Friday 30 October 2009

What the Tory Euro row really means

Bagehot in the Economist today is spot on in explaining the real significance of this week's row over Kaminski and the odds and sods that pass for a Tory grouping in Europe.

Seeing the move as a ransom paid to his party may be the best excuse for the moral compromises and apparent political myopia it involved. The switch and the credit it earned may even make it easier for Mr Cameron to take a relatively sane position on the Lisbon treaty if, as expected, it goes into force soon. But if this interpretation—charitable but plausible—mitigates the foolishness of Mr Cameron’s past decisions, it also raises an awkward question about his future.

It is this: if this shoddy, shaming alliance is the price he was obliged to pay his party for the changes needed to make it seem modern and compassionate, what sort of party is it that Mr Cameron leads? What else will its members demand, and what else—when his popularity and authority wane—will he be obliged to give them, after he becomes prime minister.

Mrs Warren's Profession

To see a sparky Felicity Kendal in a new Theatre Royal Bath production of Shaw's once controversial comedy about prostitution, Mrs Warren's Profession, last night. The play which tells the story of an independent-minded 1890s Cambridge-educated young woman's discovery of how her largely estranged mother earns her living and has paid for her genteel upbringing, is remarkable not only for its subject matter but also for its strong feminism. Behind the comedy there is a sharp critique of the sort of jobs and wages that poorer women faced in late Victorian England. Much of the action takes place in the country, where the local vicar's background is found to have coincided a little too closely with Mrs Warren. With its principal theme, and a suggestion of incest, the play, although written in 1894, was not performed publicly until it appeared in New York in 1905. It took another 20 years before the Lord Chamberlain's officials deemed it suitable for a general British audience (though it was performed in private theatre clubs from 1902). The play's qualities shine through in this fine production from Bath. With excellent support from David Yelland, as Lord Crofts, as caddish a figure as any created by Shaw, and great acting from Lucy Briggs-Owen, as Vivie, Mrs Warren's daughter, this production is a great revival of an underperformed gem. It is touring before a West End slot in 2010.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Political pariahs?

I've written this piece at the Public Finance blog about the saga of MPs expenses:

MPs could be forgiven for thinking that they have officially been declared enemies of the people. After the public lynching engendered by the Daily Telegraph’s weeks of revelations before the summer, they now have to ensure the tortuous combination of Sir Christopher Kelly’s hairshirt and Sir Thomas Legg’s restrospective thumbscrew.

Of course, some MPs have been abusing the system, and some have claimed very little. But most have just been doing what they were told by the officials at the Fees Office that they could – and often should – do. And it is a bit much to see the rough justice where some MPs – including David Cameron, who has happily used the saga to rid himself of a few troublesome backbenchers – are able to enjoy rich pickings from property speculation whilst the Prime Minister is rapped for spending more than an abritrary £2000 a year on flat cleaning and laundry.

The reported plans by Sir Christopher to phase out mortgage subsidies make sense, as do attempts to clamp down on needless first class travel. But stopping MPs employing spouses will not produce better or less expensive offices – they are the ones most likely to work longer and mix constituency and Westminster duties better – nor will the arbitrary 60 minute travel rule enhance the quality of debate, unless Parliament moves to a 6pm curfew. Having MPs rushing for the last train is hardly the stuff of decent democracy.

All these new rules may satisfy the forces of public opinion as they are mediated by the tabloids. But they could prove costly if they confirm the public’s view that all MPs are fiddling the system.

It would be far better to make things simple. Either give MPs a rail season ticket and a choice between staying at Westminster-owned serviced apartments or a hotel with which the Palace authorities have negotiated a good deal or increase their salaries and only pay them a decent allowance for running their office. And provided they are up to the job, and do the hours, let MPs employ their spouses if they get the work done.

All this nit-picking about railway timetables and internet subsidies is as damaging to democracy as the moats and duck ponds. Many good people on both sides of the House have had their careers destroyed because of mistakes or simply assuming that the Fees Office knew what they were talking about. Creating a whole host of complex new rules will not save taxpayers much money but could make the MP a permanent pariah, which even next year’s general election could do little to change.

