.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Labour's alternative on tuition fees

There was an interesting article in yesterday's Telegraph in which David Willetts, the Universities Minister, attacked Labour proposals for a shake-up of higher education finance, claiming that it will lead to a dramatic drop in grants and bursaries for the most deprived undergraduates.

Mr. Willetts' comments are a response to the announcement by Ed Miliband that he will cut student tuition fees by a third. From 2012, undergraduates in England can be charged up to £9,000. But earlier this year Mr Miliband said students would only be charged £6,000 under a Labour government. The move would be partially funded by forcing graduates earning at least £65,000 to pay more.

However, the Minister believes that the proposals are “deeply muddled” and risk leaving poor students worse off:

His letter said the support available to low-income undergraduates would be cut by £350m to cover the costs of a lower fees cap. It also places a question mark over a £160m national scholarship programme to provide £3,000 grants to individual students, it was claimed.

And he said that the changes would leave graduates no better off in the short term because monthly repayments would be the same as those charged under the Coalition reforms.

Mr Willetts added: “Your proposals assume there will be higher repayments from graduates on the highest salaries… But your particular model has enormous problems that you appear to have ignored.

“First, you claim that the extra payments will be made by the 10 per cent of graduates who earn over £65,000 in each and every year of their working life – a somewhat implausible sum given that graduate starting salaries are closer to £25,000 and that employers and employees could game the system in order to avoid the extra repayments.

“Secondly, universities will not see the benefits of any larger repayments until the system has matured many years after its introduction – in the meantime, you would either need to cut funding or increase the deficit.”

Under the Coalition reforms, universities planning to charge more than £6,000 a year had to submit access agreements to the Office for Fair Access, detailing how they intended to support students and ensure those from poorer homes were not deterred.

Most universities announced that they would charge fees at or close to the maximum of £9,000 - with the poorest students being offered bursaries or fee-waivers.

Earlier this month, Offa announced 24 universities were cutting average fee to £7,500 or less to take advantage of a scheme that allows them to bid for a share of 20,000 additional student places.

Labour's problem is that it has consistently framed this debate in terms of headline figures rather than the reality faced by most students, namely how much they will have to pay and when. Whatever one thinks of the UK Coalition tuition fees policy (and I believe that it is wrong as Labour's was before it), it treats poorer students better than under the previous regime and any changes need to take account of that.

Miliband's obsession with headline figures and his failure to look at the details has meant that his policy fails the basic test of affordability and leaves the Higher Education sector out on a limb.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Pistols at dawn

The recent article by Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan on Conservative Home may well be a declaration of war on Carwyn Jones and his Government but that does not make her points any less valid.

Her essential point, that Welsh Labour need to decide whether they are a unionist party or not is spot on. That is because Carwyn Jones' pursuit of his own foreign policy and the way that he is 'standing up for Wales', is doing more for the cause of separatism than for the 'Welsh National interest'.

This is not to say that I believe that the Welsh Government should agree with the UK Coalition all the time, that is clearly unrealistic. Nor would I advocate that the First Minister should refrain from speaking out when he believes that it is in the interests of Wales to do so. As a member of one of the coalition parties, I have frequently criticised policies at a UK level when I believe that they are compromising the interests of Wales, my constituents or both.

However, Carwyn Jones' choice of language and some of his actions in Government do smack more of a nationalist leader rather than one committed to keeping the UK together. There are also questions about his priorities when, as Mrs Gillan points out, his Government has only published two bills in its first seven months and, with the exception of the Education Minister, gives off the impression of treading water rather than tackling some of the major problems facing Wales.

That these points have struck home is reflected in the rather weak response of Welsh Labour to the Secretary of State's attack. It is all name-calling and bluster from the back foot when they would be better answering Mrs Gillan point-by-point and setting out what they are actually doing. They are attacking the messenger rather than the message.

The new year needs to see the Welsh Government raise its game if it is to properly answer these criticisms. If they really want to stand up for Wales then they need to deliver on the economy, education and health; standing on the sidelines calling the odds does not hack it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Double standards for Welsh Government

Welsh Ministers have been fairly consistent of late in berating local councils for allegedly failing to collaborate to save the public money. However, today's Western Mail points out their own record is far from perfect.

It seems that when the Welsh Government built their new £21 million offices in Aberystwyth, next door to those of Ceredigion Council, they declined to work with the local authority so as to save money. This was despite the fact that the two sets of offices were conceived as 'twins' with staff expected to share facilities such as the canteen and meeting facilities.

Instead the Welsh Government went it alone on the grounds of security and the desire to maintain a distinct identity. In fact their office block cost 40% more to build even though the two were meant to be identical. It is little wonder that charges of hypocrisy are bring directed at the Government.

Do not be surprised if, the next time Ministers try and lecture local Councils, they are told to put their own house in order first and told that they could actually learn a lot from the way local authorities like Ceredigion conduct their procurement exercises.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Poor Larry

The Daily Mirror has never struck me as being written by a group of cat-lovers. Their concern yesterday for the day-to-day comforts of Larry, the Downing Street cat, is not therefore convincing. This is especially so as they appear to have resorted to the old journalistic method of delivering a story despite the facts.

