Thursday, 20 December 2012

Carwyn's Christmas project.

Whilst Wales was hearing about the intention to nationalise an airport a report was produced on a British Bill of Rights. Its implications for the rights of Welsh people might be profound.
Mr Cameron established a Commission to appease many in the Conservative ranks that were hostile towards the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act.  
Not to put to fine a point on it there are many his parties that want nothing to do with human rights legislation at all. No votes for prisoners. Lets send people abroad to be tortured without due process etc. You get the agenda.

Many in Wales thought that looking at introducing a Bill of Rights for the UK was misconceived and might undermine devolved government. To produce it at a time Wales is beginning to debate its place in the Union and Scotland is due to hold a referendum, shows particular bad timing.
The truth of the matter is that it was an English problem, indeed a Tory backwoodsman problem that Cameron faced. There was little or no call for a UK Bill of Rights from Wales or Scotland. 
It could be argued that the protection of rights  should be as much a matter for the Welsh Assembly as for the UK Parliament. 
A case certainly could be made for a Welsh Bill of Rights.  After all Wales had its own criminal system until the Statute of Rhuddlan and civil law lasted until the times of Henry V111. 
So when the English want to base their own human rights on the heritage from Magna Carta we too have a heritage that we can base our own Rights legislation on. After all enacting a bill of rights in Wales would be an opportunity to articulate the indigenous traditions of Wales’s very own legal and cultural systems.
After all as inhabitants of the new Wales we need rights and freedoms more closely attuned to our national circumstances. 
It ought to be made clear to the UK government that any changes to the current framework of human rights legislation as they might affect Wales should be a matter solely for the Welsh Government and National Assembly. 
There is a real danger that if Westminster decided to go ahead and introduce a UK Bill of Rights Wales’s current constitutional position might be seriously undermined.
The call by Carwyn Jones for a Constitutional Convention has been steadfastly ignored by David Cameron. 
In such circumstances Carwyn Jones should take use the Yule tide break  to good effect. Rather than an anodyne new year messages he should spend his Christmas drafting a new bill of rights for Wales. After all he is a lawyer. So forget Mr Cameron and Sir Leigh Lewis’s commission let our First Minister be the new Hywel Dda and draft our own Bill of Rights
When Wales recovers from its binge what better way to drive away the hangovers than to discuss what rights the people of Wales should have.
Meanwhile dear reader have a good Christmas. The blog will be back in January.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Council tax debacle over

Assembly Members came back from their Christmas holidays to finally pass legislation to enable people to continue to receive council tax benefit after next March. 

Responsibility for this means tested scheme is being transferred from the Westminster government to the Welsh Government.

The original attempt to pass the regulations fell because the Welsh government failed to deliver their regulations in time for the National Assembly to properly supervise them. (see previous blog “No way to run a whelk stall.”)

What seems to have been forgotten in the political shenanigans is that in the transfer process, the Westminster government cut the budget by 10%. 

330,000 households in Wales who receive the benefit will be, on average, £67 worse off. Many, 230,000 to be precise, will also have to pay council tax for the first time.

Unlike, Scotland who are making up the difference, the Welsh government says it cannot afford to make up the gap. Although they seem to have cash to buy an airport.

Labour won the vote after First Minister Carwyn Jones agreed with Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats a “sunset clause” allowing the assembly to revisit the regulations in a year's time.

It was precisely this assurance that the opposition parties wanted last time the regulations were discussed but at that time government refused to do a deal.

Government have finally got their way. It  was passed without AMs having even to bother their pretty little heads with a vote, as there weren't any objections.

But it could all have been handled better. It's no exaggeration to say that government made a bit of a pig’s ear in resolving the matter.

Questions must surely be asked about the competence of the Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant and his handling of the issue. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Clause four revisited.

