Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Government can't have it both ways

According to Lord Mandelson, the privatisation of the Post Office will be delayed, because of the lack of parliamentary time. This was the government which not so long ago was said to be thinking of extending the recess because there was so little for MPs to do.

The BBC has a report here and Peter Black comments on the abandonment of the spending review.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Pontcysyllte has its heritage status

Jessop and Telford's awesome viaduct carrying the Llangollen (Ellesmere) canal over the Cysyllte has been recognised as a World Heritage site, after a long campaign. The Daily Post has the story, with picture. More pictures on the Royal Commission's site.

Armed Typos Day

I am told that there were some interesting misprints in the Order of Service for the Armed Forces Celebration in Bridgend last Saturday: "fight the food fight", for instance.

I would be interested in receiving a copy of the document so that I can display the relevant parts here.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

"The Dangerous Constitutions Bill"

This is Alan Beith's term for the rushed - it has to finish all its Commons stages by next Wednesday - Parliamentary Standards Authority Bill, by analogy with the infamously bungled Dangerous Dogs Act. The government, has reacted in panic on MPs' expenses and allowances, as Glyn Davies has noted.

Rather than sulking in his tent after defeat in the election for Speaker, Sir Alan has, as chairman of the Commons Justice Committee, immediately acted to improve the timetable for the Bill. He has persuaded the government to leave the clauses which have constitutional implications for the second day of debate, so that his Committee can examine them beforehand and hear evidence, in public, from the Clerk to the House, with all his accumulated wisdom.

Sir Alan summed up: "We can't afford to waste an opportunity, and we can't afford to ignore public anger which, although it started with the expenses issue, has much broader potential. If we go on passing Bills which are not properly debated and if we fail to address issues which the public wants addressed, then that, too, will provoke public anger. So let's seize the opportunity, and let's do it properly." (Taken from an interview for Radio 4's "Today in Parliament", which will be available on iPlayer for another five days.)

Friday, 26 June 2009

Another good reason to visit Porthmadog

Belated congratulations to Bragdy Mws Piws (I love that name), or the Purple Moose Brewery, on having its Snowdonia Ale named as Champion Beer of Wales 2009 in Cardiff earlier this month.

Michael Jackson

My first thought, no doubt unworthy, on hearing reports of the death of the singer was that m'learned friends will be rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of having to sort out the complicated estate.

What, in particular, is going to happen to the Northern Songs (predominantly John & Paul's compositions) catalogue?

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Indians to run prison IT system?

The IT news site silicon.com reports that government is looking at off-shoring its prison offender case management system, named C-Nomis. My first thought, reflecting on the failures of data security in the home civil service over the last few years, was that the records are probably safer in India. ;-)

However, the major motive is obviously the saving of money. "With predictions that a £50bn cut in public services spending is needed by 2020, senior Whitehall figures have indicated that they're open to an increased offshoring of government IT." says silicon.com.

It goes on: "Whitehall already offshores a limited amount of work, including some back office operations under the NHS Shared Business Services Centre run by Steria and the Department of Health. The joint venture provides back office services to more than 100 trusts and offshores about 60 per cent of its work to India.

"The centre's performance has been mixed: despite having signed up one quarter of all NHS trusts, it's also about three years behind its target of having 40 per cent of trusts on board and that is not expected to break even until this year."

On the subject of NHS IT, government recently released the "gateway" reviews of 31 projects in the National Programme for IT, originally carried out between 2002 & 2007. They are summarised here.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Neath Port Talbot housing transfer

Chairman Councillor Keith Davies has notified the Liberal Democrat group on the county borough council that, because of representations from constituents and after consultation with leading figures in Swansea, he has decided to join the "No" campaign in the run-up to the forthcoming ballot on transfer of the council's housing stock to a cooperative mutual corporation.

Since there is a disparity of views on the matter within our group, it is probable that we will officially maintain a neutral stance.

