This has been a fractious year for the coalition, during which Nick Clegg's evident discomfort with his Conservative colleagues has gradually developed into full-blown resistance. His extraordinary face-pulling and muttering during the Autumn Statement, at the point when George Osborne dismissed the case for a mansion tax, showed that the Deputy Prime Minister no longer considered himself bound by collective responsibility. So it was no surprise this week when Mr Clegg announced his new approach to governing in coalition, in which he wants to see the Liberal Democrats openly differentiate themselves from the Conservatives.
His reckoning seems to be that, with a wipe-out at the polls looming for his party, he will risk breaking the rules of coalition if it's the only way to retain his party's identity. The obvious danger, of course, is that it simply brings forward the date of electoral meltdown. It's hard to believe that the new differentiation will garner enough votes to save the Liberal Democrats from oblivion. But it plainly gives official sanction to a policy of non-cooperation for the remainder of the coalition's period in government. If the House of Lords/boundary changes tit-for-tat debacle marked the end of the beginning of the coalition, then this speech surely represents the beginning of the end.
Leicester MP Keith Vaz has called for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Jacintha Saldanha. Mr Vaz is not the family's MP and it's not entirely clear why he is acting as their spokesman at this difficult time. I hope they did not want to grieve in peace, because Mr Vaz's intervention, his decision to be photographed embracing the bereaved husband and son, and his TV statements about their distress, have left them little choice but to share their grief with the public.
Until this tragedy propelled them into the limelight, Jacintha Saldanha's family is unlikely to have had any experience of the mass media. Whatever their reservations about exposing their distress to the public gaze, they will presumably have placed their trust in Mr Vaz as an experienced public figure and savvy media operator. Perhaps he has advised them that the best way to obtain a full picture of the events preceding the death is to generate as much publicity as possible, thereby applying pressure on the King Edward VII Hospital.
“Anybody who is against this bill is putting politics before people’s lives.” So Theresa May informed readers of the Sun on Monday, as she defended the extension of surveillance powers contained in the Communications Data Bill. Her comments appeared alongside photos of murdered policewomen Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, the tabloid portraying the Home Secretary as a champion of our police force and of the victims of crime.
The Bill is back in the news because the Joint Committee tasked with reviewing its contents is due to report shortly, and the Intelligence and Security Committee is also expected to give its verdict. Mrs May's combative remarks suggest that she relishes the fight with the Liberal Democrats that these reports will inevitably unleash. Defending the powers in the Bill, the Home Secretary said that anyone opposing it would be siding with “criminals, terrorists and paedophiles.”
Well, I'm not a big fan of Nick Clegg but I'd hesitate to describe him as the paedo's friend; Mrs May must feel very sure of her ground. Using flesh-creeping language reminiscent of the former Metropolitan police chief, Sir Ian Blair, when he persuaded the last Labour government to introduce wider surveillance powers and 42-day detention, she declared that “people who say they’re against this bill need to look victims of serious crime, terrorism and child sex offences in the eye and tell them why they’re not prepared to give the police the powers they need to protect the public.”
Yesterday we learnt that the coalition's back-to-work programme has missed its own, rather modest, target. Fewer than 1 in 20 of the unemployed individuals put on the Work Programme in 2011 have taken up jobs lasting more than 6 months. The programme may be cheaper to administer than its predecessor, Labour's Future Jobs fund, but is it doing any good at all?
According to the Government's own analysis, the mere 3.5% of participants who got work lasting at least 6 months represents a smaller percentage than those who would have found work without any help. The Government's target for this stage of the scheme was to have a minimum of 5.5% of participants in lasting employment, a goal that the DWP was quite confident of fulfilling.
The programme has cost £435 million so far, and the government is struggling to argue that the money has been well spent. Welfare minister Mark Hoban says that participation in the scheme is getting thousands of long term and young unemployed into the habit of work, and that the double-dip recession, not anticipated at the time the scheme was devised, is largely to blame for the poor results. But this is all a far cry from the rhetoric of 2010, when the government seemed entirely confident that a payment-by-results approach would finally crack the problem of the long-term unemployed.
In his speech to the CBI on Monday, David Cameron made an important admission: the coalition has been ineffective in cutting the red tape that is limiting economic growth. And what has been preventing the government from getting rid of costly, bureaucratic regulation? Er...government bureaucracy.
“You know the story” he said. “The Minister stands on a platform like this and announces a plan. Then that plan goes through a three month consultation period. There are impact assessments along the way and probably some judicial reviews to clog things up further. By the time the machinery of government has finally wheezed into action, the moment’s probably passed.”
