Thursday 28 February 2013

Liberal Democrats show they are the true ‘nasty’ party

As the sex pest scandal continues to engulf his party, Nick Clegg’s language is proving as flawed as his management. He keeps telling us that the Lib Dems need to “get to the bottom of this”, hardly the most fortunate of phrases when faced with allegations of groping by his former top official Lord Rennard.

But Clegg’s problems run deeper than his choice of words. For this tawdry episode has exposed the morally repugnant nature of the Lib Dems. They have always posed as the “nice” party, claiming to be more honest, straightforward and compassionate than either Labour or the Conservatives. But the Rennard debacle has ripped away the veneer of decency.

The habit of duplicity starts right at the top. What a tangled web Nick Clegg has spun with a series of increasingly unconvincing explanations about his behaviour in this unedifying affair. When the allegations of harassment (which he has denied) first surfaced last week against Lord Rennard, Clegg claimed that he had never heard of such accusations before. Indeed, quivering with self-righteous fervour, he said it was an “outrage” to suggest otherwise. But soon Clegg began to change his story.

On Sunday night he admitted, in direct contradiction of his previous statements, that he had actually known of “concerns” about Lord Rennard’s conduct towards women but only in a “non-specific” way. Then yesterday he retreated further. During a phone-in on a radio show he was forced to confess that “Rennard’s inappropriate behaviour was in the background” when the peer left his job as the Liberal Democrats’ chief executive in 2009, supposedly on health grounds.

Clegg's initial proclamation of ignorance was always absurd. Rennard was not only the party’s key strategist but also a close ally of Clegg’s. It was ridiculous to suggest that the Lib Dems could lose such a figure without the leader knowing the circumstances. Indeed yesterday the former Liberal Democrat Sandra Gidley explained that she told Clegg of Rennard’s alleged manual enthusiasms as early as 2007.

The whole shabby business has made a mockery of the party’s pious rhetoric about gender equality. Helen Jardine-Brown, a former head of fund-raising for the party, said that four years ago, soon after making a complaint about Rennard, she had her job cut when she became pregnant and was given a £50,000 redundancy settlement which was conditional on her silence.

The scandal has also shown once again how utterly unfit the Liberal Democrats are for high office. Obsessed with their ideological posturing they come across as a bunch of second-rate, over-eager student politicians. It is terrifying that thanks to the coalition they should have a real say in government. They cannot even run a proper investigation into an internal personnel problem, never mind a department of state.

Clegg is nothing more than a professional apparatchik, a former MEP and Brussels bureaucrat devoid of any experience in the real commercial world. The same is true of Danny Alexander, his former Chief of Staff and now Treasury Secretary, who seems to have botched the initial inquiry into Rennard in 2009.

Before the dizzy heights of running Clegg’s office, Alexander had been a press officer for the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the fanatical proEU outfit Britain in Europe.

Rennard himself is an unappealing figure, even discounting the allegations against him.

Though he was revered by the Lib Dems as a brilliant strategist, to those outside the party he seems a cynical manipulator for whom party advancement came before integrity. One Lib Dem handbook written in 2002 advised activists “don’t be afraid to exaggerate” and “be wicked: act shamelessly, stir shamelessly”.

Shamelessness has long been a feature of Lib Dem history. One of the last Liberal prime ministers, HH Asquith, was an inveterate groper of women as well as a chronic alcoholic. The aristocratic Lady Diana Cooper recalled with a shudder how she had to “defend my face from his fumbling hands and mouth”, while another woman remembered how Asquith would take her hand and lead it to the business end of his trousers. Asquith’s successor David Lloyd George had no more respect for women’s anatomy. “He is mental on matters of sex,” said one of his aides.

In this spirit, Lloyd George told the young Frances Stevenson that he would only appoint her his Downing Street secretary on condition she became his mistress. From Charles Kennedy’s drinking to Mark Oaten’s fondness for boys, scandal is woven into the fabric of the Liberal story.

But what makes Clegg’s gang even worse is their disastrous impact on Government policy. In every arena, from the EU to human rights, from immigration to the green agenda, their kneejerk-progressive outlook is inflicting real damage.

As demonstrated by their obsession with soaking the rich through endless tax rises, they have no interest in wealth creation, only in Marxist-style wealth redistribution. Clegg attacks Eurosceptics as “infantile” and opponents of gay marriage as “bigots” but in his devotion to social engineering, green politics and surrender to Europe he is the true immature bigot. Lord Rennard was the architect of the modern Lib Dem revival. It can only be hoped that the scandal he has generated will lead his party back into the wilderness.

A sharp fall in immigration is a significant success for Theresa May

The quietly impressive Theresa May won another victory this morning when the net migration figures for the year to July 2012 were published. Net immigration was down 34pc to 163,000 from 247,000 the year before. This was largely driven by a fall in arrivals from 589,000 to 515,000, and a small rise in the number of British people leaving from 342,000 to 352,000.

In detail, the numbers suggest that the Home Secretary is focusing on the right areas. The number of people arriving on a student visa – a category rife with abuse prior to the Coalition crackdown – has fallen by 20pc. News that in future the UK Border Agency will interview 100,000 students from countries associated with a high risk of student visa fraud will help extend this trend.

Immigrants themselves are arriving from different places, too. The number from New Commonwealth countries – largely African and Asian nations – has fallen 30pc, faster than those arriving from the old Dominions. Although it is a very crude measure, having a larger portion of the immigrant mix from continents and countries with higher levels of human capital should ensure that we gain immigrants better adapted for work when they arrive.

Given that the target the Coalition set itself was to reduce net migration from non-EU countries to below 100,000 by 2015, today's figures suggest that they are on track. On the doorsteps, particularly outside of London, immigration is a very important issue. One of the truisms of mass immigration is that, be it the English in Dubai or Pakistanis in Bradford, while migrants change their sky, they don't like to change their company or habits. What people often miss is that this is equally true of the native population. People always have and always will gravitate towards their own. A promise to control the conditions under which British culture becomes further sliced and diced by imports, however worthy, is worth something. The indigenous population, who still constitute the vast majority of non-London voters, want to hear it and they want to see it done. If the Coalition continues in this vein, they will have a potent electoral weapon against the Labour Party, particularly in the towns and cities of the north.

Dismissed out of hand as a future leader by many commentators, Theresa May is intent on capitalising on her success. She made the right calls on immigration, Gary McKinnon, and Abu Hamza. Given this background, she has made a point of organising coffees with a number of backbenchers in the past months, emphasising that she shares their priorities. If she continues along the understated but effective path she has been ploughing at the Home Office, she could be a contender yet.

By Thomas Pascoe, Daily Telegraph

Steve Barclay MP: Foreign doctors working in the NHS should be able to speak English to a safe standard

Stephen Barclay is the Member of Parliament for North East Cambridgeshire and a member of the Public Accounts Committee.

For the family of David Gray, the announcement that from April there will be legal requirement for foreign doctors to prove they can speak English to a safe standard before they can practice cannot come soon enough.

The death of Cambridgeshire resident David Gray in February 2008 following a fatal overdose administered by Dr Daniel Ubani, a German doctor on his first and only shift in the UK brought the issue of language testing for foreign doctors to national attention in the most tragic of circumstances.

Five years on, the Department of Health’s decision to draw up a nationwide register of doctor’s with proven language skills and medical expertise will prevent those unfit to practice like Daniel Ubani from simply moving from one health authority to another. It will also protect future patients and prevent families like David Gray’s from experiencing the heartache of the avoidable death of a loved one.

The reform is welcome and will do much to assure patients that vital changes are being made to improve the quality of care in a system which is undergoing a major crisis of trust and transparency.

It is obvious that the ability to communicate effectively with patients is a pre-requisite to quality care and treatment.

However, while this places the burden to verify a doctor’s language skills on the employer at the point of registration, as is already the case for doctors coming from outside the EEA, it is imperative that the General Medical Council is given further powers to test doctors from within the EU who wish to practice here.

