Jun 2008 09

A worrying story in today’s FT reports that the 185 top wealth-creating companies in the UK paid 12 per cent of the added value they created in taxes last year, compared with 6 per cent in Germany and 8 per cent in France and Switzerland. This finding comes from the annual value-added scoreboard, published by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The reason? As the FT reports:

"The Treasury says the UK has the lowest headline rate of corporation tax in the G7, but other countries often offer more generous tax breaks that in practice mean companies pay lower rates."

The answer is not to expand corporate tax breaks, such as complex R&D tax credits, but to lower rates. The CBI has called for the main corporation tax rate to be reduced from 28 per cent to 18 per cent over the next eight years. Given the number of UK companies moving headquarters overseas, this is now an urgent priority.

Jun 2008 05

Despite the fact that today’s Express & Star reports a row of seemingly monumental proportions at Wolverhampton City Council over the utterly piddling matter of what time their monthly scrutiny board meetings take place (should it be at 5pm or 5.30pm? Who cares, get on with the job!), presumably all differences were put aside today as the council celebrated ‘World Environment Day’.

As Birmingham’s own Climate Change Festival rumbles on until 8th June, with it’s hideous ‘artistic’ Pylon  eyesore of a pylon surrounded by corn – presumably signifying that the council will erect just about anything in Victoria Square if they’re told it will ultimately reflect well upon them – and it’s photography display where such beauteous images as that of the Tylesley Incinerator have been captured for our pleasure and perusal, it was inevitable other local councils would follow suit.

In Wolverhampton the theme is “Kick the CO2 habit”, and you can go there to learn how to cut down on your carbon footprint, as though we aren’t persistently barraged with this sort of information from every possible direction as it is. And then there’s the “freebies” of course. Are you eligible for free home insulation? Would you like a light-bulb, a sapling or a Fair Trade eco-product? Or would you just like the council to stop taking so much of your money so that you can purchase any one of these things yourself, should you want to?

Perhaps most intriguing is this that one stand promises to show you “how you can cut your carbon emissions by using public transport, cycling or walking”. Now unless the attendees of this event have just arrived from the moon, presumably they are aware that every effort is being made to encourage – some might say coerce – people out of their cars for environmental reasons, in which case, what is this information? Are they proposing to advise people on how to walk or ride a bike or catch a bus? The mind boggles…

Incinerator Unlike the people of Birmingham however, it’s unlikely that residents in Wolverhampton have had to contend with the hideous fluorescent pink blobs, each with it’s own corny and patronising slogan, that have been dotted about the larger city. Similar to Wolverhampton’s stand that teaches you how not to drive a car, one blob by the library asks “Have you ever seen a people jam?” to which one sceptic graffited a small list (somewhat distastefully) including WW2 air raid shelters, Mecca and Hillsborough…

The chattering screens around the city centre provide a distraction from the tumbleweed that blows through the rest of the exhibits, all of which seem to pack up long before anyone with a job might have chance to go along and see them. For some reason there’s a rather old looking helter-skelter in Centenary Square, and next to that, a double-glazing sales trailer. It all looks pretty paltry, and yet the slick website to accompany it serves as an indicator of just how much this has cost. That and the fact there are no less than four council security staff guarding the ugly pylon 24 hours a day.

And what are the palpable benefits? Just how do we measure the success of such an event? Will be ever know if the residents of Wolverhampton or Birmingham become any greener for their free saplings and helter skelter? Of course not.

Blob2  No-one is saying that environmental concerns should be dismissed, but the money that has been pumped into these events could no doubt have gone towards the same cause and been put to much more practical use.

At least Wolverhampton’s token event only lasted a day, Birmingham’s run is from 31st May – 8th June, and has been problematic from the start, coming under fire after they wrongly claimed they were hosting the world’s first Climate Change Festival.

Too long, too costly and typifying Birmingham’s obsession with having a ‘first’ or a ‘quirk’ to brag about in their self-congratulatory publications (wasn’t it going to be the world’s first technology festival at one point?), after nine days of ‘modelling our image of Birmingham’s future in clay’, leaving our messages on video in the ‘Green Diary Room’ and ‘pledging’ to cut our carbon footprint, we can only really wonder just how we’re any better off?

Jun 2008 05

The Guardian reports that more parents now aspire for their children to go to university:

"The proportion of parents who would send their children to a private school if they could afford it has increased by nine percentage points in the past four years, according to research commissioned by independent schools. The proportion of Labour voters who would consider private education has also increased by 13 points, the study suggests.

Parents are worried about standards and discipline in state schools, private school headteachers claimed. The Independent Schools Council’s head of research said many parents appeared to be seeking a "haven of moral values".

The ISC commissioned Ipsos Mori to conduct a poll of 2,000 people, including 600 parents. Of the parents, 57% said they would send their child to a private school if they could afford it – up from 48% in the last poll in 2004 and 51% overall since 1997. Some 7% of pupils are currently educated in private schools."

As we’ve noted before, most of the big benefits of education at independent schools aren’t dependent upon greater resources but, instead, greater freedom for teachers and choice for parents.

Jun 2008 05

On the back of Stephen Glover’s article in the Daily Mail, Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome has an interesting piece about changing the way our politicians interact with the state. He cites Maude’s Law, which lays down that

good policy is 10% brainwave, 10% idea development and 80% implementation

This is a crucial realisation that deserves publicising to those at the helm of the State. No matter how good your idea is, if you don’t have the requisite tools to implement it, it is likely to be doomed to fail.

