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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Negotiations to leave the EU could take a decade says former civil servant

The Independent reports that those who thought a vote to leave the EU in a few months time will lead to instant liberation, are deluding themselves. In fact our economy is so closely integrated with Europe that not only will leaving cause short term devastation, but the process of negotiating an exit will be protracted.

Quite how long those negotiations will be has been the subject of comments by former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell. The former head of the civil service believes that negotiations for Britain to leave the European Union could last a whole decade.

He argued that it would be “highly unlikely” that a withdrawal would follow the timetable set out in EU rules:

“I'm in that camp that doesn't think we can do it in two years,” the former cabinet secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“We have to negotiate our entry to the single market, we have to negotiate our future relationship with the EU and then we have to negotiate our trade treaties with all other countries. So there's a lot to be done."

Asked how long it could take for the UK to put together such a deal, Lord O'Donnell cited a Cabinet Office document which warns of “a decade or more of uncertainty”.

Such a timescale would likely see at least two general elections pass during negotiations – and possibly a change of government, where elected parties might take different views on whether to leave the bloc.

The former cabinet secretary also argued that the French and German governments would be incentivised to make EU exit look more difficult because they were both facing anti-EU parties at their respective general elections.

The most telling comment for me was about the withdrawal of Greenland from the EU, so far the only country to take that route. They voted in 1985 to leave the then-equivalent of the EU, the EEC:

“Greenland has a slightly smaller population than Croydon and it has one issue, and that’s fish,” O’Donnell said. “So with one issue … it took them not two years, but three. We have multiple issues. The idea that we can do it all in two years I think is highly unlikely.”

Clearly, a leave vote in June will be far more damaging to our economy than any of us had imagined.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The time for talk is over on Tata steel

Last night's news that Tata is to sell its UK operation is deeply unsettling and worrying for the region I represent, those whose livelihood depend on this business and for the future of our area's economy.

It is inconceivable that the Assembly will not now be recalled to discuss this issue and yet the time for talking is over. We need action and in particular we need the UK Government to step up to the mark and put its money where its mouth is when it comes to the future of the steel industry in the UK.

I have slept on this and here are my thoughts on what needs to be done now. This is not an exhaustive list nor is it particularly original but it should form the basis for discussion and I would hope that Ministers in both the UK and Welsh Governments can get together quickly and start working through this list alongside other measures they may have in mind.

The Welsh and UK Governments need to work together closely to facilitate a sale and ensure that Tata continues as a going concern. This includes cutting the plant's costs by:

1. Cutting business rates
2. Reducing energy costs
3. Going to the EU with proposals for higher tariffs on steel imports from outside the EU
4. If necessary taking a stake in the plant themselves in partnership with a buyer so as to make a sale sustainable and achievable.

If a buyer cannot be found then the UK Government (as this affects more than Wales) should fully nationalise the business so as to make it profitable in the long term so it can be resold at a later date. The Welsh Government should be a partner in this process.

In the meantime, we need action to attract new jobs to Port Talbot including immediate implementation of the Enterprise Zone proposal with its capital allowances and the creation of an urban development company with a brief to attract new investment to the area and a capital budget to facilitate that.

I hope to be able to develop these thoughts further in an Assembly plenary next week.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Battle lines drawn within UKIP

Controversy over UKIP's number one list candidate in South Wales Central has been reignited after former Tory MP, Neil Hamilton leapt to his defence.

The Western Mail reports that Mr. Hamilton has defended fellow Ukip National Assembly candidate Gareth Bennett, who has been accused of a "shocking slur" after criticising the multiracial nature of Cardiff and saying Eastern Europeans were responsible for some rubbish problems.

Hamilton said unemployed Mr Bennett was "a nice chap" and "would make a very good AM" and said he was not a "racist or unpleasant person":

Asked whether Mr Bennett, who made his controversial comments in an interview with WalesOnline , should keep his candidacy, Mr Hamilton said: “Most definitely. I think he has been misinterpreted.

“Maybe he could have phrased his comments a bit better, but he’s not an experienced politician.

“A lot of Ukip’s public appeal is based on the fact that many of its candidates are not experienced politicians.

“I’ve met him several times. He’s not a racist or an unpleasant person. In fact he’s a nice chap and I think he’ll make a very good AM.

“Anyway, the fuss seems to have died down. It was a squib. I don’t see the regional list candidates being changed now.”

In contrast, another Ukip Assembly candidate, Llyr Powell, has been very critical of Mr Bennett’s comments, which suggested immigrants from Eastern Europe were responsible for rubbish in Cardiff’s City Road area, dubbed Cardiff council’s Labour leader Phil Bales “brain dead” and revealed that he doesn’t approve of knocking on voters’ doors during election campaigns.

Mr Powell, due to stand in Neath and on the South Wales West regional list, says he will withdraw if Mr Bennett is not deselected. He also says around 15 Ukip candidates have called for Mr Bennett to go.

Monday, March 28, 2016

How accountable are academy schools?

The news that the UK Tory Government has decided to turn every school in England into an academy school has caused consternation, not least amongst teachers.  Education Minister, Nicky Morgan had a particularly torrid time at the NASUWT conference if this report is anything to go by.

As a politician working in a nation where education is entirely devolved to the Welsh Government, I can only watch and be thankful that Wales is not being subjected to the same treatment. Except of course the Welsh Conservatives have already announced that they want the academy school experiment to be brought in here and that if they have any influence after 5th May they will ensure that happens.

It is instructive therefore to read this article in the Daily Mirror describing just how unaccountable academy schools are, to the extent that parents and local politicians are effectively disenfranchised and unable to influence decisions that affect their community - the exact opposite of the localism agenda which conservatives say they embrace.

