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Thursday, April 30, 2015

The secret Tory plan to revive regional pay

It is fair to say that things are heating up between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories if today's news is anything to go by.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have just issued a press release lifting the lid on a secret plan by George Osborne in 2014 to revive his proposal for regional pay, even after we had already ruled it out.

They say that in late 2014 the Chancellor tried to revive the policy by asking officials to prepare a report on a “public sector pay premium”, which is a back door way to justify regional pay.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander has confirmed that he had to personally step in and block the move which would have opened the door to cuts in the pay of workers in Wales by £3,750.

The Party has now released a dossier naming 63 Conservative MPs who are continuing to push for regional pay. The list includes Welsh Tory MP Alun Cairns, five Cabinet Ministers and two members of Cameron’s No.10 policy board.

It is clear that the Tories wanted to pay people less just because they work in Wales. Without the Liberal Democrats in government, the Tories would have taken over a billion pounds out of the Welsh economy, with public sector workers having their wages slashed.

ONS Data shows there are 370,000 public sector employees in Wales. It further shows that on average they earn £3,750 more than those in the private sector each year. These Conservative plans to bring public sector salaries down to the level of private sector in each region would see £1.4 billion taken out of pay packets in Wales each year.

I am pleased at the reassurance from Danny Alexander that when the Tories asked Treasury officials to publish a report backing regional pay in 2014 we were forced to block it and that if Liberal Democrats are returned to government, we will block it again.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

More social media faux pas

It is a feature of modern day life that if you apply for a job or stand for elected office then somebody will spend time trawling through your on-line history and your social media posts in particular.

Thus the latest article in the Independent is only surprising in that they have found a mere five candidates to feature, and they are all Labour.

The paper says that five Labour candidates fighting key target seats at the election have been accused of “blatant sexism” after an analysis of their Twitter feeds found abusive and offensive messages posted online.

One Labour candidate, Jo McCarron, has committed a possibly greater sin in her party's eyes by admitting on-line that she voted for the Liberal Democrats in 2010. She is now standing for Ed Miliband's party in the Conservative-held marginal constituency of Kingswood.

Examples of the tweets can be seen by clicking on the link, but one thing is clear, the excuse given by the Labour Party spokesperson that these tweets were 'silly jokes' is quite weak. I expect more revelations about candidates from other parties in due course.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Are the SNP holding back Labour?

I have already discussed here how the SNP's clear preference to work with Labour in Government at a UK level might be damaging Ed Miliband's prospects of entering number 10 as Prime Minister on 8th May. The Tories have been exploiting this for all it is worth and it seems that their efforts have borne fruit.

The Independent reports that a new poll has concluded that the prospect of a post-election deal between Labour and the Scottish National Party makes one in four voters less likely to support Ed Miliband’s party:

Polling company ORB, which questioned 2,000 people, found that a potential Labour-SNP deal made 25 per cent of voters less likely to vote Labour and 16 per cent more likely – a difference of nine points, which could be crucial in a tight election.

Many of those saying such an agreement makes them more likely to vote Labour already intend to back Labour. Six in 10 people said such an arrangement would make no difference to how they vote.

People who intend to vote Ukip were most likely to be put off by the prospect of a Labour-SNP deal. Some 29 per cent of them said it would make them less likely to back Labour, while only 7 per cent said it would make that more likely.

It is little wonder that Ed Miliband is trying to make it clear that he will not do a deal with the SNP. The problem is that nobody believes him.

Monday, April 27, 2015

How the rich have been paying more tax under the coalition government

Those naysayers who insist to me on a regular basis that the coalition government favours the rich over the poorest in our society may well have to think again if this Financial Times article proves to be correct.

The paper says that people earning more than £2m a year, a small enough group to fit into the Royal Albert Hall, more than doubled their share of income tax to 5 per cent in the past five years.

They add that the growing reliance on the wealthy for revenues is set to continue after the election, with top earners facing reduced tax breaks for pensions and, if Labour leads the next government, a potential 5p rise in the top rate of income tax to 50p and a “mansion tax” on expensive property:

The number of taxpayers with incomes over £2m surged to 5,000 between 2010-11 and 2014-15, pushing up revenues from this group from £3.5bn to £8.9bn, according to estimates from HM Revenue & Customs.

The figures show the responsiveness of the wealthy to changes in tax rates: more income was reported when the 50p rate introduced in 2010 was cut by 5p in 2013. They also fuel uncertainty about the impact of future tax rises.

The paper reports that tax payments are already highly concentrated, with about half of income tax revenues coming from just 3 per cent of adults, although the other main taxes, value added tax and national insurance, are much less skewed to high earners.

