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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Spider, spider burning bright!

A story appears in today's Daily Telegraph concerning a rather unfortunate man who, instead of removing a spider the humane way decided to spray it with an aerosol can of hairspray instead. There followed a series of misadventures that resulted in him being taken to hospital with burns to his arms, legs and face and breathing difficulties:

A spokesman for Essex Fire Service said: "It appears the wife had spotted the creepy crawly in the bathroom and asked her husband to capture it.

"He sprayed it first with an aerosol where it was lurking behind the toilet bowl and when that didn't appear to work, he lit up his lighter to spread some light on the situation as the bathroom bulb had blown.

"There was an almighty explosion which blew the man back into his hallway and lifted the hatch on the loft.

"He did exactly the right thing by jumping into the shower and cooling his burns with cold water while his wife raised the alarm."

Firefighters administered emergency first aid at the scene while waiting for ambulance teams to arrive.

A spokesman added: "We're not entirely sure whether the spider got away or not but there was no sign of it at the scene."

There must be a moral there somewhere but I am not sure what it is.

Getting personal

Labour members may be denying that the Labour Party leadership campaign is turning into a civil war but they cannot refute the overriding impression that the level of passion and personal abuse currently manifesting itself will lead to some sore losers next month.

Today's Independent is reporting that Labour's grandees are locked in a furious battle of words as they take opposing sides over which of the Miliband brothers should succeed Gordon Brown:

Peter Mandelson, Labour's veteran spin doctor, was the first to ignore the pretence that supporters of the rival camps are all good friends really to make personal attacks yesterday on Ed Miliband and two of his big-name backers – the ex-leader Lord Kinnock and his ex-deputy, Lord Hattersley.

This provoked a furious reply from Lord Kinnock who said: "Atavists like Peter Mandelson are indulging in the sort of factionalism that has inflicted such damage on our party in ancient and modern history. He should stop it now."

Whatever happens the new leader will have some egos to sooth once he or she takes office.

The mouse strikes back

Monday, August 30, 2010

Labour leadership contest splutters into life

In retrospect that headline may be an exaggeration but nevertheless the extraordinary intervention of Lord Mandelson through his warning that Ed Miliband would take the party into an "electoral cul-de-sac"is noteworthy at the very least.

According to Sky, the former Business Minister said the younger of the Miliband brothers would take Labour back to the past by only appealing to the party's "core" supporters:

"If you shut the door on New Labour you're effectively slamming the door in the faces of millions of voters who voted for our party because we were New Labour."

Lord Mandelson, one of the architects of New Labour, criticised former leader Neil Kinnock and former deputy leader Roy Hattersley for attempting to "hark back to a previous age" by supporting the more left-wing of the brothers.

In a swipe at the former energy and climate change secretary's reputation for being a strong communicator, he said Labour was not a Church and therefore did not need a "preacher".

He praised David Miliband for his recent speeches but stopped short of formally endorsing him, saying only he would "cast his vote like everyone else".

The ex-Business Secretary said: "I think his brother Ed... is wrong when he describes new Labour as a comfort zone.

"On the contrary, it was about some difficult choices and some tough decisions on policy. There was nothing comfortable about many of the issues we had to face up to," he added.

Lord Mandelson's comments come after David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, told Sky News he would "struggle" to server under his brother but aides denied this meant he would quit.

Presumably Labour members will want to make their own minds up on this, though it is not unusual for the Mandelson-Blair axis to decide what is best for the party. I suppose that comes from winning three successive General Elections.

Today's Daily Telegraph for example reports that Tony Blair attempted to prolong his time as prime minister after he was warned that George W Bush’s US administration had “grave doubts” about Gordon Brown’s suitability to follow him into No. 10.

They say that the White House warnings, which were reiterated by other leading US-based figures, played a key role in Mr Blair’s attempt to cling on to power until at least 2008, and to groom David Miliband as his successor.

However, he was forced to abandon this plan following a “coup” led by Mr Brown’s supporters. Mr Brown eventually became prime minister in June 2007 and pursued a foreign policy that was far more independent of America than Mr Blair’s had been.

These sorts of wounds tend to run deep within Labour. It will be interesting to see how easily these warring factions come together behind whoever wins this contest and for how long.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

All bluster and no substance

The moment that the English Health Minister mentions that he is considering replacing NHS Direct with the new non-emergency number 111 the internet goes mad. Accusations of Thatcherism and of destroying the NHS have been flying around all day, whilst Lord Prescott has even started a petition, which he says is to force a debate on the issue.

Well I have some news for you, your Lordship, Labour have opposition days whereby they can table debates of this nature in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and if they make a good enough case the Speaker may even grant an emergency debate in Government time.

Nobody is expecting Andrew Lansley to avoid questions on this issue. He may even to table his own debate and/or legislation when he needs to do something. So the only conclusion I can reach is that this petition is about closing down debate by creating a hysterical knee-jerk reaction and by misrepresenting the proposed reform.

We should not think that this is about an attack on the NHS either. As Olga Ivannikova says on her blog: according to the BBC, ‘GPs urged the government to get rid of NHS Direct, claiming it was not cost effective.’ and according to e-health insider ‘NHS Direct has never been popular with doctors.’

From my own conversations with doctors and A&E staff, NHS Direct seems to have a reputation for either saying: take some paracetamol or go to hospital, with not much in between. I am sure that there are many people working hard and genuinely saving lives but why not replace this with something more cost effective and with a number which people can actually remember? Nick Chapman, chief executive of NHS Direct himself said: “The new helpline will be better and more cost effective than NHS Direct“. Because the NHS budget is being ringfenced, resources saved can be redirected to other frontline services, which no doubt can help patients and save lives.

The 111 service is more based on the emergency doctor service, which is very effective. Also unlike NHS Direct, NHS 111 could book appointments with GPs and other services, and dispatch an ambulance without callers having to dial 999, amalgamating several services into one.

But Labour's hypocrisy runs deeper than this. On page 35 of the last Labour Party manifesto they say:

"A new, national 111 telephone number will make non emergency services far easier for people to access and book."

So the idea was their's all along. Oops! Lord Prescott really has got egg on his face now.

During my stint as health spokesperson for the Welsh Liberal Democrats I rarely heard anything good about NHS Direct. It clearly needs reforming, not so much to save money (though that would be a consequence) but to make it more effective and better integrate it with other services such as Ambulances, local doctors and Accident and Emergency for example.

One last thought from the Labour-leaning blog Inside Out Swansea. They say that criticism from Labour in Wales about government plans to scrap the NHS Direct helpline in England will be unusually muted:

Assembly chiefs are known to be deeply unsatisfied with their own call centre service which has consistently proved to be an expensive and irrelevant flop.

Despite several re-launches and marketing ploys, A&E departments throughout Welsh hospitals have yet to record any sort of decline in non-emergency arrivals. This is attributed in part to anecdotal reports of patients arriving at emergency rooms with minor ailments after being told by NHS Direct staff that it is the quickest way to receive treatment.

The view among officials is that ministers in Cardiff Bay will quietly close down the service before the end of the year and replace it with a national version of the 101 non-emergency number currently being piloted in Cardiff.

So over to you, Lord Prescott. Are you going to organise a petition to save the service in Wales as well, or is opposing commonsense measures by a Labour-led Government just one step too far?

Tax burden to remain for five years

This morning's Observer contains a stark warning from Treasury chief secretary, Danny Alexander that there will be no cut in the overall burden of taxation for at least five years.

The paper says that with plans already in place to reduce tax on lower earners, Danny's comments appear to dash hopes of tax cuts for the better-off and middle classes until 2015 at the earliest:

Alexander argues that the twin goals of deficit reduction and fairness, as well as plans for a greener economy, are part of the coalition agreement and will drive decisions on tax. "The plan we set out is a plan to rebalance the tax system. We need the tax revenues from the taxes we are putting up in order to help us reduce the deficit.

"But we also want to rebalance the tax system so that particularly people on lower incomes keep more of what they earn of their own money when they go out to work so that they are encouraged to go out to work.

"In due course [we will be] looking at other ways to rebalance, looking at green taxes. It is about rebalancing."

This regime is of course vital if we are to ensure that the deficit reduction programme is not just about cuts. It is a Liberal Democrat input into economic policy that the right wing Tories are going to have to swallow.

Things to avoid doing in an election year

Playing football with youngsters from deprived areas could look like good PR, but for it to work you need to adhere to the rules and avoid kicking any of them in the face. It is fairly obvious what the commentator is thinking when the incident happens.

