Monday, 31 March 2014

Joan Davies, a true liberal

I have just learned, by a roundabout route, that Joan Davies died peacefully on the morning of 25th March. I knew her for all too brief a time as the moving spirit behind DAGGER, the Liberal/Liberal Democrat pressure group for fair votes in the UK. She had also been a European Parliament candidate for the party in Wales. It would be a great tribute to her memory if May 2014 were to see the first Welsh Liberal Democrat elected to the EP.

However, I see from her entry in the LibDem Who's Who that she was more than those things. She was actually a Yorkshirewoman (born Joan Dorothy Higman to parents in Leeds). Having obtained a BA (Hons) in politics and economics at Leeds University, she became a lecturer at Sandhurst Military Academy. The Welsh connection was presumably her late husband Gwilym Davies, with whom she had two daughters and two sons.

True electoral reform was close to her heart. She had been chair of the Electoral Reform Society, but broke with that organisation when it decided to compromise on its previously rigorous policy of single transferable votes in multi-member constituencies.

She was also a member of the Fawcett Society, Amnesty International, Anti-Slavery International (for which organisation she also spoke), founder of the British Support Group for the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices (she must have been heartened by Lynne Featherstone's recent successes in this area), and spoke for democracy in conferences and so on both in the United States and on the continent of Europe, particularly Eastern Europe.

As Michael Steed, an old friend of hers and a fellow campaigner for voting reform puts it, Joan was "a doughty fighter in good causes". My thoughts are with her family, and her companion of latter years, John Holman.

The funeral service will be held at St Michaels Church in Bishop Cleeve, Gloucs at 2pm on Monday 7 April.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Housing benefit changes: BBC survey

BBC is splashing (e.g. ) the results of a sample survey of social housing providers which show that there has been no major change in occupancy after a year of the housing benefit cuts aimed to encourage single people to move out of subsidised multi-bedroomed accommodation.

The BBC results should be read in conjunction with an IPSOS/Mori survey (pdf here), published in February, of twice as many providers, together with an update promised for this summer.

My view was stated here.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

ATOS and the Work Capability Assessment

I do not apologise for quoting Mike German on Liberal Democrat Voice in full:

The previous Labour Government’s 2005 contract awarded to Atos Healthcare has been a long term thorn in the side of the policy of fairly assessing people on Invalidity Benefit for transferring to Employment and Support Allowance. The contract has been dogged by decisions taken which have been overturned on appeal, and longer and longer queues as people wait for their assessments.
At the root of the problem was Labour’s decision to award the contract to a single supplier for the whole of Great Britain. Now, we know Labour loves monopolies and centralising power – and this contract was no exception. Vesting so much public money and effort in a single provider meant the present government had almost no room for manoeuvre when making adjustments or seeking changes to the contract.
It was no surprise to me that this single provider contract has failed. I live in Wales under a  Labour government and centralising decisions is almost a watchword for all public services.  This mantra has meant our health and education services lag far behind those in England.
So the first message I want to send to our coalition government is to ensure that any new replacement contract is split – so that the government can turn to an immediate alternative when performance falls. This contract utilises a huge number of healthcare professionals – doctors, occupational therapists, mental healthcare specialists and the like. With a common assessment test in place it is the quality of the provision which is at stake. And that needs people with the right qualifications.
This government has put in place a set of independent on-going reviews of the assessment test – the Work Capability Assessment  – under both Professor Harrington and now Dr Litchfield. This has assisted government thinking on changes but much more can be done. What customers need now is certainty – certainty that their full conditions are taken into account, and certainty that the assessors are appropriately qualified. That’s my second message to our government.  People deserve fairness and accuracy. This new contract, to be up and running next year, is a chance to put both of these in place.
I agree with every word.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Farage's business experience

It was another storming performance by Nick Clegg on the LBC debate tonight. For those who didn't hear it, there are links from Liberal Democrat Voice among other things. So comments from me on the debate itself are superfluous.

However, I was interested in Nigel Farage's implied claim of business experience. (He contrasted this with Nick's never having done a real job, something which Nick put us right on later.) Now I knew that he was described as a former commodities trader (i.e. a City speculator) but I hadn't realised until I read his wikipedia entry in detail how less than glorious was his c.v.:

1982-1986 Drexel Burnham Lambert (collapsed 1990, after multiple criminal charges)
1986-1994 Credit Lyonnais Rouse (subsidiary of French bank which narrowly avoided liquidation)
1994-2003 Refco (collapsed 2005)
2003-? Natixis Metals.

