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Saturday, June 07, 2008

The art of government

I have commented before about the impending problem Labour faces as we approach the year 2010. Keen to appear as an action-orientated government, determined to tackle the big issues of the day New Labour set about creating a whole series of targets as soon as they took office in 1997.

Cannily, they acknowledged that in many instances it would take a generation to eradicate long-standing sores like child poverty and fuel poverty and so they picked a date in the distance future by which they hoped to achieve it. In this way they would be able to marshall the necessary resources, put in place any legislation needed, alter the tax and benefit systems accordingly whilst staying immune from effective scrutiny for most of that period on whether they were going to achieve their goal or not.

Even now, with just a few years to go detailed questions are likely to be brushed aside with assurances that the government is on track to fulfil its promise. Alas, it is not the case. Although we have to acknowledge that some progress has been made Labour has failed to carry out the necesary reforms to really crack the problem. As a result reports such as this one are starting to appear pointing out how off course Labour really is.

The Guardian tells us that new figures due out on Tuesday are expected to show a small rise in the numbers in child poverty, leaving ministers with only the 2009 budget to inject up to £3bn to meet the target:

The Department for Work and Pensions has already admitted in internal documents that it is unlikely to meet the government's chief measure of halving the number of children in households with an income of 60% or less of average (median) earnings.

Last year's equivalent figures covering 2005-06 showed an extra 100,000 children falling into poverty measured before housing costs, and 200,000 children measured after housing costs.

A second successive year showing the government failing to make progress will be deeply disappointing, even though ministers insist they have taken extra measures since then and the target is not being ditched.

The paper reports that the Child Poverty Action Group is expecting to see a rise of between 100,000 to 200,000 at worst in child poverty, bringing the total to around 2.9m households. They say that the government needs to cut that figure to 1.7m households by 2010-11 if it is to meet the target. They add that the Institute for Fiscal Studies is predicting that the government will miss its 2010 target by almost half a million children.

On top of this failure are the problems faced in tackling fuel poverty as summed up by Rhodri Morgan in First Minister's Question Time this week. He told the chamber that the government may need to review its targets in the light of recent price rises:

On the question of fuel poverty, everyone is ferociously revising their approach to fuel poverty following the doubling, at least, of fuel prices recently, and, probably, their trebling over the past three or four years, to see to what extent they can maintain the previous targets or whether they have to revise them or provide additional resources. The Westminster Government has said that the winter fuel allowance as regards old people will go up further this winter to try to cope with rising oil prices and the way that that has dragged up electricity and gas prices. However, we will have to look at our targets to see to what extent they have been wrecked by the rise in fuel prices that has occurred suddenly and sharply worldwide.

I think we can all sympathise with the difficulties faced by Labour due to the impact of 'market forces' on fuel prices but we still need to ask hard questions as to whether they have really used the resources available to them to best effect. For example a recent review of the Welsh Government's Home Energy Efficiency Scheme revealed that despite a total expenditure of £50 million only 29 per cent of those helped were classed as fuel poor.

I write all of this with regret because I believe that the objectives that the Government have set itself are laudable and worth pursuing. I genuinely do hope that they meet their targets. Much as I oppose a large part of the New Labour agenda it would be a very sad day indeed for Britain if we lose what is still a largely left-of-centre government at the next election after 12 or 13 years in power without having lifted the required number of our citizens out of poverty.

That is why I found Gordon Brown's actions over the doubling of the 10p tax rate and the expenditure of huge sums of public money on an illegal foreign war and in bailing out what was then a privately owned bank so inexplicable.

Whatever Cameron's rhetoric we know that if he were to enter 10 Downing Street the alleviation of poverty would not be high on his agenda. That is why the achievement of the ambitious targets the present government has set itself are so important. This really is a once-in-a-generation chance to make a difference. Labour had better not blow it.
That is why I found Gordon Brown's [...] expenditure of huge sums of public money on an illegal foreign war [...] so inexplicable.

Lyndon Johnson's vision of the "Great Society" was similarly shattered by his escalation of the Vietnam adventure.
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