Thursday, October 30, 2008

Social Services taking children

Camilla Cavendish of The Times has been nominated for a Paul Foot Award for her campaign against injustices which result from the Children's Act 1989, and the climate of secrecy which surrounds disputed child protection cases (such as that which led to this party's recent statement).

It is only fair to point out that she is not without her critics. However, the roster of cases she has highlighted, and the anecdotes this writer has heard about local cases, show that there is much to be concerned about.

- Frank Little

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Confirmation of revised Labour list for Europe

Thanks to Gary Lewis for pointing us to this. The comments to Miss Wagstaff's post say it all.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Twice as many drop out of drug treatment than complete it - Lamb

Statistics from the National Drug Treatment Agency released at the beginning of the month showed that more than twice as many people seeking drug treatment drop out of programmes than complete them drug free. They reveal that only 11% of individuals were drug free after completing their treatment. 28% dropped out or left, 6% were imprisoned and 1% of those seeking treatment died before they could complete the programme.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics tell a grim tale. The number of people dying from drug misuse is higher than in 1997.

The proportion of adults saying they used Class A drugs in the previous year is slightly higher than in 1997. In 2007-08, 3% of adults used Class A drugs last year, in 1997 it was 2.7% of adults. [Crime in England and Wales 2007-08, table 2.06] This is the equivalent of around
1 million people. The Home Office estimates that there are approximately 332,000 problem drug misusers in England.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary, Norman Lamb said:

"The Government is losing the fight against drugs. There needs to be a National Audit Office investigation into the cost effectiveness of current treatment.

"The current record of failure is disastrous both for those in treatment and the wider community who are placed at risk because of the close links between drug addiction and crime."

Time called on Timeshare Touts

A key European Parliament legislative report is set to benefit those who use time shares and holiday clubs. Two thirds of time-share owners in Europe are from the UK, and the new legislation will strengthen UK consumers' rights.

LibDem MEP Graham Watson commented;

"For far too long time share touts have been conning British holiday makers. They will no longer be able to charge fees and deposits upfront and then disappear off the face of the earth. Now money won't be changing hands until after a 2 week cooling off period.

"It's going to be much easier for consumers to pull out of any contracts in the first two weeks if they change their minds.

"Companies will also have to provide contracts in the language of the customer's choosing. There will be no more dodgy contracts in foreign languages that some British tourists don't fully understand."

What rights do consumers currently have with regard to timeshare contracts?

According to the 1994 Timeshare Directive, all Member States must give buyers of timeshare the following protection and rights:

A right to a 10-day cooling-off period counted from the day buyers sign the timeshare contract. During the cooling off period, buyers have the right to cancel the contract without giving any reason and at no cost, apart from possible legal costs where Member States allow for this in their legislation.

  • Sellers are strictly prohibited from taking deposits from buyers during the cooling off period.
  • Sellers have to provide purchasers with a brochure if requested. The brochure must contain information about the timeshare property. The consumer can choose between the language of the country where the property is, or the country of which he is a national.
  • The consumer can also choose in which language he/she would like the contract. Sellers must provide consumers with a contract in writing.
  • If the timeshare seller provides or arranges for a credit agreement for the consumer to buy the timeshare, this agreement must be cancelled automatically if the buyer exercises his/her right to cancel the timeshare contract within the cooling-off period.
However, these rights only apply if the contract is for one or more weeks accommodation per year, in an immovable property (real estate), for three years or longer. Furthermore, these are basic minimum standards set out in the Directive. Member States may choose to supplement these in their national legislation.

What is the impact of the timeshare sector on the European economy?

Some figures indicating the impact of this sector on the European economy can give an idea of the importance of the timeshare industry for the EU. According to recent industry data, there are approximately 1,500 timeshare resorts, creating 85,000 timeshare units annually. The number of EU timeshare units is increasing by about 2 % annually based on 2005 estimates.

This activity yields a total economic output of EUR 10.5 billion, of which EUR 4.2 billion in Spain alone. It creates 40,000 jobs across the Union. With the corrective action taken by the EU in this legislative proposal, these numbers will become even more significant in coming years.

What is the problem with some new products that have come onto the market since the 1994 Directive was adopted?

Since 1994, a number of new products have come onto the market that fall outside the scope of the current Directive. Therefore consumers who buy them do not enjoy the same rights and protection as outlined above. For instance, they do not have a right of withdrawal and there is no ban on deposits.

Which are the products?

The new products include timeshare-like products and discount holiday clubs. Other transactions which are linked to timeshare, but that are not covered by the Directive, are resale and exchange.

