Friday, 30 November 2012

Potter Blogger Friday Roundup

So this is a new feature I'm trying out - a Friday roundup of things which have crossed my mind this week.

EU-Japan free trade negotiations

Yesterday the EU opened negotiations with Japan on the prospect of a free trade agreement after efforts in the European Parliament led by Liberal MEPs. Given that Japanese companies employ 100,000 people in the UK and that we export chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cars, machinery and scientific instruments to Japan, this is a bit of quite good economic news. And, given that it's predicted to produce £35 billion of European exports to Japan, these negotiations are also a good example of why it's useful to be inside of, rather than outside, the EU and the world's largest economy and able to benefit from these kind of deals which individual nations find it much harder to negotiate.

Liberal Youth Conference

Last weekend I was in rainy Manchester for Liberal Youth conference. As always it was great fun but unfortunately my motion to get Liberal Youth to campaign for the minimum wage to be raised to match the living wage was gutted by a wrecking amendment which turned it into a motion endorsing the status quo. Thankfully we were able to get the motion returned to the policy committee for redrafting so hopefully the motion can be resurrected in a less radical form in time for next conference.

On a brighter note, there was an excellent speech by Lib Dem Lord Rennard (who became involved with the Liberals by becoming a local party treasurer at age 13) and I was able to get an emergency motion passed on the recent fighting in Gaza which called for an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, condemned violence by both sides, called for all violence against civilians to end and for the UK and the EU to push for an end to the supply of arms to both Palestine and Israel as well as to push both sides to come to a lasting peace settlement.

And, speaking of Palestine...

Palestine admitted to the UN as an observer nation

Congratulations to Palestine on formally being accepted into the UN as an observer nation rather than an entity. Given Palestine has diplomatic recognition from almost every country apart from the US and it's allies, this doesn't really change anything with regards to the issue of whether Palestine is a state or not but it does make it easier for them to join organisations like the International Criminal Court. And, given that war crimes have undoubtedly been committed by both sides in Israel and Palestine, the possibility of the ICC being able to extend its jurisdiction and bring people to justice can only be a good thing. Above all the Palestinian people have the right to self-determination and sovereignty (as does Israel) and it's good to see that internationally recognised. It's just a shame that we in the UK were too afraid of the US to take a principled stand and vote in favour of the Palestinians rather than abstaining.

Leveson recommendations published

Well the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry have been published and everyone political or involved with the media is very excited about it while everyone else can't really see what all the fuss is about. But basically all it is is a recommendation for a new independent regulatory body for the press which will have powers backed by law, so that newspapers can't choose not to be members or ignore it's rulings, as well as an independent arbitration process.

Given that at the moment there is absolutely nothing to stop newspapers printing lies like the Daily Star headline of "MUSLIM-ONLY PUBLIC LOOS - Council wastes YOUR money on hole-in-ground toilets" (literally nothing was true about this headline - the toilets weren't Muslim only and they weren't paid for by the council), I can't really see what's so contentious about the proposals to actually enforce the same code of conduct that newspapers already profess they believe in - especially when most UK papers are members of a similar regulatory system in Ireland without any complaints about it. And it's nice to see Nick Clegg publicly disagreeing with Cameron on this and standing up for what's right as well.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

On Sir Cyril Smith

So the Crown Prosecution Service have said that a dead, former Lib Dem MP, Sir Cyril Smith OBE, should have been charged with abusing children while he was still alive. The reason he wasn't charged, apparently, was because police at the time effectively assumed that an MP couldn't possibly have done anything wrong
and that the alleged victims making the allegations were liars.

And of course this has kicked up a big mess for Liberal Democrats (and the police and the CPS) given that, if the alleged victims are telling the truth, this was a prominent MP who was allowed to get away with horrific crimes which obviously and deservedly reflects terribly on everyone involved.

It's not really revealing much to say that there are plenty of Lib Dems wondering how all of this is going to play out and all the rest of it. So here's my take on it:

At the end of the day everyone is innocent until proven guilty and in this case it will never be possible to prove if Sir Cyril Smith was guilty. On the other hand, there are apparently plenty of witnesses whose evidence would nowadays be considered sufficient for prosecution which means it's at least somewhat likely that Cyril Smith was in fact a paedophile who abused children.

So all we (we being Lib Dems) can do is keep an open mind, extend our sympathy to both Smith's family and his alleged victims while trying not to condemn Smith when he's unable to defend himself and trying not to handwave away what might have happened to his alleged victims just because he was once of our MPs.

