Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Labour's excuses on data don't wash

More details have emerged on Labour's data disaster we have had a mix of abject apologies and excuses. The worst of it is that the data was lost a whole month ago, with days lost while officials hoped that the envelope would turn up and then prevaricated before calling the police or telling the banks. Apologies are fine, but the basic excuse appears to be that a junior staffer is responsible for the whole mess. So, they are trying to reassure us on the basis that junior staff at HMRC have access to their entire database, to the point that they can put it on a couple of CDs? Are they having a larf? If this happened low down the HMRC food chain than it actually makes it worse, not better. A straightforward security breach would at least mean that the internal processes were circumvented. The government's story implies that it was business as usual up to the point that the envelope was licked. That makes HMRC a shambles and let us not forget that this department was run by Gordon Brown for the last 10 years. If there a structural problem, and a combination of savage job cuts and reorganisations are suggested as a cause, than the bony finger of blame points straight at the Prime Minister.

Politically, this whole business is poison. Everyone is either affected or knows someone who it. My wife's data has been lost for example. People remember things that affect them personally, and no-one is going to forget this. Think Black Wednesday when the political ground shifted in an afternoon. This lot are on the way out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Two Catastrophes Darling

So, Alastair Darling has presided over the bail-out of Northern Rock, which is now virtually guaranteed to lose the taxpayers' money, and has followed this by losing the banking details of half of the adult population of the country. Both show incompetence, though only the first can squarely be laid at the Chancellor's door. The second speaks to an institutional problem whereby clowns in HMRC feel that they are empowered to not only download critical data onto an unencrypted CD but then to just pop it into the post. There have certainly been cases in other organisations of data being stolen because it was on a laptop that went missing, but never anything on this scale and never because of this level of sheer stupidity. Now, some people will use this as an argument against large-scale computer systems, period, which is, of course, nonsense. Large-scale IT can be operated safely, in the same way that nuclear power stations can be operated safely, but you have to have the professional expertise and organisation to do it. Nothing about the way the government deals with IT suggests either professionalism or organisation. Instead, the model appears to be amateurs giving orders to expensive consultants. So, projects fail, systems aren't integrated, and policy allows egregious breaches of the Data Protection Act or common sense for that matter.

To think, Alastair Darling was supposed to be a safe pair of hands.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Liberal Democrat leadership hopefuls' spat

So much for Liberal Democrats being the 'nice' party...

New Labour logic seeps away

New Labour always rested on a triad. There was residual dislike of the Tories from their 18 years in power, where disappointed interest groups and the desire for change made for votes against, and so to support for Labour. There was the persona of Tony Blair, who always maintained an affability that seemed above narrow partisan politics and which allowed the other members of the Labour party to be as nakedly political as they liked. Finally, and most importantly there was the economy, the ten year period of sustained growth that funded the government’s schemes and, more importantly, kept cash jingling in peoples’ pockets. A triad is pretty stable unless one of the legs is kicked away, but Labour is now starting to resemble a chair with no legs. David Cameron has decontaminated the Conservative brand, though time and space from John Major’s government had already done much of the work. Tony Blair is gone, and Gordon Brown is nowhere near his equal in the dark arts of politics. Most importantly, and most worryingly, the economy is going south with growth forecasts cut against a background of rising oil prices and the real possibility of both a British and international Recession. That has the potential to expose the way that Labour has unbalanced the economy to the point that the government would have very little ability to ameliorate the worst effects of a downturn on our people. No-one wishes that, and I bet it is giving Brown and Darling nightmares.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Brown crashes in the polls

The headline figures show a steady Conservative lead in the polls of 4-6%, but a new poll in the Times shows that something else is going on:

The YouGov poll of nearly 2,000 people for The Sunday Times shows that Brown’s honeymoon period has ended. Last month 59% thought that he was doing a good job as prime minister, while 29% said he was doing badly, a healthy net approval rating of +30.

Now only 33% think he is doing well and 43% think he is doing badly, a net approval rating of -10 and a precipitous drop of 40 percentage points in a month. At the height of his honeymoon in the summer, his approval rating was +48.

Down 40 points in a month! Brown is inhabiting the same territory as John Major after the ERM debacle in 1992. And if we thought Tony Blair was a control freak the media are suggesting that Brown is trying to run the entire country with a 5-man conference call every day at 07:00, just his mates, no civil servants. Never mind the politics, this is just incompetent management. Don't get me wrong I want the Conservatives to succeed, but I would much rather it was because we won the battle of ideas and opinion, not because the government of my country are a bunch of idiots.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Northern Rock bosses sacked

You bet your company on the international money markets and lose, creating the first run on a British bank for 158 years and are only saved from bankruptcy by government intervention and they still leave you in charge, until now that is. Finally, someone has figured out that the Northern Rock fiasco was down to bad catastrophic management and the guilty parties have been shown the door. Except not yet. Apparently, Adam Applegarth, the CEO, is being kept on until January as an 'advisor'. Is this so he can go to the firm's Christmas party? This chap has caused over £20 billion of taxpayers money to be tied up in his little business scheme and there is a real prospect that some of that may be lost. Every taxpayer in the UK has effectively invested in Northern Rock because we have a financial regulatory system that failed and a government without the bottle to let a bank fail when it richly deserved to do so, but in the final analysis the blame lies with Applegarth and his cronies on the Northern Rock board. They should have been sacked sooner, and the way that this is being handled does not auger well for the takeover bids and rescue plans that are now jostling for attention because the now ex-management appear to have done little to stop the value draining out of what was left of their business. In the end it will be shareholders, staff and taxpayers who will suffer for that.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Commons public accounts committee slates Thames Gateway

