Wednesday, 30 December 2009

David Taylor: a loss to parliament

Jonathan Calder draws attention to Tam Dalyell's obituary of the Labour MP for North-West Leicestershire. Mr Taylor sadly succumbed to an  unexpected heart attack while enjoying a Boxing Day walk with his family.

Mr Dalyell rightly praises Mr Taylor's principled votes against his party's leadership, which of course ensured that he never got the ministerial post he was clearly fitted for. He also points out that Mr Taylor, as an accountant and former computer services manager, was one of the few MPs with practical experience of IT.

Gordon Brown has a cheek

According to a leaked version of his New Year message, Gordon Brown  will assert that a vote in next year's general election for any party but Labour will wreck the economy. He has a bloody cheek.

It was his government's lax supervision of the markets which led to the economic breakdown in this country and, arguably, contributed to the world-wide financial failure of confidence. (Some of the world's largest banks are headquartered in London.)

It is natural for the Conservatives to remind voters of this. What they do not say is that Brown took his economic strategy largely unchanged from that of Thatcher and Major. Their pitch would also be more convincing if they had Ken Clarke in the shadow treasury post, rather than the lightweight George Osborne.

Vince Cable is the most credible of all the treasury spokesmen in the Westminster parliament. So far from wrecking the economy, installing him in no. 11 Downing Street would not only accelerate the improvement (still slower than all the other major economies) domestically but also restore the international confidence on which the UK more than ever depends.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The propaganda allowance

I recently wrote to the South Wales Guardian welcoming the decision of the government to accept the recommendation to abolish the "Communications Allowance". Peter Black passes on a Times report that this joy was premature.

My letter dealt with Adam Price's misuse of the allowance to influence the last Welsh Assembly election, but local Labour MPs have been just as blatant in using it for self-publicity in advance of the 2010 general election.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Gladstone once more

In advance of the GOM's bicentenary next Monday, BBC Radio 4's "Week in Westminster" celebrated with a visit to Hawarden followed by a discussion. Michael Crick's interviews of the present-day William Gladstone and the St Deiniol's Library custodian, Reverend Peter Francis, were informative, but what followed was even more interesting.

Lord Steel, Lord Adonis and David Willetts MP were invited to discuss Gladstone's legacy, both to the nation and to present-day politics. David Willetts as an heir of Mrs Thatcher was predictably the most critical, praising Gladstone's free-market instincts, but deprecating his social interventionism. The biggest surprise was Andrew Adonis's knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, Gladstone, almost exceeding that of the former Liberal leader, David Steel.

There was talk of Gladstone's international policy. The panel seemed to think that he wanted to intervene too much, citing his campaign to eject the Turks from the Balkans. However, none of the politicians recalled his ending of the Anglo-Afghan war and of the first Boer War. He was against colonial expansion in Africa, so would surely have opposed neo-colonialists on both sides of the Atlantic if he were alive today.

It's a programme well worth catching when it appears on iPlayer.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas, everybody

I hoped to decorate this message, but found I had only the tired old holly which people have surely seen too much of. Perhaps I'll be able to work something up for what's left of the twelve days of Christmas.

Anyway, have as good a time as Mr Darling will let you, and best wishes for 2010.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

England already has one win in SA's World Cup

December "Railwatch" magazine reports that a £2bn railway is being built to Johannesburg's Tambo International Airport. This is expected to play a key rôle in South Africa's staging of the football World Cup in June and July of next year.

The leader goes on: "The four-car trains are being built in Derby by Bombardier and are based on the Electrostars already operating in Britain. Some are being assembled in South Africa using parts made in Britain."

Admittedly, Bombardier is a Canadian company, but it is good to see the Derby factory exporting again.

On a more local railway issue, Jenny Randerson is calling for a simpler and fairer fare structure on Wales's railways.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Win-win on the Montgomery canal

According to a BBC Wales report, prisoners from Shrewsbury gaol may soon be working on the maintenance of the Montgomery Canal. Some will be learning new skills in the process, hopefully fitting them for a life outside with no temptation to re-offend.

Objections from trade unions have been anticipated by a promise to pay the rate for the job. In any case, there has been a shortage of workers coming forward to do these jobs vital to the canal.

There is clearly scope for Bridgend and Swansea prisons to adopt a similar scheme as the Swansea, Neath and Tennant canals are rejuvenated.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Copenhagen potch

The best comment so far is Dave Brown's cartoon, an adaptation of Gustave Doré, in today's Independent ("Nobama's Ark"). Considering that it must have been delivered to the editor, never mind conceived, well in advance of the final communiqué, it shows good foresight.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

GW Bush emails recovered

There seems to be a concerted effort to annihilate the reputation of the previous US president. My impression of the Chilcot Inquiry evidence so far is that it has exposed more of the US failings in the Iraq enterprise than of the British end. Now there are reports like this one that computer technicians for the Obama administration successfully recovered lost emails, which cover a period of 90 significant days of GW Bush's presidency.

The US public will likely be most interested in domestic matters, such as the firing of the US attorney for Arkansas and the outing of the CIA agent Valerie Plame after her husband criticised the Bush administration. However, there may be some interesting additional information on Iraq.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Exchange at a PACT meeting in Maesteg

Councillor: Is Maesteg train station a designated area under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000?

Police representative: Who's asking?

Councillor: That's confidential!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

No fuss about women on our shortlists, Mr Cameron

This is illustrated by the announced candidates to compete for the seat of David Howarth, who is quitting Westminster at the next general election. There are three men and three women on the shortlist.

Of course, this is only to be expected from a party which has legislated for gender balance on its shortlists since its inception.

LCO on the Welsh Language

I have just been watching on BBC-Parliament the debate on the floor of the House of Commons. I gather these things are usually finished off in committee, but the Secretary of State for Wales felt that it was "important" for it to be debated by the whole house. There followed speeches of self-congratulation by Peter Hain and Cheryl Gillan, followed by a succession of other Labour notables, on how they had improved the Order by compelling the untrustworthy - and unworldly? - Welsh to act reasonably and commercially. Ms Gillan seemed particularly concerned that those nice mobile phone companies should not be frightened away from Wales by having to cater for people whose first language is Welsh*.

This orgy of colonialist back-patting was interrupted only by David Davies (Con, Monmouth) who was against the whole idea of devolution in the first place, and by Hywel Williams (PC, Caernarfon) and Mark Williams (Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion) who, while welcoming the order, suggested that perhaps Westminster does not need to micro-manage Cardiff (my gloss).

The "importance" of this debate seems to have been to give Welsh Labour MPs an opportunity to read into the record a speech which can be relayed in friendly media at home. When the fourth - or was it fifth? - Alun Michael rose to deliver very much the same ten-minutes worth, I decided that Neil Pearson in "Vent" would not only be more entertaining but more enlightening as well.

* Hywel Williams gave the lie to that by demonstrating that Iberian subscribers could get help in Catalan.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Gladstone's legacy

I posted about the developments at St Deiniol's Library earlier this year and speculated how the GOM might have viewed them. The custodian of the library, Peter Francis, interviewed on BBC Radio recently, opined that Gladstone would have welcomed the inclusion of the study of Islam. The reverend gentleman quoted from a speech from the Midlothian campaign: "Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own." There is much more on the Liberal History Group web-site; this page contains much that still rings true today.

Following his bicentenary, the group is to hold a meeting in the National Liberal Club in London at the end of January
"to find out what Gladstonian Liberalism was and how it came to dominate late Victorian politics, and to discover just how much of the classical liberal inheritance the Grand Old Man has actually passed down to the current-day Liberal Democrats". People draw a distinction between Gladstone's "non-interventionism in economic and social affairs, self-help and an emphasis on personal and political, as opposed to social, liberalism" and David Lloyd George's (and, for a time, Winston Churchill's) approach.

Gladstone's birthday was on 29th December. Coming so late in a year which has been full of anniversaries, and during the twelve days of Christmas, it may not be celebrated with the fervour associated with his contemporary, Charles Darwin, but Gladstone's contribution to British politics was as crucial as Darwin's was to the world of science.

