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Friday, November 21, 2014

Another victim of Twitter

Twitter has claimed yet another casualty today with the news that the Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry has resigned from that position after an ill-advised post on the social networking site.

The Times says that she went after posting a “derogatory” tweet showing a house draped in England flags with a white van parked outside under the heading 'Image from Rochester'.

As she lives in a £3 million house in Islington herself, naturally some party members, including John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, thought she was being snooty and treating working-class voters “with contempt”.

Once more it is shown that as far as politicians are concerned no good comes of instant gratification and that when faced with the opportunity to express an instant opinion many lose all sense of good judgement.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mixed messages on devolution

Now that the Secretary of State for Wales has opened up debate on what future devolution to the Welsh Assembly might look like and said that nothing has been ruled out at this stage, you would think that the rest of the Cabinet would shut up.

Alas that is not the case. The BBC report that the Prime Minister has ruled out any change to the formula by which the devolved nations are funded. And he is still obsessing about Scotland and English votes for English MPs.

How much long Cameron can continue to defend the indefensible is debatable. He certainly seems intent on driving the whole agenda into a giant cul-de-sac.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Good design standards and the basic passport

We are already used to the high standards that Scandinavians bring to design, now there is a new example with innovations introduced by Norway as to how they will present their passports in futire.

The Telegraph says that whilst EU citizens’ passports are coloured an inoffensive but indistinct burgundy, the Scandinavian nation’s new passports are distinctly finished in white, turquoise or red and contain a surprising feature that should brighten up proceedings for passport controllers the world over:

Designed by local agency Neue Design Studio, who won a competition to redesign the documents and national ID cards, the passport is based on the theme The Norwegian Landscape.

Pages feature minimalist interpretations of the country’s most striking landscapes, and show one of its most mesmerising phenomena only under specific circumstances.

Should airport security staff – or anyone else – shine the passport’s pages under UV light, the otherwise elusive Northern Lights will instantly appear as iridescent trails on the paper.

They add that the new Norwegian passport is expected to enter circulation in about two years, so for now it has been left to the Finnish passport to fly the flag for Nordic design nous.

This passport features an elk on the bottom of each page and bored travellers who flip them rapidly will see the animal amble.

I want one of each.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

And the word of the year is?

Those of us preoccupied by representations regarding the prevalence of electronic cigarettes will be heartened (or maybe not) by the conclusion of the Oxford English Dictionary that the word of the year is 'Vape'.

Apparently, use of the word, defined as to “inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device”, has more than doubled over the course of the year to win.

The Independent says that the shortlist, which included contenders such as bae, slacktivism and indyref, is compiled by scanning around 150 million words of English in use every month. They have specialist software to identify new or emerging usage. Lexicographers then select a shortlist from which the winner is chosen.

The winning word needs to “reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance”.

Well as far as the Welsh Health Minister is concerned it certainly does reflect his preoccupation. He wants to ban vaping in public even though there is no evidence to show that there is any health impact on non-users. I wonder if the OED know.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Welsh Liberal Democrats' Pupil Premium is delivering for deprived pupils

The Western Mail has a heartening story today in which they report that the pupil deprivation fund, insisted upon by the Welsh Liberal Democrats as part of budget negotiations, and designed to support Wales’ poorest pupils, is having a “positive impact” and “plays an important role” in helping to break the link between poverty and low attainment:

An evaluation of the Pupil Deprivation Grant (PDG) found its introduction had led to “a significant amount of new activity” aimed at supporting pupils identified as being disadvantaged.

Independent researchers Ipsos MORI and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (Wiserd) said the PDG had helped to engender a greater focus on disadvantaged pupils and how best to provide for them.

But while support for the PDG was overwhelmingly positive, the report warned that there was “considerable variation” in the scale and reach of programmes funded using the grant.

It said there was “some ambiguity” about how the PDG should be targeted and impact analysis was inconclusive, with improvements in pupil attainment appearing to pre-date its introduction.

The report said: “The introduction of the PDG has led to schools funding a significant amount of new activity aimed at supporting pupils they identify as disadvantaged. Over half the interventions currently funded using the PDG (58% in primary, 71% in secondary schools) were not run in schools prior to the PDG’s introduction.

