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Monday, March 31, 2014

Cracking down on nuisance phone calls

A very welcome article in the Observer reveals that Ministers are due to announce a crackdown on nuisance phone calls by firms and charities this week, with some rogue companies set to face fines worth many hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The paper says that Maria Miller, the culture secretary, wants to lower the threshold for taking action against companies, which are currently liable only if it can be proved that their calling has caused "substantial damage or distress":

The government, on the advice of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), the regulator responsible for unsolicited marketing calls, wants action to be taken where "nuisance, annoyance, inconvenience, anxiety" are caused – even if a person receives just one call, but others report receiving similar calls.

Miller said: "Nuisance calls must stop. At best they are an irritation and an unwanted intrusion; at worst they cause real distress and fear, particularly to the elderly or housebound. People need to feel safe and secure in their homes. The rules are clear – people have the right to choose not to receive unsolicited marketing calls. We will work to ensure their choice is respected."

There were 120,310 complaints made between April and November 2013 to the ICO. In January this year, there were also 2,507 complaints about silent and abandoned calls made to Ofcom, which is the regulator responsible for those calls.

Justice secretary Chris Grayling will also unveil plans to impose fines of hundreds of thousands of pounds on claims management companies that use information gathered by unsolicited calls and texts and other unwelcome practices.

Grayling will launch a consultation on whether firms should face fines of up to 20% of their annual turnover for offences including using information gathered by unsolicited calls and texts, providing bad services or wasting time and money by making spurious or unsubstantiated claims.

When even registering with the Telephone Preference Service does not seem to deter this callers, this action is much needed.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The astonishing cost of Neath Port Talbot's wheelie bin replacement programme

I know that opposition politicians are always putting in FOI requests and demanding explanations for trifling amounts of expenditure but even I was taken aback by this latest example from Labour-led Neath Port Talbot Council.

They have adopted a plan to swap all the household wheelie bins in their area for smaller ones in the hope of reducing the amount of waste going to landfill. The Council report recommending the switch reveals that the total cost will be £730,000. It suggests that this will encourage local residents to recycle and compost more.

This scheme is barmy, a complete waste of £730,000 of the public’s money, and comes at a time when the council is planning to cut a host of other important services which will impact upon local communities.

If the council go through with this, over 45,000 households will lose their large 240 litre bin, and see it replaced with one which is over 40% smaller at 140 litres. All that will happen is more fly-tipping, and litter which the council will have to spend money clearing up.

Nobody is arguing about the need to put up recycling, but Neath Port Talbot’s approach is all compulsion, and no carrot. I am sure that they could spend this money in a different way to achieve their objective.

What is worse is that Labour are spending this £730,000 on replacing wheelie-bins at a time when they are planning deep cuts that will affect the lives of local people and levying a council tax that is higher than that in neighbouring Welsh authorities, the second highest in Wales in fact.

For instance, this amount of money could mean no cuts for early years development, and subsidised bus routes; no cuts for community meals, and no need to slap charges on those residents using the council’s day services. It could also mean no cut in the amount spent on gully cleaning and land drainage which given the amount of rain we have had would seem to make good sense.

From the Council that had a waste incinerator built that was rarely used and which has now been mothballed this is another example of an idea that should never have left the drawing board.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Welsh karma

This is a very short rant about Welsh Labour's tactics of seeking to deflect perfectly legitimate attacks on their record by alleging that their opponents are waging a war on Wales.

It is certainly the case that some of the more unsavoury UK media have crossed a line in their portrayal of our country and I am one of the first to condemn them for it. However, that does not insulate Carwyn Jones' government from answering for its policy and delivery failures.

Welsh Labour Ministers have been very vocal in knocking the record of the UK Coalition. Did they really think they would not get attacked back, in spades? It is a form of karma they have to live with. However, there is a wider dimension to this.

Many of us have invested a lot of time and effort into establishing a proper parliamentary system in Wales where there a clear division between the Executive (the Welsh Government) and the Parliament that scrutinises it (the Assembly). In identifying their own interests with that of Wales, Labour are once more muddying those waters.

The policy failures are those of a Welsh Labour Cabinet, not of the Assembly or the Welsh people. Labour need to step up to the mark and take responsibility for their own record instead of deflecting it onto others.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Another blow for the Scottish independence campaign

Today's Scotsman adds further to the case against Scotland voting 'yes' in September with the claim that European Commission officials have declared there will be no change in the rules governing cross-border pension schemes.

According to the paper that means that a 'yes' vote will produce a massive pensions blackhole. They say that at present, many schemes are under-funded, as contributions from staff and employers have been insufficient to pay for pensions:

They add that single-country pensions have the flexibility to go into deficit as long as they are able to continue making payments to members of their schemes and there is a long-term plan to get out of the red. That does not apply to cross-border schemes, which must be 'fully-funded'. Yesterday’s ruling means that if Scotland becomes independent, firms would have to ensure pension funds for workers north of the Border were “fully funded” because they would count as cross-border schemes.

The paper says that one expert has warned the ruling will mean firms having to plug a pensions blackhole of as much as £225 billion after independence, though that seems a bit on the high side:

David Wood, executive director of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, said it had been estimated there were some 6,300 defined-benefits schemes in the UK, of which about 5,000 were in deficit.

The total deficit, he said, was about £300bn. Assuming three-quarters of these pension schemes were across England and Scotland and would have to be redefined as “cross-border” ones after independence, that would leave a gap of £225bn that would have to be plugged by companies.

“We are talking about huge figures,” Mr Wood said.

“Any requirement to make good that deficit before independence in March 2016 would impose a real crisis for some employers and could put some companies at risk.

“Companies could try and borrow, but that’s not necessarily that easy. Banks would not necessarily lend to some companies. It is an awful lot of money to be sucked out of the corporate sector into pension schemes.”

Concern was also expressed by the National Association of Pension Funds, which represents 1,300 pension schemes and assets of £900bn.

Chief executive Joanne Segars said the announcement had “major implications for pension schemes as part of the debate on independence for Scotland”.

The fact that the European Commission has not changed the rules as expected is seen as a massive blow for the independence campaign.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why Eric Pickles doesnt get localism (or devolution for that matter)

Today's Times carries a report in which the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles seeks to attack the Welsh Labour Government for not imposing the sort of draconian controls on local government that he has implemented in England.

Over the border, Councils are offered a financial incentive not to raise their council tax and are told that if they want to increase it by 2% or more they need to hold an expensive referendum. Now, I want to reduce bills as much as anybody but in my view the best way to do that is through local accountability.

Philosophically, I have no problem with the government incentivising councils if it wishes, but I do have a problem with ministers restricting local councils' room for manoeurvre through top-down directives that bypass local decision-making.

I have an even bigger problem with an English Minister telling Wales how to spend its money. That is not his job and even he must realise that (a) council tax remains lower in Wales than in England and (b) council tax is not set by Welsh Ministers, it is set by Councillors who, it must be said, still have a lot to answer for with the burdens they impose on electors and for which they are accountable through local elections.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Books to prisoners row is storm in a teacup

The ongoing row about the Government's ban on relatives sending books to prisoners is a classic case of how a perfectly reasonable measure is distorted out of all proportion and then misrepresented so as to provide a stick to hit Ministers over the head with. What is particularly sad is that some Liberal Democrats have fallen for the hype and jumped on the bandwagon.

