Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Coalition needs to rethink its cuts agenda

My article in this week’s Cornish Guardian will focus on the struggling economy, and the failure of the Coalition’ aggressive austerity package. It is as follows:

In 2010, just prior to the General Election, twenty prominent economists signed a letter to the Sunday Times. In it, they supported George Osborne’s proposed approach to dealing with the economic problems facing this country. He, in turn, hailed it as a "really significant moment in the economic debate."

But the limited recovery of 2010 has stalled and it has been forecast that the Coalition will be borrowing £150 billion more than anticipated.

Last week, the New Statesman magazine contacted all twenty of the “experts” who signed the Sunday Times letter. They were asked them if they still supported the cuts of the Coalition.

Nine of the economists distanced themselves from Osborne’s actions, saying it was time for a rethink. One remained resolute behind the Chancellor, while the remaining ten refused to comment or, rather conveniently, found themselves on holiday.

There is certainly a growing view that the Government’s austerity programme and savage cuts are doing increasing damage to the economy – which has led to the first double-dip recession in generations.

Other economists are joining the debate. Joseph Stiglitz has challenged the Government to “call off the mad austerity” adding “no large economy has ever recovered from a downturn as a result of austerity.” He called on central government to do more to protect the needy, who are suffering the most as a consequence of the recession. He is also rightly demanding progressive taxation with the rich actually paying their fair share for once.

Robert Skidelsky has meanwhile written that “cutting expenditure when there is no other source of growth in the economy is a sure-fire strategy for recession.”

But is Mr Osborne listening? And will he acknowledge that this is also a "really significant moment in the economic debate"?

Here in Cornwall we desperately need the Chancellor to change direction. Recent figures show that Cornwall’s economic performance (GDP) is falling. It is now less than 72% of the EU average and it is declining faster than most other parts of the UK.

The scale of the cuts is immense. Take Cornwall Council as an example. It’s four-year budget has been slashed by over £490 million and councillors are forever being warned about a “graph of doom,” that suggests that further cuts would leave the unitary authority unable to be fund the most basic services.

That cannot be allowed to happen. Mr Osborne and the Coalition must rethink its whole approach to the economy and the funding of our vital public services

Monday, 20 August 2012

Tory MPs attack campaign for Cornish Assembly

In an article in today’s Western Morning News, Tory MPs George Eustice and Sarah Newton have attacked the campaign for a Cornish Assembly.

Insultingly, they call on campaigners to reject the politics of "victimhood and isolationism" by ditching the campaign for a Cornish Assembly, which they claim has "failed.”

They claim that winning significantly greater powers for Cornwall within the UK, through our own Assembly, would be isolationist and divisive. But they also argue that Cornwall’s unitary authority could take on some extra responsibilities which would protect Cornwall “as a distinct, self-confident but outward-looking and enthusiastic part of the UK." What hypocrisy!

The MPs clearly refuse to see Cornwall as a historic Celtic nation, and object to the fact that the other constituent nations of the UK have won significant levels of home rule for their countries.

They lack ambition for Cornwall, and the MP's claim to want more powers for Cornwall Council is contradicted by how the Conservative / Liberal Democrat Government is undermining the structures of local government with their cuts.

Let us not forget that democracy in Cornwall has been failed by central government over the last 15 years. 

Cornwall’s demand for an elected Assembly – which included 50,000 signed declarations – has been ignored.

Our structures of local government were trashed by the last Labour Government, in cohorts with Cornwall’s Liberal Democrats, when they cut the number of principal councillors from a total of 331 to 123 in the new centralised unitary authority.

And now we have the Tory and Liberal Democrat cuts which are undermining democracy further. The lack of funding means councillors are forever being presented with a “graph of doom” saying that the cuts mean we will simply not be able to fund basic services and this is being used as a cloak to promote the privatisation of public services.

So much for democracy in local government, but this is no doubt what George Eustice and Sarah Newton actually support.

