Sunday, 31 October 2010

The BBC deserves better than Mr Cameron's sneers

David Cameron enjoys joshing with journalists. He also, in a previous, non-political life, worked as a media public relations expert, lobbying against, among others, the BBC. So when he tells a Brussels press conference that we're all in the cuts and freeze business together, "including – deliciously – the BBC", it's probably best to leave high horses in the stable. You can make too much of a deliciously duff joke. But you also see why our prime minister needs to be very, very careful.

Is he in hock to Rupert Murdoch? Labour MPs, anxious to see more of his Number 10 visiting book, want fuller disclosure here. The two main Murdochs, father and son, have been heavy-footed and loose-tongued in their lobbying against the corporation. And 16% cuts in the BBC budget, plus a six-year licence fee freeze, rammed through in a 48 hours, speak nothing for government concern to protect either quality programming or broadcasting independence.

We should be clear. The BBC World Service the Foreign Office was happy to pay for until a few days ago now faces an uncertain future. The BBC's ability to compete as a world-class programme maker stands in grave doubt. Concomitant problems for creative industries here at home will be inescapable. These are serious cuts with serious consequences.

Of course, too much BBC top-salary foolishness has damaged the corporation's image. Of course, continuing spasms of introversion, such as the pending journalists' strike over pensions, don't help. Of course, the director general and the BBC Trust are currently forced to make the best of a bad job. But there is nothing delicious about their predicament, nor about the real losses of freedom and resource involved. The licence fee isn't a tax, to be turned on or off like some Whitehall tap. It is contract between viewer and corporation. It matters that this contract now seems in tatters. It matters, too, that politicians in power wipe the smiles from their faces as the damage is done.

Observer editorial

Harriet Harman apologises for calling Danny Alexander a ‘ginger rodent’

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Tory minister ‘intervened’ on behalf of ‘Chocfinger’

A Conservative cabinet minister intervened on behalf of one of the world's richest cocoa dealers to get a ban on trading lifted after receiving £40,000 in donations from the millionaire's company to his parliamentary office. Andrew Mitchell, the international development secretary, reportedly made the intervention after he was asked for help by Anthony Ward, whose firm, Armajaro Holdings, had been banned from trading following allegations that a contractor was involved in smuggling cocoa out of Ghana.

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The minister telephoned the British high commissioner in Ghana on the issue, according to internal government documents cited by the Sunday Times, despite the fact it involved British business interests overseas, which is outside Mitchell's remit. Officials in Mitchell's office also contacted the Foreign Office to say that the matter required "urgent attention". Henry Bellingham, a Foreign Office minister, subsequently lobbied Ghana's vice-president on behalf of Armajaro Holdings. A partial trading ban imposed on the company has now been lifted, although it remains in place in one district of Ghana.

Armajaro provided donations totalling £40,000 to Mitchell's parliamentary office between August 2006 and December 2009. The firm donated £50,000 separately to the Conservative party in 2004.

The Sunday Times said that Ward asked Mitchell to lobby the Ghanaian government "at a presidential level" weeks after May's general election. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act indicated that Foreign Office civil servants raised questions as to why the British government should intervene on behalf of Armajaro. "Is this… something we should lobby on? Or should the UK company realise they have broken the rules and have to pay the price?" asked on official during a recorded exchange of correspondence.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Cameron under fire from all sides as Coalition’s honeymoon ends

If David Cameron and Nick Clegg ever really enjoyed a honeymoon, this was the week when it ended. On Downing Street's news grid, the half-term break had been pencilled in to begin with Mr Cameron talking up growth in the economy in a long-planned CBI speech.

On Wednesday aides were ready to brief that Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, had stumbled for the second week running at the Commons Dispatch Box. Then the spinners planned to cap it with Mr Cameron getting tough in Brussels with spendthrift Eurocrats – a fillip to his party's right who are feeling increasingly unloved and uneasy in the new coalition world. Downing Street and the Foreign Office even prepared the ground by getting support from France and Germany.

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But it all turned out to be very different. The Government endured sustained criticism of plans to cut housing benefits led by the London Mayor Boris Johnson, who likened the policy to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It faced difficult questions over child benefit reforms and suggestions it was watering down the planned immigration cap. And Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, stole Mr Cameron's thunder at the CBI by mocking his Tory partners' lack of economic judgement.

As Mr Cameron travelled back from Brussels, the mood in the Coalition camp reflected the reality of running a two-party government in a country with no money. Government sources acknowledge the Coalition faces a "hard grind" following the upheaval of the power-sharing deal and the announcement of huge spending cuts. They are realising that in a coalition, attacks can come from all sides. This week saw not just a Labour onslaught and Liberal Democrat protests, but also an attack from Boris Johnson from the Tory left, criticism from Norman Tebbit from the right and whispers of "chaos" in the Treasury.

On the other hand, Labour's return to the political fray after months of introspection added to the pressure. Mr Miliband has made a confident start as Opposition leader, while Alan Johnson has confounded sceptics with a sure-footed debut as shadow Chancellor.

Friday, 29 October 2010

David Cameron baits BBC over spending freeze

As a modernising Tory, David Cameron does well to hide his past as a traditionalist who would once have fulminated against the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation. But a hint of the old Cameron slipped out today when he interrupted a press conference at the EU summit to speak of the "delicious" BBC spending freeze. “We are all in it together including, deliciously, the BBC, who in another negotiation have agreed a licence fee freeze for six years," the prime minister said. "So what is good for the EU is good for the BBC, is good for everyone."

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Cameron had a pop at the BBC when two journalists from the corporation asked two questions in a row. Gavin Hewitt, the BBC's Europe editor, first asked about Tory Eurosceptic concerns over Cameron's decision to abandon his campaign for a cut or a freeze in the EU budget for 2011. He was followed by Matt Cole, the BBC's nations and regions correspondent in Brussels, who asked about the coalition's proposal to fine higher-rate taxpayers who claim child benefit from 2013.

The PM answered Cole's question and then spotted a third BBC journalist, Newsnight's political editor Michael Crick. To laughter, he said: "Good to see that costs are being controlled everywhere.– so let's take a third question from the BBC – Michael Crick." Crick asked how Cameron could explain his decision to endorse a 2.91% rise in the EU budget while the British public are facing cuts. Cameron defended his decision on the EU and then hailed the freeze in the BBC licence fee. "I'm afraid it is going to be freeze," he added. "But I am sure there are some savings available."

Government confirms sale of public forestry

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has today published a letter (below) sent to MPs outlining its intention to fundamentally reform the public forestry estate, with diminishing public ownership and a greater role for private and civil society partners. At the same time, the Government has reiterated its firm commitment to biodiversity and other public benefits which forests and woodland provide.

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“In view of recent speculation I am writing to explain the reason behind the inclusion of powers for modernisation of the forestry legislation in the Public Bodies Bill, which has just been introduced into Parliament.

Contrary to some beliefs, the Forestry Commission’s estate covers only 18% of England’s wooded areas. Nevertheless it is of great importance in the provision of access, biodiversity, carbon storage and many other public benefits. Some of it is producing much of our domestic timber, other areas are almost entirely devoted to public benefit and others are a mix of the two.

We are committed to shifting the balance of power from ‘Big Government’ to ‘Big Society’ by giving individuals, businesses, civil society organisations and local authorities a much bigger role in protecting and enhancing the natural environment and a much bigger say about our priorities for it.

By including enabling powers in the Bill we will be in a position to make reforms to managing the estate. We will consult the public on our proposals later this year, and will invite views from a wide range of potential private and civil society partners on a number of new ownership options and the means to secure public benefits.  We envisage a managed programme of reform to further develop a competitive, thriving and resilient forestry sector that includes many sustainably managed woods operating as parts of viable land-based businesses.

