Friday, 29 January 2016

Tories still vindictive on housing benefit rooms restriction

The Housing Acts could have been amended on lines suggested here some time back in order to avoid the embarrassment the Conservatives suffered in the appeal court. They could even have introduced a Bill in this session which would have enabled them to save face by distancing them from the preceding coalition government. The conclusion has to be drawn that they continue to act out of class-based prejudice.

The line which they took in yesterday's urgent question session was that (apart from disagreeing with some of the best legal minds in the country) each case of hardship was unique, was best investigated by local government and could be paid for out of the discretionary housing payments (DHP) fund.

I would argue that, contrary to the government's assertion, the Rutherfords' situation falls squarely into the general case for rooms which have to be set aside for carers which has been consistently made since the cuts to housing benefit were introduced. This exemption could with little difficulty be written into legislation.

The distribution of DHP, as opposition speakers pointed out yesterday, is in the gift of the Westminster government and may be cut at any time. If DWP ministers were serious about the efficacy of DHP in this area, they would write its level into legislation also.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Iranian steel: bad news for Tata

My first reaction when I heard that Iran had signed a deal with Italy for steel was: why not in South Wales? A few web searches revealed that the reports in the main-stream media here were misleading in their brevity. What President Souhani presided over on his shopping trip to Italy was not steel per se but machinery to update Iran's existing steel plants. It has now been reported that a South Korean-based company is about to sign up as an investor in a billion-dollar steel mill project in Iran. While it is obvious that the new capacity will not come on stream imminently, and probable that increased economic activity in Iran resulting from the relaxation of sanctions will absorb much of it, it must impinge on Tata's prospects when the global market picks up again.
It is surprising, therefore, that there appears to have been no parliamentary question on the matter. Nor do honourable members seem concerned that President Souhani first wheeled his trolley to France (albeit picking up some Airbuses in which Broughton has an interest) and Italy rather than the UK.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Power to the [cont'd page 94]

It's the centenary of the formation of the Spartacus League by Rosa Luxemburg and others.

She felt about the 1914 change in direction of Germany's Social Democrat party much as Corbynists feel about New Labour.

Everything that, during the preceding fifty years, we had preached to the people, that we had declared to be our sacred principles, that we had proclaimed countless times in speeches, in brochures, in newspapers, in leaflets - all at once all that proved to be empty clap-trap. Suddenly, as though by evil magic, the party of the proletarian international class struggle has become a national liberal party. Our organizational strength, of which we were so proud, has proved to be completely impotent , and where we were once respected and feared mortal enemies of bourgeois society, we have now become the irresolute and justly despised tools of our mortal enemy, the international bourgeoisie.

(From a Spartacus League pamphlet of April 1916, translated by William D Graf for a series edited by Ralph Miliband)

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Google tax settlement: we need more transparency

Yesterday, chancellor of the exchequer Osborne deputed David Gauke to respond to an urgent question about the Google tax settlement. Whether this was a measure of how little importance he attached to the deal or of how much he feared questioning about it is unclear. Either way, the Treasury stonewalling was unsatisfactory.

The SNP's spokesman on the economy cut to the chase:
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): First, the diverted profits tax, set at 25%, came into effect last April. May we have the Minister’s assurance that the Google deal does not cover any of the period when diverted profits tax should have applied? Secondly, the rules on disclosed evasion are clear: tax should be paid at 100%, plus interest, plus a 30% penalty. May we have his assurance that that was rightly not applied in this case? Finally, given the difficulty the Netherlands got into with the Starbucks deal and Luxembourg got into with the Fiat deal, when the Commission insisted they recoup between €20 million and €30 million extra, should the Google deal not be put to Commissioner Vestager to ensure that it complies with state aid rules?
Mr Gauke: The United Kingdom does not engage in special deals with any taxpayer. When accusations to that effect were made before, Sir Andrew Park, a retired High Court judge, investigated them on behalf of the National Audit Office and concluded that in every case he had investigated the settlement was reasonable and the overall effect of the arrangements was good. For the very reasons I set out, I cannot comment on the individual matter beyond what is in the public domain. I do believe that there is an important principle here—that tax should be collected on the basis of the law, and that a Department that is independent from Ministers should be able to make the assessment of the right level of tax due under the law without politicians interfering in operational matters. I hope that that has the support of Members of all parties.
I find the reluctance to provide any of the detail hypocritical, given the publicity which the government gave to the Google deal over the weekend. I understand also that there were self-congratulatory tweets from treasury ministers.

