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Friday, July 31, 2015

Will David Miliband return to assume the throne?

It is still 43 days before we will know who the new leader of the Labour Party will be. It feels like an eternity has passed already. Can we cope with another six weeks of Labour's very public self-immolation? Haven't they learnt yet that there are some things best done in private?

What is worse the Times reports that a number of Blairites are already planning for a post-Jeremy Corbyn world. That is they are starting to line up options for getting rid of the Islington MP should he win in September.

The paper quotes 'leading-Blairites' who believe that David Miliband could return as an MP if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader so as to try to take advantage of the hard-left candidate’s likely downfall.

At the same time the Communication Workers Union  has endorsed Mr Corbyn and urged him to purge the party of Blairites, calling them a “virus”. A walk in the park this is not. These people are meant to be on the same side.

Given David Miliband's lack of killer instinct when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister and when decisive action could have got him the keys to the party leadership and number 10 Downing Street, the chances of any of this plot becoming a reality is unlikely.

However, it is indicative of the mood in the Labour Party at present, who seem to have embarked on one all-mighty self-destructive binge to oblivion.

I know that it won't come to that but one has to ask oneself why so-called Socialists are indulging themselves in this way and consequently giving the Tories a free ride as they dismantle our public services?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Plaid Cymru gag one of their star names

There is no surer sign of a paranoid leader, uncomfortable with her role and not in control of her own party than one who pursues gagging orders against her own colleagues, especially one who only a few years ago was a rival for the leadership. In fact there are many examples of this sort of behaviour, most of them in non-democratic countries.

I have said many times that Plaid Cymru are not a liberal party and earlier this week they proved it by getting Dafydd Elis-Thomas' local party to prevent him speaking out-of-turn on issues he feels strongly about.

The Western Mail reports that Lord Elis-Thomas has been told he can not make public statements on Plaid Cymru’s policy and strategy without agreeing them with his constituency first. This edict came about after Plaid Cymru's National Executive sent representatives to meet with the  Dwyfor Meirionnydd constituency party to try and rein him in.

What was Lord Elis-Thomas' offence? He gave a view on his party's General Election campaign, after the event.  Telling the media in June that their campaign was not focused on arguments about Wales’ future.

He added that Plaid Cymru has no special pleading that it is more Welsh than other parties, and that to say so was arrogant and a “bit sectarian”:

“It's not about complaining on behalf of Wales now, its about running the country,” he said.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas is a much-respected member of the National Assembly with a great deal to contribute. That Plaid Cymru have effectively side-lined him speaks volumes for their own short-comings as a party.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Liberal Democrats should boycott peerage merry-go-round

The House of Lords is the second largest revising chamber in the World, it is unaccountable and if the Lord Sewel episode is to be believed, it is out of control.  Despite that the Independent reports that the Prime Minister is planning to appoint yet more Tory peers in order to redress the political balance there.

This just perpetuates a merry-go-round in which successive Prime Ministers add to the numbers in the House of Lords to reward loyal service, get rid of troublemakers, open up winnable seats for their favourites, thank financial donors or seek to get a majority of working peers. Occasionally, they appoint people for their expertise. It is the longest-running farce in Westminster.

The Liberal Democrats have long been committed to reform, arguing for a scaled-down and democratically elected second chamber with a clearly defined role within the British Constitution and which will be accountable to voters for its actions. Tim Farron is absolutely right to call for a constitutional convention to get a consensus as to how we can achieve this.

But enough is enough. The Liberal Democrats need to stick with their principles and walk away from this ever-growing fiasco. We should tell the Prime Minister that we are no longer going to help him add to this already bloated body of legislators.

The Liberal Democrats group of peers are doing an excellent job and should be allowed to continue with that role within the system as it stands. But until there is reform Tim Farron should not add to their number. Somebody has to make a stand and as a party with a clear way forward that somebody should be the Liberal Democrats.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Welsh Government is letting down Wales' poorest and most vulnerable people

Today's Guardian covers the report of the Welsh Assembly's Public Accounts Committee on the impact of welfare changes on social housing tenants in Wales. It is the third successive report to criticise Labour Ministers for their failure to stand up for the country's poorest and most vulnerable people.

As the paper says last month the Welsh government was strongly attacked by an assembly committee for its lack of progress in tackling poverty, claiming women, children and refugees had been particularly badly affected.

Whilst earlier this month another committee highlighted the striking number of Welsh people over 50 who are struggling to find work, and said the government had become so focused on youth unemployment that it was neglecting its older citizens:

The Public Accounts Committee found that of recent welfare changes, the removal of the spare room subsidy, dubbed the bedroom tax, had been the most significant in Wales.

While the Scottish government mitigated the effects of the bedroom tax by handing out discretionary housing payments, the Welsh government chose not to. Instead it prioritised investment in the construction of smaller properties and the provision of advice services. The committee has called on the government to look again at whether it should follow the Scottish model.

During its inquiry, the committee heard claims that hundreds of larger homes in the social housing sector were being left empty because of the bedroom tax and millions of pounds were being wasted because disabled people had to move out of properties that had been adapted for their needs.

The committee’s report points out that the housing benefit reforms are a prelude to further changes that will be imposed by the UK government including the full roll-out of universal credit. It says:

“The Welsh government should take a more proactive position in coordinating Wales’s response to the welfare reform agenda.”

It is certainly true that the Welsh Government has been fairly timid in its response to the bedroom tax due to concerns about the cost of a Scottish-style intervention, but it is also the case that they sat back and waited for the measure to be implemented before acting, despite having two years notice of what was to come.