The article describes the problems the journalist had in getting a reaction from the Halewood Academy to its governors' decision to close the school's sixth form and how, after there was uproar from local people at this proposal, could not find anybody who was responsible for holding the school to account for its actions:

Knowsley council later told me that “regional schools commissioners” were in fact responsible for overseeing academies, on central government’s behalf.

I hadn’t heard of them and suspected I wasn’t the only one, but eventually found an email address for our local - or as it turns out, Lancashire and west Yorkshire - commissioner’s office.

The commissioners’ website says they are responsible for approving changes to academies, monitoring academies’ performance and taking action when they underperform.

I asked what commissioner Vicky Beers’ involvement and views were on the increasingly controversial withdrawl of A-Level provision, hoping to finally find someone willing to be held to account.

But I got the now predictable response that I should direct my queries elsewhere - this time to central government, via the Department for Education.

Which was a little bizarre, because central government had already rejected a petition from Halewood parents because - you guessed it - “ the government and Parliament aren’t responsible ”.

The Halewood principal eventually contacted me more than two weeks after the announcement, but merely emailed a statement that largely repeated what was on the school’s website.

The only thing stopping me laughing at how difficult it is to find someone to hold to account is the fact children’s futures are at stake.

As the article concludes, if journalists struggle to get answers to their questions, is it as hard for parents to do the same? And with plans to make all schools academies, will every school become this hard to hold to account? Maybe the Welsh Tories should provide answers to these questions as background to their own proposals.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Corbyn under fire from his own side - again!

The Independent carries another of an increasingly frequent series of articles in all media about the future of Jeremy Corbyn. To be fair speculation about David Cameron's future is also rife.

The paper repeats the oft-quoted message that dissident Labour MPs are preparing to make public demands for Jeremy Corbyn to stand down as leader if the party fails to notch up steady gains in elections across England, Wales and Scotland in six weeks’ time.

It says that these MPs have set a series of electoral yardsticks which they believe Labour should achieve to demonstrate that Mr Corbyn is succeeding in winning back voters who have deserted the party in recent years:

Top of the Labour leader’s critics’ list is London, where Sadiq Khan is favourite to win the mayoralty for the party after Boris Johnson’s eight-year spell in City Hall.

They are also looking for signs of a revival in Scotland, where Labour support collapsed at the general election, and for evidence that it can see off a challenge from Ukip in its strongholds in South Wales.

Several marginal councils in the south of England will provide a key test of Labour’s electoral health on 5 May.

They include Southampton, where Labour lost a seat at the election and has a narrow majority on the city council, and Crawley in West Sussex, where Labour has a council majority of just one. In the Midlands Labour could suffer the setback of losing control of the councils of Dudley, Redditch and Cannock Chase.

Opponents of Corbyn argue that Labour should be gaining hundreds of council seats at this stage of the parliament. Corbyn allies are taking heart from signs that both Labour support and his personal ratings are edging up after the disarray over George Osborne’s budget, Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the Cabinet and Tory in-fighting over the EU referendum.

Disarray within Tory ranks and the perception that the Tories are more split than Labour may help Corbyn of course, but whether Labour can achieve these heights has to be seen.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lib Dems know where the Tories have buried the bodies

Actually that headline sounds worse than it was intended. Speaking figuratively, it refers to a piece in the Independent about the problems that the Tories have got themselves in now that the Liberal Democrats are not there to keep them in check. The key passage in this article is here:

Some Tory ministers admit privately that they miss their former Coalition partners. Why? Because the need to square the Lib Dems meant there was a form of Cabinet government. Since the election, they say, most key decisions are handed down by Downing Street and the Treasury, and that no one else matters.

Mr Clegg’s constant claims that the Lib Dems “anchored the Coalition in the centre ground” cut little ice with the voters in May last year – many of whom, as Mr Laws concludes, never forgave their original decision to join forces with the Tories in 2010. But Mr Clegg was right, and the restraining hand of his party helped to blunt the Tory axe. In turn, this helped Mr Cameron win enough trust to secure an overall majority last year – a bitter irony for the Lib Dems, who did the right thing for the country in 2010, if not for themselves.

Most Tories did not expect to win the election. They thought their best hope was another Con-Lib coalition. Mr Osborne was almost certainly banking on the Lib Dems wielding a veto on some of the £12bn of welfare cuts in the Tory manifesto.

If the Tories were still in coalition now, the Lib Dems would surely have stopped the Chancellor’s proposed £4.4bn cuts to disability benefits getting past first base. So he would have avoided his humiliating post-Budget climbdown and further damaging the Tory brand. The Lib Dems might have saved a bit less money, but they might also have saved the Tories from themselves.

We paid a huge price for going into coalition with the Tories, but we did so for all the right reasons. If, in addition to the many Liberal Democrats policies that were implemented such as the Green Investment Bank, tax cuts for the low paid, pupil premium, protection for pensions etc, we also stopped some very unsavoury Tory policies being implemented and protected a lot of vulnerable people then that is some real consolation.

Friday, March 25, 2016

UKIP civil war continues as election deadline approaches

Just when you think that UKIP cannot be any more publicly split, their lead candidate in South Wales Central jumps back into the fray.

The Western Mail reports that UKIP's controversial South Wales Central lead candidate Gareth Bennett has called for the deselection of his running mate Alex Phillips, the party’s press officer. They say that a letter sent by Mr Bennett to Ukip Wales leader Nathan Gill accuses Ms Phillips, currently the party’s number two candidate in South Wales Central, of conspiring to get him deselected by advising him to agree to an interview with WalesOnline:

The letter – headed “solicitor’s letter” but without the name of a solicitor – states: “My client now suggests that the following actions be taken.

“That my client should deposit the required £15,000 [to cover election expenses] in the Ukip Wales bank account but subject to the confirmation that he is not about to be deselected as a candidate.

