Richard Willis's Blog

First for local news and first for comment

David Cameron’s Message of Gratitude

ivan-and-david2The following is a message that David Cameron has issued tonight:

“Sam and I have been overwhelmed by all the letters, cards, emails and flowers we have received about Ivan. Sending an e-mail this week just gives us both a chance to say a big “thank you”. It means a lot to know that others are thinking of us and him.

We always knew Ivan wouldn’t live forever, but we didn’t expect to lose him so young and so suddenly. He leaves a hole in our life so big that words can’t describe it. Bed time, bath time, meal time – nothing will feel the same again.

We console ourselves knowing that he won’t suffer anymore, that his end was quick, and that he is in a better place. But we all just miss him so desperately.

When we were first told the extent of Ivan’s disability I thought that we would suffer having to care for him but at least he would benefit from our care. Now as I look back I see that it was all the other way round. It was only him that ever really suffered and it was us – Sam, me, Nancy and Elwen – who gained more than I ever believed possible from having and loving such a wonderfully special and beautiful boy.”

February 28, 2009 Posted by | National | 1 Comment

Questions and Answers

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As promised in an earlier posting, here are the answers I received to the questions I put at the Council meeting on Tuesday night:

Q1. Would the Leader of the Council tell me what plans she has to celebrate Armed Forces Day on 27 June this year?

A.      The Council will be marking Armed Forces Day (formerly Veterans Day) in Reading’s Forbury Gardens on Sunday 28 June, from 12 noon to 5pm.  This will be part of the national programme of events taking place up and down the country to honour Britain’s Armed Forces, past present and future.

Local military units, associations and related charities have been invited to attend to showcase the work they do through offering a range of activities such as an information stands, demonstrations, talks, music or children’s activities.The Reading Central Salvation Army Band will play from the bandstand and additional musical entertainment is being programmed. We also hope to incorporate a Veterans’ Badging Ceremony.

The Museum of Reading will have on display evacuee cases and WW1 and WW2 loans boxes to tie in with the event.

In addition we have secured the MOD’s (Ministry Of Defence) ‘We Were There’ exhibition, which will be hosted by the Broad Street Mall in the week running up to the event (20 – 28 June).  The exhibition will be open to the public throughout the Mall’s opening hours.

We are currently finalising an application for MOD funding and if successful, this will allow us to develop the event further.

Q15. Would the Leader of the Council inform me how many Council employees have remuneration packages worth more than £50,000 in the current financial year? This should include salaries, bonuses, benefits in kind and termination payments, but exclude employee pension contributions. Please indicate how many of the staff listed are directly employed, how many indirectly and how many are teachers or school staff.

A.      This information is available in the published accounts for the previous financial year.  The information is not yet available for the current financial year.  The number of staff who earned more than £50,000 per annum last year was 139, of whom 56 were school-based staff. All staff in this category are directly employed except for school-based staff in foundation or voluntary aided schools.

Q16. Could the Leader of the Council inform me how many staff received bonuses in the 2007/08 financial year. What was the total awarded in bonuses?

A.      The Council does not have a system for awarding merit or performance-related bonuses in the commercially accepted sense of the word.  Therefore the answer to this question is nil.

February 28, 2009 Posted by | Local | Leave a comment

Ulster Conservatives and Unionists

cons-unionistI am delighted to see that the Ulster Unionists and Northern Ireland Conservatives have finalised an agreement to fight elections as a single force. One of my very first postings on this blog was to welcome news that the two parties had come to an initial understanding on the way forward.

The two parties balloted key members and received overwhelming support for the alliance, which is still short of a full merger. The full title of the new entity is “Ulster Conservatives and Unionist – New Force”, a bit of a mouthful but at least clear to the electorate as to what they will be voting for.

It will provide a less sectarian, nation-wide party to vote for and provide Northern Ireland a real prospect of representation at the Cabinet table for the first time in over 35 years.  For me as a unionist, it also helps to cement the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland at a time when the direction of travel seemed to be one-way towards an eventual united Ireland.  It will also inject some much needed resources and campaigning support into the new joint entity after years of neglect of the Northern Ireland Conservatives and the decline of the Ulster Unionists.

It is no wonder that the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been so vehement in its condemnation, as it can see a real threat to its predominance, at a time when it had thought it was now unassailable in the Unionist community. Labour are also in the throes of beginning an organisation in the Province, despite their historic closeness to the more Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

I very much hope that Conservative Campaign Headquarters provides some real support to the new entity and it would seem sensible to send over a number of Catholic Conservative MPs to campaign there, if only to make the point that the Conservative Party (in all its forms) is a non-sectarian party that welcomes people of all backgrounds and faiths.

UPDATE: There is now a website but it seems that the word “Ulster” has already been dropped!