Since entering parliament in 2010, when severe failure in NHS regulation was a scandal brewing all-too quietly on the wards of Mid Staffordshire Hospital, I have called for urgent action to ensure proper regulation of foreign doctors and tabled a series of parliamentary questions and debates highlighting the case of Dr.Urbani of in my own constituency.

Subsequent meetings with the Secretary of State for Health confirmed that there is a clear case for a package of measures designed to regulate foreign doctors’ licences to practice in the NHS.
The first and most important of these is the enforcement of suspensions to practice and disciplinary measures across the EU. Currently if a doctor is suspended or struck off by the GMC or foreign regulatory body, they are free to apply to practice wherever else they please within the EU.

Dr Ubani, for example, has returned to practice in Germany. Many will consider that he has escaped justice.

The need for cross-border checks on foreign doctors is all the more pressing given the GMC’s admission that in the last five years, 63% of doctors struck off or suspended were trained outside the UK.

Every day, thousands of foreign doctors bring their valuable expertise to the NHS and work tirelessly to improve the lives of their patients. They deserve our praise and gratitude.
However, we owe it to patients to ensure that those responsible for their care meet basic linguistic and medical standards before they are allowed to practice.

Strengthening the GMC’s powers to check a doctor’s ability to speak English and enforce sanctions for malpractice across the EU are basic protections which we can no longer afford to overlook.

As the events of past weeks have shown, when it comes to regulating for proper standards of care, the stakes are just too high.

Right to buy sales double - but are still too low

The good news is that right to buy sales have doubled. 3,495 sales have taken place since the discounts were boosted in April. There were over 2,000 sales in the three months from September to December which indicates sales are gathering pace as awareness grows, that figure is double the same period the previous year.

Those sales have generated £210 million in gross income which, under the reinvigorated Right to Buy, will be recycled back into new affordable homes for rent.

Some areas have seen particularly sharp increases:

Dacorum - 34 sales since April 2012, compared to 10 in the 2011 to 2012 financial year (an increase of 240%).
Welwyn Hatfield - 40 sales since April 2012, compared to 10 in the 2011 to 2012 financial year (an increase of 300%).
Wandsworth - 28 sales since April 2012, compared to 2 in the 2011 to 2012 financial year (an increase of 1,300%)
But before John Prescott scrapped most of the discount in 2005 there use to be sales of around 60,000 a year.

One reform that would help would a right to part buy - a my colleague in Hammersmith and Fulham Cllr Andrew Johnson has called for. The discounts should also be further increased.

The aspiration is there. There are two million council homes. 58% of local authority tenants would like to buy. Total right to buy sales in 2011/12 were 3,720. Of course if that is doubled to over 7,000 this year that is welcome. But we really need to be adding a nought or two to the end.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Yet another serious car crash on the A27 follows County Council backing for the campaign to #upgradeA27now

The Eastbourne Gazette reports of yet another serious car accident which caused rush hour delays for long suffering local motorists.

Two people were taken to hospital last night after a rush hour crash on the A27.

Traffic tailed back along the A27 from Alciston following the four vehicle crash near Middle Farm.

The accident happened at around 4.50pm when two people had to be cut free from a Ford Fiesta which was involved in the accident.

Police closed the busy stretch of road in both directions which caused major tailbacks along the A27 and adjoining roads.

South East Coast Ambulance Service confirmed two people were taken to hospital with neck and lower back injuries following the accident.

Two other people involved in the accident were taken to hospital with minor injuries.

Meanwhile East Sussex County Council passed a motion at their recent Full Council meeting following an almost identical motion by Eastbourne Borough Council late last year.

The motion calling on the Coalition Government was passed by the vast majority of Councillors after being submitted by Sovereign's Cllr David Elkin and seconded by Alfriston's Cllr Nick Bennett.

If you agree that Government should look again and give plans to upgrade the A27 now, the green light - join the increasing number of local people from Eastbourne and the surrounding area and all the way along to Lewes and surrounding villages by signing the Government e-petition by clicking on the following link:

Boris sews a 'codpiece' in clothing factory cock-up

The gaffe-prone Mayor of London Boris Johnson has fought a losing battle with a sewing machine at a clothing factory before declaring the finished garment a "codpiece".

The Mayor was put to the test during a visit to the newly-established East End Manufacturing Ltd in the capital.

But his attempt at sewing clearly got the better of the Conservative politician, despite close support from more experienced hands.

Pictures of Mr Johnson showed him exasperated at his effort with the luminous yellow cloth.

The Mayor dutifully signed the 'finished' garment, before quipping that it could be used as a codpiece, the traditional cover for a man's crotch favoured in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Mr Johnson has become famous for his ability to look daft during seemingly stock photo opportunities.

The image of him stuck high on a zip wire during last summer's London Olympics was played around the world.

He previously was photographed falling into a river while collecting rubbish.

The gaffes, though, have long been credited with earning him favourable press and public support rather than the ridicule most members of his profession have come to expect.

If Nick Clegg’s story won’t stand up, the Lord Rennard scandal could finish him

Even victory at the Eastleigh by-election will not put an end to the Liberal Democrat leader’s troubles.

Tomorrow the voters of Eastleigh will choose their new MP in a by-election billed as the most important for 30 years. It is nothing of the kind. Eastleigh has instead become a sideshow featuring politics at its most dysfunctional. Voters who want to talk about schools and planning and the quaint notion of trust have been cast as extras in a sub-James Bond psychodrama.

What with the jail term that may await Chris Huhne, the departed MP, and the scandal involving Lord Rennard, the former Liberal Democrat chief executive, the people of Eastleigh can garner racier plot lines at the hustings than at their local cinema, where A Good Day To Die Hard is showing. Even if the Lib Dem candidate survives the current shoot-out, his party leader may catch the bullet.

Eastleigh, billed as a test of the Coalition partners, could yet supply a personal requiem for Nick Clegg, whose future now hangs in the balance. Lib Dem MPs increasingly worried by his handling of the sexual harassment allegations concerning Lord Rennard believe that Mr Clegg’s response to the crisis has been so inept as to put his leadership in doubt.

Others think Mr Clegg unlucky. As one leading party figure says: “If you search the closets of the other parties, you’re going to find worse scandals than this.” That may well be true. If the charges against Lord Rennard turn out, despite his denials, to be substantiated, then he will not be the first portly groper to mistake power for allure.

Had he not stepped down as chief executive quietly some time ago on health grounds, then Eastleigh would have been a cinch for someone who, in the words of one party stalwart, “won by-elections from nowhere”. Plenty of male Lib Dems still attest to the congenial charm of a man with “a Midas touch”, whereas the Lib Dem women now claiming molestation recall his alleged “octopus” hands.

The Lib Dems’ sanctimony over women is perfectly illustrated by the party’s “gender balance weekends”, whose very name is likely to propel the most ardent feminist towards a Mary Berry soufflĂ© masterclass. Rumours that Lord Rennard planned to help out with gender balancing apparently prompted whistle-blowers to break their long silence and so convulse a party that, in the words of a senior male Lib Dem, is “terribly, terribly male-dominated”.

Any promotion demands such slog and sacrifice that women aspirants tend either to be veterans or very young. Mothers with small children who thrive in high-flying Labour and Tory ranks fall by the wayside in a party that champions equal rights but regards as illiberal the means to secure that goal. The upshot is a habitat which any steamy-breathed old lecher might dream of annexing as his personal Stringfellows.

Mr Clegg, used to juggling child care and careers, might have noticed how few Lib Dem women live similar lives, except that observation is not his strongest suit. Hence, when “non-specific concerns” over Lord Rennard’s conduct reached him, he failed to ask what those might be. That omission, curious in any party leader, was doubly remiss, given that Lord Rennard had confirmed him in that post after declining to count late postal votes which would, it is said, have handed victory to Chris Huhne.

Wilful ignorance, though offering no proof of culpability in British law, is a dubious defence. As Plato wrote: “The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” The grudging disclosure of who knew what suggests, at the least, that the Lib Dem leadership prefers to live in the dark. This troglodyte tendency may yet prove Mr Clegg’s undoing.