What is meant by timeshare-like products?

"Timeshare-like products" are economically equivalent to timeshare, but are crafted in a way that falls outside the legal definition of the directive. Examples of new timeshare-like products are contracts that provide for repeated stays in a holiday accommodation, but the contracts
are for less than 3 years or for stays of less than one week, or contracts relating to boats or caravans (i.e. moveable property) rather than fixed location property.

What are holiday discount clubs?

Consumers signing up to become member of a holiday discount clubs, pay a substantial initial fee to join the club. The benefit of the membership is access to a booking service where they can book discounted accommodation, flights, rental cars and other services. In the marketing
of these clubs, consumers are often promised discounts of 70% or more in luxury hotels and cheap flights. However, many people end up being disappointed, as the discounts are not what they expected and the best destinations are heavily oversubscribed.

The new Directive will regulate "long-term holiday products". This is a legal term which includes many different types of contracts which are currently offered in the market place. These are known for instance as holiday discount clubs, international travel clubs, vacation exchange
clubs and sometimes have names like "Luxury Dream Holiday Exchange".

Whatever they are called, consumers who sign up for "long-term holiday products" will be granted the same rights.

The proposal would cover these products, so that consumers would for instance be able to benefit from the right to withdraw from the contract within 14 days.

Why do the new proposals also cover resale?

Resale mediation is not covered by the 1994 Directive, but there are many consumer complaints about these contracts. People who own timeshare are often approached by agents offering to re-sell their timeshare at a good price. If the consumer is interested in selling, the agent may
request a fee (either a percentage or a flat fee of EUR 500-3000). Many consumers have complained that after they have paid the fee, the agent either disappears or fails to make the sale. In either case, the consumer has no way of getting their money back.

The new proposal will deal with the mediation contract, i.e. the contract between the consumer selling his timeshare and the resale agent. Resale agents will be obliged to provide good pre-contractual information in the consumer's language, deposits will be prohibited and consumers will be entitled to a cooling-off period.

Why is there a need to regulate exchange of timeshare?

If the timeshare resort is affiliated to an exchange scheme, timeshare owners have the option of paying a fee to join the scheme. Members "deposit" their week into an exchange pool, and request exchange from the pool of weeks deposited by other members worldwide. At present these schemes are not covered by the basic rules on information, the ban on deposits or the cooling-off period.

There are fewer complaints related to exchange than to resale. Nevertheless, the complaints focus on the "overselling" of exchange schemes. Consumers are disappointed when they find out that the options are more limited than they expected. Given that almost 80% of consumers
purchasing timeshare quote the range of destinations available through exchange schemes as a "reason to purchase", it is crucial to ensure that consumers are adequately informed before making a decision. Ensuring that consumers also have a right of withdrawal from these schemes is also essential.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Not in our name": statement by Liberal Democrat councillors

Liberal Democrat members of Neath Port Talbot Council responded to an article in the South Wales Evening Post with the following statement:

We understand that Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council has applied to the High Court for a number of injunctions in the case of a child said to have been taken from its parents, Neath Port Talbot residents, while the family was visiting the United States.

As at the close of official business on the day before the council went to court, only one elected member had any knowledge of the injunctions.

We would wish to make it clear that no committee of council has ever discussed or passed any resolution in connection with these injunctions. As elected members, we do not wish to be associated with them.

They were not done in our name.

Councillor Keith Davies (Coedffranc North)
Councillor Des Sparkes (Cimla)
Councillor Frank Little (Cadoxton)

(Councillor John Warman is abroad on holiday and could not be contacted)

Europe for Obama?

If the content of this link is to be believed Europe is standing "shoulder to shoulder" with Barack Obama.

Interesting Poll.

Green energy revolution needed to help the poorest - Clegg

In a speech to the British Wind Energy Association conference last Wednesday, Nick Clegg called for the way people are charged for energy to change, arguing social tariffs are essential to cutting fuel bills.

He set out his vision for radically rewriting the rules on how energy is used and created, calling for a massive expansion in renewable electricity to create a post-fossil fuel economy, protecting the poorest from the volatility of the oil and gas markets.

Developing a ‘supergrid’ in the North Sea to massively upgrade the National Grid and connect it to continental Europe is an example of the ambitious green plans needed to create jobs and make energy cheaper.

Nick Clegg said:

"The green agenda is a social justice agenda.

"We need to tackle energy use in a way that helps the worst off and rewards energy efficiency.

"Helping people on low incomes to insulate their homes is one way of doing that. Another way is through social tariffs.