Just in case you want to ignore the very good advice to avoid doing this in an election year then maybe you should study this video so as to perfect your technique. Some of the kicks are less than accidental, one involves a headbutt and the sliding tackle by the coach into the already injured player is a classic.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Union puts its big boot all over Labour leadership contest

Frankly, the Labour leadership contest has been so boring and such a non-event that I doubt if even an attempt by old-style union boss muscle to influence the result could make many people sit up and pay attention.

Nevertheless, that is what appears to have happened, with the GMB, a major financial backer of both the Labour Party and Ed Milliband, threatening to take its toys home if it does not get the result it wants.

The GMB union, which gave the party almost £1.5 million in the first half of the year, has said that other unions could follow its lead and withdraw funding if the younger Miliband brother is not elected next month:

When questioned over whether a victory for any candidate other than Ed Miliband could prompt the union to withdraw its funding, Paul Kenny, GMB general secretary, said: "If the new leader offers us more of the same, many unions — including our own — would have to consider where we are at.

"Ed Balls and David Miliband represent where we’ve been. They are not without talent. I would not rubbish them. But if the direction of the party went off chasing some right-of-centre ground ..."

He added: "Ed Miliband is not ashamed of Labour’s core values. It’s not about a big society. It’s about a fair society.

“Ed Miliband is not the finished product. But David Cameron was not the finished product when he was elected leader of the Conservatives either.”

Speaking about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's relationship with the unions, he said: “We were smiled at like we were elderly relatives sat in the corner with a party hat on. Access was never a problem — the question was the outcomes.

"The fundamental difference between Ed and his brother is that when David said ‘Let’s reach out to the middle classes’ he made the same mistake as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Labour can’t function without its grass roots.”

Many in the Labour Party's electoral college will express dismay at this attempt by a major donor to effectively blackmail them into doing its will. However, it is likely to play worse with voters, most of whom will not want to see a return to the bad old days of a Labour leadership in thrall to Union bosses.

Friday, August 27, 2010

What is fairness?

Neil O'Brien has a fascinating riposte to the Institute of Fiscal Studies in this morning's Daily Telegraph, which suggests that the analysis was rather limited in its scope and in its understanding of fairness:

One issue is that the IFS report looks only at the effect of tax and benefits, not people's incomes – in other words, what the state does for people directly, rather than what it helps them to do for themselves. This ignores not only policies aimed at getting the economy moving and cutting unemployment, but all the other things the Government does. On this analysis, if you shut down every school in the inner cities, stopped helping people to find work, and spent the money on higher benefits, you would, apparently, be "progressive".

A second problem is that there is no consideration of growth. If the Government manages to double everyone's incomes, that would not count as "progressive". But inequality is not the whole story: people's standard of living matters, too. A couple of years ago, I discovered that, between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, the incomes of the poorest 10 per cent of the population had grown eight times faster in Ireland than in Sweden (and six times faster in Britain), because the country had enjoyed faster growth. As a result, free-market Britain and Ireland had a smaller proportion of the population below the absolute poverty line than social-democratic Sweden. Increasing the size of the pie matters as much as how you slice it.

A third problem is that the IFS approach is a snapshot. If you give people more benefits, they will be better off today. But if that encourages them to stay on benefits, rather than find work, they will be poorer tomorrow. "The question to ask," as Nick Clegg wrote, "is what its dynamic effects are, particularly across the generations. How does it increase opportunities? Will it unlock the poverty trap or deepen it?"

The final problem is even more profound. The kind of analysis the IFS used – which Gordon Brown used to adore – offers policy-makers the comforting illusion that they can accurately control social outcomes using the tax and benefits system, that social justice is just a mouse-click away. Every one of Gordon Brown's Budgets was designed to lead to a nice curve on the IFS's graphs, showing how the poor were set to gain more than the rich. But something must have gone wrong with the spreadsheet: despite all the lovely graphs, society became more unequal under Labour. Being "progressive" turned out to be a rather empty concept.

Nick Clegg wrote yesterday that achieving fairness was more than just benefits and taxes, but about spreading opportunity. That means creating jobs but also reducing the cost of living for people on low incomes, and making housing affordable. It is about making our estates safer, fixing pensioner poverty, and removing the disincentives to save for our old age. It is also about attracting high value, high wage jobs for the future.

It is a massive challenge and I am not convinced that any government could meet it, but whilst we remain locked in the idea that poverty and inequality is best tackled through benefit dependency then we will fail. After all, Gordon Brown tried that for thirteen years and all he achieved was a more unequal society.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Summer madness

As it is the summer silly season and journalists have huge amounts of newspaper and web space to fill it is inevitable that we will see speculation about the future of a number of Assembly Members as selection processes get underway.

The Western Mail has already covered rumours and rumblings around the Plaid Cymru contest for their South Wales West list, a contest that has now got underway, and there is also a strong challenge to Janet Ryder in North Wales from Llyr Huws Griffiths and Heledd Fychan. All the attention however is firmly focussed on the Tory list selection in South Wales East, where a battle is underway between local activists and Central Office over serial defector Mohammed Ashgar (Oscar).

Rumours have been rife in the Assembly tearooms for some time that firstly, William Graham was out of favour with his party leadership and would be placed behind Oscar on the list, and then that the regional party would have none of this and did not want Oscar at all. How much of it is true is difficult to say but Martin Shipton seems pretty certain of his ground this morning:

Tomorrow the Conservatives’ area executive for South Wales East will meet to decide whether to endorse Pakistan-born Mohammad Asghar – known as Oscar – as a regional list candidate for next May’s National Assembly election.

The defection of Mr Asghar – the first and only ethnic minority AM – was seen initially as a coup by the Conservatives. Soon, however, the accountant made it clear that a major reason for leaving Plaid was that party’s refusal to approve his wish to employ his daughter, a former Plaid candidate who defected to the Tories at the same time as her father.

A Conservative source told the Western Mail: “The party hierarchy is desperate to ensure that Oscar is endorsed for next year’s election. Concern apparently goes all the way to the top of the party.

“They are worried that deselecting an ethnic minority AM will send out all the wrong signals and be embarrassing to the party at the time of the conference.

“But the fact is that members in South Wales East did not select Oscar in the first place. Some people remember him from his time on Newport Council as a Plaid councillor when the most memorable thing he did was call for free parking outside the mosque on a Friday.

“They haven’t been impressed by his performance at the Assembly either.

“And there’s still a lot of feeling about the fact that it was his election as a Plaid regional list AM in 2007 that knocked out Laura Anne Jones, who was a Tory AM in the previous term.”

He goes on to quote another source as suggesting that William is unpopular with Nick Bourne, who blames him rightly or wrongly for an attempt to remove him as leader early last year. He says that a leaflet was circulated recently by Monmouthshire AM, Nick Ramsay, which also carries pictures and quotations from Oscar, but not a word from William Graham.

The paper then goes on to speculate about the security of Nick Bourne's position as an Assembly Member, suggesting that if the Tories win Montgomeryshire then he will lose his list seat. I am sure Nick Bourne will be reassured by my confidence that this is not going to happen.

Update: Heledd Fychan informs me by Twitter that Janet Ryder is not seeking re-nomination on the Plaid Cymru North Wales list. I had not realised that this was the case. This means that she has effectively taken the decision to stand down from the Assembly.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Feeling old

This morning's Western Mail has an excellent two page spread on blogging in the run-up to the Media Wales blog awards.

But did they really have to refer to me twice on one page as being 50 and then call me a 'veteran'? It is no wonder that I am feeling old today.

Who was David Milliband campaigning for?

The Labour Uncut site highlights an interesting diary item from last Wednesday's Independent concerning David Milliband's campaigning activities during the General Election campaign:

Some weeks ago I wrote that a source from a rival campaign accused David Miliband of running for Labour's top job in pre-season. Said source has finally got back to me with the additional information he/she promised: Miliband (D)'s itinerary for 25 April, when he visited Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton South East and Manchester Withington to meet Labour "members and supporters". Why, asks the anonymous source – whose candidate trails Miliband (D) – was he in safe seats a fortnight from polling day, when there were three marginals nearby? "He was effectively taking himself out of the general election campaign and running a shadow leadership campaign instead... He was 10 yards down the track before the starting pistol was fired." Unfortunately for my outraged mole, the Miliband (D) camp calmly swats away the story, saying: "It's absolute rubbish. That itinerary was put together by the Labour Party for David to follow, which he did."

