Tuesday, 31 March 2015

UK election battle buses are from continental EU

The Liberal Democrats are unashamed of the van Hool (Belgium) badge on the first of the battle buses to be wheeled out:

Labour is using an Italian Fiat Scudo Panorama.

It has been difficult to find out where the Conservatives' wagon (looking like the Gatwick Shuttle, according to Paddy Ashdown) comes from because there is no external manufacturer's branding, but following this link and then this, it turns out that is a German MAN/Neoplan luxury coach:


One can understand the Tories keeping stumm about the EU origins of a very visible campaigning weapon because of the ammunition it hands to UKIP. (One imagines UKIP tearing around the country in a fleet of gas-guzzling supercharged Bentleys.)

I hope the Green Party will be re-using its biodiesel-powered double-decker from previous campaigns.

Humans of the Waterways

I have just had, via Facebook, this invitation by the Canal and River Trust to sign up to a newsletter about the people on our waterways.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The 2010 parliament

As from today, we will be without MPs until a new lot is sworn in after the general election. That does not mean that there will be no government. David Cameron will continue to be the Queen's Minister until a new PM kisses hands. (I seem to recall one contentious action by Labour in their 2010 period of hiatus when they could not be held to account by the Commons, namely the granting of bonuses to the state-owned banks.)

Scrutiny has been the hall-mark of the 2010-2015 parliament. Boosted by the change in procedure that allowed their chairs to be elected by members rather than imposed by the powers-that-be, select committees have carried out some notable investigations and issued significant reports*. Ministers have been summoned by the Speaker to make statements to the House, on which they can be questioned, on significant situations or government actions. There has been an increasing tendency, which Speaker Bercow has been unable to stop, for government to rush to the mass media before considering that parliament might have a say.

I have mixed feelings about Speaker Bercow. On the one hand, he made a heavy-handed and crude attempt to reorganise Commons management, losing an outstanding Clerk in the process. He has also shown some partiality in his treatment of certain members - a fault he shared with a few of his predecessors. On the other hand, he has not only been supportive of back-benchers against the executive, but has also been concerned about how the Commons appears to the outside world, taking in its proceedings through television and the Web. I wish he had gone further in naming and even ejecting members who persist in holding loud personal conversations during questions sessions. If they are not interested in the subject under discussion, why are they in the Chamber?

He has also made a point of cutting short both rambling questions and extensive answers, even bringing the prime minister to order on one occasion. There is nothing he can do about stereotyped questions, though. These blight particularly Prime Minister's Questions, though other high-profile ministries come in for a share. The repetition of slogans dictated by PR advisors to the political parties and complementary "answers" must be a turn-off for the public as well as crowding out more productive inquiries.

These PR-dictated passages increasingly mar too many speeches, too. One might just as well have a robot deliver some of the stuff which has come from the Labour benches. The Conservatives have displayed a little more individuality, though some of their contributions to the budget debate have clearly been read from a brief. MPs are at their best when they are allowed to be themselves, as the valedictory debate showed. Freed from the diktats of their party managers, they revealed their true motivations and the personalities which appealed to their electorates in the first place.

There were also short valedictories from my MP, Hywel Francis, and from Elfyn Llwyd on yesterday's "Sunday Supplement". Dr Francis was one of the less biddable of Labour members - he reminded us that he voted against the invasion of Iraq - and also courteous and thoughtful in dealing with constituency correspondence, even when that was critical, as I can attest. Elfyn Llwyd demonstrated what individual members, even in small parties, can do.

Greg Mulholland - not retiring, and surely one of the more certain Liberal Democrat returners in May - also showed that back-bench MPs have the ability to change government policy, in his case reform of public house tenancies. It was more difficult for him, because he had to fight not only against some of his coalition partners with commercial interests but also against a minister from his own party who unwisely allowed himself to be briefed by the very pubcos which needed to be reformed.  Andrew George was thwarted in his move to correct the iniquities of the cuts to housing benefit only by an arcane manoeuvre by the government. The same mechanism was used to block what would have otherwise been a success by a Conservative back-bencher, the EU Referendum Bill. Sarah Teather also had her triumphs, including the ending of revenge evictions. These are the achievements by back-benchers which immediately come to mind, but a little research would produce more .

Another means by which back-benchers were potentiated in the last parliament was the back-bench business committee.  This was one of the late fruits of the select committee chaired by Tony Wright but, as David Heath reminded us in his last speech, more of the public administration committee's recommendations, and those he and Sir George Young raised when in the office of the Leader Of The House, need to be acted upon.