If so, the timing would be bitter. Despite many mistakes, he has been a brave and occasionally enlightened leader whose fortunes were finally showing some signs of an upturn. Labour’s adoption of a mansion tax was a fillip for Mr Clegg, while Eastleigh would, according to Lib Dem expectations, have been a moment of triumph.

In that scenario, Mr Clegg, blessed with a workmanlike local candidate, could guarantee to see off David Cameron and his floundering Tory challenger while also profiting from Labour’s latest dose of Southern discomfort. With a Conservative Chancellor failing, on his own terms, to get to grips with economic recovery, many think Ed Miliband should be doing better than the Eastleigh polls are indicating, even in a seat ranked 258th on his winnable list.

John Denham, the canny lieutenant heading Mr Miliband’s Southern Taskforce, is more optimistic. In his view, Eastleigh voters are “open” to Labour persuasion. According to Mr Denham’s soundings, building support and winning target seats in the South is “feasible and achievable” by 2015.

For now, however, the main story is the Rennard debacle. As the scandal deepens, some commentators are confecting a hierarchy of harassment with Jimmy Savile at the pinnacle, followed by predatory priests and, at the bottom of the spectrum, political sex pests. Implicit in this premiership of perversion is the obnoxious notion that women should swat off unwanted attention and make less fuss.

That view ignores the poisonous effect of secrecy. This week the much-needed Defamation Bill, intended to stop Britain being the libel capital of the world, came closer to being scrapped after the Lords upheld pernicious amendments by the Labour peer, Lord Puttnam, which would greatly abet those seeking to keep disreputable conduct out of the media.

In France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former head of the IMF, went to court yesterday to try to stop publication of a book by a former mistress who calls him a “pig”. DSK, whose sexual history might never have been unveiled but for the complaints of a New York hotel cleaner, came within a hair’s breadth of the French presidency because of his country’s adherence to laws and habits that shield the secrets of those in power.

British enthusiasts for muzzled media should consider the parables of the “Pig” and the “Octopus” and be grateful that Britain is still a country where allegations, however carefully suppressed, tend to surface and where the truth – whatever it may be in the Rennard case – will ultimately prevail.
Meanwhile, in Eastleigh, the day of reckoning is almost here. If the Lib Dems lose, then their leader’s future will be in serious doubt. But even if a formidable local party machine and voters’ indifference to metropolitan scandals combine to secure victory, Mr Clegg’s difficulties will be very far from over.

As Scotland Yard launched its inquiry into the Rennard case, Lib Dem support dipped to a record low of eight per cent. That nadir is a measure of public disgust. Among the political classes, plenty of people blame Mr Clegg’s plight on bad luck, or his party’s relative amateurism and inexperience, or even on the women who have finally dared publicly to complain.

The electorate is not so forgiving. In an age, and in a party, where those in power preach virtue, fairness and trust, to offer less is to court nemesis. Mr Clegg must produce a plausible account of his own and his henchmen’s roles in the Rennard scandal. If he cannot, then voters baffled by what the Lib Dems are for will gladly inscribe an epitaph reading “Non-Specific Concerns” on his political headstone.

By Mary Riddell, Daily Telegraph

Is there a Lib Dem in the house?

With Eastleigh and Lord Rennard to deal with, there was little sign on the Commons benches of the coalition's junior partner.

Health questions. The Lib Dem benches were almost empty. No doubt their MPs were in Eastleigh, desperate to hold on to their slim poll lead, or else investigating Lord Rennard, or, for all I know, engaging in "inappropriate behaviour", which may include getting your wife to take your speeding points. What busy bees they are! They have far too much going on to waste time hanging round Westminster.

By Simon Hoggart, The Guardian

David Cameron: Migrants will be banned from automatic legal aid in the UK

By Peter Dominczak, Daily Telegraph

David Cameron has pledged to make the UK the “toughest” country on benefits for foreign migrants.

In an interview with the Daily Express, the Prime Minister said he wants to ban migrants from being able to automatically receive legal aid in cases involving benefits, housing and other civil claims.

Mr Cameron this month said he want to completely overhaul the benefits system for migrants after saying that he believes the current system does not pass the “simple common sense test”.

The Prime Minister said he has asked Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, to create a new “residency test” designed to ensure migrants are not given instant access to legal aid in civil court cases.

Mr Cameron said: “We’re a fair country and a welcoming country, but not a soft touch. Let’s make sure that ours is the toughest country instead of the softest.”

“I think there is more we can do,” he added. “One of the aspects that we are reaching fairly early conclusion on is that we can no longer grant legal aid to non-UK nationals or for civil cases, people who are facing housing cases or benefit cases.

“We need a proper residency test for those cases and we’re going to consult on introducing one.”

He said he has told ministers to “tear up” their departmental briefs and come up with new and inventive ways to ensure the UK is not seen as a “soft touch” by migrants.

His comments came amid a growing debate about the numbers of new migrants preparing to come to the UK next year.

Twenty nine million Bulgarians and Romanians will gain the right to live and work unrestricted in Britain in 2014 under European “freedom of movement” rules.

The Home Office has repeatedly refused to put any number on the anticipated arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania.

Ministers are concerned about releasing the research into the possible number of arrivals, which they believe will be compared with a prediction that only 13,000 would move to Britain from Poland and other eastern European countries after 2004.

More than one million eastern Europeans then arrived in one of the biggest waves of immigration seen in the UK.

A report from MigrationWatch, a think tank, claimed that 50,000 people a year would arrive until 2019.

In the interview, Mr Cameron also rejected calls by disgruntled backbenchers to sack George Osborne, the Chancellor.

Mr Cameron said that Mr Osborne is “doing a great job in very difficult times”.

What kind of local government do we want?

Cllr Nicholas Rogers, a councillor on Tunbridge Wells borough council, calls for unitary authorities, fewer but higher paid councillors and local sales tax revenue to replace grants from central government.

The halfway point of my first term of office as a Tunbridge Wells borough councillor is fast approaching. It’s been challenging, fun, frustrating and exciting in equal measure. I’ve had the privilege to meet many dedicated and talented people and I have relished the opportunity to stand up for Tunbridge Wells residents. It has been an interesting two years and now seems like an opportune moment to reflect on my experience in local government thus far.

My council has courted controversy of late with the news that allowances paid to the leader and cabinet members will increase. Little-reported is fact that the overall amount paid in allowances will actually decrease. I don’t want to dwell on the specifics of the Tunbridge Wells proposals. It’s never the right time to raise allowances and there are compelling arguments on both sides. Discussions with residents and colleagues have, however, caused me to think about exactly what kind of local government we want.

Residents are often of the opinion that councillors should receive no allowances at all. That’s a valid view and local government operated that way for many decades. I doubt the wisdom of returning to those
days, though. A Tunbridge Wells colleague who, some years ago, worked in housing for a London borough, tells the story of how the leader of that council was so poor as a consequence of his dedication to the council that his credit card was taken away. Of course, the usual ‘get around’ was for members to take a non-job in a friendly neighbouring borough, a practice bordering on corruption.

Going back to a system of zero allowances would effectively price many people out of local political participation, which would be tragic for local democracy. I personally would not be able to give anywhere near as much time as I do now, as I often take unpaid leave from work in order to undertake council duties. While that would perhaps be no great individual loss – I’ve no doubt the wheels of Tunbridge Wells governance would find some way to keep turning – I must be representative of thousands of younger, working councillors who provide a genuinely different perspective from our retired colleagues.

Currently, the leader of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, responsible for the strategic oversight of an area containing over 115,000 people and one of the south east’s most important towns, receives an allowance lower than the salary my sister earns as a receptionist in a local beauty salon. Is it any wonder the average age of the last three leaders has been 73? The current cabinet are almost all retirees. They do a great job, but it is clear that only certain groups in society feel they can afford to become involved in local politics. I doubt I am alone in finding that unhealthy, even undemocratic.

Local government is growing in complexity and demands on members are increasing correspondingly. Perhaps it is time to consider moving towards the professionalisation of local government, via fewer councillors, single member wards and professional levels of pay. The advantages of such a system are clear; more accountability and visibility, more stringent oversight and control of officers, increased legitimacy. Councillors would have more freedom to act and greater opportunity to focus on issues of interest.

