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Monday, October 31, 2011

So this is what they mean by science-led

In all fairness, whatever one's views for or against the debates in the Welsh Assembly about the need for a badger cull have been fairly measured. That does not appear to be the case in Parliament where, according to the latest Badger Trust press release, wild exaggeration is the order of the day:

The Badger Trust is astonished that a Member of Parliament should claim in a debate that a farmer in his constituency “saw what he thought were 30 to 40 badgers, full of TB, staggering around and unable to stand up” under a yard light.

For Mr James Gray (Con, N. Wiltshire) to introduce such a ludicrous, unsubstantiated piece of hearsay is a misuse of his position as well as perpetuating the grossly misleading piece of folk lore that farmers can “tell” when a wild animal has TB, even in semi darkness.

Firstly the farmer only “thought” the 30 to 40 badgers were “full of TB”. There is no live test for bovine TB in badgers, so the farmer could have had no grounds for his assumption. The farmer was not even sure what the animals he had seen were, nor how many there were. “In fact it is extremely unlikely that 30 badgers would be seen together”,'.says David Williams, Chairman of the Badger Trust.

Windy assertions of this kind can have no part in a serious parliamentary discussion of what purports to be a “science-based” policy to eradicate bovine TB, but could lead only to a guesswork-led muddle.

In search of royal approval

If there is one thing clear about this story which reveals that since 2005, ministers from six departments have sought the Prince of Wales' consent to draft bills on everything from road safety to gambling and the London Olympics, it is that it is not as secretive as the Guardian suggests. Nor does it appear that the Prince of Wales has actually vetoed anything.

On each occasion the Prince's consent has been reported to Parliament in open session. It is a process that is well known to those who follow the intricacies of government legislation, though almost certainly not widely known amongst the general public.

Nevertheless, the paper is right to suggest that it is an anachronism that has no place in a modern democracy. What other landowner has the right to veto clauses in bills that may impact on his or her interests? I am sure that they would all want such a right but there would be a public outcry if it were given to them.

Andrew George is absolutely right to demand some transparency in this process, including full publication of the correspondence between Ministers and the Prince of Wales regarding proposed legislation.

There is no place in a democracy for an unelected person of whatever standing to block or amend bills being considered by MPs, who are accountable for their actions to their constituents.

This is another provision that needs to be abolished. Maybe the Government can do it at the same time as they allow women to succeed to the throne and for future kings to marry Catholics.

Big Brother is here after all

As somebody who has always been concerned about the growth of the surveillance state, I am aware that no matter how friendly a government is to civil liberties, new technology will always outstrip new legislation in its ability to intrude on people's lives.

This seems to have been confirmed by this story which suggests that Britain's largest police force is operating covert surveillance technology that can masquerade as a mobile phone network, transmitting a signal that allows authorities to shut off phones remotely, intercept communications and gather data about thousands of users in a targeted area.

They say that the surveillance system has been procured by the Metropolitan police from Leeds-based company Datong plc, which counts the US Secret Service, the Ministry of Defence and regimes in the Middle East among its customers:

Strictly classified under government protocol as "Listed X", it can emit a signal over an area of up to an estimated 10 sq km, forcing hundreds of mobile phones per minute to release their unique IMSI and IMEI identity codes, which can be used to track a person's movements in real time.

The disclosure has caused concern among lawyers and privacy groups that large numbers of innocent people could be unwittingly implicated in covert intelligence gathering. The Met has refused to confirm whether the system is used in public order situations, such as during large protests or demonstrations.

Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, warned the technology could give police the ability to conduct "blanket and indiscriminate" monitoring: "It raises a number of serious civil liberties concerns and clarification is urgently needed on when and where this technology has been deployed, and what data has been gathered," he said. "Such invasive surveillance must be tightly regulated, authorised at the highest level and only used in the most serious of investigations. It should be absolutely clear that only data directly relating to targets of investigations is monitored or stored," he said.

There are issues of legality and proportionality here that need to be addressed. As the paper points out covert surveillance is currently regulated under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which states that to intercept communications a warrant must be personally authorised by the home secretary and be both necessary and proportionate. The terms of Ripa allow phone calls and SMS messages to be intercepted in the interests of national security, to prevent and detect serious crime, or to safeguard the UK's economic wellbeing.

How such wide ranging and indiscriminate technology fits into this frameowrk is difficult to see. There must be some clarity from government on how this device is used, what authorisation is required and how the rights of innocent civilians are protected.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bringing back the clones

This has been the week for jaw-dropping stories and this one in yesterday's Telegraph does not disappoint.

The paper says that former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott has blamed a "cloned" government credit card for what appears to be excessive spending by his officials. He believes that fraud is the "only explanation" after records suggested that staff in his private office used a card to spend more than £15,000 in bars, restaurants and cafés over two years:

A bill for £456 was run up at an Australian casino in 2004 when the then-Cabinet minister was visiting to review the country's gambling laws.

Speaking to the Hull Daily Mail, Lord Prescott stressed that he had never personally held a government procurement card.

He highlighted payments such as £2,000 on the same day from a camera shop in China and £360 at two golf clubs in Kent.

"I have got no idea about particular entries," he said.

"You would certainly remember anyone buying £2,000 worth of camera gear but it's news to me.

"The same thing with the golf – I don't even play bloody golf.

"It has been established some cards were cloned and that is the only explanation for some of the things on here."

Lord Prescott questioned a £296 spend on three separate trips to the London Eye.

"I've only been on the thing once in my life and that was then I showing Mayor Daley from Chicago around, so why should there be three different entries?" he said.

"It is possible someone cloned the card and that is what has shown up in some of these entries.

"I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to clarify this immediately."

It is easy to be cynical of course but there is clearly something amiss here. Of course now Lord Prescott has demanded an inquiry we may find out exactly what happened sooner than expected.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

More Liberal Democrat rebels

Cuts in legal aid have proved to be particularly controversial in recent months so the news that a small group of Liberal Democrat MPs are working together to reverse some of the most damaging aspects of these changes is very welcome.

Labour's position on this has of course been very interesting. They now appear to be opposed to cutting legal aid even though they fought the last General Election pledged to do the opposite. As last year's Law Society Gazette points out Labour went into the last election promising to implement more cuts in the legal aid budget, planning to increase the use of ‘virtual courts’ in criminal cases and fully committed to pressing ahead with ID cards and the ‘full use’ of CCTV and DNA technology to tackle crime.

According to the Guardian, Liberal Democrat MPs, Simon Hughes, Tom Brake and Mike Crockart will be following up the party's success in amending the Health Bill by seeking changes to Government plans on this issue.

They have tabled amendments that are calculated to preserve legal aid for the most vulnerable potential claimants. They include:

• Ensuring that legal aid is preserved for claimants who need to take a case for clinical negligence

• Making legal aid available earlier to those at risk of losing their house to repossession

• Keeping "no win, no fee" arrangements and "after the event insurance" for those who wish to take privacy or defamation cases. The family of Milly Dowler were able to bring their case against News International through such means

• Removing proposals that could subject those arrested to being means tested before they are entitled to legal advice

• Preserving legal aid for those who need to appeal to tribunals against decisions that affect their entitlements to welfare benefits

• Preserving legal aid for immigration cases involving disputed reunions with family members who are abroad.

