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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Has Labour's anti-semitism row put Corbyn's leadership in jeopardy?

With unrest growing within the Labour Party as the anti-semitism row seemingly spirals out of control the party's leadership seems powerless to rein it in.

The Telegraph speculates that the upheaval has led members of Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet to hold talks with MPs about a leadership challenge.

They say that senior figures in the party are now so concerned about the row costing the party hundreds of seats at next week's local elections that they are openly discussing the possibility of an attempted coup following the EU referendum:

Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, on Friday conceded that the party needs to “get a grip” on anti-Semitism, despite Mr Corbyn insisting there is “no crisis” and “no problem” with the issue.

There were also signs of a growing split between Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who Labour insiders last night said “wants Jeremy’s job”.

As the crisis in Mr Corbyn's inner circle deepened, there were also claims that Anneliese Midgley, Mr Corbyn's deputy chief of staff, quit in protest at his handling of the row.

It was also alleged that Simon Fletcher, the Labour leader’s chief of staff, is being edged out following repeated clashes with Seumas Milne, Mr Corbyn’s controversial director of communications.

No wonder Welsh Labour are trying to distance themselves from the whole shambles.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Corbyn told to stay away from Wales as anti-semitism row rages

Welsh Tories have taken every opportunity during this Welsh Assembly campaign to describe Wales' biggest political party as 'Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party'. That decision looks to have paid off today as a scheduled visit to Wales by the Labour leader was cancelled. allegedly because he was asked to stay away.

The Western Mail reports that Mr Corbyn was due to visit Bridgend College in Pencoed with First Minister, Carwyn Jones, but it was agreed he would stay out of Wales after discussions between his team and Welsh Labour officials.

The paper says that the team around Carwyn Jones are understood to be angered by Mr Corbyn’s perceived dithering before action was taken against Bradford West MP Naz Shah and Mr Livingstone.

They add that Welsh Labour’s National Assembly election campaign has been built around projecting Mr Jones as a strong national leader. His team believe that Mr Corbyn’s failure to act swiftly after offensive comments made by Ms Shah on social media were revealed:

A source close to the Welsh Labour election campaign said: “We’ve made the campaign about strong leadership and Carwyn’s unique position as the only credible First Minister.

“That’s a difficult sell with Jeremy and particularly after the last 24 hours.”

There are understood to be no other plans at present for Mr Corbyn to visit Wales before polling day on May 5.

The cancellation of Mr Corbyn’s visit is the most glaring example yet of tensions between Welsh Labour and the Corbyn leadership in London.

While most, if not all, of Welsh Labour’s headquarters officials did not back Mr Corbyn in last year’s party leadership campaign, they have not engaged in overt action to undermine him.

But the anti-semitism row, coming so close to an Assembly election where the party’s campaign has been based very largely on Mr Jones’ image as a leader, has been, for his team, the final straw.

Whether such action is enough to protect Welsh Labour from the fall-out in next week's election will have to be seen.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

As doctors say that E-cigarettes should be offered to smokers will Welsh Ministers admit they were wrong to try to ban them?

Welsh Labour Ministers who tried and failed to ban e-cigarettes in public places at the end of the last Assembly term should take note of the verdict of the Royal College of Physicians before they try again after these elections.

The Royal College say there is resounding evidence that e-cigarettes are "much safer" than smoking and aid quitting. In a new report they say that with the right checks and measures, vaping could improve the lives of millions of people. And as if to directly refute arguments put forward by Labour Ministers the Royal College add that fears that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking are unfounded.

The BBC say that The Royal College of Physicians have concluded that smokers who use e-cigarettes or prescribed medications, with support from their doctor, are more likely to quit permanently.

And in terms of long-term health hazards, e-cigarettes are at least 95% safer than regular cigarettes, something Public Health England has also said.

E-cigarettes are not entirely risk-free of course but there is no case for any sort of ban and strong evidence that they work better than any other nicotine-replacement therapy in helping people quit the much more harmful activity of smoking tobacco.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why Theresa May is wrong to want to quit the European Court on Human Rights

Theresa May's intervention in the European referendum debate yesterday was not just astonishing but deeply damaging for her reputation as Home Secretary. For somebody in that position to argue, as she did that we could trade an international court that guarantees our rights for membership of a free trade organisation such as the EU betrays ignorance of both.

The Independent sets out five important reasons why we should remain within part of the European Court of Human Rights which was set up by Winston Churchill and other Britains. The ECHR, opened in 1959 and upholds the European Convention on Human Rights among individuals against the 47 European countries, not just the 28 member countries of the EU. It is not directly an EU institution. The EU has its own court, the European Court of Justice, but the ECHR's rulings often become case law for countries.

The paper outlines some of the most significant laws the ECHR has brought to Britain. It is worth reproducing them in full:

1. Freedom of the press

In 1979 the ECHR backed the Sunday Times and its right to publish details of the thalidomide scandal, in which more than 300 people were thought to be victims of birth deformities because of the poorly tested drug.

The paper, under editor Harold Evans, fought an injunction against publishing all the way up to the ECHR after national courts did not back its attempts to bring the case to light. The ECHR overruled the courts and backed the freedom of the press to publish in the national interest.

2. Child protection

After a UK court found that a stepfather had used "reasonable chastisement" when beating his stepson with a wooden cane, the ECHR overruled them and said it amounted to "inhuman or degreading treatment".

The UK government announced later that it would legislate to give children better protection.

3. Homophobia

The criminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland was ruled as illegal by the ECHR in 1981.

This ruling set the legal precedent for the Council of Europe ultimately requiring that no EU state could criminalise male or female homosexual acts - a major protection measure for the LGBT community.

