District Council Elections

I only had a look at the nominated candidates for my ward yesterday.  Last time there were two Liberal Democrats elected.

This time there are three candidates for two seats.  One is an ex Liberal Democrat, who is now standing as an independent.  She is also my neighbour and I won’t have any hesitation in voting for her.

The other two candidates are Green and UKIP. I don’t know what has happened to the other Liberal Democrat councillor and why he isn’t standing again.

So I am in the bizarre position of having to make a tactical vote Green to keep out the UKIP candidate.  Weird.

And what about the Conservative party?  This is a safe Tory parliamentary constituency, but they can’t find enough candidates for a district council election?

Freaky.

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Instant reaction to the Labour Manifesto 2

Health and Education

The question, of course, is whether the sums add up, for financing additional NHS spending from a Mansion tax and a tobacco levy.

38 Degrees frequently send me emails asking me to take part in a campaign against ‘privatisation’ of the NHS.  I never respond, because although I believe that health services should be free at the point of delivery, I have no objection to private companies tendering.  I’m influenced in my opinion by my experience of abysmal NHS health care for myself and family members between 1997 and 2006 , contrasted with the care I and my husband received in Canada, between 2006 and 2014, which was excellent and mostly supplied by private companies paid by the province.

So, I don’t support Labour’s plan to scrap the competition regime.

The rest of their proposals sound OK, but I’m wary.  I thought all over 75s having a named doctor would be a good thing for my mum, but her named doctor is one who only works one and a half days a week, and mum has just waited seven weeks for an appointment with her. So, when I read that in the future she might have a personal care plan coordinated by a single named person, instead of jumping for joy,  I think of the law of unintended consequences.

I’m sorry if that makes me seem a bit unfair and crabby. The problem is that from my personal viewpoint, Labour’s proposals,  don’t deal with the issues I have with the NHS.

Chiefly, I want to know that my doctor will always follow best practice guidelines for whichever illness he is treating me for, or if he is unable to follow best practice guidelines because of limitations imposed by the NHS, he will tell me and advise me of the alternatives to the treatment he is offering.

Secondly, if an expensive drug would help me, but cannot be afforded by the NHS, I want the option of buying it myself with the NHS contributing the value of the less expensive drug that they would have supplied.  Labour is promising to supply cancer patients the latest drugs.  Does this mean that people suffering from diseases that attract less sympathy will be denied expensive treatments?  I know someone with Hepatitis C.  There is a drug that would cure it within weeks – Sovaldi – which costs £36,000.  Currently, the price means the NHS is unlikely to provide it for all Hep C sufferers. Labour’s prioritising of cancer would mean that Sovaldi is even less likely to be prescribed.

Thirdly, I want to know that my GP will not be inhibited about screening for illness because he is a ‘gatekeeper’ to resources. Again, Labour are making promises about speedy testing and diagnosis for cancer, but what about other diseases and conditions?

On education, I like the emphasis on technical education and training and English and Maths skills.  I would have liked something about improving foreign language skills.

The next section is headed We will help our families and communities to thrive

The proposals for under-fives provision and child welfare look good, but I’m not convinced the child poverty target is worth maintaining.

On housing, the recommendations of the Lyons review would be implemented.  Where does the investment come from?  Answer: the Help to Buy ISAs.  Is this sufficient?  I don’t know, but I’m fascinated to read that ‘billions of pounds’ are saved in them, given that the scheme hasn’t started yet.  Or am I missing something?

Social Security. I’ve already expressed my disappointment that Labour will not end sanctions, and even extend sanctions to youngsters who fail to take up training. Earlier in the manifesto they name-checked food-banks, but sanctions and food-banks go together like beer and crisps. If Labour is in favour of benefit sanctions, then it is in favour of making people dependent on food banks.

Older people: they will keep the triple lock.  Hmmm…. And if we have nil inflation, or deflation for a few years? Frankly, I think it is a silly promise for any party to make.  I am glad they are keeping bus passes. I know elderly people whose whole social life is only made possible by having the bus pass.  Losing it would blight a lot of lives.

