EU cracks open in Westminster and Fleet Street

Posted on February 28, 2011

For those interested in eurosceptic politics, there are some serious rumblings under way in the Westminster jungle. The tectonic plates of Westminster perception are starting to shift – almost imperceptibly, but it’s still happening and it’s not unreasonable to read into their movement some hope for the future.

Politics is as much about perception as about reality. There have been polls for ages showing the public dislike of Brussels, and the true harm being done to the economy and our legal system is well-documented. Despite that, the feeling has persisted in the Westminster Village that no-one is interested, or worse that discussing the issue marks one out as toxic. That’s due to all sorts of factors, not least the feedback loop of people who think that telling their friends that it is so, who then reinforce their own assumption and so on ad infinitum.

But now cracks are starting to appear in those assumptions. When The Freedom Association launched the Better Off Out campaign in 2006, its aim was not to convert every MP overnight but to demonstrate that the doomsayers were mistaken.

By proving that the sky did not fall in on the heads of Philip Davies, Philip Hollobone or Douglas Carswell, they started a process of erosion that has seen many other MPs feel free to speak out on the topic. There are now 21 MPs as well as numerous MEPs, councillors and Members of the Northern Irish Assembly who are signed up.

Davies, Hollobone and Carswell turned marginal seats at 2005 into hefty majorities in 2010 despite or because of their EU views – they drank from a supposedly poisoned chalice and they are in hearty health.

Others in Parliament are yet to come out against the whole project but now feel more free to speak out and act against the EU more generally – a trend most notable in the recent snub to the European Court of Human Rights over votes for prisoners.

Things are changing on the pro-EU side, too. It’s long been the case that those opposed to Brussels want a referendum, while those in favour of the EU either oppose one entirely or promise it and then dodge around their commitment later.

That situation, too, seems to be changing. Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society recently came out in favour of an In/Out referendum, whilst reporting that the Shadow Europe Minister Wayne David has said it’s on the table for Labour’s policy review. David and Katwala have been joined by Keith Vaz, another of the EU’s prominent cheerleaders.

On the other side of the debate, James Forsyth has reported that Coalition Ministers (even Liberal Democrats) have started realising to their horror quite how much the EU binds their hands in Government. If you’d asked me a few months ago whether Oliver Letwin would ever be reported to be thinking that maybe Britain should leave the European project, I’d have laughed you out of town – nevertheless, Forsyth reports exactly that.

There is a third leg to the policy tripod, though. If MPs’ assumptions in the Commons change, and Ministers start to want the same thing, they are still unlikely to act unless public opinion will be on their side. They need to see that voters will not just not mind but actually reward them for taking a particular step.

This is already being tested by the Daily Express’ adoption of a Better Off Out position, which serves a similar role to Better Off Out MPs in breaking open the market of ideas on Fleet Street. For those that may scoff at the Express’s influence, don’t forget that they were early adopters in helping the TaxPayers’ Alliance break into the market and eventually establish a level of profile that distinctly irks the TPA’s critics. In the old story, the boy who pointed out that the Emperor was naked was just a kid, and yet he still managed to smash a farcical illusion held by the entire  Royal Court.

The question is whether other papers or commentators will follow the Express’s lead. The first hint of that possibility appeared this weekend on the Twitter feed of the Express’s Patrick O’Flynn, where he said that on days where they go big on the EU “definitely put sales up” for the paper.

To change the politics of the EU debate, we need to sweep away a deeply entrenched system of perception and assumption. The cracks are showing in Parliament, the stubborn obstructionism of our opponents is starting to break down, Fleet Street’s unanimity is broken and – crucially – there are signs that there may be sales and votes in the issue.

Make no mistake about it, the plates are shifting.

Charity Commission exposes the Guardian’s TPA lies

Posted on February 22, 2011

The Guardian is always in the vanguard when it comes to alleging that the TaxPayers’ Alliance or anyone else criticising Government waste are guilty of inaccurate claims. It seems only fair, then, to draw attention to an official finding – not an allegation, mark you – that the Guardian itself has been making up stories about the TPA.

