Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Theresa May ups the ante

Now we have the answer to the question I posed yesterday. Ms May used the "weapons of mass destruction" argument to assert the need for even more draconian laws affecting civil rights. It is no wonder that David Davis, a long-standing supporter of civil liberty, broke ranks to give a TV interview warning against such legislation.

Incidentally, this points up a difference between Liberal Democrat Conference and the annual Conservative rally. David Davis had to go outside the conference centre to make his views public. When Liberal Democrat ministers put forward policies which go against the grain of party feeling, they will be challenged from the platform in open debate.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Theresa May and civil liberties

This is a reminder of Theresa May's speech to the Conservative Party conference this time last year. It was seen at the time as an early strike in Ms May's leadership campaign. It can also be seen as a veiled threat to civil liberties.

Just over a week ago [on 21 September 2013], we were given another terrible reminder of the threat we face from international terrorism. The attack on a shopping centre in Nairobi might have happened thousands of miles away, but at least 61 people died, six of whom were British nationals.  

In May, terrorists attacked here, in Britain, when Drummer Lee Rigby was killed in Woolwich. His suspected murderers said they wanted to “start a war in London”. They failed – our memories of that day are not just of the terrible loss suffered by Lee Rigby’s family but of acts of bravery by members of the public and the resolve of the British people not to turn one against one another.

The same motive – to provoke violence and conflict across Britain – appears to have been behind a series of terrorist attacks in the West Midlands earlier this year. In April, Mohammed Saleem, an elderly British Muslim from Birmingham, was stabbed to death on his way home from prayers. His death was followed by bomb plots against mosques in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Tipton. But again, the terrorist failed – the response from British Muslims was a quiet resolve not to be provoked.

We must not for one second underestimate the threat we face from terrorism and the challenges we must meet in confronting extremism. But let the message go out from this hall today that whatever the race, religion and beliefs of a terrorist, whatever the race, religion and beliefs of their victims, this is Britain and we are all British – we stand united against terrorism and we will never succumb to violence.

It’s because of the terrorist threat that this Government has taken a tough new approach. A new strategy to confront all forms of extremism, not just violent extremism. More foreign hate preachers excluded than ever before. And foreign terror suspects – including Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada – removed from Britain for good.

I was told a story by one of our immigration officials who was there when Qatada finally got on the plane. As the official signed off the last of the paperwork, Qatada looked at him and asked, “is Crazy May flying with me?” I admit I was crazy – crazy with the European Court of Human Rights – and I know I wasn’t the only one. Here was a foreign terror suspect, wanted for the most serious crimes in his home country, and we were told time and again – thanks to human rights law – we couldn’t deport him.

Despite the seriousness of the case against him, despite assurances from Jordan, and despite our own courts saying he should be deported, the European Court moved the goalposts and blocked his deportation on entirely unprecedented grounds.

So we went back to the drawing board, and – after months of negotiations – we agreed the treaty that finally secured Qatada’s deportation. I would like everyone here to show their appreciation to James Brokenshire – the Security Minister – for his role in getting that treaty.

Deporting foreign criminals

But it’s ridiculous that the British Government should have to go to such lengths to get rid of dangerous foreigners. That’s why the next Conservative manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act. It’s why Chris Grayling is leading a review of our relationship with the European Court. And it’s why the Conservative position is clear – if leaving the European Convention is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do.

Those are issues for the general election, when Labour and the Lib Dems will have to explain why they value the rights of terrorists and criminals more than the rights of the rest of us. In the meantime, we need to do all we can now to limit the damage.

The Government will soon publish the Immigration Bill, which will make it easier to get rid of people with no right to be here.

First, we’re going to cut the number of appeal rights. At the moment, the system is like a never-ending game of snakes and ladders, with almost 70,000 appeals heard every year. The winners are foreign criminals and immigration lawyers – while the losers are the victims of these crimes and the public. So we’re going to cut the number of appeal rights from seventeen to four, and in doing so cut the total number of appeals by more than half.

Last year, human rights were cited in almost 10,000 immigration appeal cases. So the second thing we will do is extend the number of non-suspensive appeals. This means that where there is no risk of serious and irreversible harm, we should deport foreign criminals first and hear their appeal later.

And third, the Immigration Bill will sort out the abuse of Article Eight – the right to a family life – once and for all. This is used by thousands of people to stay in Britain every year. The trouble is, while the European Convention makes clear that a right to a family life is not absolute, judges often treat it as an unqualified right.

That’s why I published new Immigration Rules stating that foreign criminals and illegal immigrants should ordinarily be deported despite their claim to a family life. Those Rules were debated in the House of Commons, and they were approved unanimously. But some judges chose to ignore Parliament and go on putting the law on the side of foreign criminals instead of the public. So I am sending a very clear message to those judges – Parliament wants the law on the people’s side, the public wants the law on the people’s side, and Conservatives in government will put the law on the people’s side once and for all.

Cutting immigration

It is a simple question of fairness. Because it’s not the rich who lose out when immigration is out of control, it’s people who work hard for a modest wage.

They’re the people who live in communities that struggle to deal with sudden social changes, who rely on public services that can’t cope with demand, who lose out on jobs and have their wages forced down when immigration is too high.

That’s why we’re cutting immigration across the board. Work visas are down by seven per cent. Family visas are down by a third. And student visas – which were abused on an industrial scale under Labour – are also down by a third. Many of these people weren’t students at all – such was the scale of abuse under Labour, we’ve cut the number of student visas issued each year by more than 115,000.

Immigration is down by almost a fifth since 2010 and net migration is down by a third. And that means hardworking people are getting a fairer crack of the whip. Under Labour, in the five years to December 2008, more than ninety per cent of the increase in employment was accounted for by foreign nationals. But under this Government, two thirds of the increase in employment is accounted for by British people.

That’s an achievement to be proud of. But I want to tell you about an even bigger achievement. Yes, our drive to cut immigration has been so successful, even the Liberal Democrats are boasting about it in their campaign handbook. I don’t remember their enthusiasm for cutting immigration when we worked on the policies – so I’m going to take this with me next time they try to block our reforms.

The latest policy they’re fighting is immigration bonds. It’s a simple idea – the government should be able to take a £3,000 deposit from temporary migrants and return it when they leave. If they overstay their visa, they’ll lose their money.

Bonds were in our manifesto at the last election. But the Lib Dems suddenly announced that it was their idea. Then they said they were against them. Then they said they were for them – but only to help more immigrants to come here. Now they say they’re against them after all. They were for them, then they were against them… then they were for them, and now they’re against them.

Confused? Don’t be – the simple conclusion is you can only trust the Conservatives on immigration.

And let me be clear – if the price of Lib Dem support for bonds is more immigration, I will scrap the scheme altogether.

Let’s not forget about Labour. In just thirteen years, up to four million people settled in Britain. But they still won’t admit they let immigration get out of control. In fact, in June, Chuka Umunna let slip they’re considering a target to increase immigration. I suppose at least this time they’re being honest about it. But I’ve got news for you, Ed: the British people don’t want it, they’ll never vote for it, and that means they’re never going to vote for you.

So let’s pay tribute to the Conservative Immigration Ministers – first Damian Green and now Mark Harper – for getting immigration down. And let’s get out there and shout about it. The British people want less immigration – and that’s exactly what this Government is delivering.

Reforming the police and cutting crime

The people want controlled immigration and a tough approach to law and order too. Most victims of crime don’t live in the plush suburbs, where you find advocates of liberal drug laws, touchy feely policing and soft prison sentences. People who live in poorer communities are more likely to be the victims of crime, and they, like us, want the police to be no-nonsense crime fighters. That’s why we’ve undertaken the most comprehensive police reforms in generations.

There’s another reason, too. Because of Labour’s deficit, we’ve had to cut police spending by twenty per cent in four years. When we announced that decision, Labour were adamant: crime would go up. But under this Government, crime is down by more than ten per cent.