The view of the Public Accounts Committee on the Thames Gateway is that:
Without significant improvement in the overall management of the programme it will remain a series of disjointed projects and is unlikely to achieve its potential to make a major difference to economic regeneration and sustainable housing.
That is just an excerpt from a relentlessly critical report on the huge Thames Gateway project, which is the largest regeneration project in Europe. Now I have an insider view on this: I sit on the Basildon Renaissance Partnership and I chair the Thames Gateway South Essex Economy and Inward Investment Board and I think that the MPs do and don't have a point. First of all the Thames Gateway project is a worthy one, and without it the growing prosperity of the area will still leave areas of deprivation and inadequate infrastructure. Unfortunately, the scale of the endeavour is matched by its difficulty. Regeneration that works across numerous local authorities and communities is hard to organise and the professional talent that is needed is scarce. The project did not get off to a good start either, with John Prescott running it under the now defunct Office of the Deputy Prime-Minister. He was not a good leader and his department made numerous mistakes, not least in grossly complicating the planning system, which then made delivering regeneration on the ground a tortuous process. That having been said, from my lowly viewpoint things are happening. Basildon at least has a thriving regeneration programme that has been enabled by carefully targeted funding from the Thames Gateway organisation. In Thurrock there is a port project that will eventually handle half of the UK's container traffic, and there are other schemes elsewhere in the Gateway. It is when you step back and look at achievements in aggregate through the Thames Gateway that things start to look uneven. In particular, there are issues with housing delivery and the CLG seems to be under pressure from other government departments. One point in the report is on how local MPs have been engaged, and I know that there are certainly issues there in other parts of South Essex. Here in Basildon we make a point of meeting with our local parliamentarians, and both John Baron and Angela Smith have been very supportive.

What will be interesting is how the Thames Gateway project's leadership reacts. I hope that they push through the strident tone of the report and look carefully at each point in turn, because there are some things to fix.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Conservatives on votes for Council Tax

David Cameron has proposed that Councils who want to raise their taxes above a certain limit must ask their people in a referendum. The idea was immediately rubbished on the the Today programme by the BBC's 'expert' commentators who said that because people would never vote for higher taxes it was just the same as the current capping regime. There are examples, from Croydon and Bristol, where people who were faced with a choice certainly did vote for the lowest possible Council Tax increase. Case closed you might have thought if you listened to the piece. The thing is that the BBC in their never-ending quest to be even-handed did not mention Milton Keynes. Here a vote was offered on three Council Tax alternatives and on a turn-out higher than the local elections people did not vote for the lowest, going for the rise in the middle of the range instead. So, the BBC's contemptuous dismissal of the Conservative proposals that was based on an assumption that people only ever act in their own narrow self-interest was simply wrong. It does, however illustrate the soft-left view that people cannot be trusted and must be corralled by their betters instead of being given any real power or choice themselves. Actually, I think that the idea could work and that people would vote for a well made case, even if it meant paying a higher tax. They did in Milton Keynes.

It all reflects the Conservative agenda of pushing power down to individuals and communities. After ten years of this controlling, target-obsessed government it is time that the argument moved on.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Conservatives ahead by 8

From the Sunday papers:
An exclusive ICM poll for the Sunday Express put the Tories on 43 per cent, Labour on 35 per cent and the Lib-Dems on 15 per cent. The eight-point lead – a three-point rise on the last ICM poll a fortnight ago – would be enough to give David Cameron a slim overall majority in a General Election.
The Conservatives are up three from two weeks ago, all at the expense of the the Liberal Democrats who are down three. Labour have not moved despite the re-launch of the Queen's speech. While Labour has had mid-term blues before this is the first sustained period that the Conservative Party has been running at 40+ in the polls since 1992.

Labour thinks Basildon is on welfare

Basildon survives on government handouts, according to the local Labour party that is. We were debating Basildon's Regeneration Framework at the Council's Cabinet when the Leader of the Labour Group came out with the claim that Basildon District gets more government money in the form of subsidies and investment than it returns to the government in the form of tax. Now, the Regeneration Framework is our way of presenting our multiplicity of regeneration projects as a coherent whole, and many of those projects have had government funding in one form of another, but to move from that to the idea that Basildon District is basically on benefits is a bit of a leap. Basildon is in southern England within striking distance of the London economic powerhouse, our largest industrial and business area employs 40000 people and the District has areas that are very affluent indeed. Is it even remotely likely that its contribution to the exchequer is net negative? If Basildon as a successful District in southern county is on welfare then which part of the country is providing the subsidy? All in all this harks back to the old Labour tactic of running Basildon down in an effort to obtain more cash from the government. Our approach is to demonstrate our success in order to show that Basildon District is the right place to invest. That at least has the virtue that it works.