The next few sections are all about immigration and law-and-order issues. There is less here that I disagree with than I expected. I’m glad that Labour is refusing to play the numbers game on immigration.

The proposed ‘de-radicalisation programme’ for returnees from Syria sounds a bit Clockwork Orange to me.  Would it work? I have some difficulty in imagining how.

I’m 18.  I believe in an ideology so strongly that I’ve been prepared to die for it.  It flows from that ideology that I hate the British state.  I return to the UK and the British state insists I attend  a course of lectures during which I’ll be shown a lot of unpleasant pictures of atrocities, which I have in fact taken part in or witnessed first hand.

Yes it’s bound to turn them around. I don’t think.

Arts and sport – nothing of much interest to me. ‘A universal right to creative education ‘ is a rather grandiose description for increased funding for arts in schools and after school clubs.  It’s not quite on a par with the universal rights to free speech or family life, is it?

The environment. They will end the stupid badger cull.  Good. But, there’s nothing in this section that alters the view I’d already formed that Labour have not spent much time in the last five years thinking about their position on environmental issues.

Governmental reform. Guess what? They are going to decentralise!  Which must surely be the promise made by our major political parties most honoured in the breach. Is it possible to take it seriously, ever?

Having said that, as a long time supporter of Charter 88/Unlock Democracy, I’m glad to see Labour taking up its idea of a Constitutional Convention. The English Devolution Act sounds good too, but ‘fair funding across England’ does not  mean reform of the Barnett formula. So the unfairness between England, Wales and Scotland will be maintained.  That won’t do.  It just won’t do.

On Defence, I would have liked to see a commitment to increased defence expenditure, or at least ring-fencing. Russia is the unmentioned elephant.  Due to the ring-fencing of NHS etc, the implication is that cuts in defence spending will continue.

I remain  unconvinced that a law outlawing abuse of armed forces members is necessary. For me, this is a classic example of Labour making unnecessary laws for the sake of courting popularity.

And finally, there’s some good stuff in the manifesto, but if Labour were in power I’d be very concerned about defence.  While their reform of the injustices meted out to the disabled would be welcome, they would not be getting rid of the food banks if they keep benefit sanctions, and the numbers would be swelled by EU migrants unable to claim benefits. They are still fond of unnecessary but headline grabbing laws (witness Ed’s recent suggestion he’d make TV election debates compulsory). I still don’t trust them on civil liberties, and while they may not overspend, their ringfencing of the NHS and even certain types of spending within the NHS may lead to excessive cuts elsewhere.

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Instant reaction to the Labour Manifesto

First sentence:

Britain only succeeds when working people succeed.

Well, we already know history isn’t Ed’s strongpoint. Nineteenth century frame-work weavers come to mind.  But this is just to get us in the mood.  It’s the aspiration that matters.

Next page: they are going to cut the deficit every year and get their budgets verified by the Office of Budget Responsibility.

Hang on, they are going to legislate to require all major parties to get their manifesto commitments independently audited by the OBR.  Not sure how I feel about that.  Is it necessary?  We can already rely on the Institute for Fiscal Studies to go over manifestos with a fine tooth comb.  One thing that puts me off voting Labour is their addiction to unnecessary legislation.

Foreward by Ed.  OK, actually.  He doesn’t use the words ‘hard working families’ once.  I’m grateful because the phrase  makes me cringe.

We will Build a Better Future for Britain. 

I like the introduction as a statement of values and aspirations and mildly Keynesian economics, but I’m skimming for meat.

Big emphasis throughout on fiscal responsibility.  OK I get it.

50 p tax rate over £150,000.  Good.

Increase in national minimum wage to over £8.  Good.

Measures to help parents with childcare, paternity leave etc.  Good.

The freeze on energy prices.  Not sure this is a good idea or necessary, even though, unlike the above, I’ll potentially benefit from this one.  I suspect I’m already paying more because of the threat of a freeze.

