Archive for February, 2011

Clear red waters in the land of our fathers

23/02/2011, 02:30:25 PM

by Dave Collins

As Welsh Labour’s faithful departed Llandudno’s conference centre on Sunday, there seemed to be a new spring in their steps. An air of optimism, expectation that the worst is over and that Labour is back on the path to restoring its status as the true party of Wales.

Ed Miliband delivered a competent enough address imploring delegates to “send a message” to the rest of Britain. With a referendum on extending primary law-making powers barely a fortnight away and assembly elections due in 10 weeks time, this was more pre-election rally than sober post mortem.

And, to be fair, last May Welsh Labour limited its losses to just four seats (Aberconwy, Cardiff North, Carmarthen West and Vale of Glamorgan, all won by the Tories), and won back Blaenau Gwent. 26 seats out of forty was a long way from the rout predicted by pundits, despite Labour’s share of the vote in Wales being its lowest since 1918 – 1.3% worse than in 1983. As in the rest of the UK, Welsh Labour escaped meltdown on May 6th, but it was a tad more touch and go than the simple seat tally might suggest.

Last weekend was no time for navel gazing, but Welsh Labour stands at an important crossroads. Since the acceptance of devolution, by the slimmest of margins in 1997, through the difficult gestation and messy start, and then throughout the decade long rein of Rhodri Morgan, Welsh Labour’s political mission was to deliver devolution and make it work. (more…)

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We may not like faith schools, but we should respect those who do

23/02/2011, 12:00:14 PM

by Stephen Smith

There was much about Rob Marchant’s Labour Uncut piece on Monday, “Faith schools: a bad idea just got worse ”, that struck a chord with me. On closer reading, though, I felt a little uneasy about some of it.

The article addressed Michael Gove’s proposal to end the 20% limit on recruitment according to faith for faith schools which become academies. This would mean that an academy would then be able to restrict recruitment only to members of, for example, the Roman Catholic religion, or the Islamic religion.

Rob rightly raises serious concerns about this – it takes away what many would see as a key safeguard which prevents overly sectarian influence in our education system. Let’s not forget either that the proposed changes would also mean that these faith academies could receive 100% of their funding from the state, overriding, for example, the current requirement that voluntary aided schools must have at least 10% capital costs funded by the church. A state-sponsored Reverend Moon Academy doesn’t exactly sound like a vote winner  – but let’s hope that it wouldn’t meet the criteria for approval in the first place. (more…)

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Remember Mohamed Bouazizi

23/02/2011, 07:00:29 AM

by Tom Watson

Every man’s pride has its price. In the case of Tarek el-Tayyib Mohamed Ben Bouazizi, it was the right to sell apples in the street. When even that was taken away, he killed himself by self-immolation.

His suicide sparked an uprising the world is still witnessing on the new, internet-enabled channels of the revolution.

Do not forget the name of Mohamed Bouazizi. David Cameron, on his trip to the Middle East, should be announcing a monument to him in London, lest we forget.

The grinding humiliation of Mohamed, inflicted by authoritarian bureaucrats of the Tunisian regime, caused him to take his life in the most gruesome fashion. Mannoubia, his grieving mother, simply said “It got to him deep inside, it hurt his pride”.

Pride is a powerful force, the abuse of which leads to unpredicted consequences. Leaders play with it at their peril. During my short time as a defence minister, I quizzed an official about the death of David Kelly. Norman Baker had been bombarding the MoD with parliamentary questions. It was the first time I’d fully understood the obsessive behaviour of Mr Baker. It will make him a dogmatic, eccentric but possibly effective minister. (more…)

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Wednesday News Review

23/02/2011, 06:45:33 AM

More than 50,000 NHS jobs could be axed

False Economy – the cuts campaign website that formally launches today (Wednesday) – reveals that more than 50,000 NHS staff posts are set for the axe, destroying government claims that the NHS is in safe hands. David Cameron then famously claimed before the election that he would “cut the deficit, not the NHS”. However less than 10 months into the coalition government, the reality couldn’t be more different, with NHS cuts across the country. The national total is already twice the previous estimate of 27,000 job cuts, published by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) last November. False Economy’s figures have been collated for the most part from NHS trusts themselves under the Freedom of Information Act but also include figures sourced by the RCN Frontline First campaign, as well as press reports and foundation trusts’ annual plans published by the national regulator Monitor. – Liberal Conspiracy

