Sunday, 24 April 2011

AV - update from an expert

46 minutes in to "Sunday Supplement" from Radio Wales this morning, (seven days left to listen), you will hear Anthony Green, a political affairs analyst for ABC in Australia, where, of course, AV is the most common system. He reinforces the rebuttals of the No2AV campaign which I listed at but corrects a couple of the assumptions I made there. The reason for the infrequency of hung parliaments in the national House of Representatives and the tendency to support the status quo is, he reckons, the legal compulsion to vote.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Resistance to directly-elected police commissioners grows

The Welsh Liberal Democrat candidate in Wrexham and former Deputy Chief Constable of North Wales Police, Bill Brereton has welcomed moves by the Liberal Democrats in Westminster to disrupt plans to introduce elected police commissioners in Wales.

Liberal Democrat peers, led by Baroness Sally Hamwee, want the idea at least piloted for three years before it is implemented nationwide and say they will disrupt the timetable by introducing amendments to legislation.

Mr Brereton is quoted: "I am already on record expressing my concerns about the Conservative proposals for Police Commissioners. I am deeply worried that elected police commissioners will take policing back 200 years. These proposals would put far too much power in the hands of a single individual and politicise the police service. The Liberal Democrats in Westminster are acting as an effective brake against the worst excesses of the Conservatives.”

The BBC and Daily Post reports are here and here. My previous comment is here.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Before the Butler Act, there was the Fisher Act

H.A.L.Fisher was one of those names of Edwardian worthies which impinged on my political consciousness without making a great impression. However, this article by Mark Pack puts his great contribution to education in England and Wales in perspective. Oldershaw School, my alma mater, may well have been the first of many to benefit from the Act seen through to the Statute Book by Fisher in Lloyd George's war-time coalition government.

The closing paragraphs of Mark's piece particularly struck me:

The Fisher Act’s achievements spanned the full age range for children, from the first legislative provision for nursery schools through to the first national government funding of universities. Post-First World War austerity saw many of the provisions delayed, with the 1944 Butler Act and then the post-Second World War prosperity only eventually delivering them.
Despite the path-breaking role for national, central government in Fisher’s reforms he retained a strong belief in the power of local variation and the resulting “wholesome variety of experimentation”. He also strongly believed that people had to be understood as social animals, with a need and desire to work together. As Michael Steed puts it,
He argued for local feeling as the basis of education in citizenship; affection for school, village, town or country is the basis from which loyalty to society and patriotism develops. He praised a French writer for his ‘gospel of provincial culture’ against the stultifying uniformity of French education and rejoiced in the local autonomy entrenched in his Education Act.

At a time when the Welsh Assembly Government needs to drive educational standards to raise Wales to a level where it can attract inward investment again, while avoiding micro-management from the centre, these words strike a contemporary chord.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Labour's thick-eared campaigning

Peter Black draws attention to Matt Withers' assertion that Labour's "whole campaign – the line pushed at every opportunity – is that the election should be used 'to send a message to David Cameron and Nick Clegg', the implication being that, on May 6, the pair will awake to discover Labour has a 31-seat majority".

Well, that strategy has worked only partially in England. In council by-elections, Labour has piled on extra votes where the party was doing well anyway. Elsewhere, voters have judged the candidates on what is best for them locally. (This was a key point of Nick Clegg's recent rallying call for the English local elections - that LibDem-held councils have not closed facilities to the extent that Labour and Tory ones have.)  Even where wider issues were considered, voters have given Liberal Democrats credit for reining in the Conservatives in government and in ensuring that some key points of our manifesto - notably the guarantee to state pensioners - were included in the coalition programme.

The result is that Liberal Democrats show a net gain in council by-elections held in Britain since the general election.

