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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tory divisions morph into possible leadership coup

Those who thought that once the referendum debate is over, the Conservative Party will come back together as a united political force may well have underestimated how deep the divide is between the two sides of the Brexit debate and how bitter the rivalries are.

As the Telegraph reports there is already manoeuvring within the Tory Party not just to succeed Cameron, but to oust him. It does not help the Prime Minister either when Labour MPs on the Brexit campaign start to use his possible departure as a positive in persuading people to vote to leave. Who do they think will succeed Cameron and why will his successor be any better?

According to the Telegraph, a third Tory MP has broken cover and said he is ready to demand David Cameron goes unless he tones down his attacks in the EU referendum. Sir Bill Cash of all people is demanding a more conciliatory tone from his party leader. Nadine Dorries and Andrew Bridgen are the other two conspirators.

So far it is the usual suspects. Whether others of a more moderate hue emerge has yet to be seen. This though is not going to go away even if the UK votes to stay in Europe later this month.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Tom's Diner

It is a bank holiday and I am at the Hay Festival. Following a superb live concert from Susanne Vega last night what better way to start the day than with Tom's Diner:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Tony Blair: a ghost at the feast

Most political leaders follow a golden rule, don't interfere by commenting on your successor. It is a rule more observed in the breach than in the observance as evidenced by the likes of Edward Heath.

Now Tony Blair has jumped in, seeking to mitigate the impact on his reputation of the Chilcott report, due to be published at last on 6th July.

According to the Telegraph, Blair believes that Britain would be embarking on a "very dangerous experiment" if it gave Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn power:

Asked if Mr Corbyn was a product of his, Mr Blair told the BBC's This Week's World: "No, I think it's a result of the way the world works these days, but it's a big challenge for the centre, and when I'm not thinking about the Middle East, I'm thinking about this because I do think, by the way, it would be a very dangerous experiment for a major western country to get gripped by this type of populist policy making, left or right.

"I do think the centre ground needs to work out how it recovers its... gets its mojo back, and gets the initiative back in the political debate because otherwise... these guys aren't providing answers, not on the economy, not on foreign policy."

Well, yes, but Blair is hardly in touch with public opinion anymore.

It is tempting to compare the former Prime Minister with the ghost of Banquo at the feast in Macbeth, except that there would be role reversal involved.

In Macbeth, Banquo appears in ghostly form so as prick the conscience of the new King over his bloody deeds. In real life, and subject to the conclusions of Chilcott of course, it is Blair with blood on his hands.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The job losses that cannot be fixed if we leave the EU

Most of the economic arguments around next month's referendum have centred around the impact on trade if we leave the European Union. That is understandable, after all we are part of the biggest free trade area in the world and benefit tremendously from that. Leaving will put us on the wrong side of some significant tariff barriers and as a result our economy (and public finances) will take a big hit.

Of course we can negotiate new trade deals, but what the Brexiteers do not tend to dwell on is how long it will take us to do that, nor the fact that we will have to negotiate large numbers in mind-numbingly detail. They also fail to mention that any trade agreement with the EU will involve us paying substantial sums to Brussels once more and the sort of freedom of movement of labour that his getting them all worked up in the first place. It is a lose: lose situation.

The other side of this argument is what will happen to companies who have set up here so that they can benefit from being inside the free trade area. Surely, they will up-sticks and relocate abroad if we leave. After all, what reason do they have to stay?

That argument lies at the heart of this article in the Western Mail. They report that diplomats working in at least one Embassy in London have been ordered to draw up lists of foreign investors in the UK who could be lured away if there is a Leave vote in the EU referendum:

A spokesman for Wales Stronger in Europe said: “Welsh exports to Europe are worth £5bn a year – we’re one of the only regions of the UK which actually has a trade surplus with the EU.

"Overall, it accounts for 40% of our exports. But for some areas its even more: 93% of lamb, 35% of sheep, 92% of beef and 98% of dairy exports went to the EU. That’s Welsh beef exports of £52.3 and Welsh lamb exports of £122m.

“The EU imposes an average tariff of 14% on agricultural imports from non-EU countries, with higher rates on individual items. Outside the Single Market, dairy exports to the EU could attract a 36% tariff, and tariffs on beef exports could be between 58% and 70%.

“Both the FUW and NFU Cymru support calls for Britain to remain in Europe, in order to retain access to the Single Market, which accounts for 90% of Welsh agricultural exports – worth £300m a year, and to protect the £240m a year in CAP funding, vital to the type of farming we see across Wales.”

It is little wonder that other countries think they can poach British jobs if we leave.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Welsh councils could be waiting a long time for clarity on reorganisation

Considering that most councils were opposed to Leighton Andrews' proposed restructuring of local government so as to create just eight bodies, they are protesting rather loudly now that plan has been shelved for lack of support.

The BBC reports that a Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) paper, which will be considered today, says that there is an urgent need for clarity over plans to reorganise local government. The paper says that the "challenges ahead are profound", with many services in crisis.

They are not wrong but the idea that shuffling deckchairs around could solve this is fanciable. For once Russell Goodway is right, the solution lies in the hands of councils themselves and they should stop complaining about the Welsh Government and get on with it.

That solution does not need to involve mergers, though it could, nor will it produce the money needed to keep services going, but determined leadership that delivered substantial joint working could make savings that are worth having and which will protect front line services.

Personally, I do not believe that local government reorganisation should be abandoned so easily. The problem of course is lack of consensus and the absence of a majority in Cardiff Bay to deliver any change. It is a shame that even now Government Ministers believe that consensus involves securing an inter-party agreement behind closed doors.

