Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Local taxation

It is the twentieth anniversary of the Local Government Finance Act which saw the introduction of the community charge ("poll tax") to the whole of the United Kingdom.

The poll tax has gone, repealed by a later Conservative government, to be replaced with the council tax, only slightly more fair.

What hasn't gone is the uniform non-domestic rate, under which central government takes taxes in from local businesses and doles it out to local authorities again according to a formula. Thus Neath Port Talbot does not gain from the operations of amazon.co.uk directly, but only from the increase in jobs, with the consequent indirect effect on council tax. Stall-holders in Neath Market complain about the increase in business rates.

Local government should be given more control over business rates, or at least more flexibility.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Baglan Energy Park - nearly full?

The leader of Neath Port Talbot in a barnstorming speech to council last week, announced that the Energy Park was nearly full. This claim is notably missing from the report of the speech on the council's web site.

Let us recap. BP at its peak employed over 2,300 people in Baglan Bay. In 1999, the then Secretary of State announced that the Energy Park would provide 10,000 johs. Between then and 2004, this target was scaled down to 6,000.

The actual figure in 2006 was 280. Since then, according to the county borough's own press releases, no more than five hundred new commercial jobs have been created: Intertissue 300, Halford (say) 25, Shield Medical 120. (Mardon's 480 are only potential jobs.)

Then there are the council's own people at The Quays. 1300 staff would have transferred from Penllergaer to Baglan, and it was also announced that 300 depot staff would be based there. These are not new jobs, but they were previously located outside the borough. This gives a grand total of 2045 extra since 2006, which just about brings us up to BP levels.

Mycouncillor websites - temporary problem

ALDC (the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors) apologises for mycouncillor web sites, including that for Cadoxton, being unavailable since Thursday last.

They say: "This is a problem with the Webspace company, NativeSpace, who have apprently experienced a major problem with one of their servers which has affected a wide variety of sites which they host.

"We understand the server has been reloaded at NativeSpace, and we will be seeing a return to normal service this morning.

"Apologies from us, and we will be taking this up with the NativeSpace when its all finished."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Standards Committee - a lack of transparency

The choice of a community councils representative on the Neath Port Talbot standards committee came before full council on Thursday. But there was no real choice: it was pushed through without discussion on the council leader's say-so.

(Regular readers will remember that the standards committee has not actually met since last October, when the last external member left. The failure to recruit replacement external members since then has meant that a backlog of cases has built up. External volunteers have now been found, leaving the choice of a CC representative as the last piece in the jigsaw.)

There were three candidates for two posts: committee member, plus one reserve. The candidates were the town mayor for Neath (Labour); a nomination from Dyffryn Clydach CC (Plaid); and one from Coedffranc (Independent).

At the end of a session on possibly the hottest morning of the year so far, prolonged by a slide-show of a (mostly) positive review of the borough's social services followed by mutually laudatory speeches, members were understandably keen to get away for a spot of lunch.

So when council leader Derek Vaughan said that he knew all three candidates, but that clearly the mayor had to be the best, and that he thought that the Plaid community councillor should be reserve (not for the first time, apparently), Labour and Plaid members muttered "aye" and started putting their papers together.

It was left to Liberal Democrats to call "no" and vainly request a vote.

Three questions arise:
- why, when one Labour councillor declared an interest in knowing the unsuccessful candidate, did not the leader excuse himself? His recommended candidate was the mayor of his own community council;
- why should a man with no party affiliation (and, we are told, a respected former officer of both Port Talbot and Neath Port Talbot councils with 30 years of public service) be rejected out-of-hand for standards committee membership, where a non-party attitude is surely welcome?;
- why did not Plaid and the Independent group join the Liberal Democrats in calling for at least a vote on the matter?

It may be that the two successful candidates were genuinely the best. However, the manner in which they were chosen, without discussion or even the merest show of hands, must cast a slight shadow over their selection.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tory knife plans would add penny on income tax - Huhne

The Conservatives’ plans to lock up young knife carriers would put a penny on the basic rate of income tax, according to Liberal Democrat research.

The Tories would have to lock up over 330,000 young people at a cost of £4.9 billion a year - a penny on the basic rate of income tax- if they want to follow through their pledge to imprison all young people carrying knives.

Tory leader David Cameron recently said: "If you are carrying a knife and you are caught, you should expect to go to prison. Plain, simple, clear."

The huge cost of the pledge is based on the £40,992 annual price of keeping a prisoner behind bars, on top of the cost of building the 100,000 thousand additional prison places that would be needed to house them all.

