Thursday, 30 September 2010

Labour Party Conference draws to a close

Some BBC news presenters uneasy about timing of strike

News hosts including Jeremy Paxman and Huw Edwards have said they are worried about planned BBC strikes during the Conservative party conference. In a letter to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), BBC political staff said they had "serious concerns" about holding the 48-hour industrial action. They warned the move threatened the impartiality of the corporation.

Yeah, we get the picture, Jeremy

Union members are due to strike on 5-6 October in protest against proposed cuts to the BBC's pension scheme. The 36 signatories said holding the strike during the party conference, including on the day of the Prime Minister David Cameron's keynote speech, risked "looking unduly partisan".

"Impartiality is the watchword for the BBC's political coverage and we would not wish to give a misleading impression that this is no longer something we value highly," it said. It added the letter was not a disagreement with the principle of strike action, but signatories said they had been unable to attend meetings about the proposed strike because they were working at other party conferences. Other high profile names that signed the letter included Jon Sopel, Emily Maitlis, Today's James Naughtie and political editor Nick Robinson.

Responding to the letter, Ian Pollock, chair of the NUJ's BBC London branch, said the letter conveyed "a tiny minority concern" and noted that 11 of the signatories "do not appear" to be members of the union.

Panorama: The Church of Scientology

Reporter John Sweeney's last investigation into the Church of Scientology resulted in an explosive confrontation with church officials. This time, in a Panorama Special, one of those officials has turned whistleblower to help him reveal the dark secrets of the church, which boasts Hollywood A-listers Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its devotees.

Panorama: The Church of Scientology, available now on BBC iPlayer.

BNP torn apart by infighting

Richard Barnbrook, one of the British National party's most senior figures, has been expelled as part of an increasingly bitter feud threatening to engulf the far-right organisation. The London Assembly member, who was one of a group of rebels who tried to wrest control of the BNP from party leader Nick Griffin last month, was informed via an internal memo this week that he was no longer a party member.

Nick Griffin's said to be keeping an eye on the situation

"Sadly we have concluded that we are left with no alternative but to expel Richard Barnbrook from membership of the British National party," it reads. "I have written to him informing him that I have taken that action today and he is no longer a member of our party." Barnbrook, who was the party's sole representative on the London Assembly, is one of the BNP's most high-profile officials and his expulsion comes as the party faces a growing political and financial crisis.

Since its poor showing in May's general and council elections, several senior figures have come out against Griffin, at least three local councillors have resigned the party whip and many key activists have been suspended. The prospect of a permanent split has been heightened by the party's dire financial plight and the formation of a new faction – the BNP reform group – which is openly discussing forming a new party. "Even by its own vicious standards this has been a bloody episode for the BNP," said Nick Lowles from anti-racist organisation Searchlight. "The relentless infighting has done serious damage to Griffin and the party's organisational ability."

Tony Curtis

1925 - 2010

Baroness Warsi alleges Labour benefited from vote fraud

The Conservatives failed to win an overall majority at the general election because of electoral fraud, Baroness Warsi has said. The party chairman told the New Statesman that Labour benefited from the alleged fraud. She said it happened with at least three seats but would not say where. 

Look, here's the proof!

A Labour spokesperson said the allegations were "unsubstantiated" and urged "Lady" Warsi to share any evidence she had with the authorities. "Lady" Warsi said: "It is predominantly within the Asian community." The BBC has tried to contact "Lady" Warsi about the allegations but she was unavailable.

"Lady" Warsi said she had written to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who is overseeing the coalition government's electoral reforms, to discuss fraud and voter disenfranchisement. A Conservative spokesman confirmed the party did have some concerns about a number of seats which it was looking into.

The Conservatives won 307 seats and 36.1% of the votes, while Labour won 258 seats and 29% of the votes. The Liberal Democrats won 57 seats with a 23% share of the votes.

Student jumps to death after being filmed having sex with man

Tyler Clementi, 18, who was studying at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA, jumped from the George Washington Bridge. He posted a final message on the social networking website Facebook, which read: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry." Paul Mainardi, a lawyer for his family said: "Tyler was a fine young man and a distinguished musician. The family is heartbroken beyond words." His driver's licence and university identification card were found in a wallet left on the bridge on Sep 22 after two witnesses saw someone jump. His body has not been recovered.

Fellow students Dharun Ravi, who was Clementi's room-mate, and Molly Wei, have been charged with invasion of privacy and could face up to five years in prison if convicted. They are accused of placing a camera in the room and streaming the images straight on to the internet. In a message posted on microblogging website Twitter on Sep 19 Ravi allegedly said: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said his group considers Clementi's death a hate crime. He said: "We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind. "And we are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others' lives as a sport."

David Miliband bows out, defeated and demoralised

Ed Miliband has moved to assert his authority over the Labour party after the departure from the shadow cabinet of his defeated and demoralised brother, David. The elder Miliband resigned, saying that he needed to give his brother space to lead alone, free of distractions. The new leader admitted his top team had been weakened by David's move, and in effect ordered Nick Brown, a strong supporter of Gordon Brown, to stand aside as chief whip, to be replaced by the popular, unifying figure of Rosie Winterton.