Thanks to Liberal Democrat News for this

Saturday, 12 December 2009

CFLs are good, but not that good

Compact Fluorescent Lamps, usually billed as energy-saving - or long-life - bulbs, are certainly worth having. However, as BBC Radio 4's "More or Less" pointed out this week, manufacturer's claims do exaggerate. The rule of thumb adopted by their association is that an incandescent light-bulb's wattage should be divided by 5 to give the equivalent CFL. Thus 12-watt CFLs are marketed as the equivalent of a traditional 60-watt bulb. In fact, for various reasons the conversion factor is nearer 4. A US technical body believes that 3 is more realistic.

One should also remember that bulbs should be disposed of safely

Thursday, 10 December 2009

LibDem persistence pays off in Merthyr

Amy Kitcher has just brought to our attention the triumph of a local Liberal Democrat activist in exposing less than scrupulous accounting on the part of Merthyr council over the distribution of the Biffa Community Fund.

This is the key point of her email: "I am so proud of the actions of my ward colleague councillor Bob Griffin who instigated the investigation by reporting the Council to the Audit Office. He has been on the receiving end of much criticism and innuendo from other councillors who have tried to twist his motives. Yesterday, he was totally vindicated when he received a copy of the response from the Audit Office to the Financial Controller with the following statements:

'It is not clear what criteria you apply when signing applications as approved as they are not documented on the form. I suggest that the approval form that you sign be amended to make it clear that payments are made both within the powers of the Council and for the benefit of the ward residents; and

'The recipient of the monies should be requested to provide receipts confirming that the expenditure was defrayed in accordance with the approved application. I appreciate that this may not be possible in some cases, for example, where you have made a contribution to the total cost of an event. In such cases written confirmation that the event (or some other form of spend) went ahead should be obtained. Internal audit may be able to assist in identifying an efficient manner of implementing such a requirement.'

"The whole incident highlights the critical difference between the Lib Dems and other parties: Councils often ask Councillors to be their uncritical cheerleaders. Other parties often agree. We do not. We are there to serve the electors, monitor what the Council does, and criticise and get things done better when necessary. This can make us unpopular, we we don't care.

"We recognise that “Yes Minister” mentality is alive and living in local government. Council officers and local councillors all too readily enter a conspiracy of mutual support and cooperation to conceal each other’s mistakes. We act differently."

The phrase "councils often ask councillors to be their uncritical cheerleaders" strikes a chord. I am always ready to praise Neath Port Talbot CBC when it does things right, but I do not leave my critical faculties at the doors of the civic centres.

Canals: a third way

It was not absolutely clear from DEFRA questions in the House of Commons this morning, but it appears that the British Waterways property portfolio is not to be included in the government's "fire sale" after all. Indeed, DEFRA under-secretary Huw Irranca-Davies accepted the point put by the Conservative Michael Jack that the contribution from property was essential to keep the canals in good order.

Instead, the government, prompted by Alun Michael, is looking at that entity beloved of New Labour, a "third way". The idea is a kind of National Trust for inland waterways. NT, as I understand it, relies on donations from the public as well as entrance fees and sales from its shops. Is the government planning on replacing the taxpayer contribution with charitable donations? Surely there has to be a "dowry" from the government, if only to cover the bedding-in period before other funding reaches the required level. Presumably this is a matter being considered in the current negotiations referred to by Messrs. Michael and Irranca-Davies.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Weasel words on canals

Following various postings on the threat to our waterways, including mine here, it was announced in the Lords on Monday that the Labour government was publishing "an asset portfolio listing the state-owned assets that the Government could commercialise over the medium term. This includes options for the future sale of the Tote, the student loan book, the Dartford crossing and the High Speed 1 rail link, and for potential alternative forms of ownership for British Waterways agreed by myself and the Secretary of State for Defra." (My italics.)

This is being written in advance of Prime Minister's Questions and the Pre-Budget Statement. It will be interesting to see whether questions in either session will tease out details of the government's intentions.

Otto, Count Lambsdorff dies

Last Saturday December 5th, Honorary President of Liberal International Otto Graf Lambsdorff suddenly and unexpectedly passed away at the age of 82. Largely unknown over here, even in his prime, he was one of the most significant figures in post-war European politics.

The following is taken virtually verbatim from a Liberal International feed.

Current LI president Hans van Baalen described Lambsdorff as one of the most inspiring liberal politicians of the past century and as a courageous statesman who was one of the architects of post War Germany. “He was one of the most open, direct and when necessary bold political fighters for a free market economy and civil liberties, and because of this he earned the name ‘Marktgraf' [Market Count].”

Van Baalen: “Together with Adolfo Suarez, David Steel and Frits Bolkestein, Otto Lambsdorff made Liberal international a more political organisation. His focus was the integration of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe into the world economy and the international political community. As President of FDP, Liberal International and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty, Otto Lambsdorff taught us, the new political generation, not to indulge in political correctness but to speak out, even if it makes you controversial”.

Otto Graf Lambsdorff was born in Germany in 1926. He studied Law and Political Science at the Universities of Bonn and Cologne. He was admitted to the bar at the local and district courts of Dûsseldorf in 1960.

In 1951 he became a member of the FDP and in 1972 a Member of Parliament (Bundestag). He was Minister of Economics in several cabinets under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Chancellor Helmut Kohl from 1977 to June 1984, when he resigned as Federal Minister of Economics. From 1984 until 1988 he was the Parliamentary Spokesman on Economic Affairs. He has been leader of the FDP until 1993.

During his years as Minister and as Member of the Parliament he fought for lower corporate taxation and against state subsidies and bureaucracy, and helped deliver the FDP one of its most successful era's of widespread appeal among the German electorate.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Vote for your favourite market

NABMA, The National Association of British Market Authorities ( is running a vote for Britain's favourite market. I am torn between Neath and Swansea.

Party list voting system fault exposed

Mohammed Ashgar, who was elected in 2007 for Wales South East on a nationalist ticket, has defected to the Conservative Party. I don't have much sympathy with Plaid as a party,  but I do think that their supporters in the south-east have been let down. It is highly unlikely that they knew anything about Mohammed Ashgar as an individual, so they could expect that the members of the list chosen by the party would follow the nationalist line.

It all points up one of the drawbacks of list systems.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Playing fields of Eton

Chris Dillow comments on Gordon Brown's jibe about Conservative economic policy being forged on the playing-fields of Eton.

I agree with most of what he says. Eton - which produced George Orwell and Captain Hook (according to Barrie) as well as "toffs", remember - is irrelevant. However, it is relevant that a clique is seen to have formed, through school and university, round the Conservative leader. It could just as easily have been Sandfields Comp. and Ruskin College. They are perceived as looking after their own. It is this which Cameron has to rebut.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Amélie Mauresmo retires

Wimbledon is going to be that much more boring in 2010. The woman I most enjoyed watching, who proved that a woman can be fit - muscular, even - but still graceful, announced her retirement at a news conference in Paris during the week. As Paul Newman's article in The Independent makes clear, she is not going to be stuck for alternative employment, but I do hope that the BBC commentary team can sign her up for the June fortnight if RTF don't grab her first.

One item of information still eludes me: does she pronounce her name the French or the Spanish way?

Thursday, 3 December 2009

ID cards and more on civil liberties has an indictment of New Labour's attempts to impose ID cards on the UK population. From the original consultation paper in 2002, in which it was envisaged that ID cards would be rolled out to the general public in the UK from 2007/08, that by 2013 it would be compulsory to carry one, and that the card would incorporate biometric data, to today's situation, there has been a steady retreat and a slew of missed deadlines. The government should admit defeat now.

On the same day, the Independent newspaper starts a campaign against the misuse of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The Liberty web-site sums up the situation: "Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows the Chief Constable to designate an area within which individuals may stop and search a vehicle, driver, passenger, pedestrian and anything carried by a pedestrian for the purpose of searching for articles which could be used in connection with terrorism. There need not be any grounds for suspecting the presence of such articles. Failure to stop and/or obstructing a police constable acting under section 44 is a criminal offence. Currently, the whole of greater London has been designated as such an area under s44."

