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July 14, 2009

Dear All,

Many thanks for following Frank Field’s Blog.  The RSS feed will now be generated directly from Frank’s site at http://www.frankfield.co.uk/~ff-resources/rss.php  .  This will be the last post on this WordPress version of the blog.

If you have any problems connecting to the new feed, it would be useful if you could let me know on 0207 219 0276 or reesdw@parliament.uk .

With best wishes,

David Rees,

Office of Frank Field MP

Post-Expenses Politics

May 28, 2009

Part of the great political reform programme to be generated from the Commons will entail a head-to-head with Government. The aim, as I have said before, is not the Romantic one of trying to move back to the 1860s when MPs made and unmade Governments and were seen as great initiators of legislation. That was the age when only 3% of males had the vote.

Responsible government – in the sense of governments being held to account by voters – necessarily entails party Government. Trying to go back to a pre-party age will drive the reform programme into a cul-de-sac.

The aim of the Commons must be to ensure that the Government’s programme is better prepared and, to use that horrible phrase, “fit for purpose”. There will always be emergencies to which a Government must react. But outside this narrow area all legislative proposals should start with the publication of a green paper which:

• Explains why the measure is necessary.
• Justifies why the new measures cannot be achieved under existing legislation. 
• Sets out the reasons why Ministers believe the option they are proposing is the right one.
• Analyses the costs, benefits and risks of the different options that have been considered.
• Lists the discussions that have already taken place and the timetable for further discussion.
• Invites the relevant select committee to help shape the main parts of the Bill.
• Gives a timetable when the Commons might expect a Bill.

There is nothing revolutionary here. Much of this was agreed by the House in 1997 following the Scott report, but never implemented

The House also needs to establish a Committee of equal weight to the Public Accounts Committee which would be concerned exclusively with the Government budget, its size and the main headings of expenditure. This new Committee is urgently needed for reasons I have explained elsewhere. This reform is urgent if the Commons is to play its role in helping the Government shift, over the short to medium term, the record levels of debt it needs to market.

One of the other necessary reforms I have already mentioned in the establishment of a Business Committee which sanctions the Commons’ timetable. This Committee would be responsible for ensuring that all Government measures are properly debated and amended by the weight of argument. But it would also be responsible for delivering back to Government its Bills on an agreed timetable.

The Business Committee would also be responsible for ensuring that Select Committee reports are properly debated soon after publication. It would also timetable space for Select Committees to introduce legislation resulting from their reports.

But the overall aim of the Committee should not be more, but less legislation, and of course better legislation.

Equal Votes for Whom?

May 26, 2009

One wag reported, on hearing the news of the death of Metternich, “Now what did he mean by that?” The actions and sayings of Alan Johnson will likewise be analysed. So what did he mean by raising the question of electoral reform? 

Here was a cry for traditional British politics to re-emerge. What Cabinet Government was like is still within living memory of older voters. It was not uncommon then for major figures in a political party to engage voters in a wider debate. 

Alan is right in insisting that the reform of Parliament has to go beyond electing a new Speaker. The new Speaker could have a key role in driving through a new contract between the Commons and the voter but also, as Alan suggests a new contract between the Commons and government. 

This is the central issue of the Speakership election. But is Alan right to back the Jenkins proposals? Again what is so good about Speaker Martin’s delayed resignation is that the country now has perhaps a unique opportunity to debate not that tired old phrase “constitutional reform” but to remake our democracy. 

We must move to a system where minority parties are better represented in Parliament. But is any reform which contains a list system, however modified, going to satisfy an electorate fed up to the teeth at what is sees as a conveyor belt of party hacks being thrown at it? 

For that is a key aspect of the Jenkins proposals. An element of proportionality will be brought into the system by “electing” members from a list system dominated – yes you’ve got it – by the party caucus. 

We surely do not want more of that. One of the tasks of reform is to lessen the grip parties have in a way which doesn’t destroy a party system delivering responsible government i.e. a Government that is able to be held to account. 

