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• The coalition lost its third cabinet minister since the election today, with Chris Huhne resigning to fight charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
The former climate change and energy secretary was charged this morning, along with his former wife Vicky Price. He is alleged to have transferred speeding points to her in 2003.
Announcing his resignation, Huhne strenuously denied the allegations, calling the CPS decision “deeply regrettable” and insisting:
“I am innocent of these charges and I intend to fight this in the courts and I am confident that a jury will agree.
“To avoid distraction to either my official duties or my trial defence I am standing down and resigning as energy and climate change secretary.”
Reacting to his resignation, Friends of the Earth praised Huhne for having “championed the environment”, one of the few ministers to try and ensure the government lived up to David Cameron’s pledge to be the “greenest government ever”.
FoE director Andy Atkins, who also warned Huhne’s successor Ed Davey to “stand firm” against the chancellor’s “anti-green agenda”:
“Chris Huhne has championed the environment in an administration that’s shown little enthusiasm for keeping David Cameron’s pledge to be the greenest Government ever.
“He should be commended for insisting on tougher climate targets and fighting for a Green Investment Bank – but his department’s incompetent handling of solar cuts has put 29,000 jobs at risk.
“Leaving consumers to compare energy tariffs as a way to tackle soaring bills is woefully inadequate. What we really need is decisive Government action to get us off the hook of expensive fossil fuels and invest in clean British energy instead.
“The new energy secretary must stand firm against George Osborne’s anti-green agenda and make the case that protecting our environment is a way to boost not hinder our economic recovery.”
Shadow energy and climate change secretary Caroline Flint, meanwhile, said the resignation was a “much-needed opportunity for the Government to change course”, adding:
“David Cameron promised this would be the ‘greenest Government ever’. But on his watch the Green Investment Bank has been delayed, thousands of jobs and businesses in the solar industry have been put at risk and the UK has fallen from third in the world for investment in green growth to thirteenth…
“With record energy bills, we need a government that is prepared to stand up to vested interests in the energy industry and put the public first. Otherwise people will be right to conclude that Ed Davey is just as out of touch with families struggling with the cost of living as the rest of this government.”
In addition to Davey replacing Huhne at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, Norman Lamb steps up to take over from Davey as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Jenny Willott becomes an assistant government Whip.
Huhne and his wife are due to appear in court on February 16th.
• Elsewhere today, Ed Miliband delivered a keynote speech on banking reform in Canary Wharf this morning.
Miliband’s speech followed the recent scandals of RBS chief Stephen Hester’s million pound bonus; the stripping of Mr Fred Goodwin’s knighthood, and Network Rail’s plans to reward executives with bonus schemes that could double their salary over the next five years.
Looking ahead to how a better banking system should run, he said:
“There are three principles to restore the link between banks and society.
“Transparency – so that banks publish the details of all their large bonuses. We have called on the government to implement rules we legislated for to make banks reveal how many employees are earning over one million pounds, so that consumers can take this into account when choosing where to bank.
“Accountability to employees so that companies put some of their ordinary employees – maybe a teller normally at high street bank window – on the committee which sets executives’ top pay. If you can’t look one of your own employees in the eye when you receive a huge bonus, you should not get it.
“And accountability to shareholders. When banks that are majority-owned by the taxpayer, David Cameron must exercise some shareholder oversight on top pay. He says he believes that shareholders should exert their influence over pay at the top. All I ask is that he should practice what he preaches.
“After transparency and accountability – is responsibility. That means ending the culture of excessive bonuses. It is corrosive. It enriches individual bankers, but weakens the banking sector as a whole.
“Nobody begrudges rewards for genuine risk-takers. Nobody begrudges exceptional rewards for exceptional performance. That is how capitalism should work. But exceptional rewards for exceptional performance means the kind of huge bonuses which have caused such controversy recently should not be handed out for just doing your job.
“They should not be a one-way bet.”
Miliband also set out how a British Investment Bank – an idea proposed by Will Straw on this blog last month, and endorsed by Lord Mandelson last week – could provide government banking for entrepreneurs when the market fails.
“The market on its own does not work for small businesses.
“All the most successful economies around the world recognise this: from Asian capitalist states like Singapore, through active industrial states like Germany, to supposedly free market states like the USA.
“And they make sure that the state helps finance to reach the small and medium sized enterprises which need it.
“This isn’t about picking winners. It is about the state getting the market moving, like our most successful competitors have been doing since the fifties. It’s no coincidence that in Britain we haven’t done as much to develop a Mittelstand like Germany.
“Or fast-growing young companies like Apple and Intel – both of which got growth funding from the US government’s Small Business Investment Company programme.
“When it comes to competing internationally, our small and medium sized companies are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. One nation banking means the private sector and the state need to work together in partnership to get the system working for small business.
“It means we will need a much more diverse and competitive banking system which is more rooted in our communities. And it means looking at the case for a British Investment Bank which would provide government backing for entrepreneurs when the market fails.”
