Conservative Diary
14 Sep 2013 16:04:22

A plastic bag tax will hit the poor and small shops but won't help the environment

By Harry Phibbs
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Today we learn that the Government is to introduce a Plastic Bag Tax.

It will start at 5p a bag. The policy has the political attraction of placating both the Daily Mail and the Liberal Democrats. It is claimed that it will help the environment. It is then added that implementing the change can be done quite smoothly and that the charge proposed is modest.

All these claims seem to me to be flawed. A customer irritated by the charge will not think to himself: "Still, most politically adept of the Government to please the Daily Mail and the Liberal Democrats at the same time so I mustn't grumble."

Will it help the environment?

At best any gains could only be modest. Plastic bags are very thin. They account for less than one per cent of household waste by volume. 80 per cent of plastic bags are reused at least once. Voluntary effort has already resulted in fewer plastic bags being used (halved from 13 billion a year to 6.5 billion a year) and more recycled content in plastic bags for those we do use.

From an aesthetic point of view I prefer paper bags to plastic ones. But paper bags are thicker and less likely to be re-used. Will paper bags be taxed? Will cardboard boxes? Where will the meddling end?

If there is a switch from plastic to paper that would sharply increase the carbon footprint. In research by the Environment Agency it was found that if re-used, (as mostly happens), the plastic bag is better environmentally than the alternatives.

Continue reading "A plastic bag tax will hit the poor and small shops but won't help the environment" »

14 Sep 2013 08:44:41

It's the standard of living, stupid

By Harry Phibbs
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In the 1997 General Election campaign the Conservatives ran a huge advertising campaign with billboards across the country bearing the legend:

Britain is booming. Don't let Labour blow it.

The message was true. The economy was in a very good shape. After a couple of years of prudence Labour did gradually blow it. However, this was not an effective slogan for two reasons.

Firstly, it was boastful. This was particularly ill-judged as many felt that the economic revival had something to do with our exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism - an outcome the Government had been striving to avoid. In any case, for Conservatives particularly, humility is a more fitting message. Government's don't create wealth and jobs. They can avoid getting in the way. Any claiming of credit for success should be seen in these terms.

Continue reading "It's the standard of living, stupid" »

13 Sep 2013 11:34:45

An attack on climate change sceptics by Greg Barker turns out not to be an attack

By Paul Goodman
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Barker GregToday's Guardian reports its own article on energy policy by Greg Barker, which it carries today, as part of a "fightback against sceptics on the right of the party". (The paper presumably includes in that category those who believe that human activity plays a part in climate change, but who would decarbonise more slowly, as well as those who believe it doesn't play any part whatsoever, and wouldn't decarbonise at all.)  And certainly, the Energy Minister is neither a sceptic about climate change nor on the right of the party, if the latter term is simply used to describe critics of David Cameron. Indeed, he was one of the latter's earliest backers during the 2005 leadership election, and is a leading member of Conservatives 2020 - which seeks to keep alive, in Barker's own words, "a strong strain of optimism that ran through the early Cameron message".

Continue reading "An attack on climate change sceptics by Greg Barker turns out not to be an attack" »

13 Sep 2013 07:53:30

Deficit reduction. The EU referendum. Justice for England - top "red lines" for any future Coalition talks

Screen shot 2013-09-12 at 07.28.35
By Paul Goodman
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At the end of the Daily Mail's report of a YouGov poll today, a spokesman for the pollster is quoted as saying: "When we take all factors into account, including the incumbency "bonus" likely to be enjoyed by Conservative MPs newly elected in 2010, Labour and the Conservatives both need around a 7 per cent lead in order to secure an overall majority in 2015". The comment is a reminder that our series this week on what David Cameron's negotiation red lines is timely.

Respondents to our poll have had their say on where those lines should be drawn. Here is mine. It's important to remember what would happen were the Liberal Democrats - or perhaps another minority party - to step over them and refuse to move.  Cameron would have either to back down, or break off the talks.  The consequence could be a Conservative minority government...or a Lab/Lib coalition...or even a Labour minority government. There's no way of knowing.

In the event of Cameron leading the largest party after the 2015 election, it may be that the best course will be for the Conservatives to go it alone.  But in my view, that is not a decision that can be fixed on now.  In such circumstances, a second Coalition could be the best option available to the country and the Party, if the right terms can be agreed.  And that means red lines - not, I believe, lots of little dabs on the pavement, but a few clear markings. My top three would be:

  • The elimination of the structural deficit by 2017 or earlier. It may be that Vince Cable, and the Liberal Democrats as a whole, change their view on the desirability of ending the deficit swiftly: the Business Secretary's New Statesman article earlier this year hinted at such a view. This would destroy the foundation on which the present Coalition was built, and render a second one unworkable from the start - since it would have no agreed economic aim.
  • The holding of an EU In-Out referendum in 2017. The EU's gradual but relentless move towards "ever-closer union" has gradually made a second referendum impossible to avoid - and right.  Furthermore, Conservative MPs would not allow Cameron to back down on the referendum commitment, given the strength of feeling in the Party.  I am less exercised by the details of a renegotiation, since the referendum will give the British people the option of voting to leave.
  • Measures to rebalance the UK's political system. This is essential in both constitutional and political terms. The present settlement is unjust both to England and the Conservatives.  The Liberal Democrats have succeeded in steering reform deep into the long grass during this Parliament.  Were they to do so in a second one, the present Tory electoral disadvantage would stay set in stone - and the 2020 election would be looming into view, with little prospect of the majority that has eluded us for over 20 years.

