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Friday, February 28, 2014

Fair funding for Wales

Unsurprisingly, the Welsh Affairs Committee report on the draft Wales Bill fails to achieve a consensus on key issues such as the lockstep linking together income tax levels in any devolution of income tax-varying powers and the voting system.

What it does do though is highlight the importance of reforming the Barnett formula so that the money going to the Welsh Government is distributed on the basis of need rather than an arbitrary population based percentage of UK spending set in the 1970s.

Fair funding is crucial before the Welsh Assembly takes on tax-varying powers, otherwise the calculation of the related claw-back of grant will be flawed and set the underfunding in stone for another generation.

The Western Mail report that the the Welsh Affairs select committee agrees. They argue that: “We believe that the issue of fair funding should be examined and do not see the need to postpone this until after the 2015 general election”:

The MPs state in their analysis of the UK Government’s Draft Wales Bill: “Although it is outside the scope of this inquiry, we have sympathy with the argument that the issue of fair funding should be resolved before income tax powers are devolved so that Wales is not unfairly disadvantaged.”

Committee chairman and Conservative Monmouth MP David Davies said: “If the power to collect certain taxes is devolved to Wales, the block grant will be reduced, and this must not unfairly disadvantage Wales, as the current funding formula does.”

I think it is universally agreed that nothing will happen to consider the fairness of the Barnett formula until after the Scottish referendum for obvious political reasons. However, it is my view that once that is out of the way, and irrespective of the result, the UK Government should announce an immediate review of the way that the nations and regions are funded with the aim of getting some objectivity and fairness into the system.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Fleeing Salmond's sinking ship

The wheels are starting to come off Alex Salmond's independence bandwagon. Earlier this week I blogged that Brussels is likely to enforce higher VAT levels on an independent Scotland whilst the UK Government's will insist that an independent Scotland will not be allowed to retain the pound. There are also doubts being cast by the EU President that Scotland may not even be allowed to join the European Union.

Now the Telegraph is reporting that Standard Life has become the first large Scottish company to warn it may move part of its multi-billion pound operations to England if there is a vote for independence this year.

RBS has also warned that uncertainty over the referendum is damaging its business and a vote for separation would be “likely to significantly impact the Group’s credit ratings”. A view expressed this morning by one economist is that an independent Scotland will also lose RBS, simply because a central Scottish bank would not be big enough to guarantee deposits in a bank of that size.

Standard Life, which is described by the Telegraph as a  pensions, savings and insurance giant, has said that it is drawing up contingency plans to shift operations and personnel from its Edinburgh headquarters as a “precautionary measure to ensure continuity of our businesses’ competitive position. It believes that the planning is necessary to protect customers and shareholders and that this could involve moving its headquarters from Edinburgh to London.

It seems that Scotland 'going it alone' could mean literally that.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

DWP takes to the West End stage

The farce that is the Department of Work and Pension took centre stage again yesterday when civil servants and Ministers took the decision to stop outsourcing company Atos from carrying out repeat assessments on people currently claiming work-related disability benefits without telling anybody.

An internal memorandum told the department’s staff to leave all current employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants on their benefit, without repeat medical checks, until another company can be found to do work capability assessments (WCAs). However,  'as this is an operational decision and not a policy decision, MPs and claimants do not need to be told'.

The Independent says that the Benefits and Work website reported that it obtained the memo via a Freedom of Information request:

According to their report the memo reads: “The number of cases currently with Atos Healthcare has grown. A decision has therefore been taken to control the referral of repeat work capability assessments. Therefore, with effect from 20 January 2014, further routine repeat assessments referrals to Atos will be deferred until further notice.

“Controlling the volume of repeat Work Capability Assessments should help us to reduce delays for new claimants and those that have already been referred.”

It goes on to explain that they are not stopping referrals due to “quality issues” but because of the backlog of cases. People who are receiving ESA will continue to receive it until another company can be found to carry out the work. Claimants who experience a change in condition, for example a worsening illness, should still be referred for reassessment. New claimants being moved onto ESA will still be reassessed. The memo notes that because this is an “operational decision” and not a “policy change” MPs and claimants do not need to be told.

What is particularly interesting about this episode is that Disability Minister Mike Penning has at last, acknowledged that the contract with Atos is a “mess”.  The paper says that the DWP itself has had to disagree with 158,300 decisions made by Atos that people were ‘fit for work’ when the department ascertained they were not .

A further 600,000 people have appealed against decisions made by the government to cut their benefits. Of that number nearly 60% have been successful. Atos itself is now saying that it wants to pull out of the contract early because of the death threats being made against its staff.

The question arises as to why a Government department is employing a company to make expert medical assessments and then disagreeing with their decision. In my experience many of the successful appeals have come about because of the DWP overruling Atos rather than because of Atos itself.

The existing contract was set up by the previous Labour Government and continued by Ministers in the present government. It has never been fit for purpose.

