Friday, 31 July 2015

Nursing staff levels

In addition to the difficulty in recruiting and retaining nurses, mentioned here before, not enough nurses are being trained, it has transpired. There has unfortunately been a history of Welsh-trained nurses departing for well-paid jobs across the border or even across the Atlantic, but that should be no excuse for rowing back on training.
The Conservatives are the latest group to draw attention to the nurse shortages. I suppose it is too much to hope that they will withdraw their call for a cancer drugs fund which would divert money from more pressing needs such as nurse recruitment.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Jo Grimond

I share a birthday with Jo Grimond (1913-1993), a fact which I was not aware of until I received my regular update from ODNB. A scion of Dundee's jutocracy, he became leader of the Liberal party on the resignation of Montgomery's Clement Davies. The biography goes on:

The party of which Grimond became leader on 5 November 1956 had just six MPs, reduced to five in the Carmarthen by-election in February 1957, and was arguably at its lowest ebb since the First World War-uncertain of what it stood for, unappealing to the electorate, and seemingly destined to be wiped out as a force in British politics. Grimond rapidly rallied the party and showed himself to be the most attractive and popular leader of the Liberals since Lloyd George. His greatest success lay in attracting both young people and an impressive coterie of intellectuals into the Liberal fold on the basis of its appeal as a fresh, forward-looking, and radical force, without either the ideological baggage or the class consciousness of the Conservatives and Labour. He brought back into Liberalism the intellectual ferment that it had last known in the early days of Beveridge and Keynes.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A balanced "shadow cabinet"

It would have been possible to dole out multiple portfolios to the other seven members of the House of Commons, much as David Steel was forced to do when he was leader of a smaller parliamentary Liberal Party. However, Tim Farron in drawing up his list of spokesmen has been able to call upon a wider constituency in not only a much larger Liberal Democrat representation in The Other Place compared with the late 1970s, but also in the devolved parliaments. He has further taken the step of naming people in local government as well as two former MPs, Lynne Featherston and Lorely Burt, unfairly swept away in the rout of May. (But is there a hint of future ermine in those two choices? I hope so.)

This widening of the field of selection has also enabled him to balance his team by gender. In the process, he has avoided creating a "women's issues" ghetto.

However, just as interesting to me is the political balance. It would have been possible to draw his people solely from the "social liberal" area of the party, much as the party in the Commons is now skewed that way. This would have been a mistake in that it would have laid the party open to the sort of "loony leftie" attack which has been launched by the media on Jeremy Corbyn, who looks likely to gain most first preferences in the Labour leadership election. Tim has largely gone for expertise and experience it seems, at the same time producing a balanced team reflecting all shades of political opinion within the Liberal Democrat ambit.

Two questions intrigue me: why is Mark Williams, MP for Ceredigion, not named? Did he, like Nick Clegg, turn down a spokesman slot in order to concentrate on constituency affairs? And who is to be the deputy leader? I note that the top slot in the list is that of economics, occupied by Susan Kramer who is a Londoner, a woman (obviously) and from the world of business, thus complementing the leader. But, as I understand it, the deputy leader of the parliamentary party has to be a member of the Commons. If there is not to be a change to the constitution, perhaps there is one answer to both questions.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

London property scandal finally dawns on PM

There has been a release to UK media of a speech by David Cameron on his Far East tour. Private Eye and the Independent of the media I habitually read have reported for some time on the scandal of anonymous companies owning swathes of London property. Others, including the Guardian, clearly have done so also. It comments on the Cameron speech:

In March, Transparency International concluded that shell companies are a common way for moving corrupt money around the world, hiding funds that were intended to be invested locally. It added: “The corrupt are helped to buy properties by lawyers, accountants and estate agents who do not ask where the money is coming from – which by law in most countries, including the UK, they are supposed to do.”

The question is: why has no action been taken by the Chancellor and DCLG to expose the end-owners of this real estate, and why has this conduit for dirty money, which must add to the overheating of the metropolitan economy, not been raised as an issue at prime minister's questions?

Monday, 27 July 2015

The noisy American

I gave a little cheer when I first heard how Mike Huckabee had mounted a moderately successful campaign for the Republican presidential candidacy in 2008 without the aid of huge donations from vested interests.  I even hoped it might lead to a reversal of the trend whereby the richest campaign secures the nomination and thence the White House.

However, as his reactionary views became clearer my admiration cooled. It vanished altogether to be replaced by anger at his latest claim that the agreement over nuclear power developments in Iran hammered out after years of hard negotiation would lead Israelis "to the gas ovens". Leaving aside the fact that the Iranian leaders are hardly rejoicing at the terms of the agreement, so that Iran is not a threat to Israel in the near or even medium term, where is the evidence of annihilation camps in Iran today?

