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Saturday, October 26, 2013

The future of HS2

After all that fuss last week about whether Wales was going to get a Barnett consequential from the investment in HS2, it is now possible the project will not go ahead at all.

That will teach us to count our chickens before they are hatched.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Fewer holidays? Yes, please!

Following on from the independent report arguing that we need 100 Assembly Members so as to ensure adequate scrutiny of the Welsh Government and its legislation, the Welsh Tories have offered a more parsimonious approach. They want the Assembly to have fewer 'holidays' and to sit for more sessions each week.

Putting aside the fact that for the most part, recess is a working break from Assembly meetings, involving numerous meetings, surgeries and other opportunities to meet constituents, I do tend to agree with the Conservatives on this.

There is not enough time for the Committees and Plenary to consider all the business in front of them and as a result we are taking short cuts on legislation and not properly holding Ministers to account. There is no possibility of getting additional AMs at the moment so additional sitting time is the obvious way forward.

However, there is another side to this, and that is if we are to use Plenary meetings to their maximum effect and force the Government to face up to the reality of not having a majority then the whips need to ensure that they get all Assembly Members to turn out for votes.

That does not happen at the moment and as a result the Labour Government are often let off the hook. Further, it would also help cross-opposition working if the Conservatives could get their own members voting the same way on key issues.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Wales' most dangerous roads

The Western Mail reports on new figures that identify the most dangerous roads in Wales.

They say that figures published by the Road Safety Foundation show the A roads where drivers are most at risk of death or serious injury:

The group measured the number of collisions in 2009-2011 against the number of journeys made on the road.

It listed the six most dangerous roads in the country, including the A44 from Llangurig to Aberystwyth, which came fourth in a list of the highest risk roads in the whole of Britain.

The report also revealed that danger roads in Wales are being improved more slowly than anywhere else in Britain, with just an 11% fall in risk, compared to the best performing region's 30%.

They add that Wales has the second highest number of serious crashes per one billion vehicle kilometres, at 32, based on motorways and A roads just behind the East Midlands.

For the record, the high and medium risk roads in Wales are A5152 near Wrexham; A496 in Gwynedd; A5 near Menai Bridge; A44 between Llangurig and Aberystwyth; A4081 near Llandrindod Wells; and A479 through the Brecon Beacons.

It has to be said though that it does not get much more dangerous than this incident on the M4 motorway yesterday, when a van at the rear of three burning cars was pulled away by firemen before the explosives on board could catch fire.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

John Major speaks for many

Whatever one might have thought about John Major when he was Prime Minister, there is no way that we can fault his timing. Sir John's intervention on fuel poverty and energy bills yesterday was perfectly timed and made Ed Miliband's efforts to make an impact on this issue look clumsy and inept:

Sir John Major challenged ministers to levy a windfall tax this winter on energy companies’ profits to protect the neediest in society as he warned Conservative chiefs of the electoral dangers of vacating the political centre ground.

The former Prime Minister urged his party to reconnect with voters in the North of England, where it had been relegated to the political fringe, and to help poor families struggling to make ends meet in tower blocks and council estates.

He predicted the Government would have to step in to prevent families from having to choose between heating and eating if there is a bitterly cold spell of weather.

The former Prime Minister spoke with the suretyof a man who no longer has responsibility for running the country, but did so in a way that set out a sensible middle-way that his successor could and should follow.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How not to do Twitter

Today's Independent carries a gripping story about what happened when the Chief Executive of Ryanair was let loose on Twitter. They say that the airline's first venture into the world of the live Q&A was a shambles from the start:

The idea was that passengers could post questions to the airline’s boss, Michael O’Leary, using the hashtag “#GrillMOL”. But the combative CEO seemed unaware that his inappropriate response to one of the first questioners – a woman – would be seen by everyone.

His comment (“Nice pic. Phwoaaarr! MOL”) was rapidly re-tweeted, with responses such as “@Ryanair how is it appropriate for an airline CEO to be a sexist pig?”, and: “People who fly Ryanair: do you also think this is an acceptable thing to tweet at a woman?”