12 Sep 2013 13:21:39

The NHS has a higher death rate than most Western health systems - it requires bravery to set that right

By Mark Wallace
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New analysis by Professor Brian Jarman, the respected expert on comparing the performance of hospitals, has revealed some shocking home truths for our healthcare system.

Jarman's figures - compiled using 2004 data as the more recent numbers are not yet available - suggests that the death rate in English hospitals was 22.5 per cent higher than the average performance in six Western nations, and 45 per cent higher than America.

We're all aware of the Mid Staffs scandal, which Prof Jarman helped to expose, and the suggestions that some other NHS Trusts may have similar problems, but this report suggests our concern should be much broader. I've written before about the need for more fury when the NHS fails patients - that is certainly the case, as large numbers of patients are dying who would not do so if our health service performed even at the average level.

The political environment always makes it hard to talk about the NHS. The Opposition will jump on any perceived criticism, and the polls show voters' strong support for the service. 

But if politicians wanted an easy life, they should have chosen a different job. As a matter quite literally of life and death, this issue is too important to allow Westminster taboos to shut down discussion. Those who truly care about the NHS should also support scrutiny and reform to improve it.

Continue reading "The NHS has a higher death rate than most Western health systems - it requires bravery to set that right" »

12 Sep 2013 07:54:22

On tax, raising the stamp duty threshold tops our "red lines" poll and restoring the 10p tax band comes last

Screen shot 2013-09-12 at 07.28.35
By Paul Goodman

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I wrote yesterday that it is perhaps surprising not to see the economy or tax in the top five issues raised by respondents to our "red lines" poll.  It's therefore necessary to say today that an economic issue came in sixth.  On a scale of one to ten, in which one represents "very negotiable" and ten "non-negotiable", the statement "the structural deficit should be eliminated by 2017/2018, if not sooner" scored a eight - coming in only a fraction behind those top five issues - an In/Out EU referendum and renegotation; the reduction and equalisation of constituencies; keeping or lowering the benefits cap; keeping or lowering the immigration cap and pressing ahead with the development of shale gas.

Here are the remaining scores of economy and tax-related issues:

  • Stamp duty threshold should be raised to £250,000 or higher - 7
  • The inheritance tax threshold should be raised to £1 million or higher - 7
  • Tax allowances should be fully transferable between married couples - 7
  • Cut the 45p tax rate, raise the threshold or both - 6
  • Cut the 20p tax rate, raise the threshold or both - 6
  • Cut the 40p tax rate, raise the threshold or both - 6
  • A 10p income tax rate should be introduced - 5

There are in some cases only marginal differences between the scores, so it follows that not too much should be read into them.  However, it's worth noting that the proposal for the restoration of the 10p income tax band, supported on this site by Robert Halfon and opposed by Andrew Lilico comes in bottom of this list.

11 Sep 2013 14:38:52

Nigel Evans thanks his friends and colleagues for their "unstinting support"

By Andrew Gimson
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Nothing during Prime Minister’s questions was as striking as the personal statement made by Nigel Evans (Con, Ribble Valley) immediately afterwards. Mr Evans has just stepped down as deputy speaker while he robustly defends himself against charges which include sexual assault and rape.

One might have expected that he would make a very brief statement, no more than a sentence or two, saying he had stepped down from the deputy speakership in order to concentrate on clearing his name. But Mr Evans instead took the chance to offer his heartfelt thanks to many friends and colleagues, including the Speaker, John Bercow, “for their unstinting support”.

Mr Evans said he found himself in “the land of limbo”, but also quoted Winston Churchill’s words, “when you’re going through hell keep going”, and described this as “sage advice”.

Mr Bercow responded by praising the “exemplary service” given by Mr Evans. In earlier times it seems likely that the greater part of these cordial exchanges, made to a packed House, would have been saved for after the legal proceedings were over. Many observers did not know quite what to make of it all, but perhaps that is always the case during a period of modernisation.

Prime Minister’s questions offered no such innovation. Mr Cameron did, however, employ a wider range of tone about Ed Miliband than has recently been the case. The Prime Minister actually thanked the Labour leader for welcoming the fall in the unemployment figures.

