Saturday, 20 December 2008

Help needed to establish right-of-way in Skewen

Arthur Davies, Labour councillor for Coedffranc Central, has asked for help in registering a long-used railway crossing as a right-of-way. This is a matter which transcends party political differences, and I am happy to give this part of his newsletter wider publicity. There may well be former residents of Skewen reading this who have the requisite evidence.

He writes that: some five years ago, Network Rail fenced off the railway that runs south of Skewen, apparently for reasons of safety. By closing off the Cardonnel Halt crossing*, this effectively removed direct access to the Tennant Canal from Skewen.

At that time, Arthur contacted a number of people who, he knew, used the crossing regularly. They submitted a request via Coedffranc Community Council to make the crossing a registered right of way. This would open up the towpath going west from the former Johnson's Yard to the Red Jacket Pill and from there on to Jersey Marine. Network Rail contested the application, arguing that it is not legally possible to register a right of way over a railway line.

The legal team acting on behalf of the County Borough have now come back asking for more evidence. They would like details of the industries that were in the vicinity and when they were active. They also asked for names of those who had used the crossing, for example to gain access to the canal. The barrister representing the council also asked if there were any local history books, railway listing publications or photographs of the site. He also sought the assistance of local historians.

If you have used Cardonnel Halt crossing or have relevant information, please tell Cllr Arthur Davies on 01792 814910 or Mike Workman on 01792 636008. Alternatively, email the author of this blog, and I will pass the details on.

*The crossing is between the lane to Wern Andrew farm and Jenkins Road, which runs parallel to the Tennant Canal below the bridge carrying the A465.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Obama: significant appointment of Energy Secretary

Only the BBC's World Service and the Guardian of our news media picked up on possibly the most significant appointment so far by the US President-elect. The energy secretary will be Nobel prize-winning physicist Steve Chu, a committed advocate for action on climate change.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Department for Transport efficiency savings will produce net loss

I think I know what happened. The systems design team in Swansea (or possibly London) worked out how long it would take to implement the new system. They told the management it would be ready in, say, August. The politicians (either within or without the civil service) replied that the date was unacceptable, and the changes must be ready for the start of the financial year. Timetable compressed, testing skimped, "big bang" release, system falls over.

Eventually it will be made to work nine months later than the original estimated date.

Been there. Done that. Got the tee-shirt.

Madoff not the biggest swindler ever

Some people are claiming that Bernard Madoff's "great big lie" was the biggest con ever. Perhaps in terms of the sums involved it may have been (though adjustments have to be made for inflation). However, there was one misdirected genius who bestrode the financial world in the first third of the twentieth century, who negotiated monopoly deals with governments, and who took in the stock markets of the world: Ivar Kreuger, the "match king".

He went out in style, too; not for him throwing himself on the mercy of the finacial authorities like Madoff, but a bullet through the heart in a Paris apartment.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Deal done behind council's back

It's in Scotland, not Wales, and the party which has - quite legally - kept councillors in the dark is not Labour, but otherwise it is a familiar story.

Hello, sailor; hello, boys!

A shipment of 130,000 inflatable breasts has been lost at sea between Beijing and Australia.

Australian men's magazine Ralph intended to include the breasts as a free gift with its January edition. The publisher did float the idea that they had been seized by pirates, but as the organisation is already in debt (according to the Digital Spy report ), one doubts whether it could raise the ransom money.

It is more likely that they are drifting on oceanic currents, which would make them a distinctive successor to the famous plastic ducks as a research tool.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Solictors who exploited sick miners struck off

James Beresford, 58, and Douglas Smith, 52, both from Beresfords Solicitors in Doncaster filed personal injury claims for miners. Unfortunately for the claimants, the firm took up to 30% of the miners' damages in fees, even though the government's coal health compensation scheme already paid for legal assistance. The two were struck off on Thursday.

Sky News reports that the Law Society has already begun investigations into 67 of the firms who charged "success fees" and 25 have been referred to the Solicitors' Regulatory Authority (SRA). About 30 solicitors have been reprimanded.

The good news is that £350,000 compensation has been repayed to miners so far. The bad news is that the recovered payments will have come too late for some miners.

The Beresford Group is still advertising for industrial injury claims business.

Friday, 12 December 2008

The McPound and the cost of borrowing

At the start of official trading in the euro on 4th January 1999, it was worth 71.1 pence. This was to rise slightly in the following week as banks and others built up reserves in the new currency, only to fall back during 1999 to 66p or occasionally less. This encouraged europhobes to dismiss the euro as a failure, but confidence has grown in the currency to the extent that many primary producers have switched from denominating in the dollar to denominating in euros.

BBC "Working Lunch"'s financial page is currently showing the euro as worth 89p. It will be interesting to see where it stands on its tenth anniversary in just over three weeks time. Already some bureaux d'échange are reporting to be selling euros at just above parity with the pound.

During the week, it was revealed that investing in UK government debt is now almost twice as risky as buying burger-chain McDonald's corporate bonds, according to the market in credit default swaps (CDS), which provides insurance for the buyers of such debt.

This is surely worrying for people needing to raise money for public projects in the UK. Financing public housing development has until now been regarded as a very safe investment, but one wonders whether the diminishing status of UK gilts will have an effect here. Perhaps I am naive, but I suspect that it may be increasingly difficult to fund the many large scale transfers (LSVTs) of local authority housing in Wales. It is surely sensible for the Welsh Assembly Government to take the pressure off local authorities to hold ballots on LSVT until the money market stabilises.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Personal data held by councils not encrypted

silicon.com reports that: "according to a study of 40 out of the 49 city councils in the [UK] carried out by systems integrator Telindus, [...] 90 per cent could not say for sure that all sensitive data held on staff laptops is encrypted."

One wonders first of all what these data are doing on laptops anyway. Given that there is a need, it is surprising that "43 per cent said they still have no plans to upgrade data protection policies".

An anonymous officer is quoted as saying: 'We use the 'cross your fingers and hope for the best' system."

Monday, 8 December 2008

Shock! Horror! Many Welsh sceptical of Christmas story.

The Western Mail prints the results of a survey (what would newspapers do without surveys?) which appears to show that Welsh people are more likely to regard the Christmas story as fictional than their counterparts in any other part of the UK.

The paper then takes a flying leap across the evidential chasm (as a solicitor friend is wont to say) in claiming that this shows that the Welsh are more secular than the rest. As an agnostic myself, I would like to believe that this was so, but it surely means only that the Welsh do not need the evidence of miracles, or "conjuring tricks with bones" as a former bishop of Durham put it, to confirm them in their faith.

Then there are the churches which follow the Abrahamic God, without according a special place to Christ. I believe the Unitarian Church has been particularly strong in Wales.

Liberal Democrat leadership shifts towards the centre

of Wales, that is. Congratulations to Kirsty Williams, AM for Brecon & Radnor, on winning the election by a comfortable, if not overwhelming, majority.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

John Milton's 400th

There must be something about the eighth year of a century. We seem to have been celebrating a larger than usual number of anniversaries involving liberalism this year.

This coming week it is the turn of John Milton His "Areopagitica" (I trust that is correct; I looked it up in two books and found three different spellings. I will trust George Orwell, though.) is almost literally an iconic document in the history of the Liberal and Liberal Democratic parties.

After all the criticism of BBC's lower standards, it is good to see the corporation devoting a goodly strand to the great man next week. It is all on Radio 3 , though, not on any of the popular channels, radio or TV. Personally, I welcome any insight into the poetry of Milton, which I find hard going, unmediated. It is one of my great regrets that I wasn't introduced to "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained" when my mind was younger and sharper.

That George Orwell reference, by the way, was in a 1946 essay, "The Prevention of Literature". It is reproduced on the web here, but the transcriber has perpetrated yet another mistake in spelling "Areopagitica"! That apart, it is well worth reading.

We may be freer to pass political judgments than in 1946, but the ability to publish information is becoming just as restricted.

Friday, 5 December 2008

HMRC cuts counter-intuitive

The customary (and, it appears, cosmetic) consultation process has been completed, and the cuts in Revenue & Customs offices in Wales are to go through as announced in the summer.

This at a time when small businesses could really benefit from direct contact with Hector (and his female equivalent). The Revenue has gone to great lengths in the last decade to engage with taxpayers and this centralising move will set the process back, in such centres as Brecon, Bridgend, Carmarthen, Haverfordwest and Pembroke Dock. It appears that so far from reducing the impact, the consultation process has seen the addition of Aberystwyth, not a negligible town, to the list.