A more organic and considered process in which the local government boundary commission was charged with wide consultation on drawing up plans for say 12 local councils based on natural communities over a period of time may be more deliverable.

Such a process would need to respect large population centres such as the Welsh cities and towns like Wrexham and build council areas around them rather than sublimating them into larger amorphous areas as proposed previously. Historical counties would need to be considered and rural considerations taken into account, especially with the implications for funding.

Although loosely based on existing counties, this process would not be afraid to chop them up so as to create a more sustainable entity, for example by taking the Swansea and Lliw Valleys out of Neath Port Talbot and adding it to Swansea.

And there would need to be a commitment to election by single transferable vote to compensate for the inevitable reduction in the number of councillors and to ensure that councils are properly representative of the people who elect them. Such an outcome would improve accountability and transparency and lead to better services.

I have been advocating such a solution for some time, but others believed that a quick fix was a better approach. Now that fix has come undone, perhaps it is time for a more deliberative and consensual approach.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Our lives in their hands

For many people a reluctance to adopt the latest technology is excusable. After all, who has the time to keep upgrading programmes and as for Windows 10, seriously why would I want to abandon my trusty operating system.

There are times though where one assumes that the most up-to-date technology is being used and find an icy-cold shiver running down one's back when the contrary is proved to be true.

Such a moment came to me when I saw this article in The Times, in which they report that the Pentagon is still using floppy discs designed in the 1970s for some of its nuclear force’s functions:

The report by the Government Accountability Office said it was one of a number of worryingly outdated “legacy systems” still in use that are in desperate need of upgrading.

According to the study the US Defense Department spends $61.2 billion (£41bn) a year on operations and maintenance of ageing technologies.

The figure is more than three times over its “development, modernization and enhancement” spending.

The Pentagon command and control system that "coordinates the operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts,” runs on an IBM Series/1 computer and uses 8in floppy disks.

That type of computer was first used in 1976, when Gerald Ford was in the White House. When asked why they were using near obsolete technology, the Pentagon offered a simple solution.

“This system remains in use because, in short, it still works,” spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Valerie Henderson told agency AFP.

“However, to address obsolescence concerns, the floppy drives are scheduled to be replaced with Secure Digital devices by the end of 2017,” she added.

“Modernisation across the entire Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) enterprise remains ongoing.”

Given that floppy disks first came into use in the late 1960s but were largely obsolete by the turn of the millennium this does not generate confidence in our safety. But just in case you might think that everything is under control, perhaps it is worth reflecting on how up-to-date the Russian systems are.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Does the future of the union rest in the hands of the Treasury?

Today's Western Mail reports on the conclusions of the House of Lords constitution committee, which reiterates the views of a number of similar inquiries before it.

Their Lordships suggest that the future of the UK is at “threat” and the refusal to introduce a funding system which would address the needs of the poorest regions makes a “mockery” of the UK Government’s duty to distribute resources fairly. They argue that successive governments have taken the union “for granted” and have demonstrated a “haphazard approach” to the constitution. No dispute there.

It is the warning by the committee though that its members do not think the passing of the next Wales Act will mean “all the pieces for a stable constitutional settlement will be in place” that resonates. The constant uncertainty over funding and the perceived unfairness of the way that Wales has been treated means that people will continually seek to unpick the constitutional settlement that has been imposed on them.

The failure to include England and the English regions in this settlement means that the UK Government will remain under pressure to change it. That in itself could prove destabilising.

The Lords flag up a “lack of public understanding” about devolution, warning: “Amongst the devolved nations, it seems particularly acute in Wales with its complex conferred-powers model of devolution (albeit a model which is less complex than that used in 2006-11).” They call for a “new mindset” at “all levels of government”, saying that the devolved institutions, such as the Assembly, must be recognised as “established components of the UK’s constitution”.

Tellingly, they call for the UK Government to abandon a “devolve and forget” attitude and instead “engage with the devolved institutions across the whole breadth of government policy, co-operating and collaborating where possible.”

The biggest obstacle to this change remains the Treasury. Civil Servants there have connived with Ministers to frustrate all attempts at a fair funding settlement that reflects need across the UK and which accommodates the demands of the English regions.

Although there is a need to sort out the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly, a fair funding formula that recognises the emerging federal nature of the UK is becoming more urgent. If the Treasury continues to block such a development then the current constitutional settlement will remain in flux and subject to challenge from all corners of the UK.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Prominent Leave campaigner brands her own side's literature as "deliberately misleading"

As both sides on the EU referendum debate seek to rubbish the other's facts and figures it is worth noting this article in the Independent in which a senior MP and one of the most prominent health experts backing Brexit, brands Vote Leave campaign’s NHS leaflets as “deliberately misleading”.

The paper reports that Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP and now chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, said that the Leave campaign should “stop treating the public like fools” by claiming that Brexit would free-up £350m a week to spend on the NHS:

While attacking “outlandish claims” on both sides of the EU debate, Dr Wollaston singled out Michael Gove’s warning last week over the dangers of increased immigration for the NHS.

“There are many reasons for the pressures on the NHS, but largely because we are living longer and with multiple and complex conditions,” she said in an article for The Times Red Box website. “As many have commented; if you meet a migrant in the NHS they are more likely to be caring for you than ahead of you in the queue.”

Dr Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes, said that NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens had been right when he said on Sunday that the NHS was dependent on overseas staff.

“He also highlighted the dependence of the NHS on a strong economy and the knock on consequences for any uplift in funding of financial turbulence. In my view, it is an increase in the percentage of our national income that we spend on health and care that will save the NHS, not Brexit,” she writes.

As the paper says the Leave campaign has already been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for claiming that the the cost of British membership of the EU is £350m a week as it does not take into account the UK’s rebate, or payments received from the EU. The actual net figure is between £110m and £135m a week.

