Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Initial thoughts on the programme for government

So, the Program for Government. It's even possible to comment on the individual aspects of it online, which is impressive (well, now that they've got that bit working) but probably not useful.

The classifications are somewhat arbitrary, and it could do with more linking between sections, which makes it a little hard to read (and also allows things to be a little hidden on anything other than a comprehensive search). Some things appear to be missing entirely from the logical section, but have adequate coverage elsewhere. Other things are more notable for their complete absence from the programme.

It's - as is to be expected for a programme covering a planned 5-year term - very long. It's also short on details almost everywhere, which will only be revealed if and when the relevant legislation or guidelines or budgets are released.

In general, the principles seem fine, but what details there are for proposals don't always back up the principles. There are some long overdue ideas, and also plenty that it would have been better if they had never been put forward. On the whole, I'm cautiously optimistic - it's not a good programme for government, but it's not in most areas a disaster either, and the nature of a coalition government means that campaigning might be able to lead to more satisfactory outcomes.

Details and comments on some of the proposals below. There's a lot I've not commented on, on the basis that I just don't know enough about the area to know what the likely effects are.


At a first glance, this all looks okay. It'll depend on what the details of the new regulations are.


This is a large section, and a lot of it is relatively uncontroversial. Help for small businesses, requirements for businesses to report on social and environmental duties, etc. However, there's some quite worrying clauses too.

We will cut red tape by introducing a ‘one-in, one-out’ rule whereby no new regulation is brought in without other regulation being cut by a greater amount.

So, on banking, it's all "too much deregulation, everything went wrong, let's regulate them again", but for other businesses it's "too much regulation, let's deregulate". There probably are some regulations that could be removed harmlessly, but imposing a requirement that the total amount of regulation always decreases is absurd - especially when a lot of the rest of the section is talking about things that would require added regulations. It seems like it's just a grab for an easy soundbite.

We will review employment and workplace laws, for employers and employees, to ensure they maximise flexibility for both parties while protecting fairness and providing the competitive environment required for enterprise to thrive.

Given the parties of the current government, I'm fairly certain that this will see more restrictions on the rights to take industrial action, and a net reduction in employee protections in other areas.

Civil liberties

All good stuff, now that the government seems to have accepted that it essentially can't usefully repeal the Human Rights Act (and would never have the Commons votes for it anyway).

Given that this was one of the previous government's worst areas, "stop doing that" is all you really need for a policy success, of course.

In practice, of course, it may just be a different set of civil liberties that get restricted.

Communities and local government

Again, some good things in here, such as improvements to energy efficiency standards, greater protection against aggressive debt collectors, and so on, though how much use they'll be in practice is hard to tell. Also some worrying bits:

We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities.

Combine that with a likely drop in central government funding for local authorities, and a lot of important local services are going to have to be reduced or dropped entirely, with the usual greater effects on people who are working-class and/or disabled and/or old.

Consumer protection

It's hard for any government to put "actually, we think consumers are too protected", at least, not in this section of the document. There doesn't seem to be anything actually bad here, though how much good any of it does will as always depend on the detail.

Crime and policing

We will reduce time-wasting bureaucracy that hampers police operations, and introduce better technology to make policing more effective while saving taxpayers’ money.

We will amend the health and safety laws that stand in the way of common sense policing.

Making police record - for instance - every stop and search they do, is often perceived, both by the police and large parts of the press, as "time-wasting bureaucracy". Given that it's the only thing that makes it possible to definitively tell how much racial profiling the police are doing, and perhaps gives them second thoughts about doing so on occasion, slowing them down slightly seems a good thing.

As far as "health and safety laws" go, I have no idea what this refers to, but "health and safety" and "common sense" in the same sentence sets off alarms.

We will promote better recording of hate crimes against disabled, homosexual and transgender people, which are frequently not centrally recorded.

Definitely good. Should, of course, have been a requirement from the start.

Culture, Olympics, media and sport

They're in favour of them.

We will cut red tape to encourage the performance of more live music.

If this is about Form 696, then this is definitely a good thing.


We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives. We will immediately play a strong role in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, and press for continued progress on multilateral disarmament.

"Value for money" is a strange concept to apply to nuclear weapons. In the event that you use them, there will be a near-complete collapse of civilisation and economic systems very soon afterwards. At that point, how much you previously paid for them is irrelevant (and before that point, the less you spend on them, the more you have left over for other things). If you don't use them (which is the plan), the most cost-effective one is the cheapest that your hypothetical enemy believes would work if you did use it.

Also, of course, maintaining the nuclear deterrent while wanting multilateral disarmament seems impossibly inconsistent.

Deficit reduction

We will significantly accelerate the reduction of the structural deficit over the course of a Parliament, with the main burden of deficit reduction borne by reduced spending rather than increased taxes.