Let’s pay tribute to the Conservative Police Ministers – first Nick Herbert, and now Damian Green – for delivering those police reforms. And, let’s get out there and shout about our record. We’ve had to cut spending, but police reform is working and crime is falling.

This Government backs the police. That’s why many of our reforms give officers the freedom to use their professional judgement. We also recognise that being a police officer brings with it risks that we don’t face. Ten days ago, PC Andrew Duncan was knocked down by a speeding car he was trying to pull over. He died two days later. Yesterday, at the National Police Memorial Day, I paid tribute to PC Duncan and all the other officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

And let us today say thank you to all those police officers who day in, day out put themselves at risk to keep us safe.

We ask the police to confront dangerous people on our behalf. We ask them to take risks with their safety so we don’t have to. And sometimes police officers are targeted by criminals because they represent the rule of law.

That’s why this Government will change the law so the starting point for anybody convicted of murdering a police officer is a whole life tariff. My position is clear: life should mean life.

So we support our police. But that support must not be unconditional. Where officers abuse their power, or break the law themselves, we must be ruthless in purging wrongdoing from the ranks. Recently, we’ve had allegations of misconduct by undercover officers, of attempts to infiltrate the family of Stephen Lawrence, and of attempts by police officers to smear the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.

The vast majority of police officers are driven by the best possible motives and they do fantastic work. But I’m not prepared to allow a minority to erode public trust in the police. So we’re creating a national register of officers who’ve been struck off, we’re making sure officers can’t avoid disciplinary hearings by retiring early, and we’re beefing up the Complaints Commission so that, for serious cases, the police will no longer investigate themselves.

There’s one way in particular that I want to make sure the police are using their powers fairly. Stop and search is crucial in the daily fight against crime. As long as I’m Home Secretary, the police will keep that power.

But we cannot ignore public concern about whether it’s used fairly. There are more than a million stop-and-searches recorded every year, but only about nine per cent result in an arrest. If you’re black or from an ethnic minority, you’re up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than if you’re white. And according to the Inspectorate of Constabulary, more than a quarter of stop and searches might be carried out illegally.

I’m concerned about this for two reasons. When stop and search is misused, it wastes police time. And when it’s used unfairly, it does enormous damage to public trust in the police.

We’ve just completed a public consultation into stop and search, and I will announce changes in policy by the end of this year. But today, I want the message to go out from this hall that nobody should ever be stopped just on the basis of the colour of their skin.

Fairness means we should be equal before the law and equal before the police. It also means – from minor offences to the most serious – that nobody should live in fear of crime.

But too many people live in just that way. Too many people live in estates controlled not by the law-abiding majority or the police, but by the yobs responsible for persistent anti-social behaviour and crime.

Labour talk as though ASBOs ended anti-social behaviour overnight. They need to get out of Westminster and talk to the people who live on those estates dominated by gangs. They say that ASBOs were a depressing failure. The majority are breached and – surprise, surprise – when the perpetrator realises there is no consequence, they’re breached again and again.

So in legislation about to be taken on by the excellent Lord Taylor of Holbeach, we’re scrapping CRASBOs, ASBOs, ASBIs, ISOs, DPPOs, DBOs, DCOs and the rest of Labour’s gimmicks. We’re replacing them with powers that have real teeth and putting the people in charge. We’re giving the public the power to demand a response when the authorities fail to act, and we’re giving them a say in how the perpetrators are punished.

It’s not just anti-social behaviour that causes decent people to live in fear. For too long, organised crime has been hidden in plain sight. It costs our economy more than £20 billion every year. And it’s behind crimes taking place in towns and cities every day like drug dealing, the supply of guns and illegal immigration.

Here in Manchester, a little more than a year ago, we saw the grim reality of organised crime when Dale Cregan murdered Police Constables Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes in an unprovoked attack in broad daylight. Cregan killed those brave officers – and two other people – but he didn’t act alone. He was part of a criminal network linked to one of Manchester’s most notorious families.

Since those murders, Greater Manchester Police have done impressive work in dismantling elements of the city’s organised criminal gangs, and they brought Cregan to justice. But organised crime doesn’t respect local, regional or national boundaries. That’s why, from next month, the Government is creating the National Crime Agency.

For the first time, Britain will have a single national agency capable of compiling and harnessing intelligence, fighting crime with its own warranted officers, and leading officers from other law enforcement agencies. The NCA will mean – at long last – that if you’re a fraudster, a drug baron, a human trafficker or a paedophile, there will be no hiding place. The National Crime Agency will be coming after you.

Ending modern slavery

I want the NCA to take the fight to criminals of every sort. We’ll be hearing soon from Nicola Blackwood, about her campaign against the sexual exploitation of children, and from Damian Green, who has been leading the Government’s work in this area. But I want to talk now about the exploitation of men, women and children by organised criminal gangs. This appalling crime is known as human trafficking, but we should call it what it is – modern slavery.

That might sound like an exaggeration. But there is increasing evidence – as we’ve seen in Newport recently – that thousands of people in Britain are exploited through forced labour, being pushed into crime and being made to work in the sex industry. They are bought and sold as commodities, they are kept in servitude and they have little chance of escape. Because they are often forced into a life of crime, they fear not just their traffickers but the people who should be there to help them – the police and the authorities.

So modern slavery is taking place in Britain. And its victims are not always foreign nationals brought here by gangs. This year, in Luton, British criminals were sentenced for kidnapping homeless people and forcing them to work in dreadful conditions for no pay. They were beaten if they even talked about escape. They were British people, working for British gangmasters, in Britain – and they were being kept as slaves.

We cannot ignore this evil in our midst. And that is why the Government will soon publish a Modern Slavery Bill. That Bill will bring into a single Act the confusing array of human trafficking offences. It will give the authorities the powers they need to investigate, prosecute and lock up the slave drivers. And it will make sure that there are proper punishments for the perpetrators of these appalling crimes.

The Bill will send the clearest possible message. If you’re involved in this disgusting trade in human beings, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted – and you will be thrown behind bars.

You can only trust the Conservatives to be fair

So, under David Cameron, this Government is doing serious work and achieving great things. In the Home Office, we’re playing our part in dealing with the deficit by reducing spending. But we’re proving – through reform – it is possible to deliver more with less. Crime is down. Immigration is down. Abu Qatada is gone – and we are changing the law to get rid of other foreign terrorists and criminals. We are proving that you can only trust the Conservatives to be fair for the hard-working, law-abiding majority.

Labour failed to deport Abu Qatada. They deliberately let immigration get out of control. They passed the Human Rights Act and put the law on the side of criminals. They took black and ethnic minority voters for granted and did nothing about stop and search. They spent billions on policing but failed to make sure we got value for money. They never got to grips with anti-social behaviour and turned a blind eye to organised crime.

Only the Conservatives can be trusted to control immigration.

Only the Conservatives can be trusted to get tough on crime.

And only the Conservatives can be trusted to be fair for the hard-working, law-abiding majority.

So let’s be proud of our Prime Minister and our achievements in government. Let’s keep striving to win that majority so we can carry on the job. Let’s offer the country an optimistic vision for what we can achieve in the years ahead. Let’s remember that we share the values of the British people. And let’s show every hardworking person which party is on their side – our party, the Conservative Party.

So will Ms May go further tomorrow, or row back from that extreme position?

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Swedish Agatha Christie?

In promoting the current Saturday night Nordic whodunit series, BBC TV missed a trick. They could have celebrated the fact that Maria Lang, the author of the mystery novels on which the "Crimes of Passion" series is based, was born 100 years ago last March.

There is a strong similarity between the mini-series produced in Sweden by Pampas and both BBC's Miss Marple and ITV's Poirot Agatha Christie adaptations. Whether this was deliberate or naturally arose from similarities in the source material only a Swedish reader can say; I suspect that it's a bit of both.

