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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Government need to think again on secret courts

UK Government plans to introduce secret courts for certain cases has come under fire again with the Parliamentary Human Rights committee saying that it remains unconvinced that closed material procedures are necessary in civil cases, whilst at the same time more than 700 legal professionals insisted the plans were “dangerous and unnecessary” in an open letter.

The Independent reports that the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) criticised the government for failing to include some of its proposed safeguards and urged it to think again:

Its report condemned the fact that it had not introduced a condition that CMPs should only be used as a “last resort” or that the need for fair and open administration should be balanced with national security issues. It also called on the government to offer a fairer level playing field by giving its opposition some indication of what secret material was being withheld.

While welcoming some amendments to the Bill, the committee’s chairman Dr Hywel Francis MP said they did not go far enough: “We remain sympathetic to the problems faced by the Government in dealing with sensitive material, but the Bill as drafted does not put in place sufficiently robust safeguards to oversee the exercise of what are very wide-ranging powers....We urge the Government to think again and make sure that secret proceedings are used only in cases of pressing national security need, and are the last possible resort.”

Meanwhile 700 legal figures, including 38 leading QCs, wrote an open letter to the Daily Mail warning that the Justice and Security Bill would “fatally undermine” the fairness of court hearings.

Among the signatories was the Rev Nicholas Mercer, a former lieutenant colonel who was the senior legal officer on operations during the invasion of Iraq.

“The Justice and Security Bill has one principle aim and that is to cover up UK complicity in rendition and torture,” he said. ”The Bill is an affront to the open justice on which this country rightly prides itself and, above all, it is an affront to human dignity.”

Time for a complete rethink on this Bill, I believe.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A worrying development for Welsh Government

The statement in today's Western Mail by Redrow chairman Steve Morgan that it is harder to build new homes in Wales than in England is worrying on a number of levels.

Mr. Morgan told the paper that the stimulus to the new homes market evident in England is not being seen in Wales because the Government-backed NewBuy scheme for people with small deposits was not available and there are no plans for an equivalent of FirstBuy, which helps first-time buyers get on the property ladder.

He added that this situation is being compounded by increased build costs in Wales due to planning and regulatory burdens, which he warned will get worse if changes to building regulations take effect.

Now I am sure that the Welsh Government will dispute some of that but there is no doubt that the huge and unforgiveable delay in launching their mortgage guarantee scheme under the NewBuy label is helping to depress the housing market in Wales and is preventing many people getting onto the housing ladder in the first place.

That NewBuy scheme was forced onto the Government by the Welsh Libeal Democrats as part of a budget deal over 10 months ago and yet the latest indication we have had of it being available to applicants and builders is a letter from the First Minister which talks of a summer launch. The lack of political will and foot-dragging on this scheme has been a disgrace.

The issue of regulation is of course a matter of perspective, however the fact that the perception is there that Wales is a difficult environment in which to develop new homes means that the barrier becomes self-fulfilling. The key to housebuilding investment is confidence and if investors and builders believe that it is more difficult to build homes in Wales or that they will get less profit if they do so, then they will go elsewhere.

That is a problem the Welsh Government need to urgently address.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Over-optimism may scupper single environment body claims

On Thursday the Assembly's Finance Committee will be scrutinising the order that will effect the merger of the Countryside Council for Wales, Environment Agency Wales and the Forestry Commission into a single environment body to be known as Natural Resources Wales. We have asked to look at this because of the very sparse detail of the costs of merger in this document and what looks like massive over-optimism with regards to potential savings.

The decision to scrutinse this order further appears to be supported by an article on the BBC website which says that the new body is facing a £50m pensions deficit. Furthermore, the ambition to save £158 million over 10 years as a result of the merger, largely predicated on a new computer system also looks to be in jeopardy.  The BBC say that not only is the pension deficit larger than expected but also that the IT system is not ready.

They report that the business case for the merger allocated £19m to cover the pension debt of amalgamating staff into a single organisation, but the Welsh government has now admitted that is unrealistic. In addition Emyr Roberts, the chief executive of Natural Resources Wales has conceded that the IT system is unlikely to work properly for a year or two.

I support this merger on the grounds of delivering a more joined up service, but it is not helped when the Welsh Government claim savings for the change that do not stand up to scrutiny. Thursday's meeting could be interesting.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Recognition needed for Swans Chairman after cup triumph

Like most of Swansea I am still on cloud nine after the outstanding out come of the Capital One Cup Final yesterday. It was an outstanding performance and shows how far the Swans have come in the last ten years. I am gutted that I have Assembly commitments on Tuesday and will not be able to attend the victory parade and civic reception.

Having been a Councillor in the City for the best part of 29 years I can recall most of the highlights and the low moments of the clubs history in that period. This includes the near-bankruptcy of the club, the deal struck with the Council on the Vetch so that the club could use it as security for a loan and of course that fateful match ten years ago when we were 90 minutes away from going out of the football league altogether.

I attended some of the initial meetings of the supporters trust, though I did not have the time to do more than offer moral support. However that organisation and the business consortium which took over the Swans made a huge difference, both to the way the club is run and to its prospects.

A constant throughout those ten years has been club chairman, Huw Jenkins. His prudent management has helped to put the club on a firm financial footing, whilst his philosophy and his ability to pick managers has been instrumental both to the Swans' footballing success to the way that they play, which has received universal praise.

