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

Monday, September 30, 2013

Another UKIP gaffe

They have lost most of the MEPs, they are the most gaffe-prone party in Britain and yet still UKIP flourish. How do they do it?  The Times reports today on the party's latest faux pas.

They say that Nigel Farage’s chief spin doctor referred to a British Asian newspaper journalist as “of some form of ethnic extraction”:

Gawain Towler, who is UKIP’s top press officer and a candidate for next year’s European elections, used the description in a text message intended for a colleague but sent accidentally to someone else.
Sending instructions to a local activist ahead of a visit to Manchester by the UKIP leader for the Conservative Party conference, he warned him that two journalists would be arriving early. He wrote: “James, my fault but I told the [Evening] Standard that Nigel would be arriving at approx. 10.30 this morning. They have called and I expect a snapper and a female journalist (of some form of ethnic extraction) at Piccadilly.”

Mr Towler defended his choice of language, saying that he had used the description because he could not remember the journalist’s name. “If I’d got the right name I would have used it but I didn’t so I needed to give a head up.” He added: “I was thinking of using the term ‘babe’ but they aren’t going to have the first idea what I’m going on about.”

The paper point out that Nigel Farage has gone to great lengths to rebut claims that his anti-EU and anti-immigration party is racist. But they say, the private text message offers an insight into the less-guarded language used by UKIP staffers behind the scenes.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Drugs, mortgages and Miss Whiplash

Sunday morning and up at 5am to get to the BBC studios in Cardiff for the newspaper review on Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement.  What this means of course is that I get to read all the papers for free during a dedicated hour and a half time slot. Luxury but still tiring.

Three articles caught my eye in particular. Firstly, the Observer's front page splash detailing the views of the Chief Constable of Durham that class-A drugs should be decriminalised and the policy of outright prohibition radically revised.

In truth these are not unique views nor is the Chief Constable advocating a regime that is unworkable. We have already trialled heroin clinics in the UK, where addicts can go for safe injections. It helps them to control the addiction and undermines the criminal market.

The trial was abandoned not because it was not working but because politicians could not be seen to be soft on drugs. However, treating drug addiction as a medical condition does not mean that we stop going after dealers, we do it in two ways: by hitting their profits as proposed by the Chief Constable and by targeting their operation through traditional crime enforcement methods.

The second article was the Sunday Times lead on the UK Government bringing forward their mortgage guarantee scheme from January to next week. I need to check whether this is the scheme that covers both England and Wales but if it does it is good news. The Welsh Government has singularly let down first time buyers here. It looks like it will take the coalition to step in and do their job for them.

Finally, we have all read about the Damian McBride revelations about his time as spin doctor for Gordon Brown. Well, according to the Sunday Telegraph we will soon have a tell-all book by the latest Miss Whiplash to look forward to.

The paper says that Natalie Rowe, the dominatrix once pictured with George Osborne has written her memoirs and is in talks with publishers:

“They are dynamite,” one of Rowe’s friends tells me. “They are full of sensational claims about her time as a dominatrix and she is prepared to name names.”

Something to look forward to I am sure.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The trouble with Larry

The Independent kicks off coverage of the Conservative Party Conference with the devastating news that the Camerons do not like Larry the cat. It seems that since his arrival in Downing Street the briefing against the feline mouser has been even more vicious than that targeted at Gordon Brown's enemies by Damian McBride.

Journalists have been told that the nation's premier pet is more interested in catnapping than rat-catching:

It is understood that the rescue cat spends most of the day asleep, waking occasionally to startle staff with a sharp claw to the calves. And then there's the fur. David Cameron's Savile Row finest has been covered in it on more than one occasion.

An aroma is also wafting through the corridors of power. Visitors with a keen sense of smell are picking up notes of cat food, despite attempts by staff to mask it with air freshener.

Larry is said to have won the hearts of even the toughest political animals, but some insiders are unimpressed. "He has shown no interest in the many mice in Downing Street," one recent visitor said. "There is a distinct lack of killer instinct."

Larry though may well have the final laugh. The bookies have him at 1/2 to outlast David Cameron at Number 10.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Welsh Labour's housing failures comes back to haunt them

In many ways the decision by Persimmon Homes not to build any more houses in the Welsh Valleys north of a line based on Pontypridd is unfortunate, but unsurprisng. House prices in these areas have long been lower than those in more prosperous parts of Wales and consequentially profit margins have also been tight. Add in extra costs, as the Welsh Government has done, and the venture becomes uneconomic.

The Welsh Labour Government was at it again yesterday, this time piling additional costs onto hard-pressed homeowners who want to improve their homes. The Housing Minister has announced that he intends to change a section of building regulations so that anyone extending or improving their homes, including loft and garage conversions, will need to meet “improved fabric standards” for walls, roofs and floors, as well as “consequential” energy efficiency improvements to the building.

He has proposed that these improvements should incorporate minimum standards of loft insulation, cavity wall insulation and a minimum standard of hot-water cylinder insulation.

In an ideal world this might be a satisfactory way of improving energy efficiency but we are in the middle of a recession and in my view piling additional costs onto homeowners at a time when they can least afford it. If the Welsh Labour Government is going to insist on this then they should provide suitable grants to pay for the work.

We also finally learned yesterday that the Homebuy Cymru scheme is dead in the water. This is the scheme which was agreed with the Welsh Government about 18 months ago as part of their budget deal with the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The idea was that the Government guarantee deposits on viable mortgages so that first time buyers can get on the housing market.

They reneged on that deal when they abandoned the scheme five months ago and have told us since that they have been trying to ressurrect it. Yesterday though the Council for Mortgage Lenders said they were not interested in engaging in this scheme as they preferred to work with the UK Government's plans instead. The UK shared equity scheme will apply in Wales from January 2014.

This decision means that Welsh first time home owners have been left high and dry for nearly two years whilst their equivalent across the border have enjoyed support to buy their first home under the existing Enhlish help to buy scheme. Builders are also disadvantaged as demand for their product has been consequently suppressed in Wales meaning fewer homes being built.

