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Saturday, November 30, 2013

UK Government's bovine TB policy in disarray again

The UK Government's already disastrous policy of tackling bovine TB by randomly shooting badgers has become farcical after Natural England pulled the plug in Gloucestershire three weeks before schedule after it became clear even a reduced kill target would not be met.

The Telegraph says that the pilot scheme was extended by eight weeks after marksmen exterminated only around 30% of the local badger population, well short of their 70% target. Natural England gave up the ghost after it became clear that the cull was set to miss even the revised level of 58%. An extension to a trial cull in Somerset also failed to meet its target.

Despite this and the fact that they have no way of knowing whether the badgers that have been killed carried the disease or not the Government wants to press ahead with the policy. Talk about shoot first and ask questions later. This is a spaghetti western approach to disease-control.

The paper quotes Brian May, who quite rightly has asked for a re-think: “Now that the failure of this whole shameful badger cull shambles can be seen so clearly seen, in spite of many moves of the goalposts, it must be time to abandon the concept, and get on with the only strategy which can ultimately succeed in eradication of bovine TB - vaccination of badgers and other wildlife, and prioritisation of work to license the vaccine for cattle. The whole country will get behind this. David Cameron only needs to press the button.”

Surely, this is an occasion when the Deputy Prime Minister's should intervene so as to bring a stop to this madness.

Friday, November 29, 2013

UKIP miss the zeitgeist again

As Nick Clegg announces a new deal for the expectant fathers, UKIP has demonstrated once more how out-of-step it is with modern society.

The Times reports that men will be given the chance to take up to 50 weeks of paternity leave, under radical changes to mark the end of “Edwardian restrictions” on the rights of new parents.

They say that from April 2015, working couples will be able to split the entitlement to time off work after the birth of their child, in a move designed to allow the sharing of childcare duties. Businesses will have to offer statutory pay to male employees for the first time and keep open their positions for the first 26 weeks they are away, equalising the rules that exist now.

They add that once the mother’s two-week recovery period after birth is complete, she and her partner can split their leave equally. Either one will be entitled to 90 per cent of their usual pay until six weeks after the birth, followed by a 33-week period of statutory pay, which at present is £136. 78 a week. The remainder of the year is unpaid. Under the rules, eight weeks’ notice will be needed for shared paternity leave:

Nick Clegg, who has made the issue a keystone of the Liberal Democrats, will say: “We need to challenge the old-fashioned assumption that women will always be the parent that stays at home — many fathers want that option too. That is why from April 2015 we are introducing shared parental leave to allow couples to make that decision jointly ensuring all career options remain open to women after pregnancy.”

Meanwhile, over in the Guardian a senior UK Independence party politician is quoted as saying that women with babies do not have the ambition to go right to the top, sparking yet another storm about sexism following the sacking of the party's controversial MEP Godfrey Bloom.

Stuart Agnew, a Ukip MEP, made the remarks in a debate about gender quotas in Brussels last week as he tried to explain the lack of women in senior roles.

Speaking in the European parliament, Agnew said: "If you look at the people who get degrees, more women get them and they are getting the jobs in the workplace, but for various reasons they don't have the ambition to go right to the top because something gets in the way. It's called a baby.

"I've never had a baby, but I understand if you do have a baby it can change your life – it changes your ambitions. So, the route is there. Those females who really want to get to the top do so."

Oh dear!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Labour still getting discount at the Co-op

I am a bit late with this reference but I thought it still worth mentioning the report in the Telegraph a few days ago that underlined how closely tied in Labour and Labour politicians are with the Cooperative Bank, who continue to give them favours despite their own financial troubles.

The paper says Labour's property portfolio, including Ed Balls’s constituency buildings, have benefited from cheap loans from the Co-operative Bank:

Labour Party Properties Ltd (LPPL), a property firm wholly owned by the Labour Party, has used its £6.3 million portfolio to secure £3.8 million of cheap finance from the Co-op Bank. The properties used as collateral in the deal include Morley Labour Rooms in the shadow chancellor’s West Yorkshire constituency.

The revelation raises fresh questions about Labour’s close relationship with the Co-operative Bank, whose former chairman and Labour councillor, Rev Paul Flowers, has been arrested and bailed on suspicion of drug offences. It follows the revelation the Co-op donated £50,000 to Mr Balls’s office.

LPPL paid 2.88 per cent interest on the loan, according to the company's 2012 accounts – a far cheaper rate than would typically be offered to property firms on the open market, one expert said.

If the bank had charged a commercial rate of interest, LPPL’s tenants could face significantly higher rents, he added. Tenants include the constituency offices of Mary Creagh, the shadow transport secretary, and Tom Watson, the former elections co-ordinator.

They says that the loans are channelled through the Labour Party accounts into LPPL, a subsidiary company. It owns 20 buildings across Britain, including the Morley property, which is valued at £80,000 and carries a 2007 Co-op charge:

A commercial mortgage broker who inspected the accounts said: “This is a ratbag collection of second and third-rate properties, and any of my clients would not get money at that rate of interest out of any bank on the face of the planet.

“They are paying half the rate of interest that the rest of us would pay. This is not a genuine arm’s-length transaction – it’s far too cosy. Poor little Co-op bondholders who are taking a haircut should be asking why they are doing it.”

Labour say that they are being smeared. I think the facts speak for themselves.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Splitting the green

Those of us who thought that divisions within the UK Coalition on green taxes was between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, will have taken heart this morning from this article in the Times.

