Monday, 31 August 2015

DWP in the line of fire

There was a rather artificial "shock, horror" reaction to the revelation that the persons illustrating case histories in a DWP leaflet did not actually exist. One has to wonder where these journalists have been living. Government has been using composite illustrative characters in their promotions for longer than I can remember, going back as least as far as those Central Office of Information films and leaflets introducing the NHS and the other reforms of the 1940s. I also have personal experience of one such case. When the civil service launched a recruitment drive in the 1960s, they used a case study of John, a grammar school boy from a northern town who had made it into the executive grades without having a university degree. It was all largely factual. I know, because John had been a flat-mate of mine. However, the face in the photos that accompanied the promotion was that of a model. John did not mind too much, and since the c.v. was not only basically truthful but also typical of a large number of us at that time, no harm was done. The indictment of the leaflets is that the best practice described in them does not match the experience of too many claimants who come to the party's advice centres.

More to the point was the release, delayed until the parliamentary recess, of the morbidity statistics relating to those people passed as fit to work by the DWP. Now all raw statistics have to be interpreted and one has to accept that more people who are working die than those covered by these statistics. But one has to wonder whether the proportion of people passed fit for work dying is the same as in the population as a whole.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

UK households to pay for French research

Two sections of yesterday's Indy report on the imminent Hinkley Point deal leapt out at me:

the Government and EDF – the energy giant that will operate Hinkley Point C and own around half of it – have agreed a deal that would guarantee EDF a price of £92.50 per megawatt hour of the electricity it generates, rising with inflation, up to 2061. That’s nearly three times the current price, suggesting households may have to hand over a substantial subsidy to the French state-controlled generator in the form of higher bills.


The new reactors at Hinkley Point will use the EPR – European Pressurised Reactor – model, a highly sophisticated new design that is supposed to be safer and more efficient than older reactors, but which has been fraught with problems and is not yet up and running at any site in the world. The three other sites planning to use the new model have all suffered huge delays – in Finland, France and China – and Hinkley Point would be the fourth. Concerns about EPRs have mounted this year after a potentially catastrophic mistake was identified in the construction of an identical EPR power plant in Flamanville, Normandy. At the heart of the problem was the 50ft-high safety casing, or “pressure vessel”, enclosing the reactor, which appeared to have been made inaccurately. This meant the enormous cylinder, whose function is to prevent radiation leaks, could be liable to crack, the ASN nuclear watchdog warned. A second problem has also emerged with the reactor cooling system at Flamanville.

This country should have learned from its experience in pioneering nuclear power stations. If the need is for a reliable basic supply of electricity which does not use coal or gas - and I believe the case has been made - then there are tried and trusted designs out there without again risking plant breakdown and eventual heavy decommissioning costs. We electricity users in the UK should not be expected to pay for EDF's experiments and there will be a revolt if customers of renewable-only companies such as Good Energy or Ecotricity, to name just two, are expected to pay a surcharge to meet the exorbitant nuclear strike price.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Dissolution honours

A full list is here.

Firstly, I am very happy for Ian Sherwood from Briton Ferry who would deserve his MBE for services to local government in his native patch alone, in spite of physical handicap from birth. Ian also did sterling service in Liberal Democrat HQ, in Simon Hughes' Southwark and Bermondsey constituency and latterly in the office of Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister.

With a few exceptions, I am not so happy with the new peerages. They are too obviously compensation for shoddy treatment in government or rewards for services rendered in most cases. (Is it too cynical to suggest that Mr Hain might not have been awarded his if he had not promised to support an establishment candidate in the Labour leadership contest?) It is hard to see what special qualities most of the nominees bring to the Upper House, apart from improving the political balance - and incidentally swelling the numbers. It would be hypocritical of me not to include Nick's choices in that criticism, much as I admire Lorely Burt and Sir Alan Beith.

I would except Sharon Bowles, who will bring her experience of chairing an important European Parliament committee and her knowledge of EU finance to the Lords. There is still too little informed debate about the EU in parliament, even in the Lords. Housing and local government are somewhat better served, but Andrew Stunell will bring an extra dimension with his experience on both sides of the government divide. Lynne Featherstone was an outstanding fighter for women's rights who was gaining an international reputation, especially in the field of FGM, in spite of the obstacles put in her way by conservatives in government. One trusts that her title will empower her.

