Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Turkey edges closer to admitting Armenian guilt

Given the significance of the implied admission, Turkish prime minister Erdogan's recent statement has received remarkably little coverage.

There is a graphic reminder of the "pain" of the Armenians in Robert Fisk's article in the Independent's 1914-18 series published yesterday, or of this touching piece from 2010. The rhetorical question attributed to Hitler, "Who, after all, speaks to-day of the annihilation of the Armenians?", appears to be a fabrication, but Fisk places German army officers as witnesses of the 1915 genocide. It would clearly have been in the back of the minds of Hitler, Himmler and their senior executioners, even if not spoken of.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS)

Now that the worst of the flooding has subsided, it is time for the relevant authorities in the affected areas in Yorkshire, the Thames valley and the south-west of England to plan against the next inundation, which cannot be long away. So should the Welsh Government and Welsh councils - we were unbelievably lucky in 2013/14.

Expert advice is that dredging of rivers may be part of the solution, but may also make situations worse. Speeding up flows may increase the trouble for communities downstream. However, the authorities seem to have used that advice as an excuse to do nothing, not even the active land management which experts also recommend.

Anything which can slow rainfall on its rush to the sea is valuable. Wetlands, ground-cover (trees or scrub) or even garden ponds in built-up areas help. As an article in the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust magazine Waterlife magazine puts it:

We all need somewhere to live, somewhere to work and somewhere to shop; many of us want a place to park our cars and outlets for our leisure activities. As our numbers increase, so we must continue to build. 

Yet the amount of water on our planet remains constant, forever falling from the sky, making its way to rivers, flowing to the sea, evaporating, forming clouds and then falling to Earth once more. 

The more we build, therefore, the fewer places it has to go. [...] By increasing the capacity of landscapes, whether rural or urban, to capture and store water, we slow the rate at which those landscapes drain, helping to avoid the disasters of too much water reaching conduits such as rivers at the same time. It's all about building and maintaining catchment levels. 

Restoring wetlands, and making those that exist more effective, is part of that process, so is introducing wetlands into areas where they don't currently exist. WWT's SuDS programme is part of that latter thinking.

An initiative by a mid-Wales farmer would also help in rural areas. He planted some trees originally to provide shelter for sheep to lamb outside, and thus save electricity bills. Other local farmers took up the initiative. They found that a beneficial side-effect was the reduction of water run-off.

Blast from the past

An early editor of Personal Computer World, and respected IT and management guru, David Tebbutt, has put a large chunk of his pre-WorldWideWeb writings on his web pages. It is a searchable archive which I look forward to dipping in to in the months to come, but I just had to seek out his first editorial:

Written by David Tebbutt, Personal Computer World 09/79 - scanned

First Editorial

One of the hallmarks of PCW has always been the lively participation of its readers. You are out there doing interesting things, developing new software and hardware devices, setting up clubs and societies - perhaps even getting concerned about the likely implications of the coming technological revolution.

Where better to broadcast and share the wealth of your knowledge, ideas and experiences than in the pages of a respected and widely distributed journal? If you are concerned about style of presentation - read our `guidelines for contributors', if you are unsure about content - there are very few restrictions. Obviously, though, an unusual or radical contribution has more chance of being published than, say, yet another program for `Mastermind'*.

We'd be particularly interested to hear from people who have installed a personal computer in their own business, from people who have hooked-up something unusual - perhaps through an analogue interface (but, please, no more analogue to digital converters), from people who wish to `soapbox' their views and from people still at school or college. Also, if you want to tell us something but prefer not to go into print - fine. Just write in anyway because we'd love to hear your views, good or bad. Remember, this is very much your magazine and its future direction should, and will, reflect the views and desires of its readership. We look forward to hearing from you.

The Editor

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Thank you, David, for the happy memories.

* A popular game at the time.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Less outsourcing, more professionalism in the civil service

We are virtually back in a pre-Gladstonian age of public administration, almost as if Northcote and Trevelyan had never reported. Special Advisers (SPADs) whose qualifications and experience could be negligible may be recruited to take over some of the duties of civil servants, thus re-creating an arena for patronage. The regular civil service has been stripped down, and favoured private companies, whose policies of pay and conditions may not match those of public servants, have taken over responsibility for swathes of administration.