This is a major failing by the Welsh Government who are increasingly looking out of their depth on housing policy.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Council criticised for 'unlawful' payments

The BBC report that the Wales Audit Office has branded a pledge by Carmarthenshire council to cover the court costs of its chief executive fighting a libel case against a blogger as unlawful.

They say that the authority was wrong to provide indemnity in Mark James's libel action against Jacqui Thompson. He won the case and Mrs Thompson was ordered to pay costs of £23,217.

The BBC add that in a separate issue, the auditor's report found that a council payment of £16,353 in lieu of pension contributions to Mr James was also unlawful. The Council say that both decisions were made following legal advice.

Carmarthenshire Council has been at the centre of controversy since Councillors ejected Mrs Thompson from a meeting for trying to record proceedings.

The way that the Council has handled this whole affair has been a public relations disaster from start to finish. These latest claims do not help.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Culture of overspending in Welsh health service needs to end

As a member of the Assembly's Finance Committee I will be involved in scrutinising a new Government Bill that will change the requirement on health boards to break even each year and instead insist that they must balance the books over a three year period.

Government Ministers, and to be fair some Assembly Committees have argued that this will help long-term planning and enable the building up of reserves within that accounting period. On the downside, there is the danger that the annual crisis that beset all health boards with instead become a triannual and because it is spread over a longer period, take place on a bigger scale.

Yesterday the Public Accounts Committee heard evidence from the Wales Auditor General that deprecated the way that health boards are run. According to the Western Mail he said that health boards had developed a culture of expectation that they would be “bailed out” by the Welsh Government if they spent beyond their means:

He said: “Year in and year out the Welsh Government, at a midpoint, has given extra funds to the system. We are breaking a mindset and culture that over the years has developed the view that over the years that ‘the funds will arrive’.

“We need to have a much more consistent approach that the budgets are the budgets and those are the ones that should be adhered to. Unless that kind of discipline is brought in from beginning of the year, we will consistently be in a position where the Welsh Government is having to bail out.

“I have certainly heard [it said] ‘if we show we are going to break even we won’t get any extra funds in the course of the year’. It requires that culture to be driven out. There has to actually be a responsibility on the body to live within its budget and the Welsh Government has to be transparent about why it may give that money and the justification for that.”

The Committee report on this issue accused the Welsh Government of sending mixed messages by insisting at the beginning of the last financial year that no extra funding was available, but then providing £92m in additional funding.

And that is the problem. No politician is going to allow a health board to fail to meet its legal duty whilst they are in charge and the penny-counters in the health service know that.

It is a fact that no matter how much money one throws at the health service it will never be enough. That is because we are constantly developing new treatments, new drugs and discovering new diseases. It is also because at some stage in our life we will all need care. Health service finances are built on the assumption that we will not need that care all at once. With an aging population a large part of that assumption is being constantly challenged.

What the Government needs to do with this legislation however is to use it to change the culture of health boards. Ministers and their officials need to be sitting on the shoulders of accountants, making sure that they have a proper three year plan, not three one year plans.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Historic day for Welsh devolution

Tomorrow is quite an important day for me in the Assembly as it will mark the final stage of my private members bill on Mobile Homes sites.  It has not been an easy ride but I think that the bill as it looks now is a good one and will make a huge difference for mobile home owners across Wales.

I should of course acknowledge the contribution of the Housing Minister and his officials in helping to shape the bill and to get it to this stage. This is the very first Private Member’s Bill under the Assembly’s new powers.

I got into politics to make a difference to people’s lives and that is exactly what this Bill will do. This Bill has always been about fairness and social justice. For too long mobile home residents have had a raw deal and not had the rights they deserve.

Under the current law there is little protection for residents from unscrupulous park homes site owners; a minority of whom may exploit their position for personal gain. Problems can include poor site management and vetoing or deterring legitimate sales. My Bill will stop this unfairness.

If voted through on tomorrow, Wales will have a new system that will protect people by bringing in fair, easy to use processes and clear rights for both residents and site owners. It will also develop a ‘fit and proper’ persons test for park home site owners, and a licensing system, so that park home owners can be confident that their site is effectively managed.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Labour's black hole

Whilst Ed Miliband and company seek to carve out a distinctive path for Labour in the run-up to the next General Election, a more substantial problem faces them, their sums just do not add up.

According to the Sunday Times the party has created a £27.9 billion “black hole” of unfunded promises to raise welfare spending in its first year of office if it wins the 2015 election.

A document released by Sajid Javid, economic secretary to the Treasury, calculates that to meet spending commitments made by Labour frontbenchers since June would require the equivalent of £1,059 additional borrowing for every household:

Treasury officials examined eight “proactive spending” commitments made by the party since June, including introducing a “jobs guarantee” of a paid position for all over-25s who have been unemployed for two years, restoring the child trust fund, scrapping the so-called bedroom tax, and introducing a 10p starting rate of tax. It also analyses Labour’s proposals to cancel eight spending cuts, including to legal aid, the Arts Council and police funding.

Finally, it analyses the effect of seven of Labour’s revenue-raising commitments, such as introducing a bank bonus tax and withdrawing the winter fuel allowance for wealthier pensioners.

The findings — released through freedom of information requests and answers to written parliamentary questions — suggest a £27.9bn shortfall.

This is going to be a problem for Labour right up to the moment they publish a fully costed manifesto, if they do at all. It is the curse of being in opposition but one made worse by the indiscipline shown by Labour spokespeople.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Blair Brown legacy

Just as the UKIP Conference was overshadowed by the antics of Godfrey Bloom MEP, the Labour Party are struggling to overcome the legacy of the bitter and sometimes vicious rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, a legacy that has thrown a pall over their own annual gathering thanks to the timely publication of Damian McBride's book.

On the Telegraph blog, Iain Martin draws out the similarities between the trauma that overcame the Conservatives following the ousting of Margaret Thatcher and that currently besetting Ed Miliband's party:

It is now clear that Labour finds itself in a similarly bleak situation. Rather than fading away, the poisonous legacy from the long-running battle that Gordon Brown and his aides waged to remove Tony Blair remains extremely toxic.

