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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Defying expectations on student applications

The figures published yesterday showing the number of students applying for a university place threw up some unexpected outcomes.

The first of these was that Wales has bucked the trend despite a student fee regime that sees the Welsh Government cap tuition fees for homegrown students at £3,500.

The BBC report that throughout the UK there was a 3.5% rise in the number of applications but in Wales it was down by 2.7%. There was though a rise in those wanting to attend Welsh universities from outside Wales.

What is significant about these results is that the Welsh Government is once more using the Welsh block grant to subsidise English Universities. As the BBC explain, average tuition fees in England have now hit £8,500. That means each Welsh student deciding to study over the border will take a £5,000 Welsh government subsidy with them per year:

It is hoped those sums would be offset by the number of students from outside Wales choosing to studying in Wales and paying the full tuition fees of up to £9,000 charged by some of the institutions, such as Cardiff University.

According to an investigation by the BBC's The Wales Report earlier this week, in 2012, more than 7,000 Welsh students crossed the border to study outside of Wales - a 13% increase on the year before.

This saw the Welsh government pay £31 million in fees to universities in other parts of the UK.

However, the number of English students enrolling at universities in Wales in 2012 fell by nearly 17% compared to the previous year.

As a result education experts have questioned whether the £1.5 billion policy is sustainable.

Stephen Tall highlights the other interesting trend, which is that university application rates in England are at their highest ever for disadvantaged groups, even post-£9,000 tuition fees.

Some of this may be down to a better understanding of how fees are repaid that effectively makes them a form of graduate tax. Nobody pays up front of course, there is a higher threshold before repayments are triggered and the loan is written off after a certain period of time.

The Government were wrong to set fees at £9,000 but in terms of inclusivity they appear to be getting away with it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fighting back on Europe

For those of us who are Euro pragmatists and who have despaired at the way that Tory sceptices and UKIP have been allowed to corner the debate on our future, I am pleased to discover a new website/campaign designed to respond to misinformation and to correct this imbalance.

British Influence say that it is wrong that one extreme of the debate think they own the Union Jack in their belief that the only future is out. They add that it is also wrong that the other extreme think that they own the European flag in their belief that the only future is full on in. They continue:

This leaves a space for hard-headed EU pragmatists - a key audience for our project towards earning the consent of a sometimes euroskeptic media and public to the common sense position of keeping Britain in Europe.

Many British people think their country is powerless in Europe. This is fundamentally wrong and unpatriotic.

It is fundamentally defeatist to contend that Britain is forever isolated and without a vision in Europe.

Britain helped create the modern Europe, our allies want us in and it is time we finished the job.

And we will do this without any financial support from the EU or the UK government. We support the principle that we must be as independent and transparent as possible to win the debate.

So we need your support to do this. And that is why after this evening we will start raising funds from the public to fight our cause.

The opposition – those like UKIP that want the UK to leave Europe and sit in isolation in the world – are well-funded (they have taken millions of pounds from reclusive backers and, ironically, from the EU) and will not shy away from using dark tactics to fight their cause, where arguments and facts fail.

Help us to fight back with common sense and honesty.

The website contains quite a lot of useful information to make the case for a pragmatic approach to European Union membership as well as a newsdesk feature and the opportunity to sign up to the campaign. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bursting of the socialist bubble

A number of Labour figures and supporters have pointed to the example of President Francois Hollande's France as a viable plan B for the British economy. They may well be having second thoughts today as newspapers report that far from being a socialist paradise, our European neighbours are in fact verging on bankruptcy.

The Independent say that the whole of France was left stunned and shocked yesterday after their employment minister, Michel Sapin has admitted during a radio interview that his country is “totally bankrupt”.

However, the Government do not seem to be completely united on this as Pierre Moscovici, France's finance minister, immediately tried to play down Mr Sapin's comments, saying they were 'inappropriate' and adding that: “France is a really solvent country. France is a really credible country, France is a country that is starting to recover.”

The paper adds that the statement calls into further question Hollande’s controversial “tax and spend” policies that have seen numerous entrepreneurs and high profile celebrities leave the country.   Whatever the truth, it is not a good advert for Ed Miliband's and Ed Ball's alternative to the programme currently being followed by the UK Government.

Monday, January 28, 2013

David Laws on coalitions

There is an interesting feature on Liberal Democrats Minister, David Laws in today's Independent. The article though is most noteworthy for his views on coalitions and how the public may view them in future:

The Liberal Democrats' 2015 pitch is already clear. "We don't have confidence that Labour is serious on economic policy, or that the Conservatives have a strong enough policy commitment to creating a fairer society," said Mr Laws.

The Lib Dems have always offered both but might be taken more seriously next time. A silver lining to the cuts?

"Perhaps in the past people have known we stood for a fairer society but have wondered whether we could take some of the tough decisions on the economy. After this parliament, they will not be in any doubt about the economy and we have to go on demonstrating we are serious about a fairer society.

"Any second coalition is going to be challenging for the third party. You are either with the same party and the challenge is to make sure you continue to assert your identity. Or suddenly you are seen by the public to swap one party for another. There is no easy choice for the Lib Dems. We will be equidistant from the other two parties. Last time the [parliamentary] arithmetic was overwhelmingly the powerful factor. The public will decide it next time. Our influence will be much smaller than people tend to assume."

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats envisaged the two coalition parties would gradually diverge as the next election got nearer.

"It has not been the straight line we expected," said Mr Laws. "It is a more cyclical thing. You can have periods marked by greater disagreements and periods where there are swing-backs.

"The Coalition has matured massively in the last six months. There have been serious disagreements over Lords reform, parliamentary boundaries, Leveson, the autumn statement, climate-change policies.

"That is very healthy. It is quite possible to disagree one moment on an issue of fundamental importance and then reach agreement in a very mature and civil way on other policies."

Although coalitions have been rare in Britain, Mr Laws argued that the Government was "a model of decisive decision-making". He said: "We have shown that coalitions can be stable entities that deliver good government and radical changes. The country has absolutely nothing to fear from coalitions in future. No party will be able to frighten the electorate about the prospect of a hung parliament. In 2010 people said a coalition would collapse after five minutes and do nothing radical on policy. That is nonsense."

