Monday, 28 January 2013

Standing for council, allowances and Alec Robertson's populism

On saturday just gone I attended the councilor fair at Cornwall Council, a very successive event that aimed to give electoral hopefuls a better idea of the role of both the council and its members. I found it most informative and congratulations to the council's Democratic Services team who ran the event. It certainly was well attended and there were about the same numbers as at the Mebyon Kernow conference (the last time I was there), which was encouraging. There is certainly renewed interest in the work of the council and more of the public -as far as I can see- are growing to realise that the council is very important and it's decisions effect all of Kernow.

There obviously was a great deal about what the council does, the challenges facing the council and such like but I'll blog about this later as it touches on a number of other subjects. But for now, it was very interesting to learn more about the role and duties of being a councilor. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to readers that I wish to stand for election in May and would love to be elected as a councilor to represent my part of Penzance. Therefore I found it most informative to listen to councilors from all the parties leaders, Fiona Ferguson and Scott Mann from the Conservatives, John Wood and Julian German from the Independents, Dick Cole and Andrew Long from Mebyon Kernow, Jude Robinson from Labour and Ann Kerridge from the Liberal Democrats. (quite why there was only one Lib Dem and their leader and deputy were absent remains a mystery). It was very encouraging for these councilors to take the time out to speak to people and encourage interest in new people standing for election. As many people will know lots of representatives are standing down in May and whatever happens and whichever way people vote there will be many new faces in May.

It was clear from all of the councilors there that they work they do is both important and time consuming. From representing their communities and listening to the concerns of residents, to taking part in committees as well as voting on matters of policy in full council. There was some agreement amongst them that the time required was on average 35 hours a week, not only attending council but also reading papers and briefings which by all accounts are very long and intricate. Indeed some councilors explained that it is often more than 35 hours a week. Although some did say that a job could be held as well as the role, if things were shuffled around. I have doubts that this could be done whilst giving 100% both in the workplace and as a representative. Further it is my opinion that the work of Cornwall Council and the decisions it makes shouldn't be taken lightly and that we would be better served to have full time members governing a billion pound annual budget to serve over half a million people.

Obviously this brings me to the subject of allowances, I'm sure many people who take an interest in Cornish politics will be more than aware that there was a vote on this subject recently. From 2009 until now the rate has been £12,200 per annum, the Independent Remuneration Panel commissioned by the council was of the opinion that this should rise to £16,200, this was not supported by Cornwall Councilors and instead £14,600  was agreed upon. Obviously there was controversy about this, people voting to increase their wages is a ludicrous idea, especially when politicians in the UK are widely seen as having their 'snouts in the trough'. I can see the arguments for and against a rise in allowances and neither seems particularly right or fair. For taxpayers to have to pay more for the councilors is yet another strain on budgets. Council staff, as well as most people, haven't seen hide nor hair of a pay rise during this long recession. In both circumstances  it doesn't seem fair that people get paid more on their own say so. On the other hand do we want to have only councilors that are retired, rich or holding down jobs on the side?

I spoke to a number of people at the Councilor Fair that had grave doubts that they could afford to be a councilor. There aren't many people that can afford to pay their rent or mortgage and other bills on 12 thousand or indeed 16 thousand a year. This is in itself is a great shame, we have heard the argument time and again that the council needs to pay executives 'competitive' salaries to get and keep the best candidates yet the same logic doesn't seem to stretch to the very people making the decisions. For what it's worth I don't think the salaries paid to the top officials at Lys Kernow is in anyway justified but there is logic to the argument. As an old boss of mine used to explain; "if you pay peanuts you get monkeys". This is very true.

I often think when people complain that the Coalition's cabinet is in no way representative of the populace, that they should take a look at Cornwall Council. There are a handful of councilors under 40 and the vast majority are clearly much older. It was interesting on saturday to hear Scott Mann being introduced as young, which he politely explained was not the case as he is in his mid thirties. In Cornwall Council terms being in your thirties is young, that's obviously an accepted truth for Cornwall Councilors. I don't wish to attack people based upon their simply upon their age, but it is in the better interests of democracy that the council better reflects the population in it's composition.

The ex leader of the Conservatives Alec Robertson has this week launched a petition to get the rise in allowances reversed back to the old figure. He presumably is of the opinion that £12 thousand a year is enough to live on and reflects well the roles and responsibilities. I say presumably because a quick look at the allowances and expenses section of the council website reveals that Alec earnt a great deal more than that. Unlike the coalition cabinet and even Kevin Lavery who took a voluntary 5% cut, Robertson at no time choose to follow this example.

