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Thursday, July 24, 2014

At last some commonsense on bTB

Given that it is Royal Welsh Show week I suppose that it is to be expected that the usual suspects would be wheeled out to support the bizarre and failed badger cull in England and to call for it to be reinstated here, in Wales.

I have not been disappointed. Somehow, simplistic solutions are appealing despite the over-whelming evidence that they are entirely ineffective. So it has been with the shoot-first and ask-questions-later brigade.

I was pleased therefore to see a sensible contribution to the debate in today's Western Mail from Wales’ chief vet Professor Christianne Glossop, who has managed to put her previous support for a cull of badgers behind her.

Professor Glossop told an audience at the Royal Welsh Show that “finding infection, keeping out infection and stopping disease” is key to beating Bovine tuberculosis in Wales. She is now proposing testing dead badgers so as to build up an evidence base for further action.

The efficacy of the vaccination and control measures introduced by the Welsh Government is apparent from the results.

The Welsh Government's strategy is fairly straightforward. It is to keep infection out of farms; the rapid, early and accurate identification of infection where it does occur so that the disease can be quickly tracked; stopping disease spreading through movement restrictions; very strict measures when a breakdown is identified; and of course preventing bTB spreading in wildlife through the vaccination programme.

As the Professor told her audience, the number of new TB incidents in Wales in the last 12-months ending April 2014 is down by 21%, that means 200 less herds in Wales went down with TB in the
last 12 months. And the number of animals the Wrlsh Government have slaughtered is down 34%.”

In addition, Welsh livestock farmers have been told to insist on pre-movement TB testing of any cattle they source outside Wales. All beef and dairy cattle over six weeks old are tested when they are moved between holdings and herds are also tested annually, but this is not the case across the border in England.

She concluded that the Welsh Government want to base their strategy on hard facts not opinions. It would be nice if the farmers' unions here followed suit, not to mention the UK Government.

And of course if the Plaid Cymru Ministers in the last One Wales Government had taken this course of action instead of dabbling in cull-mythology we could have been even further forward in eradicating this awful disease than we are now.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

More ICT grief

When I informed the Finance Committee of the National Assembly for Wales that the insourcing of the Assembly Commission's ICT service had actually saved more money that anticipated my news was met with astonishment. After all, as the chair said, it is very rare for any public sector ICT project not to overrun and cost more than planned.

Alas, this is true and for good reasons. ICT projects are often not about technology at all. They are change management projects. Not only is that misunderstood but it is common for those commissioning them to overlook that essential truth because they are dazzled by ICT goodies that they only partly understand and often do not deliver on expectations.

ICT projects fail or cost more than anticipated because they are not properly procured, because they are not properly project managed, because they do not secure buy-in across the organisation, because benefits are exagerated and accepted without proper scrutiny and because of an over-reliance on penalty clauses that are not worth the paper they are written on. I know as I have been involved at both ends of the spectrum, albeit on a political level rather than in managing the project.

So, none of us should be surprised by the news in today's Times that HMRC has been censured for “unacceptably poor” management after an IT project spiralled out of control to cost the taxpayer more than £10 billion:

HM Revenue & Customs showed a “lack of rigour” in handling a contract for processing millions of tax returns, the spending watchdog said yesterday. The Aspire deal was costed at £4.1 billion in 2004 but it is predicted that the figure will have more than doubled to £10.4 billion by the time the contract runs out in 2017.

In a highly critical report, the National Audit Office (NAO) also disclosed that Capgemini, the contractor, and Fujitsu, its subcontractor, have already reaped profits of at least £1.2 billion on the deal, or more than double the £500 million forecast.

The NAO revealed that the original contract gave HMRC some of the profits from the scheme, but this right was given away when the deal was renegotiated in 2012. Profits received have only been worth £16 million instead of £71 million.

The contract, which provides 650 IT systems for collecting income tax and national insurance, now costs the taxpayer about £813 million every year and no longer provides value for money, the NAO said. However, time is running out for a replacement contract, which could put tax collection “at risk”.

The paper goes on to say that this is the latest in a string of troubled Whitehall IT projects. They say that the  Department for Work and Pensions has written off part of its computer program for universal credit and the Home Office scrapped a £347 million immigration IT project last August. And that is just the tip of teh iceberg.

What disturbs me is that nobody seems to be learning any lessons from these failures.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hafod- Morfa Copperworks

I joined the Minister for Housing and Regeneration and other Assembly Members yesterday at the Hafod Morfa Copperworks, just south of the Liberty Stadium.  This is a Welsh  Government funded regeneration scheme in partnership with the University of Swansea and Swansea Council.

