Category Archives: Uncategorized

Want more money for public services? Have the guts to raise it…

Since the financial crisis started in late 2007, public spending in Northern Ireland has risen (even in real terms), and taxes have fallen (even in absolute terms). That is a straightforward fact.

“Austerity” is a word which has come to be much abused, because the seeds of that financial crisis were that we had become greedy in the Western World (and particularly in the Anglosphere), buying things we had not earned with money we had not got – in other words, we were not living austerely enough. Arguably most prominent among the parties challenging this greed were the Greens. They suggested most obviously that we use less fuel (thus not only drive and fly less, but also trade less, for example going back to eating solely in-season fruit rather that flying it around the world), but also that we live off our own resources (one member in North Belfast even grew his own tea in his house on the Ballysillan Road) – in other words, that we should live more austerely.

For whatever reason, “austerity” has come instead to mean a reduction in the balance between public spending and taxes raised. Many countries, such as Ireland, both reduced public spending and increased taxes – a clear case of “austerity” on this new, financial definition. However, here is the thing: Northern Ireland did not.

We should note again, as above, that Northern Ireland on the contrary had the precise opposite of austerity. Public spending has risen, no matter how measured, while almost every form of tax has fallen (Northern Ireland household taxes such as rates have been frozen, thus reducing markedly in real terms; UK corporation tax has fallen eight points; and UK income tax bands see the average earner paying £600 less in income tax each year now than eight years ago).

As The Detail and others have pointed out, what frustrates MLAs hanging out the begging bowl is that the amount of money they have, under NI Executive control, has fallen in real terms (though not, in fact, in absolute). That is true. The welfare bill in Northern Ireland has risen markedly (as it has elsewhere in the UK), and the money has to come from somewhere – if it is not coming from rising taxes, it will have to come in part from borrowing and in part from other services. Even in terms of current resource spending on public services, it should be noted that County Councils in England have had it much worse than Stormont or Holyrood have.

This brings us to the real point. If welfare spending is rising, the money has to come from somewhere; if you want welfare spending to rise even further for “mitigation”, as supposedly agreed at Stormont House, that is even more money which will have to come from somewhere. There are two options – it can be taken from other public services, or it can be taken in raised taxes.

Quite frankly, MLAs need to stop moaning. Firstly, we don’t have “austerity” by any definition. Secondly, we have a generous settlement. Thirdly, most of all, if you want more money for public services, have the guts to raise it!

71 “likes” for pure bigoted hatred

imageOh dear.

The only thing worse than the fact that this piece of pure bigoted hatred received 71 likes is that no one in authority will care.

Indeed, our largest political parties, covertly or even overtly, thrive on the division which breeds the ignorance which breeds the fear which breeds the hatred.

The PSNI can easily find out who lies behind these comments. It is already troubling that I am doubtful whether they will bother, despite the fact it is a clear hate crime.

Far worse is the fact that people who possibly weren’t even born at the time of the Agreement would even think the things which appear in that exchange.

At the most basic level, our community relations are nowhere. For all the niceties at high civic level, the sheer scale of the hatred on display is frightening.

A calamity on finance, but even worse a calamity on community relations, it is time for a complete reboot.

Where’s that vehicle from?

It is summer, and many of us will be off on holiday. By request of one equally nerdy reader, how do we tell where fellow holidaymakers are from by their vehicle registration?

France

images

Firstly, most European countries now have a blue tag to the left, with a code representing the country. This code always works in French, English or the native language (often two of these, sometimes all three): so, above, is “France” and NL is “Netherlands”.

It so happens that in the above two cases, we cannot tell anything further about the origin of the vehicle (that is, other than which country it is from).

France recently switched to the LL-DDD-LL system (black on white; where ‘L’ is a letter and ‘D’ a digit) which simply rotates in series (so the later the first two letters, the newer the car, generally). However, owners are allowed to place a further blue tag to the right, marking their preferred department (“00″ above is just an example plate, department numbers in Mainland France run from 01 to 96, in alphabetical order with some minor exceptions). Previous plates in France, which typically had the inverse series of digits and letters (typically DDDDLLDD or occasionally DDDLLLDD) contained this code in the final two digits at the end of the plate and it was compulsory to register the car in the Department of residence – thus 2734TN06 was from 06 (Cote d’Azur; the far south east); 429DRL75 was from 75 (Ile-de-France; Paris, in other words). The older plates are still valid, and are seen in various colours (black, yellow/white or white).

