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Friday, October 21, 2016

Why another Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition would be bad for Wales

As Plaid Cymru gather in Llangollen for their annual conference all the media speculation centres on whether they will finally bite the bullet and enter into another formal coalition with Labour in the Welsh Assembly.

One of the reasons Dafydd Elis Thomas walked away from Plaid was his perception that they are not serious about exercising power and their failure to form such an alliance. He certainly has backers for that view remaining within his former party.

The BBC quote Leanne Wood as saying that there is "ongoing discussion" about whether it  is better to formally share power, with members genuinely torn over the "dilemma". Plaid Cymru AM Neil McEvoy, who came close to unseating Leanne Wood from the top of the South Wales Central list, confirms this when he says that the agreed official position is against coalition and "reports to the contrary surprise me".

Of course what Plaid Cymru and Labour do is up to them but there are minuses as well as advantages to having a 'stable' government coalition consisting of two thirds of the Welsh Assembly's members.

The big disadvantage from my point of view would be inadequate scrutiny of Welsh Government policies and legislation. At the moment the opposition is fairly diverse, with the Tories and UKIP opposing from the right and Plaid Cymru largely from the left. The only liberal voice has been subsumed into the government but Dafydd Elis Thomas himself may be able to provide that in future.

To have the government solely scrutinised from a right wing perspective may well suit some members of Labour and Plaid but it would severely diminish the quality of debate in the chamber and committee rooms. We would lose a plurality of representation within the opposition that currently benefits our democratic process.

That was not a problem during the 2007-2011 One Wales Government of course because the Welsh Liberal Democrats provided that left-leaning, liberal input into debate and scrutiny. It would not be available in the fifth Assembly.

The second disadvantage of such a coalition is that it would give the Government a free pass on the work of building a consensus for their work within the chamber and in the country.

At the moment, if Carwyn Jones wants to get something through he has to work with others and achieve a sort of consensus. In a mega-coalition that debate would be internalised, it would become less of a discussion and more of a whipping exercise.

That is not healthy for democracy nor does it help to advance the cause of devolutuion in a country that prides itself on a more consensual approach than Westminister. Having to win support for your policies from your opponents so as to get them through can bring a type of democratic discipline to government that is discarded by those Ministers who can rely on an automatic majority to get things through.

The current make-up of the Assembly chamber may not be comfortable for the Welsh Labour Government not does it provide the sort of certainty that some stakeholders would wish, but it does ensure that Welsh democracy remains interesting, accountable and transparent. That is surely a good thing and it would be a shame if it were lost.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Liberal Democrats influence showing in Welsh budget

The Welsh Liberal Democrats may only have one Assembly Member but the deal that Kirsty Williams struck before accepting the post of Education Secretary is very evident in the Welsh Government's draft budget that was published yesterday.

As this BBC article makes clear, Kirsty Williams influence is obvious with a doubling of the pupil deprivation grant for the youngest and poorest learners. This is a £4.5m boost for deprived children in the Foundation Phase, which was a key Lib Dem manifesto pledge.

The budget headlines are £111m for apprenticeships and traineeships, a £100m tax cut for small businesses, £10m for pilot projects to support 30 hours of free childcare a week, a £20m boost to raise school standards, £16m for a new treatment fund, £5m to start raising the residential care capital limit to £50,000, £240m extra for the Welsh NHS, £60m for the Intermediate Care Fund, the best local government settlement for years, and protection for the pupil deprivation grant.

Some of these schemes are continuations from previous budget deals, others are Welsh Liberal Democrats manifesto promises including the funding for 20,000 new affordable homes within the social sector and the Welsh Development Bank.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are continuing to deliver in Wales, even with our depleted representation.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Why Labour cannot be trusted with our civil liberties

Labour's record on civil liberties has not been a good one. Whether it is their support for identity cards, their attempt to bring in a 90 day and then 42 day pre-charge detention regime, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 that gave extraordinary surveillance powers to local councils and other authorities, and of course their attempt to monitor and store details of our private communications.

Of course there are some that would say that all this came in a different era, when Tony Blair was in charge and when they were in government. And it is true that being in government means making difficult decisions. But it seems that the Corbin era has not seen any change and that not only are Labour continuing to support the erosion of our liberties but they are failing in their duty as an opposition to properly scrutinise the proposals they support.

Thus, as the Guardian reports, on Monday 64 Labour peers backed an expansion of state surveillance powers, within hours of a ruling by top judges that the spying agencies unlawfully scooped up personal confidential information on a massive scale for more than a decade:

The Labour peers voted with the government to ensure that major new powers are handed to the security services to get access to records tracking every citizen’s web use for the past 12 months.