They report that Larry is banned from the flat lavishly refurbished by David Cameron at No. 10 Downing Street:

The Prime Minister publicly welcomed the tabby to No 10 earlier this year but he is not allowed in the family’s living quarters, even though they are plagued by mice.

The ban came to light after details were released of their £64,000 refit, which

Labour MP Kerry McCarthy said: “Poor Larry is being treated like some servant from Downton Abbey. It is shocking that after all the publicity he is not even allowed to set paw inside the Prime Minister's flat."

The explanation for this ban though turns out to be more prosaic. Larry is not allowed in the flat for practical reasons as it is locked during the day. If he was in it, he wouldn’t be able to get into the rest of the building where he has the run of the place. He wouldn’t be able to get at the rats.

And we wouldn't want to deny Larry the chance to mingle with journalists outside No. 10 would we?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The strange economics of wind farms

Today's Telegraph reveals a previously unheralded subsidy for wind farms that not many people knew about. Opponents of turbines often complain that their output is unpredictable and that they cannot be relied on to generate electricity when it is most needed.

However, it transpires that the opposite is also true. The paper says that 17 operators were paid nearly £7 million for shutting down their farms on almost 40 ­occasions between January and mid-September. They add that continuing to make payments at that rate would lead to householders shelling out £9.9 million in 2011 for operators to disconnect their turbines from the National Grid.

The explanation is that payments are made when too much electricity floods the grid, with the network unable to absorb any excess power generated. The money is ultimately added on to household bills and paid for by consumers.

The fact that some renewable energy companies were paid more to switch off their turbines than they would have received from ordinary operations is bound to feed the debate on how we are tackling climate change, especially in the light of cuts in feed in tariffs for community based generation.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Plaid Cymru examines its own navel

For a party struggling to find relevance and a wider electoral base, today's media coverage cannot really have helped Plaid Cymru, no matter what they themselves may think. And that is part of their problem.

The nationalist party are either indulging in unpopular irrelevancies such as Welsh Independence, adopting causes promoted by narrow interest groups such as a badger cull, despite the fact that the vast majority of the population, even in the countryside, is opposed to it, or just examining their own navel by calling for more Plaid Cymru peers to be created at a time when the democratisation of the second chamber is top of the reform agenda.

It is the promotion of a badger cull that I find most puzzling. Even when Plaid Cymru had Ministers and were seeking to introduce this measure, it was obvious that it was not going to work and was not popular. That it is not in place already has more to do with the incompetence of the then Plaid Cymru Rural Affairs Minister than any other factor. She bungled it and the courts killed it off.

Things have moved on since then, but still Plaid Cymru cling to the idea of a cull and in so doing, continue to alienate voters. There is a successful vaccination field trial in Gloucestshire and even the NFU have joined with the Badger Trust to promote this alternative. The science has always been against a cull, but still Plaid Cymru persist. Are they really that incapable of adapting?

Fox hunting ban may prevail

As supporters of hunting gather for their little ride in the country today, the Telegraph signals that they may well be denied that final bloody kill for some time to come.

They say that the Prime Minister has effectively given up hope of lifting Labour’s ban on foxhunting. Senior figures have told the paper that the promised Commons vote on repealing the ban will not be held next year and is unlikely in 2013 either:

And even when a vote is eventually held, senior Conservatives are resigned to the Commons opting to maintain the ban.

Ministers privately accept that there is not a Commons majority in favour of repeal, since almost all Labour MPs, most Liberal Democrats and some Tories want the ban to remain.

The Prime Minister is also said to be unwilling to focus attention on the hunting issue at a time when most voters are more concerned with economic issues.

They also refer to a poll, which suggests that nearly half of people believe a vote to repeal the Hunting Act should not be a top animal welfare priority for the coalition Government.

What is most interesting about the arithmetic here is that not all Conservative MPs support a repeal of the ban. Although the more traditional Tories want to see it go a group of them who were first elected last year is fighting to keep it. The “Blue Foxes” group includes several women first elected last year as part of Mr Cameron's drive to update his party's image.

Has the modernisation of the Conservative Party ensured that the ban will remain in place indefinitely? We will see.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas - Nadolig Llawen

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Those difficult Freedom of Information requests

Although I have some sympathy for Tory MP, Simon Hart's crusade to tighten up the use of the Freedom of Information Act so as to eradicate frivolous requests we have to remember that for the most part the categorisation of submissions in this way is largely subjective.

We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water by introducing a restriction that will enable authorities to hide behind red tape even more than present so as to avoid releasing important information.

Having said that, it is difficult to argue with the eccentricity of the top ten most unusual FOI requests put forward to support his argument:

1. How does the council plan to help the brave soldiers of our infantry if and when Napoleon and his marauding hordes invade the district of West Devon?
2. What preparations has the council made for an emergency landing of Santa's sleigh this Christmas? Who would be responsible for rounding up the reindeer and who would have to tidy up the crash site?
3. How many drawing pins are in the building and what percentage are currently stuck in a pin board?
4. What preparations has the council made for a zombie attack?
5. What plans are in place to deal with an alien invasion?
6. How does the council manage to cope with the vagaries of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? How does it function given the inherent unpredictability?
7. How many holes in privacy walls between toilet cubicles have been found in public lavatories and within council buildings?
8. How much money has been paid to exorcists over the past 12 months?
9. Provide details of uniforms worn by Civil Enforcement Officers including descriptions of embroidered logos and markings, as well as any difference between summer/winter wear?
10. What is the total number of cheques issued by the council in the past year and how many did it receive?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Government comes down hard on credit card charges

This morning's Telegraph reports that airlines, travel companies and retailers are to be banned from charging fees when people pay by credit or debit cards.

