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Monday, June 30, 2014

Vince's decision not to privatise the Land Registry is the right one

The Mail on Sunday reports that Vince Cable has scrapped controversial plans to privatise the Land Registry. Having worked there for 17 years, I very much welcome this decision.

The proposal to carry out this privatisation was madness in the first place and would have done nothing to enhance the very effective service that the Land Registry provides. Indeed, I told Vince as much at the Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference in Newport a few months ago.

What I said in my submission to the consultation still holds true. As a Trading Fund the Land Registry already has the flexibility to innovate and reinvest surpluses as is evidenced by its very successful sale and publication of quarterly house price information. It has also been for some time a flagship department in terms of customer service.

The present set-up is independent, transparent and accountable. The proposed change was not. The Land Registry is a staff-orientated department with a good record in training and continuing professional development. A private company would not have made that investment and as a result the quality of service would have suffered.

The integrity of the land register relies primarily on government guarantee backed up by statute and confidence in the quality of the Land Registry's work. The proposal had the potential to undermine both. I was not convinced that a private company would put the integrity of the register ahead of its other aims and objectives as the Land Registry currently does.

Changing the status quo by placing the integrity of the register in the hands of a contractual relationship would have been fraught with difficulties. The Land Registry currently has a 98% customer satisfaction rating. These proposals would have put that in jeopardy as well as the jobs of hundreds of staff in the region I represent.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The ICT crowd

An article from a few days ago in the Independent details the shocking cost of ICT contracts for central government and local councils.

They say that private IT companies are being paid almost £5 billion a year by the taxpayer to run Government computer networks:

An analysis of contracts across Whitehall shows that the American computer giant Hewlett-Packard alone was paid £140m a month last year by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Ministry of Justice for computer services. 

Another IT firm, Capgemini, holds contracts worth £1bn a year to supply and maintain computers across central and local government. 

In total the Government paid £10bn to its top 20 contractors in 2013. Almost half of this was spent on IT.

The sums paid out to major international IT firms dwarf the £2.2bn paid to ‘outsourcing’ companies like Serco and G4S, who have been subjected to the most ferocious public criticism over their state contracts.

They add that overall there are at least eight IT suppliers receiving more than £100m every year from a single government department, and at least 15 suppliers receiving more than £100m in annual revenues from multiple Government departments. The largest contractor – the American IT giant Hewlett-Packard – has contracts worth £1.7bn a year.

The Government acknowledge that they are not getting value for money but say that their hands are tied as they are tied into long-term contracts signed under the last Labour administration.

Given that the Welsh Government are due to re-tender their computer contract within the next few years, it will be interesting to see how they fare in driving down the cost to the taxpayer.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Those poor, over-sensitive MPs

Isabel Hardman's piece in the Telegraph on the gnashing and wailing of teeth in the House of Commons because a documentary film crew has been allowed into the inner sanctums would be astonishing if it were not for the fact that it records a rather archaic mind-set on the part of MPs.

She says that there has been an almighty row, MPs have been close to tears, and voices have been raised in the committee corridor because the BBC is filming a documentary, Inside the House of Commons:

This great constitutional outrage, opening up the building housing our elected representatives, has ruffled some feathers. Veteran film-maker Michael Cockerell has been touring the Palace of Westminster with a camera crew for the four-part series. It’s the first time our lawmakers have been filmed at work in this way for 30 years, and Mr Cockerell has been trying to persuade parliamentarians to let him in since 2008. Now he’s here, and not everyone likes it.

The latest confrontation over the programme came in Monday’s meeting of the Commons Administration Committee, which approves Mr Cockerell’s applications to film in certain parts of the building. Members present say that whenever a new request comes through, “everyone gets very upset and needs calming down”. This week, they considered whether or not the cameras could follow MPs as they walk through the division lobbies to vote. But committee members worried that the intrusions had already gone far enough. When they realised that they would be filmed selecting their number for the Private Members’ Bill ballot, one MP was apparently “close to tears”.

All this panic and hand-wringing would not be out of place in an old people’s home after a change to the meals-on-wheels service, but these are supposed to be our sober and public-spirited MPs. What have they got to hide?

I think that is a valid question, after all, as Ms Hardman points out, Parliament does not belong to the MPs, it belongs to us. She adds that the documentary is an opportunity for MPs to show the reality of political life: the long hours, the tedious committees, the sad constituency cases.

They really need to get over themselves and join the 21st Century.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Absent without leave

Whatever people think about politicians, the vast majority take their job seriously, work hard for their constituents and put the interests of their area ahead of their own. That is why I was so disappointed by this story in the Western Mail which, I am afraid to say brings the whole profession into disrepute once more.

The paper reports on the continuing absence from the Assembly’s Enterprise and Business Committee of Tory Assembly Member, Byron Davies, who is boycotting meetings in protest at the decision by his group leader to sack its chair.

Mr. Davies's absence means that the Committee is one short of its full number and that the Labour group now exercise a majority on it. The government and opposition should be equally represented. It also illustrates once more the chaos that the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group is in.

The paper says that Mr. Davies has made no secret of his reason for not showing up. He told them: “I think the committee under Nick Ramsay was doing a good job in holding the Welsh Government to account and I think the group leader should not have removed him as the chair and replaced him with William Graham, who was not previously a member of the committee."

Mr Ramsay was sacked as chair by Andrew RT Davies after voting against his leader’s line on the proposal to devolve income tax varying powers to the Assembly. He was also sacked as a Shadow Minister, like three other Tory AMs who also defied Andrew RT Davies.
Asked how long he intended to boycott the committee, Byron Davies said: “Ask the leader.”
He added that he disapproved of current arrangements under which committee chairs are appointed by party leaders, rather than elected by AMs.
Labour AM Ann Jones is quite right when she says that whatever job people do there is an expectation that you fulfil the basic roles involved: "In terms of an AM, this includes attending committee, plenary and being available to take up matters for constituents. Byron Davies’ refusal to sit on a committee, following internal strife involving some of his colleagues, is a refusal to carry out one of the basic parts of his contract with the voters of South West Wales. It not only damages his reputation but that of his leader Andrew RT Davies. Byron Davies should explain to his constituents why he is refusing to represent them fully.”