Mr Laws believes the last year of the five-year parliament will see the coalition partners display "a much greater sense of their separate identities", but warned that they would get no credit if they spent the last 12 months "bickering". He hopes most big policy decisions will be completed by then. He expects Liberal Democrat ministers to stay in their posts up to polling day in 2015. "To suddenly proclaim independence in the last dregs of the parliament would not be very plausible."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Storm in a teacup

Today's Telegraph reports the astonishing news that Starbucks has threatened to suspend millions of pounds of investment in Britain after what it described as constant and unfair attacks over its tax affairs by David Cameron and the Government.

The paper says that Kris Engskov, the multinational’s UK managing director, has demanded talks at Downing Street after the Prime Minister said tax-avoiding companies had to “wake up and smell the coffee”. He has interpreted this as a direct attack on Starbucks which has been criticised for not paying corporation tax in Britain.

The paper reports that Mr Engskov is concerned about the “politicisation” of the tax issue.They add that Starbucks argues that it makes no profits in the UK and so is not required to pay the tax. In fact since the arrival of Starbucks in Britain in 1998, it has paid £8.5 million in corporation tax, despite total sales of £3 billion. It said last month it had made a profit in only one year.

How tax is not a political issue is difficult to understand. Whether the company goes ahead with its £100m investment in the UK has yet to be seen but that sort of threat should not stop the government from insisting that multi-national companies pay what is due. We cannot have one rule for them and another for ordinary British taxpayers.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

More on that ball boy

Commonsense applies on equal marriage

According to the Western Mail, the Government has backed down on its decision to legally prevent the Church in Wales to make its own mind up as to whether it will conduct gay marriages or not.

The paper says that the Church will now be able to overturn the ban on carrying out gay marriage ceremonies without having to bring forward new legislation:

The Church in Wales and Church of England were both banned from carrying out the ceremonies under a “quadruple lock” system designed to protect churches from legal challenges if they refused to carry them out. Other religious organisations will be able to opt-in to the legislation if they wish to carry them out.

But representatives from the Church in Wales, including Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan, claimed they had not been consulted on the ban, and had entered into talks to relax the ban.

In a statement issued on Friday morning, a spokeswoman for the Church in Wales said it had been in talks with the government to “understand and accommodate” the position in the equal marriage bill.

Under the new arrangements, the Church in Wales will still be subject to the ban, but will be able to change the law without the need for complex and time-consuming primary legislation, should it change its own rules. Its disestablished status - in contrast to the Church of England - meant this would have been necessary.

She said: “As a disestablished church with a legal duty to marry the Church in Wales is uniquely placed. The Bill provides protection for the Church whilst still enabling it to make its own decision on same-sex marriage.

“Under the Bill, the duty of Church in Wales ministers to marry will not be extended to same-sex couples.

“However, should the Church’s governing body decide in the future that the Church wishes to conduct such marriages, there is provision in the Bill for the law to be altered without the need for further primary legislation by Parliament.

“Instead, a resolution from the Church’s governing body would trigger an order by the Lord Chancellor for the necessary legal changes to be made.”

Commonsense has prevailed and the Government has listened. Good.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Case for exemption to smoking ban collapses?

The BBC yesterday effectively undermined their own case for an exemption to the smoking ban for theatre and film productions, when they withdrew a claim that a story line in medical TV drama Casualty had to be pulled because of the measure.

It now says the story did run after the production team found an alternative way of filming a lit cigarette, precisely the argument being put forward by those who want to retain the ban intact. BBC Cymru Wales has apologised for the error and asked to amend its evidence:

In their original evidence arguing for a Welsh exemption to the ban on Tuesday, BBC Wales said: "In Casualty, there were plans to use smoking as a cautionary moral tale with a smoker in a hotel room causing a blaze, which formed the central plot line of an episode.

"However, the existing legislation made filming the scenes too difficult to contemplate within the production budget and schedule, and a strong storyline which would have highlighted one of the hazards of smoking, had to be changed to something else."

The BBC now say that "It has since been drawn to our attention by the Casualty production team that they found an alternative way of shooting the relevant scene. To be clear, no change was made to the plot of that episode."

Organisations including ASH Wales and the British Heart Foundation gave evidence to the effect that they believed there was no justification for lifting the ban in Wales and that alternative means could be found of filming smoking scenes, including artificial cigarettes and computer generated imagery.

Those supporting the exemption have said this is too difficult or too expensive and yet it seems that the BBC has been able to do it. We are being asked to relax a public health measure for commercial reasons and yet it transpires that those reasons are flaky at best. The BBC have done their cause great damage this week.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Survey of new AMs raises some questions

The BBC report on a survey of new Welsh Assembly Members by the Hansard Society has found that two of them took a £30,000 pay cut when they were elected. Cue much speculation on who these altuistic politicians may be.

They say that surveys and anonymous interviews by the Hansard Society lift the lid on what life is like in the first year of being an AM:

New members felt the Welsh government was not accountable enough and that their work-life balance suffered after being elected.

The report says many feel as though there are not enough hours in the day.

Twenty-three new AMs were elected at the last election in 2011 out of the total of 60. Of those, 12 took part in a survey in July that year and seven were surveyed the following April. Eleven took part in interviews.

Half of the survey respondents said AMs' pay of £53,852 was bigger than their previous salary, while the other half had a cut or saw no change.

Getting elected meant a salary increase of at least £30,000 for two AMs. Another two saw a salary decrease of £30,000 a year or more.

A year into the job, AMs were working an average 57 hours a week, plus travel.

When they first arrived in Cardiff Bay, new AMs - who have no formal job description - said championing their constituents was their top priority.

A year later they said holding the government to account had become the number one priority.

The article goes on to say that pressure on time was a common issue. Whilst, unlike MPs in Westminster, attendance in the chamber and at committees is almost compulsory:

It points out that "with Labour forming a minority government, every vote counts".

A "regimented timetable" makes it difficult for AMs to do other things, while gaps in their schedules are "heavily targeted by lobbyists looking for meetings with AMs".

During their first year, AMs' satisfaction with their work-life balance deteriorated.

One said their family was spending "an absolute fortune on childcare" and relying on favours.

Another said: "You can't go out and have a few beers and just be one of the boys, rugby boys, as perhaps one has been in the past."

However new AMs praised the assembly's family-friendly working hours and the fact recess coincides with school holidays.

The overall verdict though is that "Despite the long hours, the travel, the challenges and frustrations, the new AMs are still delighted to have been elected and be doing the job."