There is some evidence of discrimination against Jews, but not to the extent of many other Islamic states in the region, including some of the United States' close friends. This wikipedia article estimates there are still around 90,000 Jews in Iran, down from historic levels before the Islamic revolution, admittedly. However, the seeds of this revolt were sown by the US/British intercession in the 1950s which replaced a constitutional monarchy with autocratic rule by the Shah leading to a police state systematically removing all moderate as well as socialist opposition.

A more prosperous Iran does not mean a less prosperous Israel. On the contrary, raising the economic level of one player should help the whole region.

Pyle, Graham Greene's Quiet American, naïvely believed that a "third force" would help matters in Indo-China. Instead, his efforts were destabilising. Greene's novel was fiction but clearly based on his observations of American interventions abroad, both official and the deniable.

I suggest that Mr Huckabee sticks to domestic matters for the remainder of his campaign and leaves it to the UN to police the Iran agreement.

Transparency of housing associations

Jac o' the North is obsessed that the housing association Cantref thrives on importing "white trash" to north Wales. He wants to know more about the HA's finances. Looking beyond his views about English incomers (of which I was one nearly fifty years ago), he has a point:

Naturally I tried to make enquiries into Cantref’s financial health, but unless you’re prepared to pay through the nose for them there’s no way of getting the figures. The problem is the status of housing associations. If they were charities then it would be a simple matter to visit the Charity Commission website and get the latest accounts gratis. If they were companies then it would be easy to get a financial picture from any number of sites, and pay for specific documents. These would also be available – and usually cheaper – on the Companies House website.
But because housing associations are Industrial and Provident Societies, registered under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Act 1965 it means they are registered with, but not regulated by, theFinancial Services Authority, which then means you have to apply for any document you want and the cost becomes prohibitive.

It is surely illogical that HAs which, if not for their social function, would rank as medium to large enterprises are not as open to financial inspection by members of the public. There is more of a public interest in HAs than in commercial organisations of a similar size.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

North American wildfires

Wildfires in the US regularly appear on our TV news, so much so that the British public must have grown blasé about them. (However, this photo of burning forests in Montana competing with the Aurora must be nearly unique.) Much more exceptional is the continuing conflagration in Canada which is worrying scientists and not only in the Dominion. Considering the implications, it has received scant attention here. Not only must it be a symptom of global warming, it could be adding to ice melt as its fall-out increases absorption of heat from the sun.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Shadow of Margaret Hilda

Seeing a link on Facebook to this story reminds me of a revelation by David Owen in conversation with Peter Hennessy a few weeks back.

I wondered at the time of the Falklands invasion why Owen, who had deterred a previous Argentine attempt when he was foreign secretary under Jim Callaghan, had not swiftly gone onto the attack over the dilatoriness of a UK response. If he had done, and that therefore the Conservative government would have been seen to be acting at the prompting of the SDP when it sent the task force, the 1983 general election might have seen a much smaller Conservative majority. It turns out that he was already onside with Mrs Thatcher at the time of the Falklands debates.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Welsh LibDems boost help to young people

From yesterday's media release:

From September 1, 16, 17 and 18-year-olds will receive a discount on all their bus journeys if they register for a card, including the Traws-Cymru network of longer-distance services.

Liberal Democrats claim credit, saying they allowed the Welsh Government’s annual budget to pass in 2014 in exchange for funding some of their policies, including almost £15m for a young person’s concessionary bus fare scheme. The scheme will be available to 110,000 Welsh people in that age range.

At a time when the unfettered Conservative government in Westminster is attacking young people in ways which Liberal Democrats successfully resisted in coalition, it is good to see this move which should help young people in Wales find and retain jobs, or assist in continuing their education.

Now all it needs is for the Welsh Government to reverse its cuts in support to bus companies so that the transport is actually there.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Thoughts on the BBC


I agree with John Whittingdale and some of my liberal friends that the licence fee is in effect a regressive tax. Very few people want to see it replaced by direct funding from the Treasury, however, with the threat of future swingeing cuts and the implication of government control. The solution proposed by many Tories, that of a subscription service, also has its drawbacks. This would not have the range of the current BBC. The other model from the States, National Public Radio, is perpetually scrabbling for money as I understand it.

The method in France and Germany of levying a per-household fee to fund public broadcasting seems to offer a way out. It would spread the cost so that though more individuals paid, the cost to each would be much lower than at present. There could be a progressive element in that the charge could be related to council tax bands (so long as we have council tax rather than a local income tax) or levied as a proportion of council tax paid. There is a precedent in the levy for police services in England and Wales.

The Web pages

It seems to me that putting content on the World Wide Web is a natural extension of the BBC's original remit. The content is broad, informative, readable and rather less tendentious politically than its radio and TV coverage. It is unique in my experience, especially in its objectivity. I have not checked, but I have the impression that the URIs which I quote in my postings are dominated by and wikipedia, with the Independent, Guardian, Telegraph and Mail some way behind. It is true public service broadcasting and it would be a tragedy if it were curtailed or sold off.