All in all, one of the best parliaments that I can remember. Certainly it was less supine than those dominated by huge Conservative or Labour majorities. All the signs are that May 2015 will also produce a balanced parliament, which bodes well for continuing empowerment of MPs. Naturally, I would want to see an increase in the number of Liberal Democrat members but at least I trust that the new House will continue the process of reform.

* There is a sense of hypocrisy in the flow of reports critical of the government emanating from two key select committees, chaired by vocal Labour members. So much of what they criticise could have been corrected under thirteen years of Labour rule. However, that does not diminish the validity of their judgments.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Black and minority ethnic parliamentary representation

This BBC Wales News report refers. I was pleased to see that from the figures displayed in the TV presentation that Welsh Liberal Democrats have as many BME candidates in the upcoming general election as the other parties put together. However, we are not able to take the extra step that some activists demand, that BME candidates are planted in safe seats for the simple reason that there have never been any Liberal Democrat safe seats.

We have the same problem in the English parliament, but at least we have been able to recruit some distinguished non-pink-and-male peers who have made outstanding contributions to the House of Lords. I am thinking in particular of Navnit Dholakia, Kishwer Falkner and Floella Benjamin.

Visible rôle models are surely the way forward. I have had my disagreements with Vaughan Gething, but I have to admit that he has been an excellent example to those who have hitherto been put off by perceived racial discrimination in politics generally and the Labour Party in particular. Sadly, the converse is also true and one bad performance by a BME minister, like that by Tory constitution minister Sam Gyimah for the Conservatives in Hackney last night sets back the cause where a similar débâcle by a white minister would be passed over - unless that minister was a woman, of course.

Peter Black makes a good point about the way a fair voting system can help.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Deflation: we have been here before

 - or rather, Sweden has. A chart here shows that our fellow EU member and euro refusenik, benefited from deflation several times during the 1990s, and also showed a negative CPI last year. She has not spiralled into recession, as some economists have predicted for the UK.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Surely most would welcome this electoral reform

If  Janice Atkinson, the figure at the centre of the latest UKIP scandal , had remained in the party and succeeded in her bid for a seat at Westminster, she would have had to resign as a member of the European Parliament under EU regulations. The Office of Member of the European Parliament is incompatible with that of member of a national parliament. What would then happen would be that the next person on the UKIP party list for the South East of England would take her place. There would be no reference to other runners-up in last year's EP elections. That person is the one whom UKIP ranked as next best to Ms Atkinson and may have been totally unknown to her constituents.

Similar situations have arisen in the Welsh parliament, where election is by a mixed system of constituency elections plus a top-up from party lists which ensures (almost) proportionality by party,

The EU insists that members of the EP are elected proportionately, but leaves the actual implementation to legislation in member states. There is no requirement for party lists or lists of any kind, though only Ireland and Malta use what many would regard as the best PR system, Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies. This is the system used in domestic elections in Ireland, north and south, and also in local government in Scotland. There are six other EU nations which use closed lists like ourselves. All the others allow voters to express some preference between candidates.

Westminster has competence to give voters more power in European Parliament elections. Many of us would like to see this via STV, but at least the voter should be able to rank their choices, even within a list, as in Denmark, to cite a polity which has attracted so many fans over here.

If you need to be able to distinguish d'Hondt from Sainte-Laguë/Schepers, there is more on electoral systems from those nice people in European Research in this pdf.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Secure colleges

It's good to see that the Ministry of Justice is basing policy on evidence, as this Radio 4 programme lays out. However, it is too easy to look to the United States. Good though the Missouri System clearly is, it is a reaction to a national régime which locks up more offenders than anywhere in the free world. Surely, we should be examining systems closer to home - for instance, in the Netherlands, which has emptied so many of its own cells that she is importing prisoners from Norway.

