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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Vacuum cleaners and Lib Dems hit back at Theresa May over 'snooper's charter'

I love party conferences. Everybody is so over-the-top that reality and real life gets forgotten for a few days. Well at least as far as the attendees are concerned.

This applies most to Ministers and full-time politicians as is evidenced by Theresa May's repeat gung-ho performance and her misrepresentation of the Liberal Democrats position on the communications data bill. The Guardian has the rebuttal:

The Lib Dems have accused Theresa May of peddling “misinformation” about their opposition to the communications data bill. This is from a party spokesman.

We utterly reject the allegation that the blocking of the communications data bill has put lives at risk.

Police already have the ability to obtain data in urgent cases where lives are in danger.

The real problem is the availability of IP address data, where we have always accepted there is a need for action, and indeed publicly committed to legislation last year.

Frankly, it is woeful inaction on the part of the Home Office that solutions have not been identified to deal with this issue.

If failure to act on the IP matching problem has put lives at risk, the home secretary must explain why her department has not acted.

Theresa May is peddling misinformation in a vain attempt to get the so-called ‘snooper’s charter’ back on the table.

Liberal Democrats will continue to oppose the Tories’ obsessive intrusion into people’s lives.

Of course it is not just Ministers who get carried away, as the Guardian makes clear:

Boris Johnson spoke at a ConservativeHome fringe meeting at the conference last night. In the past these events have sometimes been quasi leadership bid rallies, notable for Johnson giving a speech laced with coded challenges to Cameron and his supporters lapping it up ecstatically.

But last night’s speech was - well, not quite dull, because no Johnson speech ever can can, but scrupulously loyal, and a bit pedestrian. If Johnson said anything interesting about Conserative politics, or how the party should be fighting the election, I missed it.

Still, he did perform one very funny routine. My friends at the Daily Mail, who never miss a trick, have written it up as “an extraordinary attack on Tories who have defected to UKIP, claiming they were the sort of people who injure themselves having sex with vacuum cleaners.”

Each to their own I suppose.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Conference season

There is a scene at the end of George Orwell's Animal Farm where the animals and the humans become indistinguishable. If this article by Carole Cadwalladr is to be believed the political conferences of the main political parties are much the same, clones and out-of-touch with the people they are meant to represent:

There are any number of ways you can hold a conference but our political culture, our long history of parliamentary democracy, has produced a spectacle – common to all parties – that feels like something Disraeli might have come up with after attending a L’Oréal sales conference. Ken Livingstone tells me how it was in the 70s when “conference was a parliament of working-class delegates who every day were casting their votes to create policy”. Not any more.

I watch Chuka Umunna’s hotly anticipated speech and, frankly, I might as well be at the L’Oréal sales conference. He sounds like he’s trying to sell shampoo. I’ve read endless articles on how he’s the next Obama, and then he says: “Conference, if you work hard, you should not have to live in poverty…” Conference? As an indirect object? What? It’s the first of dozens of bizarre verbal constructions I hear that sound like they were coined by the Committee of Bizarre Verbal Constructions some time back in 1938.

And then there’s the press pack, that’s the same too: the lobby journalists and columnists who are something of a force of nature, in the same way that packs of hyena and great white sharks are a force of nature. They can spot a political cock-up – a blunder, a gaffe, a misplaced comma – from a thousand yards, and then work together, tweeting and retweeting and harrying their prey until the moment they bring down a shadow cabinet member like a weakened Thomson’s gazelle. I sit in the press pen for Miliband’s speech, the main event of the week, and it’s like watching a David Attenborough documentary play out in real time. All around, heads are bowed, characters are furiously tapped into iPhones, smart observations are made, retweeted, echoed, repeated, amplified, enlarged. Out there in the Twitterverse, which becomes the blogosphere, which becomes the headlines, which becomes the bulletins on tonight’s TV, Miliband is limping, bleeding, wounded before he’s even taken his rapturous standing ovation.

The best speech I hear in the first two days, or at least the most honest, isn’t made by a politician, it comes from Red Len, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite. “We have seen our political establishment – including, let’s be honest, our own party – have a near-death experience in Scotland,” he tells the audience. “We have seen an elite in a panic. Because the Scottish people played the role in the fairy story, telling the Westminster emperor that it has no clothes!” It gets a massive cheer. And there’s more when he says: “We’ve been told that working-class people don’t vote and we have seen them electrified by political engagement!”

And he finishes to a whopping great standing ovation. Scotland has changed everything. Not just in terms of devolution and what that means – the elephant in the Labour party conference room – but what the tumultuous result means, full stop. If you think that our way of doing politics is outdated, irrelevant, elitist and has nothing to do with you, join the gang. Isn’t that what the 45% of people who voted “Yes” in the Scottish referendum thought? That they just couldn’t stand Westminster a moment longer?

Conferences of course are special events and often resemble a parallel universe, somehow estranged from the real world. On the ground it is a different matter, but ordinary people's perception of the political establishment fits far more with the one in this article. It is worth reading in full if only to understand that.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pre-nups for pups?