The copperworks were established from 1810 onwards and became the largest of their type in Europe by 1890. During the mid-nineteenth century, well over half of the world's copper output was smelted in the Lower Swansea Valley and Swansea became known as 'Copperopolis'. The works closed in 1980 and then were abandoned, having been partially demolished.

More information can be found about the copperworks and the regeneration project at the website "A world of Welsh copper' found here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Close Parliamentary relations (a dynastic guide)

In light of the news that Tony Benn's granddaughter has been selected to fight a Parliamentary seat for Labour, the Independent publishes a study of the top ten MPs who have or have had relatives in the House of Commons.

Top of the pile is Nicholas Soames who is the son of Christopher Soames, the cousin of Winston Churchill, nephew of Randolph, grandson of Sir Winston, and great-grandson of Lord Randolph. Trailing iin second is Hilary Benn, who is of course the son of Tony Benn, the grandson of William Wedgwood Benn (Lib then Lab), and the great-grandson of Daniel Holmes and of Sir John Benn (both Lib).

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, turns out to be the grandson of Geoffrey, great-nephew of Douglas (Speaker 1943-1951) and of Howard, and great-great-nephew of James. After that we have the also-rans:

4. Alistair Darling, Lab, Edinburgh SW
Great-nephew of Sir William Darling (Scottish Unionist, Edinburgh South 1945-1957).
5. Peter Bottomley, Con, Worthing West
Husband of Virginia (Con, SW Surrey 1984-2005), uncle of Kitty Ussher (Lab, Burnley 2005-2010).
6. Toby Perkins, Lab, Chesterfield
Great-grandson of Sir AP Herbert (Ind, Oxford University 1935-1950).
7. Luciana Berger, Lab, Liverpool Wavertree
Great-niece of Emanuel Shinwell (Lab, latterly for Easington until 1970).
8. Yvette Cooper, Lab, Pontefract
Wife of Ed Balls, Lab, Morley.
9. Ed Miliband, Lab, Doncaster North
Brother of David Miliband (Lab, South Shields 2001-2013).
10. David Cameron, Con, Witney
Great-grandson of Sir William Mount (Con, Newbury 1900-1906 and 1910-1922).

It is a distingusihed list and with two Benns, a Straw and a Kinnock fighting Parliamentary seats in 2015, it can only grow in size and stature.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

St. Teilo's Church, Bishopston

I have just had a  very enjoyable Sunday lunch in the Gower Hotel, set in the picturesque Bishopston Valley next to St Teilo's Church.

I would happily recommend the hotel if you wish to eat or to stay on the edge of the Gower area of outstanding natural beauty. It is located just few minutes drive from the lovely villages of Kittle and Bishopston and within striking distance of Caswell Bay, Pwll du Bay, Brandy Cove and Pennard Cliffs at Southgate.

From Southgate you can explore the old haunts of Gower poet, Vernon Watkins, a friend of Dylan Thomas (and the better poet in my view). There is a memorial to him just below the cliff edge in Southgate, where you can while away the time watching seagulls circle.  Equally, you can strike out in the opposite direction towards Pobbles and Three Cliffs Bay, at the bottom of a river valley dominated by the magnificent but ruined Pennard Castle.

Or you could do what we did and explore the splendid St. Teilo's Church next door to the Hotel.

The information leaflet tells us that the parish church of St Teilo occupies the site of one of the earliest Christian settlements in Wales. The old Welsh name of the village is Llandeilo Ferwallt, which means Church of St Teilo. According to the book of Llandaff, the church dates back to 480/490 A.D. when St Teilo established a Llan (Church) hidden in a dell above the stream. This was probably a simple wooden fenced open enclosure where the faithful met for worship and to celebrate the Eucharist. Later a cell or small chapel was built on the site.
The Tower is designed in the English or Norman style and is typical of Gower churches, being of simple construction, as is the main building, dating from the late 12th or early 13th century. The leaflet says that the battlements were probably restored in the 19th century but the tower was undoubtedly designed as a safe refuge for the villagers from the sudden attacks by marauders from the sea. Another notable architectural feature is the 'corbel table' of Welsh pattern which runs around the tower below the battlements.

Inside the church the font is particularly worth a look. It is late Norman and is carved out of a single square block of limestone standing on a circular stem, the oak cover is modern.

You can find out more about the church here whilst the Friends of St Teilo's have their own Facebook page here.

