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Archive for July, 2010

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, likes to think of himself as a Tory radical. And his new plans for a fundamental review of our benefits system would certainly support that image.

But is this just another cost cutting exercise from a government determined to make massive cuts in spending?

Iain Duncan Smith, or IDS as he is often known, is a Scot who has spent most of his life in England. He came into parliament in 1992, replacing Norman Tebbit as MP for Chingford. Always a right wing Eurosceptic, IDS was often a thorn in John Major’s side, before becoming Tory leader himself in 2001. He beat Ken Clark in the final vote, and had support from Margaret Thatcher.

His time as leader was a failure. He could not make any impact on the Labour government and Tory support fell under his leadership. IDS claims to have an interest in tackling poverty, and makes great play of the fact that he once visited Easterhouse in 2002 whilst he was Tory leader.

Duncan Smith has now published proposals to reform the benefits system, which he described as “antiquated” and being on the verge of collapse.

His big idea is to scrap all out-of-work benefits and tax credits and replace them with a single payment.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And superficially at least he has a point. There have been so many reforms to the system over the years that it is now extremely complex, and even many of the staff who administer it are often confused.

But exactly how do you combine up to 50 different benefit payments into one?

Like any major reform it would take time and cost money in the short term. A new computer system would be required and we all know that big government IT projects have a habit of coming in vastly over budget. Then all of the paperwork would have to be redesigned. And of course all of the staff would require to be retrained.

In opposition IDS costed the implementation of such a system at £3 billion. And that was a couple of years ago. There are no costings at all for his latest proposals. Will his Chancellor allow him to spend a large sum up front on the promise of savings in future years?

Duncan Smith believes that many people are still caught in a poverty trap, where they would net so little money from working rather than remaining on benefits that they simply don’t see the point.

That may be true for some people, although the introduction of both a national minimum wage and a tax credit scheme by the previous Labour government have gone a long way to tackle the problem.

But there is one big issue that IDS refuses to acknowledge with his picture of the feckless unemployed who simply choose not to work.

There are very few jobs around. And his government’s cuts will make the situation worse. Much worse.

For Labour, shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper said the proposals are “a sham to cover the fact that the Budget actually cut work incentives, cut jobs and cut help for people to return to work”.

IDS’s new plans come on top of the abolition of Incapacity Benefit and reductions in entitlement for those on Disability Living Allowance (DLA). And the government has also that announced a new test for DLA will be introduced in 2013, which will reduce the numbers able to claim it by an estimated 20%.

Cutting the welfare bill is a priority for a government that is ideologically determined to reduce the role of the state. Perhaps IDS is taking an idea from his predecessor as MP for Chingford who told the unemployed to get on their bikes.

The bottom line is that many people will fear that the proposed changes will simply make it more difficult for them to claim benefits when they need the support the most.

Where are the Tory’s coalition partners in all of this? Do they support the proposals? Now that’s a good question.

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Regan Takes Over

Stewart Regan may be an unfamiliar name to many Scottish football fans. But the new Chief Executive of the Scottish Football Association will quickly become a well known figure in his new role.

Regan takes over from the hapless Gordon Smith at a time when the poor state of football means that there is great potential for change in the Scottish game.

The first part of Henry McLeish’s report into the future of football, published in April, has set out a blueprint for the grassroots of the game. Part two of the report will deal with reform of the professional game, and that is where Regan can make his mark.

Stewart Regan, a 46 year old Sunderland supporter, comes to his new post with a mix of commercial experience and a track record in sports administration. Or to put it another way, exactly the CV that his predecessor did not have.

Starting in the brewing industry, Regan was part of the management team which successfully sold the Bass Brewers’ UK business to Coors. He then moved on to become Director of the Football League Championship and successfully rebranded the old Division One of the English game. And for the past four years he has been Chief Executive of Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

In his first media conference, Regan issued a warning to the old guard who have mismanaged Scottish football for so long. “Scotland spends too much time looking back the way at how fantastic they were in years gone by,” said Regan. “I’m not looking at history. What’s gone is gone. We need to draw a line in the sand now and move forward.”