Too right. We're all growing tired of hearing politicians make speeches that lead to nothing. So we should be thankful that, finally, the Prime Minister has declared a state of emergency, putting the British economy on a war footing. This has enabled him to announce the end of one of the most expensive and time-consuming pieces of bureaucracy recently passed into law: the requirement for every government department, every local authority, NHS trust, education, police or fire authority, and indeed every other public body, to carry out regular and repeated Equality Impact Assessments (EqIAs).
Let us not dwell on the uncomfortable fact that this government supported the 2010 Equalities Act, giving rise to this duty; we must be thankful that Mr Cameron has now seen the light. As he explained on Monday: “in government, we have taken the letter of this law and gone way beyond it, with Equality Impact Assessments for every decision we make.” He stressed his commitment to equal treatment but explained, very reasonably, that “caring about these things does not have to mean churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense.
Remember the “database state”? Before the last election, freedom lovers in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties were highly critical of Labour's propensity to collect personal information about every citizen. The Labour government believed that building vast databases would enable the state not just to fight crime but also to monitor our use of public services, enabling government to allocate resources more efficiently. Billions were spent in pursuit of these objectives, despite increasing evidence of the risks to privacy through careless handling of the supposedly secure data, and despite the expensive failure of several high-profile projects (such as the NHS central information system and the National Offender Management system).
In opposition, Conservatives promised to limit the use of such data, improve security and, in some cases, to cancel databases altogether. This was an agenda around which the two coalition parties could happily concur. In practice, it has has proved rather more difficult to achieve. Labour's project to put every child in England and Wales on a database, called Contactpoint, was cancelled by Tim Loughton, then Children's Minister, in 2010. Mr Loughton took the view that logging information about 11 million children would hinder, rather than help, the prevention of child abuse.
Politicians are always telling us how much we love the NHS, and how we should value the nurses and doctors who work in it. But the institution we are all supposed to revere has come in for some bad press lately. This week a Commission on nurse training, chaired by the former Liberal Democrat MP Lord Willis of Knaresborough, reported that thousands of untrained and inexperienced “healthcare assistants” are carrying out tasks that should be in the hands of trained nurses, and this is putting patients at risk.
The Willis Commission was set up earlier this year by the Royal College of Nursing, to respond to public concerns about falling standards of hospital care and to examine the present system of nurse training. Its conclusions strongly favour the current system of graduate entry to the profession and ascribe most of the deficiencies in care to the fact that patient contact is no longer the province of nurses but of untrained staff. According to evidence submitted to the Commission, for every four registered nurses the NHS employs six unqualified assistants. Frighteningly, these auxiliary workers are often unsupervised and can, for example, be left to carry out jobs in the community that were once the prerogative of a District Nurse. Patients and their relatives are unable to distinguish between these assistants and registered nurses, and may rely on care and advice they are not qualified to provide.
“Excruciatingly difficult” is how Nick Clegg describes the new tax charge intended to recoup child benefit payments from households in which someone earns more than £50,000 a year. This week HMRC is sending out one million letters as the first step in its quest to find those households and recover all or part of their child benefit. Each day brings a new headline warning of the difficulties in implementing this controversial policy; yesterday the Daily Telegraph's front page said it could be illegal under European law. The fact that many journalists will be affected by the new charge means the headlines will continue to run. The Institute for Chartered Accountants, having repeatedly warned that the system will be unworkable, is predicting chaos at HMRC.
A quick run through the details shows why that prediction is likely to be realised. Around 500,000 people currently taxed under PAYE will have to start filling in self-assessment forms. Two main problems then ensue, which might be summarised as income fluidity and family fluidity. For those with earnings close to the £50,000 threshold, several decisions must be faced: such as whether to avoid the charge by making pension payments, postponing a bonus, or refusing a pay increase.
Isn't it time we started trusting our MPs a little more? Last week the Telegraph reopened its expenses war on politicians by revealing that some of them use their second home allowances to rent flats from other MPs. Its columnist Matthew Norman described this as a taxpayer-funded wealth creation scheme and suggested MPs should live in barracks instead. Matthew Sinclair of the TaxPayers' Alliance, always on hand to give our elected representatives a kicking, thinks that MPs who buy first class train tickets in advance, for less than the price of an open standard ticket, should instead be looking for cheaper second-class deals. I'm all for cutting wasteful public spending but I think Sinclair has the wrong target here. He should concentrate his fire on the expenses lifestyle of our vastly overpaid MEPs, whose gravy train makes Westminster expenses look like a bargain.