So that's two US and two French companies - very patriotic - but one must give Mr Farage credit for getting out in time on at least two occasions.

Harman deals in speculation, Clegg in facts

From Deputy Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons yesterday:

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that new figures show that the Government’s trebling of tuition fees is on course to end up costing the taxpayer more than the system it replaced?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The new figures show that there are now more people at university than ever before; that a higher proportion of youngsters from disadvantaged families are at university than ever before; that there is a higher rate of participation in higher education by youngsters from black minority ethnic backgrounds than ever before; and that there is a higher rate of applications to go to university from our youngsters than ever before. Surely, rather than speculating on what people may or may not earn in 35 years, the Labour party should celebrate the fact that more people are going to university and that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university.
Ms Harman: The Deputy Prime Minister’s bluster will not have disguised the fact that he has not answered the question. He said he had to back the Tories on tuition fees because it was too expensive not to. The truth is, as even the former departmental special adviser has now admitted, the Government “got its maths wrong”. There are now rumours that, to cover the costs of this incompetence, the Government could put up fees again. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he got it wrong on tuition fees in his last manifesto. Will he now confirm that the next Lib Dem manifesto will rule out any further tuition fee increase?
The Deputy Prime Minister: There is absolutely no need for a further increase. In fact, we announced at the end of last year that universities will be able to take an unlimited number of students. We are removing the cap on the number of British students going to British universities and there is no cap on the number of overseas students, so there is no need for an increase. The right hon. and learned Lady talks about the figures and the cost. What is the cost for individual students? Someone earning £24,000 was paying £67.50 per month under the fees system that her Government introduced. Under our system, they are paying not £67.50 per month, but £22.50 per month. Is that not the reason why, despite all the Labour party’s predictions that people would not apply to university, applications have gone up? Is that not the reason why, despite all the predictions by the right hon. and learned Lady and her colleagues that fewer people from disadvantaged families would go, the proportion has gone up? Those are the facts that really matter for students these days. 

The point is that the report which the Labour deputy leader refers to makes pessimistic assumptions about future salary levels and employment.

Nick was on particularly good form yesterday. A little later, this interchange occurred:

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): A few moments ago, the Deputy Prime Minister was a tad shy when my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) asked him about the coalition policies that the Liberal Democrats had vetoed. Will he confirm that transparency is one of the principles that fall within the ambit of his responsibilities for constitutional reform, or do we have to wait until the general election and the Liberal Democrat manifesto to hear about the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to open government?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman wants some examples: I said no to proposals from his party that anyone could basically be fired at will with no reason at all; I said no to his party’s proposals for a snoopers charter; and I have said no to profit making in state schools and to prioritising tax cuts for millionaires when our priority should be tax cuts for many people on middle and low incomes. If he wants me to go on about how the Liberal Democrats are anchoring the Government in the centre ground to ensure that we build a stronger economy and a fairer society, be my guest.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Expertise on breaches of international law

There was an interesting interchange in the Lords yesterday about the Netanyahu government's disregard for international norms. One section of Jenny Tonge's extensive questioning and Baroness Warsi's reply stood out for me:

Baroness Tonge (Ind LD): Will [the minister] say why it is that we are prepared to impose sanctions on Russia for breaking international law but not upon Israel, which has been breaking international law for decades?

Baroness Warsi: I thank my noble friend for that question. She comes to these matters with great expertise. She has asked a number of questions—not only Oral Questions but Written Questions—on a regular basis. I can assure her that we take these matters incredibly seriously. There has been a worrying increase in violence in the West Bank. In 2012, nine civilians were killed; in 2013, 27 civilians were killed; and the number of civilians who have been injured is also on the increase. Last week I raised these matters with our officials and only yesterday—Sunday— our ambassador spoke with the national security adviser and again put our concerns before him.

I am grateful to Guido Fawkes, who appeared to deprecate the Baroness's commendation. I would point out that Baroness Tonge has first-hand experience of the conditions of Palestinian women and families, which I would guess is rather more than most of her critics.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The SDP refers. Although the party was officially wound up in 1988, its banner is still borne 33 years after its foundation by Cllr Tony Taylor in Aberavon ward.