In other words, reduced services for those who need them rather than more taxes on those who could do without the reduced services anyway. There might be sufficient unnecessary spending to reduce the deficit without harming services, but I doubt it.

Energy and climate change

Nothing particularly bad, but it's probably not ambitious enough either.

Environment, food and rural affairs

They're in favour of that, too. Lots of "investigate" and "work towards" and not so much actual commitments. Oh, and fox hunting.


We will stop the deportation of asylum seekers who have had to leave particular countries because their sexual orientation or gender identification puts them at proven risk of imprisonment, torture or execution.

Better late than never (though "proven" allows a lot of room for error).

There doesn't seem to be anything on disabilities and despite the preamble nothing much on class either.


We will ensure that there is no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament. We will examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences and will, in particular, work to limit the application of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom.

See previous comments on employer versus employee rights.

Otherwise nothing particularly surprising. Not getting any closer to Europe, but not getting further away either.

Families and children

We will review the criminal records and vetting and barring regime and scale it back to common sense levels.

...This will give us plenty of room to scale it back up again in response to the next five years of "how could this person ever have been allowed near children" headlines in the press.

We will encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy – including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave.

Better leave arrangements in this area could be a big improvement, but the big difference between here and the Scandinavian countries that have more flexible leave is that those countries also pay that leave better.

Foreign affairs

Lots of bits in favour of world peace and co-operation, except for unpopular countries.

We will never condone the use of torture.

It's worrying how far the boundaries of what is acceptable have deteriorated that this even needs to be said.

Government transparency

They're in favour of that too.

We will ensure that all data published by public bodies is published in an open and standardised format, so that it can be used easily and with minimal cost by third parties.

This bit would be very good if it actually happens.


Given how bad a mostly-Conservative policy on immigration could have been, it could be a lot worse. There's even some good bits

We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes.

Though it's not just the detention of children that makes the detention centres a problem, of course - and stopping the abuse of adult detainees doesn't get a mention.

The proposals for a cap on non-EU immigration really depend on where the cap is set. If it's too low, and the pressure from the media and the right will always be to lower it, then people who should be allowed in will be turned away (which happens enough as it is). If it's high enough not to actually restrict immigration significantly, then it will cause problems anyway with the reinforcement of the dominant "immigration is bad" framing.

International development

We will support actions to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. In particular, we will prioritise aid spending on programmes to ensure that everyone has access to clean water, sanitation, healthcare and education; to reduce maternal and infant mortality; and to restrict the spread of major diseases like HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. We will recognise the vital role of women in development, promote gender equality and focus on the rights of women, children and disabled people to access services.

And lots of other things that sound good on paper.

Jobs and welfare

We will re-assess all current claimants of Incapacity Benefit for their readiness to work. Those assessed as fully capable for work will be moved onto Jobseeker’s Allowance.

This sounds like continuing with the previous government's programme, which has not been good. The comments on that page are full of complaints about it, and there was a highly critical report by Citizens Advice not long ago.

Nothing on job creation, either.


Lots of focus on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending, which is good.

We will change the law so that historical convictions for consensual gay sex with over-16s will be treated as spent and will not show up on criminal records checks.


We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.

A lot has been said on this already. It's still a bad idea.

National security

Nothing surprising. I'm not sure exactly what constitutes a "verifiable guarantee" in:

We believe that Britain should be able to deport foreign nationals who threaten our security to countries where there are verifiable guarantees that they will not be tortured. We will seek to extend these guarantees to more countries.

Depending on how much verifying gets done, this could allow a lot of torture that apparently we don't condone.


They're promising to increase real-terms funding despite general cuts in government spending, which means that they can promise a lot more with this.

Lots of cuts on the easy target of "admin", though. I seriously doubt that a third of administration costs are unnecessary - done well, all your admin costs should either be saving money overall or improving service quality anyway.

We will seek to stop foreign healthcare professionals working in the NHS unless they have passed robust language and competence tests.

I keep reading this as "(robust language) and (competence) tests" rather than as "robust (language and competence) tests". Ties in with some of their anti-immigration policies.

As pointed out in the comments there already, the big thing that is missing is anything on mental health treatment. (People with mental health problems get a mention in Justice instead, next to "drugs offenders")

Pensions and older people

We will commit to establishing an independent commission to review the long-term affordability of public sector pensions, while protecting accrued rights.

This could be very controversial, depending on what it says. Public sector salaries are generally lower than private sector salaries for a comparable job, which means other benefits such as good pensions help to make up the difference.

Political reform

Five years seems a bit long for a fixed Parliamentary term, though it does at least ensure that they drift with respect to the local elections rather than being held with the same set each time.

