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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why McCain chose Sarah Palin?

Vote for John McCain or else!

Valuing our heritage

The Sunday Telegraph tells us that Parliamentary officials have finally got to the bottom of mysterious black pen marks that have been appearing all over the beautifully carved Government dispatch box in the House of Commons. Apparently, it was the Prime Minister what done it:

As Gordon Brown gesticulated wildly with his black marker pen, stabbing at the papers in front of him and missing to hit the wood beneath, the awful truth was clear. The PM was the vandal.

The damage is such that the French polishers have been unable to remove many of the deep markings, which can be clearly seen all over the wood.

An official explained: “Of course we can’t say anything. But if he goes on doing it, it is going to be harder and harder to get off.”

An MP close to Mr Brown said: “Gordon is known as Zorro for getting his sweeping black pen everywhere, but I’m sure he’ll take greater care around the nation’s artefacts now he has been warned.”

The paper explains the provenance of the two dispatch boxes:

The boxes were a gift from New Zealand after the rebuilding of the House of Commons following the Second World War. The are modelled on the dispatch boxes in the Australian parliament and are made from a strong, teak-like wood from the rare Puriri tree and were thought to be almost indestructible.

The wood they are made from was used by the early settlers in New Zealand for fencing as they considered it particularly long-lasting and durable. But the settlers never had to contend with the black marker pen of Mr Brown.

Perhaps the Speaker should confiscate that pen from him before the damage becomes irreparable.

Crisis? What crisis?

If stories in today's press are to be believed then this government really could not organise a piss-up in a brewery. Faced with allegedly the worst economic crisis in sixty years, a collapsing house market complete with negative equity and rising repossessions, soaring food and fuel prices and opinion poll ratings to rival those of George W. Bush, Labour's relaunch seems to be running off the tracks before it gets going.

For a start it turns out that Alistair Darling's hand-on-heart interview was not part of some cunning government plan to get the public's attention prior to the introduction of new policies after all, or if it was nobody told the Prime Minister. It is widely reported that Gordon Brown ordered his hapless Chancellor to go on the media and backtrack as fast as was humanly possible on his predictions of doom, doom and more doom.

The Times has a particularly cheering piece in which it asks: 'Is the Chancellor Alistair Darling dancing to Vince Cable's tune?' If he is then we may have a way out of this mess. And yet there is unanimity amongst all the papers that government ministers are squabbling over the details of the rescue package.

The Observer reports that Downing Street and the Treasury are still locked in last-minute tussles over the details of a rescue plan for the housing market, and that the Prime Minister is under pressure to include increased benefits that would cover mortgage payments for homeowners who lose their jobs:

Talks are also continuing between Downing Street, the Treasury and housing ministers over whether to freeze stamp duty, with senior Number 10 aides arguing that such a move could tempt buyers back and help to shorten the duration of the house price crash. They also fear being outflanked by Tory promises to cut stamp duty.

This appears to be a disagreement about details but other papers with their own agenda think that the differences go deeper. The Mail on Sunday for example say that the Treasury believe that the rescue package is unaffordable.

Whichever is right the government cannot allow this speculation about internal discussions and manoeuvrings go on too long for fear that they will undermine the effectiveness of whatever measures they bring in.

While they are at it they may well need to find a way to quell the near-civil war that the Chancellor's remarks have introduced into the Parliamentary Labour Party. It is now looking increasingly likely that either Darling or Brown will have to go, or both. Suddenly, the summer has got more interesting.

Thank goodness August is nearly over

I had been quite looking forward to August. I had two weeks stay-cation planned in which I would explore South Wales from the comfort of home, plus lots of leafletting, some days in the Cardiff Bay office and quite a few visits around my region. Alas the weather stymied most of those plans, particularly the visits and the leafletting.

What is worse the silly season has been as dire as ever. Even Matt Withers has been scraping around for copy, though to be fair he has managed to avoid any mention of the Cheeky Girls today. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed these two stories from his column:

The Tories have been turning their guns on the Assembly Government throughout the recess, banging out press releases at the rate to two to three a day thanks largely to a huge amount of damaging information culled from Freedom of Information requests.

But, judging from their latest effort, they have run out of ideas.

Hence Shadow Environment Minister Darren Millar’s call that “Education the key to preventing grassland fire”.

“People young and old need to be fully aware of the consequences of their actions, no matter how unintentional,” he says. Really?

NOT that things are much better among the spin doctors of Welsh Labour. A message on their answerphone tells hacks that, if their query is about a “national” issue, they should phone the London office. Hmmm. Does Welsh Labour not consider Wales a nation anymore?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

"A series of mini-Blaenau Gwents"

The post-mortem on Labour's Welsh local election campaign cannot be going that well. Last May they managed to achieve their worst ever results, maintaining majority control of just two Councils and losing their grip on the Welsh Local Government Association.

However, rather than regroup and reorganise they seem intent on tearing themselves apart by forcing local parties to deselect sitting Councillors so as to increase the number of women elected to local authorities.

The Western Mail
quotes a senior Labour Councillor as warning that any attempt to force sitting members to stand down would lead to a series of “mini-Blaenau Gwents” across the country. This is a reference to the controversy that surrounded the party’s controversial parliamentary all-women shortlists in Wales and which led to Labour losing its safest Parliamentary seat.

The senior Labour councillor, who did not want to be identified because of the fear of recriminations, said: “Selections went ahead for this year’s elections in May following a compromise that meant sitting councillors would not have to be de-selected. But it is clear that for the elections in 2012 there are those in the party who are determined to go further.

“In a two-member ward, where both sitting Labour councillors are male, there is no doubt from what has been said that the intention would be that one would have to stand down in favour of a woman candidate. Their target of 50% female representation could not be achieved otherwise.

“There will be uproar in the party if they go ahead with this. It is all very well for people sitting in Transport House in Cardiff to make a case for more women councillors. But in seeking to impose quotas and formulas they forget that these days people do not vote blindly for the Labour Party. Often, especially at council elections, they vote for people who have built up a local reputation through hard work over many years. To force councillors to stand down simply because they are the wrong gender would be crazy and would increase the likelihood of Labour being defeated.

“If male Labour councillors are de-selected in these circumstances, it is very likely they will stand as Independents and get elected. There will be ‘mini-Blaenau Gwents’ all across Wales. How does that advance the cause of gender equality?

“We took a pasting at this year’s elections, and need to bounce back next time. With ideas like this we are in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot and losing more seats.”

I am sure that this is a sentiment that will be echoed in council chambers all over the country.

Why are voters 'Pissed off'?

The Guardian contains a remarkable series of admissions by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the economy and the Labour Government. His candour about the situation we find ourselves in and the failures of his government are refreshing but just a little bit too artful for my liking.

Alistair Darling tells the paper that Britain is facing "arguably the worst" economic downturn in 60 years, which will be "more profound and long-lasting" than people had expected. He admits that he had no idea how serious the credit crunch would become and he says that Labour faces its toughest challenge in a generation. He then goes on to acknowledge that Gordon Brown and the cabinet are partly to blame for Labour's woes because they have "patently" failed to explain the party's central mission to the country, leaving voters "pissed off".

In many ways the Chancellor is taking the only option available to him in the face of Labour's appalling opinion poll performance and the loss of previously safe seats. He is coming clean about the economic mess that we are in. His hope is that voters will believe that the Government do after all understand the hardships they face. He wants us to believe that we are being listened to and he wants to create the impression of a government that is changing direction. But is it?

There are no details yet of new policies to help people face rising food and fuel bills, to help them onto on the housing ladder, to help them keep their job or to avoid their home being repossessed though this interview is clearly designed to pave the way for such initiatives. More to the point this is not an apology for mistakes made by the Government, it is the same old refrain that Ministers have failed to explain themselves properly.