Personally, I remain persuaded that the authority will be in some financial difficulty if the stock transfer is not approved and am therefore hoping for a "Yes" vote. However, I am worried that the cabinet's heavy-handed approach - I heard again today of council staff being roped in as advocates of transfer, and that the road shows are not as even-handed as they should be - might have a counter-productive effect.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Don't cull too many MPs

Jane Moore on "Broadcasting House" today repeated, unchallenged, the assertion that 70%-80% of British law was made by the EU, and that consequently there were too many MPs. Well, 40% is the figure which the experts seem to agree on. Furthermore, that legislation has to be passwd by Parliament and it seems that too much of it goes through on the nod, without checking that it is interpreted correctly by Westminster draughtsmen. If the number of MPs is reduced, there are going to be even fewer MP-hours dedicated to combing through this delegated legislation.

Spaceguard in Powys

I have long extolled the virtues of the clear skies, unaffected by light pollution, in central Wales. Here is visible proof: the telescope designed for spotting asteroids with near-Earth orbits is being moved from Cambridge to Knighton.

The fact that local MP, Lembit Öpik, grandson of an astronomer, has been the most prominent advocate of detecting objects on a collision course with Earth and devising a plan for dealing with any which are found, is surely coincidental.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Swans to march to Sousa's beat

The Evening Post has just announced that Paulo Sousa will be Roberto Martinez's replacement at the Liberty. As a defensive midfielder when he was a player, he ticks one box for me.

There is a Wikipedia entry but this unofficial posting tickled me.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Turkish judge edges back macho culture

AFP (formerly Agence France-Presse) reports that a woman judge in Turkey has ordered a wife beater to personally distribute 1,000 leaflets apologising for the act, the Turkish media reported on Tuesday.

Judge Aslihan Limon, 28, in the northern town of Arac served the ruling on Mustafa Kadinci who was accused of hitting his wife and then locking her up after a row.

The leaflet, which Kadinci duly distributed, read: "I apologise to my wife and all the people of Arac for hitting my wife."

The verdict was given under a law on probation which came into force in 2005 as part of Turkey's efforts to join the EU.

There is more of the story here.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

BBC' s European news values

Cliff Dillow has picked up on a point I noted elsewhere on the Internet, that BBC does not exert itself to examine anti-EU assertions for points of fact. On Radio 4's "Feedback" last Saturday (repeated Sunday evening), the complaint of a listener that he had not been given enough information about the EU by the BBC during the recent election campaign was heard. Presenter Roger Bolton pressed the corporation's Rick Bailey as to why there had been no examination of the claim by UKIP and other anti-EU parties that 75% (sometimes 85%) of UK legislation originated in Brussels.

Bailey's response was that this was a matter of political debate and disputation. I'm sorry? Something which can be objectively measured, subject to the caveats of definition, is only a matter of debate?? BBC News is not shy of lending its authoritative voice to statements such as "Beleaguered Gordon Brown is trying to hold his government together" or "the legacy he will leave to the next Conservative government", statements which are either debatable or speculative. Other facts and figures which have political implications, like money market analyses, are relayed by the likes of Robert Peston. Yet it can't be bothered to do the same work on key indicators in the European debate.

One might draw the conclusion that the news and current affairs department has already been stuffed with Eurosceptic Conservatives in anticipation of a change of government, and a possible change of attitude toward the BBC, much as happened in the late 1990s in favour of Labour as docu-dramas covering the period would have us believe.

J Clive Matthews, on Liberal Conspiracy, did the arithmetic before polling day. He also quotes calculations done for a few other parliaments. Admittedly, he does not in the end plump for one single figure - that problem of definition again - but he is adamant that it is nothing like the 70%+ claimed by Eurosceptics. Or the BBC could use another outside expert, Alan Butt Philip, who also confirms that the figure is below 50%.