If anybody deserves to be recognised for his contribution to football, to the Swans and to Swansea it is Huw Jenkins. Perhaps we should start a campaign to ensure that he gets that recognition in the next honours' list.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Clegg challenges Cameron on taxation

Today's Observer reports that Nick Clegg has accused David Cameron of being "stuck in the past" for opposing a mansion tax. They say that this signals that the Liberal Democrats are ready to challenge the Tories more vigorously over key aspects of economic policy:

The Lib Dem leader says plans for a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m, recently backed by Labour, is an idea "whose time has come" and says it is a "certainty" that some levy on high-value properties will be introduced soon. "The Conservatives and opponents of fairer taxes have a choice," Clegg writes. "They can dig their heels in and remain stuck in the past. Or they can join with the Liberal Democrats and the chorus of voices seeking to make our tax system fair. Far better, surely, to move with the times."

The Liberal Democrats leader hinted that he is prepared to work more closely with Labour on this issue: "As we try to build a stronger, more entrepreneurial economy who can possibly defend a tax system that rewards unearned wealth at the expense of hard work?"

This is a Liberal Democrats issue irrespective of Labour's attempt hi-jack it and it is good to see Clegg contnuing to lead on it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A taxing ambition

As I set off to Eastleigh to help the Liberal Democrats hold onto Chris Huhne's former seat, it seems appropriate to highlight this article in yesterday's Independent which sets out the party's ambition to take even more low earners out of tax altogether.

The paper says that our next manifesto is likely to contain a plan to raise the tax-free personal allowance to close to £13,000. Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, wants us to ensure that nobody earning the minimum wage should have to pay tax.

That is a proposal that shows up Labour's lack of ambition.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Why all the fuss about Wikipedia?

Today's Western Mail must have the non-story of the week with a little diatribe about former Welsh Labour Environment Minister, Jane Davidson removing negative comments from her Wikipedia entry.

They say that Ms. Davidson has admitted removing critical comments such as her failure to notify the independent advisory committee on business appointments of a new job, from her Wikipedia entry and replacing them with positive material:

The Western Mail story about the ticking-off given to Ms Davidson was referred to in her Wikipedia entry – and was one of the elements removed by her.

Other negative references removed from her page in the online encyclopaedia include school closures that she did not halt as Education Minister.

One entry accused her of executing Shambo, a “sacred” bullock owned by a religious community called the Community of the Many Names of God at Llanpumsaint in Carmarthenshire. As the minister responsible for rural affairs, Ms Davidson backed the bullock’s slaughter in 2007 after it tested positive for bovine TB.

Among material added by Ms Davidson to her Wikipedia entry is a section which states: “Jane is passionate about the environment and resource efficiency and has been given a number of accolades for her work. She was the third most influential environmentalist in the UK for the Independent on Sunday in 2009 and has been Resource magazine’s no 1 and 2 in 2009 and 2010 for her work on waste which has seen Wales come from behind the rest of the UK to be the lead recycling country in Britain and the first UK country to charge for single use carrier bags.

Let us be clear about this, Wikipedia is not an unimpeachable gold-plated reference source, it is an open website in which anybody can add any material they wish and is often subject to trolls, who for their own reasons will mischieviously add inaccurate or vindictive material to biographies of contemporary figures, especially politicians.

My Wikipedia entry, which I did not initiate, has been subject to such attacks and I have removed that material on a regular basis. I felt that I could do this because, as Jane Davidson says, that is how Wikipedia works.

Personally, I have no problem with her actions in this regard. She acted reasonably and has been quite open about what she did. One's on-line identity can be very important for one's reputation and in seeking employment. Why would anybody allow such attacks on their character to remain on-line if they are able to remove them? Why does the Western Mail think this is a story?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Headline of the day

From today's South Wales Evening Post:

Swansea City fans warned of the dangers of flammable novelty wigs

It is a shame they did not adopt the headline from the Council's press release which was:

Swans fans warned of dangers of flammable Mohican wigs

The Welsh for flammable Mohican wigs by the way is Wigiau Mohicanaidd llosgadwy.

Hide and seek with the Tories

I am heading down to Eastleigh on Saturday so maybe I will bump into the Conservative candidate or at least discover why it is that her party are trying to hide her from the media. Politics and elections are meant to be about putting your views across and being scrutinised on them. That is not how the Tories fight elections it seems.

The latest episode, as reported in the Guardian, relates to a national radio hustings this morning, which the Tory candidate refused to attend. Maria Hutchings has hit the headlines during the campaign over trenchant views ranging from state education to the EU and gay marriage.

The paper says that there is growing concern within the party that with a week to go before polling day her no-nonsense and frequently off-message approach is damaging its chances of seizing the seat from the Liberal Democrats:

Candidates from the other major parties were attending the debate – chaired by Victoria Derbyshire – on Thursday morning for 5 Live, a major set-piece of the week. But Conservative officials said Hutchings would not be there because she was expecting a visit from the prime minister at lunchtime.

The Lib Dem party president, Tim Farron, led the criticism. He said: "She's refusing to show up to a hustings with the people she says she wants to represent, proving her claims to stay in touch are empty and worthless.

"You have to ask why the Conservative machine keeps trying to hide her away. This is a candidate who says on her leaflets that she puts local people before political ambition, yet the moment she gets to share the spotlight with her party leader all that is forgotten."