I was also fascinated by the cars used in the series. The first six episodes are set in the period before Höger Dag (3rd September 1967 when Sweden switched to driving on the right). Transport for the heroine is a Ford 100E, probably in its Taunus (Ford of Cologne) incarnation. The dashing police inspector drives an Opel. In the first episode, a left-hand drive* Austin A70 Hereford (or possibly a Somerset) appears, but purely as street decoration. Where were Sweden's own Saabs and Volvos? Given the famous longevity of the former, I found the scarcity surprising. However, given the rural settings of the episodes so far, the paucity of cars generally is less surprising.

Those brilliantly-photographed settings - and the implicit latent triangle of heroine, husband and police inspector - are what make "Crimes of Passion" different and I could stand a further series in due time.

* Even before Dagen H, cars on Swedish roads were left-hand drive.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

LibDems holding their own in by-elections

Labour and UKIP speakers are fond of claiming that the "liberal vote is collapsing". Granted that the party has not put much effort into campaigning in parliamentary by-elections, with predictable results, council by-elections give a different story. There have been 169 such contests since the start of the year and Liberal Democrats have done slightly better than the other parties. Taking last weeks results into account, I reckon that the score is: UKIP (Won 2, lost 0, net gain 2), Conservatives (W13, L10, +3), Labour (W 10, L6, +4), LibDem (W 11, L 4, +7).

There is a more detailed breakdown at http://www.gwydir.demon.co.uk/byelections/index.htm

Friday, 26 September 2014

Another frustrating season for Glamorgan Cricket members

On Radio Wales yesterday, in the part of the interview not reproduced on the BBC website, Mark Wallace summed up the 2014 season as containing some great personal performances, but admitted that the county had not come together as a group often enough. The prospects for 2015 do not look good, with not enough money in the kitty to maintain the full roster of international players and having two home-grown pace bowlers having to retire through long-term injury. The one bright spot is the off-break bowling department where we seem to have an embarrassment of riches.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Legality of killing other people's enemies in other lands

Nick Clegg speaks about the plea from the Iraq government to use our warplanes to attack the I-state insurgency. It seems to me that we are the only major military power to agonise about such a decision. The United States has no qualms about rocketing Yemen or even nominally allied Pakistan in pursuit of her enemies, while Russia's disregard for agreed national boundaries has been clear to see.

And of all the major political parties in the UK, the Liberal Democrats are the people most torn about the decision which the Commons is due to take tomorrow. In these very special circumstances, I think Nick makes the case - just.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Miliband's speech deliberately bland?

The BBC did not do the Labour leader any favours by trailing his speech to the Labour conference in Manchester as his last major speech before the election. In the event, it was surprisingly uninspiring, considering that Miliband has had several years to perfect the art of speaking to both the Labour faithful and to the nation. (Contrast this with Nick Clegg, dealt a worse hand, who so far has been better, conference by conference.) I am not the only one to have the same feeling of flatness (see Alex's Archives or Guido's digest of the commentariat) or that of having heard so much of it before (Guido lists the cribs).

More significant in my estimation was the number of policies lifted from Liberal Democrat thinking or even coalition aspirations. There was of course the plan to scrap "the bedroom tax" (but no measures to address the difficulties in the private rented sector, as highlighted in a comment on Alex Marsh's blog) though the major faults in this will be removed if Andrew George's Private Member's Bill passes. There is also the threat to freeze utility prices and a windfall tax on tobacco companies, both of which would easily be circumvented by the companies concerned (remember the Blair-Brown windfall tax?). These, and the bankers bonus tax, are so obviously full of holes that they can be quietly dropped if Labour should come to power. On the other hand, the determination to get a grip on the English NHS will find sympathetic LibDem ears.

I wonder whether the speech was deliberately not a rallying call, such as Gordon Brown used to deliver to such effect, but an olive branch to Liberal Democrats. Even if Labour becomes the largest parliamentary party after the 2015 election (extremely unlikely in my estimation) it would still need LibDem support to form a government. It would also help if LibDems could claw back some Conservative/LibDem marginal seats and for that to happen, Labour voters in those seats would need to be made aware of political reality.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

UKIP against helping redundant workers

The votes of MEPs are now presented in a much more accessible form, something I have been wanting for years, thanks to Votewatch Europe. It seems that, from reports of the first few sessions of the new Parliament, UKIP has actually taken to heart criticism that its MEPs collect their salaries but do not bother to turn up. However, as one might expect, their votes so far have been overwhelmingly negative.

The votes on providing positive support to redundant workers in economies worst hit by the drying-up of credit are typical. As Votewatch reports:

MEPs voted in favour of the mobilisation of the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF) to help redundant workers to find new jobs for five applications coming from Greece, Romania, Spain (Aragón & Castilla y León) and the Netherlands, and for a technical assistance application at the initiative of the European Commission. The aid offers workers measures such as information sessions, occupational guidance, jobs-search assistance and promotion of entrepreneurship among others. The EGF is a financial aid set up by the EU to provide additional support for workers made redundant as a result of major structural changes in world trade patters due to globalisation or the financial crises and to help them find new jobs. All the political groups supported the reports. Only the majority of the ECR group and part [i.e. UKIP] of the EFDD group voted against. Now, the EGF funding needs to be approved by the Council of Ministers.

Mind you, I believe Greece and Spain in particular could do more to help themselves by tackling their black economies and tax evasion generally.

Cameron's Little Black Book

A reminder, courtesy of Mark Pack.


Monday, 22 September 2014

Pensioners beware Labour

It's simple logic. Labour has pledged to keep within the ceiling on welfare spending set by the present government. They have also pledged to restore virtually all the cuts imposed since 2010. The only intended reductions they announced this week were in child benefit and in the winter fuel payments for richer pensioners, not nearly enough to counter the increases in social security spending they are committed to. Half the social security budget is accounted for by the state pension. Labour has been silent on this. Conclusion: the triple lock is under threat if Labour comes back to power.

One or two sweeping statements in Ed Balls' conference speech caught the eye.

after 18 years of neglect, we reformed the NHS, we invested in the NHS
It would be truer to say that Gordon Brown, for PR reasons, threw money at the English NHS with too little of it going to the sharp end. The result was increased bureaucracy, a salary award to GPs which embarrassed even the BMA and initiating the deficit which is only gradually being edged back now.

And Conference, while it was the banks which caused the global recession, and it was the global recession which caused deficits to rise here in Britain and around the world, the truth is we should have regulated those banks in a tougher way.
As I never tire of saying, it was not a global recession, it was an Anglo-American recession. The Canadian economy was hardly touched and the tiger economies of south-east Asia motored on. The banks and financial institutions which were the cause of the massive loss of confidence leading to the slump were head-quartered in New York, London and Edinburgh, and they failed because of loosening of controls both by the previous Democrat administration in the US and by Labour in the UK. At least Balls was honest enough to own up to his part today.

But three years of lost growth at the start of this parliament means we will have to deal with a deficit of £75 billion – not the balanced budget George Osborne promised by 2015.
Labour has consistently and deliberately blurred the distinction between the Conservative manifesto and the coalition agreement. Liberal Democrats - and Labour, too - recognised in their 2010 manifestos that eliminating the deficit within one parliament would be too destructive. The coalition economic programme of the first budget in 2010 was pitched between the LibDem and Labour proposals. By criticising this, Balls is also criticising Alistair Darling - and arguing that the "austerity" was not severe enough.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

No more "failure to display"

From 1st October, vehicles will no longer need a disc of paper to demonstrate that their keeper has paid excise duty for them. The proof will be all on the DVLA's servers.

I had hoped to reproduce here the original tax disc which in those early days came in a design which enabled it to be shown in either a square or a round holder, before the latter became the preferred form. Unfortunately, all the background papers which I accumulated in my time as a junior analyst when the forerunner to the present centralised licensing system was being devised, but no doubt one or more of the print media will produce a potted history of road fund tax and vehicles excise.

