Yesterday as half the country struggled with snow drifts, blocked roads and icy pavements, and as the other half awaited plunging temperatures and a snow storm, Parliament devoted prime time to global warming. I looked in vain at the Order Paper to see how I could raise the state of the highways, the lack of grit for the pavements and side roads, the rush of too many people to casualty departments following slips on treacherous sidewalks. I thought we should be debating the UK’s lack of preparedness for another Antarctic blast. The government was still in world saving mode, wishing to spin its way to success from Copenhagen’s ragged conclusions. I wanted to save the NHS money by gritting more pavements. That could be a deficit cutting item of spending given the costs of fractures.
I asked Mr Ed Miliband a simple question. Why was the Northern hemisphere experiencing such a cold winter, and which of the climate models had predicted this? It was meant to be a rational and interesting question. It should be the kind of question climate change’s chief UK salesman can answer in his sleep. Mr M has always posed as a kind of para scientist. He pretends to read all the climate change science in the back of his Ministerial limo and on those long flights he makes to save the world. I was expecting some answer that told me you can have severe winters within a pattern of global warming, with reference to some climate change model analysis which allowed for adverse variations within the assumed pattern of warming. How wrong I was. Instead Mr M threw his toys out of the pram, declined to offer a civil answer to a civil question, and told me the science of global warming was settled! His problem is that there are a lot of climate sceptics out of Parliament who do not see it like that, who want some answers to some difficult questions about the government’s beliefs and strategy in this area. Some other MP from a sedentary position offered the profound advice that I needed to understand climate was different from weather. At least that was cleverer linguistic gymnastics than Mr M could muster.
The day did not improve when we got onto the main business of the Deficit. I got the opportunity to make a speech along the lines of yesterday’s blog. We did drag out of reluctant Ministers the fact that they think they need at least £57 billion of public spending cuts, along with around £28 billion of more taxes, to hit their target of halving the deficit as a proportion of GDP by 2014. The Chamber was virtually empty on the Labour side. Only two backbench Labour MPs were prepared to speak in the debate. Both of them opposed the government’s measure – one because it did not take the deficit seriously enough, and the other because she could not countenance spending cuts.
It turned out when I had the chance to read their draft Bill that it contains a major flaw even within its own silly terms. It requires future Chancellors to cut public spending as a proportion of GDP every year from 2010 to 2016. This means that if there were by any chance another sharp contraction in the economy the government would not under the terms of this Bill be able to use the natural stabilisers which the government has always told us are so important. In a recession tax revenue falls and benefit spending rises, making the deficit worse. This “cyclical” part of the deficit is always thought to be fair enough, as it will self correct when recovery gets underway. Under this Bill it would not be permitted. Under pressure the government then told us that in such circumstances they would bring a new Deficit Bill to the Commons relaxing this one!
So Parliament wasted the best part of a day debating a Bill written by the Tresury to make the Treasury behave in a certain way for the next six years, only to be told that of course if things went wrong they would tear it all up. The Bill makes clear no Minister can be blamed or punished if they fail to hit the deficit targets!
I have a better idea. Tear the Bill up now, and save the money and effort of putting through this absurd law. It imposes no sanctions on Ministers if they fail to deliver, and we now know it can be changed anytime government wishes. We woudl be better off debating the cold weather, and trying to bring some relief to people seeking to get to work and school. I did ring my local Council who promised faithfully they would grit and salt the roads thoroughly. I would still like more snow ploughs available and more grit for the pavements and side roads.