But above all it should all act as a good reminder to everyone that paedophiles and rapist don't have to be creepy looking weirdoes - they can be, apparently, good people whom we know and respect. You can't spot one by the way they look or by any other stereotypes.

And if everyone could remember that particular lesson about the fact that just because someone appears respectable and good doesn't mean they can't have committed evil crimes then the state of justice in this country would probably be greatly improved and we wouldn't have anywhere near the amount of victim blaming that we so often see in rape and paedophilia cases.

Friday, 23 November 2012

How to save £5 billion a year from welfare

Apparently George Osborne and the tories want to freeze unemployment and other benefits in the spring, which, after inflation, is effectively a cut. Their argument for this is that welfare is a huge part of government expenditure and needs cutting in order to close the deficit.

But the problem with this is that even if you froze every working age benefit, including ones like disability benefits, which Osborne apparently doesn't want to freeze, you would only save at most £2 billion a year - and probably a lot less than that due to the impact of the cuts increasing the demand on, and the cost of, other government services.

And, since this would only save a fraction of the £20 billion we apparently need to save, and cause hardship for people who are already struggling to get by, I've got a better plan.

In fact, I know away to save £5 billion from welfare without hurting anybody.

Let me explain.

First of all, let's quickly look at the one area of welfare the tories consider a sacred cow and refuse to touch: pensioner benefits.

At the moment pensioners, regardless of whether they're living in poverty or whether they're a multi-millionaire, receives the winter fuel allowance (£100 to £300 a year each), free bus travel, free TV licenses if they're over 75 and quite a few other perks.

Now, I've got nothing against pensioners receiving a but of extra help from the government. I know that for plenty of people, including some of my relatives, things like the winter fuel allowance make a big difference to being able to afford to heat their homes or not.

But why on earth should these benefits be given to all pensioners regardless of whether they need them? If you've got £10 million in the bank why should the taxes of someone on the minimum wage go to giving you a free TV license? Why should they have to help pay for you to receive a winter fuel allowance which you don't actually need?

The reason, as usual, is political cowardice. You see, the over fifties are the only demographic that overwhelmingly votes for the tories. And because of that, the tories have refused to cut even one penny from pensioners benefits - despite the fact that they make up a huge chunk of our overall welfare bill.

So here's how we could save money - if all of these pensioner benefits were restricted to only those who need them then we could save about £1 to £1.5 billion a year.

Then, on top of that, we could save at least another £4 billion by implementing into law the concept of a living wage and raising the minimum wage to match it.

In brief, the living wage is an hourly rate, calculated independently, that is high enough to allow people to live off of. It is significantly higher than the minimum wage - for example in London, where living costs are very high, the living wage is £8.55 while the minimum wage is just £6.19.

And, in addition to the fact that the living wage (which has received at least lip service support from every major party) would take hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty if implemented, recent research has also shown that paying the living wage to all low paid workers in London would save the government almost a billion a year through increasing the number of taxpayers and, most importantly, reducing the number of people who are paid so little that they are forced to depend on state benefits in order to survive.

Extrapolating this saving across the country based proportionally on London's population then you're looking at the government saving £6.1 billion a year if everyone was paid the living wage.

Now, obviously that's an overestimate because the gap between living costs and the minimum wage isn't quite so large outside of London and so the savings would be smaller.

But even so, at the very least paying the living wage everywhere would save between £4 and £5 billion a year. And, in addition to that saving, and the people taken out of poverty, paying the living wage would also increase worker productivity and reduce absenteeism, benefiting employers as well. And, most significantly to me, it would also end the decades old disgrace of the welfare system subsidising the profits of employers by allowing them to page wages too low for people to live off of.

Now, there would be problems with paying a living wage, obviously. The increase in wages would be difficult for some companies, particularly the smaller ones, to absorb. So it might well lead to a small increase in unemployment.

But, given the scale of the savings we're talking about, and that the dire predictions of millions being made unemployed which were used as arguments against introducing the minimum wage utterly failed to come true, the scale of the increase in unemployment would be extremely likely to be manageable and would be offset many times over by the savings to the government and the benefits to workers up and down the country. It would be a lie to say it would be painless but at least those made unemployed would still be supported by the benefits system and, overall, workers, the government and the country would see a net benefit from the change.