Another little known fact to conclude: a millionaire paid £381,000 more tax on their income between 2010 and 2015 than they did in the Labour years 2005 to 2010.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Labour's promises for English private tenants not good enough for Wales

According to this morning's Sunday Times, Labour have announced a plan to slap a cap on rents, banning private landlords from increasing their costs by more than the rate of inflation.

Under their proposals, landlords and letting agencies will have to disclose the rent paid by the previous occupants in a bid to deter new rent rises. Future rent rises will be pegged to rising consumer price. They also propose to make the default tenancy a three-year agreement, rather than the usual six to 12 months so as to give people more certainty over what they will have to pay.

All of these matters are devolved to the Welsh Government and would benefit tenants in Wales and yet there is not a whisper of such radicalism in Labour's Renting Homes Bill, currently making its way through its first committee stage in the Welsh Assembly. In fact they are taking an opposite view.

Labour's proposal is to do away with the six months minimum tenancy, so that a landlord can effectively evict a tenant after two months. This undermines any security of tenure that a private sector tenant might have.

The reason they are giving for introducing a policy that even a Tory Housing Minister in Westminister has not countenanced over the last five years, is that it will encourage landlords to stay in or enter the market.

If Labour are taking the side of landlords in Wales, against the best interests of tenants, then what value can we put on their promises for England?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Why does Government continue to fail at social media?

Despite avidly using social media myself I am the first to admit that it is a young person's game. It is also a very democratic media in which people vote with their feet.

If you do not capture people's imagination straight away and find a way to keep their attention then you will find that you are talking to yourself. In that respect the likes of Twitter and Facebook are not conventional marketing tools in which you can force your message onto people with persistent advertising. It is a shame that Government has not learnt that lesson.

Today's Times reports that more than £1 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on failed social media campaigns by government departments in the past three years, including £20,000 on a Facebook promotion that only attracted 2,000 “likes”.

They say that 11 ministerial departments spent a total of £1,172,496 to promote policies and campaigns between 2012 and 2015:

The Ministry of Justice spent £20,000 on a Facebook campaign about restorative justice, while the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills paid Twitter £3,428 for two advertisements.

The House of Lords spent nearly £600 on an IT course in 2013 that was attended by one staff member.

The Cabinet Office spent the highest amount, paying £394,979 to advertise its “GREAT Britain campaign”, encouraging people to do business in the UK.

Bryony Morris, a social media strategist, said that while it was positive to see attempts to reach the public, the levels of engagement were “not good”.

“They [the departments] are wasting money, and should probably consider using a different platform,” she said.

Despite this spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice does not get it. He said: “It is crucial that we utilise all available media channels to raise the public’s awareness of important issues.”.

Well yes, but doing the same thing over and over again is not going to get better results.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Another former Labour Minister has a pop at Miliband

Considering the baptism of fire he has experienced since he was elected leader, Ed Miliband has had quite a good campaign so far. However, as the polls indicate he has not managed to inspire voters enough to pull clear of the Tories, whilst many people still use him as a reason why they are not voting Labour.

Amongst that number, it seems that we must now add former Labour Trade Minister, Lord Jones of Birmingham who, the Telegraph reports, has told Mr. Miliband that he needs to stop “sneering” at wealth creators.

The paper says that in a highly critical open letter to the Labour leader, Lord Jones of Birmingham, who was a minister from 2007 to 2008 in Gordon Brown’s government, accused Mr Miliband of being “ignorant at worst and disinterested at best” about the effects of higher taxes:

Lord Jones, who has never joined either the Conservatives or Labour – said he had had toured the country meeting voters in recent weeks.

Citing the example of one West Midlands entrepreneur who had “worked his proverbial butt off”, Lord Jones asked why Mr Miliband’s polices were “attacking” him.

Lord Jones, who was director general of the CBI from 2000 to 2006, said: “I am confused Ed. Surely this is exactly what we want as a country? So why does that family feel you’re attacking them?

“Blaming them for being aspirational and wanting to do really well and earn a lot of money. You call them rich and never include them in your description of ‘hard-working families’.

“Not once have they heard you say that earning profit is a ‘good thing’. You can’t really suppress the sneer when you talk of putting up taxes for the likes of them.

“You appear ignorant at worst and disinterested at best about what they do or what is involved. And they feel it!”

Lord Jones said Mr Miliband appeared to have “no time” for the “one per cent of this country that pays 30 per cent of the tax” who he treated as “fat cats”.

He said: “You are creating division in hitherto harmonious workplaces; you are fuelling a sense of entitlement and you are killing aspiration. You have created an anti-business mood music where profit is a dirty word; where spending comes before earning.”