Now, we have a chance to get it right, provided that those setting the terms of any new agreement can look beyond the goal of just saving money and instead aim to bring some fairness to the system.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Deepening divisions within Welsh Conservative Assembly Group

Today's Western Mail reports on the deepening divisions within the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group following the fall out over a vote on tax-varying powers.

The paper says that North Wales AM Antoinette Sandbach, who was sacked after defying her group leader in a vote over the devolution of income tax powers to Wales, has made a formal complaint to the party about the behaviour towards her over the issue of a fellow Tory AM.

She has claimed that Clwyd West AM, Darren Millar put unreasonable pressure on her to back the position taken by Andrew RT Davies and has put in a formal complaint to the Board of the Welsh Conservatives. The article does not go into any detail as to what constitutes 'unreasonable pressure'.

The continuing row keeps the issue of Andrew R.T. Davies' leadership in the spotlight and once more underlines how dysfunctional the main opposition group is within the Assembly.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Having their cake and eating it

The Times contains a report on what they term a new bombshell for the SNP, namely that Brussels is likely to enforce higher VAT levels on an independent Scotland.

This comes on top of the UK Government's insistence that an independent Scotland will not be allowed to retain the pound and doubts cast by the EU President that Scotland may not even be allowed to join the European Union.

The paper quotes the European Commission in asserting that any new member of the EU would have to impose VAT on all consumer goods. They say that new member states might be able to set a reduced rate of 5 per cent on a couple of items, but would have to levy a minimum rate of 15 per cent on almost everything else.

The Scottish Conservatives say that this will mean that an independent Scotland would lose the VAT waiver that the UK enjoys on items including maps, cycle helmets and equipment for the disabled, affecting both consumers and businesses and making Scotland less competitive than its UK neighbours.

However, a spokesman for John Swinney, the Scottish Finance Secretary, has dismissed what he called “preposterous scaremongering” and claimed that Scotland would retain its current zero VAT rate because it was already in the EU and would not be an accession state.

Well, yes, whilst Scotland is part of the United Kingdom it is already in the EU. If it votes for independence then it will no longer have that status and will have to apply to join. Surely, even the SNP understand that concept or are they genuinely in denial of the fact that they cannot have their cake and eat it?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Singing cats

I love this advert

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Local democracy versus central control

As a Councillor for nearly 30 years now I share the concerns expressed in this article regarding some of the proposals by the Welsh Government to overhaul the planning system.

The Western Mail reports that under the changes, the vast majority of planning applications will be dealt with by council officers with no involvement by elected members. All infrastructure projects will be handled by the National Assembly, with no input by local councillors to the decision.

There is of course a case for major infrastructure projects to be dealt with on a Wales-wide basis but handing more power to unelected officers to determine the shape of our local communities is a step too far.

That is especially so when the proposed Planning Bill will create a new tier of Strategic Development Plans sitting above Local Development Plans. These will be drawn up by newly created panels with a large number of appointed members who will not be democratically accountable. Local planning authorities will then be required to conform to these strategic plans, weakening the local voice and eroding local democracy.

In addition, the Welsh Government’s proposed Future Generations Bill seeks to put Single Integrated Plans, drawn up by Local Service Boards, on a statutory footing, so much so that Peter Davies, the Sustainable Futures Commissioner has already expressed his worry about their weak link to the democratic process.

These proposals are still out to consultation of course but nevertheless vigilence is required to ensure that yet again powers are not taken off local councils, and elected representatives undermined, in favour of a more centralised approach.

Friday, February 21, 2014

It's Nick versus Nigel

The Times reports that UKIP leader, Nigel Farage has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Nick Clegg and will debate him on Britain's continuing membership of the European Union. This immediately puts pressure on Miliband and Cameron as to whether they are also prepared to set out their party's stall in what could be a defining moment in May's European elections.

Let us hope that the debate does not stand or fall on the decision of Labour and Conservative leaders to participate or not. We need to raise the profile of the arguments for staying in Europe and this is a particularly good way of doing so.

What we need now is for this debate to be televised rather thanjust confined to LBC. It is time that UKIP's misrepresentations on Europe were challenged and rebutted in a national debate.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Nick Clegg changed British politics

It is always interesting to read the views of the comrades in the Labour Party, no more so when they are not invoking class warfare. That is why I was particularly interested in this view on Labour Uncut which suggests that Labour need to acknowledge the way Nick Clegg has changed the political landscape in this country:

Any fool can kick Nick Clegg. The Labour party, so often by far the most sanctimonious of the main political parties, has reduced this to a sorry art-form. When Clegg entered the coalition government with the Conservatives, the Labour party, always quick to feel betrayed, duly howled blue murder. It was treason of a high order. If there is one thing the Labour party does well it is hatred, and hate we did.

A more nuanced view would rightly ask what else was the leader of the Liberal Democrats meant to do? The only other option open to Clegg was to stand aloof, tolerating a minority Tory government and most likely precipitating another early election. The country, having just gone through the toils of a general election, would not have taken kindly to such short-sightedness. An alliance with Labour, who had just been decimated in the polls, would have been simply incredible. And were another election called, Labour, leader-less, penny-less, would have been destroyed. But for some in the party this is the utopia that could and should have happened until that bastard Clegg came along.