It is not the fact that the Government has miscommunicated its central mission that is 'pissing' people off, but that their mission has taken a wrong turn. When the Chancellor apologises for that then perhaps we may start to listen. Instead we are left with the idea that we are being manipulated by some clever spin. Mea culpa this isn't.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Mapping crime

Forget Sat Nav systems the 'crime map' is here. The four Welsh police forces are collaborating in a plan to develop the internet-based system in the hope of providing a unified crime map that will provide statistics for crimes including burglary, car crime and robbery. Apparently, they will be detailed enough to include areas as small as sub-wards, which are often just a few streets.

The Police Federation have labeled them as a dangerous “gimmick” and a potential “encyclopedia for criminals”. They say that criminals will gain access to an encyclopaedia of where to go out and commit crime because they know that the police are vulnerable because they don’t have the cover in some areas that they would like to.

Criminologists too have criticised the initiative. They say that the data is misleading. For example, any area with a police station will show up as high crime. They also argue that the maps will distort policing priorities, affect house prices and provide opportunities for crooks.

I have to admit that I am sceptical too. Yes, the data is already publicly available but not in this format. The question is what will the police do after they publish the maps and then find themselves besieged by anxious residents demanding more resources and high profile policing to counter a publicly advertised hotspot? What will the impact be on insurance premiums and house prices? Will these maps become part of the packs that a householder needs to put together before selling their home and will it make a sale more difficult?

All I can see are problems with this plan. It is a PR exercise with no upside. I really do think that the Police need to think through what they are doing and how they will deal with the potential pitfalls before jumping into this Home Office initiative feet-first.

Fame beckons

It has been a long summer. Not only has the weather made it seem like August will never end but the TV has been dreadful as well. And even if one has been able to avoid the interminable and all-pervading Big Brother on the box (and I haven't as explained in a previous post), it has been all over the papers as well.

Still we can all be cheered at the fact that Big Brother ends a week today and by the fact that if we were to seek our own 15 minutes of fame then the means now exist to learn the ropes. Today's Guardian reveals that a new educational establishment has recently opened its doors. - the New York Reality TV School:

Have you ever decided unscripted programming is the career path for you, but felt frustrated that all the great spots were going to other pathologically unself-aware social inadequates? Have you always known that fame is a basic human right, but felt you lacked the appropriate qualifications to "be yourself" on camera, while a combination of conflict-generating tasks/hopelessly unqualified judges/weigh-ins/boot camps/polygraphs/makeover glitches/gimlet-eyed bachelorettes/grooming experts/secret millionaires/potential employers/kangaroo testicles attempted to derail your progress toward the most Pyrrhic of victories? Are you able to scream: "I've got nothing to be ashamed of! I will not be judged by anyone!" the morning after wetting yourself on national television in a drunken, borderline-physical row, during which you made several anti-Semitic slurs while dressed as a circus clown? Do you think any of this utter, utter crap constitutes having "gone on an amazing journey"?

Then the New York Reality TV School is the higher education facility for you.
After a week in which we've seen the first case of an X-Factor victimhood backstory being debunked, there has never been a more important time to capitalise on the dysfunctional behavioural traits and abuse survival stories that set you apart.

"The mission of the New York Reality TV School is to train and develop non-actors," explains its prospectus. "We train students to be exciting, confident members of reality TV casts . . . Students will work rigorously through coaching sessions and on-camera exercises in order to readily showcase the dynamic aspects of their personalities and to be able to shine, showcase, and supersede the expectations of cast-mates, producers and audience ..."

Reminder: you live on this planet - and there are no escape pods. At present, the NYRTS curriculum can be taken as a five-week workshop, or tasted on a single night, which apparently begins with the class being instructed to dance unselfconsciously on film, while someone wanders around insulting them.

It does not bear thinking about. Prospective pupils sign up here but don't count on there being another series of Big Brother.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Top 50 Liberal Democrat blogs

Iain Dale has now published the top 50 Liberal Democrat blogs and this one comes in at number eight. Thanks to all those who voted for me.

The only other Welsh Liberal Democrat blog on the list that I can see is the irrepressible Stephanie Ashley's Dib Lemming blog. She is at number nineteen.

A weight on their mind

The Conservative Party's summer offensive has centred on obesity and how they are the party to deal with people's excesses. They are adamant however, that they will do so without resorting to a 'nanny state'. They will just lecture us instead.

Recess Monkey has already highlighted the Tories' inconsistencies on this matter by rather cruelly pointing out that their fairly hefty front bench is failing to lead by example, but there are other mixed messages as well.

For example in today's Western Mail there is a report that a future Tory Government will drop the “traffic light” labelling of fatty and sugary foods. Instead they will offer people a system based on so-called GDAs, or Guideline Daily Amounts, of salt, sugar, fat and so on. So far so non-understandable. You cannot influence a free market if people do not have clear and easily understood information to base their choices on. The traffic light system is far from ideal, largely because it has not gained acceptance with supermarkets, but at least it has the potential to enable people to decide for themselves.

Worse is to come. Today's Times reports that under the Tories obese children will be exposed to “positive peer pressure” to encourage them to lose weight. So now they are encouraging playground bullying? I do not think this approach is going to find much favour with parents and childrens' campaigners.

It seems that the Tories have found a problem, highlighted it so as to get publicity in the silly season but failed to think through how they will solve it. This does not bode well for a future Conservative Government.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The search for a leader

Dear oh dear, what is this obsession with Peter Hain, Adam Price and Eluned Morgan all about? Why exactly does the Western Mail keep up with this pretence that politicians of its choosing can be parachuted into the Welsh Assembly to take on the mantle of First Minister/future leader of Plaid Cymru etc?

Do they not realise that there are democratic processes that must be gone through both to get the individuals concerned into the Senedd in the first place and then to get them elected to leadership positions?

Playing musical chairs with internal party processes has become part of the Western Mail's signature tune. Like all of us they want the best people to run Wales, so naturally they are continually scouting around to see who might be available to do the job. It is the sort of game you might play in the pub after a few drinks but only if you were one of several political anoraks at a loose end.

The reality is of course that various leadership positions will be settled amongst the current pool of politicians sitting as Assembly Members. It might be more helpful therefore if the 'National Newspaper of Wales' abandoned the fantasy politics and concentrated on giving us an overview of the real choices facing the political parties. That at least would fulfil one of its duties as a newspaper, to inform its readers.

It would also be nice if we could have a debate about policies rather than individuals. What are the prospective leaders going to do about affordable housing, local government, health reorganisation and the economy, for example? We really do need to know and so do those who will actually be voting for them.

P.S. Before you pile in with comments I am planning a piece on the Welsh Liberal Democrat leadership for Liberal Democrat Voice shortly. It is here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Top Welsh blogs

Iain Dale has published the top 40 Welsh blogs as voted for by the readers of more than 60 UK political blogs and the readers of TOTAL POLITICS Magazine. Somehow this blog has come out at number one and I forgot to vote!

Congratulations to Stephanie Ashley who is the only other Welsh Liberal Democrat in the list. Her 16th place after less than a year of blogging is well deserved.

The Great Ken?

Every now and again I find another reason why I am grateful that I do not live in London. Do not get me wrong, it is a great city with a lot going for it but I prefer to experience it in small doses. I cannot think of a better place to live than Swansea.

Chief amongst London's turn-offs is the bizarre public stalking of its Mayor by his immediate predecessor. Sitting here in Wales and monitoring the news on the internet and in the dead tree press the political life of the capital seems to be dominated by Boris' gaffes and Ken Livingstone's constant comments and criticisms. And who can blame him? He is sore, he feels unfairly rejected and he wants us all to know what a mistake the electorate made back on 1st May.