The Home Office’s 2006 Offending, Crime and Justice Survey reveal that 3% of 10 to 25 year olds admitted to carrying a knife in the past year, equivalent to 334,167 people.

The average sentence currently given to under 18s caught carrying a knife is 3.4 months. Based on this sentence, nearly 100,000 10 to 25 year olds would be behind bars at any one time. Housing these people alone would cost £3.8 billion.

The capital cost of building the 100,000 additional prison places (equivalent to 40 titan prisons) would mean an annual cost of £1.1 billion paying interest on the debt.

Commenting, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne said:
"These figures demonstrate just how little grip on reality David Cameron has. The Tories have been just as irresponsible in threatening prison as Labour has been in pledging hospital visits for offenders.

"By promising to imprison everyone who carries a knife, David Cameron appears to want to double the prison population which is already at record levels and the highest in Europe.

"These figures for knife-carrying also demonstrate the total failure of the Government to get a grip on the knife culture that exists in parts of this country.

"Instead of chasing headlines, Labour and the Tories need to come down to earth and forge a consensus on what works, such as hot-spot policing, intelligence-led stop and search, and restorative justice that brings offenders face to face with their own victims.

"The evidence shows the best way to cut crime is not by posturing on penalties but by increasing detection."

While knife crime is not as significant in South Wales as in English cities, the Cameron policy has implications for us. Over-filling English prisons would put pressure on Welsh gaols, leading to unchecked early releases and use of open prisons for inappropriate convicts.

1. Using the survey figures given by the Home Office and the Government’s own population figures, it was estimated that 334,167 young people (10 to 25 year olds) carried a knife in the last year;

2. Young people and crime: findings from the 2006 Offending, Crime and Justice Survey;

3. Population figures taken from the Office for National Statistics;

4. Prison costs based on Howard League for Penal Reform estimate, based on a parliamentary answer;

5. If everyone who was caught carrying a knife was sentenced to prison for a year, then the cost to the public purse would be £13.6 billion. This figure comes from multiplying the total number (334,167) by the average cost of a prison place (£40,992). This is £13,698,173,664. This, however, assumes they are sentenced to an average of one year and does not take into account the cost of building extra prison places. The average sentence for possession of a knife or sharp instrument in a public place was 3.4 months for under-18s in 2006. 3.4 months is 28.33% of a year. On average, 28.33% of all 334,167 people would be in prison at any one time. That is 94,670 people. To house them would cost 94,670 x 40,992 = 3,880,712,640 (£3.9 billion).

6. The prison population is already at breaking point. There are not enough spaces available. The Government is already embarking on a huge building project. To house all the knife carriers the Tories want to, extra places would have to be built for them all. This would cost: a) 10,500 new places are going to cost £2.3 billion, Straw admitted to the Justice Select Committee. At that rate, 100,000 would cost 9.5238 times more. This is a total building cost: £21,904,761,904.76 (£22 billion);

7. The cost to the Government of borrowing the £22 billion required at the standard ten year bond rate of 4.9% would be £1.1 billion per annum.

8. As outlined above, the annual cost of keeping these people in prison would be £3.8 billion plus £1.1billion annual cost of the capital programme, totalling £4.9 billion.

Police in too many fatal accidents - Baker

Commenting on the annual report of the Indpendent Police Complaints Commission, which revealed that 23 people were killed in collisions involving police vehicles last year, Liberal Democrat Shadow Transport Secretary, Norman Baker said:

"The IPCC is right to be concerned. Police vehicles are involved in too many fatal accidents, but it is not just a problem for the police.

"We need a thorough review of procedures for all emergency vehicles to ensure that other road users are not put in danger."

The report comes out just as a crash, which took the life of a Neath taxi driver, is reported to have involved a stolen car hotly pursued by a police vehicle.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The half-mill. hunt for missing HMRC discs

silicon.com reports that the taxpayer has been landed with a £473,544 bill for the hunt for the missing HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) data discs.

The Metropolitan Police Service mounted a months-long search for the data discs containing 25 million child benefit records after they went missing in October 2007.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ministers must implement Soham recommendations

Commenting on the news that recommendations made after the official inquiry into the Soham murders remain unimplemented, Liberal Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne said:

"Serious crime can only be tackled by cooperating with our EU neighbours.

"Ministers continually trumpet their record on deporting foreign criminals but no one can be sure how many have slipped through the net because of their failure to implement basic safeguards.

"Four years is an awfully long time in which to have made no progress on a number of Bichard’s recommendations, including a much needed common IT system."

£14bn lost in tax credits

Almost £14bn has been lost though overpayments, fraud and error in tax credits since their introduction in 2003, analysis by the Liberal Democrats has revealed.