A claim of religious discrimination by two Christians who did not want to deal with same-sex couples was also thrown out by the Strasbourg court in 2013, who backed the employers that had disciplined them.

4. Torture

During the 1970s the British army used five "techniques" on IRA members including being forced into stress positions for hours, hooding, being subjected to noise and food and sleep deprivation.

The ECHR ruled this as inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of human rights in 1978 and had the practice within the army officially ended.

5. Deportation

Two cases have particularly inflamed the debate in some of the media and the Conservative Party around the European Convention of Human Rights.

First, the case of Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, a Kurdish asylum seeker who killed a 12-year-old girl in a driving accident and was able to plea a right to family life to remain in Britain seeking asylum.

The second was terror suspect Abu Qatada - Ms May's particular case study in the failings of the ECHR - whom Strasbourg blocked from being returned to Jordan because of evidence he had been tortured there.

Once Jordan promised not to use evidence obtained under torture, he was removed from the UK and stood trial in that country in 2013.

The ECHR also backed the deportation of five other terror suspects to the US after finding there would be no violation of human rights once they were in a "supermax" prison there.

There is a strong case for remaining part of an institution with such a track record. I am astonished that the Home Secretary cannot see that.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

More UKIP infighting and it is set to continue after the Assembly elections

Today's Western Mail reports (no link at present) that UKIP have already started planning for their possible entry into the Welsh Assembly before the electorate have even finished casting their votes and are fighting amongst themselves over the spoils.

This presumption appears to be catching. I appeared at an event recently at which the UKIP representative turned up with two companions who he introduced as the people he is going to employ as his staff once he is elected. He may have a shock when he sees the rules for employing staff, which are rigorously applied so as to ensure equal opportunity for all applicants.

The Western Mail tells us that Nathan Gill is likely to be challenged by discredited former Tory, Neil Hamilton for the leadership of his party's new National Assembly Group.

Apparently, Mr Hamilton has the support of former Conservative, Caroline Jones, who is standing in South Wales West and Gareth Bennett, who is their lead candidate in South Wales Central and recently got himself in hot water by making racially charged comments about Cardiff's Eastern European migrant community.

Mr. Gill is being backed by former Tory, Mark Reckless, who was himself rejected by voters in 2015 and has now crossed the Welsh border in search of a new job.

For those who find all these characters distasteful and are concerned at their lack of commitment to making devolution work then in South Wales West at least, a vote for the Welsh Liberal Democrats is the best way to stop them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The European referendum and the use of language

There was an interesting article in yesterday's Observer in which Will Hutton deprecates the way that the European referendum has slipped into carelessness when it comes to facts and the truth.

He is particularly exercised about Boris Johnson's abhorrent article for The Sun on Friday morning in which he repeated the smear often peddled by the US radical right that Barack Obama’s Kenyan origins somehow mean that he is not a “real” American. The implication is that we should not trust part-Kenyan Obama and his urging Britain to stay in the EU.

Hutton says that the slur was 'partisan, unforgivable nonsense, with uneasy tones, at best, of crude identity politics, at worst, of sinking to a semi-racist smear.'

What stood out for me in the piece however was Hutton's chiding of the BBC for their rather shallow approach to impartiality:

Universities have recommitted to be firm custodians of academic freedom in the quest for understanding, backed by evidence. The BBC, a public broadcaster born of the best Enlightenment tradition of reason, should rejoin their ranks. Its new understanding of objectivity – to treat everything as equal claim and counterclaim – is to surrender. It is not good enough in reporting, say, Treasury analysis on the economic impact of leaving the EU to then “balance” it with a one-liner from Boris Johnson or an interview with John Redwood who have plainly not had time to read the 200-page document.

If Leave have fact and analysis with which to respond, that is different. Both sides should earn their place on news bulletins, not be gifted it because they have an opinion whose value is allegedly equal. If the BBC is terrified that John Whittingdale will take his revenge, after 23 June, if it sticks to Reithian rigour then so be it. Better go down fighting than turn into a glorified clearing house for rival press releases.

The referendum may be unedifying, but it is showing up the great cleavage in our country. Are we so keen to assert an idea of Britishness and so careless about evidence-based argument that we will damage ourselves economically by leaving the EU? Is politics to be framed by unfounded prejudice, funny one-liners and untruths? Do the majority of us want to live in a country constructed by the Eurosceptics and their press? Johnson’s article, I feel, was a watershed moment. I hope others see it that way too.

The decision we face on 23 June is too important to be dictated by popularism, sound bites and one liners. It is up to the media, and the BBC in particular, to ensure that both sides of the argument are properly scrutinised so that when we go to vote we have all the facts at our disposal.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Liberal Democrat wins Parliamentary by-election

Liberal Democrat victories in Parliamentary by-elections have been rare since 2010 but this week one such contest saw a former Lib Dem MP storm to victory with 100% of the vote.

What was unusual about this particular by-election was that all the other candidates were Liberal Democrats as well, the total electorate amounted to three individuals and they too are members of the party.

As the Independent reports, this rather arcane process saw John Thurso fill the vacancy caused by the death of hereditary peer Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, which only another Liberal Democrat can fill:

Under existing Lords procedures, the 92 hereditary peers can only be elected to the upper chamber by members of their own party.

Viscount Thurso was a member of the House of Lords between 1995 and 1999 before being expelled when New Labour reforms axed most 'hereditary' peers in favour of 'life' peers.

He was then elected MP for Caithness and Sutherland in 2001 and served up until 2015.

The existence of a remaining rump of 92 hereditary peers was seen as a “temporary” compromise by the government at the time to get the reforms through Parliament.

Viscount Thurso was unanimously elected by the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Glasgow and Lord Addington.