The bureaucracy of the corporation is a standing joke even within the BBC. Successive directors-general have each promised to cut staffing costs and each time the pay bill has gone up, even while broadcast provision has gone down - witness the cutting of a red button service, which one misses during big sporting events, especially Wimbledon, and the imminent taking down of BBC3. Janet Street-Porter, a former BBC producer, has hinted at corruption in the form of senior people creating non-jobs for their chums. There needs to be a statutory body which audits the organisation and has the authority to remove unnecessary posts, rather like the old Treasury Organisation and Methods branch which was feared across ministries. Obviously, it would have to be independent of both government and the BBC hierarchy.

If the broadcast side has to bear its share of cuts, I would cut the "me too" TV programmes. It is one thing to innovate entertainment programmes - it is not my cup of tea, but I would praise the success of "Strictly Come Dancing" for as long as it has a natural life - but quite another to copy a format from commercial TV simply in order to boost ratings. 

I would also axe all the political programmes and staff, apart from those which gave unfiltered coverage of Westminster and the devolved parliaments. They cause more trouble than they are worth, compromising the BBC reputation for objectivity. It seems to that they only proliferate because politicians from all parties demand the personal publicity they afford.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Fees for privatisations

Mark Leftly, associate business editor at The Independent, finds it odd "that the part-privatisation of the Green Investment Bank, which has invested £2bn of taxpayers’ money in around 50 projects, should be shrouded in any secrecy".

" the Department for Business should tell us the fees it is paying for advice on selling a majority stake in the [Bank].

"The Government is using Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Herbert Smith Freehills, from the so-called 'silver circle' second tier of elite law firms. The GIB has hired UBS bank and Slaughter & May, of the ultra-elite 'magic circle', to help navigate the sale process. Reports suggest that the Government could receive a £1bn-plus windfall while still retaining a 30 per cent slice of the bank."

Liberal Democrats will point out that the GIB was a Liberal Democrat idea. Chris Huhne and Vince Cable fought for it to operate commercially, something which George Osborne's Treasury resisted.

Leftly goes on: "This is not a bank that is too big to fail, or one that is of structural importance to the economy (indeed, since it still can’t borrow from the market and relies on the Treasury for money, it’s not even really a bank). Neither is the GIB a matter of national security – unless you are the type of environmentalist who believes low-carbon energy will safeguard the human race’s survival. And neither is this a defence privatisation, where paranoia over almost any leaked detail would at least be understandable, if not always a credible reason for extreme secrecy.

"Also, the Department for Business has revealed the fees paid to advisers on last month’s sale of shares in Royal Mail. The Exchequer earned itself a handsome £750m and handed just one hundredth of 1 per cent – £75,003 – in fees to three banks, including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and one law firm. They appeared to be accepting token fees in the hope of currying favour with the Government and winning more lucrative work down the line."

It is clearly naïve of me, but I wonder why it still needs four City firms to advise on a privatisation when surely Treasury civil servants must have built up considerable expertise after years of sell-offs under the coalition.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Two-faced two-child policy

Further to my reference to Malthus yesterday, I note that Mark Durkan SDLP MP for Foyle, NI, picked up on a prime piece of Tory hypocrisy. In the debate on the Welfare Bill yesterday, he pointed out: "the fact is that the Conservative party was not saying there should be a two-child limit when it came to the child tax allowances that it put through in legislation in the last Parliament. There, £2,000 of childcare payments a year can be paid for every single child; there are no limits on the number of children for that, and of course we know that 80% of the beneficiaries of those childcare payments will be in the top 40% of the income bracket. No, it is two children only here, and people have to think about their choice when they are not in that income bracket. That is why this Bill is fundamentally unjust."

In fact, as Peter Black pointed out in the article which I linked to, the childcare assistance was a coalition policy and the Conservatives have postponed its implementation. But they have not restricted it to two children.

Tory Europhobia strikes again

An opportunity to achieve efficient inter-operation of trains across Europe, including the United Kingdom, seems to have been kiboshed by this unfettered Conservative government. Lord Berkeley emphasises that the decision was political, given that the British railway industry was in favour of common standards for rolling stock and a single overarching authority for infrastructure. If nothing else, the latter would have enabled us to shift the heavily-indebted Network Rail off the UK books, which should surely have endeared the proposals to George Osborne.


Sad to see that this one-time leader in the lap-top market has descended into the same mire of financial chicanery as another once-great Japanese company, Olympus. In the 1990s, the equivalent of a 4G smart phone or tablet computer flashed by the with-it executive or top salesman was a Toshiba T3400.

So Olympus was not a one-off. What other illustrious Japanese brands conceal shady business practices?

Police funding formula review

A written statement has been issued by a police minister in the Lords. One wonders if it is intended to eliminate the top-slicing of the South Wales budget and consequential reallocation of the levy raised here to other forces in Wales.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Child support cuts

Peter Black writes in the Evening Post about the government backtracking on child care support.

