Monday, 28 February 2011

Clement Freud's modest proposal

One of my intermittent clear-outs has just turned up a clipping from The Independent of 14th April 1997. It was a contribution to the "My Week" series by the late, much-missed, Clement Freud. It was clearly inspired by Martin Bell's decision to stand in Tatton in the forthcoming general election and gave the soon-to-be Independent MP (though there was no certainty of the outcome at that stage) the benefit of the experience of one, who, though sporting a party label and certainly a liberal, had been, as the MP for the Isle of Ely, the antithesis of a machine politician. To my joy, the text has been preserved on the Indy's web pages. His remarks on the distinction between the amateur and the professional politician should be read by every newly-elected MP and AM at least once.

But is it still true, as Freud asserted, that, in Finland, salaries decrease the longer a member stays in parliament? The reasoning, he wrote, is "that a new and inexperienced MP is keen, and will pursue issues regardless of the likelihood of success; the longer you have served, the less likely are you to chase 'iffy' causes."

I would like to think so.

Vote YES on Thursday

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Grassroots killed English forestry sell-off plot

Tony Greaves tells the full background story to the Conservatives' plans not only to continue the Labour government's sale of forests under the coalition's inherited powers, but also to extend those powers using parliamentary sleight-of-hand. He tells how both schemes were defeated by a combination of concerned individuals across the political spectrum.

It is now clear how many of us on the Liberal Democrat side were used and deceived by the Defra ministers, who led us to believe that there were to be no sales of freehold, but only long leases, as in Scotland. We had hoped that things had changed from the Labour days of spin. Incidentally, Labour spokespersons continue to distort history in opposition. Their government may well have helped set up new woodlands, but there was a still a net sale of forestry under them, contrary to the impression they try to create.

Turning to our own forestry, it seems to me that there are weasel words in Elin Jones' statement on the subject of Coed Cadw delivered in the Senedd earlier this year, and that all of us need to maintain vigilance. Already, there is a downgrading of public access from active maintenance of footpaths to mere permissiveness. I hope to come back to this subject.

Friday, 25 February 2011

British politicians and the ECHR

There is a strong suspicion that many MPs - both Conservative and Labour - would like not only to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) but also to renege on the European Convention of Human Rights. (drawn up, it should be remembered, under the guidance of British lawyer and Conservative MP Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe) altogether. On the other hand, most liberals want to maintain unrestricted access to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in addition to preserving the HRA. Peter Black comments here.

The eminent barrister Lord Carlile of Berriew - as Alex Carlile, once the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats - on BBC-Wales' "Sunday Supplement" of 20th February.took a middle course. He would devolve back to British courts the enforcement of human rights, and restrict direct petition to the ECHR to a very limited range of cases where there were major constitutional issues. The ECHR should be interpreted in a British way which is nevertheless compatible with the European charter.

Lord Carlile had no argument with the Convention, but with the inefficiency of the ECHR. There is a backlog of 120,000 cases before the ECHR, and it is increasing month by month. The court may have 17 judges, but, in his opinion, only two or three are worthy of the name.

He criticised as "maladroit" Home Secretary Theresa May's response to the Supreme Court ruling on the right of appeal of certain convicted sex offenders. Maladroit, because it implied that the Supreme Court judges had done something outrageous. They had done no such thing. They had interpreted the law which parliament had placed before them in the context of human rights standards which will remain whether we have a British Bill of Rights or not.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Restore the probation service

It is no use introducing restorative justice without also dealing with other aspects of punishment and reform. There is a detailed explanation here of what is wrong with the probation service and how it can be cured. We also need to tighten up the parole system.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Why Cameron hates AV

There is analysis by John Curtice (usual provisos apply, of course) that suggests that the Conservatives would have had less than 75 seats after the 1997 general election if AV had been in operation. Further, it looks as if, under AV,  the 2010 general election would still have produced a hung parliament, but with Labour as the largest single party. Accordingly, Nick Clegg would have been committed  to negotiation with Gordon Brown (or Harriet Harman) afterwards. It is surprising that more Labour MPs have not joined Peter Hain and Dr Hywel Francis on  the bandwagon.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Yew turn if you want to

Around two hours ago, Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, announced three reversals of policy. She ended the consultation over a government proposition to grant long leases for large extents of the publicly-owned forest estate. She stopped the outright sale of 40k ha. of woodland, enabled under existing legislation (which Labour had also used to make a net sale, without consultation). More significantly for the democratic process, in my opinion, she confirmed that the forestry clauses of the Public Bodies Bill would be withdrawn, presumably in the Lords through which the Bill is currently passing.

Ms Spelman is not as effective at the dispatch box as most, and she has come under attack for potential  conflict of interest, but one had to sympathise with her for her treatment in the House of Commons. Not so much for today's gibes from the political ruffians opposite, but by the way she had been undercut by the Prime Minister at question time yesterday, and by the No. 10 spin machine. In a generally emollient performance, Ms Spelman pointedly stressed that she had not been within a hundred yards of a TV studio in the last 24 hours, but had spent her time concentrating on Departmental matters.

