Friday, 29 August 2008

Visit of Baroness Scott

Little did I realise eight years ago, when I was stuffing envelopes in the successful Romsey by-election campaign alongside Baroness Scott of Needham Market, that I would have the honour and pleasure of meeting her again as part of her presidential campaign.

Last Wednesday, Ros visited Neath and Port Talbot. After a photo-opportunity in Cimla and a visit to council & the mayor in Port Talbot, she met party activists in Tonmawr. She is pictured here with John Warman, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Neath Port Talbot council.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Difficult children in care home - loophole in planning law?

A special planning & development committee meeting of Neath Port Talbot CBC nine days ago approved a controversial application for change of use.

Castle Care Group Ltd lease a dwelling in Dulais Road, Seven Sisters. Formerly a pair of semi-detached houses, it is now a single residential home, categorised as C3 (see definitions here).

Castle Care's intention is to use the premises to house children aged 10-16 with behavioural difficulties. The advice from the Director of Planning was that the company was empowered to do this as it was a house "occupied by up to six residents living together as a single household, including a household where care is provided for residents" (from the definition of C3). No further planning permission was needed.

It would probably be fair to say that Seven Sisters in general, and the neighbours in their well-cared-for semi-dets in particular, had been taken for granted by the company. If it had not been for a sharp-eyed neighbour spotting the addressee's name on a parcel left on the step, they would have remained in the dark. The combination of fear and resentment felt by the community at this discovery can be imagined. A campaign against Castle Care's use of the house built up.

One wonders what Castle Care had to gain at this point by persisting with their plans. There was a chance, albeit a slim one, of getting the local community onside if it had explained its plans well in advance, and consulted widely. The point was made at today's meeting that Seven is a close-knit community, which makes acceptance of problem children from outside more difficult. The other side of the coin is that it is easier to reintegrate young people back into society in a place which has a strong sense of community, if they are accepted by that community. The chance of achieving this was thrown away, in my opinion, by the company's proceeding in secret.

The company then decided to extend the facility to provide education. This would necessitate an application for planning approval to change of use, from C3 to C2. (See the previous reference.) This provided a focus for protest. Councillor Steve Hunt passionately, and in detail, put the residents' case for preventing these troubled children being housed in a quiet district of family houses. The first hearing was suspended so that a site visit by the whole planning committee could be held. The planning committee was left in no doubt about the strong feelings held by the many protesters who greeted us in Dulais Road.

At the planning & development committee which followed, Councillor Woolcock (Labour) & Councillor William Morgan (Plaid) both called for councils to be given more discretion, and for distinctions to be made in planning law between what one normally understands as a domiciliary care home, and one that caters for active young people with behavioural trouble.

It was clear to those of us who had attended both committees that, once the classification of C3 had been confirmed, there was no legal impediment to the house being used for disturbed children. Moreover, if we had voted against the use of two rooms for educational purposes, it was virtually certain that the applicants would have taken the case to appeal, and they would have won. We would have incurred needless costs for the tax-payer.

It seems to me that there should be an addition to the list under C2A: "care home for children with behavioural difficulties". Alternatively, a new category C2B for homes which do not merit the full security of C2A, but do require careful consideration as to their siting.

In the meantime, the residents of Seven Sisters have no recourse other than to attempt to change the mind of Castle Care Group. I trust that they will do this without breaking the law, and not to the detriment of the children to be housed.

Big Brother's secret data silo

Phil Booth of NO2ID raises this serious question.

AC Grayling points out in Guardian Online:
Two things have made this ghastly development possible: the technology, and politicians. The technology is way ahead of the game: Siemens of Germany are already supplying 60 countries with a device that monitors and integrates data from phone, email and internet activity; its software establishes patterns of uses and alerts monitoring staff to deviations from the patterns. As New Scientist reports, the system is already known to throw up huge numbers of false positives; that could have been predicted by a rudimentary acquaintance with human nature and human life. But it is a fact that has to be added to the brilliance and reliability of government and law enforcement agencies in keeping data secure, unhackable and unlosable.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Infamy! Infamy!

Gary Lewis of Maesteg reminds me, in another place, of the immortal line uttered by Kenneth Williams in a "Carry On" film.

What is not so well known is that the joke first appeared in a "Take it from here" sketch. Talbot Rothwell, the "Carry On" writer, called either Frank Muir or Denis Norden and asked if it was all right to borrow the lines, although he had no legal need to do so.

Senator Joe Biden pinched virtually a whole speech from Neil Kinnock, without acknowledgment. Now he is bidding to become the deputy to the most powerful man in the world.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Fuel poverty - Peter Black on the nose again

It's strange to find oneself agreeing both with Peter Black and the Conservatives.

I'm only sorry that our policy people didn't come up first with the idea of using the POCA for the purpose of obtaining discounts. It's an illustration of how the Post Office network is an asset, not a liability.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

I've had it with Siân Ll now

I was prepared to sympathise with her over being supplanted by a Cheeky Girl, even though the affections were those of Lembit, but she has now denied her upbringing in this county borough and declared that her favourite place is Cardiff!