Surely it is time for this nonsensical process to be abolished and for the Lords to be turned into a totally elected, modern second chamber.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Is the state abusing its access to our personal data?

The Independent reports that British spies have been collecting bulk data on people for years, and abusing it to find out people’s addresses for birthday cards.

They say that new documents obtained by Privacy International during a legal hearing show that MI5, MI6 and GCHQ have been collecting and relying on huge amounts of data collected on almost every person in the country. And the papers show that spies have even been hacking themselves to find out that personal information so that they can use it for booking holidays and spying on their family members to get personal details. The papers also prove that the collection of bulk data has been happening for much longer than previously known:

The files show the huge amount of information that is being gathered by British spying groups. Ministers have previously argued that only people who are suspected of criminal or terrorist behaviour will be tracked – but they show that spies have been collecting bulk personal datasets on a range of innocent people for years, and arguing that they are used to find legitimate suspects.

The papers show how that same information has been used by spies to find out personal information, like looking up people’s addresses to send birthday cards.

“We’ve seen a few instances recently of individual users crossing the line with their database use, looking up addresses in order to send birthday cards, checking passport details to organise personal travel, checking details of family members for personal reasons. Another area of concern is the use of the database as a ‘convenient’ way to check the personal details of colleagues when filling out service forms on their behalf.

All of this may sound a bit incestuous of course but it raises fundamental questions about the safeguards that are in place to protect the privacy of innocent citizens who are not suspected of any crime. Time to review the rules and tighten them up in my view.

Friday, April 22, 2016

UKIP's opposition to climate change will end flood defence work

On the BBC website Labour make the entirely reasonable assertion that UKIP plans to scraps the Welsh Government's climate change and sustainability budget will mean that future plans for flood defence work will be scrapped.

They say that communities which have been the victims of serious flooding such as St Asaph, Boverton in the Vale of Glamorgan and along the A55 would be affected by any such proposal.

The planned cut would also end schemes like "Nest", which provides warm home environments and lower energy bills for lower income families.

UKIP have immediately started to row back on their own promises as soon as it was pointed out to them what they will mean on the ground. The fact is though, that not only are they in denial on the reasons for climate change but their ideological stance would threaten the viability and future of a number of communities around Wales whilst condemning many people to continuing fuel poverty.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Tories admit not declaring expenditure in marginal seats

Channel Four News has finally pinned the Tories down on the tens of thousands of pounds they spent campaigning in 29 key marginal seats in the 2015 general election that were not declared to the authorities.

The news channel say that they have found further undeclared receipts showing more than £38,000 was spent accommodating activists at hotels across the country, as part of the BattleBus2015 campaign. This spending was not declared to the Electoral Commission in accordance with the law:

The investigation has also obtained evidence that the BattleBus campaign was focused on local candidates, suggesting the accommodation costs incurred should have been declared on local candidate spending returns, if so this could constitute a criminal offence.

If local campaigning had taken place, 24 of the 29 constituencies visited by BattleBus would have exceeded the legal spending limits set out by law. 22 of these seats were won by the Conservatives.

In the South West overall, the Tories won 14 seats all from the Lib Dems.

They say that the Conservative Party has now confirmed to them that it had failed to declare the costs related to the Battlebus hotels due to what it described as an "administrative error" despite previously stating that all of the party's returns were accurate.

The Electoral Commission are currently investigating this expenditure and in particular whether it should be classed as local or national. It would not be right to pre-empt their conclusions, but the question the Commission needs to answer is whether the Tories effectively bought their majority through illegal expenditure or not and if so what the consequences will be for such an action?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

UK Government forced to back down on plan to gag scientists

The Independent reports that the UK Government has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown over controversial plans that would have gagged academics and scientists from lobbying the Government on matters of public interest.

They say that proposals put forward by the Cabinet Office to stop organisations in receipt of Government funds from promoting changes to laws or regulations from next month have been abandoned:

Universities and research organisations warned the move would have had a chilling effect on scientific research and prevent academics from participating fully in public debate.

Such a ban, they argued, would prevent doctors from advocating a sugar tax or climate scientists from arguing for a more robust Government response to global warming.

A petition, calling for academics to be exempt from the ban, received nearly 20,000 signatories while astronomer Sir Martin Rees said it would be “far too damaging to allow this clause to proceed”.

Science Minister Jo Johnson announced on Monday that the Government was preparing to climb down and would exempt academic researchers from the ban – which was designed to prevent charities using public money to lobby for changes in public policy.

“The new clause in government grants is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is properly spent on what was intended in the grant agreements,” Mr Johnson said.

“I am very aware of questions that have been raised about what this could mean for our research base and the principle of academic autonomy that is such a critical part of its strength.

“I am happy to confirm that it is not our intention for the Research Councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) or the National Academies to be covered by the clause. We are continuing to talk to the research community and will outline more detail by 1 May, when this clause takes effect.”

This u-turn is very welcome of course, but it illustrates very effectively how even straightforward proposals can have unintended consequences.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Deluded UKIP tries to claim antecedence with Gladstone's Liberal Party

William Gladstone was an internationalist and a classic nineteenth century liberal. The idea that he might have anything in common with the xenophobic regressive party of Nigel Farage, Mark Reckless and Neil Hamilton is ludicrous.  That though has not stopped UKIP seeking to claim part of his legacy. The question is, which part?

According to the BBC the Flintshire library dedicated to 19th Century Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone has complained to UKIP after the party used a photo of it in its Welsh manifesto. The Hawarden institution said it was included without permission: Warden Peter Francis said it gave the impression the library was "supportive of UKIP and its policies". 

