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Monday, April 30, 2012

Another Facebook faux pas

Peter Hain was very vocal a few weeks ago condemning the Tories for fielding candidates who had been caught out posting unacceptable comments on social network sites. He even went as far as to produce a "Welsh Conservative Candidates of Shame” saying: “It speaks volumes that despite some pretty vile behaviour these candidates have been allowed to stand for the Tories once again."

He went on: “These are not just a few candidates on the periphery of the party wings, but individuals close to the leadership of Cheryl Gillan and Andrew RT Davies. David Cameron has spent years trying to detoxify the toxic brand it cultivated in the 1980s but the truth is the nasty party is still alive and well.

“We will be making sure that voters on the doorstep know exactly what these candidates’ views are and let them make their own minds up as whether they want to be represented by them. If this is what Cheryl Gillan meant by challenging us in our heartlands then she really is scraping the barrel. She is treating the electorate with contempt by offering such low calibre politicians.”

Now a Labour candidate on his own doorstep has been caught doing something similar. Sion Griffiths, who lives in Aberdulais near Neath, is standing for Neath Port Talbot council in Thursday’s local election. The Western Mail says that when the train he was travelling on was held up following a suicide, he wrote on his Facebook page: “Already running later than you like. What can make it worse?? Oh yeah ... Some cock killing themselves making me very late!!! Thank you ... You selfish c***!!!”

They add that when a friend expressed concern about the comment, posting a message saying: “I’ve never heard you talk like that, Sion”, Mr Griffiths responded: “Sorry ... just not what I needed ...Lol. Got stopped at Bridgend. They jumped between Cardiff and Newport, so all trains delayed going into Cardiff and past Cardiff.”

I For some reason Peter Hain is nowhere to be found, when it comes to commenting on this matter.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dispute over BBC payments to politicians

The Telegraph reports that the BBC has launched an inquiry which could lead to a ban on MPs being paid to appear as guests on programmes. They say that politicians are regularly rewarded for their broadcasts, earning up to £200 plus expenses for a turn on Radio 4's Any Questions or more than £500 for BBC One's This Week:

The BBC Trust, which represents licence payers, will rule this week on a dispute over payments to one MP. It is being seen as a test case which, if it goes against the parliamentarian, would result in a tightening of the rules to prevent similar payments in future.

The current dispute centres on payments of almost £6,000 made to Diane Abbott, the Labour MP, for seven appearances as a pundit on This Week alongside Michael Portillo, the former Conservative MP, and Andrew Neil, the show's presenter.

The shows were all filmed since October 2010, when Miss Abbott was promoted to a place on Labour's front bench as a shadow health minister.

Mark Thompson, the Director-General, and the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit received complaints from Lord Laird of Artigarvan, a cross-bench peer, who said the payments to Miss Abbott breached the BBC's own editorial guidelines.

These state: "We should not normally pay MPs, or others clearly identified as representing political parties, for appearances or other contributions to any BBC output in which they are speaking as a member of their party or expressing political views."

When Lord Laird initially raised the matter in a letter to Mr Thompson, he was told that this rule did not apply in Miss Abbott's case because This Week is "not a traditional political programme".

However, he appealed and was told this month by John Hamer of the BBC Trust Unit that the Editorial Standards Committee, which comprises five members of the BBC Trust, would examine the matter this Thursday.

This could prove to be interesting.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Political games

Yesterday's South Wales Evening Post reports that a request for action at a children's playground has been put on hold because it was deemed too political.

Coedffranc Community Council had a letter from regional AM Peter Black asking it to consider upgrading the equipment at the park in Jersey Marine.

However, it was pointed out that an election candidate for the area had made claims about the park in an election leaflet.

Members had previously agreed not to discuss any political issues during meetings held in the run-up to the election.

Instead they decided the council's finance committee should consider Mr Black's letter.

The committee will not meet until after next Thursday's elections.

God forbid that a Community Council should involve itself in politics, even for the sake of upgrading a children's playground. But why are they meeting during an election period anyway? Have they not heard of purdah?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Death knell for the super-injunction?

In what must surely amount to a last hooray for the super-injunction the Telegraph reports that a review of Parliamentary privilege by the Government has concluded that MPs will not be barred from using Parliamentary privilege to breach super-injunctions:

Last year Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming was reprimanded by the Commons Speaker John Bercow for naming Ryan Giggs as the footballer at the centre of a gagging and “flouting” parliamentary privilege.

Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice also questioned “whether it’s a very good idea for our law makers to be flouting a court order just because they disagree with a court order, or for that matter, because they disagree with the law of privacy which Parliament has created”.

However in a new consultation on Parliamentary Privilege the Government said it was taking no action to tighten the rules, which date back to 1689.

It says: “The Government does not consider that it is necessary to make any changes to the protection of privilege in civil cases.

“To ensure freedom of speech in Parliament it is right that parliamentary proceedings cannot be relied upon to sue a Member of Parliament or a witness to a select committee.

"The Government also considers that no legislative changes are appropriate in relation to injunctions and super-injunctions where, on occasion, parliamentary privilege has been used to circumvent the injunction.”

This must surely make it more difficult for major corporations to hide behind these devices to prevent public knowledge of alleged wrong-doing. That has to be welcome.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

'Losing my religion?'

The title of this post is based on an REM song rather than a statement of fact. Nevertheless, it seems pertinent given the action of the Catholic Church, reported in yesterday's Guardian of writing to every state-funded Catholic secondary school in England and Wales asking them to encourage pupils to sign a petition against gay marriage.

