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Friday, July 31, 2009

Sir Bobby Robson dies

Very sad news that former England Manager, Sir Bobby Robson has died. The Times reports that it is believed that Sir Bobby passed away in his sleep. He has been battling cancer for some time. This was his fifth diagnosis.

As well as taking England to the World Cup semi-final in 1990 Robson also managed Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven, PC Porto and Newcastle United. He was voted European manager of the year in 1997.

He was a giant in the world of football and will be greatly missed.

A question of identity

Frankly, the row over the fact that ID cards will not feature the Union Jack leaves me cold. We are told that the decision has been taken because of fears that it may upset members of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. The cards will instead carry the Royal coat of arms along with images of a shamrock, a thistle, a rose and a daffodil to represent the four countries that make up the UK.

In many ways it is an irrelevant storm in a teacup. What is most worrying about these ID cards is not what symbols will be on them but that the Government are wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of public money introducing them in the first place and that they are setting up a massive identity database to accompany them.

These cards will not protect us against terrorism, crime or identity fraud. Indeed they may make identity fraud more likely due to the false sense of security they engender. They can be stolen and cloned like any other card. Equally as disturbing is the danger that these cards can be used to exacerbate social divisions.

In a speech I gave in December 2004 (more details here) I set out my objections to the measure:

The Government has claimed that entitlement cards will help to combat terrorism, fraud and crime. The 9/11 terrorists carried valid ID cards; most benefit fraud involves people who misrepresent their circumstances rather than their identity; and the difficulty in clearing up crime is almost always that the criminals are not caught, rather than not identified.

It is also likely that members of ethnic minority groups will be stopped and asked for their ID cards much more often than white people are. This could lead to a serious deterioration in relations between ethnic minorities and the police and other sections of the community.

To add to this injustice by requiring the ID card to be used to access public services will rapidly lead to a situation whereby the card is voluntary for most of the articulate middle classes and compulsory for those who use public services and/or can’t argue and resist the need for the card. This is one injustice the Welsh Assembly Government can resist and I urge it to do so.

It is a scenario that we appear to be drifting into without any acknowledgement of or concession to the dangers by the Government. In the circumstances I think that how the cards look is the least of our worries.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is Cameron a twit?

No, I am not going to become personally abusive. Except to ask what did the Tory leader think he was doing when he swore on radio yesterday?

Speculation is rife as to whether Mr. Cameron knew that 'twat' was in fact a swear word or if he was just trying to sound unconventional and in tune with the hoodies he has previously urged us to embrace. As is pointed out by the radio presenter it is unlikely that this sort of language would have been condoned at the swanky public schools that Cameron attended.

The Independent has an account from the radio presenter, Christian O'Connell as to how Cameron's advisors reacted:

O'Connell disclosed that Gabby Bertin, the Tory leader's press secretary, had been less relaxed about the salty language used by her boss.

O'Connell said: "She leapt out of her skin after the first part of the interview when there had been some language.

"He said: 'That seemed to go OK.' She said: ‘Yeah, apart from the language.'

"He said: 'Oh, yeah, ‘pissed', sorry about that, I'm really sorry.' ? She said: ‘No, it was the ‘twat'.

"He said: ‘That's not a swear word.' I think he must be posh, where a lot of them don't think ‘twat' is a swear word. His press secretary went: ‘It is'."

The presenter joked that radio regulators did not take too dim a view of the word, explaining: "In terms of the fines we can get, it is not one of the big ones."

But Tony Thorne, a language consultant to Kings College, London, said the word was "genuinely provocative and earthy word" which could "get you a punch in the mouth" if used in public.

He said: "Swearing can be used by the middle class to make them appear more progressive and more authentic.

"I suspect David Cameron was trying to be edgy and gritty. But he misjudged it – there is still a big silent majority for whom this sort of language is offensive."

I do not think that the Tory leader is going to live this down in a hurry.

Big Brother Swansea style

At a meeting in the Canoldre Youth Centre today I was told that a number of young people from the area are replicating the big brother experience.

A different group will be locked in the Gorseinon youth centre for a week each over the next five weeks where they will carry out tasks and learn to live together and in a more independent manner. Most of them do not know each other before going into the house.

You can follow their exploits here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Getting personal

Plaid Cymru's Parliamentary Candidate for Montgomery has revealed her strategy for the General Election in her latest blog post. It is to forget policy and local issues and attack the sitting MP personally instead.

In her post, Ms. Fychan hits out at Lembit Őpik for the fact that he has taken up with a 21 year old model and has joined with Katie Green to conduct a perfectly legitimate campaign on the way that model agencies play on body image and the impact that has on young people. It is a particularly pertinent campaign in the light of the work carried out by Plaid Cymru AM, Bethan Jenkins on eating disorders and the One Wales' government's new strategy on this subject. It also affects many people in Montgomeryshire.

Ms. Fychan says that she does not care who Lembit dates and yet she embarks on a bitchy and judgemental rant worthy of the strictest puritan. I can accept that she might dislike Lembit personally but that is no excuse to allow her feelings to dominate her campaign and bring it down to the gutter.

I know that Lembit will not respond to this sort of personality politics because, despite the media coverage he gets, he is a serious politician commited to his constituents and to getting things done. However, it is ironic that at a time when Ms. Fychan is complaining that all she seems to read about Lembit is news of his personal life, the Montgomeryshire MP has a piece in the County Times in which he voiced his support for local newspapers in a ‘Local and Regional Newspapers’ parliamentary debate:

Lembit Öpik said: “The local press is the key vehicle in reporting accurately and fairly on local goings-on – in scrutinising the workings of local councils and local courts.

“Unlike many national journalists, local reporters tend to live and work in the communities on which they report, so local people trust them as a source of news.

“They do not need to tap people’s phones or mobiles to get exclusives, because people trust them and talk to them, and people read the results of what they have investigated and what they write about, knowing that they are reading accurate reports about their own world.

“The County Times, which is the weekly in my area, is a classic example – a role model for how what I have described can best be achieved. It is 130 years old; it was founded in 1879, in the same year as Montgomeryshire elected its first Liberal MP, Stuart Rendel. Two great and revolutionary leaps forward occurred in that same year.

“Two journalists – Richard Jones and photographer Phil Blagg – from the County Times were in London with me last week because they believe in reporting accurately and seeing at the coal face what, in this case, their MP does, but they also do that in many other environments, whether industrial, educational, cultural or social.

"That is because they want to get it right in a way that, I am sorry to say, the national press seems not as concerned to do.

“But the problems are very serious. The County Times is part of NWN Media and is facing real difficulties. Northcliffe has just announced 30 more job cuts in Wales.

“Someone who works in the media in my area put it simply: To continue to do this we must survive as a local business. We are not asking for handouts, but we could do with some consideration from local Government. I agree with that sentiment.”

“The local newspaper business model relies heavily on advertising. It accounts for about two thirds of local newspapers’ turnover, but in recent years advertising spend has been in a general decline of between 10 and 20 per cent, but since the recession hit, advertising in key sectors such as housing, cars and jobs has plummeted.

That Heledd is an example of a good local MP using his position to fight for the interests of his constituents. You should pay attention. You might learn something.

Update: the rather predictable reaction of Plaid bloggers to this post strongly reinforces the points I made on Freedom Central a few months ago.

Today's unlikely excuse

The Met Office claim that they labelled June, July and August as the 'barbecue summer' to help journalists with their headlines.

There is no suggestion at all that they might have got their forecasts wrong. If I was them I would get some new spin doctors.

On the Grid

I had a useful and fascinating meeting yesterday in the Welsh Government's Emergency Co-ordination Centre in Cathays Park. The meeting was with the Minister and her officials to get a briefing on swine flu but the attraction was clearly the chance to look around the Government's nerve centre.