Whatever next? The Telegraph reports that an annimal charity has produced an official document for couples to decide what will happen to their pet should they split up.

They say that the Blue Cross, an animal re-homing charity, has produced the official document for couples declaring what will happen to their pet should they split up. It also states the ownership, responsibilities and rights of a pet in the event of a marriage break up.

The charity has found that one in four divorced couples in the UK has argued over the ownership of their pets when they split up, with 66 per cent admitting that a pet nup would have made the process easier. In addition figures have also revealed that break-ups have been the cause of almost a thousand pets being given up to Blue Cross’ re-homing centers over the past five years- an average of four pets a week.

To be fair this is a serious problem and needs addressing. Pets can also end up in the middle in domestic abuse situations as well, with victims reluctant to leave their dog or cat behind and thus hanging on in an abusive relationship longer than they would otherwise do.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

All out! Dancing in Dulais - the real Pride

For those who have seen the film Pride, here is a documentary of the events that led to it being made. It is the story of how Lesbians and Gays created their own support group for the miners and formed an unlikely bond with a South Wales mining community.

As the blurb oin YouTube says: 'The South Wales miners' strike of 1984-1985 saw the formation of a curious alliance between a plucky group of young homosexuals from London and miners in Dulais Valley. In Dancing in Dulais, an initial wariness on the part of the young gays, the miners, and the miners' families gives way, through sometimes delicate interactions, to a loving and purposeful solidarity. The unembellished videography captures well this fascinating-to-witness union of two disparate yet ultimately kindred groups. The "Pits and Perverts" benefit concert features the Bronski Beat." PopcornQ Movies at PlanetOut.com'

Friday, September 26, 2014

Microphone gaffes of our time

Twenty four hour news cycles, the prevalence of social media and the ever-present microphones mean that it is almost impossible for national high-profile politicians to have a private moment anymore.

And, as David Cameron demonstrated with his gaffe over the Queen's response to the Scottish referendum result, even the most private conversation can be broadcast worldwide if you hold it in a public place.

So as to be helpful, and presumably to make the Prime Minister feel better, the Telegraph has set out the six biggest microphone gaffes of modern times.

These include the time that John Major forgot that he was still 'miked-up' after an ITN interview and called his opponents "bastards" that he would "crucify".  He also discussed the recent sex scandals that had been rocking the Conservatives, saying: "Even as an ex-Whip I can't stop people sleeping with other people if they ought not", and then went onto bring up the subject of his own performance as prime minister, admitting he wondered "how such a complete wimp like me keeps winning everything".

There is George Bush greeting the British Prime Minister with  "Yo, Blair. How are you doing?" and of course Cherie Blair reacting to Gordon Brown, who was then Labour chancellor and prime minister-in-waiting, telling delegates in Manchester that it had been "a privilege to work with the most successful ever Labour leader and Labour prime minister", by commenting: "Well, that's a lie."

In 1984, Ronald Reagan, former president of the United States, was taking part in a soundcheck prior to a radio interview and announced: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

And finally, there is Prince Charles who was asked by the BBC's royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell how he was feeling in the run-up to his wedding, Charles replied sarcastically: "I'm very glad you've heard of it, anyway."  He then turned to Prince Harry and whispered: "Bloody people. I can't bear that man. He's so awful, he really is."

It is moments like these that enable us to get behind the mask and see the real person. We should celebrate them, unless of course the incident involves me.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Daggers drawn in Bridgend

Faced with massive cuts in their funding most Welsh Councils are examining their budgets to find savings. Not so in Bridgend. There they are creating additional paid posts for Labour councillors.

According to Wales-online  the Leader of Bridgend County Borough Council is planning to recruit an additional member to his cabinet, even though the authority must save £50m over the next four years.

The proposal has drawn fire from the former Labour Leader of Bridgend Council, who once relied the current leader as his deputy:

Council leader Mel Nott has said the seventh cabinet post will be funded by the £22,000 salary that is no longer drawn by Coun Jeff Tildesley as chairman of the democratic services committee and the post will entail overseeing “strategic change”.

With just six members at present, BCBC has the smallest cabinet of the 22 Welsh local authorities, with members’ salaries – which are set for all councils by the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales (IRPW) – totalling £197,500.

But former Labour BCBC leader Jeff Jones, now a local government consultant, has blasted the move, claiming it defies logic and that money allocated for the post’s salary could be better spent elsewhere.

“It (the cabinet structure) was deliberately designed to be small and tight to save money and to allow decisions to be made and, quite frankly, since I set up that structure in 2002, they have lost leisure services, housing and refuse, so in my view they have difficulty justifying what they do have and adding another one just doesn’t make sense.

“If you use logic, it means you need fewer cabinet members, not more.”

Well at least we can see where Labour's priorities now lie in Bridgend.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Labour spin doctors alleged to have evicted disabled delegates

It is not often that I quote the Morning Star but this report speaks volumes about the attitude of some of Labour's party officials. If it is true then having the party looking good on television is more important than providing appropriate facilities for the disabled.

