Monthly Archives: December 2010

Jim Pickard

The announcement has just gone out about the business leaders who will now sit on Whitehall boards. Lord Browne, former head of BP, was responsible for reeling in several big names including Andrew Witty of GlaxoSmithKline, Barbara Stocking of Oxfam and Sam Laidlaw of Centrica. Curiously there are gaps in the DWP and Defence where no appropriate candidate could be found.

A full list of appointed Non-Executive Board Members isRead more

Jim Pickard

Eric Pickles has claimed that councils can make huge savings – enough to counteract the impact of imminent cuts – by administrative changes such as cutting pay and merging departments.

Indeed there are numerous examples of council waste or extravagent spending. BBC London is reporting today that Newham Council (now laying off dozens of staff) spent £111m on buying and refurbishing its head office. Read more

Jim Pickard

The National Audit Office has just published a far from positive report about MPs’ expenses for 2009/10. The Whitehall spending watchdog examined £98.1 million on the reimbursement of costs incurred by members during the period.

It found there was: Read more

Jim Pickard

As I had predicted, the coalition yesterday lost a minor vote on the chief coroner but won an easy victory over tuition fees. I watched the debate from the press gallery in the Lords, which was more packed than usual.

There were some robust defences of the policy from coalition peers, including Lord (Paddy) Ashdown, who argued: “We do not complain when young people have to take out a mortgage debt of £150,000 or £200,000 to buy their house. This is not like a credit card debt; it is much more like a mortgage.” Read more

Jim Pickard

My colleague Fiona Harvey revealed in October that plans for a green investment bank could be watered down under pressure from the Treasury.

A commission set up by George Osborne to look at the issue – led by Bob Wigley, the former European head of Merrill Lynch – had called for the bank to have powers to raise finance from the private sector, for instance by issuing bonds, green Isas, raising loans and other measures. But this was opposed by Treasury officials, according to Fiona:

They would prefer the bank to operate as a simpler fund, dispensing grants and loans in conjunction with the private sector but without the powers to generate its own self-sustaining financing mechanisms.

And in today’s Guardian Chris Huhne confirms that the bank will start life in the more limited form.

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Jim Pickard

One Labour figure suggested my Monday blog on Ed Miliband was rather “snippy”* for suggesting that Ed Miliband was not doing brilliantly in the polls. No doubt he will not take kindly to me pointing out that Ipsos Mori has more bad news this morning.

The poll for the Guardian suggests that: Read more

Jim Pickard

Most of the media attention on Monday – at the publication of the British Social Attitudes Survey – was on a hardening of sentiment towards benefits, as the FT reported yesterday. The British public are less keen on generous social security payments than at any time in the last three decades.

But as Left Foot Forward points out, the survey does not show an overwhelming drift to the right in all respects. When it comes to pay differentials the public believe that top directors and public sector officials are paid too much. Read more

Jim Pickard

It seems as if the tension may be getting to some Liberal Democrats. I just called Lady Sharp, who is – it transpires – the party’s higher education spokeswoman in the House of Lords. Sharp is quoted in this morning’s Guardian prevaricating over tonight’s tuition fees vote. (“She pointed out that, even on official calculations, £2.7bn of the £10bn due to be lent annually to students will not be repaid.”)

With only a few hours to go before the peers’ voting, the peer still claims to be undecided: “I’m going to make up my mind during the debate,” she told me before hanging up the phone.

Jim Pickard

The 60-year old cabinet veteran Alan Johnson has insisted that he is sticking around for the long-term, despite signals that he is not exactly bonding with Ed Miliband. Their disagreement over the graduate tax and the 50p income tax band are the most visible signs of tension. They are also spending less time together than you might expect. As the FT reported a few weeks ago:

Mr Johnson and Mr Miliband have been allocated the same offices in Westminster’s Norman Shaw buildings once occupied by Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne before the election. But the shadow chancellor spends most of his time in his old office in a separate building. Read more

Jim has reported on the cool response from ministers to Sir Gus O’Donnell’s unsolicited paper on contingency measures if the economy takes a turn for the worse.

But O’Donnell is not the only Whitehall knight taking a hit today from MPs.

Sir Bill Jeffrey, who was until recently Britain’s most senior defence official, has also been ticked off over his handling of the aircraft carrier decision.

The Public Accounts Committee takes the highly unusual step of criticising him by name for failing to request a “letter of instruction” from his minister before signing the “unaffordable” aircraft carrier contract.

They conclude he did not “discharge his responsibility” as accounting officer. In plain language, it means he failed in his duty to protect value for money. Read more

Jim Pickard

I provided a link earlier today to Philip Stephens’ scoop on the Sir Gus O’Donnell memo asking for potential stimulus measures to have on standby if the economy deteriorates.

At this morning’s Downing Street press conference there was a hint that the memo had not gone down very well with senior cabinet ministers: Read more

Jim Pickard

I’m told there is a strong chance of the coalition losing a vote this afternoon in the House of Lords. Not on tuition fees, which will be debated in the evening.

Instead a cross-bench peer, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, has proposed an amendment to stop the coalition scrapping the post of chief coroner in its Public Bodies Bill (otherwise known as the bonfire of the quangos). Labour have a three-line whip on its peers to back Finlay, who also has the sympathy of many other cross-benchers. Read more

Jim Pickard

Philip Stephens, the FT’s chief political commentator, reveals in his column this morning that a confidential paper is circulating in Downing Street suggesting that the government should consider in advance “if not a fully worked up Plan B then at least a series of possible stimulus measures that could be implemented were the economy to stall“. The paper is written by the cabinet secretary.

Here is a link to the column, which lays out some of Sir Gus’s suggestions to ministers.