Things really are getting interesting.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A failure of transparency

A few weeks ago the Housing Regeneration and Heritage Minister made a statement in the Assembly chamber entitled 'Making a Difference: The Role of Museums, Archives and Libraries in Tackling Child Poverty’ in which he announced an additional £150,000 to be spent before the end of March across his heritage portfolio. Naturally, I asked him how this money will be spent and how the outcomes will be monitored but did not get an answer so I tabled a written question to the same effect. This is the answer I had today:

Changing Cultures / Newid Pethe will deliver a rich programme of cultural and heritage activities aimed at encouraging children and young people in Wales to enjoy, learn and be inspired by our history, heritage and culture. Organisations funded by the Heritage Portfolio will be encouraged to review their approach to working with children and young people disadvantaged by circumstance or location.

Activities co-ordinated by Cadw include a Heritage Graffiti Project with youth offenders in addition to visits to hillfort, Roman fort and shipwreck sites with school children. Free entry to all Cadw sites open during the winter season will encourage broader audiences from 1 March.

CyMAL: Museums, Archives and Libraries Wales division is co-ordinating a varied activities programme in our national and local libraries, museums and archives.

Public libraries and the National Library of Wales are working closely with the Welsh Books Council to arrange all Wales activities around World Book Day on 7 March to encourage more children to enjoy reading. Libraries are working with a theatre company, storytellers, authors and an illustrator. Kids in Museums is supporting young people in the production of a bilingual DVD on making museums more relevant to children. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales will conduct research on participation in cultural activities by children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Glamorgan Archives will conduct workshops with school children to explore the impact of poverty on children through artistic interpretation. A key strand of all Changing Cultures activities will be ensure that schoolchildren are able to take part in activities through meeting transport needs.

The evaluation of activities and outcomes will be based on the Inspiring Learning for All framework which identifies learning outcomes in five areas. Outcomes will also feed into the Programme for Government monitoring process.

All very laudable but there isnt a single figure in there that gives me even a clue as to how much money has been allocated to each activity. Does he know?

I have now had to table another question and wait two weeks for a further answer. There is no guarantee that that answer will be any more enlightening. This is the level of transparency and accountability that we have to endure day-in, day-out with the Welsh Government. It does not say much for Welsh democracy.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cyber security concerns

Internet security has been a concern of national government's for some time. It is inevitable given the international nature of the internet that any information held on it is vulnerable to attack. There are also other issues regarding ownership of that information when it is stored on servers in a different country to its source.

That is why the Prime Minister is right to raise this issue with the Indian Government but although it is a start, the issue of confidential information about millions of Britons stored on Indian computer systems being open to cyber attack from terrorists, fraudsters and hostile nations such as China, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Independent reports that David Cameron and his counterpart, Manmohan Singh, will establish a joint force dedicated to fighting against hacking and organising specialist training for police officers. There will also be exchanges set up for academics from the two countries to pool expertise on how best to combat the threat.

Ideally though this is a subject that is bigger than a bilateral agreement of this nature. There needs to be a wide-ranging international agreement backed up by a legally binding treaty on a whole range of issues including security, ownership of data, cross-border redress for individuals who are illegally targeted by hackers and trolls and some ethical policing.

It is a big ask but such an international protocol is getting more and more urgent.

Monday, February 18, 2013

San Francisco comes to Cardiff Bay

I note that two Labour loyallists are asking the First Minister questions about his recent trade mission to San Francisco. Clearly that is a spontaneous act on their part, independently reached and with no idea what answer they might get. Will Carwyn be wearing flowers in his hair?

Out of touch headline of the day

Today's Independent runs a story under the banner 'Lib Dems could back Labour's 'mansion tax'. What world do they live in?

Even Labour admit that they nicked the idea from the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps somebody should tell the Independent. If we do decide to support the idea at this moment, then it will be 'Lib Dems back Lib Dems' mansion tax'.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Welsh Secretary still reaping the whirlwind

The Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones is trying to keep a low profile after telling a TV interviewer on Friday that his reason for voting against gay marriage was that "clearly" gay couples "cannot provide a warm and safe environment" in which to raise children. However, the storm continues to engulf him.

His clarification that: "Since same-sex partners could not biologically procreate children, the institution of marriage, in my opinion, should be reserved to opposite-sex partners" does not help. In fact it digs him into a even deeper hole.

As Barbara Ellen comments in today's Observer, he still does not seem quite sure what he is talking about. She points out that Mr. Jones says that he is not against civil partnerships, or gay couples adopting, and he has "people in my life who are important to me who are gay" and then asks: What kind of skewed mindset thinks gay couples should have civil partnerships and adoption rights, then balks at marriage? It's like a horse that's just won the "gay issues" Grand National, but then trips over a bucket.

She continues: There's no point rising to the "biological" bait. Some gay parents have biological children, while some heterosexual couples can't. Should the former be termed "honorary straights" and the latter reclassified as "gay" and barred from marriage? Parenting is not a slave to biology anyway. Many heterosexual families (adoptive, step, etc) aren't all biologically linked to each other – do we quote the Bible at them? As for the lack of "a warm and safe environment", does Jones think that gay people take their children clubbing or send them out, Fagin-style, to score amyl nitrate? Jones also ignores the countless cases of child abuse, neglect and murder in so-called righteous hetero-households.

The most damning criticism however is in Pink News who record how one of Wales' most senior politicians was pwned by an eight year old girl:

An eight-year-old girl has written to the Welsh Secretary David Jones to tell him that she has been brought up “perfectly well” by her two lesbian mothers.

