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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Welsh Labour's failure on education

When the opposition raise the Welsh Labour Government's appalling record on education in the chamber we are often pointed at the measures that have been put in place in the last two years as proof that concerns are being addressed.

However, further evidence that this response is too little, too late has emerged with a report on the BBC today that a confidential document from 2007 detailed weaknesses in strategy and teacher training. These are precisely the issues highlighted by an OECD report published earlier this month.

The BBC say that the 2007 report called for a more "coherent" policy programme, highlighting several weaknesses in Welsh education, including:
It was commissioned by the then education minister Jane Davidson and carried out by Prof Richard Daugherty, then of Cardiff University.

It was given to the Welsh government in November of that year, but was not published and has never been seen by anyone outside the Cardiff Bay administration.

The report was given to BBC Wales by someone who worked with the Welsh government at the time.

Prof Daugherty recommended a review of the education system in Wales by the OECD but it was five years before the Welsh government invited the OECD to undertake that process.

There have been a number of education ministers since then, including the now First Minister. The question is why they did not act on this report and why they allowed the Welsh education system to drift for so long with no strategy and no leadership.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Everyday Shakespeare

It is William Shakespeare's 450th birthday and the Independent has marked the occasion by highlighting a handful of well-used (and in some cases, surprising) sayings that come courtesy of Shakespeare:

- "For goodness sake" - Henry VIII
- "Neither here not there" - Othello
- "Mum's the word" - Henry VI, Part II
- "Eaten out of house and home" - Henry IV, Part II
- "Rant" - Hamlet
- "Knock knock! Who's there?" - Macbeth
- "All's well that ends well" - All's Well That Ends Well
- "With bated breath" - The Merchant of Venice
- "A wild goose chase" - Romeo and Juliet
- "Assassination" - Macbeth
- "Too much of a good thing" - As You Like It
- "A heart of gold" - Henry V
- "Such stuff as dreams are made on" - The Tempest
- "Fashionable" - Troilus and Cressida
- "What the dickens" - The Merry Wives of Windsor
- "Puking" - As You Like It
- "Lie low" - Much Ado About Nothing
- "Dead as a doornail" - Henry VI, Part II
- "Not slept one wink" - Cymbeline
- "Foregone conclusion" - Othello
- "The world's mine oyster" - The Merry Wives of Windsor
- "Obscene" - Love's Labour's Lost
- "Bedazzled" - The Taming of the Shrew
- "In stitches" - Twelfth Night
- "Addiction" - Othello
- "Naked truth" - Love's Labour's Lost
- "Faint-hearted" - Henry VI, Part I
- "Send him packing" - Henry IV
- "Vanish into thin air" - Othello
- "Swagger" - Henry V
- "Own flesh and blood" - Hamlet
- "Truth will out" - The Merchant of Venice
- "Zany" - Love's Labour's Lost
- "Give the devil his due" - Henry IV, Part I
- "There's method in my madness" - Hamlet
- "Salad days" - Antony and Cleopatra
- "Wear your heart on your sleeve" - Othello
- "Spotless reputation" - Richard II
- "Full circle" - King Lear
- "There's the rub" - Hamlet
- "All of a sudden" - The Taming of the Shrew
- "Come what, come may" - Macbeth

Ukip giving jobs to the Europeans


In the end the Ukip poster launch yesterday was hijacked by the BBC's Nick Robinson who confronted Nigel Farage with the £2 million questions.

The key one was why, when he is warning that millions of Europeans are waiting to take our jobs, is Mr. Farage employing a German as his secretary? The German is question is his wfie, which raises yet more questions of course about employing family members and what process was used to select staff?

Interestingly Farage's answer was that only his wife Kirsten would be prepared to work unsociable hours, seven days a week, helping him at "midnight, one o'clock, two o'clock" in his own home. So if his base of operation is his home, why is he receiving £15,500 a year to run an office in Lyminster, West Sussex, which he gets rent-free?

It would be nice to think that the Ukip campaign is unravelling before our eyes but alas I suspect instead that most people will not be aware of or will take no notice of these questions in their determination to kick the establishment on 22nd May.

It is clear though that Farage and Ukip have lots of questions to answer and are particularly susceptible to charges of hypocrisy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Government abandon hunting ban vote

There is good news in today's Times, who report that the planned vote on overturning the ban on hunting is set to be abandoned by the UK government.

They say that although the coalition agreement, signed off by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, promised that MPs would be given a free vote on tearing up the controversial Hunting Act, senior Tories have concluded that there is no point in holding the vote before the election as most MPs support the ban. They have also decided that holding a vote with no prospect of success would cause unnecessary problems for Conservatives in urban seats, where hunting is more unpopular:

The scrapping of the vote in this parliament avoids confusion over the result. Mr Clegg has said that, even if the vote went ahead and a majority of MPs favoured repealing the act, the Liberal Democrats would not agree to scrap it.

“As a party, we remain in favour of retaining the ban on hunting with hounds,” he wrote in a letter to the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS). “It is important to point out that any vote would simply be an opportunity for parliament to express its view on the act. The vote itself would not result in the act being automatically repealed.”

