Tuesday 29 June 2010

Osborne and the fake £104,000 housing benefit claim

Anne McGuire MP has been on her feet in the Common this afternoon raising a point of order about the £104,000 housing benefit pay out that George Osborne referred to in his budget speech.

The Stirling Labour MP points out, as Westminster Council did shortly after the budget, that no such award actually exists but the figure is now common currency and is being bandied about as cover for cutting housing benefit.

The rates Osborne used were and example of what housing benefit on a five bedroom house in Kensington and Chelsea, one of London’s most upmarket boroughs, would be - about £2,000 a week.

“It is what the rate would be,” said a spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions afterwards. “We don’t have any figures on how many people are claiming that rate.”

Yet Osborne uses the figure to justify the squeeze the Housing Benefit budget and to create an impression that there is no alternative to his cuts agenda.

The effect of this cut, and the culmination of other benefit cuts, is given painful clarity in a painful blog blog entry, the budget and me, by Deepy Flawed and Trying.

This extract gives a reality check on what a “progressive” budget will mean for many people in Britain. The writer is a single mother and former social worker re-entering the labour market this year when her daughter goes to school.

I don’t have any more money than I had on Income Support- but I earn it. My eye has always been on the day where I could return to work full time.

Rachel starts school this September, and I got myself a full time job. Yay!

Then the budget happened.

LHA rules have been changed. Instead of contributing to the rent of a house with a rent at the median of local rents, they will only help with the cost of rent up to 30centile of the local rents.

This detail was lost under a great deal of fanfare about housing benefit paying people to live in mansions.

This takes approximately £20 a week out of my current income. With the VAT increase, and whatever happens with prices in the next few months- I don’t know how I will manage. The only way I was managing, was by keeping my eye on September- when I could feel the benefit of a salary.

I had hoped to be slightly better off when I got back to work. The cost of after school clubs, and breakfast clubs, is slightly less than the cost of full time childcare. However, the change in LHA rules- means that the slightly better off that I had assumed would happen- is also gone. I will be worse off than when I was working last time.

I have just put the phone down. The job is no longer there. To prepare for cuts of 25percent across the board, they cannot risk hiring new staff.

Even if I had started- I cannot physically earn enough to take me above the income level of someone on income support.

I am now going to be competing in a labour market flooded with the people who will be laid off as part of these cuts, in a profession with widespread recruitment freezes."

Lib Dem betrayal - not just a Labour tune

Cameron is about to give a press conference in Leeds about growing the economy. Its brande PM Direct so I suppose that's one promise he's kept to. And he is very good at the Q & A sessions, always sounds reasonable.

He does the the easy bits and gets Nick Clegg to announce the winding up of regional development agencies in England today and Danny Alexander to renege on a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters in Clegg's back yard.

Everyone else is wondering about this out loud so I join the chorus of "what do the Lib Dems think they are doing?"

I spoke to a former Minister last week who said that officials he is still in touch with say the Tories can't believe their luck. When the door closes on Number 10 Downing St each night they do a little dance of joy.

The word from beyond the black door is that to begin with the Tories thought that setting up the Office for Budgetary Responsibility would give an impression of independence, and enough cover, to begin the cuts agenda. Then they couldn't believe their luck when the Lib Dems not only came into the coalition but presented themselves as willing executioners for the cuts agenda.

We know that Lib Dem MPs aren't happy about this, the 22 that don't have government posts that is. Recall Charles Kennedy's alleged outburst at Cameron and his eagerness to pair up with Labour MPs to avoid having to vote with the government, following his abstention on the actual coalition vote.

But it will take more than abstentions to save the Lib Dems. Two Welsh Lib Dems voted against the government's VAT proposals last night but the lid is being kept on things at Westminster until the party conference, or the battle of Liverpool, this September.

Meanwhile the Liberal soul searching goes on. There is an incredible piece by David Marquand online today about the betrayal of the Liberal tradition. You can read it on the click through but the essential passages are below.

Since well before Keynes, British liberals have sought to tame capitalism in the interests of social justice and a vigorous public domain, in other words to transcend the harsh choice between the free market and state socialism.

All the liberal greats – John Stuart Mill, Herbert Asquith, David Lloyd George and William Beveridge – have taken part in that endeavour, as well as lesser, later liberals like David Steel and Paddy Ashdown. If Clegg and Cable are right, they were wasting their time. Capitalism is capitalism: it has to be taken neat or not at all. We do have to choose between the free market and the overmighty state. The historic liberal project which is one of the glories of the British political tradition is for the birds.

The implications are stark. The most obvious is that, if liberal politics are impossible, the Liberal Democrat party is surplus to requirements. But there is a less obvious implication as well. For the second thing we know is that free-market capitalism – the untamed capitalism whose mantras Clegg and Cable regurgitate in speech after speech – is inherently unstable. It is dynamic, alright; but its dynamism comes with a heavy price tag. Crashes are to it what fleas are to dogs. So are inequality, injustice, resentment and alienation. It is a strange destination for the heirs of Mill and Lloyd George.

