Saturday, 31 October 2015

Karl Theodor Wilhelm Weierstrass

I see that my sister shares a birthday (though not a birth date, obviously) with the German mathematician termed "the father of modern analysis".

Friday, 30 October 2015

Tax credit cuts: a few conspiracy theories

Even Hamish McRae, one of the most conservative contributors to the Indy, writes that tax credits were necessary. He does go on to say that they need reform because of the unpredicted fivefold rise in their cost (but does not specify how, except to call for a simplification of the direct taxation code).

The difficulty, he points out, is that

there has been a surge in low-paid jobs and part of the reason for that is that the taxpayer in practice subsidises employers. People are prepared to work for lower rates than would otherwise be the case because the Government pushes up their pay to a more acceptable level. This is what the whole scheme was designed to do: to persuade more people to go out to work. But it has, you might say, been much more successful than its instigators expected.

So far, so good for Conservative ministers, especially David Cameron who relishes at prime minister's questions reading out the rise in employment and/or cut in unemployment in the relevant constituency in response to critical queries from opposition MPs. However,

The UK economy has become a huge job-creating machine, with 2m more jobs since the recession, sucking in workers from all over Europe.

Could this be the objection? Would Cameron and Osborne tolerate a cut in the employment figures if it meant that fewer job-seekers from the continent were attracted to these low-value jobs? A reversal of the EU immigration figures would certainly be welcomed by them.

Dr Monique Ebell at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, quoted in the article, points out:
“For many couple families, the tax-credit system makes it more attractive for one partner to stay at home, rather than go out to work. It is this adverse and unintended consequence of the tax-credit system that should be a key focus of any reforms.”

Adverse?? Surely the Conservative ethos is that families should be headed by two married parents, one of whom should be a home-maker? Or does that apply only to middle-class couples?

The constitutional "crisis"

There was no need for the government to have a run-in with the upper house. The cuts could have been incorporated in primary legislation which, certificated as a money Bill, could not be voted down by the Lords. The implication is that Cameron and Osborne induced the confrontation on Monday for a reason.

My first thought was that it was an excuse to bring back a Conservative majority by swamping the upper house with a flood of new barons, in spite of the adverse publicity which would be generated by all those extra £300 per day peers.

However, the swift inauguration of a review under Lord Strathclyde suggests another line of attack on their Lordships' house. I would not be surprised if its major recommendation is to take away the power to review any Statutory Instrument, which would suit several parties. Not only the elected dictatorship in Downing Street, but also Sir Humphrey, would welcome the facility to push through delegated legislation with one less stage to worry about.

(Incidentally, Lord Strathclyde was said not to have any great love for Liberal Democrat peers.)

The Lords and law officers have already resisted at least one attempt to create "Henry VIII" powers. I trust that they will continue to be successful.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Dulais Valley GP shortages

Thanks to Steve Hunt, independent councillor for Seven Sisters, for posting this on Facebook.

The Dulais Valley General Practice has traditionally had four GP partners. One partner has left and the practice has been unable to recruit a replacement.

A second partner is due to retire next February and, while the practice is still trying to recruit, there are concerns it might not be able to replace him either.

 I remember these facilities being unveiled during the time I was on the Neath Port Talbot council. If these modern working conditions cannot attract replacement GPs, what hope do other more antiquated valley practices have?

Does Welsh general practice have an image problem, a hangover from the Labour/Plaid 8% NHS budget cut perhaps? Or is there a more deep-rooted flaw?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Female/male employment ratio

Over the eleven years 2004-2014, the UK has seen a slight increase in the female working population. We are still behind some northern European neighbours, and we have not achieved the big jump of Germany, in third place in the EU as this extract graph shows. It will also be argued that women occupy the most low-paid sector of the economy. Still, it's good to see us in the top ten.

For the full infographic and further comment, see

Great entrances

The film column in the latest Radio Times lists great entrances in movies. I am gratified to see Harry Lime at number three.  This was for me the best of the lot, and paid homage to in at least one TV series.  But many of the others in the list are hardly great and some of the great ones are undeservedly low, notably Laura at no. 63.

I also believe that the compilers of the list missed a trick in not considering comedies other than Some Like It Hot (I agree with no. 14, by the way). One of my favourites is the dramatic entry of Sara (Victoria Tennant) in LA Story, knocking over outdoor restaurant furniture and swearing in a cut-glass accent. And what about Blazing Saddles, where there are two great entrances: Bart (Cleavon Little) and Mongo?

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Hypocrisy among politicians

Sir Edward Leigh speaking against the Lords Reform Bill in 2012:

What is so wrong with the House of Lords? The point that I make continually is that whereas over the past 15 years, we in the Commons have had the collective courage to defeat the Government only 10 times, our friends in the other place have defeated the Government no less than 576 times. That point has been made already, but it is a powerful one.
Why do we want to abolish an institution that has held the Government so closely to account that, in the past 15 years, it has defeated them no less than 576 times? The fundamental problem is that once the House of Lords is elected, it will become the poodle of the House of Commons. The real problem is not with the primacy of the House of Commons, but that the Executive is all-powerful. It is only in the other place that there is any decent scrutiny and that the Government are occasionally defeated.
What is right for our country is to retain the system of an elected House of Commons and a revising second Chamber that does an excellent job of improving legislation. We must leave it alone and defeat this Bill tonight.