Tax Credits fraud and error statistics released last week show that over
£4bn was lost in the last two years, taking the total lost through overpayments, fraud and error to £14bn.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Jenny Willott, MP for Cardiff Central, said:

"The tax credits system is so complex that it is abused by fraudsters, misunderstood by claimants and mismanaged by officials.

"The amount lost through overpayments, fraud and error is now over £13bn and likely to keep on rising if changes are not made.

"Not only are costs spiralling, but families are riding a financial rollercoaster when they are forced to pay for mistakes made by officials who can’t understand the system themselves.

"Tax credits must be made simpler - we need to return to fixed awards which are easy to administer and ensure families aren’t burdened with overpayments."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Yet more revelations of confidential data leaks

On top of their admission that their staff had over the last four years had lost 347 laptops, containing official information, the Ministry of Defence has now revealed that over 100 flash memory devices have been taken off MoD premises and mislaid. The story and Sarah Teather's response are here.

It is all very well to say that commercial organisations have been just as careless with data (which they were - see previous stories on this blog), but government servants have an extra duty of care towards personal data. The MoD, which has sensitive data relating to our security, and that of our forces, has even more responsibility.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Welsh NHS has leaked confidential data

There is a summary on the BBC news site.

What is particularly disturbing is the carelessness with which information about children at risk has been treated.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fuel poverty - the PM still hasn't got the message

Nick Clegg unapologetically returned to the question of fuel poverty at Prime Minister's Questions today. The only thing that seems to have changed since he quizzed the PM in June, is that Gordon Brown announced he was meeting a Saudi prince this afternoon.

[Later] The interchanges are here. One should note that Gordon Brown actually doubled the income tax rate for the poorest tax-payers, while Liberal Democrat policy has long been to take the 10% taxpayers out of taxation altogether.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Liberal Democrats launch proposals to tackle youth crime

The main proposals contained in Chris Huhne's paper, "A Life Away From Crime", launched yesterday, include:

* The creation of a Youth Volunteer Force, to engage with young people, involve them in community projects and give them skills to benefit them in later life
* Establish Community Justice Panels across the country, where offenders admit their guilt to the community and agree on a Positive Behaviour Order as a course of action
* Create a dedicated PCSO youth officer within every Safer Neighbourhood Team to identify and work with teenagers most at risk of offending
* 10,000 more police on the streets by scrapping the ID cards scheme
* Intelligence-led stop and search and ‘hot spot policing’ targeted at gun and knife crime
* Restorative justice programs to be run in every community, specifically targeted at early intervention with widespread use in schools and care homes

More details, and a link to the full paper, can be obtained by clicking the heading to this post.

£200m tenant tax is scandalous

Liberal Democrat Shadow Housing Minister Lembit Opik has obtained figures which show that the Government is planning to keep nearly £200m of council tenants’ rent this year.

Every year, the Treasury decides how much local authorities need to spend on new homes and maintaining council houses. Those it deems to take more in rent than they need to spend pay a ‘negative subsidy’ to the Treasury, which is then redistributed to authorities in greater need.

However, this year the Treasury is collecting £195,816,938 more than it is redistributing. This extra money will remain with the exchequer and will not be spent on council housing.

Yesterday, Lembit said:

"It is scandalous that when council tenants are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet, the Government is pocketing £200m of their rent.

"After the 10p tax debacle, higher road tax on older cars and now a massive tenant tax, it’s clear that this is a Government that is prepared to take from those who can least afford it just to balance its own books.

"The tax on tenants is preventing councils from investing in their housing stock, and crucially, building new homes for the 1.67 million families on social housing waiting lists. It’s time to scrap the tenant tax."

The predicted surplus of nearly £200m was revealed in a Parliamentary
answer, which is available here.

This negative subsidy reduces the amount of investment that local
authorities can make in their housing, both on repairs and on building
new social homes to rent. Local authorities have been forced to sell
houses in order to raise the funds for vital improvements because of this
negative subsidy.

2008/09 is the first year since 2000/01 that the Treasury has made a
surplus from negative subisidies, as revealed here.

2008/09 figures for negative subsidies broken down by local authority
are available here.

The above figures are for England only, but the same thing has been happening in Wales. Neath Port Talbot council, for instance, has been the "beneficiary" of negative subsidy. This all makes the forthcoming Neath Port Talbot councillors' seminar on the Welsh Housing Quality Standard even more interesting.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sentences must be set by judges not accountants

That was Liberal Democrat Justice spokesperson David Howarth's response to the report last week by theSentencing Commission Working group.

He went on: "The commission is right to reject rigid US-style sentencing grids in favour of improving the current system of guidelines.