This is because the Government has lost patience with companies who charge customers as much as £12 to use their cards when they pay, even though the transactions cost as little as 20p to process. They add that in some cases, the surcharges are higher than the value of the item being purchased. Legislation is to be introduced at the end of next year:

Over the past few years, card surcharges have risen sharply particularly among low-cost airlines, who were among the first to bring in the levies.

The cost of booking a Ryanair return flight with a debit card has risen 15-fold to £12 since 2004.

The charges have now spread to many other areas including cinema tickets, utility bills, holidays and even some government departments. The DVLA and HM Revenue and Customs charge extra for credit card payments.

Consumer experts say Toyota levied a £75 fee to buy a car with a credit card. The fees are believed to cost consumers hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

In many cases, the charge is only disclosed during the closing stages of the booking process, making it difficult for consumers to compare prices.

Ministers intervened after Which?, the consumer watchdog, complained about the fees to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), the regulator.

In June, the OFT found that the fees were detrimental to consumers and proposed that firms should be more open about the levies.

This is an issue I have taken up in the past. I am pleased that the Government has listened to Which? and the OFT and is taking action.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ed Balls plays fantasy politics again

In many ways the plea by Ed Balls for the Liberal Democrats to abandon the coalition with the Conservatives and form one with Labour instead, is a bit of a fantasy on his part. It is little wonder that the Independent reports that senior Liberal Democrats have regarded it as not a serious suggestion.

Simon Hughes, who is the party's deputy leader, is quoted as saying: "Ed Balls is free to say what he likes, but the Labour Party is not a credible party of government and has no credible plan for our country."

Tom Brake, adds: "It is the season of goodwill, but I fear Ed Balls may have been at the mulled wine when he said this. This Coalition exists to clean up the mess Labour left behind. Not only are Ed Balls and Ed Miliband in denial about the economy, over 13 years they trampled on our civil liberties, launched an illegal war in Iraq, pandered to big business and the City, and left a huge gap between the richest and the poorest. So, thanks but no thanks."

Whilst Lorely Burt, who chairs the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, said: "I can't think of a single reason why Liberal Democrats would want to jump ship into a Labour boat which has no captain and no credible plans to get us out of the economic difficulties that we have."

None of this of course means that any of us have an affinity to working with the Tories. Most of the time we are metaphorically holding our nose so as to get Liberal Democrat policies introduced.

The fact is that the sums do not add up. A coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would not have a majority and as such would not be stable. That in turn would destabilise the markets and hit the already fragile economy badly. You would have thought that an economist like Ed Balls would know that.

Nevertheless, the statement is an important one from Ed Balls, who by all accounts was more focussed on the future Labour leadership contest than on forming a stable coalition with the Lib Dems during talks in May 2010. It also leaves open options for both parties if another hung parliament follows the May 2015 General Election.

Homelessness: the devastating consequence of recession

I was intrigued to read in today's South Wales Evening Post that Plaid Cymru are blaming changes to the housing benefits system for the continuing rise in homelessness. This is because those changes are still being debated in the House of Lords, where amendments to some of the worse aspects of the reforms have just been passed, and have not yet come into effect.

In fact homelessness has been rising for some time and certainly started its upwards trajectory before the last General Election. The main factor behind this rise is the economic situation in Britain and the wider world.

A staggering 1,845 households in Wales are currently categorised as homeless. Not only is this up 15% when compared to the same time in 2010, but it is an increase of 25% when compared to 2009.

The political games being played by Plaid politicians on this issue do not help any of the families who have lost their home. Instead we need to concentrate putting appropriate support services into place throughout Wales and increasing the supply of affordable housing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Is this Ed Miliband having a bad day?

I am interviewing candidates for a job all day today so no time to blog. Instead I offer this image taken as a screen shot from Google Street View. Is it really, as Mark Pack surmises,the Leader of her Majesty's Opposition in the top window, head in hand, possibly having a bad day?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lords reform is constitutional priority

Nick Clegg's speech yesterday appears to have achieved its objective of setting out the Liberal Democrat agenda in government for 2012. In particular the commitment to using the Parliament Acts to force through Lords reform is welcome and will hopefully ensure that those turkeys in the upper house realise that they have no choice, Christmas is coming whether they like it or not.

Today's Independent sets out some of the key points in the speech:

Unelected peers were one of a string of unaccountable vested interests in the banks, business, politics and the media at which the DPM took aim, in a clear attempt to establish a distinct identity for his Liberal Democrats at a testing time for the coalition.

He warned the City of London, on the eve of bonus season, that the Government was ready to block any "irresponsible" payments in partly state-owned banks RBS and Lloyds.

And he said he will unveil reforms in the New Year designed to "rewire the power relations in our economy" and build "responsible capitalism" by giving shareholders more power in the boardroom and workers a greater stake in their companies.

Hailing the liberal idea of the "open society", he promised to "promote fairness, liberalism and openness" against "the forces of reaction and retreat" that threaten to take hold of the country at a time of economic uncertainty.

