Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Burning the midnight oil

One of the questions people often ask is why Parliament sits through the night. And the short answer is that it doesn't any more - normally. But tonight I will be glad if I get to leave Westminster much before 0130am.

The reason for this is twofold.

First, we have emergency legislation to enable the Northern Ireland power sharing deal to go through. This adds an extra 3 hours of business, but I don't think anyone who saw the extraordinary scenes of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams yesterday can really begrudge a few hours towards making that happen.

Second, we are on the final day of the four day Budget debate. Normally this would finish at 10pm, but tonight it will go on to midnight. At the stroke of midnight we then get to vote on various 'budget resolutions'. Commonly there are 6 or 7 votes on different aspects of the Budget, and as every vote takes around 15 minutes to complete, we get into the early hours of the morning. The only hope for any serious sleep tonight is if other MPs decide that they're not as keen as usual on calling votes on the Budget. But experience tells me that those MPs who miss the 'good old days' of sitting through the night may ensure we get rather a lot of votes.

Look out for the bags under my eyes tomorrow!

Monday, 26 March 2007

Time to put some energy into power from the Severn

This afternoon I attended a fascinating meeting organised by the Severn Tidal Power Group, a consortium of construction and engineering companies who want to see the Government's energy review include a commitment to an updated appraisal of the idea of a Severn Barrage. They made a lot of compelling arguments including:

        • a barrage could produce around 5% of the current annual electricity needs of the UK;

        • it would be a reliable source of power - the tides are pretty predictable! - and using a proven technology that has worked in France for 40 years;

        • it would be a very 'green' source of power;

        • it could act as a partial flood defence for the Severn Estuary;

        • at a time of uncertainty of international energy supplies, it would be 'home-made' power.

        • although it could cost £15 billion, if the costs of the appraisal and planning process were taken out of the equation, the utility companies might be willing to operate it on a commercial basis, just as they build power stations on that basis at present.

        The big downside, apart from the cost, is the worry about the environmental impact on the estuary. But even here there are some potential benefits. Apparently, the lower tidal reach above the barrage would mean less sediment disturbed, cleaner water, more sunlight getting through, more marine life and therefore more bird life! There might be a downside in terms of the impact on the mudflats further up the estuary, and this clearly needs to be looked at. But I came away from the meeting convinced that an appraisal of this idea - which hasn't been updated since the 1980s - is long overdue.

        Wednesday, 21 March 2007

        Fiddling while the earth burns?

        Sitting in the House of Commons today listening to the Budget was like a bad case of déjà vu. Most of the style was familiar – the longest period of growth since Attila the Hun, complete omission of bad news like a vast trade deficit, and an obsession with a legion of detailed tweaks to the tax system. Indeed, not only has the Chancellor fiddled and tweaked for 2007-08, but he has also set out detailed plans for the following two years. It seems strange that he doesn’t appear to trust the person he is going to appoint to be the next Chancellor!

        The background documents to today’s budget list no fewer than 52 separate measures which will either increase or decrease the Chancellor’s revenues, but the net effect is roughly nil. The 2p cut in income tax “gives away” well over £9 billion, but the doubling of the 10p starting rate to 20p raises nearly £9bn. Higher rate income tax won’t cut in until later, but the 10% rate of National Insurance will apply to a bigger slice of higher incomes. You wonder what it was all for.

        The biggest omission was anything serious on climate change. If the threat of global warming is as serious as Nicholas Stern says, why does his Chancellor fiddle while the earth burns? Green taxes have actually fallen in significance in the last decade, when their contribution should have been increasing. Gordon Brown will have to tackle as Prime Minister the legacy of a Chancellor who could have done something serious about climate change but simply failed to act.

        The Lyons that never roared

        Today the Government is set to publish the results of the 'Lyons' inquiry into local government finance. If the leaks are to be believed, he is going to propose a few extra council tax bands, improving council tax benefit, and getting on with revaluing all of Britain's properties. If this is true, it would be a pretty dismal outcome after years of effort.

        Council Tax, even with these minor tweaks is fatally flawed. The link between your house price, judged relative to nationally set property price bands, and your ability to pay is pretty weak. Plenty of people live in relatively large houses but have relatively modest incomes (eg many widows), and if they have a small amount of private savings or income, they may qualify for no help with the council tax. A wholesale revaluation, 16 years after the last one, will cause chaos with huge numbers of gainers and losers, some of them pretty arbitrary.

