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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sauce for the goose

This morning's Western Mail has Plaid Cymru defending a claim by their Anglesey candidate that Carwyn Jones has been anti-nuclear in the past.

Their argument is that in 2006, Andrew Davies, the Welsh Government Minister responsible for energy policy said there was no commercial case for more nuclear power stations in Wales. This was backed up by a Welsh Government report called Energy Wales, which did not mention nuclear power but did say that it is difficult to see the need for new nuclear build in Wales within the timeframe of that report's route map.

As Carwyn Jones was a member of the cabinet at the time then collective responsibility applies and thus this is his view as well.

I have no problem with that argument but I do have some reservations about it being deplolyed by Plaid Cymru. That is because during the One Wales coalition government and ever since, they have applied collective responsibility only when it suited them.

Thus, although they were in the same cabinet they claim that they were not responsible for cock-ups in health and education policy, which were portfolios held by Labour. Welsh Labour Ministers have not been immune from this either. They have disowned policies promoted by what were then Plaid Cymru colleagues.

If Plaid or Labour are going to deploy a collective responsibility argument they should at least do so consistently and not just when it suits or benefits them.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Lembit Opik has been cancelled

Hat Tip: Liberal England

Top ten conference moments

This is an old Financial Times blog but it brings back some memories of Liberal Democrats Federal Conferences of old and those of our predecessor parties.

Number one of the top ten conference moments is the 1992 resolution to ban goldfish prizes at fairgrounds. Although this seems like one of those kooky Liberal Democrats ideas, it was a Labour government that implemented it.

I was also there for the David Steel 'Go home and prepare for government' speech, although the least said about that the better. I was also there for one of the events mentioned in number 4, namely Black Wednesday. I had just remortgaged and sat there shell-shocked in the hall as the interest rate reached stupid levels before settling down again.

I am sorry that I was not at the Glee Club when Paddy Ashdown swung through the window dressed as a frogman. Did that really happen or is it just apocryphal?

I am also gutted that I was not present when at the end of a particularly long and tedious debate on commerce policy, the chair reluctantly gave way to a point of order: “I am a witch,” the lady told the stunned conference hall. She went on to explain she had detected “evil spirits particularly concentrated on Simon Hughes”.

This year we are in Glasgow. I have registered and booked my accommodation and transport. Let us hope that we have at least one incident with comparable entertainment value.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Backing the Archbishop

It always surprises me how it sometimes takes a celebrity publicly speaking out before a government policy starts to gain traction with the public.

As Richard Kemp points out here, the UK Government is already taking action to try and counter the insidious impact of pay day loan companies. I have quoted his article extensively below:

The current regulator OFT is in the midst of tough enforcement and compliance activity. Since March, OFT have sent compliance letters to each of the 50 leading payday lenders they reviewed (which together account for 90% of the market). Of the 21 that have responded so far, six have left the payday market – two surrendered their licences upon receiving letters and four have ceased to provide payday loans. The remaining lenders have 12 weeks from receipt of their letters to prove their compliance. If the OFT still have concerns upon receipt of the responses from lenders, they will consider taking further enforcement action. This can include taking steps to remove the lenders’ licence, impose legal requirements on them to change their behaviour or, if the OFT have evidence of imminent harm to consumers, suspend their licence immediately. In addition to these 50 lenders, the OFT has revoked the licences of three other payday lenders and another has surrendered its licence since March.

OFT have also just referred the entire payday lending market to the Competition Commission, on the grounds that there are fundamental problems with the way the payday market works. The Competition Commission has far reaching powers that could fix these problems if they decide to and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) will work closely with them. The FCA is the successor body to the Financial Services Authority and will take on responsibility for regulating consumer credit from April 2014.

The FCA has committed to prioritise action on payday lending right from April 2014. This includes looking at turning OFT guidance on payday lending into FCA rules which will be subject to more stringent enforcement and compliance action from April 2014. The FCA are also considering whether new, additional rules on payday lending are necessary from April 2014. BIS have commissioned research on payday lending advertising to help develop Government’s understanding of the impact it has on consumer behaviour and to help inform FCA’s thinking as they look towards regulation of this sector. The FCA will be setting out their thinking on new rules in September in a consultation.

Government has just held, on 1st July, a payday lending summit to take stock of where we have got to since March, and to consider what still needs to be done collectively to address outstanding concerns. This included consideration of what measures the FCA could introduce to reduce consumer harm in the industry when they become the regulator in 2014. At the summit, we also launched two new surveys – a consumer survey and a business survey to check how well the payday industry is meeting the standards set out in the voluntary codes implemented by industry last November.
Government is also supporting the provision of alternatives to payday loans. We have committed investment of up to £38 million in credit unions – to increase access to affordable credit for at least 1 million more people and save consumers up to £1 billion in loan repayments by March 2013. We are also raising the maximum interest rate credit unions can charge per calendar month from 2% to 3%, coming into force on 1 April 2014. This should reduce losses on loans, increase stability and improve consumer access to affordable credit. Further, in January 2012, the Government brought a Legislative Reform Order into effect, to improve the environment in which credit unions operate. In addition, we have worked with the FCA to transfer the regulation of Northern Ireland credit unions to the FCA from 31 March 2012. This means Northern Ireland credit union depositors will be protected by the Financial Services Compensation.

Yet none of this appears to have gained any traction with the public, until the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke up about the issue and then suffered his own minor embarrassment around the Church's investment in Wonga.

Now, as the Independent reports Vince Cable and Jo Swinson, the Consumer Affairs Minister, will meet the Most Rev Justin Welby next week to discuss how the Government can help the Church of England to widen access to the 500 not-for-profit financial co-operatives who make small loans to their members.  This is an extension of the Government's initiatives and shows how taking opportunities as they arise to work in partnership can enhance existing work.

It does not matter of course who gets the credit for this, just that we get it done. There is still a long way to go to protect the financially excluded from predators touting unsustainable high interest loans but it seems that we are at last, on the right track.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

UKIP are the laziest party

Nigel Farage's party can do no wrong. How else cam we explain the fact that they continue to soar in the polls when any sane evaluation of their policies, their membership and what they get up to when elected screams out that people should not touch them with a barge pole?

