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Saturday, March 31, 2012

More on those donor diners

Labour have been quick to condemn David Cameron for entertaining party donors to dinner but it seems that they are all up to the same tricks. Indeed in the absence of a properly regulated, transparent and restricted party funding system it is hardly surprising that party leaders spend so much time wooing potential donors. After all, money is needed to make the system work. The problem comes when those giving to political parties expect or are led to expect something in return not available to others.

The Independent reports that Ed Miliband has met Labour's major union donors more than 20 times since he was elected leader of the party in 2010.

His office published a list of 43 meetings and dinners with major donors to the Labour Party, including union bosses, the Labour peer Lord Sugar and mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone. He also listed six meetings with the businessman Andrew Rosenfeld, who lent Labour £1m before the 2005 election and has given £120,000 under his leadership.

Other business figures he has met privately include property tycoon Kevin McGrath, ex-chairman of Green & Blacks Henry Tinsley and Canary Wharf developer Sir George Iacobescu.

The Tories of course will be quick to pick up on the revelation that the Labour Leader has met Len McCluskey, the leader of Britain's largest union, Unite, on eight occasions since becoming leader. Unite, which is currently threatening to take petrol tanker drivers out on strike, has donated more than £5m to Labour under Mr Miliband's leadership. Other union leaders meeting the Labour leader included Dave Prentis of Unison (five times after £2.4m of donations) and Paul Kenny of the GMB (six times after donations totalling £2.5m).

Indeed, the Co-Chair of the Conservative Party Baroness Warsi is quoted as saying that: "It's no wonder Ed Miliband is too weak condemn Unite's irresponsible strike threat when he's earning £630,000 for every dinner with his union paymaster."

However, the main message of this publication is the need for reform. The sooner, the better.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Public Relations disasters

This has been a difficult week politically, and not just for the coalition government. The fuss over VAT on takeway warmed-up pasties was perhaps inevitable, though Laoour's attempts to exploit the issue were way over the top, however the current run on petrol is an own-goal that could have been avoided.

What were Ministers thinking in urging the public to top-up their tanks? There is not even a strike due at present. It is little wonder that, as the Guardian report, Downing Street and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude are under fire from Tories, senior Liberal Democrats and motoring organisations. Their view that the government hss created panic petrol buying across Britain seems very justified.

Labour of course responded with a PR disaster of their own, the loss of Bradford West to George Galloway. As has been said elsewhere, if Ed Miliband cannot capitalise on the UK Government's worse week since coming to power by holding onto one of his party's safest seats, then Labour are in more trouble than we thought.

This does not bode well for Labour at the next General Election nor for Ed Miliband's leadership.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The art of delivery

The difficulty of actually delivering on your promises even when you have a majority were brought into stark contrast yesterday with an admission by the Welsh Government that their commitment to extending GP opening hours to evenings and weekends looks further away than ever. This became clear as it emerged that less than a third are currently opening for their full contracted hours.

Figures published for the first time showed that just 31% of surgeries met the “core” opening hours of 8am to 6.30pm on weekdays without closing for lunch.

They show an improvement on the previous year – which were also revealed for the first time yesterday – when just 19% of surgeries met the core hours.

But 19% of surgeries still closed for half a day at least once a week last year.

This is a shocking admission of failure by anybody's standards and needs to be addressed. It also seems clear that the UK Government is not the only administration facing opposition to their health policies from GPs.

BMA Wales said that closing for lunch and half a day in the week was not unreasonable, and that the core patients using GP surgeries did not want evening appointments. This is despite the fact that extending GP surgery opening hours was one of the key pledges of Labour’s 2011 Assembly election campaign.

The Labour manifesto, 'Standing up for Wales', said: “Because of the central importance of accessible GP care services we will require GPs to make surgeries more accessible to working people, so that they can access local GP services in the evenings and Saturday mornings.”

The Western Mail reports however that yesterday’s figures show that 149 GP practices in Wales (31%) were open throughout the day during the core hours of 8am to 6.30pm in 2011, a 12% increase from 2010; 229 practices (48%) were open 95% or more of core hours, 11% higher than 2010; 12% of practices opened for additional hours in 2011.

There is still a long way to go for the Health Minister.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dissing the judiciary

Much of the media has picked up on this press release issued by Biteback Publishing and Peter Hain MP, which reveals that Lord Justice Higgins has granted leave to the Attorney General of Northern Ireland to bring proceedings for contempt of court against them.

They say that the proceedings relate to a passage in Peter Hain’s memoir, OUTSIDE IN, in which Peter Hain makes critical remarks about the Northern Irish judge, Judge Girvan (now Lord Justice Girvan), relating in particular to a 2006 Judicial Review case heard by Judge Girvan regarding the appointment of Bertha MacDougall as Interim Victims Commissioner.

According to the Statement filed by the Attorney General in the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, the passages in the book "constitute unwarranted abuse of a judge in his judicial capacity that undermines the administration of justice in this jurisdiction, and consequently constitute a contempt of court" and publication of the passages "create without justification a real risk that public confidence in the judicial system will be undermined". According to the Attorney General, the contempt of court has been aggravated by public comments made by Mr Hain since the book was published. The Attorney General of Northern Ireland "accordingly considers it appropriate that the author and publisher of 'Outside In' should be punished for contempt of court".

As I understand it the law under which this action is being taken dates back to the nineteenth century and clearly belongs to another age. Judges should not be above criticism and more than any other public figure. Peter Hain is right to defend this action as an atack on freedom of speech.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Labour's narrative stumbles at the first hurdle

In the midst of wrongly portraying the recent budget as lining the pockets of the rich, Labour have dismally failed to put their ballots where their mouth is. Sophy Ridge on the Sky News blog reveals that far from voting against the budget tax changes, just two Labour MPs walked into the 'No' lobby:

Tory MP and assistant whip Greg Hands posed the question on Twitter: "When Labour said that 50p tax rate was temporary, were they referring to the rate itself or their 4-day opposition to its abolition?"

