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Monday, May 30, 2016

Tom's Diner

It is a bank holiday and I am at the Hay Festival. Following a superb live concert from Susanne Vega last night what better way to start the day than with Tom's Diner:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Tony Blair: a ghost at the feast

Most political leaders follow a golden rule, don't interfere by commenting on your successor. It is a rule more observed in the breach than in the observance as evidenced by the likes of Edward Heath.

Now Tony Blair has jumped in, seeking to mitigate the impact on his reputation of the Chilcott report, due to be published at last on 6th July.

According to the Telegraph, Blair believes that Britain would be embarking on a "very dangerous experiment" if it gave Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn power:

Asked if Mr Corbyn was a product of his, Mr Blair told the BBC's This Week's World: "No, I think it's a result of the way the world works these days, but it's a big challenge for the centre, and when I'm not thinking about the Middle East, I'm thinking about this because I do think, by the way, it would be a very dangerous experiment for a major western country to get gripped by this type of populist policy making, left or right.

"I do think the centre ground needs to work out how it recovers its... gets its mojo back, and gets the initiative back in the political debate because otherwise... these guys aren't providing answers, not on the economy, not on foreign policy."

Well, yes, but Blair is hardly in touch with public opinion anymore.

It is tempting to compare the former Prime Minister with the ghost of Banquo at the feast in Macbeth, except that there would be role reversal involved.

In Macbeth, Banquo appears in ghostly form so as prick the conscience of the new King over his bloody deeds. In real life, and subject to the conclusions of Chilcott of course, it is Blair with blood on his hands.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The job losses that cannot be fixed if we leave the EU

Most of the economic arguments around next month's referendum have centred around the impact on trade if we leave the European Union. That is understandable, after all we are part of the biggest free trade area in the world and benefit tremendously from that. Leaving will put us on the wrong side of some significant tariff barriers and as a result our economy (and public finances) will take a big hit.

Of course we can negotiate new trade deals, but what the Brexiteers do not tend to dwell on is how long it will take us to do that, nor the fact that we will have to negotiate large numbers in mind-numbingly detail. They also fail to mention that any trade agreement with the EU will involve us paying substantial sums to Brussels once more and the sort of freedom of movement of labour that his getting them all worked up in the first place. It is a lose: lose situation.

The other side of this argument is what will happen to companies who have set up here so that they can benefit from being inside the free trade area. Surely, they will up-sticks and relocate abroad if we leave. After all, what reason do they have to stay?

That argument lies at the heart of this article in the Western Mail. They report that diplomats working in at least one Embassy in London have been ordered to draw up lists of foreign investors in the UK who could be lured away if there is a Leave vote in the EU referendum:

A spokesman for Wales Stronger in Europe said: “Welsh exports to Europe are worth £5bn a year – we’re one of the only regions of the UK which actually has a trade surplus with the EU.

"Overall, it accounts for 40% of our exports. But for some areas its even more: 93% of lamb, 35% of sheep, 92% of beef and 98% of dairy exports went to the EU. That’s Welsh beef exports of £52.3 and Welsh lamb exports of £122m.

“The EU imposes an average tariff of 14% on agricultural imports from non-EU countries, with higher rates on individual items. Outside the Single Market, dairy exports to the EU could attract a 36% tariff, and tariffs on beef exports could be between 58% and 70%.

“Both the FUW and NFU Cymru support calls for Britain to remain in Europe, in order to retain access to the Single Market, which accounts for 90% of Welsh agricultural exports – worth £300m a year, and to protect the £240m a year in CAP funding, vital to the type of farming we see across Wales.”

It is little wonder that other countries think they can poach British jobs if we leave.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Welsh councils could be waiting a long time for clarity on reorganisation

Considering that most councils were opposed to Leighton Andrews' proposed restructuring of local government so as to create just eight bodies, they are protesting rather loudly now that plan has been shelved for lack of support.

The BBC reports that a Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) paper, which will be considered today, says that there is an urgent need for clarity over plans to reorganise local government. The paper says that the "challenges ahead are profound", with many services in crisis.

