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Monday, February 08, 2016

Can Wales catch up as a super connected nation?

Connectivity is the key to a successful economy in the twenty first century and that does not just mean roads, railways and airplanes. We spend a lot of time in the Welsh Assembly talking about the proposed M4 by-pass around Newport, Cardiff airport and the electrification of the main line. All of these are important, but so is  superfast broadband and increasingly, the availability of 4G and 3G mobile communications. In both areas Wales is struggling to keep up.

Today's Telegraph underlines the importance of digital communications to our economic success. They report on a survey by the Engineering Employers Federation which found that nearly half of companies in business parks were unable to access speeds above 10Mega Bits per second:

The federation warned that the poor state of digital infrastructure was threatening Britain’s ability to take advantage of the “fourth industrial revolution”.

It warned that many manufacturers were “fearful poor digital connectivity may prove a drag on future growth”.

A survey found that while two thirds reported their connectivity was acceptable, more than half of companies “say connectivity [is] not adequate for future needs”.

Half of companies said connection costs have gone up in the past two years.

Lee Hopley, the federation’s chief economist, said: “While the quality of networks isn’t an issue, companies are paying inflated sums to have proper access and are fearful they will not have competitive access five years down the line.”

The federation urged the Government to prioritise internet access for businesses, complaining that currently it is too focused on households.

But it is not just business parks where this is a problem, nor does poor internet access only blight rural areas. Homeworkers are also affected, whilst parts of urban areas such as Cardiff can only dream of 10 megabits. As an example here is a question I asked the First Minister last Tuesday:

Peter Black First Minister, can I draw your attention to a particular problem in my region, in the village of Jersey Marine. They were promised fast broadband by March 2015. They were then promised it again by July 2015. The latest update is the cabinet has been installed for six months but they still have not got it because there appears to be a problem getting the cables across a railway line, which has been there since 1890. This doesn’t auger well for the planning process of BT or their contractors. One constituent who contacted me says he’s a home-based worker, seriously disadvantaged by poor broadband at only 1 MB and cannot take part in video-conferences nor share virtual desktops. What solution would you propose for people in Jersey Marine who require this superfast broadband and are not able to access is?

Carwyn Jones - The First Minister Clearly, it is planned for them to be able to access superfast broadband, but if I could write to the Member with further details, perhaps then we could investigate what the problem has been and also to provide a more secure date in the future for those who have contacted him.

This is an issue that needs to be addressed with some urgency by the next Welsh Government.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Cameron tightens screw on social housing

Having announced last month that the Tory Government plans to put £140m into redeveloping nearly a hundred of the 'UK’s worst sink estates', the Prime Minister and his Chancellor are at it again with a scheme that will leave many families struggling to afford a roof over their heads whilst signalling a wholesale retreat from social housing in England.

The 'sink estates' scheme of course, is just a cover for the redevelopment of social housing in favour of more expensive private homes. The whole plan has many questions hanging over it, not least what will happen to the tenants of these estates and whether alternative affordable homes will be made available to them?

That has now been thrown into further doubt by plans to make families or individuals earning more than £40,000 a year in London, and more than £30,000 elsewhere pay a market rent. As the Observer reports, restricting social housing solely to the poorest in our society will mean that tens of thousands of hard-working families will be forced to leave their council homes and find themselves unable to afford a local alternative.

It also contradicts the policy of redeveloping 'sink estates' as it will ghettoise social housing, restricting access solely to the low paid and the unemployed. A sustainable and vibarant community should contain a good mix of people within a broad range of economic groups. That will not be possible if access to social housing is limited as proposed by the Tories.

The Observer says that a report commissioned by the Local Government Association found that almost 60,000 households in England will be unable to afford to remain in their council properties from April next year, as a result of George Osborne’s reform, known as “pay to stay”.

This is because far higher rents in the private sector, and soaring house prices in many parts of the south, means that many council tenants who just exceed the income cut-offs will be left in a desperate position.

In total,  214,000 households across England will be hit by the policy, whilst in London most of the 27,000 households affected will be unable to afford to rent privately or buy in the same area.

