Friday, 28 February 2014

Fairness in housing benefit

Wednesday's debate in the House was nominally about closing a loophole in the regulations relating to the number of rooms housing benefit would pay for. As minister McVey explained it, the offending rule was introduced in 1996 to cover a quite different situation - and the man who introduced it, Peter Lilley, was in the chamber to confirm this was the case.

However, the debate was used to reexamine the basis for the restriction in HB (the cut in the spare-room subsidy as DWP describes it). Amidst all the bombast from the opposition benches, some sound points were made, though we have heard most of them before, both in the chamber and (more objectively) at Liberal Democrat conference.

It seems to me that the macho refusal on the part of Treasury and DWP to join the real world, as some MPs put it, is morally and, if it persists, electorally, insupportable. Some respectability could have been retrieved if Liberal Democrats in the coalition had insisted on the review called for by the party conference had been initiated promptly, instead of being postponed until the end of the parliament by Nick Clegg.

There are ways for the coalition to end the real hardship of those at the wrong end of the cuts while saving face. The government would be able to resist opposition calls to repeal the legislation if it genuinely put social housing on the same basis as the private rented sector, i.e. by applying the spare room cut only on change of tenancy. At the same time, it should recognise that there are difficulties virtually unique to social housing, like adaptations for the long-term ill. Exemptions for these cases should be written into amending legislation. (It should be noted that David Cameron stated that the exemptions were already there in a Prime Ministerial answer a few weeks ago.) Finally, something that does not need legislation, local authorities should be given a strong nudge to use Discretionary Housing Payments to make up the difference where there is no suitable alternative accommodation in the area, either social or commercial. There is evidence in this corner of Wales that councils are, out of incompetence or political opportunism, not making DHPs where they should, and I don't suppose the situation is much different in other corners of the kingdom. The DHP budget is one of the few which is generous. Indeed, most councils handed back unspent DHP funds at the end of the last financial year.

Of course, we need more housing relevant to the needs of 21st century Britain. Incentives from government should be geared to that. Perhaps the big and rich supermarkets, which are already branching out into banking, insurance and mobile telephony, could put their unused land-banks to a social purpose by releasing them for housing. It should be noted that Tesco is cutting back its programme of new supermarket and hypermarket openings.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Kiev investigations highlight UK lax company controls

An article, the first of a three-part series, in the Business section of yesterday's Independent, draws attention to the ease with which a company can be set up with practically no checks on the substance or probity of the people behind it. Private Eye has already drawn attention to the complementary money-manipulation possibilities afforded by limited liability partnerships as this YouTube video shows.

As a sidebar to the article states:
International authorities are considering freezing the assets of Ukrainian millionaires associated with the regime of Viktor Yanukovych. If it happens, a fresh light could soon be shone on London, where much of Kiev's wealth is said to have either ended up, or travelled through "brass plate" companies during complex laundering process. [...] some experts say the UK's overly liberal financial system has also made it a Petri dish for incubating fraud, and a magnate for money launderers.

The Fraud Advisory Panel recommends as a minimum:
* Introducing requirements for new company directors to prove their identity and demonstrate their good character;
* Ensuring all new company directors are checked against the register of disqualified directors;
* Requiring Companies House to tell directors their duties and liabilities and putting this information online;
* Preventing the exploitation of virtual and serviced offices by criminals by enforcing the existing regulatory controls on them;
* Requiring all company filings to be made online and equipping Companies House with data-mining software to identify false financial reports, disqualified directors or those with previous criminal records for dishonesty.
None of these proposals would inhibit legitimate business but would go a long way to deterring criminals from taking advantage of our system to commit fraud.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Who authorised letters to "on the runs"?

The statement, in response to an urgent question, about the release of John Downey, exposed age-old divides on the opposition benches. The attorney-general, Dominic Grieve, steered a course between the extremes.

The only question Mr Grieve did not answer was: who authorised the procedure, by which suspects against whom there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, were informed of the fact? (The text of the letter is included in the written statement by the Northern Ireland minister, Theresa Villiers, reproduced on the Slugger O'Toole web-site.)

