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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The thin blue line

One of the new features arising from the Olympics is a regular e-mail letter from the Deputy Chief Constable of South Wales Police to all Assembly Members, MPs, Police Authority Members and the Welsh Government updating us on issues that may arise in the policing of the games.

Yesterday's letter outlined how the public appreciate the intervention of South Wales Police Officers in Cardiff and in local communities around London. It is well-deserved praise for a group of committed and dedicated officers:

I would like to share with you some of the Social media comments we have received to date:-

“Jlry71 – ahappyidder @swpolice and transport police doing an excellent job in Cardiff”

Keith Phillip Jones @ Great Society64 “Good work by @swpolice in Cardiff as Olympic Games begin. One of St. Mary’s Street dancing policeman chatted to my son who was thrilled”

“theFluteEditor - @swpolice@london2012 Was in Cardiff today-police everywhere, all So friendly and nice! Good experience, great atmosphere well done Cardiff”

D Howells @mrdrh - @swpolice kudos to your officers today, really good natured (despite the heat) and very visible. Good job.”

Also, as you may be aware as part of our support and commitment to the Olympic Games we have deployed a number of our police officers to London to assist the Metropolitan Police with the policing of any public order incidents. This is a sample of the feedback that we have received from their deployment last weekend.


I have just returned from the above deployment where I was the PSU commander for the PSU that was sent to London to assist with the policing of the build up to the Olympics. The PSU comprised of one van from Western, one from Central and one from Northern.

I wish to highlight their dedication and hard work for the deployment which only sought to enhance the excellent reputation of South Wales Police that has been built during previous mutual aid deployments across the country.

Officers were mainly welcomed by the locals who seemed surprised to see officers patrolling on foot in the area, it was even commented by a person from the Brixton Housing office ‘don’t you know it is rough around here!’

On Saturday 21st July, the PSU was deployed to Tower Hamlets where there had been reports of Greenpeace targeting a local Shell petrol station, there was also concerns about protesters targeting the route that the Torch relay would be taking later in the day. Officers were again deployed on foot and engaged with members of the public, there were no incidents reported.

South Wales officers came into their own; their engagement with the crowds was excellent, they had photographs with hundreds of people along the route and generally left the crowds smiling as they left. The amount of people who said ‘the MET wouldn’t do this….’ was surprising. A Bronze Superintendent said “I see South Wales look smart, professional and engaging with people, having photos taken! Is there anyway you could bottle that up and send it up to us!”

It is a compelling testimonial and of great credit to the officers concerned, their commanding officers and the South Wales force. But what does it say about the Metropolitan Police?

Monday, July 30, 2012

It's all Twitter's fault

Nobody expects an event as vast and as sophisticated as the Olympics to go to plan all the time. Inevitably there are going to be some mistakes and disasters. In the spirit of the games though we work through them and enjoy the sport.

Still, I did do a double take when I saw this headline in yesterday's Independent. It seems that Olympic officials are blaming Twitter for a series of computer glitches that led to shambolic television coverage of the men’s road race on Saturday. The paper says that BBC presenters struggled to work out who was leading the nail biting race because GPS data containing the competitors’ progress was delayed:

Each competitor rides a bike with a GPS chip inside it which transmits vital data that charts their progress. But so many people turned out to see the race that the mobile network became overwhelmed.

IOC communications director Mark Adams called on spectators to think about how often they use their phones during popular events. “We don't want to stop people engaging in this by social media and sending updates,” he said, “But perhaps they might consider only sending urgent updates.“

Seriously? What world does this guy live in? This is the 21st Century, Everybody is using their mobile phones to text, tweet, update Facebook and send photographs to friends and family. Maybe, the Olympic technicians need to find a solution for their problem that does not involve feeble requests to spectators to stop doing what comes naturally.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Another brilliant Private Eye cover

I could not resist putting this up given the controversy around product placement and the way that small retailers in particular have had a hard time from trading standards as a result of draconian legislation passed so as to facilitate the Olympics.

Could the French prove a cautionary tale for Miliband

In today's Observer, Andrew Rawnsley writes about Ed Miliband's struggle to gain credibility as a future Prime Minister and acceptance of Labour's as-yet unspecified alternative approach to the economy. He says that although Francois Hollande is a good international role model to whom the Labour leader can point as a successful socialist President, he needs to beware a changing mood in France:

It is very important to Labour that it has now edged ahead of the Conservatives on the crucial question: "Who do you most trust to run the economy?" But thoughtful Labour people, including people close to Mr Miliband, acknowledge that this is a "soft" advantage that has more to do with declining public confidence in the coalition's economic strategy than a settled conviction among the voters that Labour has the right answers. Labour is currently very quiet on how it would address the deficit beyond saying that it wouldn't be cutting the way the government is cutting. By the time of the next election, it will have to look fiscally credible and have robust answers on tax and spend, terrain that has been a minefield for Labour in the past.

Here the example of Monsieur Hollande is not so much inspirational as cautionary for the Labour leader. The French president's poll ratings are already beginning to droop now that he has to square his more extravagant campaign promises with the reality of governing during austerity. If the French and other continental social democrats can demonstrate a way out of the economic cul-de-sac in which Europe is stuck, then this ought to be good news for Labour. But if it all goes horribly wrong for Monsieur Hollande, it will not be Ed Miliband but David Cameron who will be giving French lessons to the British electorate.

Economic realities were recognised by the previous Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer. Alistair Darling, who planned an austerity programme very similar to that currently being deployed by the UK Coalition.

