Friday, 24 February 2012

Europe and animal welfare

Thanks to the Danish presidency's weekly newsletter, I learn of a European conference on animal welfare. It "will launch the Commission’s Strategy on Animal Welfare 2011 – 2015". The second day of the conference, which comprises two parallel streams on enforcement of animal welfare legislation and the progress of research on animal welfare, seems to be significant.

More questions about charities

Conservative AM Darren Millar has raised the possibility that charities other than AWEMA overseen by the Welsh Government may be mismanaged. In this BBC report, he claims to have letters making such allegations.

In First Minister's Questions, Carwyn Jones responded to an enquiry from Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies as to whether one required a Labour Party card to obtain a public position in Wales, with a reference to the Nolan Principles and bluster that before devolution Wales had become a dumping ground for failed Conservative politicians. The First Minister may well have been factually correct, but he didn't answer the question directly.

There is video coverage here of Wednesday's debate on AWEMA called by Peter Black for the Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Emlyn Hooson

We had known for some time that Lord Hooson was not well. He had made it known when we were celebrating the anniversary of local hero Sir Samuel Thomas Evans that he was not able to make the journey to Neath Abbey. It is still sad to learn of his death. There is a short appreciation here on Liberal Democrat Voice.

My memory of Emlyn Hooson was as a very engaging speaker at Lloyd George Society weekends. He had a great fund of stories about Liberal Party and other political figures. I believe he had written a memoir of his predecessor in Montgomery, Clement Davies, but was beaten to print publication by Alun Wyburn-Powell.

He was the author of "Law and Order in a Civilised Society" and "The Case for a Bill of Rights", both of which appear to be out of print.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Ed Balls' VAT cut

My first response to the shadow chancellor's calling again for a cut in Value Added Tax was: what to? 19%? After all, that would have been the level if Labour had been returned in 2010.

For an expert analysis of the inutility of a temporary cut in VAT, see Mr Dillow. I would only add that the last temporary VAT cut was more trouble than it was worth for small enterprises, who had to change price lists, computer systems etc. and then change them back again.

I am glad that Balls has recognised the value of bringing forward the coalition's pledged exemption of the first £10,000 of earnings from tax. However, he then spoils things by suggesting that it be paid for by extra borrowing. What happened to Labour's tradition of afflicting the wealthy? Could it be that the party is trying to regain financial support from city institutions? Our proposal is to recover the loss of tax revenue from either removing a pensions benefit for wealthy individuals or a variation of the "mansion tax". Neither of these would jeopardise UK's standing in the bond market, which an increase in borrowing would.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Political Independence

There was one of those interesting coincidences on "Sunday Supplement" this morning. There was a trail of Peter Hain's attack, at the Welsh Labour spring conference, on Independent councillors as closet Tories. Later in the programme there was a discussion of the career of S.O.Davies, possibly Wales' most famous Independent MP of the mid-twentieth century.

Davies was of course an Independent Socialist, and his independence was not of his own volition. He had been deselected by the Labour Party before the 1970 election but retained Merthyr anyway. Even before this, he had lost the party whip in the Commons many times. Wikipedia lists three of the occasions - apparently there were five expulsions in all, a world record for a parliamentary representative - but gives reasons for only two. It is a pity that this morning's discussion was dominated by Davies's idealisation of Soviet communism. (He had visited Russia in 1917 and was clearly impressed by the early aspirations of the revolutionaries. Sadly, he was not disabused in the 1930s as Muggeridge was.) S.O.Davies should be remembered positively for his work for his constituents. He also warned about the Aberfan spoil tip. If more of the Labour Party had stood out against the government line the disaster may have been prevented. After it occurred, he fought consistently for compensation.

There is an established pattern of deselection by the Labour Party followed by retaining a seat on the basis of personal reputation among Independent councillors round here. If this fact is acknowledged at all by the top table in Cardiff this weekend, they will no doubt accuse the Independents concerned of disloyalty, to which the latter would no doubt retort: what about the party's loyalty to us?

I believe that the "closet Tory" gibe is also inaccurate. There certainly was a time when the Conservative brand was distinctly politically toxic. It was noticeable that Conservative councillors, even in the shires, were calling themselves Independent as a result of the backlash against Thatcherism. However, that ceased to be a burden in the latter days of Blair and virtually disappeared under Gordon Brown. Conservatives are ready to identify themselves as such again - except those who have stuck with UKIP - and are still winning the occasional council by-election.

There is another cause of antagonism to party labels and that is the disaffection with party politics generally, in the wake of the expenses scandal* and, I have to admit it, English and Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs in the coalition breaking their promise to the NUS to vote against an increase in tuition fees. Those people whose prime motivation is to contribute to their local county or community council are increasingly put off by the occasionally vicious party political campaigning and infighting. I believe that most would be comfortable in the Liberal Democrats, with our core beliefs in local decision-making and in fairness, but it is their choice to stay outside the party battle. I certainly would not accuse them of deception.