Even though it is six years since the axing of Mr Blair, another three-time general election winner, and three years since Mr Brown was defeated in the 2010 general election, Labour is still struggling to move on from the fights of the past decade.

This weekend, the appearance of the memoirs of Damian McBride, former spin doctor to Gordon Brown, have brought it all — the feuding, the hatred, the childish bickering, the vaulting ambition — flooding back. Indeed, the extracts published so far illustrate the extent to which the party remains defined by its troubled past.

The “two Eds” who feature in Mr McBride’s account are Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, fellow Brown advisers then and leader and shadow chancellor now. They will be absolutely furious that their former friend has produced such an explosive book.

With a dry wit, and a dash of self-criticism, the spin doctor has delivered a devastating portrait of the dysfunction at the heart of New Labour.

Incredibly, considering how much has been written about it before, it turns out that the infighting and double-dealing were actually even worse than suggested at the time. Mr McBride tells of numerous plots and dirty tricks campaigns run against Brown’s ministerial rivals such as John Reid, the former home secretary, and he shows just how bad it got between No 10 and No 11 under Mr Blair and Mr Brown, when the rival camps were dedicated to destroying each other.

Relations became so bad that the chancellor’s press man even ran a campaign to “knife” Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie. He leaked details of an investigation by customs into unpaid VAT and customs duty on pearls she had brought back from China. The intention, writes Mr McBride, was to make her look “simultaneously filthy rich, out of touch and a tax-dodger”.

As a result of the colourful revelations, Labour’s conference in Brighton this week is getting off to a highly entertaining and potentially disastrous start. For Ed Miliband, this book could not have come at a worse time, as he endeavours to relaunch his leadership against a backdrop of a recovering economy and an evaporating opinion poll lead. Just when the party’s high command should be devoted to trying to explain to the country what Mr Miliband would do if he makes it to Downing Street, they are instead dealing with the fallout from the Mr McBride revelations.

What matters of course is how the man and woman in the street view these revelations. Will they shrug their shoulders and instead concentrate on important policy issues and cost-of-living factors when they decide how to vote or will they determine that character is important and decide that they want nothing to do with any party which behaves in this way?

More likely many will view these revelations as confirmation of what they have always thought, that all politicians are deeply devious self-servers and they want nothing to do with any of them.

Whatever the reaction the one thing that is certain is that the media are very interested in who knew what, when and what they did about it and that whatever the messages coming out of Brighton all of the interviews with leading politicians will feature a large section on that particular obsession. It is a spin doctor's nightmare.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

How to hijack your own party conference

UKIP have now removed the whip from Godfrey Bloom after his disgraceful remarks yesterday about women leaving the question as to why they had not done so earlier when he said British aid should not be sent to Bongo Bongo Land.

Of the 13 UKIP MEPs elected in 2009 only 7 still sit in that capacity. An attrition rate that tells us everything we need to know about that party. Here is yesterday's incident:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Master of the dark arts?

Who would have thought that real life could trump the farcical drama of The Thick of it? Well, anybody who has had any experience of politics really. Nevertheless, the revelations of Gordon Brown's aide, Damian McBride are jaw-dropping in parts. And was Tony Blair really as naive as painted?

The Telegraph says that Mr. McBride, who was Mr Brown’s former communications chief, has claimed that he discredited the former prime minister’s enemies by tipping off the media about drug use, spousal abuse, alcoholism and extramarital affairs:

In an autobiography that will cast a shadow over Labour’s party conference in Brighton next week, Mr McBride admits attempting to ruin the careers of the former home secretaries Charles Clarke and John Reid.

Mr McBride claims that he did it all out of “devotion” and “some degree of love” for Mr Brown, whom he describes as “the greatest man I ever met”.

The disclosures will cause acute embarrassment to Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, and Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, who were allies of Mr Brown during his time in Downing Street.

The question that the Labour Leader needs to answer is how much he knew and when. Having been a member of what was clearly a dysfunctional Labour Government once, can he guarantee that it won't be the same under his leadership?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tory donor slams Cameron's record on green energy

Now this is interesting. According to the Independent one of the Conservative party’s biggest donors has launched an unprecedented attack on the Government, accusing them of squandering an opportunity to create thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of revenues by scaring off desperately-needed investors in the UK offshore wind industry.

They say that Alexander Temerko, a significant British energy investor whose company Offshore Group Newcastle builds foundations for offshore wind turbines and constructs oil and gas platforms, has become extremely frustrated by what he calls the Government’s “hypocritical” approach to energy policy and is dismissive of David Cameron’s pledge to lead the “greenest government ever”.

Mr Temerko is best known for being one of the 12 Tory party donors who enjoyed a private dinner with the highest echelons of the Conservative party this spring after making donations totalling more than £50,000. He has donated a total of £208,500 to the party in the past two years:

Mr Temerko also accused the Coalition of paying little more than lip-service to renewable energy. The Government says it backs electricity generated from sources such as wind and solar power, but has failed to provide the necessary targets and clarity on subsidies for green electricity generation which investors need before they can commit to a long-term project like a wind farm, he contends.

“The situation is frankly astonishing. The Treasury is definitely a big stakeholder for the uncertainty. But you can’t only blame George Osborne,” Mr Temerko said, arguing that the Prime Minister and Ed Davey, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, have also played a role in confusing investors.

Mr Temerko added: “The Government has been seriously, seriously, seriously misleading. It has given a declaration on renewable energy without crystallising what it’s going to do to support investment. Government policy is not fair at the moment. If it told us ‘look, we don’t want to develop a low-carbon economy anymore’, we would say ‘thank you, now we know what to do’.

“Instead, the Government has created big enthusiasm – but we are still waiting for a clear policy and definitive support. Green energy is very hypocritical from the government side.”
His comments relate to offshore wind generation, where the UK’s geography gives it tremendous potential, rather than onshore turbines, which are the subject of widespread opposition from local communities.

Mr Temerko says that the lack of government reassurance is putting manufacturers and consultants off setting up shop in the UK, meaning that the country has to import 82 per cent of the parts and services in the “supply chain” when it should be doing the vast majority in Britain.

