Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Transfer of Neath Port Talbot council housing to be put to the vote

At mid-day today, council decided unanimously to accept the necessity to bring the county borough's council houses up to the Welsh Housing Quality Standard. Further, it adopted the recommendation of a stakeholder group (comprising representative council members, trade unionists, council employees and tenants) that the option of transferring the housing stock to a community mutual organisation be put to a vote of the tenants.

That's the bare story. There are all sorts of issues which have arisen as a result of the decision-making process so far, and predicted to occur in the near future. I hope to return to this subject in more detail before too long.

Gurkha ex-soldiers' success

News is coming through that the five Gurkha veterans who sought British citizenship have succeeded.

Worm in the Darling bud

Seeing that the news-stand by the civic centre was out of my usual dose of tit, bum and show-business gossip (otherwise known as Roger Alton's "Independent"), I took the opportunity to buy the Financial Times.

(Incidentally, it is a pity that the Chancellor did not take more notice in 2006 of the warnings issued by Jane Croft, Gillian Tett and others on the FT staff, of the impending failure of the wholesale market for housing credit. If he had, then the worst of the failures in mortgage companies over here could have been headed off. I confess that I was not aware of these warnings at the time; it was a fellow LibDem who is more involved in finance than I who pointed them out this time last year. As I implied, the FT is not my usual journal of choice, but surely it is required reading for our financial lords and masters.)

Jane Croft reveals today in an article headlined "Rivals to share cost of failure" that Alistair Darling's ripping wheeze, for seizing the mortgage book of Bradford & Bingley at virtually no cost to the taxpayer, includes small print which makes both banks and building societies liable to cover any shortfall after the mortgages are finally wound down, and a Treasury - the preferred creditor - loan repaid. The Financial Services compensation scheme will be forced to levy the banking industry in the event of a failure. This includes not only the clearing banks but also the only remaining independent building societies. These are, of course, mutuals who did not open themselves to failure by borrowing on the wholesale market in order to finance mortgages and who largely had relatively conservative lending criteria, thus avoiding both the traps which brought low Northern Rock, Halifax, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley.

The risk is theoretical, in that, poor though the B&B mortgages are, they should still overall pay for themselves at the end of the day. However, the risk is still there and it seems unfair that the mutuals should share it, while Santander makes off with the cream of the undoubtedly viable parts of Bradford & Bingley.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Financial rescues

There are pertinent comments on the B&B nationalisation by economist Chris Dillow quoting ex-Halifax director John Kay.

I was surprised to hear Nick Ainger (Labour, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) on "Good Morning Wales" this morning criticising the US Congress for delaying the Bush/Bernancke/Paulson "rescue" package. He seemed to be saying that representatives and senators should have accepted, without question, proposals from the executive.

Leaving aside the matter of a MP questioning the democratic processes of a friendly power, did Mr Ainger not see the flaws in the original package? It was summed up in a phrase which cropped up frequently in reports from Washington: it favoured Wall Street over Main Street. Nor, rightly, would economic liberals in the Republican party accept increased tax-payer exposure to risk.

In the end, after intense weekend discussions delaying the break-up of Congress, improvements to the measure were hammered out.

In Westminster, given that parliament was in recess and that events were moving swiftly, the chancellor and the Bank of England were right to take over Bradford & Bingley, without having to use any taxpayers' money, a course endorsed in advance by Vince Cable. However, parliament needs to debate all the issues when it returns.

In particular, MPs should look at the decision to sell off the Bradford & Bingley branch network so swiftly to Banco Santander (owners of Abbey National and Alliance & Leicester) in view of the implications for employment and competition.

Commerce keeps data loss secret

silicon.com reports that, of those organisations that have experienced a data breach, 60 per cent did not tell their clients and half did not alert the police or authorities, according to a recent Logica survey.

The survey also found that only 30 per cent of organisations educate staff in IT security and information handling procedures on a regular basis, and less than a third have a specific security incident response team.

The research has led to renewed calls for organisations in the UK to be required by law, as in the state of California, to report information security lapses.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Members' newsletters

Neath Port Talbot county borough council subsidises constituency newsletters. Councillors may submit content to the member services section, which checks the content amd arranges printing.

