Posts Tagged policy

Time for fairer taxes

No-one likes paying tax.

I remember the taxi driver who told me he agreed with the Lib Dems on abolishing council tax. “And we’d replace it with a low local income tax,” I added enthusiastically. The cabbie disagreed. “No, no, love, just abolish it, you shouldn’t replace it at all.”

I’m not against tax. I’m one of those who believes that redistributive taxation – funding public services through taxing income and wealth – is the membership fee for a civilised society. But even so, if I’m honest, I don’t enjoy paying a penny more tax than I have to.

And unfair taxes risk losing the support of the general public for essential taxation, especially when everyone is feeling the pinch. We’ve all heard the cases of lowpaid workers paying a higher rate of tax than the company directors whose offices they clean. So the least politicians can do is make sure that the taxes we do pay are fair.

With that in mind, this week Lib Dem shadow chancellor Vince Cable proposed a motion calling for an immediate and substantial cut in income tax to benefit low and middle-income taxpayers, paid for by closing the multi-billion tax loopholes which benefit the very wealthy individuals who profited disproportionately from the economic boom.

That’s exactly the sort of policy that would benefit local people who are lower income taxpayers facing high living costs in Islington. So why did Islington’s Labour MPs vote against it?

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Greener homes for all

Building greener homes should be a priority. It would help fight climate change and fuel poverty at the same time – and create ‘green collar’ jobs. What’s not to like?

So I was interested to be contacted by the National Housing Federation - who represent housing associations – about their ‘Green Homes Now!’ campaign.

The Conservative government banned local authorities from building new council homes; something Labour have done little to change. So new social housing is virtually all built by housing associations (Islington’s an honourable exception). And the government, who control funding to housing associations, are requiring them to hit high green standards, with 25% fewer carbon emissions than required by current building regulations.

That’s fine; but it’s not fair that private developers don’t have to meet the same standards until 2010. Not only is that a missed opportunity for the homes built in the meantime; but it makes it harder and more expensive for the housing associations to do their job.

If you support the National Housing Federation’s campaign for private developers to build to the same environmental standards and timetable as housing associations, then you can sign their petition here.

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Willetts rewrites history

Just heard David Willetts on the radio, touring Birmingham. He was arguing – bizarrely – that the experience of Victorian Birmingham under Joseph Chamberlain shows how the Conservative party is relevant today (and he had a totally uncritical hearing from Evan Davies).

David Willetts pointed to Chamberlain’s powerful role as leader of Birmingham council; how the King Edward foundation opened more schools when their original one was a success; and how the Bourneville chocolate firm, founded by the Quaker Cadbury family, built social housing.

That’s all true. But none of it has anything to do with the Conservatives.

Chamberlain could do great things in Birmingham because the Council was a real power in the city. They ran water and gas, health and housing. The Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s deliberately reduced and removed council powers. This has continued under new Labour. Responsibilities that were once given to councils have been taken away and given to unelected or semi-elected bodies instead. And these bodies are accountable to central government, not local voters.

The King Edward Foundation is interesting and unique. It is associated with 7 schools in Birmingham, 2 independent and 5 state grammar schools, the latter with the same ‘voluntary aided’ status as Central Foundation in Islington. Willetts argued that opening more King Edward schools meant the foundation was not exclusive. However they are grammar schools, which entrench social advantage rather than spreading it – as Willetts himself said last year. He got sacked from the education portfolio for sharing that uncomfortable truth with his party.

As for social housing, another item on today’s news is about the shortage of affordable homes. It was the Conservatives who introduced the ‘right to buy’, and prevented councils building new homes to replace those sold. Again, that’s continued under new Labour. And it was Conservative deregulation of financial services that led to first boom, then bust, in the mortgage market, one of the causes of today’s financial crises.

It’s true that Chamberlain started as a Liberal and ended as a Conservative. But Willetts glossed over that everything he was praising came from Chamberlain’s days as a Liberal. Chamberlain joined the Conservatives over the Irish Question (as divisive then as Europe is now) not social policy – and then split them, leading to the Liberal election victory in 1906.