Today, the socialist treasury spokesman John McDonnell voiced rumours that the French finance ministry had been rather tougher and extracted more than an effective 3% per annum tax take from the American giant company.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Democratic Alliance in South Africa

It was good to see a whole post on Liberal Democrat Voice dedicated to the liberal party in the Republic of South Africa. However, while the prospects for DA are clearly good, the article could have been more objective in also mentioning the Economic Freedom Fighters as another significant force in opposition to the ANC.

The one shining star of the "Arab spring" now occluded

Al-jazeera and France 24 report riots in Tunisia. It seems that the warnings about the need for support for job-creating enterprises were not heeded.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Emergence of social democracy in Britain

Gwynoro Jones has a most enlightening post about the roots of the Social Democratic Party. As an aide to Roy Jenkins he was close to the various strands of opinion within the Labour Party and the "parties within a party" that they led to. He has some fascinating insights and reminders of some nearly-forgotten figures.

Many commentators claim that history is repeating itself. But I am with Ian Stewart (in Does God Play Dice?) when he says that history does not move in circles, but in spirals. (I have a feeling that others may have expressed the same thought before Stewart.) There are similarities between Labour under Michael Foot and under Jeremy Corbyn but not exact congruence. Clearly the same sort of infighting will intensify and Labour will plunge at the polls until the party works out a coherent, rational message. However, I do not see a new party arising from within Labour as the SDP largely (there was at least one Conservative defector and it recruited large numbers new to party politics) did. There is a ready home in the LibDems for those who see themselves as social democrats rather than socialists and UKIP has attracted the working-class conservatives which the Conservative party used to recruit.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Norway salmon dearer than oil

News in Norway reports that a 4.5 kilo farmed salmon from Norway is priced higher than a barrel of oil. Thanks to the prudence of earlier Norwegian governments, however, the sovereign fund built up in the good times will see the nation through, according to at least one economist. Moreover, BP's Bob Dudley states that there is still rising demand for oil and foresees a rise to $50/barrel by the end of the year.

If so, many of the job losses on drilling rigs in the North Sea could be reversed. In the short term, the low price should benefit consumers in this country; the price of gas on the wholesale market is linked to the price of oil. However, energy companies are characteristically reluctant to pass on the whole benefit of the savings and surely the regulator should do more.

The worry for professionals based in Scotland and Norway is that oil exploration companies contemplate cutting down their services.

Resident artist on the Swansea Canal

Brilliant idea by the Swansea Canal Society - I wonder if the Neath and Tennant Canals Trust can tempt Cheon Pyo Lee to see the more (in my experience) attractive water on this side of the bay?

For an interview with the artist, listen to the last ten minutes of Radio Wales' Country Focus.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The future shape of the Welsh parliament

A series of talks hosted by Gorwel has started in Ty Hywel on the National Assembly estate. Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh LibDems speaks next Tuesday. The Conservatives' Andrew RT Davies is to follow the week after. There may still be places available to attend either symposium.

I see that one of the long-term needs has been addressed. There is a publicly-accessible database of laws passed in Wales, which can only grow as Wales acquires more powers.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

For accurate election predictions, ask a criminal

Matthew Norman had a great story in last Monday's Indy about a bet he had with one of the Hatton Garden raiders (though he implies he was not aware that he was dealing with a career criminal at the time) over the result of the 2015 general election.

[the bet]was struck last May at the Porchester Spa, the Turkish baths in London’s lascivious Bayswater where Billy and I bonded over shared martyrdom to gastro-oesophageal reflux disorder (please God the screws are giving him his daily 20mg of omeprazole).

We had less in common on the political front, the 60-year-old’s views on immigration and other contentious matters being more robust than my own, and clashed good-naturedly about the imminent election led to the wager. “That Ed Miliband, ’e’s f****** useless,” posited Bill. “The Tories will get a majority.” I pompously cited the opinion polls. “Don’t talk bollocks, Maffhugh,” was the tart rejoinder. “The Tories will win, no question. If they don’t I’ll buy you lunch.”

And if they do, I said, I’ll buy you lunch at the fish restaurant of your choice. Bill loves his fish. As Woolwich Crown Court learned, his Porchester nickname is “Billy the Fish” due to his sadly interrupted habit of going to Billingsgate market most mornings at 4am to buy fish wholesale, for himself and for subsequent resale to fellow spa-goers.