Mr. Miliband must be hoping that Lord Jones does not live in a marginal seat.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Liberal Democrats are most transparent but all parties can do better

The uncertainties of fighting an election in a period of austerity were brought home to roost today when the Institute of Fiscal Studies published its assessment of the manifestos for each party.

The problem is of course is how do politicians offer enticements to voters to cast their ballot the 'right way' whilst at the same time facing up to the reality of more years of cuts and fiscal retrenchment?

According to the BBC the IFS have concluded that four of the major parties have not provided "anything like full details" on plans to cut the deficit.

However, they added that the Liberal Democrats have been more transparent about overall plans to 2017-18, saying that we are aiming for tightening spending more than Labour but less than the Conservatives.

They add that Conservative plans for the next Parliament involve "a significantly larger reduction in borrowing and debt than those put forward by Labour, but that is based on "substantial and almost entirely unspecified spending cuts and tax increases".

As for Labour, the IFS believe that they have been "considerably more vague" about how much it wants to borrow.

The really interesting finding though is about the SNP, whose figures the IFS say, imply the same reduction in borrowing as Labour, but the reduction will be slower.

They conclude that this means that the SNP is proposing a slower but longer period of austerity. That is completely contrary to the SNP's anti-austerity rhetoric.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

How Swansea's Labour run Council has mislead and let down a local community

Yesterday in the Assembly we discussed the Welsh Government's best practice guide on Community Asset Transfers. As the Minister pointed out: "Community asset transfers provide an opportunity to help communities develop thriving and diverse localities and sustain the long-term use of property assets and services. These transfers also open up opportunities for generating local economic benefits, reinvesting income locally and creating new jobs and skills."

Essentially, this mechanism allows for a community, a community council or local trust to take over and run public assets. It is a means to keep important services going in the face of public expenditure cuts or just to empower people. There are already good examples across Wales, including trusts set up to run leisure facilities in Swansea and Bridgend and the numerous libraries that are now being kept open only through the work of local people.

However, as I pointed out yesterday, this best practice guide comes very late in the day and appears to have very few teeth. After all the Localism Act was passed in England in 2011 and enshrined a community right to bid when public assets are being disposed of.

The Minister could have commenced these provisions at any time in the last four years without having to go through this palaver of appearing to take her own path. And if she had done then communities would have a far more robust framework to work within than they will do under the Welsh Government's proposals.

In the discussion yesterday I raised two examples of communities in my region being frustrated in their ambitions. The first of these is Pennard Library, which is still under threat of closure and where the local community put together funding of several hundred thousand pounds to take over that library and rebuild it. Unfortunately, the local council has so far frustrated that, despite initially promising in writing to save the library if the community raised the cash to rebuild it.

Another case that was brought to my attention recently is Melyncryddan community centre in Neath. A local community group there wanted to take that on and have again been frustrated in their ambitions by the town council, who own that community centre.

In the case of Pennard, clear and unequivocal promises by the Labour Cabinet member were broken by his successor. It is little wonder that residents feel mislead and let down. This is an extract from an e-mail I received from some local residents:

Further, the reasons for the cabinet member reneging on former promises made by his predecessor appear to be purely political. He has said: "It's a pity you live where you live." Thus, it appears that the withdrawal of the service from Gower is because of our postcodes. We have been repeatedly told by the council leader and the cabinet member that the west of Swansea is better serviced than the east in terms of libraries – which has also been reported in the press. This is incorrect. There are five libraries in the west and 12 in the east. The buildings in the east, generally, are in better condition and opening times are longer etc.

In short, FoPL have been blocked every step of the way - especially by the current cabinet member and the leader. The stance of: "It's a pity that you live where you live" has been poorly received by Gower residents, who feel short-changed and marginalised by this attitude.

Residents are though continuing to pursue the issue.

They are raising grants independently to build a new library / community hub for Gower and currently have £122,000 in principle with a target of £350,000. The hub would have a cafe and exhibition / IT space to rent out to various groups, and thus generate an income to run the library building and make a contribution to staffing the library, this is exactly the kind of community partnership model recommended by the Expert Review of Welsh Libraries 2014.

I am happy to support these residents in any way I can. What is not clear though is how the Minister's new best practice guide helps. Her approach has no teeth and councils are taking on board her request to empower local residents only when it suits their agenda.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Welsh Tory leader disowns his party's UK manifesto

It is fair to say that all of the Welsh Parties have struggled with the implications of devolution when it came to writing their manifestos. The careful wording of pledges so as to distinguish between English and Welsh responsibilities is an art form that tests even the most switched on devolutionist when it comes to the details of each policy.

There are though very clear political issues where we should expect the UK and Welsh manifestos of each party to be consistent. One of these issues is the powers&nbsthat may be devolved to the Welsh Assembly after the election. After all it is the UK Government that will be making the decision on that matter, not the Welsh First Minister and his/her party.