Cadoxton constituents may ask why I continue to deliver Focus leaflets, which now contain council news, instead of making use of the council's facilities. Well, firstly, I won election on a platform which included casting a beady eye on council costs. It would be hypocritical of me to dip into a subsidised service when I don't need to.

Secondly, however much the member services department weeds out party political messages, there is inevitably an element of self-promotion in a newsletter for a constituency which goes out over the signature of the sitting member. Why not be totally honest about ones politics, avoid censorship, and provide information at the same time?

So I will continue to put out Focuses as and when I have enough information to fill them, and pay for them out of party funds and my own pocket.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Honey buzzards and kites

Out delivering today, I heard and saw what I took to be honey buzzards over Craig Gwladus. I'd be interested if any local expert could confirm my observation.

There is certainly good news about another success story in Wales, the red kite. Much of this is due to the late MP for Neath, Donald Coleman. Some people are dismissive of the fact that he will be remembered only for protecting a bird, but that is not the worst legacy for a MP.

Update: managed to snatch a digital shot of one of the birds on my way back from "surgery". The angle of the wings definitely indicates honey buzzard. I knew that the species had been reported from further up the Dulais valley last year, and that Radio 4's "World on the Move" had recently commented on the increase in England & Wales this year, so it's not entirely a surprise. It's one of the few benefits of global warming that birds previously confined to the continent are now breeding over here.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Virtual end of ITV Wales identity

News is coming through that Ofcom is minded to allow ITV to cut its regional programming from four hours a week to less than two. Only six years ago, before the last round of cuts, the total was ten hours per week. This would affect Wales particularly, I suggest.

It seems that the news bulletins are not affected, but there must be doubt about the future of "Wales this Week" and other factual programmes.

"Sharp End", the politics programme, was already scheduled for the chop. Whatever ones view of Mai Davies's interviewing style, she had the virtue that she was hard on everyone, irrespective of party. Over the years, Welsh ITV - and HTV previously - has been rather more even-handed than BBC and we shall miss their alternative viewpoint on the relative importance of political issues in Wales.

Update: It appears that news is not untouched, either. There will be no requirement to transmit a Welsh news bulletin at weekends.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Memories are no longer made of this

With apologies to non-dorks out there, I can't resist drawing attention to photos of IBM's exhibition celebrating 50 years of Hursley laboratories.

It is a sobering thought that I carry in my pocket a thumb-sized device which can hold as much data as a room-full of reels of 1" magnetic tape, which was the repository of the vehicles excise database in Clase, Swansea, in the 1970s.

I sometimes wonder whether the carelessness with which government servants (and commercial operators, too) treat personal records relates to the diminishing size of the media which contain them.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

School buses

Considering how Wales has suffered from tragedies involving bus journeys to school, and that Wrexham mounted a pilot study of the use of yellow buses, it is surprising that the report of the official commission on yellow buses has not received more publicity in the Welsh media.

Ros Scott was a member and summarises the conclusions on her blog.

Paddy Ashdown endorses Ros Scott

See the video (there is even a Welsh option for the campaign, though not for Paddy's commentary. Perhaps Ros should have approached Alan Beith!). You can also catch up on the Baroness's blog.

Friday, 19 September 2008

There will be no sacrifices of public services

It had to happen. We knew it would happen, as soon as the mixed messages went out from the campaigns department. Vince Cable and Julia Goldsworthy identified £20bn of extra tax which could be garnered from the fat cats who Labour has allowed to prosper (we will probably find out why, after this sleazy government has been kicked out). We would redistribute this to the least well-off taxpayers, by taking two million people out of income tax and by cutting 4p off the standard rate. No effect on public services, right? (Except the beneficial one of reducing the financial stresses on nurses, junior doctors and council workers, among others.)

They then said that they thought there was another £20bn (see where the confusion comes in) to be found out of public sector waste. Not services, waste. It is the extent to which this money is to be earmarked for improving public services which was at issue in Bournemouth and how much of it was to go towards further improving the lot of the ordinary taxpayer.

