.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How a supposedly progressive tax system hits the poorest hardest

The Independent reports on official statistics that show that the poorest families in the UK are losing more of their income in tax than any other income group.

They say that while the richest fifth of society paid 34.8 per cent of their overall income in tax last year, those at the bottom of the income scale lost 37.8 per cent of their income to the taxman. This is a wider gap than last year, when the difference was 2.3 per cent.

The paper adds that this means that the richest fifth of the population paid £29,200 in all taxes last year, while the poorest fifth paid £4,900. Although in absolute terms that seems to make sense, in terms of disposable income it leaves the poorest in our society struggling to make ends meet.

The papers says that the reason why those on the lowest incomes are paying the biggest proportion of their income in tax is because indirect taxes, such as VAT and tax on tobacco, alcohol and fuel are charged at the same rate to all income groups. So although direct taxes such as income tax and national insurance contributions, both of which are calculated as a proportion of how much we earn, hit the richest the hardest, taken together, the poorest fifth of households lose the largest proportion of their income in overall taxation.

When we have a situation that over half of all households, the equivalent to 13.7 million families, received more from the state in welfare payments and pensions than they pay in tax last year then it is time for a rethink.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Veiled Government threats against RSPCA signals zero tolerance approach to opposition groups

You can always tell when the Conservatives are in government, especially when they have no other party to keep them in check, as the threats to the BBC start to escalate. It seems to be a traditional view of Conservative politicians that the BBC is run by a bunch of lefties determined to do them down. The fact that Labour Ministers, when they are in government, take a similar paranoid view of the corporation indicates that perhaps the BBC has got the balance about right.

However, as yesterday's Sunday Telegraph reports, this zero tolerance of opposition by Conservative Ministers is starting to spread into other policy areas. They have been told by an unnamed Environment Department source that the RSPCA must purge radical animal rights activists from its board or face "disaster".

This Government spin-doctor believes that the charity risks “eroding its credibility” by prioritising contentious political campaigns over animal welfare and has also accused the RSPCA of opposing the badger cull just to increase donations. Really?

It could be argued that these campaigns are perfectly legitimate ones for an animal charity to take up and that on the Government's disastrous and unevidenced badger cull, they are protesting too much. It is a matter for the Charity Commission not the government whether an organisation like the RSPCA oversteps the mark or not. Perhaps the Government should stop trying to stifle legitimate dissent and get on with its job instead.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tory sell-off could fuel a housing crisis

At the last election the Conservatives made a manifesto pledge to offer 1.3 million English tenants of housing association houses and flats the chance to buy their homes at a discount. It is an innocuous looking promise but it could have huge consequences for the housing market, particularly in London and South East England.

The Observer reports that local authorities in inner London now believe that they will have to sell every new council home they build, as soon as they are ready, just so that they can finance this give-away. This is because the funding for discounts for housing association tenants wanting to buy their homes is due to come through forcing local authorities to sell their most expensive properties.

The paper quotes James Murray, executive member for housing and development at Islington council, who is spearheading the development of 20 new council houses for local residents:

The expected bounty from the sale of such high value homes is also supposed to finance the building of replacement properties to meet a desperate need for affordable accommodation.

“But the problem is that they haven’t thought it through,” says Murray. “We had a carefully crafted plan. These flats are designed for those aged over 55, and the idea is that those who want to downsize from family council properties can do so. It is on the edge of the estate, so people don’t need to move away from where they have lived. The bedroom tax doesn’t apply after you retire, but people moving in at 55 would also have got a few years of avoiding that if they moved in here out of their larger homes.

“But it looks like we will have to sell the flats when they are completed in September. Each of them would sell on the open market at £485,000. And because they are new they are within the third most expensive properties that we have. In fact, all new council homes in inner London will have to be sold off. And what incentive will we have to build again?”

Not only are homes being taken out of the affordable housing stock, reducing the opportunity for people to be rehoused in the future, but the chances of that stock being replenished is diminished as the receipt from sales will be insufficient to build more homes, even if land was available to build on. The requirement on councils to sell their highest value stock will also prevent them building new social housing.

The outcome will be even more spiralling rent increases in both the public and private sectors and rising property values, driven by housing shortages, and property speculation. The housing crisis already facing much of London and South East England could well escalate further as a result.

I don't agree with the way that the Welsh Government is approaching the right to buy here, as I am concerned that they are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and taking away the rights of existing tenants*, but thank goodness we will not have to deal with the unevidenced ideological madness being promoted over the border by this new Tory Government.

*My view is that the best way to manage the right to buy in Wales is remove it on new build social housing. This preserves the rights of existing tenants whilst removing any disincentive for local councils to build new homes.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Will Plaid Cymru's decision weaken their negotiating stance after 2016?

Like all the opposition parties, Plaid Cymru face some difficult decisions in the run-up to the May 2016 Assembly elections. Like all the other parties they have a manifesto to put together, containing distinctive policies that take account of the financial reality facing the Assembly over the next five years. But in addition they also need to set out their stall on what they will do if there is no overall majority for any party once all the votes have been counted.

It is arguable that one of the reasons Plaid Cymru lost Llanelli last time was that they failed to rule out a deal with the Tories. Today's announcement formally ruling out any coalition deal with the Conservatives after next year’s National Assembly election is an attempt to avoid that trap this time.

Leanne Wood told the Western Mail: “Plaid Cymru’s vision for Wales sees a fairer distribution of wealth, a strengthening of our public services, and ensuring that everyone is able to reach their potential.

“Since they came to power in 2010, as well as historically, the Tories have proven that they do not share these values.

“They have shown that they are intent on pursuing policies that hit people in the middle and lowest income brackets the hardest while offering the best deal for those with the most. People in Wales have always rejected Tory politics.

"I reject their politics, and so does Plaid Cymru. There is no way that I would lead Plaid Cymru into coalition with the Conservatives.”