Exactly the type of forward thinking that our game needs.

Regan will have realised that he will face opposition from those in positions of power. The blazers who populate the many committees in the three governing bodies are quite happy with the status quo and will resist major change. But a radical overhaul is exactly what Scottish football has long cried out for.

Part two of former First Minister Henry McLeish’s report will be published in the autumn. It will set out McLeish’s views on how to address the lack of leadership and the urgent need for openness and transparency in football.

I hope that he will address the fact that three separate governing bodies are involved in the administration of the game. Surely some streamlining can only improve efficiency and allow they type of leadership that is required to take the game forward to emerge.

Stewart Regan will have realised that he does not have an easy job ahead of him. But if he can pilot through the type of change required to drag Scottish football into the twenty first century his tenure will be viewed as a very successful one.

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The inside story of the deal that led to Britain’s coalition government will be examined on television tonight. The key players will be interviewed in a BBC2 documentary called Five Days that Changed Britain.

While this might be of great interest to the political anoraks amongst us, the programme will also give fresh discomfort to the government on the thorny issue of the proposed referendum on voting reform.

There have been reports that David Cameron lied to his party during the coalition negotiations by stating that Labour had offered the Liberal Democrats a switch to the new AV voting system without a referendum. The suspicion was that Cameron used this claim to bounce many in his party into supporting a referendum that they do not want.

Both Cameron and Nick Clegg were asked about this in interviews for tonight’s programme, but their answers muddy the waters rather than clarify the situation.

Cameron states that he was certain Labour had made the offer. He also argues that a switch without a referendum would be wrong in principle which was why he had always argued for a vote.

Clegg, who has already stated categorically in the House of Commons that Labour did not make the offer, is less clear.

“The perception, which I think was accurate, was discussions are out and it might have been an offer that might had been made and might have been considered,” says the Deputy Prime Minister.

What?

Clegg goes on to say, “In answer to your direct question – was it ever formally made to me? – no, it wasn’t formally made to me.”

So did Clegg try to bluff Cameron by leading him to believe that Labour had in fact made the offer? If so, it worked a treat.

Or did Cameron make the whole thing up to ensure his party would back a referendum?

If either is true then one of the two senior figures in the government has a lot to answer for.

The confusion at the heart of this episode is not just a piece of political trivia. It will harden opposition from the Tory right to the whole notion of a referendum on changing our voting system.

44 of David Cameron’s backbench MPs have already signed a Commons motion calling for a change of date for the referendum as it would clash with elections for the devolved assemblies. If these MPs vote against the government it will be defeated when the bill comes before the House of Commons. And that would be a humiliation for both partners in the coalition.

Those opposed to the coalition from both of the governing parties will be watching tonight’s programme carefully to see exactly how the various recollections of events differ.

And that could be bad news for the government as the referendum issue continues to make the headlines.

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The Neil Lennon era begins tonight in the north of Portugal.

At 8pm Celtic will kick off against Braga in a Champions League qualifying match that marks Lennon’s first competitive match as permanent Celtic manager.

The side that came second in the Portuguese championship last season will provide an early test for the new look Celtic squad. Braga may not be the biggest name in European football but an away trip at this stage of the season is not to be taken lightly.

Neil Lennon has impressed so far in his short managerial reign. He has gone about the task of revitalising a squad that failed miserably last season in the type of focussed and determined manner that he always showed on the pitch.

But tonight he makes his European debut as a manager. Lennon will know better than anyone how vital it is to get a season off to a good start.

It is difficult to predict what Lennon’s first starting line up will be. With only a few friendlies played so far there is limited information available. And there are several new signings who will be anxious to prove themselves to manager and support alike.

Perhaps the safest bet is that Lukas Zaluska will start in goal. With the departure of Artur Boruc to Fiorentina he is currently the number one keeper at the club. Lennon is expected to bring in another with experience to challenge him, and talks with David James will take place next weekend.