The paper says that David Cameron has been given a private warning by more than 25 Tory MPs that he risks splitting the Conservatives if he ditches green policies as a sop to the Right.

Normally loyal backbenchers and ministers called the Prime Minister to a showdown in his Commons office on Friday in what one present said was a deliberate attempt to “flex our muscles”.

The meeting was organised by Laura Sandys, whose decision to stand down at the next election fuelled concerns yesterday that Mr Cameron has all-but abandoned his attempts to modernise his party.

I cannot think of a better example of how the green agenda is becoming mainstreamed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Off shore wind farm in Bristol Channel cancelled

The Western Mail reports that work on the planned Atlantic Array windfarm between Gower and North Devon has been stopped after German firm RWE branded the scheme 'uneconomic'.

The £3bn Atlantic Array project involved 240 turbines, each around 700ft tall covering 124 square miles. It could have powered around 900,000 homes. However, the company says that technical challenges within the Bristol Channel Zone are significant, including substantially deeper waters and adverse seabed conditions:

“Costs to overcome such technical challenges are prohibitive in current market conditions. RWE is to focus on progressing more technically and economically viable offshore projects.

“In comparison with other opportunities in the UK offshore wind portfolio, and in light of the significant technical challenges specific to the zone identified from intensive research, at the current time, it is not viable for RWE to continue with development in the Bristol Channel Zone.

“As the offshore wind industry develops over the next decade and on the back of more viable technologies being demonstrated, expected innovation and cost reduction may in the future open up opportunities in the more challenging areas, such as in the Bristol Channel."

These issues may well be significant but there are justifiable suspicions in my view that this is not the whole story. In particular the uncertainty about the green taxes following Cameron's decision to try and abandon them may have had an impact.

Benedict Brogan made a similar point in yesterday's Telegraph. He says that under Labour, energy policy was blighted by the government’s inability to translate words into deeds on some of the big long-term issues, most notably nuclear power:

Despite the growing warnings that by 2017 Britain would be unable to keep the lights on without either managing demand or allowing prices to rise beyond what is politically acceptable, Labour failed to act. It remains to the credit of the Coalition, and in particular the Lib Dems who surrendered their totemic opposition to new nuclear power, that an agreement was reached to begin building a new generation of reactors that will go some way to replacing those that are being taken out of commission over the next decade. While the process was fraught, and the result looked like a lopsided Jenga tower, Britain had an energy policy that was focused on securing reliable supplies. Even the debate over the exploitation of unexplored shale reserves was heading in the right direction, albeit at a glacial pace.

Mr Miliband put everything in doubt by making affordability the political priority, not security of supply. It wouldn’t have mattered if the Prime Minister and Mr Osborne had reacted as they should have done, indeed as they appeared to initially, namely by dismissing the Labour leader’s pitch for what it was, a con. It was an easy target after all. Any economist can tell you that price controls merely serve to displace increases. Prices would have gone up before the freeze, in anticipation, and after, in compensation. The money lost to the energy companies in the meantime would have to be made up by the consumer. By focusing on price, Mr Miliband opened himself to the charge that he was neglecting the imperative of keeping the lights in favour of easy populism. It is tempting to look to Denmark where energy is deemed so important it is kept away from politics and dealt with on a cross-party basis.

He concludes that the Coalition has been scrambling to find its own energy gimmick:

The Tories are desperate to spike Mr Miliband’s guns because they worry that his offer has found favour with the electorate. In a race for votes, they don’t want to be left behind. At every turn, the Tory tactic is to cut off Labour’s route to power by stealing its ideas or making a counter-offer. Mr Cameron, in effect, has also shifted his ground, from security of supply to affordability, and in the process has opened himself to the charge that he is putting short-term political considerations – his survival in office – ahead of the national interest. No wonder businesses are nervous.

I wonder how much of that was behind the Atlantic Array decision.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Banks' treatment of small business under investigation

Today's Independent reports on a referral to the Financial Conduct Authority by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills of allegedly poor practice by two partly-nationalised banks that if proven will underline how badly small businesses are being treated by financiers.

I have an interest in this because the allegations closely mirror the case of one of my constituents, who I have been trying to help, and who, along with other South Wales businessmen in the same situation, I and fellow Welsh Liberal Democrats AMs arranged to meet with Business Secretary, Vince Cable earlier this year.

A report written by businessman Lawrence Tomlinson, who is entrepreneur in residence at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills focuses allegations on the turnaround division at RBS – its Global Restructuring Group (GRG):

The division handles loans classed as being risky and is understood to have the power to scrap loan deals, impose inflated interest rates and charge hefty penalties.

But the report alleges that firms not necessarily in immediate financial distress were “engineered” into GRG, sometimes through small technical breaches of loan terms, such as late filing of minor financial information.

They were then hit with exorbitant rates and fees, which in some cases caused them to collapse, allowing RBS to buy their property and assets on the cheap for the benefit of its West Register property arm.

One business that submitted evidence to Mr Tomlinson said that it paid £256,000 in fees alone while in GRG.

Another said that RBS made it pay an immediate sum of £40,000 to continue borrowing terms with the group.

Mr Tomlinson said he was calling for “immediate action to stop this unscrupulous treatment of businesses”.

The report found a “disproportionately high” number of complaints against RBS, but also found examples of similar practice at other banks.

Another part-nationalised player Lloyds Banking Group is also criticised for concentrating on short-term gain at the expense of its business customers.

