Thursday, 22 February 2018

Where will Macron's party go next?

The next European Parliament elections will likely take place from 23rd to 26th May 2019. There is already speculation as to how many French seats will be taken by President Macron's party and whether he will have enough MEPs to go it alone or whether his people will join one of the other blocs in the parliament. Most opinion in Brussels points to En Marche joining ALDE, which would move that party even more towards economic rather than social liberalism. However, there is a minority view that EPP, the broad conservative grouping would be more to his liking. This graphic shows more:

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Czechs refute Corbyn spy scare story

Guido Fawkes and other reactionary outlets have been fulminating over claims that the leader of the Labour party was a collaborator with the Czech security services. While the Czech agent concerned has, for reasons of his own, puffed the affair, the archivist of the former communist organisation herself has confirmed that Corbyn was no more than "a person of interest". I am as ready as the next man to condemn Corbyn for the company he kept as a firebrand back-bencher. However, I do believe him in this instance that his meetings with Dymik/Sarkocy were innocent.

Where I will agree with Guido is that BBC TV channels have failed to deal with the story. However, an interview with the archivist herself was broadcast by BBC Radio News earlier this week.

We should put the current brouhaha in context. Respected Guardian journalist Richard Gott was fingered in the 1990s as a Soviet mole. Gott admitted: "I took red gold, even if it was only in the form of expenses for myself and my partner. That, in the circumstances, was culpable stupidity, though at the time it seemed more like an enjoyable joke". There is the incentive for intelligence officers to exaggerate the number and importance of the agents they are controlling, to boost not only their reputation in their service but also their expense accounts. And Corbyn's and Gott's chats over coffee are as nothing compared to the (admittedly minor) treachery by a Conservative junior minister in the 1960s.

Monday, 19 February 2018

How can this minister act objectively?

It is my clear recollection that in the 1960s and '70s government ministers, on appointment, sold off any shareholdings or put them in a blind trust.

Trusts can be active or passive. Active funds give trustees to the power to manage funds to their best ability, selling or buying according to market conditions. Passive funds effectively froze the shareholdings etc. until the minister ceased to be a minister. Either way, the minister ceded responsibility to independent trustees in order to avoid a conflict of interest.

In the current Ministerial Code, there is a worrying element of discretion. The paragraph dealing with financial interests states:

7.7 Ministers must scrupulously avoid any danger of an actual or perceived conflict of interest between their Ministerial position and their private financial interests. They should be guided by the general principle that they should either dispose of the interest giving rise to the conflict or take alternative steps to prevent it. In reaching their decision they should be guided by the advice given to them by their Permanent Secretary and the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. Ministers’ decisions should not be influenced by the hope or expectation of future employment with a particular firm or organisation.

An item in the New European's "Mandrake" column makes this relevant. Steve Baker, a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, purchased an interest last year in Glint Pay Ltd, a financial services holding company, and has retained it. This site asserts that:

Glint will offer a frictionless way to both store and spend your money in gold, including at the point of sale, just like a regular local currency. The bigger picture is that gold historically has been a better storage of value than any government-created currency, and therefore — with the aid of technology — is (arguably) a good candidate for an alternative global currency.

As "Mandrake" points out, there is a glaring conflict of interest here. Baker is bound to be involved in decisions which will affect the future value of sterling and possibly other currencies. He has had the temerity to accuse civil servants of a lack of objectivity, all the while possessing an indirect hedge in gold against a probable fall post-Brexit in both sterling and the euro.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Labour's EU agony on Radio 4

BBC's television news editors did not feel that Labour's policy forum meeting in Leeds at the weekend was worth covering, but Mark Mardell on Radio 4's World  This Weekend restored the balance. He even found time to interview Alba White Wolf aka EUSupergirl aka Madeleina Kay who was putting the case for staying in the single market and customs union to any delegate who would listen.

It was good to see that Swansea West's Labour MP and local party have nailed their colours to the same mast.

Will there be another "Yes, Minister"?

Joint author Jonathan Lynn has categorically answered that question. The death of his very good friend and writing partner Tony Jay last year has ended the possibility of a return of Jim, Bernard and Sir Humphrey. However, in a recent discussion with Vaughan Roderick, Lynn admitted to writing a short piece about Jim Hacker as a contribution to a book "Goodbye Europe". Hacker, now the Master of an Oxford college, and Appleby, a resident of St Dymphna's Home for the Elderly Deranged meet. These two rather confused old men discuss Brexit and Hacker says: "I'm against Brexit, that's why I'm voting for it".

Leaving EU and EFTA means more red tape, not less

From an article in Prospect magazine:

What [he free market Brexit lobby doesn’t] understand is that European regulation often encourages trade.
It is understandable that there is some confusion. Regulation can, after all, act as a significant “non-tariff barrier.” Say a country has certain rules about the use of recyclable content of food packaging. When another country tries to export to it, those goods have to be stopped at the border and checked to see if they comply with that law. This gets in the way a bit, meaning that trade becomes more difficult.
But here’s the thing. One of the chief aims of trade negotiators over the last few decades has been about melding rules together. If two countries have the same rules—and especially if they have the same institutions making decisions on whether they’re both following those rules—goods can cross the border without being checked. Everything moves freely and you can do more business. The European Union is one of the purest examples of this principle in action.
So while some forms of regulation hinder trade, others can help maximise it. So far, so straightforward. But to really see the effects, consider an example.
Take aviation. Britain is currently a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Every inch of a plane is covered by the accreditation system it operates, providing safety guarantees for the landing equipment, the engine and everything in between. This means that Britain is no longer fully in control of its decisions on aviation safety equipment. They are certified at the continental level. If you stay in the EASA, you haven’t “taken back control.”
But the advantages to membership are considerable. When a British company develops a new part for a plane, it only needs to get it signed off once, by the European regulator. They will then take care of everything that needs to be done with safety certification bodies in China, India, the US and the rest. It’s one portal to the world—and it was achieved through regulation.
Now imagine Britain leaves the EASA, as it will do if hard Brexiters get their dream of total separation. The British firm will have to get its new product signed off by a British regulator, then again for the European market with the EASA, and then again with all those other countries the Europeans used to negotiate with on our behalf. One bit of red tape suddenly becomes multiple strands.
The same dynamic is true for almost all UK exporters. Since Europe is our largest market, they are going to produce goods to European standards just to be able to do business, no matter what the British government eventually decides about Brexit. To do this they will have to follow EU regulations.
But what happens if the UK suddenly diverges in one area? It might adopt the US portion system on food labelling, rather than the grams-based information used in Europe. Now a firm would have to print both sets of information on each product. Or worse, what if the UK started demanding that certain information was included in food labelling, while the EU banned its inclusion? Now the firm would have to make two versions of every product.
This is the reality of shared regulation: It can help, rather than hinder, trade. It can reduce barriers and minimise red tape—but it does so by taking away a bit of control from the nation state.
The government’s gloomy predictions of economic damage outside the EU are not some kind of witchcraft, dreamt up by the Remainer saboteurs of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s imagination. They are the direct consequence of a political programme which seeks to remove the UK from any shared regulation. Doing so doesn’t reduce barriers to trade—it encourages them.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Fugitives from justice in South Africa

The Sunday Times of South Africa reports that members of the Gupta family, implicated in charges of corruption levelled at the outgoing Zuma administration, are on the run. It appears that Zuma's son Duduzane (Zulu for "Comfort"!), who was on the Gupta payroll, is also a fugitive.