Mark Reckless though is unapologetic. He told the BBC:  "Gladstone was a great orator and believed strongly in holding public meetings, something that UKIP also firmly adheres to, and was a great advocate of preserving the UK's dominion"

So their main claim to a relationship with Gladstone is that he liked holding public meetings and so do they.  I am lost for words at the shallowness of the thinking behind such a claim.

Of course if UKIP want to claim antecedence with great orators who liked holding public meetings there may be others who better fit the bill.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Labour's fast food mystery

A very peculiar row has broken out within the Labour Party over an apparent snub to fast food giant, McDonalds.

The Independent reports that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been branded a “snob” by one of his own backbenchers after it was claimed the burger chain was banned from the party's autumn conference.

They say that McDonalds wanted to pay £30,000 to have a display stand promoting British farm produce at this year’s conference in Liverpool, but was turned down.

McDonalds have already been approved to display the "interactive experience" at the Conservative and the SNP conferences this September.

This decision has angered Labour MP, Wes Streeting.

He told the media that he was “exasperated” that the party “would throw away £30,000 worth of sponsorship like this”:

He said: "It smacks of a snobby attitude towards fast-food restaurants and people who work or eat at them."

In what has been interpreted as a dig at Mr Corbyn’s long-standing vegetarianism, he added: "McDonald’s may not be the trendy falafel bar that some people in politics like to hang out at but it's enjoyed by families across the country."

Personally, I am fascinated as to what the interactive experience is.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

If it is Sunday then it must be cake!

There is an uplifting story in the Independent today about the celebrated Jeannette biscuit-making factory in Caen in lower Normandy which closed down two years ago. The factory had been open since 1850 and in that time had produced some of the finest madeleines in France.

The paper gives a brief history of the factory:

It is quite possible that the madeleine which conjured up memories of Proust’s childhood was a “Jeanette” madeleine.  In the famous passage, Proust’s autobiographical hero is staying at the Grand Hotel in Cabourg, a few miles along the Norman coast from Caen.  At the turn of the 20th century, the hotel bought its madeleines from the Caen factory later known as Jeannette.

By the turn of the 21st century Jeannette had become a stale crumb of its former self. It had suffered a series of buy-outs by larger companies which sought to make money by asset-stripping its reputation, lowering quality and boosting quantity – and failed. In 2013, the owner decided to close the factory and sell the brand.

However, the remaining female workers refused to go quietly. For more than a year, they occupied the premises and demanded government help to find a buyer:

Enter Georges Viana, 50, a Portuguese-born professional industrial trouble-shooter with no connections with Normandy or cake-making. After years of earning a good salary rescuing failed enterprises in France and abroad, he was touched by the Jeannette story. He decided to leave his job and save the factory.

“The truth is that by the time of the closure in 2013, Jeannette was producing the most disgusting rubbish and calling them madeleines,” Mr Viana told me.  “They were using oil instead of butter. They were using industrial eggs so pale that you could hardly tell the yoke from the white.”

Mr Viana, with the blessing of the workers and their hard-left union, the CGT, set out to resurrect Jeanette as a producer of “top of the range” madeleines.

The government refused to help. Banks refused to lend him money. He turned to “crowd-funding”. Thanks to a media appeal, he raised €102,000 in gifts of between one euro and €1,000 each. This was more than enough to buy the brand from the bankruptcy court.

In a second “crowd-funding” appeal for equity investors, he raised another Euros 330,000 – enough to re-start the factory on a small scale on a new site in September last year.

With the help of Philippe Parc, one of France’s leading pastry chefs, Mr Viana adapted a late-19th century madeleine recipe to modern standards. He hired, or rehired 18 people, mostly former Jeannette employees. He insisted on using only the best local raw materials – Norman butter, flour and free range eggs and vanilla from Tahiti

Seven months later, the little factory on the edge of Caen is humming. There are 16,000 internet customers and a factory shop. Many local shops and supermarkets are stocking Jeannette madeleines.

The factory – more like a giant patisserie – is producing 24,000 madeleines a day but is unable to keep up with demand.

Such stories really lift the spirits during a hard-fought election campiagn.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

North Wales metro on the back of an envelope

The Daily Post carries news of Labour's big idea for North Wales. They have published a map illustrating how an integrated transport system can benefit the region.

Labour's plans are said to include park and ride services, new train stations, modern trains, more reliable buses, transport “hubs” and a “safe and resilient road network”. And yet the map itself looks like it was drawn up on the back of an envelope, joining existing stations together with a red line and missing out North West Wales altogether.

If anything was designed to illustrate how out of touch Labour are with North Wales then it is this half-baked proposal with no budget and no timetable.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Threat of EU exit already undermining UK economy

The Independent reports that the Bank of England has issued its starkest warning yet over the consequences of Brexit for the British economy, stating that the country would be likely to face a long period of uncertainty if it left the EU, that would dampen demand and impact on UK assets.

They say that minutes from the latest meeting of the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee also state that the looming referendum is already having a dampening effect on the economy, noting that many major capital spending decisions and property transactions were being delayed, pending the outcome of the vote:

In its minutes, the Bank of England said that a vote to leave the EU would “result in an extended period of uncertainty about the economic outlook including about the prospects for export growth”.

“This uncertainty would be likely to push down on demand in the short run…(and) have significant implications for asset prices, in particular the exchange rate.”

In a further warning, the Lloyds Banking Group became the first commercial bank to speak out officially on the referendum, stating that a vote to leave would cause short-term “economic uncertainty”.

However, the Bank’s statement added that the decision was “a matter for the UK electorate” and that the long-term impact was “unclear” because of uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with Europe in the event of Brexit.

