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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Welsh Labour try to gloss over their health record

If there is one thing that is certain about the forthcoming General Election campaign in Wales then it is that Welsh Labour's record on health will become a major issue this side of the border. So this piece in the Times is especially interesting.

They say that campaign leaflets circulated in England to mark the start of the new year were titled Building an NHS with time to care, however the version distributed in Wales fails to mention the NHS, despite Ed Miliband’s vow to make the future of the health service a centrepiece of his bid to become prime minister in May.

Instead the leaflets focus on other issues such as immigration, raising the minimum wage, freezing energy bills and introducing a lower, 10p basic rate of tax:

The Labour-run NHS in Wales has failed to meet waiting time targets since September 2010 and performance has been on the decline, according to a Wales Audit Office report earlier this week. This is in contrast to the health service in England and Wales, where performance targets have begun to improve against tougher goals.

Letters issued by candidates, including Mari Williams in Cardiff North, Jo Stevens in Cardiff Central and Liz Evans in Gower, make no reference to the NHS. This comes after Labour promised to “put the NHS on the ballot paper” at the next election, which the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham described as “a battle for the soul of the NHS”.

Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, said the omission of the NHS from the party’s leaflets in Wales was proof that Labour was trying to politicise the issue of the health service. “Ed Miliband wants to airbrush out the chaos his party has caused in the Welsh health service. Labour cut the NHS budget there by 8 per cent and now Wales has the worst urgent ambulance response times since records began.

“We know he wants to ‘weaponise’ the NHS in England, but in Wales his party don’t even defend their record . . . Labour still haven’t learnt that patients must always come before politics.”

Now I was about to say that maybe the reason that Labour had changed the leaflets was due to the fact that health is devolved in Wales and not therefore the responsibility of the UK Government.

But no, it seems that is not the reason as the Labour spokesperson's response indicates that they want to campaign on health in Wales as well. If that is the case, and Labour really want to engage on their health record here, then bring it on. They really have a very poor record indeed.

Friday, January 30, 2015

And now the Welsh Tories squabble in public

When you have a divided group it does not always pay to table a motion to the Welsh Assembly on the issue that divides you. However, that is precisely what the Welsh Conservatives did last week when the initiated a debate on the M4 extension around Newport.  The results were predictable.

The Western Mail reports that the differences between Tory AMs over the M4 Relief Road led to a public spat on social media, with one accusing another of sending spoof tweets.

The paper says that the Welsh Tories claim their position on the motorway is clear after all its members, bar two that couldn’t take part, backed a motion calling for a review of the project that includes a much feted alternative known as the Blue Route.

However, the very next day two Tory AMs reacted to two tweets sent by William Graham backing the Welsh Government’s preferred Black Route, with Antoinette Sandbach suggesting Mr Graham’s tweets ran contrary to the Tory motion voted on Wednesday. The Tory transport spokesman Byron Davies, jumped in by suggesting that Mr Graham’s entire account was a “spoof”:

During Wednesday’s Welsh Conservative debate on the M4 Mr Davies called for clarity over how the Black Route has been decided upon as the preferred route.

In an earlier press conference he said: “We would like to see the Welsh Government go back to the drawing board on it and consider the Blue Route,” adding later: “Does it have to be a motorway?”

But on Wednesday Mr Graham tweeted: “I am confident that when the public inquiry is held the Black Route will be chosen.”

He added: “It has always been Conservative policy that a motorway solution is required for the M4 around Newport.”

Mr Davies told in reply on Thursday: “Could this be a spoof account? @williamgrahamam I know so well, voted in favour of the Welsh Conservative motion yesterday.”

Mr Graham replied: “No conflict between motion and Black Route. Confident Black Route will be chosen at public enquiry.”

“Ah – confirmed, definitely a spoof account,” said Mr Davies.

Mr Graham later confirmed his tweets were genuine.

He said: “He’s trying to make out that the motion we voted for yesterday was against the Black Route. It’s not. It calls for inclusion of the Blue Route within the examination. I have no problem with including the Blue Route. I don’t think it will stand up.”

At about the same time North Wales AM Antionette Sandbach, also a Conservative, said: “Pity @williamgrahamam not willing to put his vote where his principles allegedly are. I was taught actions speak louder than words.

“What price principles? Public inquiry excludes Blue Route, whole point of the motion to get that position reviewed,” she said, adding Mr Graham’s Twitter name to the tweet.

You could not make it up.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Kinnock intervention highlights Labour divisions

Today's Times reports on a dramatic intervention in Labour's in-fighting by Neil Kinnock, who has called for an end to the internal sniping at Ed Miliband. He warned that the Labour leader would face even more vicious attacks than he had endured in 1992 and obviously believes it would be helpful if there was no friendly fire to contend with as well.

Kinnock warned that “sniping from behind” was far more damaging than assaults from opponents, but said that whilst he is reluctant to intervene, criticisms of the party’s election strategy by senior Blairites has been “so great that it requires a response”:

His call came after Alan Milburn, the former health secretary and close ally of Tony Blair, launched a stinging attack on Labour’s election message of protecting the NHS.

