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Sunday, June 30, 2013

The cost of borrowing

Today's Independent has a disturbing report on the scale of the payday loan problem in this country and the misery it is causing for a million families across the United Kingdom.

The paper refers to a poll for Which?, the consumer organisation, which shows that nearly 400,000 families use the high-cost loans to pay for essentials such as food and fuel, while 240,000 need the money to pay off existing credit. They add that half th people who take out payday loans find they can't cover the cost of repayments, which can attract interest rates of more than 5,000 per cent, and this means they are forced to take out new credit and spiral further into debt:

The poll by Which? found that 4 per cent of people, equivalent to one million households in the UK, said they had taken out a payday loan in the last month. Some 38 per cent of people who do so use them to pay for food and fuel, while 24 per cent repay existing payday loans. A total of 79 per cent of people, about 38.5 million adults, use some form of credit, while 44 per cent are worried about their household level of debt.

Seven in ten of payday loan users regret taking out credit in the past, while 49 per cent found they couldn't meet the high cost of payments, and 28 per cent said that, while they don't like being in debt, they saw it as a necessary part of their life.

Nine out of ten people believe payday loan companies should always include the cost of borrowing in advertising, while 87 per cent think the ads should make clear that it is possible to get free help from a debt advice organisation.

A spokesman for the debt charity StepChange said: "These findings are alarming and reflect what the charity is seeing. Credit should never be used to pay for essential living costs, and the fact that so many are using it this way points to a wider problem in the economy.

"This is particularly the case with high-cost credit and underlines why action is needed to tackle the problems in the payday loan industry."

Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said: "Payday lending is dogged by poor practice yet people are increasingly turning to this very high cost credit to cover essentials or pay off existing debts.

"A clear message has been sent to lenders to clean up their act, but the regulator must back this up by enforcing proper affordability checks and punishing lenders who flout the rules. We also want more action from the Government to tackle this toxic market."

The paper says that at tomorrow's summit, Which? will ask for new rules banning excessive charges, a restriction on the number of times a payday loan can roll over, and clearer advertising to help people struggling with spiralling debt. I hope the Government is listening and will act accordingly.

I hope too that the Competition Commission investigation into payday loans companies comes up with some clear recommendations on capping interest rates and insisting on proper credit checks if that is within their remit. The new Financial Conduct Authority, which replaces the Financial Services Authority, will have the power to impose fines on firms and order compensation to be paid to customers. That is something that also needs to happen quickly.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Is this the real face of UKIP?

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage is in the Western Mail this morning claiming that his party is now in favour of retaining the Welsh Assembly and that he is relaxed about the institution getting more powers, including control of policing.

Farage says he was embarrassed at his party's campaign at the last Assembly elections and that he plans to do better next time, starting with the Anglesey by-election.

Oh, there is a by-election? And in an area where this sort of Damascene conversion might play well.

The UKIP leader does not miss a trick. I doubt if it will do his party any good though, anymore than his controversial campaigning in a Scottish Parliament by-election earlier this month. That is because UKIP has an image problem, and one that is encapsulated in this article in yesterday's Independent.

The paper says that Nigel Farage is facing further questions about Ukip’s vetting after it emerged that two of his party officials attended a demonstration organised by a far-right group:

The chairman of Ukip’s west London branch Vanessa Crichton and chairman of the Hillingdon branch Cliff Dixon attended an anti-EU protest organised by the British Patriots Society, which has strong links to the English Defence League (EDL).

The tiny group was set up by Sara Roocroft, a former Ukip member. She has expressed support for the English Defence League in the past and its website was registered in the name of a senior EDL figure, Steve Simmons.

The BPS has posted messages online warning of conflict with the Muslim community in retaliation for the Woolwich attack. One message on the group’s Facebook site states: “If nothing is done then the servicemen and women and those who support the troops will take matters into their own hands… And if they want a war then Bring It On!”

The question is, which is the real face of UKIP? In answering that question it should be noted that it is far more common to see senior UKIP officials involved with dodgy right wing groups than it is to see them arguing in favour of devolution.

Friday, June 28, 2013

This and the price of tea

Whilst we are on the Western Mail, I note that somebody has written in to complain that a cup of tea costs £2.90 at Cardiff Wales airport. They argue that as the airport is now owned by the taxpayer then the tea should be cheaper.

Has the Welsh Government's freebie culture finally rebounded on them?

Reforming Council Housing finance in Wales

I note from today's Western Mail that the Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is claiming victory following news that the Housing Revenue Account Subsidy Scheme, which has seen over £1bn of Welsh Council rent money paid to the UK Government, will be reformed. This will mean that the eleven councils who still retain housing stock will share an extra £33m each year to repair and build new homes.