In December 2009 the Guardian ran a front page story by Robert Booth alleging that the TPA was in breach of charity law for accepting donations from a registered charity, the Politics and Economics Research Trust. John Prescott promptly got in on the act, filing a formal complaint.

Nine days later the same paper gleefully reported (again in a story by Robert Booth) that the relationship was being “investigated by regulators”, namely the Charity Commission. The smear implication was clear – and the headline may as well have been “hooray, we don’t like them and an investigation confirms their guilt”.

Strangely, there’s no report in the Guardian today about the findings of the Charity Commission’s investigation, which was published yesterday. Nor, despite his promise that “I’ll let you know when I get a reply”, has Prezza published it or even made reference to the report’s existence.

It’s not really so strange, actually, because the Charity Commission’s findings don’t make happy reading for either the Guardian, Robert Booth or John Prescott. In short, the PERT and the TPA were cleared entirely of the allegations.

But there’s even more to it than that – it turns out that at best the story was written on the back of a fag packet, and at worst it was deliberately misleading the public in order to discredit the TPA.

When the Commission investigated the claims, they found that the PERT was in fact obeying the law – as it said at the time. More remarkable than that, they found a number of massive holes in Booth’s original article:

Booth claimed that the Midlands Industrial Council had donated to the TPA through PERT. The Charity Commission found that in fact the MIC had not done so.

Booth claimed that the MIC was able to claim gift aid on donations to a charity. The Charity Commission found that the MIC is an unincorporated association, does not pay tax on its income from donations by members and thus neither it or its members would have been able to claim gift aid.

Booth quoted David Wall, secretary of the MIC. The Charity Commission spoke to him and reports him as saying that “the comments attributed to him in the newspaper article were misleading”.

Most damning of all, when the Charity Commission asked Booth for “any additional information” on his story or the issue, he “had no further information to provide” – i.e., when he was given a free run to prove his story, produce his evidence and stack up his claims, he literally had nothing to offer.

So in short, the outfit Booth that claimed had donated hadn’t, the tax relief he claimed they would have got if they had donated wouldn’t have been claimable and he was unable to produce any evidence to back up his false claims. How’s that for accuracy?

At the moment, the original Guardian stories are still online, and they have published no retraction or apology. The smear is still common currency among the TPA’s detractors, despite the fact that it has been comprehensively proven to be untrue.

When will we see the Guardian run a front page story headlined “Guardian allegations against TPA ‘totally unfounded’, says official report”?

Crime mapping – power to the people

Posted on February 03, 2011

Finally – after years of arguments, promises and u-turns on the part of both Labour and the Conservatives – the Government has introduced crime mapping right across the country at www.police.uk.

Anyone who doubted that there was an interest among the public in finding out what crimes are committed in their neighbourhoods was immediately given a firm slap round the chops by the fact that the site received so much traffic it has at times struggled to deal with it all. At its peak it was getting 18 million hits an hour – a remarkable number.

Obviously, the Guardian chose to lead on the fact it crashed without reflecting on the fact that this proved what huge demand there is out there for this kind of transparency.

I’m personally delighted about crime mapping coming to the UK because it has been a massive hobby horse of mine in recent years. I first wrote about it for the TPA almost 3 years ago and since then I’ve met ministers, spoken at the Police Federation conference, addressed the Association of Chief Police Officers and generally banged the drum for this idea endlessly – not always making myself popular, it must be said.

This is a genuinely exciting reform. For the first time, everyone has the right to know what the real picture is of reported crime in a given area. That helps people moving house, scrutinising police performance and communicating with their MP.

It’s still just the start of the transparency and accountability revolution, though.

Giving people this information is a great start, but there’s plenty more to give. Other police forces are apparently experimenting with ways to provide even more data in greater accuracy and more informative formats. Yvette Cooper has called for full transparency on police numbers, which I can’t see a problem with. Ideally in my view each crime on the map would also be updated when it is either solved and prosecuted or shelved into a cold file. The possibilities are myriad.