It is a good start, whether it amounts to a narrative or not only time will tell.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Clegg plays the high profile game

Putting aside his blip over the Eurozone veto, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg has had a good week in terms of profile and differentiating himself in policy terms from David Cameron.

Putting aside the spat over tax relief for married couples, which frankly is an obsession on the part of my party I have difficulty relating to, the most significant Liberal Democrat victory within government is clearly the acceptance of the Vickers report on breaking up the big banks and the promise that it will be implemented in full.

This act is the clearest sign yet that the Government has learnt the lessons of Labour's disastrous deregulation of the banks and their determination to avoid the sort of crashes that directly fed the economic downturn.

The plan is to initiate a wide-ranging overhaul of the structure of Britain's major banks, forcing them to split their high street and investment operations. The banks will have to put their operations into a legally distinct separate arm. We are told that exactly what goes into each entity will form the basis of detailed negotiations between ministers, the banks and regulators.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer will also tell the banks that they will have to hold more capital to act as a buffer against future financial emergencies. The intention is that the complex legislation underpinning the changes would be passed by 2014-15 and the full separation completed by 2019.

It is a significant decision and together with the £2.5 billion a year tax on bank profits shows that this Government are not going to let the banks shirk their responsibility for the 2008 crash.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Carwyn's foreign policy

Just a thought: As the Welsh First Minister is now running his own foreign policy with regards to Europe, would he like to step in and intervene in the case of Pembrokeshire-raised Bradley Manning as well?

Farepak scandal highlights a system in need of reform

Like many other elected representatives, I have consituents who lost money as a result of the collapse of Christmas savings firm, Farepak five years ago. Attempts to salvage something from this mess and get compensation for the victims of this crash have now clearly run aground and in my view, Government intervention is the only alternative.

What irks more than anything is the way that the whole compensation process has become mired in professional fees, so much so that according to this article in the Wales on Sunday, the professional advisors stand to make more than the victims.

The paper says that accountants handling the winding up of Farepak have been paid £8m, but only raised £5.5m to return to victims. I find that quite extraordinary. The victims stand to get only 15p back for every pound they lost.

Farepak victims are owed around £38m. Maybe it is about time the Government intervened in the same way as they did for the victims of Equitable Life.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Calming down the French

Just as I have argued that the British veto on a new European Treaty has not isolated us within Europe, so it seems it must it be pointed out that those on the other side of the argument need to calm down and start acting like adults.

Nick Clegg has felt it necessary this week to chastise the French Prime Minister for his rhetoric and that of his government, in baiting the credit rating agencies to take their revenge on the UK.

French prime minister Francois Fillon the head of the French central bank had suggested Britain was a candidate for a downgrade amid fears in Paris that France might lose its coveted AAA rating. His finance minister Francois Baron further inflamed the situation by calling the UK's situation "very worrying" and suggesting France was better off.

The credit rating agencies do not seem convinced. They are still focussing on the Euro currency countries because they do not believe that there are credible governance arrangements in place. No matter how stable France is, it is part of a Euro zone that remains teetering on the edge of a precipice.

In such a situation, it is hardly in France's interests to further inflame a difficult situation by inviting sanctions upon a country that could still be a useful ally in putting this right, even if Britain does not want to sign up to what we consider to be an unacceptable solution.

This is not diplomacy, it is desperate name-calling by politicians who fear for their own survival in forthcoming elections.

Meanwhile, those naysayers who predicted that the Cameron veto was the beginning of the end for Britain's European adventure must think again. The fact that British officials will take part in "technical discussions" on new eurozone arrangements as well as second thoughts on the part of some of the non-Eurozone countries as to what they are signing up to, indicates that Britain is still very much a player.

Europe needs us just as much as we need Europe and it does nobody any good to continue to overreact to last week's veto in the way that many on both sides of the fence are doing.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Swansea - Wales' Premier City

As I am away in London all day I thought this might keep you all amused.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Those moaning MPs - again!

The BBC report that MPs are gathering in the usual place today to talk about their favourite subject, their own expenses. If it were not so serious, it would be boring.

The suggestion is that MPs are seeking a return to the old system that caused them so much grief two years ago. The Members Expenses Committee, set up to oversee IPSA, the independent agency that administers members' expense claims, has suggested that a Commons body should be in charge of handing out expenses instead "because such a body would avoid imposing undue burdens on MPs and because it would benefit from the economies of scale" on issues like staffing and IT.

In other words they want to go back to the old Fees Office system that was so widely abused and discredited. An independent auditor recommended that more than £1m of claims it had approved over five years be repaid.

The BBC say that another potentially controversial proposal from the committee is that MPs should be allowed to decide whether to replace the current scheme, which requires receipts for all claims and sees details published on a bi-monthly basis, with flat-rate allowances for travel and accommodation:

MPs say that current rules requiring them to input individual claims into an online system, then send in receipts and supporting evidence separately, within 90 days, are a bureaucratic nightmare tying up their staff's time, causing them stress and putting them off applying for legitimate costs in the first place.

A survey by the Unite union of Parliamentary staff suggested 59% spent three hours or more a week processing expenses claims.

The bi-monthly publication of all claims also means they are spending their time "rebutting criticisms" about individual claims "taken out of context" and suffering damage to their reputations.