As one of his constituents I would like a better explanation than the one given.  We are there to do a job and if Byron feels he cannot do it on that committee then he should relinquish his place on it. We need grown-up politics in the Assembly, not grandstanding.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Badger vaccination programmes to start in England

Yesterday's Guardian reports that Government-backed badger vaccination programmes aimed at tackling the spread of tuberculosis in cattle are set to be rolled out in England.
The paper says that this move is seen by opponents as the “beginning of the end” of the controversial badger culls:

Farming minister George Eustice met wildlife and farming groups on Tuesday to discuss how they could set up the new badger vaccination programmes and offered to provide vaccines, cages, training and four years of matched funding.

The projects will target the edges of TB hotspots, such as the south-west, in order to create buffer zones of badger immunity and prevent TB from spreading. The edge areas run from Hampshire to Oxfordshire to Nottinghamshire and up to Cheshire. More than 26,000 TB-infected cattle were slaughtered in 2013.

Eustice told the Guardian: “Bovine TB is devastating our dairy and cattle industry and is continuing to spread across the country. There is a badger vaccine available which could have a big role in helping to prevent the spread of bovine TB to new areas of the country.”

He added: “If we can encourage groups to take up our offer and develop widespread vaccination projects, it could go a long way to preventing bovine TB spreading any further, and mean we can concentrate on driving back the disease in areas where it is rife.”
Ministers have also been tightening restrictions on the movement of cattle since the start of 2013 and the latest data suggests TB infections in cattle are falling as a result.

This is very welcome news after the disastrous, misconceived and badly executed culls in England. Does it show that UK Ministers are coming to their senses at last? We will see.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Danny Alexander sets out the stakes on Europe

The Telegraph reports that the Liberal Democrats Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander is set to annoy some Conservatives by unveiling an official government analysis that shows that more than three million British jobs would be at risk if Britain leaves the European Union:

Mr Alexander’s intervention could lead to a major Coalition row and is part of continued Lib Dem attempts to differentiate themselves from the Tories ahead of the next election. 

Speaking in Washington today, Mr Alexander will say: “When the focus is on jobs, and growth, and wider risks we take with our prosperity through isolation then the argument can and will be won. 

“Indeed, the latest Treasury analysis shows that 3.3 million British jobs are connected to Britain’s place in Europe. That is the measure of the risk that isolationists would have us take.” 

It is understood the Treasury analysis was carried out in the last few weeks. The jobs are in vital British industries including manufacturing, it is understood.

The paper suggests that some Eurosceptics may be upset by this analysis because it upsets their views that Britain could prosper outside of the EU. Unfortunately for them, the facts do not back that case.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Taking the money

Andy McSmith in the Independent reports on an interesting interview with UKIP founder, Alan Sked on how their 24 strong MEP group will work in the European Parliament. He is rather scathing:

“They don’t do anything constructive there, they just go there to take the money, the expenses and get pensions…They don’t articulate policies, they are hardly ever there,” said Professor Sked. He launched Ukip in 1993, but left in 1997 after his creation had become “a magnet for bigots.”

It is worth keeping an eye on how accurate his forecast will be.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Castles from the sky

Having spent an enjoyable afternoon on Saturday on a walking tour of medieval Swansea with a group of historians as part of events organised by Swansea Museum, I was interested to see this article in the South Wales Evening Post about an initiative by Cadw, to show off Wales’s history from a unique perspective.

They say that a series of videos called 'Castles from the Clouds have been released in the build up to the summer holidays with the aim of encouraging people to immerse themselves in Welsh history:

The images were shot using a remote controlled drone equipped with a high quality camera and re-create a bird’s eye view of some of the most iconic historical sites in Wales. 

Stunning monuments including Laugharne Castle, Kidwelly Castle and St Davids Bishop’s Palace feature in the first in a series of online videos.

As a taster, here is one of my favourites, Laugharne:

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Not so sweet

According to the Times the war on sugar continues with a pledge by the Labour's Shadow Health Secretary to deal with the obesity crisis by imposing limits on breakfast cereals. It is a start but nowhere near enough.

The paper says that Andy Burnham was horrified at the levels of sugar in popular cereals and suggested that Labour would impose limits to help to tackle Britain’s growing obesity problem:

“I’m not comfortable with the idea that any child in my constituency sits down at breakfast time to a bowl of food that is 38 per cent sugar,” he said in an interview with The House magazine. “And if people are comfortable with that, well I’m going to disagree with them. I don’t think any child should be regularly taking in sugar of that level.”

Many of the most popular cereal brands contain about 37 per cent sugar. Frosties, Coco Pops and Crunchy Nut cornflakes, made by Kellog’s, all contain 36.6g of sugar per 100g. Many own-brand equivalents have similar levels.

Mr Burnham said that a health paper would seek to “reframe the debate on public health, to set out a new approach on public health from Labour”. Sugary cereals would not be outlawed, he said, but there would be limits on the amount of sugar they could contain.

It is a start but nowhere near enough. The amount of sugar in processed food is also a problem and needs to be tackled. Regulation is not always a good thing but in this case the food manufacturers need to be brought to book.

Educating people about healthy eating is one approach but looking beyond cereals and reducing the amount of sugar in all foods is a must in my view.

I repeat a fact that never ceases to alarm me: the average person consumes 150 pounds of sugar each year, which is the equivalent of approximately seventy five one kilogram bags or 33 tablespoons each day.

Can we really keep that up especially when we see stories like this in the daily papers?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Roaming in the countryside on the phone

The Telegraph suggests that the UK Government is going to act to force a very simple reform onto mobile phone companies that will reduce the number of blackspots across the country.

