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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Labour at war with itself over Welsh NHS

Labour have suffered some embarrassment in Llanelli of late. Having won the seat back from Plaid Cymru at the last Assembly election by assuring voters that local health services were safe in their hands, they have now had the rug pulled from beneath them by the local health board.

There was a huge protest outside the Senedd recently where, Llanelli residents, worried about the future of the town's Prince Phillip hospital, demanded action by the Labour Government to avert the planned downgrading of services there.

Ironically, that protest featured a number of Labour Party activists having a go at their own government, including it seems the local MP, Nia Griffith, complete with T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan 'Save our Hospital'.

The ITV Wales blog reports that this has caused ructions within the Assembly Labour group who are rather upset that this action is undermining the Government's line that their hospital is safe:

This is one of a number of controversies about the way hospital services are provided in the future. The Welsh Government has repeatedly said that no decisions have yet been made and that no changes would be introduced which would compromise patient safety.

Ms Griffith wouldn't comment when I spoke to her earlier, but I gather her view was that the protest was directed against Hywel Dda Health Board and not the Welsh Government.

That explanation didn't satisfy many of the Labour AMs who felt that her actions risked undermining Welsh Government efforts to reassure patients that the plans won't lead to downgrading or closure for district general hospitals or A&E departments. They made those feelings clear at the group meeting.

No wonder Labour are struggling to convince people that they know what they are doing with regards the health service.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Preaching from shifting sands

We have already seen reports that one of the directors of the Taxpayers Alliance lives in a farmhouse in the Loire and has not paid British tax for years. Despite that his organisation constantly lectures the public sector on how they should spend other people's taxes.

Now it seems that there is a comparable example on a larger scale. The Independent reports that IMF chief Christine Lagarde has been accused of hypocrisy after it emerged that she pays no income tax, just days after blaming the Greeks for causing their financial peril by dodging their own bills.

The paper says that as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund she is paid a salary of $467,940 (£298,675), automatically increased every year according to inflation. On top of that she receives an allowance of $83,760, payable without "justification", and additional expenses for entertainment, making her total package worth more than the amount received by US President Barack Obama according to reports last night.

They add that unlike Mr Obama, she does not have to pay any tax on this substantial income because of her diplomatic status.

Obviously this has not gone down well in Greece and nor should it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mobile Homes (Wales) Bill consultation launched

Yesterday I launched the consultation on my private members bill on Mobile Homes in Wales. This video tells you more:


If you want to respond to this consultation then you can read the document here.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Tackling empty properties

The Welsh Government housing white paper proposes a stick to encourage owners of long term empty homes to take up the assistance available to bring their property back into use. They suggest that after 12 months the local council should have the power to double the Council Tax payable on that home.

In my view 12 months is too short a period as this may not allow for the owner to sort out problems with succession or to carry out a complex renovation but that is something that can be sorted out as part of the consultation. The principle is correct, it is something I have been asking the Government to introduce for some time.

The Welsh Conservatives take a contrary view but it seems that they are not just going to be isolated in Wales on this issue. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat UK Coalition Government are considering a similar measure.

According to yesterday's Independent, UK Ministers believe that the system encourages second homeowners and landlords to leave properties empty and want to bring in measures to change all that.

They want to abolish mandatory discounts on holiday homes that are used only at weekends, and to impose an extra premium on properties left vacant for more than two years.

The paper says that across the UK, there are around a million empty homes, of which 720,000 are in England.  Ministers say this is equivalent to one home standing empty for every two families stuck on waiting lists:

Andrew Stunell, the Lib Dem communities minister, will confirm plans to stop forcing councils to give a discount. And he will push ahead with the "empty homes premium", which will allow local authorities to charge up to 50 per cent extra on council tax for homes vacant for more than two years

The details may be slightly different but for once both administrations are talking with one voice.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A new definition of irony

As the Olympic torch hits Wales, organisers predict that the games will initiate a fresh interest amongst youngsters in sport and exercise. Meanwhile, a debate gets underway about support for obese youngsters following the Georgia Davis case.

The main sponsors of the Olympic games are Cadburys, McDonalds, Heineken and Coca Cola.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Welsh Liberal Democrats continue to influence policy

We may have had a bit of a bashing in this month's local Council elections but the Welsh Liberal Democrats' influence on Government policy continues to show.

On Thursday the First Minister launched the pupil deprivation grant, a £32m boost for schools targeted at the most deprived pupils. That scheme would not have been in existence if the Welsh Liberal Democrats had not insisted on it as part of the budget deal we struck with the government. It has met universal approval from schools, teachers and parents.

