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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Council tries to flog off artwork it doesnt own and dummy cameras

The South Wales Evening Post has two stories today that cause one to pause with astonishment.

Firstly, there is the tale of Neath Port Talbot Council's attempt to plug its budget gap by selling off
four works of art in their possession, including the Ludwig Von Hofer statue, the Roman Emperor Statue, Benjamin West American picture and a pair of pictures attributable to the studio of Allan Ramsay.

The paper says that at a council cabinet meeting in September, members voted to sell the four works through Sotheby's, but these plans have now been put on hold after it was discovered they might not belong to the council:

The authority's head of property and regeneration, Gareth Nutt, said: "We have been contacted by the National Museum of Wales to tell us the pictures attributed to Allan Ramsay were part of a loan agreement with them some 40 years ago."

Mr Nutt said any sale of the pictures would be subject to "proof of prominence".

A National Museum Wales spokesman said: "The Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales artworks on loan at Margam Orangery are large portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte by the Studio of Allan Ramsay.

"Neath Port Talbot Council are aware that these paintings are owned by National Museum Wales and are currently on loan to the Orangery.

"We are in contact with the council and further discussions regarding this loan will take place in due course."

Meanwhile, those of us who have been struggling through road works on Fabian Way, the road between Swansea and the M4, will be astonished at this story in the same paper.

For the last four months or so contractors have been building a new entrance to the university campus that is being built there. They have put in place a 30mph zone to protect themselves and drivers and placed average speed cameras in situ so as to enforce it.

Naturally, the Evening Post wanted to know how many drivers had been caught speeding through this section of road. The answer was none, because they had not switched the camera on, even though up to 200 speeding offences are being committed there every day:

A spokeswoman for GoSafe, Wales’ road casualty reduction partnership, confirmed that no speeding offences had so far been “processed”.

She added: “On average there are between 125 to 200 offences that have been recorded daily. This is dependent on day of the week and traffic management activity at this location.

“The average speed recorded is currently 39.4mph with the highest recorded speed of 70mph.

“The system will be going live imminently and we would ask all drivers to comply with the relevant speed limit which is there for a reason.”

The £2.6 million road access work began in the middle of June and is due to take 40 weeks to complete.

The first £250 million phase of the Bay Campus will welcome students and staff at the beginning of next academic year.

A Neath Port Talbot spokesman said the cameras would be in situ until the road access work was completed, and that the decision to switch the cameras to “live” was down to GoSafe.

In other words, they forgot to switch them on and only now that they have been reminded will they press the go live switch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Political footballs and the Welsh NHS

As a Welsh politician I am the last person to defend Labour's management of the health service this side of the border.

Hard-working and dedicated staff are being put under pressure by the under-resourcing of key services, waiting time targets are being missed and major services such as the Wales Ambulance Service Trust are under-performing. There is a clear case for an independent and over-arching inquiry into the way the Welsh NHS is being run.

You only have to read the articles on Freedom Central here to get a picture of everything that is wrong and needs fixing with the Welsh Health Service.

Having said that one has to sympathise with the director of the Royal College of Nursing in Wales, who told the BBC that arguments between politicians are just adding to the pressure on staff.

Labour have once more fallen back on the claim that the Daily Mail and Tory Ministers are conducting a war on Wales and on NHS staff. They claim that statistics are being distorted and lies are being told.

Of course they have done exactly the same thing with regards to the English NHS so it is a bit rich for them to call foul now. Claims by Labour that the NHS is being used as a political football do not stand up either. After all, as anybody who remembers the War of Jennifer's Ear in 1992 will know Labour has been using the health service in this way since it was founded in 1945.

Amongst all these accusations and counter-accusations it is difficult to establish the facts but, as Nick Servini points out on his BBC blog, it is clear that in certain areas Wales is trailing behind England in terms of how its health service is performing. I have not seen many examples of where the reverse is the case.

This row is going to escalate of course as the General Election gets nearer. After all Ed Miliband invited the comparison when he started to use the Welsh Government's record as an example of what Labour can do.

But we must not forget the essential truth that this row is about political mismanagement. It is not about the staff who, for the most part are exceptional, professional and hard-working. It is about what patients can expect from their health service and whether those in government are delivering on those expectations on both sides of the border.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Employers say cutting EU immigration will backfire

There is a sensible contribution from employers today to the debate on EU immigration with EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, calling for an end to the “misinformation and paranoia” it says is dominating the debate over Britain’s future in Europe.