A proactive and co-ordinated approach from the very start could have helped more people stay in their homes and mitigated some of the impact of this change, especially in terms of funding the building of smaller properties and targeting assistance to those with adaptations.

I am also concerned about the Government's general approach to dealing with poverty. The Enterprise and Business Committee's report underlined the view of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee that there is no joined-up approach across the Welsh Government in tackling poverty, whilst the latter committee also concluded that far from tackling poverty, Ministers were in fact just alleviating it, focussing on the symptoms of poverty rather than tackling the root causes.

What is becoming clear is that Wales is falling further behind the rest of the UK and the Welsh Government is failing to address that problem.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Should we cull the House of Lords?

For those who read my views on the UK Government's badger cull, this particular conundrum is of a totally different order.  The Times reports that a group of MPs and peers have set up an inquiry into reducing the size of the House of Lords amid fears that the upper chamber is too big.

They say that a cross-party panel will report later this year and could recommend cutting the numbers or introducing compulsory retirement:

David Cameron has faced warnings that the Lords could swell to more than 1,000. He is expected to ennoble a number of new Tories in his dissolution honours list, and Liberal Democrat and Labour peers will also be added.

The Conservative leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, has promised to listen carefully to the recommendations of the review by the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber.

The Conservative election manifesto effectively ruled out an overhaul of the Lords. It said that the party could see a strong case for introducing some elected peers, but this was “not a priority”. A Tory government would seek to ensure that the upper chamber “continues to work well by addressing issues such as the size of the chamber and the retirement of peers”.

Speaking in the chamber last week, Lady Stowell said: “While we cannot continue to grow indefinitely, the measure most relevant in my view is the average rate of attendance.”

I have read elsewhere today that the House of Lords is the one of the largest second chambers in the world but surely talk about reducing its size is missing the point. The problem is not a surfeit of ermine, it is the absence of accountability.

So why set up a committee to look at membership and not one concerned with finding a consensus on how to get an elected second chamber?  If the obsession of the British establishment with peripheral issues like these is a survival tactic then it serves us ill. We need radical reform not tinkering at the edges.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tory u-turn on social care costs - another Liberal Democrats initiative ditched

The decision by Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt to shelve until 2020 the coalition government's commitment to cap care bills to £72,000 for the over-65s and for younger adults with disabilities is not just a broken Tory manifesto promise but also another Liberal Democrat initiative they have ditched.

This was an important policy promoted by Liberal Democrat ministers to prevent old people having to sell their home to pay care bills. Those families who were relying on this change are going to be very disappointed. What is more, as this Guardian article makes clear, the proposed delay is going to cost the government a lot of money:

Experts say huge sums of public money have been wasted on fees for employing the top advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi to promote the policy, the development of IT systems to run it, and the cost of running public consultations.

James Lloyd, director of the Strategic Society Centre thinktank, said: “I would estimate the ‘capped cost’ reforms have cost the taxpayer between £50m-£100m to date.

“This is a lot of money at a time that councils are cutting support packages for the most vulnerable members of their communities. And it is a lot of money when the problems associated with the reforms were readily apparent back in July 2011.

“Up and down England, 152 local authorities have been training frontline staff and managers in relation to the reforms and developing IT systems."

So far the Tories have abandoned much of the green agenda by cutting funding to the green deal and subsidies for on-shore wind farms, postponed the introduction of subsidised childcare, targeted families and those in work with £12 billion of welfare cuts and broken clear promises on care costs.

If those reversals of policy do not underline the importance of the Liberal Democrats in the previous coalition government in keeping the Tories honest and promoting important social reforms then nothing will.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Now the Tories start to unpick Liberal Democrats work to tackle climate change

Watching the Tories make cuts to welfare benefits, which the Liberal Democrats had blocked when in Government is painful enough, but having Labour collude with them in measures such as limiting child tax credit to two children defies belief.

Now it seems that, not content with delivering unnecessary and ideological cuts to our welfare system, the Tories also want to undo some of the good work of our Ministers on climate change. In particular, they have announced they will end all Government funding to the Green Deal, a programme set up by the Liberal Democrats in Coalition that helps people make their homes more energy efficient.

As Tim Farron says, for five years Liberal Democrats fought sceptical Tories to ensure we were the greenest Government ever by investing billions in renewables and setting out ambitious climate change targets.

But in quietly dumping the Green Deal, David Cameron has once more shown how little he cares about the future of the planet.

I was particularly taken with this phrase, which is classic-Farron and underlines how life is not going to be boring with him as leader:

"The Prime Minister has not so much hugged a husky as led it behind the coal shed, shot it in the head and told his Energy Secretary it has gone to live on a farm in the country."

The value of having the Liberal Democrats in government is becoming clearer every day.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Health and safety for cows

The Daily Telegraph definitely has headline of the week with this eye-catching offering:

Cows 'should wear flourescent jackets and strings of lights' at night, council says

The paper says that a local council has suggested that cows be dressed in high-viz reflective jackets with lights strung around their necks to ensure they can be spotted by motorists at night:

The proposal, which would create a herd of “disco” cattle and light up the local common, was put forward as a means of allowing the animals to graze in safety in poor light.

Several cows have been struck by cars on the green at Hungerford, Berks, and last month one was so badly hurt it had to be put down by a vet.

The problem is far from new and farmers have spent years trying to persuade the local authority to introduce traffic calming measures to stop motorists tearing through the common at high speed.