Andreas Whittam-Smith, co-founder of the Indy and no socialist, inveighed against the process back in February:

Remember that from the middle of the 19th century until the early 1970s, we had what was widely believed to be the best Civil Service in the world. It saw the nation through two world wars, the General Strike, the Depression, the Cold War, the liberalisation of the 1960s and into the age of globalisation and high technology. A parliamentary committee recently concluded that a strong Civil Service “remains the most effective way of supporting the democratically elected Government and future administrations in the UK”.
But, alas, we don’t have that any more. Career politicians with little experience of life outside politics have wrecked it. One way, is by suborning civil servants into serving the propaganda needs of the government of the day. Thus, our Whitehall Editor, Oliver Wright, reported recently that senior Tory strategists in Downing Street have issued an edict to government departments effectively banning them from highlighting speeches, initiatives and events that are not central to the party’s key election themes. Charming. At the same time, a civil servant whistleblower alleges that in the Ministry of Justice, the Secretary of State has instructed political special advisers to review every single response to a parliamentary question to ensure that a favourable reply is presented. The whistleblower adds: “As you might imagine, this has infuriated officials at all levels with constant requests for redrafts of accurate answers and by dragging them into the spin machine.”
A second problem is the tendency for Government ministers to scapegoat individual officials, rather than to learn lessons from such failures as the West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco and the debacles at the UK Border Agency. This may be one of the reasons why there has been a very high turnover in senior staff.
Coupled with this unduly negative attitude to the Civil Service is a naïve admiration for the commercial sector. With the political class having, for the most part, zero experience of running business enterprises, it has had difficulty in imagining what could go wrong with outsourcing. Even government departments themselves often fail fully to grasp the nature of the public services for which they are responsible. So they don’t really know where market mechanisms are appropriate to drive service improvement and where they are not.
Then there is the serious problem that outsourcing suppliers often seek to game for their own benefit the reward structures created by commissioners and regulators. Typically they will find ways of “parking” users with complex needs – in other words, unprofitable cases – and of creaming off those who are easier to support, and therefore more remunerative.
For too long, the political parties have believed that public service is bad and private sector is good. It has seemed intuitively correct. But take my experience just yesterday. I went down to my local Marks & Spencer and, as usual, found the staff helpful and the people working at the checkout unfailingly polite and cheerful. Earlier in the day, I had visited my local hospital for a blood test. As I was examining the list of departments inside the entrance to find out where I had to go, a young woman with a clipboard came up and asked if she could help. Which she did. I proceeded to the blood-testing department, ready to read my newspapers while I waited. There was no delay. I was in and out in five minutes. Private service good, public service good.
So this is the question. Can we recreate an effective Civil Service and public service, well regarded by Parliament and voters alike, in which people are proud to serve? It needn’t be more expensive. Then we could largely dispense with outsourcing and the difficulties it brings.

National catch-the-bus week

 - where you have one. But I would like to give what publicity I can to the efforts of the Bus Users UK organisation.

The branch in Wales (email is supported by the Welsh Assembly Government. They should be the next port-of-call after the bus company itself if something goes wrong with your journey and you have cause to complain. (If you prefer to use the post, their address is Bus Users UK, c/o PTI Cymru Ltd, Leckwith Offices, Sloper Road, CARDIFF CT11 8TB.)

With the exception of Cardiff and Newport, whose bus operators are municipally-owned, buses in Wales are now run by private bus companies, ranging from small local family-owned firms through to plcs running both buses and trains. Once a company has a licence, it can run buses where it likes, so long as it tells the local Traffic Commissioner eight weeks beforehand. Traffic Commissioners are appointed by the Government to make sure services are run in accordance with the law. The Traffic Commissioner for Wales also controls the English West Midlands, and their office is in Birmingham.