February 27, 2009 Posted by | National | 2 Comments

Callaghan’s Candour

james-callaghanA very apposite quote from a former Labour Prime Minister:

“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending.

I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists and, in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.”

James Callaghan – Prime Minister 1976-1979

I think he was spot on!

February 27, 2009 Posted by | General Musings | 1 Comment

New YouGov Poll – Tory Lead at 10%

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There is a new YouGov poll reported tonight for the Daily Telegraph:

            Conservative          41% (down 3%)

            Labour                       31% (down 1%)

            Lib Dem                    15% (up 1%)

The changes are within the margin of error and don’t really signify much on their own. The Conservatives will be pleased to be in th 40’s and with a 10% lead. Labour will be relieved that another poll has them in the 30’s after a couple showed them below 30%. 

February 26, 2009 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment

Lib Dem Councillor in Nazi Uniform Storm

PD*27201453A Liberal Democrat Councillor in Wales has provoked a storm by dressing in a Nazi uniform for a fancy dress party.

Councillor Sean Aspey posed for photos at his 40th birthday party and then posted them on the social networking site Facebook. He also linked to some tasteless Facebook groups making light of the appalling actions of Fred and Rosemary West.

Let me say immediately that I think he has shown a lack of judgement but I do not wish to add my voice to those calling for him to resign. It seems to be a knee jerk reaction these days that anyone who does anything or says anything that others may disapprove of is immediately subject to calls for his or her resignation.

The irony is that the ones that usually take the “holier than thou” position are the Liberal Democrats. They see racists and closet Nazi’s everywhere, particularly in the Conservative party. So the fact that the latest “offender” is one of their own is quite delicious and I will be fascinated to see if Lib Dems up and down the land rally to call for his resignation, public humiliation and ritual disembowelling (or maybe not the latter!).

When a Conservative Councillor blacked up to attend a party as Nelson Mandela it was the Lib Dems that led the witch-hunt calling for his head. Fortunately Mandela himself is a wiser man and did not take offence. His only concern was the Councillor’s choice of shirt when in costume.

If we want people from the local community to enter public life and make the sacrifices that elected office sometimes entail, we must accept that occasionally they will do or say something that is inappropriate or less than sensible. If every time it happens other politicians jump on the bandwagon of calling for resignation and sacking, we only serve to discredit politics further and deter good people from becoming involved. Incompetence in office or illegality are different matters and in those cases I think that fellow politicians are fully justified in exposing fault and seeking accountability.

I am sure Cllr Aspey will have learned a valuable lesson and the judgement of whether he continues to serve as a Councillor should be for his electorate and not other politicians.

We are all human and make mistakes – I know I do – so let’s accept that and move on.

UPDATE: I understand that Cllr Aspey has been suspended by his party.

February 26, 2009 Posted by | National | 4 Comments

Reading Still in Budget Crisis

rbc-hex1Reading Borough Council reconvened tonight at 6.30pm. I think most of the Conservative Group expected a short meeting. Since the Lib Dem and Labour positions were so close we expected that during the day a deal would have been struck. Labour wanted a 4.24% increase and the Lib Dems proposed 3.99% increase – that’s just 0.25% difference! Conservatives maintained our demand for a zero increase.

After a minute’s silence to mark the sad death of Ivan Cameron, it soon became apparent that Labour’s arrogance remained. Labour Leader Cllr Jo Lovelock had not even picked up the telephone to either of the other party leaders during the day to try to find a resolution to last night’s stalemate. Cllr Tony Jones (Ind) also chipped in to say that he had not been contacted either. So the Labour minority administration had completely failed to seek a deal with any of the other parties in the Council. Instead Cllr Lovelock moved an amended motion adopting much of the Lib Dem amendment wording from last night and offering a 3.99% increase.

Lib Dem leader Cllr Gareth Epps indicated that the first he had seen of the new Labour position was just before the Council meeting and that his Group would still not support Labour’s budget as some of the key Lib Dem proposals were not included.

The meeting adjourned at 7.15pm after a warning from the Chief Finance Officer that failure to agree a budget could lead to services being suspended and Council vehicles not being refuelled. It would also mean that Council Tax could not be notified and collected.

After almost 4 hours of discussions between Group Leaders and a lot of hanging around, all Councillors returned to their seats to hear Cllr Lovelock tell us once again of her disappointment at the Lib Dem group attitude, and Cllr Epps state that his Group were still not willing to support Labour’s revised budget, despite it being the same increase that they themselves had proposed only last night.

At about 11.10pm Conservatives and Lib Dems voted down Labour’s revised budget motion. Independent Councillor Tony Jones had left and gone home earlier in the evening.

After the vote we were informed that the Council would meet again on Monday 2 March at 6.30pm to try once again to reach agreement on a budget.