I have long advocated the French system. This keeps the constituency link so that every Member of Parliament knows that the buck stops with them. But it does ensure that every MP is elected by 50% plus one of the voters. 

On the first Sunday of an election those representatives passing that margin are declared elected. On the following Sunday French voters turn up to decide between the top two candidates from the previous week when neither had passed the 50% plus one barrier. This system is capable of delivering not only authority to the MP, but better representation for minority parties. Take my Birkenhead result in 1979. 

On our first part of the post system, I gained 49% of the poll, the Tories were second, the Liberals third. Under the French system I would have probably won with Liberal Votes switching to me. 

But suppose the Liberals had come a good second and I was still a good way from gaining the support of the majority of voters. I am not so sure in those circumstances that the Conservative voters, not to mention a whole chunk of Labour voters, would not have moved on the second ballot to elect a Liberal Member. The closer the parties are in votes, i.e. the further any candidate is from gaining 50% plus one of the votes, the greater the “upset” is likely to be. 

The other system I have advocated is open primaries. I believe in Birkenhead the law should allow the local Labour party to put me up with other Labour candidates in a primary and allow all voters, Tories and Liberals, to select the candidate who will in all likelihood the next Member of Parliament. 

Not only would such a system prevent the wasted vote syndrome that there is in the safest seats. But it would likely result in a large number of such seats seeing the successful candidate from the primary being elected in a General Election unopposed. The fight could have already taken place in the primary. 

Why not let parties hold such primaries should they want to? A small change in the electoral law would give a green light to greater voter choice of their representative. 

For more information please see my Policy Exchange pamphlet “Life Support“.

A Clean Sweep

May 18, 2009

When the Speaker stands up today at 3:30, he has to deal with what might become a complete breakdown of trust in our Parliamentary system, by voters, as a result of the expenses fiasco. The question of expenses rightly angers the public, but the Speaker is now offered a unique opportunity to reform Parliament.

His statement will hopefully cover five areas:

1. He should announce zero tolerance to fraudulent claims. Those in the outside world guilty of the worst abuses that have been uncovered would face prosecution. MPs should not be exempt from the criminal law. My guess is a lot of local parties will also begin the process of deselection. Failure to do so will see incumbents challenged by anti-sleaze candidates, who will probably win their seat.

2. The Speaker needs to announce immediate measures governing all allowances while awaiting the Kelly Commission on Standards in Public Life to report. All expenses from the beginning of this financial year should go online, the moment they have been agreed by the fees office. A slim-line Additional Cost Allowance should be announced with the clearest of guidelines outlining what can be claimed – not what cannot be claimed. The Communications Allowance should be abolished, no allowances should be used for supposed “services” received from local parties, and MPs should be forbidden to allow their local parties to use their offices in the constituencies.

3. The Speaker should announce that he has requested the Kelly Commission to report by mid-July. MPs can then debate the proposals before the summer, but they need to approve them without changing a dot or comma. The Fees Office would then have the summer recess to bring in the totally new system operating from the autumn.

4. The Commons must recognise that we live in an age of party governments, and that parties are crucial for delivering responsible government. Failure to get through their election programme would result in governments not being accountable for broken election promises. As a part of a new clear contract between the government and the Commons, while accepting the need for party government, the Speaker should announce today that it is up to the House of Commons to decide how the Government gets that programme through the House. He should set out that he intends to propose new machinery for managing House of Commons business, so that the Commons itself will in future organise its own timetable to consider Government measures, as well as its own measures.

5. The House of Commons must now better represent the views of voters. This should naturally follow from the Commons gaining control over its own timetable. The Government needs to be much more relaxed about the details of their programme so that MPs, better representing their constituents, can make measures contained in government Bills are more fit for purpose. Similarly, the Commons needs to elect the Chairmen and Members of each of its own Committees by secret ballot. The Select Committee system should also be enhanced not only in a pre-legislative role on Bills. It needs to extend its works so that serious issues raised by constituents are reported upon making it easier for those issues to be translated into future reform programmes.