Unfortunately, Neil Kinnock's intervention, coming in the form of an attack on Alan Milburn, just highlighted the differences once more and put Ed Miliband under even more pressure. C'est la vie.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Welsh Government bill without a cause

The Welsh Public Services Minister launched stage one of the reorganisation of local government in Wales yesterday with the introduction of a bill to facilitate voluntary mergers. He did so having first ruled out the only three proposals for voluntary merger he had received.

This has caused consternation, not least because one of the proposals in front of the Minister fitted in with the proposals of the William's Commission. The Minister obviously has the right to turn down the voluntary merger proposals in front of him on the basis of the criteria that he set out but that poses an important question: having turned down all the voluntary merger proposals why are we now discussing a Bill to enable voluntary mergers to take place; there are no voluntary mergers in front of us for this Bill to enable?

The Minister said in his statement that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-model local government in Wales. This will be the third reorganisation in 40 years of local government. If we don’t get this right now, we will find ourselves back here in 20 years’ time doing it again. So, how is he making sure that we have sustainable models based on compatible communities when he does not have the co-operation of local government, and when the proposals that are put forward on a voluntary basis are not acceptable to him? How can we make sure that the map that he now seems determined to impose on local government is sustainable and that we will not be revisiting this in 20 years’ time?

It seems that the process continues to raise more questions than answers and it is unlikely that the opposition parties will bail the government out on this. The Williams Commission was a Labour Government affair, it had no input from Welsh Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru or Welsh Conservatives. So far I have seen no good reason why, having been excluded from the process at the start, we should join it on Labour's terms.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Our creaking democracy

For once this is not a piece about constitutional reform. Instead I am referring to the condition of the mother of Parliaments, the Palace of Westminster, which requires £3 billion spent on it to bring it up to scratch.

A BBC documentary to be broadcast next month is to highlight that the parlous state of the Houses of Parliament, includes leaking roofs, crumbling walls and plagues of mice, rats, moths and pigeons. In addition there are maintenance issues arising from this disrepair. The Times say that overflowing lavatories and blocked pipes in the House of Commons were left for more than two weeks without being cleaned up and became so bad that staff were sent home ill.

The incident conforms with the “warts and all” four-part documentary to be shown on BBC Two. Michael Cockerell, the journalist and broadcaster, was given unprecedented access to the inner workings of the House of Commons. In an interview with Radio Times, he gives an insight into the extent of damage to the Grade I listed World Heritage Site building.

“The place is nearly falling down,” he said. “It is probably the biggest building project in Britain. We saw leaking roofs; we saw paintwork and plasterwork crumbling. We saw buckets to catch the drips.

Even the stonework on Elizabeth Tower [the home of Big Ben] is crumbling.”

An initial, independent report set up to assess whether the Palace of Westminster was fit for purpose in the 21st century considered three options for renovating the building.

The first was to relocate MPs and peers completely, the second posed the option of the two chambers taking it in turns to relocate and a third scenario would involve politicians staying put while construction took place, which would take longer and cost even more.

Parliamentary authorities have decided not to publish the report until the summer to avoid the issue being affected by the election campaign.

Having seen similar issues addressed in the Canadian Parliament, it seems that not the renovation is doable but that the longer it is left the worst it will get. Somebody needs to grasp the nettle soon.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Greeks declare war on the Euro

It was Dick Tuck who declared, on losing a Californian State Senate race, "The people have spoken, the bastards". It  may well be that some European leaders are feeling something similar as the Greek General Election results come in.

Alexis Tspiras, who leads the victorious Syriza party, is pledged to end austerity. That can only mean one choice: he either has to come out of the Euro and go his own way, or he has to renegotiate the bail-out package that was put in place by his predecessors. Either way, it heralds a period of unsettled weather for the Eurozone and that may well have an impact on the UK's economic recovery.

The Telegraph reports that Eurozone finance ministers will meet on Monday when they will threaten an end to negotiations on debt relief for Greece unless its new radical Left government promises to honour all existing austerity agreements. They are trying to steady the ship and prevent speculation against the Euro.

The paper says that Eurozone officials are convinced that the EU holds all the trump cards in the coming clash with Greece's leader-in-waiting, Alexis Tsipras, including the nuclear option of letting Greek banks collapse. They believe Mr Tsipras knows his weakness.

But, this hardline approach will be sugared with offers of flexibility on the detail of austerity measures, and a move to allow Greece more time to meet an end of February deadline for renewal of key EU loans that are keeping the country’s economy afloat.

Suddenly, the stakes are very high indeed for the Euro zone countries.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

UKIP show their true colours

Considering that they are an anti-politics party, the cynicism of UKIP is quite breath-taking. According to today's Sunday Times, one of Nigel Farage's senior aides has said that Britain has “hundreds of thousands of bigots” and Ukip is proud to stand up for them.

The paper's political editor says that the outburst by Matthew Richardson, the party’s secretary will lay Ukip open to the charge that senior figures see themselves and their own supporters as bigots, a stance that is liable to alienate more moderate voters:

Richardson was appointed last year to put an end to the party’s series of public- relations gaffes and to prevent “bad stuff” about Ukip from making it into the media.

But last night he was at the centre of new storm after a source revealed comments he made in mid-December.

Asked about the racist outbursts of some Ukip candidates, Richardson replied: “I’ve said before, people talk about Ukip being bigots. There are hundreds of thousands of bigots in the United Kingdom and they too deserve representation.”