Public Ownership. Who ever thought that the word would be used in the context of the Welsh government. But this is precisely what Carwyn Jones announced in the case of Cardiff airport. Forget Welsh Labour or New Labour this is back to very old Labour and it's belief in nationalisation. 
The Welsh Government intend to take Cardiff-Wales International into state ownership. That is, of course, if the price is right. 
In making the announcement he said the usual caveats that it was “subject to the satisfactory completion of financial, legal and value for money considerations, the Welsh Government may then proceed towards a purchase of the airport.”
But the calling of the press conference and making the announcement public is a sure sign that the deal is virtually in the bag. What Jones refused to say is what he’s paying for it, claiming commercial confidentiality.
Carwyn Jones has form for criticising the airport. It’s been a theme of his that the airport has been letting down the Welsh economy. It’s not fit for purpose. Blaming it all on the owners. Clearly, the owners were fed up with his bellyaching and have said to him if you think you can do better take it off our hands for a price. 
The responsibility will now be Carwyn Jones’s If it doesn’t work now it will be government’s fault. Government hope to make a go of it and return a profit to government coffers. But  name me a government that has not expressed optimism when embarking on such ventures. 
It is now certain that the First Minister will be campaigning hard to get control on the taxes on air passengers so that he can use the levy to entice new airlines into Cardiff. The Silk Commission has already recommended that the Welsh government be given responsibility for tax on long haul flights, but the First Minister is very eager to get his hands on the powers for short haul as well. By so doing he can undercut other airports and bag a few budget airlines. 
He even went so far as to talk about Cardiff being developed as London’s Terminal 6 with fast train links being developed into London.
The Business Minister Edwina Hart said that “The message from business leaders and tourism operators across Wales is clear; strong, international transport links are vital to our prosperity, and key to future economic growth.
“Subject to satisfactory due diligence, our investment in Cardiff Airport has the potential to create many exciting possibilities for the Welsh economy – boosting opportunities for international trade, and helping to increase visitor numbers to Wales.”
The  Conservative leader Andrew R T Davies needed convincing that it was a good move. He said  “The First Minister will have to work very hard to convince us that this move will represent value for tax-payer money and, equally important, deliver the improvements that are needed.”
Plaid Cymru welcomed the move and pointed out that they’ve been wanting the government to take the airport over for sometime.

The public however, will be sceptical that buying an airport is the best use of public money at a time when many are facing real hardship as essential public services  and benefits are being cut. Many will see their incomes take such a dip that the last thing they’ll be thinking of is a foreign holiday and the use of Cardiff airport.

As Nye Bevan said "Socialism is the language of priorities." Is an airport the highest priority in these straightened times?

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Skivers and shirkers

Workers or shirkers and strivers and skivers. The Chancellor would have us believe that the nation can be divided into these simple categories. Oh, if life was only so simple. 
With the help of his chums in the right wing press everyone claiming any benefit of any kind falls into the category of a shirker or a skiver. Those of us who don’t are obviously strivers. 
Its the resurrection in modern parlance of the deserving and undeserving poor. The only difference is the “deserving” poor are also being hard hit by the Chancellor and his cuts.
The sad thing is that after years of stigmatising benefit claimants as cheats, layabouts and work shy, a large swathe of the country has swallowed the line. 
Because mud sticks, political capital can be made of it. And this is precisely what the Chancellor is setting out to do. 
In the new year the government will introduce a welfare uprating bill. Why precisely such a bill is needed has never being explained. Cuts in welfare payments of every kind can happen under current legislation.  There is no practical need for the bill. 
But young George’s cunning little plan, in introducing the bill, is to wrong foot Labour. To paint them as being the friends of the skivers and the shirkers and by implication against the honest working man and women. 
Politics has come to a sorry state that political advantage can be made by hitting the poor and disadvantaged. 
So a bill is about to be introduced, not to make law but to discomfort the Leader of the Opposition. So if Miliband stands up for the claimants he can be branded the friend of the skivers and the feckless. What a victory for the government. 
The fact that the income of the country’s poorest people will be cut for the first time in over 80 years is not a cause of concern but a cause for gloating and party politics. 
Even people in his own party want Miliband to go along with Osborne’s nasty little plan.  Jacqui Smith, the former disgraced Home Secretary, commenting on an article in last Sunday’s “Observer” said “Within the article a ‘senior Labour figure’ suggested that there was a ‘caucus of “new Labour” figures believing it will be politically suicidal to leave the party open to charges that it sides with ‘scroungers’ and is in denial over the need to cut the benefits bill’. I’m sure this wasn’t meant as a good thing by the ‘senior Labour figure’, but frankly you can count me into this ‘caucus’.”
If Labour’s Miliband don’t stand-up for those affected, who will? If Mr Cameron wishes to turn his back on the social justice agenda he set himself when Leader of the Opposition it doesn’t mean that the current one should. 
The facts are that the cuts fall more on those in work than those out of work. Many of those in work get paid so little, not even a living wage. Instead of the employers paying, working tax credit pays. To the tune of billions of pounds. So cuts to these will affect the “workers” and the “strivers.”
In his autumn statement the Chancellor declared his intention of breaking the historic link between the cost of renting and housing benefits. After next April’s 2..2% increase it will be capped at 1% in subsequent years. 
One in five households rely on housing benefits to keep them in homes and 87% of these are low and middle income families and pensioners. Neither “skivers” nor “shrikers.”
The truth is that many need the State’s help to make ends meet.  The low paid economy that is the Britain of today makes life a struggle to many. Cutting their living standards further will push many more to the food banks and the soup kitchen’s and the homeless charities. 