Earlier in the week the Finance Minister announced details of how she will be spending a £42m windfall from the UK Government. Twenty million pounds of that money will be spent on Welsh Liberal Democrat priorities including a mortgage guarantee scheme for first time buyers in new build homes, £5m for home insulation schemes benefiting 1,000 homes, an additional £6m to expand the Welsh Housing Partnership, levering in a total investment of £30 million to deliver 280 family homes for immediate rent, an additional £5m to double the size of the recyclable empty homes fund, contributing to the target of bringing 5,000 empty homes back into use during this Assembly term and a Welsh Housing Bond. Four million pounds will be committed each year for thirty years to support a Bond issue of over £100m, which will finance delivery of more than 1,000 affordable homes over the next four years.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The interweb is not so free

We have already seen Police crackdown on offences on Twitter, now this news item in today's Guardian reminds us that not everything we can access through search engines is available free of charge.

They say that Google is receiving more than a million requests a month from copyright owners seeking to pull their content from the company's search results. The number requests has grown so fast that it now often tops 250,000 a week, more than Google received for all of 2009:

Lohmann said the dramatic rise had come with the growth of "enforcement vendors", which police the internet looking for copyright violations. The largest submitter of requests for removals was Marketly, which serves the software industry, followed by Degban, which works with pornographers.

Filestube.com, a search site dedicated to finding downloadable files such as audio, video and documents, was the most targeted website. It was followed by torrentz.eu, a file sharing site. Marketly was by far the largest reporting organisation, making close to 2.2m requests since June 2011. It was followed by NBC Universal, which made 985,905 requests over the same period.

In a blogpost, von Lohmann wrote: "Fighting online piracy is very important, and we don't want our search results to direct people to materials that violate copyright laws. So we've always responded to copyright removal requests that meet the standards set out in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). At the same time, we want to be transparent about the process so that users and researchers alike understand what kinds of materials have been removed from our search results and why."

Not all of these requests are legitimate though. Although Google comply with 97% of the requests there are instances where the complainant is trying it on.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A difference of opinion

Today's Western Mail reports on yet another row over process that has erupted between the Welsh Government and their UK counterparts.

The paper quotes a senior Welsh Government source who claims that on the last two occasions when they met, David Cameron had told Carwyn Jones that the Assembly election system would not change without the consent of the people of Wales, we sought clarification from 10 Downing Street.

However this is disputed by 10 Downing Street whose spokeswoman said: “We have always been clear that we would consult on any changes to electoral arrangements for the Welsh Assembly which is what we are doing through this Green Paper.”

Personally, I am inclined to believe Number 10 and to think that Carwyn Jones heard what he wanted to hear. This is because no Minister would give such a categorical assurance in a way that would undermine their own authority.

But what is the fuss about anyway? I don't recall Labour AMs demanding that their permission be sought when Peter Hain fiddled with the system in 2006.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Push for growth

As the Secretary of State for Wales comes to the Senedd to try and sell the Queen's speech to AMs, today's Guardian reports that Nick Clegg has signalled that the coalition has plans for a "massive" increase in state-backed infrastructure investment.

They say that the deputy prime minister has said that instructions have been issued to the Treasury setting out the government's plan to use its balance sheet to inject credit into the economy, with a "massive" increase in housing and infrastructure and schemes to reduce youth unemployment in a new emphasis on growth:

In an interview with the Financial Times, Clegg said the government's "absolute priority" was to use its balance sheet to inject credit into the economy.

He denied that the plans in the pipeline signified a "plan B", stressing that the government's deficit-reduction plan had earned Britain market credibility.

Though he insisted the coalition initially had no choice but to set out "in very lurid terms the state of the emergency we were facing", he went on to concede that "that kind of language over a prolonged period of time can have a dampening effect on mood, which is very important in an economy".

Clegg admitted the use of state balance sheets to assume additional risks on major schemes was not popular with all Treasury officials.

"From the top of government, a few weeks ago we decided this was the route we're going to take," he added. "That's the instruction we've issued to the Treasury."

Downing Street said Clegg's comments reflected what David Cameron set out last week in a speech on the economy. The government was able to do this thanks to the "credible fiscal policies" that allowed it to use the balance sheet to help the economy grow and support investment, said a Downing Street spokesman.

That is very welcome news and is a stark contrast to the reheated package put forward by the Welsh Government yesterday.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Clegg on social mobility

Today's Guardian reports that after Vince Cable's success in forcing a Government climbdown on the reform of employment rights, Nick Clegg has stepped up  to the mark on social mobility.

