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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Farage steals key Lib Dem policy but gets his sums wrong

One the of the more distinctive policy offerings in the Liberal Democrats Federal manifesto during this year's General Election was the complete abolition of the Severn Bridge tolls.

We calculated that this would save the average motorist commuting each day over £1560 per year. These tolls are a huge barrier to business, costing the South Wales economy around £107 million a year.

Now UKIP have adopted our policy with Nigel Farage writing in the Western Mail this morning that these tolls penalise those coming into the country on one of the most direct routes from England. You would think that he would know but the last time he tried to come into Wales, to speak at a UKIP Conference in Margam, he failed to arrive, blaming immigration on the M4 as the reason for his no-show.

Where Farage really loses it is in his supposed analysis of how this policy will be paid for. As it happens the cost will not be great. All the revenue currently goes to the private company who manage the bridges, whilst the cost of maintenance after 2018 is a few million pounds each year and could be picked up as part of the UK's annual road maintenance bill.

Farage though argues that the cost of scrapping tolls could be offset by choosing a cheaper option for an M4 relief road near Newport. This is financially illiterate as the money for building a new M4 relief road will come from the Welsh Government's capital budget whereas any revenue from tolls would go to the UK Government. Capital is a one-off expenditure and by definition does not re-occur, whereas revenue is an annual charge on the taxpayer.

He continues: "It is staggering that Labour in Wales has mooted continuing the massive tolls on the Severn Bridges after 2018, reflecting the increasing appetite among politicians in Cardiff Bay to get as much money as possible from the taxpayer to fund an ever- increasing greed for big government.”

Well, yes it is staggering but none of that income would come to Cardiff Bay. As it happens the various parties in Cardiff Bay have different proposals for the Severn crossing. This is how much it will cost motorists under each of their plans:

• Conservatives: £1296 per year
• Labour: £888 per year
• Plaid Cymru: £480 per year
• Liberal Democrats: £0 per year

Farage also sets out his stall against the M4 relief road, though it is not clear what his alternative is. That leaves only Labour, amongst those contesting next year's Assembly election wanting to build this by-pass.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Government considers action on restaurant tipping 'abuse'

The South Wales Evening Post have picked up on my post last week about the policy of restaurant chains towards tips for their staff.  Meanwhile the Independent reports that this issue has interested UK Government ministers.

They say that the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, has announced a new investigation into how restaurants use the tips left by customers and whether a new code of practice is required:

“When a diner leaves a tip, they rightly expect it to go to staff. In full,” Mr Javid said. “I’m concerned about recent reports suggesting some restaurants pocket tips for themselves. That’s just not right.

“I’ve ordered an immediate investigation to look at the evidence and consider the views of employees, customers and the industry to see how we can deal with the abuse of tipping. We want a fair deal on pay for working people and that includes taking action on tipping abuse.”

This is very welcome however as the Trade Unions say, this should not be about capping admin fees as this will simply legitimise the underhand practice of restaurants taking a slice of staff tips and be near enough impossible to enforce.

When customers eat at restaurants they give tips in the expectation that all of it will go to staff and not be pocketed by management. That is what I expect this review to conclude and to implement.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

UK Government abandon evidence-based policy and extend badger cull to Dorset

The UK Government has announced that their disastrous and ineffective badger cull will be revived for another year and extended to the county of Dorset.

According to the Independent Ministers claim the killings are necessary to fight TB in cattle, which farmers say hurts their business. Some believe badgers are responsible for spreading the disease.

However, an independent analysis commissioned by the Government told ministers that the culls were ineffective and inhumane:

“Findings show unequivocally that the culls were not effective and that they failed to meet the humaneness criteria,” Rosie Woodford, a scientist at the Zoological Society of London told the BBC at the time.

“I hope this will lead to the Secretary of State to focus on other ways of eradicating TB in cattle.”
Dominic Dyer, the chief executive of the Badger Trust charity, said the Government’s own evidence contradicted the policy.

