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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Prominent Leave campaigner brands her own side's literature as "deliberately misleading"

As both sides on the EU referendum debate seek to rubbish the other's facts and figures it is worth noting this article in the Independent in which a senior MP and one of the most prominent health experts backing Brexit, brands Vote Leave campaign’s NHS leaflets as “deliberately misleading”.

The paper reports that Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP and now chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, said that the Leave campaign should “stop treating the public like fools” by claiming that Brexit would free-up £350m a week to spend on the NHS:

While attacking “outlandish claims” on both sides of the EU debate, Dr Wollaston singled out Michael Gove’s warning last week over the dangers of increased immigration for the NHS.

“There are many reasons for the pressures on the NHS, but largely because we are living longer and with multiple and complex conditions,” she said in an article for The Times Red Box website. “As many have commented; if you meet a migrant in the NHS they are more likely to be caring for you than ahead of you in the queue.”

Dr Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes, said that NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens had been right when he said on Sunday that the NHS was dependent on overseas staff.

“He also highlighted the dependence of the NHS on a strong economy and the knock on consequences for any uplift in funding of financial turbulence. In my view, it is an increase in the percentage of our national income that we spend on health and care that will save the NHS, not Brexit,” she writes.

As the paper says the Leave campaign has already been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for claiming that the the cost of British membership of the EU is £350m a week as it does not take into account the UK’s rebate, or payments received from the EU. The actual net figure is between £110m and £135m a week.

It is little wonder that Dr. Wollaston says that the claim that there will be £350m a week extra to spend on the NHS if we leave is a cynical distortion which undermines the credibility of the Leave campaign's other arguments.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Selling off the Land Registry will leave government worse off

I have already responded to the Tory Government's consultation on privatising the Land Registry, essentially telling them that the idea is bonkers and will undermine the service that they provide as well as putting the integrity of the register at risk.

A far more rational and significantly better argued case against selling off the agency by John Manthorpe, a former Chief Land Registrar and Chief Executive of Land Registry and an International Consultant on Land Registration systems, can be read here.

This proposal of course, has two objectives, to make the government some money and to reward the private sector with some supposedly low-hanging fruit. That is why Liberal Democrats Business Secretary, Vince Cable vetoed the idea when we were in coalition. Now that the Liberal Democrats are not there the Tories are proceeding anyway.

Like all such privatisations the long term consequences of this sell-off have not been properly assessed. This is evident from a new study by the New Economic Foundation, which concludes that although George Osborne will gain in the short term, over a longer period the Treasury will actually lose money on the sale.

The Guardian say that the New Economic Foundation report for the campaign group We Own It found that selling the Land Registry would mean the British public would start to lose money in 25 years’ time. They add that the authors estimate that the impact of selling off other public assets would be felt even sooner. If the public stake in National Air Traffic Services (NATS) were sold, for example, resultant losses would start being felt within seven years.

Cat Hobbs, We Own It’s director, said: “George Osborne can’t have his cake and eat it. If he goes ahead with the Great British sell-off, we’ll have lost our public assets forever – and all the millions of profit they bring in every year.

“The Land Registry is a profitable, successful, innovative organisation doing a great job – why privatise it? We need to think about the wealth of the next generation, not just a quick fix on the deficit.”

That is absolutely right. The Treasury's obsession with PFI was discredited some time ago, now we are seeing the case for the delivery of public services by the private sector being undermined as well.

The fact is that when assessments are made of the costs and benefits of involving private organisations in the delivery of public services, they are not properly robust and they do not take into account long term considerations. That needs to change.

UKIP divisions continue as Hamilton is reprimanded

The repercussions of Neil Hamilton's sexist rant in the Senedd last week continue to be felt in the Welsh media as the party;s Welsh Leader and MEP, Nathan Gill took to the airwaves yesterday to chastise his group leader.

The BBC report that Mr. Gill told one of their journalists that Hamilton reinforced stereotypes about the party when he described two senior female AMs as "political concubines" in Carwyn Jones' "harem".

He added that the party's seven newly-elected AMs had to be "professional". And said that UKIP wanted to "shake up politics", but Mr Hamilton's jibe was was not the way to do it:

We need to show that when we're elected we're professional and we do the job properly and we do the job for the benefit of the people who have voted for us," he told BBC Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement.

"The time has come to re-emphasise and enforce the positive image of UKIP to the men and women who desperately want to vote for us but we keep on giving them reasons not to."

You would think that after his experience and looking at the nature of some of UKIP's members, Mr. Gill would be considering his position in the party. If he really thinks that UKIP in Wales are capable of living up to these ideals then he is fooling himself.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Two down one to go - Welsh Government drop unpopular policies

As I predicted a couple of days ago, the First Minister has effectively kicked local government reform into touch and it looks like the famed black route M4 extension around Newport will follow it in due course.