That is clear and no doubt the voters will judge her party on that basis. However, where does it leave a Welsh Assembly coming to the end of another term of Labour rule, 17 years in all?

It is an Assembly where the three opposition parties have failed to work together in any significant way so as to make it difficult for Labour to rule without a clear majority.

Plaid Cymru's decision means that it is inevitable that even if Labour have a disastrous election the next Assembly government will also be dominated by Carwyn Jones' party.

Such an outcome may Plaid Cymru in their comfort zone but tactically it is a disaster for them. That is because they have effectively destroyed their own negotiating position in any talks to form a new Welsh Government.

We will now have a situation where Carwyn Jones can play off Plaid Cymru against the Welsh Liberal Democrats so as to get the best possible deal for his party in any coalition deal. Leanne Wood though will be faced with a take-it or leave it situation, in which she cannot even threaten to go elsewhere if Carwyn will not give her what she wants.

If it is Plaid Cymru's position to go into opposition no matter what then that should not be a problem. But if they are serious about being a party of government, and accepting that they will not get a majority or come close to one this time, then it leaves Leanne Wood and her party whistling in the wind. After all, why vote for Plaid Cymru as an alternative to Labour, when by that route you are going to get Labour anyway and when all the policy positions they are presenting to the electorate are not likely to be implemented because they will have no leverage to force Labour into delivering them?

This announcement could be as bad for Plaid Cymru as the failure to rule out dealing with the Tories was in 2011.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Is the Tories's EU referendum a sham?

Having gone to the country with a firm pledge to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the European Union and then put the new settlement to the country, you would think that David Cameron would want to ensure that whatever package he succeeds in getting is watertight and binding before asking us to vote on it. Today's Independent though casts doubt on that assumption.

They report that the Prime Minister has admitted that the referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union is likely to take place before the UK's new membership terms have been implemented in a fresh EU treaty.

His officials are insisting that the deal he intends to strike with the EU partners would be “crystal clear” to the public and have “legally binding” guarantees that would amount to an “irreversible lock.” but surely the only way that could happen is if all the parties have put their mark on a treaty document.

Every other country to my knowledge who have held a plebiscite on changes to the European constitution has done so in the form of a treaty ratification. That is because people then know what they are voting for and can be certain that it will not change without further reference to them.

Is it the case that Cameron, in his haste to satisfy the timetable being forced on him by his party's Euro-sceptics, is prepared to gamble on the good will of other countries in the hope that they will stick to their word when it comes to the detailed discussions on the wording of any new treaty?

The danger is that this will become a vote on whether we can trust Cameron to keep his word, whether we have any confidence in his ability to deliver what has been agreed,whether we believe that the European Court of Justice will not unpick the deal and whether the Prime Minister's very limited capital will sustain the agreement with a group of leaders who themselves are subject to the vagaries of the democratic system and who do not have Cameron's or Britain's interests at heart

And even if we swallow all that, it is likely that no treaty could be agreed before 2025, it would have to be ratified by other countries by way of a referendum and that means it would be another Prime Minister, possibly with a different agenda batting for Britain at that time.

If this sounds flaky then that is because it is. If we are going to vote on a new constitutional settlement with the EU then it needs to be a vote on a settled and legally binding package. That means that we must wait for the treaty before going to the polls.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

All roads lead to Llandudno Junction

On Tuesday the Finance Minister made a statement on her budget tour, allegedly listening to stakeholders about what should be her budget priorities. Today, in response to one of my questions she sent me the itinerary.

18 June           - Aberystwyth
2 July              - Llandudno Junction
16 July            - Cardiff
23 July            - Swansea
3 August         - Newtown
9 September   - Llandudno Junction
10 September - Merthyr Tydfil

Obviously, I am disappointed not to have received a tour T-shirt but also puzzled as to why she is going to Llandudno Junction twice.

Was the Black death really such a good thing?

For those of us with an interest in social history this article in today's Telegraph is fascinating. They report on the views of Professor Robert Tombs of Cambridge University that the Black Death actually had some rather good effects for those who survived it.

Professor Tombs says that although the plague killed an estimated 1.5 million people in England between 1348 and 1350, in its aftermath, with fewer people competing for work and land, living standards reached a height not matched until centuries later:

Peasants had increased leisure time and freedom, so pubs became places for playing games, meeting and socialising.

The amount of free time available to 15th century workers was not equalled until the 1960s, Prof Tombs said.

“This was when the English pub was invented and people started drinking lots of beer and playing football and so on. That was in a way due to, or at least a consequence of, and wouldn’t have been possible without, the Black Death.”

He adds that people got better off, there was more land to go around, resources were not so stretched and what was later called the feudal system largely disappeared:

"Serfs became free because they could simply say to their lords, 'Ok, if you won’t give me my freedom I’ll go somewhere else’.

“And they did. So if lords wanted their fields to be tilled, they had to give their peasants or vassals what they wanted, which was essentially freedom and a better life.

“The standard of living people reached in the 15th century was not exceeded until the 1880s after the Industrial Revolution. And the amount of leisure they took was not equalled until the 1960s.”

Although people had brewed ale for many centuries, and drunk in taverns, the late Middle Ages is said to have seen the rise of the pub as would be recognised in the modern day.

“The brewing of ale was usually a cottage industry,” said Prof Tombs, a fellow of St John’s College who was promoting his book, The English and their History.

“Weak beer was the standard drink. But it’s in the early 15th century that you start getting places that are mainly, or permanently, dedicated to drinking beer that are also about playing games as well.

“That’s the origin of the pub; it’s a particular place. It’s not just that Mrs So-and-so brews berry occasionally and you can nip round to buy a farthing’s-worth of ale, but it’s now to become a full-time brewer with a public house one can go to at any time to eat and certainly socialise.

It just goes to show, some people can find the bright side to any tragedy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why we need to settle the devolution debate once and for all

Today is the day that Westminster comes to Cardiff Bay. To be precise it is the day the Secretary of State for Wales appears in front of Plenary to persuade us of the merits of the Queen's Speech. It is a tough job but somebody has to do it.

