Potty proposals

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 24/09/12]

There’s a joke going around at the moment: Did you hear that Nick Clegg has joined a boyband? It’s called No Direction.

This came to mind when I read of Clegg’s announcement on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show that the Liberal Democrats are proposing a “pensions for property” policy. The party is starting the process of sounding out the various financial institutions that would need to get on side for the policy to work. [Read more…]

The Tie That Binds

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 22/07/12]

Last week’s reversal over Lords reform may turn out to be key moment in the life of the Coalition. In retrospect it may appear the point at which it all started to unravel. It was swiftly followed by another Cameron-Clegg relaunch, but that didn’t convince too many people that everything in the garden is rosy. Differences between the parties become ever clearer – witness George Osborne putting the kibosh on Ed Davey’s plans for renewable energy – even without the parties adopting a conscious strategy of differentiation.

But at least there’s the deficit reduction plan. In the national interest the Liberal Democrats put aside their own more cautious and contextually-sensitive plan for deficit reduction in order to form a coalition with the Conservatives. While everything else may seem to be rapidly fraying at the edges, the commitment to bringing down the deficit remains the tie that binds the parties together.

It is therefore rather unfortunate that the plan isn’t working terribly well. [Read more…]

Is The LIBOR Scandal A Milly Dowler Moment For The Banks?

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 30/06/12]

My first reaction on hearing the news that the FSA has fined Barclays for a piece of sharp practice was little more than a raised eyebrow. After all, it’s hardly the first time. We’ve become rather inured to it. It was only in April this year that Barclays had to set aside an extra $300million – on top of the existing provision of £1bn – to compensate the victims of mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance. And Wednesday’s fine may not even be the only sanction handed to the bank this week, if the FSA’s report on the mis-selling of interest rate swaps to small businesses emerges on Friday as expected.

We seem to have faced a long succession of cases involving parts of the financial industry taking advantage of information asymmetries, inertia or lax regulation in order to trouser a few (million) extra quid, to the detriment of the consumer. And, of course, sitting on top of this is the mother of all scandals – the sub-prime mortgage crisis that triggered the Global Financial Crisis.

A striking thing about this sordid succession of scandals is that anyone is at all surprised when news of another one breaks. Similarly striking is the frequently supine response of the regulators. [Read more…]

Trading Liberty For “Security”

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 06/04/12]

What is going on? I mean, seriously? Is it just me or do the wheels seem to be coming off this Government quite badly?

If we look over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen a botched budget, including the failure to make the case for a “granny tax” in the context of cuts to the 50p rate and the bizarre brouhaha over the “pasty tax”. The #CamDineWithMe scandal over cash for access has been exposed. And we’ve witnessed a Government-induced panic over possible fuel shortages in the face of the strike that never was – or at least isn’t yet. The master strategist has been shown to be less than masterful. Some of these issues might be argued to be froth. But others are rather more serious.

The latest instalment in the increasingly fraught soap opera of the Coalition focuses upon civil liberties. [Read more…]

Privatising Policing: A Step Too Far?

[Originally posted at Dale&Co., 03/03/12]

This week’s instalment of the Leveson Inquiry has raised some pressing questions about inappropriate relations between members of the police and corporate interests. We were presented with argument that highly questionable, if not corrupt, practices were commonplace among public officials.

It’s therefore unfortunate timing that the Guardian reports today on plans by West Midlands and Surrey Police to place £1.5bn worth of business out to tender to the private sector. Or perhaps it is good timing. Because this could prove to be a development of profound significance. It demands close scrutiny. [Read more…]

Rent Asunder

[Originally posted at Dale&Co., 03/01/12]

The new year has opened with a couple of important housing stories. The first was another attempted crackdown on illegal subletting in council housing. The second, which attracted significant media attention, is the reform of the local housing allowance (LHA) – the housing benefit which assists low income private renters. A tranche of rule changes came into force with the New Year. The media coverage was sparked by the publication of a Chartered Institute of Housing report arguing that the rule changes render 800,000 properties no longer affordable to low income renters. A range of unfortunate negative consequences are argued to follow. The Department for Work and Pensions – which is responsible for this policy – is having none of it.