Frankly it’s insulting to Chamberlain to try and claim his Liberal achievements for Cameron and Co. There’s more than a century of difference between Chamberlain and today’s Tories.

ps Chamberlain also has an Islington connection. He lived in Highbury (there’s a plaque on his former home in Highbury Terrace) and named his Birmingham home ‘Highbury’ in tribute.

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Honouring pensioners all year round

Westminster Council is promoting the idea of Silver Sunday; a day to honour older people, in the same way that Mothering Sunday honours mothers.

As their website explains, “It is proposed that Silver Sunday will take place every year on the first Sunday in October, this year on Sunday 5th October. The date will complement the newly adopted United Nations ‘Older People’s Day’ initiative, to take place in the first week in October, and the launch of Age Concern’s ‘Grandparents’ Day’, both of which aim to involve young people across the land in celebrating and valuing our older people.”

No harm in that. But pensioners deserve more than an annual greetings card moment. And that needs action elsewhere in Westminster.

This year marks the centenary of Lloyd George’s “people’s budget” and the foundation of the pension. For the first time, the state would guarantee an income for people too old to work, giving financial security for the poorest pensioners.

Since then, that pension has been eroded. First the Conservatives broke the link with earnings; then Labour reneged on plans to let women pensioners catch up on years of missed earnings. It’s shameful that women and carers, who take time out of earning for themselves to care for others, get penalised by Labour’s pension rules.

At our recent party conference, Liberal Democrats celebrated the achievement in setting up the old age pension; but we also looked forward.

We are demanding a restoration of the link with earnings; a citizen’s pension based on residency not just contributions; and the end of mass means-testing of pensioners, so people get the full benefits of the extra savings they’ve made.

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‘Keep the promise’ event, 4 October

Last month, I blogged about the latest report on child poverty.

For all Labour’s rhetoric, the reality is that 3.9 million children – one in three – are currently living in poverty in the UK. As the End Child Poverty campaign points out, this is one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialised world – a shocking figure given the wealth of our nation.

As Nick Clegg said in his conference speech, the Liberal Democrats are now the only party that can deliver social justice, and the only choice for anyone who wants a fairer Britain. Lib Dem policies like allowing councils to build new homes for rent, the pupil premium to support the poorest pupils, and sustainable action on fuel poverty, are badly needed.

On Saturday 4th October, End Child Poverty is holding a rally in Trafalgar Square to call on the Government to keep its promise of halving child poverty by 2010 and ending it by 2020. You can sign up to support the event here.

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Bournemouth day 2: catching criminals. And Vince.

The big debate this afternoon had the catchy title: “Cutting crime by catching criminals”. It may seem an obvious approach; but under this Government, only 1 crime in 100 ends up with a criminal conviction. And then the punishment does little to prevent future crime, with reoffending rates so high, and mental health and addictions going untreated.

Crime and the fear of crime are, with the cost of living, among the top issues for Islington residents. Knife crime makes the headlines, but we need the police to be there to deal with all the crime that damages our lives – and a prison system that works to put it right.

I put in a card (a request to speak) for this debate yesterday. So there I was this morning, busy declaiming my speech to the bedroom mirror, much to the surprise of the chambermaid.

On my way to the conference centre, I got a call from a journalist back in London, asking about cycle safety. I had just reached the pier, so there was a surreal moment: me on the mobile demanding action from Mayor Boris on Islington’s cycle blackspots, with fairground music from the roundabout in the background. It makes a change from sirens.

By now the PFI debate was well underway (conclusion: have them where they work, but don’t fiddle the figures) and I’d missed Vince Cable’s opening speech. Consoling myself with the thought of catching Vince at the lunchtime fringe, I rushed on to an event with Steve Webb MP, on climate change.

The centrepiece was a map of Britain showing what will happen with rising sea levels if we don’t act against global warming. You can get a bit blasé about this stuff – green fatigue? – but these images are truly shocking. What got me was seeing childhood holiday spots vanished under water, lost in our lifetime.

Arriving 15 minutes early, I thought I was in good time for Vince’s lunchtime fringe speech – but not early enough: full house. But we’re spoiled for choice, and I went to hear Chris Huhne on unlocking democracy through electoral reform, including an inspiring message from Brian Eno.