Some services (savagely cut recently as a result of a reduction in subsidies both by the Welsh Government and by local authorities like Neath Port Talbot) are contracted out as a public service. The council is the place to complain if you know that the bus service that has given you trouble is a subsidised one.

[Thanks to a Bus Users UK fact sheet for some of the extracts above.]

Sunday, 27 April 2014


There are two good postings on the subject of disestablishment of the Church of England in England: and

Coincidentally, we have just passed the bicentenary of Angela Burdett-Coutts, a great patron of the Church of England. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography relates that "Her will stipulated that all her Church of England endowments would be nullified in the event of its disestablishment." I wonder if over a hundred years after her death this would still be significant.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Forthcoming elections

Our attention is (or should be) on 22nd May and the European Parliament elections. However, in addition to the Indian general election which began on 7th April and will not be complete until after 16th May, there is an important election in the southern hemisphere. South Africa goes to the polls on 7th May. It is an election which the ANC led by Jacob Zuma is expected to win easily, but it appears that the party's hopes of a two-thirds majority in parliament are diminishing slightly. The Democratic Alliance, successor to the multi-racial Liberal Party among others, is the major opposition party, but will do well to achieve 25%.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

UK Business response to UKIP posters

British Influence puts the case against Nigel Farage and his multi-millionaire backers better than I could:

Footnote: in his TV debates with Nick Clegg, Farage stated that the House of Commons Library figures understate the amount of EU-dictated law because they cover only primary legislation. However, even if Statutory Instruments (subsidiary legislation) are taken into account, the total is less than half - probably no more than 40%.

Farage presents himself as a disinterested patriot, but it is clear from closer examination of his policies that his aim is to create a Britain with minimal protection of the interests of those Labour voters he seems to be seducing.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

LibDems' USP lost among the electioneering

Well, that didn't last long. We had a favourable leader in the Indy a week or so ago, and the same paper correctly defined Jeremy Browne as a "maverick" Liberal Democrat (though only in the print edition, I notice) when other media were describing him as "top" or "prominent". However, we were back to the usual "what are the Lib Dems for?" in Ian Birrell's article Sunday before last.

This was followed by a letter in the daily paper from a David Ashton of Sheringham, who quotes disparaging remarks about the Liberals from HG Wells "The New Machiavelli".  What Mr Ashton fails to point out is that the book was a novel and that the fictional narrator's views were rather different from Wells's own.

Thank goodness for the New Statesman (something I never thought I'd write). It is giving a regular spot to Liberal Democrat blogger Richard Morris. I wonder if the Staggers has realised, what Harriet Harman and her gang have not, that if Labour is to have a sniff of power next year, it needs Liberal Democrats to do well in seats where LDs are challengers and Labour is lying third?

Anyway, Richard Morris pointed out in his article last week that the party's official policy remains more progressive than that of the coalition and certainly more than that of the increasingly "dry" Conservatives.

As for Ian Birrell's assertion that four years ago the Liberal Democrat party was deliberately modelling itself on the Free Democrats, my memory of that time and before was the opposite: that old hands in the party saw the decline of the FDP as a dreadful warning. A party which saw its role purely as king-making, centred on the personality of a particular individual, was sure to come to grief eventually.

America accedes to terrorist rules

In a week where the head of state of the United Kingdom and many Commonwealth countries shook hands with a former terrorist commander, the United States abrogated international law by refusing to allow Iran's envoy to the United Nations. The United Nations estate in New York City in itself enjoys extraterritorial status by virtue of a long-established treaty with the USA.

Envoy Hamid Abutalebi says he served solely as a periodic translator for the Islamist students who seized the U.S. embassy hostages, and took no part in the violence. CBC News reports that he has since evolved into a moderate figure favouring, like President Hassan Rouhani, a thaw in Iran's ties with the West.

By taking the law into its own hands in this matter, the United States has put itself on the same intellectual level as the Taliban who feel justified in killing Afghan citizens whose only "crime" was to act as intermediaries between military occupiers and the civilian population.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

UKIP shifting its ground

Peter Black draws attention to the misuse of expenses by Nigel Farage among other dodgy UKIP attitudes.