And so say all of us.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

After all the hype, Cameron remains impaled on the fence on Europe

I am not sure about everybody else, but I was left massively deflated by Cameron's speech on Europe this morning. That is because, despite the hype, he said nothing new or immediate about the issue and gave the strong impression that he is trying to face several ways at once.

The Guardian sums it up well with an article that seeks to analyse who the Prime Minister was sending his message to. The list they come up includes Eurosceptics, hardliners demanding an immediate referendum, pro-Europeans, European leaders and Washington.

What is more they believe that he wanted all of these groups to take away something positive from the speech. I wish the Prime Minister luck in disengaging himself from that very prickly fence.

In many ways Cameron is fortunate in having such an ineffectiive opposition. The real Euro-enthusiast is his deputy Prime Minister and there is no doubt in my mind that Nick Clegg is using that position to keep Euro-scepticism under control within the Government and to limit David Cameron's room for manoeuvre.

The verbal gymnastics the Prime Minister engaged in this morning were determined by the constraints put on him by the Liberal Democrats.

Other opposition comes from the barely-credible Nigel Farage and a Labour leader who appears to be floundering in search of an adequate response.

In short, the Tories have sought to set out a position for their next General Election manifesto that will not be worth the paper it is written on.

What is worse from their point of view is that having opened Pandora's box, David Cameron will now have to spend the next five years trying to prevent his Euro-sceptics delivering a long-anticipated Tory shipwreck.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cat lovers fight back in New Zealand

As a cat lover I really could not allow this article in the Guardian to pass without comment.  The paper says that a campaign by a New Zealand 'environmentalist' to free the country of cats has met with a backlash.

Gareth Morgan has called on fellow Kiwis to make their current pet cat their last in an attempt to save the country's native birds. He has set up a website, Cats To Go, which includes an image of a kitten with devil's horns under the heading: "That little ball of fluff you own is a natural born killer".

Apparently he is not advocating euthanasia but is not ruling it out either. He says he would rather neuter them and not replace them when they die. He has also suggested that cats remain indoors and local government make registration mandatory.

Fortunately, the campaign is not proving popular in a country that boasts one of the highest cat-ownership rates in the world. A 2011 survey by the New Zealand Companion Animal Council found 48% of households in New Zealand owned at least one cat, a significantly higher proportion than in other developed nations. The poll put the total cat population at 1.4m. In comparision 33% of households in the USA own at least one cat, amounting to 86m domestic cats.

Cats may be killers but steps can be taken to protect birds, such as putting a collar with a bell on it. And there is an argument that says that cats may actually help native birds by reducing the population of rodents, which sometimes feed on bird eggs.

This is not a campaign that Mr. Morgan is going to win. Perhaps he should concentrate on more productive approaches to protecting birds.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The indiscretions of youth

There is nothing worse than reaching the heights of one's profession only to find that tittle tattle about what one got up to in one's youth starts to undermine a hard-won reputation.

As such a number of prominent politicians may well be just a tad apprehensive as a result of the emergence of the dusty archived gossip columns of Oxford University's student newspaper, The Cherwell. .

The Independent reveals that Michael Gove, William Hague, Labour's Eagle sisters Angela and Maria and a number of other Conservative MPs all feature prominently in these long-hidden tomes. It is worth quoting in full some of the exploits, purely for historical interest you understand:

"Union hacks in five-in-a-bed romp shocker" is the headline above one story, which claims that the now Education Secretary Michael Gove, and two of his male friends, repaired to the chamber of two female undergraduates after a ball.

"Since the evening in question there have been many tight-lipped 'no comments' about what they all got up to," Cherwell reported, in 1988. "Gove claims he was only seeking comfort after being beaten up in Aberdeen on Boxing Day."

Later poor Mr Gove, then just 20 years old, apparently ended up quite literally fighting, to win back the affections of a former love, one Marianne Gilchrist.

"Gilchrist packed in poor Gove just as his term as president ended and is now hotly debated by stripling Duncan Penny. At a showdown on Friday, Gove's jealousy got the better of him and he scrambled egg all over Penny's hair. He [Penny] managed to respond by reaching for his fridge and splattering the Honourable Gentleman with a tomato. In a fit of Hulkman rage Gove broke into Penny's room at two in the morning and fire-hosed his sleeping body. Unfortunately Gove somehow was unable to hit the mark and Penny wasn't aroused . . ."

The remarks appeared in the paper's gossip column written by one 'John Evelyn' (Mr Evelyn was a prominent diarist and contemporary of Samuel Pepys. He died in 1706 and so could not be reached for comment), and so should certainly not be regarded as fact. But elsewhere Cherwell's journalists pass verdict on the man who would be King (of the Union), and arguably the unlikeliest heartthrob in the near millennia that has passed beneath the dreaming spires. "Michael conceals his rabidly reactionary political views under a Jane Austen cleric-like exterior but has been known to denounce equality of opportunity as 'leftish shibboleth'," the paper claims. "But the worst thing about this precocious pin-up is that he is, in fact, disgustingly unambitious and talented."

Other tales refer to a 'nookie room' into which disappeared Labour's shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle, in the company of two boys at a joint 21st birthday with her sister Angela, shadow leader of the Commons. "As the noise of her squeaking leather trousers reached fever pitch, twin sister Angela moved in to even the odds with her zoom lens camera," John Evelyn claims.

"A myth," Angela Eagle told The Sunday Times, who reprinted the reports. "It was a very enjoyable occasion but no nookie room. Parents and other family were in attendance as well as friends, ie it wasn't that sort of party." Maria Eagle added: "I remember my mum and dad were at the party so it can't have been that disgraceful."

In 1986, Mark Field, then outgoing junior common room president of St Edmund Hall, and now Tory MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, was photographed running "round the front quad between the strokes of midnight singing the Red Flag and wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, having been liberally covered with baby oil by girlfriend Alison Cooke".

"Yes, that was me," Field admitted yesterday.

William Hague is variously referred to as "Vague" and "Puffing Billy Hague", and one occasion in 1982, "the cuddly conservative from up north. Chipmunk-chops [who] put the tory into oratory".

Rather disappointingly, it all seems quite tame.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Labour at odds with each other again

The brothers and sisters of the Labour Party appear to have fallen out again this time over attempts by Ed Miliband to distance himself from the record of the government he formed a part of, on the issue of migration.

According to the Independent Tony Blair's former immigration minister has criticised the Labour leader for thinking it is "trendy to echo the rhetoric of Migration Watch":

Barbara Roche, co-founder of Migration Matters, warned Mr Miliband not to abandon "progressive migration policies" put forward by Labour in the last decade.