Sir Edward Leigh in the Commons yesterday:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the other place not two minutes ago, their Lordships voted for a Labour amendment to in effect kill off— Interrupted by opposition cheers]

Not for 100 years has the House of Lords defied this elected House. This is a serious matter, and I ask you or Mr Speaker to make a statement to protect the rights of the elected representatives—not just for us, but for the people of this country.

Why is fracking still on the agenda?

When oil and gas prices are declining, why is the government still intent on developing an industry which is clearly uneconomic? The financial incentives to frack in the UK are still available, and Simon Oliver reports that even SSSIs are under threat, contrary to promises made by the Conservatives before the general election.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Comedians and conservatives

There were three interesting elections round the world yesterday.

In Guatemala, a popular comedian, one of whose most famous comedy roles was that of a useless cowboy who becomes president by accident, won a presidential election by a street. Jimmy Morales put out a sketchy manifesto, but won in a low poll because his opponent was associated with the corruption endemic in government.

The Prawa i Sprawiedliwości (Law and Justice) party was, as predicted, successful in Poland and will be able to govern with an absolute majority. As a previous post indicated, David Cameron will find many points of agreement with the conservative PiS, in particular the assertion of national sovereignty within the EU. However, he will not like the insistence of the new prime minister, Beata Szydło, that free movement of labour across the Union  must remain. (He is also going to have to practise the pronunciation of that surname.)

Daniel Scioli, seen as the natural successor to Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, is not going to have it all his own way after all. He faces a run-off election on November 22nd against the Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri. Macri, who is described as "centre right", only just failed to top the first-round poll. Whichever man wins, it seems that relations with the UK will improve. For the Argentines, he will need to get a grip on the corruption which has dragged down what should be one of the richest countries in South America.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Today is Wellington's birthday

Not of the Iron Duke, but the pipe-yard philosopher in the classic Daily Mirror strip, The Perishers.

According to the wikipedia entry, the action was set in Croynge, a fictional outer London location first aired on the radio show Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. If I recall correctly, it was where Sam Costa's Aunt Emily was said to reside.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Osborne as soft as Brown on big banks

James Moore writes of the cop-out provisional report from the Competition and Markets Authority on banking (pdf here).

The only thing these findings are not is surprising. They are perfectly in tune with everything else that has been going on in the regulation of banking since the General Election. Martin Wheatley, the tough as nails boss of the Financial Conduct Authority? Ousted. The “presumption of responsibility” that would have required bankers to prove they had taken reasonable steps to prevent wrongdoing? Dropped in favour of a nebulous “duty of responsibility”.

Meanwhile, nearly every bank in Britain is applying for “transitional waivers” that they hope will allow them to get out of the requirement to ring-fence their retail banks from the wilder, and riskier, fields of investment and corporate banking. Despite the fact that the rules won’t come fully into force until 2019 and that they were trailed way back in 2011.

What still does surprise (a bit) is how short our memories have become. We are just seven years past a banking-led financial tsunami that very nearly destroyed this country’s economy, and I don’t use that term lightly. [...] “Never again” was the cry at the time, and small wonder. There were promises of new rules to make sure of it too. Ministers’ feet were held to the fire by a succession of ugly scandals, left stinking in the sunlight when the flood waters of crisis had subsided.

These are with us still. Investigations are ongoing into precious-metal price-fixing. In the past few days, a French bank – Credit Agricole – paid nearly $800m to US authorities to settle a sanctions busting investigation. Some of the payments it tried to hide went through its London office*.

Still banks drag their feet on PPI.

And yet this appalling behaviour now seems to generate merely a resigned shrug. Oh what, banks again? [...]

All the while the masters of the financial universe are getting more comfortable. We may have cause to regret that.

* This was happening at the same time as Lehman Brothers made use of slack financial standards in London in order to trick its investors.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Gangsters, politicians and mutually assured destruction

Cahal Milmo's feature in the Indy today revives one of the great hidden scandals of the 1960s and the solution to a puzzle raised by it. A photograph of gangster Ronnie Kray flanked by Conservative politician Robert Boothby and a young man named Leslie Holt, who was the lover of both of them, came into the hands of Cecil King, chairman of IPC which owned the Daily and Sunday Mirror newspapers in the early 1960s. Homosexuality was then illegal in the UK. Lord Boothby, while no longer a contender for high office, was still a very popular broadcaster and publicist for the Conservatives. (I can attest to his charm as a regular contributor to BBC radio's Any Questions? programme.)  It would therefore be a considerable blow to the Conservative government to have exposed Boothby's bisexuality, not to mention the Kray connection.