The Labour spin machine has leapt into action: "Liberal Democrats will make savage cuts in schools, care homes and the NHS" screams Andrew Davies, AM, clearly reading from a prepared script. He hopes the electorate will forget the closures of schools, care homes and hospitals which Blair and Brown oversaw.

Vince Cable spelt out where the cuts will come: "the unnecessary Child Trust Fund and the means-tested tax credits which extend into the upper income range, ID cards, superfluous and extravagant defence contracts mainly designed to fill the order books of defence contractors, and widening further the bottomless financial pit of the nuclear power industry.

"We've got to stop the gravy train of management consultancy in government; stop questionable government IT projects like that for the NHS and insist that procurement is from the cheapest, open source; and take an axe to the overgrown thickets of quango land.

"The coward's way is to sack or squeeze the pay of low paid public sector workers. The correct way is to start at the top: require every non-front line public sector employee on £100,000 or more to reapply for their jobs. Those allowed back would take a cut in pay and public sector pension entitlement."

I would add that the number of administrators and technicians brought in to the NHS in England and Wales to establish costing systems and the internal market can surely be cut. Either the market is abolished (as in Wales) or the systems are established and merely need to be maintained. It will be interesting to see whether there will be any cost savings at the top as a result of Edwina Hart's centralisation of the NHS in Wales. Experience of previous Labour reorganisations suggests that the existing local health service chiefs will be kept, but that a super administrator will be brought in at the top, with a salary to match. Any savings will be at the expense of operational staff, many of whom have still not received their back pay resulting from the previous restructuring exercise.

So there will be no cuts in services. Indeed, LibDems have already scheduled improvements which Labour had a decade to introduce, but did not, such as reintroducing the link between the state pension and earnings.

Anticipating the next bullet-point on the New Labour list: yes, it will all be costed. Every Liberal Democrat manifesto has been costed, and audited by an independent financial organisation. As our participation in the next administration looks even more probable, so Cable and Goldsworthy will surely make even more certain of their figures.

The Bourne Incident

News from the Western Mail that the leader of the Conservatives in the Assembly had a nasty fall in the shower while on holiday abroad. (Incidentally, there is a "Quick vote" on voting intentions on that page which you may wish to complete.)

I am reminded - quite unfairly, I know - of a similar report of a fast bowler on a MCC tour of Australia many years ago being prevented from playing in a test match because of such a domestic accident. In those more sensitive times, the tour management hushed up the true cause. It eventually transpired that the man had, so far from falling in the shower, slipped on a wet floor while on a conducted tour round a brewery.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Dr Johnson

The Great Cham of English literature was born on this day in 1709. There is an interesting discussion of his position on the Conservative-Liberal axis here.

Monday, 15 September 2008

A shot across the bows

When you dissect the speeches at Bournemouth today for and against the amendment on tax plans, you will see very little practical difference in members' views. We all agree that the least well-paid should be taken out of tax, and that the next lowest paid should pay 4p in the pound less tax (it was dishonest of some of the establishment speakers to imply that the people behind the amendment would go back on those commitments).

The dispute was, it seems to me, over the steer given to the Conservative end of the media that, in government, we would not only shift taxation from the poor to the very rich, but also find another £20bn savings in public services and hand those out as tax cuts as well.

We were damned both ways. If the amendment had been passed, we would have been damned in the media as tax-and-spenders. As it is, we will be damned as cutters of public services in favour of the rich. Neither, as an examination of the policy document and, hopefully, our manifesto when it comes, will show, is true.

Although the manifesto was clearly defeated, the many articulate arguments advanced in its favour must influence the drafters of the manifesto. We must not give the impression that further savings (for instance, from the cutting of the numbers of MPs and their pension entitlement, and all that flows from that) will all go to benefit tax-payers, when there are still great needs of not only the people who don't pay tax at the moment, but also many of those that we will have taken out of tax.

Many Liberal Democrat sitting MPs and challengers in the home counties need to get former Labour voters out of their armchairs when the election comes. These have already been disillusioned by New Labour which has shown itself merely to be a continuation of Thatcher & Major. They must be persuaded that it is worth switching to us because we really are different. Nudges and winks to the Daily Telegraph will be counter-productive.

Do we need two annual federal conferences?