Mr O’Leary eventually responded: “Just found out what hashtags are. Learning on da job! Always compliment ladies pics”.

Even before the “Twitter chat” got under way – 50 minutes early, due to a scheduling error – it was clear that many disgruntled travellers saw it as an opportunity to take revenge on Europe’s biggest low-cost airline.

“What type of people do you enjoy mistreating most? I’m guessing elderly and disabled?” was one of the earliest tweets, quickly followed by: “Were you born an arsehole or has it progressed throughout your life?” and: “Is it company policy for your staff to be rude and unhelpful as possible?”

Other popular topics included baggage charges, the distance from Ryanair’s terminals to cities it says it flies to and the perceived lack of comfort in its spartan cabins.

Among the many tweets to go unanswered were some about tragic personal circumstances. “Due to fly to Riga on Saturday but can’t go as my mum in law is losing her cancer battle. 388 quid to re-book seems unfair,” read one. “Why no response for a refund request (sent reg. post) in over a month from seriously ill girl with special needs? @Ryanair #scum” went another.

When Mr O’Leary entered into a discussion, it did not always end amicably. One questioner asked: “Is there any truth in the rumour that you plan to charge passengers for each inhalation they make after take off?” The chief executive responded instantly with: “Hi Beth, great idea. Have a team workin’ on it as we breathe!” The riposte read: “I thought you might like that one you money-grabbing bastards”.

One Ryanair employee who dared to join the conversation by tweeting, “So my boss is on Twitter right now,” received the immediate response: “Get back to work you slacker or you’re fired.”

As a public relations exercise you wonder why Ryanair did it. Perhaps the best advice for them is to step away from the computer slowly and go back to the drawing board.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Turning out the lights

I am not sure what to think of this, but according to the Telegraph Cambridge City Council has come up with an innovation that could see the bog-standard street lamp becoming redundant.

The Council have covered an historic city pathway with ultraviolet particles which turn blue when the sun sets, in what could be the future of street lighting:

The technology, called 'Starpath', absorbs light during the day before emitting the artificial glow in the evening.

It is thought technology could one day replace streetlamps as a cheaper and more energy efficient form of lighting.

The technology is currently being trialed at Christ's Pieces in Cambridge and now the council have revealed they could adopt the path elsewhere in the city.

Cllr Andrea Reiner, the executive councillor for public places, said: "This is an interesting idea that the surfacing company asked if the council would like to explore for a trial period.

Of course if any council can afford to cover all footpaths in this way, even through a rolling programme, it may signal a major reduction in potholes as well. Though what sanctions will be used against a statutory undertaker that fails to reinstate a path with the material will be an interesting debate.

I think this is best left as an interesting experiment for the time being until we all get used to the idea.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Larry factions

If there are splits in the Coalition it seems that they are all centred on Downing Street. Well, at that at least is the theory of Andy McSmith in his Independent Diary.

He says that a number of factions are developing around Larry, the demon-mouser:

I am now informed that some days ago, Larry the hardworking Downing Street mouser caught a mouse in the yard behind Downing Street and was playing with it when a furious member of staff emerged, accused the cat of wanton cruelty, and rescued the mouse.

This leads me to conclude that there is a faction in Downing Street working to undermine Larry by briefing that he cannot catch mice, while another faction seeks to big him up as a veritable mouse slaughterer, while a third undertakes mouse rescue activities. This government is split from top to bottom.

Poor Larry is learning an important political lesson - you cannot please everybody.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The cost of a failed policy

Yesterday's Daily Mail reveals the true cost of the UK Government's failed attempt to tackle bovine TB through a cull of badgers. They say that 708 badgers have been killed in Gloucestershire, 30% of the population. But that is far short of the target of 70%. As a result the action is actually likely to spread bTB.