A simple, transparent system, which everybody can understand, and which recognises the nature of the MP’s job, is the only way to restore faith in our democracy. Sadly, neither Sir Christopher nor Sir Thomas, born bureaucrats whose civil service instincts for micro-management inform their world view, seem to grasp that basic reality.

The simple fact is that the Tories' approach to the European Parliament is quite mad

Iain Dale is demanding that those who criticise the Polish MEP Michal Kaminski should apologise because the Chief Rabbi of Poland has been prevailed upon to say that the man is not an anti-semite these days and to criticise a headline run by the New Statesman suggesting he was asking the UK Tories to ditch their alliance with him.

Yet, as Toby Helm points out, Rabbi Schudrich said in an email to the New Statesman that he has not retracted:
"It is clear that Mr Kaminski was a member of the NOP, a group that is openly far-right and neo-Nazi...Anyone who would want to align himself with a person who was an active member of NOP and the Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne, which was established to deny historical facts of the massacre ... needs to understand with what, and by whom, he is being represented."
Moreover, Helm explains that the new comments come as a result of 'enormous pressure ' - bullying in plain terms - from Kaminski's Law and Justice Party to retract, but he has not done so. As Helm says:
I suspect that if one really wants to get to the heart of what Schudrich thinks, one should stick to the statement he originally gave to the New Statesman, before the row really got going. Cut through the political mud-slinging, go back to the time when he gave an opinion under no pressure at all. Then he raised questions about Kaminski's past association with a neo-Nazi leaning party, and said people needed to think clearly before getting alongside such individuals. The Tories want to portray Schudrich as a great supporter of Kaminski because they are in a mess over their new EU allies. The truth, I reckon, is rather more complex and less helpful to David Cameron's party.
However much the defenders of Cameron's mad Euro-policy may grumble, the simple fact is this: at a time when the Tories could (and if they were rational, should) have continued in the EPP, the party of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, they instead chose to ally themselves with a motley crew of fringe parties and MEPs well outside even the right-wing mainstream. They did this purely to satisfy a bunch of Eurosceptic fanatics who had backed Cameron as leader. And they were quite happy to ditch their own respected leader at Strasbourg in the process, preferring to see Kaminski as their leader.

That some of their new allies have pretty unsavoury pasts (to quote Rabbi Schudrich "Mr Kaminski was a member of the NOP, a group that is openly far-right and neo-Nazi") adds to the oddity of it all. And no amount of huffing and puffing can detract from the sheer idiocy of such positioning, both for the Conservatives and for a Britain they hope to govern again.

Universities must give students a better deal if they want higher fees

I have a piece in today's Independent, arguing that if universities want fees to rise to as much as £7,000 a year, they must provide students with a better all-round deal. And this should be an explicit part of the forthcoming fees review. Here's an extract:

In the coming weeks the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, will announce the terms of reference for a review of student fees. The cross-party investigation is likely to recommend an increase in tuition fees from £3,225 to as much as between £5,000 and £7,000 a year, increasing the proportion of courses costs paid back by students after graduation. But if universities want the right to charge higher fees, there is growing political consensus that they must also be prepared to improve greatly the experience they provide for undergraduates.

The Higher Education Policy Institute has shown that the combination of teaching and private study for undergraduates in some humanities and social science courses amounts to just 14 hours a week, though it is much higher in the more demanding universities and the average is 29 hours, including 14.5 hours' contact time. But the higher the fees become, the greater the expectation of students and their parents.

This isn't just a problem with domestic students. Overseas students, who contribute £4bn a year in fees (more than eight per cent of the total income of UK universities) already pay £10,000 to £20,000 a year for most courses. Their numbers have grown over the last decade, but there is greater competition within Europe, Australia and the United States, and Chinese and Indian students increasingly have less expensive options closer to home. Unless they feel they are getting good value for their money, they will go elsewhere.

Some universities are recognising how important it is to provide a good student experience. Lancaster, Manchester and the London School of Economics give students clearer commitments on contact time, class sizes and access to lecturers than many. Others, like Northumbria, provide substantial hands-on facilities and work experience in subjects such as law and health.

