Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Canal footpath improvement welcome, but more is needed

The council's announcement heralds an improvement to the walking at the lower end of the Neath Canal, but when will we see the completion of the missing link between Abergarwed and Resolven? I see that the then leader Derek Vaughan was looking at EU funding back in 2007. Now that he is an established MEP, perhaps he could use his influence to kickstart the process.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Billie Whitelaw

I first noticed Billie Whitelaw on TV in the 1959 production Alun Owen's play. I suppose it was natural to cast as a judy an actress born in Coventry and brought up in Yorkshire, because all the Liverpudlian actresses would have learned to talk posh and moved down south at that time. (Julie Walters - born Birmingham - later talked scouse for Alan Bleasdale.)  Perhaps I was at an impressionable age, but she certainly made an impact. None of the obituaries I have seen or heard mentioned her rôle in Lime Street, but I found from the rest of her c.v. on IMDb to discover that she had been around for some time - including a spell as Jack Warner's daughter in Dixon of Dock Green before Jeanette Hutchinson took over.

There was one other thing the obits. did not reveal: the reason for her unusual first name. I assume it came from the admiration on the part of one or both of her parents for Billie Dove, a Hollywood superstar before the talkies took over.

I thought she would go on for ever. She will be missed not only for her screen and stage presence but also for her directness and frankness in interviews, qualities all too rare in today's PR-coached generation.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Kill the intellectuals

With reference to yesterday's post, there is one respect in which the most recent genocides differ from those of the 20th century. Along with the ideological drivers, the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and a few others mobilised a visceral hatred of intellectualism.

Stalin eliminated swathes of writers and artists. Composers escaped with their lives, possibly because Stalin enjoyed music, but were much circumscribed. Jews in lands which came under Hitler's sway certainly suffered because of traditional racism but also, I would suggest, because they were the culture-bearers in those nations. Pol Pot, of course, singled out intellectuals specifically for "re-education".

Having written the above, it has just occurred to me that the latest genocide took place in a school.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Entanglement - separation - tolerance - dogma

Just over eighty years ago, piqued by Rutherford's dogmatic statement that nuclear energy would never become real, Leo Szilard realised the principle of the chain reaction. He patented his discovery, but assigned the patent to the British Admiralty so that, with war threatening, it be kept secret.

I was reminded of this, and by the dreadful coincidence that the rise and fall of Nazism and the big developments in nuclear physics marched in step, by viewing the segment of Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man entitled Knowledge or Certainty. I turned back to the Bronowski with Jim al-Khalili's two-part series on quantum physics fresh in my mind, mainly to see how the presentation of information compared. As I had guessed, I found that for all the increased sophistication of TV forty years on, there was little to choose between the two. (Mind you, that is a subjective impression which would need an independent exam to prove.)

Al-Khalili certainly scored on entertainment value and the quirkiness of some of his visual analogies. To be fair, the programme did not aspire to much more. He has shown in other programmes that he thinks about the philosophy of science and its relationship with the everyday world, notably in his conversations with other scientists in Radio 4's The Life Scientific (thoroughly recommended to those who don't know it already).

Bronowski's ambition for his series was "to create a philosophy for the 20th Century which shall be all of one place. One part of that is to teach people to command science - to have command of the basic ideas of modern science, so that they can take command of its use" (from the series' programme notes).

It is not surprising that finding a link to Ascent of Man through Google turns up quotations. Bronowski is very quotable, eminently so in Knowledge or Certainty. The final, partly improvised, sequence set in Auschwitz is widely reference and is compelling, but it is all the more so in the context of the complete carefully constructed episode.

I would pick out the following. After Bronowski has outlined the insight of Werner Heisenberg, he said:

The "principle of uncertainty" is a bad name. Within science or outside of it, we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined within a certain tolerance. We should call it the principle of tolerance [...] All knowledge, all information, between human beings can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. 
[...]
The principle of uncertainty fixed once for all the realisation that all knowledge is limited. It's an irony of history that at the very time that this was being worked out there should rise under Hitler in Germany and tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it - the ascent of man - against the throw-back of despotic belief to the notion that they have absolute certainty.

In the last decade or so, that monster certainty has arisen again, embraced by religious zealots to a degree which has led to genocide. This is not yet on the industrial scale of Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot but the fear is that we have not seen the end of it.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Last hopes of Celtic Energy clean-up near vanishing point

My post of last month mentioned hopes that at least two of the scars left by Celtic Energy's open-cast mining in the county borough might be restored. This BBC report, which includes an illustration of the grim legacy, dashes them.

Local Labour councillors, who were so enthusiastic about the developments and praised the company's promised restitution scheme to the skies, should examine their consciences.

But the major part of the blame lies with the last Labour government in Westminster in actually legislating for the accounting entities which widened the scope for financial sleight-of-hand, for the coalition government in not closing them down again and for the failure of the financial conduct and supervisory authorities under both governments to enforce what law there is in this area.

Recall of MPs: the Lords should pick up the pass dropped by the Commons

The Upper House today begins discussion of the Recall Of MPs Bill, and later will consider amendments to send back to the Commons. It is to be hoped that their lordships will fill the hole at the heart of the Bill, namely that the people of a constituency may not initiate the recall of their member, which one would have thought was the primary purpose. In this era of fixed five-year parliaments there is even more need to put this weapon in the hands of the electorate than there was before 2010.

It should not be left to the Commons to "mark their own homework". (The report of the Commons Third Reading debate begins at Column 649 in the Hansard of 24th November,)

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Basic post office accounts saved

The Liberal Democrat Minister for Pensions Steve Webb announced to the House this afternoon that the Post Office Card Account will continue for a further seven years. This basic service, as I have posted before, enables people who cannot practically or absolutely make use of the commercial banks to receive the full range of benefits from the government to which they are entitled. The move also protects the Post Office network.

There are over 2 million POCA holders in the UK. Regrettably, the minister has asserted that he does not maintain statistics per constituency, so he must have done a special search for Jenny Willott in order to tell her that there are 4,000 POCA holders in Cardiff Central, and a similar service for some of the other questioners in the Commons. I would love to know what the figures are for this end of Wales - I suspect they might be rather higher than in Cardiff, in proportion to the population.





Monday, 15 December 2014

Sell software in the EU over the 'net? There are big VAT changes in less than three weeks' time.


The VAT rules for digital downloads are changing from January 1st 2015. This 
will affect everyone.

If you sell even a single item in Europe you will be affected, even if you 
are well under the VAT threshold.

They changed the law so that the VAT must be paid in the purchaser's 
country, not the seller's. This was intended to catch out companies like 
Amazon who sell from Luxembourg where the VAT is lower.

But they never realised that this will catch out the tiny one-person 
businesses as well. They've only just noticed that it will even hit people 
like housewives earning pin money while looking after the kids. So they 
haven't even told them about the change!

If you sell a song, an ebook, an app, a knitting pattern, anything like 
that, you have two choices: (I am not a lawyer, this is my understanding of 
the situation).

1> Check which country the purchaser is in. Make sure you are registered for 
VAT in that country and pay them the VAT. Some countries have a zero 
threshold for registration. And you have to check the country for every sale 
just in case.

2> Register with the 'VAT Mini One Stop Shop' the government have set up, 
which will handle the details for you. However to do this you will have to: 
Register for VAT here (though you won't have to pay VAT here until you hit 
the threshold). For every single sale, collect two non-conflicting pieces of 
evidence of which country they are in. Retain this data for 10 years. Since 
this makes you a data controller, register for that (and pay the annual fee) 
as well. Oh, and find a sales package that will handle all this for you 
(Hint: there aren't any yet).

Many people have already said that they will simply have to stop trading.

And it is intended to make the same change for physical sales, in a year's 
time.