*It is annoying that the exposure of the misuse of MPs' expenses is increasingly being cited by the gutter press as a justification for phone hacking, suborning public officials and other illegal acts. In fact, it was good hard-working journalism, using the Freedom of Information Act, by Heather Brooke which broke the story. 

Friday, 17 February 2012

Labour's mp3 player stuck on repeat

Harriet Harman on Radio Wales today repeated the tired old incantation: "Cutting too far, too fast, tax bankers' bonuses." Well, most Liberal Democrats - and thousands of council workers in England, most of them in Labour local authorities - would agree with the "too fast" bit. I am sure that Vince Cable's timetable for reducing the deficit would have been acceptable to international lenders.

But "too far"? The coalition government's cuts are less than envisaged by Alistair Darling (see diagram), Labour's last chancellor of the exchequer. To argue for smaller cuts now smacks of hypocrisy.

Besides, we don't have to look beyond Italy, never mind as far as Greece, to see how the money markets punish those governments who are seen not to be serious about trimming their deficits.

The bankers' bonus tax is pure gesture politics. It was admittedly a useful on-off for Alistair Darling. It might in the future deliver a slap on the wrist to those traders not shrewd enough to avoid it, but it is not a serious long-term tax-raiser in the same way as the coalition's bank levy is. And, as Lorely Burt, Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills points out:
"The sheer hypocrisy of Labour to point the finger on bankers' bonuses is staggering. Labour presided over the biggest boom in bonuses this country has seen, from £3.1bn in 2001 to £11.5 billion in 2007. At the same time, they sat back and knighted the financial speculators who led this country to the brink of economic collapse."

Postscript: Tristram Hunt and Caroline Lucas on "Any Questions?" tonight cited the United States as an example of a nation where economic growth has resumed and unemployment has begun to fall, in spite of a massive deficit which the President and Congress have not seriously trimmed. But America is a special case which no other country on earth could emulate with impunity.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Farewell St Dunstan's, welcome Blind Veterans UK

It is a sign of the times that the name "St Dunstan" does not have the resonance it did when many of us were younger. One cannot argue with the charity's decision to change to "Blind Veterans UK" which conveys its aims directly. One other side-benefit is that that distasteful Noel Coward joke will lose currency.

Whatever the name, the demands on the charity continue to increase. As fundraiser Kirsten Munro pointed out in a recent letter, "Growing numbers of ex-service men and women are now experiencing age-related blindness, and younger soldiers are still returning home with eye injuries sustained in current conflicts. We anticipate that this year we will have record numbers of veterans using our services."

There is a Welsh connection in that one of the charity's three support centres (the other two are in Sheffield and Brighton) is in Llandudno.

Barbara Thompson: Playing Against Time

A Film about Parkinson's Disease and Music
Directed by Mike Dibb, with Barbara Thompson and Jon Hiseman.
Dibb Directions Production for The Wellcome Trust.

To be broadcast this coming Sunday, February 19th, on BBC4

If you wonder whether you have heard Barbara Thompson's music, I would point you to the sound-track of ITV's "A Touch of Frost" featuring David Jason.

Update 2012/2/16 : Barbara Thompson & Jon Hiseman spoke on Radio 4's "Midweek" yesterday:

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Labour consistency and stability

This is the line pushed in at least one South Wales Labour citadel: that by voting Labour in year after year, there is no flip-flopping. The voter can rely on a consistent approach. Well, events in Glasgow give the lie to that one: Local Liberal Democrats speak of "long-established fiefdoms", "a sense of anachronism and political decay", "all the real opposition has been within the administration", "They seem to have deselected about half their councillors. That rarely goes well!" and "the Labour group is a very nasty network of cliques, splits, personality clashes, sectarian and other issues".

Saturday, 11 February 2012

What's happened to the Gleision report?

The fatal incident in the drift mine at Cilybebyll occurred in September of last year. The statutory procedure for investigation clicked into place as soon as practical thereafter. Surely at least a technical conclusion should have been reached by now?

Friday, 10 February 2012

First Welsh pub to win coveted CAMRA award

Congratulations to the Bridge End Inn in Ruabon in North Wales on winning the National Pub of the Year competition. It is all the more remarkable for having been re-opened by its current owners only in March 2009. The McGivern family had earmarked the pub as the ideal premises for the family microbrewery – McGivern Ales - overseen by son Matthew. Having reopened the pub 5 weeks after taking it on, the family were praised by CAMRA members for restoring the pub’s interior, and for introducing an extensive real ale and cider range. There are more details here.

Sleaze that can no longer be covered up

Let us not mince words. The evidence points to a corrupt relationship between the Welsh Government, the Labour Party and the All Wales Ethnic Minority Association (AWEMA). It is shoddy politics for ministers in Cardiff to accuse those who have sought over the years to expose misuse of funds at AWEMA of "racism" or "mischief-making".