It seems to me, from this, from restricting child tax credits and from similar measures, that the Conservative cabinet is of the (now discredited) Malthusian view that the poor can and should be discouraged from breeding.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Another coalition advance stopped by post-election Conservatives

I hope somebody is keeping a record of the Tory cuts in social security which were prevented by Liberal Democrats in coalition, now brought in with a vengeance by a majority Conservative government, together with the progressive policies initiated by the coalition which have been brought to a grinding halt by Cameron and Osborne now they have been given the power to do so. The latest trick not only effectively neuters a coalition Act but also betrays a Conservative manifesto pledge ( - see page 3).

Provisions of the Care Act were based on a comprehensive review commissioned by the coalition from the distinguished economist and statistician Sir Andrew Dilnot. Norman Lamb, then a minister in the Department of Health, hailed the proposals in advance:

Scrapping the existing system which leaves people facing the fear of unlimited bills in their later years is the right thing to do.
These reforms will end an inequality that sees those with the least wealth spending the greatest proportion of their life savings and will bring protection and reassurance to everyone.
With an ageing population at a time of financial difficulties, we’ve taken tough decisions to bring about real reforms that will give everyone a more certain future.

This is what Saga said in February and May:

Around 40,000 people a year have to sell their home to pay for care
Changes to how long-term care for the elderly is funded will soon kick in, as part of an overhaul to try and stop the growing number of people being forced to sell their homes to pay for care.
The long-awaited Care Act came into force this April, when the 'deferred loan scheme', first proposed by the Royal Commission over a decade ago, became universally available in England
The 'care cap' is the second half of the overhaul, aimed at limiting what people pay for care, set at £72,000. But it won’t come into force until April 2016.

Now that 2016 date has been pushed into the blue yonder.

Friday, 17 July 2015

LD gain in Wrexham

As if to bear out what I said in my post on Kirsty Williams's speech comes news of a big win on the Wrexham unitary authority. It was clear that Rob Walsh was putting a lot of work into his campaign and that the signs were good, but the margin of victory was surprising:

Wrexham UA, Llay ward by-election

Rob Walsh (LD) 700
Labour                353
Ind Roderick       124
Conservative        64
UKIP                     60
Ind Dodd               41

Slave-owning Britain

Intrigued by the premise of this programme, I could not resist looking up Littles in We have been made aware in recent years of the extent to which many of the great fortunes of England were made on the backs of slaves. What David Olusoga exposed was how deeply into the middle-classes dependence on income from slaves descended.

I knew there must have been a namesake who was a major slave-owner in mainland colonies because of the number of African-Americans who bear the surname. (Plantation owners habitually gave all their human property their own surname as well as a forename to replace their African names, and not necessarily only those sired with female slaves.) Cleavon Little, the multi-talented actor who had just one starring role but sadly too early to catch today's colour-blind casting in American TV and film, was one. Another was a young woman who I remember as Sally Little, but whose short period of fame occurred too early to register on the World Wide Web. She had taken the life of a prison guard who had been routinely abusing her and made United States history by being acquitted of first-degree murder. (I often wonder what happened to her after the trial.) And of course Malcolm X was formerly Malcolm Little.

Little is not an uncommon name, especially in Scotland, so I have little fear that any of my direct ancestors were beneficiaries of the appalling trade. It was interesting to check the name, even so.

Indeed there were a few Littles in the West Indies compensation register, and none were significant bar one: Dorothy Little, the widow of the rector of Hanover parish in Jamaica. It seems that the Church of England saw no shame in owning slaves in the early 19th century. Looking up the names of rectors of Hanover turned up a rather less common name than mine, that of Anglin. There must be a familial link with BME and gay Liberal Democrat activist Charles Anglin.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Parliamentary representation

The Bill to redraw parliamentary boundaries was scuppered by deputy PM Nick Clegg in the last parliament because the other arm of parliamentary reform, that of the House of Lords, was obstructed by backwoodsmen on the Conservative benches aided and abetted by the Labour leadership. Now that there is a clear, if slight, Conservative majority it seems that the prime minister has decided that it is safe to fulfill a manifesto pledge and bring it back.

Consequently, there is a renewal of the old canard, trotted out by both Tories and libertarians, that we are over-represented in parliament. The usual stat trotted out is that "the UK has 650 MPs for 70m people, the US has 535 for over 3 times as many people". That is true if one thinks only of federal Congress (but to be fair one should add in the president, who has most of the powers of a prime minister, and vice-president, making a total of 537). However, the individual states have a great deal of autonomy and I suggest that more decisions affecting the everyday lives of US citizens are made in their state capitals than in Washington DC. Wikipedia gives the total of all State legislators as 7383.

I looked at the stats for the state of Connecticut, which has nearly the same population as Wales. Wales elects 40 Westminster MPs and 60 AMs. Connecticut sends only two senators and five representatives to Congress, but has its own two-chamber legislature comprising 36 senators and 151 representatives. I have not looked in detail at local government, but it seems that Connecticut has the equivalent of unitary authorities, numbering many more than Wales' 22.