“That, due to a gross conflict of interests, Alex Phillips should be deselected as a list candidate for South Wales Central.”

The letter also asks that “my client is relieved of all further media or hustings events during the campaign as he can no longer retain any confidence in the staff of the campaign and media officer to support his candidacy”.

The letter concludes: “Please note that, if my client is deselected, the Ukip political party would face a legal action of £300,000 in lost earnings [over a five-year Assembly term] and would also face the prospect of paying my client’s legal costs in the event of losing the case.”

The row has even spilled over into my area, with Business consultant Llyr Powell, who has been selected to stand for Ukip in Neath and the South Wales West region, confirmed he had told the party that if Mr Bennett remains as a candidate he will quit his own candidacies:

He said: “I was shocked by Gareth Bennett’s comments, which I consider wholly unacceptable and ludicrous. It is totally wrong to blame problems with rubbish on people of a certain ethnicity.

“I am aware that around 15 Ukip candidates have called on the party’s national executive committee to deselect him.”

You could not make this stuff up.

The bird whisperer

This video is great. A man feeds the birds at Roath Park in Cardiff every day at the same time. When he is late they go and look for him.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

UKIP embarrass themselves again over suspension of former deputy chair

The civil war within UKIP between leader Nigel Farage and his main rival for the job, Suzanne Evans has led once more to the latter's suspension from the party. However, the reason for the disciplinary action says more about the unsuitability of UKIP as a party to hold public office than it does about the target of that action.

According to Huffington Post, former deputy chair Suzanne Evans was suspended after she signed a petition opposing the selection of a candidate who compared homosexuals to Nazis.

The website says that Evans, who Nigel Farage appointed as temporary leader last year before reneging on his resignation, was one of 167 people to call on Ukip to deselect Alan Craig as the UKIP London Assembly candidate for South West London:

Craig, who was leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance before joining Ukip, has in the past described homosexuals as “gay-rights storm troopers” and the “Gaystapo”, and claimed society is now “crushed under the pink jack-boot.”

Evans signed a petition calling for him to be axed as a candidate, and wrote: “Very sorry to hear about this: our selection process has clearly failed here.”

It is interesting to note whose side the UKIP party establishment has taken in this instance.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

UK Government faces more problems over housing

The Conservative UK Government continues to stagger from crisis to crisis. Osborne has now got his budget through but had to drop cuts to welfare payments to do it and has a £4.5 billion gap in his finances to fill.

At the same time the Tory Party remains deeply divided and at war with itself over Europe. No wonder business managers have scheduled so many recesses between now and the European referendum. They would rather have their MPs in their constituencies than causing problems at Westminster.

Hidden by all these crises is a further drama in the House of Lords over the Government's Housing and Planning Bill. As the Independent says, moves to impose sharp increases on the rents paid by better-off council tenants are set to be thrown out by peers, with Labour predicting that the House of Lords will inflict a series of “profound defeats” on Government plans to overhaul social-housing rules:

Under the so-called “pay to stay” plans, families or individuals with a total annual income of £30,000 outside London or £40,000 in the capital will have to pay rents “at market or near-market levels”.

The proposal could leave a family earning £40,000 nearly £12,000 worse off than if they earned just below the income threshold, according to the London Tenants Federation.

Separate research suggests that 214,000 English households could be affected, including 27,000 in London, leading to accusations that the scheme could result in social cleansing in big cities. An extra £250m a year could be raised from the rent increases, with the money going to the Treasury.

This bill is slowly being eviscerated by the Lords and may be unrecognisable by the time it comes back to the Commons. How will Conservative MPs react then?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How the Liberal Democrats stopped the Tories worse excesses

As the Tory Party unravels before our very eyes over welfare cuts it is instructive how they found themselves in this situation in the first place. According to the Financial Times the Chancellor thought the Liberal Democrats were going to rescue him from himself:

In private, George Osborne admits some policies only made it into the last Conservative manifesto because it was felt the party would not win an outright majority at the 2015 election and would therefore not have to implement them.

The chancellor’s ambitious plans to cut £12bn from the welfare bill in this parliament and to impose a tight cap on welfare were proposed in the belief that the Liberal Democrats would block the measures in a second coalition administration.

That the Tories would think that way shows the extent of the Liberal Democrats influence in the last administration. Nick Clegg and his fellow Ministers blocked many of the extreme policies now being brought forward by Cameron and Osborne.

Let loose on their own, the Tories have gone into self-destruct mode.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Backlash continues on disability cuts

Stephen Crabb may have insisted that cuts to disability benefits are restored as a condition of him taking on the Work and Pensions job, but that has not left him in the clear with disabled groups in his own constituency.

As The Times reports nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition demanding his resignation as patron of a local Mencap group because he voted in favour of a £30 cut in ESA for those in the work group.

We wait with baited breath as to whether he decides to reverse this cut in his new role as well.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Will the Tory civil war impact on their Welsh Assembly campaign?

I am not sure who advised Baroness Ros Altmann to jump in with a very personal attack on her former boss, Iain Duncan Smith, but it cannot be helpful to either side of the increasingly rancorous civil war that has now erupted in the Tory party.

The Independent reports that in a personal statement reported by Sky News, Baroness Altmann said she was "extremely shocked by the news of Iain Duncan Smith's resignation and the way he has behaved":

She wrote: "Having worked alongside him as a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, I have seen that he championed the very package of reforms to disability benefits he now says is the reason he has resigned.

"I simply cannot understand why he suddenly chose to quit like this when it was clear that Number 10 and the Treasury had told him they were going to pause and rethink these measures."

She added: "I'm particularly saddened that this really seems to be about the European referendum campaign rather than about DWP policy.