"Customers should pay more the more energy they use, with protection for vulnerable households that need a lot of energy."

Setting out how investment in renewable energy will spur growth and
create jobs, he went on:

"For many of the people who are struggling to make ends meet, climate change will seem a secondary concern.

"So it is up to us to show that fighting for prosperity and fighting for the planet are part of the same battle.

"It is madness to see some sort of trade off between fixing the economy and protecting the environment.

"The road to economic recovery has got to be green."

Speaking about a ‘supergrid’ in the North Sea, he said:

"The existing grid is old fashioned and inefficient. We need to create the infrastructure for a supergrid across the North Sea.

"Building interconnectors down from Scotland to the South of England and then across to the Dogger Bank. Which - through partnerships with our neighbours - could then be developed into a Europe-wide supergrid.

"These are ambitious plans, I don’t deny it. But ambition is precisely what we need. The new grid would meet future demands in a way that is more efficient, more reliable, less harmful and ultimately cheaper.

"It would also increase the demand for wind turbines built in UK docks, creating jobs in some of the UK’s most deprived communities - such as parts of Hull and Newcastle."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Law Lords' verdict devastating for Chagossians and UK reputation

Commenting on the Law Lords’ ruling against allowing the Chagos Islanders to return home, Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Secretary, Edward Davey said:

"This is a devastating verdict for both the Chagos Islanders and Britain’s reputation around the world.

"Removing the Chagossians in the 1960s was a scandalous decision. Yet this Government has continued to mistreat these people in the face of opposition from the UN.

"Regardless of the legal arguments, the Government has a moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return home.

"They must also come clean about the rendition activity that has taken place on these islands. Only by doing so can they hope to salvage Britain’s damaged global reputation."

(In the 1960s, the UK government did a deal with the United States to provide a secure air force base on Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Archipelago, in a strategically important area of the Indian Ocean. Part of the security insisted upon by the United States was removal of inhabitants from the rest of the islands, with which Westminster was happy to comply. Both the Macmillan and Wilson administrations seem to have been complicit. More details here.)

LibDem MEP fights against virtual strip-CCTV

Tories attempt to delay vote on key resolution - Watson

Members of the European Parliament were expected to secure a resolution today demanding that body scanners which reveal passengers' naked bodies at security check points must not get an EU go-ahead without a full public debate on the implications for privacy and human rights.

Graham Watson MEP Liberal Democrat for the South West and Gibraltar said:

"Travellers need to know exactly what the images display, their right to opt for an alternative search, and how they can have confidence that intrusive and sensitive images will not be misused. Although claims are made that the images are not of photographic quality, they seem to be quite explicit about portrayal of genitalia and intimate medical details like breast implants and colostomy bags. I'm sure Commissioner Tajani would not like it if pictures of his body scan were circling the internet.

"So the introduction of 'virtual strip search' cannot be treated as a purely technical matter as these body scanners pose serious issues of civil liberties and personal dignity. Fears arise about the images finding their way into the press and onto the internet, maybe through payment to employees, unless bans on storage are strictly policed.

"The fact that the European Commission proposes to authorise their use without advice from data protection watchdogs on necessary safeguards is a disgrace. The European Parliament would be neglecting its duty if it failed to insist on a transparent and open debate on an issue affecting the fundamental rights of millions of citizens.

"Furthermore, the attempt by the Conservatives to put off a vote on this matter shows up the hollowness of their claim to care about privacy threats."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Only in America: drive-through voting

You would think that automobile-orientated voting might have originated in California, but this report from Orange County suggests that there are states in the eastern US which also make life easier for the four-wheeled voter.

Hopefully, the voting mechanism is more sound than these in Charleston.

Thanks to Richie for the OC tip.

Grave concerns remain over new disabled benefit

This coming Monday, the Employment and Support Allowance will replace the existing Incapacity Benefit and Income Support for people unable to work because of impaired health. All new claimants will have to complete an assessment considering their capability to work. Current
incapacity benefit claimants will have to take this test as from April 2010.

Back in March this year, charities expressed concern about the test. The then Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Danny Alexander said:

“Disabled people are understandably cynical about proposals from a government that continually emphasises tough measures against benefit claimants, when what is needed is targeted support to get the millions of disabled people who want to work into jobs.

“Undergoing the assessment could deliver benefits but it will not change the fact that many claimants need specialist help to overcome mental health problems and disabilities, which is still severely lacking.

“The Government should focus on providing more personalised support for claimants to get them back into long-term work.”