King published a teaser in the Sunday Mirror, without naming names or publishing the photo, then abruptly pulled back. Even after the existence of the photograph became known, the reason for King's change of mind remained a mystery. One assumed at the time that his drift towards the Conservative party had already begun and his concern for the future of the party overcame his instincts as a newspaperman.

Much later, it was revealed that it was a case of mutually assured destruction: the Labour party had as much to fear from Boothby's "outing" as the Conservatives. John Pearson, in publicising the 1995 paperback edition of his book about the Krays, explained. Boothby's friend and companion in many of his sexual escapades was Labour MP Tom Driberg, who was on the party's national executive. Exposure of Boothby would inevitably lead to a reciprocal exposure of Driberg, hitherto untouchable, with dire effects on the Labour Party. (I wonder, however, whether it was Driberg who tipped Private Eye off about the photograph. He was a regular contributor to the Eye under the nom-de-guerre Tiresias and would have known of the Krays' love of being photographed, by David Bailey among others.) When Labour high command learned of King's plans they were therefore far from grateful and persuaded Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of the Mirror, who had been away when King had the teaser printed, to spike the story. Labour's legal heavyweights then extracted from IPC an apology and huge damages, which in turn acted as a deterrent to other papers running with it.

All the time, the intelligence services knew of these connections while the general public (outside the immediate circles of the people concerned) was blissfully unaware. Pearson drew the conclusion that the ruling class looked after its own and Milmo implicitly seems to accept this. An interesting question is: would the Liberals, under the unimpeachable Jo Grimond, have benefited from the scandal breaking? Jeremy Thorpe, later to be embroiled in his own same-sex affair, was already a member of parliament, but does not seem to have been linked with Boothby or Driberg and was certainly more discreet.

Flood risk in Neath Port Talbot

Consultation on Neath Port Talbot's statutory flood risk plan has opened. Citizens have until 2nd November to make their views known.

Briton Ferry-dwellers, subject to frequent flooding alerts, and residents of Cadoxton still awaiting replacement of their antiquated Victorian culverts will no doubt be concerned.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Consultation on court closures

Consultation on the Ministry of Justice proposal on the provision of court and tribunal services in Wales closed on the 4th of this month. There has been no announcement yet confirming any closures, which may be a good sign that the MoJ is actually taking time to consider representations. In response to a question by Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) at Business Questions today, the Leader of the House of Commons held out the hope that there might be a debate in parliament on the MoJ's conclusions before they are put into effect.

It would be useful if the Minister, Michael Gove, actually came down to south Wales to look at the hinterland of the courts he seeks to rationalise. Public transport is not a patch on what it is in London and the home counties, and it is getting worse because of subsidy cuts from both the Welsh government and local authorities. Some idea of the attitude of Conservative members can be gleaned from the offhand remark of one when taxed with the difficulties caused to vulnerable people if Brecon courts were to be closed: "Oh, it only takes an hour to drive to Swansea".

Nor is the proposed use of video links yet a practical solution. I understand that Neath magistrates court was closed largely on the premise that a video link with Swansea would be available at the time of the closure in September last year. In fact, it has not yet been provided and will not be in place before January 2016 at the earliest. Even when installed, there is no guarantee that it will be reliable: I recall sitting in on a South Wales Police conference call when one of the stations which should have been contributing stayed resolutely off-line for most of the session.

The population of the old West Glamorgan area is growing, and not just because of the Llandarcy Village project and the Swansea University expansion. There is also the shadow of the current Welsh Government's determination to re-jig local government boundaries once again, something which has been put on hold until after next year's general election. It does seem a strange time to be reducing court capacity. At the very least, the Minister should wait to see how the court structure would fit into any new local government arrangements before setting his proposals in stone.

China has more hooks in England

My first reaction to the revelations of the deal announced with China yesterday was that England is now on a par with African dictatorships.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Commission acts against tax régime shopping

The Financial Times and the Independent report that the European Commission is expected to rule shortly on "sweetheart" tax deals between multi-national companies and the administrations of the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Fiat and Starbucks are the immediate targets of information commissioner Margrethe Vestager, but if her rulings stick then Amazon and Apple are likely to find themselves in the line of fire. Likewise, if Luxembourg and the Netherlands are ordered to bring their corporate tax régimes more into line with the European Union norm, then other governments which cosset particular businesses will come under scrutiny. The Irish finance minister is already geared up for a fight over the Republic's favourable treatment of Apple.

We should hope for a successful outcome for Ms Vestager. For one thing, it will remove the incentive for a race to the bottom which our chancellor George Osborne has felt obliged to join in. If we no longer have to compete with Ireland and Luxembourg for company head offices on the basis of taxation, it will give a boost to our national income. Citizens of our fellow-EU members will feel an immediate benefit as multi-nationals are forced to fork out back taxes. The figures may be in the high millions for each treasury, rather than the billions anticipated by the Indy, but the rebate is still well worth having and the principle even more so.

Later: confirmation of the Commission's ruling against the sweetheart deals.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Yesterday in blogland

Following Jonathan Calder's challenge and Mark Valladares's acceptance, here are this blog's recollections of 19th Octobers past: spotlighted a Bill for more transparency. A year later, and a commission set up by the Conservative government is widely expected to recommend curbs on the Freedom Of Information Act.