The paper claims that 'heartless Labour chiefs forced a group of disabled delegates to give up their seats for “party suits” minutes before Ed Miliband’s speech'.

They add that venue stewards told the party worker the seats had been specially assigned to the 15 disabled delegates but were overruled.

Maybe they should have concentrated on moving those delegates who nodded off during Ed Miliband's speech instead.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Labour and the Barnett formula

David Cornock's BBC blog yesterday outlines some of the problems that Labour have created for themselves on the funding mechanism used to provide resources for the devolved Parliaments.

Ed Miliband of course has signed up to the tripartite agreement to keep the Barnett formula in place because, as he told Andrew Marr yesterday: "All the party leaders have said that we think the Barnett formula has served us well and should continue because it is oriented towards need."

Unlike the Liberal Democrats however, he has not signed up to a mechanism which will compensate Wales for the failure to reflect its needs in the way that it is funded.

Mr. Miliband continued by stating that "And the fact is that on for example, older people Scotland has greater needs.......". This is something that David Cornock comprehensively debunks.

The shadow Welsh Secretary, Owen Smith has said that Labour will adopt a mechanism something akin to that proposed by the Liberal Democrats to protect Wales. However, on Radio Wales yesterday Labour's Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Rachel Reeves, pointedly avoided signing up to that formula.

It seems that confusion and contradiction still reigns within Labour ranks.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Are standards slipping in the American Secret Service?

If you posed the question as to a fall in standards in the secret service in Britain you would be told that it was a secret. Fortunately for news editors with papers to fill, America is a bit more open.

Thus today's Independent reports on a growing scandal amongst the elite officers who are charged with protecting the President of the USA. Apparently, many are being distracted from doing the job they are paid for.

The paper says that late last Friday a man jumped the fence separating the executive mansion from Pennsylvania Avenue, dashed unimpeded across the lawn to the North Portico and made it through the front door. It seems that no one had thought to lock it. And this has not been the only lapse since the Obamas moved into number 1600:

Recall the “Cartagena Prostitute Scandal” when 13 Secret Service members, dispatched to the Colombian coastal city in early 2012 to prepare for the arrival of Mr Obama a few days later for a regional summit, allegedly got carried away in a downtown club and later availed themselves of some of the finest in local professional sexual services in the privacy of their hotel rooms. Only three returned to work after a red-faced internal investigation.

Something also went awry when three Secret Service agents were sent home in disgrace from the Netherlands in March this year after a night of alleged drinking. One of the trio – all remain on administrative leave – was found passed out on a hotel hallway floor. And in May this year reports surfaced of agents – who were meant to be watching the perimeter of the White House – were assigned to keep an eye on a friend of the then director of the Secret Service who was being harassed by a neighbour. In Maryland.

The men and women who work in the American Secret Service are only human after all, but that will be no comfort for a president who relies on them for his onw safety.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Leonard Cohen is 80

So here is one of his classic songs

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Welsh town that voted 'yes' to independence on Thursday

Whilst Scotland was busy voting no to independence on Thursday a Welsh border town was conducting its own ballot.

To be fair, Hay-on-Wye has form on this when, in 1 April 1977, Richard Booth conceived a publicity stunt in which he declared Hay-on-Wye to be an 'independent kingdom' with himself as its monarch.

According to the Western Mail another bookshop owner, Derek Addyman organised his own vote to coincide with the day Scotland decided whether to go it alone.

Locals cast their votes outdoors in the Cheese Market in a swing bin liner between 11am and 3pm. The question they were voting on was: “Do you want Hay to stay independent?”

The paper says that 530 people voted with 483 votes in favour giving an overwhelming nod for independence.

Should add an edge to the literary festival next year.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Statement by Welsh Economy Minister on blue badges

Controversy over the blue badge scheme continues to dominate my work. Here is the response of the Minister for Economy Science and Transport to the issues I raised in my short debate at the end of last term:

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Clegg missteps on the road to a Federal UK

It is strange to see the leader of a party with a longstanding commitment to a Federal UK start talking about stopping Scottish MPs voting on English matters at Westminster, but that is precisely what Nick Clegg did yesterday.

It is almost as if the Liberal Democrats leader has missed the point, that you cannot sort out Home Rule for Scotland without putting Wales, England and Northern Ireland on the same footing. And yet, from what I know of Nick Clegg that cannot be the case.

Is he deliberately trying to antagonise his allies in the other nations of the UK? Why is he not talking about the need for a constitutional convention and a new Federal settlement for the UK?

Nobody can seriously believe after all that has passed that having a beefed up Scotland within the UK and stopping Scottish MPs voting on devolved matters is going to solve anything. In fact it will make things worse, especially in the Tory heartlands, and could even trigger moves for a Welsh Independence ballot.

If the Coalition Government do proceed to legislate for Scotland in January as Nick Clegg has said, without producing a new settlement for the other nations, then they really will have a revolt on their hands.