The disadvantages are also clear. Many who are councillors now may not wish to take on the job full-time, depriving councils of experienced people. Professional councillors could become as distrusted as Members of Parliament, reinforcing the notion of a political class separate from ordinary people. The role of councillor may become simply a stepping stone to Westminster (though that may not, in fact, be a problem. It happens already – 45% of the 2010 intake were councillors, according to ConHome and not everyone who might become a full-time councillor would want to become an MP. I certainly don’t). And, as a libertarian, I admit to feeling uncomfortable out the prospect of town halls up and down the country packed with thumb-twiddling, under-utilised councillors looking for ways to justify their existence.

For a system of professional councillors to work wider reforms would be needed. I relish a challenge, as I’m sure most councillors do, but after two years as a borough councillor I wonder about two-tier authority areas like west Kent. The county-district division seems to give rise to duplication of work, unnecessary costs and silo thinking – not to mention resident confusion about where responsibility lies, and the subsequent shuffling of the same responsibility from authority to authority. Councils can end up working at cross-purposes to each other when they should be focused simply on the needs of residents. It seems to be, to borrow an analogy, an analogue system in a digital age.

Unitary authorities would seem to be the solution. Fewer councils, vertically integrated over larger areas would give rise to advantages mirroring those offered by professional councillors; increased visibility and accountability, increased freedom of action, increased legitimacy. There would also be potential for massive cost savings. County-wide, strategic issues could be resolved by some sort of county assembly, perhaps made up of the leaders and cabinet members of the county’s unitary authorities.

But I don’t think the establishment of unitary authorities would be sufficient in and of itself. I support the government’s localism agenda, but I don’t think it goes far enough. If we brought in a system of professional councillors within unitary authorities, we should also radically decentralise power to those authorities. Give them, for example, complete control over business rates. Give them the power to raise a local income or sales tax (perhaps through, as Dan Hannan suggests in ‘The Plan’, abolishing VAT. We can but dream). The government should also abolish the requirement to hold a referendum if a council proposes raising council tax over a certain level; either we give control to local councils or we don’t.

The United States has its ‘fifty laboratories of innovation’, to borrow a phrase from Gary Johnson. Why can’t we have ours? Currently we have a fairly small number of transformative councils; the rest essentially do similar things with varying levels of effectiveness. Devolving more powers to local authorities would create stark and interesting differences in service delivery between councils, which would create competition. More competition between authorities would be beneficial for everyone as it would provide huge incentives for councils to create the best environment to live, work, play, run a business, catch a bus, build a house etc., etc. If as a resident you didn’t like your local council and just a few miles away there was an authority with lower taxes, higher standards and better prospects, you could vote with your feet and move.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Serious questions over Nick Clegg’s judgment

The Lord Rennard scandal puts the entire structure of the Lib Dems in the spotlight.

Smiling through: Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, is facing serious questions over Lord Rennard

A Liberal Democrat is seldom more comfortable than when mounted on his moral high horse. Indeed, the party’s current leader, Nick Clegg, has perfected a tone of aggrieved innocence when his integrity is questioned that has become gratingly familiar during his tenure as Deputy Prime Minister.

Those within Westminster have long known that the Lib Dems’ claims to be somehow uncontaminated by the mucky business of politics are risibly hollow. In addition to the party’s notorious willingness to play dirty on the campaign trail, it has long punched above its weight in terms of scandal: the Jeremy Thorpe farrago; the millions taken (and not returned) from the fraudster Michael Brown; and the exotic personal arrangements of Mark Oaten or Mike Hancock, among others. Since entering government, it has seen the resignation of David Laws over his expenses and, most recently, the conviction of Chris Huhne.

The Lord Rennard scandal, however, puts the party’s entire structure in the spotlight. As Lib Dem chief executive, his was a position of extraordinary power: indeed it was he who delivered the leadership to Mr Clegg in 2007 and denied it to Mr Huhne, by discarding ballots held up in the post. Such was his sway, say those who charge him with sexual harassment, that they felt unable or unwilling to confront or expose him. Yet while the size of the Lib Dem operation enabled Lord Rennard to accrue power, it also made it easier for gossip to fly around.

It is understandable that Mr Clegg, unwilling to cast his party into turmoil, preferred to deal with the issue behind the scenes, accepting (or perhaps ensuring) Lord Rennard’s departure on health grounds in 2009. But his current position is harder to defend. He claims that “indirect and non-specific concerns… reached my office” in 2008; once informal action was taken, he heard nothing more until last week. Yet this paper put serious and specific allegations – of precisely the kind Mr Clegg denies receiving – to Jonny Oates, his chief of staff, in 2010, only to have them vigorously denied. Mr Oates now claims not to have passed our questions on. Whether or not that is true, serious questions remain about Mr Clegg’s account, and his judgment.

Some Lib Dems have brushed this story off as an attempt to disrupt the Eastleigh by-election. In truth, it was the fact that Lord Rennard was permitted to return to public life, not least as a member of the party’s key policy committee, that taxed his accusers beyond endurance. The fortuitous timing should, however, give voters a chance to show precisely what they think of those who cast themselves as progressive crusaders for equality and justice, while failing lamentably to live up to those ideals.

Eastbourne's Real Time Bus Information Signs back on again!


Following on from the recent debate about real time bus information signs in Eastbourne not working, apart from the ones used by Brighton & Hove buses which have been maintained, I was pleased to note that a number of the other signs appear to have been switched back on in areas served by Stagecoach.

Whilst for a number of reasons (already highlighted by me) the full system will not be able to offer 'real time' updates like those covered on the Brighton service into Eastbourne, East Sussex County Council, together with the manufacturer Trapeze and operators Brighton & Hove and Stagecoach Eastbourne have worked together to load the system with timetable information of the Stagecoach services so that scheduled departures will appear on the Real Time Signs. At stops where these signs are not located, passengers can send a text to 84268 quoting the bus stop reference starting with ES in the orange band on the bus stop signs and a message will come back advising passengers of the next buses serving that stop.

East Sussex County Council has been successful in gaining a sizeable Government Grant to expand Real Time Information across the County. Trials will start in partnership with Brighton & Hove Buses in the coming months on their service from Brighton to Tunbridge Wells via Lewes and Uckfield and the experience gained across the varied and lengthy route will be used to perfect the roll out elsewhere. Due to proposed investment by Stagecoach in their fleet, it is anticipated that the upgraded Real Time system will be fully operational in Eastbourne within two years.

Despite the Lib-Dem spin and bleeting, it remains the case that if the importance placed on maintaining Real Time Information had been formalised during the sale by the Lib-Dems of Eastbourne Buses back in 2008, we would not be in the position we are today. The fact that it has taken the Lib-Dems literally years to jump on this particular bandwagon whilst passengers have been frustrated by the lack of working signs for so long just highlights the stark difference - a positive and challenging position taken by Conservative Councillors gets results but there is increasingly little point in Lib-Dems!

#PotholePatrol succeeding by being 'Positive & Challenging'

Three really cold winters with unusually heavy downfalls of snow and persistent rain have really taken their toll on East Sussex roads, and even here in Eastbourne on the Sunshine Coast we've not been able to escape it.

I along with a number of my colleagues have taken up the mantle to tackle the pot hole menace but what I have found is that despite record investment in our highways by the County Council, the standard of repairs being carried out seems to vary wildly. A recent Scrutiny Committee investigation here in Eastbourne which I took part in, revealed the standard set to contractors by the Highway Officials is not consistently being adhered to, even though the longer lasting repair only takes minutes longer.

In an effort to tackle this, I have been inspecting quality and feeding this back to the Highways Team via Twitter from my smartphone. This real time reporting method not only enables me to show them a digital image of the issue in question but also enables me to publicise that action is being taken, share responses from officers but also to confirm once work has been undertaken.

Why not follow me on Twitter to see for yourself? @CllrWarner

Current issues that are in the process of being dealt with include:

Above: Poor quality pot hole repairs to The Goffs in Old Town - reported & being inspected!