Good grief! When will these MPs stop moaning and get on with the job they were elected to do. Even with the reforms they have one of the most generous expenses and allowances system in the United Kingdom. Why should they be exempt from the sort of accountability that other employees have to suffer in order to access it?

These debates do nothing to enhance the reputation of politics and everything to undermine confidence in the democratic system.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Regional pay

Having been a civil servant for 16 years before becoming an Assembly Member, I am very familiar with the concept of regional pay and have been opposed to it for as long.

If it were to be introduced then it would entrench Wales as a low-pay economy, both in the public and private sectors. More to the point it would mean men and women doing the same job at different ends of the country for different rates of pay. I think the concept of being paid the rate for the job is an important principle in the public sector.

But let us not fool ourselves that this is some ideological right wing plot. It is a bureaucrats' solution to a public funding problem that is occasionally picked up by politicians of all hues and then (hopefully) dropped when the consequences of introducing it and opposition to it is fully understood. That is why I believe the current 'consultation' is wrong-headed. It opens a door that should be kept firmly shut.

We should also take the outrage of the opposition parties to the concept of regional pay with a pinch of salt. After all, as the Welsh Tory Assembly Leader points out in today's Western Mail letters column, they have form on this issue.

It was a Labour Government that introduced regional pay for the courts service in 2008, when the then Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy, described regional pay as a "reality in the economy as a whole", and that "pay should reflect local labour market conditions". Equally, Plaid Cymru's manifesto commitment to devolve control over teachers' pay and conditions to Wales is also a step towards the regionalisation of pay. They cannot have it both ways.

My view is that we should stop the political games and unite to kill off this idea again before it gets any further traction. Will the Welsh Conservatives join us in that endeavour?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Welsh Government off track again

The more I think about it, the more bizarre Carwyn Jones' intervention in the Eurozone crisis seems. In this morning's Western Mail considerable space is devoted to the view of the First Minister that David Cameron’s decision to exclude Britain from a new European treaty has damaged the interests of Wales by ignoring the potential impact of his stance on manufacturing industry. What is less clear is where Carwyn's evidence for this assertion is.

Putting aside the fact that Ed Miliband has also said that he would not have signed the treaty, a fact that leaves Carwyn Jones at odds with his own leader, it is the case that Britain remains inside the single market, with all the benefits that brings to Wales.

There is no threat to convergence funding, nor does it seem that Welsh Ministers will be prevented from engaging with European officials on matters affecting Wales. In fact the WLGA spokeperson on Europe is in Brussels as I write doing precisely that.

Britain has been in the outside lane of a two speed Europe ever since Gordon Brown (quite rightly as it turns out) blocked Britain from joining the Euro. If David Cameron had signed up to the new treaty last week then he would have given Europe the right to dictate to Britain on our budget, impose restrictions on a key part of the British economy and insist on even stricter austerity measures here than even George Osborne envisages.

It seems strange that a First Minister who argues that the UK Government is cutting too hard and too fast, now wants Britain to sign up to a deal that would lead to even greater cuts in the Welsh Government's budget.

Monday, December 12, 2011

In search of good grammar

Just when you thought that Government Ministers had far too much to do, news breaks of a new initiative by Transport Secretary, Justine Greening that has led to a 1,500-word report detailing all her pet grammatical hates in remarkable detail.

Given the way that English standards have slipped in recent times (including on this blog, before anybody points that out), one cannot really blame Ministers for ensuring that reports and letters that go out in their name are grammatically correct. After all, the Government should be setting an example. However, did we really need a 1,500 word treatise?

After all the nine-point guide states that for correspondence with MPs, “the Secretary of State would like to keep letters to under a page where possible”. If that is so then why not keep the guide to a page?

Still, for my education, if nobody else's, here are some key pointers to good English from the Transport Secretary and others:

The report, leaked to the Mail on Sunday, is said to provide painstaking detail on gramatical advice to officials.

It stated: “Do not put in too many adverbs.

“For example avoid phrases like ‘strongly opposed’ and just say ‘opposed’. Do not use abbreviated forms such as ‘don't’ or ‘couldn't’.

“Avoid passive construction at the start of sentences eg ‘it is essential to note that’. ‘However’ should only be used at the start of a sentence and do not use the word ‘firstly’.”

Meanwhile, the letter-writing section for Theresa Villiers, Miss Greening's deputy, is two pages long – four times as long as her boss.

Civil servants who work with the 43 year-old, received an extensive correspondence course, including an order to write “while” rather than “whilst” and “in legal terms” rather than “legally”.

Miss Villiers also banned the word “onto” as opposed to “on to” while she also expresses a distaste for the phrase “with regards to”.

It added: “The Minister would like letters to have a courteous and helpful tone, while remaining assertive when delivering difficult messages.”

The guidance for Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat junior Minister in the department, is brief, running to just four paragraphs.

The former English teacher's staff should "avoid the use of contractions in formal writing. Example: 'that's' should read 'that is'".

One last thought: I was bemused to see that in the sub-editors secondary headline on this piece he or she spelt 'correspondence' as 'correspondance'. Perhaps the Telegraph need their own grammar guide.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Lib Dems and Europe - a crisis or a massive overreaction?