One of the recent reports states: "in reality, police have not checked those flimsy circles of paper to identify tax-dodgers for some time. The DVLA's car ownership [sic] information is all on computer and today they use number plate recognition cameras to roam the streets so they can instantly identify whether or not a car is taxed."

Time was when police were keen to keep the tax disc, because of the crime of "failure to display" a current vehicle excise licence. It was one of the most common offences of the criminal classes, as police saw them, and would enable a constable to detain someone suspected of a more serious offence but for which there was more tenuous evidence.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Loans 4U - but nothing for the exchequer and cuts for the workers

It seems that Phones 4U was just the latest in a string of companies in debt up to the hilt which then fold, their directors having drawn princely rewards in the mean time.  Chris Blackhurst's analysis in the Indy today is more generous but surely the private equity company which bought out founder John Caudwell at the top of the market knew what it was doing.

The result is that "workers [...] may have to wait months to receive unpaid salaries despite administrators revealing the collapsed retailer has £110m in the bank" and "staff may not even receive the full amount for the days worked" before the company went into administration. "The company collapsed with debts of £760m [...] around £200m is owed to unsecured creditors who are unlikely to see anything. These include suppliers and the taxman."

Friday, 19 September 2014

Efter the rammy

Perhaps "rammy" is putting it a bit strongly, though the Scottish referendum campaign got a bit lively at times. It was good to hear the leaders of both campaigns calming tempers this morning, and seeking cooperation across party lines. That is more than can be said of some of the younger vocal SNP activists who blamed the ten percentage point "Better Together" majority on the BBC. Given that their leader built his reputation on assiduous networking and cultivation of the national media, that is rather like Nigel Farage claiming that Aunty ignores UKIP.

More likely is that the opinion research which showed the numbers converging as polling day drew closer missed the effect of the postal vote. People who vote by post tend to be older, and older people tend to be more conservative and fearful of change. The opinion pollsters also failed to find a way to assess the views of the declared "don't knows". Finally, the late entry into the debate of such authentic Scottish political figures as Gordon Brown and Charles Kennedy must have swayed voters.

I am relieved that Scotland is staying within what will, I trust, become a Federal Kingdom. The reasons are selfish. Scotland will continue to provide a counter-balance to a predominantly English Conservative House of Commons. The risks of our leaving the EU, or of watering-down the Social Chapter, are reduced as are the dangers of reducing the UK economy below a critical mass. And Jo Swinson will continue to be a member of government.

The advantages to Scotland are less clear-cut. True, the uncertainty of the years of negotiation to join the EU will be avoided. The uncertainty would probably have led to the cost of borrowing going up north of the border, with the knock-on effect on retail prices. But there are numerous examples round the world of viable small nations. To suggest that in the long term Scotland would not survive was deceitful and one reason I did not yield to the pleas to telephone canvass for "Better Together". The other reason was that I did not see how a Welsh citizen with an English accent would convince any Scot, already suspicious of the united front presented by the three main Westminster parties, to change his or her mind.

The misrepresentation was probably greater on the Nationalist side. I was astonished that Alec Salmond should use the fully-devolved health service in Scotland as a weapon against the unionists. It was also wrong to label the contingency plans of the larger financial institutions to move their HQs to London as a "scare story". Given the EU's legal requirement for banks to be headquartered in the country where they do most of their business, RBS and its ilk had no option but to prepare to move head office. Mr Salmond would have been wiser to point out that few real jobs would have been lost. The rebuttals of Mr Salmond's claims to have spoken to various EU leaders about Scottish accession did not help his cause.

The late conversion of Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband to a policy of further devolution could be good news for Liberal Democrats north of the border. Nicola Sturgeon has performed well in the referendum campaign. But, assuming she dons the mantle of First Minister and leader of the Nationalists when Alex Salmond retires from front-line politics, will she have the same charisma as her predecessor? Since devolution has been Liberal and Liberal Democrat policy for as long as I can remember, since the usual suspects on Conservative back-benches are already objecting to a policy over which they were not consulted and since there may also be some back-sliding on the Labour side, we can go into the general election honestly and solidly pledged to give more power to Holyrood.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

"The settled will of the Scottish people"

2014 is not only the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, it is also 25 years since the Scottish Constitutional Convention. By legitimising a devolved parliament elected party-proportionately, the Convention gave the SNP the boost which has brought it to today's close vote. In remembering the Convention, we should also remember one of its key proponents, Donald Dewar. As the ODNB (dictionary of national biography) says:

The devolution bills of the 1970s had enumerated powers that were to go to the devolved assemblies; the list was bitterly contested between the Scottish and Welsh offices and the 'English' departments, which won most of the battles. Most lawyers believe that, if they had not been abandoned, the Scotland and Wales Acts of 1978 would have been unworkable because of constant disputes about the powers of the devolved and Westminster administrations. To prevent a repetition, Dewar was one of those who initiated the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989. The convention brought together the Labour and Liberal parties, some churches, and other civil society organizations; its chairman was an Episcopalian clergyman, Canon Kenyon Wright. The SNP and Conservatives, for opposite reasons, did not take part. The convention was, of course, self-appointed, but it enabled Smith and Dewar to insist that devolution was, in Smith's phrase, 'the settled will of the Scottish people'. 

The Convention also indirectly paved the way for the devolved Welsh Assembly, especially the method by which it is elected.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Migrants are not fleeing to Europe to become rich but to save their lives

That is the message from leading European liberals, reported here. I believe that if EU nations, including the UK, were more proactive in improving governance and social conditions in African nations especially then the flow of refugees would be reduced if not stemmed.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Barnett abolition in Wales still on

Danny Alexander may have been persuaded by the coalition to go back on a Liberal Democrat policy to replace the Barnett Formula, but this uey applies only to Scotland and Northern Ireland. I fully expect the policy of a new needs-based formula for Wales to be carried forward into our platform for the 2015 election, as evidenced by the pre-manifesto to be debated in Glasgow next month.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Cllr David Lewis and Leighton Andrews

In view of the welcome back into the Welsh Government fold of Leighton Andrews AM, Councillor David Lewis's recent letter to the Neath Ferret about the history of his dismissal from the Neath Port Talbot cabinet, and thereafter of the Labour Party, is of interest. He starts by referring to previous correspondence on the Neath Ferret web site, then continues:

As you are aware I have a penalty clause hanging over my head on length of post so you have much more research to do to fill in the gaps . If you choose!
Behind his "retirement" announcement there is no reference to The First Minister, Carwyn Jones receiving at 3.20 on a Monday afternoon an email from me in my capacity as Acting Chairman of WJEC -the examination Board. It was a lengthy letter which was highly critical of the behaviour of Mr Andrews over a 6 month period. Further, there is no reference to Mr Andrews being summoned to The First Minister's office on the following afternoon before the announcement of his 'retirement'.
The full text of my email was sent the next day to the Western Mail and BBC Wales. In telling a WM reporter that the letter was on its way she displayed real interest. They have never published a word!
I pushed the BBC and eventually -months later- I underwent a two hour interview on camera by their Education Correspondent. He questioned me very closely with requests for written evidence of my comments/allegations. All WJEC committee minutes and correspondence were produced with the reporter clearly reflecting on the seriousness of the evidence.
BBC Wales eventually ran the article on radio and TV. My two hour interview was reduced to a 10-15 second sound bite with no reference to the damming detail. Leighton Andrews in response was interviewed on camera for several minutes where he ridiculed myself, the WJEC board and its functioning over the previous 9 months. He was not cross examined at any point.
The Western Mail has never ever printed a word.
Then we come to the local rag the Evening Post. My sacking from the NPT Cabinet came as a shock to my colleagues in the Labour Group. The Leader - My Pal for many years (sic) refused to answer questions on his reason for my sacking! I decided to write to each member of the Labour Group with an account of events leading up to and then the sacking interview. It was a private and confidential letter.
One of them leaked the letter to the Post. The letter was probably four pages long. A reporter called Geraint Thomas was given the task of developing the article. Out of the mass of information he chose that one juicy line about my inappropriate posture. He asked the Leader AHT and Cllr Mark Jones for a comment. But not me! I was never offered any opportunity to put my case. The Evening Post has never published a single word of substance of one of the most sickening events in Welsh Education History. They have chapter and verse!
In my experience Journalists/journalism are/is the low life and real plague on society.