The Netherlands has been through various series, but has never in recent decades distinguished area of origin. Old series such as LL-LL-DD or LL-DD-LL have now finished, and DD-LLL-D is now current (the total is always six digits or letters and two hyphens). Distinct plates are used for trailers. Dutch plates are marked out for their distinctive dark yellow/orange colour.

The only other Continental country notable for yellow plates is Luxembourg (code L), which consist of up to two letters and a short number in series.

Several other countries also do not mark origin and simply run in series:

images (1)

Italy (code I) uses similar plates to France (in fact it introduced them earlier), and in a similar fashion allows a provincial code to the right (although this option is more rarely taken up in practice). The distinction from France is that the second hyphen is omitted, thus LL-DDDLL (as opposed to LL-DDD-LL), and that the front plate is much narrower. Previous to 1994, it had used the provincial code (two letters – thus MI-Milano; BZ-Bolzano etc) plus six digits or a series of digits and letters. Motorbikes have different plates.

Spain (code E) also has white plates and also switched, in 2000, from provincial codes to no origin. In its case, plates are DDDDLLL; there is no formal regional identifier but some owners, notably in Catalonia and the Basque County, add one. Previously, they contained the provincial code (GR-Granada; B-Barcelona) plus up to four digits and two letters, although the provincial code never changed even if the owner moved or the car was sold to a different province. Codes from the Spanish Islands or North African territories were common because tax rates on cars purchased there were deemed outside the EU, and were thus lower.

Portugal

Portugal (code P) also uses non-identifiable plates, similar to those of the Netherlands but white with the current series DD-DD-LL, and these are strictly licence plates (marking, in a yellow panel to the right, when the vehicle is licensed until).

Belgium

Belgium (code B) is distinct in two ways; firstly, the print is red (or black-green on trailers) not black; secondly, until recently the owner was automatically allowed to keep the plate (so the plate went with the owner, not the car). The old system was typically LLL-DDD on American-size plates; European standard plates have now been introduced with a leading digit, typically ‘1’ (though ‘8’ is used for European Union institutions).

Denmark (code DK) also has a red outline, but the print is black; its series is LL-DDDDD and has recently restarted (thus recent vehicles are typically A*, whereas older vehicles are V* etc.); Denmark’s system is confusing as it also allows yellow plates for commercial vehicles and even half-yellow half-white for vehicles used partly for commercial purposes (commercial use attracts less tax, so owners do pursue as much yellow as possible!)

Sweden (code S), Lithuania (code LT) and Hungary (code H) all use the series LLL-DDD, and are extremely hard to tell apart. Sweden’s used to be distinguishable by a tax mark where the hyphen was which changed colour each year, but this has been abandoned. Finland (code now FIN; previously SF) also uses LLL-DDD; these are allocated in such a way to try to avoid any clash with Sweden’s, and are narrower and thus easier to distinguish from the other three.

Estonia (code EST) is just about distinct from the previous four as its plates are DDD-LLL. Latvia (code LV) uses LL-DDDD.

Germany

Other countries, however, do further distinguish a place of origin (i.e. beyond just the country itself), most obviously Germany (code D) whose plates are probably the most famous in the world. Here, up to three letters are used to mark the Kreis (district) of registration, then a hyphen (which consists of a licence mark and the badge of the State of residence) and then LDDDD or LLDDD. Until this year, it was compulsory upon selling the car or moving to another district to change the plate; this is now optional, meaning that it is no longer certain the vehicle is currently resident in the district referred to. Codes used for districts are also wildly varying and change when districts merge (with older ones still in use if the vehicle has not moved). There are further subtleties in some cases too; occasionally the same letter is used for a city and for the surrounding area, but you can tell them apart by the exact nature of the second part of the plate (i.e. whether LDDDD or LLDDD). There is also no particular rhyme or reason to the code – sometimes it refers to the district capital (for example Lauenburg/Elbe is RZ for ‘Ratzeburg’) but sometimes to the district name (so V for Vogtlandkreis or MTK for Main-Taunus-Kreis); generally single letters are used for larger cities (B is indeed Berlin) but Dortmund (DO) is bigger than Duesseldorf (D) and the second largest city opted for two letters for historical reasons (HH for Hansestadt Hamburg). There was also a significant re-allocation at unification, as although initially codes had been reserved for cities in the Soviet zone of occupation, they had begun to be re-allocated upon recognition of the East German State in the 1970s. The above plate, for reference, is IN for Ingolstadt, frequently seen on magazine covers as that is the home of ‘Audi’ – notable also are S for Stuttgart (Mercedes-Benz and Porsche); M for Munich/Muenchen (BMW) and WOB for Wolfsburg (Volkswagen).