It may take a bit longer, but surely it is better to proceed on a consensual basis across the UK and get the constitution right rather than keep playing it by ear and getting it wrong.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Barnett speaks

Despite having been described as deceased by an audience member on a BBC Wales programme on Monday evening, Lord |Joel Barnett is alive and well, and at 90 years old (he will be 91 next month) still capable of making headlines.

Lord Barnett was the man who, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, devised the population based funding formula which determines how much money is given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was intended to be a temporary fix for a 'year or two' but has persevered for 36 years and is now a centre of controversy in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

As the Telegraph points out, the leaders of all three main political parties have pledged to continue using the formula, which sees Scotland receive £1,623 per head more than the rest of the UK, if Scotland votes to stay in the Union. However Tory MPs warned the move could be voted down in the Commons. The paper says that Mr Cameron faces a potential "bloodbath" at the hands of his own party:

Lord Barnett, 90, told The Telegraph: "It is unfair and should be stopped, it is a mistake. This way is terrible and can never be sustainable, it is a national embarrassment and personally embarrassing to me as well.

"If we want to give them some money after devo-max OK, but do it honestly and openly. Not by doing so under the table like this."

This is a long-running sore in Wales of course, where it is estimated that Wales is underfunded to the tune of £300m-£400m a year as a result of the formula. This is something that the Liberal Democrats have already addressed.

We have made a manifesto commitment to update the analysis of the Holtham Commission, which identified the funding gap, and to top-up the Welsh block grant to an equitable funding level. We will also immediately entrench a Barnett ‘floor’ so the underfunding gap could not increase.

This is not something that Labour and the Tories thought of doing prior to the joint announcement, and with more powers promised for Scotland in the event of a 'no' vote as well, it seems that we are now drifting into one of two scenarios.

The first is that we create a massively unbalanced (and still unwritten) UK constitution in which Scotland gets more than its fair share of the cash and home rule, whilst the rest of us struggle on with the crumbs. 

Or, we set up a proper constitutional convention and ensure that the goodies promised to Scotland are delivered within the structure of a properly federal UK, including England and/or the English regions. That is my preference and, I hope, that of my party.

Of course the third option is that Scotland votes 'yes'. In that case all bets are off.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Those stressed out cats

For those of us who live with cats, this article in the Telegraph strikes a particular chord.  They quote an animal behaviourist who suggests that cats suffer from stress because owners expect them to behave like dogs.

Dr. John Bradshaw says that people expect cats to be thoroughly domesticated, to enjoy being petted and to be relaxed about sharing their living space. But they fail to understand that lavishing a cat with affection will not necessarily make it feel more content:

“Unlike dogs, the cat is still halfway between a domestic and a wild animal, and it’s not enjoying 21st century living,” said Dr Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at Bristol University.

“People assume cats are going to be like a less demanding dog. They are equally interesting, in my opinion, and equally companionable, but they have their own way of doing things.

“Dogs were sociable before they were domesticated, and we domesticated them so that they would understand what we wanted from them. With cats, all we wanted was for them to keep our houses and farms and food stores free of rats and mice, and they got on with that.

“It’s only in the last few decades that we have wanted them to be something else.”
Chief cause of stress is the proximity to other cats, Dr Bradshaw said.

“There are two aspects: people get more than one cat and expect them to get on with each other, and they are letting cats outdoors in a neighbourhood with lots of other cats.

“But cats are not very good at getting on with other cats. You might get on with your next door neighbour but cats are not like humans. When people move house they have lots to think about, and perhaps they don’t make quite enough allowance for the cat.

“And people want to have two or three cats rather than one, but just because two cats are owned by the same person doesn’t mean they are going to get on.”

He adds: “Cats have other things on their mind. They are busy thinking about the neighbour’s cat, or looking out of the window to see what birds are out there. People get disappointed and think, ‘Oh, the cat doesn’t love me’, but the truth is that cats in general do love their owners but they have their own lives.”

I see this behaviour every day from my own cat. The article though has confirmed my decision that I cannot get a second animal. For now Rufus will reign supreme in my household.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pickles versus the rest

There is an interesting article in today's Times, which says that Eric Pickles is heading for a confrontation with local councils who are defying him over his campaign against their locally produced newspapers.

The paper says that the communities secretary told several authorities five months ago that they were breaching rules on municipal publicity. His officials are now preparing to take legal action, which could come within weeks:

The government could seek a court order to to stop publication. Ministers say that the “Town Hall Pravdas” are a waste of taxpayers’ money and undermine public accountability by flattering the councils that produce them and competing with genuine community newspapers. 

However, several councils said that they had not scaled back or changed their publications. They insist they comply with the rules and provide a legitimate service.

As interesting as this is one wonders what happened to Pickles' localism agenda, which by any definition involves these type of decisions being taken locally. More importantly has anybody done a review of UK Government propaganda recently?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Femicide and South Africa

For those of us who have been following the increasingly bizarre trial of Oscar Pistorious, Joan Smith in the Independent provides some context. The athlete was convicted of culpable homicide and a separate firearms charge, but he is out on bail amid speculation that he could even get a suspended sentence when he appears in court next month.