Not only is the cull morally wrong but it has proved to be a blunt instrument. Because there is no testing of badgers, the shooters cannot be certain that they have killed infected animals. For all they know, even if they get to 70%, the remaining badgers may be infected and continue to pass that infection onto any other animal they come in contact with.

The Government's objection to vaccination is that it is expensive and that it does not cure those animals that are already infected. Well it seems that their cull has the same flaws. According to the Mail the overall costs of the two culls, including policing animal rights protesters, is estimated by campaigners at some £3.5 million.

With a total of 1,558 dead animals, this works out at £2,246 per badger. In contrast, vaccinating badgers against bovine tuberculosis in Wales was less than a third of the cost at £662 per animal.

The real difference though is that once a non-infected badger is vaccinated it can no longer pass on the disease. With a cull, the badgers will repopulate in a few years and the UK Government will be back to square one.

It is time to stop this farcical cull and adopt a more humane, evidenced-based vaccination policy which, with proper cattle movement controls will really make a difference.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Giving up a seat for a pregnant woman

There cannot be much happening in Westminster if this story about Liberal Democrats Minister, Jo Swinson is all the media can report on.

The key points are surely that (a) being pregnant is not a disability: (b) Jo Swinson was not looking for a seat in the first place. If she had been then she would have asked; and (c) I don't believe it is sexist to offer a seat to a pregnant woman if it looks like she needs one, it is good manners.

Personally, I will hold open a door for anybody irrespective of age or sex, and offer a seat to anybody who I think might be struggling otherwise.

It seems to me that Jo Swinson's comments were made out of exasperation at being asked by a journalist if she was offended at not being offered a seat. The sexist remark was clearly directed at the intent behind the question not the idea itself.

Still, if the incident provokes a national debate on good manners it cannot be a bad thing.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Bloodbath at the disco

No time to blog today so here is a taster of the new album from Psycho Kiss, whose lead singer works as my caseworker as well as being a Coedffranc Community Councillor.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How many Welsh Assembly Members?

Work published today by the  Electoral Reform Society and the UK's Changing Union project on the size of the Welsh Assembly has produced some good evidence in terms of comparisons with other bodies to support their contention that there should be an increase in the number of AMs from 60 to 100.

It is certainly the case that the increasing workload for Assembly Members means that the quality of scrutiny of both Ministers and of legislation is under threat simply because there are not enough hours in the day. However, an increase to 100 AMs is more than anybody I have spoken to, who understands those pressures, might aim for.

The Assembly siambr itself has the capacity to be extended to accomodate another 20 AMs,and indeed a figure of 80 members was the ambition of the Richard Commission, set up previously to look at this issue in some detail.

At the end of the day however, we can only implement what the public will tolerate. Even with a reduction in the number of MPs and Councillors, I would have difficulty making the case in the present economic climate for even an additional 20 AMs.

This is a campaign that is going to have to wait whilst we concentrate on other matters such as the economy, health, cost of living pressures and education. Those are my priorities as they are those of the people who elect me.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A trip down memory lane

Today's Telegraph reports that the BBC are to bring the Clangers back to our screens after 45 years in the wilderness. The paper also provides its list of the top 20 shows for children, all but a handful of which I remember watching as a child. Now I feel really old.

The paper says that the the cult classic was made by the fabled founding fathers of UK animation, Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, whose company Smallfilms also produced Bagpuss, Ivor The Engine and Noggin The Nog:

In 1969, Firmin and Postgate were asked by the Beeb to make a series for new-fangled colour television. They decided to set it in space because lunar exploration was all the rage that year.

Hence the Clangers: a family of pink mouse-like creatures, living on a blue Moon-like planet. Their homes were in craters topped by dustbin lids which closed with a “clang” (hence their name). They spoke in distinctive hooted whistles (created by slide whistles), wore armour made from scrap metal, and ate blue string pudding and green broth supplied by the friendly Soup Dragon, who lived in the depths of the planet.

