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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Labour under fire over advertisment

The Telegraph reports that Labour is facing embarrassment after businesses featured in a political advert about the risks of Britain leaving the EU distanced themselves from Labour.

They say that the party took out a full-page advert in the Financial Times featuring quotes from six of Britain's biggest business leaders warning about the risks of leaving the EU.The advert has the tag-line: "The biggest risk to British business is the threat of an EU exit. Labour will put the national interest first. We will deliver reform, not exit.”However, the quotes used in the advert were up to two years old and several of the companies quoted have raised concerns:

A spokeswoman for Siemens UK, whose chief executive is quoted in the advert, said that the Labour Party has "overstepped the line".

The spokeswoman said that the company had not been informed that a quote made by Juergen Maier, the chief executive, would be used in the advert.

She said: "They did speak to us about the quote, which is absolutely fine. The content is something he has spoken about many times.

"But we were not told it would be used in an advert. We were not given any warning. We are apolitical, we don't endorse political parties, we wouldn't have agreed to be in an advert for the Labour Party. The feeling is that they have overstepped the line."

The advert includes a quote from Jonathan Myers, the head of Kellogg's UK and EU operations, made in March last year: "The biggest short term rick to Manchester's competitiveness in the EU is a simple one. It is the risk the UK could leave it."

A source close to Kellogg's said that the company had only been contacted on Sunday as a "courtesy" by the Labour Party, and was not given the option of removing its name from the advert.

The source said "eyebrows were raised" by the advert: "Clearly we have concern with anything that goes into the public domain that would lean us to a political party. We are politically neutral.

Clearly, it is not the content that is the problem but the timing and association. You can never be too careful.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Labour borrowing under scrutiny

Labour plans to run the economy have come under scrutiny today with the revelation by the neutral Institute for Fiscal Studies that the party could still be borrowing £30 billion a year at the end of the next parliament if they were to form the next Government.

According to the Times, Paul Johnson, who is the director of the IFS, has said that Labour's plans could mean they would still be borrowing as much as £30 billion a year by 2020:

Ed Balls has vowed to stop borrowing to finance day-to-day spending, but would continue to borrow for infrastructure and other investment spending if he became chancellor.

The Conservatives have promised to end borrowing for both day-to-day spending and investment spending by 2018 and could — according to the Office for Budget Responsibility — be running a £7 billion surplus by 2020.

Mr Johnson told the BBC: “They [Labour] don’t want to get rid of the deficit altogether, they are happy to borrow to invest. They would be happy with a deficit of £25-£30 billion, whereas the Conservatives don’t want a deficit at all.”

Liberal Democrats of course, also wish to eliminate the deficit by 2018 but will do so by cutting less and taxing the rich more.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Labour try to out-UKIP Farage

We all knew that Labour are unprincipled, opportunistic and popularist but even the cynics on the interweb last night were not expecting a gaffe so dreadful that it confimed all their prejudices in spades. However, as the New Statesman says, it wasnt really a gaffe. It was a calculated and cynical manouevre designed to counter UKIP, whilst undermining the Tory USP. And that makes it even worse:

Labour has come under fire from its own activists after releasing a branded mug that promises “Controls on immigration”. The troublesome cup is being condemned as unspeakably naff at best and outright racist at worst.  The worst part is, it isn’t a gaffe.

A Labour spinner tells ITV News, not unreasonably: "Labour has five election pledges. This is one of the election pledges." To which the only response is: yes. That’s exactly the problem. Five years after Ed Miliband was elected on a promise to take Britain to the left, and three years after that this was a “centre-left moment”, the only one of Labour’s pledges that excites anyone is a pledge to "control immigration".

The case for Labour’s defence is this: large majorities of the public think that immigration is out of control. Labour’s biggest mistake according to the average voter wasn’t the war in Iraq – it was the party’s failure to manage migration. That’s why, when asked to describe New Labour’s biggest mistakes during that first debate, Miliband settled on immigration. That’s why he promises to “bear down” on immigration, and his party’s latest fundraising wheeze is to sell mugs promising illusory controls” on migration.

That’s why, privately, Labour strategists are relaxed about a few bruised feelings among lefty activists on Twitter.

Just one teeny-tiny fly in the ointment: it doesn’t seem to be working. Increasingly rancorous language about migrants and benefits has done nothing to secure Labour’s increasingly alarming position in the polls. If anyone can be said to have “won” from the party’s vituperative rhetoric, it is the surging Greens.

The big problem for Labour is that the party obviously doesn’t believe what its saying; Miliband looks uncomfortable and unhappy whenever he attacks immigration, and its actual policy – a two-year wait before any new arrival can claim benefits – won’t do anything to turn migrants away.

This is the same old Labour Party, manipulative and unprincipled. As the New Statesman says though, the problem with copying UKIP is that Labour will end up with the UKIP solutions of promising ever greater barriers on migration, and even more punitive measures for the people who make it past those barriers.

