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Monday, December 31, 2012

Jumping the fiscal cliff

As Washington faces a budget deadlock and possible dire consequences for the US and World economy, I wonder if President Obama will be following the example of the fictional President Bartlett in forcing an agreement:

Sunday, December 30, 2012

An occasional round-up of Welsh blogposts Part Six

This is the sixth in a series of reviews of Welsh blog posts that have caught my eye over the last month. In fact it was 25th October when I last did this so this series has been more occasional that I had envisaged.

I thought I would start with an intriguing post from A Change of Personnel concerning the fate of the DotCym campaign and in particular a statement from the individuals concerned, which blames Minister’s, Political Party’s and lobbyists for their fate:

With only two volunteer working in their spare time with dotCYM, it was possible to run the enterprise but impossible to fight against Nominet, the Welsh civil servants, the Welsh Government, Darran Hill and his PR company, and Ieuan Evans and other members of Nominet’s Wales Advisory Group.

According to Maredudd ap Gwyndaf, “We would meet with Welsh politicians in Cardiff and London and Nominet and a member of the Wales Advisory Group had already met with all of them lying about dotCYM by saying that we only wanted to create a domain for Welsh speaker, ignoring the rest of the Welsh people and businesses. This was a complete lie and they knew this, but with only enough time to meet a handful of politicians and no money to fight Nominet with the law it was impossible to stop their lies and PR machine. Every politician which I met supported us after they became aware of the truth but I didn’t have the time to meet enough of them.

Actually I don't recognise this scenario at all. I had a number of meetings with Nominet and at no time was this line used with me. Like many Cardiff Bay politicians I had also met with DotCym on a number of occasions so would have known better if such views were expressed in my presence. What is interesting though is this:

It didn’t take Nominet long to show their lack of respect to Wales. They created a website for their .cymru and .wales domains and used Google Translate to tranlate the English content to Wales. The news story can be seen here.

If this is true then it is very worrying. If Nominet want to win the confidence of the Welsh-speaking community then they need to sort this out.

Glyn Davies MP has a view on a recent row in  a Pwllheli shop over the use of the Welsh language:

Former Archdruid of the Gorsedd of Bards, 83yr old Dr Robyn Lewis collected up goods worth |£58. 62p from the shelves of the Spar shop. At the till he was asked by a cashier in the English Language for the money. Dr Lewis insisted on being asked for "Pum deg wyth punt, chwedeg dau". There must have been a bit of a stand-off because store manager, Mr Conrad Davies decided to call in the police to sort out the disturbance. To make the situation worse, the first police officer on the scene was a monoglot English speaker - so a bilingual back-up was called to sort things out. It seems all was settled in the end when another cashier, who could speak Welsh asked Dr Lewis for the money in the way he demanded.

On one level this is no more than an amusing little story. I rather like stubborn principled people like Dr Robyn Lewis. He has a reputation for this sort of thing, and took it upon himself to make a point. He wanted to be spoken to in his own language, in his own country, and why not. He would have been completely stuck in Berriew though,unless I happened to be picking up my Telegraph and in a position to help him out. The point he was making is that retail units should, wherever possible, ensure customers who want to be served in Welsh can be.

Glyn's final point is a valid one. He says that the bigger issue is that Welsh speakers are being mocked and laughed at in the UK media. He is not at all sure that this type of story is helpful to the Welsh Language.

Inside Out have a unique perspective on many Welsh issues, their view on the Caerphilly Council Chief Officer wages scandal appears to be no exception, written, it seems with bitter experience in mind:

Incoming cabinets fresh to office are distracted from remembering sleights they suffered in opposition by the prospect of mould-breaking proposals which, they are told, have been allowed to gather dust by their tired, unimaginative predecessors.

It's an irresistible opportunity for the new crowd to show that they are not afraid of making "the tough decisions" - or some such equally fatuous sound bite - and the outcome is inevitably an unplanned expense that skews the budget, sinks the manifesto and makes for unwelcome headlines.

You get the feeling that something of this ilk happened in Caerphilly where the chief executive has received a tidy pay rise since May for services yet to be rendered. The suspicion is that the Plaid opposition were laying in wait for the Labour newbies to drop this particular bollock as it was something they had themselves rejected when in office.

Syniadau has been reflecting on those census results that show the Welsh language to be losing ground across Wales. What is particularly helpful is a speadsheet he has devised that produces a more detailed breakdown and comparison between the two sets of data on an age band and county-by-county basis.

Over at the Bevan Foundation Blog, the Managing Director if Positif Politics, Daran Hill takes a look back at the political year that was 2012. It has been very much Labour's year:

Labour in Wales is now governing alone, though from to time it makes deals with either Plaid or the Liberal Democrats to secure key items on the floor of the Assembly.

The first practical demonstration of this pragmatism came just before last Christmas when negotiations with the Lib Dems proved to be the first significant demonstration of effective horse-trading within the new administration and a forerunner of what is to come. No formal coalitions are likely but both parties are keen to work with Labour on key issues, not least Plaid under its new and radically left wing leader Leanne Wood.

Finally, Paul Flynn MP gives 23 reasons why the UK honours system is discredited. Here are two of them:

3. The present architecture of the honours system institutionalises snobbery and privilege and cements class divisions. Those who are already over-privileged by wealth, birth, fame or fortune are further rewarded with titles and medals.