Broadband tax

The £6 levy on telephone landlines may be only the equivalent of .6p in the pound on my annual inland revenue bill, but it is still a tax which presumably will go straight from the telephone companies to the Treasury, with the broadband outcome some time in the future. Even in its dying throes, this govenment is consistent in levying stealth taxes.

Update @20:45: Liberal Democrat Voice has comment on the rest of the Digital Britain statement.

Who's next at the Liberty?

The deed was finally done yesterday, when Roberto Martinez signed on the dotted line for Wigan Athletic. Chairman Huw Jenkins has confirmed that the board has drawn up a shortlist of around half-a-dozen for the succession as manager of Swansea City.

CEEFAX reports that Gary Speed, Aidy Boothroyd and Paul Tisdale are on the list, but there is no confirmation from the club. I know who I would prefer, but will not name him for fear of putting the mockers on him. What I would say is that the new manager needs to be able to organise the defence. This is not a criticism of the quality of the players, but there have been times when the Swans have been undone in matches they should have won or at least held. Nor is it to say that the marvellous positive passing game should be abandoned.

Huw Jenkins should be praised for not being drawn into a public slanging-match over his clearly tough negotiations over compensation for all the managerial team which is moving to Wigan.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Balanced view of MPs' expenses

Thanks to Liberal Voice for pointing out this letter from the Evening Post in Bristol:

AMID all the hubbub created by the Daily Telegraph and MPs' expenses, a few facts stand out.

1. A small number of MPs seem to have done something that is a matter for the police and the courts.

2. A larger number of MPs, but still a minority, have done things that are surely not illegal but are to their shame. Their constituents will pass judgment if they dare stand again for election.

3. Some of the MPs named have clearly done nothing wrong or have made a small mistake that has been grossly exaggerated. They deserve an apology from the Telegraph.

4. The majority of MPs have not even been accused of anything, yet seven per cent of people in a recent poll thought all MPs were corrupt. Let us hope that none of those seven per cent ever stand for parliament – who would want them in charge of the justice system?

5. A significant minority of MPs has been campaigning for years to try to clean up MPs' expenses. They succeeded in stopping a backbencher's attempt to exempt MPs' expenses from Freedom of Information legislation. They deserve credit for their efforts.

There is a tendency for cynical people to think they are worldly wise, but they are not.

They are gullible, because they will believe anything bad. There are some in the media who seem determined to create cynicism about politicians. Ask yourself why.

Whatever the final outcome of this scandal, we cannot rebuild our parliament and government on cynicism and disrespect.

We need urgently to identify the honest MPs, regardless of party, and rebuild around them.

S Harvey, Hambrook, Bristol.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Cameron's tired arguments

Bernard Salmon is scathing about Cameron's claim in the House yesterday that PR got two BNP MEPs elected.

I would add that Cameron's argument about getting rid of tired and discredited governments is flawed, too. In 1992, first-past-the-post actually voted in a tired government, that of John Major.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

FSCS will continue to penalise sound small building societies

In the wake of the Icelandic banking crash, and that of building-societies-turned-speculators, I added my signature to a petition calling for the Financial Services Compensation Scheme to be recast. As you will see, no concessions at all have been made by the government.

Democratic Reform

Gordon Brown just doesn't get it. That is the message that comes through from reading the many responses to yesterday evening's announcement. Bernard Salmon has one of the best summaries of what is wrong with his proposed Democratic Renewal Committee.

If there is to be a move to preferential voting, it is virtually certain that the Labour cabinet will propose Alternate Vote (a system used in Australia) or AV-plus-top-up, as proposed by the Jenkins Commission. (It should be noted that pure AV, although giving the appearance of choice, does not promise a proportional result; in fact, it can distort more than first-past-the-post in some circumstances.) Neither of these systems challenges members in safe seats, which is surely one of the outcomes the UK public is calling for.

