Time for an Integrated public transport system

All being well, I am travelling this weekend to Cologne. Unsurprisingly, therefore, I have a airline ticket from Dublin to Cologne. Slightly more surprisingly for those of us in the British Isles, perhaps, is that my flight actually goes from Dublin to Frankfurt. From there, strikes permitting, I will get a train from Frankfurt to Cologne (which, by the way, will cover the distance of Belfast-Dublin in less than an hour) – on the same ticket.

Likewise, I arrived at the superb 24km Oresund Bridge from Malmo to Copenhagen by car a few years ago en route to Hamburg. Immediately at the Bridge I was asked by the attendant for my final destination, and I was handed a ticket to Puttgarden in Germany, including the ferry over from the Danish island of Lolland.

It is an incredibly straightforward thing, yet in Northern Ireland (and I suspect in the UK and Ireland broadly) we cannot even manage it at a local level. For example, if I want to get by public transport from Jordanstown to Groomsport, I have to get one ticket for the train to Bangor, and then another for the bus to Groomsport. As there is no way of knowing how many people on a train arriving in Bangor want to go to Groomsport (or Conlig or wherever), the bus timetable makes no attempt at connecting and the driver will stick to the bus timetable ignoring any trains. It’s ridiculous!

We’ll see how it goes, but if my flight to Frankfurt is delayed, I don’t expect any difficulty with the train – Deutsche Bahn will know not to expect passengers from the Dublin flight on time, so will easily transfer us to a later journey. Yet if my train from Jordanstown to Bangor doesn’t connect with the bus to Groomsport, even if it’s on time, that’s tough luck.

To be clear, Translink doesn’t deserve much of its bad press – it runs a comfortable and punctual service for the most part (although certain bus routes clearly require some work!) and it has made significant advances (such as free WiFi). However, the whole point of a single public transport operator should surely be to integrate services easily.

It’s not just in education that a bit of integrated thinking would help matters!

Smith Commission on Scottish devolution

The Smith Commission’s report on Scottish devolution will prove a momentous change in the UK’s constitutional history. Unfortunately it defies the relatively simple headlines put forward by the media in this age of sound bytes; it deserves more scrutiny not just about what is in it, but about what it may mean including beyond Scotland.

Parliamentary Sovereignty

The momentous change is essential the proposal that the Scottish Government and Parliament be made permanent in legislation – in other words that absolute Parliamentary sovereignty be ended and that, in the case of Scotland, national sovereignty effectively be pooled between Westminster and Holyrood. This constitutes a clear shift towards federalism, which may soon be matched in Wales (it is effectively already the case in Northern Ireland but in a different manner, as its devolved institutions are formed under an international agreement).

Tax/welfare structures

Structures under a Memorandum of Understanding are required to manage differential tax and welfare systems. Their establishment sets a precedent which could then be repeated in Northern Ireland and Wales.

Tax devolution

Income tax (on earned income, not dividends or savings), aggregates levy and air duty are fully devolved in the report. The latter of these was already the case in Northern Ireland, but Scotland may now compete. Income tax is not as dramatic as it first seems – it accounts for only about a quarter of all UK tax receipts and the likelihood is Scotland will not differentiate significantly (it hadn’t used its 3% option either way).

VAT and Corporation Tax, which had drawn attention in Northern Ireland, are not devolved. An announcement on the latter will follow next week, but it remains hard to see Corporation Tax being reduced in Northern Ireland without Scotland demanding and getting the same right soon after (as has happened with air duty).

However, the first ten points of VAT are assigned to the Scottish budget, which has the effect of raising the Scottish budget in the case of raised VAT receipts in Scotland comparative to the rest of the UK, and vice-versa – a similar system operates in Germany.

The National Minimum Wage remains reserved, so common UK-wide. This limits potential for “Living Wage” campaigns in any particular part of the UK.

Notably, Scotland takes full responsibility for any differential in administrative costs from applying different tax rates. That is a precedent which will be noted in Northern Ireland and Wales.

Welfare devolution

Scotland gets almost every individual aspect of working-age welfare devolved except the biggest, namely Universal Credit. It is entitled, even with Universal Credit, to use its housing powers and to vary the timing of payments. This is effectively the same as Northern Ireland, except Universal Credit is devolved there too in theory, right through to the requirement that Scotland meet any additional costs (administrative or otherwise) of doing things differently, although the concept of “parity” (making Scotland pay for its entire system if it does things differently) would not in effect apply.