But there was a collective rolling of eyes when it was suggested this week that the cows be dressed in fluorescent jackets with luminous bands around their necks.

Martin Crane, the mayor of Hungerford, even went one further and proposed the animals wear strings of flashing lights.

Perhaps fortunately for the 175-strong herd in question, the measure was deemed too costly and would have left either the council or the farmers around £3,000 out of pocket.

Roger Denton, one of the farmers who keeps around 25 cows on the land during the summer months, said it was not the first time councillors had come up with the “hair-brained idea”.

“It’s been mentioned before. I think it’s ridiculous,” he said.

“The bottom line is that it’s all down to the speed of cars. If a cow had a fluorescent strip around its neck, you wouldn’t be able to see it if it had its back to you or if it was facing you head on.

“What are the chances of the perfect cow that’s going to cross right in front of you, side on, to ensure you spot its décor?

Back to the drawing board then.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Wales leads the way on bovine TB - without a cull

The BBC reports some very good news, reporting comments by the chief veterinary officer for Wales that the various measures being deployed against the spread of TB in cattle here are starting to show results.

Although Professor Christianne Glossop says that it is too early to determine the impact of the badger vaccination programmes in Pembrokeshire, she told an audience at the Royal Welsh Show in Llanelwedd, Powys that incidents of TB have fallen by 28%. She added a 45% cut in animals being culled had left 94% of herds TB free.

The five-year vaccination programme has one year remaining, with results not expected for another two years. and although it and other measures are expensive the trends are good.

Perhaps the UK Government should take note and follow our example instead of its ineffective and inhumane cull policy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

You could not make it up - apparently

When satire turns out to be truth then we need to start worrying. However, according to the Independent that is precisely what happened last week when a satirical website accidentally broke a real news story.

The paper say that  a spoof news story on The Onion, headlined “US Soothes Upset Netanyahu With Shipment Of Ballistic Missiles”, appeared 24 hours before reports emerged that this had actually happened in real life:

Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted the similarity to its own story, published the following day, which carried the headline, “After Iran deal, Obama offers military upgrade to help Israel swallow bitter Iranian deal”.

Barack Obama had offered Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu “immediate talks to upgrade the Israel Defense Forces’ offensive and defensive capabilities”, the paper reported last week.

Later, Haaretz graciously admitted in a blog post that: “There’s no other way around it: the fake newspaper broke the story.”

The only difference between spoof and reality was that Mr Netanyahu (in reality) initially didn’t respond to the offer and later rejected it. – the second time he had turned down such a proposal – “believing that any kind of reciprocal deal would be construed as Israel having come to terms with the Iran nuclear deal”.

By contrast The Onion quoted a fake State Department spokesman, who said: “Bibi always gets a little cranky when he sees us talking to Iran, but a few dozen short-range surface-to-surface missiles usually cheer him right up.

If The Onion has become a paper of record then it is time to start re-evaluating our definition of reality.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Labour MP's newsletter strikes a tone

The latest edition of Swansea West MP, Geraint Davies' monthly newsletter to his local Labour members drops onto my desk.

On the back page is a rather fetching series of photographs of Mr. Davies, and Aberavon MP, Stephen Kinnock alongside their favoured leadership candidates - Yvette Cooper for leader and Caroline Flint for deputy leader.

Geraint Davies writes: "For Deputy I've nominated Ben Bradshaw as I believe it is important that he is on the ballot papers, to argue that we need to win over 90 seats in the south of England to win a majority." Quite why Ben Bradshaw is the only candidate capable of making such an argument is not explained.

Mr Davies is struggling with this 90 seat target under Ben Bradshaw as well, as he goes on to say: "I think Caroline Flint is the best person to achieve this outcome and that is why I will be supporting and voting her." Confused? So am I.

The persuasive powers of the Swansea West MP are clearly waning. His belief that "Yvette Cooper is the best person to beat Cameron at the despatch box and to beat Osborne, May or Boris in the media and at the ballot box" is not shared by his constituency party. They have nominated Jeremy Corbyn.

My favourite part of the newsletter though is the headline on page 5 - "Welsh foxes deserve protection of Welsh badgers".

I can just about picture badgers across the countryside forming saboteur groups and hiring coaches to go and lobby Parliament.

The sentiment is fine, I just have doubts about the delivery.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Labour MPs are revolting

The internal wrangling within the Labour Party is starting to turn into a crisis with today's Independent reporting that acting Labour leader Harriet Harman faces a revolt from her own MPs over the party’s response to the government’s welfare reforms.

The paper says that only five MPs have backed her by signing up to Labour’s official amendment to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which opposes the abolition of child poverty targets and changes to Employment and Support Allowance but supports a lowering of the benefit cap.

They add that the motion makes no mention of the government’s controversial move to limit child tax credit to two children per family. Harriet Harman has ordered Labour MPs to abstain on the vote if her amendment fails.

However, a rival amendment by backbench Labour MP and former work and pensions minister Helen Goodman has the backing of 58 MPs, claiming the bill would “have the effect of ignoring the plight of children in low income working households”.

Could Labour get into more of a mess? The wisdom of running an overlong leadership campaign is becoming more and more questionable by the day.

Update: All eight Liberal Democrats MPs will be voting against the Welfare Reform and Work Bill because of its impact on poverty.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Labour MPs plot coup before ballot papers issued

Today's Independent has the extraordinary story that Labour MPs are plotting to mount a coup against Jeremy Corbyn before Christmas, if he wins the leadership in September. And they have not even issued the ballot papers yet.

