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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Plaid Cymru lose their way

Swansea and Llanelli have traditionally maintained a friendly rivalry that often manifests itself on the rugby field but is also evident elsewhere. Nevertheless, the good citizens of Swansea may well be bemused as they drive down Fabian Way towards the motorway to find that one group in Llanelli at least is seeking to annex the City's eastern suburbs.

This poster advertising Plaid Cymru's Llanelli Team is situated next to the McDonalds on the approaches to Swansea. It urges residents to 'Think Llanelli Think Plaid', a noteworthy slogan if only it were not situated a good 20 miles and a 30 minute drive from the constituency boundaries.

It is not even as if Plaid could excuse their geographical inexactitude by arguing that it was meant to catch voters on the way home. To view the poster one has to be driving in the opposite direction to Llanelli on a road that has no connection with it whatsoever. Have Plaid Cymru lost their way already?

It's a secret

The Western Mail reports that we are going to have to wait another seven years before we can find out why Wales was left with a massively inferior form of devolution compared to Scotland.

Personally, I am more interested in what pressure was applied on and by Ron Davies in terms of the contents of the Government of Wales Act 1998. However, much of this information is academic by now.

Perhaps we should stop obsessing about it and get on with winning a referendum to start to put things right later this year.

Tories take fright at Vince

The Tories were pretty gung-ho on Twitter about the performance of their shadow Chancellor, George Osborne in the three-way debate on Monday. In truth, it was a triumph of expectation over reality. So little was expected of Osborne that as long as he avoided making any errors then he would be seen as a success.

It was not so easy for Vince Cable, despite accusations that he is able to be more circumspect because he may never become Chancellor. In actual fact given the way the polls are going, it is very likely that Vince Cable will have some government role after the election and in any case he and the Liberal Democrats have always been careful to ensure that our election manifesto promises are deliverable. Vince's problem is that expectations of him were very high. Fortunately, he did not disappoint.

What the Tories really thought is revealed in today's Times, which catalogues the stages of panic that ran through their ranks as the debate unfolded. The paper reports that the Conservatives complained to the programme makers three times during Monday night’s television debate between the candidates for Chancellor, accusing them of skewing coverage in favour of Vince Cable. They say that at one point during the Channel 4 Ask the Chancellors programme senior Tories phoned the hotline to the production staff claiming that the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman was receiving too much applause.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A small matter of costing promises

Even amongst political parties there used to be an unwritten rule that if you are going to make promises at an election then you should at least make an effort to demonstrate how you are going to pay for them.

It is for this reason that the Tories are so wary about being too specific on what they will do if they ever reach government, that Tony Blair famously promised to match Tory spending plans for two years in 1997 and why the Liberal Democrats always seek to get their figures checked by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. It is not something that Plaid Cymru tend to do too rigorously but then they are not a serious party of government on the UK stage.

For some reason Labour appear to have abandoned this rule this time. Maybe they think that because they are in government they can get away with it, but surely people will be asking how they are going to fund the Trident programme, what money they will be using to pay for high speed rail links and the Severn Barrage and, as of today, how they are going to pay for their policy on social care.

Indeed that is precisely the question being asked by Age Concern. For them the issue is not so much Labour's alleged u-turn on a £20,000 "death tax" as the fact that over the next two to three years alone, with public spending cuts there could be a £2 billion hole opening up in the care budget.

Andrew Harrop, director of public policy at Age Concern, told the Today programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday: "The problem with these proposals is, is there enough money to pay for them?

"We really don't know whether these proposals will be funded adequately. Over the next two to three years alone with public spending cuts we could see a huge almost £2 billion hole open up in the care budget.

"So far we have only seen a few hundred million of new money promised. We need to have that hole closed over three years before we even look at the long term funding."

He added: "The politicians have to be frank about this. Over the next three years we think a hole of £1.75 billion is going to open up."

He is absolutely right. I do not think that any party has a satisfactory solution to this problem. Indeed it looks as if we are going to just mend and make-do for the most part. However, the recent trend of Labour Ministers making eye-catching policy proposals to tackle issues they have failed to face up to in the last 13 years in the run-up to the election does have a price tag.

It is possible that the reason that they did not do these things in any of their last three terms was because they could not be afforded. In which case the moral imperative to say how they will pay for them now is even greater.

As it is the Spitting Image sketch of a hungover Tory Cabinet waking up in Number 10 after the 1992 General Election after having trashed the place because they thought they might lose could apply to Labour several times over in a few months time.

These announcements have all the hallmarks of Cabinet Ministers determined to go out with a bang. If by some chance they do end up back in government for another five years they may well regret having spoken out. After all they will have to deliver enormously expensive promises in the context of having already maxed out the country's credit and needing to find a way of paying it back.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Vince sums up

Campaigning in pink chinos and Barbours

The vast majority of ordinary people who remain opposed to fox hunting will be bemused by the news that the Tories will be enlisting the barbour cavalry to help them win marginal seats this time. The Independent reports:

Hundreds of hunt supporters are under orders to ride into action in key marginal seats within hours of a general election being called, in the knowledge that David Cameron will allow a return to hunting with dogs if he gets to Downing Street.

Documents seen by The Independent show that hunt masters have been rounding up supporters and sending them to the most fiercely contested seats, ahead of a big push planned for the first 72 hours of campaigning. A letter from one Tory candidate, while thanking the huntsmen and women for their support, pleaded with them not to invade his constituency like the cavalry, "cantering into town in pink chinos and Barbours".

Hunt organisers have told supporters that the sport needs a decisive Conservative victory – Mr Cameron is expected to allow MPs a free vote on letting traditional hunting resume. A message to members of the Avon Vale Hunt, which has operated in Wiltshire for 122 years, warns that it could soon cease to exist unless the Tories secure an outright majority. The hunt chairman, Tim Page, wrote: "I would like us all to reflect on what is at stake if we do not succeed in helping get a Conservative government elected at the forthcoming general election, and, importantly with a sufficient majority to give the time to a free vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act 2004."

We really do live in interesting times.

Do it yourself posters

The proposal by Labour to enlist its supporters to design its first set of billboard posters for the election campaign has come in for a fair amount of derision on Twitter and blogs, especially from the Tories, but actually it is not that bad an idea.

Anybody who has seen what the internet has done to both Conservative and Labour campaign posters in recent months will know that there is a good deal of talent out there. Furthermore, recruiting the poachers as gamekeepers always helps to limit the damage.

I think the other point is that given the state of morale within the Labour Party, anything that gives their activists a direct stake in the campaign must be beneficial to them. And why spend too much money on expensive ad agencies when it is better spent getting the message across on doorsteps?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Same old Tories

The Sunday Times reports that even on the eve of the General Election David Cameron continues to have troubles with his backwoodsmen, who seemed determined to prevent him modernising the Tories.

Sam Gyimah, 33, an entrepreneur who was chosen to fight the safe seat of East Surrey, has faced smears over his business dealings.

Last Monday Gyimah’s enemies succeeded in forcing an emergency meeting of the local Conservative association to consider whether he should be removed as a candidate.

Supporters of Gyimah, who was president of the Oxford Union and is a member of the party’s “A-list” of preferred candidates, claim the deselection attempt was racially motivated. “There is a Taliban tendency in East Surrey,” said a senior Tory from the area. “They lurk in the forests of the North Downs, waiting to fire their missiles. These are the sort of people who start sentences by saying, ‘I’m not racist but . . .’”

Although Gyimah has so far fended off the attempt to deselect him, the row is potentially embarrassing for Cameron, who is keen to portray his party as “modern” and “progressive”.

The dispute follows an attempt by Tories in South West Norfolk to deselect Elizabeth Truss, another A-lister, after it emerged she had had an affair with a married Conservative MP.

Cameron's problem is that episodes such as this cast doubt over how much control he really exerts over his party and whether the changes he has introduced are far-reaching or just skin deep. If Tory activists can openly defy his attempts to reform the party this close to the election then how can we have any confidence it will not be the same-old-same-old afterwards?

What is in a name?

As I have started off today focussing on the quirky I thought it was worth highighting an article in the film section of today's Observer looking at what happens to film titles when they are translated into other languages.

Translation is not an exact art of course especially when many of these film titles are idioms thus the latest Sandra Bullock film, The Blind Side, which refers to an obscure tactic in American football has become A Possible Dream in Portugal, The Awaking of a Champion in French Canada and Big Mike in Poland. It is a sad reflection on the Americanisation of British culture that we did not seek to rename it over here as well.