Of course having the Libs fire the bullets and take the incoming fire suits the Tories fine. Cameron loves it every time Labour attack the Lib Dem betrayal because it drives Nick Clegg and co further and further into the arms of the Tory party. These attacks don't benefit Labour that much either. If Labour aren't smart they will end up on the wrong side of the political re-alignment that Cameron wants to establish.

It's too early to worry about polling, which is bad for the Lib Dems. A year on, at the Scottish elections and the English local government elections, we'll get a better measure of where the parties stand.

We might then also have an AV referendum then, one of Clegg's key demands, but who is going to vote for that, when not even Lib Dems want to adopt the system?

In a rejection scenario Clegg could face ruin but it might not be the Lib Dems that break the coalition. Cameron, strengthened, Osborne, no longer scary, the cuts not really beginning to bite until 2013 - the Conservatives could cut and run for a majority leaving the Libs to take the whiplash of their "betrayed" support base.

But Labour's new leader, whoever that might be, needs to get an alternative narrative running in double quick time, and that can't be entirely based on Lib Dem betrayal. There are enough unhappy Lib Dems to keep that line running without Labour help.

Monday 28 June 2010

Basking sharks in Point waters

I was on the Isle of Lewis for the weekend, where I had to give an address to the prize giving ceremony at the Nicolson Institute, a daunting prospect but in the event an enjoyable experience. I'll post about it later if I can.

The highlight of the trip was not my speech but the Point basking sharks.

These amazing creatures, two adults and a calf, were just offshore between the Braighe and Ramadal for two days, and only disappeared when the England v Germany game started.

They had fins the size of dining tables but photos from the shoreline don't really do them justice. There's a report on the Heb News website.

There's more information about the sharks, whales really, on the Basking Shark project website and Sea Trek safari on the west coast of Lewis has reported sightings of up to ten basking sharks in the last month.

We used to see schools of basking sharks off Point in the early 70s but they seemed to have disappeared for a long time.

I went for a close-up look early yesterday morning and standing on my own on a skerry with that huge fin doing lazy circles just 20 or 30 metres offshore was quite intimidating.

They're harmless and toothless but their sheer size, and the fact that they are mostly hidden from view, gives you that instinctive, tingling sensation which would be hard to ignore if you were in a small boat and didn't know what they are. It's easy to see how from such encounters come stories of sea monsters.

Let's dig for the missing Lewis chessmen

Back in London town this morning the ever intriguing Lewis chessmen featured on the History of the World in one hundred objects on Radio Four.

I love the series anyway but having the chess pieces mulled over by Neil MacGregor was a treat. It will be on the BBC's play it again device and on Radio 4 at 7.45pm.

When the series started I guessed there would be another of these predictable calls for the 67 pieces to be repatriated from the British Museum to the Isle of Lewis. Step forward Angus MacNeil, MP for the Western Isles, who organised a Westminster Hall debate on the subject.

I wrote that asking for 12th century chess pieces, one of the iconic collections in the British Museum, was woefully under-ambitious aim. Far better to ask for the whole British museum to move to the Western Isles.

Museum franchising (the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Tate in St Ives and now the Victoria and Albert for Dundee) is the next big thing in terms of cultural tourism. Having a branch of the British Museum in Stornoway would make the place a tourism magnet.

I'm pleased to hear the Western Isles Museum Service has taken up the suggestion and that my idea was discussed at meeting between MacGregor and MacNeil at the British Museum recently.

But, back to the programme. What was even more intriguing than the history of the 78 pieces held between Edinburgh and London is that the pieces are far from making a complete set. The 78 chess pieces are enough for at least four incomplete sets.

Tantalizingly the minimum missing pieces are a knight, four warders (the shield biters) and 45 pawns, which are quite plain.

There could be more out there, either waiting to come to light in some private or forgotten collection, or still buried in the sands of Uig.

I'm not sure if there ever has been an exhaustive archaeological exploration of the sand banks where the pieces are said to have been found in 1831.

Maybe someone can correct me on that, but an organised dig for the missing chessmen would do for the Hebrides what Howard Carter did for Egyptian tourism with the opening the tomb of Tutankhamen. Anyone got a bucket and spade?

UPDATE: Sarah has posted some helpful information below, emphasising, as I should have myself, that any investigation of the sands ought to be authorised and authoritative. Amateur Indiana Jones need not apply is the bones of her post.

Lowering of the flag

I'm not one to gloat over the misfortune of a team we couldn't beat in a competition we couldn't qualify for but...It was funny to hear the Prime Minister's official spokesperson admit that the flag of St George had been replaced with a Union flag above Downing Street "early this morning".

Thursday 17 June 2010

Roghainn na Daoine - ball-coise neo drama

Carson, a dh' fhaighnich mo charaidh, tha thu a' dol a dh 'fhaicinn dealbh-cluiche sa Ghàidhlig an àite a bhith a' coimhead Sasainn an aghaidh nan Stàitean Aonaichte ann an Cupa na Cruinne?