Labour need to get real and specific if they are to convince voters that there really is another way. Because as Monsieur Hollande has demonstrated, once you are in power, all the promises mean nothing in the face of the very real pressures of Government.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Exploiting the #Romneyshambles

Mitt Romney's gaffs in the UK have made a big impression across the pond and already the Democrats are using them against him.

Whose national anthem?

There is an interesting postscript to this post in Rhodri Morgan's Western Mail column this morning. He writes:

John Penrose, Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare and UK Minister for Tourism put his Mitt Romney style-foot right in it, a week ago, in asserting that God Save the Queen was the ‘only’ National Anthem in the UK. The others were only ‘national songs’.

Well I can tell Mr. Penrose that whatever he thinks about the issue, the Queen definitely thinks Hen Wlad fy Nhadau is the Welsh National Anthem. I know this because one of those officiating at the special service at Westminster Abbey commemorating the 400th Anniversary of Bishop William Morgan’s Welsh Bible, passed on to me a very telling comment she made as she and the Duke of Edinburgh left the Abbey. She observed ‘I couldn’t help noticing that they sang THEIR National Anthem far more enthusiastically than they sang mine!’


The Queen meets James Bond

This was by far the stand-out moment of last night's Olympics opening ceremony.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jeremy Hunt - the remix

Daily Mail wakes up to devolution

The decision to form a GB Football Team has been hugely controversial in Wales, where there have been concerns that it will lead to the Welsh football team losing its right to play in international tournaments.

Twelve years of devolution has raised national awareness here and that has underlined those concerns. Many people, who would have described themselves as British before, now think of themselves as Welsh first and British second.

There has been little understanding of these issues amongst Olympic and UK Football officials. There has been even less understanding in the UK media. So you will have to excuse me if I take a perverse pleasure in the Daily Mail's outrage that some Welsh and Scottish players refused to sing along to God save the Queen at the opening match.

To the non-English players this is a chance to play in an International tournament for the first time. It is for that reason that I have not resented too much their decision to go. The politics of their decision is a secondary factor to them.

If though they have upset the Daily Mail this much, so early in the tournament, then maybe it was worth it just for that.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Customers lose out again as British Gas profits rise

Today's Western Mail reports that the owner of British Gas has increased profits at its residential arm by 23%. Centrica say that profits at British Gas Residential, which has 15.8 million energy accounts in the UK, lifted to £345 million in the six months to June 30 after volumes were boosted by the cool start to the summer.

The paper adds that the UK’s biggest energy supplier also benefited from higher prices because, while it dropped its standard electricity prices by 5% in January, this did not cancel out a 16% rise in August, when gas bills also went up by 18%.

Like Consumer Focus I have been saying for some time that utility companies are quick to pass on rising wholesale costs to consumers but slow to drop prices when they fall. It is little wonder that profits rise whilst fuel poverty continues to grow.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The myth of Cardiff Bay-Westminster relationships

It looks like former UK Minister and ex-Pontypridd MP, Kim Howells is not going to be the Welsh Education Minister's favourite person today, after some typically frank revelations in today's Western Mail.

Mr. Howells confirms what we all suspected that Tony Blair’s government deliberately ignored the contentious issue of Welsh and Scottish MPs voting on English laws when drawing up devolution plans, but then goes on to take a shot at his own party’s record in power at Cardiff Bay, questioning educational attainment and suggesting a separate “Welsh way” was being pursued for the sake of it:

He said: “We haven’t struggled along very well. We’ve seen educational standards in Wales decline. There’s a crisis in universities where everybody’s trying to merge every university in Wales.

“These are issues which shouldn’t be closed off to Wales, and they’re a direct consequence of what’s happened to education in Britain.

“I did the higher education ministerial job twice and it grieved me to see the way to hear so often people say ‘well, this is the Welsh way’, as if somehow we could invent a completely new system for educating our children and young people.

“And of course it hit the rocks when the universities announced that they could not carry on with the finances as they were and they would have to bang up students’ tuition fees very significantly, and Wales was faced with a problem.”

Kim Howells then goes on to explode the myth that relations between the Welsh Government and their UK counterparts have hit and all-time low since May 2010. In fact they are just as bad as they have always been:

“I was a minister throughout the Blair and Brown administrations, until Brown and I fell out pretty bitterly, and I never once visited the Welsh Assembly, and I worked in six different departments,” he said.

“So there’s a lot of talk about cooperation, but I’m not sure.”

I am not going to pretend that it is any different today but it is worth pointing out that whereas Gordon Brown also did not visit the Assembly once and only came to Wales once as Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has been here eleven times.

If there is one party that lacks respect for Wales and its sovereignty, then it is Labour.

Dirty tactics in US politics

An American blog reports on the tactics of one Democratic candidate in Connecticut who, they say is employing dubious tactics in her attempt to get her party's nomination for a safe Senate seat.  They say that Senate candidate Susan Bysiewicz (who is trying to replace Senator Joe Liebermann who is retiring) is running an attack TV ad against her opponent, Chris Murphy, that is demonstrably false. What is most bizarre is that her campaign team have admitted that the advert is misdirected and yet they continue to run it.

The blog says that the problem is that the main claim in the ad, “He’s taken more hedge fund money than any other Democrat in Congress” is patently and verifiably false:

The SuBy campaign apparently targeted the wrong Murphy. They were called on it, admitted the charge was false but said the ad would still run. Is this what it’s come to? A campaign admits it’s running a false ad yet won’t take it down? Pathetic. Murphy asked the TV stations running the ad to pull it under these unique circumstances. Apparently, they can’t (which is an entirely different problem).