Can such a society be described as civilised? Miliband should stand his ground both to government and those throwbacks from New Labour that are urging him to turn his back on those in real need.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Home truths

Wales is still a nation of homeowners, even more so than England, according to the census. The explanation, as a nation we’re a lot older than England and have made those life long purchases in better economic times. 

For those that like the facts in Wales 879,000(67%) of the population own their home as opposed to 14.0 million (63%) in England. 

The younger generation are finding it difficult to copy their parents and access ownership. 
Short term contracts, low wages and high levels of youth unemployment make getting a mortgage particularly difficult. 

Traditionally, such groups would look for a council house. But now that’s no longer an option.

In the 2001 census 166,000(14%) of the population rented from the council. Today, the figure has declined to 128,000(10%).  

So where are today’s generation finding homes? Well, in the private sector. This sector has grown five percentage points. Now 165,000(13%) homes are rented from private landlords.

With the changes that are happening to housing benefit there is every likelihood that many living in this sector will not be able to pay their rents, and many will find themselves in great difficulty. 

You don't have to be Mystic Meg to predict that next year will see homelessness on the increase as benefit cuts bite. If rents are unpaid, eviction follow. Result, homelessness.

A bleak new year beckons many.  

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Welsh language decline

Lies, damned lies and statistics is often used to describe the use of numbers to boister weak arguments. But not the census, the figures are based on all our returns. So we get a snapshot of Wales based on the forms filled on census day.

And what does it show? Well to misquote a Dylan song, Wales is achanging. The Wales of Welsh speaking chapel goers is on the way out and is being replaced by an English speaking no religion country.

Why the change you may ask? Well its because more people live in this land called Wales. There’s more of us. 3.1 million and increase of 153,000, this 5% increase is the highest increase since 1951. 

Not that we’re enjoying ourselves, well maybe we are, but we’re not breeding more. No, not a bit. Most of the growth, 90 per cent to be exact, was from people coming into the country from other parts of the UK and abroad. 

So there are more coming in from outside and in the main they’re English speakers.  It’s always dangerous with statistics to explain cause and effect, but the numbers of incomers undoubtedly will not have helped the cause of the Welsh language.

After a slight increase in 2001 the number of people who speak Welsh has fallen in the past 10 years from 20.8% to 19%. In 2001 there were 582,000 now there are 562,000. A hundred year ago in 1911, there were almost a million speaking the language. 

The language has even become a minority language in what were once heartland counties for the Welsh, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion.

Many thought that the growth in Welsh medium education  and the migration from Welsh speaking Wales would see an increase in language use in Cardiff and some of the valleys in south east wales. Not so. 

Although there was an increase in actual numbers in Cardiff (4,231) Caerffili (1014) and Monmouth (1,092) and even the Vale of Glamorgan (195) because of the increase in the population the proportions speaking Welsh remain the same.  

The only county in the whole of Wales to show a modest growth is arguable the most English and wasn’t even part of Wales for years, Monmouth. They saw an 0.6% increase, not much granted, but increase nevertheless.

The Welsh language  has seen a decline but nothing on the scale of those in Wales that describe themselves as Christians.  There has been a drop of 14% since 2001. Only 1.76 million(58%) describe themselves as such. Almost a third of the population say that they have ‘no religion.' Higher in Wales than any part of England. 

The churches face a bleak future indeed and they need to get their act together if they are going to stop the rot. 

The statistics should be a wake up call for those concerned about the language. They should be asking serious questions about the prioriites. Have they been to concerned about token issues and not concerned about measures that will really make a difference.

Why are kids that go to Welsh language schools so reluctant to speak the language with their peers? Why is the language not seen as hip and pupils don’t see it as cool to speak it socially? Have activists been to concerned about status and too little concerned about daily use of the language? How many people really look at the minutes of the Assembly or Councils in any language? Would the money spent on these, not be put to better use?  

