Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Alun Cairns' bimodal trains prove not to be so great an advance

On Sunday afternoon, GWR issued this message:

On Monday, 16 October, our brand new ten car long distance services will operate in passenger service for the first time. This is the first new train to be introduced in Wales for a generation, and is a very significant day for our customers and partners in South Wales. 
The first Intercity Express for South Wales, the 0815 from London to Cardiff, and the 1055 from Cardiff to London will  be brand new ten carriage trains. 

The 1145 from Paddington will be the first train to travel right through to Swansea.  As well as the platform showcase at Swansea, where we have also invited local media, a helicopter will film the journey of the 1145, creating a film that we will make available online so that everyone can see this fantastic new train makes it way through the beauty of South Wales. Cardiff 13.47 .Returns from Swansea at 15.28.

Earlier services were not trouble-free. The first - 8:15 - service to Wales was cancelled. The first service from Bristol was severely delayed. The Bristol Post reported:

The maiden voyage of one of Great Western Railway’s new high speed trains was delayed leaving Bristol due to an unexpected fault. Commuters on board the brand new Hitachi train, which was due to depart Temple Meads station for London Paddington at 6am, were delayed by 26 minutes as staff reportedly struggled to couple carriages. A separate problem was also reported with the air conditioning, which caused liquid to leak from vents above seats.

Tim Farron put the boot in:

“Chris Grayling promised this would be a fantastic new service, instead it ended up going badly off the rails.
“At least he got a first-hand experience of what many rail passengers have to put up with every day: overcrowded, delayed and unreliable trains.
“This whole sorry episode sums up the government’s failing transport strategy.
“Ministers need to step up investment in the railway network across the UK, instead of posing for photo ops that go embarrassingly wrong.”

English NHS loses another 162,000 files

The Guardian reports that the Shared Business Services scandal is worse than previously admitted. Vince Cable is quoted as saying that: "The safety of thousands of patients has been put at risk due to incompetence and lack of proper oversight by the government. Jeremy Hunt must urgently come before Parliament to explain what steps are being taken to prevent this from happening again.”

This is another benefit of Wales taking a different path with the NHS.

Consultation on concessionary fares scheme for Wales

The Welsh government seeks views on free bus travel for older people, disabled people and injured service veterans in Wales.

The consultation ends on 12th January. There are full details on the Welsh government web-pages.

Anti-Brexit rallies barely reported

The European Movement UK ran a day of action on Saturday 14 October highlighting the threats Brexit poses to the NHS in 13 different locations across the UK from Macclesfield to Southsea. 
Islington, Leicester, Macclesfield, Oxford, Salisbury, Stockport, Streatham, Winchester, Hackney, Wandsworth, Greenwich, Reading, Southsea, Halesworth, Birmingham, Hammersmith, Bakewell, Cumbria, Mile End.
The Regional Rallies covered:
East Midlands Region, Eastern Region, London Region, North East Region, North West Region, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South West Region, Wales, West Midlands Region, Yorkshire and the Humber.
I was assured by people who were at the Cardiff rally that not only were ITV and BBC filming, but the Western Mail gave a good write-up of the event. Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy on-line. I do not recall a TV Welsh news bulletin showing footage of the rally. For that matter, I can find only one report of the rallies in an English newspaper -  one by the Express, displaying all its traditional balance and objectivity. There is nothing in Monday's print i, either.

It was different north of the Border. The Edinburgh Evening News carried a report and the Scottish Sun was almost positive in its coverage. The Record critiqued 

The conclusion ought to be that the Scots needed updating, but that it was so obvious to the English consumer that the groundswell against Brexit was growing that they would be bored by further reports. To which Springfield/s own Bart Simpson would respond, as he did when hearing how objective Fox News (part of the Murdoch empire, as is The Simpsons) is: "yeah, right."

Monday, 16 October 2017

We must prepare for hemispheric cooling

It has long been known that a super-volcano in the heart of North America erupts around every 600,000 years. There are fears that a fresh one is overdue. Fortunately, there will be years of forewarning. But there is a need for planning now.

The last sizeable volcanic activity led to the "year without a summer". Agriculture in North America and Western Europe was devastated. A Yellowstone eruption would be on a far larger scale. As well as laying waste towns and cities in the United States, it would practically wipe out agriculture in most of the northern hemisphere for a year or more.

There will be a need to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for a population which has increaseed 400 per cent in 200 years. Fortunately, technology has also advanced in that time, as undercover marijuana farmers have proved. However, a plan will have to be developed in advance so that when the need arises production of the necessary growing facilities can be ramped up quickly.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Great Forecasting failure

The wikipedia entry on the "great storm" of thirty years seems, to someone who lived through it, a fair and balanced account. One memory from that time is not confirmed by the wikipedia contributor, that a North Atlantic weather-ship (these were the days before detailed satellite data) had recently been retired and not replaced, thus reducing the number of points producing useful data. There is though a hint in the final paragraphs of the wiki entry, "The Met Office conducted an internal inquiry, scrutinised by two independent assessors, and a number of recommendations were made. Chiefly, observational coverage of the atmosphere over the ocean to the south and west of the UK was improved by increasing the quality and quantity of observations from ships, aircraft, buoys and satellites."

