Could EU referendum damage our democracy?

Ballot box Image copyright PA

With a month still to go, I know many British voters are already profoundly turned off by the EU referendum.

The mudslinging, the rows, the nonsense - it does not always look very edifying.

But I am beginning to wonder what this extraordinary plebiscite will do for our democracy in the longer term.

Once the votes have all been counted, what impact will the referendum have on our respect and enthusiasm for the political process?

You may be surprised to know that I think it might prove a good thing.

Read full article Could EU referendum damage our democracy?

Will ban on legal highs work?

  • 26 May 2016
  • From the section UK
People inhaling nitrous oxide Image copyright AFP/Getty Images

Conservatives are usually opposed to the "nanny state" slapping draconian new rules on business or banning things that experts think might damage your health.

But today the government's delayed Psychoactive Substances Act comes into force, introducing powers over what consumers can consume that are as radical and far-reaching as any such legislation ever.

Read full article Will ban on legal highs work?

Has the government abandoned its net migration target?

  • 19 April 2016
  • From the section UK
Border sign - UK airport Image copyright Getty Images

The Conservative manifesto promises to reduce net migration to the UK to the tens of thousands by 2020, but in calculating the cost of Britain leaving the EU in yesterday's report, the Treasury assumes a level still well in excess of that - of 185,000 per year in 2021 and beyond.

Asked to explain whether the government has quietly abandoned its pledge, the Treasury said the UK would probably have to accept the status quo on EU migration as the price of continued access to European markets. "No country has been able to agree significant access to the single market without having to accept EU regulations, financial contributions to the EU and the free movement of people" it said.

Read full article Has the government abandoned its net migration target?

Should John Whittingdale have revealed his past?

  • 13 April 2016
  • From the section UK
John Whittingdale Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption John Whittingdale did not tell Number 10 about his "embarrassing" relationship with a prostitute

Even the humblest officials in Culture Secretary John Whittingdale's department must sign a vetting form requiring them to reveal any activities that might lead people to accuse them of bias or prejudice in their official duties.

More senior government staff are obliged to go further, to give details of any conduct they have ever been involved in that might make them susceptible to pressure or improper influence.

Read full article Should John Whittingdale have revealed his past?

How Greater Manchester is smashing the Whitehall model

  • 31 March 2016
  • From the section UK
Manchester skyline Image copyright Getty Images

For the first time in over a century, municipal power is returning to Greater Manchester. But this is not simply about shifting budget meetings from Westminster to the North West.

True to their traditions, the local leaders of this proud industrial region are planning something utterly radical. They intend to abandon the Whitehall model, completely rethinking how services are run and how lives can be changed.

Read full article How Greater Manchester is smashing the Whitehall model

Pensioners: Are the untouchables still untouchable?

Elderly women at a day care centre

David Cameron has made a clear commitment to protect and reward Britain's pensioners for as long as he is prime minister. The "triple lock" on pensions, the winter fuel payment, free bus passes, TV licences, prescriptions and eye tests, all guaranteed "no question".

It's a promise that comes with a huge price tag, though. A hastily withdrawn official report from the Government Actuary's Department last year suggested the "triple lock" - raising the state pension annually by the highest of inflation, earnings or 2.5% - has added £6bn extra a year to the benefits bill.

Read full article Pensioners: Are the untouchables still untouchable?

Home Office drug strategy: Time to refresh or rethink?

Home Office sign Image copyright Getty Images

With deaths from illegal drugs in England and Wales at the highest rate ever recorded one might imagine the Home Office would be desperate to ensure it had a robust and effective strategy for dealing with this current crisis.

So it comes as a surprise to discover that Ministers have quietly abandoned the idea of a formal consultation process in advance of a new drugs strategy later this month.

Read full article Home Office drug strategy: Time to refresh or rethink?

Will David Cameron's EU child-benefit plan work?

Woman pushing pushchair Image copyright AFP

It is not quite the pledge he made in his manifesto, but is David Cameron's compromise on paying child benefit to EU migrants workable?

The Conservatives won power promising: "If an EU migrant's child is living abroad, then they should receive no child benefit".

Read full article Will David Cameron's EU child-benefit plan work?

Bowie: the creative force who changed Britain

  • 12 January 2016
  • From the section UK
Flowers start to mount up by David Bowie mural in Brixton Image copyright Getty Images

The backlash starts now. A mountain of "why-oh-why"s is piling up, the collective cry of those for whom David Bowie was no more than a pretentious pop star, a weirdo with screwed-up eyes and screwed down hairdo.

There is an argument that the blanket coverage of his death has less to do with artistic merit and more to do with the teenage crush of a thousand baby-boomers who now find themselves sitting behind the desks of media power.

Read full article Bowie: the creative force who changed Britain

Boxing Day Family Puzzler 2015

  • 26 December 2015
  • From the section Magazine
Mark Easton game image

I am delighted to present my eighth annual Boxing Day Family Puzzler - a festive quiz that rewards intuition and inspired guesswork as much as knowledge and memory.

No-one should be expected to rack their brains on Boxing Day, so in this game no-one is expected to know any of the answers.

Read full article Boxing Day Family Puzzler 2015