Defensively there have been additions to the squad. Korean full back Cha Du Ri, who impressed in the World Cup could start on the right side with another new signing Charlie Mulgrew on the left. The exclusion of Andreas Hinkel from the squad is a clear indication that he will be leaving, with a return to his native Germany looking probable.

Central defence has been an area of concern for several years now. With the pursuit of Sol Campbell proving ultimately unsuccessful, attention will turn to Nottingham Forest stopper Kelvin Wilson. But for tonight’s match Lennon has no new options to choose from. I would expect the Dutch pair Glen Loovens and Jos Hooiveld to start tonight, although promising youngster Thomas Rogne is an option.

We could see a five man midfield with the manager looking to play this away leg cautiously. New signings Efrain Juarez from Mexico and Joe Ledley from Wales should play along with captain Scott Brown. In the wide areas Lennon could call on a newly fit Shaun Maloney or Paddy McCourt. It would seem unlikely that two attacking players will be selected though, so we could see Marc Crosas or Ki Sung Yong brought into the centre with either Ledley or Brown deployed in a wider role.

The wild card here is Aiden McGeady. He is expected to leave the club over the next couple of weeks, with Martin O’Neill keen to take the player to Aston Villa. Add in the fact that an injury has meant McGeady has yet to feature and it would seem unlikely that he would play. But it is possible that Lennon will see McGeady’s running power as a valuable weapon in a game where retaining the ball will be a key target. I wouldn’t be surprised to see McGeady played in a central role in front of a four man midfield.

Up front Lennon should deploy a lone striker. Georgios Samaras and Marc-Antoine Fortune have played this role and we should see one playing the first 60 minutes or so before being replaced by the other. This would mean that new signings Gary Hooper and Daryl Murphy need to wait a little longer for their debuts.

Neil Lennon’s rebuilding of Celtic is not yet complete. Several more players are expected to sign before the transfer window closes, meaning that the team is still a work in progress.

It won’t be easy to play a European tie so early in the season with potentially four or more players making their debuts. But we do know that the new manager is organised and able to motivate his men. It will need a disciplined and resolute performance to get a result against a fast and confident Portuguese side sprinkled with Brazilian flair.

I would be extremely happy with a draw tonight which would set the tie up nicely for the second leg at Celtic Park next week. Even a narrow defeat would not be a disaster, especially if it came with an away goal.

Lennon will know that he has a great deal to prove as a rookie manager. His first European tie could give an indication of how the season ahead will play out. And a positive result will give great confidence to a much changed squad.

Neil Lennon was a crucial part of many fine away performances in Europe as a player. Tonight he has to show that he can have the same impact as a manager.

Kick off is less than eight hours away. I can’t wait.

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Trouble in Paradise?

The last 24 hours has seen an opinion poll that confirms Lib Dem support is falling, allegations that David Cameron lied to Tory MPs and 44 Conservative backbenchers calling on the government to back down on its choice of referendum date.

As the parliamentary session comes to an end, government ministers will be happy for a little time out of the public eye. The pressure on the government has been increasing and the fault lines between the partners in the so called Brokeback Coalition are widening.

BBC’s Newsnight yesterday revealed results of a poll showing the depth of feeling amongst Liberal Democrat voters about the coalition deal. Only 58% of the party’s supporters stated that they would definitely have voted for the party had they known it would govern with the Conservatives.

This is broadly in line with a recent YouGov poll that showed Lib Dem support falling to just 14%. Nick Clegg and co secured 23% of the vote at the general election.

Newsnight’s poll also showed that 53% of Lib Dem voters believed their party’s identity had been weakened because of the tie up with the Tories.

David Cameron’s Conservative Party meanwhile appears to be doing well out of the coalition, with 86% of its supporters saying they would still have voted for the Tories. If there is a honeymoon period for the government it appears to be a very one sided one.

Many on the Conservative right however are unhappy at concessions made to secure Lib Dem support. Following on from David Davis’ recent comments, former Tory minister Lord Tebbit warned that his party should beware it was not paying “too high a price for co-operation in solving short-term difficulties.”

