Friday, 27 January 2017

HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, which is commemorated on the 27th January because this is the day when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp) each year. Now, perhaps more than ever, we should take time to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the HolocaustNazi Persecution and in other subsequent horrors which have followed in CambodiaRwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and are on-going in Syria.

We should also forever remember the earlier genocides that inflicted on the Armenians and the Ukrainians. It is only right and proper that we honour the survivors and continue to challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today.

By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had perished in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps and extermination camps. As Allied troops made progress across Nazi-occupied Europe, they began to uncover concentration and extermination camps. The camp of Majdanek in Poland was the first to be liberated, in summer 1944.

Faced with defeat and advancing Allied armies Nazi forces burnt the crematoria and the mass graves in attempts to hide the crimes that they had committed. The  Operation Reinhardt camps of Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka were dismantled by the Nazis from 1943, and Auschwitz itself was evacuated in late 1944. The surviving prisoners, weak from starvation and ill-treatment, and poorly clothed against elements were forced to walk into the interior of Germany, away from the Allied armies, many thousands died on the enforced ‘death marches’. 

When Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27th January 1945,  they found several thousand emaciated survivors, and the smouldering remains of the gas chambers and crematoria. In the following months, the Soviets liberated Stutthof, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.

In the west, US troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, followed by Flossenburg, Dachau and Mauthausen. British Troops liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15th April 1945. It is estimated there were over 60,000 prisoners in Belsen by April 1945. Approximately 35,000 prisoners died of typhus, malnutrition and starvation in the first few months of 1945.

Jewish leaders, were once asked  Tony Blair (the then UK prime minister) do we need Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain? Jonathan Sacks (former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for 22 years, until 2013) noted that this was the question from Tony Blair in 1999, when it was proposed that the UK have a Holocaust Memorial Day, and Blair wanted the opinion of British Jewish leaders. They explained that they did not need a specific day to remember as Jews.

When it comes to remembrance Jewish people already had Yom ha-Shoa, their own memorial day, which falls soon after Passover in the Jewish calendar. Every Jew literally (or figuratively) lost family in the Holocaust. For Jews, Yom ha-Shoa is a grief observed. The Jewish leaders said that the Holocaust was not just a crime against Jews and other victims – Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, the handicapped, Jehovah’s Witnesses and political opponents of the Nazi’s among them; it was an assault on all of humanity.  As has been said by a survivor previously perhaps we really need additional eleventh commandment along the lines of – Don’t be bystander! 

Friday, 20 January 2017

PROFIT BEFORE PASSENGERS?

The occasionally Wales based Westminster based Welsh Affairs Committee has condemned the "old and cramped" trains provided by Arriva Trains Wales. The Select Committee has noted that many of the problems associated with the rail franchise were down to "a huge failure" to allow for more passengers when the current 15-year franchise was originally awarded in 2003. 

Even Arriva informed the committee some of the trains being used were "approaching 4.5 million miles on the clock". That’s an equivalent to travelling to the moon and back nine times – but without any of the mod cons that the Apollo spacecraft had. Personally I would have some concerns about going to the moon in a 27-year-old spacecraft…but at least it might be warmer than some of the trains I have ridden in to and from work this and previous winters. 

The Select Committee Report has calculated that rail passenger numbers have increased by approximately 75% since the franchise was first established. No allowance for growth in passenger numbers and extra trains in the terms of the contract awarded to Arriva by the Strategic Rail Authority, a body scrapped in 2006, it was revealed. 

The committee was also told that the average age of the Wales and Borders fleet of trains was about 27 years old – if we think about the maintenance and reliability issues that come with running a 27-year-old car, then perhaps non regular rail users can begin to get a picture of the state of the rolling stock. 

The Select Committee was right to recommend, because of the cross-border nature of some rail routes are included in the franchise, that a protocol be established allowing English rail passengers' concerns to be heard by Welsh ministers. As was also noted by the Select Committee, this time, when the franchise comes up for renewal in 2018 it will be the Welsh Government who will have the responsibility to ensure there are improvements. 

Hopefully the Welsh Government ministers will pay particular attention to prospective bidders plans for the new franchise, especially as the current rail franchise holder in the running to compete for the new franchise. Those of us who are regular rail users have had to live with an often-ramshackle rail service, and will continue to do so for at least a few years more. 

