Monday, 29 April 2019

UK Labour should appreciate this benefit of proportional representation

As BBC World Service and the FT report, the ultra-nationalist party Vox was expected to do very well in the Spanish general election held over the weekend. In the event, though it did win some representation, its main effect was to split the conservative vote.

"the centre-right People’s party (PP) [...] lost half of its seats, down from 137 to 66, in its worst election result ever. The party veered sharply to the right under its new leader, Pablo Casado, but it haemorrhaged support to Vox while also losing votes to the liberal Ciudadanos, which did better than anticipated, winning an estimated 57 seats."

Although Spain operates an electoral system based on proportionality by political party, rather than the superior STV which allows voters to discriminate between individuals, the poll just concluded shows that socialist parties, far from fearing PR, can actually benefit from it. For Vox, read UKIP and for PP read the Conservative party in the current situation in England and Wales and imagine what PR might achieve.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Labour to blame for UK's version of European Parliament voting system

Labour does not like losing central control. So, when forced to accept a proportional voting system, they opt for one that puts most power in the hands of their barons. In Scotland, as part of the devolution settlement, they insisted on a top-up party list rather than the Liberal Democrat's preferred STV, which gives people the chance to vote for the person of their choice, not just the party. Thanks to Andy Myles (if I recall correctly) and his rigorous mathematics, the resulting system in Scotland was as proportionate as it could practically be. (No such luck when the party list system was transplanted to Wales, where the shortfall in the top-up numbers favours the largest party, which since the inauguration of the Assembly has been Labour.)

In 1999, when the EU decreed that all member nations elect their MEPs via a proportional system, but left it up to individual governments to choose the method, it fell to Labour's Home Secretary Jack Straw to make the decision. Not only did he select party lists for Britain, but also a method of apportioning seats which favours the big parties. As wikipedia says:

“As Home Secretary, Straw was also involved in changing the electoral system for the European Parliament elections from plurality to proportional representation. In doing so, he advocated the use of the d’Hondt formula as being the one that produces the most proportional outcomes. The d’Hondt formula, however, is less proportional than the Sainte-Laguë formula which was proposed by the Liberal Democrats. Straw later apologised to the House of Commons for his misleading comments, but the d’Hondt formula stayed in place. “

Northern Ireland benefits from real STV. More details about the electoral systems here.

Why does this anorak-y stuff matter? Well, we will in May be putting into office, for however short a time, MEPs to represent this country. There is a danger that there will be a large, if not neo-fascist, certainly a wrecking vote. The opposition to this is split between several parties. In total, the pro-EU vote may outweigh UKIP/Brexit, but if it is dissipated between other than the established consistent pro-EU party, the wreckers and the spongers will win. The so-called Independent Group, now re-branded as Change UK is explicitly using this situation to inflict damage on parties who would stand in the way of their personal political ambitions.

The logic is clear: if you want to elect MEPs who will make the most for you out of the EU while we are still there, you must vote Liberal Democrat.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Transparency in government spending

Did you know that you have the right under law to examine the accounts of your local council and ask questions about them and even challenge items? This guide (pdf) from the National Audit Office explains how. There are two major considerations, however. Firstly, the accounts are open for an inspection period of only 30 days. The dates are set by the local authority itself but are usually in the early summer.

Secondly, and the reason for this particular post, the accounts are set out in a format which is intelligible only to an expert in the specialised field of public accountancy. In my four years on the council and even with the friendly guidance of Derek Davies and his successors in the county borough's finance directorate I never got to grips with all the jargon. Every year it seems the standards body which regulates public authority finance makes statements of accounts more complicated, when surely for the sake of good governance they should be more intelligible to not only the general public but also councillors who are unlikely to be trained accountants.

This obfuscation is also true of those UK central government accounts which are available to the general public, as Martin Wheatley points out in an Institute for Government opinion piece. There are Single Departmental Plans which, it seems, are unavailable even to MPs. Mr Wheatley calls for transparency on the Canadian model, illustrating his point with infographics starting from It is very impressive, even in the short time I have had to dip into it.

Such informative graphics may be beyond the budget of even unitary authorities, but not that of central government. At the minimum, a text format of a readily-understandable set of accounts is capable of being produced by either, and is long overdue.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Economic indicators drifting down

During the week, the value of sterling has fallen below $1.30 for the first time in months. Usually, as the pound's exchange rate weakens, exporting companies, which dominate the FTSE 100 index, see a rise in their share values. However, the FTSE too is drifting down.

This could be merely a seasonal situation. There was an old stock exchange saying: "Sell in May and go away". The big traders could be taking their profits and leaving for an early start to the summer vacation, which, as I understand it, takes in the Epsom Derby meeting, Wimbledon fortnight and the Henley Royal Regatta. Perhaps the climaxes to the rugby and soccer seasons have now been added to the list.