4. Knighthoods and peerages are freely distributed in abundance to the tax-avoiding comedians, overpaid bankers or dreary political time-servers. Dedicated charity workers who have inspired and innovated are less fortunate. Teachers, local authority workers, nurses or postmen appear amongst the awards with demeaning minor gongs. Michael Winner famously refused to accept an OBE because that was what he said should be offered to a 'toilet cleaner at King’s Cross Station'. His comment is accurate. The Honours are distributed, not of meritorious service, but on the ranking of the recipient in the social ladder of snobbery.

Never mind, you might get an honour next time, Paul.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Welsh Government's cuts to bus services will damage economy

Thursday's Western Mail highlights one of the consequences of a decision by the Welsh Labour Government to cut the grant to bus operators by a quarter.

They say that sixteen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have signed a letter to First Minister Carwyn Jones and seven other ministers warning them that slashing Welsh bus funding by 26% will hamper economic recovery, marginalise many people and worsen unemployment and public health.

They say the planned funding cut will “deal a severe blow to bus services and bus users”, whilst harming the ability of Wales’ beleaguered high streets to compete with e-commerce and out-of-town retail and leisure complexes:

 Transport Minister Carl Sargeant unveiled the 26% cut in January 2012 but later postponed it while the system of financing bus services was reviewed. Some of the cut was implemented in October and the remainder is scheduled for April – taking bus grants from £33m last year to just £25m in 2013-14.

The NGOs claim this will trigger further service cuts and fare rises, on top of those implemented last spring in response to Mr Sargeant’s original announcement.

They predict this will be especially damaging to local retailers. Research has found that bus passengers spend £27.2bn a year during shopping and leisure trips in Britain.

Of that, £21.5bn is spent in town or city centres rather than out-of-town complexes which provide free car parking but often poor accessibility by public transport.

Given that this cut directly contradicts their own policy objectives it does seem bizarre that Welsh Labour have passed it on in this way. Clearly, the money available to the Government in Cardiff Bay has been reduced in real terms due to austerity measures but surely intelligent budgetting would ensure that ministers will do everything they can to protect their own priorities. After all, isn't that what devolution is all about?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Hunting ban repeal unlikely next year

Now this is good news, the Western Mail reports on the views of a key Cabinet Minister that nothing will happen in Parliament to set in chain a repeal of the ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales in 2013. They say that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson does not think he could win such a vote.

Mr Paterson, a keen supporter of country sports including hunting, told the Daily Telegraph: “There’s only a point having a vote if you’re going to win.

“At the moment, it would not be my proposal to bring forward a vote we were going to lose. There needs to be more work done on Members of Parliament.”

He went on: “It is our clear intention to have a free vote but we need to choose an appropriate moment.”

What is interesting is that record numbers are turning out for Boxing Day faux-hunts. However, contrary to the propaganda being put about by the pro-hunt lobby that this indicates large support for the ban to be overturned, it seems that the opposite is true.

People seem more enthusiastic about joining these events when they don't end in an animal being ripped to shreds by dogs. And that is borne out by opinion polls, despite attempts by hunters to argue that the views of those in the country are qualitively more superior to those living in urban areas.

In fact polls show that even amongst country-dwellers the majority favour the ban.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

UK Coalition is cutting the wealth gap

Over at the Independent, John Rentoul highlights some inconvenient facts for those who claim that the UK Coalitoin Government is putting the interests of the rich above those of the poorest in our society. It simply is not true.

Well, this is where it gets interesting, because what “everyone knows” is not what is happening. The gap between rich and poor has not changed significantly for about 20 years, not since the increase in inequality that occurred when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in the 1980s. For most of the boom times since then, everyone got richer, at roughly the same rate, and the ratio between rich and poor remained unchanged. And even now, as we all get a bit poorer again as a result of the bust, the losses are spread pretty equally with, if anything, the rich bearing the greater share of the burden.

Two important sets of statistics were published this year which bring the picture up to date. Their findings on equality were unreported for the simple reason that they did not show what everyone expected them to show. In June, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published an analysis of official data that found that, although all after-tax incomes fell in the first year of the Coalition (2010-11), higher incomes fell more than lower incomes, resulting in a more equal distribution.

Then in July, the first official estimates of the distribution of wealth were published for some time. The new figures, from the Wealth and Assets Survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics, covered the period from 2006 to 2010. In other words, roughly the period of the Gordon Brown government. The figures do not tell us about what is happening under the Coalition, but they were a missing part of the puzzle, because although there are a lot of statistics about incomes, there have been no reliable figures for the inequality of wealth in the UK for many years. What the survey showed was that the degree of inequality of wealth hardly changed from 2006 to 2010, becoming slightly more equal. Unless something dramatic has changed in the past two years, we would expect that trend to continue.

In fact a millionaire will pay £381,000 more tax on their income under this government than they did under Labour. Why are we not shouting louder about this?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Archbishop loses the spirit of Christmas

In seeking to comment on the Christmas message of the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, that government's plans to introduce same-sex marriage, arem"shambolic" and the product of "shallow thinking", I can do no better than quote the chief executive of the organisation Stonewall, Ben Summerskill.

He has pointed out that polling evidence has suggested that a majority of the general public are in favour of same- sex marriage:

"We do think it's very sad that an archbishop should sully the day of the birth of Jesus by making what seem to be such uncharitable observations about other people.

"Some of us are mindful of Luke 2:14, which reminds us that Christmas Day is a day of peace and goodwill to all men. Perhaps Archbishop Nichols should have spent a little more time in Bible study."

After all the government has said that, under its plans to legalise gay marriage, no religious group would be obliged to perform such ceremonies against its will.