As Will wrote today:
“IPPR’s recent report (pdf) with Lord Mandelson on globalisation advocates a National Investment Bank. The remit we suggest is narrower than Miliband’s. Building on an idea (pdf) developed by venture capitalist Gerald Holtham, we suggest that the bank should invest in ‘marketable services’ which would develop a rate of return for the Exchequer.
“This would include big infrastructure projects in the energy and transport sectors but could also cover house building and the roll out of superfast broadband. The policy would turn the much derided Private Finance Initiative on its head by having the public sector lease profitable services to the private sector rather than the other way around.
“With the UK potentially already in a double dip recession and yields on government bonds at historically low levels, currently 2.03 per cent, there has never been a better time for this idea.”
Miliband’s speech today ended another strong week for the Labour leader, who continues to lead on the reforming capitalism agenda. On Tuesday, Labour has called an opposition day debate and vote on bankers’ bonuses, where Miliband will hope to keep up the momentum and keep Cameron on the back foot.
• The health reforms represented another headache for Cameron this week, with the Royal College of GPs the latest professional body to criticise the health and social care bill today.
The RCGP branded the reforms “damaging, unnecessary and expensive”, and said that, despite the amendments, they believed the planned reforms would “cause irreparable damage to patient care and jeopardise the NHS”.
RCGP chair Dr Clare Gerada said:
“We have taken every opportunity to negotiate changes for the good of our patients and for the continued stability of the NHS, yet while the government has claimed that it has made widespread concessions, our view is that the amendments have created greater confusion.
“We remain unconvinced that the bill will improve the care and services we provide to our patients.”
“This bill is a burden, it makes no sense, it is incoherent to anybody other than the lawyers. It won’t deal with the big issues that we have to deal with, such as the ageing population and dementia.
“It will result in a very expensive health service and it will also result in a health service that certainly will never match the health service that we have at the moment – or at least had 12 months ago.”
Earlier this week, hundreds of doctors wrote to the Daily Telegraph to warn the bill will “derail and fragment” the NHS. The three hundred and sixty five GPs, specialists and health academics warn that opening the NHS up to “competing private providers” will lead to “fragmentation, chaos and damage to the quality and availability of patient care”.
The letter says:
“The NHS is not in peril if these reforms don’t go ahead. On the contrary, it is the bill which threatens to derail and fragment the NHS into a collection of competing private providers. The Bill will result in hundreds of different organisations pulling against each other, leading to fragmentation, chaos and damage to the quality and availability of patient care.
“As GPs, we agree that clinicians need more involvement in planning the NHS, and that the health service needs to improve. We don’t need a bill to achieve that. Drop the Bill and let’s work on the real issues: improving safety, efficiency, and quality of care.”
And there was further embarrassment for the prime minister over the NHS reforms this week with a senior GP in his own Witney constituency telling the New Statesman that “nobody supports the NHS changes”, warning “things are going to fail, hospitals will close”.
The GP said:
“I would say very few GPs are happy with [the NHS reform] at all… [It’s] not a question of supporting it, it’s a question of going along with it… In my practice, nobody supports the changes…
“People think there should be more clinical involvement in commissioning. But I don’t think many people think that GPs are the right people to commission. They need input into it – but if we wanted to be managers we would have trained to be managers, not doctors.”
“Most GPs are incredibly worried about conflict of interest. How can you be a patient’s advocate and look after the money?
“A lot of people think the whole thing’s designed to fail so they can bring private providers in. It’s the one big bit of the economy that hasn’t got private money in it.”
And talking of the effects of the proposed health service overhaul on patients, the GP warns:
“The public have just got no idea what’s hitting them… Things are going to fail, hospitals will close, because the money’s not going to be there. Things will get taken over. And if you’re going to have to make a profit out of it, you’re not going to have the same service.”
Now that even a senior GP in his own constituency has articulated that opposition, will David Cameron finally listen?
Progressives of the week:
The Times newspaper, which this week launched its ‘Save our Cyclists’ campaign. The campaign comes after Mary Bowers, a young journalist at the paper, was hit by a cement truck outside King’s Cross one Friday morning as she made her way to work. Mary remains in a coma.
As George Readings wrote on Left Foot Forward today, the campaign will, fingers crossed, get Transport for London and local authorities across the land to listen and take action to improve cyclists’ safety:
“Unfortunately, her case is all too typical. Lorries make up five per cent of all traffic on British roads but, according to some estimates, are implicated in 50 per cent of cyclist deaths.
“King’s Cross is also a particular hotspot. In December, TfL promised to review the junction there after the fourth cyclist in four years was killed by a lorry. Far from being a priority, no changes were promised until after the Olympics.
“Similarly, two cyclists were killed in late 2011 at Bow Roundabout in east London. Both were using the new ‘Cycle Superhighway’, but a poorly designed junction left them vulnerable to other traffic…
“These cases underline why the Times’s campaign is so important. At both Kings Cross and Bow Roundabout there are some provisions for cyclists, but they haven’t been implemented in a way which actually keeps people safe.
“In total, 16 cyclists were killed in London last year, many of them by lorries. Dozens more, like Mary Bowers, were badly injured. Despite the commonly held belief (based on a statistical anomaly in 2009), the majority of cyclists killed were men, not women.
