Tuesday 28 February 2017

Ecological home improvement

It is impractical to achieve the zero carbon status of a new build with an existing property, but it is amazing what energy savings can be made by someone who knows what he is doing. Witness this traditional house in Barry and even with this old cottage in Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Monday 27 February 2017

Swansea City Under-23s go international

Tickets are on sale for the clash with Hertha Berlin tomorrow.

Nobody should die from an asthma attack these days

Many thoughts went through my head when the heartbreaking story of the death of a 5-year-old girl in Newport came on the Wales news last night. I remembered being that age or a little younger sitting alone at the height of an attack, not being able to breathe at the point of blacking-out and thinking "so this is what death is". I cannot remember precisely what happened after I came down on the right side of the crisis, but there would have followed a couple of days of misery as I slowly recovered. There was no certain effective relief available then. Ephedrine (nowadays better known as a banned substance for athletic competition) was effective in some cases but in the very early days of the NHS may not have been generally available. Various substances became available over the years which took the edge off attacks but were fairly slow-acting. Liberation finally came in the 1990s with inhaled Salbutamol for instant relief and corticosteroids for prevention.

The corticosteroids do not work for every one and there is now concentrated research in identifying the different types of asthma and how they may be treated. However, it seems to me that there is effective relief for the physical symptoms and nobody should die from an acute attack if they can be got to specialist treatment in time. 

The GP in Newport was clearly fit and healthy and ignorant of how dangerous untreated asthma can be. It is hard to explain the feeling. I imagine the best way to simulate it is water-boarding or being restrained in a too-tight corset. Did she really believe the little girl was complaining of no more than a wheeze?  Certainly she is officious, not a good trait in a GP. I certainly think she is not suited to general practice on the evidence of the media reports. Whether she should be struck off the medical register entirely is another matter. Pragmatically one would not want to lose any medical expertise in the public sector when even in Wales there is a flight of qualified staff. She will always have the death of this little girl on her conscience. That, and restricting the areas in which she may practise, may be punishment enough.

Coincidentally, the guest of the week on Essential Classics is currently Gerald Scarfe. Rob Cowan's interviews with him will have been recorded some time ago, so they will not take account of that distressing news story. However, I trust that they touch on the isolation which he suffered because of asthma as a child, referred to in previous pen-portraits like this one for the BBC.

All is not well with Aberavon and Neath Labour parties

Tipped off by postings in the Neath Ferret, I had a look at the page on the official council web-site which lists party affiliations. Nine of the councillors who used to sit as Labour are now Independents. Is this the Corbyn effect? I have even heard rumours that a score of those councillors who remain loyal to the party have been deselected for the May elections.

This is the sort of thing that used to be meat and drink to the local press. To be fair to the proprietors, they can no longer afford to employ the sort of reporter who would seek out stories or to use specialist political analysts.

Sunday 26 February 2017

Sleepers - UK got there first

There must be many like myself who miss the excellent TV series "The Americans" now that it is no longer available on Freeview over here. Its premise that there were long-term Soviet agents living normal domestic lives in the US may have seemed far-fetched, but there was a real-life "Jennings" in the form of Jack Barsky (né Albrecht Diddrich). The publicity recently given to Barsky reminds me that the BBC had the idea of a drama series based on Soviet sleepers integrating into society back in the early 1990s. Nigel Havers and the late Warren Clarke played two such men so far integrated that they were upset to be "reawakened" years after their introduction to England. "Sleepers" was a comic drama rather than a thriller, but we can fairly claim to have got there first. It would be nice to see it on TV again.

St Illtyd's walk

It seems that this walk is no longer in the danger I referred to eight years ago. The Ramblers in their latest Update magazine have featured it as a Path Success Route. What surprises me is that Neath Port Talbot council does not celebrate its participation in the restoration.

It is touch and go whether I will be able to fulfil my ambition to walk the whole path now.

Saturday 25 February 2017

Welsh governance must be cleaned up

This sort of thing thrives when one party becomes the institution of government. Daran Hill, as head of a consultancy, clearly has an axe to grind, but from what I know of him would accept defeat gracefully if a rival won this contract in an open competition.