They are not wrong but the idea that shuffling deckchairs around could solve this is fanciable. For once Russell Goodway is right, the solution lies in the hands of councils themselves and they should stop complaining about the Welsh Government and get on with it.

That solution does not need to involve mergers, though it could, nor will it produce the money needed to keep services going, but determined leadership that delivered substantial joint working could make savings that are worth having and which will protect front line services.

Personally, I do not believe that local government reorganisation should be abandoned so easily. The problem of course is lack of consensus and the absence of a majority in Cardiff Bay to deliver any change. It is a shame that even now Government Ministers believe that consensus involves securing an inter-party agreement behind closed doors.

A more organic and considered process in which the local government boundary commission was charged with wide consultation on drawing up plans for say 12 local councils based on natural communities over a period of time may be more deliverable.

Such a process would need to respect large population centres such as the Welsh cities and towns like Wrexham and build council areas around them rather than sublimating them into larger amorphous areas as proposed previously. Historical counties would need to be considered and rural considerations taken into account, especially with the implications for funding.

Although loosely based on existing counties, this process would not be afraid to chop them up so as to create a more sustainable entity, for example by taking the Swansea and Lliw Valleys out of Neath Port Talbot and adding it to Swansea.

And there would need to be a commitment to election by single transferable vote to compensate for the inevitable reduction in the number of councillors and to ensure that councils are properly representative of the people who elect them. Such an outcome would improve accountability and transparency and lead to better services.

I have been advocating such a solution for some time, but others believed that a quick fix was a better approach. Now that fix has come undone, perhaps it is time for a more deliberative and consensual approach.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Our lives in their hands

For many people a reluctance to adopt the latest technology is excusable. After all, who has the time to keep upgrading programmes and as for Windows 10, seriously why would I want to abandon my trusty operating system.

There are times though where one assumes that the most up-to-date technology is being used and find an icy-cold shiver running down one's back when the contrary is proved to be true.

Such a moment came to me when I saw this article in The Times, in which they report that the Pentagon is still using floppy discs designed in the 1970s for some of its nuclear force’s functions:

The report by the Government Accountability Office said it was one of a number of worryingly outdated “legacy systems” still in use that are in desperate need of upgrading.

According to the study the US Defense Department spends $61.2 billion (£41bn) a year on operations and maintenance of ageing technologies.

The figure is more than three times over its “development, modernization and enhancement” spending.

The Pentagon command and control system that "coordinates the operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts,” runs on an IBM Series/1 computer and uses 8in floppy disks.

That type of computer was first used in 1976, when Gerald Ford was in the White House. When asked why they were using near obsolete technology, the Pentagon offered a simple solution.

“This system remains in use because, in short, it still works,” spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Valerie Henderson told agency AFP.

“However, to address obsolescence concerns, the floppy drives are scheduled to be replaced with Secure Digital devices by the end of 2017,” she added.

“Modernisation across the entire Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) enterprise remains ongoing.”

Given that floppy disks first came into use in the late 1960s but were largely obsolete by the turn of the millennium this does not generate confidence in our safety. But just in case you might think that everything is under control, perhaps it is worth reflecting on how up-to-date the Russian systems are.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Does the future of the union rest in the hands of the Treasury?

Today's Western Mail reports on the conclusions of the House of Lords constitution committee, which reiterates the views of a number of similar inquiries before it.

Their Lordships suggest that the future of the UK is at “threat” and the refusal to introduce a funding system which would address the needs of the poorest regions makes a “mockery” of the UK Government’s duty to distribute resources fairly. They argue that successive governments have taken the union “for granted” and have demonstrated a “haphazard approach” to the constitution. No dispute there.

It is the warning by the committee though that its members do not think the passing of the next Wales Act will mean “all the pieces for a stable constitutional settlement will be in place” that resonates. The constant uncertainty over funding and the perceived unfairness of the way that Wales has been treated means that people will continually seek to unpick the constitutional settlement that has been imposed on them.

The failure to include England and the English regions in this settlement means that the UK Government will remain under pressure to change it. That in itself could prove destabilising.