Under the ‘first past the post’ voting system, only a handful of voters in a handful of seats, decide who runs Britain. Islington South is one of the lucky constituencies where your vote makes a difference, but it’s just not good enough for a modern democracy that so many voters miss out. Meanwhile the Government is consulting on changing the day of the week on which you vote, which is really missing the point.

After lunch, I went to a candidates’ briefing on ‘Make it happen’. Lib Dem policy documents are many, worthy and in depth. Tell a Lib Dem candidate that our party doesn’t have any policies and hollow laughter is guaranteed. When we say we have policies for home insulation, it’s the literal truth.

‘Make it happen’ is different (hooray!) with a fresh presentation of key policies in the kind of language real people use (no endogenous neo-classical Balls here).

Then off for the crime debate (which, inevitably, clashed with a Vince Cable session at the other end of the building). One of Labour’s great lies is that Lib Dems don’t care about crime or the victims of crime. The conference hall was packed out, we heard excellent speeches (although not mine…), and a genuine debate on how best to make the police accountable to the communities they serve.

I’m really pleased with our approach - to cut police red tape, use the ID card budget to get bobbies on the beat, reform prison to reduce re-offending through education and treatment – all things that will help reduce crime and the fear of crime locally.

And afterwards we legged it through the conference centre and finally caught up with Vince: result.

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Trust the people

My Guardian blog on direct democracy has produced some interesting comments.

One expresses the understandable fear that if we submit the top 6 popular petitions as legislation, we’ll get “pro-hanging, anti-abortion, leave the EU, probably something about immigration, independence for Scotland…and free ice cream for everyone: at which point they’re all voted down by MPs (apart from that last one)“.

Well, the next best proxy for the petitions from a People’s Bills process is the Downing Street petitions website. I took a look just now. The top 10 petitions in terms of number of signatures currently are:

*Allow the Red Arrows to Fly at the 2012 Olympics

*instruct water companies to return to charging churches as charities rather than as business premises.

*give all Ex Gurkha soldiers and their families who have served our country British citizenship on leaving the service.

*Remove the unfair and unjust retrospective Vehicle Execise Duty levy (back to 2001 year vehicles) as announced in the Budget on 12/3/08

*Stop ISP’s from breaching customers privacy via advertising technologies.

*Save Bletchley Park

*Cut VAT on 100% fruit juices and smoothies to the minimum 5% allowed by EU law to encourage shoppers to take the healthier option and achieve their ‘five a day.

*ensure there is a Lasting Legacy for Shooting Sports in the UK by moving the venue away from the Woolwich Barracks.

*Reverse Gov’t Plans and Save Jodrell Bank Observatory From Closure

*reduce the tax on petrol and diesel by 20p per litre

If you take out the four non-legislative proposals (Red Arrows, Bletchley Park, Woolwich Barracks and Jodrell Bank), then you get your 6 petitions that could spawn People’s Bills. Quite an interesting mix of propositions, certainly not what you’d get direct from UKIP or the Daily Mail.

Gladstone said that liberalism is ‘trust of the people, tempered by prudence’. I realise prudence is a bit of a dirty word, thanks to Gordon Brown. But trust of the people could be an idea whose time has come.

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Return of repossessions

Party conferences are memorable for all sorts of reasons.

I’ll always associate the Harrogate conference of September 1992 with ‘black Wednesday’. The day interest rates went through the roof, I was worried about losing mine. I’d moved to Islington earlier that year and we had a big mortgage to support. A group of us abandoned plans for a restaurant meal and contemplated life in negative equity over jacket potatoes instead. There was a chill in the air that was nothing to do with the north Yorkshire weather.

Now with falling house prices, but rising housing costs, it’s happening again. Last year there were more repossessions than for 15 years. So more families are facing the horror of losing their homes – and joining the long queue for affordable rented housing.

Islington’s housing market is relatively buoyant – in fact I think a modest fall in prices here relative to other areas would be a good thing. House prices are over-inflated and too many people are priced out of ever having a home. But there’s a big difference between a soft landing and a crash.

So while estate agents and developers try to talk up the market, it’s good to see that at this year’s Lib Dem conference, Vince Cable will be setting out plans for people who are getting left behind.