If that is what they want to do then isn't it time they came clean and said it?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Plaid Cymru launch leaves them with no USP

Yesterday's Plaid Cymru election launch was splashed across all Welsh media with their message that voters need to seize the opportunity to take the future of Wales into their own hands. However, closer inspection indicates that what is actually on offer is just Labour-lite with a dragon attached.

The promise that the nationalists will unite with the SNP and the Greens to form a negotiating bloc in the event of a hung Parliament is fair enough, but it is unlilkely that such an unstable alliance will prove attractive to anybody.

What is most bizarre about Plaid's position though is that this loose coalition of competing interests will only talk to Labour. That certainly fits in with their leftist leanings but leaves them with no leverage in forcing Ed Miliband's party to accept their demands.

More importantly, the message it sends out to voters is that Plaid Cymru is just an alternative Labour Party. If that is the case then why vote nationalist when people can choose the real thing?  It leaves Plaid Cymru strategy in a muddle and with no unique selling point.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Greenhouse gas emissions fall but is it too late?

The fall in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions was 8.4% last year due to a slump in household energy consumption a fall in the use of coal for electricity generation and policies on climate change. It shows that the Liberal Democrats green influence on government is having an impact.

The Guardian says that carbon dioxide output fell by almost a tenth, as renewable energy generation rose to a new record high, accounting for nearly a fifth of electricity. This is the biggest fall in emissions since 1990.

Environmental campaigners say that more needs to be done and they are right. The big question though is whether this improvement is too late or not? There is a case to say that the effects of climate change are already irreversible.

That is something that only time can tell.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why Prince Charles' letters had to be published

I very much welcome the decision of the Supreme Court that letters written by Prince Charles to Ministers should be published.

In essence their ruling underlines the fact that because of his position the heir to the throne cannot act as if he were a private citizen. He is not and never has been a private citizen. That much is clear from the influence he is able to exercise in Government and beyond.

More importantly, the court has also re-established the principle that an unelected person should not have undue influence on elected Government Ministers without that influence being subject to public scrutiny. To do otherwise would have subverted the basis of our constitution and the democratic will of the people.

Nor can it be argued that Ministers and civil servants would not have been influenced by his view. Consider this passage from the Times:

One hearing in 2010 was told tha​t Prince Charles had expressed his views to Harold Wilson, then prime minister, on the plight of Atlantic salmon.

Paul Richards, a former adviser to Hazel Blears, the former communities secretary, claimed that when one “black spider” letter arrived, “it was treated with great reverence and went straight to the top of the pile in the red box containing the minister’s business for the day, over and above letters from other ministers and even cabinet papers”.
Mr Richards also claimed that Charles had written to Yvette Cooper about the design of eco-towns, and complained to Ed Balls, then education secretary, over changes to the primary school syllabus.

Some of the prince’s earlier letters have also been leaked, most notably a 2002 missive to Tony Blair in which he told the then prime minister, at the height of the debate over the fox-hunting ban, that he agreed with farmers who believed they were victimised more than “blacks or gays”.

The leak prompted St James’s Palace to take the unusual step of issuing a statement defending the prince’s letter writing, saying: “The Prince of Wales … believes part of his role must be to highlight views in danger of not being heard.

“This role can only be fulfilled properly if complete confidentiality is maintained. It is not about exerting undue pressure or campaigning privately.”

I think we need to take that last statement under advisement. After all Prince Charles is not the reigning monarch, nor is he expressing view to the Prime Minister in a private hearing once a week. Instead he has been actively seeking to influence Ministers and officials at all levels over a substantial period of time.

The damage that Prince Charles could do to the independence of the Monarchy through this activity is best summed up by one of his defenders, the previous Attorney General, Dominic Grieve:

Any perception that Charles had disagreed with the government of the day, Mr Grieve argued, “would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because, if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”.

The fact is that he consistently wrote disagreeing with the government of the day, an act that was both reckless and an abuse of his position in my view.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why should we expect fairness from an unfair system?

There has been a lot of publicity today of claims by a race equality campaigner that the lack of black and Asian MPs in Wales is a "huge problem" which political parties need to take seriously.

The BBC report that none of the 10 ethnic minority candidates standing in Wales for one of the four parties with MPs at Westminster is in a seat where their party came first or second in 2010 and that no black or Asian MP has ever been elected in Wales:

The candidates from a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) background include five Lib Dems, three Conservatives, two Plaid Cymru and none from Labour. UKIP refused to provide details.

The ratio of BAME candidates - one in 16 - is slightly better than the one in 20 of the Welsh population of BAME heritage recorded by the 2011 Census

But Mr Singh said BAME candidates should be given more winnable seats.

"Wales is a multicultural, multiracial country and we need inclusiveness," he said.

This is of course hugely concerning and there is much more that we can do including training and support. I am not though in favour of quotas of any kind as people need to be selected for seats on their own merits.

The question though is why should we be surprised? Putting aside the training and support issue, we are operating within a basically unfair system in which many MPs are elected with less than 50% of those voting and outcomes do not reflect the way people vote.

