Friday, 28 January 2011


Which Liberal Democrat toady wrote the following, do you think?

The sense of hopelessness that clouds the poorest communities grows out of disempowerment. Of course beating crime, creating jobs, rebuilding estates can help. But this cloud of despondency can only be dispelled by allowing both local communities and individual citizens to more evenly and directly share in power. By cutting taxes for the low-paid. By making local services directly accountable to the local community. By making community courts and restorative justice the twin pincers that deter and prevent anti-social behaviour.

By allowing community-owned mutual organisations to take over the running of local services like children's centres, estates and parks.

As you may have guessed, I wouldn't have asked the question if the quotation hadn't been taken from an article by a one-time Labour minister. In  this case, it was Alan Milburn in The Independent of 7th May 2009. Some of his proposals are pure New Labour - for instance, a free choice of schools, which, in a climate of restricted public spending is in reality only a free choice for those with the sharpest elbows. However, in an earlier passage in the article he extols a traditional Liberal policy: encouraging employee share ownership and there are other parts which Liberal Democrats would not wildly disagree with.

Another sign that we may be entering a period of more grown-up politics, where agreement - especially on social policy - may be established across party boundaries came last week in the form of a parliamentary debate last week initiated by Conservative back-bencher Damian Hinds. The subject was disadvantaged children. Probably because it was one of two subjects selected for debate by the a back-bench committee under the new procedure, it was refreshingly free from the stereotyped slanging match of Prime Minister's Questions and debates on subjects chosen by the front benches. Certainly, concern was expressed about grand expectations coming to nothing if money was not available, and this criticism came largely from the opposition side, but the general tone was positive.

There was slightly more party edge to the debate which followed.  As might be expected from a motion on the subject of the finances of horse racing, most of the contributions came from members who had racecourses in their constituency, Conservatives in the main, but also including Liberal Democrats Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) and Ian Swales (Redcar). There was some chiding of the Labour front bench for not yet having a policy on the matter. However, there was general agreement that something needed to be done about the threat to the stream of funding from the Betting Levy, in view of the growing proportion of online and offshore gambling.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

How are we doing?

BBC reports that economic growth declined by 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010. Clearly the returning shadow Treasury spokesman, Ed Balls, will blame the coalition government for this. With his record of denying that the deficits of the last ten years contributed to the UK's debt level, he will no doubt ignore the evidence that there was a severe snowfall in December. There is, on  the other hand, some hope in that growth figures in the past have been revised upwards.

There is better news for the coalition on the graduate jobs front. The worst fears about a continuing contraction in graduate vacancies have been shown to be groundless.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Cost of scrapping ID cards

Another snippet from

Dismantling computer systems for the defunct ID cards project will cost up to £400,000 - about £30 per cardholder, the government has revealed.

Home Office minister Damian Green set out the cost of disposing of the ID cards' central database, the National Identity Register (NIR), and securely destroying ID card data, in a written answer to parliament last Wednesday. Scrapping the ID cards scheme will cost the Identity and Passport Service close to £5m in 2010-11, once the cost of additional expenditure and asset write-offs are taken into account.

21st-century Remploy

Thanks to for this:

The UK's 9.2 million internet-less adults are to be offered sub-£100 refurbished PCs to persuade them to get online, under a scheme announced by Martha Lane Fox, the government's Digital Champion.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Lane Fox argued price can be a barrier to entry for the final third of the population who still haven't logged on. "Motivation and inspiration are still two of the biggest barriers, but clearly perception of price is another big deal for people," she said. 

"Although research shows going online can save people around £560 year, we know the cost of setting yourself up at home is still a real barrier for lots of people," added Helen Milner, MD of internet support organisation UK online centres, in a statement. 

Disabled employment services and kit recycling company Remploy is running the low-cost E-cycle PC scheme, which launched in pilot form this week. The PCs will initially be sold through 60 UK online centres that offer computer courses and support to internet newcomers. 

Prices for the refurbished hardware will start from £98 for a PC with a flat screen monitor, mouse and keyboard running Linux and featuring an office package with warranty, telephone support and delivery. Internet connectivity will be provided by Three Mobile - with one month available for £9, or three months for £18. Remploy's E-cycle website portal will offer various cost, connectivity and payment options for the low-cost PC scheme. People will be able to pay online or offline using Payzone, which allows cash payment at more than 20,000 sites including local convenience stores, garages and Post Offices. 

