Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Government slapped down over asset-freezing orders

Commenting on the High Court ruling that asset-freezing orders imposed by the Treasury under UN anti-terror laws are legally flawed because Parliament was bypassed, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne said:

“A crucial difference between this country and a banana republic is that ministers are not allowed to go around arbitrarily arresting people or confiscating their property without due process under the rule of law.

“Not for the first time, Gordon Brown’s Government has been found behaving like one of the worst Latin American juntas. Thankfully, our judges have slapped them down as they deserve.”

Individual voter registration

There was a report yesterday on election standards from the Joseph Rowntree
Reform Trust. They found that the relaxation of postal voting requirements, while it may have increased voter turnout, has made the UK's electoral system as open to fraud as that in many third-world countries.

Postal vote fraud has not become a threat in Wales as yet (though it appears that some party activists in Neath Port Talbot - not LibDems, I hasten to add - have been over-keen in recruiting postal voters). However, if it continues to thrive in England, it could well spread here.

The Electoral Commission and the Commission on Standards in Public Life have both called for reform of the voter registration system, as have parliamentarians of all party allegiances.

Individual voter registration, and requiring a signature to get on the voting register, have lifted Northern Ireland from being a byword for electoral fraud to being the most honest electoral régime in the kingdom. The rest of the UK should follow their lead.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

The Welsh snooker assembly line continues

Still confined to quarters by a cold, I can at least keep half an eye on today's sporting programme while catching up on correspondence etc.

CEEFAX shows that Ryan Day from Bridgend is two up with five to play in his match with twice world champion John Higgins at the Crucible. Could we have a successor in the line of world champions from Reardon through Griffiths to Williams?

Friday, 25 April 2008

Et in arcadia coryza

Looking forward to some evening canvassing, I was struck down by a fearsome cold on Thursday morning. Not only would it make walking from door to door a torture, it would be discourteous, to say the least, to bring this nasty virus to people's doorsteps.

Hopefully, we will be able to make up some time tomorrow and Monday if the cold eases off. The calls we have made so far have been very encouraging. This campaign has been the most enjoyable, and voters more responsive, than at any time since 1997. Then, people were happily turning to both Labour and LibDems as a realistic alternative to the Conservatives. Now, it seems that LibDems and Plaid (though the latter are somewhat hobbled by their coalition with Labour in Cardiff) are welcome again as alternatives to Labour.

That in itself is a historical change. In the past, Liberals (and Social Democrats) have made progress when the country has looked for a radical alternative to Tory governments, then lost seats again when Britain retreats into conservatism.

However, Blair & Brown, a few nods to the social liberal agenda apart, out-Toried the Tories. This succeeded for a time as the economy improved (thanks largely to the last Tory budget, delivered criminally late in the day by the first Thatcher/Major chancellor with any business experience, Kenneth Clarke), but it has turned round and bitten them as the credit chickens fly home.

Hence the success of radical parties. Hence the (unconvincing) donning of radical clothes by David Cameron. Hence also the falling-away of Labour membership, as traditionalists see the party ridding itself of the last of its distinct principles.

All political parties (except for Plaid, which has probably levelled off after a burst of recruitment at the turn of the century) have lost members in recent years, but Labour, with most to lose, has lost most. So, in one of the strongholds of Labour, for the first time the party has been unable to recruit candidates for all wards in Neath Port Talbot from within its own ranks. The shortage of helpers has been such that in at least one of the larger wards, Labour candidates have had to employ the services of a professional delivery firm.

Liberal Democrats should therefore do very well across South Wales, even on top of the major advances of 2004. We should do very well here in Neath, if we demonstrate that we mean business, which we do. That's why I am cursing my luck and the cold virus for not being able to do that in person these last few evenings.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

The school run

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the NUT members strike, it does give an opportunity to assess the contribution that the school run makes to road congestion. Already, a BBC Wales reporter has commented on the light traffic in Rhondda Cynon Taf.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Tory MEPs support EU cover-up

Last Tuesday, the European Parliament voted against the publication of a report by its auditors which has revealed widespread abuse by MEPs of funds intended to be used for the payment of their staff.

The Parliament pays €427,720 each year into the pension fund of the members concerned, and they are supposed to make a private contribution of a further €13,860 each year.