Having taken some time to reflect on David Cameron's European veto my instincts are that Nick Clegg's initial public reaction that the Prime Minister had no choice was the correct one, and that what we are being told now about the Deputy Prime Minister privately raging at the PM's 'spectacular failure' is a differentiation too far.

Cameron's problem of course, as Eurfyl ap Gwilym points out in the Western Mail, is that in the UK in 2010 bank assets as a percentage of GDP are 550%. This compares to the United States where the percentage is 100% of GDP: "Between 1999 and 2007, the year before the banking implosion, the proportion of wealth generated in London by financial services grew from 11% to 18%."

That needs to change and it is already the stated intention of the UK to grow the manufacturing and construction sectors. However, the veto exercised by Cameron was a recognition of the economic reality not a defence of the status quo.

Surely, even the most ardent Europhile must recognise that it is not in Britain's best interests to sign up to a treaty that would undermine local budgeting decisions and which would prevent us from taking our own decisions on the way we manage our economy. If we had wanted that we would have joined the Euro.

This was not about defending the banks and the financial sector, it was about leaving us the room for manoeuvre to manage the rebalancing of the British economy in our own way and in our own time.

I think those who are raging against this veto need to take a reality check. We may not be part of the new European fiscal club but we are still in Europe and part of the single market. We continue to enjoy all the benefits of that, including substantial funding for regeneration and access to markets for British goods.

The fact is that when we took the decision not to join the Euro, for better or worse, we signed up to a two speed Europe in which we formed part of a 10 member outer ring. That nine of those members have, for the time being, joined into this new treaty does not alter that reality either. I suspect in any case, that they will go so far with German and French plans and no further, and then start to drift back to somewhere near the British position.

Very few people in Britain are advocating that we now join the Euro, and indeed, most of us have watched with morbid fascination as the single currency unravels before our eyes, simply because key decisions on fiscal management were not taken or adhered to at the very beginning.

I suggest that despite my earlier position on the Euro, we are fortunate not to be part of this project and that we would need to think very carefully before signing up to it in the future.

I still think that we can benefit from a single currency, but Greece and Italy are salutary lessons about what happens if we get the terms of entry and the operational details wrong. The present state of the UK economy does not lend itself to membership. Until it has been rebalanced then the single currency has to be off the British agenda.

When Cameron exercised his veto he had to take all that into account and, despite all the criticism from Labour and many Liberal Democrats, I am still waiting for somebody to actually put forward an alternative way that he might have handled this situation.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More fantasy politics from Plaid Cymru

Is this really the quality of debate we should expect from Plaid Cymru, now that their leadership contest is starting to splutter intio debate?

I know that Jonathan Edwards is not a candidate but his demand in today's Western Mail that the Welsh Government should be preparing for Scottish independence and putting forward a coherent vision for the nation’s constitutional future is certainly setting the tone for that contest.

It seems that the most successful candidate will be the one who can out-do the others in calling for separation from the rest of the UK, wrapping their ideology up in the fantasy of a positive Scottish referendum result which forces the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Now, I don't know what is going to happen in that referendum and nor does Jonathan Edwards, but I do know that the most urgent issues facing the Welshh Government today are the economy, an under-performing education system and the health service. Why would any sane minister take his or her eye off those problems to worry about esoteric constitutional issues that have not even presented themselves yet?

If this is the best Plaid Cymru can do then it is little wonder that they are drifting into political irrelevance.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Torchwood shrine revisited

Back in August 2009 I blogged about the shrine that had grown up in Cardiff Bay in tribute to a character from the Dr. Who spin-off, Torchwood called Ianto. There were many fans who wanted the character brought back but it was not to be.

Yesterday, I was walking through the area and noticed that not only was the shrine still there but it has grown exponentially and has now become a Torchwood and Dr. Who montage.

It seems to be quite an attraction and I was even approached by a woman claiming to be doing a PhD on it.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

A revolution in local government

Nick Clegg's speech today on giving new powers to towns and cities is a very important landmark for this coalition and underlines Liberal Democrat influence in introducing a decentralising empowering approach to government.

According to the Telegraph, Clegg will tell Councils that they will be able to go into debt to fund new schemes by being allowed to borrow against future tax revenues:

The plans are expected to be published in a new Local Government Finance Bill in the next two weeks, with the powers in place by April 2013.

They will allow councils to borrow for the first time against future tax receipts from business rates through a new Tax Increment Financing scheme.

Eight “core” cities will also be helped through new “city deals” in which they will get greater control over the money they receive from central Government.

They will be allocated a single pot of cash to spend locally and end a current situation in which they go on “bended knee” for money from Whitehall for individual schemes such a new retail park or roundabout.

The “core” cities are Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield, which collectively account for 58 per cent of England’s population and 61 per cent of its jobs.

The details appear to be quite revolutionary:

Mr Clegg will say he wants to unleash “an unprecedented transfer of power, to unleash city power, to boost entire regions, to get our national economy growing”.

He will say: “There will be no more going on bended knee to Whitehall department after Whitehall department to bid for different capital pots for individual schemes.

“Instead cities will get one consolidated capital pot to direct as they see fit. Whether that is on a new roundabout or a new retail park – whatever their area needs to boost economic activity.”

Councils will only “have to show that a specific scheme is feasible, achieves value for money, is transparent and accountable and contributes to growth” to qualify.