Moreover, Glen Parva is only an experiment and one wonders whether it will survive the sort of attack from the Daily Mail which has done for previous progressive moves in the British prison system. I would like to think that if Wales were given responsibility for our own policing, prisons and probation, those measures could be routinely introduced here and that there would be a reduction in home-grown crime.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Criticism of a government is not an attack upon its state religion

A powerful reinforcement comes from someone with more authority than my own:

At my local university I have been shocked at the racist and Islamophobic comments made in talks and seminars by those who support Israel unreservedly.  Had I made similar comments about Jews and Judaism, I would have been thrown out.  Islam is no more homogenous than Judaism or Christianity  and the way it is practised is as much cultural, political and historical as any other. When I condemn Saudi Arabia or ISIS I am not condemning Islam as a whole, nor do I delegitimize Saudi as a State. On the contrary I am often defending Islam. When I criticise Israel, as a Jew myself, I am not attacking Judaism, I am criticising a regime that gives Judaism a bad name and when I criticise the USA, I am often criticising those who give Christianity a bad name.
Thanks to Liberal Democrat Voice, where Miranda Pinch's whole article deserves wide reading.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Sviatoslav Richter

Thanks to Jessica Duchen for publicising Richter's centenary today. The second or third LP I ever bought was a coupling of Pictures at an Exhibition with Prokoviev's Sonata No. 7 by Richter. I haven't played it for a long time, but I probably subconsciously judge other pianists' interpretations of either work by my memory of Richter.

The veils surrounding Richter's life referred to in Ms Duchen's piece surely derive from his homosexuality, something not safe to admit to in Russia. The supposedly progressive Communists, though they were quite happy to make use of gays in positions of power in the West, did not change anything in practice at home.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

David Cameron's last EC report

We will have a report back on Council of Ministers deliberations after all. William Hague has announced in this week's, and his final, Commons Business Statement that the prime minister will come to the House early next week.

I hope that there will be an opportunity for honourable members to question Mr Cameron on the Council's decision to side with the telcos against European consumers in overruling both the Commission and the Parliament in permitting roaming charges to persist. It is two years too late to take the prime minister to task for the watering-down of vehicle emission limits, but he could also be asked about his and fellow Euro-ministers' attitude to the will of the EP in the matter of heavy goods vehicle safety.

Supra-legal injustices

It used to be said that the US exported  her inflation. In the current generation, we have seen her exporting human rights abuses as well. Two instances came to a head this week: Chagos and Guantanamo. Both UK and US pride themselves on being democracies under the rule of law. However, there is a nebulous entity which trumps rule of law in both nations - Security.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Geneva Summit

It was good to see Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone, Minister of State For Crime Prevention in the coalition government, in the front rank and toward the centre of this Liberal International photo from the Geneva Summit. There is more here.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Britain's national bird

I love David Lindo's writing, but his campaign to find a UK equivalent to the US bald eagle seems a bit gimmicky. Nevertheless, I contributed to the preliminary poll to create a shortlist and I am sorry that my suggestion of a jackdaw did not make the final ten. My thinking was that there should be little doubt about its viability  (there were fears about the bald eagle becoming extinct) and year-round visibility. The jackdaw is also intelligent, gregarious, amusing and symbolic of post-war Britain.

But it is good to see the red kite on the ballot. Thanks to Wales and judicious immigration, strengthening the breed, the bird is a survivor as well as being beautiful in flight, so that is where my cross has gone. I'm only sorry that preferential voting is not being used.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Why didn't the story of harrying single parents run?

Mumsnet and CPAG alerted the media. http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/lone_parents/a2298080-Any-single-parents-NOT-got-the-Concentrix-living-with-someone-else-letter has some first-person accounts.

Radio 4's "Money Box" and the Independent newspaper picked up the story but it didn't develop and one wonders why. It goes to the heart of conservative views about benefit claimants and the philosophy of privatising welfare services. The last edition of Private Eye confirmed that Concentrix receives a percentage of any working tax credits recovered under its three-year, £75m contract. We are not far from the tax-farming of pre-revolutionary France.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

"Manuscripts don't burn"*

I am looking forward to tonight's broadcast adaptation of Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita". It will have to go some to improve on the effect of an earlier Radio 4 "Classic Serial" production starring Michael Maloney and Geraldine James.

What the novel cries out for is a new film. The Russians in that period of liberalism between the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Putin produced a movie of the work of one of their own - but it was not released and it looks as if a similar venture is verboten under the present regime. I haven't seen it, but I doubt that Russian studio techniques could have reproduced the spectacular effects of the novel.  However, in the West, CGI has now advanced to a state where an enterprising producer and director can do justice to Bulgakov.

* See http://freethebooks.blogspot.co.uk/2006/12/story-behind-name.html

Traditional Labour voters will have to make a brave decision

As Peter Black has highlighted, even senior figures within the party have given up on Labour coming out of the May general election with the most seats. If the Conservatives gain an absolute majority they will be able to dismantle the public services and the protections for working people built up by Liberals and Labour over the course of the twentieth century. (For an indication of what they would have done without Liberal Democrats in coalition, see Mark Pack's list.)