There's a fuller explanation of all this here:
http://euvataction.org/key-facts/

ansible@cix has some useful links here:
http://news.ansible.uk/a329.html#33

And search for the hashtag #VATMOSS

Thanks to rafe at cix.co.uk for the above warning. What makes the situation worse is that the HMRC automated telephone hotline did not recognise enquiries about the one-stop shop until Radio 4's Money Box followed up a listener's complaint earlier this month.

Bank of Scotland double-charged mortgagees, maybe committed fraud

There was disturbing news last week that Britain's biggest mortgage-lender had, contrary to a legal ruling, double-charged some of its customers in Northern Ireland.

The original [civil] case focused on the way the bank added arrears to the initial mortgage borrowing.

That is a standard practice for tackling arrears and is known as capitalisation. It has the effect of increasing borrowers' monthly repayments. The judge ruled that once capitalisation had taken place, the mortgage should no longer be considered as in arrears. However, the bank continued to treat such mortgages as in arrears and used that as the basis for bringing legal cases. The judge said this meant borrowers had been held in fear and were being threatened with repossession on account of an "erroneous and fictional arrears balance".

The province's chief law officer has now taken an interest and believes that a criminal act has been committed. There is more detail here.

BBC Radio's personal finance guru, Paul Lewis, reckoned that the aggrieved mortgage-holders were able to defend themselves against the bank's effort to repossess their properties because up until now legal aid has been available for this kind of civil case in Northern Ireland. This has not been so in England & Wales for some time, so it is likely that the bank will get away with it if it has been ripping off its customers here.


Saturday, 13 December 2014

A new inequality - and the gap is widening

Today is the centenary of Alan Bullock. Born in Wiltshire, but educated in Yorkshire, he was an influential historian who also founded St Catherine's College Oxford. He initially made his name with a biography of Hitler which the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography sniffily suggests was superseded by others' research. However, he was ready to take this on board and towards the end of his career produced a mighty parallel biography of Stalin and Hitler.

The ODNB notification landed in my in-box as I was catching up on the Thinking Allowed episode ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04nv6ml) in which Peter Hennessy and Danny Dorling discussed the means to break into the Establishment first by the Butler 1944 Education Act (Hennessy reckoned that he was part of a golden generation) and the comprehensive revolution in England and Wales (Dorling confessed that he would not have passed the 11-plus). Before those changes, there was the opportunity offered to working-class young men and women by the great mixing of the second world war mobilisation, which was taken by Bullock and others of his generation. (On a personal note, if the son of a ship's steward from Merseyside and the daughter of a master at a venerable private school in south Wales had not both joined up and met in an army camp in Kent in wartime, I would not be here now.)

Both Dorling and Hennessy felt that, barring another war, such chances of climbing the ladder into the elite were steadily being eroded. I would add that bringing back the grammar schools (and secondary modern and technical schools for the rejects) would not recreate the conditions of 1945. The big advance was not the opening up of the grammar schools, but providing free secondary education.






Friday, 12 December 2014

Cuba revolution re-enacted on the streets of New York

Fifty years ago. this happened:

United Nations Headquarters was fired upon yesterday with a 3.5-inch bazooka from across the East River. The attack coincided with a demonstration by anti‐Communist Cubans at the front entrance against the presence of [Che Guevara]

Footnote the original bazooka was a musical instrument.


Thursday, 11 December 2014

Good news for the West, bad news for Africa's poor

Thanks to Alan Bullion for posting on Facebook this report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation. It seems that while conflict and climate have decimated traditional crops of swathes of Africa and the Near East, there are bumper stocks of maize (American corn) and wheat on which the Western food industry is based. Is it too much to hope that our big supermarkets and bakers will pass on their savings on wheat and fuel to our hard-pressed working poor?


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Bringing the station nearer to the voter

Mark Pack states the case for increasing the number of polling stations in order to improve voter turnout. Given that each station requires at least two people to be on duty from 07:00 to 22:00 I envisage a few returning officers scratching their heads over the suggestion.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Mindless games aid concentration

At least that is my experience. Playing computer patience has helped me concentrate on this morning's relay of the Commons Treasury Committee proceedings, for instance*. I am sorry that Nigel Mills MP felt it necessary to apologise.

What did I do as a councillor to stop my mind drifting off during meetings at the civic centre? I must admit that I didn't do anything which would enable Labour councillors to run to the Evening Post with an adverse interpretation (though I note that a number of colleagues of all parties resorted to doodling). So I continuously took notes, probably less than a quarter of which found their way into a permanent record.

* The conclusion of this morning's session with a range of expert witnesses appears to be that of William Goldman, "nobody knows anything". In particular, Kevin Daly of Goldman Sachs (who as advisors retained by the Treasury may be somewhat biased) was optimistic that income tax returns would be higher than the latest official estimates, while the IFS's Carl Emmerson was considerably more dubious. There was a range of opinions in between.


Crunch time for olives

The Guardian is one of a number of media reporting a potential reduction of supply of olives from European groves, because of an increase in pests. It is all the more regrettable therefore that certain sections of the Israeli executive and illegal settlers make it increasingly difficult for Palestinian farmers, for whom olives form one-quarter of their income, to maintain and in some cases harvest their olives.



Monday, 8 December 2014

Towards a balanced view of Jeremy Thorpe

Tom Mangold was able to recycle shelved material from an investigation of thirty-five years ago with the death of Jeremy Thorpe. BBC Radio had clearly anticipated one or more guilty verdicts in the 1979 trial for the attempted murder of Norman Scott and commissioned research from Mangold who obtained interviews with a number of senior policemen and an alleged criminal intermediary. After the "not guilty" verdicts, presumably fear of civil court action deterred the corporation from using the recordings. No such danger now, with the passing of the last of the politicians involved. The theme of the rehashed programme was the alleged conspiracy by the Establishment to cover up Thorpe's bisexuality.

Flicking back through the Radio Times archive of "Any Questions?" broadcasts (I was searching for the programme in which Thorpe revealed his mastery of the Welsh language) I was struck by the number of regular panellists who were also closeted (necessarily because of the law) at that time. Carwyn James, the inspirational RU coach, who was later to take his own life in consequence of a same-sex affair, was a frequent guest when the programme came from Wales. Robert Boothby came within a whisker of having his sexuality revealed when a photograph of him posed with the gangster Kray twins and a rent-boy came into the possession of the Daily Mirror; the story was killed by the paper's proprietor, Cecil King. Tom Driberg seemed to lead a charmed life; his wikipedia entry suggests why his flamboyance did not lead to prosecution. There were others who had had same-sex relationships in their younger days. All would no doubt have been aware of the zeal with which the police pursued "indecent behaviour" prosecutions, even when the victims of blackmail - as Thorpe was effectively at the hands of Norman Scott - were the source.

If there was a cover-up, as Mangold posits, then it would be interesting to know why it came to an end. Peter Oborne made a suggestion, based on the memoirs of Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's press secretary, in the Spectator a dozen years ago that Thorpe was singled out for Labour political reasons. Jack Straw's response to quizzing (by Eddie Mair last Friday)  about his part in instigating the trial in which Scott was able to make his privileged accusations from the dock was rather disingenuous. Certainly, in the light of the other cases quoted above, Thorpe could have considered himself unlucky.

Back then, I was not so exercised about the sexual aspects nor about the purported murder plot, which seemed bizarre at the time. My doubt about Thorpe had arisen earlier from his directorship of the London and County Securities fringe bank, one of those swept away in a property crash which should have been a warning to the Thatcher and the Blair-Brown governments. It suggested that his judgement in financial matters was not as strong as it should have been.

If it had not been for the archaic law against physical relationships between men, Thorpe's impact on politics would almost certainly have been even greater and enduring. As Richard Moore's obituary in the Indy reminds us, Thorpe had a hard act to follow in the form of Jo Grimond, but kept the Liberal flame alive by refusing to trim and became arguably as inspirational.

