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Friday, August 31, 2012

Spinning in opposition

Another example of spin this morning, this time from the opposition with yet more calls by the Welsh Tories to scrap free prescriptions in Wales.

The Western Mail reports that more than two and a half million additional prescription items were dispensed in Wales in the last year, That makes it the 11th year in a row that the number has gone up. In all 72.7 million prescription items were issued in 2011-2012, up from 70.1 million the previous year.

From the point of view of the Tories, this is more ammunition in their long campaign to reintroduce prescription charges in Wales. They say that Wales has the highest number of prescriptions per person and as a result it is now 35% more dependent on pills, tablets and ointments than the rest of the UK. They believe that a universal free prescriptions policy is unsustainable.

However, the facts paint a very different picture. The 58% increase in the number of medicines dispensed over 10 years in Wales compares to a 64% increase over the same period in England, where thet currently charge £7.65 per item. And as for the number of presriptions per head, Wales' dominence of this statistic has nothing to do with cost.

In fact, Wales has dispensed more prescriptions per head than England since as far back as 1973. We just have a sicker population. And, despite all of this the overall cost of issuing prescriptions in Wales actually fell from £594m last year to £587m in the latest figures.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Welsh Ministers caught out in spin again

Welsh Labour Ministers often adopt the tactics of the most successful spin doctors to talk up their own record and most of the time they get away with it. However, as the Western Mail makes clear this morning, on the matter of meeting their own sustainability targets they have been well and truly caught bang to rights.

Friends of the Earth Cymru have claimed the Welsh Government’s own figures on sustainable development reveal a concerning lack of progress in key areas and that some of the Sustainable Development Indicators have been “skewed to give a favourable response”.

Of the 44 indicators, just 19 showed “clear improvement” while short-term changes in the bird population registered a “clear deterioration”. It is little wonder that Friends of the Earth have warned that not enough has been done to fight climate change:

The findings published yesterday showed “clear improvement” in areas such as household waste treatment, rural air quality, water resources management and electricity from renewable sources.

There was “little or no change” under headings such as wellbeing, walking and cycling, public transport use, urban air quality and employment.

Gareth Clubb of Friends of the Earth Cymru said: “This is a real mixed picture of results.

“On some of the biggest issues, we’re seeing a total lack of progress. So in the same week as melting of Arctic sea ice was confirmed to be the worst since records began, greenhouse gases in Wales shot up by 8% in the most recent year analysed.

“Some of the indicators are skewed to give a favourable response.

“For example, does anyone really think we’d be producing less renewable energy in 2012 than in 2003? The question to ask is are we on track to meet our targets?

“The answer is that we’re the basket case of the UK in terms of progress on renewables.

“These results demonstrate the importance of having a robust and ambitious Sustainable Development Bill in Wales, with a duty on bodies to act sustainably, and an independent commissioner to hold them to account for their actions.

“We can turn this situation around, but it will take strong political action to do so.”

As sustainability is a key government goal, this is very worrying criticism. It also applies to the economy. On that issue the Welsh Government claims that there has been a “clear improvement” in Gross Value Added (GVA), which is the measure used to rate economic productivity. However, the Welsh figure as a proportion of the UK average fell from 78% in 1997 to 74% in 2010.

Isn't it time for a little less spin and a bit more outcomes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Peter Hain and the hand of history

In the Western Mail yesterday the former Shadow Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain gave us the benefit once more of his political wisdom and knowledge with the claim that Labour will struggle to win the next general election outright and should be ready to go into coalition with Liberal Democrats.

He may well be right, but if he is I hope that Labour are more prepared to negotiate as equals than they have been in the past.

Hain's political analysis and understanding of history is a bit one dimensional and he struggles with the history of the Liberal Party, which he was once a member of. For example he says:

"It seems likely that the ’Orange Book’ Lib Dem leadership – which hijacked their Party and took it into bed with the Tories – will be rejected by a membership desperate to restore the tradition of ... Lloyd George"

Perhaps Mr. Hain has overlooked the fact that Lloyd George also took his party into a coalition with the Tories.

Head in the clouds

If the future is mobile technology then cloud computing is the key. Essentially, it enables users to draw down software, infrastructure, and storage as separate components or a complete platform via the Internet on demand. As with all technology most of us use it without understanding how it works or why.

So it is hardly surprising that a survey of Americans in which they were asked what their understanding was of cloud computing came up with a wide range of answers.

