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Friday, March 06, 2015

A failure to listen

Whatever the merits of the Assembly Remuneration Board's propoals to hike Assembly Member's pay by £10,000 a year after the next election their timing sucks.

The pay board say that the salary hike from £54,390 to £64,000 is justified because it reflects the increased responsibility that AMs will assume and changes to the job as a result of further devolution. However, as the Welsh Liberal Democrats spokesperson says: "Such a hike in salary for Assembly Members would be unthinkable considering that other public sector workers have seen their wage packets either frozen or rising only slightly in recent years."

And surely that is the point. The Remuneration Board have shown a distinct lack of sensitivity and political nous. At a time when others are struggling on minimum pay rises, if they get one at all, a 18.5% increase for Assembly Members cannot be justified.

We have until 8th April to respond to these proposals. Maybe this time they will listen.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

An island of cats

An island in Japan where cats outnumber humans by six to one. It sounds like heaven

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Fair funding for Wales

The First Minister's response to the St David's Day agreement can best be summed up as sniffy in my view. This is particularly the case on the proposed funding floor, which has been a major objective of the Welsh Government for the last five years:

On funding, the UK Government has agreed to "introduce a floor in the level of relative funding provided to the Welsh Government". 

Without a floor, Welsh funding levels will fall further below what is needed for our front line public services. So I welcome the fact that the UK Government has – at last – recognised the need for it. 

We have been working towards implementation of a floor since the Holtham Commission recommended it in July 2009. And I know it is something other parties here in the National Assembly have supported.

But last week’s announcement was a missed opportunity. 

It provided no assurances about how a floor would work in practice, when it would commence or what it would mean in terms of public spending for Wales. 

A vague commitment to a floor of some sort at some point is just not good enough. We can only be confident that funding for Wales has been put on a fair, sustainable footing for the future when the detail is agreed. And that will be a matter for the next Government – after the General Election at the next Spending Review. 

There is an important intervention by Gerry Holtham, who wrote the original and authorative report on how Wales is underfunded on the Institute of Welsh Affairs blog which puts right an important misconception in the First Minister's statement. I hope he does not mind if I quote it in full:

We used to talk about a gap between Welsh funding and what Wales would get if it were treated like an English region. The gap was estimated back in 2009 at £300 million at least and probably around £450 million. Wales was getting a 2 or 3 per cent smaller budget than was  fair. The evidence seems to be that the gap has closed since then for reasons that are not entirely clear but imply that austerity has hit English regions harder than Wales.

I do not think we have an accurate figure but the gap has shrunk and is small enough for the Treasury to argue it is negligible. Some Welsh politicians have therefore moved the goalposts and are talking about the gap between Wales and Scotland. The work in 2009 suggested Scotland was wildly over-funded and got several billion pounds a year more than it would get as an English region.. The Scots keep this not because it is fair but because of brute politics; they have an oilfield and 45 per cent of them are prepared to vote for independence. They get too much money to keep them and the oil in the Union.

Wales has no claim in fairness to get what Scotland gets and does not have the political assets that would enable it to bludgeon its way to an over-generous settlement. So I think we should drop talk of the gap with Scotland.. It was fine to ask for fairness; it is unworthy and undignified to plead for unfair special treatment.

The floor we want is a different matter. It is not a floor under the money Wales gets. It is a floor in the ratio of our spending per head to spending per head in England. It is a floor on a relative, not absolute measure. The Barnett formula means when public spending grows it grows at a slower rate in Wales than in England so our spending while going up is falling as a proportion of English spending. There is no justification for that. A floor would give Wales the same percentage increases as in England so the ratio of our spending to theirs would stay constant.

That is a big deal. Suppose public spending in England grows at 5 per cent a year. The floor means after ten years Welsh spending would be over £1 billion or some 7 per cent higher than it would be without the floor. Even if public spending grew at just 2 per cent, the floor would be worth over £400 million to Wales after ten years. This is an entirely justifiable demand and if the Cameron Clegg announcement means we have got it then we shall be as near as dammit to fair funding for Wales.