Over at the Guardian, Stephen Crabbe has given us a preview of what to expect. He tells the paper that the Tories now want to deepen devolution after what he describes as a massive mistake in opposing the process in 1997:

“Strategically we got it massively wrong in 1997 by setting our faces against devolution. There is a strong philosophical tradition within British Conservatism that supports decentralisation and localism and devolution. We have rediscovered that in the last five or six years as a government. You can see the fruits of that now with the northern powerhouse and city deals. We have got to a place where Scottish Conservatives, Welsh Conservatives – we are very, very comfortable with devolution, we want to make it work.”

He plans to tell us that about the new reserved powers we will get in the latest Wales Bill, as well as proposals to allow the assembly to change its name to a parliament and to set its own franchise. He also makes it clear that he intends this to be the last time a Secretary of State for Wales comes to the Senedd to talk down at us about the UK Government's legislative plans. He is planning to abolish that role in the new legislation.

He wants this latest bill to settle the devolution issue for Wales, arguing that the original devolution settlement has had a “long term corrosive effect” on the whole country by creating a culture of blame and grievance directed at the UK government. He tells the Guardian that the failure to ensure that the devolved bodies took some responsibility for raising taxes has created a “long running perpetual complaint” that Westminster was to blame for difficult spending decisions. Unfortunately, the proposals he is bringing forward will still leave control of the purse strings in the hands of the Treasury.

However, others have a different view. In the Western Mail, Stephen Crabbe's former deputy, the Welsh Liberal Democrats peer, Jenny Randerson says it is time to speed up the devolution process. She wants to go further than the present Government is proposing:

Ms Randerson is calling on her former colleagues at the Wales Office to devolve responsibility for policing and youth justice; to be “open to the idea” of a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales; to increase the energy powers; and to clarify whether the UK Government will be “only be publishing a Draft Bill in this parliamentary session.”

The peer said: “No ifs, no buts, Wales must have fair funding. We need clarity on this issue and the best way to tackle it head on is by entrenching it in the Wales Bill.

Jenny points out that devolution under the Liberal Democrats in Coalition Government moved faster than it had in over decade. She is now concerned that with the Tories on their own, this momentum could be lost.

She is also right that unless the funding gap between Wales and the rest of the UK is resolved then the taxation powers which the UK Government proposes to give to us will be meaningless. That is why we need a firm commitment from the Secretary of State for Wales that a funding floor will be put in place as soon as possible.

The new Wales Bill will propose to give the Welsh Assembly reserved powers so that we will have responsibility for everything within our sphere of influence unless the bill says otherwise. The Secretary of State will no doubt argue that this puts us on a par with Scotland, but others disagree.

Over at the Pendryn Drycin blog, Phil Davies sums up much of the evidence given to the Welsh Assembly's Constitutional and legal Affairs Committee by three eminent academics on Monday:

It is to be welcomed, therefore, that the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee under the chairmanship of David Melding has started gathering evidence on the UK Government’s proposals. Yesterday they took evidence from Professor Thomas Glyn Watkin, Emyr Lewis of Blake Morgan LLP and Professor Adam Tomkins of Glasgow University, all of whom expressed concerns that the process could be hijacked by Whitehall to limit or obfuscate the power of the Assembly rather than enhance it or make it clearer, and that a ‘reserved powers model’ of and in itself was no guarantee of legislative ‘elbow room’ or clarity. “Everything depends on the reservations” was the very strong message emerging from the meeting, and in a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion which also took in considerations of sovereignty, ‘permanence’ and the Sewel Convention, all were of the opinion that the current process represents both an opportunity and a risk to Wales.

He concludes: "Rather than fighting a rear-guard action to cling on to powers that we already have, shouldn’t our leaders be ‘in the faces’ of Messrs Cameron and Osborne demanding much, much more? Silk II in its entirety for example? Home Rule perhaps?"

The Secretary of State for Wales needs to understand that he might have to go that extra mile before this issue really is settled for a generation and the Welsh Assembly is in a position to deliver its own agenda in full.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Did any UK political parties use rent-a-crowd service?

Today's Independent contains the quite startling claim that Rent a Crowd, a company that provides 'background extras and crowds of people for anything and anywhere in the UK', has claimed thatit had "provided people at different locations across the UK in the build-up to the election."

Apparently, these supporter boosts are usually arranged by the PR agencies working for the political parties, either to lighten the load of administration or to provide a convenient buffer between the party and the company.

They say that company doesn't make public which parties it works with, but the fact they have the budget to bring external PR agencies on board suggests they are probably larger than an independent candidate who comes away with a handful of votes. However, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour all say that they were not aware of having worked with the company:

The tactic is allegedly also being used in the US by both Republicans and Democrats, where companies will go as far as to create positive signs for rallies and prepare enthusiastic vox pops for the cameras. Earlier this week, Donald Trump denied paying actors to cheer at his presidential bid announcement.

Rent a Crowd maintains that it only contributes bums on seats.

"The crowds we hire are never there to voice any political opinion but simply to beef up the numbers in the crowds," the rep added. "We get very little info on these other than a simple brief of where to be and to mingle into the crowd. "

Rent a Crowd also claims to have provided general humans for Gok Wan and Fulham FC and has contributed extra mourners at funerals.

If these rent-a-crowds were provided during the run-up to the General Election, but Labour, Lib Dems and Tories deny using them, then who did? The only other party with sufficient resources would be UKIP. They are not included in the list of denials in the article. Perhaps they would like to clear up this issue.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Tories should consider tax rises on the wealthiest rather than further welfare cuts

The Guardian reports that David Cameron is to deliver his strongest hint yet that he intends to launch an assault on tax credits as part of his government's proposals to cut the welfare bill.