But there is still a sense among too many vice-chancellors that they should be allowed to charge higher fees without needing to improve substantially students' overall academic and pastoral experiences. That's why the terms of reference for the new review must explicitly include the issues that Mr Willetts suggested [contact hours, class sizes and employability]. It will be hard enough selling another fees increase to Middle England. Unless their anxieties about what happens at university are addressed, it may prove politically impossible. Vice-chancellors must raise their game if they want the right to raise their fees.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

A sense of proportion on MPs' expenses

The leaked version of Sir Christopher Kelly's proposals for MPs' expenses suggests a degree of compromise, but also a wish to feed the media rather than develop a rational approach to the issues.

As I have argued here before, it is right that MPs should receive money for rent or modest hotel rooms rather than mortgage subsidies: there is no justification for MPs using their living expenses to build a property empire. I still think the Parliamentary authorities should buy up some apartment blocks near Westminster, so it makes money on the deal. That way, it could provide services like dry cleaning or house cleaning on a contractual basis, making money on the flats and saving money on the services.

But on two other issues, I am less convinced. The new 60 minute commute rule is fine if it is fairly enforced. But as someone who travels from home near Bath to London a few times a month, I would never allow less than 2h 30 to reach a meeting in the centre of the city, even though Bath is a 1h 20 commute. When I lived in Mitcham in South London, using the dreadful Northern Line and walking to and from the tube stations often took 1h 15. So the debate about a 60 minute commute will be fun. Far better to set the boundaries as those of the London Underground or overground lines in Greater London. And for late sittings, the option of an overnight hotel stay must remain. Indeed, if MPs are still to be allowed to travel first class, it is often cheaper to stay over than travel to and from London (from Bath it is even true with an open 2nd class!).

And on the employment of spouses, Sir Christopher is plain wrong. A husband or wife who works for an MP is likely to be able to balance constituency and London duties far more effectively than a secretary who is wholly London or constituency-based. Those I know are harder workers and often have far more useful experience. Of course, they should have the right skills and experience, and be audited to ensure they work the hours (I suspect many work twice the hours they should). But a blanket ban on spouses shows no understanding of the nature of the MP's working life. It should be dropped.

Monday 26 October 2009

Hague shows his immaturity in Europe

It is quite extraordinary that William Hague is going around Europe bad-mouthing our former Prime Minister in a bid to scupper his chances of becoming European President. At the same time, despite the growing criticism at home and abroad, he remains doggedly wedded to his bizarre allies in Eastern Europe and further away from ever than the Christian Democrat mainstream in the European Parliament.

The more the facts show the extremism of Kaminski or the Latvian Fatherland party, the more those who raise them find themselves smeared and attacked. No wonder an experienced hand like Michael Heseltine has warned that they will have to be ditched pronto if the Tories win power.

The idea that a would-be future foreign secretary is leading campaign on behalf of the Luxembourg prime minister ahead of one of our greatest British prime ministers suggests a startling immaturity. We are not talking Nigel Farage or Nick Griffin here, after all, but someone aspiring to a great office of state. Yet Hague puts narrow Tory sectarianism first.

I had thought that Hague had become one of the more substantial figures on David Cameron's front bench. But his antics in recent months have shown how wrong I was. He is wholly lacking in the judgment required for the job, and prone to act in ways that are utterly at odds with the British national interest. It is no wonder that so many in the US and Europe are so bemused.

Saturday 24 October 2009

The BBC's boost for the BNP

I had deliberately avoided saying much about the Nick Griffin show before Question Time was broadcast, and only caught up with the whole thing last night on the Virgin + player. Having seen the resulting car crash, I am now firmly with Peter Hain in his view that this charade should never have been broadcast.

Of course, the BBC should give the minimum airtime required by statute to the BNP and their loathsome leader on news programmes. But this need not extend to Question Time, and it was utterly crass and self-defeating to turn the whole thing into a forum where an admittedly poorly prepared, ignorant and sweaty Griffin was made to seem like the victim of a liberal elite ambush.

