Saturday, August 18, 2007

Report on British education from Reform

That the education system is not delivering as it should is a bit of an open secret. A high percentage of children are not taught to read and write by age 11, which effectively sabotages the rest of the their education. We have falling exam standards, not just in grades for which you could actually make a justification if you want to push up the number of university entrants, but in absolute terms, for which there is no excuse. I have had three fast-track graduate trainees at work at one time or another and for two out of the three I have had to add remedial written grammar to their development schedule, and these are supposed to represent the apex of our education system.

There have been various attempts to fix matters from a government that on one hand rubbishes criticism as some sort of attack on hard-working students and on the other hand produces a secession of initiatives to fix what apparently isn't a problem. Now there is a new think-tank report on the subject that shows the sort of clarity of thought that has hitherto eluded ministers. I especially like this:
The centralisation and privatisation of the examination industry, has had detrimental effects on exam standards. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Government. In effect this means that a branch of government decides the qualifications and the curriculum available to the very great majority of young people in England. The second problem relates to competition between the exam boards, of which England has six in comparison to two in the United States. They are competing for business, introducing an undesirable commercial element into the examinations industry. No one examination board can afford for their examination in any given subject to be seen to be significantly harder than that of another board, leading to an overall decline in standards.
There is such a thing as market failure.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Conservatives want to cut tax, Labour wants to change the subject

The Conservative Economic Competitiveness Policy Group is not just proposing reductions in red tape that are effective tax cuts; it is proposing some actual tax cuts as well. Their analysis reveals how Britain has slipped down the business taxation league and how other countries, Ireland for example, have cut corporation tax and more than made up the revenue in the resulting increase in growth. So it is suggested that UK corporation tax should fall to 25p in the pound from its current 30p level, and to 20p in the pound for small businesses. It is also suggested that capital gains tax should go on any asset held for longer than 10 years and that, crucially, inheritance tax should simply be abolished. This last is especially welcome. A tax should raise realistic amounts of revenue and it should also be collectible. Inheritance tax meets these tests, but it fails a third in that it is simply not fair. What is the logic that allows the government to tax assets on which tax has already been paid just because the previous owner isn’t around to complain, or vote for that matter? The current threshold is £300000, supposedly rising to £350000 by 2010. That means the estate of anyone with a relatively modest house anywhere in the south, and in many places elsewhere in the UK would be hit with the 40% charge. These people are not rich, they are usually just hardworking, and their families should not be penalised for it and maybe forced to sell family homes just to meet death duties.

Taken together, these are sensible proposals and they are more than likely to pay for themselves in their beneficial effect on the economy. Of course they are a way from being policy, but the mood music from George Osborne among others has been favourable, as has been the press coverage. Labour has tried to characterise it as a ‘lurch to the right’. That they can’t even debate tax cuts on their own terms without trying to make it a political process story shows how little they really have to say.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

An Alcohol-free zone worked in Billericay

Following the tragic death of a family man at the hands of what appear to be alcohol-fuelled yobs, there have been calls for all sorts of action on underage drinking. There are already quite a few things that can be done, however, for example we had a bit of problem with people drinking on the street in Billericay High Street, so we made it an alcohol-free zone. That means that people can drink in pubs or restaurants, but they can't wander around clutching booze without the police having the power to confiscate it. The thing is that it has worked. Most people heed the signs and the police do take people's drinks from them when they encounter those that don't. It has made a difference and disturbance on the High Street is well down. The Council as the licensing authority and the local police are also pretty hot on those selling alcohol to underage teens, with test purchases and action taken against retailers who put profit before the law, or their community for that matter. This is the point, there are already laws and before we do the usual hysterical legislative reaction can we at least use the ones that we have already?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Money Market woes, Brown says not a lot

Something very odd happened over the last few days: the international money markets stopped working. These are where institutions, banks in particular, lend to each other in order to raise capital or to lay off the risk of lending. The markets are dependent on the accurate pricing of risk, the risk that you may not get your money back, but for some days there has been so much uncertainty stemming from the sub-prime mortgage collapse in the US that risk could not be priced and hence trades were not made. So, the Central Banks stepped in as lenders of last resort and business was able to continue. That is not likely to be the end of it though. Many institutions have admitted to losses in the sub-prime meltdown, and many more are likely to. There will certainly be an effect on the so-called real economy as well, which will probably take the shape of a reduction in the availability of credit to both companies and individuals. If your economy has been fuelled by credit, and Britain’s has, then a lower level of economic activity is likely to result. That means jobs and wages to you and me.

This story hasn’t really gone beyond the business sections, and the government hasn’t said much either. Neither state of affairs is likely to persist.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Wickford North Green Action Group meeting

I went to the public meeting organised by the Wickford North Green Action Group meeting last night to oppose the proposed development on the Barn Hall site. It was an excellent event, with Councillors from Basildon and Chelmsford as well as the very capable organisers of the Action Group all speaking and fielding questions from the audience. The hall was packed and the local opinion was very clear, with the exception of a few chaps from the so-called Wickford Action Group who oppose development in Wickford Town Centre but seem a bit ambiguous when it comes to the Green Belt, I know it sounds like the People's Front of Judea vs. the Judean People's Front but bear with me here. Our view, that is the Conservative administration's view is that to meet the government's housing targets we can either concrete the Green Belt or build on brownfield, and we choose the latter. There are very legitimate concerns about roads, schools and healthcare provision, but that does not change that central policy, so I am very pleased that local people have organised to fight the Barn Hall development.

