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Monday, January 31, 2011

Labour Leader is a self-confessed 'square'

Today's Independent reports that Ed Miliband put himself through the obligatory GQ interview and escaped relatively unscathed:

He was put to the test soon after becoming Labour leader when he was interviewed by Piers Morgan for an article in a men's magazine.

Morgan put the predictable questions – "How many women have you slept with?" and "When did you lose your virginity?" – both of which Mr Miliband brushed away, somewhat immodestly, by saying he "would not boast about his sexual prowess".

His reply contained a hidden dig at the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who once told the same magazine, GQ, that he had slept with "no more than 30" women, to the horror of his advisers who were sitting in on the interview. The reply was meant as a joke, but landed the Liberal Democrat leader with the embarrassing nickname "Clegg-over".

Mr Miliband also refused to be drawn on when he plans to marry his partner, Justine Thornton, with whom he has two sons, although he did confirm that she is the owner of the £1.6 million house they cohabit in north London – giving Mr Morgan an opening to make a quip about the possibility that the leader of the Labour Party could be rendered homeless if their relationship breaks down.

But pressed about whether and when the couple intend to get married, Mr Miliband implied that the more he was pushed on this subject, the less inclined he was to rush ahead and make arrangements.

"The more people challenge me on it from a political standpoint, the more resistant I will become," he said. "We'll get married because we want to get married and love each other very much, no other reason."

Not answering the question is of course the obvious way of dealing with this sort of trivial intrusiveness. I wonder why Nick Clegg did not think of that. However, Ed Miliband did not get off scot-free, his obvious caution and ordinariness is in danger of making him come across as boring and uninteresting:

He was more forthcoming when asked if he had experimented with drugs or shoplifted. He denied he had either, and owned up to being "a bit square" during his days as a student politician at Oxford. He also said he had "mixed feelings" about beating his brother David in last year's leadership contest, but denied that either had obsessively dreamed of having the job. "I was surprised when I even made it into the cabinet," he added.

Just goes to show that you really cannot win.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sex by royal approval?

Apologies for the sex-related posts today, but I am not sure how best to react to the news that a company is producing souvenir condoms for the royal wedding that urge lovers to "lie back and think of England".

According to Yahoo News, Crown Jewels Condoms of Distinction is producing special celebration packs that bear the slogan: "Like a royal wedding, intercourse with a loved one is an unforgettable occasion":

Hugh Pomfret, a spokesman for Crown Jewels Condoms of Distinction, insisted they were "a unique way to remember this great British occasion".

"In years to come, they will be a timeless memento of a magical wedding day."

Presented in regal-looking purple and gold, each pack bears a picture of the couple gazing into each other's eyes, saying it contains a "triumvirate of regal prophylactics", which are "lavishly lubed" and "regally ribbed".

"England boasts some of the finest lovemaking in the world, with a tradition of coitus going back generations," lovers are told.

"Combining the strength of a prince with the yielding sensitivity of a princess-to-be, Crown Jewels condoms promise a royal union of pleasure."

It also includes a drawing of the couple "as they might appear on their wedding day", produced by an "acclaimed international artist", who is not named. The facial resemblance is not overwhelming but the pose and outfits seem styled on the official engagement photographs.

The manufacturers stress that they are not supplied to or approved by William, his fiancee or the royal family.

For some reason Buckingham Palace has declined to comment. I am equally speechless.

Getting the balance right

The licensing of establishments connected with sex is never an easy topic for a politician. Caught between moral outrage and those who believe that the existence of such places are a threat to women's dignity and hard-won respect, many might think that the easy option is to ban them all. That certainly seems to be the approach taken by Hackney Council this week.

Thank goodness therefore that the loudest dissenting voice is a Church of England vicar, who at least is able to get a hearing for the perfectly valid counter-view that it is not the job of politicians to "impose a moral code" on those they represent, after all adults should be able to make up their own mind.

Reverend Paul Turp of St Leonard's Church in London's Shoreditch, made his remarks after Hackney council voted last week for what it called a "nil" policy, banning any new strip venues from opening and holding out the likelihood that four existing clubs will lose their licences as they come up for renewal. The policy was approved despite more than 66 per cent of people who took part in a public consultation on the plans saying "no" to the ban.

He said that he was "hugely disappointed" with the decision, adding that it will "push the business underground, resulting in more women working dangerously on the streets" and will add to the people who turn to his church for help:

The clergyman, who provides refuge for 17 homeless people, as well as caring for alcoholics, addicts and prostitutes, said: "The council have created a problem where there wasn't one to begin with. They deliberately disregarded the views of the people."

Reverend Turp warned that, unless overturned legally, the policy was likely to lead to danger for strip club workers and disruption for members of the public: "A wretched mistake has been made. Hackney 30 years ago was a very dodgy place. I remember the struggle to get these places licensed. Now they are well run and safe."

And this is the problem with the view that these establishments degrade women and should be shut down. Whether that view is right or wrong, the reality is that many women get a good living in these clubs, where they are able to work safely.

I do not see those who are advocating a ban coming forward with alternative jobs, nor do I see any answer from them to the argument that their actions will drive the activity underground and place many more women in danger.

In these instances it is often best to regulate than to outlaw, for the sake of all parties.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Irony and PFI

Given the many hours of rhetoric and hot air that is expelled in the Welsh Assembly by Labour politicians in condemning PFI and private finance, I cannot overlook the irony of a Tory Cabinet Minister seeking ways to bring contractors to heel if they have made excessive profits at public expense under the previous Labour Government.

The Daily Telegraph reports that Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, has claimed that many PFI deals were "ghastly" and imposed an unfair "penalty" on schools, hospitals and other public services. They add that it is understood that Cabinet Office and Treasury officials are examining PFI contracts worth billions of pounds, looking for ways to claw back money for taxpayer:

A campaign led by Jesse Norman, a Conservative backbencher, is calling for PFI firms to pay a £500 million "rebate" to the Exchequer. PFI was introduced by the last Conservative government and expanded under Labour. Private contractors meet the upfront costs of building hospitals and other facilities and then operate them, recouping the money from the taxpayer over many years.

The Daily Telegraph has this week disclosed the long-term burden for taxpayers, who will pay contractors many times the original construction costs. Treasury figures show that taxpayers will spend £229 billion on projects that cost contractors only £56 billion. The biggest single PFI contractor is Innisfree, which employs 14 people but owns or co-owns 28 NHS hospitals and 269 schools. Its chief executive has built a personal fortune of more than £50 million since founding the company in 1995.

The profits made by some PFI firms are unacceptable, Mr Maude said. "Some of the deals done were ghastly. Some of the deals we've come across, the people on the other side must have been laughing all the way to the bank," he said. "We are looking to see whether there are things we can do." Establishing where the final ownership of PFI contracts lies is "very complicated" because many contracts have been sold on and refinanced by other investors, Mr Maude warned. But he insisted that ministers were determined to challenge contracts that are harming public services. ''None of this is easy, but we're looking to see what can be done, because there is a penalty being paid by schools and hospitals. Some have a millstone of a PFI around their neck."

It is a sign of just how right wing and out-of-touch the previous Labour Government got that they are being outflanked in this way.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Public do not yet trust double-Ed-ed beast called Labour

Today's Independent reports on a ComRes survey, which asserts that David Cameron and George Osborne are more trusted to see Britain through its economic problems than Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, their Labour counterparts.

The Poll also claims that People believe the poor rather than the rich will be most affected by public spending cut, suggesting that the Coalition Government has failed to convince people that those "with the broadest shoulders" will bear the brunt of the cuts while the most vulnerable will be protected.

As this snapshot is by now yesterday's news it is likely that people have moved on already. But, just in case they haven't then clearly the Coalition Government still has a job of work to do in convincing voters that they are doing the right thing. After all Government cannot rely forever on being better trusted than the two Eds.


The internet may or may not have invented flashmobbing, if not it certainly enabled it to happen on a larger scale and turned it into an art form of some kind. As ever though, art transmutes into politics and thus these Candadian mothers have used the technique to make a very valid political point.

It seems that Canada is up in arms about breast-feeding and whether it's really okay to do it in public. So a hundred mothers in Montreal staged a "nurse-in" protest at a downtown shopping complex last week, breast-feeding simultaneously before a curious crowd of reporters, mall security guards and passers-by.