And if we are talking about democratic mandates then who elected the Archbishop? Church and state have been separated for some time in this country, it is not for the Catholic Church or any other religious institution to start dictating the policy of the government.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 24, 2012

Lost keys

Some people I know are always losing their keys but never with the sort of consequences described here.

The Telegraph reports that taxpayers have had to foot a £330,000 bill for changing the locks at four prisons after guards lost their keys. Apparently, the prisons have had to have all their locks replaced over the past two years as misplaced or stolen keys caused security scares but the Ministry of Justice has declined to say which ones were affected.

That is a very expensive lesson to learn. Let's hope that systems have been put in place to ensure that it does not have to be learnt all over again.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rise of the next generation

Because it is Christmas I suppose we can forgive the Independent for repeating itself, which explains why this article has a familiar feel about it. In fact the paper carried a similar piece back in September, prompting me to blog on it then too.

The current article contains a bit more detail of the many sons and daughters of Labour MPs seeking to extend or create a dynasty. In addition to Euan Blair's interest in Coventry North West, Will Straw lurking around Rossendale and Darwen, and Joe Dromey, devoting a lot of time to the safe Labour seat of Lewisham Deptford, there is a whole list of up-and-coming off-spring seeking to capitalise on the family name:

There is Emily Benn, the 23 year old granddaughter of Tony Benn and whose uncle is frontbencher Hilary Benn. She tried and failed to win East Worthing in 2010 at the age of 21 and is now on a graduate training programme at UBS Investment Bank.

Then there is Andy Sawford, the 36 year old son of Phil Sawford, who was, until 2005 the MP for Kettering, the next-door seat to Corby. By coincidence Andy Sawford won the Corby by-election for Labour last month, replacing departing MP Louise Mensch.

Finally there is Georgia Gould, the 26 year old daughter of Philip Gould. The late Philip Gould, was one of the founders of New Labour. Random House supremo Gail Rebuck is her mother.

Georgia is thought to be interested in going for a south-east seat despite the controversy in 2009 when, straight out of Oxford, she put herself forward for the Labour selection for Erith and Thamesmead. Her attempt sparked cries of nepotism, and she failed to get selected. But she is thought to be still interested in going for a seat next time.

Of course the Tories have been practising this sort of dynastic politics for some time. As the Independent points out they have the Gummers (John and son Ben), the Johnsons (brothers Boris and Jo) and the Hurds (Douglas and son Nick). How many more will emerge over the next few years on both sides?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

National Rifle Association don't do PR

Social media was awash with incredulity yesterday at the sheer crassness of the press statement from the National Rifle Association in response to the dreadful massacre of 20 first-grade children and six staff members in Newtown, Connecticut.

As the Guardian reports, the NRA's executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre finally broke his silence and delivered a defiant message to the nation that "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Their solution is to put an armed guard in every school. arm the teachers and presumably arm the kids as well. That is going to work, not. The paper says:

His statement dashed hopes of gun control advocates that the NRA would be willing to engage in debate about tighter restrictions on gun ownership, such as a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines of the type used by Adam Lanza in Newtown. On Tuesday, an NRA statement promised the organisation would make a "meaningful contribution" to prevent mass shootings.

They continue: The NRA chief's unbending response to Newtown was delivered at a packed press conference in Washington that was disrupted twice by hecklers carrying banners that said "NRA: Killing Our Kids" and "NRA: Blood On Its Hands". In the course of about half an hour, LaPierre laid blame for the Sandy Hook massacre on several other parties including the media, politicians in favour of gun-free zones, the country's mental health services, gamers and the film studios that make violent movies – but brooked no criticism of the NRA itself.

He warned that there were "dozens, maybe more than 100 … monsters" out there already planning the next attack on an unprotected school. The only way to stop another gun rampage was to put guns in schools.

He said: "If we truly cherish our kids, more than money, more than our celebrities, we must must give them the greatest level of protection possible and the security that is only available with a properly trained – armed – good guy."

You do get the impression that these people watch too many John Wayne films. New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, sums it up. He called LaPierre's comments "a shameful evasion of the crisis facing our country. Instead of offering solutions to a problem they have helped create, they offered a paranoid, dystopian vision of a more dangerous and violent America where everyone is armed and no place is safe."

Obama has an uphill struggle to reform America's gun laws. Dinosaurs like LaPierre make it more difficult and almost make it certain that tragedies like Newtown and Columbine will happen again and again.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The tools that helped Obama win

There is a fascinating article in Time magazine outlining some of the techniques used by Obama in his recent successful campaign for re-election. They say that his election machine machine used new methods of mining informatuon devised by a geek squad convened from multinational ad agencies, corporate consultancies and high-tech start-ups:

The goals were the same as ever: more money in the bank, more door knocks, more phone calls, more voter registrations and more voters at the polls. But the methods for achieving those ends in 2012 bordered on the revolutionary. A squad of dozens of data crunchers created algorithms for predicting the likelihood that someone would respond to specific types of requests to accomplish each of those goals. Vast quantities of information were collected and then employed to predict just which television shows various target voters in certain cities were watching at just what time of day — the better to decide where to place TV ads. Facebook, which was an afterthought in 2008, became the new electronic telephone call, employed to persuade more than 600,000 Obama supporters to reach out to 5 million swing-state friends online with targeted messages in the days before the election. One woman in central Ohio who was living with her young voting-age daughter reported that her house got four different visits on the morning of Election Day, each from a different neighbor making sure both women had remembered to vote.