The Government arrived with a seductively plausible case. [Read more…]

NIMBY Nation

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 13/12/11]

The publication last week of the 2010 British Social Attitudes report made the headlines because it seemed to indicate that the British population is becoming increasingly self-reliant, self-centred or selfish – depending on your perspective – and more inclined to see poverty and disadvantage as either the fault of the individual or an overgenerous welfare state. As part of the survey respondents gave their views on whether they supported or opposed more homes being built in their area. The headline result that 45% said they’d oppose more local development reached many news bulletins. Less than a third of respondents positively supported new building locally. The inference that many have drawn from this is we are a nation who have fully embraced the “not in my back yard” philosophy.

This question was asked for the first time in 2010 so we can’t know whether this result indicates the population is becoming more or less hostile to development. But if you read more deeply into the survey results – and the full report is available online from the NatCen – you’ll see a more complex picture emerge. [Read more…]

A new approach to housing policy?

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 22/11/11, It is an earlier version of material discussed in Laying the foundations?]

The much anticipated, and heavily trailed, housing strategy for England – Laying the foundations – arrived on Monday. The Government’s claim is that the strategy will “get the housing market moving again”, while at the same time “laying the foundations for a more responsive, effective and stable housing market in the future”. How do those claims stack up?

The document presents a plausible portrait of the situation we find ourselves in, in terms of the housing shortages and affordability problems. And some of the diagnosis of the problem is equally sensible. The problems of the housing market are not of recent origin. They are the product of some longstanding failures. To take one example, as the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister observe in the foreword: “for decades in Britain we have under-built”. The Government is promising that it is taking “a new approach”, which “marks a decisive break with the failed policies of the previous Government”. I wouldn’t seek to defend Labour’s housing track record, but this seems a cheap shot, given the nature of the problems. It is also the case that some of the deep presumptions that have caused these problems – such as housing being the most appropriate vehicle through which households can and should accumulate wealth – are reinforced rather than questioned in today’s statement.

Much of the housing strategy document is, in fact, simply bringing together in one place a number of policies and initiatives that have already been announced. It is hard to argue that placing them between two covers transforms them into a coherent strategy. [Read more…]

Ethical renewal to banish that fin de siecle feeling

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 15/10/11]

The Cash for Questions scandal and the associated perception of endemic sleaze contributed to the demise of the Major government. It ushered in a period of institutional renewal. The Committee for Standards in Public Life was established under Lord Nolan in the mid-1990s to keep an eye on MPs’ conduct. Similarly, the expenses scandal contributed not only in some small way to Gordon Brown’s demise but also to a substantial minority of Parliamentarians exiting stage left. It led to the end of self-scrutiny as the processing of MPs expense claims passed to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Equally significantly, it heralded a new government promising a new cleaner, fresher approach to politics. How quickly such promises turn to dust.

These were scandals afflicting tired governments. If we think about the significance of Cash for Questions or the expenses scandal, they did not really go to the heart of the business of governing. Cash for Questions was about some relatively inconsequential backbenchers receiving inappropriate payments for asking questions in the House. With its imagery of allegedly dodgy businessmen and publicists handing over brown envelopes of used notes to elected Members it caused outrage and played well in the media. But its impact upon the course of policy or the practice of governing was arguably relatively minimal. In the light of current experiences it all looks rather tame. Similarly, the expenses scandal exposed many MPs as greedy, grasping and out of touch, but it did not speak directly to the way in which policy is made.
The situation we face now has far more serious implications for government. [Read more…]

Customers? Time for something a little more feudal perhaps

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 01/10/11]

How should we refer to the users of public services? What sort of identity should be ascribed to us? Over the last 30 years the concept of the service user embedded in policy has been radically reworked.

The language of “clients” or “claimants” in the postwar welfare state was criticised for its implications of dependency. Clients are reliant upon the discretion and largesse of public service professionals. The bureaucrats are in charge.

The Thatcher governments sought to reinterpret service users as consumers exercising choice. Major’s Citizen’s Charter was not so much about establishing the inalienable rights of citizenship as an attempt to import a culture of customer complaint into the public sector.

The later Blair governments were similarly enthusiastic about consumerism, choice and competition – sorry, provider diversity. Initiatives such as personalisation pushing these ideas further than the Conservatives ever attempted. But the Blairites spiced up the mix with communitarian-infused notions of self-discipline and of responsibility to the collective as a condition of accessing services.

One might argue that the Coalition Government’s Open Public Services white paper reprises many fo these well-worn themes. The rise of the choice-making, provider-disciplining public service consumer does indeed appear to be inexorable.

But is that the whole story? Are there, in contrast, signs that the wheel turns again? [Read more…]