Along with my fellow Welsh Liberal Democrats AMs I have asked for a meeting with senior officials at the bank associated with my constituent. Maybe this inquiry will flush out the issues into the public domain associated with that case as well.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Cats and IKEA

According to this website an English IKEA store released a 100 cats on their premises overnight. They says that the staff have claimed the stunt as an "experiment". The cats fight each other. They climb into boxes. They jump. They screech. There are a hundred of them. A grown man yells "Go, cats, go!"

Actually I found the video of the event a bit boring so I searched out the IKEA cat advert here:

What is with the collapsing building and the slur on cats at the end? I hope they got them all out first.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


I was only three years and 10 months old when John F Kennedy was killed so I have no idea where I was when the news came through. Equally, I was to young to get into Dr. Who and to be honest did not really start watching it regularly until the last year of the Jon Pertwee incarnation. Does that make me a bad Liberal Democrat?

I do though remember where I was when I heard the news about the shooting of John Lennon and also when the first plane hit the World Trade Centre tower on 9/11.

Now I have got that off my chest I am going back to printing leaflets.

Friday, November 22, 2013

England joins in outcry on Barnett formula

The Western Mail report on the latest twist in the pressure for reform of the Barnett formula and this time it is one that Westminster politicians may not be able to ignore so easily. It appears that English local government have woken up to the fact that the distribution of public money by the Treasury is not carried out on the basis of need, though their proposed outcome may not be what is envisaged here in Wales.

Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association quite correctly asserts that the Barnett Formula has passed its use-by date. He is quoted as saying: "It is an historic relic from a time when the Government stopped people taking more than £50 on a holiday abroad.

“What was only ever intended as a stop-gap solution has now become a major problem which is short-changing English communities and underfunding their public services by £4.1bn a year. We now need a fair and equitable distribution of public money across the union.

“The crisis engulfing adult social care demands a shift to a needs based formula for distributing funding. Our ageing population means that there is an enormous increase in demand for council-run adult social services which must be met to ensure people retain dignity as they get older.

“The Government also has to take action to ensure people can plan with confidence for the financial needs of old age... The move toward greater devolution and tax raising powers for Scotland and Wales means that this costly historical anomaly has to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

“It will only become more difficult to fix as the tax regime becomes more complex. The major political parties should all make the introduction of a needs-based formula a cornerstone of their pre-election manifestos.”

Nothing will happen to reform this formula of course until the Scottish Independence referendum is behind us. If we do get some movement then, we should hope that whoever is tasked with that job heeds the word of the Chief Executive of the Welsh Local Government Association:

Steve Thomas, chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), said: “The LGA’s analysis is illustrative of the problems associated with the Barnett formula, which are also massively impacting on Wales. Carwyn Jones recently argued for a complete reform of the formula to a much clearer needs-based approach, and outlined how the first step to be taken should be a revision of the existing formula to tackle the fact that Wales is underfunded by £350m a year.

“This would be a pre-condition to any referendum in Wales on income tax raising powers.

“The WLGA supports this position, and while we understand the frustration in England around the formula we certainly cannot support the idea of decimating Scottish local government expenditure to achieve this, or having the entirety of any redistribution of funding to be spent solely in England on social care.

"While we recognise the sentiments expressed by the LGA, this should not be a ‘beggar thy neighbour’ approach but a proper review of the formula with full participation by the devolved nations.”

It is estimated that Wales will benefit from a needs-based formula to the tune of about £300m more cash each year. Some English regions will also benefit, but I suspect that Scotland and the South East of England will be losers. We cannot be sure until all the numbers are crunched of course, but nobody, least of all the LGA should look on reform as a magic bullet that is going to solve all their problems.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Blair's Labour Government opened door for US to spy on British citizens

Today's Guardian reports on documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which show that phone, internet and email records of UK citizens not suspected of any wrongdoing have been analysed and stored by America's National Security Agency under a secret deal that was approved by British intelligence officials:

In the first explicit confirmation that UK citizens have been caught up in US mass surveillance programs, an NSA memo describes how in 2007 an agreement was reached that allowed the agency to "unmask" and hold on to personal data about Britons that had previously been off limits.

The memo, published in a joint investigation by the Guardian and Britain's Channel 4 News, says the material is being put in databases where it can be made available to other members of the US intelligence and military community.

Britain and the US are the main two partners in the 'Five-Eyes' intelligence-sharing alliance, which also includes Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Until now, it had been generally understood that the citizens of each country were protected from surveillance by any of the others.

But the Snowden material reveals that:

• In 2007, the rules were changed to allow the NSA to analyse and retain any British citizens' mobile phone and fax numbers, emails and IP addresses swept up by its dragnet. Previously, this data had been stripped out of NSA databases – "minimized", in intelligence agency parlance – under rules agreed between the two countries.

• These communications were "incidentally collected" by the NSA, meaning the individuals were not the initial targets of surveillance operations and therefore were not suspected of wrongdoing.

• The NSA has been using the UK data to conduct so-called "pattern of life" or "contact-chaining" analyses, under which the agency can look up to three "hops" away from a target of interest – examining the communications of a friend of a friend of a friend. Guardian analysis suggests three hops for a typical Facebook user could pull the data of more than 5 million people into the dragnet.

• A separate draft memo, marked top-secret and dated from 2005, reveals a proposed NSA procedure for spying on the citizens of the UK and other Five-Eyes nations, even where the partner government has explicitly denied the US permission to do so. The memo makes clear that partner countries must not be informed about this surveillance, or even the procedure itself.

The 2007 briefing was sent out to all analysts in the NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID), which is responsible for collecting, processing, and sharing information gleaned from US surveillance programs.

