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

Friday, January 31, 2014

A question of economic competence

Labour's attempt to convince people that they can be trusted with the economy took a big knock yesterday when Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander  suggested that if they got back into power then they would still be borrowing billions, at a time when the public finances would be back in balance under coalition plans.

The BBC say that overall, according to the Treasury analysis put forward by Danny Alexander, Labour would borrow £166.2bn more than the coalition between 2016-17 and 2020-1:

It calculates that Labour would still be borrowing £41bn in 2019-20 and £32bn in 2020-1, by when the coalition plans to have eliminated the deficit.

Mr Alexander said: "This Treasury analysis shows that Labour have learnt nothing from the past and can't be trusted by the British people on the economy.

"Their new borrowing bombshell will pile another £166bn of extra borrowing onto the debt mountain left by their catastrophic mismanagement of the UK economy."

So, we have a situation whereby Ed Balls is promising simultaneously to keep to Coalition spending plans, which presumably means maintaining their austerity programme, getting government books into balance, which involves further public spending cuts, whilst borrowing more.

Confused? You are not the only one.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Voting reform needed for Welsh councils

The Western Mail reports on an initiative by the Electoral Reform Society designed to convince the Wales Labour Party of the benefits of introducing fair votes as part of any council reorganisation here.

The ERS argue that the system of proportional representation used in Scottish local government elections has allowed Labour to win more seats there than it held in 1999, despite the rise of Alex Salmond’s SNP:

Making that case that it is in the interests of the party to abandon first-past-the-post, Steve Brooks, director of ERS Cymru said: “As the recent council and police elections show, Labour still faces an uphill struggle in large parts of Wales. The rivers Towy and Conwy form a western front, beyond which the party performs poorly.

“In any Assembly or general election battle, it is local councillors who are a party’s foot soldiers; loyally knocking doors, delivering leaflets and getting the vote out on polling day. While the 2012 council elections were relatively good for Labour in its heartlands, out west the picture was less positive. The party contested just 16 of the 60 seats in Pembrokeshire.

"In Ceredigion, Labour had regularly polled around 25% of the vote in General Elections, but in 2010 the party only narrowly avoided losing its deposit. In the last council election Labour fielded just one candidate, notching up 3.4% of the overall vote. First-past-the-post creates an ever decreasing circle of decline for the Labour party.

“Areas are abandoned as ‘unwinnable’, the local branch shrivels, the party stops fielding candidates and Labour voters are left stranded with nowhere to go, other than voting tactically for Plaid or the Lib Dems. If Labour is serious about winning back constituencies like Aberconwy, Preseli Pembrokeshire, and Carmarthenshire East & Dinefwr, it needs to take its rose-tinted glasses off and see that electing councillors via first-past-the-post is damaging its general election chances”.

Labour may have had the best result for some time in the 2012 council elections but it is undeniable that some parts of Wales they struggle to make an impact. In those areas their voters are disenfranchised.

But ultimately the best argument for PR is not one of self interest. It is that fair votes produce fair outcomes, it makes local councils more accountable and more receptive to local needs. It is the best way to get good quality services that reflect the wishes of those who use them.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cats to take over Westminster

Westminster already has a number of famous cats. Larry, Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office and Freya, who is George Osborne's cat are the best known, though there is also a cat resident in the Speaker's house, who I believe is called Order. Now the Independent has highlighted that there could be a lot more.

The paper says that Battersea Cats and Dogs Home have drawn up a list of their top mousers that could help solve Parliament's pest problem after yet another MP complained about mice and there could be as many as 160 of them:

For those who work in Parliament, sightings of mouse colonies are common and MPs have reported mounds of droppings as well as nibbled corners on official documents.

Pauline Latham, MP for Mid Derbyshire, is among a number of MPs who said they would like a cat to take back to their offices. She said: “Battersea Dogs & Cats Home do a fantastic job, and I would certainly love to have one of their cats come and take care of the mouse problem in my office.”

An excellent idea but I fear for the safety of those upholstered green and red benches if any of these cats should get into one of the debating chambers and start to sharpen their claws.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The scandal of Japanese slaughter of dolphins, porpoises and whales

I have just tabled the following statement of opinion in the Welsh Assembly:

This Assembly: Notes concerns by Welsh environmentalists at the recent slaughter of over 40 wild dolphins in Taiji, Japan; the capture of a further 52 dolphins for sale to aquariums and other customers including a rare albino dolphin calf, separated from its mother and kept in captivity in Taiji Whale Museum; Expresses alarm that the Japanese Government has issued quotas for the killing of over 20,000 dolphins, whales and porpoises in its coastal waters every year, despite the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling; and Calls on the Welsh Government to condemn these practices to the Japanese Government.

More information can be found here. The article says that each year, people kill about 22,000 dolphins and porpoises in Japan's waters:

In a town called Taiji, every year they catch and kill several hundred bottlenose, striped, and Risso's dolphins, Dall's porpoises and pilot whales. (The Arctic's Faroe Islands also stages an annual pilot whale drive-slaughter for food, which has the side effect of providing the residents with high doses of mercury.)

What is most disturbing is the method of killing the dolphins:

Until recently, hunters speared and stabbed the dolphins to death after driving them onto the shoreline.

Protesters march to the Japanese Embassy in Manila, Philippines, on September 2, 2013, to decry dolphin and small whales hunt in Taiji.

The new method is supposed to reduce time-to-death. As such, it's bogus. On paper, the new method involves destroying the spinal cord with repeated insertion of a metal rod. Even on paper, the "new killing method" makes no attempt to damage the brain, which would at least end consciousness.

In practice, the hunters splash around through the bloody water wielding their knives among the fully conscious, thrashing, squealing dolphins who have been trapped in the shallows and are being executed among their family and friends. Meanwhile, the humans have a very hard time getting into the spine.

Several veterinarians and behavioral scientists who watched a covertly recorded video wrote, "This killing method . ... would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world."