While the Conservative MP Gavin Barwell teasingly tweeted Labour's Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves: "There was a vote on 50p at 10.41 last night & you along with vast majority of Labour MPs didn't vote #payattentionattheback"

Lib Dem MPs also got stuck in, with deputy leader Simon Hughes saying: "After five days of huff and puff from Ed Balls, and sustained protest about the proposal to lower the highest level of tax rate next year, Labour MPs were not in the Chamber to vote against the change. This says all the public needs to know about Labour's position."

Red faces all round. Maybe it is true that Labour had planned to axe the 50p tax rate themselves and now cannot bring themselves to admit it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Another form of party funding

As the row over cash for access to David Cameron rumbles on this morning, the Daily Telegraph highlights the fact that Labour too, benefits from huge amounts of private sector cash.

They say that Chris Leslie, the shadow treasury spokesman, has become the latest in a growing list of Labour MPs to receive financial support from PwC, the accountancy giant that helps its clients avoid millions of pounds in tax.

Leslie received the services of a senior manager at PwC for 30 days, which was worth almost £47,000. This brings the total given to Labour by PwC since the last election to more than £320,000. Ten members of Ed Miliband’s opposition team benefit.

Although this type of donation is perfectly within the rules and there is no suggestion of irregularity, nevertheless it needs to be regulated too, as part of long-awaited and much-needed reform.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The need to reform party funding - underlined

I have lost count of the number of times I have written on this blog about the need to reform party funding. It gives me no pleasure therefore in the light of the latest scandal involving Tory party fundraiser, Peter Cruddas, to say that I told you so.

No doubt Labour will be making hay with this but they should not forget their own dubious past practices in this field. Reform is urgently needed and Nick Clegg needs to get on with it, consensus or not.

Labour Assembly Member casts doubt on intelliegence of her voters

I am grateful to the Wales on Sunday Spin Doctor column for drawing my attention to the comments of the Labour Assembly Member for Cardiff Central, Jenny Rathbone as part of her contribution to a debate on Wednesday about more transparency and accountability in local government.

Ms. Rathbone stood up to oppose Councils publishing details of every item of expenditure over £500 because she was afraid that voters would not have the capacity to understand it:

Jenny Rathbone: I think that there is confusion in the Conservatives’ minds as to whether transparency and accountability are the same thing; they are not. Transparency is extremely important; it is very important that people know what their councils are up to and what they are spending their money on. However, publishing every item of expenditure over £500 is simply not being transparent; it is just bombarding people with information and trying to obscure their ability to find out what is going on. Information has to be presented in bite-sized chunks. Otherwise, people will simply not be able to understand what is being presented.

Janet Finch-Saunders: Thank you for taking the intervention. Most councils across Wales have this information to hand, as they work on medium-term budgeting, but it is just that it is not published. Where do you see the difficulty in making that information public?

Jenny Rathbone: I do not see the difficulty in making the information public. I am saying that, in order to be accountable, information has to be presented in a format that is understandable to people. You have to bear in mind that most people need it in the format that is presented by the “The Sun ”or the “Daily Mirror, ”because if you simply present it as closely written lines along the lines of what “The Times ”newspaper used to look like, people will not read it and will not be any further along in understanding what their council is up to.

As the Wales on Sunday says: was Jenny Rathbone calling her electorate 'thick'? Well...er..very possibly!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A funny sort of courtship

This morning's Telegraph says that Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander has suggested that Labour could form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats after the next election:

In an interview with the parliamentary House magazine, Mr Alexander said Labour should offer a tougher approach to state welfare and must not make the mistake of believing that government knows best.

He called on Labour members to “respect” the fact that Lib Dems represent a “distinctive tradition” in British politics.

Asked whether he could see the two parties working in coalition together after the next election, he said: “There’s nothing inherently wrong with a Coalition but there is much wrong with the present Coalition in terms of its impact on the country.”

He said Labour in the Scottish government worked in a coalition with the Lib Dems between 1999 and 2007.

“It seems to me that there is some times a risk of a conceit on the part of Labour members in thinking that Liberal Democrats are just Labour party members who got lost on the way to the committee rooms,” he said.

“We should respect the fact that they represent a distinctive tradition and that they have an instinct for self preservation which is common in all political parties.”

These are fairly perceptive comments, though they will not be fully understood by many Labour Party activists, whose bitterness towards the Liberal Democrats lies precisely in the territory identified by Mr. Alexander, that they perceived us to be pinker members of the Labour club and feel betrayed when we showed that we have our own distinctive and separate philosophy.

More importantly, this sort of overture also belies the portrayal of the Liberal Democrats by Labour as being somehow toxic. Clearly, we are still worth talking too and have something that they want though a courtship based on ritual abuse is a strange way to go about wooing us.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Putting things into perspective

Over at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Blog, Gordon Hector brings a little bit of perspective to the wholly misleading and distorted view of the Chancellor's decision to freeze the Age-related tax allowance. He starts by putting it into the wider context of Coalition policy:

They returned the earnings link for pensions. They introduced the ‘triple lock’ meaning it rises by earnings, prices, or 2.5%, whichever is highest. This Budget confirmed the state pension will be going up by 5.3%. Auto-enrolment is on the way. Pensioners were one of the big winners in the past 15 years – seeing a significant and sustained drop in poverty rates and despite arguments about the effect of quantitative easing, unsurprisingly, this Government doesn’t want to challenge that progress.

Second, look at the policy on its own merits. The reason it raises so much, and the reason it’s possible to describe it as a ‘multi-billion raid on pensioners’ is simply because there are huge numbers of older people - not because an entire generation is being pushed into penury. Poorer pensioners earning less than the allowance (£10,500-10,650 depending on age) won’t be affected. Nor will richer ones, who already lose the allowance if they earn more (£24-29,000). So it’s a change that hits the middle: an average of £84 this year, and £197 next (according to the Treasury). Obviously not good for them, and if you’re just over the threshold it will mean proportionally more. But hardly the apocalyptic tax that’s been described in the papers.

Third, it’s been reported as though this is a seismic shift in politicians’ treatment of older people. It isn’t. I think the reaction is overblown, and largely due to the fact it was the only Budget measure that wasn’t leaked. Changing the age-related allowance is not the slaughtering of some sacred cow.