The company said 200 computer packages have been set aside for the pilot but it expects to sell around 8,000 over the next 12 months.

"Remploy E-cycle provides another economically and environmentally friendly option for first-time buyers - and it's designed specifically for those new to the internet," added Milner. 

Monday, 17 January 2011

Rebuilding a pioneering computer reports that EDSAC is to be recreated at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. While not the first electronic stored-program computer (that honour probably goes to Manchester's "Baby"), it was the first to be of practical use and was the basis of the world's first business computer, Leo. Ironically, considering the trail-blazing work carried out in Manchester, and, during the war, by the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, EDSAC was inspired by Stateside designs by Mauchly, Eckert and von Neumann for EDVAC.

What puzzles me is where they are going to get all those valves for an authentic replica.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Jings, there's two of them

Nick Tregoning posts on Facebook: "Well, if Ed Miliband gets sick of being New Labour leader, he could try doing comic monologues. Why on earth would I want to join Labour? Tuition fees? Illegal wars? 75p pension increase? CCTV surveillence? ID Cards? Fingerprinting children? Not controlling the banks? Less social mobility? Widening the gap between rich and poor? Yeah, Ed...really amusing." One could add mismanaging the economy. There was a sign that Brown had belatedly recognised his errors in that he appointed Alistair Darling as Chancellor and in the last days as PM stopped trying to dictate to him, but Miliband E has replaced Darling as economics spokesman with Alan Johnson.

One wonders how happy the ordinary Labour member is with the way Miliband has turned out. Not only in the Fabian society speech, but also in the way he intends to slash and burn party policy, he seems to be ignoring roots opinion. Clearly, a party of government has to establish at least a "Chinese wall" between ministers and the party conference, but Labour is back in opposition now and should surely be looking to a democratically elected committee or committees to review its policy - and its attitude to other parties. Even post-Mandelson, Labour conference was jealous - often noisily so - of its role in formulating policy. September in Liverpool should be interesting.

Friday, 14 January 2011


David Cameron in his "town-hall meeting" at Greggs The Bakers this afternoon was ambiguous as to the government's plans on bank executive's bonuses. He deprecated the paying of large bonuses and reminded his audience that we taxpayers are the majority shareholders in two of the big four banks, but he did not say that the government would be prepared to use that shareholding to call the bluff of the RBS and Lloyds boards and cancel bonuses for this year. It seems to me that as a result of the shakeout among financial houses since the Lehman crash that there is actually a buyers' market at present and any exec. denied his (or, rarely, her) bonus is not going to walk into a similar job quickly.

Different considerations apply to HSBC and Barclays who, for different reasons, avoided government takeover. It would be wrong for the government to dictate to an independent company how it was going to pay its employees and contractors.

Bob Diamond, in his evidence to the Treasury Select Committee (link to a video) earlier in the week, opined that banks should be allowed to fail, not be baled out by the taxpayer. Of course, the chief executive of Barclays has the luxury of being able to fall back on Arabian oil billions if his bank gets into trouble, but he is surely right. When Lloyds and RBS are returned to the private sector (at a tidy profit, one trusts) the same should go for them, too.

That fast return to profitability, in some cases repaying billions to the state, and building up reserves to meet revised international banking standards, appear to be the reasons for the major complaint against the banks at present - that they are not lending enough. This article by David Prosser identifies Barclays, RBS and HSBC as providers of mortgages, but does not address the matter of loans to small and medium businesses. Lloyds net lending is contracting.

Later in that article, ("Let's at least get the bonus numbers right"), Prosser castigates Cameron for creative use of figures in putting down Ed Miliband at PMQs last Wednesday, a point that was also made by BBC's "More or less" statistics programme today. Our criticism of Gordon Brown's dodgy estimates and projections is tarnished if the prime minister resorts to using the same shoddy tricks. There is a perfectly sound argument in favour of the coalition's continuing banking levy as opposed to the one-off Labour bonus windfall tax which, former chancellor Darling admitted, would not raise anything like £3.5bn again. Cameron could also have pointed out that the government is keen to introduce a banking transaction tax, which awaits international agreement.