The MP’s claim is based on the fact that he tabled a motion in the House of Commons calling for reform and to be fair, a number of press releases over the last few years.

The heavy lifting in securing this agreement however, was not carried out by Plaid Cymru but by Welsh Government Ministers and the Liberal Democrats Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, facilitated by Welsh Liberal Democrats such as myself and Kirsty Williams. That was acknowledged by the Housing Minister in the Assembly last week.

This has been a long campaign covering both this and the last government, in which I, and others across party lines have sought to get some justice for Welsh tenants. I am delighted that it was a Liberal Democrats UK Government Minister that finally settled the matter.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Investing in the future

The UK Coalition's austerity programme has come under a lot of criticism especially from the Labour Party, who ahve now admitted that they would have done exactly the same thing. Like others my main concern has been the need to get capital investment going so as to create jobs.

I am delighted therefore at the announcement by Danny Alexander today of a £1 billion programme of investment, including a new prison in North Wales that will do exactly that. He is proposing that the first £50bn is committed to infrastructure projects starting in 2015-16, with the rest earmarked for the period from 2016 to 2020.

The main funding commitments include:
Some of this is England only of course but there has also been a real term increase in capital funding for the Welsh Government for 2015-16. About time too.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Secretary of State for Wales is wrong

Claims by the Secretary of State for Wales that the current devolution settlement does not need major changes are misguided and could help to entrench an unsatisfactory system in place where the courts become the final arbiter of laws rather than the electorate.

The different treatment given to Scotland and Wales by successive Westminster governments has led to uncertainty and practical and legal difficulties that has prevented Assembly Members properly fulfilling their democratic mandate.

Whatever system of devolution that is in place will create grey areas, however there is no doubt in my mind that the Scottish system is more stable, has fewer challenges on legislation from the UK Government, and provides greater clarity for everybody as to who can do what and why.

The Secretary of State for Wales’ argument that because “England and Wales are one entity, legally and politically” then no further reform is necessary is disingenuous. It is an argument that was used to oppose devolution in the first place and ignores the way that the two countries have evolved over the last 14 years.

The fact is that England and Wales are politically and legally distinct and will continue to grow more so as devolution gathers pace. If David Jones is concerned about the implications of a reserved powers model as we have in Scotland, then he should be arguing for the appropriate powers to be reserved to Westminster, not seeking to freeze progress at a point where demarcation is still unclear and Assembly members are having to constantly push at the boundaries to see how far they will stretch. That is a lawyers paradise and it should not be the role of a legislature to act in a way that unnecessarily enriches lawyers any more than they are at present.

A reserved powers model as in Scotland, will provide greater clarity about what powers we have and what we cannot do. It will help to establish a more stable relationship between Cardiff Bay and Whitehall, reducing the numbers of disputes and enabling AMs to be more creative and responsive to the demands put upon us by voters.

It will put us on a level playing field with Northern Ireland and Scotland and make it more likely that we can develop mature inter-governmental relationships. It will also form the basis for a properly federal United Kingdom in which power is exercised at the appropriate level and people have greater ownership of their governments.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Do we really have nothing to fear?

A great deal has already been said and written concerning the undercover police operation against the Lawrence family. I tend to agree with this report on the BBC that a judge-led inquiry is needed, if only because these revelations appear to be just the thin end of the wedge.

It has also been alleged that the Metropolitan Police's Special Demonstration Squad, which was set up in 1968 and employed about 100 officers during its lifetime before being disbanded in 2008, examined anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, groups linked to paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, animal rights campaigns and the environmental protest movement.

There are claims that officers infiltrated political groups protesting about police corruption in the 1990s, including the Colin Roach Centre, which was named after a 21-year-old black Briton who died in the foyer of Stoke Newington police station.

When the row blew-up about the US Prism programme, I believe that at least one Minister made the point that if we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear from a surveillance state. These latest revelations blow that rather complacent view out of the water. The state is not benign and we should not think for one moment that it is.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Some thoughts on PE in school

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson's report on PE in schools, which recommends that physical education be made a core subject in Welsh schools, with all teachers required to demonstrate proficiency in PE as part of their training is certainly intriguing. That is especially so as it seems to be the only recommendation.

However, I can immediately see some problems, not least that such a regime only partly addresses the record childhood obesity levels in Wales. We need to educate parents and children on healthy eating as well and I am astonished that there are no recommendations along those lines.