PS. Most of my constituents are aware of these matters
Posted by dAvid lEwis on 10 September 2014

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Alternative strategy for Scottish Referendum "No" campaign

It is clear that the various strategies of "Better Together" have played into the hands of the "Yes" campaign. If Cameron had really wanted an overwhelming vote for Union he should have:

  • immediately after signing the agreement with Salmond, set up a committee planning for separation, maximising the benefits for HM Treasury
  • involved as many civil servants as possible in the committee, then denied its existence
  • refused to join Liberal Democrat and Labour parties in their campaigns
  • while going through the motions of defending the Union, banned all media releases from Westminster on the subject, and
  • locked up Nigel Farage for the duration.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

BBC could do more for appreciation of music

The trouble with the initiatives outlined by Katie Derham is that all the excellent introductory programmes she mentions are themselves on minority channels or late at night. I am glad that she cites the classically-trained Laura Mvula as her main example of bridging the gap with new audiences rather than the more poppy other late-night Proms.

The answer is not to introduce more light music into the Proms (Mary Poppins on the last night??) or Radio 3 generally, but to restore the music of the concert hall as part of the mainstream as it used to be in my young days. Let there be more Soul Music!

Let us also have more (though judicious and sparing) use of classical music in radio and TV plays and documentaries. I was turned on to music less by formal lessons in school than by Childrens Hour (though not forgetting Antony Hopkins Talking about Music, broadcast during the hours of daylight!). Pieces that I first heard between 5 and 6 in the afternoon include:
A Carol Symphony, Hely-Hutchinson;
Allegro Spiritoso, Senaillé;
Popular Song (from Façade), Walton;
Slavonic Dances, Dvořak;
Vltava (from Ma Vlast), Smetana;
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Bartók.

I would be hard pressed to name all the plays and stories they introduced, though I do remember that the last accompanied a production from BBC Wales. Equally challenging were some of the works used by adult programmes. The first time I heard Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony (still a favourite) was on a forgotten thriller named "Dead Circuit" starring the great Shakespearian Robert Eddison in a rare radio foray.

Most importantly, let all incidental music, whether pre-existing or specially-written, be credited.

Friday, 12 September 2014

A book to forge ones political views

There has been an earnest discussion on Facebook sparked by a question from Mark Pack about books which inspired respondents' political views. Rather tongue-in-cheek I posted "Wind in the Willows", the first book I remember being read to me. My point was that ones political inclination is most often formed from an early age and that adult reading merely tends to confirm pre-formed views.

However, when I thought back over the plot of Kenneth Grahame's classic, it seemed to me that there really were liberal seeds there. There is the idyllic opening revelling in the environment. There is the main plot of an effete self-centred land-owner destroying his inheritance and squandering the income from his tenants before being locked up for motoring offences, a rabble taking over his estate with no higher ambition than stripping the absent plutocrat's assets and then order being restored by three individuals coming together as a community. Finally, though property rights are restored, it is clear that there will be some democratic regulation in future.

My views growing up were shaped more by the BBC - then the voice of the liberal establishment - and the press including the News Chronicle, the Cudlipp Daily Mirror and the Guardian before it abandoned Manchester and Liberalism. There were inspirational speakers, like the man who gave a lecture to our school about the future of community in Europe and prominent Liberals including, of course, Jo Grimond.

In fact, it is difficult to think of a book which has been particularly influential. I have tended to invest in books which inform me about other strands of political thought. I have Rosa Luxemburg and Peter Hain on my shelves and until I thoughtlessly lent it, the memoir of Julian Critchley. The Yellow Book, the Orange Book and the Green Book are there of course, but mostly as reference works.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Public spending out of control under Gordon Brown

It is strange how two respected financial commentators like Hamish McRae ("Why the same public spending feels like much less" in the print edition of yesterday's Independent, but not online) and Ben Chu can take opposing views on the same official paper. Political party allegiances have to be taken into account, but to me the OBR's executive summary

1.4 Looking back to the pre-crisis era, it is hard to argue that the tax and spending policies
implemented in the early and mid-2000s were in themselves an important cause of the
crisis and recession. But there were undoubtedly weaknesses in fiscal management during
that period, some apparent at the time and some more with the benefit of hindsight.

1.5 The then Labour Government increased public spending significantly as a share of GDP in
the mid-2000s, arguing that this would be paid for by an increase in tax receipts that then
did not fully materialise. External forecasters were consistently – and rightly – more
pessimistic about the fiscal outlook than the Government. Public sector net debt increased
during a period when it was being reduced significantly in most other industrial countries.
And the OECD said at the time (and says more forcefully now) that the UK entered the
financial crisis with one of the largest structural budget deficits in the industrial world. This
limited the Government’s perceived room for manoeuvre when the crisis hit.

1.6 And, when the crisis did hit, the fiscal consequences were dramatic. The budget deficit
quadrupled between 2007-08 and 2009-10, reaching £157 billion or 11 per cent of GDP –
and it was still £115 billion or 7 per cent of GDP three years later. Public sector net debt
increased by £647 billion, doubling to 74 per cent of GDP, over the same five years.

is not ambiguous.

It is good to see authoritative - and independent, by statute - confirmation of what Peter Black and I wrote a few years back.

Our man in Clacton

Clacton Liberal Democrats have made just the right choice to counter all the xenophobia which will be flying around in the by-election, if this interview with Andy Graham is anything to go by.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Juncker gives Cameron's appointee top job

When I heard that Jonathan Hill  (Lord Hill of Oareford), a former bag-carrier for John Major and public relations executive, had been picked by the European Commission president for the new and important position of Commissioner for the financial services industry, two things occurred to me.

One, the apparent antagonism between David Cameron and Jean-Claude Juncker was all show, because of all the jobs Cameron and Osborne, the champions of casino capitalism, wanted their man in, commissioner for financial markets was the one.

Two, it was a provocation to the radicals in the European Parliament (another bonus for Cameron!) - and so it has proved. You don't really need a translation to get the drift: http://www.sven-giegold.de/2014/hill-als-kom-provokation/

The full slate of commissioners is here: http://ec.europa.eu/about/juncker-commission/structure/index_en.htm

Romans in the Vale of Glamorgan

 I wish Karl-James had been able to revise his book in the year or so when I was resident in Barry, because it is an incredibly detailed guide to the locations of  Roman finds and remains within the Vale of Glamorgan. However, he views the extent of the Vale liberally, taking in such sites as Margam for instance. The book is of more general interest because of the snapshots of Roman life which it offers. It is all backed up by extensive research.

The cover price is £12. For more details, the author's email address is karljlangford at hotmail.com, where you may also find out how to assist in the production of his next work.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

BBC and art music

There has been some muttering on the music forums on CIX about Radio 3's choice of presenters for their sex appeal rather than their musical credentials: Sean RaffertyPetroc Trelawny and Katie Derham have all come in for criticism. In this week's Independent, the latter hits back.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Never mind Assad, we might have to treat with al-Baghdadi

Clearly, the Islamic State's grandiose expansion must be curbed and we must hope that he abandons his proselytisation by the sword, but this piece by Mariam Karouny in last Saturday's Independent shows how Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has restored civil order and some prosperity to the areas of Syria and Iraq under his control. It will not happen soon, but the price of iState's genocide may not seem higher than that of the Israel Defence Force when it comes to ensuring stability and security of its citizens. The US in particular, given that its ally Saudi Arabia has been supporting Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, may just tolerate facts on the ground if she can ensure that she will no longer be involved militarily.