The point Mr Grieve tried to get across, which was wilfully or ignorantly misunderstood by most of his questioners, was that the letters were not amnesties. If further evidence were to come to light which made a prosecution possible, then the advice to the suspect would be withdrawn. The Downey letter was an exceptional case (there is a current inquiry as to how exceptional) in that the writer was unaware that there was strong evidence in Britain warranting a prosecution over Hyde Park. The point of law which enabled Downey to escape criminal prosecution on the current evidence did not preclude civil proceedings - i.e. Downey could be sued in the civil courts for damages. There were too many in the House today who wanted to open up the peace process again.

I wondered at first if Mr Grieve had been chivalrously defending former Labour NI ministers, including Peter Hain and Paul Murphy, who were still MPs. But it appears from the judgement and the Villiers statement that the "on the runs" letters scheme was devised by John Major's administration, though not put into operation until around 2000, under Labour.

I see that John Major's last Northern Ireland minister, Patrick Mayhew, was raised to the Lords on his retirement as a MP. Perhaps if the issue is debated in the upper chamber, he might be able to shed some light on the matter. Or perhaps Lord Mandelson, his successor-but-one (sadly, Mo Mowlam is no longer with us), may contribute.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Independence: slopes and wedges

On this weekend's Any Questions?, Frank Field repeated the view held by many that it was a mistake to grant devolution to national parliaments at the turn of the century because it put UK on a slippery slope leading to inevitable independence. Others have pointed to the thin edge of a nationalist wedge. My response is: nuts.

Those of us who were politically aware for the last half of the twentieth century realised (or should have realised, Mr Field) that the pressure for returning at least some power to the nations of Britain was irresistible. In Scotland, that pressure led to the setting up of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, comprising representatives of  not only political parties (excluding, younger readers may be surprised to know, the Scottish Nationalists, who boycotted it) but also the Scottish TUC, the churches and other movers and shakers. The template designed by the convention for the governance of Scotland was adopted by the Labour party in Westminster and adapted for Wales.

Wales is the living rebuttal to the slippery-slope argument. There is no great demand for independence. Even the nationalist party gives independence as a long-term ambition, not a central plank of its manifestos and Labour in government in Cardiff is actually resisting some of the appurtenances of national government recommended by the Silk Commission.

Admittedly, Scotland is different from Wales in two ways. First, she maintained her own legal system after the Act of Union; secondly, Edinburgh and Glasgow are more distant from London than Cardiff is. But I think the most significant factor is one of personality. Like him or loathe him, Alex Salmond must be the most charismatic political leader in Britain - and that includes Nigel Farage. As to whether the drive for Scottish independence can survive his departure from the political stage, ah hae me doots.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Health scandal that doesn't make the headlines because it is in Wales

Peter Black AM has called for a public inquiry into Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board hospitals, now the centre of a police investigation. This week's Private Eye magazine, which has well-qualified medical practitioners among its correspondents, has drawn attention to the similarities between the complaints made against the mid-Staffordshire hospital which led to the Francis inquiry.

The Eye devotes three-quarters of a page to an egregious case of mis-diagnosis (probably leading to unnecessary death), deprivation of fluid, food and vital medication over a weekend, and instances of cruelty over three other separate admissions " - the last two under the noses of police and social services, who had then been alerted by the family and were part of a genuine POVA [Protection Of Vulnerable Adults] investigation." But there are at least 39 other patients included in the police investigation.

Over 100 people came to the Heronstone Hotel last month to relate their experiences at a public meeting last month organised by Action Against Medical Accidents (AvMA), which Peter attended. It was here that the scale of failings was shown to be similar to that in mid-Staffs, where, the Eye recalls, "patients were found to be routinely neglected, humiliated and left in pain, as the trust focused on cost-cutting and government targets." I would only add that the NHS budget in Wales has been cut in cash terms, that is, more severely than the NHS in England.

