Thursday, 29 October 2009

Harman refuses debate on data security

Pressed by both David Heath for the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives' Sir George Young and even one of her own back-benchers, Andrew Miller, the Leader of the House today brushed off requests for a debate on data assurance. She refused to see a connection between the collection of vast amounts of personal data by the Home Office and yet another failure of security of government-collected data, reported this morning. She implied that the probability of increased numbers of convictions for rape and murder outweighed any dangers of people's DNA data getting into the wrong hands.

The latest scandal concerns the Rural Payments Agency. The RPA lost confidential data belonging to anyone who has ever claimed a single farm payment in England. According to Caroline Stocks of the Farmers Weekly, computer tapes containing the bank details, addresses, passwords and security questions of more than 100,000 farmers were discovered missing in May after they were transferred from RPA offices in Reading to Newcastle. Although DEFRA was alerted straight away - " it is Farmers Weekly's understanding that" DEFRA made no attempt to inform anyone. There is more here.

Crude message from Governor Schwarzenegger

The leader of California has sent a message to the state's elected representatives which betrays a long-built-up annoyance. People who are good at acrostics will immediately spot a hidden message which is even more blunt than the straight text.

Hat-tip to Jonathan Calder.

Should Blair be EU president?

Don't comment here, but go to the vote on Liberal Democrat Voice.

(To see the news from the current EU presidency, held by Sweden, go here.)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The continuing saga of troughing MPs

Radio news is reporting this morning that Sir Christopher Kelly is going to recommend that family members (including presumably civil partners) should no longer be employed by MPs out of public funds. Personally, I don't have any difficulty with the latter, in spite of some well-publicised abuses. If the job is not a sinecure, and the holder is good enough, then surely it doesn't matter how he or she is appointed? Of course, a blanket ban is much easier to enforce.

He also recommends that there should be an end to "flipping" and other abuses of the allowances for housing. However, the terms "horse" and "stable door" come to mind. No action is going to be taken against current rogues, in spite of pressure from Nick. Stephen Tall puts it much better in

Monday, 26 October 2009

Lord Avebury in the wars

Alerted to the fact that Lord Avebury was in hospital as a result of a couple of accidents, I checked his blog. We always knew he was a good man, right from the time he won Orpington in a by-election (as Eric Lubbock), but the information in his potted biography that prior to entering politics he had not only been in production engineering in Rolls-Royce, but also a junior officer in the Welsh Guards, was new to me.

Friday, 23 October 2009

A sideways look at Nick Griffin's "Question Time"

That's effectively what it was. The entire programme revolved round him. Well in advance of the actual transmission it was clear that the BNP leader was being used to attract publicity for the programme, an impression that was confirmed by the inordinate coverage given this morning by BBC outlets - including, sadly, Radio Wales - to the show.

The party's spin doctor complained this morning about the concentration on Griffin and the policies that the BNP is most well-known for. In private he must have been cheering. If other topics of the moment - the economy, for instance - had been discussed, the lack of coherent policy across the board would have been exposed. I remember from one of my previous election hustings that the flakiness of the nationalist fringe candidate (either UKIP or Referendum Party) was really exposed when questioning moved away from his comfort zone. We had some hint of that last night when the one serious non-race question, that of homophobia, came up.

I am not as great a fan of Bonnie Greer as Peter Black evidently is, judging by his view of last night's proceedings, but I thought she did a more thorough demolition job on Nick Griffin than the other members of the panel by patronising him - or, rather, by dealing with him as a nanny would treat a wayward charge.

I would also agree with Peter Black that Chris Huhne did well, in spite of his being excluded for long periods by David Dimbleby. It was unfortunate that Huhne appeared to pander to the Conservative/BNP anti-EU line by bringing up the subject of the free market in labour being opened up to East European accession countries, something that was seized on by the cunning Griffin.