This is shocking enough but there are other things going on here:

From the outset, Pistorius was given an easy ride by much of the world’s media, who uncritically repeated his controversial defence that he accidentally shot Steenkamp after mistaking her for a burglar. This is what happens when events involving famous people are viewed in isolation, as riveting individual dramas rather than belonging to a wider narrative. Why would an internationally famous runner kill his girlfriend? He says it was a mistake, but the question needs to be seen in context: why did no fewer than 1,024 South African men kill their current or former partners in 2009?

This is not a country, in other words, where such events are rare. A woman is killed by a husband or boyfriend  every eight hours, according to a study published two years ago by the South African Medical Research Council. This translates to three women a day, and the study actually showed an improvement on the situation in South Africa 10 years earlier, when four women were dying every day. It has “the highest reported rate globally of females murdered by shooting in a country not engaged in war”, according to an article published in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) in 2010.

She goes on to say that South Africa is on the list of countries where femicide – defined by the World Health Organisation as the intentional murder of women [simply] because they are women – is practised. Most victims are mixed race or black and their deaths receive little publicity, despite the dreadful injuries inflicted upon them.

In that sense Reeva Steenkamp is not typical but the way she has been sidelined in this case is not. Oscar Pistorious is symptomatic of a wider problem in South Africa.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

SNP and their day of reckoning

In the Spectator, Fraser Nelson details some remarkable threats by leading SNP politician, Jim Sillars:

Sillars is a former SNP deputy leader but now not part of the apparatus- so he can speak freely. All too freely, as it turns out. Here’s what he has said today.
“This referendum is about power, and when we get a Yes majority, we will use that power for a day of reckoning with BP and the banks. The heads of these companies are rich men, in cahoots with a rich English Tory Prime Minister, to keep Scotland’s poor, poorer through lies and distortions. The power they have now to subvert our democracy will come to an end with a ‘yes’. BP, in an independent Scotland, will need to learn the meaning of nationalisation, in part or in whole, as it has in other countries who have not been as soft as we have forced to be. We will be the masters of the oil fields, not BP or any other of the majors.”
So Scotland’s refusal to go all Hugo Chavez on its companies is, to Sillars, an example of the SNP administration ‘forced’ by Westminster to be ‘soft’ (ie, not lay down the law to) companies. Their expressing their concerns about his separation plan is the same as ‘subverting our democracy. The have become enemies of the Scottish people, according to Sillars, and will be treated as such.

Sillars had a bit more to say. Under a separate Scotland, companies like Standard Life would be required to give two years warning of any layoffs they wanted to make. This sounds crazy, more like East Germany than a new Scotland. But as Silllars put it:
What kind of people do these companies think we are? They will find out.”
Is this the reality facing Scotland if they vote 'yes' on Thursday? As Fraser Nelson says all this unnerves businesses. He adds that this why increasing numbers of businesses have had to reassure shareholders that, if Scotland votes ‘yes’, they will not stick around for long enough to see what Mr Sillars meant.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Lost in translation Part Four - racist mascots?

In the translators' folklore Swansea Council will never live down the time that a Welsh language out-of-office message appeared on a road sign purportng to be a translation of the English, however that does not seem to have deterred them and other public bodies from failing to check the accuracy of signs and other publications before they enter the public domain.

The latest faux pas to come to my attention is a bi-lingual booklet advertising the Swansea Bay Festival. The booklet is full of errors and appears to have been written with the help of Google Translate. The passage that stands out however is this one advertising the Admiral Swansea Bay 10k:

'The event also feature (sic) junior races, the Dylan Thomas Mile and Mascot Race. All entrants receive a t-shirt and all finishers receive a goody bag and medal.

Roedd y digwyddiad hefyd yn cynnwys rasys iau, mae'r Dylan Thomas Milltir a Masgot Hiliol. Mae pob cystadleuydd yn cael crys-t, a phob gorffen yn derbyn bag nwyddau a medal.'

Somehow, the council have managed to translate Mascot Race as Racist Mascot.

Given that they have their own professional translation department one has to wonder why the council did not use their services when producing material such as this.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The economic reality for Scotland of a 'yes' vote

Whatever the polls may say, and at the moment nothing can be certain as to how the Scottish referendum will turn out on Thursday, there is no escaping the economic reality that will follow a 'yes' vote.

The BBC underline this today with their report that the Royal Bank of Scotland has confirmed that it will relocate its registered headquarters to London if Scotland votes for independence next week.

A statement from the bank says that it believes it would be "necessary to re-domicile the bank's holding company".In a letter to staff, the bank's chief executive said there was no intention to move operations or jobs.

Of course this is not a unanimous view amongst businesses in Scotland but it is an indication of the economic uncertainty that the referendum is causing.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Labour's recklessness left Britain exposed

There has been an increasing tendency recently for Labour politicians to argue that the 2008 recession was entirely down to the banks and had nothing to do with Gordon Brown's government. Today's Times nails that flimsy piece of spin as nonsense.