In 2013, I remarked the anniversary of a patent ruling in the US, now largely forgotten but important in its day.

In 2012, I was silent for a few days after 18th October, but 22nd October saw a post about paranoia on the part of the ANC and the first mention here of a certain Mr Coetzee (but with the wrong forename).

2011 saw another gap on the 19th, but the 20th called for an in/out referendum on the EU. A post later in the month has resonance today, drawing attention as it does to Peter Black's praise for LibDem backbenchers attempting to reverse Labour's cuts to legal aid.

"Labour short of capable English MPs?" was the question in 2010.

Scoundrels were advised to start blogs in 2009, thanks to Amit Varma.

As we are discussing TTIP, which promises to raise quality standards across North America and the EU, and as we are just over a year away from an EU referendum, it is appropriate that the first 19th October entry of this blog is about progress on consumer rights across the EU.

A scan of the Aberavon and Neath Liberal Democrats blog in 2007 reminds us that we are in the week of the eighth anniversary of the Gwyn Hall fire.

The year before saw two postings: one on the Labour government continuing the Conservatives' dirty work on post offices, and another welcoming Tata's takeover of Corus.

Finally, I cannot resist reposting a reply I posted on CIX in October 2005:

> I suspect that your memory of the cuddly nature of "one nation"
> conservative govts is growing more rosy with time.

My memory is of the "one-nation" administration started by Churchill in 
1951 and finishing with Macmillan. I can find fault with many aspects - 
Eden's military adventure, Macmillan's compromising with special interests 
over steel investment and the lack of investment in rail transport. Also, 
at the end, the corruption which seems to be inevitable with any 
long-running administration destroyed it from within.

But that Tory government maintained the NHS and education at the public 
expense (the system which Butler had created in 1944). It introduced the 
Clean Air Acts and did more for public housing than Labour had achieved.
Nor did it sell the family silver, in Macmillan's later phrase about 

Oh, Canada!

I didn't dare hope that the opinion polls, which got it so wrong in Britain, were actually spot on in reporting a surge in support of Justin Trudeau's Liberals, but they were. The Guardian reports that the Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper has conceded that he has lost yesterday's general election in Canada.

There was the usual gush from the victor about "real change", which will inevitably be disappointed. What is more encouraging is that the Liberals came from third place in parliament, having suffered big losses in 2011. (It should be remembered that the Conservatives themselves had almost been written off a decade earlier.)  Moreover, the Liberals won against a Lynton Crosby-style tacitly racist campaign, and they won in both Francophone and Anglophone provinces.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Gwynoro Jones' historical perspective refers.

The coalition government showed that they could cut the deficit without the extreme measures taken against the working poor by the Tories ruling alone. The early years of Gordon Brown's chancellorship when he sincerely believed in fiscal prudence, and before he went on a bureaucratic spending spree for purely party reasons, demonstrated that is even possible to achieve a slight budget surplus over an economic cycle.

I am not as sanguine about the mounting debt resulting from continuing to run a deficit as Mr Jones nor some others within the Liberal Democrats are. I applauded Nick Clegg when, as deputy prime minister, he said he wanted to get the bond-holders off our backs. Being beholden to them must limit the UK's actions both nationally and internationally. However, the chancellor should turn his attention from the output column to the input. Apart from reverting to Labour's state pension régime (pensions account for at least half of "welfare" spending) there is no further cut to be made which does not threaten social cohesion or investment and therefore long-term economic well-being.  Those with the strongest backs are not bearing their share of the burden, as Tim Farron called for in his conference speech. To redress this is not Corbynite socialism, it is fairness.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Disgruntled English doctors

Phil Hammond, writing as "M.D.", in his current Private Eye column dissects Conservative promises on the NHS in England.

The Tory conference continued to peddle the delusion that routine NHS services can be safely extended to seven days a week while making eye-watering efficiency savings. The government has a convenient blame figure lined up in Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, who calculated that the NHS shortfall by 2020 would be £30bn [,,,] £22bn of this could be recouped by "working smarter" [...]

In the first year of Stevens' "five-year forward view", no efficiency saving has been made at all. Indeed, the NHS deficit has soared to more than £2bn [and] the performance of the NHS has nose-dived.

Dr Hammond believes that the government sees the solution in effectively cutting doctors' pay. Having shied away from imposing a new contract on consultants, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has "turned his fire" on junior doctors.

The BMA is making bold claims of balloting for industrial action, but a compassionate and ethical workforce is very limited in the protests it can make. Hunt knows that if he toughs it out, he will win, but at what cost? Every junior doctor who moves abroad, or even to Wales or Scotland, is a huge loss to NHS England.