But here are some other thoughts:

1. Isn't the curriculum already overcrowded enough? Surely if we try to do everything we will do nothing well.

2. How do we get over the poor perception of PE in schools both by pupils and their parents. There are many people who spent their school days avoiding physical education because they considered the lessons often amounted to the ritual humiliation of less-fit children.

3. What about informal sports such as the lunchtime soccer game? How do we get more kids involved in that sort of activity?

4. How do we engage the less-fit children? Don't lessons need to be tailored to each child's level of fitness and inclinations if we are really to engage? How does compulsory PE deal with that?

It may well be that when I read the report that some of these questions are addressed in it. However, from what I have seen so far we are being asked to put in place a simplistic solution for a complex problem.

Update: these thoughts were not meant to be comprehensive so I am happy to acknowledge comments via Twitter that active travel and play are also important components in getting school children fitter.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Vince holds out for commonsense

Kudos to Vince Cable who, according to the Guardian is holding out against the Chancellor of the Exchequer on cuts that are being demanded of the Department of TBusiness, Science and Innovation, arguing that the coalition needs 'a strong story to tell on growth' to balance £11.5bn cuts package.

The paper says that Vince is refusing to accept deep cuts to his departmental budget without a guarantee of billions in funding for job-creating capital projects, as arguments over this week's spending review reached a new pitch:

With just three days before George Osborne is due to announce £11.5bn of cuts for 2015-16, the business secretary was said to be in no mood to back down in a dispute he regards as crucial to the government's economic credibility.

Cable is arguing, in talks with Treasury ministers and officials, that the coalition must have "a strong story to tell on growth" to run alongside its tough message on slashing the budget deficit and balancing the books by 2018.

In a dispute that has pitched him against the Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander, a fellow Liberal Democrat, Cable is fighting for investment spending on everything from science and business funding to grants for training and skills development. Insiders said that he was not pushing a party point but a case he believed was in "the national economic interest".

I just hope that Clegg is backing him.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Tax and Teflon

The Daily Mirror's revelation that UKIP Leader Nigel Farage paid a tax adviser to create a trust in the Isle of Man, which he intended to channel funds through should be very damaging. 

The paper consulted a tax expert called Richard Murphy, who said: “There are only two good reasons to set up an Isle of Man trust. One is secrecy, you don’t want someone to know what is in there. The other is tax avoidance. And sometimes, of course, they go together.”

Nigel Farage says it was a mistake and that he did not make any money personally from the venture, but he is nevertheless on record as opposing tax avoidance.

This is difficult territory for any politician, least of all a party leader. The question is what will be the impact of this episode on the UKIP vote? My guess is  very little.

Nigel Farage seems to be one of those politicians to whom normal rules do not apply. He is viewed as an ordinary bloke, the type who you can have a pint with, a bit of a jack-the-lad who unashamedly admits his flaws and tells it as it is.

That is precisely how he has dealt with the issue of this off-shore tax haven and as far as I can see it will serve him well again. He is political Teflon. It will take more than this to dent his popularity in my opinion.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The truth is out there

The Independent reports that the Ministry of Defence closed its UFO desk and hotline in 2009 because it served “no defence purpose” and was taking staff away from “more valuable defence-related activities”.

The decision was taken despite the fact that reported sightings trebled in that year. However, it was decided that, in more than 50 years, none had indicated the existence of “any military threat to the UK”.

The paper says that the latest release of declassified MoD UFO files amount to 25 files, 4,400 pages and cover the work carried out in the final two years of the MoD’s UFO desk, from 2007 until 2009. They include accounts of alleged abductions and contact with aliens and UFO sightings near landmarks.

Where is Mulder and Scully when you need them?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tired of voting for rats?

Despite an over-indulgence of cat postings of late, I could not resist this story from Mexico.

The Guardian tells the story of Morris the cat's bid to become mayor of the Mexican city of Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz. They say that this has now turned into a social media phenomenon with a serious message about political disenchantment:

"Morris has become an expression of how fed up people are with all the parties and a political system that does not represent us," said Sergio Chamorro, the owner of the furry black-and-white candidate whose first campaign slogan was: "Tired of voting for rats? Vote for a cat."

The Facebook page for the Candigato (gato means cat in Spanish) now has more than 130,000 "likes" – far more than those accrued by any of the candidates registered to stand in the Xalapa election, and more too than those of Veracruz's current governor. Mexico will hold local elections in around half of the country on 7 July.

Morris's Facebook page and website are filled with artwork, videos and slogans sent in by supporters from all over Mexico and beyond. Spin-off Twitter accounts have sprouted too, beyond the control of Chamorro and the small group of thirty-something professionals who have run Morris's campaign since his popularity took off earlier this month.