Our broadcasters should take a long hard look and ask why they don’t seem to appeal to our young people. 

The census  is a wakeup call to both  civil and religious Wales. More of the same just won’t do.

More on the other statistics in tomorrows blog.

Monday, 10 December 2012

In the bleak midwinter

Like a Victorian undertaker looking forward to Winter. That’s how an esteemed colleague described a tweet of mine on Saturday when I warned about the possibility of a triple dip recession 
Vindication came my way on Sunday when no other that the Business Secretary, Vince Cable raised the very same possibility.
Why did I venture such a view? Simple. If North sea oil and factory production is down, indeed the lowest it’s been for twenty years, its not rocket science to predict that there’s a fair chance that the economy will continue its downward spiral. 
Not much of what George Osborne announced in his Autumn statement is likely to change the prognoses.
The causes of my doom laden prediction are two fold. The lack of home produced demand, much of which can be blamed on Mr Osborne’s austerity programme. But the next factor can be blamed on those pesky Europeans. Their austerity programme has seen a lack of growth in the euro zone. This of course is where the UK sells most of its goods. So no growth in our biggest export market.
That powerhouse of economic activity in Europe, Germany,  and the biggest economy in the single-currency area, saw output from its factories drop by 2.4% in September.
This news from Europe and the gloomy news from industry  just follows a run of poor economic data for services, construction and trade. So however you look at it, it just ain’t good news.  
And just as night follows day, poor production targets eventually means less jobs. Cue stage right the IPPR think tank.
IPPR have estimated that an extra 200,000 people in Britain will be without a job by this time next year. They also reckon that it will be worse for the youngsters, with youth unemployment set to rise above a million.
The think tank’s analysis is based on the pattern of the increase in 2011, a period of similar labour market change.  It shows that a further 86,000 under-25s may join the dole queues next year. Long-term unemployment could rise by 32,000 to a total of 926,000. A further 47,000 people over 50 may also become unemployed.
With a hard winter, benefit cuts and lots out of work many will struggle to survive. 

My friend may have hit the nail on its head. The death business may well see the only economic growth activity in the next few months. A word to the wise forget my horse racing tips,  put your cash into shares in funeral service firms.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

No way to run a whelk stall

In the words of Malcom Tucker from the “Thick of It” it was an omni-shambles. Government were trying to get regulations in place to give Council tax benefits for 330,000 homes in Wales. But they managed to mess it up.

You’d think it was a simple enough task. After all it had been flagged up for some time that the UK government was devolving the administration of the benefit scheme to the governments of Wales and Scotland and to local government in England. 

More powers yes, but there was a sting in the tail. The UK were ridding themselves of the powers but were trying to work a flanker by keeping back some of the cash. To be precise in Wales there’s a £20 million shortfall. 

The Scottish government are making the money up from their own funds the Welsh government are not. So there will be on average a £74 shortfall to the households claiming the benefit in Wales. 

Treasury only provided the Welsh government with the actual figures this week. And there in lies the rub. The Welsh government held back the regulations until they knew what the cash was. So that’s why Assembly Members were left until the very last minute before they had a view of what was in the regulations. 

Normally Assembly Members have to be given time, twenty days, to look at things before they vote them through. Opposition politicians said that they only received regulations, which numbered around 340 pages, from Mr Sargeant minutes before the vote proceedings began.

So in order to pass the regulations the ordinary procedures of the Assembly had to be set aside. That’s what yesterday’s row was about. In order to set the rules aside you have to have the  agreement of two thirds of the Assembly Members. Yesterday, they didn’t agree. And in the immortal words of Laurel and Hardy it was another fine mess they found themselves in.

The Opposition blamed the government with treating AMs with “contempt.” The First Minister Carwyn Jones blamed the Conservatives of not caring about the poor. 

So we’re now into the usual default of politicians, the blame game. All trying to blame each other for the mess. Playground tit for tat.

The Conservatives say that they reached a deal with the government that would have resulted in the debate being allowed but allege that the government reneged on it.  

A Conservative source says that they were approached for a deal by Labour.  The government source say that it was the Tories that approached them.

Deal or no Deal? Well on Tuesday a deal is alleged to have been reached with the Local Government Minister.  Do deal done, not quite. It's said when the deal was taken to the boss, it was over turned. By Wednesday, no deal. Result chaos.