Photography is considered to be usable in connection with terrorism. This has led to the ridiculous situation of the snapper of a fish-and-chip shop being stopped and searched, because he happened to be in a Section 44 area. The newspaper article doesn't say whether DNA swabs were taken, but it would not surprise me if the police tried it on.

Later: I see that Peter Black beat me to it with a reaction to the Indy article. There is also a worrying comment to his blog that S.44 has been applied to Swansea. Presumably the use of this law is regarded as an operational matter, but surely our representatives on the South Wales Police Authority can press the case for common-sense and proportionate application of anti-terrorist provisions?

Pembrokeshire Care and Mobility Centre

Just putting in a word for the day job of LibDem Stephanie Kate Ashley. She says: "Don't get ripped off!".

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Green-Red Conservatism is failing

The newspaper opinion surveys have caught up with reality. For a long time it has been obvious that the Conservatives under Cameron would not win an overall majority in a general election. Now there is a fresh challenge from traditional Conservatism.

It is clear that the fresh bloom has been wiped off the Cameron leadership. They need a new leader to get the media onside again. The Conservatives don't want to lose their younger, vigorous, image. On the other hand, only a return to more reactionary politics is going to stop their volunteers and voters drifting off. It would help their image if the leader had not been to Eton. In view of the knee-weakening effect that US Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin had over the scribes this side of the pond, the answer is obvious: replace Cameron with Nadine Dorries.

Canals must be allowed to sustain themselves

I have commented before on the detrimental effect on British Waterways of the failure of the English farm-payments scheme. Now, according to Sharon Bowles MEP, there is a threat to another income stream for national waterways:

"Gordon Brown's £16bn sell off, which is expected to include British Waterways' waterside property portfolio, signals a desperate attempt by the Government to reduce £800bn of national debt.

"Profit from the waterside property is vital to fund the maintenance and upkeep of a 2,200 mile network of canals that British Waterways manages throughout the UK. Selling the properties at rock bottom prices would not be in the interests of the taxpayer and would create serious long-term funding and environmental problems."

Landslips and water-flows affect rail travel in Wales

Arriva Trains Wales has announced, yesterday and today, closure of two lines in Wales. The landslip near Tondu is going to affect journey times to and from the capital from the Llynfi valley, as buses replace trains. The economic impact of the Caersws-Machynlleth closure is probably less than it would have been in the tourist season, but it is still troubling.

It is likely that both are related to the increased rainfall we have experienced in the last eighteen months. This is probably more to blame than any failures of maintenance, but perhaps Network Rail should look at uprating its standards in view of the undeniable effects of climate change.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Respectful, but not solemn

If you haven't heard it already, it's worth listening to Bill Bailey's "Private Passions" (in conversation with Michael Berkeley), which is available for the next seven days. Bailey is a "proper" musician, who almost embarked on a concert career, so that his humour is all the more telling through his playing music straight.

He also revealed a great interest in the music & instruments of other cultures, for which there was sadly little time today. Perhaps he should collaborate with Andy Kershaw or Lucy Duran in an exploration of this side of his shows in another R3 programme?

Think before you vote

David Peter has a biting criticism of the present political condition, for which not only the media but also we voters are to blame.

A fair voting system is only part of the solution. After all, we have BNP representatives in the European Parliament as a result of proportional voting and STV is no guarantee against rogues coming to the top, as the Irish Republic has shown.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Kommissar Harman true to form

Lynne Featherstone reports that the Leader of the House plans to push her Equality Bill through Report Stage and Third Reading in a single day.

One recalls that one of Labour's first acts in power was to speed through a measure to allow patenting of plant species. On that day, the Labour payroll vote complained that Liberal Democrats Norman Baker and Simon Hughes were keeping them from an early train home by actually debating the issues. In the words of Kiki Dee, the government is going out the same way it came in.

One wonders, though, whether her own side will all give Ms Harman an easy ride.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Liberal Democrat leader should be more positive

The local party web site has published a rebuttal of newspaper spin that Nick Clegg is contemplating coalition with the Conservatives after the election, and Peter Black has already commented.

It seems to me that the current party leadership is inviting this sort of speculation by not being positive enough. When Paddy Ashdown led the 1997 general election campaign, he refused to allow the party to be defined* in relation to the other two national parties, but stressed that the more Liberal Democrat votes were cast, the more Liberal Democrat policies were likely to be implemented. This was from a base of just over a third of the seats we have now.

His attitude to the Conservatives was: "we can and should be the sensible, common sense Party that appeals to the values of decency and fairness which many Tories believed in (and which their Party no longer seems to); we cannot compete with them for occupation of the 'Right'. There will always be a right wing Party in Britain and it will never be the Liberal Democrats !"

One can add "civil liberties" to the list, and it would still be true today.

*sadly not true of some press liaison people, I am reminded.

Monday, 23 November 2009

RSPB says WAG will miss key target

In 2001, EU Heads of State set a target to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010, and at that time, the Welsh Government (then a Labour-LibDem coalition) set out its own aim to meet this target. As we approach 2010, it is now widely acknowledged that this ambitious commitment will not be met and we are still losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.

RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Cymru is calling on the National Assembly for Wales to hold an inquiry looking at the reasons why the 2010 target will be missed and to make recommendations to the Welsh Assembly Government on how we can meet our future targets, including the Wales Environment Strategy target to have brought about recovery by 2026.

By following the link below and adding your name to the petition, you can help the RSPB make the Assembly Government face the fact that we are still losing our wildlife and urge them to ensure we meet the target to have recovery of biodiversity underway by 2026.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Boundary Commission at bottom of learning curve

When I learned last year that several key figures in the Boundary Commission for Wales were to retire together, I feared there might be trouble. The publication last month of some strange recommendations to ward boundaries in Neath Port Talbot suggested that the new lot had something to learn about geography. Now it seems that their mathematics needs brushing up.

Rodney Berman, the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association’s Liberal Democrat Group, smelled a rat when he examined proposals for Newport and for Denbighshire. The Commission had been given guidance by the Minister for Local Government, Brian Gibbons, that in reviewing the electoral arrangements of all Welsh counties it should aim “to achieve electoral divisions with a councillor to electorate ratio no lower than 1:1750”. The Commission confused lower with higher ratios. For example: in Newport, Commissioners are proposing moving from a current ratio of councillors to electors of 1:2283 to a ratio of 1:2447 on the wrong assumption that 1:2447 is more than 1:2283. In actual fact a ratio of 1:2447 is less than a ratio of 1:2283 because it gives you a lesser number of councillors for a given size of electorate.

To make absolutely certain, Rodney had professors of mathematics and of medical statistics confirm his suspicions in writing.

Apparently, there is already a row between WAG and the Commission, presumably over the Commission's failure to take notice of minister Dr Gibbons' other request, to consider local accountability in drawing up its proposals. Rodney Berman says: "Angry letters have been exchanged with the Commission complaining that its independence is being threatened. But no-one seems to have spotted that the Commission has got its maths wrong, and this is a key reason why it has come up with results which are contrary to what the Minister intended.

“What concerns me most is the amount of time and money that could have been wasted as a result of this blunder. Boundary reviews that have been published, or are still in preparation, may now turn out to be invalid and the Commission may have to go back to the drawing board. This could mean the Commission is unable to complete its task of reviewing electoral division boundaries in all 22 Welsh local authorities in time for the next round of local elections in Wales in 2012.”

More details are on Freedom Central.

Neath Port Talbot council meets in just over three weeks time. The Boundary Commission proposals are on the agenda. It should be a lively session.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Probably the best result in Europe

The two top positions of the European Union, created by the Lisbon Treaty, have been filled.  Herman Van Rompuy was appointed permanent President of the European Council and Baroness Catherine Ashton was appointed High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.The Swedish presidency must be congratulated on not only achieving a satisfactory conclusion to the selection process, but also filling the gaps in the job descriptions left by the Treaty document They have ensured that, in particular, the post of president will not be the imperial one which was envisaged by the supporters of Tony Blair (as well as, one suspects, the French or Italians). We are fortunate that the revolving presidency terminated in Stockholm.