The EEF joins the CBI in defending the EU’s free movement principle, as Mr Cameron pledges to make reform of it his key demand when he seeks new membership terms ahead of the in/out referendum he has promised in 2017.

The Independent says that Terry Scuoler, chief executive of the manufacturers’ body, will say in a speech tomorrow: “For too long now the debate about our future in the EU has been hijacked, and some would say driven by, a powerful political vested interest, which is to extract Britain from the EU, without any recognition of what that rupture would cost. They must not be allowed to prevail.”

Mr Scouler will express fears that the UK debate will focus on immigration, which is “dogged by misinformation, and in some cases a good dose of paranoia as well.”  He will insist: “Britain has a yawning skills gap, and this will widen in the next five to 10 years as highly skilled employees retire. We need and want employees from other European nations   and indeed from other parts of the world - in this country,  making a contribution, paying tax and supporting our economy.”

Katja Hall, the CBI’s deputy director general, said: “Businesses recognise that free movement of workers within the EU is a sensitive issue but are clear that it is an essential part of the single market. It boosts the attraction of investing in the UK, creates jobs and offers firms here real benefits in working with our biggest trading partners


The danger is of course that the best interests of the country will be lost in the scrabble to neutralise UKIP. That should not be allowed to happen.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cameron pushing us out of Europe

The impact of the campaign by David Cameron and the Conservative party to renegotiate our position in Europe on our relations with other countries is not often commented on by the press, but inevitably it has undermined our position in Europe itself and weakened the British Prime Minister's bargaining position in terms of getting a better deal from the EU.

This is made clear today from the comments by the European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso who believes that David Cameron is pushing Britain closer to leaving the European Union by running a negative campaign that fails to take on Eurosceptics.

The Times says that Mr. Barrosa says that a British exit from the EU could have a catastrophic impact on the economy and would mean that the UK would struggle to retain even marginal relevance on the world stage.. Yet despite that voters may back the move regardless, unless politicians urgently make the case for the EU’s benefits:

 Appearing on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC One yesterday, he chastised the prime minister for relying on EU freedom of movement laws only when it suited him. “I remember when prime minister Cameron called me to ask the commission to be tough in ensuring the freedom of movement between Gibraltar and Spain. British citizens have freedom of movement all over Europe. There are 700,000 living in Spain. So the principle of freedom of movement is essential,” Mr Barroso said.

“Freedom of movement is a very important principle in the internal market. Arbitrary caps seem to me . . . in contradiction with European laws.”


The paper adds that in an apparent attack on Mr Cameron’s increasingly hard line, Mr Barroso will warn today that “you can never win a debate from the defensive”.

“We saw in Scotland that you actually need to go out and make the positive case,” he will say. 

“If people read only negative and often false portrayals in their newspapers from Monday to Saturday, you cannot expect them to nail the European flag on their front door on Sunday just because the political establishment tells them it is the right thing to do.”

In a cutting attack on the Ukip leader Nigel Farage, he will profess no interest in the “relentless march to one single super-state”.

“I may prefer a glass or two of red wine than a pint of beer when I am out on the election trail, but I, too, come from a country with a long history, proud of its culture and tradition,” he will say. “And it may be a revelation to some, but the vast majority of people living in Europe are also rather attached to their national identity.”

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Warning to Tories on European Arrest Warrant

The Guardian warns David Cameron and his Conservative Party that UK efforts to bring terrorists, including jihadis, to justice in this country will be seriously impeded if he bows to pressure from Eurosceptics and opts out of European Union police and justice co-operation.

The paper says that the prime minister is facing what could be the biggest backbench rebellion of his premiership over Europe next month, when up to 100 Conservative MPs could vote against the UK continuing to be part of a package of EU policies that includes the European Arrest Warrant.

Apparently, Tory rightwingers are arguing that the UK should be reclaiming powers from the EU, rather than giving them away, and transferring more sovereignty in Brussels. They are putting pressure on the prime minister to opt out of the EAW, which allows for speedier extraditions between signatory countries. The danger is that faced with the UKIP threat, Cameron might agree.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, who is a member of the Commons intelligence and security committee, and former Conservative immigration minister Damian Green, have it absolutely right in warning that pulling out of the EAW would be a disastrous move at a time of heightened concern over terrorism:

Campbell said it was “absolutely extraordinary” that Tory MPs were so determined to end UK participation in the European Arrest Warrant, given that police chiefs and the home secretary, Theresa May, were firmly in favour of retaining it.

