Call for 100% tax on lecturing, illiberal doctors

Campaigners have today called for a 100% tax on the nonsense spouted by lecturing doctors calling for illiberal, regressive taxes to tackle just about every problem the country faces.

The call comes after a spate of examples of medics forgetting that their job is to treat patients  rather than produce seemingly identical reports suggesting new taxes to solve the various crises that they believe society faces.

In a statement, the Royal College of Letting People Get on With Their Own Lives said:

The endemic condition of doctors not being able to propose solutions to problems that don’t involve the state dictating how people should live their lives by making food, drink, cigarettes and, well, just about everything more expensive is a serious risk to the public’s mental wellbeing.

We therefore propose that each time a doctor decides it is their role force people to pay more for the products they buy they should pay everything they earn in a special “illiberalism tax”.

It is estimated that the tax could either raise approximately £3000 bn in additional revenues, to be used to reimburse people for the amounts of extra tax they have paid as a result of whinging doctors over many years. Alternatively, the tax may free up so much time amongst doctors that GP appointments may be extended by 10%, to an average of 98 seconds.

Obama calls for US-EU trade deal

Here’s what the President had to say on the matter in his state of the union address last night:

And tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union — because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.

Court of Appeal praises government’s back-to-work programmes

There’s a headline you won’t read in many other places today. But in the pieces you do read on the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the government’s back-to-work programmes, a good test of the author’s approach to journalism is to see whether they make reference to the following passages of the judgment. First it’s a good indication of whether or not they have actually read the judgment, and secondly if they have read the judgment whether they believe in reporting court decisions in a balanced way.

Here’s what Lord Justice Pill had to say towards the end of his judgment:

49. I readily appreciate the need for flexibility in devising arrangements which will achieve the statutory purpose of improving prospects of obtaining employment. The needs of jobseekers will vary infinitely as will the requirements of providers prepared to participate in arrangements with them. I am impressed with the care shown in attempting to devise arrangements and with the resources devoted to attempts to achieve the statutory purpose. There is an important public interest in getting people back to work as well as a major saving in not having to pay Jobseeker’s Allowance, and possibly other benefits.

50. I also appreciate that there could be a substantial saving of public money if effective sanctions are available when jobseekers are not cooperating with proposals properly put to them under the Act. The Secretary of State’s object in these proceedings is not to end Jobseeker’s Allowance but to ensure that it is only paid to those actively seeking employment and prepared to cooperate with attempts made by the state to achieve that end. The entitlement to receive the weekly sum should depend on such cooperation. 


How would a court treat a breach of the coalition agreement were it a binding contract?

Some Liberal Democrat spokespeople have over recent days come to favour the analogy of the coalition agreement as a contract between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, deeming the Conservative failure to support Lords reform as the first breach of the contract.

Which got me thinking: how would a court treat such a breach (if indeed it is a breach) if the agreement actually were a binding contract?

First off, the coalition agreement is not a binding contract (because the formalities needed to make a contract are not present) so a court would throw out the case on this basis. But let’s assume for now that it is.

The claim that the Lib Dems would bring against the Conservatives would be for breach of contract, so as you might expect the court would usually, after deciding that there is indeed a contract, go onto consider whether a party has breached it.

In many cases this is a fairly straightforward process: if you agree to buy 10 tomatoes but are only given 5 then the supplier has breached the contract and you are entitled to be compensated for that breach.

But in other cases things are not so straightforward, primarily because there is a disagreement between the parties about what exactly each of them was promising to do. It looks likely that this would be the case here.

In their defence to the claim, the Conservatives would be likely to say that in the clause on Lords reform they did not promise to ensure the legislation was passed. They only agreed to “bring forward proposals”.

The court has now got a different question to consider: what obligations does the clause that has alleged to have been breached actually impose on the parties.

In deciding what a clause in a contract means, the court will take an objective view. That is, they will consider what a reasonable person, having all the background knowledge of the parties, would take the clause to mean.

But there is another complication. The courts have long taken the stance that “background knowledge” does not include the pre-contractual negotiations of the parties. This is a decision taken by the courts for reasons of pragmatism: it provides a level of certainty to contracting parties that the agreement they have entered into actually does constitute the whole agreement, so the other party can’t, in the event of any minor breach, run off to court clutching a load of evidence that a different interpretation was intended before the contract was signed.

Unfortunately, then, we couldn’t have David Laws, Andrew Stunnell, Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander, George Osborne, William Hague, Oliver Letwin and Ed Llewellyn on the stand giving evidence of what was intended by this clause when they negotiated it.

However, there’s plenty of evidence to be considered. There’s the parties’ manifestos, the last three of which for the Conservatives at the very least spoke positively of democratic Lords reform and arguably committed them to it. There’s public statements: by the prime minister in the TV debates, by the Conservative’s former shadow home secretary chastising Labour for their woeful progress.

The “background knowledge”, then, is arguably this: unwavering Liberal Democrat support for Lords reform and a series of pretty unambiguous statements from Conservative documents and individuals expressing support for a democratic Lords over a long period of time.

Given this, would a court really be convinced that the clause on Lords reform in the coalition agreement wasn’t an intention to legislate? I’m not so sure.

And if the court decided that it was intended that legislation would be passed, the Tories would almost certainly have breached the contract.

But now the equally important question: what remedy would the Lib Dems seek?

The usual remedy for breach of contract is damages. The court would order a sum of money to be paid by the party in breach to, so far as possible, place the innocent party in the position they would have been had the contract not been breached but had been properly performed.

