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Thursday, May 05, 2016

Please vote Welsh Liberal Democrats today

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

How safe is our personal data?

As if it were not bad enough that the UK Tory Government is seeking to give the security forces, the police and local councils carte blanche to randomly and indiscriminately access our personal data, the Independent reports that the NHS has given the medical records of 1.6 million patients to Google.

The records, which relate to patients of three London hospitals which form the Royal Free Trust; Barnet, Chase Farm and Royal Free Hospital collected over the course of the last five years, have been shared with Google as part of a data-sharing agreement. An estimated 1.6 million patients attend the hospitals every year.

According to the report,  Google says it intends to use the data as part of its group DeepMind to develop a health app which can help recognise kidney injury. However, campaigners have expressed concerns that the data-share is a breach of trust and not in patients’ interest:

Phil Booth, coordinator of medConfidential which campaigns for confidentiality in healthcare, told The Independent that the data-share was “not in the spirit of the NHS.” He said: “There are existing and strong processes for doing safe medical research using data; but this project seems to have followed none of them. To ensure patient confidence, properly run projects require transparency on what is being done, and why. That is to protect patients from the confusion about what this data will be used for.” Google has denied this, stating that it is following strict HSCIC information governance rules.

Google has been criticised in recent times for perceived privacy breaches due to the amount of data which it holds on individuals. In 2014, 38 US states sued Google when it was alleged that the cars with which the company takes Google Street View photographs had also been collecting data from computers inside the homes they drove past.

The company has also been accused of sifting through information on messages sent by users through its system to sell the byproducts to advertisers and not making it sufficiently clear to customers that it is able to read wifi passwords.

The commercialisation of patient records is in nobody's interests and this action by the NHS must add to the serious concerns about the current government's attitude to privacy and personal data.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The challenge of getting onto the housing ladder

The extent by which the housing market is frustrating the ambitions of many young people is revealed today in an article in the Times.  They report that parents helping their children on to the property ladder have become such an intrinsic part of the housing market that they will be involved in a quarter of all property transactions this year.

The paper says that a report by Legal & General and the Centre for Economics and Business Research has revealed that the “bank of mum and dad” is now the equivalent of a top-ten mortgage lender in the UK:

Rising house prices, years without real-terms wage rises, a shortage of supply and tougher mortgage regulations since the financial crisis have made it difficult for first-time buyers to get on to the property ladder.

The research shows that parents will lend more than £5 billion this year, providing deposits for more than 300,000 mortgages and helping to purchase homes worth £77 billion. On average, parents or family contribute £17,500 to a child’s house — about 7 per cent of the average purchase price.

The problem as Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of Legal & General, says is that such a model risks increasing inequality, because “many young people are not lucky enough to be able to access parental support”.

And because house prices are rising then those parents will face having to give ever increasing proportions of their savings.

The report says that about 256,400 houses will be bought with the help of parents, while a further 22,500 will be supported by grandparents and 27,000 by other family or friends. Nearly 60 per cent of contributions are given as gifts, 18 per cent as loans with no interest and 5 per cent as loans with interest.

The housing market is intrinsically linked to the success or otherwise of the UK's economy. But it is also a measure of how equal our society is. With so many people excluded from owning their own home because of the cost, then clearly something is very wrong.

Government intervention is always very tricky as it can distort the market and make things worse, but schemes such as help to rent, and help to buy can make a difference and need to be adopted and/or extended by the Welsh Government after 5th May.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Welcome move on restaurant tipping

Government plans to end unfair tipping practices and ensure additional payments for service are voluntary to the consumer, and received by workers in full as reported by the Independent today are very welcome.

The paper says that the plans include updating the current voluntary code of practice, increasing transparency for consumers to make it clearer that tips are discretionary, and preventing or limiting any employer deduction from tips, except for those required under tax law.

There is currently no legal requirement for the proportions of discretionary payments that go to employers and workers. The Government is also considering whether to ban or restrict the levying of table sales charges, a fee paid by waiting staff based on their sales during a shift.

I blogged on this issue in August last year. This change is long overdue and will ensure that when we enjoy good service the staff get the full reward that the customer has given to them.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

New technology I will not touch with a barge pole

I wear glasses. I have never worn contact lenses and am not likely to do so. The thought of putting something in my eye fills me with dread. I am sure that others feel the same. There are exceptions of course but I would guess that this feeling is going to be a significant barrier to Google's latest wheeze.