Ajay Gupta‚ the patriarch of the embattled Gupta family‚ is “on the run” and surrounded by a team of heavily armed bodyguards.
Hawks officials confirmed on Thursday afternoon that Gupta was a fugitive from the law and that they had obtained a warrant for his arrest.
The warrant comes as Times Select on Wednesday ran an exclusive story indicating that Ajay’s brother‚ Atul‚ was also being sought.
The confirmation follows the appearance of the brothers’ nephew‚ Verun Gupta‚ in the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court on charges of corruption‚ fraud and theft on Thursday.
There is evidence that the Guptas laundered money through British banks. One hopes that, if members of the family flee to a country with which the UK has an extradition treaty, the authorities here will not hesitate to extract them for trial.

We wait to see when Zuma will be brought to trial, and how many of the 700+ charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering will be proceeded with. Some of these precede Zuma's period as president, and there is a distant possibility that Baron Hain of Neath, who was a Foreign Office minister for Africa and was also at the Department for Trade and Industry for a time in the noughties, may be called as a witness.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Paedophiles in football

Deborah Davies's programme "Wall of Silence", slotted into Channel 4's schedule at short notice last night after Barry Bennell's conviction, should have been watched closely by all those concerned with the development of young footballers. Now working for al-Jazeera, Deborah Davies was following up her revelations for Channel 4 twenty years earlier following Bennell's first conviction in the USA. The depressing message from yesterday was that nothing had changed, in spite of the warnings. The only silence that had been broken was that of the victims, who in middle age finally felt able to come out to their families and to the public. The Football Association, though it has now started its own inquiry, has not answered questions about its lack of action over twenty years. Admittedly, it set up a child protection strategy in the noughties on which high hopes were pinned, but, as Deborah Davies revealed, it failed because of lack of cooperation from the clubs* and, after secretary Adam Crozier moved on, starvation of funds. The conclusion I draw is that Bennell was far from unique and that the FA and most football clubs did not want to admit that paedophilia was rife in the game. I should be glad to be disabused, but I fear that there will be more revelations about other perpetrators.

* I believe Charlton Athletic to be an exception, but unfortunately cannot find a reference on the Web.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The quality of political discourse

One of my favourite quips (though one which nobody else finds witty, unfortunately) is that political journalists are those who failed to make it as sports commentators. In most of the media, broadcast and print, the differences between political parties are described in terms of the personal qualities of their leading members. They are rated in terms of their ability to win elections, rather as one might weigh up the chances of Manchester City against Manchester United. Their policies and philosophies become almost irrelevant.

Commentary is free, but facts are ... expensive*

There was discussion on last week's Sunday Supplement radio programme (about 20 minutes in) of an academic study into the way election campaigns are reported in many advanced Western democracies. The authors ask who is getting the best deal out of election coverage: the media, the politicians or the voting public. Their conclusion is that it is a toss-up between the first two, but there is no doubt that the voters are the worst served. In some cases, politicians themselves dissuaded editors from going too deeply into policies (perhaps because those policies at the time of an election are not thought through?), but, as presenter Vaughan Roderick conceded, to cover policy discussions properly, journalists need to do their homework. Journalists' time, especially that of specialists, is expensive.

The most recent programme reinforced ones impression of decline in the quality of political discourse. Chris Bryant MP had criticised the behaviour of the House of Commons, particularly at Prime Minister's Question Time. Speaker Bercow too has observed that there is heckling of members organised by the opposition party's whips and, though he has frequently drawn attention to it, nothing has changed. Vaughan Roderick brought together David TC Davies and Carolyn Harries, MPs from opposite sides of the floor, to discuss the matter. One would have expected the combative "Top Cat" to defend the rowdy behaviour, but instead he deprecated it and agreed that it had got worse. Both he and Ms Harries observed that attacks had got nastier, in social media, at hustings and even face to face.

The semi-anonymity of social media is clearly a factor in encouraging "keyboard warriors" to vent their spleen irresponsibly. Victorian legislators recognised the increased power of the printing press because of contemporary technological advances, and that it gave trouble-makers the ability to spread hundreds, maybe even thousands, of copies of mischievous pamphlets quickly. Accordingly, they passed the Printers and Publishers Act 1839, later incorporated into the Newspapers, Printers and Reading Rooms Repeal Act 1869 which is still on the statute book. This prescribes in essence that printed matter must bear the identities of both the author and the printer. It is more difficult to legislate for electronic media, but I feel that some mechanism should be introduced so that the ultimate author of Tweets and Facebook posts can be determined by the average user without recourse to specialist software.

However, that does not explain the increased viciousness of personal confrontation. Here one must agree with Vaughan Roderick that journals must bear part of the blame, in their concentration on personalities rather than policies, and in their shrill treatment when they do deal with policies. Accusing MPs of treachery or judges of being enemies of the people is not conducive to calm and rational political debate.

* CP Scott's definitive maxim was "Comment is free, but facts are sacred."

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Health and social care in Wales

Image result for Welsh NHS logoThe final report of Parliamentary Review of Health and Social Care in Wales was published in pdf at the end of last month to a more muted response than health secretary Vaughan Gething would have hoped for. Perhaps this was because most of the report is "mam and cawl" and, where it is progressive, it retails ideas that have been circulating in respect of the English NHS for some time.

(For me, the report gets off to a bad start with the doctrinaire misstatement that the NHS was "born in Wales, based on a model developed by the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society". In fact, the Tredegar scheme is one of a long line of insurance-based healthcare systems that go back to Bismarck's Germany and continue in France, Germany, some other western countries and Japan to this day. The unique and praiseworthy aspect of the Tredegar scheme was that it arose from within the community rather than being imposed by the government. The English NHS model was unique at the time - though it has since been followed elsewhere - in being funded from general taxation. Its principal architect, William Beveridge, had studied the German system before the Great War, when he was an advisor to Lloyd George and Churchill as they created the first British welfare state. Following a 1926 Royal Commission recommendation and other inter-war discussion documents, Beveridge decided that the insurance link should be broken.)