Once you’ve given people information, you should also give them the power to do something with it, too. Now people are being given some data about how effective or ineffective their local police are, it is high time they were given the right to elect, scrutinise and – if necessary – sack the people in charge of the force.

The internet makes it possible for us to be given access to all that state data which our public employees compile about all of us in our name and at our expense. The digital revolution, if properly applied, can be a real revolution – handing power from hidden officials in back offices to the people. Crime mapping is an early and crucial step on that road to empowerment.

Sign the Eric-Illsley-must-go petition

Posted on January 11, 2011

After spending years of my life campaign for – among other things – justice to be done on MPs’ expenses, it’s brilliant to see the first culprits appearing in court. After the brilliant news of David Chaytor’s prison sentence, this morning we had Eric Illsley pleading guilty to three counts.

Illsley is still a sitting MP, which is a huge stain on our democracy. The Sunlight Centre for Open Politics have launched a petition demanding his immediate resignation from Parliament. I’ve signed it, and I would urge you to do so too – it’s online here.

IPSA: doomed from the outset

Posted on December 02, 2010

One of the most fascinating (and enjoyable) aspects of my time at the TaxPayers’ Alliance was being right in the middle of the melee during the MPs’ expenses scandal. We were in the right, whilst the opponents of transparency (particularly Michael Martin) made blunder after blunder – and as a result we were privileged enough to have great fun and great success in a good cause.

The difficulty was always going to be in getting the right solution to the problem. I am utterly unsurprised that, now they are fully up and running, IPSA is under fire for its mishandling of the new expenses regime.

I, and the TPA more generally, was always uncomfortable with the idea of a quango designed to oversee MPs’ expenses. It is clear that the opacity and unaccountability of the quango structure tends to produce inefficiency and unresponsiveness – the very things which neither taxpayers nor democracy can afford from a Parliamentary expense system.

The ideal solution would have been much simpler – to audit expenses, publish the claims and receipts in full and then give the people the power of recall, allowing them to sack any MP whom they felt to be misbehaving.

Instead, we got IPSA. As an aside, it’s hilarious to see MPs now objecting to the organisation when it was they who introduced the law to set it up – and in doing so rode roughshod over Sir Christopher Kelly’s popular and largely effective inquiry into the expenses system that was running at the same time.

Once IPSA was set up, we had to do our best to work with it in order to make it the best it could be. To that end, I sat on their Implementation Advisory Panel along with various other transparency campaigners and IPSA’s Chief Executive, Andrew McDonald.

It was worth engaging to push them in the right direction, but it wasn’t a very satisfying process – there were various issues where the panel didn’t concur with us in proposing a sufficiently strict scheme to protect taxpayers and I felt from the outset that IPSA was missing big opportunities.

One issue where it did seem that Andrew McDonald got it, though, was on transparency. As one of the original architects of the Freedom of Information Act, he appreciated that secrecy around MPs’ claims had allowed reprobates to abuse the system in the first place and turned a scandal into a wildfire once the truth began to came out. Transparency, he regularly agreed in those Implementation Panel meetings, must be the fundamental foundation of any new expenses system.

It’s bitterly disappointing, then, to see that IPSA are now refusing to publish the actual receipts for MPs’ expenses. I don’t know what in particular happened to push Andrew McDonald off the right path (though I could hazard a few guesses), but this is a betrayal of taxpayers and British democracy. What I do know is that this will always be the way of quangos – designed to be unaccountable, they will almost always end up disregarding the actual will of the people.

I have lost count of the number of times I have said the following words in recent years, but it seems sadly necessary to repeat them again:

Without full openness, trust in Parliament will never be fully restored. Worse than that, secrecy will allow people to steal from us again in future.

Putting the debt in perspective

Posted on October 19, 2010

One of the big political problems in communicating the crushing scale of the national debt is it’s almost unimaginable size. The TPA have done a new video putting the scale of the true debt into quite shocking perspective:

They’ve also done a new report today exposing the true national debt – read it here (PDF).