As he says, the reaction, whilst understandable is largely hyperbole. Nobody will lose in cash terms, and in real terms any loss will be more than cancelled out by the record increase in pensions this year.

What is most interesting though is that this is not the first time the Age-related Allowance has been frozen. Despite the artificial indignation of Labour politicians the previous Labour Government froze the allowance between 2009 and 2011. What a bunch of hypocrites.

Update: I was astonished to read in the Western Mail that the Older Persons’ Commissioner has waded into the debate on the so-called ‘Granny Tax’, but more so that she has got all her facts wrong.

Contrary to Ruth Marks claim that pensioners will be ‘significantly worse off...paying £259 more in tax on an income as low as £10,500’ and that many older people face a ‘potential loss of income’, the reality is very different indeed.

The changes in the age related allowance do not start until 2013/14. The Government’s triple lock guarantee means that the state pension is currently forecast to rise by £130 more a year in 2013/14 than it would have under Labour’s uprating policy. Half of those over the age of 65 pay no income tax, and nobody will pay more tax in 2013/14 than 2012/13 as a result of these measures. There are no cash losers.

The maximum loss in 2013/14 from the Age Related Allowance freeze for current pensioners is £66. That is balanced against the £5.30 a week rise in the old age pension effective from April this year that will put another £275 into the pocket of every pensioner.

It is also curious that the Older Person Commissioner did not make similar protests when the previous Labour Government froze the allowance in exactly the same way in 2009. Why does she feel the need to do so now? Perhaps she should check her facts before wading into a debate in the future so as to avoid unduly alarming pensioners in this way.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fighting stereotypes

This morning's Western Mail reports that female Assembly Members are to benefit from a series of seminars advising them how to deal with the unreasonable expectations from media commentators.

Professor Laura McAllistern who has devised the course with a colleague from Liverpool University, explains that the last 20 years have seen a gradual increase in the number of women being elected to their national legislatures and over the past few years, a steady rise in women winning the top jobs of party leader, president and prime minister.

She argues that the media landscape and news reporting strategies have not kept step and that these clever, high achieving women need more help in achieving media visibility. Discuss.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Treading a fine line on the badger cull

The low point of yesterday's statement on the control of bovine TB was undoubtedly the comments by former Rural Affairs Minister and Plaid Cymru Assembly Member, Elin Jones.

There were in fact many low points in that discussion but suggesting that farmers might institute their own informal cull of this protected species wins by a country mile.

According to the Western Mail, Elin Jones, who spent most of her time as a Minister warning people against criminal behaviour, suggested that she would not blame farmers for taking the law into their own hands.

Such comments are reprehensible and irresponsible. She really should know better.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Welsh Government abandons Badger cull policy

The Welsh Environment Minister has just announced that he is not proceeding with the One Wales Government's policy of culling badgers in the North Pembrokeshire area. Instead he is to pursue a five year vaccination programme in the Intensive Action Area. This is the crucial part of his statement:

The Strategy acknowledges that in building on the cattle control and biosecurity measures; we must deal with all sources of bovine TB, including in wildlife, if we are going to achieve our goal of eradicating this debilitating disease within the Intensive Action Area and from Wales.

For this reason, I have considered a range of options including whether culling or vaccination of badgers is appropriate.

After careful consideration I have decided to pursue a badger vaccination project.

I have asked my Chief Veterinary Officer to design the project to begin in the Intensive Action Area this summer and continue for five years. I have also asked her to consider other geographical areas where vaccination could also contribute to TB eradication. My intention is that the projects are developed to ensure that the potential effect can be monitored with a view to assessing impact.

Llywydd, this has been a difficult decision to take and, in making it, I have considered the likely benefits that culling or vaccination could have. Any decision to cull would need to be justified on the basis that it would be necessary to eliminate or substantially reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle. In determining this matter I have considered the evidence provided to me, including scientific and legal advice. I have noted the advice on the potential benefits that might be obtained from vaccination or culling. My conclusion is that I am not at present satisfied that a cull of badgers would be necessary to bring about a substantial reduction in the incidence of bovine TB in cattle in which case I cannot authorise a cull under the Animal Health Act 1981.

The fact that I intend to authorise vaccination at present does not, and will not, preclude me from considering whatever further or new options may be appropriate and available at any time.

In taking the programme forward we will continue to work with the agriculture industry, wider rural communities, veterinary profession, eradication boards, and the Industry Advisory Group in the Intensive Action Area. These all have an important role in the eradication of bovine TB in Wales.

At last a decision based on the scientific evidence that, unlike the previous policy, will not rip apart the affected community.

The problems with transparency

I am all for openness and transparency but according to the Telegraph one particular movement in this direction by the UK Government could lead to open revolt in Middle England. They say that the proposal that every taxpayer will get an annual statement from HMRC detailing exactly how much tax they pay and what services it is spent on could cause disquiet amongst a significant minority of taxpayers.

They say that most government spending, including most of the benefits bill, flows back to taxpayers. But the question is which taxpayers?

The majority of taxpayers use the schools, the police, the NHS and so on. Most taxpayers even claim benefits: nine out of ten families with children are entitled to claim tax credits, for example, while over a third of the benefits bill goes to pensioners. For the typical taxpayer, the benefits of government spending probably more than outweigh the costs.

But for a significant minority, this isn't the case. According to the most recent data, the best-paid one per cent pay around 28 per cent of income tax. The 3.7 million who pay the 40p rate of tax – the top tenth, approximately – pay 34 per cent. Overall, people in the top half of the income distribution pay around 90 per cent of income tax.

This large minority – the middle and upper-middle classes, in short – feels ever harder done by, because much of the increase in their income since 1997 has been swallowed up by higher taxes. They live in areas where crime rates are low, and where the infrastructure is well-maintained. They are healthier, and so are less likely to use the NHS. They are very unlikely to ever claim benefits, except possibly for the state pension. Their children are probably privately educated. And yet they are paying for the bulk of the welfare state.