Peter puts on record that "There are lots of examples of very good care in these hospitals from a dedicated and hard-working staff", but he clearly agrees with the Eye's conclusion that "Only a full Mid-Staffs-type inquiry will discover how many others have suffered unnecessarily".

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Monkey-house (cont'd)

Further to yesterday's post, there is a debate on YouTube. Clearly Tessa Munt and Jacob Rees-Mogg needed some distraction from the floods in their corner of England. (Whisper it gently, but Tessa is one of those I castigated yesterday for asking long questions.)

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Westminster monkey-house

The Speaker of the House Of Commons, John Bercow, has consistently railed against the playground atmosphere of the Chamber during Prime Minister's Questions. Now he has raised the stakes by writing to the three main party leaders and giving an interview to the Independent which also led to an editorial in the paper on Tuesday. Today, the backlash that Bercow must have expected (Guido Fawkes and Private Eye have long reported Tory MPs who regard Bercow as a traitor) has arrived.

He should be given the backing to go further than issue florid warnings to persistent hecklers. Naming and following up with removal should prove salutary. He should interrupt as soon as questions (the opposition front bench are the worst offenders, but there are sadly some back-benchers who see little difference between a question and a speech) and answers stray from the subject.

It would help if PMQs reverted to the purely business-like provision of information as was intended by Harold Macmillan when he introduced the regular spot. It was, I recall, Margaret Thatcher and her PR adviser Tim Bell who turned it into a political slanging match because they saw the possibilities in publicly cowing successive Labour leaders week after week. The disease has spread to some other ministers' sessions,

Realistically, one must assume that nothing substantial will happen under the current leaders. Perhaps there will be a token calm for a week or so (as happened when Ed Miliband first took over the Labour leadership), but then hostilities will resume.

So the business managers should at least move away from the Wednesday 11 a.m. slot before PMQs those sessions where serious Q & A still takes place. I am thinking in particular of International Development Questions, the last ten minutes of which are ruined for the viewer at home by the loud chatter of those gearing up for the Cameron-Miliband gladiatorial contest. (No action need be taken over NI/Scotland/Wales questions which are a repetitive farce.)

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Planning application for highest wind turbines in Wales refused

In front of a packed public gallery, Neath Port Talbot's planning and development committee this afternoon voted to turn down an application to install 5 wind turbines on the historic March Hywel.

[details to follow]

How well are we protected from flooding?

This is the report (32-page pdf) referred to in the recent BBC-Wales TV programme and Western Mail article. It will be seen from the tables in the report that, while Cardiff tops the overall at-risk table, more  properties in Neath and Port Talbot are in the serious or moderate risk categories than in the capital. Scientists predict that such storm series as those which inundated Somerset and the Thames Valley this year, and central Europe in 2010 and again last year, are going to be more frequent and more intense because of global warming.

South Wales has so far got off relatively lightly compared with southern England and coastal Wales further north. It would, however, have needed the jetstream to have twitched just a degree or so further north last month to inflict devastation on sensitive areas in this county borough. I am concerned about Cadoxton, which still has no replacement for its ageing and inadequate Victorian drainage, and the low-lying parts of Briton Ferry.

Monday, 17 February 2014

"12 Years a Slave" wins BAFTA

Congratulations to Chiwetel Ejiofor and the team behind the BAFTA Best Film 2014, and commiserations to Steve McQueen. The vote to choose Alfonso Cuaron over McQueen as Best Director must have been a close one, judging by the clips of both films shown on TV.

I have a sneaking feeling that the film will not do so well at the Academy Awards. It has a worthy subject, but one that the Americans still do not like to be reminded of. Spielberg's "Amistad", also dealing with slavery, was nominated in only four categories and did not win one. There is also likely to be resentment that it is a Brit who brings the dark past of both our nations to the fore again.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Two-faced Labour

Peter Black exposes the reality within the Labour Party behind the rhetoric on banking and high-earners.

