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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Labour's promises for English private tenants not good enough for Wales

According to this morning's Sunday Times, Labour have announced a plan to slap a cap on rents, banning private landlords from increasing their costs by more than the rate of inflation.

Under their proposals, landlords and letting agencies will have to disclose the rent paid by the previous occupants in a bid to deter new rent rises. Future rent rises will be pegged to rising consumer price. They also propose to make the default tenancy a three-year agreement, rather than the usual six to 12 months so as to give people more certainty over what they will have to pay.

All of these matters are devolved to the Welsh Government and would benefit tenants in Wales and yet there is not a whisper of such radicalism in Labour's Renting Homes Bill, currently making its way through its first committee stage in the Welsh Assembly. In fact they are taking an opposite view.

Labour's proposal is to do away with the six months minimum tenancy, so that a landlord can effectively evict a tenant after two months. This undermines any security of tenure that a private sector tenant might have.

The reason they are giving for introducing a policy that even a Tory Housing Minister in Westminister has not countenanced over the last five years, is that it will encourage landlords to stay in or enter the market.

If Labour are taking the side of landlords in Wales, against the best interests of tenants, then what value can we put on their promises for England?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Why does Government continue to fail at social media?

Despite avidly using social media myself I am the first to admit that it is a young person's game. It is also a very democratic media in which people vote with their feet.

If you do not capture people's imagination straight away and find a way to keep their attention then you will find that you are talking to yourself. In that respect the likes of Twitter and Facebook are not conventional marketing tools in which you can force your message onto people with persistent advertising. It is a shame that Government has not learnt that lesson.

Today's Times reports that more than £1 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on failed social media campaigns by government departments in the past three years, including £20,000 on a Facebook promotion that only attracted 2,000 “likes”.

They say that 11 ministerial departments spent a total of £1,172,496 to promote policies and campaigns between 2012 and 2015:

The Ministry of Justice spent £20,000 on a Facebook campaign about restorative justice, while the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills paid Twitter £3,428 for two advertisements.

The House of Lords spent nearly £600 on an IT course in 2013 that was attended by one staff member.

The Cabinet Office spent the highest amount, paying £394,979 to advertise its “GREAT Britain campaign”, encouraging people to do business in the UK.

Bryony Morris, a social media strategist, said that while it was positive to see attempts to reach the public, the levels of engagement were “not good”.

“They [the departments] are wasting money, and should probably consider using a different platform,” she said.

Despite this spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice does not get it. He said: “It is crucial that we utilise all available media channels to raise the public’s awareness of important issues.”.

Well yes, but doing the same thing over and over again is not going to get better results.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Another former Labour Minister has a pop at Miliband

Considering the baptism of fire he has experienced since he was elected leader, Ed Miliband has had quite a good campaign so far. However, as the polls indicate he has not managed to inspire voters enough to pull clear of the Tories, whilst many people still use him as a reason why they are not voting Labour.

Amongst that number, it seems that we must now add former Labour Trade Minister, Lord Jones of Birmingham who, the Telegraph reports, has told Mr. Miliband that he needs to stop “sneering” at wealth creators.

The paper says that in a highly critical open letter to the Labour leader, Lord Jones of Birmingham, who was a minister from 2007 to 2008 in Gordon Brown’s government, accused Mr Miliband of being “ignorant at worst and disinterested at best” about the effects of higher taxes:

Lord Jones, who has never joined either the Conservatives or Labour – said he had had toured the country meeting voters in recent weeks.

Citing the example of one West Midlands entrepreneur who had “worked his proverbial butt off”, Lord Jones asked why Mr Miliband’s polices were “attacking” him.

Lord Jones, who was director general of the CBI from 2000 to 2006, said: “I am confused Ed. Surely this is exactly what we want as a country? So why does that family feel you’re attacking them?

“Blaming them for being aspirational and wanting to do really well and earn a lot of money. You call them rich and never include them in your description of ‘hard-working families’.

“Not once have they heard you say that earning profit is a ‘good thing’. You can’t really suppress the sneer when you talk of putting up taxes for the likes of them.

