Monday, 29 April 2013

North Wales child abuse investigation: too late for some

What do the abuse-deniers have to say about the latest report?

It is too late for about a dozen people who have taken their own lives since suffering abuse, according to Wrexham Councillor Keith Gregory, speaking on Radio 4's "Today" programme. Perhaps, as in the case of Jimmy Savile, we will only have something like the whole truth when all the perpetrators are dead.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Here's hoping for another Welsh Football League club

Good luck to both Newport and Wrexham today. If they are able to hold on to their leads from the first leg of the play-offs, there will be an all-Welsh final to decide which team joins Mansfield in returning to the League for the 2013/14 season.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Not just a racist verdict

How the British Establishment helped a courtesan get away with murder

I remember the real-life crime specialist Edgar Lustgarten, in one of a series of great criminal cases on the Home Service (now Radio 4), describing one of the triumphs of the great advocate Edward Marshall Hall. In the face of overwhelming evidence, he secured the acquittal in 1923 of the French-born wife of a rich young Egyptian for his murder in the Savoy Hotel. I was struck by how a case playing on both sexual and racial prejudice could have succeeded even given Marshall Hall's great theatrical gifts. It seems that some journals at the time, and not just Egyptian ones, thought that there had been a miscarriage.

Now it seems that there was another factor that saved "Princess Fahmy". Because the Prince of Wales had been one of her lovers during the World War, the authorities made sure (as detailed in a Channel 4 documentary) that details of her past did not come to light. In protecting the heir to the throne, they indirectly hobbled the prosecution, who would normally have been permitted to raise the question of the defendant's character, her counsel having attacked that of the victim.

The question that intrigues me is whether Lustgarten, who moved in many interesting circles, was aware of this backstory.

[Later] I should have picked up on the fact that the documentary was yet another achievement of South West Wales' enterprising production company, Telesgop.

There is also a question raised by one of the links above: Marguerite Laurent/Meller/Fahmy apparently appeared in a few silent movies in France after her trial. However, there is no record of her on The Internet Movie Database. I presume this is not just because of an English-language bias to IMDb, but the probable loss of physical copies of the films, which would almost certainly have been on perishable nitrate stock.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Jonathan Winters

He was clearly more famous in his native country in latter years, but Jonathan Winters was part of that generation of American comedians who broke the mould in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember BBC Radio introducing us to him along with Lennie Bruce, Elaine May, Bob Newhart and Shelly Burman through Monday Night at Home. It isn't obvious why Winters failed to establish a transatlantic audience where the others succeeded, especially as he inspired a succeeding generation who we do know. Perhaps Winters' references were too local - rather like May, who is better known here, like her then comedy partner Mike Nichols, for her film work.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Skirting the minimum wage

The Independent has caught up with the campaign that has been running in Private Eye for some time, against organisations which avoid paying the minimum wage.

Even Labour-controlled councils may be guilty of encouraging the practice if they have contracted-out social services work to firms which exploit employees in this way.

It is good to see from the article that Vince Cable at BIS is concerned, especially as BIS, through Revenue & Customs, is responsible for enforcing compliance with the National Minimum Wage.

Colin Davis

I'm listening to the latter two-thirds of Music Matters which is dedicated to Colin Davis. All praise to Suzy Klein for her authoritative narrative and her drawing out of the personal recollections of the people who had performed under Davis. There is a free download, which I would recommend.

The programme did not shy away from the more unattractive aspects of Davis's character in the first half of his career, when he tended to behave towards orchestras as the stereotypical maestro of films and novels. I saw something of this when I had the opportunity, forty-six years ago now, of sitting in the Albert Hall when Davis had his final rehearsals of The Trojans before that evening's Prom performance with the Chelsea Opera Group. On that occasion, a player of one of the high trumpets queried whether what Davis was asking of him was possible on the instrument. Davis authoritatively contradicted him in a manner which must have made the man feel small. It is clear from today's programme that the Davis who returned from his tenures abroad to take up the principal conductorship of the LSO in 1995 was mellower, somewhat self-deprecating, much more collegiate and someone who would have taken that trumpeter aside quietly instead of putting him down in public. Without compromising his high standards, he had not been afraid to change. Orchestral players had changed, too, of course, as the programme also emphasised but most of those remaining whose feathers he had ruffled in earlier days came to respect and admire him.

I cannot help drawing comparisons with the way the BBC treated another recent death of an octogenarian. Just over an hour in total over Radios 3 and 4 was given to celebrating the life and work of someone who brought joy to millions round the world.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Another good reason for MMR vaccination

It seems that in addition to its primary effect of virtually complete protection against measles, mumps and German measles, the vaccine (if given at the recommended age) conveys a slight, though measurable, resistance to the development of severe asthma. A study in Denmark found that:
 a study in Denmark looked at the records of over 800,000 children and found that MMR-vaccinated children were 25% less likely to be hospitalised with asthma than non-vaccinated children, and were also prescribed fewer courses of asthma medicine

Thanks to asthma.org.uk for the information. The report of the study is at http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/168/11/1277.full.pdf


Thursday, 11 April 2013

Post Office current account

BBC is reporting that the Post Office will provide a current account at selected branches within the next few weeks, with a view to a wide roll-out next year. It is to be produced in conjunction with long-term partner, Bank of Ireland.