Welsh Labour is clearly working on the assumption that voters here are more ignorant than those in England. It is a mistaken and disrespectful strategy.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Why Labour members should switch to the Liberal Democrats

This article on LibDem Voice is worth quoting in full, the couple of references to England-only policy notwithstanding:

If you’re Labour, and want to be an MP in a safe seat, switching to the Lib Dems would be a bad move. Perhaps you like authoritarian policies on law and order, and prefer to avoid difficult decisions on the deficit. If so, the Lib Dems isn’t the party for you.
But maybe you think politics isn’t black and white, that there is good and bad in all the parties, and so working together is a good thing. Perhaps you think that the government should do what will work on law and order, rather than pander to the tabloid press, and that we shouldn’t run a deficit, to live better at our children’s expense.
In 1997, many took a good long look at the Labour party and liked what they saw: the party seemed to be committed to financial prudence, to reforming our outdated constitution and increasing personal liberty.
Today, the picture is very different.
Labour fuelled a consumer debt bubble, ran large deficits in a boom, and failed to regulate the banks properly. Its constitutional reform programme stalled after the first term, and it pandered to the tabloid press with ever more authoritarian measures.
After the last election, with 57 MPs, the Liberal Democrats had a limited hand. But unlike Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005, they have actually delivered a referendum on AV. Nick Clegg has recently announced progress towards an elected House of Lords. Lib Dem influence has allowed moderate Tories like Ken Clarke to introduce progressive policies** that would have been unthinkable under either the Conservatives or Labour.
Opponents of the Lib Dems constantly refer to Tory policies which we’ve failed to stop, and to the austerity caused by the deficit. But considering the massive deficit, and that the Tories have over five times as many MPs, it’s amazing what has been achieved.
The Lib Dems are attacking the poverty trap, taking many of the low paid out of income tax and giving vital backing to IDS’s Universal Credit. We’ve restored the link between pensions and earnings, and we’re changing the funding of schools to give an incentive to take on pupils from poor backgrounds*.
And that’s just the headline grabbing initiatives. By the end of this parliament, there will be a myriad of low profile policies in place which help the underprivileged, protect our freedoms and enhance our democracy. Behind the scenes, our MPs and peers are battling to limit Tory initiatives which are poorly thought out or which hurt the poor. They don’t win every battle, but they’ve had a lot of success.
Some Labour supporters pretend that the structural deficit can be fixed with cyclic growth. They argue that Labour cuts wouldn’t hurt, despite what we can see happening in local government.
But perhaps there are Labour members reading this article who know better. Maybe you voted for David Miliband, because you wanted a leader who would be more honest about the country’s financial problems. Perhaps you are appalled to see Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor.
Loyalty to friends and colleagues is commendable. But, if you believe both in social justice and financial responsibility, you have an alternative.
Joining the Lib Dems won’t be popular, and working to deal with the most serious peacetime deficit on record will be incredibly difficult. But anyone who joins out of both idealism and realism has a lot to contribute. And that is reward in itself.
* Welsh Liberal Democrats are offering this in their manifesto for the Welsh general election
** Ken Clarke is not totally credible as a liberal. His conversion to alternatives to prison seems to be driven mostly by economic expediency.

We must push people into work, says prime minister

The Prime Minister said there was a real chance ' to cut welfare dependency and push into work ''the human faces of the patchwork economy''.

But this is the Labor prime minister of Australia, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Streamlining European contract law should help UK SMEs

The European Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favour of a draft report on European contract law which is aimed at strengthening cross-border competition and opening up the full potential of the EU's internal market for businesses and consumers.
Commenting after the vote, Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis, who drafted the report on policy options for progress towards a European Contract law, said:
"At the moment, businesses, in particular small and medium sized ones, are discouraged from engaging in cross-border trade because of the divergences in national contract law.

"Today's vote was an important step towards introducing a simplified and flexible optional instrument which will enlarge the choice of parties when drawing up contracts, provide legal certainty across borders and can be put in place relatively quickly. This could be a real contribution to the Commission's 'justice for growth' programme to get the EU towards its 20/20 economic goals."

"Retailers and consumers alike will be able to benefit from a flexible European contract law option. It is important now to ensure that any new rules created are simple, comprehensible and ready for use."

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Baldies fighting over a comb

I keep urging fellow Welsh Liberal Democrats to be positive in their campaigning. Not only have we a good programme to shout about, but we can point to our record in coalition in Wales.