Give these people a tax breakdown and they will realise exactly what they are paying for: the security of everyone else. Instead of a vague sense that the government wastes their money, they will realise that actually, it redistributes it. Twenty years since John Major told us that "we are all classless now", the southern middle classes are pitted once again against the northern, impoverished masses in a fight over a shrinking pie. Dare I say it: class politics may be coming back.

An interesting perspective but not one I agree with. Perhaps I just have more faith in human nature than the Telegraph.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Tired and emotional

The Independent reports that the Speaker of the House of Commons is responding to the recent drink-fuelled misadventures of the MP Eric Joyce by calling "last orders" on the parliamentary drinking culture.

It seems that he has plans to change opening hours, bar prices and tab debts, and to instruct staff not to serve "tired and emotional" members. They say that if Mr Bercow's proposed reforms had been in place, Mr Joyce might have been refused more wine and his bill would have been steeper.

The Parliamentary Commission's review is expected to be completed before the end of April. However, one thing that they could do straight away is to ensure that prices at Commons' bars are brought into line with those of other London pubs. That might have an immediate salutary effect and would be a reasonable start.

After all, why should the public subsidise the drinking habits of MPs?

When the Welsh Government speaks

Although I am supporting the fight by Remploy workers to keep their factories open, one really does have to wonder about the point made by Matt Withers in this column regarding the third sector:

After the UK Government announced it was to close seven of the nine Remploy factories in Wales, which employ disabled workers, naturally the media turned to Disability Wales, the country’s biggest charity in the area, to give its side.

And yet, rather than lay into the UK Government as the Welsh Government had done, Disability Wales was more circumspect. Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, went across TV and radio to say she supported an integrated society and said that Remploy factories were set up in a different era – precisely the UK Government’s line.

That was then. Yet this week, curiously and apropos of nothing, an e-mail dropped into journalists’ in-boxes which sought to clarify the charity’s view.

This was more critical. “For disabled people directly affected by this decision their planned closure is a devastating blow,”Ms Davies now said.

“Disabled workers employed by Remploy should be fully supported and found alternative jobs before shutting down any of the Remploy factories”.

Curious. A quick look at their website then showed that Disability Wales receives funding from the Welsh Government.

Later that day I asked Education Minister Leighton Andrews whether the Welsh Government had been unhappy with the charity’s earlier stance.

“I think it would it would be unwise for any disability organisation to allow itself to be used as an excuse for the policy the UK Government has followed,” he answered diplomatically.

So by the end of the week the question of where the so-called “third sector” lies, and where it deviates from government, is even muddier. The evidence would appear to show – sometimes it doesn’t.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dirty Tricks fear for Miliband

This morning's Independent reports that there were fears of a "dirty tricks" campaign against Ed Miliband yesterday after Scotland Yard confirmed it is investigating a break-in at the Labour leader's offices at the Houses of Parliament.

The paper says that police were called on Friday evening after a member of staff reported that a door had been forced at the suite of offices in Norman Shaw North building:

Labour spokesmen and the Metropolitan Police refused to give more details about the investigation. The same area of Parliament has been plagued by thefts in recent months.

However, the incident has raised "deep concerns" within the party that the office had been deliberately targeted by someone looking for internal papers – on the eve of one of the most important weeks in the parliamentary calendar.

Mr Miliband and his senior team have been working on Labour's new policy programme for several months. Although, in recent weeks, their workload has been dominated by preparations for Labour's response to the Budget, which will be delivered by Chancellor George Osborne on Wednesday.

The Labour leader's headquarters include at least six offices leading off a central reception room. But the intruder is believed to have headed straight for Mr Miliband's "policy office".

"The policy office is not the first one you come to when you enter the suite, but it is where the interesting stuff is," one source close to the investigation said. "They were going through papers and trying drawers and computers. It looks like they were specifically looking for information." It remains unclear whether anything was taken from the room.

Disturbing as this is, the intruders will not be the first to try and find some Labour policies. This is of course a very serious matter and I hope that the culprits are caught soon.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fighting to save Remploy factories

Yesterday morning I went to the Swansea Remploy factory to talk to the 52 workers whose jobs are threatened by the UK Government decision to close 7 of the 9 factories in Wales.

As I toured the factory I was shocked by the process of managed decline that has taken place there over the last five or six years. Although, the announcement of the proposed closure was a shock, it seems that successive Governments have been preparing for it for some time.

It was explained to me that essential machinery was not being replaced or updated, that modernisation plans had been put on hold and that vacancies had not been filled for some time. As a result workers were under pressure to fulfil all their work commitments.

I am also concerned about what will happen to the existing contracts and to new contracts that have been signed recently. These factories are not short of work. They are working to full capacity. Management need to explain whether these existing contracts will be switched to the remaining factories and also if workers will be transferred with them.

What is clear is that there are many questions still to be answered about the Government's proposals. We need those answers now if we are to have any chance of saving jobs.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A welcome MP revolt

Yesterday's Independent has details of an MPs' revolt that many people will welcome. However, for once this act of defiance has nothing to do with the English health service or welfare reform.

The paper says that visitors will continue to see Big Ben for free after MPs blocked a plan to charge tourists £15 for trips up Westminster's famous Clock Tower. Apparently, the House of Commons Commission wanted to levy the fee in a bid to make savings across Parliament. But opponents claimed charging for access to the landmark housing the famous Big Ben bell breached citizens' democratic rights. Visits will now remain free of charge until at least 2015:

After a two-hour debate, Liberal Democrat John Thurso, who represents the House of Commission, withdrew his plan saying the "commission would ensure there was no charge for the Clock Tower during the course of this Parliament".

The current Parliament is due to end in 2015, with future MPs able to charge for guided tours if they want.

Leader of the House Sir George Young and his Labour shadow Angela Eagle did not object to the plan for charging visitors to pay £15 to climb the 334 steps to see the famous bell struck.

Sir George told MPs: "I have to say the ability to climb the Clock Tower isn't essential to the enhancement of our democracy, to an insight into the way the political system works.

"There is a difference between access to the Clock Tower and access to the chamber."

Ms Eagle said: "It is important to remember this about access to the Clock Tower. It is not about access to this building in its working sense as a Parliament."