Labour Uncut however, are a bit more sceptical. They ask: Why would the party put one of the best known faces in the government into safe seats rather than marginal ones? Senior members of the cabinet don’t get told where they must go. Most are willing to go with the flow, but some make demands that would make J-Lo blush. They continue:

Asking around uncovers other grumbles. Labour sources complain of a modus operandi whereby David’s election team would only countenance campaign visits to seats where the great man would meet party members. Others claim that he wanted the telephone number of every PPC in every seat he drove through, so that he could speak to any he did not meet.

Nothing wrong with that, on the face of it; doling out a “gee-up” and a bit of TLC to the party’s troops during a campaign is hardly a crime.

So was David “10 yards down the track before the starting pistol was fired” as the Indy’s snout insists? Is all fair in love and politics? Were we in desperate peril of losing Blackburn?

If he is guilty of starting his bid early, then that is bad form for a potential leader of the party, especially during an election campaign. If, however, he’s being unfairly slighted by a rival campaign (as the Indy suggests), then it is a perhaps a sign that his opponents sense him cruising to victory.

All of this is just part of the mix in what is becoming an increasingly tense Labour leadership campaign. Maybe the fact that Labour went straight into the contest to replace Gordon Brown without having a proper inquest means that there are issues that have not yet been aired within the party. Does this mean that there is still potential for further blood-lettng once the leader has been elected?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Following the money

Most of the newspapers and the blogs this morning make mention of the huge sums of money raised by the three major parties both during and subsequent to the General Election. According to the Daily Telegraph donations to political parties around this year's general election were the highest level on record:

Almost £26.3 million was given to political parties compared to the previous record of £20.6 million, received by parties in January, February and March 2005 before that year's election.

According to figures released by the Electoral Commission, Nick Clegg’s party registered cash donations worth £1,899,382.

In April, May and June of this year, the Conservatives received £11,635,032, while Labour have received £10,864,653 in cash mostly from trade unions.

Amongst the big donors were C & C Business Solutions and Brompton Capital who gave the Liberal Democrats £100,000 and £250,000 respectively. Brompton Capital is based in Jersey and has Rumi Verjee as its founder. He was also behind the Domino’s pizza franchise so I suppose I will have to change my eating habits now as well. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust gave the Liberal Democrats £350,000.

The Conservatives received £750,000 from JCB Research and £117,000 from David Rowland. They also received £200,000 from MECM, the London arm of hedge fund group, Moore Capital, £50,000 from hairdresser John Frieda, £26,000 from the author Frederick Forsyth and £258,500 from City financier, Michael Farmer. David Cameron’s party also received flights worth £ 58,256.87 from Eastern Atlantic Helicopters and £ 25,475 in helicopter flights from Noble Foods. Lord Ashcroft’s Bearwood Corporate Services gave £63,564-worth of focus groups and opinion research costs.

In April, Labour was given £1 million by the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, as well as £1 million from the owner and chairman of Nottingham Forest, Nigel Doughty. The party also received millions from trade unions after the election.

As part of my summer recess West Wing marathon I watched an episode last night in which campaign manager, Josh Lynam was explaining to Democrat Presidential Candidate, Matt Santos, the reality behind the team of volunteers and donors behind his bid. Do you think, he asked, that these people will not be looking for jobs once you are elected or that donors will not be seeking help with some corporate deal or government contract?

I am sure that is not the case here but the question is always raised as to why people would want to give this sort of cash to political parties. I know that in my case, my modest donation was because of an ideological commitment to the Liberal Democrats and a desire to see the party advance in the region I represent. It may well be that this is the motivation for bigger donors too.

Despite the fact that it is now the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in government rather than Labour my view remains the same. There has to be better regulation of these donations beyond just registering it, limits on the amounts people can give and some element of state finance to take party funding out of the realms of suspicion. Perhaps that is something else that Nick Clegg can turn his attention to when he comes to reform our political system.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The nasty party

In yesterday's Observer, Jackie Ashley points out the downside of Labour's continued onslaught on the Liberal Democrats:

Labour is playing bad politics. The leadership campaign is turning into a tin-ear, foot-in-mouth competition about who can be nastiest to the Liberal Democrats. As candidates desperately try to prove themselves more true Labour, more tribal than the next guy, they are in danger of missing the big picture about our changing politics. They could end up wrecking their party's position for the next generation, which is their own.

Part of this is about an underestimated and under-discussed quality in politics: tone

It is a fair point only spoilt by further evidence that she, like many other journalists, is herself stuck in a commentariat-rut, failing to understand what the Liberal Democrats are about. Her assertion that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are natural allies both fails to appreciate the repulsion within my party at the illiberal nature of Labour and the fact that when it comes down to it, Liberal Democrat voters split fairly evenly between the two old parties on their second preference.

It is an attempt to reinvent two party politics on her terms, without realising that such an alignment has been bust for decade or more. The fact is that for the most part, Liberal Democrats do not define themselves in terms of left and right, or even in terms of Labour or Conservative. We are liberals who believe in an enabling state and the supremacy of the individual. For all their preening neither Labour or Conservatives come even close to delivering on that agenda.

Jackie Ashley though, is not the only one living this fantasy. Many Labour politicians make the same mistake in thinking that they can split the party with talk of ideological cuts and by placing the Liberal Democrats on the wrong side of a fanciful class war.

Stephen Pollard in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph tries to make amends for the gullibility of his fellow professionals in accepting at face value Labour mischief-making rumours of a Charles Kennedy defection, by suggesting that it did not matter if it was true or not.

He claims that whether most Liberal Democrats choose at some point to stay in their own party or move elsewhere, their natural home in politics is alongside Labour in opposition to the Conservatives. Really? I think not.

Based on only a partial reading and understanding of the Orange Book, Mr. Pollard is convinced that the future of the Liberal Democrats is to split in half, one section joining Labour, the other the Tories.

No doubt the media's whole agenda next month at our Liverpool Conference will be to play up such splits, to try and undermine the Government and the Liberal Democrat leadership and to support Labour in seeking to isolate key figures and encourage them to defect. However, as Jackie Ashley says, what they are actually doing is uniting us rather than dividing us.

They are causing the party to coalesce not around Clegg or the act of being in power but around Liberalism itself. Whatever the unpalatable realities of power, we are not innocent political virgins. As a party we have been on this merry-go-round before, in Wales, in Scotland and in local Councils up and down the country. We know that our job is to act on and deliver on our core beliefs and that in the coalition agreement, we have the commitment to civil liberties, the environment, radical constitutional reform, education and health that makes all of this worthwhile.

The government agenda is not a pure Liberal one but it has enough of our own distinctive beliefs in it to make it worth our while to see this project through. At stake is our being able to show that we are not poor clones of another party, nor are we just the recipient of protest votes. The Liberal Democrats are now a party of government and in our policies and our values we reflect the views of the vast majority of the electorate. Our job is to break through the siren voices and noises-off to prove that to them.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It is the silly season

Though obviously I would not class any of these stories as silly. It is just that any other time of the year they would not have so much prominence.

Thus, we have the story in The Telegraph from a few days ago, which reports that an advert for an amulet which promised 'divine protection' has been banned by advertising bosses because the firm behind it could not prove that angels will protect those who wear it:

The magazine advert, placed by The Circle of Raphael (CoR), promised that the 'seven angels amulet' would bring its owner 'angelic blessings, guidance and peace' - and bring them luck at 'games of chance' at the casino.

The talisman - the size of a 10p piece and which features an array of mystic symbols - is available in silver for £29 or nine carat gold for £120.

The advert promises the wearer they would be 'blessed with the gift of Angelic good fortune, guidance and divine protection from all real danger, both physical and spiritual'

It continued: "This incredible Angelic item has proved it can create fantastic results for its owners instantly.

"From the moment you receive it, you will have seven Angelic friends watching over and protecting your life."

It stated that by wearing the talisman 'numerous doors to opportunities and good fortune' will be 'flung open like magic' and the holder will be given the gift of 'inner peace and happiness' by 'lucky in love', have 'financial security', be protected from 'all acts of violence' and it would bestow 'good fortune in games of chance'

For some reason the Advertising Standards Authority were not convinced. They asked for documentary evidence that the amulet does what it claims to do but it was not forthcoming, so the advert was considered to be misleading.