It seems that England, which has only one parliament, should be complaining that it has too few legislators, not too many.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Kirsty Williams sets the tone for 2016

Today's speech was splendid and I wish I had been there to hear it. I would add only one thing: the Liberal Democrats are in a position to increase the party's representation in the Assembly. Labour's record in government is very attackable, particularly on health, as Kirsty pointed out. I also feel that Conservatives hit a high point in their general election success and will suffer as the economy - their USP - stutters in the next twelve months, pointing up how much the recovery was due to Liberal Democrat ministers in the coalition government.

There is one further factor, if the published opinion polls are to be believed. UK support for membership of the EU has reached an all-time high and we should gain as the party most associated with a positive attitude to the EU. The publicity associated with the Brexit referendum due also in 2016 will help.

I do not think we should be afraid of saying that our aim is not just to be in government again, but to be the leading voice in that government.

Tories make use of bureaucratic attitudes

Frank Field, one of the most hardline of Labour MPs on social security, draws attention to the suffering caused to genuine claimants by delays in processing payments.

It would be wrong to accuse the Conservative of directly instructing DWP to hold up claims. However, there is a natural reluctance on the part of civil servants to pay out public money, especially if they are on the front line and probably not paid much more than a claimant is due. It may also be that more paperwork is involved in authorising a claim than refusing it. There is also pressure from such as the Daily Mail to reduce the number of civil servants; reducing the number of staff in DWP slows the processing of claims, so that the government saves money in two ways: on the payroll and on social security payouts. This went on under both the coalition and the previous Labour administration.

However, changes to benefit rules under Ian Duncan Smith, added to bureaucratic delays have made things much worse. Take ESA. An experienced councillor and former council leader in Essex writes:

"Previously under the old system people when people were found through
ATOS (not medical in any true sense of the word) assessment to be fit for
work and they disagreed with the decision, they would continue to receive a
reduced benefit until the DWP had convened an appeals panel. They could
under the old system ask the DWP to review the decision before progressing
it to appeals. This has all changed. Now their benefit stops completely and
instantly. They are subjected to a mandatory review of the decision by DWP
and there seems to be no time limit upon how long this can take. Then and
only then can they take the decision forward to an appeals tribunal (and we
all know that of cases that make it that far the numbers of decisions which
have been found to be incorrect are utterly appalling) waiting for an appeals
tribunal could typically take up to 12 months.

"In the interim ESA claimants are advised (wrongly) by DWP that they will
be left without any means of support if they appeal and what they should
do is apply for JSA - which if you really are unfit for work would (a) be
an act of fraud and (b) would inevitably lead to further sanction as you
would not be able to comply with the conditions of JSA. In reality it is
possible for people to apply through their Jobcentres for hardship
payments but this is not widely known and worse DWP does not inform people
of its existence.

"Only if people find their way to CAB or similar will they be given the
information they so desperately need. This leads to many problems but the
two that I am most involved with are those who as a result try to live for
a time with nil income (it eventually collapses and then there is a huge
mess to sort out as HB and C/T allowance are also affected) and those who
end up making claims for JSA and as a result end up further sanctioned.
Both groups are vulnerable to the payday lender and worse and both groups
inevitably need intervention as a direct result of such a deeply flawed

"These are people I am regularly sending to foodbank!

"Those who are fortunate enough to be signposted to hardship payments over
time develop real problems, in particular if they are also caught in the
bedroom tax trap. The answer to this in my view ( aside from sorting out
the mess of bedroom tax) is to set a clear time limit upon just how long a
person can be made to wait for a review and appeal to be heard as the
level of income is deliberately below subsistence and is intended to be
so. It is therefore unacceptable for people to be left indefinitely in
this situation - in particular when so very many of the decisions are

"Then there are those who are newly unemployed - the prior system through
crisis loan provided a safety net that allowed people a means to live
whilst their claims were sorted out. As this has now been abolished and
replaced with inadequate, inaccessible localised DIY systems it is pushing
more and more people to require the help of foodbanks - there really is
very little excuse."

(I can remember a time when hardship payments for essential hardware, like a basic cooker were grants, not loans. That was a change by a previous Conservative government.)

My councillor friend (who checked the details with a current DWP employee) went on:

"You may not have two active claims. In order to apply for JSA you must 
allow your ESA claim to close and in doing so AGREE you are indeed fit for 
work if indeed limited work. The criteria for approval of JSA is that you 
are able and actively seeking work. If you are not through ill health you 
are meant to be applying for or claiming ESA.

"Once you have permitted your claim to be closed and opened a new claim you 
will not be able to address any incorrect assessment - to suggest 
otherwise is not only completely against the policy, completely in 
conflict with the guidance of DWP but is a total failure of logic.

"How can any rational person argue that you may simultaneously dispute they 
are not fit for work whilst signing a declaration that they are both fit 
and actively seeking work - it does not make sense!"