Under our primitive electoral system, the front-line of the fight will comprise marginal seats, a few where Labour are second to Tories, but most where the contest is between a Conservative and a Liberal Democrat. In 2010, too many traditional Labour voters were deceived by a campaign in the press, dominated by business interests, based on fear, uncertainty and doubt about minority and coalition governments, into voting tribally rather than with their reason. As a consequence, we lost some excellent members of parliament and failed to gain some seats which we ought to have won. In the process, parliament was also deprived of the services of some outstanding women. Fewer Conservatives and more LibDems would also have made possible a more rigorous and competitive coalition negotiating process.

To prevent that Tory majority, it needs at the very least for those people who believe in progressive politics to vote LibDem in Conservative/LibDem marginals. Whisper it, I would also grudgingly accept Labour wins where there is no hope for a LibDem and it meant that a reactionary Tory were to be displaced.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Liberal Democrat spring conference live

Clearly BBC does not give the same live coverage of party conferences in the spring as it does in the autumn. Admittedly, the autumn conferences are the main ones, usually including the party's AGMs. However, an exception could surely have been made in an election year when members are deciding on the final shape of manifestos.

Liberal Democrats do provide coverage of Liverpool today and tomorrow on the Web at http://www.libdems.org.uk/conferencelive

Friday, 13 March 2015

Disturbing news from the spiritual home of Welsh rugby union

The Welsh Rugby Football Union was founded in 1881 in the Castle Hotel, Neath. It is therefore disturbing to read that Neath, the Welsh All-Blacks, are under threat.


When I saw the surname "Orr" on the byline to this article, I anticipated the good old Scottish term "stooshie" to be mentioned, though I can quite understand the BBC preferring the mandarin "fracas".

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Playing politics with the NHS

Our parties have different philosophies of managing public services (Liberal Democrats' devolved and collaborative, Labour's centralised and authoritarian), as exemplified by the coalition's structuring of the Welsh NHS in 2000/2001, and Labour's later reorganisation under Edwina Hart. It was therefore a brave and altruistic move by Kirsty Williams to call for the establishment of an all-party and non-party commission to secure a long-term plan for the future of the service, as long ago as last autumn. I would also praise Mark Drakeford and Vaughan Gething for their openness towards the concept, so that there seemed to be a real chance of the commission being set up.

However, for what appears to be electioneering expediency, for being able to use the Welsh NHS as a political football, first the Conservatives and then the Welsh Nationalists pulled out of the plan which the Welsh Government had agreed to in principle. As Kirsty wrote yesterday,

People are fed up of mud-slinging by politicians over the NHS, and this Commission would’ve taken some of the political heat out of the situation.

I’m disappointed, but I’ve not given up hope. For the good of our NHS we need politicians of all parties working together and putting patients first, not politics.

She has therefore started a petition to persuade the other parties to change their minds:

Anti-race-discrimination legislation

I have doubts about how effective laws against discrimination on grounds of race have been, given the range of existing statute and precedent which were and still are available. It struck me as gesture politics at the time of their introduction.

However, to repeal them now, as Nigel Farage is said to propose, would be wrong. It would send out the signal that it is all right to use race, colour or creed as a factor in judging a person's fitness. As recent performances by the Chelsea Shed have demonstrated, the "race question" is still very much with us.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Norwegain solution

Nigel Farage was once fond of saying that the UK could thrive outside the EU "like Norway and Switzerland".

As this excerpt from analysis by the European Movement (which explores a number of different scenarios for Brexit) explains, UKIP voters who want to stem the flow of workers from the continent or stop contributing to the EU budget would be disappointed if we emulated Norway:

As a result of concern in Norway about its long-term relationship with the EU, the Norwegian Government commissioned a report in 2012 on the [European Economic Area - European Free Trade Area] membership.  This found that Norway had incorporated around three-quarters of all EU legislation into Norwegian law, and had often transposed them more effectively than many EU Member States.   The report concluded that ‘the most problematic aspect of Norway’s form of association with the EU is the fact that Norway is in practice bound to adopt EU policies and rules on a broad range of issues without being a member and without voting rights’.  The chairman of the committee that produced the report for the Norwegian government, Professor Frederik Sejersted, described this as ‘a great democratic deficit’.  In financial terms, Norway has contributed extensively to the EU to gain access to the Single Market (and continues to do so).  