Some of the new leader's closest aides suggested that Ed Miliband is steeling himself to reject Ed Balls's attempt to become shadow chancellor, even though Miliband signalled that he would move towards Balls's policy by promising to tax more than the former chancellor Alistair Darling had proposed. "With David gone, Ed has to make sure the top team looks balanced," one aide said.

In a departure marked by magnanimity and self-restraint, David Miliband said that in some ways the easy decision would have been to remain in the shadow cabinet, but that his instinct as soon as he lost the leadership race on Saturday was that he would have to go. He will remain as a backbencher, and write, as well as taking time to recharge his intellectual batteries and spend more time with his two young children. Heartbroken supporters continued to grit their teeth in the interests of party unity, but one said: "David is giving Ed some space to carry on torching the house we built."

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

David Miliband unimpressed by Ed's Iraq criticism

Brussels braces for huge anti-austerity protest

Thousands of people from across the EU are expected to march in Brussels to protest against sweeping austerity measures by many national governments. The European Trade Union Confederation says its protest could be one of the biggest in Belgium's capital for years. The union says EU workers could become the biggest victims of a financial crisis set off by bankers and traders. A general strike has begun in Spain and protests are planned in Greece, Poland, Italy, Latvia, Ireland and Serbia.

Many governments across the 27-member bloc have been forced to impose punishing cuts in wages, pensions and employment to deal with spiralling debts. In Greece and the Republic of Ireland, unemployment figures are at their highest level in 10 years, while Spain's unemployment has doubled in just three years. In Britain, the government is planning to slash spending by up to 25%, while France has seen angry protests against a planned increase in the minimum retirement age.

Labour unions in Spain have started a general strike by marching through the capital, Madrid, in an effort to shut down the city. There has been mass picketing outside bus and metro stations since midnight. There were also protests in Barcelona. The European Trade Union Confederation (Etuc) says it hopes that about 100,000 people from some 30 countries will take part in the Brussels march, which is due to begin at 1100 GMT.

Belgium fights back

Olympic chief David Higgins appointed head of Network Rail

Seems a natural career move, no? No. David Higgins, currently chief executive at the Olympic Delivery Authority, will take over the role of February 1. He will succeed Iain Coucher, who steps down at the end of next month, after a three-year reign which has been punctuated with clashes with the unions, the rail regulator and train operators It has also been marked by controversy over the performance bonuses he and his fellow senior executives have received with Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, questioning whether the £2.25m paid to six top directors – including £641,349 to Mr Coucher himself – were appropriate.

Rick Haythornthwaite, Network Rail's chairman, admitted the appointment of Mr Higgins marked a change of culture at the company. "We needed someone who really understood how important it was to perform in a collaborative environment," he said. "Network Rail has not been known for its transparency and we have been seen as a monopoly that has been accountable to no one." 

Mr Haythornthwaite said that Mr Coucher's reign had not always been easy, even though he had delivered improved performance for passengers, train operators and freight companies. "It was riddled with tensions and that has to be changed. It required a new cultural approach, we had to find a different way of doing business. "The biggest challenges are in relation to stakeholders to make sure we are all pointing in the same direction."

Battleships: Cameron v Fox

Relations between the prime minister and the defence secretary, Liam Fox, were strained last night as plans to build two large aircraft carriers for the navy at a cost of at least £5bn are in jeopardy, after a meeting of the National Security Council chaired by David Cameron. The navy is pressing for the carriers, which would be equipped with US planes costing at least £100m each, in a package that could cost £15bn. Cameron questioned claims by navy chiefs and the shipbuilders that cancelling the contracts would only save £1bn, according to Whitehall officials.

Under existing plans, the navy will also be equipped with new frigates and destroyers. One well-placed official last night said the whole question of which ships the navy will get, and how many, was now "up in the air". The dispute has pitched Cameron against Fox, the defence secretary and supporter of the navy who is at loggerheads with George Osborne over who will pay for a new Trident nuclear missile system. The chancellor says the initial estimated £20bn cost of renewing Trident should come out of the core defence budget. Fox says it should be paid for by a special supplementary budget and said the proposed cuts were "draconian".

In a private letter to Cameron, the defence secretary makes clear his feeling on cuts to the defence budget and goes on to say that the Tories risk "destroying much of the reputation and capital" they have built up with the armed forces. The letter, leaked to the Daily Telegraph, was written the night before the NSC meeting to discuss the strategic defence and security review. In it, Fox says the proposed review was "looking less and less defensible" and were likely to have "grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years."

Simply Red

I suppose you'll be charging more for this now

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Partizan Belgrade 1 - 3 Arsenal

Labour Party Conference: the Leader's speech in full

Conference, I stand here today ready to lead: a new generation now leading Labour. Be in no doubt. The new generation of Labour is different. Different attitudes, different ideas, different ways of doing politics. Today I want to tell you who I am, what I believe and how we are going to do the most important thing we have to do - win back the trust of the country.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Panorama programme on Lord Ashcroft withdrawn by BBC

The BBC has withdrawn an edition of Panorama on the financial affairs of the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft. It was due to have been shown on BBC One at 2030 BST on Monday night.