The Liberal Democrat attempt to delete the powers to order the collection and storage of the new internet connection records from the investigatory powers bill in the House of Lords was voted down by 75 to 292.

It was notable that neither the former Labour home secretary Lord Blunkett nor the new shadow attorney general, and former Liberty director, Lady Chakrabarti, took part in the vote. The 64 Labour peers who voted with the government included frontbench spokespersons, Lady Hayter and Lord Rosser and the party’s chief whip, Lord Bassam.

The vote came just hours after the ruling by the investigatory powers tribunal, the only court to hear complaints against MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, that the security services had until 2015 secretly and illegally collected huge volumes of confidential data of millions of British citizens without adequate or safeguards.

Of course the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, made all the right noises describing the bill as "draconian” and saying that the ruling demonstrates why it needs amending but actions speak louder than words:

The Lib Dem Lord Paddick said: “Labour’s decision not to back us in opposing this huge intrusion into our privacy shows once and for all that they cannot claim to be the party of civil liberties, regardless of who sits on their benches.

“Internet connection records are ill-conceived and disproportionate and no doubt this fight will continue in the courts.”

Jim Killock, the Director of the Open Rights Group also strongly criticised the Labour peers. He said: “Labour did not table any serious amendments to this draconian legislation in the House of Lords. Labour is simply failing to hold the government to account.

“The Labour Lords had an opportunity to improve the IP bill and make it closer to becoming a surveillance law fit for a democracy not a dictatorship. They could have called for proposals to record UK citizens’ web browsing history to be scrapped or demanded that the police need independent authorisation to access our data.”

I think that those comments speak volumes about Corbin's Labour party.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When free speech is treason.

The arguments for and against Brexit have been well-rehearsed and in particular there are strong views on what should happen next.

The Liberal Democrats have argued that the UK Parliament should debate our negotiating position and that the final deal should be subject to a referendum so that the public can accept or reject it.

Nobody though has tried to argue that all debate should be shut down completely with severe penalties for those of us amongst the 48% who want to continue to argue the case to remain in the EU - until now.

The Independent reports that a Guildford Tory Councillor has been suspended after starting a Parliamentary petition calling for anyone supporting EU membership to be charged with treason:

Christian Holliday, a councillor in Guildford, Surrey, placed a petition on Parliament’s website demanding that the 1848 Treason Felony Act be updated to include “the following offences”.

They would be: “To imagine, devise, promote, work, or encourage others, to support UK becoming a member of the European Union.

The petition continues: “It is becoming clear that many politicians and others are unwilling to accept the democratic decision of the British people to leave the EU.

“Brexit must not be put at risk in the years and decades ahead. For this reason, we the undersigned request that the Treason Felony Act be amended as set out in this petition. (These provisions to become law the day the United Kingdom leaves the EU).”

I am surprised that he did not add 'adherence to a foreign Pope' to the list as per the reformation. As Liberal Democrat patron of the Vote Leave Watch campaign, Tom Brake said: “We knew Theresa May was intent on taking Britain back to the 1950s, but it's still a surprise to see a Tory councillor advocating a policy straight out of the 1550s.

“Let me point out gently to Cllr Holliday that 16.1 million people voted to remain in the EU - and the courts are busy enough as it is without trying to prosecute all of them for treason."

What is astonishing is that this petition has attracted nearly 1200 signatures.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Financial sector under threat from Brexit

Bankers are not the most popular of people in this country but it is an unavoidable fact that the UK’s financial services sector employs 1.9m people and is the key to maintaining a balance of payments surplus. Without it the pound would depreciate even further and we would have further increases in the cost of living, increases which will hit the poorest sections of our society the most because they spend the highest proportion of their income on basics such as food.

It is not good news therefore to read in the Guardian that banks could start making decisions to move assets out of the UK as early as the end of 2017 if there is no deal in place to maintain their rights to sell services freely across the European Union:

Open Europe, which took a neutral stance on the referendum, said Britain could risk losing its status as a hub for financial services unless passporting rights are made the top priority in negotiations with the EU. The warning came as the Financial Times reported that the government is considering proposals [paywall] that would see billions of pounds paid into the EU budget in exchange for giving the financial sector continued access to the single market.

The report’s authors also warned that failure to help UK-based banks could have repercussions on the continent, because banks would not necessarily move their business from Britain to mainland Europe, and could opt for New York or Singapore.