In a speech last week, the Labour leader said: "High levels of migration were having huge effects on the lives of people in Britain – and too often those in power seemed not to accept this."

But in an article for The Independent on Sunday, Ms Roche said: "There has been a remarkable reversal on this issue by some on the left. The aggressive rhetoric against 'illiberal' policies has been replaced by the accusation we let down the white working class. Suddenly, it's trendy to echo the rhetoric of Migration Watch … This is not sober analysis, it is the language of division. "

So much for the attempt to reinvent the Labour Party.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

There may be no Spitfires after all

Actually this is a great disapointment to me. I was rather looking forward to seeing film of 124 reassembled Spitfires flying in formation. However, the Telegraph tells us that archaeologists digging for a squadron of Spitfires in Burma have hit a blank and do not believe there are any planes to be found.

The paper says that Lincolnshire farmer Mr Cundall has campaigned for 17 years to launch his quest to find the buried treasure:

He claimed to have gathered testimony from eight eye witnesses, including British and American service men and locals people, who said that the planes were packaged up in crates and then buried on the orders of Lord Mountbatten in 1945.

At a second excavation site in Myitkyina, in northern Kachin state, researchers found a buried crate unexpectedly full of muddy water, which they said would take weeks to pump out.

The aircraft are believed to have been wrapped in tar paper, put in crates and transported from the factory in Castle Bromwich, West Midlands, to Burma in August 1945.

Some were flown in while others were carried over in ships and protected against the harsh weather conditions.

When the war against the Japanese in Burma ended, they are thought to have been buried to ensure they could not be used by Burmese independence fighters.

Let's hope they don't give up the hunt too soon.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The wrong solution?

This morning's Western Mail carries a report on a DWP pilot in Torfaen which, according to various housing organisations proves that certain tenants are not capable of taking responsibility for their own lives.

Essentially, the pilot is based around the fact that tenants currently have the choice to have their rent paid directly to them or to their landlord. The majority choose to have it paid to their landlord as it is one less thing to worry about. However, all that is to change with money being paid monthly into bank accounts as part of the switchover to Universal Credit.

However, when this was piloted with 435 lower risk tenants their total arrears of £21,457 increased to between £83,000 and £116,000 depending on the time of month. This has led Duncan Forbes, chief executive of Bron Afon Community Housing, to conclude that: “The results so far on the demonstration project and research by others are suggesting that as many as a third of working age tenants will need extensive long term support to cope with a change to direct payments."

Personally, I find it difficult to accept that conclusion simply because there are ways around this which do not involve increases in arrears and potential evictions.

One such solution is being put in place in Swansea where the local credit union is working with the Council and housing associations to sign up all new tenants. This means that if they are willing all their benefits can be paid into their credit union account, their priority debts disbursed and the balance charged to a debit style card that cannot be overdrawn.

There are 22 credit unions in Wales at present. Surely it is not beyond the wit of those working with tenants to set up this sort of arrangement for the more vulnerable.

Given this, I think the DWP spokesman is quite right to say that Universal Credit will give people the chance to take greater control over their finances and provide a much clearer route into work and independence – without them having to move on and off different benefits, or switching back and forth between paying rent and having the state pay it.

What is important is that organisations embrace that principle and make this work.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Clegg on the radio

Whatever you might think about Nick Clegg it has to be said that the weekly phone-in programmes on LBC were inspired. Every week he has become the subject of conversation and seemingly getting a positive message through to ordinary people.

Today's show is no exception. According to the Telegraph (I was in Committee) the Deputy Prime Minister used the opportunity to say what he thinks of those MPs who answered an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority survey by suggesting they are underpaid:

“It just beggars belief apparently that some MPs have anonymously said they deserve a pay increase,” Mr Clegg said on his weekly LBC Radio phone-in. “They are living on a different planet to think that you can say to teachers and nurses and doctors, ‘You’re only going to get a one per cent increase in your pay for the next several years but we deserve a [32 per cent] increase’.

“I think it’s potty and it’s not going to happen, certainly if I’ve got anything to do with it.”

Mr Clegg said he hopes Ipsa will now “do the sensible thing” and restrict MPs pay.
The Deputy Prime Minister said that public sector workers would be “insulted” that MPs have declared “that what they do is of greater value”.

“I hope Ipsa will do the sensible thing and follow what we’re doing in the public sector generally, which is asking people to be very restrained in the pay increases they get,” Mr Clegg added.

“I flatly and totally disagree with it. I don’t know who put their names to this. Whoever did needs to think again and also needs to think about what signal it sends out to the constituents of MPs who are being asked to have real restraint and limits on how fast their own pay increases.”

Anybody would think he had been reading this blog.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The only way is Pickles

Plans by Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles to provide a £6 million fund to encourage radical projects that will help non-speakers to learn English so they can "improve their circumstances and climb the social ladder" are very welcome.

However, as highlighted by the Independent, couldn't he find a more enticing reason for acquiring new language skills than it will enable beneficiaries to watch 'The Only Way Is Essex'? Shakespeare perhaps?

The art of Hansard

It must be a tough job providing a verbatim (edited) record of proceedings in the House of Commons, especially when there is such a range of accents, dialects and slang words being used by MPs. It is hardly surprising that at times the person preparing the record gives up and asks the member what they actually said, as happened here:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The influence of the unelected

Thanks to the Conservative Party the unelected House of Lords continues to exert undue influence on the legislative process. There is no indication that this situation will change anytime soon. However, at least you can see them exercising this influence day in, day out on the television. The same cannot be said for the royal family.

According to today's Guardian Whitehall papers prepared by Cabinet Office lawyers show that overall at least 39 bills have been subject to the most senior royals' little-known power to consent to or block new laws. They also reveal that the power has been used to torpedo proposed legislation relating to decisions about the country going to war:

The internal Whitehall pamphlet was only released following a court order and shows ministers and civil servants are obliged to consult the Queen and Prince Charles in greater detail and over more areas of legislation than was previously understood.

The new laws that were required to receive the seal of approval from the Queen or Prince Charles cover issues from higher education and paternity pay to identity cards and child maintenance.

In one instance the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member's bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament.

She was even asked to consent to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 because it contained a declaration about the validity of a civil partnership that would bind her.