However, it is believed that a significant number of MEPs pay their personal contributions from money allocated for their parliamentary duties - a practice described as "embezzlement" by whistleblower LibDem MEP Chris Davies.

Chris, who had earlier this year revealed the existence of the secret auditors' report, described today's series of votes on the Parliament's budget as "shameful".

He said: "These votes bring discredit and dishonour upon the entire Parliament. Far from cleaning up their act, a majority of MEPs seem intent on allowing greed and self-interest to triumph over the proper financial management of public money.

"On today's performance Europe's taxpayers could be forgiven for believing that there are more honest people to be found in prison than sit amongst us in the European Parliament.

"Political parties in each member state must now take the initiative and insist that no candidate stands in next year's European elections unless they are pledged to support reform."

Labour MEPs largely supported the Liberal Group's position, but Tories either abstained or voted against. For all his rhetoric against the European gravy-train, Robert Kilroy-Silk was even more resolute against disclosure.

A summary of the voting patterns is attached as a comment.

The Policy Exchange on political funding

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky gets many things right, for instance, that the Electoral Commission should regulate more firmly, and that the postal vote system we have now is too open to abuse, but he makes a gross error in this report for the Policy Exchange think-tank.

He writes: "Since the late 1960s there has been a huge and ever-continuing growth in indirect state subsidies for the political class [...] By 2006-07, local councillors in Britain were receiving over £216million in salaries and allowances"

Firstly, councillors are not salaried, because they are not employed (though our current political masters seem to regard them as subject to Westminster's will). Secondly, the allowances which they receive are personal compensation for the time which they dedicate to work on behalf of the community, time which would often be better-paid by an employer. Thirdly, allowances come from council treasuries, not central government. Finally, while there are no doubt councillors who abuse their local expenses régime, these are provided to ease the burden of those who find it an imposition to pay for travel to meetings etc. out of their own pocket.

In other words, apart from my own party which regrettably resolved that a tithe of elected members' receipts should go to central funds, councillors allowances and expenses are neither in intention or in fact a state subsidy to political parties.

Even if they were, what does Pinto-Duschinsky make of all the Independents, who also receive these allowances?

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Sir Samuel Thomas Evans

I pass this plaque, on an estate agency in New Road, Skewen, at least once a week. So there is no excuse for my noting the centenary of Asquith's becoming prime minister without also posting the fact that a man from Skewen became solicitor-general 100 years ago.

Sir Samuel was one of a quartet of radical Liberals who pointed to a post-Gladstone future for the party. (But his radicalism did not extend to women's suffrage, which Lloyd George embraced in due course.)

One hopes there are appropriate commemorations of Sir Samuel's 150th this time next year.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Nursery/primary education: Plaid/Labour coalition back-tracking

Kirsty Williams AM, our representative on education in the Assembly, reports that the Plaid-Labour Government has flip-flopped over its One Wales commitment to radically reduce class sizes for 3 to 7 year olds, through the roll out of the Foundation Phase.

In the One Wales delivery plan 2007-11, launched today, the Government stated that this ‘radical reduction’ would be completed by 2011. But in a letter sent to Directors of Education across Wales last month Assembly officials stated that the implementation of the foundation phase was a “4-year developmental process” and schools should “work towards achieving the Foundation Phase (adult/pupil) Ratios” over this period.

With the Foundation Phase’s implementation being timetabled to start in September 2008 and completed by 2010-11 these additional 4 years will take the Government beyond its 2010-11 commitment for reduced class sizes.

Kirsty writes:
“The Government has failed to meet its commitment before it has even started implementing the foundation phase.
“In its letter to Directors of Education the Government has admitted that there has been a shortfall in staff recruitment and as a result it plans to phase the initiative in over four years.
“This was not previously the plan, and along with inadequate funding is symptomatic of the government’s failure to adequately prepare for the introduction of this scheme."

I am personally in favour of the Scandinavian approach to early years education, which starts formal instruction a year or so later than we do, while making high-quality nursery places available. But, given the structure we have, it is a dereliction not to make the promised reduction in class sizes.