In the case of the British State, if you have Ministers overseeing vast departments, directly supervising scores of agencies, quangos and other bodies and individually responsible for a mind-boggling range of responsibilities, of course you will run into problems. The problem is arguably exacerbated by Ministers being moved helter skelter from one department to another without the time to build up sector-specific expertise, but some Ministerial positions are beyond the capabilities of any one human being, no matter how experienced.

This argument does not, of course, excuse the bad policies which are all too common, but if we are ever to get services running properly and save taxpayers’ money we must recognise that the current system is liable to bog down a lot of good ideas, too. The current failure is a mixture of bad ideas foundering on their own lack of merit and good ideas being sabotaged by the fundamentally flawed structure of the public sector.

It’s no good just changing the set of politicians and the set of policies – to get the job done, the state must be properly set up and the practitioners must have the right tools.

Jun 2008 05

Blair I attended Tony Blair’s testimony to the International Development Select Committee this morning. He had come to give a disposition on Gaza as the Quartets representative. I entered the room surrounded by assorted representatives of NGOs such as Oxfam and some self appointed human rights monitors. Not the sort of company I revel in. Eavesdropping on their pre event discussion I became aware that the differences between us were as intractable as the conflict itself.

To Oxfam it appears the problem is Israel’s. They are intransigent. If only they opened the border and recognised Hamas and negotiated with them this would all end. Absent from their discussion was any indication that Hamas attacks and the movements refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist might have something to do with it. I entered the room fearing that Tony Blair may offer this baying mob some meat. He might condemn Israel’s Liberal Democracy for its actions concerning Gaza. Hoping that by playing to the press gallery and assorted great and good he would win support for his role. I was pleasantly surprised.

Throughout, his testimony Tony Blair showed that he was fully aware of the many pressures Israel’s leaders are under and the basic features which need to be present if a lasting peace deal is ever to be concluded. He was strong and resolute in what he believed and gave a vivid account of the situation and thoughtful vision of how both sides could work their way out of the current malaise.

On Israeli security he explained the need to ensure that any peace deal involve Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to security. He outlined the need to build up the Palestinians security capability to ensure that attacks against Israel could be prevented. Some members of the committee needed to be informed that no Israeli administration would sign a deal unless they could be sure that the Palestinian leadership they signed it with were willing and capable of ensuring peace between the two states. Blair stated that Israeli leaders should withdraw from the West Bank but we needed to ensure that if that occurred the militias would not merely move in as with Gaza.

Recognising the need to provide Palestinians with employment Blair revealed how the international aid promised could only be successful if there were peace. Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist and the rockets attacks were noted as impediments to progress. Given their military grip on Gaza he noted that if Hamas wanted to stop the majority of attacks she could do so. Instead Mr Blair pointed out Hamas were acting hypocritically. They were using the humanitarian situation in Gaza to put pressure on Israel but then attacks were conducted on fuel shipments at the checkpoints. In the process 2 innocent Israeli civilians were murdered. These attacks meant Israel could not open the checkpoints and thereby allow in more humanitarian aid. His solution was for Hamas to call a ceasefire. Only then could progress be made.

Blair was asked if he was the man to perform the role of mediator in this conflict. Blair was accused of a pro Israel bias because of his unwillingness to attack Israel for her actions in Lebanon. There was also the little matter of his leading role in the Iraq war. How could the Arabs trust him? Here Blair showed the skill of a consummate political professional. A deal between Israel and Palestine had to involve Israel. In order to seal this deal Palestine needed someone trusted by Israel to conclude it. Thereby being seen as close to America and Israel was no sin to the Palestinian people because they needed just such a person to conclude for them the deal that would end the occupation. This is probably why no Palestinian leader had ever asked him this kind of question. The answer was pitched perfectly. Its delivery impeccable.

The membership of the committee is by no means favourable to Israel. Committee members Mr Stephen Crabb and Mr Marsha Singh asked intelligent insightful questions offering hope that objective analysis is not entirely absent from the proceedings. However, the opinion of the overwhelming majority of members appears to be that Hamas should be engaged in negotiations regardless of whether they cease attacks and recognise Israel’s right to exist. The Committee opposes the position of the Quartet that makes both these conditions necessary before Hamas can enter talks.

Some Committee members insisted on engaging in a fruitless debate as to whether promoting any economic development in the West Bank merely legitimised the occupation. However, Blair brought the debate back on track by rightly pointing out that most Palestinians were more concerned in getting a job than this kind of legalistic approach. Only by providing the Palestinians –many of which are under 25 – with work could a lasting peace be built. Announcing a plan to sponsor Palestinian mortgages Blair in a nice interplay with Marsha Singh informed him it was no longer his role to propose such things for Britain. At this point a broad grin emerged and you could sense Blair was enjoying himself.

As Anthony Blair stated a series of truisms unlikely to impress the NGOs and their spokesmen on the committee I developed a healthy respect for him. On virtually everything else we are in complete disagreement but on this issue Blair seems to get it. He seems comfortable in his role and optimistic as to the chances of achieving a lasting peace. I watched the testimony in a room dubbed the spill over room (the Boothroyd room). This was a powerful response to any delusions of grandeur politicos such as I may have i.e. being a non pass holder I could only view Blair’s performance on a tv screen. As I left I saw Oxfam guy shake his head. I think Blair did well today and we should all wish him well – in this role – in the future. Hopefully he will provide Oxfam with much to tut tut about in future.

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