It will be interesting to see what will be its relationship with the existing basic Post Office Card Account run by JP Morgan. This was first set up by the last Labour government when it was realised that a significant number of  clients of the New Tax Credits system neither had a bank account nor intended to open one. It was clearly intended as a temporary measure, but pressure resulted in its continuation.

As implied by the BBC report, this is yet another reversal of Thatcherism. Mrs Thatcher forced the sale of Girobank, which had been intended to mirror state-run Giro systems on the continent and operated through post offices. Girobank went to Alliance & Leicester Bank (formerly a building society), which finally wound it up in 2003. (Alliance & Leicester was taken over by Santander after the credit crunch in 2008.)

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Euro democracy, Labour style

"Labour has announced its lists of candidates for the European Parliament elections next year. There will now be an OMOV ballot of Party members in each region to rank the candidates. " (Labour List, yesterday)

How much choice did the ordinary Welsh Labour member have in placing Derek Vaughan, Jayne Bryant, Christina Rees and Alex Thomas on the list in the first place? How influential were the public sector trade unions in the appointments?

However, it would be churlish not to congratulate Neath Port Talbot councillor (for Rhos) Alex Thomas on his recognition by Labour HQ.

Rambling

The April-September programme of the Neath & Port Talbot Ramblers' Association has been published. It is good to see Sarn Helen back on the list, though one wonders how much of the historic path remains in Banwen.

Website: http://neathporttalbotramblers.co.uk


Monday, 8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher died physically this morning, though as a person she had been struck down by dementia years ago. She deserves recognition as the UK's first, and the world's fifth, female prime minister.

Another Labour argument weakened

On Radio 4's Any Questions? last weekend, Michael Heseltine castigated Labour for its failure to regulate the banks when in office. In reply, Diane Abbott repeated the familiar Labour line that nothing could be done in the face of the "global" crisis.

Leaving aside the fact that the crash in confidence in financial institutions directly affected a limited number of countries, last week's report of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, as quoted in the Independent, knocks away one of the props of that argument. Lord Heseltine clearly had not had time to read it in detail or he could have quoted one of the report's conclusions about the failure of HBOS:

The report lays the blame for the demise square at the door of its management, dismissing the arguments of former boss, Sir James Crosby, his successor, Andy Hornby, and the chairman, Lord Stevenson, that it was due to the one off unpredictable events of the credit crunch and subsequent financial crisis. They complained that no one could have predicted the closure of the wholesale money markets on which the bank relied to fund its lending.

The report excoriates that version of events saying: "The problems of liquidity were the occasion for the failure of HBOS, not the cause. If HBOS's difficulties were solely the result of funding and liquidity problems, their lasting effects would have been much more limited, including for the taxpayer.
[...]
"The explanation by senior HBOS management given to the commission for the scale of the Group's losses is entirely unconvincing. The impairments and losses incurred were substantially worse than for the peer group."

While the three have previously issued apologies they have persisted in putting the blame on "unpredictable" events such as the credit crunch. The commission says: "The apologies of those at the top of HBOS for the loss imposed upon the taxpayers and others ring hollow; an apology is due for the incompetent and reckless Board strategy; merely apologising for having failed to plan for an unforeseeable event is not much of an apology."


Sunday, 7 April 2013

Congratulations to the Yakkers*

Simon Turnbull in the Independent celebrates Durham's forthcoming staging of a test match against Australia. I was glad to see a reminder of that flamboyant batsman Colin Milburn, from Burnopfield, whose international and first-class careers were truncated by a road accident which took his left eye. It is also worth mentioning that honorary Dunelmian, Frank Tyson. Though he was born in Lancashire and played first-class cricket for Northants (like Milburn), Tyson is a graduate of Durham University.

* N.B. not "Geordies" - see http://www.communigate.co.uk/ne/teesspeak/page31.phtml

Saturday, 6 April 2013

British Airways' high life

Simon Calder starts his column in today's Independent:

Forty years ago this week, passengers on British European Airways (BEA) perusing the seat pocket in front of them found a novel addition. Alongside the emergency instruction card and sick bag was the first edition of High Life. 

(There is more coverage here.) The magazine's first editor was Bill Davis, who celebrated his 80th birthday a month ago. That was enough to damn it in Private Eye. Davis had been an editor of Punch who saw turning it into a life-style magazine as a way of restoring its fortunes. The young Turks of Greek Street were already dismissive of Punch as a self-satisfied shadow of its former radical and satirical self. The appointment of a German (Davis was born in Hannover as G√ľnther [something - I can't remember his original surname, which seems to have been expunged from the Web]) was the final straw. When "Kaiser Bill", as the Eye renamed him, started High Life, funded largely by tobacco and booze advertising, the reaction of the near-Puritan editor Richard Ingrams may be imagined.