The Daily Mirror has the latest revelation. They say that UKIP has been branded Europe’s laziest party after figures revealed its MEPs top the skivers’ league:

Leader Nigel Farage has the fifth worst attendance record out of all 752 MEPs. His anti-European Union party sidekicks Godfrey Bloom and deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who each pocket more than £60,000 a year in Brussels salaries, are even lazier.

Mr Bloom is second only to Ireland’s Brian Crowley in missed votes — attending less than a third. Mr Nuttall sits fourth last, voting just 46% of the time. The figures, unearthed by the Mirror, mean UKIP has three of the top five laziest MEPs.

Overall, the anti-EU party’s 11 MEPs miss a third of all votes — double the European average.
The pro-Europe Lib Dems are the hardest-working British party in Brussels — attending 87% of votes.

The Greens come in next on 84.8%, Labour third on 82.7%, and the Tories second from bottom with an 80.4% attendance record.

And there is more:

UKIP attendance at European committee meetings is even worse than its MEPs’ voting record — standing at just 30%.

Mr Nuttall has attended just two out of 56 meetings of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee since June 2010.

Colleague Trevor Colman has been at one of 52 gatherings of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee.

Minutes show Mr Farage attended just one of 42 Fisheries Committee meetings between February 2010 and his resignation from all committees in January this year.

To be fair UKIP say that Mr. Bloom and Mr Crowley have been ill but that does not excuse the performance of the rest of UKIP's MEPs.

Maybe we should stop treating UKIP with kid gloves and actually tell voters what they will get in next year's European elections if they vote for this party.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

'Go home' message is ill-judged nonsense

When UKIP claim that a Government initiative is nasty, unpleasant and insensitive then clearly Ministers are on the wrong track.

As the Guardian makes clear the initiative, which appears to have been approved without Liberal Democrats' involvement, and whereby vans are being driven around the London boroughs of Hounslow, Barking and Dagenham, Ealing, Barnet, Brent and Redbridge carrying billboards has caused huge controversy within the Coalition and without.

The billboards form part of a £10,000 pilot, showing residents how many illegal migrants have recently been arrested in their local area. They carry a text number for overstayers to use to arrange their return home.

The posters read: "In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest. Text HOME to 78070 for free advice, and help with travel documents. We can help you to return home voluntarily without fear of arrest or detention."

The Home Office say that if deemed successful, the vans could be rolled out across the country. Not if we can help it.

Liberal Democrat ministers have now pressed the government to abandon the campaign. After three days of disquiet among party activists and MPs, a senior Lib Dem source said the party's ministers would call for the posters to be withdrawn: "Ministers will be pushing for this to be stopped – it is not Lib Dem or coalition policy."

A party spokesman added: "These poster vans were not cleared or agreed by Liberal Democrats in government. We are totally committed to tackling illegal immigration but this is a disproportionate, distasteful and ineffective way to do it."

And so say all of us.

Meanwhile some have responded differently.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Labour, bang to rights again?

Today's Times reports on yet another one of those difficult issues for Ed Miliband, stating that Labour paid no corporation tax last year despite being in surplus for its sixth year.

The paper says that three months after Ed Miliband criticised irresponsible tax avoidance, it has emerged that his party reduced its corporation tax bill from £561,000 to zero by offsetting expenses and tax losses held over from 2011:

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats paid tax in 2012, although the corporation tax bill for the Lib Dems was only £15, following a profit of £66 on their investments and commercial activities. Almost all their money comes from donations, which are not taxable.

The Tories paid £521,000 tax in 2012 after generating £1.46 million pre-tax profit.Labour’s failure to pay corporation tax comes despite accounts showing that the party’s finances are on their soundest footing for years.

The party reported income of £33 million, meaning it generated a surplus of £2.8 million, up from £1.1 million the year before. Its debts came down from £7.5 million in 2010 to £1.9 million by 2012. Its accounts confirm that corporation tax is due: “The party is treated as an unincorporated association for tax purposes and is therefore liable to corporation tax on its investment income.”

Labour’s accounts reveal that it could have faced a tax bill of £561,000, but a series of tax deductions meant that it paid nothing. The party does not break down how it calculates these deductions, but separately the accounts reveal that past tax losses are being held over. At the end of 2012, the party carried forward tax losses of £103,000, compared with £37,000 losses held over the year before.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Why the UK needs the coalition

If anybody doubted the value of the Liberal Democrats in restraining the worst instincts of the Tories then this article by Andrew Grice in the Independent makes clear how much the United Kingdom needs the coalition for precisely that reason:

At a recent press conference, Nick Clegg cited some of the 40 “loopy” backbench Bills that “my mate Peter Bone” and his allies are introducing – to highlight the right-wing Tory agenda the Liberal Democrats are blocking inside the Coalition. They include bringing back the death penalty; banning the burka; a Margaret Thatcher Day bank holiday; withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); privatising the BBC and limiting sexual misconduct allegations to breaches of the criminal law.

This list matters not because these Bills have any chance of becoming law now, but because some of them – such as pulling out of the ECHR – would stand a chance if the Tories won an overall majority in 2015. So Mr Clegg will argue that a strong Liberal Democrat presence in the next parliament could rein in a Conservative Party determined to veer right.

Tory strategists, too, are turning their attention to Mr Bone’s gang of about 20 hard-core right-wingers. Although Labour’s opinion poll lead has shrunk, it is going to be very difficult for Mr Cameron to win outright next time. As the election will be fought on the existing constituency boundaries, which favour Labour, the Tories need to be six or seven points ahead to be sure of a majority. Mr Cameron told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday that he is “going to fight all out for victory,” but a more realistic Tory target is to secure about 35 per cent of the vote and be the largest party.

Mr. Grice says that privately, some senior Tories think a small overall majority might be worse than another coalition because it would leave Mr Cameron dependent on the Commons votes of Bone & Co – crucially, at a time when Europe would top the agenda in the run-up to the in/out referendum Mr Cameron has promised in 2017.