They say that the event was retribution for a store that had thrown out a mother for breast-feeding earlier this month. The mother in question was so fed up that she created a blog, breastfortheweary.com. The rest, as they say, is history:

With just the one post, the blog quickly started gathering hits -- almost 7,000 so far. A day later, a Facebook group had been created to organize the nurse-in for Jan. 19. Newspapers and blogs across Canada and the United States soon picked up the story, creating a national debate over whether Smith or the employee had been right.

A national debate, an apology from the store in question and another small victory for the power of the internet.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bovine TB in West Wales reduced by more than a third in 12 months

An e-mail arrives from Pembrokeshire Against the Cull, welcoming the latest bovine TB statistics issued by DEFRA which continues to show a significant reduction in the number of cattle slaughtered in West Wales over a 12 month period.

The latest figures published by Defra for January to October 2010, show a reduction in West Wales of 35% over the equivalent period in 2009. PAC say that overall, since the introduction in 2008 of the stricter testing regime and subsequently improved cattle control measures, the proportion of cattle slaughtered is down by over 51%.

As their spokespeson argues these figures indicate that the introduction of a stricter testing regime and subsequently improved cattle control measures by the Welsh Government are having a major impact in reducing the number of cattle being slaughtered due to bovine TB.

The question now is why the Minister for Rural Affairs is continuing to pursue her plans to introduce an uneconomic cull of badgers in West Wales when the estimated £6m cost could be diverted to introduce tighter cattle controls and improved bio security measures in all TB hotspots across Wales?

As PAC say, Badger culling is unnecessary in order to manage this disease. The alternative of cattle vaccination could have a huge impact on this disease and should be prioritised.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Contradicting Tony Blair

No sooner has Tony Blair stepped off the witness stand at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war and people are lining up to contradict him. In this case it is Lord Wilson and Lord Turnbull, who were both heads of the civil service under Mr Blair, neither of whom recognise the picture he painted of a fully informed and unanimous cabinet set to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

According to today's Independent, both former Cabinet Secretaries made it clear that senior ministers were not kept up to date with Mr Blair's intentions:

Far from keeping his Cabinet in the loop, Lord Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary from 1998 to 2002, said Mr Blair assured them in April 2002 that "nothing was imminent".

"I don't think anyone would have gone away thinking they had authorised a course of action that would lead to military action," Lord Wilson said.

Lord Turnbull, who took over the job in the summer of 2002, described how he fundamentally disagreed with Mr Blair's version of events. "I shook my head when I heard [Mr Blair's evidence]," he told the inquiry. He noted a "mismatch between where the Prime Minister's thinking was and how much that was shared with his colleagues".

"The Prime Minister basically said, 'They knew the score.' That isn't borne out by what actually happened," he said. "By the summer [of 2002], he'd largely made up his mind at a time when his colleagues were a long way behind."

He said Mr Blair had repeatedly put off discussing the policy of invading Iraq until shortly before military action began in March 2003. He also confirmed key policy papers detailing the possibility of military action against the Iraqi dictator were not shown to many Cabinet members.

"None of those really key papers were presented to the Cabinet, which is why I don't accept the former Prime Minister's claim that they knew the score," he said.

The former Prime Minister may be a masterful performer when put on the spot but, as the Chilcot Inquiry is finding, his evidence was not as clear cut as he would like us to believe.

A new Downing Street cat?

The sudden appearance of a number of rats on the steps of 10 Downing Street during live television broadcasts has led the authorities to seek a replacement for previous feline occupants of the famous street, Humphrey and Sybil.

The Daily Telegraph says that David Cameron's aides have confirmed they will look for a new cat:

A No, 10 official said: “We have not yet been to Battersea cats and dogs home – not yet.”

Cats have not had a happy time in Downing Street in recent years. Humphrey wandered into the building as a stray but was moved out at the instigation of Cherie Blair and later died in March 2006 at the home of a civil servant who cared for him during his "retirement".

Sybil (pictured), who belonged to Alistair Darling’s wife Maggie, was brought down from the then-Chancellor’s Edinburgh home to Downing Street in a bid to rid the house of mice. But she did not settle and returned home.

The change of mind by Downing Street officials has come about after excessive media interest but that in turn was driven by interest on blogs and twitter, who first spotted and highlighted the errant rodent. If only it were that easy to change government policy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reorganisation or bust

Over at the BBC Betsan Powys speculates that the Welsh Government plan to amend the Local Government Measure to give Ministers the powers to merge or amalgamate councils under certain circumstances by way of an order.

Such an order would not be amendable, would not go before any Assembly Committee for scrutiny and, although there would be a 12 week consultation period and a vote in Plenary, would not be subject to the sort of evidence-taking it would attract if the method chosen was a Measure.

As Betsan points out however, the Government will need to suspend Standing Orders to table these amendments as they fall outside the scope of the Measure they are seeking to amend. They are therefore out of order.

And that is the problem. This is a substantial and fundamental change of policy on the part of the Welsh Government that will effectively allow a wholescale reorganisation of local government by Ministerial decree. Even the Tories did not go that far.

The amendments are being introduced at stage two of the Measure after evidence has already been taken on its provisions and the consultation has closed. They substantially change the thrust of the Measure but will not receive the same level of scrutiny as the rest of it.

My view is that reorganisation of local government, either in part or wholescale is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if you are going to do it then 12 weeks consultation and a Ministerial Order in Plenary is not the way to do it. There should be wider engagement with all stakeholders and proper and detailed questioning of the Minister on his or her reasons and options. That would also enable wider issues to be brought into it such as the powers to be exercised by Councils.

Betsan speculates that the first target of such an order will be Ynys Mon, which may be amalgamated with Gwynedd. Maybe that prospect is the reason why the suspension of standing orders did not materialise today as expected. Did Plaid Cymru get cold feet? We shall see.

Liberal Democrats exercise influence on control orders

This morning's Guardian reports that the coalition cabinet will today agree an "escalating series of measures" to replace the controversial control orders imposed indefinitely on terror suspects who cannot be prosecuted:

The delayed package of reformed counter-terrorism measures is to be announced by the home secretary, Theresa May, tomorrow and will include changes to stop and search powers and pre-charge detention as well as a replacement for the much-criticised control orders.

The final details have been agreed between Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minster, who fought the election pledging to scrap control orders, and May, who has faced strong pressure from the police and security services to maintain the key elements of the restrictive regime.

It is now expected that the Liberal Democrats will be able to claim progress by a decision to end the curfews of up to 16 hours that were labelled by critics as 'virtual house arrest'.

Instead the cabinet is poised to approve a compromise package of measures including overnight residence requirements from 10pm to 8am, to be coupled with continued electronic tagging, and in very few 'high-risk' cases increased funding for intensive surveillance operations.

In addition it is expected that the package will include promises to make renewed efforts to prosecute the eight remaining British nationals currently under control orders. The paper says that there will also be moves to ease the petty daily restrictions these nationals face, including limited access to the internet and phones as well as an end to bans on working or being educated.

This is a clear sign once more of the Liberal Democrat influence on government, reversing Labour's attack on civil liberties whilst ensuring that measures are put in place to protect our security from terrorists.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mixed messages on the referendum

With True Wales going their own sweet way in organising a so-called grassroots campaign without any public subsidy, it is more important than ever that those seeking to win this referendum on Assembly powers remain united and on-message.

Unfortunately, that has not stopped some key campaigners making claims for a 'yes' vote that will not stand up to scrutiny. Former Plaid Cymru candidate and ex-national chair, John Dixon highlights one particular instance on his blog where he believes that Peter Hain may have got a bit carried away.

He says that although the conversion of Peter Hain from prophet of doom to enthusiastic supporter of a yes vote in March is something we should welcome, the former Secretary of State's reasoning leaves him cold. This is because it appears to be based on an assumption that Wales only needs protection from UK Governments if they are not Labour. He says that 'as with much else, the bottom line seems to be party advantage, rather than any real consideration of the interests of Wales':

Hain doesn’t help matters by talking about a yes vote giving the Welsh Government the power to transform the Welsh economy. It doesn’t give them that at all, as MH has pointed out on Syniadau. It’s just another false prospectus of the sort which is likely, over time, to add to the disconnect between politicians and everyone else. There are plenty of reasons for a yes vote in March without resorting to this sort of tactic.

In today's Western Mail, former Labour Bridgend Council Leader, Jeff Jones agrees. He says:

“[Peter Hain] argues the canard that full lawmaking powers will help the economy without anything to back up such an assertion. All it does is lead to more cynicism on the part of the electorate.