There is no debate, no discussion, just an absolute moral stance that pupils are being asked to sign up to irrespective of their own sexuality. And what happens if a pupil refuses? Will they be persecuted by their peers as 'queer'?

In the face of this one can only feel pride for those pupils who have stood up to this moral bullying and shown that they understand better than the Church the issues around gay marriage, and who have rejected prejudice and discrimination:

A pupil at St Philomena's Catholic high school for girls in Carshalton, in the south London borough of Sutton, told the website PinkNews.co.uk that children aged 11 to 18 had been encouraged to sign the anti-equality pledge by their headteacher.

She said: "In our assembly for the whole sixth form you could feel people bristling as she explained parts of the letter and encouraged us to sign the petition. It was just a really outdated, misjudged and heavily biased presentation."

She said some pupils had responded by buying Gay Pride badges to pin to their uniforms. "There are several people in my year who aren't heterosexual – myself included – and I for one was appalled and actually disgusted by what they were encouraging," she said. "After all, that's discrimination they were urging impressionable people to engage in, which is unacceptable."
The president of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson is absolutely right when he says: "It is disgraceful that children are being encouraged into bigotry when they are attending a state school paid for by taxpayers."
But how a child's education is provided is immaterial. The disgrace is trying to draw children into a campaign of this nature in the first place, irrespective of what school they attend or who pays for it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Putting pressure on the banks

This morning's Independent picks up on an initiative from Nick Clegg to break the deadlock that appears to exist between the banks and businesses regarding finance.

They say that the Deputy Prime Minister has accused the banking sector of sitting on its hands over lending as firms continue to complain they cannot access vital finance. He says that the Government plans to drive lending by opening up the financial sector to make it more competitive and diverse:

He said: "My message to the banks is this: Yes, of course, get your balance sheets in order.

"Meet the new capital requirements. But don't lurch to the other extreme at the expense of British business.

"Don't unnecessarily hoard capital when businesses need loans. Don't sit on your hands while firms are crying out for cash. And understand that getting credit to businesses is in your interests too."

Combined net lending by Britain's top five banks shrank every quarter last year despite the Government's Project Merlin agreement committing them to easing lending, particularly for small businesses.

Mr Clegg said ministers cannot "march into the banks and start taking their individual lending decisions for them" but they can "exert pressure".

He added: "We need to break open the market here in the UK, with more competition within the sector as well as more alternative sources of finance, outside of it.

"The coalition is going to invest directly in non-bank finance as part of our £1.2 billion Business Finance Partnership; £700 million will be invested through up to seven fund managers who will lend directly to British firms. There will be additional investment from the private sector with our share eventually returned to government.

"That still leaves half a billion, £100 million of which will be invested in banking alternatives for SMEs. And, if we see quick take-off, I will certainly want us to invest the remainder as quickly as we can.

"Investments will be made over the coming months, to precisely the kinds of schemes I've described and I'm issuing a call to all of you today: tell us your ideal way to bypass the banks to unlock new channels of capital. How can we help rewire money to the small business world?

This is very welcome but the Government really need to get on with it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Plaid Cymru to jump into bed with Labour?

The suggestion by the new leader of Plaid Cymru that her party might form a broad alliance with the Labour Party so as to build a "united Welsh alternative" to the Conservatives, is curious, not least for its timing, just over a week before local elections in which the nationalists are facing up to Labour in many seats around Wales.

Leanne Wood's suggestion is even more notable for its caveats. It seems that such a pact is dependent on Welsh Labour being prepared to co-operate with Plaid Cymru, put forward progressive policies and ditch tribalism and parochialism.  So that is never then.

In the circumstances one cannot help but get the impression that she is indulging in megaphone diplomacy, trying to create the impression of seeking consensus without ever really intending to go ahead with it.

What preparation has gone into this overture? Has she already had discussions with Carwyn Jones? Is there a broad memorandum of understanding on which it can be built?  It appears unlikely. Certainly the response of the Welsh Labour spokesperson leads one to think that Leanne Wood's objective is a pipe dream.

More importantly though, where is the detail? It is easy to pretend in opposition that all problems are solveable, and that cuts are not necessary despite the dire state of the UK's finances and the threat to its economy from external forces such as those that have brought Greece to its knees.

Plaid Cymru will never have to make difficult decisions in government at a macro-economic level. They can afford to be a party of protest, as indeed the Liberal Democrats once aspired to be. However, if Plaid and their leader want to be taken seriously then surely they need to put forward a more realistic and positive alternative than joining protest marches and shouting the odds from the sidelines.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Taxpayer picks up the bill

Hot on the heels of news that the prosecution of Peter Hain could cost the taxpayer £300,000, the Independent tells us today that the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, will have his legal bills paid by the taxpayer in any court case over the "rendition" of terror suspects.

The paper reminds us that a Libyan military commander wants to sue Mr Straw over suspected British involvement in the chain of events that led to him being tortured by Muammar Gaddafi's regime:

Abdelhakim Belhaj's lawyers claim Mr Straw signed papers that facilitated his rendition, at the same time that the government was officially denying it deported suspects to countries where they faced possible torture.

The legal action is against Mr Straw personally, but senior civil servants have indicated privately that if he needs legal representation to answer the charge, the taxpayer will pay.

Personally, I have no problem with the government meeting expenses incurred by Ministers when legal action is taken against them on matters relating to their duties in government.