Only in America? Well, clearly not in the light of some of the literature put out during the last local elections in Swansea.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cash in hand

Comments by Exchequer Secretary David Gauke that it is “morally wrong” for householders to pay tradesmen in cash will certainly not be popular with plumbers, builders and electricians or even householders who do not see why the tax affairs of tradesmen should be their concern.

The real problem though is that the Government has still not sorted out those at the other end of the income scale who are using tax schemes to avoid paying their dues.

Although Mr. Gauke is absolutely right in what he says, many will wonder whether he has got his priorities right.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nine years

The first post on this blog was made on 21 July 2003 and was about the Royal Welsh Show.

Today, I am off to the Royal Welsh Show again and so won't have time to post. However, nine years of blogging is a long time. This site remains the second longest continuous blog by an elected official.

I will be back tomorrow.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

G4S disaster will have little impact on company

Today's Observer suggests that security company G4S's disastrous Olympics may well have reputational consequences for it but that the security group makes so much money in the private sector and developing world that it will hardly notice.

They say that before the Olympics catastrophe, G4S had already announced that it saw a future away from the UK and the apparent cash cow of Whitehall contracts, stating that it planned to earn half its worldwide revenues from emerging markets in Africa and Asia. They add that the company already makes more money from developing countries (£1.84bn in 2011) than it does from the UK (£1.25bn), while it holds more government contracts in the US than it does in Britain.

Even more depressingly, the paper adds that while G4S might struggle in the short term to get UK government contracts, a little-known piece of legislation could provide an additional boost to its revenues in the private sector:

Currently, any employer that needs security staff – a doorman, say, or a CCTV operator – does not need accreditation from the Security Industry Authority (SIA) for having such employees.

However, after lobbying by major security firms, the government is set to change the law, making it mandatory for any company whose business involves a security aspect to get an expensive SIA licence from the Home Office.

Paul Russell, a security consultant, explains that small businesses with minimal security operations will turn to outsourcing firms like G4S because of the potentially huge cost of applying for a company licence.

He says: "When it becomes mandatory for companies to have SIA licences for their in-house security officers, there will be a rush to outsource the work."

He also believes that as more businesses and governments turn to outsourcing across whole areas of their organisations, G4S will naturally expand. "Clients want an easy time, so they think: 'We'll give this contract to the biggest company because they must know what they're doing'.

"Companies like G4S are now also expanding and offering a one-stop shop security facilities service, which smaller security firms simply cannot match."

Therefore, assuming there are no major security breaches during the Olympics, G4S could confidently call this nothing more than a minor blip, resulting in a bruised UK reputation and the hasty scrapping of its new "Proudly protecting the London Olympics" letterhead.

That's because the company could quite easily continue to make billions outside the UK by filling cash machines in India or offering personal security in Sierra Leone. And despite all the bluster from parliament, none of G4S's government contracts, either current or in the pipeline, have yet been cancelled.

Is there no justice at all?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Leanne Wood bottles it

As internal party crises go the will they, won't they saga around Dafydd Elis Thomas' membership of the Plaid Cymru group had the potential to be pretty big.

Having decided to take action against the former Presiding Officer for absenting himself from a no confidence vote in the health minister and then being publicly ultra critical of Plaid's role in tabling that motion, Leanne Wood and her advisors set in train a series of events that may well have led to Dafydd Elis Thomas leaving the party altogether. There was even speculation that he would become a Minister in the Welsh Government, giving Labour their long-sought after majority.

However, it seems that the Plaid Cymru leader has met her match. It is possible that she did not think through the consequences of her actions in withdrawing the whip from her former leadership rival and setting up a disciplinary panel, but either way she clearly did not count on the level of support Dafydd managed to garner within the party for his simple proposition that Plaid Cymru should not be the poodles of the Tory Party.

Once Dafydd El's constituency party had backed him, Leanne really had only two possible courses of action, she could brazen it out and drive him out of the party or she could back down. She chose the latter course and in doing so undermined her own authority as leader.

There is no doubt in my view that Leanne has miscalculated badly. She has been out-thought and out-witted by one of the wiliest politicians in Wales. It is difficult then to take much of her statement as to the future behaviour of her group seriously. She says:

"In future therefore, if the Plaid Cymru group collectively chooses to support an issue and a campaign, I expect all members to unite behind that, unless they are willing to come to the group and explain and discuss why they are unable to do so. It is not and never will be acceptable that statements are made to the press before they are shared within the party team. The party has always valued its unity of purpose. The whip has never before been withdrawn from an elected member of Plaid Cymru. I do not expect, and will not accept, the party being placed in this position again.

"I also expect all Plaid Cymru elected representatives always to put their roles and responsibilities in that capacity first and foremost above all other interests and duties. Their constituents and the members of Plaid Cymru expect no less.

"So this is how we are going to operate – out of courtesy to each other and out of respect to those who elected us.

Her failure to act this time is an invitation to others to defy her again. After all who can believe she is serious about enforcing these rules when she has bottled it once?  The Plaid leadership has shown itself to be weak and not in control of the party. The Welsh Labour Government must be laughing all the way to the recess.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Carwyn comes over all West Wing

It seems that the First Minister unveiled a new media briefing room in Cathays Park yesterday. Modelled on the West Wing press room, the new set-up has cost the taxpayer £22,000, including a new £1,800 lectern and an imposing £4,500 slate seal, engraved with the words 'First Minister of Wales'.

Welsh Office Minister and Clwyd West Conservative MP, David Jones is unimpressed.

He wrote on Twitter: "Does no one in WAG wonder how the Cathays Oval Office will look to North Walians?:

"As constituency MP, I'm appalled at insensitivity of WAG flaunting mini Oval Office on day we hear North Wales medical services are being cut. 