Mention of Brandy Cove reminds me of a story from 1985 when a very good friend of mine captured Bishopston for the SDP on West Glamorgan County Council. At the time the new councillor was working as a customs officer.

The name Brandy Cove of course refers back to the area's reputation as a centre of smuggling. The sands were used to land illicit cargo of tobacco and alcohol. There are convenient caves there and a fairly secluded footpath up to the main village.

My friend's election elicited a comment about how times had changed. That day the village had elected a customs officer, a hundred years previously they would have strung him up.

A road too far

There are many reasons why the Welsh Government's proposed M4 relief road should not go ahead, not least the environmental impact, but also because it is based on questionable traffic projections, ties up all the borrowing provision in one corner of Wales, flies in the face of the aims of their own Future Generations bill and undermines efforts to promote and develop public transport alternatives.

It is the latter reason that Gerry Holtham concentrates on in this article in the Western Mail. He asks whether the government’s plan to build a £1bn M4 relief road alongside developing a “transformative” South Wales metro concept at the same time can be achieved, suggesting that the government will have to choose one or the other, or concede that a private-public finance arrangement will be needed.

The paper records that the Economy and Transport Minister's decision to go ahead with the most expensive option has provoked huge controversy among environmental groups, the small business lobby and opposition parties, who accuse her of ploughing ahead with an unnecessarily costly and environmentally-detrimental option, when an alternative £400m to upgrade a distributor road and old steelworks road was not included in the latest consultation.

They add that as a result Plaid Cymru has walked out of negotiations with the Welsh Government on next year’s budget in protest at the decision. We on the other hand are staying in there for now in the hope of influencing the outcome on the M4.

We will see which is the most successful strategy in due course.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Did Tory Ministers have a pro-European report rewritten?

Today's Times reports that Conservative ministers have been accused of manipulating an unpublished government report that they believed was too pro-European.

The report, which stated that migration from the EU had a “largely positive” effect, although it acknowledged there was less agreement about the impact of low-skilled foreigners coming to the UK, was due out in December but was delayed because of a coalition row:

Publication was postponed again until after the European elections in May, according to the BBC Two programme Newsnight, which obtained a leaked copy of the report. The programme said that Theresa May, the home secretary, sent it to the Home Office implementation unit, which rewrote it with more sceptical and negative comments, prompting accusations from Vince Cable, the business secretary, that it was “propagandist”. 

The report collected evidence on the impact of immigration from EU countries, particularly after the enlargement to cover former eastern bloc countries in 2004. It suggests that there are 2.3 million Europeans living in the UK, and 2.2 million Britons in Europe. 

Mr Cable told Newsnight: “We disagreed with the content and thought it was propagandist rather than objective. A study has now been produced that is balanced.” The Home Office said: “We do not comment on leaked documents.

It seems that it isn't just newspaper articles that we should be sceptical of. Government reports fall into that category as well.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Poetic health

You can tell that the Eisteddfod is near when a letter from the Welsh health minister refers to 'health bards'.

Either that or the latest fad in our hospitals is for the doctors and nurses to read poetry at you until you are cured.

Clegg says Tory headbangers have won

The decoupling is in full swing this week as Nick Clegg goes on the record to point out that Cameron has capitulated to the Tory headbangers. He says that David Cameron signalled the "death knell" for moderate Tories by ending the frontbench careers of ministers such as Kenneth Clarke in the recent reshuffle.

In some of his most aggressive comments about his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrat leader said the attorney general,was sacked to allow the Tories to line up with "tyrants" such as Vladimir Putin in opposing the European convention on human rights. 

The deputy prime minister laughed off the demotion of Michael Gove as he accused the former education secretary of creating a "destructive relationship" with teachers.

Clegg was scathing about Cameron's reshuffle, which in addition to the removal of Clarke and Grieve, also resulted in the departure of the centre-ground ministers Damian Green and David Willetts. 

 The paper says that speaking on his weekly LBC radio phone-in, the deputy prime minister said: "The real significance of this week's Conservative party reshuffle was nothing to do with gender balance. It is all to do with the death knell of the reasonable internationalism of people like Ken Clarke. The headbangers have now won. They are now, in effect, saying that the Conservative party will turn its back on a long, long British tradition of upholding human rights across the world." 

Clegg was highly critical of the reported Tory plan to risk Britain's expulsion from Europe's human rights watchdog the Council of Europe drawing up plans to assert the supremacy of parliament over the European court of human rights. The BBC reported that the Tories were planning to unveil a new bill of rights at their annual conference in the autumn, which would mean that the UK parliament would rule on what constitutes a breach of human rights. 