Meanwhile, I was very taken with a piece detailing some of the questions that members of the public ask Council call centres:

In Northumberland, a German man went into the customer services reception area declaring he wanted political asylum. He refused to leave despite staff explaining that people who live in Europe are free to come and go as they please, and the police had to eventually be called.

A motorist who discovered her car was in a different parking spot when she returned from a shopping trip rang Sutton council to ask if the car park was haunted, while another resident enquired whether he could put a dead fox in his recycling bin.

One caller to Ceredigion council asked what time the dolphins in Cardigan Bay "start", while a caller to East Dorset district council's Tourist Information Centre demanded an explanation of the plot of 'She Stoops to Conquer'.

There is no doubt that public sector staff earn every penny of the pittance they are paid to deal with these sort of queries. It is a sobering fact that Council customer service centres handle more than 50 million calls each year, though only a very few are like this.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Two referendums and an election (Part Two)

This is the second part of my article on the current situation in Wales for Liberal Democrat Voice. The first part has been published in two parts and can be found here and here.

This second part has also been published on Liberal Democrat Voice here:

The third element of the coalition agreement relates to the powers of the Welsh Assembly. At present we can only pass laws piecemeal. An order passing legislative competence in a specified area of policy is requested by the Assembly, scrutinised by us and by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and then passed in Cardiff Bay and in both houses of Parliament before receiving royal assent.

It is a long and expensive process not to mention frustrating. The Housing order for example took three years to be approved. The referendum, which is now scheduled to be held in the spring, will propose to do away with that process and enable the Assembly to legislate without seeking permission from Parliament each time within the 22 areas of public policy specified by the Government of Wales Act 2006. It will not create a Parliament nor will the Welsh Assembly have the same powers as Scotland but it will give us the tools to do the job.

One of the other controversies in Wales at the moment is the timing of the referendum on the alternative vote. This is now due to take place on the same day as the Assembly elections, and less than two months after our own referendum on whether Wales can pass its own primary legislation.

I am not one of those who believe that people cannot cope with more than one ballot paper at a time, though there are many here who do think that is the case. I am comfortable therefore with this decision. The downside is that although the referendum turnout may well be higher in Wales there will not be much campaigning on the subject here nor will there be much, if any, cross party cooperation. We will all be too busy tearing strips off each other in an effort to maximise our vote. I am sure though that Nick Clegg thought of that.

We do not feel it is appropriate to have the Welsh Assembly powers referendum on the same day as the AV vote and the Assembly election. We believe that it is important that when people go and vote they know the shape of the new Assembly, what powers it has and are able to judge the parties manifestos accordingly. Thus there needs to be a decision on full law-making powers in advance of the elections.

Finally, I want to say a word on the campaign itself. Despite, Labour crowing that the difficult decisions the coalition government are having to take will impact on our vote, we remain optimistic that we can build on a successful general election campaign and finally add to the six Assembly members we currently have.

That does not mean that we will retain the existing group. Jenny Randerson is standing down and is being replaced as the candidate in Cardiff Central by the excellent Nigel Howells. Mike German has of course, already gone to the House of Lords and has been replaced by Veronica German. And Mick Bates is also standing down, and despite the setback in Montgomeryshire in May, we are confident the personal factors that did for Lembit will not apply and that Wyn Williams will succeed in holding the seat for the Liberal Democrats.

There is also a very good chance that John Davies will take Ceredigion from Plaid Cymru’s Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones, by building on the 8,000 majority secured by Mark Williams in the General Election. In addition we secured outstanding results in Swansea West, Newport East, Wrexham, Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil in May, all of which could produce an upset in our favour next year.

The message is clear. Here in Wales we are resolute and we are growing in strength. Our membership is up and our spirits are high. We believe that we can capitalise on our successes in Government in Westminster to make a difference here as well.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Is the Labour party bust?

John Prescott, who is standing for Treasurer of the Labour Party, writes in yesterday's Guardian that the Labour party stands on the verge of bankruptcy. They are more than £20m in debt, facing a long-term decline in membership and a crisis in funding.

This is quite a contrast to the constant crowing on twitter by a number of Labour apparatchiks, including Lord Prescott himself, about the flood of members coming to their party since the formation of the coalition government.

The former Deputy Prime Minister states that Labour is only kept alive by the Herculean work of party staff and volunteers, trade union contributions, high value donations and the goodwill of the Co-op bank:

More significantly, he says that under the NEC's deficit reduction plan in 2008, Labour will clear their debts by 2016, but at the expense of campaigning for next year's Scottish, Welsh and local elections and the 2015 general election.

We will see.

S4C Chief Executive alters website entry

I reported here on the rather bizarre radio interview with S4C's interim chief executive Arwel Ellis Owen in which there was a lively exchange of views on the contents of his CV.

According to this morning's Western Mail, the interim chief executive of S4C Arwel Ellis Owen has now amended the wording of the CV on his company’s website.

Meanwhile, former Welsh Government Permanent Secretary, Sir John Shortridge, has been appointed to undertake a review of the corporate governance arrangements of the S4C Authority. This comes after the channel and its authority announced the ending of the process of due separation last month.

The Western Mail says that review is part of a wider appraisal by the authority of S4C’s activities, which effectively means a close working relationship (though not day-to-day) between the two. However, it is not clear whether the intention is to cement this new arrangement or to challenge it so as to ensure a proper process of accountability within S4C.

My view, and that of others, is that the authority cannot properly scrutinise management whilst it is involved in the running of the channel, even if that engagement is not day-to-day. There has to be a proper separation between the two or, failing that, proper external challenge with complete access, something that the DCMS appears to be unable to provide.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Giving Councillors the freedom to be political

Dissatisfaction with the role of the local Government Ombudsman in censoring local Councillors is growing across all political parties.

This morning's Western Mail has a report on the views of the former Labour Leader of Bridgend Council who wants the reforms in England, where the code of conduct is being overhauled and the Standards Board scrapped, replicated in Wales.

He has a valid point. The example referred to in the article is that of Cardiff councillor, John Dixon who has been told that he is in breach of the code of conduct for tweeting that the Church of Scientology is “stupid”, a throwaway comment that would be thrown out of libel courts for being common abuse and which John has subsequently justified in great detail.

However, there are other examples across Wales. The most bizarre was the ruling that a Swansea Councillor had broken the code of conduct for not properly declaring an interest because in one instance she had an unconscious bias against an individual. Given that a declaration of interest requires a conscious decision this sets an impossible standard that no elected politician can meet.

Jeff Jones and others are absolutely right, Wales needs to reform this system as well. It sets a different standard for Councillors, AMs and MPs and it is open to abuse. Politics is about robust debate. We cannot have an unelected civil servant arbitrating in this way as to what is acceptable and what is not. That is the job of voters.

The accident-prone TV channel

Oops! Now this is embarrassing. The S4C Authority last night, gave its backing to the channel's interim chief executive Arwel Ellis Owen after he clarified in a radio interview that he had not been an “editor” of BBC programmes Panorama and Newsnight, despite stating so on his company’s website.

Full details of the interview are on the walesonline website. In short it seems that there was a difference of opinion over what constitutes the role of editor of Panorama and Newsnight, a matter which was later addressed by a statement from S4C:

“The S4C Authority does not consider this an issue. The CV does not state that Arwel was ‘the’ editor. It states clearly ‘after periods in Cardiff and London as editor of news and current affairs programmes such as Week In Week Out, Panorama and Newsnight...”

However, a leading media Welsh figure, who didn’t want to be named, described the interview as a “PR disaster” for the channel.

He said:“What he [Mr Ellis Owen] should have done was recognised the mistake on his website and agreed to amend it. However to then try and bluster his way through it was a huge mistake.”

Whatever the facts the impression given is that S4C remains in crisis. What is worse is that there continues to be no proper external scrutiny of the channel, whilst the internal arrangements for ensuring accountability appear to have broken down due to the blurring of the roles of the Authority and the management board.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Ian Fleming once had Auric Goldfinger say: 'Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action."' Is the Welsh Government taking the same view about this news that there are in fact three empty schools around Wales, awaiting formal closure proceedings?

Last week Education Minister Leighton Andrews said Carmarthenshire council's decision to keep Capel Iwan, near Newcastle Emlyn, open was "bonkers." Now Gwynedd and Ceredigion councils have confirmed they each have a primary school without any pupils.

The BBC say that although Ysgol Abergynolwyn near Tywyn in Gwynedd and Mydroilyn Primary School near Llanarth in Ceredigion were earmarked for closure in the future they were due to welcome pupils back in September:

But parents have decided to send their children elsewhere.