The estimate had been that 10,000 visitors would have generated income of £150,000. Now the Commission will have to look elsewhere for the money.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Labour in chaos

Amidst all the press reports about chaos and low morale at Labour Party

Ed Miliband's new Chief of Staff has now waded in with claims that the party has 'no strategic election'.

The Telegraph says that Mr. Livesey made the charge during an angry meeting at the party’s Westminster headquarters, when simmering frustration from senior workers erupted into an open row:

Sources at the meeting on Monday described it as “carnage” and “a disaster” for Mr Miliband.

The catalyst for the outburst was understood to have been the party’s sweeping internal reorganisation.

Mr Miliband last week announced a new “executive board” to “steer us towards the election-winning organisation that we all want to become”.

The paper adds that the board structure was criticised at the meeting as “a pretty blatant and characteristically ham-fisted power grab” by Mr Miliband. They say that in introducing the new senior team, Mr Livesey, and Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary, told the meeting that the party had “no strategic direction”:

The failure to offer a concrete plan to address the problem appears to have caused the uproar.

One witness at the meeting said later: “The staff were told: 'Don’t worry, there’ll be a new report in a few months.’

“People were jumping up and saying: 'A few months? We’ve got mayoral elections, local elections and an independence referendum, and we’re fighting them now.’ ”

They continue by pointing out that the stormy exchanges represent the latest blow for Mr Miliband’s stewardship of the party:

Some of his own front bench team privately admit he has failed to break through with the public since taking over the leadership after the 2010 election.

He has faced criticism from his former adviser, Lord Glasman, and warnings against a lurch to the Left from his brother, David, whom he narrowly defeated for the leadership. Mr Miliband’s decision earlier this year not to oppose all the Coalition’s spending cuts drew a furious response from trade union leaders, particularly Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite.

Some senior party figures now privately concede that Labour cannot win a majority at the next election.

It is not looking good for Labour at all.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Limited Ambition

From yesterday's debate on Housing Benefit:

The Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage (Huw Lewis): ......it is my determined ambition to be labelled ‗small-minded‘ by a Conservative. Then I will have achieved everything in politics that I set out to do.

If that is all that it takes to satisfy the Minister's ambitions then that could explain why so little is happening in his portfolio and why we still do not have targets for affordable housing.

Mea Maxima Culpa

Try as we might, sometimes we stumble over our words in the chamber. I am no exception:

Peter Black: Thank you for that answer. You will know that many local authorities and bus companies are struggling with your Government‘s decision to cut the bus fuel subsidy by £3 million this year—very much a last-minute decision. At the same time, you are subsidising the north Wales air service by £1.6 million for 10,000 passengers, and the Hollywood to Cardiff—[Laughter.]

I will start again. You are subsidising the Holyhead to Cardiff train service by £1.7 million, yet 114 million passengers use buses. Therefore, do you think that you have your priorities right in subsidising air services and an exclusive train service between north and south Wales instead of the buses that many people use?

The First Minister: I can assure the Member that we do not run trains to Hollywood, whether that is in County Down or California. [Laughter.]

Talking down Wales

By far the most bizarre part of the Assembly Plenary session yesterday came right at the end of First Minister's questions when, responding to a question from Welsh Liberal Democrat, Eluned Parrott, Carwyn Jones turned his ire onto Cardiff Wales airport.

As the Western Mail reports, Mr. Jones said he would not want to bring people into Wales through the airport. He told Plenary that the condition of Cardiff Airport does not give the right impression of Wales and said that its owners should “either run the airport properly or sell it”.

Personally, I prefer Cardiff Wales airport to Bristol. It is easier to get to (and I am not just talking distance) and it is more user-friendly. I accept that it has seen better times and that it would benefit from running more routes to a wider range of destinations, but I do not recognise its portrayal by the First Minister.

What is more, I got the impression that Carwyn Jones' remarks were not off the cuff, but part of a wider deliberative process. If that is the case then this talking down of Wales is difficult to justify.

Whatever the faults of the airport, it remains a significant and important gateway to Wales. In allowing his frustrations with the airport management to manifest itself in this way, the First Minister has undermined the work of many people and organisations who are continuing to work to attract investment to Wales.

As Eluned Parrott says: “The Welsh Labour Government needs to stop talking Wales down.

“Just a few weeks ago, we heard the First Minister talk about subsiding flight links between Cardiff and China. Now the First Minister has rather bizarrely stated he wouldn’t bring anyone to Wales’ only international airport.

“The First Minister needs to stop talking our capital city’s airport down and instead he should be doing all he can to encourage visitors to Cardiff airport.

“His comments are hardly going to encourage tourism and business to Wales. We need to see the Welsh Labour Government taking a lead in supporting the development of Cardiff Airport.

“Having met with Cardiff Airport’s management team in Rhoose last month, I believe that it is a source of great frustration that the Welsh Government has not yet detailed its vision for aviation in Wales.

“The Welsh Liberal Democrats are calling for an aviation strategy to encourage a multi-agency approach to tackling the problem of dwindling numbers that is of concern to us all.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Going to the wire

Yesterday's Guardian outlines in some detail the frenzied activity that is going on behind the scenes as the UK Coalition partners seek to find a formula they can agree on for next week's budget.

The paper says that it is possible that talks will still be going on at final budget meeting 48 hours before chancellor unveils his plans in Commons. That is unprecedented but a clear indication that coalition politics has landed with a bump in the United Kingdom:

Cameron and Osborne, who fly to Washington on Tuesday for a three-day visit to the US, are due to hold a telephone "quad" discussion with Clegg and Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, on their return to Britain on Friday. The ministers will then hold their final meeting on Monday, 48 hours before the chancellor delivers his third budget.

The prime minister and chancellor were irritated with the Lib Dems after they outlined some of the budget thinking at their spring conference in Gateshead. Clegg announced his support for a "tycoon tax" which would ensure that millionaires pay a minimum amount of tax, around 30% on all their income. It is understood that Osborne may announce a study into the feasibility of such a tax.