The paper says that the MP for Islington North has staged a stunning raid on support among constituency labour party organisations in the past week, prompting panic among supporters of the three mainstream candidates, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall:

Two internal polls also suggested a surge in support for Mr Corbyn, with one even suggesting he could win on 12 September.

Although this result is still seen as a long shot, MPs said in the event of a Corbyn victory they would immediately start gathering the 47 names needed to trigger a coup. One said: “We cannot just allow our party, a credible party of government, to be hijacked in this summer of madness. There would be no problem in getting names. We could do this before Christmas.”

Another Labour MP said a Corbyn victory would cause deep unhappiness among the current shadow cabinet, and suggested that few would want to serve under him.

Of course a coup of this sort could just see Corbyn re-elected in a fresh ballot.  But things must be bad in the Labour Party if they are contemplating this before the result.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Why are politicians running scared of freedom laws?

This article in yesterday's Telegraph highlights the importance of access to information in holding our politicians to account. If the wrong people are allowed to regulate the flow of knowledge then our whole democratic system can be undermined.

The paper says that former politicians who have been embarrassed by Freedom of Information laws are part of a new Whitehall panel appointed by the Government to review its powers. Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary and former Tory leader Lord Howard of Lymphne, are on the five-strong group conducting a review after 10 years of the FOI Act:

Mr Straw as Home Secretary blocked the release of Cabinet minutes relating to Scottish devolution and the Iraq War, while Lord Howard - who as an MP was Michael Howard - was criticised in the MPs’ expenses scandal for his large gardening bills, which were disclosed about after a FOI request. 

The move comes after Justice Secretary Michael Gove told MPs last month that there was a need to "revisit" the act to ensure officials were able to speak candidly to ministers.

Freedom of Information campaigners said the review was “bad news” not least because MPs on the Justice committee carried out an exhaustive inquiry two years ago.

Maurice Frankel, founder of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “It is obviously an attempt to stop the pubic having insight into any internal discussions taking place in Government.” 

On the make-up of the panel, Mr Frankel added: “There is nobody there on the commission whose previous record is of having used the act and having benefitted from the open-ness it provides. That perspective is clearly not represented on the Commission itself.”

The commission’s chairman is Lord Burns, a former permanent secretary, while other members include Lord Carlile of Berriew, the Government’s former adviser on terrorism legislation and Dame Patricia Hodgson.

The group, who were selected by Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock, will be unpaid but will be allowed to claim expenses for their work.

The review will examine “whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection”.

It will also look at “whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice”. 

The review will also look at “the balance between the need to maintain public access to information, and the burden of the Act on public authorities, and whether change is needed to moderate that while maintaining public access to information”.  

My concern with this review is its remit. If it were charged with improving public access to information then I would be much happier. Instead it is being asked to rein in the Freedom of Information Act. That is bad news for democracy, scrutiny and accountability. The public need more information by which they can judge the performance of Government, not less.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why is the Labour leadership race taking so long?

For once the Liberal Democrats have delivered a textbook example of how to change leader. Two candidates fighting a spirited and good-natured campaign, the contest wrapped up in 10 weeks with a clear outcome and a party uniting around the winner.

In contrast Labour's leadership contest seems to be spiralling out of control with months still to go, controversy over the decision by their acting leader to support the Conservative's welfare bill, bizarre rules that seem to encourage entryism and which has led to the candidate representing the left wing of the party to call for a witchhunt to root out infiltrators (echoes of Neil Kinnock there), and the rest of the Labour Party thrown into a deep depression at the prospect that Jeremy Corbyn might actually win.

This is not a good time for the Labour Party whose reaction to defeat appears to be a level of introspection and in-fighting that rivals even that of the 1980s. They may have neutralised the union vote that foisted the disatrous Ed Miliband on the party but they still have a lot to learn about conducting an inclusive and fair leadership campaign.

I am sure the Liberal Democrats would be happy to offer some pointers.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Is amending UK Government legislation in the House of Lord an abuse of the democratic process?

Today's Guardian reports on the very welcome vote in the House of Lords in which Labour and Liberal Democrat peers teamed up for the second time this week to change the cities and local government devolution bill so as to give the vote to 16 and 17 year olds in Council elections.

They are also planning to stage similar changes to the EU referendum bill to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in that poll when it comes to the Lords later this year.

The paper says that this vote sets the stage for a dramatic stand-off between the two houses on the issue, as the government will now probably try to overturn the amendment when the legislation goes to the Commons. If there is no agreement on amendments, a bill can enter the stage of “ping-pong” where it passes back and forth between the Commons and the Lords.

At least one tweet I saw this morning questioned whether the Liberal Democrats should be doing this given the drubbing we received in the General Election. His point was that using the House of Lords to amend legislation is undemocratic.

Putting aside the fact that the Conservative Government did not attract a majority of votes either and as such has a democratic mandate based on a tired and unaccountable voting system, the use of the House of Lords to scrutinise and revise legislation is what it is for. The final say lies with the democratically elected House of Commons and that is entirely right.

And let us not forget that it was the Liberal Democrats who wanted to democratise the second chamber but found their proposals blocked by the Conservatives and by dubious Labour tactics.

For once Cameron is reaping what he sowed.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Has minimum alcohol pricing as a solution been over-hyped?

The Welsh Government has published its plans to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol today with some interesting claims.

As the BBC report, Ministers believe that the suggested charge of 50p per unit will save nearly £900m over 20 years by cutting crime and illness, with 50 fewer deaths a year. They say that they are committed to using their powers to "improve and protect" the health of people in Wales.