Up to this point, the Americans had only been allowed to retain the details of British landline phone numbers that had been collected incidentally in any of their trawls.

But the memo explains there was a fundamental change in policy that allowed the US to look at and store vast amounts of personal data that would previously have been discarded.

The British foreign secretary in 2005 was Jack Straw, and in 2007 it was Margaret Beckett. Neither appear willing to comment on this revelation.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

More trouble for Labour

The Labour Party is facing more questions today on its internal management after the repercussions from the Paul Flowers' affair landed on their doorstep. The Times reports that Labour is under pressure over why it failed to raise the alarm about the Co-operative Bank chairman when he was forced out of a council for having pornography on his laptop.

Tory MPs are suggesting that Labour politicians covered up for Mr Flowers because he was providing gifts and loans for the party. The paper highlights a number of specific issues:

- Len Wardle, the Chairman of the Co-Operative Group, and a prominent supporter of Ed Balls, resigned taking the blame for appointing Mr Flowers as head of the bank.

- But Ursula Lidbetter, his replacement, was immediately accused of taking part in the same decision.

- It emerged that the one of the regulators who gave formal advice to Mr Flowers before he became head of the bank was later given a seat on the Co-Operative Bank’s board.

They add that in November 2011 Mr Flowers was invited to join Mr Miliband at a dinner as a member of the Labour leader’s Business and Industry Advisory Board:

In March 2012, Mr Flowers personally took part in a decision by the Co-operative Group to give an unprecedented £50,000 gift to the office of Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor whose constituency is in the neighbouring city of Leeds. Mr Balls’ office said he never discussed the donation with Mr Flowers.

Brooks Newmark, a Conservative member of the Treasury Select Committee, said: “The toxic element of a great ethical institution like the Co-operative is the way the Labour Party has effectively infiltrated it and infected it because of the benefits they have been receiving from it. The only way the Labour Party could get a loan if it didn’t have the Co-operative Bank is from Wonga.”

He said Labour knew about Mr Flowers’ inappropriate behaviour “but remained silent on it because he played an important role as a key individual in giving the money to Labour MPs like Mr Balls.”

Whatever his qualifications as a potential Prime Minister, it seems that it is the failure to manage his party adequately that is giving Ed Miliband the most trouble at present.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fighting the Surveillance State

The Guardian reports on a very important intervention by former Liberal Democrats leader, Lord Ashdown in which he says that technology used by Britain's spy agencies to conduct mass surveillance is "out of control", and that this raises fears about the erosion of civil liberties at a time of diminished trust in the intelligence services.

Lord Ashdown has called for a high-level inquiry to address fundamental questions about privacy in the 21st century. The paper says that he railed against "lazy politicians" who frighten people into thinking "al-Qaida is about to jump out from behind every bush and therefore it is legitimate to forget about civil liberties":

Ashdown talks frequently to the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and is chair of the the Liberal Democrats' general election team. Though he said he was speaking for himself, his views are understood to be shared by other senior members of the Liberal Democrats in government, who are also keen for some kind of broad inquiry into the subject..

This idea is also supported by Sir David Omand, a former director of GCHQ. He told the Guardian he was in favour of an inquiry and thought it would be wrong to "dismiss the idea of a royal commission out of hand". It was important to balance the need for the agencies to have powerful capabilities, and the necessity of ensuring they did not use them in a way parliament had not intended, Omand added.

The former Liberal Democrats Leader does not believe that the Parliamentary Committee charged with overseeing the security services is capable of coping with new circumstances. He believes that surveillance should only be conducted against specific targets when there was evidence against them and considers that Dragnet surveillance is unacceptable:

He also criticised the Labour party, which was in power when the agencies began testing and building many of their most powerful surveillance capabilities. Labour's former home secretary Jack Straw was responsible for introducing the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act 2000 (Ripa), which made the programmes legal.

"Ripa was a disgraceful piece of legislation," Ashdown said. "Nobody put any thought into it. Labour just took the words they were given by the intelligence agencies. I don't blame the intelligence agencies.

"We charge them with the very serious business of keeping us secure and of course they want to have powers. But it's the duty of government to ensure those powers don't destroy our liberties and Labour utterly failed to do this."

One consequence of Labour's negligence was the development of surveillance techniques that could damage civil liberties and erode privacy, said Ashdown.

He said that he was "frightened by the erosion of our liberties" and while accepting that there was a need to keep the nation safe it was the "habit of politicians who are lazy about the preservation of our liberties or don't mind seeing them destroyed, to play an old game.

"They tell frightened citizens: 'If you give me some of your liberties, I will make you safer'".
Ashdown said that as a young man in 1960s he was taken to a vast Post Office shed in central London where spies were steaming open letters. Recalling being met by "a deep fog of steam" after entering the room, he said that the place was "filled with diligent men and women, each with a boiling kettle on their desk, steaming open letters". It was appropriate for the state to intervene in the private communications of its citizens, but the peer added "only in cases where there is good evidence to believe the nation's security is being threatened, or arguably, when a really serious crime has been committed".

There appears to be a growing consensus for such an inquiry. Let's hope that the Government listens.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Liberal Democrats deserve the credit for changing the tone of the tax debate

Today's Independent editorial highlights the way that the tax debate in Britain has shifted as a result of the Liberal Democrats being in government.

They point out that when the coalition took office three years ago, Britons started paying income tax at a level of only £6,474. Next March, the benchmark will have risen to £10,000 and Nick Clegg is now calling for us to go a stage further by nudging it up to £10,500:

Raising the tax bar is a thoroughly good idea. It validates work, offering some reward to people on modest incomes who might otherwise be tempted to forget holding down a job, and just live off benefits.