Alternatively, news has leaked out of a deal between the government and the Labour leadership to take us out of the EU on disadvantageous terms. I hope this is not the case.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Youth and age: not a zero-sum game

A committee of the House of Lords, whose members receive at least £150 every day they sign in, wants to reduce benefits to old people.

The House of Lords Committee on Intergenerational Fairness has reported. The headline recommendations are  that the free television licence for over-75s and free bus passes should be withdrawn as part of redressing the balance between the generations, and that the triple-lock on pensions, which Liberal Democrats forced the Conservatives in coalition to accept, should be cut back.

I declare an interest in that I currently benefit from a free TV licence and the triple-lock on state pensions (which has given me a £3 per week increase in the current financial year). I also have an all-Wales bus pass, provided by a Welsh government which has been generally more enlightened than the one in England.

One must concede that television does not contribute to health and well-being. The free licence is the least defensible of our benefits. However, it is clear that the BBC's bloated executive structure, which has grown unchecked, can be drastically pruned with benefit to all licence-payers. There are alternatives (we should learn from continental nations) which spread the cost while maintaining a public service ethos.

The rationale of the triple-lock was that the state pension in the UK would gradually come into line with the higher rates generally paid in mainland Europe. We are still well behind, so cutting the automatic increase would be a set-back. I would also point out that pensioners spend more money locally than younger people do, so help to keep High Streets alive.

Staying alive is a major benefit of the free bus pass. As well as promoting physical activity by encouraging us to spend more time outside, it also maintains contact with family and friends, aiding psychological well-being.

But my major gripe with the recommendations is the impression that their lordships feel that the unfairness towards the young can be redressed by penalising the oldest generation. There are, to be sure, some vague proposals that training should be improved and that more land could be made available for housing. This is nothing new. We need something more positive.

The immediate need is for the national minimum wage to be a real living wage in line with calculations by an independent body, and that the age when the full rate can be earned reduced to a realistic 21 at the highest. The powers for local authorities to provide housing should be returned to early 1980s levels, as should their ability to borrow. And why should not free bus passes for young people not in employment, nor earning the full basic income, be a right?

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

New recruits may damage Brexit party's USP

Nigel Farage benefited in previous campaigns from being seen as an anti-Establishment figure, his promotion by BBC notwithstanding. His latest recruits, some listed by Guido here, joined today by former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe, might be seen to be members of the Great And The Good. He is likely to be outflanked on the left by Gerald Batten leading his former party, UKIP, which has retained its aura of danger.

The only thing that binds all these people, apart from Brexit, is the chance of grabbing a share of European Parliament salaries and expenses. Low turnout has helped them in the past. When more ordinary voters get involved, as in a general election, their policy differences are exposed. It is significant that only one 'kipper has been elected to Westminster (and he was a former Conservative with a large personal vote).

I do not hold out much hope that debate (if there is any) during the EP campaign examines what candidates intend to do in their few months in Brussels. If it does, reporters may wish to question Farage's people on the subject of animal protection, something close to British hearts, and something which our lone Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder has been fighting for in the EP. Miss Widdecombe has campaigned against animal cruelty in the past; one suspects that many of her new colleagues are all in favour of it.

Guide Dogs

Not all blind people need guide dogs (Mike and Tehani Taylor, fellow-members of the local Liberal Democrats and fighters on diversity issues can manage without) but there is no doubt that many have been liberated by their four-legged best friends. Having worked for a senior programmer who had a succession of guide dogs over the years, I can vouch for the quality of the training which Guide Dogs in the UK gives. This training is expensive, though, and on this day dubbed International Guide Dogs Day by the International Guide Dogs Federation, I would appeal to all my followers to make a contribution, as I continue to do.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Zero-carbon houses in Neath

Alerted by our local Lib Dem candidate, Sheila Kingston-Jones, I found the site where a group of self-powered houses is being built in Neath.  Sheila had been on a visit with Welsh party leader Jane Dodds to an experimental house in Bridgend.

For more on a zero-carbon Britain, visit the Centre for Alternative Technology's website.

Monday, 22 April 2019


To hammer home the message referred to in my previous post, Dr Samantha Walker, Asthma UK Director of Policy and Research, will be appearing on BBC Breakfast shortly.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Preparing for the first bullet train

On April 20th 1959, ground was broken for the construction of the first Shinkansen line in Japan. Five years later, trains were running on it at 130 mph. "Shinkansen" now represents a network where speeds of 200 mph are typical. The rest of the world is still catching up.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Tsundoku, or filling the book tomb

I hope Anu Garg will forgive me for this theft of a piece which expresses what I feel all too well, having about a dozen books stacked up ready to read:

Apr 15, 2019
This week’s theme
Words related to books 

This week’s words

Bookmark and Share Facebook Twitter Digg MySpace Bookmark and Share
with Anu Garg

The invention of electricity and microchips and the Internet is fine, but the biggest invention of all time would be when someone manages to pack books with just enough time to read them.

Let me explain.