In the pamphlet, the Parliamentary Counsel warns civil servants that if consent is not forthcoming there is a risk "a major plank of the bill must be removed".

The Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, Andrew George is quite right when he says that it shows the royals are playing an active role in the democratic process. He wants greater transparency in parliament so we can be fully appraised of whether these powers of influence and veto are really appropriate.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Yes Prime Minister

With a remake of Yes Prime Minister starting later this week, this article from former Prime Ministerial aide, Steve Hilton in today's Telegraph seems particularly apt.

Mr. Hilton has told students at Stanford University in California that Ministers are being overwhelmed by “horrific” bureaucracy dominated by “paper-shuffling” civil servants, often leaving David Cameron unaware of government decisions.

It is the age-old problem of senior officials trying to get their own way by wearing their Minster out with too much paperwork.

It is of course up to the Minister to suss-out these tactics and take action to deal with them. That is where special advisors fit in. If they are used properly, that is.

It reminds me of the episode of Yes Prime Minister, where the Israeli Ambassadro tips off Jim Hacker about the impending invasion of a British territory, which is then pre-empted by moving troops there on exercise.

When Sir Humphrey confronts him as to how he knew, the PM says that it was on page 650 (or similar) of that night's foreign office brief.  In other words, they tried to bury it under an avalanche of paper work so as not to alert him.

Will the new Yes Prime Minister be as relevant? We will have to see.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Miliband problem

Although current opinion polls might indicate that Labour are on course to win the 2015 General Election two and a half years is a long time in politics and today's Telegraph provides a graphic reminder that they have problems of their own that may well scupper their chances.

The paper illustrates the fault lines running through the main opposition party, with yet another story about the estranged Miliband brother and the forces within Labour determined to prevent him returning to support his less-talented brother.

They say that Ed Miliband has no plans to replace the current shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, or to hand his brother the job of masterminding Labour’s preparations for the next general election campaign:

Labour insiders last night put down the latest speculation to a long-running desire among David Miliband’s supporters to see him return to a top job and to a persistent mistrust of Mr Balls among the same group.

There are also reports the former foreign secretary’s mooted return was because he and his supporters were “spooked” by the fast rise of Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary who was only elected an MP in 2010, and that he feared his position as keeper of Labour’s Blairite flame was under threat.

Nothing there about the best interests of the party or of the country on either side:

Labour insiders insisted there were no plans for a David Miliband return. One MP said: “There is a group of people in the Parliamentary Labour Party who have never got over the fact David was not elected leader in 2010.

“They want him to return as a Messiah. The goal posts are constantly shifting - when we were in trouble in 2011 they wanted him back as leader, now we are doing much better and could easily form the next government they want him to be shadow chancellor.

“A lot of this - from the same people comes from their dislike and mistrust of Ed Balls. They are trying to build up a sense of the inevitability of his return. But the reality is nothing like that.

There is a feeling that David wasn’t with us when things were tough 18 months ago, so what gives him the right to swan back at a time of his choosing?” David Miliband has retained a following at all levels in Labour including James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, as well as prominent members of the shadow cabinet including Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, and Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary. Other political allies include John Woodcock, who last week stepped down as shadow transport minister for health reasons, and Liz Kendall, the shadow care minister.

NIce to see Labour has not changed.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why the USA will not be building a death star

This has to rate as one of the better responses to a petition:

Official White House Response to

Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016 - 34,435 Signatures

This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For

The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

•The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.

•The Administration does not support blowing up planets.

•Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

However, look carefully (here's how) and you'll notice something already floating in the sky -- that's no Moon, it's a Space Station! Yes, we already have a giant, football field-sized International Space Station in orbit around the Earth that's helping us learn how humans can live and thrive in space for long durations. The Space Station has six astronauts -- American, Russian, and Canadian -- living in it right now, conducting research, learning how to live and work in space over long periods of time, routinely welcoming visiting spacecraft and repairing onboard garbage mashers, etc. We've also got two robot science labs -- one wielding a laser -- roving around Mars, looking at whether life ever existed on the Red Planet.

Keep in mind, space is no longer just government-only. Private American companies, through NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO), are ferrying cargo -- and soon, crew -- to space for NASA, and are pursuing human missions to the Moon this decade.

Even though the United States doesn't have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we've got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we're building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun. We are discovering hundreds of new planets in other star systems and building a much more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that will see back to the early days of the universe.

We don't have a Death Star, but we do have floating robot assistants on the Space Station, a President who knows his way around a light saber and advanced (marshmallow) cannon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is supporting research on building Luke's arm, floating droids, and quadruped walkers.

We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field. The President has held the first-ever White House science fairs and Astronomy Night on the South Lawn because he knows these domains are critical to our country's future, and to ensuring the United States continues leading the world in doing big things.

If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star's power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

Paul Shawcross is Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget

Well that is what they want us to believe anyway.

Friday, January 11, 2013

MPs lose the plot again

Seriously, do they never learn? As the Western Mail reports, MPs have sparked a furious reaction by telling the watchdog reviewing their pay that they deserve a 32% hike to £86,250. In what alternative reality?

The paper says that a survey carried out for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority found 69% of MPs thought they were underpaid on £65,738. The average level suggested for their salary was £86,250. And more than a third believe they should keep generous final salary pensions.

These are the same people who are lecturing the rest of us on economic reality and limiting public sector workers and a large number of benefit claimants to a 1% increase in their incomes.

One would have thought that they would have got it by now. The standing of politicians amongst those who elect them is at rock bottom. And the reason for this is that many people perceive MPs and others to be money-grabbing parasites whose first concern is their own welfare.

I don't believe that is a true picture but MPs do not help themselves when they reinforce stereotypes in this way.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Welsh Government letting down the vulnerable

This morning's Western Mail has an interesting take on the changes to Council Tax benefit that will see claimants having to contribute 10% of their entitlement themselves. We already knew that the Scottish Government was picking up the shortfall themselves so as to protect the poor and vulnerable, however the Welsh Government say that they cannot afford to follow suit. That may well be the case.

What the paper shows however is that a number of English Councils are meeting the shortfall in their own schemes for good social and practical reasons.They say that the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s Cabinet is expected to approve a recommendation today that will see the council pick up a £1m bill to ensure that those who currently receive a rebate will continue to do so. A similar decision has already been taken by Westminster City Council and by Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

Perhaps if the Welsh Government had not insisted on a single national scheme but had allowed Councils to do their own thing as has happened in England then more people could have been protected in Wales as well.  The shortfall of £22m is a lot of money to find, but when it is shared out amongst the 22 Councils it becomes more affordable.