For Labour, Clegg has served the purpose of a lightening-rod of discontent; witness the recent talk of “decapitating” the Liberal Democrat leader from his Sheffield Hallam constituency. It is an odd strategy to pursue when, as reported on Uncut, the party cannot even target its rather overly-optimistic 106 seats for 2015 and is fully nineteen thousand votes behind Clegg in the constituency. But it is part of a wider strategy in that it is far more comforting for party to believe that it was Clegg’s personal desire, rather than cold parliamentary arithmetic, which killed off the “progressive majority” and blame him for all ills.

David Talbot, who wrote the piece says that Clegg has shown the others how to manage a political party, whilst soaking up all the abuse that has been directed at him. He concludes:

Far from being out of power for a generation, Clegg could have found the path to office for a generation. His greatest triumph was to prove that coalition, the only form of governance in which the Liberal Democrats can legitimately partake, is a workable form of British government. That prize is worth all the abuse alone, for it gives his party a reason for existing – and governing – in the long term.

Just as the coalition may be judged more thoughtfully by history than by the present, so history may see in Clegg’s conduct a degree of cunning. He rightly judged that in the immediate moments post the general election Cameron needed him more than he needed them, and as a result deftly extracted key cabinet positions and policy concessions. For sure, it has been rough for his party. The people are the ultimate arbiters and the polls do not do a disservice. But then any other strategy would have been far worse.

In 2010, many in the Granada studios thought Clegg was merely a kingmaker for day. But he has the opportunity to be a permanent fixture of this country’s government, the perennial kingmaker, forever determining who wears the crown. He may no longer be hailed as the “game-changer” but he has surely changed British politics.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Clegg controversy

Today's Times highlights a new faux row within the Liberal Democrats which goes to the heart of the way that Nick Clegg has sought to reposition the party as a one of government.

The problem last time of course was the manifesto. It was not properly costed but more importantly key proposals did not have the wholehearted support of senior members of the party. As a result we got the tuition fees fiasco.

The least said about that the better, but if we are to learn lessons then we have to get the manifesto right next time. Acccording to the Times this is being interpreted by the party leader and his manifesto supremo as meaning that we need a set of policies that are compatible with possible coalition partners. They want to stake out and occupy centre ground.

The paper says that David Laws, who is drawing up the election manifesto, is “stress-testing” any policies to ensure that they are compatible with either Labour or the Tories but now has a fight on his hands in the run-up to the party’s annual conference in September:

In a letter to The Times today, Prateek Buch, director of the Social Liberal Forum, says it would be an “act of folly” to ditch traditional Liberal Democrat policies just to suit the two other parties. The left-leaning organisation said if the party scrapped its defining policies it would merely “become a pale immitation of the two old parties”.

Although I consider myself a Social Liberal I do not have much time for the Social Liberal Forum. It seems to me that they are often looking for an argument with the leadership so as to underline their own distinctiveness and do not engage constructively unless it suits them. I believe that this latest controversy is one of those occasions.

From my reading of the Times article the main consideration of David Laws seems to be to ensure that policies are affordable and workable. That shows that he has learnt the lessons from 2010. This does not mean that our manifesto will not be distinctive nor liberal.

An experienced practitioner and observer of coalitions such as Nick Clegg knows that if a smaller party is to benefit from working in government with a larger group then they need to demonstrate distinctive and tangible benefits both for the party and the general public. That is why tax cuts for the low paid and the pupil premium. both good liberal policies, have featured so heavily in the current coalition platform. These are Liberal Democrats policies being delivered in government.

I would envisage that the 2015 manifesto will reflect that approach. I expect it to be liberal and realistic, deliverable and costed. I also expect Conference and ordinary members to have a say in its approach. If we did anything else then we would be abandoning any pretence of re-entering government.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Labour's Housing Shame

Labour's housing shame

Welsh government's education record under scrutiny

A You Gov poll yesterday found that of those asked 39% thought the Welsh Labour Government are doing a bad job with education, 24% thought they have a good record did not know. That poll is the first indication that the general public are beginning to recognise whose responsibility this is and how Wales is trailing England and many other countries in outcomes for pupils.

Today, as if to back that up, the Western Mail reports that the £100,000 a year position of managing director at the Central South Consortium, which presides over 426 schools and 144,000 pupils - has proven difficult to fill.  They say that the role is being advertised for the second time in four months after an applications process launched in October yielded only one suitable candidate.

One of the reasons for that seems to be that officials have been too honest in their approach to filling the post. The paper points out that in its advert, the consortium warns that although progress is being made, a significant challenge lies in wait for the successful applicant. It says: “The reality of educational outcomes in Wales is that too much of what we provide does not compare with the best attained within the UK, let alone internationally.”

Is this a case of the the Welsh education system digging an even bigger hole for itself.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Damned Statistics

Today's Western Mail carries news of a very real argument about the impact of Welfare Reform on the Welsh economy that has significance for the living standards of every family in Wales. The problem as I see it though is that once you strip away the statistical arguments we are actually left no wiser as to what is really happening on the ground.