Reading this Telegraph article, it seems that the facts are very different to the narrative, which a number of prominent authors are signing up to.

Firstly, prisoners have not been banned from accessing books. Prisoners continue to have access to prison libraries and can have up to 12 books in their cell at any one time. They can also order books they wish to read and of course relatives can continue to donate books to the prison library. Prisoners also continue to have access to classes where they can acquire skills and qualifications.

Secondly, there has not been a specific ban on sending book to prisoners, instead the ban, which has been in force since November last year, is on family packages. These packages often contain food, sports gear and occasionally books but also are used to smuggle in contraband and drugs.

Michael Spurr, the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service has compared the inventiveness of inmates to that of the Great Escape including using hollowed out Weetabix packs to hide mobile phones and having drugs and phones hidden in shoes, clothing and stereos. Books have also been used to smuggle in drugs.

As the Secretary of State for Justice says: "The idea that we are banning access to books for prisoners is just nonsense. We work extremely hard to keep drugs, extremist literature and other banned material out of prisons. Suggesting that we should suddenly start allowing people to send unlimited numbers of parcels into prisons, that might contain books or otherwise, is the surest way of seeing the amount of contraband getting in go through the roof."

It is about time that some persepective was brought to this debate adn i am glad that the government have sought to do so.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dithering Miliband faces more splits

The Times reports that Ed Miliband has been urged to stop dithering over the next Labour manifesto amid growing fears that he may duck radical measures and adopt a safety-first approach to next year’s election.

They say that friction has emerged between Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary and election co-ordinator, and Jon Cruddas, who is running the party’s policy review, emerged over the scale of ambition for the manifesto. They add that the party has yet to fully set out its policies on issues such as social care, childcare, housing and the railways:

Mr Cruddas is pushing the party to promise a wider reorganisation that would strip Whitehall’s responsibilities for these areas and hand power to local councils. There are growing fears that many of the plans will be blocked by Mr Alexander, who is urging caution.

The issue has been given fresh urgency by a tightening in the polls, three of which put Labour’s lead at one point while a fourth, ComRes for The Independent, saw a fall from 8 to 5 points.

“Douglas wants a narrowly-drawn offer for voters, like we had in 1997,” said one senior Labour source. “That’s not an option this time.”

Mr Miliband’s office is also blamed for dampening the leader’s personal enthusiasm for radical change, with some arguing that there is little need to risk the remaining poll lead.

Mr Cruddas has forged a significant series of alliances from the right and left of the party, teaming up with Lord Adonis, the former Blairite transport secretary, who is holding a growth review, and Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary. Yesterday their agenda was backed publicly by 19 leading figures from groups including the Fabian Society, Compass, the Policy Network and Progress. They said they were uneasy at the prospect of Mr Miliband going into the election without a radical programme of change. “If Labour plays the next election safe and hopes to win on the basis of Tory unpopularity, it will not have earned a mandate for such change,” their letter said.

One signatory confirmed that the letter is designed to boost Mr Cruddas against “forces of conservatism” in the Labour Party that are trying to hold him back. This suggests that there will be uproar from across the Labour movement if he avoids Mr Cruddas’s prescriptions for change.
One involved said: “There is good Ed Miliband and bad Ed Miliband, and we need good Ed Miliband — the friend of Stewart Wood and Marc Stears [two free-thinking aides, both Oxford academics] — to triumph.”

Presumably we will get much more of this sort of negative briefing by Labour insiders as we get closer to the General Electon and Labour continue to struggle to make any impact in the polls.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Liberal Democrats budget to be proud of

With Labour apparently shocked into silence on the budget, the Telegraph nails precisely why the Liberal Democrats should be proud of their influence on government.

In an interview with Danny Alexander they underline how the central policy behind the budget came from the Liberal Democrats:

Conservatives often praise Nick Clegg’s closest ally as a natural Tory. His Lib Dem colleagues sometimes complain that he has gone native and become Mr Osborne’s useful idiot, helping to implement Tory policies. “If I let insults and jibes bother me I’d have long since abandoned this office,” he laughs. He replies that the number of Lib Dem ideas being implemented by the Treasury suggest it is Mr Osborne who has gone yellow, a proposition quite a few Tories would agree with. They are different politicians from “very different backgrounds”, he says, “but we both have a shared wish to do the right thing for the British economy”. They both shaped the Budget, even if Mr Osborne gets most of the credit.

“I really believe the economy would not be recovering if it was not for the Lib Dems.” Every aspect of government economic policy he attributes to his party’s influence on the Coalition. He just needs to “tell people much more vigorously and directly the difference that we Lib Dems are making.” Take the increase in the personal allowance.

He and Mr Clegg argued months ago for it to be raised even further than £10,000, to £10,500. The idea it was a Tory idea, as Mr Osborne has tried to imply, “is just nonsense”.

“I’m very grateful for the help of the Conservatives in delivering this Lib Dem policy, but there is a difference between doing something because you want to and doing something because you have to. And they have to because we want to, and that’s the way it works.”

Suggesting that the Tories dance to a Lib Dem tune will not endear Mr Alexander to his Coalition partners. But his point is that raising the personal allowance was a specifically Lib Dem policy, one of its conditions for agreeing to the Coalition in 2010. “We forced that idea on to the agenda. No one was really talking about thresholds before we made it a key promise in 2010.” He says that whereas the Lib Dems are focused on the allowance, the Tories appear to have different priorities on tax, from inheritance tax to the 40p higher rate.

Yet he reveals there was no attempt by Mr Osborne to raise the issue of the 40p rate in the Budget negotiations. Despite all the pressure from some Tory MPs, “there’s never been a specific idea put forward to really do something about the 40p rate,” he says.

Coalition works and it is the Liberal Democrats who are making it work so as to deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Vince Cable explains why the coalition are on the right track on the economy

Over on the Liberal England blog, Jonathan Calder highlights Vince Cable's mastery of the economy brief in his contribution to the debate on the budget. You can read the whole speech by clicking on the link but I thought it worth highlighting some key points from it:

1. Growth is up, unemployment down and inflation down. Labour are accusing us of a “millionaires’ tax cut”, but when they were in government they argued consistently that any increase in the top rate of tax above 40% would be counterproductive and damaging to the economy.

2. Under Labour the total bankers’ bonus pool was something in the order of £11.3 billion, and it was £11.5 billion the following year when the Labour Government brought in a bankers’ bonus tax. According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, the bankers’ bonus pool was £1.6 billion last year. In the current year, it is estimated to be £1.3 billion. That is one-tenth of the size of the bonus pool on which the original tax was placed. So how are Labour going to get £3 billion in tax out of a £1.5 billion bonus pool?

 3. The immediate after-effects of the banking collapse were to reduce output in this country by 7.5%, which is more than in the great depression. Not surprisingly, that has affected living standards in a radical way. It has impaired our capacity to recover from the damage inflicted on the banking system.