A proportional system can favour independents and minorities as well as ensuring that we get the Parliament we wanted at the ballot box. After all, why would anybody expect an unfair system to produce a fair outcome?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Does the Welsh Labour Government complain too much?

If you spend long enough in the chamber of the National Assembly for Wales then you will quickly come to the conclusion that everything is the fault of the coalition government in Westminster. Well that is the refrain from Welsh Labour AMs and Ministers, week in, week out.

This piece by David Cornock on the Barnett formula then is especially interesting. He reports on his conversation with Gerry Holtham around the report written by the Cardiff-based economist for the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

Professor Holtham, who first categorically established that Wales would be treated more generously if we were funded on the basis of need rather than the population-based Barnett formula, was asked about his assessment of where Wales stands now, some years after his study was published:

He told me: "At the time we did the research it was £300 m to £400 m a year less than it would get if it were an English region getting needs-based grants. We don't know what that is now.

"Given the squeeze on public finances it's probably a smaller number, the shortfall is probably less than it was then. Even then, it was only a couple of per cent of the Welsh budget so we're probably down to one per cent of the Welsh budget."

In comments that may yet be worth recalling the next time you hear a politician use his figures, he added: "It's not going to change the world. Welsh government has to find a way forward apart from just complaining about the grant."

Given that the principle of a funding floor has now been conceded by the Treasury, perhaps it is time we established what the current situation is rather than complaining at every turn and then put in place a proper action plan to take advantage of the UK Government's revised position on this matter.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Has Alex Salmond sunk Ed Miliband in England?

It is already being billed as Alex Salmond's Sheffield rally moment, a reference to Neil Kinnock's fatal triumphalism during the 1992 General Election, but it is likely that the fallout from the former SNP Leader's speech at the weekend will damage his potential allies more than his own party.

The Times reports that the Scottish nationalists intend to fully exploit their power over a future Labour government by demanding billions in extra spending and the diversion of resources north of the border as well as another referendum on independence:

The former first minister, who is running for a Westminster seat and is set to play a key role in any power- sharing talks, suggested that even a very loose agreement to back Labour on a vote-by-vote basis would hand the SNP the chance to amend Mr Miliband’s spending plans. It means the Labour leader will come under pressure to explain how he would stop the SNP from ambushing the budget when he gives a speech in Clydebank today.

Already, the Tories have unveiled a cartoon showing Mr Salmond playing a pipe, while Mr Miliband dances. The accompanying video claims that a “deal with the SNP now seems to be Ed Miliband’s only route to power”, and that its popular former leader would be able to “call the tune”.

This is going to damage Labour in England, and possibly Wales as well. Having survived one constitutional crisis, voters outside Scotland will not want Labour to precipitate another through a confidence and supply deal with the SNP. The Tories are going to exploit this for all it is worth.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Labour's secret hedge fund donor exposes Miliband hypocrisy

We are all used to the Labour mantra about the Tories being a party of the rich, for the rich, funded by the rich. It seems though that Ed Miliband's party is not much different. Appoarently, Martin Taylor, who is a multi-million pound hedge fund manager, has given Labour nearly £600,000 since 2012 and has had at least one meeting with leader Ed Miliband.

So why has the Labour leader handed his opponents a free hit? The Independent has all the damning quotes:

"This is the difference: this is a PM who won’t tackle tax avoidance for the simple reason that too many of his friends would get caught in the net. They’re the party of Mayfair hedge funds and Monaco tax avoiders."

•Ed Miliband, Hansard, co.267, 4 February 2015

“If the Prime Minister wants to talk about party funding, let us talk about a party bought and sold by the hedge funds and a man who appointed a self-declared tax avoider as his treasurer."

•Ed Miliband, Hansard, co.267, 25 February 2015

“The current [Tory] leadership have become the political wing of offshore hedge funds."

•Ed Miliband, Western Morning News, 7 February 2015

More than a little embarrassing for a party purporting to represent working people.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Coalition or bust?

The BBC report that Liberal leader Lord Steel has said he doubts Liberal Democrat members will want to be part of a coalition after May's general election.

They add that he believes that "the most" Lib Dems will accept in another hung parliament is a confidence and supply deal - where policies are agreed on a case-by-case basis, rather than a formal coalition.

In the first statement David Steel has hit heights he rarely achieved when leader, understanding the feelings of most grass roots members. However, a confidence and supply arrangement would be the worst of all worlds - all the blame with little influence and no responsibility.

It would be better to go back into opposition than support a government from the backbenches.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Does Wales lack economic ambition?

A new report from economist, Gerry Holtham has concluded that there is "little evidence" that devolution has had much effect on the Welsh economy. According to the BBC, Mr. Holtham believes that Wales needs to be more ambitious economically if it is to catch up with our neighbours on the other side of Offa's Dyke.

He has found that the value of the goods and services from Wales was 72.4% of the UK average in 1999 and 72.2% 13 years later:

The report has been produced for the think-tank, the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA), where Prof Holtham - a former Welsh government adviser - is chairman of its economy group.