As to the Conservatives, there is a good case for William Hague, who in addition to his FO experience is a former senior management consultant and, with his Yorkshire roots and Welsh connections, at least will bring a breath of non-metropolitan air to the chamber. Sir George Young was the best Leader of the Commons in a generation and was shamefully demoted, but is that a good enough reason for ermine? David Willetts was the most intelligent of the Conservative ministers, but is that quality sufficient justification for preferment?

Finally, congratulations to Vince Cable for his knighthood. I take this as a sign that he is prepared to fight for a Commons seat again, when he was surely a prime candidate for a peerage. Also, to Annette Brooke on her damehood, to Hilary Stephenson for the OBE, and to the other LibDems who I do not know so well for honours which they have deserved.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Humphrey Searle

Another centenary has passed by nearly unnoticed: Humphrey Searle was born on 26th August 1915. One would have thought that Radio 3 or the Proms would have made more of the occasion, especially as either side of the war Searle was one of the BBC's own. I couldn't take much twelve-tone music, but I do remember Searle's Le Photo du Colonel, based on a play by Ionesco, as an opera where the humour shone through.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Rent extraction

This was the theme of an article by Ben Chu in Monday's Independent. He explains:

Ferrying goods along the Rhine in medieval times was an expensive business. Feudal lords who controlled land along the banks of the river (which was also the main European commercial thoroughfare in the period) had a habit of hanging iron chains across the width of the waterway and extorting a fee from anyone who wanted passage. The nobles grew very rich from their tolling activities, building fancy castles overlooking the Rhine with their ill-gotten proceeds.
This was a classic example of what is now known by economists as “rent extraction”. The operators of these tolls weren’t creating any wealth through their activities. They weren’t facilitating trade by maintaining the waterway, or making it any safer for the merchants. They were merely using their privileged geographical location to extract wealth from others – to shift money around.
Ben Chu relates this business to the nice earners that the financial services industry has carved out for itself, thanks to the power of its lobbying - paid for by money which the banks and consultancies have not themselves created. But it also applies to other services for which the ordinary citizen cannot avoid payment.

Personally, I always had doubts about the Thatcher-Major privatisation of natural monopolies (water, power distribution and railway infrastructure) and was sorry that my party accepted totally the Tory thesis at the time, though to be fair to our spokesman Malcolm Bruce, he did call for tighter regulation and customer protection than was actually put in place.

In Ayes to the Left from which I extracted quotes to illustrate my blog post on the day, Peter Hain proposes schemes for the privatised monopolies which are worthy of consideration, incorporating the discipline of the market and avoiding micro-management by politicians while harnessing the public spirit of their employees. Certainly, anything would be better than Network Rail which is de facto a nationalised corporation again, but is still loaded with debt, like an Enron or CityLink, from its days in the private sector.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

David Oyelowo's play

He featured in one of BBC-1's most popular drama series, Spooks, and starred as Martin Luther King jr in Selma. He won the latter part in an American film ahead of many US actors and the fact that he was denied an Oscar nomination for it was described as a travesty by major players in Hollywood. Yet David Oyelowo cannot interest broadcasters in this country in a fascinating and original project.

He writes in the Bank Holiday edition of Radio Times:

The story I was touting was rich, vibrant and set in the visceral world of bare-knuckle boxing. It had romance, intrigue, action and adventure - it also happened to have a black protagonist.

The project was rejected repeatedly, not because of the quality of the writing or the story, but because of the notion that a British audience might be confused by watching a period drama featuring black characters who historically walked the vibrant streets of London in the late 19th century.

I will not claim that I would pay money to see this play, because prizefighting is definitely not to my taste. However, I am astonished that it has not been picked up and cannot believe that any educated person would honestly put forward the reason given.