So it is now down to manifesto pledges. Another good reason not to give the Conservatives a majority in the next Parliament.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Ed Miliband lacks political courage says former Labour Minister

More woes for Ed Miliband in yesterday's Independent on Sunday with  a statement by former Labour minister, Barbara Roche that he needs to find the “courage” to take on the threat from Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party directly, or risk a setback for his party at next month’s European elections.

Ms. Roche, who is chair of the Migration Matters Trust and a minister in Tony Blair’s government, writes that Mr Farage has become “Labour’s Voldemort – he whose name cannot be mentioned” because Mr Miliband doesn’t want to tackle Ukip on immigration:

She believes it is a “tragedy” for Labour that the only British politician who has had the “courage” to take on Ukip is Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. While the Deputy Prime Minister was trounced in his two debates with Mr Farage, at least he had been “prepared to fight” for what he believed in, Ms Roche says. She advises Mr Miliband to make a positive, progressive case for immigration and acknowledge the benefits that migrants bring to Britain.

Barbara Roche's challenge is particularly pertinent gven the news in today's Times that a Ukip poster campaign for the European elections will contain stark warnings about the impact of EU immigration. One reads: “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose job are they after?”

The paper says that the adverts triggered instant controversy, drawing accusations of scare-mongering and that some have compared them to previous campaigns used by the far-right British National Party.  

So far only Nick Clegg has put his head above the parapet to challenge these assertions. Where are the leaders of the other two parties?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Labour as a 'one trick pony'

The Sunday Times reports on warnings by senior Labour party figures if their party continues to base its election strategy on a “cost of living crisis”, it risks becoming a “one-trick pony”.

The paper highlights that the warning comes as polling for The Sunday Times shows that the Tories are closing the gap on the issue, and that Labour now only has a narrow lead on its ability to tackle high prices, boost living standards and provide jobs. The Tories have also extended their advantage over Labour when it comes to questions of economic competence:

A senior Labour frontbencher said that with the election just over a year away, Ed Miliband needed to find something different to say on the economy. “This is the endgame . . . therefore it is really important we are not seen as a one-trick pony on the cost of living. Everyone believes that Labour would tackle that better than the Tories but if they feel that is all we are offering and the economy is doing a little bit better then it won’t be enough.”

The former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn also warned that as the economic landscape shifted, so must Miliband’s economic strategy.

“As the economy rebalances Labour needs to rebalance its policy,” he told The Sunday Times.

“Labour wins a majority in parliament when it rewards aspirations and doesn’t just recognise injustice, and when it focuses as much on creating wealth as distributing it.”

The remarks reflect increasing unease among Labour MPs about Miliband’s insistence on making the cost of living the central plank of the party’s election campaign. They fear the improving economic climate could mean it will not be such a decisive issue for many voters by the time of the general election.

Yet more unrest in Labour's ranks as the leadership of Ed Miliband comes under greater scrutiny.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Borderline insanity

It is not often I find myself agreeing with Conservative MPs, but the senior politician who has described the latest wheeze by HMRC to sell the personal financial data of millions of taxpayers to private firms as "borderline insane" has hit the nail on the head,. even if it is David Davis.

The Guardian says that despite fears that it could jeopardise the principle of taxpayer confidentiality, the proposed legislation would allow HMRC to release anonymised tax data to third parties including companies, researchers and public bodies where there is a public benefit. They add that HMRC documents say that officials are examining "charging options":

The government insists that there will be suitable safeguards on personal data. But the plans, being overseen by the Treasury minister David Gauke, are likely to provoke serious worries among privacy campaigners and MPs in the wake of public concern about the government's Care.data scheme – a plan to share "anonymised" medical records with third parties.

The Care.data initiative has now been suspended for six months over fears that people could be identified from the supposedly anonymous data, which turned out to contain postcodes, dates of birth, NHS numbers, ethnicity and gender.

HMRC's chequered record on data is likely to come under scrutiny given historical scandals involving the loss of personal information about 25 million child benefit claimants and 15,000 bank customers.

Critics fear the data could include details about income, tax arrangements and payment history and would carry a risk that people could be identified. Even the perception that this could happen may lead to a breakdown in trust between HMRC and taxpayers, the Chartered Institute of Taxation warned.

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, said the information could be highly useful to credit rating agencies, advertisers, and retailers wanting to practise price discrimination.

He also raised concerns about any government claims to have made data fully anonymous.

"This is going to be a big battleground," he said. "If they were to make HMRC information more available, there's an awful lot of people who would like to get their hands on it. Anonymisation is something about which they lied to us over medical data … If the same thing is about to be done by HMRC, there should be a much greater public debate about this.

This is yet another initiative that I would look to the Deputy Prime Minister to veto.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Generation rent?

This article in the Western Mail graphically illustrates why the various Government schemes to help people get on the housing ladder are so important.

A lot of attention is being given to the impact of the UK Government's Help to Buy schemes on London and the South East of England, with claims that it will create a housing bubble. It certainly has not done so yet.