 4. We now have the lowest unemployment of any major country except Germany—lower than France and Sweden. We are now seeing the success of employment policy in the fact that we have had an enormous growth in employment, with 1.25 million net of public sector job losses and a gross increase of 1.75 million. Roughly five private sector jobs have been created for every one lost in the public sector. These are predominantly, in fact overwhelmingly, full-time jobs. Labour’s argument has been, “Well, okay, there are lots of jobs but they are part time,” but last year, in 2013, there were 460,000 new jobs, of which 430,000—95%—were full-time jobs. The total adult population in work, is now at its highest level ever—higher even than in the United States, which is famed for a flexible labour market.

5. Last year, overwhelmingly the largest number—well over 90%—of jobs went to British workers.

 6. Youth unemployment is currently at about 20%, but that includes many full-time students. The key trend is that youth unemployment is now declining rapidly. It is certainly less now than the level we inherited, and we have a whole set of policies designed to deal with it in a systematic way.

7. Labour have put forward the idea of a youth guarantee. The problem that that presents is this: how can a job be guaranteed other than through the public sector? Of course guaranteeing a public sector job takes people off the dole, but it also creates a permanent need for subsidy and support.

8. The Government has created a route that allows people who are not going into full-time higher education to develop the preconditions for proper apprenticeships through traineeships, basic academic requirements and work experience, and then find their way into true apprenticeship training, which has been an enormous success: it has doubled since we came to office. The measures announced in the Budget statement yesterday will enable a further 100,000 people under 24 to be given apprenticeship training, and the quality improvements that we have made are driving up demand and supply at the same time. This is a much better way of dealing with young people who are out of work than creating artificial jobs.

 9. A third of the total number who are classified as “youth unemployed” are, in fact, engaged in full-time study. One of the big changes for which the coalition

10. The structural deficit has fallen from about 5.4% of GDP to 2.7%. We are nearly halfway, but we have to continue the job, and the next Government will have to continue the job.

11. The Office for Budget Responsibility has found that business investment increased by 7% last year, and CBI projections for this year are higher than that. Business investment is beginning to take serious shape

12. The extension of investment allowances will substantially increase the incentives for small and medium-sized companies, particularly those in the manufacturing sector.

 13. Tthe Government are establishing institutions, particularly the business bank, which are developing new flows and types of finance—internet-based lending, asset-based finance, invoice finance—in areas that hitherto were deficient, as well as supporting the establishment of new banks. About 20 new banks have been licensed over the last year, and that deals with the issue of bank competition that should have been dealt with when the last Government were in power and we had the Cruickshank report. The net lending trend should become much more positive, but there is no underestimating the enormous damage that was done to the British economy as a result of the collapse of the banks, over which the last Government had responsibility for many years yet did absolutely nothing.

 14. In the period after 1997 we saw the share of the British economy accounted for by manufacturing shrink from 20% to 10%, a decline that was even more rapid than in the mid-1980s, when policies were considered to be unfriendly to manufacturing. We lost 1.6 million jobs in that period.

15. Help for energy intensive industries cannot be brought in immediately as we need to obtain state aid clearance from the European Commission.

16. The priority of the Government is manufacturing, investment and the savings that lie behind investment, and exports through the expansion of export credit so as to establish long-term growth and the productivity that that entails.

17. There are still serious constraints in terms of skilled labour. There are still problems in opening up business finance. We have to invest much more in science and innovation, although we are doing that. However, the themes that run through yesterday’s Budget of support for investment, for savings and for exports are absolutely right and they will take this country to the right place.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Labour let down valleys over electrification

A row that has rumbled on all week is over who pays for the electrification of the mainline from Cardiff to Swansea and the valleys lines. All of this blew up on Monday when the First Minister stood in front of his expensive lectern in Cathays Park and claimed that the UK Government were reneging in the deal they had made with Welsh Ministers.

As Nick Servini explains on the BBC, this turned out to be a bit more complicated than that:

Carwyn Jones wrote to David Cameron last week saying that he was coming under pressure from Network Rail to confirm who was paying for the work and that he wanted urgent clarification from Downing Street.

And in the answer from the PM, it emerged that the UK government is going to pay directly for the electrification from London to Cardiff, and then the stretch from Bridgend to Swansea. He says this was all part of the agreement reached in 2012.

The more observant readers among you will notice that there's a gap between Cardiff and Bridgend.

That gap between Bridgend and Cardiff and the Valleys lines are initially going to be paid for by Network Rail who will then recoup the money in the form of charges to the rail operating company which has the franchise, Arriva Trains Wales.

As there's a substantial subsidy on that franchise paid for by the Welsh government, it appears that the money will ultimately have to come from Cardiff Bay.

David Cameron's letter says: "It appears that a misunderstanding has arisen that the Valley Lines electrification will be directly funded by the UK government but that was never the case."

In his letter, David Cameron says that while the UK government provides indirect financial backing to Network Rail, he does not state that the UK government will pay for the cost in the Valleys, totalling hundreds of millions of pounds.

It seem that Labour's case is based on some interviews conducted iwth David Cameron in which he was very quick to claim the credit for the electrification going ahead with some typically imprecise language as we would normally get in that sort of discussion.

However, the meat of the deal is in the exchange of letters between the two governments, which details what exactly Carwyn Jones and his administration have signed up to and which they are now seeking to back out of. The rest is second-rate political rhetoric on the part of Labour politicians.

In the urgent question to the Transport Minister on Tuesday, opposition politicians set out the terms of the deal the Welsh Labour Government agreed to in more detail. Byron Davies for the Conservatives told her:

In light of the confusion that seems to exist on the part of the First Minister concerning rail electrification to Swansea, I will refer to the relevant correspondence, if I may, which was made between Carl Sargeant and Justine Greening. On 13 July 2012, in a letter to Carl Sargeant, Justine Greening said,

The next Wales and Borders franchise specification should include electric services on the Valleys lines, with a specific access charge on the franchise to repay the infrastructure investment by Network Rail...This will include electrification of the main line between Cardiff and Bridgend. On that basis, I will include electrification between Bridgend and Swansea’.

Carl Sargeant responded by saying, 'Thank you for your letter of 13 July. I too am glad we were able to work together to agree a way of taking forward electrification and I can confirm our agreement as set out in your letter’

Welsh Liberal Democrats Spokesperson, Eluned Parrott added more detail:

Minister, it seems to me that, actually, the deal is quite clear. It says in the letter of agreement that the two Governments agreed that the funding mechanism was that Network Rail would borrow the money and that a fee would be payable on the franchise. Your own business case says that:

'Welsh Government is responsible for the management of the Franchise under the terms of a Joint Parties’ Agreement with the Department for Transport. Welsh Government is also responsible for payment of any sums payable by the ‘Authority’ under the Franchise Agreement.’

That is in section 5.8, ‘Summary of Commercial Case’, page 50 of the Welsh Government’s business case. It also states in section 7.2 that the Welsh Government is the sponsor of Valleys lines electrification

Why is it suddenly a surprise to you when it was there in black and white in the business case that you wrote and the letters of offers that you exchanged between the two Governments that there might be a cost to the Welsh Government? It is as plain as the nose on your face.

