Here we have it. Allan Bell has announced his government’s core policies. Or as he now calls it, his Agenda for Change.
Those of us with long political memories will remember a similar slogan, Time for Change. That was all about local authority reform. But those of us who remember that slogan may also remember that it came to represent all the worst aspects of Tynwald members prevaricating and failing to reach a decision.
So let’s hope that’s where the comparison ends.
In truth, Mr Bell’s statement does not contain many earth shattering surprises. Means testing for child benefit is no great surprise. It may be no bad thing, either, as long as it is done correctly. No sensible person could really object to the suggestion that families above a certain income threshold should not be receiving the same state support as those on much lower incomes.
There are many words in Mr Bell’s statement – 3, 490, in fact – but the truth is there is little of substance that is new. It is a continuation of what has been said, with references to ongoing consultations and future debates.
What is noticeable is the lack of many financial specifics. There are only five £ signs in the entire statement.
The government is still mainly dealing in the hypothetical principles of its policy – we still await the harsh financial realities. Principles and theories are great, but the bottom line we all want to know is ‘how is it going to hit me’.
For instance, there will be a review of the structure for determining ratable values and also an extension of the principle of ‘user pays’ principle for some government and public services. But we need how the structure for determining ratable values will be altered before we can decide whether it will be fair. And we need to know which services will have the ‘user pays’ principle applied. Will it be universal services, or will it be services for just one section of the community – and will that entail the unfair targeting of a vulnerable section of the community?
All Mr Bell’s statement tells us with regard to services likely to have the user pays principle attached is:
‘We will identify such services within a year and implement these changes within two years.’
There’s a lot of that sentiment in the statement. Aims without specifics.
There is nothing wrong with that other than perhaps these aims could have been identified a little earlier.
As a rough manifesto for a political party Mr Bell’s Agenda for Change is adequate – although any half decent opposing party would demand the specifics that are lacking. Unfortunately, this is the agenda from a government that has been in situ for 12 months now.
That’s the problem with the Manx political system. We elect individuals and a year down the line we end up with the government manifesto.
In terms of the economy, this is what Mr Bell says:
‘We will endeavour to create the environment to foster growth and with it, jobs for our people.
We will help young people to find meaningful employment to give them hope and confidence in a future on our Island.
Government will support local businesses to promote the Island in target markets and will reduce bureaucracy for small and medium sized businesses, wherever possible.
We will re-energise the Island’s ability to innovate and create new industries.
We will forge new relationships with target countries and business partners.
We will simplify the Work Permit system in order to align it to economic and population growth whilst protecting vulnerable sectors and individuals.’
No actual mention of how any of the above will be achieved. Also, I wasn’t aware of either Pets at Home or PC World being established local businesses when they were given the green light to open up their out of town stores. I was aware that there were local business in both the pets and computer retail sector that were already established, although not in swanky new locations.
On infrastructure, the Steam Packet user agreement will be ‘reviewed’ by 2014 and there will be a review of the ‘open skies’ policy at the airport next year.
Great, but I’m not sure this requires much hullaballoo. I’d like to think it was a given that the government kept such crucial policies under constant review (although excuse me if I don’t mortgage the house on the likelihood of there being major changes to either).
The broader role for the Civil Service Commission to ensure better running government is, in theory, a good idea. But then you remember that Alfie – don’t disagree with me – Cannan is in charge. Don’t expect a sudden change to harmonious industrial relations if that’s the case.
And there is still something a little Yes Minister about putting a civil service department in charge of ensuring a better run civil service.
Mr Bell’s statement also refers to social policy but there was nothing new in there from what has previously been stated. Until we see the fine details of Chris Robertshaw’s welfare escalator and see how strong the nerve is of the ministers, let alone the other Tynwald members, we’re all on tenterhooks as to what the impact will be.
Mr Bell also has a dig at resistance in some quarters towards attempts to reform government into a better run organisation. Let’s hope he never gets upset at turkeys refusing to celebrate Christmas.
However, given the hapless handling of employee relations at the Department of Community, Culture and Leisure with regards to the bus drivers’ dispute, he must fear for how his ministers and chief executives will convince their staff of cost-saving reforms. I guess that is how the civil servants will earn their extra 20p an hour.
In summary, there isn’t much to get too angry about in Bell’s speech. The major possible changes were already known to be on their way, the rest is a list of principles.
We’ve seen the core. How the rest of the apple tastes will depend on how the Agenda for Change policies are actually applied.
Allan Bell’s statement was 3,490 words long.
Here are a number of key words and how many times they appeared.
Tuition fees: 0
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