That includes Japan, oddly enough.

The Statement of Opinion should be available on the Assembly's website tomorrow. If you are able please urge your Assembly Member to sign it. There is also an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons that MPs can sign.

Update: there is more information about how you can join the campaign to save these dolphins here

More differentiation by the Liberal Democrats

The Independent reports that the Liberal Democrats have started to put in place key policies that will differentiate themselves from the Tories at the next election through a determination to eensure that the rich contribute more to reducing the deficit so that we do not have to rely entirely on cuts as set by George Osborne.

The paper says that plans being drawn up by Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will commit the Liberal Democrats to raising £2bn a year from a banded “mansion tax” on multimillion-pound properties.

They add that the party is also planning to reduce the total amount people can save tax-free for their pensions by 20 per cent to £1m. This is expected to raise a similar figure. They add that the measures will form key Liberal Democrat demands in any possible coalition negotiations after the next election.

This is very welcome. I look forward to more announcements as the General Electionm draw nearer.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The fracking fantasy

In the Guardian, former Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne comprehensively trashes Cameron's fracking revolution. It is worth quoting it extensively:

The Cameron song is that Britain is going to be "re-shoring" businesses – the opposite of offshoring – in part because of cheap gas as fracking takes off: prices will fall as they have in the US, where they are just a third of Europe's prices. British consumers, whose bills will be halved, will doff their caps to Tory ministers who made possible this revolution of cheap energy. Grateful billionaires will come gambolling back to bring new business to Bradford and Bolton.
This is not a vision but a fantasy. Britain's geology has not yet been proved as suitable for fracking. Poland underwent a frenzy of over-excited hype about its shale gas deposits, only to be cruelly disappointed by the detailed geology. The same may happen here.
Assume, however, that our shale deposits are frackable. The second problem is that we have eight times as many people per square mile as the US, and those pin-striped protesters in Balcombe, Sussex, are rather more likely to notice the lorry traffic needed to supply a big shale gas pad than the good folk of Oklahoma.
Those irate British nimbys, along with the green groups who want to leave fossil fuels in the ground, are quite capable of making life miserable for the shale prospectors. They have to get planning permission, and then face tricks such as buying up tiny strips of land and claiming trespass.
In the US you drive by signs saying "Top dollar paid for gas rights". Companies can buy from residents who own the mineral rights under their own land. In the UK, mineral rights were nationalised during the first world war so people have little incentive to back exploration.
Another problem is that shale has particularly taken off in low-regulation US states, but thankfully it is unlikely that the UK will want to relax environmental safeguards such as protecting the water table. UK politics is much more like that of New York or New Jersey – both of which have declared moratoriums on shale – than Texas or Louisiana. High environmental standards, combined with planning controls, will inevitably slow down shale gas output.
Never mind my judgment, consider what the great god of the marketplace thinks of the prime minister's vision. There is a very obvious way of telling, because a company quoted on the Australian stock exchange called AJ Lucas owns 42% of Cuadrilla, one of the most active UK shale gas explorers. Its shares are still just a quarter of what they were worth in 2009.
Let us nevertheless suspend our disbelief, and assume that our brave frackers triumph over all these adversities and succeed in producing such vast volumes of natural gas that we once again become a net exporter of gas to other countries, as we were until 2004 from the North Sea. This is the nirvana that Cameron believes will cause re-shoring because our energy prices will be so low.
However, there is a little snag with the prime minister's logic. We have so many pipelines connecting us to the continent that if the price were lower here, some gas trader would buy in Britain and export it. Soon the prices would be virtually the same. For exactly this reason, energy prices were no lower than Germany's even when we were self-sufficient.
The reason they are lower in the US is because the shale gas revolution has happened more quickly than investors could build export terminals, and the gas has been trapped in the home market, driving down the price. Even when the terminals are built, the price will be substantially lower because of the very high shipping costs from North America.
I feel strangely vindicated.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ed Balls and Labour's credibility gap

I am just looking at a chart reflecting the outcome of an opinion poll which shows that at this particular point in time the public blame Labour more than any other party for the cost of living crisis.

Of course that may change and we should not use it as an excuse to continue to help people through some very difficult times, but it does show the hurdles Labour still have to jump before they can regain credibility on the economy.

The point is that Labour did overspend before the 2008 crash as this graph shows:

By 2006 Labour had already very deliberately overspent by more than the total cash cost of the bank bail out. They were unprepared for the inevitable shocks. Until recently Ed Balls had refused to acknowledge the existence of any pre-2008 deficit. The Spectator nails the spin:

Let’s start with Balls’ misquoting of his interview with Andrew Mar from January 2011. Here’s what he said then:
Andrew Marr: ‘It is true to say, is it not, that in the run-up to the financial crisis, Britain was running the worst structural deficit — that’s the extra beyond the cycle — of any of the G7 countries?’
Ed Balls: ‘I don’t think we had a structural deficit at all in that period.’
But today, Balls said:
‘His question to me, which you mustn’t take out of context is: “Should you have acted differently in 2007?” Well at the time, the answer is no. In retrospect, ‘cos we now know the world was different, of course there was a structural deficit.’
And what about Balls’ claim that the government didn’t know ‘at the time’ that it was running a structural deficit? Here’s what he said today:
‘Let’s be clear. The charge is, in 2006-07, Labour was being irresponsible given the figures available. The answer is that at that time, given the figures available, there was not a structural deficit on the current account. In retrospect, of course there was. I’ve never denied that.’
So I took a look at the figures available in 2007, and guess what they show? That’s right: a structural deficit.

Ed Balls answer yesterday was to say he will reintroduce the 50p tax rate for those earning more than £150,000 a year, which I support and that he will aim to run a budget surplus by the end of the next Parliament.

It is worth noting at this point that even if a 50p tax rate did bring in more money, which is disputed by some, it will still only cover approximately 6% of the yearly deficit. To run a budget surplus Ed Balls would need to increase massively the cuts that form the centre-piece of the austerity programme currently being run by the UK Coalition. That reality is going to make Labour's negative campaigning very difficult in the run-up to the 2015 General Election.