The original 26 episodes aired between 1969 and 1972, before getting endlessly repeated and later becoming a regular fixture on retro list shows. So era-defining are the Clangers that their mere mention can make grown adults stare off into the middle distance, recalling an innocent youth of Spangles, spacehoppers and Clackers.

The ultimate cult status was earned for the programme however after its appearance in an episode of Dr. Who. In the 1972 episode “The Sea Devils”, the Master was shown watching and chuckling at the programme.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The thin end of the hunting wedge

The Times reports today that the UK Government are considering a change to the ban on hunting with hounds. They say that the change backed by farmers and some MPs, would allow the use of a full pack of hounds to flush out foxes from their dens. Farmers are currently limited to the use of two hounds.

Although DEFRA say that no change to the law is imminent, it is possible that Ministers may be seduced into agreeing to this idea as a way of appeasing the agricultural lobby. We have already seen how badly such appeasement can turn out over the badger cull fiasco.

My concern is that this would be the thin end of the wedge. Once you are using full packs of hounds to flush out foxes then it is only a short step towards rescinding the ban altogether. Maybe that is the main motivation behind this suggestion.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Labour on welfare benefits

I post this not out of anger or sorrow but merely to note for future reference the approach of the new shadow Work and Pensions Secretary to welfare benefits. This is because many Labour politicians attack the stance of the coalition government on these issues without fully understanding that if they were in power they would be doing exactly the same thing. In fact when they were in power they were cutting welfare benefits.

The Guardian reports that Rachel Reeves has vowed that Labour will be tougher than the Tories when it comes to slashing the benefits bill:

The 34-year-old Reeves, who is seen by many as a possible future party leader, said that under Labour the long-term unemployed would not be able to "linger on benefits" for long periods but would have to take up a guaranteed job offer or lose their state support.

Adopting a firm party line on welfare, the former Bank of England economist stressed that a key part of her task would be to explode the "myth" that Labour is soft on benefit costs, and to prove instead that it will be both tough and fair.

"Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government," she said. "If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important."

She added: "It is not an either/or question. We would be tougher [than the Conservatives]. If they don't take it [the offer of a job] they will forfeit their benefit. But there will also be the opportunities there under a Labour government.

All duly noted.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Plaid Cymru's pop tax lacks fizz

Plaid Cymru unveiled their big idea yesterday to solve the woes of the Welsh health service and it immediately came under fire.

There is no surprise in that. This is how politics works, with politicians constantly seeking to shoot down their opponent's ideas no matter the merits of a policy. And on the face of it a 20p per litre levy on fizzy drinks does have its good points. It makes it more expensive for people to rot their teeth and enter prematurely the fraught world of diabetes. Plaid Cymru's problem is that they did not stop there.

The party went on to assert that they would use the revenue from the tax to fund 1,000 doctors, thus bolstering the NHS and making reorganisation of key services unnecessary. Now we are entering the land of fantasy politics.

The problems with this concept are many but in short, nobody can guarantee that the revenue stream would be sufficient nor constant enough to ensure that its purpose would be met. To fund 1,000 doctors at £100,000 per annum equals 500 million litres per year or 167 litres per person per annum in Wales. That means that every man, woman and child in Wales would have to consume 3.2 litres of fizzy pop each week for ever and a day.

Given that this is way above current consumption levels and that the objective of the tax is to discourage unhealthy behaviour and thus reduce the use of fizzy drinks there is an immediate financial black hole in these plans. On top of this, as the doctors are needed now so as to avert the planned reorganisation and the Welsh Government does not yet have the power to levy the tax, the plan collapses under the weight of its own inadequacy.

I can think of no better illustration of the Welsh Education system's problems with numeracy.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The need for eternal vigilance

In politics one dare not assume anything. The worst thing that you can do is to think that because you have won over a particular issue then it is dead and buried. There will always be somebody trying to ressurrect it.

Thus, the comprehensive victory by the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government to kill off the notion of extending regional pay in the public sector is being challenged, this time by a think tank called Policy Exchange who, according to the Western Mail want to re-open the debate.