My one regret is that I did not take photographs though I am not clear whether that activity would have resulted in me being clamped in irons or not. The centre was a bit like a cross between the Grid off Spooks and Churchill's war cabinet room. Plenty of new technology and a state of the art conference centre but also a big map of Wales on the table in the centre of the room and lots of staff working away on computers and phones.

At the moment it is being used to co-ordinate the Government's response to the swine flu pandemic but in the past it was also used to deal with the shortage of road salt during bad weather and also the Shambo incident in Skanda Vale, Carmarthenshire. The centre was set up in response to the Civil Contingencies Act.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Captain Kirk reads Sarah Palin

Former Star Trek actor, William Shatner actor recites Alaskan governor Sarah Palin's resignation speech on The Tonight Show in the form of a poem - "The cold though, doesn't it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs?"

Downing Street cat dies

The BBC report the very sad news that Chancellor Alistair Darling's cat, Sybil has died following a short illness.

They say that Sybil was named after the fictional hotelier Basil Fawlty's wife in the 1970s comedy show Fawlty Towers. She moved into the chancellor's Downing Street flat from the Darling family home in Edinburgh in 2007 but left six months later after failing to settle.

Back in November 2007 the Observer reported that she was receiving a large volume of letters from other cats, many enclosing photographs and with paw-prints at the bottom. She also had her own Facebook page.

Hat Tip: Liberal England

More evidence of a non-listening government

After a decade of campaigning in Wales for a bank holiday and all-party support I thought for one moment today that we had finally made some progress. However, it is not to be.

Work and Pensions Secretary, Yvette Cooper proposed yesterday that we should have an extra bank holiday but she wants it to commemorate people who have been killed at work and she is looking at the end of April, less than a week from the May Day bank holiday.

It is almost as if we have been shouting at ourselves for the last ten years whilst the British Cabinet have sat in London with their hands over their ears humming to themselves. It is becoming a habit on their part.

Unfortunately, Menna Machreth of Cwmdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg is misguided in thinking that once the Assembly wins a referendum and assumes all its powers under Part Four of the Government of Wales Act 2006 that we will be able to take matters into our own hands. I do not believe that the power to create bank holidays will be included.

It is of course entirely appropriate that we commemorate those who have died at work, but at the very least the UK Cabinet could acknowledge the strength of opinion in Wales over a St. David's Day bank holiday when discussing creating further statutory time off.


Apparently 15th July was the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the postcode. Does anybody know when the postcode lottery first appeared?

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Monday indulgence

David Davis criticises Tories

The MP for Haltemprice and Howden and former Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis MP has hit out in The Times at his own party at their failure to consider data protection concerns and privacy issues in plans to hive off the management of health data to Google:

When I read in the pages of this newspaper this month that the Conservative Party was planning to transfer people’s health data to Google, my heart sank. The policy described was so naive I could only hope that it was an unapproved kite-flying exercise by a young researcher in Conservative HQ. If not, what was proposed was both dangerous in its own right, and hazardous to the public acceptability of necessary reforms to the state’s handling of our private information.

There are powerful arguments for people owning their own information and having rights to control it. There are massive weaknesses in the NHS’s bloated central database and there are benefits from using the private sector. But there are also enormous risks, so we are still a long step from being able to give personal data to any company, let alone Google.

Google is the last company I would trust with data belonging to me. In the words of human rights watchdog Privacy International, Google has “a history of ignoring privacy concerns. Every corporate announcement has some new practice involving surveillance”. It gave Google the lowest possible assessment rating: “hostile to privacy”. It was the only company of the 20 assessed to get this rating. It also said Google was leading a “race to the bottom” among internet firms, many of which did little to protect their users.

Who does David Davis trust least? Google or his own party?.


Tuition Fees to rise

Peter Mandelson has hinted in a speech to University leaders that he expects the cap on tuition fees to be raised following the publication of the government's review this autumn. However, he also criticised colleges for failing to give more places to working class students, a sure indication that the government's support mechanisms for poorer students are not working and that many of these are being put off going into higher education at all by the prospect of paying fees:

The University and College Union said it was very concerned about the impact higher university tuition fees would have on poorer students. UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: "Lord Mandelson appears to recognise the difficulties current graduates face as they enter a tough job market, but not the impact debt levels are having on their ability to do things like save for a pension or get a foot on the property ladder. We disagree with his view that top-up fees have been a success and polls show that they are opposed by the vast majority of the British public too.

"Education is vital to our future prosperity, not something to be rationed, and higher fees would be about as popular as the poll tax with hard-working families. In a time of recession, the government should be considering how to make access to education cheaper, not giving a green light to universities who wish to charge higher fees."

The union said that if institutions were allowed to charge greater fees, the amount of money poorer students would have to find would be dramatically increased. An increase in fees to £7,000 per year, for example, would mean a university would only be required to fund a bursary of £700. That bursary, coupled with the current state maintenance grant of £2,906, would leave the poorest students needing to find £3,394 a year, UCU claimed.

Higher fees will also have an impact on Welsh students as well thanks to Plaid Cymru's u-turn on this issue. This means that those attending colleges here will no longer have the safety net that was previously available to them.

Despite the fact that Nick Clegg stated that the abolition of top-up fees will have to wait a bit until we have the money to do it, the Liberal Democrats remain the only party committed to abolishing this tax on education. That is not likely to change. How the party reacts in Wales is a matter for the Welsh Liberal Democrats alone.

The Tories and tax

In this brave new world where politicians tell the voters the truth about what is and is not possible in the face of record government debt and a deep recession, the number of such admissions is starting to grow.

Next up are the Conservatives who, according to The Times are going to impose tolls on drivers who wish to use newly built roads so as to pay for that investment. Is this the case of a deeply Euro sceptic Tory leader compensating for the free market offered to members of the European Union by imposing trade barriers within his own national boundaries? Or is it just economic reality?

Either way the experience elsewhere is that faced with a toll the majority of drivers will just look for other routes. The exception is of course toll bridges when those routes are not available but certainly one of the reasons why the M4 extension around Newport was abandoned was because the tolls needed to pay for it were not a practical proposition.

Meanwhile the flagship Tory policy of taking richer families out of inheritance tax has also been put on the back-burner. It seems that this could be delayed by up to five years until the Treasury books are in order. Poorer families could feel the brunt of Tory cuts much sooner. David Cameron has let it be known that tax credit payments to middle-class households could be scrapped, in a drive to reduce government spending.

What exactly this means is difficult to fathom. Tax credits are payable to families who receive less than a certain net income after taking into account a whole range of factors including the number of children, outgoings etc. The system is complex and confusing and often leads to problems with overpayments and clawbacks due to the inflexibility of the way it is operated. There is no doubt that tax credits are in need of reform but downrating the income qualification does not hack it. Unless you do a root and branch review then crudely the Tories will just be taking money off struggling middle class families to pass onto those who inherit an estate in excess of £325,000. Not much equality there.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Headline of the day

Today's Sunday Times illustrates a story headlined 'David Cameron in bid to seduce Holby City woman' with a picture of Patsy Kensit.

Apparently, it is a reference to a new marketing group that the Tories wish to target their message at. Anybody under the impression that this group consists of high profile actresses who have previously been married to pop stars would be wrong. The new target voter is a woman in her thirties or early forties, who is likely to do a responsible clinical or clerical job in the NHS.

Even so, my advice to Patsy Kensit is to run and hide if she ever sees the Tory leader walking towards her.

A Sunday Indulgence

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Jeremy Clarkson and Gordon Brown

The Top Gear presenter really dislikes the Prime Minister doesn't he? Perhaps, when the General Election is called the BBC should ask him to carry out a series of interviews with the party leaders. It would certainly make for good entertainment and might even get people interested in politics again.

More lost data

Just when you thought that the public sector had learnt its lesson about the correct storage and encryption of data another story hits the headlines.

This time it is Neath Port Talbot Council, long held up by Labour politicians as an example of a high-performing local authority despite a number of issues that show that it is as vulnerable as any other council to mistakes and inefficiency. They are one of the few Labour run Councils left in Wales and have one of the highest Council Tax rates. If every Council asked their citizens to pay what Neath Port Talbot charge then the quality of service provision would rise across the board. But I digress.