Similar to Germany is Austria (code A), although the red outer lines appear on its plates (similar to Denmark’s) and generally the second part of the plate (after the hyphen) is inverted; most of its nine provinces have DDLL or DDDLL; Vienna (whose own code is W for Wien) usually has DDDDDL.

Slovenia (code SLO) has almost identical plates to Austria (even the font is the same) but the outer lines are green, not red, and the hyphen tends to be an actual hyphen (as opposed to a provincial badge).

norway

Norway (code N) has a similar arrangement to Denmark (i.e. LL-DDDDD), but in its case the letters do mark the county of registration. However, they do so in random series, so in reality this is only helpful if you happen to have the list to hand. Of course, Norway is outside the EU, so no EU stars (even though the blue tag is now typical).

Switzerland

Also outside the EU is Switzerland (whose Latin-based code CH tends not to appear on the plates themselves), which has retained the old Italian system of two letters for the canton of origin (there are in effect 26 of these) and a number of up to six digits – above, BE is Bern(e). The numbers have run out now in some larger cantons, which are introducing a final letter to compensate. Notable also is the Swiss preference for square plates on the back (but these revert to the European standard on the front), with in each case a badge for the confederation (i.e. Switzerland itself) to the left and for the canton to the right.

Some interesting further notes on Swiss plates in comments below.

czech

Not to be confused with Switzerland is the Czech Republic (code CZ), whose initial digit does give the region of origin, although the system is now very complex. The system of DLL-DDDD is broadly retained from the old Czechoslovakia.

Slovakia (code SK) itself retained the same plates for a long time after separation, but now has big bolder font and a simplified regional identifier of two letters which in fact makes the overall plate look very similar to modern Italian plates (thus LL-DDDLL where the first ‘LL’ is the regional identifier, e.g. BA is ‘Bratislava’, and the hyphen is now usually the national badge).

Croatia

Very similar to Slovakia is Croatia (code HR Hrvatska‘), distinguished only by its second hyphen and of course the different national badge (the red and white checks familiar to football fans at least). Again, the first two letters are a regional identifier (ST is ‘Split’).

Poland

Poland (code PL) used to have distinctive black plates but switched to white soon after the end of Communism. The plates do contain regional identifiers at the start, but exactly how they do this is really anyone’s guess – there are two or three letters before the hyphen as regional identifiers, and then various combinations allowable in series after it.

Across Europe there are of course smaller countries too, which tend to have smaller plates: Monaco (MC), San Marino (RSM) and Andorra (AND) all have small white plates with only a number or a single letter followed by a number; Liechtenstein (FL) has distinctive black plates but designed similarly to Switzerland’s, all carrying the code FL.

britain

As a quick reminder, closer to home Great Britain (code GB often unmarked on the plate itself) specifically now has LLDD LLL where the first two letters are a regional identifier (although these never change) and the two digits mark the half-year of registration. Thus, above, LK is ‘London-Stanmore’ (the ‘L’ tells you ‘London'; the ‘K’ randomly specifies ‘Stanmore’); and ’53’ is the period from September 2003 to February 2004 (preceded by ’03’, succeeded by ’04’, then ’54’, then ’05’, then ’55’ etc; changing each 1 March and 1 September). The first letter of the regional identifiers are usually fairly obvious (B is Birmingham, is Scotland, etc). Before late 2001, Great Britain had a system LDDD LLL where the initial ‘L’ marked the year (from 1963; or, from 1999, half-year) of registration, and the last two letters marked the county or city of registration (there was a system, but it was complex and the letters were as good as random). Previous systems, such as LLL DDDL or even LLL DDD or DDD LLL and such like remain in use on personalised plates.

Northern Ireland in effect retains the pre-2001 Great Britain system but without the year identifier, simply LLL DDDD where the last two letters mark the county or city or registration (the latest for Belfast is ‘FZ‘, for Antrim is ‘RZ‘, for Down ‘JZ‘ and so on); this identifier code typically ends in ‘Z‘ but in some smaller counties and cities contains instead an ‘I‘ (originally marking ‘Ireland’).

Among UK territories, Gibraltar (GBZ), Jersey (GBJ) and Alderney (GBA) all have yellow back and white front plates UK-style with their initial letter plus a long number or a number plus single letter; Guernsey (GBG) has only a number, no initial letter, and now seems to prefer black plates). The Isle of Man (GBM) has what looks like UK-style plates though often with a different Irish-style font, typically LLL-DDD-L with the combination ‘MN’ or ‘MAN’ somewhere present.