The paper says that the Deputy Prime Minister has vowed to address the "absolute scandal" of Britain's lack of social mobility and open up a society that is "too closed" and "too static".

They add that the government has published 17 trackers to assess progress in improving life chances over the coming decades. These include school readiness, the proportion of children on free school meals achieving a "good level of development"; and the social backgrounds of pupils at 19 who achieve the AAB grades at A-level demanded by the Russell Group of universities.

Nick Clegg acknowledges that progress will be slow but is determiined to press ahead anyway:

He told ITV's Daybreak: "One of the things we are doing in these figures that we are publishing today – for the first time ever, it has never been done before – we are lifting a lid, if you like, on an absolute scandal, which is that, in our country more than many other countries, where you are born and certainly what your background is seems to determine your subsequent life."

Although he conceded that change could not be achieved overnight, Clegg said social mobility had to be factored into the education system, from pre-school to university.

He told Sky News that while the coalition was not launching an attack on the middle classes, "it's just not right that if you go into an average classroom, one in five children will be on free school meals. Go into an Oxford or Cambridge lecture theatre and only one in 100 will [have been] on free school meals."

It was, he added, a "national scandal" that some of the country's brightest children were being left behind simply because they came from poorer backgrounds.

Clegg also stressed the need for universities to think carefully about student admissions. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, he said they had "to look behind the grades an applicant has on their CV and look at the potential a youngster has to thrive at university".

While viewed with suspicion by some in the UK, he added, such an approach was "totally uncontroversial" in the US and elsewhere.

Once more the Liberal Democrats are providing the radical edge for the UK coalition.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Commonsense from Cable

Business Secretary, Vince Cable strikes a blow for commonsense this morning by blasting suggestions that Government should cut employment red tape by stripping down labour rights and making it easier for firms to sack under-performing staff as complete nonsense.

The Telegraph reports Vince as saying that he is opposed to the "ideological zealots who want to encourage British firms to fire at will":

Writing in The Sun, Mr Cable said: "Some people think that if labour rights were stripped down to the most basic minimum, employers would start hiring and the economy would soar again.

"This is complete nonsense."

He added: "British workers are an asset, not just a cost for company bosses. That is why I am opposed to the ideological zealots who want to encourage British firms to fire at will."

He added: "Those who want to shake up the law need to realise that the days in the 70s and 80s when the unions ruled the roost have long since gone.

"I talk to businesses every day and none of them tell me that their biggest obstacle to employment and growth is troublesome workers who they can't get rid of."

Another example of the Liberal Democrats fighting the ideological right in government.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Bridge

With the screening of episodes 9 and 10 of the Bridge last night, another great Scandinavian TV series ends. Apart from the rather bizarre story line, excellent script and a high standard of acting, in my view the theme music was a stand-out feature of this series.

Already there is talk of a British re-make in partnership with French TV, which does not quite work for me. largely because the major differences in language and culture. I think it is best left alone.

 I quite enjoyed this spoof report of a re-make though in which the initial setting will be the Severn Bridge. Entitled Bridge | Bont it is suggested that this will be a co-production between BBC Bristol (former location for the production of Casualty) and BBC Wales (new location for Casualty):

 The first victim, a camel-backed cat (CBC), will be found directly on the borderline between England and Wales on the second Severn Bridge (the newer, smart one). Spurred into action by a series of 999 calls, Bristol’s top detective Martin Portishead (Dominic West reviving his west country burr from Appropriate Adult) will meet and clash with Caldicot’s top and last-ever-on-the-beat-in-Wales copper, the blonde Stori Morgan-Jones (Joanna Page), in the middle of the bridge. 

When it becomes obvious that exhibit CBC is not the only victim, social justice is identified as the compelling motive for further crimes where someone calling himself ‘No4Toll’ seeks to end the exorbitant tolls for entry into Wales after crossing the bridge. Soon, members of the media are frenzied by No4Toll’s calling cards, as members of high government are traumatised by his threats.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Plaid leader snubbed

New Plaid Cymru Leader, Leanne Wood's avowed intention to form a united front against public spending cuts received a setback yesterday, when the sort of tribalism she is seeking to combat kicked in and the Unite union rejected her advances.

According to the BBC  Andy Richards, who is Wales secretary of Unite, accused her of an "opportunistic publicity stunt", believing that somehow next week's Wales TUC conference in Llandudno is of national significance and will command the attention of the entire Welsh nation.