The survey found that ninety-five percent of those claiming they never use the cloud actually do so via online banking and shopping, social networking, and storing photos and music. But why should they know or even care. After all it is not important that they understand the technology they are using, just that they are able to use it:

The survey of more than 1,000 American adults was conducted in August 2012 by Wakefield Research and shows that while the cloud is widely used, it is still misunderstood. For example, 51 percent of respondents, including a majority of Millennials, believe stormy weather can interfere with cloud computing. Nearly one third see the cloud as a thing of the future, yet 97 percent are actually using cloud services today via online shopping, banking, social networking and file sharing. Despite this confusion, three in five (59 percent) believe the "workplace of the future" will exist entirely in the cloud, which indicates people feel it's time to figure out the cloud or risk being left behind in their professional lives.

These survey responses show there is a significant disconnect between what Americans know, what they pretend to know, and what they actually do when it comes to cloud computing. Among the key findings:

People feign knowledge about the cloud: One in five Americans (22 percent) admit that they've pretended to know what the cloud is or how it works. Some of the false claims take place during work hours, with one third of these respondents faking an understanding of the cloud in the office and another 14 percent doing so during a job interview. Interestingly, an additional 17 percent have pretended to know what the cloud was during a first date.

As a topic of conversation this could run and run.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The rising cost of housing

Today's Independent sets out a compelling and insightful case as to why buying a home is so expensive and why prices continue to rise beyond the means of most of those seeking to get on the housing ladder.

They say that an average three-bed house cost £2,000 in 1952. However, in 2012 it costs £162,000. That amounts to an inflation rate of 8,000%. Putting that into perspective, the average cost of a loaf of bread rose from 6p in 1952 to £1.25 in 2012, an inflation rate of 1,983%. An average pint of milk was 4p in 1952 and is now 49p, an inflation rate of 1,125%. A dozen eggs cost on average 8p sixty years ago and is now £1.68, a 2,000% rise.

Campaign group, Positive Money, believe that they have the answer. they say that it is the debt-based nature of our economy which has caused such huge increases. Their theory also explains why the health of the economy is so closely linked with the housing market:

According to Positive Money, who draw on the work of economists such as Steve Keen and the head of the FSA, Adair Turner, it is the banks’ ability to create digital money when they make new loans that has driven the rise in house prices and fuelled the most recent and catastrophic housing bubble. This is because most of the banks’ lending – and hence most newly created money – goes into the housing market in the form of mortgage lending.

This increased money supply in the housing market creates an increase in demand for houses. The supply of houses, as we already know, can’t match this rising demand so prices are pushed up. The bubble is further inflated by speculators buying property (and borrowing from the banks to do so) because they know the prices will go up, thus creating even more demand and a vicious circle of price rises and increased borrowing until the inevitable bust.

The founder of Positive Money, Ben Dyson, puts it like this: “In effect the banks, by being able to create money and pump it into these property bubbles have been able to double the cost of a place to live for the average person.”

Although there has not yet been an independent academic study in the UK to test this theory the figures seem to speak for themselves:
Between 1995 and 2007 the UK population increased by 5%, the housing stock increased by 10% and house prices increased by 350%, meanwhile mortgage lending by banks increased by 630%. Which of these figures is more likely to have led to a 350% rise in house prices: a 5% rise in population growth which is matched by an increase in supply of housing; or an unprecedented increase in mortgage lending from the banks?

As ever though it does not have to be that way. It was certainly not the case before 1975 when regulatory changes allowed the banks to start pouring money into the housing market. This was coupled with government tax breaks effectively subsidising home ownership:

According to head of the FSA, Adair Turner, over 75% of banks’ lending (and hence money creation) goes into property. If we could somehow reverse this trend and have the majority of lending going to businesses where it would lead to real growth, real production and real job creation, instead of into decaying assets that don’t produce anything of real value, that would perhaps be the beginning of the end for our boom and bust economy.

Somehow, I do not think that it is that straightforward. There are too many vested interests in this mechanism, whilst from the Treasury's point of view a means of increasing money supply quickly and getting the extra cash out into markets is one they will not wish to relinquish easily.

One of the consequences of breaking this cycle, is the severe impact on the economy. Part of the reason for the current downturn lies in the non-availability of money for house purchase and the difficult terms that banks want to impose, including large deposits, before somebody can borrow to buy a home.

The withdrawal symptoms associated with closing down this merry-go-round would be painful and deeply felt, impacting on jobs and the country's overall wealth. It would not be an easy option for any politician.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Blair-Brown Mk II?

The Independent has a fascinating insight into the war that is being waged within Labour's shadow cabinet between the party's Leader and Shadow Chancellor.