The funding floor, once it has been worked through and put in place is as valuable to the Assembly as reserved powers. It gives us some certainty on funding and enables us to proceed with the referendum to test whether the Welsh people want us to have tax varying powers or not.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Music to a cat's ears

Today's Independent carries a fascinating article about work by scientists who have been designing music that will appeal to cats.

The paper says that the scientists have they found most cats respond to music which is a "little like sonic catnip" and using tempos and melodies originating from purrs and suckling:

In a study published in the journal Applied Animal Behavioural Science, domestic cats did not respond when played human music, but upon hearing the specially-produced 'cat songs' became excited and started approaching the speakers and rubbing their scent glands on them.

The team uploaded three snippets on its website and is encouraging cat owners to play them and vote on their feline's favourite.

"We looked at the natural vocalisations of cats and matched our music to the same frequency range, which is about an octave or more higher than human voices," lead author Charles Snowdon told Discovery News.

"Since cats use lots of sliding frequencies in their calls, the cat music had many more sliding notes than the human music."

As it happens, the music does sound pretty nice to humans too – Cozmo's Air could easily be an instrumental Bjork track.

This sounds a little harsh on Bjork of course. What I want to know though is who is going to record such music? After all it is not as if cats are able to buy it on Amazon.

Monday, March 02, 2015

UKIP accused of breaking EU funding rules

The Times reports that questions have been raised over Ukip’s use of EU funding for general election campaign materials, after Labour accused the party of encouraging its candidates to break the rules.

They say that UKIP advised candidates in one of its confidential bi-weekly emails this month to “access materials” paid for by Brussels that argue that the EU is “damaging” to the UK’s national interests:

Such leaflets are published with funding granted to Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), the bloc of national parties that Ukip belongs to in the European parliament. Use of the money is governed by strict rules.

The email from Ukip’s Elect 2015 Campaign Team, led by David Soutter, head of candidates, conceded: “As we’re now in an election period . . . There are tight regulations on the EFDD Group about what this literature can be used for, and the rules state quite clearly that it cannot be used for domestic electioneering purposes.”

Ukip then advised: “All you need to make sure you do is put such materials out on display for people to take, rather than physically handing them out.”

The instructions appear to go against strict rules set by the European parliament, which clearly state that funding for political groups “cannot be used to fund European political parties or electoral campaigns”.

The rules also state that this funding cannot “be used to finance any form of European, national, regional or local electoral campaign”.

It seems that UKIP don't mind the European Union when they can use its resources to its own advantage.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Showing MPs the yellow card

Interesting article in the Sunday Times about Labour's proposals to make it easier for the Speaker to keep order in the House of Commons. They say that the party proposes to issue yellow cards to MPs who shout, heckle or make crude gestures.

The plan is that a first warning will see an MP banned for an hour with a second leading to exclusion for up to three sessions:

The proposal for a “sin bin” follows complaints by MPs, and research showing the public are turned off by boorish behaviour. The Labour MP Sarah Champion complained recently of a sexist atmosphere in the chamber where, she said, male MPs were “very good at gesticulating” about female MPs’ breasts and bottoms as they tried to make speeches.

Other MPs have shouted “nurse” when colleagues speak — implying they are psychiatric patients needing help — or use sign language to insult members, including the sign for bulls**t”.

Luckily the Commons is televised so they will be able to take advantage of goal line technology as well.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Labour row over Miliband tuition fee pledge

Labour's new tuition fee policy has certainly caused a few ripples in the electoral pond but not necessarily in the right places. As has been pointed out elsewhere the plan is to cut tax relief for pensioners so as to knock £3,000 off the cost of studying. However, the effect of this ruse is to help the well-off rather than those who need it most.

Labour's new policy means that only graduates with a starting salary of at least £35,000 will pay less. Much as I dislike the system it is currently working in that there are now a record number of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. If Miliband wanted to make a difference he would have done well to have used the money instead to bolster maintenance grants by a lot more than they propose instead.