They say that Ministers are in talks with mobile phone operators about asking them to share mobile phone masts to increase coverage in rural areas. More importantly, Sajid Javid, the Culture, Media and Sport secretary, wants mobile phone firms to introduce national roaming for users in the UK.

This change in policy is being driven by changes in the European Union which will bring in free roaming from 2016. Proof to the sceptics that Europe does have major benefits.

The paper says that unless action is taken foreign visitors will be able to come to the UK and benefit from free roaming, whilst people living in the UK cannot. The driving force behind the initiative though should be improving the service for domestic customers.

This is just common sense. I can go abroad and access a mobile phone signal wheresoever I am. Why should I not be able to do the same in the UK?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Ed 'Harry Potter' Miliband and the owl service

The Labour press team said that their twitter account had been hacked, but whatever the reason their suggestion that everybody should have their own owl seems to have hit the spot.

The Times reports that it was the news many had been waiting for in the owl-fancying community, although few could see quite how Mr Miliband would live up to the promise given the relative inelasticity of owl numbers compared with, say, mice or rabbits.

Suddenly, Ed Miliband had been transformed from Wallace and Gromit to the world of Harry Potter. He now had an effective means of communication, an answer to broadband blackspots and a magical touch that might sweep him into number 10 Downing Street.

What a shame that the press team had to ruin it by denying it was official Labour policy.

Ed Miliband is bringing his whole cabinet to Wales today for a joint meeting with Welsh Ministers. Somebody should present him with a copy of an appropriate novel set in modern Wales.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Labour produce their own welfare reforms

So, as a supporter of the coalition government and a member of the Liberal Democrats, I have endured four years of abuse from Labour members about the need to reform welfare payments, on an agenda that they started and where we have moderated and blocked more extreme proposals from the Tories. And then along comes Ed Miliband and announces that he is going to do the same after all.

The Guardian reports that the Labour leader's first plans for cuts to the welfare system will involve ending out-of-work benefits for roughly 100,000 18-to-21-year-olds and replacing them with a less costly means-tested payment dependent on training.

Targetting young people in this way may not be the best way of introducing the sort of compassionate society some Labour members claim to represent.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The best of Paxman

As Newsnight prepares to feature Jeremy Paxman's final appearance on the programme tonight, the Independent reports on his best bits.

Theey say that his last show will see him ride on a tandem with Boris Johnson, who once turned the tables on the presenter to ask: “Why don’t you get yourself a proper job instead of just sitting around telling politicians what to do all the time?”

Johnson is one of the many politicians who have been publicly embarrassed by Paxman’s persistent line of questioning, including one interview in which the Mayor of London evaded 12 questions about a new fleet of London buses in 2011.

Michael Howard became the victim of what has become one of the programme’s most famous interviews, when Paxman relentlessly questioned the then-Home Secretary over his treatment of the governor of Parkhurst prison in 1997.

Here are some of the videos:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A coalition split

The very nature of coalition means that there will inevitably be disagreements between the two parties and that these will be described as splits. This happens with internal party coalitions as well but in those cases the public do not always get to see what is going on.

Inevitably, as we get closer to the General Election the number and seriousness of these splits will increase. That is a good thing. It is especially good when the split is around something as fundamental as the right of a civil servant to maintain their membership of a trade union.

The Independent reports on this particular issue. They say that a bitter Coalition row has broken out over moves by Conservative ministers to stop Whitehall departments deducting trade union subscriptions from civil servants’ pay packets:

The clashes came after Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, wrote to departments urging them to end the system of deducting union subs through Whitehall’s payroll system, known as “check-off”.

His instruction will be ignored in ministries headed by Lib Dems, such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Nick Clegg also intervened to stop Mr Maude scrapping check-off for staff in the Cabinet Office.

Lib Dem ministers have been instructed by Mr Clegg to resist the move in other departments.

A senior Liberal Democrats source is quoted as saying that “This is classic pandering to the Conservative Party’s anti-union right,” he said. “Some Tories want to attack the very principle of trade unions and that is not something the Liberal Democrats will ever sign up to.”

Two years ago the Liberal Democratss vetoed proposals backed by David Cameron to give companies the power to sack unproductive workers at will. We also disagree over Tory support for a threshold on the number of union members who have to vote for industrial action in essential services.

This is one issue I am glad the party is diffeentiating itself over.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Enter Tony Blair, stage right

The Independent reports on the embarrassment caused to the present Labour leadership as they rush to distance themselves from Tony Blair's remarks on the current Iraq crisis.

Writing on his website the former Prime Minister supported airstrikes on Iraq and Syria, but refused to agree that he should accept any of the blame for the crisis engulfing the region. He defended his Government’s backing for the US-led invasion of Iraq, insisting it had been right to oust Saddam Hussein and urged military intervention to halt the advance of extremist Isis forces across the north of the country.

The result was a less than fulsome welcoming back into the fold from Mr. Blair's successors.
Sources close to Ed Miliband refused to endorse his analysis, whilst the shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, echoed the Coalition Government’s view that military action is not contemplated.

His former deputy, Lord Prescott was more forthright. Mr. Prescott, who apparently spelt out his opposition to Britain’s involvement in Iraq in 2003 accused his former boss of wanting to launch a “crusade” in the region:

Lord Prescott told Sky News: “I said to him at the time, your great danger, when you want to go and do these regime changes, you’re back to what Bush called a crusade…Put on a white sheet and a red cross, and we’re back to the crusades. It’s all about religion – in these countries it’s gone on for a thousand years.”

He dismissed the use of drones as “not a way for Britain to go in the name of open society”, adding:

“Hardly democratic either. So I don't agree with Tony as I didn’t then.”

Clare Short, who resigned from the Blair Cabinet over Iraq, said: “More bombing will not solve it, it will just exacerbate it.”

She called him a “complete American neocon” who had been “absolutely consistently wrong, wrong, wrong" on the issue.