John Hemming was able recently in a parliamentary debate to confirm that Labour does not intend to reverse the cuts to local government brought in by George Osborne and Eric Pickles: "We will not be able to stop the cuts or turn back the clock, but we will put fairness at the heart of the relationship between central and local government, and at the heart of our approach to local government finance." I take this to mean that they intend to redistribute government local authority financial support away from areas which are seen to be Conservative or Liberal Democrat supporting. This may be enough to keep Unison and Unite on board, but the inequity between urban and rural areas, highlighted by Nick Harvey, would increase.

I assume that this "fairness" would mean a consequential cut in the local government element in the budget settlement for Wales. So do not believe those Labour local councillors who say that services are bound to improve if Labour is returned to government; they could get worse.

Women in the House of Commons

Further to my earlier posting on the subject, there are typically wise words from the former deputy leader of the House, David Heath, who is retiring at the next general election. I would only add that in the sixth constituency which a Liberal Democrat is leaving, the candidate is from an ethnic minority (though born in the borough).

A poser for the opinion researchers

On the same day as Labour were successful in having another white not-young male elected in Greater Manchester, there was a council by-election in Birmingham which went against all the prognostications. Kingstanding ward has long been a safe Labour seat.

  • Gary Sambrook, Conservative  1571 (47%; +7.3%)
  • Lorraine Grundy, Labour 1433 (42.8%; -6.9%)
  • UKIP 266 (7.9%; +7.9%)
  • LD Graham Lippiatt 43 (1.3%; -0.7%)
  • NF 33 (1.0%; +0.2%)
  • Majority 138 Con gain from Lab.
  • Percentage change is since 2012

Three points stood out for me:

  1. According to the BBC report, Kingstanding covers more than one quarter of the Erdington constituency of Jack Dromey, a high-profile MP in his own right, and even more as the husband of the Labour deputy leader, Harriet Harman;
  2. The presence of both UKIP and the National Front did not hurt the Conservative candidate's progress;
  3. While Cllr Sambrook's hard work over the years in contesting the seat was a key factor in his success, it shows that Labour cannot take even safe seats for granted.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Some politicians don't do God, others don't dare do without

We all know the Alistair Campbell quotation, but it seems to me that there are other examples of being too religious holding back Westminster careers (Northern Ireland is an exception). Sarah Teather's professed Roman Catholicism is said to have contributed to her sacking from government. Her fundamental belief may have led her to vote against gay marriage (thus triggering an unreasoning hate campaign in certain quarters) but it also inspired her concern for the well-being of children and fair treatment of immigrants. Similarly, Alan Beith may have progressed further - at the least succeeded in election to the Speakership - if he had not also been a prominent Methodist and an active member of parliamentary Christian groups. If my thesis is correct, there is no way that Tim Farron will get into government - though admittedly Christianity does not seem to have done Steve Webb much harm.

It is also obvious that the reverse is true in the United States. Though the First Amendment proscribes a national church (thus circumventing any Protestant/Catholic/Unitarian disputes), USA has been, according to the Pledge of Allegiance since 1954, "one nation under God" - and that deity is implicitly the God of Abraham. Any US politician who does not at least pay lip service to a belief in God fights an uphill battle. In Islamic republics it is often fatal not to do so.

What I hadn't realised, and what triggered this post, is that, according to Amit Varna in a supplement to the Hindu Business Line, India is rather similar to the States. He cites "Arvind Kejriwal, once an atheist, [who] rediscovered religion as he ran for public office, and breathlessly thanked ‘the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru’ when he became chief minister of Delhi. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and put those ravings down to cynical roleplay rather than to genuine self-delusion.."

Varna concludes: "Believers sometimes rationalise their distaste for atheists by arguing that religion is the source of morality, and that atheists can’t possible have any incentive to behave ethically. Let’s leave aside the historical issue of the staggering amount of violence committed in the name of religion – there is also a case to be made that codes of conduct existed before religions did, and that religions merely codified what already existed, and might even have been hardwired into us. Ultimately, we behave the way we behave, do the things we do, out of regard for our fellow human beings, and for our own humanity. And if that is all we ever believe in, well, it’s good enough."