One cannot quarrel with the report's main recommendation that health and social care must be one seamless whole. Every expert seems to agree that this is where publicly-funded care systems must go. The difficulty is that along with responsibility for social care, especially for the care of an ageing population, go costs. Hence the paralysis of central government, both in London and Cardiff.

Another recommendation is that individual and community involvement should be strengthened. As I recall, this was the vision of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition government of the noughties, only for the Plaid-:Labour "One Wales" government to weaken the community health councils in 2010. There is no mention of CHCs in the report. On the other hand, it does imply that there might be more volunteer and part-time help to make up for staffing shortages at the local level.

In the report, there are many references to the need for training, and in keeping up-to-date with developments in medical practice. There is no detail as to where that training should take place. I see from wikipedia that there are five teaching hospitals in Wales, two each in Cardiff and Swansea, just one in North Wales and none in Mid-Wales. There has been a positive initiative to recruit and train nurses, but until Wales shakes off the shackles of the Conservative public pay cap, the Welsh NHS will continue to lose people to the likes of Debenhams and David Evans whose pay and conditions are more attractive. The pay scale of nurses in Wales is the worst in Britain.

There is no reference to general practice in the report, and of GPs only the issue of the central contract. Although the Royal College of GPs is cited in the list of consultees, it is difficult to see - apart from the breaking down of barriers between health and social care - where any of their concerns have been taken into account.

I suggest that most of the difficulties, including the recurrent winter crises, of the NHS would be cleared up by reversing the drain of GPs from Wales and by fulfilling the aspiration of optimal nurse staffing without resort to expensive agency nurses. Remuneration is a major factor, but not the only one.

The report is good as far as it goes, but like all previous such documents deals with institutions and processes, rather than people. We have had two major reorganisations in the NHS since devolution (the second one needless and costly in my opinion). Before we embark on another one, we should be sure that the people are in place to make sure that it goes smoothly.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Not just a one-issue party (continued)

I am glad to see that a Young Liberal activist shares my belief that we need to emphasise that the party's philosophy is broader, and has wider application, than our media image projects. Oliver Craven writes of:

concerns about housing, jobs, education and health and the provision of these as the population increases. The lack of provision is not the fault of migrants, it is the fault of a government failing to plan for the future of our vital public services.

I would only add "police employment law" to that list of failures. A genuine complaint by unskilled (and even semi-skilled) workers is that their jobs - typically on short-term building contracts - can be taken by immigrants who are in turn coerced or deceived into receiving less than the national minimum wage. This is an injustice to which our membership of a common travel-to-work area is irrelevant. The replacement labour is as likely to comprise immigrants who have no legal right to work here as those who do.

Monday, 12 February 2018


It is easy to see parallels between the sex scandals in Britain's leading charity and those in the BBC. In both, whistle-blowers were ignored. Both Oxfam and BBC are revered institutions which it is difficult to criticise without being characterised as a swivel-eyed reactionary. Both have also been springboards for political careers. There appears to have sprung up an atmosphere of entitlement in both.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

European Movement Action Day

There will be a nationwide Action Day on February 17th, that is, next Saturday. It will tie into ‘One Day Without Us’ to celebrate the contribution that migrants make to our society. In particular, the focus will be on EU nationals who help staff our NHS and provide vital services. It is likely that the Wales branch of the European Movement will be staging something in Cardiff, especially as public services in Wales are as dependent as anywhere in the UK on mainland nationals coming to work here.

It will be interesting to see whether the BBC covers it at all.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Zuma finally on his way out?

One South African source asserts that a deal between Jacob Zuma and president-in-waiting Cyril Ramaphosa will be hammered out over this weekend, allowing a smooth handover between the two. Zuma has grave corruption charges hanging over him. The same independence of the judiciary, inherited from British rule, which saved Nelson Mandela from execution, will prevent political interference in the judicial processing of the corruption charges. The president does, however, have the power of pardon. Is Zuma asking for a guarantee of a pardon if he is to be convicted? Dare Ramaphosa give such a guarantee, knowing that a presidential pardon will cast a shadow over his own administration if Zuma is found guilty of the most serious charges?

[Later: still clinging on, with no end date of negotiations in sight:]

Friday, 9 February 2018

Gaming the system

Mrs Thatcher believed, and John Major and the Blair-Brown administrations followed her in this, that the NHS would give more value for money if internal competition was created. That belief should finally have been refuted with the revelations about the Liverpool Community Health Trust in the House yesterday.

In introducing the Kirkup Report, Stephen Barclay (as has become the norm, Secretary of State Hunt put up a junior minister to take the flak) said:

The report covers the period from the trust’s formation in November 2010 to December 2014, and it describes an organisation that was, “dysfunctional from the outset”. The consequences of that for patient care were in some cases appalling, and the report details a number of incidents of patient harm including pressure sores, falls leading to fractured hips, and five “never events” in the dental service—an incredibly high number for one organisation.

The failings of the organisation were perhaps most starkly apparent in the services provided at Liverpool Prison, where the trust failed to properly risk-assess patients, including for nutrition and hydration, and it did not effectively manage patients at high risk of suicide. The review also identified serious failings in medicine management at the prison. There are many more examples of poor care and its impact on both patients and staff in the report, but what compounds the shock is the lack of insight into those failings displayed by the organisation at the time. This was the very opposite of a culture of learning, with incidents under-reported or played down, warning signals ignored, and other priorities allowed to take the place of patient safety and care for the vulnerable.

We have seen this sort of moral drift before, most obviously at Mid Staffordshire and Morecambe Bay. As with Mid Staffordshire, the management at Liverpool Community Health NHS Trust put far too much emphasis on achieving foundation trust status. The review states that,​ “the trust undertook an aggressive cost improvement plan, targeting a £30 million reduction over five years. This represented a cut in resources of approximately 22%. We were surprised that such an ambitious financial reduction was not scrutinised more closely—by both commissioners and regulators.”

There is a direct line from the decision to pursue foundation trust status in that reckless manner to the harm experienced by patients. Indeed, an earlier report by solicitors Capsticks reported in March 2016 that the interim chief executive who took over from Bernie Cuthel found in her first week that

“there was an underspending by £3 million on district nursing. These teams were devastated because they weren’t allowed to recruit, some of them down to 50%”.

This is a district nursing service in which Dr Kirkup reports that patients were experiencing severe pressure sores, up to what is clinically called grade 3. That was accompanied by many of the hallmarks of an organisation that has lost sight of its purpose. As Dr Kirkup states,

“the evidence that we heard and saw amply confirmed the existence of a bullying culture within the Trust, focused almost entirely on achieving Foundation Trust status. Inadequate staffing levels, poor staff morale and appalling HR practice went unheeded.

(My emphases)

The Welsh NHS may have changed direction following devolution in 1999, but the basic Thatcherite structure is still in place - and the disgraced chief executive Bernie Cuthel now works for the Betsi Cadwaladr Trust.