UK plates are in general distinguished by their colour (yellow back and white front) and the fact the plate is printed differently (with the letters/digits already on, as opposed to stamped on as is the case typically in Continental Europe).

Ireland

Of all the countries in Europe, only one exceeds eight digits/letters collectively on the plate, and that is Ireland (IRL) – otherwise, now, only Germany even exceeds seven (and even then only rarely). It broke from the old UK system in 1987 with a straightforward two-digit year marker, plus a code for city (one letter) or county (two letters; typically first and last except where there is a clash) and then a serial number. In 2013, it added a further digit to the initial cluster, a ‘1’ for the first six months of the year, and a ‘2’ for the second six months; a re-organisation of local government also saw Tipperary violate convention and take the single-letter code ‘T‘; above, KE is ‘Kildare’.

So, short of seeing a van from South Africa (code, ahem, ZA) or a truck from Turkmenistan (er, TM I think), you’re all set… although that does happen, you know…

NI parties put ideology first, evidence nowhere

I had understood there was a project under way in Northern Ireland this year promoting “evidence-based policy making”, but it has not made itself evident. Instead, even the better elected representatives are being dragged down into Stormont’s crazy Fantasyland.

One MLA had an article in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday suggesting, if my understanding of it was correct, that the “voluntary exit” scheme was an opportunity to pay the “Living Wage” to all civil servants. The article made no mention of how many civil servants are not currently on the “Living Wage” and would thus stand to gain from this – which is a shame, because a series of Assembly Questions in late 2014 revealed the figure. It was zero.

This point is on the public record within the Assembly itself – a series of questions to another MLA last year established it.

It is true that this figure does not include Health Trusts or such like, staffed strictly speaking by public servants rather than civil servants (but there is no reason to believe they are any different). The average public sector wage in Northern Ireland is the same as it is in Great Britain; but, interestingly, the average wage in the junior grades is actually higher in Northern Ireland. So there is no reason to believe that any public sector workers at all in Northern Ireland are on below Living Wage (especially as “discretionary” low-wage services such as cleaning offices are being phased out), and if there are any it is a tiny number (and indeed, no reason not to fix that as it would cost almost nothing).

So, in terms of the public sector (the one affected by the “voluntary exit scheme”), this is literally a non-issue.

The difficulty I have with this is that the MLA involved had clearly chosen not even to seek any evidence before making his case. He simply put a pre-existing ideology on to an issue without any regard for the actual facts. It is hard to come up with real-world solutions if you cannot even assess correctly the real-world problems.

The real-world problem is the precise contrary to the one implied in the article. Two essential points were missed – no doubt because they did not suit the left-leaning and frankly simplistic ideology the article sought to articulate. Firstly, the “voluntary exit scheme” is necessitated by the very fact that public sector workers will not tolerate lower wages here than in Great Britain, leaving the only option available a reduction in public sector jobs (the assumption that jobs should go before wages is arguable either way, but that is the debate we should be having). Secondly, to be totally straightforward about this, low pay is an issue in the private sector, not the public (and so it is increasing private sector pay, unmentioned in the article, which is the real priority here).

On the first of these, it remains a bizarre trait of those who claim to be of the “left” that they continue to focus the pay argument around those who are the best paid. A family of public sector workers in Northern Ireland not only takes home the same average pay as their equivalent in Great Britain, but actually pays far lower household taxes – leaving it, on average, around 7% better off (and still gaining from above-average spend on public services). A family of private sector workers, on the other hand, will on average be 12% worse off even after those lower household taxes. Why on earth is the “left” so obsessed with the former and so ignorant of the latter?!

On the second, the worst issue about all of this is that politicians are desperate to pretend there are simple answers to complex problems. It is, after all, easy to say “the private sector should pay more”; the problem is that Northern Ireland is overburdened with industries which are becoming unproductive faster than those which predominate elsewhere in the UK and Ireland; and an inevitable consequence of that lack of productivity is stalled growth and ever lower wages (comparatively). To put this right requires a complete re-shaping of the Northern Ireland economy away from low-value, (increasingly) unproductive sectors.

Re-shaping the economy away from low-value, unproductive sectors? That sounds, you know, hard! No votes in hard stuff! Never mind the evidence, let us just agree it is much easier to moan about “banks” and suggest people who are already paying the “Living Wage” should, er, pay the “Living Wage”… while the people who are really low paid continue to suffer.