Like the bedroom tax, the justification for this policy is that the taxpayer is paying a questionable subsidy. Putting aside the fact that many affected by both policies cannot afford to pay more, what we are left with is a crude attack on the concept of social housing, an attempt to redefine it as a refuge for the poor rather than  the original concept of a secure home for working people. Harold Macmillan must be spinning in his grave.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

How badly is the Brexit campaign in disarray?

Despite apparently being ahead in the polls, the campaign to leave the European Union remains as dysfunctional as ever. The Guardian reports that an acrimonious feud among the leading groups could result in none of them being designated as the official campaign:

Arron Banks, co-founder of Leave.EU, said that the prospect of non-designation had become “a huge worry” and that potentially this could leave the campaign at a disadvantage.

The Electoral Commission is expected to nominate a lead organisation on each side of the run-up to the  EU referendum which David Cameron has indicated could take place on Thursday 23 June.

Both lead organisations will get a grant worth up to £600,000, campaign broadcasts and free mailing. They will also be allowed to spend up to £7m, instead of £700,000, the limit that applies to other registered campaign groups.

Banks said: “If it is bitterly contested, and if designating is going to be controversial, the commission has a right to choose not to designate.”

This will obviously hit the leave campaign if this scenario does come about. My hunch though is that they will be rich enough to do without the state funding. We will see.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Gill faces backlash as Welsh candidates turn on him

The UKIP candidate selection fiasco took a turn for the worse yesterday when a number of their leading candidates decided that it was all Nathan Gill's fault and called on him to quit as Welsh leader.

The BBC say that Joe Smyth, who achieved UKIP's highest vote share in Wales in 2015, said Mr Gill showed "no leadership" during its turmoil over assembly poll selections. They add that another three general election candidates, two standing in May's poll, have also called for Mr Gill to go.

UKIP are suffering the travails of being an English Party trying to make an impact in Wales, not made any easier by the personalities involved and their repeated gaffes.  The latest is a paid-delivery leaflet that looks like it has been funded by the European Parliament.

As can be seen above, even basic Welsh phrases are misspelt. I am told that the Welsh inside the leaflets is also littered with errors.

Not an auspicious start to their Welsh Assembly campaign.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Can Tories get away with one sided changes to party funding?

The Telegraph reports that reforms proposed in the Trade Union Bill, which will ban public sector bodies from automatically deducting subscription fees from workers' wages, could lead to Labour losing £8 million a year from its funding.

The Labour Party depends on the unions for millions of pounds in donations every year and under the current system all donations are automatically collected as part of the regular membership fee. However, Conservatives have argued that the approach is "outdated" and leaves the taxpayer with a £6.5 million bill every year to help fund union payments.

That may well be the case, however it is clear even to independent observers that this is not about saving the public money but has been politically motivated. I agree with Labour's General Secretary that the measures in the bill are ill considered, unfair and unsustainable. They are an attempt to sneak party funding reform through by the back door to the Tories' own advantage.

If we are to have reform of political party funding then it needs to be carried out across the board and should look at all the parties. Ideally it should be taken forward on a non-partisan basis with everybody having an input. Instead we are getting a one-sided change that benefits only the sitting Government.

The question is whether the Tories will get these changes through the House of Lords. Peers have already sent these clauses to a sub-committee to be looked at more closely. If that inquiry were to extend its scope then we might start to get somewhere with a more equitable reform.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

When stubbornness is in the public interest

Putting to one side for a moment the claim by the Secretary of State for Wales that Carwyn Jones has effectively abandoned the Union in arguing for changes to the draft Wales Bill, statements by Wales Office Ministers today have underlined the chasm that exists between them and the Assembly on the future of devolution.

The Western Mail reports that Stephen Crabb has launched an attack on the “new consensus” he claims has taken root in Cardiff Bay, suggesting that AMs are demanding the “unfettered” freedom to make laws that will have an impact outside Wales. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The paper says that the Welsh Secretary used his opening speech at the Welsh Grand Committee to launch a full-throttle attack on the “buffers of stubbornness” he claims he faces:

He said there was a view in Cardiff that a Supreme Court ruling has “effectively redrawn the devolution boundary way beyond what parliament intended for the Welsh devolution settlement and in fact way beyond in some respects the Scottish devolution settlement.”