This view that money motivates public service prevails elsewhere in the UK, from the privatised probation service to the railways. The sooner the government abandons its ideology and adopts an evidence-based approach to providing essential services, the better.

The border according to Heisenberg

Mrs May and the Brexiteers continue to believe in the border in Northern Ireland which can exist in two states: invisible and intangible, in order to comply with the Good Friday agreement, while at the same time controlling the flow of goods as a result of leaving not only the EU but also the single market and the customs union. Northern Ireland minister Karen Bradley put up a brave defence of the indefensible in the House of Commons last Wednesday, but she often had to resort to this sort of unrealistic answer:

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab)
May I welcome the glistening new team to the Front Bench? I am sure the whole House agrees with me in saying how pleased we are—we are absolutely delighted—that the Secretary of State’s predecessor is recovering so well from his surgery. May I particularly welcome the Parliamentary Under-Secretary? He is the eighth Minister that I have had the privilege of shadowing; I do not know whether this attrition is anything to do with my personal behaviour, but I plead not guilty.

Now that the new team have had a chance to find their way around, particularly on the border, and they have studied the issue of the electronic border, do they believe that such a frontier is feasible or is it just a fantasy?

Karen Bradley
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words. I too pay tribute to my predecessor, who I am pleased to say is recovering well at home. I know the whole House wishes him well, wishes him a speedy recovery and looks forward to welcoming him back to this Chamber.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the matter of the border. We are determined that there will be no new physical infrastructure at the border, and we will maintain things such as the common travel area, which has been in existence since well before the EU.

Floods in New Zealand

Let me put in a good word for the Daily Mail, which has reported the recent severe flooding in New Zealand, resulting from cyclone Fehi.

It comes on top of floods in the North Island at the turn of the year. The BBC has been quick to report severe weather in California; why not similar disasters in a Commonwealth nation?

Thursday, 8 February 2018

What Liberal Democrats stand for

I was mulling over what to put in a leaflet to demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats are not a one-issue party, when I came across this by Phil Wainwright on Liberal Democrat Voice. These paragraphs in particular sum things up for me:

Our commitment to belonging and freedom is distinct from both the anonymous collectivism of socialism and the free-for-all individualism of capitalism. Monolithic state socialism and unaccountable, unregulated capitalism are equally disempowering. Liberal Democrats reject the imposition of conformity and hierarchy as much as we oppose the perpetuation of inequality and privilege. 

Yet this is a radical politics, centrist only in the sense that it upsets the extremist wings of Conservatives and Labour alike. It is left-leaning, because it is necessarily redistributionist. Liberal Democrats believe too many in our society are let down by inadequate education, health, environment, housing and welfare provision to realise their full potential. We are internationalist, naturally, committed to supporting these goals globally. Our politics also promotes localism and co-operative enterprise, encouraging people to work together to improve their own communities, workplaces and industries. In doing so, we challenge vested interests on the left, right and centre.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Alyn and Deeside by-election

Thanks to ITN News for publishing the full figures from the by-election caused by the death of Labour's Carl Sargeant.

  • Jack Sargeant Labour 11,267 61% +15%
  • Sarah Atherton Conservative 4,722 25% +4%
  • Donna Lalek Liberal Democrat 1,176 6% +2%
  • Carrie Harper Plaid Cymru 1,059 6% -3%
  • Duncan Rees Green 353 2% -1%
  • TURNOUT 29%
  • SWING 5% Conservative to Labour

I suppose the only way that Labour was going to lose this seat would be for the party bosses to parachute a candidate in from the south. Congratulations to Jack Sargeant on his win, but one suspects that the Cardiff Bay hierarchy will continue to take the Gogs for granted.

The turnout was very disappointing, especially as the background to the by-election has dominated the headlines in Wales. The people who did turn out were clearly not bothered about the effects of leaving the EU on Airbus and agriculture, since the top two candidates both represented pro-Brexit parties.

Donna Lalek's increase in vote share (pushing Plaid down into fourth place) is highly praiseworthy as I understand that her campaign started from scratch. It augurs well for Liberal Democrat campaigns in more winnable seats.

Plaid's poor performance is going to increase the pressure on Leanne Woods to step down as leader.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

A few thoughts on female representation

Today we are celebrating the restoration of women's right to vote. As this parliamentary briefing shows, the Great Reform Act of 1832 actually took away an implicit right. In practice, though, women voters may have been in a small minority because the franchise was based on property ownership. While there may have been no women MPs before 1918, there are occasional references to female local councillors.

Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement this week covered the centenary well (and still found time to compare the prospects of Theresa May and Carwyn Jones retaining the leadership of their respective parties!). The discussion between Vaughan Roderick, Helen Mary Jones and Kirsty Williams was particularly rewarding. There was agreement that the Welsh Assembly had fallen back from its position of gender balance when it was set up. Helen Mary seemed to believe that the main cause was the abandonment of zipping and all-women shortlists - though nobody pointed out that the Liberal Democrat representation in 1999 was exactly balanced without any overt pre-election gender preferences. I believe that another factor was the Labour government's move away from committee discussion, which tends to more consensual decision-making, to jousting on the floor of the Senedd. The latter may make better television but the aggression which it engenders puts people off. In trying to make Cardiff Bay more like Westminster, Labour has reduced women's interest in participating in government in Wales.

An end to polluting Jaguars outside no. 10?

The European Commission is disappointed with the progress made in reducing noxious vehicle emissions. It wants to give a boost to the process through public procurement. The proposal has been passed to the European Parliament for consideration.

In November 2017, the European Commission proposed a revision of Directive 2009/33/EC on the promotion of clean and energy-efficient road transport vehicles (the Clean Vehicles Directive), after an evaluation showed that the directive had yielded limited results, for instance by not encouraging a more significant uptake of clean vehicles in the market overall. The proposed directive aims to promote clean mobility solutions in public procurement tenders and thereby raise the demand for, and the further deployment of, clean vehicles. The proposal provides a definition for clean light-duty vehicles based on a combined CO2 and air-pollutant emissions threshold; for heavy-duty vehicles, it gives a definition based on alternative fuels. The proposal is in line with the European Commission's energy union package, which plans action on the further decarbonisation of road transport in line with the 2030 climate and energy targets, and with the EU's commitments under the Paris Agreement. The proposal has been assigned to the European Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI). The Parliament has been strongly supportive of a wider deployment of alternative-fuel vehicles on the European market.

The UK's Conservative and UKIP MEPs may be expected to resist this initiative. One trusts that they do not hold the swing vote when it eventually reaches plenary, but if they do, we could have an interesting situation if Brexit goes ahead. The UK would be instrumental in hobbling the other 27 states just before departing.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Nuke still missing off Savannah, USA, after 60 years

On Feb. 5, 1958, a B-47 bomber dropped a 7,000-pound nuclear bomb into the waters off Tybee Island, Ga., after it collided with another Air Force jet. [...] The bomb — which has unknown quantities of radioactive material — has never been found. And while the Air Force says the bomb, if left undisturbed, poses no threat to the area, determined bomb hunters and area residents aren't so sure.