The geek squad also found new ways to make voters turn out their pockets. They refined meet-the-candidate lotteries into an art form, invented a system for texting dollars from a mobile phone that required entering only a single number and experimented with the language of e-mail pitches until they stung. Of his $1 billion campaign-cash haul, Obama was able to raise $690 million online in 2012, up from about $500 million in 2008. More than $200 million of that came in donations of $200 or less, a 10% increase over the history-making frenzy of 2008. In a campaign that big super-PAC money was supposed to dominate, Obama’s operation proved that many small efforts were more powerful than a few big ones. No one in either party thinks campaign finance will ever be the same.

What is interesting is the claim that this coalition is  non-transferable as it is personal to Obama himself.

Update: There is an interesting comparison of the two campaigns in the Boston Globe here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The year of technology

The Telegraph's 'Year in Review' looks at the way that new technology has helped to shape 2012.  They say that this is not just thanks to the gadgets that we ares buying with more enthusiasm than almost any other nation on Earth, but that every aspect of our lives is becoming connected to the web.

They say that the overall trend is for a more connected world:

Facebook’s floatation, although not a financial success yet, shows that these are grown-up businesses. The launch of Netflix in the UK indicates that globally, the web is a global platform that people need for entertainment and day-to-day-living, while government and businesses need it more than ever for essential services. No wonder both it and those gadgets have been more controversial – and popular – than ever before.

The most interesting part of the article is that speculating on ownership of the internet and threats to its independence:

The internet may have made the world a smaller place, in communication terms, but the same territorial concerns and power struggles remain. Chief among those is who controls the internet in the first place. At the recent talks hosted by the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the United Nations, Britain and America refused to sign a draft treaty intended to update an international telecoms agreement signed in 1988. Western countries were concerned that China, Iran and Russia could seek to use the treaty to increase online censorship. For their part, China, Iran and Russia objected to attempts to make telecoms access a human right.

The US and many big internet firms, such as Google, want minimal state interference in the running of the internet and they seem to have got want they want. At least for now.

2013 could be just as interesting.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tories’ bid for UK Bill of Rights declared 'dead'

Today's Independent contains more good news for those of us on the libertarian side of the political divide, namely that Conservatives’ plans to dilute the influence of the European Court of Human Rights before the next general election have been pronounced “dead” after the commission set up to review the issue ended in deadlock.

As the paper records Liberal Democrats had vowed to block any moves to change the Act which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. It has now emerged that the nine-member panel set up by the Government has been unable to agree amongst themselves on whether there should be a British Bill of Rights, which the Tories support:

Baroness (Helena) Kennedy, a Labour peer, and Philippe Sands, a law professor, refused to join the other seven members in signing up to the merits of such a measure. Writing in The Independent today, they warn that a British Bill would “be used to strip people of basic rights and decouple the UK from the European Convention."

Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, who is determined to reform human rights laws, will try to salvage something from yesterday’s inconclusive report from the commission. But his proposals early next year will be limited, and even they may have to be shelved until after the 2015 election because of Lib Dem opposition.

A senior Lib Dem source said last night: “There is absolutely no question of this Coalition Government repealing the Human Rights Act or withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. The Conservatives are perfectly entitled to develop their own policies for their election manifesto."

That is a nice Christmas present and another benefit of the Liberal democrats involvement in the coalition.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why vaccinating badgers is the right option

An interesting e-mail has arrived in my in-box from the Badger Trust highlighting further research on the vaccination of badgers as a means of controlling bovine TB.

Obviously a vaccine cannot eliminate disease where it is already established but it can stop it spreading and given that the life span of a badger is about five years, then an effective vaccination programme can remove the reservoir of infection in the medium term.

In contrast culling spreads infection outside the area being focussed on, and once the cull stops then the disease will return with a vengeance.

The Badger Trust has highlights a newly-published study that shows that vaccination with Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) has been shown to reduce the severity and progression of experimentally-induced TB in captive badgers. They go on to say that a four-year clinical field study among badger social group levels suggests a similar, direct protective effect. Injections reduced by 76% the risk of free-living vaccinated badgers testing positive for progressive infection.

Furthermore, the risk of unvaccinated cubs giving positive tests went down significantly as more badgers in each social group were vaccinated. There was an even greater reduction in risk to such cubs, 79 per cent - when more than a third of their social group had been vaccinated.

This is the scientific approach the UK Government rejected when it embarked on it chaotic, short-term and disastrous cull policy.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Reactionaries against gay marriage

The Telegraph reports that almost 60 members of the Commons and Lords have signed a letter accusing the Coalition Government of acting without a mandate on the issue of gay marriage.

The letter says that 'as parliamentarians from different political parties and none, we are united in supporting the institution of marriage defined in law as a union between a man and a woman. We recognise the value of a loving and committed relationship and we respect civil partnership, but affirm the distinctive value of marriage reflecting the complementarity of a man and woman often evidenced in parenthood.'

The letter concludes rather bizarrely that the signatories 'understand some parliamentarians support freedom for same sex couples to marry, but we support a freedom from the state being able to redefine the meaning of marriage.'

Quite how you can have a freedom predicated on such a semantic and abstract distinction is difficult to grasp. This is especially so as the state has redefined the meaning of marriage on a number of occasions and has not shied away from doing so ever since the reign of Henry VIII.  Maybe they should just come out and say what they really mean, that they don't approve of gay people.

What is interesting is that although this letter is described as cross-party its signatories come from the statist side of the political spectrum, namely Conservative, DUP and Labour. There are no signatories from the Liberal Democrats or the nationalist parties.