We now know that people of African heritage have been in England virtually continuously since the days of the Romans, when men from North Africa were among the legionaries from all over the empire garrisoning Hadrian's Wall. There were African servants in some of the great houses from Tudor times (if not earlier) on and there were freed slaves in London two centuries later.

If there is an excuse for the person in the street not realising this continuity, it is because pre-twentieth century chroniclers do not seem to have been particularly colour-conscious. Nathaniel Wells of Monmouth was dark-skinned but according to historian David Olusoga in this programme there were no more than a couple of contemporary references to the fact - and Wells was a prominent member of local society.

BBC producers seemed to be happy with the gross anachronism of Hamlet communicating by cell-phone, so why should they not be ready to put on screen the greater historical accuracy of Oyelowo's project?

Monday, 24 August 2015

Hain switches support from Burnham to Cooper

Has the former member for Neath abandoned socialism? He had backed Andy Burnham for the Labour leadership, but has switched to a rather more conservative candidate. Yvette Cooper's major policy contribution to the debate has been to condemn Jeremy Corbyn's platform as "offering old solutions to old problems".

However, Mr Hain in "Ayes to the Left" (1995) appears to espouse those old solutions, while admittedly repudiating the "old slogans". He points out that Harold Wilson won the 1964 general election on a manifesto which included nationalisation, in spite of an attempt under Gaitskell to amend or remove Clause IV of the Labour party constitution. He claims that its eventual watering-down under Blair-Brown was partly down to the left not translating "the stirring old poetry of Clause IV into modern language and modern policies".

Under "Ownership and Control", he writes: "So long as ownership is concentrated in the hands of a small elite, the economy will continue to be run in the interests of a self-serving few. It will also remain incapable of reaching its full potential because the majority of the population have no stake in its success beyond the desire for a decent income, which is a necessary, but insufficient, motivation. This is the essence of the socialist critique of capitalism, not merely that it is unjust and immoral, but that it is ultimately inefficient."

This seems to me to accord remarkably with Jeremy Corbyn's philosophy as expressed here and one wonders why Mr Hain has not hitched his sulky to the front-runner.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Small and beautiful reminder

From the Centre for Alternative Technology:

You are invited to spend two hands-on days in the beautiful Welsh hills at CAT with the Small is Beautiful festival. This is the first year we have hosted the festival and we couldn't be more excited about it as it fits so well with our ethos. Exploring positive responses to our shared future through low carbon technology, social justice and the arts, Small is Beautiful has a great programme of workshops, talks, debates, art installations and music... 

You can talk dirt with the Soil Association, feel the wind beneath your sails whilst carving a turbine blade, learn to build a straw bale house that won’t get blown down, find out why shit matters when it comes to biogas, get beneath the surface with Hydrologists Without Borders, celebrate 50 years of Practical Action, laugh at top comedians Josie Long and Rob Newman, draw wisdom from Dr. Jane Davidson, Andrew Simms and Aubrey Meyer, listen to folk star Sam Lee, dance to a monster ceilidh and learn the Ukulele. And that’s not the half of it!

Keep up to date with the full programme on the Small is Beautiful website and Facebook page.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Perception of women in politics

People north of the border flew into a great tizzy when it was found that only 1 in 8 of the Liberal Democrat regional lists for the election next year was topped by a woman. There were cries of "institutional sexism". When the smoke had cleared, it became clear that the situation was more patchy than that.

Action is being taken by the party in Scotland. I am sure they are right to debate what is going wrong there, but I believe they should also examine where things are going right. There is rather better balance of the sexes in local government. In Wales, the party has achieved gender balance in parliament from the start with the same electoral system as in Scotland. Not only that, but we have a woman leader, woman party president and until recently a woman chief executive. One reason may be nothing to do with the party at all, but with the tone in which proceedings are conducted in the two parliaments. It is noticeable how much more intemperate is the language in Edinburgh as opposed to Cardiff. (Yes, I admit to watching the BBC Parliament coverage of the devolved parliaments when they are in session. Sad, isn't it?) So the Senedd is probably not so off-putting. Beyond that, I don't pretend to know the answer but the situation should repay research.