Much of the criticism - from all sides of the House of Commons - of the "sell-off" focused on public access to forest land. Rigg Wood, sold under the Labour government, was a case in point. For that reason, DEFRA proposed 150-year leases, upon which it would be possible to place conditions regarding access. One hopes that the withdrawal of the consultation document is not a prelude to a more permissive sales regime.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Source Merlin

Treasury civil servants and/or George Osborne are clearly keen on le Carré. From a summary of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" comes "'Witchcraft' is the codename for the information obtained from source Merlin, supposedly comprised of a high-ranking Soviet [defector], and a number of other, advantageously-placed disloyal Soviets. The information is very profitable, and waters the mouths of informed Englishmen and Americans alike." Should one substitute "banker" for "Soviet" and apply it to the recent agreement?

Public houses: restrictive covenants and the abuse of alcohol

CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) reports that pubs minister Bob Neill to begin a public consultation into banning restrictive covenants. The consultation, initiated by the Department of Communities & Local Government, follows applications under the Sustainable Communities Act by three local authorities – Darlington, Newcastle Upon Tyne and Rydedale – to take action on restrictive covenants after lobbying from local CAMRA branches.

The consultation will focus on the impact the covenants have on pubs and their communities. But the Campaign says branches and members must not assume that the end of restrictive covenants, which stop up-for-sale pubs being bought and used as a public house, is a done deal. Bob Neill said communities had, for too long, felt shut out when rules prevent a building being bought by local people and used again as a public house or community club. “I want to stop that and put local people in charge,” he said.

Supermarket pricing

CAMRA is angry that the coalition government has fudged election promises made by both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to stop supermarkets selling booze at pocket-money prices. CAMRA says that the government’s ban on the sale of alcohol at below the cost of excise duty and VAT (47p a pint) will have no impact on what supermarkets charge. CAMRA’s chief executive Mike Benner said the ban will have a “negligible impact as supermarkets sell only a tiny proportion of beer at below these levels”.

The Campaign was backed by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers’ chief executive Nick Bish who said the ban would make no difference to pocketmoney prices on the high street nor the irresponsible retailing practices of Britain’s supermarkets.

As I have often posted, the coalition government, SNP in Scotland, CAMRA and the ALMR miss the point. The troubles caused by alcohol result from its too wide availability, not from its cost. Restricting the sale of wines, beers and spirits to specialist outlets would not only reduce alcoholism and some anti-social behaviour, but also reinvigorate local pubs up and down the country. It is gratifying to know that Neath Port Talbot's Social Care Scrutiny Committee independently came to very much the same conclusion in its special report published last year.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Recovery of a film archive

Anyone who has delved into the Internet Movie Database seriously will sooner or later come across the legend "lost-film". There are TV series (episodes of Dr Who, notably) and even some post-war cinema films which come into this category, but by far the largest component comprises early silent films, including some which are regarded as significant. Regarded as expendable, nitrate film stock was often recycled. It was also flammable, and, over time, tends to dissolve itself into an unprojectable soup. We are lucky in Wales to have at least some of the multitude of short films produced by William Haggar, but in the case of other pioneers, like England's Hubert von Herkomer, we may have no more than a scenario and the names of one or two of the participants.

Even in Hollywood, the work of some of the greats was thought to be lost because of poor preservation. Ironically, as the Independent reports today, Soviet Russia was more careful with the prints which it imported from the capitalist USA. As a result, Gosfilmofond has now been able to hand over to the Library of Congress the first of 200 digitally-preserved films, previously thought to be lost.

Prisoner voting: let's be consistent

"What justice? Thug who kicked terminally-ill grandfather in attack walks free from court" reported the Daily Mail on 30th November 2010 "Royal Mail worker Reece Kent, 19, repeatedly punched Ken Oliver before kicking him in the head in a case of mistaken identity. [...] But he walked free from court last week with a six-month suspended sentence," the article goes  on. This is just one of several  instances of perpetrators  of violent assaults being given non-custodial sentences.  To these, one can add many more cases of irresponsible driving offences which have led, or could have led, to death, but which are punished by no more than fines and restrictions on driving licences. All these splendid British citizens are able to vote.

Yet those who find themselves in gaol on election day on even a short sentence for, say, failure to pay what may be a trivial fine, can not.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The essence of Britishness

We believe in tolerant democracy.

We believe that we settle our differences by wrestling words and votes, not arms and bullets

We believe that the majority has the right to prevail, but it does not have the right to oppress the minorities

We believe that the minorities have the right to free expression and the quiet enjoyment of their differences. They do not have the right to resort to violence or illegal means to try to get their way

We do not believe that any creed or ideology has sole right to lord over us all, but we do believe we all have the right to our creed and ideology to enjoy without upsetting others

The sovereign principles are those of tolerant democracy, the best way to try to live in harmony, to settle disputes, and reach some common purpose.

Thus John Redwood, inspired by David Cameron's recent speech. To me, that phrase about "quiet enjoyment of their differences" is the essence of  true multiculturalism, ushered in by Cromwell's official readmission of the Jews to  Britain. But one implicit factor needs bringing out: the English language. As that great liberal, Katharine Whitehorn, points out, "Language [...] is a vital part of the interface between those who grew up here and those who didn't".

Where I do disagree with Mr Redwood is that active membership of the European community of nations is compatible with all the principles stated above.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Conservative minister won't repeal Digital Economy Act, but it may be unworkable anyway

Julian Huppert, who was one of those behind an emergency resolution of the Birmingham conference last year, reports that although the majority party in the coalition is resisting the Liberal Democrats desire to repeal the Act, culture minister Jeremy Hunt has asked Ofcom to assess whether the Act’s site-blocking powers are feasible.