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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Photobombed by a cat

This lady tried to film a yoga video but forgot to ask permission

Exclusivity isnt what it is cracked up to be

The internet is designed to be open and accessible but what if it were the very opposite. Today's Independent reports on how Justin Foley decided to create a website that is the antithesis of that ideal.

He has set up the World's most exclusive website and so far hundreds of thousands of people have spent around 20,000 hours in the line to access MostExclusiveWebsite.com after taking a ticket and waiting to be let in.

Once you're in, you get 60 seconds to enjoy the site before the person with the next ticket is admitted.

Personally, I don't really have the time to enjoy that experience but there is a spoiler video that enables you to skip the wait. I have posted it below. All I am going to say is that there are cats...

Friday, July 03, 2015

How Government tax policies are undermining their climate change agenda

We all love our car and given the huge number of them on the roads and growing it is little wonder that the government is trying to keep motorists sweet.  However, we cannot just keep building new roads to tackle congestion as these fill up very quickly and we are back to square one. It makes sense therefore to take a carrot and stick approach, improving public transport so that it is at least as convenient as driving whilst making the car-option less convenient.

The UK Government's aspiration to improve our rail network is at least a step in the right direction however, as this article in the Independent makes clear the Chancellor's policies are hardly joined up in this regard.

The paper says that Chancellor, George Osborne has foregone millions of pounds in revenue by freezing fuel duty and even cancelling planned rises whilst at the same time there have been steep cuts to bus and rail subsidies. Fares are increasing faster than wages.

I am not advocating hitting the motorist any harder than at present but I do think that the government has to show a willingness to meet its own climate change targets by urgently cutting train, coach and bus fares and delivering some real investment in public transport routes apart from the prestigious ones, as well as walking and cycling infrastructure.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Universities must justify these results

If this article in yesterday's Guardian is not a cause for concern then I do not know what is. The paper reports the startling fact that more than 70% of graduates are now leaving university with a first or upper second class degree.

The Universities Minister says that 2:1s are now so common that Universities allow some students to “coast” and still get one. There has been a 300% increase in firsts since the 1990s whilst the 70% plus of graduates now leaving university with a first or 2:1, compares with 47% in the 90s. It has increased by 7% in the past five years alone. If that sort of imbalance was evident in A-Levels or GCSEs there would be a national outcry.

What makes it even more difficult to believe with these figures is that they sit within the context of a huge increase in the number of people going to University. Graduates are no longer as rare as they used to be. It now seems that first and upper second class degrees are far more common that in my day as well.

The real issue here of course is the way that Universities are funded. A huge part of the funding comes through the Research Assessment Exercise and Teaching Excellence Framework. That means that Universities are under immense pressure to do better than their rivals so as to maximise their income. Inevitably, this will lead to grade inflation.

It also means that pressure on individual lecturers is excessive. I would not mind betting that the other statistic that has increased in proportion to the rise in the number of higher degrees relates to more lecturers going on sick leave with stress.

Reputedly, the big increase in the number of students going into higher education has led to universities putting on literacy and numeracy courses for their new recruits, because a small number were not up to standard. I am now told that big employers are also putting independent tests in place for graduates to test their abilities as often this is the only way to ensure that they are getting somebody of a sufficiently high calibre.

This is not to denigrate students, the vast majority of whom are working hard to succeed and are of a high quality. They are the main victims of this practise. It does though raise big questions about the system itself, in particular whether young people are being properly advised as to the most appropriate route for them at key points in their life and whether the university system is serving them at all well in devaluing degrees by awarding so many of them at higher grades.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Will English votes for English laws quicken the break-up of the UK?

If the easy popularism of UKIP disturbs you then pause to think how much damage David Cameron's obsession with his own popularist ideas can do now that he is a position to implement them. By far the most dangerous of these ideas is English votes for English laws.

In principle I have no issue with any part of the UK determining its own fate when it comes to issues that are most appropriately decided at a national or regional level. However, the best way to do that is through a democratically elected National or Regional Parliament, or by devolving responsibility to an elected local council.

The solution being advocated by the Prime Minister is a simplistic short cut, that fails to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of how power is currently exercised in the UK and whilst it may prove a constant irritant to Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a real danger that it may drive Scotland out of the Union altogether.

Today's Western Mail illustrates some of that with quotes from Labour MPs illustrating the complexities of the devolution settlement, even a reformed one in which Wales has a full-law making Parliament.