There are so many issues with the Iraq war that I do not know where to begin. Needless to say it is now clear that Blair and his Labour Government were seeking regime change all along but dressed it up differently so as to make the war more palatable to the UK electorate.

The fact that they did not plan for the peace almost certainly has led us to where we are now. There was no exit strategy and we are reaping the consequences of that. The current situation is brilliantly summed up by Paddy Ashdown:

 “I’m having a bit of a difficulty getting my mind round the idea that a problem that has been caused or made worse by killing many, many Arab Muslims in the Middle East is going to be made better by killing more with western weapons.”


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Meanwhile, at the 2022 World Cup

As the games get underway in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, the row over the 2022 venue rumbles on.

In addition to the corruption allegations the Sunday Times reports that other considerations should have ruled Qatar out as a host country. The paper says that a report handed to Fifa officials 17 days before the decision was taken said that the Gulf state was the only one of the nine countries bidding for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments where there was a “high risk” of a terrorist attack shutting down the event:

Fifa’s 24-man executive committee (Exco) was briefed on the report written by André Pruis, the South African police chief in charge of security at the 2010 World Cup who is now Fifa’s security consultant for this summer’s tournament in Brazil.

World football’s governing body is facing further questions about why Exco chose Qatar — with virtually no football infrastructure and prohibitive summer temperatures of 50C — to host the 2022 tournament despite being warned that players and fans would be at risk of a “major incident” in the  tiny Gulf state.

While other bid nations were assessed as low to moderate, Pruis concluded: “In view of the risks ... Qatar is allocated a risk rating of high. I am of the view that it would be very difficult to deal with a major incident in such an environment without having to cancel the event.”

The paper also reveals details of more confidential documents it has obtained:

Fresh documents unearthed from the Fifa files last week also reveal how:
— The chief executive of Qatar’s 2022 bid arranged a lawyer for the disgraced football chief, Mohamed bin Hammam, bankrolled his private jet while he was campaigning to be Fifa president, and sent him a draft public statement despite repeatedly claiming Bin Hammam was an “entirely separate” individual.
— While probing alleged corruption in Qatar’s bid, Fifa’s top investigator, Chris Eaton, began talking to Qatari officials about their plans for a multimillion-pound security centre — where he is now chief investigator. He also received a “wonderful” watch and cufflinks from the country’s ruling emir after it won the 2022 vote.
— And the same investigator penned a confidential intelligence “brief” on Exco members as he departed for his new job in Qatar, branding 11 of the 24 men as “untrustworthy” or “completely untrustworthy” and describing the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, as “greedy and manipulative”.

Surely there is a case not just to revisit this decision but also to dismantle and rebuild Fifa as a more accountable and democratic body.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The war on sugar part two

Following on from my previous comments on the corrosive and dangerous impact of sugar on our health, I was interested to read this piece in today's Telegraph where they report on a new initiative being taken by Public Health England to reduce sugar in food and drink.

Amongst the options they have advanced in a new report are a tax on fizzy drinks, government targets to reduce sugar and advertising restrictions on processed foods:

The Telegraph say that the paper, which was discussed at a meeting between the quango and industry representatives this month, warns that coronary heart disease, strokes and cancer are the UK’s “leading killers”, partly driven by high blood pressure and excess weight, both of which have been linked to high sugar consumption.

They add that the “favoured options” among experts and campaigners at the Public Health England summit were for a triple approach of a tax, targets, and banning or severely limiting advertisements of ultra-processed foods. Campaigners believe that the threat of a tax could force the industry to accept targets.

A tax on fizzy drinks was of course proposed by Plaid Cymru. It is a policy which is well worth considering. Their problem was that the Welsh Assembly does not have the power to introduce it, whilst the proposal to use the proceeds to fund a specific commitment in the NHS was unsustainable because of the uncertain revenue returns from such a tax.

If the UK Government were to go down that route though, we could all benefit through healthier food options and better health.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Milking the rich

Fraser Nelson writes in the Telegraph of the extraordinary and unexpected success of the coalition in taxing the rich.

He says that tax cuts have been viewed with deep suspicion by those around Mr Cameron and it took some time for him to realise that they are often the surest route to recovery and stability. But, then, the top rate of income tax was lowered from 50p to 45p in the pound, and the Liberal Democrats forced the Government to lift three million of the lowest earners out of income tax. 

As a result millionaires are now paying more tax than ever. The figures show they now earn 13 per cent of all paid income, and provide 28 per cent of the income tax collected. This is higher than at any point under the last government, and twice as high as under the Callaghan government (when the top rate of tax was 98 per cent).

Fraser Nelson says that we are witnessing what John F Kennedy called the “paradoxical truth” that lower tax rates can mean higher tax revenues. He says that when people are taxed less, they tend to earn (or declare) more. It has taken Britain into a golden era of milking the rich. 

You can join the “one per cent” club with a salary of £165,000 a year, not quite enough to satisfy Mr Miliband’s “millionaire” status (which, of course, he enjoys). He has in mind the top ten-thousandth of earners, the best-paid 3,000 people. Treasury figures show that members of this club paid an average tax bill of £2.6 million a year in 2013-14. If a single one of these super-taxpayers emigrates, then the Exchequer will notice.
He continues: Never in recorded history has so much tax been drawn from so few. Never has the lower-paid half of British workers been asked for a smaller share of the income tax. Champagne corks should be popping all over Islington: if you define a fair tax system by those with the broadest shoulders bearing the largest burden, then Britain’s system is fairer than ever. And all under the reforms of a tax-cutting Conservative Chancellor. 

None of this will surprise economists. When Nigel Lawson cut the top rate of tax from 60p to 40p, the system became much fairer. It was precisely Gordon Brown’s greed for tax money that led him to leave the top rate untouched until the final few weeks of Labour’s rule. He knew something that Mr Miliband has not quite grasped: that, nowadays, countries need to compete for people. Governments have become horribly reliant on a tiny number of very successful businessmen, often immigrants, the sort whose stupendous wealth we gawp at in the Sunday Times Rich List. And these people seldom stay around to be taxed to death.