The Independent reports that the internet giant is working on a computer that can be injected into people’s eyeballs. They say that a new patent filing shows plans for a device that would stick into people’s eyes and correct their sight, but also provide extra powers. The injectable machine would be put just behind the visible part of the eye, focusing light so that it can correct poor vision.

Correcting poor vision is one thing, but having a device inserted into one's eye that will also include storage, a radio and lenses and which be powered by an energy-gathering antenna is a lot more disturbing. The antenna would allow the eye-based computer to connect to another device outside of the eye that would help it process information.

Perhaps I have seen too much science fiction and that is making me paranoid about this sort of technology. Whatever, they aint putting it in my eye.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Has Labour's anti-semitism row put Corbyn's leadership in jeopardy?

With unrest growing within the Labour Party as the anti-semitism row seemingly spirals out of control the party's leadership seems powerless to rein it in.

The Telegraph speculates that the upheaval has led members of Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet to hold talks with MPs about a leadership challenge.

They say that senior figures in the party are now so concerned about the row costing the party hundreds of seats at next week's local elections that they are openly discussing the possibility of an attempted coup following the EU referendum:

Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, on Friday conceded that the party needs to “get a grip” on anti-Semitism, despite Mr Corbyn insisting there is “no crisis” and “no problem” with the issue.

There were also signs of a growing split between Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who Labour insiders last night said “wants Jeremy’s job”.

As the crisis in Mr Corbyn's inner circle deepened, there were also claims that Anneliese Midgley, Mr Corbyn's deputy chief of staff, quit in protest at his handling of the row.

It was also alleged that Simon Fletcher, the Labour leader’s chief of staff, is being edged out following repeated clashes with Seumas Milne, Mr Corbyn’s controversial director of communications.

No wonder Welsh Labour are trying to distance themselves from the whole shambles.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Corbyn told to stay away from Wales as anti-semitism row rages

Welsh Tories have taken every opportunity during this Welsh Assembly campaign to describe Wales' biggest political party as 'Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party'. That decision looks to have paid off today as a scheduled visit to Wales by the Labour leader was cancelled. allegedly because he was asked to stay away.

The Western Mail reports that Mr Corbyn was due to visit Bridgend College in Pencoed with First Minister, Carwyn Jones, but it was agreed he would stay out of Wales after discussions between his team and Welsh Labour officials.

The paper says that the team around Carwyn Jones are understood to be angered by Mr Corbyn’s perceived dithering before action was taken against Bradford West MP Naz Shah and Mr Livingstone.

They add that Welsh Labour’s National Assembly election campaign has been built around projecting Mr Jones as a strong national leader. His team believe that Mr Corbyn’s failure to act swiftly after offensive comments made by Ms Shah on social media were revealed:

A source close to the Welsh Labour election campaign said: “We’ve made the campaign about strong leadership and Carwyn’s unique position as the only credible First Minister.

“That’s a difficult sell with Jeremy and particularly after the last 24 hours.”

There are understood to be no other plans at present for Mr Corbyn to visit Wales before polling day on May 5.

The cancellation of Mr Corbyn’s visit is the most glaring example yet of tensions between Welsh Labour and the Corbyn leadership in London.

While most, if not all, of Welsh Labour’s headquarters officials did not back Mr Corbyn in last year’s party leadership campaign, they have not engaged in overt action to undermine him.

But the anti-semitism row, coming so close to an Assembly election where the party’s campaign has been based very largely on Mr Jones’ image as a leader, has been, for his team, the final straw.

Whether such action is enough to protect Welsh Labour from the fall-out in next week's election will have to be seen.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

As doctors say that E-cigarettes should be offered to smokers will Welsh Ministers admit they were wrong to try to ban them?

Welsh Labour Ministers who tried and failed to ban e-cigarettes in public places at the end of the last Assembly term should take note of the verdict of the Royal College of Physicians before they try again after these elections.

The Royal College say there is resounding evidence that e-cigarettes are "much safer" than smoking and aid quitting. In a new report they say that with the right checks and measures, vaping could improve the lives of millions of people. And as if to directly refute arguments put forward by Labour Ministers the Royal College add that fears that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking are unfounded.

The BBC say that The Royal College of Physicians have concluded that smokers who use e-cigarettes or prescribed medications, with support from their doctor, are more likely to quit permanently.

And in terms of long-term health hazards, e-cigarettes are at least 95% safer than regular cigarettes, something Public Health England has also said.

