The impact of President Biden

When Donald Trump first was elected to office the interviewers on the BBC, Channel 4 and the other leading channels were keen to interview UK government politicians to try to get them to denounce Mr Trump and all his possible future works. I do not recall them pressing hard to see if the UK would learn from the Trump tax cuts, to put more money into the wallets and purses of¬† working people in the way Mr¬† Trump planned. Nor do I recall them criticising European walls and fences to keep migrants out whilst roundly criticising Trump’s plans to extend the US/Mexican wall. I did not hear interviewers asking UK Ministers if they might copy more of the Made in America programme Trump set out with a Made in UK version.

When Joe Biden was elected the direction of attack shifted to the opposite approach. The early interviews were all to make UK Ministers feel uncomfortable that they might not be close enough to the new President. Now we have seen his proposals UK politicians are often invited to express approval of the huge stimulus programmes  President Biden proposes, and asked whether they will match them. There is obvious joy at his wish to green US policy, and favourable mentions of his company tax rises. There is  no interest in what higher world corporate taxes  recommended by Mr  Biden might mean for the Republic of Ireland.  There is little criticism of the new President and his plans.

Those parts of the media that are financed by taxes or adverts and have a Charter that requires them to be impartial should seek to be impartial between Republican and Democrat as well as between the different parties in the UK. The journalists should also dig beneath the spin. Biden’s national resilience policies look very like Trump’s Made in America policies. Biden’s much lauded tax rises say they will not impose any tax rise on anyone under $400,000 a year, thereby validating the Trump tax cuts for most people. Biden’s announced withdrawal from Afghanistan is the Trump plan delayed by¬† few¬† months.

There is a natural tendency to the permanent expansion of government

The first law of government is the law of continuous expansion.

In a democracy good causes line up as lobbyists demanding  government gets  involved. They lobby for government to intervene in areas it does not currently manage. They demand new laws and controls on things they do not like. They demand more money and supply of things they do like from the state.

The official government machine encourages lobbying for more as they like growing their tasks. Ministers often dislike constantly saying No to lobbies and buy them off by offering them cash and laws to help them.

Oppositions usually take up lobby causes and press the government. If the government gives in they claim some credit. If the government resists they claim the government is mean, tough, insensitive or worse.

The media join in, running campaigns on behalf of lobby groups and behaving like Opposition parties.

There are very few lobbies the other way. The  causes of a smaller state, less government control of our lives and even of lower taxes have  very few lobby groups arguing for them as a counterweight. They are chronically under  represented in the media.

Bank holiday task – which quangos would you abolish?

Today I invite my critics who wish to see a slimmed quango state to write in with thought out proposals for abolition or slimming of some government bodies. I will  read and post a few longer pieces if they are considered and understand the forces that will seek to defend their chosen quango . It is not an invitation to a longer rant.

It would be interesting to hear thoughts on  the Next Steps style Agencies that were designed to make parts of what is government work more business like, giving the day to day tasks of administration and processing to an Agency under a CEO whilst leaving policy with Ministers. The Driver and vehicle Licencing Agency and the Highways Agency are typical examples. These were activities we kept in the public sector.

In government in 1990 I privatised the Property Services Agency , so its building maintenance work  for the government estate  could be market tested and it could do work outside the public sector. Is this a model for other such activities?

As one time sponsor Minister for the LDDC I initiated the first consideration of how and when it could be wound up, job done, whilst limiting its activities and encouraging  mainly private sector investment.

 

It is very easy for armchair critics to write in and accuse MPs of being idiots in not agreeing to the contributors agenda, or being gutless in not implementing it. The task is how to get buy in and agreement to desirable reform, which often takes time and needs vocal support in a democracy. The forces for a larger state are numerous and well entrenched.

The number of quangos

Some of you have written in reply  to my piece on how Ministers can and should monitor and direct government bodies that we have too many of them. You  would prefer abolition to better performance review and budget controls.

This is to miss the point of my piece. No government is going to abolish all the government bodies that are under their own CEOs and Boards. Some of these bodies are both necessary and sensibly set up with an appropriate governing structure which Ministers need to help make work well. The piece  responds to a need for better control and performance checking of these bodies. This has been  highlighted yet again by the obvious failings of the independent public sector model in the Post Office where Ministers failed to intervene when they could have saved the Post Office a lot of trouble and expense as well as saving the livelihoods of wrongly accused people.

I do agree that there are too many of these bodies. It would be good to persuade Ministers to have a review of which ones could be abolished altogether, which ones do work that would be better undertaken directly by government departments, and which ones could do with new directions. Good Ministers keep such questions in mind as a matter of course for the bodies that report to them, and should be on the look out for opportunities to slim the quango estate as legislative time and political will allows.