Peter Black has posted his reaction to the release of the latest report on AWEMA - made public, it should be emphasised, just as the Welsh Assembly went into recess and there will be no Welsh Questions at Westminster for another month - and the Finance Minister's comments on it. One would expect Liberal Democrats to be scathing, but the respected political commentator Daran Hill has also confessed on Facebook to "getting a bit angry about the situation at AWEMA". His analysis is on WalesHome. He was particularly angry that yet again no minister appeared on "Dragon's Eye" who have been running the story for the last three weeks and that "one of the two [Black and Ethnic Minority] voluntary sector representatives who did appear made me spill my coffee when he suggested a 'line should be drawn' under the whole AWEMA business. That is exactly what should not happen."

He goes on: "this is perhaps the biggest scandal around the use of public money since devolution began. And those of us who campaigned hard for greater democratic scrutiny and accountability perhaps feel particularly disappointed that this scandal has happened." "The case has now been referred to South Wales Police, the Charity Commission and to the Auditor General for Wales, along with copies of the Welsh Government/Big Lottery Fund report, and that’s exactly what should happen."

The pattern of poor governance at AWEMA seems to have been set during the last time when Labour ruled alone in Cardiff, between 2003 and 2007. During that period, an adverse report was presented to the government and buried. However, in May 2007, the coalition "One Wales" government was formed. Two months later further events occurred which should have alerted Labour's junior partners, Plaid Cymru, that all was not well in an organisation receiving government funding. It is not surprising that Plaid have been rather more muted in their public criticism than Kirsty Williams and Andrew RT Davies have been.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Simon Weston to stand as South Wales crime commissioner

Simon Weston is the kind of eminent person, respected in a way which cuts across all party and geographic boundaries. who I was hoping would come forward when I posted earlier. He is more socially conservative than my ideal commissioner but otherwise he ticks all my boxes. Let us hope that Westminster can sort out the electoral rules in the next few months before the Electoral Commission's deadline.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Anniversaries of literary and literal royalty

"Pliable" commented on anniversaries among the Windsors, while Jessica Duchen lamented the lack of operas based on Dickens.

It is a sad reflection of our times that when a Welsh Labour MP attempted to make a topical witticism at the expense of the deputy prime minister yesterday he quoted not the words of the master but of Lionel Bart:

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I understand that at this morning’s Cabinet meeting the Culture Secretary gave the Deputy Prime Minister for Dickens day a copy of “Oliver Twist”. Did his Tory Cabinet colleagues then burst into a chorus of, “Consider yourself one of us”?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That was a well-rehearsed and well-delivered joke. No, they did not.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Kirsty Williams calls for better funding for Wales

The Western Mail reports that the Welsh Liberal Democrats, in their evidence to the Silk Commission, has called for tax-varying powers for the Welsh Government and (of course) for a replacement for the Barnett Formula. The report does not go into great detail, but I trust that we are also calling for councils to retain NNDR (business rates), a guaranteed revenue support safety net and enabling an Empty Homes Premium. These are all measures which are included in the Local Government Finance Bill which has been introduced in Westminster and which covers only English local authorities. It is fair to say that the Local Government Association believes that the Bill does not go far enough. Perhaps we can get a better deal for Welsh councils than English equivalents are to be granted.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The full government changes

  • Ed Davey MP to become Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
  • Norman Lamb MP to become a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
  • Jenny Willott MP to become an Assistant Government Whip
  • Jo Swinson to replace Norman Lamb as Nick Clegg's PPS (or "Chief of Staff", as some media releases from Great George Street have it)

Congratulations to all, especially Cardiff Central's Jenny Willott who will be no pushover in the Whips' Office. Her appointment shows that there are no hard feelings as a result of voting against the tuition fee increases.

Environment and Post Offices

The resignation of the dynamic Chris Huhne from the Department of Energy and Climate Change is a blow, but it is unlikely to be a mortal one because the most probable successor is Ed Davey. (Incidentally, I am glad that charges have finally been brought against Chris and Vicky Pryce, his estranged wife, because it will enable the matter to be cleared up one way or the other. Public suspicion, whipped up by a hostile press and tory bloggers, has been hanging over them and the government for too long.)

Ed Davey has been an acknowledged success in BIS, not least for his success in stopping the closure of Post Offices, which had been the policy of both Conservative and Labour governments over the last twenty years. But it is one thing to guarantee that Post Offices will be there for the next ten years, it is quite another to make sure that they fulfil their potential. Here the rest of the government has been falling down. I have already drawn attention to the withdrawal of the Easy Access Savings Account, but we have first-hand evidence of how the cutting of other government services is reducing the income and activity of sub-post offices. David Cameron has expressed concern about the future of the High Street. A good start on restoring the sense of community would be to direct more face-to-face business to Post Offices instead of taking them away.

The Land, The Land!

A cause dear to the heart of many traditional Liberals is a land tax. The cause continues to be fought within the Liberal Democrats by ALTER. Land value taxation had some adherents among Labour Party thinkers of the early twentieth century, too. Now I see that Mark Drakeford, the AM for Cardiff West, has revived Labour Party interest.