It is an important fight and one that the Government needs to make concessions on.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A rewarding life after politics

There is a much used internet acronymn that sums up my reaction when I first saw this story about former Prime Ministers being paid huge sums of money for continuing their political activities after retirement. However, as this is a family orientated blog I will not repeat it.

I am sure that many people will have a similar reaction to the news that Margaret Thatcher has claimed £535,000 of taxpayers' money over the last five years in return for making rare public appearances, all from the public duties cost allowance available to ex-PMs.

John Major has received £490,000 in the last five years, and Tony Blair got £169,076 in 2008-09, more than he was paid when he was in Downing Street.

What is not clear is what they did for this money, at what rate they were paid for each duty, whether duties are ranked in value according to their importance and what justification is in place for these payments. Until I saw this article I did not know that the public duties cost allowance even existed.

Perhaps we could have a bit more information so we can all form a more objective assessment as to whether we are getting value for money.

Unbecoming conduct

Today's South Wales Evening Post casts some light on the toxic atmosphere generated by some Councillors and external individuals around Swansea Council and their habit of abusing the code of conduct and the Public Services Ombudsman as a means of trying to settle scores against each other and the Administration.

Importantly, they also correct an earlier story by making it clear that the latest complaint against a Tory Councillor and the Leader and the Deputy Leader of the Authority was not made by the Chief Executive, as reported, but by the Leader of the Conservative Group after a falling out amongst Tory Councillors.

The paper reports that ombudsman complaints against Swansea councillors are the highest in Wales so far this year:

Between April 1 and September 30 this year, 11 code of conduct complaints were received by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.

However, none were upheld, with the Ombudsman either choosing not to investigate (seven) or discontinue (one). Three cases are currently open.

Three complaints were against Chris Holley, council leader, two of which were not upheld while one which is still being investigated.

The way that the Ombudsman is being used by some individuals in my view, underlines how the code of conduct is not fit for purpose. Nor is the Ombudsman's office sufficiently robust in rejecting out of hand complaints that clearly have no merit. Instead, they investigate and then reject them later.

The fact that an investigation is underway gives the complainants their five minutes in the sun. The media are able to imply guilt by reporting that a particular councillor is under investigation, whilst the persons concerned are unable to defend themselves for fear of prejudicing the inquiry. It is no way to run a democrcay.

If these figures do not convince the Local Government Minister that the system needs reforming then I do not know what will. The danger is that good Councillors will be driven out of politics by the pressure being exerted on their families and them by a constant stream of complaints. Now that would not be good for democracy.

Update: Some comments have been removed from this blog entry because they were being used by a few individuals to pursue their own private agenda. My understanding, having spoken to people again is that the Chief Executive was inundated with complaints and a detailed report from Councillor Kinzett. He decided that he was not the right person to adjudicate on those complaints and passed them onto the Ombudsman. The point is that some people are treating that as a significant endorsement of those complaints by the Chief Executive but that is not the case. It was a neutral act on his part.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Liberal Democrats defend workers rights in government

The Guardian reports that Business Secretary, Vince Cable has rejected plans promoted by David Cameron's chief strategist, Steve Hilton, to abolish unfair dismissal laws because they are "unnecessary, based on no evidence and unlikely to improve labour market flexibility".

The paper quotes Cable's aides as saying that the proposals would do nothing to promote growth as 25 million consumers would face job insecurity and find it more difficult to get a mortgage, hitting government efforts to boost growth.

They add that one of Nick Clegg's most senior parliamentary aides, Norman Lamb, went further than Cable, describing the proposals as madness:

Passages of the report, prepared for Downing Street by the Conservative donor and venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft, were leaked on Wednesday.

He proposed removing all rights to claim unfair dismissal, replacing it with a right to seek a redundancy payment. He said current employment protection laws addressed yesterday's problems and that even if it meant employers could sack staff simply because they did not like them, it was a price worth paying.

Cable's aides said the report would not be published, and it was neither an official report or officially commissioned.

Once again the Liberal Democrats are acting as a bulwark against the worst excesses of the Tory right wing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Putting the revolting Tories into context

After all the excitement of Monday's Tory revolt on Europe it takes Nick Clegg to put the views of the Euro sceptics into some context. According to today's Telegraph the Deputy Prime Minister scorned the demands of the Conservative backbenches:

“Eurosceptics need to be quite careful for what they wish for, because if they succeed – and they won’t succeed, as long as I’m in government – to push this country towards the exit sign, let’s be clear: that [what] will be damaged is British families, British businesses, British jobs.”

Personally, I am proud that the Liberal Democrats remain such a powerful obstacle to the Tory party wrecking the British economy in this way.

Smirks at the summit

My French is non-existent but I am told that the question was 'has Monsieur Berlusconi done enough to satisfy you?' If that wasn't the question then it should have been.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Tuition Fee dilemma

Although I support the policy of the Welsh Government of mitigating the impact of tuition fees on Welsh students, the latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) figures, as printed in today's Western Mail, raises serious questions as to how it is funded.

The Welsh Goverment's plan is to top-slice the teaching grant to Welsh Universities to pay for this policy, calculating that colleges will get the money back through the fees of individual students. The danger is that, because the Government are also funding Welsh students studying in English Universities, the amount of the teaching grant leaving Wales will not be matched by income from the fees of English students coming to study here.

On first glance those fears appear to have been justified. The paper says that at the moment, calculations account for roughly 24,000 English students, who do not have the benefit of a government subsidy, studying in Wales and 16,000 Welsh undergraduates learning across the border:

But today’s Ucas figures reveal the number of English-domiciled learners applying to Welsh institutions has fallen by 13.4% – down from 5,386 in 2011 to 4,576 for 2012 entry.

The number of Welsh students opting for English courses, meanwhile, is down by just 4.3%

There still needs to be a fair bit of number-crunching before the impact of these changes on University finances becomes clear, but there is a clear danger that, unless the Welsh Government finds money from elsewhere then many Universities will be facing a shortfall in their future finances.

In the same article the President of NUS Wales alleges that the reason why the number of English students applying to university is down by 12% on last year is due to the Westminsteer Government's tuition fee policy. On that measure the number of Welsh and Scottish students going to University should be up, but that is not the case.

As this article makes clear, there are dangers in jumping to conclusions about statistics in this way:

The absolute number of applications is down compared to the previous year, but so too was the birth rate 18 years ago compared to the previous year, as Stuart pointed out in a comment on my earlier post:

The number of live births in England in 1993 (18 years ago) was 636,473; in the preceding year it had been 651,784. So that’s a fall of 15,311, or 2.3%. Looking at the fall in applications from 18 year olds, it’s 2.4%.

Not such an amazing drop after all; in fact, maybe just in line with demographic changes… and expect more to come, the number of births fell until 2001, when it reached less than 564,000.