The outburst will remind voters of former prime minister Gordon Brown branding pensioner Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman” after she raised the issue of immigration with him during the 2010 election.

Richardson also insulted Farage, declaring: “He’s a Kent man. Well, sounds like Kent anyway.” And he said the Ukip leader “would have to be a moron” to put the party’s turnover tax in its manifesto.

Richardson also came under fire on a second front when it emerged that he has compared NHS spending to the activities of Nazi Germany.

Labour released videos of Richardson calling for a “hearts and minds” campaign to back NHS privatisation and branded health spending a waste of money.

In a speech to a Conservative political conference in Washington in 2010 Richardson declared: “The biggest waste of money of course in the United Kingdom is the NHS, the National Health Service.”

At a Young America’s Foundation meeting the same year he denounced “wasteful socialist programmes” and said: “At the heart of this, the Reichstag bunker of socialism is the National Health Service.”

Richardson added: “People as a result of privatisation . . . of the NHS will do better. That’s a battle that we have to win the hearts and minds of people.”

This contempt for the health service apparently matches that of his party leader who has publicly admitted that he believes a health insurance scheme would be better than the current levels of state NHS spending.

So much for UKIP being the people's party.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chocolate wars

America, the supposed land of capitalism and freedom, is once more proving that its image is pure window dressing as the US chocolate giant Hershey has used the courts to block the import of its British rivals.

The Telegraph reports that the company declared legal war on the imports of British-made chocolate such as Cadbury Creme Eggs, Maltesers, Kit Kats and Yorkie bars, claiming that they either infringe the company's US licences or "confuse" customers with similar wrappings and names:

Nicky Perry, the owner of Tea and Sympathy, a Manhattan institution, broke the devastating news to customers in a posting on the cafe's Facebook page.

"Due to legal action by the so called chocolate maker Hershey's, we can no longer import the real Cadbury chocolate from England," she wrote. "They want us to sell their dreadful Cadbury approximation but we can't in good conscience sell you such awful chocolate when we have made our reputation on selling you the yummy real English stuff."

Ms Perry was also scornful that the lawsuit has blocked Yorkie bars because their name might be confused with the totally different York Peppermint Patties – "as if!" she noted – and Toffee Crisp as the orange wrapping was too similar to Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

"May we politely suggest that if you think Toffee Crisps look like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups your eyesight is a much bigger problem than your chocolate bar confusion," she added.

The company says that the lawsuit was necessary to defend its commercial interests though it transpires that their legal action only came about after they failed to take-over Cadbury's, losing out to Kraft. No wonder ex-pats in the USA are outraged.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Most ambitious town council of the week

Nobody can accuse Bridgend Town Council of lacking ambition. According to a LinkedIn contact I have just received they have just appointed a Military Advisor whose job is to advise their newly constituted Military Advisory Committee.

Rumours that the First Minister is about to face a military coup in his own constituency are most probably greatly exaggerated.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Zeus is missing

Disturbing news from Ammanford  (I did not think I would ever type those words) as the Western Mail reports that Zeus the cat has gone missing.

The paper says that Zeus, who is a well-known in the town for wandering around the shops stealing food and sleeping in inconvenient places has not been seen by his owner since Monday night:

Now his owner Jessica Morris is praying for his safe return.

“It’s not the first time Zeus has gone missing, on previous occasions he has been gone a day or two but soon comes home for food,” she told the South Wales Guardian.

“We’ve left food out the back door in case he comes home at night, but he hasn’t touched it.

“I hope no-one has taken him.”

A distraught Jessica is asking everyone to check their garden sheds and lock-ups.

Zeus has become famous for napping in the local card shop, stealing from the pound shop and getting thrown out of the butchers.

Such is his brazen attitude that traders in the Carmarthenshire town don’t bat an eyelid when he pops in for something to eat or to find a quiet aisle to sleep in.

Jessica said she often receives phone calls to fetch Zeus from various shops.

Staff at Tesco in Ammanford even keep him in the back room until Jessica arrives to pick him up.

In the past he has even been locked in a local shop overnight. Hopefully, that is all that has happened to him this time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Labour try to hide their Mansion Tax plans from public scrutiny

If there is one thing that is worse than going to the electorate with a half-worked out policy, it is then trying to avoid being held to account on the details of that policy during the election campaign. Such an approach never works out well. And yet it looks like Ed Balls is going to attempt this trick over Labour's plans for a mansion tax.

The Times reports that the Shadow Chancellor has now stated that he will not reveal full details of the Mansion Tax plan until after the election amidst considerable disquiet within the Labour Party about the policy and the way it is being presented:

As voices from the left and right of Labour raised concerns about the plan, a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown suggested that it had been a mistake to call the policy a “mansion tax”.

Patrick Diamond said the name “has been seen as provocative — as deliberately hitting the rich”. He added: “Some in Labour fear the party will suffer electorally if it is perceived as deliberately attacking the wealthier sections of society.”

The discord came as new analysis from estate agents Knight Frank showed the degree to which the levy would be skewed towards London. Under the plans, the top 2.5 per cent of homes in the capital will be hit. If the same proportion of homes were affected in each region, the threshold would be £343,558 in the northeast, £376,487 in Wales and £406,139 in Scotland.

