Talking Politics
  • By Dominic Dyer

    The badger cull is one of the most controversial farming and wildlife policies in the last 40 years. Political support for the policy in Westminster has been draining away in the past six months, following the pilot culls in Gloucester and Somerset, which are now widely considered to have been a disaster on scientific, economic and animal welfare grounds.

    However, under considerable pressure from farming and landowning interests, the government is clinging to the wreckage of the policy and plans to continue badger culling in Somerset and Gloucestershire this summer and possibly extend the cull into Dorset as well.

    Throughout all the twists and turns of the badger cull debate, a key argument the government has used to justify the case for culling has been the apparent success in reducing TB in cattle as a result of killing badgers in the Republic of Ireland.

    It is true that Ireland has experienced a decline in bovine TB since the late 1990s, a period during which many

    Read More »from The BBC’s badger cull reporting has misled Britain
  • In 1998, Andrew Tift painted Tony Benn's portrait for the parliamentary art collection. The finished painting is on display on the first floor of Portcullis House in Westminster. Here, Tift recalls the experience of painting Benn - and the friendship that sprang up between artist and sitter.

    I went down to London and got the call from the House of Commons. I was going to do a portrait for them, but I didn't know who it was. I was delighted when I found out it was Tony Benn. I come from quite a socialist family - they were all delighted as well.

    I went down to his house in Notting Hill. When he moved in it was quite a run-down area, a long time before it was gentrified. I turned up, parked at the back of his house and went down the pathway into the basement of his house, which was where his offices were. After I'd walked down the steps I saw the bench in the front garden where he proposed to his wife Caroline.

    I walked in. His secretary, her name was Sheila, invited me in. It was quite

    Read More »from Painting Tony Benn: ‘He went to sleep while I was drawing him’
  • Facing a maelstrom of public anger from consumers, politicians and the press, energy bosses are getting desperate. Today's news of a two-year price freeze from SSE shows just how grim things are getting.

    SSE's decision is bad news for the 500 workers who will lose their jobs as a result. The environment will suffer because three planned offshore wind developments are being shelved.

    But it has at least earned SSE a respite from the endless vilification of politicians. Energy secretary Ed Davey has praised the company, saying the move shows "the big energy firms are able to cut their costs and profits, and be confident about their ability to weather potential uncertainty in the wholesale markets, to give bill payers long-term price security".

    Will the other players in the energy sector follow suit? Judging by the mood at a utilities industry conference in London, it doesn't seem likely.

    Besuited executives from across the utilities industry have gathered in the City for a bit of

    Read More »from ‘We’re getting hammered’: The never-ending misery of energy bosses
  • This weekend, published a piece by Howard League for Penal Reform chief executive Frances Crookin which she attacked the government for banning parcels to prisoners, including books. Here, justice secretary Chris Grayling defends his policy following an angry response from authors and campaigners.

    By Chris Grayling

    Let's be clear about one thing: prisoners' access to reading material is not being curtailed. All prisoners may at any one time have up to 12 books in their cells. All prisoners have access to the library, irrespective of which institution they are being held in.

    If any prisoner wishes to buy books with the money he or she gets from their pay, then that is up to them. If a prisoner has engaged with their own rehabilitation in prison, then he will be on a higher level in the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, and so would have more money to spend – on books if he so chooses.

    Of course, this government believes that access to books is vitally important to

    Read More »from The ban on sending prisoners books is part of my rehabilitation revolution
  • By Frances Crook

    New rules introduced by the justice secretary ban anyone sending in books to prisoners. From now on, any man, woman or child in prison will not be able to receive a book from outside. This is part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation.

    The rules governing possessions of prisoners are arcane and not consistently applied by every prison. These new restrictions relate to a downgrading of the system of rewards and punishments, ostensibly designed to encourage prisoners to comply with prison rules.  Yet the ban on receiving books is a blanket decision, so no matter how compliant and well behaved you are, no prisoner will be allowed to receive books from the outside.

    Last November new rules were introduced so that families are no longer permitted to send in small items to prisoners. Children are not allowed to send a homemade birthday card. Prisoners with a particular

    Read More »from Why has Grayling banned prisoners being sent books?
  • Buried deep in the Budget document, there's a pretty significant HMRC power grab.