"He seems to want to do maximum damage to the party leadership in order to further his campaign to try to get Britain to leave the EU."

Recent opinion polls show that the public now perceive the Tory Party as more divided than Jeremy Corbyn's Labour. That is quite an achievement by Cameron, Osborne and their colleagues.

Up until recently the picture being painted for the Assembly elections was of a marginalised and unpopular Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn fighting for its life against a resurgent Tory Party and a popularist protest-vote-gathering UKIP. There is no doubt that on the doorstep lifelong Labour voters are reconsidering their options but it is no longer certain that the Tories will benefit from that disillusionment in marginal seats.

With UKIP also continuing to fight amongst themselves and with Plaid Cymru still failing to make a mark, the only viable and united party is the Welsh Liberal Democrats. And I am not going to pretend otherwise than we have an uphill struggle on our hands as well. Our other problem is that all parties are fighting to make ourselves heard over the European debate.

How all this will impact on the Welsh Assembly elections is impossible to predict. There no longer seems to be a clear cut path for voters to follow across the whole of Wales to secure change, whilst the liklihood of a fragmented Assembly with no obvious way to establish majority government is growing by the day.

My view is that in the light of this turmoil, the outcome of the Assembly elections is going to come down to individual battles at constituency and regional level. In other words it is all to play for.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The quiet man goes out with a bang

I am sure I was not alone in having my Friday night TV viewing disrupted by an explosion of astonishment on Twitter at the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith.

According to the Telegraph, the former Works and Pension Minister quit in protest at George Osborne's plan to cut the benefits paid to the disabled by more than £1 billion, which he said were a "compromise too far" arguing that welfare for pensioners should be cut instead.

Mr. Duncan Smith's resignation letter argued that these cuts are "not defensible" when announced alongside a budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers. He also accused the Chancellor of forcing through cuts to welfare for "political" rather than national economic reasons.

This is quite a bombshell for the Prime Minister and further undermines the position of George Osborne. All we need now is a statement in the House of Commons by IDS along the lines of Geoffrey Howe's clincal dismantling of Margaret Thatcher and anything can happen.

David Cameron's response thought is equally interesting:  In his reply to Mr Duncan Smith's resignation letter, the Prime Minister said: "We collectively agreed – you, No 10 and the Treasury – proposals which you and your Department then announced a week ago. Today we agreed not to proceed with the policies in their current form and instead to work together to get these policies right over the coming months.

"In the light of this, I am puzzled and disappointed that you have chosen to resign." 

And there is the nub of my problem with this resignation. The cuts which Duncan Smith argues are a step too far were actually announced by him a week ago, before the budget statement was made. He has been party to the gradual diminuition of disabled benefits for the best part of six years and, in any case, it looked like the Government were about to make a u-turn on these cuts anyway.

In my view the real reason for this announcement lies elsewhere. Iain Duncan Smith is a big advocate of the case to leave the European Union. Did he jump before he was pushed? Is this manoeuvre part of a wider plan to depose Cameron and replace him with a Euro-sceptic? We can only wait and see.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Dodgy forecasts and sugar tax

When in opposition the Institute for Fiscal Studies is a friend, however once a party is in government they become a thorn in the side. So it has proved for George Osborne on his latest budget.

The Guardian reports that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has criticised George Osborne for a misleading budget pledge to help Britain’s lowest paid workers, and warned that the chancellor’s new soft drinks tax could backfire by raising sugar consumption.

They say that IFS has highlighted “disingenuousness” in the Chamcellor’s claims he was taking the lowest paid “out of tax”. It has also warned that Osborne had only a 50/50 chance of meeting his goal to put the public finances in surplus by the end of the decade, and attacked a decision to freeze fuel duty for a sixth year running.

Some of these are policy matters of course in which it is perfectly fine to have a different point of view. On economic growth though they have a particular expertise:

Osborne used a series of eye-catching tax changes for small businesses and workers in his budget to distract from a gloomier outlook for the economy after the government’s independent forecasters, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), downgraded the prospects for productivity growth.

The IFS said this even bleaker outlook for productivity – or the UK’s economic efficiency – would hit wages and living standards and dent tax revenues for the exchequer.

That economic backdrop raised the prospect of deeper spending cuts to come, said the IFS head, Paul Johnson, presenting the thinktank’s now traditional postmortem of the budget. “In the longer term the public finances are kept on track only by adding yet another year of planned austerity on the spending side,” he said.

New bleaker forecasts for economic growth published alongside Osborne’s budget meant public finances were £56bn weaker than expected over the next five years, more than reversing the £27bn windfall the OBR predicted as recently as November.

Johnson said Osborne was “running out of wriggle room” and added: “His chances of having a surplus in 2019-20 are only just the right side of 50/50.”

It is possible that the IFS is scrutinising the government more effectively than the official opposition.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Holding the Welsh Government to account or how a bill was lost because of a personal slur

In the end it took a cheap political jibe to bring Plaid Cymru to their senses and oppose unevidenced proposals that should never have been in the Public Health Bill in the first place.

For possibly only the first or second time during this Assembly the combined opposition flexed its muscles and did the job it is there for, holding the Government to account, scrutinising its legislation and opposing misconceived and unsupportable measures.

The bill itself was flawed in my view. The inclusion of a partial ban on vaping was unnecessary and was not supported by the evidence. Many Plaid Cymru members recognised that and voted accordingly, but there were two or three who were prepared to support Labour's nanny-statism.

If the government had responded to the concerns expressed from all parties and removed the vaping ban the bill would have passed easily.

I have said on many occasions over the course of this Assembly that the minority Labour Government have had too easy a ride because the opposition has failed to work together to hold them to account. When we finally did get our act together it was on the last day and in some cases, for all the wrong reasons.