Research is certainly needed into the situation in the last Westminster election, where the first-past-the-post system militates against women and against minorities. Liberal Democrats must have had the largest proportion of women candidates in the party's history in 2015, yet not one was returned. In 2010, our female candidates suffered disproportionately. It may be that, other things being equal, other parties' women did less well than the men, but it was certainly noticeable in the case of LibDems. Preferential voting in multi-member constituencies would help, but there is no chance of that coming about with a conservative majority in the Commons likely for the foreseeable future.

Gender prejudice on the part of voters may be as sensitive an issue as colour prejudice. For that reason, the many sociology departments of our universities have not tackled it, as far as I can see. It may also be difficult to pin down, but research is surely needed and answers found or politics will continue to be unrepresentative not just as regards gender but in gender across political philosophies.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Have you ever been grunfled, missus?

A misprint in today's Independent chess column set me thinking about chess openings named after people. (The Independent reference should be to the Grünfeld defence, not to the Grunfled.)  Lo and behold, the estimable wikipedia has catalogued virtually (I cannot spot any omissions) all of them.

All I can add is that Leonard Barden, the veteran columnist and then a British international master, confessed in the 1960s to mis-attributing (quite innocently) the Robatsch Defence to Karl Robatsch, who did not in fact initiate it. The name nevertheless stuck for many years until being largely supplanted by Modern Defence.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Revenge porn

It had its faults - there were titillating flashes of the images in question, and the material was spread rather thin - but there was a useful, if overdue, documentary on the subject of revenge porn on Channel 4 last night.

True to its policy of not giving Liberal Democrats any credit, Channel 4 omitted the story of how the outlawing of revenge porn was forced into statute law in the first place.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Lariam - action overdue

A Conservative MP has today called for Roche's anti-malarial mefloquine hydrochloride (trade name Lariam) to cease to be routinely administered to British forces, because of its side-effects. But this is not the first time that parliament has been made aware of the dangers of the drug; there was an early-day motion raised a year ago.

Before that, HIGNFY's Paul Merton had gone public on the effect that Lariam, taken while on a tour abroad, had had on his career and personal relations. There is a list of the drug's drawbacks here.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Is there a rat problem in Neath?

There is a worrying article from the US capital. One paragraph stands out:

 I found that not only is it pretty easy for a rat to climb up a three-inch toilet drain pipe (most of the time there’s not even water in it), but I live in a part of D.C. with a combined sewer system, so the storm drains on the street and the pipes from the toilets run to the same place. A combined sewer is one big, happy, Rat Central Station. 

I do not suppose that American rats are any smarter than Welsh ones, and most of the old industrial centres of south Wales, thrown up in a hurry during the Industrial Revolution, have antiquated drains.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Return of an old Liberal name to mid-Wales politics

Brecon & Radnor Liberal Democrats are celebrating the capture of a former Conservative seat on Powys County Council. It also marks the return of the Gibson-Watt name to local politics. The farming Gibson-Watts, who are if memory serves me right collateral descendants of the great engineer James Watt, have moved between Conservatism and Liberalism over the years. It is good to see James Gibson-Watt back.

A brewster in Llansamlet

Traditionally, brewing beer has been as much a woman's game as a man's. It seems that only with the creation of the great brewing combines peaking in the twentieth century has it become a male-dominated industry. However, there is now a healthy trend towards small independent breweries and with that comes gender democracy, as evidenced by Boss Brewing in Llansamlet just across the county borough boundary.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Labour preventing entryism by socialists

The news today that Labour apparatchiks have barred long-standing socialist writers Mark Steel and Ken Loach from voting in the coming leadership election suggests that they have taken to heart Bertolt Brecht's 1953 sardonic advice to the DDR administration:

 “Would it not be easier/ In that case for the government/ To dissolve the people/ And elect another?” 

Clearly it is important to avoid the purity of New Labour being tainted by socialism.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Chastening lesson about Dada

I thought I had at least a passing acquaintance with all the leading figures in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements until Jennie Rigg posted a link to a link to a catalogue of ten female dadaists who were even more outrageous than the boys. (It seems that Marcel Duchamp's notorious urinal was pinched from one of them.) And Lee Miller is not on the list.