So the latest gaffe by the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives really does point to chaos within that party and possibly a major rift to boost. According to the Western Mail, Andrew R.T. Davies has distanced himself from the UK Conservative manifesto, saying he has not read it and is not interested in it.

This disagreement centres around the provision in the Conservative's UK manifesto that apparently states that a funding floor will be introduced once a referendum on tax varying powers for the Assembly has been called. However, the Welsh Conservative manifesto, launched by Mr Davies and others at the Royal Welsh Showground last week, did not include such a link, saying instead that there was an expectation of a poll being held:

Mr Davies was asked in his weekly press conference about the fact that the UK Conservative manifesto made a link between a income tax referendum and a funding floor. He said that wasn’t in “the one that I launched, not the one that I launched with the Secretary of State on Friday.”

Asked for what voters should look at, Mr Davies said: “The manifesto that the Prime Minister, myself and Stephen Crabb launched.”

Pressed on whether he was disowning the London manifesto, he said: “I haven’t read the London one because I’m not interested in the London one.

"It’s the Wales one I’m interested in. That is the one that I endorse.

"That’s the one that is relevant to the people of Wales. That’s the one that the Conservative MPs across Wales are fighting on.

“We are signed up 110% to the St David’s Day accord, which our Secretary of State and our Prime Minister delivered at the Millennium Stadium. There are no ifs or buts, there will be a funding floor."

It seems that Andrew RT Davies can’t be bothered to read his own party’s manifesto. That is deeply embarrassing for the Tories and lays bare the deep splits within the Welsh Tory party and their Assembly group.

He now stands alongside Nigel Farage as the only other party leader in recent times to rubbish their own manifesto, though at least Nigel Farage had the sense to wait until after the election.

Monday, April 20, 2015

How not to canvass

For those heading out on doorsteps tonight, here is a masterclass in how not to canvass, care of the Labour Party:

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Blair and his millions

For those of us who like to keep a close eye on our former Prime Minister, today's Telegraph has a useful article looking at Tony Blair's business affairs. It may cause Ed Miliband to think twice before enlisting the help of this thrice times winner of General Elections.

The paper says that Mr. Blair has signed a controversial contract overseeing mining deals in Latin America. He is being paid to advise the Colombian government on how it spends £2 billion earned from mining deals:

The contract, obtained by The Telegraph, reveals that the Colombian government does not pay any fees for his services. Instead, the fees owed to Tony Blair Associates (TBA), Mr Blair’s consultancy firm, are paid for by an oil-rich Gulf state where Mr Blair has developed close links.

The deal raises questions over Mr Blair’s role as a Middle East peace envoy and whether he has used that position to befriend wealthy rulers in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who are now funding his private consultancy work in Colombia, among other countries.

The disclosure will add to pressure on Mr Blair to quit as envoy. According to one well-placed source, he is expected to announce his resignation from the role in the coming weeks.

They add that the contract has also prompted concern in Colombia over why UAE was funding Mr Blair’s advisory role in the country, with one senior prosecutor writing to the president demanding an inquiry.

The man has to earn a living I suppose!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A country haunted by its past

Bosnia Herzegovina is struggling to come to terms with its past. When the war ended almost 20 years ago now, there were 40,000 missing persons in the former Yugoslavia. The scars of a long and bloody conflict run deep. Men await trial for genocide even now, whilst many families do not know the final fate of their loved ones.

The political settlement that ended the conflict left unresolved divisions. There are now three Presidents, a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat, children are educated in separate schools and taught three separate versions of history, the country itself is effectively divided through a second tier of government into two entities roughly equal in size: the Bosnian Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb-led Republican Srpska, and the absence of a truth and reconciliation commission means that many issues cannot be properly addressed.

The Assembly Commission delegation that visited last week spent a lot of time meeting survivors of that conflict and those working to piece together what happened and to help the families of victims reach some form of closure. We visited the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum and the International Commission on Missing Persons as well as the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Centre.

The first of the photos was taken at the Podrinje Identification Project, which is a forensic anthropology unit. We were told that there are 8,000 body bags in that room containing remains and personal belongings. Of the 8,372 men and boys massacred by Serb forces at Srebrenica, 6,500 have been identified, over 1,000 are still missing.

The other pictures show the Assembly delegation meeting the Mothers of Srebrenica and laying a wreath at the Potocari memorial cemetery. 

We were told that bodies were buried and reburied at different sites, some spread across as many as five mass graves. Some relatives have only been able to bury parts of their loved ones, In one case a mother buried her son wiithout his head, and only a few bones of her husband.

The use of DNA to help with the process of identification has been ground-breaking and is being used elsewhere in the world to identify victims of other tragedies. The process though cannot eradicate the pain or the trauma.