Now, Adrian Masters from ITV Wales has added more detail as a result of an interview with the Secretary of State for Wales:

I've seen correspondence between officials in Cardiff and Whitehall from March 2013 which includes a paragraph which clearly states that the Welsh Government 'will pay for the full cost of the work.' It states that 'the Department for Transport will cover the costs in CP5 ' (a budgeting term referring to 2014-19) but that the DfT 'will get this back from WG (Welsh Government) from CP6 (2019-24) onwards.'

I gather the correspondence between officials continued and that that 'side agreement' was finalised and also documented. It adds to other correspondence which has been released in the last week which strongly suggests that there was a formal deal in which the Welsh Government agreed to meet the cost of electrifying the Valley Lines.

That's certainly what Welsh Secretary David Jones believes and it's why he told me he expects Carwyn Jones' government to stick to its deal.

The evidence then is that it is the Welsh Labour Government who are dissembling. They are playing politics with an important and substantial investment and putting the future of the Valleys in doubt. They are letting down South Wales.

Friday, March 21, 2014

In defence of Ann Clwyd

The extraordinary attack by the First Minister on the Labour MP for Cynon Valley, Ann Clwyd in last Tuesday's Plenary session of the Welsh Assembly was covered by the Times, who highlight some of the wider concerns about the health service here.

The paper also report that it has emerged that the head of the Welsh health watchdog has raised concerns about her own inspectorate’s ability to pick up on a scandal like that at Stafford Hospital. Kate Chamberlain, the chief executive of Health Inspectorate Wales, told the health committee that she could not give “assurance” that it would detect a serious breakdown in healthcare and that it “cannot possibly be everywhere”.

Ann Clwyd, who is a former chairwoman of the parliamentary Labour Party and who led a review of the English hospital complaints system last year, has repeatedly said that she has sent considerable evidence of “widespread concerns” about the Welsh NHS to ministers along with hundreds of letters from patients:

“I am, however, upset by the irrelevant and casual reference to my husband’s case in political and professional circles. My complaint on this issue is still under way and has not yet been resolved,” she said. “I would far rather the Assembly concentrate on resolving the current crisis in the NHS in Wales than attacking me personally.”

As Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, Kirsty Williams told the paper, Ann Clwyd has every right to raise these issues and to be taken seriously:

“Again we see the First Minister point the finger at everyone else rather than accept failings by his own Welsh Labour Government,” she said. “Sir Bruce Keogh, Chief Medical Officer for England, was alarmed at data shared with him by Ann Clywd about the Welsh NHS. She has every right to voice her concerns about healthcare in Wales.”

It seems that the First Minister prefers to attack the messenger instead of taking her message seriously.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On Ulysses the ginger cat and film star

I had tickets to go and see the film Inside Llewyn Davis but unfortunately had to cry off due to attending a question and answer session with young people sponsored by Mencap. It was a worthwhile diversion and can catch the film another day, but would not want to miss this opportunity to highlight the film's real star, Ulysses, who is a ginger cat.

The trailers I have seen for this film indicate that it has an annoying thread of mispronouncing the leading character's name as 'Loowin' when any self-respecting Welsh person knows differently. But back to the cat.

One website reveals that Ulysses was in fact played by three separate cats:  As Joel Coen explained at the Cannes Film Festival last May, “The film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.” Maybe the Cannes jury members were cat lovers; they awarded the film the festival’s 2013 Grand Prix prize.

The person responsible for helping the Coens get shots of their talented but hapless hero dealing with a tabby prone to barrelling down fire escapes, breaking free in subway cars, running down city streets, and becoming Llewyn’s mate on a road trip (during which Roland Turner, a surly jazz musician played by John Goodman, lobs putdowns), was veteran animal trainer Dawn Barkan. You know her work: Her credits include Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Runaway Bride, and Snow Dogs, and she’s the trainer — please don’t call her a “wrangler” (that’s for sheep and cows) — responsible for Mr. Jinx being able to use the toilet in Meet the Parents.

It would seem like the stunts for this film would be simpler than potty-training. But in an interview with Vulture, Barkan says that elements of this job, her first time working with the Coens, were among her most challenging. “Much of what was scripted is a scary thing for a cat,” she says. “[But the Coens have] worked with animals in just about every film they’ve done, so they had an idea of what it takes.”

Another website reveals that  Ulysses is now tipped to follow in the footsteps of Uggie the dog, who starred in the Oscar-winning The Artist two years ago, without realising that he is actually three cats embodied in one:

Timberlake, who plays folk singer Jim in the critically-acclaimed film, added: “He had a large rider request. Of cat food and litter.”

The star of the film, Oscar Isaac, disclosed the animal had also proved something of a diva on set, once scratching him in the face.

“That’s what happens when you tie a cat to you and run into a subway,” he added.

It sounds as if he got off lightly.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Scottish Labour score an own goal on behalf of their Welsh colleagues

One of the problems of devolution is that you are not in control of your own destiny on a wide range of issues. That is particularly the case in Wales where our legislative powers are limited and we are still arguing about funding formulas and tax.

In these circumstances it is wise to temper one's critcism of the UK Government, just in case one's own party should take a similar stance at a UK level and completely undermine one's position.

With a few exceptions, Welsh Labour have not taken this advice. They have been quite partisan on reforming the Barnett formula, despite failing to do so themselves when in Government.

Meanwhile the UK Labour Party have been remarkably quiet, failing to commit themselves to back the Welsh Party's policy position. That has not stopped the Scottish Labour Party moving to undermine Carwyn Jones and his Government.

As John Osmond on the IWA blog reports the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has just announced that she wants to keep the Barnett formula as the funding mechanism for public services in Scotland:

It has been noticeable that although Labour in Wales are committed to replacing the Barnett formula with a needs-based assessment, no such commitment has come from the top of the Labour Party – Ed Balls or Ed Miliband. One reason Wales is disadvantaged is that, over time, funding increases as a result of the formula tend to bring Welsh spending into line with the average across the UK – the so-called Barnett squeeze. This has not happened in recent years because funding has either been cut or stood still. The only commitment on Barnett has been to revisit the formula in the event of higher future spending re-introducing the squeeze.

Because Scottish Labour have dug their heels in on this issue Carwyn Jones and his government have been left out on a limb. In truth it is a situation that every other UK party finds itself in as well, this means though that Labour can no longer pretend they are different.

Reforming the Barnett formula has effectively been taken off the table for some time. If Wales wants fair funding now then we may be left only with political fixes of the kind that gave Scotland their fiscal advantage in the first place.

We might have to find a way to get more money to Cardiff Bay without taking it off the Scots because that is the only way we will be able to get it through Westminster, where Scottish politicians and the Scottish political situation hold all the cards.

The manifestos of all the UK political parties will make for very interesting reading in a year's time.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fallout from Welsh Tory split continues

Today's Western Mail reports that Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies could be facing a further damaging challenge to his authority as it emerged that moves are being made to seriously dilute his responsibility over policy.

They say that senior party sources have told them that serious consideration is being given to a system whereby the leadership will need to gain approval from the party membership, or the Welsh party’s management board, before policies were formally adopted.