I am out of Cornwall today, but have done an interview on Radio Cornwall. I will comment more fully on the article in the coming days.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Cornwall Council: A privatised society?

My article for this week’s Cornish Guardian focuses on Cornwall Council’s “shared services” project. It will also appear in the West Briton and is as follows:

People are often shocked when they find out that most key decisions at Cornwall Council are not made by all 123 councillors, but by the ten members of the Cabinet.

It means power lies with the few and not the many. And last week, the ruling Cabinet took a decision of enormous significance that, I believe, was contrary to the majority view of elected members. This has certainly angered many non-Cabinet members.

The Cabinet has voted to proceed with a “Shared Services” project and to invite tenders for a contact worth £300 million. 

According to the Conservative leadership of the Council, there will be a partnership with local health partners and a large private company to deliver a range of “support services.” They also claim it will save money and create new jobs.

I see it somewhat differently. The “joint venture” would mean that a massive range of council services including benefits, council tax, payroll, IT support, libraries and one stop shops, etc, would be delivered by a private company.

I do not support the privatisation of council services as a matter of principle. But I also find it disturbing that the Council will be a minority partner in this arrangement and therefore dependent upon a private company, whose first loyalty will always be to the “bottom line” and their shareholders – not the residents of Cornwall.

Councillors will inevitably also be sidelined and local democracy further undermined.

The so-called savings and new jobs have not been adequately evidenced and are illusory. Even supporters of the scheme are talking about it being a “leap of faith.”

It has been rightly pointed out that many “joint ventures” involving local Councils have failed, costing local taxpayers many millions. I agree with local union representatives that "the whole thing does not stack up."

Stuart Roden from Unison has summed it up quite succinctly: “We don’t see how it’s possible to protect and create jobs, make savings of 20 per cent-plus, improve services and make a profit for the shareholders of private companies.”

It is my view that the massive cuts from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government are doing great damage to the fabric of our public sector, with local authorities increasingly starved of vital funding.

I also agree with the opposition politician who has lambasted the Government for failing to create its much-lauded “Big Society,” creating the “privatised society” instead.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Hypocrisy and arrogance at the heart of the Coalition parties

Today the Prime Minister arrogantly stated that he plans to press ahead with proposed boundary changes to the House of Commons, in spite of the fact that the Liberal Democrats are poised to vote the changes down.

But what hypocrisy we have seen from Coalition politicians over the last couple days.

The Conservatives
Speaking in Wales, David “It’s the Tamar – not the Amazon for heaven’s sake” Cameron has been reported as saying that: "We want the boundary change vote to go ahead. I am going to be saying to every MP 'Look, the House of Commons ought to be smaller, it ought to be less expensive and we ought to have seats that are exactly the same size.' I think everyone should come forward and vote for that proposal because it is a very sensible proposal and it will be put forward."

But how can it be acceptable to (i) trash plans for a reduction in the number of unelected Lords, but (ii) to forge ahead with plans to reduce the number of MPs? What hypocrisy!

And here in Cornwall, Sheryll Murray MP who told the Saltash Keep Cornwall Whole Rally in October 2010: “We must fight the destruction of our historic border by the political map … we will fight on and on …” tweeted “I thought Lib Dems believed in fairness for all yet they don't now appear to agree with equal representation for all voters. Disappointing!" What hypocrisy!

The Liberal Democrats
Nick Clegg, who helped drive through the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill through the House of Commons, is also being branded a hypocrite because of this u-turn. Months ago, he made speech after speech arguing that the equalisation of constituency sizes was an important point of principle. But having voted through something that he and the Liberal Democrats “believed in,” he has told his party to vote down the changed constituencies, because they would benefit the Tories! What hypocrisy!

Meanwhile in Cornwall, Alex Folkes, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats at the unitary authority, is already taunting Sheryll Murray MP via his blog, asking her: “Are you a secret supporter of Devonwall?”

