Tuesday, 25 March 2008

What constitutional reform?

The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, today made a statement to MPs about constitutional reform. Normally a relatively dry topic, the statement had been spiced up a bit by rumours of changes to the voting system, of possibly making it compulsory to vote (something I oppose) and finally getting round to reform of the House of Lords.

But what did we get instead?

A draft Bill which had nothing to say about any of those issues, but found time to cover the appointment of Bishops and the rules about which flags can be flown where and when!

This risks being a huge missed opportunity.

People sometimes say that constitutional reform is dry technical stuff of no interest to anyone except anoraks. But actually, I believe that a lot of the cynicism about politics has its roots in the fact that so many voters in so many parts of the country are effectively disenfranchised by the first-past-the-post voting system. Many MPs can get away with paying little or not attention to their constituents because they have a 'job for life' through a 'safe seat' - something you don't get in the same way in 'fair voting systems'.

To give one example.

Today in Parliament we are debating whether there should be an inquiry into the war on Iraq. When the issue was voted on, every Lib Dem MP voted against the war. But back then there were only 53 Lib Dem MPs, because the first-past-the-post system converted a vote share of just under 20% into less than 10% of the MPs. Suppose we had had a proportional voting system with twice as many Lib Dem MPs, and fewer MPs of the parties who supported the war? The Government's majority could have been almost wiped out and we might not have gone to war. That's how important getting this issue right could be.

For as long as one party can get a working majority in Parliament with not much more than a third of the votes cast (which is the current situation) we will never have representative democracy in this country. Until that issue is addressed, the contents of today's draft Bill will seem like trivia. Even the section that proposes Parliamentary approval before going to war will be of no consequence unless and until Parliament itself is elected in a way that is truly representative of the British people.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Final Thoughts on the Budget

As I write it is around 9.30pm and the four days of Budget debate are drawing to a close. I took part yesterday when the theme was the Environment. Although the Budget was labelled as 'green', it turns out that the total increase in 'green taxes' by 2010 was less than £2 billion - or 'rounding error' in the Treasury's scale of things. My colleague Vince Cable contrasted the 'apocalyptic' language of the Budget speech regarding climate change with the 'timidity and deferral' that characterised most of the measures.

One of the less thrilling features of the way we deal with the Budget is that at 10pm we vote on a series of 'Budget resolutions'. There are dozens and dozens of these but in practice we will end up voting on perhaps 5 or 6 - the rest will go through 'on the nod'. But with each vote or 'division' lasting 15 minutes, it means we will not be through until around 11.30pm. The first few votes are reasonably sociable, with chance to catch up with colleagues and those of other parties (when you are in the same lobby), but after an hour or so of waiting around, the novelty does tend to wear off.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

First thoughts on the Budget

We've just had Alistair Darling's first Budget which was notable mainly for the lack of anything new. The main 'announcements' - bigger winter fuel payments, a slightly tougher line with the energy companies, slightly higher tax on new 'gas guzzlers' - had all been trailed in the press. When Gordon Brown used to spring rabbits from a hat at the end of his budget speeches they were generally a surprise - not that this was a good way to make government policy! - but today's speech was largely a repeat of stuff we had heard before and a few things we'd read in the papers.

In terms of my environment brief, although there was a lot of 'green talk', the actual changes didn't amount to a great deal. For example, the Chancellor announced £25m for a 'green homes' initiative. But as someone pointed out, that works out at around £1 per household in the land, which isn't going to get us very far.

My biggest worry is that the attempt to use 'green' language to dress up a Budget that was mainly about filling the holes in the Government's finances risks undermining the case for 'green taxation' altogether. Only if green taxes are revenue neutral overall - ie higher green taxes are offset by lower income and other taxes - will the public really buy in to the whole idea.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

What we do all day...

One of the questions that MPs are frequently asked is what they do all day (!), given that we are patently not all sitting in the House of Commons all day long. My activities today give some clue to that.

The day started with a breakfast meeting to discuss 'smart meters'. These are the devices that will eventually be fitted to all our homes that will give us as consumers much more information about the electricity and gas that we consume, and which also have the potential to facilitate the selling of power that we generate in the home back to the National Grid. In principle these look like a very good thing, but replacing approaching 50 million meters will cost around £5 billion, so there are big issues about who pays and how the technology is 'rolled out'. The meeting was a very useful event with MPs and peers from all parties and industry experts and consumer bodies.

After this I returned to my office to check on the overnight e-mails before attending a meeting of the Lib Dem 'Shadow Cabinet' where we discuss our strategy in Parliament. I had to leave that meeting earlier to go on to the morning sitting of the 'Standing Committee' on the Energy Bill. This is the process which involves line-by-line scrutiny of new legislation, together with consideration of amendments that we and the other opposition parties table. Simply being in committee will occupy about five and a half hours today, to say nothing of the hours spent getting briefed on what are often very technical issues and drafting potential amendments to the legislation. In addition to this morning's session, the three hour afternoon session will take place whilst debate is going on in the House of Commons on other issues - which is part of the answer to the question - 'where are you and what do you do all day'.

At the end of most days I am in my office signing and amending letters that have been drafted for me to constituents and others, and likewise dealing with a huge volume of e-mails. At the moment we routinely finish after 10pm, and I walk back to my flat, catch up on the football results and head for bed!

Monday, 3 March 2008

Public meeting re 5000 houses for Yate

I was going to blog about our public meeting on Friday night (29th Feb) about new houses at Yate, but I see I've been beaten to it by the Gazette and by Cllr Paul Hulbert.

Says it all really!