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Friday, October 31, 2003

Golden Goodbyes

More Welsh Councils are rejecting this scheme. On Tuesday Conwy and Blaenau Gwent voted unanimously against whilst Newport narrowly supported it. Swansea Council votes on Thursday 6 November when I am in North Wales with the Assembly's Education and Lifelong Learning Committee. I know however that the Liberal Democrat Group there have decided to oppose the scheme's introduction in the City as have other opposition Councillors. I have lost track of the tally of Council voting on this issue but believe it is heavily against the scheme.

Intelligent politicians

Tuesday's Guardian has an interesting piece on Blogs by politicians and in particular, George Bush's new Blog, which is apparently written for him. They write, "The first politician - of whatever political hue - who uses a blog to reveal humanity, warmth, humour and intelligence (and it is not being overly optimistic to assume that there are politicians with all of the above) will truly be seen as a leader for our times. It will never be enough to secure election, but it might do a bit to remove some of the cynicism with which most of us view politicians. I imagine someone on one or other side of the Atlantic will soon make this conceptual leap. The big question is whether they'll be able to type."

New blogs

As reported below a new political blog has appeared written by Clive Soley MP. Another Liberal Democrat, Richard Gadsden has also started a Blog.


My posting on George Galloway on Thursday 23 October headed "Control Freakery" has produced a reaction from somebody called Matthew May. He writes "Jolly fine blog on Stalinists..are you really an elected politico, with an Education portfolio? If I were you I would be proud to have been 'Kammed', rather than the common everyday fisking you seem to deserve. Do you have any conception of what Stalin did? Any at all? I am deeply saddened that you represent anyone at all." Apart from the fact that the message contains words I do not understand, I think it is fair to say that as a history graduate I am more aware than most of the attrocities committed by Stalin. However, "Stalinist" is a commonly used phrase to describe a style of politics and is not to be taken in the literal sense as Mr. May has done. I am saddened that he has sought to personalise his comment in this way.

Rather impatiently, as I did record on this Blog that I would be away, Mr May sent a further comment: "No answer to my last mail re Stalinism Still busy day for you chums, now Howard-of-the-night is up and away you might find yourselves fourth division, and be showen to be so. Gnarff gliberatisima." For my views on Michael Howard read below. It will not be that easy to write off the Liberal Democrats though even with a new Tory leader.

Bush is in the money

Interesting article in the Guardian today about the process of raising money for elections in the United States of America. It seems that "major donors of George Bush's election campaigns were the main beneficiaries of an $8 billion (£4.7bn) bonanza in government contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq." There is a lot of detail in the article including the finding that of the 70 US firms tracked, more than half of them, and nearly every one of the top 10 contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq, had close ties to Washington's political establishment or to the Pentagon. The study found that there was a clear tilt towards firms with Republican connections. I have written before about the dangers of raising large sums of money from companies and individuals so as to fight elections. Even if there is no impropriety the impression given is unfavourable and brings politics into disrepute. That is why we, in Britain, need to learn the lessons of America's financial gluttony and look to introduce state funding of political parties before it is too late.

Sod's law

Rather typically, I start up this Blog and ramble on at length for three months or more, only to go away and miss the most bloggable event so far. Yes, the Tories finally "assasinated" their leader and without bothering to consult the membership who elected him either. This is because, when it comes to the crunch, the Tories can happily discard the democratic process in pursuit of their own perceived self-interest. In place of IDS we are now apparently being offered a reconstructed Michael Howard, who it seems is going to be crowned without a vote, rather like they used to do it under Macmillan and Alec Douglas Hume. The mechanism by which the Tories secured their vote of no confidence was tortuous to say the least. That is why I pronounced in an earlier post that I had tired of the whole process. It seemed like it took an age for the necessary 25 Tory MPs to summon up the courage to write those letters demanding a vote. Personally, I was very taken by a comment posted by Clive Soley MP on his new Blog. He wrote, "There was a rather cruel comment by one Tory MP who said he didn't know about 25 signatures to start an election but it only took three signatures to Section IDS under the Mental Health Act! There is no mercy in politics especially on your own side!"