In response to a series of Freedom of Information requests, officials confirmed that 53,150 posts are due to be lost across 155 hospital trusts, 126 primary care trusts, 23 ambulance trusts and 54 mental health trusts in England, as well as 15 Scottish trusts, nine Welsh trusts and six trusts in Northern Ireland. Nearly every trust in the country admitted that they planned to shed staff over the next four years, with some losing up to one in five employees, according to the study. More than a dozen hospitals failed to respond to the requests, meaning the true level of job losses could be substantially higher. The requests were submitted by the TUC as part of its False Economy campaign against public spending cuts, which is launched today. – the Telegraph

More than 50,000 NHS jobs face being axed, including doctors, nurses and dentists, because of Government spending cuts, “destroying” claims about the funding of the health service, according to a new report. A study by False Economy, an anti-cuts campaign group, found that health trusts across the country were cutting staff or warning of job losses. The report detailed a series of cuts at trusts including East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust; Wirral University Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; University Hospital of North Staffordshire NHS Trust; Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. False Economy said the total number of confirmed, planned and potential NHS staff cuts across the country was more than 53,000, adding that more NHS trusts were expected to announce staff cuts over the next four months, including all Wales’ health boards. – PA

1.6 million children living in severe poverty

Ministers should draw up an emergency plan to tackle extreme levels of poverty as new research showed that more than one in four children live in penury in some major UK cities. The figures, compiled by Save the Children, show that 1.6 million youngsters live in severe poverty, which the charity condemned as a “national scandal”. With unemployment rising and a radical shake up of the welfare system seeing £18bn wiped from benefits, the charity fears the number of children living without the basics will rise unless action is taken. The government’s survey defines severe poverty as a household with half the average income – for a family of four this would be pay of less than £12,500 – and also suffering from material deprivation. For example, they might not be able to pay for repairs to appliances or afford insurance. – the Guardian

In some areas, one in four children lives in a home which brings in less than £12,500 a year and goes without things most of their peers take for granted, such as having friends round for tea. Save The Children said it was a ‘national scandal’ that so many were suffering and warned the situation would only deteriorate as unemployment rises and the welfare system is reined back. ‘Children are going to sleep at night in homes with no heating, without eating a proper meal,’ said Sally Copley, the charity’s head of policy. ‘At the moment these children are hidden from official view and their plight unrecognised. If these children are to have a future, we must acknowledge their desperate need and urgently target government help towards them.’- Metro


With just ten weeks and one day left before the country votes in the referendum a new survey of members of the YouGov polling panel found that YES has dropped to 34% with NO edging up to 41%. The firm used what has been its standard question which when put last produced a 37-37 response. So with this week’s two polls both showing a move to NO it looks as though those opposed to change have got the initiative. The question is whether they can sustain it? The key group are Labour supporters and NO has recruited many of the party’s star names from the past in order to reach this audience. Ed Miliband is campaigning for YES. The normal way of expressing voting intention polling numbers is to strip out the won’t votes/wont say/don’t knows and quote the percentages of those expressing a firm view. For the sake of consistency I’m going to do the re-percentage calculation myself in order that all AV surveys are described in the same manner. So last night’s 34-41 becomes 45-55 – a healthy NO lead. – Political Betting

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How should the nation spend its windfall – the “OBR incompetence bonus”?

22/02/2011, 04:01:03 PM

The 3 members of the OBR budgetary responsibility committee, by their incompetence, have bequeathed the nation a windfall. The question surely, in which case, is how should we spend it? Restore EMA? Or the future jobs fund? Yesterday they told us we couldn’t afford to. Well today we can.

The ONS published today the level of public borrowing for the current tax year 2010/11. The OBR’s prediction was that by January, the government should be borrowing £4bn less than they did last year. Today, the figures have come out as £14bn. In fact, January was the first month since June 2008 when the government didn’t borrow.

The source of this error is the underestimation of the rise in tax receipts from the recovering economy.  This is rising at 8.4% versus the OBR’s prediction of 6.7%. Now, what’s 1.7% amongst economists?  After all, Mervyn King is running inflation 3% above his mandated rate.

However, this 1.7% is at £10bn. And that is quite a lot of money. As everyone knows, we’re facing an epidemic of youth unemployment, and restarting the future job’s fund would only cost £1bn. Re-instating educational maintenance allowance would be £1bn. And £7bn is what the government is cutting out of the welfare budget.

In fact, these errors, small as they are in economics terms, are having enormous effects on our economy and our future.

Never mind that there wasn’t a single economist that predicted the global economic crash. Forget that this is the worst global financial crisis since the 1930s, put together with the largest globally co-ordinated government fiscal and monetary intervention. How making any predictions of how the economy would perform in this backdrop wasn’t going to end up like putting be the tail on the donkey speaks volumes of the hubris of the economics profession.

