Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Naked broadband

One of the things that I enjoy about discussions about technology is that there is always a bit of jargon you have never heard before. Today I went to a breakfast meeting where I was introduced to the concept of "naked broadband". In essence it means being able to buy a broadband-only service from your provider without having to pay a monthly line rental to BT. Apparently such things are common elsewhere in Europe but rare in the UK.

Why might this be a good idea?

The argument runs that broadband penetration in the UK is starting to run out of steam. Overall coverage is now growing only very slowly, with almost complete coverage in urban areas among the middle classes, but lower penetration among elderly people and among people on lower incomes. However, the latter group are increasingly likely to depend very heavily on their mobile phone. Once they have paid for their mobile phone and their BT landline rental, many cannot afford broadband as well. But if they use their mobile phone a lot, they may not need a BT landline for voice calls - so why not let them pay instead for broadband?

Given the concerns over the 'digital divide' - which is likely to get worse as superfast broadband is rolled out in some parts of the country and not others - the idea of 'naked broadband' as an option seems on the face of it to be a good one. If it reduces the barriers to broadband access among those who (and whose children who) would otherwise miss out, it must be worth a try.

Monday, 26 January 2009

BBC gets it wrong over Gaza

The BBC seems to have something of a knack at the moment for shooting itself in the foot. The decision not to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza seems to me to be simply indefensible. Although I am rather wary of politicians telling a publicly-funded broadcaster what they should do, on this occasion the arguments seem quite clear cut. The public are quite capable of telling the difference between a humanitarian appeal by bodies such as the British Red Cross and the editorial line of the BBC. It is actually the BBC who are 'editorialising' by picking and choosing which disaster appeals they will broadcast - if they simply had a policy of broadcasting DEC appeals with the other broadcasters then this issue would simply not have arisen - and if anyone had complained they could point out that it is the DEC that chooses the beneficiaries, not the BBC.

The one bright spot out of all of this is that the publicity given to the appeal is probably now far greater than it would have been if it had gone out in the usual way. I very much hope therefore that this will prove to be one of the most successful appeals in a long time.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Pensioners Fall Victim to 'Fantasy' interest rates

We have a story today in the Daily Mail which shows how out of touch the benefit rules are when it comes to peoples' savings. At present, when a pensioner on a modest income applies for pension credit, the rules assume that for every £500 they have in the bank (beyond the first £6,000 which is ignored) they can get £1 per week in interest. Worked out over the year that is £52 a year on £500 capital or over 10%. Strangely enough, there aren't many places where you can get an interest rate of anything like that. For someone with (say) £16,000 in the bank, a National Savings investment account would currently pay just 1.35%, so this 'fantasy' interest rate is costing pensioners hundreds of pounds a year.

Surely it wouldn't be too much to ask that, if pensioners are going to be forced to go through a means-test to get a decent income, at least the Government should stop pretending that there is some amazing investment opportunity out there that they are all missing.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Keeping secrets

The ability of the House of Commons to shoot itself in the foot seems to know no bounds. You would imagine that, after all the fuss about MP expenses, it would now be taken as read that there would now be total transparency about such matters - but apparently not. So on Thursday we are being asked to vote on the proposition that when it comes to expenses MPs should be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act - an Act that we ourselves passed!

I have cancelled my other plans so that I can be at Westminster on Thursday to vote against this ridiculous proposition, and I know that many other Lib Dem MPs are planning to do the same. The question is, whether we will have enough support from MPs of other parties to block this extraordinary proposal.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Two bad decisions in one day

Hot on the heels of announcing plans to expand Heathrow, the Government made a second statement about compensation for Equitable Life policyholders. The story here is that people took out policies with Equitable Life expecting that their money would be safe but because the company had over-extended itself (ie made very generous promises to some other policyholders) it ran out of money. Investors might reasonably have supposed that the powers-that-be would be keeping an eye on things, but apparently not...

After various investigations and reports, the Parliamentary Ombudsman produced a detailed report last Summer calling for extensive compensation for those who had lost out.

Today, the Government has come up with something much more limited - 'ex gratia payments' (ie discretionary, not as of right) to those who have suffered 'disproportionately' (ie many people may get nothing).