In other words, anyone wanting to write the headline SHOCK NEWS AS TUITION FEES MAKE NO IMPACT – Small fall in applications mirrors decline in 18 year olds would have had rather more grounds for writing that than some of the shock horror headlines seen (and depending on your view of the importance of older applications, though it’s 18 year olds who have dominated the rhetoric up until now).

Perhaps NUS Wales might wish to reflect on these figures before drawing any more conclusions from them.

Monday, October 24, 2011

On the fringes

Yesterday Plaid Cymru leadership candidate, Elin Jones gave the clearest indication yet, that if she becomes the head of her party on March 15th then she will lead it even further to the fringes of Welsh politics.

Speaking at the SNP Conference yesterday, Ms. Jones described the United Kingdom as “a pretence of a state”.

Speaking about Scotland's forthcoming Independence referendum she said: “As you, in the SNP and in Scotland, consider the real possibility of creating an independent Scotland, we are left to consider what would be left.

“A UK Government governing all English matters, and only some Welsh matters and even less Northern Irish matters. It is now time for a serious debate on the future constitutional relationship of the countries of the British islands. It is time to debate equality, not subservience and dependence. To us, the UK is currently a pretence of a state. After a Yes vote in your referendum, it could no longer pretend to anyone, not even itself.”

Elin Jones of course seeks to lead a party that has constantly complained that Wales is not getting enough money from the UK Goverment. However, the real questions regarding her speech hang on its naivety.

I don't believe that anybody can predict the outcome of the Scottish referendum, and I am not about to try, however the assumption that a 'yes' vote will lead to an immediate secession from the rest of the United Kingdom is a mistaken one. This is not a decision that just affects Scotland as Elin Jones correctly surmises. It may be that the UK Government would want to gauge opinion from the rest of the UK before acceding to this non-binding advisory plebiscite.

The UK of course is not pretending to be a state. Much as I dislike the nation-state model, whether it is the UK or just one country such as Wales, there is no doubt that the United Kingdom has a unified political structure, economy, social cohesion and culture. Clearly, much of that has changed in the last century due to social changes but its strength lies in its diversity and its unity of purpose. Attempts to break-off small parts of the whole do not undermine that entity.

The time to debate what happens after a 'yes' vote in Scotland is when it happens. There will be plenty of time. In the meantime those parties who still strive to be relevant and representative will be concentrating on issues such as the economy, education and the health service.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The death of irony

This morning's Sunday Telegraph leads on the rather interesting proposal that European Union chiefs are drawing up plans for a single “Treasury” to oversee tax and spending across the 17 eurozone nations.

To be frank, I would be surprised if they did not. The recent crises have proved that you cannot have monetary union without economic union as well. If the Euro is to survive then this is the only way forward. If it does not survive then it may well drag Britain and the rest of Europe back into recession.

What I found bizarre though was the throwaway line that this proposal, put forward by Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, 'would be the clearest sign yet of a new “United States of Europe” — with Britain left on the sidelines.'

What do they expect? If the British Government even suggested that they join in such a project the Telegraph would be the first at the barricades protesting against it. You cannot have it both ways. You are either in or you are out and if you choose the latter then you cannot complain when the others do things you don't like.

The lies they tell about the Liberal Democrats

With the imminent vote in the House of Commons on an in-out referendum regarding the European Union causing yet another Tory Party split, it seems that the one thing that both Labour and the Tories can unite on is that the failure of the Liberal Democrats to support such a plebiscite is yet another broken promise on the part of Nick Clegg.

As ever though this is a massive misrepresentation, in fact it is a lie. What the Liberal Democrat manifesto actually said is this:

"Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an IN/OUT referendum the next time a British Government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU."

As the Government has not signed up to such a fundamental change, a referendum is clearly unnecessary and by not supporting one the Liberal Democrats remain within both the letter and the spirit of their manifesto promise.

Having said that it is also worth pointing out once more that the Liberal Democrats do not have a majority in the House of Commons and therefore cannot implement their manifesto in any case without the support of another party.

The programme they are signed up to is the Coalition Agreement and that too, does not envisage supporting a manifesto in the current circumstances.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Consequences - POWIS revisited

This morning's Western Mail outlines some of the consequences of the decision by the Welsh Government to stop the European funding to the University of Wales' Prince of Wales Innovation Scheme, without first putting an alternative in place.

It is now the case that there is no Welsh government funding scheme that takes good ideas arising from research by first class scholars and helps to turn them into high quality, high value jobs.

The paper says that Wales appears certain to lose out on an IT development centre, which could have created up to 100 jobs, following the decision to withdraw funding for the University of Wales Powis project:

New Zealand-based software development company Pingar had been planning to set up a Centre for Knowledge Engineering in the Swansea area but is now likely to choose the east of England instead, its co-founder said.

John Beer accused the Welsh Government of a “lack of transparency” over the end of the Powis scheme and said companies that had benefited from the project had learnt about its demise through the media rather than from government.

Mr Beer, whose PhD studies at Newport University are partly supported by the scheme, said he had spent years justifying to the Pingar board the decision to base its local offshoot Kaimai Research at the Digital Technium in Swansea rather than near Cambridge University.

“They keep saying to me why are you here John? One of the things is Powis, others are the relationship with the university and the skills,” he said.

He said the business was attracted to Swansea because of the skills available at the university. Kaimai has a masters level student from Swansea, another from Newport and three KEFF students from Bangor.

“We wanted to grow this here to work the University of Wales and other Powis companies because there’s some synergy with what we do with them,” he said.

But the precipitate closure of the Powis scheme without consultation with the companies affected means he can no longer recommend to the Pingar board that the knowledge centre be set up in Wales, he added.

“From our point of view it’s the not knowing is the key, the disregard for the companies that are funding this, disregard for the students, because we didn’t know about this,” he said.

“The future of collaboration has been wiped out in one fell swoop. It you want to change things you do it internally and you engage with the stakeholders.”

He confirmed that he had already begun talking with authorities in the east of England and that the knowledge centre will likely be built there.

What is clear from this article is that Ministers appear to have jumped into this feet first. They have failed to consult, failed to put any alternative in place and above all failed to think through the consequences of their own actions. As a result the Swansea area is losing one hundred much-needed high value jobs.

I am not questioning the assertion by Ministers that there were problems with the way that European funding was being used, they are in a better position to judge that than me. However, the way that their decision was put into effect has impacted upon a number of businesses and the future prosperity of Wales.

Ministers need to work quickly to put this right before more jobs are lost as a result of their actions.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rhetoric and reality

Labour in Wales are in the middle of a classic u-turn, again. Having lectured us constantly for the best part of 18 months about the need to invest in capital, to boost the construction industrym, they have apparently changed their mind.

This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the announcement yesterday by the Health Minister that new building projects in the NHS have been put on hold.

Lesley Griffiths made the announcement in yesterday's Health and Social Services Committee that all capital spending projects will be delayed until health boards submit their plans in the new year.