At least from 2018 the decision on who will run the next Wales and Borders franchise will be made in Wales. This may only prove to be a crumb of comfort if the Welsh Government has the vision, the ambition and the powers to ensure that we have rail franchise that’s has expanded capacity, reasonably priced rail fares and a plan to grow our rail network.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Leanne Wood Wales Bill Speech


Plaid Cymru has decided to vote against the Wales Bill because it seeks to claw back powers from Wales to Westminster. 

Plaid Cymru's Dr Dai Lloyd AM has confirmed that his party's Assembly Members intend to vote against an LCM (Legislative Consent Motion) on the controversial Wales Bill in the Assembly today.

Dr Dai Lloyd AM said that the deal on offer to Wales represented a significant roll-back of powers to Westminster and was forcing the National Assembly to choose between a bad bill and no bill.

He added that his party cannot, in good conscience, support a bill which undermines the democratic will of people in Wales who voted for more powers in the 2011 referendum.

Speaking ahead of the vote, Dr Dai Lloyd AM, Chair of the Plaid Cymru Assembly Group, said:
"Plaid Cymru exists to put the national interests of Wales and its people first at all times.

"This is an undemocratic bill which represents a significant roll-back of powers. Plaid Cymru cannot, in good conscience, support a bill, which undermines the democratic will of people in Wales who voted for more powers in the 2011 referendum.

"If this Wales Bill was already enshrined in law, the National Assembly would not have been able to pass key legislation such as the organ donation act and laws on education, the environment and the Welsh language.

"The Westminster government is forcing Wales to choose between a bad bill and no bill. Plaid Cymru refuses to settle for that.

"While the Wales Bill may deliver a fair fiscal framework, this should never have been conditional upon a deeply flawed bill, which simultaneously takes powers away from our National Assembly.

"If this legislation passes, the debate must immediately move on to focus on the real empowerment of the Assembly with responsibility over areas such as justice, policing, and welfare.

"The days of Wales gratefully accepting crumbs from Westminster's table must end."

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

A GHOST TRAIN?

Occasionally if you look very quickly on Newport Station, you may see the platform indicators flagging up an Ebbw Vale bound train. This may be the closest many rail passengers will come to seeing a ghost train. Despite regularly oft-repeated promises from the Labour in Wales government in Cardiff and more locally elected Labour in Newport representatives, there is no sign any time soon of a permanent rail connection between Ebbw Vale and Newport.

Nothing to see here... move along...

Since the Ebbw railway line reopened in 2008 and the new rail service failed to connect to Newport and the rest of the south east a variety of lame excuses have been offered which barely conceal that fact that the Welsh Government has been dragging its feet. Ironically periodic upgrades to track and signals in and around the Cardiff area meant that services do actually occasionally start and terminate at Newport.

The failure to connect the Ebbw vale line to Newport meant that commuters who live in the communities in the Ebbw valley are unable to travel directly to Newport by train and have little choice but to use their cars. They have been denied the opportunity of catching connecting trains to Bristol, Cheltenham, and beyond as well as travelling slightly more rapidly to Cardiff in the morning and back again in the evening.

This was simply a bad short sighted decision that resulted in commuters having little choice but to choose to drive to work. This lack of an easily accessible alternative helped to feed congestion on the M4. If we are lucky at some as yet undetermined future date the Ebbw vale link may actually begin to benefit those commuters who daily travel east to and from work.

What seems to be missing here in Wales is any real element of reopening old (or building new) railways as has happened in Scotland. In Wales in the last seventeen years there have been two successful railway re-openings carried out by Network Rail at the request of the National Assembly; the Vale of Glamorgan Railway Line (which re-opened on Friday 10th June 2005) and the Ebbw Valley Railway Line (which partially re-opened on Wednesday 6th February 2008).

The reality was that these were largely administrative rather than legislative projects, and but for the existence of the National Assembly it is unlikely that they would have been hauled up from where they lingered on Network Rails’ priority list.  The National Assembly, has been (with a few exceptions) been pretty muted when it comes to making the case for rail.

This has certainly not been the case in Scotland, where bills to reopen old railways have been vigorously debated, scrutinised, amended and passed by the Scottish Parliament. If we are serious about integrated public transport then we are going to have to get serious about how we are going to develop and redevelop our public transport infrastructure.

The Transport (Wales) Act, which came into effect in February 2006, gave the National Assembly powers if not the political will to plan and co-ordinate an integrated transport system. How much longer do we have to wait to see some vision? And some action?

In the meantime the largely non UK owned rail companies have been busy ramping up rail fares and quietly attempting to reduce rail services (they have been thwarted in the later endeavour by some well organised local pressure groups in the case of Severn Tunnel and Chepstow in South East Gwent). All of these things have been done with the tacit co-operation of various Westminster and Welsh Governments and the Department for Transport (in London).