The Welsh Labour Government argue that on average each working age adult in Wales will lose £480 as a result of welfare changes, that in some cases, Labour supported at Westminster. That  amounts to a “total loss of income of around £930m a year” by 2015-16 due to changes in social security. Labour Ministers fear there will be “wider knock-on impacts on the economy as people have less to spend in their local communities.”

Those are very real fears. However the UK Government have hit back. They are trying to reduce the dependency on welfare and get people back to work. In fact employment figures in Wales have increased so that more people are working here, though many of them supplement their income from benefits such as working tax credits.

The UK Government say that the introduction of Universal Credit will leave 200,000 households in Wales “better off” by £163 per month on average. They argue that they have taken action to cut the cost of living by freezing fuel duty and increasing the tax-free personal allowance to £10,000, which will save a typical taxpayer over £700.

And if we look at that increase in the personal allowance we find that it has benefited 1.1 million people in Wales and taken 130,000 out of tax altogether. That is worth a boost to the Welsh economy of over £800 million each year.

On balance therefore the impact on the Welsh economy of the UK Government's actions appear to be at worse neutral, at best slightly positive. It is amazing what you can do when you play with statistics. The real issue though is the impact on individual people's lives and until the Welsh economy starts to pick up properly that will always be a negative.

Both the Welsh and the UK Governments have a responsibility to deliver that upturn, so instead of playing with numbers, perhaps they should get on with it.

Update: it is worth pointing that Labour Ministers are claiming “total loss of income of around £930m a year” by 2015-16 so their figures are not for a single year. Whereas the £800 million I quote above are annual gains to the Welsh economy.

More importantly though BBC journalist Tomos Livingstone has pointed out via Twitter that the Welsh Government's argument only makes sense if they can show that GDP/GVA is down by the same amount. This is unlikely but cannot be proved either way as these statistics are not available.

Tomos also points out that the problem for Welsh Labour in saying that £930 million has been 'lost' from the economy after welfare changes is that the party is promising to be 'even tougher' if it wins the next General Election as is evidenced from this story.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Miliband dissent

More rumblings within the Labour Party at Ed Miliband's tactics are revealed in today's Sunday Times, who report that he is is facing dissent over his attacks on banks and big business and his plan to raise tax for top earners, with Labour candidates warning that companies believe the party will treat them “like an ATM”.

The paper says that leaked recordings of a meeting attended by would-be MPs and MEPs reveal their fears that Labour is seen to “hate” those on high incomes and warnings that the party risks being “categorised as anti-business”.

They add that one candidate warned party bosses that Labour needs to “change its language on banking” and “hug a banker” to build credibility in the City:

The concerns were raised last Monday at a meeting of the Labour finance and industry group held at the offices of UBS bank in central London. The event was organised by Progress, the group associated with the party’s Blairite wing.

Karen Landles, a Labour candidate in this summer’s European elections, warned that after some recent policy announcements “the question came back that Labour were treating business like an ATM”.

She said the party was “losing the gut instinct vote” with companies and that “when we speak about the economy we don’t speak with the same authenticity or excitement or passion that we do when we talk about the NHS or benefit reform”.

Another candidate described overhearing a senior investment banker warning clients thinking of moving funds to Britain of “this massive risk that Labour will win the election”.

Whether these rumblings will worry Miliband or not is difficult to say. However, they do play into the narrative that Labour cannot be trusted on the economy. They may not want to be portrayed as the party who will squash people's aspirations to higher wages or as anti-business.

The dissent also shows that the two Eds have a big job convincing everybody in their own party as to its direction of travel, nevermind the general public.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Government figures show badger cull case was exaggerated

The Independent reports that the UK Government’s highly controversial badger cull has suffered a further setback after it released figures which showed it had exaggerated the case for the cull.

The paper says that the Department for Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (Defra) has admitted that an IT glitch meant it had overstated the number of cattle herds infected by tuberculosis in Britain to such an extent that there had actually been a decline in the year preceding the badger cull in September 2013, rather than the rise it had previously announced:

Revised numbers, calculated after an error was found in the system last month, show that the number of herds infected by bovine TB fell by 3.4 per cent in the year to September 2013, rather than rising by 18 per cent, as it previously said.

Defra also disclosed that the rate of new infections had been slightly exaggerated in both 2012 and 2013 – again undermining the case for the cull of badgers, which most scientists believe help to spread the disease between cattle.

Further undermining Mr Paterson’s case for the cull, new figures showed that there was a 13 per cent reduction in the number of cattle – as opposed to herds – compulsorily slaughtered in England because of bovine TB between January to November in 2013, compared to the same period the year earlier.

Together, these figures demonstrate that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson unwittingly misled Parliament about the case for the cull when he said in September “the disease is getting worse and is spreading across the country”.

This farce really has turned into a fiasco.