They say that relations between Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have become increasingly strained in recent months with the two men clashing over policy and presentation. They quote insiders who claim that Mr Miliband is frustrated by the reluctance of Mr Balls to take a harder line on Britain's banking sector and is demanding that he be consulted on all policy statements. At the same time, allies of Mr Balls have expressed frustration at Mr Miliband's poor media performances and suggest that the party would be doing better still in the polls if he were not leader:

Shadow Cabinet members are said to be increasingly concerned that the two are beginning to replicate the type of dysfunctional relationship that existed between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during their time in power. Among recent examples are:

* Mr Balls pre-empted a keynote announcement by Mr Miliband calling for a public inquiry into Britain's banking sector. Mr Miliband had been due to make the call in a newspaper interview but Mr Balls got in first – announcing the plan a day early on the radio. The move infuriated Miliband aides who felt an agreed media strategy had been sabotaged.

* Shadow Cabinet members say Mr Miliband is failing to stand up to Mr Balls at meetings. They describe the shadow Chancellor as domineering and say he now insists on approving all policies regardless of whether they have an economic impact.

* Mr Balls is said to have blocked moves by Mr Miliband to take a tougher line on bank regulation. Mr Miliband wanted to announce that Labour would legislate to force retail banks to hive off their investment arms – but this was vetoed by Mr Balls. Mr Miliband's aides played down the disagreement.

One source has even claimed that Mr Balls is given to "displays of Alpha-male posturing" and that "Ed is frankly a bit scared of him. He doesn't know what Balls will do next. He refuses to listen to him on economic policy and believes he has a veto on all policy".

And to think that there are still three years to go before a General Election. Can Labour hold it together that long?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

It's all about Harry

Today's Observer carries an interesting and informative profile of Prince Harry saying that his arc of narrative, early tragedy, boisterous misbehaviour, respectable adoption of responsibilities in adulthood, interrupted by occasional bouts of boisterous misbehaviour, mirrors many classic spans of fiction, not least that of Shakespeare's Prince Hal. They add that it has also, albeit unwittingly, allowed the prince to become the focus of many public debates over what the British royal family is "for", and how it should behave.

What I found most endearing about the article though was the respectful tone that it adopts throughout, culminating in this wonderful example:

It wasn't his last apparent misjudgment over political and racial sensibilities. In 2009, he burst into the dressing room of the entertainer Dizzee Rascal and attempted to engage him in a "street handshake". Mr Rascal responded: "If you weren't royalty, I'd have punched you by now."

Of course all Dizzy Rascal's fans refer to him as Mr. Rascal. Why should the paper's correspondent do any differently?

But in the interests of balance I believe I also need to refer to Harry's ability as an Apache helicopter, his bravery in going to Afghanistan, and his first visit to Lesotho during his "gap year", when he quietly co-founded an Aids clinic there, returning many times. And I will conclude this piece with the article's final paragraphs, which say far more about the Prince as a man than anything the Murdoch press may throw at him:

In Mozambique a few years ago, the founder of the Halo Trust mine-clearing charity had a quiet insight into Harry and, arguably, a more lucid one than a shaky stolen Nokia-grab of blurred genitalia. While talking to a blind victim of an excruciatingly random explosion, Harry had held his hand, "which isn't something that comes naturally to a lot of people".

Some people might think that's the beginning of a better story.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rising Stars

Reshuffle speculation has reached fever-pitch with Liberal Democrat Voice publishing the outcome of their poll of party members as to which Lib Dem MP should be promoted.

The top three in that poll are Jo Swinson, Julian Huppert and David Laws. Which interestingly coincides almost exactly with the two Liberal Democrats that the Guardian have highlighted as part of their ten rising stars of the coalition article in today's paper.

Only Julian Huppert is missing from their profile and I suspect that is because he has made a bigger impact with the Liberal Democrat geeks than with the hardened journos of the Westminster lobby.

What nobody is saying is which Liberal Democrats Ministers will be stepped down to make room for them. I am glad it is not my decision.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Blair effect

Today's Telegraph reports that former Labour Leader, Tony Blair's public duties since leaving office have cost the taxpayer £400,000 a year.

They say that the former Prime Minister, who has become a Middle East envoy, continues to draw money from the public purse after leaving Downing Street five years ago:

The bill to the public includes his maximum Prime Ministerial pension, which is worth around £70,000.

He also receives £115,000 allowance to carry out his public work while his security team – including round-the-clock police protection – is believed to cost at least £250,000 a year, according to the Daily Mail.

Since leaving Number 10, Mr Blair, 59, has reportedly amassed a fortune of £30 million through a range of interests including speeches and consultancy work.

Apparently, former Prime Ministers can claim a pension that is "one half of salary at the time of leaving office" regardless of the length of time served. This has been declined by Gordon Brown but not Blair.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Will Cameron ditch Heathrow policy?

Today's Telegraph is speculating that the Prime Minister is likely to move Transport Secretary, Justine Greening to another Cabinet position so as to pave the way for a third runway to be built at Heathrow.