John McCallister’s “Opposition *and Collective Government* Bill” must pass

The latest shenanigans over the Stormont Budget have effectively “kicked the can down the road” (in that phrase beloved of Storocrats and Eurocrats alike) until October, during which several important things should happen. One of the many is the passage of John McCallister’s “Opposition Bill”, which will likely remain so named but is actually better presented as a “Collective Government Bill”.

For “Collective Government” (therefore, really, just “Government”) is what Northern Ireland lacks at devolved level. An inevitable consequence of Collective Government is, of course, an Opposition – but the lack of Opposition is the symptom of the problem, not the cause. The cause is allowing Ministers and parties to sit in “Government” while actually disagreeing with it…

The whole thing is a daft facade and the public know it. In the real world, Governments raise their own money and agree collectively on its allocation and on the policy and legislative framework in which that allocation will take place. In Stormont Fantasyland, on the other hand, the Government holds out the begging bowl to another Government and then randomly allocates it to a bunch of pet projects (often overly inefficient and even corrupt ones at that).

The first, most obvious intervention has to be proper, independent enforcement of the Ministerial Code. This is the norm in London and Edinburgh yet somehow Stormont has survived without it, relying on Ministers to investigate their own Special Advisers and Committees loaded with the Minister’s own colleagues to assess the outcome and such other ludicrous nonsense.

The second, almost equally obvious intervention has to be proper, transparent publication of party donations. Of the parties in our “Government”, only the Alliance Party does this. Shame on the other four, hiding from the taxpayers, the ratepayers and the electorate at large exactly what the sources of their money are. The potential for favours and outright corruption is clear to anyone.

The third, now increasingly obvious intervention has to be to stop the ludicrous nonsense of Ministers being allowed to vote against the Budget under which their Department is funded. Anywhere else in the democratic world, this is a resigning offence (for the whole Government, if they cannot get their Budget through the House). The most straightforward move towards real Government in Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions would be for the requirement after an Assembly Election to be a power-sharing Executive able to agree a Programme for Government and a Budget – anyone who does not agree with it, forms the “Opposition”.

That is where John McCallister’s Bill comes in. Clearly, it is technical and it still needs to be fully drafted and then the principles broadly agreed – but no one should withhold that broad agreement given the obvious need for the third intervention above. It will contain clarity that parties choosing to disagree with the Programme and the Budget will be looked after (in the sense of priority allocation of Committee Chairs/places, speaking rights and perhaps also research services and the like). It will in effect enforce “Cabinet responsibility”, not least because there will be an Opposition in place to challenge any irresponsibility on competence grounds as much as anything else. It will make the relevant arrangements for adequate Technical Groups to be formed and treated fairly.

If, in order to achieve cross-community consensus or qualified majority vote the requirement is for constant horse-trading, so be it. It is quite possible that Denmark will soon be governed by a coalition commanding just 53 of 179 seats (less than 30%), willing to work with different groups in parliament to govern on the basis of the broad popular will but knowing that 90 will ultimately be enough; this is a far cry from a government elected with 105 of 108 seats (97%) which cannot make a decision about anything because diametrically opposing views have to be brought together every time an attempt is made on any subject!

It is of course necessary to ensure in the context of Northern Ireland that any majority is cross-community and qualified, which does make it a slightly trickier place to govern. This is not the same thing, however, as saying that absolutely everyone must agree on everything; indeed, the whole purpose of a functioning democracy is that we respect decisions made by elected representations and their enforcement by the police and the law courts even when we disagree with them. By enforcing a requirement for collective responsibility in government, not least when setting a Budget, it is inevitable that not all will agree – those who don’t should form an Opposition and seek to overturn the decisions they do not like by appealing to the people at the ballot box, just as happens everywhere else in the Western World.

FAI bribe raises questions over FIFA eligibility decision

One of the most important aspects of the 1998 Agreement was that it clarified absolutely that, despite British sovereignty, by virtue of being a citizen of Northern Ireland you can be Irish by nationality. This makes Northern Ireland distinct from England, Scotland and Wales – in any of the latter, the assumed nationality is British; but in Northern Ireland, it may be British or Irish.

This is a vital distinction – and it is equally important to note that it also works the other way around. If someone is Irish by nationality, as of the 1998 Agreement this no longer automatically means an association with sovereign territory of Ireland (described as ‘the Republic of Ireland’). It means an association with either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.

With regards to international football, this has connotations. If you are British by nationality, you cannot just choose any of the four British teams – you have to have a further association with the relevant jurisdiction (your own birth or that of any parent or grandparent). Likewise, it follows as of 1998 that if you are Irish by nationality, you cannot just choose either of the two Irish teams – again, logically, it would follow that you have to have a further association with the relevant jurisdiction.