"A regrettable display of extravagance on the day that Glan Clwyd, Ruthin and Colwyn Bay hospitals are being hit so badly." 

The First Minister defended the costs of the room. He told journalists: "There were discussions in terms of needing to separate the legislative from the executive. This is a government briefing room. 

"It's a general purpose room, that is not just for briefings. It will be used to host events as well and not just for press conferences. And it's important to have somewhere that looks the part, whilst bearing in mind the cost." 

 He insisted the room was value for money, saying the cheapest and most locally sourced materials had been used - such as Welsh slate on a First Minister's seal. 

 "I know that people will saying this is expensive and I accept all of that. But this room will be hear for many many years."

It puts the £72 cost of Ministerial ring binders into persepective..

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Interesting times

The last Plenary day before summer recess is always busy but rarely as eventful as yesterday. There has been much comment and discussion about whether it was wise for the opposition to go for the nuclear option of a no confidence vote in the Health Minister, and no doubt opinion will be equally as divided as to who won the argument.

What the debate and the previous scrutiny session established though, is that civil servants had an input into the drafting of the 'independent' report on which the government is making its case for reconfiguration,in terms of the provision of facts and the offering of opinion. That will make it much harder for Ministers to use it as a shield behind which they can make difficult decisions in the future.

Equally, the rather gungho and tribal reaction of Labour AMs to the debate may well come back to haunt them. When they are standing up in the chamber and stating loudly and unequivocally that there needs to be reconfiguration, they have pretty much nailed their position to the mast of public opinion.  It will be much more difficult in the future for any of them to join protests against the closure of local services as a result.

The day was also an eventful one for two of the other opposition parties. Firstly, there was the case of the missing Tory AM for Monmouth, who was apparently taken ill in the night after having partaked of the local hospitality. He failed to show up for a committee he was meant to be chairing, leading to a point of order in the chamber later that day.

Secondly, there was the fact that the motion of no confidence exposed huge problems within the Plaid Cymru group. Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas failed to show up for the vote despite a three line whip and was later critical of his party's leadership for agreeing to go along with it. He has now been suspended from the group and is facing disciplinary action.

That issue could run and run and will continue to distract Plaid Cymru from their role as an opposition party, something they have been noticeably poor at in recent months. Thank goodness for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

No Plan B?

Ed Balls alternative to the UK Government's austerity programme has taken a bit of a kicking today with the Independent reporting that theLabour-affiliated Fabian Society has sounded the alarm that the party risks being out of step with public opinion on the crucial issue of tax and spending at the 2015 general election. It suggests that voters have become more "small c-conservative" in the age of austerity:

Its warning, based on extensive opinion research, is a reminder to the Labour leadership that its eight to 10-point lead in the polls could melt away in the heat of an election campaign.

The Fabians found that fewer than one in five people accepts the need for higher taxes to fund more public spending in four core areas seen as a priority for Labour – job schemes; nurseries and childcare; higher education and public housing. Twice as many people want cuts as support increases in subsidised housing.

Andrew Harrop, the society's general secretary, said: "In a hugely challenging fiscal environment, Ed Miliband has to do far more to convince the public of the need for increased provision of public services in the areas Labour values.

"The British public are overwhelmingly small-c conservative when it comes to public spending – in six of the eight policy areas we polled, the most popular response was that current levels of tax and spend were 'about right'. Clearly, there is little appetite for a major change in government spending priorities. If Labour wins in 2015, it will have to face difficult decisions on public spending."

Back to the drawing board then.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The junk food Olympics

As we get ready to enjoy/endure/get-away-from (delete as appropriate) weeks of physical competition and confrontation at the Olympic games in London, questions remain as to what legacy the UK will be getting from this competition.

Will we see many more youngsters seeking to emulate their heroes by taking up sport or will they be following the example of the sponsors and just eating more junk food?

Today's Guardian highlights how commercialism is taking over the Olympic spirit. They say that by concluding long-term exclusivity agreements with iconic junk food brands, the International Olympic Committee has failed to support public health policy.

Junk food, they say, in the shape of Coca-Cola and McDonald's as "top" Olympic sponsors and Cadbury as official "treats' provider", is part and parcel of the sports jamboree: "So, forget those vague attempts to get people to lead healthier lifestyles through the Change4Life campaign, just tuck into your burger and fizzy pop, and enjoy the show."

They add that the impetus of the World Health Organisation's recommendations on food marketing to children, which urge member states to reduce the negative impact of unhealthy food marketing on children, has yet to be reflected in London's "spirit of Olympism".

And that is before we even get into the issue of the draconian restrictions imposed on other businesses regarding marketing and advertising near to Olympic venues. These are not issues that we should allow the sport to blind us to.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Over to you Mr. Cameron

Possibly the most-quoted article in Liberal Democrat circles yesterday was this one by Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer. He takes an interesting look at last week's vote on the House of Lords and concludes that the Tories need to grow up and start to take the coalition seriously. He says that 'it is the Lib Dems who have been the grownups of the coalition and the Tories who have been the juveniles':

The Lib Dems have understood the fundamental premise of coalition: that a marriage between two parties can be sustained only if both partners are prepared to sacrifice their own preferences for the greater cause. Mr Clegg's party has been astonishingly disciplined over the past two years. To a fault, they have often put aside their own desires and interests for the sake of coalition unity. They have held their noses and voted through welfare cuts, immigration caps, tuition fees and a health plan which was not even in the coalition agreement. With one or two exceptions, their ministers have been stalwart defenders of the coalition and their backbenchers have refrained from badmouthing it.