OFCOM awarded the tender to Deryn with no competition despite the fact it has 2 members of the OFCOM board for Wales. That should have made it an absolute requirement to go to tender like other public bodies. OFGEM is going through a tender right now, and it has no obvious conflict of interest.
But no, because OFCOM looking for a specialist service that only Deryn could provide. Which is funny for 2 reasons:
1. That type of specialist service described by OFCOM themselves in the Western Mail is offered by a range of other companies. And yes, that includes my own. So that bit of the OFCOM response is a lie, and makes me believe the rest of the OFCOM response is a lie too.
2. Deryn has never had any monitoring clients. They jointly tender with newsdirect who do the monitoring side for Deryn and are not APPC members and newsdirect use that as a way of hiding clients, including public bodies, from any form of public disclosure. Just look at the Deryn APPC disclosure - no monitoring. Newsdirect does it all so it can all be done in secret. https://www.appc.org.uk/…/u…/APPC-Register-November-2016.pdf

[Extract from Daran Hill's Facebook page]

After Copeland, England should be afraid

The Conservative campaign in the Copeland by-election was fought against the background of planned sweeping cuts in the English NHS, including some local to the constituency. Both Labour (luridly) and Rebecca Hanson, the Liberal Democrat candidate, campaigned against the cuts. The Conservative win will clearly be taken as an endorsement of the Hunt plan as well as the attacks on the social services. Labour's muddle and trimming caused their loss of this seat and the chance to defend the NHS. The trickle of junior doctors and medical staff qualified from mainland Europe leaving these shores will turn into a flood.

One had hopes for Jeremy Corbyn when he was elected leader of the Labour party. At last there was someone in that position who could articulate the case for socialism after a succession of leaders who could not see beyond leadership for the sake of it. Not for nothing did a distinguished peer label the modern Labour party "the blob". Corbyn could have changed that. Instead, he seemed to go back on the principles* which caused him to rebel so often against the Blair-Brown administrations. He used to be a strong opponent of nuclear power. He used to condemn the European Union as a capitalist club. I believe he was mistaken on both counts, but people respected him for taking a firm stance. Yet when campaigning in Copeland, he appeared to back nuclear power. He reversed his position on the EU during the referendum campaign, albeit half-heartedly, then reversed again, imposing a three-line whip on his MPs to go into the pro-Brexit lobby with the Tories. Ordinary voters, that is those who are not tribal Labour, have rightly lost trust in both Corbyn and his party.

It looks now as if there is nothing to stop Mrs May from achieving things that even Mrs Thatcher dared not attempt.

* I used to admire Corbyn's courage as a backbench member for standing up for civil and human rights when Blair and co. moved to impair them. But it seems that he is not quite so humanitarian when it comes to Russian abuses.

Voice of America

Today is officially the 75th anniversary of an institution which has made a lot of friends for the United States. Typically, President Trump wants to interfere with it.

However, it seems that the wrong date has been celebrated for most of the station's history, and that the first broadcast of VoA was actually at the beginning of the month.

Friday 24 February 2017

Public knowledge of earnings

The Kinnocks are fair game for attacks (like the Daily Mail's) on their family earnings. There is no doubt they have done well out of public service. There is also little doubt in my mind that they deserve credit for what they have achieved, separately - Glenys Kinnock is far more than an appendage to her husband - and together. I would agree that their jobs were probably over-remunerated, though there is no sign of Nathan Gill or any of his anti-EU mates handing back any part of their MEP salaries. In the extended family, Helle Thorning-Schmidt in addition to being Denmark's first female prime minister can claim credit for bringing her country's economy back on track.

Maybe all have been fortunate in the well-paid billets they have slotted into since, but this is an age when a name is worth a lot, when the entire annual wage-bill of non-league Sutton United is less than the weekly pay of at least one celebrated Arsenal player. More worrying is the part that nepotism played in securing futures for the children.

So I am not going to rush to the defence of the Kinnocks' high standard of living. However, as one who also changed his mind about the EEC/EU over the years, I would object to the charge of hypocrisy on the part of Neil Kinnock over the EU. Circumstances change. The political and economic worlds are no longer what they were fifty years ago.

However, I do believe that those on the other side of the argument should be exposed in the same way. All the Kinnock remuneration is in the public domain, but we know nothing of the real wealth of such as Donald Trump or Nigel Farage. Does Trump own even more of the USA and the Middle East than he claims, or was he only rescued from bankruptcy by his election to the presidency? Farage's salary as MEP is known, but how much is Murdoch paying him for his less-than-onerous duties on Fox News? How much is left from the pay-offs from the City traders he used to work for?

By the way, do we know how much the non-dom Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail, is worth?