Pensions and benefits to do with children/parenting are not devolved in the report. They are devolved to Northern Ireland but it is a convention (albeit one challenged by some Unions) that those powers are not applied and that pan-UK arrangements are maintained.

Scotland has discretion to introduce extra welfare payments in devolved areas with no prior consent necessary. A similar idea has been proposed using Northern Ireland’s powers to break the current welfare deadlock.

European Union

Other than pooled sovereignty, perhaps the most significant move in the report is the consultation with devolved Ministers on European issues and potentially even the representation of UK interests by devolved Ministers (thus access to the Council of Ministers). This applies to Northern Ireland (and, where appropriate, to Wales) just as to Scotland.

Super-majority

Most of the administration of the Scottish Parliament itself and of elections to it (and Scottish Councils) is fully devolved, but notably changes to some electoral arrangements (e.g. the number of MSPs) require a two-thirds super-majority to pass. That same super-majority has been proposed by some to replace “cross-community” (designation) votes in Northern Ireland.

Cross-border working

The role of the Joint Ministerial Committee is enhanced and a joint Parliamentary body is proposed. Are there lessons to be learned from the North-South Ministerial Council on the island of Ireland, which does something similar?

Election dates

Thee holding of Scottish Parliamentary elections in the same day as UK General elections (or any other elections) is prohibited. This is not the case in Wales or Northern Ireland, and indeed Northern Ireland Assembly Elections and Council Elections were held on the same day in 2011.

Consultative Roles

Scottish Ministers gain a consultative role in areas of broadcasting and regulation. These are markedly different across the UK. Regulation is devolved in Northern Ireland in some cases (Ofcom operates there but Ofgem does not; in the case of electricity, regulation is carried out on an all-Ireland basis in effect); S4C is a unique arrangement in broadcasting in Wales.

Comsumer advice and protection and certain aspects of supplier obligations with regard to energy efficiency are devolved to Scotland in the report. These are already devolved to Northern Ireland (often in the case of energy with a cross-border aspect).

Equality

Most aspects of employment are effectively devolved to Scotland in the report, but Equality is not. There is a view that abortion should be devolved to Scotland. Equality and abortion are both devolved to Northern Ireland.

Transport

Speed limits are proposed for devolution to Scotland in the report. They were already devolved to Northern Ireland.

Conclusion

The report is fairly comprehensive and sets some very interesting precedents. It is also notable for some omissions. It does set the scene for a Federal UK, yet significant powers remain reserved. Although the focus is on income tax, that may prove one of the least interesting aspects of how the new powers are devolved and used in practice.

This is no “expenses scandal”

As the title says, what was revealed on Spotlight is no expenses scandal. As the Justice Minister rightly implied, it is in fact systematic fraud which needs to be dealt with by the criminal justice system – and also, to an extent, by the electorate.

There are numerous points here to do with:

  • the distinction between potentially criminal activity and legitimate if questionable claims;
  • the distinction between corrupt MLAs (and parties) and fundamentally honest ones;
  • the inability of the political system to function while moral depravity (of which this is a symptom) lies at its core; and
  • the inability of politicians to act to restore order to public finances while they themselves are – in limited, specific but serious cases – abusing them.

Firstly, the distinction has not satisfactorily been made between legitimate if somewhat questionable claims (say for two iPads but also for thousands of stamps) on one hand, and blatantly fraudulent behaviour (claiming for journeys which were not made on behalf of someone else) rising to straightforward tax evasion (paying sums above the VAT threshold to a company not registered for VAT). Questionable claims are not ideal of course, but they are legitimate and any expenses system will have loopholes – there is a question of honour here, of course (as a Councillor I didn’t claim everything I was “entitled” to if I didn’t feel the entitlement was truly justified), but that is to be assessed by the electorate. Fraudulent claims are a different thing as they lie outside the rules and are an indication that the rules (regardless of what they were) were being blatantly ignored, and this is to be assessed by the courts.

As such, this is a very serious challenge to our political and legal institutions. We are about to find out whether we live in a true democracy or in a mafia-like state where some people are above the law. 