Campbell said: “If we don’t have the European Arrest Warrant, it is not difficult to envisage a young jihadist, who is unwilling to face prosecution in the UK, choosing to hole up in some other European country, and putting the British government to the test of seeking his or her extradition – without the presumption of doing so which the warrant confers.”

He added: “When the home secretary and the most senior police offers in the land are convinced of the advantages to this country of the EAW, it is almost beyond belief that their judgment is not accepted, particularly at a time when the terrorist threat has never been greater.”


This is one issue we cannot afford to give in on.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The dysfunctional Ed Miliband

Today's Times reports that Labour MPs are worried that the dysfunctional nature of their leader's office will leave the party exposed and out for the count at the General Election.

The paper says that unforced errors and an apparent unwillingness to expand and explain Labour’s more controversial plans is angering the rest of the party. The problem is made worse by Ed Miliband's tendency to duck big, often binary decisions even when he has been given plenty of notice:

There is a growing belief that while he can be smart when forced to choose between a right-wing and a left-wing solution — on issues such as bankers, phone-hackers and energy companies — he struggles with other kinds of big decisions. Few thought that “English votes for English laws”, parliamentary recall or Palestinian statehood could have caused such internal strife. In a worrying echo of the past, the whole team is prone to call for more research — behaviour learnt under Gordon Brown.

Could Mr Miliband and his team let the general election next year, still firmly within Labour’s grasp, slip away? After a dismal conference dominated by the leader forgetting to mention the deficit in his speech, as well as disappointing by-election results and the discomfort of the Conservatives briefly pulling ahead in some polls, a spine-stiffening address to MPs on Monday, followed by Mr Miliband’s solid performance at prime minister’s questions two days later, was badly needed.

Whether it steadies the ship remains to be seen. Where there is clear unity across Labour — from MPs to shadow cabinet teams to figures inside the party HQ — is in the chorus of demands for the Miliband operation to improve dramatically. “Collectively it’s an absolute car crash. Reverse. Re-reverse. Then one bit doesn’t know what the other bit of the office has decided. There are so many people,” said one figure who has to deal with them regularly.

“They” are Mr Miliband’s team on the second floor of a parliamentary outbuilding — Norman Shaw North in Westminster. Here decisions stack up, one on top of the next, like a bad morning over Heathrow, and policy proposals — particularly from Jon Cruddas, the leader’s adviser — mature, leak and sour over months.


A senior Labour source is quoted as saying: “It’s not down to one single person. The office has been f***ed from the start and still is. No one has been able to bring any semblance of order. Some of it is the boss . . .

“The chemistry of the people is that there are many people doing strategy and lots of Oxbridge people who are not practical. They are very clever and philosophical but not practical.”


The paper concludes that the impact of Miliband's office disorganisation is twofold. First it means there are moments of apparent paralysis, such as on English votes or Iraq. Second, caution too often wins the day, meaning that bold messages such as the party’s striking plans on migration get presented in a bland, forgettable way.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Welsh Tory leader has his knuckles rapped?

Wednesday saw all meetings in the Senedd cancelled due to strike action by some staff. The Tories were naturally perturbed by this and took to YouTube to protest that this would never happen in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Westminster.

The tweet advertising the video is still there but the video itself has been taken down.



Perhaps the reason lies in this e-mail sent by the Chief Executive to all Assembly Members the next day:

Members are reminded that filming must not take place in the Siambr without express permission in advance from the Assembly Commission Media Relations Team. Filming that is allowed must relate to a Member carrying out their duties as an Assembly Member. It must never be party political in nature and must not bring the Assembly, or its Members generally, into disrepute. Any use of the Siambr that fails to take account of these points may breach the Code of Conduct for Assembly Members

UKIP on the back foot

The extent to which UKIP, the anti-establishment, anti-politics party depends on public subsidy is laid bare by an article in yesterday's Times on the financial crisis facing them due to the collapse of their European voting bloc.

The paper says that UKIP have suffered a serious blow to its finances due to the defection of a Latvian MEP which has caused the collapse of the seven-state group led by Nigel Farage’s party in the European parliament.