All this of course is predicated on the premise that you can effectively price problem-drinkers out of the market. That, by putting up the price of alcohol, those who are dependent on it will drink less. It is that assumption which I question as I still have not seen any evidence to support it.

Does the use of minimum pricing also send another message: that the Welsh Government believe that drinking is only a problem when it is the poor who do it?

It is certainly the case that those with limited incomes will not be able to afford to drink as much. Those who have more money will carry on regardless, whilst people dependent on alcohol will find ways to get hold of it as they always have done.

I am not saying we should not try, just that I want to see the evidence for the claims made by this measure, and not just academic studies but where it has actually worked. Until that is available I am not going to vote for it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tory u-turn on foxhunting vote welcome

Whatever the merits of the SNP's decision to abandon their policy of not voting on English-only matters, their rather tenuously-argued determination to vote against changes to the hunting ban has had an impact.

The Guardian reports that the UK Government has now withdrawn the vote as they have calculated that they cannot win.  Instead, Downing Street is expected to revisit the issue in autumn after the proposed introduction of English votes for English laws in parliament. This would make clear whether a majority of non-Scottish MPs were in favour of weakening the foxhunting ban.

Whether this will make a difference or not is a moot point as even under EVEL, the Government needs a majority of both English/Welsh MPs and all UK MPs to effect change. 

What it will do is to throw the SNPs decision to participate in this vote into stark relief and put pressure on them to revert to their original stance. I hope that they stick to their guns.

If the Tories really want to reserve these matters to those affected then they need to grasp the nettle and introduce a proper federal system in which the various national parliaments are fully empowered to deliver their own agendas.

In the meantime, I will be rejoicing that the Hunting Act remains intact for the time being and working with others to keep it that way.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Labour in chaos on welfare bill

Having spent five years attacking the Coalition Government and the Liberal Democrats in particular over welfare reform, it is a bit ironic to see that Labour are now proposing to support the majority Tory Government's Welfare Bill containing measures that many people, including the Liberal Democrats Parliamentary Party and many Labour MPs think have gone too far.

The Guardian says that efforts by the acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman, to show the party has listened to the electorate and will change its stance on welfare appear to be on the brink of collapse as she faces a backlash from three leadership contenders, and a stormy meeting of Labour MPs later today:

Harman had announced in a BBC Sunday Politics interview that Labour would abstain in a vote on the welfare bill, accept a lower household welfare benefit cap and not oppose limiting child tax credits for families to a couple’s first two children from 2017.

The proposals have been criticised by party activists and some leadership candidates. She is due to address a meeting of Labour MPs on Monday night on the issue. Harman had agreed her stance with some shadow cabinet colleagues, and the item had been discussed by a shadow cabinet meeting at which only one of the leadership contenders – Andy Burnham – was present.

Three of the four leadership candidates – Burnham, Jeremy Corbynand Yvette Cooper – all signalled their opposition to the move, and some of their allies warned Harman she has to act like an interim leader and not make major policy changes. Harman’s aides said the issues had been discussed with the shadow cabinet and she had informed leadership candidates. The aides said votes were imminent on the budget this week and the new welfare bill before the summer recess so some decisions were inescapable.

Burnham raised objections at the shadow cabinet, but Harman reminded the shadow health secretary that Labour had lost two elections.

Labour are now reaping the consequences of their overlong leadership campaign and their own bewilderment at failing to win the General Election. Kneejerk reactions do not really cut it but that is where Labour are at the moment and that does not bode well for their future recovery.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Why the campaign to win the Republican nomination for President has just got interesting

As somebody who is rooting for Hillary Clinton to become the first female President of the United States, the current disarray amongst the Republicans is a welcome sight. As the Independent reports the fact that Donald Trump is running for president again has the Republican Party to which (for now at least) he belongs, scared out of its wits.

As the paper says we been here before: In 2000, Trump was a candidate of the Reform Party founded by Ross Perot. In three other elections he’s floated the idea of competing in the Republican primaries, most recently in 2012, when the mere possibility of a Trump bid for the White House saw him briefly top the polls, admittedly against a weak Republican field. In the end, he decided not to run. This time, however, he is running, against one of the biggest and most qualified fields in memory. And guess what? He’s leading the pack again.

An Economist/YouGov poll on Friday had him at 15 per cent among registered Republican voters, four points clear of Jeb Bush, and well ahead of the other two favourites for the nomination, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, not to mention the likes of Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Rick Perry et al.

Now, this is the silly season for US presidential politics, almost seven months before the Iowa caucuses kick off the primary season. Cast your mind back to the same moment of the last election cycle, in high summer 2011. Leading the Republican pack was the pizza magnate Herman Cain (he of “I don’t know who’s president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”), followed by Michele Bachmann, fire-breathing queen of the Tea Party. Both candidacies ultimately sank without trace.

Trump stands in the shoes of these fringe candidates but the difference is tnat he has the resources to stick in the race past the initial primaries, if he is so minded to do so and his rather dodgy views on immigration are speaking to the Republican core voters, older white voters. That is a key reason why other candidates such as Scott Walker and Jeb Bush are pulling their punches in responding to the Trump rhetoric.

And it is not just on the topic of immigration that Trump is making waves:  If you’re fed up with Obama’s caution in the Middle East, how sweet “the Donald” must sound. A President Trump would “bomb the hell” out of Iraq’s oilfields to strike at Islamic State. As for US troops on the ground, forget it: “You won’t need ’em by the time I’m done.”