We will not compromise the protection of our most valuable and biodiverse forests. Full measures will remain in place to preserve the public  benefits of woods and forests under any new ownership arrangements.  Tree felling is controlled through the licensing system managed by the Forestry Commission, public rights of way and access will be unaffected, statutory protection for wildlife will remain in force and there will be grant incentives for new planting that can be applied for. When publishing our proposals we will explore further the options for securing and increasing the wide range of public benefits currently delivered by Government ownership and how they might be achieved at lower cost.

This will be a new approach to ownership and management of woodlands and forests, with a reducing role for the State and a growing role for the private sector and civil society. At the same time, it reflects the Government’s firm commitment to the continued conservation of the biodiversity and other public benefits which forests and woodland provide.  These aims are not incompatible with alternative models of ownership, or our commitment to the natural environment.”


Details of the Public Bodies Bill can be found here: www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/newsroom/news_releases/2010/101029-quango.aspx

More information on Defra’s forestry policy can be found here:
http://ww2.defra.gov.uk/rural/forestry/

Victory over the Sun

CRI_2459

Neuer (New Man) from Figurinen, die Plastische Gestaltung der elektro-mechanischen Schau "Sieg über die Sonne" (Figurines: The Three-Dimensional Design of the Electro-Mechanical Show "Victory over the Sun")
El Lissitzky (Russian, 1890-1941)

The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street  New York, NY 10019

Foxhunting ban likely to remain thanks to new generation of Tory MPs

The election of a new generation of Conservative MPs opposed to blood sports is likely to block attempts to repeal the ban on foxhunting with hounds, according to members of the latest Commons intake.

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A full vote to legalise the pursuit of wild mammals with dogs is therefore unlikely to be held during this parliament because there is insufficient support, animal rights campaigners maintain. Figures on the parliamentary arithmetic collected by the League Against Cruel Sports are supported by soundings taken by some anti-hunting Tory MPs.

The field sports community, however, believes the establishment of a new Hunting Regulatory Authority will smooth the way to a compromise settlement under which hunts could be suspended if they broke an agreed future code of conduct.

The exchange of political challenges comes as hunt monitors and riders prepare for the traditional start of the new season this weekend. A series of court cases are also expected against several hunt members, involving investigations and hearings that will test the legal effectiveness of the ban.

The European Union is in trouble

Guardian Editorial: Europe is in a mess. The European Union is in trouble. Today's summit in Brussels is unlikely to do much to help. David Cameron, like his fellow leaders, can only hope to limit the damage: and even as he does so he can hear the ghoulish sound of Tory Euroscepticism rising from the grave.

The summit faces trouble from three directions. The first is the enfeebled condition of many European governments. To pick the news almost at random, this week the Romanian government narrowly survived a confidence vote; talks on the Portuguese budget collapsed and President Sarkozy was battling (successfully) to pass his pension reforms. Ireland is preparing for another round of spending cuts; Belgium hardly exists at all. These are not promising times for effective deal-making between strong leaders.

Second, the European Union is in the middle of an indulgent institutional upheaval. The Lisbon treaty was necessary, but some of its consequences were not. Lady Ashton, Europe's new foreign minister, announced the other day that she will spend £10.5m a year on new offices; the European parliament has voted for a 6% increase in EU spending next year, including a 4.5% rise in administration costs. At a time when most EU governments are cutting their domestic budgets, such things are provocative – and British Tories have been duly provoked. Yesterday Lord Tebbit warned Mr Cameron that he risked a "Vichy-style surrender" if he agreed to a budget rise. Last week 37 Tory backbenchers voted against one. The coalition provides some ballast: Mr Cameron is playing a more co-operative role at the summit than he ever could have done as a purely Tory prime minister. But his freedom is limited: even conceding a 2.9% increase in the EU budget will bring him trouble in his party at home.

Third, and most serious, is the European Union's response to economic crisis. Germany, with a growing economy and unemployment now below 3 million for the first time in 18 years, fears being dragged down by its EU partners. Germans bailed out Greece and stabilised the eurozone. Now the German government wants to overhaul the rules to prevent future budgetary implosion. But the existing rules were not the reason Greece went bust and Ireland overspent. Changing them – which could require a controversial reopening of European treaties – is a distraction.

Britain is still hoping to secure a freeze in the EU budget – which would be a success for Mr Cameron. He could tolerate the more probable 2% rise. But these things are trifles compared to Europe's search for economic growth. That is the challenge the EU is facing – and failing.

Government strategy turns concept of social housing on its head

Government housing reforms were under attack on multiple fronts tonight as council home associations predicted they would backfire by driving up overall welfare bills and Boris Johnson warned against "Kosovo-style social cleansing" of poorer people from cities such as London. Downing Street moved to squash growing ministerial dissent by signalling there would be no retreat from the biggest shake-up to social housing since the welfare state was created, with a series of radical changes to rents and savage cuts to the budget for building new homes.

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Last week George Osborne, the chancellor, announced that the housing budget for England would be cut from £8.4bn over the previous three-year period to £4.4bn over the next four years with any new properties being built by "massively increasing" rent to up to 80% of the market rate. But the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations, says the scheme would increase welfare bills as most tenants charged the new rates would have their rents paid for through housing benefit. The changes, including the removal of lifetime tenure for council tenants, are designed to ease the pressures on social housing, with 1.8m households on the waiting list for a subsidised home – almost double the number since the Tories were last in government in 1997.

The federation says that in areas where rents are already high, such as the London boroughs of Camden, Hackney and Haringey, many tenants moving into new social homes would face bills of £340 per week for a three-bedroom property. Even if people could get a job, their earnings would disappear in high rent repayments. This would mean they "would have to earn at least £54,000 before they could get off housing benefit and be in a position where they could keep the bulk of their additional salary and find themselves better off in work".

Thursday, 28 October 2010

It just got grimmer up north

Blackburn with Darwen council in Lancashire has announced today that it must find cuts of 36% over the next four years – more than a third of its entire budget, and millions of pounds more than it was expecting. Not only must it find more savings (it was anticipating cuts in line with the headline 25% funding cut for local authorities in the comprehensive spending review), it must find them quickly. Astonishingly, more than half of its total £48m savings target will have to be delivered next year, in 2011-12, meaning jobs and services will disappear almost overnight.

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This is called "frontloading" the cuts – and it will have precisely the sort of juddering, violent impact on jobs and services that makes ministers quake. They have been pleading with councils not to start cutting jobs straight away. As deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said:

"Local authorities … shouldn't immediately start issuing redundancy notices for savings that they can phase in over four years and where, through voluntary redundancies, natural wastage and so on, maybe the pressure isn't quite as great as they initially think it to be."

Unfortunately Blackburn, in common with other councils in deprived areas, does not appear to have any choice. This is because its overall spending has been highly reliant on areas based grants – packets of money issued by central government departments which recognize and are meant to address specific deprivation needs, from family breakdown to crime.

Captain SKA | Liar Liar

Steve Bell, the Guardian

Michael Gove's former adviser given £500,000 free schools contract

Michael Gove’s education department failed to invite bids for a £500,000 grant to assist parents setting up free schools, before awarding it to his former adviser. The New Schools Network, a charity and company run by the education secretary's former colleague, Rachel Wolf, 25, was awarded the grant by the Department for Education in June. No other organisation was asked to tender for the contract, which was not publicly advertised.

02 Rachel Ward – her door is always open

The disclosure in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act could heighten some of the criticisms the new schools have attracted. The schools, which are independent of local authority control, will allow groups to create more autonomous schools with small class sizes, Gove argues, though critics say they could wreck social harmony by creating ethnic or religious enclaves.