If the mere threat of us leaving the EU is dampening down the economy then we need to think seriously about the impact a leave-vote will have. This referendum is about more than the economy of course, but nevertheless its impact on our future prosperity as a country should not be under-estimated.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Lead Welsh UKIP candidates squabble amongst themselves

Near open warfare broke out amongst lead UKIP candidates yesterday after their Welsh leader, Nathan Gill told a BBC 'Ask the Leader' event that he would probably not have chosen Neil Hamilton and fellow ex-Tory MP Mark Reckless as UKIP candidates in Wales.

His remarks provoked a response from Christine Hamilton, the wife of the party's number one candidate in Mid and West Wales, who accused Gill of acting like a "third-rate general". She tweeted: "Only a 3rd rate General would diss his crack troops on the eve of battle."

The use of the phrase 'crack troops' is most probably over-generous but it is an interesting way to run an election campaign.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Are the Tories trying to pack out the quango state?

One of the big arguments for the Welsh Assembly in 1997 was the way that the Conservatives had made up for their lack of representation in Wales at a Parliamentary level by setting up quangos to run our country and stuffed them with their own supporters.

Many of these quangos were subsequently abolished by the Welsh government, though in the case of the Wales Tourist Board and the Welsh Development Agency there are many who argue that they went too far.

Now the UK Tory Government has been accused of wanting to pack out English Quangos in the same way.

The Independent reports that the outgoing commissioner for public appointments has accused Ministers of increasingly pushing for Conservative sympathisers to be appointed to public bodies since the general election:

Sir David Normington, who oversees appointments and makes sure they are made on merit, told the Financial Times newspaper that David Cameron or other ministers intervened about once a month to ask why party donors, ex-MPs and others had not been shortlisted for key posts.

The commissioner, who has completed his term of office, said further Government plans to change the way appointments are made would also see “a return to the days of political and personal patronage”.

They may have a small majority but the Tories seem determined to cement their hold over government and all the bodies beholden to it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The real tax problem?

Suddenly we are being inundated with details of politicians' tax affairs. Such transparency is to be welcomed of course, even if it could be classed as slightly over-zealous, but there is a danger that the real issues will be lost amongst all this sharing.

The Times picks up on these concerns. They argue that whilst the publication of individual tax returns is probably unavoidable it is also a distraction.  They say that politicians should be judged on the decisions they make, not on how much money they have, what their parents did or where they went to school:

Although the prime minister, like the chancellor, is rich, that cannot be held against him any more than a modest background should be counted against a less privileged politician. The real problem is not his personal wealth but the fact that he has too often governed as if the Conservatives are still the party of the rich. It’s not that Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne are themselves “posh boys who don’t understand the price of milk”, as Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries once memorably put it, more that they have not done enough to prove they care about those who have to count the pennies before buying every pint.

Although there have been policies designed to demonstrate a “One Nation” compassion, such as the introduction of the living wage, the prime minister and the chancellor have never shown a single-minded determination to improve the life chances of those at the bottom of society. Changes introduced to “help the poor” have always been matched, and outweighed, by others intended to benefit the better off. The top rate of tax has been cut while welfare has been squeezed. Though wealthy pensioners have been protected, the disabled have not. It’s a question of balance. As Iain Duncan Smith wrote in his resignation letter, the combination of factors undermines the government’s claim that “we are all in it together”.

Yesterday Mr Cameron announced tougher rules on transparency and tax, yet the question will be whether he follows through with a public register of beneficial ownership in Britain’s overseas territories. In his book Coalition, David Laws, the former Lib Dem minister, reports that Cameron and Osborne repeatedly blocked Lib Dem proposals to tackle corporate fraud. During one negotiation Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, demanded: “How can you oppose this stuff?” Mr Cameron mumbled: “Not popular with business,” while Mr Osborne replied, with a smile: “Not popular with our supporters.” On another occasion the chancellor is said to have suggested a coalition compromise to his Lib Dem Treasury colleague: “You give up on bashing company directors and we’ll give up on bashing the workers”. According to Mr Laws: “The Tories always look after the rich: we forced them to think of the poor.”

More transparency is needed but it is needed most in tax havens so we can see who is squirrelling away money to avoid tax and are able to judge how Ministers react to it.

I do not want to judge government on the tax affairs of its Ministers but on how it deals with those members of the super-rich who are avoiding their moral responsibilities to the nation by not paying their fair share into the Treasury's coffers. Cameron needs to step up to the plate and take action against this group of people.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Is anti-lobbying legislation proving toothless?

Loopholes in legislation designed to improve transparency in the lobbying of MPs and Ministers are being exploited by companies so as to avoid declaring clients who pay them thousands of pounds to help influence Government policy, according to the Independent. The paper says that a year after the Government made it a legal requirement for lobbying companies to publicly declare the firms for whom they act, some of the biggest firms in the business are legitimately avoiding doing so:

They include companies such as CTF Partners, which is run by David Cameron’s election guru Sir Lynton Crosby and has in the past controversially advised both tobacco and alcohol companies. CTF does not name any clients on the Register of Consultant Lobbyists.

Another lobbying firm that declares no clients is RLM Finsbury, run by one of the UK’s best-connected lobbyists, Roland Rudd.

Mr Rudd, the brother of the Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, is a key strategist behind the main pro-EU referendum campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe.

RLM Finsbury advises Google, the German carmaker Volkswagen and the bookmaker Paddy Power, but none of these clients show up on the official Government register.

Google, for example, spent nearly $17m (£12m) lobbying the US government in 2015, and $4.5m (£3m) lobbying Brussels, but there is no information on how much they spend in the UK.