Neath Port Talbot should make more allotments available

Allotments are an important asset to any town, providing a wide range of benefits to both communities and the environment. They are not just a way of producing good and low cost food, though this is becoming more important as world-wide food shortages are now hitting the UK. They offer recreation involving healthy exercise, social contacts and the fun and challenge of growing a variety of fruit, vegetables and flowers. They contribute to the retention of traditional skills and wisdom.

Allotments are a valuable green sustainable open space, providing a haven for wildlife.

Current house building trends are towards smaller gardens, as pressure increases to optimise building land. Those who live in flats or small terraced houses often have no individual garden, circumstances that can disproportionately disadvantage those on lower incomes. Allotments can help to redress the balance.

All local authorities have a statutory duty “to provide a sufficient number of allotments if they are of the opinion that there is a demand for them”.

Ron McConville, the local party's life president, who is a keen allotment-holder, tells me that there is at least one acquaintance who wants an allotment. He also says that there is land at Sea View, Port Talbot, which was once earmarked for housing many years ago but still lies derelict. He is of the opinion that, if the council advertised the availability of allotment land, the demand would be demonstrated.

[Acknowledgments to Boston Borough Council for the source of the introduction to this piece.]

Gwyneth Dunwoody

The sad news of the death of the MP for Crewe just came through as I was logging on.

The Labour Party has lost a great champion, from the true heart of the party. She was someone of whom the word "pedigree" can truly be used.

But people of all political persuasions should mourn the passing of someone who fought for public services, especially for the quality of public transport.

Our thoughts are with her daughter, Tamsin.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008


Labour councillor Kevin Madge waxes indignant over Michael Portillo's one-man show in the Miners' Theatre in Ammanford next Friday.

"I remember what the Tories did to this valley and the days when we had three million unemployed," he said, "that was the true legacy of the Thatcher government. This man was part of that administration and I think it's appalling he's going into a place that was built by the hard-earned pennies of our forefathers."

A tenable point of view, but Cllr. Madge was being opportunistic when he said: "I will not be attending the Miners' Theatre on principle - and I don't think anyone else should too".

The point is that the event has been advertised (in the South Wales Guardian, for one!) and the tickets have been on sale for at least four weeks. Couldn't Cllr Madge have protested in March?

I am told by a fellow party member that Portillo gives a very enjoyable performance, though his jokes are a little weak. His weekly contributions to Andrew Neil's "This Week" reveal someone who now regrets some of the excesses of the Thatcher-Major years. Rather than boycott the theatre, this could be a good opportunity for citizens of the Amman valley to wring a public apology from the man for the forced pit closures, and for creating confrontations between police and miners.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Can Europe snatch a record from America?

For a long time, the longest-living work of nature still alive on the planet was assumed to be one of the giant redwoods on the west coast of the USA. Then, in 1953, the bristlecones in the remote arid mountains of the Great Basin, from Colorado to California, were found to be older.

Now, according to last Friday's "Independent", scientists have found a cluster of Norway spruces in western Sweden which may beat the bristlecones by thousands of years. Carbon dating showed the oldest tree first set root about 8,000 years ago.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Swans get over the line at last

Now looking for something to fill the mug with for a celebration ...

Let's not forget Llanelli AFC, either. They made sure of the Welsh Premier title last night when their only challengers, New Saints, lost to Airbus. Congratulations to Peter Nicholas.


Many congratulations to Neath-Swansea Ospreys on coming back from their poor showing last week, to take the EDF Energy Cup.

Apologies to those who were intent on the match when I came canvassing them. I did check that there were no round-ball top Premier League matches on today* before I set out, but forgot about the big rugby match. Fortunately, the real demolition of the Tigers took place after I packed up my clipboard, so I didn't interrupt too much excitement.

*But I had to be out of the house and active while Swans were playing Gills. As a Spurs supporter once famously remarked: the despair I can put up with, it's the hope I can't bear.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

The phantom post office

Neath Port Talbot council's letting service believes there is a post office in Cadoxton.

So does First Cymru. One wonders whether the person who attached the extract timetable to the bus stop twigged that there was no post office in sight.

The truth is that there was a post office at 12 Church Road, but it closed years ago. What does it say about the people who run our public services that they haven't kept their information up to date?