Has Welsh Labour's ideological obsession with central control disadvantaged vulnerable Welsh people?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

UKIP sets the trend by sacking official for being too liberal

The Independent reports on the decision of UKIP to sack the leader of their youth organisation for expressing his support for gay marriage on national radio. Presumably, it was the expression of a view contrary to that held by the reactionaries the party is currently trying to appeal to, rather that the fact that it was expressed on Radio Four that was the deciding factor in this decision.

The paper says that Olly Neville, who was appointed as chairman of Young Independence at the end of last year, was told by the party’s chairman that comments in support of gay marriage were “completely at odds with the party’s policy” and risked “seriously setting back the party’s current growth”:

In an earlier email, sent on 2 January after Mr Neville appeared on the World at One programme on BBC Radio 4, Mr Crowther said that Mr Neville had been “politically inept” and criticised his deviations from party policy on gay marriage and on the importance of the forthcoming European elections.

The email reads: “…your stated position on Gay Marriage is quite simply completely at odds with the Party's policy. Our policy on Gay Marriage is extremely important to us at this time. We have said specifically and repeatedly that we are opposed to the government's proposals on this, and that the Prime Minister has got it spectacularly wrong. For you to say precisely the opposite, on national radio, as the representative of YI, is absolutely unacceptable, and risks seriously setting back the party's current growth.”

After publicising his dismissal on Twitter last night Mr Neville told The Independent that his party was on “the wrong side of history” on gay marriage.

Being on the wrong side of history is a UKIP speciality so one should not really be surprised that they have achieved this feat once more.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Age of the young fogey

The Independent from a few days ago carries a fascinating and very enjoyable profile of everybody's favourite Tory MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Jacob is endearingly honest and forthright in his views, as well as very posh, qualities that have even spawned a parody twitter account and a viral video from a previous profile. Details of both can be found here.

Characteristically, the MP embraces his poshness:

Quentin Letts called him the "Hon Member for the Early 20th Century" who was "41 going on 90", while Ann Treneman noted that if there was "ever anyone who personifies the words 'out of touch', it may be The Mogg".

But three years on – and in Westminster at least – perceptions of Rees-Mogg, 43, are changing.

He was recently described by a Tory colleague as a "mini Boris" – charismatic despite being posh and an able politician who could explain complex arguments simply and intelligently – without recourse to vacuous sound bites.

He has become a frequent guest on programmes such as Newsnight where he has rather effectively defended the Government on tricky subjects such as benefit reform and rejecting statutory regulation of the press.

So are his appearances now sanctioned? "I think they're no longer de-sanctioned," he smiles. His agent, Margaret, sitting next to him, adds pointedly: "That's not as funny as you might think."

Rees-Mogg tries to explain with deliberate understatement: "I think in the early days they'd probably have been happier if I didn't do it – but I don't get the feeling now."

When you spend time with Rees-Mogg – watching him talk to constituents about mundane subjects like child benefit, parking restrictions and planning disputes – you wonder whether his fogeyish media image is a bit affected.

Yes, he has old-fashioned mannerisms – but nothing like the pantomime portrayal of him. He is also undeniably clever. Before going into politics he set up and ran his own highly successful investment company – not the mark of an upper-class bumbler. So is it a bit put on?

He laughs. "I've got a nasty feeling it's the truth. Reading my father's obituaries he had exactly the same image when he was my age. Everyone thought he was a young fogey. It's probably something to do with the Somerset air."

He then says something interesting and also rather revealing. "I think Boris has the answer to it. Boris makes no pretence about being anything other than he is. I've always been very suspicious of politicians who try to be 'men of the people' because actually it's a rather condescending view of the world. Everyone has their own individual or different experiences and you cannot, as a politician, have lived the life that anybody else has lived. "You can't say, I understand how millions of people live their lives because of how I've grown up."

It is little wonder that Jacob Rees Mogg is being tipped for promotion, even though he appears to have little ambition in that direction.

Monday, January 07, 2013

In defence of the most complained about charity

There is an old adage that if you are not being complained about then you are not doing your job properly. So how are we to interpret today's Telegraph article that records that the RSPCA, the biggest animal welfare charity in Britain, is also one of the country's most complained about charities?

The paper says that the Charity Commission, which regulates charities in England and Wales, has disclosed that it has received 12 complaints about the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals over the past two years, behind only the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the HFSH Charitable Trust, a spiritual healers charity, with 13 “cases” each, in the two years until March 31 2012.

They add that the RSPCA has been criticised by a judge and reported to the Commission by MPs and peers for controversially funding a successful £326,000 prosecution against Prime Minister David Cameron’s local hunt last month:

Referring specifically to the RSPCA, the Commission said it had “received complaints from different members of the public, primarily about the service provided by the charity, the charity’s activities or general decisions taken by the trustees in the course of their day to day management of the charity”.

It added: “In all instances the Commission felt that the complaints were best addressed by explaining its role and providing general advice and guidance to the complainants on the charity’s position.

The Commission said in its response that “the number of complaints received about a charity would not necessarily mean that that charity had acted wrongly or contrary to its charitable purpose”.

It added that the figures did not offer a “complete picture” of complaints because they did not include formal inquiries under the Charities Act, some telephone complaints to the Commission’s call centre and others dealt with by a specialist team.

One MP takes a different view though. He is Simon Hart, a former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, pro-hunting, pro-badger cull, somebody who one would not expect to be the RSPCA's greatest fan. Mr. Hart says that: “No animal based charity should the subject of so many complaints. It suggests a loss of direction and leadership, and a focus on political ideology at the expense of animal welfare.”

He clearly has a rather narrow view of animal welfare. It is not one I share nor is it one shared by the RSPCA. I am proud of their record and of the fact that they are prepared to stand up against this sort of pressure. At the end of the day it is not the fact that they are being complained against that shows they are doing their job, but who the people are who are making the complaints.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Letting the train take the strain

It is always dangerous to go down the route of criticising politicians for their expense claims, or even their mode of travel as one does not know the individual circumstances. Certainly, in my case I rarely use the train or the bus to travel to Cardiff because I often have to make stops all around my region on the way back for various meetings at times of the day and night that cannot be accommodated by public transport.