In fact it won't and to be fair to the Plaid Cymru leader, making such a suggestion just before a major gathering of this kind was both reasonable and well-timed. After all what better forum is there for trade unionists to discuss how they should work with other parties to achieve their aims.

The reaction of the Wales Labour Party to Leanne Wood's advances can only be described as vitriolic. According to the Western Mail a spokesperson said:

“Welsh Labour remains proud as ever of its long and deep-rooted bond with its affiliated Trade Unions, and we were disgusted by Leanne Wood’s inaccurate and vindictive attack on the good work they do.

“But people in Wales will see her claims for what they are – the grubby politics of a leader who has already lost her way, and the support of much of her party.

“There are many reasons why trade unions remain deeply suspicious of Plaid Cymru. Plaid’s threat of separation, threat to the UK economy, threatening to tear up pay bargaining arrangements, telling lies about the Welsh Union Learning Fund, and calling development grants for working people ‘bribery’ are just some of them.”

An objective observer might wonder what exactly Labour are worried about given their overwhelming success in local elections earlier this month.

Where Plaid Cymru go from here is unclear. Labour too have inadvertently dug themselves into a hole.

The building of a progressive alliance on which Leanne Wood has based her leadership seems to be dead and buried already. When one adds onto this her poor performances in the Assembly chamber and doubts and uncertainty amongst many Plaid Cymru members about the way she is conducting herself, Leanne Wood looks to be in trouble already, even before her honeymoon period is over.

Labour too appear to have commited a tactical error in the vehemence of their response. Clearly, there is no love lost amongst the former coalition partners, but the rift between them is growing wider.

Labour do not have a majority in the Assembly chamber and need to work with other parties to get things done. All they have succeeded in doing this week is to close down their options and hand a stronger negotiating hand to the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Monmouth on-line

As Facebook floats its shares on the stock market, an equally as significant landmark event prepares to get underway on the interweb. ABC news 10, which rather bizarrely appears to be reporting from London, says that the Welsh town of Momouth, birthplace of Henry V and historical market town, is about to become the world's first "Wikipedia town.":

Wikimedia UK, which works to support, develop and promote Wikimedia Foundation projects such as Wikipedia, says that when it launches its experiment in Monmouth on Saturday, hundreds of articles about the life and history of the town in southeast Wales will be available online in more than 26 languages.

The idea is for smartphone users to scan the barcodes on places such as churches and pubs to learn their history.

The tourism potential is huge. This is an experiment that will be worth watching.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Taking the Biscuit

Today's Telegraph contains an astonishing story about the UK Energy Minister, Greg Barker, whose responsiblities include tackling climate change. They say that Mr. Barker upset his colleagues by using the office microwave to heat a cushion for his pet dachshund Otto.
The paper says that Mr Barker, who is understood to bring the dog to work at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), reportedly put Otto's puppy warmer in the same microwave used by staff to heat their lunches.
"When [he] first arrived we had to watch our step, as the dog wandered around the office," a source told the Daily Mail.
"We put up with that. But when he started using our microwave to keep the dog nice and snug with a heated cushion, it proved he thinks more of the dog than us.
"Some refused to use [the microwave] because of hygiene worries."
The five-month-old dog has recently attended a meeting with the heads of energy firms and soiled the carpet during a visit by Mr Barker's Colombian counterpart.
They add that Palace of Westminster rules ban all but police and guide dogs from Parliament after a pet soiled the carpet in the Commons in the 80s.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The wrong sort of wind

I answered a question as an Assembly Commissioner a few weeks ago regarding the use of the Assembly estate for growing our own produce. Alas, the Welsh Parliament is situated in a concrete jungle but apparently we do grow our own herbs on one of the Senedd balconies. Naturally, this answer was met with some incredulity and laughter but nowhere near as much as that which Immigration Minister, Damian Green now faces after his explanation for extensive queues at passport control in Heathrow Airport.

As the Independent says, Mr. Green yesterday acknowledged that huge queues at the airport may be damaging Britain's reputation abroad. However, he risked ridicule when he told MPs that the length of time non-European passengers waited to have their passports checked could depend on the direction in which the wind was blowing at the time:

Mr Green told the Commons home affairs select committee yesterday that the extra 70 staff were to be recruited by September to cover for immigration officers taking leave after the end of the London Olympics.

Ministers had intended to appoint the officers in 2014, when building work on Heathrow's Terminal 2 is due to be completed, but the plans have been rushed forward to cope with foreign students arriving in Britain for the new academic year.