Jim Pickard

It turns out today that cuts to local government “spending power” will only be 4.4 per cent on average next year across Britain’s councils. So says Eric Pickles and his DCLG department. This sounds great compared to the figure floating around recently about a 10 per cent cut for the same period.

Except this is looking at apples and pears.  Read more

Jim Pickard

It was a relief to Ed Miliband that his defeated elder brother took a step back from frontline politics after losing the Labour leadership race in September. But David Miliband has remained, like Banquo at the feast, a visible presence on the backbenches from where he could – at some theoretical later date – still return to wreak revenge.

A survey in yesterday’s Sunday Times makes troubling reading for Ed. It suggests that 12 per cent of the public think Ed would be the better Labour leader, far below the 37 per cent for David. That is a very similar finding to surveys published during the summer.

Meanwhile pollsters found that 40 per cent of the public do not rate Ed Miliband’s leadership skills, compared to 27 per cent who do.

Back then Ed’s allies shrugged off those polls. Within a few months, they argued, people would have seen Ed in action and would have warmed to him. (David’s position as foreign secretary had given him a higher profile).

That shift in public opinion does not seem to have happened, however, although Labour as a party is now consistently ahead in the polls. The unknown unknown is where Labour would be polling if it had a more charismatic and decisive leader.

David is keeping his powder dry in terms of any remaining Labour ambitions. This morning he was quoted in his local newspaper saying:

“I’ve got to admit I wish the leadership campaign had gone differently, but who knows what will happen in the future?…I think Ed’s done well. It’s a very difficult job being the leader of the

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Jim Pickard

The story broke earlier today that Andy Coulson, head of press at 10 Downing Street, would not face prosecution over allegations that he was aware of phone hacking by staff when he was editor of the News of the World. For those who are interested, here is the statement from the Director of Public Prosecutions. (Curiously it is not on the Crown Prosecution Service website but rather on the CPS ‘blog’.)

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, said today:

“In September 2010 the New York Times published allegations that phone hacking at the News of the World newspaper was more widespread and more widely known than was outlined at the 2007 prosecution of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire.

“This prompted a number of associated reports and wide media coverage and speculation.

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Jim Pickard

George Osborne told the story at yesterday’s press lunch about how he tried to buy a Treasury Christmas tree for £40 – after learning his predecessor had paid about £900 last year – but became embroiled in a struggle with a PFI contractor.

Here is the relevant memo:

MEMO: HM Treasury Christmas Tree
To: CX Office
Some facts below about the Christmas Tree.
- We normally get our Christmas Tree from Exchequer Partnerships, our building supplier; as part of our PFI deal.
- The catalogue had a choice of “Hollyday”, “Indulgence”, “Enchantment”, “Icicle”, or “Decadence” trees, or bespoke tailor made trees, from £130-875.
- The tree we last year would have cost £875, for a 13 foot tree, which arrives dressed.
- We spoke to EP about whether we couldn’t buy a tree from B&Q for £40 instead of spending £900.
- They were concerned about:
Who would go and choose the tree from B&Q? How would we get the tree into the building from B&Q? Who would dispose of the tree after Christmas, and how would we do this? Wouldn’t we need a van? And a place Read more

Jim Pickard

This is one of those subjects which seems rather dry until the consequences are spelled out in your monthly pay cheque.

Yet the implication of an official document published on Thursday is jaw-dropping.  That is: that many state workers could see their pension contributions more than double in the future.

Lord Hutton’s interim report into public sector pensions has already recommended that pension contributions by state workers should rise in April 2012 by 3 per centage points from their current level (typically between 3 and 11 per cent of pay depending on the job). This is to remedy an imbalance between employee/employer contributions. But will the increase stop there?

With riots outside and conflict in the Commons yesterday was a fantastic day to bury dull but important news. And the Treasury did indeed release its consultation paperon the discount rate used to set unfunded public service pension contributions“. Read more

Jim Pickard

I’m told by Commons’ sources that the six Tory rebels over tuition fees were Andrew Percy, David Davis, Philip Davies, Mark Reckless, Jason McCartney and Julian Lewis. Abstentions came from Tracey Crouch and Lee Scott.

For David Cameron that is a a reasonable show of unity, given that those eight amount to just 2.6 per cent of the 307 Tory MPs. He had tried unsuccessfully to get all of them to abstain.  Read more

A pearl from Gary Gibbon’s blog:

Deputy Leader Simon Hughes is coming in for particular stick from colleagues. “He’s had more positions than the Kama Sutra on this”, one fellow Lib Dem MP said. “He’s not rubber, he’s putty.”**

Very well put. It’s a reminder that most of the refusniks on the Lib Dem side are far from untainted. They may be sticking to their election campaign pledge, but they are breaking their word to abide by the coalition agreement. As one of the “rebels” told me, “we should have done more earlier, we have blood on our hands too”.

Remember that no MP voted against the coalition agreement and only Charlie Kennedy abstained. The Lib Dem special conference, which included some 2,000 delegates, was almost North Korean in its support. No delegate stood up and questioned whether an abstention was enough to protect Lib Dem honour on tuition fees. And no more than a dozen activists actually voted against the full deal.

These arguments aren’t really washing with the rebel MPs though. The mood on the Lib Dem backbenches is to vote no rather than abstain. As Gibbon notes, they can all do the maths and see that the proposals will almost certainly go through. And who would want to explain to voters the reasons for them sitting on the fence?

One additional problem for Clegg is that the whips have lost some of their best arguments. With all the ministers backing Clegg, they can’t even dangle the prospect of a promotion in front of backbenchers who stay loyal. Read more