Clegg also made clear that he wanted an accelerated move by the chancellor to deliver the coalition commitment to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000 to ensure that low-paid workers are exempt from paying tax. The allowance is due to increase by £630 a year to ensure the £10,000 target is met by April 2015. Senior Lib Dems said over the weekend they would like the target to be met a year earlier.

The deputy prime minister clashed with the business secretary, Vince Cable, by appearing to indicate that the "tycoon tax" was a greater priority than a "mansion tax" that would be levied on properties worth more than £2m. Lib Dem sources also indicated that they were relaxed about dropping the 50p tax rate on those earning more than £150,000 if Osborne agreed to speed up moves on the £10,000 tax allowance.

What matters here is the budget we end up with of course. It is important to Liberal Democrats that the final package is seen to be progressive and help the poorest in our society. If we are unable to deliver on that then Nick Clegg's leadership will be under further pressure within the party.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Is there room for the political memoir any more?

I had not realised that those who have bought Peter Hain's autobiography were such a select band of people. According to the Telegraph the former Welsh Secretary has only managed to sell 500 copies of his weighty tome and as a result other politicians are having difficulty interesting publishers in their scribblings.

The paper says that former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw has a 20 page synoposis doing the rounds but publishers are reluctant to enter into a bidding war for the full works. They quote one insider who wonders if there is much of a market left for autobiographies which hark back to Labour’s days in office:

“Most people have formed their own judgments about it now, and they certainly aren’t interested in any special pleading, which these sort of books always seem to amount to.”

As if to rub salt into Jack Straw's wounds the paper says that Labour Cabinet minister, Alan Johnson, has managed to find a buyer for his memoirs. But they believe that he has a far more interesting tale to tell. Mr. Johnson was orphaned at 12, found a job as a postman, and is able to tell of his early marriage, and his time as a member of a pop group.

All of this does not bode well for former Welsh Conservative Assembly Leader, Nick Bourne, who is busy collating his diaries into a publishable form. Let us hope that he has some interesting revelations that will assist him in getting them published and will encourage people to buy the book.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Don't Panic!

I have a really busy day today so I will not have the time to blog properly. However, I would draw your attention to this article by Matt Withers in the Wales on Sunday, which sums up the rather transparent and unsubtle tactics currently being employed by the Welsh Labour Government to blame everything on Westminister:

“Yesterday, it was Remploy, today it’s the Green Investment Bank,” briefed a Welsh Government source.

“What have the Tories and Lib Dems got against Wales?”

This is the narrative which Labour wish to imprint on people’s minds over the coming weeks, months and years. Not just that Tory/Lib Dem policies are damaging Wales – but worse, they’re doing it specifically to damage Wales.

Yet these are two different issues.

True, the UK Government announced the closure of Remploy factories in a spectacularly cack-handed way. In terms of timing, not only was it at the same time of welfare cuts to the disabled, it was slipped out while Parliament was busying itself with the Diamond Jubilee.

And then worse, it was done through an oral statement and a list of closures filed in the House of Commons library, leaving the unpleasant spectacle of people finding out they had lost their job from Sky News.

But that’s not to mask the fact that job losses at Remploy began under Labour, or that it was impossible to find a single disability charity in Wales which was prepared to argue in favour of the continuation of a scheme set up to provide employment for those men who arrived home from World War II with a disabling injury.

With the Green Investment Bank, the Welsh Government’s reaction is in danger of looking not so much like politicking as outright paranoia.

Cardiff’s bid appears to have been rejected in the first round. Some commentators have speculated that ministers’ anti-business rhetoric – whether that be Carwyn Jones calling for a tax on financial transactions or Business Minister Edwina Hart’s public musing about “regretting capitalism” and urging a re-reading of Karl Marx – may have been a factor.

In actual fact, it’s more likely to have been simple logistics. Not only do the English and Scottish capitals already have the infrastructure for large-scale financing, but one of the requirements is to be within three hours of Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris – a target only achievable for Cardiff come an upgrade of its airport or the invention of the teleporter, whichever comes first.

It has even got to the point whereby the First Minister and other members of the Welsh Cabinet seek to avoid answering questions on their own record and instead jusr renounce Westminster instead. It will all come back to bite them in the end.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Clegg needs to match words with actions

I am not at the Liberal Democrat Federal Conference in Gateshead. It is a long way to go for what is essentially an English policy event, especially when there is plenty to do at home in preparation for the local elections.

That does not mean that I am not watching events as they unfold and particularly the spin being put on Nick Clegg's speech. According to the Telegraph the Liberal Democrat leader will be using the occasion to call for the introduction of a “tycoon tax” which will mean that wealthy Britons have to pay a minimum rate of tax on their total annual earnings of between 20 and 30 per cent.

Putting aside the fact that when I first heard this on the radio this morning, I though he was referring to a tax on typhoons, this seems like a good idea. It will certainly help to delineate Liberal Democrat distinctiveness within the coalition. After all if there really is evidence that hundreds of millionaires are paying a tax rate of less than 20 per cent on their earnings by using an “army of lawyers and accountants” then we need to take corrective action.

When thousands more millionaires pay tax at a rate of less than 30 per cent, depriving the Exchequer of hundreds of millions of pounds a year, then it is right that a specific minimum rate of tax should be written into law to ensure people are “paying their fair share” and not “massaging” the system.

However, Nick Clegg should not fall into the trap of thinking that by stating this line, it enables him to claim the moral high ground. The days when Liberal Democrat leaders could get credit amongst voters for progressive policies just by reading out a speech at the podium of a conference are long gone.

We are in government and if we state that we want to do something from a position of power, then we will be expected to implement it. Presumably, the Liberal Democrat leader has thought of that and has a delivery plan sorted out with the Tories for this new policy.

It is fine to argue that we have had to compromise on our manifesto because we are in coalition and do not have a majority, but when Government Ministers start initiating policy ideas they have to be much more precise. Is this an aspiration for the next manifesto or can we really deliver on it over the next few years? That is the distinction that I want Nick Clegg to be clear on today.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Looking for moles

For some reason the media have a bit of an obsession with Wikipedia, to which they return from time to time. This could be because journalists rely on it so much and have a vague romantic notioin that it should be accurate and reliable.