[Grimond] had built up a deserved reputation as an able publicist for, and as sometimes the originator of, new ideas. He had been eloquent and was respected beyond the boundaries of the Party.

He had left the leadership at a time when the follies of the 1960s were beginning to capture Liberal hearts and minds, especially the Young Liberals, who were then taken seriously by party assemblies and the media. Indeed, for several years the Liberal Party was in danger of becoming a wing of the Peace Movement; of believing that socialism, at least in its foreign forms, was the wave of the future; of hating the US and swallowing the unilateralist nostrum.

Thorpe held off these follies by concentrating on established policies. He defended the principle of collective security and of loyal membership of the Atlantic alliance. He insisted on the need for Great Britain to join the European Community. He pleaded for co-partnership in industry. He spoke out boldly for constitutional reform. He defied unpopularity over the death penalty. He denounced dictatorship. He rejected racism when Enoch Powell was winning the plaudits of more than the mob.

In short, Thorpe stood up for Liberal values and did not conform to the modish infantilisms of the day. Not that he was insensitive to new problems or to the re-emergence of old ones. He was one of the first politicians to speak often about environmental problems, deploring the demolition of good buildings and warning against pollution. He went to Northern Ireland on several occasions, the first leader of a British political party to do so since the Stormont statelet was set up in 1921.

I am not as convinced as Mr Moore of the logic of the so-called independent nuclear deterrent, but otherwise I would like to see a restatement from the current leadership of the political values which Jeremy Thorpe stood for and which have not been repudiated either by the Liberal or Liberal Democrat parties.


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Goodbye, silvery brick

It cost far more than today's basic camera phones which are slimmer, have more facilities and better definition, but it was my toe in the water of digital photography. Thanks to Lidl for the Nytech digital camera.
 It may have had only 4Mp definition, and exhaust batteries at a tremendous rate, but I seemed to get better pictures from it than trendier equipment I bought later. Now it is showing signs of age with artefacts in the images which can only come from a failing CCD, so it's off to the electronic waste with it.


Saturday, 6 December 2014

Some thoughts on search engines

Mark Pack blogs in detail about the interface between search engines and web arcana.

I have been increasingly concerned about the increased commercialisation of searching, even if using meta-engines like Copernic and Dogpile. For instance, in looking up the judge's epigram quoted yesterday, relying on a vague recollection, I had to wade through screensful of plugs for expensive establishments before finding the exact quotation.

Another niggle is that the leading engines have over-reacted to the European Court ruling about burying links to old and irrelevant references, and seem to be removing links on demand. So misdeeds by public figures from more than a few years ago which remain on the print record and online if you know where to look are not readily recoverable.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Perhaps local LibDem parties should threaten deselection

It is a weapon more associated with Labour (though the heavy hand of the North London commissariat has proved more weighty in recent years) and the Tories (witness Anne McIntosh's travails in Thirsk), but even some Liberal Democrats might find the affront to the principles evidenced here and here overcoming their niceness. Sarah Teather, the sole vote against Chris Grayling's muzzling of judicial review, will be missing from the next parliament, as the Brent MP is to stand down. The point is that the Liberal Democrat party is the only one formally committed to equal access to the law. If not our MPs, who else? One answer is Elfyn Llwyd, not always in the Plaid Cymru mainstream, also standing down in 2015, who spoke in Monday's debate:
Judicial review is often the only means by which individuals can hold the Executive responsible for wrong -doing, yet the Government are trying to shut down that avenue for redress. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has said it sees no evidence to support the Government’s reforms, and neither does Justice, Liberty, JustRights, Human Rights Watch, the Howard League, Redress, Inquest, Mencap, Amnesty International—the list goes on; can anyone report which groups actually support the Government in these changes? [Hon. Members: “The Whips.”] Yes, the Whips.

On clause 67, Lords amendment 107 would maintain courts’ discretion over whether to order an intervener to pay the costs of relevant parties and vice versa. As drafted, the Bill would compel the court to order interveners to pay such costs, other than in exceptional circumstances, as we have heard from the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon. The provisions in clause 67 are among the most disturbing in the Bill. Unamended, the clause would ensure that charitable organisations and individuals with expertise could no longer enrich the opinion of the courts by intervening in cases where their expertise would be of use because they could not justify the risk to their trustees, funders or members of supporting litigation. As the noble Lord Carlile [Liberal Democrat] asked in the other place:

“How could trustees reasonably agree to support an intervention when it could result in losing tens of thousands of pounds or more in costs, jeopardising, in some cases, the existence of small charities?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 2014; Vol. 754, c. 1607.]

Yet the plans would still allow Departments and corporations with huge funds to intervene and hence play a pivotal part in the development of public law.

I ask the House to reconsider the Government’s proposals in the context of the various and—I am trying to avoid vitriol—crippling reforms to access to justice in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. As a result of the significant cuts in that Act, more individuals will be looking to charitable organisations for support in getting justice. It seems to me that clause 67 will take away this last resort. I am afraid the Government seem intent on restricting access to justice so that only those with the least to lose can gain redress. Why do they think it necessary to pursue this agenda, which will throw the baby out with the bathwater, despite the perceived misuses of the law relating to judicial review? The hon. and learned Gentleman, a far more experienced lawyer than me, has referred to the time-honoured practice of judicial review—the Wednesbury principles and so on—and the practices in place to ensure that Departments act reasonably in all circumstances. Why should we not uphold the individuals’ rights to ensure that Departments act reasonably?

In conclusion, Justice said:

“Punitive and disproportionate, these measures are designed to deter any organisation with limited funds acting as an intervener. In practice, this means that – even in important cases with a constitutional impact which reaches far beyond the immediate interests of the parties - the court will no longer benefit from expert advice and information provided from cash-poor and experience rich charities and NGOs.”

I think that says it all. As we heard earlier, senior judges themselves are on the record as saying that the courts are enriched by the interventions of these people, who know exactly what they are talking about.

In this same week, Theresa May allowed only judicial review as a means of redress for those deemed to be returning jihadis, labelled as such by a functionary of the state, not by a court of law:
Mr Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I understand the system that my right hon. Friend is putting in place of managed return, but what is not clear in the Bill is the system that will be present to enable that managed return requirement to be challenged. I wonder whether she can help the House on that point. It seems to me that there must be a mechanism by which a person who is told that they have to return in a particular way can challenge it on their return to this country, and do so expeditiously, if it is not to be an unwarranted interference with their rights.

Mrs May: There will be a form of challenge available to an individual under judicial review. We will also have to notify the individual that action is being taken against them, so that they are aware that the measure is being put in place.

It appears from the following equivocal exchange that there is unlikely to be any state aid for returners who cannot find the money for a legal challenge from their own resources:
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): On a point that was made earlier, if an individual has the right to challenge how they are managed—I think the right hon. Lady said that it would be by means of judicial review—can we ensure that they have legal aid to do that?

Mrs May: As the hon. Lady knows, the Government have made a number of changes to legal aid, and we are looking at the position in relation to that particular issue on these new measures.

Late nineteenth-century Irish judge Sir James Mathew was just one of those down the ages pointing out the hypocrisy of the administration of justice:
In England, Justice is open to all, like the Ritz hotel.

Liberals and socialists in the last century moved to correct this, but under the last three administrations we have seen a tilting back of the balance towards the establishment. Even before the "reforms" of this government, I have seen two people in Neath Port Talbot clobbered with the financial cosh of costs awarded against them in cases where they were seen to be in the right. Surely we cannot rely on the efforts of the stinking rich to expose maladministration in future?

