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Archives for March 2011

Chris Huhne and the Children's Centre petition

Peter Henley | 11:25 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

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It's the squeaky wheel that gets oil. An old saying, but truer than ever with the oil of taxpayers' cash in very short supply.

Save Our Children's Centres in Hampshire have done an admirable job pointing out the impact of up to one third cuts in the budget for Sure Start.

Eastleigh MP, and former journalist Chris Huhne was quick to pick up on their campaign, seeking them out just a few days after the launch to sign their petition.

Chris Huhne MP signs petition

Was cabinet minister Chris Huhne right to sign this petition?

Any cabinet minister is entitled to campaign against the local impact of his government's own policies, of course, and in this case Chris gave it both barrels - throwing in some local election lines about the Conservative leadership of Hampshire County Council, and the cost of new building at the council.

That provoked their leader Ken Thornber to take to Channel Four news to denounce Chris Huhne but also point out to David Cameron the shortage of cash that was causing their cuts.

Which THEN came full circle at Prime Minister's Questions when the Conservative MP for Gosport Caroline Dinenage asked Mr Cameron to explain what she called 'Unhelpful local party political mischief making over the future of Sure Start' saying.

"Sure Start is too important and valuable to be used as a political football in this way - Hampshire Council are consulting on their proposals but have pledged to protect all frontline services. I for one will be keeping up the pressure on them, every step of the way, to make sure that they do."

She was sitting next to Romsey MP Caroline Noakes - the daughter of Ken Thornber's council rival, Romsey Conservative Ray Perry - who's in charge of the Sure Start cuts.

As I say, it all moves in circles. Expect that squeaky wheel to get some more attention shortly.

How the budget will hit the South of England

Peter Henley | 16:07 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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The Chancellor's speech is just the start. When the curtain falls on the great unveiling .. "and I commend this budget to the house" .. we press hounds all dash backstage to swoop like gannets on huge brown paper envelopes containing the budget book.

And in our packages today, a surprise - two books! The Red Book we expected but here too was a Green Book entitled The Plan For Growth.

And there's some interesting stuff there for the South. Some of it already announced, it has to be said, but now shown in the full context of George Osborne's tax and spending decisions.

The South-East of England is traditionally an area of high growth - we have more new start-ups and private sector jobs than any other part of the country - so the measures in a "budget for growth" are going to have a bigger impact. The allowances for entrepreneurs and investment as well as ongoing cuts in corporation tax have been welcomed by business representatives.

£20 million for the Space Centre at Harwell, for example . And two previously announced capital projects - the £4.5bn Intercity Express Programme will see the building of a combination of around 100 electric trains and bi-mode intercity trains, which will run to Great Western Main Line stations including Oxford and Reading.

There's also £900m of rail electrification projects on lines between London and Didcot, Newbury and Oxford. This will be completed by 2018.

Welcoming the Budget for the Conservatives, Devizes MP Claire Perry MP said:

"Last year's Emergency Budget brought Britain back from the brink of bankruptcy. The Government is right to stick to the plan to get Britain living within her means and this year's Budget sets out plans to back enterprise and get Britain making things again. By cutting fuel duty immediately and cutting income tax for millions, the Chancellor has done what he can to help families now. This Budget has put fuel into the tank of our economy."

They estimate that by increasing the personal allowance by £630 in April 2012 to £8,105. 3.56 million South East taxpayers will gain by £48 a year in 2012-13, and 32,000 will be taken out of tax altogether.

Working on the regional figures they estimate 3,300 unemployed people in the South East could benefit from the roll-out of the New Enterprise Allowance to start their own business.

From cuts in corporation tax to incentives for philanthropic giving to charity there are measures here that are aimed to boost growth.

But Labour say this is smoke and mirrors.

They say they wouldn't be increasing petrol prices, given the high price at the pumps and point out that in their time in office the proportion of tax fell from 75% in 97 to 65% in 2010.

Nor would they be thinking about cutting the 50p top rate this year.

