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Saturday, August 01, 2015

Dunking the biscuit test

Andy Burnham is the latest politician to flounder in a live webchat with Mumsnet, responding to the famous biscuit question by saying he prefers beer, chips and gravy. What sort of answer is that?

Over at the Telegraph, they have listed all the answers given by politicians to the query as to what is their favourite biscuit. It has featured in 28 of 76 such encounters.

Margaret Thatcher famously struggled with a member of the public demanding details about the sinking of the Belgrano. For Gordon Brown, it was the biscuit question that sank his campaign.

As for the rest:  Nick Clegg's choice of rich tea biscuits (if dunking) or chocolate HobNobs (if alone) is pretty solid. A man of flexibility and nuance.

Nicola Sturgeon's penchant for Tunnock's Caramel Wafers could be cringeworthy nationalism or could plausibly be simply because they are delicious.

And say what you like about Ed Miliband, he's remarkably consistent here. December 2009: Jaffa Cake. December 2011: Jaffa Cake.

Some answers are just a bit odd. Ed Davey likes fig rolls. David Cameron likes oatcakes (with, he specifies, butter and cheese). Natalie Bennett of the Green Party likes macaroons because she can't eat gluten (fair enough).

Personally, I side with Laurence Dodds and Asa Bennett, the authors of the piece, in choosing milk chocolate HobNobs, with ginger nuts as a runner up. Dunking is optional of course.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Will David Miliband return to assume the throne?

It is still 43 days before we will know who the new leader of the Labour Party will be. It feels like an eternity has passed already. Can we cope with another six weeks of Labour's very public self-immolation? Haven't they learnt yet that there are some things best done in private?

What is worse the Times reports that a number of Blairites are already planning for a post-Jeremy Corbyn world. That is they are starting to line up options for getting rid of the Islington MP should he win in September.

The paper quotes 'leading-Blairites' who believe that David Miliband could return as an MP if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader so as to try to take advantage of the hard-left candidate’s likely downfall.

At the same time the Communication Workers Union  has endorsed Mr Corbyn and urged him to purge the party of Blairites, calling them a “virus”. A walk in the park this is not. These people are meant to be on the same side.

Given David Miliband's lack of killer instinct when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister and when decisive action could have got him the keys to the party leadership and number 10 Downing Street, the chances of any of this plot becoming a reality is unlikely.

However, it is indicative of the mood in the Labour Party at present, who seem to have embarked on one all-mighty self-destructive binge to oblivion.

I know that it won't come to that but one has to ask oneself why so-called Socialists are indulging themselves in this way and consequently giving the Tories a free ride as they dismantle our public services?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Plaid Cymru gag one of their star names

There is no surer sign of a paranoid leader, uncomfortable with her role and not in control of her own party than one who pursues gagging orders against her own colleagues, especially one who only a few years ago was a rival for the leadership. In fact there are many examples of this sort of behaviour, most of them in non-democratic countries.

I have said many times that Plaid Cymru are not a liberal party and earlier this week they proved it by getting Dafydd Elis-Thomas' local party to prevent him speaking out-of-turn on issues he feels strongly about.

The Western Mail reports that Lord Elis-Thomas has been told he can not make public statements on Plaid Cymru’s policy and strategy without agreeing them with his constituency first. This edict came about after Plaid Cymru's National Executive sent representatives to meet with the  Dwyfor Meirionnydd constituency party to try and rein him in.

What was Lord Elis-Thomas' offence? He gave a view on his party's General Election campaign, after the event.  Telling the media in June that their campaign was not focused on arguments about Wales’ future.

He added that Plaid Cymru has no special pleading that it is more Welsh than other parties, and that to say so was arrogant and a “bit sectarian”:

“It's not about complaining on behalf of Wales now, its about running the country,” he said.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas is a much-respected member of the National Assembly with a great deal to contribute. That Plaid Cymru have effectively side-lined him speaks volumes for their own short-comings as a party.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Liberal Democrats should boycott peerage merry-go-round

The House of Lords is the second largest revising chamber in the World, it is unaccountable and if the Lord Sewel episode is to be believed, it is out of control.  Despite that the Independent reports that the Prime Minister is planning to appoint yet more Tory peers in order to redress the political balance there.

This just perpetuates a merry-go-round in which successive Prime Ministers add to the numbers in the House of Lords to reward loyal service, get rid of troublemakers, open up winnable seats for their favourites, thank financial donors or seek to get a majority of working peers. Occasionally, they appoint people for their expertise. It is the longest-running farce in Westminster.