What I want to know is why those disgruntled doctors in the NHS are heading down under rather than make the easier trip across Offa's Dyke. There are declining numbers of GPs in Wales, even in rural areas where the quality of life is said to be second to none in Britain.  If I were Mark Drakeford or Vaughan Gething I would be sounding doctors both sides of the border to find out what could make NHS work in Wales more attractive.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Long-established bloggers

Mark Valladares (Liberal Bureaucracy) pays tribute to long-established LibDem bloggers who are still exercising their keyboards (or keypads), Jonathan Calder, Stephen Glenn, Stephen Tall and Peter Black, as well as giving himself a deserved pat on the back. Peter boasts the distinction of the longest-running blog by an elected parliamentarian in the UK.

This corner of the blogosphere started operating in 2008, but I used to hijack the official Aberavon & Neath Web pages for two years prior to that, terminated by a legal warning about my mischievous criticism of NPT's fire precautions. Further back, I bored (and still bore) people on CIX from the days when it was a bulletin board connected to Fidonet in the late 1980s. I also dabbled here.

Railfuture Wales in good nick

An Extraordinary General Meeting in Shrewsbury today streamlined the organisation of Railfuture in Wales. The organisation is already making its presence felt by the Welsh Government. The changes made today should enable it to put its points across to the political parties gearing up for the Welsh general election next year even more effectively.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Osborne's Magic Charter

The parliamentary Labour Party finally reached the right position on the footling Charter for Budget Responsibility debated last Wednesday. Footling, because it used up parliamentary time on an ordinance which shadow chancellor McDonnell pointed out "is difficult to take seriously [...] when time after time the Chancellor has come to Parliament to revise his own charter. It is difficult to take it seriously when he has consistently failed to meet his own targets." (Hansard 14 Oct 2015 : Column 434)  Personally, I would like to have seen all the opposition parties vacate the Chamber to point up the gimmicky nature of Osborne's unamendable Order, but at the very least Mr McDonnell and Ms Harman could have avoided tying themselves in knots in the first place.

The Liberal Democrat statement on the matter is here.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Yet another Immigration Bill

The media hoo-ha over Labour's economic policy gymnastics overshadowed the second reading debate on Theresa May's Immigration Bill on Tuesday. This is the seventh attempt at legislation in the area this century, and yet again it is to be driven through the Commons with a timetable which limits debate.

Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael had only a short time to address some of the flaws in the Bill:

Simply put, the Immigration Bill is not fit for purpose. The refugee crisis is showing no sign of slowing down and not one of the Bill’s 56 clauses looks at finding a solution or easing the pressure on Europe’s borders. For that reason, my right hon. and hon. Friends will oppose it. More than that, the Bill’s starting point is, as the Home Secretary said in her pitch for the leadership at the Tory party conference, that the benefits of immigration are close to zero. That is wrong. Yes, we need to control immigration and to ensure that our public services can cope with growth, but we must never lose sight of the fact that without immigration our NHS would grind to a halt, our economy would falter and we would be far poorer culturally. The Home Secretary has decided it is better to crack down on appeals rather than to get the decision right the first time, to turn landlords into immigration officers rather than to accelerate the introduction of exit checks, and to make failed asylum seekers destitute rather than to support them to get back home.
Time does not permit me to run over the full range of concerns I have about giving the Bill a Second Reading, but I do just want to touch very briefly on one: the continued failure, as the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) highlighted, to deal with immigration detention. There is no other area where we, as a state, deprive members of the public of their liberty without proper judicial supervision and without limit of time. It is outrageous that no action has been taken on that. That is one of the few reasons why it would be timely to have a Bill of this sort. We are awaiting the outcome of the Shaw review. I would like to hear from the Minister in his reply whether that review will be able to inform the House’s consideration of the Bill as it progresses.
Again, we will no doubt have to rely on their Lordships to improve the Bill.

Unravelling "long-term economic plan" hits Neath

Overcapacity in the packaging industry is blamed for the proposed closure of Crown's factory in Neath. Two hundred and fifty jobs are at risk in a plant which is important in this area, but a minor component in a huge multinational company. I remember Metal Box being a major player in the canning business and standing out for years against efforts by the Americans Continental Can and Crown Cork (as they were then) to take it over. Metal Box's merger with Carnaud of France in 1989 (during the previous Conservative administration) was the beginning of the end.

The Conservative government's long-term economic plan appears to consist of whittling away social security in order to appease international bond-holders while relying on financial services to keep the economy afloat. In industry, it is dependent on the goodwill of multinationals rather than continuing the indigenous strategy developed by Vince Cable and Ed Davey as part of the coalition. This strategy is fine when international business is buoyant, but hits the rocks during a downturn such as we currently experience.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Prison reform: Gove should look at our own pioneers

Justice Minister Michael Gove is repeatedly reported to be looking at US gaols for ideas for reform (here and here). He should be aware that American improvements should be checked against the fact that they start from a very low base: the US locks up more citizens than any other democratic nation.

If he has not already done so, he should also look at the work of our own reforming prison governors in the twentieth century. (I would give a URI, but because of the nature of the Web - made worse by Google's purging policy - no link survives, even to CA Joyce, a significant figure in his time.) He will no doubt be aware that any reforms were reversed by populist Home Secretaries, badgered by such as the Daily Mail. There is a superb example resulting from his recent visit to Texas.