“His arguments about the Government of Wales Act 2006 are laughable. It’s because of that Act that we are having no meaningful debate now. The debate on the principle of lawmaking should have occurred before the introduction of the LCO system [under which the Assembly can seek Legislative Competence Orders from Westminster that give it the power to make laws in defined policy areas].”

Of course Peter Hain is not the only one giving partisan reasons for voting 'yes'. In Saturday's South Wales Evening Post, the Plaid Cymru Assembly Candidate for Neath offers a similar analysis, writing in the letters page he says:

The need to protect Welsh communities from the excesses of the ConDem UK Government is a powerful argument in favour of voting Yes in the next referendum on March 3.

Presumably, he does not want the support of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Tories in this worthwhile crusade. Maybe there is something in the Neath water that produces this sort of tribalism, though if there is then the Plaid Cymru Assembly Member for Llanelli must also be drinking it.

She says in another article in the Western Mail that the decision by the Welsh Government not to call in the planning application to build houses on the site of Llanelli Rugby Club’s historic Stradey Park stadium is a good reason to vote 'yes':

Llanelli AM Helen Mary Jones said: “My understanding is that there were very serious concerns about the developer’s ability to go for a judicial review.

“Rather than being a reason to vote No in a referendum, it’s a reason to vote Yes so we can have a more robust Wales-only planning system.”

Well yes, we would have the ability to legislate on the planning system, but we could not change the quasi-judicial process that is at its core and as such would not be able to prevent any developer or objector going to judicial review if there had been an abuse of protocol.

The case for a 'yes' vote is fairly straightforward. It would be administratvely and financially more effective not to go on bended knee to Westminister every time we want to pass a law. It would also enable the Assembly to get on with the job it was elected to do and implement the manifestos of the winning party as voted on by the people of Wales.

A 'yes' vote would be a sign of a mature democracy, managing our own affairs within a clear constitutional settlement. There really is no need to embellish that message with claims that are so easily challenged.

An affordable housing crisis @waleshome

I have an article on affordable housing on the Wales Home site here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Stealing votes?

A new report by the Electoral Commission has revealed that police were called in to investigate dozens of allegations of fraud at the last general election following a catalogue of alleged offences, ranging from postal-vote fraud to false leaflets and bogus voting.

According to the Independent on Sunday, Police sources have said that more than 80 allegations of criminal behaviour, including tampering with ballot papers, were received following the election, and that at least 25 of them resulted in formal complaints and police investigations:

The list of allegations included one in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke, the man who is tasked with ensuring that elections are conducted within the law.

In the months following the poll, the Conservative Party chairman, Baroness Warsi, claimed that fraud had deprived the Tories of at least three seats in the closest general election for almost 30 years.

"At least three seats where we lost, where we didn't gain the seat, [were] based on electoral fraud," she said. "I am saying there are seats at the last election in which those constituencies are concerned, quite rightly, that electoral fraud took place."

Lady Warsi has refused to name the constituencies, although one is believed to have been Halifax, where Labour held on by less than 1,500 votes in May. Tory MP Greg Hands later claimed that 763 postal votes issued in Halifax failed to match voter registration records. It subsequently emerged that two local Tories had been arrested over allegations of electoral fraud in the weeks before polling-day. West Yorkshire Police later dismissed the Conservatives' allegations of irregularities, following a "comprehensive" investigation.

Nottinghamshire Police chiefs confirmed that they had received 10 complaints, including one relating to Mr Clarke's Rushcliffe seat. Ashfield, the former constituency of Geoff Hoon, produced three complaints, and there were two in Bassetlaw, the seat of John Mann, a prominent campaigner for greater transparency in politics.

The complaints included allegations relating to leaflets, "false register", expenses and public order. More than half were made against the candidates themselves.

The paper says that the Metropolitan Police also launched a number of investigations, including one into allegations of false registration of voters' addresses in Tower Hamlets. They add that Greater Manchester Police received allegations of fraud in a number of areas, including Rochdale, North Manchester, Oldham and Bolton.

The increase in these sorts of claims must surely justify reform of some kind to improve the security of the ballot process. Whether photographic IDs are the right solution as suggested by Unlock Democracy I am not so sure, but some tightening up is needed and I would hope that the Electoral Commission will now work with the Government to bring forward proposals.

Update: The Electoral Commission have not been in touch as follows:

'I just wanted to let you know that, despite what might have been implied in the Independent on Sunday story about electoral fraud, the Electoral Commission has not yet published its report into allegations of fraud at last year's elections. I'd be very grateful if you could amend your blog post "Stealing Votes" to reflect this, so that people don't come to us for a report that is not yet available!

We are currently working on this report with ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers), and are planning to publish in the next few weeks.

The stats quoted in the media report did not come from a draft of our report, it looks as if the journalists contacted individual police forces to ask for the information - which is fine, of course, no problem with them doing that, but just wanted to clarify that they did not come from us.'

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How suppressing information can impact on the democratic process

The issue of the stock transfer is a tricky one. On the one hand I can understand that a local Council and its tenants would prefer that their homes continue to be managed by elected Councillors and their officers, on the other hand the maths just do not add up.

If we are to raise the quality of Council homes to a modern standard as well as tackle the many issues of dampness, poor heating and draughts that lead to poor health and high fuel bills for tenants, then we need to invest significant sums of money. Although Councils do have the power to borrow money to do this, despite claims to the contrary, they often cannot raise enough because they do not have the income streams to fund the borrowing.

Government statistics show that just 4% of Local Authority Housing and 9% of Housing Association properties met the Welsh Housing Quality Standard target in 2008. The majority of the properties failed on issues "mostly related to the safety of occupants". These include being structurally unsafe, not having a "reasonable level of physical security", not having adequate fire alarms and smoke detectors or an economical heating system.

There is an urgent need to reform the way that Council housing is financed to try and address this problem. In 2009-10, £86 million was sent across the border to the Treasury from housing revenue accounts. If that money was retained by Welsh Councils then that could give them between £4 million and £11 million a year each to spend on improving their housing stock. Equally, if the UK Government offered Councils the same assistance to retain their housing stock as they do to transfer it to a housing association, by writing off debt then the housing standard could be reached much quicker right across Wales.

However, the most fundamental reform would be to look at the income Councils are able to secure from their housing stock. Decades of low rents have led to low levels of investment. In England the coalition have recognised this and are reforming the rents system so as to generate more cash to build new homes and repair the existing ones. Obviously, we need to keep social housing affordable but some progress can be made on this through incremental changes.

Without these reforms stock transfer becomes the only option for many Councils, simply because housing associations inherit the properties debt-free and without the burden of the housing subsidy system. My neighbouring authority of Neath Port Talbot certainly thought that when they set up and won a ballot of all their tenants. They are now in the process of carrying out the transfer to a housing association. However, those opposed to the transfer process cried foul and their complaints have been upheld.

Members of the local Defend Council Housing campaign requested the addresses, but not the names of council tenants so they could send them information ahead of the historic ballot on the future of council homes. But the request was refused by the council on the grounds that, to release addresses for its tenants would breach data protection and human rights.

The South Wales Evening Post reports that a complaint made to the Information Commissioner's Office has been upheld. They say "that the public authority did not deal with the request for information in accordance with the Act".

Whether the failure to release this information has had a bearing on the result is a matter for conjecture. However, it is my view that they should have made the addresses available to Defend Council Housing so that a proper debate could have been had. It is one thing to carry out a stock transfer process to upgrade Council homes, it is quite another to undermine that process by ensuring that tenants do not hear all sides of the argument.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Are two Eds better than none?

The unexpected and rather unfortunate departure of Alan Johnson from the Labour Shadow Cabinet has plunged Labour back into rather familiar territory. Suddenly, we find that the top jobs have been taken by acolytes of Gordon Brown and the Blairites are out in the cold.

Today's Daily Telegraph though highlights other consequences of the elevation of Ed Balls to the Shadow Chancellorship. They say that despite coveting the role he has now inherited, Mr. Balls was rebuffed by his newly elected leader only three months ago.

Speculation is that this was due to the fact that the two former aides to Gordon Brown have had tense relations since the "non-election" of 2007. Mr Balls was accused of blaming the fiasco on Mr Miliband and Douglas Alexander in the hope of escaping blame himself.