Nevertheless, the basis of this Daily Mail story does appear to be superficially intriguing and more adequate explanations should be forthcoming from the Minister concerned. Comfort does not appear to hack it as a reason why the Minister responsible for the rail network does not regularly catch readily-available trains on a reliable and convenient route, especially when his fellow ministers in the Transport department, and even the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, set such a good example.

Margaret Thatcher notoriously, did not use trains and it is reputed could not be coaxed to do so even for publicity. Is the Rail Minister seeking to emulate her?

The paper says that Simon Burns is ferried the 35 miles between his Essex home and his Whitehall office in the comfort of a Government car which costs the taxpayer £80,000 a year. The reason he gives for this is that he is barred from working on his Red Box of official Ministerial papers on the train for security reasons. However, the Cabinet Office says that Ministers can work on papers in public as long as they ensure sensitive material can not be seen.

In contrast, the three other Transport Ministers are remarkably frugal with their commuting arrangements. During the week, Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin makes the two-mile journey from his London home to his office either by walking or being collected in the other pool car, a £45,000 Land Rover Discovery. At weekends, he takes a train to his Derbyshire constituency.

Minister Stephen Hammond usually uses public transport to travel the eight miles to his Wimbledon home, ‘occasionally’ using a pool car, while Liberal Democrat Under-Secretary Norman Baker takes the train to and from his Lewes constituency twice a week, and otherwise travels from his London home to his office on foot or bus.

It is all a bit of a mess really but one that could be easily avoided with a little bit of effort on the part of the minister concerned.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Working for a £140 a week flat-rate pension

The Guardian highlights the latest moves by the Liberal Democrats in Government to deliver a flat-rate pension of £140 a week for all pensioners.

The paper says that a document updating the policy tasks still facing the coalition since the publication of its first coalition document in 2010 will be presented to Cabinet on Monday. They add that the paper will also emphasise improving school standards and cutting childcare costs by changing rules including those governing staff-children ratios.

The promise of a single state pension of about £140 a week is good news even if it will come into force after the 2015 election

Friday, January 04, 2013

Sweet Tooth

For those of us still struggling with left over tins of biscuits, cake and sweets from Christmas, the Independent had a rather sobering article yesterday on the impact of increasing sugar consumption on our health. But it is not the obvious foods causing the problem, rather our increased absorption of the sweet stuff has come about because of the surreptitious sweetening of other foods:

According to Dr Lustig, whose new book Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth about Sugar, it comes down to a change in diets in the 1970s; a change most of us probably didn't even notice. The Seventies saw the development of foods with manipulated low-fat contents. And low-fat food, according to Dr Lustig, is making us fat.

"When you remove fat from food, it tastes like cardboard, The food industry knows that. So when they took fat out, they had to add the carbohydrate in; and in particular fructose sugar," says Dr Lustig. So as the low-fat dogma took hold, we cut out the fat and started taking on vastly more fructose. In America fructose intake (mostly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup) has increased 100-fold since 1970.

They say that in the UK, the quantity of stand-alone bags of sugar sold, that is stuff lingering in granny's baking cupboard, has decreased. Yet in the period from 1990 to 2000 consumption of sugar went up by around a third, and a significant quantity of that is sucrose, which is 50 per cent made up of fructose. This is what researchers mean when they refer to the rise of "invisible sugar".

It is invisible in the sense that few of us notice it but it very much exists. Take, for instance, a Volvic Touch of Fruit Lemon and Lime (1.5 litres) – how much sugar would you guess was in that? You'd be hard pressed to guess: 16 sugar cubes. Or barbecue flavour Pringles? They have 1.5 cubes. A plain bagel? 1 cube.

How have we become accustomed to sugar in just about everything that passes our lips in such a relatively short period of time? According to Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, we are used to it because we eat more – and we eat more because we need more. "We experience it in increasing amounts and grow accustomed to it. Think of it like eating chillies – the more you eat, the more you need to eat to feel the level of heat."

This goes some way to explaining what the writer Felicity Lawrence found when she studied fruit and vegetable production in 2007. She discovered that farmers are increasingly concentrating on producing super-sweet varieties of fruit that hitherto had been thought sweet enough. Why? Because our whole diet has an ambient quantity of sugar in it – so a sweet apple suddenly seems bland.

So it is almost addictive and the effects of this are pretty disastrous health-wise:>.

Because although sugar – as we know it – is made up of glucose, which is essential for life, it also has a fructose component. It is this that causes the problems, says Dr Lustig: "The mitochondria (the energy-burning factories in our cells) in our liver have a fixed capacity for burning the fructose. When you overload them with extra fructose, they will burn some, but they have no choice but to turn the excess into liver fat.>.

"That starts the cascade of insulin resistance, which then promotes chronic metabolic disease, including diabetes and heart disease.".

This is a direct cause of obesity but also of tooth decay. Putting the amount of sugar we do consume in simple terms is quite frightening. The average person now consumes 150 pounds of sugar each year, that is the equivalent of approximately seventy five one kilogram bags or 33 tablespoons each day.

I find that very disturbing indeed.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Using the Freedom of Information Act

As an Assembly Member I often find myself resorting to the Freedom of Information Act to conduct basic scrutiny, often in circumstances when I should not have to use this device. For some reason an official Assembly Question from a member does not carry the same weight with Ministers and Officials as FOI requests. Thus, we often have to write formally to get any sense out of Government.

Equally, a fairly innocuous request for information from a local Council, even when publication is in their interest as well, is often shunted off to the FOI Officer and subjected to statutory timescales. In many cases they are ignored and one does not get an answer at all despite the legal obligation on the Council to respond. In other cases Councils meet the deadlines but are deliberatively obstructive. The worst Council in Wales for being bloody-minded in this way, in my experience is Flintshire. Other people may have found otherwise.

That is why I was interested in this article from an investigative journalist on how to get the most out of the Freedom of Information Act. Most of the tools he outlines out are already in my reportoire but there are some useful tips there on interpretating the various responses:

1) Study the exemptions used very, very carefully. The UK FOIA contains exemptions which government/public bodies can use to withhold information. For example, if the information you’re requesting contains the personal data of a living person, they won’t release it (Section 40). Thankfully, they have to tell you why they’re not releasing it. This alone can provide clues about a story. For example, in a recent FOI response, NI’s police told me that they couldn’t release information about a crime because:

“….information may sometimes be provided by bodies listed at section 23(3). In this case, I am unable to confirm or deny whether the police hold any information relevant to your request and sections 23(5)….. are cited to protect the involvement or non-involvement of bodies listed at section 23(3).”