A fundamental breach of a contract – one that essentially renders it worthless – allows the innocent party to ‘repudiate’ the contract – ie treat themselves as discharged from any further obligations. This would clearly not be such a breach.

Money damages would clearly be a pretty inadequate remedy in this case, so the remedy I would be pushing for on behalf of the Lib Dems would be what is termed ‘specific performance’ of the contractual term. In other words the court would order that the Conservatives do what they promised to do in the contract and vote through Lords reform.

A failure to comply with such an order for specific performance would be held to be contempt of court and might see the Conservative rebels end up with a jail sentence.

And however attractive that solution might seem at times, I think we can all agree that it’s probably best that politics and contract law stay well and truly separate.

Six examples of Tory support for an elected House of Lords

The first three come from the last three Conservative general election manifestos – 2001,2005 and 2010:

Fourthly, here’s how the Lib Dem and Tory commitments to Lords reform combined in the coalition’s programme for government:

We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers.

Now, a few Tories have tried to weasel out of these commitments by saying they are too ambiguous to be regarded as clear support, so here’s David Davis – now a leading opponent of reform – attacking the then Labour government in wholly unambiguous terms for its woefully slow progress in delivering their 1997 promise to deliver an elected second chamber:

Are the Government planning to make the upper House democratic? Did I miss that aspect of the Queen’s Speech, or have the Government redefined, in some Orwellian fashion, what democracy means? If the Prime Minister does not stand by his commitments, the House and the people of Britain will be left with no other conclusion than that the Government’s reforms are simply a sham. They will be seen as nothing more than an attempt to bring to heel an upper House with principles and powers that have proved inconvenient to the Government, and nothing more than an attempt by the Prime Minister to stuff the upper Chamber with yes men who will do his bidding.

Finally, here’s the prime minister speaking just weeks before the 2010 general election in the leadership debates, where he couldn’t have been clearer in his support for a mainly or wholly elected chamber, and again criticising Labour for failing to deliver this:

What the strategic defence and security review said about joint strike fighters

The Guardian reports:

The Ministry of Defence is to abandon plans to buy the preferred fighter for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers, in an embarrassing a U-turn for David Cameron.

The prime minister personally endorsed the decision to equip the over-budget carriers with “cats and traps” so they could catapult and recover a version of the F-35 joint strike fighter (JSF) from their decks.

But the cost of converting the carriers has already reached £2bn, and the JSF model Downing Street wanted has been beset by delays and technical problems.

Here’s what the strategic defence and security review said about the need to abandon Labour’s plan to buy the F-35B version of the joint strike fighter and switch instead to the more capable F-35C, and the consequent need to adapt the new aircraft carriers already ordered:

  • A single carrier needs to be fully effective. As currently designed, the Queen Elizabeth will not be fully interoperable with key allies, since their naval jets could not land on it. Pursuit of closer partnership is a core strategic principle for the Strategic Defence and Security Review because it is clear that the UK will in most circumstances act militarily as part of a wider coalition. This will delay the in-service date of the new carrier from 2016 to around 2020. But it will allow greater interoperability with US and French carriers and naval jets. It provides the basis for developing Maritime Task Groups in the future. This should both ensure continuous carrier-strike availability, and reduce the overall carrier protection requirements on the rest of the fleet, releasing ships for other naval tasks such as protection of key sea-lanes, or conducting counter- piracy and narcotics operations.
  • The strike needs to be made more capable. Installing the catapult and arrestor will allow the UK to acquire the carrier-variant of Joint Strike Fighter ready to deploy on the converted carrier instead of the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant. This version of the jet has a longer range and greater payload: this, not large numbers of aircraft, is the critical requirement for precision strike operations in the future. The UK plans to operate a single model of JSF, instead of different land and naval variants. Overall, the carrier-variant of the JSF will be cheaper, reducing through-life costs by around 25%.

It will be interesting to see what Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, has to say when he appears in the Commons later.

Liberal Democrats in government must u-turn quickly over snooping proposals

I’m very wary of rushing to judgements. I think it’s a good character trait to be considered; to think things through before expressing an opinion.

So yesterday, when we heard that the government was considering new proposals to retain yet more of people’s data, I hesitated before condemning. The selective briefing, I thought, was simply not enough information on which to come to a decision whether this was so terrible that I needed to condemn it.

Today, I find myself in a position to do so. The proposals are wrong. They represent a massive increase in the amount of data about our private lives that will be held by companies and accessible to various branches of government.

They tip the delicate balance between liberty and security far too far the wrong way. Not that that has not happened already.

One of the reasons I support this coalition is its strong commitment to civil liberties as expressed in the coalition agreement. I anticipated a decisive shift from Labour’s authoritarianism. And on many fronts the coalition has not disappointed: ID cards and control orders are gone, and the Freedom Bill is working its way through Parliament.

But if it presses ahead with these new snooping proposals all of that will be in vain.

If the coalition does not u-turn on this issue I will, for the first time, have to question whether I can continue to support this government and my party. I really, really, really do not want to have to do that. I really do not.

And on that I am not alone. Many pro-coalition Liberal Democrats are furious, and rightly so. For the Liberal Democrats this could be more serious than tuition fees or the health bill because on civil liberties the entire party can unite.

That Nick Clegg has already made statements supporting the change is extremely worrying. But it shouldn’t stop him reversing his position. That is far better than the alternative, which, frankly, I don’t even want to think about.