The letter was posted by one of the child’s mothers on Twitter:-
Dear Mr Jones,
I am writing to inform you that I don’t agree that children shouldn’t be brought up by lesbian or gay people. My name is Elizabeth and I am a child with lesbian parents. I have got a little sister called Pippa for short and I have got two mums, one is called Kate and the other is called Alison. I have been brought up perfectly well so I don’t see any point in you saying that. Me and some of my other friends agree that you can be brought up by anyone who will love you and care for you and make sure your [sic] happy. Please write back!
Maybe the Welsh Secretary needs to keep his head down for a little bit longer.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The candidate who keeps on giving

Having already commented on the misadventures of the Tory candidate for Eastleigh I note that her minders let her off the leash again with inevitable consequences.

The Daily Mirror reports that Maria Hutchings sparked a storm yesterday by saying her 12-year-old couldn’t possibly go to state school because he wanted to be a “cardio-respiratory surgeon”:

Tory Maria Hutchings, who is fighting to win the vacant seat of disgraced former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne, indicated two local schools with glowing Ofsted reports were not good enough for her boy.

She said: “William is very gifted which gives us another interesting challenge in finding the right sort of education for him – impossible in the state system. He wants to be a cardio-respiratory surgeon.”

Her comments flew in the face of inspectors’ opinions of schools in Eastleigh, Hants, a seat the Tories are hoping to win back from the Lib Dems.

One, Wildern ­comprehensive, was rated “outstanding” last year, while Thornden was ranked amongst the top performing schools in the county.

Another, Toynbee, was praised for providing an “improving standard of education, within a caring and supportive learning environment.

Naturally, we would like to hear more about this candidate's views on a whole range of subjects.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Two Eds blunder over new 10p tax rate

Anybody who had even minor suspicions about Labour's economic competence would have had their fears confirmed yesterday after Ed Miliband stood up in a major speech, said that the abolition of the 10p tax rate by his government in 2007 was a mistake, and proposed that it be reintroduced, to be funded by a new mansion tax.

It is a shame that they did not do this when they were in Government. Instead they supported the move to abolish the 10p tax rate. It was the biggest tax mistake they ever made and it has taken them until now to realise their error.

The best way to cut taxes for those on low incomes is take them out of tax altogether. That is why Liberal Democrats in Government are raising the Personal Allowance. From April, over a million people in Wales will get a further Income Tax cut so they will be £600 a year better off than under Labour. Already we have ensured that the 100,000 lowest paid workers in Wales will not pay a single penny of income tax.

Labour had 13 years in Government to make property taxes fairer by introducing the Liberal Democrat policy of a Mansion Tax, but they chose not to. With the Liberal Democrats in Government the wealthy are paying more in each year of this Parliament compared to any under Labour.

But do not take my word for it. Look instead at the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies. They make two key points. Firstly, they show that reintroducing Labour’s 10p rate in full would reduce tax revenues by around £7 billion a year and benefit basic rate taxpayers by up to £271 a year. They say that it is unlikely that anything close to this amount could be raised through a mansion tax alone. That leaves a black hole in Labour's plans already.

Secondly, they say: A far simpler and more sensible way of achieving these aims would be to spend the same amount of money on increasing the personal allowance – a policy on which the current government has already spent £9 billion a year. This would have virtually the same impact on individuals’ tax payments (see figure below), be slightly more progressive, take some people out of income tax altogether and avoid the complexity involved in introducing a new income tax rate.

In seeking to differentiate themselves from the coalition government on tax and in trying to counter the beneficial impact of our tax policies on the low paid, Labour have steered themselves into an economic cul-de-sac and reopened the doubts as to whether they can be trusted to run the economy again.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Labour struggle on the economy

After Labour's policy chief, Jon Cruddas displayed a barely-literate understanding of the economy and taxation policy on last night's Newsnight, Ed Miliband must be hoping that his big speech on the economy today will help to turn the tide in his party's favour on the key issue of economic-competence.

According to the Telegraph the first people the Labour leader needs to convince are senior members of his own party. The paper says that a significant number of the his front-bench team are demanding a tougher line to convince voters that the party can be trusted with the public finances again:

One senior party source told The Daily Telegraph: “We have got a big credibility issue. We have to show what we would cut now and we haven’t.”

“If the economy starts to recover, the Tories can say, ‘there is a bit more pain, stick with us

“There is a significant body of opinion inside the shadow cabinet which thinks the only way to get credibility is to sign up to the Tories’ spending plans.”

Other shadow cabinet sources privately concede that the party has failed to convince the public that it has a credible economic plan and must do more to reassure voters.

In the past two weeks, a succession of senior Labour figures including Tony Blair and the former Cabinet minister, Alan Johnson, have warned that the party must produce more policies urgently.

Mr Blair said Mr Miliband faced a significant challenge to translate his vision into practical plans but must do so within months.

Despite all this today's speech will contain no new policy initiatives. No wonder the brothers and sisters are restless.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Welfare reform must not perish over court ruling

Over at the Telegraph Lottie Dexter argues that a court ruling that calls on the government to scrap its controversial back-to-work scheme risks undermining the Coalition's entire programme of welfare reform.

She says that the victory in the Court of Appeal by University graduate Cait Reilly on Tuesday over her claim that requiring her to work for free at a Poundland discount store was unlawful marks the latest kick in the teeth for Department of Work and Pensions:

This controversial ruling throws the Work Programme, a central plank of Iain Duncan Smith’s initiatives, into question. Similar to the scheme that Ms Reiley was signed onto, the Work Programme time-limits benefits by automatically signing claimants up for intensive support; those aged 18-24 years must join up after nine months on benefit, and the over-25s after a year. And if they refuse this assistance, they risk having their benefits get cut.

These parameters underpin the success of a whole programme of welfare reform and their removal would strike the heart of the Tories' flagship social policy. Moving people into work relies not just on incentive, but also a set of terms and conditions.