I thought Griffin destroyed one of his party's own arguments by citing the persistence of male DNA through from Iron Age remains to the present day. As Bonnie Greer had pointed out, soldiers - though not necessarily citizens, as she suggested - from all over the Roman Empire, including North Africa, had been posted to legions garrisoning this country for the four hundred years of the empire. Many must have settled. Since then, there have been waves of immigration, largely fleeing persecution on the continent, yet the character of Britain has hardly changed. If we can stand two millennia of migration, then the restricted* inflow of the current decade is hardly going to alter things.

Dimbleby's concentration on Griffin had another unfortunate side-effect: the policies of the three major parties were not examined. I would have thought that Baroness Warsi's position was uncomfortably close to that of BNP, for instance, and Chris Huhne's attack on the government's lack of control was not answered by Jack Straw.

"Question Time" didn't tell me anything new about the BNP, but it did confirm what a slippery character Nick Griffin is. It was summed up for me by his assertion that David Duke was a member of a nice chapter of the Ku Klux Klan when he had posed with Griffin, but had since gone to the bad.

*It would be minimal if the government policed its own laws effectively

Local democratic control of health spending

The headline debates of 21st October were on two subjects chosen by Liberal Democrats, the plight of Equitable Life pensioners and climate change. Vince Cable's introduction to the former is well worth reading. However, my eye was caught by a ten-minute rule Bill introduced by another Liberal Democrat, Dr John Pugh. It pointed up a problem of financial control in the NHS in England which has echoes this side of the border.

The Local Health Services and Democratic Involvement Bill seeks to require, among other things, Primary Care Trusts to obtain prior approval for their spending plans, involving relevant local authorities.

Dr Pugh harboured few illusions about the odds of the Bill making it to the statute book, but in his presentation he made one or two sharp points.

"The local NHS is a huge taxpayer-funded service, affects everyone, is important to everyone, but is sadly totally remote from democratic decision making," he said. "Those who take the trouble to get elected to secure a mandate can make decisions about [where people] may smoke and what, but not about what happens in the local NHS in their area.

"MPs can protest at the actions of such bodies, [but] the thought of allowing anyone who has gone through the sordid process of getting elected anywhere near decision making has given successive Governments the vapours, and has been resisted hook, line and sinker, much to the satisfaction of hospital chief executives and health service managers.

"When an MP raises in this place decisions that their constituents oppose, and tasks a Minister about it, time and again the Minister, with almost comic sincerity, in Pontius Pilate fashion, says, 'This is a matter for local decision making,' as though 'local decision making' implied that local people—outside the quango circle—had any part in it.

"That is a perversion of democracy, but it satisfies the professionals, who like the prescription and genuinely fear the alternative—democratic accountability. [...] Liberal Democrats are very comfortable with the idea of elected health boards. We believe in removing appointees who have been whisked smugly or, in some cases, humbly into power because they have impressed some other appointee who has previously been whisked smugly or humbly into power, and replacing them with elected individuals who have had to impress the citizens served by the local trust, who gain community support and approval, and who, ultimately, justify their position to the people whom they serve.

"My Bill is simply a bridge to that position. It involves even less change, and uses existing institutions. I propose that primary care trusts, as currently constituted, lay before the health scrutiny committees of existing councils, as currently constituted, their annual plans and their big decisions—not for scrutiny or consultation, but for approval, agreement and amendment. I propose a kind of democratic lock on the local NHS: a move beyond mere consultation. I propose a genuine redistribution of power from one existing institution to another existing, established institution. This is such a good idea that I believe that the model has already been embraced voluntarily in some areas."

Dr Pugh concluded: "I genuinely see no reason why this model cannot work—in fact, it does work— and produce not simply good decisions, but good decisions with a popular mandate. That would be nice. Our NHS could be reclaimed, without micro-management or meddling, and not with government by experts but with popular government, expertly informed."