Galton and Simpson

I have been mulling over the place of scriptwriting partnerships since the announcement of the death of Alan Simpson earlier this month. Well, actually I have been thinking about the subject since Galton & Simpson's virtual retirement from the field, but Alan Simpson's sad passing brought it to a head.

A hallmark of their quality was the fact that they were responsible for two great comedy series when so many struggle to produce one. Ted Kavanagh never repeated the success of ITMA, and A Life of Bliss was Godfrey Harrison's only claim to fame (though not famous enough IMO) while other hit shows of the 1950s like Educating Archie and Ray's a Laugh ran through a roster of writers. (To the people named here should be added Bernard Botting and Charles Hart.) A pair who almost made it were Monkhouse and Goodwin before there were irreconcilable differences in the partnership. Even the great Muir and Norden produced only two recognised hits, Take it from here (TIFH) and Whack-O! (In the days before armies of middle executives at the BBC, it was Frank Muir as head of comedy who gave Galton and Simpson their big break.)

It was too much to claim (as one contributor to Radio 4's Last Word did) that Galton and Simpson invented the British sitcom. All of the above (with the possible exception of Godfrey Harrison) were inspired by American originals relayed by AFN. What made Hancock's Half-Hour (HHH) distinctive from other BBC radio sitcoms was that it dispensed with the musical interlude (a hangover from music-hall, where many of the stars came from?) and the catch-phrase on which so many other comedy programmes, including the otherwise ground-breaking Goon Show, depended. The original HHH used gags almost as much as its predecessors, but like The Glums (the final segment of TIFH) steadily developed more character-driven humour. Still, the programme was led by a comedian. It was Hancock's decision to reassert himself as a star performer, which might have broken other script-writers, which gave Galton and Simpson the chance to take the final step for TV. Steptoe & Son was performed entirely by legitimate actors - as, come to think of it, was A Life of Bliss on radio.

Sadly, the trend is now back towards the formulaic American model, driven by ratings presumably, of a gag (set-up followed by punch-line) every twelve seconds at most. (See this analysis from The Atlantic Monthly.) Away from the mainstream, there are alternative comedy programmes which, to my eyes, are simply eccentric for eccentricity's sake. There is a need for broadcasters (and not just the BBC) to trust the judgment of a few experienced men, do away with the junior executives with their metrics and spreadsheets, and, when necessary, have patience.

Thursday 23 February 2017

Will there be state aid for Ford Bridgend?

Last year I floated the idea of Bridgend hosting the development of an electric power unit which Ford of all major motor manufacturers active in Europe lacked. Now it seems that UK state support may be offered to Peugeot-Citroën SA for such a development as part of an inducement to the French company to keep open the plants in England it is due to take over from General Motors. This would be on the same lines as those already on offer to such as Nissan.

Politicians and trade union leaders are urging the prime minister to make available whatever incentives she promised Nissan last autumn, when the Japanese manufacturer was persuaded to commit to making another new model at its Sunderland factory, despite concern about Britain leaving the European Union.

Whilst unpublished, those promises are believed to include regional support grants and technology and training funding that are within state-aid rules. Industry sources believe that Britain could create an electric car supply chain hub as Nissan has already led the way with production of the battery-powered Leaf and Jaguar Land Rover has committed to electrifying its fleet.

Outside the EU, UK would be free to offer state aid without so much as a slap on the wrist from Brussels. Both WTO and EFTA frown on discriminatory state aid, but neither seems to have the mechanism to punish states for this. However, these offers to manufacturers can hardly be endless. Would the Conservatives grant Ford equal treatment?

Roaming TV

There is a prospect of mobile telephone roaming charges being imposed on UK customers on the nation leaving the EU - though one suspects that they will be in the form of a thin end of a wedge at first. What has not been given publicity, as Mary Reid points out in Liberal Democrat Voice, is that UK could miss out on the removal of an Internet restriction which prevents viewers abroad accessing catch-up TV from their domestic channels.

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Finally some good news on the deficit

No doubt Mrs May will arrange for a planted question in the Commons later today, and Brexiteers will proclaim it as the first fruits of the government decision to invoke Article 50, but the OBR gave us all a pleasant surprise with the January out-turn figures. It seems to me that the only way that Brexit could have influenced the figures is through increased exports as a result of the fall in the value of sterling since June. If so, the boost will be temporary. In any case, I hope the Chancellor does not give anything away in the spring budget now that things are finally going in the right direction.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

A petition in support of fair votes

Scottish local authorities have it and the Welsh Government is considering giving the power to our councils to elect by proportional representation. Why should Westminster not join the rest of the civilized world and elect our national parliament likewise? There is a petition at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/168657

Monday 20 February 2017

An epigram

“I like people, the Tories like themselves and the Labour Party like structures. Only the Liberal Democrats understand the interface between self, structures, society and individual responsibility."