Drawbacks of SatNav

Michael Bywater in the Independent's Extra magazine yesterday chronicles the dire effects of SatNav. Along with the gross examples of cars ending up in fords, or of posh Chelsea fans who don't know north from south finding themselves in Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire, there are more subtle effects.

The shortest line between two points is not always the speediest. A motorway is quicker than an A-road (other things being equal), and a dual carriageway with limited access is quicker than a two-lane highway through a residential area. The increase in traffic along the narrow A4230 through Cadoxton may be down to SatNav diverting drivers from the purpose-built A465.

Asquith remembered

8th April 1908 is marked here and here.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography mailing list remarks:
Asquith was also the head of a remarkable dynasty active in politics, business, the law and film.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008


To Cimla Common this morning, to be photographed with four other candidates for the county borough elections. We all held up bits of paper proclaiming a short slogan which hopefully distinguishes us in the eyes of the voter. I must confess I've forgotten what it is already, and will have to check when the photo appears in the press.

I've always had a traditionalist's suspicion of the value of such tableaux, but John Warman (pictured with photographer), who organises the publicity, has been re-elected for Cimla for yonks, so who am I to argue with success?

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Local Health Boards in Wales

Edwina Hart announced last week that the Plaid/Labour Welsh Assembly Government wants to remove the direct link between local authorities and local health boards.

I am gratified to see that my immediate reaction was the same as that of LibDem health rep. Jenny Randerson: "My great concern is that this is a further step in the Labour-Plaid government's centralising agenda. Welsh Liberal Democrats want to empower the experts and patients, not Assembly government politicians."

She went on: "I'm amazed that this major announcement has been snuck out while the Assembly is in recess. This consultation has major implications for the future of the health service in Wales and has emerged without warning, late on a Wednesday afternoon."

It is probably going too far to infer a move by Labour and Plaid to merge existing local authorities along the same lines. A regional super-power like Bridgend-Neath-Port Talbot-Swansea could form a challenge to the central authority in Cardiff, especially if Liberal Democrats form the largest group on it.

One of the stated aims of the reorganisation is to abolish the internal market. If this is the case, why stop at mergers of the LHBs? Why resort to this expensive (I trust one of the health policy research groups works out how many hip operations, or Sudent treatments, this reorganisation will cost) half-way house, when the government could sweep away the LHBs at one go?

The mergers would remove their main raison d'etre, the local connection. I have been impressed, in the couple of meetings I attended as a member of the public, by the positive approach to local health issues by the board members. I worry that, under the new structure, initiatives within Neath Port Talbot, like the Briton Ferry Health Centre, may be shelved as the agenda is taken over by Swansea.

Whatever system is chosen as a result of the consultation - perhaps even the status quo - must be the permanent one. With her limited budget, Wales cannot afford health reorganisations every time the government changes.

It must also include a means by which people can, locally, call health administrators and professionals to account, or, indeed, publicly commend them.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

South Wales in the 1970s

Merthyr and his nearby home village of Heolgerrig feature in the photographs taken by Robert Haines in 1971 and 1972. Some of his collection are featured in the Independent's Saturday magazine.

Paul Vallely's linking commentary implies that they represent a time that is past and lost. I think he is mistaken. I still see faces like them in the Dulais and Neath valleys, and read of similar life-histories in the local press. Even coal is coming back.

But the photographs are good in their own terms, without a historical overlay. See what you think.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Baglan Disenfranchised

Juliet Hopkins and Peter Richards, who were elected as Neath Port Talbot Ratepayers Association councillors, and served in that capacity for three years and eleven months, became persuaded barely an hour before nominations closed last Friday that they were really socialists.

One has to admire that master tactician, Labour leader Derek Vaughan, in securing the two Ratepayers' signatures. He clearly cannot raise any credible candidates from within Neath Port Talbot Labour, so to obtain two ready-made Labour councillors was a master-stroke.

But is he storing up trouble for himself? How committed are his two new recruits to the New Labour project? If Labour does not achieve a majority on May 1st, will they remain faithful? If they stay, will the traditional socialists in the party sit comfortably with them?