I suspect the problem is one of incompatible coalition partners on this particular issue failing to agree a common line. Ed Davey was particularly scathing about climate change deniers within the government when he spoke at conference as were a number of other speakers. It seems that the battle that has ensued between them and the greener members of the cabinet has effectively undermined the whole policy agenda.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why the Liberal Democrats will thrive again

As we gear up for the last day of Conference and Nick Clegg's speech, I have started to get back into the routine of reading the Welsh media. The impact of the Conference is difficult to gauge and in any case will fade as Labour and the Tories get underway with their annual shindig. Still this assessment in the Western Mail from David Williamson is generous and interesting:

The activists who have stuck with the Liberal Democrats through this difficult chapter in their history are battle-hardened, tightly knit, and they will almost certainly live to see their party enjoy higher poll ratings.

Just as Labour stalwarts who did not rush away from the party to join the SDP enjoyed a rare season in step with the zeitgeist during the Cool Britannia era, the men and women who came to Glasgow this week to cheer Nick Clegg may well one day see their party back in fashion as an alternative to Labour and the Conservatives.

Young Lib Dem zealots may look back at this time as among the most valuable in their political formation. Not only are they experiencing what it is like to keep a party’s flame alive when fair-weather supporters have vanished, they have also gained a crash course in the compromises that come as a party of Government.

Mr Clegg’s party can no longer be dismissed by its foes as a repository of middle-class righteous indignation; they have governed during one of the most difficult eras in modern politics.

The party will survive thanks to the loyalty and energy of its members, but will it thrive? The danger for any band of warriors schooled in the arts of survival against the odds is that their focus narrows and it becomes even harder to win mass support.

At the start of the last decade, morale among young Conservatives was high even though the party was careering towards defeat under William Hague. The brighter Tony Blair’s grin glowed, the more determined they were to stage a revolution.

Their support for deregulation and privatisation grew in fervency during the long nights of opposition but it means David Cameron now has to deal with backbenchers who are disappointed by life in a coalition, who dream of the policies they could let rip if only the public elected a majority

Conservative Government. But the electorate has not chosen to do this since 1992 and the party is struggling to connect with the Britain that exists today.

If the Lib Dems want to remain a true party of Government, it must be one that represents a country increasingly defined by diversity, weary of war and austerity, yet hopeful for the creation of a society both fair and free.

In Wales we demonstrated our resilience in the face of overwhelming odds at the Welsh Assembly elections in 2011. I fully expect that performance to be repeated at a UK level in 2015.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What I would have said if I had been called in the "bedroom tax" debate

OK this post is quite self-indulgent but as I had written the speech anyway and as the Chair of the debate on 'Making housing benefit work for tenants in social housing' and her aide deemed that they did not want a Welsh voice, I did not see the point in wasting it:

Conference, we have heard many times over the last few days that when in government we need to make difficult decisions. I have been in government as a deputy minister in Wales and I know that compromises have to be made and that sometimes we have to embrace the unpalatable. However, I also know the importance of monitoring policies and changing them when they are not working.

Housing benefit is not a devolved issue and so as a Welsh Assembly Member I am left fulminating on the side lines like everybody else when I see a policy like the abolition of the spare room subsidy going so awry. It is my view that this change is badly thought through, poorly implemented and needs fundamental alterations before it can be said to be anywhere near acceptable.

Like all government policies the flaws are in the detail. I will give you an example: a constituent with a disabled child in a three bedroom home awaiting adaptations. Those adaptations were ready to go a year ago but because of the uncertainty associated with housing benefit changes they were put on hold.

My constituent needed her spare bedroom so that carers could sometimes stay overnight but she could not afford to pay for it. What is more she is not entitled to discretionary housing payments because her allowances took her over the income limit set by the local council.

The reliance on discretionary housing payments to assist with transition through these changes is deeply flawed. That is because there is no consistency as to how councils treat applications. Some councils treat child benefit and disabled living allowances as income. There are no proper appeal mechanisms.

Changes were made to exclude disabled children where they need their own bedroom but not where they need a carer. Disabled adults are allowed a bedroom for a non-family member carer but not when the carer is a member of their household. There is no provision for a married couple, where one or both are disabled into have their own room, putting many families in the impossible situation of needing separate bedrooms because of their disability but not being able to afford to stay in their present accommodation. Often their homes are adapted to suit their needs. If they move the taxpayer will need to fund adaptations in their new home. A complete waste of resources.

The housing benefit regime needs to be changed to properly assess and take account of the needs of disabled adults and children. The motion is quite right to identify that most under-occupation of social housing is by pensioners. We need to do more to provide incentives to downsize and invest in suitable properties for pensioners to move to.

Conference I am not opposed to change but I prefer reforms to be driven by compassion not money. If the abolition of the spare room subsidy is to remain in place then changes need to be made to soften its impact, to exclude disabled adults, put in place firmer guidelines for local councils on discretionary housing payments and to build new social housing.

This is one policy where we do need to go back to the drawing board.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Vince Cable to act on zero hours contracts

Vince Cable's speech to conference has become one of the most keenly anticipated by representatives, and not just because we want to play the media game of spotting subtle nuances that may distinguish him from the leadership.

One announcement due to be made in his speech and already trailed by the BBC is further action on zero hours contracts. That is very welcome.

The BBC say that Vince will say economic recovery must not come at the cost of workers' rights. He is also looking at how to raise the minimum wage without costing jobs, and will unveil a crackdown on "rogue" company directors:

Mr Cable will say: "It is clear that there are abuses in the system, especially around the issue of exclusivity which some employers are demanding from workers on these contracts. I am determined to make sure people are paid and treated fairly, while helping to keep people employed in these delicate economic times."

Action on this issue is overdue and all credit to Vince for taking it on.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Liberal Democrats fighting for social justice

Last night's conference rally focussed on the million extra private sector jobs the coalition government have already created and set out our ambition to create a million more. Speakers referred to the huge investment we have put into new apprenticeships, the £700 tax cut that has taken many low earners out of tax altogether and the huge investment in education targeted at the most disadvantaged pupils.