I remember making the case over several years for the abolition of the South East England Regional Development Agency. Eventually the incoming Coalition government took up the idea and abolished the English Agencies in 2012. In order to succeed you do need to identify the body, show how what it does does not need doing, or demonstrate how what it does is best done by someone else. In the case of the Development Agency I argued

 

  1. Homes for sale and the provision of new factories, warehouses, offices and other commercial space was best left to the private sector. The public sector involvement should  be confined to the local Planning Authorities over land use .
  2. The public sector does have a monopoly on the provision of road space and usually supplies less capacity than is needed. The Development Agency was usually deaf to entreaties to resolve the capacity and related safety issues. The Local Highways Authority remained the body with budget and powers to sort out local roads, and the central government and its English Highways Agency had the budget and powers over strategic roads. The Development Agency could slow things down or get in the way of resolving roads issues. I  never remember it helping when I was trying to get improvements.
  3. The public sector also controls the rail network and has extensive national budgets and regulators, so there was no helpful role for the Regional Agency there either.
  4. It was difficult to see what the Agency added to local Colleges, national apprenticeship programmes, and local Six forms to the general tasks of education, training and development.

I mention this success again, because government when it did the right thing and abolished these bodies could not resist setting up mini versions called LEPs. These are less costly and interventionist, but it is difficult to see why they are needed given the big roles in planning and development taken by Councils and central government anyway. My argument  against LEPs has so far not succeeded.

 

How Ministers can and should supervise government bodies

There are three main roles for Ministers to perform when supervising and sponsoring quangos or so called independent government bodies.

The first is to supervise the expenditures of public money. These bodies often rely on substantial grant income which needs to be agreed with Ministers and approved by Parliament as part of the annual national budget. A Minister can reasonably ask for a budget meeting with the quango to discuss their financial needs and to indicate to them likely financial support levels. There may need to be follow up exchanges depending on the negotiations within government with the Treasury about what is affordable.  The budget meeting is a good opportunity to review the aims and resources of the body, to press for better value for money and to define precisely for the following year what is expected and what is needed by way of financial support. This is a process which gets reported to Parliament and can be subject to debate if the budget of a quango becomes a matter of public or Opposition concern.

Some of these quangos depend in whole or part on money they raise from charging user  fees and licence fees on those who use their service. Usually the fee levels are regulated under legislative powers by Statutory Instrument. Often these bodies want annual fee increases which will need SI amendment and therefore Ministerial and Parliamentary approval. Under weak Ministers there is a tendency to accept any fee increase proposal the body requests, and to hope that the Opposition in Parliament will not bother to query or debate it. As left of centre oppositions rarely object to higher public sector fees and charges it is particularly incumbent on Conservative Ministers to be vigilant in the public and user interest. This is another variant of the  budget review and conversation.

The second is to review and report on the annual performance of the body to Parliament. The Minister can ask to see a draft copy of the body’s annual report to review, or can require a meeting with the body after it has submitted its annual report to the sponsor department. This is another good occasion to review the aims and achievements of the body, to thank them if they have done well or to ask them to do better if they have not. It is a good idea for a Minister to show interest in the performance targets to be set for the ensuing year and in the performance achieved in the year under review. Again Parliament may if it wishes receive, read and debate the report of a government body.

The third is to require additional special meetings if the government wishes to change the aims and demands on the body, or if the body needs to report unexpected problems and difficulties, or if the Minister has become aware of a body of complaints and criticisms that are or will become public that he or she needs to answer. Such matters should of course be reported to Parliament unless there is some special good reason for confidentiality because for example matters relate to a vulnerable individual or to possible legal proceedings that must not be prejudiced..

Ministers are also entitled to become involved with recruitment to Boards of these bodies and to some of the senior  management positions. If there is to be a change of chairman or chief executive this is another good opportunity to review performance and ask questions about aims and targets for the future.

If there is a good  series of meetings for the more important quangos Ministers should avoid nasty surprises about the conduct and performance of these bodies, and the leaders of these bodies would stay well informed about the overall government policy context in which they are working and about the likely level of resources they will enjoy to carry out their tasks.  The bodies should remember they are governmental and part of a greater whole answerable to Parliament.  Ministers should remember they are  not the day to day managers , they  do not have quasi judicial powers over the regulatory work of these bodies and should not normally intervene in individual cases.

Quangos and independent government bodies

 

There is  no such thing as truly independent government body. In a democracy Parliament and Ministers  can always change the guidance, funding or law applying to any independent body. Governments are held to blame by Oppositions and the public when an independent body makes a big error. In a tyranny or single party state then of course all bodies are  under the control of the tyrant.