Norway, which was already a member of the Nordic Passport Union, participates in several different aspects of the EU’s work, such as: the Schengen Area (the passport free area covering most of the EU but not the UK); the European Defence Agency; Frontex; and Europol.  In 2013 the cost of Norway’s participation in these agencies was £234 million but it has no voting rights in any of them.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Ofsted report on children's services

Two things struck me about the report just issued in England: first, that Wales would come out even worse on these criteria; secondly, why are the ten good authorities not named? They could be beacons of good practice throughout England and Wales. Members of other councils should be able to consult them to see what they are doing right.

Sir Charles Groves

When Gustav Mahler was only just becoming fashionable in England, Charles Groves conducted the first Proms performance of the Eighth,  the "Symphony of a Thousand". It was an extraordinary experience which I have touched on before. If "wall of sound" had not already been coined for Phil Spector's productions, it would rightly have been applied to that performance, in the perfect setting for it. Quite apart from the musical skills required, marshalling the forces - choral, orchestral and soloists - took exceptional ability. Yet what I remember of the end of that evening was not a triumphalist personal celebration, but a perspiring, emotional, Groves modestly bowing to an ecstatic audience, to the players - and to the score. It was that modesty - he described himself as a musical GP - which colleagues after his death attributed to his not achieving higher world-wide recognition than he did.

Today is Groves' centenary and Sarah Walker is celebrating him as her artist of the week on Radio 3's Essential Classics.

Monday, 9 March 2015

England exit world pyjama party

So often in the past, Bangladeshi cricketers have been on the brink of victory against more senior teams only to panic and throw a win away. Yesterday, they came up against a side whose morale was even lower than theirs and this time made (apart from a dropped catch towards the death) no mistake.

I welcome the advance of an emerging cricketing nation, one which has seen tragedies affecting the wider population. I'm only sorry that it has to be the expense of England.

And I don't see the answer as recalling Kevin Pietersen, who many blame for starting the rot in the first place.

Support for female composers did not last long

After my blog post of last week, I enjoyed most of an excellent day's programming on Radio 3 on Sunday. There was a lot of good music, much of it unfamiliar. The editorial content of the programmes was lively and positive with little hint of whingeing or sententiousness.

However, as midnight struck I had the distinct impression that the Radio 3 bosses were "grateful that it doesn't last all year", in the immortal words of Tom Lehrer in National Brotherhood Week. There was not a single woman in the roster for Through the Night and I have heard all male composers so far this morning. (Admittedly all that late-night listening caused me to sleep in today.) There is one bright spot: Composer of the Week this week features contemporary women composers.

One problem for the Radio 3 programme planners is the shortage of commercial recording. However, as the BBC Welsh Orchestra showed yesterday, public service broadcasters can step into the breach and there must have been other stations round the world ready to share material.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Effect of general election on EU membership

Brendan Donnelly, Director of the Federal Trust and Treasurer of the European Movement UK writes here. Two paragraphs stood out for me.

Britain’s future in the European Union will be greatly affected by the results our idiosyncratic electoral system generates for the next Parliament. It is only if Labour is able, alone or in coalition, to construct a government likely to last for five years that the uncertainty around British membership will be dissipated.  Labour has said often and forcefully that it would only put the question of British membership of the Union to a referendum if it wished in government to sign a further European Treaty involving significant further sovereignty-pooling by the United Kingdom. No such prospect is imminent or indeed likely in the foreseeable future.  If the Parliamentary arithmetic allowed the Labour Party and, say, the Liberal Democrats to achieve together an absolute majority after May, the possibility of the European referendum pledged by the Conservative Party would recede into the distant future. Present predictions do not however suggest that even a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would suffice for a Parliamentary majority after the next General Election. Any Labour government would probably need to come to an arrangement with the SNP, an arrangement the terms and duration of which are extremely difficult to predict.

I am not quite as sanguine as Mr Donnelly. Labour has a significant number of Eurosceptics in its ranks and it would be surprising if the make-up of the parliamentary party after the election were to be much different. Moreover, the Blair-Brown years were marked by a distancing from the EU.