Isn't it time that the Welsh Government followed suit?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Television Nirvana

Bruce Springstein fanously sang "We switched 'round and 'round 'til half-past dawn/There was fifty-seven channels and nothin' on", but even he could not have envisaged the sheer inanity of the annual party political budget broadcasts here in the UK.

Now the Telegraph tells us that we are to be spared the future torture of searching for the remote control so as to switch over before our brains freeze up.

They say that the BBC Trust are proposing to end the system of UK-wide broadcasts by the Chancellor and opposition parties on the annual financial statement to MPs, which it believes to be “outdated”.

Instead, parties will be given three broadcasts each every year, in the spring, autumn and winter, in addition to separate election broadcasts in the run-up to voting days:

“The broadcasts originated when there was neither TV nor radio available from the chamber of the House of Commons and the Budget broadcast was the only way in which the Chancellor could be seen and heard communicating directly to the public the content of the budget,” it said.

“Now the audience has the opportunity to watch and listen to the Chancellor live in the House of Commons, or to catch up on iPlayer, or to see and hear the key points across many different outlets.”

And so say all of us!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The value of volunteer pensioners

It is a commonly acknowledged fact that without the work carried out by carers and other volunteers, the British welfare state would grind to a halt. If we were to pay the going rate for what they do then the money would very quickly run out.

This is acknowledged in a report published today by pensions company MGM Advantage, which found that Britain’s 12 million pensioners contribute £2,000 each to the economy every year though unpaid childcare, voluntary and charity work. That is just the tip of the iceberg of course but considering it adds up to a £25billion contribution a year to the economy it is not surprising that a third of them feel unappreciated.

Today's Telegraph quotes the report's finding that a survey of over 2,000 people aged 65 and over found that a third of pensioners think that wider society treats them badly. Meanwhile almost all retired people said that they dislike the label ‘old age pensioners’ or OAPs, with a third preferring the term ‘senior citizen’:

The report said that with the number of retired people set to get even bigger over the medium term, “more should be done to challenge the pre-conceived notion of retirement”. This year 658,000 people reached 65, an increase of 12,000 on 2010, taking the total number of retired people to 11.8 million. Next year, 806,000 people will reach 65, further swelling the number of retired people. This trend will continue as the baby boomer generation grows older.

The Retirement Nation report found that retired people collectively save the Government and parents £15.4 billion a year by taking on unpaid care of grandchildren. In addition to this, retired people undertake voluntary work in their local communities worth £5.6 billion a year, and do charitable work worth £3.4 billion a year.

Almost a third of retired people said that they feel undervalued and not respected by society. Just 14 per cent said that they feel valued, while the balance – 55 per cent – said that they are sometimes treated badly.

These are very valid findings and need to be addressed.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The dangers of incumbency

It seems that it is not just Britain where the burden of incumbency takes it toll on the governing party, though I suspect that the sins of Putin's United Russia party far outweigh anything that may have gone on here or any other western democracy for that matter.

The Independent reports that exit polls cited by Russian state television are showing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party tallying less than 50% of the vote in Russia's parliamentary election:

The results represent a significant drop in support for United Russia compared to the previous election four years ago when it won over 64% of the vote nationwide.

The early returns from today's vote signal it may lose its current two-third majority that allowed it to change the constitution unchallenged.

The drop reflects a sense of disenchantment with Mr Putin's authoritarian course, rampant corruption and the gap between ordinary Russians and the super-rich.

However, any hope that Russian democracy is coming of age must be tempered by this blog. Political developments says that United Russia has no intention of leaving the result to chance:

But how best to fix an election without attracting the attention of international election monitors? Here are United Russia’s top five failsafe methods of getting their vote out:

Bribery: Students in Chelyabinsk were offered concert tickets if they photographed their ballot papers to prove they had voted for United Russia.

Intimidation: Students who resisted bribery were threatened with ‘consequences’.

Threats: An entrepreneur employing 40 people was threatened with a visit from tax inspectors if he refused to help in the elections. Since this would mean either paying a bribe or stopping work, he complied.

Inducements: A paediatrician at a Moscow clinic was asked to vote for United Russia to secure funding for her clinic.

Group Pressure: A civil servant working at Moscow City Hall was told to bring a list of at least 10 friends or acquaintances who had promised to vote for United Russia.

According to the Moscow Times, an election official said, “Everyone is under such stress. I really hope that these elections finish as soon as possible and the way they [the authorities] want.” If all else fails, there’s always good old-fashioned fraud. The official added, “We have been trained how to do it. Foreign observers, who do not speak Russian or understand cyrillic very well, will not notice anything.”

The opinion polls suggest that the Russian people are starting to get wise to this. Whether that will be enough this time is uncertain, but it is a start.

Long knives at Labour HQ?

The Mail on Sunday's Black Dog column speculates that top-level sackings at Labour's Party HQ might be a purge of Blairites by Red Ed Miliband:

A secret memo on how to deal with tricky questions on the shake-up gives the game away: ‘Is this a witch-hunt against all Tony Blair supporters?

Everyone who is willing to be loyal to Ed Miliband is welcome.’ We get the picture, Iain.

Nothing ever changes!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Lost in translation

I have written a blog post over on Freedom Central this morning about the failure of the UK Department of Education to provide a bilingual version of a letter they sent out to teachers in Wales. That is a serious omission on their part that needs to be corrected.