This is a country traumatised by its past. Its economy is struggling, youth unemployment is amongst the highest in the world and its application to join the European Union seems doomed to failure.

We must remember those who were murdered in cold blood as part of some misconceived policy of ethnic cleansing, the children and their parents who were picked off by snipers and grenades in the commercial district during the siege of Sarajevo, the deprivation and hardship experienced by the inhabitants of that four year siege, and the men and boys who were killed on the road trying to escape the Serb offensive.

The international community must also bear some responsibility for failing to intervene earlier, and for the UN troops who allowed the slaughter to be carried out.

The process of reconstruction has begun but it is hampered by the ghosts of the past and the settlement that ended the war..

Friday, April 17, 2015

Manifestos galore

I have not been on here for a few days due to other commitments, which I will blog about over the weekend. It was an interesting and informative trip abroad, but also very disconcerting.

In the meantime, what have I missed? Well it seems this is the week the parties launch their manifesto and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are no different. Here are the highlights of our weighty tome.

The manifesto includes:

Opportunity for children: investing further in Wales’ schools;
Opportunity for young people: with more apprenticeships, discounted bus travel, and support to rent or own their own home through the innovative Help to Rent and Rent to Own schemes;
Opportunity for parents: giving parents £2000 tax free childcare and more paternity leave for fathers; Opportunity for better healthcare: providing investment for more nurses on hospital wards and better mental health services;
Opportunity for workers: with a further £400 tax cut for millions of working people;
Opportunity for older people: with the pensions triple lock written into law; and
Opportunity for the next generation: with the budget balanced and our environment protected so that our children and grandchildren are not left to pay for the mistakes of this one.

As with the party’s 2010 manifesto, the Liberal Democrats’ top priorities are spelt out on the front page. They are:

1. Prosperity for all Balance the budget fairly and invest to build a high skill, low carbon economy
2. Fair taxes Cut your taxes by an additional £400 by raising the tax-free allowance to £12,500
3. Quality health care for all Increase resources for our NHS and ensure safe staffing levels
4. Opportunity for every child Invest in our schools through our Pupil Premium
5. A stronger Wales Deliver Home Rule for Wales with further powers and fair funding

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The crippling cost of the Tory and Labour obsession with the private finance initiative

The idea of taking capital spending off the Treasury books and handing public sector projects to the private sector was first conceived by the Tories and then embraced enthusiastically by Labour.The vast majority of PFI projects were commissioned by Labour.

In theory the cost of funding a project by both PFI and the more traditional method of Government borrowing is compared and assessed and the cheapest option chosen. In reality though the odds were deliberately stacke din favour of PFI.  The result is a debt burden that only now the country is coming to terms with.

How big that burden is can be seen from this article in the Independent. They say that every man, woman and child in Britain is more than £3,400 in debt thanks to the proliferation of these controversial deals, which were used to pay for infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. In total the UK owes more than £222bn to banks and businesses thanks to these “buy now, pay later”deals. This data has been verified by the National Audit Office:

The headline debt is based on “unitary charges” which start this month and will continue for 35 years. They include fees for services rendered, such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as the repayment of loans underwritten by banks and investment companies.

Basically, a PFI is like a mortgage that the government takes out on behalf of the public. The average annual cost of meeting the terms of the UK’s PFI contracts will be more than £10bn over the next decade.

And the cost of servicing PFIs is growing. Last year, it rose by £5bn. It could rise further, with inflation. The upward creep is the price taxpayers’ pay for a financing system which allows private firms to profit from investing in infrastructure.

An NAO briefing, released last month, says: “In the short term using private finance will reduce reported public spending and government debt figures.” But, longer term, “additional public spending will be required to repay the debt and interest of the original investment”.

Another legacy from Gordon Brown's tenure in government we are going to be paying for over the years to come.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Tony Blair to form an ex-Leaders' support group?

Just when we thought we were rid of him, Tony Blair pops up again and threatens to haunt us for the next thirty years.

The Times reveals that the ex-Prime Minister wants to create a “cadre” of former leaders and has plans to remain in public life for the next three decades, claiming that it is odd that accomplished statesmen are expected to retire and play golf:

In an article in Newsweek, Mr Blair also expounded on his idea of creating a leaders’ club, saying one was needed because only other leading statesmen could fully appreciate the experiences a former national leader has undergone.

“The moment I’m talking to a new leader and I’m describing what I felt and what the challenges were, there’s a total and instant empathy,” he told the magazine. “Whether they come from the left or the right, what they want is to get things done. And I know what it’s like because I’ve sat in the decision-making seat.”

Mr Blair, 61, said that since many leaders of even small nations were “fantastic executors”, then “why not use their talents and their experience?”