I go to a bookstore or a library or a library book sale and the thought that comes to mind is: so many books, so little time. I’ll have to be born several times (multiple editions?) to be able to read all the books I want to read. The Japanese language even has a word for something related -- tsundoku -- acquiring books without reading them.

Imagine if you could bundle books with time! Any book comes prepackaged with enough time to read it. So if you buy a 100-page book, you might find that that day you don’t have to cook. The refrigerator has leftovers in a corner you had overlooked or your neighbor brings in extra slices of pizza they had baked.

If you buy a copy of War and Peace, well, it snows so much that your office is closed for the rest of the week.

You get the idea.

We have the greatest minds of the world, we have sent a man to the moon, what’s holding us back from implementing this book + time idea? Coming up with a Kindle is nice, but we can do better than that. Let me know when you have a prototype. I’ll sign up to be a beta tester.

Until then, well, let’s just look at some words related to books and people who deal in them.

bibliotaph or bibliotaphe


noun: One who hoards books.

From Greek biblio- (book) + taphos (tomb), which also gave us cenotaph Earliest documented use: 1823.

“A more pertinent example of the morbid bibliotaph is recorded by Blades; this was the late Sir Thomas Phillipps, of Middle Hill, who acquired *bibliographical treasures simply to bury them*. He bought books by the library, crammed his mansion with them, and *never even saw what he had bought*.”
Holbrook Jackson; The Anatomy of Bibliomania; University of Illinois Press; 2001.


Thursday, 18 April 2019

Crossrail delay

It may seem impertinent to blog about a peculiarly London problem (though, being the capital, London's troubles have an impact on the rest of England and Wales). However, there is a connection to the aborted GWR main line electrification. When the first intimations of a delay to Crossrail's start date included a mention of signalling, the suspicious mind of a former systems analyst immediately leapt to the conclusion that the designers had gone for a unique new system. So it turns out, as this extract from London Reconnections explains:

There was concern about ensuring trains successfully transitioned between one signalling system and another. Meanwhile, if we understand the situation correctly, there are significant problems just getting the signalling equipment on the trains to talk successfully to both the trackside-based communications equipment and the trains’ computer systems.
Transitioning eastbound is easier than transitioning westbound at Westbourne Park. The more difficult part of transitioning is to successfully communicate with the signalling system the trains is transitioning to. It is somewhat easier to terminate communication with the signalling system the train is leaving.

To aggravate the problem transitioning westbound at Westbourne Park, the signalling system being transitioned to is TPWS+. This is a system based on the standard TPWS (Train Protection and Warning System) used on most of Network Rail, but it includes additional safety protection to bring it on par with ETCS when it comes to safety. One feature of TPWS (and TPWS+) is the intermittent (rather than continuous) nature of the system. This relies on fixed signals protecting discrete sections of track rather than utilising a ‘moving block’ to provide protection between trains. Stepping up from ‘fixed block’ to moving block should be relatively easy to achieve. Think of it, metaphorically, as lava dropping from the top of a lava lamp. The ‘moving block’ starts in a fixed position before moving with the train (protecting it in the rear). Doing it the other way around is probably very hard.

In the central section the signalling system is a bespoke version of Siemens’ Trainguard system, which has been updated with Crossrail in mind. So it should have been upgraded with facilities for transitioning to and from TPWS+ as part of the update. In the other direction (westbound) you are moving into TPWS+ which is an industry standard that one has to adhere to. You can’t simply ‘tweak’ TPWS+ so it works with Trainguard. Even if you could, that would require a derogation that needs ORR (Office of Road and Rail) approval. Such approval is not given lightly.

Part of the reason that there is the problem described above is that this was never the plan. The signalling system west of Paddington all the way to Heathrow was supposed to be ETCS (European Train Control System). It changed to TPWS+ because of the problems of introducing ETCS on the GWR in the necessary time frame. Somewhat ominously but understandably, it took ORR [the Office of the Rail Regulator] two years to approve the change because they needed to be satisfied that TPWS+ was as safe as ETCS on the lines affected.

More ominous still, the time allocated to the system integration phase of Crossrail was decided long before TPWS+ was substituted for ETCS and, to the best of our knowledge, the time allocated was not revised upward to take into account the known (or at least suspected) extra complexity. This does seem a puzzling oversight and one wonders, with the benefit of hindsight, whether it would have been better to stick to the original plan and use ETCS throughout on the Paddington – Heathrow section and accept any delays this may produce, rather than exert so much effort getting TPWS+ installed and working with Trainguard.

To make matters even worse, the change of plan now means you also have another transitioning area that originally was not going to exist. This will need to occur north-east of the Heathrow tunnels on the Airport Branch. In hindsight it is clear how much Crossrail were relying on Network Rail being able to introduce ETCS on the Great Western Main Line (GWML) in good time prior to Crossrail opening – as was the plan. It also shows how apparently unrelated issues such as problems on Network Rail’s GWML modernisation project (some of which were in Wales) have affected Crossrail. As has often been pointed out – Crossrail is good for the rest of the country. Unfortunately sometimes the rest of the country can be bad for Crossrail.