“Defra's own data suggest that while 15 per cent of badgers may test positive for bovine TB, just 1.6 per cent of them are capable of passing on the disease,” he explained.

“This means 98.4% pose no risk whatsoever to cattle and 85% are likely to be completely bTB free. Trying to control bTB in cattle by culling badgers that don't have bTB doesn't make any sense."

Independent Advisory Panel scientist Professor Timothy Coluson in June accused the Government of abusing the scientific process and “wilfully” ignoring evidence in pursuit of the cull.

"They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed,” he said.

And as I reported last month, the various measures being deployed against the spread of TB in cattle in Wales, where we have abandoned plans for a cull, are starting to show results.

Although Professor Christianne Glossop says that it is too early to determine the impact of the badger vaccination programmes in Pembrokeshire, she told an audience at the Royal Welsh Show in Llanelwedd, Powys that incidents of TB have fallen by 28%. She added a 45% cut in animals being culled had left 94% of herds TB free.

Maybe the UK Government needs to look at the evidence here before taking these dubious decisions.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Labour's mea culpa on civil liberties

Has the penny finally dropped for senior Labour MPs? It certainly looks that way with Yvette Cooper admitting that the previous Labour government did not do enough to keep the state’s surveillance powers in check.

The Guardian says that the shadow home secretary has criticised the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for being “too reluctant to introduce checks and balances as strong as new terrorism powers”.

She added that Both the Labour and Conservative parties also ignored the inadequacy of laws governing interception of communications, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), for too long.

Cooper told the Guardian that better protection of civil liberties would become a policy if she is elected as Labour’s leader next month. She said she would make it a priority to “break up concentrations of power” and launch a review of privacy in relation to private sector companies that hold a huge amount of personal data.

“With growing extremism and radicalisation, strong powers are needed to tackle terrorism, but they always need to be balanced with strong checks and balances on state power. Too often they aren’t,” she said. “The introduction of new powers should always be proportionate and follow the evidence – neither of which was true of Labour’s attempt to bring in 90-day and 42-day pre-charge detention.”

Her other plans to safeguard liberty include judicial authorisation for interception warrants and communications data warrants, extra safeguards over passport seizures, and replacing a raft of surveillance watchdogs with a single intelligence commissioner. She would also like to introduce a “suspicion threshold” for the exercise of some schedule 7 detention powers, which were used to hold David Miranda, the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow shortly after the Edward Snowden revelations about mass surveillance.

I always welcome Damoscene conversions, but it does smack of too little too late. Was she saying these things in Government? And where are the other Labour candidates on this?

As ever it is what they do in power that counts not what they say when trying to get elected. If Yvette Cooper's proposals become official Labour policy then I will sit up and take notice.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Latest peers' list underlines need for reform

I blogged a few weeks ago that the Liberal Democrats should boycott the peerage meery-go-round and refuse to nominate any more members of the bloated House of Lords. I was disappointed, but not surprised therefore to read yesterday that my advice had been ignored and that Nick Clegg had decided to add eleven more Liberal Democrats to our group there.

I have no problem with any of those individuals, however I do feel that as a party it is difficult to defend a position whereby we are nominating more new peers than we have MPs and where we are advocating reform but still playing the game of adding members to the world's second largest legislative body after China's National People's Congress.

Despite having 826 members, in 2014/15 the average daily attendance in the House of Lords was 483 peers. According to the latest House of Lords Annual Report, net operating costs for the chamber totalled £94.4m for 2014/15. There is no accountability for any of this and no way to reduce the membership of our second chamber through enforced retirement.

I understand that as a party we need to work with the institutions we have but our failure to take a stand, and the decision of Nick Clegg to play the game so completely, undermines our credibility as a reforming party and makes it much more difficult to get a hearing on our democratic alternative.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

UKIP Candidate suggests that migrants should be gassed

Over in Caerphilly, a UKIP council by-election candidate has been dropped like a stone after posting on his Facebook page that immigrants should be gassed.