This morning's Independent is no exception. They appear outraged that an anaylsis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found that MPs and staff working in the House of Commons have been responsible for making nearly 10,000 changes to the website's pages.

This is a story that has run before. But what do they expect? Public figures like to control their own image and politicians are no exception. This is especially so when others are seeking to use the site to paint them in a negative light.

A few years ago I was involved in a battle to assert control over my own Wikipedia page due to constant edits from an IP address based in London, not too far from Labour HQ. Sometimes politicians carry out these changes to correct inaccuracies that have been put on there by their opponents.

Still, the article did provide some entertainment with a list of some of the more bizarre edits:

*One user reduced the minimum number of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II from 60,000 to 10,000.

*Seven changes to the ‘Laws about Incest’ page, listing the jurisdictions where it’s legal.

*Two edits to the article about Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series, and three on her husband Arthur.

*Spelling errors were corrected in a passage discussing whether Pringles were legally recognised as crisps or cakes.

*One eagle-eyed lobby-goer correctly observed that Red Ken’s last name is indeed ‘Livingstone’ and not ‘Twatface’.

*One individual edited the entry on the Lord of the Rings to describe it as ‘12 hours of utter tripe about some little bender running around trying to find a ring with his equally benderish mates’.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Unacceptable Ambulance delays

This morning's Western Mail highlights Welsh Liberal Democrat research which reveals that ambulances have wasted the equivalent of nine years waiting outside Welsh A&E units to offload sick and injured patients.

This amounts to a loss of more than 80,000 hours in just the past two years and means that emergency ambulances are effectively taken off the road and unable to respond to other life-threatening calls.

At an estimated cost of £76 for each “lost unit hour”, delays at A&E are draining some £3m a year from the under-pressure Welsh Ambulance Service.

I raised a case of a constitutent with the Health Minister yesterday who had been taken to Morriston Accident and Emergency unit where six ambulances were waiting to disembark their patients. She then waited for 23 hours on a trolley until she could be transferred to a bed.

Clearly, these delays are unacceptable and amount to a systemic failure in the health service. More effort needs to be put into putting it right.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Collaboration or bust? What is the question?

Collaboration between public bodies is a good thing and can often improve services, but are expectations so high that it will ultimately fail to deliver?

Sitting in the Assembly chamber week in, week out one could be forgiven for thinking that collaboration was the answer to all our financial problems. However, the value of working together and delivering services jointly does not necessarily lie in cost but in quality and the elimination of duplication.

That is illustrated very well by this story on the BBC website. They say that Whitehall departments have been criticised for overspending by £500m on schemes that were actually intended to save money. The National Audit Office found that ministers had failed to offer "clear management" for the setting-up of pooled resource centres aimed at stopping costs being duplicated. It seems that none of the schemes looked at had broken even:

In 2004, Tony Blair's Labour government promised to set up cost-saving centres to save £159m by sharing "back-office" functions such as information technology, personnel and procurement between departments.

The NAO said the initial start-up costs had been put at £900m but, by 2011, had increased to £1.4bn.

And net savings had not been made as a result of the schemes.

The NAO's report blamed a combination of poor co-ordination, over-expensive IT systems, weak or non-existent sanctions and an insistence on highly tailored services saw public-sector costs rise instead.

It added that private-sector firms typically slashed a fifth off their annual spending within five years of using similar methods.

The report found that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency was blocked from joining the Department for Transport scheme because it did not have security clearance for Whitehall IT systems.

Another unit, set up by Research Councils UK, recorded a net cost to the taxpayer so far of £126m - though the NAO said a parallel scheme may help it break even by 2014.

Two of five schemes examined - at the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - had not kept track of whether or not the changes were saving money.

But another, run by the Ministry of Justice, was saving £33m a year and had broke even ahead of schedule - at which point officials there also stopped monitoring performance.

In total, eight projects have been set up in various departments.

The issue then lies in failed project nmanagement, another feature of the public sector. The lesson must be not to raise our expectations any higher than the competence of those involved and certainly not talk up savings that cannot be delivered, whatever the reason. Are you listening Mr. Sargeant?

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Media get it wrong again

This morning's Telegraph contains the rather startling suggestion that at a meeting between Government ministers and local government leaders, a senior Liberal Democrat indicated that councils should be free to charge students council tax.

They say that minutes of a meeting held last October between Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary and senior figures at the Local Government Association, suggest that Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the leader of Liberal Democrat councillors and head of Portsmouth City Council said: “Local authorities should have greater discretion over Council Tax exemptions and discounts, such as the student exemption”.

However, in the tradition of never letting facts get in the way of a good headline, you have to scroll down to the very bottom of the article to find that the minutes are inaccurate and that the allegation that this is Liberal Democrat policy has no foundation whatsoever:

The Liberal Democrats today insisted that they were not in favour of ending the student exemption for council tax and said the minutes were not an accurate reflection of their views.

In a statement, the party said: "These minutes are not an accurate representation of what was a much broader policy discussion.

“Gerald is not in favour of getting rid of the student exemption. He is in favour of proper localism, where councils have the power to decide what is right for them in their areas.

“Neither the Government nor the Liberal Democrats are in favour of ending the
student exemption.”

No doubt the Labour Party will not be slow to pick up on this wrong-headed story as well. Before they do so they should bear in mind that though Liberal Democrats do want to keep the exemption for students, at least one Labour MP takes a contrary view. Sheffield Labour MP, Clive Betts put forward an amendment to the House of Commons in January 2012 to make students pay council tax.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Praying for Welsh Local Government

This morning's Western Mail reports on the debate on local government at this weekend's Welsh Liberal Democrat conference, but both the reporter and the Welsh Government spokesperson who responded to it have spectacularly missed the point.

The paper says that we have condemned the Labour Government in the Assembly for not ensuring that councils in Wales will have the same right to hold prayers at meetings as those in England. The spokesperson for the local Government Minister believes that we are not concentrating on the real issues.