Mr Green said: "We have brought forward the first wave of recruitment for the reopening of Terminal 2 to give the border force even more flexibility to secure the border while dealing with record passenger numbers at Heathrow."

The committee chairman, Keith Vaz, told him that UK airports received poor ratings from travellers compared with international competitors and asked whether Britain was suffering "reputational damage" as a result of Heathrow's problems. Mr Green replied: "It's a worry for the Government."

But the minister also said some of the causes of delays were beyond the power of any organisation to tackle. "That will depend on the wind, over which, with the best will in the world, airlines and the Border Force don't have the control," he said.

Yet another problem for the Government to get to grips with.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Missing the point

Today's Western Mail leads on a lecture by the Welsh Education Minister in which he indulges in the language of class war to attack his UK counterparts. Leighton Andrews attacked the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government’s record on education and welfare reform and accused it of a policy of “English exceptionalism” and a failure to consult with the devolved administrations that can be traced back to the public school system.

It certainly got the headlines, even though the direction of welfare reform has the broad support of the UK Labour Party whilst outcomes for pupils in England continue to be better than those for Welsh school children.

The problems with the Welsh education system were highlighted in stark terms in the same paper. They reported that the Welsh Schools Inspectorate, Estyn believe that secondary schools in Wales are not doing enough to promote key skills in the classroom.

They believe that more needs to be done to make sure children aged between 11 and 14 in Welsh schools are developing core communication, numeracy and thinking skills. They say that despite “good opportunities” to develop key skills across all subjects, very few schools have a “coherent and well-planned” approach to their delivery. They were also critical of the Welsh Government’s Skills Framework, which “does not significantly influence planning in most secondary schools”.

The Welsh Education Minister needs to put his own house in order before criticising others.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Oxymorons unlimited

As a party politician I have always been troubled by the concept of an independent, largely because I have never been clear what one is. Obviously, I would expect somebody who considers themselves to be an independent to avoid party whips, but surely that is not enough. What do they stand for? What are their politics and what values do they bring to policy decisions?

More confusing still is the very common scenario when independents form official groups, presumably involving whips and group discipline. At that point what shred of independence they might have left disappears. An independent group is an oxymoron.

Imagine my amusement therefore to read on the BBC today that two groups of independents on Powys County Council have failed to form an administration because there are "fundamental differences" between them. Is that fundamental differences between individual independents or between the two oxymoronic groups? And how can a group of independents have a mandate when by definition they will not have a common manifesto?

My head is hurting just thinking about it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A mounting crisis

Yesterday's Telegraph reported on a crisis in social care that has been building up over decades simply because successive governments have avoided making difficult decisions or have decided that solutions are too expensive.

They highlight new research that shows that Britain's crisis over caring for the elderly is mounting because of a combination of rising costs and falling house prices. The study concludes that the average proceeds from selling a home now pays for just five years of care, compared with seven years in 2007. For those in nursing homes, assets are drained yet more quickly - in three years, eight months. Five years ago, the same property sale would have funded almost five years' nursing care.

When it came to power, the Coalition decided that it wanted to change the system urgently so to reduce the cost burden to individuals, and so set up an independent commission led by economist Andrew Dilnot, which reported last July. However, last week's Queen's Speech included a new draft bill on social care, but with no commitment to changing the funding system.

The paper says that it is understood that the Treasury is blocking the Dilnot reforms because of their projected £1.7 billion cost:

Michelle Mitchell, Charity Director General of Age UK said the findings demonstrated a "perfect storm" facing older generations, with increasing numbers losing almost everything they had worked for over a lifetime.

Each year, around 20,000 people a year are forced to sell their homes to pay for care, with one in 10 of those in care homes facing total bills of more than £100,000.

Mr Dilnot's commission recommended the capping of costs at between £35,000 and £50,000 per person, with the state paying the rest.

It also called for new means-testing thresholds, so that £100,000 could be kept in savings and assets, instead of the current cut-off of £23,500.

Mr Dilnot said: "The system of care and support is broken and it desperately needs reform - and that has been recognised by all the political parties and stakeholders. Now is the time to do it."

He said Britain should be able to celebrate the fact its population was living longer, and to build systems which supported them.

"We need a system in which people are not frightened of the future and are able to prepare for it," he said.

An issue to raise with the Secretary of State for Wales when she comes to the Assembly for the debate on the Queen's speech perhaps.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Looking after the carers

Today's Telegraph provides further evidence that despite all the Labour propaganda about the government looking after the rich, there are many measures being brought in for those who are less fortunate. The paper reports that the UK Coalition is proposing that millions of mothers who have chosen to take time out of work will no longer be penalised once they are pensioners.