The OBR’s task was always going to be difficult, but its way-off prediction of fiscal disaster has allowed this government to imperil the economic success of our future generation.

The OBR committee are their intellectual stool pigeons.

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The drawing-room Jihadists of the “fairer votes” campaign have won

22/02/2011, 12:00:05 PM

by Dan Hodges

Stop all the clocks. Put away the ballot boxes. Shutter the polling stations.

The great AV debate, which has raged across the land for the last couple of months, is over. The gods have spoken. Thou shall vote yes.

It was fun while it lasted. Actually, it wasn’t. I’ve fought Tories, and wrestled power from their cold dead hand. Been head to head with Liberal Democrats who know more dirty tricks than a Watergate burglar. I’ve even gone up against fascists; real honest to goodness, “Adolf, ‘gord bless ‘im, great lad, little misunderstood”, fascists.

But I’ve never witnessed such a wave of self-righteous, intolerant, self-obsessed,  moral indignation as that cascading from supporters of the Yes to Fair Votes campaign. In fact, Yes to Fair Votes isn’t a campaign. It is a constitutional Jihad.

Leader of the crusade is a man called Jonathan Bartley. He has been prosecuting it with a messianic  fervour. In December, he kicked off by writing the following:

“Once in a while, the church gets a chance to atone for its sins. The referendum on the alternative vote (AV) for Westminster elections is a golden opportunity to demonstrate that, unlike the church of 100 years ago, which opposed the suffragettes, it will back the campaign for a fairer electoral system. The episcopal purple should not be of a notably different hue from that worn either by today’s campaigners, or the women pioneers of the early 20th century. There is a strong theological and ethical rationale for voting for reform”.

Many thought the referendum on AV would be about whether or not we need a new way of counting votes. Nothing so prosaic. According to Yes, whether we put a single preference by an electoral candidate, or rank them in order, is a decision of the same moral magnitude as the emancipation of women. (more…)

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Cameron fails the leadership test

22/02/2011, 07:00:22 AM

by Stefan Stern

One industry that seems likely to be recession-proof is the one that is constantly coming up with new management fads and theories about leadership. The production line of gurus with books to sell and lecture halls to fill never sleeps. With a Twitter feed and a Facebook page we can all be experts now. This may or may not represent progress.

Leadership provokes more guru-fuelled debate than any other topic. The subject is discussed not merely on the business pages, but in the sports sections and of course in political coverage. You are about to get a few more paragraphs on the subject here (leave quietly if you’ve already heard enough). Because it is David Cameron’s particular brand – pun intended – of leadership that lies at the heart of the continuing “big society” debate. The idea will sink or swim thanks to the Cameron approach. That is why I think it is already sinking, if it isn’t quite sunk, yet. (more…)

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Tuesday News Review

22/02/2011, 06:50:03 AM

Coalition planning for summer strike breakers

Ministers are drawing up plans to deal with a wave of co-ordinated public sector strikes across the country this summer. A special unit of civil servants has been set up in the Cabinet Office to “war game” areas of vulnerability in key services and infrastructure. They are also investigating how they can draft in private-sector “strike breakers” to cross picket lines. Services identified as vulnerable to strikes include transport, energy, prisons and the health service. Ministers fear that the trigger for such co-ordinated action will be plans to increase the amount that public-sector workers have to contribute to their pensions – and could come as soon as the summer. – the Independent

Labour hits back at MigrationWatch report

Labour has hit back at the report by MigrationWatch claiming its points based system was bringing down net migration. Gerry Sutcliffe, Shadow Immigration Minister, said: “This is an unbalanced, misleading and highly political report. Migration levels increased initially because of the strength of the British economy over many years and must be seen in the context of increases globally. “However the most recent figures show net migration from outside the EU was coming down as a result of the new points based system and over a third of “long-term migrants” were in fact students, the vast majority of whom study, pay their fees, and then return home. “Labour introduced a tough Australian-style points based system to ensure that only those with the skills Britain needs could come here.” – the Telegraph

