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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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Teachers treat Labour shadow education secretary with contempt he deserves

The Independent reports that teachers have been posting a series of parody oaths online in response to shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt's suggestion of a "Hippocratic oath" for those in the profession.

The Labour MP believes that a public oath for teachers would emphasise the "moral calling and the noble profession of teaching".

However, a number of parody oaths have now started to appear on Twitter under the hashtag #teacheroath, many mocking the suggestion. Some of the examples are:

#teacheroath I swear to follow education policies thought up by people with no relevant experience apart from the fact they went to school.

I pledge to work 60 hour weeks before I'm forced out with complete exhaustion #teacheroath

But the one that sums it up is: #teacheroath Who would be a teacher if they didn't have commitment to the job. Hardly a well paid walk in the park.

Who would have thought that Tristram Hunt could give politicians an even worse reputation than they do already?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Another blow to the surveillance state

Today's Independent reports on a legal opinion, submitted to the Home Office, which concludes that the use of surveillance drones by the British government is probably illegal.

The paper explains that several government departments and police forces have increasingly used remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), however the legal guidance warns it is “probably unlawful” for security services to “retain or use surveillance data” captured by drones under current laws:

The release of the legal guidance comes as an influential House of Lords prepares to quiz government officials on drone use on Monday. The House of Lords EU Sub-Committee will question officials from the Department of Transport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills over drone policy, including national security concerns.

However civil liberties and opposition MPs are demanding a fuller enquiry into drone use. Rachel Robinson, a policy officer for Liberty, said “As the use of spy drones by the state and private sector grows, so too do the concerns about the lawfulness of this intrusive technology. We need to know who is spying on us and why and where our right to privacy comes into the equation. The industry grew up in the shadows but can no longer be kept in the dark.”

The guidance, from leading public law barrister Jemima Stratford QC, was commission by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones. It warns the use of drones for surveillance is unlawful and constitutes a “disproportionate interference” with the right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The paper continues that the legal guidance states that while drone use is covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA)this act was not designed for this purpose. It warns, “We consider, on balance, that is a disproportionate interference with an individual's right to privacy for the security services (or any other government department) to retain and use surveillance data, without any safeguards concerning its use, storage or destruction.

The question now is whether the UK Government will pay any attention or whether it will take a court case to make them do so.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Another good reason why we need Liberal Democrats Ministers

The Independent illustrates perfectly why Liberal Democrats Minister have been pivotal in reining in the Tories as part of the coalition government as it reports that Theresa May is under mounting pressure over claims by a Home Office minister that the Conservatives had “suppressed” two reports into drug abuse because they could prove politically embarrassing.

They say that the Liberal Democrat, Norman Baker, who is the drugs minister, told The Independent last week that the documents are gathering dust despite being ready for publication since July. They add that there are concerns that the reports are being sat on because the department does not want to be seen to endorse less hardline drugs policies.

Mr. Baker has blamed the Conservatives for blocking the reports and accused our Coalition partners of playing politics with addicts’ lives:

Maryon Stewart, who founded the charity the Angelus Foundation to highlight the risks of legal highs after her daughter’s death, said she shared Mr Baker’s frustrations.

“Weeks and months have been wasted when we could have been getting to grips with educating young people and stopping these dangerous substances being sold on the high street,” she said.

Ms Stewart added: “It is just not acceptable there should be political posturing with one eye on the general election when the issue is safeguarding young people. These harmful and unpredictable substances can rob them of their mental well-being and even end their lives.”

Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of the drugs advice charity Release, called on the Home Office to release the research on drugs overseas as quickly as possible.

She said: “The countries they visited included Portugal, Uruguay, Netherlands and Denmark which arguably have a more pragmatic response to drug use.

“It could make a difference to look at policy overseas that works. There are alternatives worth exploring which could have better outcomes.”

She said she was “baffled” by the failure to release the research on legal highs as the Home Office had asked expert groups to submit evidence on the issue.

Danny Kushlick, spokesman for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said: “Both Tory and Labour governments have a long and shameful history of withholding drug policy analysis that contradicts the prohibitionist orthodoxy.

“Yet again they are playing power politics with the lives of ordinary people in order to maintain an illusion of safety and security. It is citizens’ right to see the evidence and it is the right of all of us to have policies that are genuinely effective, just and humane, and that provide health and security.”

Whatever you think about this issue surely it is better to have the evidence out there so we can have an informed public debate around this issue instead of hiding it away because it is politically inconvenient. Thank goodness we have ministers like Norman Baker who share that view.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Misdirection over council finances

The Public Services Minister's evidence to the Assembly's Communities Committee yesterday was a classic case of misdirection.

Having announced a local government settlement that cuts grant funding by 3.4% he was keen to put the onus back on councillors, hinting that making savings was not going to be as hard as it looks, simply because between them Wales' 22 Councils hold nearly £1 billion in  reserves.

Seven of these councils he said hold roughly 20% of their turnover in reserve. He added that if this money was being kept back for a rainy day then that time has come.

If only things were that simple. The fact is that most of these reserves are earmarked or committed for specific projects put in place to benefit local people.

In some cases tens of millions of pounds have been put to one side to meet equal pay claims from staff. In other cases money is there for pension changes or capital projects. And of course those reserves can only be spent once. If you use them to fill a gap in revenue funding then you are just deferring difficult decisions to future years.

It is not as if councils can complain about these tactics of course. After all many of them have tried the same trick on schools when cutting education budgets. But really, it does not help anybody when having taken a difficult decision the minister then hints that local councils have easier alternatives to the deep cuts they are all contemplating.

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