They say that at the moment, people who do not work for 30 years do not qualify for the full basic state pension. Under the reforms, mothers and carers will be treated as if they had worked throughout their lives, benefiting them by £2,000 a year:

Mr Duncan Smith said women would be the "major winners" in the reformed system, which will mean that everyone who works or looks after others will receive a flat-rate payment worth at least £140 a week. 

The measure will be applied to women who retire from 2015, giving an average of £40 extra a week to mothers who took time out of work. Currently, they receive a reduced entitlement for each year out of employment.

However, the changes will prevent people from "opting out" of the additional state pension and putting the extra money into a company scheme. They will not receive a discount in their National Insurance contributions, so the value of their pensions may fall.

Mr Duncan Smith defended the change, saying it would leave most workers better off and provide a far simpler system. He said the current system was "chaotic".

Nobody understands how it works," he said. "It acts as a major disincentive to save. It penalises women, just for doing the most important thing in the world, which is to make sure that their families (are cared for)."

The Government will publish the full details of the pension reform in the coming weeks.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On the local elections

I have written on the Welsh Liberal Democrats performance in the Welsh local council elections here.

A question of timing?

The Welsh Government is quite right when it told the BBC yesterday that there is no appetite for a bigger Assembly with 80 AMs. They were responding to the assertion by the Presiding Officer that there are not enough Assembly Members to do the job they were elected to do properly.

Rosemary Butler added that "If you take out the government it does reduce the number of members available to do the work quite considerably.

"I'm not saying we won't manage it, because we'll do it and we'll do it very well. But you ask me the question did I think there should be more assembly members, I think there should.

"Many of the city councils and county councils in Wales have far more members than we do and far less responsibility."

Considering that at the same time as she was calling for a bigger Assembly, the Presiding Officer was also being forced to deny that there is a 'drinking culture' in Cardiff Bay, her timing was strange to say the least. At a time of austerity the last thing that anybody is going to support is more politicians.

The workload is high but I believe we would do better to just get on with doing the job and leave any talk of expanding the Assembly until we have proved we can make a real difference with our new powers.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Vince works to reduce executive pay

The Telegraph reports that fund managers from companies including Aviva and BlackRock held discussions with the Business Secretary, who has suggested that company pay policies should be backed by up to 75pc of shareholders.

The paper says that Glencore, Standard Chartered and Unilever were among the FTSE 100 groups to hold investor meetings. Shareholder revolts have already claimed the scalps of three blue-chip chief executives, including Aviva's Andrew Moss earlier this week.

The Queen's speech contained a commitment to make shareholder votes on remuneration binding. Clearly the government is moving to contain the excesses that have characterised big companies in the private sector in the past.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Ken at large

Now that he has announced that he will not seek election again, Ken Livingstone seems to be concentrating on reshaping the Labour Party. The Telegraph reports that he has criticised Labour leader Ed Milliband for "carrying the discredited old Blairite wing with him".

In an intervention that may not entirely be welcomed by the Labour leader, Ken said: "For 30 years, Britain has taken a wrong turning. Inequality of wealth has doubled. We were told if we deregulated, if we liberated the banks, the whole economy would rise and there would be a trickle-down effect.

"Sadly, Tony Blair bought into that, New Labour bought into that. I think we are at a turning point in politics now. We have to make something that somebody wants to buy, we won't just be able to rip off a bit of commission on all the financial transactions.

"I think a lot of the disillusion amongst working-class people, whatever their colour, is that the last Labour government didn't create good jobs for working-class people."

Mr Livingstone added: "If I have one criticism of Ed Miliband - and as well as being a friend, I think he is genuinely a Labour leader who will transform Britain in a way that we haven't seen for a very long time - (it) is that I think he is far too concerned about carrying the discredited old Blairite wing with him."

Could this be the start of a new crusade by the former London Mayor?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Making the point

The fallout from the local government elections continues in today's media, perhaps magnified by the fact that the government is made up of two parties not just the one. The Independent says that whilst Nick Clegg and David Cameron are seeking to relaunch the coalition (or not depending who you talk to), noises off in both parties continue to seek to attach blame.