Chuir a' cheist sin an doigh eile, dh' fhreagair mi, oidhche Shathairne. Tha am ball-coise air fad mìos ach tha cothrom dràma Ghàidhlig fhaicinn a-nis cho annasach 's gum b' fhiach siubhal ceithir cheud mìle airson fhaicinn. Sin cho ainneamh 's a tha dealbhan-cluiche Gàidhlig agus cothroman airson banntaireachd nan actairean.

Mar sin, 's e adhbhar misneachd a bha ann Roghainn na Daoine, air thuras le Theatre Hebrides, a ghlac mi anns an Tron ann an Glaschu. Tha an t-actadh ann cho cumhachdach 's cho làidir ri rud sam bith tha sinn air fhaicinn air an àrd-ùrlar ann an Gàidhlig.

Tha doimhneachd anns ann an cleasaidheachd agus ann a cuid dhan an sealleadhean tha fagail luchd amhairc agus na cleaseadhainn fhein claoidhte ri cliadhach a steid.

'S ann leotha tha an oidhche air fad. Iain MacRath - stoirm dealanaich am meadhan a h-uile càil sa bheil e an sàs; Dàibhidh Walker air e fhèin fhoillseachadh mar shàr actair; agus Catriona Lexy Chaimbeul agus Màiri Mhoireasdan cho aotram agus sgileil 's nach eil thu a' faireachdainn fad dà uair a thìde gu leth a' dol seachad.

Agus tha guth seinn Màiri miorbhaileach, agus millteach ann a doigh cathrach, le bhith a' cur a mach na loidhne anns an t-sailm. (Leasan saor agus an asgaidh an sin airson eaglais a tha gann de chothionalan)

Chan eil mi a' cur an coire air na cluicheadaran eile airson na Gàidhlig aca, tha a' Ghàidhig aig ìre mhàth, ach tha duilgheadas ann le creideas nan loidhnichean ann am beul-chainnt luchd-ionnsachaidh. Agus tha sin a' toirt air falbh bho saothar nan actairean fhèin.

Tha sin fhèin a' togail ceist mu dheidhinn banntaireachd nan actairean. Chan eil mi a' creidsinn nach eil iad ann, le sgilean cànain agus àrd-urlair, a-measg na h-òigridh.

Ach 's e neart nan seallaidhean laigse an deilbh-chluiche.'S ann air a chur ri chèile a-mach à buithean-obrach a tha an dealbh-cluiche air fad (as dèidh dhaibh an sgrìobhaiche, Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul, a chall) agus tha sin follaiseach o cheann gu ceann dheth.

'S ann mu dheidhinn eachdraidh sgaradh mòr na h-Eaglais, an Dealachadh, a bha an sgeulachd air a reic rinn ach tha na sgeulachdan pearsanta, inntinneach agus cumhachdach mar a tha iad, a' dol san rathad.

Tha iomadach cuspair a seo - an Gort, dùsgadh creideimh, armailteachd (militarism), dòigh beatha na Gàidhealtachd san naoimheamh linn deug. Ach gun mineachadh air a sgeulachd mhòr, chan eil cearcall slan air an dealbh chluiche.'S e call a tha sin.

'S mar sin, chan ann airson sgeulachd na h-Eaglais bu chòir dhuibh am ball-coise a sheachnadh agus ur slighe a dhèanamh gu Roghainn nan Daoine (Inbhir Nis a-nochd, Loch Carran agus Sleite an deidh laimhe). S ann airson fìor choileanadh air obair actair ann an bith a' toirt beò pearsa air do bheulaibh a thèid sibh ann.

'S e seòrsa de dhùsgadh a th'ann an sin fhein, neo dearbhadh air na ghabhas dèanamh le banntaireachd mar seo.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Scottish Questions - Moore lives to fight another day

It was Michael Moore's first outing at Scottish Questions as Secretary of State for this morning, and he was on his feet arguing he should keep the job his party wanted to see abolished before the election.

He's been in the post just 16 days, Jim Murphy reminded him, which was precisely as long as the last Secretary of State, Danny Alexander, lasted. Murphy hoped that Moore would live to fight another day and, responding to teasing questions from Labour shadow, Moore agreed that his post should remain, with him in it, for the time being.

Murphy, the now shadow Scottish Secretary, also sympathised with Moore for being in a minority in the cabinet, after all the Berwickshire MP isn't a millionaire.

But what did he think of that "gang of millionaires turning their back on the unemployed of Scotland" by cancelling the Future Jobs Fund, asked Murphy?

Unemployment in Scotland rose by 7,000 in the three months to April, official figures released yesterday showed.

The number of people out of work now stands at 212,000 - 35,000 more than in the same period last year.

Not our fault, insisted Moore, deploying the line that Cameron used in Prime Minister's Questions later.