Both councils said the statutory process to close them was now underway.

Most staff at the schools have been redeployed, although a caretaker is still employed at Ysgol Abergynolwyn for an hour each day.

Both authorities, however, will still need to fund maintenance of the schools.

The sooner that the Welsh Government dismantles the bureaucracy around the non-contested closure of schools the better.

Wales and the Coalitions (Part One)

I was recently asked to write about the current situation in Wales for Liberal Democrat Voice but got a bit carried away. Accordingly, they are carrying the piece in three less-than-bite-sized chunks. The first two are here and here.

I have reintegrated them into one article below and will publish the final part on this blog as well once Liberal Democrat Voice has posted it:

The Welsh Assembly is in a unique situation. Each of the four parties represented there are in government at some level. Whilst the Liberal Democrats have entered government in Westminster for the first time, Labour and Plaid Cymru are in their final year of coalition government in Cardiff Bay.

This has made for interesting Plenary sessions with both the Welsh governing parties intent on blaming the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives for long-standing problems, whilst we are intent on continuing our scrutiny of their record.

The Coalition Agreement contained three specific provisions relating to Wales. One of these concerned the drawing down of legislative powers over housing. This was left-over business from the previous Labour Government. They had failed to get it through before the General Election and it fell during the wash-up because the Conservatives opposed sections of it. The Tories did not want to give the Assembly the power to legislate on the right to buy.

There are some who believe that this was a tactical failure. Labour could have found time for a vote if they had wanted to but there were Labour MPs who were also unhappy and maybe they thought that they could use Tory opposition to their advantage to brand them as an anti-devolutionary party.

When it came to coalition negotiations the Welsh Liberal Democrats asked for this legislative competence order to be included unamended and it was. However, despite that there was a still a wobble. There are no Liberal Democrat Ministers in the Wales Office and an attempt was made to amend the order. This though, was soon overridden when Ministers were reminded of the terms of the agreement.

The second provision relates to the way that Wales (and Scotland for that matter) is funded. This is a matter of some controversy here and the coalition agreement offers little clarity on how it is to be resolved. It is safe to say that the rather esoteric phrase referring to it needs to be subject to negotiation with UK Treasury Ministers so as to establish the best way forward.

Funding has been the subject of debate in Wales for the eleven years that the Assembly has been established and before. Despite that Labour failed to act on the issue in the 13 years they were in power at a UK level. Now that they have lost power in Westminster it is their favourite subject of attack.

A Commission was established by the One Wales government a few years ago under an economist called Gerry Holtham. That Commission have now issued two reports that established some important facts. They found that the present Barnett formula, which is based on population, does not reflect need in Wales or, for that matter in some English regions.

As a result Wales is between £300 million and £400 million worse off. In contrast Scotland is over-funded. Holtham also found that if a proper needs-based formula was put into place as we committed to do in the Federal manifesto in 2005 and 2010 then the Treasury would save £4 billion a year. The catch is that this would come from Scotland’s budget.

We are not talking about an overnight change. It would take 10 to 14 years to negotiate and put in place these changes. Furthermore in the long run it is in Scotland’s interest to take the deal before the Treasury forces it upon them. That is because without the solid base of a needs-based formula the fiscal powers that Scotland would gain through the implementation of the Calman Commission proposals would be very difficult to use.

The reasoning is that if a Scottish Administration uses the powers to reduce taxes then they would effectively fund this from the surpluses they have been building up year after year. It is no accident that Alex Salmond has offered to absorb cuts in his budget in the current year whereas Wales cannot afford to do so. Such a use of these surpluses to give the Scots a tax advantage over England would cause an outcry over the border and force the Treasury to act.

From Wales’ point of view the need for reform is overwhelming. The coalition government though has not yet made it clear how it will respond to that demand. The agreement says that we will establish our own Treasury-led review but that we need to get the public finances in order first. We are now seeking a timetable for that review.

Passing the buck

Yesterday saw signs that the reality of the economic situation is at least understood by some senior Labour figures, when the immediate past-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling launched a thinly-veiled attack on former prime minister Gordon Brown, saying Labour lost the general election because it ignored the deficit.

According to the Daily Mail, Mr. Darling said that Labour allowed itself to be sidetracked into an argument for investment over cuts, seen by many as a reference to Mr Brown’s election mantra. And in a warning to his party colleagues, he urged them to accept the need to cut the deficit:

In a lecture at the Edinburgh Book Festival - sponsored by RBS - he set out a staunch defence of his handling of the economy and made several swipes at the culture of risk among banks.

And he conceded that Labour lost the general election because it failed to persuade voters it had a ‘plan for the future’.

He said: ‘I remain confident that considered history will show that we handled the financial crisis of the past few years with competence, integrity and above all an absolute determination not to put short-term political advantage before the interests of the country.

‘But while I believe we won the war, we lost the peace.

‘Won because the decisions we made did, I believe, avert economic catastrophe - and we were just hours away from that happening. Lost because we failed to persuade the country that we had a plan for the future.’

At least one of the Nationalist parties also appears to have got it, with SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson saying: 'Alastair Darling cannot walk away from Labour's responsibility for the situation this country is now in.

'Two thirds of the cuts we now face come directly from decisions made by Alastair Darling.

'Alastair Darling may not have liked picking up the pieces of an economy Gordon Brown had ruined but he cannot avoid responsibility for cutting spending, cutting investment and risking economic recovery.'

The former Chancellor is of course standing aside from frontline politics so he can afford to be a bit more upfront about the financial situation facing the new government, though I would not suggest that he agrees with the way that his successor is responding to that challenge.

If Labour are to regain any credibility then whoever is elected as their leader next month needs to be equally as forthright in accepting some responsibility for the mess we are in and acknowledging that drastic action is needed to put it right.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ever decreasing circles

A letter arrives from the Welsh Government seeking my views on an important document.

They tell me that the Government has 'developed a single comprehensive list of all nationally defined consultees in the planning application process in Wales.' A draft list has been prepared and they want our views. The document can be found here.

So, in plain English the Government are consulting on who to consult. I am glad that is clear.

What is the cost of the VAT rise?

This morning's Western Mail reports that the Welsh health service expects to lose more than £20m next year because of the Government's increase in VAT. However, I have difficulty believing the accuracy of the Welsh Government's figure in the light of the answer they gave to Kirsty Williams back in January 2009.

At that time she asked the Finance Minister how much money the Welsh Assembly Government will save as a result of the then 2.5% cut in VAT. The answer was that the Welsh Government estimates that it will save £1.4m in the current financial year, and about £4.5m over the whole of the planned period of the reduced rate of VAT (1 December 2008 to 31 December 2009).

They said that these savings have not been taken centrally and will therefore benefit departments directly.

They went on to say that most Welsh Government expenditure is on grants of one sort or another, which are outside the scope of VAT in any case.

So according to Labour and Plaid Cymru Ministers a 2.5% cut in VAT produces savings of £4.5 million whereas a 2.5% increase delivered by a Government of a different colour to them will cost £20 million. This looks to me to be more of a political answer than a factual one. You would think that they could have got their story straight.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The cost of aging

This morning's Telegraph outlines some of the stark choices facing government over the next few years as they seek to curb growing spending pressures and cut back on the £800 billion debt inherited from Labour.

A Pensions Policy Institute report has concluded that the pension age will have to rise from 65 to 72 in order to keep Government costs at levels experienced a generation ago. The think tank believe that it is unfair and expensive for workers to retire at the same age as those born decades before them, as life expectancy is increasing substantially. But it also warns that poor people do not live as long as the rich, and suggests that they should therefore receive more in their state pensions:

The independent think-tank recommends that ministers highlight the increased longevity of Britons rather than cost savings when trying to sell the policy.

It says that because people are now living much longer while the pensionable age has remained the same, they spend a far greater proportion of their lives in retirement than previous generations.

In 1950 men spent just 18 per cent of their adult lives in retirement, leaving the workforce at 67.2 and likely to live another 10.8 years.

By 1980, however, men were spending 23.5 per cent of their adult lives receiving a pension and the figure is now close to 33 per cent.

The PPI says that to keep costs down to 2000 levels, the pension age would have to rise to 68 by 2030 and to return expenditure to 1981 levels it would have to go up to 72.

“This would represent a substantial increase in the SPA over a relatively short time-frame.”