There is a lot more that needs to be done, which is why I am pleased to see that we are also pursuing an increase in the minimum wage. The Guardian reports that Vince Cable is to press for an increase in the minimum wage amid concerns that the economic recovery is failing to lift living standards for large parts of the workforce:

Cable is to ask the Low Pay Commission to restore its value, which he calculates has fallen in real terms by 10-12% since the crash of 2008.

In an interview with the Guardian on the eve of what is likely to be a difficult Liberal Democrat conference, he said: "We cannot go on for ever in a low pay and low productivity world in which all we can say to workers is 'you have got to take a wage cut to keep your job'."

The move, the subject of intense coalition discussion, is one of the first concrete signs of the government taking action on the living standards agenda likely to dominate the pre-election landscape as the economy starts to grow.

The measures to combat low pay will also involve steps to tackle the abuses of zero-hours contracts, Cable said. "We have got to enter into a different kind of workplace. For a very long time, five or six years, wages have been suppressed in low wage sectors. I am sending a signal that we are entering a very different environment."

Cable said employers could be cushioned from the possible impact on their profits by a reduction in the cost of their national insurance contributions. "That would be a far better option for tax cuts than the Tories' marriage tax allowance."

He also promised more aggressive protection of the estimated 2 million workers in the social care sector – 830,000 of whom carry out home visits – with estimates that up to 220,000 of all care workers may be paid less than the minimum wage.

He said it would be for the independent Low Pay Commission to set out the precise timetable and process to lift the value of the minimum wage, but he expected, with a new framework, the increases would occur over two to four years.

This is a welcome development and underlines once more the influence exercised by the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Liberal Democrats Conference Day One

The Liberal Democrats Conference has barely got underway and already the party has hit the headlines with the proposal to introduce a 5p carrier bag charge in England.

I have just watched the Taxpayer's Alliance moaning about the proposal on the news. They say the 5p charge is a tax. It is not. What is more it works, as is evidenced in Wales where we have cut carrier bag usage by 80%.

The Taxpayer's Alliance argue that carrier bags are a small part of the waste stream. That is correct but that is no reason not to take small but important steps forward towards reducing landfill, especially when many bags are not biodegradable.

Meanwhile the party can be forgiven for just sitting in stunned silence at the fact that something we have done has been endorsed by the Daily Mail.

In other news all the talk is about the Economy debate on Monday. For some reason the papers are reporting that Nick Clegg has made it a 'back me or sack me event', when in actual fact the parts of the motion the leadership are allegedly opposed to are pretty anodyne.

I think that the party has to be seen to be supporting our Ministers in getting the economy back on the right track, but this is about the next manifesto and as such we need to be differentiating ourselves in how we take that work forward. That is why I support the restoration of the 50p tax rate for top earners.

The key here is balance and I need to read the motion and amendments in more detail before voting so as to ensure that we are making progress in creating a fairer society whilst ensuring we remain rooted in sound economic practise.

Other talking points are around the Trident debate. Again I have come with an open mind. I don't want a British deterrent at all but I will listen to the arguments before voting.

Despite being in government the Liberal Democrats remain an open and democratic party in which policy is determined by members. That may be uncomfortable for some Ministers but they knew what they were getting into when they signed up.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Wales shows England the way forward on women bishops

The Church in Wales at least has decided that it belongs in the twenty first century with its vote yesterday to admit women bishops.

As the BBC says, their decision overturns that in 2008, which narrowly rejected the reform.

With Scotland and Northern Ireland already allowing women bishops surely it is inconceivable that the Church of England will not now embrace the reform when it comes to vote again in November.

God is a 'liberal' says Minister

It is often said that it is not polite to talk about religion or politics. Well that has not deterred Liberal Democrats MP, Steve Webb who according to the BBC believes in God and thinks he is a liberal, but not a Liberal Democrat.

It is an important distinction and one that Steve Webb outlines very comprehensively:

Mr Webb has received much press coverage in recent weeks for claiming in the foreword to Lib Dems Do God, that God "must be a liberal".

He explained his statement to The House Magazine, saying: "What I say in the foreword is God is a liberal, not a Liberal Democrat. I haven't checked the membership survey, but you'll appreciate the distinction."

He added: "All I was saying essentially was that if you believe the Christian gospel, you believe that freedom really matters. It's about freedom of choice; it's not about being forced to do things. And therefore that's a natural fit for people like us.

"I work very closely with Christian colleagues in other parties but I feel as a Christian very at home in the Liberal Democrats. I feel the faith values and the political values mesh very well and we haven't always given that impression.

"Because we are, I was going to say, a secular party but that's not the right word. But we certainly wouldn't want to discriminate on faith grounds and give faith an unduly privileged position, that's sometimes been understood by people as being hostile to faith. And part of what we are trying to do is say that's not where we are."

Echoing Mr Mulholland's sentiments, he said: "Just as if you are a passionate socialist or humanist or whatever, you just don't disentangle all those things and then do your job. It's part of who you are, your values, your lifestyle, your priorities.

"I don't expect people who don't come from my faith background to accept my faith justifications for things. I have to have other reasons to persuade them."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Wales Labour under fire for their appalling record on the NHS

It has not been a good week for Wales Labour as just a cursory glance at today's Western Mail will reveal. They carry a series of articles that indicate that the party's 14 year management of the Welsh NHS has left the service in crisis.

The most damning is the claim by Labour MP, Ann Clwyd that the National Health Service in Wales is in a worse situation than in England. She has been tasked with conducting a review of the NHS in England since she took a public stand about the health service following her husband Owen Roberts’ death in October:

She told S4C’s Gwion Lewis: “I wouldn’t have spoken out as I have done on this were it not for the fact that people don’t seem willing to admit there are problems in Wales and yet the messages I’ve had from all over Wales make it perfectly plain that there are problems here.”

Speaking as the first guest on the new series Siarad o Brofiad (Speaking from Experience), Ms Clwyd said she had uncovered worrying statistics from the library at the House of Commons which suggest the NHS in Wales is in a worse place than the NHS in England.

