Tuesday, 26 October 2010


I've always been suspicious of fast growth in the economy, mindful of the saw: "up like a rocket, and down like the stick". However, I am heartened by evidence reinforcing the feeling that UK recovery is under way. In this Reuters report, the Engineering Employers Federation is quoted: "the recovery appeared steadier than that after past recessions". My own indicator is the number, and type, of jobs coming up on the contract market. There has been an increase in requirements for developers and planners, which has held steady so far this year. This does suggest a confidence in the UK economy, in spite of various warnings, like the EEF's: "that future growth could not be guaranteed." 

The absence of Web comment from Labour is puzzling. Surely they cannot have been wrongfooted by the unexpected rise in GDP? Perhaps they are saving their ammunition for prime minister's questions tomorrow. Certainly, they would be ill-advised to point to the low activity in the housing market as a sign of economic ill-health, as the shadow chancellor's first response on radio today implied. It was the over-dependence on the private housing sector which was the undoing of Ireland and Spain.

Labour is probably pinning its hopes on a domestic recession in the first quarter of next year as a result of the VAT increase. They should also note that this is also the period when the first of a series of rises in the personal tax allowance occurs, putting more money into many pay-packets. No doubt Conservative and Liberal Democrat spinmeisters are filing away every prediction of disaster on the part of opposition speakers.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Forestry Commission sell-off

Both the Telegraph yesterday and today's Independent report that Westminster's Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is forcing the Forestry Commission to sell about half its estate. DEFRA under Caroline Spelman was one of the biggest losers in the Comprehensive Spending Review and these land holdings must have seemed like an easy target. But it appears that this government is going further: laws which allow natural regeneration in some ancient woods and forests in England are to be set aside to make sites more attractive to leisure facility developers.

The effects on Wales are unclear. My reading of the devolution settlement is that responsibility for woodland here was transferred to the Welsh Assembly, to be held in trust for the nation. This is reinforced by Elin Jones's preamble to the 2010-2013 Corporate Plan "Our purpose and direction" (45-page pdf) by Forestry Commission Wales. However, "responsibility" and legal title are separate matters. In any case, there will no doubt be pressure from London for Wales to follow the Westminster line. There should be an early statement from WAG to set our minds at rest.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Labour still don't get it

Sharon Bowles MEP reports that in the European Parliament, Labour MEPs were part of [...] 'outer space' fiscal logic, voting against the freeze [in the EU budget, proposed by LibDem MEPs] and in favour of goodies such as £1.5 million for trade unions, more for the expensive EU earth observation programme, and more for EU information centres. She comments: "in this of all years, any increases on particular items needed to be funded by savings elsewhere, not through an overall increase in the EU budget".

Licence fee raided for broadband funding

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has announced that £300m of the £530m, which it will cost to fulfil the government's commitment to advance broadband, will come directly from the BBC licence fee, with the remaining £230m funded by underspend in the UK's digital TV switchover fund. This is in addition to BBC's taking responsibility for the World Service and paying for S4C.

According to silicon.com, "The government wants to encourage public-private partnerships - between local authorities, broadband suppliers and community groups - to bid for chunks of the £530m to help roll-out superfast broadband to areas currently languishing at the bottom of the broadband pile, the DCMS spokesman added.

"The government has announced £530m to help fund broadband rollouts.  Osborne also detailed the locations for four rural superfast broadband trials that will test the commercial viability of deploying high speed broadband in remote parts of the country. '[Superfast broadband] pilots will go ahead in the Highlands and Islands, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Herefordshire,' said Osborne - upping by one the tally of trials from the original three 'market testing pilots' announced back in June."

Why is Wales not involved? The Assembly Government must tell us what its plans for broadband are.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

EU asserts rights of foreign accused to free interpretation

Chris Davies, MEP, has made sure that his local media in the north-west (like the Rochdale News) carry the story that Britons abroad in the EU who wind up in court can now be assured of free translation facilities, but the good news from Europe hasn't made it into the national media at the time of posting.

(The draft directive appears to be http://register.consilium.europa.eu/pdf/en/09/st11/st11917.en09.pdf)

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Labour short of capable English MPs?