They have said that workers in the UK public sector earn on average 6.1% more than counterparts in the private sector.  In a report out today they argue that the public sector “premium” in the North East, Merseyside and the South West is as high as 14%, or over £3,000 a year.

They want to “remove automatic pay uplifts for public sector employees, abolish national pay bargaining and move to a system of pay negotiation which can reflect local labour markets and reward performance.”

Not whilst the Liberal Democrats are in Government. As Welsh Liberal Democrats Economic Spokesperson, Eluned Parrott says: “The introduction of regional pay would be disastrous for Welsh workers and the Welsh economy. All it would do is serve to further engrain regional inequalities.

“The Welsh Liberal Democrats fought and won our campaign to halt George Osborne’s plans for regional pay. His plans are dead in the water because Liberal Democrat Ministers insisted it wouldn’t happen on their watch.

“It is important to remember it was Labour who first introduced regional pay into our courts system... It is clear that neither the Tories nor Labour can be trusted on this issue.”

We believe in a rate for the job, no matter which part of the UK a worker is based in.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Can badgers move goalposts?

As if the UK Government was not on dodgy ground already in pursuing its shoot-to-kill pilot badger cull in west Somerset, remarks by Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson yesterday has turned the whole misadventure into a farce.

According to the BBC, Mr. Paterson claimed that the "badgers moved the goalposts" when asked why marksmen had failed to reach their cull target. As a result he plans to extend the pilot by up to three weeks in an effort to make up the shortfall:

Mr Paterson explained difficulties lay in the fact the operation was dealing with a feral animal. 

"The badgers moved the goalposts. We're dealing with a wild animal, subject to the vagaries of the weather and disease and breeding patterns," he said.

A Conservative Minister outwitted by a dumb wild animal, who would have thought?

Note: Have a go yourself at netting the ball with this brilliant on-line game

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Advertising Standards Authority rules on Home Office vans

Although the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that the poster campaign telling illegal migrants to “go home or face arrest” did not stir up racial hatred, they have slapped the Home Office on the wrist for getting their facts wrong. As a result a spokesperson has now confirmed that the posters will not be used again in their current format.

The Times reports that the Home Office scheme, in which vans bearing the adverts toured parts of London, led to more than 200 complaints to the UK advertising watchdog:

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said that while the phrase “Go home” was “reminiscent of slogans used in the past to attack immigrants”, the context in this case was different and was unlikely to cause distress.

However, the regulator criticised the Home Office project for making misleading claims about the number of arrests of illegal immigrants, and banned it from using the same wording again. The ASA took issue with the posters’ claim of “106 arrests last week in your area”. The phrase, it said, was “misleading and could not be substantiated” because it applied to a large swath of North London rather than a specific locality.

The Home Office spokesperson told the paper: “This campaign was about encouraging illegal immigrants to leave voluntarily and was not targeted at racial or ethnic groups.”

Really? I have difficulty believing that and so do many others.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Treating cancer in South Wales West

Pleased as I am with the other benefits from our budget deal, the extra money for the provision of a £2 million robotic surgery system for the Singleton Hospital cancer centre capable of minimally invasive treatment of prostate and other cancers is also important.

The machine enables the removal of tumours using keyhole surgery without many of the traditional side effects associated with the treatment of prostrate cancer This will be a tremendous boost for local cancer patients, and it is being delivered through the Welsh Liberal Democrat’s Health Technology Fund, set up as part of last year’s budget. Currently, patients with prostrate cancer have had to pay extra to be operated on in England where this equipment is commonplace.

The budget deal, which was announced today, has been negotiated by the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru with the Welsh Government and will see a number of Welsh Liberal Democrat key priorities being implemented. There will be investment in telemedicine, a £50 million fund to help patients receive treatment in their own homes and the doubling of the Pupil Deprivation Grant for Wales’ poorest pupils from £450 per pupil to £918. This money will be paid directly to schools and will be used to lift up the achievement of children from deprived backgrounds.