"Surely it is time for the country to take a clear-eyed look at how ambitious it wants to be for its economic future and what sort of changes would be required to achieve its ambitions," he said.

Wales needs to grow as fast as eastern Europe in the post-Soviet era to catch up but that needs a "marked shift in approach" to have any chance, says the report.

It was at 72.2% of UK gross value added (GVA) per head in 2013/14, the latest available figure.

GVA is the value of wages and profits from goods and services produced.

If Wales continues to maintain growth at 2% a year, it would be only be at 79% of the UK average in 20 years' time.

To reach the old 90% target, which the reports says was dropped and not replaced, Wales would have to increase GDP per head by at least 4% a year and it would take an "economic miracle," compared to post-war France and Italy.

Many people will be content to blame the UK Coalition Government for this, but the fact remains that this is not a phenomenon of the last five years, it is a rut we have been stuck in for a decade or more, and despite substantial investment from European structural funds.

Wales needs to run faster than the UK as a whole if it is to catch up, but Welsh Government policies have failed to achieve this rate of growth. We are still too dependent on the public sector and failing to benefit from innovation, as is evidenced by how few patents are registered by our universities to be turned into high value jobs and businesses.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Bridging the divide

Amongst the good news in yesterday's budget there was an important announcement for Wales. The UK Government plan to cut the tolls on the Severn Bridge shortly after they take control of the crossing from the private company currently running it.

As welcome as this news is the Liberal Democrats want to go further. We want to abolish the tolls altogether and in doing secure a massive economic boost for local businesses.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Tidal lagoon project takes a step forward

The announcement that the UK Government is to enter into detailed negotiations on turning the Swansea tidal lagoon into reality is good news for Swansea and South Wales.

Apparently, the Tidal Lagoon Power company will be offered the chance to discuss subsidies for the project. This opening of negotiations on the contract is a major win for the Liberal Democrats Energy Secretary, Ed Davey MP, who has been a keen supporter of the lagoon.

The lagoon still needs to get through a current assessment by the Planning Inspectorate of course but if a strike rate and planning is approved the project, which will have a design life of 120 years, will deliver renewable power equivalent to more than 155,000 homes and save the equivalent of 236,000 tonnes in carbon dioxide emissions a year.

I fully expect the lagoon to produce a huge number of local jobs and to generate millions of pounds for my region.

Liberal Democrats in Government have a proud record on renewable energy. Renewable electricity generation and investment have both more than doubled since 2010, and we are the world leader in offshore wind. The Swansea tidal lagoon will be the icing on the cake of that agenda.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Whatever happened to the colour blue?

There is an intriguing article on the UK Business Insider website about how we see the world and how radically different our view is to that of our ancestors.

The article says that until relatively recently in human history, "blue" didn't exist, not in the way we think of it:

As the delightful Radiolab episode "Colors" describes, ancient languages didn't have a word for blue — not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. And without a word for the color, there is evidence that they may not have seen it at all.

In "The Odyssey," Homer famously describes the "wine-dark sea." But why "wine-dark" and not deep blue or green?

In 1858 a scholar named William Gladstone, who later became the prime minister of Great Britain, noticed that this wasn't the only strange color description. Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet; honey is green.

So Gladstone decided to count the color references in the book. And while black is mentioned almost 200 times and white about 100, other colors are rare. Red is mentioned fewer than 15 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10. Gladstone started looking at other ancient Greek texts and noticed the same thing — there was never anything described as "blue." The word didn't even exist.

It seemed the Greeks lived in a murky and muddy world, devoid of color, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow.

Gladstone thought this was perhaps something unique to the Greeks, but a philologist named Lazarus Geiger followed up on his work and noticed this was true across cultures.

He studied Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. Of Hindu Vedic hymns, he wrote: "These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn's play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again ... but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs ... and that is that the sky is blue."

There was no blue, not in the way that we know the color — it wasn't distinguished from green or darker shades.

Geiger looked to see when "blue" started to appear in languages and found an odd pattern all over the world.

Every language first had a word for black and for white, or dark and light. The next word for a color to come into existence — in every language studied around the world — was red, the color of blood and wine.
After red, historically, yellow appears, and later, green (though in a couple of languages, yellow and green switch places). The last of these colors to appear in every language is blue.

The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians — and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.

There is much more. Well worth a read if only to put our modern world into some perspective.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sugar, sugar!

I have blogged many times about the huge amount of sugar we consume daily and the impact that has on our health and on our teeth. I have argued that if mass medicinal solutions such as adding the poison fluoride to our water supply are unnecessary and that cutting back on sugar additives would be equally as effective whilst containing other benefits.

The average person consumes 150 pounds of sugar each year, that is the equivalent of approximately seventy five one kilogram bags or 33 tablespoons each day.Today's South Wales Evening Post sets out some of the sources of that sugar.