The Western Mail report that an employee of Neath Port Talbot Council lost a memory stick which had information on it relating to 65 children but it was not password protected or equipped with encryption software. The Information Commissioner’s Office has now told the council to take remedial action, including the encryption of portable and mobile devices which are used to store and transmit personal data. These include laptops and other portable media.

The paper says that the council’s chief executive Ken Sawyers has signed an undertaking to assure the information commissioner that personal information will be kept secure in future. The council will also make staff aware of its policy regarding the storage of personal information and ensure they are appropriately trained on how to follow that policy. Why were they not doing this before? In fact can we be assured that any one of the 22 local Councils are doing this? I intend to write to all of them and find out.

The Western Mail lists other breaches of the Data Protection Act in Wales. In March a memory stick belonging to the Vale of Glamorgan Council and containing confidential child protection information, medical records and details of court cases was found in the street. It was not encrypted or password protected.

In January the Information Commissioner's Office criticised Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University NHS Trust after a laptop containing the names and addresses of 5,000 patients and, in some cases details of their medical records, was stolen from Singleton Hospital.

And in June the Welsh Liberal Democrats released figures that showed that the Welsh Government had 'lost' 31 laptops, 10 Blackberry devices and six mobile phones in the past three years. The Government spokeperson said at the time that personal and sensitive data was not put at risk and all its IT devices were encrypted. However, that spokesperson did not say what was on the devices or to what level they were encrypted. It is difficult to believe that in most cases it was more than a password log-on.

There are many more examples, all of which leave little confidence that government at any level can confidently handle and protect even more data and yet that is what is proposed through the National Identity Database. Surely a rethink is called for on this project even at this late stage.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Those dodgy immigrants

This morning's Western Mail reports that Welsh Government officials are considering whether to grant a licence to release a non-native tiny sap-sucking insect into Wales to tackle Japanese Knotweed, which has caused millions of pounds of damage to buildings, roads and railways. A formal consultation was launched yesterday on plans to introduce foreign “jumping plant lice” to tackle the rampant vegetation.

The paper says that the highly invasive weed (Reynoutria japonica) was brought to Britain from the Far East by Victorian explorers and introduced as an ornamental plant in the early 19th century, though the alternative story is that it was introduced to stabilise railway embankments and spread along the route of tracks.

They say that the weed soon showed its true colours, bursting from manicured gardens as an unstoppable pest, its stems able to break through concrete, tarmac and brick. Even when chopped into bits, tiny parts of the Japanese knotweed can turn themselves into whole new plants. It is in fact illegal to remove any part of the plant from the site where it is growing.

There is though another story, namely that the plant behaved differently in the British climate than it did in Japan. That in itself must offer a cautionary tale as to how the Japanese jumping plant louse, or psyllid will react to its new surroundings. As the paper illustrates there are plenty of other examples of species introduced to another climate for a specific purpose only to become a pest itself.

I have a particular interest in this as Swansea is one of the worst affected parts of Britain with regards to Japanese Knotweed, its total biomass is now said to exceed 62,000 tonnes. The costs of a national eradication plan through conventional means has been estimated at a staggering £1.56bn by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Swansea's share of that cost is beyond the financial resources of the local Council.

Professor Paul Brain, from the zoology department at Swansea University, says "Psyllids are already causing problems in Ireland where they were introduced so there are concerns that the parasite might attack other UK plants. I think a lot more research should be done."

The list of alien parasite experiments which went wrong include:

Killer snails (Euglandina rosea) were introduced to Hawaii to control the giant African land snail but they started attacking native snails too

the cane toad, brought in by Australian farmers to control the cane beetle, spread rapidly, killing animals who tried to attack them

the mongoose, introduced to Hawaii to keep down rat numbers, soon found it much easier to dine on birds’ eggs instead.

Scientists have, however, successfully used Trichogramma ostriniae, a small wasp, to control the European corn borer which devoured high value crops in the US.

And the cactus moth has been used successfully in Australia to control the prickly pear cactus.

Meanwhile, the Sun reports on another troublesome immigrant. They say that Britain is being invaded by killer chipmunks. We are told that the animals, who are described as vicious, disease-riddled rodents, have escaped or been released into the wild by traders or domestic owners terrified of infection. In addition the UK is apparently on high alert in case a wave of the vermin, which have wreaked havoc in France, pours through the Channel Tunnel.

The chipmunks are an ideal target for The Sun because of their promiscuity. The females can have up to 16 babies a year, so the population will be growing fairly rapidly. If they could claim benefits then the story would amount to a 'perfect storm' for the paper.

The threat is not to be taken lightly however, the Siberian chipmunks - Tamias Sibiricus - may have Lyme disease, which targets the nervous system and can be fatal for humans, and even rabies:

Tony Mitchell-Jones, of Natural England, said: "Animals not native here, like chipmunks, can have a devastating impact on our own species if they are released into the wild.

"They compete for food and can sometimes carry diseases that native wildlife cannot fight off."

Northern France has been hit by a plague of chipmunks, whose numbers have exploded to 100,000 since just 17 were freed from a Brussels park in 1980.

Naturalist Guy Bruel told how the cunning critters have dug a network of tunnels to avoid a cull. He said: "Their trench systems are amazing - like something out of the First World War.

"Efforts have been made to poison or even shoot them, but they always get away."

There are fears UK tourists will slip chipmunks into rucksacks or car boots and bring them across the Channel undetected.

There are lessons to be learned here including around the introduction of the psyllid to tackle knotweed.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A puzzle and a predicament

According to Guerilla Welsh Fare last Thursday's Sharp End reported that Alun Davies' rather intolerant criticism of Ieuan Wyn Jones' reluctance to be scrutinised may have got him into trouble.

They said that Plaid Cymu AM, Chris Franks has reported his Labour coalition colleague, Alun Davies to the standards committee after the Labour AM allegedly unleashed 'an outburst riddled with profanity at an Assembly committee meeting'.

The question is does such a complaint exist or is it being mooted by persons-unknown as a means of trying to calm Alun Davies down and get him on-side?

I know that Chris Franks would not get involved in such manoeuvres but there may be some non-elected advisors who might consider that sort of leverage to be very useful.

Fortunately, Alun Davies is too principled to allow himself to be pushed into following a party line if he believes it is not the right thing to do.

Unrest in the ranks

In a report on the Norwich North by-election The Times reveals that all is not well in the Tory camp:

A number of Conservative grandees have sought to express their anger at David Cameron by either refusing to campaign at all in Norwich North, or declining to make the three trips to Norfolk demanded by the whips of all Tory MPs.

A number of stalwart Conservative backbenchers are livid with the party leader, feeling that he acted brutally towards them to demonstrate to voters his hard line over expenses. They believe that they were sacrificed for the sake of the Shadow Cabinet, members of whom they feel were merely told to write a cheque rather than forfeit their reputation and their careers.

One senior Tory insider said: “There is a degree of ‘up yours’ going on. They feel that a) they have done their time and they are on holiday and b) that Cameron has hung them out to dry.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Getting real in a recession

Nick Clegg has given an interview in which he sets out the reality facing the party when it comes to draw up its manifesto for the next election in the face of a recession and the need for spending cuts to rebalance the budget.

Mr. Clegg is clear that the party is not dropping key policies but that the financial mess that faces the next government will mean that some will take longer to bring in. Instead he has prioritised some key areas that will form the headlines of the offering put before electors when they come to vote on the next government:

He announced two rules that will govern his party's policies: no spending commitments without cuts elsewhere to fund them, and, similarly, no promises of tax cuts without increases in other taxes.

Mr Clegg wants to kickstart a debate that he claims Labour and the Tories are denying the voters as they squabble over headline departmental budgets in a Whitehall-speak that leaves ordinary people cold. The first task, he insisted, was to set out the values which inform spending priorities.