There are two other recollections of those times. That week I was working on a contract in England and on the morning of 16th October I woke up to find a fallen tree across the driveway of the B&B I was staying at. Some time after I had picked my way round it, it occurred to me that if the tree had fallen in the opposite direction it would have smashed through the window of the ground-floor room I was occupying.

The 15th October 1987 would also have been a great day for short-selling, because as communications crashed along with the power and telephone lines, investors deprived of information cashed in stocks in favour of gold and hard currency, leading to a big LSE fall.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Tinsel-town then and now

Emma Thompson, on BBC yesterday, put the Harvey Weinstein phenomenon down to a "crisis in masculinity". In fact it is nothing so new age. Weinstein is simply following in a disreputable Hollywood tradition,  though one that one hoped had run its course.

 The most notorious abuser of power was probably Harry Cohn.

2,000 mourners attended [his funeral], prompting the famous remark by Red Skelton: "It proves what Harry always said: Give the public what they want and they'll come out for it."

Another, possibly apocryphal story, is that one Hollywood insider in the queue, asked why he was there replied to the effect that he had been told that it was an open-coffin affair and he wanted to assure himself  "that the bastard was dead".

During his career he gained a reputation for his combative and autocratic manner and he ran Columbia as a one man dictatorship, becoming in the process one of the most unpopular men in Hollywood. [...] Harry Cohn was not a prepossessing character and was one of the most unpopular men in Hollywood. He was a blustering, foul-mouthed, abrasive taskmaster and acted like a tyrant at Columbia. His office there contained a large height adjustable desk for Cohn and small seats for his visitors, enabling him to seemingly dwarf them. His desk also contained a photo of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whom Cohn admired. Cohn also delighted in eavesdropping on employee's conversations using concealed microphones on sound stages and in dressing rooms. He developed a reputation for using the "casting couch" - expecting sexual favors from actresses in return for career advancement.

Sound familiar? Louis B Mayer was another molester. The incident in this summary of Judy Garland's career may be typical. There were others before and since.

Two things have changed, one for the better: the police have got involved, which would not have happened if one of the old-time studio heads had been accused. If Harvey Weinstein is guilty of any of the charges against him, he is going to go down - or at best, be stuck in the US legal system for years.

The thing that has changed in Weinstein's favour is the diminished power of the gossip-columnists. Nowadays, every person with an internet account can be their own rumour-monger, and scuttlebutt on the Web is treated accordingly. Those few traditional news media are stretched financially, so that Weinstein was able to square them. Any victims could be silenced with confidentiality agreements.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Yet another new party launch

On November 4th, there will be a symposium on forming a new exclusive Welsh party. My immediate reaction to Jac's post was that this would be about as successful as the Women's Equality Party, though perhaps there is slightly more scope for gaining an elected representative via the additional member system (hobbled though it is) of the Welsh Assembly.

As a democrat, I want to see all substantial strands of opinion represented in our parliament. However, I trust that what could turn out to be a Cymric Independence Party does not gain too much traction in view of the economic damage it could cause.

Chris Coleman

I agree with just about everybody that Chris Coleman should remain as Wales soccer manager through to the next European cup campaign. There is no obvious successor, given that the Welsh FA does not have the sort of money on  offer to prise successful club managers away from the top European leagues.

The only doubt I have is that he is too nice. His obvious concern for his group of players makes for good team spirit, but it also means that he will find it difficult to drop players from the current core squad when their performances decline. I can think of one senior player last Monday who failed to come up to the mark after Joe Allen was so cruelly invalided off.

On that point, a Mourinho or a Ferguson would have used his pre-match press conference to demand that the referee be strong in the face of an Ireland team which has a record of making up for its lack of skill with physical harassment.

But the qualification campaign was largely lost early on, when Wales conceded - or struggled to achieve - draws against teams they needed to beat. More ruthlessness on part of both manager and players is needed if we are to see another glorious European Cup campaign.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Catalonia: there must be talks

The chief minister of Catalonia has pulled back from the brink of  a full-scale declaration of independence for his region. That should have been the cue for serious talks which are clearly what the silent majority in Catalonia and throughout Spain want. However, first reports are that the Spanish government is intransigent.

There was a wide-ranging debate on the subject of the Catalonia situation in the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week. It was poorly-attended compared with the discussion on Brexit which preceded it. However, some idea of the various parties' standpoints could be discerned.

Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the Commission stated the official line that the rule of law must prevail. However, he went too far in my opinion in condoning the use of force:

As Jean-Claude Juncker said in his State of the Union address to this House last month, our Union is not a state but it is a community of law. We must never lose sight of this. There is general consensus that the regional government of Catalonia chose to ignore the law when organising the referendum held last Sunday, the Spanish Constitutional Court having suspended the Catalan laws on the organisation of the referendum and issued daily penalties against those who went against its orders.

That does not change the fact that we have all seen saddening images from Sunday. Let me be clear: violence does not solve anything in politics. It is never an answer, never a solution, and it can never be used as a weapon or instrument. Europe knows this better than anywhere else. None of us want to see violence in our societies. However, it is a duty of any government to uphold the rule of law, and this sometimes requires the proportionate use of force.