Some of the other title changes are a bit more entertaining. Stephen Spielberg's Jaws for example became La Dents de la Mer or The Teeth of the Sea in France, though the sequel La Dents de la Mer 2 is best not said out loud for fear that it might be heard as The Teeth of Shit.

There are also translations that inadvertently give away the plot, thus in Italy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind became If you leave me I delete you, whilst in Mexico Thelma and Louise was transcribed as An Unexpected End. In Germany the Austin Powers Sequel was marketed as The Spy in the Secret Missionary Position and in Japan Basic Instinct became Smirk of Ice and Being John Malkovitch was renamed as Malkovitch's Hole.

China however has the renaming of films down to a fine art. Their alternative title for Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights was His Great Device Makes Him Famous. That is not a change that can easily be surpassed.

Quote of the Week

"If I could wish for one change in the world it would be that everybody could afford my shoes"

Christian Louboutin, Observer Magazine 28 March 2010

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Catholic church in disarray on child abuse allegations

This morning's Times reports that the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland will be pressed to quit if he refuses to resign over the growing child abuse scandal. According to the article the Vatican believes that nothing less than Cardinal Sean Brady’s resignation will diminish fury at the highest levels in Rome over his role in paedophile priest cover-ups.

Dr Brady’s exit, after the resignations of two other bishops, would set in train a Catholic reformation in the country. Other bishops are also expected to go after the influential Tablet journal called for the forced retirement of nearly all as the mood in Ireland reaches “zero tolerance”.

Dr Brady apologised last week for his role in a church tribunal on allegations made by a 14-year-old boy against Brendan Smyth, a priest whose case brought down the Irish Government in 1994. The victim was sworn to secrecy after the proceedings.

But the view in Rome is that this has not gone far enough and there has been no popular groundswell of support for Dr Brady in Ireland.

My view is that this sort of clear out is absolutely necessary but it cannot be the end of the matter. An official investigation by the Northern Ireland Assembly is likely and this will hopefully lead to widespread reform throughout the province. The Catholic Church cannot be exempt from that and I would hope that whoever ends up heading that institution cooperates fully with such an inquiry and does not indulge in the sort of cover-up that has been typical of the church's reponse in the past.

The Catholic Church cannot hope either that a widespread clear-out of its senior clergy in Northern Ireland brings to an end its own embarrassment over this issue. There are still unanswered questions as to the Pope's involvement in covering up child abuse allegations in the United States when he was a Cardinal.

The BBC reports that these allegations have surfaced in the US to the effect that Pope Benedict failed to take action before his election as pontiff over a serious case at a school for deaf children in the state of Wisconsin.

They say that: Hardly a day goes by without new cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests somewhere in the world being reported in the media.

A crisis has broken out for the Catholic Church which for decades swore bishops and Vatican officials who dealt with cases of priestly paedophilia to secrecy.

Fr Lombardi, the official Vatican spokesman who is also director of Vatican Radio and Vatican TV, has been working overtime on what has developed into a major damage-control mission organised by the secretariat of state - the small group of top Vatican officials who advise the Pope on policy matters.

In practically every country paedophilia is punished as a serious crime.

The Catholic Church teaches that it is also a particularly grave sin, in theory subject to extreme sanctions, but the evidence is that priests accused of molesting children were usually moved to another parish rather than being punished or removed from office.

The Vatican department headed by Joseph Ratzinger consistently seemed to listen to the priests rather than to their victims and tried to sweep all details under the carpet.

The rather lame excuse for lack of any action by the Vatican given by Fr Lombardi in the case of Fr Lawrence Murphy is that canon law, as Church law is called, "does not envision automatic penalties".

If the Pope himself cannot rise above this morass due to his own failure to act decisively in a previous role it may be that the only way for this to be resolved satisfactorily is for him to vacate the Holy See. After all, if that is what is required in Ireland why should Rome be any different?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tory Shakespeare abuse - a pedant writes

I am getting increasingly irritated by the phrase coined by the Tories to describe the period of industrial action that we are going through at present. To be fair the term 'spring of discontent' is quite clever in that it harks back to and evokes memories of the winter of 1978/79 which led directly to the defeat of the last Labour Government. However, Shakespeare it is not. The words do not even make sense as a metaphor.

It is difficult to imagine Richard III intoning "Now is the spring of my discontent", not least because the change destroys the rhythm and metre of the line. However, the reason the original phrase works is because of the contrast the King draws between the coldest season, where trees and plant life are dying back, animals are hibernating and men and women are drawing close to the fire for comfort and warmth, with the glorious summer, a natural celebration made by the life-giving sun.

Spring is a bit wishy-washy to have any place in this comparison and in any case it does not tend to generate discontent. Instead it evokes images of a reawakening, a rebirth dominated by blossom and new-born lambs. It is a time for joy not discontent, a time to look forward not backwards.

If I was asked to think of another metaphor to sum up the series of strikes facing us I do not think that I could but that is no reason to corrupt Shakespeare. The nearest literary allusion I can come up with is to repeat T.S. Elliot's lamentation that 'April is the cruellest month'. That is something that Gordon Brown may well discover for himself if things continue as they are.

Darling's Financial black hole

It is less than two days since the Chancellor of the Exchequer sat down after delivering his budget and already his sums are being questioned.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies said hefty tax rises and Whitehall spending cuts of 25% were in prospect during the six-year squeeze lasting until 2017 that would follow the chancellor's "treading water" budget yesterday:

Robert Chote, the IFS's director, said he was wary of the chancellor's claims that he could raise £11bn through efficiency savings, and added that capital investment in Britain's infrastructure would bear the brunt of the cuts. Current Treasury plans implied reductions in capital spending of almost 15% a year for the next four years, Chote said.

The IFS used its post-budget analysis to spell out what was in store for Whitehall departments, but said there appeared to be only a modest difference between the plans of the two main parties.

Assuming that the Conservatives wanted to eliminate Britain's structural deficit over a five-year parliament, a David Cameron government would have to find an extra £8bn of savings.

The thinktank said Labour's plans implied a cumulative decline of 11.9% in departmental spending on public services and administration over four years, a cut of £46bn in inflation-adjusted terms.

But a two-year government pledge to protect spending on the NHS and schools, and to raise overseas aid to the UN target of 0.7% of national output, will result in deeper cuts of 20% for those departments not protected, the IFS said. If the government continued to spare health and education for a further two years, departments such as transport, defence and the Home Office would face budget reductions of 25%.

The IFS said that the planned austerity would reduce public spending as a share of the economy from just over 27% to below 21% and return it to its level in the late 1990s, when it began a decade-long rise. A government that wanted to slash the deficit without inflicting such deep cuts would have to raise taxes or reduce welfare payments instead, the IFS added.

Chote said there was a lack of clarity about how either Labour or the Conservatives planned to tackle deficit reduction. "There are an awful lot of judgments still be made, or revealed, notably with regards to public spending over the next parliament. This greater-than-necessary vagueness allows the opposition to be vaguer than necessary, too."

The budget, Chote added, had failed to provide a detailed picture to voters and the financial markets of the "fiscal repair job" in prospect after the election.

Essentially, the budget has raised more questions than it answers about the choices available to voters at the next General Election. Neither Labour or the Tories are being honest about what they will do if they form the next government.

As if to add insult to injury Darling has also sneaked through another real term tax rise by freezing personal allowances, something spotted straight away by Clegg but later picked up by the Tories.

This £50 a year extra burden for ordinary working people contrasts massively with Liberal Democrat plans to increase the allowance to £10,000, taking millions out of tax altogether and making many more £700 a year better off.

The Liberal Democrats will be going into this election as the party of social justice and honesty on both our financial position and on cleaning up politics. We are offering a clear alternative to the samey mush being put forward by Labour and the Tories. Bring it on!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Early election posters

The imminence of the General Election has inevitably got people thinking about their messages, both positive and negative. This one from a student at Aberystwyth University.

Those bizarre myths about Barack Obama

This morning's Daily Telegraph carries a report about a survey carried out in America about the attitude of hardline Republicans to their President. The results are frankly freaky and shows that some people will believe virtually anything they are told:

The survey showed that 24 per cent of Republican respondents agreed with the statement that the president might be the Antichrist, and 38 per cent thought he was "doing many of the things Hitler did."

According to the poll 67 per cent of Republicans thought President Obama was a socialist, 57 per cent thought that he was secretly a Muslim, 42 per cent believed he was "racist," and 61 per cent thought that he wants to abolish gun ownership.

It also found that 51 per cent of Republicans thought that he wants to turn over the US to a single world government, and 22 per cent believed "he wants the terrorists to win."