I trust that Liberal Democrats and other liberal parliamentarians will support and encourage Michael Gove in his endeavours, which should prove to be more beneficial to the people of England and Wales than his divisive education policy for England.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Turning the clock back by centuries

The business of letter-carrying has been controlled by the British state since the mid-seventeenth century. The final vestige of government ownership ended yesterday.

One trusts that King Charles' prerogative of opening mail in transit has not passed to the new company.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Baron Howe of Aberavon

The son of Port Talbot had many admirable views. He saw the benefits of both European community and of fair votes. He also kept in touch with local politics, acknowledging the contribution made by the band of Liberals in Port Talbot.

However, his first contribution to government was not benign. Thatcherites have puffed his chancellorship as a period of great and necessary reform, aided by the fact that political memories dim and that today's noisiest commentariat were hardly out of nappies in the 1980s. Those who were unnecessarily put out of work or out of business by Thatcher and Howe's actions had a different view. Therefore it is good to have this testimony by someone who was in HM Treasury as a young economist at the time. Enoch Powell, an early Friedmanite, is on record as doubting Margaret Thatcher's understanding of the principles of monetarism. Now we have confirmation from Mr Wren-Lewis that arithmetic was not Howe's forte. Clearly a grasp of the effects of his playing with interest rates (is there better evidence for the virtue of an independent Bank of England?) was beyond him also.

Polish elections

These things creep up one. There are to be important elections in Poland in a fortnight from yesterday. This infographic helps explain the differences between the main parties. All groups active in the "leave/remain" EU debate here will take an interest in the outcome, because there are obvious differences between the conservative and socialist contestants.

There are issues which bind the parties, though. In a country dominated by the Roman Catholic church, abortion and even contraception are off the agenda, and both support the coal industry.

Forgotten: dialogue

I watched a repeat of "Dalziel and Pascoe" on the Drama Channel and ITV's new portmanteau-cum-police-procedural "Unforgotten" on successive nights last week. The contrast between the wit (and that is more than mere humour) of the dialogue in the first and the pedestrian, often predictable, lines of the second was striking.

It was Alison Graham's preview in the Radio Times which attracted me to "Unforgotten". She spotlighted Nicola Walker as a woman who carries a TV drama, like Anna Maxwell Martin in "Midwinter of the Spirit" and Suranne Jones in "Doctor Foster". The rich roster of acting stars in supporting rôles was another selling point of "Unforgotten", but for me the only player who really brought his character to life was Tom Courtenay. It must be to do with timing and long experience. There was also an intriguing middle-aged mixed-race couple made credible by Brian Bovell and Ruth Sheen. Otherwise the dramatis personae were pretty much stock. One trusts the characters will develop as the series goes on.

The template for the Dalziel and Pascoe dialogue was obviously set by the author of the books, Reginald Hill, but a dramatisation needs filling out with much extra talk and credit goes to Stephen Lowe and Alan Plater who scripted the two episode repeats I have so far seen.

It will be argued that in real life people, especially police officers, do speak in clichés. This is true to some degree, but one expects a little more from a drama series. Otherwise, one might just as well watch the reconstructions on Pick and Spike. Besides, what can be done is shown by another police procedural "Scott and Bailey",  co-starring the aforementioned Suranne Jones. The interchanges, especially between the leading characters, are both interesting - often colourful - and clearly based on the speech patterns of the professionals and the folk of the series' Manchester setting.

I shall keep watching "Unforgotten" because of its intriguing premise: how the unreported suspicious death of a teenager a generation ago links several disparate groups of characters. The puzzle element, like that of an Agatha Christie whodunit, is the hook. After all, while Allingham and Sayers of the "golden age" wrote better characters and more interesting dialogue, it was Christie who sold best.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Rugby as the nation's religion

"All things considered" is always an interesting radio programme and has won a UK national award in its time. This morning's edition is more than usually topical and perceptive. The reverend Roy Jenkins provides insights into the historical connections between rugby union football and the established church and more powerfully, after initial antagonism, the chapels. He concludes with a brief survey of the place of faith among rugby players today. I must admit that, even after nearly fifty years in Wales, a couple of the anecdotes (especially one from the chaplain of Cardiff prison) moved me. Recommended, even if you are not normally a sports fan.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

FoI hit squad

The Independent's editorial today weighs in against the Conservative government's committee to review the working of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The committee certainly includes people who have expressed their opposition to transparency of government in the past. It is rather like the SMMT being given the chance to review vehicle emissions legislation. It could lead to the paradoxical situation of the government resisting attempts to protect the privacy of the citizen, in the cause of anti-terrorism, while making sure that the citizen cannot check the working of government.

One might think that the only objectors to the government review of the FoI Act are all the usual lefty suspects, but examination of the signatories to Index On Censorship's letter of objection reveals such supporters of the Establishment as Sky News, Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Mail On Sunday.