The Lords flag up a “lack of public understanding” about devolution, warning: “Amongst the devolved nations, it seems particularly acute in Wales with its complex conferred-powers model of devolution (albeit a model which is less complex than that used in 2006-11).” They call for a “new mindset” at “all levels of government”, saying that the devolved institutions, such as the Assembly, must be recognised as “established components of the UK’s constitution”.

Tellingly, they call for the UK Government to abandon a “devolve and forget” attitude and instead “engage with the devolved institutions across the whole breadth of government policy, co-operating and collaborating where possible.”

The biggest obstacle to this change remains the Treasury. Civil Servants there have connived with Ministers to frustrate all attempts at a fair funding settlement that reflects need across the UK and which accommodates the demands of the English regions.

Although there is a need to sort out the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly, a fair funding formula that recognises the emerging federal nature of the UK is becoming more urgent. If the Treasury continues to block such a development then the current constitutional settlement will remain in flux and subject to challenge from all corners of the UK.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Prominent Leave campaigner brands her own side's literature as "deliberately misleading"

As both sides on the EU referendum debate seek to rubbish the other's facts and figures it is worth noting this article in the Independent in which a senior MP and one of the most prominent health experts backing Brexit, brands Vote Leave campaign’s NHS leaflets as “deliberately misleading”.

The paper reports that Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP and now chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, said that the Leave campaign should “stop treating the public like fools” by claiming that Brexit would free-up £350m a week to spend on the NHS:

While attacking “outlandish claims” on both sides of the EU debate, Dr Wollaston singled out Michael Gove’s warning last week over the dangers of increased immigration for the NHS.

“There are many reasons for the pressures on the NHS, but largely because we are living longer and with multiple and complex conditions,” she said in an article for The Times Red Box website. “As many have commented; if you meet a migrant in the NHS they are more likely to be caring for you than ahead of you in the queue.”

Dr Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes, said that NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens had been right when he said on Sunday that the NHS was dependent on overseas staff.

“He also highlighted the dependence of the NHS on a strong economy and the knock on consequences for any uplift in funding of financial turbulence. In my view, it is an increase in the percentage of our national income that we spend on health and care that will save the NHS, not Brexit,” she writes.

As the paper says the Leave campaign has already been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for claiming that the the cost of British membership of the EU is £350m a week as it does not take into account the UK’s rebate, or payments received from the EU. The actual net figure is between £110m and £135m a week.

It is little wonder that Dr. Wollaston says that the claim that there will be £350m a week extra to spend on the NHS if we leave is a cynical distortion which undermines the credibility of the Leave campaign's other arguments.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Selling off the Land Registry will leave government worse off

I have already responded to the Tory Government's consultation on privatising the Land Registry, essentially telling them that the idea is bonkers and will undermine the service that they provide as well as putting the integrity of the register at risk.

A far more rational and significantly better argued case against selling off the agency by John Manthorpe, a former Chief Land Registrar and Chief Executive of Land Registry and an International Consultant on Land Registration systems, can be read here.

This proposal of course, has two objectives, to make the government some money and to reward the private sector with some supposedly low-hanging fruit. That is why Liberal Democrats Business Secretary, Vince Cable vetoed the idea when we were in coalition. Now that the Liberal Democrats are not there the Tories are proceeding anyway.

Like all such privatisations the long term consequences of this sell-off have not been properly assessed. This is evident from a new study by the New Economic Foundation, which concludes that although George Osborne will gain in the short term, over a longer period the Treasury will actually lose money on the sale.

The Guardian say that the New Economic Foundation report for the campaign group We Own It found that selling the Land Registry would mean the British public would start to lose money in 25 years’ time. They add that the authors estimate that the impact of selling off other public assets would be felt even sooner. If the public stake in National Air Traffic Services (NATS) were sold, for example, resultant losses would start being felt within seven years.

Cat Hobbs, We Own It’s director, said: “George Osborne can’t have his cake and eat it. If he goes ahead with the Great British sell-off, we’ll have lost our public assets forever – and all the millions of profit they bring in every year.

“The Land Registry is a profitable, successful, innovative organisation doing a great job – why privatise it? We need to think about the wealth of the next generation, not just a quick fix on the deficit.”

