Bill's Archived Comments

Week beginning Monday, 8th January 2001

After a two week break, here are some items that have nudged their way into my consciousness recently:

Labour's  Pledges - Spin Followed by Back-tracking

When launching Labour's pre-election manifesto in 1997, Mr Blair said: "These are substantial commitments. They may not revolutionise your life, but they can make Britain better. Hold us to them. If we deliver, we can come back the election after next (i.e. the next election now) and say, 'Trust us again because we kept our promises.' "  The government now claims to have kept, or be close to keeping (note the 'slide' implied in that phrase), only four of the five pledges that were publicised on campaign pledge cards. They are: cutting class sizes, reducing waiting lists, lowering youth unemployment and not raising taxes. But it is not clear how it will achieve the fifth - halving the time from arrest to sentencing by introducing a fast-track punishment regime for young offenders. A Labour peer (Lord Warner, Chairman of the Youth Justice Board) now tells us: "The commitment that the government made, so far as I understand it, is to have delivered the pledge by March 2002." That is not what was committed to, as the direct quote from Mr Blair in 1997 reveals. For the record, the five pledges, and progress to date, are shown in the table below:

Labour's Pledges Prior to the 1997 Election
Cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7-year-olds by using money from the assisted places scheme. By September 2000 there remained just 30,000 infant pupils left in classes over 30, compared with 485,000 in January 1998. The pledge should be met soon, although some class sizes for older children have risen.
Fast-track punishment for young offenders by halving the time from arrest to sentencing. The average time from arrest to sentencing for a persistent young offender in 1997 was 142 days. That fell to 92 days from April to June 2000, but went up to 95 days from July to September.
Cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step, by releasing £100 million saved from NHS bureaucracy. In May 1997 there were 1,158,004 people on the hospital waiting list. After considerable investment, the Government announced that it had got below the 1,058,004 figure for the first time in May last year. The waiting list was 1,024,800 at the end of October, still below the crucial threshold.
Get 250,000 under-25s off benefits and into work by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities. In November Tony Blair announced that 254,520 young people had moved off benefit and found work through the New Deal. However, economists have pointed out that, with the economy still growing, many of them would have found work anyway.
No rise in income tax rates, cut VAT on heating to 5% and keep inflation and interest rates as low as possible. The basic rate of income tax has been cut to 22p in the pound, VAT on heating has been cut, inflation is at 3.3% and interest rates are 6%. However, the overall tax burden has gone up.

Note: There are doubts about the validity of some of the statistics used to claim that certain of the pledges shown above have been met, or almost met; I share those doubts (specially those concerning NHS waiting llists and class sizes).

Election Finance - A Need for Real Reform

At present a Party may spend upto £20 million on funding its election campaign. There has been recent talk that the public purse should fund part or all of this, allegedly to help even the score between the larger and smaller Parties. Frankly it would be much better to reduce drastically the amount which may legally be spent - this would have three real benefits: it would genuinely even the score for Parties, it would cost the public purse nothing and it would make the task of raising the amount they are entitled to spend much more straightforward for all the Parties - and there is a fourth benefit, it would reduce the need to solicit very large donations from wealthy individuals in return for who knows what favour. In a nutshell, democracy would be served. £5 million seems about right to me.

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