(There is some further stuff about the train-builder not being on the same wave-length as the signalling engineers, but that is straying outside my parish.)

ERTMS/ETCS works, as demonstrated on the Cambrian Line. To drop it from the GWR upgrade was a short-term fix which could have long-term consequences. Whether the new physical signal equipment installed in south Wales is compatible with an upgrade to ERTMS is a question I shall leave to electrical engineers.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Alan Curtis to hang up his boots

I am glad to see that Alan Curtis, though announcing that he will no longer coach at the club, is not severing his ties with Swansea City. This is, though, a good opportunity to say thanks for the pleasure he gave at the old Vetch Field, particularly when he teamed up with John Toshack in the most effective strike partnership in the Football League at the time.

Welsh Lib Dems Euro slate announced

In ranking order, as voted on by the membership, the Welsh Liberal Democrat party list to fight the upcoming (barring an agreement between Jeremy Corbyn and Mrs May akin to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) European Parliament elections is:

1 Sam Bennett
2 Donna Lalek
3 Alistair Cameron
4 Andrew Parkhurst
5 Jason Edwards

Contrary to scare stories in some areas of the press implying that some parties, being unprepared, are  scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to selection, these are all candidates who have gone through the party's extensive parliamentary candidacy vetting process. I have not yet seen the potted biographies from party HQ, but I know the top two are local councillors and have been through the fire of general elections. I would guess that the same is true of the other three. I am glad to see that my fellow-members have put their trust in our younger members who, after all, have most reason to be grateful to the European Union. They are the future. If the "flextension" continues beyond October this year, they will make a positive contribution to the EU, and to Wales in the EU.

176,158 people voted Liberal Democrat in the 2007 Welsh general election. If those same people turn out in the May European Parliament elections then they will displace not only Plaid Cymru, but also the Conservatives, who mustered only 127,742 votes in 2014, and whose workers are said to have no stomach for the contest.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Where Hitler failed, diabolical mischance won

In August 1944, as the Third Reich was forced to retreat from Paris, Hitler, in a last fit of vindictiveness, ordered the capital to be set ablaze. Fortunately the general in charge of the German forces surrendered rather than carry out the instruction of the dictator who was by then clearly insane.

Nearly seventy-five years on, the (even for non-Catholics) iconic cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris is a smoke-darkened shell after an appalling conflagration. Since no terrorist organisation has claimed responsibility, it is virtually certain that the origin of the blaze lay in the restoration work whose necessity was described in the New York Times here.

It is astonishing that such events still occur. One wonders how aware the French restorers were of accidents elsewhere in the world and whether there is an international protocol.  In 1989 a devastating fire broke out during the reconstruction of the roof at the English mansion, Uppark House. The National Trust describes the effects and - appropriate to the French situation - the decisions made as to what to preserve for the future and what to recreate. Granted, the Sussex stately home was of mainly British significance, but there is no doubting the international importance of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School Of Art. This has caught fire twice, the second time as a direct result of restoration work.

One hopes that the dithering over the long-overdue work on the Palace of Westminster has at least given the planners time to consider the increased susceptibility of historic buildings to fire as a result of modern equipment used during rebuilding and to draw up safety rules accordingly.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Will Philip Davies talk out government Bill?

So the Conservative government is about to introduce legislation to prevent arbitrary evictions. It might have been better if they had taken up Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather's Tenancies Reform Bill in the days of the coalition back in 2014 instead of allowing it to be talked out by the likes of Philip Davies and Christopher Chope.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Petition to the European Parliament

It seems from Facebook chat that I am not the only one to believe that Nigel Farage's membership of the European Parliament brings Britain into disrepute. It is surprising that this sentiment took so long to surface.

It is a little-known benefit of the Maastricht Treaty that every EU citizen (which we will remain at least up until the 22nd May and probably for five months beyond) has the right to submit a petition to the Parliament. In Northampton, a petition to recall the felonious Labour MP is gathering signatures. It might be interesting to attempt a petition to recall Mr Farage and exclude his name from lists for future elections.

I accept that if it succeeded, it would, because of the party list system which operates in the UK, only bring up another Brexit candidate. However, he or she would surely have better manners than Mr Farage whose behaviour in Brussels I likened elsewhere to letting a mongrel with loose bowels into Cruft's. I disagree with UKIP, but I accept that the Welsh people have made a choice in electing one 'kipper to the EP and I have no quarrel with Nathan Gill's style. If only all his fellow-members were as courteous in their public utterances.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

A Friends' cottage, a pub and the biggest shopping mall in America

It was Kathy Jordan, the striking redhead who probably did not achieve her full potential on the tennis court, whose potted biography introduced me to the township of King Of Prussia in Pennsylvania. It was where she went to school. This bit of trivia stuck in the back of the mind (was she brought up in a boozer?) until a recent argument about the German connections of the state revived it.