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

More revelations about government data leaks

News is coming through on Radio Wales that a BBC survey of government admissions of data losses has been completed. It reveals hitherto unsuspected leakage of personal data, including that of SATs markers.

More when I get a URI.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Reasons to be a Liberal Democrat, no. 367

The opening message on Steph. Ashley's blog says a lot.

I'm grateful to Alix Mortimer for putting me on to Dib Lemming and a few other causes of extending my range of on-line addictions.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Civil Service Pensions

It's funny how things link up. Last Thursday, at a scrutiny committee, I was happy to subscribe to Labour councillors' praise for the contribution of trade unionists to a paper on medication protocols, due to be adopted by the social services committee later that afternoon. I commented that the general public tend to see trade unions single-mindedly looking to increase their members' pay, usually in terms of conflict. (The media, especially the press, have their own reasons for presenting this picture.) However, their members's interests extend beyond their pay packet, and for the employers's side, there is a range of expertise among TU representatives and officials which is there to be tapped if consultations are conducted in a constructive way.

On Friday, the front page of Liberal Democrat News featured an attack by Jenny Willott on the pension rights of top civil servants. I was appalled by an easy, populist, attack by an otherwise admirable MP. Hypocritical, too, as she will in due course benefit from pension provision which is in many ways better than public servants'.

The link came on Saturday, as the familiar features of Ken Thomas looked out from the obituary page of the Independent, though the photo shows his hair, which I remember as reddish, to be streaked with grey.

It's hard to remember now how I got to know Ken Thomas. It could be that he was the assistant secretary at CSCA* HQ responsible for relations with the Ministry of Transport, either before or after George Jamieson (who had had to be shifted to us from Defence because of alleged sympathy with communism, either on his part or that of his wife, Muriel Coult).

It could also be that he was one of that group from HQ who, on a balmy May night in the mid-1960s in Brighton, swept up those young delegates lingering in one of the CSCA conference bars to engage in discussion and afterwards search for some decent fish-and-chips. General-Secretary-elect Bill Kendall led the group and there were other future GS's in the party - almost certainly Alistair Graham and Ken Thomas. I remember some twitting of Bill Kendall for eating his fish-and-chips from the paper in order to demonstrate his working-class credentials. That would have been in character for either Thomas or Graham.

Sessions like that, after branch executive meetings or conference sessions, were probably more instructive than all the summer schools laid on by the union.

Anyway, I learn from the obits that, long after I had left the "army of pen-pushers" for the world of IT, Ken Thomas was the main man behind the improvement in the civil service pension scheme.

It is a good scheme, but not, I suggest, outstanding at the time it was brought in. This was before first Mrs Thatcher and then Gordon Brown started raiding private pension funds. It is only as the latter have degraded that the CS scheme has become so exceptional, in its guarantee of a reasonable income in retirement. The formula which provides that to the bulk of its members, who would not rise above executive grades, if that, automatically provides rather more to the men and women at the top.

The First Division have answered Jenny Willott's specific charges better than I could, but I cannot resist pointing out a corresponding case from the City. Under Lord Browne a once-great company went down in reputation and long-term profitability. Yet he was rewarded with a shining golden parachute which puts even top civil servants' pensions in the shade.

There is a political dimension, too. There is every reason to believe that Liberal Democrats will be in a postion to at least share power in Westminster after the next general election. This is no time to antagonise, unfairly, Sir Humphrey, nor the many civil servants who must be a significant proportion of those people who vote in London and South-East England.

*Civil Service Clerical Association, later to become CPSA and latterly the PCS

Posting updated 2008/8/18

Thursday, 14 August 2008

David "Butch" White

On 4th August 1961, EW Swanton's report from Portsmouth in the Daily Telegraph began (something like): "At twenty past five yesterday evening David White began an over which will surely live long in the annals of Hampshire cricket.". I may have the exact date wrong, and almost certainly the time is wrong, but there is no doubting the significance which Swanton had recognised.

Sussex were in their second innings, having knocked off the thirty-odd runs deficit from the first, and were seemingly on their way to making the match safe. However, Jim Parks, the England batsman/wicketkeeper, played the first delivery onto his stumps. Ian Thomson, the swing bowler, was sent in as "night watchman", but immediately gave a catch behind. The rather more accomplished batsman DV Smith was bowled, giving White a hat-trick. Gray, at slip, then dropped Cooper but Henry Horton, in the gully, made amends two balls later.

Hampshire went on to win the match by six wickets and eventually that year, the county championship, for the first time in their history. White was an essential part of that success, being probably the fastest bowler in the country that season. Until Hampshire snaffled him from under the nose of Warwickshire, the county of his birth, they had had to rely on the craftiness, rather than the sheer pace, of Cannings and Shackleton. The 6'5" Malcolm Heath came along, but he was no Steve Harmison, bowling at medium pace. White was not only fast, but aggressive with it.