In his article in the Indy this week (the Indy's own report is here), Nigel Farage comes clean, abandoning any pretence that he uses his monthly allowance from the European Parliament for much more than projecting his own image.

All MEPs are giving a fixed allowance of £3,850 per month. They do not have to provide receipts for any of that expenditure [...] I have done nothing illegal - I have always said that I will use all legal means to get us out of the EU, and I make absolutely no apologies for using EU money to do it.

For "EU money" read "tax-payers' money including our own". For a short exposé of how UKIP MEPs earn their salaries and expenses, listen to Chris Davies MEP here - and for what a truly active MEP can do for his country see Chris's c.v.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Half-truths about Cyril Smith

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who arrived in this country well after Cyril Smith was active in Rochdale politics, would have done well not to take on trust everything the Labour MP Simon Danczuk and the conservative Daily Mail have written about the man. The Indy has not printed my response to her article, so I copy it here:

Whatever Cyril Smith did when he had access to schools and boys homes while on Rochdale council, it should be remembered that for most of that time (1952-1966) he was a Labour councillor. Indeed, he was elected mayor of the town in spite of concerns having being raised with the Labour hierarchy by at least one social worker.

Of course, David Steel is still alive and can be questioned while it is unlikely that anyone in Rochdale Labour has survived from those days.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Nigel Evans

I hope that Nigel Evans will be thrown out by the voters of Ribble Valley in 2015. This is not because of his life-style (sadly, it seems to be all too common in Westminster); certainly not because he is gay - in at least one of his previous election contests, his opponents from each of the other main parties were also gay; but because he is an unreconstructed Thatcherite. It is noticeable that the two people who most prominently leapt to his defence after his acquittal were from that wing of the Conservative party: Edwina Currie and David TC Davies.

Nor do I agree with him that historic sex abuse should not be pursued. The case against Evans may not have held up, but that against Stuart Hall did and several victims will have drawn some satisfaction from that.

But he is surely right to demand that defendants who are cleared should not be out of pocket as a result of being put on trial. As Antony Hook, an experienced criminal barrister, writes on Liberal Democrat Voice:

It is an outrage that the state should prosecute you, you are found not guilty by the jury, but then be left with the costs of your defence.

But MPs have produced this unjust situation. Less than 10 years ago, Nigel Evans would not have had to pay for his defence. He could have been represented on a legal aid certificate that would pay for solicitor and counsel. Those costs would be capped on a fixed fee basis. Counsel’s fee for the three-week trial and preparation would be thousands, not hundreds of thousands, of pounds.

Labour brought in punitive means-testing for legal aid, which the Coalition has kept.

It used to be the case that acquitted defendants who had paid privately could ask for a Defence Costs Order. This meant the state would reimburse their defence costs. Judges had a (rarely used) discretion to disallow defence costs.

Labour’s problem was that having cut back legal aid, public money was going to pay for more Defence Costs Order for innocent defendants who had paid privately. So in the end the right of the innocent defendant to get their costs back was scrapped too.

That is how we have arrived at an Orwellian situation where Nigel Evans, and thousands of defendants every year, are caused huge financial harm even if they are not guilty. They should get their costs back. It is only fair.

But the rules that have been so unjust to Nigel Evans were voted for by Parliament: brought in by Labour and left in place by the Coalition. Some of Nigel Evans’s colleagues who decry their friend’s situation voted for the very provisions that penalise him.

Nigel Evans has friends who will make sure that he is not reduced to penury. He can also rely on one of the best pension schemes around when he leaves parliament. The ordinary man in the street who is mistakenly accused, or is slandered or otherwise suffers a civil wrong for which there is no longer legal aid, is not so lucky.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Why don't people vote?