So if we are to get Michael Howard then it must be open season on his record as Home Secretary and of course, that comment by Ann Widdicombe that he had "something of the night about him." Numerous comments have already been posted on Blogs and elsewhere as well as thousands of words of newsprint. I was particularly taken by Polly Toynbee's article in this morning's Guardian. Under the headline "The night is drawing in" she stated about Howard that "Right from his 1983 maiden speech advocating the restoration of the death penalty, he has courted cheap popularity. It was not being rightwing that worried people like Ann Widdicombe: it was his willingness to dabble in almost any unsavoury policy that looked like a winner. Europhobic, homophobic (he introduced Clause 28 and voted against gay adoptions), anti-abortion (he voted for the Alton Bill to restrict it), he called for General Pinochet's release. As for wise policy-making, he was a key minister responsible for the poll tax." It send shivers down my back.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

New building

I have some experience of trying to pin down builders to start a job and then seeking to make them bring it to a swift conclusion. My sympathies, therefore, are entirely with the Scottish public whose new Parliament Building is three years behind schedule and will cost ten times the original estimate. Wales, of course, is not without its own controversy with regards to its Assembly building, but we are small fry by comparison to this. The big contrast of course is the GLA. Their new building seems to have gone up with little or fuss and was ready for occupation by the Mayor and the Assembly within record time. This may not be the perception in London of course but that is how it looks from afar. It does help if the site is part of a prime development area on the river bank opposite the Tower of London. If as a result, you can get a very favourable PFI deal and that there is a stipulation that the Assembly building must be completed before the private development attached to it.

Crisis! What crisis?

I am bored with the Tory Leadership crisis already. No doubt the British public switched off days ago. Will it ever end or do we have to live through every twist and turn of the screw for ever and a day. I switch on the radio in the morning and it is like Groundhog Day but without the compensating charms of Andie MacDowell. Fortunately, I will be away for a few days and not only will I not be updating this blog but I will also seek to avoid too much news.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Cool Cat

To be honest I don't read all the e-mails that come to me at my Assembly address. This is because a large number of them are either other people's press releases, junk mail or just general gossip. It is difficult sometimes to filter out messages from constituents and others that need to be given priority. Recently, Lembit Opik MP and his Montgomeryshire colleague, Mick Bates AM, have taken to issuing samples of their diary for the week in the hope that some poor unsuspecting media person with nothing better to do might attend or do a piece on what they are doing. These e-mails are not required reading for me but this week one item did catch my eye. Tonight, Lembit is supporting Powys Cats by judging the fancy dress competition in a Grand Alley Cats Ball. He always looks like a cat that has just stolen the cream anyway, after this he will be insufferable.


David Cornock reports on his BBC blog that the Welsh Conservatives have launched a "daftest job" competition to discover the silliest public sector post created during the past six years. On offer is lunch for two at a luxury Cardiff restaurant in the company of the erudite Tory AM for Mid and West Wales, Glyn Davies. Enter by writing to DJSS Wales Competition, Conservative Office, High Street, Welshpool, Powys, SY217JP. As David points out, Glyn, who was once Chair of the Quango known as the Development Board for Rural Wales, has a very finely honed sense of irony. This is just as well as most of my suggestions date back to the huge number of Welsh Quangos created by the Conservative Governments of 1979 to 1997. A more appropriate competition might have been for the most outrageous example of Tory patronage. The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation may hold the key to both categories but I am open to suggestions.

Queue anybody?

A survey claims that every Briton spends one day a year just queuing. It also claims that the Welsh are the most likely to jump a queue. Just as well that there are no Welsh Tory MPs queuing up to stab IDS in the back or he would have gone already. The well-honed survival instincts of Tory MPs are starting to kick in and a hitherto unheard of former Tory whip has now called on his leader to jump before he is pushed. We may have a vote of confidence by Wednesday. What a shame.