Secondly, it is an understandable but deeply and seriously flawed reaction to suggest MLAs are “all the same”. They are not. The very point of having elections is to boot out the ones who are corrupt, dishonest and incompetent. To opt out of elections, as seems to be the widespread view, is in fact to leave the corrupt, dishonest and incompetent ones in place. The voters have not only a role but a duty here to inform themselves and get to the polling booth to make a choice. That’s what democracy is – it is harmed when people opt out of it, and replaced by mafia-like behaviour ranging from incompetence right up to outright violence.

We in Northern Ireland should be more than aware of the penalty for not cherishing democracy – we must participate, campaign, vote and, frankly, elect the good guys (and gals). 

Thirdly, we should now quit the blethering about “talks”. You simply cannot negotiate with outright liars – the ludicrous notion, for example, that one party did a deal with the Assembly Finance Department to allow it to engage in tax evasion is one such lie. This comes on top of outrageous, uncivil and plain nasty behaviour from the “extremes” on each side (in inverted commas because they are central to politics currently) which had already dripped too much poison into the process. The two Governments, who seem to have forgotten they are guarantors of the Agreement which disallows such uncivil behaviour, need to forget about negotiations and start setting some ground rules while calling out bad behaviour for what it is.

And actually, you know what, if we want to “make it work” as the excellent campaign suggests, we must accept we are going to need different political leaders. That, again, is down to the electorate. 

The most serious short-term problem is the shocking state of Northern Ireland’s public finances. The scale of the mismanagement there is already staggering. Yet now we are beginning to see why some parties in particular are unwilling to implement any cuts or consider any revenue raising – they actually can’t, without obvious questions being alsed back about their own behaviour. Most stunning of all, frankly, was an MLA on my own Twitter feed suggesting “cuts” would not be necessary were it not for tax evasion – when all along his own party was evading tax! This renders the necessary financial interventions practically essential but politically impossible. It is a very serious conundrum with no obvious answer.

This isn’t an expenses scandal. It is a fundamental democratic crisis with real implications for jobs and services. We all, each one of us, need to grasp that.

To be clear, there’s no point in calling for “reform of the rules” when the issue is that the rules were ignored; there’s no point calling for an “independent inquiry” when we already know who was outright cheating, who was a bit dodgy, and who was basically honest; there’s no point negotiating when there is no trust and no justifiable basis for any; and there is no point opting out of the system if that merely rewards those who are blatantly abusing it.

Citizens and voters of Northern Ireland – it’s over to you in May!

One-off “Lords reform” is bad news

I never like to hear politicians talking about “Lords Reform”. This is not because it is a bad idea; it’s probably a very good idea. It’s because it is invariably done just before elections in a populist nod to potential coalition partners, with no real time taken to reflect on Tony Blair’s big mistake – namely not recognising that devolution, electoral system change and Lords reform are all part of the same thing.

By failing to recognise that devolution, the electoral system and the upper house are all the same basic constitutional issue, “New Labour” succeeded merely in nearly ending the Union itself, entrenching the current electoral system and making the Lords even less independent while no more democratic. All this happened while still more power was concentrated at the centre in each country of the UK, faith in politicians reached an all-time lows and electoral turnout decreased further. As disasters go, this has been a spectacular one.

Therefore I get nervous when I hear about “more powers to Scotland”, “English votes on English issues” or “reform of the Lords” – even though I agree with all of them! The problem is they are being handled for political convenience, not constitutional significance. They actually need to be handled together and with consensus, not separately for the sake of partisan side deals.

What is required is a detailed proposal which includes:

  • equal and significant financial and revenue raising powers to each of the four countries of the UK, to be voted on only by legislators from that country;
  • the separation of UK Departments of State from English Home Departments, and of UK-wide legislation from English-only for vote by appropriate legislation;
  • appointments to the upper house (the Lords) to ensure that its breakdown is directly proportional to votes cast in the most recent UK General Election and, additionally, to those cast in the most recent Devolved Legislature Elections; and
  • “English votes on English issues” but with potential for referral to the upper house for debate among all members where there are implications for the wider UK.

This is relatively tame compared to proposals which many (indeed I) would really wish to see implemented – but I suggest they offer the best chance of consensus.

But therein lies the problem. English politics doesn’t do consensus. That’s one big reason the electorate is so fed up!