A plug (geddit?) I am happy to give

Peter Black AM endorses Port Talbot-built Stevens electric cars and vans.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Nigel Balchin

Today is the centenary of one of the great twentieth-century novelists. He is described in Clive James's critical note as a popular novelist, which he certainly was, but he also painfully analysed flawed relationships and the flaws in good men. No doubt his day job as an industrial psychologist (possibly the first in the UK) before the second world war informed his best work. James reckoned that Balchin was still popular in the 1970s, but he is scarcely mentioned in the media I scan these days.

This is a pity, because his work has hardly dated. It also lends itself to radio adaptation, and one hoped that BBC would either dig out its classic dramatisation of "The Small Back Room" or make new ones.

James dismisses his later work as a decline. This may be true in terms of its intellectual weight (though "Kings of Infinite Space" is one of the better fictions dealing with the early US space programme, and also believably gets into the mind of a technologist near the cutting-edge of his discipline), but they are still well-crafted and very readable. "Kings ...", "In the Absence of Mrs Peterson" and "Seen Dimly Before Dawn" are probably the best way in to Balchin before working back to the big three: "The Small Back Room", "Mine Own Executioner" and "Darkness Falls from the Air".

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Jason Smith

I am grateful to the Evening Post for bringing me up-to-date on the career of Jason Smith. The last I heard of him was when he announced that he was leaving Swansea City to take up coaching. As one half of one of the best-ever Swans defensive partnerships, before it was broken up by injury and the financial shenanigans at the Vetch at the time, he was surely well-qualified to train up-and-coming centre-backs.

It seems that Smith is now back in Devon as a financial adviser, obviously an important job in these difficult times, but I hope his football nous is not lost to the next generation.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Couldn't be abuse, must be bullying; so that's all right, then.

Yet again, a devious sociopath has managed to conceal gross child abuse from the authorities. In scale, the Lincolnshire case dwarfs anything which has occurred in England & Wales in recent years and is more like that of the Austrian Josef Fritzl. Nick Clegg, the MP for a constituency in Sheffield, where the abuser was finally brought to book yesterday, confessed to incredulity that such things could have gone on undetected for so long.

The convicted businessman was obviously cleverer than the Haringey mother. The reports in the media detail his m.o. in evading action by the authorities. However, the signs were there.

One that leapt out at me was the report that "in 1988, burn marks on one of the girl's faces were spotted at their school but were put down to school bullying". Who decided that it was "only" bullying - the school authorities or a social services team leader? What sort of school was it that accepted the diagnosis but failed to investigate the "bullying"?

Lord Laming wrote (para 6.602) in his report on the Victoria Climbié case: "While I accept that social workers are not detectives, I do not consider that they should simply serve as the passive recipients of information, unquestioningly accepting all that they are told by the carers of children about whom there are concerns. The concept of 'respectful uncertainty' should lie at the heart of the relationship between the social worker and the family. It does not require social workers constantly to interrogate their clients, but it does involve the critical evaluation of information that they are given. People who abuse their children are unlikely to inform social workers of the fact. For this reason at least, social workers must keep an open mind."

Help save lost rights-of-way

The Ramblers' Association has a petition here which is self-explanatory. I would only add that not only paths enjoyed by long-distance walkers are affected. Habitual footpaths, such as those taken as a short cut by ordinary members of the public and which may be taken for granted, are liable to be lost.

Leighton: back to basics

Allan Leighton, boss of the Royal Mail, was questioned on BBC2's Working Lunch today about the continuing closure of post offices. Sidestepping the issue of the government taking away official transactions and thereby destroying local businesses (an instance of which had just been shown) , he expressed optimism that the post office network was about the right size to be viable after the latest round of cuts. He drew attention to the revival of support for the Post Office Card Account. "Good old basic banking is back," he said, "and the Post Office is in a good position to deliver that."

Let's hope that the government has taken the message on board.

Welsh rail and road plans delayed

There was supposed to be a statement in the Senedd yesterday, but this is what was on the offiical web site:

13:30 Plenary meeting (the Siambr)

  • Full agenda
  • Summary:
  • Questions to the First Minister
  • Business Statement and Announcement
  • Statement by the Deputy First Minister and Minister for the Economy and Transport: The Rail Programme and Re-prioritisation of The Trunk Road Forward Programme (45 mins) - postponed to 2 December
  • Statement by the Minister for Rural Affairs: CAP Health Check (45 mins)
  • Statement by the Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills: Higher Education (45 mins)
  • Debate on Sustainable Procurement (60 mins)
  • Votes and proceedings
  • Record of proceedings

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Hospitals hit by virus of the computer variety

Jo Best of silicon.com has reported that the computer system serving a group of hospitals in London has acquired a virus. Details are sketchy, but it appears that the net effect of the (unidentified) virus has been to clog the system rendering it unusable, rather than corrupting clinical records.

It is depressing that, when we are all more aware of the prevalence and dangers of viral attacks, what could be critical IT systems are still not secure against them.

MPs have double standards for blogs

Paul Flynn MP has had part of his parliamentary allowance cut for expressing personal opinions on his blog.

I believe it was outrageous for MPs to vote themselves £10,000 as an allowance for communications, something that was always going to be exploited for self-promotion, when they are already very well paid for what they do. However, once having been granted, the allowance should have been administered impartially. A MP should not be punished for rising above identikit lobby-fodder, especially when the expression of his opinions is not funded by Parliament. Paul Flynn has not changed the funding of his web-site since he first set it up yonks ago. The causticity of his views should not have been unknown to the authorities, pre-communications-allowance.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Obama: anti-Islamic?

Barack Obama spent much time in his election campaign, more than he should have been expected to, rebutting claims from the Republican camp (though not, to his credit, from McCain himself) that he was linked to Islamic terrorism.

It appeared that he had recognised the danger of following the unthinking views of Reagan and GW Bush on Islam by promising to open talks with the Muslim leaders of Iran.

Two of his early appointments to his shadow White House team are worrying. His chief of staff will be Rahm Emanuel, son of an Israeli zealot and himself strictly observant. He has now appointed Sonal Shah, linked to Hindu extremists, to his advisory board.

I have no doubt that Emanuel was appointed because he was the best man for the job, not because of his religion. It was also necessary to connect with the growing, economically important, Indian community in the US.

However, the President-elect must urgently balance his support team with one or two people who are either Muslim or visibly supportive of the rights of Muslims where they under threat, as in India, the far east or Palestine. This is important not only for America, but also for us in Britain. We are linked in the eyes of the world, rightly or wrongly, with America's foreign policy.

We can take for granted his support for Christians where they are under threat. His task will be eased in Iraq and Iran if he does not go into negotiations with apparent anti-Islamic prejudices.

Baby P: Haringey social services have some excuses

The Ministry of Truth has a long and detailed analysis of the report in the Baby P case. It appears that the warning signs appeared over a much shorter time-span than the newspaper headlines suggest, and that some of the evidence may be tainted.

"Unity" quotes a chilling remark:
there is little to distinguish [the Baby P case] from many other child killings that happen (on average once every 10 days)
.

Monday, 17 November 2008

New President will be stripped of his BlackBerry

The story is in The Independent and here. It is obviously going to be a severe deprivation for Barack Obama.

One wonders, though, whether his pain would be any greater than that felt by Peter Black if he were to be similarly deprived.

2010

In his article on surfing the "Cloud" in The Independent's "Life" pull-out today, Tim Walker writes:

There's a scene towards the end of 2010, that most inferior of sci-fi sequels, in which Roy Scheider and his fellow planetary explorers discover an endless stream of Kubrick and Clarke's iconic monoliths – from the classic original 2001: A Space Odyssey – flooding from the gaseous clouds of Europa. Thanks to the Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs, Earth may soon resemble Jupiter's moon, orbited by an infinite number of alluring black rectangles. But, rather than the cosmic, life-generating beings of science fiction, these iconic real-world objects are flash drives sheathed in plastic: they're called iPhones.

That first sentence reminded me of an old saying among computer system support technicians: never apply an even-numbered update release.

Robert Owen, a paradox of socialism

Today is the 150th anniversary of the death of Robert Owen. He is hailed as the father of British socialism, yet his most successful venture, both financially and in terms of the benefits it brought to the community, was the commercial New Lanark mills.

My socialist friends are busy redefining socialism as favouring the small community, clearly disenchanted with both communism and the modern Labour Party. Ironically, the most prominent people claiming his heritage in Newtown this year have been politicians (whom he despised) who believe in the big centrally-directed state, the antithesis of Owen's cooperative instincts.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Haut de la Garenne: discrediting of physical evidence must not stop inquiries

The Jersey police, investigating claims of abuse at the Haut de la Garenne children's home, have discounted some of the physical evidence. Items excavated from the cellar and grounds have been scientifically examined and dismissed variously as not human in origin, or dating from Victorian times or earlier.