We really do need to do better in the fifth Assembly.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Why the government is right to bring in a tax on sugary drinks

The decision of the UK Government to grasp the nettle and impose a tax on sugary drinks is very welcome. I have written at length on this blog about this subject.

My view is that whereas a general tax on sugar could be damaging and hit poorer people because so many processed foods are full of the stuff, the evidence is there to try and force drinks companies to reduce the sugar content in their drinks.

It is worth recalling that the average person consumes 150 pounds of sugar each year, the equivalent of approximately seventy five one kilogram bags or 33 tablespoons each day. Most of that will not be consumed through sugary drinks.

But the impact of these drinks on obesity and on dental health is profound and there is a place for government to counter-balance that harm by taxing it.


Well worth a watch

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Labour revert to type on civil liberties

In many ways we should not be surprised that the new Corbynite Labour Party is adopting a Blairite approach to civil liberties, and will not oppose the draconian Investigatory Powers Bill being proposed by Theresa May.

The Independent reports that Labour MPs will abstain in a vote on the Government’s latest so-called “Snooper’s Charter”:

The proposed bill requires internet companies to hold records about which web pages all internet users have visited for a year, whether they are suspected of a crime or not.

The law would also require technology companies to bypass users’ encryption software and explicitly gives the security services to hack and bug private citizens’ computers.

Campaigners have warned the latter provision could lead to the effective outlawing of messaging services like iMessage, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, which use full end-to-end encryption.

Tim Farron has promised to lead the fight against the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. The Liberal Democrats will table amendments to the legislation in an attempt to give judges, rather than ministers, the power to authorise warrants to intercept the contents of people’s communications and hack computers. Mrs May proposed a “double-lock” under which ministers could approve warrants in urgent cases, with their action reviewed later by judges.

He is damning about the role of the Labour Party in this legislation: Tim Farron told The Independent: "The Home Secretary has created a sham of judicial authorisation that doesn't fool me, the public or the experts. It is an utter disgrace.”

He added: “The Labour Party is even worse though. It is acting like Conservatives on this Bill and just acquiescing. It is about as useful as a nodding dog. The Liberal Democrats will make sure the public's concerns are heard. You can't rely on Labour or the Tories to stand up for our hard won civil liberties."

The Lib Dems will also seek “redress” for individuals who are no longer under suspicion, under which people would be told they had been under surveillance unless there were a specific reason to maintain secrecy. The United States, Germany and Belgium have such a provision, the Lib Dems say. “You can’t seek justice if you never know you’ve been spied on,” said a party source.

Farron's approach is the right one. Conservatives cannot be trusted to look after our civil liberties. It seems that Corbyn's Labour Party cannot be trusted either.

Monday, March 14, 2016

'Let them pick fruit'?

Marie Antoinette was clearly too focused on cake, at least that is one conclusion that can be drawn from this gem of a story in former Lib Dem Cabinet Minister, David Laws' memoirs.

According to the Telegraph, David Laws claims that the-then-Tory Cabinet Minister, Owen Patterson suggested easing migration pressures by abolishing the agricultural workers scheme, which allowed migrants from Romania and Bulgaria to work in the UK and enlist retired people to do their jobs instead:

Extracts published in the Mail on Sunday claim the suggestion "stunned" even the "more right wing" senior Tories around the Cabinet table.

Mr Laws wrote: "Someone suggested that while abolishing the scheme might reduce immigration, it could also be very unpopular with farmers, who would no longer find it easy to employ cheap labour for back-breaking outdoor work. 'Oh, but I've thought of that', said Paterson. 'I think I have the answer. We'll try to get more British pensioners picking some of the fruit and vegetables in the fields instead.'

"One of the officials taking notes looked up in surprise, clearly thinking she had heard incorrectly. She hadn't. And Paterson hadn't finished. 'Of course, getting British pensioners to do this work could lead to an increase in farmers' costs,' he said. 'After all, they may be a bit slower doing the work. I've thought of that too. I think we might arrange to exempt British pensioners from the minimum-wage laws, to allow them to do this work.'

"Cabinet colleagues, even the more right-wing Conservatives, listened in stunned silence. The official now realised she had indeed heard correctly, and tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a laugh."

Mr. Patterson denies the story.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The 'dishonesty' of newspapers over Brexit

The Observer reports on comments by former Labour spin doctor, Alastair Campbell who has condemned newspapers that back Brexit for plumbing “fresh depths of dishonesty” and peddling lies and propaganda that insult the intelligence of their readers.

They say that Mr. Campbell has claimed several newspapers have stooped even lower than they had in attacking the Blair government and totally given up on trying to inform their readers or to debate issues, and instead promote the anti-EU views of their owners, regardless of the facts:

“More than in any such debate I can remember, large chunks of the press have totally given up on the role of properly informing public debate. The Mail, the Sun, the Express, and the Star in particular, to a lesser extent the Telegraph and, on a bad day, the Times, are more propaganda sheets for one side of the argument.”

He is particularly critical of The Sun: “The Sun has dragged the Queen into the whole thing, taking something that was almost certainly never said to make a claim that she supported the Out campaign. I had a fair bit to do with the royals and the often crazy coverage of them in my time in Downing Street. Based on that experience, and her ability to shrug off without complaint so many false stories written about her, I can pretty much guarantee this – the fact the Palace has made a complaint to Ipso, the so-called independent press regulator, means the story is a load of cock.”

It looks like whatever the outcome of the referendum we will not be able to rely on the fourth estate to provide us with the facts to help people make up their minds how to vote.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Are UKIP the sum of their membership?

Another day, another embarrassment for the UKIP leadership. This time in my own patch as the person selected as number four on the South Wales West Assembly regional list turns out to have been a member of another party that called for the end of coloured immigration.