The resultant research was quite timely, since sometime this year the 300th anniversary of the King will be celebrated. Remarkably, it began life as a cottage, built by Welsh Quakers. (Perhaps the national museum of Wales has information about the roots of the Rees family, but that is for another day.) They clearly did not disapprove of alcoholic refreshment because it was eventually converted to a tavern.  This is what wikipedia has to say:

The original inn was constructed as a cottage in 1719 by the Welsh Quakers William and Janet Rees, founders of nearby Reesville. The cottage was converted to an inn in 1769 and was important in colonial times as it was approximately a day's travel by horse from Philadelphia. A number of settlers heading from there for Ohio would sleep at the inn for their first night on the road. In 1774 the Rees family hired James Barry (or Jimmy Berry) to run the inn, which henceforth became known as "Berry's Tavern". General George Washington first visited the tavern on Thanksgiving Day in 1777 while the Continental Army was encamped at Whitemarsh; a few weeks later Washington and the army bivouacked at nearby Valley Forge.
A map created by William Parker, a Tory sympathizer of the Kingdom of Great Britain, listed the inn as "Berry's" in 1777,[but a local petition in 1786 identified it as the "King of Prussia". It was possibly renamed to entice German soldiers fighting in the American Revolution (including Prussians) to remain in this area; colonial generals such as Johann de Kalb and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben had many Prussians as officers. At some point a wooden signboard of the inn depicted King Frederick the Great of Prussia. The inn was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on December 23, 1975.

Since then, the township which grew up around the tavern has gone on to host the largest shopping mall in the United States, and  the headquarters of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Region I.

Footnote 1: there is a King Of Prussia hotel in Fowey, reputably so-called from the nickname of a local smuggler;

Footnote 2: Valley Forge is the name of the spacecraft in perennial Christmas favourite, Silent Running;

Footnote 3: Kathy Jordan will be sixty on 3rd December this year. I send her best wishes in advance.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Parliament exposes scandal, then buries it

For a long time, there has been disquiet about the power of the large accountancy firms which both audit and advise companies. From time to time, the dire effects of this conflict of interest come to light. The collapse of the American conglomerate Enron back in 2002 should have warned government and standards bodies in this country. Enron's auditors, Arthur Andersen, had also been employed as financial consultants by the company. Enron's fall, exposing both its convoluted financial structure designed to present a false impression of profitability, and the light touch auditing which allowed Enron to get away with it, resulted in the break-up of the long-established Andersen, until then one of the great US accountancy firms. However, nothing was done this side of the Atlantic. Those were the days of New Labour government when its godfather Peter Mandelson professed himself intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich and Gordon Brown applied only the lightest touch regulation (though it has to be said that this was too tough for some Conservatives). The laissez-faire attitude to banking reserves and financial derivatives led to the transatlantic credit crunch of 2008.

Although banking rules were tightened up as a result, nothing was done to check the major accountancy firms. Private Eye magazine has long campaigned on the subject, occasionally publishing special exposés like this. Perhaps the fact that many MPs were provided with office support by some of the firms in question kept parliamentary concern to a minimum. It took some major commercial failures to wake legislators. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee of the House of Commons started an investigation in 2018 which led to a report published last week.

In it, the Committee proposes the breakup of the "Big Four" (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PWC). (They might also have looked at the biggest firms in the next division down, like Grant Thornton who were less than professional , to put it kindly, in taking the profitability of Patisserie Valerie on trust.)

What disturbs me is that there has been no sign that government or parliament have even taken note of the report. Nor has the BBC been particularly interested apart from a mention on the Business programme on the News Channel. There have been two sessions of Prime Minister's Questions and one of questions to the Treasury team without an enquiry as to what government was doing about it. I await next Wednesday's Private Eye with interest.

By the way, in case there was a suspicion that the BBC had a vested interest in keeping this matter quiet, it should be said that the corporation last year gave up using a big four company as its external auditor in favour of the non-commercial government agency, the National Audit Office.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

From All Fools' Day to All Hallows Eve

I am still taking in the decision of the European Council earlier this morning. What is certain is that at the end of May we will be electing four members of the European Parliament. The candidates committee of the Welsh Liberal Democrats has drawn up a short-list and members are now voting on the order in which they will be presented on the ballot.

Given more time and more member participation we could have produced an ideal slate. But they are all good people on the list who would not let us down in Brussels (and unfortunately Strasbourg).

In 2009, a significant number of Liberal Democrats were elected from Scotland and England. Over the five years of that parliament, they made a major contribution to the development of the European Union, even providing chairs of two important committees. They made more progress in reining in the EU budget than the clod-hopping Cameron. Through no fault of their own, but because of a reaction to Liberal Democrats' perceived collaboration in the Conservatives austerity programme back home, all but one of the Lib Dem MEPs were voted out in 2014 and, it must be said, too many spongers and wreckers elected in their stead. One can understand that the British electorate felt the need to lash out against the political class, but the result was not good.