Book Review: Diary of an Unsmug Married by Polly James @Mid_WifeCrisis

I don't often use this blog for book reviews, in fact I rarely write book reviews at all. It is not a medium I am particularly good at but I promised the author of this book that I would give it a go so here it is.

Anybody who has read the Mid Wife Crisis blog will be familiar with the characters in this book. It is a fictionalised account of a Labour MP's caseworker and her dysfunctional family, based on the real experiences of the author. Molly Bennett is a pseudonymn of course, as is Polly James, but that does not detract from the world she creates and the many characters she fills it with.

As an elected politician, I can easily identify with the situations that the author describes. None of our clients come close to the rather exagerated caricatures she creates of course, but it is the case that we are often the last resort for many people, who have found no way through supposedly insurmountable problems.

We know too that the threat of physical violence and verbal abuse from frustrated and disenfranchised constituents to elected representives and their staff is very real and most of us take precautions to try and protect against that. Very early on this book deals with such a situation in which Molly is grabbed by the throat and held against the wall by a constituent.

However, please do not let me give the impression that this book is about politics because it is not. It has been compared with Bridget Jones' diary and in some ways that is a fair analogy. But it is much more than that. It is funny and will strike a chord with many people who have no connection with politics at all.

That is because the rather black humour is grounded in our day to day existence. In Molly we have paranoia as a lifestyle choice as she stumbles from one situation to another, wanting a happy and normal life, oblivious to the fact that if she just switched off an over-active imagination then she would see that that is something she already has.

Along the way, we meet Max, her husband who is paying too much attentoin to one particular client and who is suspected of dallying with a nymphomaniac neighbour with standing naked at her window on refuse collection days. And there is Greg, who is Molly's partner in crime at the constituency office and who assists her in her fantasy pursuit of Johnny Hunter, oil tycoon, when he he is not devising ways of getting his own back on the 'usual suspects'.

The usual suspects included Miss Chambers, who appears to have a voice like a foghorn and no off switch, Mr. Beales, who often pops up in the most inconvenient of places, camera in hand and Mr. Meeeeurghn, a convicted murderer living in a homeless hostel, who harbours a grudge against his local Primark store.

And then there is Molly's family: her wayward father who constantly embarrasses her on his many trips to Thailand, her daughter who is at university and seeking part-time employment on her own terms and an accident-prone son, whose idea of fun is to film pranks at the local supermarket.

Add into this the flrtatious Vicky, whose relationship with Andrew Sinclair MP, arouses Molly and Greg's suspicions and leaves them in fear of their jobs and the scene is set for a showdown on a personal and professional level that leaves us wanting more.

I very much enjoyed reading this book. It is well-written, nicely paced and humourous. Definitely one to pack to read at the side of the pool this summer.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The continuing fall out of the Welsh Tory split

Over at Click on Wales, Daran Hill has blogged on the 'self-inflicted wound' of Andrew R. T. Davies' decision to sack four Tory rebels from his front bench team. He gives four reasons why this is not a good decision for the Conservatives of which the second is, in my opinion the most relevant:

Secondly, Antoinette Sandbach, one of the four removed AMs, has already tweeted the most damaging consequence of the reshuffle: “it is regrettable that he has chosen to divide his party.” The choice to do this is of course entirely Andrew’s as group leader, but the consequences of doing so are his too. By choosing to make this decision in this way he has turned a disagreement over the obscure issue of whether income tax rates are locked together, if and when they are ever devolved, into a full blown division.

No party or party leader is stronger by alienating sections of his party. Even the short history of devolution shows us that the Conservative group is never stronger when key members end up on the backbenches. Think of Jonathan Morgan’s split with Nick Bourne, or the moment six months before the 2011 Assembly election when Andrew RT Davies himself left the Conservative Shadow Cabinet. The speculation at the time as to why he took this “mysterious” step is well summated here. Both Jonathan and Andrew at least by leaving of their own volition had to profess loyalty to Bourne. Antoinette, as the first of the four casualties to speak plainly, has shown no such restraint. The division is clear.

However, what is significant is the fact that Anoinette Sandbach has commented on the post and in terms that suggest that the divisions within the group are stark and go to the heart of Andrew R. T, Davies' leadership style:

Darren I argued for the position that you outlined in your comment. Local Councils have more tax raising autonomy than the Welsh Government does at the moment. The equivalent position of the Welsh Government at the moment is that of a child being handed “pocket money” by a parent. They can choose how to spend it but have no responsibility for earning it. Although that is not the position in my home where reward is linked to results and decisions taken! I know that Nick, Janet, Oscar and I stood up for what we believed in. I know that we all stand by that decision. David TC Davies summed it up perfectly in his comments. Sadly Andrew made us choose between party and group, he had no need to do so. I know that his influence and thoughts on his preferred position could have been expressed through the channels that he has open to him.