It is little wonder that Dr. Wollaston says that the claim that there will be £350m a week extra to spend on the NHS if we leave is a cynical distortion which undermines the credibility of the Leave campaign's other arguments.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Selling off the Land Registry will leave government worse off

I have already responded to the Tory Government's consultation on privatising the Land Registry, essentially telling them that the idea is bonkers and will undermine the service that they provide as well as putting the integrity of the register at risk.

A far more rational and significantly better argued case against selling off the agency by John Manthorpe, a former Chief Land Registrar and Chief Executive of Land Registry and an International Consultant on Land Registration systems, can be read here.

This proposal of course, has two objectives, to make the government some money and to reward the private sector with some supposedly low-hanging fruit. That is why Liberal Democrats Business Secretary, Vince Cable vetoed the idea when we were in coalition. Now that the Liberal Democrats are not there the Tories are proceeding anyway.

Like all such privatisations the long term consequences of this sell-off have not been properly assessed. This is evident from a new study by the New Economic Foundation, which concludes that although George Osborne will gain in the short term, over a longer period the Treasury will actually lose money on the sale.

The Guardian say that the New Economic Foundation report for the campaign group We Own It found that selling the Land Registry would mean the British public would start to lose money in 25 years’ time. They add that the authors estimate that the impact of selling off other public assets would be felt even sooner. If the public stake in National Air Traffic Services (NATS) were sold, for example, resultant losses would start being felt within seven years.

Cat Hobbs, We Own It’s director, said: “George Osborne can’t have his cake and eat it. If he goes ahead with the Great British sell-off, we’ll have lost our public assets forever – and all the millions of profit they bring in every year.

“The Land Registry is a profitable, successful, innovative organisation doing a great job – why privatise it? We need to think about the wealth of the next generation, not just a quick fix on the deficit.”

That is absolutely right. The Treasury's obsession with PFI was discredited some time ago, now we are seeing the case for the delivery of public services by the private sector being undermined as well.

The fact is that when assessments are made of the costs and benefits of involving private organisations in the delivery of public services, they are not properly robust and they do not take into account long term considerations. That needs to change.

UKIP divisions continue as Hamilton is reprimanded

The repercussions of Neil Hamilton's sexist rant in the Senedd last week continue to be felt in the Welsh media as the party;s Welsh Leader and MEP, Nathan Gill took to the airwaves yesterday to chastise his group leader.

The BBC report that Mr. Gill told one of their journalists that Hamilton reinforced stereotypes about the party when he described two senior female AMs as "political concubines" in Carwyn Jones' "harem".

He added that the party's seven newly-elected AMs had to be "professional". And said that UKIP wanted to "shake up politics", but Mr Hamilton's jibe was was not the way to do it:

We need to show that when we're elected we're professional and we do the job properly and we do the job for the benefit of the people who have voted for us," he told BBC Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement.

"The time has come to re-emphasise and enforce the positive image of UKIP to the men and women who desperately want to vote for us but we keep on giving them reasons not to."

You would think that after his experience and looking at the nature of some of UKIP's members, Mr. Gill would be considering his position in the party. If he really thinks that UKIP in Wales are capable of living up to these ideals then he is fooling himself.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Two down one to go - Welsh Government drop unpopular policies

As I predicted a couple of days ago, the First Minister has effectively kicked local government reform into touch and it looks like the famed black route M4 extension around Newport will follow it in due course.

In addition The Western Mail reports that First Minister Carwyn Jones has confirmed that the Welsh Government will not resurrect plans for a ban on the use of e-cigarettes in some public places. He told the BBC:  "The Public Health Bill will be brought back to the Assembly but clearly there is no point including the provisions on e-cigs when we know they’re not going to get through.” This was inevitable, so much so that it didn't seem worth mentioning earlier.

The First Minister also told the BBC that local government reorganisation plans will have to go back to the drawing board. He said: “I think it’s tricky if you just leave it without any kind of guidance or direction from the Welsh Government. You end up then with lopsided authorities, you end with different authorities with different powers.

“I think it has to be an all-Wales approach, but as to what that approach looks like, we have an open mind and are happy to discuss with other parties.”

That approach may well save face but it will not yield any common proposals unless Plaid Cymru, the Tories and UKIP significantly change their position.

As for the M4 relief road, well a public inquiry is already underway so Carwyn Jones can't really kill it off now.

I accept that the new Welsh Government will not go for the blue route for the reasons Carwyn Jones sets out, but unless they find another route that does not destroy conservation areas nor impinge on Newport docks, then there really is no way forward for that particular project in my view.

The First Minister might hope that the inquiry will rule in his favour or that a new proposal will emerge from it, but whatever the outcome in a year or two's time he still has to get a budget containing the necessary expenditure through the Assembly and that looks unlikely.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The cost of privatisation

Politicians in Wales have always been strong advocates of merging back office functions within the public sector so as to achieve savings which can be released for front-line services. What they often don't say is that the only realistic way to achieve this is through outsourcing those functions to a private sector company.

Attempts to deliver such savings in Wales have led to mixed results, not least in South East Wales where the costs of delivering this change proved to be a major obstacle. And of course as this reform involves significant change-management and investment in ICT, then public sector bodies often have to buy in expertise and are at the mercy of these companies for cost and savings projections.

The Guardian reports on one such attempt in which the National Audit Office concluded that a Cabinet Office plan to privatise some of Whitehall’s office functions and save up to £500m a year has instead cost £4m and is beset with problems.

Ministers transferred back-office functions – human resources, payroll and accounts – to the private sector two-and-a-half years ago in a plan which was supposed to “radically improve efficiency across departments”.