Apparently Morris has started a trend. Larry the cat may well stage a coup in Number 10 Downing Street.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Excuses and other reasons

The BBC carries one of those pieces today on excuses that always gives one cause to pause. They have listed some of the more entertaining reasons given by homeowners as to why they do not have a TV licence, leading one to question how these offenders thought anybody would accept their excuse:

Excuses for non-payment given last year included:

"Apparently my dog, which is a corgi, was related to the Queen's dog so I didn't think I needed a TV licence"

"Why would I need a TV licence for a TV I stole? Nobody knows I've got it"

"Only my three-year-old son watches the TV. Can you take it out of the family allowance I receive for him? He watches it so he should pay"

"I had not paid as I received a lethal injection"

"I don't want to pay for a licence for a full year. Knowing my luck I'll be dead in six months and won't get value for money"

"I have lost weight recently and had to buy new clothes. That's why I could not afford to buy a TV licence"

As TV Licensing spokesman Stephen Farmer said, jokes and wacky excuses apart, it is not likely these people were laughing when they faced prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Labour Councillor and his extra-terrestial friends

Just when politics is getting dull again, somebody comes along to cheer us all up. In this case it is Simon Parkes, a Labour Councillor who represents Stakesby on Whitby Town Council.

Councillor Parkes has fallen out with his wife after he revealed that he had had a child called Zarka with an alien he refers to as the Cat Queen.

According to the Northern Echo the 53-year-old driving instructor said he has sexual relations with the alien about four times a year:

“What will happen is that we will hold hands and I will say ‘I’m ready’ and then the technology I don’t understand will take us up to a craft orbiting the earth," he explained.

“My wife found out about it and was very unhappy, clearly. That caused a few problems, but it is not on a human level, so I don’t see it as wrong.

Councillor Parkes, who also claims his "real mother" is a 9ft green alien with eight fingers, said people only claim he is mad because they have not shared his experiences and that the encounters don't affect his work on behalf of Whitby residents.

“I can understand how you would say that because you have not seen anything yourself and that’s your immediate fallback position, but you come and spend some time with me and follow me around for a day and you will actually walk away shaking your head because you will think actually he’s not mad.

“There are plenty of people in my position who don’t chose to come out and say it because they are terrified it will destroy their careers.”

It is nice to see that the Labour Party remains as inclusive as ever, despite the control-freakery of the Blair/Brown years.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Rise of the cat navs

It seems that the programme The Secret life of the Cat has sparked a bit of a trend. The Western Mail reports that sales of tracking devices fitted to cats are  soaring as owners take advantage of an explosion in gadgetry to keep tabs on their pets:

One device, the G-PAWS GPS data recorder, has seen pre-orders up 350% on last week and it is the fastest selling pet supplies product on Amazon.co.uk.

And the firm Pawtrax says it has sold 600 GPS tracking devices for cats and dogs since setting up three years ago.

Sony Japan has even released a dog harness to which owners who want even more of an idea where their pets have been can attach a high definition action camera.

Clearly the surveillance state extends even to our pets. Despite suspicions concerning the recent disappearance of a collared dove from my garden I am not sure that I really want to know what my cat gets up to when he is out and about.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Some progress on tax, more still needed

The Guardian reports on some progress at the G8 summit on tax evasion but judging by the details there is still much more to be done.

They say that  the Prime Minister has secured agreement from Britain's overseas territories and Crown dependencies that they will sign up to a new clampdown on the practice.

The deal involves a series of actions aimed at promoting transparency and exchange of information between tax jurisdictions so that developing countries will now be able to request information about companies registered in British tax havens, such as the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda.

However, this register will not be open to public scrutiny, giving rise to fears that the developing world will only be able to access information from the tax havens if a specific request is made. The paper says that such a situation would be of little help to countries which do not know where cash that could be taxed in their countries is ending up.

It is an important start, let us hope now that Cameron will be able to build on it to achieve yet more progress towards complete transparency.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Getting down to earth with Ed

If voters feel disconnected with the Labour leadership then one of that party's MPs may know why. Simon Danczuk, the MP for Rochdale thinks it is because Ed Miliband's Shadow Cabinet has no "authentic voices" in it. In other words they are too posh.

According to the Telegraph, Mr. Danczuk believes that that Labour needs politicians like Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who are able to communicate with voters:
“In time gone by we have had people like David Blunkett, people like Alan Johnson, people like Alan Milburn, John Reid would be another example, John Prescott would be another example,” Mr Danczuk told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One programme.

“Within the party we’ve had people who have that…authentic voice. I don’t think it’s just about language or accent, though I think they can play a part. I think it’s also about policy.