Ken Livingstone writes a monthly Boris-bashing column for News International’s thelondonpaper. Now we learn that he is to host a new current affairs-based, three-hour weekly show on the London commercial radio station LBC. The former Mayor is quite clear about his objectives:

He is hoping to prove that the left can do talk radio. “Broadly, it’s a right of centre industry. I know this because I was once a Sony Radio Awards judge and they gave me 24 hours of tapes to listen to. The pattern seemed to be that you got an old journalist and they would do an opening rant about Myra Hindley, too many immigrants, and put all homosexuals on a small island and drop a bomb. Then every bigot in the land would phone in - an absolutely pointless exercise.” Livingstone is surprisingly focused on his Rajar audience figures. “I will be crestfallen if they go down,” says the newt-loving politician. He believes he can find new listeners by targeting the capital’s youth. “London is 10 years younger than the national average. There’s a huge concentration of young people and they’re all having sex. It’s the most fecund place in Britain.”

It does not bear thinking about and yet somehow we know that really he wants to use the show to talk about Boris. The only medium Ken has not gate-crashed as yet is the internet:

He seems more enamoured with online political commentary “over the last three months, the only place you could get really good coverage of City Hall was on the blogs” – though he is disappointed by the apparent lack of leftists online, saying “they haven’t got off their backsides and logged on to answer all this [right-wing] drivel”.

Maybe a Ken Livingstone blog is the next step in his campaign to win back the Mayoralty.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Yet another meme

Bob Innes has asked me to have a go at the latest meme to be doing the rounds in which we are asked to say what we were doing during some significant historical events. As it is still raining then here goes:

Princess Diana's death - 31 August 1997
I was in bed. The radio alarm went off at 6.30am or some other such unearthly hour so I went downstairs to watch the coverage on the television. The tragedy took place during the Assembly Referendum campaign, which was promptly suspended. I had planned to deliver leaflets that day and went out briefly but then changed my mind and came back into the house.

Margaret Thatcher's resignation - 22 November 1990
I was at home watching the television. To be honest Mrs. Thatcher's brief appearance in Paris shortly before in which she vowed to go on and on, despite not having secured enough votes to win in the first round, sticks in the memory more.

Attack on the twin towers - 11 September 2001
I walked into the Swansea East by-election headquarters in Woodfield Street in Morriston and the television was on showing the dreadful events as they developed live. I watched for a bit and then went home where I spent most of the rest of the day glued in horror to the TV.

England's World Cup Semi Final v West Germany - 4 July 1990
I was watching at home. Somehow I just knew before they were taken that England would lose the penalty shoot-out.

President Kennedy's Assassination - 22 November 1963
I was just three years old and have no memory of this event whatsoever. I do however clearly remember the shooting of John Lennon on 8th December 1980. I was in the Student Union offices in Swansea University when somebody came in and told me. I spent the rest of the day playing Beatles and John Lennon music and delivered a small tribute on my University Radio Show.

Red faces over green aspirations

The Labour Government's green aspirations have developed a hole beneath the water line this morning with a Guardian report that the UK department responsible for slashing buildings' carbon emissions has emerged as amongst the least energy-efficient:

The 10-year-old glass and steel offices of the communities and local government department in central London have been granted an F rating for energy efficiency - the second worst possible under a new labelling initiative. The revelation is likely to be embarrassing to ministers because they drew up the rules requiring the energy use of all public buildings above 1,000 square metres to be prominently shown from October in what will be known as Display Energy Certificates.

The labelling system runs from A to G, in the same way as the energy ratings stickers that now appear on cars and fridges. Cars with an F rating include the Lexus RX 4x4 SUV and the BMW 7 series saloon.

Department officials said inefficient heating and ventilation systems and an unexpectedly high occupancy at the headquarters, Eland House, are behind the poor result. They are aiming to improve its efficiency to a D rating, more akin to a two-litre Volvo S80 diesel.

An earlier assessment of the building's design, but not its fuel consumption, suggested it should achieve a C rating.

It is not easy getting the best energy performance out of a public building. The Senedd in Cardiff Bay was designed to be as green as possible and is out-performing most other Government buildings. But even that building can do better than it currently is and the Assembly Commission is committed to delivering on that.

What we all expect however is that the Government sets an example of how things should be done before preaching to everybody else. That is an expectation that the Department of English Communities and Local Government is falling down on.

Who is holding a torch for who?

I have to admit that I am bored with the Olympics closing ceremony and the arguments over that London bus, the video, David Beckham's kick and the brolly brigade. Marina Hyde sums up the 'Beijing is going to kick London's butt' argument brilliantly in today's Guardian but somehow I cannot bring myself to really care, no matter how good the prose:

At times during this ceremony it felt as if London would have to prise the Olympic torch from China's cold, dead hands. Come to that, at no point in either the opening or the closing ceremonies would it have seemed particularly surprising if the floor of the stadium had opened and a vast superweapon had risen up, reminding all present that the Bird's Nest is basically the Death Star with a better percussion section.

The closing ceremony offered Beijing another chance to make Cirque du Soleil look like a barn dance. Your outgoing Olympic host city last night reiterated that they have more excellent drummers than other countries have people. They paraded more orthodontically screened children. They gave their euphorically shell-shocked audience a flavour of the kind of entertainment that might be on offer were Ernst Blofeld to retain the services of Busby Berkeley.

It just seems so far away, both in time and in distance. Many of us already feel as if London has sucked all the money and good-will that is available from the rest of the UK so as to put on their own inadequate extravaganza in 2012, leaving us with just a few crumbs. Now they want us to give more so as to match the Communist propaganda showpiece we have just witnessed.

There is only so much blood in this stone. It is easy to sit at a computer and pontificate about how London is going to look rubbish by comparison unless more money is found. Any old expert can stand in front of a camera and demand more money for elite sports and the grassroots as well, and nobody is the least bit surprised that the Architects want things to be grander and more imaginative, which will enable them to command bigger fees.

Somebody has to pay for all this and it is the taxpayer who will pick up the bill. Yet it is that same taxpayer who is having to contend with rising fuel and food bills, who has seen huge wads of his and her money go to bail out a private sector bank because of the government's incompetence and who still has to contend with underfunded public services whilst Ministers throw money at new weapons' systems and the consequences of an illegal war.

There has to be a balance and blowing an even bigger chunk of the nation's wealth on two weeks of self-gratification in 2012 tips the scale the wrong way. The next Olympics have a budget, they must stick to it and do their best with the resources they have no matter what the journalists, commentators and experts say.

We may all be proud of our boys and girls, their 19 golds, 13 silvers and 15 bronze medals but we will soon move onto another piece of escapism. In the meantime it is back to reality and that must include having a government focussed on sorting out our economic problems rather than trying to prolong the glorious distraction from their shortcomings the Olympics provided.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Does Cameron know what's occurring?

Paul Walter draws our attention to the excellent article by Carole Cadwalladr in today's Observer in which she underlines how the characters in Gavin and Stacey, which David Cameron claims to admire so much, are the very anti-thesis of the perfect Tory family:

David Cameron's problem isn't with his reading of Gavin and Stacey, it's with his reading of everything else. Examine the facts. Nessa is a single mother whose baby is the accidental product of a one-night stand and who is no longer with the child's father. Stacey's mother appears to have no means of support and her uncle is an unemployed homosexual. How do they fit into Tory policies on the family?

'I'm going to be as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer and radical social reform is what this country needs right now,' Cameron says at another point in Jones's book. 'It's dealing with the issues of family breakdown, welfare dependency, failing schools, crime and the problems that we see in too many of our communities.' Or comedy dramas we purport to love.

Stacey's family does not fit in with Tory sensibilities, in any way. And yet this is the Conservatives' shortcoming, not theirs, for they are more functional than dysfunctional, non-nuclear but no less affectionate and loving for it. And that is what people respond to and what has made it one of the most loved television programmes.