For the record Alec's allowance was the basic £12,200 plus the leader role bonus of £25,417 in other words three times the allowance of backbenchers. In addition Alec was one of the highest claimants of travel expenses £7,025 in the last financial year and claimed £16 in food. In other words £44,658 was the cost to the taxpayer of Alec in the last financial year. The year before it was £43,804 and the year before £35,282, in total over £123,000 without including the time between April and his dethronement. As we see now he is against a two thousand a year rise for councilors yet his renumeration over three years rose over nine thousand pounds. Even if we don't question whether someone on £35k plus should be claiming food and the full rate of 40p per mile for travel, why didn't Alec take a pay cut? Why when the leader role allowance leapt up seven thousand pounds from £18,365 in 09/10 to £25,451 in 10/11 did Alec say no the taxpayer won't stomach such a hefty rise?

Why the big concern now? Of course now he is once again bidding to be leader of the Tories being on the side of taxpayers and standing against disproportionate pay rises is now his motive. Cornwall needs a proper decent conversation about allowances and Alec might like to look at his own record first. I'm not saying because Alec had rises well out of touch of inflation and wages elsewhere, every councilor should, but simply that he perhaps might have thought a little more about this line of attack.

Cornwall Councilors allowance and expenses

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Cornwall Council Tories in yet more disarray

Today leader of the Conservative group on Cornwall Council Fiona Ferguson resigned over Capita's methods in rooting out council tax fraud. The company has been contracted to investigate people claiming the single person discount for council tax incorrectly. In her resignation letter she explained that the use of lie detectors by Capita during phone calls was questionable and no longer trusted by central government. Which is all fine and well but why now?

Digging through the Cornwall Council news archive, I found this quote:

Fiona Ferguson, the Council’s portfolio holder for corporate resources, is supporting the review. Fiona says: “Apart from the need to protect the public purse from fraud, this is a simple matter of fairness. It is especially important when people in Cornwall who are paying the correct council tax are struggling as a result of the current economic climate.”

Story posted 16 November 2012

So are we really to believe that its taken 2 months for the portfolio holder to realise what's happening in her department? Or is this an excuse has the eternal rebel yet again fallen out with another Tory leader?

Either way we must really wonder what is going on at Cornwall Council?

Monday, 21 January 2013

Mebyon Kernow social evening in Penzance

This coming friday members of the St Ives constituency branch will be holding a social event in Penzance. Upstairs in the Admiral Benbow is the venue from 20:00 until late. It's open to all members of Mebyon Kernow, supporters and members of the public. It's a great opportunity to come together have some fun and a drink before the hard work of the campaigning for the May elections. Also a great opportunity to meet some MK councilors including Dick Cole, Loveday Jenkin, Tamsin Williams and Phil Rendle and chat to them about the Cornwall Council, town and parish council elections and Mebyon Kernow's manifesto in this crucial electoral year. So if you fancy it please come along.

25th January 20:00- 23:30
Admiral Benbow, upstairs room,
Chapel Street, Penzance.

Any questions or queries contact myself via email

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Meanwhile in the parallel universe of the Lib Dems: Andrew George leads a rebellion (or not)

I was interested to notice the flummox Andrew George found himself in over the governments latest "reform" to the welfare state. This time around it's the question of benefits and whether they should rise with inflation. There are arguments for and against, public sector wages have been frozen as have most people's wages over the last few years so the government has backed itself into a corner. It would be wrong for wages to not increase and benefits to increase (as Labour wants) Obviously neither situation is tenable for the good of people and society as a whole, living costs, energy bills, fuel, VAT have all risen considerably in the last few years, it costs more to live now, wages have to keep up with this. And so do benefits for workers on a low income, for disabled people and for people out of work. We face a grim future all of us, if the cost of living continues to grow faster than household incomes. A healthy economy is one in which living costs and incomes match each other, this economic unhealthiness should concern the government, unfortunately it doesn't.

So Andrew George set himself up as firmly against the plans to not keep incomes in line with inflation, I thought was a good thing and well done to an MP eager to stick up for the less fortunate. However all was not that clear cut, but for now here's the press release sent out before the vote (pinched from the Future for Penzance facebook page:

Here there are a number of things Andrew is clearly saying, such as "will refuse to support", "this evening", "he will vote against". However come the vote of that evening four Liberal Democrat members of parliament voted against the passage of the bill through parliament, others didn't turn up at all and Charles Kennedy and Andrew George abstained by voting in both lobbies. (I don't understand the need of this quirky and archaic practice in a modern democracy, apparently its voting for and against thus offending neither the government or the opposition. Andrew did this before with the Voting bill that introduced the Devonwall idea.) So Andy voting against did not happen, despite the above claims.

So I pointed this out to him on twitter...