However, the biggest impact of these schemes (and the largest take-up) is outside of these areas. We cannot allow UK Housing policy to be dictated by the economy of the South East,  nor can we view these issues just through a London-centric eye. As reported here, three quarters of Help to Buy mortgage applications came from outside London and the South East and eight out of ten were from first time buyers. On average households are looking to buy homes worth £160,000, below the UK average house price of £247,000.
The paper reports that more than 30,000 people quizzed for a survey commissioned by Halifax bank said they accepted they will probably never be able to afford their own home without sacrificing years of financial hardship.

They add that nearly 50% of Welsh people agree Britain will become a nation of renters within the next generation, while one in five of 23-27 year olds have no desire to buy their own home. And yet despite people’s reluctance to climb the property ladder, figures released by the bank last month show buying a house is £124 a month cheaper than renting, making renting nearly £1,500 more expensive a year.

The paper says that these figures expose the largest difference in rent and mortgage prices since 2009, as rents rose by 18% in four years. But for a lot of young renters in Wales, it is simply impractical to consider investing in property because they cannot afford a deposit.

And if you think that those renting may be happy with that condition then there is a Shelter Cymru survey which shows only 15% are content to rent. And given the difference in costs illustrated above that is not surprising.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

UKIP in trouble

UKIP is learning pretty quickly that improved poll numbers leads to imcreased scrutiny and the pressure is starting to show.

The Times reports claims that Ukip members were silenced, ignored or forced out of the party after questioning its use of EU allowances and donations. They say that whistleblowers have alleged that Nigel Farage and other senior UKIP officials traduced colleagues who raised concerns about how the party handled millions of pounds in funds:

Mr Farage called a senior female Ukip official a “stupid woman” and told her to “shut up” when she asked for an independent audit into party finances, according to Delroy Young, formerly Ukip’s only black executive. Another member was allegedly physically threatened. The Ukip insiders spoke out as Mr Farage was confronted by a barrage of questions after The Times revealed yesterday that he was facing an investigation into a “missing” £60,000 in EU allowances

In transparency reports filed on the Ukip website, Mr Farage claims to have spent £15,500 a year solely on utilities, business rates and insurance for his small constituency office in West Sussex. A former office manager said that such costs, which exclude staff salaries, office equipment, phone bills and stationery, amounted to no more than £3,000 a year.

Mr Farage dismissed criticism over his EU spending yesterday as “yet another politically motivated attack from what is the establishment newspaper”. His defence came as:

· The Electoral Commission wrote to Ukip seeking answers as to why Mr Farage’s rent-free office was not declared as a donation for all relevant years;

· The Ukip leader told the BBC that he spent European funds to “push the Ukip campaign” in an apparent breach of EU rules;

· MEPs vote in Strasbourg today on a plan to reform European allowances, amid growing calls for change.

I am not sure that the wheels have come off the UKIP bandwagon just yet, but they are certainly being taken outside their comfort zone.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tory rift continues

An apparent show of unity at the recent Welsh Conservative conference centred around leader, Andrew R.T. Davies' call for a 'coalition of ideas' to end Labour's rule of Wales, may not have been a sign that things were moving on within the Welsh Conservative group after all.

A column in today's South Wales Argus by leadership rival, Nick Ramsey shows that wounds are still raw as the Monmouthshire AM takes a side swipe at his group leader:

It seems the political silly season has started earlier than usual this year with the re-emergence of old calls to rebrand the Assembly as the Welsh Parliament - and we wonder why the public are disillusioned with politics!

I wish politicians would get on with the job of sorting out the very real day to day problems facing the country rather than wasting time on issues which primarily interest the political “bubble” class. I certainly won’t be supporting any unnecessary and costly changes to the Assembly’s name or any leap towards unrestricted income tax powers.

A fairly standard view from a Conservative one would think until we remember that the call to rename the Welsh Assembly came from Andrew R.T. Davies himself.

As the BBC report, in August 2012 Andrew R.T. Davies said it was time to change the Assembly's name in recognition of the primary law making powers it was granted in the 2011 referendum. It seems strange therefore for Nick Ramsey to bring the issue up out of the blue nearly two years later, so as to accuse the Welsh Tory leader of being a member of the 'political bubble class'.

The four sacked shadow cabinet members have not been readmitted to the inner circle of course, in apparent defiance of the wishes of the Welsh Conservative Party's ruling body. Factions within the 13 strong group of Tory AMs are growing more acute.

It seems unlikely that Andrew R.T. Davies is capable of even convening talks with other opposition parties to forge a 'coalition of ideas' when he cannot even unite his own group.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Looking for scandals

As the Inside Out blog suggests it is certainly starting to get nasty out there, with recriminations flying around the Conservative party over the failed prosecution of an innocent Nigel Evans, unbelieveable and unsustainable mud being thrown at Nick Clegg over Cyril Smith and of course the latest alleged expenses scandal, this time featuring Nigel Farage.

So, in the interest of a bit of light relief here is the latest episode of 'have I Got News for You' in which the UKIP leader bit off more than he can chew:



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