“Imagine picking up the phone to Peter Bone and asking him what he wanted in return for supporting the Government,” one Cabinet minister sighed. The Coalition currently enjoys a majority of 77, sidelining Bone & Co. It is a luxury Mr Cameron can only dream of when he thinks about a Tory-only government.

A Tory Government of any shape is not desirable. One controlled by right-wingers doesn't bear thinking about.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tories in England are blocking carrier bag charge

Following on from my blogpost last week about the carrier bag charge in Wales, the Daily Mail carried an interesting piece yesterday in which they report that it is the Tories in the Treasury were are being accused of blocking moves to bring in the charge in English supermarkets.

They say that Liberal Democrats believe that there is conclusive proof that charging will cut the use of plastic bags, which there is, but the Treasury do not want to force a levy on supermarkets before the election because it would be unpopular with voters.

England is the only part of the UK holding out against the policy. Charges are already in effect in Wales and Northern Ireland, and Scotland is planning to introduce one next year. They believe households would hate it, and that that is more important than the environmental consequences:

The Mail’s Banish the Bags campaign has highlighted their devastating impact on the environment and wildlife.

Plastic carrier bags from supermarkets are used for an average of just 20 minutes, but survive for hundreds of years, littering the landscape and killing marine animals that eat or get tangled in them.

In Wales, where a 5p levy has been in place for over a year, there has been an 81 per cent drop in usage as shoppers take their own bags to stores.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is officially still examining the evidence from Wales.

Figures this month revealed the number of bags handed out by supermarkets in England has soared by more than 12 per cent in two years, to seven billion.

While the issue has divided Coalition ministers, some Conservative MPs, including Zac Goldsmith, David Cameron’s former green adviser, support a levy.

Yesterday a Lib Dem source said: ‘It is still something the party supports, as do many Tories, but there is no movement from the Treasury on it.’

A Treasury source said: ‘There are arguments for and against it. All options are being discussed.

I think that Treasury quote just about sums it up.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The case for taking the tax threshold up to the minimum wage

I am not normally in the habit of quoting from the Adam Smith Institute website but their letter to the Archbishop of York in response to his call for a Living Wage is well-worth reading if only for learning how a small tweak in the tax system could leave somebody on the minimum wage better off than their equivalent on the higher rate.

There has been a sustained campaign by Liberal Democrats in government to take the low-paid out of tax. The tax threshold will rise to £10,000 from 1 April 2014 meaning that since 2010, the Liberal Democrats will have taken 130,000 low-paid people in Wales out of tax altogether and cut the tax bill for 1.1 million more this side of Offa's Dyke. Under Labour the tax bill for somebody on the minimum wage amounted to £1,018 in 2010. Under the Coalition Government it is now £573.

However, we want to go further and raise the tax threshold to the level of the Minimume Wage. This is also an objective endorsed by the Adam Smith Institute and their figures illustrate how this will benefit many people:

if it were not for the amount that government takes from such meagre wages then the minimum wage would indeed be, to an acceptable level of accuracy, that living wage.

An example to make this clear. Assume 37.5 hours a week of work for 52 weeks of the year. At that living wage of £7.45 an hour this is a gross weekly income of £279.40 (I round slightly) or £14,527.50 a year. We are all agreed that this is not a large sum.

From this sum the recipient will have to pay employees' national insurance. This starts at £109 per week and is charged at 12%. £20.50 per week in such charges, or £1,063.30 per year.

There is also income tax to pay. This starts at £9,440 this year and is charged at 20%. £1,017.5 in such taxation.

We can see therefore that the net income from the living wage is some £12,446.70 a year. This is not greatly different from the gross income on the minimum wage: £6.19 an hour for 37.5 hours for 52 weeks is £12,070.50. Or if we wish to bring that back to a rate per hour, the difference between the post-tax living wage and the pre-tax minimum wage is some 19 pence per hour.

Unfortunately it does not stop there. There is also employers' national insurance to pay. Some insist that it is actually the employer who carries the burden of this tax. Almost all economists disagree, insisting that it is the employee who does in the form of lower wages. Indeed, we have it on the word of an expert of great eminence, Richard Murphy of Tax Research (who is funded in part of the Joseph Rowntree organisations, just to show his impartiality on this point), that it is indeed the employees who carry the burden of this tax. The calculation is slightly complex, but it's reasonable enough to claim that it is a further 13.8 % of those wages (it isn't, it's 13.8% of the total wages including the employers' NI but let us keep the maths simple) meaning a further £20 to £23 a week deducted from those wages. Or a further £1,196 a year.

If we add all of this together we find that the living wage of £7.45 an hour actually provides a lower post-tax standard of living than the minimum wage of £6.19 an hour free of taxation would provide.

That latter would provide £12,070.50 a year to live on. By no means a great sum but still larger than the £11,250.7 that is available from the living wage after the politicians have taken their very much more than tithe.

It is indeed possible to play with these calculations, to make them more accurate. But the same end result will always come out. The current minimum wage, free of income tax and national insurance, would provide a higher standard of living than the proposed living wage under the current taxation system.

It is for this reason that I have been proposing for some years now, in fact ever since the first JRF calculations on the living wage were published, that the personal allowance for both income tax and national insurance be raised to the full time full year minimum wage. This would, at a stroke, raise that minimum wage to a higher standard of living than the proposed living wage. With the advantage that we only have to convince the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the righteousness of this path, not millions of employers across the country.

The Living Wage is a worthwhile goal but from the point of view of government the most effective and immediate way to help the low paid is to take those on the minimum wage out of tax altogether. That should be a key pledge for the next government, building on what the Liberal Democrats have already achieved.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Labour proved wrong on the economy again

Although the main focus for the Coalition Government remains tackling the deficit so as to start repaying debt, that has not stopped our opponents from focusing on the level of central government borrowing.