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Chancellor's nod to real music

Jessica Duchen blogs :

In yesterday's autumn statement, the chancellor, George Osborne, announced (among other things) that orchestras in the UK may get tax breaks. [...] nobody seems quite certain whether it will make any difference to the fortunes of these organisations once the next round of ACE funding cuts is meted upon them.[...] We suspect that this may be a case of the chancellor giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

Presumably such tax breaks would apply to Wales, notwithstanding the devolution of arts policy.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

IT debt

A few days before the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, I received this timely reminder from MicroFocus that, while national governments are still having to handle deficits and thus are racking up increasing debt, global companies are cash-rich. The article is US-orientated, but I recall financial commentators pointing out that the same is true of London-quoted corporations.

The article questions the philosophy of building up cash reserves while doing no more than patch up IT systems. This failure to plan and implement change and to train IT staff has been particularly marked in the case of banks, leading to disasters like this.


Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Bus subsidy cuts bite



This Wales Online article bears out the warnings about the effect that budget cuts by both the Labour Welsh Government and local authorities would have. Bus passenger numbers in Wales have fallen, uniquely among the nations of the UK.

Tax rises will be necessary

- and when the parties go to the country in May, they should not be frightened to say so. The big increase in Liberal Democrat representation in 1997 was on the back of a manifesto positing a penny on the basic rate of income tax. This time round, it will not even be necessary to touch the basic rate. The people on lower incomes have suffered enough.

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/dec/01/nick-clegg-conservative-spending-plans-autumn-statement

The projected increase in NHS spending (of which Wales will get £70m) apart, public spending will have to be restrained for another year, as Nick has warned. However, there are signs that the long-delayed growth in Germany, the powerhouse of the EU, on which so much of our own recovery forecasts were based, is about to happen. Also, we may yet be surprised by the tax returns from self-employment, which should start to come in shortly.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Co-operators not happy with contributions to political parties

The results of the the Cooperative Movement's survey of its customers from earlier in the year have now been released by YouGov. (There are pdfs on the Web: http://www.haveyoursay.coop/summary/hys-summary.pdf and http://www.haveyoursay.coop/data/hys-data.pdf) I turned immediately to the section about the Coop's links to Labour via the Cooperative Party, having banged on about this for some time. I was gratified by the outcome:

Overall, respondents believed that it is inappropriate for big businesses to donate money to political parties, with six in ten (59 per cent) of the general public thinking this. [...] This was reinforced further by respondents having negative perceptions of The Co-operative donating to The Co-operative Party. Only 14 per cent of the general public disagreed with the statement ‘it is inappropriate for The Co-operative to give financial support to a political party’.

  But:

there was strong support for redistributing the funds given to The Co-operative Party to the local community

The political dimension of the European Union

Once again, we hear Eurosceptic Tories parroting that the British were deceived into voting to stay in the European community on a false premise. I am old enough to remember the days before the last European referendum when our then leaders, who had most of them seen war service, were open about the need to bind the continent together to prevent a third carnage. David Steel, happily still with us, was another to speak about "shared sovereignty" in Europe.

So the deceivers were not Europhiles. Most prominent among those who put the case for Europe as a free trade area and nothing more was Margaret Thatcher, as Mark Pack reminds us.



Saturday, 29 November 2014

Celtic Energy and restitution

Private Eye no. 1380 reports that Lord Justice Fulford has rejected an attempt by the Serious Fraud Office to restore charges against directors of Celtic Energy and solicitors and a QC advising the company. The proposed prosecution centred on the sale of freeholds of four opencast sites to British Virgin Islands (BVI) companies, "Oak Regeneration and its subsidiaries, secretly controlled by two Celtic directors, to avoid or reduce the required obligation to restore the sites and to free up cash reserves held by Celtic for that purpose."

"After the sale Celtic's owner Richard Walters and finance director Leighton Humphreys were paid bonuses of £6.9m and £1.7m by a BVI company they owned."

"Celtic continues mining operations at three of the four sites. At two it is believed restoration will take place at no public cost, restoration of the other two sites remains under negotiation."


Friday, 28 November 2014

Phillip Hughes

Tributes have been justifiably generous on this side of the globe, but the Australians must have the last word about the tragic, one-in-millions chance, loss of one their own:

http://www.smh.com.au/comment/smh-editorial/vale-phillip-hughes-a-nation-thanks-you-20141127-11vdha.html

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Local Income Tax

Now that the principle of devolving some income tax powers to Scotland has been accepted, notwithstanding the question of taxpayers being domiciled in one jurisdiction and employed in another, can the UK government now look seriously at the replacement of council tax by the fairer Local Income Tax?

Liberal Democrats have long been supporters of LIT, but we have not been alone.
Will Plaid Cymru include this is their general election manifesto, as they did in 2005? Will SNP revive their interest in the measure?

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

What bombs did George Orwell plant?


There is a Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:British_people_of_the_Spanish_Civil_War) listing, at the time of writing, 64 names of British people who volunteered to take part in the war in Spain which was a curtain-raiser for the Nazi takeover of continental Europe. Not all were on the Republican government, anti-fascist, side. Roy Campbell, for one, was vigorously anti-communist and supported Franco's Falange. Many more ordinary people joined. Some never came back, like the three memorialised in Neath's Victoria Gardens.


None that I know of imported the terror they had seen in Spain onto the streets of Britain. Indeed, the experience was an eye-opener for most. Orwell famously became a vociferous critic of Stalinism as a result. Many resumed left-wing political activity on return, but by democratic means. One at least - Sir Alfred Sherman - swung so far the other way that he finished as a cheerleader for Margaret Thatcher.

Communism was then as big a bogey as militant Islam is today. Great difficulties were put in the way of the British volunteers for Spain, but it seems that repatriation was easier. It would be surprising if local police were not advised to "keep an eye" on known supporters of either side in the Spanish conflict upon return, but there was nothing like the official demonisation of volunteers for Syria proposed by Mrs May.

To some extent the coalition has brought the difficulties on its own head. If it had not been so outspoken in favour of the forces opposing President Assad, making the anti-Alawite revolution respectable, maybe fewer Sunnis from this country would have been encouraged to join.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Neath Market at Christmas Time

Thanks to Mike Davies and Neath Guardian for this:

Neath General Market is a traditional covered market for top quality local produce. It is housed in a building dating from 1837. Renovated in 1904, the market is an eclectic place where you can find a hyper trendy posh hat and bag boutique next to a butchers' counter.

Fresh fruit and vegetables, florists, children's fashions and welsh crafts vie for attention - while your hunger pangs can be eased in one of the cafes selling traditional Welsh food along with other modern classics.

The Victorian Market is in the heart of the town and is one of very few of its kind left in Wales, situated in Green Street, it has been providing goods and visitors for 170 years. It was built in 1837 at a cost of £1650 and for a number of years it was a series of covered stalls around an open space.

In 1904 the present building was completed at a cost between £7000-£8000. In 1999, a new roof was built and the frontage improved for the Millennium retaining the Victorian features and the unique atmosphere in this ancient borough. There is a wide range of stalls - more than 50 in total, ranging from the traditional faggots and peas to flowers, butchers to books and clothing and Welsh craft. Many of the businesses operating in the market have been handed down from generation to generation.

Again this year the traders have put up Christmas decorations and is well worth a visit to bring Christmas cheer. to all who visit this historic market.

View the Video

That recommended pay rise

Liberal Democrat AM Aled Roberts said it would be "very, very difficult for me to look friends and neighbours in the eye" if he accepted the rise recommended by the independent panel. The reason for the recommendation is apparently to reflect the increase in work and responsibility following further devolution. I have a better idea: spread the load by increasing the number of AMs (elected by STV in multi-member constituencies, doing away with the party list, naturally!) and keep the pay the same. The overall pay bill will still go up, but AMs will not suffer the opprobrium following an increase equivalent to the total earnings of some people on less than full-time contracts.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Another good reason for Liberal Democrat MPs

This last week, a step was taken towards undoing the harm to pubs created by the Thatcher/Major governments, and allowed to continue under Blair/Brown. It is hard to see what a revolt by Tories or an amendment by Labour alone could have done what Greg Mulholland has achieved by sheer persistence.