If there is to be a referendum on this issue then Andrew not only has to be able to take his shadow cabinet with him, but he will need to persuade both the party and the wider public that this is the right course to follow.
The Welsh Conservatives now sit in two camps, one led by Andrew R.T. Davies and the other, in ideological terms anyway, led by the Secretary of State for Wales.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Night of the blunt knives

One person tweeted the question last night: how can Andrew R.T, Davies bring the opposition parties together when he cannot even unite his own group. And indeed that has been the story of the fourth Assembly, a divided and dysfunctional Tory group who have struggled to vote together on key issues and have not been prepared to work with other groups so as to properly hold the Welsh Labour Government to account.

Last night Andrew R.T. Davies acted. He sacked the four refuseniks who had failed to vote against the lockstep in the draft Wales Bill, effectively creating a dissident group on his own backbenches and bringing the Tory divisions out into the open. In fact one Conservative AM even tweeted to ask why the Tory leader was dividing his own group.

That the reshuffle was cack-handed was underlined by the fact that Monmouthshire AM, Nick Ramsay was sacked from the front bench and as chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee whilst on the train to Brussels. He was told not by his party leader but by a Labour AM, who was travelling with him and who had read it on Twitter.

To add to Andrew R.T. Davies' troubles a Conservative MP piled in to say that he was surprised and shocked that Nick Ramsey had been sacked, emphasising that Ramsay had his full support. Will the revolt against Andrew R.T. Davies' leadership now be spreading to the Welsh Tory MPs?

In the space of a few weeks the Welsh Conservative Assembly Leader has managed to publicly set his group against the Secretary of State for Wales and against each other. It is nice work, if unprecedented. The opposition parties are hoping that Andrew R.T, Davies survives as leader up to and including the next Assembly elections.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Embracing the lockstep

How quickly we slip into jargon. There is quite a lot of controversy about a provision in the draft Wales Bill in the way that it seeks to give the Welsh Government the power to vary income tax in Wales. What it says is that if we were to vary the lower rate of tax then we must also vary the higher rate in the same way.

This linking together of the two rates is called the lockstep, as it prevents us exercising policy on tax. For example we cannot cut the lower rate of tax so as to assist poorer workers without doing the same for those paying 45% tax. The Government could not tax the rich more without also hitting the lower paid, whilst Conservative plans to encourage entrepreneurship by cutting the upper rate would be a non-starter, as cutting both rates would be unaffordable.

This provision has caused problems for both the Conservatives and Labour. In the latter case, despite Labour AMs insisting that the Silk report, which recommends the devolution of income tax, be implemented in full, the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales has come out against this policy.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Secretary of State for Wales has clashed with the Tory Assembly Leader. Andrew R.T, Davies wants to aabolish the lockstep, but David Jones says it is Conservative policy to keep it. Andrew R.T. Davies says he has the support of his group, but as the Western Mail points out yesterday's vote in the Assembly told a different story.

In a vote on an amendment condemning the lockstep, five Conservative AMs failed to vote at all, though three of them later voted for the main motion. One of the AMs was paired, whilst it transpires that in the case of another it was an oversight. That leaves three members of Andrew R.T, Davies' group who apparently disagree with him and are prepared to publicly demonstrate their opposition.

It seems that splits in the Conservative Party on this issue are multi-faceted and that the Tory Assembly Leader does not have the 100% support from his own group that he previously claimed.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Smacking in cars

Today is to be yet another marathon session as we debate more amendments to the Welsh Government's Social Services and Well-Being bill. Last week we managed to get through 28 groups of amendments in five hours. Today we have another 28 groups of amendments and expect to be here until 8.30pm or later.

All of that is fine of course. These are important matters and they deserve effective scrutiny. Where today differs of course is that we will finally be voting on what has become known as the smacking amendment.

For once the Western Mail has characterised this debate accurately though that concession to the facts has not filtered through to the people who write the headlines. The amendment we will be voting on will not outlaw smacking, nor will it prevent reasonable chastisement. What it does is to say that in the case of a charge of battery, which involves substantial personal harm to a person, then reasonable chastisement cannot be called upon as a defence.

That seems to me to be a perfectly sensible clarification of the law and I will be voting for it. In doing so I will be aware that even if that clause is passed, a parent will still be able to smack a naughty child to bring him or her back to order. What that parent will not be able to do is to use excessive force in punishing the child or physically hurt him or her.

Surely nobody can advocate that a parent has a right to batter a child as opposed to just smacking it.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Liberal Democrats fighting to help the low paid

Today's Telegraph reports that Nick Clegg has suggested that the starting threshold for income tax could rise above £10,000 at the Budget next month:

In speech to business leaders today Mr Clegg will say that his party “want to keep cutting income tax for ordinary taxpayer."

He will say: “That will be the main item Danny and I push for in the Budget – again. In the next parliament we would raise the personal allowance so that no one pays any income tax on the first £12,500 they earn.

“It’s our flagship policy because it’s how we make work pay, and it's our way of making sure the British people know that this recovery is theirs"

The personal allowance, the threshold at which people begin to pay any income tax on their earnings, has been raised in steps from £6,475 and will reach £10,000 in April next year.  The gradual process is worth a total of £700 a year to around 20 million workers.