There is more here.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Connie at 150

It used to be one of the stock quiz questions: who was the first woman elected to the UK parliament? The dive-in answer is Viscountess (Nancy) Astor, but in fact she was just the first woman to sit as a MP. Countess Markievicz beat her to it, but as a Sinn Feiner, refused to take her seat. That Markiewcz was in gaol at the time was also a complicating factor.

But even the correct answer conceals a more interesting fact, that the lady was born into the Ascendancy. Constance Gore-Booth (her Polish title was acquired through marrying a fellow art student before she was involved in the independence struggle), born 150 years ago today, was a member of one of the families who had ruled Ireland since the Plantations, and had been presented at court. So the first two women elected to Westminster were quite posh. Contrast that with the fight that working journalist Anne Clwyd had merely to be selected as a candidate by a constituency Labour party, as she related on this morning's Sunday Supplement, celebrating the centenary of the Act that introduced a measure of suffrage to Westminster elections.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

It's the season for a stonking Lib Dem gain on Wearside

Local Authority Byelection Results

Thursday 12th January 2017
Sunderland MB, Sandhill
LD Stephen O’Brien 824 [45.0%; +41.5%]
Labour 458 [25.0%; -29.9%]
UKIP 343 [18.7%; -7.2%]
Conservative 184 [10.0%; -5.7%]
Green 23 [1.3%; +1.3%]
Majority 366
Turnout 23.8%
Lib Dem gain from Labour
Percentage change since 2016

Thursday 1st February 2018
Sunderland MB, Pallion
LD Martin Haswell 1251 [53.9%; +49.5%]
Lab 807 [34.8%; -15.9%]
Con 126 [5.4%; -7.2%]
UKIP 97 [4.2%; -24.7%]
Green 39 [1.7%; -1.8%]
Lib Dem gain from Labour
Percentage changes from 2016

Sunderland voted "Leave" in 2016, in spite of being partly dependent on industry which exports to the EU. Alyn & Deeside also voted "Leave", although Airbus must make a huge contribution to the local economy; next Tuesday's by-election result will be interesting, to say the least.

Friday, 2 February 2018

"Out of intensive care, but not out of the hospital"

 - was Swansea City manager Carlos Carvalhal's assessment of the team's situation after the win against Arsenal. Chances of coming off the ward must have improved with the signings in the transfer window, borrowing Welsh international Andy King from Leicester for the rest of the season looking especially shrewd. One could wish for more cover at full-back, positions where Swansea City used to have strength in depth, but at least the ability to create and score goals has been enhanced. In addition, the team has recovered its self-belief.

This will be needed for tomorrow's tough match in Leicester and in the final run-in. There are home matches against fellow-patients Southampton and Stoke to come, but Swans will have to travel to Bournemouth, Brighton, Huddersfield and West Bromwich. There is also the little matter of the return fixtures against Chelsea, the two Manchester sides and a rejuvenated Everton. 

Thursday, 1 February 2018

A cross-bencher's view of EU withdrawal

I apologise for breaking my own self-denying ordinance in posting two Brexit-related contributions in succession, but this speech by a cross-bench hereditary peer in the debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill yesterday was so full of good sense that I had to share it:

The Earl of Sandwich:
My Lords, en principe I am against repealing the 1972 Act. I have a personal reason for this. My father was the 1960s equivalent of a UKIP leader. He campaigned against Europe and it irritates me that he has somehow posthumously won by means of an advisory referendum—referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins—that not did not even express the will of the majority of registered voters.
Apart from that—I will get over it—I am unashamedly European. I have lived and worked in Europe and my degree was in European languages. I have Italian in-laws. I want to preserve peace in Europe. I support enlargement of Europe. I refuse to go into choppy, uncharted waters with a salt-caked smoke stack. I do not think that the Government have got it right.
However, I am also an independent. I sympathise with the Lib Dems, but I also understand some of the fears of Brexiteers about regulation, the eurozone, closer union and immigration. Those are genuine fears. But I would prefer that these vast issues were tackled inside Europe in some form or other. As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and others made clear, this major decision is all about one party and not about the whole country. I see Brexit as a costly and desperate scramble to retain all of the undoubted advantages of the EU without having to sit around the table talking about them. Monsieur Macron was right: we are having our cake and eating it, but we are also getting bad indigestion.
The country now divides into three: the Remainers, the Brexiteers and those, like me, who are still asking, “How do we get out of this mess?”. The human cost of Brexit is undeniable: just look at the loss of NHS staff besides all the forecast effects on education, culture and the economy. But there may yet be a way out, short of complete withdrawal and without a second referendum.
Few of us want to sabotage the Bill. It is a necessary Bill and the debate is not about the Government’s plans—since on many things they have no plans. We must, and I am sure that we will, vote to retain all of our current EU-derived legislation. But along the way a few things stand out so starkly that they have to be mentioned, and they have been. We still do not know where we are going. Worse than that, on some issues we are going into a chasm or void—words used by the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, last week. But he also quoted Burns:
“Oh let us not, like snarling curs,
In wrangling be divided”.
The darkest hole is in the sea between Ireland and the United Kingdom, something equivalent to the Corryvrechan. The Government’s position on the border issue is muddy because they are trying to reconcile the irreconcilable between the Irish and Northern Irish positions. I urge the Government to show their hand soon and to be guided, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, said, by the Belfast principles, since as my noble friend Lord Eames and others said last week, they cannot leave the people in such uncertainty.
The people of Gibraltar share some of the uncertainty felt in Northern Ireland. How could the Government get so close to the cliff edge as to cause anxiety and even worse, if the people of Gibraltar are not given proper guarantees? Then, there is devolution. Last week’s debate showed clearly that the devolved Administrations were not properly consulted and that amendments in the Commons were never discussed. There are still many UK issues to resolve in the UK before we go back to the EU negotiating table.
Constitutional experts are still worried about the exceptional use of delegated powers and whether the Government should assign a single status to retained EU direct legislation. My noble friend Lord Kakkar showed how much damage there will be to science from any uncertainties that continue through the transition. Children’s charities and lawyers are concerned about the exclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Other people are in considerable doubt about future references to rulings of the ECJ. The Greens and many others say that environmental law is not being fully translated into UK law. We heard about that from the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone. I shall be supporting amendments on all these issues unless the Government put down their own to meet these concerns.
I feel confident that this Parliament will now have a say on the final deal although, if it rejects the deal, there will have to be further renegotiation. The EU knows this and would like us to remain in Europe. I believe it is not impossible that, in the event of rejection, we shall have the opportunity to remain as a member under Article 50, but on new terms. If not, then the Government will have to look for some intermediate status, alongside the single market. No one seems able to forecast what that might be or even whether such a status exists.
In short, we have got ourselves into a mess. I doubt if any party, or any organisation outside Brussels, can pull us out of it but I hope and am confident that this debate will have made a contribution.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

BBC and Brexit

The Little Englanders continue to criticise the BBC for allowing a breath of criticism of the state of Article 50 negotiations, when they should be expressing gratitude to the corporation for creating the climate of opinion which led to the Leave vote in 2016. Norman Tebbitt for instance asked in the Lords yesterday:

[Does the Minister] not think as an individual, a private person, that there is something wrong when, out of 4,275 guests talking about the EU on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme between 2005 and 2015, only 132, or 3.2%, were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? Frankly, the BBC has become the supporter of a foreign organisation called the European Union. Could not the Minister quietly whisper in somebody’s ear, “Get your act in order, because you owe a duty of impartiality”?