None of these concerns have been addressed, and the voluntary sector, especially mental health charity MIND, is very worried.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

MoD wasting money on 9,000 empty properties

Over 9,000 MoD properties which could have been used to house service personnel and their families were left vacant last year, according to new figures revealed by the Liberal Democrats.

In response to a Parliamentary Question by Liberal Democrat Defence Spokesperson, Willie Rennie, Defence Minister Kevan Jones revealed that:

· A total of 9,046 units of Service Family Accomodation
(SFA) are currently vacant (October 2008)
· Of these properties, 2,270 have been vacant for between
one and five years
· The majority of these properties are currently being
leased from Annington Homes by the MoD

Commenting, Willie Rennie said:

"It is outrageous that the MoD is wasting millions of pounds renting empty properties while the men and women of our armed forces are still faced with a lack of decent homes.

"Our service men and women are putting their lives on the line overseas. The Government has a responsibility to look after their families and provide them with a proper standard of accommodation.

"Instead, the MoD’s incompetence means that money is being wasted on empty houses when there is a desperate need for it elsewhere.

"If these homes aren’t needed for defence personnel they should be released to the local authority to help meet the huge demand for affordable housing.

"The current lack of housing is nothing short of scandalous. We need more joined-up working between sectors if are to correct this worrying trend."

Government shouldn’t be making it harder for parents to work

Lord Mandelson's decision to delay the introduction of flexible working by means of a review has incensed women MPs. Liberal Democrat Small Business Spokesperson, Lorely Burt said:

"At a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet, the last thing they need is the Government making it harder for them to go out and earn money.

"During a recession we need as many people as possible taking an active role in the economy.

"Women, young people and ethnic minorities are often the first to suffer when a recession hits.

"In its panic, the Government is in danger of backing out of important policies for the long-term health of the UK economy. First the green agenda drops off the radar, and now flexible working. What next?

"Now is not the time for ministers to back away from their modest steps forward on flexible working."

Labour MPs have also objected. This report is typical.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Peter Black advice surgery Briton Ferry

South Wales West AM, Peter Black, will hold an advice surgery in the Briton Ferry Library on Friday 24th October from 3pm to 4pm.

No appointment is necessary.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Gwyn Hall rebuilding

The Neath Port Talbot press release says that "this will be funded through various sources including insurance, grants and funds which were already earmarked for the initial project".

It is to be hoped that the call on funds has not increased as a result of the mysterious fire which ripped through the part-completed building a year ago yesterday. If the earmarked funds are in a frozen Icelandic bank account, then the council should exercise patience while they are unblocked and not switch money from more deserving projects.

Coroner’s criticism shattering blow to MoD credibility

Commenting on the criticism of the MoD by the coroner in the inquest into the death of British solider Corporal Mark Wright in an Afghan minefield in 2006, Liberal Democrat Shadow Defence Secretary, Nick Harvey said:

"The catalogue of failures recorded by the coroner is another shattering blow to the credibility of the MoD.

"Coroner Andrew Walker is absolutely right to describe these shortages of basic equipment and helicopter support as shameful.

"Lives are being lost because of the shortage of appropriate helicopter support in Afghanistan, yet the Government’s plans for more helicopters are in confusion and disarray.

"John Hutton could make a useful start as Defence Secretary by withdrawing the remaining British troops from Iraq, which would go some way towards easing the terrible overstretch our forces are suffering operating on two fronts.

"There is an urgent need for a new defence review to reassess spending priorities."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Olympic budget swollen by consultants and bean-counters

New research by the Liberal Democrats has revealed the enormous number of staff currently being employed across Government to administer the Olympic project.

Answers to Parliamentary Questions by Liberal Democrat Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, Don Foster show that 11 Whitehall departments and 14 Government agencies employ staff dedicated to the Games, resulting in almost 1,000 people overseeing the Olympic project.

The research revealed:
· 800 dedicated 2012 workers paid for out of public funds, including 126 from Whitehall departments, 237 from government agencies and a further 212 employed by the Olympic Delivery Authority
· The Government Olympic Executive has now grown to 72 members of staff with an annual budget of £4.7m
· The Olympic Security Directorate has grown to 111 members of staff
· The London Development Agency has 88 staff working on the Olympic legacy
· The self-funding organising committee, Locog, has 175 staff, bringing the total to nearly 1,000

Commenting, Don Foster said:
"These numbers are staggering. To have so many overseeing preparations for the Games seems totally over the top. This is before we’ve taken into account the work contracted out to private consultants.