The implementation of Universal Credit, which lets claimants keep some of their benefits when they start a job and in doing so makes work pay, provides a much-needed carrot.

A carrot, however, means little without a stick. And the threat of having no more benefit payments – life support money – is this stick. It is the linchpin of reform. It gives social workers a bargaining chip, and gives an incentive to the unemployed – often under confident, insecure and with no experience – to turn up at the start of the day.

It is the case of course that these schemes are not unique to this government. The previous Labour Government imposed a similar obligation on claimants.

Lottie Dexter though says that the Government must salvage something from this decision:

Far too often, these young people are left stranded in unemployment, their talents ignored and potential wasted. But these schemes give them a helping hand. They give them the basic skills that they don’t learn in school; turning up on time, working with a team and taking instruction and responsibility. And they can bulk up a CV, have a job interview and gain a referee.

Basic as this might sound our young job hunters don’t have these skills. Many are without a CV. Most are without experience.

As such we shouldn’t be too quick to write off the back-to-work scheme, and certainly not welfare reform. Back-to-work schemes are not 'slavery'.

The DWP have a long road ahead, but it’s a most important one and must be travelled.

We will have to see what the Department of Work and Pensions do next.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tories choose a wiki-candidate

The Conservative candidate for Eastleigh, Maria Hutchings seems determined to make her mark. The problem is that the impact she is making is not one that her minders are particularly keen on.

Mark Pack has set out the sage of Ms. Hutchings playing hide and seek with the media here, however a new embarrassment has now emerged over her website.

The Independent reports that despite stressing her local links Ms. Hutchings has resorted to a description of the town on her campaign website that has been copied verbatim from the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. The Liberal Democrats candidate, Mike Thornton, has very kindly offered to take her on a tour of the area. He said: “I’m more than happy to boost her local knowledge.”

How nice of him.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Is it really 50 years?

The Independent on Sunday reports on a significant milestone in rock history, with an event being staged today. They say that 50 years to the minute, within the same four walls where Please Please Me was committed to tape, scores of artists will attempt to recreate the famous session:

Musicians including Joss Stone, Graham Coxon, Beverley Knight and Glenn Tilbrook will gather in Abbey Road's Studio 2 to reinterpret the tracks recorded on 11 February 1963. Also tomorrow, BBC Radio 2 will be dominated by 12 Hours to Please Me, starting at 10am and finishing – just as the original session did – at 10.45pm.

The album, which cost a mere £400 to make, was essentially just a recording of the band's live show with a few covers thrown in to bulk out the number of songs. Their producer, George Martin, often referred to as the "fifth Beatle", initially thought about recording it at the Cavern Club in Liverpool where the band played hundreds of gigs, but decided the acoustics were too poor. He opted for the north London studio instead.

This is my favourite track:

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Lib Dems changing an unfair system for pensioners

Nick Clegg writes in today's Telegraph on reforms being put forward by the UK Coalition so that nobody will be forced to sell their home to pay for long term care:

If you develop cancer, the NHS will pay for your care, no matter who you are and what your income.

If you develop dementia, and the care you need isn’t radiotherapy or expensive drugs but help with washing, dressing, and going to the bathroom, you could find yourself confronted with bills of more than £100,000. In fact, one in 10 older people ends up paying more than £100,000 for care.

Every year between 30,000 and 40,000 people sell their home to pay the bills: between 80 and 110 people every single day. That simply isn’t fair, and tomorrow the Government will be confirming our plans to change the system.

We will make sure no-one is forced to sell their home to pay for care in their lifetime, and no-one sees their life savings disappear just because they developed the wrong kind of illness.

He outlines the proposed changes:

At the moment, you have to pay for your care in full if you have more than £23,250 of savings. We will be raising that substantially, providing free or subsidised care to many thousands more pensioners. Under Dilnot’s proposals, almost everyone who doesn’t own their own home would get subsidised care along with those, in particular in the north, with the smallest homes.

This reform will help protect some of the least wealthy pensioners from care costs — a fact lost on those who have sometimes argued that Dilnot’s proposals are just about helping people in big expensive houses.

The next big change Dilnot proposed is standardising eligibility for care, bringing to an end the postcode lottery that sees pensioners in some parts of the country getting help while others with similar conditions do not.

And finally there’s Dilnot’s headline proposal: a cap on the amount you have to pay for care. This is not just fair: it will also enable people to protect themselves in a way they can’t at the moment, giving everyone peace of mind in their retirement. As people approach their retirement they will no longer need to live in fear of developing a long term condition and losing their life savings.

This issue is not the only problem in the care system and I suspect that as it is worked through there may be changes, but these proposals are a major step forward and should be welcomed.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Royal Family to face scrutiny

Today's Independent reports that Parliament’s most powerful watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, is expected to launch an inquiry later this year into the finances of the Queen and the Royal Family. They say that this follows a change in the law which, for the first time, gives MPs oversight of royal finances.

They believe that an inquiry of this nature will cause trepidation in Buckingham Palace because of the committee’s formidable reputation for lambasting civil servants and government departments if it deems they have misused public funds:

Among the areas the committee is expected to examine are transport costs including the Royal Train and the Royal Flight, as well as money spent on official entertaining and the upkeep of palaces.

Money given to junior royals to support their work backing up the Queen will also be scrutinised while the committee may also want to examine whether Buckingham Palace is doing enough to raise money itself by selling the royal brand.

For example while Buckingham Palace now opens to paying visitors during the summer some have argued it should be open all year round. Two of the Queen’s other castles, Balmoral and Sandringham, have no public access at all – despite their multimillion-pound maintenance costs.