Auditors say that the “shared services” initiative did not achieve the projected saving of at least £128m a year. Instead it has saved £90m, £4m less than it has cost.

In this particular case, we need to be careful what we wish for and be absolutely certain that any such project can deliver on what is promised.

If we are to proceed to do this in future then we must reinforce the expertise available to the public sector in evaluating such initiatives.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Neil Hamilton and the danger of self-interested reform

The Western Mail reports that former Wales Office minister David Hanson has called for a ban on people who live outside Wales being able to stand in the Assembly.

Mr. Hanson is exercised by the election of UKIP’s Neil Hamilton to the Welsh Assembly. Mr Hamilton's main home is a manor house in Hullavington, Wiltshire (pictured below) and rather than following his new job over the border into Wales he is considering buying a mobile home instead. It is not clear whether he expects the Assembly to pay for that vehicle or not, in lieu of a permanent office.

Mr. Hanson's view is that this is unacceptable and he is pushing for a clause to be inserted in the forthcoming Wales Bill to ensure that only people who live within the borders of Wales can stand as an AM:

He said: “I believe that we should be applying the same principles applied when people stand for council elections to the Welsh Assembly. This is an argument of localism.

“People who live in the area or region should be the only ones allowed to stand.”

The Delyn Labour MP continued: “For example, I have discovered that in this year’s Welsh Assembly election at least 21 candidates stood for election to either constituencies or regions who didn’t live in Wales. The most high profile of these candidates was Neil Hamilton...

“I strongly believe that only people living in the area should be able to stand for the Welsh Assembly. Living in a region or area is the link that enables you to understand the challenges and opportunities facing an area.

“That is why I will be calling on the Government to include an amendment to the Wales Bill that will bring elections to the Welsh Assembly into line with other elections and more importantly ensure that localism underpins the Welsh Assembly.

The problem with this of course is that it is easily circumvented, and it is really not good practise to tailor constitutional reforms to specific and time-limited circumstances.

If Mr. Hanson really wants to introduce a worthwhile reform in the new bill, he could not do better than scrapping the Assembly's confusing and non-proportionate voting system and instead proposing that in future we have 80 AMs all elected by STV.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The likely casualties of Labour's failure to secure a majority in Wales

As Carwyn Jones starts to put together his new government, he may well reflect on two flagship policies that now look to be dead in the water. 

In truth, even before the election the chances of Labour carrying out a major reorganisation of local government and building an M4 extension around Newport on their preferred route, were slim. They did not have the support of the other parties and had not sought to build a consensus around either policy.

Now, with only 28 Assembly Members, with Plaid and the Liberal Democrats opposed to the black route extension of the M4 and with all opposition parties standing firm against Labour's proposals for local councils, the new government will be well-advised to find other pressing matters to command its attention.

There does not need to be a vote in Plenary to build the M4 by-pass but it does need to be in the Welsh Government budget. Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are unlikely to support any budget that contains this expenditure, whilst even if they want the road built, the Tories and UKIP will not support the budget for other reasons and it is unlikely that Labour will seek to do a deal with either party anyway.

As for local government reorganisation, Labour need a new Act of the Assembly for this. Any such bill will be emasculated in committee. I cannot see Labour even try to introduce one.

It has to be said that there will be many in Welsh Labour, including their Assembly group, who will be delighted that both these policies are likely to be dumped in this term.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Irony by-passes the UKIP Welsh Assembly group

To the Welsh Assembly building this morning to dispose of the effects from my office there and to say goodbye to old friends. Of course once I was there I decided to stay and watch the Plenary session from the public gallery, a new experience for me.

Carwyn Jones was nominated as First Minister as expected and all the party leaders were called to speak. To be frank, none of them distinguished themselves, all seeking to make self-justifying political points instead of addressing the issues which Wales faces over the next five years. It took UKIP's Assembly leader to really strike a new low though.

As the BBC reports, Mr. Hamilton described the Leanne Wood and Kirsty Williams as "political concubines" in Carwyn Jones' "harem:

During his speech, he said he regretted the role Plaid Cymru had played and added Ms Williams had "managed to prop up this tottering administration".

He added: "So I'm afraid that these two ladies have just made themselves political concubines in Carwyn's hareem. What a gruesome prospect that must be."

He asked what the two had had in reward for "the sacrifice of their political virtue".

Mr Hamilton later, reflecting on the deal between Labour and Plaid, also accused Ms Wood of being a "very cheap date indeed".

Speaking after the debate, he said he did not regret making the remark.

He told BBC Wales: "Je ne regrette rien".

But Ms Wood said: "This sexist language has no place in the National Assembly for Wales, or in society, and we will not stand for sexism, homophobia or racism."

The part of the speech where Hamilton seemed least self-aware was when he accused other parties of doing 'dodgy deals'. The irony was lost on him.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The power of soaps (for women everywhere not just Archer fans)

Have we really got to the stage when the best way to achieve social reform is to get a story line on a soap opera?

Those people who are a bit younger than me may not remember the saga of The Weatherfield One, a major miscarriage of justice in which Deirdre Rachid was wrongly jailed for mortgage and credit card fraud while her conman lover Jon Lindsay walked free. Of course age may not have anything to do with it if you were not an avid watcher of Coronation Street at the time, though the national press was full of it.

As the BBC reported at the time, the case achieved the status of a cause célèbre when Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to intervene in response to newspapers campaigns and thousands of ordinary outraged people, even asking the then Home Secretary Jack Straw to look into the case.

Now, a similar ministerial intervention is on the cards, though this one is not so high profile, largely because it relates to The Archers, which has a smaller, possibly more select, audience. That audience though will certainly include Ministers of the Crown, as well as large numbers of Tory voting constituents in the shires of England.