I can’t wait! (I am being ironic)

February 25, 2009 Posted by | Local | 3 Comments

Heartfelt Condolences to David and Samantha Cameron

ivan-and-davidI was truly shocked to learn today that David Cameron’s son Ivan (aged 6) died last night. Ivan had suffered since birth from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and was severely disabled.

It is always sad when someone loses a child and it is commendable that normal politics in Westminster was suspended today as a mark of respect for Ivan and the Cameron family. Prime Minister Gordon Brown knows only too well himself the heartache of losing a baby.

It is a tragic reminder that our politicians are human beings and not political machines. The commentators and journalists who are ready to pounce on their mistakes and frailties may like to reflect on that and give the Camerons a little space to grieve.

February 25, 2009 Posted by | National | 3 Comments

The BNP are a Left Wing Party

hannanDan Hannan (Conservative MEP for the South East Region) makes a very good case for why the British National Party should be seen as a LEFT wing party, rather than right wing.

I am sure that this will have lefty liberal types spluttering over their tofu but it is true. As Dan highlights, the BNP and Labour have more in common than either party would care to admit. It is also interesting that most BNP electoral successes come in former Labour voting areas. It is the crumbling of the Labour vote in deprived areas that provides the manure for the BNP to thrive. Witness the rise of the National Front in the late 1970’s under a decaying Labour Government and we can see that those conditions are close to being replicated today.

In 1979 the advent of a Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher checked the National Front and it is to be hoped that David Cameron’s victory at the next General Election will similarly stem the BNP. In the mean time it is important that all the decent mainstream parties maximise their campaigning effort to offer a realistic alternative to the so-called nationalist parties.

February 25, 2009 Posted by | National | 9 Comments

Budget Deadlock in Reading Borough

rbc-hexAt tonight’s Council meeting the ruling Labour Executive failed to pass their budget. In a sometimes rowdy meeting Conservative Councillors stuck to their guns in calling for a zero Council Tax increase. The Lib Dems moved an amendment that would have resulted in some minor changes to spending plans and a 3.99% increase – close to Labour’s 4.24% proposal. The Lib Dem amendment to increase some fees and cut some minor budgets was voted down by combined Labour and Conservative votes.

The meeting adjourned for around an hour for Group leaders to discuss options but Labour failed to persuade either of the other two Groups to support them. At the end of the Council Meeting a procedural motion was passed to reconvene the Council again tomorrow (Weds) night to try to pass a budget and set the Council Tax for the next year.

UPDATE: It is interesting that in Bristol the minority Labour administration has resigned tonight over its inability to set a budget. The Lib Dems and Conservatives combined to turf out yet another Labour administration. As I watched the Labour Group in Reading tonight it was clear to me that they are in the last days of their control of the levers of power in Reading. Hooray!

February 24, 2009 Posted by | Local | 7 Comments

The Case for a Council Tax Freeze

council-taxThe Labour Executive has proposed a 4.24% increase in Reading Borough’s Council Tax for the next financial year. This looks like being one of the biggest increases in the area and not far below the maximum allowed under the Government’s cap of 5%.

There are some areas where increased spending is essential, for example on Childrens’ Services, after the appalling Ofsted report stating that Reading was failing its most vulnerable children. However, we are in the middle of an economic downturn that is affecting many people in our town. Hundreds of jobs across Reading have been lost and a number of people have had their homes repossessed.

As well as this visible effect, there is the hidden effect of record low interest rates. There are many people who are living on the interest on their savings, due to poor pension provision and these people have been hard hit by the reduction in rates from 5% to just 1% in recent months. There are also those who are paid on an hourly basis and who have had their hours cut in order to reflect the reduced level of business.

At a time when Reading people are feeling the pinch can it be right to increase their burden of taxation? Conservatives think not. So why are Labour proposing an increase of 4.24% when inflation (as measured by the RPI) is currently 0.1%?

The first reason is obvious; last year they proposed an increase of just 1.9% when they knew that they were facing tough elections. However, they did not stick to the budget during the year and they now face a £1.5m overspend. So a cynical pre-election budget is now followed by the post-election reckoning. Conservatives supported the 1.9% increase last year but would have also followed it with a comprehensive reappraisal of all areas of Council activity.

The second reason for the increase is the very poor settlement from Central Government this year. After several years of above inflation increases the contribution from the Labour Government will increase by just 1.75% in the next period.

Thirdly, the Council are still in dispute with the Unions about LAST YEAR’s pay settlement. The Unions want 6% and have been paid an interim 2.5% subject to arbitration. You may recall that I posted an article based on a Taxpayers’ Alliance report that showed that Reading Borough Council had 139 employees earning more than £50,000 per annum.

The Labour Party has run Reading for over 25 years. We have the highest Council Tax in Berkshire and consistently score amongst the worst in the country for some services provided. Recent independent inspections of Adult Social Care and Children’s Services have been damning.