We are also bolstering the supporting people budget. This helps support vulnerable people in our communities. The Supporting People Programme in 2013-14 (as at June Supplementary Budget 2013-14) is £136,558,000. Without the intervention, the budget would have reduced to £128,859,000 in 2014-15. With the £5.5m mitigation, the SPP budget in 2014-15 will stand at £134,359,000.

Welsh Liberal Democrats are once again making a difference to the lives of the people of South West Wales. We proposed the idea of a Health Technologies Fund as we wanted to offer patients better access to innovative treatments that were not routinely available on the Welsh NHS.

For many years the we have been arguing that cancer treatment in Wales has simply not been good enough. That is why I am so delighted that we are now to have this equipment here in Swansea.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Clegg says pulling out of Europe would be economic suicide

The Independent on Sunday reports on a highly significant speech to be given by the Deputy Prime Minister next week in which he will commit the Liberal Democrats to a referendum on membership of the European Union and a strong campaign to keep Britain an active member.

He will say that it is no longer a question of if but when we have a vote. He will also warn Tory Eurosceptics that leaving the EU would be "economic suicide". The paper  points out that Clegg's announcement leaves Labour as the only party to not back an in-out referendum, with Ed Miliband appearing isolated on the issue:

In one of the most strident speeches on Europe that Mr Clegg has made, he will warn that the Tory plan to renegotiate powers back from Brussels ahead of a 2017 vote is "a seductive offer", but one that is "deeply flawed and bound to unravel", adding: "It collapses under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

"For many on the right, this... is just a smokescreen for exit. Politics masquerading as patriotism. It's a short-sighted political calculation that could jeopardise the long-term national interest. It is playing with fire and, if we go down this track, it is Britain that will get burnt."

He will add: "Our economy is finally turning a corner, but the recovery is fragile. We should be focusing on finishing the job and laying the foundations for long-term growth, not entertaining the idea of an EU exit that would throw our recovery away. Leaving the EU would be economic suicide. You cannot overstate the damage it would do to British livelihoods and prosperity."

Personally, I welcome this positioning. It is right that we put an end to speculation about Britain's membership of the European Union by having a referendum that will settle the issue for a generation or more.

More importantly, it is right that we make the case to stay a member in the most strident terms possible. This vote will be about the future of our country. If we opt for narrow isolationism then our future will be problematic and limited by our own lack of vision.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Labour to sue Tory Health Secretary?

Just how sensitive are Labour about their tenure in government in charge of the health service? Well, sensitive enough to sue a Cabinet Minster its seems over disputed allegations about Andy Burnham's time as health secretary.

According to the Sunday Times Mr. Burnham, who is now the shadow health secretary, is preparing libel proceedings against one of his successors in that post, Jeremy Hunt over remarks made on Twitter. They say that Labour party lawyers yesterday wrote to Hunt demanding that he remove the comments from the social networking site or face further action:

Burnham has been under intense pressure from the Conservatives over how he responded to evidence of substandard care in NHS hospitals when he was health secretary between June 2009 and May 2010. He has faced repeated claims by Tory MPs that he tried to sweep the scandal under the carpet. Until last week, Hunt had stopped short of joining any personal attacks.

However, the secretary of state changed tack on Friday after the publication of an email exchange between staff at a health quango in 2010 suggesting Burnham’s department blocked a press release about failings at Basildon and Thurrock hospital in Essex. The messages also said Burnham was “furious” when he discovered that the quango had broken health department rules by briefing the media.

After the emails were exposed on Friday, Hunt posted a tweet in which he referred to “@andyburnhammp’s attempts to cover-up failing hospitals”, adding that the government would legislate “to make sure this can never happen again”.

Burnham initially responded by writing to Hunt, giving him until the end of Friday to provide evidence that he was involved in a cover-up, or retract the tweet and issue a public apology. When Hunt refused, Burnham began consulting lawyers.

