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Friday, August 22, 2014

The best part of being an elected politician

The Telegraph carries a very entertaining article about what MPs get up to during recess, which for the most part also applies to Assembly Members.

As a regional member I have always held surgeries and like many MPs take advantage of recesses not just to continue that tradition but also to engage with constituents in different ways as well.

The paper says that according to one study a third of MPs spend up to half their time solving problems on behalf of their constituents, but for another third it’s more like three quarters. Many receive 200 new cases receive each month. It certainly can be that busy for an Assembly Member. My staff and I spend a lot of time dealing with individual problems.

I can also relate to the example given of Labour MP Tristram Hunt’s constituency surgery in Stoke where the journalist describes watching a stream of people entering with 'bags stuffed full of horribly big piles of paper that showed just how horribly they were being treated by the state, the landlord, the bank, or [fill in blank]. They dumped this heaving mass of letters, bills, final demands and court summonses on the trestle table Mr Hunt had set up in one corner of a vast gym. Then they asked him to sort them out.'

It has to be said that although I have had one or two bizarre cases, which I cannot relate here or elsewhere for confidentiality reasons, for the most part I have not managed to match some of the examples given here:

MPs must give the impression they are all-powerful: why else would a woman have asked the Tory MP Tim Loughton for advice on how to make the man who had dumped her change his mind? Perhaps the man who left a 3am voicemail with another MP telling him he was having a heart attack had similarly high opinions of his representative (when a panicked caseworker phoned back the following morning, the chap was fine).

Another MP, who describes her constituency surgery as a “jungle”, says: “I am always being asked by elderly men with very young Thai wives to revoke the wife’s right-to-remain status and have her deported – the latest reason was because she costs too much and listens to music.”

Constituents suffering from such concerns are probably best advised to consult the Labour MP Karen Buck, who had to help one appellant who was concerned with the costs of a wedding. Tory Therese Coffey was asked to recommend a good dating agency, and another colleague was asked for help with the costs of a divorce. One MP still appears to be recovering from a case where a constituent demanded breast implants on the NHS because her boyfriend was so depressed by her natural size that he kept missing work.

A seasoned caseworker still chuckles about the constituent who wanted a refund from a pornography website. But the laughs are few and far between: asylum and immigration, benefits, debt and housing are the most popular problems, and few of them are quite as hilarious as the horrified constituent who badgered an MP about the “absolute crazy prices for rhubarb at Asda”.

The best part of this job is when you are able to help somebody resolve a problem and enable them to get on with their life. We cannot perform miracles, but we can act within the system to make it work better on an individual case basis.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Advancing the green agenda

As the Assembly Commissioner responsible for the Parliamentary estate and sustainability I am delighted at the progress that we have been able to make in this area.

As this article points out the National Assembly for Wales is set to meet tough targets to reduce its energy emissions by 40 per cent by 2015.

The latest figures, published in the Assembly’s Annual Report, reveal that the Assembly has achieved a 34 per cent reduction in energy emissions since the base year 2008/09. During the same period the Assembly has also achieved a 29 per cent reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to the energy emission and carbon reduction targets outlined above, the assembly has also achieved a:13.4 per cent reduction in overall business travel emissions since 2008/09;62 per cent reduction in the last year of waste being sent to landfill, nearing the zero landfill waste target; and 57 per cent reduction in waste emissions compared to last year.

The Carbon Trust has identified that this is an excellent standard of performance within the Welsh public sector.

We have much more work to do however. We have commissioned further technical and specialist support and this has resulted in the production of a Carbon Reduction Route Map with new challenging targets, requiring a further 30 per cent emissions reduction up until 2021.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The growing controversy over Tower Hamlets

The Times carries a report today outlining the extraordinary events surrounding the Tower Hamlets Mayoral election as they are now being told to the High court.

 They sau that Britain’s first elected Muslim mayor was accused in the High Court of exerting unlawful “spiritual influence” over voters, who were allegedly told that it was their religious duty to vote for him:

They add that electors were told that they could hope for rewards in the afterlife if they voted for Lutfur Rahman, but might be punished in the next world if they supported his Labour rival, documents filed at the court claim:

The detailed allegations, seen by The Times, also show that Mr Rahman’s supporters are accused of intimidation, voting fraud and giving voters free food.

Alleging spiritual influence, the petitioners noted that 101 Islamic leaders in the borough signed a letter to a Bengali newspaper supporting Mr Rahman. Some of the signatories were linked to religious organisations that received £25,000 each in grants from his council.

The mayor’s supporters allegedly told voters leaving prayers that the Labour candidate intended to close the mosques and that Islam would be safe only if Mr Rahman were re-elected.

Activists outside a polling station allegedly told Bengali voters: “Islam is in danger. You must vote for Lutfur otherwise you are not a good Muslim.”