They say that there are 6 cubes of sugar in a Dolmio Bolognese sauce and one in just a single Oreo Cookie. A can of Coca Cola has 7.5 cubes, while a tub of Ben and Jerry's Phish Food ice cream has 25.5 cubes. There are 9 cubes in a mango and 4.5 cubes in an apple:

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) no more than 10 per cent of a person's daily energy should come from free sugars - those that are added to processed foods and drinks, but also those found naturally in products like honey.

This is around 50g or 10 cubes a day.

Some of the products mentioned earlier would give someone their daily dose in one hit.
Worse still, people are advised to aim for no more than five per cent - 25g - if they want to be extra healthy.

In Western Europe the current average daily intake of free sugars is 101g (20 cubes).

The problem is, according to Sasha Watkins, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, (and a registered dietician) many people just don't expect some products to contain as much sugar as they do.

"While it may not be surprising that a can of Coca-Cola has a staggering seven cubes of sugar (35g), similar amounts can be found in the most unlikely of foods," she told the Daily Mail.

Some of the extra sugar in products has been blamed on efforts to reduce fat content. It is used to replace the taste lost by removing some of the fat.

This is an issue the government needs to get to grips with for the sake of all our health.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Labour shadow cabinet members say 'miserable Miliband' cannot win

The Sunday Times has more bad news for Ed Miliband this morning with the revelation that a third of his shadow cabinet do not believe that he can win on 7th May.

The paper says that seven senior Labour figures have privately voiced doubts that Mr. Miliband will even lead the largest party after the election on May 7. Shadow ministers said his rhetoric was too negative and failed to appeal to aspirational voters. And they warned that the potential loss of more than 20 seats in Scotland had left them staring defeat in the face:

One member of the shadow cabinet said: “I struggle to see how we beat them. Given we’re not six or seven points ahead now, a majority is out of the question. The message is too miserable. It doesn’t do what we need to do to win. Our support is very soft on the doorstep. It’s not enthusiastic enough.”

Another frontbencher said: “I think the Tories are going to win outright. They will definitely be the biggest party.”

They add that Labour MPs say the Labour party's economic message, which is directed primarily at the poorest, does not appeal to many voters in the marginal seats Miliband needs to win to form a government:

One shadow minister said: “Talking about the minimum wage and zero hours contracts works with voters in the northwest, but it doesn’t speak to aspirational voters in the Midlands. I would like it if we could just say something that surprises people. We can’t just be the party of the liberal left and the very poor.”

Another added: “The fear is if the polls are right and the Tories have opened up a bit of a lead then a well-received budget could see them go five or six points ahead — which would be enough for them to be the largest party.”

Shadow cabinet ministers are also storing up funds in case of a second election because they do not think Labour can form a stable coalition.

One said: “I had enough to fight this campaign a while ago but I’ve raised a bit more and I’m not going to spend everything. You never know, we might have to do it all over again in a few months.” Another said Labour was not doing anything to excite voters. “It is as flat as a pancake on all sides,” he said. “You struggle to find anything to get excited about.”

When Miliband is having to fight his own shadow ministers so close to the election then you know that he is in trouble.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Making money out of premium numbers

Today's Western Mail highlights a rather cheeky scam in which some online organisations have been making a fortune by directing callers to dial expensive 08 numbers when cheap or free alternatives are available.

The paper says that these firms have targeted the DVLA, Companies House, Welsh Water, the Countryside Council for Wales, First Great Western, National Debtline, housing benefit offices, and disability services.

They make their cash by charging callers through the nose to call these public bodies through premium-rate telephone numbers they themselves have set up. When the numbers are dialled they redirect to the public body and charge users a premium for doing it. One was charging £1.53 a minute to call the DVLA – meaning a 15-minute call would cost £22.95. Others don’t make their prices clear.

What is not clear is how they get away with this. Presumably, they pay to get their sites higher up google searches and pass themselves off as the real thing. It sounds like there needs to be much tighter enforcement of trade mark laws and of the way these things are promoted and marketed.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The answer is no, Mr. Bond! #seneddbond

Lots of people on social media and in the real media are getting excited about a request from the makers of the new Bond movie to film in the Senedd Chamber. Unfortunately, the Assembly refused their request, spawning a whole hasttag - #seneddbond, lots of Welsh bond film titles such as Carwyn Royale, D'hondt is not enough and On Her Majesty’s Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill, and people comparing Leighton Andrews with Blofeld. All he needs is a white cat.

BBC Wales reports the official Assembly Commission statement:  "The Senedd's Siambr [chamber] is the home of Welsh democracy and seat of government for Wales.

"Some media activity is allowed in the Siambr when it relates to the work of the assembly or reflects the Siambr's status as the focal point of Welsh civic life.

"It is not a drama studio.

"Decisions on requests from the creative industries to use the assembly's estate are made on a case by case basis, and we are proud to have collaborated with many television and film companies on drama productions such as Sherlock and Dr Who.

"The request by James Bond to use the Siambr was turned down and they were offered alternative locations on the estate which they subsequently declined."

