Commentary: this matters

Does it matter if this country locks up a few children? Especially when it is in the right?

Well, yes, it does. Nick Clegg has managed to persuade his Coalition partners that the children of asylum seekers should not be under lock and key like prisoners, a position vindicated in today’s judgement:

But there are many others who are locked up for committing crimes.

Why not, you may ask? It’s simple: does a two year old know the difference between right and wrong? Clearly not.

Does a five year old? Probably not.

A ten year old? Oh definitely. But perhaps not the difference between misbehaving and commiting a crime.

It is difficult to know when to stop but in effect we assume that a ten year old can be tried for crimes.

I would argue that we cannot normally be sure about the grasp a ten or even a thirteen year old can have as to the gravity of a particular act or omission and that as a result a completely different set of remedies, quite distinct from the criminal law, is appropriate for those under the age of fourteen. This would bring us into line with most of the rest of the world, which has ages of criminal responsibility of fourteen on average – often higher.

This does not mean that deplorable acts of violence or killing are ignored. Far from it. But it means that the state attempts to repair the damage that the parents or society have inflicted rather than transferring the offenders to a University of crime where they can never get a second chance.

Controversial? Not really: we all agree that children under the age of sixteen cannot know whether a sexual act is appropriate and thus prohibit by law intercourse below that age. Why on earth are all other acts treated as if they were committed by a reasoning mature adult?

Commentary: Labour’s chickens coming home to roost

A few weeks ago a Labour Shadow Minister, Phil Woolas, was stripped of his seat in the first meeting of an election court for 100 years. This was because he had lied in his election literature about his opponent.

Last week another ex-Labour MP was gaoled for corruption. And today we learn that Eric Illsely, still an MP but not deprived of the whip, has pleaded guilty to false accounting charges (see link below).

Labour has tried to run around pretending to be politically purer than the Coalition Government. It has tried to say that it is the champion of fairness while the Government manages a wrecked economy.

But the truth is painful:
– it is Labour MPs (with or without the whip) who are gaoled or face gaol sentences for corrupt practices
– it is Labour which destroyed the economy, howeer much they may say they faced a global crisis (based of course in the City of London which labour deregulated).

We must, every time we cast a vote or despair over a policy, remember who got us here and what sort of men and women they were and are.

Commentary: Getting things in prespective

If the national media were to be believed (or Labour-led NUS for that matter) the story of the Liberal Democrats over the past 8 months has been all about tuition fees and nothing else.

I would advise readers to have a look at the Party’s achievements in Government so far (it runs to twelve pages).

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that Labour were promising cuts deeper than Thatcher’s (before they lost the election): Nick Robinson’s blog is a good summary.

Commentary: 10 weeks on the Lib Dems have had huge influence in Government

Briefing note: 10 weeks on the Lib Dems have had huge influence in Government

In just 10 weeks since the start of the Coalition Government, the Liberal Democrats have exerted a huge influence over its agenda.

Going into the election the Liberal Democrats made clear that they had four key priorities: fairer taxes; a fair start for children with extra funding for disadvantaged pupils; a comprehensive clean up of our politics, including a fairer voting system; and a green, sustainable economy.

Thanks to Lib Dem involvement, the Government will deliver on each of these.

There are also a large number of other Lib Dem policies and pledges that will now begin to make a real, positive difference to people’s lives because of our role in the Coalition Government.

These include everything from rolling back the surveillance state and giving people back their civil liberties, to prison and NHS reforms, fairer pensions, the ending of child detention and the scrapping of the third runway at Heathrow.

Delivering on our promises
Fairer taxes
The Liberal Democrats promised to make the tax system fairer by ensuring no one pays tax on the first £10,000 they earn and closing loopholes that allow the wealthy to pay a smaller proportion of their income in tax than people on low and middle incomes.

The Coalition Government has already taken a huge step towards achieving this by raising the income tax threshold by £1,000 in last month’s Budget, saving low and middle earners £200 a year, and reforming Capital Gains Tax. The income tax threshold will continue to be increased every year during this Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats also promised to restore the earnings link to pensions, which the Government will now do.

We also promised wide scale banking reform, including a banking levy to make sure that banks pay for the financial support they received from the taxpayer. The levy, which will raise £2.5bn, was announced in the Budget.

A fair start for children
The Liberal Democrats promised to introduce a Pupil Premium to target extra money at disadvantaged children. The Coalition Agreement makes clear that this will now happen.

We also promised greater freedoms for teachers over the curriculum, which will also be brought in as a key part of the Coalition’s education reforms.

Fair politics
The Liberal Democrats promised a comprehensive clean up of the rotten political system. This is now a key part of the Coalition’s agenda for which Nick Clegg has responsibility.