"The circumstances are utterly different from anything in the last 15 years. Our shopping list of commitments will be far, far, far, far, far shorter," he said. "We will have to ask ourselves some immensely difficult questions about what we as a party can afford. A lot of cherished Lib Dem policies will have to go on the back burner. They will remain our aspirations. They will remain our policies. But we are not going to kid the British people into thinking we could deliver the full list of commitments we have put to them at the last three or four elections."

Asked if that meant watering down pledges on tuition fees, personal care and pensions, Mr Clegg replied: "Some of these might be retained as policies that we could not honestly place at the forefront of our manifesto because we could not honestly claim they could be delivered in the first few years of the next parliament.

"I hope people will understand these are aspirations we will maintain but that, in these completely different circumstances, you can't carry on promising the same menu of goodies. It is just not plausible."

The Liberal Democrat leader insisted he had not drawn up a hit list of policies to be dropped. "The blunt truth is that everything is vulnerable. All the aspirations remain. We are setting out the criteria by which the Lib Dems will pick and choose from that menu."

The policies that remain priorities are:

* Education £2.5bn "pupil premium" for a million children from disadvantaged backgrounds, smaller classes and extra tuition.
* Tax Raise personal allowance to £10,000, reducing bills for most earners by £705 a year, funded by £17bn package of tax increases including abolition of top-rate tax relief for pension contributions and closing tax loopholes.
* "Green jobs" Package to create zero-carbon homes, insulate existing homes, schools and hospitals, and expand rail network.
* Political reform To clean up politics after MPs' expenses scandal, including proportional representation for Commons, elected House of Lords and state funding for parties.

Other policies that remain as aspirations for when the economy picks up include free tuition for first undergraduate degrees for full and part-time students, free personal care for those over 65 at cost of £2bn, a higher "citizen's pension" with immediate restoration of link between state pension and earnings and a £200 a year winter fuel payment for the disabled.

No jokes please!

I have just spotted this in yesterday's Daily Telegraph but nevertheless thought it was worth highlighting. It is no laughing matter.

The paper reports that Pakistanis who send jokes about Asif Zardari by text message, email or blog risk being arrested and given a 14-year prison sentence. They say that the country's interior minister, Rehman Malik, announced the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) had been asked to trace electronically transmitted jokes that "slander the political leadership of the country" under the new Cyber Crimes Act. Mr Malik, said the move would punish the authors of "ill motivated and concocted stories through emails and text messages against the civilian leadership".

It may well be that the jokes are not very funny, as is illustrated by the following samples provided by the Telegraph:
In fact they are awful and in bad taste, that does not though excuse such a draconian law. Let us hope that Gordon Brown does not get any ideas.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The frustrating process of reform

One of the most frustrating aspects of being involved in politics is how long it takes to get anything done. Combined with the irreversible diminution of the powers of Parliament in the face of international political decision-making and the multi-national economy it is difficult to see how anybody can get anything worthwhile done any more, and yet they do.

Progress in the area of constitutional reform is particularly slow, largely because it has proceeded piecemeal and without any overarching vision on the part of this government, but also because it is considered low priority, only wheeled out when Ministers need a distraction to make voters think that they are changing things. Such has been the fate of the House of Lords, an issue that has been reopened by the Government in recent months but still appears to be going nowhere.

Indeed The Times reports today that hereditary peers could limp on for decades despite Labour introducing legislation this week that ends the principle that sons and daughters of peers can inherit their places in the Lords. It seems that the 92 that remain will only leave the House when they die, or when the Government finally moves towards a fully elected second chamber, which could itself be 20 years away.

The paper says that twelve years after Labour came to power promising to reform the Lords, young hereditary peers such as Lord Freyberg, aged 38, can still look forward to staying there for some time yet.

The current bill life gives peers the right to resign their seats. It also gives the Lords' authorities the power to expel or suspend peers found guilty of misconduct, offers Parliament more say over declarations of war, enhances the independence of the civil service but sadly also limits protests in Parliament Square.

We are going to have to wait for a second much larger Bill in the autumn before MPs can debate plans to turn the current House of Lords into one where 80 or 100 per cent of its members are fully elected and that process will take three Parliaments to complete.

It is a pathetically timid compromise that fails to grasp the need for democratic reform and one that only touches on a small part of the bigger constitutional agenda. There is no vision here at all, just expediency.

Six years

Please excuse the indulgence. I am commemorating the sixth anniversary of me starting this blog today. This is the 4,054th post. By my calculation that is an average of just under two posts a day.

I have also offered to sponsor Jennie Rigg's blog for the next month. She is responsible for this neat little widget which I may steal and make a permanent feature on this site for the next year assuming that I am able to work out how to do so.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A precarious settlement

I reported on the latest crisis to hit David Cameron's new European grouping a few days ago when Edward McMillan-Scott, who is the longest serving Tory MEP had the whip removed for standing against Michal Kaminski, an MEP from the party’s new Polish allies, in a vote for vice-presidents of the Parliament.

Saturday's Daily Telegraph reports that Mr. Kaminski has taken exception to accusations by Mr. McMillan-Scott that he might be a racist. Under the heading 'Feud grips new Tory Euro grouping' they say that leader of the right wing European has threatened legal action against Mr. McMillan-Scott. For his part the now expelled Tory MEP does not give the grouping much chance of success:

He said he would not be surprised if Mr Kamiński and the Polish Law and Justice Party walked out on the Conservatives, and when did the new grouping would "dissolve".

Mr McMillan-Scott had the whip withdrawn last week for standing against Mr Kamiński, who was the group's official candidate, for the post of European Parliament vice president - and beating him.

In his first interview since his expulsion, Mr McMillan-Scott insisted he only stood against Mr Kamiński because of the Pole's extremist "homophobic and racist" views.

He said he repeatedly warned Mr Cameron not to join forces with the Law and Justice Party because of its "distasteful" beliefs.

Yesterday's Observer has a new twist. They reported that one of the most respected figures in the British Jewish community has called on David Cameron to cut all links with the Polish MEP because of his attitude towards a massacre of 1,600 Jews in the north-west Polish town of Jedwabne during the Second World War.

Rabbi Barry Marcus, of the Central Synagogue in London said that he had known for some time that Kaminski, who was Jedwabne's local MP, was involved in 2001 in a campaign to oppose a national apology for the massacre on its 60th anniversary in July 2001.

The rabbi said: "There needs to be some form of statement [from the Conservatives] of disassociation and condemnation. Otherwise they will appear to be condoning these views. Even if one person like this is in power in a democratic process, that is worrying. It is not building bridges. We want to build bridges."

If I were a gambling man I might consider placing a bet on how long Cameron's new European grouping can last. It certainly does not look very durable.

Learning Nothing

It was said of the Bourbons that they learnt nothing and forgot everything. Labour lost in Crewe and Nantwich when they fought an old style class-based campaign that alienated and failed to resonate with the electorate.

Judging by this leaflet they look set to repeat the mistake in Norwich North. This is apparently a genuine piece of literature circulated in that by-election. However, important as it is to retain the ban on fox hunting, it is doubtful if that is the major motivating factor for electors when they go and vote on Thursday.

The news I have heard from the by-election is that the Labour vote has collapsed and that they will be lucky to come third. We will have to see what occurs when all the votes are counted.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

How police abused their powers at the Climate Camp

Cameron will evict protestors

David Cameron's so-called liberal-Conservatism has been undermined a little today with his announcement that he will do what Gordon Brown and Tony Blair failed to do and remove the long standing peace camp in Parliament Square.

Anti-war campaigner Brian Haw has been camping opposite Parliament since 2001, surrounded by banners and placards. He has been joined in the square by other protesters over the years - most recently a large group of Tamils.