Along with the pension guarantee that has seen pensions increase at above inflation sincc 2010, it is a major part of the Liberal Democrats programme, being implemented in government.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Immigration Minister's downfall shows his own law is unworkable

The Times reports on the sudden resignation of immigration minister, Mark Harper yesterday, for committing the offence of hiring a cleaner, who was not entitled to be in the country.

According to the report, Mr.Harper said that he had been shown documents by his employee showing that she had indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom but he discovered this week that they were forged.

They say that the incident is hugely embarrassing for Mr Cameron, who has made tackling illegal migration one of his foremost priorities as he seeks to fend off the threat of Ukip. A cornerstone of the Immigration Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, is a requirement on employers and landlords to check the migration status of employees and tenants to ensure that they are not in the UK illegally.

The question that now needs to be answered is, if the man who was in charge of the Bill could not tell that his employee was working illegally, then how do the Government expect anybody else to be able to do so?  Will employers have the same access to immigration officials as Mr. Harper did? I doubt it very much.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The lost Liberal Democrats votes

An instructional video from documentary producer, Ed Stradling

Hat tip: Stephen Tall

Friday, February 07, 2014

Saving the union

David Cameron launches an offensive this morning to persuade the Scots to vote no to independence by seeking to win the hearts and minds of the English!

According to the Times he will urge every Briton with a friend or family member in Scotland to persuade them to vote against independence. They add that Mr Cameron has so far refused to debate independence head to head with Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader. But he will court further criticism by making his first speech on the subject not in Scotland, but in London.

“This is a decision that is squarely and solely for those in Scotland to make,” the Prime Minister will say. “But my argument today is that though only four million people can vote in this referendum, all sixty-three million of us are profoundly affected. There are sixty-three million of us who could wake up on September 19th in a different country, with a different future ahead of it.” Urging those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to use their influence over Scottish friends and family, Mr Cameron will add that all Britons will suffer a blow to their prestige and reputation in the event of a “yes” vote. “We would be deeply diminished without Scotland. From us to the people of Scotland let the message be this: We want you to stay.”

I agree with the Prime Minister that whichever Scotland votes will affect the whole of the UK and that therefore we all have a stake in the outcome of this referendum. My concern is that this initiative will turn out to be as ill-starred as the Guardian's attempts to turn Ohio against George W Bush in 2004.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Labour at odds over further devolution

Having commented on the divisions within the Conservative Party over the Wales Bill, it is only fair to mention that Labour are having their own difficulties as well.

Although the Welsh Labour Government have reservations about income tax powers being devolved to Wales, they still seem inclined to welcome the move if it is done correctly. The Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Owen Smith on the other hand has sided with the dinosaurs within the Welsh Parliamentary Party and has come out against the idea altogether.

The BBC report Mr. Smith as saying that the power for Welsh ministers to vary income tax by up to 10 pence in the pound is a "trap" to force them to raise more of the money they spend. Quite rightly the Conservatives have pointed out that this is a change of Labour policy as it had previously said the plans were "a good idea for Wales".

As David Jones said, there is of course no compulsion on the Welsh government to change the rate of tax if it does not think that is appropriate.  But there is a huge advantage in terms of accountability, in terms of incentive and in terms of the income stream against which it could borrow, which it doesn't have at the moment.

Labour have now moved from fully endorsing the Sik Commission report to wanting to cherry-pick it to suit their own agenda.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Prime welsh beef?

The claim by the Leader of the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group, Andrew R.T. Davies that he resembles 19 stone of prime Welsh beef and is not easily destabilised continues to cause much bemusement in Cardiff Bay.

As the Western Mail points out this rather bizarre self-description came about at a press conference yesterday, when Mr. Davies was challenged about his relationship with the Secretary of State for Wales.

A few days ago I posed the question, 'What is going on with the Welsh Conservatives?'  I think that the answer to that question is summed up in Andrew R.T, Davies' comment.

The two Welsh Conservative leaders are spending all their time squaring up to each other and the disgreement is getting more belligerent daily.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Lunch at the House of Lords

Those Labour and Conservative MPs who effectively vetoed Nick Clegg's attempt to democratise the House of Lords may wish to reflect on this article in the Telegraph which lists some of the complaints about the dining facilities in thee upper house.

These restaurants receive £1.3 million in taxpayer subsidies, and yet it seems that the seared scallops, foie gras and champagne risotto are not up to scratch for some. The paper says that installing a new coffee machine without consultation caused particular ill will.

This was deemed to be both “insulting” and “staggering” and prompted one peer to write: “Even by parliamentary standards, that’s an impressive manoeuvre. You could not have calculated a move more likely to spread ill will.”

The more I see of articles like these, the more I am convinced that many peers treat the second chamber as a private members club. The sooner it is democratised the better.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Liberal Democrats and Science Fiction

There is a fascinating post over on the YouGov website speculating about the correlation between voting Liberal Democrat and an interest in science fiction.