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The price of a pint of milk

Along with the cost of a standard loaf, the knowledge of the price of milk is supposed to be the mark of how much a politician is in touch with real life - at least, according to some broadcast journalists. It is slightly unfair, in that most busy professionals shop weekly and in bulk at the supermarket. However, I believe that MPs and especially ministers should be aware of the differential between supermarket and convenience store shopping.

I was shocked to notice that, having recently bought a four-pint container of milk in Morrisons (or was it Lidl?) for 89p, that one pint in my local corner shop now costs 60p. Even two litres - somewhat less than four pints - would set me back £1. (How much the farmer gets of any of that is another matter.) A standard sliced loaf in the mini-mart now costs over £1, while 60p appears to be the base price in supermarkets.

So the person without a car in England (at least we pensioners in Wales have the advantage of free bus travel at all times - where buses still run) pays over the odds for groceries. (This is something that should be borne in mind when one considers the minimum wage.) But at least the corner stores are there.

Now the chancellor wants to take away one of the advantages of the small shop, the ability to open late on a Sunday while supermarkets have to close at four in the afternoon. This has not been universally welcomed, even among the supermarkets.  Is it too cynical to see the decision as a result of lobbying by the US-owned ASDA, which has virtually no small stores?

My guess is that the measure announced in the budget will kill off some small shops where there is a supermarket within convenient travelling distance. Others should survive, but as economies of scale reduce further, the price differentials may well increase.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Another Liberal Democrat summary of the budget

Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne in the last parliament, is generally reckoned to be a business-friendly Liberal. Indeed, in his latest newsletter, he welcomes the cut in corporation tax - something I am against, coupled as it is with the tightening of rules on professionals' small companies.

However, his summing-up is:

My conclusion of the Budget overall is that if you are of the working poor, disabled, young or work in the public sector, then the next few years are going to be bleak. If however you are rich or in the upper 50% of income, then life's just going to keep getting better. 
Yup, the Tories - unfettered - are back in power.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Butterfly Hunt

Running from 17th July to 9th August, Big Butterfly Count is the biggest butterfly count in the world.

To take part in the event and do your bit, simply count the butterflies you see and submit your sightings at

(Thanks to WWT's Waterlife magazine for giving me the link)

Saturday, 11 July 2015

BBC and impartiality

The following exchange took place during Culture, Media and Sport questions in the Commons last Thursday:

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My right hon. Friend talks about strengthening the BBC, and he is right to say that it has many good values, but one of the problems that has existed over a number of years—the BBC itself has admitted this—is that it has tended to be very much an EU-biased organisation. It is almost institutionally biased. Is that something that the review will take into account?
Mr Whittingdale: The question of how the BBC meets its impartiality requirements is certainly part of the charter review process, as that forms an essential component of its governance. My hon. Friend will be aware that the BBC Trust adjudicates complaints against the BBC about impartiality at the moment. Some people have questioned that, and it is certainly something that we will be considering.
I wonder which BBC these two gentlemen have listening to or watching. Have they ever heard anyone (commentator, politician or ordinary citizen) speak up for the euro on air? Have they ever seen or heard prime-time coverage of  the European Parliament or in-depth analysis of other EU institutions? I must admit that I did hear a journalist once suggest that populist governments rather than the euro were to blame for failures in Ireland and Greece, but she hasn't been on air since to my knowledge.

Then there is the North British Question. Since the general election, which saw the Scottish Nationalists become the third party in the UK parliament, there have been three SNP figures on the panel of Radio 4's Any Questions? In that time there have been four Liberal Democrats. Now, I welcome regular representation of a distinct strand of political thought in this country on AQ? Indeed, I was arguing for it constantly when Liberal Democrats were not only the third party but also in government and were under-represented. In the same period, UKIP (two MPs and one peer at their peak) seemed to be on every other week. It seems that the less significant the threat to the Establishment, the greater the representation on AQ? and vice versa. It is unfair, and I would like to hear more of what Scottish MPs have to contribute to UK (remember that the nation of Scotland voted to remain part of the UK) debates. Not all of them have accents impenetrable to listeners in the Home Counties.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Sorry, Tim

It's the kiss of death. I voted for Alan Beith (Paddy Ashdown won), Malcolm Bruce was my no. 1 choice when Charles Kennedy became LibDem leader and I voted twice for Chris Huhne (and I did not regret those decisions right up until the moment when his deception over speeding points was revealed). Now I am going to vote for you.

In many ways, this election is similar to the last one in that both candidates occupied similar political ground. Nick and Chris were both former MEPs and both had contributed to Paul Marshall's Orange Book. Both spoke well from the platform.  In the end, I chose the more forceful of the two candidates and the one who had practical City experience, at a time when it was clear that the next government had to sort out the economy. It was a pity that we were not given the choice of someone who would now be described as a "social liberal", but I would probably have voted for Chris anyway.