They go on to report that some Labour MPs have expressed fears that Mr Miliband and Mr Balls will struggle to maintain a united front, reviving memories of the bitter personal rivalry between Mr Brown and Tony Blair.

Rather more importantly is the difference in approach to the economy between Mr. Balls and Alan Johnson. Ed Balls is a deficit-denier whereas Mr. Johnson and Mr Miliband have stuck broadly to the last Labour government's plan to halve the deficit over four years.

There is no doubt that Ed Balls will prove to be a combative opponent to George Osborne but will his boss be able to keep him reined-in and on-message? We will have to see.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Where Wales leads?

In Wales, Assembly Members have agreed to have their pay frozen for the next four years. In Westminster, according to the Independent, they are only just getting around to asking MPs to give up the 1% pay rise ordered by the Senior Salaries Review Body.

The paper says that the Leader of the House Sir George Young will be putting a resolution before the Commons to block the increase in light of the pay freeze imposed on public sector workers.

They suggest that this will frustrate many MPs who argue they are already underpaid on £65,738 a year, and fuel anger at the tight curbs imposed after the scandal over expenses abuses. I certainly hope that this is not the case.

To be fair many Government ministers and backbenchers have opted not to accept pay rises over the past two years as the country suffered through recession. However, the Commons as a whole needs to follow the example set in Wales. Politicians cannot ask others to make sacrifices if they do not do so themselves.

Keeping a sense of perspective

Labour attempts to blame the UK Coalition for everything and anything are getting a bit shrill and far-fetched. Only yesterday one of their AMs alleged in the chamber that the Government were responsible for the World-wide recession that he keeps quoting as the excuse for the mess we are in now. Funny how they never mention the failure of Gordon Brown to properly regulate the banks or the fact the Britain ran a deficit budget every year since 2001.

However, nobody has quite got to the same level of hysteria as the author of this article, who has clearly lost all sense of proportion when he alleges that:

This is the most destructive administration since Pol Pot. It isn’t killing professionals and the middle classes, but it is so damaging their lives and the chances of their children that it’s the British equivalent to wholesale slaughter.

As the comments make clear this is the most tasteless and inappropriate smear yet. Whatever happened to constructive opposition?

Hattip: Liberal Democrat Voice

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Draft Budget speech

This is my speech in Plenary yesterday outlining the Welsh Liberal Democrats' alternative to the draft budget.

There is money in cats

Anybody who has spent any time laughing at the crazy pictures and captions on the LOLcats website will be gratified to know that it is worth a bit of cash.

According to the Independent, former journalist Ben Huh, who paid $10,000 dollars for the site in 2007 has now attracted some $30m in venture capital funding.

Mr. Huh says: "I want Cheezburger to be the ultimate leader and influence in internet culture." Well, it is certainly one of the richest now.

However, as the paper speculates the value of lost business hours as a result of people viewing the site could easily exceed this investment.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

An emerging Lib-Lab Pact?

Of all the articles to appear in the Daily Telegraph, this was one I did not expect. Mary Riddell suggests that a Liberal Democrat-Labour pact is starting to emerge and that this is a direct threat to David Cameron.

She starts by noting that the Liberal Democrats' creditable second place in the Oldham by-election has reinvigorated Mr Clegg, while Mr Miliband's party registered 43 per cent, six points above the Tories, in a weekend poll. She then points out that Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' deputy leader, is talking to Labour about blocking the abolition of the Educational Allowance (EMA):

The complicity does not stop there. Mr Miliband's concession on Andrew Marr that he might do business with Mr Clegg were he to be "the sinner who repenteth" hardly constitutes a love-in, especially given the bad blood of recent months. But the deputy prime minister is said, in private, to be responding warmly. Clegg allies assure me that Mr Miliband "has hugely moderated his tone". Though nothing has been decided, Mr Clegg is also open to sharing a pro-AV platform with his rival. "It would almost be odd if they did not," says one friend.

Mr Clegg, who is hoping to work closely with Labour's Liam Byrne on developing social impact bonds, a financial tool to pay for projects such as rehabilitating ex-offenders, also talks regularly to Mr Miliband, who favours collaboration on Lords reform. "They should speak, and they do speak," says a Cleggite.

She says that the Liberal Democrats are more resilient and stable than they look but Nick Clegg must know that he would be unwise to alienate further those on the Left of his party:

He and Mr Miliband, both long-termists, are already looking beyond the next general election. As Professor John Curtice has argued, hung parliaments may be here to stay. With the two-party vote lower in 2010 than at any time since 1922 and the Lib Dems' disappointing 23 per cent still the largest share for a third party since 1929, the era of clear results achieved by first-past-the-post seems over. With or without AV, coalitions are the future. Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg may soon need one another. The Labour leader knows he cannot risk isolation in an age of collusion.

She concludes that Mr Miliband has overcome a shaky start, and Mr Clegg, though bruised, has survived his bungee jump from icon to hate figure:

If control orders are sufficiently watered down – and the word is they may be – that will count as a victory for him, as will the paternity leave extension he outlined yesterday and the 80 per cent elected House of Lords now in prospect. Harmony should further embellish both leaders' images.

The obvious loser of this togetherness is David Cameron. Yesterday he stepped out from behind the human shield of Mr Clegg to defend misguided health reforms that many professionals regard as ushering in worse patient care and back-door privatisation. Suddenly, Mr Cameron is being haunted by broken promises to end top-down NHS restructuring, to cap banker bonuses at £2,000 and to limit fuel duty increases.

To his Right, Tory hardliners denounce him. To his Left, the Lib Lab truth and reconciliation process has begun. Any political courtship between Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband may prove, for the Prime Minister, to be a very dangerous liaison.

How this pans out could prove to be very interesting.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The stark facts on child sex trafficking

This morning's Guardian contains a very disturbing article on the increase in child sex trafficking in the UK. They say that trafficking of British children around UK cities for sexual exploitation is on the increase with some as young as 10 being groomed by predatory abusers.

A report by Barnados reveals that the average age of victims of such abuse has fallen from 15 to about 13 in five years. Despite this Anne Marie Carrie, the charity's new chief executive, says that victims continue to be missed as telltale signs are overlooked "from the frontline of children's services to the corridors of Whitehall."

The main findings from the report, called Puppet on a String, include:

• Trafficking becoming more common and sexual exploitation more organised.

• Grooming methods becoming more sophisticated as abusers use a range of technology – mobile phones, including texts and picture messages, Bluetooth technology, and the internet – to control and abuse children.

The charity dealt with 1,098 children who had been groomed for sex last year, a 4% increase on the previous year.

Their call for a Minister to be put in charge of fighting this abuse is timely and appropriate. Let us hope that Government listens.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tony Blair and Iraq Part Two

One of next weeks spectator sports looks like it will be Tony Blair's reappearance in front of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war. It is far more serious than this of course. Thousands of lives have been lost in that conflict and it is important that we get to the root of why our Government took the decisions it did in entering this illegal war.

The Independent on Sunday says that the former Prime Minister will face allegations that he "misled" members of the Iraq inquiry:

Members of the five-strong Chilcot inquiry have grave doubts over the truthfulness of statements the former prime minister made to them last January and in his memoirs, published last autumn. The Independent on Sunday understands that the inquiry is concerned over Mr Blair's evidence on the legal advice he received before agreeing to join the invasion, and the timing of the decision to go to war.

He also faces claims that he misrepresented the findings of a report from international inspectors sent into Iraq following the invasion to look for evidence that Saddam Hussein had been building an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Iraq Survey Group (ISG), found no evidence of WMD, crucially undermining the case for war.

The Coalition Government's decision to declassify important documents appears to be the key to this re-examination:

The panel, led by Sir John Chilcot, will for the first time be able to challenge Mr Blair's account of the legal advice he received using documents that were declassified several months after his appearance last year.

Among those documents was the revelation that the former attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, warned Mr Blair two months before the war that an invasion would be illegal without a fresh UN mandate. The opinion was repeated two weeks later, but in Washington the following day Mr Blair was told by President George Bush that the invasion would begin in mid-March, with or without a second resolution. By the eve of the conflict, following a visit to US government lawyers, Lord Goldsmith had changed his advice.

Will we finally be getting to the truth behind the Government's decision to go to war? We will have to see.

Basic error by Telegraph compounds misinformation about Oldham East and Saddleworth

This morning's Sunday Telegraph says that Nick Clegg is insistent that the "Liberal Democrats will win Oldham East and Saddleworth back at the next election", Except that the Liberal Democrat Leader did not say that at all as the party didn't hold the seat in the first place.