Meanwhile in a speech today, Nick Clegg will echo calls from the City for a transitional deal to be put in place after the end of the Article 50 process if the UK does not retain single market membership, warning food prices will see a steep hike if the UK reverts to World Trade Organisation tariffs, including on imported beef, cheese and wine:

Clegg will warn that the under WTO rules, tariffs will also have to be applied to all imports into the UK until a trade deal with the EU is struck. In his third Brexit Challenge report, the former deputy prime minister will say UK farming will be particularly badly hit by tariffs, including 47% on milk, 40% on cheese, 59% on beef, and 40% on lamb.

It really is time for the UK Government to get a grip on this process, accept that the UK Parliament should be able to scrutinise and debate their negotiating stance and that the British people should have the final say on any eventual deal. It would also help of course if the UK Government knew what it was doing. The stakes are too high for any other approach.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Donald Trump - Sociopathic Superstar

A song about Donald Trump from Neath/Swansea band Psycho Kiss from their new album. The leader singer is a Welsh Liberal Democrats Community Councillor in Skewen. Order it here:

The case against Brexit by er... Boris

All of today's media is reporting on the unpublished newspaper column by Foreign Secretary and Chief Brexiteer, Boris Johnson written just days before he decided to campaign for the UK to leave the EU, in which he makes a strong case for us to remain.

As the Observer reports, in the column Boris wrote of the EU: “This is a market on our doorstep, ready for further exploitation by British firms. The membership fee seems rather small for all that access. Why are we so determined to turn our back on it?”

The paper says Boris warned that Brexit would cause an “economic shock” and could lead to the “break-up” of the United Kingdom:

“There is the worry about Scotland, and the possibility that an English-only “leave” vote could lead to the break-up of the union,” he wrote. “There is the Putin factor: we don’t want to do anything to encourage more shirtless swaggering from the Russian leader, not in the Middle East, not anywhere.”

For once Boris got something right. What a shame that his analysis was not built upon principle. His decision a few days later to take a contradictory view and to campaign against EU membership was a career decision. What he actually believes is a matter for conjecture.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Has Dafydd Elis Thomas given Labour their majority in the Welsh Assembly?

The timing of the decision by Lord Elis Thomas to resign the Plaid Cymru whip and sit as an independent in the Welsh Assembly came as a surprise to me, but I suspect it was a body blow to Plaid Cymru and Leanne Wood's stuttering leadership.

Plaid Cymru can no longer claim to be the official opposition. Their negotiating power over the Welsh budget in particular has been severely diminsihed. Carwyn Jones now has another option to get his budget through and it will be much cheaper than meeting demands from Leanne Wood's party, assuming that Plaid are able to agree a coherent package of expenditure amongst themselves at all.

In truth Dadydd Elis Thomas has been acting as an Independent for some time. An examination of voting records reveal that he often, discreetly registers a different view to that of his leadership, including on that vote over Europe which led to a nationalist social media campaign claiming the Welsh Government are now in favour of Brexit. In fact it showed nothing of the sort.

There are now two independents sitting in the Welsh Assembly, both former leaders of their party. And whereas I cannot see Labour even contemplating the courtship of Nathan Gill, they will certainly be talking to Dafydd Elis Thomas. Will we see him in the cabinet in the near future? Anything is now possible.

Update: Plaid Cymru also lost a councillor this week when Torfaen Councillor Fiona Cross crossed the floor to join Labour.

Friday, October 14, 2016

So sorry Scotland

The Trump defence

Is it me or is the American Presidential election getting more and more surreal as an under-fire Donald Trump has gone onto the offensive in an effort to divert attention from his own indiscretions?

The Guardian reports that there was an avalanche of fresh abuse allegations on Thursday after a series of women came forward to dispute his claim that his comments about sexual assault were only empty boasts.

The paper says that the torrent of accusations includes claims from beauty pageant contenders who allege he burst into their dressing rooms to ogle them while they were nude. Nearly a dozen new names have been added to the tally of women who have accused the Republican nominee of inappropriate behavior.

Many say they were galvanised into speaking by Trump’s denials during Sunday’s presidential debate, where he dismissed a recording of him bragging about groping women as “locker room talk” and insisted they were “words not action”.

Trump's reaction is to dismiss the accusations as a vast establishment conspiracy, orchestrated by his opponent Hillary Clinton “as part of a concerted, coordinated and vicious attack”:

“There is nothing the political establishment will not do, no lie they won’t tell to hold their prestige and power at your expense and that’s what’s happening,” he told a rally in Florida. “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election.”

In his speech Trump said: “I never knew it would be this vile, this vicious,” he told the crowd in Florida. “Nevertheless I take all of these slings and arrows gladly for you. I take them for the movement so we can have our country back.”