Smithy (that's Smithy, as in Cameron to Jones: 'I love Smithy, he's just great.') is an absent father and has yet to discover the joys of the Atkins diet.

Ms. Cadwalladr quotes from the Dylan Jones' book, 'Cameron on Cameron' in which the Tory leader says:

'[...] "I've been to Barry [where the show is set] three times and now desperately want to go back. From now on, whenever we have any success in Wales I'm going to congratulate my Welsh MPs on a tidy result."'

She quite rightly points out that the real reason why David Cameron has visited the Vale of Glamorgan three times has nothing to do with Gavin and Stacey and everything to do with the fact that it is a marginal Labour-Tory seat.

What she fails to mention however is that the Conservatives currently have no candidate in that seat. He has been suspended for describing Italians as 'greasy wops' on a BBC Radio Cymru programme. I think the chances of David Cameron returning to Barry before that situation has been resolved are pretty slim.

First amongst equals

The Sunday Times reports that Boris Johnson harbours ambitions to be Prime Minister one day. They say that this may cause a rift between the London Mayor and David Cameron and urge the Tory leader to watch his back.

There is just one problem. Boris Johnson is no longer an MP. The chances of him becoming Prime Minister instead of Cameron are therefore infinitesimal. Are the serious papers really that desperate for stories during the summer months?

The common touch

Never let it be said that this blog is afraid of a bit of plagiarism when it comes to reporting all the hot news, especially if it means that I have to do less work.

In this case, I am grateful to Matt Withers for summarising the interesting bits from Dylan Jones's 'Cameron on Cameron'. His sacrifice means that I do not have to burden my local library for a request that they obtain a copy, let alone actually read the tome.

Matt does not admit to reading the whole book, in fact he specifically refers to 'the parts I have read over the past week', from which he claims to have been filled with a sense of general misery, both at 'the vacuousness of much of Cameron’s world view in particular, and at what passes for political thought in Britain more generally'. I will take any port in a storm in an effort to prevent the book passing over my threshold.

After all the fuss about Nick Clegg switching his allegiance from Ocado* to Sainsbury's this week it is a bit of a relief to find another party leader whose sole experience of the credit crunch was when he accidentally fed his American Express Gold Card through a paper shredder (yes, I made that bit up, but you get my drift). Matt Withers continues:

How out of touch is he? Try this for size, talking about how his wife keeps him on his toes: “I was lucky in that Samantha – as much as the papers keep writing that she comes from a very blue-blooded background – is actually very unconventional and is hard to put in a box. She went to a day school.”

Cameron genuinely believes there is something “unconventional” about a “day school”, i.e. the notion of going to school in the morning and coming back in the afternoon, despite the fact that that’s what I, probably you, and almost certainly everyone you know did.

How posh is he? Asked whether he considers himself middle-or upper-class he merely describes himself as “well off”.

Which is fair enough, really. Cameron’s estimated personal wealth is a mere £3.2m, which puts him well below Shadow Cabinet colleagues Lord Strathclyde (£10m), Philip Hammond (£9m), George Osborne (£4.3m) and Jeremy Hunt (£4.1m).

Now I am not one of those who thinks that just because a politician has a bit of money or went to Eton then that must disqualify him from public office. It takes all-sorts after all. However, I would expect them to understand that 'day school' is the normal experience of the vast majority of the British public and would in no way be considered unconventional by any of them.

I believe that there was a time in the 1950s when the Cabinet discussed the mortgage rate only to discover that not a single one of them had ever borrowed money to buy a property. That story may well be apocryphal but there is a real danger that we might reach such a point again if the Tories ever get back into power. Perhaps that is something Cameron will address in his next reshuffle.

In the meantime, it would also be helpful if he subjected himself to some real scrutiny. Does anybody really know what the Tories stand for? I don't and if their spin doctors have their way we will not know until after they have got their well-fed butts onto the chairs around the cabinet table. It is like Tony Blair and 1997 all over again. Matt Withers once more gets to the point:

And how skilled at PR is he? Asked about what he learned in his seven years as head of communications for TV firm Carlton, he says he “learned that spin and PR will not get you where you want to go, and that truth is the most important commodity”.

Quite. Which is why he is attempting to win over the electorate by getting a fashion journalist to interview him about Pot Noodles and Lily Allen.

As long as nobody asks him about his underwear again, as they did during the Tory leadership contest, then we may be able to sleep more easily.

*This may well be the subject of a blog post on its own, but what exactly is Ocado? It certainly does not exist in most of the South Wales area. How exactly does referring to it reflect the experiences of ordinary people. Like me they most probably first heard of it only when Nick Clegg mentioned it (if they were listening of course). Couldn't he have used a more down to earth example such as switching from Sainsbury's to Lidl?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Silly Season?

Who says that newspaper editors struggle to fill space during the summer months? The Daily Telegraph has all of today's best stories:
Meanwhile The Times gives us the lowdown on what is really going on in the Olympic Village, not to mention a list of the 15 worse teachers in the movies. Thank goodness it is Saturday!

Friday, August 22, 2008

The cost of fuel

Plans by the Conservatives to use the Post Office Card Account scheme to allow low-earners to receive the same discounts on their energy bills as those paying by direct debit is actually very sensible. It makes me wonder why the government have not taken this step already.

One possible answer is that Labour have not yet settled the future of the Post Office Card Account. Maybe, once they have done that then a similar scheme will emerge. It needs to.

The only problem with the Tory scheme is that they have not gone far enough. In particular they are silent on the issue of pre-payment meters, which rip off some of the poorest in our society by charging a higher rate for gas and electricity. According to recent research commissioned for Energywatch, those on pre-payment meters can pay up to £142 more than people on direct debits on their combined gas and electricity bills. With around a quarter of poorer fuel customers on pre-payment meters, this has to be a priority.

And why have they not said anything about the excessive profits being made by energy companies. One of the major price comparison and switching sites has calculated that average household energy bills have gone up by over £550 a year. The average gas bill is now £646 a year, which is over double the figure five years ago, and electricity has gone up by just under 70% to £412.

Yet the companies themselves don't seem to be too keen to share the pain, preferring to pass the increases right down the line to the beleaguered customer. It is a pattern that is all too common among the private monopolies that the Conservatives created.

Last month, two major energy companies reported on how they are doing. Hard-pressed families will be delighted to know that Scottish and Southern made a profit which amounts to £136 per customer per year and intends paying a 4% dividend out to shareholders in both 2009 and 2010 yet they are talking about how difficult it will be not to pass on price increases to customers. Scottish Power has announced that it made £708m profit in the first half of this year. If this is typical, then all the energy suppliers are doing very nicely.

Will the Conservatives join with Vince Cable in ensuring that the £9 billion windfall the energy companies have received from the Emissions Trading Scheme is used to help reduce fuel bills for the most vulnerable customers? Will they support a full investigation by the Competition Commission into a market dominated by six huge energy companies that have effectively stopped competing with each other on what they charge their customers?

Finally, will the Conservatives support a systematic investment in smart meters, which display consumption costs and enable customers to plan their energy usage? Energywatch has shown energy usage can be reduced by between 3 and 15 per cent through changes in behaviour. With a 5 per cent reduction translating into a bill reduction of around £35, this can also help reduce fuel poverty. What is more, the introduction of smart meters that can be read remotely could also significantly benefit the energy companies.

The Tories have taken a significant step forward with a innovative idea to assist people with their fuel bills but much more needs to be done. This is just one part of the problem and it would be nice if the Conservatives would join the Liberal Democrats in adopting these other solutions as well.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Oops! Another 10,000 plus records lost.

The BBC are reporting that Home Office contractor PA Consulting have lost a computer memory stick containing personal details about tens of thousands of criminals. The lost data apparently includes details about 10,000 prolific offenders as well as information on all 84,000 prisoners in England and Wales.