In addition The Western Mail reports that First Minister Carwyn Jones has confirmed that the Welsh Government will not resurrect plans for a ban on the use of e-cigarettes in some public places. He told the BBC:  "The Public Health Bill will be brought back to the Assembly but clearly there is no point including the provisions on e-cigs when we know they’re not going to get through.” This was inevitable, so much so that it didn't seem worth mentioning earlier.

The First Minister also told the BBC that local government reorganisation plans will have to go back to the drawing board. He said: “I think it’s tricky if you just leave it without any kind of guidance or direction from the Welsh Government. You end up then with lopsided authorities, you end with different authorities with different powers.

“I think it has to be an all-Wales approach, but as to what that approach looks like, we have an open mind and are happy to discuss with other parties.”

That approach may well save face but it will not yield any common proposals unless Plaid Cymru, the Tories and UKIP significantly change their position.

As for the M4 relief road, well a public inquiry is already underway so Carwyn Jones can't really kill it off now.

I accept that the new Welsh Government will not go for the blue route for the reasons Carwyn Jones sets out, but unless they find another route that does not destroy conservation areas nor impinge on Newport docks, then there really is no way forward for that particular project in my view.

The First Minister might hope that the inquiry will rule in his favour or that a new proposal will emerge from it, but whatever the outcome in a year or two's time he still has to get a budget containing the necessary expenditure through the Assembly and that looks unlikely.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The cost of privatisation

Politicians in Wales have always been strong advocates of merging back office functions within the public sector so as to achieve savings which can be released for front-line services. What they often don't say is that the only realistic way to achieve this is through outsourcing those functions to a private sector company.

Attempts to deliver such savings in Wales have led to mixed results, not least in South East Wales where the costs of delivering this change proved to be a major obstacle. And of course as this reform involves significant change-management and investment in ICT, then public sector bodies often have to buy in expertise and are at the mercy of these companies for cost and savings projections.

The Guardian reports on one such attempt in which the National Audit Office concluded that a Cabinet Office plan to privatise some of Whitehall’s office functions and save up to £500m a year has instead cost £4m and is beset with problems.

Ministers transferred back-office functions – human resources, payroll and accounts – to the private sector two-and-a-half years ago in a plan which was supposed to “radically improve efficiency across departments”.

Auditors say that the “shared services” initiative did not achieve the projected saving of at least £128m a year. Instead it has saved £90m, £4m less than it has cost.

In this particular case, we need to be careful what we wish for and be absolutely certain that any such project can deliver on what is promised.

If we are to proceed to do this in future then we must reinforce the expertise available to the public sector in evaluating such initiatives.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Neil Hamilton and the danger of self-interested reform

The Western Mail reports that former Wales Office minister David Hanson has called for a ban on people who live outside Wales being able to stand in the Assembly.

Mr. Hanson is exercised by the election of UKIP’s Neil Hamilton to the Welsh Assembly. Mr Hamilton's main home is a manor house in Hullavington, Wiltshire (pictured below) and rather than following his new job over the border into Wales he is considering buying a mobile home instead. It is not clear whether he expects the Assembly to pay for that vehicle or not, in lieu of a permanent office.



Mr. Hanson's view is that this is unacceptable and he is pushing for a clause to be inserted in the forthcoming Wales Bill to ensure that only people who live within the borders of Wales can stand as an AM:

He said: “I believe that we should be applying the same principles applied when people stand for council elections to the Welsh Assembly. This is an argument of localism.

“People who live in the area or region should be the only ones allowed to stand.”

The Delyn Labour MP continued: “For example, I have discovered that in this year’s Welsh Assembly election at least 21 candidates stood for election to either constituencies or regions who didn’t live in Wales. The most high profile of these candidates was Neil Hamilton...

“I strongly believe that only people living in the area should be able to stand for the Welsh Assembly. Living in a region or area is the link that enables you to understand the challenges and opportunities facing an area.

“That is why I will be calling on the Government to include an amendment to the Wales Bill that will bring elections to the Welsh Assembly into line with other elections and more importantly ensure that localism underpins the Welsh Assembly.

The problem with this of course is that it is easily circumvented, and it is really not good practise to tailor constitutional reforms to specific and time-limited circumstances.

If Mr. Hanson really wants to introduce a worthwhile reform in the new bill, he could not do better than scrapping the Assembly's confusing and non-proportionate voting system and instead proposing that in future we have 80 AMs all elected by STV.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The likely casualties of Labour's failure to secure a majority in Wales

As Carwyn Jones starts to put together his new government, he may well reflect on two flagship policies that now look to be dead in the water. 