He said: “I want to build a cadre of people. Why not come and help the president of this country or the prime minister of that country?” 

Stop me if you have seen that film. Who needs Marvel when Tony Blair is assembling his own gang of super-heroes to solve all the World's problems?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Why Plaid Cymru cannot take the moral high ground on tuition fees and coalition government

An anonymous, off-topic comment prompts me to do a search of the archives to illustrate that on tuition fees no party has a good story to tell.

We all know what happened with the Liberal Democrats of course. The fact that the new system is actually an improvement on what was there before, that it means most students will not have to repay their tuition fee loan and that it is attracting more students from the poorest backgrounds to go to university than before, does not excuse the poor way that this was handled by my party.

I did not agree with the decision at the time, though in mitigation, it was early on in the coalition when we were still finding our feet, we did not have a majority and both the Tories and Labour were in favour of fees. In Wales all the Liberal Democrats MPs voted against the increase in fees and the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly group supported the Assembly Government in subsidising them for Welsh students in this Assembly term.

Labour themselves do not have the excuse of being in a minority on this issue. In fact they set up the review that led to the increase in fees. They also broke two successive manifesto promises to introduce fees and top up fees. And they had a huge majority.

Similarly, despite what Plaid Cymru activists now say, they also broke a manifesto promise to bring in top-up fees when they were in a coalition government with Labour in the last Assembly. The evidence is here. That has not stopped Plaid AMs and others in their party assuming the moral high ground on this issue, ground which is now crumbling beneath their feet.

In fact the only party who can put up their hands and say that they have done what they said they would on fees are the Tories. And that is because they have consistently supported the concept of fees and the increase in the cap.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Divining public opinion

It is quite clear that some members of the third estate struggle with the concept of a hung Parliament. Like many others they like certainty and for things to be clear cut. Coalition government has not suited them at all.

That is apparent from this article in today's Independent, in which they take a look at the things that the vast majority of the public can agree on. Note this does not involve majority government in any form whatsoever, at least not yet.

They say that 72% of the British public support introducing plain, standardised packaging for tobacco products, 61% approve of £10 fines for missing NHS appointments as a way of funding the service, 52% agree that gay men can become parents (for example through using surrogate mothers, adoption, 53% support sexual education in or before Year 6, 59% think the BBC were right to sack Jeremy Clarkson, and 59% support McDonalds serving breakfast all day in all of its restaurants in Britain.

Having got that off their chest I am sure the journalists concerned will now be able to sleep better at night, though I am not sure that the rest of us have gained anything at all from this exercise.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Blair dilemma

Tony Blair's intervention in Labour's election campaign must be causing some mixed feelings for Ed Miliband and his entourage. On the one hand they could do with some of Blair's gravitas and many candidates will be grateful for the money, but on the other the baggage that comes with the former Prime Minister could become too heavy to bear.

As Chris Green in the Independent suggests, for some Blair's legacy is toxic, with many voters now simply looking at him and thinking: this is the man who led us into Iraq:

Labour are well aware of the political baggage that their former leader carries through his association both with the Iraq war and the New Labour project. The party’s current leader, Ed Miliband, has repeatedly sought to distance himself from the old regime.

Asked why he did not appear alongside the former prime minister yesterday, Mr Miliband said only that his Labour colleague could “speak for himself”. He added that he was “100 per cent happy” to receive Mr Blair’s support – but was careful not to praise him too highly.

Blair of course, has good political antenae and will be aware of the impact that his public support for Miliband may have. I expect him to use his own time sparingly in support of the Labour campaign, testing the impact of each intervention before moving on.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Tory hypocrisy on tax cuts exposed

The changes to the personal tax allowance brought in by the coalition government has meant thar 175,000 low paid workers in Wales no longer pay income tax, whilst 1.1 million Welsh taxpayers are £825 better off compared to 2010.

It is a major achievement and has come about solely because of the Liberal Democrats presence in Government. It was a pledge on the front page of our manifesto and we insisted on its inclusion in the coalition agreement, despite Tory scepticism about its affordability.

That is why it rankles so much to see the Tories now trying to claim the credit for it. We should not forget David Cameron's words in the leaders' debates in 2010. He said: "I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick...We cannot afford it". And here is the proof:

Tory hypocrisy on this issue is astounding.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Pensioners benefit from Liberal Democrats in Government

All the news about pensions today focusses on the new freedoms ushered in by Pensions Minister, Steve Webb. As the Telegraph reports more than half a million savers will make the pension reforms a success by prudently withdrawing small amounts to spend on holidays, home improvements and their grandchildren.