"The reality is that the future jobs fund was set up on an unsustainable basis and what we need to do is to ensure we get a sustainable basis for the future of youth unemployment support," said Moore.

"Those proposals will come forward in very close order. Before you set up too many scare stories, existing bids will be honoured under the future jobs fund."

The fund was set up to provide 200,000 jobs to young people and paid at least the minimum wage for at least six months. That's longer than most Scottish Secretaries last these days.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

"Unjustified and unjustifiable" - Cameron on Bloody Sunday

David Cameron has delivered an unprecedented apology for the deaths of 13 people in Derry’s Bloody Sunday at the hands of British Army paratroopers who lost "self control" and killed unarmed civilians.

Northern Ireland’s’ Director of Public Prosecutions was last night considering charges relating to the killings after the Saville report concluded what the people of Derry had long held - that all those killed on Bloody Sunday were innocent.
On behalf of the Government and the country the Prime Minister said he was "deeply sorry" for the deaths.

The Commons chamber fell silent as Cameron read the devastating conclusions of the 12 year investigation into the shooting dead of 13 people, seven of them teenagers, on 30th January 1972.

In Londonderry, thousands followed the route of the Bloody Sunday martch and stood outside the Guildhall and on the spot where the men fell during a day of deep emotions that stretched back over 38 years.

Only one parent of the victims survived to hear the Prime Minister say that there is no doubt that what happened when rioters clashed with the army was "unjustified and unjustifiable".

He quoted directly a crucial passage from the Saville report: "None of the casualties was causing a threat of causing death or serious injury or indeed was doing anything else that could on any view justify their shooting."

There is no legal direction over charges of murder or unlawful killing in the report, these are matters for the legal system in Northern Ireland, said Cameron.

In Derry the families and relatives of the victims declared their innocence to a large crowd while in the Commons Mark Durkan, the SDLP MP for Foyle, read out the names of all the dead.

"These men were cut down when the marched for justice in their own streets," he said. He recited Seamus Heaney’s poem, the Road to Derry, with it’s line: "And in the dirt lay justice like an acorn in the winter".

Choking back tears, he concluded: "Perhaps the most important and poignant words from today will not be heard here or on the airwaves. Relatives will stand at the graves of victims and their parents to tell of a travesty finally arrested, of evidence vindicated and of promises kept.

"And when they do so, they can invoke the civil rights anthem We Have Overcome. We have overcome this day."

Above, in the visitors gallery the Rev Ian Paisley sat impassively. For David Cameron, who was only five years old at the time of Bloody Sunday, the speech was more than a presentational challenge.

The frank and uncompromising report risks for re-opening old wounds in Northern Ireland. Cameron himself, who wrote speeches for Ian Gow, the Tory MP murdered by the IRA, said he gave no quarter to terrorism but found the words of the report difficult to digest.

Tony Doherty, whose father Paddy died when paratroopers opened fire, said the victims had been vindicated and the Parachute Regiment, which had been sent into the Bogside against orders, had been disgraced.

The report, 5000 pages and ten volumes long, painted a picture of the British paratroopers going out of control as they encountered stone throwing protesters.
The exhaustive, minute by minute examination of the chaotic event showed soldiers in "a state of fear or panic" shooting dead people who were, in the main, running away from them.

Shots were fired "without warning" at unarmed civilians, Saville’s report concluded. Symbolically, the report overturned the conclusions of the infamous Widgery Inquiry that concluded in 1972 that the soldiers had been fired upon first.

Cameron said the first shot was fired by the British Army and that "in no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire".

One person was shot while crawling away from soldiers and another Alexander Nash was killed while tending to his wounded son. Another was shot while lying mortally wounded on the ground as soldiers made their way through the low build housing estate, now demolished.

There was a "serious and widespread loss of fire discipline" among the troops and that none of the soldiers "fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombs".

Further to that, many of the soldiers, identified only by alphabetical identidies, "knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing" concluded Saville.

"Unjustified and unjustifiable," said Cameron. "What happened should never have happened"

Colonel Derek Wilford, who was in charge of paratroopers in Derry that day, was the senior officer singled out for criticism in the report.

It said he should not have launched an incursion into the nationalist Bogside estate, and that he either deliberately disobeyed orders from a superior officer not to enter troops into the housing estate in the shadow of the Derry walls. He is retired from the army and living abroad.

Saville found there was some firing by republican paramilitaries, the Provisional IRA, were on the scene but nothing they did justified the shooting of civilians.

The report stated that Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, second in command of the Provisional IRA in Derry at the time, was in the Bogside probably armed with a Thompson submachine gun on the day.

While it was possible he fired, there was insufficient evidence to make a finding on this. There were also Official IRA snipers in the area firing on soldiers.