It's not as if we need to slag Plaid Cymru and Labour off. They do it so well themselves. Take this posting from Plaid Wrecsam:

The gloves are well and truly off in the Assembly election campaign - and it could be a lot more fun as a result.

Labour launched its campaign by trying to make this a way to kick the Con-Dem coalition in Westminster. That's no surprise for two reasons:

• Labour's always been focussed more on winning power in London than serving the people of Wales and

• They haven't got any new ambitious policies for Wales.

Labour's vision for Wales seems to consist of continuing free prescriptions, free bus passes and free school breakfasts. There's a vague promise to provide more funding for schools but without any idea why and they want 500 more Police Community Support Officers. In Wrecsam that would mean an additional 12 PCSOs for the entire borough. Strangely, Labour in Wrecsam were opposed to PCSOs when they were first introduced. Ain't life strange?

But where is the vision, the ambition needed to drag Wales up in terms of wellbeing, confidence and prosperity in the broadest sense?

As for the idea that Cameron and Clegg will be bothered that Wales rejects the Tories - um, Wales has been rejecting the Tories since people had a democratic vote. The real conservatives in Wales are a hidebound group of dinosaurs in the Labour Party, who have had to be pushed by Plaid to move things forward at every step.

Plaid minister Jocelyn Davies put it as politely as she could: 

“They’ve just come out of a 13-year spell as the party of government in Westminster and during that time they refused to introduce fair funding for Wales, they refused to act to stop the Treasury creaming off millions of pounds of council house rents, they left Wales’ electrification scheme unfunded before they were kicked out of power in London, and, of course, left the UK economy in ruins which has opened the door to the severe cuts which we’re now seeing.

“So now that they’re out of government in Westminster and completely unable to justify their actions they are now embroiled in the great exercise of rewriting history and they try to claim that they stood up for Wales in government.”

Referring to Mr Hain’s call to use the vote to send a message to Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, Ms Davies said: “If that is your plank – well, let’s send a message to the UK Government – the UK Government won’t give a rat’s backside if Labour have got a majority in Wales. It won’t make one jot of difference. They’re not going to lose one bit of sleep over it.”

In response, some Labour nonentity described Plaid as a "promiscuous and pernicious fringe group". Lovely.

Who will speak for Cheryl James now?

There are matters of regret for the loss of Lembit Öpik from the Commons. One is his pressure on behalf of sufferers of Motor Neurone Disease; another is the way he persisted in calling for an impartial inquiry into the death of Pte. Cheryl James, one of four gunshot victims at Deepcut army barracks, almost certainly at the hands of a so far unidentified killer or killers.

The results of a review by Devon and Cornwall police were released to the families a month ago. This investigated the conduct of previous investigations rather than the incidents themselves. However, it apparently does show that possible suspects were not properly investigated (Independent, 13th March & Private Eye no. 1283), which to my mind is enough to trigger a full-blown public inquiry, which would have power to sub-poena documents and witnesses. I am not one of those who call for public inquiries at the drop of a hat, but this case justifies the costs and time involved.  It raises questions about the army's duty of care to young recruits and to their attitude to the civil authorities.

Some (probably not all) of those British soldiers who abused prisoners in their charge in Iraq were prosecuted - and quite right too. It is high time we did the same for one of our own.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Confirmation of the recovery

My own regular skimming of the IT job adverts convinced me, around the turn of the year,  that the recovery was well under way. Recruitment of planning staff takes place before the hiring of operatives, and is only carried out when organisations are sure that their investment will pay off. Now, there is official confirmation, courtesy of

Two reports out this week indicate that employers are finding it harder to hire the skilled tech workers they need as recruitment begins to return to pre-recession levels.

Matthew Iveson, director at IT recruitment specialist CV Screen, said in a statement that "the employer-driven market of a year ago is now shifting towards a candidate-driven market, which is driving up salaries".

Salaries paid to IT workers in permanent positions have increased by five per cent over the past 12 months, according to the CV Screen report.