This confronts Priebus and the establishment with a double nightmare. The first is Trump’s participation in the first candidates’ debate on 6 August. Given that he easily qualifies among the top 10 candidates measured by the polls, he can hardly be denied a spot. He might make an idiot of himself. Equally likely, though, he’ll upstage everyone with his soundbites, handing yet more election ammunition to the Democrats.

The second nightmare is even worse. What if Trump drops out, only to run as a third-party candidate, just as Perot, another nationalist billionaire, did in 1992? Many Republicans blame Perot for stealing votes from George H W Bush and handing victory to Bill Clinton. Speaking to the Post last week, Trump deliberately kept the third-party option open and, with it, the prospect of throwing another winnable election to another Clinton. Republican nightmares, even in the political silly season, don’t come much worse.

Hillary Clinton must be rubbing her hands in glee.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Will Cameron dare to cut?

The Liberal Democrats famously blocked Tory plans to equalise UK Parliamentary constituencies in retaliation for them blocking the reform of the House of Lords, but now that Cameron has a majority he can go-ahead and do it anyway. The question is, will he?

According to the Independent, delivering this reduction in the number of MPs is going to be no easier now than it was with a coalition government. They say that the move to reduce the number of parliamentary seats from 650 to 600 risks a rebellion among Tory MPs who believe the House of Commons should remain at its current size.

They add that as many as 19 seats won by the Conservatives could vanish as a result of the move, along with around 20 held by Labour and four of the Liberal Democrats’ remaining eight constituencies:

One backbencher said new MPs were “quite jittery” over the plans and suggested party chiefs could be forced to back off.

“It does seem as though the party is still talking through the idea of having 600, not 650, MPs. I think their view is that with 600 we will be net beneficiaries even though we will lose seats. Personally, I think it will be very difficult to get through.

“All the other parties will be against it and it only needs a small rebellion of six Tory MPs to cause a problem in a vote.”

Another MP said: “Meetings with Conservative Campaign Headquarters are beginning to happen. But the phrase ‘I’m from CCHQ, I’m here to help’ has never been one of the most reassuring phrases.”

It seems that even in Cameron's brave new World turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

Friday, July 10, 2015

M4 relief road thrown into doubt by Welsh Government process failures

Claims reflected by the Western Mail that the M4 relief road around Newport is to be scrapped because of a peculiar cock-up in the process by the Welsh Government may well prove to be unduly optimistic, but there is no doubt that Ministers and their officials have blundered once more and that it is going to cost taxpayers more money.

The paper reports that a Cabinet decision to press ahead with Transport Minister Edwina Hart’s favoured route is now considered to be fatally flawed due to the fact that a cabinet meeting which gave the go-ahead to the project was not attended by transport, environmental or legal officials to answer Minister's questions.

Blunders of this kind are perhaps a sign that a party has been in power too long and is getting stale and complacent. Nevertheless, if I were the Economy and Transport Minister I would want to know from officials how it is that they could expose the government to judicial review in this way and why they were not doing their jobs in covering all the bases.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Tories revert to type on fox-hunting

The Times reports that, as expected David Cameron is planning to hold a vote on the hunting ban. What was less expected is that he is planning to do so next week.

In truth, the amendment to the Hunting Act is quite a crafty one. The plan is to allow landowners to use a full pack of hounds to flush out a fox before shooting it. Only two hounds can be used at present. This move would bring England and Wales into line with Scotland, making it harder for the SNP to vote it down.

The paper adds that it is not certain that the change will be passed by MPs. It will be a free vote, meaning MPs will not be instructed how to vote by party whips and some ministers are known to be against any relaxation of the ban, which was brought in by Labour in 2004.

I tend to agree with Robbie Marsland, the director of the League Against Cruel Sports, who has accused Cameron of “sneaking hunting in through the back door”. He said: “By amending the Hunting Act, the government are deliberately and cynically making it easier for hunts to chase and kill foxes, and harder for them to be convicted when they break the law.”

This is not a technical amendment by any stretch of the imagination, it is effectively the reintroduction of hunting with hounds and as such it should be resisted.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Welsh Labour need to offer a lead on Assembly powers

An interesting article on Wales-on-line reporting the views of Richard Wyn Jones from the Wales Governance Centre who says that there are tough political decisions for the Welsh Government and Welsh Labour to make with regards to the Wales Bill and the reserved powers model it envisages for the Assembly:

Westminster has agreed to replace the existing list of policy areas in which the Assembly can make its own laws with a Scottish-style “reserved powers” model, under which everything is devolved except what appears on the reserved list.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, told us he believes Westminster is seeking to hold on to as much power as possible, and that it was important for the Welsh Government to have a clear view of what powers it wanted.

Prof Wyn Jones said: “This is not merely a technical matter, and there are tough political decisions to be made by the Welsh Government and Welsh Labour.

“It’s good that the Welsh Government is drawing up its own list of reserved powers. If you look at the annexes to a recent UK Government command paper, you see a lengthy list of potential exceptions.

“If the Assembly is to be a properly functioning legislature in the future, it’s important that we move to a point where there is a Welsh criminal justice system and a separate Welsh jurisdiction.”

Professor Jones is absolutely right of course. The Welsh Labour Government has been at odds with Welsh Labour MPs and the Welsh Labour Party in general for too long on this issue. Sometimes it feels that we are just splitting the difference, at other times we end up with absurd compromises such as Legislative Consent Orders.

We need a cross-party consensus but above all we need the Wales Labour Party as a whole to fully embrace the devolution agenda and to stop prevaricating over some of the key issues thrown up by the process.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Have the Tories backtracked on Nick Clegg's flagship tax-free childcare scheme?