In the last three decades in the UK there has been a fashion to pretend bodies can be truly independent, and a wish to transfer more and more decisions and budgets to independent bodies. I accept the case for independence when we are talking about quasi judicial roles or the technical implementation of complex matters under an approved guiding aim or policy that Parliament and people want. The UK system is good at stressing the limit of elected power when it comes to investigating, prosecuting and punishing people for breaking the law. There is a need for politicians to stay out of criminal law enforcement and out of individual cases where businesses or people have violated regulations set  by Parliament and quangos.

The Post Office scandal shows the limits of belief in independence. The Post Office is 100% taxpayer or state owned. It is an independent body with its own Board, Chief Executive, Statutory duties and aims. The idea is to have experts running the service, with Parliament and Ministers largely confined to deciding any financial matters as shareholder owner and setting overall objectives or standards. Ministers however still have to report the results of the Post Office to Parliament, and be willing to answer when the independent Board and management of the Post Office gets itself into difficulty and public controversy. Opposition in Parliament is happier blaming Ministers and demanding answers from them than making CEOs and Board members more famous by naming them as responsible for errors.

Labour, Coalition and Conservative Ministers have all presided over the long period when Postmasters and Postmistresses were being falsely accused and prosecuted by the management and legal advisers of Post Office Ltd. They were  all doubtless told that they should not intervene in these operational and legal matters and should leave it all to the independent Board and management. Now all accept that grievous errors were made the cry goes up that the Ministers should not have respected the independence but should have gone in and demanded a change of attitude and approach and if necessary changed the management.

What this tragedy reveals is the truth of the proposition that in a democracy where Ministers can with the backing of Parliament change the management, aims, budgets and legal frameworks of these bodies the state owns, Ministers do need to be sufficiently hands on to know if intervention is needed. I will write another blog about how I used as a Minister to monitor and influence quangos reporting to departments I served in in ways which respected independence but where important matters were part of government policy and were properly  reported to Parliament. Parliament needed to know how the body was doing , what government expected of it, and if change was needed.

Tougher carbon targets

Leading governments are as expected coming up with tougher targets to reduce carbon dioxide output, and are accepting the discipline of setting shorter term intermediate targets on the way to net zero by 2050. This week the German Green party moved in to the lead in the polls for the September 2021 Federal election. They have¬† pledged to increase Germany’s target of a 55% cut in CO2 by 2030 to a 70% cut. To achieve this they say they want to phase out all new internal combustion engine vehicles¬† and stop all coal use by 2030. President Biden is talking of halving 2005 levels of CO2 output¬† by 2030 in a major reversal of President Trump’s cheap energy policy based on domestic oil, gas and coal.

The question to ask  is how will these targets be hit without major changes of consumer behaviour?  How will they encourage or incentivise people to change their gas boilers and scrap their diesel and petrol cars? Germany is still reliant on coal and imported Russian gas for industry and homes. Why put in another gas pipeline from Russia  if this all has to be displaced? The German motor industry is trying to develop and display electric cars to replace its current successful  model ranges, but so far there is  no sign of a mass surge in demand on the scale needed given issues over prices, battery life and charge times. Governments are now talking about green hydrogen alternatives to battery electric travel  and mains electric heating, but the products based on it are not yet available to purchase. More uncertainty about what technology will prevail puts [people off early adoption.

These carbon warrior governments need to work with the private sector to decide what is feasible. They need to understand this transformation can only go at the fast pace they now want if the cars, heating systems, diets and the other things they want to change appear as products people want to buy at prices they can afford. There has been no need for government to push the mobile phone revolution. Most people wanted one and most embraced the new capabilities of the phone. There was  no need for governments to subsidise or regulate to get people to use Google searches or buy on line from Amazon. Their service was readily taken up by people.

 

The EU talks about the twin revolutions, the green and the digital. The truth is the digital revolution is bottom up, led by willing consumers seeking film and music downloads, wanting social media  and welcoming on line shopping. The green revolution is still top down. Without the products that fly off the shelves because they are good and good value it is going to take a lot of law, tax, regulation and subsidy to force the changes the quangos and governments want. The more they do it  by law, the more people will come to resent it.

The Post Office systems scandal

It has taken many years, much suffering and plenty of legal bills for the Postmasters to get justice over the Horizon scandal. MPs including myself told past Ministers there was no sudden outbreak of mass criminality by Postmasters, but there was a systems and accounting problem created by new computers. This has at last been admitted by the Post Office and the government.