The Guardian reports that the soap's story of Helen Titchener’s treatment in The Archers has led the justice secretary, Michael Gove, to push for greater prison reform. In recent episodes, the pregnant Helen has been refused bail for stabbing her abusive husband and agrees to move to a dedicated mother and baby unit in a prison miles away from her home and young child:

Gove told the Radio Times that the Radio 4 show and its “gripping” storyline was “required listening in our house”.

“As well as being superb drama, it has exemplified one of the virtues of public service broadcasting,” he said. “Helen’s story has brought welcome attention to the real problems many women face from coercive and controlling men. Now Helen’s plight has shone a light on the position of women in our prisons and reinforces the case for reform.”

In February, the prime minister, David Cameron, called for a rethink of the way the prison system treats pregnant women and mothers with babies. Ministry of Justice figures suggest 100 babies spent time living with their mothers in prisons in 2015.

The Archers’ storyline, which first introduced Helen’s partner Rob as a charming man two years ago before slowly revealing his violent and coercive nature, has already led to a campaign to support “real-life Helens” raising more than £130,000.

Following the controversial episode in which Helen was provoked into stabbing Rob, listeners have learned that she faces either six years for wounding with intent or 12 for attempted murder, as well as the certainty of giving birth while in custody.

Gove is of course absolutely right that we need radically to reform how we treat women offenders. There are too many women are in jail. As the Guardian says, a prison sentence not only punishes them, but also makes life much tougher for their children.”

The paper reports that there are only 64 MBU places in England and Wales and fewer prisons for women than men. In fact I suspect that all of those places are in England as there are no women prisons in Wales at all. Thus, when they say that women are often held further from their homes than men, even though they tend to serve shorter sentences on average, that problems is exacerbated this side of Offa's Dyke.

Nor is this a new phenomena, it is just a shame that it has taken a storyline in a soap to bring it to national prominence.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Losing the argument

Godwin’s Law is an internet adage that is derived from one of the earliest bits of Usenet wisdoms, which goes “if you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.” In other words you have lost the argument.

Those defending Boris Johnson's attempt to compare the supposed creation of a European Superstate with the ambitions of Adolf Hitler, whose actions led to the loss of millions of lives and countless suffering, have really missed the point.

The individuals that Boris names were power-hungry autocrats who would stop at nothing to achieve their aim. The European Union was set up to thwart that sort of ambition. All of its members are democracies and it is overseen by an directly-elected Parliament.

Those who form the Council of Ministers are accountable to their own electors, whilst membership of the Commission is ratified by the European Parliament, who also vote on Commission directives. Proposals are sent to national Parliaments for ratification in advance.

This is not a Superstate it is a federation of like-minded democracies working together for mutual advantage. Membership offers irreplaceable benefits and, contrary to claims by the likes of Boris Johnson, we retain our own sovereignty and control over our own country.

The World has changed massively since the EU was set up. Economic forces can no longer be constrained within a single national border, if they ever could. Our economy is dominated by multinational companies and our currency and prosperity is dependent on others for success. The only way we can influence such forces is as part of a multinational bloc such as the EU.

The EU has secured peace for Western Europe for over half a century. If Boris has his way he will leave us vulnerable to future dictators who want to dominate the UK and the rest of Europe.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Losing the heartland vote

As the member of a party that is struggling to establish a core vote at all, I found this analysis by the Fabian Society on what is happening to Labour support amongst its traditional voters to be a useful distraction.

According to the Guardian Labour is struggling to attract the working-class voters who traditionally formed the core of its support. They say that a report for the Fabian Society by the political analyst Lewis Baston shows that Labour performed well in what he calls “the most modern bits of England” and badly in its heartlands:

Turnout in local elections tends to be much lower than at general elections, and they are often fought on purely local issues, but regional patterns can help give pointers as to a party’s appeal for different groups of voters.

Labour lost a net 18 council seats once all the votes were counted and drew ahead of the Conservatives on the projected national share of the vote by 1 percentage point – a better result than many experts predicted.

Baston finds that despite the deep divide within the parliamentary Labour party between the leftwing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and centrist “Blairite” MPs, the party’s best showing was in areas where New Labour succeeded.

“The best Labour results were in some of the most modern bits of England, in London and its hinterland. Swindon, Milton Keynes, Reading and Crawley, and the leafy London suburbs, are what used to be regarded as classic New Labour territory, but now seem oddly fond of new old Labour,” he said. “A more traditional socialist appeal seems to go over better with these voters than with the traditional working class.”

By contrast, voters switched to the Conservatives in areas where Labour needs to win seats to secure a majority in 2020, such as Nuneaton and Cannock Chase, compared with the 2012 local elections.

“Weakness in crucial types of constituencies in 2016, such as unpretentious Midlands towns (Nuneaton, Cannock) and big city suburbs (Bury, Bolton) is ominous, while stronger showings were in affluent seats that are either already Labour or require large swings to be sustained through to May 2020,” Baston said.

Comparing the results in marginal constituencies with the 2015 general election, Labour saw its share of the vote improve by 3.3% in the south, and 2.2% in the Midlands, but in the north, it declined by 1.8%.

There does not appear to be any reference to whether this under-performance was down to UKIP taking traditional working class votes off Labour or not, though I suspect that was a factor. Most worrying for Corbyn though is the conclusion that the report's author draws from the results:

“Labour’s performance in 2016 was squarely in line with what one might expect a year into a parliament where the opposition is not going to win the general election,” he said.