The Observer’s outrageous TPA smear

Posted on October 11, 2010

If you’re a libertarian tax-cutter, you don’t normally expect the Observer to like you. Their role would normally be to argue against your beliefs and positions. Sometimes that might be done intellectually, or tactically, or just aggressively – that’s fine, this is a war of ideas.

Yesterday, though, they fell below even the usual grubby standards of politics – by trying to smear the TaxPayers’ Alliance by false association to the neo-nazi English Defence League. If it wasn’t so outrageous it would be amusing – they seem incapable of deciding whether the TPA are slippered, Daily Mail, fuddy-duddies or rioting racist football hooligans.

The actual story in there was interesting – that the anti-Islam nuts who have been trying to piggyback on the Tea Party movement in the States have been working with the EDL. That’s obviously newsworthy and is based in fact. Unfortunately that’s where the facts end.

Obviously, coming from a left-wing perspective the author of the article, Mark Townsend, was keen to put the boot in on the whole Tea Party movement.

Despite its overwhelmingly libertarian, constitutionalist and low-spending focus, he tried to suggest that the two anti-Muslim whackos in his story represented all Tea Partiers. This is lazy journalism, but it’s also lazy thinking – exposing the Left’s continuing disbelief that anyone can like low taxes without being a racist, and their inability to imagine a truly atomist organisation with no centralised leadership.

Having made that leap, he decided to take another – jamming the TPA into the story, too. With no justification at all he even mentioned the EDL and the TaxPayers’ Alliance in the same breath:

“[Alan] Lake, believed to be a principal bankroller of the EDL, which claims to be a peaceful, non-racist organisation, is understood to be keen on the possibility of setting up the UK equivalent of the Tea Party. At an event organised by the Taxpayers’ Allliance last month, US Tea Party organisers outlined how the movement emerged last year, partly in protest at the US bank bail-out.”

This is a scandalous jump too far. Evidently in the mindset of the Left “EDL, Tea Party, TaxPayers’ Alliance, Muslim-hating” all go together into one folder – but there is no basis for that suggestion whatsoever. Mark Townsend should answer the following questions:

Do you have any evidence that the EDL and the TPA have anything to do with each other?

Do you have any evidence of an EDL link to the TPA/Tea Party meetings held in London a month ago?

Do you have any evidence of any contact between the TPA and Pamela Geller or Nachum Shifren?

The answer to each question will be “No” – which is why this appalling smear should be withdrawn. In the meantime, I suggest all of you fight back by joining the TaxPayers’ Alliance for free here.

Wallace in LabourLand – hopefully I won’t get shot

Posted on September 27, 2010

I’m always open to new experiences – but today I’m taking that a step further normal. Yes, this is the first time I will ever have been inside a Labour Party Conference. It’ll be an interesting safari in a strange, left wing land which I’m not accustomed to – for obvious reasons.

I’ve got only two concerns about how the day is going to go.

The first is how people might react when they find out I used to work at the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Suffice to say that as a libertarian, low spending, tax-cutter who loathes political correctness, my work at the TPA might not have made me the most popular person in some quarters. In a way I’m quite looking forward to seeing how wide (and/or extreme) a range of responses I can get.

The second concern is that going by past experience the police might try to shoot me. The first time I went anywhere near Labour Conference – collecting signatures against ID cards outside the conference centre in Brighton in 2005 – it ended up with five policemen carting me off under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. Hopefully the police in Manchester won’t be trying to outdo their Brighton colleagues. I’m a bit surprised they’ve actually given me a pass – maybe Walter Wolfgang and I will bump into each other and reminisce.

I’ll be live-tweeting my adventures in LabourLand with the hashtag #WheresWallace Wish me luck!

Abolish HMRC – and bring in the little old ladies

Posted on September 13, 2010

In my first few days at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the HMRC data loss scandal broke. An agency that compels people to hand over their money and their personal details had exposed a horrific inability to fulfil its responsibilities to the public.