Some interesting ideas here, especially with regards to paying a higher pension to unskilled male workers. I am not sure though, whether such a regime would pass muster under current anti-discrimination laws.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

When two-tribes go to war

The possibility that Alan Milburn might be appointed as the UK Coalition Government's "social mobility tsar" has really got the tribalists out in force, in both the Labour and the Conservative Party.

That is a shame as irrespective of what I may think of the man, it is important that all those who have something to offer should work together for the best interests of the country. That certainly falls within the spirit of the coalition. Thank goodness there are at least some in the Labour Party who recognise that.

The vast majority of Labour members seem to be more intent on fighting their own internal war of attrition or sniping from the sidelines to notice that the crisis we are in needs that sort of cross-party co-operation if we are to prevail over it.

On the Conservative side, Iain Dale is not happy:

First they came for Frank Field. They appointed him "Poverty Czar". I didn't speak up

Then they came for Will Hutton. They appointed him "Work Czar". I didn't speak up.

Then they came for John Hutton. They appointed him "Pensions Czar". I didn't speak up.

Today they came for Alan Milburn. They are about to appoint him "Social Mobility Czar".

Now, I'm going to speak up.

One day they might actually appoint a Conservative. But I'm not holding my breath.

Because by then, it might be a bit late.

However, his reaction is mild compared to former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. His tweet is so far over the top that it is painful to read:

So after Field & Hutton, Milburn becomes the 3rd collaborator. They collaborated to get Brown OUT. Now collaborating to keep Cameron IN

Does he really believe that working with other parties in the best interests of the country can be compared with those who collaborated with the Nazi's in World War Two? What planet does he live on?

This is the man whose testimony to the Chilcott Inquiry included an assertion that he was more interested in maintaining Cabinet unity over the Iraq war than in confirming that it was the right thing to do.

Meanwhile the recriminations within the Labour Party as to why they lost the General Election continue. Friday's Daily Mail has a particularly instructive article suggesting that long-time cheerleaders of Tony Blair, had secretly been sabotaging Labour's campaign in order to ensure the end of Brown's disastrous premiership:

Shockingly, the architect of this mutiny was someone whose political career had once been rescued from oblivion by his old friend Brown.

For the truth is that Lord Mandelson had traitorously spent much of the campaign plotting the final stage of his unfinished Blairite revolution: namely to make sure that out of the wreckage of Brown's humiliating election defeat, David Miliband - the true 'heir to Blair' - would become the new Labour leader.

None of Brown's allies was more angered by this treachery than his trusted lieutenant Charlie Whelan, now one of the country's most powerful trade union figures, who for five years was Brown's loyal and pugnacious spin doctor.

In his first major newspaper interview since new Labour came to power in 1997, Whelan gives an explosive insider's account of the civil war that helped destroy the Labour government.

In a blistering attack on Mandelson, he says the man who Brown had controversially recalled to the Cabinet after the disgrace of being twice sacked by Blair, actually lost the Labour Party votes because of his betrayal of the PM, and was responsible for a culture of defeatism that blighted Labour's campaign.

Whelan, the ultimate Labour die-hard, also reveals that Gordon Brown will never take a peerage; that his wife Sarah feels most betrayed by Mandelson (who sold his soul by rushing out his poisonous memoirs so soon after the election); and why the divisive Alastair Campbell should never be allowed to be involved in any future election campaign.

Obviously, the fact that it is in the Daily Mail does give pause for thought, but this is the paper that one of Gordon Brown's closest allies appears to have chosen to pour out his soul too, so who am I to argue?

There is now, it seems, a concerted campaign by friends of Gordon to rescue his political legacy and, in the process, undermine the favourite to succeed him, David Miliband. At this rate Labour may not be fit for government again for many years to come.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Going private

Western Mail Chief Reporter, Martin Shipton has a column in this morning's paper in which he highlights the fact that the NHS in England faces a total bill of £65bn for new hospitals built under the private finance initiative (PFI). It seems that some NHS trusts have been left with annual "mortgage" repayments accounting for more than 10% of their turnover:

Under PFI, private companies win contracts to build and maintain new hospitals and mental

The 103 schemes were valued at a total of £11.3bn when they were built.

But when rising fees and additional costs such as maintenance, cleaning and catering are taken into account, the NHS will have to pay back £65.1bn over the lifetime of the schemes.

According to the data, the NHS currently pays back a total of £1.25bn each year but this figure is expected to increase until 2030 when it will hit £2.3bn, the BBC reported.

The final payment will not be made until 2048.

Martin argues, quite correctly, that in Wales we have the luxury of being able to disregard such problems:

As a direct result of political decisions taken by successive Assembly Governments, there have been precious few PFI projects built by the NHS here.

Consequently, we may be in a better position than England to cope with the cuts. Surely this is something to celebrate, and a good argument for devolution.

However, his insistence that Plaid Cymru can share in the glory with Rhodri Morgan and his policy of clear red water, because they insisted in 2007 on no more PFI schemes in the Welsh NHS as a clause in the One Wales agreement, is only one part of the story.

The English legacy is not recent. It was built up in the early years of this century and it was then that the Welsh Government decided to opt out of this financing mechanism. I believe that one of the only, and possibly the last, Welsh hospitals to be built under PFI was in Neath Port Talbot.

From that point the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition took the conscious decision not to use PFI again on any large scale. In fact, as a Deputy Minister, I sat in on meetings with Trade Unions where we agreed that even if we used private capital to finance a project, we would not involve staff or services in the contract.

Having said that, and accepting that PFI is not a viable way of funding public sector schemes, that should not rule out a more judicious use of private funding when possible. A good example of that is contained in this report that the One Wales Government is considering establishing a housing trust to pump private money into the social housing sector:

Peter Hughes, head of commercial lending at the Principality Building Society, confirmed one of the most ‘innovative and attractive’ options being discussed was the Welsh Housing Investment Trust, which would raise at least £100 million.

Mr Hughes will outline the principles in the first housing review in Wales to be launched by the Chartered Institute of Housing on 11 February.

Mr Hughes said: ‘Perhaps now is a good time for a strong institutional rented market. It you go back to the early 1990s and 2000s, everyone was interested in buy to let. It’s obviously not the market it was.

‘What may be needed now is not people who hold five or six or a dozen properties but institutions that are prepared to invest seriously.’

Banks, capital markets and possibly the Welsh government would feed money into the trust.

Mr Hughes said it would need at least £100 million from diverse sources put into it.

The trust would buy properties and housing associations would manage them.

‘This model works because of the mix of rent from the broad portfolio of properties in the trust,’ Mr Hughes said. ‘It gives sufficient income for the requirements of the trust.’

The hope is it would also kick-start the building industry giving ‘certainty for the exit for a developer’ in the current depressed market, Mr Hughes said.

He added the advantage with capital investors, such as life insurers and pension trusts, was that they put money in for the longer term. They would invest for 30 to 35 years compared with banks likely to put in money for 10 to 15 years, Mr Hughes explained.

In the review, he also points out the initiative has already got some ministerial support and is being looked at in more detail.

That is a more pragmatic approach to this problem rather than the simplistic mantra we hear time after time of public good, private bad. And after all, if the government can do this for housing then why cannot they do it for health as well?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Massages, chauffeurs and Blackpool Pleasure Beach

The publication of details of spending on all items in excess of £500 by the Department for Communities and Local Government has caused a bit of a stir in the press.

The published information shows that a trip to Blackpool Pleasure Beach and a payment to a firm offering on-site corporate massages were among the spending decisions approved by the last government.

Apparently, the communities department spent more than £1,600 on massages for staff and £539 on an awayday trip to Blackpool pleasure beach. It also spent £626 on a trip to the Attenborough Nature Centre, near Nottingham.

All very community-minded of them of course, but how can anybody justify the use of public money for that sort of expenditure? There was also a £16m bill for marketing, advertising, promotion and events, while £635,000 went on taxis and chauffeur-driven cars, and nearly £310,000 was spent on catering and food.

There is no explanation or justification from the previous Labour Ministers in this department. I think at the very least we should get that.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fighting the 'yes' campaign

Rhodri Glyn Thomas has made a significant intervention this morning in the discussion as to how best to campaign for a 'yes' vote in the Assembly powers referendum in March. He has suggested that campaigners should steer clear of constitutional arguments as much as possible, and he is right.

The danger is that we will spend all our time arguing about technical issues, whilst forgetting to tell people what is in it for them. The fact is that the delay involved in us acquiring powers on a piecemeal basis through the Legislative Competence Order has stopped us dealing with a number of issues as urgently as we should have done. These include housing but also the environment, mental health, the Welsh Language and safety on school buses to name but a few.