Andrew Harrop, the Fabian Society general secretary, said: “The results may not have been a disaster for Labour, but there is no sign that Jeremy Corbyn will do any better than Ed Miliband in winning the sorts of seats which Labour needs to govern.

It may well be too early to tell. A Liberal Democrats revival, in which they take back some of the votes they lost to the Tories though, would make it more likely that the Labour Party perform better in 2020 than they did in 2015.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Tackling the immigration myths

So many people have told me that they want to leave the EU because of the immigration issue that I thought it is worth reproducing this article in the Independent from a few days ago.

The paper says that a report, by the London School of Economics, has found that wage variations for British workers have little correlation to immigration rates and are instead primarily linked to overriding economic factors such as the global economic crisis. The report’s authors also state that rather than being a burden on resources, immigrants pay more in taxes than they use in public services and play a vital role in reducing the budget deficit:

The 9 biggest myths debunked by the research are:

1) EU immigrants come to the UK to claim benefits - They are less likely to claim benefits than British born citizens are

2) EU immigrants are a drain on the economy - They are more likely to create jobs by using local shops and other services, which increases demand for goods and services, in turn creating more employment opportunities

3) EU immigrants are responsible for high unemployment rates - areas with high immigration do not have higher rates of unemployed British people than other areas with less immigration

4) Wage drops are due to EU immigration - The biggest cause of recent reduction in real wage value has been the global economic crisis and shows no relationship with immigration.

5) EU immigrants are a drain on public services like hospitals and schools - They contribute more in tax than they use in public services

6) Staying in the EU means there is a risk the refugee crisis will spread to the UK - Refugees living in other EU countries, such as Germany, have no right to enter the UK

7) EU immigrants are uneducated and unskilled - On average they have higher education attainment levels than British born citizens do

8) EU immigration brings crime to the UK - There is no evidence that crime levels increase in line with the number of immigrants living in an area

9) Leaving the EU would stop immigration - Any countries accessing the Single Market must allow free movement of EU citizens whether in the EU or not

There is nothing to fear from staying within the EU. In fact immigration strengthens our economy and benefits society.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Leave campaign resort to bully-boy tactics

In-fighting amongst the Leave campaign has got so bad that key figures in the official organisation have now resorted to threatening broadcasters in revenge for them choosing rival figures to represent the anti-Europe cause in key debates.

The Independent reports that ITV, Britain’s main commercial broadcaster has been warned that it faces “consequences for its future” after scheduling a debate between Nigel Farage and David Cameron in the run-up to the EU referendum:

In an extraordinary statement issued late last night Vote Leave accused ITV of “lying” over its plans to invite Mr Farage to take part in the debate instead of Michael Gove or Boris Johnson.

They suggested ITV News’ respected political editor Robert Peston was biased in favour of the EU and accused the organisation of “secretly stitching up a deal” with Downing Street.

“ITV has effectively joined the official IN campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists.

“There will be consequences for its future - the people in No10 won't be there for long.”

This morning a spokesman for Vote Leave refused to back down from the threat of “consequences” for ITV but refused to say what they might be.

Mr Cameron is widely expected to be forced to resign if he fails to win the referendum with Mr Johnson most likely to take his place. He will now be under pressure to say what those “consequences” might be.

This is not the behaviour of people committed to the democratic process. Instead it smacks of desperation and disunity. Who do these people think they are?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The crisis in Welsh housing

I have been saying for some time the real crisis within the Welsh housing sector is that there are not enough homes available to meet demand.

Now a survey by Shelter Cymru has found that 83% of people in Wales agree that there is a "crisis" in housing supply.

Their call for more affordable homes to be built exactly accords with the Welsh Liberal Democrats policy during the Assembly election.

ITV Wales reports that four out of five people in Wales are in favour of massive growth in the number of affordable homes built each year.

Other results of the survey are that 82% support a policy to build 250,000 affordable homes across the UK every year for the next four years, 89% agreed that without help from family, it is becoming increasingly difficult to become a homeowner, 58% would support building on brownfield sites, and 52% would restricting foreign ownership of properties for investment.

The new Welsh Government, whoever it is, needs to get to grip with this problem quickly and also look at assisting with home ownership through schemes such as rent to own.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

UKIP Welsh Assembly group erupts into open warfare

The new Welsh Assembly has not met yet and already the newly-elected UKIP group are fighting amongst themselves. By any measure yesterday's events in which Neil Hamilton ousted Nathan Gill as UKIP Assembly leader, are extraordinary, not just because of what happened but also how the key figures publicly reacted. Here is one twitter report:

Neil Hamilton is now entitled to an annual salary of £84,000 and has indicated that he will also be employing his wife. That is of course the rate for the job, though the Welsh Liberal Democrats opposed the salary rise that has just been introduced and would not have taken the extra money.

The new UKIP Assembly leader has a history. It may well be that is the reason why Farage is unhappy with this little coup. Hamilton is the man who walked away from a £10 million libel suit against the the Guardian in 1996. At the time the paper reported:

The Guardian stated on October 20, 1994, that Mr Hamilton had received thousands of pounds for asking parliamentary questions for Mohamed Al Fayed's Harrods group. Mr Greer, who had been retained by Mr Al Fayed, was identified as the middleman.

Another MP, Tim Smith, resigned his post as a Northern Ireland minister after he was accused in the same article of taking undeclared cash. He immediately admitted the Guardian story was true. Mr Hamilton, MP for Tatton, had instead tried to tough it out before resigning under pressure from Mr Major.

The settlement, on the eve of what was labelled the libel trial of the century, came after a dramatic weekend of legal developments. Those began when the government disclosed crucial documents to the Guardian. The papers led to Mr Greer and Mr Hamilton falling out, and a conflict of interest developing. Mr Greer's accounts were also in the newspaper's possession.