Further reading:

Expenses are just a symptom, parliament must be remade – Sunday Times.

God’s Spies

May 13, 2009

“And take upon’s the mystery of things As if we were God’s spies….”

William Shakespeare, King Lear

Today’s Times has another exposé, not this time on MPs’ expenses, but on the spy rings that operated against this country leading up to the end of the Second World War and beyond. Here’s a personal note.

This paper has a strong record in exposing espionage. It led the campaign over what was known as the “Fourth Man” in the Cambridge spy network. The great investigator was Peter Hennessy.

Hennessy was getting too close. The Times was fed, I guess, misleading information from questionable sources in the security services and named the wrong B (as he was known).

B turned out to be Sir Anthony Blunt.

Years on the Times returns to this topic and writes up an exposé on the Oxford spy ring. They name Arthur Wynn as a key player.

I know Arthur’s wife, Peggy, from my days at the Child Poverty Action Group. She was and remains a grand figure influencing British life in two significant ways.

The first was the research she undertook looking at how families were unfavourably treated in the tax and benefits system. She wrote a seminal work, Family Policy, which was a fitting tribute to the work Eleanor Rathbone began in her campaigns for family endowment and documented in her great book, The Disinherited Family.

In my days at CPAG, and on official visits to Sir Keith Joseph, then the Health and Welfare Secretary of State, Margaret Wynn’s book would be either on a shelf behind him, or on the table itself. It was he who told me about the importance of the book, that I should read it and as they say – the rest is history.

But not quite. That book certainly started to change the Heath Government’s policy towards families which has more recently run into the sands. For some reason best known to themselves, the Government has devised an unbelievably generous tax and benefits system which is totally blind towards whether the family has one or two parents. Not a move Margaret Wynn would have supported.

But Margaret, who is still alive, and her husband had an even more dramatic effect on British politics. As part of my job with CPAG I edited the group’s journal – Poverty.

The Wynns- submitted me a piece on the worrying trend of a falling birth rate amongst more prosperous families and a significant increase in the birth rate of poorer families. Keith Joseph, a CPAG member, read the piece and used it for a speech just prior to the challenge to Heath’s leadership.

He pointed to this trend and to the dangers it held for a prosperous country. Of course it had overtones of the Eugenics debate of the 1930s which had widespread support and which was quickly buried, thanks to the evil Hitler regime’s policies on racial purity.

But not to look at how societies are changing, and what benefits or challenges this throws up, is simple irrationality bordering on the idiotic.

There followed a huge hullabaloo in the press and as a result of the media coverage Sir Keith Joseph announced he thought he was not suitable to challenge Ted Heath for the leadership of the Tory party. It is at this point that Mrs. Thatcher realised that, if there was to be a challenge, she had to be the challenger.

Two rather good footnotes to history on God’s spies of families, do you not think?

No Expense Spared

May 12, 2009

There is literally no obvious way out of the appalling mess in which MPs now find themselves over our allowances. The opportunities we have had – in deciding how to disclose information about our allowances – were squandered.

Worse still we have given up any attempt to control events. Authority has been passed to the Kelly Committee on standards in public life.

What we can therefore do now is limited. But we are not totally without influence. The leadership should come from the head man. The Prime Minister should act today.

He should invite again the leaders of the other parties to join him in Downing Street. The purpose would be to agree an all party leadership recommendation to the Kelly Committee and they should not leave Downing Street until the outline of an agreement is made. If he doesn’t, one of the other party leaders should take the lead.

They should then ask the Kelly Committee to speed up their enquiry. It should be asked to report on the second homes allowance within a month.

Can the second home allowance live up to its name? Should Members who are required to have a second home not loose out financially compared to London MPs?

If that is answered in the affirmative then some reforms fall immediately into place.

The Kelly Committee should list what it believes it would be legitimate to expense. Parliament should accept without amendment the Kelly proposals. Naturally all expense claims each month must go online as soon as they are cleared.