I have said for some time that the real divide in British politics is not left-right, but Libertarian versus statist, and that this divide crosses party boundaries. The letter underlines that point.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Government rejects default porn filtering for internet

The Independent reports that the Government has rejected calls for internet providers to be forced to automatically filter websites for online pornography.

They say that a joint report by the Home Office and the Department for Education concluded that a public consultation found "little appetite" for default filtering by internet service providers.

However, ministers will ask ISPs to configure their systems to "actively encourage" people to switch on parental controls if there are children in the household using the internet.

This is actually a victory for commonsense, not because I believe in a free-for-all but because it will hopefully put to an end to the view prevalent amongst some politicians, that the internet can be somehow controlled. It cannot.

The report itself underlines that, quoting expert advice that default filtering can create a false sense of security as not all harmful content is blocked, and it does not encourage parents to learn about keeping their children safe online.

The best protection for children is parental vigilance. Government and Internet companies should be focussing on educating adults how to keep their children safe instead of seeking technological solutions that provide a false sense of security.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

UK Government confusion over Church in Wales

Today's Western Mail underlines many of the points I made a few days ago about the confusion at the heart of the UK Government concerning the status of the Church in Wales. It is not for me of course to say whether that church should conduct gay marriages, that is a matter for them. But Government should not seek to handicap a legitimate decision by putting legal obstacles in their way.

The paper quotes the Archbishop of Wales, Dr. Barry Morgan as saying that the move to outlaw gay marriage in the Church of England and Church in Wales came as a “total shock” when it was announced by equalities minister Maria Miller on Tuesday:

Dr Morgan said that his church did not want the protection, which has put it in an “enormously difficult position” by threatening to “severely curtail” its freedom to make future decisions on whether it wanted to host same-sex weddings.

Under the proposed measure, any decision to allow gay marriage in Anglican churches in England or Wales would require not only a change in canon law, but also an amendment to legislation in Parliament. Other religious organisations would be able to “opt in” to hosting same-sex weddings, as Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism have indicated they will.

Government sources today said that the Church of England was informed “at a very senior level” ahead of Mrs Miller’s statement of the specific details of the measures she was planning. But Dr Morgan said that the Church in Wales - which unlike the CofE was disestablished in 1914 – was not consulted.

It seems that Government officials met the Church of England at a very senior level but even then did not reveal the fine details of what was being proposed. As the Archbishop points out this was considered to be sufficient for the Church in Wales, whom they did not meet and that for all intents and purposes the Department for Culture, Media and Sport seem to have regarded the Church in Wales, which has been separate from the CoE for almost a century, as a “tag-on” to the established church, rather than a separate body which it needed to consult.

That is a fail on a major scale, made worse by the fact that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was born and brought up in Wales. 

Elsewhere in the paper, Rhodri Morgan uses his column to throw some fresh light on Maria Miller's confusion about the status of the Church in Wales. He reports that she is on record as saying she was married in the Church of England in Wales, a misnomer if ever there was one.

If a UK politician of Welsh upbringing cannot understand the disestablished status of the Church in Wales then we are in a very poor position indeed. What did they teach them in school in those days?

Friday, December 14, 2012

The triumph of Vince

There was an interesting piece on the Spectator blog yesterday that suggested that not only are the Liberal Democrats exercising considerable influence in government but that on some key areas we are changing the views of senior Tories.

Isabel Hardman says that George Osborne's evidence to yesterday's Treasury Select Committee suggests that the Chancellor is taking on Vince Cable's point of view. She says that it was significant how many times Osborne had to explain a softening in what were previously hard-and-fast economic rules, and hard-and-fast policies:

His refusal to rule out replacing the Bank of England’s inflation target with a growth target is the most significant sign of a coalescing between the two men. Osborne told the committee that the current target ‘has served this country well and provided stability’, but he added that he was ‘glad’ the next Bank of England governor Mark Carney was involved in the ‘debate about the future of monetary policy’. Moving to a growth target would be an endorsement of Vince Cable’s focus on growth rather than deficit reduction.

Then there was the debt target, which Cable has always felt to be an unnecessary rule. Osborne defended his decision to miss it rather than enact further sweeping cuts by saying that ‘of course I very much wanted to hit the target’, but that he would rather avoid a large swathe of cuts ‘and giving myself the satisfaction of hitting the target and the impact that would have on the economy and the unnecessary pursuit of a target’. Osborne would not have described aiming to have debt as a percentage of GDP falling by 2015/16 as being an ‘unnecessary pursuit’ this time last year, but Cable probably would have done.

And there was the threat to the UK’s top notch AAA credit rating. Where previously the Chancellor had trumpeted the UK’s continuing golden status with the ratings agencies as a sign that his economic policies were the right ones, he now said it was ‘one test alongside others’. Cable has always had some choice words about credit ratings agencies, arguing that borrowing costs did not rise significantly for the US after its own downgrade, and that the agencies themselves do not have the world’s greatest track record. Now it seems Osborne is happy to join him in that opinion.

That does not mean that either man agrees with Labour's analysis of course but it is a significant softening of Osborne's stance and Vince Cable's presence around the Cabinet table must bear some of the credit for that change.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bizarre UK Government decision on Church in Wales

The decision by the UK Government to ban the Church of England in law from offering same-sex marriages is bizarre enough, the decision to include the Church in Wales is inexplicable.

As the BBC reports other religious organisations will be able to "opt in" to holding ceremonies, but as the Government say that the Church of England and Church in Wales have "explicitly" stated strong opposition they will not be included. Why not let them decide that for themselves as with other churches?  Apparently, that is the view of the Archbishop of Wales as well

According to the Minister there will be "quadruple lock" to protect religious freedom, involving:

Because the Church in Wales is disestablished then it is in a different position and has to follow a different process to the Church of England to amend the law.