A Welsh government source said the Tories had made "unacceptable, inappropriate and unrelated demands" in exchange for their support, and blamed them for creating "needless financial uncertainty on 330,000 Welsh households over Christmas". 

The Conservatives say they were approached by the Minister and agreed a deal. The deal was the introduction of a Veterans card. 

Despite the shambles there is little doubt that the regulations will be in place for the April start of the new system. 

Twenty days after Assembly Members come back from their Christmas holidays a debate can take place. All that Carwyn and his team will then need is a simple majority.  Even they won’t mess that surely. 

This last fortnight has seen an attempt to ban a Welsh language soap and now this shambles. Are these the consequence of perpetual one-party rule? Are the government getting tired?

What seems to have been lost in all the nonsense, is that some of the very poor households are going to again suffer   cuts while relatively affluent politicians willy wag.

Stop Press
The politicians in the Bay have finally got their act together and will meet on the 19 December to pass the regulations. Rosemary Butler the Presiding Officer responded positively to a request from Carwyn Jones to hold the meeting as it's "a matter of urgent public importance." 
Politicians have got round the standing orders debacle by agreeing to convene the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee to scrutinise and report on the regulations in advance of the debate. This will allow the debate to take place. 
So there we have it, job done. But one cannot but reflect that the whole sorry saga reflects very badly on the Assembly. Whelk stall owners would have done a better fist of things.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Gloom goes on

The Chancellor is still digging in the hole he has made for himself. Whatever the details announced the truth is that after all the cuts and the hard times inflicted on the country we’re no better now than 2010. The deficit is actually bigger.
Oh, the cuts have certainly been real, £59bn's to be exact. No sooner was the Chancellor on his feet he had to come clean that the economy, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, would shrink by 0.1%. And because he’s not making progress with the economy he’s had to admit that he’s going to miss his target that debt should start falling as a proportion of GDP by 2015/16 - the year of the next General Election. Instead he said it would take another year. Oh dear, bad news for his election strategy.
But the Chancellor if nothing else is one of nature’s optimists he still thinks that “Britain is heading in the right direction. The road is hard but we're making progress."
His statement was more of the same. Hardship all round. But of course it’s the poor that take the biggest hit. 
Most working-age benefits are to rise by less than inflation, 1% for each of next three years. Housing benefits will also continue to take an hit after April for a two year period will be capped at 1%.
Pensioners will see the state pension go up to £110.15.  But from 2014-15 lifetime pension relief allowance will fall from £1.5m to £1.25m. Those with kids will also take an hit with child benefit only rising by 1%. All in all the changes will result in saving of £3.7bn by 2015/16

On tax the net result was no change. But he did move the deck chairs around. The tax threshold is to be raised by £235 to £9,440.
The threshold for 40% rate of income tax is to rise by 1% in 2014 and 2015. This will mean it will go up to £41,865 and then £42,285

Corporation tax will go down 21% in April 2014.The threshold for inheritance tax goes up by 1% next year. He also hopes to get cash back from the Swiss Banks from those that have salted their cash there. He reckons the sum will be £5bn
Unlike other government departments HM Revenue and Customs budget will not be cut. The Chancellor expects them to chase more tax dodgers.

For those with savings the ISA contribution limit to be raised to £11,520 from next April.

But much to the distress of the Liberal Democrats he introduced no new tax on property values. So the rich continue to get to live in their mansions without any additional burden.

Civil servants will continue to be pruned. All departments are to suffer cuts, by 1% next year and 2% the following year. These job losses will add to unemplyment which is expected to peak at 8.3%.

The Welsh government will expect to see its budget increases courtesy of old friend the Barnett formula. That’s because the Chancellor announced an extra money for transport, education and other infrastructure schemes in England.

Good news for the motorist with the his promise to scrap the January 3p rise in fuel duty.

To sum it all up. Years more pain mainly for those least able to carry such a burden. At little more investment in the infrastructure which is much needed, but not enough to get the country’s economy  moving again. 

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Gutter press

The press can be cruel, irreverent  and sometimes get it completely wrong. But it can also expose the vanity, venality and down right crookedness of the great and the so called “good.” A campaigning press is necessary. 

It was the Sunday Times that campaigned on the thalidomide scandal. It was the News of the World that wrote about the abuse in Ely hospital in Cardiff. It was the written press and television journalists that did much to expose the sexual abuse that were taking place in North Wales Care homes. It was the Daily Telegraph that showed how long the snouts were of many of our MPs.