“If we think about those politicians that I’ve just mentioned they would have clearly helped shape the policies of that Labour government in that down-to-earth real sense of understanding of what’s going on in how people live their lives. Not least because they themselves have lived difficult lives or challenging lives… that would have added an authentic dimension to the policies that the Labour government were putting forward.”

Good luck with that.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Welsh Government under fire over housing failure

The failure of the Welsh Labour Government to match the offer to housebuilders available in England has come under fire once more, this time from house builders themselves.

The Daily Post reports that some of North Wales’ biggest house builders have warned they will construct homes in England ahead of those in Wales due to the failure of Ministers to implement market stimulus schemes here:

Construction giant Watkin Jones issued the warning over the failure in Wales to mirror England’s Help to Buy and NewBuy schemes which are credited with reviving the new build market.

The Bangor firm, which employs 250 staff and uses hundreds of sub-contractors, also say the proposed introduction of enhanced planning regulations will drive up build costs and depress the market further.

Managing director Mark Watkin Jones said they were now focusing on opportunities in England which has “implications” for local jobs and the wider economy.

St Asaph based Macbryde Homes also said the lack of first time buyer initiatives would drive builders to look over the border.

Mr Watkin Jones said: "The continuing delays from the Welsh Government in announcing any similar assistance to home buyers is having a continued negative effect on the market in Wales.

"With the planned introduction of enhanced building regulations in Wales adding thousands of pounds to the cost of building each dwelling then this will depress the market even further driving development and economic growth out of Wales.

“It is unfortunate but we are now focusing on opportunities in England ahead of those in Wales, which has implications for our Welsh supply chain, local employment and the wider economy.

“It is difficult to comprehend why WAG are failing to recognise the importance of following the UK government's lead in getting much needed homes built."

Time for the Labour Government to sit up and take notice.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Getting used to coalitions and austerity

In today's Guardian Martin Kettle has a sobering article in which he argues that austerity and coalitions of one kind or another are her to stay for the forseeable future:

The reality of British politics is at the interface between Liam Byrne's infamous "there's no more money" remark in 2010, and the general decline of the major political parties that has been so marked over half a century. In the immediate postwar period almost everyone voted Labour or Conservative. Now no more than two-thirds of voters do. The result is coalitions – either between parties or within them.

The central fact about British politics in 2013 is that we are beginning to get it. The economy is not recovering, but surviving. Politics is taking time to adjust. At present it is like an F1 race permanently led by a safety car. The rebalancing of the economy is talked about and desired on all sides but isn't happening because, short of a command economy for which there is no serious appetite and which would almost certainly fail in its own way, it cannot be legislated. The financial sector still overshadows everything else. And the deficit is too large.

So political parties find themselves, against their will and instincts, all in the same boat. The Tories still hate higher taxes. Labour still hates cutting government programmes. The arguments between the parties are still real. But they are constrained by the single great fact of austerity. And austerity is not going to go away.

He says that the public mood is not really for radical change, although there is a flirtation from time to time and that political parties, with their comfortable visions and urge to do something memorable, are struggling to adapt to it:

The truth is that politics has changed and that the change will last a long time. A week ago the IFS argued, in yet another report, that the failure to balance the budget deficit by 2014-15, as planned in 2010, means that the next parliament may be just as dominated by spending controls and efficiency savings as this one has been. Most of the deficit, after all, is structural, so can't be reduced by growth alone. Difficult decisions about programmes and entitlements are not going to disappear even if sustained growth returns.

Party leaders understand this. David Cameron clearly does. This month's spending review will offer more – a lot more – of the same, and the prospect of large further cuts still to come during the next parliament. It's not where he would like to be, but where he is. But last week's speeches by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls show they get it too in their own way. If there is a Labour government after 2015, it will not only cap the welfare budget – the details are a source of dispute – but will cut departmental spending still further.

This is not a great ideological battle. That dimension is often exaggerated. The difference between a public spending-to-GDP ratio of 40% and one of 50% is a significant one. But beware the narcissism of small differences. The big truth is that any government will spend 40%, not that there is an argument about another 10% between the parties. That said, it is high time the left had a debate about the figure that it prefers. There is certainly a limit below which a decent level of solidarity is not possible. But it is not self-evident that higher is invariably better or sustainable.

Is it pretty? No. Are there alternatives? Certainly. But they have to be consistent with looking reality in the eye. Since many of the problems are shared with other parts of Europe, it makes sense to address them together, not in competition. But looking in the other direction is not a serious option. The figures and the graphs tell stories of opportunity and contain truths that cannot be ignored. Not only will the 2015 election now be an austerity election, but the 2020 election may be one as well. Better get used to it.