They say that the extinction of Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, the parliament’s biggest anti-EU group with 48 MEPs, means UKIP and its partners will lose influence, speaking time, access to positions on committees and funding:

UKIP alone will lose €1.95 million (£1.55 million) a year of EU funds, according to the Open Europe think-tank. “For UKIP the European parliament has only ever been a stepping stone towards a domestic breakthrough, but the loss of nearly €2 million per year will be painful,” it said

The collapse of the bloc brings UKIP back to the level of euro-hostile parties dominated by Marine Le Pen of the French National Front. She failed in an attempt to form a rival group with Geert Wilders of the Netherlands in the summer. The UKIP-led group crumpled after the departure of Iveta Grigule of the Latvian Farmers’ Union. This reduced its membership to parties from six states, one below the required threshold, although it retained almost double the minimum of 25 MEPs.

Of course the party still has its tame millionaires and individual MEPs will continue to have access to expenses to fund local party offices, such as the one recently opened in Shotton as part of the party's campaign to win Flintshire next year.

And UKIP continue to benefit from a lack of proper scrutiny by the UK media. Why for example did the BBC report on the Shotton office opening when it has not done so for the offices of other politicians?

More importantly why did the BBC's report accept the premise offered to it that the office is part of a campaign to win Flintshire at the General Election, without challenging whether this is a correct use of public money?

The UKIP honeymoon in the media continues.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What was on television on the day you were born?

The BBC have a rather disturbing website that enables you to look back through old editions of Radio Times and find out what was on TV the day you were born.

I was born on a Saturday so there is a lot of sport in my case and we are talking about just the two TV channels and three radio channels. How did we cope?

The highlights which my mother missed that day include Grandstand, The Range Rider, something called 'Garry Halliday' (that weeks' episode was appropriately entitled 'The Outcast'), Juke Box Jury (of course), Dixon of Dock Green, a western series called 'Laramie', The Jimmy Logan Show (who?) Saturday Playhouse presents The Difficult Age (what else?), Sports Special and an Italian Song Contest to lead us into the test card.

Kids today don't know what they were missing.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Labour disarray and infighting

It is a sign of how dysfunctional the Labour Party has become when its own leader has to publicly appeal for unity just seven months out from the General Election.

The Times reports though that this is precisely what is happening. They say that Ed Mliband has begged Labour MPs for unity, warning that returning to the “bad habits” of infighting risks consigning the party to defeat. They add that the Labour leader expects “every person in this party” to stop sniping and help to secure victory after weeks of ­anger over election strategy:

Mr Miliband has faced a barrage of criticism since his party conference speech last month, when he forgot passages on the deficit and immigration. Labour’s narrow by-election victory over Ukip in a supposedly safe seat last week has focused attention on its ­inability to deal with Nigel Farage.

Labour whips have been assessing MPs’ concerns after Mr Miliband’s ­performance. One MP said he thought Mr Miliband would go down in history as one of the party’s worst leaders.

Addressing a meeting of MPs last night, Mr Miliband said the election fight would become even more difficult, but maintained that victory was “do­able” if the party maintained discipline.

“Normally, after an election we show disunity and division,” he said. “We have had four years of unity. I am not going to let us, seven months before an election, start lapsing into the bad habits of the past.

“Things are going to be more ­difficult. This is not 1997. There will be ups and downs which make the last few weeks look easy.”

Irrespective of the polls, Labour are looking less and less like a party of government.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The UKIP conundrum

It is a bit late but this article by Owen Jones in Sunday's Observer is well worth reading in full. It is the most damning indictment of our broken political system I have read for some time.

It says to me that if UKIP are the answer then we are asking the wrong question. But then none of the other answers look at all convincing either:

Satire is left redundant by the audacity of Ukip. Just look at the leading lights of this “anti-establishment” insurgency. Their leader is that rare breed in British politics, a privately educated ex-City broker. Their deputy chairman is Neil Hamilton, the disgraced arch-Thatcherite and one-time minister, booted from the House of Commons in ignominy. Their recent byelection victor is Douglas Carswell, an ex-Tory MP who used to work in asset management.