This was the BBC at its absolute worst. First, it generates oceans of publicity to swell interest in the BNP and attract eight million viewers. Then, instead of either running a normal version of Question Time where the BNP leader's mediocrity might shine through without any semblance of victimhood, or introducing a savvy comedian to prick his pompous self-regard, the programme deliberately sought an unrepresentative audience and handpicked questions guaranteed to elevate the third-rate Griffin to martyrdom among a significant portion of the audience. [The idea that the producers don't decide in advance what questions they want is laughably absurd.]

It was frankly the worst of all worlds. When Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand engaged in their mindless antics with Andrew Sachs, they were penalised for their stupid stunt. The controller of BBC Radio 2 was forced to resign. But this exercise has been far more damaging as a vehicle for publicity for a racist and evil organisation than makes hundreds of thousands of minority community lives a misery. Who will take responsibility for that?

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Persistent truancy is falling - but not fast enough

The headline figure for 'unauthorised absence' is at its highest level, even if the increase is marginal. But since a government clampdown on term-time holidays, with heads refusing to back bargain autumn breaks to Spain, that number is not really the one that matters. More significant is the figure for 'persistent truancy': these are the hard-core truants, the ones who are really missing out by not being at school. And the good news is that these figures are starting to fall significantly. This is where we started to focus resources four years ago, on schools with significant problems of persistent truancy, and the signs are that it is beginning to work.

But the fall in those missing at least one day a week from 273,000 to 241,000 pupils, a drop of over 10%, though good news, is not yet good enough. That's 241,000 pupils still missing some 40 days a year of lesons or more. There must be a singular focus on that group, with government resources transferred from pointless lectures about family holidays (as well, perhaps, as some of the money spent in bureaucratic Every Child Matters committees) and a relentless implementation of what successful schools have already done.

I notice that shadow schools spokesman Nick Gibb is criticising the government for the truancy figures: if he is serious about addressing the problem, he must recognise that this is one area where Government can make a difference with the right focus and the right target. The evidence is finally there of what works. It needs to be followed up.

Monday 19 October 2009

Change and continuity in academies

Labour's academies policy looks safer with the Conservatives now that people like the former Schools Commissioner Sir Bruce Liddington are on board with the New Schools Network, a quasi-independent organisation set up by shadow schools secretary Michael Gove to help him realise his policy of creating more independent state schools.

Of course, I hope that Labour can win the next election. But if, as the polls suggest, the Tories do win through, it is vital that there is continuity as much as change in what happens in the education system. In 1997, Labour took this view not only with testing and inspection, but also with the introduction of foundation schools and grammar school ballots.

Even so, it is going to be a tall order seeing the large number of new schools that the Conservatives envisage being delivered quickly and, more importantly, successfully. I am quoted elsewhere warning that 'cults and sects' may be the first to embrace any laxness in the safeguards for new schools, and that the realisable demand from groups of parents directly may be more limited than is assumed. There may also be justifiable demand from mainstream Muslims and Catholics, but the Government will need to balance demand with fair safeguards, if their policy is not to be hijacked, and while this is something Gove realises, it may not be as straightforward as the Opposition think.

But this doesn't mean they should be unambitious. However, there are two issues that the Tories need to address if they are to make a success of their plans. What I also told the TES is that pressure from faiths or sects means the Tories will need to have a much more hands-on position driving and encouraging secular demand, for example by developing the sort of school chains that are envisaged also by Ed Balls in his recent schools white paper. This is where the new network could be useful in opposition, though in government the Tories need to work more closely with established and trusted organisations that have helped deliver trusts and academies in practice. Whether they need to introduce profit-making is a moot point: Swedish and American profit-making entrepreneurs say they do. But Gove may find it far harder to sell his plans politically in the UK environment, with a strong tradition of not-for-profit independent schools than in Sweden, where there was no such tradition. And many American states prohibit profit in charter schools.

The second issue is difficult for any opposition: to recognise where and how Labour's reforms have succeeded. There have been substantial and genuine improvements in some inner city areas since 1997, as a direct result of a much more business-like and qualifications-focused attitude in schools - and a big improvement in the quality of teachers. Of course, too many targets can create their own problems. But the combination of floor targets - like the 30% minimum five goood GCSEs in the National Challenge - and tough internal targets within schools has driven substantial improvement where English and Maths are included. Unless the Conservatives expect similar ambition with their academies, they will not achieve the further boost in improvement they need.

