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Friday, August 28, 2015

Latest peers' list underlines need for reform

I blogged a few weeks ago that the Liberal Democrats should boycott the peerage meery-go-round and refuse to nominate any more members of the bloated House of Lords. I was disappointed, but not surprised therefore to read yesterday that my advice had been ignored and that Nick Clegg had decided to add eleven more Liberal Democrats to our group there.

I have no problem with any of those individuals, however I do feel that as a party it is difficult to defend a position whereby we are nominating more new peers than we have MPs and where we are advocating reform but still playing the game of adding members to the world's second largest legislative body after China's National People's Congress.

Despite having 826 members, in 2014/15 the average daily attendance in the House of Lords was 483 peers. According to the latest House of Lords Annual Report, net operating costs for the chamber totalled £94.4m for 2014/15. There is no accountability for any of this and no way to reduce the membership of our second chamber through enforced retirement.

I understand that as a party we need to work with the institutions we have but our failure to take a stand, and the decision of Nick Clegg to play the game so completely, undermines our credibility as a reforming party and makes it much more difficult to get a hearing on our democratic alternative.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

UKIP Candidate suggests that migrants should be gassed

Over in Caerphilly, a UKIP council by-election candidate has been dropped like a stone after posting on his Facebook page that immigrants should be gassed.

The BBC say that Bobby Douglas also suggested an American woman refused entry to the UK should have "painted herself black" and pretended she could not speak English to obtain benefits.

The remarks, on Facebook, were made in 2014 and UKIP claim that they were not aware of them when he was selected. This is despite the fact that after the general election campaign, during which there were several negative stories about the party's candidates,  UKIP told BBC Wales that its selection process for the 2016 assembly election campaign would be "very rigorous'.

Mistakes can happen of course but in UKIP's case it is becoming a habit, underlining the kind of candidate who is attracted to their party.

What is more Mark Reckless, the former MP and the UKIP campaign manager in Wales was recently on Radio Wales telling us of his experiences on the doorstep in Caerphilly.

Could he have been campaigning with Bobby Douglas? If so then this is not just an isolated by-election candidate but one with the full force of the party establishment behind him.

UKIP have been found out once more.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Does UK surveillance surpass Orwell's dystopian vision?

The wired website reports on the views of the United Nation's newly appointed special rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci, who says that digital surveillance in the UK as "worse" than anything imagined in George Orwell's novel, 1984.

Speaking to the Guardian, Cannataci -- who doesn't own a Facebook account or use Twitter -- lambasted the oversight of British digital surveillance as "a rather bad joke at its citizens' expense".

Warning against the steady erosion of privacy and increasing levels of government intrusion, he also drew sinister parallels with Orwell's vision of a mass-surveilled society, adding that today's reality was far worse than the fiction: "At least Winston [a character in Orwell's 1984] was able to go out in the countryside and go under a tree and expect there wouldn't be any screen, as it was called. Whereas today there are many parts of the English countryside where there are more cameras than George Orwell could ever have imagined."

There is no doubt that surveillance in Britain is growing daily,as it is throughout the rest the Europe and the United States in response to a whole range of threats, some of which are domestic, others international. The issue though has to be who controls this surveillance, what is it used for, how and why is it stored, who has access to it and can we inspect information held on us?

Those questions are central to the question as to whether the dystopian vision painted by Orwell in 1984 has come true today. The fact that we cannot answer those questions adequately and to our own satisfaction in 2015 inevitably raises alarm bells for civil rights and privacy in the UK.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Labour turn on former Home Secretary over Freedom of Information review

The language of collaboration has become much more common amongst Labour politicians following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, so we should not be surprised that some are questioning why former Home Secretary Jack Straw is helping the Tories dismantle the Freedom of Information Act.

The Independent say that the Labour Party has turned on Mr. Straw, accusing him of conniving with the Tories to dismantle the Freedom of Information Act.

Party sources have apparently told them that Mr Straw had been asked not to join a committee set up last month by the Cabinet Office to review the workings of the Act. They fear that the committee will be used by the Tories as cover to restrict what information can be released under the Act and make it harder for the Opposition to scrutinise the work of the Government.

They add that  the new Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Fallon, is understood to be equally irritated at Lord Carlile’s decision to join the committee.

There are genuine concerns that  the commission could relax rules that allow Government departments and local councils to veto requests on grounds of cost. These concerns have already been voiced by Kirsty Williams in Wales. We would oppose any change that means that we are less able to scrutinise government, at whatever level.

As it happens I take comfort that a good liberal like Alex Carlile is on this committee. Alex has been criticised by members of the party in the past for his role as a reviewer of terrorist legislation and I certainly did not agree with many things that he said and did at the that time.

But he has a strong record of standing up for individual rights and as a scrutineer of government and I am confident that he will bring that experience to this committee and ensure that the Freedom of Information Act remains an important tool for those wishing to hold governments to account.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Chilcott coming under increasing pressure to name a date

The Telegraph says that patience has finally run out amongst MPs over the long-awaited Chilcott report into the Iraq war. This report was commissioned by Gordon Brown in 2009 and yet six months later there is no sight or sound of it.