The Liberal Democrats have long been committed to reform, arguing for a scaled-down and democratically elected second chamber with a clearly defined role within the British Constitution and which will be accountable to voters for its actions. Tim Farron is absolutely right to call for a constitutional convention to get a consensus as to how we can achieve this.

But enough is enough. The Liberal Democrats need to stick with their principles and walk away from this ever-growing fiasco. We should tell the Prime Minister that we are no longer going to help him add to this already bloated body of legislators.

The Liberal Democrats group of peers are doing an excellent job and should be allowed to continue with that role within the system as it stands. But until there is reform Tim Farron should not add to their number. Somebody has to make a stand and as a party with a clear way forward that somebody should be the Liberal Democrats.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Welsh Government is letting down Wales' poorest and most vulnerable people

Today's Guardian covers the report of the Welsh Assembly's Public Accounts Committee on the impact of welfare changes on social housing tenants in Wales. It is the third successive report to criticise Labour Ministers for their failure to stand up for the country's poorest and most vulnerable people.

As the paper says last month the Welsh government was strongly attacked by an assembly committee for its lack of progress in tackling poverty, claiming women, children and refugees had been particularly badly affected.

Whilst earlier this month another committee highlighted the striking number of Welsh people over 50 who are struggling to find work, and said the government had become so focused on youth unemployment that it was neglecting its older citizens:

The Public Accounts Committee found that of recent welfare changes, the removal of the spare room subsidy, dubbed the bedroom tax, had been the most significant in Wales.

While the Scottish government mitigated the effects of the bedroom tax by handing out discretionary housing payments, the Welsh government chose not to. Instead it prioritised investment in the construction of smaller properties and the provision of advice services. The committee has called on the government to look again at whether it should follow the Scottish model.

During its inquiry, the committee heard claims that hundreds of larger homes in the social housing sector were being left empty because of the bedroom tax and millions of pounds were being wasted because disabled people had to move out of properties that had been adapted for their needs.

The committee’s report points out that the housing benefit reforms are a prelude to further changes that will be imposed by the UK government including the full roll-out of universal credit. It says:

“The Welsh government should take a more proactive position in coordinating Wales’s response to the welfare reform agenda.”

It is certainly true that the Welsh Government has been fairly timid in its response to the bedroom tax due to concerns about the cost of a Scottish-style intervention, but it is also the case that they sat back and waited for the measure to be implemented before acting, despite having two years notice of what was to come.

A proactive and co-ordinated approach from the very start could have helped more people stay in their homes and mitigated some of the impact of this change, especially in terms of funding the building of smaller properties and targeting assistance to those with adaptations.

I am also concerned about the Government's general approach to dealing with poverty. The Enterprise and Business Committee's report underlined the view of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee that there is no joined-up approach across the Welsh Government in tackling poverty, whilst the latter committee also concluded that far from tackling poverty, Ministers were in fact just alleviating it, focussing on the symptoms of poverty rather than tackling the root causes.

What is becoming clear is that Wales is falling further behind the rest of the UK and the Welsh Government is failing to address that problem.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Should we cull the House of Lords?

For those who read my views on the UK Government's badger cull, this particular conundrum is of a totally different order.  The Times reports that a group of MPs and peers have set up an inquiry into reducing the size of the House of Lords amid fears that the upper chamber is too big.

They say that a cross-party panel will report later this year and could recommend cutting the numbers or introducing compulsory retirement:

David Cameron has faced warnings that the Lords could swell to more than 1,000. He is expected to ennoble a number of new Tories in his dissolution honours list, and Liberal Democrat and Labour peers will also be added.

The Conservative leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, has promised to listen carefully to the recommendations of the review by the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber.

The Conservative election manifesto effectively ruled out an overhaul of the Lords. It said that the party could see a strong case for introducing some elected peers, but this was “not a priority”. A Tory government would seek to ensure that the upper chamber “continues to work well by addressing issues such as the size of the chamber and the retirement of peers”.

Speaking in the chamber last week, Lady Stowell said: “While we cannot continue to grow indefinitely, the measure most relevant in my view is the average rate of attendance.”

I have read elsewhere today that the House of Lords is the one of the largest second chambers in the world but surely talk about reducing its size is missing the point. The problem is not a surfeit of ermine, it is the absence of accountability.

So why set up a committee to look at membership and not one concerned with finding a consensus on how to get an elected second chamber?  If the obsession of the British establishment with peripheral issues like these is a survival tactic then it serves us ill. We need radical reform not tinkering at the edges.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tory u-turn on social care costs - another Liberal Democrats initiative ditched

The decision by Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt to shelve until 2020 the coalition government's commitment to cap care bills to £72,000 for the over-65s and for younger adults with disabilities is not just a broken Tory manifesto promise but also another Liberal Democrat initiative they have ditched.