They are quoted as saying: “With record unemployment, huge cuts to funding for English local authorities, cuts to vital public services and the abolition of council tax benefit, one really has to wonder if this is the most urgent matter crossing Eric Pickles desk. Carl Sargeant has no problem in councillors gathering before a council meeting to hold prayers, if they choose to do so."

I have no argument with that view. The problem though is that the inability to hold prayers is the symptom of a wider issue and that is the point we were seeking to make.

In England Councils now have a power of general competence. That means that they can do anything that a person can do which is not illegal. Yes, it means that they can hold prayers before a meeting, but more importantly it means that they can exercise a number of other functions more flexibly that enable them to deal with the local economy, get the best value from local services and help the poorest people in our society.

If that is not an urgent matter for Carl Sargeant then I do not know what is. The fact is that Wales has refused to follow England in this matter partly because they do not appear to understand the significance of the power of general competence, but also that when it comes down to it, Ministers do not want to see any diminution of their own power to interfere in local decision making.

Labour hypocrisy on police privatisation

Like many others I am uneasy about alleged plans to privatise the police, but I do think that we need a bit of context in this debate. In the face of a very difficult economic climate and cuts by both this government and the previous Labour government in police budgets it is vital that everything possible is done to protect front line policing.

Irrespective of what Chief Constables decide to do, it should be clear that any move to put services out to private tender will not lead to private sector vigilantes in police uniform patrolling our streets as has been suggested by some. The office of constable restricts the power of arrest to a warranted officer and is a fundamental safeguard for the public.

There are police tasks that do not need to be carried out by fully trained officers. These include guarding prisoners, searching woodlands, preparing routine witness statements and providing intelligence analysis to murder inquiries. In fact many forces have used civilians for these jobs for many years. Is it not right that Police Authorities get best value so as to maximise front-line policing?

What stikes me most about this issue however, is Labour's hypocrisy. The party's most prominent candidate for Police Commissioner, John Prescott has described the privatisation plans as "alarming" and has said that he will fight the proposals. However, it was the Police Reform Act 2002 which opened the doors to allowing privatisation of parts and services that the police currently provide.

That was a Labour Act of Parliament, which was passed when John Prescott was in Government. If he was so opposed to some police services being privatised why didn't he say so at the time?

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Keeping it in the family

As I am still in Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference blogging is going to be fairly light today. However, I was struck by one of the items in the Spin Doctor column of this morning's Wales on Sunday which detailed an exchange in the Assembly chamber on Wednesday. Huw Lewis, who is the Welsh Housing Regeneration and Heritage Minister was taking questions when the Presiding Officer felt the need to call the meeting to order:

"It would be helpful if Lynne Neagle would not speak when Huw Lewis is speaking"' Mrs. Butler ruled.
"Thank you, Presiding Officer"' said Mr. Lewis "I have often felt this."

Huw Lewis and Lynne Neagle are of course, married to each other.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Setting an example

As the Welsh Liberal Demorat Conference gets underway in Cardiff, the significance of the date has not escaped anybody. it is of course one year since the referendum in which the people of Wales voted overwhelmingly to give full law-making powers to the Welsh Assembly. It is also the 25th anniversary of Fireman Sam, but that is by-the-by.

One article in today's Western Mail caught my eye. It is the report of Ed Miliband's speech at the Scottish Labour Conference in which he called on Alex Salmond to follow the example of the Welsh First Minster in using the powers he has to make a difference for young people.

I suspect that Mr. Salmond needs no lessons from either Labour leader in how to run a government, especially as 12 months on from the Welsh plebiscite we are still waiting for Labour to actually do something with the powers they have been granted. Perhaps Mr. Miliband should deliver his homillies direct to Carwyn Jones instead of making such a fool of himself in Scotland.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Sending the wrong message

Serial offender, Edwina Hart has done it again, after reportedly refusuing to allow Welsh Government Officials to give evidence to an Assembly Committee because there will be MPs present.

According to the Western Mail officials from the UK Government’s department for transport will give evidence at a joint meeting of the Assembly’s Enterprise and Business committee and the Westminster Welsh Affairs committee on Thursday but staff working for Labour Business Minister Edwina Hart are expected to stay away.

A Welsh Government spokesperson has told the paper that Mrs. Hart will attend a future meeting of the Assembly committee and that a written briefing will be provided for the March 8 session. However, memories are still fresh regarding the incident last year when the Business and Enterprise Minister refused to attend a meeting of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, which was investigating inward investment in Wales.

The Welsh Affairs Select Committee Chair, Davies Davies is absolutely right when he says: “If we are going to sell Wales and persuade businesses it’s a good place to come to we need to be able to show cooperation." What sort of message are we sending out to the rest of the World when the Welsh Minister with responsibility for the economy will not work with UK Parliamentarians, even though she does not hold all the levers needed to lift the Welsh economy?

Thursday, March 01, 2012

No appetite for independence

The BBC have published a poll today that indicates that there is minimal support for independence for Wales, even if Scotland decides to go it alone. The results of one poll has to be treated with caution of course, but this particular outcome is consistent with previous results and therefore can considered to be fairly accurate.

It shows that the Plaid Cymru leadership contest, in which two of the candidates are competing to see who can be the most hardline on independence, is taking place within a complete political vacuum. The party has never appeared more out of touch on this issue.

In contrast, I think all those who believe in devolution will be pleasantly surprised at the finding that almost two-thirds of voters think the Welsh Assembly should have at least some influence over the taxes people pay. No doubt the Silk Commission will have taken some notice.

This view is very much in line with that of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and will, of course, please Plaid Cymru and some Tories as well. Labour on the other hand appear to be some way behind public opinion on this matter. It would not be the first time.

As we approach the first anniversary of the referendum that granted law-making powers to the Welsh Assembly I think it is legitimate to ask the question why we have not used these powers? The caution of the Labour Government is baffling.

I was not anticipating scores of bills but nor was I expecting to have to consider just the one in 12 months, and that proposing minor changes to the way that local government by-laws are made. It is almost as if the government machinery was caught by surprise by the outcome of the referendum.

The First Minister argues that Labour went to the electorate last May with a detailed programme for government. So far there is little evidence of that.

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