We now need an amendment to planning law to require change of use from the new category A4 (which covers drinking establishments) to other retail categories to be subject to approval from local councillors, who are alive to the place pubs occupy in the social fabric. Since the minister responsible is Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams, I have high hopes.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Two depressing by-election results

The Rochester and Strood details can be found elsewhere. The most worrying part of the outcome is that in a campaign which (apart from the Liberal Democrats) all contenders vied for the title of "most beastly to foreigners" the most extreme policy of forced repatriation - repudiated by his party leader! - was proposed by the UKIP winner.

The other disturbing by-election result was closer to home, in the Uplands ward of Swansea City. On a turnout of 20.9% the winner was ex-Conservative, ex-Liberal Democrat, "Children Need Fathers" campaigner Peter May standing as an independent. The detailed figures:

Independent 671
Labour 553
Janet Thomas, Welsh Lib Dem 215
Green 179
Independent 158
Tory 154
Plaid 104
Socialist 31

Independent gain from Labour

Dispiriting though it is that Janet Thomas failed to regain the ward for the party which put Swansea back on its feet in 2008, and lost only in the national anti-coalition swing in 2012, it must be even more frightening for the Labour Party. If their well-funded and union-backed machine can be defeated by a one-man band, and this still linked in the minds of local electors with anti-Labour politics, then their Swansea West MP must be under threat. If their failure to hold the ward is a result of disenchantment with their national leader, then the implications for Labour nationwide are grim.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

What if there's a real war?


Now that formal hostilities involving British forces are virtually over, it is surprising that the MoD should be short of air transport. But that is what this story implies. Military tents, surplus to requirements in Helmand province, are being supplied to the Barnabas Fund in order to house refugees in northern Iraq. (The charity has not been given the tents; they cost £450,000 via a commercial agent.) However, the RAF has said that it is impracticable to fly them to Iraq and the charity is having to pay up to £300,000 to ship them overland.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The rights of minors

The second part of Virginia Hughes' Personhood series is here: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/11/18/personhood-week-do-kids-count/

Perhaps I missed it, but the evidence that the teenage brain is not fully developed - in particular, the part that inhibits risk-taking - has not been cited in the debates in England and Scotland about voting at 16. For me, the danger of being too bold is cancelled out by the ability to absorb information and analyse it, which in my experience is never higher.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Personhood

There must be a record number of comments attached to a National Geographic online posting in this article by Virginia Hughes. It is not unexpected, since it deals with the vexed question of: when does a person become a person? To most people who believe in a personal creator, there is little doubt; it's at the moment of conception. It is not a view shared by the law in England and Wales, though a case currently before the Court of Appeal could put a dent in that.

Objectively, the clump of undifferentiated cells which immediately results is not recognisable as a human and even after the foetus takes shape brain activity begins only at 28 weeks. It seems that we should regard becoming a person as a process, rather than a moment - just as dementia takes away individuality at the other end of life. No doubt Ms Hughes will deal with this at the end of her series.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Two per cent rise for council workers in England

ALDC is reporting that a settlement between the Local Government Association and the unions has been reached. Seven years ago, a rise of two per cent would have appeared derisory. Today, it seems the unions were able to clinch a good deal, on the eve of warnings that we have reached the peak of the current business cycle and that there will be low economic activity for a year or so. Will government in Wales be able to afford a similar settlement?

Ched Evans needs to lower his head

I maintain that Ched Evans has a right, having served his time, to ply his trade. I also hear him when he continues to protest his innocence. But it would be good for him in so many ways to look abroad for his next job.

When people in public life say that the offence is unacceptable in a civilised society, I must agree. I hear them when they say that five years is a light sentence and definitely agree with complaints that too many convicts are let out early purely to reduce gaol over-crowding. But the same rules have to apply to everyone. Nor do I completely buy the rôle-model argument. Before his conviction, and the stupid attempts of his "friends" to influence matters, I doubt if more than a hard core of Welsh soccer fans and one half of Sheffield - which is represented only in the lower divisions of the Football League, not the Premiership - were aware of him.

Evans would do well to keep his head down and get away from the poisonous atmosphere of Sheffield. (One recalls that Ryan Giggs, not long after his serial adultery was exposed, took himself off the field of play and into the back-room.) The loutish laddish following of the Blades is only reinforcing any primitive misogyny on the part of Evans and his friends.  He does not need to make public statements to continue his effort to clear his name - he can leave it to the lawyers to do that. A spell on the continent, hopefully in one of the Nordic countries where he might improve his social education, will take him out of the eye of the UK media and reduce the heat of the debate. It would also be good for Sheffield United FC who, though they may be encouraged by the terraces to re-sign Evans, would rapidly lose sponsorship were they to do so.



Sunday, 16 November 2014

William Barnes rediscovered - again

Today's Poetry Please was dedicated to Dorset dialect poet William BarnesDaljit Nagra discovered Barnes only through Thomas Hardy, ignorant of John Arlott's championing of the poet and of the fact that Francis Turner Palgrave himself selected two Barnes poems for the original Golden Treasury.

The latter, which used to be in every literate English household along with the collected works of Shakespeare, was where I first came across Barnes. Surprisingly neither of the poems chosen was Linden Lea which in its version in "proper" English is one of Vaughan Williams' best-known songs. Palgrave actually selected The Wife a-Lost and Blackmwore Maidens. The representation of the dialect on the page was off-putting but the verse was immediately attractive. However, it wasn't until John Arlott, a real devotee and a former BBC Radio producer of poetry programmes, broadcast a tribute that I learned anything of Barnes the man. Sadly, there seems to be no recording of Arlott reading Barnes. No doubt, as a Hampshire man and not an actor, he was unduly diffident about doing justice to the Dorset accent. Jon Pertwee from the other neighbouring county of Devon could have risen above the standard Mummerset, but I can find no trace of his reading the poetry either.

Blackmwore Maidens

The primrose in the sheäde do blow,
  The cowslip in the zun,
The thyme upon the down do grow,
  The clote where streams do run;
An' where do pretty maïdens grow
  An' blow, but where the tow'r
Do rise among the bricken tuns,
  In Blackmwore by the Stour?

If you could zee their comely gaït,
  An' pretty feäces' smiles,
A-trippèn on so light o'waight,
  An' steppèn off the stiles;
A-gwaïn to church, as bells do swing
  An' ring within the tow'r.
You'd own the pretty maïdens' pleäce
  Is Blackmwore by the Stour.

If you vrom Wimborne took your road,
  To Stower or Paladore,
An' all the farmers' housen show'd
  Their daeters at the door;
You'd cry to bachelors at hwome -
  "Here, come: 'ithin an hour
You'll vind ten maïdens to your mind,
  In Blackmwore by the Stour."

An' if you looked 'ithin their door,
  To zee em in their pleäce,
A-doèn housework up avore
  Their smilèn mother's feäce;
You'd cry - "Why, if a man would wive
  An' thrive, 'ithout a dow'r,
Then let en look en out a wife
  In Blackmwore by the Stour."

As I upon my road did pass
  A school-house back in Maÿ
There out upon the belten grass
  Wer maïdens at their plaÿ;
An' as the pretty souls did twile
  An' smile, I cried, "The flow'r
O' beauty, then, is still in bud
  In Blackmwore by the Stour."


