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Red White and Blue

Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist and writerHe is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

The problem with grants: ongoing stalemate over benefit reforms threatens Ulster devolution…

Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland, has said that the province’s ongoing stalemate over benefit reform could threaten the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Uniquely, the Assembly has devolved control over the Northern Irish welfare system. However, the ‘principle of parity’, where the province matches mainland welfare arrangements, is built into the block grant that funds the devolved government of Northern Ireland.

However, Sinn Fein has blocked the implementation of the Coalition’s welfare reforms, a move which led former First Minister and Conservative peer Lord Trimble to call for the rescission of Stormont’s welfare powers in December of last year, and since then the Treasury has been imposing financial penalties on the Northern Ireland Executive.

Last week it was confirmed that, excluding education and health, Stormont departments already face a £78m budget cut, with Finance Minister Simon Hamilton warning that further cuts ‘amounting to £87m’ will be necessary if a deal is not agreed.

According to Robinson, who has attacked Sinn Fein for rejecting a modified version of the Coalition reforms, the penalties could add up to £1bn in lost revenue expenditure over the next five years, and could see the payment of benefits affected by reform to Northern Irish citizens severely disrupted in 2016. He has said that it is time for Northern Irish parties to decide whether the benefits of devolution are worth the potential costs in lost central funds.

…while Wales could receive ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ from new Lib Dem funding proposals

One of the least edifying parts of the current constitutional settlement is the way that devolved politicians fight over centrally-distributed funds. It isn’t just that it provides a means by which they can blame London stinginess for unmet spending ‘aspirations’ (naturally demanding more power as a solution), it’s also just a tad shabby.

Indeed, so corrosive can the fixation on keeping hold of every last penny of central cash be that it actually stifles domestic economic policy. To quote Labour blogger Ian Smart, in an article giving advice to the new Scottish Conservative head of strategy:

“Sure, in theory, [we have] the power to vary the Standard Rate of Income Tax downwards but we’re all of us, across the political spectrum in Scotland, aware that if we ever did so it would shortly signal the end of the Barnett Formula. No matter what the block grant was intended to achieve it certainly wasn’t lower personal taxes as a consolation prize for being Scottish.”

This sense was driven home to me this morning when I read about Liberal Democrat proposals to give Wales ‘hundreds of millions’ in top-up funds to make up for alleged inadequacies in the Barnett Formula. The idea that the formula short-changes Wales is a long-standing feature of Cardiff politics, but attempts to alter it have been fiercely resisted by Scotland, who must do rather better out of it. The Liberal Democrats, rather than attempt a coherent pan-UK reform of devolved funding, have instead opted for another of those bilateral deals that led devolution to its present haphazard state.

Since there will be no commensurate reductions in the Scottish and Northern Irish block grants, it will be interesting to hear the Lib Dems explain where these hundreds of millions are going to come from. Unless they’re lifted from the budgets of reserved areas like welfare and defence, they’re basically proposing to buy off Welsh voters with money that would otherwise be spent on English voters.

Still, you can understand where what might have prompted it – the party of Lloyd George is down to a mere three seats in Wales. After five years in office and the surprise loss of Montgomeryshire in 2010, there is a real possibility there could be no Welsh Liberal Democrat MPs returned at all in 2015.

Thousands sign petition urging sole Tory Glasgow councillor to resign over Israel flag display

More than two thousand people have signed a petition urging David Meikle, the only Conservative councillor on Glasgow council, to resign.

The petition is a response to Meikle’s decision to fly the Israeli flag from the balustrade of his council offices. Labour-controlled Glasgow council has decided to fly the Palestinian flag from its building to show solidarity with the people of Gaza, but Meikle claims that the council is not being even-handed in its approach to the conflict and has failed to condemn the actions of Hamas.

Cllr Meikle tweeted a picture of himself flying a small Israeli flag with the caption “I asked the Lord Provost to also fly the Israel flag to show sympathy with all who suffer. No response. So I did it.”

According to the Scotsman, the text of the petition reads:

“[Mr Meikle] has shown no regard to the views and feelings of his constituents. He is entitled to his beliefs and opinions. But because of his unprofessional conduct, the place and the timing of his expression leads us to believe he can no longer represent us and should therefore resign immediately.”

The use of language suggests that the petition purports to be from people who voted Cllr Meikle into office. Yet even if the majority of the signatories are from Meikle’s Pollockshields constituency, which seems improbable in itself, Scotland uses multi-member constituencies for local government – people who voted Labour or SNP in particular have no moral right to demand a Conservative councillor resign for not representing their views. With more people having signed the petition than voted for Meikle in 2012, the chances of it genuinely representing the views of the people who elected him seem remote.

8 comments for: Henry Hill: Benefit reform stalemate threatens Ulster devolution

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