E-cigarettes are not entirely risk-free of course but there is no case for any sort of ban and strong evidence that they work better than any other nicotine-replacement therapy in helping people quit the much more harmful activity of smoking tobacco.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why Theresa May is wrong to want to quit the European Court on Human Rights

Theresa May's intervention in the European referendum debate yesterday was not just astonishing but deeply damaging for her reputation as Home Secretary. For somebody in that position to argue, as she did that we could trade an international court that guarantees our rights for membership of a free trade organisation such as the EU betrays ignorance of both.

The Independent sets out five important reasons why we should remain within part of the European Court of Human Rights which was set up by Winston Churchill and other Britains. The ECHR, opened in 1959 and upholds the European Convention on Human Rights among individuals against the 47 European countries, not just the 28 member countries of the EU. It is not directly an EU institution. The EU has its own court, the European Court of Justice, but the ECHR's rulings often become case law for countries.

The paper outlines some of the most significant laws the ECHR has brought to Britain. It is worth reproducing them in full:

1. Freedom of the press

In 1979 the ECHR backed the Sunday Times and its right to publish details of the thalidomide scandal, in which more than 300 people were thought to be victims of birth deformities because of the poorly tested drug.

The paper, under editor Harold Evans, fought an injunction against publishing all the way up to the ECHR after national courts did not back its attempts to bring the case to light. The ECHR overruled the courts and backed the freedom of the press to publish in the national interest.

2. Child protection

After a UK court found that a stepfather had used "reasonable chastisement" when beating his stepson with a wooden cane, the ECHR overruled them and said it amounted to "inhuman or degreading treatment".

The UK government announced later that it would legislate to give children better protection.

3. Homophobia

The criminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland was ruled as illegal by the ECHR in 1981.

This ruling set the legal precedent for the Council of Europe ultimately requiring that no EU state could criminalise male or female homosexual acts - a major protection measure for the LGBT community.

A claim of religious discrimination by two Christians who did not want to deal with same-sex couples was also thrown out by the Strasbourg court in 2013, who backed the employers that had disciplined them.

4. Torture

During the 1970s the British army used five "techniques" on IRA members including being forced into stress positions for hours, hooding, being subjected to noise and food and sleep deprivation.

The ECHR ruled this as inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of human rights in 1978 and had the practice within the army officially ended.

5. Deportation

Two cases have particularly inflamed the debate in some of the media and the Conservative Party around the European Convention of Human Rights.

First, the case of Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, a Kurdish asylum seeker who killed a 12-year-old girl in a driving accident and was able to plea a right to family life to remain in Britain seeking asylum.

The second was terror suspect Abu Qatada - Ms May's particular case study in the failings of the ECHR - whom Strasbourg blocked from being returned to Jordan because of evidence he had been tortured there.

Once Jordan promised not to use evidence obtained under torture, he was removed from the UK and stood trial in that country in 2013.

The ECHR also backed the deportation of five other terror suspects to the US after finding there would be no violation of human rights once they were in a "supermax" prison there.

There is a strong case for remaining part of an institution with such a track record. I am astonished that the Home Secretary cannot see that.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

More UKIP infighting and it is set to continue after the Assembly elections

Today's Western Mail reports (no link at present) that UKIP have already started planning for their possible entry into the Welsh Assembly before the electorate have even finished casting their votes and are fighting amongst themselves over the spoils.

This presumption appears to be catching. I appeared at an event recently at which the UKIP representative turned up with two companions who he introduced as the people he is going to employ as his staff once he is elected. He may have a shock when he sees the rules for employing staff, which are rigorously applied so as to ensure equal opportunity for all applicants.

The Western Mail tells us that Nathan Gill is likely to be challenged by discredited former Tory, Neil Hamilton for the leadership of his party's new National Assembly Group.

Apparently, Mr Hamilton has the support of former Conservative, Caroline Jones, who is standing in South Wales West and Gareth Bennett, who is their lead candidate in South Wales Central and recently got himself in hot water by making racially charged comments about Cardiff's Eastern European migrant community.

Mr. Gill is being backed by former Tory, Mark Reckless, who was himself rejected by voters in 2015 and has now crossed the Welsh border in search of a new job.

For those who find all these characters distasteful and are concerned at their lack of commitment to making devolution work then in South Wales West at least, a vote for the Welsh Liberal Democrats is the best way to stop them.

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