If the Church of England passes its own resolution in Synod to opt-in then that becomes part of Canon Law and amends the law of the land. The Church in Wales does not have that option and if it decides to opt-in requires another Act of Parliament to implement its decision. There is a clear inequity here that can only be addressed by removing the Church in Wales from the legislation.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Funny Tweets of 2012?

Today's Daily Mirror marks the day of three 12s with the top 20 funniest tweets of the year. Alas not all of them are that funny. There are three of the best, and that is saying something:

@amateuradam There are 400 billion birds in the world, 250,000 planes, and one Superman. So, in answer to your question – probably a bird.

@JennyJohnsonHi5 Most people don’t realize this, but you can eat organic, gluten-free food without telling everyone around you.

@JulianDutton1 Suffer from a phobia of numbers? Call the Number Phobia Helpline on 8473820940303209537264940302746809880829800888674729. Ask for Ethel.

Not much else to see there I am afraid. Surely, others can do better.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On gay marriage

For those MPs opposing gay marriage in the House of Commons this afternoon, perhaps they should pause to watch this video:

Eating at the House of Lords

The Telegraph reports on a call to ban foie gras at the House of Lords on humanitarian grounds. They say that the dish is one of the traditional delicacies in French cuisine, but is controversial because of its production methods. Geese or ducks are force-fed with grain for up to a month before they are slaughtered for their swollen livers.

So far, so very sensible. The paper adds that California has led the charge to ban the food and many countries including Britain have halted production. The article though then goes onto set out what life can be like in the upper house if you are fortunate to be called upon to serve:

Members of the Lords and their guests can enjoy a range of starters in the elegant Barry Room including quail and foie gras at £7.50 which is served with a confit of quails’ eggs, carrot and black garlic and a foie gras mousse.

Give me egg and chips anyday.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Headline of the Day

A headline to stretch incredulity to the limit is found in today's Telegraph:

I'm no bigot - I once fought a gay boxer, says Tory MP David Davies

The Monmouth MP tries to trump his earlier statement that: "I think most people are very tolerant and have no problem at all if people are gay but, and I hate to say this in a way because I expect it's going to cause controversy, but I think most parents would prefer their children not to be gay, knowing most parents want grandchildren if nothing else" by explaining that this in no way indicates any prejudice on his part.

Mr. Davies needs to take account of Denis Healey's first rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Two-faced Tories in show of bad faith

Friday's Guardian reports on the real story behind the Chancellor's rejection of a mansion tax in last week's autumn statement. They say that the Conservative party privately sent letters to Tory donors and wealthy homeowners promising to defeat Liberal Democrat plans for the tax at the same time as their coalition partners thought they were negotiating on a version of the proposal ahead of the autumn statement:

The letters, under the slogan "Don't Tax Our Homes", were sent last month and appealed for funds because the party needed "to combat Ed Balls and Vince Cable's homes tax". It is likely to be the first time that one wing of the coalition has sought to raise funds to defeat the proposals of the other wing.

The letters were sent by the Conservative treasurers Lord Fink and Michael Farmer in November, when Lib Dem cabinet ministers privately believed there was hope that the Conservatives would agree to two extra higher-rate council tax bands as a way of raising funds from wealthy homeowners, mainly in the southeast.

They believed they were making progress on the issue with George Osborne, if not with David Cameron.

They say that Liberal Democrats MPs, including the business secretary, Vince Cable, have previously claimed that Cameron's opposition to a mansion tax stemmed from fears of a backlash from his wealthy donors, but the letter suggests that Cameron even saw opposition to the proposal as a way of raising new funds for his party:

The letter, jointly signed by Fink and Farmer, reads: "As you may be aware, the Liberal Democrats and Labour have both called for a homes tax in recent months.

"Vince Cable demands a tax on properties worth above £2m. Labour's shadow chancellor Ed Balls meanwhile told the Independent at the beginning of September that he was planning a proper wealth tax which would include high value properties.

"The Conservative party are clear that a homes tax will not happen on our watch."

The letter – which offers a range of options for homeowners to join the Tory party's business and entrepreneurs forum (cost £2,500), front bench club (cost £5,000), renaissance forum (cost £10,000) and Team 2000 (cost £2,000) – continues: "We are on the side of the savers and strivers. We believe that people who work hard and want to get on in life deserve support from the government. A tax on property is a tax on ambition and aspiration.

"We promise that no homes tax will be introduced during the course of this parliament, but the only way of taking it off the table in the future is the election of a majority Conservative government in 2015, and we can only win with your generous support. To keep the taxman out of your home and return a Conservative government at the next general election, please help by donating today and supporting the 'No Homes Tax' campaign."

It seems that negotiations were being conducted in bad faith on the part of the Conservative party. Why should we not be surprised?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Committee warn that internet snooping law could infringe privacy

The report of a joint committee of MPs and peers due to be published next week has underlined why so many Liberal Democrats are opposed to a new law that will enable the government to monitor and record internet traffic in the interests of national security.

Supporters of the scheme say that it is simply a matter of collecting details of an e-mail or a message and storing it. They say that the authorities will be able to see who is in contact with whom and when, but not the content of any communication. However, according to the Telegraph the committee will warn it may not always be possible to separate such details:

It is possible to examine basic information for phone calls, text messages and emails without accessing the content but the committee will say there are concerns when it comes to other web use such as messages on social media sites and blogs.