They say that he will make the comments in a speech in Runcorn this morning just weeks before George Osborne, the chancellor, sets out £12bn of welfare cuts, seeking to justify them in terms of both reducing the deficit and the need for further changes to incentivise work:

In his speech on “opportunity”, Cameron will say Britain needs to move from a “low-wage, high-tax, high-welfare society to a higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare society”.

“This is what I would call a merry-go-round,” he will say. “People working on the minimum wage having that money taxed by the government and then the government giving them the money back, and more, in welfare. Again, it’s dealing with the symptoms of the problem, topping up low pay rather than extending the drivers of opportunity.”

The potential impact of this approach to cutting the deficit for the working poor could be devastating. In-work poverty is a major problem in our society, whilst many families rely on help with childcare costs through working tax credits. Even then the maximum amount they can claim does not even cover part-time childcare costs. If families cannot afford childcare then they will be unable to work.

My view and that of the Liberal Democrats is that this cut in welfare is a step too far and that the Government should be looking to increase taxes on the wealthiest in our society as a major contribution to eradicating the deficit.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Are we really ready to fight a pro-European referendum campaign?

With Labour already seeking to go it alone in fighting the European Referendum campaign those wanting us to stay in the EU are facing a major uphill struggle.

Just how steep that hill will be was evident from this article in today's Independent in which they report that a campaign to pull us out of Europe to be funded by some of the wealthiest people in Britain is to launch in September.

They say that organisers, which include business people and entrepreneurs, are said to be in talks with sports stars and other celebrities to act as ambassadors for the campaign:

The campaign, which has been provisionally titled “No Thanks – We’re Going Global,” has hired offices and staff, and has also recruited an agency to help with a public relations and advertising run which will coincide with its launch on 10 September.

The group is led by Arron Banks, the insurance millionaire who donated £1m to UKIP in 2014, although he has made clear that it will have nothing to do with previous political campaigns. 

There is no guarantee of course that this grouping will be recognised as the official 'no' campaign but we should be in no doubt that this sort of firepower is a real threat to our continued membership of the EU and all the benefits that it brings for the UK.

Those on the opposite side of the fence need to start organising on a cross-party basis now and that should include zero-tolerance for Labour's tendency to take its toys home and refuse to play with the others.

The future prosperity, influence and status of the UK is at stake and we need to show that we are ready to fight until the bitter end to stay in a reformed European Union. If we don't get our act together soon then it may be too late.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The consensus on fracking has broken down and that is a good thing

Yesterday's Guardian contained an interesting article on the way that the political consensus around fracking has begun to breakdown since the General Election.

They say that up the the May poll the UK’s political parties have been unusually united in their support for hydraulic fracturing at a national level. However, both of the likely next leaders of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats support a ban on fracking. That  leaves just Ukip and the Conservatives, who are “going all out for shale", as the only parties in the UK strongly in favour:

“Where is the evidence that it is safe to come and frack a place like this [Leigh]?” said Labour frontrunner Andy Burnham earlier this month. “No fracking should go ahead until we have much clearer evidence on the environmental impact.”

This week, Tim Farron, the favourite to be the next Lib Dem leader, said he would like his party to consider a ban. Unlike Burnham, whose concerns seemed to rest on potential impact on the local environment, Farron’s justification was the big picture: by the time fracking in the UK was happening commercially, we’d need to be phasing almost all fossil fuel out of the power sector to meet our carbon targets.

“Shale gas will only have a future in the UK if we abandon, or significantly scale back, our climate targets – and that’s something that I hope every Liberal Democrat would oppose,” he wrote on the Huffington Post.

Of course the Welsh Liberal Democrats have been in this place for sometime. We feel strongly that there are huge unresolved environmental, health and safety and climate change challenges with fracking that remain unanswered. We are not prepared to put communities and our future well-being at risk by supporting fracking until all of these issues have been addressed to our satisfaction.

Friday, June 19, 2015

UKIP split again

Just when you thought that UKIP could not splinter anymore the Guardian reports that their most prominent female politician Suzanne Evans has been sacked as a media spokesman after she gave a television interview saying Nigel Farage was seen by voters as a “very divisive character”:

Evans, who was formerly an ally of Farage and was at one point anointed by him as acting leader, incurred the displeasure of her boss after she made the comments on the BBC’s Daily Politics.

“I think Nigel is a very divisive character in terms of the way he is perceived,” she said. “He’s not divisive as a person but the way he is perceived is as having very strong views that divide people. So in that sense I think he is right. I think it will be someone else who actually fronts [the EU exit campaign].”

On Thursday afternoon, the Ukip press office then issued a “directive” to sever contact with Evans and refused to offer her up as a media spokesman on any issue. She was not to be briefed or advised on any subject.

A senior source at Ukip’s HQ said on Thursday afternoon that Evans’s position had become untenable, that her comments were “surprising and disappointing”, and that Farage was “pretty angry and perplexed”.

The source said: “I think that, speaking to a number of people, Suzanne’s position is now untenable. I would suspect she probably thinks that as well. In no other party would you have such a situation. It would be akin to Theresa May going on television and saying she thought the prime minister was a deeply divisive figure.

“Theresa May wouldn’t expect to be in her job three hours later. That would be tantamount to a resignation speech … Everybody needs to understand that that sort of behaviour and comment in public and on the television is just unacceptable.”

An email was then leaked to the BBC showing the directive to the Ukip press office not to contact Evans again.

As the paper points out Evans is one of Ukip’s best-known female politicians and was named by Farage as his preferred choice to succeed him as acting leader after the election, before he reversed his decision four days later.

It seems that the only thing keeping UKIP together is the prospect of leading the 'no' campaign in the European referendum.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Heritage versus democracy, the choice facing MPs

I have already blogged once about the £3 billion bill to restore the House of Commons to a usable state. This is an issue that has been faced head-on in Canada where their Parliament are effectively decanting MPs in stages so as to completely renovate a considerably younger building at a substantial cost over a number of years. Back in the UK, MPs don't seem to be able to grasp the nettle at all.