Who needs to “wise up”, who needs to “lighten up”, and who are the “bastards”?

In France you may reasonably expect French culture, French symbols and the French language to predominate; this seems reasonable and no one seriously disputes it. In Estonia, some expect Estonian culture, Estonian symbols and the Estonian language to predominate; this is trickier, because in fact around a third of the population there comes within the last three generations from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and has an instinctive preference is many cases for Russian culture and the Russian language. Estonia is learning, with some challenges, that it is a requirement of any State and its laws to respect the nationalities of its citizens even if these differ, just as it is of those citizens to respect the State and its laws regardless of their own nationality.

In Ireland, you may reasonably expect Irish culture, Irish symbols and the Irish language to predominate (at least officially); within the territory of the Republic, this is reasonable. In Britain (to use the shorthand for the UK), you may reasonably expect British culture, British symbols and the British form of English to predominate; this becomes interesting given the variations in different countries of Britain.

In Northern Ireland, this gives us a problem. In this part of the UK, British people living in the UK expect British culture, British symbols and the British form of English to predominate; surely this is not unreasonable? In this part of the Island of Ireland, Irish people expect Irish culture, Irish symbols and the Irish language to predominate; surely this is not unreasonable? (By the way, this preference for one particular set of symbols, culture and language is often referred to by politicians who happen to share them as “equality”.)

Neither is unreasonable; but both are impossible. We agreed, directly in 1998 and subsequently effectively in 2007, to endorse a deal in which we in Northern Ireland may opt to be British or Irish or both. We still struggle to recognise, though, that our fellow citizens’ right and genuinely held desire to be the one we are not actually limits us in the preference we may expect to be shown for our culture, our symbols and our language. Compromise is demanded by what is in effect not a choice of citizenship (British or Irish), but a collective joint citizenship (British and Irish).

Interestingly, it is the apparent desire to restrict other people’s culture, symbols and language rather than insist on our own which creates the biggest problems – an expansion perhaps of the “Endowment Principle”, usually reserved for economics, which essentially notes we place a far higher value on something if we already possess it than if we don’t. However, the fundamental difficulty concerns the notion of “entitlement”.

We are all theoretically entitled, as British or Irish citizens, to prioritise our own culture, symbols and language – so doing automatically means we give less priority to the other one.  We may even opt, as is our entitlement, to heap ridicule on the one we are not prioritising – for example, by referring to political opponents as “bastards” or by entering into a debate about “curry and yoghurt”. In fact, we may go further and directly attack the other citizenship if it seems directly to conflict with our own – by attacking imperial history or past military defeats (say, in 1690).

However, just because we are entitled to do something does not mean we should do it. Theoretically I am entitled to park all day on the Jordanstown Road near the station, but it would cause delays and inconvenience literally to thousands if I did so. I have a responsibility not to abuse that entitlement.

We are too focused on our individual entitlements and not focused enough on our citizenship responsibilities. In the same way we don’t block roads for the hell of it, we shouldn’t mock others’ citizenship for the hell of it either. For all our entitlement to enjoy our own culture and language, we have a fundamental responsibility in our agreed multinational society not to mock others’, least of all either of those specifically named in the 1998 Agreement as re-endorsed by elected representatives from all our main parties in 2006.

I am always one for “lightening up”. It is true that there are too many people looking to be offended and not enough willing to engage in self-deprecation. I will certainly lighten up at things which are: a) harmless, and b) funny.

In fact, in a fragile society where the penalty for ignorance and disrespect can be appalling conflict, mocking national identity and its associated culture, symbols and language is neither harmless nor funny.

Instead of focusing on how the Agreement gives us an entitlement differing citizenships as individuals, we should focus instead on how the Agreement gives us a responsibility to respect what is in effect a joint British-Irish citizenship as a society. This is a bigger ask than in France, or elsewhere in the UK, or elsewhere in Ireland, or probably even than in Estonia – but fundamentally it’s what we agreed was the only way forward in 1998 and endorsed again in 2007. (Our agreement on joint citizenship is distinct from our agreement to remain within the UK in a country called Norrhern Ireland – and by the way, no one who claims to be pro-Agreement yet refuses to refer to the country we agreed to live in by its proper and agreed name gets to give lectures on either “equality” or “bigotry”.)