"With parliamentarians, the London Assembly, DCMS, Select Committees and other independent bodies already keeping a very close eye on the Olympic project, I struggle to believe it’s really necessary for eleven other Government departments to have full-time staff working exclusively on the Olympics.

"I dread to think what the collective cost of all these employees is to the taxpayer. With staffing levels expected to rise even further between now and 2012, we must urgently reassess whether these costs are justified."

Friday, October 17, 2008

80% of single pensioners will be in fuel poverty this winter - Webb

Figures uncovered by the Liberal Democrats show that 80% of single pensioners are likely to be living in fuel poverty this winter.

The statistics, available from the House of Commons library, were prepared by the Office of National Statistics following a request by Liberal Democrat Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Steve Webb.

Commenting, Steve Webb said:

"The soaring cost of keeping warm this winter is going to cause misery for millions of pensioners.

"These figures show that the vast majority of pensioners living on their own are going to be living in fuel poverty this winter. This is nothing short of a scandal.

"The Government must act quickly to get prices down for vulnerable customers and must greatly accelerate the pace of getting homes insulated.

"It is criminal that there are millions of draughty homes in need of insulation and thousands of unemployed construction workers, yet the Government has not put the two together on the scale that is needed."

Neath and Port Talbot have some of the poorest pensioners in Wales and therefore (as Mike German has pointed out) some of the poorest in the UK. The much-trumpeted increase in the Winter Allowance did not cover the cost of fuel steadily rising until 2007, let alone the big hike which occurred this year. Let us hope and pray for another mild winter.

Still questions to be answered over council's treasury management

There will hopefully be a more detailed report of yesterday's council proceedings in the Neath/Port Talbot Guardian next week, but a few outcomes should be stated right away.

Firstly, there was no direct answer to the question tabled by Cllr Keith Davies, about the whereabouts of the council investments not placed with Icelandic banks already named. The council has something over £80m on deposit, £20m of which we now know to be frozen in Icelandic bank deposits, either off-shore or in UK subsidiaries. Where is the other £60m+ deposited? There was no direct refusal to answer the question, just an evasion each time it was put. It was implied, but not directly stated, that Cllr. Davies will receive an answer in writing. We are not holding our breath.

At least the question enabled a vigorous debate about council finance, for which we should be grateful.

Secondly, members of the cabinet, and of the policy and resources committee, rely totally on the decisions of officers, who are in turn expected to follow the guidance of firms of treasury management advisers. Neath Port Talbot retains the services of two of these: Sector Treasury Services and another (unnamed by Derek Vaughan, the council leader, yesterday, but presumably one of Arlingclose**, Butler or Sterling). Since the first official notification to the leader that there was any doubt about the Icelandic banks was September 30th last, one must doubt the advisability of the future use of these firms*.

The alarm bells should have been ringing in April at the latest, when the best-known of the international credit-rating agencies, Standard & Poor's, downgraded the only Icelandic bank to which it did assign a rating to BBB+. There had been warnings months in advance that this was going to happen.

Cllr. Peter Rees made much of the fact that treasury management had functioned for twelve-and-a-half years up until now, without questions being raised. One wonders, though, whether independent treasury advisers were employed in 1996, or whether the director of finance then used his common sense and his own view of HM Treasury's ratings in deciding where to deposit the council's balances. Moreover, there was not so much pressure to achieve the maximum rate of interest then as in recent years, when the increases in the support grant (80% of council income) from the Assembly Government have been consistently less than inflation.

The leader was dismissive of Wrexham's decision to switch out of Icelandic banks. (Fellow Liberal Democrats have informed us that Northampton, as well as Brighton and Telford, took a similar course of action.) They were able to do this because their deposit's fixed term had come to an end, he said. Of course. We didn't say anything different; to have withdrawn the money before the end would obviously have involved financial penalties. The point is that the council was offered the opportunity to start another contract, but declined. We have still to hear whether Neath Port Talbot made new deposits with Icelandic banks between February and October this year.

The Icelandic deposits are not lost, thank goodness, but they are frozen. There is a glimmer of light in that the leader had received information that one of the UK banks in question had assets exceeeding its liabilities. One trusts that the book value of these assets is genuine, and that they are not in the form of Northern Rock style mortgages. and that all or most of the other deposits can be repatriated.

Finally, the local authority's bankers are Alliance & Leicester. This bank had its tricky times when the credit crunch hit, but it is shortly to be acquired, subject to the usual formalities, by Banco Santander. Because Spanish banks have been more tightly regulated than American, British or even most other European nations' banks, they did not become dependent on dubious securities, nor lend extravagantly. They have therefore become a safe haven in the raging sea of unreliable deposit-takers. That is another fact over which citizens of Neath Port Talbot can heave a sigh of relief.