One Labour frontbencher has already suggested that the tax is unfair. At an event in November, Steve Reed, the shadow home office minister, said there were “extraordinarily wealthy people” outside London who would not pay the tax. His office said last night that he was “fully supportive” of the nationwide mansion tax as set out by Mr Balls.

Questions re-emerged over the plan after Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary, warned the policy was “crude” and “short-termist”. Diane Abbott, a leading figure on the left of the party, said that Lord Mandelson was “on to something”. Her fellow potential Labour mayoral candidates David Lammy, Margaret Hodge and Tessa Jowell have also criticised the policy.

Could the Labour manifesto be unravelling even before the election campaign has properly started.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

UKIP hit a policy vacuum

One of the worst jobs in politics has to writing the UKIP manifesto. After all, no sooner do you get the document signed off than the party leader is disowning it, whilst other activists and candidates go off and make up their own policies.

It is little wonder that The Times reports today that the party has sacked its policy chief for failing to deliver the document on time. The paper understands that Ukip had set the beginning of January as the deadline to agree policies before sending off the manifesto to be checked and costed by an independent think-tank but a significant part of the document is still to be written:

A senior Ukip insider said: “There was growing disquiet that none of us had seen hide nor hair on the policy front. It was especially annoying for candidates, who are banned from making any specific pledges before the manifesto is published.

“They don’t know what to tell voters on the doorstep.”

I suppose they can always fall back on the 2010 manifesto with its pledges to introduce compulsory uniforms for taxi drivers, making the London Underground’s Circle Line circular again and restricting the number of foreign players in football teams.

Update: Right on cue Nigel Farage contradicts both himself and his party by renewing his call for the effective privatisation of the NHS

Monday, January 19, 2015

Labour struggle on tuition fees

The Times has an interesting article this morning in which they say that Ed Miliband is struggling to find a way to fund cuts in university tuition fees despite saying that the maximum would be £6,000.

They say that Labour may be forced to restrict the cut in fees to certain types of courses such as technical degrees, leaving other students to pay the current cost:

Labour reaped big rewards for attacking Nick Clegg’s decision to back Tory demands to triple fees to £9,000, meaning that the party could risk some of its support from former Lib Dem voters if it fails to deliver a cut.

Ed Miliband suggested in September 2011 that the ceiling would be reduced to £6,000 but a party source confirmed yesterday that that had not been agreed for the manifesto. Labour eventually wants a graduate tax.

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, is insisting that all policies are fully funded and party sources have confirmed that they are seeking funds to pay for the cut. A party spokesman said a number of options were under consideration and the plan was “speculation”.

It is not often remembered of course that although the Liberal Democrats failed to deliver on their election promise on tuition fees, Labour had been there before them. In fact Labour broke two manifesto promises on tuition fees and top-up fees when in government despite having a majority.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Author claims Miliband ‘kept quiet’ on fears of economic crash

The Sunday Times reports on a new book by Martin Winter, a former friend of Ed Miliband, which claims that the Labour leader and his Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls feared the British economy was going to crash a year before the Great Recession began in 2008 but decided to keep quiet.

Mr. Winter says that Miliband made the prediction during a discussion about the so-called “election that never was” in October 2007:

In a new book about the Labour leader, he portrays Miliband as chaotic and accident-prone. Winter was a leading Labour figure in Doncaster, and served as the town’s first elected mayor, but was expelled from the party in 2008.

Gordon Brown came close to calling a general election just months after he took over as prime minister from Tony Blair in 2007, but cancelled his plan at the last minute.

Winter claims that two weeks after the snap election was called off, Miliband, who was then the climate change secretary, told him: “The simple fact is the economy is going to fall off a cliff and this was our best chance of winning. The economy is going to get a hell of a lot worse over the next two or three years and we’ll get the blame for it; so it was either going now and risk losing or wait and know that we’re going to lose.”

Eleven months later, Lehman Brothers bank collapsed, triggering a banking crisis that led to the deepest recession in Britain in more than a century.

I am currently reading Damien McBride's account of this period, which as Andrew Rawnsley so graphically puts it is a 'self-abasing' justification of the ends justifying the means. However, although McBride and Ed Miliband fell-out with each other, there is no hint of a forthcoming economic collapse being the reason why the now-Labour leader might have favoured an early election. Indeed the banking crisis appears to have come as a complete surprise to Gordon Bown and company.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Pub Landlord out-pledges Farage

The announcement of Al Murray to take on Nigel Farage in Thanet South has certainly opened up debate about UKIP in a way that only satire can. Many politicians would kill for the ability to nail supposedly popularist policies in the way that the 'Pub Landlord' manages in today's Independent including the answer on immigration that 'the last thing we need is people coming over and making us look work-shy':

On Europe, you’ve pledged to buy Greece and have it operated by Kent County Council. How do you intend to honour your promise?

“I envisage Greece exiting the Euro and needing someone to help. Kent County Council would only have to shift bin collection to fortnightly to be able to step in and take on Greece’s debts.  In turn Manston airport – which is in my intended constituency by the way, keeping it local, yes – would be reopened as the only airport for flying to Greece. Joined up thinking for once. Admit it, you like it don’t you?”