Elsewhere in the Wales on Sunday though there is a story about what happens when attempts at bilingualism go wrong. Their article is based on a book called Sgymraeg, edited by Meleri Wyn James, and published by Y Lolfa.

There are many reasons of course why biingual signposting goes wrong. There is sheer laziness and incompetence on the part of those responsible for the sign, such as the famous example in Swansea where a roadside sign read in English: “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only”, but translated into Welsh, and erected for all to see, announced: “I’m not in the office at the moment. Send any translation work.”

Often an official translator will do a perfectly good job only to see mistakes made in the signwriting process, which they do not have the opportunity to proof-read. Commonly, an official will rely on machine translation without getting it checked and sometimes of course, the translator will interpret the wording incorrectly and provide a more literal version in Welsh that means something completely different from the English.

Translation is an art form not a science, but that does not stop us despairing at some of the worst examples. These include the badly translated shop sign advertising wines and spirits, which reads “wines and ghosts” in Welsh, and the baffling bilingual road sign that warns Welsh- speaking motorists to beware of “exploding workers” instead of 'blasting in progress'.

There is also the sign between Cardiff and Penarth telling cyclists to dismount but which in Welsh apparently tells cyclists they have problems with an “inflamed bladder” and a potentially lethal sign for pedestrians in Cardiff reading “Look Right” in English and “Look Left” in Welsh.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

When pragmatism trumps ideology

Whilst the Conservative backbenchers are all about grabbing powers back from Brussels, the Prime Minister does not have the luxury of being able to indulge himself in such self-gratification. That is because the UK economy is intimately tied to the Eurozone and if the single currency goes under then we will be plunged back into recession.

Thus, today's Independent reports that David Cameron will after all, put the urgent need to secure a rescue deal for the euro ahead of his own instincts and the demands of his MPs.

In many ways this is a reflection of his own weakness in Europe. Britain has declined to join the Euro-club and Cameron is perceived to be hostile to it, so why should other leaders suffer lectures from the British Prime Minister? Cameron knows that submitting a long shopping list to the talks would get short shrift from the other 26 EU members.

What is in doubt is how far Cameron will go to help the Euro survive. He is already viewed with suspicion for promoting austerity at home but precisely the opposite abroad. Now we have Jacques Delors, who was one of the architects of the single currency, arguing that the project was doomed from the start because those countries who set it up tried to have their cake and eat it.

Delors argues that the euro came into existence without strong central powers to stop members running up unsustainable debts, an omission that led to the current crisis. In other words, if you want to fix it then the member countries need to move closer to fiscal union and give up much of their economic independence.

At the momennt it looks like France, Germany and the other countries would not be prepared to countenance these sorts of changes. Will Cameron welcome such a development when the British economy is so dependent on the financial sector rather than real manufacturing jobs. A new European Central bank leading to a more secure and powerful Euro could see a lot of that business go to the continent.

These are not happy times for a Euro sceptic Prime Minister, looking over his shoulder at a rapidly growing group of disaffected Tory MPs.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Labour and the coalition

Hattip: Aberavon and Neath Liberal Democrats

Heritage and heraldry

We have not yet come to terms with how best to commemorate the work of Assembly Presiding Officers (if at all) - a framed photograph in the Pierhead perhaps? However, this does not appear to be a problem in Westminster, where it seems that it is acceptable to spend substantial sums of public money on a full scale portrait and a coat of arms.

Today's Telegraph highlights the fact that the total cost of this extravagance has risen to £44,000 after some unaccounted for bills were unearthed.

The portrait, by the British artist Brendan Kelly, cost £22,000 and will hang with the coat of arms in the Speaker’s residence in the Palace of Westminster, alongside those of previous holders of the office.

The coat of arms itself is an astonishing piece of work, containing a ladder to highlight how far the taxi driver’s son has risen in life. There are also pink triangles to signify Mr. Bercow's support for gay rights and some roundels or golden balls supposedly to signify his love of tennis, though I guess that bit is open to interpretation.

It is hardly a traditional approach to heraldry but then it is hardly cut price either.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Time travel and the large Hadron Collider

I suppose it was inevitable that the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would start to attract the more eccentric members of society, however I cannot say that I expected time travellers.

According to this piece a would-be saboteur has been arrested at the Large Hadron Collider. Eloi Cole, who is described as a strangely dressed young man, said that he had travelled back in time to prevent the LHC from destroying the world:

The LHC successfully collided particles at record force earlier this week, a milestone Mr Cole was attempting to disrupt by stopping supplies of Mountain Dew to the experiment's vending machines. He also claimed responsibility for the infamous baguette sabotage in November last year.

Mr Cole was seized by Swiss police after CERN security guards spotted him rooting around in bins. He explained that he was looking for fuel for his 'time machine power unit', a device that resembled a kitchen blender.

Police said Mr Cole, who was wearing a bow tie and rather too much tweed for his age, would not reveal his country of origin. "Countries do not exist where I am from. The discovery of the Higgs boson led to limitless power, the elimination of poverty and Kit-Kats for everyone. It is a communist chocolate hellhole and I'm here to stop it ever happening."

The report says that Mr Cole was taken to a secure mental health facility in Geneva but later disappeared from his cell. You could not make it up, or could you?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?