“You appear ignorant at worst and disinterested at best about what they do or what is involved. And they feel it!”

Lord Jones said Mr Miliband appeared to have “no time” for the “one per cent of this country that pays 30 per cent of the tax” who he treated as “fat cats”.

He said: “You are creating division in hitherto harmonious workplaces; you are fuelling a sense of entitlement and you are killing aspiration. You have created an anti-business mood music where profit is a dirty word; where spending comes before earning.”

Mr. Miliband must be hoping that Lord Jones does not live in a marginal seat.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Liberal Democrats are most transparent but all parties can do better

The uncertainties of fighting an election in a period of austerity were brought home to roost today when the Institute of Fiscal Studies published its assessment of the manifestos for each party.

The problem is of course is how do politicians offer enticements to voters to cast their ballot the 'right way' whilst at the same time facing up to the reality of more years of cuts and fiscal retrenchment?

According to the BBC the IFS have concluded that four of the major parties have not provided "anything like full details" on plans to cut the deficit.

However, they added that the Liberal Democrats have been more transparent about overall plans to 2017-18, saying that we are aiming for tightening spending more than Labour but less than the Conservatives.

They add that Conservative plans for the next Parliament involve "a significantly larger reduction in borrowing and debt than those put forward by Labour, but that is based on "substantial and almost entirely unspecified spending cuts and tax increases".

As for Labour, the IFS believe that they have been "considerably more vague" about how much it wants to borrow.

The really interesting finding though is about the SNP, whose figures the IFS say, imply the same reduction in borrowing as Labour, but the reduction will be slower.

They conclude that this means that the SNP is proposing a slower but longer period of austerity. That is completely contrary to the SNP's anti-austerity rhetoric.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

How Swansea's Labour run Council has mislead and let down a local community

Yesterday in the Assembly we discussed the Welsh Government's best practice guide on Community Asset Transfers. As the Minister pointed out: "Community asset transfers provide an opportunity to help communities develop thriving and diverse localities and sustain the long-term use of property assets and services. These transfers also open up opportunities for generating local economic benefits, reinvesting income locally and creating new jobs and skills."

Essentially, this mechanism allows for a community, a community council or local trust to take over and run public assets. It is a means to keep important services going in the face of public expenditure cuts or just to empower people. There are already good examples across Wales, including trusts set up to run leisure facilities in Swansea and Bridgend and the numerous libraries that are now being kept open only through the work of local people.

However, as I pointed out yesterday, this best practice guide comes very late in the day and appears to have very few teeth. After all the Localism Act was passed in England in 2011 and enshrined a community right to bid when public assets are being disposed of.

The Minister could have commenced these provisions at any time in the last four years without having to go through this palaver of appearing to take her own path. And if she had done then communities would have a far more robust framework to work within than they will do under the Welsh Government's proposals.

In the discussion yesterday I raised two examples of communities in my region being frustrated in their ambitions. The first of these is Pennard Library, which is still under threat of closure and where the local community put together funding of several hundred thousand pounds to take over that library and rebuild it. Unfortunately, the local council has so far frustrated that, despite initially promising in writing to save the library if the community raised the cash to rebuild it.

Another case that was brought to my attention recently is Melyncryddan community centre in Neath. A local community group there wanted to take that on and have again been frustrated in their ambitions by the town council, who own that community centre.

In the case of Pennard, clear and unequivocal promises by the Labour Cabinet member were broken by his successor. It is little wonder that residents feel mislead and let down. This is an extract from an e-mail I received from some local residents:

Further, the reasons for the cabinet member reneging on former promises made by his predecessor appear to be purely political. He has said: "It's a pity you live where you live." Thus, it appears that the withdrawal of the service from Gower is because of our postcodes. We have been repeatedly told by the council leader and the cabinet member that the west of Swansea is better serviced than the east in terms of libraries – which has also been reported in the press. This is incorrect. There are five libraries in the west and 12 in the east. The buildings in the east, generally, are in better condition and opening times are longer etc.