A few days after the election, he strode up to my lounger. “There you go,” he said, handing over a bag, “I was dahn Billingsgate this morning, and picked you out a Dover sole.” It was enormous, and I asked what I owed him. “Don’t be a muppet,” said Billy. “It’s a gift.” I thanked him, and congratulated him on his election forecasting skills. An hour later in the steam room, I mentioned the sole to a third party. “Yeah, Billy’s suddenly come over dead generous,” said this character. “He keeps buying all the boys drinks and snacks. Never seen him so chipper.”

He was nicked the following day, and we never did make that date. So if you’re one of our many readers in HMP Belmarsh, send Billy my fond regards, and tell him I look forward to lunch in six or seven years. Assuming time off for good behaviour.

The anecdote confirmed two things: first, that career criminals are overwhelmingly politically conservative (how altruistic are the Tories in resisting giving prisoners the vote!);
secondly, that the election survey companies had somehow become disengaged from real life, their methods too sophisticated for their own good. Some two years out, I said that it would take a remarkable effort from the opposition parties to prevent a Conservative overall majority and I watched the continuing reports of a neck-and-neck struggle with increasing incredulity. (I cannot lay claim to perfect clairvoyance, because although I predicted a squeeze on LibDem seats, it was not to the extent that actually occurred.)

The sad thing is that the so-called professionals who ran the Liberal Democrat and Labour campaigns based their strategies on the survey returns rather than their gut feelings, those of their members or even of Billy The Fish.

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Cameron government and the EU

David Cameron has been consistent in siding with the heads of government of other nations with motor manufacturers against the wishes of the European Commission and Parliament.

Catherine Bearder MEP, citing a Guardian article, writes:
Last October I was furious when the UK government caved into pressure from the car industry and supported a secretive agreement to weaken EU diesel emission limits. Strong emission limits are crucial for tackling deadly air pollution in our cities and so this was a huge own goal. 

Now two legal studies have found that this decision was illegal. This was a political decision which has huge implications for public health, so it should been debated publicly and not stitched up behind closed doors. MEPs have the chance to reject this stitch-up and ensure stricter limits are put in place at a vote in a few weeks' time. You can guess which way I'll be voting!

This is against a background of continuing misinformation about the balance of power within the EU emanating from UKIP and others of the same kidney. The latest example comes from a UKIP MEP who should know better. 

The point I keep making is that whatever proposals the Commission makes or the Parliament approves can be scuppered by the council of ministers - who are elected from the constituent nations. Anna Soubry, minister for business, has today made a valiant effort to defend the government's record on supporting the UK steel industry in the councils of Europe, but one wonders how much she has been undercut by the machinations of those above her.

Liberals elect first female leader of a Russian party

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Beefing up the European Movement's campaign

The European Movement has made three new appointments to its campaign for a "remain" vote in David Cameron's referendum (whenever it comes). The Chief Operating Officer is to be Matthew Fulton, who was the Labour Organiser for Norwich North before going on to run the Jeremy for Labour Leader campaign in the East of England. Matthew will be responsible for the overall management of the organisation, building links with affiliated groups and liaising with the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign group.

Remembering what happened to the Yes To AV campaign after a Labourite was appointed to run it made me pause, but one must admit that "Jeremy For Leader" exceeded all expectations, and there are signs that, post Gordon Brown, there is more enthusiasm for the EU in Labour ranks. Besides, there are recruits from other parties. The new Campaign Director, Clifford Fleming, was the Internal Communication Coordinator for the Green Party overseeing communications to members and has previously been the Co-Chair of the Young Greens building the membership from 1,500 to 20,000 in two years. (It is reassuring that Caroline Lucas, the Green parliamentary party, is also an enthusiast for EU membership.) Finally the EM has taken on a Digital Director in the shape of Alex Lister, who ran the digital campaign for the Conservative Party in South Thanet where he played an important role in ensuring Nigel Farage did not secure the seat. Alex will be running the EM's national digital campaign as well as supporting groups at a local level. I trust he will take on board my plea at the last EM meeting in Wales for a Welsh language web page in support of "remain".

More information is available by clicking on the Movement's symbol in the right-hand side panel.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

A new star

Much has been made of Temba Bavuma's 102 in Cape Town, the first for his country for a batsman of native African stock, but we will clearly see more of Kagiso Rabada on the world stage. He is only twenty, yet his contribution to an otherwise patchy South Africa bowling performance in the current test series is remarkable.