The UK Coalition Government has a good record on seeking to help the worse off cope with the cost of living crisis. 1.1 million low-paid Welsh workers are now paying £600 less in tax than they were in 2010 and that will be £700 less by April. We have taken 130,000 workers in Wales out of tax altogether.

Pensions are up £12.50 a week, including the biggest ever pension rise in 2012. The basis state pension will go up another £2.95 a week in April. And petrol is now 13p per litre cheaper than it would have been under Labour's plans. Thanks to the freezing of fuel duty the average family has saved £187 per year.

What is more, despite cutting the top rate of tax to 45p, a millionaire will pay £381,000 more in income tax over the five years from 2010 to 2015 than they did under Labour from 2005 to 2010. Stamp duty has gone up so that an extra £40,000 will be payable on a £2 million house, whilst the top rate of Capital Gains Tax is now 28%. It was 18% under Labour.

Interestingly, Ed Ball's resolve to bring back the 50p tax rate does not have the full support of his own party. According to the Telegraph, Lord Myners, who served as City minister in Gordon Brown’s government, ridiculed the policy, saying that the economics behind it would not even get “a pass at GCSE”.

Labour's message is being weakened by their own record and the lack of credibility suffered by their chief economics spokesperson.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Energy company increases profits at our expense - shock!

The Western Mail reports on the shocking case of SSE, which is the parent company of Welsh firm Swalec, and who have announced that they are course to pump up profits to £1.54bn just two months after hiking customer tariffs by 8.8%.

They say that bills will be cut by 3.5% for all of the group’s nine million residential customers from March 24 after the group passed on savings from the Government’s green levy shake-up, but it still means an overall above-inflation rise for households.

Figures revealed this week also showed energy bills have spiked by 47% in just six years in parts of Wales. Fuel bills have grown more than three times faster than income.

It is rapidly becoming apparent that the current oligopoly in the energy market is actively working against the interests of customers.

Companies are raising money to boost dividends on the pretext of rising costs. The evidence seems to be that they are more than capable of absorbing those cost increases whilst still making a healthy profit.

It is worth noting that when the price of oil goes down we never have that saving passed on to customers.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Those annoying office habits

The Independent features a video The Apprentice star Nick Hewer sharing his top five pet office hates in what they describe as a typical no nonsense style. For the record the top ten are:

1. Social Notworking – messing around on Facebook and Twitter to avoid doing work – 26%
2. Déjà Brew – offering to make someone a cup of tea when you know for a fact they’ve just had one in the hope they will decline- 21%
3. Blue sky drinking – an unlimited free bar at a work party –18%
4. Drainstorm – a poorly organised workshop, where everyone leaves feeling deflated – 15%
5. Human Desourcing – sacking people – 12%
6. Jambivalence – ignoring a printer blockage in the hope that someone else will fix it 12%
7. Google Naps – using Google to work out what time colleagues in the US will be sleeping, to avoid them replying to emails –11%
8. W.T.F?! – the realisation that it is only Tuesday, and you have ‘Wednesday, Thursday, Friday?!’ still to do - 9%
9. Stock Home Syndrome – pinching stuff from the office - 7%
10. Shout-of-office – Someone who wants every single person in the building to know they are off on holiday – 6%

You can watch the video here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Another missed Welsh Government target

The Western Mail reports that a Welsh Government programme to boost small-scale renewable energy generation and create jobs in Wales is unlikely to achieve its targets.

They say that according to the mid-term evaluation halfway through the Ynni’r Fro programme it is falling well short of its initial expectations:

The authors write that “achievement against the targets for energy generation, reductions in greenhouse emissions and job creation has been minimal to date.”

In the Convergence region for example, against a generation target of 31 gigawatt hours (Gwh) no energy had been generated by September last year, and no jobs created against a target of 20.

In the Competitiveness region too no energy had yet been generated against a target of 3.1 Gwh, and no jobs created against a target of two.

The authors write: “The comments of stakeholders indicate this is an accurate reflection of progress ‘on the ground’. There was a general scepticism that these targets will be met by the end of the programme.”

Sometimes I wonder why this Welsh government sets targets at all.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A non Rennard-related rant

Why is the media obsessed with the alleged influence of political spouses?  I ask this because of the nonsense story in one national newspaper that Nick Clegg was forced to act over Chris Rennard because of pressure from his wife.

Miriam González Durántez has now been forced to deny this story saying that she did not even know the four women whose statements formed the basis of the inquiry report on Chris Rennard:

She added: “I think that by now you would know that I’m the kind of woman that doesn’t influence in the shadows. If I ever wanted to say something I would say that openly and publicly … My opinions about the political issues of the day I keep them to myself.”

And why would anybody think she would act any differently?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

More trouble for Miliband

I am sure you will forgive me if I indulge in some displacement activity and talk about the internal problems of another political party rather than dwell on what is going on in the Liberal Democrats.

The Times reports that Ed Miliband has been told to clamp down on Labour in-fighting after he was forced to defend his Shadow Chancellor against anonymous sniping.

The paper says that the Labour leader has insisted that Ed Balls was not facing the sack before the election whilst a senior Labour figure warned that the “real issue” was not the Shadow Chancellor but “the lack of a real plan for the election”:

The party insider said that Mr Miliband’s relaxed approach reflected an eagerness not to return to the “command and control” style of leadership espoused in the days of new Labour. However, he warned that “there is no grip and no direction just a whole lot of separate spheres of influence”.

He added: “The issue of what to do about Balls is probably about issue ten in the list of things that need sorting out. The leader’s office is like the Tardis, it’s difficult to get into and no one knows how it works.”

That does not bode well for the main opposition party.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Reforming public services in Wales

The Williams Commission into Public Services has published its report this morning and it is a substantial one. The report itself is 353 pages long, the summary is 105 pages long. All the documentation can be found here.