At the same time, it is good politics for the Liberal Democrats, who need to go into the next election with a flagship policy, and will be aiming to present themselves as the party that took millions of people out of the tax system. If he gets his way on this point, Nick Clegg will be hoping that the 500,000 or so more people taken out of taxation as a result of this reform will remember their benefactor. The timing of the change couldn’t be better for him, either. If it makes it into the next Budget, it will take effect just before the election.

The paper say that the Liberal Democrats should not let the Conservatives take any credit for this transformation:

The Liberal Democrats have fought a tough corner on taxes on the poor and deserve the credit for gains that have been made. The Tories have been more enthusiastic about championing tax cuts for the rich, which is why Mr Osborne pressed on with cutting the top rate of tax from 50 to 45 per cent. Back in 2010, Mr Cameron described Liberal Democrat calls to cut tax rates at the bottom end as a nice but unaffordable idea. He has since changed his mind, but let’s not forget who persuaded him to do so.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Welsh Lib Dems reject M4 extension

The Welsh Liberal Democrats took a significant step yesterday in becoming the first party in Wales to formally reject using the Assembly's new borrowing powers to construct an M4 relief road to the south of Llanwern Steelworks from Junction 23A ‘Magor’ of the existing M4 to junction 29 ‘Castleton’.

Faced with two options the party instead chose to recommend that the Government develop the A48 Southern Distributor Road and A4810 Steelworks Access Road near Newport’s Llanwern Steelworks, as part of an integrated transport strategy for South-East Wales incorporating investment in public transport, rail freight infrastructure and the improvement of strategic local routes.

The party rightly rejected a solution that would have compromised four SSSI and added significantly to road traffic emissions. The danger of course is that the new road will fill up with traffic in due course too, leaving back where we started. Looking to get local traffic off the M4 and commuters into public transport is a far more sustainable solution.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Twenty reasons Swansea Bay should get the City of Culture 2017 #cwtchthebid

I am at the Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference in Newtown all day today so I am going to leave you with this piece from the Western Mail setting out 20 reasons why Swansea Bay should be awarded to City of Culture 2017.  The photographs are spectacular.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Coincidence of the day

The Daily Mail reports that the controversial union giant Unite handed Labour almost £800,000 after Ed Miliband dropped his inquiry into claims it had been involved in vote-rigging.

They say that Official figures have revealed that Unite donated £777,740 a fortnight after the Labour leader reinstated two union members who had been suspended over allegations of trying to fix the selection of a new parliamentary candidate in the safe seat of Falkirk. The huge cheque was almost a quarter of the £3.1million donated to the party in the third quarter of this year.

The Labour Party of course insist that there is ‘absolutely no link’ between the donation and the dropping of the inquiry into the Falkirk scandal. A source told the paper that the cash was a regular instalment of affiliation fees taken from union members’ subs.

The payment does though underline the problems that Ed Miliband has in establishing an independent inquiry into the affair and in shaking off the impression of being in hock to his union paymasters.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Welsh Tories set off up a uncosted housing cul-de-sac

The BBC report on a major Welsh Conservative policy launch today in which they seek to revamp or relaunch the 1980s Right to Buy initiative put in place by Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately, the detail they have provided of this policy amounts to a triumph of hope over reality, with little idea of how they will meet its cost and even less idea of its impact.

The Welsh Tories say thatthe Right to Buy policy should be rejuvenated as only 420 tenants took up the opportunity last year. This could be because all most of the purchases that were going to take place have already done so, but also because the vast majority of new social homes are being built by housing associations, who apply different rules.

The most puzzling aspect of the policy though is the proposal to include a "one-for-one" initiative with a new home built for every home sold. There is no indication how this will be paid for, where the new homes will be built and over what timescale. What happens to other priorities for housing revenue account if the capital receipt is used entirely for new build instead of paying off debt or upgrading remaining stock?

Of course the big mathematical gap in their calculations is that the sale price of a single council house, especially when discount is taken into account, will not be enough to build a new property. My guess is that you might be able to build one home for every three sold. That means that new money will be needed to meet the aspirations of the Tories of a one-for-one policy. I look forward to seeing this costed in their manifesto in 2016.

Finally, the Welsh Tories are promoting this as a policy for all of Wales and yet only eleven local councils still have council housing stock. Their 'revamped Right to Buy' policy can only therefore apply in half the country.

This policy is big on ambition, short on detail and full of holes.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Labour sink deeper into the Falkirk mire

The Times reports that Ed Miliband's hard line on the Falkirk selection controversy has been undermined once more, this time by a senior Labour official.

They say that leaked e-mails show that Ian McNicol, Labour’s general secretary, struck a special agreement with Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, about how to handle the mass recruitment of new party members in Falkirk:

Senior Unite figures undertook a recruitment drive weeks before local Labour members were due to select a new candidate, at the same time as they were pushing Karie Murphy, a friend of Mr McCluskey, to become the prospective MP in the safe seat.

In an e-mail on January 21, Ms Murphy told her team that they had received dispensation from Ian McNicol, Labour’s general secretary, to use a recruitment method causing unease among other Labour Party staff.

She wrote: “I will personally collect their direct-debit details once we have given them a reason to support the Labour Party. I will do this after the selection process, this is what Lennie [McCluskey] agreed with the Labour Party GS [Mr McNicol]”.