The petition states that the consequence of this influence was that voting Labour would be un-Islamic and sinful, but supporting Mr Rahman was virtuous and Islamic. “Voting for [Mr Rahman] may, in the premises, attract awards in the hereafter; and voting for Mr Biggs, being a sinful activity, may lead to punishment in the hereafter.”

The paper provides a full list of the allegation filed in papers at the court relating to the election:

Personation at polling stations Voters were turned away because others had already voted in their names

Postal voting fraud Mr Rahman told a meeting of activists that they must fill up to 250 postal vote application forms each. Everyone was given 250 of the forms

His representatives told voluntary organisations that they must obtain votes for him by illegal means if they wished to retain council grants. On estates, supporters asked for blank postal ballots and filled them in. Electors on estates with external post boxes did not receive their postal ballots. Mr Rahman’s supporters removed and used them

“Black shirts” At a council meeting, a supporter of Mr Rahman compared supporters of the Labour candidate John Biggs to Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts.

Articles in press London Bangla, a Bangladeshi newspaper whose owner has received £11,000 in grants under Mr Rahman’s mayoralty, claimed that Labour was running a racist campaign similar to the British National Party

Undue influence and/or interference with voters A young woman was permitted to “help” an older woman to fill in her ballot paper at a polling station. A Bengali family was so intimidated that they were willing to enter only when provided with a police escort

Bribery Mr Rahman’s party, Tower Hamlets First, uses a house as its logo. On polling day voters were told that they should vote for the house logo to get a house

Spiritual influence Mr Rahman’s supporters conveyed to voters that voting for his opponent would be un-Islamic and sinful but that voting for the mayor would be virtuous and Islamic

Payment of canvassers Young men working for the council canvassed for the mayor during working hours

Breach of returning officer’s official duties Counting staff placed 47 ballot papers for Mr Rahman in a bundle that should have had 50 while Mr Biggs’s votes were put into bundles of more than 50.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A question of leadership

I have no brief for any developer in Swansea but I am concerned with ensuring that we get the investment we need. That means working with developers and sometimes compromising to get things done.

I was concerned therefore last Thursday to find the redevelopment of the unsightly and failing Parc Tawe complex being knocked off track by the intransigience of planners and a lack of leadership on the council itself.

The difference of opinion centred on what can be sold in what is classed as an out-of-town shopping centre so as not to compromise another development nearby that is barely on the drawing board.

Council planners wanted an exclusion clause relating to a specified list of products to last 12 years, whilst the developers argued that any more than 5 years would make the scheme commercially unviable. I argued that we needed more time to get agreement but the Labour leadership insisted on sticking with the planners' recommendations.

What is worse the council leader in my view, failed to grasp the strategic advantages of getting this scheme underway as soon as possible so as to attract more investors. Instead he rambled on about trees and plastic bags in one of the most incoherent contributions I have ever heard from a person in his position.

He and others argued that the developers were bluffing when they said they might pull out altogether and he then launched into an unprecedented attack on people who are prepared to invest substantial sums of money into Swansea.  The BBC takes up the story:

Mr Phillips said: "We wanted to ensure this development didn't torpedo any city centre development before it gets off its feet.
"It's a pity that Hammerson didn't show the same energy when they were our agent as they have with their own development."
Hammerson's development manager Russell Beresford, defended the firm's actions.
He said: "It's a strange day when a leader of a council desperate for investment chooses to unfairly criticise a major landowner and potential investor in the city, and we very much hope his approach doesn't put off anyone considering investing in the city.
"We remain very keen to invest in Parc Tawe but as we told the committee we can't do so with the conditions attached to the permission; we are therefore considering our options."

As the BBC says, Swansea has struggled to find a way of successfully regenerating the centre following the collapse of the long-time proposed Castle Quays development in 2004. In fact I can trace this failure back to the late 1980s. With this attitude from the council leadership we are going to struggle for much longer.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Labour MP leads the backlash against all-women shortlists

Although the MP for Great Grimsby has never been shy of speaking his mind before there is a certain freedom in knowing that you will not need to seek selection or election once more, and Austin Mitchell takes full advantage of it in this piece for the Times.

If Cynon Valley Labour Party are any measure, together with Labour activists I have discussed this with, Mr. Mitchell speaks for many in his party when he warns of the damage being done to the party by “feminisation”, which he says is making parliament boring and insular, and leaving the left less ready to deal with “Tory hooligans”.

The MP succeeds in hitting a raw nerve when he claims that Labour’s “preoccupation” with all-women shortlists is conveniently forgotten when “seats (are) wanted for the scions of our great dynasties — the Kinnocks, the Straws, the Benns, the Blairs”.

The former television presenter warned that this would make it harder for Labour if it were returned to office: “The left will be even smaller but the party more manageable and reasonable, for apart from obsessive feminism, women MPs are more amenable and leadable and less objectionable. But it might not make us tougher.