His Lordship should consider that during the years he cited, the policy of both government and opposition (including a change of party in power) was to remain in the European Union. So he is saying that there should have been more critics of the Conservative administration (and of the official opposition) being roughed up by John Humphrys between 2010 and 2015, while implying that he would deny the right to query the direction of the post-2016 governments. By the way, these queries come from more people other than hard-line Remainers.

As to the European Union being foreign, until March 2019 (and hopefully beyond) we are full members, participating in its administration both at ministerial level and through the European Parliament. One does not hear his Lordship complaining about our armed forces being at the beck and call of NATO, an arguably more foreign organisation, dominated as it is by the USA. Indeed, though our MoD has a say in NATO's direction, there are no other means of the ordinary UK citizen influencing NATO decisions. (I hasten to add that I believe in our membership of NATO and share the criticism of fellow member nations who do not make contributions at the level we do in the UK.)

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

May will withstand repeated pressure

Grant Shapps is at it again, asserting that the prime minister will either have to resign or face a vote of no confidence. My sense is that the qualities which enabled her to be the last person standing in the Conservative leadership election and to resist previous seemingly credible threats to her leadership will see her through her current difficulties. She is aided by the absence of an alternative who does not alienate large sections of her party.

Even the election of last year, undemocratic though it was, driven by panic (the possibility of a dozen sitting Conservative MPs being charged with electoral offences) though it was, has helped in that there is no stomach for yet another in the country, an election which would surely see Labour and Liberal Democrats making more gains than they did last year.

So Mrs May will survive, at the expense of the country's future.

Friday, 26 January 2018

More on the Carillion failure

Further to my post of yesterday, the current issue of Private Eye reports that Carillion stopped paying into its pension fund last August - a signal, the Eye suggests, that the company was in a far worse position than it admitted at time of its second profit warning in September.

As to sub-contractors, not all will be covered by the government's bland assurance last Wednesday that " when it was decided to place Carillion in insolvency, the Government had two priorities: to protect and maintain the delivery of vital services in schools, hospitals and prisons and on the railways, and to support not only the 19,500 people directly employed by Carillion, but the contractors and small businesses involved." In fact, it seems likely that sub-contractors owed money up to 15 January 2018 for services supplied will simply rank as unsecured creditors and have to submit a claim in the liquidation. Given that a substantial part of the book assets of the company is "goodwill" (thanks again to Private Eye for that information) one cannot see unsecured creditors recovering much from the receivers.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Failing companies and pension funds

Among the casualties of the Carillion crash, along with sub-contractors and their suppliers, are pension funds. David Thorpe, writing in Liberal Democrat Voice, makes a suggestion which would go some way to protecting the latter:

At present, if a company goes bust, the first entity to be paid is the administrator, then the taxman, then the secured creditors, often banks, then the unsecured creditors, which includes the pension fund, and finally, the shareholders.
In this corporate structure, the power is in practice with the secured creditors (the taxman only becomes involved when they don't get paid, the banks can be engaged regularly with the company), so policy makers should act to ensure that all existing pension funds of UK-listed companies are treated as secured creditors, with at least the same seniority as the banks; this would give the trustees of the pension funds far more influence over how the capital generated by the company is distributed before there is a major problem, and put the hard working pensioners much nearer the front of the queue if the company in question turns into another Carillion. 

Incidentally, as recounted by Margareta Pagano in the London Evening Standard and in the i yesterday, a prominent Liberal Democrat supporter, Paul Marshall, was one of those who spotted that Carillion was in terminal decline. His hedge fund, Marshall Wace, made money for its clients by "shorting" Carillion stock last year. I would like to think that, if a Liberal Democrat had been Chancellor last year, no more government contracts would have gone to Carillion from mid-2017 on.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Untouched by human hand

One does not readily associate Michael Frayn with dystopian SF, but in A Very Private Life he extrapolated trends he recognised in 1968 (is the book really about to celebrate its golden jubilee??). In his imaginary middle-class future, everything - including children - can be supplied at the touch of a button. There is no need for any social interaction, although, as I recall the novel, the father of the heroine is a UN official who has to deal with the excluded people of the world, Frayn's equivalent of Orwell's proles or Wells' morlocks.

I was reminded of this recently in a discussion on CIX about participants' favourite Frayn novels. It was reinforced by news from the US west coast of Amazon's dehumanised convenience store and Terry Teachout's log of his progress to a technology-mediated life.

Cash, if one is to believe the media, is dying. Already public transport in London and other metropolitan areas will not take notes and coins. The same goes for a growing number of retail outlets in Scandinavia. The recent EU ban on fees for using cards for payment is going to further the trend. Link's proposal to change its charging structure may cause a reduction in the number of ATMs, the only means of obtaining cash for people living outside larger towns and cities, because of the closure of bank branches.

Government in the UK is intent on reducing human interaction. Advice is no longer provided face-to-face but by (often premium-rate) phone lines. Claimants for Universal Credit are expected to set up an on-line account on the blithe assumption that everybody has a home computer or a smartphone and lives in an area with good digital connections. Post Offices are induced to close by cutting sub-postmasters' incomes from government transactions.

Do not misunderstand me. I do welcome the ease of shopping in Tesco or Morrison, using their automated checkouts, though there is always the reassurance of a human standing by to clear any glitches. However, I also enjoy the more social experience of my local mini-mart for those emergency purchases or to use the in-shop post office. For those of my generation and older who do not have the same social networks, the regular trip to the shop or post office can be a factor in combating loneliness, which NHS UK admits can be a killer.