This sort of misinformation is part of a general attempt to undermine the very good result achieved by the Liberal Democrats in the by-election. The other misconception comes from the assertion by the new Labour MP that the voters in her constituency had sent a message to the coalition government.

Given that the combined vote of the coalition parties was 15,641 compared to Labour's vote of 14,781 I think we are entitled to ask what precisely that message was.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fighting the bankers

Yesterday's Independent contains the rather interesting claim that Liberal Democrat MPs believe that Mr Cameron, rather than the Chancellor, George Osborne, has emerged as the main obstacle to tough action against the bankers.

The paper says that MPs are furious that Downing Street signalled a climbdown this week while talks continued with the big banks on a new settlement covering bonuses and lending to small businesses and first-time buyers.

The paper's source appears to be Lord Oakeshott, who is quoted extensively and who, I believe, also acts as a Special Advisor to Vince Cable:

Lord Oakeshott, a former City fund manager, said the Government must stick to the agreement made when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats joined forces last May. Its opening section says: "We will bring forward detailed proposals for robust action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the financial sector." The Liberal Democrat peer said: "Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are putting up a terrific fight for the Coalition Agreement. It is a package deal, not a pick-and-mix of the policies you fancy."

That he is fronting up this small revolt is significant especially in light of Nick Clegg's New Year resolution that the Liberal Democrats plan to air future disagreements with their Conservative partners in public in an attempt to assert a more distinctive identity for the party.

I was fairly doubtful about that plan when it was announced, which is why I wonder now whether Lord Oakeshott is speaking with the backing of the party leadership. This latest piece of flag-waving is quite risky. The good Lord is saying and doing the right thing but if he doesnt get his way then the party's influence will be weakened.

I trust that all of this was thought of before the decision to go public was made.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Alun Davies strikes again!

Wednesday's Welsh Liberal Democrat debate on the PISA report that showed wales going backwards in educational terms under Labour and Plaid Cymru, was at times heated and confrontational.

This was most evident in the contribution from Alun Davies, the Labour AM for Mid and West Wales, who blasted both the Welsh Liberal Democrats for doing their job as an opposition and staging the debate in the first place, but also the report itself which obviously hit home just a bit too inconveniently for him.

However, when Kirsty Williams took him to task for his speech he reacted with all the indignation of a scolded cat:

Kirsty Williams: In responding to the debate, I wish to begin by thanking colleagues from across the Chamber for their contributions this afternoon. I had thought when the PISA results were published at the end of last year that there was universal recognition of the seriousness of the PISA process and of the fact that we saw Welsh students performing more badly than they did in 2006. However, having heard Alun Davies describe the report today as a bad report, I was clearly mistaken—

Alun Davies: I did not say that—

Kirsty Williams: Check the record. That is exactly what you said, Alun Davies. That is exactly what you said. You said that it was a bad document

Alun Davies: Point of order. The leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats attempted to misquote me during her contribution, and then refused to take an intervention. Could I say to the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. You may make a point of order to me.

Alun Davies: If she wants to misquote me, she should allow an intervention. We should at least be allowed to set the record straight.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I suggest that you check the Record of Proceedings and, if you are still not content, you may raise that point of order next week.

If Alun has checked the record he will see that Kirsty's hearing was perfectly good:

Alun Davies: First, we spend more money; secondly, we do not make the cuts that you have made, now that you have the opportunity, in Government. We will see what the people of Wales make of that in May. We did not make those cuts, but looked at how to maximise the benefit of our spend, and what do we get from the parties opposite? No support, but criticism—and criticism based on a poor reading of a bad document. That is what they have based their debate on this afternoon.

I await Alun's point of order next week with interest.

Defying the doom-mongers

The outcome of the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election was a good result for both Labour and for the Liberal Democrats.

Labour managed to avoid the pitfalls of defending a marginal seat in difficult circumstances and emerged with a respectable majority. The Liberal Democrats defied the doom-mongers who, only a few weeks ago said that they were going to come third and held on to second place and their vote share. In fact the Liberal Democrat share of the vote went up ever so slightly. It was an extra-ordinary performance in the face of supposed single-figure poll ratings and demonstrates that when it comes to actually putting a cross on a ballot paper people behave more rationally.

It was also a test of the Liberal Democrats' record in government and, despite disillusionment at some difficult decisions taken by Ministers, this result seems to indicate that voters understand that things are not so black and white when in government and that they like the liberal and moderating tone that we have brought to the Coalition. This includes policies to take the poorest out of tax altogether, linking pensions to earnings, the pupil premium, a revitalised civil liberties and constitutional agenda and action to tackle climate change.

It is true that there was a fair bit of tactical voting by Tories but that happens in any First Past the Post election and I do not accept the argument that the Conservatives took their foot off the pedal. I saw a fair bit of evidence of Tory activity when I was up there and it is an exceptional event for a Tory Prime Minister to campaign in a by-election. The reality is that the Tories were out of the contest from the start and that was reflected in campaigning work.

Having said that Mike Smithson over at Political Betting points out that the tactical voting was not as clear cut as some commentators would have us believe. He suggests that broadly about two thirds of the Tory losses went to the Liberal Democrats, the rest went elsewhere.

Personally, I am encouraged by this result. It shows that my judgement to treat poor polling results for the Liberal Democrats in Wales with a pinch of salt is justified. We have a good message to sell about our successes in government at a UK level, our effectiveness in the Welsh Assembly and our plans for the next Assembly. If we can do so well then we can not only retain all our Assembly seats in May but maybe add to them.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Labour to admit blame on the economy

The Guardian reports what many Labour activists do not want to hear, that their Leader is to fess up to the fact that the previous Government were partly to blame for the economic crisis.

They say that Ed Miliband is to admit Labour made itself vulnerable to the charge of racking up excessive debt in government by being too slow to talk openly and clearly about the need for spending cuts in the wake of the recession.

They add that he is also to concede that the last Labour government must take some responsibility for the deficit to the extent that it did not do enough to regulate the banks, and acted too late to create a more balanced economy less dependent on financial services for tax receipts.

I hate to say it, but I told you so.

Presumed consent row loses the plot

To be frank I am astonished at the way that the row about the Welsh Government's bid to secure legislative competence over organ donation has blown-up. Campaigners are right that if we had the law-making powers that will come after a 'yes' vote in March, then a bid of this nature would not be necessary.

However, it seems to me that the problem does not lie in the reluctance of the UK Government to pass on the powers, but in the legal advice that suggests that the the scope of the Government of Wales Act 2006 is being stretched too far by the suggested legislation.

On the one hand the Attorney General is suggesting that the LCO is outside the devolved areas, and that there may be practical difficulties in having a different system in Wales for organ donation to that in England. On the other hand the Health Minister says that the Welsh Government's view is that the order was lawful. All of that can be dealt with as part of the scrutiny process when we can see what is possible.

However, the fuss seems to be over the timing of the UK Government's response. It is a storm in a teacup. The fact is that this bid has come very late in the day. Not only was it submitted to the Wales Office as late as August but AMs themselves are going to have less than two weeks to take evidence on it and examine the order. That is the real scandal, the way that proper scrutiny is being curtailed in the Assembly because the elections are so close.

Listening to Cheryl Gillan on Radio Wales this morning the last minute e-mail that was sent by the Attorney General outlining concerns came as a result of a request from the Welsh Government for information the day before. They should be praising him for responding so quickly, not a known feature of Government law officers, not attacking him for saying what he thinks.

Personally, I hope that this bid is ruled to be lawful and is successful. I also hope that following a 'yes' vote on 3rd March we never have to go down this route again. But in the meantime, we have no choice but to follow due process and we should not be moaning about it just because the Government left it to the last minute.

One last point: on the radio Cheryl Gillan was asked whether she supported presumed consent and was reminded that she and other MPs tabled their own bill in 2002. Alas her memory failed her and she denied it. Fortunately, we have the investigative powers of BBC journalist Vaughan Roderick who tweeted a link to the relevant record last night:

ORGAN DONATION (PRESUMED CONSENT AND SAFEGUARDS) (No. 2)HC Deb 10 July 2002 vol 388 c904 904
§ Mrs. Cheryl Gillan, supported by Mr. Stephen O'Brien, Dr. Julian Lewis and Mr. Desmond Swayne, presented a Bill to provide for the removal of organs for transplantation purposes, after death has been confirmed in a person aged 16 or over, except where a potential donor previously registered an objection or where a close relative objects; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 July, and to be printed [Bill 169].