The BBC said it had put a number of questions to Lord Ashcroft two weeks ago and had received a response on a particular issue on Monday. The Panorama team is now reviewing the programme in light of the new information. The programme was replaced with one about UK military justice.
A BBC spokesperson said: "We put a number of questions to Lord Ashcroft two weeks ago, including one relating to a share interest transfer. We asked for a response by Friday 24th September. In a response received this afternoon we have been given information that sheds new light on that issue and we will therefore review the programme."

UK economy on the mend, says IMF, endorsing Coalition's austerity plan

The International Monetary Fund today said the UK economy was on the mend after its deepest postwar recession and praised the coalition government for its hardline approach to cutting the budget deficit.

In its annual health check of Britain, the Washington-based fund said George Osborne's planned cuts in public spending were unlikely to derail growth. "The UK economy is on the mend. Economic recovery is underway, unemployment has stabilized, and financial sector health has improved." 

In a strong endorsement of the chancellor's plans to slash the UK's record peacetime deficit, the IMF added: "The government's strong and credible multi-year fiscal deficit reduction plan is essential to ensure debt sustainability. The plan greatly reduces the risk of a costly loss of confidence in public finances and supports a balanced recovery. Fiscal tightening will dampen short-term growth but not stop it as other sectors of the economy emerge as drivers of recovery, supported by continued monetary stimulus."

After assessing the state of the UK, the IMF team said economic recovery would proceed at a moderate pace, with growth of 2% in 2011 rising to 2.5% in the medium term. It said the Bank of England would need to be "nimble" if the impact on growth of the budget cuts proved to be more severe than expected. The IMF saw no reason why interest rates needed to be raised from their current emergency level of 0.5%.

The report warned the government against getting cold feet about reform of banks. "The UK authorities should continue to provide leadership and build support for ambitious global reform of financial regulation. Ensuring a smooth transition to a new supervisory architecture at home will also be important to secure a safer post-crisis environment."

Although the IMF saw no evidence of a double-dip recession, it stressed that it would take time for voters to feel the impact. "Households are likely to remain thriftier than before the crisis but will be in a position to gradually raise their consumption as labour markets recover."

[So unemployment has "stabilized", has it?  The cuts haven't even started yet. Come back in three months - Ed]

Dear Ed

As the dust settles on Labour's leadership election, Polly Toynbee and David Walker write an open letter of advice drawn from their influential new book on the party's time in power, The Verdict.

"Congratulations on your hard-fought victory. Before setting out on a new path, however, you need to lay out your own verdict on Labour's 13 years in power. As an adviser and as a minister, you were an architect of the policies that we chronicle in our new book. Our audit offers a reminder of what Labour did well, and where it failed.

As well as crunching the numbers, we look at what you did through the eyes of people on the ground, citizens in all walks of life. To them, the charivari of Westminster politics didn't much matter. The people we talked to in Gorton, Middlesbrough, Birmingham or Brighton don't despise politics; they are often passionately interested because they see its results around them, good and bad. All that Blair/Brown stuff and the rows over big organisational "reform" wasted energy, ignoring the day-to-day details for patients, parents, pupils and citizens at street level. Start change at the bottom, resist pulling on big levers.

You are not fated to repeat Blair and Brown's mistakes, nor to hare off in opposite directions to avoid them. Sifting through Labour's record of successes and failures, here are some lessons we drew:

Lord Ashcroft 'avoided £3.4m in tax' ahead of rule change

Lord the Conservative donor and outgoing deputy party chairman, has been accused of avoiding more than £3m in tax by engaging in a financial manoeuvre the day before new legislation would have forced him to pay tax on all his income.

The BBC programme Panorama will tomorrow report that the peer, who steps down from his party role tomorrow, transferred the ownership of his main UK company, the Impellam Group, on 5 April. The 64-year-old peer transferred shares worth £17m in the company to a trust to benefit his children. The following day, a law came into force compelling all members of the Lords and Commons to be registered in the UK for tax purposes and pay tax on all their worldwide income. The law had been in large measure prompted by the controversy over his tax status.

Tax lawyer Richard Frimston is quoted telling the programme that Lord Ashcroft would have faced a large inheritance tax bill under the new legislation. Frimston said: "If that had been done on the following day, assets worth say £17m going into trust would have been subject to tax at 20%, which would have created an immediate inheritance tax charge of something in the region of £3.4m. So that was avoided by doing it on 5 April as opposed to waiting until 6 April."

Lawyers for the peer told the BBC: "Our client has denied any impropriety or wrongdoing in respect of any of the matters that you have raised." Tonight, when asked about the tax avoidance allegation, a spokesman for Ashcroft said the BBC had made a fundamental error, but would not elaborate further. The peer is due to send a further response to the BBC tomorrow, he added.

The Sandpit by Sam O'Hare

A day in the life of New York City 'in miniature'
Winner, Prix Ars Electronica Award of Distinction 2010
Music by Human

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Bryan Ferry, 65 today

Yeah, sepia's about right ;-)

Ed Miliband: my vision to rebuild trust

In an article for The Sunday Telegraph, Labour’s new leader Ed Miliband pledges to regain the support of families and Middle Britain and to learn from the party’s past mistakes

Yesterday the Labour Party committed to start the long journey back to power. A new generation was entrusted with transforming our party and making sure that, once again, we stand up for the interests of families across Britain. We have a lot of ground to make up if we are to rebuild the broad coalition of support that swept us to power in 1997. Our journey will be hard and it will take time. To succeed we will need to do three things.