“If Labour wins in 2015, how a family-friendly, gentler party, less prepared for all-night shenanigans of the parliamentary kind, will face up to Tory hooligans who feel they’ve been unjustly deprived of a power that’s their due is a more worrying matter.”

My only comment on this is if Austin Mitchell believes female politicians are more amenable and leadable, then he has not met the ones I work with, all of whom are as resilient, as independently-minded, vocal and as prepared to stand up for what they believe in defiance of the party line as their male colleagues.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A question of authenticity

Using social media as a politician is always fraught with danger, especially when you are not in control. Sometimes it is risky if the politician is in control.

It is obvious that many ministerial accounts are run for them by their advisors. I have seen tweets from Ministers appear whilst they have been on their feet talking. But then that is the nature of that particular beast. Most politicians though will run their own social media accounts.

I was a little taken aback therefore to read in today's Telegraph that some MPs are questioning whether the rather clever and witty twitter account run by the former deputy prime minister John Prescott is actually being run by him.

The paper describes Prescott's twitter account as a revelation. They say it heralds a remarkable transformation of the former deputy prime minister John Prescott from a word-mangling Old Labour attack dog into a social media aficionado widely regarded as one of the funniest politicians on Twitter.

But is it the former Deputy PM running the account or somebody else? The paper has its doubts:

His pithy comments on stories in the news – from the latest Government setback to the humiliation of the England football team – are regularly retweeted hundreds-of-times over by his devoted followers and invariably feature in lists of “Best Tweets of the Week” in magazines and newspapers.

The witticisms he penned about Michael Gove following the news earlier this year that the former education secretary enjoyed listening to rap music were particularly well received, featuring, as they did, clever pop culture references and cute word play. “#goverap Public School Enemy” was a reference to the seminal American hip hop group Public Enemy, as well as a sly dig at Mr Gove’s comment about the “ridiculous” number of old Etonians in the Cabinet; while “#goverap Straight Outta Comprehensive”, was a pun on the title of a 1988 track Straight Outta Compton by the rap group NWA, or N---az wit Attitudes.

He also made Twitter titter with a joke about beer-drinking Nigel Farage when the Ukip leader decided not to fight the Eastleigh by-election - “Nigel Farage Ale. Bottling it since Eastleigh” - and came up with the perfect riposte earlier this summer when a hacker broke into Labour’s official account and pledged to provide every citizen with their own owl.

“I've always been Owl Labour”, joked @ johnprescott.

 But, People learns, not everybody is convinced the 76-year-old, who has admitted in the past that he doesn’t type, is the author of all his own tweets.

“John engaged with me once on Twitter about the film Zoolander,” says Conservative MP Nadine Dorries. “He tweeted about himself doing the 'blue steel pose’ and we had a volley of amusing tweets. I actually remember thinking, 'Gosh, he’s human after all!’

“But a few days later, I saw him in the Commons and mentioned it, and it was obvious he had no idea what I was talking about.”

Other MPs have similar suspicions. “For someone with such an unblemished record of strangling the English language, Lord Prescott does seem remarkably witty on Twitter,” agrees fellow Tory Charles Elphicke.

So if the former deputy PM is not writing his tweets, who is? All paths seem to lead to his son David, a PR executive and active Labour campaigner.

John Prescott is not saying either way.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Catfest 2014

Two years ago I was in Bridgend Town Centre to help Cat Protection Bridgend try and break the world record for the most people gathered in one place dressed as cats.  Unfortunately, they failed to achieve their goal so a second attempt is being made today, and I have been drafted in as an adjudicator once more.

As the Glamorgan Gazette reports, centre manager, Sue Dobbs hopes Catfest will not only raise much-needed funds for the 180 cats and kittens in their adoption centre, but also awareness of the plight of many poorly-treated pets:

These include recent additions four-week-old Olivia, Opal, Oz and Orla, who were admitted suffering from malnutrition and possible abuse. In particular, Olivia weighed just 0.2kg and had a bruised, swollen face and an injured hind foot.

Sue said the kittens are now on the road to recovery, but funds are needed to help with their and the 180 other cats’ care.

“Any cat costume, domestic or wild can be represented and we are looking forward to seeing lots of marvellous mogs, grumpy cats, wild whiskers, posh paws and cute kitties at Catfest 2014,” she said.

“Fancy dress can be daunting, so we’ve made it easy with two suggestions.

“For people who aren’t sure where to start, just turn up in block colours of any cat colour and pick up a free mask at reception – you can then decorate it with whiskers to complete your outfit.

“And for the brave at heart, you can dazzle and amaze us with your costume creation skills and compete for a chance to win the Best Cat in Show prize!”