Saturday, 15 November 2014

Mind-numbingly banal screenplays

Bravo, Janet Street-Porter. Failing to be swept up in the general delusion that anything to do with Alan Turing is beyond criticism, she writes in her Independent column today that the "problem with [...] The Imitation Game  is not the acting but the mind-numbing banality of the script". I'm glad to have confirmation of the impression I gained from the clips I have seen on TV. It seems that most of the money went on the star leads - who would have been necessary to attract funding in the first place. I see that at least one major studio had previously passed on Graham Moore's project when Leonardo diCaprio backed out. Even so, it was an artistically false economy to rely on his own screenplay rather than call up an old hand.


Friday, 14 November 2014

Gender imbalance

I'm sorry that I was unsuccessful in my pitch for the Neath candidacy, but I couldn't be happier that Aberavon and Neath Liberal Democrats have chosen two sharp young women to fight the two constituencies on May 7th next year. More than that, they will both be local residents.

Since I have been an officer in the local party, I can recall only one previous election when we did not present a "balanced ticket" of one candidate of each sex. Now the Labour party has matched us on that, we have gone one step further.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A worrying incident

The story about the police spree killer from the 1960s being released recently (presumably to avoid the expense of his dying in gaol) brings back another memory. While he was still on the run, we were travelling north to attend the wedding in Dunfermline of a flatmate. Roddie was driving a borrowed A40 with me as passenger, with our friend Les in his own jalopy in the rear. Somewhere on the A1 we became aware that Les was no longer close behind us but had been stopped by the police, because of some defect they had spotted, if I recall correctly. They seemed to be spending rather a long time for a simple construction and use violation, until we realised that the patrol would have asked his name and received the answer: Roberts.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The squeeze on public libraries

The latest Private Eye draws our attention to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and its requirement for the provision of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ public library service. With devolution, the task of meeting this legal requirement falls upon a minister in the Welsh government. It would be good to know how they view Neath Port Talbot's sloughing off of responsibility for library services in Resolven, Taibach and Pontardawe, among other townships in the county borough, to volunteers.

There is more about the provisions of the Act here.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The day the wall came down

It was one of those "where I was" moments, like the death of Diana or for us oldies, the shooting of JFK. In the case of the demolition of the Berlin Wall, I vividly recall watching Olenka Frenkiel depositing part of it in front of Peter Snow (described here http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/8350830.stm) in a temporary Newsnight studio in Berlin. That evening twenty-five years ago I was sitting in a flat in Findon Village, in front of a Sony Trinitron recently purchased from a shop in the parade below. (That TV, and a few other goodies I bought from the earnings on a lucrative contract in Worthing, came back with me to South Wales and gave up the ghost only a few years ago.)

The Independent a fortnight ago ran a series of articles - the first of them here - mirroring the events leading up to the breach, reminding me that mechanical diggers had actually taken their first bite out of the wall. However, it was the gleeful way that ordinary Berliners, using whatever tools came to hand, joined in the destruction of the barrier which inspired millions around the world. For those of us who had lived through the fearful days - much more ominous than the Cuban missile crisis in my experience - after the Wall had been thrown up with Prussian efficiency overnight, it was especially uplifting.

That winter was exceptional in another way. The sun-spot cycle hit such a peak that the Northern Lights could be seen as far south as Sussex. Another abiding memory from that time is of leaving the London and Edinburgh buildings after a spell of overtime and being greeted by those shifting green curtains of light, remarkably the first time I had ever seen an Aurora. Now we are in another period of lively space weather - and a leader in Russia is attempting to nibble back what his communist predecessors lost in 1989.

Cadoxton 2014-11-11 11:11



Monday, 10 November 2014

More on the Labour leadership

Chris Dillow explains the superstitious base of personality politics, very relevant to today's Labour Party, and Jonathan Calder sees Alan Johnson as the best replacement for Ed Miliband.

I agree with Calder that Johnson is a genuine person with a real hinterland, the sort of MP we should have more of. Moreover, as someone who is clear-sighted about his own abilities, he would probably delegate the task of acting as party spokesmen to those with more detailed knowledge of particular policy areas, and thus fulfil Simon Danczuk's call for “team politics with strong shadow ministers in the foreground".

However, the (to my mind unlawful) dismissal of a respected adviser on drugs policy when Johnson was Home Secretary betrays a less positive side to his character - a certain rush to judgment and possibly a quick temper, neither of which is good for a leader of a party, never mind the country. If Johnson is quick-tempered that would soon be exposed both in exchanges across the despatch box and in interviews with a largely hostile media.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The hounding of Ed Miliband

I suppose I should be dancing with glee now that the media are reporting that the Labour party leader is less popular than Nick Clegg, especially as in the only two by-elections* in principal local authorities on Thursday Labour support was virtually decimated and the Liberal Democrat vote increased. If I have reservations, it is not out of sympathy for Mr Miliband who won his position on a dishonest prospectus and whose performance in front of his party has deteriorated rather than improved with experience. Rather it is the sense that I have that the press and BBC News feel that they have the power to make and unmake leaders. Ed Miliband would not have won his election if it had not been for the impression, fostered by Tory and Labour-leaning press alike, that he supported the trade unions, who duly turned out the vote for him. Now having set him up, they are now engaged in knocking him down, selling copies through both processes.

We should be judging parties on their principles and policies, not on the personality of a single person at the top. Unfortunately, a pattern seems to be developing whereby a leader wins by means of a media campaign instead of speaking to the membership directly, then appointing a media guru from abroad and making policy on the hoof, based on the guru's perceptions. I am glad to say that though Liberal Democrats too have a Commonwealth consultant - Ryan Coetzee, who formerly advised our sister party in South Africa - policy is still made by our conference, occasionally uncomfortable though that is for some of our MPs.

*Local Authority By-election Results, Thursday 6th November, 2014
Cornwall UA, Mevagissey
Conservative 348 [32%; +8.2%]
UKIP 281 [26%; -1.6%]
Labour 204 [19%; -10.8%]
Liberal Democrat Christopher Maynard 197 [18%; +4.3%]
Green 50 [5%; -0.1%]
Majority: 67
Conservative gain from Labour
Percentage change since 2013 

Rugby BC, Bilton
Conservative 668 [42%; -12.3%]
UKIP 325 [20.4%; +20.4%]
Liberal Democrat Lesley George 280 [17.6%; +8.1%]
Labour 212 [13.3%; -8.1%]
Independent 60 [3.8%; +3.8%]
Green 37 [2.3%; -7.7%]
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition 10 [0.6%; -4.3%]
Majority: 343
Turnout: 31%
Conservative Hold
Percentage change since 2014  
[Information courtesy of ALDC]

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Norman Lloyd

There cannot have been many performers who have seen a film which features them in their centenary year. Norman Lloyd, actor, director, producer and socialist who managed to side-step the Hollywood blacklist was born in New Jersey on this day 100 years ago. His first feature film appearance was in one of Alfred Hitchcock's best, Saboteur, in 1942, so only a few child actors can be ahead of his record of at least 72 years between first and last movie appearances.

Friday, 7 November 2014

More anti-European bias from BBC News

The Mayor of London's plan for two cycleways to criss-cross the capital were unveiled last September. However, BBC News got round to showing a video report on it only yesterday. The reason appears to be that reporter John Maguire spent some time shooting a sequence in New York City which had installed a few cycle-ways under mayor Bloomberg. However, there is separation of cycles from road vehicles closer to home, in most of the new towns - Crawley, Cumbernauld, Redditch and Runcorn come to mind. It could be, of course, that Maguire felt that a fair comparison would be with a city rather than a town, in which case there are numerous examples in Netherlands, Denmark and Germany (which was presumably the inspiration for our new town architects in the 1950s).