The report will warn it may not be possible to distinguish between who is in contact with who and the content of those messages.

In these circumstances the Liberal Democrats will have little choice but to send civil servants back to the drawing board.  The only way such a bill would get through would be if Labour were to revert to their illiberal ways and support it.


Friday, December 07, 2012

Liberal Democrats win battle on regional pay

The Chancellor announced in his Autumn Statement on Wednesday that the Government no longer intends to expand regional and local pay, a policy that would have had a detrimental effect on Wales.

Over the past year the Welsh Liberal Democrats have led the campaign against regional and local pay. In September, the we took a motion to the UK party conference calling for Ministers to put an end to Tory plans for regional pay.

I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats have put a brake on George Osborne’s plans for regional or local pay. Yes, we need to rebalance the economy, but regional or local pay isn’t the answer.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have always believed that moves towards regional or local pay would further ingrain regional inequalities. It is the people of Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend that would have paid the price for this ill-thought out policy. That is why we took our campaign against regional pay to our Party Conference, which not only secured our party’s position on the matter, but also gave our Ministers in Government a clear direction. I am immensely proud that the Welsh Liberal Democrats played such a key part in this campaign.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Incompetence, political shenanigans and allegations of grubby deals

Yesterday's debate on whether or not to suspend standing orders so as to pass regulations on Council Tax benefit was bad enough, but today's developments have turned a government cock-up into a full-scale farce.

In many ways the Welsh Government were their own worse enemy yesterday. Despite the fact that Scotland and many English Councils had put their council tax benefit scheme into place some time ago, Welsh Ministers insisted that they could not do anything until they knew how much money they were getting from Westminister to fund it.

There was no pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft regulations, no consultation with the public or with opposition parties, indeed there was no attempt to get other parties on board at all, apart from a fairly dry technical briefing last week.

Instead Ministers relied on moral blackmail to get the regulations through, calculating that the Assembly would vote through whatever they produced so as not to leave claimants in the dark on their entitlement. They then upped the anté by using the regulations as a political football to beat the UK Coalition parties around the head, indulging in a blame game on the changes to the benefit system with undisguised glee.

It was by no means a lesson in how to win friends and influence people.

The result was that the final regulations, all 340 pages of them landed in our in-box just minutes before we were due to debate and vote on them. Nobody was in the mood to pass them without proper scrutiny or a chance to influence their contents.

It was a missed opportunity to get the matter resolved, because if the Governmemt had talked to the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru earlier and agreed to their very reasonable demand to put a sunset clause in to facilitate post-legislative scrutiny then the regulations would have gone through without a problem.

Instead we felt we were being railroaded, without an opportunity to question some of the fundamentals of the scheme. As one BBC journalist noted on Twitter, the usual channels between the parties broke down very badly.

Today though, things have taken an unusual turn with the focus being on how the Welsh Conservative group handled their part in the matter. Yesterday the Tories were accusing the Welsh Government of being 'Incompetent.. intransigent... playing politics'. Today they stand accused of trying to do a 'grubby deal' in exchange for their votes.

As Adrian Masters outlines, it was not until late on Wednesday afternoon, when the Tories realised that there was no deal that they decided to oppose the suspension of standing order:

Opposition leader Andrew RT Davies says his group had reached an agreement which would have 'facilitated' a vote on the rules.

“We were working until the day before (the vote) to find a way to facilitiate this. We believed we had found a way to facilitiate it. But at lunchtime on Wednesday, the Welsh Government refused to take up the offer.

– Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Opposition

He said that he'd made the agreement with Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant on Tuesday night and denied that he was holding out for spending commitments. But the Welsh Government is categorically denying not only that there was any agreement, but that negotiations took place at all.

A source told me that 'they (the Conservatives) came with a set of demands and we showed them the door.' The source added:

“On Wednesday, the Welsh Tory Leader approached the Welsh Government with a set of totally unacceptable, inappropriate and unrelated demands, in order to secure their support to get the vote through the Assembly.

Not content with deliberately trying to impose needless financial uncertainty on 330,000 Welsh households over Christmas and the New Year, the Welsh Tories tried to exploit the situation for their own narrow political ends. Their behaviour was reprehensible.

“The Welsh Government’s response to the Welsh Tory Leader and his grubby deal, was to show him the door. No negotiations took place and nothing was offered.

– Welsh Government source

Nobody is absolutely sure what the Tories were asking for. Toby Mason tweets that it is important to note that Tory leader Andrew RT Davies has strongly denied making any specific spending demands during negotiations.  The Tories themselves have indicated that they wanted a deal on the Armed Forces card.

Whatever the details it seems that for them at least, political advantage was more important than the principle of effective scrutiny and the interests of 330,000 benefit claimants. This one could run and run.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

First Minister personally authorised attempt to censor soap opera

Yesterday's First Minister's questions were instructive if only because it became clear for the first time that the Welsh Government's attempt to censor references on Pobl y Cwm to their policy on a badger cull had been personally authorised by Carwyn Jones.

The Western Mail reports that the First Minister told the chamber that the episode contained direct criticism of a government and that this had not previously been seen before in the history of soap operas in the UK. He clearly does not listen to the Archers. He also said that the fact the episode clashed with by-elections in Rotherham, Croydon North and Middlesbrough raised issues that “had to be resolved”.

Quite how an episode of Pobl y Cwm can impact on elections in Rotherham, Croydon North and Middlesbrough was beyond the understanding of most members in the chamber. Who knew that viewing figures for a Welsh Language soap opera were so high in these areas?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Walking blindfold

Yesterday morning was an interesting one for me as I spent a good proportion of the time with Guide Dogs for the Blind in Bridgend learning about the many obstacles faced by those with sight problems in navigating town centres.

