Saturday, 31 March 2012

EU gives public more "Seveso" powers - but not until 2015

The Danish presidency has come to an agreement with the European Parliament to tighten the requirements of the Seveso directive in order to prevent accidents with hazardous chemicals. EU citizens will be able to access information on Seveso sites in their neighbourhoods and see how to react in an emergency from the comfort of their homes by the click of a mouse. (Seveso sites are companies which store large amounts of dangerous substances such as fireworks, oil and petrol or toxic chemicals.)

Sadly, we will have to wait another three years for the uprated directive to come into force. There is more here.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Happy birthday, Gerrymander

The political cartoon which first saw the term "Gerrymander" in print was published in the Boston Gazette 100 years ago today. For more, see

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Middle East debate

There was an informative debate in the Lords on the 16th of this month. I had caught snatches of it on BBC-Parliament at the time, including the speech by Jenny Tonge quoted below, but have only just got around to reading the Hansard report.

In view of the misreporting or misinterpretation of Baroness Tonge's views on Palestine, it is worth emphasising her opening remarks: "My Lords, before I speak about recent developments in Palestine, I want to put on record two personal statements. The first is that I am not anti-Semitic but I am anti-injustice, and the treatment of the Palestinians over the last six decades, by Israel and the international community, has been a gross injustice which has eaten away at peace in the Middle East and served to fuel extreme Islamism and terrorism. The second statement is that I believe that Israel has a right to exist within the 1967 borders; of course I do. Hamas leaders, who I have met in Damascus and Gaza, also accept the existence of Israel within the 1967 borders laid down by the United Nations. Sadly, of course, this has not happened and the actions of the state of Israel are becoming more and more dangerous for Israel itself, the Middle East and the wider world." It should be pointed out that before she visited Palestine, even before she entered the House of Lords, Jenny Tonge concerned herself with oppressed people, especially women, all over the world.

The great thing about debates in the Lords is the wide range of expertise and knowledge they can call upon. There were contributions to this debate by Baroness Symons, chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, Lord Anderson of Swansea, a former professional diplomat and later a minister in the Foreign Office under Labour administrations, Lord Wright of Richmond, a former ambassador to Syria, Lord Williams of Baglan, until last October a UN under-secretary-general in the Middle East based in Beirut, and Lord (Clive) Soley, chairman not only of the Good Governance Foundation but also of the Arab-Jewish Forum.

Liberal Democrats who contributed included Lord Avebury (Eric Lubbock) who put in a special plea for the people seeking civil liberties in Bahrain, overshadowed by the events in Syria, Baroness Falkner and Lord Palmer, who took opposite sides on the danger posed by Iran, and Lord Chidgey.

The whole debate betrayed an atmosphere of uncertainty. There was, however, evidence that new technology was enabling people throughout the region to make their individual voices heard. The one bright spot was Tunisia, which was moving towards parliamentary democracy.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Chancellor should have been braver

Full marks for the added stamp duty on expensive properties and removal of tax loopholes in relation to property ownership, but Osborne should have found some more money from somewhere to increase the personal tax allowance to £9000 this year rather than next, in order to boost the economy.

I see the reduction of the 50p top tax rate to 45p next year as no more than a gesture to the Tory "dries". Those people who resorted to tax avoidance measures are hardly likely to abandon them for a mere 10% cut in their top whack and the take from those who have been responsible all along will be reduced. Pay inflation, bringing more people into the higher band, should compensate for this last. However, it is hypocrisy for Labour to criticise the coalition's cut. For twelve out of their thirteen years, the Blair/Brown governments maintained Thatcher's top rate of 40% and their last chancellor's rate of 50%, which he emphasised was temporary, held for only 37 days. Osborne's 45% rate is fixed for this parliament.

As to the hoo-hah over the phasing out of the age-related earnings allowance, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reaction, just reported, is that it is a "modest" tax increase. More on that here.

Between the routine speeches from the pay-roll vote (on both sides of the chamber) there were some interesting contributions to the budget debate this afternoon. For instance, Peter Bottomley drew attention to a relaxation  of VAT as it applied to restoration of historic buildings, something which many of us have been advocating for some time. Clearly there is much in the small print still to be revealed.

A Liberal European bicentenary

One for the anoraks, I suspect: Liberal International and the Liberals in the European Parliament have been celebrating the 200th Anniversary of what is said to be the First Liberal Constitution in Europe, in Spain.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Title discrimination

There is a thought-provoking piece by David Thomas in yesterday's Indy. I agree with much of what he says, but is it Celia Thomas (of Winchester) or Susan Thomas (of Walliswood) who will admit to being an ordinary suburban housewife?