The change has come about after George Osborne scrapped the Civil List – an annual handout to the Royal Family that has had to be approved by Parliament since 1760 – in favour of paying the Monarch 15 per cent of the income from the Crown Estates as a new “Sovereign Grant”.

Crown Estate assets include Regent Street in London, Ascot racecourse and Windsor Great Park, 265,000 acres of farmland, as well as ownership of our national seabed stretching out 12 nautical miles around Britain. The Estate’s profits have been paid to the Treasury and taxpayers since 1760, after George III handed the Crown’s property to the state in return for an annual fee to support his duties. The income from the estates, now more than £240m is expected to increase to £450m by 2020 – which would more than double the Queen’s income from taxpayers’ to £67.5m at a time when voters have been told to expect a decade of austerity.

In April Buckingham Palace will receive £36.1m to fund the Queen’s official duties, a 16 per cent increase on the £31m paid by taxpayers last year.

Now that will be an inquiry worth watching.

Friday, February 08, 2013

A near miss

Yesterday's Telegraph records that if we are standing in the right place next week, namely the equator then we might just see a very close near miss as an asteroid measuring 150 feet across comes within 28,000 kilometres (17,000 miles in real money) of the earth.

The paper says that the 130,000 tonne space rock will miss Earth so narrowly that it will come within the orbit of some communication satellites, travelling at a speed of five miles per second, eight times the speed of a bullet from a rifle.

Could Lembit Opik have been right about something after all?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Labour to cut welfare benefits and penalise Welsh claimants

Liam Byrne, who famously left a note for his successor as Chief Secretary to the Treasury saying "I'm afraid there is no money, kind regards and good luck", is clearly not afraid to say what he thinks.

With all the fuss about changes to welfare benefits it is worth recalling this article in the Guardian lastv year in which he is quoted as saying that Labour will cut welfare benefits further if they get back into office in 2015. His rhetoric about social security no longer enjoying "widespread support" and the system needing to work differently to provide a "much bigger push" to get people back into work is markedly different to what his colleagues are saying all around.

Of more concern to my constituents is the proposal to introduce regional benefits. That will mean that claimants in South Wales will get less than those in more afluent areas of the country. Labour opposed regional pay, as did the Liberal Democrats. Unlike the Liberal Democrats however, they want to pay different levels of benefit in different parts of the country.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Banks being brought to heel

There is an interesting article in the Independent, which reports that Business Secretary, Vince Cable is to challenge the banks to publish weekly information about their lending levels, right down to individual branches.

They say that bank chiefs could be forced by the Government to name and shame branch managers who refuse to lend cash to struggling small businesses. Vince says that ministers are prepared to legislate to require banks to release the information if they fail to do so voluntarily:

The move comes amid continuing complaints – both within Whitehall and from industry – that the banks are sitting on cash reserves rather than passing them on to small firms.

Mr Cable is calling on them to break down the information by branches as well as constituencies in order to allow MPs to pursue managers who fail to support viable local businesses through the downturn.

This is very welcome news indeed. I have taken up issues around Banks withdrawing finance and refusing to issue loans with senior management with very little success. In my view they are continuing to withhold vital finance from businesses and have caused a number to go to the wall. The Government cannot allow that to go on and I am pleased that some action at least is being taken.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Archaic laws

Britain still has a number of archaic laws on the statute book so it ill-beholds us to mock others for their own out-dated statutes. Still, I was not aware that it was until recently illegal for women in Paris to wear trousers and nor it seems did the many women who have been unwittingly disobeying this law for decades.

The Independent says that after 213 years, it is now official, the most disobeyed law in the French capital, except stopping for red lights, has been declared null and void:

Since 7 November 1800, it has been technically illegal for a woman to wear trousers in Paris without a police permit. Just over a century ago, exceptions were introduced for women riding horses or bicycles. Otherwise, the by-law remained in force. Any woman wearing slacks, a trouser suit or jeans could, in theory, be “arrested and taken to police headquarters”.

The ministry of women’s rights has finally proclaimed that the edict – applicable in Paris, not the rest of France – is unconstitutional.

The ministry said in a written statement: “Ruling Number 22 of Chief of Police Dubois of the 16th Brumaire of the year nine (7 November 1800 in the revolutionary calendar), entitled ‘ruling on women cross-dressing’, is incompatible with the principle of equality between men and women enshrined in the constitution.”

The by-law appears to have been introduced because French revolutionary women started to take “liberty” too seriously and demand the right to perform men’s jobs and wear men’s clothes. The law was last applied in the 1930s when the French Olympic committee stripped the French athlete Violette Morris of her medals because she insisted on wearing trousers.

Apparently,  the law whereby you can shoot a Welsh person with a bow and arrow inside Chester city walls after midnight has also been rescinded.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Where should power reside in Wales?

Dafydd Elis Thomas' intervention in the field of local government at the weekend is interesting because he started to articulate what many people have been thinking for some time, namely that we have too many Councils and that the small size of many of them means that they are not delivering services efficiently.

The issue is one of timing. Many of us do not think we should be considering reorganisation at a time of austerity and when we should be focussing on service delivery.

My problem with what he was proposing though was that he focussed too much on representation and not enough on the proper division of powers. I would also argue that 7 Councils is most probably too few but we can have that discussion at the time. This is an article I wrote for the now defunct Wales Home three years ago:

In a previous article I started to discuss where local government will fit into a newly empowered Welsh Assembly, making laws within the ambit of the twenty fields of competence granted by the Government of Wales Act 2006.