There is at least one precedent. Paul Kagame, though popularly elected in Rwanda, ruthlessly holds on to power. He is credibly accused of assassinating potential opponents or critical countrymen wherever they may be. His administration is suspected of fomenting rebellion in neighbouring countries. Yet Rwanda is one of the Department of International Development's favourite clients, because Justine Greening knows that practically all UK aid goes to where it is needed without corruption and it is used effectively.

Sunday, 7 September 2014


It is with some trepidation that I publish a few thoughts on this subject, knowing that Peter Black, my colleague over the other side of the Tawe, is an acknowledged expert. However, two or three items appeared in the media last month which I think are of interest and have not been widely picked up. Then of course there was the momentous vote for Andrew George's queue-jumping Affordable Homes Bill last Friday.

Who owns what?

Chris Blackhurst in the Independent drew attention to companies, whose ultimate ownership and source of capital were obscure, buying up swathes of London property. He wrote:
According to an investigation by the Financial Times, more than £122bn worth of property in England and Wales is held by companies registered in offshore tax havens. Nearly two-thirds of the 91,248 foreign-company-owned properties in England and Wales are linked to the British Virgin Islands and Channel Islands. Most of that property is in London, much of it according to value (27 per cent) in Westminster. [...] our money-laundering laws are such that anyone wanting to do anything in financial services must show identification. But when it comes to buying property, involving substantial sums of money, it’s a free-for-all. Estate agents and solicitors are required to carry out due diligence when making a sale. But that only goes as far as the company buying the property – they often stop short of identifying the ultimate owner. The truth is that Britain, and the South-east of England in particular, is a world centre for dirty money. Central to that illicit flow is property.
He instances:
The son of a friend of mine had a dispute with his landlord recently. When he finally got an address to contact from the Land Registry, it was in the British Virgin Islands.

So there are the immediate personal problems for tenants trying to get redress. Moreover, there is no incentive for these faceless companies to let to those London workers who most need accommodation. Those repositories of hot money can afford to keep flats empty until the right high-paying tenant - who may want only a second or third home - comes along.

This all feeds a distortion of the housing market. (It transpires that London is not alone in suffering such a bubble: http://thediplomat.com/2014/08/chinese-investors-fuel-california-housing-bubble/)

What happens when the bubble bursts?

Michael Robinson, in the first two episodes of his recent Radio 4 series "Bricks and Bubbles", covers familiar territory - the negative equity trouble in England and later in Northern Ireland, the current disparity between the property boom in the south-east of England and the much lower prices in the rest of the nation, and the way that "buy-to-let" is favoured over direct ownership - but in the last two not only warns of unforeseen dangers of a market correction but also holds out some hope in a new form of public enterprise.

Hot money is mobile money. If a more attractive haven than London property appears, then the bubble described by Blackhurst and Robinson will probably deflate rapidly. Good, one may say, for would-be owner-occupiers for whom target accommodation suddenly becomes affordable - but politicians would not like it, because it would almost certainly condemn another generation of voters to negative equity. So do not expect George Osborne to implement the reforms Blackhurst and Robinson call for, because that could frighten foreign investors away and prick the bubble. For the same reason, the chancellor will be hoping that interest rates will not rise in the near future.

The bright spots are the initiatives taken by progressive local authorities in England & Wales. Robinson highlights the work in the private rented sector pursued by Manchester City Council's Paul Beardmore. By funding mixed  developments of housing for sale and to rent from municipal pension funds, the schemes overcome the need to make short-term profits which inhibits commercial developers and at the same time give the funds a steady guaranteed income over the long term. It helps that Manchester and other participating councils own land which can be put to use. I would guess that some of this is brownfield land which is not attractive to picky speculative builders or conservative financial institutions. (From my days on Neath Port Talbot council I recall this as a problem for the planning office.)

Andrew George's Bill

Some time ago, I suggested that the government would not lose face if it addressed the inequitable aspects, and those causing real hardship, of the unallocated rooms measure. It has been left to a back-bench member, Andrew George, who has consistently voted against the housing benefit cuts, to do that through his Affordable Homes Bill. After stripping out proposals which might have proved contentious and enlisting the support of the official opposition, the Bill (text as a pdf here) passed its second reading stage with a resounding majority last Friday.

Commenting on the vote on that evening's "Any Questions?",  government minister Anna Soubry asserted that she had voted against any changes because housing benefit was "out of control", a view I have heard even from leading Liberal Democrats. Interestingly, we never hear that state pensions are out of control, even though they constitute half the welfare bill and are structurally less subject to control than housing. There are ways of making more homes available (some indicated above) but short of Himmlerian measures only nature can change the number of pensioners. But of course pensioners are more likely to vote than people shovelled incessantly from rented rooms to rented rooms.

Conservative MPs had been put under a three-line whip to vote against second reading, and virtually all ministers except those at the NATO summit in Newport duly obeyed. However, even allowing for the invalids and those with unbreakable prior commitments, a significant number stayed away* and one (Angie Bray, a Conservative MP for Ealing) actually voted for the Bill to continue. It could be, of course, that they are more interested in other affordable homes measures already contained in the Bill or likely to be introduced in committee and hope to nullify the unallocated rooms relief. Their motives, should they choose to reveal them to their local media or elsewhere, will be interesting. I should particularly like to know why Peter "dry as a" Bone did not join his fellow desiccatee, Phillip Hollobone, in the "No" lobby. I would like to think that enough of them had a social conscience not to hold up a much-needed reform. If so, there is a good chance of it becoming law.

* The roll-call so far as I have discerned it, excluding those I know to have been in Newport:

Conservatives who did not vote against second reading

Richard Bacon
Steve Barclay
Guto Bebb
Richard Benyon
Peter Bone (!)
Sir Peter Bottomley
Graham Brady
Angie Bray (voted for the second reading)
Andrew Bridgen
Aidan Burley
Rehman Chishti
James Clappison
Ken Clarke (in Newport?)
Geoffrey Cox
Tracey Crouch
Glyn Davies (Montgomery)
Stephen Dorrel
Richard Drax
Tobias Ellwood
Cheryl Gillan
Robert Goodwill
Chris Grayling
Simon Hart
Gordon Henderson
Charles Hendry
Adam Holloway
Sir Gerald Howarth (in Newport?)
Stewart Jackson
Greg Knight
Pauline Latham
Jeremy Lefroy
Ian Liddell-Grainger
David Lidington
Jonathan Lord
Tim Loughton
Peter Luff
Stephen McPartland
Anne Main
Patrick Mercer
Andrew Mitchell
Anne Marie Morris
David Mundell (as the only Scottish Conservative MP, presumably supporting the No campaign)
Jesse Norman
Stephen O'Brien
Eric Ollerenshaw
Sir Jim Paice
Simon Reevell
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (in Newport or Edinburgh?)
Hugh Robertson
David Ruffley
Mark Simmonds
Keith Simpson
Chris Skidmore
Nicholas Soames
Sir John Stanley
John Stevenson
Gary Streeter
Hugo Swire
Sir Peter Tapsell
Elizabeth Truss
Charles Walker
Robert Walter
Chris White
David Willetts

It is widely believed that all the Labour MPs were "Ayes". This is not quite true. Meg Hillier, who was originally against, was persuaded to change her mind, but Kate Hoey, a London Labour MP, did not vote.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Floods in Jammu and Kashmir

One hundred people have died in floods in this region which has had more than its fair share of trouble since the botched partition of the sub-continent. Photos shared on Facebook show devastation on a par with inundations in other parts of the world which have hit the headlines. In spite of the lack of publicity, I trust that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is working behind the scenes to offer what help the UK is able to provide.