The network – which is yet to receive the money – is at the heart of the plans for the schools which were inspired by US Charter schools and has a role in the application process. Lisa Nandy, a Labour member of the Commons education select committee who has asked the Charity Commission to investigate the role of the New Schools Network, said that the role of Gove and his department must also be scrutinised.

"The question remains why they felt that a lobbying organisation that was set up specifically to promote the benefits of free schools and has been in existence for less than a year was best placed to provide impartial information to groups seeking advice," she said. The coalition insists they are cutting consultancy and quango costs and so, in this "age of austerity", why did they not see fit to deliver this service, which is in effect parroting their own policy, in-house?"

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Mohammed most popular boy's name in England and Wales

Mohammed was the most popular name for newborn baby boys in England and Wales in 2009, according to official data. However, 12 different spellings of the name, each listed separately, meant that Oliver officially topped poll. The name, given to 7364 children, ended Jack's 14-year reign at number one, with Harry, Alfie and Joshua rounding out the top five in the figures published by the Office for National Statistics.

44 Jack’s 14-year reign at number one comes to an end

The two most common spellings of the Muslim name came in at 16th and 36th place, a total of 7,549 baby boys, making it the most popular name overall. The most common spelling, Mohammed, was the number one name in its own right in the West Midlands region of central England which includes the city of Birmingham, and number four in London.

Olivia, meanwhile, remained the most common girls' name with 5,201 children of that name, followed by Ruby, Chloe, Emily and Sophie. The highest climber in the girls' top 100 was Maisie, up 29 places to number 34. Austin showed the largest rise of any name in the top 100 for boys, surging from number 160 in 2008 to 100th place in 2009.

England and Manchester United footballer Wayne Rooney's son Kai was one of 1012 born last year, making it the 68th most popular boys' baby name. Alfie was the highest climbing new entry to the boys' top 10, up 60 to number four over the past ten years. More generally, the last 10 years showed a resurgence of popularity among names popular around the start of the twentieth century.

In another development, there were 16 newborn Kings in 2009, three King Davids, 68 Princes, eight Dukes, 11 Earls, four Barons and four Lords born. Amongst the girls, there were 12 Queenies, seven Queens, 109 Princesses and five Ladys. Florence, the name of Prime Minister David Cameron's new baby, was at number 80 last year. There were 706,248 live births in England and Wales in 2009.

NHS funding for homeopathy risks misleading patients, says chief scientist

Patients are at risk of being misled over the benefits of homeopathy by the government's decision to fund the remedies on the NHS, the country's most senior scientist warned today. Sir John Beddington, the government's chief scientific adviser, said patients might believe homeopathic treatments could protect them against serious illnesses, or treat existing conditions, because GPs and hospitals are allowed to prescribe them on the NHS.

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Tens of thousands of people are given homeopathic pills and other preparations by their GPs or at Britain's four homeopathic hospitals, at an estimated cost to the NHS of between £4m and £10m a year. Most homeopathic remedies are diluted multiple times to the point that only water is left, while others are essentially sugar pills.

Professor Beddington said ministers agreed to fund homeopathy on the grounds of "public choice", despite there being "no real evidence" that the remedies work. "I have made it completely clear that there is no scientific basis for homeopathy beyond the placebo effect and that there are serious concerns about its efficacy," Professor Beddington told the Commons science and technology committee today.

He went on to warn that government funding for homeopathy risked legitimising unproven treatments and that patients could harm their health by choosing these over conventional vaccines and medicines. "There is a danger that the public will think that there is real efficacy for some serious conditions and I believe we have to work on that and make clear that this is not correct," he told the committee.

Problem drinkers could face compulsory alcohol tests

People convicted of crimes when drunk could face compulsory alcohol tests with the threat of jail if they fail them under a pilot scheme to be introduced in the New Year. The ''24/7 sobriety'' programme involves people paying to be tested for alcohol twice a day after being convicted of drink-related crime, and appearing in court to face the prospect of custody if they test positive.

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It has already been implemented in the US, with the state of South Dakota reporting a 14 per cent drop in the prison population as a result, according to Deputy Mayor of London Kit Malthouse. He said he would like to pilot the scheme in the capital in the New Year, subject to government approval. He described London as having a "desperate problem" with alcohol where up to 50 per cent of crime is alcohol-related.

"The advantage of this is it is not just punitive but corrective," he told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. "It may be that it is used as an alternative to prison or conjunctive to prison." Mr Malthouse said that current methods such as counselling did not work to discourage persistent offenders and that some needed a "more rigorous approach". He added: "If you ask the police there are some people who cause trouble every Saturday night."

Mr Malthouse said the American version of the scheme had a 99 per cent compliance rate and that it was "of no cost to the tax payer", because the people taking part paid a dollar per alcohol test. He described it as a ''cheaper and more cost-effective'' alternative to prison.The deputy mayor said that he hoped the scheme would have an impact on the amount of domestic violence that takes place in London, much of which is drink related. He said that in Dakota people can be on the programme for one to two years.

Mr Malthouse concluded: ''We would like to try it here. We do think drink is a great driver of crime in this city.'' However, Don Shenker, who runs Alcohol Concern, said he did not think "compulsory sobriety" was the best way to teach people to drink moderately and called for more government funding for alcohol education programmes. He said: "The evidence shows that if you give people brief advice on their drinking and ask them to look at why they are drinking then they can change that."

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Treasury to get £1bn windfall in Swiss deal over secret bank accounts

The Treasury expects a multimillion pound windfall after entering talks with the Swiss authorities over thousands of untaxed bank accounts. Switzerland has agreed to support the UK's efforts to tax offshore accounts in a move that mimics an earlier agreement with Liechtenstein. The development, which follows a long-running campaign backed by the Guardian to clamp down on tax evasion, is expected to raise £1bn in extra revenues.

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It is understood negotiations opened recently between the two countries as part of a wider EU attack on secret bank accounts held in Switzerland. The UK expects to agree a withholding tax that would be applied by the Swiss authorities and sent to the UK exchequer. Negotiations are believed to be at an early stage and are likely to include calls for a broader exchange of information between Swiss banks and HM Revenue & Customs.

Treasury sources stressed that it would not be revealing any details of tax rates, or amounts that might be raised. However, the number of people covered by an agreement would be likely to exceed the Liechtenstein deal and raise more than £1bn. The initiative comes after two HMRC amnesties have failed to entice many wealthy taxpayers with offshore accounts to declare their taxable income.

Last year HMRC began its second amnesty, promising to withdraw penalties if taxpayers declared their taxable income, mainly on investments. A 10% penalty was applied to taxpayers coming forward with details of offshore arrangements. At the time, the tax authority hinted it planned to use powers to parachute in investigators to question officials in tax havens.

It is understood only 10% of the hoped-for 100,000 taxpayers came forward by the first deadline. HMRC officials said around 1,100 came forward by the second deadline in January, after which officials said a 100% penalty would apply to all unpaid offshore tax bills. Swiss officials have previously refused to bow to demands for records unless HMRC provided a name and details of the local bank under investigation. Without the details HMRC was powerless to see the interest earned by individuals and deposited in Swiss banks.

The Treasury is understood to believe that a deal with the Swiss is the only route to generating any tax from Britons with offshore accounts in the country. A discussion of tax on interest earned in the past was also on the table. Germany has also started talks with the Swiss in a move that could potentially reap multibillion pound tax benefits. Earlier this year an amnesty by the Rome tax authorities led to more than €15bn returning from Swiss banks to Italy.

Willetts announces end of state funding for social sciences

David Willetts today announced the effective end of state funding for degree courses in arts, humanities, and social science subjects, writes Will Straw on the “political blog for progressives” Left Foot Forward.