One member pointed out that this decision will impact on jobs, whilst
Kirsty Williams said that she was outraged to hear the Minister admit that projects announced just in time for a crucial election may now be cancelled. She said: "The Minister has since said that projects which have been ‘approved’ will continue, but they need to be clear on what this means. We don’t know if contracts which have not been formally signed will now be shelved.

“I have already tabled a formal question demanding the Minister to provide detail on which projects will now be shelved – I am calling on her to come clean today, so that people across Wales will know what the impact will be on their services.”

And this is the point. All of these projects were announced before the election to win votes. Now that Labour are back in government, it seems that they have become a lower priority.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Capitalism explained

via Twitter

More on the University of Wales - POWIS

These are the questions posed to the Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science regarding the Prince of Wales Innovation Scheme. This scheme is run by the University of Wales and utilises European money to pump prime research by first class students that can grow business and generate wealth. The European money was stopped by the Minister last week for technical reasons.

Simon Thomas: An entrepreneurial culture comes with its elements of risk and failure. Would the Minister like to say more about the decision of the Welsh European Funding Office to withdraw funding from the Prince of Wales Innovation Scholarships? Some people are puzzled about this, because the scholarships have only been going for two years, and yet have seemed to have achieved their initial outcomes, at least. Will the Minister publish a full evaluation of the reasoning by WEFO for the withdrawal of this funding? Also, in particular, what support can the Minister give to such programmes that work with universities, research and development institutions and spin-off companies to ensure that our universities have an entrepreneurial spirit and culture?

Edwina Hart: I advise Members that the Welsh Government review, which was completed in the spring, identified significant management and governance shortcomings in relation to EU fund eligibility. The key issue for us is that there will be no funds lost to Wales as a result of any decisions, because any EU funds committed will go elsewhere in the system. I am aware of the comments being made about how we need to encourage entrepreneurs. I have already started some discussions within my sectors about what we can do in the future as a Government.

My later question was a supplementary on a question regarding Swansea East so had to have that as a focus:

Peter Black: The Prince of Wales Innovation Scholarships scheme has benefited a number of Swansea students, linked to the research carried out at Swansea University. The decision to withdraw WEFO funding has put their future in doubt, and certainly the future of linking innovation with entrepreneurship and the development of high-quality jobs in the Swansea area. I understand the answer you gave to Simon Thomas, but can you tell me why have you withdrawn this WEFO funding when you do not have a plan B, and how quickly will you be able to put in place an alternative scheme, so that we can continue to encourage the link between research and entrepreneurship, which is absolutely vital if we are to grow our economy in the Swansea area?

Edwina Hart: I totally concur with your last points about encouraging entrepreneurs and development, but the review, which was completed in the spring, identified significant management and governance shortcomings in relation to EU funds, and I have a duty to ensure that public funds are maximised for the benefit of Wales. Part of what WEFO does is to regularly monitor EU projects to help ensure that they are meeting their terms and conditions for EU funding, and to ensure that any shortcomings are thoroughly reviewed and action taken, as in the case of POWIS.

Speech to Conference

This is my speech to the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference in Wrexham last Sunday.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In defence of the University of Wales

Nobody can deny that the current controversy around the moderation of University of Wales degrees in overseas universities and the visa scam exposed by BBC Wales at Rayat College London has exposed some serious shortcomings, which need addressing.

It is certainly the case that the appointment of a new Vice Chancellor for the University of Wales should be accompanied by the replacement of the Chair of the Council as well so as to enable the institution to make a fresh start.

However, do these problems justify calls by some for the disbandment of a 118 year old institution and brand that still carries enormous weight overseas and is directly responsible for bringing millions of pounds into Wales?

Of the University of Wales' £17 million turnover, £12 million comes into Wales from its activities with overseas students. That is a business that it is in the process of changing altogether in response to the controversy.

The visa scam of course is more difficult, but looking at it objectively what has happened is that the University of Wales has been the victim of a crime. Did anybody suggest that Swansea University be wound up when it became embroiled in allegations about plagiarism some time ago? No. Instead the authorities dealt with the problem and that is what needs to happen now.

The argument that these problems have damaged Wales reputation abroad is not matched by the facts. The number of overseas students choosing to study in Wales continues to grow. That figure has trebled in the last 15 years.

More importantly though, critics who want to do away with the University have failed to answer some fundamental questions as to what they will put in its place and how they will deal with the impact such action would have on Welsh higher education.

As this article shows, the idea that the University of Wales has enormous assets to distribute on dissolution is a myth:

How can any university which is a degree-awarding body be wound up in “a year’s time”? The university has a duty of care above all to the students enrolled on its degree courses and must see them through to the completion of their studies. Or do you want to abandon 70,000 students?

Do you really think that Aberystwyth University has the resources to maintain the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies? The University of Wales currently pumps hundreds of thousands of pounds
annually into the Centre if you look at the University accounts (which I assume you must have done). Might Aberysteyth University be tempted to treat it in the same lamentable way that it has treated Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER): asset-stripping and extensive redundancies? IGER used to be world-renowned. And is not Aberystwyth University itself now ‘tainted’ by press reports of senior finance officials on ‘gardening leave’ and a missing million (see the Cambrian News, 13 October)?

The University of Wales does not own Gregynog Hall: it is the property of the Margaret Davies Foundation. They might want a say in what happens to it!

It also seems to have escaped your scrutiny that much of the reserves of the University of Wales are specific endowments tied to particular functions. They cannot legally be redeployed to suit other purposes – however noble they may be. The Charity Commissioners would not permit it. The uncommitted
reserves are not nearly enough to do what you suggest – and would certainly not produce a sustainable income.

The situation is actually more serious than that. If the University of Wales were to cease to exist it would immediately become liable under s.75 of the Pensions Act to plug a huge hole in its pension fund, an amount that far exceeds its assets. Nobody has made any suggestion as to how that sum would be found or what would happen to the pensioners.

And this disregard for consequences goes further. Has nobody given any thought to the 230 people employed by the University of Wales and what would happen to them? Not a single penny of public funding goes towards paying their wages. Why are prominent figures demanding that so many jobs are abolished in Wales in the middle of an economic crisis?

What intrigues me most about this issue is the number of Vice Chancellors jumping on the bandwagon and calling for the University of Wales to be abolished because of problems with the moderation of overseas degrees. What they do not tell us though is that the University of Wales does not use its own staff to moderate those degrees. Instead they employ academics in Universities elsewhere in Wales to do the work.

The Vice Chancellor of Swansea University has been particularly vocal about the negative image that the continuing controversy creates for Welsh higher education and yet his university received £803,426 in fees between 2004 and 2011 and released 22 of its staff to carry out this moderation work on behalf of the University of Wales.

Perhaps Richard Davies should put pen to paper instead to explain why Swansea University has slipped in the Times Higher Education World Rankings to 390th position and why within Wales it has now fallen from 2nd to 4th place, behind Aberystwyth and Bangor? Perhaps too, he should explain why third year medical students were obliged to continue their degree at Cardiff after Swansea University failed to appoint replacement staff at their own College of Medicine on time with the consequent loss of substantial sums of money to Swansea?