I don't suppose she will thank me for pointing that out.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Are publicly aired differences any way to run a coalition?

This morning's Guardian has an interesting take on an interview with Nick Clegg in which the Liberal Democrat Leader says that it is time that people should know more about the disagreements between him and David Cameron.

They say that the Liberal Democrats plan to air future disagreements with their Conservative partners in public in an attempt to assert a more distinctive identity for the party:

In a shift of tactics for the coalition, which was launched by the two party leaders in the Downing Street garden last May, the deputy prime minister said: "David Cameron and I are leaders of two separate parties. Both of us are acutely aware of that. We are acutely aware that when we sit down every day dealing with difficult decisions together we start from the starting point that we don't fully agree."

Clegg's decision to assert the Lib Dems' distinctive identity marks the end of speculation – mainly from ultra-modernising Tories – that the two parties could reach a deal or even merge ahead of the 2015 general election. Conservative cabinet ministers have been speculating that the Tories could stand down in Clegg's Sheffield Hallam constituency to give him a clear run in 2015.

Clegg stresses that this is not a u-turn but a natural development in the way that the coalition works. It is certainly very welcome that the Liberal Democrats are going to reassert their distinctiveness but are there not inherent dangers in this approach?

My main concern is that a Liberal Democrat Minster will stake out a position in public and then fail to get his or her way. We have already seen a bit of that on bankers' bonuses where some Ministers have talked tough but have so far not delivered similarly tough actions. I am hopeful that once talks with the bankers have concluded this will change but so far all we have had is grief as people perceive us not to be delivering on our principles.

The tuition fees debacle highlighted how public perception of a policy position does not take account of the reality of coalition politics. Open debate on government policy in the way suggested by Clegg, in which both parties set out their views and then come to a compromise may well help to educate people on the realities of two parties working together but it also risks portraying the coalition as weak and divided and will provide acres of newsprint for journalists and commentators determined to exploit that.

By all means let us be more open and transparent but for goodness sake avoid the elephant traps that will hand political advantage to our opponents.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Those revolting Tories

Having seen research, which established that the UK Coalition's MPs are the most rebellious since 1945, David Cameron will not be too happy this morning to read in the Independent that his Government will have the "smallest margin possible" for a vote concerning holding a referendum on significant EU treaty changes.

The paper says that the EU Bill, which ministers say proclaims the sovereignty of the UK Parliament and guarantees no further transfer of significant powers to Brussels without a public poll, reaches its committee stage on the floor of the House:

Rebel Conservative MPs have tabled amendments they say toughen up the Bill because the existing measure gives ministers too much scope to bypass a referendum and could leave judges to rule on what law-changes would qualify.

Eurosceptic MP Peter Bone told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "A number of Conservative colleagues have put down amendments which will toughen it up and make it what the British people want.

"They want Parliament to be supreme. I hope the Government will accept some of the amendments that are laid down, but if they don't then some of us will vote against the Government's line."

Although this Bill is far too Eurosceptic for my liking I am pleased to see that the Liberal Democrat influence in Government is keeping the worst excesses of the Tory Party at bay.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Grown-up politics and a week of decisions

Julian Glover in today's Guardian writes about the realities of government and gives some indication that the mainstream media are starting to get coalition politics. As he says: In opposition it is easy to be absolute, excluded as you are from complexity. The convictions of shadow office – or of a newspaper columnist – are harder to maintain in power.

He is right though when he says that some of the rhetoric adopted by the Liberal Democrats in opposition is coming back to haunt us. He says that this is not the case on control orders where the manifesto was more restrained, though I suspect that whatever solution is adopted will be portrayed by the opposition as a u-turn:

Yet everything he (Clegg) does is being seen through the prism of sellout. In part, this is the fault of his own breathless pre-election rhetoric. On some issues – cuts, for instance – the excuses offered by new facts barely justifies the change of position. There is a gap between what Lib Dems said (and – not always the same – what their supporters believed they said) and what the coalition is doing. This does not mean what the government is doing now is wrong, or that Lib Dems knowingly misled at the time, but that the experience of power adapts people in ways which invite the caricature of betrayal.

All sides in the coalition need to stop this impression settling permanently. For every Guardian reader who objects to Lib Dem co–operation with the Conservatives there is a Telegraph subscriber who fears this government has sold out to the liberal left. But power cannot be managed in a staccato series of victories: 70% for the Tories, 30% for the Lib Dems, with no common ground in between. Nor did voters ask for this. There was nothing fair about a Labour decade based on a minority of the popular vote; there would be nothing fair now about Lib Dem triumphalism.

The best that can be achieved is the shared improvement of policy through co-operation. That is what has happened on control orders. It is what happened on tuition fees too, though few believe it. It is the point of coalition. Grownup politics must move on from a tale of winners and losers, and think about the territory in between.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat Leader has been on Radio 4's Today programme defending the work of the Coalition Government. He told viewers that people will take a "more rounded view" of its achievements by the next election. That does not help those of us facing election in May of course but it is some consolation I suppose.

Where I do agree with him 100% is in his assertion that there is a "clear liberal direction to this government":

He said the effect of the spending cuts would be "difficult", adding: "But I think at the same time there are signs that the repair job we are doing on the government finances and the general creation of greater confidence in the economy might also start showing itself as well.

"I think it will be a crucial year - a crucial year, yes, of some very challenging circumstances for millions of people in this country, but I hope the beginning of a real turnaround as we move forward and as we successfully implement the repair job on the economy."

2011 is going to be a major test for the coalition government. If we come through it in one piece then I believe that the Liberal Democrats will be much stronger as a party both organisationally and electorally. The first test is this Thursday. Can we defy the pundits who only a few days ago were arguing that the Liberal Democrats would come third in Oldham East and Saddleworth? I believe that we can.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

A danger to democracy

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords yesterday and the murder of six other people, including a nine-year-old girl, a federal judge and a member of Giffords's staff is a hugely offensive crime that cannot be tolerated. Eighteen people in all were shot indicating an horrific murder spree by an individual or individuals who can only be described as deranged.

The Observer says that at a press conference following the murders, the Pima County Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, blamed political vitriol for fuelling the attack:

"People tend to pooh-pooh this business that we hear about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living doing that," he said. "That may be free speech – but there are consequences."

He said Arizona had become "a Mecca for prejudice and bigotry" and that "people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol".

The paper adds that the shooting has sparked fierce critics of the toxic political climate both in Arizona and the US as a whole: In recent months, Giffords, a supporter of the healthcare reforms, had received death threats, and her offices had been shot at.

While the motive for the shooting was not immediately clear, Giffords is one of 10 Democrat members of Congress who were the subject of harassment over their support for Obama's healthcare overhaul.

Her Tucson constituency office was vandalised in March after she voted in favour of the controversial health bill, which was bitterly opposed by the US right.

If this is the case then it is deeply worrying. The election of Barrack Obama has seen some very disturbing examples of extreme political vitriol by some who believe that they are national politicians and statespeople as well the mainstream media, much of it centred on the President's healthcare reforms. This vitriol has taken the form of character assasination, deliberate misrepresentation of policy positions and of facts and often, made-up stories/

I have to say that there has been an element of this too in the venom directed by the Labour Party and others towards the Liberal Democrats and the Coalition Government since the General Election. It is nothing like as bad or on the sort of scale seen in America, but it has the potential to get there if the perpetrators allow it to get out of hand.

There are reports that Sarah Palin is busy purging her twitter account of venemous comments and references to firearms. I cannot substantiate such comments and for all I know they may form part of the sort of misinformation referred to above, However, Palin and her Tea Party acolytes do have a case to answer for the way that they have conducted their campaign and for the type of rhetoric they have used.

The use of a gun sight over districts they were targeting, including that of Gabrielle Gifford was not just inappropriate but can now be seen as dangerously provocative. These people were partly responsible for the vitriol referred to by County Sheriff that contributed to this shooting incident.

Just how bad it can get is evident from this story about reaction in Pakistan to the murder of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer last week. The Governor had come to the rescue of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy after an argument with some Muslim women over a glass of water:

After Bibi's conviction last November, the case seized the attention of Taseer, the outspoken governor of Punjab. Outraging conservatives, he visited Bibi in jail along with his wife, Aamna, and his daughter. He posed for photos, offered warm support, and promised a presidential pardon. He spoke on high authority – President Asif Ali Zardari told Taseer he was "completely behind him", a reliable source said.