It is interesting to quote from Dr Peter Joyce's history of the Liberal Democrats, "Towards the Sound of Gunfire!" (1997):

The SDP was founded against the background of the criticisms by its leading members that Labour governments in the 1970s appeared to follow no discernible principles but tended to fudge and compromise their way from one problem to another. 

The SDP endorsed a market oriented [sic] mixed economy and rejected the view that class warfare was indispensable to the attainment of a socialist society. In common with social democratic principles, it did not seek to transform society but to ameliorate its most pressing social problems. However, it was antagonistic to the statist approach with which Croslandite social democracy had been identified. SDP theorists condemned centralism and the corporate state.

[David] Owen recorded his belief that a true democracy 'will mean a progressive shift of power from Westminster to the regions, to the county and town halls, to communities, neighbourhoods, patients, tenants and parents'.

One wonders whether Lord Owen, who has recently made a substantial donation to the Labour Party (while remaining on the crossbenches in the Lords) after Ed Miliband's moves to reduce trade union influence within the party, feels the same way today.

Many would say that today's Labour Party appears to follow no discernible principles, but there is no breakaway group in evidence. There are voices - authoritarian in the Conservatives, socially liberal in the LDP - objecting to fudges and compromises in the coalition government. Disaffected Tories do not need to form a new party since a vehicle for defection already exists in the form of UKIP. The Social Liberal Forum is a pressure group, rather than a nascent party, rather like the Bow Group within the Conservatives - though with a different philosophy, of course.

So I don't see another SDP arising in the near future, though what happens after the next general election when at least one party is going to see its hopes dashed is another matter.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Legal aid in England and Wales

As I read this official paper (pdf), the government spent in England and Wales £2.28 billion on legal aid (£1.36bn civil, £0.92 criminal)  in 2012-13. The comparable total for Scotland was £0.16bn. The population of England & Wales is 56.6 million, of Scotland 5.3m (the population figures are from 2012, but the ratio between the two countries will practically not have changed in two years). Basic arithmetic shows that the cost of legal aid per head is higher in England & Wales is higher than in Scotland, apparently justifying Chris Grayling's complaint about our costs. (Jack Straw went further in 2007, when Labour was in power.)

Legal aid in Scotland is available for a wider range of civil disputes than in England & Wales - see the Scottish Legal Aid Board's website. Moreover, those who had recourse to Scottish legal aid were generally satisfied with the service they received. In England and Wales, we are restricted to some domestic disputes, serious housing or debt problems, discrimination claims, some immigration disputes, asylum matters and family mediation services. Discussions of legal aid in Radio 4's "Money Box Live" and "Law in Action" in the last year or so suggest more dissatisfaction south of the border.

This all suggests to me that it is the English system of administration which is at fault, and it is this that should have been addressed rather than applying the simplistic cutting begun by Labour and continued under the coalition. This cutting has (arbitrarily, I hope) disproportionately hit the poorest citizens in the adverse circumstances they are most likely to meet.

A start could be made on rate-limiting to stop uncontrolled costs in individual cases, as has been applied in Scotland. This could be extended to fraud cases, which eat into the criminal budget. I note also that some of the lowest costs per head worldwide are in Sweden and New Zealand, whose justice systems incorporate more alternatives to prison. I do not believe that this is a coincidence.

However, I feel that a comparative study of the two systems north and south of the Scottish border will yield positive results - less expenditure on legal aid and hopefully restoration of the legal areas to which it applies. Moreover, such a comparative study would not involve expensive trips to the other side of the planet. :-)

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Democracy is still alive in South Africa

Not enough publicity has been given in this country to the recent findings of corruption (which make our duck-houses and trouser-presses pale into insignificance) against South African President Jacob Zuma. The public purse had, at the president's private Nkandla home, built Zuma and his family a visitor centre, cattle kraal, chicken run, swimming pool, and amphitheatre among other things. The president is now being asked to pay back a good percentage of the costs.

The news reports demonstrate that in the new South Africa women can hold powerful positions. They also show that the law is above any politician, no matter how mighty. There are worrying moves by figures within the ruling ANC party to unseat the public prosecutor, Thuli Madonsela, but she has so far resisted them stoutly - and in view of the forthcoming elections, if the ANC overreaches, the party will almost certainly suffer at the ballot.