On most long-distance UK train routes, second class carriages are so crowded and noisy that it's very difficult to get any work done. In fact on some trains you can barely get your laptop open, the space between the seats is so tight. I long ago gave up trying to do anything more demanding on a train than read a good book. But then I don't have a constituency to visit every weekend. I certainly don't begrudge MPs the price of a first class ticket to get to their constituencies, since I think it very likely that they will be usefully employed for most of the journey. Do the above-mentioned indignant Matthews think our elected representatives are lounging amidst the starched white linen of a first-class dining care, clicking their fingers at the wine waiter or taking a post-prandial snooze? Travelling first class is not about glamour or status any more, it's just a kind of mobile office.
Nor do I think we should work ourselves up into a lather of righteous indignation about MPs' London rental arrangements. Those with constituencies outside London are expected to maintain two homes, in order to accomplish both their parliamentary duties and their constituency obligations. As long as an MP claims expenses for only one of those homes, I don't see why it should concern taxpayers if he or she is renting a property to - or from - another MP. Speaker John Bercow is right to resist the publication of such information: what business of ours can it possibly be? In any case, what could be more sensible than to rent a flat from someone you know?
Childcare Minister Liz Truss is right to point out that the last Labour government spent far too much money on childcare subsidies. As she explains, the distribution of these subsidies, combined with a huge increase in bureaucracy and regulation, skewed the childcare market and reduced parental choice. But the solutions Miss Truss proposes, drawing on a new report by the left-leaning think-tank IPPR, appear to be based on a narrow set of assumptions propagated during the Labour years, from which the coalition badly needs to break free.
The first and most damaging of those assumptions is the belief that non-parental childcare is in the interests of the child. The priority for any formulation of childcare policy should instead be: will this be good for children's wellbeing? Sadly, this question is very rarely asked. The growing child is simply viewed as an impediment to work. Yet giving birth to a child, or becoming a father, and nurturing a new life, is the most important project any human can undertake, and should be the most life-changing. The child's need for attachment, protection, love and understanding will drive out mundane concerns, and rightly so. Looking after a baby or infant should therefore be seen as the highest human activity, not a task to be delegated to others as quickly as possible.
When the Tory faithful last met in Birmingham, two years ago, an audacious announcement by George Osborne on breakfast TV dominated the headlines. In a bid to show that the middle classes would share the pain of a fiscal squeeze, the Chancellor declared that any family with a 40% taxpayer would cease to receive child benefit. The sting in the tail of this particular cut was that it would spare many comfortably off dual-earner households whilst penalising families with just one breadwinner. Coming from a party that once promised to introduce transferable tax allowances and remove the “marriage penalty”, this was a startling turn of events.
Amid the resulting furore, the Treasury agreed to lift slightly the threshold for the child benefit withdrawal, but the one-earner penalty remains. As the policy comes into effect this tax year, all taxpayers earning £50,000 or more must be quizzed on their family circumstances, to find out if they are living with someone in receipt of child benefit, which will then be clawed back through a new tax charge. This is fraught with problems, particularly in cases where families break up or new relationships are formed. All couples living together with children will be obliged to disclose their financial affairs to each other, and the tax system will take on complexities and hidden penalties formerly confined to the welfare system. One thing is clear: married couples will be first in line to suffer the clawback, because their relationship is on the record. Just as in the welfare system, looser forms of relationship will be much more difficult to define and capture.
How did a supposedly pro-family Conservative party find itself advocating a new form of marriage penalty? We have come a long way since David Cameron put marriage at the top of his personal policy agenda. And it's too easy to blame the constraints of coalition government for the failure to assert a distinctive family policy as part of the Conservative worldview. Conservatives in government have simply failed to identify and promote this building block of the strong society.
With inflation still outstripping wage rises, this is not the easiest time for a government to get more workers saving for their old age. But the impetus behind the coalition's new auto-enrolment pension system is right, and pensions minister Steve Webb is justified in his warning that, unless savings habits change, many people face a nasty surprise in later years when their income falls well below their expectations.
The new system is by no means perfect, and when it is rolled out to include all small businesses it will create some unwelcome extra paperwork. But I'm still inclined to support it. With fewer than half of all workers currently saving for retirement, it seems to me that auto-enrolment is the only way to create the culture change necessary to get us all to finance our old age.