I was having a discussion on Saturday with a constituent who was finding the cost of childcare to be crippling.  Both he and his wife worked but despite accessing the Government's voucher scheme they were finding it increasingly difficult to pay

It was because of people facing these sorts of pressures that Nick Clegg made it his mission, whilst in government, to improve support for child care. As this Guardian article makes clear he came up with a scheme to replace the existing childcare vouchers whilst at the same time offering a larger tax saving:

From autumn 2015 parents will be able to buy vouchers online to pay for childcare. For every 80p they spend, the government will add 20p. The scheme is available for up to £10,000 of childcare costs per child each year but there is no limit on how many children you can claim for.

In the case of a parent claiming the full £10,000, he or she will pay £8,000, while the government will give a £2,000 subsidy (previously the cap was £6,000, meaning a £1,200 tax subsidy). The vouchers, which will be held in an online account run by National Savings; Investments, can only be used to pay for Ofsted-regulated childcare, not for care provided by friends or relatives.

The scheme will work in quarterly entitlement periods – once eligible, parents will continue to be entitled to support for three months, regardless of any changes in circumstances. They can pay in a lump sum of £2,000 each quarter and get £500 from the government in one sum, or make monthly payments.

One parent will need to make the claim, but if they are part of a couple they will need to give details of their partner's income.

This government website confirms that the scheme was due to start in the autumn of this year.

However, it seems that since the General Election new Tory Ministers have started to backtrack on this commitment and have done so by the back door rather than through any public announcement.

The latest version of that government website now says that Tax-Free Childcare will be launched from early 2017. That is a slippage of about 16 or 17 months, possibly longer. Because there has been no announcement we do not know the reasons for this delay nor have we been able to scrutinise it. In fact if I had not been carrying out some research to help my constituent I would have been none the wiser either.

It seems that under a Tory majority government working parents are to be abandoned to their own devices, without the additional help and assistance with childcare that Nick Clegg had secured for them.

Monday, July 06, 2015

A part-time commitment to tackling domestic abuse?

For a Welsh government that prides itself on its anti-domestic violence agenda, the decision to make the first ever statutory national advisor on the subject a part-time post was an extraordinary gaffe. The question is whether a part-time advisor will have the time to carry out the tasks created for him/her.

The Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 was controversial from the outset as many people felt that it did not go far enough to tackle domestic abuse and sexual violence. In particular, all three opposition parties were concerned that sufficient and appropriate mechanisms were not being put in place to mainstream education on relationships in schools and only agreed to vote for the bill as a result of last minute assurances by the Minister.

I am shocked therefore that the recent advert for the National Advisor states: "The hours expected to fulfill this role will be part-time".  It seems to me that coordinating the various bodies involved in delivering this service, advising Ministers on important issues such as funding and overseeing the important education agenda is in fact a full time job. We need much more information and assurances on this matter. Will the National Advisor have a team of staff for support for example or will they be expected to fulfil the role individually? The government must not backtrack on this vital role.

The statement is revealing the government’s failings, by its lack of content. The duty to prepare and report on national strategies and local strategies were a main part of the Act yet we learn nothing about them.  When will the national and local strategies be published?  One of the biggest amendments to the Bill at Stage 3 was the inclusion of education but the statement is failing to tell us what action is being taken.  We are told that the curriculum review will include healthy relationships education but how will this happen?  Will it be mandatory for all schools, as recommended by the UN?

This Act is essential, but to achieve its aims we need more than words from the Minister.  We need to see progress on actions, and change.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

How to solve the MPs' housing crisis

Changes to MP's expenses regime have meant that they can no longer buy properties in central London with taxpayer's money. Instead they have to rent or use a hotel. This has caused some angst for many MPs but also some controversy, with some honourable members letting properties they own whilst renting another one nearby with their allowances.

However, at least one politician has found a solution to this problem. The Black Dog column in the Mail on Sunday reports that new Yorkshire Labour MP Jo Cox has taken to living in a cosy houseboat near Tower Bridge.

Her problems came when she tried to take the idea too far and decided that the best way to beat the London traffic was to commute to the Commons along the Thames.

Unfortunately, when she asked for permission to power up the river in her dinghy and tie it up alongside the MPs’ Terrace under Big Ben she was told that this was not possible for ‘Security reasons and ’health and safety.’

One other possibility that the House of Commons authorities might like to consider is the ingenious solution adopted by Garry Monk to enable his players to rest during training.

As the Western Mail reports the Swansea City Football Club manager has introduced high-tech temporary hotels at the side of the Swans’ training pitches in order to get the most from his men this summer. The tent-like sleeping pods at the club's Landore base mean that players can rest-up in between double training sessions.

A few of these on College Green will save the taxpayer a fortune.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Photobombed by a cat

This lady tried to film a yoga video but forgot to ask permission

Exclusivity isnt what it is cracked up to be

The internet is designed to be open and accessible but what if it were the very opposite. Today's Independent reports on how Justin Foley decided to create a website that is the antithesis of that ideal.

He has set up the World's most exclusive website and so far hundreds of thousands of people have spent around 20,000 hours in the line to access MostExclusiveWebsite.com after taking a ticket and waiting to be let in.

Once you're in, you get 60 seconds to enjoy the site before the person with the next ticket is admitted.

Personally, I don't really have the time to enjoy that experience but there is a spoiler video that enables you to skip the wait. I have posted it below. All I am going to say is that there are cats...

