Is This Really The End Of The World?

So the coalition has released its agreed priorities with admirable promptness. Glad I didn’t bother with the manifestos; now I can read two at once.

Disclosure: I am a non-politico, but I have friends with strongly held views across the spectrum. And I also understand the difference between a stated intent and an executed policy, but I am essentially handing out the rope here for these good folks to use.

But essentially, I was kind of hoping we’d get the Tories doing the financial stuff and the LibDems doing the social stuff, because the Tories may have detoxed after the bitter insult of Section 28, but I am not going to blindly start trusting them without some evidence of goodwill. The work is for them to do, not me.

Overall verdict: a lot of fine words, a lot of stuff I want to think about more, but this may not be the end of all things as we know them.

Numbers on their own on a line are page changes; numbers followed by text indicate sections in the document. Even where I had nothing to say I’ve put the headings in in case something occurs to me.

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1 Banking
“First free national financial advice service” sounds sound
2 Business
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“opportunities for employee ownership” in Royal Mail — is this the John Lewis Partnership model finally taking hold?

“end the ban on social tenants starting businesses in their own homes” — Jesus, this wasn’t allowed? “You’re poor! stay where you belong!” Awful.

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3 Civil Liberties

The aspects of Labour’s government which most distressed me — that a party that freed me from S28, an unequal age of consent, and the offence of Gross Public Indecency should seek so much control and take such an authoritarian/managerial approach to society crushed me a little bit.

Freedom Bill — well, until you say what’s in it, that’s meaningless. Look at what was supposed to be in the last Coroners Bill.

Scrapping ID cards– hooray, I am safer already

Review libel laws — review, uncharacteristically modest language from these wild rebels… expect whatever we get, I suppose.

“British Bill of Rights” — tacit acknowledgement that previous Tory policy on HRA was bonkers although this new policy may not be unproblematic

4 Communities and local government

“radical devolution” — yes, but what does that mean? Problems when there is a centre still left to be blamed, whether or not it was responsible.

“radical planning reform” — well, won’t find many people who agree with current system, but is that because planning is basically doomed but necessary? “Open Source Planning”? Jesus, these people. Oh wait — it really exists! As you might expect, link to actual Open Source is tenuous and sort of first-year English student-y.

“fast track process for major infrastructure projects” –> like 3rd runway, no doubt. Achem. Or alternatively concreting over an estuary and moving Heathrow 40 miles to the east.

“publish and present to Parliament” — nice to see the old girl getting a look in, let’s see whether this lot are really any better than Labour

“national planning framework” – done right this is good; principles agreed in a representative forum, implementation left locally. What will appeals and difficult decisions look like?

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“more protection against aggressive bailiffs” – not controversial, surely.

“phase out the ring-fencing of grants to local government and review the unfair Housing Revenue Account” — now, let me see … this is decentralising budgetary control, isn’t it? OK, so there’s money behind the rhetoric. The HRA is a new one on me although something about being allowed to keep the revenue on selling off council houses or something comes to mind… anyone?

“give councils a general power of competence” — hmm, legalistic language. What does that mean? What powers will now be in the less-scrutinised hands of the local council rather than the well-reported-upon national government (btw, that’s an argument for stronger local reporting, not necessarily for weaker local govt)

“tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers” – i.e. there are rules at the moment which aren’t working. Our council used to publish an eminently recyclable glossy with a periodical hagiography of a council member and some pseudo-lifestyle nonsense padding it out — which I assume was at my expense since it had, as I remember, little in the way of advertising. I can’t say as I blame them. But then the council always seemed to be the main advertiser in our local free weekly anyway. Maybe it’s worth obliging papers to carry council notices free to preserve their financial independence? Can’t think that would help any of them keep afloat, though….

“review the effectiveness of the raising of the stamp duty threshold for first-time buyers” — and do what as a result? It’s the dreaded “review” again….

5 Consumer protection

“ban excessive interest rates on credit and store cards” – hard to believe there are people out there who don’t know these things are a bad idea and use them nonetheless, but this I’m sure they do. And it’s hardly the most scrupulous of markets.

“introduce a seven-day cooling-off period for store cards” — how will this work? A quick check suggests that such a thing doesn’t work at the moment — the model generally seems to be “10% off if you take out a card today and pay on it” which means this actually spells an additional end to selling people on the card under the influence of an impulse purchase. Humans are terribly irrational in these situations so this can only be good sense in tackling the black hole of personal debt.

“oblige credit card companies to provide better information to their customers in a uniform electronic format” – yippee! Standardised data enable comparison; standardised format of standardised data enables automation of comparison. Now those online best-product services can tell you how credit cards compare far more easily. Warning: standards are *difficult*. This kind of thing, of course, makes it all the more important that the record industry can’t cut your internet connection off just because your kids are accused (accused only, mind) of downloading songs in violation of copyright without judicial oversight. But hey. Associated with someone formally innocent of a minor civil offence? You shouldn’t be allowed to know which financial products are best for you! (yes, I know the burden of proof varies in civil and criminal cases, but hey. When did I ever let that get in the way of a good bit of rhetoric?)