Sources close to Burnham say he feels Hunt’s intervention on the social networking site “crossed a line” and that he regards it as “unprecedented” for a secretary of state to impugn the integrity of a predecessor in such a manner. He instructed Labour’s lawyers, Steel & Shamash, to write to Hunt yesterday.

The legal letter, signed by Gerald Shamash, repeats the demand for evidence that Burnham personally orchestrated or was involved in a cover-up; or for a retraction of the tweet and public apology. It adds that if Hunt fails to act, Burnham will “consider his remedies” — a clear threat to sue.

Jeremy Hunt is refusing to back down, which leads me to wonder whether Burnham will go ahead with his threat to sue. After all juries are notoriously (and quite rightly) unsympathetic to politicians and their reputation.

More damagingly though such a court case could lead to a very public and forensic dissection of Andy Burnham's time in charge of the NHS. Would any minister, irrespective of party voluntarily agree to such a scenario?

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Living without Eric Pickles

For all its faults, and there are many especially when it comes to their attitude to local government and Wales' educational and health outcomes, whenever I see any initiative by Eric Pickles, I thank the Lord that it is the Welsh Government and not the Tories who are responsible for local councils here.

That instinctive reaction has been reinforced again today as a result of this article in the Telegraph, which reports that the UK Government is to give the Local Authority Publicity Code, currently guidance, legal force.  According to the Local Government Association this would effectively deny English Councils the right to protest on behalf of residents:

The highest profile campaign in recent months has been that by the 51m group of 19 councils of all political persuasions opposed to the £50 billion HS2 scheme.

“I have some sympathy with the Government there is obviously a need to crack down on frivolous campaign by local authorities,” said Martin Tett, Tory leader of Buckinghamshire County Council.

“However there is still a need for local authorities to be able to stand up for their residents on major issues which affect those residents

“We fought the last council election on a platform of opposing HS2 and believe we have been given a clear mandate to do so.”

The move also comes ahead of the Government hearing the initial findings of the Davies Commission into airport capacity in London and the South East.

When the last Government backed proposals for a Heathrow third runway, it ran into fierce opposition from councils underneath the flight path.

It is likely that councils whose residents would find themselves adversely affected by new proposals would use public money to defend their interests.

Sir Merrick Cockell, the chairman of the Local Government Association, condemned the proposals from Whitehall.

“Councils have a legitimate, local, democratic mandate. They have a proud history of campaigning on behalf of their residents who rightly look to them to unite communities and stand up for their best interests.

"That might often be inconvenient for central government, but a community being able to fight for or against unpopular or controversial proposals affecting their area is a key part of democracy.

“This independent legal advice also confirms our fears that a government could hand power to one individual in Whitehall to restrict councils from campaigning on important issues such as HS2 or hospital closures if they so wish.

“To simply make it easier for government to ignore the views of communities is unacceptable, sets a dangerous precedent and will mean local areas and residents will suffer as a result.

So much for localism.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Coalition Government clamps down on payday lenders

Today's Western Mail reports that the UK Government through the Financial Conduct Authority is to crack down on payday lenders so as to prevent ease of instant access loans and limit retrieval attempts from struggling borrower's bank accounts.

The paper says that firms will no longer be able to grant loans in 10 minutes while a limit will also be placed on the number of attempts payday firms can try to claw money back from a struggling borrower's bank account.  The last measure will be controlled by using a type of recurring payment called a continuous payment authority minimising the attempts to just two:

Lenders will be forced to place "risk warnings" on their promotions and advertising, urging consumers to "think" before taking on a payday loan with the watchdog able to ban adverts if it thinks they are misleading.

The promotions by a payday firm will carry risk warnings such as: "Think! Is this loan right for you? Over two million short-term loans were not paid off on time in 2011/12. This can lead to serious money problems."

The proposed new rules, which will come into force next year, aim to combat soaring complaints about the £2 billion sector, which has doubled in size in the last few years and used by an estimated two million customers.