What are your views on gay marriage?

“I don’t want to marry a man, let me just make that clear. Well, it’s not something that worries me to be honest. It might have passed into law but I can’t see it happening, after all, no man I’ve ever met wanted to get married if he could possibly help it, so the chances of there being two out there is unlikely, the chances of them meeting impossible. But just to make it clear, I do not want to marry a man.”

Labour have faced some criticism from the Conservatives that their proposed plans involve £21bn in extra spending during the first year of a new parliament alone. What steps have you taken to ensure yours have been costed effectively?

“Er, much the same as them, I held a calculator upside and wrote BOOBIES on it and them multiplied it by George Osborne’s mum’s birthday. But what I will do is follow Labour’s lead and plant some money trees up north.”

Thanet South really looks like the place to go in May.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The cat manifesto

So how did I miss this when it appeared in yesterday's Independent? The paper reports that the charity Cats Protection is to launch its 10-point General Election manifesto at a House of Commons reception next month.

Jacqui Cuff, Cats Protection’s advocacy manager told the paper that with nearly one in four UK households, or 6.4 million homes, containing at least one pet cat, there was potentially a huge cat-loving constituency:

A YouGov poll last year found that 14 per cent of voters considered animal welfare an important issue in deciding how they would vote at the next election – more than the number of people who would be influenced by same-sex marriage or the High Speed 2 rail link. “We know that animal welfare is very important for voters, and the issues in the manifesto are bought to our attention by cat lovers on a daily basis. If someone is a pet owner and animal lover, they might well consider what candidates have to say about the cat manifesto.”

The key points are:

- Compulsory microchipping of owned cats
- A national database of cats entering the UK legally so those entering illegally without a rabies vaccination can be identified without delay
- Updating the DangerousDogs Act to allow prosecution of owners whose dogs attack cats
- Inclusion of animal welfare in the National Curriculum
- Clear labelling of flowers, plants and household products that are toxic to cats
- Outright ban on snares
- Stricter regulation on the ownership of air guns and crossbows

They have my vote.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Pope missteps on freedom of expression

The Guardian reports on a speech by Pope Francis in which he defended freedom of expression as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good. However, he believes that there are limits, especially when it insults or ridicules someone’s faith.

Of course he does not attempt to define precisely where that limit is or who should police it. That is because he is talking nonsense.

As I wrote back in 2008 about another controversy, 'freedom of speech is the freedom to offend. Once people are allowed to apply their own subjective values to others then we are on a slippery slope to dictatorship.'

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Labour go quiet on their energy price freeze

It was only just over a year ago that Labour politicians were shouting loud and proud about their big idea, a freeze on energy prices. Suddenly it has all gone quiet.

The reason, as the Daily Mail points out, is that at long last power companies have started to cut their bills. If Labour had had their price freeze in place already then consumers would have been worse off.  And that underlines just how irresponsible the pledge was when other mechanisms are available to government to help consumers.

At the time the argument against the freeze was that it would stifle investment by the power companies and put the smaller companies out of business. The Energy Secretary, Ed Davey was very forthright on this. He said:

the move is “highly irresponsible and fails to deliver what consumers want,” adding “we think it’s a con, because the energy companies will all shove up their prices before and certainly shove them up afterwards, so the consumer won’t get any benefit.”Mr Davey said that the price freeze would hit the small, independent, gas and electricity companies much harder than the Big Six suppliers.

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

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

As it happens, Ed Miliband has been saved from an embarrassing U-turn in government by events, though he still contends that his freeze will become a cap. That potentially has the same disadvantages as a freeze.

What needs to happen is the break up of the energy companies oligopoly and for excessive profits to be passed onto consumers as price cuts. That is a different sort of regulation and a much more deliverable one.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Stopping excessive pay-offs

I was delighted to be able to announce earlier today that six-figure redundancy packages in the public sector would be a thing of the past if the Welsh Liberal Democrats were to win power at the next Welsh Assembly elections.

My view is that pay-outs should be capped at £90,000 for people working in the health service, government Quangos and Local Government.

Only last week it was reported that disgraced Carmarthenshire County Council chief executive Mark James could be in line for a severance deal worth £446,000. This followed the announcement last year by Pembrokeshire Council that it paid its former chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones an estimated £330,000. In addition, Mary Burrows, the then chief executive of Betsi Cadwaladr was reported to have received a deal worth £470,000.

Under our plans, the Welsh Liberal Democrats will bring forward legislation in the next Assembly to outlaw six-figure payouts.

At a time when nurses, teachers and police have all either had their salaries frozen or they have seen a minimal pay-rise, it is simply not acceptable that some people working in the public sector are on the receiving end of six-figure redundancy payments.

We all know how tough the economic climate is at the moment; therefore what is particularly galling is that this is money that is being taken away from front line services. That needs to change.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Outrage as Cadbury change their crème egg

Being of a certain age I am often lamenting the loss, rebranding or downgrading of much of the confectionery I grew up sampling. I was particularly exercised by the renaming of Marathon as Snickers, an outrage I have still not really recovered from.

Of course all confectioners are trying to cut costs by changing their product in ways that they hope consumers will not notice, however Cadburys appear to have gone too far by tampering with the longstanding formula for their crème eggs.