This is the opinion I subscribe to. Its implementation would mean electors judging representatives by their deeds, not their words or their labels. It would mean Americans and others abandoning their prejudice against atheists, agnostics and religious minorities. It would also mean electors here giving up their suspicion of public religious confession.

Friday, 14 February 2014

A piece of legislation which *is* wanted

Considering the rumours which were circulating yesterday about the abandonment of the recall measure (now confirmed) promised in the coalition agreement (reflecting the manifestos of both Conservatives and LibDems), one wonders why Angela Eagle did not mention it in her attack yesterday. Of course, Labour MPs' expenses transgressions were a major reason for their 2010 general election loss. Could it be that, like David Cameron, they feel that they are still harbouring current members and candidates who may be liabilities between general elections? It will be interesting to see whether Ed Miliband goes further than a snide comment at Prime Minister's Questions next week. I believe that Labour have yet to pick a subject for their next allotted debate.

Tim Farron, LibDem party president has commented: "It seems very wrong to me that an MP can be in position for the five years of a Parliament, get up to things which all of us would agree are inappropriate and be in a position where they would not be able to be held to account during that time. [...] What it looks like to the electorate is that MPs are trying to protect themselves against them, and that's not on."

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Labour loves laws, hates parliament

Angela Eagle was at it again today, chiding Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley for not having enough legislation in the rest of this parliamentary session. It reinforces the impression that Labour see Parliament as no more than a legislative production line coupled with a platform for party propaganda informed more by media consultants than evidence. They no doubt take pride in the number of new crimes they created in their years in office (Alex Wilcock seems to have the latest count before the 2010 election).
If Labour were so intent on devoting more time to debating improvements in the law, they should have cooperated in drawing up a realistic timetable for the House Of Lords Reform Bill, which, it should be remembered, was supported in principle by a majority of members of all parties in the Commons.

The coalition government is not guiltless. It has timetabled several contentious Bills for which it is difficult to see any urgency. Indeed, it seems that the more contentious the Bill, the more that the Conservatives wish to limit the time for debate - or the opportunity to improve poor legislation.

Sadly, there were no Liberal Democrat backbenchers present during Business Questions nor to hear the opening of the important debate on the Police Federation which followed, though Dr Julian Huppert, the most passionate defender of civil liberties, was able to attend later. If half what the mover David Davis and several other contributors said is true, then the recommendations of the Normington Review must surely be attended to.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

We need more nurses in the Welsh NHS

Wales has the worst patient:nurse ratio in the UK. If you agree that the law should be changed to enshrine an optimum standard in law, see

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

BBC hatchet job on Nick Clegg

When is the BBC going to present a programme about the coalition from the Liberal Democrat point of view? We have heard endlessly from Conservatives, Labour MPs and commentators who sympathise with one or other of those parties. After the first couple of shows, I have ignored them but I thought I would give Steve Richards' two-parter on Radio 4 yesterday a chance, firstly because though clearly a democratic socialist Richards was a critic of the Labour government in his Independent columns, and secondly because we were promised the inside story with Nick being able to speak for himself.

Well, the interviews were there all right, but they were undercut by contributions from Paul Marshall, the man behind the Orange Book who claimed, unchallenged, that Liberal Democrats in government had signed up to his brand of free-market economics; and from Peter Hain (never truly a Liberal, as he himself admits), who blamed the breakdown on coalition talks with Labour solely on Clegg's Conservatism, ignoring (a) the parliamentary arithmetic and (b) the totally uncooperative attitude on the part of large numbers of his comrades. Some old canards were slipped in, like liberals having totally different policies in different constituencies, or that the party had reversed its policy on tuition fees.

Nor was it true to say that the party was surprised at the size of the cuts made by the chancellor. In fact, the budget cuts were in the same bracket as the Liberal Democrat manifesto, much less than the Conservative proposals and also less than the Labour ones.

