Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Well, maybe just one small change

David Steel is on good form today with his article about why the 1967 Abortion Act should not be altered.

I have blogged before about Steel's views on possible changes to the act which he piloted through Parliament. Despite the siren voices urging a ban on abortion after 22 weeks or even earlier, Steel is right to point out that there has been no advance in neonatal science which would justify such a change. Those who argue for a reduction usually oppose abortion altogether and would be better off being honest about making their case.

And he is also right to note that quite often those who oppose legal abortion also oppose measures to improve sex education and contraception. I think it makes little sense to discuss abortion without also touching on those issues.

My only disagreement with Steel is that I think there is a case for one small alteration to the Abortion Act. The requirement for any abortion to have to be approved by two doctors is outmoded and should be got rid of. Apart from that, any other change to the act would be a massive backward step.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Labour will not lose 200 seats

Today's Guardian reports that Labour is bracing itself for losses of 200 seats in Thursday's local council elections in England and Wales, together with Boris Johnson winning the London Mayoralty.

If such a result did happen, it would be a remarkable meltdown for the governing party. That is especially the case when you consider that Labour did pretty poorly the last time these seats were up for election in 2004, so they are starting from a very low base.

I will stick my neck out and say that despite the chaos surrounding Brown's government, their losses will not be as much as 200 seats. Labour are managing expectations very nicely so that when their actual losses are somewhere in the region of 80-120 seats - which would still be a catastrophic performance - they can turn round and say that things weren't as bad as expected.

However, that same Guardian article does give an example of why Labour deserve to lose as many as 200 seats. It quotes Jack Straw's performance on a radio phone in, talking about the fiasco of the 10p tax rate change. It's worth quoting Straw in full:

"Sometimes even with the best brains available to government there are inadvertent consequences of changes. We put our hands up to that we should have known more about the impact of the abolition of the 10p rate. I am sorry that this has happened."

Straw clearly needs a lesson in basic mathematics. If he couldn't work out that changing some people's tax rate from 10p to 20p would actually involve them paying more tax, he's too stupid to be a cabinet minister. What more is there to know? And it's worth pointing out that there was nothing inadvertant about this: it was the clear strategy of the government to shift the tax system around so that middle income earners could get what was then thought to be a nice pre-election tax cut.

Despite Labour's stupidity and utter callousness, there will still be enough people who will turn out to vote for them on Thursday to avoid a complete meltdown. But they will still do exceptionally badly.

Monday, 28 April 2008

"Car-jacking, shooting policemen and running down pedestrians"

As I write this, I'm just listening to a discussion on Radio Five Live on the merits of new violent computer game Grand Theft Auto 4.

I have to say, violent computer games like that do nothing for me. I don't see the attraction of such entertainment and I have never played any of the previous ones in the series, or anything similar. But I certainly don't think the game should be banned, unlike the spokeswoman from that tiresome body Media Watch, who has been given airtime by the Beeb to make that case.

OK, she is certainly entitled to her view, but she is not only wrong but annoying in her dogmatic insistence that people can't be trusted to exercise responsibility over the sort of games they play. She's been trotting out the usual line that violent games promote violence in society, despite the lack of any real evidence that that is the case. And she's also been saying that kids will inevitably get their hands on the game, despite the fact that it's intended for adults.

That last point does have some validity, as some parents do buy 18-rated games for their kids, which they might not do if it was an 18-rated movie. But the solution to that is for parents to exercise real responsibility for what their kids play, just as they should for what they watch. OK, not all parents will exercise that responsibility, but I don't see that people who enjoy such games should suffer because of the failings of some. Giving the state the responsibility of being the nation's moral policeman is never a good idea.

What really got my attention during the discussion was the statement that the launch of GTA4 would be the biggest entertainment release ever, beating even the biggest Hollywood movie in terms of the amount of revenue it's expected to generate. That's either a splendid tribute to the success of the Edinburgh firm which has developed the game, or a worrying reflection of a society in which a lot of people will be spending so much time and cash on sitting in front of a computer screen playing a violent game.