For this, they have paid a punishing price. At local elections, Lib Dem councillors have been slaughtered. On their current opinion poll rating, they have lost more than half of the support they received at the last general election. They have virtually no friends in the press. Their leader has been flayed to within an inch of his political life.

Coalition has generally been much easier for the Conservatives. As the bigger party, they have been asked to make far fewer compromises. It is the snarl of the rancorous tendency on the Tory backbenches that David Cameron has allowed the yellow tail to wag the blue dog, but there is scant evidence to support their cries of betrayal.

He concludes that if the coalition is to prevail then David Cameron has to take things more seriously:

So the prime minister has some hard thinking to do over the summer. Is he ready to take ownership of the coalition? Can he confront those in his party who want to wreck the government with the determination now necessary to save it? Will he tell the hard truths to the Conservative party about the necessary compromises of sharing power?

If he is not able or willing to do that, then no one else can rescue the coalition.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Daleks in Cardiff Bay

An actual sign in Cardiff Bay, borrowed from Twitter.

Sorry is the hardest word?

Nick Clegg went on the offensive yesterday and told the Liberal Democrats to stop apologising and instead tell people about our successes.

According to the Independent on Sunday  the Liberal Democrats Leader told a Social Liberal Forum conference in London that the party needs to have "self-confidence" to tell people what it has achieved:

"If there is one thing that has chilled me to my marrow in the last two years, it is meeting friends who I have campaigned with for years who have stopped knocking on doors. We are sensitive violets. A few people shout at you, you get a few doors slammed in your face so we retreated; but we cannot afford to do that."

He added that those who doubt his influence should read the right-wing press: "I am some sort of Rasputin figure who fooled this hopeless toff Cameron into getting into government."

I agree. The Liberal Democrats have achieved a great deal in government, much more than keeping the worse excesses of Toryism at bay. We have introduced additional funding for the poorest pupils, taken hundreds of thousands of people out of tax and cut the tax bill for millions of low earners, introduced a billion pound scheme to help young people get into work and training and delivered the biggest pension increase ever. We have done all of this whilst cutting the deficit by 25% and helping to protect the British economy from the worst consequences of  a world wide recession.

These are achievements we need to be trumpeting, not apologising for the fact that we had to work with Tories to deliver them.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Big Brother intrusions

The Telegraph highlights why the current law on surveillance by local Councils and Government needs reforming when it reports that almost 1,000 innocent people have been wrongly spied on by the police, security services and town halls because of errors in “snooping” requests.

They say that two people were even arrested and wrongly accused of crimes they did not commit because officials wrote down incorrect details, a surveillance watchdog revealed. In addition a local council wrongly used snooping powers designed to combat crime to spy on a family it suspected of not living in the right school catchment area:

The figures will renew concerns over the Government plans to expand the amount of phone, email and internet information law enforcement and intelligence agencies can access.

Overall, police, security services and other public bodies made 494,078 requests to access data last year – the equivalent of 1,350 a day.

Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, revealed that within that, there were just under 1,000 errors in applications for accessing phone or email data.

The mistakes were mainly wrong phone numbers or internet protocol (IP) addresses.

Two forces were given the wrong information by a communications service provider, which led to two people being wrongly detained and accused of crimes.

As Liberty comments, these errors show the dangers of Government plans to make phone and internet companies hold even more records on the communication and browsing habits of the whole population.

Whatever the reasons for holding information or surveillance, things do go wrong and innocent people have their privacy invaded and in some cases worse.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Those post-budget blues

I don't normally pay attention to opinion polls and that applies whether the Liberal Democrats are on 10% or 20%. As I have said on a number of occasions, what matters is the trends and of course how people actually vote in a real election.

However, sometimes there are some truths that are worth harvesting from behind the headline figures of which party people say they will support at the precise and artificial moment in time that they are accosted by a canvasser. How accurate these truths are is another matter, but those reported by today's Independent certainly seem to reinforce what I am being told by my constituents and others that I speak to.

They say that fewer people believe Britain's economic problems are caused by cutting "too far, too fast" than blame a financial crisis caused by banks; the eurozone turmoil; excessive borrowing by Labour and the banks not lending.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the figures says that the March Budget, on which George Osborne has made a string of U-turns, has had "more than an ephemeral effect on the public mood. He added: "The Conservatives have evidently paid a price for the mistakes and reverses of Conservative ministers in recent months."

The significance of this is that Labour's mantra on the economy for the last two years is failing to stick. This is partly because people can see European economies who have not engaged in austerity struggling, but also because they are not blind to the fact that Alistair Darling's last budget for the previous Labour Government, projected cuts and savings on a par with those being implemented now, but without the tax cuts for the lower paid.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Vince nails it again

Today's Telegraph reports on the characteristically forthright remarks of Business Secretary, Vince Cable as he continues to fly the flag for Liberalism within the Coalition Government.

Vince has warned that tough new entry requirements for students may be "damaging" Britain's reputation as a good place to study. He has also claimed there is a “powerful constituency” arguing for more restrictions on immigration that could stop bright students coming to the UK.

The paper say that Vince's comments are likely to be seen as a swipe at the Prime Minister's promise to limit non-European citizens coming into Britain to the tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands. They add that university chiefs from across Britain have warned that tough new visa restrictions imposed by the Home Office are driving applicants to study in other countries.

In a speech last night, Dr Cable indicated any limits on legitimate foreign students coming to the UK is a threat to scientific excellence.

“This country's ongoing scientific prowess depends to an ever greater extent on openness: our ability to attract creative minds to these shores, the exchange of students,” Dr Cable said.