The paper quotes an analysis by the Office for Budget Responsibility that shows that Labour was reckless with the public finances in the years before the financial crisis. They say that a combination of over-optimistic forecasts for tax receipts and a decision to ignore the demographic timebomb of an ageing population meant that the national debt rose at the second-fastest rate of 31 of the world’s leading nations between 2004 and 2007.

As a result the worsening state of the public finances left Britain exposed when the financial crisis struck in 2008, plunging the country into its deepest and most prolonged recession of the past century:

Speaking at the launch of the working paper, Crisis and Consolidation in the Public Finances, Robert Chote, the OBR chairman, described Britain’s decision to increase borrowing in the three years prior to the crisis as “unusual”, adding: “Others were trying to pre-fund the rising costs of ageing by getting the debt down in the good times.”

The OBR also showed that Labour took a far more optimistic view of tax receipts to justify its spending decisions than other contemporary forecasters. External forecasts for the deficit were about £10 billion more pessimistic than the government each year from 2003 to 2008, it said.

As a result, UK national debt rose by about 2.5 per cent of GDP between 2004 and 2007, faster than the likes of Greece, Italy and Portugal. Only five of 31 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development experienced a rise in public debt over the period and only Hungary reported a faster increase than the UK, the OBR said.

Labour made the decision to boost spending in 2002 to correct what it described as “decades of chronic under-investment in education, health, transport and housing”. To fund the plans, it chose to run a budget deficit of about 3 per cent of GDP annually.

However, the government’s projections were based on a fundamentally unstable economic strategy that assumed stronger than average UK growth was permanent. With hindsight, both the OECD and the International Monetary Fund say now that Britain was expanding faster than its potential and running an underlying deficit above the 3 per cent reported.

The extra GDP growth masked a structural borrowing rate of about 5 per cent of GDP that was “unsustainable”, Mr Chote said. The Treasury was not alone in its overestimation of UK potential growth, he added. Most forecasters at the time were equally guilty.

The crisis exposed Britain’s real economic position, revealing a previously unrecognised hole in the public finances equivalent to 8.6 per cent of GDP — the shortfall between tax receipts and spending, even with the economy functioning at full potential.

As annual borrowing quadrupled to fill the hole and compensate for a collapse in tax receipts in the recession, the national debt rocketed by £439 billion more than expected between 2008 and 2013 to £1.19 trillion.

Isn't it about time that Labour took responsibility for their economic mismanagement rather than trying to place the blame on others?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Protestors use hi-tech to disrupt badger cull

As the misguided badger cull gets underway The Times reports that protesters are gearing up to oppose it by using night-vision goggles and heat-seeking equipment to disrupt plans to shoot at least 900 badgers in the next six weeks.

Apparently anti-cull groups have spent about £50,000 on specialist equipment that they hope will make it easier for them to spot marksmen operating at night on farms, and also help them find badgers trapped in cages:

The Badger Trust said that the equipment, funded by donations, was similar to that being used by the marksmen to kill badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire and would give the protesters a greater chance of saving some of the animals.

The culls are expected to resume this week, with farmers having a licence to kill at least 615 badgers in Gloucestershire and 316 in Somerset. The government says that culling is necessary to reduce bovine tuberculosis, which resulted in more than 26,000 cattle being slaughtered last year.

The trust points to a report by an independent panel of experts on the first year of culling, which found that poor marksmanship had increased the risk of badgers dying slow and painful deaths. Dominic Dyer, the trust’s chief executive, said the night-vision goggles and heat-seeking equipment would help protesters find wounded badgers.

“It’s going to be a bit of a technology war down there. This equipment will also make it more difficult for the contractors to operate in darkness because the protesters will be able to spot them.

“If badgers have been trapped in cages, people will find them and let them out before they can be shot.”

Mr Dyer said that about 500 people would be involved in “active disruption” and hundreds more would be “walking the lanes in peaceful protests”.

This cull is in danger of turning into a farce once more with a real danger than somebody may be hurt. What is more the impact of the cull on bTB will be minimum and is more likely to spread the disease to other areas than control it. The Government really must think again, even at this late hour.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Liberal Democrats seek distance on welfare reform

Having initiated a move towards reforming the bedroom tax last week, the Liberal Democrats have now stepped into a wider debate on welfare reform with a clear attempt to put some distance between themselves and the Tories on welfare.

As with the bedroom tax, the party is relying on an assessment of the impact of how reforms are working so far, as an evident base on which to shift their position. Yesterday's Observer reports that a motion to the Liberal Democrat conference in October states: "Benefit sanctions are hitting those in most need of support, with the 14-day rule leaving people penniless and having to visit food banks.

"There is a growing backlog of assessments for employment support allowance claims and migrations from previous disability benefits, alongside long-standing concerns identified in previous conference motions over the quality of such assessments, notwithstanding the annual reviews which have called for improvements.

"Some system of discretionary hardship payments is required to assist those most in crisis to prevent them from falling into abject poverty."