It may correctly be surmised that I followed Hampshire until I had the good fortune to be posted to Swansea with DVLA, and switched my allegiance. I was therefore delighted when Glamorgan signed White in 1972 to beef up the one-day side for a season. My last memory of the terror of batsmen throughout England was of him sitting on the balcony at St Helen's, puffing contentedly on his pipe.

Butch White died on the first of this month, of a heart attack, on a golf course in Pulborough, West Sussex.

St Illtyd's Way lost?

It appears from Neath Port Talbot's Rights of Way Improvement Plan (the consultation period on which expired in June) that this attractive walk - already suffering from lack of maintenance - will remain unsupported.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

"Viva la Diva": an objective view

Critics across the border - and even some closer to home - have been a bit sniffy about Katherine Jenkins' qualities. What they can't stand, it appears, is that she is popular. Admittedly, her publicity machine can get a bit much at times, but that is par for the course.

A former choirgirl of the year, from Cimla, can surely do no wrong. However, there are those who may consider this blog to be prejudiced. That is why I was pleased to catch up with John Amis's view of the Jenkins/Bussell enterprise.

The Lord Russell-Johnston

A recent email from the "Make Votes Count" campaign (and please join in at their web site) reminds me that I haven't yet posted about the death a fortnight ago of Russell Johnston. The connection? Well, he had the distinction of holding, in 1992, a uniquely four-way marginal seat. It is arguable that he was successful because of the First Past The Post system, although his local connections were obviously important.

Obituaries in the Telegraph, Independent and Guardian rightly stress his European credentials. There is mention of his oratorical skill, but not of his wit - and the two do not necessarily go together. He had that rare ability to skewer a political opponent with a phrase.

Nor do the obituaries mention his literary tastes, which must have included Walter Scott or Charles Dickens, or both. Certainly, his vivid description (in a speech to the Liberal Democrat history society) of the pre-revival Liberal Party headquarters in Edinburgh, as like something out of "Bleak House", will live in my memory for a long time.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

ID cards - a season to bury bad news?

With MPs on their holidays, it has been announced that the contract for a prototype has gone to Thales. Thales is the largest French arms company, and seventh largest in the world. The French government owns a 33% stake. Thales Identification has been in charge of producing ID Smartcards in China since 2002.

Government spokesmen have been dismissive in the past of claims of escalating costs of the National ID Register by opponents, such as No2Id. Well, the prototype was estimated to cost ten million pounds, and has come in at eighteen million - so far.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Can dinosaurs scrutinise?

There was an interesting council seminar on the subject of scrutiny last week. It would have been even more interesting if we as councillors (and I don't exempt myself from this criticism) had entered into the spirit of the proceedings.

John Dixon and a colleague from Cardiff City Council made the journey to Port Talbot to share with us their experiences of scrutiny. Although it was moderated by the non-partisan Welsh Audit Office, and the stress throughout was on a spirit of cooperation, not of instruction, not one question was directed at any of the presenters. Instead, the general attitude of senior Labour members was that of resentment that people from the capital - and, what's worse, from a non-Labour council - were daring to tell the council with the best refuse collection and the best social services in the country how to conduct their business.

It should have been obvious from the presentation that scrutiny is more than having officers present at scrutiny committee, and answering questions, which seemed to satisfy all the Labour councillors who spoke. Bryn Roblin and Steve Hunt (both independents) got the message that there was more to it than that.

But I think that the Cardiff people should have been pressed on a few points. It seemed to me that they had employed every method in the scrutiny manual. Surely such a shotgun approach had its drawbacks?

What about the back-benchers? John Dixon made much of his chafing under the pre-2004 one-party rule as an opposition back-bencher being kept in the dark (along with Labour members who didn't find favour with the leader, it should be added). Has the situation improved for Cardiff back-benchers, of whatever party?

I also had the impression that Cardiff's lively scrutiny scene had much to do with the fine balance between the political parties, but ducked out of pressing this point. The chair had already called John Warman to give a speech of thanks, and it is doubtful whether he would have accepted another contribution from the Liberal Democrat quadrant.

I would have expected at least one Neath Port Talbot member of the ruling group to have picked on Cardiff's use of pre-scrutiny as an endorsement of our county borough's early adoption of this approach.

The bright spot of the proceedings was that leader Derek Vaughan, unlike most of his party colleagues, declared himself to be in favour of pro-active scrutiny as practised in Cardiff. He had created posts for two officers dedicated to the task of servicing scrutiny. He wanted to extend scrutiny beyond council policy to services, such as the police, fire service and public transport, in which the county borough had an interest. (I, personally, would welcome the last.) He invited members of scrutiny committees, especially the opposition, to put forward proposals.

Industrial heritage comes to mind.