The paper says that MPs will discuss next week how best to exert pressure on the former civil servant before parliament returns two weeks today:

One option would involve Sir John being summoned to give evidence to the Commons’ foreign affairs committee, although Crispin Blunt, its chairman, has indicated that he would not support such a move.

Critics such as David Davis could instead force a Commons debate and vote on the delay to the report by the inquiry, set up by Gordon Brown in 2009. A vote would have no legal force, but it would be uncomfortable for the panel.

The whole country has been on tenterhooks to see this report. Let us hope that it is not a big let down.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The tipping policy of local restaurant chains needs reform

Pizza Express is one of my favourite chain restaurants. It regulaly forms part of my Saturday night-out and occasionally I also go to the one in Cardiff Bay for lunch or, if I am staying in Cardiff, for an evening meal. Last night was no exception, as I went with my wife for a meal in their Castle Street branch after watching Mission Impossible in the Odeon Cinema.

The food was as good as ever and the service was exceptional. Our waitress was friendly, chatty and very attentive. Naturally, I wanted to tip her for her good service and her colleagues for their contribution to my positive experience. However, although I paid my bill with a credit card, I made a point of handing over my tip in cash, and with good reason.

It has been widely reported that Pizza Express is one of the restaurant chains which levy an administration fee on any tips paid to staff via a credit card. In their case every £1 given as a tip using this method sees 8p deducted by management.

Ask is another Swansea restauarant whose parent company imposes this policy. Other restaurant chains with branches elsewhere in South Wales and who have a similar policy include Zizzi, whilst Café Rouge, Bella Italia, Belgo, Strada and Giraffe all deduct 10%.

Wagamama, Pizza Hut and TGI Friday all take nothing. The Restaurant Group, which owns Frankie & Benny’s, Chiquitos and Garfunkels, used to charge 10% but dropped this policy several years ago.

My special disapprobation however, is reserved for Las Iguanas, who have just opened a restaurant in Swansea. According to this article in today's Observer they go a step further, actually charging their staff for waiting tables.

The paper says that Las Iguanas, who serve Latin American food at 41 branches in the UK, and the Caribbean chain Turtle Bay, which has 19 restaurants, operate a policy that requires staff to pay back to their employer 3% of the table sales they generate on each shift. That figure rises to 5.5% in Las Iguanas’s London restaurants.

So if a waiter sells £1,000 of food and drinks in an evening, they have to pay £30 back to the restaurant in cash at the end of the night. At Las Iguanas’s London restaurants, the payback would total £55. The money is meant to be paid by waiters from their pot of tips but, because it bears no relation to how much a waiter actually takes in tips, it can wipe out his or her entire income from gratuities in a busy night.

According to the paper's research in one week this year Las Iguanas took £34,000 from its servers across all its branches from the sales charge. If this represents a typical week, over a year it would amount to £1.8m.

As a customer I am very conscious that if I boycotted restaurants who top-sliced their staff's tips and gratuities then I would be putting jobs at risk. That is why I make a point of tipping in cash and I would encourage others to do so as well.

Las Iguanas' policy is not so easily crcumvented though and so we need to bring pressure to bear to stop them imposing a levy on staff. That might be made more doable by the fact that it has just been sold to the chain that owns Bella Italia, Café Rouge and Belgo.

In addition we need to campaign to ensure that the voluntary code of practice for restaurants that was meant to tackle some of the worst tipping policies and which was introduced in 2009 is given some statutory force, as it is clearly not working.

This code includes the stipulation that businesses will clearly display on their premises prior to the point of purchase or choice their policy relating to mandatory and discretionary service charges, tips, gratuities and cover charges, and make this accessible.

In the meantime I would urge anybody who eats in a chain restaurant to find out what the tipping policy of that establishment is first and then tip accordingly to the maximum benefit of the staff. After all most of them are on minimum wage and rely on those tips to raise their standard of living.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Labour leadership contenders scrap over the animal vote

The farce that is the Labour leadership contest continues apace as rows break out over those who are being allowed to vote and the apparently arbitrary process that has been adopted to exclude infiltrators.

Some well-known Labour supporters, such as the actor Douglas Henshall and comedians Francesca Martinez and Jeremy Hardy have been effectively branded as infiltrators and told that they cannot cast a ballot. According to the Daily Mirror, they are in good company with many other genuine Labour voters being black-balled.

Meanwhile, Lib Dem Voice editor and former Lib Dem Councillor, Stephen Tall was sent a ballot paper. I am aware of at least one other prominent Liberal Democrat who has cast a vote through being a political-levy paying member of a Trade Union.

And as if to add insult to injury for the by-now bedraggled and humiliated Labouir Party, journalists have started to register their pets to see if they can successfully navigate the vetting system.

The Guardian says that Ned, the three-year-old pet tabby cat of a Buzzfeed journalist, has been a party supporter since early this month:  The cat has since been sent a ballot paper and was able to cast his vote in the four-way contest for leadership of the party even though he is not registered to vote in local or general elections.