However, if any Minister is found to have acted unlawfully then that is a different matter. We will need to see whether this court case happens and if so what conclusions are drawn.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The price of free speech

A few weeks ago I wrote that the decision of the Attorney General of Northern Ireland to bring proceedings for contempt of court against Peter Hain and Biteback Publishing for criticisms in the former Secretary of State's biography of the Northern Irish judge, Judge Girvan (now Lord Justice Girvan), was an attack on the freedom of speech.

Today the Independent on Sunday reveals that this action could leave the taxpayer facing a £300,000 legal bill.

Other politicians have joined in the criticism of the action: The decision by John Larkin, Northern Ireland's Attorney General, to prosecute Mr Hain for "unwarranted abuse of a judge" under a rarely used 18th-century offence of "scandalising the court" caused a political row. David Cameron suggested it threatened "modern democracy", and Sammy Wilson, the finance minister in Belfast, hit out at the use of public money.

"If someone libelled you or me, the expectation would be that if we felt so aggrieved we would risk our own private money in taking the matter to court," Mr Wilson said. "Now why should a judge be treated any differently?"

More than 120 MPs in Westminster, including David Davis, Charles Kennedy, David Blunkett and Alistair Darling, have also backed a Commons motion condemning the move. Mr Hain and his publishers, Biteback, have vowed to fight the case.

The "scandalising" charge they face is so rarely used that in 1899 it was regarded as obsolete. Legal experts predict the Supreme Court will ultimately determine the case's fate. If Mr Hain is acquitted, the state will be left to pick up the legal costs, which are expected to reach £300,000.

Former shadow home secretary, David Davis, is absolutely right when he warns that the case could have "a chilling effect on any comment on anything to do with the judiciary". As he says: "The ability to comment on the judiciary is an important check on the law and the operation of the law. Whatever you think of the comment made by Peter about the judge, of course he can sue if he chooses to, but to have the state step in is astonishing."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Candidate is a dummy

As a candidate I have been called many things, but at least I am in a position to answer back.

That is not the case for Helena Torry who has just been disqualified from standing in the upcoming council elections in the Hazlehead, Ashley and Queens Cross ward in Aberdeen. Ms. Torrey is a dummy. To be precise she is mannequin.

Her agent, 63-year-old Renee Slater has been charged by Grampian Police under the Section 65 part 2A of 1983 Representation of the People Act, concerned with forging ballot papers, and is scheduled to appear in court in the near future. 

Returning officer, Valerie Watts told the media that ”The nomination paper for Helena Torry was submitted shortly before the close of nominations on March 3 and contained all the information required by statute for a valid nomination. 

“In this case, it is clear from public statements from the purported election agent that the information on the form was inaccurate to the point of rendering the nomination a complete nullity, which can be disregarded for the purposes of the election.” 

She said that “those concerned” would be required to cover the costs involved in the matter. Ms Slater was released from police custody on Thursday, but the mannequin has not been so fortunate. She remains in the possession of the Grampian Police."

 It seems though that the mannequin's entry into politics had a purpose. Her agent told the Aberdeen Evening Express: “Helena’s aims and objectives are equality for human beings, ensuring there is a fair deal for everyone and giving a voice to the silent majority.”

The paper adds that Ms. Torrey first appeared at a Friends of Union Terrace Garden campaign event, of which her agent is a vocal supporter, campaigning against proposed developments to gardens in Aberdeen City Centre. Not so silent after all then.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Tory myth of England-only bills

The idea being perpetuated by the Conservative party that English voters are somehow being disenfranchised by devolution and that a block of Celtic MPs stand in the way of English self-determination has been challenged by a leading academic this morning.

The Western Mail says that Professor Jim Gallagher, of Nuffield College, Oxford, has argued that introducing new rules on England-only legislation in the House of Commons would neither “cripple” Labour governments nor result in Conservative “hegemony”:

In a new report for the IPPR think tank, he writes: “The idea that a Tory-voting England regularly has Labour governments imposed on it by the Celtic fringe is a myth. To form a stable government any party needs to win in England.

“Other MPs are only critical when England is split down the middle. That’s seldom happened: Harold Wilson struggled on with an English minority but a UK majority for two years from 1964, and for eight months in 1974.

“But since then Labour has only won when it won England. The risk will be even less now that constituencies are to be equalised.

“And England-only legislation is not as common as people think. So change will neither guarantee a Tory hegemony nor cripple every Labour Government.”

Professor Gallagher says that it is possible to devise a Commons procedure to allow English members a greater say in English legislation however, a balance will have to be struck between giving English opinion a voice and allowing the UK Government still to discharge its proper role as the government of England.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Labour seek to reduce top rate of tax to 40p

Over at Liberal Democrat Voice, Caron Lindsay underlines Labour's confusion and incompetence over the UK Administration's budget, which they have labelled as one for millionaires.

She reminds us that Labour squealed long and loud about how wicked the Coalition is, particularly on cutting the 50p tax rate to 45p. However, when they had the chance to vote against it in March, as Ed Balls promised they would, not one of them did.

Now they have tabled an amendment which, if it had passed, would have set the top rate of tax at 40p:

Let me explain. The Finance Bill clauses put forward by the Government were as follows:

'Clause 1 – Income tax

Charge for 2012-13 and rates for 2012-13 and subsequent tax years

(1) Income tax is charged for the tax year 2012-13, and for that tax year.

(a) the basic rate is 20%,

(b) the higher rate is 40%, and

(c) the additional rate is 50%.