The paper says that Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' deputy leader, yesterday accused Conservative MPs who oppose the Coalition of believing they were "born to rule". He was responding to those MPs who have demanded a traditional Tory agenda and who have urged Mr Cameron to stop giving in to Mr Clegg, claiming the Liberal Democrat tail was wagging the Coalition dog:

Mr Hughes laid bare the simmering tensions between the two parties by blaming their poor local election results last week on George Osborne's insistence on cutting the 50p top rate of tax on incomes over £150,000. He even claimed the Chancellor now probably realised it was a "mistake" because it overshadowed the Liberal Democrats' policy to raise tax thresholds for 24 million people.

About 20 Tory MPs defied Mr Cameron by issuing an alternative programme for government – part of a campaign to urge the Prime Minister to make fewer policy concessions to the Liberal Democrats. But Mr Hughes reminded Tory rebels that their party had failed to win a majority at the 2010 election.

"It may be uncomfortable for the Tories, some of whom think they're born to rule but, unfortunately, the electorate didn't agree with them," he told BBC Radio 4's World At One. He also suggested that the Liberal Democrats had been more united and disciplined than the Tories since last week's election drubbing for both Coalition parties.

This analysis very much reflects my own. It is important that the government take note.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Keeping our distance

It would be nice if Nick Clegg made more of the fact that of all the political parties, it was the Liberal Democrats who kept Rupert Murdoch and News International at the end of a very long stick. In contrast both Labour and the Tories seem to be up to their necks in mire.

This news item in today's Telegraph underlines that point. They report on claims that Andy Coulson held shares in News Corporation while he worked in Downing Street as a senior adviser to the Prime Minister. They suggest that this holding means that the fomer No 10 communications director would have profited from the Murdoch film's full takeover of BSkyB,and that this raises questions over potential conflicts of interest.

According to the Independent on Sunday, Mr Coulson is believed to have been given the shares as part of his leaving package from the News of the World.

It also puts a new slant on Vince Cable's faux pas when he let slip to undercover reporters that he was opposed to the takeover of BSkyB, something that he feels that he can now talk about:

In an interview with Sky on Sunday, the Business Secretary Vince Cable said he felt “vindicated” by his stance on BSkyB.

“I certainly do feel vindicated, and I certainly dealt with it in an entirely proper and fair way,” said Mr Cable, who said he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch in 2010.

Mr Cable decided not to resign from the government following the publication of his remarks and, at the time, said that he apologised for the embarrassment and “fully” accepted Mr Cameron’s decision to hand the quasi-judicial role on the BSkyB deal to the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

It is time other Liberal Democrat Ministers were more vocal in condemning the way that successive Labour and Conservative governments cosied up to Rupert Murdoch.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Game for a laugh

The Spin Doctor column in today's Wales on Sunday has a bit of a laugh at my expense by quoting my colleagues' playful ribbing of me during last Wednesday's Plenary debate on local government:.

Finally, much of what we believe is termed “banter” in the Senedd last week, as a ludicrous Liberal Democrat-called debate on the brilliance of Liberal Democrats councils degenerated into discussion of their finance spokesman Peter Black’s ties and sense of humour.

“I must say that when I saw the motion I had already come to the conclusion, with respect, that my colleague’s sense of humour is almost as colourful as his ties,” said Conservative Shadow Local Government Minister Janet Finch-Saunders.

Lib Dem business spokesman Eluned Parrott demurred: “I also dreamt that someone accused Peter Black of having a sense of humour, but that is not the case, as far as we are aware."

Mr Black’s leader Kirsty Williams agreed. “I am afraid that she is wrong: Peter Black does not have a sense of humour, and there is nothing funny about the ties that he wears,” she ruled. Hashtag lol!

If I didn't have a sense of humour then why would I wear those ties in the first place?

Naming the names

Like many Liberal Democrat activists I received an e-mail from Nick Clegg yesterday entitled "Our values remain strong".

The e-mail started 'Dear –name--,'!

At least I am a name and not a number.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Going it alone

News websites have a fair smattering of articles such as this one today, in which some random Tory MP demands that the Prime Minister rediscover his conservative roots, ditch the Liberal Democrats or just applies a little discipline to the boy Clegg in an effort to reverse their party's decline in the polls.

What they are succeeding in doing of course is highlighting how strong the Liberal Democrat influence is on the Government, moderating the worse aspects of Toryism and ensuring that key tax cutting policies for low earners remain in place. It is shame that the country at large do not appear to be listening.

What is most puzzling is how little these Tory MPs are listening to their electorate themselves. The biggest factor on the doorsteps, which persuaded Liberal Democrats and Conservative voters to stay at home on Thursday was the cut in the top rate in income tax to 45% which the Tories insisted on.

Those Tory MPs who want to continue with these sort of policies rather than the Liberal Democrat aim of taking poorer people out of income tax altogether, really need to get out more.