They say that Miss Greening, who is a West London MP, has led the campaign against the expansion of Heathrow and is not likely even to consider allowing a third runway while responsible for the policy.

In addition the Conservative manifesto ruled out expanding the airport, whilst the Liberal Democrats are also opposed. Despite that the third runway is the main demand of business leaders desperate for the Government to kick-start the economy. A consultation is expected to be announced in the autumn on Britain's airport capacity.

The paper adds that it is thought that the Government may begin planning for a third runway immediately after the next election, therefore avoiding accusations that the Tories have broken a manifesto pledge. Miss Greening, regarded as a rising star in the party, is likely to be moved to another high-profile position.

Could this be a defining battle within the coalition? This is not just about the impact on London. It is also about the Government's green credentials. Although this is yet more reshuffle speculation, it raises important questions that need to be answered over the next few months.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In the thick of the coalition

As summer comes to an end (did it ever start?), there is good news on the Televison front, with a new series of Dr. Who and the imminent return of The Thick of it, based around the coalition government.

Rather disturbingly, today's Independent suggests that the scriptwriters have had the benefit of the inside track from Nick Clegg's office. They say that aides to the Deputy Prime Minister have been only too keen to leak embarrassing details of life as the Government’s junior partners.

I do hope so. The Liberal Democrats have always been able to laugh at themselves, though now we are actually exercising power, perhaps that stance is not so appropriate. Still the new series looks like a real treat:

Real life is reflected with the Opposition now in government but forced to share office-space with their ambitious junior coalition partners, known as “The Inbetweeners”.

Malcolm Tucker, the fearsome former No 10 enforcer, is at bay. In a shock turn of events, Nicola Murray, the previous “Dosac” department minister, has become Leader of the Opposition after accidentally winning an election through a block vote mechanism no-one can quite understand. Murray, although no less inept, is now Tucker’s boss.

There are big changes in Whitehall, where Peter Mannion, the world-weary opposition MP with more than a touch of Kenneth Clarke, finally takes over the Social Affairs department. But he has to live with a “Lib Dem” junior minister, keen to make his mark, who publicly contradicts any policies Mannion dares to put forward.

I cannot wait.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More Labour hypocrisy?

I am uneasy myself at UK Government plans to export NHS services overseas so as to generate income for reinvestment in the domestic service, but Labour appeared to have excelled themselves in their criticism of the scheme.

According to the Telegraph, Labour have criticised the proposals as an example of David Cameron's “rampant commercialisation” of the NHS, however, it has now emerged that Gordon Brown’s government set up a profit-making arm called NHS Global to “maximise its international potential… and bring benefits back to the UK taxpayer”.

Its purpose was to “market valuable assets across the system overseas, ranging from innovative products and professional expertise to provision of NHS services and treatments”.

If we can bring money into the country that will be reinvested in the NHS, without compromising the quality of care in Britain then let's give it a try. But really, Labour do need to get their story straight.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Is the grass greener on the other side for aspirant leader

The leader of the Green Party in Wales has become the subject of social media interest over the last few hours as a result of an article in today's Independent that reveals that she drives a 10 year old Jaguar x-type car.

Pippa Bartolotti is seeking to make a virtue of her apparent faux pas, as the paper points out. She 'accepts that driving the car which made John Prescott politically notorious (in his case, as "Two Jags") is likely to be a handicap in her ambitions to lead the low-carbon, public-transport-orientated Greens via their forthcoming internal election, but is unrepentant.

"Yes, it does damage my image within the Green Party – but I've got the same problem everybody else has got," says the former fashion designer and company owner. "Am I suddenly going to pay 25-grand for an electric car which I can't charge up hardly anywhere, because there's no infrastructure, and even if I could charge it up, a lot of the energy would be coming from dirty, coal-fired power stations? It might look nice on the face of it, but that would be cosmetic."

Ms Bartolotti, 59, a mother of three grown-up children who is currently leader of the Greens in Wales, says she knows she could have sold her 10-year-old Jaguar X-type ("market value about 1,800 quid") but decided not to.

When asked why not, she said: "Because I'm a real person. I'm a woman of the world. I know what the issues are really. And you can make all sorts of, you know, trendy leanings towards what should be, but I'm real."

Whether this is enough to convince her fellow party members of her commitment to their cause has to be seen. The hustings events may well be quite lively, especially if attendees also raise this article on the Guido Fawkes website where she was pictured raising the flag of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, which he says is a fascist organisation whose members give the Hitler salute, use a swastika as their emblem and base their party anthem on ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’.