[Later: there is an update from the BBC]

Dare to pay the rate for the job

When will a UK government face down the Express and the Mail and assert that it is important to carry out public administration well, and for that it is necessary to pay public servants salaries in the same ball park as those performing comparable work outside government? It is all the more important that the chancellor of the exchequer receives sound unbiased advice from a civil service independent of vested interests, rather than having to rely on oligarchs and staff lent to him by merchant bankers and multinational accountants.

This failure to pay the rate for the job was brought home by the evidence given to Treasury Select Committee last Tuesday by Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. According to the Independent, Sir Nicholas said that the superior pay on offer to staff at the central bank and also the tax authorities made it hard to prevent talented junior staff from jumping ship. What is surprising is that not only are City institutions paying more than the Treasury, but also that “We pay less well than other departments, we have much higher turnover and I think we’ve got to do something about it”. It is not as if other parts of the civil service are totally happy with their pay: "13 per cent of Treasury employees felt they were receiving reasonable pay compared to people doing a similar job in other organisations. The comparable figure at HMRC was 23 per cent. At the Department of Communities and Local Government 32 per cent felt their pay was reasonable. At the Foreign Office 26 per cent felt the same." (from the same Independent report)

The one bright spot is that the more female-friendly ethos of the Treasury means that the Department continues to retain high-calibre women. “Often we will retain high quality women who will have child caring responsibilities who find life as City corporate lawyer or a City financier pretty difficult” said Sir Nicholas.

One might ask when we are going to see a Madam Chancellor of the Exchequer - but that is for another day.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Labour's recession not as bad as we thought

 - if you take prostitution and illegal drugs into account.

The Indy reports that the adoption of a new EU-wide accounting method (ESA2010), which incorporates estimates of activity in the black economy for the first time, has enabled the Office for National Statistics to paint a slightly rosier picture of the late noughties. The fall in GDP from the first quarter of 2008, when the American-led and UK-assisted credit crunch first hit, to the low point in 2009 was "only" 6%, as against the previous estimate of 7.2%.

While the revision may mean that that "UK output returned to its pre-crisis peak in the third quarter of 2013, almost a year earlier than previously thought", "the ONS itself [...] said that the changes did not significantly change the picture of the economy's performance since the recession. 'Although the downturn was less deep than previously estimated and subsequent growth stronger, it remains the case that the UK experienced the deepest recession since ONS records began in 1948'".

It will be interesting to see what effect ESA2010 has on Spain's revised figures, due to be published on 25th September. It has been estimated that the black economy accounts for about 25% of Spain's activity, on a par with that of Greece.

New EU council president sympathises with Cameron

Should we be worried?

Giles Goodall of the UK European Movement has issued this helpful background note to the recent appointments in Brussels:

In the well-worn tradition of filling the EU’s top jobs, last week’s summit stands out as something of a mini-revolution. In a delicate and complex (s)election process – whereby 28 leaders must agree on a candidate whilst simultaneously satisfying multiple requirements ranging from political to geographical – merit is not always the primary criterion. 

This time though, it was different. In choosing Poland’s Donald Tusk as president of the European Council and Italy’s Federica Mogherini as the EU’s next foreign affairs chief, the system may just have worked. As a ticket, the new appointments successfully tick all the right boxes: centre-right/centre-left, male/female, and east/west. Yet they are so much more than that too. 
Tusk’s election marks the first time a central or eastern European takes one of the EU’s top jobs (though his compatriot Jerzy Buzek already successfully led the European Parliament). Mogherini is a bold (and young) new face for the EU, bringing strong communication skills to a role that has suffered from low visibility since it was created in 2009.
The significance of Tusk’s appointment in particular is hard to overstate. It marks the coming of age both of Poland as a major player in Europe – after a decade as an EU member – and of an EU that has successfully reunited east and west. 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, foreign minister Radek Sikorski – himself a candidate for the foreign affairs role – heralded ‘a great day for Poland.’ 
But it isn't just a good result for Poland – Tusk’s election also marks a notable diplomatic success for Britain. It crowns the achievement of EU enlargement, a policy devised, promoted and implemented by the UK. Learning perhaps from his ill-advised campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission President, David Cameron realised the strategic interests at stake and publicly backed Tusk’s candidacy. He was right to do so. 

Tusk moved quickly to say he “cannot imagine an EU without the UK” and that many of the reforms put forward by Britain are “reasonable”. More importantly, the Polish prime minister is one of Europe’s star leaders, overseeing a hugely successful Polish economy and growing presence on the world stage in recent years. He is well connected with Germany and has strong credentials for standing up to Vladimir Putin in the Ukrainian crisis. 
He is also a convinced – and convincing – European. Launching Poland’s stint at the EU presidency in 2011, he departed from the usual downbeat, crisis-dominated script to declare: "the European Union is great. It is the best place on Earth to be born and to live your life." Bringing perspective to anti-Europeans, he said: "We were truly occupied by the Soviets. That's why for us EU integration is not a threat to the sovereignty of the member states." He has called the free movement of people "a great value" whose benefits some in 'old Europe' take for granted. 
Even on his weakest point – his supposedly limited language skills – Tusk successfully quipped (in fluent English) that he will “polish his English.” Finally, he promised to bring some much-needed central and eastern European energy to the EU. It will successfully complement Juncker's experience and Mogherini's communication skills. That’s good news for Britain, and good news for Europe.

It seems to me that the Tory thrust is to claw back the hard-won benefits of the social chapter, like the banning of ageism in the workplace. I hope that it is not what Tusk agrees with, or we are likely to see a race to the bottom in the EU with attacks on wages and job security. If on the other hand there is to be administrative streamlining and opening up the services market, things which Conservatives have also called for, then there is some hope.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

UKIP wouldn't like it

There is an EU-wide (plus some other continental countries) facility ("portal") for helping workers from areas of high unemployment to those where there is a shortage of their sort of skills. A review has found that labour mobility is not as high as anticipated. The Commission recommends that the portal should extend its links to include private and third-sector employment bureaux rather than restrict itself to government departments, like the UK's Department of Work and Pensions, among other proposals.  (My gloss on the pdf here.)

Some extracts:

the free movement of workers is considered as a key element in the development of a more integrated EU labour market which allows worker mobility from high unemployment areas to those characterised by labour shortages. It also contributes to finding the right skills for vacant positions and overcoming bottlenecks and mismatches in the labour market. But despite the social and economic benefits it generates, intra-EU labour mobility is still limited, with an annual mobility rate in the EU of 0.29 per cent, and only 3.1 per cent of the European labour force being economically active in another Member State. Surveys show, however, that there is a significant mobility potential within the EU, with 2.9 million EU citizens indicating firm intentions to move in the next 12 months.

Set up in 1993, EURES is a European network for co-operation between the Public Employment Services ('PES') of the EEA Member States (the EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein), on the one hand, and the European Commission, on the other, allowing the exchange of vacancies and employment applications (so-called 'clearance'). It comprises an internet portal and a network of employment advisers, and accounts for approximately 150 000 placements per year.


The general objective of this initiative is to move further towards an integrated European labour market.
This is translated into the following specific objectives which address the five principal shortcomings identified above:
1. 'To achieve on the EURES portal a nearly complete supply of job vacancies, with job seekers all over Europe having instant access to the same vacancies, in combination with an extensive pool of CVs available from which registered employers can recruit;
2. To enable the EURES portal to carry out a good automated matching between job vacancies, job
applications and CVs, translating in all EU languages and understanding skills, competences, occupations and qualifications acquired at national level;
3. To make available basic information on the EURES network throughout the Union to any job seeker or employer seeking client services for recruitment and to consistently offer any person interested access to the EURES network;
4. To assist any such person interested with matching, placement and recruitment through the EURES network;
5. To support the functioning of the EURES network through information exchange on national labour shortages and surpluses and the co-ordination of actions across Member States.