In short, FoPL have been blocked every step of the way - especially by the current cabinet member and the leader. The stance of: "It's a pity that you live where you live" has been poorly received by Gower residents, who feel short-changed and marginalised by this attitude.

Residents are though continuing to pursue the issue.

They are raising grants independently to build a new library / community hub for Gower and currently have £122,000 in principle with a target of £350,000. The hub would have a cafe and exhibition / IT space to rent out to various groups, and thus generate an income to run the library building and make a contribution to staffing the library, this is exactly the kind of community partnership model recommended by the Expert Review of Welsh Libraries 2014.

I am happy to support these residents in any way I can. What is not clear though is how the Minister's new best practice guide helps. Her approach has no teeth and councils are taking on board her request to empower local residents only when it suits their agenda.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Welsh Tory leader disowns his party's UK manifesto

It is fair to say that all of the Welsh Parties have struggled with the implications of devolution when it came to writing their manifestos. The careful wording of pledges so as to distinguish between English and Welsh responsibilities is an art form that tests even the most switched on devolutionist when it comes to the details of each policy.

There are though very clear political issues where we should expect the UK and Welsh manifestos of each party to be consistent. One of these issues is the powers&nbsthat may be devolved to the Welsh Assembly after the election. After all it is the UK Government that will be making the decision on that matter, not the Welsh First Minister and his/her party.

So the latest gaffe by the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives really does point to chaos within that party and possibly a major rift to boost. According to the Western Mail, Andrew R.T. Davies has distanced himself from the UK Conservative manifesto, saying he has not read it and is not interested in it.

This disagreement centres around the provision in the Conservative's UK manifesto that apparently states that a funding floor will be introduced once a referendum on tax varying powers for the Assembly has been called. However, the Welsh Conservative manifesto, launched by Mr Davies and others at the Royal Welsh Showground last week, did not include such a link, saying instead that there was an expectation of a poll being held:

Mr Davies was asked in his weekly press conference about the fact that the UK Conservative manifesto made a link between a income tax referendum and a funding floor. He said that wasn’t in “the one that I launched, not the one that I launched with the Secretary of State on Friday.”

Asked for what voters should look at, Mr Davies said: “The manifesto that the Prime Minister, myself and Stephen Crabb launched.”

Pressed on whether he was disowning the London manifesto, he said: “I haven’t read the London one because I’m not interested in the London one.

"It’s the Wales one I’m interested in. That is the one that I endorse.

"That’s the one that is relevant to the people of Wales. That’s the one that the Conservative MPs across Wales are fighting on.

“We are signed up 110% to the St David’s Day accord, which our Secretary of State and our Prime Minister delivered at the Millennium Stadium. There are no ifs or buts, there will be a funding floor."

It seems that Andrew RT Davies can’t be bothered to read his own party’s manifesto. That is deeply embarrassing for the Tories and lays bare the deep splits within the Welsh Tory party and their Assembly group.

He now stands alongside Nigel Farage as the only other party leader in recent times to rubbish their own manifesto, though at least Nigel Farage had the sense to wait until after the election.

Monday, April 20, 2015

How not to canvass

For those heading out on doorsteps tonight, here is a masterclass in how not to canvass, care of the Labour Party:

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Blair and his millions

For those of us who like to keep a close eye on our former Prime Minister, today's Telegraph has a useful article looking at Tony Blair's business affairs. It may cause Ed Miliband to think twice before enlisting the help of this thrice times winner of General Elections.

The paper says that Mr. Blair has signed a controversial contract overseeing mining deals in Latin America. He is being paid to advise the Colombian government on how it spends £2 billion earned from mining deals:

The contract, obtained by The Telegraph, reveals that the Colombian government does not pay any fees for his services. Instead, the fees owed to Tony Blair Associates (TBA), Mr Blair’s consultancy firm, are paid for by an oil-rich Gulf state where Mr Blair has developed close links.

The deal raises questions over Mr Blair’s role as a Middle East peace envoy and whether he has used that position to befriend wealthy rulers in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who are now funding his private consultancy work in Colombia, among other countries.

The disclosure will add to pressure on Mr Blair to quit as envoy. According to one well-placed source, he is expected to announce his resignation from the role in the coming weeks.