I guess politics in the USA is slightly more partisan and personal than it is over here then.

Assembly Commission questions

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Business as usual?

Sitting in a half empty chamber this afternoon, it is not difficult to see why we are having problems getting universal acceptance of the Assembly by the Welsh electorate. The refusal of Labour and Plaid Cymru Assembly Members to cross the PCS picket lines may well be principled but it does nothing to enhance this institution in the eyes of the public.

One also has to question what those principles are when both Plaid Cymru and Labour MPs have been content to cross picket lines in Westminster to take part in the budget debate. The contrast is stark. It implies that Westminster MPs are serious about the process of government whereas the two governing parties in Cardiff Bay are not.

The arguments advanced by Plaid Cymru MPs as to why they are able to cross picket lines but their AMs should not are astonishing. They e-mailed David Cornock to say: "It is [also] inconceivable that Members of Parliament representing Plaid Cymru should not attend the budget debate today.

“It was a tough decision between supporting the strikers and the importance of the up and coming budget on public sector workers given the agenda of the two main parties in Westminster.

"There is a difference between this and the meaningless attempts by opposition parties in Cardiff Bay to score petty political points during such a worrying time for so many public sector workers.

“Their actions show how little they care for the people affected by the Westminster government's plans to cut redundancy payments."

So Plaid Cymru are arguing that Westminster is important whereas the Welsh Assembly is not. What a bizarre position for a nationalist party to take. I certainly support the right of civil servants to strike, have sympathy with their case and want talks to take place to resolve the dispute. But I am also committed to the devolution process and to Welsh Government and it is my judgement that failing to do the job we are paid for will undermine the case for subsidiarity and the campaign for full legislative powers. We are a National Assembly not a vehicle for gesture politics.

It may well be that Labour and Plaid will argue that they are able to carry out this boycott because there is no government business but not only are opposition day debates an important part of the scrutiny process but the remuneration measure that we are discussing today is a vital part of the drive to clean up politics. Do Labour and Plaid really have nothing to say on that issue? Does it not speak volumes that they have opted to stay in their constituency offices rather than scrutinise this important piece of legislation?

Today has been a poor one for Welsh devolution. This is the second time that the process of governance has been undermined by unrelated industrial action and there is a possibility that it may happen again. That is not a situation that Parliament would find itself in as Ministers there take their responsibilities seriously. It is a shame that this is not the case in Cardiff Bay.

The Cardiff Crachach gravy train

There is astonishing news in this morning's Western Mail that following a shake-up of senior civil servants within the Assembly Government seven “director general” posts have been created in an allegedly streamlining move aimed at cutting overall costs. All seven of these 'director generals' will be earning more than £120,000.

Professor Brian Morgan, of the Creative Leadership and Enterprise Centre at Uwic’s Cardiff School of Management sums up the problem: “It used to be the case that government departments had a permanent secretary with two deputy secretaries beneath them. that is obviously no longer enough for the Welsh Assembly Government.

“Now there are effectively seven deputy secretaries, all on salaries of over £120,000. In Whitehall terms, the Assembly is a small department and it makes no sense to have so many chiefs.”

However, it is worse than that. Although the Permanent Secretary claims that there is a net saving, questions remain as to what is happening to the remaining members of the 16 strong management board that this structure replaces. The Welsh Government has a no redundancy policy and my understanding is that like former Chief Executives and Finance Directors in the Health Service most if not all of these people remain employed, even if their job is ill-defined.

A clue lies in the creation of Director posts beneath this layer of senior management, jobs that did not formerly exist and which were resisted previously. How can anybody take the Welsh Government seriously when it behaves in this way, whilst its lower-paid civil servants are engaged in industrial action to protect their jobs and their pay and conditions?

One last thing: it is also apparent from the list of appointments that there is not a single women amongst these top seven civil servants. The one woman who was part of the team, Dr. Christine Daws recently left in 'controversial circumstances'. This leaves Dame Gillian Morgan as the only woman, ruling the roost. An interesting picture of Welsh Government.

Pets R Us

A fascinating pamphlet arrives in the office promoting the virtues of pet ownership. It is produced by an organisation called ProPets who say that they were formed by key pet membership organisations to provide a strong, united voice to promote responsible pet ownership.

The geek in me though is intriqued by the many facts that are available. It seems that a wide variety of pets are owned in the UK, at least 10.5 million dogs, 10.3 million cats, 100 million fish, 7 million reptiles and amphibians, 2.3 million small mammals including rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, 1.6 million birds incluidng aviary, poultry and pigeons and 2.7 million others.

Latest figures show that there are nearly 50,000 people working in the pet care sector and that pet owners spend an average of £87 million a week on pet care. That is nearly £4.7 billion a year in turnover, which nets Government about £1.6 billion per annum in tax.

They say that pet owning pensioners make up to 21% fewer visits to the doctor. Dog owners make 8% and cat owners 12% fewer visits to the doctor than non pet-owning people. Children from households with pets have stronger immune systems and take fewer days off sick from school, receiving up to 18 extra half-days schooling per year.

In addition exposure to pets in the first year of life lowers the prevalence of allergic rhinitis and asthma in school children. Pet ownership is associated with lower levels of stress whilst pet owners have lower blood pressure, triglyceride and cholesterol than non-owners, which cannot be attributed to differences such as cigarette smoking, diet, weight or socio-economic profile.

In all they claim that owning pets saves the NHS £1.4 billion a year. Taken with the tax take this makes the economic value of pet ownership to the Exchequeur as in excess of £3.1 billion a year, the equivalent to nearly 1p on the basic rate of income tax.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A farmer writes on the badger cull

Interesting diary piece in this morning's Western Mail farming supplement in which a North Pembrokeshire farmer caught in the middle of the badger cull writes about how it has divided his community:

A short while ago a friend of mine, buying a Daioni milkshake in a Newport health-food shop, was confronted by another shopper who asked how she could buy something produced by a farmer who supported the cull. “By supporting them, you support the cull,” she was told.

I don’t know the rights and wrongs of it. How can I? I’m a farmer not a scientist or a politician. The WAG seems convinced that wholesale slaughter is necessary, but many of the reports in the newspapers indicate otherwise.

What I do know is that I am here, in the middle of it, getting on with feeding our cattle, helping sheep out from the brambles, cutting wind-blown trees and repairing the damage to fences while wondering whether the ALF will choose our farm and rip them all down again in revenge for what the WAG concludes needs to be done to reduce bTB and save the cattle.

We depend on the good will and friendship of our neighbours as they do of ours. Aside from the death of many thousands of badgers, the social implications of the cull for our parish are many.

When political parties try to be too clever

The new Tory website cash-gordon.com was meant to signal a new direction in the use of the internet by political parties. As the Guardian explains the site, which was launched at the weekend on Facebook and Twitter, and was claimed to have cost $15,000, was intended to engage voters who could earn "points" for reading a speech by Michael Gove, the shadow education minister, or bombarding Charlie Whelan, the ex-Labour spin doctor now working for Unite, with hectoring tweets.

However, the internet is not so easily tamed. It is anarchic at best and despises attempts to control and manipulate it. Thus, just as happened with the Tory poster campaign, on-line users bit back.

Firstly, it was revealed that the site's template came from a rightwing American group that opposes President Barack Obama's cap-and-trade system and then the site became the target of a mass Twitter hack that led to it showing pornography, swearwords, Rick Astley videos, malware links, and redirecting visitors to the Labour party site:

It worked, up to a point: it certainly engaged voters.

Unfortunately, many of them weren't Conservative voters.

And it seems that the team behind the Tories' site hadn't learned the lesson of the Daily Telegraph, which last April saw its site peppered with swearing and insults aimed at its owners, the Barclay Brothers, when it automatically republished any tweet containing the text "#budget". ("Telegraph wankers #budget Didn't work" being one of the more polite.) So history repeated itself – for a change, both times as farce – after Twitter users quickly spotted that any tweet containing "#cashgordon" would be reused immediately on the site, regardless of whether it agreed with the Conservative view or not.

Within hours they had also discovered that lines of computer code could also be included – and used those to link to pictures (including pornographic ones), YouTube videos, malware and, finally, to redirect visitors to the Labour site. At which point the site was taken offline and visitors redirected to a page on the Conservative party site about Whelan. Crucially, that doesn't include Twitter feeds, thus saving the party's blushes.

Back to the drawing board I suppose.

Bringing politics into disrepute

Like many other people I have been horrified by the revelations in the Channel Four's Dispatches programme last night. The idea of politicians being for hire is repugnant but it got worse when Newsnight later revealed that many MPs of all parties had also failed to follow the rules on declaring overseas trips.