The Western Mail says that Malcolm Biggs, who was due to be the number four candidate for Ukip on the South Wales West regional list,Mr Biggs stood in the Hertfordshire European constituency for the New Britain Party in 1994.

The paper says that New Britain campaigned for the return of capital punishment, and was supported by the Christian Affirmation Campaign, a right-wing traditionalist movement opposed to what it saw as the World Council of Churches’ support for Communist regimes in Africa:

As a white nationalist party, it supported apartheid and Rhodesia, and its leader Fennis Delderfield signed a letter in 2000 that argued that “suburb after suburb and town after town across the land have been taken over by Asians, Africans and Afro-Caribbeans ... In the not too distant future they will have direct control in many areas.”

A 1977 election leaflet for the party stated that “coloured immigration to this country must stop completely and immediately”.

Mr. Biggs has now stood down from the UKIP list on health grounds.

My colleague, Eluned Parrott made it very clear in her speech to the Liberal Democrats Conference in York yesterday, that choice that voters face in the South Wales West region on 5th May.

She said voters should give the Welsh Liberal Democrats their votes in the Assembly’s regional list to stop UKIP:

And she called on Tory, Labour and Plaid voters who are backing their own parties in the constituency races to vote Lib Dem on the regional vote to stop UKIP:

She said: “Where Scottish nationalism with its unanswered questions still seems to sweep all before it in Scotland, the English nationalists threaten to make a breakthrough in Wales.

“It’s incredible, but failed ex-Tory MPs like and Neil Hamilton want to be elected to the Welsh Assembly.

“If they are, they could take those seats from us. In many regional seats across Wales the choice for the fourth seat is between Ukip and the Welsh Liberal Democrats."

It seems that it is not just failed ex-Tory MPs who see UKIP as a means to political rehabilitation.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The rising cost of Labour's flagship road

This morning's Western Mail reports that predictions by the First Minister about the cost of the M4 relief road around Newport have been proved wide of the mark, just months after he made them.

In November, when it was suggested to him that the by-pass would cost over a billion pounds, the Welsh Labour leader said it would be “way below that”. However, a Welsh Government report has now put the cost of the project, excluding VAT and inflation, at £1.093bn:

According to the report, 35 new bridges would be required along the length of the scheme.

This would include a 440m bridge across the River Usk which would be “a similar type of structure to the Second Severn Crossing”. It would be high enough to “allow for the passage of ships”.

The report states: “Twelve residential buildings would require demolition as a result of the Scheme, five of which are already in Welsh Government ownership, including one Grade II Listed Building namely the Vicarage in Magor.”

It was inevitable that the cost of this project would break the one billion pound mark and I am astonished that the First Minister was prepared to go on the record to say otherwise.

The issue now is whether Wales can afford to go ahead with it. My view is that we cannot. Not because it is too expensive, though it is, but that at best it will only provide a short term solution until it fills up with traffic too. We need a radical public transport based alternative.

And of course the Newport stretch is not the worst congestion point on the M4. That is around Port Talbot. I do not see any proposals coming forward to deal with that problem.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Scientists underline importance of staying in Europe

If there is any doubt that the UK leaving the European Union would damage our economy then surely the latest intervention by 150 eminent scientists can help to dispel it.

As the Guardian reports, a letter to the Times signed by more than 150 fellows of the Royal Society, including Stephen Hawking, says leaving the EU would hamper research in the UK, because many young scientists are recruited from Europe:

The scientists write: “We now recruit many of our best researchers from continental Europe, including younger ones who have obtained EU grants and have chosen to move with them here.
“Being able to attract and fund the most talented Europeans assures the future of British science and also encourages the best scientists elsewhere to come here.”

They also say increased funding from the EU has benefited the UK and science as a whole. They note the example of Switzerland, which despite paying in to the EU has limited access to funds and struggles to attract young talent because of freedom of movement restrictions.

“If the UK leaves the EU and there is a loss of freedom of movement of scientists between the UK and Europe, it will be a disaster for UK science and universities,” the letter says.

“Investment in science is as important for the long-term prosperity and security of the UK as investment in infrastructure projects, farming or manufacturing; and the free movement of scientists is as important for science as free trade is for market economics.”

Another important argument for remaining in the EU.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Fending off a very-Labour Party coup

Things have been quiet for some time around the splits in the Parliamentary Labour Party as everybody concentrates instead on the near-civil war that has erupted amongst the Conservatives over Europe.

However, just when you thought they had got away with it, Jeremy Corbyn's rather paranoid supporters bring us back to the issue nobody in the Labour Party wants to talk about, a possible coup against the leader.

The Times reports that the Labour leader's allies are seeking to force through a rule change at Labour’s conference to ensure that he could stand if he were challenged for the leadership. The paper says that under the present rules it takes 51 MPs and MEPs to trigger a leadership election before the party conference by nominating an alternative candidate. But it is unclear whether Jeremy Corbyn would be allowed to stand in a fresh race and, if so, whether he, too, would have to win the backing of 20 per cent of MPs and MEPs first.

In fact fears that Corbyn would mobilise activists to win a second leadership election have led some of his fiercest critics to conclude that a coup attempt this year could end up cementing his position. Nevertheless, others want to cover him for all possibilities:

The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy — the hard-left faction that includes Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum, a leftwing group formed after Mr Corbyn’s election, and Ken Livingstone — is pushing for a clarification of the rules that would ensure thta Mr Corbyn’s name was included on a leadership ballot.

Local parties are being urged to submit two motions for a rule change “to avoid the party being involved in legal battles” at this year’s autumn conference, which will be held in Liverpool.
One amends the rules to add that “the incumbent will be automatically included on the ballot paper”.

The second reduces from 15 per cent to 5 per cent the number of parliamentary Labour party nominations required for leadership contests, further weakening the power of MPs to block candidates.