Nice to see that the hitherto purist Green Party has some real characters in their ranks who are not afraid to air their differences with party policy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Reshuffle mania

I spend a week away only to come back to fevered speculation about ministerial reshuffles. I was even telephoned whilst on holiday to establish my view as to whether Cheryl Gillan should be replaced and if so by whom.

I actually refused to comment on that as I don't see how my views are (a) relevant or of any consequence (b) helpful and (c) fully formed.

In truth I do not really care one way or another if we have Cheryl Gillan, Maria Miller or Stephen Crabb in the job. I do agree with Jenny Randerson though that if there is to be a change it would be helpful if the new Secretary of State for Wales represents a Welsh constituency.

Although the article quotes me accurately, it is slightly misleading with regards to the context of what I said to the reporter. As nice as it would be, I am not advocating that Cheryl Gillan is replaced by a Liberal Democrat.

What I said was that there should be a Liberal Democrat in the Wales Office at a more junior level so as to improve coordination between the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Group and the UK Government.

Having said that, there is a strong element of truth in Toby Mason's analysis of the state of the four Welsh parties over at the BBC when he writes:

Some Tory AMs suggest their main sources of intelligence on upcoming coalition policy and strategy announcements from Westminster are largely corridor chats with Liberal Democrat AMs - who, they feel, are kept considerably better in the loop about what's coming down the track.

We have our lines of communication sorted out and are already succeeding in influencing decisions as was evidenced with the announcement to electrify the mainline to Swansea.

Our dissent on some policies is also noted in the appropriate quarters when we express it, though as always in politics our views do not necessarily get us exactly what we want, when we want it.

A Liberal Democrat Minister in the Wales Office would strengthen those ties and ensure that our voice was much louder at the Cabinet table. I hope that Nick Clegg is pressing for it.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Are the new constituency boundaries dead and buried?

As if to underline our efficacy in vetoing the new constituency boundaries, the Liberal Democrats have let it be known that they will be selecting their candidates to fight the next election on the basis of current Westminster constituencies.

The Independent say that it is now only the Conservative Party that is pressing ahead with plans to select candidates and campaign on the basis of the revised boundaries.

That could present problems for the party if David Cameron loses the vote on the issue when it is debated in the House of Commons late next year or in 2014.

The Liberal Democrats claim that this would disadvantage them: "Ideally in key seats you'd spend the next two years making sure voters had been approached at least once on the doorstep and seen literature promoting our candidates," said one source

"The danger is if you try to do this on the basis of seats that don't even exist – and are unlikely to – you may have a lot of catching up to do at the end."

Friday, August 10, 2012

Labour advisor slates his party's record

Today's Telegraph has an interesting story about Imran Ahmed, who has just been appointed as a special advisor to Labour Shadow Minister, Hilary Benn.

Mr. Ahmed is one of the harshest critics of the previous Labour government’s inability to regulate the banks properly. Writing in an article for Tribune he said:

“Labour’s failure to intervene during its 13 years in power was unforgiveable and a prime reason for their 2010 general election defeat. Under Labour, the Financial Services Authority was simply not fit for purpose.”

Is the first sign that Labour are starting to take responsibility for the economic mess they left for the current government to clear up?

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Olympics kills off satire

I have come a bit late to this article which was brought to my attention through a retweet on Twitter. However, that did not reduce my open-mouthed astonishment as I read it.

The Guardian reports that London 2012 are investigating how a bucket of unofficial condoms found its way into the athletes' village without official consent. They say that the Australian BMX cyclist Caroline Buchanan tweeted a photograph of the bucket, which featured a sign reading "Kangaroos condoms, for the gland down under", and a picture of a boxing kangaroo.

They say that she joked that the bucket seemed to back up rumours that the village becomes a hot bed of activity as thousands of competitors complete their events and celebrate after years of working to get to the Olympics – tweeting: "Haha, the rumours are true. Olympic village."

Barcelona started the trend of supplying free condoms to athletes when the Spanish city held the Olympics in 1992, with the International Olympic Committee endorsing the move.

The London Olympic organisers provided 150,000 free condoms in dispensers for the 10,800 athletes at the Games, supplied by Durex which paid for the supply rights.

A Locog spokeswoman said they were trying to find out who distributed the Kangaroo condoms, with the container shown to hold condoms from Durex's rivals Ansell Ltd, an Australian company, and Pasante, a private British firm.

She said athletes and officials were allowed to bring products into the village for their personal use.

"We will look into this and ask that they are not handed out to other athletes because Durex are our supplier," said the spokeswoman.

Organisers tightly control which brands can be promoted at the Games, striking sponsorship deals with a limited number of companies and trying to stop non-sponsors from getting free publicity on the back of the Olympics.

Utterly bizarre.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Another Labour own goal?