A sobering thought fro a rainy Thursday morning.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

More on bovine TB

I have long argued that the UK Government's sledgehammer approach to tackling bovine TB in cattle is questionable. They are focussing on one possible carrier of the disease when many other animals can also pass it onto cattle, including farm cats and when all the scientific evidence points to the fact that culling badgers is a short term solution that achieves only small reductions in the incidence of the disease and in fact spreads it beyond the cull area.

That UK Ministers have failed in their duty to introduce comprehensive measures to tackle this disease is illustrated by this article in April's New Scientist, which has only just come to my attention. The effective management of cattle movements and proper disease control measures are crucial in stopping the spread of the bTB, yet no Government within the UK appears to have got that right or to have given it the correct priority.

As the New Scientist reports, these measures must include a recognition that the bacterium that causes tuberculosis in cattle remains alive in the soil for up to four months. Putting uncontaminated cattle into such a field to graze could well cause them to catch the disease. Perhaps the government should use its resources to research this link more thoroughly instead of sending marksmen to hunt down scapegoats.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sleeping on the job

I have heard of people falling asleep whilst at work and even slumping across a computer keyboard but never with the sort of consequences outlined in this article.

The Independent reports on an employment tribunal in Germany, which determuined that a supervisor should not have been sacked for failing to double check a €222,222,222.22 transaction made when a clerk fell asleep with his finger on a keyboard.

A junior clerk started dozing at his desk with his finger resting on the 'number two' key. He had been attempting a transfer of just €64.20 at the time.

Fortunately for the company, the huge deposit was spotted by a third employee later in the day and corrected before any money was actually transferred.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Labour to target pensioners

One of the turning points in the New Labour days was the decision in 1999 to increase old age pensions by a mere 75p a week the following year at a time when other costs such as Council Tax benefit were soaring at a much higher rate. It is an insult still felt keenly by many pensioners along with the fact that a so-called progressive government failed to relink the state pension to the cost of living.

The Coalition Government has done much better. Thanks to pension minister, Steve Webb and the Liberal Democrats we now have a triple lock guarantee in place. As a result the State pension will rise by the highest of inflation, the rise in earnings or 2.5% each year. That means that in April 2013 the full state pension went up by 2.5%. That is on top of the £5.30 a week rise last April and the £4.50 a week rise in 2010. Pensioners on the full state pension are now £650 a year better off than they were under Labour.

In the face of this, I am astonished that the Shadow Chancellor has now signalled that he plans to take Labour back to the days when they treated pensioners with such contempt by announcing that if he gets back into power he will cap the old age pension. Whatever happened to the Labour Party that used to champion the cause of the old and the poor?

Badger Swagger

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Cat on patrol

Having blogged previously about the adventures of Larry, I was fascinated by this account in the Independent about his neighbour and rival, Freya, who lives with George Osborne in No. 11 Downing Street.
The paper says that Freya tends to be prone to disappearing for days at a time. They say that the Chancellor had bought the tabby as a present for his two children in 2009 when the Osbornes were living in Notting Hill, west London. But within a few months she went missing. Three years on and the family had moved to Downing Street, when Mr Osborne’s wife, Frances, got a surprise call telling her that Freya had been found.

Freya had apparently been living as a stray in a garden a few streets away and was being “looked after” by a “neighbour”. It was only after a visit to a vet revealed a microchip beneath her skin bearing Ms Osborne’s phone number that her owners were identified. That was just the start:

She was re-united with the Osbornes but since her arrival in Downing Street her behaviour has aroused suspicion that she might have another kind of chip implanted in her.

Unlike David Cameron’s cat Larry who rarely moves from his favoured spot under a Downing Street hot air vent, Freya is quite a piece of work.

Over the past few months she has been found in the most secure area of the Foreign Office, inside the room in No 10 where the Cabinet meets and trying to seek entry into the Treasury. She was even caught by Mr Osborne inside his red box.

And like any good agent she also likes to spend time in the bar.

On many an evening she can be found in Westminster’s favoured political watering hole, the Red Lion – despite having to cross four lanes of traffic to get there. Apparently at the end of the evening the barmaids regularly have to carry her back home.

She has even made it as far as Trafalgar Square – once being caught back stage at the Trafalgar Studio Theatre nearly half a kilometre away. On one occasion she was spotted in the command centre of a secret “war gaming” exercise involving the Navy.

As the Treasury spokesperson said “She’s a Treasury cat. It’s her job to get everywhere.”