It also calls for a review of universal credit implementation to address poor administration, information management and data quality issues as well as cliff edges that may disincentivise increased working hours, or leave insufficient childcare or other basic needs support.

The motion also calls for reform of the hardship fund to provide immediate loans to people who have benefit sanctions, which will be repaid, and administered through local government. It says there should be a "different approach towards conditions and sanctions so that they are only used as a last resort in a small number of cases where all other approaches to engagement have failed".

It suggests as a starting point that the DWP should immediately implement the recommendations of the Oakley review that called for a revision of the way the benefit sanctions are imposed in the work programme.

It also calls for the "introduction of a single assessment process across different disability benefits, based on real world tests of capability and functionality, with better allocation into different groups and greater onus and incentives on assessment contractors to collect relevant evidence from health professionals working with those claimants, so that assessment decisions can be right first time and avoid reconsideration and appeal costs."

All of this is very welcome especially if it finds it way into the manifesto. It also chimes with the  mood of the public, who want to see welfare reform but also want the process to be fair and victimless. That is a very difficult demand to deliver on.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

MPs to get ten per cent pay rise

Whichever way you look at it, deserved or not, the proposed pay rise for MPs is badly timed.  The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has announced that MPs’ pay will rise by 10 per cent next year, taking their salaries to £74,000. This at a time when public sector workers are facing minimal rises if they get any at all.

As the Telegraph says the package will include reductions in MPs pensions, which will switch from final salary to “career average” schemes, and cuts to their expenses. In addition resettlement payments for MPs voted out of office, worth tens of thousands of pounds each, will be abolished in favour of modern redundancy deals. Ipsa argues that the package of reforms, including the pay rise, will not add to taxpayers’ costs overall.

It is right that MPs should not determine their own pay and that this be entrusted to an independent body, but really, shouldn't membership of that body require an ability to exercise political sensitivity so that irrespective of the merits of the award, MPs are not seen to be more privileged than other workers?

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The bedroom tax and the coalition

Today's Times speculates that yesterday's vote, in which senior Liberal Democrats joined with opposition MPs to support a private member's bill tabled by Lib Dem MP, Andrew George, could signal the end of the coalition.

Amongst those supporting the bill, which creates exemptions to the removal of the spare-room subsidy, were Vince Cable, the business secretary, and Danny Alexander, the chief secretary. All but three Liberal Democrat MPs backed the bill. Nick Clegg, who is at the NATO  summit in Newport, did not take part in the vote.

The bill, put forward by the Lib Dem MP Andrew George, would ensure that those who could not find a smaller home, or the disabled, would be exempt from the penalty:

After the vote, Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, who backed the benefit changes when they were initially approved by parliament, said that it signalled the end of the coalition.

He told the Commons: “Given that those of us who were against the setting up  of the coalition in the first place always knew that the Lib Dems were devious and untrustworthy, and given that this vote today on the bill shows the coalition government has come to an end.”

Anybody would think that Conservative MPs had a good record in supporting the coalition agreement, House of Lords reform being one instance where they did not.

More interestingly, the fact that this bill has secured a second reading means that a Tory bill on a European referendum will have less time and may not get as far as the last one.

Personally, I do not see why this should be the end of the coalition. It is a disagreement on one aspect of policy in which the Liberal Democrats, having taken stock of the evidence, have decided to modify their stance so as to protect those vulnerable tenants who are being disadvantaged by the scheme because there are insufficient smaller homes to move to. It also exempts the disabled who are also suffering from the policy.

It is something that I have been arguing for a long time, and any evidence-based government would do the same,. At least the Liberal Democrats are prepared to admit where we have got it wrong and seek to change things. Why are the Tories not doing the same.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Bilingualism benefits our children

As a monoglot English speaker I am very jealous of those who have a gift for languages and particularly those who have been brought up speaking up more than one language.

Of course in Wales, we aim to ensure that all children learn Welsh as well as English, though it has to be said that we have had less success with other European languages. Now a new study has shown how children can gain from that policy.

The Independent reports on new research that has found that the benefits of growing up in a bilingual home start early and are broader than previously thought. They say that at just six months old, infants who are exposed to more than one language have an edge over their monolingual peers.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences say that bilingual babies get bored more quickly when they are repeatedly shown the same picture, and have a greater thirst for novel images; tendencies which have strong links to higher IQ later in life:

Measuring infants’ ability to process information isn’t straightforward, and visual habituation is one of the few tasks that babies can do which is a strong predictor of later IQ. In Singh's study, 114 Singaporean six-month-olds were repeatedly shown a picture of a cuddly toy representing either a bear or a wolf. Once they lost interest in this image, they were shown the alternative animal, which was novel to them.

The babies who were growing up in a bilingual environment became bored with their first picture more quickly, and showed a greater interest in the image of the unfamiliar soft toy. Both the rate at which infants become bored of an image and the preference for novel stimuli have been linked to performance in a range of cognitive domains, indicating that bilingual six-month-olds already have the building blocks in place to excel in a variety of areas later in life. These effects were not specific to any particular language, but were found across all language pairings studied.