Labour have consistently pointed out that borrowing is rising, as if they had a record to be proud of in this regard. In particular Labour MPs hit out at last year's figures, which they claimed showed that the Coalition was off course.

Will Ed Balls apologise now that the latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in fact Government borrowing actually fell by £2.1 billion on the previous year in 2012-13?

The conclusion is that three months into the fiscal year, the government remains on course to reduce the budget deficit in line with its forecasts.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

More data protection questions

Over at Politics Home, Helen Goodman MP has outlined a fairly disturbing case which she says highlights the inadequacy of the UK's data protectoin laws:

On 12 May, The Sunday Times reported that EE had sold to Ipsos MORI the personal data of 27 million mobile phone users, including their gender, age and postcode, the websites they visited, the time of day texts were sent, and the location when the texts were sent. Customers were clearly not aware that their data were being handed on and used in this way. Ipsos MORI then met with the Metropolitan police to discuss selling the data on. These data go beyond anything the police can get without an application under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, of which in 2011 only 2,911 such orders were given.

The day after reading that article, I wrote to Ed Vaizey asking whether he had had a report from the Metropolitan police, whether the Government believe that it is right that a larger range of data are being used and sold than is allowed under RIPA, and what action the Government are taking to protect our citizens.

Because I did not receive an answer for two months, I wrote to the mobile phone companies and the Information Commissioner’s Office, most of which provided full responses. All the companies said they believed that their practices fell within the Data Protection Act 1998 and that the data had been anonymised as defined in that Act. The ICO said that having datasets with names or addresses stripped out and aggregated into groups of 50 “does not enable particular individuals to be identified”.

Unfortunately that is not the case. By combining these data with other datasets—for example, those of the Land Registry—individual people can be identified. In March this year, Nature published a report by academics which concluded that:

“in a dataset where the location of an individual is specified hourly…four spatio-temporal points are enough to uniquely identify 95% of the individuals...”

The current law is inadequate to protect people’s privacy, partly because there has been significant technological change since 1998. Furthermore, the current consent rules are completely inadequate. For consent to be meaningful, it needs to be explicit, informed and freely given, not buried somewhere in paragraph 157 of the terms and conditions.

I think Helen Goodman is right. 1998 is an age away in new technology terms. Things have moved on significantly. We need a full expert review and a new Act of Parliament that gives people back control over their own data, especially that held by private companies.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cat out of the bag?

The claim by a Conservative peer, whilst speaking in the House of Lords that that he uses friends in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to track down drivers he spots littering the road and admonish them has caused a bit of a sensation.

That is not because of the extraordinary sense of citizenship demonstrated by Lord Selsdon in tracking down British families driving 4x4 cars to go skiing in the Alps who, he says are amongst the most prolific vehicle-based litterers, but for the data protection implications of his alleged actions.

The Independent reports that a spokesperson for the DVLA denied Lord Selsdon's assertion that he accessed telephone numbers through the agency. The spokesperson contended that the Agency takes its responsibility to protect information seriously. Adding that information is only provided under strict controls to those who are legally entitled to it, such as local authorities and the police.

However, that categorical denial later transmuted into a holding position with a second statement saying: "We are writing to Lord Selsdon to ask him for further information. Depending on his reply we will then decide on whether or not it is necessary to conduct a full investigation."

I await further developments with interest.

Update: Lord Selsdon has now issued an apology in which he said that  his suggestion that he "might have been provided with the personal data of motorists by the DVLA" was "unintentional", and added: "I would like to confirm I have not, at any time, asked for or been given by the DVLA any information which is not in the public domain.

"In particular, I have not been given names or particulars of vehicles.

"I much regret that my speech, without text or notes, should have given rise to press speculation to the contrary and I would like to apologise to the House."


Friday, July 19, 2013

Another lesson Wales can teach England

We are well used to teaching England some lessons (the Six Nations for example) though often we need to learn from the English experience as well, such as on health service outcomes, however today is one in which we can smugly look across Offa's Dyke and suggest that we are doing something right.

Radio Wales this morning reported that the 5p charge on plastic carrier bags in Wales has been a resounding success. There has apparently been an 81% reduction in their use here. In England the use of plastic bags has gone up.

The cultural differences between England and Wales are rapidly becoming more marked, rather like those in place when one crosses from Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic. That is most evident in supermarkets.

If I go shopping with my mother in England I am always astonished at the reckless abandon evident in the way they throw carrier bags our way. I am used to more frugal treatment.

Wales has shown that a charge can work, isn't it about time England followed suit? It really is an easy win for the environment.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On hold

We have all experienced it, long waits to get through to government or local council officials whilst listening to musak or even worse an automated voice telling us that we are important to them. Now the National Audit Office has put a figure to what it costs us to sit around twiddling our thumbs, especially when the relevant department is using a higher rate phone line.

According to the Independent, callers to government departments paid £56m on higher-rate phone lines last year despite a drive to reduce their use,. The figures show that £26m of this figure was spent waiting to speak to an adviser, with callers spending a total of 402 million minutes on hold.

The Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Revenue and Customs have the highest proportion of higher-rate numbers, they say:

The head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, called on government departments to protect vulnerable and low-income callers. “Callers do not receive a better service from higher-rate numbers and many callers are put off calling government phone numbers altogether,” he said. “The most vulnerable callers, such as low-income households, face some of the highest charges.”

The report pointed out that some departments have successfully switched from 0845 to 03 numbers, which are charged at a standard rate. The Department of Health has ruled out the use of any numbers costing more than the geographic rate.

Some changes needed here I think.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

More Twitter shenanigans

Those obsessed with the number of followers they have on Twitter may have considered at one time or another offering incentives for people to follow them. Other just attract followers through their magnetic personality. Personally I am content to scrape along with whoever I can get.

One Tweeter though has at his disposal the ultimate incentive. According to the Guardian the Vatican has let it be known that following live events on Twitter which involve the Pope could see you get to heaven much quicker. They are offering of "indulgences" to followers of Pope Francis' tweets:

The church's granted indulgences reduce the time Catholics believe they will have to spend in purgatory after they have confessed and been absolved of their sins.