Of course, whether the coalition actually lasts five years is hard to tell at the moment.

We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.

Alternative Vote isn't great, and wouldn't make much difference in most seats (except that the uniform transfer calculations don't take into account unpopular incumbents who could still maintain a plurality of the votes), but it's still an improvement on the current system, and a potential step towards a proportional voting system.

We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. [...]

A proportionally-elected upper chamber and a constituency-based lower chamber might actually work out quite well as a compromise system. They're going to adjust the composition of the Lords to make it proportional to vote share in the meantime, so that will provide some testing.

We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament.

Here are the previous petitions in order of size. There were eight that got above 100,000 and there's one currently open that will probably reach that threshold too if the new government continues with the system.

The responses to the eight were "No", "No", "no answer" (it ended not long before the start of the election campaign), "No-one was planning to do that in the first place", "Still no", "No-one was planning to do that either", "We'll think about it" and "No", which perhaps gives an idea of why the new government is uncertain about what to do with the system, but doesn't explain why they think this is a good idea.

We will introduce extra support for people with disabilities who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials.

Good, but again, it'll be the details that matter.

Public health

The Government believes that we need action to promote public health, and encourage behaviour change to help people live healthier lives.

No explicit mention of the role of government in providing safe and affordable facilities for exercise, for instance, but there's also no explicit mention of the "obesity epidemic" in this section, which might allow for some improvements in policy there.


This section as a whole does not seem particularly good. A lot will depend, as usual, on the details, but many of the principles are worrying in themselves. No mention of home education (it doesn't belong in this section, but it wasn't in "Families and children" either) which hopefully means they're going to leave it alone.

We will give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand.

How this will work in practice is difficult to tell. I don't know how many groups would want to take up this offer, or how easy they'd find it to set up a new school anyway. It seems like it would spread the state funding more thinly, and it's somewhat stretched as it is.

We will help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying.

Again, the details will be important (and since they've mentioned recording transphobic and disablist hate crimes elsewhere, it seems unusual that they aren't also mentioned here), but this is urgently needed.

Social action

The principles are good, but the ideas seem a bit lacking.

I'm fully in favour of volunteering, collective action, and so on, as a way of making improvements to society. Obviously so. However, it's time-consuming, difficult, can have worse accessibility issues than more formalised work, and sometimes expensive. There's a lot of talk in this section about encouraging volunteering, but nothing about giving people the spare time to be able to do it.

We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services.

I'm not completely clear how outsourcing your job to yourself is supposed to improve services (if it really does give them better control, then it might increase morale, which might help). If they then don't deliver better services, can they be replaced? (Either answer makes it a bad idea for someone to actually let this happen for their public services)

Social care and disability

As with many sections, the principles are sufficiently uncontroversial that they're meaningless (who in mainstream politics would admit to being opposed to dignity and respect in a document like this?) but it all depends on the details.


The compromises of coalition seem to have meant that most of the tax cuts - at least to start with - will be for people with low incomes and wealth. I expect the Conservatives will want to get back to the Inheritance tax cuts sooner rather than later, though, which they've left quite open.

We will seek ways of taxing non-business capital gains at rates similar or close to those applied to income, with generous exemptions for entrepreneurial business activities.

Good. Capital Gains Tax being lower than Income Tax makes sense for the riskier sort of gains associated with setting up a new business, but not for many of the other sources of money covered by this tax. It's very vague language, though, so whether it actually happens or not will be hard to tell.

We will make every effort to tackle tax avoidance, including detailed development of Liberal Democrat proposals.

I'll believe it when I see it. No government is ever explicitly in favour of tax avoidance, but they all leave enough loopholes.


Mainly focused on improvements to rail.

We will grant longer rail franchises in order to give operators the incentive to invest in the improvements passengers want – like better services, better stations, longer trains and better rolling stock.

I wonder if this might work better if they were given shorter franchises, renewal of which was made conditional on making improvements (and possibly on continuing the improvements of the previous holder), since the other possibility here is that they'll take the longer franchises as an excuse to do as little as possible.

Universities and further education

As usual, unpopular policy is being held off until a report scheduled for after the election. Funding for universities is quite a problem, and it wouldn't surprise me to see a few universities go bankrupt in the next five years.

Student fees is the big election issue here, but won't make a large difference to university funding as a whole. It really depends how they are implemented - if done well, with good-quality means testing (which, among other things, doesn't assume that students will necessarily be supported by their families) it could actually be beneficial for less wealthy students.


The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement, and the speed of implementation of any measures that have a cost to the public finances will depend on decisions to be made in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

In other words "don't expect any of the bits which cost money to be done". Unfortunately, that includes a lot of the good bits and doesn't include a lot of the worse bits.