The appointment of Baroness Ashton is already being hailed in our media as a triumph for the United Kingdom. One hopes that this jingoistic reaction does not take the shine off what is actually a communitaire decision. During her time as Commissioner, she has earned the respect of MEPs across party and national boundaries. If anything, the cack-handed campaign by British ministers leading up to the election ran the risk of damaging her chances.

As Danny Alexander, MP, aide to Nick Clegg, said tonight, it was the right result for the wrong reasons.

Westminster arrogance

An article yesterday quoted Wales' head of the civil service as identifying "a lack of genuine commitment to devolution and a culture of arrogance in some Whitehall departments." Dame Gill has responded by reorganising the top level of administration in Wales to mesh more with Whitehall (and saving around half a million pounds at the same time).

However, judging by some of yesterday's contributions to the Queen's Speech debate, the civil service is taking its lead from the politicians.

Same old message from government on Afghanistan

Both the PM and Peter Hain have called for greater political understanding of our role in Afghanistan, then repeat the tired message which an opinion poll has shown that the UK public has heard, but does not believe. Mr Brown, in the Queen's Speech debate, again used the expression "keeping our streets safe", while Mr Hain varied with: “The government is determined not to be defeated by terrorism and extremism, which would threaten our security here in Wales.”

Yet, of those people surveyed by the Independent, "nearly half – 47 per cent – think that the threat of terrorism on UK soil is increased by British forces remaining in Afghanistan, while 44 per cent disagree. The position is at odds with the argument put by government ministers that the Afghan campaign was vital to preventing terrorism around the world – and in the UK."

[Later] There is a good piece in the Independent by David Davis, the Conservative front-bencher and once leadership contestant, now discarded by David Cameron. In his introduction, he writes: "the original 'ink-blot' strategy, based on the Malayan success, envisaged commanding and dominating areas of land and population. Within those areas the rule of law would apply, and the ordinary citizens would be able to go about their business, farming, trading, and supporting their families unmolested by the insurgents. Like ink-blots, these areas would expand until they joined up. The concept depended on guaranteeing security and normality to the population inside the inkblots, so that they would be better off than those in the insurgent areas.

"Instead, within months, and under pressure from President Karzai, this was abandoned in favour of defending a number of far-flung outposts, in locations where our authority did not extend more than a rifle-shot beyond the walls of the compound."

So, what was a British strategy, proven in Borneo as well as Malaysia, and one which no doubt Paddy Ashdown would have endorsed if he had been given the task of UN oversight, was abandoned in favour of one which suited the USA and President Karzai, but has not been as successful. Davis states, however, that there have been belated second thoughts.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Devolution: a good day to bury embarrasing reports

As a (Labour) correspondent in North Wales points out, there has been no official reaction to the publication of the Jones Parry report. At the time of writing, not even the National Assembly for Wales web-site refers to it. Of course, most of the UK media will be concerned with what - probably irrelevant - measures are in the Queen's Speech delivered this morning.

Peter Black can, however, be relied on to deliver a verdict. Glyn Davies will also have something to say, I'm sure.

Plaid welcomes the report, though in rather broad terms, but there is nothing from Labour.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Dark Skies

Congratulations on Wigtownshire and the Forestry Commission in establishing the first Dark Sky Park in the UK.

However, I can't help feeling that Powys CC has missed a marketing opportunity, as there are parts of the county which are surely as free of light pollution as anywhere in Scotland. The Scots are already reckoning the amount of increased tourism which the designation is going to give them.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Disappearing DNA database story

It has been reported in the Daily Mail, and referred to in today's Independent, that a £150,000 p.a. city solicitor lost her job because her employers discovered that her name appeared on the Home Office DNA database. The story was that her DNA had been taken because of a complaint against her, which had proved to be unfounded. It is just the sort of anecdote which we opponents of the casual saving of innocent people's DNA, as well as of the proposed National Identity Register, fear may become all too common.

However, the Daily Mail web site no longer has the story in question. Click on the link and you will receive a "not found" message. Since there appears to be no other source for the story, one wonders whether the Mail jumped the gun and printed before it could stand the story up.

Friday, 13 November 2009

More failings in the CRB

Richard Baum draws attention to the increase in number of disputes with the the Criminal Records Bureau.

Liberal International President: "hombre con cojones"

That once darling of the Left, Daniel Ortega, was criticised by the new Liberal International president, Hans van Baalen, for his attempt to subvert the constitution. Ortega responded by banning v. Baalen from Nicaragua.

This is a good illustration for Americans that "liberal" does not mean "socialist", but I doubt if the story will get into any of the media north of the Rio Grande.

In more detail: The new President of Liberal International, Hans van Baalen, MEP, has been expelled from Nicaragua by the populist Sandinista President Daniel Ortega. Van Baalen heard of this action against him shortly after leaving the country for Costa Rica. The LI President confronted Ortega and called on him to respect the constitution which prohibits him from entering a new term as president. Van Baalen also reached an agreement with the leaders of the Liberal opposition parties BND, PLC and ALN, to combine forces against Ortega during the 2011 elections. He told Ortega: “Check out in 2011, Mr. President”. While supporters of Ortega harassed the LI delegation during a press conference, liberals outside chanted: “Van Baalen, hombre con cojones”. Van Baalen commented on the situation: "Ortega is trying to bypass this article in the constitution illegally. The violation of civil rights is not just a national matter that can be ignored." Van Baalen was in Nicaragua leading a high level delegation to several Central American countries. See coverage of the LI visit on the LI youtube-channel

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Burmese Liberals in exile

Liberal International has given observer status to the National League for Democracy - Liberated Areas of Burma. The aim of the organisation is the restoration of British-style parliamentary democracy to Burma.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Simple and complex messages of war

2009 has been an extraordinary year for anniversaries. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) feed has alerted me to another one and enabled me at last to put a name to one of my favourite pieces of public art. In 1934, the year which saw the deaths of three great British composers, Holst, Delius and Elgar, Charles Sargeant Jagger also died, on 16th November. It is Jagger's memorial to railway employees who died in the Great War which is a perpetual presence on platform one of Paddington station, and which I usually had time to pause before when waiting for the South Wales train. The sculpture is at once monumental in scale and personal in effect, as it depicts a Tommy, in a rare break between actions no doubt, reading a letter from home. Jagger, who knew whereof he modelled, having served in Gallipoli, France and Belgium, being gassed and winning the MC, seems to have made a conscious decision to introduce contemporary and realistic types into his memorials, breaking with the tradition of allegorical and other classical figures.

One can read many things into the statue, but most conditioned by hindsight. To the pals, by trade, profession or locality, who volunteered for the front in their thousands, the call was simple: to fight for their country, even at the risk of death. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

By the time the second world war came round, people had become more knowledgeable, so that a more honest, if more complex, message had to be put out. The fight was for more than ones homeland and loved ones, but also for the small nations and minorities of Europe. The full horror of the extermination camps had yet to be realised, but the steady stream of Jewish refugees had made it obvious that there was persecution on a large scale. Although the British people could have stuck with a government which promised "peace for our time", it decided that it would back Churchill in standing up to the dictators.

This government seems to have miscalculated in its need to persuade the electorate to support the war in Afghanistan. It seems that the public no longer believes the government, judging by a poll in The Independent newspaper. It has used a simple message, based on fear: our boys need to fight in Helmond to prevent terrorism on the streets of Britain. Now this may be one of the beneficial outcomes some way down the line, but it seems to me that it is not the main reason for NATO forces to be in Afghanistan, and that the electorate deserves a more nuanced explanation, even if it cannot be expressed as a simple headline. It is essential that Afghanistan join the community of nations as a stable and self-sufficient entity. A lawless state bordering Pakistan is surely going to destabilise the government in Islamabad, which is already under much pressure. A more militant regime in Islamabad, armed with nuclear weapons, is bad news for India and thence for the world economy, in which India is now a player. It is also a good thing that women are, by the extension of education, being given the status which the Prophet accorded them, rather than the subjection of tribalism or the Taliban. Opium poppy is being replaced by wheat (I should like the UN to go a stage further, and, where wheat will not grow, licence poppy-farming for pharmaceutical purposes.) Finally, there is the blow to the prestige of the British Army, and therefore to its effectiveness in future campaigns, if we are seen to turn tail now. The men themselves want to finish the job and the Afghan people still prefer us to the Taliban.