The report found that 17-year-old victim Gerald Donaghy was found with four nail bombs in his pocket. There have always been questions over whether the canisters were on him when he was shot or had been planted on him later by the security forces. Saville concluded that he had not been shot because of his possession of nail bombs. He had been killed "while trying to escape from the soldiers"

The extraordinary report concluded with another widely held truth, that the events of Bloody Sunday were a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland" and acted as a catalyst for the IRA campaign that claimed over 3500 lives, the overwhelming majority of them killed by terrorists, over the next 25 years.

Lord Saville said: "What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed."

The report was commissioned in 1998 by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair under the auspices of the Good Friday agreement which could not have been signed off by republicans without a re-examination of the event.

The Saville Inquiry took witness statements from hundreds of people and has become the longest-running and most expensive in British history, costing £195m.

David Cameron said that what was at stake was not the process, which the Tory party has criticised, but what Saville’s report concluded.

He acknowledged: "These are shocking conclusions to read and shocking words to have to say. But you do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. We do not honour all those who served with such distinction by keeping the peace and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland by hiding from the truth."

It represented an opportunity for the communities on either side of the Northern Ireland divide "to acknowledge our shared history - even where it divides us".

He said: "This report and the inquiry itself demonstrate how a State should hold itself to account, and how determined at all times - no matter how difficult - to judge ourselves against the highest standards."

Saville -dignity and truth in Derry and the Commons

We've been waiting all day for the conclusions of the Saville report to be delivered by David Cameron. People in Derry have been waiting a lot longer for the stunning, unequivocal and unambiguous apology that it was.

It might have been 12 years in the making but the Saville report is a devastating indictment of the British Army's conduct during an event that one of my older friends recalled this morning as the day Northern Ireland "went psychotic".

Cameron managed a difficult task with great dignity. The events of 38 years ago cannot rebound on him as Prime Minister, he was only five years old at the time. But, as he reminded the Commons, he is old enough to remember how murderous the IRA was. He wrote speeches for Ian Gow who was killed by the Provisionals.

But the Bloody Sunday march was a civil rights demonstration not a republican one and it was fitting that in the Commons Mark Durkan, the SDLP MP for Foyle, read out the names of all the dead.

“These men were cut down when the marched for justice in their own streets,” he said.

When he sat down, evoking the anthem of the civil rights movement “we shall overcome, this day”, he was in tears.

Before that he had read a verse from Seamus Heaney’s poem, The Road to Derry, with it's line: “And in the dirt lay justice like an acorn in the winter”.

"My heart besieged by anger, my mind a gap of danger,
I walked among their old haunts, the home ground where they bled;
And in the dirt lay justice like an acorn in the winter
Till its oak would sprout in Derry where the thirteen men lay dead."

Monday 14 June 2010

Senor Clegg, not what he says but how he says it

Clegg: ’Prefiero recortar el gasto público antes que despedir a funcionarios’

Nick Clegg is just about to make a speech on his conversion to economic conservatism - expect him to blame the previous lot. "Our problems are more serious than we realise and we have to get on with putting things right," he's just said.

Here's our deputy Prime Minister Senor Nick Clegg giving an interview to Spanish television, in Spanish. We'd rather see his wife, Miriam González Durántez, give an interview in any language but he burnishes his European credentials with this performance.

Miriam, we're told, insists on Spanish being the language of the Clegg household so that means the DPM must keep his fluency levels up and she must win all the rows.

Stirrup sacking an example of loose grip, not iron vice

Still on defence, Liam Fox has just been making a speech about the Strategic Defence Review this morning and the cuts he must make.

He said: "We must act ruthlessly and without sentiment. It is inevitable that there will be the perception of winners and losers as we go through this process."

We should be clear that he was talking there about defence spending and not the way he handled the dismissal of the Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, in yesterday's Sunday Times.

It is becoming apparent that Sir Jock ,the top military man in Whitehall, was summarily dismissed by the new Defence Secretary to wipe the slate clean over a decade of involvement in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.

It also seems the decision was taken without so much as a by your leave to Number Ten, which is not how these things are done. Fox will get plaudits for being tough and decisive, but if he's not handling the MoD properly he may be storing up trouble for himself.

Giving Sir Jock his jotters in a Sunday Times interview is quite contemptuous of the office, if not the person. It is another example of how this new coalition is still finding its feet and not quite handling events with the kind of sure touch government needs.

The resignation of David Laws was a case in point. Cameron and Osborne thought it was quite okay to write that they looked forward to him returning to government in the future.

You understand how much they regret losing their Lib Dem colleague, it was a shame, but for the wider public he wasn't a man "born for the job" of cutting expenditure, he was a millionaire MP on the make.

The fall out of that, moving Danny Alexander from the Scotland Office robbed Nick Clegg of his eyes and ears across Whitehall because Danny's real job was not to run Scotland but sit on every cabinet committee, bar one, to make sure Clegg was informed of what was going on.

Alexander in the Treasury does not have the same Liberal weight as Laws would have and he might be being set up as a fall guy for the much tougher cuts that Osborne is and the Office of Budget Responsibility is laying the ground for today.