A new, and potentially damaging, allegation has surfaced in Westminster with some Tory MPs claiming that David Cameron lied to his party during the negotiations that resulted in the coalition agreement.

William Hague, one of the Tories key negotiators, broke the surprising news that his party was to offer the Liberal Democrats a referendum on the Alternative Vote as a sweetener. He stated that they had to do so, as Labour had offered Clegg a switch to the new voting system without a referendum.

And Tory MPs have confirmed that that David Cameron told both his Shadow Cabinet, and a meeting of all Conservative MPs, exactly the same thing. The referendum was required to counter Labour’s offer to the Liberals.

But it seems that no such offer was ever made to Clegg and his team by Labour.

Senior Labour sources all deny making the offer. And it seems unlikely that they would have promised something that they knew would be very unpopular amongst many of their own MPs.

And Nick Clegg also confirmed the Labour account of events in the House of Commons.

So why did Cameron apparently mislead his own party? Was it because he was uncertain that his MPs would back the referendum proposal unless he presented it to them as a potential deal breaker?

I have a feeling that this issue will cause trouble for Mr Cameron.

And the date that the government has chosen for the proposed referendum in 2011remains controversial as it clashes with elections for the devolved assemblies. In a challenge to Cameron’s authority 44 Tory MPs have signed a Commons motion seeking a change of date. This brings a real possibility of a defeat for the government when the bill is debated, although the whips will work to get these opposing the government to fall into line.

In addition to this controversy, there are concerns among many MPs on all sides about the other part of this legislation, which would reduce the number of MPs. This would require a redrawing of constituency boundaries; a process that normally takes several years.

But the government plans to do this very quickly. They want the next election to be fought on the new boundaries – which cynics say is because the changes will favour the Tories. This means no public inquiries will be allowed, which departs form the process that has been in place for many years.

A central diktat with no public consultation? Not exactly in line with the Big Society, is it Prime Minister?

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So where does all of this leave the coalition partners?

Nick Clegg is under increasing pressure to promote his party’s interests rather than his government’s. Unless he can show a clear identity to the electorate his party will suffer greatly in the various elections to be held next year.

David Cameron is in a more secure position. But if he is shown to have lied to his own party then those on the right who do not approve of the deal with the Liberal Democrats will surely go on the attack.

All in all, it may not turn out to be the quiet summer that messrs Cameron and Clegg are hoping for.

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Is Darts A Sport?

Last night in Blackpool Phil “The Power” Taylor won yet another major darts title. He beat the number two player in the world, Holland’s Raymond van Barneveld by 18-12, despite playing nowhere near his best.

Phil Taylor has dominated darts in recent years in a manner that few others have ever managed in other sports. So does he deserve to be recognised as a great sportsman?

Taylor has been a professional darts player for 20 years. During this time he has won 15 world championships and 68 other major tournaments. Not even the likes of Woods or Federer have a comparable record.

He has taken darts to a new level. Darts is easily measured by statistics and Taylor’s domination is clear to see. He regularly averages ten to fifteen points per throw greater than his opponents. And of the 20 highest average scores ever recorded Taylor holds 17.

So is Taylor a sporting superstar? Perhaps the question has to be, is darts a sport? Or is it, as many claim, just a pub game?

There are various definitions of sport that can be found from a quick Google search. Most seem to involve three distinct elements: physical activity, a codified set of rules and competition.

By those definitions then, darts is a sport. As are the likes of snooker, bowls and shooting. And reports on all of these can be found in the sports pages of the newspapers, the sports section of websites and they can all be watched on dedicated sports channels.

Those who argue that darts is a game rather than a sport would suggest that the physical activity is minimal, hence the fact that lots of overweight men can be good at it. Well, not all golfers are exactly super slim, are they? And what about front row forwards in rugby?

Darts is just throwing at a target on a board, they say. But is archery vastly different? Or competitive shooting? And both of these sports are competed for in the Olympic Games.

No one is arguing that darts players are athletes. But I think that they are sportsmen.

So why not have an Olympic darts competition? Phil Taylor with a gold medal in London 2012 sounds good to me!