That is absolutely right. The Treasury's obsession with PFI was discredited some time ago, now we are seeing the case for the delivery of public services by the private sector being undermined as well.

The fact is that when assessments are made of the costs and benefits of involving private organisations in the delivery of public services, they are not properly robust and they do not take into account long term considerations. That needs to change.

UKIP divisions continue as Hamilton is reprimanded

The repercussions of Neil Hamilton's sexist rant in the Senedd last week continue to be felt in the Welsh media as the party;s Welsh Leader and MEP, Nathan Gill took to the airwaves yesterday to chastise his group leader.

The BBC report that Mr. Gill told one of their journalists that Hamilton reinforced stereotypes about the party when he described two senior female AMs as "political concubines" in Carwyn Jones' "harem".

He added that the party's seven newly-elected AMs had to be "professional". And said that UKIP wanted to "shake up politics", but Mr Hamilton's jibe was was not the way to do it:

We need to show that when we're elected we're professional and we do the job properly and we do the job for the benefit of the people who have voted for us," he told BBC Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement.

"The time has come to re-emphasise and enforce the positive image of UKIP to the men and women who desperately want to vote for us but we keep on giving them reasons not to."

You would think that after his experience and looking at the nature of some of UKIP's members, Mr. Gill would be considering his position in the party. If he really thinks that UKIP in Wales are capable of living up to these ideals then he is fooling himself.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Two down one to go - Welsh Government drop unpopular policies

As I predicted a couple of days ago, the First Minister has effectively kicked local government reform into touch and it looks like the famed black route M4 extension around Newport will follow it in due course.

In addition The Western Mail reports that First Minister Carwyn Jones has confirmed that the Welsh Government will not resurrect plans for a ban on the use of e-cigarettes in some public places. He told the BBC:  "The Public Health Bill will be brought back to the Assembly but clearly there is no point including the provisions on e-cigs when we know they’re not going to get through.” This was inevitable, so much so that it didn't seem worth mentioning earlier.

The First Minister also told the BBC that local government reorganisation plans will have to go back to the drawing board. He said: “I think it’s tricky if you just leave it without any kind of guidance or direction from the Welsh Government. You end up then with lopsided authorities, you end with different authorities with different powers.

“I think it has to be an all-Wales approach, but as to what that approach looks like, we have an open mind and are happy to discuss with other parties.”

That approach may well save face but it will not yield any common proposals unless Plaid Cymru, the Tories and UKIP significantly change their position.

As for the M4 relief road, well a public inquiry is already underway so Carwyn Jones can't really kill it off now.

I accept that the new Welsh Government will not go for the blue route for the reasons Carwyn Jones sets out, but unless they find another route that does not destroy conservation areas nor impinge on Newport docks, then there really is no way forward for that particular project in my view.

The First Minister might hope that the inquiry will rule in his favour or that a new proposal will emerge from it, but whatever the outcome in a year or two's time he still has to get a budget containing the necessary expenditure through the Assembly and that looks unlikely.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The cost of privatisation

Politicians in Wales have always been strong advocates of merging back office functions within the public sector so as to achieve savings which can be released for front-line services. What they often don't say is that the only realistic way to achieve this is through outsourcing those functions to a private sector company.

Attempts to deliver such savings in Wales have led to mixed results, not least in South East Wales where the costs of delivering this change proved to be a major obstacle. And of course as this reform involves significant change-management and investment in ICT, then public sector bodies often have to buy in expertise and are at the mercy of these companies for cost and savings projections.

The Guardian reports on one such attempt in which the National Audit Office concluded that a Cabinet Office plan to privatise some of Whitehall’s office functions and save up to £500m a year has instead cost £4m and is beset with problems.

Ministers transferred back-office functions – human resources, payroll and accounts – to the private sector two-and-a-half years ago in a plan which was supposed to “radically improve efficiency across departments”.

Auditors say that the “shared services” initiative did not achieve the projected saving of at least £128m a year. Instead it has saved £90m, £4m less than it has cost.

In this particular case, we need to be careful what we wish for and be absolutely certain that any such project can deliver on what is promised.

If we are to proceed to do this in future then we must reinforce the expertise available to the public sector in evaluating such initiatives.

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