Wednesday 25 February 2015

About. Bloody. Time. (But not far enough.)

Clampdown on cold call companies unveiled by government. Not before time. Cold calls are a menace, and even more so this week: I've been on holiday. I'm trying to relax, but the phone at my holiday place rings every day with cold calls. In the end I set the ringer to zero volume, so if somebody called it who actually wanted me, they wouldn't get me.

Even within current legislation, the ICO's reponse has been pusillanimous. So, when it gets these new powers, it needs to start using them. Also, these powers only deal with cold calls within the UK. The faux Microsoft calls from India need to be dealt with too. At the moment phone companies have no way of filtering out withheld numbers from foreign places, because BT Openreach does not provide one. You can buy one to fit on your own phone, but why should we have to? It is a quick technical fix to provide a call blocking mechanism for withheld numbers but Openreach apparently have no interest in providing one. Ofcom should give Openreach a very hard kick up the backside on this one, and keep kicking till they provide it.

An addition to my election wishlist: MPs' jobs on the side.

An addition to my election wishlist. This has been in my mind for some time, well before the Straw / Rifkind hands in the honeypot debacle; I didn't remember it when I wrote my original election wishlist.

MPs can have any second job they want. Or third. Or fourth. But they cannot vote on anything in which they have an interest. (If the rule is good enough for councillors, it's good enough for MPs.) The Speaker's Office should have an arm devoted to determining who can vote on what, with stringent rules. Any bill brought before Parliament would have a list attached to it of MPs who cannot vote on it, with the reasons why. An advisor to a large multinational company might find themselves excluded from all the important votes.....

An objection will immediately be raised. What about people like doctors who need to do a certain amount of practice in order to maintain their credentials? As experts, they have specific contributions to make to debates in their specialisms. I don't think that is insuperable. Even doctors can't have everything. They have to make a choice; do they want to be a doctor or an MP? If they want to be an MP, they put their doctoring on hold. If they lose their credentials and have to get them back after they have ceased to be MPs, provision for retiring MPs is very, I mean VERY, generous - they have plenty of both time and money to re-credential themselves.

Also, I think the argument about having expertise in the house is overblown. 650 largely white, largely middle class, largely middle aged men will not have expertise on everything. They rely on outsiders for expertise, and perhaps should rely more. The medical profession, like any other profession, is an interest group. I would hate doctors to have some sort of claim to being listened to more than all the rest of us when it comes to legislation on medical matters.

Thursday 19 February 2015

My election wishlist

None of the items below is sexy, but I think they are all necessary and will have a surprising effect on accountability, efficiency, the quality of the services we receive, and the amount of tax available to pay for them.

Welfare policy
Whatever the words employed, current welfare policy is about demonising and impoverishing claimants. We want a society where everyone who is not working, either because there is no work, or because they are too ill or disabled to work, is guaranteed a decent minimum without fear of constant harassment.

Civil service capacity
We've been outsourcing busily for thirty years. That's an entire generation. But the capacity of the civil service to monitor the tens of billions of pounds in those contracts remains unacceptably low. We need to beef up the contract control functions of the civil service so that it is capable of ensuring that every profit making contractor delivers the service that we are paying them for.

FOI for all government contracts
Much of our tax money is wasted through sloppy procurement of public services from private contractors. (Example: SERCO had to repay £200 million due to overcharging on offender monitoring contracts.) We need to extend freedom of information provisions to all contracts awarded by central and local governments, so that we can see what is going on with our money, and neither ministers nor contractors will be able to hide behind the fig leaf of commercial confidentiality. Yes,  it's not sexy, but it will make a much bigger difference to both our services and our taxes than most people think.

As many staff to tackle tax avoidance as benefit fraud
Benefit fraud costs us approximately £1.2 billion a year. Tax evasion costs approximately £70 billion a year. The DWP claims to employ 3250 people chasing benefit fraud; HMRC claims to employ 300 people chasing high earning evaders. (Other figures are available.) We need to ensure that as many resources are put into chasing tax evasion as benefit fraud. And we need to see that the proportion of tax evasion cases taken to prosecution equals or outstrips the proportion of benefit fraud cases.

And then when we wake up exhausted the day after election day, I wonder what our red lines should be. Just a few observations here. I have very few things that I would call red lines. I don't think our tax ideas need to be there (I don't think a further raise in the level of personal allowance is the best thing to do for low paid people). There has been a certain amount of speculation about the LibDems not having the stomach for another coalition with the Tories. I don't feel that way. If the electorate deals us those cards again, then we have to play them. The country is not in the delicate state it was in in 2010 so we can afford to take longer and play harder if we think it right to do so. Alternatives like confidence and supply are more open than they were in 2010. There is one area where I would foresee difficulty if I were in the negotiating team. I do not see how we could tolerate being in another government with Iain Duncan Smith. It's not about stomach: I can imagine being in the same room as him. But his lethal combination of vindictiveness and incompetence directed at the poorest and most vulnerable is the very opposite of liberal government. If we enabled him to take another five years to bully poor people, sick people and disabled people, we could no longer call ourselves liberals.