According to the Telegraph, not only are there now five rather than six eggs in each box, but the sugary fondant filling is now surrounded not by Dairy Milk, Cadbury's most celebrated chocolate brand, but by an unspecified milk chocolate. Andrew Baker explains:

The truth is that the price of cocoa is rising, and major manufacturers are trying every trick in the book to maintain their profits as their raw materials become more expensive.

So for, example, the shape of a Dairy Milk bar has changed. Dairy Milk has acquired new sub-brands, as the chocolate is augmented with cheaper ingredients such as chunks of biscuit - Dairy Milk Oreos, Dairy Milk Popcorn, Dairy Milk Golden Biscuit - and similar tactics are now being applied to Creme Eggs. Fewer Eggs and "different" milk chocolate all amount to the same thing - extracting the same or improved profits while employing less expensive raw materials.

The solution is in the hands of the consumer: for the same price as a box of new-style Creme Eggs, a shade under £2, one can buy a slab of infinitely better chocolate made by someone who cares about the ingredients. It won't be full of sugar, and it won't bring back the past, but it will make the present taste a whole lot better.

I think I should just admit defeat and give up chocolate altogether.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Murdoch loses the plot over Charlie Hebdo

The claim by Rupert Murdoch, reported in today's Independent,  that Muslims must “recognise and destroy their growing jihadist cancer” or be "held responsible" after the Paris shootings at Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket is so outrageously wrong-headed and irresponsible that I hesitate to respond to or report on it.

However, Mr. Murdoch is a man of influence and power and nonsense like this cannot be ignored. He may well have said that all Christians should be held responsible for the actions of Anders Breivik,  the crusaders in the eleventh century or the Spanish Inquisition for all the sense he makes.

What happened in Paris was the work of terrorists, not of any particular community. In fact one of their victims was a Muslim. It is the responsibility of us all to root out this evil and purge it from our society, irrespective of our beliefs or convictions.

By identifying one part of our community for that task, Murdoch is playing a blame game that will heighten racial and religious tensions and play into the hands of the terrorists.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Lib Dems call for publication of the Chilcott report

The Times reports that another 'rift' has opened within the coalition over the government’s decision not to publish the Iraq inquiry’s report during the election campaign.

They say that Tim Farron, the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, has accused the Conservatives of being keen to delay the report because they “failed miserably” by supporting the US-led invasion:

Ministers have said that should Sir John Chilcot deliver his one million-word report after the end of February, they would delay its publication until after the election. Mr Farron has now written to Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, demanding that it is published within a week of being received.

Reviving the issue of Iraq during the election campaign could help to boost the Lib Dems’ poll ratings, which remain perilously low. The party received huge support for its opposition to the 2003 invasion.

“It was not only the government of the day that failed miserably as we went into war in Iraq,” Mr Farron told The Times. “The official opposition also failed miserably by trooping through the lobbies to sanction this war. One assumes our coalition colleagues may be a little less keen than we are for this [report] to come out.

“Any additional delay in the publication of this report will be deemed as the establishment sitting on something that might damage it.”

Naming Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary who is stepping down as an MP, he said that waiting until after the election would allow some of those involved in the decision to avoid scrutiny.

“The Iraq war is history, but it is not yet ancient history,” he said. “It is important that the lessons learnt from it are learnt whilst there are people involved in our parliament who are in a position to answer for their actions.”

I note that the Prime Minister told the Commons this week that the publication of the report is out of his hands. That may well be the case, but he can make the decision to publish immediately it is available rather than wait until after the General Election and that is what he should do.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Labour MPs split over Mansion Tax

According to the Times, Ed Miliband's travails over policy has continued into the new year with his MPs badly split over one of his flagship policies.

The paper says that an anonymous poll has shown that 2 out of 5 Labour MPs have doubts about their party's proposed Mansion Tax, with 39 per cent of Labour MPs saying that introducing additional council tax bands would be a “better way” to tax high- value homes. Only 56 per cent favoured introducing the mansion tax, which would be applied annually to properties worth more than £2 million:

Mr Miliband has already been urged publicly by senior Labour figures to abandon the plan and introduce new bands of council tax instead.

Tessa Jowell, the former cabinet minister, and Margaret Hodge, who chairs the public accounts committee, are among those calling for a rethink. Earlier this week Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, described the mansion tax as an “absurd proposition”.

The Labour leadership remains confident that the policy is popular with voters. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has already said that “asset rich, cash poor” homeowners would be spared the tax, instead having it deducted from their estate when they die.

The ComRes poll, commissioned by the British Property Federation, found that 69 per cent of all MPs believed that additional council tax bands were a better way to reform annual property taxes than the introduction of a mansion tax.

Ian Fletcher, director of policy at the BPF, warned that a mansion tax was a “political gimmick” that was “about the narrative of rich versus the rest”.

“There is a better alternative to a mansion tax, and reforming council tax through a revaluation and raising revenue through adding more council tax bands, would restore fairness . . . and be better for the country,” he said.

“If 40 per cent of our members weren’t in support of a policy we were pursuing, I would be listening and considering the alternatives and can only hope Labour do the same.”

If Miliband cannot convince his own party then what chance does he have of persuading the British public to back the proposal?