The cut will mean the full burden of funding for courses such as history (George Osborne, Andrew Mitchell, Chris Huhne), politics (David Cameron, Andrew Lansley, Philip Hammond), social anthropology (Nick Clegg), geography (Theresa May), and European studies (Caroline Spelman) will fall in future on students. The announcement came today at a Commons Select Committee hearing where Business Secretary Vince Cable and Higher Education Minister David Willetts gave evidence.

According to the BBC:

“Mr Willetts said Lord Browne’s proposals envisaged most of the teaching funding “going in a different way – going via the student” by means of a graduate contribution. Under this model, which he endorsed, he said “the teaching grant becomes a much less significant source of resource for universities.” And he confirmed that, under Lord Browne’s proposals, the teaching grant for band C and D subjects – arts, social sciences and humanities – would be all but wiped out.”

The Browne Review recommended a change in funding arrangements for University courses with state funding from the new HE Council going only to:

“Clinical training programmes – this will contain the clinical components of what is currently known as Price Group A: courses such as medicine and veterinary science. Priority programmes – this will contain the programmes currently known as Price Group B and potentially some proportion of Price Group C: this is primarily science and technology as well as healthcare courses.”

The omission of any mention of the funding arrangements for arts, humanities, and social sciences – which fall primarily in Price Group D – was replicated in a press release from Willetts’s Business Department last Wednesday which mentioned only the continued funding of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. The arrangements are unlikely to take place until increased fees are brought in. Just yesterday, Hefce released a ‘review of subject price groups for 2010‘ which outlined that, “no changes will be made to subject price groups for 2011-12.”

Will Straw, Left Foot Forward

Monday, 25 October 2010

Number of job vacancies invalidates Duncan Smith’s ‘get on a bus’ comment

A row over Iain Duncan Smith's remarks that the unemployed should "get on a bus" to find work flared up today, when a study found there were almost nine times more jobseekers than jobs in the city at the centre of the controversy. The work and pensions secretary said last week that Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales was an example of a place where people had become "static" and did not know that if they got on the bus they would be in Cardiff an hour later, and could look for work there.

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"We need to recognise the jobs often don't come to you. Sometimes you need to go to the jobs," said the former Tory leader, who was criticised by union leaders for "insulting" the unemployed. Research by the Public and Commercial Services union showed there were 15,000 people in Cardiff chasing 1,700 jobs, while in Merthyr there were 1,670 unemployed people and 39 job vacancies, all temporary and part-time.

The number of people out of work in Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent combined was more than the total number of job vacancies for the whole of Wales, said the PCS. The vast majority of vacancies in Cardiff were temporary and part-time, mainly unskilled labouring, for just one or three weeks' duration, said the union. The most popular vacancy on the day the union carried out its research last week was a Christmas job in a well-known store working four-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays for the national minimum wage.

Among the permanent jobs was work in a casino or bars. Neither offered help with journeys home afterwards and the last bus out of Cardiff leaves at 11.06pm, the union pointed out. "Workers from outside the city might be able to get the bus to work, but they would not be able to get home," said a spokesman. "These figures prove it is not a question of people not being willing to work, there simply are not enough jobs for them to do – and there are unlikely to be any time soon because of the government's plans to cut public spending, including cutting 15,000 more jobs in the Department for Work and Pensions."

Diary of a Civil Servant: Thanks to the cuts, we'd all be better off in prison

A senior government adviser has been keeping a diary since the general election. The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, shares his thoughts with the Guardian …

It was a unique week in Whitehall and civil servants are shattered. Last-minute changes to the spending review kept Treasury staff up most of Tuesday night. Officials and ministers have been working flat out for weeks. Now there is relief and catharsis. It has been exhausting carrying all these numbers around in our heads, anxious about what people will think when they see them. Now everyone knows our terrible secret and it feels good finally to share it.

The spending review is a hugely ambitious plan. But that is all it is. In Westminster, we are worried. We know it will be almost impossible to deliver many of the savings that have been promised. There is too much reliance on "efficiencies" becoming real cash savings. As every good civil servant knows, efficiencies are projections and promises – they don't yet exist in real life.

There is a vain hope that police budget efficiencies will prevent thousands of policemen being sacked, NHS efficiencies will prevent thousands of nurses and doctors being sacked, local government efficiencies will paper over the widening cracks, and shared services will reduce the overall cost of government. Sadly, the more likely scenario is some savings and a lot of sackings.

The most amusing target of all – 3,000 fewer prisoners by 2014 – has caused much laughter at the Ministry of Justice, especially when prisoner numbers are at a record high, having doubled over the last 15 years. It is a fantasy number, unless the Treasury has calculated that cuts to police officers and courts services will mean fewer criminals being caught and convicted.

Chernobyl Cole freaks out X Factor audience

Halloween came early for the studio audience of X Factor last night as they were subjected to a frenzied outburst from crazed monster Chernobyl Cole, an hour before the main programme began. Chernobyl was obviously in some distress, having just escaped from the ambulance where she had been bound and gagged for the safety of the public.

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She proceeded to gatecrash an energetic warm-up number called Promise This and managed to mime her way through the vocals, waving her arms about like a woman possessed. It was some time before paramedics managed to get her back into the ambulance to prepare her for the start of the show. Having pondered over how best to conceal their huge gaffe they decided to stick with  the Bedlam look.

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Their imaginative cover-up  seemed to go unnoticed and most of the audience thought her straitjacket and leg-irons were just some crazy fashion statement, rather than a primitive method of keeping her legs shut. Several shots of morphine later and Chernobyl was back to her ‘normal’ self although no amount of drugs could alter that hideous accent.

ITV bosses breathed a collective sigh of relief and skimmed over the whole debacle with the briefest of statements denying that Miss Cole had mimed at all during her performance. You’d almost think it had been planned.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Councils plan for exodus of poor families from London

Ministers were accused last night of deliberately driving poor people out of wealthy inner cities as London councils revealed they were preparing a mass exodus of low-income families from the capital because of coalition benefit cuts.

Representatives of London boroughs told a meeting of MPs last week that councils have already block-booked bed and breakfasts and other private accommodation outside the capital – from Hastings, on the south coast, to Reading to the west and Luton to the north – to house those who will be priced out of the London market.

Councils in the capital are warning that 82,000 families – more than 200,000 people – face losing their homes because private landlords, enjoying a healthy rental market buoyed by young professionals who cannot afford to buy, will not cut their rents to the level of caps imposed by ministers.

The controversy follows comment last week by Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, who said the unemployed should "get on the bus" and look for work. Another unnamed minister said the benefit changes would usher in a phenomenon similar to the Highland Clearances in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when landlords evicted thousands of tenants from their homes in the north of Scotland.

You know you’re in trouble when Americans give you a history lesson

The British government seems determined to ignore the lessons of history, writes Paul Krugman in the New York Times.

“In the spring of 2010, fiscal austerity became fashionable. I use the term advisedly: the sudden consensus among Very Serious People that everyone must balance budgets now now now wasn’t based on any kind of careful analysis. It was more like a fad, something everyone professed to believe because that was what the in-crowd was saying.

And it’s a fad that has been fading lately, as evidence has accumulated that the lessons of the past remain relevant, that trying to balance budgets in the face of high unemployment and falling inflation is still a really bad idea. Most notably, the confidence fairy has been exposed as a myth. There have been widespread claims that deficit-cutting actually reduces unemployment because it reassures consumers and businesses; but multiple studies of historical record, including one by the International Monetary Fund, have shown that this claim has no basis in reality.

No widespread fad ever passes, however, without leaving some fashion victims in its wake. In this case, the victims are the people of Britain, who have the misfortune to be ruled by a government that took office at the height of the austerity fad and won’t admit that it was wrong.