I argued that there is a wider debate as to what structures we need to deliver services to a nation of 3 million people and in particular whether 22 local councils and seven health boards are appropriate vehicles to spend the bulk of the Assembly’s £15 billion budget.

My view then (and now) was that we most probably need bigger and fewer Councils but that the main debate should be around the democratisation and accountability of service delivery as much as its efficiency. In contrast, the Welsh Government’s agenda is becoming much clearer as we approach the next set of Assembly elections.

My concern is that in Labour and Plaid Cymru we have two very centralising parties whose objective is to emasculate local government. Already, we have heard calls for social services and education to be taken off local councils, whilst the intentions of other parties towards reorganisation remain secret. Ministers are seeking or have acquired legislative competence over the governance arrangements of schools and also over many new aspects of local councils but are not saying what they will do with it.

In fact there seems to be a cross-party consensus that there will be a reorganisation of local government in Wales after the 2011 Welsh General Election, the problem is that nobody wants to talk about it until then and the chances of any coherence emerging from any of the other parties as to how they see the future structure of local government is negligible.

Motives are particularly important in this process. Everybody acknowledges that having 22 Councils means that a number are too small to achieve economies of scale and that there needs to be some reform to address this. However, there is no consensus on what the future map of Wales should look like.

My view is that this issue needs to be addressed before the 2011 Welsh General Election not just because there is a need for a debate but also because how a party plans to reform our democratic structures goes to the heart of their vision for Wales.

Firstly, what is the role of the Welsh Government and of the Welsh Assembly? Following a successful referendum, their role is to set out policy, to make laws and to deliver that through guidance and funding decisions. It is not their role to directly deliver services, nor in my view should they seek to set up other arms-length bodies or add to the role of existing bodies by passing over to them functions currently delivered by Councils.

Secondly, how do we give people greater control over the decision-making process in their own areas? There are in fact many ways that this can be done but I would suggest that the starting point is to enable the democratically elected bodies that serve local communities, in this case the Welsh unitary authorities.

These councils should be more accountable, constituted on a scale that can deliver services efficiently and encompass a broader range of responsibilities so as to produce a more strategic and joined up approach to governance.

To achieve this I would envisage reforming local government so as to create eight or ten unitary councils elected by the single transferable vote system in multi member wards. There would be fewer Councillors, approximately a third less, making between 800-900 across Wales but in return they would be better remunerated so that they could devote a substantial amount of time to delivering and scrutinising services and acting in a more strategic way. Each Council would be run by a full time Cabinet with no more than ten Councillors in each executive body and have a number of strategic directors.

I would disband the heath boards and pass their functions to the democratically elected Councils, thus creating a single health and social care function that would eliminate duplication and waste and be accountable to local electors not the centre.

I would transfer all of post 16 education back to Councils so that they could deliver the 14 to 19 agenda as a seamless whole and incorporate the very important vocational education delivered by FE colleges into their service provision.

I would also give Councils greater strategic control of transport within their area including the power to deliver cross-modal transport solutions and a wider economic development remit. As part of this I would suggest that it should be these bigger unitary authorities who should be delivering regeneration initiatives such as Communities First on behalf of the Welsh Government, not the Government micro-managing it from the centre.

There are many other central government functions that might be better delivered by such a strategic locally elected body. That is a matter for further discussion. My purpose here is to start a debate and to get people thinking about a way forward.

I am an instinctive democrat. That means that I believe in empowering local people and giving them a chance to influence the direction of services in their own area. Democracy may have its flaws and at a local level I am sure that everybody can come up with a horror story that involves their local Council but ultimately it is for the electorate to cast the final verdict and with proportional voting that becomes much easier.

Instead of national politicians treating local government as scapegoats and indulging in playing blame games, let us find a way to work together as equals and in a way that for once delivers the sort of transparency and accountability that was promised when devolution was first voted on in 1997.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

An occasional round-up of Welsh blogposts Part Seven

This is the seventh in a series of reviews of Welsh blog posts that have caught my eye over the last month.

I thought it was worth starting with a classic Glyn Davies post, an insiders view if you like on the potential challenge to David Cameron. Glyn is having none of it. He effectively says that Adam Afriyie may be a good man, tall, slim, handsome, well dressed, and very rich but he really needs to do a bit more in the House of Commons before he can be taken seriously.

Anyway none of this is the point. David Cameron is head and shoulders above any other UK politician in the Prime Minister stakes (though I reckon William Hague is also a class act). He is far more popular that the Conservative Party he leads. He is successfully leading a Coalition Gov't, the political equivalent of herding cats - many of which do not want to be herded. Now I do not agree with everything David Cameron does and says. I think its a mistake that he's brought forward the Gay Marriage Bill as an example. He's about as different from me as chalk is from cheese. But whenever we need a Leader to stand tall and represent the UK, he does it brilliantly.

Plaid Wrecsam have been reflecting on the Twitter ban at local Council meetings and setting out their own efforts to get it overturned. They have been understandably frustrated by the vagaries of the Council's constitution:

Since the meeting I have had time to reflect on what went on (it was quite surreal at the time) and have asked myself two questions, one, why was I not told in the nearly two weeks between submission and debate that the motion was not correct or acceptable. Secondly, how can one accept an amendment to a motion which does not comply with Standing Orders? And further how can a vote be allowed, surely what went on is wrong in law!

I don't know the answers to the questions at the moment, I will have to await my meeting with the Chief Executive.