Several bloggers have remarked on the coincidence of outrageous claims against MPs expenses and the safety of their seats. It is a point also made by Vernon Bogdanor in an interview by Lawrie Taylor last Wednesday discussing Bogdanor's new book, "The New British Consitution". In this, he throws out many ideas for democratising Britain, and shows that they work elsewhere.

One idea is "open primaries" on the American model, where registered voters at large can choose before an election which candidate should represent a party, not leave it to party committees behind closed doors. This would help to break the perception of a safe seat being a meal-ticket for life.

I believe that open primaries are not necessary if the country adopts the Liberal Democrat preferred system of election, Single Transferable Vote in Multi-Member Constituencies, but would be essential where the voter has a restricted choice on polling day.

Bogdanor proposes that the voting system should be chosen by a two-stage referendum. (He is favour of referendums where there is a major constitutional issue.) First, we should decide whether to stick with the existing system, or replace it with a proportional one. Then, if the decision were made to change, we should be allowed to choose between the systems on offer. Don't underestimate the public's understanding of these matters, he says; New Zealand changed their electoral system this way, and the change has proved successful.

Bogdanor should be a member of Brown's Commission.
Make Votes Count has joined together with a broad range of civil society organisations and individuals to call for a referendum before the next general election to change the way we elect our MPs. For more on the 'Vote for a Change' campaign, see http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk and http://www.voteforachange.co.uk

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Ignorance blights immigration administration

The Daily Post illustrates this with a report of a young woman from Patagonia who wanted to take six months off from her secure employment back home in order to improve her Welsh with a North Wales family, with whom she had connections. She was detained and then turned back by immigration staff.

The intervention of MPs did not help. Perhaps the London officials regard them as foreigners as well.

Monday, 8 June 2009

European elections - some consolation for Liberals

Not all is doom and gloom on the continent. There is this cheerful posting from Sweden on Liberal Vision. However, while I agree with the Pirate Party's campaign against surveillance of the Internet, I have my doubts about unrestricted filesharing.

In England, one should not write off all Lancastrians as swivel-eyed racists. One of the Conservatives returned in the North-West was Sajjad Karim who, as his name suggests, does not - thankfully - look at all like Nick Griffin. He was a successful and popular (until he switched sides) Liberal Democrat MEP and one wonders how comfortable he will be with the racism and homophobia in some of the parties in the grouping in Brussels which his new colleagues have decided to align themselves with.

While BNP won a county seat in Burnley, in the Euro count Lib Dems topped the poll in Burnley. They had 5422 votes with Labour in second on 4246, Conservatives on 4058, UKIP on 3536, BNP on 3500 and Greens on 1021.

Thomas Paine

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography mailing list reminds me that the old revolutionary author died 200 years ago today. He had the melancholy distinction of being rejected by the two régimes he inspired. He was imprisoned by the Jacobins in post-revolutionary Paris (from which he was rescued by friends in the independent United States). Finally settled in America, he died in financial straits. His burial was mourned by his negro servant, by his companion Madame Bonneville, her son Benjamin, and a handful of local people.

Kenneth Griffith made one of his remarkable one-man dramatisations for TV of the life of Paine. He probably saw in Paine a fellow-member of the awkward squad.

Plastic desert in the North Pacific

In the midst of the northern Pacific Ocean is a liquid desert, a vast floating garbage dump, devoid of complex ocean life, prone to doldrums, seldom visited by fishing vessels, away from main shipping lines, and thus rarely seen by visitors.

It offers, by all accounts, a disturbing vision. Anyone sailing through this liquid dump will encounter, from horizon to horizon, concentrations of bobbing rubbish, in every direction, for day after day. Most of what is floating is not even visible, because it is plastic which has broken down into microparticles.

This degenerating soup is [...] about the same size as Britain, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal. It has been created by a giant spiral of clockwise ocean currents, known as the North Pacific Gyre, which carries human-created garbage that is slowly collected and consolidated by wind and currents.