She said: “I asked for a comparison between Wales and England and the diagnostics for the two countries and Wales is behind England in every instance. It appears that things are very bad.”

Ms Clwyd has suggested that there is a reluctance on the part of the Welsh Government to admit there are serious problems with the Welsh NHS.

As if to back up her claims, the paper also reveals that the number of people waiting more than 36 weeks to start NHS treatment has reached a new high with the figure now topping 11,000, when the target figure is zero.

The Welsh Labour Government are in denial, more concerned with boasting about their ideological purity than applying practical measures that will make a difference.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Severn Bridges and the M4

The BBC report the view of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) that the Government should not use tolls from the Severn Bridge to fund an extension to the M4 around Newport.

The FSB quite rightly say that keeping tolls on the Severn bridges after they revert to public ownership towards the end of the decade is unacceptable, beyond the costs of maintenance.

Iestyn Davies from the FSB in Wales said: "The FSB and other organisations know what we want - a good, honest funding settlement for the people of Wales and to be able to fund the kind of projects we can't currently afford.

"The FSB's members are clearly of the opinion that tolls are a necessary evil on the Severn crossings and, if they are to be maintained in the future as is highly likely, they should simply be there to cover the cost of maintaining what are vital pieces of infrastructure for south Wales.

"What we are not prepared to see is those tolls being used as some form of cash cow to subsidise borrowing to fund an M4 relief road."

There is no doubt in my mind that the Tolls have an adverse effect on the South Wales economy and need to be reduced so as to cover only maintenance on the two bridges as soon as practical. However, there is a wider issue here as to whether the M4 extension around Newport should go ahead at all.

I understand the economic arguments for tackling the bottleneck around the M4 tunnels but experience shows that new roads quickly fill up and leave people clamouring for more. Surely the real solution is to get the local traffic off the M4, something I understood was being pursued anyway with a new road through the Tata Steel site. More investment in public transport, including an electrified local rail network would also have an impact.

And economic arguments should not be allowed to trump environmental considerations, certainly not when there are other solutions available. An M4 extension would destroy five SSSIs and severely compromise the Gwent levels, themselves developed as mitigation for the Cardiff Bay barrage.

We really do need more debate on these proposals before rushing headlong into development just because we can now borrow money to deliver it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Severn Barrage is dead in the water

Former Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain was all over the media yesterday telling anybody who would listen that the Severn Barrage is dead in the water and that it is all the coalition government's fault. 

He also dismisses the conclusions of the all-party Commons’ Energy and Climate Change Committee about the supposed thinness of the business case for the Barrage. So basically, it is everybody else's fault.

The Western Mail reports that the Chancellor has responded as follows: “As you know, DECC is encouraging Hafren Power to undertake more work on the details of the project, particularly the environmental aspects.

“We appreciate that they have already done some work in this area, as presented in the business case you attacked, and that doing further work would be costly.

“However, as this would be such a large, novel and complex infrastructure project, more evidence surrounding the cost, benefits and impacts is needed before we can look at it in greater detail.

“You are right to note that affordability is one key constraint on this project. The Government would need to be convinced that the costs of the Barrage would be less than the generation technology that it would displace and that the financing of the project could be structured to limit the upfront cost to bill payers.”

Peter Hain and the developers would get the same response from any government, simply because they have failed to make their case. The Committee underlines that point decisively:

In a report published today – A Severn Barrage? – MPs say that while the barrage could help tackle climate change, the Hafren Power scheme had failed to demonstrate economic, environmental and public acceptability.

Hafren Power proposed an 11-mile fixed tidal barrage between Brean and Lavernock Point.
Although construction of the barrage would be privately financed, Government support would be required for approximately 30 years.

Tim Yeo MP, committee chairman, said: "We are not convinced that the economic case for the proposed barrage is strong enough.

"The Hafren Power project in its current form has not demonstrated sufficient value as a low-carbon energy source to override local business and environmental concerns."

The report said that industry concerns – including from Bristol Port – had not been "fully addressed", while the impact on jobs and growth "remains unclear".

If the Severn Barrage is a viable project then the company concerned needs to prove it, and that means addressing the issues raised by government and MPs of all parties. European and International regulations designed to protect our environment require that we get this right, whilst the finances and economic impact need to stack up as well.

Throwing intemperate accusations about in this way is not going to get the job done.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Second union cuts funding to Labour

The Telegraph reports that a second Trade Union is to slash the money it gives to the Labour Party. They say that Unison believe the number of its members who are affiliated to the Labour party will fall from 500,000 to 430,000, meaning that they will be paying Ed Miliband's party £210,000 less each year:

The news means that in the past week Labour has seen lost more than £1.2million a year in donations from unions.

Last week the GMB union said it was cutting its affiliation funds to Labour from £1.2 million to £150,000 in the wake of the row over party reforms.

Unison sources stressed that the cutting in fees going to Labour was part of a three-yearly house keeping exercise to ask members if they supported Labour, and was not a political gesture aimed at the Labour party.

A Unison spokesman said: “The change in affiliation fees reflects the turnover of members and every member has the opportunity to pick if they want to be affiliated to Labour or in the general campaigning non-party fund.”

The Shadow Welsh Secretary told Radio Wales yesterday morning that Labour needed to make up for the shortfall by becoming a mass membership party again. However, even he had to concede that this was unlikely to happen in time for the 2015 General Election.

All the signs are that Ed Miliband's reforms are likely to leave the Labour Party without the means to match the big business money going into Tory coffers when it comes to the next election.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

A battle hardened party of government

Like many Liberal Democrats activists I am starting to get things ready so I can head up to Glasgow on Friday for five days of politicking at the Federal Conference. I know that this could be one of the more controversial conferences for years, with crucial decisions waiting to be taken on nuclear power and tuition fees that could challenge previous orthodoxies within the party.

Like it or not the party has changed because it is in government. That does not mean that we have to make unacceptable compromises in a dash for the bland middle ground, but it does place a duty on us to ensure that our next manifesto is properly costed, is deliverable and that there are no longer hostages to fortune in there in any future coalition discussions. At the very least, those negotiating for us must take account of key policies and not gloss over them as happened in 2010.