200,000 homes a year to be built by 2020. So not actually solving the housing crisis. That would require an extra half a million homes annually. I’m disappointed.  If government can get 200,000 built what is the obstacle to going the extra mile and actually solving the problem?

A ‘fairer deal’ for renters.  I’d have preferred ‘rent controls’.

They will abolish the Bedroom Tax.  YAY! But no mention of reversing the other ‘reforms’ of the benefit system which are causing hardship, such as benefit sanctions. BOO!

The mansion tax, tobacco levy and moves against tax avoidance to pay for more NHS staff.  OK.

Restriction on EU benefit claimants and measures to strengthen integration. Not very happy about this.  Could leave migrants trapped in jobs they dislike, vulnerable to exploitation. Could also impact on British citizens with EU spouse or step-children.

The next section is on the economy: ‘We will build an economy that works for working people’.

An end to winter fuel payments to richest 5% of pensioners. This seems mild. As a pensioner who’ll be claiming it for the first time this year, if it had been abolished altogether, I would have just shrugged my shoulders. There is no mention of keeping, or not keeping the triple lock, or other pensioner benefits.  I think that is significant.

‘Outside of the protected areas of health, education and international development, there will be cuts in spending.’  So local government gets it in the neck again. That concerns me personally mostly in relation to my 89 year old mother.  We may need quite a lot of help with her care in the next few years. In the last two decades since my parent’s started becoming frail, overall we’ve found social services more reliable than the NHS.  Is that going to be reversed? Devon County Council is saying that it cannot continue to maintain all the roads.  I’m wondering whether buying a Fiat 500 was a mistake and we’ll have to change it for an SUV to negotiate the dirt tracks which will be all that’s left of the road network.

We will use digital technology to create a more responsive, devolved, and less costly system of government.”  OMG, more mega-expensive computer schemes doomed to fail.

TAXES:

10p rate paid for by abolishing the Married Tax Allowance.  I like the Married Tax Allowance and I’ll personally benefit from it, although only for a couple of years while I am deferring claiming my state pension. Whether or not I would benefit from the 10 p rate depends on what Labour do with the personal allowance. If they freeze it or lower it, I’ll be worse off.  I much prefer the Liberal Democrat policy of increasing the personal allowance.

Cracking down on tax avoidance and ending non-dom status.  Excellent.  Why didn’t they do the latter during their previous 13 years in power?

They will end charitable status for private schools.  No, sorry, I made that bit up.

They will carry out a review into the culture and practices of the HMRC.  While they are at it, could they find out why the HMRC hasn’t got my tax code right, on the first attempt, once in the last 20 years?  I’m fed up with the amount of time I have to spend in correspondence with them.  They may privilege high-earners, but they also treat low earners abominably.

INDUSTRY and PRODUCTIVITY: 

A National Infrastructure Commission sounds good. I’m glad they’ll continue with HS2 and improve rail in the North, but as a new resident of the West Country, I’ve become aware of how inadequate the rail system is here, and would have liked something specific about improving it, looking into moving the mainline away from the vulnerable Dawlish route and re-opening branch lines. But, with only 2 Labour MPs in four counties, I might wait a long time before the Labour Party takes a serious interest in the infrastructure of the West Country.

I also like the aim of removing carbon from our electricity supply by 2030, but they will only regulate the onshore oil and gas.  I’m unsure about fracked gas, but tending to feel it should be left in the ground.  I’m quite certain the oil should remain in the ground.  There is a fundamental contradiction between  ‘ambitious domestic carbon reduction strategies’ and the aim to ‘safeguard the future of the offshore oil and gas industry’.

This section of the manifesto does not reassure me that Labour will safeguard the environment, but where it is not promising to defend and shore up our dinosaur fossil fuel industries, I like it.

I also like the next section – Better Work and Better Pay – about better protection for workers.