They add that the contract has also prompted concern in Colombia over why UAE was funding Mr Blair’s advisory role in the country, with one senior prosecutor writing to the president demanding an inquiry.

The man has to earn a living I suppose!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A country haunted by its past

Bosnia Herzegovina is struggling to come to terms with its past. When the war ended almost 20 years ago now, there were 40,000 missing persons in the former Yugoslavia. The scars of a long and bloody conflict run deep. Men await trial for genocide even now, whilst many families do not know the final fate of their loved ones.

The political settlement that ended the conflict left unresolved divisions. There are now three Presidents, a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat, children are educated in separate schools and taught three separate versions of history, the country itself is effectively divided through a second tier of government into two entities roughly equal in size: the Bosnian Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb-led Republican Srpska, and the absence of a truth and reconciliation commission means that many issues cannot be properly addressed.

The Assembly Commission delegation that visited last week spent a lot of time meeting survivors of that conflict and those working to piece together what happened and to help the families of victims reach some form of closure. We visited the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum and the International Commission on Missing Persons as well as the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Centre.

The first of the photos was taken at the Podrinje Identification Project, which is a forensic anthropology unit. We were told that there are 8,000 body bags in that room containing remains and personal belongings. Of the 8,372 men and boys massacred by Serb forces at Srebrenica, 6,500 have been identified, over 1,000 are still missing.

The other pictures show the Assembly delegation meeting the Mothers of Srebrenica and laying a wreath at the Potocari memorial cemetery. 

We were told that bodies were buried and reburied at different sites, some spread across as many as five mass graves. Some relatives have only been able to bury parts of their loved ones, In one case a mother buried her son wiithout his head, and only a few bones of her husband.

The use of DNA to help with the process of identification has been ground-breaking and is being used elsewhere in the world to identify victims of other tragedies. The process though cannot eradicate the pain or the trauma.

This is a country traumatised by its past. Its economy is struggling, youth unemployment is amongst the highest in the world and its application to join the European Union seems doomed to failure.

We must remember those who were murdered in cold blood as part of some misconceived policy of ethnic cleansing, the children and their parents who were mowed down in cold blood in the centre of Sarajevo, the deprivation and hardship experienced by the inhabitants of that City in a siege that lasted nearly four years, and the men and boys who were killed on the road trying to escape the Serb offensive.

The international community must also bear some responsibility for failing to intervene earlier, and for the UN troops who allowed the slaughter to be carried out.

The process of reconstruction has begun but it is hampered by the ghosts of the past and the settlement that ended the war..

Friday, April 17, 2015

Manifestos galore

I have not been on here for a few days due to other commitments, which I will blog about over the weekend. It was an interesting and informative trip abroad, but also very disconcerting.

In the meantime, what have I missed? Well it seems this is the week the parties launch their manifesto and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are no different. Here are the highlights of our weighty tome.

The manifesto includes:

Opportunity for children: investing further in Wales’ schools;
Opportunity for young people: with more apprenticeships, discounted bus travel, and support to rent or own their own home through the innovative Help to Rent and Rent to Own schemes;
Opportunity for parents: giving parents £2000 tax free childcare and more paternity leave for fathers; Opportunity for better healthcare: providing investment for more nurses on hospital wards and better mental health services;
Opportunity for workers: with a further £400 tax cut for millions of working people;
Opportunity for older people: with the pensions triple lock written into law; and
Opportunity for the next generation: with the budget balanced and our environment protected so that our children and grandchildren are not left to pay for the mistakes of this one.

As with the party’s 2010 manifesto, the Liberal Democrats’ top priorities are spelt out on the front page. They are:

1. Prosperity for all Balance the budget fairly and invest to build a high skill, low carbon economy
2. Fair taxes Cut your taxes by an additional £400 by raising the tax-free allowance to £12,500
3. Quality health care for all Increase resources for our NHS and ensure safe staffing levels
4. Opportunity for every child Invest in our schools through our Pupil Premium
5. A stronger Wales Deliver Home Rule for Wales with further powers and fair funding

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