“This might seem obvious but there is always a powerful constituency arguing for closed minds and closed borders.”

Dr Cable said pioneering scientific experiments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, depend on collaboration between academics across borders.

He said Britain must encourage “brain circulation” between borders in contrast to the “brain drain” of the 1960s.

Vince is quite right and he should keep on saying these things until the Prime Minister takes notice.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How should the Liberal Democrats approach Lords Reform now?

Over at Paul Walter's Liberal Burblings blog, he has set out a plan:

Nick Clegg should immediately freeze co-operation on the boundary review which the Conservatives know will increase their parliamentary strength. He should set up a team, including old hands such as Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell (with memories of the Maastricht parliamentary struggle) to reach out to reform-minded MPs in the Labour and Conservative parties and manage the parliamentary guerilla tactics needed to get this legislation through. There also needs to be much better “selling” of the measures to the public.

By giving in to the rebels, David Cameron now, metaphorically, has a “Please kick me” sign stuck on his back as far as his backbenchers are concerned. I have given up hoping for him to show strong leadership. I think he needs to remind himself and his colleagues of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. If the Lib Dems withdraw their support from the coalition and Cameron loses a vote of confidence, Ed Miliband could form a replacement government without an election. Perhaps some Tory minds should focus on that.

No confidence

No sooner do I post yesterday that the three opposition parties should work together better to hold the government to account than the three leaders table a motion of no confidence in the health minister.

The Western Mail reports that the Welsh Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats have agreed to use the Welsh Liberal Democrat opposition time next Wednesday afternoon to debate the motion of no confidence following the controversy surrounding the independence of the Case for Change report.

This is a good start, but it is not just on showpiece motions that we need better coordination. In the second Assembly when Labour had a minority government joint working was far more effective and Labour struggled to make their mark.

We all need to rise above Welsh government taunts of 'three conservative parties' working together and get on with the job we were elected to do, namely to scrutinise government and help them focus their policies in the best interests of the people of Wales.

Besides the most conservative party in the Assembly chamber is Welsh Labour. Nothing has changed in that regard in 13 years.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Working together?

Reflecting further on the comments by BBC Correspondent Vaughan Roderick on his blog, which I referred to last week that “With Plaid Cymru having spent a year navel gazing, at times it has appeared that the Lib Dems, with their 5 AMs are the most effective of the three opposition parties. Some Tories are of the opinion that this cannot continue.” it seems that there is a need for all three opposition parties to get together do something about that.

Naturally, it is nice for the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Kirsty Williams to be singled out in this way, but it cannot be right that the Labour Government is being let off the hook week in week out by the fact that the parties facing them do not work more closely together on key votes and important issues.

In some ways that is to be expected as both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives both have new leaders who are keen to make their mark. It is also the case that both Andrew R.T Davies and Leanne Wood represent ideological positions that are diametrically opposed to each other.

It is not for the Welsh Liberal Democrats to act as relationship counsellors in this scenario, though we have tried, but it is clear that even the best opposition leader can only get so far in holding the Government to account when they do not have the active cooperation of other parties.

Perhaps the issue that came to light this morning around the publication of e-mails relating to an independent report on the Welsh health service will change all that. Whether it was coordinated or not, all three leaders used First Minister's questions today to raise this issue. As a result the question time session was much more effective.

We need more of that when we reconvene after the summer recess, as well as joint working on motions and votes. This Labour Government cannot be let off the hook much longer on important issues.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Another Government IT disaster

Today's Telegraph highlights a disastrous attempt by Government civil servants to save money which actually cost them more. The incident highlights once more the inability of the public sector to handle ICT contracts, but also the perils and pitfalls behind a philosophy that suggests that joint working and shared services always saves money. It is not necessarily so.

The paper says that five departments including the Departments for Work and Pensions, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Transport, as well as the Ministry of Justice signed up to share ‘back office’ functions like human resources and finance.

The new way of working was meant to cost £900million but ran £500million over budget, and eventually cost £1.4billion. They were meant to have saved £159million by the end of 2010/11 from the new arrangement, but only one department “broke even”, and two departments reported net costs of £255million.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee found that departments focused too much on bringing in new computers, rather than making savings from their existing operations. The paper adds that the expensive software systems used by the departments were ill-suited to the task and added to the complexity and cost. They says that the Cabinet Office also failed to tear down barriers between individual departments to encourage better cooperation.

Yet another object lesson from Central Government of how not to do it.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Problems or solutions?

The US Presidency race starts to heat up

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Police Commissioner elections flop fear

There is an interesting article in today's Independent, which reports that the Home Secretary is panicking over fears that November's Police Commission elections are going to be a non-event.

The paper says that Theresa May has asked the Treasury for money to fund an advertising campaign to encourage stronger candidates to come forward.due to growing alarm among ministers that the contests for 41 new local police chiefs will be an embarrassing flop with dismal turn-outs in November's elections.

They add that Minister's hopes that a series of well-known non-political figures would bid for the posts have not materialised andas a result the elections look set to be fought out between unremarkable party stalwarts, including former ministers and MPs.

One of the reasons for this may well be the huge £5,000 deposit required to stand in the first place plus the cost of standing. Without a freepost election address facility only candidates with deep pockets, lots of volunteer help and good organisational and election experience could hope to defeat the bigger party machines.

Perhaps a rethink on this aspect of the legislation might help as well as the imposition of a limit on national spending by the political parties so as to prevent independents being drowned out in a deluge of direct mail and bill board advertising.