No I am perplexed why further debate is needed and whether this means, if Andrew has only specific problems with aspects of the bill rather than the whole thrust of it. I am not sure either why some Lib Dems didn't turn up or voted against and Mr George felt the need to abstain in that curious fashion. He never answered my question why his press release stated he'd voted against that evening and then he didn't...

Andrew was clear what his part in the Welfare Benefits Up-Rating Bill (incidentally freezing benefits the main proposal in an 'up' rating bill? I dread what a down rating bill would be based upon this). So the press release afterward was duly sent out with a clear message:

Leader of the rebels, starts the rebellion by abstaining? I had a quick look on the other Lib Dem rebels websites and through their press releases, no mention of following Andrew's rebellious banner of hesitancy.... The press release continues:

It continues:

For the record I don't think anybody was suggesting that the MP should vote against the bill at the second reading, well except for Andrew's own press release before the vote which again stated "will vote against". Never fear this time it's for real and Andrew will vote against it, that's if his press release converge with reality.

As we saw the other day the Lib Dems are pulling all kinds of propaganda tricks to boost their standing both in Westminster and with an eye on May's Cornwall Council elections. I don't have a problem with that they're more than welcome to argue why people should trust the Liberal Democrats again but when its so removed from reality I have to take exception. Much like Stephen Gilbert's claim that their party is increasing benefits again we find Cornish Lib Dems willlfully deluding people about the role of their party in coalition government and the policies they are enacting. They need to wake up to the fact that they can't attack everything the government does without recognising they are part of that government, the votes of Cornish people led to them being elected and they have used them to jump straight into bed with the deplorable Tories.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Meanwhile in the parallel universe of the Liberal Democrats part 1

The best scientists in the world are currently expending their best efforts to work out the Lib Dem enigma. All for nought unfortunately as bizzare press releases from an apparent parallel universe keep making it through to the real world. Quite why their rhetoric is so removed from reality remains a deep mystery.

Two recent examples reveal this disturbing delusion here in Cornwall. Heres the first:

According to Stephen Gilbert MP a vote for anyone but the Lib Dems is a vote for the Tories. By implication the latter party are undesirable, no one is quite sure how members of the public siding with the Conservatives is such a bad thing but when the Liberal Democrats do it its in everyones best interest.  If its everyones duty to keep the Tories out of power ss the main plank of their election campaigning suggests why aren't they bound by the same logic?

Continuing the theme, the MPs press release reveals the Lib Dem logic:

"If anyone thinks that Liberal Democrat MPs are not fighting for a fairer society and a stronger economy, they are utterly wrong. Without the Liberal Democrats in Government there would be no increase at all in benefits."
link here

I'm no expert in understanding the strange ways of the Liberal Democrat so I don't exactly know what they believe fair to be and whether such a concept is flexible. It may be conjectured that increase in benefits may well mean something different than commonly thought or that perhaps Lib Dems believe increase and reduce have opposite meanings than used in the English language. Here in the real world Cornwall Council will soon pass on cuts to council tax benefit to people here after the government reduced the funding.  People on disability benefits may have their money reduced or cruelly taken away by Atos assessment.

I'm sorry to be so childish but seriously what are they on? When will the Liberal Democrats come to recognise that we know what they are doing in government? When will the Liberal Democrats either admit the Tories aren't that bad or apologise for getting into bed with a party they consistently declare deplorable?

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A Cornish Assembly in news and blogs 2012

This year has been an exciting time in politics in Cornwall, not always good but definitely changing and busy. Devonwall, pasty tax, cuts cuts and more cuts, regional pay and of course Cornwall Council's Shared Services (privatisation scheme). Its not all been dominated (thankfully) by the hare brained schemes of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Mebyon Kernow has been able to present ideas too and push for change in Cornwall, most notably on the Cornish assembly which has been on the agenda and the news a lot this year. This is a review with links of developments in devolution this year.

The end of 2011 saw the tenth anniversary of the Cornish Assembly petition and this was marked by an EDM launched by Plaid Cymru MPs. By the end of 2011 devolution was already on the agenda and in the news, see here for a collection of links to news articles. By this time last year I was blogging about the subject under the title Thinking About Devolution, similarly Stephen Richardson was too with the title Just Believe. All Mebyon Kernow members were keen to use this publicity to argue the case for Cornwall. The subject of Cornish devolution was on the agenda in it's own right.

However this was to change, the big political news and debates of 2012 have been dominated by Alec Salmond, the SNP and the future of the UK itself. Soon Cornwall was not just a separate problem or question but part of the British question as a whole. Was the future of the UK now certain at all? Was Scotland the only place arguing for change? Dick Cole was clear in what he thought under the title: A Referendum for Scotland: What about Cornwall? he wrote:

Surely now is the time to address the unequal constitutional relationships between the various nations and regions of the UK, and to tackle the centralising influence of London and the South East of England.
And as part of this debate, we must be allowed to make the case for the meaningful devolution of political powers to Cornwall.