They believe there is a "quite substantial risk" that oil companies will pass on extra tax at the pumps.

The change to CPI wipes out the freeze in personal allowances. What he gives with one hand he takes with another, and continues to take - up to £1bn p/a by end of parliament and rising.

Southampton MP and shadow Skills and Innovation Secretary John Denham said

"On petrol prices the government should have gone further in this Budget. Across the South East the average cost of a litre of unleaded is now 133.6p - up from 10.9p in December before the Tory VAT rise.

"George Osborne should have listened to Labour and reversed the VAT rise on petrol, which is adding £1.35 to the cost of filling up a 50 litre tank.

For the Liberal Democrats Dorset MP Annette Brooke said

"This Budget not only continues to deliver on our promise of sustainable growth for the UK, but also delivers on the Liberal Democrat commitment to fairness."

"Under the new Budget, 23 million people will have a tax cut of £200 from April this year. The personal income tax allowance rises will lift 1.1 million people out of income tax altogether. I am proud to see this Lib Dem policy becoming a reality under the Coalition Government."

But one area where the South of England may lose out is the new Enterprise Zones.

These offer special tax reliefs, extra revenue for local authorities and support with things like guaranteed super-fast broadband.

All the ten places offered this boost are currently in the North and Midlands, except for Bristol, and today we heard that Boris Johnson is being asked to find one in London.

The new Enterprise partnerships in the South will also be able to bid for a second wave of ten more Enterprise Zones.

The Local Government Association are expressing some fears that these might suck jobs out of neighbouring areas. But what about sucking work from South to North? Or maybe that's a good thing?

Give us a Br(e)ake!

Peter Henley | 09:40 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

Comments (1)

Oh how we laugh at some of these pre-budget press-releases. Everyone's an expert. Accountants, PRs , economists all sending out spin about what the Chancellors should do. They mostly go straight in the bin.

But at least we got a chuckle from the spelling mistake in the press-release from Portsmouth Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock's office. Bold as brass, top of the page:

MP says Chancellor should give drinkers, motorists and the tourist industry a brake in this week's budget

Well the high price of fuel has certainly "given motorists a brake" but I think that's not what he's calling for...

The European Parliament from the British perspective

Sue Wilkinson | 15:54 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

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Pin badges in gift shop

Pin badges in the European Parliament gift shop

There's a gift shop for visitors to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, selling tea towels and cufflinks with the gold stars and blue background of the EU. Pride of place is given to the rack of lapel pins with intertwined European and national flags.

Today you could choose the flags of Spain, or Italy - or France, of course - but they didn't have one for the UK.

"Would you like a pin with the Irish flag?" the assistant asks, in perfect English.

I don't think they'd sold out. To be honest I didn't want to buy one at all, given the Euro exchange rate. I was really just confirming the feeling around here that it is often simply not worth bothering to include Britain in things.

There are visitors to the Parliament from Spain, and Poland and places much further away than the South of England. There are groups of Rotarians, and young mums and a huge herd of farmers from Italy laughing loudly and taking photographs of themselves in front of the magnificent parliament buildings.

But the only people I came across from England were the nine MEPs we elected 18 months ago.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The majority of votes we cast in the South were for candidates sceptical about the whole European project. From the European constituency of South East England we send five Conservatives, two UKIP, two Lib Dems, one Green, and one Labour MEP.

It's a larger group than many of the small countries, and they have quite a bit of influence.

The Liberal Democrat MEP Sharon Bowles has fast made her name as a financial expert. Labour's Peter Skinner and the Green's Keith Taylor are pursuing their particular interests as is the new girl from Oxford, Catherine Bearder.

This week they've been involved in persuading the new fisheries commissioner to stop the throwing back of dead fish, and find other ways to conserve supplies.

They've complained about French treatment of the Roma peoples who are Europe's largest minority. And they've got a motion through calling for a nifty £50 device to be fitted to all European lorries warning them when a cyclist is alongside.