They add that Mr Davies is understood to be have been told to bring the four sacked Members – Monmouth AM and former Business and Enterprise Committee chairman Nick Ramsay, North Wales AM Antoinette Sandbach, Aberconwy AM Janet Finch-Saunders and South Wales East AM Mohammad Asghar – back into the Shadow Cabinet, in similar positions to those they had before, before the Welsh Tory party conference next month.

This is of course an interesting development concerning a Welsh Tory group that remains badly split, with official complaints being made by one member against another. However, it does raise a more fundamental question: what sort of political party allows its leader to set policy without reference to the membership?

That sort of arrangement seems to me to be more dictatorial than democratic. If members have not questioned the set-up before then, why not?  Clearly, there is need for some glasnost within the Welsh Conservative party.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lifting the curtain on the lobbyist

The Telegraph carries an interesting review of a new book that seeks to lift the veil on the murky world of lobbying.

A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell argues that there is an imbalance between the parent who wants a lollipop lady at the school gates and the chieftains of the £2 billion “influence industry” who use their contacts to advance the interests of profit-hungry corporations.

The book argues that our choice of food and drink, our wars, our energy security and the future of a warming planet are all being manipulated to a greater or lesser extent by influencers operating far below the radar:

Still, politicians, as Cave and Rowell suggest, are hopeless at stamping out improper lobbying – not least because lobbying is what politicians do after (or even during) their parliamentary careers. Both the Tories and Labour have a substantial roll call of those who regard themselves (explicitly, in the case of one former minister) as “cabs for hire”, ready to pull strings for those who pay for leverage.

This spider’s web of collusion is impossible for the general public to unravel. As the authors point out, the Lobbying Bill currently before Parliament falls woefully short of transparency. Who, then, is to shine a light on the murky ways of lobbyists? Cave and Rowell provide some useful examples, but their account is short on depth and detail. Partly, the problem is the ambitious task they have set themselves. The pharmaceutical industry alone would merit a book of exploration, as would the petroleum multinationals, the nuclear lobby and the other giants this text seeks to slay.

There are some good hits, as well as familiar stories, such as Shell’s record in the Niger Delta, which certainly bear repeating. If the book posits a Manichean world in which the struggle of good versus bad sometimes leaves little room for nuance, that is the fault and virtue of all polemics.

The paper takes issue with the portrayal of the media, which they say is superficial. They argue that if lobbying is to become more transparent, the awkward, contrarian British media is far more likely to be a solution than a problem. They would say that wouldn't they?

The fact is that for all the allegedly forensic scrutiny of the fourth estate, they have been no more successful at controlling the lobbying industry than the politicians. The book should be worth a read.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The case for HS2

For those of us who support the concept of a high speed rail link between London and the north of England, Vince Cable's plea in today's Independent to speed up the implementation of HS2 makes a great deal of sense.

The paper reports that the Secretary of State for Business believes that there is a compelling case for bringing the project forward:

Mr Cable, Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, told The Observer: “Creating jobs outside London, and closing the gap between north and south, has been one of this Government's top priorities.

“On every visit I make to the north of England, I've heard businesses and council leaders make a compelling case for getting to the north more quickly by accelerating parts of the HS2 build."

He added: “That would ensure the economic benefits can be shared sooner by everyone around the country and deserves serious consideration by government."

A report from HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins will be published on Monday and is expected to outline his plan for an accelerated construction timetable while reducing the cost of the £50 billion infrastructure project.

The paper says that Sir David will issue an appeal to the main political parties to unite behind the scheme and is expected to recommend a completely new station at Euston - the site for the line's London terminus.

He is also expected to recommend scrapping plans to link HS2 with HS1, the London to Kent coast Channel Tunnel high-speed line.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tony Benn meets Ali G

As a sort of tribute to Tomy Benn, here he is taking on and prevailing against Ali G:

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sacking of former PO raises wider questions

Every political party needs discipline. some though exercise it more liberally than others and not always appropriately.

In many ways the Plaid Cymru leader had little choice in taking action against Dafydd Elis Thomas as he topped off a nightmare party conference weekend for her by directly and publicly contradicting a key part of her speech. However, the Plaid Cymru peer does have a valid point in arguing that |Assembly committee chairs should have an element of protection from such considerations to enable them to do their job.

In previous Assemblies we have seen members removed from commitees by the ruling party or parties so as to prevent them scrutinising too closely specific items of legislation.

In this Assembly, Labour moved committee chairs around to preempt a rebellion on the social services bill over smacking children, the Tories sacked their committee chair because he abstained in a key vote and now Plaid Cymru have removed Dafydd Elis Thomas as Chair of the Sustainability Committee for internal party reasons.

On the BBC, Lord Elis Thomas says that the current system where committee chairs are nominated by the political parties undermines the system's independence:

He said he would consider over the weekend challenging a motion to replace him as chair of the environment committee.

"It would give us an opportunity to raise the issue in public and explain to the people of Wales that AMs are more gagged and have less of a democratic scrutiny within their party system than happens even in Westminster," he said.

His remarks have attracted support from others. The Labour AM for Pontypridd, Mick Antoniw said the committees needed to be "independent of political party influence" and that Plaid Cymru's decision to remove Lord Elis-Thomas as chair was damaging to the committee.

Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach agreed that "it should not be in the gift of political parties to choose committee chairs".

The North Wales representative added the assembly had "lessons to learn here from Westminster" where committee chairs were elected by backbenchers.

Ms Sandbach said Lord Elis-Thomas's years of knowledge gathered as chairman had been lost and was not "easily replaceable".

"Politically, I didn't always see eye-to-eye with Dafydd Elis-Thomas but I do think he has been a good chair," she said.

Liberal Democrat AM William Powell said he was disappointed with Plaid Cymru's decision to try and remove him as chair adding that Lord Elis-Thomas was a "distinguished, fiercely independent" chair of the committee.

I agree with them but find it difficult to see how any system can be completely immune from party political considerations. Part of the problem is the size of the Assembly and the party groups, which means that members often combine the role of chair with a spokespersonship. In other words they cannot remain above the party political fray in the same way as they do at Westminster.

In media terms too, Wales is a very small place and dissent of any kind attracts disproportionate attention, putting party leaders in a difficult position.

And of course it is very easy to criticise the dsciplinary actions of other parties, not so straightforward when it is your own leader calling the shots.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A matter of poor judgement

Today's Western Mail reports on the continuing saga of Wales' poor English Language GCSE results. The paper presents a dossier of evidence compiled by headteachers at more than 100 schools evidencing the impact of the new marking system on pupils and teachers..

They say that headteachers’ union ASCL Cymru have reported that schools across Wales are “at a loss” as to what to do after a sudden and unexplained dip in January’s GCSE English language grades, which had left experienced staff questioning their ability to teach.

The union says that results published last week put at risk confidence in Wales’ exams system and warned that parents’ “faith in teachers’ professionalism” was being eroded after wild variations in pupil performance:
It said pupils and teachers had been left in tears by their GCSE English language results - and some schools had employed tactics normally associated with pupil bereavement to soften the blow.

