Friday, 29 May 2009

Sounding The Last Post

So it's farewell to the Evening Post.

I'm not sure I agree with the editor's impassioned plea during Local Newspaper Week that local papers have an important role holding people to account. There is far too much of a symbiotic relationship between local papers and the people they are keeping tabs on for that to be true and in many cases a willingness to accept the official explanation as an end to a story has been evident.

Add to that the small matter of being systematically starved by their proprietors of the resources to do proper investigative journalism. It's therefore no surprise that we get a local press eager to not rock the boat because, quite frankly, their advertising revenues depend on it.

I'm not singling either of our local papers out for criticism, simply recognising it as that's the way it is.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Tories To Reintroduce Slavery - Official!

Fresh after claims for servants quarters, I've just received this email:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to you about Reading East MP, Rob Wilson, who is currently seeking to recruit an unpaid worker for his office, in spite of the regulations that require all workers to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage.

In terms of this MP, the advert he has posted (copied below) makes it clear what he wants this intern to do; "Duties will include data entry, filing, answering telephone calls and general office assistance to Rob's Parliamentary Aide and Constituency Assistant". I am sure you are familiar with MP's use of interns as workers in this way, but maybe not so familiar with the fact that HMRC has significantly tightened its definition of volunteers recently, which has specific relevance to the use of interns in political office.

I have checked this situation with the DBERR helpline on the Minimum Wage, the only place for authoritative, official advice on this subject, with reference to the new guidance, and asked specifically about whether an intern who was expected to do work like this should be paid the Minimum Wage.

They say that firstly the term "intern" has no meaning in terms of the regulations and that the only exception for "work experience" is where it involves a full time student on a required placement for their course.They also told me, firmly and unequivocally, that for a volunteer to be exempted as unpaid they must not be expected to turn up at any specific time or do any specific work and also that "as soon as you give them work you expect them to do they could claim the Minimum Wage as it becomes an employee/employer relationship". This also accords with the newly published guidance on the regulations which was highlighted in the Low Pay Commission report on the National Minimum Wage and which is now widely available.

Please note that it makes no difference whether a person agrees to work unpaid or not - it is not permissible for an employer to conspire to avoid payment in this way.

This is also not about the use of volunteers who might drop in to an office and agree to take part in campaigning, all of which can legally be unpaid. There is however a quantifiable and legally observed difference between that, and taking someone on who has been recruited to do specific work like this individual.

I have asked Rob Wilson about this, via his assistant, but he is not prepared to address this or check the regulations. At a time when the probity of public figures is such a live issue, this is somewhat surprising. However if he will not do it, might I suggest that you find out if what I am saying is accurate or not? The Minimum Wage helpline (0845 6000 678) would be more than happy to advise on this. If you make an enquiry as an employer and place the circumstances outlined in front of them and ask them whether someone taken on in this capacity should be paid, you may discover something that you may, or may not, wish to enlighten Rob Wilson about.

If you need any more details, please feel free to ask.
Working for: Rob Wilson MP (Reading East)
Salary: Unpaid
Details: Applications are invited for this Intern position, based in the constituency office of Rob Wilson MP, in Caversham, Reading.

This is an ongoing, unpaid internship position. Duties will include data entry, filing, answering telephone calls and general office assistance to Rob's Parliamentary Aide and Constituency Assistant.

The role will be ideally suited to someone who is looking for a future career in politics or Government, but lacks the essential office skills required by many paid, permanent roles.
Please do not apply if you are hoping to work in Westminster as this job is solely based in the constituency and offers no scope for travel to Westminster.

Closes: Friday, 22 May 2009, although we may appoint before the closing date if a suitable candidate is found.

Contact: Please apply via e-mail, with a covering letter and CV, to Craig Morley at website

What Ho Jeeves!

The MPs expenses scandal has exposed great tales of greed and people on the make but the problem with making it all stick is that it was all 'within the rules' and, sadly, we the electorate know that which is why most of us want an election now.

However, that doesn't mean that other important conclusions can't be drawn from the claims being made. You just have to look at some of them: expenses for the upkeep of a duck pond, a coppice, moat repairs and now a claim for servants quarters. You couldn't make it up.

It tells you all there is to know about David Cameron's hot buttered crumpet Tory party. Ce n'est rien la change.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Case Work

With allowances and expenses under the spotlight, it's every resident's right to demand that they get their money's worth from their politicians. The casework stats have now been published by the council for the last full council year and yet again the Lib Dems come out top. No surprise there.

In Reading, your Tory councillor only does a mean average of 36 items of casework per year, a Labour councillor does 44, whilst a Lib Dem on average does 94. See, it's not just an election time slogan, we actually deliver what we promise!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

More Deadwood Than the Mary Rose

As another season limps to a conclusion, this summer is probably the most important of Wenger's career.

Because we haven't spent any serious money for the last three years we have seen the gradual decline of the team, down to the point where there is not enough daylight between us and fifth place for my liking, let alone being up there challenging.

The club has to decide whether we want to end up like $pur$, endlessly whinging about the glory days of yesteryear and talking about pretty football or whether we want to be serious contenders.