The Democratic Alliance, the Liberal International affiliated party in South Africa, has launched a bid for impeachment.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Rail electrification

The Wales Secretary, David Jones, has held out the possibility of electrification of the railway in North Wales as a result of a development in the HS2 programme (Western Mail report here).

This is against the background of doubt being cast on the electrification of the Valleys Lines, centred on Cardiff. Labour in Cardiff Bay is now claiming that the coalition government is reneging on a promise to pay for the scheme from central funds. This is puzzling, as Adrian Masters reveals on the ITV news website: there is a statement in writing from last year that Whitehall would recover the costs from the Welsh Government. The fact that not one Labour MP raised the matter at Transport Questions in the Commons yesterday suggests to me that the party is batting on a sticky. One wonders whether the making public of this spat is more to do with the Wales Bill, published yesterday, than rail transport.

Meantime, it is good to see confirmation from the Western Mail that there will be no going back on Great Western main line electrification: "Mr Cameron pointed out that the UK Government is 'directly funding' the electrification of the Great Western Main Line to Cardiff, and 'have committed' to funding the electrification of the line from Bridgend to Swansea."

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Does Labour really regret the "24 tax rises"?

Thanks to Guido for providing the list:

The 24 Tory Tax Rises
1. VAT increased – to 20 per cent from 2011
2. Income Tax age-related allowances frozen and eligibility restricted (“Granny Tax”) from 2013-14
3. Income Tax higher rate threshold cut to £42,475 in 2011-12
4. Higher Income Child Benefit Charge introduced 2013
5. National Insurance Contributions rates, limits and thresholds increased in line with CPI rather than RPI from 2012-13
6. Income Tax higher rate threshold frozen at £42,475 in 2012-13
7. Insurance premium tax increased – from 2011
8. Capital Gains Tax increased – to 28 per cent for higher rate taxpayers from June 2010
9. New Beer Duty introduced on high strength beers from 2011
10. Duty on hand-rolling tobacco increased by an additional 10 per cent from 2011-12
11. ISA subscription limit uprated in line with CPI rather than RPI from 2012-13
12. National Insurance Contributions changes to contracting-out rebates from 2012-13
13. Capital Gains Tax annual exempt amount frozen, 2012-13
14. Stamp Duty Land Tax increase to 7 per cent on properties over £2 million from 2012-13
15. VAT increases on a range of items, including caravans, sports drinks, and listed buildings from 2012
16. Duty on tobacco increased by RPI + 5 per cent in 2012
17. Income Tax higher rate threshold cut to £41,450 in 2013-14
18. Capital Gains Tax annual exempt amount increased in line with CPI rather than RPI from 2013-14
19. Income Tax cap on reliefs introduced from 2013-14
20. Pension tax relief restricted from 2014-15 21.
21. Income Tax higher rate threshold Increase capped at 1 per cent in 2014-15 and 2015-16
22. Capital Gains Tax annual exempt amount increase capped at 1 per cent, 2014-15 and 2015-16
23. Inheritance Tax threshold frozen in 2015-16
24. National Insurance Contributions ending of contracting-out rebates from 2016-17

My reaction was that virtually all affected people on higher incomes, and those that did not would almost certainly have been in Labour's first budget if they had been in government after the 2010 election. For instance, we know that Darling's spending plans assumed a VAT rise to 19%. He had also initiated the freeze on the Higher Age Allowance (the "granny tax") and was unlikely to have eased it in 2010.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Impressions of York 2014

To borrow a joke from Tim Farron, a settlement which survived the Romans (and, according to Andrew Duff, was where Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was proclaimed) and the Vikings easily coped with an influx of Liberal Democrats. 

Even the weather in York was welcoming. Admittedly, it was a bit chilly at the start of the weekend and overcast on Saturday morning, but the weekend ended on a gloriously warm note. The police and security people were friendly though thorough, with none of the heavy-handedness which marred the Sheffield and, I understand, a number of later conferences.

As befits a once-Roman city, geese were much in evidence, and not just on
the rivers. Whether they act as alarms any more was not clear.

It's a young city. If you didn't know it had a large student population from the number of pubs and late-night convenience stores, the street scene on a Friday or Saturday evening would leave no doubt. There was student input to the conference debate on European Union membership, younger people particularly relishing the opportunities for travel and work abroad.

The good nature extended to the rest of Conference. The “top table” had its way on almost everything: the only vote which went against the Federal committees was a Liberal reassertion of fair votes for all elections. The official motion entitled “Power to the People” had included a proposal for open lists for European Parliament elections – better than the closed party lists which we suffer in the UK at present, but still a compromise too far.