The Vice Chancellor of Swansea University holds up his second campus project as an example of how higher education is working successfully to promote Wales and the economy, so it might be useful after so many years of waiting if we can now have a final timetable for its implementation and completion. It is not just the University of Wales that has problems.

But Swansea's Vice Chancellor is not the only one who has condemned the University of Wales whilst their institution benefits from the moderation activity. Over the same period of 2004 to 2011, Glyndwr University recieved £978,993 and released 90 of their staff to moderate University of Wales degrees. Aberystwyth got £518,036 and released 19 staff whilst Bangor received £2,233,674 for the 85 staff they allowed to carry out this activity. In total the University of Wales paid £7,644,431 to Welsh Universities in return for using staff to moderate UoW degrees.

What is clear is that there is a political agenda here that needs to be understood and that it is nobody's interest for the University of Wales to be disbanded.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Energy bills cut but is it enough?

Yesterday's news that energy firm bosses have agreed a number of measures aimed at reducing household energy bills is very welcome, but do these measures go far enough.

They say that among the measures agreed at the summit, held at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills with Energy Secretary Chris Huhne and the Prime Minister, were:

* Letters to be sent to eight million consumers who could save £100 by switching from the quarterly credit billing system;

* Government letters to four million vulnerable households - paid for by energy firms - informing them they were eligible for free insulation;

* A campaign to encourage people to consider switching supplier and a commitment to provide energy use data in electronic form to aid making comparisons;

* A report by Ofgem before the end of the year recommending ways to improve conduct and transparency in the industry.

Apparently, millions of customers will receive letters offering advice on how to reduce costs by switching to different payment methods and taking advantage of free or subsidised insulation. In addition suppliers have also agreed to put a message on bills this winter encouraging people to check whether rivals offer a better deal and to provide better information to help them switch.

However, none of this deals with the fact that as prices go up, so the energy companies continue to rake in big profits. At the end of the day there needs to be action to break up the oligopoly that exists in the energy market and I am pleased that there are other measures in hand that appear to be moving in that direction.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Clamping down on lobbying

On a more serious note it seems that the Liam Fox affair has provided an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to press for more urgency in introducing the register of lobbyists promised in the coalition agreement.

Today's Guardian highlights the extent of the problem. They say that Ministers held more than 1,500 meetings with corporate representatives in the first 10 months of the coalition:

The figures show that ministers met corporate representatives on 1,537 occasions in the first 10 months of the coalition. This excludes several hundred round-table meetings where numerous companies were present.

Trade bodies, thinktanks and other interest groups had 1,409 meetings. By contrast, charities were met on just 833 occasions, and union representatives just 130 times, less than a tenth as often as their corporate counterparts.

Tamasin Cave, of the lobbying transparency group Spinwatch, said the records of ministerial meetings showed the wide extent of corporate networks of influence, but she also warned they may merely scratch the surface.

"The findings show a massive disparity in ministerial access for different types of groups – corporate interests clearly have privileged access. But these are just the meetings we know about: Conservative ministers in particular are meeting outside interests in a private capacity.

"This just can't be done when ministers are meeting those who have commercial interests. In this context, private simply means secret."

The paper adds that teh Liberal Democrats are planning to use Fox's resignation to intensify pressure on the Tories to honour their coalition agreement commitment, which states: "We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency."

The sooner, the better.

Pantomine villains

The Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference in Wrexham at the weekend got a fair bit of coverage, not least for Kirsty Williams' portrayal of Shadow Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain as an old Labour dinosaur for his sudden and dramatic conversion from an advocate of the alternative vote to one of calling for the whole Welsh Assembly to be elected by first past the post. As Kirsty pointed out that would have led to Labour having two thirds of the seats on 42% of the vote.

In today's South Wales Evening Post, Peter Hain responded rather lamely by calling Kirsty a pantomine character. This led me to thinking (purely out of fun, you understand) as to how the leading players in Welsh politics would fit into such a drama.

Inevitably, Peter Hain would have to be the wicked stepmother, with Carwyn Jones and Andrew R.T. Davies as the ugly stepsisters. Kirsty, of course would be Cinderella, eventually getting the Prince, whilst Ieuan Wyn Jones could be Buttons. That leaves David Jones and Cheryl Gillan as one end each of the pantomine horse, but let's not go there.

All in all it is a pretty silly analogy but one that could offer endless fun on a rainy day.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

How the Liberal Democrats continue to keep the Tories in check

This morning's Observer contains another example of how Liberal Democrat Ministers are working to keep the worst excesses of the Conservatives in check.

The paper says that Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat equalities minister, has attacked the "hideous" ideas of David Cameron's closest aides in a sign of coalition tensions over the government's family policies:

In a wide-ranging interview with the Observer, Featherstone said it was vital the coalition delivered on its family-friendly rhetoric, amid concerns that the government is haemorrhaging support among disillusioned female voters.

In a forthright attack on some of the advisers shaping government policy, she criticised the role of Adrian Beecroft, a venture capitalist tasked with reporting to the prime minister on how to cut regulation on business. Beecroft is understood to have recommended a U-turn on government policies on shared parental leave and flexible working.

The proposals, outlined in a white paper, would allow couples greater freedom to co-ordinate maternity and paternity leave. A separate proposal would make it easier to request flexible working hours.

Featherstone told the Observer that Beecroft's recommendation that the moves should be shelved was not acceptable and would be "swept away". She also made her feelings clear over a recent "blue sky" proposal from Steve Hilton, the prime minister's director of strategy, suggesting that the government could scrap maternity pay altogether. Featherstone said: "Well, I might talk about scrapping Steve Hilton."

Although it is important to encourage business by lifting regulation, it is also the case that workers who are valued work harder and are more committed to their company. Lynne Featherstone recognises that, it seems that some of the Prime Minister's advisors do not.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A sign of things to come?

This morning's Telegraph carries an interesting story that hundreds of police officers are being privately funded to patrol shopping centres, schools and carry out other specific tasks despite concerns there are not enough on the streets.

They say that officers across the ranks are being paid for by councils, the NHS and other bodies. Some have their salaries met to patrol hospitals, town halls or work alongside trading standards or fire officers.One chief inspector is even paid by the EU to advise Palestinian police.

The Police Federation believe that this trend threatens the operational independence of the force but it seems to me that the trend is one that has been going on for some time. Even the Welsh Government are getting into the act with their promise to fund PCSOs.

In the face of the difficult financial situation and the inevitable cuts that arise from that any initiative will release officers to patrol elsewhere must be welcomed.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The dead cold hand of the Treasury

Every Government Minister complains about it of course, regardless of political affiliation, but love it or hate it, there is no getting away from the restraining influence of the Treasury on Government policy.

The latest Minister to complain is Vince Cable who, according to the Financial Times is finding that his attempt to whittle away at the regulatory burden on business is being frustrated by the Treasury’s unwillingness to take part in his “red tape challenge”.