The highlight for me was when an elderly member of the audience told us how he and his neighbours had organised to fight, and win, against an earlier attempt to encroach on the Green Belt in Wickford, opposing then Chairman of Planning on Basildon Council ex-Councillor David Harrison, who is now a leading light of the Wickford Action Group. It was actually very moving and the Chairman of the current campaign spoke of the torch being handed to a new generation of community activists.

So, the planning application will be heard in October and any appeal against a possible refusal would be heard in public in the New Year, but as the Wickford North people said, one battle at a time. If you oppose the development then make sure you write to Basildon Council and tell them so. Local opinion matters, and if people decide to stand up for their community then they can make a difference.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cash for Honours - Interesting Link

I have no information on the veracity of this information, but is has received some coverage in the national press. If it is all fantasy one wonders why Levy does not sue.

BBC goes with airport protest, predictably trashes Conservative Tax Cut Proposals

The lead item on the BBC News today was the environmental protest at Heathrow Airport. A group of campaigners vaguely for the environment and very definitely against global capitalism and, er, global warming are camping out in a ‘direct action’ against air travel. Of course, they don’t seem to be against the basic policies that encourage air travel, like mass immigration for example, it is the actual act of flying they dislike and the answer is not to try and make aircraft less environmentally damaging, it is the usual approach of restricting people’s freedom. In this case the freedom of ordinary people to travel. It is always amazing what an unshakable belief in the rightness of a cause will lead people to do, whether it be inconveniencing travellers for the next few days or promoting the idea that the planet would be a better place if everyone stayed at home. An interconnected world is a better world on many levels. It is richer, and it is certainly more understanding of different cultures. Travel is good, and it takes a special kind of myopia not to see that.

So, this led the BBC news, eclipsing the news about the Conservative Economic Competitiveness Policy Group. Of course on the BBC the result of a county-level game of tiddlywinks would have eclipsed a Conservative policy announcement. The Today programme dismissed a proposal for £14bn of tax cuts with a few gloating comments about Labour’s delight about a Tory ‘lurch to the Right’. Did the BBC wonder when they went into bat with the government about their license fee settlement why they had so few friends? Their right-on lefty spin on everything certainly hacks me off, and I suspect the rest of the 30% of right-wing opinion in the country, including Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. When the government put the squeeze on there was no sympathy from, well, anyone. The BBC should contemplate that, and the wisdom of a publicly-funded body systematically alienating large sections of the public.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

No to development on Barn Hall in Wickford

There is a proposal to develop on a Green Belt site known as Barn Hall in Wickford. This is against the policy of Basildon Council, and totally unnecessary in order for the Council to meet the housing numbers that are dictated by the Labour government. Understandably, the local community is dead set against the development and have organised to fight it.

You can sign a petition against the development here.

Conservatives to open clear blue water from Labour

Of the Conservative Policy Groups one of the big boys was always going to be John Redwood's Economic Competitiveness operation. John Redwood has a reputation for fierce intelligence and clarity of thought on the economy. He is also a man of the Right, and putting him in charge of the Group was a very strong marker on David Cameron's policy direction on economic issues. The Policy Group is due to report this week, and the advance publicity is that it is going to be radical and hard-hitting, proposing systematic deregulation for financial services, employment law and even into areas like the BBC. In particular there seems to be a focus on retrieving powers lost to Brussels under Labour, starting with the infamous opt-out to the Social Chapter which Tony Blair gave up as one of his first acts in 1997.

There is no doubt that this report will explode the thesis that all parties in Britain are the same and it will represent a very sharp division between Conservatives and Labour if even a fraction of it becomes Conservative policy. This seems likely, as both public and private indications are that David Cameron will endorse the Policy Group's main findings. As the bottom line is estimated at a £14 billion pound boost for the British economy this is probably a good thing.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

More of our best fall in Iraq

In a bloody week for our armed forces, another soldier has been killed in southern Iraq. There is something terribly poignant about those young faces framed with their uniforms that head yet another newspaper announcement of unbearable grief for their families, and sorrow for the rest of us.

War is terrible, but there are worse things than war and sometimes it can be justified as the lesser evil. I still believe that we were right to go to war in Iraq, but that the coalition made serious mistakes in the conduct of the war and then blundered the aftermath in ways that stretch credulity. I also believe that this Labour government is guilty of failing to support our armed forces at every level, from inadequate equipment, to not enough equipment even when it works, to not even caring properly for our soldiers when they return wounded. Most importantly though there is now a sense of mission drift in Iraq. The British presence there seems to be confined to base in an effort to return as much of government and security to Iraqis. This has made them sitting ducks for mortar and rocket attacks, and gives insurgents plenty of time to mine roads an prepare ambushes for when our army does venture forth. It seems to me that a decision is required: either we allow the army to fight, or we bring them home. In dithering over this Labour is further betraying the trust of our soldiers, and making for more confident young faces staring out over the newspaper announcement of their death.