How difficult can following the rules be? It seems to me that a culture has grown up in the House of Commons of MPs thinking that they are not accountable for their actions. The fact that many of them have second jobs or enjoy extensive overseas 'fact-finding' trips has gone to their head. They are there to do a full-time job for their constituents not earn thousands of pounds extra in the City or as overpaid consultants.

As a politician myself I am horrified that my reputation is being tainted by this unacceptable behaviour. People make mistakes, things are overlooked but this comes across as systematic abuse. No matter how correctly any Councillor, MP, AM, MSP, GLAM or MLA has behaved in the public's eye we cannot escape the taint of misbehaviour that these politicians are trailing through publc life.

Personally, I am sick of it. It is time that Westminster sorted itself out once and for all. The behaviour of a minority of MPs and Lords is undermining our democratic process and destroying all trust in the poltical process. Public service used to be a privilege. It is not any more. This will not now take an election to undo but a generation.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pots and kettles

There is a truly astonishing two page spread in this morning's Western Mail which reports on a dossier compiled by the Welsh Labour party accusing the Conservatives of major splits over devolution.

Labour have provided quotes from the three Welsh Tory MPs that show them calling for the abolition of the Assembly or stating that the body has not yet proved its worth. Two of those three MPs are former Assembly Members themselves.

The Welsh Conservative Assembly leader Nick Bourne has hit back at the claims:

“We’ll take no lessons from Labour on devolution when one of their own candidates describes AMs as part-timers, their First Minister dithers over calling for a referendum, and their Welsh Secretary is lukewarm on holding a referendum in the first place.”

Both sides have a point. The fact is that it is not just the Tory MPs who have been lukewarm on devolution, Labour have been too. Labour MPs have publicly expressed doubts about the Assembly and proved to be unnecessarily obstructive in implementing Legislative Competence Orders, a process that itself was designed by Peter Hain and Rhodri Morgan and has had the impact of undermining and frustrating devolution.

One cannot help but feel that this whole argument is the pot calling the kettle black, whilst the Welsh electorate looks on with studied indifference.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tories in new airbrushing row

Today's Observer has an article that suggests that Cameron's new Conservative Party may after all be as skin deep as many of us have claimed in the last few years.

The paper refers to accusations that the Conservatives have been "pandering to prejudice" by omitting pictures of their non-white election candidates from campaign literature in areas where they are fighting the BNP:

Claims by the Tory leader, David Cameron, to be promoting ethnic diversity were called into question after an entire series of campaign calendars issued in east London – the front line of the fight against the BNP – contained only photographs of their white candidates.

The Conservatives denied that the move amounted to deliberate "airbrushing" of ethnic minority candidates. They insisted that the lack of photographs of their non-white candidates on all campaign calendars dropped through letter boxes was because their list of candidates had not been completed when the material was published. But they could not explain why the names of the non-white candidates, and their phone numbers, did appear, suggesting they had already been signed up to campaign for seats on Barking and Dagenham council. When contacted by the Observer, one Tory council candidate, Wale Oguntona, who is of Nigerian descent, said: "I have been told that all inquiries have to be handled by Simon Jones [the parliamentary candidate]."

On Saturday night Simon Woolley, the national co-ordinator and founder of Operation Black Vote, which campaigns to promote black people in politics, said: "There is a clear intent from the Conservative party to airbrush its candidates out of these leaflets. It is extremely disappointing, given that the Conservative leadership recognises the power of the black vote. This is pandering to prejudice. You can either confront race hatred or pander to it, as they are doing by having only white faces on their material."

In other news bears are still defecating in the woods, whilst the Pope remains a Catholic, though in deep trouble himself over the failure of his church to act on child abusers amongst its clergy.

Rocking all over the court

Tomorrow at 10.30am at the Swansea Civil Justice Centre in Quay Street (opposite Sainsburys) the courts stage the last chance to stop the badger cull in North Pembrokeshire. The Badger Trust has brought an application to judicially review the Minister's decision to go ahead with the cull and the hearings will take place on Monday and Tuesday of this week.

The Trust is also making a separate formal complaint under the Bern Convention on the Conservartion of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats and are expecting a preliminary decision on that issue by the end of the month.

The Wales on Sunday reports that protestors will be joined outside the court by Queen guitarist, Brian May:

The rocker slammed WAG officials’ plans to slaughter the badgers in Wales, calling it “tragically wrong” and based on a “flimsy pretext.”

The We Will Rock You hit-maker has vowed to use any influence he has to aid the Welsh badgers’ cause.

And he pledged to travel from London to Swansea tomorrow to observe the start of a legal challenge on the decision.

He said: “Wales is such a beautiful country and that is completely at odds with the image of badgers being dragged out of their sets and killed in their thousands. “It would be an absolute tragedy and I will do everything in my power to reverse this decision.

“There is a scary, long-term consequence of this course of action – that we won’t have any badgers left in the UK. This is the tip of an iceberg.”

The hearing will not of course be reviewing the merits and demerits of the case for a cull. Because it is a judicial review it can only look at the process by which the decision was reached, assessing whether all the evidence was properly considered and taken into account.

Obviously, the Badger Trust believe that this was not the case as there is clear scientific evidence to show that culls are ineffective in stopping the spread of bTB and that the £9,427,000 being spent on this operation could be better used on cattle control measures. We will now have to see whether the court believes that the Minister took proper regard of that evidence in deciding to go ahead with the cull or not.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A failure of scrutiny on digital bill

Yesterday's Guardian reports on an open letter from a group of senior public figures who have called on the government to abandon its plan to push through the controversial digital economy bill before the election, amid claims that the move could "sidestep" the democratic process.

They are concerned that the short time left will mean that the bill will end up in the Parliamentary wash-up after Parliament is prorogued, leaving highly contentious clauses unchallenged and unamended:

The plans, which first became public last autumn, have caused controversy at almost every turn.

As well as the three strikes rule and measures to take down websites accused of infringing copyright - which could potentially result in the closure of major web destinations such as YouTube - Lord Mandelson has also sought the power to alter copyright law without the assent of parliament.

In addition, it has also been suggested that the bill's measures to prosecute the owners of internet connections used for illegal file sharing could hit anybody who provides web access - such as universities, libraries and cafes, as well as those individuals who leave their home Wi-Fi connections open.

While the made it through three readings in the House of Lords, it was not without serious objections. Lord Puttnam, the film producer, said he had faced "an extraordinary degree of lobbying" over the proposals, while others questioned the revelation that an amendment used language British music industry body the BPI.

It is of course up to Parliament to pass what laws it sees fit but many Acts are not properly scrutinised due to lack of time. Any attempt to squeeze this bill through before the General Election will leave far less time than usual for scrutiny and challenge, which could result in draconian measures becoming law almost by default.

This Bill and the way that it is being handled underlines the need for Parliament to gain control of its own timetable from the executive. That is a process that is already being mooted but must not be lost in the rush to the polls.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Holding out for a hero

Today's South Wales Evening Post reports on some unusual controversy over at Neath Port Talbot Council:

The mayor of Neath Port Talbot had been holding out for a hero when the time came to decide who should be awarded the freedom of the county.

Councillor Pam Thomas was expecting former chief executive Ken Sawyers to be the sole nominee, believing it was only fair he should have his moment in the spotlight after 15 years at the helm before his retirement.

But no sooner had members unanimously agreed to Mr Sawyers getting the freedom than, faster than the speed of night, Liberal Democrat councillor Keith Davies stood up to propose singer Bonnie Tyler should get it, too.

He pointed out she was from Skewen and had scored number one hits in 60 countries around the world. Councillors unanimously supported her nomination. Yet as the meeting was closing there were audible mutterings of disapproval at Councillor Davies's unexpected intervention.

"I was annoyed," Councillor Thomas later told the Post. "But I couldn't say anything because I was chairing the meeting and I am the mayor.

"I thought someone might have said something but they were all gobsmacked.

"I don't begrudge Bonnie Tyler the freedom but I don't think she should have been nominated in the same meeting as Ken Sawyer. It should have been done another time.

"I was a bit miffed about it. Ken Sawyers did a valuable job. He did more for Neath Port Talbot than Bonnie Tyler has done. Keith Davies pulled a flanker, I think."

It's a heartache for the mayor, maybe, but as far as Councillor Davies is concerned it's a rocking good way to get one of the area's most successful exports recognised.

"Bonnie Tyler is a great ambassador for Skewen and for Neath Port Talbot — she has had hits all over the world," he said. He said he believed that, during the full council meeting in question, members were entitled to put forward anyone they felt should get the freedom of Neath Port Talbot.