The paper says that the red tape challenge was launched as an attempt to begin whittling down the 21,000 regulations on the statute books for Britain’s businesses by asking the public to tell the government which red tape they wanted to see dropped. However:

Officials in the two departments are at loggerheads over the Treasury’s refusal to allow the business department to pore over the regulatory burden being caused by tax regulation. Treasury mandarins say they are more than capable of dealing with tax issues through the Office of Tax Simplification .

“The Treasury is not in the red tape challenge because it is too important,” said one business department official. “But the department is a big barrier to cutting regulation because there are quite a lot of tax regulations.

“The Treasury thinks the OTS should do this, but you have to see red tape holistically. The Cabinet Office is pushing other departments to take part and the Treasury should be doing it too.”

Treasury spokespeople of course deny that they are not cooperating but whatever the truth this little row does nothing to promote the idea of a united government working to deliver a better environment in which business can grow.

How you seen this cat?

Having recently buried a much-loved cat, I can understand how the Conservative Leader on Swansea Council might be distressed at the sudden disappearance of his cat, Derrick.

This is no ordinary cat of course. Derrick has featured on this blog before when his owner claimed that: "Much of the time spent in meetings in County Hall is an utter waste of time — pointless pontificating by councillors who know less than my cat about much of what they are considering."

Of course now that the Evening Post has covered the story the whole of Swansea will be keeping an eye out for Derrick. Let us hope that he is found soon. In the meantime, who is running the Council?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A viable alternative to a badger cull

The BBC report on claims that the UK's first independent badger vaccination project has proved that the technique is "viable and affordable" as a means of tackling the reservoir of bovine TB.

They say that the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust vaccinated 35 badgers during the summer against the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB) in cattle. They say that the trial did not look for any impact on disease in badgers or cattle:

Instead, the idea was to see how feasible it would be to train staff and vaccinate the animals, and how much it might cost.

"We are delighted with the results (which prove) that there is an affordable alternative to the proposed cull," said Gordon McGlone, the trust's chief executive.

"Bovine TB is a big problem, but local culling of one of our much-loved native animals is not the answer.

"Scientists have spent the last 12 years investigating whether killing badgers will halt this serious disease in cattle, and the answer they are getting is that it could well make the problem worse."

The UK's so-called "Krebs Trial", the largest investigation of badger culling undertaken in any country, found that culling can reduce the incidence of bovine TB in the target area.

But if it is not done thoroughly and consistently over a large area, it can actually increase the disease burden, as badgers roam further from their setts when others die, taking bacteria to other farms.

The Welsh Government is still re-evaluating its approach to how it tackles the disease and will report later this year. However, these results show that there is a clear alternative and one that will get the support of the whole community.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Getting young people back to work

Yesterday the Welsh Government launched its initiative for helping young people get into work. It is a a £75 million programme designed to offer 12,000 people six months work experience over a three year period. Unfortunately, it is modelled on the previous government's Future Jobs Fund which largely failed to make an impact. Many of those benefitting from it ended up back on the dole soon after their six months were up.

In contrast the UK Government has launched its own programme, which will form part of the replacement for the Future Jobs Fund. Their plan is to set up work academies offering training and a guaranteed job interview to up to 50,000 people.

The Minister believes that, coupled with the Work Programme and the Work Experience scheme, the new work academies will support up to 150,000 young people over the next few months and 250,000 over the next two years. He says that industries covered by the work academies include construction, hospitality, logistics, retail and contact centres, where the Government say there are tens of thousands of job vacancies:

Mr Grayling said: "Sector-based work academies are the next key part of our strategy to tackle youth unemployment. With training, work experience and a guaranteed interview, they will put people at the front of the queue for vacancies that employers are looking to fill."

Under the initiative, employers are being urged to offer work experience placements or guaranteed job interviews.

This seems to me to be a much more sustainable and focussed initiative than that adopted by the Welsh Government. Perhaps that should revisit their own plans.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

University of Wales and POWIS

The Welsh Business Enterprise and Technology Minister has announced today that she is arranging a managed closure of the Prince of Wales Innovation Scheme (POWIS) which uses European money to help fund research linked to and based around the specific needs of industry.

Given the problems of the University of Wales, which leads on this scheme, this announcement was perhaps inevitable, especially as the scheme had been suspended due to alleged irregularities. However the demise of POWIS means that there is now no comparable scheme in which the Welsh Government directly invests in such research.

That is to be regretted and I hope that the Minister can look at finding a replacement for this scheme as soon as possible.

Labour spokesperson foxed

I have no idea what is going on with regards to Liam Fox and his relationship with Adam Werritty, that is a matter best left for the enquiry that is now underway. However, as today's Daily Telegraph points out Labour Shadow Minister for Defence also has some interesting connections in the defence field.

The paper repeats an allegation by Dr. Fox that Jim Mr Murphy and his front bench team, received a £10,000 donation from Cellcrypt to go on a visit to the United States.

Dr Fox added: “The Opposition has said all they want is to get information, but when it has come to light that they took a lot of money from that company, I think we need to know exactly when that was and on what terms because it does, I think, offer potentially a conflict of interests.”

I think that is called a pre-emptive strike.

Monday, October 10, 2011

An abandonment of musical taste

Just to be clear in writing this blog, I am not claiming any great wisdom with regards to my own musical taste, which is and always will be eccentric and diverse. As I proved in conversation at the weekend I also have a complete ignorance of classical music. being unable to distinguish between Handel and Bach.

Having said that, this morning's Independent does have a valid point: just who does choose the incidental music at party conferences and what qualifications do they have to impose their taste upon the rest of us?

The paper points to such choices as "Bohemian Like You" by The Dandy Warhols for Theresa May, complete with the hard-hitting lines "I really love your hairdo, yeah/I'm glad you like mine too". Then there was Ed Miliband the previous week, waving at us to the strains of Florence and The Machine's once omnipresent cover "You've Got the Love":

Trust him to plump for an artist people are so tired of that news of her second album has been greeted with a universal shrug. The problem is that all MPs, bar the odd Tory backwoodsman, hate to appear fuddy-duddy – remember Gordon Brown awkwardly namechecking Arctic Monkeys to show he had his figure on the pulse of the indie scene, if not the economy. Moreover, career politicos are keen to reach out to the supposedly hard-to-engage youth vote.

Get 'em while they're young, runs the old adage, which apparently works for banks that each year hurl free travel insurance and rail cards at new students opening accounts to load up with debt. Political parties lack access to such freebies, so resort to an enticing soundtrack. David Cameron, then, bangs on about The Jam and The Smiths. Alongside them now is the New Radicals' "You Get What You Give", the tune to which he greeted Samantha at the end of his closing speech.

It is a title that alludes to the fair-deal content of Dave's oration, except the lyrics to this bland late Nineties anthem do not quite chime with his values: "The bad rich/God's flying in for your trial". On Twitter, fans complained about the short-lived group's legacy being tarnished while neutrals (the band don't really have haters) chortled at such an insipid choice. The problem for right-wingers is that most acts would rather not be associated with them and complain when their music is used in this way. In the US, this has been a perennial issue, from Tom Petty demanding George W Bush stop using "Won't Back Down" on the campaign trail to Bon Jovi complaining about Sarah Palin's use of "Who Say's You Can't Go Home".