(2) For the tax year 2013-14.

(a) the basic rate is 20%,

(b) the higher rate is 40%, and

(c) the additional rate is 45%.'

The Labour amendment was to delete 2(c) which, if passed, would have left us with no additional rate.

As the Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Treasury Committee, Stephen Williams, says:

“Labour’s biggest tax change was to remove the 10p tax rate hitting people on low and middle incomes while Liberal Democrats are giving nearly 25m basic-rate tax payers an Income Tax cut and have lifted more than a million people out of paying Income Tax altogether. At the same time, we’re making the rich pay their fair share by cracking down on loopholes and excessive tax relief."

It seems that they are determined to compound that error by giving a bigger tax break than intended to the better off.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Call to reform Freedom of Information Act

The Telegraph reports that the former Justice Secretary, Jack Straw has called for the Freedom of Information Act to be rewritten.

Mr. Straw has claimed that minutes were not taken of some “high level” meetings in order not to leave a paper trail while other important decisions would be made by text message, reducing accountability rather than increasing it:

He said that senior civil servants feared “horrific detail” from their notebooks about their ministers’ “streams of consciousness” would be made public under the transparency law, which he passed as Home Secretary in 2000.

Mr Straw said some discussions between ministers and officials about the formation of policy and the risks of certain decisions should be protected from disclosure, in order to allow a frank exchange of views.

The paper adds that the veteran Labour MP is himself facing questions over what he knew about a Libyan rebel, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, being sent by the CIA to be jailed and tortured by Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. They say that his possible role in the rendition of the terror suspect may yet be disclosed by FOI requests.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Government misstep on fracking

All the media are reporting this morning that Government Ministers are to give the green light to further drilling for natural shale gas using the controversial fracking method despite identifying specific risks associated with the procedure.

The Telegraph tells us that a report by an independent panel commissioned by the government confirmed that an operation by Cuadrilla, an energy company, was responsible for two tremors last spring.

It backed up an inquiry by Cuadrilla late last year, after which the company admitted culpability for the small earthquakes near Blackpool, which measured 2.3 and 1.5 on the "local magnitude" system under which three is classed as "moderate".

Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals at very high pressures into beds of shale to release the reserves of natural gas which are stored within.

The paper says that the report provides some of the first evidence that fracking can trigger earthquakes:

'experts said there was a "very low" chance that it could spark one large enough to cause any significant damage.

It recommended that fracking should be allowed in Britain, but only under a new set of safety provisions that would be among the most restrictive in the world.

These would include the installation of sensitive monitoring systems providing real-time information about the location and magnitude of any minor tremors, each of which raises the chance of a larger quake following imminently.

Under a proposed "traffic light" control system, a "red light" would be triggered by any tremor measuring 0.5 local magnitude or higher, meaning fracking should stop and safety procedures such as allowing water to flow back to the surface should be carried out.'

So it is OK to cause earthquakes providing that they are not too large? Personally, I think this is a mistake and that we are blundering into a potential minefield. I agree with campaigners who want a full scientific assessment of all the environmental impacts of fracking, and who say that there should be no more fracking until that has been carried out.

It seems to me that commercial considerations are being allowed to override safety concerns and that we do not as yet fully understand the consequences of fracking activity.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Keeping their money

Today's Guardian publishes figures which underline why Nick Clegg insisted that the budget include a tycoon tax so as to ensure the rich pay their share of the money needed to reduce the deficit and provide public services.

They say that Treasury figures show that almost a thousand UK taxpayers earning more than £1m a year have a tax rate of less than 30% of their income. The Treasury also revealed that of the 200 taxpayers earning more than £10m a year, 12 are paying less than 10% in tax:

The new Treasury figures show 10,000 UK taxpayers earn between £1m and £5m, and, of those, 10% pay between 30% and 40% in tax, 5% pay between 20% and 30% tax, and 3% pay less than 10%.

The Treasury estimates that 400 taxpayers earn between £5m and £10m, and 5% of these taxpayers, or 20 individuals, pay less than 20% in tax.

Of those earning between £250,000 and £500,000, 27% were paying tax of less than 40%. All the figures cover the financial year 2010-11.

A Treasury spokesman said: "At the moment there are millionaires paying a lower tax rate than ordinary taxpayers. This is the system we have at the moment, but the government is committed to making it fairer. We're capping benefits and these figures clearly show why it's fair to cap tax reliefs for the wealthy as well."

Treasury sources pointed out the figures reflected a tax system inherited from Labour.

Clearly, there are major issues that still need to be resolved so that charitable giving is not hit, but the principle that the rich should pay more has to be the right one for the government to pursue.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The crying game

Pictures of Ken Livingstone crying after watching his own campaign video have already gone viral and led to much discussion in the media. This morning's Sunday Supplement on BBC Radio Wales for example had a piece on the place of emotion in politics.

The Independent on Sunday though, poses the question as to whether the tear were genuine or as fake as the video itself, which apparently featured scripted contributions from paid participants.

The paper says that Mr Livingstone's campaign team spent another frustrating day yesterday fending off these questions:

His lachrymose moment was brought on by a highly professional election broadcast in which ordinary Londoners appeared to be urging him to win the mayoral election for their sake.

But reports soon emerged that the people seen in the broadcast were not a cross-section of London voters, but actors. A blogger on the Labour Uncut website hostile to Mr Livingstone described the claims as "another depth plumbed in the mayoral campaign".