It’s not about subsidising mortgages, but practical measures to help people stay in their homes with help from housing associations; and help councils get more social housing too.

Once again Vince is providing excellent free advice to the Government: but is Labour listening? Unlikely given the complacency of Ministers reported by the FT…..

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Planning ahead

Most of us care about planning policy – even if we don’t know it at the time.

I was door-knocking in Canonbury the other day and called on an eminent economist. “Aha, I’m glad you’ve called, there’s something very important I want to ask your views on“; so in I went, frantically invoking the spirit of Vince and dredging key policies from the memory bank. And then it turned out to be about a nearby planning application. Not interest rates, but lots of interest. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Planning applications rouse strong passions. Some unite – or divide – whole neighbourhoods. Others may only involve one or two people, but still have such a lasting impact – after all, it’s your home, your business, your life.

A lot of Islington people take an active interest in local planning issues, but many more, understandably, don’t have much to do with the planning process until they’re concerned about a specific application. And suddenly you can find that ‘policy’ is against you.

The planning policy framewok is overhauled about once a decade – and Islington’s is being looked at now. It has to go through several stages of consultation and the latest has gone live here.

There are sections on housing, open spaces, environment, jobs, tall buildings, shops and transport, among others. A lot of the planning rules are set by central Government, or the London Plan, but there are still some areas where Islington can make its own policy.

Various interest groups from big developers to the local Friends of the Earth will no doubt have their say.

I’d encourage individuals to register, take a look, make comments, and suggest any changes. More than your loft conversion may be at stake….

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Do Academies make a difference?

Congratulations to Jo Dibb and all at EGA (where I used to be a governor) on their GCSE results: 55% of pupils have got 5 or more passes at A to C, up from last year.

Across Islington, there are improved exam results this year. For the first time, all the secondaries got at least 50% of pupils achieving 5 or more passes at A to C. And overall they are up by 7% to 56%, while the national improvement rate is 2.4%. Good news given that Islington’s best-connected parents still tend to send their kids out of the borough (our local Labour MP and her former neighbours the Blairs included).

Meanwhile, according to the Sunday Times, Lord Adonis, (Islington resident and unrepentant Blairite), is calling for a massive expansion of the Academies programme. Islington has one academy up and running (St Mary Magdalene) and another about to open at Islington Green (currently 50% on GCSE performance).

Under Blair it was made very clear to councils that Academies were an offer they couldn’t refuse. Now it looks as if that will continue under Brown.

But hang on a moment. EGA’s not an academy. With 65% on the GCSE scale, Central Foundation boys school has outperformed the national average; but it’s not an Academy either. Nor is City & Islington Sixth Form College, which continues to get stunning results at A level. So do Academies really make a difference?

Islington has worked hard to manage the Government-imposed academy approach. Instead of mad millionaires, the sponsors are known quantities – the CofE for St Mary Mags and the City Corporation plus City Uni for Islington Green. St Mary Mags is a new school, its pupils too young to be sitting GCSEs yet. But it has made a difference in one respect; having a 10th secondary in the borough has made more places available at other schools. One mum of five is delighted that her youngest daughter has now got into the popular Highbury Fields school, something her older sisters never had the chance to do.

Schools will always do better -academies or not – if they can cherry-pick the best pupils or benefit from the high base of a well-educated, well-funded community.

What about inner city Islington? The End Child Poverty campaign makes the point that poverty is no excuse for poor performance. What makes a good school is having motivated staff, pupils and parents; a good quality school environment and teaching resources; and an ethos that’s about learning and achievement for all.

Academies have new buildings, staff and pupils who’ve chosen to be there, and extra money – so no surprise if they outperform schools in shabbier surroundings with a captive catchment. Attitude is as important as money, but that doesn’t necessarily come from the Academy model. Especially since the Building Schools for the Future programme means secondaries don’t have to become academies to get better buildings.

If the Government really believes its own rhetoric on localism, and believes that local communities should have choices around schools, that must include the choice to reject the Academy model. Schools and LEAs should be left alone to concentrate on continuing to deliver improvements for local chidren and families – as they are doing in Islington.

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