Mr Cameron today told Sky News' Sunday Live today a future Tory government would take steps to have the encampment removed on aesthetic grounds. He says that he is in favour of free speech but only, it seems, if can be tucked tidily away out of sight. Does he really want to take on the mantle of Tony Blair's anti-libertarianism?

Controversy to be reopened

Just as it was thought that the storm had abated an emergency hearing of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is to be convened on Tuesday to hear evidence from David Cameron's communications director and former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson over that paper's phone-tapping scandal. He will be joined by Sun editor Rebekah Brooks (née Wade) and former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner. The Independent on Sunday reports:

The Tory spin-doctor, who resigned as the paper's editor two years ago over the affair, will be asked to put on the record a categorical denial that he knew nothing of the illegal activities of journalists on his former paper.

The committee will also focus on whether Mr Coulson can remain as one of Mr Cameron's closest aides in Downing Street, because the phone-tapping scandal happened on his watch. Until last week, Mr Coulson had refused publicly to deny knowledge of the activities of the then royal editor of the paper, Clive Goodman, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.

While there is no suggestion Mr Coulson has misled MPs or done anything wrong, some Tories are concerned that the continuing affair could be damaging to the Conservatives and their relationship with the Royal Family, which was the target of major hacking activity by Goodman.

Members of the select committee are also angry that evidence given to them during their investigation into the affair two years ago by other News of the World executives appeared to stop short of the full story.

Les Hinton, at the time News International chairman, told the committee in 2007 that Goodman had been acting alone. Yet an investigation by The Guardian this month claimed the practice was widespread. News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, who will also be called by the committee, is alleged to have been involved in illegal activity. One committee source said yesterday: "There are some members who believe that the wool was pulled over their eyes when they first investigated this in 2007."

The outcome of this investigation will be crucial in determining whether David Cameron can keep Coulson as his chief spin doctor. The paper says that there are question marks as to whether the Tory leader checked what Mr. Coulson knew before he employed him.

The loss of such an important member of Cameron's team could be a body blow to the Tories though the Independent thinks that Coulson himself may fall on his feet. They believe that he is in line to succeed Rebekah Brooks as editor of The Sun in September.

If you believed they put a man on the moon

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission's landing on the moon. I was just nine years old at the time but I followed the mission avidly right up to those famous words of Neil Armstrong as he placed his feet on the lunar surface.

There is speculation that President Obama is thinking of reviving the American Space Programme and funding more trips to the moon. In the meantime there are some who believe that they have proof that the first moon landing was a fake.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Identitites for sale

The Times reports this morning that the identities of more than four million Britons are being offered for sale on the internet. Apparently, sensitive financial information, including credit card details, bank account numbers, telephone numbers and even PINs are available to the highest bidder.

The paper says that most of the personal data has been gathered as a result of “phishing” — a process whereby members of the public are duped into handing over their key details, such as user names, passwords and credit card details:

Unsuspecting victims hand over the information by e-mail to people posing as reputable sources such as banks or online stores. Other data has been stolen after criminals infect a person’s personal computer with viruses and then raid it for information.

They are then sold to the highest bidder on online forums or hacking websites. Individual credit card details have been sold for as little as 30p. The Times has also learnt that the communications and e-mail systems of some of Britain’s biggest public bodies and private companies are open to possible attacks. This is because the corporate e-mails and passwords have been sold to cybercriminals. The details of policemen, doctors and military personnel are also at risk.

The information being traded on the web has been intercepted by a British company and collated into a single database for the first time. The Lucid Intelligence database contains the records of four million Britons, and 40 million people worldwide, mostly Americans. Security experts described the database as the largest of its kind in the world.

The database, which has been seen by The Times, raises important data protection concerns. The Information Commissioner, the data protection watchdog, is monitoring the development of the database. Police in London have also been informed but no action has been taken.

The database is held by Colin Holder, a retired senior Metropolitan police officer, who served on the fraud squad. He has collected the information over the past four years. His sources include law enforcement from around the world, such as British police and the FBI, anti-phishing and hacking campaigners and members of the public. Mr Holder said he had invested £160,000 in the venture so far. He plans to offset the cost by charging members of the public for access to his database to check whether their data security has been breached.

Most of us knew that this sort of information was vulnerable and that we have to be careful with it. However, the fact that fraud of this nature is going on at such a scale must cause us to pause as to the security of a National Identity Database.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Who has Gordon had to dinner?

The Guardian has published a list of all those Gordon Brown has invited to dinner at Chequers together with some of the gifts he has been presented with by visiting dignitaries.

They include Jimmy Carr, Bruce Forsyth and the former director of the National Theatre Sir Richard Eyre. Other visitors include John Motson, the veteran football commentator, and his wife, Anne, Sir Fred Goodwin, the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lord Myners, the city minister, who led the government charge against Goodwin, Sir Victor Blank, the former chairman of Lloyds TSB, who famously cleared the way for the merger with HBOS after meeting the prime minister at a reception; and Eric Daniels, chief executive of Lloyds TSB and of the merged bank. Rhodri and Julie Morgan are also on the list.

The paper records that the prime minister was given an iPod, CDs and a book (no title given) by George Bush last year. Theophilus III, the Greek Patriarch at the Church of the Nativity, gave Brown an icon painting during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories last July. Whilst two gifts of wine from Nicolas Sarkozy were worth more than £140, meaning they had to be retained by Downing Street.

The full list is here. Interestingly, John Prescott who believed that he and his wife were snubbed by Tony Blair by not being invited to Chequers, is missing from those who were entertained by the current Prime Minister as well.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On local produce

Trust Tory Assembly Member, David Melding to liven up Rural Affairs questions:

David Melding: Minister, are you aware that on the third day of the Ashes test match last Friday at Sophia Gardens, they ran out of Brains beer by lunchtime? I am reliably informed that they underestimated demand, and that many Australians, frustrated by the poor nature of their traditional potations, turned en masse to Brains beer. Does that not underline the point that tourists enjoy visiting places where there is a lot of good fresh local produce, and that this needs to be marketed with even greater vigour in the future?

An interesting thought to go into the summer with.

In which I agree with Ieuan Wyn Jones

There are a number of points on which it is possible to disagree with the Welsh Government's Transport plan but on the fundamental point I find myself in agreement with the Deputy First Minister. That is the need to shift people off roads and onto public transport and the abandonment of plans to build an M4 extension around Newport and a new link road to the Cardiff Wales airport.

It seems to me that the case for an M4 extension has never been made. Despite businessmen arguing that it is vital for the south east Wales economy its £1 billion cost could never be justified. This is not about a small national assembly being unable to afford to build big projects as some have said but the economic and business case not adding up.

To build the road would require it to be tolled and that would discourage traffic from using it. If we tolled both sections of the M4 at this point we would be penalising business people twice for coming into Wales, once at the bridge and subsequently at Newport. Congestion points can be tackled by intelligent use of more limited resources as Ieuan Wyn Jones has suggested and an investment in public transport. That is the way forward.

There was also the issue of the loss of five SSSIs and the environmental damage that the motorway extension would cause. The price tag of such a project is more than just financial. The general rule with all new roads is that they fill up very quickly after they are opened. There is then demand for more roads again. It is a vicious circle that needs to be broken and the best way to do that is by saying no occasionally to the petrol lobby and making other choices.

The issues around the airport link road are similar but frankly a new road is not needed. By all means make five mile lane safer but once you have done so there is a natural route to the airport via the A48. Why waste millions of pounds of public money on tearing up fields to extend this route when a small investment in public transport can produce a better outcome?

On this issue Ieuan Wyn Jones is right and he should be supported.

The use of language part two

To some of us it is effective scrutiny however to the Plaid staff member who writes Guerrilla Welsh Fare, those who seek to hold the Deputy First Minister to account are trying to undermine him.

It is almost as if Ieuan Wyn Jones were a tinpot dictator from South America who is believed to be above criticism. How much more self-absorbed and blinkered can Plaid Cymru get?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Breaking News - First Minister apologises to Kirsty

The First Minister has written to the Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams, to formally apologise for calling her a liar in his press conference yesterday.