I've rather run on, but I must finish with another set of complex thoughts on war, from the Great War to Iraq, by Robert Fisk. He cites the best-known writers on the subject, but surely his own prose stands comparison. Here he is on an Iraqi soldier, caught by Iran's terrible response in 1985 to Saddam's attempt at expansion by conquest:

I see another body in a gun pit, a young man in the foetal position curled up like a child, already blackening with death but with a wedding ring on his finger. I am mesmerised by the ring. On this hot, golden morning, it glitters and sparkles with freshness and life. He has black hair and is around 25 years old. Or should that be "was"? Do we stop the clock when death surprises us? Do we say, as Binyon wrote, that "they shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old"? Age may not weary them nor the years condemn, but their humanity is quickly taken from their remains by the swiftness of corruption and the jolly old sun. I look again at the ring. An arranged marriage or a love match? Where was he from, this soldier-corpse? ... And his wife? He could not be more than three days dead. Somewhere to the north of us, his wife is waking the children, making breakfast, glancing at her husband's photograph on the wall, unaware that she is already a widow and that her husband's wedding ring, so bright with love for her on this glorious morning, embraces a dead finger.

The unknown railwayman and the unknown Iraqi are linked. They were deceived or compelled into war. The men whose deaths in Afghanistan we mourn had been far better educated about the situation, and better than the British public has been. They deserved better support from the MoD. Their fellows and successors need that support still.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

More Welsh beer

Further to my previous posting about bottled beers & ales, and courtesy of Carwyn Edwards' world-wide newsletter about things Welsh, I have learnt of Newmans Brewery's launch of a truly all-Welsh beer. Unfortunately, I have not been able to sample any of the company's products, but there is more about Celt Experience on the web-site.

Monday, 9 November 2009

New nuclear

As regular readers may be aware, I do not share my party's black-and-white (I think the in-word is "Manichaean") view of nuclear power generation. For me, it has long been an economic decision, taking into account the costs of waste disposal. At present, it is still cheaper to build fossil-fuel-powered power stations, but with the long-term trend of increases in oil, gas and coal, and the emergence of one or two standard nuclear designs, bringing down design-and-build costs there, the lines on the graph may cross over in the foreseeable future. Moreover, any new coal-fired power station should have exhaust gas capture built in, which will add to the cost.

However, Labour is wrong to use the power of the state to impose nuclear power stations on a population. It is illiberal. It is reminiscent of state socialism - or rather, since the beneficiaries will be private companies - of the dictatorships of Hitler & Mussolini.

So far, the Conservatives have made no comment on what is, admittedly, just a trail so far. But I imagine they hope that this problematic decision will be out of the way by the time of the general election? There was some muttering from the Conservative benches against the Infrastructure Planning Commission. Will the Conservatives make a manifesto commitment to abolish this fast-track planning procedure, as, I trust, the Liberal Democrats will?

Update: In the debate on Ed Miliband's statetement in the House this afternoon, Dr Greg Clark confirmed for the Conservatives that they are right behind the Infrastructure Planning Commission. He is on all fours with John Prescott, who used the opportunity to sneer at elected planning committees. There is, though, one point on which Dr Clark (and David Heathcoat-Amory) are clearly correct on: the avoidance of hard decisions by government over the last dozen years, which has meant a drift to the current emergency where the only solution is a nuclear one, and based on just two designs, both of which have been questioned technically.

The drift also lost hundreds of jobs on Anglesey because nobody was prepared to give assurances about a constant electricity supply, which an aluminium smelter requires, at the time when the operator required them. I note that Wylfa is one of the sites proposed for replacement nuclear power stations.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Inventor says mobile phones now too complex

The first demonstration of a mobile telephone took place thirty years ago. Martin Cooper, the man at Motorola responsible for it, worries about the way things are going. He is all for doing one thing well, rather than trying to cram too many facilities into one device.

I must admit that my mobile has a camera, but otherwise it is the cheapest I could get. If it weren't for the political activity, I wouldn't have one at all.

There is one other feature which I am told is unusual to find on a cheap 'phone: the ability to switch from an aural ring-tone to a low-frequency buzz. This is invaluable for the occasions when I forget to switch the phone off before going into a meeting.

Monday, 2 November 2009

David Nutt

Richard Baum has a very thoughtful piece on the dismissal of the head of the drugs advisory council. Having read this, and seen the short Q&A session on BBC-Parliament this afternoon, I am now not so certain that Alan Johnson was wrong to respond to the recent attacks by Professor Nutt on the subject of declassifying cannabis.

The Home Secretary was responding in the Commons this afternoon to an urgent question put down by Christopher Grayling, his Conservative opposite number. He immediately established that there was not a Rizla between the respective policy positions. However, what Grayling most objected to was not Nutt's attempt to re-open the cannabis debate, but his earlier use of a homely analogy to put the dangers of Ecstasy in proportion. In a lecture, he had pointed out that, based on mortality statistics, it was more dangerous to go horse-riding than to take E.

This is demonstrably true, and, as Chris Huhne for the Liberal Democrats argued, Dr Nutt had a perfect right to make the point he did, in a lecture which was reported in a journal of pharmacology. If academics, who give their time as advisors gratis, are going to be called to account by the media for papers and lectures which are part of their "day job", they will be increasingly reluctant to volunteer.

It was unsurprising that nobody on the Conservative benches stood up for academic freedom in this area, and that most of the payroll vote on the government side also supported the Home Secretary. It was puzzling, though, that the Speaker did not call Paul Flynn (Labour, Newport West) who is known to have liberal views on drugs. Unless he has recanted of the views on his blog, he would have helped to balance the discussion. It was not for want of trying to catch the Speaker's eye.

As it was, it looked as if only Liberal Democrats and one SNP member were prepared to stand up for a position which will no doubt be caricatured in the popular press tomorrow. (Though I have faith that the Independent will support us on this.) [There is an Indy report here - FHL 2009-11-3]

Alan Johnson had at his disposal a more apposite and respectable argument, that put by Professor Robin Murray on Radio 4's "World at One", that Professor Nutt was slow to accept evidence contrary to his position on cannabis. Murray cited the potency of "skunk", the damage to memory caused by long-term use of cannabis and the significant correlation between cannabis use and schizophrenia. Murray asserted that Nutt had initially rejected all three findings, but had later had to accept them. If this accusation is true, then Nutt's suitability as chairman of the advisory council would be in doubt. A closed mind would surely disqualify him.

Nutt should have a chance to answer these criticisms in public. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see this real debate on the science. As Chris Huhne said, so far the debate has not risen above the schoolboy level.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Harman refuses debate on data security

Pressed by both David Heath for the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives' Sir George Young and even one of her own back-benchers, Andrew Miller, the Leader of the House today brushed off requests for a debate on data assurance. She refused to see a connection between the collection of vast amounts of personal data by the Home Office and yet another failure of security of government-collected data, reported this morning. She implied that the probability of increased numbers of convictions for rape and murder outweighed any dangers of people's DNA data getting into the wrong hands.

The latest scandal concerns the Rural Payments Agency. The RPA lost confidential data belonging to anyone who has ever claimed a single farm payment in England. According to Caroline Stocks of the Farmers Weekly, computer tapes containing the bank details, addresses, passwords and security questions of more than 100,000 farmers were discovered missing in May after they were transferred from RPA offices in Reading to Newcastle. Although DEFRA was alerted straight away - " it is Farmers Weekly's understanding that" DEFRA made no attempt to inform anyone. There is more here.

Crude message from Governor Schwarzenegger

The leader of California has sent a message to the state's elected representatives which betrays a long-built-up annoyance. People who are good at acrostics will immediately spot a hidden message which is even more blunt than the straight text.