With the Olympics in full swing Labour have been desperate to find anything that will show that the UK Coalition Government is not getting into the spirit of the games. It was no surprise therefore that they were keen to make capital from their own freedom of information request that found that education secretary, Michael Gove, has approved of the disposal of more than 20 school playing fields since the coalition came to power two years ago, despite a pledge to protect sports pitches from development.

However, all is not how it seems. The Department for Education has responded with details of the 21 playing fields approved for disposal:

Of the 21 playing fields we approved for disposal 14 were schools that had closed, four were sites that became surplus when existing schools amalgamated. Of the other three:

•One was surplus marginal grassland on the school site. Proceeds of the sale were invested in the school library development and sports changing facilities.

•One was leased to a company to redevelop and improve a playing field (for the school’s use) that was subject to poor drainage and under used. Funding introduced all-weather playing surfaces comprising of four 5-a-side pitches, two 7-a-side pitches, a full sized football and hockey pitch and a six-court indoor tennis facility. The school also profited from private hire of facilities outside school hours.

•One was due to be leased to an Athletics Club to improve sporting provision for the Club and the school, although in this case the project did not go ahead.

We will only agree to the sale of school playing fields if the sports and curriculum needs of schools and their neighbouring schools can continue to be met. Sale proceeds must be used to improve sports or education facilities and any new sports facilities must be sustainable for at least 10 years.

What is worse from Labour's point of view is that Education Department then goes on to give details of how many playing fields were sold off by them when they were in government. A total of 212 playing fields were sold off by the last Labour Government. No doubt they had good reasons as well.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Is there life on Mars?

It is the silly seasonm so with a probe now safely ensconced on the surface of Mars and transmitting data back to Earth, here is a timely warning of what could go wrong.

As for me, I am off to the Eisteddfod for the day.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Family friendly

The resignation of Louise Mensch as as MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire has come as a bit of a shock, but her reasons for going are familiar ones in the world of politics.

Frankly, being an MP or any kind of full-time politician is not conducive to family life. Parliament is littered with the debris of failed marriages and broken relationships.

Not many MPs though have a substantial private income as a best selling writer, and a husband based in New York, whose job is to manage well-known rock bands. In the circumstances I am surprised she was able to hold on this long.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

An occasional round-up of Welsh blogposts Part Three

This is the third selection of blog posts that have caught my eye over the last few weeks. In fact it has been over a month since I last did this so there may well be a fair range in the choice. First off is Glyn Davies MP. Glyn is the PPS to the Secretary of State for Wales so his take on the Welsh Government's first bill on local government byelaws, why it has been referred to the supreme court by the Attorney General and the consequences for the proposed legislation on presumed consent with organ donation, is well worth reading:

The thing about constitutional law is that you cannot just make it up as you go along. And its very amateurish to try.

This issue is of minuscule interest. But the same sort of difficulty could arise over the Welsh Gov'ts desire to change the organ donation system to one based 'presumed consent'. A bill to do this will be of much greater interest - both to me and more widely. When this matter was first proposed by the Welsh Gov't I was implacably opposed to it - but am much less so now. In fact, if the Bill contains a legal assurance that next of kin will always have a veto, I would personally favour going further than the Welsh Government. I would like to see the next of kin of every potential organ donor being approached in a positive sympathetic manner, rather than just those who had signed some register. But this is nothing to do with the legal point. Let me say what my personal approach would be if I were to be the decision-taker. I would not object to a bill because I didn't like it, or didn't approve of it. But if the Attorney General informed me he had doubts about the Welsh Gov'ts competence in this policy area, because of its 'human rights' implications, I would oppose it - and ask the Supreme Court to decide. That's what its for. So you can see - when its comes to it, the issue is quite simple.

Over at the BBC, Betsan Powys comes back from a week in Tenby to find her agenda dominated by unfinished business. Top of the list is the political turmoil within Plaid Cymru and the ramifications from the no confidence vote in the health minister that started it off and which is just the start of a continuing controversy centred on health reorganisation:

1. Now that Plaid Cymru have called off the (disciplinary) dogs against former leader and Presiding Officer Dafydd Elis-Thomas, who had accused his party of behaving like Tory (lap) dogs, will peace break out for good? I doubt it.

Will the former Presiding Officer be tempted to cross the floor by Labour's sweet nothings? No. He does admit, though, that he thought about it, dismissing the idea because of the support he got from local Plaid members in Dwyfor Meirionnydd.

Now, you may at this point be tempted to slip into theorising about whether simply thinking about being unfaithful is as bad as actually being unfaithful? As in, if your mind is elsewhere darling, your body might as well be there too. (No need to ask what sort of books I spent my time reading last week.) On the other hand you may debate what 'being unfaithful' in this case actually means and whether Lord Elis-Thomas was, in his view, being perfectly true to the values of the Plaid Cymru he represents.