Thank you, Ed Fordham.

Sunday 19 February 2017

Stoke-on-Trent: a different kind of Christianity

Stoke is a city designated for dispersal of refugees by the Home Office. This may account for the higher than average support for UKIP and other xenophobic groups in the Five Towns, where jobs are hard to come by. As witnessed by the Reverend Sally Smith on Radio 4's Beyond Belief last December, Iranian Christians, fleeing persecution in their own country, have taken to the Church of England there. Perhaps this is because, being more highly educated than the average migrant, they are already familiar with the Anglican mind-set. They have certainly formed a cohesive community within the church in Hanley. However, the traditionalists there have found it difficult to adjust to being outnumbered by Iranians and most have moved to worship in other churches in the group. The higher educational attainment may have made it easier for members of the Iranian Christian diaspora to be given leave to remain and to find work, which would be another cause for resentment.

We have already seen how the Roman Catholic church in Britain has been revitalised by the Polish community, old as a result of fleeing from Nazi and then Stalinist persecution, and new from signing up to the EU right to work throughout the Union. In turn, this has benefited the wider community, not just Catholic, as the church has been able to help poorer people who have slipped through the bureaucratic cracks.

England is nominally a Christian country, but it appears that there is a distinctly unchristian feeling towards refugees in the Potteries. So it would not be surprising to see a UKIP gain in the by-election on Thursday in spite of the revelations that their candidate had a cavalier attitude to historical fact. Having campaign slogans exposed as lies well before the vote did not hurt President Trump or LeaveEU. With the capitulation of Labour, Liberal Democrats offer the only real alternative to UKIP's sour world view. It is a lot of ground to make up, but we have already seen some dramatic Liberal Democrat gains since the June referendum.

There is a contrast with Stockton-on-Tees, another area earmarked for dispersal of Iranian refugees. There, too, the church has been swollen as a result of Iranian incoming. But many groups, both existing like the Red Cross or specifically formed, have been eager to offer support,  Stockton Liberal Democrats, who have been leading the fight against mistreatment of refugee children, report an increase in membership.

Possibly a third of the votes are already in by post in Stoke. The majority of these will be from older people who are conservative and likely to lean to UKIP. However, if enough of the younger electorate, Christian or humanist, turn out on the day we could yet see a victory for optimism over pessimism, tolerance rather than intolerance and hope for rebuilding social structures for all.

UKIP have learned how to work the system

We have long suspected that officials are happy to cooperate with elected politicians in making public service appointments. UKIP have clearly learned how to work the system.

Saturday 18 February 2017

The NHS debate

If you have not already heard the NHS debate mounted by BBC Radio 4 in the Inside Health series, it is downloadable here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dnrz0

Granted that more of the audience, let alone the panel, clearly had vested interests than was good for balance, and that a couple of the concerns raised did not apply to Wales (even fewer to Scotland), this was well worth listening to. Government in particular should have paid heed.

The underlying message it seems to me is that the electoral timetable militates against sensible management of the NHS, in all the home nations. Most of the cures for the services' ills advanced in the debate are front-loaded - resources, especially in terms of taxpayers' money, need to be applied now for improvements which will be seen typically five or more years in the future. That is beyond the horizon of most party politicians, whose eyes are fixed on the next general election, likely to lead to a change of party in government*.

On the other hand, there were few present who disagreed that some democratic oversight of health provision was necessary. Putting the NHS in England under the control of a Parliamentary (i.e., cross-party) body rather than a Department of state, as suggested by Margaret McCartney (a GP practising in Glasgow!) would go some way to squaring the circle. However, it would be impractical in Wales until we have an increase in the number of AMs, who are stretched as it is.

* I would argue that Blair and Brown missed a trick in 1997. With a huge majority and the Conservatives in disarray, it was clear that Labour would be in power for two electoral cycles at least, and the opportunity could have been taken to reverse the first steps towards privatisation taken by the Thatcher/Major governments, and to ramp up the training of doctors and nurses, the shortage of whom was to be felt a decade later.