Yesterday Mr Lansman warned plotters that Momentum was ready to mobilise if Mr Corbyn were challenged.

“We campaigned to elect him and we will most certainly defend him and support him if there is a challenge. We absolutely have the machinery to run another leadership campaign if we have to and we are absolutely equipped to do that. And we will if necessary and I am confident we will win it,” he told The Guardian.

Labour MPs say that the rule changes would give Mr Corbyn unprecedented power. “It looks like Jeremy’s supporters want us to spend the next six months talking to ourselves about rules to change the Labour party instead of talking to the public about ideas to change Britain,” one said.

It seems that faced with a Tory Party fighting amongst itself over the future of the UK, Labour wants to turn in on itself rather than present the electorate with a credible alternative.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Government's northern powerhouse becomes geographically challenged

When George Osborne announced the northern powerhouse as a signal the government wanted to be inclusive by rebalancing the economy away from London, it was not then clear that he meant North London as opposed to the North of England. That though appears to be the reality.

The Independent reports that far from devolving power and jobs up north the opposite appears to be the case. They say that 97 per cent of senior officials at the Government department responsible for the so-called “Northern Powerhouse” work in London:

Figures released by ministers top senior civil servant jobs have actually shifted towards London since David Cameron came to power.

In April 2010 65.1 per cent of senior civil servants across all departments worked in London, while April 2015 saw the figure rise to 67 per cent.

At the department tasked with delivering the Northern Powerhouse, DCLG, 97.6 per cent of senior civil servants are based in London.

BIS, the department most heavily involved in the northern powerhouse is closing its Sheffield office and relocating staff to London.

Is it true that irony was invented by the UK Government?

Monday, March 07, 2016

Standing against a ban on vaping in public places

I have just come back from a visit to a local business that produces vaping products. We will be voting soon on the Public Health Bill that proposes to ban the use of vaping products in certain public places. The Welsh Liberal Democrats and I are opposed to these measures as we do not believe that they are evidence-based.

I recently did an extended interview on this subject, which can be watched here:

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Why staying in the EU is good for farmers

This article in yesterday's Times puts the decision by Welsh Conservative Leader, Andrew R.T. Davies to campaign to leave the European Union into context. For a party which has its eye on mid-Wales as a potential source of seat gains in May, this one decision leaves them with real problems.

The paper reports on a letter from leading farmers and dairies, which suggests that leaving the EU will lead to a reduction in farming subsidies. But it is market-access where the loss will be most keenly felt. They say that Europe’s single market accounts for 73 per cent of Britain’s agri-food exports and gives access to a market more than twice the size of the US:

Outside the EU, Britain could keep all or some of this market, but farmers would have to abide by EU regulations without a say in their formation and pay into the EU budget without receiving payments in return.

“We’d pay, but have no say,” the letter claims. This would depend on the type of deal Britain negotiated after Brexit, however.

The signatories include the managing director of farms such as Naylor Flowers and AC Goatham and Son, the poultry company PD Hook Group, the chairman of English Mustard Growers Ltd and two former presidents of the National Farmers’ Union, including Sir Peter Kendall.

The group says that many of the worst regulations, as well as the “gold-plating” of EU directives that make them more draconian than in other countries, happen in the UK not in Brussels.

They sound the warning on subsidies, amid fears that farms could suffer if they can no longer benefit from the EU’s common agricultural policy.

The letter says: “On direct payments, Leave campaigners have said it is inconceivable that any UK government would drastically cut support. But it is government policy, set by Labour and endorsed by the coalition government in 2011, to abolish direct payments in 2020.

“Leaving the EU would mean reducing our access to our most important market, little or no reduction in regulation, no influence on future rules, the speedy abolition of direct support and an uncertain future for UK agriculture.”

I look forward to the Welsh Conservatives explaining their leader's stance on the doorsteps in Brecon and Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Is housing in crisis?

I was not able to attend yesterday's rally to raise the profile of housing in the Welsh Assembly campaign but, along with other party spokespersons I did send a video message.

As the Western Mail reports hundreds of people marched from the Senedd to the Hayes in Cardiff City centre to demand more is done to tackle Wales’ housing crisis by whoever forms an administration after May’s election. They have the support of a host of high-profile supporters including Hollywood star Michael Sheen, entertainer Max Boyce and comedian Rhod Gilbert.

Organisers have pointed to a 16% rise in house prices since 2008 as evidence of the growing problem within the housing sector, and said more than 5,000 households were accepted as homeless last year. These are just the sort of statistics I regularly highlight in the Assembly.

The Holmans report recommended over 12,000 new homes should be built each year of which 5,200 should be in the social sector. The current Welsh Labour government have built just 10,000 in the last five years. That is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats are commiting to double that number between 2016 and 2021 so that our ambitions might come some way towards meeting the demand we have identified.

Building new homes is a very effective way of dealing with this housing crisis.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Our future reduced to an argument between two old Etonians

As if we are not sick to death of the European referendum already, the Telegraph informs us that it is to climax (if that is the right word) in a debate between Boris Johnson and George Osborne in front of a 12,000-strong audience, just 48 hours before the nation makes its decision on 23 June.

And therein lies the problem with the whole fiasco. All we are hearing are a bunch of posh men arguing with each other as to whether they should cast the nation back to the 1950s or not. So far not a real person in sight.

The paper says that the BBC debate at Wembley Arena will be the broadcaster's biggest ever "campaign event". It will also be the first time that the two most likely successors to David Cameron as Tory leader have faced each other in front of a live audience.

It is planned as a potential political extravaganza: The BBC is understood to be lining up Mr Johnson, along with Tory Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith, Ukip leader Nigel Farage and Respect leader George Galloway for the “out” campaign. 