I am sure that the paper could have got more puns into that article.

Gaffe of the campaign

Mark Pack has details of the worst gaffe so far in this General Election campaign over on Liberal Democrat Voice. He refers to an article in the Hebrides News in which the Conservative candidate for Western Isles didn't so much as put her foot in it as leap head first voluntarily into a steaming pile of muck:

The prospective Tory general election candidate for the Western Isles has made a hugely embarrassing gaffe by backing a spoof harbour in a landlocked village.

Conservative hopeful Sheena Norquay confusingly insists that developing the fictional port at Achmore in the middle of the barren Lewis moor is a top priority.

The 22-year-old hopeful unexpectedly stressed one of the main island issues is “the building of the harbour wall at Achmore.”

However, the policy is a complete nonsense as no such harbour exists.

Achmore is a dry land village is located in the centre of Lewis, surrounded by hills and moor, and is the furtherest inhabited community in the Hebrides from the sea.

It has the distinction of being the only Western Isles community not located on the coast and the island’s TV transmitter mast is sited on its high terrain.

The inland location has a number of fresh water lochs but it was even shunned by the seafaring Vikings because it was so far from the ocean. The Norse, which ruled the islands 1000 years ago, ignored it when identifying landmarks so the village is fairly unique in gaining a purely native Gaelic name.

Achmore means “big field” in Gaelic. Virtually all other Hebridean place names come from Old Norse.

Local jokesters enjoy fooling strangers about its absent maritime facilities. The supposed state of Achmore pier is a favourite local knowledge test for incoming wanabee politicians.

But this is believed to be the first time any candidate has made such a bizarre, unprompted faux pas.

She then compounded the gaffe by going incommunicado. The Tories are widely expected to come last in this constituency in the General Election.

Ladies who lunch

Conservative Assembly Member, David Melding's brilliant intervention on questions to the Rural Affairs Minister on Wednesday has now made it to the pages of the Western Mail. David has a knack of making off-the-wall contributions with a serious point. This one was no different:

David Melding: I wonder whether, on one of your many shopping trips to Harrods or Fortnum & Mason—or, indeed, a particular favourite of yours, Partridges of Sloane Square—you have noticed that much of the laverbread that they sell is sourced from the west of Scotland. Do you not agree that posh ladies who lunch should be eating Welsh laverbread?

David's essential complaint is that Wales is missing out on an opportunity to market itself through a dish that’s as definitively Welsh as cawl or bara brith. Laver is a shiny black vegetable that lies flat on rocks, but has long fronds underwater. During the 18th century laverbread became a staple for miners and though consumption has declined it is still eaten in Wales. But it’s thought restaurants now tend to serve it as an accompaniment to seafood and vegetarian dishes.

The Western Mail says that Carmarthenshire-based firm The Welsh Barrow was supplying Harrods and Fortnum & Mason with laverbread for 25 years until 12 months ago. They quote the firm’s founder Colin Pressdee as saying that the outfit had to be mothballed when Merseyside-based company Ocean Sea, which canned the laverbread, went bust:

Author of Food Wales – A Second Helping Mr Pressdee said: “It was a very popular line, but nobody from the Assembly ever commented on the fact that it was there or complimented us on the fact that we had it there all that time.”

Well now he has one champion at least, but is it too late?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Silenced by lawyers

Today's Independent reports that the BBC has shelved a Panorama documentary about the business affairs of the Tory billionaire Lord Ashcroft, due to a threat of legal action.

They say that the BBC has received "several very heavy letters" from Lord Ashcroft's lawyers and that there is now little or no prospect of the investigation being broadcast before the general election, if it goes out at all.

No doubt the Tories will be delighted but they cannot believe that this is the end to the controversy over Lord Ashcroft. The Baron of Belize continues to generate huge numbers of questions about his role in the Conservative Party, whether he has met the undertakings he gave when he took his seat in the House of Lords and also who knew what and when in the Tory hierarchy.

Whether this programme is aired or not these questions will persist throughout the General Election.

A failure on the Welsh Language?

Plaid Cymru cannot be used to being criticised over their stance on the Welsh language but I guess that is the downside of being in government. They have spent decades siding with Welsh language campaigners in complaining that government is not doing enough only to find the same criticism directed at them the moment they try to legislate.

A letter in this morning's Western Mail written by senior legal people sets out the case as to why the new Welsh Language Measure does not do what the Minister claims for it. The authors include His Honour Judge Dewi Watkin Powe and several senior lawyers and they are not happy:

on reading the Measure as it stands, it is fair to consider the extent to which those commitments will actually be achieved.

Take, first of all, the commitment to confirm official status for both the Welsh and English languages. In our view, this Measure does not, in its present form, fulfil this aim.

The Measure has been drafted in a way which assumes that the Welsh language already has some status as an official language.

We believe there needs to be a clear and unambiguous statement in law that the Welsh language is an official language in Wales in order to realise the Government’s objective. To date, no such statement has been made.

What then of the second commitment, to establish rights to receive services through the medium of Welsh?

The Measure, as drafted, allows for standards to be imposed on bodies in relation to their provision of Welsh language services.

However, despite planned sanctions for breaches, imposing standards in this way does not establish linguistic rights for individuals.

With regard to the third aim, that of establishing the post of Commissioner, the Measure is promising. The Measure would create the role of Commissioner, and would allow the First Minister to appoint someone to that role.

In our view, the Measure only partly meets the objectives outlined in the One Wales agreement. We fear the Measure will be less effective than it could be in terms of having a positive impact on the linguistic climate in Wales.

Legislation, after all, is not merely administrative. Legislation can also have a social and psychological effect and, as seen in other equality fields, laws can work as a catalyst for societal and attitudinal change.

Indeed, though weak, the Welsh Language Act 1993 achieved that.

We call on the Government of Wales to consider strengthening this Measure as the legislative process moves forward.

The Minister does not accept this criticism but he may find pressure growing as scrutiny and consultation develops. This is going to be a very interesting process.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Carwyn Jones' mythical budget plans

Listening to First Minister, Carwyn Jones in yesterday's Scrutiny Committee meeting I could not help but feel that I had slipped into an alternative universe.

Just hours earlier the Wales Audit Office had published a report suggesting that as a minimum the Welsh Government will lose £1.5 billion of its budget over the next three years and yet the man who heads that adminstration was telling the Committee that he would be seeking to avoid job losses.

Tom Bodden has the details on this political equivalent of feeding the 5,000:

Mr Jones conceded he was preparing for a "very tight budget indeed".

His administration was taking a "line by line" look at its finances as it drafts its budget for next year.

"It won't be easy, it won't be painless, far from it, but it's certainly a process that we are going through at the moment."

Critics of the Labour/Plaid administration complain that they have squandered money during the years of plenty and were tardy in tackling the public service reforms necessary at any rate.

Wales remains a country over-reliant on the public sector for jobs, which may partly explain why Mr Jones was keen to disabuse anyone of the idea that public sector jobs must for the axe.

"Do I believe that job losses should be the first thing that public authorities look at? No, I do not," he told Plaid left-winger Leanne Wood.

"I do believe very firmly that there are many areas that can be looked at where money can be saved without the need for job losses to be looked at as the first port of call.

"We (the Assembly Government) have no plans to make people compulsorily redundant."

Carwyn's position is actually very interesting. He was elected as Welsh Labour Assembly Leader on the promise of boostimg educational spending by 1% over and above the increase in block grant in an attempt to claw back the £527 per pupil deficit in spending here in Wales as compared to England.

That indicates that when he and his Ministers carry out their 'line-by-line' scrutiny of spending, education at least will be sacrosanct, or at least the money that gets to the front line will be. The new Education Minister has already promised to maximise the amount of cash that ends up in schools, presumably by cutting back on bureaucracy.

His problem though is that the Welsh Government do not control education spending, local councils do. Furthermore there is no specific line in the Welsh Government's budget that feeds revenue expenditure directly to schools. It is all mixed up in the Local Government Revenue Support Grant that includes lots of other items as well, many of which will suffer as a result of the impending cuts.

Thus, he may increase that part of the RSG that feeds education by 1% but other areas may be cut by 2 or 3%. How will he ensure that Councils, who spend 50% of their income on education, will get the balance right? Won't they just take some of the education spending and use it to alleviate pressures on children's social services for example?

There are solutions to this but none of them do anything to enhance local democracy, accountability or even transparency. If Carwyn is going to get his extra 1% to schools he may be forced to carry out changes that go beyond anything so far attempted by government in Wales or indeed the UK in emasculating local democracy.