The BBC say that Bobby Douglas also suggested an American woman refused entry to the UK should have "painted herself black" and pretended she could not speak English to obtain benefits.

The remarks, on Facebook, were made in 2014 and UKIP claim that they were not aware of them when he was selected. This is despite the fact that after the general election campaign, during which there were several negative stories about the party's candidates,  UKIP told BBC Wales that its selection process for the 2016 assembly election campaign would be "very rigorous'.

Mistakes can happen of course but in UKIP's case it is becoming a habit, underlining the kind of candidate who is attracted to their party.

What is more Mark Reckless, the former MP and the UKIP campaign manager in Wales was recently on Radio Wales telling us of his experiences on the doorstep in Caerphilly.

Could he have been campaigning with Bobby Douglas? If so then this is not just an isolated by-election candidate but one with the full force of the party establishment behind him.

UKIP have been found out once more.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Does UK surveillance surpass Orwell's dystopian vision?

The wired website reports on the views of the United Nation's newly appointed special rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci, who says that digital surveillance in the UK as "worse" than anything imagined in George Orwell's novel, 1984.

Speaking to the Guardian, Cannataci -- who doesn't own a Facebook account or use Twitter -- lambasted the oversight of British digital surveillance as "a rather bad joke at its citizens' expense".

Warning against the steady erosion of privacy and increasing levels of government intrusion, he also drew sinister parallels with Orwell's vision of a mass-surveilled society, adding that today's reality was far worse than the fiction: "At least Winston [a character in Orwell's 1984] was able to go out in the countryside and go under a tree and expect there wouldn't be any screen, as it was called. Whereas today there are many parts of the English countryside where there are more cameras than George Orwell could ever have imagined."

There is no doubt that surveillance in Britain is growing daily,as it is throughout the rest the Europe and the United States in response to a whole range of threats, some of which are domestic, others international. The issue though has to be who controls this surveillance, what is it used for, how and why is it stored, who has access to it and can we inspect information held on us?

Those questions are central to the question as to whether the dystopian vision painted by Orwell in 1984 has come true today. The fact that we cannot answer those questions adequately and to our own satisfaction in 2015 inevitably raises alarm bells for civil rights and privacy in the UK.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Labour turn on former Home Secretary over Freedom of Information review

The language of collaboration has become much more common amongst Labour politicians following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, so we should not be surprised that some are questioning why former Home Secretary Jack Straw is helping the Tories dismantle the Freedom of Information Act.

The Independent say that the Labour Party has turned on Mr. Straw, accusing him of conniving with the Tories to dismantle the Freedom of Information Act.

Party sources have apparently told them that Mr Straw had been asked not to join a committee set up last month by the Cabinet Office to review the workings of the Act. They fear that the committee will be used by the Tories as cover to restrict what information can be released under the Act and make it harder for the Opposition to scrutinise the work of the Government.

They add that  the new Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Fallon, is understood to be equally irritated at Lord Carlile’s decision to join the committee.

There are genuine concerns that  the commission could relax rules that allow Government departments and local councils to veto requests on grounds of cost. These concerns have already been voiced by Kirsty Williams in Wales. We would oppose any change that means that we are less able to scrutinise government, at whatever level.

As it happens I take comfort that a good liberal like Alex Carlile is on this committee. Alex has been criticised by members of the party in the past for his role as a reviewer of terrorist legislation and I certainly did not agree with many things that he said and did at the that time.

But he has a strong record of standing up for individual rights and as a scrutineer of government and I am confident that he will bring that experience to this committee and ensure that the Freedom of Information Act remains an important tool for those wishing to hold governments to account.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Chilcott coming under increasing pressure to name a date

The Telegraph says that patience has finally run out amongst MPs over the long-awaited Chilcott report into the Iraq war. This report was commissioned by Gordon Brown in 2009 and yet six months later there is no sight or sound of it.