Rhodri Morgan had told the press that Kirsty was wrong to allege that civil servants had flown first class. It now emerges that he was misinformed.

I am sure that this story will develop as the day goes on.

More trouble for the Tories

David Cameron's brave new European World suffered another setback yesterday with the loss of one his own MEPs from the new right wing anti-European grouping the Tories have formed in Strasbourg.

Edward McMillan-Scott, who is the longest serving Tory MEP had the whip removed for standing against Michal Kaminski, an MEP from the party’s new Polish allies, in a vote for vice-presidents of the Parliament:

He stood against Mr Kaminski in defiance of orders from Timothy Kirkhope, the Conservative group leader, to give the Pole a free run. Mr McMillan-Scott was elected an independent vice-president of the Parliament. Mr Kaminski failed to win a post and the Tories’ new group was left as the only one without a vice-president.

The disciplining of Mr McMillan-Scott, who has expressed “real concern” about teaming up with “extreme rightwingers”, highlighted tensions among Tory MEPs over Mr Cameron’s decision to shun the parties of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr McMillan-Scott has made it very clear what he thinks of Cameron's direction of travel: “Despite what David Cameron has said there are already indications that some of the members have links with extremist groups and I feel very, very uncomfortable with that,” he said recently. There could be trouble ahead for the Tory leader.

Blair for President!

Just when you thought you were safe the news breaks that the British Government still intends to press ahead with its plan to install Tony Blair as the Supreme President and Ruler of the whole of Europe.

In her first outing as Europe Minister, Gleny Kinnock confirm that Blair has the backing of the UK Government for the post if he is interested in it:

"Blair is seen by many as someone who has the strength of character, the stature," Kinnock said. "People know who he is, and he would be someone who would have this role and step into it with a lot of respect and I think would be generally welcomed."

How quickly peers of the realm become out of touch with the public mood.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

First class

The current controversy about the £700,000 spent by civil servants on credit cards last year reminds me of an old story about overseas travel at a time when the WDA was still in existence.

In a previous government it is reputed that a Cabinet Minister accompanied WDA officials on a trip to the USA. The Minister in question left it to the WDA officials to make the arrangements only to discover that the officials in question were in first class whilst the Minister was required to travel economy.

I do not think that the Minister concerned was very amused.

Manipulated by a cat?

The BBC posted a story yesterday about cats that will not surprise anybody who shares their home with a feline friend.

Apparently, researchers at the University of Sussex have discovered that cats use a "soliciting purr" to overpower their owners and garner attention and food. Unlike regular purring, this sound incorporates a "cry", with a similar frequency to a human baby's. The team said cats have "tapped into" a human bias - producing a sound that humans find very difficult to ignore.

And I thought my cat was just pleased to see me this morning.

Hat Tip to Jonathan Calder

Not in my name

The BNP took up their seats in the European Parliament today

Monday, July 13, 2009

In which I defend the Welsh Affairs Select Committee

The attack on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee from Plaid Cymru AM and former Heritage Minister, Rhodri Glyn Thomas in this morning's Western Mail is bizarre. Not least because in the 12 months he was a Minister he failed to publish himself a single draft of the order to transfer powers on the Welsh Language to the National Assembly.

I am normally the first to criticise MPs over their attitude to Legislative Competence Orders and indeed I am already on record as stating that their approach to the Welsh Language LCO is unusual and unworkable. However, to attack MPs personally for applying pre-legislative scrutiny to an order when that is the role assigned to them by the Government of Wales Act is unfair and difficult to justify.

By all means criticise the process, it is lengthy, unworkable and expensive, and it is also fair game to attack MPs when they cross the line as they did on the Affordable Housing LCO, but in this instance the Welsh Affairs Select Committee raised some legitimate points that need to be considered. What is more their view reflected that of the Assembly's own Legislation Committee.

The fact is that the Welsh Government brought this on themselves by producing an LCO on the Welsh Language packed with contradictions and inconsistencies. Instead of just seeking to transfer law-making powers over the Welsh Language to Wales as Rhodri Glyn Thomas suggests they should have done the Government sought to draft a document that met the objections of all sides and in doing so succeeded in satisfying no-one. It was not so much a legal order as a series of caveats.

An order like that was inevitably going to be criticised as failing to achieve its objectives and that is what happened, on both sides of the Severn Bridge.

If MPs are trying to hamper the LCO process then the Welsh Government is assisting them in that endeavour. WAG are drafting applications for powers as if they were the measures they will generate. The Welsh Government are also rolling over and playing possum far too often. The case of the Housing LCO when a Plaid Cymru advisor actually offered the Secretary of State for Wales a veto is a case in point and undermines Rhodri Glyn Thomas' view that it is just Westminster that is undermining the process.

The Welsh Government are focussing LCOs too narrowly and trying to anticipate all objections when a better use of the powers would to adopt a broad brush approach to law-making functions. They might say that this would lead to delays but surely we are getting those already. It is difficult to see how either the Housing or the Welsh Language LCOs could have been delayed further by more principled drafting of them in the first instance.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas may have some legitimate concerns about the way that the Welsh Affairs Select Committee has dealt with the Welsh Language LCO but lashing out like this achieves nothing. In fact if I did not know better I would suggest that he is actually trying to distract attention from the inadequacies of the Labour-Plaid Cymru One Wales Government and the way that they have mishandled this LCO from the beginning.

A useful fiction – adventures in British democracy by Patrick Hannan

I have published my first attempt at a book review over at Freedom Central. Please treat it gently and read the book, it is very good.

Next on my list is David Melding's 'Will Britain survive beyond 2020?' Don't expect a review of that anytime soon. I really am pushed for time at the moment.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The story behind that Obama photo

The real Plaid Cymru

Four examples of Plaid Cymru's control freakery:

1. Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Janet Ryder is removed from a Legislation Committee after voting against the Government on key amendments on the Learning and Skills Measure.
2. A student is expelled from Plaid Cymru after e-mailing its leader to protest about his party's unprincipled abandonment of a key election pledge on top-up fees.
3. A leading Plaid Cymru Assembly Member defends his leader's aversion to scrutiny by accusing AMs of trying to destabilise the One Wales 'junta'.
4. A leading Plaid Cymru PPC and Councillor is suspended as a candidate for allegedly talking to the media about her dissatisfaction with the direction of the party.

Plaid Cymru could teach New Labour a thing or two about party management.

Will Labour bite the bullet?

Yesterday's Independent reports that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may bite the bullet after all and hold his comprehensive spending review before the General Election so as to be honest with voters as to what is needed to get the books back into balance.

The paper says that Mr. Darling's comments will be seen as a rebuff to Lord Mandelson, the business secretary and first secretary of state, who suggested recently that plans for a government department-by-department spending review had been abandoned ahead of the election:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown also warned that it would be a mistake for the Government to try to set departmental budgets for up to three years ahead at a time when economic outlook was so uncertain.

But with whichever party wins the next election expected to have to make deep cuts in order to rebuild the public finances in the wake of the recession, Mr Darling said it was important to "try to level with people".

"I'm very clear that we do have to tell people the lie of the land. People will understand there are uncertainties but we do have to set out our stall. Public spending will be tighter than it has been in the past," he said.

"People will need to know where we stand and what judgments we are likely to make if we are faced with difficult situations."

Difficult as it may be for the Government to set out the reality of the situation facing public expenditure prior to an election such honesty would be welcome. It would also let the Welsh Assembly know where it stands for the next three years and enable the Government here to plan ahead.

The target culture

Whoever said that this government was obsessed with targets was most probably right. Exhibit One, this order to Ministers from Number 10:

Government sources say the prime minister, who will take a short UK holiday with his family in August, banged his finger on the table at a recent cabinet meeting, telling ministers: "You have to be careful with your holidays this year." An insider said: "This was taken to mean, 'don't go too far and don't go for too long'."