One wonders why Labour had to wheel out Geraint Davies (Swansea West) and Fiona MacTaggart (a Scottish member) yesterday to ask questions of Michael Gove about his statement on education policy, which applied only to England. Gove's replies to other members were consistently courteous and ecumenical, but, no doubt recognising political opportunism when he saw it, treated Davies rather differently:

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State agree that his education policy-along with what will happen on Wednesday-consists of cutting overall resources for state education by between a quarter and a third and redirecting what is left away from disadvantaged areas and failing schools towards leafy suburbs and extra schools in middle-class areas? How can that possibly be construed as fair?
Michael Gove: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no. The slightly longer answer is that he could not be more wrong. The figures that he quotes and the dynamic that he invokes are utterly wrong. We will not be cutting in the way that he mentions; we will be increasing spending on schools. More than that, we will be targeting spending more effectively on the very poorest. I know that it is difficult for him to cope with, but the Government whom he supported from the Back Benches, before he lost his seat and came back representing somewhere else, presided over a growth in inequality and a freezing of social mobility. If he is committed to advancing the education of the very poorest, he should make another journey, like the one he made from Croydon to Swansea, from the Opposition Benches to the Government Benches on the side of social justice.

Monday, 18 October 2010

MEP calls for UK opt-in to EU anti-trafficking directive

The prime minister's resolve to have as little to do with the European Union as possible has put the government into an awkward position on this Anti-Slavery Day. Sarah Ludford MEP urges the UK government to mark the day's importance by announcing soon its intention to opt in to the EU anti-trafficking directive.

She says: "This reinforced EU law will strengthen our own anti-trafficking legislation and good practice, help to combat modern-day slavery across Europe and put trafficking gangs behind bars.

"Let's keep up Britain's 200-year-old record of upholding human rights and ending human sexual and labour exploitation by extending our leadership to international cooperation. I believe that participation in the EU Directive would amply fulfil the coalition government test for European 'opt-ins'."

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The newspaper that shouldn't have died

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the savage termination of the last liberal national daily newspaper, the News Chronicle. I am grateful to an article by York Membery in the latest Liberal Democrat News, both refreshing my memory and filling in the background details. It confirms what many people felt at the time, that, with better management, the newspaper need not have folded - certainly that it did not need to be abruptly handed over to the Daily Mail, a newspaper which was more illiberal then than it is now.

I remember the distress and anger with which Norman Cullis, an elderly colleague in the office where I had taken up my first job, and a life-long Liberal, reported the fact that the Daily Mail had dropped without warning on his door-mat instead of the usual Chronicle. He had no intention of continuing to take the rag, his opinion of which was one of the few things he shared with the office socialist, John Watkins. He asked me about the Guardian, which had become my regular reading as soon as I could afford a daily newspaper, and whose own Liberal history he would have been more aware of than I. My enthusiastic recommendation was put in doubt soon afterwards when editor Alistair Hetherington put the paper unambiguously behind Labour.

The Chronicle itself had supported Labour in the 1945 election, no doubt seeing Clement Attlee's party as the best hope for radical reform. It continued to advocate Labour in 1950 & 1951, but called for a big Liberal vote in 1955 and 1959. It had deviated from its roots less than most journals. One root was the radical Daily News (first editor, Charles Dickens) and another the Daily Chronicle, another Liberal-supporting newspaper. They merged in 1930. News Chronicle was part of the Cadbury family holdings because George Cadbury had bought the Daily News in 1901 to campaign for pensions and against sweated labour.

It seems that the post-war generation of Cadburys had lost sight of the family's earlier Quaker idealism. The chocolate side, as we know from the recent American takeover, had become just another limited company, quoted on the stock exchange. Laurence Cadbury, the family member responsible for the News Chronicle, "seems to have lost the will to keep it alive," in York Membery's words, "ignoring every circulation-boosting suggestion".

Nowadays, while there are daily papers which are not tied to a particular party, and which have from time to time plumped for Liberal Democrats at a general election, there is not one which is recognised as a Liberal Democrat paper, as the Daily Telegraph is a Tory one, and the Daily Mirror, Labour. The "dead-tree" press may be slowly dying, but the titles are moving across to the Web and BBC News still takes many of its stories from the "Street of Shame". The loss of the Chronicle still matters.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Liverpool saga drawing to a close

It seems that practically the last spite action by Hicks and Gillett to delay the sale by the Liverpool board and RBS has failed: http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/liverpool-owners-lose-court-battle-again-2106542.html

The Indy has several pages on the story of the decline of the club, including this one by Nick Harris. It seems that after the takeover, there was a crucial meeting in a hotel room in Marseille in December 2007. "Those present at the meeting included Gillett as well as the former Liverpool chairman, David Moores, and the former chief executive, Rick Parry. Gillett asked Moores and Parry to sign up to a 'whitewash', The Independent can reveal.

"At the time, a 'whitewash procedure', which is no longer allowed in law, would have allowed Hicks and Gillett to move their acquisition debt – run up when buying Liverpool – on to the football club's books, as long as serving directors gave written guarantees about debt repayments among other things.

"Hicks and Gillett had borrowed money to buy Liverpool and laden that debt on to a holding company. Now they wanted to shift it to the club itself, en masse. Moores and Parry felt Liverpool's income was already being used to fund the Americans' takeover, contrary to what they had promised. So they refused to sign up to the whitewash to put the debt directly on to Liverpool. 