The Independent reports that Chris Grayling, the Leader of the Commons, has told his fellow MPs  that he does not want to see them evacuated to a temporary location because it will undermine Britain’s democracy.

This is all very well but as the newspaper report makes clear the £3 billion cost of this renovation could well double to £6 billion if builders have to work around MPs and their staff and it would take many more years to complete. Is this really a good use of taxpayer's money just to avoid upsetting tradition?

I was going to say 'to avoid inconveniencing MPs' but actually it will be worse for them to be there whilst the work goes on and not at all pleasant, but then that is their look-out.

I agree with Chris Grayling when he says that the Palace of Westminster is an important part of our national heritage and our democracy and it must remain as such but isn't it time to move on.

Even if the buildings are renovated at great expense they will remain not fit for purpose. MPs and Lords will be using chambers that can barely accommodate a third of their number, they will be still occupying offices at the top of winding stone staircases with no room to swing a cat, and no matter how much extra security they put on the buildings remain vulnerable to attack from the river at least.

There are of course advantages. The sheer majesty of the accommodation is unrivalled, as is its position in the centre of London. New office accommodation has been built around it at great expense and of course Parliament is within striking distance of all government offices.

On balance MPs need to stay there though they really should consider constructing alternative chambers for meetings in another building where they can be accommodated with all the modern facilities available to most other Parliaments, including having their own individual seat.

What they must not do is to allow sentiment to double the cost of renovation. The work has to be carried out and soon and MPs need to move elsewhere so that it can be completed quickly and at best cost.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Tories for Corbyn

It was inevitable really. The Guardian reports that Conservative party supporters have mounted a Twitter campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in order to damage the party’s future election chances.

The paper says that new rules mean that anybody can pay £3 to register as a Labour supporter and vote for the new leader. What could go wrong?

The campaign includes the adoption of the  hashtag #ToriesForCorbyn, to call for people to vote for the candidate perceived to represent the left wing of the Labour party.

Corbyn's candidacy has certainly displeased some in Labour. The Guardian reports on a tweet by John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, that Corbyn’s candidacy showed the party’s “desire never to win again”, while Ed Balls’ former head of communications, Alex Belardinelli, complained that the leadership race was being treated like a game.

In addition Dan Hodges in the Telegraph has argued Corbyn's candidacy will move the leadership debate leftwards at a time when the other candidates should be adopting a more realistic approach to Labour's future strategy and policy positions:

He says that one of the great myths of Labour’s victory in 1997 was that it was secured because Tony Blair constructed a “big tent” that was politically inclusive. In fact, that victory was secured because Blair – and Neil Kinnock before him – made a point of kicking the hard Left out of the tent. And then when they got them out of the tent they kept kicking them.

Is this another act of self-destruction by Labour on a par with the 1979-1983 period? We shall see.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Scale of proposed Tory welfare cuts show value of Lib Dem restraint in last Parliament

The Times reports on claims that Iain Duncan Smith has been asked to see if he can find £15 billion of welfare cuts, a third more than promised during the election campaign.

They say that Treasury officials have asked the Department for Work and Pensions to examine child tax credits and working tax credits as possible sources for the savings. Another option being considered is the lowering of the welfare cap below the £23,000 given in the Tory manifesto to £20,000.

These sorts of cuts were vigorously resisted by the Liberal Democrats in the last government. Such a squeeze on welfare would mean that the working poor would be worst hit by the cuts, whilst any reduction in child tax credits would also make it even harder for the government to hit statutory child poverty targets.

It is at times like these that the value of having the Liberal Democrats as a restraining force within government is highlighted. Left on their own the Tories will revert to type. This story confirms that.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Magna Carta - did she die in vain?

Today is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede, though as one pedant has already pointed out on Twitter, the actual 800th anniversary is next Monday (owing to the change from Julian to Gregorian calendars in 1752).

Accordingly, we have already been treated to a high-minded speech by David Cameron standing on the banks of the River Thames in which he extolled the importance of the document as the basis of our Parliamentary democracy. Or at least he should have done, I sort of switched off after the first few sentences.

At least one politics site is a bit unhappy at Cameron embracing the Magna Carta. I think that they believe he is a modern day King John. They argue that whereas the great charter sought to limit executive power, Cameron has in fact done the opposite. Exhibit one is his intention to abolish the Human Rights Act and take us out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Ian Dunt, who wrote the article argues that cuts to legal aid are limiting people's access to justice contrary to the intention of the Magna Carta, that changes to rules for judicial review are undermining the rule of law and that the way we treat immigrants means that we are flouting the rule that there should be no imprisionment without trial.

It is a worthy attempt to contemporise Magna Carta and relate it to some of the touchstone issues being looked at by this new Tory Government, however in doing so Mr. Dunt decontextualises Magna Carta.

Over on the Jack of Kent blog there is a useful attempt to put things back into context. He accepts that Magna Carta has huge symbolic significance but that its importance as a legal document is vastly over-inflated. he says that it was not called Magna Carta at the time, and it was annulled after a very short period.

He goes on to quote two recent lectures by the English senior judge and medieval historian, Jonathan Sumption. He says that Sumption points out that what we take as Magna Carta is not the creation of 1215 but of pundits and propagandists of early Stuart England, especially Sir Edward Coke, a lawyer and writer of genius.

The key passage in Magna Carta is of course this:  “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”.

Jack Of Kent though is sceptical:

Sumption and others have pointed out, its meaning is essentially circular: you shall only be treated by the law under the “law of the land”.  it tells you nothing about what that law should be.  And if the “law of the land” includes, say, an unfettered royal prerogative or other unlimited executive powers, then it offers no protection whatsover; and it didn’t.  It was – and remains – a platitude, a slogan.