"There are better ways of co-ordinating the resources going into prisons and community sentences than the government simply telling judges how to decide individual cases.

"Britain needs an independent agency to assess what works, and which feeds its results both into Government spending decisions and the sentencing guidelines.

"This will lead to automatic co-ordination without each side telling the other how to do its job."

Local authorities left defenceless by Government - Goldsworthy

Commenting on Hazel Blears’ announcement that new guidelines will be introduced to curb out-of-town superstores, Liberal Democrat Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, Julia Goldsworthy said:

"With centralised public services and widespread post office closures, this is a Government that has presided over the death of the high street and the degradation of village and town centres.

"Local authorities need back-up from the Government to support their fight to save their town centres.

"But this Government’s poor track record means it has a lot of work to do before anyone will believe that this will not just leave local authorities defenceless."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Flood insurance must cover those at most risk - Webb

Commenting on the announcement that insurers have agreed to cover households with a flood risk of up to one-in-75 years, Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, Steve Webb said:

"It is all very well making insurance available, but it must be affordable to people living in the most vulnerable homes.

"Even when people can get insurance they may be asked to pay large chunks of the cost of claims themselves.

"Every year, more and more people move up the flood risk scale. When only those whose homes are up to a one in 75 year flood risk can get cover, what happens to the growing number of households at a higher risk?"

Friday, July 11, 2008

Peter Black slams unrealistic housing targets

The letter in today's Western Mail by South Wales West AM, Liberal Democrat Peter Black, not only exposes divisions in Plaid, but also criticises the Plaid/Labour coalition plan for 6,500 new affordable homes by 2011 as unrealistic.

He concludes: "It demonstrates the danger of setting arbitrary targets when a measurable and precise action plan would be far more efficacious."

Olympic legacy - even English tourism will suffer

Last Thursday, the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport reported on tourism.

Our shadow minister, Don Foster, said:

"This is a damning indictment of the Government’s approach to tourism since 1997.

"Lack of investment in the industry has led to Britain’s share of the global tourism market falling.

"Ministers have got to support the industry with more than just words if they are serious about making tourism a key part of the 2012 Olympic legacy."

Wales has its own tourist organisation, which is now an arm of government after the "bonfire of the quangos". There was already minimal potential spin-off from the Olympics for us, but there are things that central government can do to encourage visitors to extend their stay into Wales (and the regions of England, for that matter) - for instance, maintaining transport links and the post office network.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Nuclear clean-up bill massive and still rising

Responding to the Public Accounts Committee report into the cost of nuclear decommissioning, Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, Steve Webb said:

"The cost of nuclear clean-up is massive and still rapidly rising. It is extraordinary that estimates of the cost of clean-up seem to increase by billions of pounds with almost no public scrutiny or comment.

"The biggest single cost of the Department for Business is not supporting British business, but cleaning up nuclear waste.

"The Government must urgently provide certainty about the costs of cleaning up yesterday’s waste, and guarantees that the taxpayer will not end up footing the bill for new nuclear waste."

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Climate change is bigger than any one political party - Webb

Commenting on the growing Labour rebellion over the Climate Change Bill, Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, Steve Webb said:

"Climate change is bigger than any one political party, so support for the Liberal Democrat campaign for an 80% cut by 2050 is welcomed wherever it comes from.

"The Government has got the emissions target wrong and once again it looks like its own backbench MPs will have to rebel to get ministers to do the right thing.

"Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron must come off the fence on this issue. By allowing his Tories to constantly abstain David Cameron is showing how hollow his green credentials really are.

"The Climate Change Bill is too important to be watered down. The Liberal Democrats will be tabling an amendment today to make sure there will be a vote on the 80% target."

Coincidentally, figures released this week by the RAC, show that the cost of motoring has fallen in real terms in the UK since 1988. This puts David Cameron's call for a reduction in fuel duty into perspective.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Imprisonment of children for breaching ASBOs must stop - Huhne

Nearly half of children who breach their ASBO are sent to prison, with the average sentence they receive being significantly longer than adults who break their ASBO, according to figures revealed by the Liberal Democrats.

The figures, contained in a Parliamentary Answer, showed how:
· Nearly 1,000 (986) children were sent to prison for breaching an ASBO between 2000 and 2006
· 42% of all children who breached an ASBO were sent to prison
· The average sentence given to them was 6.4 months
· The average sentence given to adults who breached an ASBO was just 4.9 months
· The number of children in prison in July 1997 was 2,643. By July 2007, this figure was 3,013 (in April 2008 that figure was 3,012). This is a 14% increase since Labour came to power

Commenting, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne said:

"Huge amounts of money have been thrown at the system but youth crime remains stable, re-offending rates ludicrously high and fear of crime higher still.