The Guardian also served on the men's lawyers three statements from employees of Mr Al Fayed. They said Mr Hamilton and Mr Greer regularly called for envelopes stuffed with £50 notes in return for parliamentary lobbying.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, said: "The decision by Neil Hamilton and Ian Greer must be one of the most astonishing legal cave-ins in the history of the law of libel."

Hamilton still maintains his innocence, but these things have a habit of resurfacing especially when the new UKIP group starts to act like all those other political parties they claim to be different from.

Putting a man with Hamilton's history at the head of their new group has destroyed in an instance any claim UKIP in Wales have of being different to the rest.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why we are safer in

The economic arguments for staying within the European Union are overwhelming and should be reason enough to vote that way on 23rd June. However, there are other reasons for staying too.

One of these reasons is the security and safety of this country and its citizens. Yesterday, as reported by the Independent,two former security chiefs expanded on that argument:

In a direct challenge to Leave campaigners who have argued that Britain’s membership of the EU leaves the country more vulnerable to terrorist attack, Baron Evans of Weardale, the former director-general of MI5, and Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, said the opposite was true.

They argued that a vote to leave could damage intelligence sharing because the EU would restrict surveillance powers if the UK were not in the union.

Intelligence work today relies on the lawful and accountable use of large data-sets to reveal the associations and activities of terrorists and cyber-attackers,” they write in an article for the Sunday Times.

“The terms on which we exchange data with other European countries are set by agreement within the EU.

“As an EU member, we shape the debate, we push for what we think is the right balance between security and privacy and we benefit from the data that flows as a result.”

They conclude: “An agreement reached without us would probably be too restrictive for our needs . . . this could undermine our ability to protect ourselves.”

Sir John later told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "It's not just about the day-to-day co-operation, it's about the wider stability of our continent. We are only secure because the wider Europe is secure.

"Pulling out will make it more dangerous. There is a real risk of the pressures on the European Union - migration pressure, economic pressures, pressures from Russia - pulling the European Union apart.

"We are seeing politics in Europe going to the extreme left, to the extreme right. We need to make sure that the centre is solid and the European Union plays its role underpinning democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe."

These are authorative and knowledgeable voices who we ignore at our peril.

Monday, May 09, 2016

In defence of the BBC

Like many other people I watched the BAFTAs last night and heard Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky accuse the government of trying to “eviscerate” the BBC and Channel 4. He quite rightly got a standing ovation for his speech.

Kosminsky told viewers that Government proposals to appoint a majority of members on a new BBC board threatened its independence and would turn it into a state broadcaster “a bit like ... those bastions of democracy Russia and North Korea”.

He said the government wanted to tell the BBC what programmes to make and when to schedule them:

“It’s not their BBC, it’s your BBC. In many ways, the BBC and Channel 4, which they are also attempting to eviscerate, are the envy of the world and we should stand up and fight for it, not let it go by default,” Kosminsky said.

“If we don’t, blink and it will be gone. No more Wolf Halls, no more ground-breaking Dispatches [on Channel 4], just a broadcasting landscape where the only determinate of whether it gets made is whether it lines the pockets of shareholders.

“This is really scary stuff, folks, and not something I thought I would see in my lifetime in this country. All of this is under threat right now, make no mistake. It’s time to stand up and say no to this dangerous nonsense.”

As it happens I do have some sympathy with comments in this morning's press that the ceremony was just a bunch of lovies defending their own privileged position. But I would counter, if not them, then who?

The BBC does try too hard in my opinion to meet its impartiality guidelines, apologising when it might be best to let a comment pass, countering on behalf of a particular cause when an interviewee challenges it. But that does not detract from its position as an independent public service broadcaster. You only have to look at FOX news in the USA to see how unpalatable the alternative is.

It is not for government to dictate the policies of any broadcaster or media outlet. That really is the route to dictatorship. Equally though, it would be nice if others, who do not have a vested interest took up the cudgel thrown down by Kosminsky last night and stood up for the BBC, Channel 4 and all those on provincial newspapers whose jobs are under threat through the concerted effort of their owners to maximise profits at the expense of good journalism.

If those of us who value our freedoms do not speak out then we might as well give Government the right to do what it wishes with our media and ultimately our human rights.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Building hope from the wreckage

I have spent the last few days coming to terms with what happened in the early hours of Friday morning. I have had many messages of support from so many people both on Facebook, Twitter, via text, on the phone or in person. It has helped to ease the pain of my loss.

Yesterday I went to Skewen to fulfil a commitment I had made as an AM to help launch a new book by the Skewen Historical Society about their community during World War One.

The book is a remarkable testament to the sacrifice, heroism and commitment of all those who gave their lives to fight for their country and of those who supported them and contributed in every way. It is also a testament to a remarkable community, but one that is not unique and which was replicated up and down the country during those dark days between July 1914 and November 1918. It certainly put last Thursday into perspective.

The Skewen History Society kindly insisted that I carry out the engagement despite the fact I had lost my seat and I was touched by how many people came up to me to thank me for my work and to express their regret that I had lost my seat.

But this Assembly election was not just about me. It was also about those countless volunteers who found time in their busy lives to campaign for the party and for me personally.

Without them our democratic process would fall apart. No matter which party they are working for those who volunteer to write envelopes, run socials, deliver leaflets, canvass, make telephone calls and a whole range of other tasks are the glue that holds our democracy together and guarantee the freedoms that so many gave their lives for over the last 100 plus years.

It was also about the candidates who went beyond the call of duty and put their own time and reputation on the line, despite knowing that they could not win.