This brings me to the second part of the conundrum. How to make cuts without putting people out of work. From the point of view of the Welsh Government this seems to actually be quite easy. After all, they do not directly provide services, they fund others to do so.

Thus, as long as they protect the jobs of the highly paid chiefs within their own government machine as they have done over the reorganisation of the health service, the Welsh Government can pass on the cuts to other bodies and let them make the painful decisions. That way they can make noises about local councils and health boards living within their means, pretend that they are not in favour of compulsory redundancies and then blame these other bodies when they then go ahead and lay people off - 'nothing to do with us, guv. We don't agree with job losses but there is nothing we can do about it.'

It is a sleight of hand that has been repeated for decades, but that does not make it any less cynical or dishonest.

This is an operation in political posturing that does nothing to enhance the reputation of politicians. Government Ministers who are fully aware of the enormity of the task they are facing, standing up in public fora pretending that they can conjure bread and fishes out of thin air and then blaming others when it all goes wrong.

It seems that partnership only works in the good times. In the bad times it is everybody for themselves and those who actually deliver the services have to take the hit whilst Ministers sit around washing their hands of anything that might taint their virtue as champions of the left. Perhaps that is why all we are getting from the First Minister at the moment is platitudes, why the budget itself is more opaque than ever and why details of government plans are as rare as an orchid in the antarctic. The next First Minister's Scrutiny Committee is going to have to pin Carwyn down much better than this.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Labour complacency on the Welsh Ambulance Service

In First Minister's Questions today I raised the fact that in 2009 the Welsh Ambulance Service took more than twenty minutes to respond to 9,242 category A emergency incidents. This includes patients who are suffering from emergencies such as heart attacks, where every minute counts.

The target is that in an emergency the response should be within eight minutes and response time has a significant impact on survival rates.

The ambulance service is still dogged by historic debt and a recent independent review found that it is underfunded to the tune of £5 million per year. Delays in off-loading patients at accident and emergency services cost a further £2 million a year.

The First Minister responded by glossing over the figures and saying he expected things to be better this month. He refused to commit to dealing with the financial problems identified by the independent review.

In a further display of complacency he told another questioner that one of the reasons that ambulance response times were so bad in December and January was because the bad weather means that vehicles must travel more slowly.

He is right that there was bad weather but it lasted for a few days. The truth is that a shortage of acute beds, delays in accident and emergency units, underinvestment and particular problems in rural Wales and the South East all contributed to the fact that the Trust did not meet its targets. Yet the Government do not seem to be doing anything about it or even to understand the problem.

The pain ahead

For those like Plaid Cymru who are in denial about the impact of the recession and debt control measures on the Welsh budget the Wales Audit Office have brought us all down to earth with what seems to be a conservative estimate of how much public spending will have to be cut here.

Gillian Body, the Auditor General for Wales, said the NHS, councils and the police will have to work in "radically different ways" to face cuts of about £1.5bn over the next three years. Her report warned that if organisations do not change, "they will simply run out of money":

In her report Ms Body wrote: "Public services are going to have to deal with major change very soon.

"Our experience suggests that public services tend to change incrementally over time. But if they carry on with business as usual, they will simply run out of money.

"Change will come one way or another. The challenge will be getting those changes right with good planning and timely decision-making."

The report says that as staff costs make up the bulk of most public services' spending, they will need to "identify novel ways of reducing their staffing bills".

These include flexible working, with reduced hours or moving from full-time to part-time work.

The BBC report says that The figure of £1.5bn of cuts over three years is an estimate drawn from Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts, based on Treasury figures:

The actual figure could be higher if there is a so-called 'double dip' recession delaying recovery or if the UK government opts to pay off the national debt more quickly.

Ms Body said the impact of the funding reduction could be even greater than the figures on real terms cuts suggest, because public sector budgets in Wales have risen by an average of 2.4% above inflation since 2007-08.

She wrote: "There could be a total gap of around £5.5bn between where public services would have gone had they continued with business as usual and where they are likely to end up."

Leaked figures and S4C

Are the interests of Welsh language fourth channel, S4C synonymous with those of the Welsh nation and the Welsh language? I only ask because an article in this morning's Daily Post has the channel's Chair suggesting that these matters are inseparable and that by implication S4C should therefore be above criticism.

John Walter Jones has questioned the motive behind the leak of the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) research which revealed that fewer than one in five of its programmes attracted more than 10,000 viewers. 196 of 890 programmes sampled were zero-rated for viewers, or had below 1,000 viewers. He said that the reputation of S4C has been damaged by the leak:

“S4C publishes its viewing figures so they are out there, but these are detailed figures and I wonder what’s behind the leaking of this kind.

It has an impact on people’s perception of Wales as a nation and the development of the Welsh language, all the positive things can be knocked. We have companies who are trying to attract investment.

“It is beyond me. It is very personal and someone must have a deep-seated grudge against S4C and against things Welsh. S4C figures are holding up. Of the figures published last week, almost 80% relate to Cyw which is the children’s service and BARB doesn’t measure audience below the age of four.”

There is no doubt that S4C is crucial to the development of the Welsh language and that is why it has secured cross-party support. However, that does not mean that the same aims cannot be achieved in different ways so as to secure better value for money.

We may not reach the same conclusion as former Tory Minister, Rod Richards that Welsh Language programming should be given back to the BBC but it is legitimate to question whether S4C is doing the job effectively and whether or not changes need to be made to that channel.

Complaining that hitherto secret figures have led to the channel appearing on Page Three of The Sun does not advance that debate, nor does the defensive ramblings Mr. Jones indulges in during this interview.

S4C may be the Welsh Language Channel but it cannot hide behind the Welsh language for ever so as to justify its existence. It needs to show that it is actually reaching Welsh speakers and learners with its programming, something it is clearly not achieving at the moment.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The bizarre case of the House of Lords gagging order

The Daily Telegraph has a piece this morning that defies belief. They report that Michael Pownall, the Clerk of the Parliaments, signed a legal gagging order to block the release of his memo explaining his controversial definition of a main home for the purposes of the House of Lords overnight stay allowances.

They say that Mr Pownall certified that the memo was subject to parliamentary privilege and therefore exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Apparently, Section 34 of the Act states information should not be released if this would infringe on Parliament’s “privilege” to “control its own affairs and not have its proceedings questioned”:

Three Labour MPs facing criminal charges are currently using a similar argument to claim that their alleged misuse of parliamentary expenses is not a matter for the courts.

Mr Pownall, for the Lords, and John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, are the sole arbiters of what is covered by this FOIA privilege exemption.

Using logic familiar to readers of Kafka, the Ministry of Justice’s guidance on Section 34 explains that a certificate signed by either of them stating that information is exempt “is conclusive evidence of that fact”.

Documents previously kept secret using the clause include a National Audit Office report into BAE Systems’s controversial arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

It has even been used to prevent disclosures ranging from information relating to the arrest of the shadow immigration minister, Damian Green, to correspondence over the creation of the all-party parliamentary group for the wood panel industry

However it is highly unusual for the clerk to have used the power to block a document written by himself.

Some FOIA exemptions can be challenged on the basis that the release of the information would be in the public interest.

However, the Ministry of Justice document states: “Section 34 is an absolute exemption and not subject to the public interest test.”

Despite all the public anger and controversy it seems that Parliamentary officials have still not learnt anything.

Liberal Democrats on track

Interesting article by Michael White in today's Guardian following Nick Clegg's excellent speech to Conference yesterday (see below).

Mr. White believes that Clegg has left all his options open but ultimately there will be no coalition, just ad hoc support for a minority government. We will see. This is just one of many options and as Clegg said, it is not up to us but the voters:

Little wonder that Lib Dem activists who packed Birmingham's conference centre were in upbeat mood. When the old Liberals merged with the ex-Labour SDP in 1988 they touched bottom at 6% compared with 20%-ish today. "It's not inconceivable that we could emerge as the largest party," one MP, senior and sensible, murmured.

Dream on, perhaps. But Clegg said if they could only move from getting one vote in every four cast to winning one in three "we could lead the next government". When Labour won on 36% in 2005, Lib Dems deplored it, but they inhabit a largely irony-free zone. Besides, one of their four key "fairness" pledges is a fairer voting system.

Lib Dem strategists know distracting danger lurks in phrases like "hung parliament" and "electoral reform". The media loves pointless speculation, but voters are easily irritated by what looks irrelevant to many and self-interest to some. Holding the balance of power is a good place to be once the votes have been counted. It threatens to smother the policy message during the campaign.