Similarly, Cameron showed some panache when he ambushed the 1922 committee with a vote on ministerial membership but caved in the next day when retreated on giving giving ministers voting rights.

For the Cumbrian shooting massacre he did not, to me, seem to tap into the sentiment of the nation, although it is difficult to see how else he could have responded.

Last week there was a completely unnecessary spat with the Westminster press lobby over travel arrangements for accompanying the Prime Minister to Afghanistan

All minor stuff, and at this honeymoon stage with no Labour opposition leader, not that important. But if this government gets hit with a Bernie Eccelstone size scandal in the autumn, just as Tony Blair was within months of taking office, it might find itself in serious trouble and with less friends than it thinks it has.

Cameron does not have the same kind of candle power as Blair had to burn on getting out of a tight spot with the public. Before a storm like that happens (don't worry something will come along) the Tories and Lib Dems have to tighten the machinery of government another quarter screw and lash down whatever is on the deck so that nothing else gets washed overboard.

Recce of Whitehall beach volleyball venue

Trooping the Colour - Olympic style

To the Trooping of the Colour on Saturday morning, courtesy of the Secretary of State for Scotland whose Dover House office has the best views of Horse Guards parade.

From a distance the bearskins and red jackets look like toy soldiers but, as the programme reminds us, most of these guys were on the front line in Afghanistan a few months ago or are preparing to go out there.

The pomp and splendour of it all is quite impressive. Someone on the balcony mentioned that when the Olympic 2012 organisers started canvassing opinion for the grand opening ceremony for the London event they had in mind so great multicultural reflection of modern Britain and the world city on the Thames.

Word came back from focus groups and American broadcast networks that what they really want to see is red soldiers trooping in formation like on the Queen's birthday. After all, we do seem to manage to do it well although I can't disagree with one Labour peer who wondered out loud if we need quite so many mounted cavalry in this day and age.

As we spoke about the 2012 games I reminded fellow hacks to chalk their names on the balcony to reserve their place for the Olympic beach volley ball competition that will take place on a sandcovered Horse Guards parade.

I predict a sudden surge of interest in Scottish politics among male lobby journalists in two years time.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Summer of Love continues in SNP/Tory-Lib talks

David Cameron emphasised the Tory "respect" agenda for Scotland by meeting with First Minister Alex Salmond for the second time in a month.

The Prime Minister chaired the first joint ministerial committee meeting since the election in the Downing Street Cabinet Room, just to prove how seriously he takes devolution.

Salmond was delighted that the "proper importance" is being attributed to the JMC mechanism which became, er, rusty when Labour was in office in Westminster and almost every devolved administration.

"A respect agenda is better than a disrespect agenda," said Salmond afterwards.

Not even Donald Dewar, or whoever dreamt up the JMC with then Home Secretary Jack Straw, could have imagined the political menagerie at this afternoon's meeting.

The committee is made up of ministers from the UK and devolved governments and around the Cabinet table was a rainbow of Tory, Lib Dem, Labour, SNP, Plaid, DUP and Sinn Fein politicians.

Representing the Westminster Conservative-Lib Dem coalition were David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Clegg, Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and Tory Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan.

Scotland’s SNP First Minister sat on the other side of the long table. He was accompanied by Labour's Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, who heads a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition in Cardiff, and his Plaid Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones.

Northern Ireland’s coalition was led by First Minister Peter Robinson of the DUP assisted by Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein.

There's only one thing the devolved Ministers want out of the JMC - money and more power, okay two things.

While there was never going to be political agreement on spending cuts the meeting was cordial. But the First Minister revealed afterwards that the Treasury and the Scottish government are "on the cusp of an agreement" over the £182m fossil fuel levy.

The fund for renewable energy projects is available to the Scottish government but previously the Labour Treasury insisted the same sum was to be cut from the overall Scottish budget. Salmond said the fund could be used to create many jobs in the renewable sector.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore described the meeting, which also made concessions on Scottish Ministerial representation at EU fishery talks, as productive. Salmond's cals for capital acceleration - spending to be brough forward from future years - was a non-starter. Flexibility on borrowing, on and Barnett consequentials for Olympic regeneration spending will be considered, but don't hold your breath.

The doomsayers had the sky falling in if there was a Tory government in Westminster and an SNP administration in Scotland (I may even have been among them).

It was meant to be the SNP's perfect scenario springboarding into an independence referendum. That agenda wasn't being played after the meeting.

Salmond just seems to be happy to go along with Cameron's Summer of Love, for the time being. He said he was there "to maximise what was best for the country" and if he can make some progress can be made in the context of political agreement he's going to be in there.

When it comes to casting around for someone to blame for next year's cuts as the Scottish elections approach the happy smiles and bonhomie after a JMC meeting might well disappear.

Margaret Curran brings "Paradise" to the Commons

I could only keep half an eye, and half my one good ear on the debate in the Commons yesterday as Nick Clegg outlined his plans for Lords reform and electoral changes.