His conclusion provides food for thought: Ed Miliband is still proposing to put up taxes – but he may be able to detect a trend at work. A French president found he was running his economy into the sand with tax rises, so he’s now pledging tax cuts. Meanwhile, in Britain, corporation tax is falling – and ever-increasing revenue is projected. Tax has also been cut for the low-paid, helping lure people to look for (and find) work in record numbers. The Liberal Democrats ought to be shouting from the rooftops about this: they cut taxes, and employment soared. But it seems even they struggle to make the connection.

Labour is right to regard inequality as a problem. No one can be comfortable with a system where the richest buy a shot of whisky for the cost of feeding a family of four. Inequality has, again, become one of the hottest topics in public life. It deserves to be discussed – but, ideally, with more facts. We cannot, really, pretend the highest earners are dodging the fiscal draft. And we should welcome the fact that the top 3,000 taxpayers pay in 10 times as much as the bottom three million. And all this is from just a modest tax cut – imagine what proper ones might do.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Cameron backs Boris over water cannons

The decision by Boris Johnson to order water cannons for London puts crowd control in this country into a whole new playing field. That David Cameron appears to have backed him in this, despite reservations on behalf of the Home Secretary, appears to me to be somewhat rash.

The Telegraph reports that Theresa May thinks that there are safety concerns associated with these devices. She insists that she will take the final decision on this matter, setting up an interesting conflict that deserves watching.

Characteristically, Boris Johnson has said that he is prepared to stand in front of a water cannon to prove it is safe, adding that existing crowd control measures such as horse charges are "considerably more violent".

I am surprised that the Prime Minister did not offer to operate the water cannon himself.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Could Google decide the result of close elections?

There is an interesting article on the BBC at the moment which reports the views of Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, who suggest that Google has within its power, whether intentionally or not, to give a winning push to a political candidate in a close election.

The article says that Mr. Epstein concedes that there is no evidence that Google is currently tampering in the electoral process, but thanks to how it ranks search results the company can have a meaningful influence on how an increasingly large portion of the electorate gets its news and information about politics and politicians:

He writes in US News and World Report:

With its virtual monopoly on search, Google has the power to flip the outcomes of close elections easily - and without anyone knowing. Over time, they could change the face of parliaments and congresses worldwide to suit their business needs - keeping regulators at bay, getting favourable tax deals and so on. And because their business is unregulated in most countries at this point, flipping elections in this way would be legal.

Epstein calls this the "search engine manipulation effect". He and a team of researchers set out to show how Google results could influence public opinion. By feeding study participants in San Diego, California, customised search results on candidates in the 2010 prime minster race in Australia, they were able to switch the subjects' initial preferences toward targeted politicians.

He writes:

Search rankings have this powerful effect on votes for the same reason that they have one on consumer behaviour: the higher the ranking, the more people believe and trust the content, mistakenly assuming that some impartial and omniscient genie has carefully evaluated each Web page and put the best ones first. (Not so.)

Mr. Epstein had a go at fising his own election so as to prove the point. He intervened in India's recent presidential election:

"That's right, we deliberately manipulated the voting preferences of more than 2,000 real voters in the largest democratic election in the history of the world," he writes, "easily pushing the preferences of undecided voters by more than 12% in any direction we chose - double that amount in some demographic groups."

He estimates that this kind of tampering could be decisive in any election within a 2.9% margin.

It is an interesting theory, though he concedes that Google never intentionally tries to influence elections. The BBC conclude by noting that Epstein has a bone to pick with Google dating back to January 2012 when the search site labelled his home page as a possible hacker attack page when it came up in its search results.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

More UKIP hypocrisy

Following on from my piece a few days ago regarding Welsh UKIP MEP Nathan Gill's former employment of migrants in his businesses, the Hull Daily Mail has a new angle.

They have spoken to a woman who was formerly employed by Mr. Gill, alongside migrant workers, who claims that he treated them better than his British staff:

Mr Gill charged some migrant workers £50 a week to share a room with five other people while they worked for him. 

 The woman, who asked not to be named, said staff worked 70 hours a week but were only paid £180. 

But she insisted many people from Hull were willing to work for Mr Gill and his mother Elaine. 

Some of the migrant workers from Eastern Europe and the Philippines lived in "bunkhouse" accommodation provided by Mr Gill in one large property in Holderness Road, east Hull. 

Reports have claimed up to 46 people were housed there on occasions, with six bunk beds in some of the rooms.

Which claim will be the most embarrassing for Mr. Gill? That he has treated migrants better than his British staff or that he employed them in preference to recruiting locally?

It seems both would contradict the basic raison d'etre of UKIP.

Monday, June 09, 2014

A parting shot from Peter Hain

He may be standing down at the next election but Peter Hain still has the ability to grab headlines. This time he is rubbing his party leader's nose in it with a throwaway remark that implies that voters do not see Ed Miliband as a potential Prime Minister.

According to the Telegraph, Mr Hain told Sky News that voters will realise that Mr Miliband is the right person to lead the country once he was in Downing Street "even if maybe they don't see that at the moment".

The paper interprets his remarks as suggesting he believes voters "don't see" Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister and that Labour will struggle to achieve an outright victory in next year's general election after he added that it was "very, very hard" for the party to win a majority.

Maybe that is why he is standing down.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

No new coalition at any cost

In the Guardian, Nick Clegg begins the fightback by asserting that the Liberal Democrats will not join another coalition "at any cost".

The paper says that after disastrous results in local and European elections, and a confidence-sapping sixth place in last week's Newark by-election, the Liberal Democrats leader will concede that his party has failed to convey clearly enough why it wants to be in power, allowing critics to claim it has lost its soul in government. They add that Nick Clegg will also warn the Conservatives that he will not allow them to rewrite history or "airbrush out our role in this coalition".