Their next byelection candidate is Mark Reckless, yet another public school ex-Tory whose previous career – like Nigel Farage – was in the City. They are bankrolled by ex-Tory multimillionaires like hedge-fund supremo Christopher Mills and insurance tycoon Arron Banks. Ukip talks of breaking the “political cartel” while peddling policies the entire political elite agree on, quibbling only on scale and detail: tax cuts for the rich, privatisation, slash-and-burn austerity, curtailing workers’ rights. They are the lone critics of immigration – leaving aside, of course, the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Times, the Tories and, oh, the Labour leadership too.

The problem is that whatever you think about UKIP, they are filling a gap in the market left behind by the failure of all the other parties:

Britain’s political elite has fuelled more than enough disillusionment for enterprising charlatans to exploit. Yes, there are honourable exceptions, but it has been abundantly clear what the political elite has been becoming for quite some time. Technocratic, rootless, soulless; a professionalised morass of time-servers who see ministerial posts as springboards to nice little earners on corporate boards; manoeuvring constantly not on the basis of political principle but for shameless self-advancement.

Owen Jones is scathing about the ability of the mainstream parties to respond to the challenge:

In 1979, 21 MPs previously worked in politics, but in 2010, the figure had reached 90. One in eight MPs elected in 2010 previously worked as private consultants, a jump from one in 25 in 1997. No wonder the Tory and Labour parliamentary parties are so stuffed full of people who can’t even do a rough impression of speaking like a human being. Universal suffrage – fought for at such great cost by our forebears – is silently, stealthily unwinding: a huge gap in turnout now separates middle-class professionals and unskilled workers.

Yes, there was the expenses scandal, the Iraq war, the Lib Dems’ decision to trash what little faith young people had in democracy – all have helped fuel disillusionment with political elites who were never, after all, loved. But for a generation, politicians have surrendered democratic power to the market. In postwar Britain, the promise was that citizens would be provided with a secure job, an affordable home and publicly owned services and utilities to support them. What is left for politicians to promise but the odd tinker here and there, as well as cuts and yet more surrendering of power?

And so we end up with a Labour leadership unable to offer anything resembling a coherent, inspiring alternative expressed in a language people can relate to. No – unable to offer a bit of hope, a sense that politics can be a vehicle for improving your lot, your family’s, your community’s, your country’s. Wages falling, work ever more insecure, an affordable house a fantastical dream for many. With politics unable to satisfy basic needs and aspirations, and in the absence of a convincing message of hope, anger is directed at anyone but the powerful: immigrants, unemployed people, public-sector workers. And now Ed Miliband seeks to defuse the Ukip threat by pledging further crackdowns on immigration. How has that worked out for David Cameron’s Tories, exactly?

Plenty of food for thought there.

MEP stalking

It had to happen and thank goodness it has. After all the fuss over MPs' expenses and concern about the opacity of those claimed by MEPs, somebody has produced an easy to use website so that we can track what our European representatives are getting.

EU Integrity Watch has been put together by the pressure group Transparency International who have collated information made available by the parliament, and put it all together on a user-friendly website.

The BBC reveal some of the headlines: Nearly half of all MEPs have declared no outside financial interests at all. But 398 MEPs cumulatively earn up to 18.3m euros (£14m; $23m) per year. And a select few - 12 MEPs in all - each earn more than 10,000 euros per month, above and beyond their generous parliamentary salaries and allowances.

Among the biggest earners from "outside jobs" are the leading liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, and two former French ministers - Michele Alliot-Marie and Rachida Dati. The UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge is also in Transparency's top 12.

But the big problem is that the Parliament is not asking the right questions or requiring their members to declare the right information:

"The system isn't working," says Carl Dolan, the director of Transparency International EU. "Trust in decision-making requires effective checks and credible sanctions on possible conflicts. Unfortunately, the parliament's current efforts pay only lip-service to this principle."

The trouble is that the parliamentary declaration forms are so vague that it is hard to find out more details about what many MEPs actually do in their spare time. "Consultant" and "Manager" are frequently-used terms.

Campaigners want the parliament to have much clearer guidelines, and effective sanctions against anyone issuing false declarations.

"The rules usually only change in the wake of scandals," Mr Dolan says. "We're trying to persuade the European Parliament to get ahead of the game."

In the last few weeks MEPs have made plenty of noise in confirmation hearings about potential conflicts of interest among incoming European Commissioners. Perhaps they now need to put their own house in order.

And so say all of us.

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