To be clear, this does not deny a Nationalist (of Irish nationality) the “right” to play for the Republic of Ireland, any more than it denies a Unionist (of British nationality) the “right” to play for England or Scotland. It merely means that an affiliation with the relevant jurisdiction has to be demonstrated in the normal way.

Yet here is the thing – FIFA ruled otherwise. Contrary to the clearly established rule with regard to the British teams (and in fact 25 other cases of “shared nationality”), it clarified that that rule applied but then bizarrely added one paragraph that Irish nationality alone would suffice to play for either Irish team – an inexplicable addition meaning rendering the ruling devoid of any logic whatsoever, and one which was of course bound in practice to favour the FAI (the governing body in the Republic of Ireland).

And here is the other thing – it turns out that FIFA and the FAI, well, get on rather well…

There is much to this mess about which we need to know a lot more…

Burnham fundamentally mistaken on “Labour for Yes”

Labour Leadership front runner Andy Burnham has vowed “not to repeat the mistakes” of the Scottish campaign and thus run a separate “Labour for Yes” campaign in the event of an EU referendum.

Oh dear.

This rather demonstrates that Mr Burnham has not taken enough time to work out what the mistakes were. It was most certainly not a mistake for “Better Together” to run a joint campaign; if anything, the mistake was that it was too political and not sufficiently civic.

Mr Burnham is making two fundamental mistakes – which is worrying, frankly, for a potential Leader of the Opposition (from Labour’s point of view). Firstly, he is allowing his opponents to frame the debate – the SNP claims that the “Better Together” campaign brought Labour and Tories too close together, so Mr Burnham just believes this rather than challenging it. Secondly, he is treating a referendum like an election – but referendums are nothing like elections, focused as they are on a single issue and very often not particularly on politicians at all.

With regards to Scotland, Labour needs to challenge the SNP, not buy into its narrative. If, for example, Labour candidates are nothing but a bunch of “Red Tories” who make no real difference, why was the SNP so intent on seeing a Labour-led UK Government and not a Conservative one? If the SNP really wanted a Labour-led UK Government, why did it recommend that people in England split the left-leaning vote by voting Green? Oh yes, and by the way, if the SNP is so “anti-austerity”, why did it never use its tax-varying powers (and instead reduce Health spending comparative to England when it could have raised the gap), why has it overseen the lowest household taxes in Great Britain (while cutting hundreds of Further Education places that money could have been used for), and why did it make reducing Corporation Tax a focus of its own referendum case (something it itself has now effectively admitted was an error)? The contradictions are obvious – so Labour should waste no time in pointing them out rather than buying into the SNP’s own narrative.

With regards to referendums, the last thing the “Yes” side needs is a whole raft of different campaigns; actually, the very last thing it needs is a whole raft of a overly political different campaigns. What it really requires is a single civic campaign, albeit as an umbrella covering various different civic and local angles.

Andy Burnham may be most useful staying right out of it.

What the NIO will do…

I wrote about what the NIO should do the other day.

Sadly, I suspect that is not what it will do, although I continue to recommend it in the light of feedback. Narrowing everything down to one issue creates gridlock in Northern Ireland; broadening the package (and thus enabling everyone to claim victory) is the way to go.

So, what will the NIO do and how will this ‘crisis’ be resolved. Well, nothing is reliably predictable about this – it is, genuinely, uncharted waters. However, there are a few options.

Legislative Consent

The fundamental stumbling block is that both Nationalist parties put their signatures on the Petition of Concern to cause the Welfare legislation to fall. If either one or the other had not done so, it would have passed (even if they had voted against) because the Petition would not have had enough signatures.

That means that it remains the case that either Nationalist party can still do a deal to see the legislation pass, and thus the Budget crisis resolved (insofar as the Stormont House Agreement is a resolution).

Theoretically, welfare reform legislation cannot return to the Assembly within the next six months, under Standing Orders; indeed, it is unconventional for any legislation to return within the same Assembly or Parliamentary term. That Standing Order could, of course, be removed, although even that requires agreement. (It is for this reason, for example, that same-sex marriage motions are brought to the Assembly every six months.)

However, there is also the much discussed option of the UK Government passing the legislation. However, it would be unconventional for it to legislate on a devolved matter without consulting the relevant devolved Assembly. This consultation takes the form of a Legislative Consent Motion, to which the Assembly must agree. These are frequently used to keep pensions arrangements or corporate governance regulations in line across the UK, for example.