In truth, even before the election the chances of Labour carrying out a major reorganisation of local government and building an M4 extension around Newport on their preferred route, were slim. They did not have the support of the other parties and had not sought to build a consensus around either policy.

Now, with only 28 Assembly Members, with Plaid and the Liberal Democrats opposed to the black route extension of the M4 and with all opposition parties standing firm against Labour's proposals for local councils, the new government will be well-advised to find other pressing matters to command its attention.

There does not need to be a vote in Plenary to build the M4 by-pass but it does need to be in the Welsh Government budget. Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are unlikely to support any budget that contains this expenditure, whilst even if they want the road built, the Tories and UKIP will not support the budget for other reasons and it is unlikely that Labour will seek to do a deal with either party anyway.

As for local government reorganisation, Labour need a new Act of the Assembly for this. Any such bill will be emasculated in committee. I cannot see Labour even try to introduce one.

It has to be said that there will be many in Welsh Labour, including their Assembly group, who will be delighted that both these policies are likely to be dumped in this term.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Irony by-passes the UKIP Welsh Assembly group

To the Welsh Assembly building this morning to dispose of the effects from my office there and to say goodbye to old friends. Of course once I was there I decided to stay and watch the Plenary session from the public gallery, a new experience for me.

Carwyn Jones was nominated as First Minister as expected and all the party leaders were called to speak. To be frank, none of them distinguished themselves, all seeking to make self-justifying political points instead of addressing the issues which Wales faces over the next five years. It took UKIP's Assembly leader to really strike a new low though.

As the BBC reports, Mr. Hamilton described the Leanne Wood and Kirsty Williams as "political concubines" in Carwyn Jones' "harem:

During his speech, he said he regretted the role Plaid Cymru had played and added Ms Williams had "managed to prop up this tottering administration".

He added: "So I'm afraid that these two ladies have just made themselves political concubines in Carwyn's hareem. What a gruesome prospect that must be."

He asked what the two had had in reward for "the sacrifice of their political virtue".

Mr Hamilton later, reflecting on the deal between Labour and Plaid, also accused Ms Wood of being a "very cheap date indeed".

Speaking after the debate, he said he did not regret making the remark.

He told BBC Wales: "Je ne regrette rien".

But Ms Wood said: "This sexist language has no place in the National Assembly for Wales, or in society, and we will not stand for sexism, homophobia or racism."

The part of the speech where Hamilton seemed least self-aware was when he accused other parties of doing 'dodgy deals'. The irony was lost on him.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The power of soaps (for women everywhere not just Archer fans)

Have we really got to the stage when the best way to achieve social reform is to get a story line on a soap opera?

Those people who are a bit younger than me may not remember the saga of The Weatherfield One, a major miscarriage of justice in which Deirdre Rachid was wrongly jailed for mortgage and credit card fraud while her conman lover Jon Lindsay walked free. Of course age may not have anything to do with it if you were not an avid watcher of Coronation Street at the time, though the national press was full of it.

As the BBC reported at the time, the case achieved the status of a cause célèbre when Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to intervene in response to newspapers campaigns and thousands of ordinary outraged people, even asking the then Home Secretary Jack Straw to look into the case.

Now, a similar ministerial intervention is on the cards, though this one is not so high profile, largely because it relates to The Archers, which has a smaller, possibly more select, audience. That audience though will certainly include Ministers of the Crown, as well as large numbers of Tory voting constituents in the shires of England.

The Guardian reports that the soap's story of Helen Titchener’s treatment in The Archers has led the justice secretary, Michael Gove, to push for greater prison reform. In recent episodes, the pregnant Helen has been refused bail for stabbing her abusive husband and agrees to move to a dedicated mother and baby unit in a prison miles away from her home and young child:

Gove told the Radio Times that the Radio 4 show and its “gripping” storyline was “required listening in our house”.

“As well as being superb drama, it has exemplified one of the virtues of public service broadcasting,” he said. “Helen’s story has brought welcome attention to the real problems many women face from coercive and controlling men. Now Helen’s plight has shone a light on the position of women in our prisons and reinforces the case for reform.”

In February, the prime minister, David Cameron, called for a rethink of the way the prison system treats pregnant women and mothers with babies. Ministry of Justice figures suggest 100 babies spent time living with their mothers in prisons in 2015.

The Archers’ storyline, which first introduced Helen’s partner Rob as a charming man two years ago before slowly revealing his violent and coercive nature, has already led to a campaign to support “real-life Helens” raising more than £130,000.

Following the controversial episode in which Helen was provoked into stabbing Rob, listeners have learned that she faces either six years for wounding with intent or 12 for attempted murder, as well as the certainty of giving birth while in custody.