Friday, July 06, 2012

British success at Wimbledon

Congratulations to Andy Murray on reaching the Wimbledon final. Much is being made of his success ending 74 years of British failure at the all-England Tennis club, but that is hardly fair to those home-grown players who have succeeded in this contest, especially in the current open era.

These are: 1969 Ann Haydon Jones won the women’s singles and mixed doubles
1977 Virginia Wade won the women’s singles
1984 John Lloyd won the mixed doubles with Wendy Turnbull
1987 Jo Durie and Jeremy Bates won the mixed doubles
2007 Jamie Murray won the mixed doubles with Jelena Jankovic from Serbia.

I really hope that Andy Murray can go on to win, so we can put this sense of inferiority behind us, but also because he deserves to do so. 

A very costly policy

Whilst we all take in the sheer incompetence of the last Labour Government in removing regulation of the banks and allowing them to fix the inter-bank lending rate, yet another of Gordon Brown's favourite policies has reared its ugly head, complete with expensive consequences.

The Telegraph reports that British taxpayers face a total bill of more than £300 billion for projects funded using the controversial private finance initiative. They say that there are 717 PFI schemes currently under way to build new hospitals, schools, roads and other public facilities with a combined capital value of £54.7 billion.  However, the final cost of paying off all these projects will reach £301.3 billion over the coming decades.

This figure includes fees for running costs such as maintenance and cleaning, but there is little doubt that it would have been cheaper for the Government to have borrowed the money directly to fund the schemes.

It is little wonder that the current government has mostly abandoned this model of financing capital schemes. However, that does not take away the need for a more sustainable method of paying for new projects. That is why the Assembly's Finance Committee has recently recommended that the Welsh Government look at the Scottish model of a non-profit distributing model.

This is a revenue-financed model, from which any profits accruing are capped. NPD models involve a partnership with a private sector provider, which finances, constructs and maintains an asset. The public sector body then, from its revenue budget, pays an annual charge over a period to the private sector provider once the asset has been built..

Initially, profits in excess of the cap were paid to a nominated charity. However, the structure has since been amended to permit any surpluses over and above the capped profit level to return to the procuring body, which will be a local authority, health board or whatever.

It may well be that this is not a suitable model for Wales, but one thing is certain, PFI is discredited and cannot be afforded.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Cameron in public school gaffe?

The Telegraph reports remarks by David Cameron in which he says that too many top British athletes went to public school.

Now that may be true but it is also true that too many of the current Cabinet went to public school as well, however was the Prime Minister really wise to draw attention to that fact, given the rather brazen and crude class-based politics being practised by the Labour Party and others?

It would be good if more opportunities can be created for poorer kids and thanks to the Liberal Democrats in Government, some progress is being made on this. But a lot more needs to be done.

Sport can break down barriers and schools need to use it to do just that.

The effective opposition

It would be remiss of me not to mention the compliment paid to the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Group on the blog of BBC Welsh Affairs Editor, Vaughan Roderick yesterday.

He talks about how this Tory group is not as effective as the former Tory group.

And then he says,

“With Plaid Cymru having spent a year navel gazing, at times it has appeared that the Lib Dems, with their 5 AMs are the most effective of the three opposition parties. Some Tories are of the opinion that this cannot continue.”

Naturally, I agree with him and such comments far better reflect the situation in the Senedd than any transitory snapshot of public opinion.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Labour's not-so-secret plan to regionalise benefits

How wrong can you be?

From yesterday's Assembly Plenary session:

Peter Black: A total of 131 GP practices have taken the trouble to return a survey to the Welsh Liberal Democrats to say that they disagree with your policy of extending their opening hours, with 127 saying that they would need additional funding to implement it. The BMA is warning that it could affect recruitment. As your policy does not have the support or confidence of doctors, how will you deliver extended consultation hours for the residents of Neath Port Talbot

The First Minister: That assertion that doctors do not have confidence in this policy is based on a survey to which only 20% responded. The BMA is wrong as well, apparently, and the survey that was carried out last year was wrong. The reality is that the people of Wales voted for this. They voted to ensure that they could see GPs at more convenient hours. They voted to ensure that they could see GPs on Saturday mornings. I am disappointed that the Member thinks that the views of the people of Wales are not relevant to this issue. We will continue to make sure that people are able to see GPs at a time that is more convenient to them, working closely with the GPs to deliver that.

So everybody is wrong apart from the First Minister. I am glad we sorted that out.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The bIg brother/big data state

If information is power then how we store and use data becomes a key indicator as to the position of the state on individual liberty and rights to privacy.

There is a balance to be struck between the efficient use of data to secure cost-effective services and the cross-referencing of information so as to open up the possibilities of state intrusion into our lives and the potential abuse of individual data profiling for more sinister purposes.

That is why the Data Protection Act was passed in the first place, the fact that it does not reach into some of the more secretive recesses of government has always given rise to concern.

It is for these reasons that I am quite cautious about proposals referred to in today's Guardian in which the Policy Exchange think tank suggest that up to £33bn a year could be saved from public spending without cutting services, by making better use of data about citizens from applications for passports and driving licences, to tax returns and social media.

It all sounds very plausible but I suspect that the reality might not be so pretty. Firstly, their assumptions seem at times over-optimistic and other-worldly, especially the idea that social media sites, such as Twitter, could be used to anticipate bottlenecks at UK airports. Secondly, this sort of profiling has inherent risks for civil liberties.

Even with a code of conduct there is a very slippery slope awaiting any government that adopts this idea.

Politics and the police

Today's Western Mail reports that Falklands veteran Simon Weston has pulled out of the race  for the £100,000-a-year job of Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales because he was becoming disillusioned and the campaign was “too political”.