The bold intercession had been prompted by Taseer's daughter. During a family holiday at the Punjab government's winter residence in Murree, a hill resort above Islamabad, Shehrbano had alerted her father to Bibi's plight through her Twitter feed. "He took the phone, read the tweets, and sat and thought about it for several hours. Then he said we should do something," she recalls.

He was playing with fire. Religious leaders were outraged at Taseer's description of the blasphemy statute as a "black law". Protesters torched the governor's effigy outside his sweeping residence in central Lahore. A radical cleric in Peshawar's oldest mosque offered a 500,000 rupee (£3,800) reward to anyone who killed Bibi. Then last Tuesday Taseer's guard, 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, turned his weapon on his boss and pumped him with bullets.

In America we have already seen evidence of this type of agenda, such as the mixing of religious intolerance with politics. If we value our democracy we need to fight against such illiberal ideas and avoid offering hostages to extremism in the way we debate the issues. The cost of not doing so can already be seen in Pakistan and America.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Off to Old and Sad

As I am spending the whole day in Oldham East and Saddleworth blogging will be light to non-existent today. Here, though is a video to keep you occupied. I will not be campaigning for this guy:

Friday, January 07, 2011

Overhauling libel laws

The announcement by Nick Clegg that the UK Coalition Government plan to overhaul the libel laws is very welcome.

The idea is to give academics, scientists and journalists greater protection from potentially ruinous legal action from people or companies who disagree with them. The Government also intend to put an end to “libel tourism,” where wealthy foreigners use English courts to sue over publications in their home country.

A Government Bill will be published in March which will set out new protections against libel actions, and making it harder to launch such actions:

Sources said that under the Bill, existing defences including “fair comment” will be clarified to make them stronger.

Charities, scientists and academics will also be allowed to use the public interest defence, which is currently restricted to journalists.

There will also be rules to prevent “trivial” legal actions, which could involve companies or individuals having to show much more clearly that a report or publication has caused them personal or financial harm.

Mr Clegg will pledge that the Coalition’s measures will prevent foreign claimants bringing cases against foreign defendants in the English courts when their connection with England is “tenuous”.

“We believe claimants should not be able to threaten claims on what are essentially trivial grounds. We are going to tackle libel tourism. And we’re going to look at how the law can be updated to better reflect the realities of the internet,” Mr Clegg will say.

He will also commit the Coalition to addressing the high costs of defamation proceedings, reviewing “no win – no fee” agreements that allow complainants to launch actions without immediate financial cost.

This is yet another strand of the Liberal Democrat civil liberties agenda that we have brought to the coalition and shows that our influence remains high.

Labour leader put under pressure by radio listeners

Today's Independent reports on the tough and uncomfortable time endured by Ed Miliband on Radio Two's phone-in programme yesterday lunchtime.

They say that the Labour leader faced a barrage of tough questions from presenter Jeremy Vine and callers for "shafting" his brother David, whom he defeated for the Labour leadership:

One Labour supporter said he was too "laid back" and lacked the "passion and fire in the belly" to land blows on the Government.

Another caller criticised him for not marrying his partner, Justine, and registering as the father after the birth of their first child.

This is the second time that Ed Miliband has faced such a tough test on radio, having endured a similar inquisition on Radio Four in November, when he failed to define the 'squeezed middle'. The paper quotes a Labour insider last night as saying: "If the first interview was a car crash, then this was a pile-up."

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Campaigning in Old and Sad

The Guardian reports on Nick Clegg's visit to the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election and his robust defence of the UK Coalition's tuition fee policy:

On a flying visit to the Lancashire three-way marginal, which has been won by all three parties in the past 20 years, the deputy prime minister combined a positive message about the coalition's help for children, students and pensioners with repeated attacks on Labour's record under Gordon Brown and "under the duvet" evasion since Ed Miliband became leader.

Admitting it is proving hard to get the tuition fees message across after last month's student protests, Clegg said the "paradox" was that though fees will go up – to £9,000 a year at top universities – "as more young people look at the scheme, they will realise that it will be cheaper and easier to go to university than it is now," especially for "bright kids from poor families".

He said that a social care worker on £21,000 a year, on an average career path, would pay back £7 a month, compared with £80 under Labour's current scheme. "A majority of graduates will not pay back all their loans," he told voters in meetings and media exchanges.

The Liberal Democrat Leader linked former MP Phil Woolas's ejection from parliament after he was found to have lied about Liberal Democrat rival Elwyn Watkins to Labour's economic record:

He said Labour had "robbed" Britain of billions, just as the local MP had "robbed" voters of a fair election. Labour won the seat by just 103 votes, only to lose in court.

Denouncing the "outrageous" behaviour – for which neither Woolas nor Labour have apologised, he said – Clegg accused the former MP of having been found guilty of "lying his way through the campaign and of stoking up racial tensions," a reference to the legacy of three days of riots in 2001. Labour is certain to dispute that description.

I will be taking a party up to help out at the by-election on Saturday. I might discover then whether Paddy Power was right or not to argue that “Victory for the Lib Dems in Oldham is now as unlikely as Manchester United finishing at the bottom of this year’s Premier League with Roy Keane in charge!”

Unfortunately, as Liberal Democrat Voice found out the on-line bookies were not prepared to match their boast with their wallets, drawing a blank with an offer to bet £20 at 949/1 that the Lib Dems will win Oldham. Mike Smithson of the Political Betting website also found Paddy Power reluctant to put their money where their mouth is. He reports that when he tried to bet on the Lib Dems at 7/2, the most they would let him put on was 51 pence.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The cost of MPs

Here we go again! The Independent and other media report this morning that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which has faced complaints from MPs for its tough new expenses regime, has launched a public consultation about what members are entitled to.

This is despite the fact that Ipsa has barely got underway, that it was set up after an extensive review and that the bureaucracy that has led to so much criticism has started to settle down and staff are learning how to work with MPs rather than against them. Why open up all the old issues again now? Surely we have all had enough of navel-gazing by MPs and want them to concentrate on running the country instead.

My biggest concern about this review is that it has the potential to re-open the expenses controversy and re-ignite public disillusionment with politicians. Surely the obvious thing to do was to follow the Welsh Assembly's example, hand over all the important decisions to an independent body and leave it at that.

Instead, we have to listen to MPs moaning about filling in forms and submitting receipts for expenses, something that happens in nearly every other organisation. Any body can always improve the way they operate but please, make this review short and sharp and then let us hear no more about it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Doing away with pre-determination

This morning's Daily Telegraph reports that the Government's Localism Bill will contain measures so that local councillors will no longer be prevented from taking crucial decisions because they have already expressed an opinion on whether a controversial project should go ahead:

It will mean an end to councillors who have been elected to halt a closure or development being barred from sitting in judgement.

Under current Town Hall “pre-determination” rules, councillors are unable to vote on matters if they have expressed an opinion. But last night, Grant Shapps, the local government minister, wrote to all English councils and told them that those rules were being scrapped.

He said: “It is ridiculous that a community can vote for someone standing on a particular issue, only for that person to be barred from talking about it once in office. Councillors must be given the freedom to properly represent the views of their constituents.

“The Localism Bill will do just that. It will end the nonsense surrounding predetermination rules that have left councillors up and down the country confused and concerned about whether voicing an opinion on an issue of local importance will lead to charges of bias.

“We are placing councillors centre stage in their communities with more clout than ever before to get things done for the people they serve.”

This is of course, very welcome, though it will be interesting to see how it works in practice, especially with regards to planning. Most of the examples given in the article are not planning matters and actually amount to a misinterpretation of the rules by Council legal officers. In these cases the Councillors concerned should have ignored the advice and gone ahead and voted.

The one thing that puzzles me is why Grant Shapps has only written to English Councils. As far as I am aware this is not a devolved matter with regards to Wales and should apply here as well. I may have to ask some questions of the Welsh Local Government Minister.

VAT and all that

A lot of stuff has been written today about the VAT rise, including many soothsayers who are convinced that it will all end badly. As ever with these matters we should take these things with a pinch of salt, remembering that they are making predictions not stating facts. In the case of economists I apply another rule: they are very good at predicting the past.