We have some terrifically talented young players and also some who Wenger keeps around because he's determined to prove people wrong. This summer there has to be a clearout of players like Diaby who have gone backwards since breaking through, a downgrade to able subsitute for the likes Dennilson and above all the building of a backbone to the team. Signing Arshavin was a step in the right direction, but he should have been brought in as a planned team building excercise in August, not a panic buy in January to thwart Villa's charge.

Overall, I'm not worried about who might be shipped out this summer or the tabloid scare stories. I am more concerned that Arsène Wenger understands that the days of Champion's League football on the cheap is now over and serious investment is needed.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Will You Get to Heaven with Advance Publicity?

It's out now... the legendary re-release of Girls At Our Best!'s only album Pleasure.

Also notable for being the only album that I have a credit on!

Go Buy!

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Same Old Song

Annual Council was interesting for the sole reason that we have finally nailed the Tory lie that there is a Lib Dem-Labour administration running the town. Let's get this absolutely clear shall we, so that the electorate can be sure of the facts.

Reading has a Labour administration because to a man and woman, the Tory group voted for one.

There is no other reason.

What Labour does in the coming year is the complete responsibility of every single member of the Tory group. What Labour inflicts on the town is the fault of the Tory group. When Labour screw up again, it will be the fault of the Tory group.

Of course, it didn't go without the usual blustering and pomposity from the Conservatives who once again proved themselves not fit to run the town if they ever get power by once again showing that they can't be bothered to read the Borough's constitition.

The annual meeting is the moment that the council appoints the executive for the coming year. If you want to appoint a different one this is the moment that you do it. D'uh!

The Labour response was predictable. On the Disappointment Index Jo Lovelock only registered a "very disappointed". I was hoping for an "extremely disappointed" at the very minimum, so I was disappointed.

Events only proved, as if we didn't already know it, what an arrogant bunch Labour are. Last year they were rejected at the ballot box and have less than half the number of councillors, yet still think it is their divine right to run the town.

I can exclusively reveal how many calls our group received to ask us if they could count on our support or abstentions to re-elect their executive... a big fat zero.

But we know that they are a busted flush, so you can't really blame them for carrying on with their arrogant ways after 23 years of running the town into the ground. That's only to be expected from them. The real disgrace as far as the people of Reading are concerned is the behaviour of the local Conservative group.

This is what Andrew Cumpsty said in the Evening Post in February: "Reading deserves much better than this and we Conservatives are ready to deliver it."

Their actions and conduct then and now exposes that boast as hollow and empty rhetoric like their other promises. They continue to peddle the lie that they would have set a zero percent council tax, when in fact their budget for change was a blank sheet of paper. No wonder people have no trust in politicians when they act like this. They really are a shameless bunch constantly trying to hoodwink the electorate.

They had their chance to back up their words with actions and the local Conservatives blew it. They have shown themselves to be more interested in dressing up in fancy dress and posturing than delivering anything concrete to the people of Reading. Last year the electorate demanded change. They have been peristently denied it by this disreputable bunch who have the cheek to style themselves an an opposition.

One thing was clear from the Annual Meeting. Reading only has one official opposition group, and it sure isn't the Tories.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Hob Nobs Anyone?

It looks like Rob Wilson agrees with me that the communications allowance is a gross misuse of tax-payers money as the following message on his web site would appear to indicate.
Please Note: This website is no longer funded under the House of Commons Communications Allowance.
Instead, all costs associated with the running of the site are now incurred at the expense of Reading East Conservative Association.

Since he now conceeds that his web site is nothing more than Tory propaganda, maybe he should offer to pay back the £10,357 of tax-payers money that he has trousered to pay for it and his piss-poor "Parliamentary Reports" over the last year? Makes claiming for a hob-nob pretty small beer.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Get Your Snouts Out of the Trough!

The current row about MPs expenses has led to a huge amount of sanctimonious claptrap from our sitting MPs. I won't comment on rumours doing the rounds on other web sites, but it's a shame Mick Spreader isn't around anymore. I'm not sure what he would have made of this!

In April 2007, Martin Salter spoke up in the House of Commons in support of a bill that would exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act. It passed in the House, but fell in the Lords because no-one was prepared to back it. The irony of an unelected House upholding the rights of the electorate was not lost on me.

At the time my colleague Gareth Epps told the Evening Post: "This squalid bill is designed to reduce the amount to which MPs are open to public scrutiny. It will damage freedom of information and give politicians a bad name. It is sadly no surprise to see Martin Salter enthusiastically in support of it for those precise reasons."

At that point Mr. Salter accused Gareth of jumping on the media bandwagon, in one of the more bizarre attacks from the ambulance chasing MP from Reading West.... or East depending on which way the wind is blowing.

When I highlighted Martin Salter's attempts at suppression of information about MPs he failed to address the substantive parts of my complaint and instead resorted to personal abuse, telling the Evening Post that I was a "tragic individual who should get out more" (although you may also say that was fair comment!)

In support of his attempt to exempt MPs from scrutiny, Martin Salter sent out a press release saying that: "I am today registering a formal complaint against Reading Borough Council for releasing my correspondence on behalf of my constituents." A Freedom of Information request to the Information Commissioner showed that he had done nothing of the sort. A slight case of being economical with the truth methinks.