The ex-Mayor's aides said the allegation was untrue, but admitted that some of the participants, recruited by the ad agency BETC, were speaking scripted lines to camera. Most were recruited "off the street", they said, although one was identified as Rabbi Joseph Stauber, a former Labour councillor from Hackney.

An aide added: "Some were paid expenses. It would be really unfair if they weren't." A statement from the Livingstone campaign read: "Everyone who appears in Labour's party political broadcast is an ordinary Londoner backing Ken on 3 May. No actors were used in the broadcast. Labour's broadcast featured ordinary Londoners talking about their lives and how Ken's policies will make them better off. Boris Johnson featured Boris Johnson talking about Boris Johnson."

My betting is that the tears were real but that their source was Ken's realisation that he is not going to win a third term this time, if at all.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Commercial hell

Any organisation with a heavy reliance on the commercial sector for its financial solvency is bound to run into problems when its sponsors turn out to have difficult-to-defend practices or connections. For the London Olympics to market itself as the most ethical ever therefore was just asking for trouble.

This morning's Independent brought those problems to organisers in spades by revealing that Olympic-branded gear, which is to be worn by British athletes and Games volunteers, is being manufactured for Adidas in sweatshop conditions in Indonesia.

They say that with just over 100 days to go before the Games begin, their investigation has uncovered widespread violations of workers' rights in Indonesia, where nine locally owned and managed factories have been contracted to produce Olympic shoes and clothing for Adidas, the official sportswear partner of London 2012 and of the British team:

While the German company – which unveiled its Stella McCartney-designed kit for British athletes last month – hopes to make £100m from its Olympic lines, the mainly young, female factory employees work up to 65 hours (25 hours more than the standard working week), for desperately low pay. They also endure verbal and physical abuse, they allege, are forced to work overtime, and are punished for not reaching production targets.

None of the nine factories pays its employees a living wage – about 20 per cent higher than the official minimum wage – one of the cornerstones of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) base code, an internationally recognised labour code adopted by the Olympics organising committee, Locog. Workers struggle to survive on pay as low as 5,000 rupiah (34p) an hour, skipping meals to save money, and sending their children away to be looked after by grandparents.

The ETI base code – which Locog says must be complied with by all companies supplying goods to Olympic licences – also stipulates freedom of association. Yet workers allege that some unions are not given bargaining rights by Adidas's Indonesian suppliers. At PT Shyang Yao Fung, in the industrial city of Tangerang, west of Jakarta, 10 workers were suspended a month ago – and face being laid off – because of their union activism, they believe.

The whole story sheds new light on the over-the-top and highly draconian regulations preventing the advertising of rival brands within a certain distance of an Olympic venue.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Boris saves the day for Tories

An article in today's Guardian illustrates how London Mayor Boris Johnson holds all the cards within the Conservative Party when it comes to political judgement.

The paper reports that Boris intervened to prevent a Christian advertising campaign from promoting the idea that gay people can be converted to heterosexuality:

Just days before the posters were due to appear on buses in the capital, Johnson ordered his transport chiefs to pull the adverts booked by two conservative Anglican groups following outrage among gay campaigners and politicians saying that they were homophobic. The adverts were booked on behalf of the Core Issues Trust whose leader, Mike Davidson, believes "homoerotic behaviour is sinful".

His charity funds "reparative therapy" for gay Christians, which it claims can "develop their heterosexual potential". The campaign was also backed by Anglican Mainstream, a worldwide orthodox Anglican group whose supporters have equated homosexuality with alcoholism. The advert was due to say: "Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!"

Johnson, who contacted the Guardian to announce he was stopping the adverts within two hours of their contents becoming public, said: "London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world and intolerant of intolerance. It is clearly offensive to suggest that being gay is an illness that someone recovers from and I am not prepared to have that suggestion driven around London on our buses."

The Mayor was acting in his capacity as Chair of Transport for London, so in that respect his decision was one taken to protect the company's brand. There are though freedom of expression arguments to be had around this decision.

My concern is that such a complex and emotional subject is being reduced to slogans on the side of buses in place of real debate and discussion. I am supportive of proposals for gay marriage but these sort of tactics, no matter which side is using them, do not help in ensuring that the public understand the issues around that proposal.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Taxing decisions

Is there no end to the Americanisation of British politics? Following the controversy over the tax arrangements of Ken Livingstone and indications by David Cameron that he would be happy to publish his own tax return, the Welsh Government are now getting in on the act.

Today's Western Mail reports that First Minister, Carwyn Jones and Welsh Government ministers are to discuss whether they will declare their tax returns. A spokesman is quoted as saying: “Transparency is an important facet of Government. This is the something the First Minister will be discussing with ministerial colleagues.”

A Welsh Labour MP has gone further. Wayne David, who represents Caerphilly has called for all MPs and AMs to publish their tax returns. He hopes that all public representatives have nothing to be embarrassed about. So do I. And I am in favour of transparency. But where does this trend stop?

I believe that we should publish details of all income received from the public purse, together with information to enable people to judge whether we are doing the job they expect of us.

But, surely, the key requirement is that we pay tax in the same way as everybody else and do not use devices, legal or otherwise, to reduce our bill. There has to be an element of trust here.

I suppose that if we are to regain that trust then the publication of tax returns may be the way forward but it is a very sad day for democracy that this might be necessary.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

MPs and Lords benefit from gifts and funding

The Guardian reveals that businesses, overseas governments and lobby groups have given sponsorship, free gifts and funding worth at least £1.8m to MPs and Lords in the past year through all-party parliamentary groups.