Friday 17 February 2017

For the BBC, a posy

- if not a bouquet. I have been rude about BBC TV's tabloid standards of news presentation in the past, but I neglected to point out the high reputation which World Service News has retained. The BBC News Channel also has Outside Source which is more informative and balanced than most of the corporation's TV output.

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Looking on the bright side

At least some Conservatives still remember that the UK is at the heart of the Commonwealth, who will have to come to our aid if the supply of skilled workers from mainland Europe dries up.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Cooperative Bank may not find a buyer

It looks as if the Bank of England will have to take the Coop Bank under its wing. The hedge funds which took a punt on the organisation (the Cooperative Group has now only a minority share in the business) have put it up for sale. It is not, unlike Barclays and HSBC too large to fail, but it is not small enough to be nimble like the new breed of challenger banks. So there may be no ready buyers.

The trouble began when, egged on by Gordon Brown who wanted to avoid any major building society collapsing on his watch, the bank overreached itself by buying the failing Britannia. It may have avoided this gross error if there had been more bankers on the board and fewer minor politicians (it was noticeable that the Labour Party was able to run up a huge overdraft in those days).

"Schools choice"

Amit Varma has it wrong. The de Vos prescription for US education can only make things worse. One has only to look at the fragmentation of schools in England which began under Margaret Thatcher to see that.

Monday 13 February 2017

Christina Rees criticised for the wrong reasons

The Neath MP is blameworthy, but not for the uninformed criticism there has been recently on local Facebook groups such as this one.

"We don't know who she is." Ms Rees has an informative blog which is updated frequently, unlike her predecessor's.

"She should use her position to influence the county council". It is not for central government, let alone MPs to tell councillors how to carry out the tasks they are responsible for. That smacks of dictatorship and there is already too much of it, from both Labour in Cardiff and the Tories in Westminster. Councillors answer to us, the local electors, and we have a chance to make them do that in the campaign for this spring's council elections.

"We don't see her around the constituency." I know that Ms Rees is involved with several local groups, especially to do with women in sport.

Besides, MPs represent the interests of their electors and of the country as a whole in the capital. Ms Rees is one of the most assiduous attenders of the Commons chamber - to see her, just tune into BBC Parliament most sitting days, not just during the show-place events like prime minister's question time.

Ms Rees is rather to be blamed for a lack of principle. She followed her "leader", Jeremy Corbyn, in voting with the Conservative government to give up on European solidarity, even though she had previously publicly campaigned for "Remain". Supporters will no doubt claim that she was showing party loyalty - but then she had voted for Owen Smith (a Remainer) in the last Labour leadership election, saying "it has become clear over recent weeks that Jeremy Corbyn has lost the support of our party and his Parliamentary group".

Like most of the parliamentary Labour Party, it is hard to know what she and Mr Corbyn stand for any more.

Sunday 12 February 2017

Who are Liberal Democrats?

We live in big houses...
and little houses...
and middle sized houses.
We live in houses we own...
and houses we rent.
We push pens for a living...
or supermarket trollies...
or write prescriptions...
or novels...
or shopping lists.
We sometimes work with a scientific formula...
and sometimes with baby formula.
We teach the kids...
or help them cross the road.
We nurse the sick...
or help "mum" take a shower.
We sometimes book the cooks...
and frown on those who cook the books.
We have white collars,
blue collars,
frilly collars
even dog collars.
Family People
Grannies and Grandads
We're Rich...
or poor...
or just muddling through
We are everyone and anyone...
just like you.

[From aberavonneathlibdems.blogspot.co.uk]

Saturday 11 February 2017

Transport typeface

In a nice coincidence, one hundred years ago Jock Kinneir was born in the same hospital as my sister would be much later. Later still, I was to join the Ministry of Transport a few years before Kinneir and Calvert's typeface was officially chosen for all highway signage. MoT staff were treated to a showing of the promotional film explaining the background to the letter design and the choice of colour for motorway signs. "Motorway" had been tried out on the Preston by-pass in 1958. Later, the "Transport" alphabet was developed and "Transport Medium" and "Transport Heavy" fonts adopted for all roads in the UK. Some other countries adopted "Transport" and an alphabet for the NHS grew out of them also.

Perhaps "Helvetica" might not have been so swiftly accepted in the UK if "Transport" had not come along first.

Friday 10 February 2017

Where are they now?

In the run-up to the mould-breaking 1997 general election, the Independent On Sunday published pen portraits of Labour candidates to watch. It is interesting to see what happened to them since.