The remissions got a bad name in the Middle Ages because unscrupulous churchmen sold them for large sums of money. But now indulgences are being applied to the 21st century.

But a senior Vatican official warned web-surfing Catholics that indulgences still required a dose of old-fashioned faith, and that paradise was not just a few mouse clicks away.

"You can't obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine," Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

Indulgences these days are granted to those who carry out certain tasks – such as climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome (reportedly brought from Pontius Pilate's house after Jesus scaled them before his crucifixion), a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory.

But attendance at events such as the Catholic World Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro, a week-long event starting on 22 July, can also win an indulgence.

Mindful of the faithful who cannot afford to fly to Brazil, the Vatican's sacred apostolic penitentiary, a court which handles the forgiveness of sins, has also extended the privilege to those following the "rites and pious exercises" of the event on television, radio and through social media.

"That includes following Twitter," said a source at the penitentiary, referring to Pope Francis' Twitter account, which has gathered seven million followers. "But you must be following the events live. It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the internet

There is a catch though. It only works if the beneficiary has previously confessed and is "truly penitent and contrite". The Vatican also requires the beneficiary to pray whilst following events in Rio online, and to do so with "requisite devotion". 

Still at least they won't insist on inspecting an applicant's internet history first.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Welsh NHS worse than England says Labour MP

For all the bluster in the Welsh Assembly Chamber from Labour AMs about what is happening in the English NHS it has long been understood that outcomes in Wales are worse than those over the border. Now a Labour MP has come out and said it openly.

Cynon Valley MP, Ann Clwyd has obtained figures that show that patients in Wales are up to 140 times as likely to wait an unacceptably long time for potentially lifesaving tests as patients in England.

She found that in April this year nearly three times as many patients in Wales (30.8%) waited more than 18 weeks to be referred for treatment than in England (11.5%):

Also, the mean wait for principal procedures in Wales was 89 days in April, in comparison with 51 days in England.

Wales also performs worse than England at dealing with patients who attend accident and emergency units. Statistics obtained by Ms Clwyd show that in the period covering October to December 2009, 88.7% of those attending major A&E departments in Wales were admitted, transferred or discharged in less than four hours of arrival, compared with 96.8% in England.

By the period covering January to March this year, both countries had seen a decline in performance. Yet there was still a significant discrepancy between Wales (83.0) and England (91.1%).

The contrast is even starker for diagnostic waiting times. Across 11 diagnostic disciplines, there were vastly higher percentages of patients waiting more than six weeks to be diagnosed in Wales than in England. Such tests can be crucial in discovering whether people have life-threatening conditions like a weak heart and various kinds of cancer.

In the case of neurophysiology – diagnostic tests involving the nervous system – just 0.4% of patients in England wait more than six weeks in comparison with 56.3% of patients in Wales. Put another way, patients in Wales are 140 times more likely to wait more than six weeks for the test than those in England.

The Welsh Government's review of NHS finances over the summer recess period is going to have make major changes if we are to catch up with England.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Identifying the fakes

The Independent reports on one of the many pitfalls of social media this morning, identifying the real people from the spoof accounts.

Apparently, the Prime Minister himself feel into this trap when tweeting about the government's benefits cap earlier today:

The Prime Minister's account, which is followed by 366,000 people, published a tweet saying: "We're rolling out a cap on Benefits today - @IDS_MP and I are determined to make work pay, and help the UK compete on the #GlobalRace."

Unfortunately for the PM the @IDS_MP account is not connected with the Work and Pensions Secretary and indeed spends most of its time mocking the minister.

Sample tweets from the account include: "I've always supported a Mansion Tax. Your Tax buys my Mansion. Chin chin!", and "A thrifty way to keep cool in this heat wave is to dab the ice from your Champagne bucket onto your forehead."

At the beginning of this month the mystery user behind the account wrote: "A 15% increase in MPs pay is a disgrace. Has anyone seen the price of Foie gras and Armand de Brignac...we need at least 25%"

Surprisingly perhaps, the mistaken tweet, which has been since been retweeted 409 times and favourited 134, remains on the Prime Ministers feed.

In an apparent response to the PM's tweet @IDS_MP replied: "Chin chin Dave. Round mine for a Pimms later?"

Perhaps those managing the Prime Minister's twitter account need to be more careful. And whilst we are on the subject, what exactly is the protocol for a Prime Minister using Twitter to wind up the Prime Minister of another country?

I appreciate the sentiment but how does it add to international relations?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The right to seize phone data

The Telegraph reports on a disturbing development at Britain's borders in which thousands of innocent holidaymakers and travellers are having their phones seized and personal data downloaded and stored by the police.

The paper says that officers use counter-terrorism laws to remove a mobile phone from any passenger they wish coming through UK air, sea and international rail ports and then scour their data. They add that the blanket power is so broad olice do not even have to show reasonable suspicion for seizing the device and can retain the information for “as long as is necessary”. Data can include call history, contact books, photos and who the person is texting or emailing, although not the contents of messages:

David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism laws, is expected to raise concerns over the power in his annual report this week.

He will call for proper checks and balances to ensure it is not being abused.

It echoes concerns surrounding an almost identical power police can use on the streets of the UK, which is being reviewed by the Information Commissioner.

However, in those circumstances police must have grounds for suspicion and the phone can only be seized if the individual is arrested.

Mr Anderson said: “Information downloaded from mobile phones seized at ports has been very useful in disrupting terrorists and bringing them to justice.

“But ordinary travellers need to know that their private information will not be taken without good reason, or retained by the police for any longer than is necessary.”

Up to 60,000 people a year are “stopped and examined” as they enter or return to the UK under powers contained in the Terrorism Act 2000.

Like David Anderson I can see that this is a useful tool in the fight against terrorism but it must be used appropriately and proportionately, be open to challenge and review and be subject to clear rules as to how it it utilised.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Vince accuses Tories

It is good to see Vince Cable in this morning's Guardian continuing to set out the differences between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories within the coalition.