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Nick Clegg condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting

The Independent reports on Nick Clegg's response to a caller into his LBC phone-in programme on the Charlei Hebdo killings in Paris yesterday:

"I’m sorry, Omar, I’ve got to interrupt. I think if I understand you correctly, I cannot express to you how strongly I disagree with you. There can be no excuse, no reason, no explanation… They have killed cartoonists who have done nothing more than drawings which they so happen to find offensive.

"Here’s the bottom line, Omar, at the end of the day in a free society people have to be free to offend each other. You cannot have freedom unless people are free to offend each other. We have no right not to be offended. That fundamental principle of being free to offend people - and not saying somehow that you have a right not be offended in a democratic, open society such as ours is exactly what was under threat by these murderous barbarians. To even suggest, Omar, that there is a rationale, an explanation, a motive that somehow absolves them or sheds greater light on such a horrific, cold hearted, cowardly act, I find outrageous."

The video is here. Clegg's response starts at 28 minutes including his condemnation of Nigel Farage for seeking to make political points from the killing:

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Tony Blair's tax bill halves despite £1.2m profits

The Times has the news that the latest accounts of a company set up by Tony Blair to handle his business interests managed to halve its corporation tax bill to less than £300,000 despite generating turnover of £14 million:

The figures for Windrush Ventures showed that nearly £13 million was written off as “administrative expenses” and more than £5 million was held in cash by the firm.

It is believed that the expenses cover hotels and flights for his staff as well as for the former prime minister’s own travel, including his private jet, dubbed Blair Force One.

Windrush Ventures, which is among a network of companies set up by Mr Blair to manage his business affairs, reported a fall in profits from £2.8 million in 2013 to £1.2 million last year.

Turnover fell from £14.9 million in 2013 to £14.2 million.

The expenses claims allowed the company to offset its income and reduce his corporate tax bill from £693,000 in 2013 to £293,000 last year.

Mr Blair, the company’s sole shareholder, also benefited from a cut in Britain’s corporation tax rate. 

The paper adds that a statement on Tony Blair's website said: “Mr Blair is a UK taxpayer and pays full personal tax on all his earnings worldwide.”

That add that in December a spokesman for Mr Blair disclosed that the former prime minister’s “net worth is roughly equal to what he has given away”. Vanity Fair reported that since quitting Downing Street Mr Blair has given $15 million, or just under £10 million, to good causes.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Nick Clegg gatecrashes Theresa May's party

Nick Clegg started a fresh coalition row yesterday when he told the home secretary, Theresa May, that she will face a parliamentary defeat on the government’s counter-terrorism bill unless judges are given oversight of plans to impose temporary exclusion orders on some terrorist suspects returning to Britain.

The Guardian says that the Liberal Democrats leader is calling on the home secretary to introduce government amendments in the upper house to meet the concerns of David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, about the lack of judicial checks on temporary exclusion orders:

Anderson said the orders, which can last for up to two years, needed to be subject to judicial oversight because the home secretary could no have the final word. “If you are going to restrict people’s liberties in this way – much as we all trust home secretaries you simply cannot give them the final word,” he told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

“The people we are talking about are our citizens, like it or not. That gives us some responsibility, I would say a primary responsibility, for dealing with them. Turkey or France can always deport the person back to the UK and there is no possibility of objecting to that. Nothing in this bill alters that.

“But there certainly are difficulties. If somebody does choose to stay over there what are they supposed to do? … With some countries you would have to look out – is the person at risk of being tortured? What are the guarantees against that sort of thing happening?”

Judicial oversight of course is absolutely crucial and once more it falls to the Liberal Democrats to moderate the demands of anti-libertarian Tories.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Tories call on Cameron to gerrymander the electoral register

The Times reports that panic appears to have broken out amongst Tory MPs over the fact that 1.5 million 'foreign' residents will have the vote at the next General Election.

They say that under a so-called  obscure law that has never been reformed, people from Ireland and the Commonwealth who live in the UK are given voting rights. Irish, Indian and Pakistani citizens top the list of those allowed to cast a vote.  The fact that this has been the case for many General Elections previously does not seem to have registered with them:

Figures drawn up by the Commons library and passed to The Times show that there are more than 1.5 million non-British citizens who will be eligible to vote.

There will be 345,000 eligible Irish voters, 306,000 Indians, 180,000 Pakistani citizens, 73,000 Australians and 52,000 people from Zimbabwe. Other countries in the top ten are Nigeria, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Canada and Bangladesh.

Some Conservatives believe that the number of voters from ethnic minorities included in the list will provide a boost to Labour. The previous election showed that Labour was far more successful in winning the votes of those from ethnic minorities.

According to the Ethnic Minority British Election Study, 31 per cent of white voters said that they supported Gordon Brown in 2010. However, 61 per cent of people of Indian descent said that they backed him, as did 60 per cent of those of Pakistani descent, 78 per cent of black Caribbean voters and 87 per cent of black African voters.

It is also the case that expats who are British citizens but have lived abroad for decades have the vote. Many of these people have opted out of being active citizens and in some case of paying British tax. Many of them vote Tory. I am not suggesting that this should change but it is funny that Tory MPs have not raised that as an issue as well.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The road to Weimar

The Tories have once more managed to turn triumph into disaster as their latest poster campaign backfired spectacularly.