There followed speeches from the European People's Party and the Social & Democrats group which broadly supported the official position. It was left to Ryszard Legutko for the ECR to introduce some democratic common sense to the debate, and at the same time to criticise double-standards. He did not mention Austria, Hungary and Poland by name, but one suspects he had those countries in mind:

Mr President, the European Commission repeatedly resorts to a moralistic language. We have just heard it talking about a union of values, but when we view the actions of the Commission in the handling of this particular situation in Catalonia, it looks more like a union of selective values. The double standards of the Commission is something that leaps to the eye. All are equal, but some are more equal than others. Everything depends on who is involved. Let us be honest, ladies and gentlemen, if it were another Member State rather than Spain, the consequences and the rhetoric from the Commission would have been far harsher.

I want to be clear: I do not believe the EU, or the European Commission for that matter, strengthens the EU’s unity through infringement proceedings, or triggering the articles of the Treaties or all the political point-scoring and suchlike. This polarises the debate and pushes Member States and its voters further away from the EU. I urge the Commission to practice the virtue of self-restraint, but consistently, not selectively.

Coming to Catalonia, I do believe – a rather simple-minded observation but always worth repeating – that significant progress can be made through patient negotiations. Whether and how soon an effective resolution is possible in Catalonia, I do not know, and very few people, if anyone, in this Chamber knows that. I wish to be honest with our Spanish colleagues: riot police and violent scenes have not helped but shocked and, whatever your intentions, those scenes will continue to be a part of the image of your government for some time. Let us admit it, the handling of the crisis was appalling. It was really appalling.

What are the next steps to be taken? Whether it involves constitutional reform, or the granting of a referendum or international mediation, the role of the Commission is probably as an intermediary or a go-between. It is for the Spanish Government, Spanish society and the Catalonian people to decide for themselves. However, I do caution that the passions of those citizens in Catalonia seeking a new settlement is unlikely to fade away by simply drowning out or ignoring the voices of dissent.

The ECR includes UK's Conservative MEPs. One would have expected our Conservative Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to respond in a similar fashion upon hearing of the clashes in Barcelona, but instead he refused to condemn the police violence.

Guy Verhofstadt on behalf of ALDE reinforced support for the rule of law but deplored the violence and called for talks.

Mr President, I have to tell you first of all that I am a big admirer of Spanish democracy, especially since that dramatic date of 23 February 1981. That was the day that Colonel Tejero attempted his coup d'état. Javier Cercas, in his famous book ‘Anatomía de un instante’, describes how, under the threat of Tejero’s pistol, three Spanish political leaders stayed upright in their seats, refusing to hide under their benches. They were Santiago Carrillo, the historical leader of the Communist Party, Adolfo Suárez, the first Prime Minister of democratic Spain, and his deputy, General Guttiérrez Mellado.

Despite the shots, not one of them blinked, an act of courage and determination that anchored forever democracy in Spanish souls. Spanish democracy was born under the pistol of the putschist Tejero, so no one among us has to give a lesson in democracy to Spain.

Now, 36 years later, Spanish democracy has to surmount itself again – to surmount this deep division and to overcome this existential crisis. It has to do so not by believing that the judiciary can solve the problems on its own, and certainly not by using deplorable violence, even though it is based on a court ruling. In other words, this cannot be done just by relying on the power of the state.

I urge all sides to stop the escalation and to go and sit around the table. The spirit there, around that table, has to be the understanding that the future of more than 70 European nations, the future of Catalonia, the future of my own Flemish community, lies not in brutal separation but lies in deep cooperation – cooperation inside federal structures in a federal Europe. Look a little bit – if I can ask that – to your own Basque countrymen. Look at what they have achieved, how they have developed their country, defeating terrorism and reinventing themselves, proud and autonomous.

Other speakers praised modern Spanish democracy and contrasted it with the Franco dictatorship. They might have pointed out that Franco was particularly harsh on the Catalans and that the actions of the Guardia Civil must have roused disquieting memories for older citizens of Catalonia.

If I had been the Spanish prime minister this summer, I would have said to the Catalan chief minister: "have your referendum if you must - we will not try to stop you - but bear in mind that it will be no more than an opinion poll because it will not have the force of law. Of course, we will seriously listen to the outcome if a large majority of those eligible to vote indicate dissatisfaction with the current constitutional arrangements." That would have avoided the violence and probably encouraged those Catalans - estimated to be as much as half the population - who do not want separation to come out and influence the final vote.

Realistically, there would be little future for Catalonia, as for Scotland, as an independent state. There would have to be unanimity by the EU member states in order to accept her as another member, and Spain is not the only country who would vote against. Catalonia may be the most productive region of Spain, but over a third of its output goes to the rest of Spain. Outside the EU tariff wall, that production could virtually disappear.

However, the Catalans have a good case for more autonomy. It seems they do not yet have all the powers available to the Basques. There must be talks.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Historical child abuse

The long-awaited inquiry into sexual abuse of children in Rochdale in the last century has got under way. One wonders why the official announcement goes out of its way to name Sir Cyril Smith alone as an exploiter of Knowl View special school. Smith could not have acted alone and indeed earlier reports (which unfortunately have dropped off the Google search time-frame) named the fellow-councillors who joined him in providing themselves a facility in which their sexual predilections could have free rein. The very fact that Rochdale council resisted an inquiry for so long is implicit testimony that more than one councillor (which Smith was when the only abuse we can be sure he committed) was involved. One trusts that the inquiry names and shames those other councillors, even though they are probably now all dead, like Smith.

That abuse, detailed by Private Eye when Smith was still alive and never challenged in the courts, was mild by comparison with some of the more lurid allegations which have been made since Smith's death. What is more serious is the cover-up which followed.