Above: Poor quality previous repair (now re-opening) in Wilton Avenue, Hampden Park

Above & Below: A mixed bag in Hammonds Drive following reports by me of multiple holes recently, some repaired properly, some badly repaired and others missed completely. End result, contractors will be going back and re-repairing bad jobs and filling missed holes at no cost to the tax payer!

Above: Priory Road, Langney - pot hole and crevice at carriageway edge reported - repairs
due to be completed shortly!

Above: One of multiple holes and general deteriorated road surface on Devonshire Place in Eastbourne Town Centre. A full resurfacing is due to take place in April but an interim repair has been completed on the worst holes to protect road users before the main works start.

Above: A repeat of sunken road surface on Pacific Drive, Sovereign Harbour North along with a nearby pot hole has been reported and inspected thoroughly as there is some history of issues and repairs completed before the road was adopted. Given the nature of the unique block paved finish, consultation with residents and elected Councillors in the area is being undertaken to provide the best long term solution with the aim of preventing a reoccurrence and ensuring that the
appearance of the area is maintained and preserved.
These represent just a snapshot of the issues taken up by my colleagues and I but please be assured that with pot holes being repaired at a rate of over 400 per day now, more large scale resurfacing works being completed, increased focus on quality inspections and real time feedback given by Councillors, Highway Officials expect us to see a marked improvement in the near future. I for one will not be relenting in my positive and challenging stance in tackling the problem until the work of #PotHolePatrol is done.

Stephen Lloyd's Lib-Dems betray Eastbourne Residents in Budget Shambles

Last week Eastbourne's Borough Councillors met at the Town Hall to agree the budget for the forthcoming civic year - an opportunity for members to show they get it, understand the challenges that residents face in these difficult times and to pass a budget that goes some way to help everyone get through to brighter times.

The Lib-Dem administration's proposed budget was delivered confidently by Cabinet Member for Finance, Gill Mattock and its true to say that a further freeze in council tax is not to be sniffed at, even if that was heavily subsidised by Local Government Minister, Eric Pickles in his attempts to stop councils from increasing the tax on residents. It was also good to see the administration finally listen to Conservative calls for Langney Point's Five Acre Field to receive upgraded security measures to prevent traveller incursions and critical levelling work to enable sport to be played on this much valued Community Field again in addition to upgraded recreation facilities in Upperton Ward - these are all long overdue and Ward Councillors look forward to ensuring that residents are kept informed of the what works are planned and when they will be done.

Then came the Conservative ammendment to the budget which if accepted by Lib-Dems would have ensured that their proposals were complimented by additional actions that would have gone that bit further to extend a helping hand to every resident, not just a chosen select few in Lib-Dem held seats.

The contrast could not have been clearer with the two presentations, despite differences of political idealogical belief, Conservatives sat quietly and respectfully whilst listening to Cllr Mattock's budget proposals but Conservative Shadow Finance Spokesperson, Cllr Annabelle West was greeted with ill-mannered geers and general rowdyness as she tried to highlight further actions that members could have agreed to. Those in the public gallery must have been appalled and it is hardly surprising that so many are turned off of politics when they see elected members behaving in this fashion.

On to the additional support our Council could have offered residents had Stephen Lloyd's Lib-Dems not turned the amendment down:

  • 2% Cut to Council Tax REJECTED - even though it was fully costed and former Lib-Dem Mayor, Carolyn Heaps admitted during debate that it could have been afforded!
  • Sharing the proceeds of the Solabourne Scheme with all residents REJECTED - even though the Lib-Dem Council was quite happy to saddle all residents with the risk of the £18 million pound scheme through finance used to fund it, they have ensured that only selected Council House tennants benefit from free electricity without ensuring that the £75,000 surplas in income now expected is shared with all residents!
  • Savings of £500,000 per year by bringing Eastbourne Homes back in house REJECTED - now the benefits of having an arms length management company to look after Council Houses has ended, we suggested that the £500,000 a year tax payers spend on seperate office space and a completely seperate set of Chief Executive Officers should now be stopped within the next three months as we have more than enough office space within the Council's own property portfolio and a Senior Officer Team within the Council who could easily perform the same functions. This money could have gone towards keeping council tax down for residents in future years!
  • Cutting the cost of Council Management by working closer with our neighbours REJECTED - we said that building on the success of the recent multi-authority waste contract which will save Eastbourne residents over £1 million per year, we should export the talents of our senior officer team and share them with our neighbouring councils. This would not only save money but also lead to a more joined up approach to the wider locality which could prove really useful in attracting inward investment, regeneration, developing an unbeatable tourism offer that helps us build on Eastbourne's traditional strengths and even give us a louder voice when we are campaigning to improve road links, cut train journey times to London and preserve our local Hospital services!
  • Restoration of the much missed Dog Warden post & increased focus on keeping our seafront,parks and gardens looking good REJECTED - last year news broke that the post of Dog Warden had been deleted although the Leader of the Council dissmissed this as untrue. It has transpired since that as part of the council's re-organisation, the post has indeed been done away with and the popular member of staff has had to reapply for another job within the council. We now understand that the duties previously undertaken by the dog warden are to be included with a team of nine neighbourhood wardens who will have a multitude of other tasks to complete at the same time. When the questionned by myself at a recent meeting of the Joint Action Group, it was announced that plans are at an early stage and that officers were not even in post yet with no details of how the scheme will work are available until April. We are saddened at the stress staff have been under during this process and will continue to scrutinise Lib-Dem plans until we are satisfied that residents are getting the level of service they deserve.
Lastly members were shocked to discover that after Council Departments were moved out of the historic Town Hall late last year because we were told that it no longer met the required standards for technological communications or disability access, over £8,400 has been spent on installing wireless access in all of its empty rooms and over £20,000 has been spent on consultants to explore future uses for the building. Three wooly ideas have come forward, all of which involve trying to attract charitable organisations to come out of the communities they serve to occupy rooms in the Town Hall as part of a Community Hub project and on top of the nearly £29,000 already spent, hundreds of thousands of pounds are also now likely to be spent on upgrading disability access - you couldn't make it up could you?

Businesses in Little Chelsea, still reeling from the shock planning permission given by Lib-Dem Councillors the other week to permit Tesco to open yet another Express Store on the ground floor of the old Council offices at 68 Grove Road, even though there are already an independent grocers in the street, will now be concerned to learn that these wooly plans for the Town Hall include opening a Cafe in direct competition with the popular independent offerings in this specialist retail area - talk about adding insult to injury!

Conservatives propose a far more sensible approach here - abandon these hair brained plans, preserve and maintain the Town Hall but move non-customer facing Council officers back in to the building that was intended for them in the first place, leave the one stop shop for Council services at 1 Grove Road but free up two floors of office space in that more modern and accessible building to rent out at commercial rates.

Sadly these sensible additional measures were voted down by Stephen Lloyd's Lib-Dems and it will be interesting to see if after thinking about them, any of the Conservative plans resurface during the coming civic year rebranded as Lib-Dem measures - you will know where you heard them first but this May, elections are due to be held to the County Council. These elections are of critical importance to us here in Eastbourne because if Lib-Dems take control of the County Council, not only will the years of progress be undone but the Leader of Eastbourne Borough Council would become the Leader of East Sussex County Council. Following the millions of pounds wasted on consultants since they came to power in Eastbourne, the neglect of council property which has left residents facing a bill of millions of pounds to get them back into good condition and the lack of judgement shown in rejecting these budget proposals in Eastbourne, I don't think we could afford them - do you?

Monday 25 February 2013

Poll: UKIP noses ahead of Lib Dems after Rennard claims

The Liberal Democrats have fallen behind UKIP in a ComRes poll commissioned by The Independent.

The newspaper reports it is the first time the Liberal Democrats have slumped to fourth position in one of its polls, and suggests the allegations regarding Lord Rennard may have hit the party's popularity.

The result comes just days before the Liberal Democrats attempt to defend the Eastleigh seat vacated by former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne.