Hat-tip to Jonathan Calder.

Should Blair be EU president?

Don't comment here, but go to the vote on Liberal Democrat Voice.

(To see the news from the current EU presidency, held by Sweden, go here.)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The continuing saga of troughing MPs

Radio news is reporting this morning that Sir Christopher Kelly is going to recommend that family members (including presumably civil partners) should no longer be employed by MPs out of public funds. Personally, I don't have any difficulty with the latter, in spite of some well-publicised abuses. If the job is not a sinecure, and the holder is good enough, then surely it doesn't matter how he or she is appointed? Of course, a blanket ban is much easier to enforce.

He also recommends that there should be an end to "flipping" and other abuses of the allowances for housing. However, the terms "horse" and "stable door" come to mind. No action is going to be taken against current rogues, in spite of pressure from Nick. Stephen Tall puts it much better in

Monday, 26 October 2009

Lord Avebury in the wars

Alerted to the fact that Lord Avebury was in hospital as a result of a couple of accidents, I checked his blog. We always knew he was a good man, right from the time he won Orpington in a by-election (as Eric Lubbock), but the information in his potted biography that prior to entering politics he had not only been in production engineering in Rolls-Royce, but also a junior officer in the Welsh Guards, was new to me.

Friday, 23 October 2009

A sideways look at Nick Griffin's "Question Time"

That's effectively what it was. The entire programme revolved round him. Well in advance of the actual transmission it was clear that the BNP leader was being used to attract publicity for the programme, an impression that was confirmed by the inordinate coverage given this morning by BBC outlets - including, sadly, Radio Wales - to the show.

The party's spin doctor complained this morning about the concentration on Griffin and the policies that the BNP is most well-known for. In private he must have been cheering. If other topics of the moment - the economy, for instance - had been discussed, the lack of coherent policy across the board would have been exposed. I remember from one of my previous election hustings that the flakiness of the nationalist fringe candidate (either UKIP or Referendum Party) was really exposed when questioning moved away from his comfort zone. We had some hint of that last night when the one serious non-race question, that of homophobia, came up.

I am not as great a fan of Bonnie Greer as Peter Black evidently is, judging by his view of last night's proceedings, but I thought she did a more thorough demolition job on Nick Griffin than the other members of the panel by patronising him - or, rather, by dealing with him as a nanny would treat a wayward charge.

I would also agree with Peter Black that Chris Huhne did well, in spite of his being excluded for long periods by David Dimbleby. It was unfortunate that Huhne appeared to pander to the Conservative/BNP anti-EU line by bringing up the subject of the free market in labour being opened up to East European accession countries, something that was seized on by the cunning Griffin.

I thought Griffin destroyed one of his party's own arguments by citing the persistence of male DNA through from Iron Age remains to the present day. As Bonnie Greer had pointed out, soldiers - though not necessarily citizens, as she suggested - from all over the Roman Empire, including North Africa, had been posted to legions garrisoning this country for the four hundred years of the empire. Many must have settled. Since then, there have been waves of immigration, largely fleeing persecution on the continent, yet the character of Britain has hardly changed. If we can stand two millennia of migration, then the restricted* inflow of the current decade is hardly going to alter things.

Dimbleby's concentration on Griffin had another unfortunate side-effect: the policies of the three major parties were not examined. I would have thought that Baroness Warsi's position was uncomfortably close to that of BNP, for instance, and Chris Huhne's attack on the government's lack of control was not answered by Jack Straw.

"Question Time" didn't tell me anything new about the BNP, but it did confirm what a slippery character Nick Griffin is. It was summed up for me by his assertion that David Duke was a member of a nice chapter of the Ku Klux Klan when he had posed with Griffin, but had since gone to the bad.

*It would be minimal if the government policed its own laws effectively

Local democratic control of health spending

The headline debates of 21st October were on two subjects chosen by Liberal Democrats, the plight of Equitable Life pensioners and climate change. Vince Cable's introduction to the former is well worth reading. However, my eye was caught by a ten-minute rule Bill introduced by another Liberal Democrat, Dr John Pugh. It pointed up a problem of financial control in the NHS in England which has echoes this side of the border.

The Local Health Services and Democratic Involvement Bill seeks to require, among other things, Primary Care Trusts to obtain prior approval for their spending plans, involving relevant local authorities.

Dr Pugh harboured few illusions about the odds of the Bill making it to the statute book, but in his presentation he made one or two sharp points.

"The local NHS is a huge taxpayer-funded service, affects everyone, is important to everyone, but is sadly totally remote from democratic decision making," he said. "Those who take the trouble to get elected to secure a mandate can make decisions about [where people] may smoke and what, but not about what happens in the local NHS in their area.

"MPs can protest at the actions of such bodies, [but] the thought of allowing anyone who has gone through the sordid process of getting elected anywhere near decision making has given successive Governments the vapours, and has been resisted hook, line and sinker, much to the satisfaction of hospital chief executives and health service managers.

"When an MP raises in this place decisions that their constituents oppose, and tasks a Minister about it, time and again the Minister, with almost comic sincerity, in Pontius Pilate fashion, says, 'This is a matter for local decision making,' as though 'local decision making' implied that local people—outside the quango circle—had any part in it.

"That is a perversion of democracy, but it satisfies the professionals, who like the prescription and genuinely fear the alternative—democratic accountability. [...] Liberal Democrats are very comfortable with the idea of elected health boards. We believe in removing appointees who have been whisked smugly or, in some cases, humbly into power because they have impressed some other appointee who has previously been whisked smugly or humbly into power, and replacing them with elected individuals who have had to impress the citizens served by the local trust, who gain community support and approval, and who, ultimately, justify their position to the people whom they serve.

"My Bill is simply a bridge to that position. It involves even less change, and uses existing institutions. I propose that primary care trusts, as currently constituted, lay before the health scrutiny committees of existing councils, as currently constituted, their annual plans and their big decisions—not for scrutiny or consultation, but for approval, agreement and amendment. I propose a kind of democratic lock on the local NHS: a move beyond mere consultation. I propose a genuine redistribution of power from one existing institution to another existing, established institution. This is such a good idea that I believe that the model has already been embraced voluntarily in some areas."

Dr Pugh concluded: "I genuinely see no reason why this model cannot work—in fact, it does work— and produce not simply good decisions, but good decisions with a popular mandate. That would be nice. Our NHS could be reclaimed, without micro-management or meddling, and not with government by experts but with popular government, expertly informed."

Sadly, the Bill will almost certainly fail to get a second reading, so we won't even hear the government's arguments against it, but these would no doubt be similar to those of Edwina Hart in centralising the NHS in Wales.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Free speech and the Mail newspapers

There may well be calls for Vince Cable to end his contributions to the Mail Online, in view of Jan Moir's homophobic recent article. It would be wrong for him to do so. Apart from being a gesture against press freedom, it would take away a counter-weight to conservative articles in a popular journal. The Mail outlets have a substantial readership which votes Liberal Democrat. I can't believe that the Moir article is typical of Mail readers' thinking, but I do hope that Vince addresses the issue in his next column.

BNP on the hustings

The BNP has not yet complied with the legal ruling that it must not discriminate on grounds of race in recruiting members. I accept that it requires a resolution by the party to amend its constitution, but until that is done, the BBC should not engage spokesmen for the BNP on the corporation's discussion programmes. I agree with Peter Hain to that extent. Otherwise, I am with Peter Black. The genie is out of the bottle, and cannot be ignored.

There will almost certainly be a BNP candidate in Neath in the forthcoming general election. I hope that Mr Hain will not boycott any public meetings at which all candidates are present. After nearly forty years of political experience at Westminster, following leadership of a group dedicated to ending apartheid in South Africa, he is in the best position to give the lie to BNP's underlying racist philosophy.

I intend, as the Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency, to do my best to defend the British tradition of tolerance, but it would be so much more effective to have two of us on the platform doing so.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Montgomeryshire Canal

In an ecumenical spirit, politically speaking, I draw attention to Glyn Davies's photos of the Canal and tribute to the volunteers who made its reopening possible.