Matt Carter (York): once the Labour Party's youngest general secretary, he failed to be elected in 1997 but forged a career in public relations. In January 2010 Carter became CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a leading public relations and communications consultancy, part of Young & Rubicam Brands, a subsidiary of Martin Sorrell's WPP.

John Adams (Worthing West): failed to be elected in 1997 and came third in Worthing East four years later. Nothing more known.

Claire Ward (Watford): served as Labour MP for Watford from 1997 to 2010, and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice from 2009-2010. She now works as Chief Executive at Independent Pharmacy Federation.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): famously one of the "Blair babes", was also successful in 1997 but resigned from parliament in 2005. She is also in PR now.

Jacqui Smith (Redditch): another 1997 winner, she rose to become the first female Home Secretary but lost her seat in 2010 after being named as one of those MPs making the most from the expenses regime. She has been chair of Birmingham's University Hospitals NHS trust since December 2013 and often appears to offer her opinions on TV news and current affairs programmes.

Paul Richards (Billericay): unsuccessful, but continues to be a Labour activist and author.

Alastair Hudson (Beaconsfield): The very conservative Beaconsfield always was a long shot. Mr Hudson writes about his subsequent career as a legal academic here.

Stephen Twigg (Enfield Southgate): The story of election night was the ousting of Michael Portillo (then seen as a standard-bearer for the Conservative right-wing) by Stephen Twigg. He lost the seat in 2005, but was rewarded with a fairly safe seat in Liverpool West Derby in 2010 which he retained in 2015.

John Healey (Wentworth): the only one in this list to hold the same seat continuously from 1997 until the present day, John Healey held various ministerial posts under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Jim Murphy (Eastwood): Before being ousted in the SNP landslide north of the border in 2015, Jim Murphy was MP continuously from 1997, held ministerial and shadow ministerial posts and ended as Leader of Scottish Labour

Tess Kingham (Gloucester): won her seat, but gave up Westminster politics after one term. She is married to a civil servant and has three children. According to wikipedia she is not just a housewife, but is studying for a PhD in Biological Anthropology at the University of Kent.

Andy Reed (Loughborough): won in 1997, but lost Loughborough to Nicky Morgan in 2010. He has been involved with various sporting bodies since.

Douglas Alexander (Perth): Another high-achiever who lost his seat (though not the redistributed Perth) in 2015, Douglas Alexander joined international law form Pinsent Masons in January 2016 as a “strategic advisor”.

Thursday 9 February 2017

Young Jews and Arabs combine to ease the lot of refugees

There is good news coming out of Israel to set against Netanyahu's "regularising" the land-grab of Palestinian property for illegal settlements. (On this point, it is reported in Israel that Mrs May told their PM on his brief stop-over in London that passing the contentious law would be "unhelpful".)

The liberal Israel newspaper Haaretz reports:

If all goes as planned, an Israeli delegation of Jewish and Arab youth movement leaders will head to the Greek island of Lesbos next week to help establish educational and social programs there for young Syrian refugees. Teaming up in the effort will be two youth movements – Zionist-socialist Hashomer Hatzair and the Arab Ajyal group – who have a long history of cooperation [...] The Lesbos project, which will be overseen by the Tel Aviv-based humanitarian assistance organization Natan, is the latest example of an Israeli grassroots initiative aimed at helping victims of the conflict in Syria. Among other things, it aims to create both formal and informal educational and social frameworks for the young refugees, including leadership programs, while working with other humanitarian groups active on the island as well. Most of the Israeli initiatives to date have focused on providing food, clothing, medication and other basic necessities to those suffering from the bloody civil war raging in Syria over the last six years. Some, however, have involved less tangible forms of assistance, such as petitions, protests and prayers.

The Israeli army operates a field hospital on the [Israel/Syria border], where wounded Syrians are treated. Many Syrians have also received care in Israeli hospitals. But the government of Israel has, for the most part, not gone out of its way to extend assistance to these beleaguered people, leaving the field open to civil-society initiatives such as this new one.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Supply of housing

So Mrs May has gone back on Mr Cameron's revival of Mrs Thatcher's promise of a property-owning democracy. Still her housing minister claims that Conservative government has a good record for house building, flying in the face of the obvious point that (apart from provision of armed forces' quarters long ago) central government does not build houses. Time for some common sense from Lord Greaves. These are quotations from his speech during the debate on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill last month (the emphasis is mine):

I say not for the first time in your Lordships’ House that in my view the planning system in this country is bust in many respects. However, it is not bust in the way that housebuilders and the Government think. I too refer to the two main reasons the Government have put forward for the Bill—namely, to help identify and free up more land on which to build homes and to speed up the delivery of new homes. If we are talking about neighbourhood planning, building new homes is an important part of that but it does not define neighbourhood planning in any way whatever. The noble Baroness said that it is all about vision and that the vision is about far more than simply building homes; rather, it is about the whole future of communities. We should not allow a single-minded objective of building houses in the Bill to make us lose sight of that. It is not what neighbourhood planning was intended to achieve; it is part of it.