More disappointing was the muted response to the slow progress in bringing fairness to the housing benefit restrictions. Don Foster, for the parliamentary party, announced at a Q&A session that IPSOS-MORI had begun research into the effects of the additional-rooms cut. Why an opinion research organisation was chosen for the task and why Linda Jack (or any other member of the Social Liberal Forum) did not press on this remain mysteries to me.

There was no time to fulfil my hope of visiting at least one of the historic museums, not even the Railway Museum, but at least I enjoyed the ambience of the narrow streets on their ancient pattern – and of course the warmth of the natives.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Bulford and Deepcut

The guilty people will probably never be brought to justice, but, as the Independent editorialises, surely at least the Ministry of Defence must recognise its duty of care.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014


Coincidentally, this follows on from yesterday's post about Nigel Farage's attitude to migrants from the continent of Europe. When I read the accusations of Russian president Putin and Ukrainian president-manqué Yanukovych that the Kiev protesters were organised by the West and dominated by neo-Nazis, I immediately thought of those Ukrainian immigrants to Britain after the second world war. Putin has raised the spectre of the Ukrainians who sided with Hitler in the 1930s in order to frighten people into his camp.

However, as this history shows, significant numbers of Ukrainians came the other way, to a UK run by Attlee's Labour government, to help win the peace by working in industry and, especially, in the coalfields of Yorkshire, the English Midlands, Scotland and South Wales. I remember the Ukrainian Club in Morriston, Swansea, surviving well into the 1960s and I see from the AUGB web-site that Ukrainian societies in other parts of the kingdom are still thriving.

Putin's rhetoric has already been compared with that of Hitler before his annexation of Sudetenland. Chris Bryant drew the comparison half-way through today's questioning of William Hague and it is surprising that the parallel hadn't been drawn earlier. Mr Hague and some commentators have characterised the effective seizure of Crimea as an emotional response to criticism of perceived weakness at home. The latter does seem unlikely, given that any electoral opposition is likely to come from the liberal side and was easily seen off by fair means and foul in the last elections. The fact that the annexation of Crimea went smoothly and comprehensively suggests that it had been planned well in advance. I suspect that the planning started as early as the time of the Orange Revolution in case the after-effects of this were not favourable to the Russians. It seems to me that Putin does see the endgame, the "figure in the marble" as Gerald Abrahams put it in The Chess Mind. This does not necessarily include total recapture for the Russian Federation of the whole of Ukraine. It was somewhat worrying that Western leaders did not seem to have a clear picture of their own, that difficult negotiations prevented a common front being developed expeditiously. However, the steep fall in the value of the rouble and of Russian stocks must have come as an unwelcome shock to the Russian leadership and given pause to people on both sides.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Farage: England for the English

Nigel Farage is quoted on Liberal Democrat Voice as saying:
“In scores of our cities and market towns, this country, in a short space of time, has, frankly, become unrecognisable. Whether it is the impact on local schools and hospitals, whether it is the fact that in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more, this is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.”

Well, I am old enough to have children and grandnephews and I started working in London umpty-thing years ago. The family home being on Merseyside, I put up in a hostel in Swiss Cottage for the first few months of a job in Westminster. I remember being excited and intrigued, not blimpish, by all the different accents and languages I came across on my journey to work, let alone in exploring the streets of the metropolis.

Seeing the films and reading the literature of the years between the end of the war and my entry into the world of work and the '60s, leads me to believe that there was probably more interchange between London and the continent then than there is now. Of course, there were many refugees from the Nazis still in residence here and the eyes of soldiers returning from Europe (some with continental brides) would have been opened. Garrisons had been established in occupied Germany which would not be wound down until the end of the Cold War - more interchange there.

We did well from migrants then and we are doing very well from EU migrants now. I don't believe we even have to try too hard to persuade these folks to learn English, if they don't already know the language - there are strong financial incentives so to do. Wrong target, Mr Farage.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Welfare cuts

John McDonnell MP, in introducing the debate in the House of Commons last Thursday, was honest in stating that the trouble in assessing disability payments was not just ATOS, but the Work Capability Assessment itself, introduced by Labour in 2008. For that reason alone, his criticisms of the present state of welfare reform as it affects sick and disabled people should be listened to.