He starts by reasserting Liberal Democrats ownership of the pupil premium, but is a speech and a few reports in the Guardian enough?

Clegg is right to explain once more why we needed to go into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and the benefits the country has reaped from that arrangement, but we also need a vision of where we want to go from here.

I am looking to the party leadership to get out into the country and talk to local media and local people about our ambitions, our successes and our failures. There is still time. More of the same is not good enough.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Politicians and authenticity

Dan Hodges brilliantly hit the mark on Thursday with a blog about the debate on the Queen's Speech and the wonderfully authentic Annette Brooke, raising the question what do we really want from our politicians:

Annette Brooke didn’t play to the gallery. Her speech was worthy. Compared to what had gone before, it was a bit dull. But it was also a reflection of a lifetime of public service. 

Brooke spent 20 years as a teacher and lecturer before opting to enter politics full time. She didn’t follow the activist-adviser-MP circuit which supposedly insulates the new political class from the real world. 

During her 14 years in Parliament she has secured no high office. Her constituency website lists her recent achievements as a Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) for Microfinance and Sure Start and Co-Chair of the APPG for Breast Cancer. 

And her speech was an extension of these campaigns. She talked of her role as shadow children’s minister, and the problems of preschool education. Of a visit to Moldova to meet girls who bore the physical and mental cars of human trafficking. The fight to tackle female genital mutilation. None of this had the House roaring with laughter. But it wasn’t supposed to. 

Annette Brooke is a true reflection of our “despised political class”. Most MPs are like her. They’re committed. They’re diligent. They do their work away from the gaze of commentators like me. 

What is it we’re actually asking of our politicians? I’m told we want authenticity. You can’t get much more authentic that Annette Brooke. We want honesty. “Coalition has been a difficult period for me politically,” she admitted yesterday. 

Here’s the paradox. On the one hand we say “we need MPs who are in touch, who understand the real world.” And then we say “We need more MPs like Boris Johnson.” We say, “We need MPs who will get their noses down, work hard and won’t stick their snouts in the expenses trough.” And then we say “So what if Nigel Farage won’t let his allowances be independently audited. He’s always down the pub with a pint his hand. He’s just the sort of bloke we need to sort things out.” 

We pretend we want artisans. But in reality we want showmen. We say we want representatives who are reflections of ourselves. But in truth we’re drawn to those politicians who appear larger than life. In short, we prefer to listen to Penny Mordaunt talking about her appearance on Splash! than Annette Brooke talking about Moldovan refugee camps.

Hodges sums up the paradox we are all facing. His questions go to the heart of our Parliamentary democracy and people's expectations of it.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Fracking ridiculous

There is a lot in the Queen's Speech that I support and applaud. It is obvious that the Liberal Democrats have exercised a lot of influence, not least in the far-reaching pension reforms. However, the one item that I am finding it hard to come to terms with is the proposal to allow fracking companies to drill under people's homes without their permission.

The Guardian reports that the current laws of trespass require land and home owners to give permission for shale gas and oil drilling under their land, but the government intends to end this requirement in order to speed up fracking. Drilling can extend up to 3km horizontally underground from a central well pad.

The process of fracking requires a fairly significant infrastructure so as to get the gas to the appropriate storage point from which it can be used. Furthermore, the companies involved in this process are effectively 'mining' a greenhouse gas. That cannot fit in with our climate change targets.

The biggest objection to this proposal however is the way it seeks to subvert the existing and long-standing rights of landowners. It a putting the interests of big corporations ahead of ordinary people. It is essentially an illiberal measure and I am astonished that Liberal Democrats Ministers allowed it to go-ahead, in fact in some cases appear to have promoted the measure.

This proposal needs to be kicked out.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

No evidence that e-cigarettes are gateway to smoking

Further to my previous articles here on e-cigarettes today's Western Mail carries news of further claims by Professor Peter Hajek, the director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London, who says that  “virtually nobody” who is a non-smoker experimenting with e-cigarettes would move on to daily smoking:

Prof Hajek, who is speaking at Wales’ first summit on electronic cigarettes in Swansea today, said: “If my children were to try a nicotine product, I would prefer this to be an e-cigarette rather than a conventional cigarette.

“The concern that e-cigarettes would lure young people to smoking has not been supported by evidence. About half of non-smokers who experiment with cigarettes progress to daily smoking. In a striking contrast to this alarming effect, among non-smokers experimenting with e-cigarettes, virtually nobody progresses to daily use.”

It comes as a survey by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Wales found very few young people between 13 and 18 who have never smoked have tried e-cigarettes.

Less than 3% of ‘never-smokers’ who responded to the survey reported having tried an e-cigarette.

The survey also suggested that, of the young people who had tried e-cigarettes, a quarter had done so to help them stop smoking or cut down on the number of cigarettes they smoked.

This further contradicts the Welsh Government's contention that e-cigarettes should be banned in public places because they normalise smoking.

Not only do the Welsh government not have any evidence to support that position but they are increasingly swimming against the tide of academic opinion.

It seems that the only support for that position is coming from those who do not believe that people should be able to make their own lifestyle choices.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

UKIP hypocrisy and their Labour allies

The new UKIP MEP for Wales, Nathan Gill must be a little red-faced today after it was revealed in the Western Mail (courtesy of a Welsh blog)  that he employed “dozens” of eastern European and Filipino workers in a care company:

It has emerged that Mr Gill, who lives in Anglesey, was a director of a number of family businesses that owned property and provided care services on contract to Hull City Council in Yorkshire.

He yesterday confirmed he had employed “dozens” of immigrants from new EU countries like Poland and others from the Phillipines. He also said he had provided “bunkhouse” accommodation for employees and others who had migrated from eastern Europe.

One of Ukip’s major campaign policies at the recent election was its opposition to unlimited migration from other EU countries.