The union has taken representation from more than 100 secondary schools, which includes four independent schools and others deemed by education watchdog Estyn to be “sector-leading”.

One headteacher said they were “deeply concerned” after their school’s A*-C pass rate fell woefully short of expectations, from a predicted 56% to just 31%.

They said recent developments had made forward-planning “impossible” and called for a swift resolution to a problem that threatens to spiral out of control.

They added: “As someone with long experience examining with the WJEC (exam board), I am greatly concerned that the system is now becoming increasingly unreliable. I have already been asked for predictions about the summer and this is an impossible task.

What is most bizarre however is the aggressive and ill-judged response of the education minister to theses concerns, in particular a letter sent to him and endorsed by all Rhondda Cynon Taf’s 19 secondary schools, which suggested parents and pupils are “gradually losing faith in a once-reliable examination system”. The letter calls on the Welsh Government to allow pupils to re-sit the English language exam in the summer free of charge.

The Minister has responded by accusing the contributors of “reckless scare-mongering” and claimed the impact of adverse grades was “not severe across all schools”. He added: “I refuse to jump to conclusions. What I am focussing on is hard evidence, not hearsay and rumour.”

In contrast it seems that the person jumping to conclusions here is the Minister. These are professionals expressing genuine and evidenced concerns. To dismiss their letter so strongly and in such terms shows poor political judgement and a crass disregard for the review process he has set in place, which he appears to have pre-empted.

If the education minister is incapable of listening to teachers in a respectful manner then he is clearly in the wrong job.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Another nail in the Scottish independence case

The continuing controversy over the increasingly unsustainable independence proposals being put forward by the SNP Government in Scotland have been set alight again today with an unlikely intervention from one of the World's leading businessmen, George Soros.

The Telegraph reports that Mr. Soros believes that Alex Salmond's proposal for an independent Scotland to share the pound is impossible. He has also warned that starting a new currency would be "potentially dangerous" as speculators would sense weakness and launch attacks.

The paper suggests that his comments undermine the leading currency options for an independent Scotland, raising the possibility of the country joining the Euro after a Yes vote in the Sept 18 referendum:

The First Minister insists that Scotland will keep the pound in a currency union after independence, adding that Westminster will agree to the deal because it is in the best interests of British business.

However George Osborne, the Chancellor, and his opposite numbers in Labour and the Liberal Democrats have categorically ruled out formally sharing the pound because it would be unstable economically and unpalatable to the electorate.

Mr Soros appeared to endorse the latter position on Wednesday during an appearance at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

He said: "Scotland wants to remain a part of the [pound] sterling and Britain is creating obstructions to that. It would be a very difficult relationship and I don't think that Scotland becoming independent and yet remaining part of the sterling is actually possible."

The 83-year-old also said creating a new currency would be "very inefficient and potentially dangerous" because its weakness could trigger attacks on the open market.

His comments suggest three of the four currency options for an independent Scotland - joining a currency union, staring a new currency or keeping the pound unilaterally - could not work economically.

That would leave Scotland having to adopt the Euro - a reality that could face public opposition given the financial meltdown that swept through the eurozone in recent years.

Coming from a world leading expert on currency these are views that need to bee taken very seriously.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

UKIP and its more than mildly eccentric membership

Today's Times spills the beans on the UKIP candidate approval process and the test that has failed to help the party weed out the more extreme 'fruitcakes' as the paper describes them.

They say that the company that ran a “fruitcake test” for Ukip has said that its psychometric assessment is not an appropriate tool for selecting political candidates:

The Times has obtained details of the questions that were put to people applying to be MEPs to try to “weed out the Walter Mittys”, as Nigel Farage has put it. Designed to assess emotional intelligence, candidates were asked to rate themselves on a scale of one to five on statements such as: “I generally hope for the best”; “I find it difficult to describe my feelings”; and “I would describe myself as a calm person.”

Martin Reed, chief executive of Thomas International, said that the company had no idea that the test it designed would be used to choose parliamentary candidates. “It would generally be used as a coaching and development tool,” he said. “It’s not a black and white process.”

One councillor who applied to be an MEP was rejected on the basis of the test, which was used as part of a wider assessment process by the party. However, he later discovered that he had scored 99 per cent overall, with high marks for empathy, well-being, independence and optimism. He believes that he was a victim of a “stitch-up” by Mr Farage.

A friend in the party told him that he was clearly “too sane to be a Ukip MEP”.

My favourte part of the article however is at the end in which the paper outlines some of the more embarrassing highlights of the party's investment in its members. It is worth quoting at length:

There is still scope for embarrassment, though. The bestselling children’s writer G. P. Taylor — author of the Shadowmancer series — joined Ukip, giving money and standing as a councillor, but left last year because he felt uncomfortable with the members. “I met quite a few and I decided they weren’t the type of people I wanted to be around,” he said. “There was one guy who looked like a character in ’Allo ’Allo!, with a trilby and a leather coat.

“There were some very odd people in the Ukip fold — a couple of conspiracy theorists, others who were saying things which I felt were verging on racist and misogynistic. I decided I didn’t want to be involved.”

Last week Donna Edmunds, a Ukip councillor who is standing for the European Parliament, was criticised after claiming that businesses should be allowed to refuse service to women, gay or black people. There was controversy over the party’s former Commonwealth spokesman, who had been jailed for his role in a kidnapping gang in Pakistan. A prospective MEP, Shneur Odze, refused to shake women’s hands, claiming that his Orthodox Judaism forbade contact with women other than his wife.

Pearlette Hopkins, who is standing as a councillor in Bristol, arrived from Jamaica in 2001 and is now a UK resident but has yet to become a citizen. “It’s so expensive to become one,” she says.
She resents the fact she cannot bring her two children and three grandchildren to this country. “It’s impossible for them to come over here now. There are too many other immigrants and they wouldn’t be able to work or get benefits unlike the Eastern Europeans. It’s unfair for Britain to turn its back on the Commonwealth like this,” she says. “I love Britain but the schools are shocking and they speak so many languages here now, you barely realise you are in Britain any more.”

David Silvester, the Ukip councillor from Henley who was suspended from the party after claiming that the floods were a punishment from God, has been asked to reapply for membership. “I don’t regret what I said at all,” he said. “I believe God is behind all the weather, the Old Testament makes that absolutely clear. I’ve had letters and e-mails of support from several hundred people and quite large numbers of them are Ukip members.”

He thinks other punishments may be meted out from on high: “This nation has got a lot to answer for — abortion, for example. Since 1967, we have killed more foetuses than Jews were killed by the Nazis.”

As it expands to fill the “protest party” vacuum left by the Lib Dems, Ukip seems happy to welcome individuals shunned by other parties. One activist at the spring conference, who would not give his name, said: “I was a teacher and I was sacked for swearing and touching a child but I didn’t do it. Ukip are the only ones who have supported me. They recognise that this PC gone mad is hounding good people out of jobs.”