It is time we replaced our demands and entitlements from each other as individuals with responsibilities and duties to each other as citizens. It is time we stopped to mocking and abuse and replaced it with courtesy and respect. Most of all, it is time our leaders were punished for behaving nastily and rewarded for common decency. In short, it is time we wised up.

Time for NI numberplates to come into line with UK?

Another nerdy one…

UK-style numberplate for Northern Ireland

UK-style numberplates for Northern Ireland?

Over a century ago the UK (then consisting of the whole of Great Britain and Ireland) introduced vehicle registration plates. They contained one or two letters to mark the city or county of registration, and a number of up to four digits. In England and Wales, the letter(s) were allocated in order according to the size of the city or county – London was A, Lancashire was and so on, through to Rutland. However, the letters and were reserved for Scotland; and and for Ireland. In Ireland, plates were allocated in alphabetical order by county first and then city (IA Antrim, IB Armagh, IC Carlow and so on through to VI Waterford and so on). When they ran out, each city or county simply chose a new combination; when these ran out, plates were reversed (i.e. UI 9999 was followed by 1 UI); subsequently, when that ran out, an initial letter was added (thus AUI 1).

Northern Ireland is the only part of the British Isles which has retained the original system – now three letters (the initial serial letter plus the two-letter county/city code which usually ends in -Z) and four digits. The Republic of Ireland had a similar system until 1987 (though with only three digits and a code usually starting Z-); Great Britain had a similar system but with three digits and an additional letter to mark the year of registration (subsequently half-year) until 2001.

The Republic of Ireland changed to a more “European” style system, with two digits (subsequently three) to mark the year (subsequently half-year), a one or two-letter code to mark city or county, and then a serial number of up to six numbers. Great Britain changed to a two-letter code for the “Registration Office” (county or collection of counties), two digits to mark the half-year, and then three serial letters.

Northern Ireland had retained a distinct system largely because it retained a distinct office – with vehicles registered in Coleraine as opposed to Swansea for the rest of the UK. However, the Coleraine functions have now transferred to Swansea; additionally, the current system is about to run out – the nominally “Derry City” plates have now reached “VUI” with no natural next code. It would be possible to get around this, either by introducing a code previously unused (the way “Fermanagh” used “-IG“), or by reversing (i.e. starting again with “1001 AUI” – the four digits are now always used); but is it worth it, given vehicle registration is now pan-UK anyway?

It may be time, therefore, for Northern Ireland simply to come into line with the rest of the UK – the initial letter I- has even been reserved for this (as per the plate above).

Conceivably Northern Ireland’s registration offices could still be left intact (Ballymena for Co Antrim IA-IC; Downpatrick for Co Down ID-IE; Enniskillen for Co Fermanagh IF; Derry City IG-IH; Coleraine itself IJ-IK; Armagh IP-IR; Omagh for Co Tyrone IS-IT; and Belfast IU-IZ with space potentially for Lisburn IL and Newry IN). Thus, a vehicle registered in Enniskillen in March 2015 would be something like IE15 XYZ.

For all the obvious administrative advantages, the main advantage of this is that Northern Ireland’s plates would come into line with both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland in indicating clearly the half-year of manufacture – which also helps with memorising plates.

It’s all about the big issues, eh?!

People should be castigated for being a-political, not praised

As part of the ongoing and growing disillusion with “politics”, I saw someone note the other day that people should “leave religion and politics at the door” when entering their home; in the context, clearly, that this statement was to be seen as enlightened.

It’s scandalous.

Each and every one of us lives in a complex society made up of people with diverse and often competing interests, priorities and objectives.

There are two ways you can deal with this inevitable complexity. You can do it with violence, or you can do it with politics. After what we went through from 1969 to 1998, it should be obvious to each and every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland which is preferable.

And here’s the thing: you don’t get to opt out!

When you wake up in your home (owned, mortgaged or rented), politics has determined that it is your home and how. When you walk out of the door, politics has decided what infrastructure you can use and how, and what the terms are for any form of transport you choose (or, in practice, can’t choose because politics has so decided). When you enter any workplace – not just your own, but any office, shop, school, office, even roadwork zone – politics has decided the terms upon which you may enter, the rights of those working there, the duties of those providing or taking the service, and so on. There’s no “opt out” – as soon as you interact (and often even when you don’t), politics dictates the terms (and rightly so, given the alternative).