This loss is the latest in a whole string of incidents involving misplaced data, including:
I feel like I am repeating myself but really, how can the government expect support for any proposal such as ID cards, which involves a massive database after all this clumsiness?

Update: Blairwatch reminds us that PA Consulting, who are responsible for this latest data loss, were appointed by David Blunkett to prepare the ID card scheme in the first place.


Undermining devolution?

Former Secretary of State for Wales and ex-First Secretary, Alun Michael MP hits back at the Assembly's Presiding Officer in this morning's Western Mail with the rather bizarre claim that the Llwydd is 'undermining devolution'.

Many of the differences between the two politicians are of Lilliputian proportions, to the extent that it becomes a little embarrassing watching two grown men arguing over which end of a hard boiled egg they should eat from. However, there is one passage in Alun Michael's rant that strikes at the heart of the misunderstanding between MPs and AMs on this issue.

Mr. Michael says that the Assembly should put quality before quantity in its drafting of Legislative Competence Orders:

Anyone with experience of legislation knows the massive temptation to pass more and more laws rather than concentrating on the effectiveness of the laws that have already been passed. Over the centuries, every government and every legislature has been tempted in that direction.

So let’s not go there. Let’s show that Welsh elected representatives, legislating for Wales, can resist that temptation.

As the select committee says, let’s find ways of giving a proper focus to legislative work aimed at producing a reasonable number of high-quality orders each year, rather than allowing volume to swamp the system.

Surely that’s common sense, not an attack on anybody.

And it’s practicalities that count. Improvement is always possible. When I introduced the Clean Neighbourhoods Act, it was based largely on my constituency and local government experience in Wales.

That is all very well but LCOs are not that sort of legislation. They do not need the same level of scrutiny as are accorded to Acts of Parliament or Assembly Measures because they do not change the law as these instruments do.

What they do is to give powers to the Assembly which can then lead to the sort of proper legislation that will have an impact on society and on people's lives in the same way as Alun Michael's Clean Neighbourhoods Act did.

It is those subsequent measures that need the care and consideration that Mr. Michael talks about, not the Legislative Competence Orders.

Nevertheless, we should be grateful to Alun Michael for his views. He has revealed the real agenda behind the Welsh Affairs Select Committee's report. They need the Assembly to slow down so that they can retain control. They want to use their scrutiny of LCOs to dictate what Measures might flow from them.

Unfortunately for him, things have moved on. If there is a problem with the LCO process it is that it is too cumbersome, restrictive and divisive. The more that MPs grumble about the way that the Assembly is using it, the more compelling is the case for an early referendum on full legislative powers.

In the meantime we do not need to be patronised by MPs. We are not children who are trying to run before we can walk. We know what our capacity is for dealing with legislation. We have got processes and support staff in place to make sure that we are thorough and practical in the measures we propose. What we need is the range of powers necessary to be able to implement a programme for government. It would be nice if Alun Michael and Welsh Affairs Select Committee co-operated in that aim.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

An alternative view of the Olympics

Hat Tip: Donal Blaney

Water, water everywhere

Shocking facts in today's Guardian, which tells us that the UK has become the sixth largest net importer of water in the world, with every consumer indirectly responsible for the use of thousands of litres a day. Only 38% of the UK's total water use comes from its own resources; the rest depends on the water systems of other countries, some of which are already facing serious shortages.

A new study calculates that:

· Average household water use for washing and drinking in the UK is about 150 litres a person daily, but we consume about 30 times as much in "virtual water", used in the production of imported food and textiles;

· Taking virtual water into account, each of us soaks up 4,645 litres a day;

· Only Brazil, Mexico, Japan, China and Italy come higher in the league of net importers of virtual agricultural water. People in poorer countries typically subsist on 1,000 litres of virtual water a day;

· Different diets have different water footprints. A meat and dairy-based diet consumes about 5,000 litres of virtual water a day while a vegetarian diet uses about 2,000 litres.

I know that this is a very serious situation and not one which can be taken lightly, but where exactly has all the rain we have had this month disappeared too? Surely we must have redressed some of the balance by now.

I am pleased that work is underway to try and address the problem.

Wrexham first

Congratulations to the Racecourse, home of Wrexham Football Club, which has been officially recognised as the oldest football stadium in the world still hosting international games.

The stadium has a 200-year history as a sporting venue, an acolade that will be recognised when a certificate from Guinness World records will be presented at the ground at the Wales v Romania under-21 game on Wednesday.

The BBC tell us that "the aptly-named Racecourse was initially known as a horse racing venue, and staged its first contest - the Town Purse - in 1807.

At the time it offered a prize of 20 guineas, worth about £3,600 today.

After about 50 years, the races were stopped amid concerns that they encouraged crowd trouble, including drunkenness.

In the 1860s, the venue began to be used for autumn sports, including donkey races and cycle races.

As well as horse racing, the Racecourse was also used by Wrexham Cricket Club, and it was the club's members who formed Wrexham Football Club in 1872 as a way of keeping active during the winter months.

Research shows the football club was formed in the now famous Turf Hotel, which stands just outside the ground and where historians say players used to change for matches.

The first international football match was held five years later in 1877, when Wales lost 2-0 to Scotland.

The following year, however, Wrexham FC won the first ever Welsh cup."

Wrexham AM and lifelong football fan, Lesley Griffiths (pictured at the ground) has already tabled a statement of opinion in the Assembly congratulating local historian, Glyn Davies on his detective work and persistence in achieving this recognition.

Lesley is still smarting over my claim that the First Minister implied in the chamber that she is a bit of an anorak. Whether he did or not, she has a myriad of useless facts at her disposal and I am surprised that she has not been boasting previously about The Racecourse's pre-eminence as an International football venue.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Poverty of delivery

An essay by Professor Dave Adamson reported in the Western Mail today concludes that the impact of government policy in reducing poverty in Wales in the past 12 years has been “at best marginal”.

Professor Adamson, who helped shape the Welsh Assembly Government’s Communities First initiative, claims:

There has been little change in poverty levels in many communities since 1996;

Many adults in deprived areas expect to be limited by illness and this illness is not always due to industrial disease;

Educational failure is the foundation of poverty in Wales, and;

It was difficult to see any specific impact from WAG policies on poverty.

The most interesting part of these conclusions relates to the failure of educational policy. We have long known that too many young people leave school without educational qualifications, training or employment. We also know, because the Rees Commission said so, that not enough 18 year olds in Wales are fulfilling their potential and going on to higher education. Professor Adamson goes further:

In reference to statistics which suggest that 25% of the population in Wales at any one time will have failed to achieve five GSCEs, and will continue to fail to benefit from adult educational opportunities, Prof Adamson says: “This educational failure is the foundation of poverty in Wales and relegates a significant proportion of the population to labour market failure and consequent patterns of low income, unemployment and benefit dependency.

What this suggests is a lack of joined up thinking by the government in their approach to tackling poverty. They are spending money on capacity building schemes such as Community First with apparently little effect and yet they are failing to mainstream this provision or take it through to its conclusion in their budget priorities.

In particular, although the Foundation Phase for 3 -7 year olds is important in helping young people achieve their potential, the Welsh Government has not allocated sufficient money to deliver it within the envisaged timescales. There is also the under-investment in school buildings, and in further and higher education that is undermining other efforts to help communities.

It is education and training that drives our economy, but it also offers the means by which people are able to pull themselves out of poverty. Until the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government recognises that fact and starts investing accordingly then I suspect that Professor Adamson's conclusions about the marginal impact of government policy will remain valid for some time.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Are they listening?

This morning's Western Mail carries news of the rather limited survey being conducted on-line by South Wales Police. This use of new technology is unfortunately compromised by a poor understanding of its potential and a failure to think through why the survey is being carried out and how it can improve Police performance.