My mum used to be a relatively normal suburban housewife. Then she discovered the Liberal Party. After years of doughty service, fighting one losing election after another, the party did what the voters never would and sent her off to Parliament as a working life peer. 

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Hackney heroine to stand as LibDem

Here is an inspirational story for all those fair-weather supporters who have given up on the Liberal Democrat party. Pauline Pearce, whose berating of the looters in Hackney became a YouTube hit, has announced that she will stand as a Liberal Democrat for the Central ward in the London borough in May's local elections. She clearly believes that she can still make a difference.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Wrexham acts for local industry and for the environment

LibDem-led council Wrexham last year borrowed nearly £28m for a 5MW scheme to equip one in three of its properties with solar panels made by Japanese company Sharp, which has a solar module factory on the edge of the town. Tenants, who pay on average around £70 a week to rent their homes, can expect £200-300 a year off their bills from the electricity they generate and the council will make over £1m a year profit from feed-in tariffs. The money will increase Wrexham's housing budget by nearly 10 per cent, and will be invested back in public housing.

Read the full article on the Guardian website.

Thanks to the Local Government Association's Liberal Democrat Office for the information.

Employment in Wales

There has been a slight rise in people claiming JSA in Wales, but, as Cheryl Gillan points out, the number employed has actually risen again.

You would think that the Labour government in Cardiff would not do anything to jeopardise this slow recovery, but the First Minister has rubbished our only international airport - and one which taxpayers are continuing to subsidise through the north-south air link.

Even worse, Labour is actively discouraging young people from travelling to work by cutting support for public transport. One of the complaints of those without their own transport (and I have heard this at first hand, not just from the pages of the Daily Mail) is that it is not worth their while coming off benefits because the only way they can commute to where the work is involves too much expense. Others currently in work may have to give up if they find that the bus they depend on no longer runs after April.

A friend who is currently investigating the link between areas of multiple deprivation and Labour representation implies that it is in Labour's interest to keep Wales in poverty. I trust that this is too Machiavellian, even for the First Minister.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Chess distractions

I see that Liberal England has not yet caught up with the story that the European Chess Union has introduced a dress code to prevent women from using glimpses of exposed flesh to distract their male adversaries. I can vouch for the effect of a well-displayed cleavage, as I was lucky enough in one of my chess teams to field a beautiful woman who (unconsciously, I'm sure) tended to lean forward when concentrating. She was always worth at least half a point.

I dare say Jonathan Calder is not old enough to remember Dinah Dobson whose legs were almost as noteworthy as her play, which put her in the top ten of British women. At one weekend tournament in the mid-1960s a badge-making stall did a roaring trade in "Dinah Dobson fan club" buttons among young male competitors. I wonder if there are any still around?

Decency can go too far

On "The Week in Westminster" today, Chris Skidmore MP tells of when as an overworked researcher in Conservative Central Office he accidentally CCed details of Conservative policy to be announced at the 2007 conference to Mike Hancock, Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South, instead of his mucker Matthew Hancock, now MP for West Suffolk. Gordon Brown had been not-so-secretly preparing for a general election which he would almost certainly have won, if narrowly. George Osborne's bombshell of a proposal to cut inheritance tax was generally seen as a vote-catcher in those apparently prosperous times and was credited with panicking Brown into abandoning his election plans.

If Mike Hancock had leaked the Conservative prospectus, it would have given Liberal Democrat and Labour strategists time to assess what real effect Osborne's tax proposals would have on Labour's vote. The general election (which Liberal Democrats had been pressing for since Brown had become leader) might well have gone ahead.

Instead Mike, having realised what had happened, thought "there but the grace of God go I", and passed the email on to its proper destination. He recalled on today's radio programme that the LibDem hierarchy were rather cross when he let on afterwards that he had had this hot information. I must admit that I am on their side.

"The Wall" retires

It would be impudent to offer my own thoughts beyond regret when there is this contribution by an Indian cricketing journalist:

Friday, 9 March 2012

I'm a data old man

I like Euan Semple's metaphor:

"Bloggers are the rag and bone men of the information world. They root around in the rubbish tips of information, picking over the bones and finding the good bits. They combine discarded writing in new, innovative and productive ways. They re-discover long forgotten information and breathe life into it by giving it context and meaning. When they combine in networks they offer the possibility of increasing the usefulness and longevity of your information as never before."