If on the other hand the Conservative Party is able to form the next British government, alone or in coalition, there will certainly be a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. Uncertainty will continue however to attach to the date, the circumstances and the outcome of this referendum.  There have been suggestions that Mr. Cameron, possibly in deference to the wishes of UKIP, may wish to hold an earlier referendum than his originally favoured date of 2017. This would be to recognize the unachievability of the radical renegotiation of the terms of British membership of the Union which many Conservatives favour and which Mr. Cameron has publicly supported until now. An early referendum would have the advantage from Mr. Cameron’s point of view of bringing the European issue more quickly to a head within his party.  He will dread the prospect of two years of largely futile “renegotiation” with his European partners, accompanied by complaints from his backbenchers that he is not being ambitious enough in his demands.  Nevertheless, Mr. Cameron must be aware that an early referendum will expose him to the accusation of abandoning the careful compromise that kept the Conservative Party together in the latter half of the last Parliament, a compromise to which significant renegotiation of the terms of British membership of the European Union was essential.
A great opportunity for an in/out referendum, which would have cleared the air for a generation, was missed in 2012. I would still trust the British people not to be swayed by the disproportionate amount of anti-EU propaganda in the media, including the BBC, but it could be a close-run thing, especially if the party in opposition treats a referendum as a verdict on the incumbent government rather than on its merits. The wrong decision would also give an irresistible boost to Scottish separatism.

Saturday, 7 March 2015


I couldn't resist the heading which refers to the dismissive description by one of his characters of the fictitious Dame Hilda Tablet in the radio plays by Henry Reed. She was not alone in being a caricature, since the whole cycle was a satire of its times, but sadly I cannot think of another depiction of a woman composer (as opposed to performer) in another medium apart from that.

It's not as if there was a dearth of women composers. Inspired by a piece on Jessica Duchen's blog, (JD has a timely piece in the Guardian, too), Lorna Dupré and I had an interchange of names on Facebook. I believe we reached a total over fifty spread over the history of western music, but weighted towards the last fifty years. (Before I forget, I must also name-check Elaine Fine, both performer and composer.)

The sad thing is that I can't remember much of what they wrote. This piece was indirectly inspired by International Women's Day, but more directly by the recent Composer of the Week on Radio 3. I found the music of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre pleasing but I can remember being struck by only one piece and that a comic song. Apart from Dame Ethel Smyth and Grace Williams I have the same trouble with other women composers. But even if this is not just a personal lacuna, it has to be said that Radio 3 gives a lot of air-time to male composers of pleasant but undemanding music. Perhaps this is the key. Women's music just does not receive the repeated playing to enable it to become familiar. This could be changing as more female conductors are establishing themselves - a genuine 21st and late-20th century development.

Publishing houses and conservatoires must also take a share of the blame, as today's Music Matters made plain.  Women are doing it for themselves, though. By-passing the publishers and record companies, they are organising their own concerts and putting their stuff out on the Web directly.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Daffodils. despoliation and pensions

There was a mostly enjoyable Welsh Affairs debate in the House yesterday. There was a good opening speech by Glyn Davies and amid the more party political point-scoring which followed, there were enjoyable contributions from Paul Murphy, Paul Flynn and Elfyn Lllwyd, who are all retiring at the general election. (I'd like to think that Jane Dodds in Montgomery would force Glyn Davies to complete the quartet.) Highlights for me were the deserved tributes to the outgoing members, David TC Davies agreeing that the Severn crossings should be in public ownership and Alun Cairns criticising Owen Smith's Welsh pronunciation. I am surprised that the "St David's Day" debate is no longer a regular fixture and agree with those members who called for it to be reinstated in the parliamentary calendar.

The only jarring note - and I do not blame her taking the opportunity to raise the matter again - was Madeleine Moon's detailing the business activities which have led to three unrestituted worked-out open-cast sites. (Once again, the other MPs affected, those for Aberavon and Neath, were conspicuous by their absence.) She was able to place on the record the legal rulings about the money-shuffling via offshore accounts which have left the citizens of three constituencies with dangerous eyesores. Black mark to those MPs who were noisily holding a private conversation rather than paying attention to a very serious subject.

There was a contrast in the adjournment debate which followed. Nadine Dorries was rightly concerned about two pension funds for companies which the Barclay Twins are responsible for and one of which is said to be in financial difficulties. The Barclays have proved adept at financial manipulation in the past, and it was reassuring to hear Steve Webb confirm that it was possible to repatriate pension funds even if trustees shifted them offshore. If it's right for pension funds, why not for money set aside for restitution?

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Mobile telephony roaming charges persist

Around this time last year, we were celebrating a big new deal for mobile phone users in the European Union area. The European Commission had proposed and the European Parliament had agreed to an end to the telecoms companies' little earner whereby you are charged extra fees for using your phone in another EU country. (Note that, while Conservatives largely abstained, this was one occasion when UKIP MEPs actually turned up - in order to vote against.)