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RIP Hurricane Higgins

Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, the flamboyant former world snooker champion has died at home in Belfast after a lengthy battle against throat cancer.

Higgins was one of the pre-eminent snooker players in the 1970s when the game gained television popularity. The growth of the sport can at least partially be attributed to Higgins’ fast and expansive style which helped to transform the game. He remained a fans’ favourite until his retirement from the game.

Higgins was born in Belfast in 1949. He played snooker from an early age but trained as a jockey; coming to England to pursue his dream aged 14. After he put on weight he returned home without making the grade. Higgins turned back to snooker and quickly found he had a real talent for the game, making his first maximum break when he was just 16.

After winning a number of tournaments in Ireland, Higgins turned professional in 1971 and won the World Championship at his first attempt. He was the youngest ever world champion, aged just 22.

Over the next ten years, as snooker became a major sport, Higgins was one of the top players, winning several tournaments and reaching the World final twice more, although he lost on both occasions. Competing with the likes of Reardon and Spencer, who were fine players but lacking sparkle, Higgins added excitement to snooker. While others concentrated on tight tactical play, Higgins tried to pot balls from impossible angles – and often succeeded. He inspired many young players to take up the game.

The Hurricane’s most memorable moment came in 1982 when he played brilliantly to win a second world title. The image of a tearful Higgins calling for his wife and young daughter to join him as he received the trophy is an enduring one.

But trouble off the table was never far away for the volatile and often bad tempered Irishman. He received several disciplinary sanctions, usually for drunkenly abusing those who ran the game. Higgins was also banned for, at various times, assaulting a tournament official, head butting a referee and threatening to have fellow player Dennis Taylor shot.

Higgins continued to drink heavily and lost a great deal of his career winnings through gambling. His form suffered and he slid down the rankings before eventually retiring as a pale shadow of the champion he undoubtedly was.

Alex Higgins was always a heavy smoker. At his peak many of the major tournaments were sponsored by tobacco companies and smoking was practically obligatory. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997 and initially beat the disease, but it returned and he was forced to ensure several operations earlier this year.

The last photographs of Higgins showed a gaunt and broken man who looked much older than his 61 years.

Hurricane Higgins was one of the major reasons for the growth of snooker as a spectator sport. His image helped it to move from working men’s clubs to theatres and television screens. Without him many of those who came afterwards would not have had such a cash rich game to enjoy.

RIP Alex.

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Cracks Are Appearing

The government has faced a difficult few weeks, with budget cuts and the VAT rise dominating the front pages. And now there are several reports of the carefully papered over ideological cracks within the coalition beginning to reappear.

Within Lib Dem ranks there are many who feel very uneasy about the link up with David Cameron’s party. Several voted against the government when the VAT rise came before the Commons and others have spoken against schools cuts and the coalition’s health policies.

And now backbencher Tim Farron has voiced the feelings of many with an outspoken attack on the Conservatives, calling Tory MPs “toxic” and claiming that Cameron is using his party as “cover” for unpopular decisions.

Farron has been sceptical about the coalition deal since it was agreed and believes that the two parties have a “poor ideological fit”. He also believes that the Lib Dem brand has been diluted as the party is increasingly seen as an extension of the Tories. And this is backed up by opinion polls which shows Lib Dem support has fallen to just 14%.

The party’s newly elected deputy leader Simon Hughes, who beat Farron in the contest for the job, has said his party would have voted against the government’s schools legislation if they had not been in the coalition. This will only fuel backbench worries that the party is merely following a Tory agenda.

But some on the Conservative right are not overly happy to be in government with the Liberals either.

David Davis, twice a failed leadership candidate, was quoted as dismissing Cameron’s Big Society as “a Blairite dressing” for plans by the coalition plans to cut the role of the state.

Davis was also reported to have approvingly repeated a description of the partnership between Cameron and Clegg as the “Brokeback Coalition”, which he attributed to another senior Tory.

Entering a coalition with the Tories was always a high risk strategy for Nick Clegg’s party.