Thanks to Anthony Tuffin of STV News for the following reminder:

 Thursday 1 May is the last day for the UK’s House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee to receive evidence on why people don’t vote and what can be done to improve voter turnout.
If you have not given evidence yet, will you please do so?
Although there may be many reasons for not voting, the most common one seems to be that people feel that it makes no difference and, when the election result is a foregone conclusion in about 70% of constituencies, who can deny that feeling?  The best answer has to be to change to a voting system that would make votes effective, so voting could make a difference and more people would want to vote; i.e. change to STV.  To be realistic, changing the voting system may not improve turnout immediately, but it should do so in time as parties work harder in what are currently their electoral deserts and as people come to see that election results reflect voting.
Making it easier to vote (e.g. by Internet and mobile phone) might encourage some non-voters to vote, but it would raise new problems of voting security and cast doubt on the validity of results.  It might even deter some people from voting because of fears about voting security.
You can find more about this in STV News 14/01 of 31 March and there is a short reference on
Please do not be put off from giving evidence because of lack of time.  Although long and detailed evidence may have its place, you can, if you wish, just send a sentence or two.
Please send your personal evidence in your own words.  If you are also a member of a relevant organization, would you please also ask it to send evidence?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Dodecagonic equivalents

When the Royal Mint announced that the new one pound coin would resemble in its twelve-sidedness the much-loved threepenny bit which disappeared when the UK switched to decimal coinage, I thought it was entirely appropriate. My memory of the 1950s was that the two coins had equivalent purchasing power.  Thanks to the BBC (a primary school resource pack as pdf here) for almost confirming that.

A Shopping list from around 1950

The value of money:
• 240 pennies make up an old pound.
(pennies were written as d)
• 12 pennies equal 1 shilling shown as 1s
You have to decide what you would buy to help
your family eat a healthy diet.
You have 1 shilling to spend.
Work out what you could afford to buy.

Pint of Milk 2d
Loaf of bread 2d
1/2 dozen Eggs 3d
Bag of sugar 5d

I also recall that in 1954 2½d (tuppence-halfpenny) bought a standard postage stamp (there was a reduced rate of 1½d for mailing printed papers) or the Daily Mirror. My bus fare to school went up to 2d shortly afterwards.

What stands out in that list is the price of milk, which has not risen as fast as that of other foods and of services, no doubt to the detriment of dairy farmers.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Disabled people treated like packages

As an infrequent Liberal Democrat conference attender, one is struck by changes in ones fellow-members as those who are regulars are not. It was a shock for me to see Sal Brinton confined to a wheelchair at York federal conference. Losing mobility in adult life must have brought home to her even more forcefully what amounts to discrimination against the disabled on our so-called public transport.

Baroness Brinton has expressed those feelings and her experiences in a piece for Liberal Democrat Voice. Her story is all too familiar. I fear nothing is going to change unless there are more sanctions on Network Rail and the train operating companies. The time has passed when one could count on the public spirit of TOC employees, on their own initiative, to put the rights of disabled people first, though there are rare exceptions.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

European Parliament votes to improve company audits

In a busy session last Thursday, which also saw votes on greenhouse gas emission trading, credit card fees and reduction of customs duties on Ukrainian goods among many other matters, the European Parliament voted for improvements in the auditing of public bodies. The aim is to introduce competition for the big four audit firms, to provide more useful information to the public and shareholders, and to sharpen the grey area where auditors also act as financial advisers to companies. There is a more authoritative summary here.

The voting patterns were interesting. The Liberal Group (which includes Liberal Democrats) voted for, as one might have expected for a measure which improves company governance and transparency. UKIP, with its close ties to the City of London, voted against or abstained. The socialist group including Wales' Derek Vaughan, for reasons which I have yet to ascertain, also voted against. However, British Conservatives voted with the majority, which bodes well for the next steps.

The final say is with the European Council. Given Conservative support in the Parliament, it seems unlikely that Cameron or Osborne will block the measure on the EC or resist introducing the enabling legislation in Westminster.