The planning system is broken because it often gets the blame for low housing numbers. Government after Government seek quick fixes by tinkering with the planning system whereas what we really need to look at is the supply of new houses and why people are not building them. There are clearly some instances where people would like to build but say they cannot do so because of bureaucratic obstruction by the planning authority. However, that is not the main reason why the number of new houses being built in this country is not high enough. No doubt we will discuss that as the Bill goes through. As the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding, said, one of the major reasons for that situation is the refusal of successive Governments—I would say the stubborn refusal—to allow local authorities to borrow money against their assets in order to build new houses. It is just extraordinary that we cannot do this.

If the planning system is to blame for this or that or is not working properly, the real problem, as I have said before, lies not with development control—or development management, as we now have to call it—but with the plan-making system. I believe that system is overbureaucratic, overexpensive and sclerotic in many ways. If we go back over the history of this we will see that there have always been local plans of some sort since planning was first invented. Some of us remember the old town maps. However, modern plan-making started with the local government reorganisation of 1974, when, in a two-tier area such as mine, we had county structure plans and district local plans all set out under a development plan scheme. Originally, these were fairly simple affairs. However, they have become more and more complicated as time has gone on, and more and more subject to central government interference and the attempt to micromanage what happens locally.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Public revulsion at corruption increases

News stories like this restore my faith that the European project is making progress. Before Romania's accession to the EU, government-tolerated corruption would probably not have been exposed. Certainly, before the break-up of the communist bloc, such demonstrations in Bucharest and other Romania cities would have been put down by force.

Monday 6 February 2017

NHS - kicking the cat

Health Secretary Hunt has again raised the spectre of health tourism in order to deflect attention from the real source of trouble for the English NHS, namely insufficient funding for key areas. I trust that Vaughan Gething will resist taking Wales down the same route. In spite of xenophobic headlines, the amount spent on treating foreign patients (many from countries with whom we have reciprocal arrangements anyway) is minuscule compared with the overall health budget. As a former bureaucrat, I sense that the cost of administering the proposed cost recovery system is going to outweigh the amount "saved".

Caron Lindsay and Tim Farron have something to say on the subject.

Liberalism in Russia

The United States of America will never be a dictatorship. The counterpoised and independent institutions are too strong for that. However, one institution it lacks and Russia possesses, is a mainstream liberal party. Yabloko struggles in the face of state discrimination and populist conservatism, but it is still there.

Sunday 5 February 2017

Ken Clarke on the EU

I had made a mental promise not to bang on about Brexit until there was a surge in public opinion agreeing with Tim Farron that a third referendum was necessary. However, I could not resist commenting on Ken Clarke's historical perspective on the drift in both major parties on the subject of the European community since he entered parliament. (You can see and hear the clip from Radio 4's The Week in Westminster here.) He saw himself as one of a group of "Young Turks" seeing the European Common Market nations thriving economically while Britain, clinging to its imperial past, was in the doldrums. It was pure self-interest, with no mention of the political dimension. He did not acknowledge those fellow Conservatives (like Heath, Macmillan and Churchill), let alone leading Labour figures Tam Dalyell and Denis Healey, who had seen war service, vowed "never again" and saw the Treaty of Rome as a means to bind the nations of Europe together.

Saturday 4 February 2017

Mental troubles affect us all

This week, there was a call for the Welsh government to provide more support for people in rural Wales whose mental health is suffering. It has been known for some time that rural isolation exacerbated by falling incomes, especially for those with family responsibilities, leads to a high suicide rate. The ready availability of lethal means makes the rate second only to that of health professionals in this country. It does not help that the average townie sees only the benefits of country living and none of the difficulties.

One might assume that straight musicians, being paid for doing something they enjoy, would be immune to similar pressures. However, the feeling hangs over many players that they are only as good as their next performance, that they are like horses who having won a race are expected to go out and win again the next day.