If bands in the USA can ask politicians to cease using their music then why can't they do so here as well?

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Reforming the Human Rights Act

Alex Carlile has a much more nuanced view on the Human Rights Act than the Home Secretary in this morning's Mail on Sunday that is worth a read.

He points out that the Treaty on which the Act is based came into effect on November 4, 1950. Its purpose then was to ensure that there would never again be the vile human rights excesses of Nazi Germany. He says that many aspects of life we take for granted today were unknown then. The world was a different place.

He acknowledges Teresa May's case that the Human Rights legislation is causing a problem, pointing out that there are more than 100 extremist terrorist offenders in custody in Britain, of whom some are shortly to be released, and probably another 60 who have been released since 2007. Most of the latter are now at large in the community:

The deportation of several of foreign nationality has been frustrated by a narrow interpretation of the ECHR by the European Court of Human Rights and by our own courts.

The question the courts must consider is whether there is a risk of persecution in the offender’s home country.

The reality is they are generally not likely to be persecuted, and there is evidence to that effect from Pakistan.

We in Britain are rightly opposed to any form of torture and will not send people away to be tortured elsewhere. However, the judicial test is set too low, against a ‘risk’ of torture.

The protection of our citizens, our national security, surely justifies deportation unless the court at the very least reasonably believes torture will actually take place.

I totally understand the Home Secretary’s frustrations with the ECHR and the Human Rights Act – especially in so far as they relate to the inability to deport foreigners suspected of intent to commit further terrorist crimes after their release. I believe the promiscuous use of Article 8 of the ECHR – which guarantees a right to family life – risks placing the whole concept of human rights into disrepute.

However, Alex argues that the suggestion by Teresa May that the Human Rights Act must be scrapped is unnecessary and too difficult a commitment to deliver. What is needed, he says is fundamental reform. He suggests that the Liberal Democrats must temper their instinctive opposition to anything that may affect the liberties of a few individuals and pay greater attention to the interests of the many:

Yet the ECHR, while protecting foreign terrorists, has failed to protect Gary McKinnon, the alleged computer hacker who lost his appeal against his extradition, despite the fact that if he goes to the US he will be forced by the inequalities of the American prosecution system to agree to a plea-bargain of a kind that British courts would find oppressive.

He suggests that the time has arrived for the ECHR to be brought into the 21st Century and made fit for another 60 years:

David Cameron should be leading the call at the Council of Europe for that modernisation. Part of the reform should be to increase what is referred to as the ‘margin of appreciation’ – which allows individual countries, while subject to the ECHR, a much greater degree of autonomy in interpreting their own national interest proportionately to the threats they face.

The independently, expertly set terrorism threat level in Britain is ‘substantial’. That means the threat of a terrorist attack remains a strong possibility. The threat levels in other countries may be less or more. Each should be allowed to graduate their deportation laws to their threat level, subject to proportionate protection against torture.

In addition, Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg’s decision to set up a commission to examine the creation of a British Bill of Rights is a sensible idea. I hope and trust that the commission will see it as its responsibility to produce such a bill. It should develop existing rights in today’s context, using the ‘margin of appreciation’ to the full.

Cameron and Clegg should make it clear nothing less will do than realigning rights towards a higher level of British autonomy.

It is the most coherent argument I have seen yet for a Bill of Rights because, unlike its Tory advocates, Lord Carlile does not want to scrap the Act and the Treaty altogether but make it work better.

If Teresa May had taken such a reasoned approach last week then catgate might have been avoided altogether and some sort of consensus could be put together under the leadership of her and other UK Government Ministers.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

In lieu of blogging

Absolutely no time to blog today so hopefully this will keep everybody amused:

Friday, October 07, 2011

The DNA of the coalition government

There are two issues with this morning's article in the Telegraph about the Government's plans to reform the way that DNA is stored by the Police. One relates to the age-old complaint about any government legislation, namely that discretionary powers are given to Ministers and questions as to how they plan to use them now or in the future. The second is a bit more fundamental.

The paper focusses on the report of the committee scrutinising the legislation which would give ministers a discretionary power to “rewrite” rules of entry at will. Ministers say they will use these powers to curb officials’ rights of entry. There are currently about 1,200 separate legal powers of entry, from serving from court warrants to protecting trademarks.

However, the committee have latched onto the fact that the opposite is also true. A Minister could if they so wanted actually use this power to extend officials’ ability to enter homes. The solution as ever is either to put the powers on the face of the bill, alter the powers or, more likely, insist that any regulations must have the prior approval of Parliament. This sort of stuff is meat and drink when it comes to scrutinising bills.

The second issue is a bit more worrying. It is that the restrictions do not go far enough. The Home Secretary says that plans to curb the state’s right to intrude in private lives would see the names of one million innocent people removed from the DNA database. Only adults convicted or cautioned would have their DNA stored indefinitely, while those charged but later cleared would have their profiles stored for up to five years.

However the committee are worried that this will create “a significant risk of incompatibility with the right to a private life’’. They say that the Bill will also “create a broad catch-all discretion for police to authorise the retention of material indefinitely for reasons of national security’’ and go on to caution: “We are concerned that the minister has not provided a justification of why this power is necessary and proportionate, particularly in light of specific measures targeted towards retention in relation to counter-terrorism and immigration. Without further justification or additional safeguards, these measures should be removed from the Bill.’’

Clearly, if such a provision is to be included in the Bill it needs to be justified. In my view there can be no good reason why the DNA of innocent people is retained by the Police and I would expect the new legislation to reflect that.


Thursday, October 06, 2011

The dangers of spin

This morning's Independent relates the desperate scrabble by David Cameron's spin doctors to retrieve an embarrassing situation that they themselves created.

They say that it must have been a bad moment for David Cameron's chief spin master, Craig Oliver, known affectionately to the hacks as "Crazy Olive", when he saw the headlines in yesterday's papers demanding "Pay off your credit cards for the sake of the economy":

It was based on what journalists had been briefed that the Prime Minister was going to say in his speech – a pearl of prime ministerial wisdom that coincided with new official figures showing household consumption down by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of this year, and Tesco reporting weak sales. Retailers must have thought that David Cameron wanted to see them go bankrupt.

But no, it was all a "misinterpretation" of what his spinners had spun, claimed the spinners as they spun around the conference centre trying to undo the damage. When he delivered the speech, Mr Cameron actually said something quite different, stating a fact – "Households are paying down the credit card and the store card bills" – rather than an exhortation.

But the fact remains that on Tuesday, the spinners handed out extracts from the Prime Minister's forthcoming speech on which were the words: "The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That means households – all of us – paying off the credit card and store card bills."

Somehow, a team of highly paid advisers headed by Mr Oliver entered these words into a computer, printed them out and handed them round without spotting the obvious interpretation that would be put on them. It's enough to make you cry "Bring Back Andy Coulson".

As Alistair Campbell reportedly said, when you become the story it is time to leave. It does not look that bad yet but Cameron certainly needs to rein in his spin doctors and get them to think more deeply about what they tell the media.