On the NHS in England, nobody pointed out that the LibDem manifesto did indeed call for less central control by cutting out a tier of governance. The scheme pushed by Andrew Lansley and no doubt influential lobbyists not only did not fulfil the coalition agreement but also went against all the parties' manifestos in one way or another.

There were some bright spots. Peter Hain's suggestion that Nick should have stood out for one of the great offices of state, preferably the chancellorship, rather than the deputy prime minister position with an emphasis on constitutional affairs, was a shrewd one. Whether the Conservatives, the largest party in parliament, would have acquiesced is another matter, but it wouldn't have hurt to be seen trying.

Surprisingly, by far the friendliest contribution came from Ken Clarke, who though an enthusiast for European union, is no liberal.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Nick Clegg's trade mission

The flying visit (back for his LBC talk-in) by the Deputy Prime Minister to Latin America received only partial coverage. His statement that the "war on drugs" was unwinnable was reported by the BBC, Sun, Times and the Telegraph but not that I can see by the Guardian or the Independent. Simon Calder in the latter did at least comment on the announcement of a revival of a direct flight from England to Colombia.

[Later] The Observer is now covering the anti-drugs message.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Early learning of important skills

It is gradually being recognised that being brought up in a bilingual household is an advantage when it comes to the later learning of languages and that those well-meaning parents, even native Welsh-speakers, who stopped their children from speaking Welsh as well as English were 180 degrees wrong. It also seems to help their later secondary studies if primary school children are introduced to other languages. Llangatwg and Dwr-y-Felin comprehensives are reaching out to juniors in their catchment area with introductory French lessons, and I don't suppose they are the only ones in the county borough to do so.

Now the English education ministry is mandating computer programming as a primary school subject as from the next school year. I believe this is a good move, as the earlier that one picks up skills the more they stick. I don't know whether it is already on the Welsh curriculum, but I do remember from a school open day the fun children in Cadoxton school demonstrated in directing their "turtle" using the Logo programming language. Perhaps it was a local initiative - I regret that I did not ask - but I would like to think that those boys and girls had a head-start when it came to computer studies at the comp.

Many schools are already benefiting from the initiative of the Raspberry Pi, a barebones computer (made in Wales, I am glad to say). There is a buzz about this device similar to that of the Acorn/BBC computers in the 1980s, at a far lower entry price even allowing for inflation. Many of the first generation of software entrepreneurs acknowledge the BBC computer or the Sinclair ZX series as their entrĂ©e into the world of programming. Provided the subject is taught with enthusiasm, and that the slower pupils are not made to feel stupid (there is a knack to programming which some take to more quickly than others), then I predict benefits for Britain ten years down the line.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Celebrities: prosecution and anonymity

Following William Roache's successful defence of his reputation, his friends and some journalists are asking whether the charges of sexual misconduct should even have been brought to court. Leaving aside the statements of the police and the CPS that there was a strong case (perhaps the authorities should be pursuing the complainants who are by implication convincing liars), one has to consider the alternative. Rumours inevitably circulate when charges of a sexual nature are brought, and the more prominent the arrestee, the wider do they circulate. Although internet service providers in the UK are restrained from publishing such content, there is little restriction on ISPs based abroad. It is therefore essential that, serious accusations having been made, the accused should be cleared - or convicted - in the most public way.

Some people would grant anonymity to celebrities, also with reference to the Roache case. In my opinion, they have short memories. They should consider whether all Stuart Hall's victims would have come forward if his initial arrest had been kept quiet. They should also think about Yorkshire police's suppression of Jimmy Savile's early crimes, and how many scores of young lives could have been protected if those cases had proceeded publicly.

Friday, 7 February 2014

We've come a long way in twenty years

In 1991, the Universiade (what I still think of as the student olympic games) was held in Sheffield. Three years earlier, the Thatcher government had passed the contentious "Section 28", outlawing the promotion of homosexuality. Though there was rightly opposition to this, most people seeing it as code for discrimination against same-sex relationships in general, it remained on the statute book for another twelve years and its removal did not pass quietly. There were no international protests against a UK venue for the 1991 games on the grounds of the government's anti-gay stance. (Indeed, the only threat to the games was the lack of UK media coverage - in my view, politically-inspired because South Yorkshire was a Labour stronghold and it was a Labour council which had bid for the games.)