Putting aside the asymmetric nature of devolution across the UK, which means that different nations have powers and responsibilities not reflected elsewhere, the border issues and the impact of the Barnett formula means that virtually no policy actually is English-only.

Anglesey MP, Albert Owen illustrates this when he points out that people in North Wales depend on English hospitals for specialist services. People in Mid-Wales depend on English hospitals for standard secondary health services. Mr. Owen argues that he should not be stopped from taking part in the scrutiny of legislation during the committee stage of a Bill if it affects his constituents. He is right, certainly whilst he remains a member of the body charged with responsibility for that legislation.

But there are less obvious examples of policies that cannot be confined to just the one country due to the economic and financial impact of changing them on other administrations. Tuition Fees is a good example. Half of Welsh students attend English Universities. Welsh Universities are in competition with their English counterparts for students.

That is why former North Wales Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach, is wrong when she argues that identifying England-only legislation should not prove difficult. She believes that MPs just have to look at the Wales Act and check which powers are devolved, arguing that this is what already takes place in the Assembly.

This is such a misrepresentation of the Welsh Assembly's legislative process that I am astonished that Antoinette believes it is the case. Her misunderstanding of what happens here and of our devolution settlement is so wrong that I wonder what it was she did when she was here. Another former Tory AM-turned-MP gone native, and so soon as well.

But the most dangerous part of Cameron's EVEL plan is the creation of two classes of MPs, in which those from the Celtic fringes are curtailed in properly representing the interests of their constituents. That could prove to be the final straw for the Scottish.

If Cameron really wants to pursue this agenda then he needs to look at finishing the devolution project, put in place a Federal UK and let the English have their say through properly elected and representative Parliaments.

It is a deep irony that a so-called unionist Prime Minister has turned out to be nothing more than a second-rate English nationalist and that in pursuing that agenda could well break-up the very union he supposedly cherishes.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How a supposedly progressive tax system hits the poorest hardest

The Independent reports on official statistics that show that the poorest families in the UK are losing more of their income in tax than any other income group.

They say that while the richest fifth of society paid 34.8 per cent of their overall income in tax last year, those at the bottom of the income scale lost 37.8 per cent of their income to the taxman. This is a wider gap than last year, when the difference was 2.3 per cent.

The paper adds that this means that the richest fifth of the population paid £29,200 in all taxes last year, while the poorest fifth paid £4,900. Although in absolute terms that seems to make sense, in terms of disposable income it leaves the poorest in our society struggling to make ends meet.

The papers says that the reason why those on the lowest incomes are paying the biggest proportion of their income in tax is because indirect taxes, such as VAT and tax on tobacco, alcohol and fuel are charged at the same rate to all income groups. So although direct taxes such as income tax and national insurance contributions, both of which are calculated as a proportion of how much we earn, hit the richest the hardest, taken together, the poorest fifth of households lose the largest proportion of their income in overall taxation.

When we have a situation that over half of all households, the equivalent to 13.7 million families, received more from the state in welfare payments and pensions than they pay in tax last year then it is time for a rethink.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Veiled Government threats against RSPCA signals zero tolerance approach to opposition groups

You can always tell when the Conservatives are in government, especially when they have no other party to keep them in check, as the threats to the BBC start to escalate. It seems to be a traditional view of Conservative politicians that the BBC is run by a bunch of lefties determined to do them down. The fact that Labour Ministers, when they are in government, take a similar paranoid view of the corporation indicates that perhaps the BBC has got the balance about right.

However, as yesterday's Sunday Telegraph reports, this zero tolerance of opposition by Conservative Ministers is starting to spread into other policy areas. They have been told by an unnamed Environment Department source that the RSPCA must purge radical animal rights activists from its board or face "disaster".

This Government spin-doctor believes that the charity risks “eroding its credibility” by prioritising contentious political campaigns over animal welfare and has also accused the RSPCA of opposing the badger cull just to increase donations. Really?

It could be argued that these campaigns are perfectly legitimate ones for an animal charity to take up and that on the Government's disastrous and unevidenced badger cull, they are protesting too much. It is a matter for the Charity Commission not the government whether an organisation like the RSPCA oversteps the mark or not. Perhaps the Government should stop trying to stifle legitimate dissent and get on with its job instead.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tory sell-off could fuel a housing crisis

At the last election the Conservatives made a manifesto pledge to offer 1.3 million English tenants of housing association houses and flats the chance to buy their homes at a discount. It is an innocuous looking promise but it could have huge consequences for the housing market, particularly in London and South East England.

