding, and colleges will not be able to move funds from the discretionary funding to teaching/resources/etc., am I correct?

Do you know how much less is being added to the discretionary funds?
We can have a discussion about the relative merits of EMA vs discretionary funding here if you like, or we can wait until there is definitely a vote if you'd prefer.

Thanks for you replies on this and other matters by the way.
john said…
Unison are wrong in that it is not " the government will vote ". It could be a statutory instrument committee, but then it would move to the main house at another stage.

Yes you are right that it cannot be moved from this fund to other funds. I don't know what the figures are and I don't think they are yet set. I think the current figure is 27m and it is proposed to go to something like 100m. However, I would not rely on those figures.

You need to start with the issue as to the need to reduce public spending and then test the EMA changes against this.
tom said…
Thanks for that John.

Do you really want to get into a discussion about the necessity for cuts?
I don't think that we should be facing cuts of this nature, I don't think it is economically necessary, and in fact I think it is likely to be economically damaging.
We can discuss this further if you wish, or we can accept that we are unlikely to agree. I'm happy that you reply to comments on your blog at all, and understand if you don't want to get into a potentially lengthy discussion about something that isn't directly related to your post.

In any case, the IFS report I linked to found that EMA pays for itself, so it doesn't actually cost anything. The question is whether using discretionary funds instead of EMA will produce the same positive benefits for education and social mobility for less money.
john said…
I would be happy to discuss the question of the fiscal envelope (aka need for cuts), but would ask that you first read my comments and all the tables and charts cited on my web log relating to this issue.

Please give a link to the IFS report.

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