Here is one example of the sort of nonsense that the opposition have come up with, this time from August, when the Welsh Government put out a press release predicting that the Welsh health service expects to lose more than £20m next year because of the Government's increase in VAT.

Putting aside the fact that the NHS can claim back its VAT, this claim contrasted massively with a previous answer to a written question in which the same Government stated that Labour's 2.5% cut in VAT would only save £4.5m over the whole of the planned period of the reduced rate of VAT (1 December 2008 to 31 December 2009). Some mistake surely!

It is also worth noting Labour's crocodile tears on this issue in the light of the admission by Alistair Darling that he had wanted to raise VAT hinself so as to bring down Britain’s budget deficit.

The former chancellor told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “It’s no secret. I said at the time and, since Peter (Mandelson) has actually spelt out in gory detail, I’m not going to deny what was patently true.”

Asked whether his proposal to increase VAT was a “battle” he wished he had won, Mr Darling replied: “Yeah, obviously.”

He continued: “The advantage of VAT is that it brings a lot of money, it would have allowed you to do a lot to take down the deficit but also given you money to spend on things that actually matter.

“It would have ameliorated some of the worst effects of reductions.”

Finally, Labour also have to answer the question as to why, if they are opposed to the rise in VAT, they did not vote for the Nationalist amendment in the House of Commons, which would have scrapped it and why they did not manage to get all their MPs into the House of Commons for the final three line whip on this issue.

Just so that people do not think I am dismissing this issue out of hand, I can certainly concur that this was a very difficult decision and that it will impact on people's cost of living as well as on the economic recovery. Whether it has the impact Labour is predicting is another matter.

The fact is that VAT is not as regressive as it is being portrayed. Its biggest impact is on luxury goods as it does not apply to food or children's clothes, whilst it remains at 5% for fuel bills. The proportion of income one spends on these goods is therefore important.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies even suggests that VAT is a mildly progressive tax:

We believe that increasing the standard VAT rate in the current system is mildly progressive when examined on a lifetime basis. The intuition for this is that, over a lifetime, poorer households spend a higher proportion of their (lifetime) income on goods that are zero or reduced rated in the current VAT system, such as food, children's clothes and domestic fuel and power, and hence a lower proportion of their lifetime income on items that are subject to the standard VAT rate.

The common perception that VAT is regressive largely comes from noting that households with low current income often spend a lot – and therefore see a big cash rise in their living costs – relative to their income. But as explained in the previous answers, this is a weakness of looking at a snapshot of income: as the ONS notes, "referring to income distribution to identify the incidence of indirect taxes on households with low income can be misleading". In general, over a lifetime people's expenditure must match their income (the main difference being inheritances), so if someone is spending (and therefore losing) a lot relative to their income at the moment – either borrowing or drawing on past savings – they must be spending (and therefore losing) little relative to their incomes at other times. Looking over the lifetime as a whole, what matters is whether the lifetime-rich or the lifetime-poor see a larger share of their lifetime resources taken in VAT, and on that basis VAT is progressive because necessities (consumed disproportionately by the lifetime-poor) are typically subject to zero or reduced rates of VAT

As ever then things are not as black and white as they are portrayed.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A data rich society

I have written before about the habit of the Police of keeping on their databases details of people who have been charged with offences and then found not guilty. However, it seems that the forces of law and order have taken their obsession with the retention of data even further.

According to this morning's Western Mail millions of innocent people have had their details stored on police databases after reporting a crime.

The paper says that forces across England and Wales have amassed data about people who dial 999 or non-emergency numbers to report their concerns or pass on information:

West Midlands Police, the second largest force, holds 1.1 million records of people who have reported offences over the past 12 years. Others, including Lancashire, Cleveland, Avon and Somerset, Gloucestershire, West Mercia and North Wales, hold more than 150,000 each.

Senior officers admitted the information could be used against people as part of any future police investigation. They insisted gathering the data was necessary to fight crime, protect the vulnerable and ensure concerns were dealt with properly.

But critics said the vast databases were further evidence of a creeping database state in which information on the innocent was held alongside criminals and suspects.

Personally, I do not go as far as Gus Hosein, of Privacy International, who is quoted as saying: "There's a point where the police stop seeing members of the public as the people to be protected and rather see them all as potential criminals. Until now, this only happened in non-democratic states, but I fear that this line has been crossed in ours. This only goes to show how far the last government went in promoting this view that we are all criminals, and my understanding is that while this government has cut the NPIA, which is a first step, a culture change in the way we are governed and protected is the next one."

However, clearly there is a need for the Police to properly justify the holding of any data, no matter how innocuous, and their suggestion that 'most people would expect police to hold on to it' just does not cut it as a sufficient reason.

What is needed is transparency and accountability, in which there are proper policies in place for handling and accessing this data, for authorising it to be cross-referenced or not, for allowing people to inspect, challenge and delete any data held on them and for reviewing and removing data after suitable time periods, depending on its nature. There also has to be the facility for a fuss-free independent review of any case and of the whole policy framework. These policies and the safeguards surrounding them need to be widely publicised.

So far I have seen no evidence that any of this is in place. Until it is then none of us can easily believe that our details are being safely and properly stored or that such data is not being misused.

And after all if you know that by dialling 999 or cooperating with a police investigation, no matter how innocent you are, that you are going to end up on a database, then why bother? Where is the mutual trust that the police need to properly enforce law and order in this country? They cannot have it both ways.


Sunday, January 02, 2011


It is amazing what can be found on YouTube!

Labour's ID card trial fiasco

Now that the UK Coalition Government has quite rightly fulfilled its promise to abolish ID cards details are now emerging of the fiasco that was the trial that Labour ran in Greater Manchester.

According to the Manchester Evening News, civil servants were urged to sign up their own families for ID cards in an effort to stop the controversial scheme flopping. They say:

They say that documentation highlights particular concern about low take-up by staff at Manchester Airport:-

By April this year, only 15 per cent of airside workers had enrolled for a card.

Reports reveal how the airport took the unusual step of appointing a full-time ‘National Identity Card Administrator’ to drive up demand and considered a competition to promote the scheme.

The report also said: “One participant complained that the identity card interfered with other cards kept in the same wallet.”

Considering that the Government spent £292m on the ID card scheme before it was finally axed, this is a major failure. It seems that people did not just reject Labour in May, they also rejected their flagship scheme, their control freakery and their assault on individual liberties.


Saturday, January 01, 2011

Is harmony breaking out for the New Year?

This morning's Independent contains an interesting article that suggests that despite facing the open goal of a Coalition Government implementing unpopular measures to put right Labour's ecoonomic mess, the opposition themselves are far from united.

The paper says that a close ally of Ed Miliband has urged Labour to rally behind him and accept that he has a mandate for his policies:

Maria Eagle, the shadow Transport Secretary, hit back at sniping at Mr Miliband's performance since he defeated his brother David for the Labour leadership. He clocks up 100 days in his job tomorrow.

"Ed won, fair and square," she said, dismissing criticism that he relied on trade union support and won fewer voters than his brother among MPs and party members. "Everyone who entered that contest knew what the electoral college was and how it worked. That is the end of it," she said.

The paper reports that insiders admit there are tensions over whether Labour's official policies are those in the party's general election manifesto or "Ed's policies":

Ms Eagle argued that the central issues on which Mr Miliband fought his leadership campaign were now the "starting point" for Labour's wholesale policy review. They include a permanent 50p rate of tax and a graduate tax to fund universities – both of which have been opposed by Alan Johnson, the shadow Chancellor – and incentives to encourage employers to pay a £7.60 an hour "living wage", higher than the £5.93 an hour national minimum wage.

There is also talk of Labour losing momentum and of sniping from Blairites who claim Miliband is wrong to dump a New Labour brand which won three general elections. The paper lists a series of lows for the Miliband leadership, which are contributing to depress Labour's support. Admittedly, some of this is misplaced perception but they are important nevertheless. These are:

Shambolic interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, when he struggles to define the "squeezed middle"

Poor PMQs session in November in which Cameron asks when he was "going to start" doing his job

Not escaping shadow of his brother David, as some Labour MPs wonder whether the party picked "the wrong Miliband"

His two-week paternity leave fuelled criticism that the party is drifting and lacks vision.

It is right of course that things could be going better for the Coalition Government and the Liberal Democrats in particular, but it is a new year and nobody should write us off yet, certainly whilst Labour itself is still in disarray..

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