Inspired by a survey by helpmusicians.org.uk, Radio 3's Music Matters today devoted the latter part of the programme to interviews with those feeling the pressure (including worryingly young people on the brink of entering musical careers), the professionals who are too seldom called in to help and most poignantly the colleagues of a valued member of a leading group who had taken his own life as a result of a depressive illness.

In both cases, the perceived stigma of seeking help is an obstacle to treatment. Nor are there enough therapists or doctors available. Government should act both in providing resources and in changing perceptions.

Friday 3 February 2017


There is more happening in the world besides president Trump's accession and the arguments between militants on both sides of Brexit. These dominate the mainstream media, but act as a useful distraction for the government from decisions which will soon affect the way of life of many of us. Changes to the benefits, tax credits and social care system, some of which are imminent; plans to close Job Centres; and centralisation of HMRC functions are not going to stop because the government has been given permission to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

In Wales, Local Government Secretary Mark Drakeford has unveiled proposals which would affect both how local services (social care, refuse collection, education etc.) are delivered and ones democratic control over them. The Welsh Government has issued a consultation document and I hope as people as have a view on these matters will respond on- or offline.

Thursday 2 February 2017

Two-faced Labour

Let us remember the votes on the "Brexit" Bill of 1st February 2017. The Labour leadership instructed their members of parliament to vote with the Conservative government. Only 44 stuck to their principles and the interests of the nation as a whole in defying the three-line whip. 

Let us also remember how in 2012 Labour scuppered House of Lords reform by refusing to consider a programme motion to prevent the Reform Bill being talked out. Yet, apart from the brave 44, Labour did nothing yesterday to impede the Conservatives imposing a timetable on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. 

Labour's standard attack on Liberal Democrats is that we collaborate with Tories. If we are collaborators, what do yesterday's votes make Jeremy Corbyn's Labour? If nothing else, at least we stick to our principles. Are these Mr Corbyn's principles? If so, he should come clean.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Desmond Carrington

The actor, writer and radio presenter has died in his 90s. People of my generation will remember the younger Carrington, with his partner Spencer Hale, dispensing criticism of current 78s (complete with record-smashing sound effects) on Radio Luxembourg. Later, he was an early adopter of teleworking when he presented his middle-of-the-road Radio 2 programme from his Perthshire home.

War flying ace

Today is the centenary of "Ginger" Lacey who shot down 28 enemy aircraft in several theatres of the second world war. He did have the advantage of training as a pilot before the outbreak of war, but he also benefited in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,  from "sharp eyesight, gritty determination, and skilful shooting".

The ODNB sums him up: "A modest, yet independent and straightforward man, he was the finest exemplar of the many sergeant-pilots of the volunteer reserve who so ably served their country during the battle of Britain."

Pub adjudication still not right

Among the several debates ignored by the broadcast media in favour of the anti-Trump bandwagon was one on the progress (or lack of it) on the Pubs Code. It was noticeable that no back bencher spoke against the motion tabled last Thursday by Greg Mulholland and that Margot James, the minister who replied to the debate, was defensive. The motion was passed without dissent.

Question put and agreed to.
That this House welcomes the Pubs Code established in July 2016 to deliver a fairer relationship between large tied pub companies and their licensees and to deliver the principle that the tied licensee should be no worse off than a free-of-tie licensee, introducing a Market Rent Only option for tenants, the right in certain circumstances to have an independent free-of-tie rent assessment and to pay only that sum; is dismayed that pub companies are thwarting the Code and are routinely flouting Regulation 50 that tenants who exercise, or attempt to exercise, their rights under the Code should not suffer any detriment; notes that this includes refusing to allow deeds of variation to leases, forcing tenants wanting to pursue the Market Rent Only option to agree a new lease on unfavourable terms; believes that fees being proposed for independent assessors are wholly unreasonable and that unfair additional charges are being demanded which make it unviable to pursue the Market Rent Only option; expresses strong concern that the Pubs Code Adjudicator (PCA), Paul Newby, who holds shares in, and has loans to Fleurets, which derives substantial income from the regulated pubcos, is failing to stop these practices or uphold the Code; calls on the Government to ensure that the Code works as intended and to accept the recommendation of the former Business, Innovation and Skills Committee to reopen the appointment process for the PCA; further notes that the Code does not apply in Scotland; and urges parity for Scottish tenants.