Writing on Twitter, he said: “With regret pulling out of the PCC role for South Wales. Became disillusioned by the fact it was getting 2 political & not serving the people.”

What is confusing me is how anybody can announce they are a candidate in a political election whilst thinking that they can keep politics out it. But then that is me.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Citizen Kane?

How difficult is it to becone a citizen of this country. Well, if this sample test is anything to go by, it is very hard indeed.  I have just taken it and got 15 out of 24, which is a fail.

To be fair the questions I fell down on were quantitive and obscure historical ones such as when women got the right to divorce their husband, and the number of children and young people in the UK under the age of 19.

And who knew that information in the census is kept secret for 100 years? Is that actually right? It does not sound correct. Perhaps if I had studied for the test.

No wonder the Home Secretary is reviewing the questions.

Update: my confusion around the census seems to revolve around the type of information that is available. Individual data is clearly not published for 100 years, however general statistical trends are available within a few years of the census, including population, birth rates, religious preferences etc. This information is fed into government funding formulas and policies.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

An occasional round-up of Welsh blogposts Part Two

This is the second selection of stuff that has caught my eye over the last few weeks, starting with Inside Swansea, who are at times have appeared obsessed with my blog but who nevertheless, provide a useful scrutiny of politics in Swansea, Wales and the occasionally the UK.

In this post they highlight an uncomfortable alliance over the proposed Severn barrage, when Nick Clegg praised Peter Hain for his efforts in championing this cause:

Clegg’s aides later described the endorsement as “an example of cross-party vision”. Everyone else present in the chamber regarded it as the kiss of death.

Hain was uncharacteristically quiet after the debate. It is thought that he had overheard a fellow Welsh backbencher complain to a colleague how the former secretary of state was already a tidal bore in his own right.

Elsewhere, the Welsh blogsphere has become lighter following the decision by Welsh Ramblings to move on. In a last post he tell his readers that he has closed the blog because he has limited time and has "gradually lost enthusiasm for writing blogs, so its time to take a step back."

Frank Little continues his discussion of Lords Reform over on his Ffranc Sais blog. He says that the restriction to 92 hereditary peers in 1999 by the first Blair government has not removed the inbuilt Conservative majority completely:

So why didn't Labour follow through on the 1999 measure and, more importantly, why are they resisting reform now? Of course, they dare not say that they are against elections to the Lords. This was in their 2010 general election manifesto after all, albeit subject to a referendum. A non-elected chamber of parliament was anathema to the Labour tradition. Therefore, today's Labour management falls back on the specious excuse that the state of the economy should take priority. As many have pointed out, it is possible for parliament to do several things at the same time and, in any case, there is little scope for fresh debate on the financial situation before next year's budget. Moreover, this parliament may be the best chance for a generation of achieving genuine change.

The obvious attraction of an appointed House is the opportunity it gives to party managers to bribe with ermine awkward or embarrassing old members to leave their seats in favour of the current favourite son or daughter (literally so, in some cases). The Labour people seem to have taken to the place, and to enjoy the little earner and fringe benefits. Labour has also proved as ready as the Conservatives as rewarding donors with a barony.

Ian Titherington takes a break from his blogging holiday to express his outrage at the First Minister's off-the-cuff remark in the Assembly chamber complete with the Dr. Strangelove picture that I have borrowed to illustrate this post:

It's taken something truly annoying to break me out of my blogging holiday, but the Labour leader in Wales standing up as a blinkered British imperialist has ticked all the boxes. So the next time that our First Minister tries to sound all 'nashie' to placate the more progressive element of his Assembly group, just remember his WMD moment. It will stick to him like a proverbial bad smell for the rest of his political career. Plaid will make sure that it does, trust me on that one.

Jac o' the North takes issue with the Welsh media's obsession with Cardiff, focussing particularly on the BBC's Week in Week out programme on Swansea City Centre last week:

Why is the Cardiff media so negative about Swansea? What or whose agenda can the Cardiff media possibly be serving by constantly running down our second city? Because the message from the Cardiff media seems to be, "Forget Dylan Thomas; Swansea isn't 'an ugly lovely town' - it's a complete shit-hole". (And this just two years before the centenary celebrations of Dylan's birth. Thank you BBC 'Wales'.)

This Cardiff-centricity should be a matter for our politicians to address, but after thirteen years of devolutiion it is obvious that they suffer the same problem. All the figures prove it. Cardiff has got richer and the rest of Wales has got poorer (especially those 'Welsh' areas that voted 'Yes' in 1997). Welcome to the Cardiff City State.

He concludes with a footnote: Because this is one hell of a price to pay for the Swans being in the Premier League . . . all that free publicity . . . around the world . . . 'Swanselona' . . . with Cardiff Malaysian Blue Dragons still owing millions to Sam Hammam . . . and the tax man . . . then the articulate and likeable Brendan Rodgers . . . followed by the great Michael Laudrup . . . without even trying, Swansea's getting good, positive publicity around the world. Something must be done!

Finally, there is Glyn Davies MP on whether the Government should hold an in-out referendum on Europe. Writing as a Euro-sceptic Glyn's position amounts to 'be careful what you wish for', a referendum could backfire:

Much discussion about an EU referendum flying around at present. In my opinion, this is all going to end in Eurosceptic tears. I recall the last such referendum in 1975. Biggest losers were those antis who made most noise demanding it. I was one of them. In general, I have a policy of learning the lessons of history. Be warned Eurosceptics. An EU referendum will lead to a green light for greater integration.

It sounds very tempting indeed.

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