Government should take a holistic approach to crime and punishment

The Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary Michael Gove are making the right noises about prison reform, wrote Nigel Morris in yesterday's Independent. England and Wales would save public money by reducing the prison population ("it costs more than £30,000 a year to keep an offender locked up"). In the short term, more use of electronic tagging could reduce the prison population, as could extension of restorative justice schemes. In the longer term, using prison to reform inmates as well as punish them, would save even more. Admittedly, staff numbers, both in prison and in probation services, would need to rise in the short term but would fall as reforms bore fruit.

However, as Mr Morris also points out, there is a strong resistance among conservatives (on both sides of the gangway -  witness the extraordinary number of imprisonable offences created by the Blair-Brown governments from 1997 on) to anything that smacks of going soft on crime. It does not help that while he is attempting to reform prisons, Mr Gove's own Department earlier this year imposed a scale of court charges which is likely to encourage dubious guilty pleas. The criminal legal aid budget has been cut. The MoJ is also poised to reduce the number of courts, thus imposing travelling costs on more defendants and witnesses. These are all likely to swell the prison population.

Mr Gove needs to stand firm on his own reform plans, but also reverse those policies which have reduced access to justice.

Friday, 9 October 2015

2016 - some momentous elections coming up

Book-ending the year will be the two presidential elections which will dominate the English media: FIFA's special congress on 26th February to designate a successor to Sepp Blatter and on 8th November a little affair across the pond.

Most dominant here of course will be the Welsh general election. Such is the overwhelming influence of the London media that Welsh Labour is bound to suffer from the attacks on the national party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This barrage is sure to be mounted in connection with the elections in London on 5th May, the same day as the Welsh and Scottish generals. Welsh Liberal Democrats will go into the election with genuine hopes of making gains. We will be without the handicaps of being in coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster and having a national leader who was probably more reviled in Wales than in any other nation in the kingdom, handicaps which dented our chances in 2011. We will go into the election with a popular federal leader in Tim Farron and an increasingly respected national leader in Kirsty Williams. Their only problem will be achieving media exposure - but this is a difficulty facing the Conservative and Labour leaders also. More to the point, we have already seized the high ground on two policy areas which are dominant public concerns: health and housing*.

Some time during the year there will be a referendum on the UK's position in Europe. The big money is piling into the "leave" campaigns - another one was launched yesterday - and those of us who want to stay in will struggle to make our voices heard.

But after those, I will also have an eye on local and regional elections in South Africa, which will be seen as a judgment on the scandal-ridden national ANC administration. The Liberal Democratic Alliance looks to make further progress in areas where it is already strong. The latest changes to the DA's shadow cabinet may well extend its appeal beyond its heartland.

* The party has also formulated detailed proposals for the future of Welsh taxes in a paper which I am about to tackle in advance of our AGM and conference in Swansea next month. 

Thursday, 8 October 2015

National Poetry Day

When National Poetry Day was first instituted, a panel of notables on Radio Wales was stumped when asked to name their favourite poem. What immediately leapt to my mind was Robert Browning's celebration of love against war. Having a favourite poem is as dubious as having a favourite child, but this must come in my top ten. Browning's imagined ruined city is almost certainly set in his loved Italian countryside, but it could equally be a Welsh hill-top fortress.

Love among the Ruins

Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
         Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward thro' the twilight, stray or stop
         As they crop—
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
         (So they say)
Of our country's very capital, its prince
         Ages since
Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far
         Peace or war.

Now the country does not even boast a tree,
         As you see,
To distinguish slopes of verdure, certain rills
         From the hills
Intersect and give a name to, (else they run
         Into one)
Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires
         Up like fires
O'er the hundred-gated circuit of a wall
         Bounding all
Made of marble, men might march on nor be prest
         Twelve abreast.

And such plenty and perfection, see, of grass
         Never was!
Such a carpet as, this summer-time, o'er-spreads
         And embeds
Every vestige of the city, guessed alone,
         Stock or stone—
Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
         Long ago;
Lust of glory pricked their hearts up, dread of shame
         Struck them tame;
And that glory and that shame alike, the gold
         Bought and sold.

Now—the single little turret that remains
         On the plains,
By the caper overrooted, by the gourd
While the patching houseleek's head of blossom winks
         Through the chinks—
Marks the basement whence a tower in ancient time
         Sprang sublime,
And a burning ring, all round, the chariots traced
         As they raced,
And the monarch and his minions and his dames
         Viewed the games.

And I know, while thus the quiet-coloured eve
         Smiles to leave
To their folding, all our many-tinkling fleece
         In such peace,
And the slopes and rills in undistinguished grey
         Melt away—
That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair
         Waits me there
In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
         For the goal,
When the king looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
            Till I come.

But he looked upon the city, every side,
         Far and wide,
All the mountains topped with temples, all the glades'
All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts,—and then
         All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
         Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
         Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
         Each on each.

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
         South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
         As the sky
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force—
         Gold, of course.
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
         Earth's returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
         Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
         Love is best.

Clare Hollingworth still going strong

This is the latest tribute I can find on the Web, when Ms Hollingworth was only 103! I remember her reports from some nasty trouble-spots in north Africa and the Middle East when the Guardian was still a Liberal newspaper. She later switched to the Telegraph.