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Labour try to suppress good news on the English NHS

The behaviour of the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru towards Kirsty Williams' proposal for a cross-party commission on the Welsh NHS tells us all we need to know about self-interest, political opportunism and partisanship.

Treating the health service as a political football at the expense of patients is not though confined to Wales. According to the Spectator even more cynical shenanigans are afoot in Westminster.

They say that Labour MPs took the extraordinary step of blocking the publication of the Health Select Committee report into the NHS because the conclusions backed up government reforms:

'I have just been handed details of this report, and it’s clear why Labour wanted it suppressed: it contradicts the party’s attack message. Here are the main points:
As far as Labour is concerned I believe that these points are known as inconvenient truths. I dont't suppose it will stop them saying the opposite on the campaign trail.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Labour peer continues to cause problems for Miliband

Ed Miliband must be wishing that Lord Mandelson could go back to Brussels. After all the former right-hand man of Tony Blair is not doing the new Labour leader any favours.

According to today's Times, Labour's former business secretary is once more publicly questioning the chances of Mr Miliband winning enough seats after the May 7 vote to get a majority. He told a Retail Week conference: "[There will] almost certainly be a stalemate hung Parliament in two months' time.":

Lord Mandelson said: "The two big parties in British politics have never polled a smaller share of the total vote as they are doing now. Why? Because people basically are unhappy with what's on offer.

They are therefore shopping around in politics in a way the large parties are ill-equipped to deal with, which will almost certainly deliver us a statemate hung Parliament in two months' time."
Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party chairman, said: "Lord Mandelson knows that Ed Miliband is a weak leader who simply isn't up to the job of being Prime Minister.

"Even Labour have acknowledged that they only way Ed Miliband will get into Downing Street is if he's carried there in Alex Salmond's pocket. That would mean chaos for Britain: more borrowing, higher taxes and weaker defences."

Presumably there will be a lot more of this sort of stuff before the General Election on 7th May.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Welsh Government policies challenged

It is a significant day for two major Government-backed projects, both of which could dramatically change the economic outlook for Wales.

Over in Ebbw Vale a public inquiry has got underway into plans to build a £325m motor racing circuit in the south Wales valleys. The eight-day hearing is examining the request to take over 250 hectares (600 acres) of common land.

This is a private sector initiative of course but it has had significant support from the Welsh Government. There are conflicting accounts from experts over claims the circuit will damage habitats and plant life by building on the common land.

Natural Resources Wales say that it is "difficult to conclude" that the replacement land is of equal value, but it is not opposing the development overall. Whilst an ecology report presented by the developers says there would be a "net gain" in biodiversity because the plans include work to enhance other habitats nearby, which the Gwent wildlife trust are arguing against.

Meanwhile, an equally significant case is underway as campaigners seek to judicially review the Welsh Government's choice of route for the M4 extension around Newport. Friends of the Earth believe that reasonable alternative routes, especially the “Blue” route proposed by leading transport expert Professor Stuart Cole, had not been properly assessed before the preferred 'Black route' was given the go-ahead.

However, business groups like the CBI say a new route for the M4 is essential to overcome persistent bottlenecks at the Brynglas tunnels. They argue that delays are damaging the Welsh economy.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats do not support the Government's chosen route for this road, believing that it is expensive and environmentally damaging. What happens in court will determine how far this particular proposal gets and whether the Assembly will get a real say in its future.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Selling the family silver

Despite the obvious point about MPs operating in a different world to the rest of us, there is something vaguely surreal about the House of Commons selling off their silver-plated cutlery because it costs too much to polish.In Twitter-World this is known as a first world problem.

The Times says that a proposal has been made to sell the silver-plated cutlery to tourists and replace it with stainless steel knives and forks, made in the Far East, which would be less likely to be stolen. In many ways this is a sign of the times.

Naturally,Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and will be well used to using it on a regular basis wants the decision overturned:

He said: “Selling off Westminster’s family silver to save a paltry £10,000 a year is taking cheeseparing to ridiculous lengths. There is a fundamental triviality about trying to save this sort of money when we are told we need to find £3 billion to restore the palace.

“Dignitaries who come here rightly expect to use silver-plated cutlery — not something one stop short of plastic forks and polystyrene cups.”

Commons catering chiefs say that a new £17,000 stainless steel set — made in Vietnam or Taiwan — would not compromise on elegance.

In a report they told MPs: “Our silver cutlery must be sent back to the manufacturer for refurbishment annually and burnished weekly (rubbed and cleaned) to maintain its finish. This process is costly, labour intensive and it is becoming more difficult to maintain the cutlery to an acceptable standard.”

The officials say it would cost £72,400 over five years to keep the silver cutlery, including £21,200 for cleaning and polishing. MPs voted to keep the portcullis logo and asked caterers to look at buying cutlery made in the UK.

You could not make it up.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Ed Miliband promises to pass a law

According to the Observer, Ed Miliband has promised that he will legislate to ensure that live television debates become permanent features of general election campaigns. In this way he hopes to prevent politicians blocking them for their own self-interest.  Something tells me that he has not thought this through.