This was an important policy promoted by Liberal Democrat ministers to prevent old people having to sell their home to pay care bills. Those families who were relying on this change are going to be very disappointed. What is more, as this Guardian article makes clear, the proposed delay is going to cost the government a lot of money:

Experts say huge sums of public money have been wasted on fees for employing the top advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi to promote the policy, the development of IT systems to run it, and the cost of running public consultations.

James Lloyd, director of the Strategic Society Centre thinktank, said: “I would estimate the ‘capped cost’ reforms have cost the taxpayer between £50m-£100m to date.

“This is a lot of money at a time that councils are cutting support packages for the most vulnerable members of their communities. And it is a lot of money when the problems associated with the reforms were readily apparent back in July 2011.

“Up and down England, 152 local authorities have been training frontline staff and managers in relation to the reforms and developing IT systems."

So far the Tories have abandoned much of the green agenda by cutting funding to the green deal and subsidies for on-shore wind farms, postponed the introduction of subsidised childcare, targeted families and those in work with £12 billion of welfare cuts and broken clear promises on care costs.

If those reversals of policy do not underline the importance of the Liberal Democrats in the previous coalition government in keeping the Tories honest and promoting important social reforms then nothing will.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Now the Tories start to unpick Liberal Democrats work to tackle climate change

Watching the Tories make cuts to welfare benefits, which the Liberal Democrats had blocked when in Government is painful enough, but having Labour collude with them in measures such as limiting child tax credit to two children defies belief.

Now it seems that, not content with delivering unnecessary and ideological cuts to our welfare system, the Tories also want to undo some of the good work of our Ministers on climate change. In particular, they have announced they will end all Government funding to the Green Deal, a programme set up by the Liberal Democrats in Coalition that helps people make their homes more energy efficient.

As Tim Farron says, for five years Liberal Democrats fought sceptical Tories to ensure we were the greenest Government ever by investing billions in renewables and setting out ambitious climate change targets.

But in quietly dumping the Green Deal, David Cameron has once more shown how little he cares about the future of the planet.

I was particularly taken with this phrase, which is classic-Farron and underlines how life is not going to be boring with him as leader:

"The Prime Minister has not so much hugged a husky as led it behind the coal shed, shot it in the head and told his Energy Secretary it has gone to live on a farm in the country."

The value of having the Liberal Democrats in government is becoming clearer every day.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Health and safety for cows

The Daily Telegraph definitely has headline of the week with this eye-catching offering:

Cows 'should wear flourescent jackets and strings of lights' at night, council says


The paper says that a local council has suggested that cows be dressed in high-viz reflective jackets with lights strung around their necks to ensure they can be spotted by motorists at night:

The proposal, which would create a herd of “disco” cattle and light up the local common, was put forward as a means of allowing the animals to graze in safety in poor light.

Several cows have been struck by cars on the green at Hungerford, Berks, and last month one was so badly hurt it had to be put down by a vet.

The problem is far from new and farmers have spent years trying to persuade the local authority to introduce traffic calming measures to stop motorists tearing through the common at high speed.

But there was a collective rolling of eyes when it was suggested this week that the cows be dressed in fluorescent jackets with luminous bands around their necks.

Martin Crane, the mayor of Hungerford, even went one further and proposed the animals wear strings of flashing lights.

Perhaps fortunately for the 175-strong herd in question, the measure was deemed too costly and would have left either the council or the farmers around £3,000 out of pocket.

Roger Denton, one of the farmers who keeps around 25 cows on the land during the summer months, said it was not the first time councillors had come up with the “hair-brained idea”.

“It’s been mentioned before. I think it’s ridiculous,” he said.

“The bottom line is that it’s all down to the speed of cars. If a cow had a fluorescent strip around its neck, you wouldn’t be able to see it if it had its back to you or if it was facing you head on.

“What are the chances of the perfect cow that’s going to cross right in front of you, side on, to ensure you spot its décor?


Back to the drawing board then.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Wales leads the way on bovine TB - without a cull

The BBC reports some very good news, reporting comments by the chief veterinary officer for Wales that the various measures being deployed against the spread of TB in cattle here are starting to show results.

Although Professor Christianne Glossop says that it is too early to determine the impact of the badger vaccination programmes in Pembrokeshire, she told an audience at the Royal Welsh Show in Llanelwedd, Powys that incidents of TB have fallen by 28%. She added a 45% cut in animals being culled had left 94% of herds TB free.

The five-year vaccination programme has one year remaining, with results not expected for another two years. and although it and other measures are expensive the trends are good.

Perhaps the UK Government should take note and follow our example instead of its ineffective and inhumane cull policy.

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