If you click on the section entitled 'Your Comments Count' it transpires that this is only the case if you are prepared to agree that the service offered by the Police is excellent. At no point is there an opportunity to express any other opinion on the force’s service.

As I pointed out to the paper, every time I have had an opportunity to contact police, I have had a very good service and I don’t want to undermine their work in local communities. But any survey seeking people’s views should enable residents to make comments on the whole range of services provided by the police and any disappointments or problems they have had so police can correct that.

I don’t see any point asking for comments on how good the police are. All that will achieve is to generate complacency that I do not believe is there. If the police are serious about asking how residents think then the survey would be more comprehensive.

The force spokesperson is right in saying that there is an established complaints procedure that can be used to express dissatisfaction but that is not the purpose of these surveys. A properly formulated questionaire could be used by the Police to test perceptions of their performance as well as to identify strengths and weaknesses. There are good intentions here but poor execution.

The Llwydd hits back

A memorandum by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee calling for a cut in the number of bids by the Welsh Assembly Government and AMs for more powers have received short shrift from the Presiding Officer. In a letter to the Secretary of State for Wales released today, he makes it clear that the idea that the current volume of proposed Orders is "swamping the system, both at Westminster and in the Assembly" is "clearly contrary to the evidence".

He writes: "The Assembly acquired its new legislative powers on the 25 May 2007. During the first twelve months following that date, 7 proposed LCOs were laid before the Assembly, five of which were proposed by the Assembly Government and two by back-benchers. As the memorandum itself makes clear, only four of these proposed Orders have as yet been referred to the Welsh Affairs Committee.

"In paragraph 21 of its Memorandum, the Committee refers to the fact that it had expected to have to deal with "four or five LCOs annually". In fact, it has only been asked to deal with four. Far from being swamped by more LCOs than expected, the number it has had to deal with has been at the lower end of what was estimated.

"The Memorandum states that the Committee has already reported on three of the four LCOs referred to it, and expects to report on the fourth soon. In the Committee's own words "We have published timely reports on all (sic.) of the proposed Orders which have been referred to us so far" (paragraph 2).

"So the Committee's claims about its performance during the first year of the process obviously does not support any suggestion that the system is being "swamped". Some confusion has however been caused by the Committee's statement that "In fact the number of LCOs which have been proposed in the last 12 months has reached 11 already" (paragraph 22). The Committee has unjustifiably sought to compare this figure of 11 with the "four or five" LCOs which it expected to have to consider. The reference to a figure of 11 "proposed" LCOs in twelve months is incorrect and is seriously misleading in a number of respects.

"The 11 "proposed" LCOs is in fact a list of all proposals for LCOs which have been announced by the Assembly Government and by individual AMs during the first 14 months since the new powers were acquired. It actually includes one proposal which has already been rejected by the Assembly itself as well as one whose principle has not yet even been considered by the Assembly and two (one from the Assembly Government and one from an individual AM) which have so far only been the subject of announcements and have not yet been laid before the Assembly.

"In portraying a picture of a system in danger of being "swamped" the Welsh Affairs Committee has not compared like with like. It has sought, simultaneously, to raise groundless fears, based on a misleading figure of 11 proposed LCOs, that it will be "swamped" by the number of LCOs it is expected to consider, whilst at the same time claiming to have dealt with the four Orders actually referred to it in a "timely" way, although strictly it has only actually reported on 3 out of the 4 LCOs referred to it.

"During the same period the Assembly's own committees have, on the other hand, fully completed consideration and reported on 7 actual proposed LCOs, with no suggestion that this has imposed an excessive strain on the Assembly's more limited resources and certainly no claim that the system is being "swamped"."

Of course all of this would be academic if we had not been lumbered with this unworkable system in the first place.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A note on comments

I have already made it clear on this blog that I do not tolerate trolls who hide behind their anonymity to make snide and destructive party political points.

I am happy to address most contributions, even the drunken ones if they are coherent, but I am not going to engage with negative sniping from those who do not have the guts to add their names or a consistent on-line identity to their comments. Such postings will not be published. Anonymous comments with a constructive contribution to make to the discussion, even if it is critical will continue to be posted.

I am now going to have to make another rule. If you are going to adopt the identity of a real person such as a journalist or another politician so as to make a comment then that will not be published either, irrespective of its merits. I am not going to allow their reputations to be undermined by publishing comments made in their name when they have not been party to them. Personation will not be tolerated.

Obviously it is not always easy to spot these but if I do or if my attention is drawn to them then such comments will be removed.

A Welsh patriot

Congratulations to Tom James, who became the second Welsh athlete to win a gold medal in the Beijing Olympic Games yesterday, with an astounding performance as part of Britain's coxless fours' team.

Tom also deserves our congratulations for defying the Chinese authorities' ban on flags from non-Olympic member countries, by proudly posing with the Welsh flag following the presentation ceremony.

Tom is a proud Welshman and I would be astonished if his act was anything more than a demonstration of national pride, however it shows very well how hard it is to stifle freedom of speech in an international festival such as this. It must also give some comfort to Tibet, whose fate is the reason why impromptu gestures like this are banned.

There have been a number of pro-Tibet protests in Beijing including this one, in which Lucy Fairbrother and Iain Thom unfurled a Tibetan flag and banner outside the stadium.

I have never been happy with the decision to hold the Olympic games in China arguing that they would be used as a propaganda vehicle rather than the catalyst for reform that some envisaged. I think that I and many others have been proved right.

N. B. Belated congratulations as well to the remarkable Nicole Cooke, who is a constituent of mine and who topped a remarkable career so far by becoming the first Welsh person to win a gold medal since 1972. It is not that I was ignoring her achievement, just that this is the first post I have published which refers to the Olympics since they started.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

An abusive relationship?

Although I am not a big fan of Big Brother, there are others in my household who are. As such I have spent a number of evenings each week working on my laptop with the programme on in the background. Inevitably, some of the more dramatic moments have grabbed my attention and, I have to say, I am truly appalled.

Let me be clear, I am not appalled by the programme, its concept or its production values. My disgust lies with the behaviour of some of the contestants and in particular, Rex. Channel Four quite rightly felt it necessary to act when Shilpa Shetty was subjected to allegedly racist behaviour. Why do they not intervene to prevent viewers having to watch the abusive way that Rex treats his girlfriend?

I have watched him bully her, belittle her, undermine her confidence, put her down in front of others, use her as a shield in the inter-house politics and talk about her both directly and behind her back as if she were his possession.

Apparently, some on the Big Brother forums believe that this is just his dry humour. In my mind it is straightforward abuse and Channel Four should not allow it to go unpunished nor should they let viewers believe that this is an acceptable way to treat a partner in any relationship.

Government by crystal ball

This morning's Western Mail quite rightly reports on fears of a growing homeless crisis in the face of Wales' position as having the second highest rise in repossessions over the past year. The paper reports that unsustainable levels of debt and economic gloom have sent the housing market spiralling downwards.

John Puzey, director of housing charity Shelter Cymru, points to the fact that high house prices and low incomes in Wales has forced those struggling to get on the housing ladder to turn to expensive sub-prime lenders who are quicker to take defaulters to court and less willing to renegotiate repayments:

“We have seen the number of people coming to our advice services with mortgage arrears problems treble in the last two years,” he said. “But the real worry is that about 70% of those have already had court proceedings begin. People are seeking help far too late.”

Asked to comment, the Welsh Assembly Government produces its usual list of initiatives and strategies, many of which will come too late to avert the current crisis. However, I do not blame them. They are merely fire-fighting. It is quite clear that we are where we are because of the UK Government's mishandling of the economy, something that the Welsh Government has little responsibility for, though at least one party in it does also form the government in Westminster as well.