However, that is the choice of the people who decide to buy the game. It's cetainly not up to anyone else to decide that playing violent games should be banned - unless they can clearly demonstrate that such games directly cause real harm. Thus far, people like Media Watch have utterly failed to make that case. GTA4 may not be the most wholesome entertainment in the world, but if we are to live in a free society then people must have the liberty to play such games.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Back to business

OK, time to get back into blogging action. I had a good time on holiday in Italy. Lake Maggiore is a fantastic place to visit which I can highly recommend. To the right is the view I had of Isola Bella from my hotel balcony in Baveno, which is one of the nicest towns on the lake - less of a tourist trap than its neighbour Stresa, but still pretty and welcoming. I also spent a few nights in Milan, which was worth seeing, although I wouldn't rate it as one of my favourite cities. But the Duomo is amazing, particularly in the afternoon sun. And there are a number of other things worth seeing, such as La Scala (which I didn't get to see inside, as Liverpool v Chelsea in an "English" bar which didn't sell any English beer took priority), the Galeria Vittorio Emanuele and the Castello Sforzesco. And the Brera art gallery is also well worth a visit.
So, altogether a holiday which certainly did its job of the recharging the batteries. But now it's back to business.

Friday, 11 April 2008

I'm off

Heading on holiday to Italy via Edinburgh from tomorrow, so I doubt I'll be posting much over the next couple of weeks. Be good and/or have fun while I'm away.

Some cutting comments

Further evidence today that the Gnats' council tax freeze is continuing to cause problems for local councils, including Highland. Job losses of the scale described can not be passed off as efficiency savings, but are actual reductions in frontline services.

I have blogged before (here and here) about the effects of the freeze. Given that the Gnats like to portray themselves as being a left of centre party, I wonder how many of the people who voted for them thought that they'd be getting cuts to local council services across the board?

And it's not just local authorities who are suffering. The Gnat government also cut the budget of development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise by £30m, leading to a number of job losses there as well.

That's led to this little local stushie in which a highly-paid HIE official got a generous £138k pay-off from the development agency, before moving over to become Highland Council's new plannng director, at a salary of more than £100k a year. Clearly, the belt-tightening doesn't extend as far as the top levels of Highand Council.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Time to scrap Newsnight Scotland?

Last night's debate on Newsnight between the London mayoral candidates was crammed into about 30 minutes, rather than taking up the full length of the programme, as it probably should have done. The candidates would have had more time to get their points across and might have felt slightly less need to talk across each other constantly. It was a similar problem when Newsnight held a debate between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne in the Lib Dem leadership election.

I suspect the reason for that was due to the existence of Newsnight Scotland, the 20-minute opt out to which us viewers in Scotland are treated four nights a week (not Fridays, as apparently nothing ever happens in Scotland on a Friday so we get Newsnight Review like the rest of you.)

Last night's edition was truly appalling. Following on from the mayoral debate, there was a tedious discussion about whether Scotland would benefit from having elected mayors. This featured Labour MSP Charlie Gordon, Edinburgh Labour councillor Ewan Aitken and someone else, whose name I didn't catch, but who I'd be very surprised if he wasn't a Labour supporter. Political balance, what political balance?

This wasn't something exceptional for the programme. I very rarely watch it nowadays as it doesn't often manage to produce much that's of any interest to anyone. There's usually about three items squashed into each 20-minute edition, quite often meaning that things aren't dealt with in the depth they should be, while studio discussions are rarely given enough time.

I think it's about time that BBC Scotland recognised that Newsnight Scotland isn't really working as it should. The programme needs to be scrapped and replaced with an entirely separate news and discussion programme, probably 30 minutes long and maybe running immediately after the 10 o'clock news on BBC1. That way Scotland would still have its own dedicated nightly current affairs programme, while Newsnight would be more capable of doing specials for its whole length if it so chose.

Oh, and while they're at it, maybe BBC Scotland could get rid of Gordon Brewer as well, who must be one of the most annoying presenters around.

Taxing questions for the Gnats

Apparently the Treasury is arguing that the SNP minority government in Scotland doesn't have the power to introduce a centrally-set "local" income tax to replace the council tax.

To my mind this is just nonsense: the Scotland Act does explicitly give the Scottish Parliament the right to legislate for local government taxation.

I think the Treasury, and the Labour government generally at Westminster, does itself no favours by coming out with these statements. It is looking like a big bully and is playing into the Gnats' hand by storing up resentments against its bull in a china shop approach to dealing with the devolved administration.

But let's assume for a moment that the Treasury is correct and that having a nationally-set income tax to fund local government does fall outside the definition of local taxation. Does that mean that the Gnats would have no power to introduce such a system?

Well, no. As the Treasury is well aware, the Scottish Parliament has the power to vary income tax up or down by 3p in the pound, which is in effect what the Gnats are proposing with their nationally-set income tax for local government.

But this little spat also shows up the biggest problem with the Gnats' plans: the complete disregard they have for local accountability and democracy. Deciding the rate at which taxes are levied for local government in Edinburgh removes any local control over finance. That is simply unacceptable.