Such duplicity can never been acceptable – it would be nice if the government in Cardiff woke from its self induced slumbers and took the long term view, and actually put its money where its mouth is and work to redevelop our rail services, boost the development of rail freight and to co-ordinate rail and bus services across the whole of Wales. To do this effectively Wales needs to have full control of its transport policy and transport budget devolved as quickly as possible and the franchise when it is renewed in 2017/2018 needs to be run on a not for profit basis.

The creation of a not-for-distributable-profit organisation to run Welsh railways is vital; profits would be available to invest in rail services. This could mean more frequent services in the South Wales valleys, more frequent journeys to West Wales and on the Cambrian line, as well as additional services between the north and south of Wales.

A Newport bound train from Ebbw Vale surely not?
This could also mean more investment in new rolling stock to help keep pace with increasing passenger demand.  Now, the clock is ticking as most of the preparatory work for the re-franchising needs to be undertaken during the current National Assembly term, so that a delivery model that is better suited to the needs of the people in Wales rather than the foreign state-owned railway shareholders dividend can be developed. 

Here in the south east, Abergavenny, Caldicot, Chepstow and Severn Tunnel railway stations should be real local transport hubs, with fully integrated local bus services. Better facilities for passengers are needed and the provision of adequate safe secure parking facilities is urgently required.

A feasibility studies into the development of a Parkway Station at Little Mill and the possibilities of re-opening the railway line from Little Mill to Usk and the development of a new railway station west of the town of Usk would benefit local commuters and rail travellers and reduce congestion. The re-opening of Pontrilas Railway station (in south Herefordshire) for passenger traffic and timber shipments would also help. As would a realistically scoped feasibility study into developing regional rail freight services, removing heavy Lorries from local roads. 

Such developments would provide a regular rail service to local residents and reduce the ever-increasing traffic burden from already overcrowded roads. One real local priority is the completion of the final stage of the rail-link from Ebbw Vale to Newport needs to be completed and railway stations at Caerleon (which has been in the UDB since 1986), it should not be a case of a station at Llanwern or Magor it must be both as they would all help to reduce road congestion.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

BANKERS

Bank closures, are a fact of life for many communities across much of rural and urban Wales – this is despite the fact that high street banks have a roll to play within the economic life of our communities. The local political and community leaders will rightly kick off and justifiably angry local residents will be interviewed. There will be weasel words from the bank themselves, but, once the initial fuss settles the closure will roll on – as the large London based banks are pretty much answerable to no one save themselves – certainly not anyone here in Cymru / Wales.

Last November (11th) 2016 Lloyd’s quietly announced that branches in Abertillery (Blaenau Gwent), Crickhowel (Powys), Llandovery (Carmarthenshire), Canton (Cardiff), Pontarddulais (Swansea), Tregaron (Ceridigion) along with banks in Newport, Milford Haven and Mountain Ash were to be closed between March and April 2017. The reason, according to Lloyd’s is the changing way that customers do their banking.

In January 11th 2016 HSBC announced that branches in Ruabon, Chirk, Amlwch and Menai Bridge will close in April. Back in June 2015 Natwest announced its plans to close 11 branches in north Wales in September (St Asaph, Denbigh, Corwen and Llangollen in Denbighshire, as will the branches in Abersoch, Blaenau Ffestiniog and Tywyn in Gwynedd and those in Abergele and Rhos-on-Sea in Conwy, Buckley in Flintshire and Rossett in Wrexham).

The BBC (back in July 2016) noted that more than 600 bank branches have closed across the UK over the previous year, with rural areas worst affected and that parts of Wales, Scotland and south west England lost the most per population between April 2015 and April 2016. The figures obtained revealed that five of the top 10 areas losing banks are in Wales: Powys, Denbighshire, Gwynedd, Conwy, and Carmarthenshire. The data revealed by BBC Breakfast - came from the big six High Street banks: Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), HSBC, Santander, Barclays and the Co-operative.

At the end of October 2014 Lloyd’s announced that it would close 150 branches (7% of its 2,250 branches) and shed some 9,000 jobs (the bank has incidentally already shed 43,000 jobs since the largely bank driven financial crash back in 2008).  In October 2014, Vince Cable, the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills stated that he was going to write to UK banks to demanding that the banks commit to keeping ‘the last branch in town’ open. Sadly was probably a little late as a growing number of communities in Wales, which already have no bank (28 as of December 2015), and the forty-seven which only have one bank, as noted bthe Campaign for Community Banking Services.

