Saturday, 10 October 2015

FoI hit squad

The Independent's editorial today weighs in against the Conservative government's committee to review the working of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The committee certainly includes people who have expressed their opposition to transparency of government in the past. It is rather like the SMMT being given the chance to review vehicle emissions legislation. It could lead to the paradoxical situation of the government resisting attempts to protect the privacy of the citizen, in the cause of anti-terrorism, while making sure that the citizen cannot check the working of government.

One might think that the only objectors to the government review of the FoI Act are all the usual lefty suspects, but examination of the signatories to Index On Censorship's letter of objection reveals such supporters of the Establishment as Sky News, Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Mail On Sunday.

Government should take a holistic approach to crime and punishment

The Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary Michael Gove are making the right noises about prison reform, wrote Nigel Morris in yesterday's Independent. England and Wales would save public money by reducing the prison population ("it costs more than £30,000 a year to keep an offender locked up"). In the short term, more use of electronic tagging could reduce the prison population, as could extension of restorative justice schemes. In the longer term, using prison to reform inmates as well as punish them, would save even more. Admittedly, staff numbers, both in prison and in probation services, would need to rise in the short term but would fall as reforms bore fruit.

However, as Mr Morris also points out, there is a strong resistance among conservatives (on both sides of the gangway -  witness the extraordinary number of imprisonable offences created by the Blair-Brown governments from 1997 on) to anything that smacks of going soft on crime. It does not help that while he is attempting to reform prisons, Mr Gove's own Department earlier this year imposed a scale of court charges which is likely to encourage dubious guilty pleas. The criminal legal aid budget has been cut. The MoJ is also poised to reduce the number of courts, thus imposing travelling costs on more defendants and witnesses. These are all likely to swell the prison population.

Mr Gove needs to stand firm on his own reform plans, but also reverse those policies which have reduced access to justice.

Friday, 9 October 2015

2016 - some momentous elections coming up

Book-ending the year will be the two presidential elections which will dominate the English media: FIFA's special congress on 26th February to designate a successor to Sepp Blatter and on 8th November a little affair across the pond.

Most dominant here of course will be the Welsh general election. Such is the overwhelming influence of the London media that Welsh Labour is bound to suffer from the attacks on the national party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This barrage is sure to be mounted in connection with the elections in London on 5th May, the same day as the Welsh and Scottish generals. Welsh Liberal Democrats will go into the election with genuine hopes of making gains. We will be without the handicaps of being in coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster and having a national leader who was probably more reviled in Wales than in any other nation in the kingdom, handicaps which dented our chances in 2011. We will go into the election with a popular federal leader in Tim Farron and an increasingly respected national leader in Kirsty Williams. Their only problem will be achieving media exposure - but this is a difficulty facing the Conservative and Labour leaders also. More to the point, we have already seized the high ground on two policy areas which are dominant public concerns: health and housing*.

Some time during the year there will be a referendum on the UK's position in Europe. The big money is piling into the "leave" campaigns - another one was launched yesterday - and those of us who want to stay in will struggle to make our voices heard.

But after those, I will also have an eye on local and regional elections in South Africa, which will be seen as a judgment on the scandal-ridden national ANC administration. The Liberal Democratic Alliance looks to make further progress in areas where it is already strong. The latest changes to the DA's shadow cabinet may well extend its appeal beyond its heartland.

* The party has also formulated detailed proposals for the future of Welsh taxes in a paper which I am about to tackle in advance of our AGM and conference in Swansea next month. 

Thursday, 8 October 2015

National Poetry Day

When National Poetry Day was first instituted, a panel of notables on Radio Wales was stumped when asked to name their favourite poem. What immediately leapt to my mind was Robert Browning's celebration of love against war. Having a favourite poem is as dubious as having a favourite child, but this must come in my top ten. Browning's imagined ruined city is almost certainly set in his loved Italian countryside, but it could equally be a Welsh hill-top fortress.

Love among the Ruins

Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
         Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward thro' the twilight, stray or stop
         As they crop—
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
         (So they say)
Of our country's very capital, its prince
         Ages since
Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far
         Peace or war.

Now the country does not even boast a tree,
         As you see,
To distinguish slopes of verdure, certain rills
         From the hills
Intersect and give a name to, (else they run
         Into one)
Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires
         Up like fires
O'er the hundred-gated circuit of a wall
         Bounding all
Made of marble, men might march on nor be prest
         Twelve abreast.

And such plenty and perfection, see, of grass
         Never was!
Such a carpet as, this summer-time, o'er-spreads
         And embeds
Every vestige of the city, guessed alone,
         Stock or stone—
Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
         Long ago;
Lust of glory pricked their hearts up, dread of shame
         Struck them tame;
And that glory and that shame alike, the gold
         Bought and sold.

Now—the single little turret that remains
         On the plains,
By the caper overrooted, by the gourd
While the patching houseleek's head of blossom winks
         Through the chinks—
Marks the basement whence a tower in ancient time
         Sprang sublime,
And a burning ring, all round, the chariots traced
         As they raced,
And the monarch and his minions and his dames
         Viewed the games.

And I know, while thus the quiet-coloured eve
         Smiles to leave
To their folding, all our many-tinkling fleece
         In such peace,
And the slopes and rills in undistinguished grey
         Melt away—
That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair
         Waits me there
In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
         For the goal,
When the king looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
            Till I come.

But he looked upon the city, every side,
         Far and wide,
All the mountains topped with temples, all the glades'
All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts,—and then
         All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
         Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
         Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
         Each on each.

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
         South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
         As the sky
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force—
         Gold, of course.
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
         Earth's returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
         Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
         Love is best.

Clare Hollingworth still going strong

This is the latest tribute I can find on the Web, when Ms Hollingworth was only 103! I remember her reports from some nasty trouble-spots in north Africa and the Middle East when the Guardian was still a Liberal newspaper. She later switched to the Telegraph.

On the eve of her 104th, there are moves to revive her reputation, as few under-50s know of her.

Closely observed grooves

Who knew that a Czech village was the source of most of the vinyl discs now enjoying a revival? and tell the story. (Thanks to BBC World Service for the report which inspired this post.)

Among the early components of my LP collection must be products from Loděnice, as the factory was it seems originally part of Supraphon. In the days of the Soviet bloc, the company was the source of inexpensive but high-quality recordings of the standard repertoire and of Czech composers not much recorded in the West.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Safe Harbor not so safe

I am waiting to hear UKIP's protest that Britons have a right to have their personal details picked over by United States government agencies without EU interference.

According to our Information Commissioner, negotiations are already under way to replace Safe Harbor with something stronger.