What the butler saw

Is there no end to the Princess Diana story. Having set the Butler up and wrongly prosecuted him for theft the Royal family are now squealing foul because Mr. Burrell has decided that he wants to make some money out of his experiences. It seems that the Royals want loyalty as a one way street. Isn't it time we got rid of this anachronistic institution? Stories I have read indicate that Paul Burrell stands to sell over a million copies of his book, whilst every newspaper in the UK is going crazy over the revelations. Good luck to him but really, why is anybody interested in the first place?

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Feeding Frenzy

A glance at the Sunday press indicates that the feeding frenzy over the future of Iain Duncan Smith is getting increasingly out of control. If they don't get a scalp soon the media will implode from over-excitement. Naturally I am praying that IDS will survive to the next election. A website has been produced of unswerving sychophancy to persuade us that he must go. They even use emotive language such as "plotters" and "traitors". Visit it here now before it is consigned to the dustbin of history along with its subject. Of course if IDS does go then the Tory Party membership cannot be trusted to produce a more electable successor. The question must be asked therefore - how come the Tories are still at 34% in the polls?

No spin Sunday

In the end the outcome of very democratic votes at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference must have sent the spin doctors home happy. The party sent the substance misuse paper back to the Policy Committee for a further look, thus forestalling misleading attacks from our opponents about us being soft on drugs. Today, we rejected by a narrow two vote majority an attempt to impose compulsory sex education from the age of seven. This had already been passed by the party for England but in Wales we prefer to give teachers and parents some discretion. Radio Wales reported the vote as the Welsh Party reversing the decision of the Federal Conference. This is proof that even they still do not understand devolution. How can we reverse a decision that did not apply to Wales in the first place?

Saturday, October 25, 2003


The Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference is always a small but well managed family affair. Everybody knows everyone else and we spend a lot of time socialising with each other. The debates are civilised as well. Thus when we had a very controversial discussion today on substance misuse all the speakers kept to the issues, there were no accusations of being soft on drugs and rather than have an up and downer about details the motion was referred back for further work. I was disappointed about that referral back as I would have preferred to have had a clear cut decision but that is life.

I didn't get to do my summing up in which I planned to quote some of the facts presented to us by the Chief Constable of North Wales on Thursday. He told us that heroin prices had dropped over the last ten years indicating a marked increase in supply. The inference was that the authorities are failing to stop the importation of drugs into the UK. At present the Police and Customs stop about 20% of all drugs coming into the country reaching the streets. Even if they doubled their resource, which would be expensive and difficult, they would still only be stopping 40%. The drug trade is worth about £8 billion a year in the UK, nearly two thirds of the Assembly's total annual budget. That amounts to £2 million a week in Wales. It accounts for over half of acquisitive crime. There are 10,000 problematic drug users in Wales, by which he means those who pay for their habit by stealing. They are criminals but putting them in prison will not stop them, as they are addicts and need to feed their habit. They need effective treatment rather more than punishment. The idea of directly prescribing heroin sounds radical and expensive but it will break the link between drug abuse and crime. It will ensure that addicts have a supply without having to steal to pay for it. It is also a fact that the Government currently manufactures heroin in Edinburgh legally for £1 a gramme. Heroin cut with other dubious substances can be sold on the streets for £60 a gramme. Tobacco and Alcohol are significantly more harmful than any other drug. They account for far more deaths than heroin, cannabis, ecstacy or cocaine. Yet they are legal. I am not advocating legalising all drugs but I am advocating their availability to registered addicts under medical supervision as a way forward to deal with drug deaths and to reduce drug related crime. This is a debate that we need to have for the sake of all those whose life is at risk because of their addiction.

More BBC tricks

Postings are going to get a bit erratic over the next week as I am currently at the Welsh Party Conference in Llandrindod Wells and will be away for most of next week. I am also writing this an hour before having to deliver a speech on Higher Education that I haven't written yet.