They add that a Labour source has insisted that members were allowed to sign up with cash at the time, and that unions were allowed to facilitate this using the “Union Join” scheme later scrapped by Mr Miliband:

The Times has been told that some senior staff raised concerns, but were ordered to process the applications by Mr McNicol and representatives of the leader’s office.

The e-mails also suggest that Emilie Oldknow, an official who oversees selections, was not helpful to Unite in Falkirk. One e-mail sent the same day by Ms Murphy refers to a “tussle” with her over membership lists.

A member of Labour’s National Executive Committee said: “If the e-mails show the general secretary taking sides, not only is this inappropriate but also raises questions about whether he should have conducted the inquiry into the matter, as well as casting doubt on his judgment.”

Ed Miliband's authority as leader is rapidly disappearing in the light of the evidence now emerging on this issue.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The continuing need to invest in education and training

Today's Western Mail reports on the shocking statistic that Wales has a higher proportion of working age adults with no qualifications than England or Scotland.

They say that new figures from the Welsh Government show that up to 15% of people in parts of South Wales have no qualifications. Nearly one in six in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Neath Port Talbot have no recognised qualifications, leaving them far more likely to be unemployed and facing a life a blighted by poverty. Overall 11% of people in Wales have no qualifications, which is higher than in both England and Scotland.

They add that the figures reveal a sharp divide in education levels in South Wales between Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan and the Valleys:

In the Vale of Glamorgan 42% of working age adults are educated to degree level or above and 7% have no qualifications - the highest and second lowest proportions respectively in Wales.

Cardiff has 41% of working age adults educated to degree level or above and 9% with no qualifications.

Just 17% of people in Merthyr Tydfil are educated to degree level or above - the lowest by far in Wales. The next lowest is Caerphilly with 24%.

With the Pisa results due out next month likely to show little or no improvement in educational outcomes in Wales, the need to invest in and focus education and training activities is becoming critical.

A whole generation of people in Wales have been failed by Welsh Labour Governments. That needs to be turned around.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Reaping the whirlwind

I have no brief for the energy companies. Indeed, it is my view that they are acting as an oligopoly and in doing so making huge profits at our expense. There needs to be some accountability but the threat posed by Labour that they will freeze prices risks an all-out war with the companies.

That this is a possibility is highlighted by this article in the Independent, which reports that Fund managers controlling billions of pounds invested in UK energy companies have warned that they are considering pulling out of the sector because of political interference in the market.

The paper says that the threat of political intervention has hit the share prices of the Big Six, and raised questions about future profitability. They add that speculation has angered some of the country’s leading institutional investors, who have said privately that they will act if the meddling continues.

Another fund manager, James Smith of Premier Asset Management, said: “We run a couple of funds that have exposure to utilities across the world, including the UK where shares have fallen in recent weeks. We are considering whether things are going to get worse because if they do we might need to reassess our strategy relating to our UK investments.

“It’s right to talk about affordability but it must be done in the right way. We can’t view utilities as charities – you won’t find many private companies out there that aren’t looking to charge the most they can on whatever product they make or supply. It is right for regulators to ensure that the market is operating in a competitive manner. The alternative to the status quo – nationalisation – would be unlikely to reduce prices.”

The regulator has made a start in seeking to simplify the market, but they have not gone far enough. Equally, the rather heavy-handed approach of the Labour Party threatens to disrupt infrastructure investment, lead to an exodus of capital and cause even more price rises in the run-up to the election.

I am not in favour of letting the energy companies hold us to ransom but neither should we let them threaten us into inaction. We need to introduce some genuine competition into the market, shift green taxes so that they are raised in a more progressive way and discourage excessive profits by taxing them.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

New crisis hits Unite and Labour

Just when we thought that we had heard everything there is to hear about the Labour Falkirk 'vote-fixing' row, The Times comes up with a new angle. They report that the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey has got himself entangled in a row about his own election centred on claims that almost 160,000 of those balloted were not members:

His rival for the job, Jerry Hicks, has complained that the election was unlawful because people who had left the union were included in the ballot. Hicks said dead former members were among those who were sent voting papers.

The Certification Office — the union regulator, which has the power to order McCluskey’s election to be rerun — confirmed this weekend that it has launched an investigation. An official complaint is expected to be submitted to Unite in the next few weeks.

Hicks said this weekend: “Was Falkirk an aberration or a modus operandi? There are serious questions that need to be answered about these tens of thousands of non-members of the union who were sent ballot papers.”

Meanwhile, the same paper reports that the Co-op is to review whether to cancel its donations to the Labour party of up to £1m a year as part of a scramble to save cash.

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, is one of 32 Labour MPs to be supported directly by donations from the Co-op’s political wing, however a cash crisis at the Co-op’s banking arm has prompted them to examine whether it should cut the donations.

Ed Miliband must be wishing that his brother had won the leadership election after all.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

UK blocks attempt by Council of Europe to examine online spying

The Guardian reports that Britain is holding up an agreement on internet freedom among the 47 members of Europe's human rights watchdog after objecting to a probe into the gathering of "vast amounts of electronic data" by intelligence agencies.

They say that Britain intervened during a Council of Europe ministerial conference on Friday in Belgrade, Freedom of Expression and Democracy in the Digital Age, where a 14-page document was due to be signed by the 47 members of the body which established the European Convention on Human Rights:

The document, entitled Political Declaration and Resolutions, says that the Council of Europe should examine whether the gathering of data by intelligence agencies is consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The disputed section of the draft declaration says: "We invited the Council of Europe to ... examine closely, in the light of the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, the question of gathering vast amounts of electronic communications data on individuals by security agencies, the deliberate building of flaws and 'backdoors' in the security system of the internet or otherwise deliberately weakening encryption systems."

