The Big Questions: Is the 50p tax rate a good idea? Do libraries still matter? Is Ukip electable?

This week answered by Labour peer and chairman of the British Library, Baroness Tessa Blackstone

Tessa Blackstone
Friday 31 January 2014 20:22

Is reintroducing a 50p tax rate a good idea?

Yes. We need a progressive tax system in which those with incomes of more than £150,000 make a greater contribution to paying for our public services. It affects only about 1 per cent of taxpayers and they will not have to pay a 50 per cent rate on all their income. Why are they complaining? Should they not feel some obligation to helping to promote a fairer society from which everyone benefits?

Was there ever an argument for not accepting some of the most vulnerable refugees from the Syrian conflict?

No. The Government claimed that it was more important to contribute to helping the several million refugees in the camps in neighbouring countries or those displaced within Syria. I have some sympathy with this position, having visited the camps in Lebanon last year and seen the appalling conditions. I applaud the Government for pledging more aid than most other countries. However, it is not either aid or accepting some of the most vulnerable refugees in the UK. We need to do both.

Banning smoking in cars carrying children: a reasonable protection of child health or unenforceable infringement of liberty?

Protecting children’s health should be one of our highest priorities. There is irrefutable evidence that the inhalation of cigarette smoke in confined spaces such as cars damages children’s lungs. Most adults know this and would not dream of smoking in a car with a child in it; sadly some still do. This week’s vote in the House of Lords to ban it is a victory in the interest of our children, not an infringement of liberty. If we can enforce a ban on drivers using mobile phones, we should be able to enforce the smoking ban.

If Buckingham Palace is overspending, should the taxpayer be upping its funding?

No. The Royal Household needs to find ways to increase its income and cut its expenditure through greater efficiency without asking the taxpayer to contribute more. The Public Accounts Committee under Margaret Hodge’s brilliant chairmanship is right to suggest that large increases in income are possible through opening Buckingham Palace to the public on many more days in the year. Expensive luxuries which are infrequently used, such as the royal train, need to be cut.

Michael Gove continues to upset the teaching profession, and now he has upset the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw. How do you assess his period in office as Education Secretary?

I admire his single-mindedness and his courage. If only these qualities were applied to more acceptable objectives and accompanied by a greater willingness to listen to advice from experts, who know more about education than he does. He is right in trying to drive up standards but wrong in focusing so much on questionable innovations such as free schools, which will have little effect on the system as a whole. These schools will fail if many of the teachers in them are unqualified. Politicians should not interfere in the curriculum. He does. Without engaging teachers his reforms will not last. Educational change cannot happen via edicts from the top.

Nigel Farage has complained about the “Walter Mittys” in Ukip. What might this mean for Ukip candidates’ electability?

Any political party with a leader who dismisses its own parliamentary candidates as fools or charlatans will ultimately fail. If his colleagues are of such poor quality, why doesn’t Nigel Farage spend more time on their selection? Fundamentally his problem is that his ridiculously shallow agenda is unlikely to attract good people to stand for Ukip. Some of the electorate may be taken in by his crude populism, but once he is exposed to the tough scrutiny of a general election, many will not be.

You are chair of the British Library, whose big 2014 exhibition looks at the art of the comic book. What can comics do that other literature can’t?

Comics combine the power of the written word with that of the visual arts, while creating something unique. Comics such as V for Vendetta illustrate how politically significant they can be; they can be utterly escapist too. They have had a large cultural impact and continue to do so, particularly as they adapt so neatly to digital publishing. The Library’s collection of UK comics is vast, and we will celebrate them this summer in our exhibition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK from 2 May to 19 August.

Nearly 300 local libraries have closed over the past two years because of budget cuts. With internet access all but ubiquitous, does that matter?

It does matter. Public libraries provide many valuable services besides internet access. In any case, some parts of the country still do not have access to high-speed broadband. Eighty per cent of users surveyed said the support provided in libraries improved their level of understanding of online information and 70 per cent said it improved their online knowledge and skills. Public libraries are also used by primary schools to help young children acquire the habit of reading, and to learn how to borrow books regularly. Older pupils are able to study in them without distractions. Libraries provide many advisory services for adults including on ways of accessing information from different sources as well as from the internet. For example, the British Library has linked up with six big city libraries to help entrepreneurs wanting to start new businesses.

Baroness Tessa Blackstone is a Labour peer and chairman of the British Library

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