Britain, like America, is suffering from the aftermath of a housing and debt bubble. Its problems are compounded by London’s role as an international financial center: Britain came to rely too much on profits from wheeling and dealing to drive its economy — and on financial-industry tax payments to pay for government programs.

Coalition plans huge sell-off of Britain's forests

Ministers are planning a massive sell-off of Britain's Government-owned forests as they seek to save billions of pounds to help cut the deficit, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.

Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, is expected to announce plans within days to dispose of about half of the 748,000 hectares of woodland overseen by the Forestry Commission by 2020. The controversial decision will pave the way for a huge expansion in the number of Center Parcs-style holiday villages, golf courses, adventure sites and commercial logging operations throughout Britain as land is sold to private companies.

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Legislation which currently governs the treatment of "ancient forests" such as the Forest of Dean and Sherwood Forest is likely to be changed giving private firms the right to cut down trees. Laws governing Britain's forests were included in the Magna Carta of 1215, and some date back even earlier. Conservation groups last night called on ministers to ensure that the public could still enjoy the landscape after the disposal, which will see some woodland areas given to community groups or charitable organisations.

However, large amounts of forests will be sold as the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) seeks to make massive budget savings as demanded in last week's Spending Review. Whitehall sources said about a third of the land to be disposed of would be transferred to other ownership before the end of the period covered by the Spending Review, between 2011 and 2015, with the rest expected to go by 2020. A source close to the department said: "We are looking to energise our forests by bringing in fresh ideas and investment, and by putting conservation in the hands of local communities." Unions vowed to fight the planned sell-off.

Defra was one of the worst-hit Whitehall departments under the Spending Review, with Ms Spelman losing around 30 per cent of her current £2.9 billion annual budget by 2015. The Forestry Commission, whose estate was valued in the 1990s at £2.5 billion, was a quango which was initially thought to be facing the axe as ministers drew up a list of arms-length bodies to be culled. However, when the final list was published earlier this month it was officially earmarked: "Retain and substantially reform – details of reform will be set out by Defra later in the autumn as part of the Government's strategic approach to forestry in England."

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Robin van Persie keeps a straight face

London's firefighters have to strike

London firefighters are going on strike today, writes Matt Wrack in today’s Guardian. It is a terrible step to have to take. But firefighters in London feel it is the only step they can now take.

“On 11 August, the London Fire Brigade formally began the legal process of terminating the employment contracts of 5,600 London firefighters. If they had not started that process, we would not be on strike. If the dismissals are lifted now, the strike will be called off straight away. People say to me: it can't be that simple. But it is. Firefighters hate going on strike, but they hate being bullied even more. The LFB is trying to bully them, and they won't have it. That's why there was a 79% majority in our ballot for a strike, on a 79% turnout; a huge mandate.

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Of course there's a background as well. Our disagreement with the LFB did not arise on 11 August. There's a specific background, and a general one. The LFB was acting under section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. If, 90 days after the start of this process, we have not reached an agreement which is satisfactory to the employer they have placed themselves in a position where they may legally fire all 5,600, and offer them re-employment on unilaterally imposed contracts.

It is a process which is designed to avoid having to negotiate a settlement. Why negotiate when you can sack everyone and invite them back on new contracts? It is also a process that is spreading. 26,000 workers at Birmingham city council have received similar letters under section 188; so too have 8,500 at Sheffield city council. It is a real return to Victorian values: "Do it our way or clear off!"

In the LFB our negotiations were originally about shift patterns. Until 11 August, talks were being conducted in what both sides recognised was a constructive spirit. Currently London firefighters work two day shifts a week of nine hours each, from 9am to 6pm, and two night shifts of 15 hours each, from 6pm to 9am. The employer wants a new system of two 12-hour day shifts from 8am to 8pm, and two 12-hour night shifts, from 8pm to 8am.

Dave’s personal demons


Riddell, the Observer

Ruthless Tory ministers have chewed up and spat out Mr Clegg, says Andy Burnham

It is hard to detect any discernible Liberal Democrat influence in the detail of Wednesday's announcements. One by one, Nick Clegg's reassurances to his MPs, councillors and members are falling to bits, writes Andy Burnham in today’s Guardian.

“It will take time for people to absorb the full impact of Wednesday's spending review, but one thing will be clearer today to many voters. Raucous Tory cheers for deep cuts will have helped cement an impression that had been forming in the public mind. This is no coalition government. This is a Tory government in which Liberal Democrats have accepted jobs.

02 He’s just having a break from his food, Nick

On Wednesday, his position was severely weakened on two fronts. First, on university funding, the full extent of Clegg's ideological journey was laid bare. When Vince Cable said the Browne report was "on the right lines", it was sold to Lib Dems as practical politics in the current financial climate to revisit their "no rise in fees" pledge. But something completely different emerged on Wednesday. The Treasury green book describes an ideological shift, pledging "major reform … to shift a great proportion of the funding from the taxpayer to the individuals who benefit".

For years, Lib Dems have said the state should bear the biggest burden. Labour has been in the middle, arguing for a partnership between student and state. The Tories have hinted at an individual, market-based approach. In a few short days the Lib Dem leadership has leapfrogged Labour to embrace this ideology.

This intellectual turmoil on fees provides the essential context for what is about to become an even bigger problem for Clegg. Recognising his weakening ground on universities, Clegg has begun in recent weeks to bet the shop on his pupil premium. Bite the bullet on fees, he's been telling his members, because we've got our manifesto commitment on schools.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Network Royal

03 Bell, Guardian

The Welfare State

garl-21_1743809a Garland, Telegraph

Iain Duncan Smith tells unemployed to get on the bus and find work

In echoes of Lord Tebbit, who in 1981 urged the public to copy his own father who "got on his bike to look for work", he said that people must be prepared to travel outside their own town to find employment. He told the BBC's Newsnight that "in fairness" to those on low incomes who pay taxes to support the disadvantaged people on unemployment benefit should "make some reasonable effort to get work".

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The Work and Pensions Secretary insisted that jobs were available "fairly evenly" up and down the country and said that around 450,000 jobs were created every week within job centres. He added that within the casual economy there would be a similar number of jobs available. When he was given the example of people living in Blaenau Gwent in the south Wales valleys who claimed there was no work available Mr Duncan-Smith said they should be prepared to travel to find jobs.

"The truth is there are jobs. They may not be absolutely in the town you are living in. They may be in a neighbouring town," he said, citing Merthyr Tydfil as an example of people who had become "static" and who "didn't know if they got on the bus an hour's journey they'd be in Cardiff and they could look for the job there". He added: "We need to recognise the jobs don't always come to you. Sometimes you need to got to the jobs."

When asked if he was paraphrasing Lord Tebbit he answered: "People who are in work on low marginal incomes are paying quite significant sums in tax to help people who are in really difficult circumstances through the benefit system. We need to see some fairness to them too. They should expect therefore that when there is work available people should make reasonable effort to take that work." He claimed that the new government work programme would target the long term unemployed and make them ready for the workplace.

Three Conservative London councils set to merge

Three Conservative London councils have announced plans that could see them merge all their services and create the UK's first "super-council". Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster say the move could save £50m to £100m a year. Under the merger, each authority would retain its political identity with its own elected leaders and councillors.

Critics argue a wholesale merger would damage the local provision of services and standards would fall. They say fewer staff would be trying to cover a bigger area. Efforts are already under way to merge the three councils' children's services departments, which cover education, but now the authorities are considering whether to go further. The plans will be formally announced later and if they are adopted could create a local authority bigger than Glasgow or Leeds.