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Big Brother is back in the news

Nick Clegg may have killed off the Snooper's Charter but that does not mean that it is not business as usual for the spooks at GCHQ and their American allies in the routine monitoring of communications traffic.

The Independent reports on claims that thousands of Britons could have been spied on by GCHQ under what they describe as a “chilling” link to a secret American operation covertly collecting data from the world’s largest internet companies.

They say that under a progranme called Prism, American agents were able to glean data, including the contents of emails and web-chats, direct from the servers of major providers including Facebook, Google and Yahoo:

It emerged that some of the information had been passed to GCHQ, raising fears that the agency had been sidestepping the usual legal process for requesting intelligence material about UK nationals. The agency insists it operates within a “strict legal and policy framework”.

According to documents, GCHQ received 197 intelligence reports through the Prism system in the 12 months to May 2012, a rise of 137 per cent on the previous year.

Clearly, this raises many questions some of which will be asked in Parliament over the next few weeks. I don't suppose we should be surprised that this activity goes on, what is shocking is the extent of it, that there is no legislative framework for it and the fact that the UK Government, although complicit, had no oversight of the process and method of collection of the data.


Friday, June 07, 2013

Labour's love lost

Like many others this week I have been watching the two Eds begin the process of falling out of love with their activists as they position themselves for the General Election through a number of announcements, including embracing welfare reform and a general acceptance of Coalition Government spending plans.

It is as if their criticisms of the last three years had been all part of a dream and like Bobby Ewing, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls had woken up in the shower to a new reality.

Now, it seems that all their rhetoric about tax avoidance has been a sham too, as it emerges that a major Labour donor was helped to avoid tax of up to £1.5m through the party accepting a £1.65m donation in the form of shares rather than cash.

The Independent reports that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has pointed out to the Labour leader that these actions are “directly at odds” with his recent criticism of internet giant Google's tax arrangements.

Will Labour now pass the amount of tax that has been avoided to the tax man? I am not holding my breath.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Holding the Welsh Government to account

There is a lot of activity in the media at the moment, with opposition parties seeking to claim the credit for the Welsh Government's u-turn yesterday on Chief Executive's pay, but if truth be told it was a joint effort in which all three played a part. And about time too.

Faced with the possibility of losing their Local Democracy Bill altogether the Welsh Government had little choice but to agree to put provisions in that will improve transparency and accountability in the way that the salaries of council chief executives are set.

For once Labour had to face up to the fact that they don't have a majority, even if they consistently act as if they do.

The electoral arithmetic of the Senedd is such that when the opposition parties act collectively then neither they nor Labour can force through any measure, but both sides can block things. Thus, the only leverage that could be applied to the Local Government Minister was that we would vote down the whole Bill.

Whether that sort of joint working will happen again has yet to be seen, but it needs to. The Welsh Government has been given too easy a ride over the last two years by the failure of all three opposition parties to make them work for their measures.

Not only have we not cooperated with each other enough to force changes to legislation and other proposals, but the Government have been let off the hook due to Plaid Cymru and the Tories in particular not whipping all of their members in for the vast majority of votes.

That has to change and I am hopeful it will. Yesterday may well prove to be pivotal in the way that the Welsh Assembly holds the Welsh Government to account.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Stepping onto a slippery slope

Like many others this morning I was astonished to wake to the news that the Public Services Ombudsman is seeking the power to stop the publication of some of its reports and to prosecute those who go against his wishes.

According to the BBC this would mean complainants could face contempt of court charges if they go to the media. The danger is of course that it will lead to less transparency and accountability. The BBC add that a number of legal experts believe it is the duty of the justice system, not the ombudsman, to decide whether confidentiality outweighs public interest:

Matthew Nicklin QC, a barrister for 5RB Chambers, said he thought the dangers were "obvious".

"The public expect an ombudsman's service to operate with transparency," he said.

"You can't have a service which operates behind closed doors because none of us would know what's going on.

"I struggle to see how it can ever be right for the ombudsman to produce a report in private."

He added: "The ombudsman is one of the processes by which you can complain. It's wrong that as a price of complaining to the ombudsman, you ought to be signed up to some confidentiality undertaking."

Like Kirsty Williams I am concerned that the proposed change could prevent lessons being learnt from a public body's failings.

She said that ombudsman's reports are valuable for people to learn from past mistakes:

"These reports often highlight significant failures in public bodies and if we're to stop those failures from happening again, we need to learn lessons," she said.

"And those reports need to be available to the public, they need to be available to politicians and they need to be available to other public service organisations that can look at those recommendations and test them against the practice in their own particular organisations.

"So if we're to learn from mistakes when things go wrong, these reports are a valuable learning tool and they should be available."