But he seems to have forgotten that 95% of all Coalition MPs opposed an amendment to protect Cornwall and then two of Cornwall’s Lib Dem MPs voted for the Bill with the third bravely abstaining. What hypocrisy!

What double standards at the very heart of the Coalition parties.

Great news: Devonwall seat is doomed

Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall has welcomed the news that the creation of a cross-Tamar Devonwall parliamentary seat is unlikely to happen, following the failure of the Coalition to agree a way forward on the reform of the House of Lords.

Last week, the Prime Minister David Cameron announced that proposals to reform the House of Lords were doomed, because he could not guarantee the support of large numbers of Tory MPs.

And yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg admitted that the reforms had to be abandoned. But told the Prime Minister that the Liberal Democrats would oppose proposals to reduce the size of the Commons from 650 to 600 MPs and to redraw parliamentary boundaries (likely to favour the Conservatives) and delay them until after the 2015 election.

It is great news that the creation of a cross-Tamar parliamentary seat will almost certainly not happen and that the territorial integrity has been safeguarded for Westminster elections. But it is also important that the Prime Minister makes a prompt announcement that the Boundary Review has been curtailed with immediate effect.

Many people campaigned hard to oppose the Devonwall seat and we must celebrate the news that it is not going to happen. But the Boundary Review has only been ended because of primitive and self-interested political bartering between the Coalition parties.

We must never forget that both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted through the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which would have created a Devonwall seat.

We must never forget that both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers dismissively ignored our opposition to Devonwall.

And we must never forget that over 95% of Coalition MPs opposed an amendment to protect the integrity of Cornwall, and that five of Cornwall’s six MPs supported the finalised Bill with their votes.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Failure of Lords reform could scupper plan for Devonwall seat

It has been widely  reported today that David Cameron has withdrawn Conservative support for plans to create a directly elected House of Lords.

Senior Conservatives have told the Liberal Democrats that it would be impossible to get enough Tory support to force the measure through the House of Commons.

Senior Liberal Democrats are meanwhile reported as saying that “Lords reform is effectively dead” but have warned that the move would have “consequences”.

The knock-on of this could be very good news for Cornwall.

It looks increasingly likely that the Lib Dems could kill off Cameron’s self-interested plans to reduce the number of MPs and to change parliamentary constituency boundaries.

And this would mean that the proposed Devonwall constituency would never be created.

Now is the time to reinvigorate the battle against a cross-Tamar constituency and make sure Cornish MPs stand up for Cornwall’s territorial integrity in the coming weeks and months.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

MK slams privatisation of council services

Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall has condemned the decision of Cornwall Council’s ten-strong Cabinet to part-privatise a series of key services.

Cornwall Council continues to be in discussion with two large private companies, one of which will jointly run services such as the payment of benefits, the running of libraries and one-stop shops. It is stated that other partners such as the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust could also be involved, but have yet to commit to the project.

The leadership of the Council claims that the venture would create 500 jobs and produce savings of £5 million in the first two years. But the move is opposed by "back-bench" councillors of all political persuasions.

I agree with Unison’s Stuart Roden who has pointed out that many similar joint ventures have failed. In particular, he said: "We don't see how it's possible to protect and create jobs, make savings of 20 per cent-plus, improve services and make a profit for the shareholders of private companies. The whole thing does not stack up."

MK opposes the ongoing privatisation of council services by the present Cabinet. We find it disturbing that Cornwall Council would also be a minor partner in such an arrangement, with councillors sidelined and local democracy further undermined.

We do not accept the claims about the projected savings or the new jobs, which we consider to be wishful thinking. We also worry for the very future of Cornwall Council as a democratic public sector entity.

The massive cuts from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, and the privatising agenda of Conservative-led Cornwall Council, is doing great damage to the fabric of our public sector and its services. What is more, it is ordinary people who will suffer the consequences of such privatisations.

I will be having much more to say on this topic in the coming weeks.