The Independent editorial understands this and seems to be impressed by our seriousness. They have focussed in on one policy which will not be controversial but does show that we are mean business when we say we want a more equal and enabling society:

Something interesting is happening to the Liberal Democrats. Because they are in office, their policy-making has become tougher. At their conference in Glasgow starting on Saturday, there are fewer glib and wishful utopian motions and more serious proposals that have survived a long, hard march through the institutions of government. Hence the party's plan to extend free childcare to all one- and two-year-olds, which we report on today, is no well-meaning wishlist, but a battle-hardened piece of legislation-ready policy.

The plan emerges from the struggle between the coalition partners over the last spending round, which was announced by George Osborne, the Chancellor, in June. Nick Clegg pushed for a better childcare deal, but eventually had to concede that NHS, schools and infrastructure spending were higher priorities. However, the result is that Lib Dem ministers were forced to refine their ideas, which means that the motion from the party's Federal Policy Committee has been thought through.

This is part of a wider preparation for the election, now just 20 months away. One of the little-appreciated decisions made by the Lib Dems at an early stage of the spending round was that it would cover one year only, 2015-16. That frees the coalition parties to set out different tax and spending priorities for the next parliament. Thus we can see the Lib Dem manifesto for the election coming into shape. Extending taxpayer-funded childcare will be one plank of the platform. Another is the mansion tax, for which Mr Clegg pushed but which David Cameron ruled out emphatically. A third example is that the Lib Dem leadership has admitted its error in allowing the extension of secret courts in the Justice and Security Act to go through and now wants to pledge to reverse it if it were returned to government.

The hardening of Lib Dem policy-making, which is still more democratic than that of the other main parties, means that disasters such as the tuition fees U-turn would be less likely. It also provides a more solid basis on which to conduct coalition negotiations, should there be another hung parliament. And what is interesting about the childcare policy and the mansion tax is that they are both subjects on which it is easier to imagine Labour and the Lib Dems reaching agreement than a continuation of the present coalition.

The fact that we are having to consider these policies for the next Parliament shows the compromises that have to be made in coalition. Nevertheless it is hard to disagree with the Independent's conclusion that our childcare proposals suggest that the party has matured in office and will still have a distinctive and attractive programme to offer at the next election.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Labour in disarray over Falkirk

The Independent reports that the reinstatement of two Labour Party members following allegations of vote-rigging by the Unite union in a parliamentary selection contest in Falkirk has forced Ed Miliband to make an embarrassing retreat.

They say claims that union members were signed up in the Scottish constituency without their knowledge in order to support Unite’s favoured candidate, Karie Murphy, have been withdrawn after complainants changed their evidence:

In a major climbdown by Labour, Ms Murphy was allowed back into the party last night, along with Stevie Deans, chairman of the local party in Falkirk and Unite in Scotland.

They had been suspended by Labour during its own investigation, but the Scottish police found no grounds for a criminal investigation in July after the party referred the case to the authorities.

It was this bitter dispute that formed the catalyst for plans by the party leader, Mr Miliband, to recast the relationship between Labour and its trade union founders. He wants union members to “opt in” to affiliating to the party rather that the present system of “opting out” if they do not wish to support it financially.

Nevertheless, Mr Miliband’s aides vowed that his radical reforms will go ahead – even though furious union leaders have begun to cut their cash support to Labour, which could provoke a financial crisis for the party at the 2015 election.

It seems that Unite’s decision to pay the party membership fees of some new members was within the party rules raising questions as to the extent that the selection process for the Labour's MPs is within the gift of Trade Union barons.

Whatever the outcome, Ed Miliband's actions have rebounded on him and he is left looking weak and isolated at the head of a party divided over his leadership.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Commonsense invades Whitehall

The Independent reports that very welcome news that civil servants have been ordered to look again at the controversial Lobbying Bill and remove key sections which could prevent charities from campaigning on issues of national importance during an election.

They say that the move follows widespread condemnation of the Bill that ministers have always claimed was only meant to prevent third parties from unduly influencing the result of elections.

Oxfam, the Royal British Legion and the Salvation Army are amongst many organisations that warned that, as written, the Bill could have “disastrous unintended consequences” on their ability to speak out. Charities also pointed out that the rules could force them to cut their spending in the run-up to elections substantially:

Under the current proposals, charities could be considered to be trying to influence an election even if they did not express support for any particular candidate.

However, Nick Clegg is now backing an amendment by a group of five Liberal Democrat MPs that would remove that section from the Bill. Sources close to Mr Clegg said that the Bill would then be substantially redrafted to allay the charities’ concerns.

“It would be fair to say that this Bill needs a bit of work,” they said. “We are now going back to try and redraft it in a way that makes quite clear that it will not in any way restrict the abilities of charities to campaign to change government policy or on other issues they feel strongly about.”

The source added: “John Thurso and other Liberal Democrat backbench colleagues have tabled an amendment to make it crystal clear this Bill will in no way stop charities doing their normal campaigning… The Government accepts the principle behind this amendment and will come back with changes to the legislation to reflect it.”

Obviously, it would have been helpful if this had been done before second reading, but then this is what the Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation is meant to be about, a government who listens to concerns and changes their proposals accordingly.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The badger cull is an ineffective waste of time

Far be it from me to seek legitimacy for my point of view from the Telegraph, however this article by Tom Chivers has hit the nail on the head as far as the badger cull in England is concerned.

As it happens Mr. Chivers is repeating what I and many others have been saying for a number of years now. The difference is that he understands the science and writes more fluently than me. Surely it is significant that the Telegraph of all papers is turning against the Government on one of their flagship policies for the English countryside.

He says that the ongoing cull of badgers, intended to curb tuberculosis in cattle, is stupid, it has already been shown to be ineffective as a policy, and the Government is surely only doing it to shut farmers up, rather than out of any conviction that it will do any good. He quotes the ten year Krebs trial to back up his argument and then he makes the decisive point:

The problem is, badgers are territorial. If you kill a badger, and there's another badger next door, that badger or its offspring will move into the dead badger's area. And when you're trying to reduce the spread of an infectious disease, the last thing you want is disease-carrying animals leaving their territories and moving into other ones. So while the farms in the centre of a culling area see a decent-sized drop, farms on the edge, with new badgers pouring in to fill the gaps left by the cull, will see an actual increase. Essentially, while the badger cull will reduce the TB problem slightly at great cost, it will mainly just move it around a bit.