The party has also accepted money from donors who would set alarm bells ringing elsewhere. Demetri Marchessini, a Greek businessman who has donated at least £10,000 to Ukip, describes homosexuality as “immoral” and insists that women should never wear trousers. “It says in the Bible that anyone who wears the clothes of the opposite sex is an abomination,” he told us. “For thousands of years it was a crime. In any case women look terrible in trousers . . . maybe Audrey Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich could wear them but most women can’t.”

He said that he had photographed many women “from the rear” to prove his theory. “Women no longer dress to please men or even just to look nice.”

He said that sexual harassment allegations were also “absurd”. “How can you have sexual harassment if men and women are equal? If someone touches your leg, you ask them to move their hand.” He also criticised working mothers, saying that they should stay at home for their children.

Then he suggested lunch, saying: “The Ritz is always safe for ladies.”

To use a fairly hackneyed phrase, you could not make it up.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Fatal Attraction and the 'bunny boiler' that nearly wasn't.

Today's Guardian contains a fascinating retrospective on the 1980s classic film Fatal Attraction by the film's author James Dearden, and why the stage version portrays the Glenn Close character more favourably.

His piece contains the important revelation that things could have been so much different:

The movie actually spawned an expression, "bunny-boiler", to describe a certain kind of vengeful, unhinged female. This has since gone into the lexicon – a dubious honour, but an honour nonetheless, I suppose. In fact, I originally wanted Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close, to grill the unfortunate rabbit on a rotisserie. Somehow, I don't think "bunny-broiler" has quite the same ring.

Mr. Dearden reveals that Glenn Close strongly resisted the rewrite, brought on by test screenings, in which her character is 'blown-away' in the bathroom of the family home. It was an ending that generated $300m for the film worldwide.

It appears that this injustice, meted out to 'a lonely and desperate woman', may well be put right on stage.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Top five political Twitter gaffes

Picking up on David Cameron accidentally starting a meme on Wednesday when when he tweeted a picture of himself looking extremely serious on the phone to Barack Obama, the Guardian features the top five political twitter gaffes.

Amongst those tweets are Ed Balls now infamous tweeting of his name that has led to the creation of an Ed Balls Day and George Osborne posting a picture of himself scoffing a late-night takeaway the day before the comprehensive spending review. Except that it soon transpired his burger wasn’t from some any old takeaway, it was actually a posh burger from upmarket chain Byron Burger.

And then there is Conservative MP, Aiden Burley wildly misjudging the national mood during the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, tweeting: “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?”:

In a subsequent tweet, he added: “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multicultural crap.” Not the best move while the rest of Twitter was going wild for Danny Boyle’s celebration of all things British. Burley told the BBC the tweets had been misunderstood.

Typos are par for the course on Twitter, of course. Except when the leader of the opposition makes a rather unfortunate one after the death of a high-profile figure. Ed Miliband made his mistake in an attempt to express sadness at the death of gameshow host Bob Holness, of Blockbusters fame.

“Sad to hear Bob Holness has died. A generation will remember him fondly from Blackbusters,” read the hastily-deleted tweet. It didn’t help Miliband had only just given Diane Abbott a right telling off for her own social media mishap.

i am sure there will be more in due course.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

More UKIP madness

Just when I thought UKIP could not get any more extreme, this report in one of our valuable local newspapers crosses my path.

The Argus reports the views of Donna Edmunds, a Lewes district councillor and MEP candidate for the South East, that business owners should be allowed to refuse to serve women and gay people:

Responding to a post on an internet forum Coun Edmunds said they should be allowed to refuse service, including because a customer is gay or a woman.

She had been asked to state whether she supported remarks by Henley-on-Thames UKIP councillor David Silvester who said the floods this winter had been caused by the Government’s support for gay marriage.

After saying she did not agree with her party colleague, she added: “I believe that all business owners, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight, should be allowed to withhold their services from whomever that choose whenever they choose.

“It’s their business. Why should they be forced to serve or sell to anyone?”
When asked by The Argus to clarify her statement the EU election hopeful said it would be ok for a shop owner to refuse to serve her based on no other fact than she was a woman, or if service was refused to a gay person.

She said: “I’m a libertarian so I don’t think the state should have a role on who business owners serve.

“I wouldn’t refuse to serve gay people. I’m not saying their position is a correct one. I’m saying they should be free to make that choice themselves.”

When in a hole, stop digging.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Going overboard on national identity

It is not often that I quote the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales favourably on this blog but his response to comments by a Plaid Cymru MP about the Welsh rugby captain are spot on.

As the BBC report, Jonathan Edwards, who is Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr tweeted a question asking how Sam Warburton could captain the Wales rugby team if he considered himself British?

Warburton had said that when he was on tour with the British Lions and he was asked about his nationality he replied that he was British. The Western Mail picks up the story:

Warburton's comment was made at a press conference where he was asked about the level of hostility between the Wales and England teams in advance of Sunday's clash at Twickenham.

Asked to respond to England wing Jack Nowell's remark that "we're going out to play against a team that hate you", Warburton insisted: "We don't hate them".

Warburton said: "Both my parents were born in England so I can't think that way at all. I think people make a bigger thing out of it. All the lads went on the Lions tour and got on well with the English boys. If someone asked me my nationality [on that tour] I'd say British."

Mr Edwards, the Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, tweeted: "I really find it difficult to understand how someone who does not consider themselves to be Welsh can be captain of the national rugby side."

In a further tweet, the MP added: "Justin Tipuric is a far better player anyway."

Shadow Welsh secretary, Owen Smith was quite right to respond by commending Sam Warburton for simply telling the truth about the proud, shared identities he has, as a Welshman and a British citizen:

"One thing we can all agree on is that Sam is a great player and we're all hoping for a Welsh win on Sunday”

"And I equally condemn Plaid Cymru for daring to challenge Sam's role as captain of Wales in light of his feeling of belonging to both Wales and the wider UK.

"I feel exactly as Sam does, as do millions of Welshmen and women in Wales and across the World.

"And anyone who has seen Sam play, both as captain of Wales and as captain of the British Lions, can be in no doubt about the commitment and the passion with which he pulls on either shirt."

There is no room in twenty first century Wales for the narrow-minded nationalism and politics of identity evidenced by Jonathan Edwards comments. Questioning the purity of somebody's Welshness is a slippery slope that no mainstream political party should want to step onto.

It does not bode well either for Leanne Wood's plea today to voters of other parties to switch to Plaid Cymru in the forthcoming European elections. After all why would pro-European Liberal Democrats switch to a party that wants to isolate Wales and plunge us into a further economic depression by cuttng us off from the UK economy?

Thursday, March 06, 2014

On the Welsh health service

This morning's Western Mail reports the continued 'cold fury' of the Welsh health minister at criticism of Wales' NHS from Westminster.

Mark Drakeford has described the Conservative Party's criticism of the Welsh NHS as a “cynical” and “deliberate” attempt to “drag the reputation of the NHS in Wales through the mud”.

There is no doubt that this dispute has got very heated over the last few days, but that does not disguise the fact that there are real problems on both side of the border that respective governments need to get to grips with.

Nevertheless, one cannot get over the impression that Mr. Drakeford is protesting just a little bit too much.