Sadly, the Bill will almost certainly fail to get a second reading, so we won't even hear the government's arguments against it, but these would no doubt be similar to those of Edwina Hart in centralising the NHS in Wales.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Free speech and the Mail newspapers

There may well be calls for Vince Cable to end his contributions to the Mail Online, in view of Jan Moir's homophobic recent article. It would be wrong for him to do so. Apart from being a gesture against press freedom, it would take away a counter-weight to conservative articles in a popular journal. The Mail outlets have a substantial readership which votes Liberal Democrat. I can't believe that the Moir article is typical of Mail readers' thinking, but I do hope that Vince addresses the issue in his next column.

BNP on the hustings

The BNP has not yet complied with the legal ruling that it must not discriminate on grounds of race in recruiting members. I accept that it requires a resolution by the party to amend its constitution, but until that is done, the BBC should not engage spokesmen for the BNP on the corporation's discussion programmes. I agree with Peter Hain to that extent. Otherwise, I am with Peter Black. The genie is out of the bottle, and cannot be ignored.

There will almost certainly be a BNP candidate in Neath in the forthcoming general election. I hope that Mr Hain will not boycott any public meetings at which all candidates are present. After nearly forty years of political experience at Westminster, following leadership of a group dedicated to ending apartheid in South Africa, he is in the best position to give the lie to BNP's underlying racist philosophy.

I intend, as the Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency, to do my best to defend the British tradition of tolerance, but it would be so much more effective to have two of us on the platform doing so.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Montgomeryshire Canal

In an ecumenical spirit, politically speaking, I draw attention to Glyn Davies's photos of the Canal and tribute to the volunteers who made its reopening possible.

There are those who dream of connecting the Swansea and/or Neath canals to the Brecon & Montgomery. It won't happen in my lifetime, but I'd like to see movement towards this.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Why wait for the general election before resigning?

David Wilshire, the Conservative MP for Spelthorne (Surrey/Middlesex), who has been exposed as channelling public money into a company run by himself and his SO, has announced, clearly under pressure from his party leader, that he will not stand for election again. (Jonathan Calder has more of the background.) But surely the nature of the offence is prima facie so serious, bordering on the criminal, that he should have been advised to stand down immediately?

Pam Giddy advises MPs complaining about being asked to return expenses & allowances: "when you are in a hole, stop digging".

It is unfortunate that the Liberal Democrat leader got the taxpayers to fund his redecorations. (For the rest of the LibDem record, see Liberal Voice.) However, both Nick Clegg and Conservative leader David Cameron put their hands up and have agreed to pay back their excessive claims without demur. Unfortunately, too many Labour and Conservative members are continuing to whine about "unfairness".

The main complaint now appears to be that Sir Thomas Legg, the retired senior civil servant charged with cleaning up after the expenses scandal, is changing the rules. (Incidentally, I confess to a wry grin, when the Legg letters were first made public, that strict civil service standards, which I and my colleagues used to groan about, were being applied to politicians' claims.) Just because the Fees Office passed dubious claims does not make those claims retrospectively right. One might as well say that one should not be charged with old crimes because the local police turned a blind eye at the time. Honourable members (and let us remember that the majority are still honourable) have to attest that any expenditure must be incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the performance of parliamentary duties.

What part of "wholly, exclusively and necessarily" don't they understand?

Monday, 12 October 2009

Patrick Hannan

Radio Wales has just announced that Patrick Hannan has died. It's difficult to find the words to express how much of a loss this is.

The news came as a shock. Adrian Masters had sat in for him on "Called to Order" for the last two weeks, so one assumed he had been ill, but it was announced that he would return shortly.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Life imitating art

Every so often a sketch by the great Liverpudlian comedian Robb Wilton is repeated on the radio. After "The Day War Broke Out", the most popular are his turns as a bureaucratic fire chief and an incompetent police sergeant, who turns away a woman confessing to murder.