In my region I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Helen Ceri Clarke, Jonathan Pratt, Anita Davies, Frank H Little, Christopher Holley, Charlene Anika, Sheila Kingston-Jones, Cheryl Green, Mike Day their agents, their helpers and their family. Without their hard work and commitment I could not have fought the campaign I did. I also owe so much to my own family and friends who have supported me throughout.

That we did not do better was not their fault. We were the victim of national trends. However, if they are up for continuing the fight then I am happy to work with them.

There is still so much to do to help those who are being left behind by the system, even if all we can offer is hope of change. I want to offer more than that.

That is why I went into politics in the first place and I am not going to allow one setback stop me from getting back out there and campaigning for social justice for those who need it the most.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Please vote Welsh Liberal Democrats today

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

How safe is our personal data?

As if it were not bad enough that the UK Tory Government is seeking to give the security forces, the police and local councils carte blanche to randomly and indiscriminately access our personal data, the Independent reports that the NHS has given the medical records of 1.6 million patients to Google.

The records, which relate to patients of three London hospitals which form the Royal Free Trust; Barnet, Chase Farm and Royal Free Hospital collected over the course of the last five years, have been shared with Google as part of a data-sharing agreement. An estimated 1.6 million patients attend the hospitals every year.

According to the report,  Google says it intends to use the data as part of its group DeepMind to develop a health app which can help recognise kidney injury. However, campaigners have expressed concerns that the data-share is a breach of trust and not in patients’ interest:

Phil Booth, coordinator of medConfidential which campaigns for confidentiality in healthcare, told The Independent that the data-share was “not in the spirit of the NHS.” He said: “There are existing and strong processes for doing safe medical research using data; but this project seems to have followed none of them. To ensure patient confidence, properly run projects require transparency on what is being done, and why. That is to protect patients from the confusion about what this data will be used for.” Google has denied this, stating that it is following strict HSCIC information governance rules.

Google has been criticised in recent times for perceived privacy breaches due to the amount of data which it holds on individuals. In 2014, 38 US states sued Google when it was alleged that the cars with which the company takes Google Street View photographs had also been collecting data from computers inside the homes they drove past.

The company has also been accused of sifting through information on messages sent by users through its system to sell the byproducts to advertisers and not making it sufficiently clear to customers that it is able to read wifi passwords.

The commercialisation of patient records is in nobody's interests and this action by the NHS must add to the serious concerns about the current government's attitude to privacy and personal data.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The challenge of getting onto the housing ladder

The extent by which the housing market is frustrating the ambitions of many young people is revealed today in an article in the Times.  They report that parents helping their children on to the property ladder have become such an intrinsic part of the housing market that they will be involved in a quarter of all property transactions this year.

The paper says that a report by Legal & General and the Centre for Economics and Business Research has revealed that the “bank of mum and dad” is now the equivalent of a top-ten mortgage lender in the UK:

Rising house prices, years without real-terms wage rises, a shortage of supply and tougher mortgage regulations since the financial crisis have made it difficult for first-time buyers to get on to the property ladder.

The research shows that parents will lend more than £5 billion this year, providing deposits for more than 300,000 mortgages and helping to purchase homes worth £77 billion. On average, parents or family contribute £17,500 to a child’s house — about 7 per cent of the average purchase price.

The problem as Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of Legal & General, says is that such a model risks increasing inequality, because “many young people are not lucky enough to be able to access parental support”.

And because house prices are rising then those parents will face having to give ever increasing proportions of their savings.

The report says that about 256,400 houses will be bought with the help of parents, while a further 22,500 will be supported by grandparents and 27,000 by other family or friends. Nearly 60 per cent of contributions are given as gifts, 18 per cent as loans with no interest and 5 per cent as loans with interest.

The housing market is intrinsically linked to the success or otherwise of the UK's economy. But it is also a measure of how equal our society is. With so many people excluded from owning their own home because of the cost, then clearly something is very wrong.

Government intervention is always very tricky as it can distort the market and make things worse, but schemes such as help to rent, and help to buy can make a difference and need to be adopted and/or extended by the Welsh Government after 5th May.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Welcome move on restaurant tipping

Government plans to end unfair tipping practices and ensure additional payments for service are voluntary to the consumer, and received by workers in full as reported by the Independent today are very welcome.

The paper says that the plans include updating the current voluntary code of practice, increasing transparency for consumers to make it clearer that tips are discretionary, and preventing or limiting any employer deduction from tips, except for those required under tax law.

There is currently no legal requirement for the proportions of discretionary payments that go to employers and workers. The Government is also considering whether to ban or restrict the levying of table sales charges, a fee paid by waiting staff based on their sales during a shift.

I blogged on this issue in August last year. This change is long overdue and will ensure that when we enjoy good service the staff get the full reward that the customer has given to them.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

New technology I will not touch with a barge pole

I wear glasses. I have never worn contact lenses and am not likely to do so. The thought of putting something in my eye fills me with dread. I am sure that others feel the same. There are exceptions of course but I would guess that this feeling is going to be a significant barrier to Google's latest wheeze.

The Independent reports that the internet giant is working on a computer that can be injected into people’s eyeballs. They say that a new patent filing shows plans for a device that would stick into people’s eyes and correct their sight, but also provide extra powers. The injectable machine would be put just behind the visible part of the eye, focusing light so that it can correct poor vision.

Correcting poor vision is one thing, but having a device inserted into one's eye that will also include storage, a radio and lenses and which be powered by an energy-gathering antenna is a lot more disturbing. The antenna would allow the eye-based computer to connect to another device outside of the eye that would help it process information.

Perhaps I have seen too much science fiction and that is making me paranoid about this sort of technology. Whatever, they aint putting it in my eye.

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