The press also is entertaining. It shows us what our so called celebrities are up to. Hello and OK magazine give a view of how these celebs would want to be seen. Hopefully the tabloids show them for what they often are, vain hypocrites.

This is what a free press is about. Sometimes good, sometimes bad and hopefully entertaining. 

Now along comes Leveson and his proposals for greater regulation.  In an emotional spasm to the very clear abuse by a small minority of journalists and even smaller number of newspapers, the press will be regulated into tameness.  

And not just the nationals, the whole of our network of regional daily and weekly newspapers are going to be regulated. Some of them will be regulated out of existence. All because of the mistakes of a few.

Now Leveson has made some very positive statements about the need for a free press, but his proposals will inevitably lead to a press that is very firmly on a leash. The press are invited to establish an independent regulatory system underpinned by the law of the land. Even with a regulator of last resort in the form of OFCOM. 

Now all this sounds fine and dandy and undoubtedly that’s what the aggrieved victims want. But should our sympathy for them put in place a system that will gradually erode press freedom.

There are laws that can be accessed to prosecute what is said or written about people. OK, granted ordinary people can’t access the system because it’s costly. Access to justice to all, that's what’s needed, not an elaborate regulatory system. 
A regulatory system was introduced into housing in Wales, much of it as a reaction to abuse by just one housing association. The result, a sector that was prohibited from being innovative, became cautious and unadventurous. In truth the last thing that Wales needed from the sector. But that’s what it got. 
Regulators, because it’s their job, want safety and don’t want anyone to take risks. They’re happy just ticking boxes. Is that the kind of fourth estate that the country needs. 
No Pravda here should be the cry. Not a cry for more regulations.
Wales has just witnessed what politicians will do if they can get their way. Our First Minister tried to ban “Pobol y Cwm”, a Welsh language soap opera, because it  dealt with the controversial issue of badger culling. 
The truth is that politicians don’t believe in a free anything. They’re so tribal. All they want is to stamp on any opinion that’s not held by them or their party. 
Miliband and Clegg might be raising the banner on behalf of the victims but it’s in the nature of politicians to tie themselves to a populist band waggon. Mind you politicians were not so shy at courting the tabloids in the past. A pound to a penny that they’ll be up to the same old tricks next election time. It’s in the nature of the beast.
The country has privacy laws, laws against hacking, laws on data protecting, laws on bribery. Do we really need another law that in essence curbs a hard won freedom, the freedom of the press. Perhaps we need our law enforcers to do their job and leave journalists to do theirs.
To quote someone that this column doesn’t usually quote, Boris Johnston, “if you want clean gutters, you need a gutter press.”
What is needed is not regulation, but more plurality in the press. A spectrum of views, not just those of mainly right wing proprietors. If politicians are eager to pass laws on the press, let them break up the powerful interests of media barons.  It’s more freedom that’s needed, not less, a greater spread of views. 
This particularly applies to Wales. The press here is weak and the BBC is strong. Most Welsh people get their news from a London based press. It’s not healthy for our democracy. If you’re a Welsh speaker you only outlet for daily national and international news is through the broadcast media or the new media. There is no daily paper they can access in their own language. 
A free press and protection of the right to freedom of expression are essential to the health of a democracy. Investigative journalism is a vital means of exposing serious wrongdoing and holding public authorities to account. Now these are all missing from Welsh life. More regulation by a beefed up London based press regulator does nothing for the Welsh press. Leveson is a far cry from what’s needed here in Wales to help our fledgling democracy.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The tax man cometh - for some.

Somebody that won't put their hands in their pockets to buy a round are resented. In no time they become social pariahs.
There's a massive stigma on benefit cheats. They get named and shamed. 
But not tax cheats. Naming them,oh no, that would be a breach of confidently. Our friend double standards at work again, methinks.
Well, in the view of Danny Alexander we should not name these cheats. One rule for the poor and a very different set of rules for the tax dodgers.
So the Amazon, Google and Starbucks of this world can get away with not paying their fair share by using every kind of  device to wriggle out of the taxman's demands. But not ordinary Joe Public.
The rest have to pay one way or another to make up the shortfall. 
Danny Alexander made his comments just at the same time as the influential Commons public accounts committee(PAC) had torn into the cheats accusing them of being “immoral.” 