A series of working groups will be set up to look at ways of merging three main areas - environmental services, family services and corporate services. The groups are due to be report back by February next year and afterwards more detailed plans will be put out to public consultation. In a joint statement, the leaders of the three councils, Colin Barrow (Westminster), Stephen Greenhalgh (Hammersmith and Fulham) and Sir Merrick Cockell (Kensington and Chelsea) said that potentially sharing every service was a way to "reduce duplication and drive out needless cost".

Lutfur Rahman becomes first directly-elected executive mayor of Tower Hamlets

Independent candidate Lutfur Rahman has become the first directly-elected executive mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, securing more than 23,000 first preference votes. His Labour rival and former friend Helal Abbas finished a distant second with 11,254. The Conservative Neil King was third with 5,348 followed by Liberal Democrat John Griffiths with 2,800 and the Green Party's Alan Duffell with 2,300.

Rahman was originally the Labour candidate but was removed by the party's National Executive Committee. Rahman had only been able to enter the selection ballot after making legal challenges to his previous exclusions from candidate shortlists. Complaints were made to the NEC about alleged vote-rigging, misconduct and Rahman being an extremist who had been "brainwashed" by a local Islamic social activist group. Abbas, who was one of the complainants, was imposed in Rahman's place.

Rahman has prevailed despite being accused of being incompetent, corrupt and beholden to local businessmen and shadowy Muslim extremists [see Andrew Gilligan's article in the Telegraph]. He has denied all these things and insisted in his campaign that he would be a mayor for all the different communities of Tower Hamlets, not just the Bangladeshi one to which both he and Abbas belong. He reiterated this promise in his acceptance speech tonight.

He is now in charge of an Olympic borough with a billion pound budget.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Bryan Ferry | Olympia

Despite having bought every Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music album released since day one, it always takes me a while to warm to each new offering, despite their music being the soundtrack to my life. I guess my expectations are too high. I won’t therefore ‘review’ Olympia just yet – suffice to say it’s not bad …

bf (105)

Listen to the new album, in full, here -
http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2010/oct/12/bryan-ferry-olympia-album-stream

Courtesy of the Guardian. Bless.

Spending Review: What the papers say

Well, the Independent and the Guardian, at any rate.

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Welfare: Disabled and sick pay the price to save winter fuel allowance (Independent)
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/welfare-disabled-and-sick-pay-the-price-to-save-winter-fuel-allowance-2112191.html

Johann Hari: A colder, crueller country – for no gain (Independent)
http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-a-colder-crueller-country-ndash-for-no-gain-2112069.html

Housing: New tenants face soaring rents to fund construction (Independent)
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/housing-new-tenants-face-soaring-rents-to-fund-construction-2112189.html

Royal 'cuts' could make Charles the richest king in British history (Independent)
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/royal-cuts-could-make-charles-the-richest-king-in-british-history-2112315.html

Rail fares to jump in 2012 but Crossrail and Mersea Gateway bridge spared (Guardian)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/20/transport-fares-rise-projects-spared

More money for schools but civil servants predict 40,000 teachers will go (Guardian)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/20/schools-money-budgets-staff-cuts

£2bn for elderly care likely to be absorbed by council cost-cutting (Guardian)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/oct/20/elderly-care-spending-review

'These cuts will cause real pain and anxiety for millions of people' (Guardian)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/20/spending-review-reaction-cuts-pain

The truth about George Osborne's reforms (Guardian)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/20/truth-george-osborne-social-security

The Bullingdon boys want to finish what Thatcher began (Guardian)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/oct/20/bullingdon-boys-want-to-finish-what-thatcher-began

and finally, the Guardian Editorial: Spending review: The work of a gambler
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/oct/20/spending-review-another-country

Enjoy!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Comprehensive Spending Review

£81bn of cuts, half a million jobs lost, 19% cuts for each government department, £7bn cuts in welfare bringing the total to £18bn, university funding down by 40%, age of retirement will be 66 by end of next parliament, NHS budget 'protected' plus an additional £2bn, schools protected and a bank levy to be revealed tomorrow.

* Total public expenditure will be £702 billion next year, then £713 billion, £724 billion and £740 billion in 2014/15.

* Debt interest payments will be lower by £1 billion in 2012, £1.8 billion in 2013 and £3 billion in 2014, a total of £5 billion over the course of the spending review.

* Average saving in departmental budgets will be lower than the Labour government implied, with cuts of 19% over four years instead of 20%.

* The Ministry of Defence budget will reach £33.5 billion in 2014/15, a saving of 8%, the Chancellor confirmed.

* The Foreign Office budget will see savings of 24% through a sharp reduction in the number of Whitehall-based diplomats and back office functions.

* The Home Office budget will find savings of an average of 6% a year, as will the Ministry of Justice's budget. Police spending will fall by 4% each year of the spending settlement, with the aim of avoiding any reduction in the visibility and availability of police in our streets.

The day of reckoning starts with cuts at the BBC

Haggling over the deepest public spending cuts since the second world war has culminated in the BBC being forced to accept a 16% budget cut that will see its licence fee frozen for six years and the corporation taking over funding of the World Service from the Foreign Office.

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The negotiations left the BBC stunned, with insiders claiming that a licence fee settlement that would normally take years to thrash out had been imposed in three days. The extra financial burdens are equivalent to the cost of running the BBC's five national radio stations. The news came as the Treasury finally backed off money-saving plans to remove child benefit from 17- and 18-year-olds, but went ahead with plans to cut the means-tested education maintenance allowance aimed at largely the same age group.

There was acute embarrassment for the government, meanwhile, as Danny Alexander, the Treasury chief secretary, allowed himself to be photographed with a briefing paper showing that the government accepts that 490,000 public sector jobs will be lost by 2014-15 as a result of the spending cuts, which will finally be outlined by the chancellor, George Osborne, today.

Osborne acknowledges that his unprecedented spending review will take Britain into uncharted social and economic territory as he announces £83bn of spending cuts over the next four years. The cuts will involve the loss of thousands of jobs, massive cuts in university funding, wholesale reform of public housing and further cuts to the welfare budget.

The coalition will also announce the state retirement age is to be raised to 66 in 2016, 10 years earlier than previously planned and liable to save billions of pounds in the medium term. It is also expected there will be big cuts to the budget for sport in schools and the abolition of the specialist school network. Some departments including the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Communities and Local Government and the culture department will see cuts of 30%, involving multibillion-pound reductions in the prison programme and to legal aid.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Sarkozy and Merkel: We need a new EU treaty

The coalition government faces the prospect of a referendum on Europe and the outbreak of political warfare between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats after Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel demanded a new EU treaty within two years.

Following a meeting in France, the French President threw his weight behind calls from the German Chancellor for changes to the Lisbon Treaty in order to prevent future government debt crises threatening the euro zone. The move is a serious setback for David Cameron because he has opposed any fresh EU institutional changes and recently renewed his "referendum lock" pledge to hold a popular vote on any future treaty that passes new powers to Brussels.

01Mr and Mrs Europe swap tailors’ notes in Deauville

In a joint statement with Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy proposed revisions to the EU treaty in order to bring in tough sanctions against countries that threatened the euro's stability by running high levels of government debt and to set up permanent EU bail-out fund. "Germany and France together will put forward a revision to the treaties so that political sanctions can be made and for support mechanisms to be made ongoing in order to ensure the financial stability of the euro zone," he said.

Britain has fought hard since March this year to block changes to the Lisbon Treaty by warning Germany and France that it would open the EU as a divisive political issue across Europe and that it could trigger a British referendum, almost certainly leading to a No vote. The treaty change pact between France and Germany will put the Prime Minister on a collision course with Mr Sarkozy and Mrs Merkel at an EU summit on "economic governance" to be held in Brussels on Oct 28. "This government will not accept any treaty revisions," said a senior coalition source.