It is understood that an official from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport who is representing Britain at the Belgrade talks, raised concerns about the second part of the paragraph. The official, acting on instructions from the Foreign Office, which oversees GCHQ, was said to have concerns with the words: "by security agencies, the deliberate building of flaws and 'backdoors' in the security system of the internet or otherwise deliberately weakening encryption systems".

Negotiations were continuing in Belgrade on Friday. The intervention suggests that Britain is concerned by the prospect of a Council of Europe investigation into the work of intelligence agencies in areas highlighted by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden. The leaked NSA files show that British and US intelligence agencies have cracked a large proportion of the online encryption that hundreds of millions of people rely on to protect the privacy of their personal data.

A GCHQ document from 2010, published in the Guardian, the New York Times and on the ProPublica website, said: "For the past decade, NSA has lead [sic] an aggressive, multi-pronged effort to break widely used internet encryption technologies. Vast amounts of encrypted internet data, which have up till now been discarded, are now exploitable."

Whatever the status of this document, this sort of obstruction does not look good. There is a lot of concern about the level of surveillance promoted by the UK and US Governments and that needs to be addressed. It does not reassure people that their privacy is any more secure in the future when a major player like the UK continues to pretend all is well.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Under water

The Independent carries an article portraying a rather apocalyptic vision of the World after all the ice melts. They say that maps in the National Geographic magazine predicts that a huge swathe of eastern England, most of Denmark, the entire eastern seaboard of the United States, Bangladesh and a huge chunk of China would be lost beneath the sea.

They say that the maps show the Black Sea joining up with the Caspian Sea in Europe, while a vast lake is created in the middle of Australia. Africa fares better than the other continents, but Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt would be lost and the temperature rise needed to melt the ice would make much of it uninhabitable:

The interactive online maps show a radically different planet Earth after land ice in Greenland, the Antarctic and elsewhere all melted. If this happened, it would produce a sea level rise of about 216ft.

“There are more than five million cubic miles of ice on Earth, and some scientists say it would take more than 5,000 years to melt it all,” the magazine said.

“If we continue adding carbon to the atmosphere, we’ll very likely create an ice-free planet, with an average temperature of perhaps 80F [26.6 C] instead of the current 58F [14.4C].”

This is of course just one scenario but a concerning one nevertheless.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

A forum or a talking shop?

Former Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan has told a House of Lords Constitution Committee that MPs and Assembly Members must work together to make devolution work better.

She wants a new way of exchanging information that goes 'beyond the “dispute-settling” systems already in place':

Mrs Gillan said: “I’ve always thought the Welsh Grand Committee, for example, and the Scottish Grand Committee, could be used much better... And for example there could be joint meetings between the MPs in Wales and the AMs in Wales under the auspices of something like the Welsh Grand Committee.

Well yes, but for what purpose? The dispute setting mechanisms she refers to are for Government Ministers, not for backbench and opposition parliamentarians. I am afraid that her proposed joint committee would turn out to be a talking shop with no real powers or function.

Our job is to pass legislation and scrutinise the executive. Both Parliament and the Assembly by and large have clear powers and responsibilities, which they need to get on with exercising. Unless a joint committee can add value to that then it would be a huge distraction.

The key to Mrs Gillan's proposal seems to be her aversion to us moving to a Federal system. It may be too late. We might not get the sort of Federal system that I want but we are clearly on that road and distractions like joint committees will not divert us from the route we have taken.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

M4 extension: The wrong proposal

The Western Mail features quite prominently the views of the Federation of Small Businesses, academics and environmentalists at the Welsh Government's consultation on removing blockages on the M4 around Newport.

The views of the FSB are particularly cutting and raise questions about how business friendly the proposed solution is as well as the nature of the consultation itself. They believe that the Welsh Government is leaving itself open to judicial challenge and years of delays to its M4 relief road plans due to its the handling of a consultation into the project:

Iestyn Davies, from the FSB, said there should be a “more thorough approach” from the Welsh Government on the issue.

He said: “Ultimately, as the consultation shows, if you say to somebody or a group of people ‘here’s an option you’re very familiar with, that looks attractive and the only one we’ll ask you to consider’, then you shouldn’t be surprised however you consult, however you ask people’s option, that’s the option they come up with, because you are defining the consultation in those terms. And that seems very much the case as we see it.

“Fundamentally, if you rule out the value for money options, better transport options, the National Assembly and Welsh Government has a responsibility to consider the sustainable development issue and agenda and the impact on this.

“And we would say, on two fronts, this is leaving the Welsh Government open to judicial challenge.”
Representatives from a transport consortium of 10 South Wales councils, the South East Wales Transport Alliance (Sewta). told Assembly Members they were “disappointed” at the scope of the consultation, which doesn’t include options to improve public transport.

It also said previous estimates of traffic flows on the stretch near Newport had outdated figures, and more recent surveys had shown traffic had either plateaued or reduced.

Professor Stuart Cole told the Sustainability Committee today that he thought the Welsh Government were pursuing a more expensive option because it represented “an engineer’s dream”, compared to a previously favoured option of upgrading the A48 with the Llanwern steelworks road being upgrades to a four-lane high:

Prof Cole warned disputes and arguments could last years, delaying the 2020 target for completion of the project.

And he added: “The total cost of building the motorway will undoubtedly increase as we go along”.
He said a new option, which he suggested was favoured by the Welsh Government, of building a new relief road to divert traffic away from the notorious bottleneck, would cost more than £930m, while the A48 option would cost around £380m.