These groups are a key avenue for lobbyists and other interest groups to exercise influence on policy and legislation so this kind of transparency is important. However, because largesse is not linked to a particular MP or Lord, it is difficult to measure exactly how it operates to change things.

The paper says that more than 300 all-party groups, which are semi-official groupings of MPs and Lords interested in a particular subject, have received funding or support from outside groups, including:

• Trips to 27 countries including China, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Taiwan, Thailand, Israel and Liechtenstein for members of 15 groups.

• A £32,000 donation from BT Global Services to fund concerts for the parliamentary choir.

• Contributions totalling more than £117,000 for "associate membership" – at £8,400 a time – of the all-party group on health, from companies including AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and actuaries Milliman.

• Free membership for MPs and Lords of the Slimming World all-party parliamentary group and the Weight Watchers group. Each group has about 20 members who are MPs or peers, drawn from all the main parties.

They add that more than 80 groups issued parliamentary passes to staff with outside interests, which included several lobbying or consultancy firms, thinktanks, the Catholic aid agency Cafod and the Unite union:

Several lobbying groups are listed as funding the secretariats of all-party groups, but they are not required to disclose which of their clients – if any – provide them the finance to do so.

Contributions from outside groups vary from relatively small donations such as wine for tasting sessions of the all-party parliamentary wine and spirit group, or sponsored rugby kits for the all-party parliamentary rugby union football club group, to £16,000 for the parliamentary boat race from Siemens, to money to fund inquiries or reports on technology, health and abortion.

Overseas governments and interest groups are also contributors. Parliamentarians accepted a free five-day trip to Azerbaijan from the European Azerbaijan Society, which exists for the "promotion of Azerbaijan as a modern, progressive country with tremendous economic opportunities and a strong cultural heritage".

Members of the all-party China group received a trip to Hong Kong paid for by the Hong Kong government, trips to China supported by Virgin Airways which provided free upgrades, and accommodation from the Confucius Institute's headquarters and other bodies.

Despite this information being available there remains a huge problem with transparency. The data,was compiled by the Guardian from an official register using a web scraper built for ScraperWiki, indicating that it is not published in an accessible form as a matter of course.

The paper says that All-party groups are obliged to provide some information on their donations, but when these are benefits in kind, such as free trips, dinners and administrative services, they are not obliged to give their value. Despite being able to use parliamentary facilities and being regulated by House authorities, the groups are not made to publish minutes, information on whom they meet or detailed annual accounts.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Were Labour Ministers complicit in the illegal rendition of terrorist suspects?

The BBC reports the shocking revelation that the UK government approved the 2004 rendition of a terror suspect to the Gaddafi regime.

They say that a letter from senior MI6 officer, Sir Mark Allen, to Col Gaddafi's intelligence chief, Musa Kusa, was found last year in the rubble of Musa Kusa's headquarters, which were bombed by Nato:

As well as congratulating the Libyans on the arrival of the "cargo", it points out that "the intelligence was British".

The letter was sent in 2004 when Mr Belhaj was the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

MI5 believed the group was close to al-Qaeda and involved in recruiting young Muslims in Britain to fight in Iraq.

Our correspondent says it appears MI6 had discovered that Mr Belhaj was in Malaysia and about to head for London in the hope of obtaining political asylum.

MI6 informed its foreign intelligence partners, and as a result Mr Belhaj was intercepted in Bangkok, presumably by the CIA, and rendered to Libya.

Our correspondent says the letter suggests MI6 was complicit in Mr Belhaj's illegal rendition and alleged torture in Libya - but that MI6 was not acting unilaterally.

He says his understanding is that MI6 obtained authorisation from the Labour government of the time for its action.

The BBC point out that Jack Straw was the Labour Foreign Secretary in 2004 when the rendition took place.

They say that in an interview on BBC Radio 4 last year he said: "We were opposed to unlawful rendition. We were opposed to any use of torture or similar methods. Not only did we not agree with it, we were not complicit in it and nor did we turn a blind eye to it. No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time."

That puts Jack Straw in the clear, but questions still arise from this document. Did these actions by MI6 have Ministerial approval as is suggested? If so which Labour Minister gave the go-ahead for this illegal rendition?

Monday, April 09, 2012

Scores on the doors

I am not sure what to make of this story in the Telegraph that a new 'app' is being developed for the Prime Minister’s personal iPad tablet computer that will give him management data about his ministers’ performance.

The paper says that this new way of evaluating ministers’ work-rate will give Mr Cameron hard evidence for when he comes to make his first reshuffle, expected later this year.

They add that the personalised PM app for Mr Cameron’s iPad has been under development for months by experts in the Cabinet Office. It had previously been billed as a way for the Prime Minister to keep on top of Government business:

The software will allow the Prime Minister to see the latest NHS waiting-list figures, crime statistics, unemployment numbers and a wide variety of other data at a glance.

However officials are now working on ways for the app to be used to evaluate ministers’ performance, using points-based evaluation systems from corporate life.

I really hope that there is more to Cameron's evaluation of his Ministers than this, such as political judgement for example. However, there is clearly a marketing opportunity once this app is developed. I would be very interested for example in being able to look at all the key government statistics at a glance.

And who knows, the ability to rate Government Ministers on an ipad could soon be out-selling angry birds as a source of in-home entertainment.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

To publish tax returns or not?