And that may mean spending a bit more time getting it right rather than focusing on the numbers of new schools, especially when replacing failing schools or supporting new parent-led alternatives. Equally, those trusted organisations will need to help sell the benefits of being an academy to good maintained schools, especially if money is tight and there are no incentives. Similar strictures apply in primaries, more so given their size, where the majority of any new schools will be established, and the Tories need to be more vocal in resisting the efforts of some academics to return them to the secret garden of differential expectations and limited focus on the basics that too often prevailed in the seventies and eighties.

Despite all the hoopla in the press, most of whose editors have little idea what is really happening in most state schools and don't report real improvements when they occur, Gove's policy is far more a continuation of Tony Blair's and Labour's reforms (which in turn embraced many of Ken Baker's reforms) than either party would care to admit. (True, academies have lost some freedoms under Balls, but the fundamentals are still there.) And that continuity would be a good thing for schools and their students.

5pm UPDATE: I've also blogged on this theme at the Progress website.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Give me Billy Hayes over Alex Salmond any day

Both Billy Hayes from the Communication Workers Union and Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, graced both the Andrew Marr Show on BBC 1 and Sky's Sunday with Adam Boulton. Where Hayes came across as a moderate, conciliatory figure - whatever the rights and wrongs of his dispute with the Royal Mail - Salmond appeared as even more a posturing bully than ever. If I were the CWU, I would make every effort to get Hayes to put the postal workers case as much as possible. Despite the ludicrous comparisons in some newspapers, he is no Arthur Scargill.

Salmond wanted a hung parliament so he could bully a UK government into supporting his demands. But he was 'willing' to see a third option on Scottish ballot papers. If the SNP wants to ensure that there is no hung parliament then they should certainly let Salmond puts his case on TV in England as much as possible. But if he does want a referendum on Scottish independence, perhaps we could insist that Scottish voters are reminded on the ballot paper what it would mean to each one of them individually to lose the Barnett formula and to pay UK taxpayers back for the cost of bailing out the Edinburgh banking industry, notably HBOS and RBS?

Friday 16 October 2009

Too much, too young?

It is a bit rich for Prof Robin Alexander and his cohorts on the self-styled 'biggest review of primary education in 40 years' to accuse politicians of ideological interference in schools when they have just presided over a review which has always has at its core an ideological opposition to national testing. So, nobody can be surprised at its best publicised conclusions, that national tests should be scrapped and 'formal learning' should start later.

Yet for a study apperently groaning under the weight of '4,000 pieces of evidence', it is fascinating that it takes a practitioner to explain what nonsense underlies the suggestion that five year-olds are being subjected to rote learning of the sort that a Victorian would recognise - a claim inevitably treated with reverence on the BBC this morning.

In fact, there is not a great deal of difference between what is taught in pre-school in most other countries with a later starting age and what actually happens here. Nor is there a lot of difference between the extent to which some youngsters are taught well at home and others need schools to make up for a lack of home support (as a conversation with any Helsinki primary teacher will attest).

As Liz Steele, a not untypical English primary headteacher writes in the Times today:

Children starting reception class at 4 or 5 are not made to sit in serried ranks and chant times tables. They play, run around outside and often barely notice the transition from pre-school — except that they stay all day instead of just for the morning. While they are gardening, cooking and role-playing they learn about sounds and how to recognise letters.

But it is not a rigid curriculum, it’s learning through experience. For some pupils — who would otherwise not get these opportunities — the chance to interact is crucial to their development. They thrive and grow by being around adults who are trained in how to engage them and by playing alongside other children. Their speech improves and they are supported in a community rather than being taken to towns and clinics where their background and family are unknown.

If the environment is right, with learning experiences and good role models in the classroom, then it is best for some children to start school as soon as possible. Their breadth of knowledge increases and their basic skills improve. They are initially quite ired but we don’t see children falling asleep in corners and they soon become used to it and are quite lively.