Worries for Port Talbot

In 2009, the Liberal Democrat blog for Aberavon gave a cautious welcome to Tata's takeover of Corus. Over the years, that trust in the faith that the Indian conglomerate put in the steelworks and community of Port Talbot has been borne out. However, the end of the current downturn in the business cycle is just too far away for even the progressive management of Tata and it seems that an announcement of job-shedding is imminent, in order to protect their long-term investment in Port Talbot.

The anti-EU and anti-industry attitude of Conservatives in government has made the situation worse. I agree with the analysis of Labour's Nia Griffiths as expressed on "Good Morning, Wales" this morning. Before her, councillor Tony Taylor spoke from personal experience of the impact which the expected job cuts will have.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Labour "unruly rabble"

Dr Edward Doherty of Swansea put his finger on Labour's big trouble in his letter to the Independent today:

It is not Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the Labour Party, who will prevent people from voting for them, but the behaviour of the party as a whole. They currently look like an unruly rabble, full of egocentrics putting themselves before the good of the party and preventing us (the electorate) from having a functioning opposition.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Britain a Christian country?

The English education secretary wants teachers to emphasise Christianity in their curricula and not acknowledge that vast swathes of the world's population do not believe in a divine creator. The prime minister regularly declares that Britain is a Christian country. Clearly the Conservatives seek to reassure citizens of my generation, who vote more assiduously than younger people and who are more likely to be believers, for I doubt that ministers sincerely hold those views themselves.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Caring conservatism

Charles Glass in his attack on the Chicago Democrat machine and Obama's tacit acceptance of its support, reminds us that the Republican party has not always been dominated by self-centred reactionaries.

A young generation of Americans, accustomed to a Republican Party representing corporations, Bible-bashers and racists, can learn that Republicans before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act were imposing integration on the South. Republican President Dwight D Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to permit black and white children to attend classes together. Republican Theodore Roosevelt enacted child labour laws, protection for industrial workers and enforced the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against corporate monopolies.

It is equally difficult to find the heirs to the old National Liberal tendency on today's government benches. David Cameron pretends to caring conservatism, but in practice has promoted "dry" Tories. One has hopes of Michael Gove at Justice, but his is the only glimmer in the reactionary gloom.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

David Bowie, securitisation pioneer

I wasn't going to remark on the early death of David Bowie - after all, his work belonged to the youth decade that followed mine - but a sidelight on his career penned by James Moore of the Indy intrigued me.

I may not have followed the music, but I watched and read the interviews. Bowie was clearly an articulate, thoughtful, liberal. He was also a decent screen actor, as his turn as Thomas Newton in Nicolas Roeg's film showed. What James Moore pointed out was that Bowie:

became an innovator in business when he sold the rights to royalties from his substantial back catalogue for an upfront payment of £35m in the 1990s. A bevy of artists followed suit by producing cover versions of the “Bowie bond”.

So did a bevy of bankers, who’d started to do the same sort of thing with sub-prime mortgages which, like back catalogues, are supposed to offer stable and relatively predictable earnings streams.

The performance of the Bowie bond ran into trouble thanks to an unexpected fall in sales of recorded music fuelled by illegal downloading. Bankers like to point out that they couldn’t have predicted the economic shocks that wrecked what they’d been securitising. But in contrast to Mr Bowie, who sold classics, they’d been punting junk that spread a disease throughout the financial system.

With sales of Bowie’s work set to take off, it’s not inconceivable that his heirs could repeat his trick. There have been signs that the music industry more generally has started to adapt to the impact of the internet that caused problems for his first bond. The bankers? You’d hope people would have learned not to trust them a second time around. You’d hope, because scientists will have discovered Life on Mars before that industry ch-ch-changes.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Welsh Labour's quandary

It is clear that Jeremy Corbyn's accession is filling a socialist-shaped hole in English politics which opened up when the Blair-Brown-Mandelson project took over the Labour Party. It is enthusing local Labour party members and attracting back formerly disgruntled socialists. Its effect on the parliamentary party has been more divisive. How far the reenergising of campaigners has fed through to by-election success for Labour is debatable; evidence so far points both ways.

The socialist niche in Wales has been happily occupied by Plaid Cymru since the 1990s. Welsh Labour has been content to be the Establishment party. Public opinion in Wales, especially in South Wales, is formed more than local politicians would like or acknowledge by the London-based media. The question for Carwyn Jones's Welsh Labour is: do they try to benefit from the perceived shift to socialism under Corbyn, possibly reclaiming ground lost to the Nationalists, at the risk of losing centrist voters? Will the party encourage official assistance from across the border, or, like Liberal Democrats limiting their losses in 2011, tacitly dissociate themselves from a controversial national leader?