But farmers want something done, and for some reason governments are traditionally scared of annoying farmers. So they're killing badgers to placate them. As Lord Krebs says, this is about politics, not science.

A vaccination programme may be more expensive than the current shooting madness but at least it will effective in the long run and actually help to eradicate this disease once and for all.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Ed Miliband reaps the whirlwind

Breaking news this morning is that the GMB union has decided to slash its funding to the Labour Party in the light of Ed Miliband's decision to rethink the party’s relationship with the unions in the wake of the Falkirk scandal.

The Telegraph says that within months the union is to cut its affiliation funds to Labour from £1.2 million to £150,000 in the wake of the row over party reforms. The GMB has also said that there will be further reductions in spending on Labour Party campaigns and initiatives.

All in all it has been estimated that Miliband's reforms will cost Labour at least £9 million. That is a figure that is backed up by the GMB’s decision.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Fresh reservations about South Wales NHS reorganisation

As an Assembly Member for South Wales West I have already given my view of the proposed reorganisation of certain specialist services across the old counties of Gwent and Glamorgan. Of necessity I have done so in a way that supports my constituents and the services they rely on. That is my job, but it is also something I believe passionately in.

However, according to today's Western Mail the BMA have taken a wider view and found that the proposals still come up short. They say that they have “significant” reservations about the plans put forward under the South Wales Programme:

In response to the consultation, the BMA said they backed the need for change in the NHS in Wales but had major concerns that all the options put forward by the South Wales Programme relied on the building of a new Specialist and Critical Care Centre (SCCC) in Cwmbran.

The SCCC is set to be completed by 2018-19 and will provide services which are currently based at the Royal Gwent and Nevill Hall hospitals. A business case for the facility has been put forward but is still undergoing scrutiny by the Welsh Government.

Dr Philip Banfield, chairman of the BMA’s Welsh Council, said: “We agree that the NHS in Wales is unsustainable for all sorts of reasons. [But] fundamentally there is a problem in having all options predicated on building the SCCC without any contingency for what happens if the building does not take place. It seems an unnecessary risk to develop a plan on something that may be developed in 2018 -19 when the need within NHS in Wales is now. There is a lack of detail in how we get from today to 2018 and there’s a great danger on relying on a hospital that does not exist.

“We are concerned about the lack of detail in the South Wales Programme. We find it difficult to see how the public can comment without the detail and it’s difficult for the professionals to comment.”
Concerns were also raised about whether GPs and health care resources within the community would be able to cope with the increase in demand as well as the impact the changes may have on the ambulance service, which is already struggling to meet performance targets.

Dr Banfield said: “It’s a great worry for us that there seems to be a philosophical change and emphasis on shifting more into the community without expanding that care first. There’s a complete lack of detail about where they are going to extend the focus on community care when we already know there are challenges for GP recruitment in Wales. There’s no detail about out-of-hours services – how it’s going to be staffed and carried out in the future.

These are very valid concerns. From my end of the M4 the role of already over-stretched ambulance and community care services will be crucial and yet there have been no answers as to how they will be able to cope with the additional demand which will inevitably be placed on them. If we do not have a plan to manage the risks we should not take them.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Paperless government?

If there is one thing we can all agree on it is that government bureaucracy uses too much paper and can be more efficient. However, surely we have to treat with some scepticism this report in the Independent that civil servants could cut the cost of government by £70bn in seven years just by making more use of computer technology.

That is because the other constant in the universe is that government computer projects always overrun, cost more than originally envisaged and fail to achieve most of the objectives set for them. This could be because those responsible for commissioning these projects often do not understand the systems they are commissioning and are dazzled by the claims and promises of computer company salesmen and women. I know, I have seen it happen.

The other obstacle is persuading people to change working practices. It is possibly for these reasons that Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude is more cautious in his estimation of savings. However, even then he will need a cast iron plan to make people change, to give up savings back to central budgets and to measure what are often ephemeral targets in a meaningful way. I am not holding my breath.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Trading our personal data

Today's Telegraph contains a shocking report on the vulnerability of data held on all of us by private companies and public bodies. They say that that the authorities have investigated more than 700 cases of sensitive data being obtained illegally from organisations such as mobile telephone companies, councils and the NHS in the last five years.

They add that these cases cover the details of hundreds of thousands of individuals, and include instances where confidential medical information was stolen from official databases. In some cases the personal information was sold on to marketing firms, providing leads for Britain’s burgeoning cold-calling industry, whilst many records were stolen by employees seeking a profit. In other cases, staff used the data in personal feuds:

The Sunday Telegraph, assisted by Big Brother Watch, a privacy campaign group, analysed all prosecutions brought against people for breaching section 55 of the Data Protection Act in the last five years.

The legislation makes it an offence to “knowingly or recklessly” obtain or disclose personal information without the permission of the organisation responsible for the data.

The Information Commissioner is able to prosecute under the Act, while the Crown Prosecution Service generally carries out such prosecutions when police have also brought charges of another offence considered more serious, such as misconduct in a public office.

The analysis disclosed that prosecutors had brought charges for 714 alleged breaches of section 55 in the last five financial years.

The CPS is unable to disclose how many resulted in convictions, but the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has separately, successfully sought convictions for an additional 82 offences.

In total, 14 people were convicted as a result of ICO prosecutions between 2008 and 2013. The CPS was unable to say how many individuals were involved in its prosecutions.

Those prosecuted by the ICO include Darren Hames, a former area manager for T-Mobile, who made thousands of pounds selling details of half a million customers to a former colleague, David Turley. Turley then sold the information on to a company that targeted customers to switch to a rival operator.

The dossier underlines the strength of the case being made by Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, to overhaul the Data Protection Act and introduce tougher penalties for abuses. The sooner the government does this the better.


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