Despite the sketchy wording (“involvement or non-involvement”), I was able to deduce that they had received intelligence about the case from another security body (one of those listed under Section 23(3)). After months of digging, this was a big breakthrough. Even though they refused to answer my questions, I learned something new.

2) If a public body refuses to release information, ask them to conduct an internal review. If the review finds in their favour, you can escalate it to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who will then conduct an independent review. I recommend doing this. When public bodies refuse to release info, it’s often because they think the journalist will just go away. They’re betting that you have a deadline to meet and don’t have time to argue with them. Prove them wrong. If nothing else, you’ll make them think twice about denying requests on a whim.

3) When developing your argument for release of the information, think like a lawyer. Your impassioned plea for public accountability will fall on deaf ears. The only thing the ICO cares about about is if the spirt and letter of the law was followed correctly in the original decision. You must argue that it wasn’t and have the evidence to prove it. Build your case as if you’re a prosecutor trying to convince a jury.

4) When public bodies refuse to release information, their reasoning can be quite vague. My favourite excuse is: “It would not be in the interests of national security to release this to you – and we can’t tell you why because it concerns national security.” Often, it turns out that national security was not at risk at all; the real problem was a fear of negative press coverage. Use the ICO review as an opportunity to drill down into their reasoning. Even if the ICO sides with them, you may be able to glean information about what makes the information so sensitive.

Absolute exemptions require a different tack. As there is no public interest test, your only option is to argue that they shouldn’t have been applied in the first place.

5) Above all, be persistent. It may be a long and painful process but if you succeed at nothing other than being a pain in the ass to the authorities, you’ve succeeded.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Illustrated New Year Resolutions

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The axe murderer and the MP

Labour MP Gloria de Piero writes in the Guardian about how she discovered the deep unpopularity of politicians and carried out her own research to learn more. She does so in dramatic fashion recounting how a fan from her TV days asked for a photograph, posing with his arm around her. At the end, she mentioned that she was now an MP. "He didn't say 'what party' or anything, he just went [De Piero goes silent] and walked [she mimes somebody shunning her]. James and I said 'oh my gosh, it's like I'm an axe murderer now'."

She took it upon herself to talk to six groups of people across the country to find out why people seem to dislike politicians so much:

As she talked with mothers, one-time miners, golfers and warehouse workers, the former GMTV journalist turned Labour MP was offered many reasons: the expenses scandal was mentioned again and again; more recently the chief whip's insult to a police officer at the gate to Downing Street. The weekly shout-a-thon that is prime minister's questions was on the list, as was public grandstanding by MPs on benefits cheats, "shirkers", and moral responsibility.

What this all boiled down to, though, was a simple but strong message: MPs were not "like us" and they did not understand voters' concerns.

The consensus was that politicians came from different backgrounds, had more income and job security than was usual, and appeared – almost always on television – to spend their time bickering and avoiding difficult questions, rather than trying to find solutions to everyday problems.

Challenged as to why these critics did not stand for election themselves, to represent their own interests, one person in the aerobics class was blunt: "Because I hate the way you do politics," said Anne, a semi-retired florist.

Her conclusions are not unexpected nor is the feedback she got from the groups, which is worth quoting in detail:

Each meeting started with her asking the group to list the words they associated with politician. The results were not kind: them and us, the old man, upper class, completely different, liars, selfish, self-seeking, privileged and arrogant, spiv, jargon talkers, people who did not live in the real world. When she asked whom the politicians worked for, the reply was "themselves". Subsequent discussions explained a lot about why. Again and again groups believed MPs had special qualifications; many respondents suggested they had mostly been to Cambridge University. "They've gone to different schools that you've not gone to, and they don't struggle with child care," suggested Tanya, 34, from Manchester.

MPs did not reply to adverts at the jobcentre or in the local newspaper. They had different sorts of jobs, said two warehouse workers, and they were not people who would understand what it was like to struggle on the minimum wage or benefits while shop prices were rising.

The perceived difference from their own lives was clear. "As a girl in one of the roughest areas of Manchester there's no way they are going to say 'do you know what, we'll have you in parliament'," said Joanne, 31.

Once MPs got to parliament, the gulf seemed to widen. "They live in their own little bubble … they aren't of this world," said Colin, a butcher at the tenants' and residents' association get-together in a Deptford pub.

PMQs was "like Jeremy Kyle with posh people", said Ross, another warehouse worker.

"Sometimes you see a debate in the Commons and they're just attacking each other," said Leanne, 31, one of the Manchester women. "I just think, it's not about you, it's about the wider people."

Many voters sent in emails when they read what De Piero was doing.

"The vast majority of decent, fair-minded, law-abiding [people] in this country have lost all faith and trust in politicians and the political system, which is confirmed by the low turnouts in general and local elections," wrote one. "The politicians then describe the low turnouts as 'apathy', which could not be further from the truth."

De Piero said: "The most depressing quote I got was from Sharon [one of the Manchester mothers trying to save a local Sure Start children's centre]. She said 'there will never be a prime minister like us'. I just think 'why not?'"

What is interesting, though again borne out by other studies, is that people generally like their local MP, especially if they have met him or her, and this is regardless of party. It is "other" politicians they do not like or respect.

De Piero has written a report for the Labour Leader, in the hope that her party at least will change the way it looks for candidates. However, what her research shows is that people's distrust and dislike of the political class has nothing to do with background, it is how we behave as politicians.

What is worse, is that even though it is an effective tactic, Labour's portrayal of the government as out-of-touch aristos plays into these attitudes and reinforces them. Their problem is that the mud is not just sticking to the government but to themselves and other politicians as well. People do not distinguish between the parties in this regard. If one group of MPs are public school millionaires who don't know how the other half live, then aren't all politicians the same?

If we are to rebuild trust then we need to behave differently as a political class, talk about issues rather than personalities, be more self-effacing in what we think we are entitled to in terms of salary and expenses and build on the good personal relationships that exist between individuals at constituency level.

Speaker Bercow is right when he tries to restore order during Prime Minister's Questions with the assertion that people do not want to see the sort of confrontational, animalistic politics we get week-in, week-out. Robust debate on the issues is one thing, name-calling quite something different.

If De Piero wants to make a difference then she needs to convince Miliband of that essential truth. And I and other politicians need to listen better and convince our leadership of the same.

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