Mr Gill said: “We employed people from overseas because we could not find local workers to do the jobs. We had a care home of our own, but mostly our workers were employed on home care contracts we had with Hull City Council and other organisations. The workers were paid more than the minimum wage, but not massively more.

“The amount we could afford to pay was determined by the amount of money we received from the council.

“Working in care is quite tough and we had a big turnover of staff. The bunkhouses were temporary accommodation we offered to people coming from overseas until they could get something more permanent. We charged £50 a week inclusive of electricity to people who would be earning between £200 and £300 a week. I wish I had that proportion of spending money left after paying my mortgage.”

A Labour spokesperson is quoted as suggesting Mr. Gill's actions are hypocritical: “That Nathan Gill cannot see the hypocrisy of his actions is totally unbelievable. This is hugely embarrassing for him given only two weeks after he was elected on an anti-immigration platform.

“Having made a living on the backs of cheap labour from eastern Europe it is utterly shameful for him to then stand on a populist platform and decry immigration in an attempt to get elected. Rather than pretend he’s done nothing wrong, Nathan Gill should publicly apologise for his behaviour.”

Personally, I welcome the fact that our new UKIP MEP has recognised the value of migrant workers to the economy and to maintaining the viability of local businesses. No doubt he will use his own personal experiences to moderate the rhetoric of his leader and to change his party's policy.

Meanwhile, Labour who are quite rightly critical of UKIP and also of the need for the Westminster coalition so as to secure stable government in 2010, have entered into a pact of their own. The BBC report that Conservatives have taken control of Portsmouth City Council with the support of Labour and UKIP.

Yet another unholy alliance and a case of do what I say, not what I do.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

How Al Gore can improve the Lib Dem campaign narrative

This article on the BBC website from 2010, found via the Twitter feed of the Welsh Lib Dem policy officer, offers an interesting insight into what exactly went wrong in the Clegg-Farage debates and some pointers about how the party can improve our performance for the 2015 general election.

The Liberal Democrats national message, that we are building a stronger economy in a fairer society enabling everyone to get on in life, encapsulates what we have achieved in government but it does not immediately grab you at an emotional level. To do that we need to fill in the details and relate them to what people feel and think. But, as the BBC piece says, we also have to avoid coming across as bunch of politicians telling people what is good for them:

If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them.

They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best.

There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.
As the saying goes, in politics, when you are explaining, you are losing. And that makes anything as complex or as messy as healthcare reform a very hard sell.

The article references the book The Political Brain, by psychologist Drew Westen, who is an exasperated Democrat. He tried to show why the Right often wins the argument even when the Left is confident that it has the facts on its side:

He uses the following exchange from the first presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000 to illustrate the perils of trying to explain to voters what will make them better off:

Gore: "Under the governor's plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18% and 47%, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he's modelled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries."

Bush: "Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers.
"I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math. It's trying to scare people in the voting booth."

A clear difference in the type of language used, even though Mr Bush, too, went on to talk numbers:

"Under my tax plan, that [Gore] continues to criticize, I set a third -- the federal government should take no more than a third of anybody's check. But I also drop the bottom rate from 15 percent to 10 percent because by far the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder.

"If you're a family of four in Massachusetts making $50,000 you get a 50 percent cut in the federal income taxes you pay. It's from 4,000 to about 2,000. Now, the difference in our plans is I want that 2,000 to go to you, and the vice president would like to be spending the 2,000 on your behalf."

Mr Bush won the debate. With Mr. Gore's statistics, the voters just heard a patronising policy wonk, and switched off.

Drew Westen highlights a known truism in politics, that stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win:

"One of the fallacies that politicians often have on the Left is that things are obvious, when they are not obvious. Obama's administration made a tremendous mistake by not immediately branding the economic collapse that we had just had as the Republicans' Depression, caused by the Bush administration's ideology of unregulated greed. The result is that now people blame him."

It was a truism that the Liberal Democrats forgot in preparing Clegg for his debate with Farage,.but also one that appears to have deserted the Labour and the Conservatives as well. The BBC quote another author, Thomas Frank, who could be describing the UKIP phenomenon:

He believes that the voters' preference for emotional engagement over reasonable argument has allowed the Republican Party to blind them to their own real interests.

The Republicans have learnt how to stoke up resentment against the patronising liberal elite, all those do-gooders who assume they know what poor people ought to be thinking.

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America's poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.

Thomas Frank says that whatever disadvantaged Americans think they are voting for, they get something quite different:

"You vote to strike a blow against elitism and you receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our life times, workers have been stripped of power, and CEOs are rewarded in a manner that is beyond imagining.

"It's like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy."

As Mr Frank sees it, authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex. Of course, they might be faking it, but it is no joke to say that in contemporary politics, if you can fake sincerity, you have got it made.

And the ultimate sin in modern politics is appearing to take the voters for granted.

This is a culture war but it is not simply being driven by differences over abortion, or religion, or patriotism. And it is not simply Red states vs. Blue states any more. It is a war on the entire political culture, on the arrogance of politicians, on their slipperiness and lack of principle, on their endless deal making and compromises.

And when the politicians say to the people protesting: 'But we're doing this for you', that just makes it worse. In fact, that seems to be what makes them angriest of all.

It is a lesson that all the mainstream political parties in the UK need to relearn if they are to counter the rise of the popularist right.

Monday, June 02, 2014

A threat to our democracy

Following my post on Saturday in which I referred to Charles Moore's concern that we are sacrificing the security of the ballot at the altar of engagement, the Telegraph carries a piece by Andrew Gilligan, looking at the chaotic and questionable conduct of the local elections in Tower Hamlets. It is a very disturbing account.

He tells the story of how 2,000 supporters of the borough’s mayor, Lutfur Rahman, gathered outside, effectively barricading Mr Rahman’s Labour opponents in the building. The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, was told by police that he could not leave for his own safety.