Gove is of course absolutely right that we need radically to reform how we treat women offenders. There are too many women are in jail. As the Guardian says, a prison sentence not only punishes them, but also makes life much tougher for their children.”

The paper reports that there are only 64 MBU places in England and Wales and fewer prisons for women than men. In fact I suspect that all of those places are in England as there are no women prisons in Wales at all. Thus, when they say that women are often held further from their homes than men, even though they tend to serve shorter sentences on average, that problems is exacerbated this side of Offa's Dyke.

Nor is this a new phenomena, it is just a shame that it has taken a storyline in a soap to bring it to national prominence.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Losing the argument

Godwin’s Law is an internet adage that is derived from one of the earliest bits of Usenet wisdoms, which goes “if you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.” In other words you have lost the argument.

Those defending Boris Johnson's attempt to compare the supposed creation of a European Superstate with the ambitions of Adolf Hitler, whose actions led to the loss of millions of lives and countless suffering, have really missed the point.

The individuals that Boris names were power-hungry autocrats who would stop at nothing to achieve their aim. The European Union was set up to thwart that sort of ambition. All of its members are democracies and it is overseen by an directly-elected Parliament.

Those who form the Council of Ministers are accountable to their own electors, whilst membership of the Commission is ratified by the European Parliament, who also vote on Commission directives. Proposals are sent to national Parliaments for ratification in advance.

This is not a Superstate it is a federation of like-minded democracies working together for mutual advantage. Membership offers irreplaceable benefits and, contrary to claims by the likes of Boris Johnson, we retain our own sovereignty and control over our own country.

The World has changed massively since the EU was set up. Economic forces can no longer be constrained within a single national border, if they ever could. Our economy is dominated by multinational companies and our currency and prosperity is dependent on others for success. The only way we can influence such forces is as part of a multinational bloc such as the EU.

The EU has secured peace for Western Europe for over half a century. If Boris has his way he will leave us vulnerable to future dictators who want to dominate the UK and the rest of Europe.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Losing the heartland vote

As the member of a party that is struggling to establish a core vote at all, I found this analysis by the Fabian Society on what is happening to Labour support amongst its traditional voters to be a useful distraction.

According to the Guardian Labour is struggling to attract the working-class voters who traditionally formed the core of its support. They say that a report for the Fabian Society by the political analyst Lewis Baston shows that Labour performed well in what he calls “the most modern bits of England” and badly in its heartlands:

Turnout in local elections tends to be much lower than at general elections, and they are often fought on purely local issues, but regional patterns can help give pointers as to a party’s appeal for different groups of voters.

Labour lost a net 18 council seats once all the votes were counted and drew ahead of the Conservatives on the projected national share of the vote by 1 percentage point – a better result than many experts predicted.

Baston finds that despite the deep divide within the parliamentary Labour party between the leftwing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and centrist “Blairite” MPs, the party’s best showing was in areas where New Labour succeeded.

“The best Labour results were in some of the most modern bits of England, in London and its hinterland. Swindon, Milton Keynes, Reading and Crawley, and the leafy London suburbs, are what used to be regarded as classic New Labour territory, but now seem oddly fond of new old Labour,” he said. “A more traditional socialist appeal seems to go over better with these voters than with the traditional working class.”

By contrast, voters switched to the Conservatives in areas where Labour needs to win seats to secure a majority in 2020, such as Nuneaton and Cannock Chase, compared with the 2012 local elections.

“Weakness in crucial types of constituencies in 2016, such as unpretentious Midlands towns (Nuneaton, Cannock) and big city suburbs (Bury, Bolton) is ominous, while stronger showings were in affluent seats that are either already Labour or require large swings to be sustained through to May 2020,” Baston said.

Comparing the results in marginal constituencies with the 2015 general election, Labour saw its share of the vote improve by 3.3% in the south, and 2.2% in the Midlands, but in the north, it declined by 1.8%.

There does not appear to be any reference to whether this under-performance was down to UKIP taking traditional working class votes off Labour or not, though I suspect that was a factor. Most worrying for Corbyn though is the conclusion that the report's author draws from the results:

“Labour’s performance in 2016 was squarely in line with what one might expect a year into a parliament where the opposition is not going to win the general election,” he said.

Andrew Harrop, the Fabian Society general secretary, said: “The results may not have been a disaster for Labour, but there is no sign that Jeremy Corbyn will do any better than Ed Miliband in winning the sorts of seats which Labour needs to govern.

It may well be too early to tell. A Liberal Democrats revival, in which they take back some of the votes they lost to the Tories though, would make it more likely that the Labour Party perform better in 2020 than they did in 2015.

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