However, the doubt that has been cast on the wilder theories of excesses on Jersey must not be allowed to discredit the first-hand testimony of those who first raised concerns about children's services on the island.

There are still questions to be asked about people who appeared to be acting beyond the law and taking advantage of the most vulnerable young people.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Another Liberal response to that Blears speech

Stephen Tall published a considered response on Liberal Democrat Voice. The whole piece is well worth reading.

Its conclusion cannot be emphasised enough:

Here’s what we should be doing: working out how we can make Parliament matter less; how real power can be devolved not only to local councils, but further still to parishes and area committees, to cooperatives and residents’ and tenants’ associations; and - above all - to individuals. No-one should need to feel that they have to be elected to Parliament to have power over their own destiny; that power should be in their own hands already.

If only we had a Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who understood this. If only we had a Government which truly believed in putting Communities in Control, which really did want to return real power to real people. If only their words were more than verbiage.


Saturday, 8 November 2008

Ros Scott is president

I've just had the message from Chris Rennard: Baroness Scott has been elected Liberal Democrat Federal President.

For once, I have picked the winning ticket. Let's hope that Kirsty can make it two in a row.

Update:

Figures were:

Ros Scott 20,736 votes (72%)
Lembit Opik 6,247 votes (22%)
Chandila Fernando 1,799 votes (6%)

Turnout: 47.8% (+0.4% on last time)

Ros Scott will take up office on 1st January, succeeding Simon Hughes.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Just Jake

Look this up in the dictionary, and you will find that it is an Australian or American expression meaning that everything's all right, fine, correct.

It is also the title of a classic strip cartoon, which I was surprised to find actually has a Wikipedia entry. There are (far too brief) samples here.

The dim memory of "Just Jake" was dredged up by a chance wibble on CIX by Ken Palmerton of Fleetwood, recalling the classic Daily Mirror cartoon strips of the 1940s and 1950s. They may have drawn their inspiration from US originals, but they had peculiar qualities of their own, and it would be a pity if "Jane" were the only one to be memorialised.

"Just Jake" had the enviable quality of entertaining both the schoolchild and the more knowing adult, much as "The Simpsons" and "The Perishers" do today. Indeed, the original authors of the latter cited "Just Jake" as one of their influences.

So, how about it, Trinity Mirror? You've published collected editions of "The Perishers", "Andy Capp" and so on - what about samples of the classic "Just Jake", "Garth" or "Buck Ryan"?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Politcal blogging: sour grapes from Labour

Liberal Democrat Voice draws attention to the views of Hazel Blears on political blogging which are so out-of-touch that they would be funny if they didn't come from a key figure in neo-Stalinist New Labour. (Lord Lester, that long-time defender of liberty, has given up his advisory rôle in the administration, be it noted.)

Yes, Guido Fawkes is the most widely-read blog (though his frequent restatements of this fact, and his putting-down of Iain Dale and the Telegraph, reveal a certain nervousness). Yes, he is a high Tory by inclination. But he is required reading because he exposes corruption in high places, in the Conservative as well as the Labour parties. And he is readable.

That is also true of virtually all the liberal and democratic blogs. In addition to the ones linked to in the first paragraph, there is the superb The People's Republic of Mortimer* from which you can link to so many others I don't have the time to list here (though I must pick out Steph Ashley's "Dib Lemming"). Top of my list is, of course, Peter Black, one of the earliest and still the best Welsh one. Glyn Davies would no doubt protest against being described as a liberal, but he is not a rightwing Conservative in the sense that Blears and her ilk use the term. And he is informative, and readable.

This is more than can be said of the average Labour blog, and this is probably what has caused Ms Blears' expression of sour grapes. Too often I have seen the announcement of a new Labour blog, only to find that it is merely a feed from the Labour PR machine. There is only one Labour MP's blog which I head for when a view from an individual socialist is required, and that is Paul Flynn's (again, a long-established one).

If by "left-wing", Ms Blears means "radical", then there are blogs a-plenty. Very few of them are Labour blogs, though, and one cannot see the situation changing when the Labour party goes into opposition.

*though I still can't quite forgive AM her occasionally-expressed metropolitan prejudices.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Icelandic bank problems prefigured

I remember the fantastic John Glashan illustrating a book about con artists, published in the 1960s. I believe it was this one, "Refer to Drawer" by Nicholas Luard & Dominic Elwes.

To be honest, it rather stretched its material. However, one or two jokes stick in the memory. One was of a trick used by one of the characters when asked his name by a mark. Scottish surnames tend to give the impression of solidity and reliablity. If you are in a pub and stuck for inspiration, you can run your eye over the labels of the scotch whisky bottles. He came unstuck once when, rather drunk, he could see only one Scotch bottle and announced himself as "John Haig and Haig".

Another concerned the production of authentic-looking bank documentation. As I recall, fictitious banks had to be based abroad (to make it difficult to be checked up on) and incorporate the name of a widely-used basic commodity. A Scottish connection was, again, useful. Hence, "The Bombay Jute Bank of Iceland".

If only this informative volume had been on the bookshelves of more treasurers. :-)

Big Brother checked

Peter Black comments on the House of Lords voting to check the onward march of the national ID database.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Joseph Rotblat centenary

The British physicist, who shared the Nobel Peace prize in 1985, was born in Poland on 4th November 1908. He was one of the two British signatories to the manifesto which set up the Pugwash conference.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Drugs and a driven personality

I hope that Katherine Jenkins' admission that she used cocaine, E and hash for a time does not prevent her entering the United States and having a crack (pun not intended) at the American market.

There has been some over-reaction to the news. Of the people who have declared publicly that they will never buy another Katherine Jenkins album, I would ask: does the fact that she gave up the habit in 2003, and that she now regrets it, count for nothing? If certain of her "friends", ready to shop her to a down-market tabloid for a few bob, had behaved more honourably, she would not have been forced into her admission and we would have been none the wiser.

If nothing else, it should show people that the drugs in question are not necessarily addictive, and do not, taken over a short period, do not appear to have caused long-term damage. Paul Flynn MP and Chris Davies MEP have long campaigned for decriminalisation of soft drugs and Ms Jenkins' evidence would appear to strengthen their case.

Katherine Jenkins' story demonstrates that illegal drugs are far more easily obtained than I would have credited or be happy about, given the doubts which must exist about the quality of the product.

The drugs, and the company of the "bad crowd" she confessed to falling in with, were clearly an attempt to fill something missing in her life, something which is now being met by her career. That the drive is still there is shown by her move to conquer America. Those with any knowledge of politics can name driven party leaders who also had troubles with a mind-altering substance. The fact that the substance in question was the legal and somewhat more socially acceptable alcohol allows them (or their posthumous reputation) to escape censure.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Hedge funds punished

Guy Kewney has an interesting take on the recent surge and fall-back in the Volkswagen share price. One wonders how much the ban on short-selling by various governments was purely a response to a populist outcry (typical was Alex Salmond) or down to pressure from banks who realised it might embarrass hedge funds.

Goldman Sachs has frequently acted as an adviser to HM Treasury.

Soaring numbers of data security breaches

You would have thought that the very public excoriation of HM Revenue and Customs would have made both government and commerce extra careful about the personal data they hold. But no! The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has revealed that the number of data breaches reported to him had soared to 277 since HMRC lost those 25 million child benefit records in November 2007.

And these are just the cases which executives have admitted to.

Ferrari and Network Rail

The connection is the AGV (automotrice à grande vitesse), the train which is a development of the TGV which has cut journey times across Europe. During 2009 it will be introduced on the Italian rail network as part of the approval process for delivering trainsets ordered by NTV. The November edition of Railwatch, the magazine of Railfuture, announces that they will run on the Turin-Milan-Naples-Salerno, Rome-Bologna-Venice and Rome-Naples-Bari routes. The new Italian Transport Company has placed a firm order for 25 trainsets (with ten on option), together with a thirty-year maintenance contract. Delivery of the first production trains will commence in 2010.

One of the businessmen behind NTV is Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who is chairman of Ferrari. He may have one operation the less to worry about next year, if the company carries out its threat to quit Formula One.

France's SNCF has taken a 20% share in NTV, no doubt looking forward to the liberalisation of international rail routes within the EU in 2010.

A committee of Scotland's parliament is looking into the possibility of high speed rail (HSR). Several pressure groups have already presented evidence of the benefits to Scotland's economy of a HSR line from London.