Some other influential consultant lobbyists who aren’t registered include Sean Worth, a one-time senior advisor to the Prime Minister who now runs the Westminster Policy Institute; and Tendo, the lobbying firm run by Will de Peyer. ex-special adviser to Danny Alexander, the former chief secretary to the Treasury.

The paper says that the problem lies in the legislation’s narrow definition of what constitutes lobbying:

Lobbyists-for-hire only have to declare a client on the register if they directly contact a minister or permanent secretary on behalf of a client. Lobbying of anyone else in government is exempt, as is all lobbying by corporations and their trade bodies, such as those opposing the sugar tax including the British Soft Drinks Association and the Food and Drink Federation.

These trade organisations could be lobbying on behalf of a specific client but there would not necessarily be any obligation to declare this information on the register.

Overall, a quarter of known UK lobbyists do not declare any clients on the register and 60 per cent of the 124 registered lobbying firms declare two or fewer clients. Thirty-four declare no clients; 21 declare one client; 19 declare two clients.

The disclosures cast further doubts over the effectiveness of the Government’s lobbying legislation that was brought in following a string of scandals.

Clearly, there is a need to review this legislation so as to close up these loopholes. If we are going to have transparency in the legislative process then we need a register that is fit for purpose. The current rules are not effective at all.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Crass Tories to cut Business department despite steel crisis

Hopes that the Tory Government has learnt lessons from the crisis in UK steel making have been dashed by the latest news that Sajid Javid has drawn up secret plans to sack up to 40 per cent of his department's staff.

The Telegraph says that leaked documents have revealed that detailed proposals from the management consultancy McKinsey suggest firing more than 4,000 civil servants over the next four years to save money.

They add that the revelation that Mr Javid, the Business Secretary, is considering such deep cuts while facing accusations the department is failing to cope with the steel crisis will likely cause embarrassment:

The Business Secretary has already taken his eyes off the ball more than once the crisis facing our steel industry. For the sake of 20,000 jobs he really cannot afford to do so again.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Offshore trusts and the failure to publish tax returns

The most damning poll finding of the week has to be that of YouGov that 82 per cent of Britons, or five-in-six people, were not surprised by the revelations contained in the Panama Papers. Just 8% admitted surprise that rich people are using off-shore accounts to avoid tax.

The ‘Panama Papers’ have claimed that associates of Vladimir Putin are owners of $2bn held offshore; the President of UAE is behind a £1bn property empire in London; and that political leaders or their relatives in 40 other countries appear to have profited from offshore tax arrangements. And then we had the revelations about David Cameron's father and his own investment in that offshore company. It is a shame that the poll did not measure people's surprise or lack of it at the Prime Minister's involvement in this affair.

The Prime Minister has promised to publish his tax returns, but as the Independent reports, he has done this before and we are still waiting. The paper says that four years ago, David Cameron said that he was 'relaxed and happy' about publishing his tax returns. Everything then went quiet.

Now that he has admitted that he sold shares worth £30,000 in his father's offshore investment fund shortly before being elected Prime Minister in 2010 it becomes a bit more urgent that he publish his financial returns. This is especially so after the admission had to be virtually dragged from him, rather than him admitting it straight away.

Personally, I am in favour of much more transparency from Ministers on their own personal financial affairs. What that amounts to would have to be discussed but the case for change has been made by the Panama Papers/Cameron affair and we should not let the moment pass.

Friday, April 08, 2016

The world of puppet politicians

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The dodgy maths behind Plaid Cymru's manifesto

As a wish list Plaid Cymru's Assembly manifesto is a glossy attempt at radically changing the direction of Welsh Government policy. However, it sits firmly within the mainstream of Welsh political thinking and for all the fanfare on their part, the most radical thing about the document is its rather sketchy attempt to fund the party's promises.

Plaid has made much of the fact that they have costed their policies and had that work verified by independent academics. However, I have not been able to find the detailed workings such an exercise implies on their website, and from media reports it appears that the bulk of the money is to be found from unspecified efficiency savings.

The BBC say that the party plan to find annual efficiency savings of £300m, or around 4%, in the health budget. In addition they say that they will find £300m of savings elsewhere in the public sector and a separate saving of £150m a year by merging back-office functions in the public sector in areas like payroll and IT.

Experience of merging back-office functions within the public sector indicates that the last item is going to be much harder to achieve than Plaid Cymru imagine and given the plethora of organisations involved may be the financial equivalent of herding cats in thunder. Nevertheless, it is at least a concrete proposal.

My problem with the £600m of efficiency savings is their sheer scale. Savings of this magnitude over such a short period of time are going to be very difficult to achieve. Even the independent academics describe them as 'challenging', which is as near as they are going to get to expressing scepticism about their deliverability.

It is safe to say that savings of this order will involve deep cuts to local councils and the third sector, redundancies and diminished public services in some areas. The Welsh Government does not of course deliver services, it funds others to do so. As a result they will have little control over the choices made by others on how they deliver cuts in their budget.

Such savings would also require the sort of institutional and cultural change within the public sector which normally takes a decade or more to bed in. When you factor in the proposed reorganisation of health being put forward by Plaid Cymru, it appears that if they were to get into government then the whole health service will be thrown into uncertainty and chaos as health boards focus on redundancies, structural redesign and efficiency reviews instead of concentrating on delivering front line health care.

This is not the detailed costing of policies we were promised. Plaid's manifesto may be very glossy but their failure to back the contents up with detail of how they will pay for and deliver the proposals means that they are actually promising a thin veneer with very little substance.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Are Labour lowering expectations for their 5th May performance?

Nominations close tomorrow, the Welsh Assembly has now dissolved and there are no longer any AMs, but campaigning has been on-going for weeks if not months. The stakes are high, but no more so that for Jeremy Corbyn, who faces his first test as a party leader.