The cover-up extended to procuring a knighthood for Cyril Smith in one of Margaret Thatcher's lists. Jimmy Savile was another who benefited the same way. Both were made less touchable thereby. Perhaps there should be an inquiry into how major honours were awarded under Thatcher.

In the case of both Savile and Smith, the abuse could have been stopped at an early stage. Other people knew about it (rather more about Savile's than Smith's) but chose to remain silent.

Edward Heath is different. Nobody accused him of abuse in his lifetime. His close friends and his godchildren were genuinely shocked when the latest accusations surfaced. In spite of denials by Thames Valley police, I believe they are false, generated by a "fishing-trip". There are obvious reasons for Edward Heath's name to be blackened at the present time.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Professional tennis

Around this time ninety years ago, Dan Maskell, a professional coach and thus unable to take part in the prestigious amateur events, helped to organise the first world professional lawn tennis championships at his home club, Queen's. He duly won it.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Conservative disloyalty

Challenged on cix to define the term "the Establishment" which I had off-handedly tossed into an argument, I consulted Anthony Sampson's analyses of modern Britain which I felt sure contained a snappy definition. (For the record, even Sampson reckoned it was more of a perception than a defined entity; it seems that the closest one can get is "the closed circle of interlocking families and interests which are perceived to run the country" [my gloss].) At the time of writing his first analysis, The Anatomy of Britain, it was natural to link the Establishment with the Conservative party. In the pages on the latter I was struck by this observation:

Who really runs the Conservative party? The question is carefully shrouded in mystery: 'Loyalty,' said Lord  Kilmuir, 'is the Tory's secret weapon'

That rang true in 1962, before Heath, Thatcher and finally Hague democratised the selection of leader, and they and John Major broke the stranglehold which old Etonians had on the party. The annual conference is even more tightly controlled now (thanks largely to Lord Bell) than it was then - I remember actual debate in the 1960s and 1970s - and the press (TV was rather more restrained then) would run conspiracy stories, but today's open gang warfare would not have been permitted.

Another worry for the Conservatives must be their dependence on outside finance. In the late 1990s through the early years of this century, the Conservatives must have lost half the money from industry and the City, which they traditionally counted on, to the finance-friendly New Labour of Blair, Brown and Mandelson. However, they still had their base of around 400,000 members (estimate in "The Conservatives in Crisis", Manchester University Press). So, the party remained viable and was able to mount slick (and arguably dishonest) campaigns in 2010 and 2015, especially as commercial interests deserted Labour in the light of the mishandling of the economy. However, the returning money was predicated on the Cameron manifesto of continued membership of a reformed EU. Only those interests which will clearly benefit from Brexit will keep contributing to Tory coffers. Meanwhile, membership has plunged.

The last time that the Conservatives reported their membership was in 2013, when the total was said to be 149,800. Since then, the party has remained silent on the subject, but there are reports that the total had fallen to 100,000 this year and was on a downward trend. This week's conference will not have helped recruitment.

It's what Wales voted for, part 15 and last

In part 12, this blog passed on the message that Welsh UKIP seats were helping to fund the party in England. A lot of good it has done them, since the results of yesterday's local by-elections show that the party organisation has fallen apart. Now Peter Black reports that the party's final financial prop has been kicked away.

So I am winding up this series in anticipation of the party itself entering its death throes before long.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Port Talbot steel

Earlier this week, the Evening Post voiced the fears of many of us that the long-term future of the Port Talbot works is less certain in the hands of Thyssenkrupp than it was under the original Tata management. When there is another downturn in the demand for steel, Port Talbot will be top of the list for sacrifice ahead of more profitable plants owned by Thyssenkrupp on the continent. The worker representatives on the latter's supervisory board (a post-war German initiative which the UK should have followed long ago) are clearly going to give priority to their fellow Germans if there is a threat to company profitability, especially as they will know that the borough voted to turn its back on the EU in last year's referendum.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Another way in which Thatcher was wrong

In the course of her speech in Manchester earlier this week, the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said:
For all the devolution of power in the last 20 years, our Union continues to be far too London-centric. [...] Where you can sell a three bed semi in Ilford, and buy half of Sutherland. Where, in a capital city already zooming forward on the jet fuel of high finance, the economy is further boosted by enough civil servants to fill Wembley stadium.

In 1963, the Conservative government set up the Location of Offices Bureau, assigned the task of encouraging the decentralisation of offices from central London. The Wilson-Callaghan administrations of 1964-1970 allowed it to continue (incidentally, enabling my move to the Swansea Valley with DVL in 1969).  Edward Heath between 1970 and 1974 encouraged it and it was not until Mrs Thatcher's doctrinaire government that it was abolished in the arbitrary bonfire of the quangos.

That marked the turning of the tide of decentralisation. Thatcher/Major and Blair/Brown concentrated power in the centre again, financially in the City of London and administratively in Westminster. This has resulted in the symptoms which Ms Davidson described.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Hammond tells that old lie about the European Community

In his speech to the Conservatives' rally in Manchester yesterday. the chancellor of the exchequer repeated the canard that a previous Conservative government had taken the UK into an organisation that was only a common market, that the EC and the EEC had morphed into the monolithic and authoritarian EU without our government being able to do anything about it.