My view that reorganisation of local government should not be rushed into is set out here. Whilst my more extensive article on local government reorganisation, which has been published by the Electoral Reform Society this morning can be found here.

The BBC set out the main points of the report including some of the options for reorganisation here. In truth though the report is about more than that and will take some digesting. These changes are not to be rushed into.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

An extreme form of climate change denial

The BBC reports on the rather bizarre views of UKIP Councillor, David Silvester from Henley-on-Thames who has blamed the recent storms and heavy floods across Britain on the Government's decision to legalise gay marriage.

In a letter to the Henley Standard Councillor Silvester wrote: "The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war."

He added: "I wrote to David Cameron in April 2012 to warn him that disasters would accompany the passage of his same-sex marriage bill.

"But he went ahead despite a 600,000-signature petition by concerned Christians and more than half of his own parliamentary party saying that he should not do so."

He then went to on blame the prime minister for the bad weather:

"It is his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods."

He went on to say that no man, however powerful "can mess with Almighty God with impunity and get away with it".

I know that UKIP don't believe in climate change but this alternative explanation for the recent extreme weather conditions is a new one on me. And also it seems on UKIP, for they have suspended Councillor Silvester so as to avoid any further embarrassment for the party.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

How it might have been

The Police Commissioner for South Wales, Alun Michael is all over today's South Wales Evening Post calling for changes to the formula that determines how much he has to spend each year.

Mr. Michael points out that because of the way the system works, instead of receiving the full amount a formula says is needed to police South Wales appropriately, a significant amount is taken and allocated to other forces to give them a minimum amount of funding:

He said: "This year, we have lost £9million because of this practice.

"I have been given assurances that this will be considered when the funding formula is reviewed but the earliest this will happen is 2016-17. "Until then, our funding situation will get worse and worse. The funding formula for the police service is long overdue for review, and I advise Ministers to look at this as a matter of urgency, and not something to be ignored.

There is also the case that Edinburgh and London receive additional sums because they are capital cities but Cardiff does not. On both of these issues I agree with Alun Michael. It has been the case for some time, and in the past the Welsh Assembly and its Ministers have made representations to have the formula changed.

The big question though is why Alun Michael, when he was a Home Office Minister, did not change the formula himself?

Friday, January 17, 2014

The war on sugar

In Prime Minister's Questions this week David Cameron was challenged to back the 'War on Sugar' by giving up sugar for a day. Huffington Post report that Labour MP, Keith Vaz who has championed the cause since being diagnosed with diabetes asked him:

"Will you meet with a delegation of health experts to discuss this issue and can we enlist your support in the war on sugar by asking you to give up sugar and sugary drinks for one day this week?"

"I'm sure that would have the support of Mrs Cameron," the PM retorted.

Huffington Post say that Vaz's comments come on the back of startling obesity statistics:

Around half of all adults are considered "overweight" – and nearly a quarter obese – by body mass index.

Action on Sugar called the sweet stuff as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco, and have called on the food industry to cut 30 per cent of it from processed food, shaving 100 calories off a person's daily intake.

Cameron praised Vaz at PMQs for "speaking out on the issues of diabetes and obesity with such consistency, because they are major health concerns for our country.

"We are taking them very seriously. We are rolling out the NHS health check programme to identify all those between 40 and 74 at risk of diabetes.

"Childhood obesity rates are falling but there's more that needs to be done. I'm happy to facilitate discussions between you and [Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt] to have the discussions you want.

"We take this issue very seriously. We think the Responsibility Deal has achieved great things but there is more to be done."

Just how big the problem is can be assessed by looking at the amount of sugar we consume each year, mostly through processed food. This is something the Independent focused on a year ago:

According to Dr Lustig, whose new book Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth about Sugar, it comes down to a change in diets in the 1970s; a change most of us probably didn't even notice. The Seventies saw the development of foods with manipulated low-fat contents. And low-fat food, according to Dr Lustig, is making us fat.

"When you remove fat from food, it tastes like cardboard, The food industry knows that. So when they took fat out, they had to add the carbohydrate in; and in particular fructose sugar," says Dr Lustig. So as the low-fat dogma took hold, we cut out the fat and started taking on vastly more fructose. In America fructose intake (mostly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup) has increased 100-fold since 1970.

In the UK, the quantity of stand-alone bags of sugar sold – stuff lingering in granny's baking cupboard – has decreased. Yet in the period from 1990 to 2000 consumption of sugar went up by around a third – and a significant quantity of that is sucrose, which is 50 per cent made up of fructose. This is what researchers mean when they refer to the rise of "invisible sugar".

The average person consumes 150 pounds of sugar each year, that is the equivalent of approximately seventy five one kilogram bags or 33 tablespoons each day. Now that is a frightening thought.

Roger Lloyd-Pack

The sad death of Roger Lloyd-Pack yesterday robs us of one of the great comic actors. His timing and sheer brilliance is wonderfully summed up in this clip from 'Only Fools and Horses':

Thursday, January 16, 2014

More bodges on badgers

The Independent reports on more problems with the ill-starred, ill-advised and incompetent policy being pursued by the UK Government of culling badgers.

They say that the Government has admitted that distorted data may have significantly exaggerated the number of cattle infected by tuberculosis in Britain, raising fears that its badger cull pilot could have been based on erroneous information:

It is the second time that a problem with the Sam IT system, which measures data on cattle, has been exposed as faulty in just over two years – inflicting a further blow to the project’s credibility.

It follows a private internal memo at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency – the unit responsible for the data – which recently described the problems with the Sam system as a “crisis”.

The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson had made his case for the badger cull, which was supposed to reduce the spread of bovine TB levels in cattle, using alarming data showing that thousands of herds were carrying the disease, and rates of new infections, known as the “incidence rate”, were rising.

But Mr Paterson’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said that a problem with data recording meant that the number of herds infected with TB had been “overstated” since September 2011, and that “it can be expected that this data series will be revised significantly downwards for 2012 and 2013”.