In 2019, it is important that we vote responsibly. It could be that Article 50 is revoked during the extension period, in which case the UK's MEPs will serve the full five years. The Parliament has influence over up to 15% of principal UK law (and rather more than that in the case of some other member states). But even if they are there only for the few months envisaged by Mrs May before her withdrawal agreement, Irish backstop and all, is accepted by MPs, it is important that they act constructively. Inside or outside the EU, we need to maintain good relations with our European neighbours. As leading Conservatives are wont to say, we may be leaving the EU but we will not be leaving Europe.

Scotland and the EU

Thanks to the Prime Minister (at PMQ's yesterday) for reminding us that one of the prime factors in the Scottish referendum campaign was the legal opinion that Scotland could not automatically remain in the EU on independence, and that her application to join would likely be vetoed by Spain at least. In 2014, the UK government's policy was to remain within the EU.

I would like to ask Mrs May, now that her government's policy on membership has changed, whether she has asked fellow ministers on the Council if their view on an independent Scotland's membership has changed also.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Genocide: our courts obstructing justice

One has to feel sorry for Ben Wallace, the Home Office minister deputed to field a question about the Rwandan genocide yesterday. There are people alleged to be complicit in the 1990s slaughter of thousands who are not only living in this country, but in some cases are drawing benefits including housing benefit. As Wallace had to reiterate, the government has attempted to extradite the suspects to face trial in the now-stable Rwanda, but the High Court has blocked the move.

It is not the first time that the courts in this country have acted in what would seem to be a perverse manner, if it were not for the fact that a non-white nation was involved. It took eight years to extradite Abu Qatada to Jordan, a state which has close ties to the UK, including the education and training of its rulers.

As David Davis pointed out, countries with impeccable human rights credentials such as Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands have seen nothing wrong with the reconstructed justice system in Rwanda and have rendered suspects there.

One can only assume that racist prejudice lives on in the higher echelons of the judicial class in this country. It is high time they joined the 21st century.

The result is an extra financial burden on the UK, and not just in terms of social security payments. The Rwandan authorities have logically requested that, if the suspects cannot be returned home for investigation, then the British authorities should carry this out. As a result, our hard-pressed police have undertaken to do so.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Do not be caught out

Image may contain: text

The only extension to the period of negotiations between the UK and the other 27 EU nations will be a long one. Therefore, by law, the UK will have to participate in European Parliament elections. 

The alternative is for a complete and destructive break between us and our fellow European nations. MPs have twice overwhelmingly voted against a "no deal" Brexit. The Conservatives have therefore taken the logical steps of putting local election officers on stand-by and selecting candidates for their list to contest the EP elections. 

The fact that the ruling party has so moved is virtual confirmation that we will participate in the EP elections on 23rd May. It is therefore important that everyone checks that they are eligible to vote and that they are on the electoral register. Citizens of mainland nations resident in the UK have the choice of voting locally or in their home country. 

For more information, go to or contact the local senior electoral services officer, Clare Sim, at Neath Port Talbot council.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Asthma UK welcomes moves against polluting vehicles

London check. Glasgow check. What about the rest of the UK?

First on my hit list would be Birmingham. All those who have been stuck in this very motorised city during a temperature inversion would surely agree.

There is more about the dire effects of air pollution here.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

House sparrow is the top bird

The results of the Big Garden Birdwatch are out. Once again, the house sparrow tops the league table both in Wales and in UK as a whole. A surprise for me was the second place for the starling, which I hardly ever see round here. I can only assume that many respondents had lawns, which are happy hunting-grounds for starlings, probing for leather-jackets. Less surprisingly, the jackdaw comes in at no. 10 on the Welsh list, but further down on the one for the UK.

The Welsh results are on a pdf here.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Network Rail's new traffic management system

The Thales ARAMIS system, which provides real time enhanced data to operators, flagging potential conflicts and helping train running controllers proactively manage services, went live in Wales this week. More here.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Newport West by-election

The result was (2017 figures in brackets):
  • Ruth Jones, Labour: 9,308 (22,723)
  • Conservative: 7,357 (17,065)
  • UKIP: 2,023 (1,100)
  • Plaid Cymru: 1,185 (1,077)
  • Ryan Jones, Liberal Democrats : 1,088 (976)
  • Green Party: 924 (497)
  • Renew: 879
  • Abolish the Welsh Assembly: 205
  • SDP: 202
  • Democrats and Veterans: 185
  • For Britain: 159
Turnout: 37.1% (67.45%)
Figures from ITN (UK Elect)

The comparison shows that the late Paul Flynn had a huge personal vote. Congratulations to Ryan Jones on increasing his actual vote in a much reduced poll. UKIP also increased its share in this Leave-leaning constituency but not by nearly enough to worry the major parties.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Revoke A50 debate

My hope for the positive case for Remaining being stated within the Palace of Westminster at long last were dashed. Rather than a debate on the floor of the House which one would have expected from the record-breaking petition, it was relegated to Westminster Hall. The Petitions Committee did not help by lumping together all the currently-running petitions relating to Brexit. The debate was opened by Labour's Catherine McKinnell, very much a political animal, who spoke at length, concentrating on the People's Vote which was Labour's official party policy. The depressing screenplay of political point-scoring and re-run of Project Fear continued. The presence of six Conservative MPs, who made niggling interventions but not one speech, contributed to the negative atmosphere.