There is one note of caution: those of us who do not have easy access to great libraries are constrained by the fact that the World Wide Web is like a smart teenager. The great dumping of information on to the Web started around 1997, which skews its quality.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Regressive government cuts

The announcement that the Disabled Persons Minister is taking an axe to the Remploy network came as a shock. Transport Minister Justine Greening's statement* on "Rail Reform" implies removal of subsidies and resulting peak-time fare increases and service cuts. One wonders whether the government is getting bad news out of the way and if there is another depressing statement on the way.

Remploy was the result of the Disabled Persons Employment Act 1945 sponsored by the Ministry of Labour under the legendary Ernest Bevin. It is ironic that one of the seven closures scheduled in Wales is in Bridgend, where the first-ever Remploy factory was set up. The rationale is that government funding should focus on support for individuals, rather than subsidising factory businesses. The money currently spent on Remploy should be diverted into the Access to Work fund, which provides technology and other help to firms for the disabled. In an era of full, or near full, employment this argument would be strong, but  just now the work is not out there for people to be given access to. If the factories have to close, which I would still contest, I suggest that they do not do so before the economic recovery is well under way. The chances of the redundant disabled workers of finding new jobs will be enhanced by having evidence of recent employment on their CVs.

[Added 2012-3-9: for a Labour loyalist's contrary view, see]

Justine Greening's speech to the House of Commons was rather short on detail so it would be foolish to risk further speculation. There should be more informed comment in the next issue of Railfuture magazine.

Both government moves are inspired by commissioned reports: Sayce in the case of Remploy, McNulty of rail. But a cynic will wonder whether both have been brought forward and are part of the price we will have to pay for lollipops in the budget statement later this month.

*This is not all bad news, including as it does the prospect of more through-ticketing and giving more power to regional managers

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Over-the-top apology from Ed Miliband (whoever he is)

The Labour Party spin-doctors must have been tearing their hair out when they heard the following from their party leader on Radio 5 yesterday: ‘the last Labour government...didn’t do enough to regulate our banks properly. That’s what caused the financial crisis’. 

After years of Labour claims that the Brown government was totally innocent of economic mismanagement and had been swept off course by a global phenomenon, Miliband went to the opposite extreme. Most serious critics would not put all the blame for the credit crunch on Labour, though he is right to apologise for the failure to regulate the banks. One of these, RBS, was for a brief period the largest in the world. Its failure therefore must have influenced the financial melt-down. He might also have mentioned the accounting loophole in London which enabled Lehman Brothers, a major contributor to the disasters on Wall Street, to conceal its dire situation from its investors.

What Miliband and Balls should apologise to the British people for is the increase in government borrowing when the economy was booming so that there was, in the words of Liam Byrne, "no money left" when the time came for Keynesian measures to be taken to revive the economy.

LibDem vote share going up

This posting by Mark Pack confirms an impression that the public perception of Liberal Democrat influence in government is becoming more favourable. From a fall of 10.8% in vote share in council by-elections in mid-2011, the party is now showing an increase of 2.9% over the corresponding original elections. There is a more detailed graph here.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Common EU immigration and asylum policy

There will be a meeting of the EU's Justice And Home Affairs Council next Thursday and Friday. Near the top of the agenda are debates on a common European asylum system and a proposal for an EU directive on conditions of entry and residence for nationals of countries outside the EU. One might have imagined a noisy response from Eurosceptics in Westminster, but I guess there is a long way between a recommendation from the Council to a directive's being considered by the Council of Ministers. In any case, I can see this being bogged down in discussion in the Justice Council, because of the wide discrepancies between existing national policies. In general, the Nordic nations have a liberal policy towards refugees and other immigrants, while there are other European countries which are deeply suspicious of incomers (and I am not thinking of the UK here). Those EU nations with a Mediterranean coast have peculiar difficulties because they are the easiest point of entry for economic migrants from Africa.

Another consideration is how any EU law in this area is to be policed. We have already seen how patchy our own Borders Agency performance has been, and this is in one of the more prosperous EU members. If the policy is to be tightened, will, say, Greece be up to the increased demands?

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Improving State of the World

This is the headline of a piece in Liberal Vision. It points to new data showing a decline in the number of people world-wide below the poverty line. True to that blog's economic liberalism, the author puts the improvement down to globalisation alone, but United Nations agencies and the general realisation by the First World of its responsibilities towards the rest must surely have been major factors.

This follows population data published earlier, which to me show positive trends. The author of this report draws a more pessimistic conclusion, that there should be more centrally-directed family planning, but it seems to me that where people are able to make a choice unconstrained by economic circumstances, the gap between fertility and replacement level is narrowed or even crossed.

Both cited postings contain graphic illustration.