Furthermore, it said there is a “possibility” that the Sam IT problems could have distorted the incidence data, regarded as the most telling measure of the scale of the disease.

It really is time that this mindless cull was abandoned and a more measured and humane approach to controlling bTB adopted in England instead.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Labour call for action on bankers bonuses

According to the BBC Labour have renewed their attack on bankers by urging Chancellor George Osborne to block any attempt by Royal Bank of Scotland  to pay bonuses of up to double its bankers' annual salary.

They have tabled a Commons motion calling on the government, which owns 80% of RBS, to reject any such move. They are also calling for more competition in banking. Both of those issues are being addressed by the Government though not quite in th way the Labour Leader wants.

The BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, said the move by Labour was part of its attempt to say that the prime minister and his chancellor "stand up for the wrong people".

On Friday, Mr Miliband is expected to flesh out details of a proposal made last year to force the big High Street banks to sell off branches, the BBC understands.

He wants to promote the growth of new banks that could challenge the "big five" - Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Lloyds, Barclays, and Santander.

"We've got to give customers more choice," Chris Leslie told the BBC.

But banking analyst Ralph Silva said: "What makes anybody believe that there's a queue of people willing to buy these branches? New and smaller banks - they don't want more branches, they want more apps. There's no market for branches out there."

He argued competition would only increase if new players, such as supermarkets, and car companies, entered the market.

The BBC's Newsnight reported that Mr Miliband may suggest a cap on the size of banks, possibly based on their share of the UK market.

However, business sources told the programme that such an intervention was another example of an anti-business sentiment in the Labour Party.

Just so we are clear though who has the worst record on this issue, here is a graph showing how bonuses were much higher under the previous Labour Government than now:

It is still a problem but not as bad as it was.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Heroes of World War One

As 2014 gets underway so do events to commemorate those who lost their lives during Worrld War One. The Times reports on one such event, the on-line publication of army war diaries and other documents by the National Archives.

The paper says that more than 1.5 million pages of unit war diaries from France and Flanders are being put online. The National Archives is also teaming up with the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse, a citizen science web portal, to launch Operation War Diary, which aims to use contributions of amateur historians and other members of the public to get the most out of the material contained in the diaries.

This is a fascinating exercise that will greatly enhance our understanding of this conflict and possibly provide new persepectives on it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

More on the migration debate

The Times reports that the rift within the coalition on immigration is not just between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. There are also some big hitters within the Conservative Party who disagree with the Prime Minister as well.

The paper says that Ken Clarke deepened the Conservative rift on Europe and immigration by praising migrants for contributing to British society and contradicting David Cameron’s claims on migration:

The Prime Minister’s trade envoy and former Justice Secretary said that migrants had helped to make Britain “a far more exciting and healthier” society, and derided as deluded the naysayers in his own party.

“I just don’t think it’s true that the European Union is responsible for unacceptable waves of migration,” said Mr Clarke, in an interview with the Financial Times.

In a remark likely to grate on Downing Street, and set him even more firmly into conflict with Tory right-wingers, Mr Clarke added: “The idea that you can have some fundamental debate that somehow stops all these foreigners coming here is rather typical right wing, nationalist escapism, I think.”

My view is that Ken Clarke is absolutely right. The free movement of labour is essential for a market economy. Efforts to limit migration should go no further than preventing abuse of the health and benefit systems.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Clegg steps up the process of disengagement

This morning's Observer reports that Nick Clegg has once more clashed with Tory Ministers over welfare reform, in what is increasingly looking like a deliberate process of disengagement from the coalition.

They say that the Deputy Prime Minister has dismissed a proposal by Iain Duncan Smith to limit child benefit to the first two children as a "Chinese-style family policy":

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, the deputy prime minister also warned that the Tories were locked in a "deathly embrace" with Ukip over Britain's membership of the EU. This would lead to a race to the bottom, he said.

Clegg opened up a new rift on a separate front with the Tories last week when he rejected a proposal by George Osborne for an extra £12bn in welfare cuts in the next parliament to help stabilise the public finances. The chancellor raised the prospect of withdrawing housing benefit from people under 25.

The deputy prime minister said he favoured eliminating the budget structural deficit by 2018 but Osborne was wrong to focus on cutting in-work benefits rather than raising taxes on the rich.

Duncan Smith, who is sceptical of Osborne's plan to withdraw housing benefit from those under 25, told the Sunday Times of a "brilliant" proposal to save £4bn by limiting child benefit to the first two children in a family. Clegg dismissed that when he told the Andrew Marr Show: "I will look at all proposals. But some of the ones I have seen floated – for instance the idea of a two-child policy. I am not in favour of penalising the young. I am not in favour of a sort of Chinese-style family policy saying the state says it is OK to have two children, it is not OK to have three children.

"Remember this is child benefit that goes to families, many of whom are working. They are working very hard, often on low incomes. My priority is a fair approach to ongoing fiscal consolidation. If you have to balance the books you mustn't balance the books only on the working-age poor."

I am very happy about the position Clegg is taking on these issues.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

How cats see us

As somebody who shares my home with a cat, I was fascinated and a little bemused by this article in yesterday's Independent. The paper reports on the conclusions of biologist and animal behaviour expert, Dr John Bradshaw, the author of Cat Sense.

He has suggested that domesticated cats perceive their human companions as less of a parental figure and much more as a larger, non-hostile fellow cat:

In Cat Sense, Dr Bradshaw concludes that cats evolved as solitary hunters and still don’t quite 'get us' the way dogs do - and perhaps never will.

In effect, he says, cats are still fundamentally wild animals despite years of domestication. In the book, he explains: "the transformation of the cat from resident exterminator to companion cohabiter is both recent and rapid, and—especially from the cat’s perspective—evidently incomplete."

According to Dr Bradshaw, when cats rub up against their owners or invite them to stroke their head, they are in fact treating them as fellow non-hostile cats.