“Outside London, things are often even worse.
“Cyclists passing Edgbaston Cricket Ground in Birmingham, for example, are allowed to share the pavement with pedestrians for quite some distance. Then, without warning, they are forced onto a ’cycle path’ (a foot-wide strip of green paint) crammed onto the edge of a busy dual carriageway. Ten metres later, the cycle path promptly disappears and cyclists are on their own again…
“Cycle groups have been making these points for years. Perhaps now, with the backing of a major national paper, TFL and local authorities will start to listen. If they don’t, cyclists will continue to pay with their lives.”
Regressive of the week:
International development secretary Andrew Mitchell, who again delayed enshrining in law his pledge to meet the 0.7 per cent target on overseas aid, claiming “there is not enough time left” to get it onto the statute book, despite the pledge being in the Conservative manifesto (page 117, pdf) and coalition agreement (page 22, pdf).
As Left Foot Forward reported yesterday, this is just the latest in a long line of delays:
“In opposition, David Cameron made much of his commitment to ringfence aid spending, as part of his detoxification strategy, pledging not to balance the books on the backs of the world’s poorest. All well and good.
“Yet the government has delayed enshrining the 0.7 per cent target in law. Again. And again. And again.
“As Left Foot Forward reported on June 4th 2010, just weeks after the election, it’s a promise the Tories failed to immediately deliver once they’d made it to power, omitting it from their first Queen’s Speech.
“Back then, there was criticism the legislation wouldn’t make the statute book by the September 2010 New York Millennium Development Goals summit; it now looks like it won’t even be law by the May 2012 Cape Town MDG summit.”
As for Mitchell’s claim that there’s “not enough time left”, as former DfID spad Richard Darlington wrote, such excuses simply don’t add up:
“This has been one of the longest ever Parliamentary sessions in history, running from May 2010 to May 2012. So what’s gone wrong?
“There are still ten weeks left in this Parliamentary session and another three when MPs will be on holiday. DFID’s Bill is short with just a handful of clauses. It has already had pre-legislative scrutiny from the international development select committee and there is cross-party consensus.
“There is no prospect of it being overturned in the Lords. It could probably be passed on a one line whip on a Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.”
If the will is there, it would surely have happened by now.
Evidence of the week:
The latest UCAS figures which show, surprise, surprise, that university applications have fallen nearly nine per cent on this time last year, with the figure for mature students even higher at 11 per cent.
For England’s universities, which will be allowed to charge the full £9,000 a year tuition fees from this September, there was a 9.9 per cent drop, with Scotland’s universities experiencing a 1.3 per cent fall in applications.
“Over one in four students who apply to university are mature students with many looking to get back in to education in order to improve their qualifications and chances of long-term employment.
“The government should be making it easier for people in this situation to have a second chance but seem intent on making it harder.
“While ministers have been quick to defend the new fees regime as fairer and more progressive it is neither and will simply penalise those with ambition.
“Perhaps it is not surprising that our best and brightest are being tempted abroad to study. The University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, for example, is reporting a surge in applications from Brits.
“Looking ahead, we cannot afford a system that puts people off university if we are to compete in the modern world. Other countries are encouraging their best and brightest to get on, not putting up punitive barriers.
“This government risks returning us to a time when money, not ability, mattered most for success.”
As Fiona Wood wrote in the Guardian, mature students are “the first casualty of higher tuition fees… as fewer people feel able to risk their future on a course that can cost thousands”:
“I started my undergraduate degree in 2005 at the age of 44, no longer wanting to get by on incapacity benefit, as I had done for years since giving up running my own business because of chronic fatigue.
“I decided it was time to gain the skills I needed to get myself back in the workplace, in a job that I could cope with. I am now studying for a master’s degree at Staffordshire University and beginning a professional career in photography.
“For me, education has been the engine of social mobility, and it could be for many other people. If I’d been facing fees of £9,000 when I started, however, I would have been unable to take the gamble, making myself liable for potentially 30 years of repayments on a tuition fee loan.
“I would have seen that amount of debt as too big a barrier, no matter the repayment conditions, and not made the leap that I have now taken. I’d possibly still be on benefits and face having them taken away, with no new qualifications to help me make my way without them.
“The shortsightedness and disjointedness is what most frustrates me about the government’s policymaking, particularly in education. They are narrowing opportunities wherever you look: making it harder for someone with a disability to get by, but making it harder for us to get into a position to find a job that we can do.
“For anyone with existing financial commitments and families to think about, the idea of taking on thousands of pounds of debt is a huge risk; one that in such unpredictable times many feel unable to take.”
This weekend on Left Foot Forward:
• Ben Mitchell’s primer on the economy – part 1.
• The Week Outside Westminster – sign up to receive it by email here.
• Ben Mitchell’s primer on the economy – part 2.
• The World Outside Westminster – sign up to receive it by email here.
This week’s most read:
2. Anonymous expose Ron Paul’s racist links – Alex Hern
3. “Free Pale*****”: BBC tries to settle censorship row – Alex Hern
4. Krugman savages the “austerity debacle” – Shamik Das