In this particular instance he is accusing the Tories of blocking a Liberal Democrats plan to allow more council homes to be built through a relaxation of local authority borrowing rules. The party in England believe that councils could build up to 25,000 homes if they were allowed to pool their borrowing limits, releasing up to £2.8bn:

Cable's speech coincides with the Lib Dems releasing the text of a motion on the economy that Cable and Nick Clegg will jointly put forward at the party conference in September. It identifies the economic policies that the Lib Dems will be pushing within government over the next two years, all designed to stimulate growth without breaching the coalition's fiscal rules.

The plan to allow councils to pool borrowing is at the heart of it. Under the proposals, councils which have reached their borrowing limit but want to borrow more to build homes would be allowed to use another authority's unused borrowing allocation.

The Lib Dems say this policy, which is supported by the Local Government Association, could lead to the construction of between 15,000 and 25,000 new homes.

Other proposals in the Lib Dem motion include: further action to tackle youth unemployment; investigating the case for allowing council trading corporation debts to be classified as off balance sheet, allowing the organisations to borrow more; giving more borrowing powers to the green investment bank; and expanding the new business bank so that it can support the setting up of new banks and bring more competition into the industry.

Such an investment is much needed and not just to create jobs. There is a shortage of certain types of social housing in this country. If we are to tackle that then Councils need to be allowed to borrow to build.  I want to see much more of this from Vince and Nick Clegg over the next 15 months.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Legislate in haste, repent at leisure

My private member's Bill on park homes came back to the Assembly on Wednesday for ts final stages, but instead of allowing it to proceed to Royal Consent I agreed with the Government lawyers that we needed a further report stage to tidy up a few outstanding issues.

Amongst these were a modern definition of family. The Bill as it currently stands had used the one in the 1960 Bill:

A person is a member of another’s family within the meaning of this Part if the person is the other’s spouse, civil partner, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew or niece, treating
(a) any relationship by marriage or civil partnership as a relationship by blood, any relationship of the half blood as a relationship of the whole blood and the stepchild of any person as the person’s child, and
(b) an illegitimate person as the legitimate child of the person’s mother and reputed father, or if they live together as husband and wife or as if they were civil partners

which was dated to say the least. We are still working on a new definition but the point was that in the absense of a revising chamber we wanted to get the legislation right.

Contrast this with the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill, which has been introduced as emergency legislation to be dealt with in three weeks and purports to re-establish Agricultural Wages Boards. However, already we are discovering that this is not necessarily the case. In addition the Government themselves are having to introduce substantial amendments.

As one Plaid Cymru AM points out the Bill does not retain an independent body to set agricultural wages in Wales as currently exists and which are in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland:

He said that unlike the existing Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales, and the similar boards in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the proposal for Wales handed the power solely to the Welsh Minister.

He also warned that a lack of scrutiny for an emergency bill would lead to poor legislation that would not stand the test of time.

“The Minister tells us he wants to protect the status quo in Wales yet his legislation proposes to do the opposite,” said Mr Gruffydd.

“The current arrangement is that the AWB can decide on wages without reference to the Minister. However the proposal as it stands is that it is the Minister who will make that decision in Wales.

“Despite including the setting up of an Agricultural Advisory Panel for Wales the legislation makes no reference to its role or responsibilities, or requires the Minister to take its advice. This in no way represents the status quo.

“The agriculture sector is hugely important to Wales and a Welsh Agriculture Wages Board should be a strong and independent body that can protect and promote the industry’s interests without political interference.

“Flawed legislation can lead to unintended consequences and it is concerning that the Welsh Government is intent on rushing this important piece of work. I would much prefer that any emergency legislation focuses on securing the current rights of agricultural workers in Wales.

Whatever the merits of the issue there is no excuse for by-passing effective scrutiny when introducing legislation unless there is a real national emergency. Agricultural Wages Boards do not fall into that category in my view, especially when Welsh Ministers have known of their potential abolition for nearly a year.

The danger is that we will get poor legislation that gives disproportionate powers to Ministers and will have to be revisited in due course. That is no way for a legislature to act least of all one as young as the Welsh Assembly that is still trying to find its feet in this area of work.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Now Microsoft helps the US invade our privacy

Should we be surprised. The Guardian reports that Microsoft has collaborated closely with US intelligence services to allow users' communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company's own encryption:

The files provided by Edward Snowden illustrate the scale of co-operation between Silicon Valley and the intelligence agencies over the last three years. They also shed new light on the workings of the top-secret Prism program, which was disclosed by the Guardian and the Washington Post last month.

The documents show that: 

• Microsoft helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be unable to intercept web chats on the new Outlook.com portal; 
• The agency already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.com, including Hotmail;
• The company worked with the FBI this year to allow the NSA easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide; 
• Microsoft also worked with the FBI's Data Intercept Unit to "understand" potential issues with a feature in Outlook.com that allows users to create email aliases;
• In July last year, nine months after Microsoft bought Skype, the NSA boasted that a new capability had tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism; 
• Material collected through Prism is routinely shared with the FBI and CIA, with one NSA document describing the program as a "team sport".

So all the guarantees about privacy and security appear to be worth less than the paper they are written on.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Official statistics show Liberal Democrats are tackling income inequality

A new report from the Office for National Statistics shows that Liberal Democrats tax policies are starting to have the desired impact on income inequality.

In Government, Liberal Democrats have been working hard to build a stronger economy in a fairer society even while we have had to make difficult decisions to bring the deficit down.

Today’s figures show that our manifesto pledge to take the poorest out of tax and give millions of low-earners a £700 tax cut is making Britain a fairer place.

We know that over a million workers in Wales have seen the benefits of an income tax cut and over 100,000 workers on low incomes now pay no income tax at all. In my region covering Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend, over 210,850 have benefited from the Liberal Democrats’ fair tax plans. The figure for Wales is 1.228 million.