It is also the case that we are spending millions of pounds each year and hundreds of hours of Assembly Members, MPs and civil servants time scrutinising orders that produce no measurable output. Once they are passed then we have to draw up the real legislation and go through it all over again.

The referendum is not about independence, it is not about tax varying powers, it is not even about producing a Parliament for Wales comparable to Scotland. None of that is on the table. It is about rationalising a wasteful process so as to enable us to improve people's lives more quickly, at less cost to the taxpayer and without having to ask permission of Ministers in another Government each time.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Welsh Government pay the price for badger cull legal action

BBC Wales reports that the legal cost of the Welsh Assembly Government's defence of its planned badger cull was more than £57,000.

However, they also continue to cling to the lazy and entirely inaccurate myth that the Government only lost the case on a technicality, namely that they failed to properly reflect the consultation in the way the order was drawn up.

In fact the most damaging grounds for rejection of the Minister's case was that she had failed to demonstrate the substantial reduction in bTB necessary to justify culling a protected species. She was only able to claim a 9% reduction in the disease, a figure that in itself is disputed.

In other words it was the science that did for the cull as well as the incompetence of the Minister and her officials in the way that they pursued their misguided policy.

Citizens Advice urge acceptance of plans for holistic tax, tax credit and benefit reform

Plans by Works and Pension Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith to overhaul the benefits system have received the endorsement of Citizens Advice. Their Director of Policy, Teresa Perchard argues that a large part of the amount quoted by the Goverment as being lost through fraud is actually due to error arising from the complexity of the system:

“Citizens Advice acknowledges that the £1.5bn cost of fraud in the benefit system must be recovered, but we are very concerned at the government's persistent tendency to roll fraud and error figures together. Errors account for the remaining £3.7bn of the £5.2bn figure quoted. Some errors are caused by benefits claimants failing to report their circumstances correctly, more often than not because the system is so complex. But just as many are caused by government agents giving the wrong advice or managing a claim inaccurately - Citizens Advice Bureaux see numerous cases of papers getting lost in the system because there is no proper tracking mechanism.

“Either way, the complexity of the system causes considerable extra expense for the government and distress for customers. We accept that the government aims to tackle the issue of error through its current plans to reform and simplify the system, and we urge the Treasury to recognise the importance of accepting the DWP's current proposals for a full reform of the tax, tax credits and benefits system as a holistic solution.

“In the meantime, the £5bn cost to government through fraud and error is dwarfed by the £17bn* of benefits and tax credits that remain un-claimed every year, because people don't know they are entitled to claim, or because the system is too complicated. The danger of making benefits more difficult to claim is that people in real need will not receive the money they need to pay their rent, keep their families warm, or feed their children."

Let us hope that this argument helps to convince the Treasury.

Playing the lobbying game

At the same time as pressure is being applied to properly regulate lobbyists at Westminster, it transpires that the UK Government has been paying a secretive lobbying firm $10,000 (£6,354) a month over the last four years to push American politicians to award contracts to British defence companies and to improve transatlantic relations.

The Daily Telegraph reports that O'Brien & Associates, a Washington-based firm of lobbyists, has received more than $500,000 of British taxpayers' money over that period.

They say that the lobbying firm, whose president has donated money to both Republican and Democrat politicians, specialises in working on behalf of major defence companies in the American capital:

The lobbying deal is thought to have initially been signed in 2006 but remains in place today.

The disclosure of the contract is likely to infuriate David Cameron, who is an outspoken critic of the dangers of the lobbying industry.

Earlier this year, he said that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen. It's an issue that...has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money".

The Coalition has recently banned other public bodies from hiring firms to lobby Whitehall officials and Government ministers.

Surely this sort of activity is the job of Embassy officials and the foreign office? This is one area of expenditure that needs to be vigorously reviewed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Newport banned

Well the video spoof, Newport State of Mind anyway. The South Wales Evening Post reports that it has been pulled from YouTube after a copyright complaint lodged by EMI.

The Welsh parody of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s hit Empire State of Mind received more than two million hits since it was posted on YouTube at the end of last month. However, EMI appear to have been not amused.

Maybe if they had not mentioned Plaid Cymru in the lyrics....

The aging process

At the Eisteddfod last week all the gimmicks were on the BMA stand. One of these was a computer programme that showed the subject how they might age over the next few years.

The idea is that a current photograph is taken and fed into the machine. The computer then projects how you might look at the age of 72. It also produces projections that show what might happen if you smoke, if you stay out in the sun too much and if you eat the wrong stuff.

As I don't smoke and tend to avoid direct sunlight at all costs I only have two versions. The first is a straightforward aging projection, though I suspect my hair might be thinner and whiter, the second shows what might happen if I continue to eat all the pies.

Now where did I put that salad?

MP in denial on e-mail

The Left Foot Forward blog reports on the bizarre case of the Tory MP for Esher and Walton, Dominic Raab, who is threatening legal action against campaign group 38 Degrees for having the temerity to publish his publicly available email address – dominic.raab.mp@parliament.uk – on their ‘contact your MP’ system.

This is despite the fact that when seeking the Tory nomination, Raab, an ‘international lawyer’, claimed to be “ready to serve every community…”:

Executive director David Babbs today told Left Foot Forward:

“Over the last 12 months, 38 Degrees members have worked together to make all MPs more accountable to us, their voters. Tens of thousands of us have come together to clean up lobbying in Westminster and to call for a new recall law that would mean people could call a fresh vote if their MP wasn’t doing their job properly.

“Now, an MP has got in touch to tell us he doesn’t want his constituents to be able to get in touch by e-mail. As far as we know, he didn’t ask his constituents what they thought before he made that decision. So now, we’re going to ask 38 Degrees members in his constituency what they think, so we can work together to make a change if they’re not happy about it.”

On their website 38 Degrees explain:

“We’ve been in touch with the Information Commissioner and they’ve reassured us that because he is an MP and his e-mail address is in the public domain, he has no grounds to report us. We let Mr Raab know this and he responded by having the House of Commons remove his e-mail address from their website.

“We spoke to the Information Commisioner’s office and again they reassured us that because he is an MP and because his email address is in the public domain we’re in the right by letting his constituents get in touch with him…

“When Mr Raab was an election candidate he gave out his personal email address to use. Now he’s an MP, with an official parliament email address paid for by the taxpayer, he’s telling us to stop people using it and making threats. No other MP anywhere in the UK has ever threatened 38 Degrees in this way.

This is one step removed from messing up on social networking, it is deliberately cutting oneself off from part of the electorate. As elected politicians we are public property and should be available to engage with a wide range of constituents and organisations. That is what we are paid for.

There are of course occasions when it becomes difficult to continue communications with a constituent, such as when the correspondence is racist or offensive but that is very rare. I do not believe that this is the case here.

Monday, August 09, 2010

MPs still not getting it

Today's Daily Telegraph reports that officials working for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority have had to endure shouted insults and threats of legal action from MPs angry at the strict rules now imposed on their parliamentary allowances:

IPSA employees put up a sign stating that “abuse of staff will not be tolerated” after they were repeatedly harangued by members complaining that they had not been paid money they were owed, or that old entitlements had been withdrawn following last year’s scandal.

It has now emerged that under Nigel Gooding, IPSA’s original operations director – who left “for the sake of my health and sanity” earlier this summer – staff also devised a system similar to that used in football to deal with misconduct.

Under the unofficial scheme, any MPs who were rude to staff in telephone conversations or face-to-face meetings would be given a warning – equivalent to a “yellow card” caution.

Those who were deemed guilty of repeated or particularly serious verbal abuse would be restricted to communicating in writing with IPSA staff – a “red card” – rather than being allowed to argue with them in person or on the phone.

This has obviously been a traumatic time for MPs but that is no excuse to act in this way towards staff who are just doing their job. It would not be tolerated anywhere else and staff should not have to put up with it here either.

Mother love

It must be an awful dilemma to have two sons competing for the same job, especially when, as a mother, you have a vote and must choose between them. However, Mrs Miliband has solved the problem to her satisfaction. She is not voting for either of them.