According to the Independent the policy has caused unease within the Labour Party as well. They say that some senior Labour figures are believed to be concerned at the direction the policy is going in. These include Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor; Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary and Tristram Hunt, the shadow Education Secretary:

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said Labour’s sums added up but the shake-up would not help the poorest half of graduates.  He said they would not earn enough to be paying back any less under the Labour policy than under the current policy. “The group who will benefit from this are the higher earning half of graduates. So those graduates who go on to the best jobs will find that their repayments go down where as those graduates who go on to less good jobs will not find any difference in the repayments that they actually have to make.” 

All in all the whole policy looks like a mess.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Will the lights go out under Labour?

The Sun has already reported on the views of a senior energy consultant that Labour's proposed energy price freeze has already cost each household £70.

They say that Tim Ham of Pearson Ham believes that the threat of a Labour Government freezing bills meant the “Big 6” suppliers are worried about cutting bills and then being unable to put them up if costs spiralled. He estimates that average gas bill, currently £695 a year, could be around 10 per cent lower if the energy market was allowed to operate without the threat of political intervention.

He added that Labour’s claim that it only wanted to “cap” bills has exactly the same effect on suppliers as the threat of a freeze. Ed Miliband vowed to freeze domestic energy bills for 20 months if he won the Election. However, since his pledge, wholesale gas prices have tumbled by 33 per cent but suppliers have only announced small cuts from the start of January.

Now the Telegraph has joined the fray with their report of a key note speech to business leaders at which the Labour leader was present, in which Mark Carleton, services director at Mestec, a company which measures factory performance has warned that "new power investment" is "desperately needed" and that the energy companies will need to make "massive investments".

His concern is that these investments will not be made if prices are capped: He said: "Power generation capacity margins are at historic lows. Investment in new power generation is desperately needed. The Labour party's apparent position is that energy company's profit margins of between 3.5 and 4.5 per cent are excessive.

"What level of profits would you regard as acceptable, and do you believe that profit margins of below the current levels are going to be sufficient to incentivise energy companies to make the massive investments that are required to keep our lights on? Or do you believe that the funding to build new generation facilities is going to come from elsewhere."

All-in-all, Ed Miliband has a lot of food for thought as to how this cap will work, if it is desirable at all in the face of falling energy prices.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tories lost in fantasy land on badger cull again

Just in case we needed another reason not to vote for the Conservatives, the Environment Secretary provided us with a good one yesterday. She told us that if her party wins the General Election then thousands more badgers will be shot, allegedly to protect cattle from tuberculosis.

Her evidence for this nonsense is that bovine TB has reduced in Gloucestershire and Somerset following culls. However, she fails to mention that the culls in both these counties failed to meet their targets and as such the attempt to eliminate the wildlife reservoir of TB was unsuccessful.

It follows therefore that the reduction in bTB is due to something else, such as for example better cattle control measures or just a variation in the cycle of the disease.

Nor does she refer to the reduction in bTB in cattle in the North Pembrokeshire area where there has been no cull. Instead the Welsh Government has instigated a programme of badger inoculation alongside the better cattle control measures.

In short the Environment Secretary is grasping at straws to justify previous failed policies and in an attempt to win the votes of farmers who prefer a simplistic shoot first and ask questions later solution instead of one that is backed by evidence.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Barnett twist even the anoraks will baulk at

Over at the BBC, David Cornock has news of a new initiative on securing fair funding for the Welsh Assembly.  He says that the Prime Minister is happy to offer a floor below which the amount of money we receive cannot fall, but only if it is linked to an agreement to hold a referendum on tax-varying powers.

This strikes me as a step backwards in the UK Government's position, and certain defeat for any referendum held on those terms.

If a Barnett flooris justifiable (which it is) then it should be delivered unconditionally. This so-called 'offer' is tantamount to blackmail and the Welsh people will react accordingly.

I happen to support tax-varying powers for Wales because I believe that they will improve accountability but it should be up to the Welsh Assembly to determine the timing of a referendum not UK Ministers. In that way we might have a chance of winning it.

UK Government Ministers would not dare treat Scotland in this way, so why Wales?

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