The order was followed up by a forceful memo written by Paul Brown, the No 10 official in charge of scheduling government announcements, which makes it clear the summer recess is not a time to slacken pace. Departments must announce two "items of business" each week from 27 July to 11 September.

Duty ministers must be in London during their stint. "The prime minister wants business to be fronted by ministers and expects duty ministers to be on duty in London or on departmental visits at all times," it states. Previously, duty ministers came to London only when a crisis broke.

Actually, I quite agree about one thing at least, recess is not a holiday and I intend to work through most of it. David Cameron has a more relaxed attitude:

A source close to David Cameron said the Tory leader would be issuing no such orders: "David takes the view that people deserve a good holiday."

I suspect that once the media start demanding opposition responses to Government recess initiatives, his tone will change pretty sharpish.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Double trouble for the Tories

Whilst David Cameron continues to face serious pressure to axe Andy Coulson as Tory communications chief over claims about phone hacking at the News of the World, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw has opened a second front that could potentially give the Conservatives much more grief.

He has decided to accept an amendment in the House of Lords that will have the effect of placing a ban on non-residents and so-called "non-doms" making donations to political parties. The amendment, tabled by the campaigning peer Lord Campbell-Savours, is designed to force the Tory donor Lord Ashcroft to clarify his tax affairs:

Campbell-Savours said: "We have the moral high ground. The government is being very reasonable about this. I know this is very difficult for all concerned. I am very pleased the justice secretary believes we have a good case." The veteran Labour peer tabled his amendment last month to put pressure on Ashcroft. The Tory deputy chairman, who has directed millions of pounds to help his party target marginal seats, was granted a peerage in 2000 after agreeing to become resident in Britain for tax purposes. He refuses to discuss his tax status. Straw had informed Labour MPs earlier this week that they would face a three-line whip to overturn the Campbell-Savours amendment when the political parties and elections bill returns to the Commons on Monday. The justice secretary said that the amendment would have no impact on Ashcroft because he makes donations to the Tories through his company, Bearwood Corporate Services, and not as an individual.

The government still believes that the ban will have no impact on Ashcroft. But Straw believes that a change in law will put pressure on the Tory peer to clarify his tax status. "This will not deal with Lord Ashcroft," a government source said. "But it will deal with those who make donations as individuals. It establishes a clear principle. It will put pressure on Lord Ashcroft and will heighten questions about his tax status."

There are still questions as to whether Lord Ashcroft has complied with his pledge to become resident in the UK as one of the conditions of him taking a seat in the House of Lords. Lord Ashcroft has repeatedly refused to say whether he is legally resident in the UK and whether he pays UK income tax. The Conservative Party itself has also refused to answer such queries, with David Cameron deflecting questions and saying that are not a matter for him (even though Ashcroft takes the Conservative Party whip in the Lords and works in Conservative Central Office).

This additional provision will very much put the spotlight on the way that Ashcroft is currently bankrolling marginal seats for the Tories without having those issues resolved.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Politicians and twitter

I have been asked to go on 'Good Morning Wales' tomorrow to talk about the use politicians make of twitter following an item in the Western Mail in which a senior academic suggested that keeping our remarks to 140 characters or less would be a good discipline and help us cut back on waffle and jargon.

David Crystal, professor of linguistics at Bangor University, was giving evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee, which is investigating the spread of jargon into political discourse. They have cited numerous examples of largely meaningless phrases commonly used by politicians, including “best practice”, “stakeholder engagement” and “core values”.

Prof Crystal added: “All groups have their jargon. It’s when that jargon becomes opaque to the outsider, when the people say it isn’t enough just to talk to each other, you have to talk to the outside world and they forget the demands of the audience, that’s when it becomes tricky.”

The committee’s inquiry was prompted after one of its members, Newport West MP Paul Flynn, was confronted by a sentence in an official document consisting entirely of acronyms.

As part of its investigation the committee is looking at an apparent paradox – official forms and letters to the public have become better and clearer over the decades, while the language used by politicians and civil servants has become more oblique.

Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP turned parliamentary sketch-writer and broadcaster, told the MPs: “The public are not fooled by this sort of thing. The new vice is the attempt to talk in a kind of falsely simple language – ‘vision’ and ‘passion’ and ‘core values’ and ‘level playing fields’ and the rest, which the public instantly recognise as public service-speak.

“I don’t think the public are fooled.”

What to say? Twitter is just a tool and no matter how many words you restrict a politician too they will use appropriate phrases to get their point across. That is because communication is the essence of politics and if it involves creating new word combinations to get a particular message across then that is what will be done.

Thus the decade-long emphasis on 'working families' to imply that the Labour Government is on the side of 'ordinary decent folk' presumably at the cost of the unemployed, the disabled and anybody else who does not have work, is a good example of a simple phrase designed to spin a myth or a story and generate support.

This is not 'public service speak' as Matthew Parris states, it is part of our political discourse and it can all be contained in a Twitter message. Politicians already have the discipline that Twitter allegedly offers. Irrespective of the medium neither they or government will give up the jargon, because it is intricately linked to their work.

The value that the social networking site offers is not the ability to be succinct but the opportunity to communicate with a different constituency. As ever the language used will be adapted to meet the needs of those who will read our messages. That is the nature of the business.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Undermining the Government

Vaughan Roderick has details of a stormy meeting of the Assembly's Finance Committee today that, once it had slipped into private session became more and more confrontational.

The source of the disagreement was the Economy and Transport Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones and his famed reluctance to be scrutinised. The Finance Committee has been trying to get their hands on a document relating to the Minister's transport policy for some weeks now and for a time it looked as if they were going to get their way.

The plan was that the document would be released this Monday 13th July so that the Committee could consider it on Wednesday 15th and use it to finalise their report before recess. However, the Minister threw a spanner in the works this morning when it was revealed that publication had been put back until the very last day of term effectively delaying the Committee's further enquiries until September.

This provoked some considerable anger amongst Committee members who, I understand were less than complimentary about the Deputy First Minister and his general competence. After the tea break a prominent Plaid Cymru member apparently accused other members of using the situation for political advantage and of seeking to undermine the One Wales Government. As if!

It seems that Plaid Cymru have still not got used to the idea of effective scrutiny and some of their number at least believe that once in Government they should be above criticism. In any case the member concerned got his comeupance when his accusations were met, according to Vaughan, with the rather crude put-down that "It's not this committee that's undermining the government it's your f***ing Minister".

Rumours that this rebuke came from a Labour Assembly Member cannot at this stage be confirmed and because the Committee was in private session it will not appear on the record.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Tory pledges support for reform of Barnett formula

Yesterday's Plenary debate on ten years of devolution was a good knock-about not least for the Welsh Liberal Democrat amendment that the Assembly 'does not support independence for Wales'. This amendment was supported by all parties other than 12 Plaid Cymru members who then allowed the amended motion to go through unopposed. A good example of political confusion if ever I saw it.

However, it is difficult to see what the hour long discussion achieved. Surely we would have been better off discussing government legislation or key policy issues.

By far the most entertaining speech was that by Mark Isherwood whose grasp of rhetorical devices is unrivalled in the chamber. Whether it is effective rhetoric is a matter for discussion, especially when Mark's words get him into trouble:

It is no wonder that, semi-facetiously, in a recent opinion poll, 10 per cent clapped Rhodri Morgan’s achievements; 90 per cent wanted him clapped in irons. Some 10 per cent considered that Ieuan Wyn Jones was a legend in his own lifetime; 90 per cent considered him a story to frighten children with at bedtime.

When the Richard commission produced its unanimous report recommending that we move to full law-making powers in devolved areas by 2011, the Labour Party fell apart. Its AMs and MPs could not agree, so, instead, it produced this dog’s breakfast of a scheme that we are currently working with, which the Labour chair of the commission, Lord Richard, described as a tortuous route.

