Three aspects of coalition government

[This post is the original version of a text that first appeared in issue 370 of Liberator magazine (February 2015), under the title “Sustained by useful idiots”]

4604466137_65e4ae185d_nAs we approach the last few weeks of this Parliament it is almost inevitable that our thoughts turn to evaluating the Coalition Government as a whole, the role of the Liberal Democrats within it, and the implications for the party of participating in a Westminster government for the first time in many decades. But this is by no means a trivial task. Not least because the answers depend on the angle from which the issue is viewed.

If we focus on the politics of the Coalition then one common criticism has undoubtedly been put to bed – coalition governments are not by definition weak because at their heart sits horse-trading and compromise. This government has pursued a radical agenda renegotiating the role of the state. It has set in train structural changes in a whole range of policy areas that have yet to fully work themselves through the system. This was possible in large part because for much of the Parliament the Liberal Democrats were willing to put aside dissent, in public at least, and support a wide range of Conservative projects. Only in the last year of the Parliament has the party made any real effort to differentiate from the Conservatives. [Read more…]

Is the Minister of State being naïve or disingenuous?

Norman BakerSometimes pronouncements emanating from Liberal Democrat Ministers are a puzzle. They are either naïve or disingenuous. And if they are disingenuous then they must think we’re all naïve.

The proximate cause of this observation is Norman Baker’s post “We’re not turning into authoritarians!” at Liberal Democrat Voice yesterday. The focus of Baker’s post is the Coalition’s proposals to reform anti-social behaviour legislation. The aim of the post is to assure everyone that:

It is utter nonsense to suggest we are targeting skateboarders, ramblers, youngsters playing in their local park, or anyone else going about their daily lives perfectly reasonably.

In reality the new anti-social behaviour powers are designed to protect such activities.

Not only that:

It has also been suggested that the Coalition plans to curtail rights to peaceful protest. This is also nonsense and nothing in the Bill does that. I have made it clear on the floor of the Commons that peaceful protest cannot be subject to a dispersal order and we do not believe that the public spaces protection order could be used in this way either, or to prevent wider peaceful protest, but in the light of the scare stories generated, I am looking at what further steps we might take to make this even clearer.

This intervention is somewhat at odds with most other commentary on the Coalition’s bill. The general view is that the bill is so shockingly loosely drafted that it could be applied to just about any activity that someone takes exception to. [Read more…]

‘Quackademics’ under fire as critical voices targeted

[Originally posted at The Conversation, 22/08/13]

DuckWith independent journalism increasingly under threat, will academics be the next set of critical voices to be targeted? A report calling for research and evidence to have a reduced role in public policy, issued yesterday by a right-wing think-tank, suggests this process is already under way.

These criticisms come after successive governments have sought to encourage academics to leave their ivory towers and influence the wider world. Right now, many academics around the country are knee-deep in final preparations for the next round of research funding. This time around we’ve the additional task of demonstrating how our research has had an impact on the world beyond the academy. In many fields, including my own, that impact is on policy.

At the same time, the government is in the process of establishing a network of “what works” evidence centres for social policy. This government’s commitment to evidence-based policy is perhaps less secure than its precedessor’s, but the idea that research evidence should play a role in policy making remains. [Read more…]

Bedroom tax … and beyond?

Boarded Up Council HouseWe are now beginning to get some insight into the fallout from the Government’s changes to the housing benefit underoccupation rules: the policy that Grant Shapps would like you to call the “spare room subsidy” but most people call the “bedroom tax”. It is a topic I’ve blogged about previously, including on the challenge of interpreting the evidence regarding what’s going on.

It is worth briefly reviewing the possible consequences of taking a group of people whose household incomes, after assistance from social security, are already at poverty levels and increasing the amount they are expected to pay for their housing from their own pocket. [Read more…]

New housing ideas from One Nation Labour?

street scene (2099)Under the heading A One Nation programme with new ideas to begin turning Britain’s economy around yesterday Ed Miliband outlined six bills that would appear in Labour’s alternative Queen’s speech. It is good to see him offering some policy detail, at last, but to what extent are we being offered new ideas?

The focus of the housing component of his statement was the private rented sector, which in one sense is new. The idea that the political battle to be fought over housing was going to be fought over private renting is one that would have made no sense a few years ago. And whether it is the biggest problem facing the housing system at the moment, given the broader context of poor affordability for a nation of frustrated aspirant home owners, could be debated.

Leaving that to one side, what did he offer? [Read more…]

Research and the policy process

[This text accompanies a presentation made to a SW Crucible event on 13th February]

knowledgeIn this post I offer a perspective on academic research and the Whitehall policy process. It draws on interactions of various types in and around Whitehall going back to the start of the Major government. That includes having been involved in quite a few research projects and evaluations contracted by government departments and quangos.

One point to make at the outset is that different Whitehall departments have very different cultures, including their orientation towards research – they differ in where research sits in relation to other considerations as an input into policy thinking. And of course practice within Departments evolves over time. So I’m not sure there are many truly general lessons to be drawn.

So this is just one perspective, albeit a perspective that is also informed by the literature on research utilization. There are no doubt others with different experiences and different insights to share.

I want to make some comments under six headings. [Read more…]

Fool me once …

Plenty of political announcements made at this time of year are little more than conference fodder. They grab a headline and a round of applause and that’s the last we hear of them. But George Osborne’s proposals to cut another £10bn from welfare don’t fall into that category. They were buried in the detail of previous policy statements and it was only a matter of time before they bubbled to the surface. Conference season is the ideal time because it allows some posturing against the modern folk devil – the feckless scrounger.

We only have media reports of Osborne’s speech at the moment, and we’ve no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, but a key element to this story is going to be how it plays out within the Coalition.

Clearly the New Victorians of the Conservative party are full-speed ahead for cutting welfare, with a strongly Malthusian undertone that if we lose a few scroungers along the way through starvation then that’ll save us a bit of money.

But the Liberal Democrat position is a bit more complex. [Read more…]

Paying for plastic

Calls for a plastic bag tax for England have reappeared in the news.

The latest statistics show a sharp increase in plastic bag usage over the last year in England, but a drop in usage in Wales where a tax was introduced in October last year. So calls for a tax in England have returned.

The Government’s rejection of a plastic bag tax in England was widely report back in June. There appears to have been a bid to get a tax included in the budget and then again in the Queen’s speech. But pressure from Caroline Spelman to move in this direction was rejected by George Osborne.

England appears to be swimming against the tide on this issue. Not only is tax is already in place in Wales but also in Northern Ireland. And one is being considered in Scotland. [Read more…]

Age, ignorance or incompetence?

What a shocking week for the Government. We’re well past the odd mishap. As the Government careers from one problem to another we’re now shading into something rather more embarrassing. With the exception of some über-loyalists with an eye to preferment, excoriating comment is emerging from all points on the political spectrum.

[Read more…]

Policy, information and transparency

The Information Tribunal delivered its decision last week on the release of the risk registers associated with the Health & Social Care Bill. The Information Tribunal concluded that the Information Commissioner was correct in the initial decision that the release of the transitional risk register (TRR) – but not the strategic risk register – was in the public interest. And the Government was wrong to refuse to release it. I’m surprised that this decision did not attract more attention. Perhaps there’s a sense that the battle has already been lost. I understand the Department of Health is considering whether there are any legal grounds for challenging the Tribunal’s decision.

The IT’s report is not perhaps the most engaging of documents, but there is quite a bit of interest in it, beyond the fact that the Tribunal found against the Government. [Read more…]