So far, Welsh Labour has avoided taking sides, deflecting its activity into an anti-UKIP campaign. This suffers from two drawbacks: Liberal Democrats already have more credibility in this area, having consistently argued positively for membership of the EU and against what UKIP stands for; and UKIP anyway is a shadow of its former self, having lost its major financial supporters and its position as media darling.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Kim Jong-un must have learned from Macmillan

It seems that North Korea's self-proclaimed thermonuclear device, tested earlier this week, was in fact an enhanced fission device. The Hermit Republic may have taken its cue from the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan who had conducted what was billed as a hydrogen bomb test, but was in fact "a fake, a hybrid bomb intended to fool the US". (See more here.)

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Planning legislation: what a carve-up!

Even with a Conservative government clearly determined to be more Thatcherite than Thatcher, setting up a market in processing planning applications seems a fantasy aspiration. Yet that is just what ministers aimed at as an amendment (Hansard, column 241) to the Housing and Planning Bill towards midnight last night. As Roberta Blackman-Woods said on behalf of the official opposition:

[It is a travesty that there can be no real scrutiny of] new clauses 43 to 45, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) has said amount to a privatisation of the planning process. That is what we think they will do. They will require local authorities to contract out at least some of the processing of their planning applications in order to give developers some ability to choose who processes their planning application. I cannot believe that the Government are serious about this. I know that they tend to carry out pilots, but they must realise that the potential for this mechanism to generate a degree of corruption and totally inappropriate conflicts of interest is probably endless. These new clauses need to be subjected to a degree of scrutiny that will not be possible this evening. It has not been possible for the planning agencies that will be affected by the changes to have a say or to have any input into the process. That is quite frankly disgraceful, because these will be huge changes to the planning system.

We in Wales can be thankful that the Bill is practically restricted to England alone. However, the manner of conducting the report stage of the Bill is symptomatic of the Cameron government's attitude. A large batch of amendments was tabled during the Christmas holiday for discussion in the night and early morning following contentious Statements. Admittedly, when the report stage was originally scheduled, it could not be anticipated that the Saudi Arabian situation and flood damage in the north of England would be so severe that the Speaker would have to permit debate on each, but it was open to the government's business manager to adjust the programme for the Bill to allow more debate at a more sensible time.

A neighbourhood right of appeal

Many of us have complained for a long time about the asymmetric nature of the planning appeals system. Applicants may appeal, and carry on appealing, against refusals of planning permission up to the highest level that their funds for legal services can support. Once granted, it is virtually impossible to overturn a planning permission unless the relevant minister calls it in. In an attempt to return some power to communities, Nick Herbert, the Conservative member for Arundel and South Downs, proposed new clause 48 which would give communities or defined people in a community, such as a parish council, the ability to mount appeals against speculative planning applications that are granted if they run contrary to a neighbourhood plan or an emerging neighbourhood plan that is very close to being completed. Even this clearly sensible, minimal. change was rejected by the government.

The Cameron administration is clearly set on eradicating all the localism which was introduced in the previous parliament. It was at least good to hear from a Labour speaker last night an acknowledgement of how much the coalition had achieved in this area.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Radio Times 15% price increase exorbitant

It was a shock to find this morning that the Radio Times has gone up in price from £2 to £2.30. It cannot be much more than a year since it went up from £1.80. This against a background of virtual zero inflation - and surely a drop in distribution costs, given the plunge in road fuel prices. Nor is there a sign of an improvement in content.

It seems to me that the publishers are taking advantage of a monopoly position  There is no other journal which gives details of BBC radio programmes as well as coverage of TV. Moreover, if it were true to its title, it would give more than listings of commercial stations.

Monday, 4 January 2016

O'Callaghan and Urquhart

Not a Hiberno-Scottish firm of solicitors, but two distinguished military men who for a short time kennelled the dogs of war on Israel's northern border on behalf of the international community. Robert Fisk recalled those times in an article inspired by the funeral of Bill O'Callaghan just after Christmas.

Allow for the fact that Fisk is no friend of American foreign policy nor of the Israeli Defence Force, and it is still a powerful piece of writing. Fisk's own feelings never get in the way of scrupulous reporting of facts. It would be a distortion to select quotations from it, like picking out "the good bits" from a Brahms symphony. Please read the whole piece.