There are plenty of question marks still hanging over the scheme. For example, if low-income workers save just enough pension income to deprive them of means-tested pension credits, they will justifiably feel resentful. The coalition's plan to replace pension tax credits, with a flat rate universal pension of around £140 a week, should ensure that this doesn't happen. But it's not yet a firm pledge. In any case, some form of means-testing is bound to persist; the reality is that those who set money aside for their own future risk making themselves less eligible for state support.
Michael Gove is widely regarded as a radical reformer. Until now, he has brilliantly combined radicalism with reassurance. But the introduction of the English baccalaureate could upset this skilful balance. Tim Montgomerie has characterised this latest reform as an instance of successful Tory-LibDem co-operation. But I'm worried that the E-bac marks the moment when the curse of Clegg starts to infect a department that has, so far, escaped the dead hand of coalition.
Instead of tempering Mr Gove's radicalism with pragmatism and common sense, LibDem intervention in this policy has undermined its credibility. The new examination cannot be both academically demanding and suitable for all teenagers. It also looks foolish to dismantle GCSEs without providing a complete replacement, and to run some subjects under a new brand whilst allowing the rest to muddle along as (now discredited) GCSEs.
After a slightly wobbly start in the summer of 2010, the Education Secretary has until now shown a firm grip of his Department and displayed complete fluency when defending his reforms, both in the House of Commons and to the media. It's been clear from his list of achievements that he is determined to use every moment in power to improve education standards in this country: turning half of all secondary schools into academies, opening 79 free schools, toughening up the OFSTED inspection regime, making A-levels more rigorous, insisting that children must be taught to read by proven methods, demanding a return to elitism in higher education.
What impeccable timing. As the Public Accounts Committee reveals that less than 5% of the £1.4 billion given by the Coalition to its Regional Growth Fund has actually reached employers, Vince Cable takes to the stage to offer "intervention and partnership" for struggling industries. In defiance of the lessons of history, and in the face of this most recent evidence of government's inability to create jobs and prosperity, the Business Secretary continues to indulge in statist rhetoric. In his speech yesterday, Mr Cable characterised non-intervention as "complacent". But the real complacency lies in the belief that industry can survive the ever-increasing burden of both tax and regulation on energy and employment, pushing up costs and expanding unproductive back office activity.
The forms of "intervention" sorely needed by industry and business of all kinds are cuts in both energy and payroll taxes, and swift reductions in environmental and employment regulations. Mr Cable's rhetoric aside, there are a few glimmers this week of reality breaking through. Replacing the current health and safety regime with a more common-sense approach will be especially popular with small businesses. BIS is also, we are told, about to unveil a package of employment law reform.
Did Theresa May have to fight to keep her job in the reshuffle? In an awkward interview on last night's PM programme, the Home Secretary was asked if the Prime Minister had offered her another role; sounding rather flustered, she declined to give a straight answer. Mrs May was the most senior member of the Government giving interviews throughout the day; until hearing her on PM I had assumed she had been chosen to deflect the inevitable criticism that this was not a “women-friendly” reshuffle. The possibility that she had come close to being dropped as Home Secretary threw an intriguing new light on the subject. As a vociferous advocate of more women in politics, it seems likely that Mrs May was less than thrilled with some of the Prime Minister's decisions this week. If she had to play the gender card in order to keep her own job, it's no wonder she sounded rather uncomfortable.
In 2008 David Cameron vowed to end the “scandalous under-representation” of women in government. By the end of his first term in office, he said, a third of his ministers would be female. Such a promise seemed to me both unwise and unhelpful. By setting a specific threshold, Mr Cameron risked the wrath of the feminists if he failed to meet it. But the adoption of a quota also looked demeaning to Conservative women, who would prefer to be promoted on merit. A much better course of action would have been to declare that, in contrast to Labour, any women serving in a future Conservative Cabinet would know that they were chosen on the grounds of ability, not tokenism.
As a firm opponent of quotas, therefore, I have no problem with the Prime Minister's decision yesterday to ditch under-performing women from his Cabinet - especially those whose appointment probably owed more to gender than talent in the first place. Cheryl Gillan, Caroline Spelman and Sayeeda Warsi will not be greatly missed. But I do find it slightly surprising that the Prime Minister has chosen to reduce, rather than increase, the proportion of women in his Cabinet, particularly given the number of bright and able women now on the Conservative benches. I'm also rather dismayed by the way in which he has chosen to deploy the talents of the women who remain at the Cabinet table.