For one Labour MP and former frontbencher that is a moot point as accuses his party of getting their excuses in early.

According to the Guardian, Jon Trickett, who is the MP in charge of Labour’s local election campaign has claimed that any progress on the party’s performance in 2015 should be seen as a positive result, even though that could mean losing dozens of council seats. But former frontbencher Michael Dugher said the party should be aiming for 400 gains in May.

Writing on Labour List, Trickett said: “In Britain, politics has become much more fragmented since 2012 with the continued rise of UKIP and nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales.

“At the end of the day, we should be looking for Labour to advance on the 2015 election results, where we finished almost seven per cent points behind the Conservatives.”

The comments suggest that Labour could claim a successful night even if they get 31% of the vote share, which could mean losing scores of seats. It is thought that Jeremy Corbyn was alluding to setting expectations at the same baseline when he launched the party’s election campaign yesterday.

“Let 5 May be the turning point when Labour grew, Labour got support and Labour showed there is a different, much better way of running this country for the good of all, not just the benefit of the very few wealthy people that have had it too easy for too long,” he said.

However, Mr. Dugher is not impressed: “The government is under huge pressure over the steel industry, we’ve just had a budget that was worse than the omnishambles, a cabinet resignation and the Tories are in meltdown over the EU referendum.

“If anything, the Tories should be there for the taking. Now is not the time to be throwing the towel in.”

The psephologist Robert Ford has argued that a vote share of 30 to 33% would translate into 200 or more council seat losses, with the party needing over 34% to have fewer than 50 losses and 38% to gain 100 seats or more.

Writing in the Observer Ford said: “The basic stakes are simple: Labour in opposition needs to gain votes, win seats and take control of councils. The opposition usually does well in local elections regardless of who is in government.

“Labour oppositions have made an average net gain of 300 seats in local elections since 1980, and have made net losses on just two occasions – in 1982 (immediately after the foundation of the SDP) and in 1985 (when the miners’ strike and conflicts with Militant were at their height).”

These elections may be more difficult for Jeremy Corbyn than he imagined.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

UKIP campaign thrown into chaos as race row candidate is endorsed

The UKIP campaign for the Welsh Assembly has been thrown into chaos as their NEC endorsed the candidature of the controversial Gareth Bennett in South Wales Central.

As the BBC reports, this decision was taken despite a formal complaint from 16 fellow candidates. Mr. Bennett had linked rubbish problems in Cardiff to Eastern European immigrants only for the party to be embarrassed when it emerged that their activists have been fly-tipping leaflets in the Cardiff area.

The consequences of this decision became immediately apparent. UKIP Wales head of media Alexandra Phillips stepped down as the number two list candidate in South Wales Central before the meeting. As soon as the decision was taken Neath's Llyr Powell, confirmed he will not be standing for election and withdrew both from constituency and the SouthWales list.

We await to see if there will be further withdrawals.

Monday, April 04, 2016

The dogma destroying UK steel

Yesterday's Observer carried an interestiing analysis by Will Hutton on the failure of 40 years of laissez-faire economic policy in the UK that has led directly to the current crisis in the UK steel industry.

Hutton describes Business secretary Sajid Javid as the most ideologically driven and least practical politician to hold this key post since the war. He says that Britain, with a systemically overvalued exchange rate, porous market, high energy costs and ideological refusal to join others in the EU to deter imports dumped below cost with higher tariffs, is uniquely exposed to the threat posed by China's over-investment in steel and their dumping of the surplus on World markets:

Beneath the specifics of the steel industry lie more deep-seated problems. The day after Tata’s announcement, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) disclosed that the country’s balance of payments deficit in the last quarter of 2015 climbed to a record 7% of GDP. Britain’s international accounts are more in the red than those of any other developed country. Imports of goods and services, which have steadily outstripped exports for decades, are now to be given an extra impetus by the closure of UK steel capacity. What’s more, the same weaknesses that plague the old also inhibit the growth of the new.

After the interventionism of the 1930s – or even the 1950s and 1960s – Britain could boast dozens of substantial companies representing industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, aerospace and electronics. Not so in 2016. Only two high-tech companies are represented in the FTSE 100 – ARM and Sage. Another 20 years of the laissez-faire framework Javid cherishes – he is a devotee of the wild philosopher of hyper-libertarianism Ayn Rand – and the economy will be eviscerated, with a current account deficit so large it cannot be conventionally financed. The consequences – on living standards, employment, inflation, interest rates and house prices – will be severe.

Start with the pound. Since it was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, the consensus has been that the state should make no effort to manage the exchange rate. The result is that for all but four or five of the past 24 years, the pound has been well above any calculation of its real value, buoyed up by money flowing into the UK to buy our companies and our property, notwithstanding our ever higher trade deficit.

This is an auction of national assets unmatched by any other industrialised country. But it also makes it harder for our producers to compete internationally. To manage the exchange rate, to shadow the euro or dollar, or even to consider joining the euro to lock in a competitive rate, are rejected with irrational hysteria. Result – a current account deficit of 7% of GDP.

Hutton says that in blocking the EU's efforts to invoke World Trade Organisation rules on dumping of cheap steel, the UK Government has effectively destroyed our steel industry in exchange for Chinese state ownership of the next generation of nuclear power stations.

He says that the combination of a privatised electricity industry in which they have insisted on sky-high returns for strategic investment, with demanding targets for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions has meant incredible rises in the price of electricity, especially for industrial users such as steel:

Britain needs a genuine march of the makers, in George Osborne’s phrase. But that would need a completely different policy paradigm, overturning the failed attempts of the past 40 years. There was a nascent attempt, launched by Peter Mandelson in 2009, and followed through in the coalition government by business secretary Vince Cable and science minister David Willetts, to create an intelligent industrial strategy.