It is not the middle classes who would lose out by the change proposed by the Alexander review, but those from backgrounds where there is too little support and stimulation at home. They are starting to fall behind by age three and will fall much further behind if they are denied the sort of purposefulness that is offered in thousands of primaries like that led by Ms Steele. Indeed the Alexander notion that because some parents won't read with their children at home - the main 'homework' expected in primaries - schools should not expect it to happen is defeatism of the highest order.

"Give us back our schools," is the TES headline to its story about the report. And that just about sums up the reasoning behind the desire to scrap tests. For those who object most to national testing are not a generation of youngsters obessesed by competitive computer games but some of their teachers and rather more of those running the teaching unions, who still haven't got used to the idea that schools are not run for the comfort of the staff but in the interests of the pupils; and as taxpayers we have a right to look occasionally at how they perform. Those who regard this as "Stalinism" clearly forget that when the first tests were taken in 1995, less than half of eleven year olds reached a standard that 70-80% reach today.

The primary purpose of primary schools must be to develop literacy and numeracy to a reasonable level in all their pupils, as well as providing a broad curriculum. I would have no argument with stripping back the compulsory curriculum to enable this to happen, and to allow 50% of the day to be decided at school level provided that children were taught to read, write and do arithmetic. I also happen to agree with the suggestion that there should be more specialist teachers in primary school. One of the benefits of the numeracy strategy was that it provided teachers with an understanding of a subject where many lacked confidence, and for which initial teacher education had left them ill-prepared.

But to imagine that children will be better off with less focus on English and Maths, and no proper independent school-level accountability is bizarre. We tried that before the mid-1990s and it didn't work. The only surprise about the Alexander report is that it took so long for them to reach the conclusions they had intended to reach from the start.

I've also blogged on this subject at Public Finance and John Rentoul has picked up this posting in a strong piece for his blog.

Thursday 15 October 2009

These are genuinely good GCSE results

That half of all 15-year old students now get five good GCSEs including English and Maths - a 2.1% point increase on last year - should be a huge boost for the Government's secondary school reform programme.

To put that in some context, it means that 50% more pupils reach this standard - a much tougher one than the 5 GCSEs in any subject that nearly 70% now get - when it includes both English and Maths - than did so in 1997. If you doubt this is a tough target, look at the separate data for each of those basic subjects. It particularly reflects the strength of two key Government reform programmes, Academies and the National Challenge (together with earlier floor targets), but can also be attributed to the school-level targets associated with virtually all secondaries becoming specialist schools.

Traditionalists might reflect that with O levels, barely a quarter of pupils reached this standard and both English and Maths were not required in the measure. And the Conservatives should understand that their independent schools programme will not succeed in achieving a similar uplift unless it is accompanied by a tough accountability regime, where schools set challenging internal targets and the Government has minimum expectations like the National Challenge.

Today's results are a reflection of the genuine transformation for the better that has occurred in secondary schools and their culture. It should be a cause for celebration. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Good foundations

Good news from the Government's much-maligned 'nappy curriculum' today - or more properly, the Early Years Foundation Stage - which seeks to ensure that toddlers know their ABC, can count and have gained a range of important social skills by the age of six.

Critics who believe that only middle class children have the right to these skills at an early age - before it is too late - argue that it is far too early to expect (working class) children to learn the alphabet or count: far better to wait until they are seven or eight, and illiterate. Their own kids have already learnt these skills at home, of course.

So I was riveted to read an account in the Daily Telegraph which mentions in passing the fact that 23,000 more children are reaching a good level of development than prior to the introduction of the EYFS in September 2008 but complains instead that
More than one-in-six boys cannot write their own name or other simple words such as “mum”, “dad” and “cat” after a year of school – double the number among girls.
They are also much less likely to know the alphabet, count to 10, sing simple nursery rhymes from memory, dress themselves and work well with other children in class.

An explanation is then offered by Sue Palmer, who doesn't think children should do anything but play until well into primary school:
[She] said boys were developmentally behind at birth and needed time to “run
about and play, which is what they need to catch up”.