"The last decade has seen an ever increasing criminalisation of our young people. More and more of them are being dragged through the system and being locked up.

"The demonisation of young people by politicians and the media has fuelled the fear of crime, and ASBOs have played a massive part. It has got to stop.

"It is totally unacceptable to send a single child to prison for breaching an ASBO, let alone the 1,000 children who have been sent to prison. Children are being sent to jail for longer than adults who breach ASBOs."


1. Statistics taken from Crime Reduction Website

2. Children in custody figures from 2007/08

3. Children in custody figures from 1997

Clegg to implement MEC proposals on MPs expenses

Liberal Democrat Leader, Nick Clegg, has today committed to unilaterally introduce the recommendations of the Members Estimates Committee for independent spot checks of MPs expenses.

Despite Labour and Conservative MPs defeating the MEC’s recommendations last Thursday, the Liberal Democrats will go ahead with implementing those that are relevant in order to further improve accountability.

Nick Clegg said:
"The Liberal Democrats will now implement as many of the recommendations as we can to tighten up the rules on MPs expenses - particularly those relating to spot checks of MPs expense claims.

"My Shadow Cabinet will shortly be publishing quarterly breakdowns of their expenses and I expect this to be the first of several measures to greatly improve how we account for ourselves.

"I hope that Gordon Brown and David Cameron will join me in implementing these measures so that together we can begin to restore public confidence in politicians after what has been a very damaging week."

The steps will include:
· Working with the Institute of Chartered Accountants to draw up detailed proposals to implement spot checks of expenses for Liberal Democrat MPs. The Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Paul Burstow, will be meeting with the Institute of Chartered Accountants shortly to discuss these issues.
· Establishing an independently chaired Audit Board for the Party to oversee issues of probity and integrity.
· Publishing a detailed breakdown of expenses of all Liberal Democrat Shadow Cabinet members.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Government facing fines for delayed battery boxes

Battery collection boxes due for every home have been delayed by the Government, leaving Britain facing fines of millions of pounds.

Britain signed up to the EU Batteries Directive in 2006 in a bid to boost recycling and halt the leaching of acid from old batteries into soil and water.

The UK will have to collect a minimum of 7,500 tonnes of portable batteries for recycling by 2012 to meet its European targets - but last year collected just 600 tonnes.

Britain recycles just three per cent of batteries, compared with 14 per cent in Spain and 59 per cent in Belgium. Battery collection boxes are a familiar sight in offices across Brussels but are almost entirely absent in Britain. Only industrial and vehicles batteries are recycled in the UK at present because they have a significant commercial value.

By September next year the law requires that batteries handed in for recycling must be treated and processed using the most up-to-date technology. By 2012, some 25 per cent of all batteries are due to be recycled. Although there are a handful of plants capable of processing the steel cases of batteries there are none here that can deal with the hazardous chemicals they contain.

So far the government has carried out only pilot studies, and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has cast doubt on whether the final regulations will be in place by the deadline later this year.

If ministers fail to meet the 2012 targets Britain could face daily fines - and a repetition of the 2002 fiasco when fridge recycling facilities were not set up in time to meet the legal requirements.

Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman in the European Parliament, said there was no excuse for the delays.

He said: "The government does not have to reinvent the wheel. Best practice in countries such as Belgium can provide a model of how to implement battery recycling in the UK."

"Batteries are full of toxic and carcinogenic materials. There are few other household products that, if left in appliances for too long, decay before our eyes and weep acid that can burn severely.

"Britain is being forced at long last to catch up with best European recycling practice and put an end to the mentality of 'out of sight, out of mind' when it comes to waste materials."

Iron, nickel and silver can all be recovered from recycled household batteries which might otherwise contaminate soil and groundwater. Incineration of incinerated batteries can release toxins and heavy metals into the atmosphere.

The "best refuse-collection service in Britain" doesn't make things easy to recycle batteries, either. Neath Port Talbot collects batteries, but only in a few centres to which the batteries have to be taken, and the council does not advertise the facility.

Cell phone masts

On 25th June, Liberal Democrat MP Andrew Stunell moved an amendment to the Planning Bill which, if passed, would have required full planning permission for the erection of phone masts up to 15 metres in height. The amendment was rejected by Labour and therefore defeated. The Conservatives have a manifesto commitment to introduce this planning requirement but despite this, they abstained.

Safety fears have been scientifically debunked, but there is no doubt that phone masts are visually obtrusive. As such, they should be brought within the legislation. We condemn Labour intransigence and Tory hypocrisy over this issue.