Underscoring his opposition to this view, he said: “Now, that was never the intention of parliament when Labour ministers drafted the existing devolution settlement and nor is it the position of this Government.

"We believe it is the role of elected politicians to draw the devolution boundary – it isn’t the role of courts and the judges to decide on whether the devolution boundary is.”

Mr. Crabb faces two problems with this approach. The first is that it has always been the role of the courts to interpret legislation. If the ruling on the Agricultural Workers Act was contrary to the intention of Ministers then presumably the Government could have produced statements by them made during the passage of the last Government of Wales Act to back that up. The fact they did not suggests that Mr. Crabb's judgement is retrospective and that the Supreme Court's decision was in order.

If this is the case then the logical conclusion is that the draft Government of Wales Bill really is seeking to claw back powers and responsibilities currently held by the Welsh Assembly.

Secondly, Mr. Crabb's exasperation at the stubbornness of AMs is misplaced. This is not a party political matter. There is a cross-party consensus in the Assembly which includes the Welsh Conservatives. If we are being stubborn, then it because we all genuinely believe that the bill as currently drafted does not represent Wales' best interests.

Instead of setting his face against change, Mr. Crabb should work with us to get this right so we can all go on to concentrate on really important matters like the economy, education, health and housing.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

UKIP join the democratic society

It was such an obvious solution that I am astounded that UKIP had not thought of it before. Instead of arguing in public as to who should stand for them at the Assembly elections why not let the membership decide?

According to the BBC that is now what they have agreed to do. However, they have reached this decision after two damaging rows within their National Executive, who failed to agree a centrally-imposed list because of opposing personal interests.

According to UKIP Wales leader Nathan Gill, the decision to give party members the final say is "a great victory".

That more than anything sums up the autocratic, centralising, English-centric nature of UKIP. Any party that does not instinctively go down the democratic route for selecting their candidates is suspect in my view. And that is before we take account of their damaging policies on immigration and Europe.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Scathing attack by former Labour Minister on Jeremy Corbyn

Today's Telegraph contains the most scathing attack yet by a former Labour Minister on the new opposition leader, in which he suggests that Jeremy Corbyn is more interested in furthering the interests of minority causes than in uniting the Labour Party behind him.

Tom Harris writes that every time the Jeremy Corbyn talks about the Falklands, or Trident, or trade union legislation, or places inverted commas around the word “terrorism”, he nails another dozen nails into the coffin lid of his party. However, he genuinely believes what he says:

We’re often told (implausibly, in my opinion) that today’s young people are just as enthusiastic about politics as their elders – they’re just more interested in single issues like climate change and anti-capitalist protest than they are in party politics. That sounds eerily close to where Corbyn stands. He needed the Labour Party label in order to get him elected to Parliament in 1983 and re-elected seven times since then. But he is not a tribal politician; he has no emotional loyalty to the Labour Party. Such loyalty would encourage him to mellow his spoken opinions, to search for compromises, to promote the Labour Party at all levels in the understanding that you can’t always get what you want, but half a loaf is better than no loaf at all.

Instead he impresses those who voted for him in last year’s leadership election (and no one else) by verbalising every far-Left opinion he has ever held. He doesn’t (he claims) dissemble, he doesn’t prevaricate. He tries to convince himself and those around him that voters will support him because he is honest and principled, even if they’re not impressed by his actual views.

Mr. Harris suggests that Corbyn is far more comfortable dealing with Labour’s opponents on the Left than he is with the party itself. These include the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), the Socialist Workers Party, who set up and control Stop The War, and the Green Party, where the influence of Marxists with precious little to do since the Wall came down a quarter of a century ago have made their influence felt:

He shares with those allies a contempt for the “betrayal” of previous Labour governments: Blair, Wilson, Callaghan – even Attlee approved the UK nuclear deterrent – they were all guilty of betraying the Left. Why would true socialists offer such governments their support?