Of course this situation is not unique to the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats certainly suffered from a similar faux pas when Menzies Campbell was leader. I remember too during the Labour-Welsh Liberal Democrat coalition in Wales between 2000 and 2003, some of our advisors got carried away in telling the media our position on GM crops, only to find that not only would the group not support their position but that Labour AMs also found the government position unpalatable.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Beware of the kitten heels

I am not entirely sure what kitten heels are but I do recognise a gaff when I see it, and Home Secretary Theresa May committed a whopper during her Conference speech yesterday.

As the BBC report Ms. May claimed that an illegal immigrant avoided deportation because of his pet cat. She told the Conservative conference the ruling illustrated the problem with human rights laws. However, it seems that she did not check her facts.

As the Guardian says the original reports of the court case make it clear that the appeal was actually a dispute about a rule which dictates that if someone is settled in the UK in a relationship for more than two years without enforcement action, then they automatically have a right to remain.

They say that the cat was mentioned in the appeal and the judge's decision, as evidence of the man's relationship, not as a reason in itself. They add that original reports from the 2009 case also make it clear that the cat was only mentioned in passing and wasn't the reason the man was ultimately allowed to stay.

This though is a bit more than a gaff. The Home Secretary has undermined her own case against the Human Rights Act by demonstrating the mythical nature of many of the cases she and others use to support their argument. For that at least, we should be grateful.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Twitter dilemmas

Dealing with squatters

This morning's Independent poses an interesting dilemma for the Government, what would be the impact on homelessness of proposed new laws to outlaw squatting.

The Government is planning to introduce a new criminal offence of squatting along with steps to prosecute squatters for other offences they commit, such as criminal damage, burglary, or using electricity without permission. However, a report, published by Sheffield Hallam University on behalf of homeless charity Crisis has found that the new law will lead to an increase in some of the most vulnerable homeless people sleeping rough.

They found that most homeless squatters squat only as a last resort, after approaching and being turned away from, hostels, shelters and local authorities. The report added that homeless people who squat occupy empty, usually disused or abandoned property and there was no evidence of squatters displacing anyone from their homes.

Of course the obvious solution is to improve the availability of emergency accomodation and affordable homes. Until that happens the Government should take notice of this report and not make a bad situation worse.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Doing the minimum

As the UK Coalition raises the minumum wage, there are claims that it may be putting off employers from taking on new people. Except that these warnings come not from the usual suspects but from the Low Pay Commission.

New rates for the minimum wage took effect on Saturday. For 18-20 year olds, the minimum wage is now £4.98, up from £4.92. For 16-17 year olds, the new rate is £3.68, up from £3.64. However, the body charged with tackling low pay has said that firms may be reluctant to create jobs by recruiting inexperienced staff because they are put off by the increased wage bill:

Tim Butcher, the commission’s chief economist told the Daily Telegraph that the body is launching a new investigation into the role the minimum wage has played in Britain’s growing youth unemployment problem.

Official figures last month showed that almost 1 million of the 2.5 million people officially counted as unemployed in Britain are aged between 16 and 24.

Almost 220,000 have been out of work for more than a year and some economists fear a "lost generation" of young people who never learn the habits of work and face a lifelong struggle ever to find employment.

In its official advice to the Government on this year’s pay rates, the commission raised concerns about younger workers, the first such warning since the introduction of the legal minimum rate in 1999.

"Recent research has found evidence that in difficult economic circumstances the level of the minimum wage may have had an impact on the employment of young people," the commission told ministers.

Mr Butcher said some youth unemployment was caused by the economic slowdown hurting businesses, while some of it was specifically due to a "minimum wage effect".

He said: "We don’t know what the minimum wage effect is in isolation from the recession effect. We do know recessions affect young people as employers operate first-in, first-out and look for people with experience."

Although I recognise that this is a concern for some employers surely it is simplistic to argue that it is wage rates that are driving youth unemployment. It may be true to say that recessions affect young people as employers operate first-in, first-out and look for people with experience that is no reason to build economic recovery on slave wages.

Nor will quick fixes like six month work experience before going back onto the dole hack it either. That is why the Future Jobs Fund was scrapped and why the proposed Welsh Jobs Fund will be a waste of valuable resources.

We need to raise the skills levels in young people as well as improve their literacy and numeracy. That is why investment in education is so important, and why the idea of providing training grants to private sector employers who take on young people into permanent positions can help to get youngsters into work. That would mean that when the upturn comes then this group will be in a good position to benefit from it.

This problem of under-24s not being in work has been a long term one, dating back before the last General Election. If we are to deal with it then we need long-term solutions not quick fixes like cutting the minimum wage.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Playing to the Gallery

Party Conferences are excellent opportunities for Government Ministers to play to the gallery, especially when there is no actual debate on policy. Combine that with the tradition of a Tory Home Secretary appealing to his or her party's right-wing and there is no surprise that Theresa May has come out today against the Human Rights Act.

She claims that the Human Rights Act is preventing her from deporting terrorist suspects, forgetting perhaps that there are treaty obligations as well that might apply here, even if this is true, not to mention more fundamental British legal concepts such as being innocent until proven guilty.

The point is that the Human Rights Act gets a bad press because Tories and some of the media use it as a scapegoat for things they want to do but know that they cannot for many other reasons, including public opinion. It protects law-abiding British citizens not criminals and ensures that everybody receives fair treatment in the law.

More importantly, the Home Secretary knows that her ambition to do away with it will not be achieved because the Liberal Democrats will not countenance it.

In the bag

Over at the Sunday Express the paper roundly condemns the Welsh Government's charge for single-use carrier bags, claiming that High Streets were thrown into chaos as a result.

Really? Did they actually come to Wales and go out into the country's shopping centres before writing that story, or did they cobble it together from the comfort of a London office?

My experience from shopping yesterday was that people were taking it in their stride and adapting well to the new regime, but what do I know?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Following the money

The revelations by the Telegraph today that the Conservative Party has become reliant on the financial sector for more than half its annual income is significant for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it shows that not much has changed regarding party finances despite decades of trying to bring accountability and transparency to the table. It seems that the City is most comfortable with the Conservatives in Government despite the fact that it was Labour who relaxed regulation and sparked off the orgy of greed that contributed to the recession and that it is the present government who are reversing that trend.

Secondly, though it raises serious perception issues, that despite their actions to the contrary, the Conservatives remain in hock to City fat cats, and that this enables Labour to perpetuate their ridiculous class war myth; ridiculous, because of their behaviour in government on this issue.

The paper says that bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity moguls have contributed over a quarter of all the Tories' private donations, which this year worked out at £1 million a month. And since David Cameron assumed the leadership, the Conservative Party has become increasingly dependent on City funding: with donations up 0.6 per cent to just over 51 per cent.

At the same time Labour has become more reliant on trade union funding and have even been overtaken in terms of individual donations by the Liberal Democrats.

In my view further reform is needed to address the concerns that arise from the scale of this funding and the perceived influence that attaches to it on all sides. I wonder when the proposals being worked on by Nick Clegg will be published?

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