According to the researchers, one explanation for these findings could be that bilingual children simply require greater information processing skills in order to rise to the challenges they face. Not only are they learning two languages with reduced exposure to each vocabulary, they are doing this whilst learning to distinguish between the two. The efficiency they develop in order to achieve this appears to stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

The emphasis on bilingualism in Wales is not just ideological, it is practical as well and can really help children get an edge on their monoglot counterparts.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Another crass Tory

Just when we thought that the Tory backwoodsmen has all defected to UKIP up pops a conservative minister to prove us wrong.

The Guardian reports that David Cameron's new minister for civil society, Brooks Newmark has been branded patronising and dismissive after he told charities to "stick to their knitting" and keep out of politics:

In his first major speech since he took on the role, Newmark used the opportunity to criticise charities who "stray" out of their remit of helping people.

Asked about the ability of charities to campaign, he said: "We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics. Some 99.9% do exactly that. When they stray into the realm of politics that is not what they are about and that is not why people give them money."

In comments first reported on Civil Society, he added: "The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others."

What the Minister does not seem to understand is that the process of helping others is inextricably linked with the political process and with government decisions and policies. Surely that understanding is a basic qualification for being a minister.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Parties should explain why they nominate people to be peers

If we cannot yet have an elected second chamber then the least that should happen is that there should be some transparency as to why people are nominated to serve in the House of Lords.

That is not quite the conclusion of the Lords Appointments Commission but it amounts to much the same thing. According to the Independent the chairman of the House of Lords appointments Commission, Lord Kakkar called on political parties to start publishing detailed information about why they have chosen somebody to become a peer:

The intervention comes in the wake of the row which followed the awarding of a peerage to Ranbir Singh Suri, a Sikh jewellery magnate who has donated more than £300,000 to the Tories since 2004. 

The Independent revealed how Downing Street created a misleading impression about the new Lord Suri by suggesting in its official citation that he was “former General Secretary of the Board of British Sikhs” – a group which has not existed for more than 20 years and which folded after holding only a few meetings. 

Number 10 also described Lord Suri as a leading figure in Britain’s Sikh community, a claim which has been dismissed by some prominent Sikh groups, who said he was unknown to them. One of them described the suggestion as a “bare-faced lie”. 

Lord Kakkar was writing in response to a letter from Ms Onwurah, who had demanded to know whether David Cameron’s recommendation of a peerage for Lord Suri had been properly assessed. 

In his reply – which he pointedly copied to Mr Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, the leaders of the three main Westminster parties – he said that that the Commission only vetted nominations for peerages for “propriety” and not “suitability”, which he said was a judgement “for the parties alone”. 

However, he added that during the vetting process the Commission asked to see a “detailed citation from the party leader” giving reasons for each nomination, which are currently not made public. Only a short official citation is released.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of Lord Suri, who was a magistrate for more than a decade and runs a successful jewellery company, Oceanic Jewellers, in London. 

That sort of transparency sounds like commonsense to me.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Time for Skewen to have a World War One memorial

Yesterday I called into the Carnegie Hall in Skewen to visit the Skewen and District Historical Society World War One Heritage Day.

This is a very successful society who are currently collecting as much source material as possible to produce a book on the men and women from Skewen who contributed to the 1914-1918 war effort.

The village of Skewen around that time had a population of roughly 9,000 people. I was told yesterday that the society has so far been able to identify 370 men who volunteered for active servive. At least 70 of these did not return. They do not think that there was a 'pals' unit but most would have joined one of the Welsh regiments.

There is also interest in those who stayed behind and contributed to the war effort in other ways. The display had many medals and other items lent to the society by the families of these individuals.

What did surprise me was the fact that there is no World War One memorial in Skewen. There is a memorial for those who lost their lives in the second world war in the grounds of the Carnegie Hall but this specifically excludes the earlier conflict.

As an aside I was told that one of the history society officials was approached by a man who pointed out his name on the Skewen war memorial. Clearly he had been included in error.

The lack of a World War One memorial in Skewen is a major omission in my view. Officers of the society told me that they are considering campaigning for one. I hope they do. I will certainly support them.

Monday, September 01, 2014

In praise of Newport

Yesterday's Observer carries an editorial supposedly to correct the confusion felt by many English journalists between Newport and Cardiff. They are right, muddling up the two is no laughing matter, but couldn't they have researched the article a bit better?

The comments point out two further errors within the article itself. The first is that the parody song Newport State of Mind is nothing to do with Goldie Lookin' Chain as the paper claims. In fact the lyrics reference a number of things that are nothing to do with Newport. That is why Goldie Lookin' Chain recorded a response Newport State of Mind (You're not from Newport).

Secondly, they refer to Newport as a town when it is a City. They also illustrate the article with the a picture of the City's iconic transporter bridge without even mentioning it. And as for suggesting that the City's inhabitants are confused as to whether they are Welsh or English they really should go there during a rugby international.

In fact these journalists need to spend more time in Wales so that they can better know what they are writing about.

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