Would-be moggies will also have the chance to enjoy the other attractions at Catfest – which takes place between 10.30am and 4pm at the centre on Pant Hirwaun, Bryncethin – including stalls and a ouncy castle.

Sue added: “We are urging people to come along and help us put our adoption centre on the map!

“Not only will we be – fingers crossed – making a new world record, but we’ll also be letting everyone know about the great work volunteers up and down the country do for cats in need and most of all we’ll be having a great time.”

Entrance to Catfest will be £1 for adults and 50p for children with the record attempt between 2pm and 3pm

Friday, August 15, 2014

The economic illiteracy of the SNP's proposals for independence

The Guardian reports on the view by one of of the world's top economists that an independent Scotland's economy would crash within seven years if it tried to use sterling.

They quote Professor Ronald MacDonald, a currency expert who advises the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, who believes that the Scottish government's plans to use sterling after a yes vote are fundamentally flawed, even if Alex Salmond's proposals for a currency union were accepted by the UK. He believes that in these circumstances, the Scottish economy would shrink by up to £100bn by 2023:

MacDonald, the Adam Smith professor of political economy at the University of Glasgow and a globally recognised expert in oil-based economies, said any move to use sterling would expose Scotland to huge economic shocks because of its heavy reliance on North Sea oil revenues, but inability to set its own interest rates or control money supply.

In a damning critique of Salmond's proposals, MacDonald said that independence would immediately mean that Scotland became a petro-economy. That would leave it heavily exposed to higher prices in shops, wage rises, a significant trade deficit and increasingly expensive exports.

Using IMF methodology, MacDonald said Scotland would face an annual deficit of 7% and would cut Scotland's economic output by at least £30bn in a best case scenario, or up to £100bn in a more likely worst case scenario by about 2023. "Clearly this is very, very bad news," he added.

It would greatly increase pressure for public spending cuts and tax rises, with a future Scottish government forced to impose a punishing austerity regime to balance the books, or face the prospects of an IMF bail-out, similar to the ECB's rescue of the Irish and Greek economies.

As we get closer to the referendum the SNP's case for a yes vote continues to unravel.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

More help for the low-paid from the Liberal Democrats

The Times reports that the Liberal Democrats are following up on their success in saving millions of low paid workers £800 a year in tax payments, by proposing to look at raising the threshold at which workers begin to pay national insurance contributions.

The paper says that once they have achieved the objective of raising of the income tax threshold to £12,500 the Liberal Democrats will consider the measure as the “next step” in its attempt to reduce the tax burden on low and middle earners. The draft manifesto says that the party will consider “raising the employee national insurance threshold to the income tax threshold, as resources allow”.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies say that aligning the income tax allowance and national insurance thresholds would cut taxes for 1.2 million workers:

Workers start to pay national insurance once they earn more than £8,000. It is charged at 12 per cent for most workers. An increase in the threshold of just £20 a week would, however, cost £2.7 billion.

“That’s why cutting income tax for working people, particularly those on low and middle incomes, is a top Liberal Democrat priority,” Danny Alexander told The Times. “It was on the front page of the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto and we have fought to keep it on the agenda at every Budget.

“Now we want to go even further and lift the amount of money people can earn before paying income tax to £12,500. When we’ve reached £12,500 we will seek to raise the level that people start paying employee national insurance.

This is more good news in what is looking to be a very radical manifesto.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tories lost in Wales

Is it just me or does the Welsh Conservative's solution for improved transparency and accountability for the First Minister seem just a bit odd?

According to the BBC, the Welsh Conservative Leader wants to move the weekly First Minster's Question Time session to later in the afternoon so as to boost TV and web audiences. Yet it is already later in the day than Prime Minister's Questions, it is available on the web at any time of day and night and highlights (when there are some) are shown on TV anyway.

And let us face it, having the session later in the day is hardly going to improve Andrew R.T, Davies' lacklustre performances in question time or even make the session more interesting. It is hardly riveting viewing anyway.

One is left with the impression that perhaps the Welsh Tory Leader wants to move question time so that he has time to finish his lunch before taking part in it.

As for an annual scrutiny session for the First Minister in front of MPs, well which part of devolution do the Welsh Tories not understand?

The First Minister is accountable to AMs, not MPs. It is appropriate that Assembly Members scrutinise him, not members of a Westminster Parliament that has no responsibility for devolved matters.

By all means ask Welsh Ministers to give evidence on specific and relevant inquiries, but a regular and general scrutiny session is a backwards step and is not appropriate.

What is nost bizarre about this intervention is that the Assembly's Business Committee has just completed a review of procedures in the Assembly. To the best of my knowledge neither of these ideas were submitted to that review by the Welsh Tories.

But then the Tories have form on this. Previously Andrew R.T. Davies has called for shorter recesses for AMs, and yet I am told that behind closed doors his representatives were opposing precisely that.

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