And now they’ve done it again. The announcement that 5.7 million people were taxed incorrectly, and at least 1.4 million are left facing huge bills to repay, shows that if HMRC has changed at all it has gone from embarassingly mediocre to irretrievably catastrophic.

The one redeeming feature of the taxman’s behaviour when they lost all that personal data was that its Chairman, Paul Gray, resigned as soon as the scandal came to light (though that was swiftly tempered when we found out how much he was being paid to leave). This time, the opposite happened – Dave Hartnett, HMRC’s permanent secretary for tax, swanned about at the weekend saying “we didn’t get it wrong” (which they clearly did) and there was therefore no need to apologise (which there obviously was).

Under pressure from the Treasury, Hartnett has now changed his tune and said sorry. But sorry is not enough – numerous senior heads must roll for this appalling and repeated incompetence.

The people deserve to see blood, the people responsible deserve the axe and HMRC itself a proper bloodletting if it is ever to recover. HMRC’s boss should get out his chopping block, or the Chancellor should do it – and sack him too.

In the short term, the tax authorities need a kick up the backside. In the long term, the only solution to the continued failure to administer the tax system properly is vastly simplifying our taxes. If we had simple, flat taxation there would be almost no need for an HMRC at all – people could work out their own taxes and instead of this blundering behemoth all we would require would be a few little old ladies to open the envelopes and cash the cheques.

They couldn’t be any less competent than the current bunch, and they would have a lot fewer ways in which they could ruin people’s lives.

Appeasement or confrontation – how to deal with the Unions

Posted on September 05, 2010

The TaxPayers’ Alliance has produced a crucial report on the Trade Unions today – exposing the true scale to which unions are subsidised with taxpayers’ money.

As well as the Union Modernisation Fund, which lives on despite its growing notoriety, the TPA have uncovered 2,493 full time Union employees who are paid for by public sector bodies at a cost of £67.5 million a year.

This is crucial for two reasons. First, it means that key union overheads like recruitment and organising of branches are funded by the general public without their knowledge or approval. Even more importantly, it means that the levies raised from union members are freed up for campaigning war chests.

This raises financial, democratic and political questions.

Financially, can we afford to be funding the unions out of the public coffers? Given union rhetoric on things like NHS Direct, presumably they would be happy to have their own non-essential subsidies cut to avoid other, deeper cuts in real public services?

Democratically, is it right that these payments go on behind closed doors without the approval of the people who pay the bills? Several unions went out of their way to try to prevent the TPA’s lawful use of the Freedom of Information Act, and their desire for secrecy suggests a fear of the public finding out what has been going on.

Poilitically, and most importantly, what should be done about the Unions’ taxpayer-funding, and their political activities as a whole? It is telling that the payments to the union movement rose by 14% in Labour’s last year in office – they chose to buy union support (and donations) using taxpayers’ cash.

Some Conservatives may believe that by continuing these payments they will be able to keep the unions sweet. Far from it. The union movement as a whole is bitterly, eternally opposed to the essential spending cuts that must be carried out. They’ll merrily pocket cash from a Tory Government – but they certainly won’t change their tune just because the enemies they love to hate are foolish enough to appease them.

Continuing to make these payments would mean that the Coalition is actively subsidising groups who intend to apply political pressure against Coalition policies. Worse, when the inevitable strikes begin, those 2,493 paid officials will be manning the pickets, rallying the troops and helping to organise the disruption of public services. This is worse than appeasement – it’s helping to pay the wages of the opposing army.

Some Conservatives may be wary of provoking the unions, and the theme that “we have got to work with them” is recurring more and more often on ConservativeHome and elsewhere.

However, I used the phrase “inevitable strikes” advisedly. The Coalition must accept that no matter what they do to butter up or bribe the unions, they will strike against spending cuts.

Faced by an enemy who intends to attack you regardless of what you do appeasement would be an absurdity. Instead, you should make the most of it – if they will strike against small to medium cuts anyway, then implement larger cuts. The first cut should be these hefty subsidies.