Over on his blog the former Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood makes a compelling case as to why the idea of candidates for public office compulsorily publishing their tax returns is the thin end of a very short wedge:

There are three main arguments against requiring publication of tax returns.

The first is it would reinforce the tendency of elections to be about individuals and their personal lives rather than about public policy and what they will do for the electors. The media fasciantion with the exchanges between Boris and Ken over personal tax and income is crowding out the more important matters of what Ken or Boris would do to the Council Tax, the policing, and the transport of London.

The second is it could lead to very misleading jibes about tax avoidance. If Candidate A and Candidate B have the same income, but Candidate A is saving the maximum permitted for his pension and Candidate B is putting aside the minimum, Candidate A will be paying less tax. Does this make him a nasty tax avoider, or a prudent man who does not wish to be a burden on taxpayerrs in his old age? Is Candidate B the more worthy because he is paying more tax, or feckless because he is not using a legitimate tax saving device to provide for his own old age? Will any of these nuances come across in the noise of the headlines about tax rates?

The third is how far back will all this go? Will it put goood potential candidates off because they have been successful in the past and have no wish to share all the details of their business and personal finances with everyone else?

As John Redwoood says, just because it happens in America is no argument to see its introduction here. I am not opposed to transparency, but the whole raison d'etre behind publication of tax returns is that the candidate must prove that he or she has not done something wrong. If we are to base our democracy on a presumption of guilt then we are on a very slippery slope indeed.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Buying influence?

After all the fuss made by Labour regarding David Cameron treating major donors to dinner, how are we to react to this piece in today's Telegraph in which a senior Labour MP argues that his party “owes” its union bankrollers respectful treatment and early warning of any policy changes?

The paper says that Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy chairman, has attacked Ed Miliband and Ed Balls for failing to warn the party’s trade union backers about a major shift in economic policy.

Mr. Watson, who is also Labour's election campaign coordinator, has said that Mr Balls, the shadow chancellor, was “wrong” not to have alerted the unions that he was to support a public sector pay freeze and announce that the party could not promise to reverse deep spending cuts.

The MP believes that Labour “owed” it to the unions, who donate millions of pounds to the party, to treat them with “respect”.

It seems to me that this is just another side of the same gravy train. The need for funding reform grows ever more urgent.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Tax and politics

It is arguable that the current row between London Mayoral candidates amounts to the further Americanisation of British politics, in which the personal always seems to trump policy. However on further examination, Ken Livingstone's problems with his tax bill appear to be no more than an old-fashioned case of being caught out as a hypocrite.

As Dan Hodges points out in the Telegraph, 'one moment (Ken Livingstone) was claiming that tax avoiders were “rich bastards” who should “not be allowed to vote”; the next he was questioning why anyone “would vote for a mayor that pays more tax than they have to”.'

Now that the other candidates have published their tax returns, Livingstone's position seems indefensible. He has decided to publish only the dividends he received from his tax vehicle company. He is now saying that he will only give full details of his earnings if others agree to disclose information concerning spouses and partners.

How Ken Livingstones hopes to retain any credibility after this is difficult to see. Ed Miliband must be so proud.

Goat accused of robbery

You could not make it up.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

When candidates fall out with each other

All political parties have their problems from time to time. There is only one qualification needed to pursue a political career, a large ego. Thus candidates occasionally consider themselves bigger than the party and take their own path. More frequently they think they are bigger than the team they are part of and go off on a tangent.

Whatever the explanation, unilateral action by the husband of one Labour candidate in Swansea has succeeded in getting his wife into hot water. The Western Mail reports, that controversial former Labour MP, Bob Clay is at the centre of a bitter row that has torn apart a party branch and led to personal attacks on its top official in Wales.

Last Friday, following a long-running conflict in the city’s Llansamlet ward branch of the Labour Party, both the Clays had their memberships suspended pending an investigation.

Mrs Clay was due to be a candidate in the ward at next month’s council elections, but her suspension from the party would have barred her from standing.

Earlier this week an anonymous posting appeared on a Labour-linked website called Left Futures in which Welsh Labour’s general secretary David Hagendyk was accused of engineering Mrs Clay’s suspension.

Then on Tuesday Mrs Clay’s suspension was lifted following the intervention of party figures from London. Yesterday she was confirmed as a council candidate.

Party sources have confirmed that Mrs Clay was selected as a candidate in February last year, moving into the Llansamlet ward with her husband in August. Subsequently there was a series of acrimonious branch meetings which resulted in a number of complaints made by members to Welsh Labour. The relationship between the Clays and sitting Labour councillors in the ward broke down completely.

Last November a vote was held in the branch to deselect Mrs Clay as a candidate, but it was ruled unconstitutional as no notice had been given of the vote.

Welsh Labour officials then met with the candidates and local party officials, reaching an agreement which included a requirement that all candidates should work together and that only materials produced by the party and involving all candidates were to be distributed.

But relationships continued to deteriorate and following two particularly difficult meetings, the branch was suspended by Welsh Labour on January 23.

In February it was agreed that all four candidates could stand, but that Swansea East Labour Party would be made responsible for the campaign.

Sources say that in mid-March, contrary to the agreement, a separate leaflet was put out, resulting in the suspension of the Clays following discussion with Swansea East party officers.

Things have now been patched up and Uta Clay has been allowed to stand, though her husband remains suspended from the Labour Party. Still, it is not an ideal way to start an election campaign.