He added: “I will not allow the Clinton machine to turn our campaign into a discussion of their slanders and lies, but will remain focused on the American people. The only thing Clinton has going for her is the press. Without the press she is nothing.”

Nevertheless, his response to the new claims took up almost the entire speech and Trump refused to take questions on them, dismissing from the room a reporter who asked about them beforehand and calling him “a sleazebag”.

The irony here of course is that Trump built his entire Presidential campaign on a series of personal insults and slurs against his opponents. As Corporal Jones repeatedly says in Dads Army: "They don't like it up 'em"

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The day that Brexit hit the pound in our pocket

I am too young to properly remember the famous quote from Harold Wilson that ultimately lost him the 1970 General Election.

It was 19th November 1967 and the then Labour Government had just devalued the pound against the dollar by 14%. The decision had been taken after weeks of increasingly feverish speculation and a day in which the Bank of England spent £200m trying to shore up the pound from its gold and dollar reserves.

In defending his government's decision, Harold Wilson very much foreshadowed sentiments being expressed by Brexiteers today. He said: "From now the pound abroad is worth 14% or so less in terms of other currencies. It does not mean, of course, that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued.

"What it does mean is that we shall now be able to sell more goods abroad on a competitive basis." 

It didn't quite work out like that for him and nor will it today. For we are now witnesssing the consequences of an involuntary devaluation in the pound far greater than the 14% in 1967, with price rises in our supermarkets. As the Independent reports, Tesco is in a stand-off with Unilever over the Anglo-Dutch firm's plan to hike the price of their groceries by 10%.

Tesco may be making a stand on our behalf but would that stance have been so public if the absence of certain goods on their website had not been publicised? Inevitably, there will be a compromise in which these products will go up in price. The only question is whether it is a 10% or 5% increase. And other supermarkets will follow suit.

But whereas in 1967 Harold Wilson could rely on a boost for exports as a consequence of his devaluation, things are not so clear cut in 2016. That is because our impending exit from the European Union is already affecting investment decisions.

Multi-national companies are deferring or cancelling plans to invest in new production lines in their UK factories, whilst many are actively considering moving their operation abroad so as to remain in the single market. Any jobs boost from an increase in exports will be more than cancelled out by such decisions.

It has been reported that the total cost to the Exchequer from lost revenues and other factors could be as much £66 billion a year. That is £1.2 billion a week. So much for the £350m boost we were promised to the NHS.

Even if that £66bn figure proves to be an exaggeration we are still in for substantial public sector cuts and considerable hardship once Theresa May presses the Section 50 button.

All of these figures underline why the eventual final settlement is so important and why the general public should be able to approve or reject it in a vote.We cannot afford to leave our economic future in the hands of politicians who have done so much to wreck it in the first place.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Why Communities First will not be mourned

When I blogged less than three weeks ago on the need for an effective Welsh anti-poverty programme I did so in the knowledge that the Welsh Government's flagship Communities First scheme was on the verge of being phased out. Yesterday the Minister confirmed that was the case.

Communities First has consumed more than £300 million of public money in its 15 year life and yet, despite some isolated schemes which seemed to have an impact, it failed in its unltimate objective of raising the communities it was targeting out of poverty.

In my view it was poorly focussed and improperly monitored. There were no proper meausures in place to determine how effective that expenditure was in improving educational, health or employment outcomes in the communities where the money was spent. And often it seemed as if the Welsh Government were just creating a self-perpetuating network of community workers so as to give the appearance of action.

Ultimately, Communities First failed because Welsh Ministers insisted on directing it centrally. It would have made far more sense to deliver a scheme administered by local councils, tailored to their particular circumstances. In that way the expenditure of £300m could have been coordinated with other local initiatives and we would have got far more bang for our buck.

Whatever replaces Communities First, I think that the odds are it will not be as well funded. That is because the announcement yesterday was, in my view, more about budget cuts than an acknowledgement of failure.

For that reason, the successor scheme has to be better aligned with existing programmes both national such as the pupil premium, healthy community initiatives, and Jobs Growth Wales, and local, such as regeneration schemes, housing and education programmes and employment and training initiatives.

It should be controlled by councils not remote civil servants in Cardiff Bay, and have clear, measurable objectives with proper perfomance indicators. And it should be part of an effective cross-cutting anti-poverty strategy that actually seeks to improve outcomes for people rather than alleviate the symptoms.

That is a tall order but it is the least we can expect from the Welsh Government. It is time for devolutoin to start delivering. This is an opportunity for Ministers to show that they really can make a difference.

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