There are those who dream of connecting the Swansea and/or Neath canals to the Brecon & Montgomery. It won't happen in my lifetime, but I'd like to see movement towards this.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Why wait for the general election before resigning?

David Wilshire, the Conservative MP for Spelthorne (Surrey/Middlesex), who has been exposed as channelling public money into a company run by himself and his SO, has announced, clearly under pressure from his party leader, that he will not stand for election again. (Jonathan Calder has more of the background.) But surely the nature of the offence is prima facie so serious, bordering on the criminal, that he should have been advised to stand down immediately?

Pam Giddy advises MPs complaining about being asked to return expenses & allowances: "when you are in a hole, stop digging".

It is unfortunate that the Liberal Democrat leader got the taxpayers to fund his redecorations. (For the rest of the LibDem record, see Liberal Voice.) However, both Nick Clegg and Conservative leader David Cameron put their hands up and have agreed to pay back their excessive claims without demur. Unfortunately, too many Labour and Conservative members are continuing to whine about "unfairness".

The main complaint now appears to be that Sir Thomas Legg, the retired senior civil servant charged with cleaning up after the expenses scandal, is changing the rules. (Incidentally, I confess to a wry grin, when the Legg letters were first made public, that strict civil service standards, which I and my colleagues used to groan about, were being applied to politicians' claims.) Just because the Fees Office passed dubious claims does not make those claims retrospectively right. One might as well say that one should not be charged with old crimes because the local police turned a blind eye at the time. Honourable members (and let us remember that the majority are still honourable) have to attest that any expenditure must be incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the performance of parliamentary duties.

What part of "wholly, exclusively and necessarily" don't they understand?

Monday, 12 October 2009

Patrick Hannan

Radio Wales has just announced that Patrick Hannan has died. It's difficult to find the words to express how much of a loss this is.

The news came as a shock. Adrian Masters had sat in for him on "Called to Order" for the last two weeks, so one assumed he had been ill, but it was announced that he would return shortly.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Life imitating art

Every so often a sketch by the great Liverpudlian comedian Robb Wilton is repeated on the radio. After "The Day War Broke Out", the most popular are his turns as a bureaucratic fire chief and an incompetent police sergeant, who turns away a woman confessing to murder.

Now, courtesy of the India Uncut blog, comes this story from the Times of India. In true Robb Wilton fashion, an Indian desk sergeant refused to book a self-confessed murderer because the crime did not occur in his district.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Conservatives and Wales

Bernard Salmon has commented on this morning's Conservative unionist love-in regarding Scotland, so I should be expected to comment on the Welsh aspects. Unfortunately, I failed to record the BBC-Parliament transmission. They topped the vote in the Euro elections (but didn't mention that UKIP also did well). Cheryl Gillan said that she was born in Wales and that she had been working closely with Nick Bourne for years. Nick Bourne said that Welsh Labour would probably fall apart when Rhodri went and remarked on the prominence of the Conservative candidate in Delyn. That's just about all I can remember. They did go on about the Euro vote, though.

Conservatives in Manchester (!V)

It is hard to take seriously David Cameron's assertion that the Conservative party has performed a U-turn in the short period in which he has been in charge. This is the party which when in government legislated against the "promotion of homosexuality", introduced PFI and the internal market to the health service and put the caps on local government financing - especially housing finance - which Prescott and Brown made great use of. Yet Cameron said today that civil partnerships, the NHS and local decision-making were good things.

A sign that Conservative hypocrisy is not dead came in William Hague's speech when he lambasted Labour for closing post offices - a process which the Conservatives had set in motion.

Forgive me if I am not convinced by the "Ready for Change" slogan. The applause in the Manchester Central auditorium for the more liberal parts of Cameron's speech was hesitant and lukewarm, and there are too many people from the Powell-Boyle-Thatcher project still around at the top level of the party.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Conservatives in Manchester (II)

Hague and Pickles were careful to damp down expectations of a Conservative victory when they spoke yesterday. They pointed out that it would take the greatest Conservative voting swing since 1931 for them to gain an absolute majority. This was presented as a warning to Conservative party workers not to be complacent, not to assume that the Labour melt-down would automatically propel their party into office.

I suspect that the message was also directed at the media. The Conservative leadership certainly does not want appear to be triumphalist, but it may be more than that. Private polling may be supporting what many of us expect: that, on present voting intentions, there will be a hung parliament after the next election. They would prefer to be able to say "I told you so" to the editors, rather than the other way round.

No doubt many Conservative activists are salivating at the thought of another 40+ majority alla Thatcher 1979. They should remember that there was only one similarity between then and now: a discredited Labour government had only just started pulling itself out of a hole with international financial support.

The arithmetic is different: Callaghan in 1979 did not have an overall majority; Brown still has a nominal superiority of over fifty.

The parties were different. In 1979, the Conservatives could argue that they were providing a free-market alternative to failed socialism. In 1996, Brown and Blair took economic liberalism on board and, apart from a change in the language since Brown became prime minister, the New Labour project has hardly deviated thereafter. Cameron and company seem to be presenting themselves as better managers - rather as Blair did in 1997 - not offering a different philosophy.

Finally, there is the position of the third party. The Liberals under David Steel had restored confidence in the UK economy by going into coalition with Callaghan, quitting in 1978 when the crisis was over. The party was still punished at the ballot for its association with Labour, when the only alternative was seen to be Mrs Thatcher. Thirty years later, the parliamentary third party, the Liberal Democrats, is ten times the size of its 1979 counterpart and far from being seen as a natural supporter of New Labour. If people merely want to vote "not Labour", there is a realistic choice, depending on where they live.

No wonder the Conservatives are wooing Liberal Democrat supporters. This morning's conference session on local government, with its obsession with potholes, traffic lights and bendy-buses looked like a videoconferencing version of a classic LD Focus leaflet.

Conservatives in Manchester (III)

Passing lightly over the proposals by Michael Gove (a Scot, I should point out) for education in England - though I do worry about the return of the imperial view of history to the curriculum of the dominant nation of the union - I want to concentrate on what Dominic Grieve and Chris Grayling had to say about crime and justice.

Disappointingly, the message was the same invocation of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) which has disfigured Labour's pronouncements on crime since their 1996 conference. In one respect, the Conservatives have gone backwards. Last year, they were honest enough to state that their hard line on early release and on replacing fines with prison would involve building more gaols. This year, there was not a mention of the cost of their programme: neither the buildings, nor the extra staffing required for the increased discipline in prisons. Dominic Grieve wants a policy of zero tolerance of drugs in prison, but surely he knows that in the most under-staffed prisons, warders tacitly accept the easy availability of drugs which keep prisoners quiescent.

Chris Grayling seemed to think that the only cause of youth offending was the low price of drink, and that preventing supermarkets from selling booze below cost price would solve that problem. (The supermarkets say that they don't sell below cost, and I believe them; their purchasing power is such that they can drive down the cost to them and probably still leave a healthy margin in their normal pricing. I doubt that they make a loss on price promotions especially since the practice on many other lines is to force the supplier to share part of the cut.)

The only positive messages came from the discussion sessions. Such as Mary Smart, Junior Stuart and others whose names I didn't catch, were working practically on the ground in various ways to turn round the lives of offenders. It was good to see them given a national platform. They (and those in the same field who spoke to Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth) ought to be an encouragement to others in the community to do the same. Sadly, apart from a few words of praise, there was no encouragement from either of the Conservative spokesmen in the way of commitment to help from government.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Directly-elected police commissioners

It is worrying that the Conservatives are persisting with this populist policy, at a time when the United States has virtually got rid of this method of appointment. Criminologist Lawrence Sherman illustrated one reason at a Q&A session in Bournemouth a fortnight ago. If I recall his anecdote correctly, a race-based protest in a southern State was being put down brutally by a police force which was out of control partly because, at the time, its elected commissioner was arguing in the courts for his continuing in an office which the legislature had abolished.