At least High Life survives. It was about the only feature of BEA that did. I remember BEA as a well-run, profit-making public enterprise. I also remember British Overseas Airways Corporation as an overblown corporation whose losses were tolerated by successive governments only because it was the national flag-carrier outwith continental Europe. BEA and Univac had constructed BEACON (described here in a 9-page pdf), an online reservation system of a type which is familiar today but was then state-of-the-art. BOAC and IBM had the troubled BOADICEA system - late, over-budget and temperamental.

When the Edwards Committee proposal to re-merge BOAC and BEA (BEA had originally been hived off by the Attlee government in 1946) was accepted by Heath's Conservatives in 1972, it was implemented as a takeover of BEA by BOAC to form British Airways. BOADICEA became the reservation system of choice and BEACON was relegated to cargo duties. Gresham's Law of systems ruled.



Anti-science and the local press

I don't often quote Jaxxlanders, but it seems to me that the Swansea exile has it right about the lack of contrition on the part of the Evening Post over that journal's part in the current measles outbreak.


The media are often quite keen on the idea of political leaders apologising for the historical misdeeds of their predecessors. It sets a good moral tone and offers punters the semblance of a new start even if the actual gesture is basically meaningless.

In regional newspapers however it would appear to be a practice that is only preached. Too bad.


It comes to mind that the editor responsible for hyping up the MMR scare also sacked his science contributor and gave undue coverage to the BNP.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

What connects the "bedroom tax", "tax cuts for millionaires" and student loans?

The link between the last two will be known to most students of UK politics: they are Thatcher/Major ideas which were accepted by Labour in government for twelve years, then used as a stick to beat the coalition with.

But the bedroom tax/spare room subsidy abolition? Surely that is a ConDem idea? Well, only in relation to social housing (council and housing association tenancies). It's actually been in force nationally for private lessees since April 2008 and in pilot areas for several years before that. Labour introduced the concept of the Local Housing Allowance with the aim of pushing people who received housing benefit into the cheapest available accommodation. Hector the government inspector would decide how many rooms a private tenant needed.

It looks as if Labour was intending to extend LHA to social tenancies eventually. Consider the following interchange in the House of Commons in 2004 (LHA had been tried out for a couple of years in "Pathfinder" authorities):


Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for what reasons the local housing allowance applies only to the de-regulated private sector. [R] [146691]
Malcolm Wicks: We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector to enable people in that sector to benefit from the choice and flexibility that the reforms can provide. We aim to extend our reforms to the social rented sector as soon as rent restructuring and increased choice have created an improved market.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (1) how the rent of those tenants whose rent is higher than the local housing allowance will be paid; [R] [146692]
    (2) whether there will be a hardship payment to prevent the eviction of those tenants whose rent is higher than the new local housing allowance. [R] [146693]
Malcolm Wicks: Tenants whose rent is higher than their local housing allowance will be expected to make good the difference with their landlord. This is no different to what happens under existing rules. During the Pathfinder stage, no claimant will be worse off financially at the point of change as they will be covered by a form of transitional protection.
There will not be a hardship payment to tenants whose rent is higher than their local housing allowance. Tenants will have the choice to shop around and look for a cheaper property in such circumstances.

So the coalition is levelling the playing-field, as it were. Labour were as prepared to price private tenants out of too-large accommodation as they accuse the government of being in respect of council tenants.

Would Labour repeal the new arrangements? Some back-benchers seem keen, but the official spokespeople have been equivocal. Both should address the situation of private tenants.


Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Beveridge and IDS

William Beveridge, who died fifty years ago last month, would have approved of the stated aims of Iain Duncan Smith, of making it more worthwhile for people to go to work than to subsist on state handouts. However, he would not condone the running down of the government's employment services, successors to the national system of labour exchanges which he first proposed in 1905, and which he would be instrumental in setting up for Winston Churchill (then a Liberal) at the Board of Trade four years later. He would also deprecate the lack of regular training to tackle long-term unemployment which was part of his ideas.

I knew that Bismarck's Prussia had been the inspiration for Lloyd George's introduction of an old age pension, but I hadn't realised until I read Beveridge's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that the latter had done much of the research necessary for its implementation in the UK. (There is confirmation here.) I'm sure Beveridge would have approved of Steve Webb's pension guarantees. I trust that he would have condemned the unrealistic limit of 1% for other benefits.


Monday, 1 April 2013

April 1st

Normally, I post something frivolous at this time of year - taking care to remove it at noon, of course. However, the coincidence of Easter Monday, which I know is still important to many people, and the unbelievable voltes-face of people I took to be liberal making any fool joke all too credible, have inhibited me. I hope to renew normal service in 2014.