Payday lenders will have to carry out stricter checks to make sure borrowers can afford to take loans and they will only be able to roll a loan over twice, to stop consumers sinking into a spiral of debt.

This is a major step forward and certainly more than the previous government did. However, there is still the outstanding issue of capping interest rates. One can only hope that once the Financial Conduct Authority gets it full powers in April they will do this too.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

National Poetry Day - Ballad of the Mari Lwyd by Vernon Watkins

On National Poetry Day here is an extract from a poem by Swansea poet, Vernon Watkins, a contemporary of Dylan Thomas:

Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.
Now dead men rise in the frost of the stars
And fists on the coffins knock.
They dropped in their graves without one sound;
Then they were steady and stiff.
But now they tear through the frost of the ground
As heretic, drunkard and thief.

Why should you fear though they might pass
Ripping the stitch of grief,
The white sheet under the frosted glass,
Crisp and still as a leaf?
Or look through sockets that once were eyes
At the table and white cloth spread?
The terrible, picklock Charities
Raised the erected dead.

Under your walls they gnaw like mice;
Virtue is unmasked.
The hands of the clock betray your vice.
They give what none has asked.
For they have burrowed beneath the graves
And found what the good gave most:
Refuse cast by the righteous waves
In fossil, wraith and ghost.

Chalice and Wafer. Wine and Bread.
And the picklock, picklock, picklock tread.

Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

Good men gone are evil become
And the men that you nailed down
Clamped in darkness, clamour for rum,
And ravish on beds of down
The vision your light denied them, laid
Above the neglected door;
And the chattering speech of skull and spade
Beckons the banished Poor.

Locked-out lepers with haloes come.
Put out the clock: the clock is dumb.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Tories, Silk and underwear jokes

David Cameron reporedly told journalists that the Silk Commission review of the way that the Welsh Government is funded is an obsession of the Cardiff Bay bubble and has no relevance to ordinary people who are more concerned with jobs and public services.

The Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew R.T. Davies jokingly referred to silk as the material used to make underwear. That tells us a great deal about his kind of Conservative, possibly too much.

Nevertheless, credit where credit is due. Today, Mr. Davies stepped in and told the UK Government to hurry up and make a decision on implementing the Silk Commission report. According to ITV, he said that there is a danger that any further wait could risk it being lost altogether.

This is a far more significant story than whether  or not the Welsh Tories have been snubbed because neither their Assembly Leader nor the Secretary of State for Wales have been invited to speak from the main platform at the Conference.

Let is hope that the Prime Minister listens and gets on with it.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Justified outrage at Daily Mail smear of Ralph Miliband

The Times reports that the Labour Party has reacted angrily to a republished article in the Daily Mail on Ed Miliband’s father entitled “the man who hated Britain”. They said that the Saturday edition had examined the political beliefs of Ralph Miliband, a Marxist academic, and how that had influenced his sons.

The Labour leader himself has written in today’s edition of the newspaper, accusing it of smearing his father:

The Labour leader tweeted to express his anger about the piece and revealed that the newspaper had agreed to publish his response. However, it also reprinted the original piece with a leading article headlined, “An evil legacy and why we won’t apologise”.

Mr Miliband said it was “absurd” to build a case about his father hating Britain on an adolescent diary entry. The newspaper had quoted the 17-year-old Ralph writing that the Englishman was a “rabid nationalist” and “you sometimes want them almost to lose [the war] to show them how things are”.

Mr Miliband said that fierce debate about politics did not justify “character assassination” of his father. His spokesman said: “It will be for people to judge whether this newspaper’s treatment of a World War Two veteran, Jewish refugee from the Nazis and distinguished academic reflects the values and decency we should all expect in our political debate.”

It is also worth making the point that of all the papers to make this argument, the Daily Mail is on very shaky ground. After all, as we are dragging up the past it would be wrong of me not to mention this article written by the paper's then publisher:

Perhaps the paper should put their own past in order before criticising the dead.

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