Thursday, 28 October 2010

Coulson diversions unravelling

Three weeks ago I blogged about how the timing, execution and end result of the announcement of cuts to child benefits suggested that it was more about press cover than deficit reduction. (The announcement was rushed out, a surprise to senior ministers and the media alike, on the day that Channel 4 showed the Dispatches programme which exposed the complicity of Andy Coulson in widespread phone hacking.) The idea of avoiding the "cost" of means testing by excluding people on the basis of total household income simply didn't stand up to proper scrutiny, and the fact that joint incomes of £80k plus didn't exclude CB while an individual income of £45k did was categorically unreasonable.

More evidence emerged today to back up the suggestion that this was policy on the hoof. According to the WSJ, the Treasury is in disarray over a policy they are calling "unenforceable" for a whole range of reasons well laid out in the linked article.

The bottom line is that it undoubtedly will be more expensive to implement this "is there a higher-rate taxpayer in the household" approach than it would have been to create the means-testing which George Osborne claimed would be too expensive itself to give any overall benefit. And that means that the policy cannot have been checked by civil servants, in the Treasury or in HMRC, before being rushed out as a surprise announcement the day that Dispatches aired.

It was Coulson cover. The cover is blown.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

A brief observation re the destruction of the British economy

Just a simple point really. We had an election in May, and with due respect to the nationalists in the nations, the choice people faced was between the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Labour party.
  • The Tories said they wanted to cut "the majority of the deficit" in this parliament.
  • The Lib Dems said that the Tories plans would jeopardise the recovery, and they argued for a slower deficit reduction.
  • Labour laid out plans to halve the deficit.
The people chose to elect 307 Tory MPs (on 36% of the vote), 258 Labour MPs (29%) and 57 Lib Dems (23%).

In other words, we elected more MPs from parties that wanted a slower, measured deficit reduction than from those that wanted a quick one. And we voted in far greater numbers for parties that wanted a slower, measured deficit reduction than for those that wanted a quick one.

And yet, when the Tories and Lib Dems got together, instead of creating a halfway house between their economic policies, they somehow agreed to cut the entire deficit in this parliament - an extreme policy that neither had campaigned on, and no-one had voted for.

So the next time a supporter of this government tells you this is what the people voted for, tell them what a load of nonsense that is. No-one voted for this except the privileged handful who negotiated the coalition deal.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Coulson diversions: the SpAd and the Child Benefit

[EDIT: Added link to Telegraph article strongly supporting the "Child Benefit announcement was rushed" theory.]

As I blogged yesterday, Monday's Dispatches on Channel 4 exposed an extraordinary shift in the power of the press, specifically Rupert Murdoch's News International.

The phone tapping scandal - gross invasions of privacy committed by many editors and journalists but notably including one Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World and now head of communications in the heart of the Tory government -should be a massive news story, with potentially hundreds of arrests and prosecutions, and the redrawing of attitudes towards large media ownership and control.

But in reality, there is an effective news blackout, and the police are refusing to investigate. We know why this is, of course - the very power that was exposed in that programme has been applied very effectively to achieve this result.

But the power of Downing Street has also been applied. And I'm not talking about Cameron, I'm talking about Coulson again.

It's easy to identify the two most significant pieces of exposure this story has had since the Tories came to power. The first was on 1st September, when the New York Times published a huge, explosive exposé of the scandal. And the second was Monday, 4th October, the day the Dispatches programme was aired on Channel 4.

Isn't it extraordinary, then, that on both of those dates, stories were fed to the press by the communications machine in Downing Street which eclipsed the phone hacking scandal? On 1st September, William Hague was persuaded to make an extraordinary personal statement about his relationship with his special adviser, which dominated the front pages and relegated any coverage of the NYT story to also-ran status. This was widely regarded as a mistake and inexplicable as a piece of media management. And on 4th October, in a move openly acknowledged as unplanned and surprising by senior Tory ministers, George Osborne was persuaded to announce a cut in Child Benefit - an announcement which has since unravelled and been backtracked, exposing it for the rush-job that it clearly was.

The clear conclusion is that, alongside the protection racket which ensures that politicians and police officers are scared into doing what News International wants, there is also a press strategy being played out by Cameron's government which is determined to obscure, deflect from and avoid all coverage for this scandal.

I hope that our politicians and our police develop the courage and principles needed to rid us of this media hegemony. Unless they do, we are doomed to a dystopian future where press barons rule the world in their own interest.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Tories and News International - the real coalition

[SECOND EDIT: Around midnight Wednesday 6th Oct the programme was put back onto the 4OD website by Channel 4. To my knowledge no explanation has been given.]

[EDIT: Around 1pm Tuesday 5th Oct the programme linked to below was pulled from the 4OD website by Channel 4, who at this time have not made any public comment as to why they have done this.]

Anyone who didn't see this evening's Channel 4 Dispatches report on the phone tapping scandal should watch it right now, here. And anyone who, like me, has developed a healthy dislike of Peter Oborne for his relentlessly anti-Labour rhetoric, should see past that and watch anyway.

It was billed as potentially the straw to break the camel's back as far as the position of Andy Coulson (former NotW editor, currently David Cameron's PR chief) is concerned. But it turned out to be quite a lot more than that.

It exposed something which, if we're honest, has been hidden in plain sight for years. Our politicians and our public servants - including MPs and the Metropolitan police - are now subservient to the will of the media. The ability of the tabloid press to destroy lives and careers is now so complete that it has shifted the balance of power.

The plain truth is that Rupert Murdoch's News International has successfully run a protection racket powerful enough to persuade parliamentary committees to not call witnesses, and police forces to suppress investigations. The classic double - the threat of ruin to those who oppose, and the promise of riches and security to those who collaborate - has been played out again and again.

And the shocking realisation is that the latest body to decide to collaborate is the Conservative Party, the party of government in this country, in virtual hock to, and in the palm of, Rupert Murdoch. Not just cosying up for good press, not just cultivating links for party gain - the Tories are owned by News International now.

That's the real coalition ruling this country. It's not the Tories and the Lib Dems - that's just a smokescreen. It's the Tories and News International. And the Tories are the junior partner.

Child Benefit: just bloody means-test it

Quite a few people have responded in relatively positive terms to George Osborne's announcement today of a cut in Child Benefit. It has been a low-hanging fruit for government savings for decades, since it is possible to point to millionaires in receipt of government handouts they clearly don't need.

But it is a policy hamstrung by election promises not to introduce means testing to this sacred cow of post-war welfare - when in fact means testing is precisely what it needs. Instead, we have a dreadful fudge: any household with an earner who pays higher rate tax (meaning a salary of over £44.5k) will no longer be eligible.

The main unfairness in this is obvious - a single parent earning £45k will lose CB while two parents earning a combined income of up to £86k would still get the benefit. The same applies to a couple who have chosen to have one partner work and the other stay at home to look after children. It is grossly unfair.

Osborne acknowledges this, but says it is worth it to avoid the "complexity" of means testing. He's wrong. The facilities to means-test this benefit already exist for many other benefits. And if it's complexity he's worried about, why is he introducing a new tax clawback facility to enable this measure, when HMRC have long argued for clawbacks to be phased out, not more introduced, because of the complexities (and costs) they add to the tax system?

On the one hand, Osborne is hamstrung by pre-election promises not to touch child benefit. He clearly intends to deploy the "things are much worse than we thought" argument yet again to justify this volte-face. But he also seems to have calculated that proper means testing would be too much of a u-turn.

George, this is people's lives you're dealing with. Forget the political machinations and the face-saving. If you want to shave money of the Child Benefits bill, the only fair way to do it is means testing. Just bloody do it.