Cynics will point to the mass migration of BBC personnel across the Atlantic whenever there is a big story over there, as if the well-staffed American office of the corporation was not capable of handling it, most marked in presidential election years. They would suggest that Maguire's trip was of a piece with that. Conspiracy theorists like myself suspect that the BBC shrinks from anything that shows the rest of the EU in a good light, especially on a matter where some of our partners anticipated us by sixty years.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

400-year-old common-law right breached

It was not immediately obvious what David Davis was on about when he raised his urgent point of order in parliament this afternoon. However, it became much clearer this evening; this BBC report gives the background. One of Mr Belhaj's lawyers pointed out that an accused's right to confidential discussion of the case against them with their accredited legal representative had been established in common law as far back as the seventeenth century.

Two questions come to mind:

 - is it this practice, rather than the revelation of methods of intercepting digital and telephone conversations, which makes the security services reluctant to bring terrorism charges into open court?

 - are the current and previous independent reviewers of British anti-terrorist laws, including Liberal Democrat Lord Carlile, aware of this breach of legal privilege, and have they seen or heard the evidence so produced?


Mobile phone coverage

The confirmation in a recent report that both 3G and 4G are best in London and worst in Wales did not come as a great surprise. What did was the response of an industry spokesman on Radio Wales, resisting government moves for telecom providers to share infrastructure, blaming the lack of provision on the planning system. Since masts of fifteen metres (about the height of three double-decker buses) and under do not require planning permission, one wonders what more they want.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Legal aid

"What we are approaching, if we are not already there, is a system in which if someone is poor, destitute, marginalised and up against it, they will get no help and no justice and will continue to suffer."

These were the words of Jeremy Corbyn MP in the last major debate in the House of Commons chamber on the subject of legal aid, sixteen months ago. It was scheduled for after lunch on a Thursday, a time when most MPs are already heading back to their constituencies, and not attended by the Lord Chancellor, the responsible minister. It took Sarah Teather, a Liberal Democrat MP freed of government office or the need to contest a further term in the house, to bring the debate. Even then, it centred on criminal legal aid, with occasional reference to some high-profile cases, and the effect of centrally contracting-out legal aid on local solicitors' firms, to the exclusion of civil legal aid.

But it is the removal of funds for a vast swathe of civil cases (details in this pdf), and the institution of an impersonal interface for those clients who do qualify, which is more likely to affect the ordinary citizen. Helen Ceri Clarke, our local party chair, who works in Peter Black AM's regional office, confirms that a huge amount of casework comes from people on the wrong end of decisions from landlords, the DWP and so on, for whom they have to engage lay advocates because they are no longer entitled to free professional legal assistance. It is surprising that more MPs, whose constituency offices must surely handle many such cases, are not shouting about this scandal.

On so many grounds - fairness, civil liberty and localism - Liberal Democrats are the most fitting instrument to reverse not only the changes brought in not only by this government but also the previous one. I hope that there will be a manifesto commitment to do so.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Norman Baker: a principled decision

Norman Baker's decision to leave the government was a courageous and principled one. No doubt more sidelights will be revealed in the broadcast media coverage during the day, but the Independent was first with the main detail. In fact, he should be applauded for two decisions, the first being to take on the brief at the Home Office in the first place. Both he and Nick Clegg clearly thought he could be an effective liberal presence in a very conservative department of state. Sadly, he was to be disappointed as the exchange of letters printed in the Indy shows. (It is refreshing to see a resignation letter unredacted by the mandarins in the light of the Woolf affair.) Things seem to have come to a head over drugs policy and Mr Baker was ready to go several  months ago. He was persuaded to stay on and possibly anticipated a LibDem reshuffle just before the Glasgow conference in which he could depart. It is good to see that Nick would welcome him back into government after the next election if there is a new coalition.

There are a couple of other LibDem ministers who have taken on briefs with which they ought to be uncomfortable, given that Tory policies have more and more predominated in the last year or so. I trust they will be searching their consciences now. It will be interesting to see if another LibDem really wants to take over the Home Office job.

[Later] Lynne Featherstone returns to the Home Office - see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29899440. At least she knows what she is in for! Presumably she still carries her responsibility for women's matters. There will be no diminution of activity on international development with the appointment of Lindsay Northover, though it is a pity that a MP has been replaced by a peer. In a coincidental move, Lorely Burt moves in to the whip's office as Jenny Willott moves out. Although we have lost a Welsh MP in government, Lorely maintains a Welsh connection through her graduation from Swansea University. Overall, I make it that there has been the minimum move towards sex equality.


Monday, 3 November 2014

You believe what you want to believe

James Randi (Randall James Hamilton Zwinge), retired illusionist and vigorous debunker of fake psychics, spiritualists and other quacks who  use the techniques of conjurors to extort money from the public, was himself taken in. Last night's Storyville presentation on BBC-4 of Randi's career and campaigns, without laying on the irony, included his 25-year relationship with an artist who had felt compelled to adopt someone else's identity in order to escape his native homophobic Venezuela. Randi seemed remarkably philosophical when the deception was revealed and the programme ended with their civil marriage. The programme is worth watching for the life story alone, but I was most hooked on the snippets of Randi's performances and the consequent authority with which he revealed that the phonies were not gifted with supernatural powers but with finely-honed magicians' skills. I had known about Randi's campaigns for many years through the pages of New Scientist, but this was the first time I had visible evidence of his skills.

Even in his eighties, Randi via his Educational Foundation continues to fight the good fight. This recent posting relates to the reinvention of a notorious fraud who he spectacularly exposed towards the end of last century. By clever programming - or just good luck - Channel 4 the previous night showed, and will repeat next Friday, "Red Lights" a film following the work of a fictional academic team exposing psychic fraud. The major set-piece which dominates the first half of the film is a virtual recreation of the Popoff exposure.

Fifty years ago today

Lyndon Baines Johnson, a US president who more than most divided opinion, was elected.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

A few ecological links

AECB, the Association for Environment Conscious Building, is a network of individuals and companies with a common aim of promoting sustainable building: www.aecb.net

STIR magazine features articles and interviews on the international co-operative movement, commons and collaborative networks, and other community-orientated alternatives: www.stirtoaction.com

 Green Building magazine delivers useful, practical and honest information about sustainable and healthy building: www.greenbuildingpress.co.uk

- and of course there are www.ecology.co.uk & www.facebook.com/EcologyBS (the Ecology Building Society, whence I obtained the above links) and www.cat.org.uk/ (the Centre for Alternative Technology).


Saturday, 1 November 2014

Climate change predictions do come true

In spite of what sceptics claim, better data mean that predictions of the effects of global warming have become more accurate in this generation. However, I doubt that John Dora, speaking to a Railfuture conference around this time last year, believed that his warning about rail lines in south-west England would be vindicated so soon. He is a fellow of both the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Meteorological Society, so Network Rail should have been listening when he asserted that weather-related incidents restricting access to the main line along the sea wall at Dawlish could increase by a factor of six between now and the year 2080. He went on to explain that computer modelling suggested that climate-related events occurring once every 100 years would increase to once every 14 years.

Within months of his talk, this happened: http://www.networkrail.co.uk/timetables-and-travel/storm-damage/dawlish/

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Worrying analysis from John Redwood

Mr Redwood recently posted on the subject of Quantitative Easing:

People say the aim was merely to bring down longer term rates of interest, to make it cheaper to borrow long term. They see QE as an elaborate way of altering the price of long term money compared to short term loans. Perhaps the Bank’s first explanation that it was to try to inject cash into the economy to be spent is nearer the mark.

What is more interesting is the change of stance on unwinding the position. In the early days it seemed likely that first the Bank would stop new purchases, then allow repayments of debt to cancel the outstanding gilts as they matured, and then sell back the remainder before raising interest rates. Now the agreed policy is to raise the official short term rate before taking any steps to reduce the amount of bonds held. This has the perverse consequence of losing money on the bond holdings at market prices, if the Bank raises the official rate and that has the normal impact on the value of gilts.


If true, this adds to the rip-off of the taxpayer by the government's selling of public assets at less than the market value.