Well, I am a little older than Mr Hammond and I distinctly remember that giving up some of our sovereignty was part of the discussion at the time of our accession and during the campaign leading up to the referendum of 1975. Moreover, the objective of an "ever-closer union" is explicit within the preamble to the founding treaty of the EEC and subsequent revisions - is Mr Hammond saying that predecessor ministers, including Mrs Thatcher, did not read what they were signing up to?

The EU has demonstrably become more democratic since Rome, from the adding of the words “in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen” after “ever-closer union” in subsequent treaties, to giving power to the elected European Parliament to hold the councils of ministers and the Commission to account, including the right to propose legislation.

So the EU is less authoritarian than the old EEC. Moreover, the aspiration to be a United States of Europe has been watered down and, if the signs from Mr Cameron's rather clumsy 2015 negotiations are to be believed, may well have disappeared from the next treaty revision. Instead, Mrs May's decision to withdraw has revived the imperial spirit in France and no doubt some quarters in Germany, to the dismay of liberals and democrats throughout Europe.

Motive for mass murder

The authorities in Nevada are said to be searching for a motive for yesterday's shooting, why a successful retired accountant with a steady rental income, whose only apparent flaw was an addiction to gambling, should have treated fellow human beings enjoying country music like targets in a video game.  I believe that the only answer is, that like our own Harold Shipman, because he could.

When I saw the pictures of the aftermath, of the position of the hotel in relation to the open-air concert, some dialogue from The Third Man came back to me. Holly Martins is talking to Harry Lime atop the giant ferris wheel in Vienna:
Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Harry Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?

The more physically distant or more dissociated from their potential victims psychopaths (and there are rather more people with psychopathic tendencies around than one cares to contemplate) are, the more ready they are to indulge their fantasies. What deters them is the lack of means.

The US should learn from Australia, another country with a frontier, anti-colonial mentality, where guns were almost part of everyday life. A massacre in Tasmania twenty-one years ago caused the Aussies to take stock and to take action.

The Sydney Morning Herald is not optimistic that the US will follow:

We point over and over to our own success with gun control in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, that Australia has not seen a mass shooting since and that we are still a free and open society. We have not bought our security at the price of liberty; we have instead consented to a social contract that states lives are precious, and not to be casually ended by lone madmen. But it is a message that means nothing to those whose ideology is impervious to evidence.
You might think, from a distance, that this slaughter would at least dispel the myth that carrying a gun brings personal security. Even had every concert goer been armed, it would not have saved them from a killer 32 floors above them in a room full of military weapons. But history tells us Americans will learn no such lesson.
Even before the full scale of Sunday's slaughter was known, the US gun lobby was swinging into action, framing this as an event akin to a natural disaster, random and ultimately unpreventable. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin was one of the first, tweeting "To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs ... you can't regulate evil ..."
And he's right. You can't regulate evil. But you can disarm it. Once again we pray that the US will come to its senses and do just that. And once again, we are dreadfully sure it won't.

Sadly, I have to agree with them.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Conservative hypocrisy on student loans

Although the coalition government did not get rid of the student loans system, Vince Cable as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills managed to extract some concessions from chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne. One of them was clearly the guarantee to index the repayment threshold, because it was something that Osborne lost no time in withdrawing when the Conservatives gained an absolute majority in 2015. Now Mrs May's PR people are hailing as a great new offer to students what looks like merely returning to a coalition policy.

This "U-turn" would still leave the repayment threshold below the average household disposable income of £27,200. If England is to retain the student loans system, it should surely reflect the uplift that a university degree is supposed to confer. Residents of non-EU origin are liable to be deported if they earn less than £35,000 p.a. This looks like an arbitrary figure, rather than a reflection of an above-average contribution to UK society - why not bring the two figures into line at, say, £28,000 (index-linked)? If the chancellor is not willing to do that, then he should cut the punitive interest rate on student loans - and stop the periodic sellings-off of loan books to commercial interests.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Free trade or fair trade?

Vince Cable criticises Mrs May for espousing free trade while moving to exclude the UK from the most successful free trade area, the EU. He might have added that at the same time the EU protects third-world countries within its ambit from unfair competition. To those who would criticise the EU itself for being a protectionist organisation, I would reply that the best way to lower any protectionist barriers is to remain a member and work towards that end. Outside, we have no influence and concede more power to those EU nations with a protectionist bent.

But I would point out another May hypocrisy. She is quoted as saying:
A free market economy, operating under the right rules and regulations, is the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created.

The failures which Corbyn and McDonnell point to do not result from the nature of capitalism but the timidity of governments in the face of over-mighty financial and commercial interests, which if unchecked lead to cartels and monopolies. Mrs May does not have all the "right rules and regulations" at her disposal, and those she does have are not consistently applied. In this, she has followed the laissez-faire attitude of Blair, Brown and Mandelson. It does not help that the current president of the United States seeks to remove controls on multi-national corporations, but unless the government makes the effort to restore fairness to the economy, the Corbyn message that the only alternatives on offer are unfettered capitalism or a Stalinist state may become accepted wisdom.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Liberal Democrats and coalition

Dr Mark Pack writes that one should not believe the conventional wisdom that the Liberal Democrats are unpopular because we went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. He cites a YouGov survey which he interprets as supporting his point. Well, maybe the overall result does not show an overwhelming revulsion against that decision, but neither does it show enthusiastic support. Indeed, if you look at the Scotland column, you find that a majority (33%) falls into the category "The Liberal Democrats were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives and I haven't forgiven them". Unhelpfully, the survey lumps Welsh respondents in with the English Midlands, but it is a fair bet that Wales' response would have been on a par with the Scots'.