I have sat through many sessions in the Senedd when Welsh Labour Ministers have attacked the coalition government's record on health in England. Did they seriously not expect UK Ministers to reciprocate?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A bad day for good news?

Given the obsession of the Tory Party with immigration and their refusal to relax regulations where it is obvious that an economic advantage can be gained, I am not surprised by this story on the BBC which suggests that aa particularly inconvenient report has beeen suppressed.

The BBC say that Downing Street has withheld publication of a cross-governmental report that suggests one potential impact of immigration is smaller than claimed.

They say that it suggests "displacement", the number of UK workers unemployed as a consequence of immigration, is well below the figure used by ministers of 23 for every 100 additional immigrants. This conclusion was considered potentially incendiary by Government spin doctors:

The work, an extension of that MAC research, estimates that the cost to existing British workers of new arrivals is much lower.

However, the figure it suggests for the displacement of British workers has not been disclosed.

Officials say the prime minister's team has prevented publication of the report, which has been ready since last year, to avoid igniting controversy.

But Downing Street sources told the BBC the report had not yet been completed and was not ready to be released.

They insisted it would be published "in due course", and the BBC's chief political correspondent Norman Smith says he understands this could be within days.

Statistics released last week suggest the government is unlikely to meet its pledge to reduce net immigration to below 100,000 people a year by 2015.

Vince Cable is no doubt feeling vindicated by this report.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Five more years?

The Independent reports today that Nick Clegg has told the Liberal Democrats to prepare for another five years in power amid new evidence that voters are warming to the idea of coalition government.

They point to a ComRes poll for The Independent, which found that 34 per cent of people believe that Britain is better off with a coalition government than if the Conservatives or Labour had won the last general election outright. That is higher than the 29 per cent figure recorded last July:

The findings are a boost for the Lib Dems. Last night, a bullish Mr Clegg announced that he is setting up a team to prepare for negotiations with other parties in the event of another hung parliament after next year’s general election. The Deputy Prime Minister insists he is not taking voters for granted but is increasingly confident his party will remain in office and that Britain is entering an era of coalition government.

A senior Lib Dem source said: “We were well prepared last time but Nick wants us to be even better prepared this time. We have every intention of returning to government after the election to anchor the country in the centre ground.”

I was in Llandudno in 1981 when David Steel told representatives to go back to their constituencies and prepare for Government. It took 30 years to realise that dream. Let's hope that Nick Clegg does not repeat that mantra at the party conference this weekend.

There is a lot of work to do to persuade voters to give Liberal Democrats the chance to return to government. Although we need to bee prepared for all eventualities we should not take get too confident yet..

Monday, March 03, 2014

The real wasted vote in the European elections

Thursday's Guardian contains an admission that should make all Euro-sceptics pause before casting their vote in May's European elections.

They quote the leader of the UK Independence party, Nigel Farage admitting on the eve of the European election campaign: "We're whistling in the wind if we think we can implement a Eurosceptic agenda from within the European parliament."

He adds "we cannot change a thing in Europe" and that while Eurosceptics could "have some fun" in the European parliament trying to block legislation, it will "not last very long".

As the paper says, Farage's forecast that sceptics will not be able to achieve anything in the European parliament after the elections raises questions as to the purpose of electing Ukip MEPs to the parliament, especially in view of the party's erratic voting record in the previous parliament.

Liberal Democrat president, Tim Farron hits the nail on the head when he says: "Ukip MEPs don't turn up for key votes that affect British jobs, they don't work for their constituents and they don't stick up for Britain. More Ukip MEPs means fewer people working hard to protect Britain's interests in Europe. Our MEPs work hard all year round to protect British jobs."

So, what is the point of UKIP? Are they really asking us to vote for them so they can go to Brussels, and draw substantial salaries and expenses just so they can have fun?  I think we all know the answer to that.

N.B. The following picture illustrates UKIPs other problem, that of retaining their MEPs. They have lost 45% of them from the UKIP group in Europe since the last European election:

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Storm in a teacup

Whilst the Labour Party was busy changing its rules yesterday, it seemed that the media had other preoccupations. Indeed, a Labour own-goal completely over-shadowed any good news coming out of their special conference.

As the Financial Times reports the Labour Party has accused Waitrose of stealing trade from small high street shops by giving a million free coffees and newspapers to its customers every week:

In its latest salvo against big business, Labour said the myWaitrose loyalty scheme was having a “stark effect” on small coffee shops and newsagents across the UK.

Andy Sawford, shadow communities minister, has written to every MP with a local Waitrose asking them to press the chain to make changes to the scheme in the “spirit of fair competition”.

Mr Sawford urged MPs of all parties to write to Mark Price, managing director of Waitrose to tell “him that his company is acting in a way that will further destroy the British high street”.

Mr Price described Labour’s claimed as “nonsense” and said Mr Salford was “completely misguided”.

As the paper says, up until  now Waitrose has been held up by politicians from all parties as the model of good capitalism. Nick Clegg has even called for a fairer “John Lewis economy” in reference to Waitrose’s parent company, which is owned by its staff.

However, Labour appears once more to have set its face against consumer choice and competition in an intervention that earns the title of the most bizarre of 2014 so far.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

English badger cull teeters from farce to fiasco

Those who thought that the English badger cull could not get more farcical will have been disabused of that whimsy yesterday with the leaking of the conclusions of the Independent Expert Panel appointed by Defra to evaluate its implementation.

The Ecologist reports that the badger culls were an outright failure. They killed well under the target number of animals, and were unable to meet Defra's own 'humaneness test':

First, fewer than half of the badger population was killed in both areas over the six-week period - against the target to kill 70% of badgers in each area.

This is worse than preliminary assessments, which indicated that 58% of badgers had been killed in the Somerset area, and 30% in the Gloucestershire area. The IEP used a more precise methodology, accounting for the discrepancy in the figures.

Research by Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London carried out in the 1990s showed that if the target to kill 70% of badgers in six weeks was not achieved, the spread of bovine TB (BTB) - which the badger culls are intended to reduce - could actually be increased as infected badgers moved into new areas.

Up to 18% of badgers took over 5 minutes to die

The trial culls also failed to meet the principal humaneness criterion set by Defra, which is for no more than 5% of badgers to take more than five minutes to die. Depending on the assumptions made, the IEP found that between 6.4% and 18% of shot badgers exceeded the 5-minute time limit. It also found a "wide variation in the effectiveness and humaneness" of the contractors engaged to kill the badgers.

Professor Woodroffe told the BBC's Phallab Ghosh that the panel's findings "show unequivocally that the culls were not effective and that they failed to meet the humaneness criteria. I hope this will lead to the Secretary of State (Owen Patterson) to focus on other ways of eradicating TB in cattle."

The cull, she added, "has cost a fortune and probably contributed nothing in terms of disease control, which is really unfortunate."

So the cull actually increased the incidence of bTB and proved to be a particularly cruel and inhumane way to kill badgers, many of which suffered despite Ministers' assurances to the contrary.

What makes this farce even worse is that UK Ministers are ignoring all these findings and are determined to press on with the experiment. Whatever happened to evidence-based policy?

After an initial hiccup Wales seems to have got it right. Would it really hurt for England to learn from us.

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