"Hicks and Gillett, who even then were seeking to refinance the loans they took to buy the club, instead had to dip into their own wealth to smooth the refinancing. They also had to provide further personal guarantees on the loans. It was not so much a slippery slope as indicative of problems elsewhere. 

"Unbeknown to most, the credit crunch was threatening to bite both owners hard."

There are obvious political parallels.

Monday, 11 October 2010

I may be inadequate, but I am no longer pimply

Roy Greenslade quotes Andrew Marr as saying at the Cheltenham Literature Festival:
A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people.
OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk. But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.
It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism...
Most of the blogging is too angry and too abusive. It is vituperative. Terrible things are said on line because they are anonymous. People say things on line that they wouldn't dream of saying in person.
I am sure that Lynne Featherstone, David Peter, Peter Black and Steph Ashley (to name the bloggers that come immediately to mind, and that's just from my "follow" list) would object to the stereotype, just as Greenslade already has done. Besides, the section of the blogosphere which I am part of is not aiming to compete with journalists, but with commentators. The paid competition includes the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, David Aaronovitch and Johann Hari, and is not superior. Marr himself occupies that grey area between commentary and journalism.

The best example of citizen journalism which I have seen recently has been Nick Thornsby's report of the judicial investigation of Phil Woolas's election campaign. Angry he may be about Woolas's conduct, but his reportage was admirably objective - and more comprehensive, about a critical case, than most of the press.

We are seldom vituperative, and, if we are angry, it is with good reason. We pick up on aspects of the news which are ignored by the professionals in the London village. We fill in the gaps which the commercially-dominated media leave.

If Marr is touchy about bloggers encroaching on his territory, it must be from an awareness that the quality of broadcast and press journalism is not what it was, or should be.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

European information-sharing hold-up

One argument thrown up against those of us who believe in a free market in labour as well as trade across Europe is for habitual offenders in one country to move across borders and repeat offend without the police being aware of their presence. The obvious answer is for enforcement agencies throughout the EU to share information, and, ideally, for each to have ready access to a comprehensive database.

It seems, from this posting by Sarah Ludford MEP, that Indian-scale bureaucracy  is holding up the latter.

Let's have an objective evaluation of public service in Wales

I couldn't agree more with Peter Black when he writes about the proposed closure of the passport office in Newport, Gwent:

this is the wrong move for two main reasons:

Firstly, this is not some regional sub-office. Wales is a country in its own right and though we rightly form part of the United Kingdom in terms of Home Affairs and Foreign Relations, there is a great deal of sense in having a passport office based here, both for employment reasons and prestige. The fact that Wales will become the only country in Europe without a fully-fledged passport office is actually very significant.

Secondly, if the Home Office is trying to save money by reducing the number of local offices then they have chosen the wrong target. Everybody knows that civil service offices in London are difficult to sustain. The over-heating economy in the South East makes it hard to attract staff due to the relatively poor wages civil servants get, the rent, rates and general overhead costs of keeping offices in London are massively more expensive than elsewhere, and the rationale for keeping an office in the UK capital tends to rest on prestige rather than sound economics.

The logical alternative would be to close the London Passport Office and relocate the head office functions elsewhere. That would save far more money and ensure that the job losses occurred in an area where there are at least alternative jobs. It would also enhance the Newport Office as it would then become the nearest passport office to the Southern international airports albeit with good transport links along the M4 and on the main train line.

The Government seem to be arguing that people from South Wales and the South West of England can travel to London to get their passport. I say, let those in the South East of England come here instead.

Perhaps the coalition government rationale is to reduce the number of public sector jobs in Wales, where they form a higher proportion of employed people than in most parts of the UK. However, only 300 posts in Newport are involved, and surely, of all civil service jobs, they are most critical to selling ourselves abroad. This supposedly business-friendly government should not make it more difficult for businesses in Wales to extend their markets by travelling abroad.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

New Government IT strategy published

I commented favourably on the Conservatives' manifesto for IT before the election. Now it seems that little time has been wasted in making it coalition policy, minus the silly bits.

It still seems odd that the Liberal Democrat party, which probably has proportionately more IT-savvy members than any other, from professionals to anoraks, could not put together its own IT manifesto.