Boris Johnson - One thing’s clear about Eastleigh: it’ll be a wretched day for Labour

The magnificent Maria may see off the yellow peril, but Miliband’s man is already down and out, writes Boris Johnson

Well, I came back from Eastleigh last week in a state of mystification. I really couldn’t say which of the Coalition partners will win this one – the Lib Dems or the Tories. I found a lot of strong Tory support in the aisles and car park of an Asda supermarket, but when we went for our set-piece canvass in a residential area, I am afraid it was a bit like a charge into the valley of death.

Ahead of us, at the top of the cul-de-sac, we could see the media with their sound booms and lenses, as densely arrayed as the Russian guns at Balaclava. To the right and the left of us, we could see the tidy front gardens and doors of the punters. Surely to goodness there would be some Tories among them? My friends, there were none – or not many. The first house contained a chap who leapt back in horror and refused even to shake my hand, and after that it got even stickier.

As we took our seats for the train ride back, I was filled with one overwhelming feeling – an urge more powerful than any I have felt at any previous by-election campaign. I want our candidate, Maria Hutchings, to win on Thursday.

I want her to win because I have never been out canvassing with someone who so obviously knows and understands her constituency, and cares about the people she hopes to represent.
My instinct, when confronted by any kind of doorstep resistance, is to flee. I smile my most ingratiating smile, rub my hands, and back off. That is not Maria’s approach. Someone had an NHS horror story – she had the answer, or at least a plan to help. Someone was angry about the fact that they might have to sell their home to pay for their own residential care, rather than pass it on, whole and entire, to their children – one of those miserable but sometimes inescapable problems. Maria did not have the answer, but she had some good and useful things to say about it.

And so it went on, all the time I was with her. I would stand there tongue-tied, while she showed that she had thought about people’s problems and in many cases actually done some work to solve them.

She struck me as someone who deserves to win on that basis alone; but I want her to win because she is not some cookie-cutter candidate from Central Office. She does not have a pasteurised and homogenised set of metropolitan opinions – indeed, some of her opinions are thought to be a bit out of step with the party leadership. But isn’t that what we want these days?

I would much rather have Maria Hutchings than some utterly Janus-faced and hypocritical Lib Dem, telling one set of electors one thing and then doing the exact opposite to someone else. Down in Eastleigh, the Lib Dems are in total charge of the council, and have just decided to build 1,400 homes on green space; and yet Nick Clegg has the bare-faced cheek to say that his party is all about resisting development in the countryside.

That is the trouble with this yellow albatross that is currently around the Tory neck: they are much better at the politics of opposition than they are at government. It is all very easy telling the students of Britain that Lib Dems are opposed to tuition fees, but when you get to power you have to work out a way to finance higher education. That is why Clegg’s most famous contribution to UK politics will remain his smash hit, I’m Sorry, as seen on YouTube a couple of million times.

In the same way, the Lib Dems have spent the past 10 years going around telling everyone, in their soothing and self-righteous way, that you don’t need nuclear power, and you don’t need coal power, and you don’t need gas power – all you need is a few wind farms. Now they are in office, they are discovering that their so-called energy policies will have us all reading by candlelight.
So I hope the good people of Eastleigh will go for Maria, and not these wobbling Lib Dem tergiversators. And if, by the way, you are thinking of voting for Ukip, can I just point out that Nigel Farage is a thoroughly amiable fellow to have a pint with, and all the rest of it; but a vote for Ukip is effectively a vote for the Lib Dems, since they are the only ones who can beat Maria and the Tories.

And that means a vote for Ukip is tantamount to supporting the party that is most boneheadedly and full-heartedly Europhiliac, the Lib Dems – the party that actually opposes any kind of referendum at all, let alone the in/out vote that David Cameron is offering the country (despite them promising precisely such a vote in their manifesto).

The final reason for giving my total support to Maria Hutchings, mother of four and candidate extraordinaire, is that she is doing spectacularly well in keeping the Tory end up, when you consider that this is the deepest and grimmest of mid-terms.

It was only a few weeks ago that serious Labour commentators were saying that the party should on no account write off Eastleigh. The seat was there to be won, they said, and on the face of it that was right. Look at the demographics, and it is a straight Labour/Tory marginal; and indeed, the Labour Party came second in 1994.

But where is Labour today? I don’t think I saw a single poster or piece of political propaganda advertising the main opposition party – the one that is meant to be contemplating government in 2015. Miliband’s troops are non-existent in an area that Tony Blair’s team would have fought hard to possess.

I don’t blame their candidate, an engaging gag writer from Have I Got News For You. Labour’s failure to make an impact is a biting comment on Ed Miliband, and his vacuous prospectus for the people of this country.

Whatever happens on Thursday, it will be a victory for the Coalition that the Conservatives lead, and a defeat for Miliband; and if Maria Hutchings pulls it off – the first Conservative by-election victory, in government, for more than 30 years – it will be stupendous.

George Osborne bullish on ratings downgrade

George Osborne has welcomed the financial markets’ response to the UK’s credit rating downgrade, insisting that Britain’s economy has “not been found wanting”.

Mr Osborne, the Chancellor, faced calls from Labour to resign after Moody’s, one of the biggest global credit ratings agencies, removed Britain’s cherished AAA credit rating on Friday.

He insisted that the Government “will go on delivering on the economic plan” despite the downgrade and accused Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, of being the “architect of the mistakes that gave Britain its debt problem”.

Forced to make a Commons statement on the decision by Moody’s to downgrade the UK one notch to AA1, Mr Osborne told MPs there had not been “excessive volatility” as the markets reacted.

“We have not seen excessive volatility in the markets today,” Mr Osborne said.
“Ten-year government gilts are broadly flat, trading at 2.1 per cent, within the trading range of the last week and near the very lowest rates of borrowing in our history.

“The FTSE 100 is currently up. The credit rating is an important benchmark for any country but this Government's economic policy is tested day in and day out in the markets and it has not been found wanting today.

“Families and businesses see the benefit of that in these very low interest rates.”

Despite the Chancellor’s claims, the pound came under further pressure against the euro today, dropping to a 17-month low, but held firm versus the US dollar.

It was already at a 31-month low against the dollar after it emerged last week that Bank of England Governor Sir Mervyn King is in favour of more emergency support for the UK economy.

Much of the reaction to the Moody's downgrade had been priced into markets following a run of recent poor economic updates.

However, the FTSE 100 Index was unmoved by the economic gloom as a large proportion of its earnings comes from overseas, triggering potential benefits from the weakness of the sterling.

Credit ratings assess a government’s ability to repay its loans, and can help determine the interest rate governments pay to borrow. Britain had been rated AAA, the highest possible rating, but is now rated Aa1, one notch lower.

Mr Balls said that Mr Osborne had made maintaining the AAA rating a key benchmark for his stewardship of the economy.

“The first economic test he set himself - now failed by this downgraded Chancellor,” Mr Balls said.
“And yet he remains in denial, offering more of the same failing medicine when even Moody's now agree sluggish growth is the problem.”

Mr Balls described the Moody’s downgrade as a “humiliation” for the Government.

However, Mr Osborne said the Government will now “redouble” its efforts to overcome its debts.
Mr Osborne warned that easing austerity measures would mean further downgrades from credit agencies in the future.

“Their message to this Government and this Parliament is explicit,” the Chancellor said. “The UK's rating could be downgraded further if there is a reduced commitment to fiscal consolidation.
“You will not get that reduced commitment from this Government.”

In an angry attack on Labour he compared the Opposition to an “arsonist calling the fire brigade and then complaining that we haven’t put the fire out quickly enough for them”.

Mr Osborne refused to predict when the UK might regain its AAA status, but said that “we can win the rating back”.

“I’m not going to make a prediction about that,” he said. “Moody’s is clear we can win the rating back provided we show a commitment to paying back our debts.”

Despite the downgrade David Cameron’s official spokesman has insisted that the Government's economic plan was “working”.

“The plan is working and that is why we believe the economy is healing,” the spokesman said.
The spokesman declined to speculate on whether the other main ratings agencies, Standard & Poor's and Fitch, might follow Moody's in downgrading the UK.