There is also a strong argument from environmental groups, who oppose the proposals on the grounds of the impact on wildlife and ecosystems around the Gwent Levels. I have sympathy with all these views. A new motorway will fill up in a decade, getting local traffic off the M4 and upgrading public transport is a far more sustainable solution.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Immigration is good for the economy says report

The BBC report this morning on a very important contribution to the debate on immigration with the outcome of a study by the University College London which says that immigrants coming to the UK since 2000 have made a "substantial" contribution to public finances.

The study destroys some of the myths around immigration by concluding that recent immigrants are less likely to claim benefits and live in social housing than people born in Britain. The authors say that rather than being a "drain", their contribution has been "remarkably strong":

Immigrants who arrived after 1999 were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives in the period 2000-2011, according to the report by Prof Christian Dustmann and Dr Tommaso Frattini from UCL's Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration.

They were also 3% less likely to live in social housing.

"These differences are partly explainable by immigrants' more favourable age-gender composition. However, even when compared to natives with the same age, gender composition, and education, recent immigrants are still 21% less likely than natives to receive benefits," the authors say.
'Highly-educated immigrants'

Those from the European Economic Area (EEA - the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) had made a particularly positive contribution in the decade up to 2011, contributing 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits.

Immigrants from outside the EEA contributed 2% more in taxes than they received in the same period, the report showed.

Over the same period, British people paid 11% less in tax than they received.

One of the authors, Prof Dustmann said that the study shows that "in contrast with most other European countries, the UK attracts highly-educated and skilled immigrants from within the EEA as well as from outside".

He added: "Our study also suggests that over the last decade or so, the UK has benefited fiscally from immigrants from EEA countries, who have put in considerably more in taxes and contributions than they received in benefits and transfers.

"Given this evidence, claims about 'benefit tourism' by EEA immigrants seem to be disconnected from reality."


Monday, November 04, 2013

Spying on the politicians

The Independent reports on a peculiar bit of paranoia that has broken out at Number 10 Downing Street. They say that smartphones and iPads have been banned from meetings of the Cabinet over fears that foreign intelligence services can turn them into bugs without ministers’ knowledge.

Apparently, thw security services are worried that states including China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan have developed the ability to infect gadgets with a Trojan virus, allowing them to take control of the devices and use them to monitor conversations, even when switched off:

During last week’s Cabinet meeting, iPads used by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister during a presentation, were swiftly cleared out of the room even before discussions could begin, and ministers were told not to touch them beforehand.

In response to the threat, those working in sensitive Government departments have been handed lead-lined soundproof boxes, into which they have been told to put phones and tablets when discussing delicate matters, the Telegraph reported.

Security officials are also concerned by reports that souvenir USB sticks handed to delegates at the G20 summit in St Petersburg may have contained a virus. It is feared the drives may enable Russia’s intelligence agency to hack UK Government computers.

Very James Bond.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The extraordinarily muted response to our loss of civil liberties

In a powerful article in today's Observer, Henry Porter contrasts the reaction in the United Kingdom with that elsewhere to the news that GCHQ has been collaborating with the Americans in collecting huge amounts of personal data on British citizens.

He says that in contrast to Britain, the reaction in Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and the United States to the NSA leaks has included protest, vigorous debate and in America the admission from the secretary of state, John Kerry, that the NSA has gone too far and the policy of bulk data collection must be looked at again:

Last week's disclosure about Europe-wide surveillance of phone and internet traffic, going on, presumably, without the knowledge of democratically elected assemblies, has caused further outrage. And now Brazil and Germany, angered by the NSA and GCHQ's activities, have drafted a resolution for the UN General Assembly, which declares deep concern about "human rights violations and abuses that may result from the conduct of any surveillance of communications".

This is what democratic response looks like, though you don't see much of it here. In Britain, the government has told us not to worry our silly heads and Labour has remained eloquently silent, because all these problems stem from the casually authoritarian Blair regime, which gave GCHQ the legal powers that are now exposed. Many elements of the media, meanwhile, have suffered some form of moral and intellectual paralysis and accept without question that we should trust the state with the power to access anyone's information.

It seems extraordinary that the Conservative press, so wary of the state in practically every other area, is prepared to trust the intelligence agencies with powers granted under RIPA that are so opaque that they might as well be written in Serbo-Croat. As the Labour MP Tom Watson said of the critical part of RIPA in a Westminster Hall debate on surveillance last week: "Interpreting that section requires the unravelling of a triple-nested inversion of meanings across six cross-referenced subsections linked to a dozen other cross-linked definitions, which are all dependent on a highly ambiguous 'notwithstanding'."

The genius of the law was to mask its own potency, while the genius of the government's response to those concerned about RIPA and its threat to liberty is to dismiss them as extremists and alarmists. The Guardian, which has been lauded all over the world for publishing some of the NSA leaks, is described in the language used for a "treasonous" insurgency, and the prime minister has even murmured threats against the newspaper.

The truth is that opposition to these laws is in fact no more than a politically moderate concern for liberty and democracy. That is all. The debate does occasionally fire up, as in the Westminster Hall event last week, when there were some terrific contributions from its Lib Dem sponsor, Julian Huppert, the Labour MPs Tom Watson, John McDonnell and David Winnick, and the staunch Tory, Dominic Raab. But this was just a debate – RIPA was not being redrafted; no action will be taken to increase oversight of the intelligence agencies; and almost no one heard the arguments, because most papers and TV didn't cover it.

He has a point.

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