The charges should have ended in December this year. However, in a reminder that ultimate power in the EU is not in the hands of the Commission or the Parliament but of the Council of Ministers, David Cameron - or his proxy - and his fellow EU ministers yesterday decided to postpone the cuts virtually indefinitely. Instead, there will be another consultation in mid-2018.

One is reminded of the Cameron/Merkel deal to weaken EU vehicle emissions regulations. Again, the beneficiaries are large commercial corporations. Again, the Downing Street spin machine, normally so noisy on EU developments, has been strangely quiet. What most disappoints me is that no MP raised the matter at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday or Business Questions today, given that I calculate that the next Prime Ministerial Statement on the European Council is not due until after the general election.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Real living standards continue to rise

A few immediate thoughts on the reports on IFS's research results released today:

  • comparisons with 2007/8 earnings are misleading, since we now know that this was an artificial peak, boosted by Labour's irresponsible fiscal policy
  • conversely, the comparative figures for over-60s demonstrate how unfairly pensioners were treated under the Thatcher-Major-Blair-Brown administrations
  • the slower recovery of younger workers' wages is a cause for concern, but it seems to me that for various reasons the pay of mature and experienced workers is bound to rise faster when recovery kicks in, and I would expect a similar rise in lower pay the further we get into recovery

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Defence priorities

It seems to me that, in his speech to the Commons yesterday, Rory Stewart, chair of the Defence Committee, had the right priorities. In calling for this and coming governments to honour David Cameron's pledge to the NATO conference in Newport of 2% of GDP to be spent on defence, he only touched on "boy's toys" such as Trident. His analysis is practical - as one would expect from his background - and worrying. It is worth reading the speech in full, but a few things stand out:

The House of Commons Defence Committee’s report focuses on two things: the conventional threat posed by Russia, and the threat that we describe as next generation warfare, ambiguous warfare or the asymmetric threat posed by Russia. Although those two things are related, it is worth analysing them separately.
On the conventional threat posed by Russia, the report argues that, through its Zapad exercise in 2013, Russia showed its ability to deploy almost 70,000 troops at 72 hours’ notice. The current estimate is that it would take NATO almost six months to deploy that number of troops.
we have not been focused on Russia, and the United States certainly has more capacity, but it is striking that even the US significantly reduced its capacity to deal with an adversary such as Russia. [...] Britain has got rid of a lot of our Russian analysis capacity. One thing my Committee’s report pointed out is that we got rid of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group, which did the basic Russian analysis, we sacked our Ukraine desk officer and the defence intelligence service reduced its Russian analysis.
It is true that, ultimately, the theoretical NATO capacity dwarfs that of Russia, but a lot of this stuff is extremely difficult to deploy; many nations are very reluctant to pay the money required to exercise; a lot of this money is absorbed in pension schemes; and our problem is that we are defending an enormous, multi-thousand-mile border, where Russia could, should it wish, cause trouble all the way from the Baltic to the Caucasus. We have to deal with that entire area, which may be very difficult to do, even with the 3.3 million troops we currently have in NATO.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman referred to Estonia. Clearly, under article 5 of the NATO treaty all the other 27 member states would have an obligation to respond to an armed attack on Estonia, but there is a level of ambiguity, given the hybrid warfare that the Russians are engaged in and have been engaged in—cyber-attacks and others. Given that Putin does not necessarily wish to invoke a major military conflict, how does NATO deal with those hybrid attacks?
Rory Stewart: The hybrid attacks are exactly what I was getting on to: the asymmetric and next-generation warfare attacks. As the Labour former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has just pointed out, the conventional attack is a low-probability, high-impact event. Much more probable is this asymmetric, hybrid warfare. In other words, we are more likely to find cyber-attacks of the kind we saw in Estonia in 2007, and separatists popping up claiming that they are being abused or that minority rights are being abused in places such as Narva, in eastern Estonia. As we saw, 45% of the Russian population of Latvia supported the Russian occupation of Crimea in a survey at that time. So what are we supposed to do? The answer is: it is really difficult and we absolutely need to raise our game in three areas. As has been indicated, those are cyber, information warfare and special forces operations.
Crucially, very few of us in this House—I certainly include myself in this—understand cyber in detail. We are taking it on faith that we are developing a significant cyber-capacity. It is extremely difficult for us to be confident about what we are doing in this regard. I have two questions on cyber that I would like to put to the Minister. One is to do with NATO’s cyber-capacity. The members of the Committee visited the cyber-centre in Estonia and discovered that there were only two UK personnel posted to that site. It was very difficult to be confident about what deterrent effect that kind of cyber would involve.
My second question is to do with doctrine. Are we prepared to threaten a cyber response as a way of deterring a Russian cyber-attack? In other words, if Russia were to mount a cyber-attack against a NATO member state, would we respond with a cyber-attack in kind?
The second issue is around information operations. It is very clear that the basic problem for Russian minorities in the Baltic states is the fact that they watch Moscow television. We need to ensure that we have the ability to project television into the Baltic states in the Russian language that is entertaining and engaging, that the minorities in those areas are prepared to watch, and that counters propaganda not with propaganda but with the truth. Such broadcasts must provide an objective, truthful and honest conversation about what is going on in the world and, above all, that is able to draw attention to the things that Putin is doing. That means that centrally we must invest in the BBC World Service. We spend a lot of time talking about this, about Russian-language television, but the reality is that we have yet to see the evidence from this Government, or from the United States, that the real investment is being made to create a genuinely watchable, attractive Russian language service that could be watched by Russian minorities around the edge of NATO.
NATO with its explicit backbone of nuclear weaponry is supported by both Labour and Conservatives as a deterrent of global warfare. They dispute the contention that the latter threat is now illusory, but must surely recognise that it has not served to deter Russia's push for Lebensraum. NATO may in theory be committed to defend its members, but it seems ill-equipped to repel any attack from the East, the nature of which is bound to come as a surprise as things stand.