Yesterday in the House the Minister made a statement about how the Post Office and government intend to proceed following the Court decision to quash past convictions for fraud, false accounting and theft by some of the Postmasters. They plan an Inquiry and a compensation scheme. There was widespread anger in the House about what has happened and how long it has taken the Post Office to accept its errors. I stressed to the Minister that they should as a matter of urgency grant compensation to all those falsely accused and many falsely convicted. The compensation should cover the Horizon losses themselves, but also the extensive legal fees to right the wrongs and the lost earnings and business revenue caused by these false actions. People have lost their livelihoods and seen their reputations savaged. The least the Post Office should do is offer generous compensation along with their belated apology.

The questions over Scottish independence

I would like Scotland to stay in the UK and note that a majority of Scottish people in the latest polls wish to. I think all should accept the agreement in 2014 that the referendum was a legal once in a generation vote. As the Scottish election is dominated by arguments about independence, with the SNP wanting another early referendum on the subject to try to reverse the decision made just a few years ago to remain, it is necessary to look at some of the consequences of a theoretical pro independence vote.

Many SNP people and arguments imply they do not want an independent Scotland. Many seem to want devo max. The official party position is now to want so called independence but to assume they will be admitted to the EU. They do not have doubts about how feasible that would be, nor do they think through what a negotiation would be like to try to bring that about. Presumably the EU would want Scotland to be a net contributor to the EU budget, a very different relationship to one they have with the UK budgets that have favoured Scotland. They would also presumably expect Scotland to prepare to enter the single currency. That at least would sort out the strange refusal of the SNP to say which currency they would use were they win a referendum, though there would still be the question of what currency they would adopt between leaving the UK and being admitted as full members of the Euro.

In the last referendum many SNP supporters argued they should stay in the pound. It seemed doubly bizarre to want an independent Scotland to have a foreign Central Bank. There would be no reason for the rest of the UK and the Bank of England to go on taking Scotland’s economic needs into account when setting rates and banking policy. Scotland would not be represented on the Board or around the Monetary Policy Committee table. They also believed last time that large and rising oil revenues would bail them out. Today the oil price is much lower and the new Scotland is committed to net zero, so they have to plan the demise of their oil industry.

The issue of debts and deficits would loom large. Of course if leaving the UK Scotland should take her fair share of the collective debt. Her budget deficit would be far too high for the Maastricht EU rules. That is an issue they would need to sort out as part of their membership talks with the EU. Meanwhile they would need to satisfy international debt markets about their plans.

I am not one to go in for Project Fear type projections of what might happen to Scottish economic output, jobs and trade were she to leave the UK. I have seen too many of those exercises be too pessimistic without helping the cause of those trying to keep a Union together. It is however important that the rest of the UK makes clear that were Scotland to hold and win a legal referendum to leave the UK we would respect it, and would proceed to negotiate exit. The UK would need to make fair proposals to share the debt, to allow independent migration and citizenship policies, to provide a means of following different trade and foreign policies, and settling issues over defence amongst other matters. Scotland would need to put up an EU external border with England is she got her way and became an EU member. Would Scotland seek to join NATO and be a committed ally of the UK? How quickly would the UK military bases in Scotland be removed? The rest of the UK should not seek to obstruct a departure following a legal referendum, but nor should it allow exit on Scotland’s preferred terms. 300 years of Union has created much common working and interwoven institutions so there would be much to unravel.

Farming and the environment

I am all in favour of defending our landscapes, keeping our water and air clean and being kind to animals. Conservatives believe in conserving what is best in the natural world and working with the grain of Human nature and the environment.

I am in favour of reducing the pressures of development on our green fields and woods by having a more sustainable level of migration than we were allowed by the EU free movement rules. People who do come to live here should be welcomed and have access to decent housing and services. There are limits to how much extra can be supplied.

There are some who wish to re wild large areas. I do not think we have the same obligation to wolves or wild boar or wild cats as yet unborn as we do to allow space and food for all the birds and animals who currently share our land. When we seek places for wild flowers and shrubs we should balance that with the need to grow more of our own food. A field of corn or a pasture of sheep can look beautiful and is as much a part of the natural world as some newly created wild space.

We need to avoid policies which destroy livelihoods and land important to people’s lives. The drowning of the Somerset levels was destroying homes and farmland in some strange experiment. The same was not tried in the Fens where they still dredged the ditches and manned the pumps to preserve England’s most productive growing land. Why was the Somerset levels selected for different treatment? We also need to defend land subject to attack from the sea where it has been settled and matters to people’s lives and livelihoods. In selective places we should consider as the Dutch do reclaiming land we could use for farms or dwellings.

I will continue to press DEFRA for their policies to promote food production. They seem keener on wilding when we need a proper balance.