Conservatives in Manchester (I)

The Conservatives are as secretive about their conference agenda as Labour. If someone can point me to a publicly-available programme, I would be grateful.

It was clever of them to get one of their weakest pitches out of the way on the first morning. Sir George Young outlined some very desirable democratic changes to House of Commons procedures at length, but dismissed the allowances and expenses scandal, which arguably implicated as much mis-spending on the part of Conservative MPs as Labour ones, in a couple of sentences at the beginning.

Sir George rightly drew attention to the Select Committee system which has proved so valuable over the last twenty years. What he omitted was the name of Norman St John Stevas, the prime mover of the changes. He was not Margaret Thatcher's favourite person, which may have had something to do with his air-brushing out of Conservative history this morning.

(Given the keynote of austerity sounded by Eric Pickles, it was rather tactless to fill in the gap between presentations with a backing track which, if I heard correctly, repeated the mantra "Shop till you drop".)

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Glamorgan chairman refuses to guarantee Maynard's position

I would be more worried if he had given the traditional vote of confidence which means that the incumbent is on his way out!

Steve James, on Radio Wales this morning, reckoned that if Maynard goes, Dalrymple will also. While I have had my doubts about some of the cricket manager's pronouncements, I have none about Dalrymple's captaincy. In my view, he is the best since Tony Lewis, his bowling changes being particularly astute. It should be remembered that, though Glamorgan finished in the middle of the second division table, the gap between success and mediocrity was narrow. If memory serves, there were three matches in which Glamorgan were on the brink of victory having the opposition nine wickets down. If two of the three had gone the county's way, we could have been celebrating promotion now.

The letter that will never be printed

Not the least regrettable feature of the sudden demise of the Neath Guardian was that the letters page was dumped in favour of a retrospective article.

At least I have Web access and can post my last letter below. I am sorry for any reader who put a letter in and is not online. Anyway, I am not about to let Alun Llewelyn have the last word:

Letter to Neath Guardian "points of view"

Does Alun Llewelyn (“points of view”, September 24) really claim that the economic policies of the current coalition government in Cardiff are “Plaid-led”? If so, he must be accepting responsibility for the overwhelming financial pressure on local authorities to persuade their tenants to say “Yes” to housing stock transfer.

Of course this is not so. We both know that the Plaid Cymru housing minister is following the Labour policy made in Westminster, just as the Nationalists have done about-turns on fair votes and local income tax in return for their ministerial seats.

Frank Little
Prospective parliamentary candidate,
Neath constituency

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Labour and rail transport

Further to my complaint yesterday about the lack of information about the Labour conference, I discovered that the transport topic was merged with a discussion of other economic items. I missed any coverage of contributions from the floor. The views of transport union officers would have been interesting.

However, I did catch an evangelistic speech by Lord Adonis. He made the case for the investment in rail over road in the near term, and promised interventions which would make life easier for both passengers and industrial users of the railway. Sadly, the Labour Party website has not yet seen fit to put up a video of the speech.

But why, oh why, couldn't Labour have embarked on this programme at the start of its ministry rather than at the fag-end of it? Even a few years later, a change of heart would have reaped benefits. Work on the electrification of the South Wales main line could have been under way in 2007, helping to ease the recession and providing a modern railway ready for the upturn predicted for next year.

There is consolation in that not only Liberal Democrats are committed to the future of rail, but also now the Conservative Party has signed up to green transport policies. Assuming we can believe the latter, all the parties are now on the right track.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Government immigration snatch squad invades vicarage

Suzanne Fletcher has a chilling illustration of how hollow Labour's railing against extreme nationalist groups really is. The methods of the Border Agency would do credit to any mid-twentieth century European dictatorship. Suzanne's final sentence ( "If the officials behave like that in front of clergy in a vicarage, what is it like where there is nobody to witness ?") is sobering.

Labour conference secrecy

One would have thought that a party which claims to embrace 21st century communication would publish a timetable of its debates at Brighton. After all, the 2009 conference is being shown on BBC-Parliament and selected speeches are available as video clips on, so it's not exactly confidential. We Liberal Democrats are so proud of our glasnost that we habitually publish the full conference documentation on, usually leaving it up for months after people have lost interest. ;-)

The cause of this gripe is a need to find out when Labour is to discuss transport policy. If any Labour member reading this can let me know the day and times, I would be very grateful.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Labour body language

In the spirit of fairness and objectivity which marks the typical Liberal Democrat, I tuned in today to BBC-Parliament's screening of Labour Party proceedings, as I had watched events in Bournemouth last week.

It was noticeable how much more at ease Gordon Brown is among friends, and especially with the young Labour candidates, than he is in the House of Commons these days. (Of course, he was hardly pressed with difficult questions in Brighton.)

Also noticeable was that the eyes of party leader and deputy leader hardly ever met. Brown had a handshake and a pat on the back for every parliamentary colleague's speech, Harman joined in the applause but otherwise ignored the speaker. In the question-and-answer session, Harman was never content to let Brown have the last word, but had to add her own spin.

Harriet Harman clearly has her own agenda, which John Prescott, for one, does not like.

Town Hall meetings

Both Nick Clegg and Kirsty Williams have had success with meet-the-people events up and down England and Wales respectively.

If a political party can have a meaningful conversation with the electorate in this way, then how much more important is it for the Welsh Assembly government to reach out to local communities. It was a sad day when the Labour Assembly Government decided to abandon the regional meetings which enabled ministers to explain WAG's approach to given topics and then to hear from local activists and concerned citizens on them.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

A melancholy anniversary

Fifty years ago today, SWRD Bandanaranaike, the Prime Minister of Ceylon, was assassinated by a yellow-robed figure. Foreshadowing several of the troubles which continue in the region today, his enlightened attitude to the Tamils, and his perceived closeness to the Western powers, had antagonised many of his compatriots.

The event did have a momentous outcome. After ten months of a government led by Dudley Senanayake, Bandaranaike's widow Sirimavo was elected as the world's first female prime minister in July 1960.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Labour has let us down on ageism

The Labour government dragged its feet over legislating to meet the EU requirement to outlaw ageism in the workplace, and, as a High Court judgment has made clear, has done so inadequately.

There can be no objection to releasing workers on genuine grounds that they are no longer capable, but, as B&Q stores have shown, some people well over the traditional retiring age can still do a good job. A compulsory retirement age of 65 is arbitrary, unfair and an anachronism.

Troughing Tories & Labourites missed a trick

The Indian Army got away (until now) with hiding in the terrorist defence budget their acquisition of golf buggies for generals under the heading "silent reconnaissance vehicles".

Now if Sir Peter Viggers had described his duck house as "secure reception area for foreign guests flying in", or Douglas Hogg had put his moat maintenance down to additional security measures, perhaps they might have been able to put off the day of retirement a little longer.

And Margaret Moran (Labour, Luton South) was clearly providing a large number of safe houses.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

YouTube could make the coming general election the dirtiest yet

The Electoral Commission has announced that it had no plans to police internet material during the general election campaign.

According to a BBC report, a spokesman said: "There is nothing in electoral legislation that would cover that kind of stuff. Our job is to provide guidance for those people taking part in an election and to help them stay within the law."

But he "makes clear that complaints about potentially defamatory material, under electoral laws, remain a matter for the police and that cases will be investigated".

The phrase "don't hold your breath" comes to mind. A serious allegation was made against a candidate in the last Assembly elections in the form of a widely distributed anonymous leaflet. Although the police investigation has not officially been closed as far as I know, there have not yet been any arrests. If the perpetrators of a leaflet, which involves considerable effort to print and distribute, cannot be tracked down, what hope is there of nailing the producer of an online video spoof, which may not even be hosted in the UK?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Come clean over putative North Wales gaol site

The Justice Ministry should explain why a brownfield site in Caernarfon is not, after all, to be the site of a new prison for North Wales, as reported by the BBC. One can only assume that asbestos contamination is the determining factor, because in all other respects the former Ferodo factory appears ideal. Have the current owners leant on the civil servants to keep dark the condition of the site, for fear it might depress its development value?