By Peter Dominiczak, Daily Telegraph

Sunday 24 February 2013

A new twist in the #Gropegate scandal, Nick Clegg admits he knew about allegations as far back as 2008

By Sophy Ridge, Political Correspondent, Sky News

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has admitted that he knew of concerns over Lord Rennard's behaviour more than four years ago.

Several women have accused the party's former chief executive of inappropriately touching and propositioning female party workers, which he strenuously denies.

In a statement this evening, Mr Clegg said he did not know about the allegations, but admitted that his office was aware of "indirect and non-specific" concerns about Lord Rennard's conduct in 2008.

In a statement he said: "I am angry and outraged at the suggestion that I would not have acted if these allegations had been put to me. Indeed, when indirect and non-specific concerns about Chris Rennard's conduct reached my office in 2008, we acted to deal with them.

"My chief of staff at the time, Danny Alexander, put these concerns to Chris Rennard and warned him that any such behaviour was wholly unacceptable.

"Chris Rennard categorically denied that he had behaved inappropriately and he continues to do so. He subsequently resigned as chief executive on health grounds."

Earlier, aides had said the Deputy Prime Minister only learned about the specific complaints being made against Lord Rennard following a Channel 4 News report earlier in the week.

The women claim they reported Lord Rennard's alleged behaviour to senior party officials at the time, but no further action was taken.

The peer was a key party strategist and adviser to a succession of Liberal Democrat leaders before standing down due to ill health in 2009.

He said he was "deeply shocked" by the allegations, which he "strongly disputes" and regards as a "total distortion" of his character.

Lib Dem MP Vince Cable said: "It's obviously wrong if there are women there who have made complaints and felt they weren't dealt with properly, so we are now setting up a proper investigative process - we want an independent element to that - and we'll get to the bottom of it."

Former Lib Dem head of press Mark Littlewood said: "Nick Clegg is definitely going to have to outline and spell out in exact detail what he knew and when and what actions he took."

Journalist Michael White told Sky News: "I've never heard any of these rumours about Rennard, and I've known him slightly for years."

On Sunday morning Business Secretary Vince Cable was asked on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show whether he knew about the Lord Rennard allegations prior to the Channel 4 programme, and replied: "Absolutely not."

Labour's shadow minister for equalities and women, Kate Green, said the statement raised more questions than answers.

She said: "After days of total denials - some only hours ago from Lib Dem MPs Vince Cable and Jeremy Brown - Nick Clegg has now been forced to admit that he did know of what he calls 'indirect concerns' about Lord Rennard in his role Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats.

"Nick Clegg's statement raises more questions than it answers about his judgement and the willingness of the Liberal Democrats as a party to properly investigate such serious allegations at the time they were made.

"At issue is not just a series of serious allegations from a number of women, but how the Liberal Democrat Party responded to those allegations.

"Only with a fully independent investigation can the public have confidence that the truth will prevail and lessons learned for the future."

How the BBC missed the story... Again!

The BBC knew about the sex scandal surrounding Lord Rennard more than three months ago – but decided against running a news item on it.

The Corporation has admitted that its political team began looking at allegations in November that he had groped activists but has so far not broadcast the item.

Its failure to act on the tip-off meant Channel 4 News, which is produced by its arch rival ITN, was able to reveal details of the scandal last Thursday.

Its decision not to run with the story will inevitably lead to comparisons with Newsnight’s now infamous decision not to broadcast its exposĂ© into Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse.

In November, the broadcaster was still reeling from the fallout from Newsnight’s decision to broadcast allegations of sexual abuse by an unidentified peer.

Lord McAlpine was wrongly identified as the peer at the centre of the untrue allegations and the BBC was forced to pay damages. It is possible that the controversy from that incident caused it to be a little more risk-averse than it might have been.

A BBC spokeswoman last night insisted the Corporation had pursued the story from the beginning and was continuing to pursue it.

She said: ‘To suggest we did not pursue this story is untrue. We began investigating allegations but we are unable to persuade the women to speak on camera.

‘We needed to get first-hand testimony on camera. We have continued to try to secure interviews, making it clear that we are ready to record an interview when they were ready to talk.’

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Saturday 23 February 2013

Conservatives may declare war on unions with new strike rules

By Nigel Morris, The Independent

Plan would make strikes illegal unless at least 50 per cent of union members voted in a ballot.

Trade unions could face fresh curbs on their ability to call strikes under plans being considered by the Conservatives.

Right-wing Tory ministers are pressing David Cameron to include the proposals in the party’s next general election manifesto, The Independent understands. The planned legislation would make industrial action illegal unless at least 50 per cent of union members take part in a strike ballot.

Supporters of the threshold – who insist the potential policy is “under active discussion” in Downing Street – believe the plan would prove highly popular with the voters.

But the proposal has divided opinion around the Cabinet table, with the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, understood to be among the leading opponents.

Ministers are also examining new steps to crack down on the Public and Commercial Services union, representing civil servants and local government staff, which is regarded as the most militant in Britain.

The introduction of a threshold has been championed by Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, following clashes with transport unions in the capital. Mr Cameron has been careful to avoid ruling the idea out, although has stressed he had no plans to press ahead with the move.

It had been thought the proposal had been on ice in recent months, but a senior minister told the Independent the policy was being seriously considered within Downing Street.

“It is certainly under active discussion – some people are pushing it quite hard. It would be a popular thing to do – people get outraged about small numbers of people walking out and holding them to ransom,” he said.

There is no prospect of any new trade union legislation while the Coalition is in office – Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, has said publicly that he would oppose it. Mr McLoughlin, a former trade unionist, has also argued in private against the move. His opposition has proved important because, as Transport Secretary, he is in the forefront of dealing with industrial disputes.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, who deals with public sector unions, is also believed to be sceptical about the wisdom of the threshold idea. A colleague said: “I don’t think he lies awake at night worrying about the unions.”

But Tory sources confirmed the issue is being discussed as a possible commitment in the party’s next manifesto. One of the attractions of the policy for supporters would be to put pressure on Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, to state whether supported the move and cast a spotlight on his party’s union links.

George Osborne, the Chancellor, and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, are understood to be sympathetic to the introduction of a threshold, although neither has spoken publicly on the issue recently.

Other suggestions are altering the law to allow agency workers to cover for staff who are on strike and increasing the notice period unions have to give to employers before industrial action begins.

Trade union legislation has remained largely unchanged since the 1980s, when the Thatcher Government outlawed the closed shop in the workplace, introduced secret ballots for strikes and banned secondary picketing.

Since then the Conservatives have been reluctant to return to the subject for fear of antagonising the unions. The issue went up the political agenda in 2011 when there were two major union walkouts in protest over cuts to public sector pensions and still being considered by senior Tories.

Government sources say they have established a constructive relationship with the TUC and, despite ideological differences, with Britain’s largest union, Unite.

However, they signalled that the Public and Commercial Services Union, which has 270,000 members, could be in their sights.

Scrapping the arrangement where membership subs are paid direct through the Whitehall payroll is being considered, as well as limiting the amount of time that union representatives are allowed to have off for union business.

Baroness Thatcher's battle bus is sold for £17,000

An armour-plated bus believed to have been used by “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher has sold for nearly £17,000.

The 28-ton “battle bus” is thought to have been built in the 1980s for the former Prime Minister to use on a Northern Ireland tour.

The vehicle went under the hammer and beat the estimate of £10,000, selling for a final £16,940 to a vehicle collector.

Jonathan Humbert, of Northamptonshire-based JP Humbert Auctioneers, said: “There was immense interest. It sold to a spontaneous round of applause in the saleroom.”

The bus, which has just 17,398 miles on the clock, has a blast-proof floor and armour-plated glass throughout, as well as a bomb-proof armoured body, Mr Humbert said.

When used by Lady Thatcher it is believed to also have had its own auxiliary generator and air supply, for protection against chemical, biological or radiation attacks.

Sold by a private vendor, the bus has a chassis by Foden, a body by Glover and Webb and is powered by a 12-litre Rolls-Royce engine.

Mr Humbert said before the auction: “This isn’t a good-looking vehicle by any stretch of the imagination – but it is of social and historical interest. It is an irreplaceable one-off, an iron bus for the Iron Lady.”