What I did find a bit crass was the throw-away remark from the Welsh Government spokesperson designed to show that they were in charge. He or she told the Western Mail that “The Welsh Assembly Government is well aware of the latest repossession figures, a situation it foresaw, and is therefore already working to help the situation in Wales." All that spokesperson really managed to do was to make the administration in Cardiff Bay look complacent.

If WAG does have such an efficacious crystal ball then why do we have to wait until September for detailed guidance on the mortgage rescue scheme? Surely, it would have been in place ready and waiting for the current crisis to emerge. Why are affordable housing development plans not already in place in each local authority and why has the review of the homebuy scheme not been concluded? After all that review first reported in April 2007. More importantly, why do we have to wait until later this year for the ten year homelessness strategy? Surely the government's crystal ball told it that the plan would be needed earlier.

Let us be charitable. The government foresaw the crisis but were just slow in responding to it. Maybe they had lent out the crystal ball to the Education Minister so she could predict how much extra cash was needed to fund the foundation phase (you have to look into the crystal Jane, not use it as a paper weight). Perhaps the First Minister had been monopolising it to plan out his redeployment strategy following the bonfire of the quangos two years ago.

Whatever the facts the government needs to trade in its crystal ball for a new one. This one clearly does not work as well as it used to. Its predictions are tardy, its users slow to react. Maybe it will be safer in the future if the One Wales Government just sticks to blaming all its troubles on Westminster. Such a tactic has served them well so far.

Friday, August 15, 2008


The difficulties of settling back into normality after a lifetime of political service were highlighted in the Glamorgan Gazette this week with a touching tale about the mistrust that still exists between the current Labour administration on Bridgend County Borough Council and a former colleague.

The paper reports that former Council Leader, Jeff Jones applied to become a governor of the new Maseteg Comprehensive School only to be rejected by the Council's Labour Cabinet on the basis that he did not meet the criteria.

Mr. Jones, who is a regular contributor to this blog, is a university graduate with a teaching qualification. He taught in a comprehensive school; chaired a major UK examination board; has been education spokesperson for the whole of Welsh local government; had 15 years' experience as a school governor; and chaired three governing bodies. He was also Council leader when the plans for the new comprehensive school were drawn up.

As Mr. Jones says: "I wonder what they are afraid of?"

A busted scheme

I think it is well-established by now that this Labour Government has no shame, that it will persist with flagship projects despite over-whelming evidence which undermines their raison d'etre and that its judgement has failed due to an obsession with being seen as tough on terrorism and crime. However, even Gordon Brown must realise by now that his ID card scheme is a busted flush.

So as to help him make up his mind today's Guardian provides even more evidence of its unworkability. They report on a warning from the government's top scientific advisers that the quality of fingerprints from 4 million people aged over 75 may be too poor to be used to prove their identity:

The "gold standard" integrity of the national identity scheme would depend on all 10 digits of the hands of everyone in Britain over 16 being accurately recorded on the central register, but experts have now told Home Office ministers that it is "hard to obtain good quality fingerprints" from the over-75s.

They warned that "exceptional handling" arrangements would have to be made to handle the registration of those whose fingerprints are not up to scratch. This would have a "large impact not only on the technical elements of the scheme but [also] on businesses processes, schedules and costs".

American experts estimate between 2% and 5% of adults have poor quality fingerprints, which means ridges on the fingers are not sharply defined enough to be reliably copied by an automatic scanner.

And where was this warning to be found? In a report slipped out before Parliament rose for the summer recess from the biometrics assurance group, which is made up of independent experts from Whitehall, the industry and universities and chaired by the government's chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington.

The Guardian goes on to tell us that the scientific and technical experts also voiced wider concern that difficulties in enrolling people with "challenging biometrics" had not been sufficiently tested in the ID card trials so far. They suggested the test group needed to be expanded to include those who were "elderly, mute, non-English speaking, blind or visually impaired". The Royal National Institute of Blind People has already raised concerns about the difficulties faced by visually impaired people registering under the scheme.

They go on to advise that proper attention needs to be paid to issues of privacy and consent across the national identity scheme, and urge the public to be well-informed about how their data could be used and shared with certain government bodies without the consent of the individual involved.

As ever in these matters it is difficult to argue with Phil Booth, who is the national coordinator of the No2ID campaign. He warned that the problems raised about the biometrics were fundamental and meant that compulsory fingerprinting would embed discrimination at the heart of the ID card scheme. "Higher failure rates for the old, ethnic minorities, the disabled and the infirm risk creating a biometric underclass," he said.


Late night messages

At some stage we have all been regaled with stories of friends and colleagues who have gone out for the night, got very drunk and then sent a series of embarrassing text messages to ex-partners, co-workers and family that they were still squirming over months later.

Judging by the number and content of the anonymous comments that were posted on this blog in the early hours of this morning, drunken texting has been replaced by inebriated surfing. I have deleted them all in the interests of coherence and good taste, something that this blog constantly strives to achieve.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The best bits?

As if having a blog was not egotistical enough I have decided to succumb to Alex Wilcock's invitation to list my favourite posts from my own blog. The idea is that it will help people make nominations in the Lib Dem Blog awards for the category of "The best posting on a Liberal Democrat blog (since 1st September 2007)."

I had decided not to bother nominating but the fact that I am on stay-cation until the weekend and that it is raining a lot means that I have a bit more time this week than I anticipated. I will therefore be submitting a list. In the meantime these are my favourite posts chosen to give a flavour of my obsessions over the last year, just in case somebody wishes to pick up on them. :-)
Yes, I know. There are too many of them.

Mayor revisited

The Welsh Lobbyist draws our attention to a post on the Institute of Welsh Affairs blog supposedly responding to criticisms of their proposal for a Mayor to run the South Wales Valleys. The problem is that they are very selective in what they are prepared to answer.

For example they do not attempt to deal with my points in this post that such a figurehead would erode accountable and transparent democracy. I also asked what role the IWA would envisage for the Welsh Assembly Government in such a set-up and questioned whether the turnout figures for London justified their assertion that an elected mayor would better 'engage voters'.

The suggestion by the IWA that their idea had rocked the boat amongst the establishment is just ludicrous. If it did rock the boat then that is only because we were laughing so much.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Foot in mouth syndrome strikes again

Oops, just as David Cameron is about to embark on a tour of marginal seats in north west England, his favourite think tank goes and inserts its foot firmly in his mouth. A report by the Policy Exchange concludes that key cities, such as Liverpool and Sunderland, have "failed" and people should be paid to move south.

It would be natural for the Tories to have written off their electoral prospects in many of the northern Cities. In places like Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester they are an irrelevance, with little or no local representation. However, to dismiss their own chances of winning seats in these Cities so publicly and in this way takes a special talent. In fact I had to check that the report had not been written by Boris Johnson. No wonder David Cameron is working so hard to dissassociate himself from it.

So, as I am having the week off and feeling generous, I am happy to offer the Tory leader a tip: get yourself some policies and it will be easier to shrug off maverick reports such as this as nothing to do with your party. Whilst the Conservatives remain a policy-free zone in the area of social and economic policy then it seems that any old think tank can come along and derail their latest campaign.

It is time for the Tories to pin their own ideas and convictions to the mast for us all to see and comment on.

Tories revert to type

If anybody needed any confirmation of the futility of David Davis's resignation and the subsequent by-election campaign fought on the issue of civil liberties then this announcement by his successor, Dominic Grieve should provide it.

Whilst Davis languishes in glorious obscurity on the Conservative backbenches, his party's Shadow Home Secretary has started the process of dismantling all the good work that was carried out by the member for Haltemprice and Howarden in seeking to protect our freedoms from the attentions of an over-bearing state.