Continue reading "Nigel Evans thanks his friends and colleagues for their "unstinting support"" »

11 Sep 2013 10:59:18

The same refrain from the employment statistics: good topline figures, but problems persist in the detail

By Mark Wallace
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The ONS' Labour Market Statistics paint a familiar picture today:

  • Employment is up, both in terms of the headcount (29.84 million, up 80,000 on the previous quarter and up 275,000 from a year ago) and as a percentage (71.6 per cent, up 0.2 percentage points on the previous quarter and 0.4 percentage points from a year ago)
  • Unemployment is down, in terms of the headcount (2.49 million, down 24,000 on the previous quarter and 105,000 over the year) and as a percentage (7.7 per cent, down 0.1 percentage on the quarter and 0.4 percentage points on the year). This means we have crept a little closer to the 7 per cent boundary at which Mark Carney will consider raising interest rates
  • The number of people who are economically inactive is also down on both counts (22.3 per cent, down 0.1 percentage points on the quarter and 0.2 percentage points on the year; 8.96 million people in total , down 33,000 on the quarter and 52,000 from a year ago)

The latter statistic is particularly interesting - this represents people of working age who are for one reason or another not seeking work, or not able to work. As such, it includes carers, students, the disabled and so on, who for obvious reasons often find it difficult to move into the workforce. A reduction in these figures without a rise in unemployment is a positive sign both economically and socially.

There are still problems, though.

Youth unemployment rose on the previous quarter by 9,000. The picture is slightly confusing - as Lottie Dexter from the Million Jobs campaign points out, that is a 9,000 rise from 951,000 in February-April 2013 to 960,000 in May-July 2013, but we also know from last month's release that the figure for April-June 2013 was 973,000. Therefore while things got worse in April-June, there is some sign they improved in July.

In practice, this means there is a fluctuation around the 950,000 - 970,000 mark, bumping up and down. Whichever way you look at it, that is too high. 

There are other issues - for example, while the economy's flexibility cushioned the impact of the recession by allowing people to become part-time rather than pitching them into outright unemployment, we have yet to see that phenomenon reversed. The proportion of workers in part-time unemployment who would like to have a full-time job is just about static:

As I said last month, now the overall employment figures are improving, more focus is needed on those at risk of being left behind.

11 Sep 2013 06:06:00

Fewer and equal seats. The benefits and immigration cap. And shale gas. High priorities from Tory members for any Coalition talks

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 05.47.58
By Paul Goodman
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I reported yesterday that the top "red line" for Conservative Party members for any coalition negotiations with the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 election is holding the In/Out EU referendum in 2017 - after the promised renegotiation.

If these commitments are treated as one, the next four red lines in our members' poll came in as follows. On a scale of one to ten, with one representing "very negotiable" and ten representing "non negotiable", all came in at eight, with very marginal differences beween them, as follows:

  • The number of constituencies should be reduced and their size equalised.
  • The benefits cap should be maintained or lowered.
  • The immigration cap should be maintained or lowered.
  • Press ahead with the development of shale gas as swiftly as possible.

I am not at all sure that the reduction and equalisation of seats will be in the Tory manifesto, given events in this Parliament, but the priority which members give to the move reflects their frustration and anger with how the Liberal Democrats behaved.

The benefits and immigration caps are popular with members as well as voters, and their ranking reflects that.  There is unabashed enthusiasm for shale.  It's perhaps surprising not to see the economy or tax in the top five issues.  We will turn to them tomorrow.

10 Sep 2013 16:59:06

The BBC reports "softening attitudes on benefits" - but the polling numbers say the opposite

By Mark Wallace
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Yesterday I looked at new polling suggesting the young are more radical than their elders when it comes to the welfare state. Today, the British Social Attitudes survey has been released (play with the interactive data charts here), an annual orgy of data for those interested in such things.

To read the BBC, you'd think it was full of bad news for Conservatives. "British Social Attitudes Report finds softening attitudes to benefits", yells the headline

As is so often the case, though, it's the still, small voice that holds the truth and the headline that holds the wishful thinking. The data, and the trends over time in particular, don't show a "softening" - if anything, they show the opposite.

For example, here is a graph showing two of the BSA's findings on welfare over the last thirty years. The grey line is those who think "the Government should spend more on welfare", while the black line is those who think "most benefit recipients don't deserve help""

Welfare 2
The two trends are quite clear - despite "spend more on welfare" carrying the approval of fashionable opinion and "most benefit recipients don't deserve help" carrying some social stigma.

If that isn't enough to convince you, check this next graph out. Here we have a comparison between the percentage who agree "unemployment benefits are too low" (the purple line) and the percentage who agree that "if welfare was less generous people would stand on their own two feet" (the red line):

Welfare 1
The BBC don't report any false numbers, but they are highly selective.

For example, they report a fall (to 51 per cent) in those who think benefits are too high - but neglect to mention that those who think benefits are too low are in a small minority of 22 per cent. The proportion who think they are neither, ie that the level is about right, is 17 per cent - the highest rate in a decade. 

The public are still on Iain Duncan Smith's side when it comes to welfare - no matter how much his critics might wish otherwise.