Friday 22 February 2013

English should be the language of Europe, claims Germany's president as he begs Britain not to leave the European Union

English should become the language of Europe, the German president has claimed.
Joachim Gauck made his comments in Berlin as he pleaded with Britain not to leave the European Union.

In remarks unlikely to please the French, Mr Gauck said English had become the ‘lingua franca’ of the continent.

‘One of the main problems we have in building a more integrated European community is the inadequate communication within Europe,’ he said.

‘It is true to say that young people are growing up with English as the lingua franca.
‘However, I feel that we should not simply let things take their course when it comes to linguistic integration.

‘More Europe means multilingualism. I am convinced that feeling at home in one’s native language and its magic and being able to speak enough English to get by in all situations and at all ages can exist alongside each other in Europe.’

Mr Gauck also pleaded with Britain to stay in the EU.

Referring to David Cameron’s pledge of an in/out refernedum on the EU Gauck said in a keynote speech: 'Dear English, Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and new British citizens. We would like to keep you!

'We need your experiences as the country with the oldest parliamentary democracy, we need your traditions, your soberness and your courage.

'You helped with your deployment in World War II to save our Europe - it is also your Europe.
‘More Europe should not mean "without you," he said to thunderous applause at his palace in Berlin in his first major address since taking on the job nearly a year ago.

Aware that a powerful Germany is now seen as a bully in many European countries - dictating austerity in cash-strapped nations - he insisted in his televised speech: 'We don’t want to browbeat others, or press our concepts on them. We stand however by our experiences and would like to convey them,' recalling that less than a decade earlier Germany had been the 'sick man of Europe.'

The president, whose has a largely ceremonial and moral leadership role, conceded that a 'structural flaw' led to an imbalance in the European Union which was only 'patched up by emergency measures, such as the European Stability Mechanism and the fiscal compact.'

He also condeded that most of what the EU’s 500 million citizens have read or heard about the 27-member bloc over the past few years has tended to be about the eurozone crisis. “This is also a crisis of confidence in Europe as a political project. This is not just a struggle for our currency; we are struggling with an internal quandary too.”

The president then went on to remind his audience, which was largely made up of people under the age of 30, of the achievements of the EU since it began as a trading block in the post-war years - including the fact that the bloc 'has been at peace ever since.'

After all, he said, 'it was from our country that the attempts to destroy everything European, all universal values were unleashed.

Despite everything that happened, the Allies granted our country support and solidarity straight after the war,' he said. 'We were invited, received and welcomed.'

The president also stressed that despite its economic might, Berlin had no aspirations of imposing 'a German diktat.'

Gauck, an activist pastor from former communist East Germany, defined what Germany owed to Europe and the western Allies in rebuilding after the devastation of WWII. 'We were spared at the time what could have easily followed after our hubris, an existence as an outcast stranger outside of the community of nations.'

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Sex scandal engulfs Clegg: At least 10 women claim the Lib Dem's Chief Executive molested them - and the leader's office knew about it

The Deputy Prime Minister has been dragged into the sex scandal surrounding a top Liberal Democrat accused of molesting women.

Amid mounting claims of a cover-up, it emerged Nick Clegg’s private office was made aware of the claims as long as five years ago.

Aides to the Lib Dem leader refused to say how much he knew about the allegations that former party chief Chris Rennard had groped a string of female activists. But last night, evidence was growing that senior party officials ran an organised campaign to silence the women and shut down an internal investigation.

The Daily Mail has learned one female activist was sacked from the party and forced to sign a gagging order after trying to blow the whistle on Lord Rennard. Another woman, who claims that she was sexually harassed by Lord Rennard, described to the Mail how the party offered a bizarre form of ‘restorative justice’ in which she could confront him in private about the impact of his actions.

She refused and, after threatening to go the Press, was told she had no longer had a future in the party.

A third woman, who claims she was sexually assaulted at his London home, revealed the ‘Kafkaesque’ nightmare she experienced when she tried to report the incident to senior Lib Dems.
Mr Clegg, who claims not to have known about these specific cases, has now been forced to order an internal inquiry into the sexual harassment and groping claims.

In a statement yesterday Lord Rennard said he would ‘temporarily stand aside’ from his party roles while the investigation is carried out in order to ‘avoid any embarrassment to the party’.
At least ten women have now made complaints about the behaviour of Lord Rennard, who denies wrongdoing. The women said their claims had not been taken seriously by the party leadership.

A prominent Lib Dem last night likened the party’s handling of the allegations to the way the BBC dealt with the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Stephen Tall, co-editor of grassroots website Lib Dem Voice, said: ‘There is a gulf both in the severity and scale of the allegations. But there is also a potentially worrying similarity – that just as the BBC turned a blind eye to the alleged offences one of its stars, so too did the Lib Dems.
‘The party has to acknowledge the seriousness not only of the allegations themselves, but also the alleged cover-up.’

Lord Rennard became one of the most powerful figures in the Liberal Democrats after masterminding a string of by-election successes over the past two decades. His accusers claim he abused his power to try to take advantage of them.

Mr Clegg, who is on holiday in Spain, has made no public comment on the claims, although a spokesman said he was ‘very concerned’ about the developments.

A senior aide yesterday said Mr Clegg had not known about the specific claims raised on Thursday night by a Channel 4 investigation, but would not comment on whether he knew about wider allegations that Lord Rennard was a sex pest.

Clegg must have known what was going on as the investigation was being run by his own office
But the Daily Mail can reveal the Lib Dem party leader’s office asked a senior MP to carry out a probe into the accusations as far back as 2008, the year after Mr Clegg became party leader.

Mr Clegg’s deputy chief-of-staff Alison Suttie is said to have asked MP Jo Swinson to speak to workers about Lord Rennard’s behaviour under her then role as the party’s spokesman for women and equality. Former chief whip Paul Burstow is also said to have been informed about the claims.

A former Lib Dem party official last night said: ‘Clegg must have known what was going on as the investigation was being run by his own office. Alison Suttie was known as his gatekeeper and briefed him on all events within the party daily. Everyone was talking about it, and it was common knowledge.’

Labour MP Ian Mearns said: ‘Nick Clegg and all the senior party figures need to tell us what they knew and when they knew it.’

Lib Dem president Tim Farron yesterday started an internal investigation into how the party deals with sexual harassment.

In a statement, Lord Rennard said he was ‘deeply shocked by and strongly disputes the allegations made against him’.

A Lib Dem spokesman said: ‘We will not tolerate harassment in our party.’

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UKIP MEP, Marta Andreasen comes home to the Conservatives

Marta Andreasen said she was quitting her party in protest at the “dictatorial” leadership of Nigel Farage and his approach to the Eastleigh by-election.

She was also moving because of the Prime Minister’s decision to offer an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership, she said.

Miss Andreasen is a former chief accountant for the European Commission, who left after alleging mismanagement in its budget. She is a Ukip MEP for South-East England.

Her defection may take the shine off what has been seen as a robust performance by Ukip in Eastleigh: politicians from all three main parties have privately predicted that the party could beat Labour into third place.

It could also cheer Tories demoralised by their party’s performance in the seat.

Mrs Andreasen announced her move in a letter to voters in Eastleigh that will be published today .
In it, she criticises Mr Farage for his decision not to stand in the by-election, suggesting he is not serious about trying to win Commons seats. “For me, it confirmed that Ukip is only interested in being a pressure group,” she says. She also criticises Mr Farage personally. He is the party’s best known figure and also an MEP. The two are known to have had disputes about his management style.

Mr Farage “treats any views other than his own with contempt,” she writes. “Ukip is his plaything to mould and shape in any way he sees fit, regardless of the views of others, myself included. His actions, surrounding himself with an old boys club of like-minded sycophants, are dictatorial in sharp contrast to those of David Cameron who has shown he can listen, adapt and do what is right for the country, not just for personal gain.”

Grant Shapps, the Conservative chairman, said that the defection was a vindication of Mr Cameron’s European policies. Her words on the Prime Minister’s record “prove that the Conservatives are the only party who can protect Britain’s interests in Europe,” he said.