It calls on the government to draw up laws to close loopholes and name and shame companies that fail to pay their fair share.
The PAC said that the companies used complex company structures and secret ways of avoiding paying taxes on the profits that they made from the British consumer.
MPs said that the tax collectors were far to soft on them. Not a word that is used in their dealings with the ordinary voter. 
And certainly a very different approach used to chase those that are trying to cheat the social security system. In 2010-11 benefit thieves stole an estimated £1.2 billion from public funds. To catch them there’s a fraud task force. But compared with tax cheats what is collected from social security is small change indeed.
Even Alexander admits that if they could get under the skin of the multinational firms they could raise an extra £2bn by the end of this parliament and this on top of the extra £7bn the Treasury expected to raise as a result of additional resources put in place in 2010. 
The ripping off of all of us has seen the actual income from Corporation tax going down. This at a time that  we’re all suppose to be “in it together.” 
The less tax that comes in the more cuts there will be as the Chancellor follows his austerity programme. 
So when you buy that book from Amazons or drink your coffee in Starbucks you are probably favouring companies that indirectly are causing cuts to your local school or hospital.
So the message is think before you buy. Back your local bookshop or cafe. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Oh no Leveson

Some years back the opening speech at a Welsh Labour conference was delivered by the chairman of the Standing Order committee. Not the greatest of opening speakers, you'd agree. But his language was colourful. He urged the delegates to be on their guard because in the hall according to him were vultures and a nest of vipers. 
He was of course referring to us journalist. We were there to plough our trade. Covering their conference. As welcomes go not the best. But not a surprising comment, politicians just don’t like scrutiny.
Now according to recent opinion polls that man’s views and of course being the Welsh Labour party it was a man,  wasn't to different to that held by the public today. 
Journalists it seems are not universally loved.
Tomorrow will see the publication of the Leveson report into the press. All the indications are that he’ll want more than the self-regulation of the press that exists at the moment. A view undoubtedly shared by the public.
All, it would seem, want a system of deterrents. Deterrents to stop the press, not only breaking the law, but also to stop journalists investigating the lives of people. 
On the face of it perfectly reasonable demands.
Of course, ordinary people should have redress if they’ve been misused by journalists. They too should be able to get compensation for the distress caused just as the rich and powerful are able to. Legal aid should allow the ordinary person to seek legal redress. 
But there is a danger that we're abpot to embark on a journey that journalism will be so seriously curtailed. The powerful will be  able to get away with corruption, dishonesty, illegality and hypocrisy in both the public and private sphere.
For example the army of press officers, public relations officers that control every aspect of the publicity of a celebrity will paint such a glossy, clean image that the public will think that what they read in the OK magazine is the real thing. Perfect, saintly even. Put on a pedestal. 
Hold on isn’t that’s what happened to Jimmy Saville. Knighted by church and state, monarch and pope. Allowed into institutions of all kinds. Leading inquiries on behalf of the state. Feted by charities. The man could do no wrong.  
But he was no saint. He was evil. But got away with it.  The press at the time didn’t do its job. For whatever reason they did nothing. Is this the kind of press we want now?  If a celeb choses to have prostitutes in a back of taxi should their image remain wholesome?
There are armies of people already employed to hinder the press.  Before long all  newspaper will contain are pages and pages of press notices sent out by government and other organisations. Many of our weekly papers are just that now. Seldom are local councils put under the microscope today. They get away with murder. 
The Welsh Government alone has an army of press people. Their task, to put the best gloss on the Welsh government. But it’s not just in Welsh government, there’s an army of them in Whitehall. And almost every other tinpot organisation in the land. An army of people spending their time frustrating journalism. 
Oh, no the last thing that’s required are more curbs on the press. If the police had done their job properly in the first place and investigated illegal phone taps Lord Justice Leveson could have stayed doing his day jobs. But they were to busy enjoying News International's 'hospitality.'
The laws are already in place to protect against press abuse. Do we need more? There is a real danger that here the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater. There is every danger that a free, robust press will be killed. The real looser will be democracy itself.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