In a separate survey, professional services firm KPMG found that overall job vacancies have reached their highest point since April last year, with competition for quality candidates increasing, particularly in the IT sector. CV Screen also reported that the number of advertised IT jobs has increased by over 25 per cent.

While the KPMG report said private sector job creation is not yet sufficient to absorb overall job losses from the public sector, CV Screen reported that in the tech industry the number of applications per role has fallen by 20 per cent. These findings support a further study by industry body e-skills UK, which reported that there were more vacancies than applicants in the IT sector.

Iveson commented that the increase in demand for skilled tech workers can be partly attributed to the economic recovery. "Rather than cutting back on staff, we are now seeing employers looking to grow the size of their workforce and having to offer more competitive salaries to secure the best talent," he said.

What worries me is that Wales may not have produced enough young people with the necessary skills to take advantage of this upturn.

Social mobility - Liberal Democrat input

Lynne Featherstone, MP, Equalities Minister, is celebrating the inclusion of a move towards gender- and class-blind job selection in forthcoming legislation.

She writes: "One part of the social mobility strategy announced this week is about removing barriers to employment. And I was very pleased to see a very simple idea that I floated during the passage of the Equality Bill (rejected by Labour – surprise) finally find its way into being.

"This is a very simple idea for job applications where applicants don’t put their name or school on the application form – using something like their National Insurance number instead – to ensure that judgement is on experience, skills and qualifications in the first sift. The Deputy Prime Minister’s Office introduced the removal of which school the applicant attended in addition to the removal of name – for obvious reasons."

Carbon credit trading open to fraud

I've always been suspicious of the carbon credits scheme.  This story from the Sydney Morning Herald confirms that it is open to abuse.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Some people do see AV as an end in itself

"The AV has a number of advantages.

"First, it would be fairer than first-past-the-post: it would stop the kind of  'exaggerated' parliamentary majorities the Tories achieved in 1970, 1979 and 1983 on just over 40 per cent of the vote by being much less biased against the third party. Second, the AV requires winning candidates to secure a majority of votes from their constituencies which is often not the case (in February 1974, for example, nearly two-thirds of MPs won on less than half the vote.) Third, there would be no fear of a 'wasted' vote, so electors' first preferences could be more truly stated and would be a more reliable guide to their real views.

"Fourth, it would undermine the tendency of the current system to concentrate party representation on a geographical basis, either between North and South or between cities and rural areas. Fifth, it would be easier than under PR to form majority governments, though coalitions would be more likely than under the current system. Sixth, it would be easier to understand than STV and much simpler to introduce. The existing constituencies could be retained, with only the ballot paper, method of voting and counting altered. Seventh, it would be a good system for by-elections, giving a more accurate picture of public attitudes to the government's policies than the existing system. Eighth, and most important, the single-member constituency would remain. This would overcome the central democratic objections to PR and maintain local accountability to the community and to party members."

Peter Hain, "Ayes to the Left" (1995)

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Hungary going where some English Conservatives want to take us

There is a draft Hungarian constitution which is raising concerns on the part of European Parliament liberals and socialists. There are references to "the ideal of a unified Hungarian nation" in relation to Hungarians living abroad; curbing of the powers of the Constitutional Court; marriage and family defined to exclude single-parent families, cohabiting and same-sex couples; discrimination prohibited "selectively", as it does not cover sexual orientation; the life of a foetus is "protected from the time of conception"; religious references made to Christianity and its role in preserving nationhood; and the possibility to give additional votes to parents of minors.

One recalls Austria setting herself on a collision course with the EU after a government dominated by an ultra-nationalist party came to power. In that case, Austria blinked first. One hopes that the same goes for the Hungarians.