A question I would like to have seen on the survey was: Were the Liberal Democrats right to stay in government after the financial crisis had passed? It seems to me that much of our unpopularity results from the repressive legislation, like the Welfare Reform Act, passed in 2012 and afterwards.

What is also noticeable from this survey is, not surprisingly, the unclear image the party has. Fewer than 10% of respondents in any region had a clear idea of what the party stood for. Of the 20% or so who felt they had a broad idea, I would guess that most associate us with the EU and very little else. It would have been instructive to have inserted the words "Apart from remaining in the EU" in front of that particular question.

On the general question of membership of the EU, support for leaving remains stubbornly high. The inflation resulting from sterling's fall against the dollar had clearly not hit home by the time the survey was conducted in the middle of this month.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Fair votes in Welsh local government

I reproduce in full a recent email from Anthony Tuffin of the STV Bulletin:

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Growing anti-Semitism

Guido Fawkes highlights a fringe meeting at Labour's Brighton conference which would be difficult to distinguish from a gathering of a Hamas chapter in England. Granted that Guido more than most on-line journos exaggerates, generalises from the individual and takes quotations out of context, there are indisputably too many instances of an anti-Jewish trend within Labour.

The number of people in the UK who identify as Jewish seems to be holding steady, but it is around a tenth of that of British Muslim, which is growing. Is there a cynical electoral motive for the Labour leadership not to stamp on this trend in the party? Does "for the many, not the few" imply scapegoating minorities?

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Legal aid and the Bach Commission

Legal aid is not sexy, it is nothing to do with the EU  and it does not affect the upper- and middle-income people who run our broadcast media, so it is unsurprising that the publication of the final report of the Bach Commission passed most people by. Of the print media, only the Independent and Guardian highlighted it, though there was a passing mention in other journals.

There was a fringe meeting in conjunction with the release at the current Labour Party conference. There were two one-hour fringe meetings at the Liberal Democrat federal conference in Bournemouth, for which I was sadly indisposed, so I cannot comment on proceedings. One was on the effect of the restricted access to legal aid as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and the other on what could be done to help people of restricted means with legal problems. One wonders whether any of the participants had sight of the Bach recommendations in pre-publication form, which would have helped discussion.

The Ministry Of Justice will merely "consider the findings". One cannot see the Conservative Party conference giving it any time. On the criminal side, they will not be concerned about the clear increase in unsafe convictions; on the civil side, there are too many landlords in its ranks for the plight of vulnerable tenants to be eased; and, of course, the fact that it was commissioned by the Labour leadership and facilitated by the Fabian Society puts it beyond the Tory pale.

I believe that Liberal Democrats should not be tribal in this area, and that the matter should be discussed on the floor of the next qualifying conference. We are unlikely to afford to mount our own commission, after all. The report asserts that, in spite of a small grant towards the cost, the project was "entirely independent from the Labour party and does not necessarily reflect its views" and that "the commission had full editorial control of the report and its conclusions".

There is some feeling among fellow-Lib Dems that we should not touch the subject of fair and equal access to law, because we were part of the coalition government which imposed LASPO and we would not want to draw attention to the fact - but if our new leader is brave enough to re-visit the subject of tuition fees, why should we not re-examine legal aid too? Besides, New Labour started the cuts, so are vulnerable to a counter-attack if they raise that issue.

The headline recommendation by Bach is for a
a new Right to Justice Act. This act will:
• Codify our existing rights to justice and establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance without costs they cannot afford
• Establish a set of principles to guide interpretation of this new right covering the full spectrum of legal support, from information and advice through to legal representation
• Establish a new body called the Justice Commission to monitor and enforce this new right The purpose of the Right to Justice Act is to create a new legal framework that will, over time, transform access to justice. But early government action is also required. In part two of this report we set out an action plan for government so that it can take the first steps required to make the right to justice a reality.
• Legal aid eligibility rules must be reformed, so that the people currently unable either to access legal aid or to pay for private legal help can exercise their right to justice. This includes establishing a simpler and more generous assessment scheme for civil legal aid; ensuring all benefit recipients automatically qualify for legal aid; and making the contributions to legal aid more affordable
• The scope of civil legal aid, which has been radically reduced, must be reviewed and extended. The priority should be to bring early legal help back into the scope of legal aid – across a broad range of legal issues – in order to encourage early dispute resolution and prevent further distress and cost downstream. All matters concerning children should be brought back into the scope of legal aid. With respect to representation at court, some areas of family and immigration law should also be brought back into scope
• The operation of the legal aid system needs reform. The legal aid system is creaking at the seams, and practice as a legal aid lawyer is becoming increasingly unsustainable. An independent body that operates the legal aid system at arm’s length from government should replace the Legal Aid Agency and action must be taken to address the administrative burdens that plague both the public and providers
• Public legal capability must be improved. At present, most people’s ability to understand a legal problem or to know where to turn for information and support is poor. We call for a national public legal education and advice strategy that improves the provision of information, education and advice in schools and in the community

On the subject of costs, Bach says:
When the government first introduced LASPO it estimated it would save £450m a year in today’s prices. But last year, legal aid spending was actually £950m less than in 2010. The Fabian Society estimate that the costs of the proposals in this report will initially total less than this underspend, at an estimated cost of around £400m per year.
It was possibly beyond the scope of his brief, but I thought he might have mentioned savings which could be achieved throughout the justice system by streamlining procedures.