The Observer reports that local authorities in inner London now believe that they will have to sell every new council home they build, as soon as they are ready, just so that they can finance this give-away. This is because the funding for discounts for housing association tenants wanting to buy their homes is due to come through forcing local authorities to sell their most expensive properties.

The paper quotes James Murray, executive member for housing and development at Islington council, who is spearheading the development of 20 new council houses for local residents:

The expected bounty from the sale of such high value homes is also supposed to finance the building of replacement properties to meet a desperate need for affordable accommodation.

“But the problem is that they haven’t thought it through,” says Murray. “We had a carefully crafted plan. These flats are designed for those aged over 55, and the idea is that those who want to downsize from family council properties can do so. It is on the edge of the estate, so people don’t need to move away from where they have lived. The bedroom tax doesn’t apply after you retire, but people moving in at 55 would also have got a few years of avoiding that if they moved in here out of their larger homes.

“But it looks like we will have to sell the flats when they are completed in September. Each of them would sell on the open market at £485,000. And because they are new they are within the third most expensive properties that we have. In fact, all new council homes in inner London will have to be sold off. And what incentive will we have to build again?”

Not only are homes being taken out of the affordable housing stock, reducing the opportunity for people to be rehoused in the future, but the chances of that stock being replenished is diminished as the receipt from sales will be insufficient to build more homes, even if land was available to build on. The requirement on councils to sell their highest value stock will also prevent them building new social housing.

The outcome will be even more spiralling rent increases in both the public and private sectors and rising property values, driven by housing shortages, and property speculation. The housing crisis already facing much of London and South East England could well escalate further as a result.

I don't agree with the way that the Welsh Government is approaching the right to buy here, as I am concerned that they are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and taking away the rights of existing tenants*, but thank goodness we will not have to deal with the unevidenced ideological madness being promoted over the border by this new Tory Government.

*My view is that the best way to manage the right to buy in Wales is remove it on new build social housing. This preserves the rights of existing tenants whilst removing any disincentive for local councils to build new homes.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Will Plaid Cymru's decision weaken their negotiating stance after 2016?

Like all the opposition parties, Plaid Cymru face some difficult decisions in the run-up to the May 2016 Assembly elections. Like all the other parties they have a manifesto to put together, containing distinctive policies that take account of the financial reality facing the Assembly over the next five years. But in addition they also need to set out their stall on what they will do if there is no overall majority for any party once all the votes have been counted.

It is arguable that one of the reasons Plaid Cymru lost Llanelli last time was that they failed to rule out a deal with the Tories. Today's announcement formally ruling out any coalition deal with the Conservatives after next year’s National Assembly election is an attempt to avoid that trap this time.

Leanne Wood told the Western Mail: “Plaid Cymru’s vision for Wales sees a fairer distribution of wealth, a strengthening of our public services, and ensuring that everyone is able to reach their potential.

“Since they came to power in 2010, as well as historically, the Tories have proven that they do not share these values.

“They have shown that they are intent on pursuing policies that hit people in the middle and lowest income brackets the hardest while offering the best deal for those with the most. People in Wales have always rejected Tory politics.

"I reject their politics, and so does Plaid Cymru. There is no way that I would lead Plaid Cymru into coalition with the Conservatives.”

That is clear and no doubt the voters will judge her party on that basis. However, where does it leave a Welsh Assembly coming to the end of another term of Labour rule, 17 years in all?

It is an Assembly where the three opposition parties have failed to work together in any significant way so as to make it difficult for Labour to rule without a clear majority.

Plaid Cymru's decision means that it is inevitable that even if Labour have a disastrous election the next Assembly government will also be dominated by Carwyn Jones' party.

Such an outcome may Plaid Cymru in their comfort zone but tactically it is a disaster for them. That is because they have effectively destroyed their own negotiating position in any talks to form a new Welsh Government.

We will now have a situation where Carwyn Jones can play off Plaid Cymru against the Welsh Liberal Democrats so as to get the best possible deal for his party in any coalition deal. Leanne Wood though will be faced with a take-it or leave it situation, in which she cannot even threaten to go elsewhere if Carwyn will not give her what she wants.

If it is Plaid Cymru's position to go into opposition no matter what then that should not be a problem. But if they are serious about being a party of government, and accepting that they will not get a majority or come close to one this time, then it leaves Leanne Wood and her party whistling in the wind. After all, why vote for Plaid Cymru as an alternative to Labour, when by that route you are going to get Labour anyway and when all the policy positions they are presenting to the electorate are not likely to be implemented because they will have no leverage to force Labour into delivering them?