Labour moderates still hoping for a future in the party should remember that Labour’s opponents are not exclusively on the Right. Cameron doesn’t need to conspire to control the Labour Party. The same end is achieved when the cabal with influence over the leader is led by the leader himself.

The question is of course whether Her Majesty's Official Opposition can work as an rainbow-causes insurgency. Jeremy Corbyn clearly thinks it can. Only time will tell whether he or Tom Harris is correct.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Welsh Government's e-cig ban goes from bad to worse

If it was not bad enough that the Welsh Labour Government were seeking to ban the use of e-cigarettes in public places without evidence of harm to support their case, the latest incarnation of that ban has just added confusion to the case against.

As the Western Mail reports, the Welsh Government had originally wanted to ban e-cigarettes from all enclosed public and work places in the Public Health Bill. But health minister Mark Drakeford backed down from the initial plans in the face of opposition pressure and the Health and Social Services Committee has passed amendments tabled by him listing places where the ban will apply.

Vaping will only be allowed in pubs that serve drink but do not serve food as well, and where unaccompanied children are banned. Their use will also be restricted in schools, colleges, universities, train stations and on public transport, among other places.

The Welsh Government have said that workplaces not open to the public are also no longer captured by the restrictions, but also stressed the changes were proposals and others may be brought forward later.

As Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, Kirsty Williams says, the list is “as clear as mud”. She added: “Just because the minister has made a separation in law of the difference between tobacco and e-cigarettes does not mean that that’s how the public will view it”.

And when the fact that many pubs where vaping will be allowed serve pickled eggs, pork scratchings, packets of crisps on the bar etc, the Minister was at pains to say that his amendments  do not cover food of that sort.

The importance of any law of this kind is that it should be easily understandable and enforceable. Unfortunately, the way this bill is now framed means that it is far from passing that test. And of course there is still no evidence of harm from second-hand vapour to back up the measures. This law is going from bad to worse.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Out-of-touch peer underlines case for reform

Yet more evidence in the Times that a lot of peers in the House of Lords are out-of-touch with ordinary people with the claim by former Tory treasurer, Lord Farmer that the public would support higher pay for peers if the House of Lords had better spin doctors:

In a debate on improving the official House of Lords press office, the founder of the RK Capital Management hedge fund said that better understanding of the work of the upper house could lead to “public support for higher daily allowances”.

Suggesting that the allowance compared favourably with the daily rate for a plumber or mechanic, he said that he does not claim it “because I do not need to”. However, some peers do depend on the £300 allowance “to make ends meet” because they “give so much of their time”, Lord Farmer, 71, added.

He warned of the damage caused by caricatures of “ermine-clad peers swilling champagne and swanning around your lordships’ house at the taxpayer’s expense”.

“That may sell newspapers but it does not give anything of the true facts,” he said. “A highly distorted myth is relentlessly peddled of everyone with their snouts in the trough, greedily pocketing £300 a day for turning up.” Lord Farmer, who is worth £150 million according to the Sunday Times Rich List, said that more should be done by the press office to publicise the work of peers changing laws and debating policy.

“If this were made clear to the public, who of course pay garage and plumbers’ bills per hour or per day, they might think the daily fee is in fact rather modest and even inadequate, particularly if they understand that there are many peers whose work here restricts their earning opportunities elsewhere,” he said. He called for a proactive unit that “would, like a think tank, tweet and otherwise publicise” when the Lords overruled the government or altered legislation.

“There is so much to shout about, every day, that would actually encourage all who pay taxes, whether individuals or businesses, to see that they are in fact getting great value for money. We might even see public support for higher daily allowances, which I would endorse wholeheartedly, although that is a subject for another debate.”

There are of course some valid points there, particularly about the commitment of some peers to the work in the House of Lords. But the best way to resolve this, and to help those of Lord Farmer understand better what people really want from the upper house, would be to cut their numbers drastically and have a fully elected second chamber.

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