Conventions absolutely matter in UK politics. Without a written constitution, conventions, from the requirement for the Prime Minister to sit in the Commons to the understanding that the Lords will not block legislation in the governing party’s manifesto, are essential. Even though they are not written down, they are the building blocks of the constitution – therefore “unconventional” above almost means “unconstitutional”.

Therefore, it is highly risky either to re-introduce Welfare Reform legislation before November (or really at all in this Assembly term), or to seek to impose Welfare legislation over the heads of MLAs. Both are much discussed, but neither is a serious constitutional option.

The likeliest outcome, therefore, is that the UK Parliament will legislate to extend the 2012 Welfare Reform Act to Northern Ireland, but then offer it to the Assembly under a Legislative Consent Motion. This still requires Assembly agreement. By that time, however, a deal could be done with either Nationalist party which would gain their agreement not to sign a Petition of Concern to block it. (Possible deals would include removal from the legislation of the Spare Room Subsidy or “Bedroom Tax” as mentioned by Sinn Fein, or agreement to allow one or more of the SDLP’s amendments to in effect be made in future Regulations – alongside a clearer outline in the meantime from the NI Executive of the proposed mitigation measures.)

Enhanced borrowing

The fundamental problem with not passing Welfare Reform is not just that it means the UK Government will gradually withdraw from paying for Northern Ireland’s welfare system (the total cost of this withdrawal to the NI Executive, erroneously referred to as ‘fines’ or ‘penalties’, is currently £114m/year but continues to rise), but that it collapses the Stormont House Agreement. The UK Government cannot realistically proceed with that Agreement if the NI Assembly has not done its part of the bargain.

However, there are parts of the Agreement which the Conservatives may be keen to allow anyway. It is quite possible that they will allow the transfer of funds from capital to current (in effect) to enable the Voluntary Exit Scheme, as they would in principle support this “rebalancing” anyway. They may, so as simply not to be churlish, allow the current £100m loan to be paid out of capital budgets too. However, other similar transfers may not be so appealing, and there will be no reason whatsoever for them to put investment at risk elsewhere in the UK by reducing Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland.

One thing the NIO could offer, however, would be to double the borrowing power of the Northern Ireland Executive and allow it for any budget stream, thus effectively enabling it to borrow the £600m it needs now (and the potential £2.8b it needs if no budget is moved next month) and pay it back over time with interest. In the long run, this would have no real impact on the UK Treasury’s finances (which are worked in terms of 10-year borrowing terms anyway), and it would in effect buy another year to resolve welfare (conveniently to the far side of the Irish General Election).

It would be catastrophic for future Northern Ireland budgets, but the current political stand-off considers only the present and not the future. Therefore, this is probably the second likeliest option.

Assumption of Welfare Powers

Another option talked about is the potential “taking back” of welfare powers by “Westminster”.

To be clear, this phrasing is inaccurate and misleading. “Westminster” usually means the Parliament but since we are talking about executive policy development we should probably include “Whitehall”; more to the point, the UK Government never legislated for welfare in Northern Ireland except under Direct Rule (and even then it was, nominally at least, done separately).

The temptation, however, is that welfare powers are currently not devolved anywhere else (though some, notably around disability, are in the process of being devolved to Scotland).

There would be a case, as part of this package, to “reserve” (i.e. “un-devolve”) equality law competences as well, as these are not currently devolved anywhere else either and are also currently gridlocked; this would be probably be wise for the sake of emphasising consistency and distinguishing between powers being taken by Westminster and those not being taken, such as Health and Education, which are devolved elsewhere. However, it is unlikely in practice.

Theoretically, the transfer of powers to the UK Parliament requires a Legislative Consent Motion (see the likeliest option above). The precedent here was the accidental devolution of powers over UK Antarctic Territories, which required such a motion to return them to Westminster from Stormont (and also Holyrood) a few years ago. However, such a Motion would have to be avoided in practice.

Leaving aside the fact it is unconventional (itself extremely dangerous, as noted above), in the court of public opinion this is a dangerous move for the future of the institutions. This is particularly so if it continues to be phrased as “taking back powers”. The public will say, after all, if MLAs cannot sort out welfare, why should they be trusted with justice, health or education? Why not just do away with them altogether? That underlying and peculiarly Irish (perhaps now specifically Northern Irish) notion that we would really be better governed by somebody else, part of our culture of underlying insecurity, will come to the fore. So this is a possibility, but a much, much riskier one than its proponents imply.

Institutional Reform

Another option for the NIO is institutional reform, particularly to stop abuse of the Petition of Concern.

The NIO could argue that, under the spirit of the Agreement, such Petitions were clearly only meant to protect one “designation” from being deliberately targeted by the other.