Social housing budget to be cut by more than 50%

The social housing budget in England is to be cut by more than 50% in the Spending Review, the BBC understands. Council housing "for life" will also be phased out, with the needs of new council tenants assessed over time. Despite the cuts, ministers are likely to set a target of building 150,000 affordable homes, changing the way councils charge rent to finance them.

Tenants will be charged nearer the going market rate, to release cash for the building programme. Ministers are expected to introduce a "flexible tenancy" for people who move into council housing for the first time. Tenants will be checked over a period of time to see if they still require help with housing from their local authority, the BBC has learned.

In August, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested tenants in England should get fixed-term contracts and be encouraged to move into the private housing sector if their finances improve. He said greater flexibility was required within the social housing system, allowing tenants to move to find work. But Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes said his party was against the idea, which was not coalition policy.

Labour accused Mr Cameron of threatening the long-term stability people value from secure tenancy. At present, council tenants keep their property for life unless they breach their tenancy agreement, for example, by engaging in anti-social behaviour. They can also pass their homes onto their children.

BBC fears government raid on licence fee

BBC bosses fear that the coalition government is gearing up for a £500m-plus raid on the licence fee, by forcing the broadcaster to meet the full cost of free television licences for the over 75s. The benefit – which was introduced by Gordon Brown when he was chancellor – costs £556m, and is currently paid for out of general taxation. But ministers are considering passing the bill on to the BBC as part of this week's comprehensive spending review.

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Insiders say there have been "very informal discussions" between the corporation and government for what is recognised as a highly sensitive proposal. However, the BBC has also made it clear that it is opposed to the idea, which would force the broadcaster to make substantial cutbacks in its radio and television budgets that are funded out of its total £3.6bn licence fee income.

Any household where a single person over 75 lives is currently eligible for a free television licence, worth £145.50 a year. Because there are so many families with at least one pensioner, a total of 4 million homes receive the benefit – amounting to roughly one in six households across the UK.

The cost of providing the benefit is so large that it almost exactly matches the entire £575m budget of BBC Two, the channel behind Top Gear and Masterchef. The cost to the BBC would be so great it would amount to a 26% cut in real terms to its income, and would be likely to require budget cuts across the corporation to foot the bill.

Monday, 18 October 2010

David Blanchflower: spending cuts could lead to recession

Former Bank of England policymaker David Blanchflower today accused the government of cowardice in planning huge cuts in public spending to tackle the budget deficit. Writing for the Guardian, Blanchflower said that chancellor George Osborne's cuts amounted to a surrender in the face of the financial crisis and warned that the policy of fiscal tightening would not work.

04"A good way to think of what has happened is that we are struggling to recover from the effects of an economic war that has hit us hard.”

"Faced with this economic war, this misguided coalition government has … shown appalling cowardice; rather than fight, Osborne is about to run up the white flag of defeat. His response is the equivalent of surrendering immediately because of the potential impact of the war on the deficit. It's as ridiculous as that."

His comments, which come two days before the government sets out £80bn of spending cuts, are at odds with the views of 35 business leaders, including Marks & Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose and BT boss Ian Livingston, who have written an open letter in today's Daily Telegraph to express support for Osborne's cuts. They say there is "no reason to believe" the chancellor's plan to eliminate the structural deficit within four years will undermine the economic recovery.

Independent to launch the daily “i”

Alexander Lebedev's Independent is to launch a new compact weekday newspaper, called i, targeting groups including "lapsed readers of quality papers" and those wanting a "comprehensive digest of news". The title, which will go on sale next Tuesday priced 20p, will publish Monday to Friday and has been designed to complement the Independent, which will remain on sale at £1. MediaGuardian.co.uk revealed on Friday that the Independent was planning to launch a new 20p daily.

04"i is specifically targeted at readers and lapsed readers of quality newspapers and those of all ages," the publisher said. "i will combine intelligence with brevity and depth with speed of reading, providing an essential daily briefing."

The Independent is also getting an overhaul with a "distinctive new look and feel" to be introduced in line with the launch of i. The new title is being overseen by Simon Kelner, the editor-in-chief of the Independent and Independent on Sunday. "With the launch of i, we are again doing something radical and new, creating a paper for today that retains the essential qualities of the Independent," said Kelner.

The publisher claims the title is the first quality daily newspaper to launch in almost 25 years, since the Independent. i is aiming to appeal to readers who want a "concise, quality daily paper for just 20p". "Ever since the Independent launched the paper has had a reputation for innovation and boldness and now we are creating the first postmodern newspaper, attractive to those who prize intelligence, convenience and desirability," Kelner said.

Project Prevention ‘charity’ pays for sterilisation of drug addicts

Drug addicts across the UK are being offered money to be sterilised by an American charity. Project Prevention is offering to pay £200 to any drug user in London, Glasgow, Bristol, Leicester and parts of Wales who agrees to be operated on. The first person in the UK to accept the cash is drug addict "John" from Leicester who says he "should never be a father". The move has been criticised by some drug charities who work with addicts.

Project Prevention founder Barbara Harris admitted her methods amounted to "bribery", but said it was the only way to stop babies being physically and mentally damaged by drugs during pregnancy. Mrs Harris set up her charity in North Carolina after adopting the children of a crack addict. Speaking to the BBC's Inside Out programme, she said: "The birth mother of my children obviously dabbled in all drugs and alcohol - she literally had a baby every year for eight years. "I get very angry about the damage that drugs do to these children."

After paying 3,500 addicts across the United States not to have children, she is now visiting parts of the UK blighted by drugs to encourage users to undergo "long-term birth control" for cash. John, a 38-year-old addict from Leicester, is the first person in the UK to accept money to have a vasectomy after being involved in drugs since he was 12. He said: "It was something that I'd been thinking about for a long time. "I won't be able to support a kid; I can just about manage to support myself."

Wayne Rooney to leave Manchester United

According to the Guardian, Wayne Rooney has thrown Manchester United's season into a state of turmoil after informing the club he has no plans to sign another contract and intends to find new employers. Rooney's decision is based on serious differences with Sir Alex Ferguson, the Guardian understands, and will be a devastating blow to the supporters who have come to regard him as a talismanic figure in this troubled era under Malcolm Glazer's ownership. United may have no option now but to sell the England striker, possibly in the January transfer window, rather than risk his transfer valuation dramatically lowering now that he is only 20 months away from becoming a free agent.

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Rooney has always said he has no desire to play abroad and would like to remain in Manchester for the rest of his career, but his mindset has changed and his availability will inevitably attract interest from major forces such as Real Madrid and Barcelona. Manchester City may feel they have an outside chance of capitalising on what has gone wrong for him at Old Trafford, although their chances are undermined by the fact they already have a huge task ahead of them bringing down their wages to prevent Uefa banning them from European competitions under financial fair-play rules.

The full details are not yet clear but the underlying fact is that Rooney now feels that his working relationship with Ferguson has suffered potentially irreparable damage in the fall-out from tabloid allegations about the striker's private life, coinciding with a dramatic loss of form and a growing sense that the most successful manager in the business has taken a hard-line approach with his player. Rooney has lost his place in the team, with Ferguson citing a supposed ankle injury, and the 24-year-old felt sufficiently emboldened last week to contradict his manager's version of events and make it clear he has not missed a single training session – and was, in essence, dropped for other reasons.

Swingeing cuts to the NHS by any other name

Yes, the NHS has been 'ring-fenced' by the government, meaning it won't be subjected to swingeing cuts in the Spending Review, but this is only because prior to the election, the head of the NHS, Sir David Nicholson, asked the health service for £20bn savings by 2014, letting any future government off the hook. Indeed, unlike many public services, the NHS will get a "real terms increase". Some economists think this may be as much as £3bn extra each year for the next four years for the NHS in England.