*Private Eye reports that, though STS warned in its September credit-ratings bulletin that Landsbanki had a "negative outlook" for long-term deposits, it was still recommending the bank for "short-term maturities".

** Update at 2008/11/19: Arlingclose has confirmed that the company is not the second advisor

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New protections against identity fraud needed - Clegg

People should have the right to ‘security freeze’ their credit records to stop bank accounts and new credit cards being fraudulently opened in their name, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg says.

On a visit to Cambridge University where he will meet credit card fraud expert Professor Ross Anderson, Nick Clegg will set out how giving individuals control over who can access their financial history would vastly reduce identity fraud.

The system, which is working successfully across the United States, would be a much more effective way of tackling identity theft than the hugely expensive and unworkable ID cards project.

Commenting, Nick Clegg said:

"People currently have no control over who accesses their credit history. Sloppy credit-granting practices have made life easy for identity thieves, who can get credit and open fake bank accounts in other people’s names.

"The Government’s preferred solution is ID cards. These are an intrusive, costly and ineffective way of attempting to curb identity fraud, with no guarantees that they will work.

"Giving people the right to ‘security freeze’ their credit records is both effective and inexpensive, and already working in the United States. Big financial companies and the State should answer to individuals, not the other way around.

"Ministers have this week announced plans for another huge Orwellian database logging emails, phone calls and websites visited. Rather than hoarding ever more information in Whitehall, they should be giving individuals extra rights to protect their information."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Unemployment spike no surprise

Commenting on today’s Government figures that show unemployment has risen by 164,000 between June and August to 1.79 million, Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Cardiff Central MP Jenny Willott said:

"These figures come as no surprise and are only likely to get worse over the coming months. The effects of the banking crisis have filtered down to the real economy and are affecting people across the county.

"Now the banking rescue package has been agreed, the Government must turn its attention to unemployment and inflation. Real families across Britain are suffering, not just those working in the Square Mile.

"As the number of vacancies shrink, it will be harder and harder to get people back into work. It will not simply be a case of retraining the unemployed if there are no jobs for them to return to."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Now the banks are bailed out, what about the people?

The Liberal Democrats today called for Government action to shift from bailing out banks towards helping people struggling as a result of the financial crisis.

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg and Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable set out proposals to assist families by avoiding repossessions, tackling the social housing backlog and lowering bills through competitive energy prices.

Nick Clegg said:

"Families are facing a difficult winter. Rising mortgage bills, the fear of unemployment and high heating costs mean that the shockwaves of the financial crisis are felt in households across Britain.

"When the banks were in trouble, they got rescued. Millions of families who are about to find themselves in trouble must be helped too."

NPT council leader bound for Europe?

BBC-2 Wales' "AM:PM" programme has reported rumours (well-founded, according to Vaughan Roderick) that Eluned Morgan is standing down as MEP in 2009. Unless Welsh Labour reruns its selection process (any Labourites willing to comment on their rules?), that would automatically put Derek Vaughan, councillor for Neath North and leader of the county borough council, at number one on the party's euro list.

Government building the world’s biggest DNA database by stealth

Commenting on the announcement that 722,000 people were added to the DNA database last year - the largest amount ever in any one year - Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne said:

"The Government is rapidly building the world’s biggest DNA database, by stealth.

"Guilt or innocence and the negative effect the database has on children and ethnic minorities are of no concern to ministers. There are also large numbers of people who were convicted of crimes before DNA began to be collected who are not on the database.

"Rarely has so much effort been made to collect so much intrusive and irrelevant data.

"Innocent people should be removed from the database before our more courageous European counterparts force us to do so through the courts."

One wonders whether fingerprints are also being garnered for a de facto national identity register. The experience of our previous secretary, Gary Lewis, is worrying:

I'm looking to do voluntary work with a view that if you are engaged in such activity, more opportunities will present themselves in addition to showing to prospective employers that you want to work and giving your life some purpose.
Had a phone call yesterday from the Bridge Mentoring Scheme Plus (BMSP) in Bridgend. The CRB agency says that there is another Gary Lewis with a similar identity to myself (no-one else on the planet can be as good looking as myself) and would I be prepared to go to the police station and have my fingerprints taken and to bring my identification with me.
[Queried the electoral register] how many Gary Lewis's there were in Ogmore, answer was four.
What's worrying:
I've been doing Family Link, respite fostering for the past eight years, the usual identification used for proof of identity has been Birth Cert., Driving Licence and Passport. This has never happened before.
Driving Licence and Passport was used this time with BMSP, so why question my identity credentials this time? Don't the CRB agency keep records?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Cannabis announcement will criminalise thousands of people

Commenting on the announcement that cannabis users will face new penalties when the drug is upgraded to Class B in January, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne said:

"Today’s announcement is more about titillating tabloid newspaper editors than tackling drug abuse.