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“an Ombudsman in the OFT who can proactively enforce the Grocery Supply Code of Practice” — either very good if tackling the giant supermarket chains, or awful if it means they pick suppliers outside OFT’s jurisdiction instead of UK growers/producers…. Also, full marks for using English’s only loan word from Swedish.

“‘off-grid'” made it into the programme for government? I can’t imagine this under Thatcher.

6 Crime and Policing

“We will ban the sale of alcohol below cost price” not unreasonable….

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“We will promote better recording of hate crimes against disabled, homosexual and transgender people, which are frequently not centrally recorded” — I get a whiff of weasel about this and would love to see what it means in practice. What’s the problem– the hate crime or the lack of central recording? But it’s good to see trans- as well as cis- people in there.

“We will not permanently ban a substance without receiving full advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs” — mealy-mouthed again. A rolling temporary ban would have much the same effect, and receiving advice is far from the same as acting in accordance with it. They’re stuck exactly where Labour were here and I don’t expect to see anything very much different in their attitude towards science in this area. Don’t forget: Facts are irrelevant, principles are what matter. People are less important than ideas. How many tractors have you produced in Ukraine this year, comrade? Hmph.

“review the operation of the Extradition Act — and the US/UK extradition treaty — to make sure it is even-handed” — again, reviewing is not the same as committing to action, but “make sure” sounds better. Gary McKinnon has a hope yet.

7 Culture, Ol**pics, Media and Sp**t (pardon the language, but I feel I have to report it)

“maintain the independence of the BBC, and give the NAO full access to the BBC’s accounts to ensure transparency” — sounds like LDs tempered wilder Tory desire to generally shaft Aunty, but financial shafting could be coming anyway given opening of accounts. Am not a licence-fee payer so don’t get an entitlement to an opinion, I guess.

“encourage the performance of more live music” providing, presumably, that it is not characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats, or being played by people with disreputable hairstyles?

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8 Defence

Some really rather good things, here.

“providing support for ex-Service personnel to study at university” — huzzah. HM Forces can be a great force for social progress but many of the people who put their lives on the line (and their families on a roller skate) for their country are doing so at a time when their contemporaries are taking ‘A’ levels and getting all the familiar letters and experiences that employers often use as a sine qua non when recruiting. Here’s hoping this is for all ex-Service personnel, and not just the Ruperts.

“extra support for veteran mental health needs” — veterans with mental health problems are a shockingly large proportion of our prison population. We should be helping.

“reviewing the rules governing the awarding of medals” — er… what? What’s the problem we’re addressing here?

“look at whether there is scope to refurbish Armed Forces’ accommodation from efficiences within the Ministry of Defence” — I grew up knowing only that PSA was useless. When I was in my teens, our married quarter was fitted with central heating for the first time — in the 1990s. You can’t tell me there’s no scope for increased efficiency amongst things in the MoD that are frankly less important than providing decent accommodation to Service personnel and their families.

9 Deficit Reduction

9th of 31, eh? Get some nice things in before the pain…

10 Energy and Climate Change

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“LDs have long opposed any new nuclear construction. Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided that they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects (under a new National Planning Statement), and also provided that they receive no public subsidy.” Has anyone here read Sustainable Energy — without the hot air? No, didn’t think so. But sensible tackling head on of contentious matter and how it will be handled.

11 Env food and rural affairs

I know nothing: I am but a simple shoemaker.

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12 Equalities

Interesting to look at who gets to be equal — it’s still little groups of people whose equality isn’t quite up to scratch yet, rather than just everyone. Which I don’t actually have a problem with, btw: it’s just another example where you have to compromise on the purity of an idea to achieve something approaching it in reality.

“right to request… to all employees” — nice, although to my mind the right is actually to have the request considered, not to make it in the first place. Acknowledges more people could benefit from flexible working (and society in general, too, if done right, I guess….)

“stop the deportation of asylum seekers who have had to leave particular countries because their sexual orientation or gender identification puts them at proven risk of imprisonment, torture or execution” — but I suspect that this was to some extent what the old system was, too: there was just a set of decisions that said, No, no, being gay in Iran is fine, no risk there. How is this going to avoid doing that, or is it just fine words?

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13 Europe

*FOOM!*

14 Families and Children

“investigate a new approach to helping families with multiple problems” — yes, you’re right, this Big Society idea is brash and bold, isn’t it?

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“take steps to tackle the… sexualisation of childhood” — bearing in mind that children do exhibit sexual behaviours and characteristics, and it’s probably better to address the issues rather than banning sex education. A whole raft of things could be behind this.