So, let me get this clear. Some boys don't know their alphabet or can't count because they aren't in the playground enough and are being forced to recite the alphabet by nasty nursery teachers. And the fact that despite the gap, a growing number of boys as well as girls can do these things satisfactorily hasn't anything at all to do with the fact that they are now being taught them more effectively in nursery school.

Expenses and allowances

It is plainly absurd to fine MPs retrospectively for expenses that were approved in good faith years ago, and if Sir Thomas Legg thinks it is reasonable to do so merely to satisfy the voices of the mob, then he has a very odd sense of natural justice. Natural justice is not what appears in a Telegraph or Mail editorial. But those who can afford £1.3 million flats in central London clearly don't need to worry about trifles like expenses.

And the real reason why these allowances have been allowed to grow as they have is in danger of being forgotten in the ensuing controversy. MPs allowances - as with those for peers incidentally - have always been intended to supplement their salaries (or substitute for them) by covering all the additional costs they incur as a result of living in London as an MP in addition to any constituency home (until 2004, ministers were required to designate London their first home, a fact conveneniently forgotten is the attacks on Jacqui Smith).

That's why many tended to claim close to the full housing allowance, even if it involved mortgage interest subsidies. In that context, the Legg letters may politically require paybacks, but far more important is the establishment of a much clearer system of MPs pay and expenses (which are not the same thing as allowances).

So, MPs should have an overnight accommodation and subsistence allowance - say £200 on days that Parliament sits - that would allow them to stay at a reasonable 3* or 4* hotel in central London - the Commons can block book rooms to get good deals - or accommodation in apartment blocks wholly leased by the Palace of Westminster. The hotel/subsistence allowance should not exceed £200 a day. Mortgage costs would not be paid.

Any cleaning or other such costs would not be handled by MPs but dealt with by officials (or covered in hotel bills). Train fares (normally second class) should be paid with rail warrants and mileage costs covered for constituency business. Otherwise any expenses would be directly related to official business and suitably receipted.

The sooner such a system gets established the better for MPs and the better for their reputation.

Friday 9 October 2009

Education savings

I have written an analysis of the potential for savings in the schools' budget in this week's Public Finance, to protect frontline services. You can read the piece here.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

American history trail

PHILADELPHIA - Spending a week in the States has given us the opportunity to see a lot of great American historical sights. We spent the last few days in Washington DC, before taking the train up here today. The walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, past the various veteran's memorials, is pretty stunning. The White House is fairly well hidden from the front, with two closed off streets, but offers better views round back.

The Presidential portraits in the National Portrait Gallery are impressive, but the current exhibition of portraits from the American West is fascinating, as are some of the pictures from Lincoln's inauguration. A newer museum that is particularly fascinating is the Newseum, where they have an amazing collection of newspaper front pages, as well as lots of broadcast history. The modern building, which only opened last year, is currently hosting a fascinating exhibit on coverage of a divided Berlin, complete with pieces of the Wall.

We stayed at the Fairmont, a great base for nearby Georgetown as well as walking downtown. There was plenty of good food, but we particularly enjoyed a jazz brunch on Sunday at Georgia Brown's, an excellent Italian supper at Cafe Milano and a great breakfast at Afterwords in Dupont Circle. Taxis seemed particularly good value compared with London.

Today in Philadelphia we had the chance to walk around the historical district in Independence National Park, seeing the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Carpenters' Hall and the Franklin Court museum. Philadelphia is justly proud of its central role in the story of independence, federalism and the Constitution. The historic buildings sit uneasily cheek by jowl with modern buildings, but exude a real sense of history. All in all, a great four day history lesson.

Saturday 3 October 2009

Ireland votes Yes

Ireland seems to have voted decisively in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, an unwelcome gift to David Cameron at the start of the Conservative conference. It is now time for Cameron and William Hague to explain to their deluded delegates that there will now be no referendum on Lisbon in Britain. If Cameron is the plain speaker he tells us he is, the voters expect honesty on this subject. Perhaps Andrew Marr could concentrate on getting answers to that question tomorrow morning, instead of worrying about the internet rumour mill.

Thursday 1 October 2009

In America

I'm off the Washington tomorrow for the first time to see the sights. Blogging may be a bit lighter over the next week.