Both you and Norman occupy roughly the same space on the social-economic spectrum as each other. I am voting for you because from the first time I heard you speak at a fringe meeting at Brighton conference in 2006 it was obvious that you were passionate about the things you believed in and you had no trouble communicating that passion. It's that instant connection with people from all walks of life that we need now as we constantly remind them what a mistake they made in removing us from government in May. (The working poor will feel the pain imminently as a result of the budget; I predict that the economy will begin to suffer from Tory mismanagement in a year or so as the coalition policy flywheel runs down.)

Your religious convictions do not bother me. His Catholicism did not affect my regard for Charles Kennedy nor hers affect my admiration for Sarah Teather. His Catholicism is not my main bone of contention with IDS, though I suspect the current Pope would disagree violently with the way he applies it. Steve Webb and Sir Alan were both leading members of the parliamentary Christian group until May but it did not prevent them fulfilling leading roles at Westminster. It was noticeable that the subject of religion did not come up during tonight's Any Questions?, of which you were a panel member. It was your contributions tonight, and the response from the audience, which finally sealed it for me.

Good luck in the contest. If there's any chink of hope for your prospects, it is that I have a good record in Welsh leadership elections.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

New states arising within the EU

This opinion was given in the context of Catalonia, but it seems to me that it could equally apply to Scotland or Wales, and contradicts the advice which the "No" campaign was promulgating in the Scottish campaign. It does mean that the Conservative government is going to be in an awkward position if the UK overall votes for Brexit in the forthcoming referendum, while other nations in the kingdom vote decisively in favour of staying in.

Railway modernisation paused

It is personally gratifying but also depressing, considering the wider community, when ones views on a failure of public policy are confirmed by an independent source. According to the Signal Failures column in Private Eye no. 1396, the government denied that it had misled voters before the general election and said that Network Rail had only recently revealed the scale of its difficulties with the investment programme announced under the coalition. However, the writer draws attention to PE issues of February and April this year which cast doubt on the government's line.

On 3rd April, Eye 1389 suggested that

NR was holding information about the rail projects it would dump until "after the general election, when we'll learn how many of the Tories' rail promises will be dropped or deferred".

In Eye 1386, NR was

"helping insulate the Tories' election campaign from bad news on rail electrification" by pretending north-west electrification was "on schedule" and keeping mum about the consequences of Great Western electrification delays.

But there is more than anonymous insider information.

NR is a government body within the Department for Transport; and not only is transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin accountable to parliament for NR's "performance and activities", but DafT' permanent secretary Philip Rutnam is NR's principal accounting officer, accountable for "stewardship" of NR's resources. So either they withheld what they knew about NR [...] or they ensured that they remained ignorant for months about NR's "performance and activities" and its use of "resources". Neither explanation seems compatible with the Civil Service's "core value" of impartiality.

The same edition (1396) of the Eye adds an even stronger motive for providing the rails and wires for the Hitachi trains referred to in a previous post. Under the deal, the contractor will get an estimated £400,000 per day from early 2018 onwards, whether the sets are running or not.

The English are in worse trouble

So there are strong incentives for the government to ensure that a major proportion of the Wales and West electrification is completed by 2018. There is no such pressure on the trans-Pennine project which has dire implications for other rail travellers in the north of England. As a recent File on 4 explained, the original programme envisaged that the relatively modern class 170 Turbostar diesels released by electrification would replace 30-year-old Pacers on other parts of the network in what is known as a "cascade". It looks as if the Northern Powerhouse is going to be served by ancient (and uncomfortable, as Swanline and Valley Lines patrons will attest) glorified railbuses. At least our Pacers will be swept away directly by electrification.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

First response to budget

The "living wage" is going to reap the headlines, but it seems to me that it is not a major advance on the national minimum wage. It could, however, nudge general pay in the private sector upwards, higher than the 1% annual rise which civil servants, nurses etc. are going to be restricted to for four years.

Following on from the slow-down announced by Network Rail, the re-hypothecation of Vehicles Excise Duty marks a distinct switch from rail to road. This cannot be good for the UK's commitment to green policies. It is also not good value for money if the chancellor is looking to improve industrial. infrastructure.

Paul Lewis, having delved into the Red Books for Radio 4, also reveals a mean little twist which was not announced by George Osborne: sportsmen's testimonials may be routinely taxed. This may be justified in the case  of players at high-profile football clubs which have a huge captive audience, but is hard on people at struggling league clubs like Cardiff or below. It would be even worse for cricketers, who have traditionally not been paid as much as footballers and rely on testimonials to cushion their retirement.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Neath Port Talbot treasury advisors named in Channel 4 exposé

In "How Councils Blow your Millions" on Channel 4, Sector Treasury Services was named as a company some of whose advisors took commission from brokers. Sector's rebuttal is carefully worded and does not rule out the precise accusation made in the programme.