No growth, so lets cut the cash

Duw, it’s bad and likely to get worst. No, not the weather, or perhaps that too. No its the economy.  Not my view although it’s been a constant theme in this blog for some time. But its now the view of none other than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
This leading economic think tank says that Britain’s economy will shrink less than was thought this year. Good news indeed, but it was followed by the bad news that recovery would be slow and uncertain against a worsening international backdrop.
Their reasons for pessimism, a global slowdown, a crisis in the eurozone, the government's deficit reduction programme and the paying down of consumer debt.  All were acting as a brake on growth.
To get things moving the OECD said it would back the Chancellor  if the weakness of the economy forced him to slow down his debt-reduction plans.
The reason that the OECD are quietly urging Osborne to ease back on its programme of cuts is that despite low wage increases and part-time working limiting job losses, they are concerned about the high level of youth unemployment and “this could worsen if the economy faltered.”  
Unemployment is forecast to rise to 8.3% in 2013, against a backdrop of 0.9% growth. 
So where does this prognosis leave Wales. The simple answer, not in a good place. As one of the poorer regions of the UK with some of the highest rates of unemployment.  The country desperately needs a growth programme. 
This is why it’s strange that the Conservative Opposition in the Assembly want to see serious cuts to the funds Wales gets from Europe. 
In the words of Andrew RT Davies Tory leader in the Assembly it’s “only right and reasonable that savings be made.” His reason, Wales is still poor after receiving two tranches of European money.  So that clearly points to the money being wasted. His answer to cut the next tranche that comes from Europe. 
But without the cash Wales has received from Europe the economy would be in an even worse state. Where would our rural areas be without CAP. The structure funds have helped with various infrastructure projects and have helped the economy. The fact that Wales is still poor is an indication that more needs to be done, not less.
That is why Carwyn Jones  was right to warn the British Irish Council meeting yesterday that "leaving the EU would be an unmitigated disaster.
We would lose our access to structural funding as well as access to the European market. When I travel abroad to attract foreign direct investment to Wales, what brings people here is not the three million population of Wales, or even indeed the 60 million population of the UK - which is tiny when you compare it the size of India or China.
"No, the reason why people come here is the access to the European market. Anything that interferes with that access to the European market is not in our interests."
If the OECD forecast is right, Wales needs all the help it can get in the next few years. Cutting the European funds to Wales at a time of recession will harm the economy not help it.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Wales gets Euro cash

When Labour voted tactically with the anti-european Conservatives to seek cuts to the European budget this blog warned that this could have serious implications for Wales. A view shared by no less a person than our own First Minister. 

To say that he was less than happy with Ed Miliband and his tactics would be an understatement. Carwyn Jones knows how dependent Wales’s on EU handouts. 

The extent of the handouts has now been demonstrated by Plaid Cymru in the form of MEP Jill Evans. She’s just done the sums. Her conclusion, every person in Wales is around forty pounds (£40) a year better off. 

Ms Evans reckons that on average each person in Wales contributes €195.82 per year to the EU, whilst EU funding to Wales is worth an estimated €243.98 per person annually. So we’re quids in.

Ah, the eurosceptics would say if we didn’t pay the money to Europe in the first place the UK government would have more cash to distribute. Maybe. But would it come to Wales? Highly unlikely. 

If HM Treasury has anything to do with it, a snowball has more chance in hell than Wales’s chance of getting its hand on the cash once it’s in the grubby little paws of Chancellor Osborne. 

Lets face it, London hasn’t been altogether championing at the bit to provide Wales with a fair funding formula. It’s not only Osborne, but his shadow as well. Ball’s only utterance on the matter of Barnet is to say no, to change. Labour did nothing when they ran the shop and there hasn’t been much sign of a change of heart yet.

Successive Labour finance ministers in the Welsh Government have been making the case only to be ignored. Party unity has stopped them going public on the fact. But privately they talk dispairingly about the deaf ears of their Westminster colleagues.

Jill Evans has done us all a great favour by highlighting the following grants that Wales receives.  She points out the EU funds that benefit Wales as the “European Agricultural Guarantee Fund (EAGF) (including CAP), Structural funds, European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), European Fisheries Fund (EFF), as well as the Lifelong Learning Programmes which includes Erasmus. 630 students and 112 staff from Welsh universities took part in the Erasmus scheme last year.

The bottom line is that Wales has a vested interest in seeing PM Cameron fail in his attempts to cut the European budget this week. 

There is little sign that he'll succeed in persuading other European governments to join him in his very short sighted attempt at bringing about cuts. His venture is doomed in the short term.

Let’s hope that Miliband doesn’t gloat over the failure. ‘Cos if he does he’ll loose a lot of friends in Wales. Not least from his own party, in the form of the First Minister and his cabinet.