The next section on education and training is titled Supporting the Next Generation. It is inevitable that Labour would use this dog whistle, but I’m not convinced that reducing the university tuition fees will achieve much, since only the richest graduates will benefit.  And, since it will be funded by reducing tax relief on their pension contributions, they’ll just be paying another way.

I’m taken aback by the ‘Compulsory Jobs Guarantee’, a paid starter job for every unemployed youngster, which they have to take or lose benefits.  I don’t like benefit sanctions or forced labour.  It sounds like something dreamed up by IDS.

The next section is called Mending the Markets that People Rely on, by which they mean the utilities and public transport, i.e. the stuff that used to be nationalised, should never have been privatised, and is mostly now owned by China, for which achievement we gave Margaret Thatcher a state funeral. No, they aren’t going to re-nationalise any of it or take it out of foreign control.  Dream on Mira.

But they are going to better regulate the energy market.  I’m more than a bit puzzled by the proposal to simplify energy tariffs and make it easier for people to compare tariffs and get the best deal.  Who doesn’t use USwitch.com or ComparetheMarket.com?  What is complicated about spending a couple of minutes on a website clicking boxes? It’s already easier than comparing the price of apples at the supermarket.  I’m for better regulation, but do wonder whether public money is going to be spent on unnecessary measures.

They also have plans for making homes more energy efficient.  I hope they are more successful than the Coalition’s ill-conceived  Green Deal.

They will act to bring down water bills. But, there is no mention of improving water efficiency and reducing water use. Another sign that Labour is not that interested in environmental issues.

On the other hand, I welcome their proposals for rail and buses, particularly more local authority control over buses, although this is just a repeat of what they said in their 2010 manifesto.

Whether local government will have the resources to use the powers they are going to be given over local transport, given that they are going to be bearing the brunt of the cuts, is another matter.

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Manifestos should be published earlier

I’m now living in one of the most remote rural parts of England and in a safe Tory constituency.  As  a result I feel more detached from the General Election campaign than in 2010 when I was resident in Canada.

So, my experience of the election campaign is almost entirely through TV and the internet and I’m already bored and irritated by it.

I’m puzzled that the political parties are keeping with previous practice in holding back their manifestos until within a month of the election date. This is the first long campaign for a fixed date election and surely that means a different approach is needed?

In the last few weeks we have been treated to a campaign of upstaging.  Every day the parties try to grab the headlines promising this or that or the other. In my opinion, it gives the (mostly) wrong impression of policy being made on the hoof and pledges that probably won’t be kept.  In other words it is a style of campaigning, by all the major parties, which plays to reinforce the public’s cynicism about politicians.

Andrew Rawnsley says that: “What the manifestos do not say will often be more instructive than what they do say.” and that: “These manifestos are best regarded as opening positions for post-election bargaining.”

Both statements are true, but I want to see what the silences are, and get an idea of where the lines in the sand will be drawn during post-election negotiations. And so I need to read the manifestos.

I suppose the reason for holding back the manifestos is that publishing early would give more time to the opposition to pull it apart.  But the party that published early would be campaigning from the outset on a clear programme that the public could see had been some years in the making, not a back-of-the-envelope reaction to headlines and opinion polls. In other words — this is what we really want to do, not — this is what we think will play well this week.

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The State Pension Top Up

A couple of days ago I received an email from the DWP about the State Pension Top Up that it going to be made available, for a limited time, to women born before 6th April ’53 and men born before 6th April ’51.

I forget why we’ve been offered this crumb, but I think it is because we are not entitled to the new flat-rate pension.

The DWP has put online an interview with Alan Dick, director of the Institute of Financial Planning and an online calculator so you can work out how much you’ll get if you invest in the scheme.

Alan Dick thinks it is a good deal.  I’m not convinced.

The online calculator tells me that to get an extra £10 a week pension I”d have to invest £9,130 when I’m 64. That’s an extra £520 p.a gross pension. Even assuming I was a non tax payer, it would be 17 years six months before I had recovered my capital outlay; in other words I’d be 81 years old.  My life expectancy at 64 is 85 years, so I’d be laying out £9,130 now, in my sixties, for an expected life-time profit of around £2,000 in my eighties.