It may be that you can influence some of this politics directly; sometimes informally, say through discussions with other parents about the local school and the school gate; sometimes more formally by getting yourself on to the local Parent and Teachers Association or Police and Community Safety Partnership or Road Safety Committee; perhaps even by volunteering on to the Board of the Local Enterprise Agency. Again, it is not reasonable to opt out here – really everyone should endeavour to fulfil one of these “direct” roles at least.

Some of it, inevitably, you are going to need to influence indirectly by choosing those who manage your local Council, determine regional policy, and make the laws of your jurisdiction (who will in turn select those who ensure it is enforced). You do this by voting at elections – and campaigning, or even standing yourself. Again, there’s no opt out – if you don’t choose, you allow other people to choose for you (an act not of generosity but, frankly, of laziness – voting is not complex!)

Those who claim to opt out of politics are actually suggesting they are entitled to opt out of society. That is the scandal here. People live in homes whose ownership is determined and protected through politics, travel on roads built or railways commissioned through politics, work or use services with rights supported and responsibilities placed through politics, and then claim that people should “leave their politics at the door”?!

Suddenly that enlightened view looks entirely selfish, as if somehow opting out of politics allows us to opt out of our responsibilities as a citizen to participate in society because there are some aspects of it that don’t suit us. But in society you can’t just take your ball and go home. On the contrary, it is your responsibility to seek to shape it, to  influence it, to assist it – and you do this, directly or indirectly, through politics.

Are you fed up with politics? Or is it really that you fed up with compromise in an ever more complex society which increasingly demands it? As for politicians, they are a direct reflection of those who elect them – if you don’t like them, change them!

But be sure of one thing – you don’t get to opt out!

UK needs to understand you can support government without coalition

The UK is a peculiar place. On one hand, as the centre of the World’s largest empire and still a global influencer and trade centre (41% of foreign currency trading globally takes place in the UK, versus 19% in the US), it is a hugely international and global hub; on the other hand, it can be quite unbelievably insular. Discussion of a potential Coalition Government after May’s General Election falls firmly into the latter category – the UK seems to have no idea what happens when no single party has an overall majority in Parliament, even though this is almost universally the case elsewhere in Europe (and in devolved legislatures within the UK itself).

Let us firstly be clear about what happens. The UK’s system is that the Prime Minister is appointed until he resigns (although he is compelled to do so if he cannot pass a Budget or loses a Vote of No Confidence in the House of Commons). Thus, after a General Election, the incumbent Prime Minister gets first attempt at forming a Government which can command a majority in the House of Commons – in other words, one which will not lose a Vote of No Confidence.

There are all kinds of ways he could achieve this. He can of course, as in 2010, offer a full coalition with another party. However, remember he only has to ensure he can pass a Budget; he does not have to form a Government representing a majority of MPs – so he can negotiate deals on specific policies, budget allocations or even appointments with other parties in return for their support (or even an abstention providing him with a majority) on Confidence Votes and the Budget (this is known as “an arrangement on Confidence and Supply”). In the recent Swedish election a four-party “left” coalition won more seats than a three-party “right” coalition even though both were short of a majority of seats (a populist party held the balance); via a series of deals and understanding a new government was formed consisting not only of Ministers only from the minority “left” coalition, but actually from only two of the four parties in that coalition.

For example, let us say the next UK General Election ends up with the Conservatives and Labour on around 275 seats each – 50 or so short of a majority. In such an event, we may have a Nationalist/Green bloc (led by the SNP) on conceivably 40-45 seats, the Liberal Democrats on around 30-35 seats, and a Populist bloc (UKIP/DUP) on around 20. No single bloc gets either side to a majority of seats, so a deal has to be done.

To be clear, the incumbent Prime Minister gets first go. Yet there is no way, realistically, a Conservative Leader could build a Coalition representing the majority of MPs in this circumstance. However, he could offer wide-ranging powers and extra allocations to Scotland and Wales in return for “support on Confidence and Supply”, and perhaps simply threaten UKIP there’ll be no EU referendum or “English Votes on English Issues”  unless its MPs abstain in such circumstances.