Bethan Jenkins: It is all well and good for you to criticise, but the reports coming from the Tories on devolution are fudged. Will your party get its act together in this regard?

Mark Isherwood: Each of us will vote according to our own conscience—[Laughter.] At an All-Wales Convention event in Mold, I pledged my support.

I was quite intriqued by Mark's assertion that Welsh Conservatives believe in funding the Welsh Assembly with a needs-based funding formula. That is certainly a spectacular u-turn on their part as it goes against all their previous pronouncements on the matter. I await official confirmation.

However there is no doubting Mark's passion for his politics as his final remarks show:

Devolution provides an opportunity for Wales to do things differently and for different approaches to be road-tested on either side of the border, but the objective must be to do things better rather than to do things differently just for the sake of it. We must avoid at all costs a slate curtain in services between these two British nations. Never has so much been spent by so few to such little effect. Socialism only works in two places, but those in heaven do not need it and those in hell already have it.

Potential for conflict

The Assembly Finance Minister has announced himself a convert to fiscal reform following yesterday's publication of the Holtham report on how devolved administrations are funded. However, whether his enthusiasm will be shared by his Westminster colleagues has yet to be seen.

In the chamber just now the Minister has denied that the Secretary of State for Wales is opposed to reform yet it is difficult to see how Peter Hain's remarks in today's Western Mail can be interpreted in any other way:

Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain said: "Gerry Holtham is a well-respected figure and his interesting report to the Assembly Government clearly represents significant research, which merits serious consideration.

"I welcome its findings that spending in Wales compares well with comparable English regions, and that existing funding levels are reasonable.

"This means that Barnett has not disadvantaged Wales. Indeed spending per head in Wales is 14% above England compared with 10% above for the North East, which is the poorest English region."

Has he read the same report as everybody else?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The cost of devolution

It is not often that an official government report endorses Liberal Democrat policy but today has been the exception.

The Welsh Government's Holtham Commission report on the way that the Assembly is funded was published earlier and concluded that Wales is losing out by £300m a year. The commission chair, economist Gerald Holtham, warned the underfunding could reach £8.5bn over the next decade, or £2,900 for everyone living in Wales.

The report concludes that a new funding formula is needed to reflect the actual cost of providing services for Wales. A further report on taxation and borrowing powers will follow next year. Mr Holtham said the Barnett formula, drawn up by the Labour government in the late 1970s, was "arbitrary" and in "urgent need of reform".

He wants a needs-based system which will take into account factors such as the age of the population and levels of poverty. That is very much in line with Welsh Liberal Democrat policy and the manifesto commitment of the Liberal Democrats at a Federal level at the last General Election to review the Barnett formula through a Federal Finance Commission.

As an interim measure, the report suggests the Treasury amend the Barnett formula to effectively freeze funding at the current level. This would, according to the commission, stop the money Wales receives being gradually eroded compared to England's funding.

The Finance Minister is expected to make a statement on this report next term. That gives him the whole summer to persuade the UK Government to take notice of the recommendations and offer some way forward on them.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Wales sets the pace - first impressions

One hundred and eight recommendations, an end to taxpayers paying mortgage interest for Assembly Members, a bar on claiming for furniture and fittings on second homes, the abolition of the overnight allowance, receipts to be provided for every claim, no employment of AMs' family members in future and a statutory independent body to determine pay and allowances in the future.

These are just some of the recommendations of the Sir Roger Jones report into Assembly Members pay and allowances. Others include better training for AMs and staff, cuts in the resettlement grant and more environmentally friendly mileage rates.

It is likely that the Assembly Commission will accept all of the recommendations and draw up an implementation plan. The Presiding Officer will make a statement to the Assembly on Wednesday, not from the Chair like Speaker Martin, but from the floor of the Senedd so that AMs can ask questions.

The Welsh Assembly has already set an example for Westminster to follow with the on-line publication of allowance claims now we are setting the pace for the rest of UK with a series of reforms designed to make the system more acceptable to the public, more understandable and transparent.

It is not perfect but it is a start.

Blogging will be light

Really busy day today starting with a meeting of the Assembly Commission to receive and consider Sir Roger Jones' report on Assembly Members' Allowances. It is rumoured that there will be over a hundred recommendations. The report will be made public after 2.30pm.

Following that I have a College Council meeting in Swansea and then a PACT meeting. I suspect I will not be at a keyboard again until this evening.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

A voucher too far

Just when you thought that the old ideological Conservatives had been sacrificed on the altar of Cameronism and electability, the shadow international development secretary pops his head above the parapet with another barking mad scheme.

Andrew Mitchell is proposing to inject free-market thinking into development policy by giving aid vouchers will be given to millions of people in the poorest parts of the world so they can shop around for the best schools and services.

He says that a Conservative government would also spend part of the £9.1bn overseas aid budget on funding for private schools across the developing world, which it believes would achieve better results than state schools and drive up standards overall.

The test of any policy must surely be how it improves the situation it applies to. In this case it is difficult to see how that works. However, as Oxfam points out in many countries there is no choice at all: "in many poor countries there are no services available, full stop. There is a chronic shortage of teachers, nurses, doctors, infrastructure and materials. What is needed is aid money invested in helping poor countries build and maintain free public health and education systems."

Kevin Watkins, director of Unesco's Global Monitoring Report on education, adds: "This is using vulnerable people to advance an ideologically loaded, market-based vision for education, which would exclude millions of kids from school. It completely overlooks the achievements of publicly financed, publicly provided education in countries such as Ethiopia and Tanzania."

Claire Melamed, of ActionAid, chips in as well: "It is the duty of all governments, rich and poor, to provide every child with a decent education. ActionAid's experience in over 40 countries tells us very clearly that, rather than using scarce resources to develop private schools for a few children, governments and civil society groups should concentrate on improving the quality and quantity of state provision that is available to all."

With ideological imperatives failing to fit in with economic and social realities this policy will be difficult to defend.

Twitter - a sceptic writes

John Rentoul has an interesting article on Twitter in today's Independent on Sunday in which he comes to the same conclusion as a lot of other people - Twitter and other social networking sites are just a tool that enable you to communicate with different audiences. Nevertheless, he says so in a much more entertaining manner:

Mostly, the new media are more "democratic" than the traditional media, because they are so much more open – with not just hundreds of TV channels but millions of YouTube users. Anyone can start a blog. But media traffic between politicians and the rest of us is still bound to be mostly one-way. Interactive nonsense (press the red button now) is almost always a gimmick. The idea of instant, interactive democracy will always come up against the problem that there are few representatives and many represented. If enough people feel strongly about something, they have always had ways of making their views known to politicians. In the old days they would riot, or break into newspaper offices and throw printing presses out of windows, or chain themselves to railings, or throw themselves under horses. Or, more sedately, sign petitions. Computers and mobile phones give people more and different ways of receiving news, and more and different ways of protesting about news that they don't like. But the basic relationship is the same.

However he does have an answer to those who believe that politicians should be making better use of their time:

The obvious objection, if you don't find it clever or witty, is that the minister must surely have better things to do with his time. But Tom Harris, the Labour MP who was sacked as a junior transport minister by Brown, once mounted a spirited defence of his ability to carry out his ministerial duties and to write about Doctor Who on his blog at the same time. He was right. It is good for politicians to have interests in life beyond politics. I thought better of him for it, just as I warmed to Tom Watson, despite his leading role in Tony Blair's downfall, when he wrote about music, books and the internet. But my better opinion is simply a by-product of their personality coming through a medium that suits them.

Just as in the old days politicians might talk on the traditional media, or at public meetings, or over a cup of tea, about a cultural life including politics, now they can do part of that on the internet. But that should not be confused with some magical new way of communicating with the voters. It's just chat. Or, as we must learn to call it, Twittering.

Ultimately the use of social media by politicians is a matter of choice. There is no point doing it if you do not believe in it or are not going to make the most of it. As with so many other things in politics people can tell if you are just going through the motions.

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