Certainly external observers were linking the two questions Cornwall's relationship with the UK and Scotland's Independence referendum. As a Telegraph blogger put it: Never mind a Scottish referendum, now Cornwall wants it own government  Even in Japan the idea of Cornish nationalism had reached (Turning the Japanese). Meanwhile in the UK the Guardian were musing what Mebyon Kernow stood for in an article titled, Cornish party see future in Black and White featuring interviews with MK Councillors Loveday Jenkin and Dick Cole. 2012 started with Cornish devolution and MK firmly on the agenda. The idea that Cornwall has a section of political society that wants devolution could not be denied.

St Piran's day saw Councillor Cole call for devolution (Annual St Piran message reiterates Cornish dream) calling specifically for 'meaningful devolution of political powers' which was obviously in reference to the Coalition's localism agenda. It has always been hinted at and implied that Cornwall's quest for further powers could be under the guise of localism. We all remember well Cameron's words: "I think Cornish national identity is very powerful – people feel a great affinity with Cornwall. We're going to devolve a lot of power to Cornwall – that will go to the Cornish unitary authority." link but this was back in 2010 with the Prime Minister on the backfoot over the Devonwall row and the Tamar not the Amazon slip. It's safe to conclude that this was not an admittance of policy but simply something Cameron thought people wanted to hear, not what he wanted to say.

The end of 2011 saw: Mebyon Kernow challenge coalition on Cornish Assembly. Since Cameron's words on 'localism' and Cornwall, Cornish activists have been trying to get the government to keep to it's word. To explain to the Cornish people what localism can offer them and why we would prefer it to the status quo or localism. This fell on deaf ears, as we all know the government prefers to listen to people that agree with them and rides roughshod over anyone that disagrees. It was a a rare move then when MPs George Eustice and Sarah Newton finally entered the devolution debate in the summer. With all the subtlety we are accustomed to with the Tories they broke the silence with Devolution is Defunct which called for an end to calls for a Cornish assembly. Instead of the assembly we apparently needed a forward looking, self confident approach of localism, quite how localism (which is after all devolution)  was forward looking and not defunct yet devolution was backward looking, defunct and lacking in confidence is still beyond me.

I welcomed the Conservatives intervention it expanded the debate somewhat. I blogged in response Localism enough slogans already, what will happen? and what will it cost?. Drawing attention to the fact that localism is not a clear alternative to an assembly for Cornwall, it is a hotch potch of initiatives dressed up as policy. Quite how it is preferable to devolution or the status quo is an argument that is yet to be made, coming up for three years in government I have grave doubts we will ever know what localism was supposed to be for Cornwall.

It is a great shame that 2012 has seen so much talk about Cornish devolution yet little has been achieved. Talked about across the globe by various commentators, arguments made and debate had, yet not by the powers that be. Nowhere was demands for an assembly met with clear arguments against. If localism was a clear contender to a Cornish assembly why does no one make that argument? It seems clear that localism will not apply to Cornwall, we have seen Wave Hub taken into control of central government and sat idle on the seabed. The welcome announcement over the government funding A30 improvements should worry proponents of localism. Talk of Cornwall Council wresting control and funding of our roads from the Highways Agency has come to a halt. The only significant thing to be 'localised' has been council tax benefit, with less money, easy to see why the Treasury supported that one!

There was a danger that localism would knock a Cornish Assembly off the agenda in 2012. That an assembly wouldn't be needed for Cornwall, that devolution would come in other ways. The reason that Cornish devolution is still on the agenda and a talking point is that localism is a sham. We know from London, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland (to name just UK examples) that devolution to a new legislative body works. We know what it could look like, we know what it does and we know the pros and cons. Localism on the other hand is a mystery, could Cornwall Council cope with more powers? Could Cornwall Council pick which powers it wanted? Will Cornwall have any localism before 2015?

2013 is a huge year for Cornish politics, an election a new Council administration and new parish and town councils. Its a huge year for Mebyon Kernow too, rest assured we will be keeping a Cornish assembly on the agenda this year like last. With a bit of luck and some control on Cornwall Council we will be pushing the central government to honour their promises to devolved power to Cornwall. We won't be settling for the scraps that Westminster no longer wants and needs but pushing for the powers and responsibilities that Cornwall wants and needs. MK can get Cornwall and devolution on the agenda as we have done in 2012 but to get action we need political power we can't trust the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to deliver devolution they don't want it or they'd have done it by now. For real change vote Mebyon Kernow in 2013 and put Cornwall first!

By the way, my favourite Cornish devolution blog of 2012 is Stephen Richardson's Autonomy for Cornwall