Time for some healthy realism on public sector pay and employment

Of course I am going to write that I like Vince Cable's just announced proposals for capping public sector pay rises to £400 per person.  Since public sector pay makes up a quarter of all public spending, it is unrealistic to assume that it can remain unscathed.  Many people in the private sector have experienced pay freezes, pay cuts and of course redundancy.

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Light at end of tunnel for FCC commuters and for once it's an oncoming train - but now the fight is for proper compensation

Rail delays

It is good news that it now looks like there may be a settlement of the "dispute" between FCC and its drivers.  This has been a nightmare for local commuters who have been caught between a rock and a hard place through no fault of their own. It was not an act of god.  It was a simple failure of First Capital Connect to deliver the service they had promised to the travellers who purchase tickets at such expense.  There should now be no ducking or diving by FCC about compensating passengers for a breakdown in the advertised train service caused by internal industrial relations failings.

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Helioslough rightly under pressure as public has their say at the Inquiry

Today was the first opportunity for members of the public to give evidence as witnesses at the Railfreight public inquiry.  It was a good morning.  Anne Main spoke first and concentrated on rail issues and particularly the disgraceful failure of Network Rail to provide a witness to the Inquiry who could be questioned and cross-examined about all the rail issues.

I spoke second and flagged up the potentially fatal flaw identified by David Parry and myself in the way that Helioslough's traffic experts had calculated the likely HGV movements in and out of the terminal (see more below).  I then went on to comment that while the proposed terminal had forfeited any right to be described as strategic, St Albans's strategic place in British history was assured and any destruction of the crucial southern approach to the city based on a "dodgy dossier" of highway evidence had to be weighed against that.

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Should tax be about fairness? Of course it should

An enlightening glimpse of the three main parties and tax over the weekend and yesterday. First, Tory A-lister and high profile parliamentary candidate Zac Goldsmith was revealed to have used non-domicile status to protect some of his considerable wealth.  Clearly one law for the rich, one for the rest of us. 

 About the only firm Tory tax pledge is to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £2 million precisely to protect people like Mr Goldsmith.  It's bad enough having all the MPs who have abused the expenses system.  But how can politicians dream of proposing spending cuts, tightening belts and raising charges - all inevitable after the next election whoever wins - if they are using tax avoidance loopholes in a way unimaginable to ordinary constituents? Second, the Fabian Society briefed yesterday's newspapers on its soon to be published and painfully honest study of rising inequality in Britain and how Labour's strategy for tackling poverty had reached the end of the road. Third, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats announced costed plans to cut taxes for millions of people by closing tax loopholes and removing tax breaks which disproportionately benefit the wealthiest in our society, by taxing polluting activities, and by introducing a "progressive property levy" (aka the "mansion tax") on the the value above £2 million of any home.

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As new railfreight inquiry begins, have we uncovered a fundamental flaw in Helioslough's traffic modelling?

Today was the first day in the new Public Inquiry into developer Helioslough's appeal against St Albans District Council's refusal of their application to build a massive freight terminal with a few railway sidings attached in the crucial Green Belt south of the city. I joined the demonstration organised by STRiFE beforehand and then we all crowded into the council chamber to hear the opening submissions - so many of us that the council's head of legal services joined other council staff in pulling out more chairs so everyone could sit. In his opening remarks the Inspector, Mr Mead, specifically referred to a letter I had written to him at the end of last week.  In this letter I had asked him to consider an adjournment of the whole Inquiry.

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FCC Rail Agony Continues

The rail service just does not get any better.  I think we are rapidly moving to the stage of asking whether First Capital Connect should be stripped of its franchise if it cannot run its advertised service. Equally the drivers should be ashamed of wreaking disruption on a scale which far outweighs any strength of grievance they csan have - they run the risk of a tightening in union legislation particularly where it is a monopoly public service being delivered - see the wise words of Lord Tom McNally lower down this blog entry. I have been e-mailed again this morning by travellers crammed into overcrowded, over hot and horribly delayed trains.

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Need for a total rethink on how the public sector stores personal data

The loss of personal data because of theft of a laptop from St Albans District Council emphasises the need for a thorough overhaul of the way that public bodies collect and store such information.  It’s not just St Albans.  Sensitive personal details are held on overlapping databases across the whole public sector. I have previously challenged the Child Benefit Agency and West Herts Hospital Trust over the loss of personal data of local residents.  This latest loss affecting St Albans residents is another signal that we need to rethink our whole approach.

I have also been concerned by the intrusive quantity of data demanded by Herts County Council for example in connection with CRB checks for school exchange families.  The whole CRB approach of getting data on people who volunteer seems designed to build a database on those who contribute most to society. The district council must do its utmost to reassure people whose data has been lost.  The results of its internal inquiry must be made public. But in a wider context we need to think urgently how cleverer use of database technology can help to transform the way that we choose to allow both public bodies and the private sector to access information about ourselves.  We need to reassert the rights of individuals to their own identities.

Let the train take the strain??

I was interviewed yet again by BBC Three Counties Radio on the increasing shambles of the First Capital Connect train "service".  I was talking about yesterday's sudden announcement of the departure of Jim Morgan as Interim Managing Director.  Following the earlier departures this year of his predecessor Elaine Holt (to run the renationalised East Coast franchise) and customer services manager Karen Boswell, FCC seems to have become the fastest revolving door in the west. In the meantime it's the passengers who are taking the strain.  57 services cancelled on Monday.  Over 30 yesterday. 50 today. A revised emergency timetable announced for tomorrow and Friday.

Now we learn that ASLEF is calling a strike ballot.  At least there can be no more  absurd pretence from both company and union that there is no dispute. But all that FCC’s long-suffering commuters want - pre-Christmas and post-Christmas - is some confidence that the company’s management will get a grip on the situation.  Someone has to say ‘The buck stops here.’  We need an early announcement of a permanent rather than interim Managing Director and an assurance from parent company First Group that the managerial musical chairs at FCC will cease. And both sides need to remember that they are running a monopoly public service where passengers are paying some of the highest if not the highest commuter fares in the world.

The Berlin Wall - my part in its downfall

No part at all of course.  But it was travelling over and under it every day on my journey to work loading lorries with a gang of Turks and Yugoslavs in a Berlin aluminium anodising and assembly plant that helped form my passionate conviction that Liberal values must prevail. It was 1972, I was living in the then Berlin red light district of Potsdamer Strasse.  The factory was in Spandau.  I took the cheapest form of transport which was the East German-run S-Bahn system.  The rails of course took no notice of the above-ground political boundaries.  The Communists weren't going to spend any money if they could help it on the western part of the system, so the tracks were weed-choked, the stations peeling and dilapidated, the trains ancient, many with wooden seats.

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Supporting the military covenant

For once I did not go to one of the formal Remembrance Sunday services today and went instead to the gentle celebration in Francesca's Catholic church.  It is extraordinary how a commemorative day which was beginning to die on its feet has found new vigour and purpose - not least because of the very real sacrifice and strain felt by our armed forces in today's conflicts. RBL_0034

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