If I assume current tax rates will continue, then I’d be paying 20% tax on the pension increase, leaving £416 net p.a.  It would take 22 years to recoup the initial investment, by which time the actuaries say I’m more likely to be dead.

Sure, it is inflation proofed and it looks good compared with current annuity rates, but currently, it is not that difficult to find inflation beating savings accounts.  My ISA currently pays 1.5% while the inflation rate is nil.

So, for this to be a good deal for me, I’d have to make the following assumptions:

  • Future rises in the personal allowance will make my entire pension income, including the pension top-up permanently below the tax threshold.
  • Secondly, the situation that prevailed between 2008 and 2013, when interest rates on savings accounts  were below the rate of inflation, will not only return but become the long term norm.

I think both are unlikely, and I’d also be gambling on reaching my actuarial life expectancy, something which I only have a 50% chance of doing*.

I’ve stated on this blog before, that I don’t see the point of the State Pension Top-Up.  I still don’t and I question whether the DWP should not only be offering it, but trying to persuade pensioners that it is a good investment.

*The average age of death of the last two generations of my family has been 55, although my mother is still alive and when she dies the average will rise to at least 72.

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Farewell Terry Pratchett

I don’t usually read fantasy fiction, but, about fifteen years ago, my curiosity was aroused when I noticed that two whole shelves of the fantasy section in my local public library were devoted to one author.  So, I checked out The Colour of Magic.

Then I disappeared. I reappeared a couple of months later when I could find no more words written by Terry Pratchett to read. After that, I usually bought the hardback copy of new Discworld novels, because I was too hungry for more Pratchett to wait for the paperback.  In fact, I was a kind of Discworld ghoul.

So, it isn’t surprising that I cried when I read of Terry Pratchett’s death.

I’m not qualified to judge whether he was the Jonathan Swift of our time, or a successful genre writer who will be forgotten in a generation.  Personally, I think he was the PG Wodehouse of our time, and both authors wrote work which will last, unlike several of our currently fȇted literary novelists.

So goodbye to Terry Pratchett, whom I never met, and goodbye to all his characters that I feel I not only met, but got onto first name terms with, especially Captain Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Rincewind, and DEATH.

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The married couples allowance

I don’t agree with Polly Toynbee who rails against the married couples’ allowance (actually the married couples’ and civil partners’ allowance) in todays Guardian.  Or with Caron Lindsay who has said she won’t claim it on ethical grounds.

For several years before we went to Canada in ’06, the only income I had was non-means tested disability benefit and a small pension.  The two together came to more than the personal tax allowance, so even though my income was not enough to live on, I still paid tax. If I’d been single, I would have received additional means tested benefits, but because I was married and living with my husband, he was expected to support me.

In Canada I was no longer receiving benefit, but still had the pension.  My income was not enough to use up the personal tax allowance, but I was able to transfer the unused portion to my husband, reducing his tax bill. I’m fairly certain that in Canada all cohabitees can do this, regardless of whether they are married or not.

This seems fair to me.  If we continue to expect the earning partner to support the non earning or low earning partner, then it is right that they should be able to utilise their partners’ unused tax allowance.  So, the new married couples’ allowance is a step in the right direction.  It would be better if it were the whole allowance rather than a portion of it, and if it could be used by all couples, not just those married or in a civil partnership.

The rules for means tested benefits continue to be an obstacle to single mothers who wish to form new supportive relationships. The new allowance isn’t going to change that.  From the reports I’ve read in the press, undeclared cohabitation forms a high proportion of ‘benefit cheat’ cases in the courts, motivated not by greed but by a desire for love and support. I think that is very sad, and I would agree with anyone who finds Ian Duncan Smith’s preaching about ‘family values’ hypocritical.  But that doesn’t mean that the allowance is wrong per se.

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