There is more here about what has been going on in the Llansamlet branch.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Nick Clegg finds some cojones

This morning's news that Nick Clegg has demanded changes to plans to hold court hearings in secret and that the Government has started to retreat on its plans to monitor digital communications, are very welcome.

I was one of many Liberal Democrats who publicly condemned moves to monitor e-mail and internet traffic and was horrified by the official response from Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone that it was okay because the Government would not read the content of any communication. Such an assurance spectacularly missed the point.

Now we are told by the Deputy Prime Minister that these contentious measures will be published only in draft form and will be subject to widespread consultation. These concessions could delay the proposals for at least a year and hopefully will kill them off for good.

I am with the 17 Liberal Democrat MPs who wrote to the Independent today to welcome Nick Clegg's intervention but who also warned him that their support can not be taken for granted on the issue.

On the issue of secret court hearings, Nick Clegg appears to have learnt the lesson of the earlier debacle and launched a pre-emptive strike. He has written to the National Security Council to say judges, not ministers, should decide if cases are heard behind closed doors.

We will see how things develop but at the moment at least I am happy that the Liberal Democrats are asserting their liberalism within the coalition once more.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The first Welsh Assembly private members bill

Due to other members either working with an expected Government bill to change the law or failing to get their idea accepted by the Assembly, I find myself preparing the first private members bill to come before the Welsh Assembly following the referendum and the granting of new powers.

I am seeking to reform the law relating to Park Homes and fixed caravans so as to offer better protection to home owners. There is a huge amount of material on the problems faced by Park Home Owners and this will be added to later this year when Consumer Focus publish a major research study, including interviews with many of those affected.

The aim of my Bill is to regulate more fairly the process by which residential mobile home (park home) sites are managed and sold in Wales by removing the site owner/manager’s veto on sales. It will establish a model licensing and inspection regime which will introduce consistency and give licensing authorities the tools and guidance they need to effectively license, monitor and inspect park homes sites.

The Bill will also establish a requirement that site owner/managers must pass a “fit and proper” person test as part of the new licensing system. It will also establish an enforcement regime, placing responsibility on licensing and inspection authorities to enforce the licensing regime and to take action in the case of non-compliance, using a phased approach including financial penalties and introducing a criminal offence for interfering in a sale.

On Friday I travelled to Powys to join with Brecon and Radnorshire AM, Kirsty Williams in talking to two groups of Park Home Owners. The ideas in the bill were well-received. A draft bill will be hopefully ready within the next month or so and we will be going out to consultation on 25 May. In this case, as with many others, Wales is leading the way.

Monday, April 02, 2012

A red line Liberal Democrats should not cross

It is difficult to know why plans for the government to be able to monitor the calls, emails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK has been put out in the public domain now, in advance of the Queen's speech, other than perhaps to test the water.

Apparently the idea is to legislate so that internet firms will be required to give intelligence agency GCHQ access to communications in real time. The law would not allow GCHQ to access the content of emails, calls or messages without a warrant, but it would enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long. They would also be able to see which websites someone had visited.

This revival of a proposal mooted by the last Labour Government underlines the inertia of Government. Once an idea is fixed in the minds of advisors and civil servants, they keep revisiting it until they find politicians prepared to take it forward. Liberal Democrat Ministers should not be those politicians.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives opposed this legislation when we were in opposition, we should not now succumb to false arguments that a mass surveillance state somehow guarantees our safety.

The director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, Nick Pickles is absolutely right when he describes this move "an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran".

"This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses," he said.

It is not proportionate, does not respect freedom of expression nor does it take account of the privacy of users.


Sunday, April 01, 2012

April 1st

April Fools jokes dominate some of today's newspapers with perhaps the most far-fetched one being that in the Wales on Sunday, who claim that the Aberystwyth-based Russian historian and chair of the Welsh Underground Rail Restoration Trust (WURRT), Sal Loripof, who is also allegedly chair of the Welsh Underground Rail Restoration Trust (WURRT), has set his sights on attracting investors from the oil-rich Middle East to bring back into use abandoned railway tracks in underground tunnels all around Wales.

In the Observer it is difficult to choose between Ed Miliband's claim that the present government will only serve one term and the suggestion that David Cameron has asked Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays to advise him on social class. The story comes complete with pictures of various celebrities wearing T-shirts showing David Cameron eating a pastie and the slogan "We're all eating this together".

What is definitely not an April Fools' Day joke however, is George Galloway's victory in Bradford West and the dubious tactics that got him to that position. Nick Cohen explains:

Galloway's victory shows that if the secular left does not take on sectarians, they will flourish. Admittedly, the unwary thought that Galloway, a Catholic Scot, might face difficulties in playing the communalist card in the Muslim wards of Bradford West. They should not have underestimated his brass neck. Brazen and polished, it shines like a lantern through the murk. "God KNOWS who is a Muslim," he said in his election literature. "And he KNOWS who is not. Instinctively, so do you. Let me point out to all the Muslim brothers and sisters what I stand for: I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if you believe the other candidate in this election can say that truthfully."

Having established to his satisfaction that he was a Muslim, he told a public meeting: "I believe in the judgment day. I believe that one day we will have to answer to the Almighty." Members of the audience were to say to their friends, "especially to other religious people", how they would explain to Allah "on the last day" their failure to vote for him, George Galloway, God's chosen candidate.

Not even Rick Santorum has said: "Vote for me or you will go to hell."

If Respect continue to exploit the Muslim vote in that way then Ed Miliband's hopes of winning the next General Election look to be in grave doubt already.

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