And in England and Wales? A government grant of £26.7bn to Network Rail, (8% less than requested), is largely going towards capacity improvements on existing routes. To my eyes, this is going to benefit short- to medium-distance commuters, rather than the long-distance freight and business passenger services which we should be developing for this century. Yes, it would be good to increase throughput at Cardiff Central* and take hundreds more cars off the road, but a fast link to Paris, Brussels and beyond would do more for Wales' national income.

*or an integrated transport (bus/train/taxi) and shopping hub in Port Talbot - but that's too much to hope for!

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Women in public life

Tom Bodden in the Daily Post draws attention to the report by the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, Janet Gaymer, that over three-quarters of the chairs of public bodies were male, although almost half the board members were women. (Could this be because many were placed with male ex-MPs making way for Blair Babes?)

One could also point to male domination of senior officer posts in Welsh local government.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Fifty years of the 7n7

There was a big leap forward in jet travel 50 years ago yesterday, when the first Boeing 707 entered service with Pan American. The airliner's development and its offspring are discussed here.

Friday, 24 October 2008

In the winter of a Kondratieff cycle

Prompted by a reference by Gordon Pankhurst in his address to the Neath & District CAB AGM this afternoon, I looked up Kondratieff. The long wave cycle theory seems very plausible, but history is full of apparently prophetic texts, from the Book of Revelations through Nostradamus, to which notable events can be fitted.

Myself, I blame the current recession on a sun-spot minimum.

Social services: far right groups must not be given cause

A link from Liberal England to a Jersey senator's blog and the news that two of those accused of child abuse in Jersey are to appear in court today, prompted me to check John Hemming's blog.

Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, having learned that Birmingham City Council had illegally sent children to Jersey for fostering or for holidays in the now-notorious Haut de la Garenne home, sought to find out how widespread the practice was. He swiftly found that four other English authorities had sent children to the island. Accordingly, he initiated Freedom of Information Act enquiries of all English authorities. The news earlier in the month was that legal wrangling continued, with people trying to avoid answering the question.

(It could, of course, be down to the nature of record-keeping. I sought reassurance from our social services department that children in care here had not been sent to Jersey, and encouraged party colleagues in neighbouring authorities to do the same. Head of Children & Young People Services Julie Rzezniczek was able to give me that reassurance, but only from her personal experience of twelve years in the department. She could say nothing about the practice of predecessor authorities; the only way to pick up the paper trail was from the Jersey end.)

Anyway, I did not find anything new about Jersey, but this story caught my eye.

Many people are concerned about the powers of the authorities in the UK to take children away from a parent. Now there is evidence that groups on the reactionary end of British politics are fishing in these troubled waters. They are using emotive cases involving actions on the part of social services departments, which cannot be democratically questioned, to stir up trouble. It seems to me that the law and procedures need to be changed along lines proposed by John Hemming.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Karl Francis: official jobs for Welsh-speakers is "neo-fascist"

You don't expect Welsh-language controversy on Radio 3, but film-maker Karl Francis, in a typically dyspeptic sound essay just now, likened the requirement to speak Welsh in many public service posts as akin to forcing Australian public servants to learn an Aboriginal language.

He has no objection to the Welsh language, he says, but he opines that the first requirement for Welsh Assembly functionaries is that they should be capable of doing the job, which most of them are not.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Moscow Gold

When I first started work, there was an old sweat in the corner of the office, a Labour man through-and-through, who would bitterly complain about the dirty tricks played against Labour in the 1920s and 1930s. The Beaverbrook and Northcliffe newspapers would frequently run stories of dubious provenance in order to discredit Labour. One of these was the report of "Moscow gold", the alleged secret financing of the British Labour parties by Stalin.

Old Watkins would appreciate the irony of yesterday's accusation that the richest man in Russia was negotiating an illegal donation to David Cameron's Conservatives, and enjoy their discomfiture in having to deny it.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Immigration: government inconsistency

I have occasionally pointed out (and been accused of racism because of it) that state-sponsored immigration to fill short-term needs more often than not leads to ethnic friction eventually. Political hypocrisy does not help. One recalls Enoch Powell inveighing against the adulteration of the British race by the introduction of workers from the Commonwealth - such as the nurses from the West Indies recruited a decade earlier by the Ministry of Health under one Enoch Powell.

When Phil Woolas announced that he was encouraging immigration from outside the EU then changed his mind, I started to work up a blog article. Then I found that Stumbling & Mumbling had nailed the government's inconsistencies much more neatly.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

EU-wide consumer rights

There is a tendency for the English media to publish only the EU stories which alarm or confuse. Scanning through a backlog of LibDem press releases, I came across an EU good news story which does not seem to have made a splash (except perhaps for the South West and Gibraltar, whose MEP, Graham Watson, issued it).

A fortnight ago, the European Commission moved to empower European shoppers with a single,
simple EU-wide set of consumer rights. Consumers will be able to seek the best value for money anywhere across the EU without falling victim to differing complicated national rules.

The proposal guarantees a right to information before purchase, EU-wide protection against late delivery and non-delivery and a new 14-day cooling off period for distance and pressure sales. Consumers could also rely on EU-wide rules for returns, repairs, refunds and guarantees.

Graham Watson commented: "This is the start of a consumer protection revolution which will transform Europe's fragmented retail market into the level playing field it ought to be.

"The internet means cheaper products are often only a few clicks away, but at the moment real life barriers exist to the virtual marketplace. It is time we give consumers better protection wherever they choose to take their custom.

"These plans mean the current patchwork of measures will be simplified, offering greater peace of mind to consumers. It's also great for businesses who wish to widen sales across the European Union as it cuts out masses of unnecessary and expensive red tape."

The prices of goods in the shops differ widely across Europe. For example, in the UK, electronic goods are often 10.4% more expensive than in the Republic of Ireland.

The Commission proposals mean a distance trader will be able to serve the entire EU market using the same set of contract terms, reducing legal compliance costs.

Introduction of the plans mean UK consumers will benefit from an extension in a "cooling off period" to withdraw from distance- and off-premises-contracts from 7 days to 14 days.

The right for consumers to change their mind will be simplified to a standard web based withdrawal form or via a durable medium. This makes it simple and easy for the consumer and provides them with legal certainty towards the trader.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Remains of the Ratepayers

If the Neath Port Talbot Ratepayers Alliance thought that they could quietly draw a line under the 2008 elections by relaunching themselves openly as a political party, registered by the Electoral Commission as the Neath Port Talbot Independent Party, they reckoned without Cllr. Lella James. In the council chamber last Thursday, the (truly) independent councillor for Sandfields East savaged what little remained of the reputation of the group. It didn't help that leader Cllr. Tutton was absent - at a funeral, one understands - and that deputy Cllr Tallamy had to defend the new party on his own.

Cllr. James praised the original founders of the Ratepayers Alliance, but chronicled its decline as they had passed on, until it had become, in her words, the "pathetic" party, or, with its reactionary views, the "Neath version of the UK Independence Party". She was extremely angry at the choice of new name, when there were genuine independents of long-standing on the council. She had even sought to challenge the Electoral Commission's decision to register the party, but had been told that there was no appeal.

In an interchange between Cllrs Hopkins, Tallamy and Vaughan it transpired that a then-member of the Ratepayers, who afterwards showed his true colours by joining the Conservative Party, had acted as a conduit between Central Office and the Ratepayers during the 2008 local government election campaign.

Updated 2008-10-22

Canadian liberals prevent a majority conservative government

In the first general election to be held in a G7 nation since the credit crunch struck, Stéphane Dion's Liberal party lost 18 seats, but is still the second party. Although Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader, hoped to gain a majority by holding a snap election, he has been disappointed. Though he is clearly in a stronger position, he will still have to seek coalition partners in order to form a government.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

It's surely not 1929 over again

As I write, stock exchanges throughout Europe are registering falls again. On a local level, small businesses are finding their credit tightening and losing their overdraft facilities. Some proprietors are reported to be using their personal credit cards to keep their operations going.

It seems to me, however, that there is a major difference between the 1930s and now. Then, virtually the sole source of world finance was the United States. Europe was still suffering from the effects of the Great War and indebted to the US. No new major economy had arisen.

Since the 1950s, petroleum has enabled several states, mainly in the Middle East, to build up substantial treasuries. Some of this money has been channelled into "sovereign wealth funds". These are investment organisations which operate commercially, but are ultimately controlled by the state. The first one of these I was aware of was the Kuwait Investment Office but others have since followed its aggressive path of building up stakes in businesses world-wide and even acquiring companies in the West.