The Office for National Statistics figures confirm that the tax and benefits system we have created leads to income being shared more equally between households than ever since 1986.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Saving lives

I am on a train back to Cardiff after an interesting and useful series of meetings in Westminster yesterday afternoon and evening. A number of these meetings were around the Silk Commission report on funding the Welsh Assembly, but the most important in my view was a session with the All Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group on how we can increase the number of carbon monoxide detectors in people's homes.

Carbon Monoxide poisoning causes 50 deaths a year, 200 serious injuries and 4,000 minor injuries which costs the health service in England and Wales £178 million annually in medical and care costs as well as creating immeasurable human suffering.

Currently any new solid fuel appliance must come with a Carbon Monoxide detector but that does not apply to other fuel types. A change in the regulations to require that the mandatory installation of a detector with all at-risk appliances and a programme of installing hard-wire detectors in all social housing in Wales could make a big difference and save many lives. After all, smoke detectors are virtually standard in many homes, and we now have a law requiring sprinklers, why not one requiring the much cheaper Carbon Monoxide detectors.

It is my view that we have an opportunity through the Welsh housing bill later this year to widen the use of Carbon Monoxide detectors. All I have to do now is to work out how to best conduct the campaign to try and make that happen.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Differentiation and the mansion tax

Today's Independent reports that battle lines are being drawn up in the South East of England over Liberal Democrats proposals for a mansion tax.

The paper says that the Conservatives are preparing an aggressive counterattack after new Treasury calculations found that wealthy householders would face an average annual demand of more than £35,000:

The policy has proved a key point of difference between the Coalition partners, although at one point Mr Osborne was more sympathetic to the idea than David Cameron. Some Lib Dems suggest a mansion tax could be a non-negotiable “red line” in talks with the Tories if the 2015 election resulted in another hung parliament.

A senior Lib Dem shrugged off the Tory attack. “We would be absolutely delighted to have a political debate about the policy,” he said. “The Conservatives are trying to appeal to around 500 of their wealthy donors. We are trying to appeal to the entire electorate– this is an incredibly popular policy.”

He stood by the Lib Dems’ estimate of the number of £2m-plus houses in Britain. He also said the Tories’ calculation of the average levy was misleading as most people caught by the tax would pay relatively small amounts while a limited number of the super-rich would be liable for large payments.

Whilst not entirely convinced by this policy myself, I do know that it is popular and workable. And the more policies that can differentiate us from the Tories at the next election, the better.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Secret badger shoots pose a risk to public safety

You could not make it up. The Observer reports today that:

The government has refused to publish risk assessments of danger to the public during England's imminent night-time badger shoots because doing so "could have an adverse affect upon the health and safety of the public"

I think that just about sums up this whole sorry policy.

Blair falls out with democracy

Today's Observer leads on the Army coup in Egypt with the following sentence:

Tony Blair says the Egyptian army had no alternative but to oust President Morsi from power, given the strength of opposition on the streets.

Funny, he never said that when millions of ordinary Britons took to the streets to protest against the Iraq war.

UKIP modernisation collapses in confusion

Attempts by UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage to modernise his party's approach to devolution in advance of the Ynys Mon by-election have been quickly undermined by UKIP's Welsh MEP, John Bufton.

According to the Western Mail, Mr. Bufton has rejected Farage's views and suggested that a new party could be formed to continue the previous policy of abolishing the Welsh Assembly if UKIP changes it view:

Mr Bufton said in a television interview: “Well, I’m part of the old school. I’ve been opposed to the Assembly from its inception and remain so.

“If the party changes its policy, which I think it might do, I think it’s a big big mistake and basically there would be no difference between us and the Conservatives then. So if we lose that, it’s our main plank, that we want to abolish it, then there’s an opening for another party perhaps.”

Once more there is confusion about what UKIP actually stands for. That uncertainty will do them no favours in Ynys Mon.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Who runs Labour?

The Daily Telegraph poses the question who runs Labour? They would wouldn't they?

However, for once it is not just that particular broadsheet taking a pop at Ed Miliband's party. It is a question being posed by many other media outlets as well.

As the paper points out the allegations that members of the Unite union tried to fix the selection of a Labour candidate in the Falkirk constituency have blown up into a full scale crisis for that party:

Mr McCluskey accused Mr Miliband of seeking to emulate Tony Blair’s drive to curb the unions, while the Labour leader’s allies suggested that the union chief’s job was on the line. Some party figures are privately speculating that the argument between the former allies will leave at least one suffering fatal political damage.

Unite’s backing helped Mr Miliband take the Labour leadership in 2010, and the union has since given the party more than £8 million in donations.

Mr Miliband had given the union considerable sway over party management, largely through Tom Watson, the shadow cabinet member and general election coordinator, who quit this week over Falkirk

The Labour leader today tacitly accused Mr McCluskey of complicity in trying to rig the Falkirk selection by enrolling union members in the local Labour Party without their knowledge. “We had members being signed up without their knowledge, bad practice, malpractice, and, frankly, instead of defending that kind of thing, Len McCluskey should be condemning it,” he said.

Labour officials said the party had asked Scottish prosecutors whether there was a case for a criminal investigation into the union’s actions in Falkirk.

Sources suggested that enrolling union members in the Labour Party without consent could breach fraud and data protection laws, as well as electoral law.

In return McCluskey has hit back, accusing the Labour leader of “responding to the Tory agenda” and dismissing the potential criminal inquiry:

“It is a nonsense and I’m afraid the way it’s been handled by the Labour Party headquarters is nothing short of disgrace,” he said. “I’m sure the police have got a lot better things to do than this, but we’ll cooperate.” Warning that the issue of Labour’s relations with the unions remained unresolved, Mr McCluskey added: “The police inquiry won’t finish this issue.”

With the Unite leader talking about a “Clause IV moment” and with Mr Miliband’s aides  encouraging Unite officials and leaders of other unions to put pressure on McCluskey to back down or consider his position it is beginning to look like open warfare.

It is no exaggeration to suggest, as one shadow cabinet member has done that Ed Miliband’s credibility is on the line.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Excuse of the week

Today's Western Mail reports the extraordinary behind-the-scenes shehanigans around a simple freedom of information request for background papers concerning the controversial Marcus Longley report into health service reconfiguration last year.