Either way, this feels like unfinished business.

2. Is the vote that highlighted the Plaid member's absence from the chamber history now? It is. But while the Health Minister now knows her opponents in the chamber doubt her grip on her brief, what she'll really want to know is whether the First Minister intends to leave her in the job. Oh, and the business of persuading those who use the NHS in Wales that the changes proposed are absolutely necessary, right and considered? Barely started, not just unfinished.

Maria Pretzler has an interesting post on the impact of the internet on academic research and in particular who will pay for open access publishing. The idea is that by 2014 all publications of all research which has been funded by the British taxpayer has to be accessible to universities, companies and individuals.

She says that many universities dismiss publications unless they appear in a select group of ‘top journals’, which further increases the market value of some titles. As a result, the publishing companies have universities in a stranglehold, and library budgets are feeling the pinch:

Here is the problem: as the Guardian reports,

British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.

She concludes: In the age of the internet, journals are, however, no longer the most efficient mode of disseminating research, and scholars continue to use them because they need the recognition which only publication in a reputable journal can provide. Do we still need journals? Is there another, more practical way of organising rigorous peer review?

Paul Flynn MP looks to the Liberal Democrats to help him avoid an awkward reselection battle in Newport by vetoing the boundary changes:

The Lib-Dems plus Labour can bury a grossly unfair set of boundary changes. It's right, it's just and it would be sweet victory for the LibDems. Pretty good too for Newport. I'll raise a glass of champagne the night that happens.

Inside Out comment on the Independent councillor in Llanelli who has been reported to the Ombudsman for suggesting that a young woman could earn a living working as a prostitute. They pose a fairly valid question:

For ourselves, we have no idea if there is any research out there which identifies whether politicians who Tweet or maintain Facebook pages are any more effective – or productive – than their less networked colleagues. Our instincts tell us they are not but we wait to be told otherwise.

Finally, Gareth Hughes reports that whilst Ed Miliband has been campaigning for the Union some of his party in Scotland have different ideas:

A “Labour for Independence” group has established itself in Scotland. It is difficult to measure the extent of support within the Labour party for its aims, but they are pushing for a proper debate within the Scottish Labour Party.

They’ve just launched a website called Labour for Independence and are pushing the Scottish Labour Party to allow members a vote on the issue.

They’re campaigning to shift Labour’s stance in Scotland from pro union to that of backing independence in the 2014 referendum.

The Labour machine not surprisingly say that the organisation lacks any real support amongst the membership. And they are probably right, in as much that most of the Labour members who held such views would have drifted to the SNP over the years.

But those behind the organisation say “In the last month, we have gained 24,000 Facebook viewers, created our own website, which after one week has more than 2,000 hits.”

The question is, could a similar group exist within Welsh Labour? Gareth thinks not but he believes that if there were an independence referendum in Wales then a number of Labour members would be likely to campaign for a “yes” vote. I think the jury is out on that one.

Eating his words

If a week is a long time in politics then it certainly makes a huge difference in the Olympics.

A few days ago the French President was in London teasing the David Cameron at Britain's failure to match France's medal haul. Britain at that time was in 21st spot on the medals table, France was third.

Today, Team GB is third in the medal table with 14 golds, 7 silvers and 8 bronze, a total of 29. France is fifth with 22 medals of which 8 are gold.

It has been a fantastic effort from the whole team and an historic achievement last night from Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford on track and field, the cyclists, the rowers and swimmers. They, the other medal winners and all our athletes have done us proud. But it ain't over yet.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Why it has to be the end of the road for the #TeamGB football team

With the Team GB football team playing the quarter finals in Cardiff today, they should be commended on defying expectations and getting as far as they have. I for one, am anticipating them going further and possibly picking up a medal.

However, we should not get carried away with their success, even if there are many voices in the media who remained confused as to what they represent and why they are doing so well.

They are effectively an England and Wales Team representing the United Kingdom. They are not an English team despite lazy claims to the contrary and I think it is fair to say that they would not have got this far without their Welsh players.

In part the controversy about the national anthem is rooted in this confusion. If we are going to use God Save the Queen interchangeably as an English and a British anthem, then it is little wonder that the Welsh and the Scots are reluctant to sing along to it.

The other myth that is being peddled about is that we can repeat this experiment in future Olympics. We cannot, and Matt Withers in his Western Mail column today sets out some very good reasons why not:

Team GB qualified for this year’s tournament automatically as hosts, and with the promise from world governing body FIFA that it would not affect the home nations’ independence.