So there is now this potential counter-balance to Wall St and Zürich which should help the world avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1930s. (These included the rise of the great dictators, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao, let us not forget.) Judicious injections of capital and public support of key Western institutions should get the wheels turning again and restore confidence.

However, the SWF managers seem to be sitting on their hands at present. Whether this is out of excessive caution or a calculation that, if they wait longer, there are even bigger bargains to be had, they run the risk of letting the whole system collapse.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Kirsty Williams for leader

It's a tough choice. Jenny is a strong candidate and would not let us down. But it's Kirsty Williams for me, for all sorts of reasons. I feel she would be just that much better for the party in the second decade of the 21st century.

I also feel it is healthier to have a leader from outside the Cardiff ambit.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Rôle played by Capita in Icelandic money pit

The Daily Mail reports that Sector Treasury Services, a subsidiary of New Labour's favourite outsourcing company, was an adviser to 250 local authority treasury departments and some 50 other public sector bodies.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

President closes conference

In her closing speech to the autumn conference of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Christine Humphreys stressed how successful our party's non-MCP, open door, approach had been in allowing women to lead in all areas.

In addition to herself as president, and Jo Foster as chief executive, we will, by Christmas have a woman as leader. The only declared candidates are Jenny Randerson and Kirsty Williams.

Nor did one have to be a pit bull with lipstick, she went on. I was waiting for the contrast between an American hockey mom and a Welsh county hockey player (Eleanor Burnham) but it didn't come. :-) (Eleanor has pledged her support to Jenny in the leadership race.)

But it was time to turn to disenfranchised minorities. Christine singled out Welsh speakers, who had been swept up by Plaid but who were now being let down by the Plaid-Labour government in Cardiff. Worst of all, children travelling to Welsh-medium schools by bus were discriminated against by having to pay; English-speakers had free bus travel.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Public investment: do professionals know best?

There is evidence to the contrary here.

I was particularly struck by the closing quote, from Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Some took advice, though.

For those who share St David's enthusiasm for water

I have just picked up the following from Carwyn Edward's
"Wales and the World" newsletter. I pass it on without
further comment:

Boston

I am moving toward preparations for a Saint David's Day
event.

I have contacted some of you about this already. I am
looking for crazy people willing to go wading in the
water to say a Saint David's Day prayer in the ocean
near Boston [Massaxhusetts] on Saint David's Day March
1st 2009. I have received some interest from people
connected with the Welsh Government, and from the
organizer for the National Saint David's Day Parade in
Cardiff, Wales. There are also people who may want to
do this other places such as Whitesands beach near
Saint David's Cathedral. Here is a link to a blog I
have created for this event. If you are interested
please check out the blog, and leave a comment. You
will find the information in both Welsh and English.
Scroll down if the Welsh doesn't make any sense to you.
The English is below it.

Check out http://stdavidsday.blogspot.com/

I am looking to create a list of those who want to
join me in the water on Saint David's Day. If you are
interested in being contacted as the plans develop, let
me know. I will be adding a list of those who want to
join me to the blog site. If you have a blog, or a
website send me that info, and I will add a link on the
Blog.

Pastor Phil
The Gathering -
pastorphil@salemgathering.com
Salem, MA

C'mon, Wales!

If Wales Under-21s play without fear tonight, there is every chance they can build up a big enough lead to take to Villa Park next Tuesday and move on to the competition finals.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

What did NPT and Caerphilly know and when did they know it?

Some councils were not deceived by triple-A ratings. They were no doubt aware that the reputation of credit rating agencies had already been compromised.

Brighton council said it had withdrawn deposits from Icelandic banks.

A spokesperson for the council said it suspended transactions with Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander about a year ago over concerns about Iceland's banks expanding too rapidly.

Cllr Aled Roberts of Wrexham told "Dragon's Eye" tonight that the council had taken advice and taken their money out of Iceland in time.

Questions must be asked of any finance director who placed funds in Iceland after February of this year, when "Your Money" issued a warning and certainly after March, when Standard & Poor got round to publicising their doubts.

When the facts change, I change my mind

Thanks to Liberal International for the following quote from Radical Italiani:

“For Liberals it is not the best of times given the massive state interventions in the economy but better spend today than spend even more tomorrow...and it is a paradox to watch Gordon Brown calling for a European plan of action having fought for years against the UK joining the euro, or Bush reaching out to G8 partners after 8 years of unilateralism, and indeed our Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti who goes from euro-skepticism to euro-enthusiasm in a blink...the best position Liberals can have today is to insist on saying that this is not a market failure but a failure in setting up and implementing credible monitoring, control and sanction mechanisms...”

As Otto Lambsdorff, former treasurer of the Free Democratic Party and uncle of the FDP MEP, put it:
“The market economy is the most successful economic system which the world has seen. This historic fact has not changed [...] If your engine does not work properly you try to repair or replace it. You don’t throw away the car.”

The only AAA rated blog west of the Tennant Canal

according to the Nokov & Pornit (est. 1955) ratings agency.

All right, it's a sick joke in view of the news today that at least six Welsh local authorities had some of their balances invested in Icelandic banks which have now gone down. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Neath Port Talbot, which has yet to report, is not another.

In view of the bad press which Icelandic entrepreneurs have received in the last few years, I would not have risked my own money, never mind other people's, in Iceland. "Your Money" was issuing warnings to retail investors back in February.

However, a spokesman for the Welsh Local Government Agency made the very reasonable point that all the banks in question had, at the time of the investment, "A" ratings from the standard credit ratings agencies. He also pointed out that fixed-term contracts would have been entered into, which would have been difficult to break.

One has to wonder whether the big three credit rating agencies respond quickly enough to danger signals even after an adverse report of their performance in the wake of the Enron affair.

Update: see Peter Black's blog.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Morriston Gold: John Morgan

I'm watching "Welsh TV Gold", a HTV programme featuring the documentaries of John Morgan. It is a worrying thought that, with the reduction of Welsh commercial TV programming, we will have fewer opportunities in future to see the broadcast work of this great journalist.

Even tonight, we saw only a fraction of two of his best pieces: the celebration of Llanelli's 1972 defeat of the All Blacks; and his depiction of Murray "the Camel" Humphreys, the Welsh baptist immigrant who became the FBI's public enemy no. 1. The first will surely be preserved in Wales, because of the men and moment it captures, but the second deserves a wider audience and showing in full.

Morgan also produced a feature on Dylan Thomas, which re-assembled many of the people whose lives the poet had touched. Is it too much to hope that ITV will show this again?

Ironically, round about the time of John Morgan's death, a pub opened in Samlet Road, Llansamlet, and was named the "Dylan Thomas". How much more fitting it would have been to have named it the "John Morgan", after one of Morriston's most distinguished sons.

Planning gain, or planning loss

Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 allows local planning authorities (LPA) to enter into a legally binding planning obligation or agreement with a developer over a related issue for the purpose of restricting or regulating the development or use of the land. This obligation is termed a Section 106 Agreement.

In other words, the council can demand that a developer, who will gain from being given planning permission, puts something back into the community. This can be an improvement to access roads, a contribution to a school, or some other public amenity.

For instance, the developer of the Drumfields estate in Cadoxton agreed to set aside and equip a children's playground as part of the development. Unfortunately, the developer became insolvent before the playground could be set up and, as I understand it, the earmarked site was bought and developed as dwellings in turn.

Councillors John Warman and Des Sparkes have drawn attention to yet another example of a builder going bust before fulfilling their obligation. Coincidences, as the old journalist's adage has it, go in threes, so I do not have enough evidence to show a pattern here. However, there does appear to be a loophole in the law here. One trusts that council officers will ensure that Coed Darcy reaps all its intended planning gain.

Any evidence giving background to the two cases above, or any other instances, are welcome.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Don't burn your bridges, KJ

Katherine Jenkins is to try to crack America. It's good to see that she says "I'm not deserting the UK", because there is a history of British stars who failed to make it over there but couldn't pick up their careers again on their return.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Orphan blogspots

I chanced upon this blog (don't ask!). I am now intrigued by Ellie's story. Did she have second thoughts? Was there a tragedy? I'll probably never know. She got as far as setting up the front page and no further. Judging by her only posting "Let's see if this thing works", she may not have been entirely au fait with the technology.

There must be thousands of orphan blogspots out there. People fiddling around at an idle moment, browsing other blogs, clicking the button at the top right, getting bored and then forgetting all about the little bit of the blogosphere which they have reserved for themselves.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Will we lose our Chief Constable?