Clegg's "I am not a kingmaker" formula, paraded all over the press, addressed this problem skilfully. It flattered voters and activists by telling them they "give the marching orders" while avoiding offence by leaning even slightly left or right. The party with the "strongest mandate from the voters will have the moral authority to be the first to seek to govern", he said.

Careful words which leaves options open. Clegg must know that the Tories are likely to have the most votes (in England they did in 2005) and, almost certainly, most seats. Whatever the polls and self-inflicted Cameroon idiocy suggest, most Labour MPs will be grateful for a narrow defeat, not a rout.

Yet yesterday's four "fairness" points all pointed left, in the direction of a less unequal society: a more progressive tax system; more money for education; a greener, fairer economy in which bankers know their place; and, of course, constitutional steam-cleaning.

It barely matters that Clegg's language caricatured rival parties in the corrosive language of the old politics he so deplores and raised expectations in similarly foolish, familiar fashion. The recession, the expenses scandal and a dysfunctional duopoly (are the Tories yet fit to govern?) conspire to enhance the Lib Dem talk of new pluralism for many voters.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tory double standards

There is no doubt that this weekend's Liberal Democrat Conference has been dominated by the very timely defection of Edward McMillan-Scott to the Liberal Democrats. Not only has his decision to join the party focussed attention onto our party but it has also exposed once more the fundamental splits in the Conservatives over Europe and the fragile hold that David Cameron has on his own party. No party on the verge of power should be suffering the loss of so senior a member in this way.

In this morning's Observer Mr. McMillan-Scott outlines the reasons why he left the Tories to join the Liberal Democrats accusing his former party of "visceral euroscepticism", "twisted" thinking and bullying tactics that forced him out of the party.

He has also accused the Tories of "extraordinary double standards" for expelling him permanently, having only suspended Lord Archer, who was sentenced to four years in prison for perjury in 2001.

He says that the Tories unleashed a "campaign of vilification" against him after he claimed that Michal Kaminski, the Polish MEP who now leads their centre-right group in the EU, had an antisemitic, homophobic and racist track record:

He accuses Cameron of tolerating eurosceptics who depart from the party line while persecuting him, a pro-European, for daring to express sincerely held doubts about the leadership credentials of a controversial fellow MEP.

"David Cameron shields his europhobes," he writes. "No murmur was made when last weekend Lord Tebbit in effect encouraged Conservatives to vote Ukip in the general election against the Speaker, John Bercow. The dog whistle is really at a lower pitch: that Ukip supporters know that there is a real home for them, back in the Conservative party."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The future of the Tory Shadow Chancellor

Interesting article in today's Times regarding the relationship between the Conservative Leader and his Shadow Chancellor. Curiously, considering the election is so close, David Cameron seems to be hinting that George Osborne might not be his first choice for Chancellor if he becomes Prime Minister:

In an interview with Sir Trevor McDonald to be broadcast tomorrow, Mr Cameron acknowledges that although the pair are friends, “we recognise that there are tensions in any political relationship”.

Asked if he could dismiss Mr Osborne, the Tory leader says: “Yes, and we’ve had that conversation. He is a good friend but we’ve had that conversation a number of times over the past four years.”

He added: “To be fair to George, he said if ever you want to move me to another job it is your decision and it is your right. Also, it was his decision and drive to bring back Ken Clarke, an ex-Chancellor. George is a big man. He understands politics is about big decisions and he wanted to bring Ken back, the last Chancellor to bring us out of a recession, and I thought, ‘Great’.”

One of the problems facing the Tories in this election is the credibility of their Shadow Chancellor. People consistently rate him as a lightweight, whilst Osborne has failed to impress with his judgement on the British economy. Is Cameron preparing the ground to tackle that problem with a last minute reshuffle?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tory MEP defects to the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats have today reaped benefits from David Cameron's unsustainable Euro-scepticism with the defection of estranged Tory MEP to Nick Clegg's party.

Edward McMillan-Scott is the MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber and the former leader of the Conservatives in the European parliament. He clashed with David Cameron last year over the Tory leader's decision to remove his MEPs from the centre-right European People's party and set up a new group, European Conservatives and Reformists, with controversial allies from eastern Europe.

He successfully stood against Michał Kamiński, the Polish MEP chosen to lead the new group, for the post of vice-president of the European parliament, and as a result he had the Tory whip removed:

The MEP said today: "I have been around the higher circles of the Conservative party for long enough to fear that on Europe Cameron says one thing in opposition and will do another in government.

"I have long fought against totalitarianism and the extremism and religious persecution it brings. It was wrong of Cameron to associate with MEPs who have extremist pasts in his new European alliance."

Kamiński has been accused of antisemitism and homophobia, while the Latvian party For Fatherland and Freedom, also in the Tories' new coalition, has been criticised for commemorating Latvian Waffen SS soldiers.

McMillan-Scott added: "My reasons for joining the Liberal Democrats are that in Nick Clegg they have a leader whom I like, admire and respect. They are internationalists, not nationalists. They are committed to politics based the values of fairness and change."

Clegg paid tribute to his new MEP, saying: "For many years he has fought for human rights and democracy world wide and he is rightly a respected politician across Europe. As someone of principle he has refused to cosy up to rightwing extremists, despite pressure from the Tory machine.

"This flies in the face of David Cameron's claims of change. It shows that people of principle, who believe in fairness and want real change for Britain are at home in the Liberal Democrats."

I cannot think of a better start to our Birmingham Conference.

Clegg sends a message

I am in Birmingham and about to head to the Conference hall to register and take part in some consultative sessions before the rally tonight with Nick Clegg, Shirley Williams and Paddy Ashdown.

I note from this morning's Daily Telegraph that Nick Clegg is already making it clear that the party will not be distracted from its core messages by talk of a hung Parliament:

Mr Clegg repeated the four tests he will set for Labour and the Conservatives if they are to seek his party's support in a hung Parliament.

He said whichever party had the clearer mandate from the voters would have the ''moral right'' to govern, ''either on its own or with others''.

''If a party has got more support and has got a clearer mandate from the British people than any other party, even if they don't have an absolute majority, then I think we live in a democracy, that party has got the moral right to seek to govern, either on its own or with others.

''I've been much clearer than Gordon Brown or David Cameron in saying that as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, in terms of us exercising our influence, we will focus on the really big things that matter to us.''

Mr Clegg said the four big issues are:

:: Fairer taxes, so people do not pay tax on the first £10,000 they earn;

:: Better schools, with more one-to-one tuition and smaller class sizes;

:: Making sure that our economy is no longer ''held hostage'' by the banks;

:: Clean, fair politics in the wake of the expenses scandal, including giving people the right to sack their MPs if they have been shown to be corrupt.

He said his party was delivering a ''copper-bottomed guarantee'' that whatever happens in the election, ''the one thing you can predict is that the Liberal Democrats will deliver those four steps to a fairer Britain''.

With support for the Liberal Democrats holding steady in the polls, there is all to play for when the General Election is called.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Harriet falls victim to the jargon police

Today's Daily Telegraph reports that Harriet Harman's buzzword to describe "a new cohort of well, active, healthy older people" has made the list of 250 words used by central government, councils and quangos that baffle people. They say that along with 'wellderly', other banned words include 'webinar', or an online seminar, 'goldfish bowl facilitated conversation', or having a conversation round a circular meeting table; and 'low hanging fruit', or going for an easy win:

The equality minister and deputy Labour leader said earlier this year: "The change in the number of well older people demands a change in public policy. We have to understand that we now have a new cohort of well, active, healthy older people. We must recognise the emergency of the 'wellderly'."

These words join previous favourites 'predictors of beaconicity' (saying which councils will do best) and 'seedbed' (idea).

Of course it might just be easier if politicians and Council Officers learned to speak in plain English in the first place and stopped looking at every policy inititaive as a marketing opportunity.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Labour lose the plot in Swansea West

The battle for Swansea West at the next General Election ia really hotting up as the possible 6th May date approaches. The contest is very much between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Labour with Plaid Cymru and the Tories as also-rans.

A particular area of controversy is the record of Labour candidate Geraint Davies who lost his Croydon Central seat in 2005 and has now been parachuted into Swansea in an attempt at succeeding highly respected local MP, Alan Williams.

Mr. Davies, was the most expensive MP in his last year in Parliament, claiming £176,026 in expenses and costs, and sending £38,750 worth of mail and 130,000 first-class stamps. Funnily enough that was a massive increase on his previous expense claims but was still not good enough to help him hold his seat.