They say that It all started in May last year, when they ran a survey on Star Wars and Star Trek:

Asked which series they prefer, the country as a whole narrowly prefers Star Wars (29% to 27%). But Liberal Democrat supporters buck the trend, with 36% preferring Star Trek and 20% preferring Star Wars.

The following month we ran a survey on Doctor Who and noticed that while 31% of Brits take an interest in the programme, this rises to 41% among Liberal Democrats. So far, it could just be an anomaly.

But then we started looking things up in the Cube (which happily is also the name of a Sci Fi Film). Time and time again the Liberal Democrats appeared as the most correlated political party for Sci-Fi related topics (try searching for things in the search box above). Movies like The Matrix, Blade Runner, Alien, The Fifth Element, Stargate, Back to the Future and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and sci fi classic books like Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Dune and I Robot – ALL show positive correlations to support for the Lib Dems.

In order to be certain, we then ran an analysis of the 100 TV programmes that are most particularly favoured by supporters of each of the three main parties. Sure enough, while only 2 of Conservative voters’ and 6 of Labour voters’ top 100 TV shows are related to science, science fiction or the supernatural, it is 17 of the Lib Dem top 100. The full results will be published next week, but in case you’re wondering the list includes Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Futurama, Being Human, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tomorrow’s World.

I am personally very excited about these findings but less so about their conclusion. They ask:

Is this evidence of the Liberal Democrat ability to think big, and imagine a better world in the future? Is it true that “Science Fiction is a crutch for people who can’t handle reality”? Or is it the other way round…

It is the big picture stuff of course.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

More on sugar

Today's Observer reports on a campaign to cut the amount of sugar we consume which academics calculate could save the NHS £50 billion a year:

Action on Sugar was launched last month. At a time when many people were defaulting on new year pledges to improve their diets, the organisation said the burden of cutting our sugar intake by up to 40% over the next four years should instead be placed on Britain's food and drink manufacturers. The group will meet Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, this week to try to persuade him to sign up to their cause.

The health and nutrition experts behind the campaign say that unless Hunt agrees, rising levels of obesity and type 2 diabetes could cost the country up to £50bn a year – more than half of NHS England's current budget.

"It is very difficult to argue with what we're saying," says Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular medicine and the chairman of Action on Sugar. "Human beings don't need to eat added sugar. It was never a feature of a mammalian diet, because we couldn't get it."

Some academics have controversially likened sugar to addictive drugs such as tobacco or cocaine and accuse the food industry of cynically hooking children and parents on junk food to maximise profits.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that 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. In the Observer article, it becomes clear how that happens. They say that a tall Starbucks caramel Frappuccino contains 11 teaspoons of sugar,  barely two spoons under the recommended daily intake for women. Coca-Cola or Pepsi contains nine per can and a bowl of Kellogg's Frosties has four.

But that is the obvious stuff. It is a sobering thought when one considers that 300g of Heinz Cream of Tomato soup contains 14.9g or four teaspoons of sugar, a 114g King Pot Noodle Curry contains 7.6g or two teaspoons of sugar and  a 40g Hovis medium soft white bread, has 1.4g or 0.4 teaspoons of sugar. It is the processed food that is doing the damage and that is where the government must intervene.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

What is going on with the Welsh Conservatives?

It is a fact that all of the three main parties accomodate differences of opinion on how Welsh devolution should develop. Whilst there is unanimity in Cardiff Bay that the recommendations of the Silk Commission should be adopted in full, that is certainly not the case in Westminster.

Labour MPs, including Shadow Cabinet Members appear to be biting their lips, reassured by the fact that the draft Wales Bill does not take them too far out of their comfort zone, whilst those Liberal Democrats who have Ministerial responsibilities are tied into collective responsibility, having done everything they can to negotiate a progressive deal for Wales. Coalition is about compromise and both sides have had to accept provisions they are not entirely enthusiastic about.

The Tories on the other hand appear to be a completely different kettle of fish. Like the Liberal Democrats they have compromised at Westminster, but differences of view on either side of the Severn Bridge have become an excuse for open warfare. In truth their disagreements on policy have turned into a proxy argument that is allowing personality clashes to surface publicly in an on-going power struggle over who really runs the Welsh Tory Party.

The Western Mail and other media are reporting these clashes with glee. They say that the war of words between the two most senior Welsh Conservatives took a new twist after it emerged the Assembly group’s leader has written to the Welsh Affairs select committee rebuking Welsh Secretary David Jones for suggesting that Mr Davies’ views on income tax powers and a name change of the National Assembly were a “personal view”.

They add that this is the latest spat in the split between the two, who both stake a claim to be the lead voice of the Welsh Conservatives, which had emerged during the Tory party conference in October, when Mr Davies suggested the Wales Office should be scrapped.

It is little wonder that Labour are describing David Jones and Andrew R.T, Davies as the Laurel and Hardy of politics. They are so busy bickering amongst themselves that the task they both need to be addressing of getting Welsh Devolution fit for purpose, has become a side show for them.

The rest of us are watching on with bemusement. As with Laurel and Hardy we are laughing at them not with them.

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