The first question is why do Labour think that this sort of legislation is more important than laws to reform housing, the health service, tackle tax dodging or a whole range of other issues that matter to people?

The second, is does he really believe that this will win him votes? Most people will switch over to the football or Eastenders, or go to the pub. Nobody wants a government to legislate to fill their television screen with squabbling politicians.

Third is the detail. Who will he legislate to take part in these debates? Will he include the DUP, UUP, Alliance Party and Sinn Fein, all of whom have MPs but are currently excluded from broadcasters' plans? And what happens if the sitting Prime Minister refuses to play ball? Will he be thrown in prison? That is hardly the democratic, libertarian state we all live in and cherish.

This proposal is nonsense. It is transparent nonsense. And Miliband knows it is nonsense. He is making himself look foolish and self-serving. Whoever is advising him on this needs to calm down a bit.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Why the fate of the Violence against Women Bill lies in the hands of the Minister #VAW

Social media has been full of content in the last few days posted by the Welsh Government-funded Independent sector demanding that the opposition parties support the Violence against Women Bill when it comes to be voted on during Tuesday's Assembly Plenary session.

The surprise is that they are not directing their efforts at the Labour Minister in whose hands the fate of the bill really lies.

His position and that of Labour loyalists is that he has amended the bill enough for it to pass. He clearly has not amended it sufficiently to satisfy opposition parties however and should not therefore expect our automatic support.

Government policy is that if we are to tackle domestic violence effectively then we need to mainstream healthy relationship education throughout the education system. To do that we need champions at school governor level and amongst teachers at every school to train colleagues and promote and mainstream the agenda.

That was in the Welsh Government white paper on which this bill is allegedly based. It is not in the bill. Without it the bill does nothing which cannot be implemented via executive action by Ministers. It is a toothless symbol of a worthwhile and important fight, but nothing more.

The Minister has been given two opportunities to amend the bill to make it a meaningful instrument of change. He refused to listen and would not accept our amendments.

The Minister does not need to take a final vote on Wednesday, instead he can table a motion to take the bill to a further stage where he could put down amendments to give the bill teeth. He is refusing to do so.

That is why the fate of this bill lies in the Minister's hands. He can change it to get our support if he wishes. The lobbying efforts of the Welsh Government funded Independent sector should be directed at getting that outcome if they really want to save this bill and make it meaningful. I wonder why they are not doing that.

In the meantime, the opposition parties are awaiting a further communication from the Minister on how he can use the existing bill to meet our objectives and fulfil Welsh Government policy. If he can demonstrate that this is possible we will reconsider our position. The ball is entirely in the Minister's court.

Friday, March 06, 2015

A failure to listen

Whatever the merits of the Assembly Remuneration Board's propoals to hike Assembly Member's pay by £10,000 a year after the next election their timing sucks.

The pay board say that the salary hike from £54,390 to £64,000 is justified because it reflects the increased responsibility that AMs will assume and changes to the job as a result of further devolution. However, as the Welsh Liberal Democrats spokesperson says: "Such a hike in salary for Assembly Members would be unthinkable considering that other public sector workers have seen their wage packets either frozen or rising only slightly in recent years."

And surely that is the point. The Remuneration Board have shown a distinct lack of sensitivity and political nous. At a time when others are struggling on minimum pay rises, if they get one at all, a 18.5% increase for Assembly Members cannot be justified.

We have until 8th April to respond to these proposals. Maybe this time they will listen.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

An island of cats

An island in Japan where cats outnumber humans by six to one. It sounds like heaven

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Fair funding for Wales

The First Minister's response to the St David's Day agreement can best be summed up as sniffy in my view. This is particularly the case on the proposed funding floor, which has been a major objective of the Welsh Government for the last five years:

On funding, the UK Government has agreed to "introduce a floor in the level of relative funding provided to the Welsh Government". 

Without a floor, Welsh funding levels will fall further below what is needed for our front line public services. So I welcome the fact that the UK Government has – at last – recognised the need for it. 

We have been working towards implementation of a floor since the Holtham Commission recommended it in July 2009. And I know it is something other parties here in the National Assembly have supported.

But last week’s announcement was a missed opportunity. 

It provided no assurances about how a floor would work in practice, when it would commence or what it would mean in terms of public spending for Wales. 

A vague commitment to a floor of some sort at some point is just not good enough. We can only be confident that funding for Wales has been put on a fair, sustainable footing for the future when the detail is agreed. And that will be a matter for the next Government – after the General Election at the next Spending Review. 

There is an important intervention by Gerry Holtham, who wrote the original and authorative report on how Wales is underfunded on the Institute of Welsh Affairs blog which puts right an important misconception in the First Minister's statement. I hope he does not mind if I quote it in full:

We used to talk about a gap between Welsh funding and what Wales would get if it were treated like an English region. The gap was estimated back in 2009 at £300 million at least and probably around £450 million. Wales was getting a 2 or 3 per cent smaller budget than was  fair. The evidence seems to be that the gap has closed since then for reasons that are not entirely clear but imply that austerity has hit English regions harder than Wales.