On the eve of her 104th, there are moves to revive her reputation, as few under-50s know of her.

Closely observed grooves

Who knew that a Czech village was the source of most of the vinyl discs now enjoying a revival? and tell the story. (Thanks to BBC World Service for the report which inspired this post.)

Among the early components of my LP collection must be products from Loděnice, as the factory was it seems originally part of Supraphon. In the days of the Soviet bloc, the company was the source of inexpensive but high-quality recordings of the standard repertoire and of Czech composers not much recorded in the West.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Safe Harbor not so safe

I am waiting to hear UKIP's protest that Britons have a right to have their personal details picked over by United States government agencies without EU interference.

According to our Information Commissioner, negotiations are already under way to replace Safe Harbor with something stronger.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Russia in Syria

President Obama states that Russia is acting in Syria "out of weakness". I hope he is correct, but I fear it is equally likely that ex-KGB man Putin is acting on good intelligence and on the advice of his generals that now is the best time to step in . With all the existing combatants tiring, it could just be that the Russian intervention will tip the balance in favour of al-Assad, giving Putin bragging rights throughout the Middle East and beyond.

The president and our defence minister seem to be stretching the truth when they say the Russians' preferred target is the legitimate opposition to the Syrian régime rather than ISIL/Da'esh. According to old Iraqi hand Patrick Cockburn, Russia is attacking al-Qa'ida's affiliate in Syris, al-Nusra, as well as another group which is an enemy of the West and Da'esh.

Whether Assad survives or the situation in Iraq and Syria settles down to a war of attrition, what is needed is a UN-sponsored diplomatic effort to redraw national boundaries along more logical and sustainable lines.

Court closures in Wales

The government justifies its programme of closures in Wales with the bland statement that 95% of people could drive to their nearest court within an hour. Well, if I tried that, I would be in dead trouble because I do not have a licence.

The situation of other people in Wales who have to rely on public transport is set out here.

The consultation process ends this Wednesday.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Denis Healey

There have been tributes elsewhere based on deeper personal and political knowledge. I would like to add some sidelights on a man of my father's generation, one who shared in the push up Italy to complete the rout of fascism. (One of my deepest regrets is not having asked my father more about this campaign.) That must have helped form Denis Healey's political stance. He must have been the last survivor of those men in public life who had served in the second world war.

So when he said in a 1983 speech in Birmingham à propos the Falklands re-capture that Margaret Thatcher had ''wrapped herself in the Union Jack, exploiting the sacrifices of our troops.'' he spoke with authority.  ''This Prime Minister who glories in slaughter has taken advantage of the superb professionalism of our forces in the Falkland Islands,'' he had continued. ''Now she is lending the military dictatorship in Buenos Aires millions of pounds to buy weapons to kill British servicemen. This is an act of stupefying hypocrisy.''

Healey was also critical of the Major government's contribution to the break-up of Yugoslavia. He accused Norman Lamont of being complicit in Germany's hurried recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in return for the federal republic's agreeing to keep sterling over-valued within the European Monetary System.

There was a gentler side to him which came more to the fore in retirement. One wonders what more he might have achieved if he had been more forgiving and less swift with biting criticism of his enemies within the Labour party when he was in his prime.

He was certainly not one-dimensional, as this appreciation of an exhibition of his photography showed. It is to be hoped that more of his photographs will be shown in the days to come.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Bastiat prize

Thanks to Amit Varma (and congratulations to him on his second nomination) for posting a link to the essay that inspired the prize. Frédéric Bastiat was a liberal hero who I should have been more aware of.

Pine Martens

The pine marten never died out in Wales, in spite of media headlines to the contrary. It simply is very good at avoiding human contact, though a veteran fellow-councillor a few years ago told me of a sighting in the grounds of his house in the north of the county borough. Also, it lives at very low densities as this Web page explains. Therefore, the Pine Marten Recovery Project is welcome. The introduction of fresh stock should reinvigorate the native population in the same way as imports of red kites did for our iconic bird.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Managing the ego

So the Chelsea manager has given the cold shoulder to his once trusted lieutenant on the pitch. Could it be that his ego was threatened by John Terry's solid fan base within the club while his own stock has fallen? One recalls Kenny Jackett easing out the still-iconic Alan Curtis from Swansea City in one of his first acts as manager and, more recently, Brendan Rodgers' treatment of Gerrard at Anfield. Establishing ones authority as a manager is one thing, but it is as well to work with the grain of the club.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

BSE returns

BSE has been identified in a dead cow, BBC Wales reports. The statement that there is no danger to human health because no part of this animal has entered the food chain is not sufficient reassurance. The measures taken by the government at the end of last century should have ensured that no cattle in England and Wales have been exposed to feed liable to trigger BSE. Unless the disease arose spontaneously in the Welsh beast, the implication is that illegal feed is once again being supplied and that other animals could be affected.

There needs to be an immediate investigation by the Office of the Chief Veterinary Office for Wales and I trust that AMs will press for this to be carried out.