But how does the political class get some sense of authority and dignity back? Only the electorate can give this back. And it will not come back by simply holding a general election. We have to be much more radical.

We will know from opinion polls whether what Kelly proposes is supported by the voters. If it is not so, then Kelly and MPs must sell the proposals to the country by way of debate, and, if needbe, by calling a referendum.

The voters who pick up our bills must approve.

And I don’t kid myself that that will be nice for MPs. Voters are pretty angry and may well be in vengeful mood. The only way we can make a new beginning is to submit our allowances to the electorate to decide.

I don’t for one moment think the course of action will be an easy ride for MPs. But do we deserve one?

 

Closing the Door

May 11, 2009

I didn’t think I would feel so sad. How wrong can you get?

Friday was my last day in Birkenhead Town Hall – the place where I have held surgeries throughout the past thirty years. The Council has kindly fixed me up with accommodation across the square in the Treasurer’s department. But I hadn’t realised what a wrench it would be.

In those early days, I had a tiny boxroom on the ground floor which just held me, a constituent, two chairs and a very small table. People would come in to the Town Hall on a ground level and would sign in to see me.

It was in this little room that I first met Edmund Dell after being selected in January 1979 as the prospective Labour candidate for the town. Edmund was a glorious person and part of his glory was in his shyness.

The shyness prevented him from looking straight into my face. But, steadily directing his eyes towards to the wall I was facing, he gave me two pieces of advice.

The first was not to rush in and increase the numbers of surgeries that he held. It is very easy, later, to make surgeries even more regular, but it is very unpopular to cut the number. That advice I have followed to the letter of the law and it is only been over the last five, or is it ten, years that I have held surgeries as he did on the second and fourth Friday in the month, but now include the fifth Friday as well.

The other piece showed his optimistic nature. “One day”, he told me, “you will be famous. People will ask you to speak in their constituencies.

You can only ever lose votes in an election. Accept every one of those invitations for it is better to lose votes in someone else’s constituency that your own”.

I fear I have failed Edmund on his second prophesy, but all those memories came flooding back to me on Friday evening.

These surgeries play a crucial part in my role as MP. I don’t mean here the traditional role that constituents should be able to go to their MP and, if possible, seek redress for any legitimate grievance. This role is crucial importance and becomes more so.

Part of one’s job as an MP is to say there is no redress. But my role is to try and change the law.

This has been a really valuable side of surgeries for me. The have been my constant tutorial over the past thirty years.

All the good ideas I’ve had in proposing reform have had their genesis in that little room in the Town Hall. On another occasion I will list some of the best ideas and best reforms you, my constituents, have taught me.

But now I leave the Town Hall. It is up for sale. Will anyone buy?

More importantly, what will it do to Birkenhead not to have a Town Hall? Having a place to meet cheaply is another public service drastically cut back by this latest closure.

Two glorious opportunities to give Birkenhead Town Hall new life have slipped through our fingers. It was the obvious site, being at the centre of the borough, for being the office of the new Wirral authority.

The Labour group decided that was where the Central Office should be and Labour councillors in Bebbington, West Wirral and, of course, Birkenhead voted for it.

But the Labour councillors in Wallasey voted with the Tories throughout the borough to have Wallasey. How stupid can you get?

The other splendid opportunity was when the current council was looking for decent accommodation in Birkenhead for some of its staff. A Senior Officer (without authority) signed a contract to remodernise the Cheshire Lines building.

How stupid can you get again? The £11M – or whatever the huge sum was that was spent on Cheshire Lines – a building we will never own and on which we pay rent – could have been used to make Birkenhead the second council centre in the borough.

And guess what? That chief officer who acted in this way remains in post!

Quantitative Unease

May 7, 2009

The political economy of the crisis moved on significantly both yesterday and today. Yesterday the Commons debated the second reading of the Finance Bill – the Budget in other words.