But this should all come as no surprise to anyone. Martin Salter has a track record of voting against allowing more Freedom of Information for the public. In April 2000 he voted against another extension to the act which would have allowed disclosure of facts behind policy decisions. In Salter's case it seems that the mantra he is happy to take up in defense of curtailing civil liberties, that of "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear", is not applicable in his view to MPs.

At about this time Mark Thomas was running a competition to hold a protest outside the Houses of Parliament to highlight the Serious and Organised Crime Act which forbade protests without authority. This was a bill that Martin Salter supported.

My entry for the competition was:

The Martin Salter MPs’ Expenses Protection Demo. "Save Our Expenses From Scrutiny"

This won, selected by Mark Thomas himself. At the demo, I had a chat with Mark about Mr. Salter. Enough said!

His latest attempts to appear holier than thou ignores completely his recent brush with the Standards and Privileges Committee. The Committee found him guilty of using pre-paid House of Commons’ envelopes to distribute unsolicited material and a failure to say it had been paid from his parliamentary allowance.

In a damning comment, the director of the Department of Finance and Administration said of him: "I consider some of his comments about his approach to the House rules regrettable. It is possible to draw the inference that Mr Salter has on occasions knowingly broken the rules for which this Department and others have a responsibility."

Which brings us onto Rob Wilson, our whiter than white MP for Reading East. I'm sure his expenses are all above board, but what have we here? The same committee that found against Salter, found him guilty of distributing party political material along with a Parliamentary "Report" which itself broke the rules for use of the Parliamentary allowance. Nice use of taxpayers money whilst we still can get it, eh Rob?

His creative use of the Parliamentary allowance shows no signs of stopping as he used it on a web site funded by the allowance to launch a political attack on Gordon Brown, hardly in keeping with the correct use of the allowance which is keeping his constituents informed about his Parliamentary activities, not party politicking at the tax payers expense.

This is what his own leader had to say about the communications allowance:

"Let me turn to another issue: reducing the cost of politics more generally. If we are frank, many of us know that the next issue we have to tackle is the communications allowance that was introduced only two years ago. It is worth £10,000 to every MP. Let us be honest: taxpayers are effectively paying out thousands of pounds so we can all tell our constituents what a wonderful job we are all doing. We have all done it; we all know the facts. Is not this a gigantic waste of money? Will the Prime Minister" now get on with something I have suggested many times? Let us save some money—scrap the communications allowance now"

Cameron must be sure that Lord Ashcroft is about to cough up more foreign cash if he now thinks his party can cope without the allowance to supplement their political campaigning.

In January 2008 I wrote a letter to the Evening Post accusing both our MPs of "Snouts in the trough from both Labour and Tories, where the only crime seems to be getting caught."

We have moved on 16 months and nothing that has happened since then that has changed my mind.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

31 South Street

Comedian Michael McIntyre played a small gig at South Street yesterday as part of a tour of small venues to work up material for an Autumn arena tour and I have to say I am a big fan of his despite his dubious football allegiances.

Without giving too much away in case you have tickets for Wembley, I'd like to apologise for ruining what might have been a promising new gag. The premise was: "What's the point of the Lib Dems? The rosé of British politics. They always come third."

That was until one cheeky member of the audience piped up: "Er, I'm a Lib Dem and I won." Sorry folks, I couldn't help myself correcting the Spurs fan's elementary error, especially as he was performing in my manor, so to speak.

I think I got off lightly for wrecking wherever he was going with the gag and of course, as is usual, all the wittier responses I could have made to him came to me during the interval.

He was right about one thing though. As with rosé, you'll like us if you try us!

Monday, 11 May 2009

We Dive at Dawn

Yesterday was one of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum days at the Emirates. Even the moaning git in seat 520 (see UTA!) was yelling for Adebayor and Bendtner to come on. What next, Ian Paisley welcomes Pope to grandchild's christening?

But being a glutton for punishment, I'm back there on Thursday. This time for the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association Gala Dinner for a 20th Anfield Aniversary celebration on 'The Gooner' table. Rumour has it that George Graham may be attending! I hope so. He might have been silly enough to have been Spurs manager for a while, but he was really only a pantomime villian in most fans' eyes.

UPDATE: Provisional attendees are Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon, David O’Leary, Steve Bould, Perry Groves, Gus Caesar, Alan Smith, George Graham and "Ooh Ah" Ray Parlour. Bob Wilson and Roger Daltrey will also be there on behalf of their respective charities. Now that is some guest list!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

LD Shuffle

Most people will have heard by now that my ward colleague Gareth Epps is standing down as group leader to concentrate on his role as our prospective Paliamentary candidate in Reading East. With only a year to go before Parliament has to be dissolved this makes enormous sense.

Both Labour and the Tories have used council meetings to make snide comments about his dual role, including the rather bizarre attack that Gareth was using council meetings for political purposes. Duh!

This reshuffle will allow us to continue to be effective in the council chamber and allow Gareth to get on with the serious business of advancing Liberal Democracy in Reading. Can't wait!