The plans include:

    A referendum on the Alternative Vote to take place in May 2011
    The right to sack MPs guilty of serious misconduct
    Fixed term parliaments of five years
    Reform of party funding
    Moving towards an elected House of Lords, elected by proportional representation
    A statutory register of lobbyists
    A radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups

A green, sustainable economy
The Liberal Democrats promised a raft of policies to help the economy recover and make sure that we build a new green and sustainable economy fit for the 21st century.

A huge number of these policies will now become a reality, including:

    Tough action to tackle the deficit
    The creation of a green investment bank
    Reform of the banking system to make sure that banks lend to viable British businesses
    An independent commission on separating investment and retail banking
    Measures to improve energy efficiency in homes and businesses
    Support for low carbon energy production and an increase the target for energy from renewable sources
    Enabling the creation of a national high speed rail network
    The creation of a smart electricity grid and the roll-out of smart meters
    The establishment of an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with Carbon Capture and Storage Technology
    Replacing Air Passenger Duty with a per-plane duty
    The provision of a floor price for carbon, as well as working to persuade the EU to move towards full auctioning of ETS permits

Other Lib Dem policies that will now become a reality

The Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for the restoration of freedoms and civil liberties eroded under Labour and the rolling back of the surveillance state. A huge number of Lib Dem policies will now happen, including:

    The abolition of Identity Cards, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the ContactPoint Database
    The repeal of unnecessary laws
    Further regulation of CCTV
    The outlawing of finger-printing of children at school without permission
    Extending the Freedom of Information Act
    Ending child detention for immigration purposes
    Removal of innocent people from the DNA database
    There are also a host of other Lib Dem policies that will now happen under the Coalition Government. These include:
    Fair compensation for Equitable Life victims
    The modernisation of the Royal Mail
    Flexible working and promotion of equal pay
    Reform of the NHS to strengthen the voices of patients and the role of doctors
    A commission on long-term reform of social care
    Cutting Quangos and government bureaucracy
    Implementing the recommendations of the Calman Commission on Scottish devolution
    A referendum on further powers for the Welsh Assembly

Commentary: time to grasp the nettle

The clocks changed overnight and this has highlighted the growing likelihood that there may at last be progress on the peculiar British nonsense of GMT.

Europhobes are no doubt delighted that we are out of sync with other countries in Europe. But we pay a high price for this mania: higher fuel bills, more accidents and a poorer quality of life. The need to chime in with Scotland was always bogus.

But most particularly we need to think about the economy: now that the banks proved their worthlessness we can no longer rely on the financial sector as an engine of growth. We need to look to other industries – not least tourism. Tourists and visitors are deterred by days which end part way through the afternoon and have no use for the extra light available before many of us get out of bed.

We must end this nonsense and have BST in winter and BST plus in summer.

Commentary: the mountain laboured

The mountain laboured and brought forth a mouse. But not a very nice or useful mouse.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has at last produced a ‘policy statement’ entitled ‘The Modernisation review of public libraries’. There is little radical and little of benefit to the public, indeed precious little modernisation. The library establishment and quangoland by contrast have much to be pleased about.

The paper contains a long list of instructions for local authorities and even specifically for local authority chief executives: no role for councillors here. Local authorities must set flexible opening hours to suit the needs of local people (as opposed to deliberately trying to annoy them?), think of innovate ways of generating improvements, maximise efficiencies in the stock supply chain and improve their ability to use and evaluate evidence.

Local authority chief executives are told they should champion the partnership agenda – DCMS seems to see this as a new idea.
There is to be a ‘new’ strategic body for the libraries sector – apparently MLA plus – which will improve leadership. No role here again for councillors, the LGA or the IDeA, all of which have a proven track record on leadership and peer challenge. Instead we get an appointed quango, folding in the hopelessly supplier-led Advisory Council for Libraries, to ensure that it is the librarian rather than the elector or the user who is in charge.

Local authorities are warned that the process of government intervention is to be clarified. In essence there will be more central intervention – the Government continues to applaud the disgraceful Charteris report into the Wirral, which substituted the opinions of an outside expert for the decisions and processes of local councillors challengeable by the electorate.

Perhaps I was naïve to hope that there might be anything worthwhile in this. After all the LGA had submitted some powerful ideas – the need for new legislation, the need to respect localism, the need to remove the grip of the professional librarian. Nothing seems to survive.

Reactionary attitudes to this precious public service predominate: the All Party Parliamentary Group’s centralist vision is typical, while chief librarians engage in genteel social network shadow boxing with those who question whether a library should ever be more than a collection of books, especially books available round the corner at Waterstone’s.

To some degree one can ask: ‘Why worry’? The current government will not survive long and DCMS may well itself be swept away. But the APPG report serves as a warning to all of us that the agenda across the political spectrum is largely backward looking and centralist, rather than user-focussed and localist.

And if DCMS goes, the same civil servants who produced this policy paper from their ivory tower in Cockspur Street will continue to fail to engage with the realities of the service on the ground – and fail above all to understand that councillors can both understand their communities and understand what a library is for.