An upright tale is a greeting sign between cats, he adds, and is also a way of cats demonstrating their affection for their owners.

And when cats bring their prey into their owner's houses, it is a side effect of their hunting strategy - not because they want to bestow a gift upon the household. Once inside the house, cats remember they prefer tinned food which is why the rodent dead is then left on the floor.

I am not sure I really wanted to know all of that actually.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Investing in local post offices

The BBC report that more than 6,000 branches of the Post Office are to be revamped by the government in the next three years.

They say that an investment programme costing £1.34 billion will modernise the sub-branches, which will then be styled as either main or local branches.

These local branches will typically be situated in convenience stores, which will mean longer opening hours and modern fittings for customers at the revamped branches. The remaining 5,500 sub-branches will stay as they are.

The BBC add that of the new modernised branches, 4,000 will be designated as main and 2,000 as local. A pilot programme for the conversions, covering 227 converted sub- branches, is already underway.

The Coalition has pledged that they will not repeat the Post Office closure programme of the previous Labour Government. This unprecedented investment is being led by a Liberal Democrat Minister and is a clear indication of our influence.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Lib Dems to call for review of mass surveillance by security services

The Guardian reports that the Liberal Democrats Party President is to co-sponsor a motion at our next conference that will propose judicial oversight of state surveillance and a regular release of the number of data requests made by the security services.

The motion will propose that these should be among the issues examined by a government "commission of experts" into all the recent allegations raised by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

It will also call for the commission to review the effectiveness of all legislation surrounding the security services, including the system of parliamentary accountability.

The paper says that the motion sponsors envisage the commission as being modelled on Barack Obama's privacy and civil liberties oversight board, a five-strong body of legal, industry and security experts appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress. The board has been advising Obama on his imminent response to Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor:

The comprehensive response is being submitted in a motion to the Lib Dem spring conference by the party's president, Tim Farron, and home affairs select committee chairman, Julian Huppert. Such high-profile support suggests it is almost certain to be passed.

The terms of the motion have been discussed with Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem home affairs minister Norman Baker, and represent the most substantive sign that the Snowden revelations may yet prompt a political response in the UK similar to the one under way in the US and continental Europe.

A spokesman for Clegg said: "The motion is very much in line with Nick's thinking and he agrees with its principles."

The motion says mass surveillance of citizens without suspicion is alien to British traditions. It proposes that the government should not undertake bulk collection of data and could only access the metadata, or content of communications of an individual, "if there is suspicion of involvement in unlawful activity".

It also calls for a ban on fresh powers of surveillance, accessing data, and accessing new technologies without explicit prior parliamentary approval.

The commission would look at the resources and accountability of the bodies responsible for overseeing the security services, including select committees, tribunals and commissioners.

The Liberal Democrats have already made an impact in Government in protecting our civil liberties. We need to build on that work and this motion points us to a way forward.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

How to get young people voting

The poor turnout at elections amongst the under-25s has challenged politicians ever since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1969 and most probably before that as well. 

Now, however a Labour MP has come up with a blindingly obvious solution. Paul Blomfield, the Labour MP for Sheffield Central, has told the House of Commons that election turnout could be hugely increased if polling stations were sited in universities and sixth-form colleges:

Mr Blomfield, whose constituency is quite student-heavy, made the remarks in the Commons during a question and answer session with Cabinet Office Minister Greg Clark.

He asked: “Ministers will recognise the particular challenge of encouraging young people to engage in the electoral process, so what consideration has been given to having polling stations in sixth-form colleges, further education colleges and universities to encourage 18-year-olds to vote?

Mr Clark responded by saying he would raise the suggestion “with the relevant authorities.”
He said: “It is in all our interests to ensure that as many young people register as possible, especially in student cities such as [Sheffield].”

Speaking afterwards, Mr Blomfield suggested that people who vote at 18 “are much more likely to stick with the habit of voting” throughout their lives.

“Ministers and councils should be looking at every option to maximise the number of 18-year-olds voting. Polling stations in sixth-forms, colleges and universities would be one way of encouraging democratic engagement for 18-year-olds.”

If you get the sense I am going to rubbish this idea then you would be half-right. I happen to think that polling stations should be made more accessible and that they should be sited on campuses as Mr. Blomfield suggested, however to think that it is the solution to low-turnouts, disillusionment and disinterest amongst the young is naive to say the least.

In fact there are places throughout the UK where the practice of siting polling stations on campuses is pursued. My experience is that this does not boost turnout. That is because young people have the same issues as everybody else, they do not trust politicians and they do not see how voting is relevant to them.

If we really want to get the young voting then we have to inspire them to do so. It is a feat that Obama achieved to an extent in 2008 but I suspect that he lost them again in 2012 after having to face the harsh realities of exercising power.

There are no easy solutions to this issue. I certainly do not have any. So let us not pretend that non-voting is down to the fact that it is inconvenient to cast a ballot. It is far more complex than that.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Osborne under fire on further welfare cuts

I am delighted that Nick Clegg has come out against George Osborne's proposal to cut another £12 billion off welfare provision after the next general election. The Liberal Democrats' Leader is absolutely right when he says that defcit reduction should focus on taxing the wealthy rather than further targeting the vulnerable.

However, it is not just the Liberal Democrats who are critical of Osborne's stance. He has critics in his own party too. As the Times makes clear, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been accused of “hacking at the same people” by allies of his Cabinet colleague Iain Duncan Smith:

The Work and Pensions Secretary, known for his hard line on benefits, is thought to be concerned about the effect of the cuts on the poorest in society.

In a row that threatens to overshadow the Conservatives’ new year media offensive, a source close to Mr Duncan Smith said that cutting benefit payments to working-age people while leaving untouched pensioner payments — including universal handouts to the wealthy elderly — was “unbalanced”.