I tweeted the main points for a while(look for me on twitter as Torcuil) as Jack Straw highlighted the dangers of arithmetically-sized constituencies and the joined with the SNP's Angus Robertson to reject "spurious" claims that the Scottish parliament set a precedent for the proposed 55% dissolution rule.

It all made for very good reading in theHansardaccount of proceedings which had a distinctively Scottish flavour.

There were speeches by Robertson, John Thurso, Mark Lazarowicz and others. Maiden speeches too by Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan), Gemma Doyle (West Dumbartonshire) and Margaret Curran, Glasgow East.

Curran, an experienced politician, started by saying she found the green benches intimidating. But it wasn't long before she turned managed to turn to other matters green, to much hilarity.

She said: "There is much to celebrate in the east end of Glasgow. We have some of the highest-performing state schools, in brand-new buildings. In 2014 we will host the Commonwealth games; and, of course, we are home to one of the world's best football teams, Glasgow Celtic.

"I know that my speech is meant to be uncontroversial, but I must challenge a Member who spoke previously who claimed paradise was in his constituency. Paradise is, in fact, in the east end of Glasgow."

SNP World Cup tops:"Scotland's Not Playing"

After the furore over the "ABE: Anyone but England" t-shirts being marketed in Scotland ahead of the World Cup the English have struck back with their own "SNP" tops - that is "Scotland’s Not Playing".

The wearetheenglish.com website has produced the cheeky response to Scottish soor grapes over not being in the World Cup tournament.

The "ABE: Anyone But England" tops were probed over racism claims but the England-supporting website is taking the whole thing in good humour.

The company, which admits it is smarting from the loss of Wembley’s goalposts in 1977, decided to annoy the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Tartan Army in one fell swoop.

They have also deliberately marketed their tops at a cheaper price to make them irresistible to canny Scots. "The tight wads are charging £20 for theirs while ours is only £14," states the website.

The "SNP: Scotland Not Playing" t-shirt comes in red only (what else) with white contrast trim. It has the SNP logo on the front with a small England flag printed on the left sleeve

Who said politics was "boring" - Alistair did.

There's more on than the pages of one newspaper can cope with today, as usual. Salmond is in town for a Joint Ministerial Meeting chaired by Cameron, Danny Alexander and Osborne will be outlining their spending review, there's stuff about drilling regulations for the North Sea, last day before Labour leadership nominations close, and on and on...

In the middle of all that Alistair Darling has admitted that he is "bored" with life in opposition. After taking the country through the most severe economic recession in a generation he's finding himself kicking his heels and not knowing what to do with himself, he tells the Financial Times today.

The former Chancellor, who spent 22 of the last 23 years on Labour’s frontbench, said he wants to take "time out" and has already indicated that he will stand down from the shadow cabinet later this year.

In the interview 56 year old Darling said that he was "decades away from putting on his slippers" and laughed off the idea of taking a job with one of the banks he helped rescue in the credit crisis of 2008.

Writing a book about the financial crisis is a possibility, he admitted, but he will not rush into print.

The Edinburgh MP also revealed that he advised Gordon Brown against a deal with the Lib Dems after the election and that he has spoken to the former Prime Minister a couple of times since the election.

Darling said: "He’s reflecting. But you can only look at the sunset over the River Forth for so long".

Friday 4 June 2010

Will Murdoch be the saviour of Gaelic TV?

Ciamar a tha sibh, Rhupairt a seo. Bheil steisean agaibh ri reic?

News this morning that BSkyB has bought Virgin Media could be an exciting development for the Gaelic broadcaster BBC Alba.

It leaves me asking the question is Rupert Murdoch going to be the saviour of Gaelic television, because there is little sign that the BBC Trust is going to be?

The joint ITC/BBC funded Gaelic language channel is currently only available on Free Sat or on Sky platforms meaning that it is unavailable to the majority of it's core audience.

Attempts to persuade the BBC Trust that this BBC branded television channel should be available on Freeview have been stonewalled for over three years.

The latest stumbling block is that the BBC Trust has to be persuaded to remove BBC radio channels from Freeview in the evenings to give space to the Gaelic channel.

You would think the argument is a bit of a no-brainer as a television channel needs a television platform to be seen and radio channels are available on several other formats - FM, online and DAB.

I understand the latest analysis shows that as few as 300 Freeview radio listeners in Scotland would be affected by the change. In contrast BBC Alba would be accessible to thousands of new viewers.

Anecdotally, there are hundreds of potential viewers in cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh who cannot access BBC Alba because they live in conservation areas that do not allow satellite dishes to be installed.

But as part of the £105m buy-out deal by Sky, Virgin Media, which is provided to many of these areas on cable "has secured new long-term carriage agreements for its cable TV network for wholesale distribution of Sky's basic subscription channels".

If I understand that properly (it turns out I don't - see the update below) then Virgin Media subscribers will soon have access to Sky's basic platform which includes BBC Alba on Sky channel 168.