We will need to learn the right lessons about our record in government; we will need to be a responsible opposition and we will need to set out a constructive alternative to the Government. I am proud of much that we achieved in office, but I am not someone who thinks that we have to defend every step we took. We made mistakes. We have to acknowledge them if we are to move on and address the challenges of the future.

As I crisscrossed the country during the four months of the leadership election, talking to mums and dads, small business owners and business leaders, students and pensioners, I heard a lot about why our party lost trust. People found themselves working harder than ever but it became no easier to get by. They wanted their children to have better opportunities than they enjoyed, but were stung by tuition fees and the lack of affordable housing for first-time buyers.

Ed Miliband elected Labour leader

My only regret of the whole Labour leadership contest came yesterday when I realised that the majority of the country had missed one of the most dramatic moments in our political history, as the results of the election were read out, round by round, leading to the announcement, amidst gasps and cheers, that Ed Miliband had been elected leader of the Labour party. 

That the result had shocked Ed approximately an hour before we all knew the outcome was clear to see. If he had lost, he would have been disappointed but smiling politely, in the style of the defeated best actress nominees at the  Oscars.  But this wasn't his look. He was in shock, traumatised at the thought of what he had done, what he had done to his brother and what the fuck he was going to do now.  

He composed himself quite remarkably for the task in hand and delivered a sufficient acceptance speech that thanked all the right people.  His life had now changed, his suitcases had already been taken to a different hotel, security was in place, the car waiting. He will be briefed by MI5 tomorrow.

Good luck, Ed.  Now change my life.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Rowan Williams backs gay bishops WTF?!

Prior to becoming archbishop, Dr Williams wrote about not "assuming that reproductive sex is a norm". He uses today's interview in the Times to deny that his present stance on gay sex therefore meant he was not being true to himself.

Williams: she'll have to do something about that wig of hers
if she wants to be the gay bishop's best friend

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said he has "no problem" with gay people being bishops but they must remain celibate [oh, i don't think there would be many gay men in the clergy - Ed]. In his first explicit declaration on the subject since taking office in 2002, Dr Rowan Williams signalled his personal support for the consecration of gay bishops in the Church of England but said he would never endorse gay clergy in relationships because of tradition and historical "standards" .

His comments, in an interview in the Times, risk deepening divisions within the church and the wider Anglican communion. Liberals will be angered by his explicit acknowledgement that celibacy must be compulsory for homosexual clergy but not for heterosexuals. While conservative ire will be fuelled by his stance which puts him at odds with church teaching.

In the interview, Williams explained why he has stood with conservatives against homosexuality when it came to official church policy. He said that he could not endorse gay relationships for clergy and bishops because "the cost to the church overall was too great to be borne at that point". William said one of the most tortuous periods in his eight years at Lambeth Palace came during the unsuccessful elevation of the cleric Jeffrey John, who was in a gay relationship, to the post of Bishop of Reading. He confessed that he let down John, who was instead appointed Dean of St Albans. This year, John made it on to a shortlist to be the next bishop of Southwark, but his name was later removed from the list. 

"I think if I were to say my job was not to be true to myself that might suggest that my job required me to be dishonest and if that were the case then I'd be really worried. I'm not elected on a manifesto to further this agenda or that. I have to be someone who holds the reins for the whole debate. To put it very simply, there's no problem about a gay person who's a bishop. It's about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there's always a question about the personal life of the clergy."

Friday, 24 September 2010

How Labour selects its new leader

The announcement of the next Labour leader at around 16.40 tomorrow will take some time, and the five candidates – who will have been informed of the result shortly before the public announcement – will have to sit in silence as they look up at screens displaying the result. Labour chooses its leader through an electoral college with three sections, each of which account for a third of the overall votes.

The sections are: MPs and MEPs, constituency Labour parties, and trade unions and other affiliated groups. The system means that the votes of the 271 MPs and MEPs carry vastly greater weight than the 170,000 party members. All voters rank the five candidates in order of preference.

The announcement, in Manchester, will take some time because the results are explained separately in each section. The candidate with the lowest vote will be eliminated and their voters redistributed until one candidate secures 50% of the vote in the electoral college. It may feel as if no candidate has won a clear mandate as the results are announced. This is because the votes in each section will be announced as a percentage of all elements of the electoral college. If the Sunday Times/YouGov poll is right and Ed Miliband secures 36% of first preferences of trade union members, this figure will appear far lower on the screen – as 12% of the overall electoral college. Capiche?

Gordon Brown, who has been in New York this week for the Millennium Development Goals summit, will make a brief return to the spotlight, speaking before the new leader is announced. Once the winner is declared he or she will then make their first speech as the new leader of the Labour party. The new leader's first challenge will come on Tuesday with the traditional leader's speech to conference. 

Brighton and Hove City Council to privatise services from November

From November, Brighton and Hove city council will also start offloading services, but it appears to be taking a much more nuanced approach than Barnet council or Suffolk county council to the problem of how to manage its budget cuts. The Tory-led council approved proposals in April that will see it focus on being an "intelligent commissioner" rather than automatically provide services itself. It says that even without central government funding cuts, it must save £45m by 2013-14.