They say that the first detailed study into how savers will use the new freedoms indicates that fears of pensioners blowing their savings on fast cars or frivolities are unfounded as just one in 10 will withdraw their entire fund in the first year:

In the vast majority of cases, those who access their pensions will take out less than £20,000, according to the survey by YouGov and investment company Tilney Bestinvest.

Experts said the results showed most people would use the freedoms to secure a better quality of life in retirement.

Steve Webb, the pensions minister, said: “There is genuine excitement out there about the changes. I have encountered a lot of enthusiasm, people who are saying it will be life-changing, that they can pay off a mortgage or do something for a family member.”

Claims that people would waste their money were patronising, he said, pointing out that those likely to take advantage of the reforms were “prudent savers”.

The real boost however is the Liberal Democrats triple lock which guarantees that pensions will rise by whichever is the greater of average earnings, inflation or 2.5%. That means that as of today the state pension will go up by £2.85 and will have risen by £18.30 a week since 2010, or £950 a year.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Measures to tackle tax avoidance start to bite

This article in today's Sunday Times suggests that measures put in place by the Coalition Government to tackle tax avoidance by big multi-national companies are starting to have an impact.

The paper says that global food giant Kellogg has warned that its profits could be slashed by the international drive to clamp down on tax avoidance. Apparently, they believe that efforts by the UK Government and others to close loopholes could lead to a “material” rise in its tax bill:

The revelation comes days after the so-called “Google tax” came into force in Britain. It is designed to prevent companies funnelling profits overseas to avoid tax. 

Formally known as the diverted profits tax, it was introduced by the chancellor in one of his final acts before the dissolution of parliament. The new rules will penalise companies that artificially shift profits to foreign entities whose main purpose is to help them cut their tax bills.

George Osborne’s move is part of a co-ordinated campaign against tax avoidance by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the G20 club of rich nations. The OECD’s final blueprint for the clampdown is expected to be published at the end of the year.

Kellogg acknowledged the potential impact in its latest annual report. “Contemplated changes in the UK and other countries of long-standing tax principles, if finalised and adopted, could have a material impact on our income tax expense,” the report said.

Britain is an important market for Kellogg as consumers here spend more per head on breakfast cereals than any other European country. The maker of Corn Flakes, Special K and Rice Krispies distributes its goods to British households through two main subsidiaries.

Kellogg Marketing and Sales, which sells breakfast food and Pringles crisps on behalf of Irish and Swiss-registered companies, reported £622m of sales to UK consumers in 2013. Kellogg Company of Great Britain makes cereals under a contract with an Irish-based entity. 

The amount of money involved is substantial:

In 2013, the two subsidiaries paid corporation tax of £8.4m on declared profits of nearly £50m. However, this outlay was more than offset by a legal accounting manoeuvre. 

Another UK-registered offshoot, Kellogg Group Ltd, booked a countervailing tax credit of £11.8m. It holds various overseas assets, and made a £124m loss in 2013 after writing down the value of some Latin American interests. 

The US giant’s Irish division, Kellogg Europe Trading Ltd, is the parent of the two main British operating businesses. This Dublin-based company made a loss of €101m in 2013 after paying €148m interest on loans from other Kellogg entities in Luxembourg.

Kellogg has six companies registered in Luxembourg. In 2013, they collectively reported profits of about £57m and paid corporation tax of just £210,000. That equates to a rate of 0.37%. The headline corporation tax rate in Britain is 20%.

In 2013, the American parent reported global sales of $14.8bn and an operating profit of $2.8bn. 

If Kellogs is made to pay its fair share of tax as they fear then at least I will be able to eat my cornflakes with a clear conscience.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

How will Sturgeon's alleged preference for Cameron damage the SNP?

Big headlines today for allegations in the Daily Telegraph that a leaked diplomatic memo revealed that Nicola Sturgeon had confessed to the French ambassador that she would prefer that David Cameron “remains” Prime Minister. It adds that Ms. Sturgeon thinks Ed Miliband is too incompetent.

The New Statesman says that the leaked transcript, a UK government memo says:-

“Just had a telephone conversation with Pierre-Alain Coffinier, the French CG [consul-general]. He was keen to fill me in on some of the conversations his Ambassador had during her visit to Scotland last week. All of this was given on a confidential basis… The Ambassador….had a truncated meeting with the FM [Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister] (FM running late after a busy Thursday…). Discussion appears to have focused mainly on the political situation, with the FM stating that she wouldn’t want a formal coalition with Labour; that the SNP would almost certainly have a large number of seats… that she’d rather see David Cameron remain as PM (and didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material).”

It seems that Ms Sturgeon hasn’t yet worked out that ambassadors gossip like fishwives, and anything confessed on the diplomatic circuit would be all around London fairly soon.