Now, courtesy of the India Uncut blog, comes this story from the Times of India. In true Robb Wilton fashion, an Indian desk sergeant refused to book a self-confessed murderer because the crime did not occur in his district.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Conservatives and Wales

Bernard Salmon has commented on this morning's Conservative unionist love-in regarding Scotland, so I should be expected to comment on the Welsh aspects. Unfortunately, I failed to record the BBC-Parliament transmission. They topped the vote in the Euro elections (but didn't mention that UKIP also did well). Cheryl Gillan said that she was born in Wales and that she had been working closely with Nick Bourne for years. Nick Bourne said that Welsh Labour would probably fall apart when Rhodri went and remarked on the prominence of the Conservative candidate in Delyn. That's just about all I can remember. They did go on about the Euro vote, though.

Conservatives in Manchester (!V)

It is hard to take seriously David Cameron's assertion that the Conservative party has performed a U-turn in the short period in which he has been in charge. This is the party which when in government legislated against the "promotion of homosexuality", introduced PFI and the internal market to the health service and put the caps on local government financing - especially housing finance - which Prescott and Brown made great use of. Yet Cameron said today that civil partnerships, the NHS and local decision-making were good things.

A sign that Conservative hypocrisy is not dead came in William Hague's speech when he lambasted Labour for closing post offices - a process which the Conservatives had set in motion.

Forgive me if I am not convinced by the "Ready for Change" slogan. The applause in the Manchester Central auditorium for the more liberal parts of Cameron's speech was hesitant and lukewarm, and there are too many people from the Powell-Boyle-Thatcher project still around at the top level of the party.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Conservatives in Manchester (II)

Hague and Pickles were careful to damp down expectations of a Conservative victory when they spoke yesterday. They pointed out that it would take the greatest Conservative voting swing since 1931 for them to gain an absolute majority. This was presented as a warning to Conservative party workers not to be complacent, not to assume that the Labour melt-down would automatically propel their party into office.

I suspect that the message was also directed at the media. The Conservative leadership certainly does not want appear to be triumphalist, but it may be more than that. Private polling may be supporting what many of us expect: that, on present voting intentions, there will be a hung parliament after the next election. They would prefer to be able to say "I told you so" to the editors, rather than the other way round.

No doubt many Conservative activists are salivating at the thought of another 40+ majority alla Thatcher 1979. They should remember that there was only one similarity between then and now: a discredited Labour government had only just started pulling itself out of a hole with international financial support.

The arithmetic is different: Callaghan in 1979 did not have an overall majority; Brown still has a nominal superiority of over fifty.

The parties were different. In 1979, the Conservatives could argue that they were providing a free-market alternative to failed socialism. In 1996, Brown and Blair took economic liberalism on board and, apart from a change in the language since Brown became prime minister, the New Labour project has hardly deviated thereafter. Cameron and company seem to be presenting themselves as better managers - rather as Blair did in 1997 - not offering a different philosophy.

Finally, there is the position of the third party. The Liberals under David Steel had restored confidence in the UK economy by going into coalition with Callaghan, quitting in 1978 when the crisis was over. The party was still punished at the ballot for its association with Labour, when the only alternative was seen to be Mrs Thatcher. Thirty years later, the parliamentary third party, the Liberal Democrats, is ten times the size of its 1979 counterpart and far from being seen as a natural supporter of New Labour. If people merely want to vote "not Labour", there is a realistic choice, depending on where they live.

No wonder the Conservatives are wooing Liberal Democrat supporters. This morning's conference session on local government, with its obsession with potholes, traffic lights and bendy-buses looked like a videoconferencing version of a classic LD Focus leaflet.

Conservatives in Manchester (III)

Passing lightly over the proposals by Michael Gove (a Scot, I should point out) for education in England - though I do worry about the return of the imperial view of history to the curriculum of the dominant nation of the union - I want to concentrate on what Dominic Grieve and Chris Grayling had to say about crime and justice.

Disappointingly, the message was the same invocation of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) which has disfigured Labour's pronouncements on crime since their 1996 conference. In one respect, the Conservatives have gone backwards. Last year, they were honest enough to state that their hard line on early release and on replacing fines with prison would involve building more gaols. This year, there was not a mention of the cost of their programme: neither the buildings, nor the extra staffing required for the increased discipline in prisons. Dominic Grieve wants a policy of zero tolerance of drugs in prison, but surely he knows that in the most under-staffed prisons, warders tacitly accept the easy availability of drugs which keep prisoners quiescent.