I have not seen or heard Barbara Wilding's name mentioned in connection with the Metropolitan Police vacancy left by Sir Ian Blair. However, she has experience with the Met. and has not put a foot wrong as Chief Constable of South Wales. If Jacqui Smith and Boris are looking for a safe choice, their gain could be our loss.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Drug firms bankroll attacks on NHS

This story in yesterday's "Independent" confirms many people's suspicions: that the well-presented claims for expensive drug treatment for much-loved family members have been funded directly or indirectly by the companies producing the drugs.

It is hard to resist the heartfelt yearning of children and grandchildren for an extra year or so of life for their dear grandparent. One cannot blame them. Indeed, one beneficiary of a campaign for Sudent treatment, not then available in this region, lives round the corner from me and I wouldn't want to deny her precious extra time with her family.

However, the cynical manipulation of the nation's heartstrings by multi-billion dollar (or Swiss franc) corporations is deplorable. Each time NICE (the body responsible for ensuring fair use of a limited budget in England) makes an unpopular decision, one of the smaller charities will make a well-publicised, often vitriolic, attack against it. Drug companies typically make six-figure contributions to these charities, which are therefore heavily dependent on corporate money.

Too few questions are asked about the high prices of drugs against cancer and against physical and mental deterioration. Spokesmen for the industry will state that these merely reflect the high cost of research and development, but this is the same argument which is deployed against critics of the prolongation of patents on more basic drugs. The heavy mark-up is supposed to go towards R&D.

I reckon that the annual cost of one of these treatments would, over the same period, pay for a technician examining smears (thus leading to early diagnosis, saving life and/or more invasive treatment later) or for a physiotherapist or speech therapist (helping to restore many people to fuller lives), all professionals who are in short supply in the health service generally.

There may be a case for the Welsh NHS taking the advice of Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), the Scottish equivalent of NICE, instead of the recommendations of the English body. SIGN tends to come to swifter, less contested, decisions for a nation whose conditions are closer to our own. But a mechanism for sharing a limited budget there must be.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Transfer of Neath Port Talbot council housing to be put to the vote

At mid-day today, council decided unanimously to accept the necessity to bring the county borough's council houses up to the Welsh Housing Quality Standard. Further, it adopted the recommendation of a stakeholder group (comprising representative council members, trade unionists, council employees and tenants) that the option of transferring the housing stock to a community mutual organisation be put to a vote of the tenants.

That's the bare story. There are all sorts of issues which have arisen as a result of the decision-making process so far, and predicted to occur in the near future. I hope to return to this subject in more detail before too long.

Gurkha ex-soldiers' success

News is coming through that the five Gurkha veterans who sought British citizenship have succeeded.

Worm in the Darling bud

Seeing that the news-stand by the civic centre was out of my usual dose of tit, bum and show-business gossip (otherwise known as Roger Alton's "Independent"), I took the opportunity to buy the Financial Times.

(Incidentally, it is a pity that the Chancellor did not take more notice in 2006 of the warnings issued by Jane Croft, Gillian Tett and others on the FT staff, of the impending failure of the wholesale market for housing credit. If he had, then the worst of the failures in mortgage companies over here could have been headed off. I confess that I was not aware of these warnings at the time; it was a fellow LibDem who is more involved in finance than I who pointed them out this time last year. As I implied, the FT is not my usual journal of choice, but surely it is required reading for our financial lords and masters.)

Jane Croft reveals today in an article headlined "Rivals to share cost of failure" that Alistair Darling's ripping wheeze, for seizing the mortgage book of Bradford & Bingley at virtually no cost to the taxpayer, includes small print which makes both banks and building societies liable to cover any shortfall after the mortgages are finally wound down, and a Treasury - the preferred creditor - loan repaid. The Financial Services compensation scheme will be forced to levy the banking industry in the event of a failure. This includes not only the clearing banks but also the only remaining independent building societies. These are, of course, mutuals who did not open themselves to failure by borrowing on the wholesale market in order to finance mortgages and who largely had relatively conservative lending criteria, thus avoiding both the traps which brought low Northern Rock, Halifax, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley.

The risk is theoretical, in that, poor though the B&B mortgages are, they should still overall pay for themselves at the end of the day. However, the risk is still there and it seems unfair that the mutuals should share it, while Santander makes off with the cream of the undoubtedly viable parts of Bradford & Bingley.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Financial rescues

There are pertinent comments on the B&B nationalisation by economist Chris Dillow quoting ex-Halifax director John Kay.

I was surprised to hear Nick Ainger (Labour, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) on "Good Morning Wales" this morning criticising the US Congress for delaying the Bush/Bernancke/Paulson "rescue" package. He seemed to be saying that representatives and senators should have accepted, without question, proposals from the executive.

Leaving aside the matter of a MP questioning the democratic processes of a friendly power, did Mr Ainger not see the flaws in the original package? It was summed up in a phrase which cropped up frequently in reports from Washington: it favoured Wall Street over Main Street. Nor, rightly, would economic liberals in the Republican party accept increased tax-payer exposure to risk.

In the end, after intense weekend discussions delaying the break-up of Congress, improvements to the measure were hammered out.

In Westminster, given that parliament was in recess and that events were moving swiftly, the chancellor and the Bank of England were right to take over Bradford & Bingley, without having to use any taxpayers' money, a course endorsed in advance by Vince Cable. However, parliament needs to debate all the issues when it returns.

In particular, MPs should look at the decision to sell off the Bradford & Bingley branch network so swiftly to Banco Santander (owners of Abbey National and Alliance & Leicester) in view of the implications for employment and competition.

Commerce keeps data loss secret

silicon.com reports that, of those organisations that have experienced a data breach, 60 per cent did not tell their clients and half did not alert the police or authorities, according to a recent Logica survey.

The survey also found that only 30 per cent of organisations educate staff in IT security and information handling procedures on a regular basis, and less than a third have a specific security incident response team.

The research has led to renewed calls for organisations in the UK to be required by law, as in the state of California, to report information security lapses.


Saturday, 27 September 2008

Members' newsletters

Neath Port Talbot county borough council subsidises constituency newsletters. Councillors may submit content to the member services section, which checks the content amd arranges printing.

Cadoxton constituents may ask why I continue to deliver Focus leaflets, which now contain council news, instead of making use of the council's facilities. Well, firstly, I won election on a platform which included casting a beady eye on council costs. It would be hypocritical of me to dip into a subsidised service when I don't need to.

Secondly, however much the member services department weeds out party political messages, there is inevitably an element of self-promotion in a newsletter for a constituency which goes out over the signature of the sitting member. Why not be totally honest about ones politics, avoid censorship, and provide information at the same time?

So I will continue to put out Focuses as and when I have enough information to fill them, and pay for them out of party funds and my own pocket.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Honey buzzards and kites


Out delivering today, I heard and saw what I took to be honey buzzards over Craig Gwladus. I'd be interested if any local expert could confirm my observation.

There is certainly good news about another success story in Wales, the red kite. Much of this is due to the late MP for Neath, Donald Coleman. Some people are dismissive of the fact that he will be remembered only for protecting a bird, but that is not the worst legacy for a MP.

Update: managed to snatch a digital shot of one of the birds on my way back from "surgery". The angle of the wings definitely indicates honey buzzard. I knew that the species had been reported from further up the Dulais valley last year, and that Radio 4's "World on the Move" had recently commented on the increase in England & Wales this year, so it's not entirely a surprise. It's one of the few benefits of global warming that birds previously confined to the continent are now breeding over here.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Virtual end of ITV Wales identity

News is coming through that Ofcom is minded to allow ITV to cut its regional programming from four hours a week to less than two. Only six years ago, before the last round of cuts, the total was ten hours per week. This would affect Wales particularly, I suggest.

It seems that the news bulletins are not affected, but there must be doubt about the future of "Wales this Week" and other factual programmes.

"Sharp End", the politics programme, was already scheduled for the chop. Whatever ones view of Mai Davies's interviewing style, she had the virtue that she was hard on everyone, irrespective of party. Over the years, Welsh ITV - and HTV previously - has been rather more even-handed than BBC and we shall miss their alternative viewpoint on the relative importance of political issues in Wales.

Update: It appears that news is not untouched, either. There will be no requirement to transmit a Welsh news bulletin at weekends.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Memories are no longer made of this

With apologies to non-dorks out there, I can't resist drawing attention to photos of IBM's exhibition celebrating 50 years of Hursley laboratories.

It is a sobering thought that I carry in my pocket a thumb-sized device which can hold as much data as a room-full of reels of 1" magnetic tape, which was the repository of the vehicles excise database in Clase, Swansea, in the 1970s.