Instead she is backing Diane Abbott to be Labour leader. We have not been told what she will do with her subsequent preferences though.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Ain't Seen Ruthin Yet

Now this is getting ridiculous. What is next? Tenby? Y Felinheli, perhaps? Or maybe even Builth Wells? I dare anybody to find a rhyme for Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch which at least has a railway station. Still, fair play, this video spoof set to Bachman-Turner Overdrive's 70s classic, 'Ain't Seen Nothing Yet', done DGJ style is actually quite funny

Correspondence with Private Eye

Leading anti-badger cull activist, Derek Hector from Cardiff, has sent me details of an exchange of correspondence with Private Eye and his battle to get them to publish an alternative point of view to that of their agricultural correspondent:

This is the letter I wrote to Private Eye in response to a pathetic rant supporting the dairy Industry and insulting Brian May ( The Agri Brigade Eye 1267)

I would be pleased if you would publish this letter to balance The Agri Brigade column (Private Eye No 1267).

In the first quarter of 2010 there has been a 64% drop in cattle slaughtered throughout Wales including a 49% drop in the ‘hot spots’ of Wales . This has not involved one badger being killed and you won’t like this, is the result of introducing modest improvements in testing, animal husbandry, movement and bio security.

Bovine TB occurs in many mammal species, many protected, (including man) and at a higher incidence than found in the badger.

The only answer to the complete eradication of bovine TB is to cull all wild life (and humans?) and I don’t think that this would be acceptable to your readers, certainly not to the majority of the population in Wales .

Lets go along with the more acceptable route (to the general public anyway) of improving further measures relating to cattle and introducing the badger vaccination that is already ready and fully tested and the injectable vaccine for cattle due by 2015.

Cat L Teebee (aka Derek Hector, Cardiff)

Agri Brigade replied as follows:

Dear Mr Hector

Agri-Brigade replies:

‘Thank you for your letter and let me assure you that any drop in Welsh cattle numbers slaughtered due to bTB infection is something I 'like' very much - particularly as any hope of dealing with the residual reservoir of bTB infection in the wildlife anywhere in the UK would now appear to be further away than ever - even though both Coalition partners were elected with clear manifesto commitments to carry out a badger cull.

Let's just hope that it's not just a quarterly blip due to weather conditions (levels of cattle infection vary greatly quarter on quarter but show a clear long term increase) or the 100 per cent usage of Dutch tuberculin to perform the skin test on cattle midway through last year which may be a factor.

Having farmed in a bTB hot spot for 30 years where 30% of the local badger population is infected with the disease I concur with the view that on farm bio-security does need to be tightened but it's easy for you and your 'general public' to hand out prescriptions of this sort to the cattle farming community and at the same time ignore the problem with the wildlife reservoir of the disease except to hold out a vague promise of a vaccine 'due' in 2015. Such a vaccine has been 'due' all my farming career and always about five years away. In any case you will, I presume, have read the Welsh chief veterinary officer Professor Christianne Glossop's view that even if a vaccine were in the offing it couldn't work as it does not cure infected badger populations but only immunises clean ones.

I'm not sure where you get the idea that there is a 'fully tested' vaccine 'due' by 2015. Not even Hilary Benn was optimistic enough to propose efficacy trials for a vaacine but only a limited trial to begin to learn the skills of how a badger population might be trapped and then injected in advance of a proven vaccine being developed.

All that said, you will not find in any Agri Brigade piece a direct call for a badger cull - indeed the scale of the problem has mushroomed to such an extent over the past 30 years that a cull of the scale, persistence and intensity required to sort this problem out has probably now passed, given the sabotage tactics and intimidation techniques used by elements of the animal rights movement. Not to mention the cost.

In writing about the issue I have, I hope fairly, pointed out the contrasting approaches between Welsh and English Governments, the rapid backtracking by the Coalition partners on their commitment to a badger cull and finally the unhelpful nature of Mr May's contribution in that many of his (albeit perfectly well meaning) pronouncements on the issue appear to be so - how does one put it politely? - wide of the mark. ‘

Best wishes

To which I replied

Thank you for your detailed reply. So my letter I assume will not be published in Private Eye.

There are people out there including epidemiologists and ecologists who could well disagree with your views and I am surprised that Private Eye excludes an exchange of views through its letter page.

Come on Private Eye we are close to becoming a police state, undemocratic to boot as it is - please don't help close the door on debate.

The 'general public' still have a voice in this country - or don't they?

Best wishes
Derek Hector.



I would be pleased if you would publish this letter to balance the Agri Brigade column (Eye 1267).

In the first quarter of 2010 there has been a 64% drop in cattle slaughtered throughout Wales including a 49% drop in the 'hot spots' in Wales. This has not involved one badger being killed, and you won't like this, is the result of introducing modest improvements in testing, animal husbandry, movement and bio security.

Derek Hector, Cardiff

A committment to fairness

Yesterday's Daily Telegraph has a detailed and interesting interview with Vince Cable in which he lays out his intention to replace tuition fees with a progressive graduate tax and restates his commitment to fairness:

This mantra of fairness is central to his beliefs. He is often cited as the Lib Dem most likely to quit the cabinet on a policy issue, so what are his "red line" issues that might provoke such an exit?

"I worked for some years to get us committed in our party to what we call fair taxes, lifting low-paid people out of tax, we got that in the coalition agreement and it was in the first budget. So I'm content that that's being carried forward."

Later on Mr Cable returns to the subject of "fair taxes", when asked what he would consider a success after five years as business secretary. He even goes much further than Labour ministers ever dared by using the "R" word (redistribution) and spelling out exactly what he means – "a tax system that means people at the bottom end of the scale pay less and at the top end of the scale pay more."

Changes in the Budget this summer allow Mr Cable to claim this is the case now, but there could be trouble ahead if Mr Osborne, for example, scraps Labour's 50 per cent top rate for the highest earners, or introduces a more generous Inheritance Tax regime, both of which he has said he wants to do.

Fair tax appears to be a much more important touchstone for Mr Cable than his party's key demand of changes to the voting system in general elections, which will be the subject of a referendum next year. Despite intense pressure from Tory backbenchers who want to keep the current "first past the post" system on David Cameron at the very least to change the day on which the referendum will be held (currently it is planned on the same day as local elections, which its opponents say increases the chances of a 'yes' vote), Mr Cable appears to rule out any U-turn, saying there is a "settled agreement on the timing."

However, the referendum is not, he says, a deal breaker for the coalition. "Nobody's ever suggested that that's an issue which will see us [the Lib Dems] collectively walk out if we don't get what we want. As I see it, it's a five year partnership, this is quite an important part of it but there are an awful lot of other things going on as well."

I was quite interested in his views on social housing, which very much reflect my own. The paper says that Vince is decidedly lukewarm about Mr Cameron's plans to end the automatic right of unlimited tenure for council house tenants. He agrees that there is no harm in discussing these ideas, but identifies the key issue to be one of supply.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A police PR gaffe

I am astonished by this article in today's Guardian in which they report on a police operation to "out" prostitutes even when they have not been convicted of any crime:

Six street-based sex workers in Newham, east London, were named on the Metropolitan police website. Police posted their photos, full names and dates of birth.

In a second case, two Polish women who were selling sex from their home in Aldgate, east London, were raided by City of London police as part of Operation Monaco.

Operation Monaco was launched in May 2009 but police have admitted that just one charge of controlling a prostitute for gain has been made, as well as 52 charges for placing cards in phone boxes advertising sexual services.

Police took photographs of the Polish women, who were not charged. Last Sunday, photos appeared in News of the World. The women said they were distressed by the police raid and the lack of warning that their pictures would appear in a tabloid newspaper.

Quite apart from the danger the police are putting these women in and the fact that they are effectively prejudging their guilt, this action seems to be particularly stupid because of the subsequent and inevitable break-down in relations that will ensue.

As one of the women said: "The police were looking for money and found £50 from a customer," she added. "We never use drugs and are always sober when we're working. The police kept asking us over and over again if we'd been trafficked. We haven't been, and we signed a piece of paper to say that.

"If the police continue to behave like this, none of the women doing sex work will speak to them if they do have information about any crimes. I think they have been watching too much Diary of a Call Girl."

Georgina Perry, the manager of an NHS sex work project in east London called Open Doors, said: "I'm very disappointed with the police. They can't go around asking the community to police vulnerable women. It encourages vigilantism."

Meanwhile, all that the Association of Chief Police Officers can say is that their guidelines "clearly state that working with the media on operations can assist in the prevention and detection of crime." Well yes it can, but if it is only the media who end up talking to you as a result then you really have shot yourself in the foot. There are better and more subtle ways of dealing with this problem as is evidenced elsewhere.

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