So, to recap, here is how we could save £5 billion from welfare:

  • Ending perks for wealthy pensioners: would save £1 to £1.5 billion a year
  • Implementing the Living Wage on a national basis: would save £4 to £5 billion a year
Which, being extremely conservative, and allowing for unpredicted costs, means that, as a bare minimum, the government would still end up saving at least £5 billion a year from the welfare bill - and all without having to freeze benefits for the unemployed and the low paid.

Now if only someone had the political courage to implement it.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

What the hell is Nick Clegg playing at?

The other day the Independent reported that our dear leader is discussing a trade-off for the next budget where unemployment benefit and income support for poor people would be frozen (a real terms cut) in exchange for slightly higher taxes on wealth. This is new flexibility from Nick Clegg which is, apparently in order to "ensure the pain of the cuts is shared fairly."

This makes my blood boil. What on Earth is fair about extra wealth taxes if the money raised does absolutely nothing to protect the poorest?

Could someone please explain the logic of this to me? The government has X amount it needs to save. The Tories, being Tories, want to save this amount by slashing benefits and support for poor people (but not for pensioners as they're the group most likely to vote Conservative). We, on the other hand, being Liberal Democrats, would much rather get X by raising taxes on unearned wealth for those with the broadest shoulders.

So how, for Pete's sake, do you get from that to deciding that a "fair" solution is to hit the poor and fail to protect them, but try and tell them not to worry about being in poverty because some rich people are going to have to pay a little more tax as well?

Time and time again Nick Clegg has reassured us by saying that we are not in government just to reduce the deficit but also to make Britain fairer in the process. That the deficit cannot be balanced on the backs of the poor

But Nick seems to be consistently failing to actually understand what this means on a pretty darn fundamental level: Fairness is about protecting the poor, it is about protecting the vulnerable. It is not hitting the poor to placate the prejudice of Tories while salving your conscience by raising stamp duty slightly.

And it most definitely is not making token objections to Tory policies for "differentiation" purposes while presiding over a Britain where poverty and inequality are rising and thousands more families are becoming dependent on food banks.

And that's not even mentioning the way in which our MPs and peers, in spite of an overwhelming defeat of the leadership at conference on this issue, are rapidly riding roughshod over the fundamental principles of members to commit themselves to supporting the authoritarian wet dream of secret courts which put the state above the law - a scheme denounced as illiberal and dangerous by organisations like Liberty and, more importantly, opposed by Liberal Democrat members themselves.

Or without mentioning, for that matter, the "shares in exchange for giving up employment rights" scheme currently being implemented by Vince Cable and opposed by 92% of Lib Dem members.

This behaviour by our leadership, and by Nick Clegg in particular, is really only deserving of one label and that is spineless.

That and complete, arrogant disregard for the will of party members who have made clear, time and time again, that, while they are mature enough to compromise, they also have red lines which must not be crossed. Not that that or internal party democracy mean a thing while Nick Clegg seems determined to cross every single red line the party membership has.

So, I have to ask, what the hell is Nick Clegg playing at?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The world is safe for another four years...

Well, the American elections are over and Obama has clearly won. Even better, the Republican senatorial "rape candidates" (e.g. the ones who had revealed their horrifying views of rape and their contempt for women) during the election campaign have all lost - including Mr Richard "if a woman gets pregnant from rape then it's a gift from god" Mourdock of Indiana, which, as he was standing in a state where I have a close friend living, was personally cheering as well.

Additionally, several states in referenda have legalised marijuana and/or equal marriage rights for LGBT people.

So, all in all, it looks like, for another four years at least, we have a sane and competent person in charge of the most powerful nation and largest economy on Earth. And, given that the alternative was a man whose idea of economics was to increase the deficit even further through tax cuts for multi-millionaires, whose investment company picked more duds than winners and whose idea of diplomacy was to promise, on day one if he was elected president, to pick a fight with China.

Nevertheless, that this was such a tightly fought election, does remind us non-Americans of the way in which American voters regularly struggle to decide how to choose between an average candidate and an incompetent cretin. So no doubt in four year's time I'll be agonising again from afar as the US ponders long and hard of whether to give the key to the White House to a candidate so inept that they'd struggle to amount to anything more than a laughing stock in most other western countries.

Still, it's their country and who they decide to run it is up to them. I just wish that we didn't live in an era when US election results can affect those of us who don't get any say in them.

So, in summary: four more years without a nuclear holocaust - hurray!

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
A fairly accurate summary of US elections from the perspective of an outsider
On a more serious note, let's not also forget that President Obama has also killed up to 3,191 innocent civilians as "collateral damage" of drone strikes. So for me I can only ever view this election result as the lesser of two evils.