In his latest leaflet Mr. Davies seeks to answer some of the concerns expressed about him through a mixture of offensive and self-justification. He includes two articles on community safety but rather spoils the impression of being a Swansea-based candidate by including a photograph of himself with two community support officers wearing South London uniforms. Why is he reinforcing the impression of a parachutist by using this photograph? Could he not find any local Swansea PCSOs to be photographed with?

Mr. Davies goes on to try to justify his expense claims by stating that he had a busy constituency with a third more people than Swansea West. He was investing to serve. This is a catchy phrase but it does not explain why his expenditure was much lower in previous years.

He says that he had a flat near Parliament to attend late night votes and early morning meetings. Apparently, this is because the tube stops at midnight meaning that after that time the round trip to his home took over 2 hours per day after walking to and from stations, waiting and travelling by train.

Putting aside the fact that the tube does not run to Croydon Central I actually have no problem with this, but why then go on to attack Kirsty Williams and me for renting a flat in Cardiff? In actual fact the distance between both our homes and Cardiff Bay is considerably more than that between Geraint Davies' Croydon home and Westminster.

We also rent so that we gain nothing from using our flats. At the end my tenancy I will walk away without any benefit at all. Even the furniture belongs to the landlord. In contrast as far as I am aware Geraint Davies still owns the flat he bought with the help of public subsidy and for a time at least, if not still, was renting it out.

His claim that the job of an Assembly Member is a part time Monday to Wednesday, 9am to 6pm job is also wrong as he would discover if he asked his Labour Assembly colleagues. It is in fact a full time job and many of us work more than 70 hours a week, seven days a week.

The last faux pas though underlines Mr. Davies' lack of familiarity with the area he seeks to represent after landing here once he lost Croydon. He claims that Kirsty Williams lives in the Swansea Valley. That is untrue. As is well-known she lives in Brecon. Surely, Mr. Davies has discovered by now that the Swansea valley does not stretch that far, not unless he wishes to redraw the map of Wales that is.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

DNA database: a false hope?

Yesterday's Telegraph reports on a review of the DNA database by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that found that an estimated 3,666 crimes are detected a year because someone's profile is already on the system for a previous incident. They say that this is fewer than one in every 1,300 crimes solved in this way.

The paper says that the trend will fuel criticism over the retention of the DNA of innocent people, which the Government has proposed should be kept for up to six years. They say that the committee wants a return to "common sense" policing over the collection of DNA so as to end "flimsy" arrests, such as minor playground fights:

The Human Genetics Commission, a Government watchdog, claimed last year that police are arresting people for "everything" just so they can take their DNA and boost numbers of the national database, which has more than five million profiles.

Chris Sims, the West Midlands Chief Constable, told the Committee that 33,000 crimes are detected each year by matching DNA.

However, that figure includes both crimes that are solved because a known person's DNA was already on the system and also those were a profile is taken from a crime scene and is later matched when someone is arrested, either for that crime or some other reason.

The report said research by Gene Watch estimates the number of incidents where a crime is solved because someone's profile is already on there stands at just 3,666 a year.

It said that is the equivalent of 0.3 per cent of the 1.3 million crimes detected each year. However, when compared against the 4.9 million crimes reported annually, it is the same as one in every 1,336.

The database holds around one million genetic profiles of individuals never convicted of any crime.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled it illegal to hold these profiles indefinitely.

In response, the Home Office plans to store the DNA of innocent adults who are arrested, but not convicted, for six years before deleting it.

I believe that what this shows is that the DNA database is useful in solving crime and should not be discounted. However, the justification for holding the DNA of innocent people is not supported by the evidence and that better targeting of the database would be more cost-effective, use less police time and be more consistent with the preservation of human rights. It is difficult to see why the government does not see that case.


Monday, March 08, 2010

Politics or art?

There is a fascinating article yesterday's Observer looking back on the political posters of yesteryear and comparing them unfavourably with the rather crass, airbrushed offerings of the modern era.

Sam Leith tells us that in 1909, the Labour party – then still in its infancy – had a fantastic election poster. The image had as its background a dusty silhouette of the Palace of Westminster, giving way to a horizontal wilderness of factory chimneys, whose smoke spilled into the tan air. In the foreground, a crew of beefy working men, all cloth caps and rolled sleeves and dark tunics, were smashing through the doors of the Lords with battering rams. "Labour clears the way," ran the slogan.

Such an image may well prove too revolutionary for today's Labour Party, which seems more concerned with wooing newspaper barons than in projecting a radical image verging on the overthrow of Parliament by the working classes. Indeed it is likely that following the Zinoviev letter in 1924 party leaders would have been far more conscious of the message they were conveying to the electorate.

The paper tells us that the People's History Museum in Manchester has reopened after a two-year revamp and contains an archive of posters and banners:

The archive is full of beautiful, intriguing things: a Tory poster showing a glum art deco Britannia presiding serenely over crates of colonial goods being unpacked on the docks; a vorticist-style Ban the Bomb poster with squadrons of red planes dropping exclamation marks; and an ad for the Co-op's self-raising flour that would give the socialist realism of Stalin's Russia a run for its money.

This is political propaganda as art. Just as the commercial posters advertising soap that one will find in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight are marketing as art, these are examples of a form we will not see again. Sam Leith gives three reasons why not:

The first is an evacuation of ideology – or, at least, a move away from it. Few posters now aim to symbolise an abstract idea, be it striking the chains from the workers' wrists, or the glorious bounties of empire.

The second thing is the move towards negative campaigning. My objection to this is not the traditional one: that it debases politics. It's that it makes the posters crass and forgettable. If your poster is a picture of the other guy, you don't want to make it memorable or beautiful. You don't want your enemy looking iconic. Hence, perhaps, the failure of the Tories' 1997 posters. Given a choice between Demon Eyes and Four Eyes, people voted demon.

The third thing is the shift from screenprinting to (digitally altered) photographs. Political posters are not now about trying to establish an icon, a created image; they're about fakey verite and larky deprecation. Is Thatcher hair on William Hague the most we can aspire to aesthetically?

There are exceptions though, notably Shepard Fairey's posters of Barack Obama, but these were the work of an artist that went viral and were later adopted by his campaign. Maybe that is the future. Perhaps if we want art back in our politics we have to look beyond the main parties and rely on freelancers sending their own message and on the internet to disseminate their work.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

MPs still don't get it - shock!

Yesterday's Daily Telegraph reveals details of some of the submissions made by MPs to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body charged with drawing up a new system of allowances to replace the discredited expenses system.

Some of the representations are reasonable in my view, especially in relation to the amount of money MPs have to run their office. However, it is noticeable that the proposal that MPs should only be allowed to travel first class in "exceptional circumstances", such as a journey of more than two and a half hours, has met with particularly strong opposition by parliamentarians:

Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Weald, accused him of being guided by media "spite" rather than value to the taxpayer, and pointed out she had written two books while travelling first class.

She said: "If I travel first class, I can plug in my computer, not a facility that is universally available in second class. I can therefore work throughout the journey.

"The 'at seat' service means that I do not have to interrupt the work to go and queue in the train's buffet bar.

"Second class being more of a thoroughfare, interruption and engagement in conversation is a great deal more frequent."

Tom Levitt, the Labour backbencher for High Peak, said: "I invariably work on the train, something I can only do in a first class carriage for three reasons: that I have a table, space and privacy to work there; that I have a seat (as the standard class carriages between Manchester and London are often standing room only); and that (as I am over six feet tall) I have the leg room for comfort."

All of these are perfectly valid points, but if you want this convenience then pay the extra yourself.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Minister doth protest too much

In the One Wales agreement, the Welsh Assembly Government commits to "ensure that the supply of affordable housing increases by at least 6,500 over the next four years". To any neutral observer it is clear that this target refers to a net increase that discounts demolitions and sales. After all even the Government admit that a sale under the right to buy removes a property from the social housing stock.

Figures, provided by the Deputy Minister for Housing in answer to a written question submitted by the Welsh Liberal Democrats show that while there has been 4,235 new affordable properties built as of December 2009, a further 1,900 properties have been either sold or demolished during the same period. This means that at present there has only been an increase in supply of 2,335 properties, only one third of the One Wales target with 15 months to go.

This has not stopped the Government seeking to spin their failure to meet the target as a success. However, when the issue was discussed in Plenary the spin turned to petulance:

Jocelyn Davies:You could do things differently, but what you cannot do from the opposition benches is tell this Government how to collect data or what its pledges mean.

The logic of this is that if Government Minister's are failing to meet their promises then they are entitled to rewrite them and remain above criticism. So much for accountability. If this is what effective scrutiny does to Ministers then we need more of it.

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