In 2014, the Winter Olympics have got underway in an underprepared Sochi. Because the ultra-conservative Putin administration has passed a law against the promotion of homosexuality, there have been protests in most other first-world nations and some developing countries also. National leaders have ostentatiously stayed away from the opening ceremony. And not even the most reactionary Tory has sought to reintroduce Section 28.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Girls and physical education

It was good to hear Baroness Grey-Thompson on Sunday Supplement (about 37 minutes in) this week confirm my impression that there could be improvements in the way women's sport is regarded in this country. She accepted that TV coverage was better than it ever has been, but there is still a long way to go. The emphasis was on the sports in which men were particularly strong, but she agreed with Vaughan Roderick that netball programming in prime time was popular in Australia and New Zealand.

She went on to say: "it's not just about the media coverage, it's about how young girls think about playing and engaging in sport [...] we know loads of girls drop out. We used to think it was [at age?] 13. Actually, they start being switched off sport and physical activity at 7 or 8. [...] Most women don't have a great experience of sport in school [...] We find when they become mums, they want to protect their daughters from that miserable experience. [...] So I think there's a massive opportunity to do a programme  with mums to say 'look, this is not necessarily about competitive sport', (which to be honest a lot of girls don't like), 'this is about fitness, this is about health, this is about not costing the NHS money forty years from now'"

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Bullying in the armed forces

Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon has called for action on bullying in the British army. The immediate cause was the inquest over Cpl. Ellement. The latest allegations are of a piece, it seems to me, with reports of what when on at Deepcut, leading to the suspicious death of Cheryl James. A wide-ranging inquiry is surely overdue.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Accept others' democracy, even if we don't like the result

In my opinion, US Secretary of State John Kerry went too far in his recent pronouncement on the uprising in Ukraine. It is one thing to object to the methods used by a government to suppress demonstrations, it is quite another to say "the US and Europe stand with the people of Ukraine". This appears to side with people who want to bring down the government by extra-political means, which have included large-scale vandalism. What are the demonstrators protesting against? Ostensibly, it is that the elected government reversed its manifesto promise to negotiate entry to the European Union. This is hardly cause for revolution, especially as the cause of the change of heart was a counter-offer on very generous terms from the Soviet Union. The government had to do what it thought best in the interests of its citizens, who will have a chance to pass judgement at the next election.

The same thought applies to Thailand. There may be doubts about the integrity of the Shinawatra family, but there have been two elections, whose freedom has been compromised only by the protestors.

Egypt is a greyer area. Dr Morsi was elected, but he overstepped the mark in attempting to force a new constitution based on the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood on the citizens. Even so, it was an uprising which removed him and the US should have said so.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Margot Asquith

Just when I was thinking how sparse anniversaries are in this year compared with 2013, ODNB (free to access if you have a public library membership number) reminds us that Alice Emma Margaret (Margot) Tennant was born 150 years ago today. She married the widowed Liberal Herbert Asquith, who was to become prime minister on Campbell-Bannerman's death in 1908. Their son Anthony was to become an important British film-maker. (Some other Tennants went into show-business and the arts; Victoria is the latest.)

The Dictionary of National Biography entry concludes: "Margot had charmed Benjamin Jowett, had been given a private recital of 'Maud' by Tennyson, had watched the beautiful young duchess of Leinster making eleven perfect curtsies to royalties at an assembly, had launched a dreadnought, had knelt in prayer in a railway carriage with General Booth of the Salvation Army, had waltzed in a cabinet ante-room with Admiral Lord Fisher, had wept with the German ambassador on 4 August 1914 while he told her that Germany had 'never counted' that old Belgian treaty, and had lived to see Winston Churchill, for whom in 1915 she could foresee 'no political future', become the twelfth of the thirteen prime ministers she had known."