But the main point of contention is the 2012 budget. Despite the financial problems of Greece, Ireland and Portugal the European Parliament continues to increase spending.

As one of our Conservative MEP's Dan Hannan points out, the exchange rate is against us because we pay our bill in Euros. We've also lost the rebate of £7bn a year we used to get against the Common Agriculture and Fishery Policies, without the reform of the system we were promised.

Estimates for how much we pay to Europe range from the EU's £200 each to the Taxpayers' Alliance of £1,000 plus. It depends whether you include things like the additional cost of European regulation on British business.

And how do you quantify the extra trade? The think tank Civitas reckon about half of our exports go to the European Union, but Switzerland does well with a Free Trade Association rather than full harmonisation.

Road sign in Strasbourg

They're all things we could debate, if we ever got a referendum on Europe - something Dan Hannan suggests will be much more likely once we've held the vote on changing the voting system in May.

As David Miliband pointed out this week, for the first time since the First World War most major European governments come from the centre-right of politics. And yet it struck me just how much the EU institutions continue to expand, and charge us more for our membership.

My first report for the television will be on this Sunday's Politics Show. I talked to UKIP's Marta Andreasen, a former Chief Accountant of the EU, and Lib Dem Catherine Bearder - not just about EU money but that decision in the European Court that men and women must be treated equally for car insurance and pensions.

What does that tell us about the direction that we are travelling? Have we given up too much control, or is it right to be part of a joint quest for the better things in life?

It's not just about the money. This week at the European Court of Human Rights (the ones who want us to allow prisoners to get the vote) there was a moving case of a 31 year old mother from Slovakia who'd been sterilised - she says against her will.

She comes from a Roma background, and under communism in her country there was a policy to use sterilisation to reduce the Roma population. One survey showed 60% of all such operations were carried out on Roma people. This woman was put in a "gypsy-only" ward, forbidden to use toilets available to other women.

It beggars belief that such a policy could be continuing in the modern EU, yet strong criticism of France's immigration policy towards the Roma people was another hot topic in the Strasbourg parliament this week.

Hungary's President Pal Schmitt was visiting today. On the Politics Show this week we will be reporting the next stage of Michael Turner's fight for justice after he was extradited to Hungary under the European Arrest Warrant and held in prison for four months because his business owed money.

Our rights have been won at some cost, and should not be regarded lightly.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to you all. We certainly should be paying attention to what they're doing in Brussels and Strasbourg in our names.

Perhaps a few more visitors to the Parliament from Britain might persuade them to take more notice of British arguments, and then we could have our own pin badge.

Quirky spending cuts - our top ten

Peter Henley | 18:24 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011

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Rubbish, loos and sports pitch

Some of the strangest spending cuts in the South of England...

At Number One it has to be Southampton City Council saving 10 grand by not binning the bins, or as they put it: "keeping slightly damaged refuse collection containers."

Dorset County Council's big streetlight switch-off is at Number Two. It saves a mammoth £150,000 from the electricity bill, but will there be more accidents?

Saving pounds by spending a penny - at Number Three it's the Isle of Wight Council's plan to hand over 18 of its 60 public conveniences to volunteers.

Where there's muck - Portsmouth is saving £5,000 a year at Number Four by not fertilising sports pitches.

At Number Five Oxford City Council is asking people who use bowling greens to do the mowing themselves.

And Reading has two grass related cuts - at Number Six they've reduced the trimming of roadside verges from 10 to five times a year to save £80,000.

At Number Seven they're saving £35,000 replacing seasonal bedding with low-maintenance shrubs or grass.

Worthing Council has hit a snag with Number Eight. Passing on the management costs of sponsoring roundabouts has cut their income - doh!

But surely the quirkiest quirky cut - at Number Nine Southampton crematoriums aiming to save £30,000 by "using gas more efficiently"...

...Well, you can't take it with you.

and Number Ten?

Sorry, we're having to make efficiency savings. Please add your own Number Ten below...

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