Whilst there's a lot of detail to look at, this looks to me totally inadequate. If you are going to have an independent Ombudsman to judge when there has been Government maladministration then you can't have the Government deciding that it wasn't guilty after all. This one will run and run.

PS I wonder why they put out two bad news stories on the same day....

Why a Third runway at Heathrow would be a mistake

It is widely expected that later today the Government will give the go-ahead to a third runway at Heathrow.   It is expected that this will eventually lead to an extra 600 flights every day over London.
For obvious reasons there are considerable local objections to these plans, including the fact that a village of 2000 people is likely to have to be demolished to make way for the expanded airport.   There will also be still more congestion and pollution in the local area.
But on a national and international scale, the objection is even greater.   Probably the number one challenge facing us is the need to avert dangerous climate change by reversing the growth in greenhouse gas emissions.   The UK has just passed what looks like a relatively strong climate change bill which sets ambitious targets for 80% cuts in emissions by 2050.  But any national leadership we might have shown on climate change will be blown out of the water if we allow extensive airport expansion (with the Heathrow decision coming hot on the heels of plans to expand Stansted, announced only a few months ago).
The Government argues that the new runway will be used only by the most fuel efficient planes.  But these would be coming in anyway and are still big contributors to global warming. 
The other argument that the Government uses is that aeroplane emissions are part of an EU-wide 'emissions trading scheme' and therefore increases in emissions in one sector would have to be matched by cuts in another.  But this assumes that cuts on the scale needed in other sectors are deliverable.  The more we let air travel emissions expand, the more we have to contract emissions from cars, from homes, from businesses and from power generation.   The goals in these sectors already look demanding and letting air travel get the lion's share will only make matters worse.
The fact that the Government is giving the go-ahead for major airport expansion shows that their rhetoric on climate change simply cannot be taken seriously.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Money you might be missing out on

One of the problems with the Government inventing lots of complicated tax credits and benefits is that people very often don't get what they are entitled to. One example is something called the "children's tax credit" (not to be confused with the 'child tax credit' which is what you can get now). This ran for just two years 2001/02 and 2002/03 and the deadline for claiming for 2002/03 is the end of January 2009. The 'children's tax credit' was introduced in 2001 to make sure that people with children did not lose out when the married couple's tax allowance was abolished in that year. It is too late to claim for 2001/02 but you can still claim for 2002/03.
It was worth about £520 (or double if you had a child born during the year) and was payable once per family. You could qualify if you paid tax during 2002/03 and were responsible for a child under 16. People who paid higher rate tax got less help, and those on the highest incomes got nothing.
If you think you didn't get the money at the time and might be entitled, you need to act quickly. You can download the claim form from here and it needs to go back to your local tax office by 31st January.
Good luck!

Thursday, 8 January 2009

A new role

I am delighted to have been asked by Nick Clegg to take on a key economic role in the newly re-shaped Lib Dem front bench team announced today. Nick is setting up a group of economic advisers that will meet regularly to determine the best response to the current economic problems and in my new role shadowing Work and Pensions issues I will play a key role in that group. I will also be able to spend more time campaigning on issues that were the focus of my time at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and at Bath University, including pensions and social policy issues. I will naturally miss taking forward the climate change and energy agenda, but it was enormously satisfying to be able to play a key part in getting the Climate Change Bill strengthened during 2008. I wish my successor, Simon Hughes, every success in his new role, and I know that he has a longstanding track record in campaigning on the environment, long before the other parties even took the issue seriously. There will be plenty for us both to do when Parliament resumes next week.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Tackling student debt

With all the focus at present on the problems of massive personal debt, it is time that one part of the system that creates huge debts had some attention from Government - the system of student finance. It is not uncommon for graduates today to leave college with debts (un)comfortably in five figures. They are expected to pay off this debt, save for a deposit for a house and start putting money into a pension - something somewhere has to give. What is worse is that the Government is reportedly considering scrapping the current cap on tuition fees, which would add further to student debt.

For all of these reasons I am delighted that last night at the Liberal Democrats' Federal Policy committee we decided to retain our policy of abolishing tuition fees. I think my journey up to Westminster was worthwhile!