And what of the councillors' relations with their constituents? The sentiment in Baglan has been largely anti-Labour. As well as those non-party-political people who are concerned only for value-for-money from the local council, there are Liberal Democrat (Baglan was a stronghold of the old SDP) and Conservative voters there. These vote Ratepayer as a compromise, and would surely have provided candidates if they had known that otherwise they were going to get two Labour councillors by default.

They have effectively been disenfranchised.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Dangers of mobile phones

Dr Vini G Khurana, a fellow of the Australasian college of neurosurgeons, has published a report which purports to show that "there is a growing and statistically significant body of evidence reporting that brain tumours such as vestibular schwannoma (acoustic neuroma) and astrocytoma are associated with 'heavy' and 'prolonged' mobile phone use, particularly on the same side as the 'preferred ear' for telephony".

The silicon.com news item concludes
While there is still no proven link between cancer and exposure to electromagnetic radiation from mobile phone use, Khurana said the growing body of evidence is cause for concern. Children's use of mobiles is particularly worrying, he claims, suggesting kids' use of mobiles should be restricted to emergency situations only.

This last was also the recommendation of the Stewart inquiry into mobile phones.

N.B. This is not an argument against mobile phone masts, rather for an increase in the number of masts. This would tend to reduce the power of transmissions from mobile handsets and thus the effect on the user. One of the most marked increases in acoustic neuromas associated with mobile phone use was reported from Finland, where the distance between masts is greater than average. (It has to be admitted that the numbers involved, as with so many mobile phone studies, are small, statistically speaking.)

There can be good reasons for objecting to masts in residential areas - ugliness being prime - but safety is a vanishingly small one.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Cambrian Line improvements

This seems too good to be true:

WORK to improve reliability on the Cambrian Line has been started by Network Rail.

The £13m scheme between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth, Machynlleth and Pwllheli will allow an hourly service, increasing the number of passenger trains from 38 to 57 per day.

Mike Gallop of Network Rail said the work should be completed by spring 2009.

This was published in the Daily Post on April 1st. Work is due to start in a fortnight's time, which is remarkable, given the long lead-time on previous projects like Ebbw Vale and Vale of Glamorgan. Please convince me that it is not an April Fool joke.

Museum of Computing

Part of our heritage is under threat, according to a report on silicon.com. The Museum of Computing has been lovingly put together over years by volunteers, and has achieved the support of such as Sir Clive Sinclair.

However, it will lose its present home in July when Bath University closes the Oakdale campus in Swindon.

Those of us on CIX have known for a long time of the hard work Simon has put in towards building up the collection and publicising it. It is to be hoped that his work is not lost.

It has always seemed appropriate to me that a museum which reflects Britain's contribution to the major technology of the last 50 years should be in Swindon, where Brunel and Churchward achieved great things for the railway industry. Surely an equally suitable permanent home can be found.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Their Economic Lordships and Immigration

The Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords has published a report which has been hailed in some quarters as a refutation of the government's policy on immigration and a justification for limits on immigration.

However, before one rushes to the conclusion that an independent and disinterested body has passed judgment, one should examine the composition of the Committee. It is chaired by Tory Lord Wakeham, and includes such old Thatcherites as Lawson and Lamont. Indeed, I spotted only two non-Tory names. Lord Oakeshott, for all his otherwise Liberal qualities, is an investment banker, and the Labour peer Lord Paul, being an immigrant himself, may be subject to the "pull up the ladder, Jack" syndrome.

Their Lordships may be strictly correct in saying that "immigration has very small impacts on GDP per capita", but then there are few measurable economic benefits - apart from the small amounts of income tax paid - from working in care homes, or teaching, or driving buses, or the myriad other public service jobs which immigrants are filling.

The CBI, which is a practical organisation, criticised the report and said that "businesses needed the flexibility to recruit immigrants who formed a valuable part of the workforce". (Quoted in the Daily Telegraph)

A hundred years of the Territorial Army

I am happy to join in the celebrations, in spirit at least. I shudder to think what we would have done without the TA.

Labour's addiction to legislation

Steve Richards in The Independent has the epigram which I've been searching for since New Labour came to power: "Like Mr Blair, Mr Brown has a tendency to use legislation because of its symbolic value, as if Parliament was little more than a newsroom. Both of them think all the time in terms of headlines, how things will be perceived."