I do not think we have an accurate figure but the gap has shrunk and is small enough for the Treasury to argue it is negligible. Some Welsh politicians have therefore moved the goalposts and are talking about the gap between Wales and Scotland. The work in 2009 suggested Scotland was wildly over-funded and got several billion pounds a year more than it would get as an English region.. The Scots keep this not because it is fair but because of brute politics; they have an oilfield and 45 per cent of them are prepared to vote for independence. They get too much money to keep them and the oil in the Union.

Wales has no claim in fairness to get what Scotland gets and does not have the political assets that would enable it to bludgeon its way to an over-generous settlement. So I think we should drop talk of the gap with Scotland.. It was fine to ask for fairness; it is unworthy and undignified to plead for unfair special treatment.

The floor we want is a different matter. It is not a floor under the money Wales gets. It is a floor in the ratio of our spending per head to spending per head in England. It is a floor on a relative, not absolute measure. The Barnett formula means when public spending grows it grows at a slower rate in Wales than in England so our spending while going up is falling as a proportion of English spending. There is no justification for that. A floor would give Wales the same percentage increases as in England so the ratio of our spending to theirs would stay constant.

That is a big deal. Suppose public spending in England grows at 5 per cent a year. The floor means after ten years Welsh spending would be over £1 billion or some 7 per cent higher than it would be without the floor. Even if public spending grew at just 2 per cent, the floor would be worth over £400 million to Wales after ten years. This is an entirely justifiable demand and if the Cameron Clegg announcement means we have got it then we shall be as near as dammit to fair funding for Wales.

The funding floor, once it has been worked through and put in place is as valuable to the Assembly as reserved powers. It gives us some certainty on funding and enables us to proceed with the referendum to test whether the Welsh people want us to have tax varying powers or not.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Music to a cat's ears

Today's Independent carries a fascinating article about work by scientists who have been designing music that will appeal to cats.

The paper says that the scientists have they found most cats respond to music which is a "little like sonic catnip" and using tempos and melodies originating from purrs and suckling:

In a study published in the journal Applied Animal Behavioural Science, domestic cats did not respond when played human music, but upon hearing the specially-produced 'cat songs' became excited and started approaching the speakers and rubbing their scent glands on them.

The team uploaded three snippets on its website and is encouraging cat owners to play them and vote on their feline's favourite.

"We looked at the natural vocalisations of cats and matched our music to the same frequency range, which is about an octave or more higher than human voices," lead author Charles Snowdon told Discovery News.

"Since cats use lots of sliding frequencies in their calls, the cat music had many more sliding notes than the human music."

As it happens, the music does sound pretty nice to humans too – Cozmo's Air could easily be an instrumental Bjork track.

This sounds a little harsh on Bjork of course. What I want to know though is who is going to record such music? After all it is not as if cats are able to buy it on Amazon.

Monday, March 02, 2015

UKIP accused of breaking EU funding rules

The Times reports that questions have been raised over Ukip’s use of EU funding for general election campaign materials, after Labour accused the party of encouraging its candidates to break the rules.

They say that UKIP advised candidates in one of its confidential bi-weekly emails this month to “access materials” paid for by Brussels that argue that the EU is “damaging” to the UK’s national interests:

Such leaflets are published with funding granted to Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), the bloc of national parties that Ukip belongs to in the European parliament. Use of the money is governed by strict rules.

The email from Ukip’s Elect 2015 Campaign Team, led by David Soutter, head of candidates, conceded: “As we’re now in an election period . . . There are tight regulations on the EFDD Group about what this literature can be used for, and the rules state quite clearly that it cannot be used for domestic electioneering purposes.”

Ukip then advised: “All you need to make sure you do is put such materials out on display for people to take, rather than physically handing them out.”

The instructions appear to go against strict rules set by the European parliament, which clearly state that funding for political groups “cannot be used to fund European political parties or electoral campaigns”.

The rules also state that this funding cannot “be used to finance any form of European, national, regional or local electoral campaign”.

It seems that UKIP don't mind the European Union when they can use its resources to its own advantage.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Showing MPs the yellow card

Interesting article in the Sunday Times about Labour's proposals to make it easier for the Speaker to keep order in the House of Commons. They say that the party proposes to issue yellow cards to MPs who shout, heckle or make crude gestures.

The plan is that a first warning will see an MP banned for an hour with a second leading to exclusion for up to three sessions:

The proposal for a “sin bin” follows complaints by MPs, and research showing the public are turned off by boorish behaviour. The Labour MP Sarah Champion complained recently of a sexist atmosphere in the chamber where, she said, male MPs were “very good at gesticulating” about female MPs’ breasts and bottoms as they tried to make speeches.

Other MPs have shouted “nurse” when colleagues speak — implying they are psychiatric patients needing help — or use sign language to insult members, including the sign for bulls**t”.

Luckily the Commons is televised so they will be able to take advantage of goal line technology as well.

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