And so, the advances in “liberal” protections for the individual in English legal history – the writs of habeas corpus or the rulings against unrestricted warrants – came in unrelated legal developments, none of which depended on Magna Carta.
In fact, for a supposedly fundamental document, there is little to see of its “fundamental” effect: few, if any, cases have ever turned on it.  Although it is often invoked in passing, it lacks the live and real effect of an actual constitutional instrument.  Compare this impotence with the entitlements in the US Bill of Rights, which make actual differences to US citizens every day.

I actually think that this interpretation is very ungenerous. Magna Carta was of course, a codification of the law as it stood at the time rather than a departure from the existing rule. However, its significance and that of the key passage referred to above is the way it checked the arbitrary use of power by the King and forced him to abide by the rule of law..

It may be right to say that this law was not defined, but that is not the point. The King had been curtailed in what he could do, whilst the Charter also contains important rights for Wales and Scotland as well. This codification of laws helped form the basis for the US constitution whilst a direct line can be drawn from the Magna Carta to the assertion of Parliamentary sovereignty after the English civil war.

All in all this is a significant day, even if the Prime Minister has missed the irony of his own participation in the celebrations given his own government's policies.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

New MPs down £11,000 of drinks in first week

Those, like me, critical of the subsidies available to MPs in the various bars around the Palace of Westminister, will not be surprised at this article in the Sunday Times, which reveals that jubilant Tories, triumphant Scottish nationalists and despondent Labour politicians helped to consume more than £11,000 of alcohol during the first week back at Westminster after the general election.

The paper says that dozens of bottles of champagne and prosecco, scores of bottles of wine and hundreds of pints of beer were consumed in the Strangers’ Bar and on the adjoining terrace over a five-day period with £4,300 being spent on alcohol on Monday, May 11, alone:
With the Commons not sitting as new MPs found offices, some received ministerial jobs and others analysed the election result, politicians, senior parliamentary officials and their guests spent £1,538.05 on sauvignon blanc, £1,229.70 on Grolsch lager, £1,036.45 on guest ale, and £875.50 on champagne.

According to figures released under freedom of information rules, staff also served a single Campari, priced at £2.70, one Baileys, at £3, and one glass of port, also priced at £3. A jug of water was served free.

Alcohol sold in the Commons bars is cheaper than in most of the pubs and bars nearby. 

Nice work if you can get it but  hardly setting an example for the rest of the country.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The goal that sent the Welsh football team on the way to France

It is a busy day but not too busy to reflect on the most important news of the week - Gareth Bale's goal that has set the Welsh football team firmly on the road to the European Championships in France. Enjoy!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Those missing UKIP MEPs

This is the bar chart that shows what we have long suspected that UKIP MEPs are bottom of the league when it comes to taking part in votes in the European Parliament.

The Guardian says that data provided by VoteWatch Europe shows that between July 2014 and May 2015, its 23 MEPs have on average participated in only 62.29% of votes in the European parliament.

No other party - including other eurosceptics ones - among the analysed group has a participation rate below 80%. They add that two other UK parties also make the bottom 10 – the Greens and the Conservatives – as does Italy’s New Centre-Right party, which was founded after a split from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

UKIP make full use of their Parliamentary allowances though and have attracted controversy in the past for the way that they spend them. Maybe they should try to earn their salaries by turning up to vote more often.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

New Labour leader faces choppy waters - and nominations are still open!!

There are still four days until the close of nominations for the new Labour leader and already the successful candidate, whoever that will be, is under pressure.

Today's Times reports on a threat by Labour-guru and former Blair spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell that he will “happily lead the charge” to oust the next Labour leader should they fail to make an impact. Campbell has signed up to moves to put a break-clause into the new leadership so that party members are able to participate in a confidence vote before 2020 so as to show whether the successful candidate still has the party’s backing:

“I’m not going to back anybody publicly [for the leadership],” he said. “But if in three years’ time they’re not winning and they’re not cutting it, and it is obvious we are not going to get close to winning an election, I will not bite my tongue and I will encourage others not to bite their tongues. I will happily lead the charge to try to replace whoever is leader.”

His intervention came as Mr Blair told The Times that Labour faced losing a third consecutive election unless its next leader pushed the party out of its “comfort zone”, adding that securing some backing from the business world would also be crucial.

The former prime minister, who won three elections, said the new leader would have to show they could “lead the country and rise above their party”. He added: “For progressive parties particularly, if you retreat into your comfort zone you lose — that’s the lesson of 100 years of our history.”

I do not think that branding your new leader as a failure before they have even been elected is really a constructive way to rebuild after a disastrous election.  But if that is the Labour way who am I to argue?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wales Labour at odds over council reorganisation

The rumours are that this is the week that the Welsh Public Services Minister will be publishing his map of what local government in Wales should look like after reorganisation. This will be just in time for next week's Welsh Local Government Association Conference in Swansea.

My views on this issue are set out on the Institute of Welsh Affairs website here. If we are to have our third reorganisation in 40 years then we need to get it right. We wont do that by moving councils around on a map.

We need a proper exercise, preferably utilising the boundary commission, to produce sustainable councils which properly reflect natural communities and which are elected by the single transferable vote method so as to ensure that the new councils are representative, transparent and accountable.

The WLGA Labour group have been meeting today and presumably have been given a preview of the proposed map by the Public Services Minister. As this twitter exchange initiated by the deputy leader of Flintshire Council indicates, they are not happy.

All the signs are that the Labour government's failure to take people with them on this reform and their eagerness to get a quick fix is not going well. The ramifications within the Wales Labour Party could well prove to be the best spectator sport on offer this side of the start of the new football season.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Welsh Government abandon evidence-based policy on e-cigs

I am sure that I have written this before, but there used to be a time when Welsh Ministers stood up in front of the Assembly and proudly boasted of making policy on the basis of evidence. Alas, the publication of the Public Health Bill today marks a significant departure from that approach.