That would not be the case in four years’ time. The other three European teams in the London games – Spain, Switzerland and Belarus – qualified through last year’s Under-21 championship. The teams playing in Brazil will qualify through the 2013 U21 championship in Israel (who beat Wales to host it).

Therefore, if Team GB seriously wants to be at the next Olympics, the four football associations of the UK will have to agree to pulling out of qualifying for Israel and field a united side instead.

Not only would it severely disrupt youth development in all four nations – and what would be the motivation of Scotland and Northern Ireland, who failed to provide a single player to this year’s squad? – but the precedent it would set could wipe out the associations themselves.

Why would FIFA agree to Britain fielding a united side at one level, the under-21s, but play as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at all levels below and above that? Are they one association, or four? Certainly the FA selecting the Team GB squad this year has already muddied the waters in some minds.

And if they could operate as one team, Uefa, European football’s governing body, could view GB as one entity. A situation is not out of the question where, with one national side, Britain would be asked to provide representatives for European club competition rather than the individual nations.

The English may not understand the sensitivities brough about by asymetric devolution, but as Matt says they will certainly be forced to come face-to-face with reality when they find themselves travelling to Aberdeen for a football league fixture because Uefa has ruled we can no longer have separate national leagues.

Good luck to the Welsh players who are holding Team GB together this evening, and of course to their English team mates, but once this party is over, it is back to the old system. Hopefully, we will not see a Team GB football team again.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Defying political gravity

The Telegraph carries an intriguing response by the Prime Minister to polls that show his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne to be marginally more popular than bubonic plague.

Rather than consider finding a new tenant for No. 11 Downing Street, David Cameron has instead asserted that George Osborne will remain as the man in charge of the UK's economy until the general election which is due to take place in 2015.

The paper says that Osborne has been heavily criticised since the budget, after being forced into a series of about-turns and amid accusations of poor presentation from the Treasury:

But asked if he would remain at the Treasury until the general election, Mr Cameron told Sky News: "George Osborne is doing an excellent job in very difficult circumstances and he has my full support in doing that. He is not going anywhere."

Repeatedly pressed to say if this meant Mr Osborne would still be Chancellor at the general election, he said: "Yes."

This sort of public assurance is very brave. The Prime Minister has left himself no room for manoeuvre at all. Whether he will be able to deliver on this promise has yet to be seen.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

More questions on Welsh Government flagship programme

Yesterday's Western Mail highlights problems with yet another Community First area reporting that the Cwmaman Communities First Partnership in the Cynon Valley is the second such regeneration project to face a police inquiry.

As they say this raises fresh concerns about the level of scrutiny exercised over the initiative, which up until 2010 had spent £241m of public money.

They add that in October last year Miriam Beard, the coordinator of Plas Madoc Communities First Partnership in Wrexham, was jailed for 32 months after defrauding the body of more than £53,000:

Beard’s family members benefited by tens of thousands of pounds from payments made by the partnership.

Last month a confiscation order for £22,000 was made against Beard at Mold Crown Court. She was given six months to pay, with the alternative of serving an additional 15 months in jail.

During her trial, the prosecution said Beard had “milked” the registered charity, diverting money supposed to be used to improve the local community, for her own ends and that of her family.

Scrutiny and accountability are not the only concerns about this programme. Huge amounts of public money are being spent without any clear way of measuring outcomes.

It is virtually impossible to tell if the cash is changing things in a meaningful way in terms of reducing poverty, tackling unemployment, building skill levels or improving the health and prospects of local people. Furthermore the level of local accountability is inadequate.

There needs to be a much more significant overhaul of the way Communities First is operated and how success is measured, something that the recent review does not achieve.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Only Boris

The Mayor of London stuck on a zipline shouting get me a ladder or a rope.

Liberal Democrats block more welfare cuts

The Independent reports that a government-wide spending review is to be scaled back because Nick Clegg is refusing to commit to billions of pounds of further cuts in the welfare budget.

They say that the Deputy Prime Minister is facing a grassroots revolt from Liberal Democrats against signing up to a detailed package of public spending cuts during the two years after the 2015 general election. Activists are threatening to table an emergency motion at the party's autumn conference in an attempt to prevent the leadership supporting a new round of cuts, which they fear would be deeply unpopular.

However, Mr Clegg and other Liberal Democrat ministers were already worried about plans floated by David Cameron and George Osborne for an extra £10bn of welfare cuts. They believe they could not be imposed without harming vulnerable people.

Instead, the party is likely to fight the election on a pledge to clear the remaining deficit through tax rises such as a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2m and a cut in the 40 per cent tax relief on pension contributions enjoyed by higher rate taxpayers.

It is a compelling narrative and one I can support wholeheartedly. It also shows once again how the Liberal Democrats in Government are seeking to restrain the worse excesses of the Tories.

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