Finally, bonuses from now on are not going to be all in the form of straight cash as they could be in the past. As Sharon Bowles MEP points out on her blog, new rules mean that 40% - 60% of bonuses will be in contingent capital (a form of debt which turns into equity if there is a crisis) or shares deferred for at least 3 - 5 years, meaning that, if the bank suffers heavy losses, bankers' bonuses will take the first hit. One can appreciate that the Prime Minister, already under pressure from the large Europhobe component of his party, does not wish to give any credit to the EU, but surely the Liberal Democrats should be trumpeting this success in clipping the wings of the reviled banking high-fliers.


I am always ready to give praise where it is due, even when a Labour-controlled council is involved. Neath Port Talbot's refuse collection was hit in the week before Christmas, but recovered better than most. I understand that our staff had largely caught up on collections by the end of the second week. Contrast that with a neighbouring (also Labour-controlled) authority, where some refuse lay uncollected for a month and the "siberian hamster" population is thriving as a result.

Two football stories

There is an excellent interview with new Wales team manager Gary Speed by Brian Viner in The Independent today. It probably helped that Viner is a declared fan of Everton, a team for which Speed played before being transferred to Newcastle. Ironically, Speed snr. is a life-long 'pool supporter.

I couldn't resist the political overtones of another Independent story earlier in the week: "Steve Bruce has had a tentative inquiry for England midfielder Stewart Downing rebuffed by Aston Villa, but is preparing to welcome another left winger to the Stadium of Light as David Miliband is set to join the club in a £50,000-a-year non-executive role". The parallel is more apt than the reporter, Jason Mellor, seemed to realise. Downing has a good right foot, too, and can play on either wing, something the Labour leadership has proved adept at over the last few years.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Resolving legal impasse makes more radio spectrum available

It seems that broadband services in rural areas could be given a boost by a recent agreement between the government and the mobile phone industry. The story is here. Can Wales benefit from this?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Centenaries of ground-breaking legislation

1911 was a bumper year for legislation, not all of it good. For instance, the Official Secrets Act of that year made it an offence to disclose any official information without lawful authority. This state of affairs, under which, as one wag put it, you could be gaoled for revealing what was on a ministry's canteen menu, continued until 1989.

On the other hand, the Shops Act 1911 introduced the early closing day affording some relief to put-upon shop assistants.

More significantly, the Parliament Act, which clipped the wings of the House of Lords, was passed. It was not an easy passage. The guillotine (or "kangaroo closure" as it was then called) was applied in the Commons and the Lords was only persuaded to pass it by the threat of the prime minister calling upon the king (George V, in the first year of his reign) to create enough new peers to ensure the Liberals got their way in the end.

And, of course, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill finally pushed through the National Insurance Act, from which some of us date the real start of the British Welfare State.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Labour can't blame the bankers

Labour's official line in opposition remains that everything was going along fine until the banks overreached themselves (NB there is no mention of the failure of the Labour government to regulate the banking sector). This line is too often taken on trust, especially by the BBC.

Thanks to Guido for reminding us of a useful graph in the Spectator magazine, which illustrates the point I made back in October 2010.

Even Chris Dillow, dubbed a left-wing economist, admits the deficit, though now explains it away as a success in making up for the deficiencies of private capital.

Chemistry over the cornflakes

(I tried to think of a rotten pun for the headline, but if even Quentin Cooper couldn't come up with one, it's not worth persisting.) As a curtain-raiser to the International Year of Chemistry, a networking breakfast event of women in chemistry has been arranged for next Tuesday, 18th January.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

VAT and Miliband's arithmetic

Adrian Sanders, MP for Torbay, writes: "Ed Miliband claims a 2.5% increase in VAT will cost the average family £390. To reach that figure a family would need to spend almost £10,000 on goods that attract VAT. VAT isn't progressive, but it is certainly not the regressive tax some make it out to be given the largest part of the expenditure of low income families is on food, housing and children's clothes that are all exempt."

Executive Pay

Denis Forman, former chairman and managing director of Granada TV (Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown were produced, and Coronation Street begun, on his watch), interviewed by Edward Mirzoeff, said: "The BBC was wrong and foolish in the extravagant way it paid its top executive. It's rubbish to say that if you don't pay more, you'll lose the best people. Granada always paid ten per cent less than the other companies, but it had the first choice of all the biggest names. The important thing for people is not what they're paid, but what they do."

Perhaps the government should seek a latter-day Denis Forman to run the nationalised banks.