The paradox is that while the NHS budget will rise in the coming years – as pledged in the Tory manifesto – it will not be enough to keep up with the costs of new drugs, an ageing population and changes to people's lifestyles that bring about, for example, an increase in obesity. On taking office Lansley admitted that £20bn was not a deep enough cut. "We may need to do more, because we have increases in demand," he said.

Although not officially covered by this week's comprehensive spending review, thanks to the wider squeeze in public spending and the political difficulties of raiding other departments, the only option is to curb spending. So the NHS, with a budget of £100bn – amounting to a fifth of total public spending – will have to do "more with less".

Economists say the problem is everybody knows how much money is poured in, but no one has worked out how much patients got out. John Appleby, chief economist at the King's Fund said: "We have just begun to get data detailing how patients feel they benefit from operations such as hip replacements, knee surgery, removing varicose veins and hernias. It's about a quarter of a million patients. My latest work looked at which hospitals were best for hip operations, procedures which according to the patient increase the quality of life."

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Jack Wilshere Red Card Picture Special

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001h

001i   001l 001m

Benefit cheat 'hit squads' planned

Hit squads of inspectors are to be sent to areas where problems with benefit cheats are rife, the chancellor George Osborne has said. In an interview with the News of the World, Mr Osborne compared welfare cheats to muggers robbing taxpayers of their hard-earned money. He also warned that repeat offenders could have their benefits cut off for up to four years. Benefit and tax credit fraud costs the taxpayer an estimated £1.5bn a year.

04

The government is planning to reduce the annual welfare bill by a further £4bn, on top of an £11bn cut made in June. Details of how the savings are to be made are to come in next week's Spending Review. Mr Osborne told the paper: "This is a fight. We are really going to go after the welfare cheats.

"Frankly, a welfare cheat is no different from someone who comes up and robs you in the street. It's your money. You're leaving the house at seven in the morning or whatever to go to work and paying your taxes - and then the person down the street is defrauding the welfare system. This money is paid through our taxes which is meant to be going to the most vulnerable in our society, not into the pockets of criminals."

The new anti-fraud drive will use hi-tech data-tracking techniques and another 200 inspectors are to be recruited to a new investigation service, said the Department of Work and Pensions. Welfare reform minister Lord Freud said minor offenders would face instant £50 fines and offenders caught three times could face a three-year benefit ban. He also said investigators would seek to seize more assets from benefits cheats.

In August, the government announced plans to use credit rating firms to help track down people fraudulently claiming benefits.

Attempts to build multicultural society in Germany have ‘utterly failed’, says Merkel

In a speech in Potsdam, Angela Merkel said the so-called "multikulti" concept - where people would "live side-by-side" happily - did not work. Her comments come amid recent outpourings of strong anti-immigrant feeling from mainstream politicians. A recent survey showed that more than 30% of Germans believed Germany was "overrun by foreigners". The study - by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation think-tank - also showed that roughly the same number thought that some 16 million of Germany's immigrants or people with foreign origins had come to the country for the social benefits.

01

Mrs Merkel told a gathering of younger members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party on Saturday that at "the beginning of the 60s our country called the foreign workers to come to Germany and now they live in our country... We kidded ourselves a while, we said: 'They won't stay, sometime they will be gone', but this isn't reality. And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other... has failed, utterly failed."

In her speech, the chancellor specifically referred to recent comments by German President Christian Wulff who said that Islam was "part of Germany" like Christianity and Judaism. While acknowledging that this was the case, Mrs Merkel stressed that immigrants living in Germany needed to do more to integrate, including learning to speak German. "Anyone who does not immediately speak German", she said, "is not welcome".

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Calls to end scientology tax breaks

Councils have been urged by Eric Pickles not to give special tax breaks to the Church of Scientology. The communities secretary said he did not believe most voters would want their councils to give favoured tax treatment to the organisation. The BBC's Panorama has said Westminster City Council gives the church 80% rates relief on its London Celebrity Centre. The Church of Scientology says local council authorities have "recognised the religious nature of Scientology".

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The Guardian says the City of London, Birmingham and Sunderland have also given rate or tax relief to the church in connection with buildings in their areas. Westminster City Council classes the Church as a "non-registered charity" as it is "beneficial to the community," and given it rates relief that has saved the church £165,303 over the past 10 years. The Church's centre is located in Leinster Gardens.

Mr Pickles said: "Tolerance and freedom of expression are important British values, but this does not mean that the likes of Church of Scientology deserve favoured tax treatment over and above other business premises. The Church of Scientology is not a registered charity, since the Charity Commission has ruled that it does not provide a public benefit. Nor are its premises a recognised place of worship.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Lib Dem website hacked with tuition fee message

A hacker has hijacked a Liberal Democrat website with a message to Nick Clegg not to break his promise on tuition fees. The site – www.liberaldemocrats.co.uk, which is registered by Liberal Democrat headquarters – is linked to a YouTube video in which Nick Clegg repeatedly states that he will "resist, vote against, campaign against, any lifting of the cap". This week, the Liberal Democrats broadly endorsed the Browne review, which called for the cap on tuition fees – currently at £3,290 – to be removed. One of the key election pledges of the Lib Dems was to phase out tuition fees over six years.



"Keep your promises Nick", the website states. "We haven't forgotten." The site has had hundreds of views and already has dozens of comments. One states: "It was obvious that the lib dems were incompetent from the start of the election, with the torys it was obvious if you read their manifesto that there policies were gonna break the country down, not that they stuck to it :\ infact what they are doing is worse than what they proposed.."

The New Statesman said the website is not the official website of the Liberal Democrats, but is registered to 4 Cowley Street, London, SW1P 3NB - which is also the address of the Liberal Democrat headquarters in Westminster. An NUS spokesperson said: "It's great to see the Liberal Democrats are so keen to highlight Nick Clegg's fees pledge."

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: "We are trying to resolve this."

NESV completes takeover of Liverpool – allegedly

  • 16 April: Club put up for sale by Hicks & Gillett
  • 4 October: Club receive two "excellent bids", one from NESV, one from Asia
  • 5 Oct: Hicks & Gillett seek to remove Purslow & Ayre from Liverpool board
  • 6 Oct: Board agrees to sell club to NESV for £300m
  • 8 Oct: Premier League clears NESV to continue with takeover
  • 12 Oct: Hicks & Gillett lawyers admit breach of RBS contracts by trying to sack board members
  • 13 Oct: High Court rules against Hicks & Gillett, allowing NESV sale
  • 13 Oct: Hicks and Gillett gain restraining order on the sale in Texas court
  • 14 Oct: High Court rules Hicks & Gillett injunction is ineffective
  • 14 Oct: New hearing begins in Dallas, adjourned until Friday
  • 15 Oct: Hicks and Gillett withdraw TRO, enabling NESV to confirm their £300m purchase of Liverpool Football Club 

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New England Sports Ventures have completed their £300m takeover of Liverpool. The owners of the Boston Red Sox have taken control of the club after Tom Hicks and George Gillett were defeated in their legal battle to stop the takeover.

John W Henry, the principal owner of NESV, appeared with the club's chairman, Martin Broughton, in the foyer of their lawyers, Slaughter & May, this afternoon. "I am proud and humbled," Henry said. "We have a lot of work to do, and I can't tell you how happy I am that [the deal] has been completed. We're here to win. We have a tradition of winning. We'll do whatever we need to do."

Henry said that he would not, as had been rumoured, be at Sunday's Merseyside derby at Goodison Park. "I think it's better for our first experience with the supporters to be at home," he said.