The paper says that MPs will discuss next week how best to exert pressure on the former civil servant before parliament returns two weeks today:

One option would involve Sir John being summoned to give evidence to the Commons’ foreign affairs committee, although Crispin Blunt, its chairman, has indicated that he would not support such a move.

Critics such as David Davis could instead force a Commons debate and vote on the delay to the report by the inquiry, set up by Gordon Brown in 2009. A vote would have no legal force, but it would be uncomfortable for the panel.

The whole country has been on tenterhooks to see this report. Let us hope that it is not a big let down.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The tipping policy of local restaurant chains needs reform

Pizza Express is one of my favourite chain restaurants. It regulaly forms part of my Saturday night-out and occasionally I also go to the one in Cardiff Bay for lunch or, if I am staying in Cardiff, for an evening meal. Last night was no exception, as I went with my wife for a meal in their Castle Street branch after watching Mission Impossible in the Odeon Cinema.

The food was as good as ever and the service was exceptional. Our waitress was friendly, chatty and very attentive. Naturally, I wanted to tip her for her good service and her colleagues for their contribution to my positive experience. However, although I paid my bill with a credit card, I made a point of handing over my tip in cash, and with good reason.

It has been widely reported that Pizza Express is one of the restaurant chains which levy an administration fee on any tips paid to staff via a credit card. In their case every £1 given as a tip using this method sees 8p deducted by management.

Ask is another Swansea restauarant whose parent company imposes this policy. Other restaurant chains with branches elsewhere in South Wales and who have a similar policy include Zizzi, whilst Café Rouge, Bella Italia, Belgo, Strada and Giraffe all deduct 10%.

Wagamama, Pizza Hut and TGI Friday all take nothing. The Restaurant Group, which owns Frankie & Benny’s, Chiquitos and Garfunkels, used to charge 10% but dropped this policy several years ago.

My special disapprobation however, is reserved for Las Iguanas, who have just opened a restaurant in Swansea. According to this article in today's Observer they go a step further, actually charging their staff for waiting tables.

The paper says that Las Iguanas, who serve Latin American food at 41 branches in the UK, and the Caribbean chain Turtle Bay, which has 19 restaurants, operate a policy that requires staff to pay back to their employer 3% of the table sales they generate on each shift. That figure rises to 5.5% in Las Iguanas’s London restaurants.

So if a waiter sells £1,000 of food and drinks in an evening, they have to pay £30 back to the restaurant in cash at the end of the night. At Las Iguanas’s London restaurants, the payback would total £55. The money is meant to be paid by waiters from their pot of tips but, because it bears no relation to how much a waiter actually takes in tips, it can wipe out his or her entire income from gratuities in a busy night.

According to the paper's research in one week this year Las Iguanas took £34,000 from its servers across all its branches from the sales charge. If this represents a typical week, over a year it would amount to £1.8m.

As a customer I am very conscious that if I boycotted restaurants who top-sliced their staff's tips and gratuities then I would be putting jobs at risk. That is why I make a point of tipping in cash and I would encourage others to do so as well.

Las Iguanas' policy is not so easily crcumvented though and so we need to bring pressure to bear to stop them imposing a levy on staff. That might be made more doable by the fact that it has just been sold to the chain that owns Bella Italia, Café Rouge and Belgo.

In addition we need to campaign to ensure that the voluntary code of practice for restaurants that was meant to tackle some of the worst tipping policies and which was introduced in 2009 is given some statutory force, as it is clearly not working.

This code includes the stipulation that businesses will clearly display on their premises prior to the point of purchase or choice their policy relating to mandatory and discretionary service charges, tips, gratuities and cover charges, and make this accessible.

In the meantime I would urge anybody who eats in a chain restaurant to find out what the tipping policy of that establishment is first and then tip accordingly to the maximum benefit of the staff. After all most of them are on minimum wage and rely on those tips to raise their standard of living.

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