"This new structure aims to deliver quality and innovation that squeezes out cost, duplication and looks for opportunities to collaborate with others both inside and outside the council and the city to share costs," a council spokesman said. Outsourcing is due to start in November and the intention is that the restructuring will be complete by next June. But the authority is clear that many services will still be provided in-house.

There is also an emphasis on social enterprises and voluntary organisations. The decision to outsource will only be taken if a service can be provided more efficiently and effectively, ideally by the voluntary sector. While some services may be transferred to the private sector, the council wants the reorganisation to enable the third sector to have more influence over local services, including by running more of them.

"Our aim is to deliver efficient and effective services that are designed around residents' needs. As part of this we will utilise joint working with a range of partners where it's identified as providing a better customer experience and improved efficiency. Where it is appropriate we will harness the expertise held by the city's vibrant civic society under the new structure," the spokesman said.

Ed Miliband now bookie's favourite to win Labour leadership race

For the first time since the contest began, Ed Miliband is favourite with bookmaker Coral to become the new leader of the Labour party. The younger Miliband is now the odds-on 8-11 favourite to replace Gordon Brown, with brother David out to evens.

Ed Miliband: a giant in his field

"With voting now closed, this is a significant change in the odds, and it's bad news for David Miliband supporters, with their man displaced as favourite at the crucial time," said Coral's David Stevens. "If the money talks, then Ed Miliband will be the new leader of the Labour party," added Stevens.

8-11 (from evens) Ed Miliband
Evens (from 4-9) David Miliband

I'm sure this means something to somebody.

Latest by-election results give Labour a boost prior to conference

Tories and Liberal Democrats swapped seats with each other in the latest council by-elections but the vote share surge was to Labour on the eve of its conference and the declaration of a new leader. Analysis of four comparable results suggests it has a projected 5% nationwide lead over Conservatives.

Lib Dem Alistair Dewhirst won a landslide victory against Tories at Ipplepen, Teignbridge District, Devon, on a 34.5% swing. The by-election was caused by the death of the authority's longest-serving councillor, 87-year-old Vic Elliott, after a tractor accident on his farm.

Tory John McGrory gained at Gosforth Valley, North East Derbyshire District, in a tight three-cornered fight which saw Labour pip Lib Dems for second place. Big swings to Labour in two of its Gateshead strongholds could spell bad news for Liberal Democrats who are defending control of Newcastle - just across the Tyne - in next May's elections.

Ken Livingstone beats Oona King to Labour nomination for London mayor

Ken Livingstone has beaten Oona King to the Labour nomination for London mayor, setting him up for a political rematch in the capital with his old rival Boris Johnson in 2012. The result, announced today in central London, officially brings Livingstone back to the political fold after two years of campaigning in the wings. Livingstone polled 68.6% of the votes, with King, the former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, on 31.4%. Johnson ended Livingstone's eight-year reign as London mayor in 2008 and the Conservative mayor will stand for re-election in two years' time.

The gorgeous Ken Livingstone

Accepting the nomination, Livingstone made it clear that he would campaign on an anti-government ticket. He said the 2012 mayoral vote, seen as the best barometer of public opinion before the 2015 general election, would be an opportunity for voters to voice their opposition to the coalition's public spending cuts. He said: "We will unite Londoners around a message to Cameron and Osborne that we don't want these cuts. If you want to get them out, you start by getting out Boris Johnson."

Livingstone also promised to hold down transport fares in London. "Fares will always be lower than if Boris Johnson is re-elected in 2012," he said, adding that the money to keep fares low would come from reinstating the western extension to the congestion charge. Labour's two-horse race for the nomination was decided by an electoral college made up of London's 35,000 party members and 38 London MPs, and the 400,000 voters belonging to the 14 unions and organisations affiliated to the London Labour party. Livingstone, 65, will address the Labour party conference in Manchester next Wednesday.

Coalition rules out council tax increase forcing privatisation of most services

"Middle class homeowners spared council tax hike" reads the Telegraph headline, referring to Eric Pickles's decision to postpone the long-planned revaluation exercise until after 2015. Suffolk County Council, meanwhile, is to outsource the majority of its services, according to the BBC, pointing out that under the New Strategic Direction, almost all council services will be offloaded to social enterprises or companies over the next few years. 

Now call me old-fashioned but I can't help thinking that the two are connected. As the coffers dwindle, more and more services will have to be put out to tender as councils can no longer afford to run even the most sensitive schemes such as child protection. And as the quangos are abolished, more and more councils will be relying on the generosity of the volunteering public and charities to help out, all in the name of the "Big Society".

Pickles said: “Hefty council tax bills are a constant financial worry for many people. Today we are setting their minds at ease. We have cancelled Labour’s plans for a council tax revaluation which would have hiked up taxes on people’s homes.” Actually, Eric, in their election manifesto, Labour promised not to carry out such a revaluation.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Delhi

Designed by adults, built by children

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Chelsea 3 - 4 Newcastle

Liverpool 2 - 4 Northampton

Scunthorpe 2 - 5 Man Utd


More pics here

Aston Villa 3 - 1 Blackburn

Paddy Ashdown talks to Andrew Rawnsley

UK named worst European country in which to live - like you needed telling

Where's best? Why, France, of course - like you needed telling. The UK has the fourth highest age (63.1) at which people choose or can afford to take retirement and one of the lowest holiday entitlements. Net household income in the UK is just £2,314 above the European average, compared with £10,000 above average last year, falling behind Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark.