I had already tabled an Early Day Motion, backed by Vince Cable, calling for a rational debate about public expenditure cuts that are on the way, and for the Commons itself to setup a committee that would recommend how public expenditure – forecast yesterday by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to come in at 48 per cent of GDP in 2012 – is brought into line with the Government’s optimistic projections for revenue coming in 10 per cent lower at 38 per cent in the same year.

Supposing the market simply can’t digest all the debt the Government intends shovelling out this year, next year, and for many years to come. So in yesterday’s debate I made a plea that the Government and the House should have a plan B.

£25bn in debt has been successfully sold this year – leaving about £200bn to be offloaded. What will happen if the Debt Office tells to the Treasury, then to the Prime Minister that the market is refusing to buy?

The Treasury Select Committee has just reported that the cost of floating this debt will rise i.e. even more of future budgets will be ear marked for interest repayments. 
Please God the day will never come, but if the Government cannot shift its debt even at higher interest rates, it will have to act that evening before the markets open the next day.

Failure to do so will see the value of Sterling plunge through the floor. In attempt to safeguard the currency the Government will be forced into a slash and burn policy with respect to public expenditure. It might also be forced into forming a national Government. It may even have to adopt both approaches.

My plea has always been that in the run up to the election shifting the debt will prove much more difficult than the optimistic souls that run the Government believe and, that we should get a plan B in place now. Hence the plea for the House to act to start planning the new radical politics of achieving key goals while cutting severely the level of public expenditure.

That was the theme of the amendment I tabled to the Finance Bill Second Reading yesterday and I again was joined by Vince Cable and his deputy Jeremy Browne.

This topic is no longer confined to a no-go area of debate. There is now the beginning of movement on the Tory benches. What was noticeable, however, was the totally impassive way Treasury Ministers sat in the debate while MPs, now of all three parties are raising their concerns on whether it is simply possible to raise the levels of debt the Government believes is necessary to balance the book. .

An equally important report was issued today by the shadow monetary policy committee run by the Times and the IEA. At long last this group has begun to expose one of the dangers with the Bank of England’s strategy for printing money, or as it is euphemistically called, ‘quantitative easing’.

There might be a case for such a policy but, given the banks’ failure to lend adequately to businesses, surely this money should have been used to buy corporate bonds and debts, rather than Government gilts.

The result of concentrating on gilts has meant that far from injecting money into the economy, quantitative easing has seen the money go abroad, as it is foreign holders of Government gilts who have been quickest to sell.

Surely there must be a halt to this policy until a careful analysis has been done of the impact so far of a printing money policy. There may well be a case for this strategy if it is targeted on the corporate sector.

But soon, surely, somebody is going to put their good brains to the question of how one withdraws the printed money from the economy. For unlike the bank, I don’t believe the inflation genie is safely secured inside the lamp.

Can universities Russell up reform?

April 30, 2009

To balance the national accounts, taxes will have to go up and public expenditure will have to come down.  Both changes offer huge opportunities to radicals.

The necessary tax increases should be used to move our tax system from being, at best, proportional, to become more progressive.  Similarly, cuts in public expenditure should concentrate the mind on what key reforms would most significantly change our society for the better.

I have outlined before how I believe a radical pension reform, guaranteeing all pensioners over time an income above mean-testing, would help to begin to transform the public accounts. 

The means test bill – £15bn and rising – would start to decline as more and more pensioners qualified for a decent minimum.  The £15-16bn of tax subsidies to pension savings could be phased out over a fifteen year period and a closure put on any new entrants to public sector pensions. 

Higher education awaits similar radical proposals.  At one time our great universities were independent of Government and great powers in the land – rather like medieval Barons.  It was they who shaped higher education policy, not transient bureaucrats in Whitehall.

In a letter in today’s Financial Times, I call on the Russell Group of universities – the best endowed – to declare independence before it is forced on them by the next radical Government.  Their task should be to set out how many students they believe they should take and on what terms.  They should cease taking orders from any Government. 