Friday, May 04, 2012


I am too tired to provide a substantive post today, least of all on the local council elections. Two publications, one of which is on-line, have asked me to write a piece on yesterday's events so I am not dodging the issue. When I do it I will either post it here or provide a link.

For now I am just going to note the rather unusual outcome of seven Council leaders losing their seats. They represented parties from all parts of the political spectrum.

Was this the result of a decapitation strategy on the part of their opposition or just coincidence? I suspect the former.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Electoral consequences

As voters go to the polls across Wales, Scotland and much of England today to cast a verdict on their local council, Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph writes that this Sunday's election across the channel could have far-more devastating consequences for the UK Government than the predicted loss of council seats for Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

He says that the prospect of a change in the Élysée has set off alarms in the Foreign Office, the Treasury and Downing Street this week:

They fear a triumph for Europe’s least-modernised Left will trigger another round of uncertainty about the future of the euro that will add to the woes of the British economy. They worry, too, that Britain will lose a valuable Atlanticist ally: Mr Hollande has vowed to rush for the exit in Afghanistan, and while Franco-British defence cooperation will continue, it is hard to imagine him joining Mr Cameron in taking on Muammar Gaddafi.

Most alarming of all, ministers can see that the groundswell of opposition to austerity that has built up in Europe threatens to sweep away the economic consensus that George Osborne put at the centre of his economic policy. It already looks shaky in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, and has been knocked back in the Netherlands. A victory for Mr Hollande would be a monumental fillip for those arguing for more state borrowing to boost growth, and more taxes instead of less spending to contain ballooning deficits. It is bad enough that even Mario Draghi, the governor of the European Central Bank, has called for a growth pact; Mr Hollande has demanded a renegotiation of the euro treaty if he wins, and will try to tilt the EU’s Franco-German motor away from austerity and towards stimulus by borrowing. Ed Balls will be delighted.

Westminster may be distracted by the Leveson circus, but a socialist win across the Channel should strike fear into the Conservatives, who can ill afford to have French politics demonstrate what can happen to an incumbent who loses touch with the electorate, or how a political nerd can tap in to public disquiet about the role of elites in politics. A win for Mr Hollande is a morale boost for Ed Miliband.

These really are interesting times.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A good day to be a Liberal Democrat

Mark Pack highlights one of the successes of the Liberal Democrats in Government with the coming into law yesterday of the Freedoms Bill. He quotes Liberal Democrat MP, Tom Brake, who said this: “brings to fruition proposals which were first drawn up by Nick Clegg four years ago, and demonstrates our commitment to rolling back unnecessary and intrusive laws introduced by Labour”.

Key provisions of the Bill include the enactment of some previously announced decisions alongside some new, additional proposals:

■an end to the routine monitoring of 9.3 million people under the radically reformed vetting and barring scheme

■millions of householders protected from town hall snoopers checking their bins or school catchment area

■the scrapping of Section 44 powers, which have been used to stop and search hundreds of thousands of innocent people

■the permanent reduction of the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects to 14 days

■DNA samples and fingerprints of hundreds of thousands of innocent people deleted from police databases

■thousands of gay men able to clear their name with the removal of out-of-date convictions for consensual acts

■thousands of motorists protected from rogue wheel clamping firms

■an end to the fingerprinting of children in schools without parental consent

■the introduction of a code of practice for CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems (overseen by a new Surveillance Camera Commissioner) to make them more proportionate and effective

■restrictions on the powers of government departments, local authorities and other public bodies to enter private homes and other premises for investigations and a requirement for all to examine and slim down remaining powers

■the repeal of powers to hold serious and complex fraud trials without a jury

■the extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act and strengthening the public rights to data

It was the fact that many of the provisions that have been repealed were introduced by Labour that made them so toxic to Liberals and libertarians.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

No quid pro quo

Today's Telegraph reports that not one US citizen has been extradited to Britain as a result of crimes said to have been committed in America since a controversial transatlantic treaty came into force.

According to the Home Office: “From the information available, between January 2004 and 30 March 2012, there have been seven known US citizens extradited from the US to the UK. Of those seven, none have been identified as crimes which were committed whilst the person was in the US.”

This shocking state of affairs comes about due to legislation, which I believe that the Liberal Democrats were alone in opposing. It certainly smacks of double standards and underlines the bizarre situation whereas the US is almost unique in the world today in being able to accuse somebody of breaking US law who has never set foot in the US.

Surely it is time to review this law.

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