This could be great news for people like my sister in Glasgow and her Gaelic-speaking family who have not seen any of the BBC Alba content since the channel was launched two years ago. Will they have to wait another two years or more for the BBC to provide the channel on Freeview or will it be Rupert Murdoch coming up their street to rescue Gaelic broadcasting?

UPDATE 1:50pm
Ross MacLean has tweeted and posted to tell me that the Sky-Virgin Media deal will have no impact on BBC Alba. Here's his comment below, which seems to be disappointing news. However, if Virgin is going to be part of Sky then maybe the BBC Alba deal will apply, and if not, why not do a deal with Virgin too?

Ross MacLean said...
I'm afraid not, Tormod. BBC Alba is available on Sky because Sky has an agreement with the BBC to provide this channel to its customers. If BBC Alba is to appear on Virgin Media, then Virgin Media needs to reach an agreement with the BBC to provide this channel.

Today's news has nothing to do with BBC Alba. The basic channels in the Virgin Media/Sky deal refers to Sky's own channels (Sky1, Sky2, Sky3, Sky News, Sky Arts and Sky Real Lives).

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Cam's low key Prime Minister's Questions

Through the mirror of the new House of Commons everything is reversed and some things are forever changed.

There's David Cameron, to the manor born, looking as if he has been standing at the dispatch box with just a few notes to hand all his life.

Nick Clegg still has not managed to suppress that slightly bewildered look he has as he stares up at the galleries and sits silently by the Prime Minister’s side.

The Tories sit where Labour did, on the government benches, and the Lib Dems sit where Labour did, on the government benches - so that is very new. Former Ministers line up like glum and redundant journeymen on the opposition seats.

The SNP have not moved, third row up on the downward side of the opposition gangway - but then some of them do think that the world revolves around them.

I see Labour MPs like Ian Davidson parking tanks on their lawn and squeezing in beside Pete Wishart. Chums they are not.

Labour’s awkward squad - Dennis Skinner and Ronnie Campbell - sit downwind from their own frontbench, just as they did in government. From there they can heckle either side effectively. John Cryer, back in the Commons for a second time, has been made an honorary member of their team and planted his Doc Martens between the two veteran mavericks.

Sheridan, Donahoe and Cairns are resting against the panelling on the far backbenches where even if they can’t be seen quite seen they will be heard. Ann McGuire is one bench in front and Ann Begg is parked in front of the serjeant at arms.

There’s Alistair Carmichael, posing as the Colossus of Rhodes astride the end of the benches. He’s a government whip now and one imagines him keeping the coalition in order with the white rod he holds as Comptroller of the Royal Purse.

On the government side there’s a whole muddle of new faces that will take some time and a Hansard facebook for journalists to familiarise themselves with. The Lib Dems are mostly on one side of the gangway but to be honest but spotting them is like looking for your own sheep at a village fank.

Front and centre is David Cameron who set a low key tone for his premiership with his performance at his first Prime Ministers Questions.

With the occasion overshadowed by sombre events in Cumbria the traditionally boisterous confrontation event is a quiet affair although the Commons benches are packed.

Cameron’s own response to the unfolding events in Cumbria is formal and unassuming. He says that the country’s “thoughts” were with those families who had lost loved ones, words which do not reach the bar set by Tony Blair when, early in his premiership, he had to respond to the death of Princess Diana.

Cameron - in contrast to Brown and Blair before him - does not bring several large folders of briefing documents to the dispatch box but instead relied on a few sheets of notes.

Sitting by his side, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, fights off an expression of boredom for half an hour. He will not ask questions as he is part of the coalition Government. Instead, he will hold his own question and answer session once a month.

Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, is ready to spar with Cameron on plans to end the anonymity of alleged rape victims in court cases in England and the marriage tax break.

Harman, renowned for her feminist politics, says that Cameron’s “married man” allowance of £3 a week will do nothing to keep people together and do nothing to plug the deficit.

She suggests that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are divided on the issue. “On this one, Nick agrees with me.”

Several new MPs manage to get questions in and are politely received by the new Prime Minister.

it takes a veteran to steal the show on the first day. Ian Davidson, Glasgow South West MP, neatly exposes the rifts that run across the Commons and the coalition.

Sitting on the benches usually occupied by nationalist MPs he makes common cause with rightwing Tory backbenchers who oppose the coalition with Lib Dems.

“Comrade Premier”, Davidson begins his question to howls of laughter across the Commons.

“What?” asks the Glasgow MP in mock surprise. “Are we not all in this together? Are the vast majority of us, apart from only a small sect, in favour of strengthening the union of the union of the United Kingdom? And do the vast majority of us not dislike, distrust and despise the Liberal Democrats?”

Meanwhile, on a remote mountain peak

Whitehall 1212 has been away on the most amazing mountain ridge in Europe, oh and at a ceilidh on Raasay. So I missed the David Laws/Danny Alexander/Michael Moore musical chairs. Apologies for that and more regular posts from now on.