I do hope the Welsh Government resist this proposal.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

In defence of lobbying reform

This is my 6,000th post on this blog, so it is entirely fitting that I use it to repeat myself by supporting the case for lobbying reform at the Houses of Parliament.

I saw a tweet yesterday suggesting that as no lobbying company was involved in the resignation of Patrick Mercer then clearly there was no case for regulation. It is a fair point but one that misses the intent behind reform. Lobbying regulation should be there to protect politicians as well as the lobbyists.

Of course there will always be elected members who go too far in pursuit of material reward, but being able to distinguish between those who are genuine lobbyists and those who are not would surely be very useful to everybody.

I note too that the Speaker has suspended a number of passes as a result of the recent revelations.  As yet there is no indication why these passes were issued or who too, even if they were correctly issued or not, however John Bercow's action does raise further questions.

Are passes issued to lobbyists? If so what level of access are they afforded and what justification is given for them holding these passes? What level of interaction takes place between politicians and lobbyists and how transparent is that particularly around legislation and cross-party groups?

The Welsh Assembly is about to debate new rules for cross party groups and the excellent umbrella body for lobbyists in Cardiff Bay operates its own voluntary code. That does not appear to be happening in Westminster. That is why reform is necessary.

If we can improve transparency and accountability then it will have been worthwhile. My only concern now is that the UK Government do not mess it up by mixing up trade union reform with what is otherwise long-overdue regulation.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Larry is in charge

Although I follow a rather amusing spoof twitter account named after Number 10 Downing Street's cat, I had not realised how much of the establishment the Government's chief mouser had become until I saw the Inside Government website.

Larry's biography explains that he was recruited from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home on recommendation for his mousing skills and has made a significant impact. He is the first cat at Number 10 to be bestowed the title of Chief Mouser fficially:

He has captured the hearts of the Great British public and the press teams often camped outside the front door. In turn the nation sends him gifts and treats daily.

Larry spends his days greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defences and testing antique furniture for napping quality. His day-to-day responsibilities also include contemplating a solution to the mouse occupancy of the house. Larry says this is still ‘in tactical planning stage’.

Maybe they should put him in charge of the Government as well.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Badgering the far right

There were three demonstrations in London yesterday, there was a rally by 50 extremists from the British National Party and the English Defence League, a counter=demonstration by hundreds of activists from anti-extremist groups including Unite Against Fascsim and Hope Not Hate and a much larger contingent of protestors campaigning against the English badger cull.

According to the International Business Times, the far right got more than they bargained for:

Shortly after lunch, a die-hard core of around 50 BNP and EDL supporters was confronted outside parliament by hundreds of activists from anti-extremist groups including Unite Against Fascsim and Hope Not Hate.

But in the event, both groups were upstaged by agitators of a different stripe. Decked out from head to toe in black and white, the group that won the day were campaigning for neither for race war nor ethnic equality, but an end to the government's cull on badgers.

And it was the pro-badger campaigners who appeared to steal a march on the political activists.

Young women dressed in fake fur were seen chasing doughty nationalist supporters down London's Whitehall as a large number of security forces in iridescent jackets looked on from police lines.

Led by Queen guitarist Brian May, protesters in fancy dress demanded an end to the government's cull of badgers, brought in to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis.

They chanted: "Smash the cull! Smash the BNP!"

One protestor summed up his feelings in a tweet:

"It's a shame we can't just cull the EDL and let the badgers march. Who wouldn't want to see marching badgers!" said protester Ian Power

Watching the EDL and BNP being chased by people in badger costumes would have been a sight worth seeing.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Government needs to rethink register of lobbyists

Nick Clegg recently made it clear that it was the Conservatives that were blocking the proper regulation of lobyists at Westminster so in a way, it is poetic justice that it is one of their own who has been caught in the latest sting.

The Telegraph say that the revelation that Patrick Mercer offered a bogus lobbyist a security card giving them unfettered access to the Houses of Parliament is likely to prompt a review of the system of granting passes to lobbyists. And so it should.

But that does not go far enough. The influence exercised by these lobbyists is immense. They have large budgets to throw at MPs so as to get their own way. That does not mean that the sort of abuse that Mercer is accused of is commonplace. I do not believe it is. But there are more subtle influences including briefings, receptions and fact-finding trips that although legitimate, help to influence legislators.

It is time to revisit regulation in Westminster to ensure that this merry-go-round is more transparent and accountable. And yes the national Parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland need to follow suit.

It is also time to dust off the recall procedure so that MPs who are found guilty of wrong-doing can be forced to face their electorate if enough voters demand it.

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