The people who make the decisions to save money by closing post offices, tax offices and job centres or taking staff away from railway stations (thus increasing the reluctance of vulnerable people to take the train) would be distressed if they were not able to see a live show (is there not Netflix?) or interact socially with their peers. One trusts that before it is too late the Establishment will realise that is not good to have a disaffected population inspired by a new Ned Ludd, and that both business and government should have a human, and local, face.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Heinz soups: a Proustian recollection

It seems that Heinz is having a clear-out of its canned soup range. Every supermarket which stocks the brand, and even my local mini-mart, Arbourne's, have multi-buy offers. Although I prefer these days to (in the words of Cassandra) construct my own soups, I could not resist the other day laying in a stock of cans as larder stand-bys. I also have a special reason for wanting to sample the vegetable soup again because, in a sort of reverse-madeleine moment, the very sight of that distinctive label brings back the memory of a taste from sixty years ago. Is it still the same as when I sat at the kitchen table in Wallasey playing cards (probably rummy or beat jack) with my mother to take my mind off the pain in an infected ear ("acute otitis media, hmm, Little?" as the French master queried when I eventually returned to school) which the hot soup was also designed to ease?

Monday, 22 January 2018

Once out, we are out for good

There are growing siren voices - like David Lidington's - whispering that we do not need a government about-face, or a third referendum, to stop the Article 50 talks. We can exit the EU and, if we do not like the cold hard world outside, apply to rejoin under Article 49.

However, that will mean signing up to entry conditions which were added to the EU treaties after we joined. In particular, it will probably entail adopting the euro instead of the pound sterling. Many who have supported Remain up until now may find that a step too far. It would certainly mean reaffirming our support for the European Convention on Human Rights. Since Mrs May wants to not only repeal the Human Rights Act (which enshrines the ECHR) but also renege on the convention itself, an illiberal stance which too many other Conservative MPs also take, one cannot see a Conservative government applying to rejoin, no matter how dire the economic situation.

Moreover, the EU may itself change in the meantime. The European Defence Force, which the UK has stalled while we have been members, may well come to fruition. Changes to the Common Agricultural Policy and the motor industry which suit France and Germany may be made. Even I may be forced to think twice if all that comes to pass; if only a part of it does, then it will be difficult for any government to gain the support of the electorate in a reapplication.

Can we trust the other 27 to let us back in again anyway? France and Germany are making nice noises at the moment, but it should be remembered that France was the main source of resistance to our joining in the first place, and one can envisage a change of government in Germany which would be less willing to recommend UK re-accession. Unanimity of member states is required and while the recommendation of the major members will carry a lot of weight, one can well imagine others standing against. What conditions might Spain demand?

Besides, we would have lost many of the benefits of membership once the multi-national organisations which invested in Britain in order to gain access to the common market realise that the point of no return has been passed, and have pulled out permanently.

The UK cannot now withdraw its Article 50 notification unilaterally, but we probably still have enough credit with the other 27 to support a resolution to stop the withdrawal negotiations. That window is gradually closing and will almost certainly shut permanently late this year.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Malthus rides again

The private thoughts of rising Conservative MP Ben Bradley, revealed by Buzzfeed recently, echo the sentiments of well-to-do reactionaries through the ages. Unless we can stop the poor procreating, goes the theory, we will be swamped and there will not be enough food to go round.

Thomas Robert Malthus (the scion of a comfortably-off middle-class family), gave some respectability to the theory in his 1798 essay, Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of SocietyTo be fair to Malthus, he did not advocate forced sterilisation, but his rationalisation of what is no more than a gut instinct backed by superficially attractive mathematics nevertheless had a malign influence on too many political and economic thinkers in following years. The background to the essay is detailed here.

That article also shows how time refuted the Malthusian hypothesis. Technology has consistently enabled food production to keep pace with population.

There is another factor which is at least as important. As people's living standards improve, so family sizes decrease. Better public health provision means that there is less need to produce lots of children to increase the chances of survival of a few. Increased incomes enable families to save, reducing the need to produce children to look after parents in old age. Sociologists have noted that immigrants from areas of high birth rates adapt to the norm of their adopted country.

The counter-argument is that world population continues to rise, in spite of statistics showing that global inequality of income is shrinking. I would respond that the latest figures show that the rate of increase has slowed, and we have probably left behind the highest growth rates. It is conceivable that we will see no more than replacement rate in the lifetimes of some of us.

Against this background, it is depressing that ideas like Bradley's persist. He has now renounced his earlier blog post, and Mrs May has dissociated herself from it, but it clearly did not come from nowhere. One wonders whether Malthusian thought is behind the current government's steady reduction in support for the poorest in UK society.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The "Spanish" flu

It killed more people than the conflict of the Great War (which, according to one theory, spawned the fatal strain). A recent documentary for the World Service by Professor John Oxford chronicled its spread, the mistakes that were made but also the heroes and heroines who made the right decisions in that age before viruses were recognised. Research goes on, because lessons need to be learned about the future treatment of influenza or any epidemic resulting from a new virus. Research is not helped by the censorship of the time which affected most leading nations - except Spain, who was saddled with the misleading epithet as a result of enabling reports of the epidemic in the peninsula.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Conservative MP seeks to remedy the final indignity for Chagos Islanders

While bevies of prime Californian cheer-leader are imported to entertain the military on Diego Garcia, and there are modern leisure facilities on the island to fill the rest of US and UK servicemen's idle time, the grandchildren of the dispossessed islanders are treated by the UK government like any illegal immigrant.

The Conservative MP for Crawley sought to put that right with a Ten-Minute Rule Bill yesterday. He explained:

I am sure that I need not recap the tragic events that have led to this moment, but I believe it necessary in order to put the Bill in context and to grasp the gravity of Chagossian history. It was almost half a century ago that then Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave an Order in Council to remove the inhabitants of the British Indian Ocean Territory so that a UK-US military base could be established on the strategic main island of Diego Garcia. In the years that followed, a community that had lived peacefully found itself exiled and ignored with scant regard for its rights or wellbeing. We cannot change history, but we can support those removed from their homeland and their descendants who are not covered by the existing law and protections that, as Britons, they should enjoy.

The legislation currently assumes that just one generation of Chagossians will be born in exile and, although many members of the community born in exile have received British citizenship, their children have not. As such, when these families have come to the UK, as is their right, their children have been treated as immigrants like any others by the Home Office. Therefore, they are subject to the usual financial costs and administrative implications. At this time, we can ease the burden. We can provide assistance to those whose story is not recognised in the country that removed them from the place—a British territory—that they call home. Of course, had the population not been evicted half a century ago, all born on the islands would already have British citizenship status.