15 Foreign Affairs

16 Government Transparency

“We will require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary permissible in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale, and organograms that include all positions in those bodies.” — wow, Organograms! Didn’t they have those in Barbarella?

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“We will require anyone paid more than the Prime Minister in the centrally funded public sector to have their salary signed off by the Treasury.” Fair enough. Providing that the sign off is, like, actually hard to get.

“We will create a level playing field for open- source software and will enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components.” I mean, fine… but the yoke between these two clauses is not an obvious one. I wouldn’t mind a signpost. But then I’m reading in a hurry.

“We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.” — slightly curious really that data produced for our servants at our collective expense isn’t already available in this way as a standard part of gathering it, but I guess you need new brooms de temps en temps.

In sum: all the numbers go on the internets. Which seems fair enough. Look at what theyworkforyou have achieved with this sort of data about governance. Lots of potential (good and bad), but seldom do better decisions result from less knowledge. Providing the data are interpreted right and treated with caution. Where’s the National Statistician in all this?

17 Immigration

“end the detention of children for immigration purposes” — and it was Labour who brought this in, yes? Labour. For shame.

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18 International Development

“honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and to enshrine this commitment in law” — not bad in these economic circumstances.

“review what action can be taken against ‘vulture funds'” Note that VFs, unlike every other bit of terminology here, don’t qualify for capital letters because they are Evil. But it’s the “r” word again….

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19 Jobs and Welfare

I can’t bring myself to think about this, really I can’t.

“We will re-assess all current claimants of Incapacity Benefit for their readiness to work” oh, bugger, I’ve started anyway. Here we go again. Has your permanent disability cleared up yet? Has your leg grown back? I don’t mind saying you’re going to cut off non-genuine claimants, but isn’t this a bit like accusing everyone in the country of fraud and then prosecuting them all to find out who was really guilty? ‘Twas ever thus.

20 Justice

“We will introduce a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ that will pay independent providers to reduce reoffending, paid for by the savings this new approach will generate within the criminal justice system.” Er, doesn’t it have to generate the savings before you can spend them?

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“We will change the law so that historical convictions for consensual gay sex with over- 16s will be treated as spent and will not show up on criminal records checks.” I’m finding it hard to accuse this lot of pervasive homophobia right now, you know. Not a squeak of “Won’t someone think of the children?”

“We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.” Laudable in a country with a press as hysterical and prurient as ours.

21 National Security
22 NHS

Another spot of dragon-slaying. This really is the final stroke of the detoxification programme. I am wildly interested now to compare this to the Tory and LibDem manifestos.

Sadly reading this makes me realise what a complicated set up the NHS is; I barely understand most of this stuff. I hope Mr. Lansley is all he’s cracked up to be.

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23 pensions and Older People

Mostly uncontroversial I would have thought; nice to see that Equitable people will be getting a payout at (very) long last.

24 Political Reform

Ah, number 1 on the agenda for Mr. Clegg obviously suffered a bit in the deal.

“fixed-term Parliaments” — good? This election lasted from some time last Summer and wiped out a whole series of other, more important debates. Too long. I don’t know enough to make a judgement on the 55% issue.

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AV – not right now, I’m still thinking. FPTP may not be perfect but my experience in designing complex systems suggests that that shiny perfect simple alternative you have in mind probably has some significant flaws that you haven’t discovered yet. On this sort of stuff I freely admit to small-c conservative tendencies. I don’t want an Italian government here. I don’t want the BNP in Parliament. (In fact even Caroline Lucas gives me the heebie-jeebies.)

“a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question'” — all I can hear is Sellar and Yeatman on the Irish Question (“Henry VII was very good at answering the Irish Question…”)

“cut the perks and bureaucracy associated with Parliament” — perks for who? Vague, vague, all is vague! “We will make… the thing… be less… y’know.”

“We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament.” — very few petitions, I assume, ever trouble six digits. “The most signatures” over what period? Is this going to be an annual thing, like the X Factor?

“We will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue” — nothing stops this from happening now: A campaigning group in Twickenham, for instance, set up a referendum carried out by the independent Electoral Reform Services. This means nothing at all unless there is some obligation on a local authority or other body to seriously consider referendum results where those results reach a certain threshold, surely? (Rather like the right to request flexible working — the important part is not the right to ask, but the obligation on the employer to seriously consider the request.)

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25 Public Health
“greater access to talking therapies” — laudable, but these are still constrained by the supply of therapists. How will they ensure this supply is adequate to demand?

26 Schools

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So much to think about… but I note with personal interest: “We will help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying.” The talk is certainly being talked. How will the walk be walked?

27 Social Action
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28 Social Care and Disability
29 Taxation

“personal allowance” — this seems sensible. Can’t think of an objection. Better than the 10p rate…

“budget resolutions to introduce transferable tax allowances for married couples” — last time I looked, this included civil partnerships. Does it still?

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30 Transport

Electric vehicles! Yay!

31 Universities and FE