This does not stop the Opposition negotiating, of course. It could offer no “English votes for English issues” to the SNP in return for an abstention on “Confidence and Supply” and then offer to form a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats which would lack an overall majority but would have one to pass a Budget with SNP abstentions. Alternatively, it could offer a highly favourable Budget to the SNP (and Scotland and Wales in general) in return for Nationalist support on “Confidence and Supply”, and then an EU Referendum to UKIP in return for its abstentions.

Of course, the smaller parties or blocs could make their demands. These may be obvious (referendums or budgets) or less obvious (a deal conditional on a bigger party nominating a different Prime Minister, for example).

All of this means that some of the daft talk we see – for example of the SNP in a Coalition Government at UK level – shows no awareness of politics at its most basic and, arguably, most exciting.

The case for revenue raising

When they are discussing curry and yoghurt, they are best ignored. However, when they are discussing finance and the economy, they are worth listening to. The position of the DUP is consistent and fairly standard “centre right”.

The key, therefore, is that any response to the DUP’s position has to be consistent and fairly standard. The only party which mustered that last week was the Alliance Party.

It is not difficult to see where the Finance Minister is coming from when he suggests that, as the effects of the Great Recession begin to bite through the long-delayed public spending reductions we should long since have experienced and planned for, the last thing you want to do is increase pressure on households by (in effect) raising taxes. That is a legitimate viewpoint. However, the one thing I take issue with is that by not raising taxes somehow the pain is removed. There is pain either way, and we need to be very clear about that.

The case for revenue raising is essentially that, without it, all the pain of balancing the budget is transferred to public spending reductions. This has just as direct a knock-on to household income, potentially, as raising taxes. This is not just in service reductions or cuts; there are consultants who operate with the public sector; members of public bodies; and of course those in the public sector who have to contemplate redundancy (after all, if “voluntary redundancy” doesn’t get you all the way to where you need to be, “compulsory” will have to follow).

The case for raising revenue (taxes) is threefold. Firstly, it enables a more graduated reduction in public spending, and thus more thought into how it should be reduced rather than just crude budget cuts. Secondly, it enables a fairer system of payment – for example, the regional rate (effectively a property tax) may be seen as a perfectly reasonable wealth tax. Thirdly, it will in fact make the public more aware of what money they are handing over – and thus more demanding of the very efficiency the public sector needs to deliver as budgets are reduced.

To be clear, Departmental Expenditure Limits for non-capital spending are now at roughly £10b per annum – this had reached £10.8b but for a variety of reasons (including breaching parity and hitting capital borrowing limits necessitating transfers of funds elsewhere) the £800m hit now has to be taken all at once:

  • raising the Regional Rate by 19% (as once done under Direct Rule) would raise about £115m, and removing Rates Cap another £10 million;
  • introducing water charges with few exemptions would raise about £250m;
  • re-introducing Prescription Charges as were would raise about £10m, or without exemptions about £30m;
  • introducing motorway tolls at Fortwilliam, Dunsilly and Blaris as in the Republic would raise about £50m (with the additional benefit that it would be easier to make the case to the European Investment Bank for new roads spending); and
  • raising the age of free travel from 60-65 would raise about £10m;
  • introducing nominal charges for currently free summer schemes and similar programmes, and perhaps even bin charges and Fire callout fees as in the Republic could raise another few tens of million.

It won’t get us even half way to covering the shortfall, realistically, because we won’t do all of it and, even if we did, we would phase some of it in. However, there is a debate to be had in the coming weeks. Let us have it reasonably, based on the realities of the situation we face.

Premier League, Government Finance and the Motivation to Innovate

This excellent article over on ESPN offers an explanation of the decline in performance of Premier League teams and a comparison to the downfall of Serie A 15 years ago.

Put simply, the story goes like this. Italy’s senior football league, ‘Serie A’, emerged as the strongest in Europe in the late 1980s and remained so through to the late 1990s. Because it was the strongest league, it attracted the strongest players, and was thus home to the richest owners, and also the richest TV deals, and so became without question the richest league. How on earth, therefore, could this ongoing spiral of signing ever better players with ever more money be brought to an end? When the clubs forgot to innovate, and other clubs in other countries did. Spurred on by better nutrition and better tactics, England’s ‘Premier League’ overhauled ‘Serie A’ as the richest and best league by the mid-2000s. The cycle has repeated itself, and the Premier League is now on the downward curve familiar to most Italian football fans.