At first it was thought that the erroneous claim on the poster that the deficit has been halved would deal the killer blow but those analysing the image on the internet and in the media found a far more satisfying flaw - the picture of a road decisively drawing us towards the promised land is not an image of anywhere in Britain, rather it is a manipulated stock photo of a road in Germany.

And, as if to underline the feeling that we have all been deceived, the photograph has been photo-shopped so as to remove all the cracks and potholes from the road surface, a metaphor for political advertising if ever I saw one.

It gets better. As the Times points out, the image, taken by German photographer Alexander Burzik in 2008, is of a rural road near Weimar. This immediately invites comparisons to the economic disaster that was the Weimar Republic in the 1930s, not the message that the Tories wanted to convey.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Excuses running out for the Labour-Plaid Cymru airline

The many reasons given by Welsh Ministers as to why they have been using taxpayers money to subsidise each of the 65,073 passengers on the government's air service between Cardiff and Anglesey between 2007 and 2013 to the tune of £86 a head have finally run out of steam.

This subsidy is wasteful and encourages pollution. According to aviation expert Clive Sedgebeer however, even the strategic reasons do not stand up to scrutiny.

He told the Western Mail that the claim by the former Economic Minister and Plaid Cymru leader,  Ieuan Wyn Jones that there “isn’t a single European country” without an internal air link is 'well wide of the mark':

Mr Sedgebeer said many European countries don’t have internal air links including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Malta, Cyprus, Belgium and Luxembourg.

In an interview with WalesOnline on New Year’s Eve Mr Wyn Jones also claimed the north-south Wales service was “well-used” among families, businesspeople and tourism operators.

He made his comments following a year of damning criticism of the service after it was revealed in March subsidies stood at £184 for each passenger between 2012 and 2013.

And the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee revealed in July it had “significant concerns” over the Anglesey to Vale of Glamorgan air service because passenger numbers have plunged by around 43% since 2008-09.

Mr Sedgebeer, from the Vale of Glamorgan, said if the service was a boon for the tourism industry it would operate on weekends rather than just twice daily weekday returns between RAF Valley and Cardiff Airport.

He said: “Anybody that’s been in the industry knows that the most popular days to fly anywhere are a Saturday and Sunday. If it’s to help tourism why pick Valley as the airport because it’s not open on a Saturday and Sunday.”

The service was dubbed “Ieuan Air” by the Tories in 2008, who claimed the former politician was its chief beneficiary as north Wales’ only cabinet member.

Mr Sedgebeer believes Hawarden Airport, in Flintshire, would have been a better choice in north Wales than Valley as it is open on weekends.

He maintains Valley was picked to suit Mr Wyn Jones’ needs as a former Anglesey AM.
In November Welsh Government Transport Minister Edwina Hart announced LinksAir will continue to operate on the route until December 2018.

Under this contract the flights from Cardiff will initially be at 7.40am and 4.25pm Monday to Thursday but at 3.25pm on Fridays.

Mr Sedgebeer, 67, said the earlier Friday afternoon departure shows the service is designed for AMs hoping to return home early for the weekend rather than tourists.

The Public Accounts Committee was told planes on the service run largely half-empty. The 19-seater BAe Jetstream 31 plane operated by LinksAir has an average “load” of less than half, at around 46% to 47%.

Yet another example of money wasted by the Welsh Government.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Visit Britain website loses its way

The Independent highlights this advert which until recently was on the Visit Britain website:

Visit Britain is the tourism agency responsible for promoting Britain worldwide, however it has been using an image of the Lake District to advertise Wales. The photograph encouraging US tourists to take a day trip out of Cardiff to the Brecon Beacons is actually of Skiddaw near Keswick.

Perhaps the Welsh Minister responsible for tourism should give them a geography lesson.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Plaid Cymru lacking credibility on Severn Bridge tolls

According to yesterday's Western Mail, Plaid Cymru's latest red herring is that because the UK Government has up to another nine years to recoup its costs on the Severn crossings after they return to public ownership, then that is what they intend to do.

The Plaid Cymru Westminster Transport spokesman has told us that although the crossings are likely to revert to public ownership by 2018, the UK Government still have the right to recoup its costs up until 2027. He says that the UK Government is deliberately keeping its intentions hidden and needs to come clean on its plans after 2018 and whether it intends to keep charging up to 2027 and beyond.  Really?

The MP in question knows full well that this is a decision for the next government, which may not be the same parties and that even if the relevant Minister stood up and gave a firm commitment tomorrow he or she could not bind his or her successors. In other words this is a news story built on shifting sand.

The Liberal Democrats have said that if we are in government in 2018 we will abolish tolls altogether. We clearly cannot do that now because the contract is still in existence and we would have to pay huge sums in compensation to the existing operator. Equally, we cannot commit any other party to that course of action, only ourselves. The commitment is to take the crossings back into public ownership at the relevant time and then to stop charging people to use them.

Which brings us to the big question of what Plaid Cymru's actual position on the Severn Bridge tolls is? They still believe that people should be charged to come into Wales. They do not accept the case that tolls damage the Welsh economy. This latest nonsense from their transport spokesperson is designed to distract us from that position.

Plaid Cymru do not have any credibility whatsoever on this issue.

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