“Ned does not appear on the electoral roll because Ned is a cat,” Buzzfeed confirmed.

Ned, whose Labour value credentials were proved by the fact that “both his collar and bow-tie are red”, and who has rarely expressed any political views other than not liking Irish people, according to his owner, signed up easily.
All that was required was his home address, date of birth and contact details. A Hotmail address soupycampbell1986@hotmail.com was set up and soon inundated with a torrent of emails from Labour grandees, addressed with “Dear Ned”.

And it seems that Ned is not the only one:

Matthew Parris, the Times columnist, earlier revealed that his four pet llamas “have been on tenterhooks” after their registration papers were filed last week. 

He wrote: Knapp, elderly and of steady judgment, favours Yvette Cooper, but without enthusiasm. Vera (a political ingénue) would support Andy Burnham solely on account of his eyelashes. Gussie, who has always suspected the whole world is against her, and supported Ukip until recently, is a fanatical Corbynite. Young Craig is frankly not worth listening to. He supports Russell Brand, though I’ve told him Mr Brand isn’t standing. 

Parris said later that the “Lamar family” were disappointed and there had been a “registration issue” with the application – his efforts in setting up lamarfamilymum@gmail.com and paying £12 in fees were just not enough. 

The registration process is so farcical that I have to keep reminding myself that it is not a parody. Among at least 1,800 people who have already been weeded out as infiltrators, 150 people had stood as candidates for the Green party, 92 were members and candidates with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and 18 were senior figures from Left Unity.

Just as well the Labour Party has no ambitions to run the country. Oh, wait!....

Friday, August 21, 2015

The beards have it

Suddenly, beards have become fashionable. The Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb was the first Conservvative Cabinet Member to sport a beard for more than a century. Now, Jeremy Corbyn's own facial features are setting a fashon.

As the Times reports, Ed Miliband has been spotted sporting a rugged new facial growth. And he has already won many fans for the new look with many saying that if he had looked like that back in May they might have voted for him.

It has often been the case that the reasons why people vote are many and varied. The, appearance of candidates is often one reason. Does this mean that beards are making a comeback? Will we see many more candidates growing one in future? I do not intend to do so but I would not be surprised to see this trend appear during the Assembly elections next year.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Welsh Government has no evidence base for e-cigs ban

Whatever happened to evidence-based policy making? At one time it was a rallying cry for Welsh Ministers. Now, however, they prefer to legislate to regulate how we behave. It can only be a matter of time before they start to tell us what to think. Oh, wait...

Any thoughts that the Welsh Government might actually have some evidence for banning the use of e-cigarettes in public places were decisively dispelled by the very strong recommendations of Public Health England yesterday who went as far as suggesting that vapers should be prescribed on the NHS as they help smokers quit smoking cigarettes, which they say are far more dangerous.

I would not endorse that, but there is a clear body of expert opinion now that says that E-cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than tobacco estimates, that contrary to the views of Welsh Ministers, there is no evidence so far that e-cigarettes are acting as a route into smoking for children or non-smokers, and that some of the highest successful quit rates are now seen among smokers who use an e-cigarette and also receive additional support from their local stop smoking services.

And it remains the case that, unlike cigarettes, there is no evidence of harmful effects from second hand 'smoke' from vaping.

All-in-all the Welsh Government's case for its ban was systematically dismantled by Public Health England yesterday and yet, they persist in pursuing it. What will it take to make them listen and to stop behaving like the nation's nanny?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Tory Brecon and Radnorshire Assembly candidate in trouble already

The BBC reports this morning that the newly selected Conservative candidate in one of the party's top assembly election target seats is being investigated by the public services ombudsman.

They say that Powys county councillor Gary Price, who is standing for Brecon and Radnorshire next year, is alleged to have brought a local authority into disrepute. A formal complaint has also been made about his selection in an open primary last month.

They add that the president of the local branch, Jonathan Reeves, believes that the Conservatives' chances in the election in Brecon and Radnorshire, where they will be up against Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams, will be harmed.

In fact, the Western Mail reports that local Conservatives have warned their head office that Mr. Price's selection, combined with their loss of the Glasbury Council seat earlier this month means that the Liberal Democrats will hold onto Brecon and Radnorshire in May:

BBC Wales has seen a copy of an email sent to the Welsh Conservatives' chairman Jonathan Evans.
If the ombudsman investigation goes against Mr Price, the letter says: "This would make his position as a candidate even more untenable than it already is, create a large amount of negative publicity and leave any campaign to take the seat from the Lib Dems in tatters."

A source at the office of the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales confirmed it was investigating a complaint that Mr Price behaved in a way which brought Powys council into disrepute.

It is understood to relate to an employment disciplinary matter.

Mr Price, a former Plaid Cymru candidate in the last assembly election in 2011 in Brecon and Radnorshire, was suspended as a councillor two years ago when he disclosed sensitive information which was given to him in confidence.

The local branch has also received a complaint alleging that Mr Price received texts during a question and answer session in the open primary near Llandrindod Wells, Powys.

We are not taking anything for granted.

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