This is complex, however. My own proposal in the past has been that this would require the creation of a Tribunal, similar to the old IMC, which would determine whether or not a Petition was legitimate on community grounds. This would itself have to be established, wasting precious time. Furthermore, Unionists may not be so keen on it either – in the next Assembly, for example, the Petition of Concern is likely to be crucial on votes of interest to them such as same-sex marriage.

However, the implicit threat of changing the rules around Petitions of Concern may in itself be enough to push through a deal. This, therefore, is highly unlikely but is a possible ‘dummy’ option, floated to try to speed things up.

Nothing

Another option, at least for the next two months, is for the NIO to do absolutely nothing.

It could simply wait for the budget cuts to start happening, causing public outrage. It would continue to point out that such cuts would not be necessary if only the Assembly had passed welfare reform and thus adhered to the Stormont House Agreement the parties signed up to working from. It would remain ready to implement the Agreement once the Assembly did its bit.

This does risk serious civil disorder, or at least civil disorder being blamed on the political situation. This would not be good for the devolved institutions. Nevertheless, ‘do nothing’ is a surprisingly tempting option politically – and the local parties would need to be aware of that.

Assembly Election

The NIO now has no power over calling an Assembly Election, but could nevertheless suggest one. (It may be forced to, of course, in the event of a resignation or two from Executive office.)

It is unlikely this will figure in the NIO’s thinking because it is not in its own gift. Nevertheless, it will know that, based on May’s results, an election may not be the greatest idea for either big party, nor for either Nationalist party.

Several of the above

Of course, not all of the above are mutually incompatible. The NIO could opt for ‘do nothing’ to start with, then float ‘institutional reform’, and then throw a ‘Legislative Consent Motion’ to pass the Welfare Reform Bill and even a second to reserve welfare powers to Westminster. It may know that an early Assembly Election would be a consequence of these all not working.

So, it’s anyone’s guess! My own instinct is that these options are all in order of likelihood – but who knows?

Modern SDLP unwilling to govern

If Sinn Féin put down a Petition of Concern then the welfare reform stuff goes straight back to London and they will implement cuts of a severe nature and there will be no mitigation”. 

So said SDLP MLA Fearghal McKinney on the BBC Nolan Show on Friday morning.

So why did the SDLP itself put down a Petition of Concern on Friday afternoon?

There we have it: yet another party willing to be in office but unwilling to govern.

“Brexit” looms large after UK election

One of the consequences of the outright Conservative majority at this month’s General Election is that it makes an in/out referendum on the European Union almost inevitable, most likely in May 2017.

Proposing a referendum was a political tactic. It is not, in fact, something many Conservatives particularly wanted. Many are keenly aware of the damage it would cause the businesses, particularly in London, which create the wealth in the UK on which the Government’s tax revenue (and, thus, public services and welfare payments) depend; others also recognise fully that an exit from the European Union would almost certainly be followed by a second Scottish independence referendum; a few no doubt will have noted that absolutely no one else in the world, least of all the United States, wants the UK to marginalise itself in such a way.

Nevertheless, the huge UKIP vote (even if it delivered just a single seat) cannot reasonably be ignored. It is not, primarily, to do with the European Union; it is more a reflection of disenchantment with politics. In England and Wales, the evidence is that UKIP picked up the Liberal Democrats’ mantle as the party of the protest vote, while Conservative and Labour vote shares remained largely stable (in fact, they marginally increased). There is a genuine fear of rapid social change, re-emphasised by a terrible economic crash at the end of the last decade, which needs to be addressed in some way.

The likelihood is that the UK will vote to remain in the EU when it comes to it. The risk, however, is that the campaign for remaining in will be run by Europhiles with Europhiles for Europhiles. In fact, most of the population are neither Europhile nor Europhobe – they may in fact be put off by alarmist campaigns, in the same way that many moderate voters were put off by the Labour Party’s tribalism.

It is simply not the case that the Conservatives will “dismantle the welfare system” or “destroy the NHS” – Labour has campaigned on this many times since the War, but it has never happened. Nor is it the case that, in the words of the Swedish Prime Minister, leaving the EU would be a “catastrophe”.

It would, however, damage the UK economy in the long run because, outside the world’s largest free trading bloc, it would discourage investment; it would harm UK public services by limited educational and information exchanges with an inward-looking country; and it would reduce the UK’s global influence, not least by restricting sharing of intelligence to tackle international crime and global security threats. These types of argument, calmly made and properly targeted, will secure our future within the EU and improve prospects for our jobs, our services and our general security.

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