The repercussions of Thursday's "Dragon's Eye" programme on "familygate" or how large numbers of AMs employ members of their family and some had failed to register that fact, continue to reverberate. It seems that the S4C programme "Byd y Bedwar" is now doing a half hour programme on the staff of AMs per se. Notice that nobody ever looks at the staff of MPs, even if the practices that apply to them have, by and large, been adopted by Members of the National Assembly for Wales.

I took exception to a journalist interrogating my research assistant about her employment and told him that if he wanted answers he should come straight to me. After all I am accountable for my decisions and actions, not my staff. The journalist in question wanted to know how we advertised for staff, what criteria we applied in appointing them, even how much they were paid. I told him everything he wanted to know apart from matters relating to personal and confidential contracts i.e. I was not prepared to reveal terms of employment or remuneration as that is the business of the staff member and nobody else.

The question that arises from all this of course is why haven't these journalists got anything important to investigate. I would be astonished if there was any impropriety relating to the employment of AM support staff and even the journalist involved was just fishing. He clearly had little else to go on. What they are doing is creating an atmosphere of suspicion and implied sleaze in the mind of the public, reinforcing the perception that politicians are untrustworthy and slightly shifty. In doing that they devalue the political process and undermine democracy. They create a mood of apathy amongst the electorate and actively cause them to question the value of voting. Politicians are just human. We make mistakes. We are ordinary people doing an extraordinary job to the best of our ability. We have responsibilities to the public which we seek to meet. The media have responsibilities too, to report fairly and accurately and to cherish the constitution that allows them to operate so freely. They have a scrutiny role, it is true, but that role would be far better exercised if they concentrated on the issues and not the personalities. Isn't it about time they started to face up these responsibilities?

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Oh dear!

It seems that the culture of trying to crucify anybody in public life with any sort of allegation continues unabated. The BBC programme "Dragon's Eye" tried this first with Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group Leader, Mike German. They spun a web of unsubstantiated, spurious and politically motivated allegations on the basis that if enough mud was flung then some of it would stick. They were proved wrong on every count and Mike was exonerated. We are still awaiting the apology.

Now that same programme has conducted an investigation into the employment of spouses by thirteen AMs and their declaration of interest. There is nothing wrong with an AM or an MP employing a spouse providing that the employee is the best person for the job and that they do a fair day's work for a fair day's wage. This has not stopped mud being thrown at Iain Duncan Smith nor has it stopped the Welsh media indulging in a bit of guilt by association.

Almost by accident they stumbled on the fact that four of these AMs had not registered the interests of their spouse as they are required to do by law. This is in fact, a criminal matter and can attract a fine of up to £5,000. Again, by accident, there is one AM involved from each party - Plaid Cymru's Jocelyn Davies, Labour's Anne Jones, the Tory's Mark Isherwood and the Welsh Liberal Democrat's Eleanor Burnham. The four have now been referred to the Police for investigation.

Although what they have done is technically an offence, I am not convinced that there is anything other than oversight involved. It seems to me that nobody can gain from non-declaration and, knowing the individuals concerned, there is in my opinion no likelihood of deliberate wrong-doing. Under natural justice all four should get off with a caution and that should be an end to it. I doubt if "Dragon's Eye" will see it that way. After all it would not be such a good story.

By coincidence I spent the day with one of the four AMs, Mark Isherwood, on a series of Social Justice Committee visits around North Wales. We concluded the day at the headquarters of North Wales Police in the company of the Chief Constable, Richard Brunstone. He gave us a compelling overview of his opinions on drugs policy, of which more later. However, as I left the HQ I can confirm that Mark Isherwood left also and that at no stage was he arrested or put in irons.