Eight great technologies were identified in which Britain had strengths; convening councils were created to remove obstacles to their growth; the agency Innovate UK geared up to support frontier innovation; and a network of Catapults created to stimulate knowledge transfer, business start-ups and scale-ups. Foreign governments, impressed by what was happening, commissioned reports on the innovative UK.

Then came Javid, keen to deliver the swingeing cuts in his budget demanded by Osborne in his quest for the 36% state. After hobbling the admired innovation infrastructure with its role for a smart state, his first piece of legislation is the trade union bill.

Javid tilts at Thatcherite windmills – and shows little understanding of today’s industrial revolution. Nor does he seem to grasp how government can co-create opportunities with entrepreneurs – as well as ensuring that the big picture is as attractive as possible.

It may be true that a fix will be found to resolve the steel crisis but unless the UK Government abandons its ideological commitment to laissez-faire economics and restores the strategy started by Mandelson and Cable then in the long term the future does not look bright at all.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

UKIP hoisted by their own petard

The actions of a Cardiff UKIP candidate in accusing migrants of being responsible for a rubbish problem in the city has come back to bite his party after one of its own activists dumped dozens of party leaflets at a woodland beauty spot.

Wales-on-line report that a local resident wrote to UKIP Wales leader Nathan Gill after coming across leaflets strewn in woods by the Heritage Park housing estate at St Mellons in the east of the city.

He told Mr Gill he found it ironic that the leaflets had been dumped by someone from UKIP as Gareth Bennett, the party’s lead regional candidate in South Wales Central, was embroiled in controversy after saying eastern European migrants were “unhygienic” and causing rubbish problems in the capital’s City Road area.

After an investigation, one of UKIP's activist admitted the offence, whilst others confessed to similar offences elsewhere, including placing leaflets on the floor inside apartment blocks, rather than delivering through each of the letterboxes in turn.

We await Gareth Bennett's apology to Cardiff's migrants.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

International banks set to quit the UK if we leave the EU

The banking sector is quite rightly not the most popular at the moment and certainly needs reform and stronger regulation, but the presence of international banks in the UK bring jobs and prestige, as well as contributing significantly to our balance of payments as a country.

It is therefore disturbing but not surprising that many of these banks have said that if the UK votes to come out of the European Community, they will up sticks and relocate on the continent.

The Times reports that Wall Street banks, as well as continental and Japanese investment banks, have sent reports to the Bank of England setting out how they would respond if Britain left the EU:

It is understood that the banks have outlined to officials their contingency plans that, in some cases, would see them relocate some of their business activities to other EU countries where they already have established operations.

“It looks really bad for the UK. This exercise is about showing how European business is structured and where we could move should Brexit occur,” a London-based senior financial executive at a big international bank, said.

Many of the large investment banks run their European, Middle East and African businesses from London, but most also operate subsidiaries in other EU states, including France, Germany and the Republic of Ireland.

Deutsche Bank, for example, runs its investment bank from London but maintains substantial operations in Frankfurt. Credit Suisse is one of the City’s biggest employers, but has been hiring more staff in Ireland.

In the event of Brexit, some firms are understood to have told the Bank that they could shift assets and where they book trades, potentially setting a trend for further City job losses.

The paper adds that any new job cuts would be bad news for the City, which has been hit already by a recent wave of redundancies. Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and Standard Chartered are among the banks to have begun laying off thousands of staff and more redundancies are expected as lenders look to automate jobs or move more staff to cheaper locations either in the UK or abroad, to countries such as Poland and India.

They also point out how the threat of a remain vote is hitting the UK Government's ability to borrow money. Bank of England figures show that foreign investors increasingly concerned about the possibility of Britain voting to leave the European Union dumped £3 billion-worth of UK government bonds in February, taking the total gilt sell-off since the start of the year to more than £9 billion.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Did the UK Tory Government sacrifice British steel to secure better relations with China?

To be frank I have been seriously unimpressed with the reaction of UK Tory Ministers to the crisis encompassing the UK steel industry. Media interviews with Ministers have produced bland, non-committal statements that have led me to question whether they are just going through the motions. We do not get the impression of a real commitment to saving the industry.

We are also getting mixed messages. One Minister says they are ruling nothing out whilst another says that nationalisation, even for the short term is not an option. And of course for all the talk about tackling the dumping of cheap steel, it was UK Ministers who stopped the EU taking more severe action with the Chinese.

And that is the subject of this piece in The Times. They report that Tata has accused David Cameron of sleepwalking into the steel crisis by helping China to block EU efforts to increase tariffs on its cheap imports.

That an executive from the group told a Commons committee weeks ago that British support for China could lead to an “even greater steel crisis”, underlines their lack of confidence in the UK Government.  The report adds that EU officials are also privately critical of Britain over its reluctance to raise tariffs for China, which it has been wooing to try to generate better trade links.

The paper says that senior Tata officials are said to be amazed at the prime minister’s failure to heed their warnings that China would dump cheap steel on the market, undercutting Britain. In the light of this revelation the failure of the Business Minister to travel to Mumbai in person earlier this week takes on much greater significance.

In addition, Britain did not seek EU permission to give steelmakers exemptions from green taxes on power consumption in earnest until December, long after German steelmakers had secured the breaks. The government instead put priority on subsidies for the Chinese-backed Hinkley Point nuclear project.

If UK Ministers are floundering then perhaps it is because their own role in helping this crisis develop has dawned on them. They need to put that right by acting decisively now, putting the full weight of the Government behind a rescue package and not allowing ideology or their relations with China get in the way.

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