He told LBC: "I have been completely blindsided today by hearing that the Conservatives – extraordinarily enough – want to line up with Vladimir Putin and other tyrants around the world by tearing up our long tradition of human rights." 

Clegg added: "What on earth are we going to say to the dictators in Belarus, to Vladimir Putin if we do what the Conservatives now appear to recommend which is we basically say we are going to stamp our little feet and not abide by binding international human rights practices and conventions? 

"It is really sad to see a mainstream party like that turning its back on a great longstanding British tradition of standing up internationally for human rights. That is the most immediate knock-on effect of removing people like Dominic Grieve – you have now got a much more extreme view taking root in the heart of the Conservative party." 

Clegg dismissed the reported Tory plan to allow parliament to assert its supremacy over the ECHR on human rights. "The moment you say – they are going to get themselves into a terrible twist – that the government of the day, with a significant majority in parliament, can drive through parliament a rewriting of human rights disciplines you are basically accepting that human rights provisions are not universal – that they are pick and choose."

Much more of this please.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A welcome u-turn

The decision by Nick Clegg to promote the effective axing of the bedroom tax as part of the 2015 Liberal Democrats manifesto was not a surprise. After all the party conference voted last September to do precisely that. It is nice that the leadership, after reviewing all the evidence, has caught up with the membership and the rest of the country on this issue.

As an elected representative I have seen the impact of this measure at first hand. It is not of course a tax, but it has led to many tenants getting into arrears because the was no alternative accomodation for them to move to. It also had an impact on people with disabilities, especially those living in adapted homes and those who need space for overnight carers.

I held a debate on the issue in February of this year, highlighting in particular the difficulties of depending on discretionary housing payments to mitigate the impacts of withdrawing the spare room subsidy. In that debate I set out my position that disabled adults should be exempt and that the bedroom tax should apply only as and when people take up new tenancies.

The changes announced by Nick Clegg, which we will be pushing for from now on very much mirror my views. Although it is a reversal of his position, it is based on a close analysis of what is happening on the ground.

The review concluded that the evidence from the interim evaluation of the policy shows that the bedroom tax has not been working in the way in which it was intended. As a result we want to change the rules so that existing tenants aren’t penalised when they cannot move into smaller accommodation because this is not available or where there is a serious medical reason for an additional room.

We will therefore go on applying the existing rules to new tenants but existing tenants who are ‘under occupying’ will not have their housing benefit cut unless they have been made at least one reasonable offer of alternative social rented accommodation with the correct number of bedrooms. We will also ensure that when tenants have a significantly adapted property or genuinely need a second bedroom for medical reasons, they do not face a housing benefit penalty.

More significantly the party has at last recognised that the real problem is a shortage of suitably sized housing. We need to address that urgently. Commonsense has prevailed at last.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Brave new world?

For those who thought that a Tory cabinet containing five women was the dawn of a brave new world (yes, I know, low expectations and all that), the Daily Mail has the perfect antidote:

It is as if we were still in the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Senior Labour figures continue to undermine Miliband

The latest in a long line of senior Labour figures to question Ed Miliband's leadership is the heavyweight former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke.

The Telegraph reports Mr. Clarke has warned that the Tories are on course to win an overall majority at the next election because Ed Miliband is a worse leader than Neil Kinnock:

Charles Clarke said that Labour has "no narrative" and Ed Miliband is failing to appeal to voters because he has an "assembly of odd policies".

Mr Clarke also criticised Mr Miliband for failing to "set out clearly" how he would control the deficit and said Labour is unlikely to regain public trust in its ability to handle the economy.

They go on to report that Mr. Clarke's interview with the Huffington Post: "I think the most likely outcome is a Tory overall majority. You've got to set out an overall account of what it is. And I don't think we have an account and I think that's Ed's biggest challenge.

"[He has got to] Set out a clear statement of what Labour would actually do. Give people a reason to vote Labour. not an assembly of odd policies like the electricity freeze or whatever. [He] lacks an overall story."

Mr Clarke, who served as Neil Kinnock's chief of staff in the 1987 and 1992 General Elections, said the former Labour leader has "far more qualities" than Mr Miliband.

He said: "Neil has far, far more qualities than Ed Miliband as a leader. Neil was a fantastic leader and brought Labour back towards victory."

It is clear from these statements that even if Mr. Miliband followed the Prime Minister's example of carrying out a major reshuffle, he would still not satisfy the big beasts in terms of his narrative and direction of travel.

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