It is disgraceful that a back-bencher has to initiate legislation to right this wrong, and by the least promising method - no Ten-Minute Rule Bill has made it into law since 2002. At the very least, the government should make time available for its progress, but one hopes that Mrs May is shamed into taking the measure on board as government legislation.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The forgotten side of Churchill

There is yet another film, after so many films and TV movies, portraying Winston Churchill as the great war leader. At the same time, a recent book celebrates Churchill the young warrior and the calumny that he shot the miners in Tonypandy is being revived on social media. But all this obscures an important aspect of Churchill's character, the liberal social reformer. As the synopsis of a 1996 book puts it:

Winston Churchill ranks as one of the founders of the welfare state. With Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George, he was the principal driving force behind the Liberal Party's welfare reforms of 1908–1911. At the Board of Trade, he pioneered measures to reduce poverty and unemployment through state intervention in the labour market. In 1909, he toured Britain campaigning for the ‘People's Budget’ and its radical proposals for the taxation of wealth. At the Home Office, his penal reforms as well as his measures to improve working conditions in shops and coal-mines were reflections of a continuing drive for social reform that was cut short by his transfer, in 1911, to the Admiralty. In the course of a lifetime in party politics, Churchill often touched on social questions, and there were other phases of his career in which he bore some responsibility for the development of social policy.

Those reforms sprang from an unlikely alliance between Lloyd George, a man who had worked his way up through the law and politics from a poor North Wales village and Churchill, from a patrician family - aided by William Beveridge, a prickly, self-assured, scion of the Raj who argued for social reforms backed by dogged research into existing schemes on the continent. Churchill and Ll G eventually fell out, and one wonders whether history would have been different if their alliance had continued.

Churchill never lost his feeling for social justice as his giving a free hand to RA Butler to draw up the 1944 Education Act showed.- and of course the Beveridge Report was published under the wartime coalition government which he headed.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

We need fair taxes

There has been much discussion about "austerity" lately, or to describe it properly, unwarranted cuts in support for the people who most need it. It is too easy to blame the shortage of public funds on the move to leave the European Union, though the fact that we are not benefiting from a rise in global trading activity as much as fellow-Europeans must be a factor. No, the real reason is deliberate government policy to reduce the tax contributions from those most able to make them.

William Wallace is not a name well-known to the general public (except for those who saw a historically dubious biopic starring Mel Gibson), but he is a distinguished and respected academic in the field of international affairs. He wrote on Liberal Democrat Voice over the Christmas period:

The IMF’s annual report on the UK economy recommends that taxes should be raised, in order to reduce the deficit further without cutting public investment and services.


Britain has one of the lowest tax rates of any developed democracy, after the USA and Canada. It is also one of the most unequal, after the USA. Other democratic states tax wealth and income more progressively, and provide higher-quality public services from that revenue. Germany, on Eurostat figures, raised 40% of GDP in tax in 2016, against the UK’s 35%, without ruining its economy or losing its business elite. 

Lib Dems achieved their largest parliamentary gains in 1997 with a manifesto which included putting a penny on the standard rate of income tax for the sake of education, so we should not be afraid of doing so again. Indeed, current policy is to rescue the NHS via a hypothecated tax. I would like to go further and say that we must also provide for our underfunded social services.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Possible GKN takeover

I see that Vince Cable objects to a Scottish-based private equity company taking over UK industrial conglomerate GKN. Melrose's profile suggests that they are a cut above the average asset-stripper, but Vince knows more about finance and knows more people in business than the average citizen (and probably most Conservative MPs) so one must accede to his expertise.

I do know that GKN itself grew by amalgamation and takeovers. The G stands for "Guest", the family which was responsible for the historical prosperity of Merthyr. Nettlefolds (screws) and Keen (fasteners) were Birmingham-based and it seems that it was Arthur Keen who drove the amalgamation of the companies in the interest of vertical integration.

There is more here.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Lib Dems should be shouting more about bread-and-butter issues

The party has attracted thousands of new members, overtaking the Conservative party in size and in a more representative age profile, through being the only UK-wide party to advocate remaining in the EU. However, being seen as a one-issue party has its dangers, especially when that issue is not the uppermost concern of ordinary working people.

We should be re-emphasising our basic belief in freedom from the constraints of poverty, which is threatening more of the people who figure in Mrs May's much-trumpeted employment figures. An aggravating factor is the way Universal Credit has been applied, as explained by Stephen Lloyd MP in a recent newsletter:

I secured a debate this week on the impact Universal Credit is having on the private rental sector. This is an issue I tried to address when I was last your MP. The then Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, was insistent UC tenants should receive their housing benefit direct and, in theory, they’d then pass the housing benefit onto the landlords themselves. I saw all those years ago this would lead to major problems - particularly in the private sector where, frankly, many landlords already don’t like letting to tenants on benefit and that this stipulation could kill the market stone dead. With 1.2m tenants in the private sector on benefit across the UK many of which are on automatic payments to landlords, as part of the previous benefits regime, and all of whom over the next few years will be moved to UC. So you can understand where I’ve been coming from!

On my return to parliament I saw immediately that I’d been proved right and landlords were refusing to take UC tenants as all too often either the money wasn’t being paid over or there were long delays. So I ramped up my opposition again straight away, joined by many others including a number of the landlord trade associations all of whom I met soon after the election. They told me clearly what was happening on the front-line and it wasn’t pretty. I raised these concerns in the Chamber, by letter and generally lobbied as hard as I could for the government to finally see sense. Then, credit where it is due, they finally began to acknowledge what we’d been telling them - in my case for years - and did a U-turn announcing in the recent budget that it would now be possible for landlords to receive money direct on behalf of their UC tenants if they were on automatic payments under the old benefit system. There are still too many caveats though so I aim to keep pushing to get to where I believe the policy really should be; an automatic default payment to private landlords for anyone on UC. In the debate this week I was, unusually, also supported by three conservative MPs so I am hopeful we will win this one. Not least as it’s common sense.

Housing and social inequality generally are also concerns for Layla Moran, tipped as a future leader of the party. I do not expect to be quoting her much here since her party brief, education, is a matter devolved in Wales, but this profile shows what drives her.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Guido champions ignorance

"Propaganda" used to be a neutral word. If it had not taken on its twentieth century negative connotations, one could not have objected to Guido Fawkes' description of Europe Direct as a "propaganda service". What is wrong with an extra outlet providing information about how the EU works, and what facilities are available to businesses, while we remain members of the Union? There has been a distressing lack of information - and a wealth of disinformation - from official sources (including the BBC) in the UK.

Incidentally, Cardiff City's Labour council seems to be equally Europhobic, as it has taken down the link from the council's web site to Europe Direct's office in the capital.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Rail nationalisation

John Redwood suggests that the Attlee government's nationalisation of the railway system in Britain was a bad idea. He is too young to have been able to have experienced rail travel before 1948, as I did. I hasten to add that I was very young at the time, but the long delays and the state of carriages left a lasting impression. The money invested in the system by successive governments afterwards made up for decades of starvation of funds by the private owners. If it had not been for that investment, British railways would have sunk to the level of US rail.

With more courage and belief in public enterprise, government could have gone further and achieved a system to rival those on the continent, which, when you take all costs into account, are not a larger drain on public funds than the UK pseudo-market set up by John Major.