The problem of closing banks affects all parts of Wales, while it is more readily identifiable in rural communities; also affects our urban communities as well – inconveniencing both personal and business customers. Bank closures proportionally hit older people harder as they may have problems with access to regular public transport. Age Cymru also noted that having a local bank that was convenient for older people was "vital" for ensuring they did not become socially isolated and that older people were at increased risk of financial abuse because of the branch closures.

More locally in Newport we had the stealth-like closure of local high street banks - Caerleon’s HSBC branch in Backhall Street (closed on 2nd November 2012) – despite a campaign to save the small town’s only bank from closure, which had gained the support of hundreds of people who signed a petition against the closure.  HSBC had already closed the next nearest branch to Caerleon, on Caerleon Road, in St Julian’s (which was closed June 2011) – so much of listening to their customers. 

While Lloyds in 2011/2012 was in the frame for a raft of closures, HSBC had already systematically closed branches across much of Wales - Presteigne, (which closed on Friday 9th March 2012) despite over 500 people signing a petition against the closure), and Blaenafon, in Torfaen (which closed on the 11th May 2012) despite over a 1,000 people signed a petition against the closure of what was literally the last bank in the town). The excuse was that both banks had seen a significant decline in the numbers of customers using their services and the branches were no longer commercially viable.

Campaigners against bank closures rightly claim that businesses in an area where a bank closes suffer and that residents (especially the elderly) who are reliant on public transport to bank in a nearby town are disadvantaged. Just for the record HSBC had closed six branches in Wales between September 2010 and December 2011, including 
Llandysul, Ceredigion, and Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in Powys.

The company has closed 17 "under-used" banks in Wales (since 2009) in both urban and rural areas. HSBC, Barclays and the rest have been quietly closing small rural banks in recent years, and NatWest and Barclays have also reduced bank-opening hours. The British Bankers' Association says more customers now go on-line and banks must examine branch-running costs. 

Ditching the the spin (about the growth in on-line banking and it’s use – if you have no choice what else are people going to do) this is about nothing more than cutting running costs, the banks have little (or no concern) for their relatively unprofitable personal customers or the concerns of their local business customers or our smaller communities. As has been noted by the US Senate, some banks have other more pressing interests than those of their domestic customers like helping to launder money for drug dealers, dictators and terroristsso much for being a local bank. 

Local banks are good for the high street and local communities, they help to promote vitality and vibrancy and make it easier for local businesses to operate.  Local businesses to a degree benefit from the existence of local high street branches by picking up passing trade from bank customers. Once local bank branches close, the impact will be felt locally especially by older residents and local business owners who have to trek further and further to pay in their taking and the subsequent drop in passing trade – this situation has been aggravated by the demise of many building societies. 

It is perhaps a pity that we don’t have some sort of risk free Post Office Savings bank – save for the fact that it was recklessly sold of by a previous Conservative government on the cheap. That said, it is of course important to remember that one result of the demise of the regional banks was the rise of the big 4 banks which led to the growth of the reckless casino banking and cheap credit that brought about the financial crash.

When you factor in the ruthless Post Office closure programme that was pushed through by the then Labour Government, the then Con - Dem coalition government prior to it’s privatisation of the Post Office which in turn was preceded by the rapid floatation and rapid demise of most of our building societies you can clearly see how we got here - sorting the mess out is not going to be easy – perhaps we need some sort of publically owned community owned Wales savings bank.

Friday, 8 July 2016

AS TRUE TODAY AS YESTERDAY


The question of consequences for the makers of bad or questionable decisions who sent our soldiers into harms way for political gain should be allowed avoid any lasting consequences is not a new one. Rudyard Kipling, wrote Mesopotamia in 1917 after a military disaster in Iraq – the last but one verse is particularly powerful and as relevant today as it was in 1917.

Mesopotamia (1917) – Rudyard Kipling

They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young, 
    The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave: 
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung, 
    Shall they come with years and honour to the grave? 

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain 
    In sight of help denied from day to day: 
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain, 
    Are they too strong and wise to put away? 

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide—
    Never while the bars of sunset hold. 
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died, 
    Shall they thrust for high employments as of old? 

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour? 
    When the storm is ended shall we find 
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power 
    By the favour and contrivance of their kind? 

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends, 
    Even while they make a show of fear, 
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends, 
    To conform and re-establish each career? 

Their lives cannot repay us—their death could not undo— 
    The shame that they have laid upon our race. 
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew, 
    Shall we leave it unabated in its place?