“Even where activity pre-dated the PDG, it has usually been scaled up as a result of the additional funding available to schools. However, there is a considerable variation in the scale and reach of programmes funded using the PDG, particularly at the secondary level.”

Next year this grant will rise to £1,050 per pupil and then £1,150 per pupil the year afterwards. It is a sign that even in opposition the Welsh Liberal Democrats can deliver on their manifesto priorities and get things done.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Retro-Technology

You would not think that we were yet in a position to revert to old versions of the mobile phone but apparently this is very much the latest trend.

The Independent reports that the flip phone is making a comeback for mostly practical reasons:

The trend appears to have originated in the handbag of Anna Wintour, who earlier this year was spotted peering at the screen of a flip-phone she had first acquired in approximately 2004 – before she switched to a BlackBerry and, later, an iPhone.

Wintour-watchers interpreted her reversion to pre-smartphone technology as a style statement, but the Vogue editor, who is 65, is far from alone among her age group. Iggy Pop, 67, recently told The Cut website that he owns a flip-phone, "because you can drop it a lot and it won't break, and when you want to text it still has three letters to each button".

Meanwhile, in Korea, both Samsung and LG have launched brand new flip-smartphones aimed at the elderly. LG says it designed its Wine Smart handset after a round of market research found that many older consumers were intimidated by the small buttons and complicated features of many modern touch-screen smartphones.

Yet it isn't just the older generation that's turning back the technological clock. Rihanna may be rare among millennial celebrities, for whom Twitter and Instagram connectivity is mostly a must, but a recent study by the US think-tank Pew found that as many as 15 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 13 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds in America don't use a smartphone.

Some surely prefer the tactile "fwap" of an unfolding clamshell to the digital click of an Apple device, while others can't afford the upgrade. But for those who can, argued writer Chiara Atik in a recent essay for online science magazine Matter, "A flip phone represents the ultimate luxury: inaccessibility."

There is nothing new under the sun it seems.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Severn Bridge Tolls to go up again and still it is only the Lib Dems who want to scrap them

It was only a few days ago that the Welsh Assembly debated a Liberal Democrats motion to abolish the tolls on the Severn Bridge and now the Western Mail reports that the cost of entering Wales is to rise again:


The tolls cost just 12p when the first Severn bridge opened but have risen sharply in recent years and will be £1 more expensive than five years ago after January’s rise.

Heavy goods lorries will see tolls rise to just 40p shy of £20.

Severn River Crossing PLC said that tolls for cars and motor caravans will increase from £6.40 to £6.50 from New Years Day 2015.

On average, over 80,000 vehicles use the two Severn crossings on a daily basis. The tolls are estimated to cost businesses and commuters around £80 million per year, including value added tax.

The Welsh Government commissioned a report, on the economic impact that the tolls have on the Welsh economy. This was published back in 2010. With regards to business performance, the impact report stated that half of all businesses surveyed considered the crossings to be either important or very important to their business.

It has been estimated that a small number of businesses spend in excess of £200,000 per year on toll costs alone. In some cases, this could account for up to 10% of annual vehicle operating costs for a business, resulting in a significant negative impact on profits and performance for cross-Severn goods companies. South Wales can therefore be seen as a less attractive location for businesses of this type to invest in. Evidence of this can be seen by the fact that Tesco relocated one of its major depots from Magor in Monmouthshire to Avonmouth, citing the tolls as a major contributory factor to that decision.

In terms of  productivity, findings have shown that, by removing the tolls, the annual gross value added for south Wales could be boosted by approximately £107 million.

The case for abolishing the tolls altogether and charging the £15 million a year maintenance costs to the taxpayer in the same way as we pay for the rest of the road network is overwhelming. Why then are Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives intent on continuing to charge people to enter Wales? Only the Liberal Democrats are pledged to abolish these tolls.

Sign the perition to abolish the tolls here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Action on payday lenders at last

The BBC report that a cap on the amount that payday lenders can charge their customers has been announced by the City regulator.

They say that from January payday loan rates will be capped at 0.8% per day of the amount borrowed, said the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) so that in total, no one will have to pay back more than twice what they borrowed, and there will be a £15 cap on default charges.