The Deputy Prime Minister finds himself defending massive public spending cuts and a VAT rise; both of which he campaigned against during the election. And facing falling opinion poll ratings and growing unease in his own party it will be a difficult summer for Clegg.

The Liberals are currently struggling to maintain an identity as a party. Unless Clegg can convince many within his own party that he is capable of doing so the possibility of damaging splits will rise.

Can Clegg paper over the cracks once more? That’s the question that many commentators will be asking in the coming months.

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I Agree With Alex

First Minister Alex Salmond has refused to give evidence at a hearing to be held by the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on the Megrahi release. Labour is accusing him of running scared but, unusually, I think Salmond is correct this time.

A quick recap: Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in which 270 people died. There were numerous legal attempts to free him and many people still think that the conviction was unsafe.

Megrahi was diagnosed with prostate cancer in late 2008. Kenny MacAskill, Cabinet Secretary for Justice in Scotland’s SNP government, visited him in jail and soon afterwards released Megrahi on compassionate grounds, as he was reported to have only three months to live. He returned to Libya where he is still alive, almost a year later.

Over the past week claims have emerged in the US that oil giant BP lobbied for Megrahi’s freedom as part of an oil deal with Libya. The UK Government and the Scottish Government have both denied this, but there is anger among American politicians. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has written to both governments “encouraging the Scottish and British authorities to review the circumstances leading to the release.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has now decided to hold a hearing under the title “The Al-Megrahi Release: One Year On.” Their focus is likely to be BP, a company which is very unpopular in the US for obvious reasons.

Senator Robert Menendez, who will chair Thursday’s hearing, has called for MacAskill and Dr Andrew Fraser, who drew up the medical report on the Libyan, to attend and answer questions.

But First Minister Salmond has refused.

The Scottish Government has said it has nothing to add to an earlier statement that there were no discussions with BP. Salmond has provided written assurances to the Committee but has also clearly stated that his government is not responsible to the USA.

Alex Salmond’s opponents have attempted to make political capital from this issue. Richard Baker for Labour claims the SNP are “running scared” while Annabelle Goldie for the Tories has insisted they “must comply”. This seems like opportunism to me: would either have taken this view if they had been in government?

Salmond won’t be moved. He can be obstinate but on this issue he has a point. I don’t altogether agree with MacAskill’s decision or the manner in which it was taken, but it was his decision to take. And the Scottish Government answers to the Scottish electorate, not to the USA.

The Megrahi issue just will not go away. The SNP fears being caught in the middle of the BP issue, and for that political reason alone is right not to attend the hearing.

But the principle of accountability to the Scottish people is the most important issue here, and Salmond has called it absolutely correctly.

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A former contestant from Britain’s Got Talent is suing judge Simon Cowell after claiming she was humiliated and degraded on the show.

Now I don’t watch the programme, which probably deserves a prize for the most misleading name in television. But I do know that Cowell loves to criticise and insult. It’s how he made his name, and his abrasive style has made him both a household name and very rich indeed.

So what exactly did Emma Amelia Pearl Czikai expect from Cowell when she auditioned for the show? Applause? Constructive criticism?

Ms Czikai, a 54-year-old former nurse from Sutton Coldfield (as the tabloids would no doubt describe her) sang the power ballad You Raise Me Up. Cowell hit the Reject button before she had even got through the first line, as did Piers Morgan. Amanda Holden was a little more restrained and waited until the chorus before she too hit the button.

The singer told the judges that she believed the backing track was too loud when she performed – and that she was not used to the microphone provided. Cowell had a different explanation.

“Emma, Emma, reality check here, it’s not the music; it’s not the microphone; it’s you,” he told her.

A pre-trail review yesterday heard that Czikai is seeking £300,000 for injured feelings, compensation of £1m and loss of earnings of £1.25m. She said if she was awarded any money it would go to charity.

So will this be a new growth area for the British legal industry?

What next? Will we see reviewers being sued for panning a performance? Sports commentators in court for criticising a player’s mistakes. Or politicians claiming that journalists are nasty to them?

Where will it all end?

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