Sector were (and presumably still are) retained by Neath Port Talbot CBC (NPT). As far as I know, NPT has not been pushed into the bank-friendly loans exposed by Channel 4 Dispatches, and the decision to plunge millions of our money into Icelandic banks was the council's alone. However, Sector revised the quality of their advice in the light of the bank crash as they were at pains to point out to councillors in an exhaustive presentation shortly thereafter.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Gleision mine: probably last piece of the jigsaw

The Evening Post reports on the details of recently-released findings of the Health and Safety Executive on the disaster which occurred in Rhos in .September 2011

The report says: "Working closely with officers from South Wales Police's Major Crimes Unit, the Health and Safety Executive mines inspectors progressively analysed the information over the ensuing days, weeks and months, to build up a picture of how the mine was being worked at the time of the incident.

"The site investigation team did not find any evidence at the mine of an assessment of inrush hazards or precautions to be taken to guard against the risk from inrushes."

We are probably as near closure as we will ever be on this life-shattering event.

The newspapers react to the situation in Europe

"Walter," Jeffrey said, "tell us, what's happening over there?"

"Naturally, I can't describe it all," Walter said, "but if you could see their faces you would see that it has the inevitable sweep of a Greek tragedy."

Jeffrey was reasonably sure that Walter had never read a Greek tragedy, but Walter was repeating the same endless sort of chant as a chorus from Euripides.

 - from "So Little Time" by John P Marquand

Sunday, 5 July 2015

"Irony" has a Greek root

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation has initiated a state-of-the-art cultural centre in Greece. Building the complex is on track, and it should open in 2016.
One wonders whether the Foundation will fund the staffing and running costs, or whether the grand building will go the way of those white elephants, the 2004 Olympics stadia.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Charlie Williams

There was an affectionate tribute to the centre-half turned comedian by fellow Yorkshireman Ian McMillan on Radio 4 last Thursday. Although his comic material is decried by a newer generation of angry young blacks, most of my generation would see him as someone who helped reduce prejudice based on skin colour. A sad footnote is that Williams is another ex-player who regularly headed the old heavy leather football to have succumbed to Parkinson's and to Alzheimer's.

The Saudi cringe

Margaret Thatcher was not colour-prejudiced. She was prejudiced against the poor, which, seeing as how Africa and Asia house the poorest populations on earth, may have looked like the same thing. An illustration of how she was blind to colour or creed if a person or nation were rich enough comes from recently-released papers.

The trouble is that the cringe to the Salafist kings continues, for commercial reasons. Saudi Arabia is a significant customer for British armaments and support services. We turn a blind eye to regular judicial beheadings, to extreme sexual discrimination in the area and most recently to the Saudis' effectively invading the neighbouring state of Yemen because the wrong brand of Islam looks like taking over there.

We are expected to go along with the same opposition to Shi'ism. Hence our allowing Syria, also an effective dictatorship admittedly, but one which tolerated other sects and faiths, and one with a more liberal and ancient civilisation, to fall into anarchy. As a result, the unique Yazidi culture is on the brink of extinction, along with one of the most ancient Christian communities.

Ironically, the Americans who set the house of Saud on its road to domination because of the US thirst for petroleum are no longer so dependent on the Middle East as a source. Their foreign policy in future may be less biased by a need to keep the Saudis onside.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Why Tunisia?

Part of the trouble is that aid promised by the international community to help build the social fabric of the nation which has emerged as the most democratic nation in north Africa has not been forthcoming. A Washington Post reporter filed this warning before the Sousse massacre.

Tunisia has supplied more young hotheads to the devastation in Syria and Iraq than any other nation. A sociological explanation is that a larger-than-usual proportion of young men in a population, especially educated youngsters with no employment or employment for which they are over-qualified, is a breeding-ground for violence.

It follows that the next trouble-spot in Africa will be Uganda.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Thanks for the memories, Val Doonican

He was a wonderful easy-going host of a family entertainment TV show. But before the jumpers and the Irish comic songs there was a real rags-to-riches story. In fact, I can remember (without knowing his name then) the Four Ramblers of which he was a member when they worked for Charles Chilton on his radio serial "Riders of the Range", set in the Wild West.

One of my favourite stories comes from a reminiscence by Doonican of those days (knowing the BBC, the recording of the interview has probably been wiped, unfortunately). Like many programmes in the 1940s and 1950s, "Riders of the Range" was broadcast live (something that would horrify many performers today) and when Paul Carpenter, playing hero Jeff Arnold, spoonerised a warning of a stampede into "we're being attacked by a horde of wild hearses" it corpsed everyone in the studio except Carpenter who had to carry the show on his own for several minutes.

Daesh to be attacked in Syrian strongpoint

There is nothing illogical in the government's proposals, which one would expect parliament to approve. When RAF strikes were rejected in 2013, MPs were not only worried about a thin end of the wedge leading to another Iraq, but the precursors of DAESH were already prominent in the forces opposing Assad. Knocking out the official Syrian forces would surely have strengthened "the caliphate" and led to a worse situation than we are actually in.