He says that declarations were delayed as the Mayor ordered recounts and that when these took place the following day Lutfur Rahman supporters were everywhere, leaning over the count staff, shouting at them, intimidating them. In one case a Labour candidate found that his vote had fallen by more than a fifth overnight:

For more than four years, The Telegraph has been following the extraordinary career of Mr Rahman, a man thrown out of the Labour Party after this newspaper exposed his close links to a Muslim extremist group, the Islamic Forum of Europe. 

Yet Mr Rahman has gone on to win two mayoral elections as an independent, his latest, last week, even though his council is under a police investigation for corruption and a government investigation for misuse of funds. How did he manage it? Khales Uddin Ahmed, another Labour councillor, claims he knows part of the answer. “There are so many fake voters,” he says. “I keep finding houses where there are people registered for postal votes who do not live there.” 

In Bow, The Telegraph found two flats where postal votes were obtained, and cast, by people who did not live there and had never lived there, according to the real residents. 

Helal Rahman, a businessman and former Labour councillor in Spitalfields, says that “several hundred postal votes” in that one ward alone were cast on May 22 by people “who used to live here but have moved out to the suburbs. They rent their properties to eastern Europeans but keep their electoral registrations and convert their votes to postal,” he says. This is, of course, illegal. 

No evidence links any of this to Mr Rahman at this election, but there has been clear evidence of postal vote malpractice involving his close allies in the past. In April 2012, on a suspiciously high turnout, Gulam Robbani, Mr Rahman’s agent in the 2010 mayoral contest, narrowly won a council by-election. 

Only 14 per cent of people in Tower Hamlets then had postal votes, but 36 per cent of votes at the by-election were postal. 

Days before polling, the number registered for postal votes in one large council block doubled. Seventy-seven per cent of those votes were cast. 

Residents and their families told The Telegraph that Mr Robbani’s supporters blitzed the building, signing them up for postal votes, then returned a few days later to collect the blank ballot papers. Mr Robbani has repeatedly refused to deny it.

He says that the council has received 20 complaints of voter intimidation, and that twenty-one of the borough’s 74 polling stations, disproportionately those in non-Rahman wards, were moved to new, unfamiliar and sometimes harder-to-reach locations:

One, in the not very pro-Rahman territory of Canary Wharf, was placed on a traffic island in the middle of a four-lane road. Turnout there was 19 points behind the Rahman stronghold of Shadwell, where the polling stations were not moved.

Mr Rahman’s winning margin, after second preferences, was 3,250 votes, or 4 per cent. “My gut feeling is that there were enough [fraudulent votes] to have affected the outcome,” says one senior figure in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party. “But I don’t know whether we will be able to evidence it.” 

In reality, though, the campaign was only the last phase. For several years, with the untrammelled power of a directly-elected mayor, Mr Rahman has been buying votes with public money. Almost uniquely, his council publishes a weekly newspaper, delivered to every house, each issue containing as many as a dozen pictures and articles praising the mayor. Thousands of pieces of direct mail have been sent to voters at public expense. 

Mr Rahman pays tens of thousands of pounds to Channel S, a London-based Bengali television station influential with his Bangladeshi base. It gives him fawning coverage. He pays £50,000 a year from council funds into the personal bank account of Channel S’s chief reporter.

Mr. Gilligan adds that Ofcom regularly censures Channel S, but it appears to make no difference and that the Electoral Commission refuses to act on suspect voting, despite its own report admitting it happened in 2012.

The police broke their promise to stop crowds outside polling stations, he says, whilst many officials are afraid of being branded racist for criticising Mr Rahman.

This is not the birthplace of democracy where I was born and grew up. In my view the real threat is not so much the alleged manipulation of local elections by a particular group, though that is bad enough, it is the apparent impotence of the Electoral Commission and other authorities to do something about it. I hope they prove me wrong.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Royal Navy's worst peacetime tragedy 75th anniversary

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Royal Navy's worst peacetime tragedy, the the sinking of the submarine HMS Thetis with the loss of 99 lives in Liverpool Bay, off Llandudno.

As the BBC report an accident happened during sea trials for the new vessel which had sailed from Wirral:

There were 103 men on board on 1 June 1939, twice the usual number, with the Royal Navy crew swelled by engineers from ship builders Cammell Laird.

Due to a combination of unfortunate circumstances, sea water flooded in and the boat nosedived and was unable to resurface.

Because the boat was crowded and air in shorter supply, time was of the essence but the rescue operation was hampered by delays and communication problems.

The men were left fighting rising levels of carbon dioxide, 12 miles off the Great Orme.

I have a family connection to this tragedy as my grandfather worked at Cammell Laird's at this time and I believe was involved in the construction of the HMS Thetis. It is reputed that he was meant to be on board the boat on the fatal day but was unwell and not able to take part.

Below is a documentary telling the story of HMS Thetis.

Miliband not trusted say Progress

The Times reports that Progress, a Blairite group associated with a number of MPs in Mr Miliband’s team believes that the Labour leader is failing to convince voters that his party can be trusted with the economy and faces questions over his leadership qualities:

An editorial on the Progess website said that Labour needed to improve on several fronts. “As in 1992, its failure to convince the electorate that it can be trusted with the economy undermines much else it tries to do,” the article said. Labour, it added, lagged the Tories on economic competence and leadership.

Those associated with Progress include Lord Adonis and Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, whilst its annual conference this week was addressed by Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary.

Inside Westminster in the Independent seems to agree. They say that Labour’s ship is a not happy one after disappointing local and European election results:

The criticism of Ed Miliband from his backbenchers was louder than the very muted Tory noises off about David Cameron. Anyone would have thought that Labour had come third in the Euro elections, not the Tories. Mr Cameron’s party looks more confident about the general election than Labour.

It is nothing compared to the agonies the Liberal Democrats are going through of course but nevertheless it is a timely reminder that the only party who was happy about the European election results was UKIP>

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