I have just been watching BBC Parliament from the LibDem conference in Bournemouth. If you have broadband (the BT version of which I have been using) or digital TV, this is thoroughly recommended, in order to by-pass the Conservative-orientated filter of analogue BBC coverage.

The party was happy to have public coverage of a debate on proposals for reorganisation of the party's internal structures (the Bones report).

I am a little wary of some of the proposals, particularly on candidate development and selection. Although this is a devolved matter, there will be strong pressure on Wales and Scotland to adopt whatever is decided for England.

However, I am very happy to go along with the proposal to make the spring conferences state-only. That is, England-only matters would be discussed at the English spring conference, and likewise for Scotland and Wales. Education, health and housing are high on the political agenda, so that hours of debate at federal conference are of academic interest to me. Policing and transport motions are additionally irrelevant to Scottish reps.

The fact that no Welsh or Scottish voice was raised in the debate should have told president Simon Hughes something. It is an expensive business to travel to the more salubrious resorts in England and to stay for three or four days. To travel to two each year can be a financial imposition.

Unfortunately, the argument that an England-only conference would not attract media coverage seems to have swayed Simon. He indicated that this particular proposal would be reconsidered.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Sir Samuel Evans commemoration

The Reverend Mark Williams, vicar of Skewen, said prayers over the grave of Sir Samuel Evans on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of his death. Present were Janet Jones, chair of Coedffranc Community Council, Councillor Keith Davies, Charles Fletcher, vice-chair of Coedffranc CC, Ron McConville, president of Aberavon & Neath Liberal Democrats and Robert King, prominent local historian.

We intend to organise a larger ceremony next May on his 150th anniversary. Records are being scoured as I write in order to establish his exact date of birth, but it would be good to know if he has any descendants still alive, so that we can welcome them to Skewen and Neath Abbey in 2009.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Why is it ...

... that I enjoy Haydn, but am irritated by Mozart;
I appreciate Oscar Wilde, but am bored by GBS;
I love The Mighty Boosh, but can't stand Reeves and Mortimer;
and The Archers and Torchwood send me dashing for the off switch, when the BBC keeps telling me how popular they are.

The Scott campaign builds up in Wales

Of course, Martin Shipton puts an anti-Lembit spin on it, but there is no arguing with the facts of significant supporters.

Lembit is quoted as saying:

“I travel round Britain to see members of the party all the time, which is why my car has 380,000 miles on the clock.

Well, Ros and Mark us public transport whenever they can. That is how they arrived in Neath last month.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Job Evaluation

Establishing "equal pay for equal work" in local government is much more tricky than I realised before I became a councillor. When I started my first job in government service, the principle had just been established for civil servants. The infamous "marriage bar" (female civil servants had to resign on marriage) was on its way out, department by department, too. (Though it was not to be finally abolished across the whole service for about a decade.) That was over forty years ago.

I naively assumed that the resistance to pay equality in local government was purely down to neanderthal trade unions and dark-age management. Case law and the Human Rights Act have forced local authorities into the twenty-first century. However, a series of seminars organised for members by Neath Port Talbot council has shown that there are great difficulties in correcting the anomalies which have built up over a century or more of local government. The number of different jobs and grades, the tradition of local pay rate setting, the distinction between "staff" and "workers", as well as that between "female" and "male" jobs have made the negotiations very difficult. Councils naturally have to try to balance the budget, ensuring that the net increase to the pay bill is as low as possible. That means that there will be winners as well as losers in the process. TU reps will seek to minimise the latter. Both sides have in mind that the standard of living of some of the lowest paid could be affected.

In South Wales, negotiations have - so far as I can see - been conducted responsibly and with good faith on both sides. Not so in the rest of England & Wales. There have been many serious disputes throughout the country. It is surprising that these have not made headlines in the "national" newspapers, seeing as how gleefully they leapt on examples of failed rubbish collection during the "winter of discontent".

Richard Baum, a LibDem councillor in Lancashire, reports on the most recent case. It seems that Old Labour is gleefully turning a drama into a crisis.