There is a way out for the Gnats: adopt the Scottish Lib Dem policy of allowing local authorities to set their own rate of local income tax. That way they avoid the Treasury objections and maintain local accountability. If the Gnats fail to do so, they will not only face continued wrangling with Westminster, they are also unlikely to get their plans through at Holyrood. And that would mean that the unfair council tax would survive.

Monday, 7 April 2008

I'm a liberal, apparently

According to this very short quiz.

I don't care

I was going to comment about the desperate way in which Labour has been pushing for the second preferences of Lib Dem voters in order to stop Boris Johnson becoming Mayor of London, but I find that Gavin Whenman, Dynamite and A Lanson Boy have said everything I was going to say.

I'm glad I don't have a vote in the London mayoral election. I would certainly be voting for Brian Paddick if I did, but if by some miracle he didn't quite make it, I really don't care which of Boris or Ken becomes mayor. The bumbling fool or the megalomaniac? I really don't see that either of them would be a palatable choice. I doubt I'd be giving a second preference if I was in London.

Martin Ford is innocent

Like my colleague Iain Dale (the Lib Dem one), I was dismayed to read over the weekend that there was a move afoot to try and expel Cllr Martin Ford from the Lib Dem group on Aberdeenshire Council.

Thankfully, if this BBC report is accurate, the move seems likely to fail, but it is despicable that the attempt was made at all.

I have blogged before about the disgraceful way in which Martin was removed as convener of Aberdeenshire's planning committee as a result of his (entirely legitimate) casting vote to refuse planning permission for Donald Trump's golf and housing development on the Menie Estate. I highlighted then that I thought the lack of support he had from some of his party colleagues was dreadful.

Since then, I have had a chance to hear Martin explain the background to the Trump development at a public meeting at the Scottish Lib Dem conference in Aviemore a few weeks ago. He highlighted that there were legitimate grounds for either supporting or opposing the application and noted that the debate had been of exceptionally high quality.

I think anyone who heard Martin at that meeting would have been impressed by the calmness, rationality and integrity with which he put his case. He went out of his way to avoid any personal criticism of fellow councillors, and indeed of Donald Trump himself.

Following that meeting, I was even more convinced that Aberdeenshire had made a mistake in removing him as the planning convener, but I think even Martin accepted that that was now all in the past. However, for him to be still under attack from some of his party colleagues is despicable. I think those who are persisting with this witch-hunt are in serious danger of bringing the party into disrepute.

If there are any of my Lib Dem colleagues in Aberdeenshire reading this, I urge you all to just show some common sense, move on from this whole unfortunate episode and concentrate on the job of running Aberdeenshire. If you don't, you will surely pay the price at the next elections.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Obama takes lead in Pennsylvania

Things are looking increasingly bleak for Hillary Clinton in the US presidential race.

Paul Walter highlighted the other day that Clinton was slipping in the polls in Pennsylvania. And there's even worse news for Clinton with this poll which puts Barack Obama ahead by 45-43.

Although there's still three weeks to go before Pennsylvania goes to the polls, Obama often tends to gain last-minute support, so I think he could well pull off a significant victory which would finally end any lingering hopes which Hillary might have of gaining the Democratic nomination.

Gnats go to bottom of class

The Herald reports this morning that schools across Scotland are having to cut their budgets as a result of the council tax freeze brought in by the Gnat administration.

I have blogged about this before, but it is worth noting the scale of the cuts involved. In The Herald report, they say that the cuts amount to an average of £70,000 per secondary school.

Despite what the Cosla spokesperson says, there is no way that such cuts can be passed off as 'efficiency savings'. It is the equivalent of at least two teaching posts per school and the effects will be seen in larger class sizes, fewer subjects being offered or teachers having to work outside their subject areas.

I also wonder what the effects will be on new school building programmes or on the maintenance of existing ones. Too many schools operate in inadequate conditions and it doesn't seem to me that the Gnats have any real idea how to address this issue.

Unless the Gnats change course, education in Scotland is likely to continue to struggle.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

No question about it - this is just childish

Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons is never the most edifying spectacle in the world, but today's seems to have been particularly bad, judging by this exchange.

For William Hague to ask whether Harriet Harman wears a clown suit to Cabinet was just puerile stuff of the worst sort, and the sort of thing which gives politics a bad name. Harman's reply was equally lame.

There are all sorts of ways that Hague could have used the stab vest incident, by for instance asking whether Harman thinks there are too many knives on the streets of London. But instead he chose the knockabout route, leaving nobody particularly enlightened at the end of it. Dismal stuff.

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