We also need "soft" deterrence. The border states which have inherited Russian-speaking minorities must abandon any vindictive oppression, understandable to those with memories of life under Stalin though that may be. That is acting only as a breeding-ground for Russia-leaning radicalisation and sheltering "little green men".

Also, liberal democracies need to consider how our message is getting across to monoglot Russians on our side of the redrawn Iron Curtain. BBC World Service has abandoned its radio and TV broadcasts in favour of an internet-only Russian service, but one wonders how much of the relatively unsophisticated population of former Soviet states this reaches. I suggest that it is also in the interests of al-Jazeera - who can well afford it - to launch a Russian-language service.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Thinking the unthinkable

Baroness Randerson, Eluned Parrott and Charles Kingsbury. Rene Kinzett empty-chaired.

I dropped in on the Liberal Reform fringe event at the Welsh Liberal Democrats conference in Cardiff yesterday, believing in my confusion that it would be about the balance between tax increases and welfare cuts. In the event, the subject was of more import to us in Wales: should we go into a coalition in Cardiff with a party other than Labour? 

Charlie Kingsbury, as Welsh Representative of Liberal Reform, chaired the discussion. He introduced government junior minister Baroness Randerson and, from the National Assembly, Eluned Parrott who holds several shadow portfolios for the LibDems. He apologised for the absence of a Conservative representative.

Jenny Randerson was well-placed to speak on the dynamics of coalition, having been a minister in the Labour/Liberal Democrat Partnership Welsh Government from 2000 to 2003 and being now a junior minister at the Welsh Office in the UK coalition. She said that she had been watching the other parties and concluded that they were more than ever "broad churches". There were more differences within the parties than there were between representatives of the different parties within the coalition. 

She saw the Labour Party as becoming more amorphous, uncertain of what it believed in, with no ambition or vision. Its tendency in Wales was to more centralisation, chipping away at the powers of local authorities, as opposed to the coalition in Westminster which was giving more power to councils*. It was swinging from one policy initiative to another. Kirsty in her speech had already drawn attention to what effect that had had on education in Wales. Jenny cited an example in health: Wales had gone from having some of the smallest local health authorities in Europe in 2000 to having some of the largest. 

Allied Labour's centralisation was control-freakery. Wales was not well-endowed with third-sector bodies, with the result that there were few independent organisations willing to speak truth to government. 

Eluned Parrott pointed to the philosophical barriers between Liberal Democrats and the other parties. We were very far from the Conservatives but we could be reconciled. Socialism was more difficult [but see remarks about amorphous Labour above]. The importance was to use an evidence base not emotion. The pupil premium, the fares deal and apprenticeships showed what could be achieved.

However, Eluned was also concerned that nation-sized "rotten boroughs" were being created.  There was no counter-balance to the state because the third sector was small and mostly dependent on government funding. Even representative commercial organisations were inhibited.

There was then a short but lively discussion.