Grim coincidence

I thought I knew all the key facts about the shots that started World War I, but Boyd Tonkin's article in the Indy yesterday contained the nugget that Gavrilo Princip, sentenced to 20 years for the murders of the Archduke and his consort, died in the prison at Theresienstadt (Terezin) which later in the century was to be the site of one the Nazis' most infamous camps.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Life is cheap

If the information that it costs no more than £3000 to "off" someone in the UK these days was not depressing enough, the matter of fact tone in which David Wilson announced the findings of his research into contract killers on "Thinking Allowed" last Wednesday plunged me into despair.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Energy price freeze

At the end of February, I received a notification from Good Energy that my electricity bill would be going up as from yesterday. What struck me in their helpful explanation was that the wholesale cost of electricity was not the major factor - indeed, GE have budgeted for a fall of around 1% there. No, the major rises are in government impositions: the cost of preparing for the roll-out of smart metering (+1.88%) and Retail Market Review (+1.74%). Even so, the success of smaller firms like Ovo, Good Energy, Ecotricity and others is a sign that the market for electricity is working better than ten years ago.

The picture for gas is not so rosy. The means of production are limited and in large part in the hands of big companies who can influence the price.

The recent announcement by SSE of a price freeze until 2016 has more to do with the Treasury's freezing of carbon taxes than a response to Labour's policy. In fact, if the big six energy companies believed there was  a serious chance of Labour winning the next election, they would be putting up prices now in order to beat a government price freeze.

There was a debate on the issue in the Commons yesterday.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The time for resignation has passed

Vince Cable has stuck with the flawed Royal Mail sell-off for so long, he might as well stay. The time for a principled resignation was last summer when it was clear that Liberal Democrats in government were going to be overruled and the Mail was going to be sold off for the benefit of City insiders and not the customers or the taxpayer. A resignation at that time would not have frightened the Wall Street gnomes as it would in the early days of the coalition before its credibility had been established, but it would still have set a marker for Vince and the party in the lead-up to the next general election.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Shamelessly stolen from the Neath Ferret:

An anonymous source within Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council has revealed that the Council is supporting a Heritage Lottery Fund application for a significant new public art project to be located in Neath Town Centre.
Although there is nothing in the public domain at the moment it is understood that the proposal is to provide a life-size, solid bronze statue of successful Neath MP, Peter Hain. The capital cost is estimated to be of the order of £130K but it is hoped to secure one half of this through the Lottery Fund. The remaining £65K is intended to be sourced from a number of avenues. The Council itself is expected to contribute up to £20K, subject to approval of its Finance Committee. Neath Constituency Labour Party will also sponsor the scheme and it is hoped to bring in sponsorship from a game to be played between Neath RFC and the Ospreys, both of whom are clubs with which Peter Hain has close associations. Our source has also told us that no less than Lewis Hamilton may make a personal contribution, in honour of Mr Hain's regular attendance at Silverstone over many years, and his support for the motor racing industry. Any further shortfall in funding is likely to be made up by a concert to be held in the Gwyn Hall, where proceeds will go towards the project. It is hoped that well known local artists will provide their services for free, including Katherine Jenkins and Max Boyce. Peter and his wife Elizabeth will attend, and there will be a chance for everyone to personally meet the great man and his wife, pictured right at their home in the Neath valley.
The statue itself will be located in Victoria Gardens to stand close to that of another famous Neath philanthropist, Hywel Gwyn. Its construction poses a few technical difficulties due to access issues. It is planned to commission the piece in two distinct stages. Firstly the base or plinth will be provided. This is going to be a huge, monolithic block of Pennant sandstone, locally sourced. However it will have to be airlifted into place by helicopter where it will be carefully lowered onto a pre-prepared foundation. There will then be a short delay of a couple of months to allow the ground to settle. It is understood that during this period Mr Hain himself has offered to stand on the plinth at weekends and is prepared to meet constituents (weather permitting) and discuss their concerns. After this period the statue itself will take pride of place, with a formal opening ceremony expected to be led by Mr Hain's mentor, Lord Kinnock (left);
The official announcement of the Heritage Lottery Fund bid is expected to appear on the Council's website before 12am on 1st April.

Readers outside Neath (and quite a few within the town) will need the additional information that philanthropist Hywel Gwyn was in fact a corrupt and mendacious Tory MP.

Labour Welsh Government doing its bit to cut welfare bills