But this is more than just an embarrassment to Sturgeon, for two reasons. First, on 8 May, the SNP may well be in a position to choose who gets to be Prime Minister: if it refuses to support Ed Miliband this may put in David Cameron by default.

And second, the SNP is about to supplant Labour in dozens of seats across Scotland precisely because it is posing as a tartan version of Labour. A party that loathes the Tories even more than Labour does, so Labour voters can support the SNP without having to worry about another five years of David Cameron.

All concerned are denying it of course but there is no doubting that having an Old Etonian in No.10 Downing Street suits the SNP’s wider purpose. After all, opinion polls in Scotland show that the main desired outcome of the Scottish people is an SNP/Labour deal. If Scotland gets that then the demand for independence will wane. And that is not good news for the SNP.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Farage is the tweeting twit

One of the first rules of successful engagement on social media is that you should manage it yourself so that people know that they are talking with the politician in person rather than some apparatchik.

Some politcians get away with having staff manage their account, others have suffered embarrassment as employees get carried away and post things on behalf of their boss that go that little bit too far. The secret though must surely be not to allow others to see that it is not the politcian posting.

Thus posting tweets whilst engaging in a live debate on television in front of hundreds of thousands of people whilst it is clear that you do not have access to any internet connected device is a bit of a faux pas.That did not stop Nigel Farage.

The Telegraph report that the UKIP leader left his followers baffled as updates were posted on his official Twitter account as he took part in the television election debate. They say that Farage appeared to send out messages questioning the answers of his rivals, despite the fact that he could not be seen typing behind the podium.

In contrast,  Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Green leader Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood all maintained Twitter silence as they took part in the debate. They clearly understand the rules of the game.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Labour have zero credibility on zero hours contracts

Ed Miliband is right to highlight the problems caused by zero hours contracts but what credibility does he actually have on this issue?

As this article reports 68 Labour MPs, nearly a quarter of Mr. Miliband's Parliamentary party, have been accused of using these controversial contracts to employ staff. Furthermore 21,798 of these contracts have been handed out by Labour-run Councils.

And that is before we focus on votes in the Welsh Assembly where Labour AMs have twice vetoed moves to ban zero-hours contracts in public services here.

/>The most insidious part of zero hours contracts are the exclusivity clauses. That is an issue Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats have already focussed on. Uncertainty about working hours is one thing, being told that you cannot make up hours elsewhere is unfair and inequitable.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Tories still in love with the quango state

Whatever one's view of the Welsh bonfire of the Quangos, there is no doubt that it tackled one particular malaise, namely the tendency of Tory Secretary of States for Wales to rule through unelected placemen and women, most of whom shared political views with those who appointed them.

Today's Times indicates that this particular malaise still infects the body politic in England at least, where democratic devolution has not yet been put in place.

The paper says that Conservative party donors, departing Tory MPs and journalists close to David Cameron have all been called upon to serve as part of a rush of public appointments to quangos and arts bodies before the election.

They add that key funding boards, which distribute government and lottery money, are now overseen by former Tory MPs while some of Britain’s finest museums have Tory donors on their boards:

Most of the appointments happened in one block last Friday, March 27, when the Commons was not sitting and Ed Miliband launched his campaign.

Sir Peter Luff, the former Tory defence minister who is standing down at this election, was appointed by Sajid Javid to be chairman of the board that runs the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The latter alone has £375 million to invest in projects each year.

Sir Peter Ainsworth, another former Tory MP, was also re-appointed chairman of the Big Lottery Fund.

This appointment was made by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, publicly signalling that he is expecting a seat in the House of Lords after the election.

Among his other appointments to the Big Lottery Fund was Rachael Robathan, a Tory councillor in Westminster and wife of Andrew Robathan, former defence minister.

On the same day, Mr Javid appointed four board members to the British Library.

One of them was the property magnate Sir John Ritblat, who was listed as being on the prime minister’s table at last July’s Tory fundraiser. Another was Jonathan Callaway, who overlapped with Mr Javid at Deutsche Bank.

The prime minister appointed three trustees to the Imperial War Museum. One was Matthew Westerham, who donated £5,500 to the Conservative party. There were also three appointments to the Geffrye Museum, including Alexandra Robson, a Conservative “A-lister” who took part in the infamous candidate “fast track” process to become a Tory MP before the 2010 election.

Nicholas Coleridge, an early Cameron cheerleader and the publisher of Condé Nast magazines, has been made chairman of the V&A museum.

Dame Mary Archer will be chairwoman of the Science Museum Group and will be joined by Matthew d’Ancona, the Tory inclined Guardian journalist, and David Willetts, the former science minister.

There has of course still been controversy about appointments in Wales but at least here the process of filling these positions is subject to clear rules and is far more transparent. It may not be perfect but it is a major improvement on what is going on over the border.

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