But I have long known about Pauline Boty.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Carbon-neutral housing: England and Wales race to the bottom

Following the Welsh government's 2014 relaxation of building regulations, HM Treasury has decided to abandon the commitment to make all new homes in England carbon-neutral. No doubt the First Minister will point to the 20% rise in new housing construction in 2014-15, but one wonders who will benefit long-term apart from gas and electricity providers.

It will certainly not be go-ahead builders if a letter in the latest Private Eye is to be believed. Andrew Warren writes:

for the past 15 years the entire building industry has been working on a trajectory agreed with government, of gradually tightening energy standards. This has allowed components manufacturer to introduce altered product lines for windows, doors, boilers and insulation; and training on new on-site technologies and techniques to occur; on a systematic, phased basis.

All these arrangements have now been overturned, without any prior notice and without even a whisper in public; it is only a few months that Conservative (not Liberal Democrat) ministers were providing reassurances  that, of course, there was absolutely no intention of letting the 2016 target slip, let alone be postponed indefinitely.

The result is that whilst some new homes may theoretically be a lot cheaper to buy - always assuming the volume builders pass on any tiny savings made - occupants' fuel bills will forever more be far higher than they should have been. [this U-turn is designed to help meet housing targets] It doesn't explain why the Chancellor has also torn up a similar trajectory towards zero-carbon for non-residential buildings. Precisely who is that bit of spite supposed to help? First time office-buyers?

It should be remembered that from the time of the 2010 election manifesto Liberal Democrats had a target of a carbon-neutral Britain by 2050.

Monday, 10 August 2015

B***** incidental music

I am just enjoying Jim al Khalili's programme on Sellafield/Windscale - or I would be enjoying it if it were not for the gratuitous overlay of orchestral music and sound effects. Bettany Hughes' otherwise excellent programme on Buddha was similarly marred.

May I suggest to BBC an extra use for the Red Button? Just as one can use it for a choice of Welsh- or English-language commentary on sporting events on S4C, could one not select documentaries with or without extraneous music?

Sadly, not even this would be available for Radio 4.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Swansea cricket week

The scene this afternoon during Glamorgan v Gloucestershire.

Apologies to C Ingram who I assumed was a regulation medium-pacer but does bowl the leg-breaks I have been calling for - and on today's evidence keeps a good length.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Fond memories of George Cole

Most people will relish George Cole's performance as Arthur Daley, which can still be enjoyed via the repeats of "Minder" on ITV4. Others, slightly older, will remember Flash (a younger version of Arfur?) in the St Trinians films. BBC's "Don't Forget to Write" had a cult following. But for the radio generation, there was "A Life of Bliss", which was the programme which introduced - and endeared - me to the actor, with an affection which never lessened.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

In memoriam Challenger and Columbia

I suppose the wreckage had to go on show some time but one hoped it could have waited a few years longer. The memory is still raw for many of us of that generation.

For me, the most poignant loss was that of Christa McAuliffe. As a teacher, the symbol of her presence transcended nationalism. She carried the aspirations of children from all over the world with her and nothing was quite the same after innocent hopes were dashed in the Challenger disaster.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Eviction without court order

The latest anti-immigrant move is something else which surely Liberal Democrats in government would have prevented. There is now pressure on landlords, which the worst will no doubt gleefully bow to, to evict tenants they do not want unless their proof of citizenship is impeccable. The penalties for letting to failed immigrants are draconian and there is no legal aid in such cases, so the power of landlords and the authorities would be much increased.

No doubt Mr Cameron and Mrs May hope to garner favourable headlines in the conservative press. However, they may get the reverse when the first baby is put out on the street.

Thankfully for civil rights and good order in Wales the amendment will apply only to England. I trust that Labour in Cardiff will not be coerced into incorporating it into our housing law.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Make known your views about the BBC

The BBC Trust has opened a consultation at and .

There is an online survey form at

Or you can fill out the survey on page 151 of the current Radio Times and put it in the post to Feedback Survey, Radio Times, 44 Brook Green, LONDON W6 7BT.

The official press release from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport about the charter review is at