Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Gas price hikes

Centrica have just announced a thumping great 35% gas price rise - with more 'in the pipeline'. The rising cost of fuel for households on modest or fixed incomes is becoming a national scandal. With pensions and other benefits tied to the RPI which is currently under 5%, rises of this sort in the cost of key commodities will guarantee falling living standards for some of the most vulnerable people in society.

And what is the Government's response? The winter fuel payment will rise for most pensioners by £50 this winter - but average fuel bills are set to rise by £200. The Government has also done a deal with the fuel companies to spend more on 'social tariffs' - but in many cases the poorest customers are paying the highest prices, especially those on pre-payment meters. The Government's answer is that people should shop around for the best price, but you try doing that if you are on a pre-payment meter, are in payment arrears and don't have access to the internet.

Once upon a time the Government was going to 'abolish' fuel poverty. Now it looks like about a quarter of UK households could be living in fuel poverty within a year or two. This is totally unacceptable, especially when you think how much the fuel companies have made in 'windfall' profits in recent years, notably through being issued with free 'permits to pollute' through the European emissions trading scheme.

The priorities have got to be getting bills down for the most vulnerable households and also making serious inroads on energy efficienc - otherwise people are paying a fortune for hot air that literally goes out through poorly insultated doors, walls, windows and lofts.

Instead of navel-gazing about the direction of the Labour party it is time the Government got serious about one of the most pressing domestic issues of the day.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Plumbing new depths

The Labour Government is not famous for its belief in democractic accountability. But in its plans for regional select committees it has plumbed new depths of cynicism.

The back story is that at the moment each region has a 'regional assembly' - a body comprising mainly councillors from the region (and others with a 'stake') - which has had an important role in things like coming up with a 'spatial strategy' for the region - including small issues like how many houses should be built in each area. The Government has decided that regional assemblies will be abolished. Their role in supporting regional business etc. will transfer to a quango - the regional development agencies - and other regional decisions will be taken in Whitehall. Democratic scrutiny would then pass to MPs from the region, by means of regional select committees.

Leaving aside the fact that the Government thinks having one minister for each region (bet you can't name the 'Minister for the South West'??) is more democratic than a regional body made up of elected councillors, the extraordinary thing is the proposed make-up of the regional select committees. You would assume that the membership of the committees would be MPs from the region, pro rata to the political make-up of the region. But no.

The South West committee will have 10 MPs, of which 6 will be Labour, 3 Tory and 1 Lib Dem. Given that Labour are the third party in the South West in terms of number of MPs, that is pretty extraordinary. Worse still, because quite a number of the SW Labour MPs are already ministers (eg Dawn Primarolo, Ben Bradshaw) or PPSs, they may even have to get Labour MPs in from outside the region to make up the numbers!

Given that every MP from Cornwall is a Lib Dem, and that there are plenty of Lib Dems through the rest of the West, having one Lib Dem to represent the whole area against 6 Labour MPs - who will inevitably have an urban bias - is a scandal.

The only compensation is that by the time these bodies have been set up, it won't be long until an election, after which we can hopefully put in place a more rational and decentalised approach to regional decision-making.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

10p all over again

One of the bizarre features of the row over the abolition of the 10p tax rate was Gordon Brown's initial refusal to admit that anyone at all would be worse off! It was certainly true that there were other budget measures (eg changes to tax credits and winter fuel payments) which meant that the effects of the 10p rate change were mitigated for some people, but it was never remotely true that no-one would be worse off.

Amazingly, we seem to be having a repeat of the same phenomenon over the changes to Vehicle Excise Duty due to come in in 2009. Initially the Treasury seemed to be making out that the losers were modest in number, but now in an unintentionally informative written answer they have admitted that 45% of the drivers on our roads are going to be out of pocket, and not just those who drive 'gas-guzzlers'.

There is a perfectly valid debate to be had about tax reform, and sometimes generally desirable changes do create losers, but the Prime Minister does not foster rational debate when he introduces changes which can leave millions out of pocket but pretends that no-one is going to be any worse off!