Perils of allowing automatic publishing of comments

The reason why I have set Blogger to allow vetting of comments before publication is illustrated here. I am fairly liberal, but I draw the line at messages containing links to URIs which I do not know are safe and those which contain material which could lay me open to police or court action. Without knowing the content of the message which is key to Caron Lindsay's article, I would guess that its racism was such that it would have failed my second test.

Of course, it is easy for me to police the infrequent comments that this low-profile blog attracts. For Liberal Democrat Voice to adopt the same policy, it would require a full-time editor (in effect, three editors to cover each 24-hour period). This is not something which it can afford and it is a bit much to expect volunteers to devote this support day in, day out.

I hope LDV can find a solution. The party should not be losing members over such misunderstandings.


Equal access to rail franchise process


A nice coincidence after my posting about devolved transport administration, Andy Sawford MP yesterday won leave to bring in a Bill to allow public-owned entities to bid for British rail franchises. It is unfortunate that Mr Sawford chose to use most of his ten minutes in promoting Labour's 2015 manifesto policy, thus attracting an equally doctrinaire response from Martin Vickers on the Conservative benches. Ten-minute Rule motions mostly go through on the nod, in the knowledge that there is practically no parliamentary time available to allow the resulting Bill to proceed, but this one aroused so much passion on the Conservative side that one was surprised that the House voted by a large majority to consider the Bill in January, the Noes mustering only 38.

Mr Sawford drew attention to the anomaly that continental publicly-owned operators can bid for rail services in Britain, but our own public service does not have the same freedom at home or abroad. He cited the success of the Great Eastern franchise when it lapsed into public hands, but Mr Vickers pointed out that some costs - track access charges and cost of bidding - normally paid by franchisees were not taken into account.

If the short debate has drawn attention to the inflexibility of the franchising process, it will have done some good, even if Mr Sawford's Bill will sink without trace.



Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Who benefits from selling public housing?

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/spanish-accuse-goldman-of-hiking-rent-for-poor-9817437.html

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/20/millers-point-public-housing-residents-campaign-nsw-sell-off




Afghanistan: Our military withdrawal not the end

The Liberal Democrat Voice headline is more despondent than Paddy Ashdown's message overall: http://www.libdemvoice.org/liblink-paddy-ashdown-afghanistan-war-is-textbook-for-how-to-lose-this-kind-of-conflict-43099.html

Our recent military involvement in Afghanistan can only be justified by what happens next (the "defence of our streets" argument was always specious). We must build on the positives laid out by Paddy. It is to be hoped that the civil involvement by the EU will continue. This has not hit the headlines but is surely as valuable as the military legacy. I trust that as long as Rory Stewart is in public life we will not lose our engagement with the people to whom we still owe so much - and, of course, there is Afghanistan's new-found enthusiasm for cricket which will keep sporting links with the UK and the Commonwealth.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Centenary of a global saviour

Dr Jonas Salk was born on this day in 1914.

A culture of fear in the civil service?

The prime minister's assertion that the call for a €2.1bn "adjustment" came out of the blue began to look a little ragged during the Q&A on his European Council statement yesterday. However, it does seem that information had not been passed up the civil service chain as quickly as it should have been, judging by this report. The question that comes to mind is: were the civil servants attending the meeting with their EU colleagues in mid-October afraid of reporting the bad news? Moreover, what were "junior" civil servants doing at what was clearly an important meeting? (How junior is junior? Are we talking clerical staff here?)


Monday, 27 October 2014

Happy birthday, Dylan Marlais Thomas


The official website is here and there are mini-biographies easily found on the Web. This one sets him in a Welsh literary tradition.

I've already blogged about Thomas's musical links, but he mixed with artists as well. Alfred Janes was another one of the Kardomah Boys. He inspired artists, notably Ceri Richards. His connection with the Euston Road group (his wife Caitlin, who had been a model for Augustus John, was the sister of Anthony Devas's wife Nicolette, and the Thomases had set up home in Camden Town) was perhaps not as inspiring.

Drinking was part of the culture he grew up in, but John Arlott and others who worked with him at the BBC attested to his professionalism as a poetry reader and actor on radio. (Incidentally, there is a typo in the article I have linked to: "John Pudley" should read "John Pudney".)

It has been observed that Thomas's reputation is higher in the US than it is here. It did not help that the London literary establishment turned against him, prominently Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. One of his biographers even suggested that he was lucky to die when he did because his only worthwhile work was long behind him - a view which I have also heard Professor Dai Smith express. Yet, according to Jeff Towns in this radio programme, "In Country Sleep", a slim volume published only in the United States in the year before his death contained new work well up to the standard of his previous poetry.




Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Health Service in Wales

I have already dropped a comment in Facebook to the effect that the Daily Mail's use of spurious statistic does no good to the genuine case against Labour's handling of the NHS in Wales. I had started a blog post about the differences - and similarities - between the two health services, but it has been replaced by a message from Kirsty Williams.

There is no stronger critic of Labour’s catastrophic failings on health in Wales than me. Their appalling record speaks for itself: A&E targets that have never been met, the worst ambulance response times in the UK, the scandal of children with mental health issues being treated on adult wards… the list just goes on.

It’s clear that the Welsh Labour Government needs to be held to account for their mismanagement of our NHS.

What I will not accept, however, is the issue of cross-border care being dragged into this war of words. For many Welsh patients, the closest hospital to them is in England. Many of my own constituents use the County Hospital in Hereford. But all services used by Welsh patients are paid for by the Welsh NHS. In fact, patients from Wales are precisely what’s keeping many services at Hereford running. 

Labelling these people as 'refugees' is a disgrace. I will not accept the Tories and the right-wing press using my constituents as a boot in this game of political football, and I’ve written to Jeremy Hunt telling him to stop.

Both Labour and the Tories are using this so-called 'war' for their own political convenience. For them, Welsh patients are just collateral damage. The Welsh Liberal Democrats refuse to let that happen. That’s why we need to sit down and have a sensible debate about the future of our health services.

I'm glad to know that Kirsty's plan for a Commission with staff, patient and cross-party representation has not been rejected out-of-hand by the Welsh Health Minister and I await developments with interest.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Votes for 16 and 17 year olds

As someone who recalls thinking more about politics in my last years at school than through the early years of working life, I endorse Mark Williams' call.

“The Assembly has spoken with one voice with the motion in the Assembly endorsed by all 4 parties, which among other things called for the Assembly to determine its own electoral arrangements. It would be bizarre indeed, now that the precedent has been set in Scotland, for 16 and 17 year olds not to be able to vote in future referendums in Wales - and if extension of the franchise is permitted for referendums, why should it not for all future elections.

“Liberal Democrats believe in the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, and the Scottish experience has shown this is positive. At the very least, our National Assembly should have the opportunity to determine its own electoral arrangements.”


Friday, 24 October 2014

2.1bn euro sex and drugs tax

My first thought on hearing the news this morning was that there are people in the European Commission who would like to guarantee a UKIP gain in Rochester and Strood at the end of the month.

It seems that adjustments to EU budget contributions are made continuously on the basis of recalculations of GDP. Better people than I have commented on the flaws in GDP as a measure of the health of a nation's economy. Further suspicions were raised when I saw which other nations are expected to contribute to the poor suffering Germans and French: Greece, Italy and Spain, the most struggling of EU economies  at present. They just happen (along with ourselves) to have had their GDP estimate boosted by the inclusion of the black economy.

David Cameron has clearly taken the right decision in calling an emergency finance ministers meeting. It would be wrong simply to sulk and refuse to pay without exhaustive discussion of the basis of assessment. There would be precedent for ignoring an EU invoice, though: Germany and France both broke the Stability And Growth Pact in the early years of the century and as far as I know have never stumped up the fine which should have resulted.