Any article entitled 'How Peter Hain contradicts himself' is bound to attract my attention and so I was particularly intrigued by the Click on Wales article by Gareth Clubb from earlier this week in which he outlines how the Neath MP's evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee a few weeks ago undermined his own case for a Severn Barrage:

To my surprise, Peter Hain did the same the following day at the Energy and Climate Change Committee. It seemed like a peculiar strategy for the project’s principal cheerleader to dismantle his own side’s viewpoint so skilfully.

Peter Hain said that it would “clearly be necessary” to un-designate the Natura 2000 habitat in order to proceed with the project. This is something that has never happened before, and would need to be agreed by the European Commission. Let’s remember that Pembroke power station – itself the centre of a European Commission infringement procedure as a result of a Friends of the Earth Cymru complaint – related to one Special Area of Conservation. The Severn barrage would impact on 19 Special Areas of Conservation, 5 Special Protection Areas and 5 Ramsar sites. Suffice to say that un-designation would be contentious. Compensatory habitat would be of a scale 30-60 times greater than any previous scheme in the UK.

He points out that in three years’ time, it will be cheaper for households to generate their own electricity on rooftops than it will to buy it from the grid and concludes:

The siren call of the Severn barrage, a 10-mile concrete wall in the Severn estuary producing incredibly expensive electricity, destroying priceless habitats, making fish populations extinct and increasing flood risk in Wales. That’s the side of the story that Hafren Power don’t like to mention. And that’s why the Severn barrage will remain science fiction now and forever.

Under the heading 'BBC not reporting good news' Ffranc Sais highlights some of the most recent successes of the UK Coalition Government. He points out that applicants to university from disadvantaged backgrounds have increased under the new tuition fee regime, that apprenticeship starts have doubled over the last four years and that the decision to sell off 15% of the public forest estate has been rescinded by a Liberal Democrats Minister and the budget restored. I particularly liked this graphic:

Mark Cole celebrates honours for two leading Welsh Liberal Democrats, Roger Williams MP and former Cardiff Council leader, Rodney Berman.

Finally, John Dixon challenges those who want to put a nuclear power station on Ynys Mon to also stand up to the consequences of that decision:

There’s a similar problem with nuclear power. Building new nuclear power stations depends on there being facilities available for storing, processing, and disposing of nuclear waste. It’s equally dishonest for proponents of Wylfa B to make – as many seem to – the implicit assumption that those facilities will be available “somewhere else”. Supporters of Wylfa B would sound much more honest to me if they were also lobbying to have nuclear waste stored and dumped in Ynys Môn. I won’t hold my breath on that.

It is an interesting argument. I don't expect anybody to take up the challenge.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Conspiracy theories dominate the news

The media is full of conspiracy theories this week as discontented Tory MPs brief journalists on the need for somebody else to do David Cameron's job. The Telegraph leads the way with a think piece speculating as to how serious the threat is.

They say that far from being a name plucked from a hat Adam Afriyie has been plotting for some time. A self-made millionaire who founded his own IT business, he has reportedly been cataloguing signs of Tory discontent:

Friends say he has a database of MPs prepared to defy Mr Cameron and possibly put their names to a letter demanding a vote of confidence.

His work has been underway since last summer. In particular, he has focused on MPs sitting for marginal seats who may be growing increasingly anxious about their chances of surviving the next election. “It’s the 'no-change, no-chance’ group,” one says. “Those who believe that they are doomed with Dave.”

Mr Afriyie’s allies insist that far from being a pawn in someone else’s leadership gambit, he has been working for months to build up an organisation. He has told friends that he wants Mr Cameron ousted before 2015, is preparing for that eventuality, and has something to offer his party.

Since last summer he has quietly worked his way around the party, seeking out senior figures whom he hopes might view his candidacy with sympathy. Supporters say he has spoken to more than 100 colleagues, but only a handful have so far signed up.

The small number of MPs who are prepared to put their name to this plot is not a sign it has no support however. Many MPs want it to succeed. Their reasons are varied but most boil down to dislike of the coalition and a perception that Cameron is not a winner. Is this going to be John Major all over again?

Friday, February 01, 2013

Bad faith

I had a letter from the First Minister yesterday concerning a question I had asked in plenary. It was about the agreement that the Welsh Government will introduce a new Welsh mortgage guarantee scheme designed to increase the supply of affordable homes and improve access to home ownership support.

Labour Ministers committed to the scheme in May 2012 as part of the budget deal with the Welsh Liberal Democrats but have taken months to draw up the details despite the fact that England has been offering support for a number of years and a comparable scheme is operating in six Welsh local authorities already.

Recently the Housing Minister indicated that a Welsh Government scheme will be up and running by spring of this year, but now the First Minister has indicated that this timetable has slipped again to the summer.

I am disappointed at the way that the Welsh Government is dragging its heels over introducing this scheme to help first time home buyers. I appreciate that it can be complex but there seems to be no sense of urgency or purpose on behalf of Ministers and their officials in delivering on the policy. Nor do they seem to want to take advantage of lessons learned on schemes already running so as to short circuit their own over long processes.

Whilst Welsh Labour Ministers dither, first time home buyers continue to struggle to get onto the housing market, and house builders are being put off committing to building much needed homes because of the difficulties of selling them.

I am particularly concerned at the bad faith demonstrated by the Welsh Government in delaying the implementation of this scheme. It was agreed as part of a budget deal with the Welsh Liberal Democrats and I believe it would have been reasonable for them to have delivered on their promise soon afterwards. However, it now seems that the delay in implementation is going to be more than a year, if it happens at all. That is not good enough.

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