Mr Osborne, Green leader Caroline Lucas, former Labour Home secretary Alan Johnson and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron are understood to be in talks or about to be approached for the “in” campaign.

David Dimbleby, the veteran BBC broadcaster, will be joined by Mishal Husain and Emily Maitlis, to present the live debate at Wembley Arena for what the national broadcaster has described as its "biggest ever campaign event".

The BBC has already said that it "will be inviting thousands of voters to question representatives from the “leave” and “remain” camps" that day.

However, all the media will focus on Boris and Osborne rather than the case for and against Brexit. Effectively, our entire future as a nation will boil down to an argument between two old Etonians.

This debate is more about political theatre than education. Is this what we have to put up with for the next three and a half months?

Thursday, March 03, 2016

How credible is second-guessing the Prime Minister?

It takes a peculiar form of arrogance to go on television and contradict your party leader and Prime Minister over an issue which he controls and you have little influence over, yet Welsh Conservative Leader Andrew R.T. Davies managed it last night.

The BBC reports that Mr. Davies went onto The Wales Report and insisted that Wales will still get economic aid for its poorest areas even if Britain votes to leave the European Union. He gave this assurance despite the fact that David Cameron said he "can't be certain" the UK government would spend the same if we left the EU.

The European Union is providing £1.8bn to Wales between 2014-2020 to help economic growth. If we vote to leave then that money will go back to the UK Treasury, but there is no guarantee that it will then be passed back to Wales in its present form, quantity or at all.

And given the Treasury's record on funding Wales nobody is going to gamble that we will see anythng more than a small fraction of that amount. Certainly, the Prime Minister is not prepared to make that commitment. So where is the Welsh Conservative Leader getting his confidence on this matter from?

Mr Davies said: "I can guarantee that a UK government would make sure that money would be re-distributed around the regions of the UK, otherwise it would be failing in its remit to deliver help and support to the nation it is elected to govern.

"Frankly we cannot continue with operation fear, driving people in to the ballot box because you are scaring them into voting one way."

In contrast, the Prime Minister, asked on BBC Wales Today if he could make up the shortfall in EU aid for places like Wales after an exit, said: "I think you can't be certain about that.

"We know, between 2014 and 2020, in the European budget is £1.8bn for Wales, vital money for economic development and important projects."

He said: "In those circumstances, of course, the United Kingdom government would always want to do everything it could for all the different parts of the United Kingdom, but you can't guarantee these things, because we might be in quite difficult economic circumstances."

Experience says we should not be surprised that David Cameron is wary about commiting the UK Government giving Wales the sort of support it has now in the event of a BREXIT. The chances are we would have to cut elsewhere in our budget to make-up the shortfall.

Andrew R.T. Davies' bravado on this issue has no credibility and the assurances he is giving are worthless.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Blunders, turf wars and the cost to the taxpayer

At the Hay Festival last year I acquired a tome by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe that seemed designed for a political anorak like me. The shame is of course that 'The Blunders of our Government' does not have a much wider audience for, in its lucid and instructive rendering of the story of many government cock-ups such as the Millenium Dome, the poll tax, tax credits and individual learning accounts, it offers lessons both to politicians and civil servants as well as a guide to the voting public of what really goes on in Whitehall.

I understand that a second volume is being written, in which case it is possible that King and Crewe may include an account of this fiasco, as recounted by the Telegraph.

The paper refers to a Parliamentary Committee report which found that a “childish turf war” between senior civil servants saw them refuse to work together in a way that may cost taxpayers over £180 million:

Senior bosses in three Government departments claimed they could not get on because they “dressed differently” and “worked on different floors”, costing millions in EU fines.

The powerful Public Accounts Committee found highly paid managers were part of an "appalling Whitehall fiasco" which led to British farmers receiving late payments because a Government IT scheme ran 40% over budget.

The delays led to substantial fines, levied by the EU, adding up to hundreds of millions of pounds in wasted taxpayer cash.

As a result, thousands of farmers were paid their subsidies late and pushed into debt because the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, the Rural Payments Agency and the Government Digital Service could not work together.

The paper adds that the new IT scheme was designed to reduce the delays brought about by the old scheme which left farmers waiting months for subsidies handed out under the EU Common Agriculture Policy.

It was scheduled to cost £155million but has already gone 40% over budget to £215million because of "dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviour" between senior officials whilst 30% of farmers who receive payments under the scheme have not yet been paid.

For anybody who has read the King and Crewe book this will be a familiar story. Is Government really incapable of learning from its own mistakes.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

House of Lords peg back Tory plans to penalise the disabled, again

How the Tories must regret not agreeing to Nick Clegg's plans to democratise the House of Lords. There would be no guarantee of course that they would be able to fare any better in getting their plans agreed by an elected second chamber, but the odds must better than those they face at present.

This though is a good thing as it enables Liberal Democrat peers to work with other opposition parties and cross-benchers to frustrate some of the more extreme measures coming out of this Tory government. I am pleased that the latest example of this is over cuts to disabled benefits.

The Independent reports that the House of Lords has, for a second time, rebuffed the government’s welfare reform bill proposals to slash £30 a week from the benefits of ill and disabled people who have been found unfit for work.

On Monday evening peers voted 289 and 219 to delay the cuts, which could see benefits reduced by over £1,500 a year, pending a parliamentary report on the impact on claimants:

Elliott Dunster, head of policy at the disability charity Scope, said to the Guardian: “Disabled people are pushing to find jobs and get on at work, but they continue to face huge barriers, from employer attitudes to inaccessible workplaces.

“Reducing disabled people’s incomes won’t incentivise them to find a job. It will just make life harder.”

It was proposals like these that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats blocked whilst in the coalition government. Now we need to rely on the House of Lords to do that job.

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