"Increasing penalties for possession will criminalise thousands of people, particularly young people, at a time when cannabis use is falling.

"Ministers should heed the advice of their own expert advisory council on drug misuse. Public education works better than flagellation."

Nick Clegg and Liberal Democrats behind Gurkhas

Liberal Democrat Leader, Nick Clegg will meet retired Gurkhas shortly to pledge to support the Immigration (Discharged Gurkhas) Bill through the House of Commons.

The Bill was due to receive its Third Reading in the House of Lords earlier today.

In a meeting room in Portcullis House, Nick will join Bahadur Pun and Lachhiman Gurung, retired Victoria Cross holders, Joanna Lumley, campaigner for Gurkha Justice and Lord Lee of Trafford, author of the Bill. He will then sign a pledge to support the Immigration (Discharged Gurkhas) Bill

Joanna Lumley and the Gurkha Justice Team will also be writing to all MPs enclosing a pledge card for them to sign and return to the Gurkha Justice campaign.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hot day, cool conference

Temperatures in Clydach reached levels not experienced since spring. Inside the Forge Fach centre, business was dominated by constitutional amendments which only occasionally caused the pulse to race.

However, we passed a motion today which might draw some comment in the prints as we get closer to an election:

Conference notes:
1. The unfair settlement caused by the decades-old Barnett formula.
2. That the National Assembly for Wales is unable to borrow money or levy taxes.
3. That Labour and Plaid have ruled out using the Private Finance Initiative in the
health sector, meaning available money is not being used.

Conference believes that:
1. Private sector finance can make an important contribution to improving public
services in Wales.
2. The existing PFI model is outdated, poorly-conceived and not suitable to the current financial climate.
3. The investment of private sector finance in public services needs to be carefully
managed and regulated to protect the interests of taxpayers, service users and
local communities.
4. New more effective models for harnessing private sector finance can and should be
developed to deliver greater value of money for the taxpayer.

Conference calls on:
The Welsh Assembly Government to drop its politically-driven opposition to private sector finance and find effective ways of harnessing private sector finance to deliver much needed improvements to public services in Wales.

As far as traditional PFI goes, as introduced by the Conservatives and renamed by New Labour, the resolution is largely academic in the present financial situation. One of the arguments in favour of PFI was its ability to attract funds which were not available from government sources. One would suppose that any finance which was obtainable - and a public sector project, with its guaranteed income stream, might be the exception to the current credit drought - would be at prohibitive interest rates.

However, as Jenny Randerson made clear in proposing the motion, the intention is to be much more flexible. Third sector and community mutual societies would also come within its ambit. The important thing was not to be ruled by dogma: neither that which used dodgy arithmetic to justify dubious contracts in the anti-state cause, nor that which ruled out anything but state funding for public projects.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Labour-Plaid budget a hammer-blow for struggling families

Commenting on the draft budget published this week by the Labour-Plaid Assembly Government, Welsh Liberal Democrat Finance spokesperson Jenny Randerson said:

"This draft budget presents a raw deal for local authorities once again. When keeping council tax low is the one way that the WAG can help families during the credit crunch, it's disappointing to see local authorities getting a settlement which is 2% below inflation.

"The danger is that local authorities will once again face the impossible choice between cutting services or raising council tax - as a direct result of this Labour-Plaid government's neglect of local authorities.

"Far from the fair deal for Welsh taxpayers we were hoping to see, this budget could be a hammer blow to many families and individuals in Wales."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Central Government must recover local authority deposits in Icelandic banks

Commenting on the situation facing councils that have money invested in Icelandic banks, Liberal Democrat Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, Julia Goldsworthy said:

"The first priority has to be that the Government supports councils to recover as much of their money as possible. It must also look at the potential for the capitalisation of any remaining debts to avoid service cuts or immediate Council Tax rises at all costs.

"We need to know the extent of the risk and under what circumstance councils made these commitments. Some councils that deliberately avoided taking these risks should have their prudence acknowledged.

"The real issue here is making sure that front line services like fire and policing, social care and transport are protected.