The objective of 50 per cent of the population going to university was always unsound educationally.  It is now financially impossible.

What the universities must not get into is a “game” with the Government whereby this absurd target is pursued when the size of individual undergraduate budgets being cut.  Governments will continue to set the amount tax-payers will be asked to fund higher education.  When naming their price per student the universities would determine the numbers going into higher education and what courses are offered.

We are likely to see some universities close.  But isn’t that better than duping successive generations of students to undertake courses which make them worse off in terms of salaries than if they didn’t go to university in the first place? 

The ground would then be set for a blooming of other forms of education (although they may not be so named) catering for those who have both been to university and those who have not.  The one thing we can be sure of is that this new sector, paid for by consumers, will be stunted at birth while central Governments run a Stalinist-type command economy for higher education.  

Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears Now

April 30, 2009

The potential threat facing the country is as great as the actual one was in 1940. The country needs to be roused to the challenge that faces it.

In 1940, Churchill did not offer the country ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ to then postpone efforts until after an election. He asked for an immediate coming together of the best sides of the nation. Today the country cannot be roused to the huge financial challenge it faces if the two main parties duck and tell us that they’ll be back once the votes are counted.

It is vital that politicians and the media move on from the bread and circus agenda of MPs’ expenses and get real. The big issue confronting the country is whether it can raise huge, unprecedented shedloads of debt.

Vince Cable and I have tabled today an Early Day Motion calling for a serious debate now, and not after the next election, on how to balance the nation’s accounts.

Both major parties are stringing the voters along, teasingly suggesting that big cuts in expenditure and tax hikes will be necessary, but neither has any intention of disclosing their plans to rational debate before the election. What both major parties overlook is that the money markets may not be compliant in a game of party politicking over the country’s future.

Even on the Government’s own figures, Britain will proportionally be trying to borrow more money to balance its accounts over the medium to long term than any other G8 country.

The markets are already showing some nervousness as the Government sets out to raise a record £220bn of loans this year. It costs more, for example, to insure against the Government defaulting on its gilts than it does, say, to insure against Cadbury’s being unable to redeem its company debt.

If the Government has difficulty in finding the necessary borrowers there could be a swift collapse in our currency bringing economic chaos in its wake. If this scenario is allowed to develop the Government will be forced to slash and burn public expenditure projects.

It is to prevent this scenario, and for the country to begin a rational debate on how tax and revenue streams are brought into balance in the medium term, that Vince and I have tabled today’s motion. The Government’s expenditure programmes currently come in at 48%, yet the Budget Red Book shows that in 2013/14 less than 38% of what we produce will be raised in revenue to meet this bill. These figures not only highlight the danger to which the country is now exposed – can the gap be filled by borrowing? – but they usher in a new political era.

The size of the State or – what Governments can do – is going to change. If we don’t have an open and full debate the new politics will quickly take on a reactionary bent.

The new politics offers a once in a generation opportunity for radical politics. The first concern in increasing taxation is to ensure that those on modest to low incomes do not bear once again the main brunt of tax rises.

Similarly, the new politics offers the opportunity radically to rethink what the Government’s objectives should be. I have detailed elsewhere how the goal of eliminating pensioner poverty could be achieved while at the same time cutting back over a fifteen year period the tax subsidies to pension savings, the cost of public sector pensions and, because the single thrust of Government policy is to abolish pensioner poverty, a significant reduction and then elimination of the pensioner means-tested programme.

It is reforms like this that have a single objective which can be achieved over the medium term that will transform the national accounts. We now have time to set out how the nation’s finances can be transformed.

The stranglehold on this debate by the two main political parties must be broken. Failure to convince the money-lenders than the country is serious about balancing its books could lead to a failure to raise the shedloads of debt any government must raise in the short run, resulting in a further collapse in the currency (already down by 30%) and untold economic chaos and misery.

If the two major parties fail to act, the House of Commons must seize the initiative to begin plotting a new safe course for the country.


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