Chris Grayling seemed to think that the only cause of youth offending was the low price of drink, and that preventing supermarkets from selling booze below cost price would solve that problem. (The supermarkets say that they don't sell below cost, and I believe them; their purchasing power is such that they can drive down the cost to them and probably still leave a healthy margin in their normal pricing. I doubt that they make a loss on price promotions especially since the practice on many other lines is to force the supplier to share part of the cut.)

The only positive messages came from the discussion sessions. Such as Mary Smart, Junior Stuart and others whose names I didn't catch, were working practically on the ground in various ways to turn round the lives of offenders. It was good to see them given a national platform. They (and those in the same field who spoke to Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth) ought to be an encouragement to others in the community to do the same. Sadly, apart from a few words of praise, there was no encouragement from either of the Conservative spokesmen in the way of commitment to help from government.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Directly-elected police commissioners

It is worrying that the Conservatives are persisting with this populist policy, at a time when the United States has virtually got rid of this method of appointment. Criminologist Lawrence Sherman illustrated one reason at a Q&A session in Bournemouth a fortnight ago. If I recall his anecdote correctly, a race-based protest in a southern State was being put down brutally by a police force which was out of control partly because, at the time, its elected commissioner was arguing in the courts for his continuing in an office which the legislature had abolished.

Conservatives in Manchester (I)

The Conservatives are as secretive about their conference agenda as Labour. If someone can point me to a publicly-available programme, I would be grateful.

It was clever of them to get one of their weakest pitches out of the way on the first morning. Sir George Young outlined some very desirable democratic changes to House of Commons procedures at length, but dismissed the allowances and expenses scandal, which arguably implicated as much mis-spending on the part of Conservative MPs as Labour ones, in a couple of sentences at the beginning.

Sir George rightly drew attention to the Select Committee system which has proved so valuable over the last twenty years. What he omitted was the name of Norman St John Stevas, the prime mover of the changes. He was not Margaret Thatcher's favourite person, which may have had something to do with his air-brushing out of Conservative history this morning.

(Given the keynote of austerity sounded by Eric Pickles, it was rather tactless to fill in the gap between presentations with a backing track which, if I heard correctly, repeated the mantra "Shop till you drop".)

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Glamorgan chairman refuses to guarantee Maynard's position

I would be more worried if he had given the traditional vote of confidence which means that the incumbent is on his way out!

Steve James, on Radio Wales this morning, reckoned that if Maynard goes, Dalrymple will also. While I have had my doubts about some of the cricket manager's pronouncements, I have none about Dalrymple's captaincy. In my view, he is the best since Tony Lewis, his bowling changes being particularly astute. It should be remembered that, though Glamorgan finished in the middle of the second division table, the gap between success and mediocrity was narrow. If memory serves, there were three matches in which Glamorgan were on the brink of victory having the opposition nine wickets down. If two of the three had gone the county's way, we could have been celebrating promotion now.

The letter that will never be printed

Not the least regrettable feature of the sudden demise of the Neath Guardian was that the letters page was dumped in favour of a retrospective article.

At least I have Web access and can post my last letter below. I am sorry for any reader who put a letter in and is not online. Anyway, I am not about to let Alun Llewelyn have the last word:

Letter to Neath Guardian "points of view"

Does Alun Llewelyn (“points of view”, September 24) really claim that the economic policies of the current coalition government in Cardiff are “Plaid-led”? If so, he must be accepting responsibility for the overwhelming financial pressure on local authorities to persuade their tenants to say “Yes” to housing stock transfer.

Of course this is not so. We both know that the Plaid Cymru housing minister is following the Labour policy made in Westminster, just as the Nationalists have done about-turns on fair votes and local income tax in return for their ministerial seats.

Frank Little
Prospective parliamentary candidate,
Neath constituency