Message of caring Conservatism not getting through

In Birmingham this week, the parts of Iain Duncan Smith's and David Cameron's speeches which signalled a return to the Conservatism of Butler & Macmillan and which probably resonated most with Liberal Democrat observers, were not met with rapturous applause by the activists there gathered. There is more evidence that Thatcherism is not dead from these items in The Scotsman newspaper.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Conservative and Labour dirty tricks at the general election

No apologies for a second dip into Liberal Democrat Voice today. This article reveals that Conservative CHQ was responsible for planting in the press many of the lies and misrepresentations of LibDem policy which took a large amount of Cowley Street staff time to rebut and largely refute. The Conservatives denied during the general election campaign that they were responsible, but insiders have now opened up to academic researchers.

This sort of thing does not help grown-up politics. If there is still suspicion in the grass roots of the Liberal Democrat party of our coalition partners, the way they conducted their campaign is a large factor. Given that we are probably entering a period in national politics where close electoral results, and coalitions, are likely to be the norm, it behoves party campaigners to give their opponents more respect in future.

More on the badger cull

Liberal Democrats are often accused of being two-faced over the badger cull, that MPs & AMs representing urban areas are against it, while rural members have to be in favour. I believe it is more a matter of genuine personal belief. As supporting evidence, I offer this plea for evidence-based action by Andrew George, whose Cornish constituency can hardly be described as metropolitan. He doesn't seem to have suffered at the ballot box for his nuanced stance.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Alternative Technology news

The Centre for Althernative Technology's information site is now up and running: http://info.cat.org.uk/ This features up-to-date information on sustainable technologies and energy practices.

CAT, in conjunction with the Schumacher Society, is to run a conference and workshops in Bristol on 16th October under the banner: "Zero Carbon Britain - from Aspiration into Action". The event will run from 10.00 to 17:30 and will take place in Council House, College Green, BRISTOL BS1 5TR. More information at www.schumacher.org.uk.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Labour's deficit

You would think that the message would have got through to the public by now that the structural deficit created by Gordon Brown was separate from, though aggravated by, the mortgage-led crash. (The UK government was not such an innocent party in the latter, either, but that's another story.) If banking had not reached a crisis point, some other factor -  high demand for basic raw materials, or an OPEC strike, or a food shortage, say - would have brought the boom years to an end.

Yet, no doubt thanks to Labour apologists deliberately fogging the issue, many people still believe that our economy was basically sound until the banks failed. But just look at the run of budget figures from 2001/2 when there was a surplus of £10.6bn: deficits of £12.3bn, £20.4bn, £19bn and £15bn, all before the troubles of 2007.

A posting on Liberal Conspiracy and resulting comments are instructive. One in particular struck me: looking at the pre-crash deficit and the post-crash deficit, it’s quite clear they would have had to be running a really quite massive surplus to have avoided having an enormous deficit afterwards – something I don’t think the Tories would have tolerated in opposition. If Labour had insisted on running a surplus on that scale, I can guarantee they would have been screaming blue murder about the greedy state unnecessarily hoarding money when they could be cutting taxes on wealth creators.

But running a surplus through the noughties was just what Brown said he planned to do.  Look at the Treasury Red Book for Budget 2001. The projected surpluses for 2001/2 through to 2005/06 were £17bn, £15bn, £8bn, £9bn & £9bn. It is a pity that he didn't heed the warning signs in 2002 when the actual outturn for 2001/02 was £6.4 bn less than the original projections. Instead, he embarked on an expansionist budget which relied on optimistic growth figures and tax returns. He carried on fiddling one or the other or both through the rest of his tenure.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Kirk & Marks

Re-reading the Tony Curtis obits today reminded me of a scurrilous story put about in Hollywood, no doubt by actors jealous of Kirk Douglas, and referring to his ego and his liberal sympathies. No top star (apart from Brando, who was contractually bound elsewhere) wanted to touch The Defiant Ones before Tony Curtis agreed. Douglas was said to have been ready to sign up, but "only if I can play the black part".

Mr Nice, the Howard Marks story, is due for release on the 8th of this month. Rhys Ifans stars as Marks, Chloe Sevigny as his wife, and David Thewlis as Jim McCann of the IRA. It will be interesting to see who was cast as Lynn Barber.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Home Office minister catches up

Honestly, you wait ages for a Lynne Featherstone blog entry, then ten come along at once.

Goldilocks planet

The news that astronomical techniques have become so refined that planets only a little bigger than Earth can be detected orbiting distant stars is very exciting. I look forward to the day when the first unambiguous signs of life outside our solar system are proved.

However, I cannot understand the speculation about sending a "space ark" to Zarmina's World (discoverer Steve Vogt named it after his wife).The star Gliese 581 is a red dwarf, which, if my limited knowledge of astronomy is correct, is much further advanced in stellar age than our sun. By the time any spaceship from here reached it, Gliese 581 may well be no warmer than a cinder.

Deputy Prime Minister pays official visit

Peter Black reports (with video) on Nick Clegg's visit to the National Assembly this week.