Iain Duncan Smith's proposals echo those of Labour. The General Election campaign may be 16 months away but it is hotting up already.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The dangers of 'no win no fee' claims

The Times has an interesting article today on the dangers of 'no win no fee' legal claims and how they are not as risk fee as people think. This is an issue I first too up over six years ago when I raised with the UK Government problems with 'claim farmers'.

This arose out of a case referred to me by a constituent, who had gone to court to make a public liability claim with the assistance of a 'no win no fee' deal with a firm of solicitors. When the case collapsed, the family were left having to meet the costs of the defendant.

In my discussions with Swansea Council it was made clear to me that it is fairly common for 'no win no fee' cases to lead to costs in excess of five to six thousand pounds being awarded against the person who brings the case. Although there will be insurance it is often the case that the insurers will not indemnify these costs especially if they consider that the case has collapsed as a result of the actions of the claimant.

One of the features of this sort of action that is not widely understood is that the claimant takes out insurance to cover any costs, but because of the risk involved the premium can be anything from £1,000 to £10,000. This is paid for by a loan arranged by the claim farmer and claimants are often given the impression that they do not need to worry about repaying it as if they win then the premium will be refunded to them.

If somebody enters into a 'no win no fee' claim and tries to drop out then their own solicitors will hit them for their costs and they will still have the premium to repay. Once somebody has signed on the dotted line then backing out will leave them in breach of contract. Even with the statutory 14 day period of grace many people fall foul of this as it is too late before they realise what they have got themselves into.

The cases referred to by the Times are slightly different, but disturbing nevertheless. They say that
people have been lumbered with legal bills of tens of thousands of pounds despite hiring lawyers on “no win, no fee” deals. They add that nearly £1 million in compensation was ordered to be paid to clients by the Legal Ombudsman because of problems caused by the deals, amid calls for them to be scrapped.

Adam Sampson, the Chief Ombudsman, said: “The no win, no fee market has become increasingly aggressive, with many law firms competing for cases and sometimes prioritising sourcing a large number of customers over a careful selection process. A business model which consistently overvalues the chances of success can drive lawyers into unethical practices to avoid financial meltdown. This report raises questions on whether the no win, no fee label should be used at all. The no win, no fee model has played its part in fostering a culture of ‘ambulance chasing’ and fraudulent claims, which has driven up insurance premiums.”

Part of the problem of course is the withdrawal of legal aid, but the way this market is regulated needs to be reviewed too. This is an outstanding issue from the last government which present Ministers need to pick up on.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Commercialising Westminster

Having reviewed the papers on Radio Wales this morning I have had a bit more time than usual to scan the news and also to look at publications I would not normally consider.

Thus, I refer to the Cross Bencher column in the Sunday Express, which reveals that the Palace of Westminster is being put out to hire to raise funds for refurbishment. They say that companies will be able to hire the ornate Pugin Room or the Churchill Dining Room, take clients for a £4,000 day out at Portcullis House or for a £24 per head cream tea.

Somehow I cannot see the Welsh Senedd being able to do the same.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Labour's planned cuts threaten Welsh Government budget and our NHS

This morning's Western Mail reports on an article by David Phillips, a senior research economist at the Institute of Fiscal Studies, that speculates on the impact of cuts by a future UK Labour Government and the impact they will have on the Welsh Government's budget (not yet on-line).

In particular Mr. Phillips highlights the threat by Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls that no area remains sacrosanct, including the English health service, which is likely to have a disproportionate impact on services on the our side of Offa's Dyke.

What the paper does not make clear is that the current UK Coalition Government has ring-fenced spending on the English Health Service and that as a result, when combined with extra UK spending on education, Wales has remained relatively insulated from the cuts.

It is certainly the case that in cash terms the Welsh block grant has continued to increase, that in real terms it has not declined as much as many English departments and that the cuts to the block grant have been less deep and slower than envisaged by the previous Labour Government and Alistair Darling's plans as set out in his 2009 budget.

This is due to the way that the Barnett formula works. The vast majority of expenditure by the Welsh Government is on Education and Health. They receive 5.9% of all monies spent in England on these areas. It follows therefore that any cut to Education and Health will have a disproportionate impact on Wales, just as the decision to protect these departments by the current Government, will be beneficial.

The point made by David Phillips is that if Ed Balls follows through on his threat to cut the English Health budget then it will be disastrous for Wales. He suggests that such a decision by a future Labour Government will leave the Welsh block grant 9% lower in 2017-18 than it is today, with the Welsh Government having to cut other services by 15% just to stand still.

He adds: "Unfortunately, even when its budget starts growing again, increasing spending on the NHS at a rate required to meet the projected rises in costs and demand would mean very difficult choices elsewhere in the budget, unless those pressures can be ameliorated."

The lessons are very clear: The present UK Coalition policies of protecting health and education are benefiting Wales and offering some relief from necessary austerity measures; a future Labour UK Government that does not have such clear priorities and instead cuts across the board will be disastrous for Welsh services, and the NHS and schools in particular; and a proper needs based funding formula together with tax varying powers is vital if we are to break out of this symbiotic relationship and actually have the freedom to start making our own decisions.

Friday, January 03, 2014

2013 was a bad year for Ed Miliband

Glancing through the websites of the national newspapers today I came across this assessment in the Telegraph by Dan Hodges of Ed Miliband's year.

Dan Hodges is no friend of the Labour leader, but even so his opinion is worth listening to and he pinpoints precisely why Ed Miliband is failing to make a wider impact:

Ed Miliband has entered 2014 with a spring in his step. It was on prominent display in his New Year’s message, which basically consisted of a video of our putative next prime minister walking around a lot.

Where he was walking wasn’t entirely clear. There was a clip of him proceeding alone down the concourse at Waterloo Station, looking a little lost. Then another clip of him wandering across

Waterloo Bridge, where he appeared to stop to give someone directions. Finally he doubled back on himself and started hanging around the South Bank, apparently in the hope that someone would ask him for a selfie; which, fortunately, they did. At that point it was starting to get dark, so Ed got into his car and just sat there for a bit, looking thoughtful.