UK workers enjoy a week less holiday than the European average and three weeks less than the Spanish, while the UK's spend (as a percentage of GDP) on health and education is below the European average and UK food and diesel prices are the highest in Europe. Unleaded petrol, electricity, alcohol and cigarettes all cost more than the average across the continent.

Ireland has the lowest numbers of hours of sunshine, the second lowest government spend on health as a proportion of GDP and the second highest retirement age of 64.1. If that's not bad enough, France, Spain, Germany, Holland, Sweden and Italy all enjoy a longer life expectancy than the UK, according to's latest Quality of Life Index.

The study examined sixteen factors to understand where the UK sits in relation to nine other major European countries. Variables such as net income, VAT and the cost of essential goods, such as fuel, food and energy bills, were examined along with lifestyle factors, such as hours of sunshine, holiday entitlement, working hours and life expectancy.

And then there's the one about your wages being paid directly to the government ...

You have until Thursday to stop this happening!

Spurs 1 - 4 Arsenal

A game of four halves, three yellow cards for Spurs, two penalties for Arsenal and one Jack Wilshere. There's only one Jack Wilshere.

More pics here

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Andrew Neil interviews Danny Alexander at the Lib Dem Conference

Vatican Bank 'investigated over money-laundering'

The head of the Vatican Bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, is under investigation as part of a money-laundering inquiry, police sources say. Prosecutors also seized 23m euros  from the bank's accounts with another smaller institution [jesus, no wonder Gorgeous George is always smiling - Ed]. The inquiry was launched after two suspicious transactions were reported to tax police in Rome. The Vatican said it was "perplexed and astonished" [I'm sure], and expressed full confidence in Mr Tedeschi.

The Vatican Bank, known officially as the Institute for Religious Works [hahahaha!], was created during World War II to administer accounts held by religious orders, cardinals, bishops and [Nazis] priests. In a statement, the Vatican said it had been working for some time to make its own finances more transparent to comply with anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering regulations.

Investigators are looking into claims that Mr Gotti Tedeschi and another senior official violated laws that require banks to disclose information on financial operations. The BBC's David Willey in Rome says the Bank of Italy's financial intelligence unit tipped off Italy's tax police last week, after two suspicious transactions were reported between the Vatican Bank and two different Italian banks. The tax police seized one deposit of 23m euros that the Vatican Bank had deposited with a small Italian bank called Credito Artigianato, Willey says.

The Vatican Bank was last mired in scandal in 1982 when its governor Archbishop Paul Marcinkus was indicted over his involvement with the collapse of what was then Italy's largest private bank, Banco Ambrosiano. Although he was never arrested, the fallout from that scandal took a darker turn when two of its top executives, one of them its chairman, Roberto Calvi, were murdered. Calvi, known as God's Banker because of his close ties to the Vatican, was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge in London.

Two mental health wards at Sussex hospitals to close

Two hospital wards are to close in a major shake up of mental health services in Sussex. The Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath will lose a ward, as will St Richard's Hospital, in Chichester. The changes, which take effect from next April, will also see 20 beds going from the Department of Psychiatry at Eastbourne District General Hospital. Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust said it was part of a plan to improve community mental health services.

Dr Tim Ojo, executive medical director at Sussex Partnership, said: "These changes are the right thing to do based on good clinical practice and on what people tell us they want from local services. They will enable us to develop a modern mental health service across Sussex." Other changes include more mental health professionals working alongside GPs in their surgeries to give advice and support, longer opening hours for community mental health services, and new services for people with dementia including faster diagnosis and assessments.

There will also be a new shared care ward at Princess Royal Hospital for people with physical health problems who also have dementia, and an expansion of the mental health liaison service in hospital emergency departments across Sussex. The trust said it was still committed to providing a hospital bed for people with a more severe mental health problem. However, Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, questioned whether the changes would be an improvement. "If beds are such a rare commodity, then people have to take an awful lot of risk with people who really may not be able to survive even with some of this improved support in the community," she said.

Clegg crawls to conference

The Liberal Democrats have not lost their soul by going into coalition with the Conservatives, party leader Nick Clegg has said. In his conference speech, he urged members to hold their nerve by serving a full five years in government. The deputy prime minister backed planned government spending cuts as the "only choice" for improving the economy. He also pledged to allow cash-strapped councils to borrow more money to fund large-scale projects.

Creepie-crawlie Clegg

The thirty-seven minute speech followed a conference defeat for the party leadership on Monday over its backing of the Conservative policy of introducing "free schools", outside of local authority control, which opponents argued was "socially divisive". And it came amid accusations from one of his own MPs that ordinary members are being ignored, with the Lib Dems at risk of becoming a "dictatorship".

In his address to delegates in Liverpool, Mr Clegg defended the partnership with the Tories, saying: "We confounded those who said that coalition government was impossible. We created a government which will govern and govern well for the next five years. Of course there are those who will condemn us. We are challenging years of political convention and tradition and our opponents will yell and scream about it. But I am so, so proud of the quiet courage and determination which you have shown through this momentous period in British political history. Hold our nerve and we will have changed British politics for good. Hold our nerve and we will have changed Britain for good. We will take risks in government. But we will never lose our soul. We haven't changed our liberal values. Our status is different but our ambition is the same."