There is a pdf of the Bach report here.

AfD representation in Bundestag is the sign of a healthy democracy

 - as is the presence of UKIP in Cardiff Bay. (The Welsh electoral system is not quite as proportional as it should be, but it is at least an advance on the Westminster first-past-the-post system which is an archaic rarity among civilised nations.)  Proportional representation allows voters supporting sizeable minority views to see their preferences expressed. Under FPTP, the failure to do so builds up frustrations and, perhaps more seriously, causes ambitious politicians with extreme views to enter established parties.

I note that, like UKIP in Wales, AfD has suffered early schisms.

Monday, 25 September 2017

First Minister's speech to Labour conference yesterday

I hope that the text will be available later today when I shall be able to post actual quotations, but it was noticeable how Carwyn Jones' legal training enabled him to imply that the Labour government in Cardiff was responsible for the superiority of the NHS in Wales over that in England, without actually uttering a downright lie. In this he is superior to David Cameron who blatantly claimed Liberal Democrat improvements in pensions, tax treatment of the low-paid and apprenticeships (among other achievements of the coalition government) as Conservative achievements.

http://senedd.assembly.wales/mgIssueHistoryHome.aspx?IId=11778 refers.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Saturday, 23 September 2017

NHS staff and Brexit: things may not be so bad for Wales after all

(http://aberavonneathlibdems.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/10000-eu-nationals-have-quit-nhs-since.html refers.)

The Fullfact charity has put continental Europeans' flight from the NHS into perspective. The skills drain started before the referendum and includes UK and non-EU citizens. So the trouble is likely to be more with the NHS as such (though Brexit is not going to help) and if Wales creates a distinctly separate identity and attractive image for the NHS here, we may reverse the trend on this side of Offa's Dyke.

Friday, 22 September 2017

EU funds may be available for UK Caribbean territories restoration

From the European Parliamentary Research Service blog:

EU Solidarity Fund

Providing for emergency and recovery operations in areas affected by a major natural disaster, the EU Solidarity Fund is open to Member States and candidate countries. A recent witness to the brute force of Hurricane Irma, the French territory of Saint Martin, one of the EU’s nine outermost regions and thus an integral part of the EU, is eligible for support under this mechanism. To receive help, the Member State involved (in this case, France) must apply to the European Commission for assistance within 12 weeks of the first damage. With a maximum annual allocation of €500 million, the EUSF may be used to fund measures such as providing temporary accommodation, supporting rescue services or cleaning up disaster areas. In principle, it is limited to non-insurable damage and does not therefore compensate for damage to private property. The EUSF has intervened in over 75 disasters to date, allocating a total of €5 billion to help alleviate the impact of natural disasters, including the 2007 hurricanes in Réunion and Martinique, both of which are outermost regions.
In the case of outermost regions, a special lower threshold is applied, such that the damage caused exceeds 1 % of a region’s GDP (rather than 1.5 % in other regions), to take account of their specific structural social and economic situation. In addition, following the adoption of an amendment to the EUSF Regulation in July 2017, Member States affected by a natural disaster may now draw on a special EU financing mechanism, to help supplement EU Solidarity Fund assistance. This allows the application of an extraordinary EU co-financing rate of 95 % under a cohesion policy programme in an affected region. Accordingly, programmes in outermost regions such as Saint Martin, which have an 85 % co-financing rate, will now be eligible for an additional 10 % support in the event of a major disaster. At the time of writing, Saint Martin had not yet applied for assistance under the EUSF.
In addition to this emergency assistance, it is also worth highlighting that several EU-funded programmes are already active in the region and improving the lives of local people. The ERDF-ESG Guadeloupe et Saint Martin operational programme, for instance, which has a total budget of €273 million, includes an investment priority on disaster management, providing funding for activities such as strengthening buildings against the risk of earthquakes. The Interreg V Saint Martin – Sint Maarten cooperation programme, focuses, among other things, on preventing the risk of flooding through better management and control of rainwater, while the priorities of the Interreg V Caribbean cooperation programme include increasing natural hazard response capacity by putting in place shared risk management systems. Saint Martin may also be able to receive support from the €587 million available to France under the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD), an EU fund that provides material assistance such as food, clothing and essential goods for deprived groups.

Support for overseas countries and territories

As overseas countries and territories (OCTs), the British territories of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten and the French territory of Saint Barthélemy have a special relationship with the European Union, governed by a Council decision on the association of the overseas countries and territories with the European Union. This text provides that humanitarian and emergency aid may be granted to OCTs faced with serious economic and social difficulties of an exceptional nature resulting from natural or man-made disasters. Under the rules, aid is financed from the general budget of the Union, with a non-allocated reserve of €21.5 million set aside to finance humanitarian and emergency assistance for the OCTs.

However, if the UK goes to the Solidarity Fund, there would be some clawback from the country's "Thatcher rebate", as this official answer in respect of the Cumbrian floods makes clear.