The Welsh Government want to introduce the same restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes in public as apply to cigarettes. Consequently, people will be banned from using e-cigarettes in enclosed places such as restaurants, pubs and at work in Wales.

When the smoking ban was introduced there was very clear evidence as to the harmful impact of second-hand smoke on people's health. There is no such evidence with regards to e-cigarettes. Instead, ministers argue they do not want to take the risk of seeing smoking "normalised" again after the success of the smoking ban.

So by their own admission they are seeking to regulate a perfectly legal activity so as to change people's behaviour. The precedent that this sets is quite concerning and heralds the beginning of a nanny state or worse.

The anti-smoking campaign group ASH Wales, Cancer Research UK and Tenovus are among those opposed to this ban whilst the British Heart Foundation, British Lung Foundation and the Royal College of Physicians want more evidence. Furthermore in a public consultation on the proposals last year, 79% of responses were opposed. So it is not as if there is a public clamour for this measure either. Why does the Government bother consulting when it has already made up its mind?

Some people who vape are concerned that they will now be cast outside to join the smokers and that this will lead to them returning to smoking. Indeed there is some evidence in other countries that this is what has happened. There is strong evidence that e-cigarettes have enabled a large number of people to give up smoking, something that decades of lectures by government has failed to do.

This ban will be strongly opposed by the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Inexplicable nomination to chair Commons Health Select Committee

The Spectator is particularly scathing today about the nomination of Conservative MP, David Tredinnick as chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee. Damien Thompson writes:

David Tredinnick is an Old Etonian Tory MP whom I met when he was a mature student at Oxford. He seemed a nice enough chap but we were all astonished when he was elected to Parliament. He struck us as a bear of very little brain.

How unfair to bears that turned out to be. Tredinnick, who – incredibly – sits on the Commons Health Select Committee, believes that astrology works and, according to the Telegraph, that a full moon can cause internal bleeding. And, it goes without saying, he supports the cult of homeopathy, which puts lives at risk with its idiot doctrines.

To quote the world-renowned scientist Lord Winston, ‘Let me say firmly: I think his views are lunatic’.

The paper prints a roll call of MPs who, for some inexplicable reason believe that Tredinnick's views are a suitable fit to lead the scrutiny of England's health service. Amongst them is one of the MPs representing a constituency within my South Wales West region, the once apparently-sensible Huw Irranca-Davies.

And I wonder what Plaid Cymru's health spokesperson will think about Hywel Williams MP nominating Mr. Tredinnick for this post? Is homeopathy part of Plaid Cymru health policy now?

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Why I am voting for Tim Farron for leader

I do not have a good record in my choice of candidates in Liberal Democrats leadership elections. Since I joined in 1978 I have only backed the winner once. That was Nick Clegg. Tim Farron, you have been warned.

To be honest, I have been torn in deciding who to vote for this time. I can see merits in both candidates. Norman Lamb is a substantial politician with a good record of achievement as a Minister behind him. His ability to comfortably hold his seat in North Norfolk in very challenging times shows that he is an effective campaigner who is capable of getting his message across and relating well to ordinary people. The party will do well to have him as leader and there is no doubt that he will make an impact.

The question mark for me though is whether Norman is able to change the narrative, to find a niche place in politics for the Liberal Democrats in the new Britain that the 2015 General Election has bequeathed us and to exploit it in a way that will rebuild support for the party.

This is a long term project but it is not one that we can take too much time over. There are 21 elected full time Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians left and 12 of us are up for election next year. Whoever wins this contest needs to make an immediate impact and get out there, to take the fight out into the country. The Lib Dem fight back has certainly begun but it needs to pick up speed and start to show results in the polls.

It is possible that this task is beyond both leadership candidates. It is possible too that either of them can accomplish it. But what has focussed my mind more than anything was the tragic death of Charles Kennedy. As a leader he had his shortcomings and his flaws, but he spoke human, he was able to communicate complex messages in a way that achieved wide understanding and acceptance and he was an effective campaigner who led us to our best election result since 1922.

It is my view that Tim Farron is best placed to do something similar. He too is an effective campaigner, he also speaks human and he understands that the best way to rebuild the party is out in the country, not in Westminster. It is my belief that of the two candidates in front of us, Tim has the best chance of changing the narrative quickly, of focussing on a couple of key issues and making them ours.

And of course Tim Farron is more likely to position the party, where I feel most comfortable, as an independent left of centre force that combines a commitment to social justice with a belief in empowering individuals and communities and in individual liberty and freedom.

For that reason I will be casting my vote for Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats and would urge others to do the same.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

How Charles Kennedy helped with regime change in Wales

I am in the middle of Wales at a Liberal Democrats fight back event so signal is variable and consequently this blog post will be short.

Former Welsh First Minister, Rhodri Morgan has his own story about Charles Kennedy in his Western Mail column today in which he relates Charles' role in ensuring that Alun Michael quit as First Secretary of the Welsh Assembly in 2000.

With Alun Michael facing a no confidence vote in the Assembly, Tony Blair summoned Charles Kennedy to number ten to ask that he persuade the Welsh Lib Dem group to withdraw their support for the motion. Characteristically, Charles told him no, it was up to the AMs to do their own thing, that is what devolution is all about.

It is an interesting contrast with 1999 when Alun Michael refused to countenance a coalition despite having no majority. Paddy Ashdown went to see Blair at the request of the Welsh Liberal Democrat leadership to ask the Prime Minister to put pressure on Welsh Labour to talk to us. Alun Michael refused and a chain of events were put in train that led directly to the no confidence motion and Rhodri Morgan becoming First Minister.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Labour split is a real threat to European 'yes' campaign

Today's Times reports that Labour’s shadow cabinet is facing a profound split over how to approach the European referendum campaign.

The paper says that tensions are emerging between those who think that Labour should mount a high-volume, principled drive to keep Britain in Europe and those who advocate keeping a distance from the cross-party “yes” campaign, using every opportunity to expose Tory divisions and remember voters in Labour heartlands who supported UKIP in the election.