I sometimes wonder whether the carelessness with which government servants (and commercial operators, too) treat personal records relates to the diminishing size of the media which contain them.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

School buses


Considering how Wales has suffered from tragedies involving bus journeys to school, and that Wrexham mounted a pilot study of the use of yellow buses, it is surprising that the report of the official commission on yellow buses has not received more publicity in the Welsh media.

Ros Scott was a member and summarises the conclusions on her blog.

Paddy Ashdown endorses Ros Scott

See the video (there is even a Welsh option for the campaign, though not for Paddy's commentary. Perhaps Ros should have approached Alan Beith!). You can also catch up on the Baroness's blog.

Friday, 19 September 2008

There will be no sacrifices of public services

It had to happen. We knew it would happen, as soon as the mixed messages went out from the campaigns department. Vince Cable and Julia Goldsworthy identified £20bn of extra tax which could be garnered from the fat cats who Labour has allowed to prosper (we will probably find out why, after this sleazy government has been kicked out). We would redistribute this to the least well-off taxpayers, by taking two million people out of income tax and by cutting 4p off the standard rate. No effect on public services, right? (Except the beneficial one of reducing the financial stresses on nurses, junior doctors and council workers, among others.)

They then said that they thought there was another £20bn (see where the confusion comes in) to be found out of public sector waste. Not services, waste. It is the extent to which this money is to be earmarked for improving public services which was at issue in Bournemouth and how much of it was to go towards further improving the lot of the ordinary taxpayer.

The Labour spin machine has leapt into action: "Liberal Democrats will make savage cuts in schools, care homes and the NHS" screams Andrew Davies, AM, clearly reading from a prepared script. He hopes the electorate will forget the closures of schools, care homes and hospitals which Blair and Brown oversaw.

Vince Cable spelt out where the cuts will come: "the unnecessary Child Trust Fund and the means-tested tax credits which extend into the upper income range, ID cards, superfluous and extravagant defence contracts mainly designed to fill the order books of defence contractors, and widening further the bottomless financial pit of the nuclear power industry.

"We've got to stop the gravy train of management consultancy in government; stop questionable government IT projects like that for the NHS and insist that procurement is from the cheapest, open source; and take an axe to the overgrown thickets of quango land.

"The coward's way is to sack or squeeze the pay of low paid public sector workers. The correct way is to start at the top: require every non-front line public sector employee on £100,000 or more to reapply for their jobs. Those allowed back would take a cut in pay and public sector pension entitlement."

I would add that the number of administrators and technicians brought in to the NHS in England and Wales to establish costing systems and the internal market can surely be cut. Either the market is abolished (as in Wales) or the systems are established and merely need to be maintained. It will be interesting to see whether there will be any cost savings at the top as a result of Edwina Hart's centralisation of the NHS in Wales. Experience of previous Labour reorganisations suggests that the existing local health service chiefs will be kept, but that a super administrator will be brought in at the top, with a salary to match. Any savings will be at the expense of operational staff, many of whom have still not received their back pay resulting from the previous restructuring exercise.

So there will be no cuts in services. Indeed, LibDems have already scheduled improvements which Labour had a decade to introduce, but did not, such as reintroducing the link between the state pension and earnings.

Anticipating the next bullet-point on the New Labour list: yes, it will all be costed. Every Liberal Democrat manifesto has been costed, and audited by an independent financial organisation. As our participation in the next administration looks even more probable, so Cable and Goldsworthy will surely make even more certain of their figures.



The Bourne Incident

News from the Western Mail that the leader of the Conservatives in the Assembly had a nasty fall in the shower while on holiday abroad. (Incidentally, there is a "Quick vote" on voting intentions on that page which you may wish to complete.)

I am reminded - quite unfairly, I know - of a similar report of a fast bowler on a MCC tour of Australia many years ago being prevented from playing in a test match because of such a domestic accident. In those more sensitive times, the tour management hushed up the true cause. It eventually transpired that the man had, so far from falling in the shower, slipped on a wet floor while on a conducted tour round a brewery.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Dr Johnson

The Great Cham of English literature was born on this day in 1709. There is an interesting discussion of his position on the Conservative-Liberal axis here.

Monday, 15 September 2008

A shot across the bows

When you dissect the speeches at Bournemouth today for and against the amendment on tax plans, you will see very little practical difference in members' views. We all agree that the least well-paid should be taken out of tax, and that the next lowest paid should pay 4p in the pound less tax (it was dishonest of some of the establishment speakers to imply that the people behind the amendment would go back on those commitments).

The dispute was, it seems to me, over the steer given to the Conservative end of the media that, in government, we would not only shift taxation from the poor to the very rich, but also find another £20bn savings in public services and hand those out as tax cuts as well.

We were damned both ways. If the amendment had been passed, we would have been damned in the media as tax-and-spenders. As it is, we will be damned as cutters of public services in favour of the rich. Neither, as an examination of the policy document and, hopefully, our manifesto when it comes, will show, is true.

Although the manifesto was clearly defeated, the many articulate arguments advanced in its favour must influence the drafters of the manifesto. We must not give the impression that further savings (for instance, from the cutting of the numbers of MPs and their pension entitlement, and all that flows from that) will all go to benefit tax-payers, when there are still great needs of not only the people who don't pay tax at the moment, but also many of those that we will have taken out of tax.

Many Liberal Democrat sitting MPs and challengers in the home counties need to get former Labour voters out of their armchairs when the election comes. These have already been disillusioned by New Labour which has shown itself merely to be a continuation of Thatcher & Major. They must be persuaded that it is worth switching to us because we really are different. Nudges and winks to the Daily Telegraph will be counter-productive.

Do we need two annual federal conferences?

I have just been watching BBC Parliament from the LibDem conference in Bournemouth. If you have broadband (the BT version of which I have been using) or digital TV, this is thoroughly recommended, in order to by-pass the Conservative-orientated filter of analogue BBC coverage.

The party was happy to have public coverage of a debate on proposals for reorganisation of the party's internal structures (the Bones report).

I am a little wary of some of the proposals, particularly on candidate development and selection. Although this is a devolved matter, there will be strong pressure on Wales and Scotland to adopt whatever is decided for England.

However, I am very happy to go along with the proposal to make the spring conferences state-only. That is, England-only matters would be discussed at the English spring conference, and likewise for Scotland and Wales. Education, health and housing are high on the political agenda, so that hours of debate at federal conference are of academic interest to me. Policing and transport motions are additionally irrelevant to Scottish reps.

The fact that no Welsh or Scottish voice was raised in the debate should have told president Simon Hughes something. It is an expensive business to travel to the more salubrious resorts in England and to stay for three or four days. To travel to two each year can be a financial imposition.

Unfortunately, the argument that an England-only conference would not attract media coverage seems to have swayed Simon. He indicated that this particular proposal would be reconsidered.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Sir Samuel Evans commemoration

The Reverend Mark Williams, vicar of Skewen, said prayers over the grave of Sir Samuel Evans on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of his death. Present were Janet Jones, chair of Coedffranc Community Council, Councillor Keith Davies, Charles Fletcher, vice-chair of Coedffranc CC, Ron McConville, president of Aberavon & Neath Liberal Democrats and Robert King, prominent local historian.

We intend to organise a larger ceremony next May on his 150th anniversary. Records are being scoured as I write in order to establish his exact date of birth, but it would be good to know if he has any descendants still alive, so that we can welcome them to Skewen and Neath Abbey in 2009.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Why is it ...

... that I enjoy Haydn, but am irritated by Mozart;
I appreciate Oscar Wilde, but am bored by GBS;
I love The Mighty Boosh, but can't stand Reeves and Mortimer;
and The Archers and Torchwood send me dashing for the off switch, when the BBC keeps telling me how popular they are.

The Scott campaign builds up in Wales

Of course, Martin Shipton puts an anti-Lembit spin on it, but there is no arguing with the facts of significant supporters.

Lembit is quoted as saying:

“I travel round Britain to see members of the party all the time, which is why my car has 380,000 miles on the clock.

Well, Ros and Mark us public transport whenever they can. That is how they arrived in Neath last month.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Job Evaluation

Establishing "equal pay for equal work" in local government is much more tricky than I realised before I became a councillor. When I started my first job in government service, the principle had just been established for civil servants. The infamous "marriage bar" (female civil servants had to resign on marriage) was on its way out, department by department, too. (Though it was not to be finally abolished across the whole service for about a decade.) That was over forty years ago.