The grown-ups agree that there will be no Brexit

Vince Cable has been saying for some time that Brexit is unlikely. Now Paddy has been unequivocal: it will not happen because there will be parliamentary stalemate. (For once that metaphor, referring to the end of a chess game, seems appropriate.)

But we must be prepared for the repercussions of that outcome. 52% of people who voted in a referendum last year will feel cheated. Government (of whatever stripe) must go some way to meet the arguments of the Leavers.

There is some justification for the belief that at the bottom end of the labour market, immigration has a slightly depressing effect on wages. There is also resentment of people at the other end of the scale, including financial manipulators who are seen as abetting the financial melt-down in the UK.

If the minimum wage (I refuse to call it a living wage) legislation is policed as it should be, and there is stronger action than naming and shaming a few token employers, then the first objection can be met, especially as thorough inspection should also turn up non-EU citizens illegally employed, who must also be depressing wages.

Government should also withdraw right to remain status from those people who are or have been involved in activities which harm or have harmed the UK economy. Any outstanding international arrest warrants should be honoured. Benefit tourists should be deported - existing EU law allows this.

Of course, this will mean raising the staffing level of the Border Agency and of police forces, but the cost should be offset by the additional tax raised by the uplift in pay. Besides, Mr Dacre, would it not be a price well worth paying for a tighter immigration régime?

The answer to those who voted Leave in the genuine belief that the EU is a self-appointed institution and that it dictates all the law in its member states is clearly more education. The BBC has failed, and continues to fail, in this regard. This is a dereliction of duty, in view of its constitutional requirement to educate as well as inform and entertain. The government needs to be honest in explaining how it contributes to EU decisions and that it is not powerless in the face of the Commission. Political parties, including Liberal Democrats, need to take up part of this education burden, particularly as the majority of the print media can print lies about the EU with impunity.

The upside is that as soon as government announces that it has abandoned Article 50 negotiations and will seek to keep the UK within the EU, sterling's value will rise against other currencies' and inflation will stop - maybe even reverse.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

"Corporate Wild West"

Firm evidence to add my blog post of two days ago ("Uncollected company secrecy fines...") that the UK freed from regulation by the EU intends, under the Conservatives, to remain the corporate wild west.

From 25th April:

The government has agreed to drop key measures to tackle tax avoidance from the Finance Bill following a deal with the opposition.

These include tougher penalties for tax evasion, changes to prevent people avoiding inheritance tax through offshore trusts and the axing of permanent non-dom status.

Liberal Democrat MP and Public Accounts Committee member John Pugh said:

"Many voters will be shocked that measures to crack down on tax avoiders are being quietly dropped.

“It seems promises to crack down on tax avoidance after the Panama Paper leaks were nothing but hot air.

“This makes a mockery of Theresa May’s claim to be delivering for the many not the few.

"Meanwhile Labour is failing in its job to hold this government to account.

“This election is a chance to change the direction of the country and ensure Britain has a proper opposition."

And from the day before:

Britain will have to settle a €4bn bill over failure to tackle customs fraud before a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU can be agreed, The Times has reported.

Commenting, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said:

“This is a major embarrassment for Theresa May.

"Under her watch as Home Secretary, customs fraud was happening on an industrial scale. Now it is British taxpayers who are set to pay the price.

"The cost of the Conservative's divisive hard Brexit is soaring by the day."

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Some things have changed for the better

Whatever the faults of the present House of Lords, at least it no longer has an inbuilt Tory majority due to the hereditary system. I came across this great comment by Lord Tordoff, the Liberal Democrat whip in the 1990s about the easy job his Conservative opposite number in the Lords had: "Whenever I see the Duke of Atholl in the lobby, I know that he's got to the end of the alphabet again."

EU photographic prizewinner from Wales

Congratulations to Matthew Browne for his "Road improvement, walkways and cycleways in Wales" being a joint winner in the 2017 Europe in My Region photo competition, the only UK prizewinner.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The leader's speech

Vince Cable's speech to Lib Dems federal conference 2017 was well up to standard, with some cutting one-liners about Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May and the juvenile behaviour of the challengers to her leadership. Points that stood out for me were the reminder - complete with a ?Swahili quotation - of his financial qualifications in the Kenyan Treasury, his nailing of the responsibility for the banking crashes in the UK on Labour's emasculation of the regulators (egged on by the Conservatives, who wanted to go further) and the re-statement of the fact that the Liberal Democrats are not a one-issue party.

I was disappointed that he is thinking of replacing student loans with a graduate tax, which was roundly criticised when Ed Miliband put it forward as a possible Labour policy. However, it seems that this is a result of discussions with the NUS and that Vince is holding up his end of a bargain. Moreover, he did not present it as a policy, but has asked David Howarth (a grievous loss to the Commons) to look at it and will lay the findings before conference.

He touched on the electorate's loss of trust in us. He might have added that, a couple of glaring examples (which I was not alone in criticising at the time) apart, it was only partly justified. The Labour-supporting media were all too happy to blame us for all the Tory depredations, not acknowledging that our ministers had softened the blows as far as they could, while both they and their Conservative-supporting counterparts gave us no credit for the positive things we had achieved. That trust is going to take a while to build up again, and I believe Vince should have stressed that it will be a hard slog. It is going to mean our candidates at all levels being cautious about what they promise and the national parties acting swiftly in the case of councillors who have clearly acted improperly.

The full speech will be put up on Liberal Democrat Voice in due course and there should be a link in the comments to this posting.