The phenomenon has a name: the Eastern Garbage Patch. It was first properly documented, quite recently, by a Californian sailor and ocean researcher, Charles Moore, after he took a shortcut by motoring his yacht through the doldrums on his way back from the 1997 Trans-Pacific Yacht Race. A second giant floating mass, created by the same gyre, has been discovered thousands of kilometres away between Hawaii and Japan. Together they are commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The whole thing is to be investigated by a Californian research project, using a boat named "Plastiki", made appropriately from recycled PET plastic. The full article is here.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Small shock in Port Talbot

BBC reports that there was a category 3 earthquake centred on Nantyfyllon in the Llynfi valley last night. The effects were felt all over Port Talbot, but, apart from a temporary dip in the radio signal round about that time (which may or may not have been connected) I was unaware on this side of Neath.

We're now looking forward to a larger shock in tomorrow's Euro count.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

MEPs have more power than MPs

Richard Allan says: "In the European Parliament, individual MEPs with key places on legislative committees have real power in the drafting of laws."

He contrasts this with Westminster, of which he has first-hand experience : "virtually every word of our laws is drafted by the Government with the odd amendment passed in the House of Lords where there is no Government majority. The scrutiny process can throw up errors and occasionally creates such controversy that a proposal is delayed or abandoned. But it does not generally offer individual MPs the opportunity to make substantial changes to the law."

The European Parliament has power of co-decision with the Council of Ministers over proposals put forward by the Commission. Since a large part of our law (probably between 40 and 50% - the 85% figure quoted by Eurosceptics is extrapolated from a single year in Germany, it seems) is made in Brussels, an individual MEP potentially has more power than any MP outside the cabinet. All the more reason to choose a party on Thursday which will provide MEPs who know their way around Europe, have a positive approach and will join one of the three major groupings in the Parliament, rather than one on the nationalistic fringe.

Jonathan Fryer's blog points out the dangers of voting Conservative.

Thanks to Liberal Democrat Voice for pointing out the two blog references.

Hat-trick of Guardian endorsements for Liberal Democrats in Europe

The Observer leader on Sunday, the Guardian and Polly Toynbee today have all recommended a vote for Liberal Democrats in Thursday's election.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Circumnavigation and the poetry of Masefield

A friend, who is a user of and enthusiast for cochlear implants, has put me on to the blog of John Newton. He is totally deaf but had a cochlear implant 6 months ago. A former round the world sailor, mostly single-handed, he has just embarked on a circumnavigation of the coast of Britain.

I was immediately struck by the first line of his latest entry: "Six days shalt thou labour and do all that thou art able/And on the seventh day holystone the decks and overhaul the cable", which is one of my favourite couplets by John Masefield. Mr Newton does not attribute it, and I remember the last phrase slightly differently, so perhaps Masefield was himself quoting from fellow-sailors. (Masefield had run away to sea at the age of thirteen before settling in London six years later and starting the career which was to lead to the laureateship.)

Can anyone help with the exact lines and the poem they appear in?

MPs: code of conduct & recalls

Jonathan Calder has some interesting thoughts on a hot topic. In particular:

"The BBC report says:
The new code of conduct would be written into the Constitutional Renewal Bill, due to be brought before Parliament later this year.

It is thought likely to include minimum service commitments to constituents, with those who break it facing possible fine or even ejection from their seats.
"This stands things on their head. It is not the government's job to hold MPs to account. It is MPs' job to hold the government to account.

"Equally, if constituents believe their MP is not adequate level of service then they are at liberty to throw him out at the next election. Besides, what is an adequate "service commitment"? It is highly arguable that most modern MPs are too weighed down with casework to keep a close enough watch on the executive.

"The importation of codes of conduct and "standards" boards into local government has done nothing to increase respect for local councillors, who now seem to be treated - and behave - like schoolchildren. Reporting councillors from other parties for trivial offences now seems to be one of their chief occupations."

Councils, including community councils, in Neath Port Talbot are not immune from this sort of thing.