Gradually, the back-bench Conservatives departed, leaving the lone government junior minister to face the music. This was hardly an endorsement for democracy but did improve the tone of the debate.

One hour and twenty minutes in we had the first direct addressing of the meat of the petition. Martyn Day, SNP member for Linlithgow and Falkirk East, almost in passing stated the benefits to public services in Scotland of freedom of movement:
Access to the EU single market and freedom of movement are vital both to protect jobs and to meet Scotland’s need for key workers in public services such as health and social care.

Ten minutes later Ann Coffey (The Independent Group) MP for Stockport, put things in perspective, relating the 2016 referendum to the first in 1975:
Many people see the relationship in terms of Europe’s economic value to us; some see it as a way of putting to rest forever the terrible wars that divided Europe for centuries, while for others it is a bulwark against oppressive regimes and it is a protection of citizens’ rights. Yet others see membership of the EU as a threat to national sovereignty and identity.

In the 1975 referendum, the British people voted to stay in Europe, with 62.7% voting yes. The referendum split the country and the then Labour Cabinet, and did not settle the question: almost immediately afterwards, anti-marketeers began their campaign to overturn the result. In the 2016 referendum, the people voted to leave Europe by a smaller margin; in my constituency, 53.2% voted to remain, compared with 46.8% who voted to leave.

I conducted a survey of constituents shortly after that vote, and I have just conducted another poll to see how people feel two years on. I sent out surveys to 4,500 households; 71% replied that they now feel that the people should have the final say on the Brexit deal, while 72% said that remaining in the EU should be an option in another referendum. The young were much more pro-Europe than older people: 83% of 25 to 49-year-olds said that there should be an option to remain, compared with 50% of those aged 64-plus. Of those who voted to leave, approximately a fifth either would now vote to remain or are undecided, with those in the 25-to-49 age bracket being most likely to have changed their mind.

The issue of sovereignty and what it means to be British, which was so important in 1975, continued as a strong thread in the replies to my 2016 and 2018 surveys. The latest survey contained many opposing views. For example, on respondent said: “As a sovereign nation, I want the UK to remain in a community and work together to share information and provide mutual support”.

Conversely, another respondent said: “We want our country back, our sovereignty, our laws.”

I voted to stay in Europe in 1975, partly for economic reasons. The economy — as probably no one present will recall — was in a very bad state, but my overriding reason was that as a young person I saw belonging to Europe as a break from the past, with the possibility of a better future. As a child, I was brought up in the shadow of the war because of the traumatic experiences of my parents and grandparents. Peace in Europe was an overwhelming prize for our generation. I wanted us to be a nation that took our place alongside other countries and contributed to the responsibility that the international community has to resolve some very challenging issues, such as climate change and migration.

Clearly, it was always going to be difficult to get support for the deal that the Prime Minister has brought back. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any deal that could win overwhelming support, because we all want very different outcomes. It is not very satisfactory for any option to be the majority view of the House by a handful of votes, which is why I believe that having another vote by the public on whatever option the House supports, together with the option to remain, is the only way forward. I do not think that another public ​vote will settle the issue of what our relationship with Europe should be; communities and generations will continue to be divided.

I believe that the younger generation will, in time, have a more settled view of what its relationship with Europe should be. It is only when that happens that this issue will be resolved. The only long-term solution to the issue of identity is time. However, in a public vote, people would be voting this time on proper, detailed options for the way forward, with the full knowledge of what a deal with the EU would look like, and with the option of voting to remain in the EU if that appeared a better option. Perhaps that could put back into the debate a space for rational consideration, which would be welcomed by many members of the public.