I naively assumed that the resistance to pay equality in local government was purely down to neanderthal trade unions and dark-age management. Case law and the Human Rights Act have forced local authorities into the twenty-first century. However, a series of seminars organised for members by Neath Port Talbot council has shown that there are great difficulties in correcting the anomalies which have built up over a century or more of local government. The number of different jobs and grades, the tradition of local pay rate setting, the distinction between "staff" and "workers", as well as that between "female" and "male" jobs have made the negotiations very difficult. Councils naturally have to try to balance the budget, ensuring that the net increase to the pay bill is as low as possible. That means that there will be winners as well as losers in the process. TU reps will seek to minimise the latter. Both sides have in mind that the standard of living of some of the lowest paid could be affected.

In South Wales, negotiations have - so far as I can see - been conducted responsibly and with good faith on both sides. Not so in the rest of England & Wales. There have been many serious disputes throughout the country. It is surprising that these have not made headlines in the "national" newspapers, seeing as how gleefully they leapt on examples of failed rubbish collection during the "winter of discontent".

Richard Baum, a LibDem councillor in Lancashire, reports on the most recent case. It seems that Old Labour is gleefully turning a drama into a crisis.

Ironically, central government under Thatcher, through Major and Blair, and including Brown, has steadily reversed pay equality by transferring work from career civil servants to agencies and commercial organisations which bypass the agreements and legislation.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Vote for McCain, Palin and the Brits

Americans, ignore those whining environmentalists who are out to deny you your right to fly or drive across that great continent of yours any time you choose. Todd & Sarah Palin are working for BP to ensure that Alaska yields up every last drop of oil for you.

We fought alongside you in Iraq (maybe we were a minor partner in terms of men and materiel, but we did give your campaign respectability). So it's down to you to return the favor to British industry - vote McCain/Palin!

Remember when a great US general, Dwight D Eisenhower, when he was president, helped Anglo-Iranian Oil (as BP then was) get rid of the threat of liberal "democracy" ? Well, this war hero John McCain can put an end to the Islamic so-called Republic (hell, what kind of democracy is it that insists that you have to demonstrate your belief in a supreme deity before you can even run for election?) of Iran and restore the Peacock Throne. Good for you, good for the Persians and good for both our oil interests.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair: renounce your token support for the Democrat party. Endorse the candidates you sympathise with in your hearts. Go for JMcC, SP and BP!

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Tommy Atkins, 2008

The turning away of a serving soldier by a hotel in the comfy Home Counties is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling's cri de coeur:

"I went into a public- 'ouse to get a pint o' beer,

The publican 'e up an sez, 'We serve no red-coats here.'

The girls behind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,

I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:

O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Tommy go away';

But it's 'Thank you, Mister Atkins,' when the band begins to play-

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it's 'Thank you Mr Atkins,' when the band begins to play."

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Who owns the media agenda?

On her visit to Neath Port Talbot, Ros Scott reminded us that she was a member of the House of Lords committee which drew up a report on the ownership of the news. Both in discussions of common local government interest with council leader Derek Vaughan and, with local Liberal Democrats, on the treatment of politics in the UK media, it was obvious that there was general agreement with the committee's conclusion that "While there has been a proliferation of ways to access the news, there has not been a corresponding expansion in professional journalism".

Neath Port Talbot council's main complaint has been the lack of recognition of positive reports on the council's performance. One may cynically observe that there is a plethora of bodies out there awarding charter marks and what have you, so that most councils in the UK can point to a high position in at least one table of satisfaction. However, Cllr Vaughan may have a point when it comes to social services. While the local media (BBC and, of course, the Western Mail) have today been all over Liberal Democrat Cardiff City Council for the failure of its social services department, there has been little reporting of this county borough's positive showing in this area. The joint Welsh Audit Office and the Care and Social Services Inspectorate for Wales report published in July gave Neath Port Talbot a virtual clean bill of health and the highest ranking in Wales for social services, yet it was hardly mentioned in the local press.

Part of the trouble is that conflict is news and plain honest-to-goodness information does not sell papers. Local prints will always have a niche, because there is still no better way of advertising local jobs and sales, but in order to provide a living for journalists, news has to sell.

National newspapers are increasingly rich men's hobbies, subsidised by other parts of a commercial undertaking or are largely entertainment. The latter have agendas which are definitely not Liberal Democrat.

Some notable investigative programmes (again, not good news!) apart, the BBC does not initiate news, but follows the lead of the press. Hence the obsession with Gordon Brown's leadership and, probably, the US presidential election. (There are those who suggest that the opportunities for shopping in the US may also be a driver of the blanket coverage given by BBC to the party conventions across the pond.)

In the meantime, Canada is buzzing with talk of a possibly unconstitutional snap election. This has made hardly a ripple in the media over here (France24 covered it, but did not headline the story). This could have repercussions in NATO and the G8 group of nations. But Canada is boring, because it gets so many things right. It has a boringly successful nuclear power programme and inflation is boringly lower than its competitors. The BBC does not even have a permanent correspondent north of the 49th Parallel.

At least the BBC still has a high reputation world-wide for its integrity. However, there may be inidious forces at work on the World Service, which is paid for not out of the licence fee, like the rest of the BBC, but from the Foreign Office budget. Early reports on Radio 4 about the Georgian conflict included some interviews with inhabitants of South Ossetia who claimed atrocities on the part of Georgian forces in the territory. The equivalent World Service programme did not have this balance.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Visit of Baroness Scott

Little did I realise eight years ago, when I was stuffing envelopes in the successful Romsey by-election campaign alongside Baroness Scott of Needham Market, that I would have the honour and pleasure of meeting her again as part of her presidential campaign.

Last Wednesday, Ros visited Neath and Port Talbot. After a photo-opportunity in Cimla and a visit to council & the mayor in Port Talbot, she met party activists in Tonmawr. She is pictured here with John Warman, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Neath Port Talbot council.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Difficult children in care home - loophole in planning law?

A special planning & development committee meeting of Neath Port Talbot CBC nine days ago approved a controversial application for change of use.

Castle Care Group Ltd lease a dwelling in Dulais Road, Seven Sisters. Formerly a pair of semi-detached houses, it is now a single residential home, categorised as C3 (see definitions here).

Castle Care's intention is to use the premises to house children aged 10-16 with behavioural difficulties. The advice from the Director of Planning was that the company was empowered to do this as it was a house "occupied by up to six residents living together as a single household, including a household where care is provided for residents" (from the definition of C3). No further planning permission was needed.

It would probably be fair to say that Seven Sisters in general, and the neighbours in their well-cared-for semi-dets in particular, had been taken for granted by the company. If it had not been for a sharp-eyed neighbour spotting the addressee's name on a parcel left on the step, they would have remained in the dark. The combination of fear and resentment felt by the community at this discovery can be imagined. A campaign against Castle Care's use of the house built up.

One wonders what Castle Care had to gain at this point by persisting with their plans. There was a chance, albeit a slim one, of getting the local community onside if it had explained its plans well in advance, and consulted widely. The point was made at today's meeting that Seven is a close-knit community, which makes acceptance of problem children from outside more difficult. The other side of the coin is that it is easier to reintegrate young people back into society in a place which has a strong sense of community, if they are accepted by that community. The chance of achieving this was thrown away, in my opinion, by the company's proceeding in secret.

The company then decided to extend the facility to provide education. This would necessitate an application for planning approval to change of use, from C3 to C2. (See the previous reference.) This provided a focus for protest. Councillor Steve Hunt passionately, and in detail, put the residents' case for preventing these troubled children being housed in a quiet district of family houses. The first hearing was suspended so that a site visit by the whole planning committee could be held. The planning committee was left in no doubt about the strong feelings held by the many protesters who greeted us in Dulais Road.

At the planning & development committee which followed, Councillor Woolcock (Labour) & Councillor William Morgan (Plaid) both called for councils to be given more discretion, and for distinctions to be made in planning law between what one normally understands as a domiciliary care home, and one that caters for active young people with behavioural trouble.

It was clear to those of us who had attended both committees that, once the classification of C3 had been confirmed, there was no legal impediment to the house being used for disturbed children. Moreover, if we had voted against the use of two rooms for educational purposes, it was virtually certain that the applicants would have taken the case to appeal, and they would have won. We would have incurred needless costs for the tax-payer.

It seems to me that there should be an addition to the list under C2A: "care home for children with behavioural difficulties". Alternatively, a new category C2B for homes which do not merit the full security of C2A, but do require careful consideration as to their siting.

In the meantime, the residents of Seven Sisters have no recourse other than to attempt to change the mind of Castle Care Group. I trust that they will do this without breaking the law, and not to the detriment of the children to be housed.