Monday, 20 September 2010

Benedict beatifies Newman and leaves Britain

This morning the pope carried out one of the central purposes of his visit when some 55,000 people joined him under grey skies for a mass to beatify the 19th century ecclesiastic, theologian and poet Cardinal John Henry Newman. The German-born pope noted it was Battle of Britain day, praising the UK for "courageously resisting the forces of that evil ideology".

Addressing Catholic bishops at nearby Oscott College, he spoke for only the second time about Britain's economic and social difficulties. He said the global financial crisis had caused "hardship to countless individuals and families", adding: "The spectre of unemployment is casting its shadow over many people's lives, and the long-term cost of the ill-advised investment practices of recent times is becoming all too evident."

David Cameron this evening thanked Pope Benedict at the end of his historic UK visit for an "incredibly moving four days for our country" which had created a "challenge to us all to follow our conscience". But the prime minister also signalled a significant difference between himself and the pope over thinking on levels of secularity in the UK, saying that faith was "part of the fabric of our country" and that the trip had offered a message for people of "every faith and none".

Cameron spoke at Birmingham airport before the pope, who had warned of the dangers of "aggressive forms of secularism" and faithlessness, returned to Rome at the end of a visit packed with excitement, enthusiasm and tension in which the leader of the world's Roman Catholics was both challenging and challenged. Four days after his arrival in Edinburgh, opinions about the ideas of the leader of the world's Roman Catholics were as polarised as before, if not more so, but the pope had succeeded in his aim of prompting reflection on some fundamental political and religious questions, notably the extent to which the British want faith to play a role in public life.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Manchester United 3 - 2 Liverpool

More pics here

Majority of British Catholics disagree with the Pope

Not all self-defined British Catholics share their Church’s conservative opinions when it comes to topics such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality, a recent YouGov poll reveals. The poll was conducted one day before the start of the papal visit with a representative group of 1,636 British Catholics.

Despite Pope Benedict XVI’s repeated affirmations that contraception is wrong and that the war against AIDS in Africa should be fought with abstinence not condoms, 71% believe that contraception should be ‘used more often’ to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Just under a quarter (23%) think it is the couple’s choice, while a meagre 4% say artificial contraception is wrong and should not be used. 

Regarding abortion, 30% of Catholics said that all women less than 20 weeks pregnant should be allowed to abort their pregnancy, while a further 44% think that abortion is acceptable on grounds of rape, incest, severe disability to the child or as an indirect consequence of life-saving treatment for the mother. Just 6% said that abortion should never be allowed.

The Pope declared in 2008 that ‘saving the world from homosexual behaviour’ was just as important as ‘saving the rainforest.’ But according to the survey, just 11% of Catholics consider homosexual acts to be ‘morally wrong’. In fact, a substantial 41% responded ‘good for them’ when asked about ‘consenting adults having homosexual relations’ and believe we should ‘celebrate all loving relationships, whether gay or straight’.

Catholic priests are traditionally required to be celibate, in the belief that sexual abstinence increases their purity. There are increasing calls for priests to be allowed to make their own choice; this is backed up by 65% of Catholics who believe that Catholic priests should be allowed to marry, compared to 27% who think they should remain celibate.

The Catholic Church has been widely criticised for abuse scandals, which have seen senior members of the Church allegedly cover up cases of sexual abuse against minors. Most British Catholics are scathing towards the allegations. 87% think that the Catholic Church has been permanently damaged by the scandals, while 65% believe that the Vatican did try and cover up abuse cases and has been rightly criticised for doing so. Just 18% of Catholics consider the criticism to be unjustified. Despite criticisms regarding recent child abuse allegations, 72% are behind the Pope, believing he should continue in his position. However, Catholics are divided on the forthcoming papal visit, which will cost the British government an estimated £12 million. While 47% think this is an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money, a close 44% consider it inappropriate.

Cardinal Newman: Saint or Queen

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Homily of the Holy Father

"Here too I think of the immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the Church and by her ministers. Above all, I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes, along with my hope that the power of Christ’s grace, his sacrifice of reconciliation, will bring deep healing and peace to their lives. 

I also acknowledge, with you, the shame and humiliation which all of us have suffered because of these sins; and I invite you to offer it to the Lord with trust that this chastisement will contribute to the healing of the victims, the purification of the Church and the renewal of her age-old commitment to the education and care of young people. 

I express my gratitude for the efforts being made to address this problem responsibly, and I ask all of you to show your concern for the victims and solidarity with your priests."

This extract from Pope Benedict XVI's homily during the Eucharistic Celebration at Westminster Cathedral today is his most outspoken apology thus far in Britain. He expressed deep sorrow to the innocent victims of what he called these "unspeakable crimes". But the Pope also accepted that the Catholic Church as a whole had failed when he spoke of the "shame and humiliation all of us have suffered". That will be seen by many as coming close to the equivalent of an admission of corporate guilt.

But still Pope Benedict made no mention in his address of the systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church over many years of abuse around the world. So, although this latest apology will satisfy many within the Church and also some of its critics outside the faith, it may not be enough to satisfy some of the victims and those campaigning on their behalf.



