Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Comprehensive Spending Review (what else?!)

It's been a while since I posted anything political but today would seem like the obvious day for it. Before I get on to the main topic of the day - the Comprehensive Spending Review - I'm going to say a couple of words about other recent topics:

Liberal Democrat President

Last month, Baroness Scott announced she was not going to stand for a second term as Liberal Democrat President. Since then, Susan Kramer and Tim Farron MP have received the required number of nominations to contest the election.

While the role of President is undefined, I believe that in the current circumstances the party needs someone who can present a distinctive Lib Dem perspective on issues through the media. It also needs someone to communicate grassroots views and feelings back to our leadership and ministers.

While I accept that the role is time consuming - which would favour a non-MP - I think the need for someone who has regular access to both the party leadership and the media leads us back to Westminster. Tim Farron has a fantastic political CV and, it seems, endless energy and enthusiasm. My ballot paper arrived today and my vote will be in the post tomorrow.

Tuition Fees

The government's announcement last week on Tuition Fees aroused much comment in the Lib Dem blogosphere... Most of it negative and eliciting multiple e-mails to party members from Nick Clegg and Vince Cable.

It's a debate I followed with interest but at a distance. I sympathise with the MPs and candidates that signed the pledge against a rise in fees and know it leaves them in a awkward position. I think the leadership should recognise this and be more accommodating and less coercive.

That said, though, while it's not a measure I'm delirious about - just as I was opposed to the introduction of fees initially and before that, the introduction of Student Loans - I think it is a Rubicon that must be crossed. While I was drawn to the idea of a graduate tax, it has too long a lead-in time and creates unintended unfairnesses of its own.

In the absence of any other alternative, the focus should turn to making the existing system more progressive even while making unpalatable decisions. Universities should be free at the point of use, have a system of grants and benefits for those from lower income backgrounds and address genuine issues surrounding the "fear of debt". In this regard, the current proposals are an improvement on the existing system.

Comprehensive Spending Review

So, after months of speculation, today we had it - details of the coalition's approach to restoring order to the public finances over the term of this parliament.

Overall, I think it was a fair package, given the circumstances.

The proposals to cut the Welfare state are, of course, controversial but we have to cut our cloth to the economic times. As the largest area of spending, this was always going to bear the brunt of spending cuts. The most positive thing in the announcements in this area are that the government intends to move to a Universal Credit system. Wholesale reform is the is the only long-term solution. We need to create a system which encourages a sense of responsibility and clearly defines rights while supporting those who need it when (and while) they need it.

While the public sector job losses will be painful, some, at least, of these will be achieved through natural wastage over the course of the 4 years. While many public sector workers will not relish contributing more to their pension schemes, this is merely closing the gap with the private sector. Indeed, many in the private sector have experienced pay cuts and freezes, as well as job cuts, over the past few years.

The only measure which I feel strongly negative about is the proposal to increase rail ticket increases by RPI plus 3% (rather than RPI plus 1%) from 2012. I'm not entirely convinced this will not, in some ways, be counter-productive. However, I shall abide by my rule of not opposing anything without citing an alternative cut!

The press angle - that it will impact most on the poor - smacks of lazy journalism. Any measures affecting the consumers of public services will, inevitably affect the poor more than than those on modest to high incomes.But that, in itself, does not make it unfair.

There is also an idea that these cuts are being made for ideological reasons - and no doubt there are many in the Tory Party who will support them for that reason - but that is not a Liberal approach. But it's not true to suggest it's somehow illiberal to seek to reduce the size of the state either. The state should not be cut for the sake of cuts alone but equally it should not be any larger than it needs to be - or can be afforded.

Indeed, I've seen a suggestion - made by Faisal Islam from Channel 4 news - that the split between cuts and tax rises has slipped from the 80:20 originally envisaged by the Tories (and 78:22 in the June budget, if my memory serves) to 73:27. This is closer to Labour's original position of 70:30 and, I would imagine, more palatable to many Lib Dem members.

There were also a number of encouraging spending promises; particularly on schools funding, social care, rail maintenance, a freeze in science spending and maintaining free entry to Museums and Galleries. It was also extremely good to see the government standing firm on its commitment to reach and sustain the UN's target for international aid spending.

The BBC have a summary here and you can read the official document here and if you want a paper copy of the document, it'll cost you £45... Perhaps they should make purchase compulsory!


Those of you expecting "An A-Z of my CDs: F" today will just have to wait 'til tomorrow...

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