        A far better system would be local tax based on ability to pay. Lots of other countries have such taxes and they seem to work fine. Instead, we have an unfair tax and then a highly ineffective means-tested benefit designed to mitigate its unfairness. We could do away with all that, and with the need to value every property in the land if we just had a local income tax.

        Wednesday, 14 March 2007

        What to do about a mast in the wrong place?

        I like gadgets as much as anyone, and I recognise that my latest 3G handset or laptop data card means someone, somewhere ends up with a mobile phone mast near them. It would be hypocritical of me therefore to oppose masts on principle. However, sometimes you come across a mast application that seems almost designed to cause maximum concern, and we have one in Winterbourne at the moment.

        Phone company O2 want to put a mast at a telephone exchange in Nicholls Lane. Sounds reasonable enough, until you discover that the exchange is literally right next to a primary school and nursery. You don't have to be hysterical or unscientific to think that at a time when we are still not certain about the long-term impact of masts, this doesn't seem to be a risk worth taking. The independent Stewart Report argued against having masts where schools were in the immediate vicinity.

        The problem is that the planning system is deliberately very weak when it comes to masts - dating back more than two decades to when the Government of the day was desperate to get a mobile phone industry rolled out rapidly.

        This afternoon I am hosting a meeting between representatives of O2 and campaigners against the mast. We probably can't force them to change their mind, but it's hard to believe that there isn't a less sensitive site that they couldn't look at.

        Wednesday, 7 March 2007

        House of Lords to be fully elected!

        Dramatic scenes in the House of Commons this evening. We've had six votes on House of Lords reform so far. There was a majority for 80% of the House of Lords to be elected, but an even bigger majority for 100% elected !

        The results were:

        - do you want two houses (ie Commons+Lords)? YES 416 NO 163
        - do you want 100% appointed in the Lords YES 196 NO 376
        - do you want 50% elected in the Lords YES 155 NO 418
        - do you want 60% elected in the Lords YES 178 NO 392
        - do you want 80% elected in the Lords YES 305 NO 267
        - do you want 100% elected in the Lords YES 337 NO 224

        Of course, there is now the small matter of Act of Parliament that will have to be written - and which will have to get through the House of Lords! - but it's a fantastic start.

        Frenchay debt - a glimmer of hope?

        Not that I'm always going on about the local NHS...

        Yesterday morning I led a 90 minute debate on NHS debts, prompted in particular by the saga of the £100m owed by North Bristol Trust. I don't think that anyone believes that all this money will be paid off, but no-one knows how much will be, or over what time scale. This uncertainty was the main reason the Trust was turned down for Foundation Trust status.

        In responding to the debate, Health minister Andy Burnham used the usual Government line - Trusts must live within their means, deficits incurred locally need to be financed locally etc. But then he added that a small number of trusts (such as NBT presumably) where things have been seriously out of kilter may need "special arrangements". He didn't say what they would be (thus continuing the uncertainty) but my impression is that once they have the numbers for the NHS for 2006-07 they will then make an announcement. Here's hoping for at least some 'debt relief' to help with the millstone of Trust debt.

        Saturday, 3 March 2007

        Trident - a close run thing

        A knife-edge vote this morning at the Lib Dem Spring Conference at Harrogate. We were debating our response to the Government's plans to rush through a decision in favour of replacing Trident. The motion argued that any decision now was premature and that instead we should be announcing plans for an immediate cut in our nuclear arsenal as our contribution to kick-starting multilateral talks. An amendment had been tabled calling for an immediate decision now to rule out replacing Trident.

        I would say that at the start of the debate views were pretty evenly split and there were good speeches on both sides. There was however a collective gasp around the auditorium when the chair of the debate said: "Would Ming Campbell please stand by" to be be the next speaker - limited to 4 minutes, just like everyone else. Ming argued powerfully for the main motion, received a really positive response and, I think, swung it. When delegates voted by holding up their cards it was too close to call, but after a nail-biting count the vote went through by roughly 52% to 48%.

        We will be united in voting against the Government on Trident in the House of Commons in a few weeks' time, and we will be all the stronger for the fact that the members of the party had the chance to argue freely for their position and we've reached a democratic decision as to our party's stance.