It is one thing to make spending cuts in order to reduce the deficit but another to use the current economic conditions to dismantle the welfare state and siphon off taxpayers’ money to fund NHS privatisation. 

The coalition's proposed NHS reforms will not save a single penny; instead it will add new layers of management as overworked GPs outsource responsibilities to private management companies with little or no experience of health service delivery. These companies will not have the interests of the taxpaying public or patients in mind, favouring instead their directors and shareholders, and so profits will take priority over patient health. 

As a result, the cost of the NHS will actually rise as the private sector takes control of more areas of NHS treatment management and delivery, which has clearly been the objective of the Tories for some time despite their protestations to the contrary. Effectively, bringing about privatisation by stealth. 

The coalition and the right-wing press may criticise the NHS, but it is already more cost-effiicient than many health services in Europe and the US, the latter costing double per capita to deliver a partial service compared to our universal service, largely because of their need for private profits. 

By following this model the Tories and their LibDem apologists are condemning the NHS to a similar fate. The clear danger of this covert privatisation process is that as private profiteering encourages costs to spiral, so pressure will grow to end universal health delivery, cutting the inflated costs of private health companies by eventually means testing and restricting free treatments, as has happened with dental health. 

No LibDem would surely have voted for this; but many are following the Tories blindly towards this calamity, trapped in a toxic marriage of convenience, and too scared to seek an annulment. 

As Clegg draws the LibDems deeper into the mire it is time for LibDem MPs and supporters alike to make a choice; to stay loyal regardless of the costs or stay true to their principles and help to fight back against the destruction of the welfare state, which both the Labour and LibDems have sworn to uphold. It is time to stop the bickering and fight - for if we don't, the things we hold dear, but often take for granted, will be no more and the damage may be irreversible.

Clegg: There is no future for us as a party of the left

Nick Clegg has declared that there is "no future" for the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to Labour, appealing to his party to show "patience" and maintain a united front with the Conservatives. He spoke to Andrew Grice of the Independent.

Nick Clegg - he's the one with the tie

On the eve of Liberal Democrat conference starting today, Nick Clegg promised his party it would reap the electoral rewards if it held its nerve about its slump in the opinion polls. He said: "There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats as a sort of left-wing conscience of the Labour Party. I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was."

His comments suggest Mr Clegg is resigned to losing a section of his party's support after departing from the strategy of Charles Kennedy, who opposed the Iraq war. An Ipsos MORI poll this week showed Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 37 per cent with Liberal Democrats on 15 per cent, down from the 23 per cent they won at the May election. Some 32,000 people have joined Labour since May, including 10,000 who formerly supported the Liberal Democrats. Although 600 members have quit Mr Clegg's party, another 4,500 have joined.

Liberal Democrat Conference, September 2010

6.30pm: Nick Clegg leads rally marking launch of Yes campaign for next year's AV referendum

Morning: Speech by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Afternoon: Clegg holds question and answer session with party members

Morning: Debate on motion opposing Coalition's free schools and academies programme
Afternoon: Keynote speech by Clegg

Morning: Clegg to fly to UN conference on the Millennium Development Goals in New York
Speech by Simon Hughes, deputy party leader
Afternoon: Speech by Chris Huhne, Energy and Climate Change Secretary
Possible debate on Trident nuclear weapons system

Courtesy of the Independent

UPDATE: Trade unions were today banned from protesting outside the Liberal Democrat conference which gets under way in Liverpool this weekend. Union leaders slammed the ban as “outrageous”. The Lib Dems denied the ban was at their request, claiming the police had made the decision on “safety grounds”.

The police said the area around the Echo arena is “not suitable for protest of any size”, although demonstrations were allowed outside the venue during last year’s TUC conference and the National Rail Conference. The protestors will be expected to demonstrate from  the entrance to Salthouse  dock, hundreds of metres away.

Liverpool Echo

Friday, 17 September 2010

Housekeeping tip: hide the tee

'Right-to-buy' council house policy reviewed to appease Lib Dems

The government has begun a review of the "right to buy" scheme for council house tenants, calling into question one of Margaret Thatcher's most vaunted policies as it reaches out to Liberal Democrat backbenchers ahead of their party conference. The Lib Dems have been told the Tory housing minister Grant Shapps is looking for ways to increase the stock available to the swelling numbers on the waiting list. Shapps, who will attend the Lib Dem conference, is aware its rank and file want action on issues close to their hearts in return for support for the coalition.

For the Lib Dems, "right to buy" removes thousands of houses from circulation and prevents councils from being able to allocate homes to those on the lists. Tenants who have lived in a house for five years or more are able to buy their home. But with 4.5 million people on council housing waiting lists (1.8 million households) and an average of over five years to progress through to the front of the queue, Lib Dems are pushing for a reform of the system. A review of "right to buy" did not feature in the coalition agreement and Shapps said he would be extending it when he was shadow housing minister before the election. 

Any attempt to end the scheme will alarm many in the Conservative party. However, Shapps is supported in his review by Downing Street. He is reported to be aware that cities such as Hull have many more council houses than demand and so may decide to leave right to buy in place but has been persuaded that rural areas can not afford to allow a sale of stock at a time of soaring demand for council houses. Shapps is also looking at allowing councils to borrow against the value of some of the houses they own and use those assets to build more homes.