In between, there were some shots of him in front of a large Christmas tree empathising with people over the cost-of-living crisis. “People don’t want the earth,” he said, philosophically. “They’d prefer some very specific promises.” So I waited for them. But all we got was a repeat of the energy price-freeze pledge, and a vague commitment to do something about loan sharks and the cost of child care.

There is a common perception – one shared by Ed Miliband and his inner circle – that 2013 was their year. They retain what has come to be described as a “solid” poll lead. Miliband himself is seen to have again seized and set the political agenda. Victory in 2015, while not a racing certainty, is now viewed as a distinct possibility.

Those in Labour’s ranks who look back over the past 12 months through that comforting prism are wrong, however. The new year is only a few hours old. And already we have discovered that in 2013 the Labour Party learnt nothing.

He says Ed Miliband needed to seize the initiative on the issue of the moment, the flatlining economy:

He had to build a solid policy framework to support his new One Nation narrative, especially in those key areas where he had so far ducked tough decisions, such as public spending cuts, welfare and immigration. Crucially, he had to answer the question bedevilling his party since the 2008 crash – how does a modern Left-of-centre movement make itself relevant at a time where there is no money to spend?

Yet Ed Miliband did none of those things. The past year saw him gripped by paralysis. Rather than set out a compelling alternative economic prospectus, Labour instead took to mouthing a repetitive chant: “Too far, too fast. Too far, too fast.” There was a half-hearted effort to match Tory spending targets, but only on what was called “day-to-day expenditure”. A commitment to crack down on welfare unravelled after Miliband refused to confirm that he would actually cut benefit payments for anyone. The attempt to recycle Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” line on immigration was mockingly dubbed “rivers of blunder”.

And on the most fundamental question of all – how does a progressive political party recast society in its image in an age of austerity? – there was no answer. In fact, there wasn’t even an attempt at an answer. A year that began with calls for Labour to recapture the spirit of 1945 ended with a promise to cut energy bills by £5.80 a month, ban fixed-odds betting terminals and tackle the pernicious sexism of Thomas the Tank Engine.

He concludes that on the two issues that matter in politics,  the economy and leadership, then in 2013 Labour’s credibility deficit in both areas has widened. On the economy, the party has now effectively given up trying to win the argument, whilst negative public perceptions surrounding their leader are hardening rather than softening.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The price of energy

With Labour confirming what we have long-suspected, that the big six energy companies paid nearly £4bn above the average market rate for their electricity and charged customers about £150 extra over three years as a result, it is little wonder that the government remain under pressure to do something about this oligopoly.

To be fair some action has been taken, with Ofgem introducing more simplified tariffs and the UK Government has cut fuel bills by £50 and are putting pressure on companies to do more themselves. Anybody who thinks that Labour's price freeze is the answer though should think again, as Ed davey makes clear in this article.

He has dismissed Labour leader Ed Miliband’s suggestion that a two-year price freeze would solve the issue of soaring energy bills as “highly irresponsible” and a “con”:

In a forthright condemnation of the proposal, the Energy Secretary said the move is “highly irresponsible and fails to deliver what consumers want,” adding “we think it’s a con, because the energy companies will all shove up their prices before and certainly shove them up afterwards, so the consumer won’t get any benefit.”

Mr Davey said that the price freeze would hit the small, independent, gas and electricity companies much harder than the Big Six suppliers.

That was because a significant rise in the wholesale price of gas – the main determinant of household energy bills – could push the retailers’ into loss if they are not allowed to pass that increase on to their customers.

The greater financial strength of the Big Six would enable them to absorb retail losses for two years, while the smaller companies could potentially go out of business. “Labour is actually a friend of the Big Six,” he said.

Mr Davey also put himself on a collision course with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, and the Energy minister, Michael Fallon – all Tories who have said that a shale gas boom could bring energy prices down in the UK, as it has in the US.

It was by no means certain that there would be such a boom, said Mr Davey, and that, even if there was, this would not bring down prices. “I always focus on the evidence and analysis and the evidence and analysis suggests that, while shale gas may have many advantages, it is extremely unlikely that with the UK doing it alone there is going to be any price reduction as a result of shale gas.”

That was because the US has a largely isolated gas market, so that any surge in supply forces down prices. By contrast, the UK is connected to the international gas market through interconnectors, so any excess supply would be exported at current market prices and would have little or no impact on domestic prices.

I am particularly pleased at the scepticism shown about shale gas and also about the move towards creating a single European energy market which will improve competition and help to keep prices down.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Labour's role model performs a u-turn

When François Hollande became French President, the Labour Party hailed him as an economic saviour. Here was a man who was going to demonstrate the real alternative to austerity by taxing the rich and spending his way out of recession. What a disappointment he must be to them. What alternative do they now have?

According to the Financial Times, the French President has now pledged to cut public spending, lower taxes and reduce labour costs for business in a bid to convince a sceptical public that he remains capable of regenerating France’s stuttering economy.

The paper says that Mr Hollande’s problem is that since he took office in May 2012, he has introduced a series of big tax increases as the main tool to reduce the budget deficit, prompting several demonstrations across the country and undermining the credibility of his new promises to shift the burden to spending cuts:

On Wednesday, an increase in value added taxes came into effect, with the main rate rising to 20 per cent from 19.6 per cent and the intermediary rate, covering hotels, restaurants and public transport, rising to 10 per cent from 7 per cent. These are part of an overall €12bn hit to households in new taxes this year.

The VAT increase is mainly to finance a €20bn tax break for companies to help reduce their high labour costs. But business leaders continue to clamour for a direct cut in social charges on employment to restore weak profit margins and their foreign competitiveness, financed by much more ambitious cuts in public spending.

The government is promising €50bn in spending cuts over the next three years, saying there will be no further rises in taxation from 2015.

If Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are now to put forward an alternative to George Osborne's austerity measures, introduced because of the mismanagement of the previous Labour Government, then they are going to have to find a new role model.

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