This announcement could be as bad for Plaid Cymru as the failure to rule out dealing with the Tories was in 2011.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Is the Tories's EU referendum a sham?

Having gone to the country with a firm pledge to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the European Union and then put the new settlement to the country, you would think that David Cameron would want to ensure that whatever package he succeeds in getting is watertight and binding before asking us to vote on it. Today's Independent though casts doubt on that assumption.

They report that the Prime Minister has admitted that the referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union is likely to take place before the UK's new membership terms have been implemented in a fresh EU treaty.

His officials are insisting that the deal he intends to strike with the EU partners would be “crystal clear” to the public and have “legally binding” guarantees that would amount to an “irreversible lock.” but surely the only way that could happen is if all the parties have put their mark on a treaty document.

Every other country to my knowledge who have held a plebiscite on changes to the European constitution has done so in the form of a treaty ratification. That is because people then know what they are voting for and can be certain that it will not change without further reference to them.

Is it the case that Cameron, in his haste to satisfy the timetable being forced on him by his party's Euro-sceptics, is prepared to gamble on the good will of other countries in the hope that they will stick to their word when it comes to the detailed discussions on the wording of any new treaty?

The danger is that this will become a vote on whether we can trust Cameron to keep his word, whether we have any confidence in his ability to deliver what has been agreed,whether we believe that the European Court of Justice will not unpick the deal and whether the Prime Minister's very limited capital will sustain the agreement with a group of leaders who themselves are subject to the vagaries of the democratic system and who do not have Cameron's or Britain's interests at heart

And even if we swallow all that, it is likely that no treaty could be agreed before 2025, it would have to be ratified by other countries by way of a referendum and that means it would be another Prime Minister, possibly with a different agenda batting for Britain at that time.

If this sounds flaky then that is because it is. If we are going to vote on a new constitutional settlement with the EU then it needs to be a vote on a settled and legally binding package. That means that we must wait for the treaty before going to the polls.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

All roads lead to Llandudno Junction

On Tuesday the Finance Minister made a statement on her budget tour, allegedly listening to stakeholders about what should be her budget priorities. Today, in response to one of my questions she sent me the itinerary.

18 June           - Aberystwyth
2 July              - Llandudno Junction
16 July            - Cardiff
23 July            - Swansea
3 August         - Newtown
9 September   - Llandudno Junction
10 September - Merthyr Tydfil

Obviously, I am disappointed not to have received a tour T-shirt but also puzzled as to why she is going to Llandudno Junction twice.

Was the Black death really such a good thing?

For those of us with an interest in social history this article in today's Telegraph is fascinating. They report on the views of Professor Robert Tombs of Cambridge University that the Black Death actually had some rather good effects for those who survived it.

Professor Tombs says that although the plague killed an estimated 1.5 million people in England between 1348 and 1350, in its aftermath, with fewer people competing for work and land, living standards reached a height not matched until centuries later:

Peasants had increased leisure time and freedom, so pubs became places for playing games, meeting and socialising.

The amount of free time available to 15th century workers was not equalled until the 1960s, Prof Tombs said.

“This was when the English pub was invented and people started drinking lots of beer and playing football and so on. That was in a way due to, or at least a consequence of, and wouldn’t have been possible without, the Black Death.”

He adds that people got better off, there was more land to go around, resources were not so stretched and what was later called the feudal system largely disappeared:

"Serfs became free because they could simply say to their lords, 'Ok, if you won’t give me my freedom I’ll go somewhere else’.

“And they did. So if lords wanted their fields to be tilled, they had to give their peasants or vassals what they wanted, which was essentially freedom and a better life.

“The standard of living people reached in the 15th century was not exceeded until the 1880s after the Industrial Revolution. And the amount of leisure they took was not equalled until the 1960s.”

Although people had brewed ale for many centuries, and drunk in taverns, the late Middle Ages is said to have seen the rise of the pub as would be recognised in the modern day.

“The brewing of ale was usually a cottage industry,” said Prof Tombs, a fellow of St John’s College who was promoting his book, The English and their History.

“Weak beer was the standard drink. But it’s in the early 15th century that you start getting places that are mainly, or permanently, dedicated to drinking beer that are also about playing games as well.

“That’s the origin of the pub; it’s a particular place. It’s not just that Mrs So-and-so brews berry occasionally and you can nip round to buy a farthing’s-worth of ale, but it’s now to become a full-time brewer with a public house one can go to at any time to eat and certainly socialise.

It just goes to show, some people can find the bright side to any tragedy.

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