Rumours of a reshuffle

Spare a thought for Vince Cable. The disgruntled Business Secretary, whose “nuclear option” turned out to be more of a suicide vest, is the odds-on favourite to be the next minister to leave the coalition cabinet, according to the online betting exchange Smarkets. Or perhaps it will be Ken Clarke. “Is it time to give this disloyal, pro-Europe old bruiser the boot?” read the headline in the Daily Mail on 12 February. Paddy Power has him as 7/2 fav­ourite on its “next to leave the cabinet” list. Then there’s Tom Strathclyde. Tom who? The Leader of the House of Lords, exposed as an old-fashioned Tory adulterer by a Sunday paper last month, is second-favourite on both the Smarkets and Paddy Power lists. Away from the betting shops, Tory MPs and peers congregate in the bars and tearooms of Westminster to whisper about the future of William Hague, his personal life and his foreign policy (or lack thereof); about the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman’s disastrous decision to sell off the nation’s forests; about Cheryl Gillan’s “Where’s Wally” performance at the Welsh Office and the persistent rumours of her impending departure from government. – New Statesman

Defence spending out of control

Weapons projects that have been written off or delayed have cost the taxpayer more than £8bn, a cross-party committee of senior MPs said in a withering critique of waste in the Ministry of Defence. The decision to cancel the Nimrod MRA4 and Sentinel reconnaissance aircraft will lead to greater operational risks as well a write-off of nearly £5bn, the Commons public accounts committee says in a report which also sheds new light on the row over the decision to go ahead with the contract to build two new large aircraft carriers for the navy. The RAF spent an extra £2.7bn on the Eurofighter/Typhoon project, including the purchase of 16 additional aircraft it did not need, to honour contractual commitments to other countries assembling the planes. The MoD assumed other partner nations would also not wish to purchase the final tranche of aircraft, so the requirement would be waived, says the committee. – the Guardian

Defence Secretary Liam Fox today outlined plans to tackle the financial mismanagement that blew a £36 billion hole in his department’s budget. He said “fantasy projects” which make their way into the defence programme have to stop, and the department’s biggest projects will be regularly assessed. Speaking to the BBC, he said: “One of the criticisms by the public accounts committee was that projects get started with no real budgets to follow through. “So I have asked the new Chief of Defence Materiel in the MoD to ensure that no projects begin unless we’re sure that there’s a budget for development and in procurement and deployment, because otherwise we end up with fantasy projects which are not much more than a wish list, and that has to stop.” Dr Fox laid the blame for overspending squarely on Labour, saying it had created a “conspiracy of optimism”. – the Independent

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The government has declared war on workplace benefits. Labour must save middle England from Picklesian puritanism.

21/02/2011, 04:00:44 PM

by Dan Cooke

I have been having a recurring nightmare lately that I go to work one morning and my boss has been replaced by Eric Pickles.

Maybe it stems from guilt that I let my office pot plant fade from neglect, when there are others not allowed to have them. Or it may be a deeper fear of what could be exposed and corrected. Can it be right that my employer subsidises my lunch every day? What about the free language lessons? And, even more embarrassing, the “Thai head massages at your desk” promised in my offer letter… I never did find out exactly what this meant but I know what Pickles would make of it.

But then I remember: I work in the private sector, so Eric can’t touch me. Thank goodness it’s only on TV that you can get a line manager like that (think The Office).

But a different type of guilt – and a different worry – persists when I ponder the pillorying of public sector “perks” like sandwiches in meetings and a work mobile phone that, in the jobs I’ve had, were simply things provided so you could do the job. Do government employees really deserve such different conditions from those in the private sector for similar work? And can their terms really be attacked without influencing the norms in the private sector as well? (more…)

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Faith schools: a bad idea just got worse

21/02/2011, 12:00:00 PM

by Rob Marchant

God knows (if you’ll forgive the expression) what goes on in Michael Gove’s head. In politics, quotas are rarely a good idea at the best of times, but his removal of the 20% cap on teacher recruitment on grounds of religion has got to be a terrible idea, even for him. In short, he is saying that a school may recruit 100% of its staff according to where they worship or, indeed, if they worship at all.

Making decisions at world leader level is a lot harder than people often give credit for. Ataturk largely saved the modern Turkish nation by his wise decision to keep religion separate from state. And, say what you like about him, but Tony Blair usually had a pretty good nose for decision-making. However, there were undoubtedly the odd times as prime minister when he had clearly had an off-day, a row with Cherie or one too many gin and tonics the night before. Announcing his departure in 2005 but not saying when; the London mayoral elections; and faith schools. Anything involving religion seemed to have the potential to cloud Blair’s judgement, and occasionally cause him to ignore the timeless advice of one A. Campbell: not to “do God”.

So a scheme was cooked up to bolster faith schools, as a way to lock in the perceived positive effect of “specialist” status on academic achievement. Now, I can see the attraction for the Tories – they think they can get good academic performance “for free” – but isn’t there a flip-side to be considered? Why are faith schools such a bad idea? (more…)

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