Martin Whitfield (Labour, East Lothian) underlined the peace aims of the EEC.
People looked to countries across Europe that were devastated by war and said, “How can we make things better?” We came up with the idea of trying to share, and we liked it; it worked. The UK was instrumental in the creation of that organisation, then we sought to join. We were shunned, but we did not take that as a no; we went back and asked again. We did so because we saw that what was happening there was the right thing for the future. It was the right thing for young people then the way it is the right thing for them now. It was right for industry then, just as it is now.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (TIG, Totnes) explained how she moved from soft Leave to Remain as a result of chairing
the Health and Social Care Committee, I heard the evidence of harm week in, week out, and I came to the view that I was wrong. I was not afraid to say that. In fact, many colleagues said to me, “Don’t tell people that you’ve changed your mind. Just put a cross in a different box. It will be very bad for your political career if you change your mind.” It is astonishing that we have come to that—that parliamentarians are not honest and are not prepared to change their mind when they have looked at the evidence. We focus on the idea that this is all about a WTO Brexit and trade, but from chairing the Health and Social Care Committee it became obvious to me that there is clear evidence of harm to social care, science and research from unpicking a close relationship that has brought enormous benefits for more than four decades. I looked at the harm that Brexit would cause to science and research. There is no version of Brexit that will benefit science and research, improve the situation for our health and social care workforce, or do anything positive for NHS funding.

N.B. to the anonymous gentleman who suggested that if I liked the EU so much that I should pack my bags and leave, I should point out that thanks to his friends in government, that will not be possible. Even if I could afford it, my right to move freely outside England and Wales would be removed under practically any flavour of Brexit.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Newport West

Good luck to Lib Dem Ryan Jones in tomorrow's by-election. Some people are saying that it will be a test of how far opinion has swung towards a People's Vote. However, it is far more likely that local issues like the route of the Newport By-Pass will predominate. After all, the late Paul Flynn was an ardent Europhile, representing a seat which voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and the constituency had one of the lowest signing rates in England and Wales on the Revoke Article 50 petition.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Brexit: who are the real patriots?

Surely I am not the only one whose blood pressure rises when some Brexiteer, with a very shaky grasp of modern history and no first-hand knowledge of conflict, accuses those of us who support a European Union of being traitors. One exception would appear to be former Terrier Mark Francois MP, but lawyer Charles Parselle writes in the London4Europe blog:
It is sad but also pathetic to hear Mark Francois MP’s fearful yet bombastic defiance: “My father Reginald Francois was a D-Day veteran, he never submitted to bullying by any German, neither will his son,” published on the same day as the likely next German Chancellor, with numerous German politicians, made a heartfelt plea in a letter to the Times: “Britons should know, from the bottom of our hearts, we want them to stay…Britain did not give up on us after the second world war and welcomed Germany back into the European community…Germans have not forgotten and we are grateful…more than anything else, we would miss the British people, our friends across the Channel.” My father did not take part in D-Day because he was in a POW camp, having been shot down during a bombing raid over Germany in 1943, part of the bombing campaign that flattened more than 200 German cities. It is just bizarre and even pathological for Mark Francois and his fellow Brexiters to act as if we were on the losing side.

Sadly, we cannot interview Francois pere but it would be surprising if he did not have a more realistic view of what World War II was about than his son has.

In the second debate on Indicative Motions last night, Labour's Barry Sheerman put on record what all too few MPs have expressed:

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
I rise to speak with great pleasure, because this has been a good debate. Over the weekend, when I was thinking about speaking in the debate should I be lucky enough to be called, I decided that I wanted to be entirely positive. Indeed, I am a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament and have a penchant for co-operation in my DNA. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and I were both born during the blitz. I was born a week before him on 17 August, the day after the heaviest bombing by the Germans in the second world war. A week later, my neighbours—both parents and two little children—were killed by a German bomb. 

 When I got into Parliament, many of the generation here in 1979 had fought in that war. Denis Healey had been on the beach at Anzio, and Ted Heath had also been in the war. They were great pro-Europeans because they had seen two world wars and knew what the killing and waste had done to Europe—to our economy and to our people. The European economy was set back for ​many years and political progress seemed the only way forward. Those men and women built the United Nations and NATO, and started the European Coal and Steel Community, which was the beginning of Europe. We should honour them, and put this debate into context. I often say that I have been sent here from Huddersfield to make sure that people from my town get a better standard of living, improved health, welfare and prosperity. We all say that, and we all believe it, but we must put it in the broader context of the hallowed duty we have never to go back to that Europe that was so divided and bitter.

The young men who came back from that war, believing there had to be a better way, voted in the great reforming Attlee government. They would have been the people in mature years who ensured that there was a two-thirds majority for Remain in the 1975 European Referendum. My father, veteran of the 1st and 8th Armies, was one of them.

Monday, 1 April 2019

"Revoke" is run up the flagpole

As the total of signatories to the Revoke Article 50 petition powers on beyond the six million mark, key players in the Brexit debate are signalling the possibility of the government abandoning Brexit altogether. In Mrs May's case, it must be a last desperate ploy to turn the ERG and the Europhobic Labour front bench to accepting the deal she struck with Michel Barnier.

Nigel Dodds now asserts that separating Northern Ireland from Great Britain, no matter how temporarily, is too high a price to pay for regaining sovereignty for Westminster.

Mark Field, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, has indicated that he would support revocation in order to "avoid paralysis". At the time of posting, over 40% of his electorate have signed the petition, a higher proportion than in any other part of the UK.