Notwithstanding the European Parliament's thinking that the EC's work was done on the back of a fag-packet (my interpretation of their conclusions), anything that can reduce the imbalances of labour supply and demand across Europe must be a good thing. Even looking at it selfishly from the UK's point of view, while we are a net importer of labour at present, that has not been the situation in the past and will probably not hold true when the continental EU recovery is under way.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Chipping away at our freedoms

It would be wrong to suggest that JTAC's recent raising of the terrorist threat level was politically motivated. However, the government can be charged with political misuse of JTAC assessments. There was a time when these were communicated only to those who needed to know - the security forces, the police and government offices.

I suspect that Conservative ministers have given publicity to the threat level in order to ease the way for a return to the illiberal and borderline racist policies of the last Labour government. In part this would be as a result of persistent lobbying by reactionary elements of permanent staff and those with close links to US agencies, but it would also be seen as a way of differentiating them from their coalition partners in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Creating an aura of fear lends spurious credibility to the charge that liberals are "soft on terror". It is a big change from those heady days of 2010 when we thought that both parties were as one in the restoration of civil liberties.

The prime minister's statement to the House on Monday was split between the EU, Ukraine and Syria. It was understandable that Ukraine and the role of Nato occupied a large part of the questioning. However, Sir Menzies Campbell set down a marker:

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): May I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend’s statement was rather more nuanced than some of the reports have suggested over the weekend? May I take him directly to the question of the exclusion of United Kingdom nationals from the United Kingdom? Is he aware that there is very substantial doubt as to whether that would be legal, not least, of course, because of our international obligations in treaties and conventions? In addition, hardly anything has been said about the practicality of such a proposal. Who would decide, would any such suspension be without limit of time, and, indeed, would any appeal be appropriate? In those circumstances, a great deal of work needs to be done on the proposal he has outlined.

and he was supported by the former attorney-general, so disgracefully dismissed:

Mr Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the broad thrust of his statement? But I have to say that I share the concern that has been expressed about the suggestion that British nationals, however horribly they may be alleged to have behaved, should be prevented from returning to this country. That would offend not only principles of international law, but basic principles of our own common law. I recommend to him that the best course must be to bring these individuals to justice, and he may wish to confirm to the House that we have actually been quite successful in doing just that over the past nine months.

John Leech drew attention to the insidious way that big banks are doing dirty work for the spooks:

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): A number of innocent British nationals of Syrian descent have already faced problems, including frozen and closed bank accounts, when returning from supporting  humanitarian efforts in and around Syria. How will the Prime Minister ensure that innocent British nationals returning to the UK are not labelled as suspected terrorists?

The situation is worse than that, though. Both the Daily Mail and the Independent have drawn attention to what amounts to racial profiling by HSBC. This bank is not alone.

I note that David Davis, so consistently a supporter of civil liberties, was not around to question the PM's statement. Nor were those few Labour members who profess similar views on individual freedoms. Perhaps they are saving their fire for the debate on the legislation, but I am interested to learn their views.


Another strand of Monday's questioning was the need to tackle the trouble at source, the seduction of (mostly) young Muslims in this country to a programme of violence via radical preachers and online. We are not alone in this. In fact, a proportionately larger contribution to violent jihad is made by Belgium. Germany also identified the danger and instituted "Hayat" which appears to be working well.

This is the main theme of Nick Clegg's contribution to "Reinventing the State" (2007). In "Tackling Terrorism: a Liberal Democrat Approach", Nick lays out ways in which policing and administration of the law on terrorism could be strengthened  but also explains "how Islamist extremist ideologies are a direct affront to the most basic liberal values we hold dear, and to mainstream Islam. We must be unqualified in our assertion of our own liberal values, not least to strengthen the bonds with Britain's mainstream Muslim communities. Divorcing the widespread grievances that exist amongst mainstream Muslim communities from the world of terrorism, blocking the path towards rapid radicalisation, remains our single most important policy objective."

Nick has set out his response to the Cameron/May initiatives in a letter to members, quoted by Caron Lindsay on Liberal Democrat Voice. I hope that before too long the party will make an official public statement - the guidance from previous conferences is clear enough. In the mean time, I take heart from the fact that Nick headed the chapter on "Tackling Terrorism" with a quote from the Israel Supreme Court in its ruling on illegal practices by Shin Bet, the Israeli security services:

Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Pessimism can be overdone

I did not know Simon Titley, nor had I knowingly met him, but nobody who created the opening of Genesis as it might have been written by a corporate numpty could have been bad. Caron Lindsay quotes this in her obituary on LibDem Voice:

1. At the outset, God’s agenda was to basically focus on his core deliverables, namely two leading-edge products, (a) heaven and (b) earth.
2. However, the earth lacked an overall concept, and had a low profile in terms of its key audiences. Obviously the Spirit of God had to step back and benchmark the existing waters before his game plan could get the green light.
3. And God’s key message was that light was a strategic objective, and it was covered-off.
4. And God’s perception of the light was that it was fit for purpose. However, his desired goal was that light and darkness should be differentiated in the marketplace.
5. So God branded the light ‘Day’, and the darkness he branded ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Light’. And the evening session and morning session made up Day One.
6. Then God set out with the object of factoring-in a firmament to interface with the existing generic waters, to bring to the party two segmented brands.
7. So God tasked himself with the job of rolling-out a firmament, to supply a proactive vehicle for launching his two distinct waters products, and it was up and running.
8. And God branded the firmament ‘heaven’. And at close of play, the prioritised actions for Day Two were ticked off.

Coincidentally, I happened to be leafing through "Reinventing the State" (2007) just now and came across a chapter by Simon Titley. It did not meet everyone's approval (this is the most detailed criticism, by Joe Otten), but it contained one insight which surely chimes with most long-standing political activists' experience:

The greatest crisis for the Liberal Democrats - and all other political parties - brought about by the social revolution is the catastrophic fall in membership. Those who counsel recruitment drives as the solution are missing the point entirely.

To understand what has happened, I need to tell you about my first drink. It was the late 1960s, I would have been about eleven or twelve, and one evening my Granddad took me through the back streets of Lincoln to his local Labour Club, where I was allowed to drink half-pints of shandy while watching the snooker. I was experiencing a now lost world in which the Labour Party was not a discrete political organisation but was woven into the social fabric, with a network of social clubs and union branches providing solidarity, not as a left-wing slogan but as a practical reality. My Granddad was a Labour voter all his life, not from an abstract idealogical conviction but because it was the natural thing to do. 

Ten miles down the road, my Great Aunt, my Granddad's sister, was a lifelong Conservative member and voter. So far as I know, she never canvassed, delivered leaflets or staffed a committee room. It was simply that in rural Lincolnshire, joining the Conservatives was just something you did, because it was part and parcel of the social fabric of the village. It was as natural as arranging flowers in the local church or stopping for a chat in the local store.

It is hard to recall this world now. Political parties were once social movements, a genuine expression of people's identities, which were in turn were a product of traditional affiliations to social class and settled geographical communities. Parties nowadays have been reduced to a small knot of political hobbyists, declining in number and rising in age, and in the process they have lost much of their democratic legitimacy. 

The era of mass-membership political parties is over, because the traditional culture of social solidarity that underpinned it has gone. Most people have disengaged from politics and, to the extent that they engage with the political system at all, their interaction is more analogous to shopping at the supermarket than it is to attending the moot hall.

It seems to me that the word "catastrophic" in the first paragraph above is over the top, because the plunge in membership did not kill any political parties, except perhaps for extremist entities like the National Front. The crisis has passed, to the extent that membership is now flat-lining - indeed, national LibDem membership rose slightly in 2013/14.

There have even been leaps in some parties' membership, rather like the surge in the early days of the SDP. UKIP is a recent case in point. However, Titley's supermarket analogy is apt here, too: new recruits are attracted to the headline message, rather like Asda's latest special offer, but are unaware of what the party is really about and after a short while, move on. UKIP's recruits tend to be elderly, which does not help the party's age profile. In contrast, I am always struck on the occasions when I attend Liberal Democrat conference by the number of young faces.