    If officials decide you owe them money, they now have the ability to take it directly out your bank account. No insolvency proceedings, asset freezes or debt collection agencies. Just the government taking out whatever it thinks it's owed.

    There are restrictions. The power can only be used once you've received a couple of letters and a phone call from enforcement. It only applies to people who owe over £1,000. HMRC must leave at least £5,000 in your account.

    Once they get the money they put it on hold for 14 days and you've got a chance to get in touch and set up a payment plan. If you don't, or you still refuse to pay up, they go ahead and keep it.

    All's fair in tax dodging, you might think – and indeed that will be the sentiment that George Osborne hopes will override concerns about the policy.

    But the plot thickens.

    A couple of points above the bank account section, there is another power HMRC has

    Read More »from Power grab: HMRC can now take money directly from your bank account
  • The chancellor's funding this year's giveaways by whacking the 'baddies' of 21st century Britain. If you're a tax-avoiding smoker with a penchant for gambling and a company car... well, let's just say this Budget might not be great news.

    Yes, there are big giveaways. The personal allowance is going up to £10,500. Savings are getting boosted with improvements to individual savings accounts. And, most importantly, beer duty is falling. But where, you have to ask, is the money coming from?

    The chancellor's strategy, summed up, is to take money from the baddies, even if it's not necessarily the baddies' money just yet, on the basis that if he only targets the unpopular no-one will hear them scream.

    Stealing from the future

    There's not much money around right now. That's a pretty firmly established fact in Westminster. So how about taking money from the future instead?

    That's what the chancellor is doing to 33,000 very wealthy taxpayers who have 'fessed up to involvement in tax avoidance

    Read More »from Osborne’s three clever Budget tricks revealed
  • Russia is relying on a dodgy referendum to grab Crimea from the Ukraine. When Britain decides to grab some territory, it has much less subtle means of taking what it wants.

    The last time this happened was in 1955, when the nation's new Queen authorised a Royal Navy officer called Lieutenant-Commander Desmond Scott to sail into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and stick a flag on Britain's new acquisition.

    It was actually the Russians who were behind this modest expansion of the United Kingdom's dominion – or, as we liked to call it then, the British Empire.

    The presence of the tiny island of Rockall was rather awkward for the Ministry of Defence, which was keen on testing the missiles which would carry Britain's nuclear deterrent from a firing range in the Outer Hebrides.

    So in order to prevent the Russians claiming Rockall and using it to monitor Britain's Cold War antics, the UK decided its only option was to grab the rock for itself.

    And so, on September 18th 1955, the great global

    Read More »from This is how Britain does annexations
  • It's Budget week. So the Westminster news machine is in its much-worn rut of news stories about deficit reduction, numbers we only half-understand and an unhealthy fixation on the price of cigarettes and alcohol.

    This is also the week when the really serious issue of income inequality gets an airing. Useful because the huge gulf between the richest and poorest in 21st century Britain is obscene; the UK, after all, has the second-highest levels of income inequality in the OECD.  This week the chancellor has the chance to try and do something to help put this right. On Wednesday, we'll be delving into the green book trying to work out exactly how much they're bashing the rich and helping the poor.

    The numbers are hard to argue with. As today's figures from Oxfam suggest, the five richest families are wealthier than the bottom 20% of the entire population. This roughly equates to 12.6 million, about the same number of people living below the poverty line.

    The Equality Trust went further

    Read More »from Inequality: Budget obsessives risk missing the bigger picture
  • Many years ago, where Parliament Square turns into Millbank, I spotted Tony Benn. He was sat on a low wall, alone, smoking his pipe and basking in sunlight.

    I'm not usually reticent about approaching people nor nervous talking to them. But he was too big. His influence had been too great. At best, I would have garbled out a stream of gushing praise. At worst I would have been simply speechless. I chickened out.

    Benn was not lacking in people telling him how much he meant to them – moments after I failed to do so a couple of middle aged women, evidently braver than I, did precisely that. But I still regret that I didn't tell him how he taught me the best side of socialism and the appropriate manner in which to conduct politics.

    I first heard him in the back seat of my parent's car when I was in my early teens, on a radio documentary about Karl Marx. Benn said something about Marxism which I never forgot: That it was for those who could not understand why there should be people without

    Read More »from The socialism of humanity: A tribute to Tony Benn


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