Ironically, central government under Thatcher, through Major and Blair, and including Brown, has steadily reversed pay equality by transferring work from career civil servants to agencies and commercial organisations which bypass the agreements and legislation.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Vote for McCain, Palin and the Brits

Americans, ignore those whining environmentalists who are out to deny you your right to fly or drive across that great continent of yours any time you choose. Todd & Sarah Palin are working for BP to ensure that Alaska yields up every last drop of oil for you.

We fought alongside you in Iraq (maybe we were a minor partner in terms of men and materiel, but we did give your campaign respectability). So it's down to you to return the favor to British industry - vote McCain/Palin!

Remember when a great US general, Dwight D Eisenhower, when he was president, helped Anglo-Iranian Oil (as BP then was) get rid of the threat of liberal "democracy" ? Well, this war hero John McCain can put an end to the Islamic so-called Republic (hell, what kind of democracy is it that insists that you have to demonstrate your belief in a supreme deity before you can even run for election?) of Iran and restore the Peacock Throne. Good for you, good for the Persians and good for both our oil interests.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair: renounce your token support for the Democrat party. Endorse the candidates you sympathise with in your hearts. Go for JMcC, SP and BP!

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Tommy Atkins, 2008

The turning away of a serving soldier by a hotel in the comfy Home Counties is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling's cri de coeur:

"I went into a public- 'ouse to get a pint o' beer,

The publican 'e up an sez, 'We serve no red-coats here.'

The girls behind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,

I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:

O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Tommy go away';

But it's 'Thank you, Mister Atkins,' when the band begins to play-

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it's 'Thank you Mr Atkins,' when the band begins to play."

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Who owns the media agenda?

On her visit to Neath Port Talbot, Ros Scott reminded us that she was a member of the House of Lords committee which drew up a report on the ownership of the news. Both in discussions of common local government interest with council leader Derek Vaughan and, with local Liberal Democrats, on the treatment of politics in the UK media, it was obvious that there was general agreement with the committee's conclusion that "While there has been a proliferation of ways to access the news, there has not been a corresponding expansion in professional journalism".

Neath Port Talbot council's main complaint has been the lack of recognition of positive reports on the council's performance. One may cynically observe that there is a plethora of bodies out there awarding charter marks and what have you, so that most councils in the UK can point to a high position in at least one table of satisfaction. However, Cllr Vaughan may have a point when it comes to social services. While the local media (BBC and, of course, the Western Mail) have today been all over Liberal Democrat Cardiff City Council for the failure of its social services department, there has been little reporting of this county borough's positive showing in this area. The joint Welsh Audit Office and the Care and Social Services Inspectorate for Wales report published in July gave Neath Port Talbot a virtual clean bill of health and the highest ranking in Wales for social services, yet it was hardly mentioned in the local press.

Part of the trouble is that conflict is news and plain honest-to-goodness information does not sell papers. Local prints will always have a niche, because there is still no better way of advertising local jobs and sales, but in order to provide a living for journalists, news has to sell.

National newspapers are increasingly rich men's hobbies, subsidised by other parts of a commercial undertaking or are largely entertainment. The latter have agendas which are definitely not Liberal Democrat.

Some notable investigative programmes (again, not good news!) apart, the BBC does not initiate news, but follows the lead of the press. Hence the obsession with Gordon Brown's leadership and, probably, the US presidential election. (There are those who suggest that the opportunities for shopping in the US may also be a driver of the blanket coverage given by BBC to the party conventions across the pond.)

In the meantime, Canada is buzzing with talk of a possibly unconstitutional snap election. This has made hardly a ripple in the media over here (France24 covered it, but did not headline the story). This could have repercussions in NATO and the G8 group of nations. But Canada is boring, because it gets so many things right. It has a boringly successful nuclear power programme and inflation is boringly lower than its competitors. The BBC does not even have a permanent correspondent north of the 49th Parallel.

At least the BBC still has a high reputation world-wide for its integrity. However, there may be inidious forces at work on the World Service, which is paid for not out of the licence fee, like the rest of the BBC, but from the Foreign Office budget. Early reports on Radio 4 about the Georgian conflict included some interviews with inhabitants of South Ossetia who claimed atrocities on the part of Georgian forces in the territory. The equivalent World Service programme did not have this balance.