If they should get back into government the Conservatives will now allow the police to conduct intrusive surveillance of non-terrorist suspects without having to secure prior authorisation. Police will be permitted to automatically use covert video or listening devices in premises or vehicles, watch premises to identify or arrest suspects, conduct visual surveillance of public locations, patrol, in uniform or plain clothes, use thermal imaging and X-ray technology and conduct surveillance using visible CCTV cameras.

I accept that there is a need to reduce the amount of paperwork required of police officers but if we are to prevent unreasonable intrusion into people's privacy then there must be an effective overview of police operations to ensure that proper checks and balances are in place. The Tories' proposals will remove that overview and take away yet another pillar of freedom in this country.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Getting an education

It is that time of the year again when those of us who opposed tuition fees for students on the grounds that education should be free at the point of access are able to stand up, point at the latest statistics and say I told you so to all those who want to turn higher education into a market economy.

The Guardian reports that although the number of first-time undergraduates has increased substantially every year since 2004, the proportion from the poorest areas, or of ethnic minorities which are under-represented at university, has hardly changed despite a multi-million pound drive by the government to counter the effect of higher fees.

The paper surmises that these findings realise the fears of critics of the top-up fees, which triggered one of Labour's biggest rebellions under Tony Blair, with fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university than the government had hoped for:

The research, by Universities UK, which represents higher education institutions, concludes that the overall number of students has continued to rise. The number of new full-time undergraduates has increased by 9% across the UK since 2004 and 10% in England where the fees apply. But the research also reports "no significant change in the ethnic, social class or age profile of accepted applicants across the four years 2004/5-2007/8".

From the start opponents such as myself argued that fees would put off the poorest students from attending university because, even with bursaries, the perception would be that they could not afford to continue their education. This is especially so when evidence shows that children in deprived families and in particular single parent families are more debt-averse than those who are better off.

Education is often seen as a means to improve oneself. For children from disadvantaged backgrounds or from an ethnic minority that door is rapidly being closed by this Labour Government's policies.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Protesting at the Senedd

A few days ago the Western Mail picked up on concern on some blogs that the National Assembly Commission was allegedly stifling free speech by banning members of the public from protesting with banners outside the Senedd, unless they get permission.

They referred to a YouTube video in which a protester who has placed a banner on the steps of the Senedd is approached by a police officer who tells him he is a breaking a public order issued by the National Assembly Estate.

The policeman presents the protestor with a document, which says: “Signs or barriers must not be erected, attached or otherwise fixed to any part of the National Assembly Estate.

“Hand-held signs, banners or other promotional material may be displayed outside the Senedd with the approval of the Presiding Officer or a person acting on his behalf.” An Assembly spokesperson confirmed that this is accurate.

In today's Western Mail, Conservative Leader Nick Bourne has a letter in which he says that this rule as anti-libertarian and dangerous. He goes on to use Magna Carta in support of his argument. The problem is that Nick has misunderstood the rule, or I hope he has.

There have of course been regular demonstrations outside the Senedd since it opened, many of them brandishing banners, placards and pamphlets. Nobody has ever tried to stop these demonstrations taking place, in fact they have been actively encouraged. As the Western Mail points out this is in direct contrast with Westminster where MPs have passed laws to prevent protestors getting too close.

As I understand it the only issue that the Commission has with such protests is health and safety. We need to ensure that these protests do not prevent legitimate visitors accessing the Senedd or placing obstacles in their way that might compromise their safety. We are also reluctant to allow people to actually attach anything to the building itself for obvious reasons.

Like Leanne Wood I am not aware of any incidences where placards have been removed or confiscated outside the Senedd building. The order exists to enable Assembly staff to properly advise protestors with some authority as to what they can and cannot do as part of their protest. If it were there for any other purpose then it would be overturned.

Like Nick Bourne, however I have asked for a fuller explanation. Unlike him I am not going to jump to any high-minded conclusions until I get it.

Update: I now have full copy of the guidelines which were approved at a House Committee Sub Committee on 16 November 2006. I no longer have a copy of the minutes of that committee so I cannot confirm who was present though I know that I was a member, as was William Graham. The minutes of this sub-committee were approved on 7 December 2006 at a meeting in which both William Graham and I were present. I make this point because of William's comments in the Western Mail that 'he was unaware of this rule, but said he was opposed in principle to such a measure.'

As I suggest above the purpose of the rules are not to prevent protests but to ensure that they take place safely and peacefully, without obstructing other visitors to the Senedd. On revisiting them they do appear to unnecessarily employ belt and braces for this purpose and they could do with some revision but the point that they have never been used to prevent or limit any demonstration is I think pertinent as is the fact that all concerned apply them pragmatically and sensitively.


Since the controversy surrounding Pippa Wagstaff's removal from Facebook on the supposed basis that she does not exist, I have noticed a growing number of profiles on the part of imaginary people. There is a profile for Sali Mali and Sam Tan for example. There is also a tendency to create fan pages for famous people as if they themselves were actively running and updating these profiles.

I have now discovered a profile for Charles Windsor, which is almost certainly not being run by him or his household. His current status announces that 'one feels some concern for the pictures coming out of Georgia', whilst his interests are listed as 'talking to plants, the environment and polo'. His favourite music is allegedly 'Queen' whilst his favourite movies are listed as The Man Who Would Be King, The King and I, King Kong and The King Maker.

Under the About Me section he writes: 'One decided to open one's first Facebook page today so that one can communicate with the Commoners.

One feels one should try one's hardest to communicate with one's loyal subjects, especially since one has successfully dispensed with one's adulterous first wife, and is now trying to justify having sexual relations with a Grand National favourite.

One is looking forward to the day, when one's Mummy (THE QUEEN) pops ones clogs, so that one will finally be KING ! and not the 'grovelling little bastard' everyone sees one as.

If one is not of Royal Lineage, one should only, have a short envious look around one's Royal Facebook, and then go away rather quickly.

God Save the Queen.'

It is really quite awful but shouldn't Facebook show some consistency in the way it applies the rules?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The stamp of authority

The Sunday Times reports that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling has been accused by his own backbenchers of acting “irresponsibly” for creating confusion over proposals for a “stamp duty holiday”.

The Government had attempted to seize the initiative a few days ago by touting scenario of the Government abolishing stamp duty but the failure of the Chancellor to confirm or deny the rumours just created uncertainty and left many house buyers in limbo.

The National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) said that one in four members had seen agreed house sales fall through as a direct result of the uncertainty. According to the paper, Darling has confirmed that officials are considering the move but insists he will not be “bounced” into making a quick decision. Stamp duty receipts from property sales were worth £6.4 billion to the Treasury in 2006-07. Suspension would enlarge the sizeable hole in public finances.

Personally, I have never been convinced that reform of stamp duty has anything but the most marginal of impacts on the housing market. It certainly does not offer any significant help to those at the lower end of the market seeking to get on the housing ladder for the first time, and that is where government efforts should be directed.

The fact that the number of home repossessions increased by 48% in the first half of this year demonstrates the need to invest the £6.4 billion cost of this reform into affordable housing to buy and to rent not political gimmicks like abolishing stamp duty.

This latest episode illustrates very well how Labour have lost their surety of touch on the economy and that, faced with a impending recession and stagnant opinion polls, they are starting to panic.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Bringing on the clones

I am a bit late in commenting on this news story but it is an important one nevertheless. A few days ago The Times reported that new microchipped passports could be cloned and manipulated in minutes and would then be accepted as genuine.

This clearly has serious implications for the security of the Government's £4.7 billion identity card scheme, which also relies on microchips similar to those cloned by a computer researcher as part of tests conducted for The Times.

Surely this white elephant of scheme must be dead in the water by now and yet the Government insists on pressing ahead with it. Putting private personal information on a chip in a passport or identity card will actually make identity theft easier.

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