"The answer isn’t for the Government to guarantee these loans. That would simply pass the buck from local taxpayers to income taxpayers, which would not be much comfort to those already struggling to pay their bills.

"It is ridiculous for the Government to try to wash its hands of this, given that in many cases it is revenues councils were collecting for the Government, such as business rates, which are now at risk. These councils were operating within Treasury guidance.

"The next question is how far the problem will spread. PFI schemes for new schools and hospitals could be under threat."

Westminster must not dump the problem on the Welsh Assembly Government, as it has done for Scotland. That was one inference which could be drawn from TV interviews with the Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, last night. He gave no commitments, but gave the impression that it was enough for him to represent Wales in talks about the crisis.

Update: Neath Port Talbot CBC has issued a statement.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Baglan: ex-Ratepayers respond

A recent leaflet issued by the two Labour councillors in Baglan concluded:

We want you to know what really went on.

Opposition parties have been implying that Baglan has been disenfranchised, up until now we haven't put anything in writing about what happened prior to the closing nominations on the 4"" of April 2008.

When we first joined the Ratepayers the focus of the group was, 'People Come First, your local needs and issues. We have never professed to be political animals, we go about the job from day to day because we care and are passionate about our children, environment and community. We have worked extremely hard and attended all meetings in order to gain an all-round knowledge of our duties as councillors and to gain more insight into the function of the council. We have made strong representation on issues affecting the community of Baglan along with issues of concern throughout the County Borough; and will continue to do so but subsequently we suffered lack of support and commitment from the Ratepayers on too many occasions.

After Cllr Paul Evans passed away the Ratepayers changed and after three years of trying to work with the new regime, we couldn't continue to do so because of the constant bullying from within the party which was solely directed at Juliet. Also, a member of the Conservative party attended Ratepayers meetings and dictated a pact between the Ratepayers/Tories/Plaid and Liberal Democrats so they could create safe seats for themselves and deny the voters a right to democracy. If we had stayed with the Ratepayers we would have been unopposed, therefore, you must ask the question, would the opposition parties have then stated in their leaflet that we were unwanted? Surely if the other parties were so worried about Baglan and how it was being represented, why then, didn't they submit candidates in the last election?

Yes, we did change to Labour just before the end of the nominations and it was a massive personal decision to make. But with very little time to make this decision we feel that it would have had greater consequences had it been made after the elections. We are still 100% committed to Baglan, 'our community, regardless of our status, and, as far as we are concerned, the People of Baglan still come first.

Our reply:.

We didn't imply that Baglan was disenfranchised. In our Baglan leaflet we boldly stated it right out.

We have never been dictated to by Conservatives or by any outside body.

If the then-Ratepayers in Baglan were unhappy about the way the party was run, why didn't they move to change it? Clearly it was in need of fresh leadership, something we had pointed out in our comments on council attendance before the election.

Frank Little says: “As leader of a small party, I make no apologies for placing our select group of candidates where they stood most chance of winning. I was entitled to assume that Ratepayers, who had once formed a minority group on the council along with independents and ourselves, had more similar views to Liberal Democrats than to Labour. I was therefore not going to undermine them by running candidates of our own. I have been involved in county council elections in the Neath Port Talbot area since the early 1990s. Every time, I have been fed information from various sources on the council about where opposition candidates would be standing and 2008 was the first year in which the information was genuine. There was no talk of Conservative plots in the years when we turned out to have been deceived."

Yes, we did change to Labour just before the end of the nominations
It would have been more honest to change earlier than 15 minutes before the close.
we feel that it would have had greater consequences had it been made after the elections
After the elections, the Baglan 2 would have formed 40% of the Ratepayer representation on the council and would hardly need to change allegiance. They would surely have been able to influence the way the party was run.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Secret plan to close all post offices

It seems that the government is only waiting to get the Glenrothes by-election out of the way before unveiling plans which will make all post offices unviable.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Good news, bad news, on the Irish government's bank guarantee

Good news: Allied Irish Bank, which is one of those institutions backed by the guarantee of the government of the Republic, provides financial products through UK post offices.

Bad news: the government is shutting post offices as fast as it can get away with it.

Nicholas Bourne too nice for the Tories

Peter Black's blog refers.

Bobby's back

Commenting on Gordon Brown’s cabinet reshuffle, in which Peter Mandelson is to return to a senior post, Chief of Staff to Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander said:

"Gordon Brown is deluded if he thinks that Peter Mandelson can help him convince the British people that his party still has what it takes to govern this country.

"Resurrecting ex-ministers from the political graveyard is not going to breathe new life into Gordon Brown’s zombie government."