This is good news, better late than never. It also demonstrates the commitment of the Coalition Government to dealing with this issue.

To be fair the Labour's spokesperson has welcomed this announcement and has concentrated on how it will be monitored. However, if they had addressed this issue when they had been in government (and they were asked to) then we might not be in this situation now.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

IFS confirms Scotland gains from from the Barnett formula

The Public Finance magazine contains an interesting report of a paper issued by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which confirms previous studies, that Scotland benefits disproportionately from the Barnett formula.

In fact it is a bit more complex than that as the first part of their study concentrates on the different way that business rates are treated in Scotland and Northern Ireland for the purpose of distributing grant to those countries as compared to Wales.

In their paper, Business as Usual, Barnett say that the result of this different treatment means that Scotland and Northern Ireland will by 2015/16 have sustained block grant cuts that are respectively £600 million and £200 million less than should have been applied:

The technical flaw identified by the IFS arises because of business rates, which are fully devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland (and in Wales from next April). The Barnett calculation assumes that these rates part-fund England’s local government budget, but in practice this budget has been cut even as business rate revenues rise. Scotland and Northern Ireland have gained accordingly. 

‘This is clearly not in the spirit of the Barnett Formula, suggesting that the existing formula treats business rates in a flawed way,’ the IFS paper argues. 

‘The flaw in the Barnett Formula’s treatment of business rates means Scotland’s budget has increased by significantly more since 2000 than it would have done had business rates not been fully devolved.’

In fact we were already aware of this issue from the comprehensive spending review in 2010 when Wales got less than it should have done because of this anomaly. I believe from memory that the Welsh Government had been offered the opportunity to correct this in the past but had declined.

The IFS goes on to say that additionally the spending reviews in 2010 and 2013 gave Scotland an extra £400 million above what a corrected Barnett would have delivered, bringing its relative gain to £1 billion, or around 3% of its 2015/16 budget.

Naturally the Treasury does not want to know anything about any of this. It seems that for them it is business as usual. But how much longer can they ignore the evidence stacking up in front of their eyes?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The principled socialist aproach to hereditary peerages

Today's Times has a pretty astonishing story regarding the legacy of the late Tony Benn. The paper says that Stephen Michael Wedgwood Benn, eldest son of the late Labour MP and the brother of the shadow cabinet minister Hilary, has formally “established his claim” to the Viscountcy of Stansgate.

They add that his decision, announced in the House of Lords, means that he is free to run in a by-election for a seat in the second chamber when a place on the Labour benches comes up.

The paper sets out the history of this title:

If Dr Benn, 63, a political lobbyist, moved into the Lords it would represent another extraordinary chapter in the family’s history. The peerage was first bestowed on Mr Benn’s grandfather, the Labour cabinet minister William Wedgwood Benn, in January 1942.

The title was to be passed down to “the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten, by the name, style and title of Viscount Stansgate, of Stansgate in the County of Essex”.

Tony Benn, who died aged 88 in March, inherited it when his father died in 1960. He had been trying to change the law for years to allow hereditary peers to give up their title, but acquiring his peerage disqualified him from keeping his Bristol South East seat in the Commons.

He was eligible to run in the resulting by-election, which he won. However, the title meant that he was unable to take up the seat, which was taken by his Tory rival.

It took a three-year battle to secure the Conservative government’s support for a bill allowing him to renounce the peerage. The change in the law ensured that it still passed down the generations.

The Peerage Act 1963 officially became law on July 31, 1963. Mr Benn became the first peer to renounce his title minutes later.

But most extraordinary is the circumstances by which Dr. Benn might take up a seat in the Lords. The paper says that the number of hereditary peers allowed to sit in the Lords is limited to 92 in law.  Labour has four. By convention, peers usually have to wait for a hereditary peer in their own party to die to take their place.

If a vacancy did occur then Dr Benn would have the luxury of being able to target his electorate. In the event of a by-election, the three remaining Labour hereditary peers would each have a vote.

However, he could fill one of two current vacancies for crossbench peers and then move to the Labour benches.

Nice work if you can get it.

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