Friday, July 03, 2015

How Government tax policies are undermining their climate change agenda

We all love our car and given the huge number of them on the roads and growing it is little wonder that the government is trying to keep motorists sweet.  However, we cannot just keep building new roads to tackle congestion as these fill up very quickly and we are back to square one. It makes sense therefore to take a carrot and stick approach, improving public transport so that it is at least as convenient as driving whilst making the car-option less convenient.

The UK Government's aspiration to improve our rail network is at least a step in the right direction however, as this article in the Independent makes clear the Chancellor's policies are hardly joined up in this regard.

The paper says that Chancellor, George Osborne has foregone millions of pounds in revenue by freezing fuel duty and even cancelling planned rises whilst at the same time there have been steep cuts to bus and rail subsidies. Fares are increasing faster than wages.

I am not advocating hitting the motorist any harder than at present but I do think that the government has to show a willingness to meet its own climate change targets by urgently cutting train, coach and bus fares and delivering some real investment in public transport routes apart from the prestigious ones, as well as walking and cycling infrastructure.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Universities must justify these results

If this article in yesterday's Guardian is not a cause for concern then I do not know what is. The paper reports the startling fact that more than 70% of graduates are now leaving university with a first or upper second class degree.

The Universities Minister says that 2:1s are now so common that Universities allow some students to “coast” and still get one. There has been a 300% increase in firsts since the 1990s whilst the 70% plus of graduates now leaving university with a first or 2:1, compares with 47% in the 90s. It has increased by 7% in the past five years alone. If that sort of imbalance was evident in A-Levels or GCSEs there would be a national outcry.

What makes it even more difficult to believe with these figures is that they sit within the context of a huge increase in the number of people going to University. Graduates are no longer as rare as they used to be. It now seems that first and upper second class degrees are far more common that in my day as well.

The real issue here of course is the way that Universities are funded. A huge part of the funding comes through the Research Assessment Exercise and Teaching Excellence Framework. That means that Universities are under immense pressure to do better than their rivals so as to maximise their income. Inevitably, this will lead to grade inflation.

It also means that pressure on individual lecturers is excessive. I would not mind betting that the other statistic that has increased in proportion to the rise in the number of higher degrees relates to more lecturers going on sick leave with stress.

Reputedly, the big increase in the number of students going into higher education has led to universities putting on literacy and numeracy courses for their new recruits, because a small number were not up to standard. I am now told that big employers are also putting independent tests in place for graduates to test their abilities as often this is the only way to ensure that they are getting somebody of a sufficiently high calibre.

This is not to denigrate students, the vast majority of whom are working hard to succeed and are of a high quality. They are the main victims of this practise. It does though raise big questions about the system itself, in particular whether young people are being properly advised as to the most appropriate route for them at key points in their life and whether the university system is serving them at all well in devaluing degrees by awarding so many of them at higher grades.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Will English votes for English laws quicken the break-up of the UK?

If the easy popularism of UKIP disturbs you then pause to think how much damage David Cameron's obsession with his own popularist ideas can do now that he is a position to implement them. By far the most dangerous of these ideas is English votes for English laws.

In principle I have no issue with any part of the UK determining its own fate when it comes to issues that are most appropriately decided at a national or regional level. However, the best way to do that is through a democratically elected National or Regional Parliament, or by devolving responsibility to an elected local council.

The solution being advocated by the Prime Minister is a simplistic short cut, that fails to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of how power is currently exercised in the UK and whilst it may prove a constant irritant to Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a real danger that it may drive Scotland out of the Union altogether.

Today's Western Mail illustrates some of that with quotes from Labour MPs illustrating the complexities of the devolution settlement, even a reformed one in which Wales has a full-law making Parliament.

Putting aside the asymmetric nature of devolution across the UK, which means that different nations have powers and responsibilities not reflected elsewhere, the border issues and the impact of the Barnett formula means that virtually no policy actually is English-only.

Anglesey MP, Albert Owen illustrates this when he points out that people in North Wales depend on English hospitals for specialist services. People in Mid-Wales depend on English hospitals for standard secondary health services. Mr. Owen argues that he should not be stopped from taking part in the scrutiny of legislation during the committee stage of a Bill if it affects his constituents. He is right, certainly whilst he remains a member of the body charged with responsibility for that legislation.

But there are less obvious examples of policies that cannot be confined to just the one country due to the economic and financial impact of changing them on other administrations. Tuition Fees is a good example. Half of Welsh students attend English Universities. Welsh Universities are in competition with their English counterparts for students.

That is why former North Wales Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach, is wrong when she argues that identifying England-only legislation should not prove difficult. She believes that MPs just have to look at the Wales Act and check which powers are devolved, arguing that this is what already takes place in the Assembly.

This is such a misrepresentation of the Welsh Assembly's legislative process that I am astonished that Antoinette believes it is the case. Her misunderstanding of what happens here and of our devolution settlement is so wrong that I wonder what it was she did when she was here. Another former Tory AM-turned-MP gone native, and so soon as well.

But the most dangerous part of Cameron's EVEL plan is the creation of two classes of MPs, in which those from the Celtic fringes are curtailed in properly representing the interests of their constituents. That could prove to be the final straw for the Scottish.

If Cameron really wants to pursue this agenda then he needs to look at finishing the devolution project, put in place a Federal UK and let the English have their say through properly elected and representative Parliaments.

It is a deep irony that a so-called unionist Prime Minister has turned out to be nothing more than a second-rate English nationalist and that in pursuing that agenda could well break-up the very union he supposedly cherishes.

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