Labour's inability to engage with cross-party campaigns is a major problem for them. Their default position seems to be partisan self-interest and that is major weakness in the pluralist democracy that the UK has become.

It should not be forgotten that a similar stand-offishness from Labour and a failure to engage with people of all parties who had a common interest was one of the reasons why the AV referendum was lost.

People do not appreciate tribalism intruding on arguments about the national interest. Until Labour realise this then they will continue to struggle to build a wider majority support in this country.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Taxpayers Alliance report bizarre and ridculous

If the Taxpayers Alliance latest mutterings from the sidelines do not finally destroy their credibility then nothing will.

We have already see how in 2009, it was revealed that one of their directors lives in a farmhouse in the Loire and has not paid British tax for years.  Despite this they have been telling us how to spend our money for years.

This is not to say that some of the stuff they have unearthed is not useful. Some of it is helpful scrutiny that enables further questions to be asked. However, their basic premise appears to be that the public sector should spend as little money as possible and deliver as few services as they can get away with.

Their most recent claims are in my view bizarre and ridiculous. They say that despite Welsh councils being faced with slashing services to save £146 million they own huge property portfolios which include pubs, golf courses, farms, restaurants, shops and hotels. They believe that  local authorities are “hoarding” lucrative property while crying poverty.

Their Chief Executive wants the assets sold. He believes that councils should provide “essential services” only saying that it looks deeply hypocritical for councils to plead poverty as an excuse for hiking council tax when they’ve got such a huge asset portfolio.

What utter nonsense. Councils of course have wider responsibilities including economic regeneration, leisure provision and community development. Many of the assets highlighted by the Taxpayers Alliance are needed to deliver those responsibilities.

More to the point, selling these assets will make Councils' financial situation even worse. A sale will generate a capital receipt which can only be spent once, but in many cases it will remove from a council's balance sheet important revenue, currently being used to keep council tax down.

It is a supreme irony that a proposal being put forward by the Taxpayers Alliance would actually cause taxpayers to pay more for the running of council services. Maybe it is time that we turned our attention to whether the Taxpayers Alliance is fit for purpose.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

How Charles Kennedy helped shape Welsh devolution

I have been reflecting over the last 24 hours on the times that my path crossed that of Charles Kennedy. The party is of course still in deep shock at his passing and I cannot begin to imagine the grief felt by his family.  His contribution to politics and to the United Kingdom during the course of his short life was immense.

Quite rightly people have referred to his political courage in standing up to the establishment and opposing the Iraq war. Others, including myself have also referenced his strength of character in leaving behind a Owenite rump of the SDP and helping to form a new merged party back in 1988/89. As Welsh Assembly members we saw him often. He was a good friend of Wales and the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

I recall that during the discussions in 2000, when we were trying to build a majority coalition government between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Labour, Charles was asked to intervene.

Up until that point the Assembly and the future of devolution was teetering. Alun Michael had resigned as First Secretary so as not to face a no-confidence vote, and the institution seemed doomed to deadlock, with a minority Labour Government apparently unable to implement any sort of programme.

Rhodri Morgan took the helm and made overtures to the Welsh Liberal Democrats to form a stable coalition government. Negotiations followed in which we put together a programme stuffed full of Liberal Democrats policies. However, the Welsh Liberal Democrats group of 6 AMs remained split as to whether to proceed or not.

So, we were gathered into our leader's office to take part in a telephone conference with Charles Kennedy. I think the expectation was that he would lay down the law and insist that we sign up to the deal. Charles knew better than to take that approach, indeed his liberal instincts told him that it was not his job to be dictating to the Welsh what we did within a devolved body.

Instead, he acted as a mediator, seeking our views, probing our respective positions and helping us to make up our own mind. The outcome was that a majority of the group voted to proceed with the coalition and we were able to bring some stability to the Assembly for the rest of its first term.

It was a significant intervention but one that had all the hallmarks of a decent liberal, who believed in enabling people not dictating to them. It was also an indication of his more consensual leadership style, one that made him by far our most popular leader, able to lead us to our best General Election result since 1922. He will be greatly missed.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Mourning the tragic loss of a great Liberal Democrat

I am absolutely devastated this morning at the tragic death of the former Liberal Democrats Leader, Charles Kennedy. He was a much-loved politician, both within and outside the party, a man of great political courage and huge talent.

I remember going on a walkabout with him in Swansea City centre (above) and being astonished at both the ease at which he interacted with people and the recognition and affection shown to him by complete strangers.

That he was not afraid to stand up for what was right was demonstrated firstly in the way he walked away from David Owen's SDP rump to help form the Liberal Democrats, and also in the way that he stood up as the only mainstream political leader to oppose the Iraq war.

He was my party's most successful leader, taking us to record numbers of seats in 2005. His humour and humility were legendary. He was a warm-hearted, witty, principled man who will be greatly missed.

My thoughts this morning are with his family, friends, and colleagues.

Monday, June 01, 2015

First Tory Cabinet split

The Independent reports that the new Tory Cabinet has split for the first time and it is over the subject of human rights.

They say that David Cameron has defied two of his top Cabinet ministers by taking the entirely sensible position of ruling out withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

His rather less-than-sensible solution is to pursue a “half-way” house which would see Britain remaining as a signatory of the ECHR, an international treaty signed in the 1950s to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms on the continent and which was promoted by Conservative politicians, but still repeal the Human Rights Act, which enshrined the convention into British law in 1998.

In many ways this is the worst of all worlds as it will mean that litigants will have to spend huge sums of money and be subject to excessive delays in taking their case to the European Court on Human Rights rather than, as now, resolving the issue in the UK courts.

In fact, Cameron's solution would do precisely what he and his party has complained about by handing over jurisdiction on human rights matters to Europe, when they can be resolved perfectly well within our borders at present due to the Human Rights Act.

They really are in a mess on this subject.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?