As the paper reports, last year Professor Longley was at the centre of a major political row when opposition politicians questioned the independence of his report. E-mails between Prof Longley, director of the Welsh Institute for Health and Social Care at the University of South Wales, and senior civil servants led to the allegation, hotly denied by the academic, that the Welsh Government had influenced the content of the report.

A further freedom of information request for draft versions of the report was rejected. That decision has now been overturned by the Information Commissioner. However, the reasons for the initial rejection do deserve pondering on.

The Western Mail say that it has emerged that in representations to the Commissioner, the Welsh Government argued a previous disclosure of e-mail correspondence had resulted in significant media and press interest and “necessitated the Minister being required to provide an oral statement to the Welsh Assembly and for her and other officials to be questioned by the National Assembly for Wales Health and Social Care Committee”.

This was said to have resulted in the diversion of resources to provide additional briefings and managing the media attention.

They add that the Welsh Government also argued that disclosure would be likely to have an impact on policy making and that it was essential for officials and Ministers to have a “safe space” to discuss live issues without being hindered by external comment and/or media involvement.

This nonsense excuse just underlines what many of us have suspected for some time. Welsh Ministers apparently think they are above the scrutiny process, resent being asked questions and do not like being held to account for their decisions by the media, fellow AMs or anybody else.

I think it is time to remind the Welsh Government that they are operating in a democracy and not a one-party state.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Poor diets and scurvy

Reports in today's media that wartime diseases are returning to Britain because some children are living on junk food diets that are worse for them than rationing was 70 years ago, are not new but that does make them any less shocking.

Wales in particular appears to be suffering badly from this phenomenon, with obesity amongst youngsters at an all-time high.

The Telegraph says that cases of scurvy and rickets have been on the rise in parts of the UK where some parents rely on takeaways and microwave meals to feed the family. They add that dietitians in the Rhondda Valley have reported an increase in both diseases, which many thought had been consigned to history.

They refer to findings that suggest that since the start of the credit crisis, consumption of fruit and vegetables has fallen in the UK at a faster rate than in western Europe as a whole, eastern Europe and the US. On average, each person in Britain is eating 8lb 13oz (4kg) less fruit and vegetables a year than in 2007, a drop of 3 per cent.

Having identified the problem we now need to find solutions. That is not easy. This is not just about money but culture as well. If we cannot re-educate parents then perhaps we need to start in the schools by providing yet more fruit and healthy snacks to balance out what children are not getting at home.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A marathon session on organ donation

Last night's marathon plenary session on the Human Transplantation (Wales) Bill could prove to be a seminal moment in the development of the Welsh Assembly.

Members spent five hours debating a huge number of amendments to the bill covering a wide range of ethical and legal issues. The quality of the debate was exceptional and good-humoured. It was not dominated by party political considerations but often saw members of the same group contradicting each other.

This was the visible manifestation of a maturing legislature and I was proud to switch on the television later to see it featured on all the national news channels as well as Newsnight. We made the UK headlines for all the right reasons, for passing a ground-breaking piece of legislation that could make a significant difference to the lives of ordinary people.

We also showed that we could disagree on fundamental principles and issues whilst remaining civilised and polite to each other.There was no shouting, no swinging of the mace over heads and nobody sought to belittle another member for their views.

After 14 years, two of which with primary legislative powers, we are starting to look and feel like a National Parliament and I, for one am proud to be a member of it.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Social engineering by the Tories

Nick Clegg was quick off the mark yesterday to attack the latest manifestations of the Conservative Party's obsession with marriage and Europe as wrong-headed and illiberal.

The Independent reports that the Deputy Prime Minister hit back at Mr Cameron’s call for the Liberal Democrats to “get off the fence” on Europe and portrayed the Conservatives as backward-looking on marriage:

After Mr Cameron promised Tory MPs he would honour his long-standing pledge to bring in transferable tax allowances for married couples, Mr Clegg suggested the money would be better spent on a tax break to help working families with their child care costs. He said: “This desire of the Conservative Party to hand-pick couples through the tax system who conform to their image of how you should conduct your life, I don't think it's fair.“

Europe is back on the agenda because the Conservative high command is supporting a backbench bill to guarantee an in/out referendum in 2017, which be debated by the Commons on Friday.

Mr Clegg, whose MPs are expected to abstain, argued that the Tories had repeatedly changed their position while the Lib Dems had remained consistent. ”They may increasingly be becoming the party of 'out',“ he said. ”We are unambiguously - and will remain - the party of 'in'”. He said his party would back an in/out referendum when a new EU treaty emerged but added: “They [the Tories] now want to pluck a slightly arbitrary date in the diary out of thin air to have a referendum on a very ill-defined process of so-called renegotiation.“

This stance is very welcome and underlines some of the key philosophical differences between the two parties. Let us hope that when we come to face the electorate we are as clear and as unequivocal in promoting our position as Nick Clegg was yesterday.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Gesture politics

The decision by both Labour and Liberal Democrats MPs to boycott a vote later this week on a private members bill, which will call for a referendum on membership of the European Community, was further justified today by an official House of Commons analysis that warned that the legislation, if passed could have little legal relevance as it could be ignored by a future government. In other words, what we have been saying all along, that a Parliament cannot bind its successors.

The Telegraph says that the analysis concludes that it “would not appear possible to hold the referendum” without the further agreement of both Houses of Parliament after the next election to set the date and terms of a future vote and that this effectively makes the bill irrelevant.

It is no coincidence that Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, will today launch a campaign calling for Britain to remain in the EU.

British Influence, a pro-EU organisation, will highlight business support for Britain’s continuing membership. Vince Cable will tell the launch that membership gives Britain access to the world’s largest trading bloc and deals with other countries.

“Through successful trade negotiations we are opening up new markets for British companies to grow, as well as improving existing ones. Let’s be clear. Leaving the EU is neither a good nor a realistic economic option for this country.”

More egg on the face for the Euro sceptics.

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