We were prudent in opposition – time for Labour to follow our lead

It is worth quoting Rob Blackie's opinion on LibDem Voice in full:

Labour have refused to provide any detailed alternative to the Coalition’s tax and spending plans. They have also implied that during their recent period in government that nobody challenged their irresponsible tax and spending plans. This is simply a lie. Not only did the IFS [Institute for Fiscal Studies] explain their irresponsibility as far back as 2003 [PDF], but so did the Liberal Democrats.
There’s an easy way to test how responsible we were while we were in opposition. Every year since 1992 the Liberal Democrats have produced an Alternative Budget setting out our alternative to the government’s tax and spending plans, as well as fully costed manifestos in each election.
These Alternative Budgets show that in every year from 2001 onwards, our tax and spending plans led to a smaller deficit than Labour planned. In the most recent General Election [PDF] our plans were for a cut in the deficit of over £8bn a year above Labour plans. In the 2005 General Election we were planning to cut the deficit by £5bn a year. Even back as far as 2001 we were planning to cut the deficit by hundreds of millions of pounds a year. All of this was in a political climate dominated by Labour’s claims that Gordon Brown was fiscally responsible, when there was no political pressure for the Liberal Democrats to be as responsible as we were.
It’s easy to say that you are going to cut the deficit in principle. What’s difficult is to have the courage to make the difficult decisions to cut spending, avoid populist promises and, where necessary, increase taxes. If Labour are against all the cuts, then they should explain how they will pay for their spending spree. If they are in favour of some of the cuts, then it’s time they told us which ones.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Birds look down

I was looking into a proposal for another wind farm in Neath from the point of view of possible bird collisions, and came across this piece about research by Professor Graham Martin of Birmingham University's Centre for Ornithology. It seems that birds look down, or sideways, rather than in front when in flight. "Such behaviour results in certain species being at least temporarily blind in the direction of travel," says Dr. Martin. He also explores how avian frontal vision is tuned for the detection of movement, rather than spatial detail. When a bird is hunting this detection may be more important than simply looking ahead into open airspace.

So the measures so far adopted to make man-made objects more noticeable to birds may be ineffective. Placing wind-farms off known routes would prevent deaths among migratory birds, but not of those foraging. Static markers, no matter how they may appear to human eyes, would not be good enough. Perhaps devices which flutter and emit an alarm sound would do the trick? More research is clearly needed, because pylons, power-lines and wind-turbines are only going to increase.

Capital requirements for banks

Imposing very stringent capital requirements on banks is not only shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, but also padlocking it so that we can't get the nag back in.

John Redwood is interesting on this point.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Elected police commissioners by May 2012

There was a move by Labour during the week to delay the introduction of directly-elected police commissioners. During the Second Reading debate on the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, Vernon Coaker MP for Gedling, introduced a new clause which would ensure that there would in effect be an impact assessment before the relevant sections of the Act were brought into force. The move was defeated by almost 100 votes, coalition MPs voting solidly against. Green Caroline Lucas and SDLP Naomi Long voted with Mr Coaker. I am disappointed that they were not joined by at least one Liberal Democrat.

When I last blogged about this in 2009, Ryan opined that this was a liberal measure. He reckoned that since they would not be involved in day-to-day operations, but would set policing priorities, electing commissioners directly would be a democratic move.

But it is just this "setting of priorities" that bothers me. Take this scenario. We already know that older people vote disproportionately more than any other sector of the population. It can also be shown that the older one becomes, the more one is concerned about gatherings of youths, whether disorderly or not. So we could have a contest for police commissioner between candidates bidding on the strength of how effective they would be in clearing the streets of young people. One could substitute other illiberal "priorities".

There is another priority which is relevant in the case of South Wales Police, that of geography. If the police authority boundaries are not redrawn before the elections take place, the first SWP commissioner will be the one who most pleases Cardiff and its environs, because that is where the weight of the population is. He or she is not going to be re-elected if they do not concentrate their policing on the streets and the high-profile events in the capital, to the detriment of Neath, Swansea and Port Talbot.

Ryan was rude about the quality of local councillors like me. However, I find that the questions put to our chief constable when he (or she) comes before council each year are searching, because they are based on direct experience or the concerns of their ward constituents. What would replace these sessions? An interview on TV by a comfortable metropolitan journalist most interested in scoring points?