A large group of people, along with a number of guide dogs gathered in the library in Bridgend so that a handful of politicians, imcluding myself, could be blindfolded, given a white stick and then let loose in the pedestrianised area.

It was a humbling and rather frightening experience. Fortunately, I did not walk into any walls or other obstacles, though there were a fair number of A-boards and other street furniture to navigate around, nor did I whack anybody with the white stick.

My comment afterwards was that all elected officials and officers should have to do this at least once to understand how their decisions impact on people with disabilities.

My thanks to all those who organised this event and my guide who made a very effective point very well and ensured that I did not injure myself in the process.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Shaming the multi-nationals

A campaign to name and shame multi-national companies who do not pay their fair share in tax looks like it is gaining a head of steam after the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee (PAC) jumped into the fray.

The Independent reports on the Committee's conclusions that these "immoral" multinational companies should face prosecution rather than being offered sweetheart deals by the UK Government:

The Chancellor, George Osborne, will announce an extra £150m of funding for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) this week to help crack down on avoidance by global companies with British operations, which the Treasury predicts will raise up to £2bn within two years.

The coffee chain Starbucks, one of the multinational companies accused of tax avoidance, will also announce a deal with the Treasury to pay more on its UK earnings.

But in a hard-hitting report to be released today, the cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) calls for the Government to take an even tougher line. It says legislative change is needed to ensure that multinationals report their tax practices transparently, and with prosecutions rather than deals for companies found to be avoiding tax. Offenders, it says, should be publicly named and shamed.

The PAC said it had been unhappy with the "unconvincing, and in some cases evasive" evidence it had received from representatives of Starbucks, Google and Amazon who were called in front of the committee last month to defend their tax affairs.

It said there was currently "a complete lack of transparency" about why multinationals paid so little UK corporation tax. Their operations were structured in ways that were impenetrable to the public, while HMRC disclosed very little about its approach to collecting tax from them.

The PAC report concludes: "HMRC needs a change in mindset in the way it approaches collecting tax from multinationals.

"At the moment there is a pervasive acceptance of the status quo by the top officials in HMRC and we have seen little evidence of a desire to be more assertive. We expect HMRC to prosecute multinational companies who do not pay the tax due in the UK."

Let's hope that the Government takes some notice.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Autumn statement to hit the rich

Reading this morning's Observer I was overcome by a sense of déjà vu. Wasn't it the last budget when all the good stuff was leaked out in advance only for the announcement itself to contain a series of own goals?

I really hope that the Government has learnt from their error. So that when I read that the Chancellor is touting about that the wealthy will have to make a larger contribution and admits that cutting the deficit is taking longer than planned, I must assume that he has more good stuff up his sleeve for Wednesday.

Nevertheless, what morsels we have been thrown are welcome although a mansion tax would have been nice. The paper says that George Osborne will limit tax-free contributions by the rich to their pension pots whilst he will also compromise with Liberal Democrats on his plans to freeze welfare benefits, and will announce a below-inflation rate rise of around 1%:

Osborne refused to say explicitly that he would be unable to meet his target of ensuring debt as a proportion of GDP would be falling by the end of the parliament, saying it was taking longer than planned to bring the debt down.

He has already had to put back by two years the date by which he will meet his commitment to eradicate the structural deficit. The Office for Budget Responsibility is likely to say it will take another extra year, meaning it will have taken eight years overall to eradicate. But he said it would be a catastrophe to turn back now.

Liberal Democrats say they have seen off plans backed by the prime minister and by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, to remove housing benefit for those aged under 25.

The bulk of the £10bn welfare savings are not due to be enforced until after the election, but Osborne wants a downpayment on the cuts now, partly because some reforms will require new laws in this parliament for implementation in the next.

Trying to show he would be balanced in distributing the pain, he said: "It's got to be done fairly, and that means yes, the richest need to bear their fair share – and they will. That means more than they're paying at the moment … but there is another conception of fairness, the fairness of the individual who goes out to work and lives next to someone who lives on benefit; we are also going to tackle welfare bills, and that is the Conservative approach to fairness."

It is not ideal but it is a start. It is also clear that Liberal Democrats influence has once more been effective in moderating the worse excesses of Toryism.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Mythical creatures and a magical season

As we moved ever closer to the magical Christmas season, the Guardian brings us news that one of the mythical creatures of our legendary past may have actually existed.

The paper reports that the Korean Central News Agency has broken the incredible news that archaeologists in Pyongyang have "recently reconfirmed" the discovery of the lair of one of the unicorns ridden by the ancient Korean King Tongmyong, founder of a kingdom which ruled parts of China and the Korean peninsula from the the 3rd century BC to 7th century AD.

Rather conveniently, the news agency goes on to state that the location happens to be 200 metres from a temple in the North Korean capital, and that its discovery was made possible due to the fact that: "A rectangular rock carved with words "Unicorn Lair" stands in front of the lair." The report adds that: "The carved words are believed to date back to the period of Koryo Kingdom (918-1392)."

The more sceptical amongst us might be reassured that this news story comes just days after eyebrows were raised by another news story relating to the  Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

On that occasion, the online version of China's Communist party newspaper hailed a report by The Onion naming North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as the sexiest man alive, not realising it was satire.

We await further proof of this extraordinary find but do not be surprised if the same news agency claims in the next few weeks that proof has been found of the existence of centaurs, hobbits, elves and fairies.

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