Spain’s ‘La Liga’, with slightly less money, has already taken over from the Premier League as the leading league in terms of continental performance; Germany’s ‘Bundesliga’ will almost certainly also do so and move into second place this season, despite vastly fewer resources at its clubs’ disposal. How can this happen? Again, it is to do with innovation, and specifically the motivation to innovate.

When Italy’s clubs were the richest in Europe and attracted the world’s best players, they saw no further need to innovate. Nutritionally and tactically they fell behind teams from comparably sized countries. Initially, they were able to stay ahead through pure spending, but soon that did not work either. The key point is this: not only did teams from England, Spain and Germany have reason to innovate, teams from Italy didn’t – they (the players, the agents, the owners etc) were guaranteed big bucks anyway. Guaranteed, that is, in the short term – but in the longer term, hamstrung by spending too much money on ageing players or ‘big names’ long past their sell-by date, Italy’s clubs began to collapse in on themselves amid scandal and corruption, and soon fell behind the other three big leagues. Now we find the precise same thing with the Premier League, whose clubs spent more than any other league’s this summer (excluding the madly exceptional ‘Clasico’ clubs in Spain), yet have mustered only five wins out of 16 in Europe’s senior competition. They are spending, but they have lost the motivation to innovate which is leaving them clearly behind their Continental rivals.

So it is with Government. In a recent interview with the Welsh Health Minister, a BBC correspondent spent the entire duration of the discussion talking solely in terms of the amount of money being spent on the Welsh NHS. There was absolutely no discussion about how that money was being spent, or if it could be spent better (or worse, for that matter). The way we talk about politics and government finance, it is as if ‘more spending’ automatically means ‘better service’. In fact, it can mean the precise opposite – if the ‘big spending’ removes the motivation to innovate.

Northern Ireland, unfortunately, is a classic example. Faced with rises in Health spending which are below the requirement to keep up in percentage terms with increasing demand, the Service’s first act was to close an Multiple Sclerosis respite unit. This was a callous and outrageous act, from a Service which has, per capita, 42% more administrators than is the case in England. The first act should have been to cut the administrators, not the vital services.

Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s public service has, by and large, lost the motivation to innovate, guaranteed (as it has been since 1998) ever increasing resources simply to keep doing the same thing. As a result, with some exceptions (e.g. in primary education), management techniques, government structures, bureaucratic systems and everything else are now decades out of date. Other countries are able to achieve the same or more with far fewer resources, because they have improved management, streamlined structures and reformed systems.

That we have a bloated political culture with no motivation to innovate either doesn’t help, of course. The latest farce was the failure to agree to put through the Housing & Regeneration Bill in time to transfer functions to local Councils when the new Councils come into being – a political mess which came about despite civil servants working hard to ensure the timescale was met. We also have the nonsense of moving a Department to Ballykelly for no particular reason; the failure to deliver a proper Education & Skills Authority; the outrageous waste of millions on a road (the A5) which was never, ever going to be built; as well as the planning nonsense at the Maze and Sprucefield. A proper, evidence-based set of priorities both at political and governance level with learning and information shared properly across all departments – which would have required innovative methods of collecting, assessing and distributing that evidence – would have seen none of these shambles taking place.

We are not alone. France and Italy offer two further examples of the classic ‘bloated bureaucracy’ unwilling to contemplate change because, for too long, money has been guaranteed regardless of the fact is has removed the vital motivation to innovate.

Public spending in Northern Ireland will now be reduced, fairly sharply. Again, a truly innovative public sector would already have prepared for this (and would already have innovated in anticipation of having to do more with less). In the short term, there will be outright cuts in services (which, note well, there absolutely wouldn’t need to be if there had been proper preparation for them) and these will have ghastly knock-on effects – not just on service users but on small businesses and even individual households.

We can only hope that, in the long term, cutbacks and reductions in the public sector will see some motivation to innovate appear within government, just as it did in those leagues with had to catch up with the Italians despite far more limited resources. Football fans, like the electorate, always just demand ‘more spending’ – and, like the electorate, they’re ignoring the fact that ‘more spending’ is no substitute for proper innovation and simply doing things better than the opposition within the resources you already have!

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