It is time that tough action was taken to reflect the tough times in which we find ourselves. I suggest that the following actions be taken:

1.      Stop recruitment except in key service areas such as child protection and adult social care.

2.      Implement a pay freeze for all employees.

3.      Freeze Councillors’ allowances. An increase cannot be justified in the current climate.

4.      Begin a comprehensive review across all areas of Council services to identify administrative and other savings. The Council’s bloated marketing budgets would be a prime target.

If all of the above was done then it should be possible to freeze Council Tax in the current year and in years to come. Conservative Councils like Wandsworth, Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Bromley have shown how it is possible to get spending under control and at the same time deliver high quality services to local people.

There is no reason why Reading should be any different.

February 24, 2009 Posted by | Local | 2 Comments

Rob Wilson Launches New Website

rob-wilsonReading East MP Rob Wilson has launched a new website. It is a huge improvement on his previous site, with a much cleaner and brighter look and is packed with information on campaigns and Westminster voting record. A new and innovative feature is the page about his staff, listing their duties and with photos. It also has links to Rob’s blog, video clips and Facebook page.

All in all it is by far the best local politician’s website and puts Martin Salter’s recently re-launched site in the shade.

February 24, 2009 Posted by | Local | 3 Comments

New ICM Poll – Lib Dems Fall Back

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There is a new ICM poll reported tonight for tomorrow’s Guardian:

            Conservative          42% (up 2%)

            Labour                       30% (up 2%)

            Lib Dem                    18% (down 4%)

This poll reverses last month’s Lib Dem jump and will be a sore disappointment to Lib Dem MPs in the South of England particularly. Conservatives will be pleased to be in majority winning territory and there is a small consolation for Labour in them squeaking back up to 30%.

NB: The changes shown in the Guardian article are changes compared to last months Guardian ICM poll, whereas the changes I show are compared to the last ICM poll earlier this month.

UPDATE: Both Political Betting and UK Polling Report have articles.

February 23, 2009 Posted by | Polls | Leave a comment

Oscar Wilde on Business and Work

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Former Reading resident Oscar Wilde said:

“My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s business”

and

“Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do”.

February 23, 2009 Posted by | General Musings | 1 Comment

Reading Lib Dems Funded by Secretive “Club”

lib-dem1There has been some recent controversy about party finances at national level. One Lib Dem website locally has tried to muck spread with claims that I mislead a Council meeting in 2008 when I said that Reading Conservatives’ local election campaign was not funded by Lord Ashcroft. I stand by that statement without reservation. In my experience, money from Lord Ashcroft is actually very hard to obtain. His team demands a business plan and will only fund specific, costed projects that cannot be funded by existing local means. I am not at all surprised that Reading East Conservatives received two sums from his company “Bearwood” in 2004 (when I was not in Reading) and nothing since then. These were properly reported to the Electoral Commission as the law requires. However, the Electoral Commission site shows that since 2004 there has been no further funding.

What is more interesting however, is the funding of the other two local parties. Reading Labour Party, as might be expected, has been funded consistently and continually by a variety of Trades Unions. The public service workers union “UNISON” has made regular donations since requirements for declaration began in 2001. Their funding totals £11,375. The Transport and General Workers union has donated £3,300 and the Communication Workers Union £2,150.  The Graphic Paper and Media Union gave £1,500 and “AMICUS” £300. Union donations total £18,625.

The Liberal Democrats’ funding is rather more murky. They are massively bank-rolled by an organisation calling itself the “Reading Liberal Club Co Ltd”. Companies House records show that the company was incorporated in 1909 and is registered at 62 Northcourt Avenue, a residential address in south Reading. There is no club house at that address and no obvious trading or social activity. The electoral register shows two long-standing Lib Dem activists and candidates living at the address. Since 2001 this secretive “club” has donated more than £65,000 to the Reading Lib Dems. Some of the donations are very large, with the two biggest being £9,000 and £10,000. Local Lib Dems have also received very large donations from a company called Education Data Systems Ltd based in Oxford.

The Reading Liberal Democrats are the party that has received by far the largest cash funding since 2001. The Electoral Commission site lists the following declarable cash donations received since 2001:

            Reading Labour Party                                      £19,725.00

            Reading Conservatives (East & West)            £46,259.92

Reading Liberal Democrats                             £93,653.74

In that period the Labour Party on Reading Borough Council has shrunk from 36 Councillors to 19; the Liberal Democrats have grown from a Group of 6 to a Group of 8; and Reading Conservatives have increased from a Group of 3 to a Group of 18 now. Conservatives seem to have had the better value for money for the donations received.

I am grateful to the author of Muckspreading for raising the subject of local political party funding and I will be conducting further investigations into the secretive “Reading Liberal Club”.

I couldn’t resist this:

February 23, 2009 Posted by | Local | 12 Comments