Control Freakery

The expulsion of George Galloway from the Labour Party for expressing his opinions about the Iraq war and his Party Leader is another example of over-the-top control freakery by that party. Is it now the case that dissent of any kind is not to be tolerated by New Labour? Have they not learnt their lessons from disasters in the past? It seems not. New Labour now appears more Stalinist than Old Labour and that is saying something.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Loose Ends

Chris Black sends his comments on the great Golden Goodbye saga:- "I've now served 19 years on Rochford District Council and I'm still a mere 44-45 tomorrow! Anyway the idea of being paid £20,000 to give up the Council disturbed me. To begin with, it follows the trend nowadays that anyone who tries to help their community must be slightly cranky if they're not being paid a lot. Secondly, you'd get younger people involved if Councillors had more powers to actually do things quickly and spent less time on Comprehensive Performance Assessments etc. Finally, I was disturbed because £20,000 was actually b----- tempting - I could put it towards my pension, or pay for my son's university education someday. Even so, for me to voluntarily give up working in my ward would be like forsaking a much-loved garden, being barred from my favourite pub and having to change my religion and football club all in one night! I hope we never get offered this in Essex!" I know how he feels. His comments underline the absurdity of this policy and in particular the fact that it is not directed at pensioners as was the original intention. Six out of nine Councils have now rejected the scheme. Two more were voting today but I have been in meetings all day and am now in Wrexham and have not had a chance to ascertain how they voted.

It seems that this Blog may be jinxed. No sooner do I predict that there will be elections in Northern Ireland on 26 November than Tony Blair emerges from talks to say that they cannot reach agreement. I am not however cancelling my trip over there on 24 November to help out the Alliance Party just yet.

Verbal gymnastics

North Wales Conservative AM, Mark Isherwood is getting a reputation, and I am not referring to allegations in the press this morning that he is employing his wife and has failed to declare it. Mark consistently peppers his speech with quotations from anyone and anybody he has spoken to so as to reinforce his argument. He is a one-man vox pop. He also gets carried away with his metaphors as already illustrated on this Blog. The latest came today - "A funding fog that amounts to a missed opportunity budget". Stick to the quotes Mark!

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

It is just a game

News this morning that George W. Bush had asked for tickets to see the Wales versus Italy game in the Rugby Union World Cup set everybody's minds racing. One comment on Radio Wales was that somebody had better explain to him what olive oil is before he tries to annex Italy. Another listener suggested that he should do the team talk for the Italians, presumably on the grounds that it would help Wales. Of course Rugby Union is not a natural game for the USA and it is likely that he will have to have the rules explained to him. A bit like foreign affairs then!

Elections at last

It seems that Northern Ireland will be going to the polls on 26 November to re-elect its on-off Assembly. At last! The fact that the democratic process was suspended was, in my view, a travesty. However, the fact that the Prime Minister has stuck with it and ensured that the initiative was not lost in a fog of squabbling and acrimony must be too his credit. The key now is to try and make all the parties stick to the result, whatever it is, and work with it. That will not be easy.

Rebels undermine Golden Goodbyes

Caerphilly and Wrexham Councils have now joined Rhonnda Cynon Taff and Gwynedd in refusing to implement a scheme that will see long-standing Councillors receive a pay-off of up to £20,000 if they stand down next year. Denbighshire and Powys have voted against the scheme today, Ynys Mon are due to vote today also and others over the coming weeks. It seems that Councillors at least are in touch with public opinion on this even if the Labour Assembly Government is not. It is possible that by the end of this process a majority of Welsh Councils will not be offering these Golden Goodbyes to their members. If that happens then the scheme and the credibility of the Minister and the Welsh Local Government Association will be in tatters.

Defensive spin

Yesterday's Western Mail carried a lead story about the newly appointed Chair of ELWa. The Conservative's Welsh Education Spokesperson, David Davies, had demanded her resignation as she had been a Director of a company that had gone into administration less than six weeks after she resigned. It was the view of David Davies that this made her unsuitable to head up Wales' biggest quango. Actually I do not agree with David on this. Companies go under every day all around Wales for a variety of reasons. Often they do so in circumstances in which money is owed to creditors. In many cases the experience of those involved in that collapse has led them to start again and build bigger, more successful businesses. That is the entrepreneurial spirit that is needed in Wales and is all too often lacking. If we are going to punish failure then there will be nobody willing to take risks.

In the case of Sheila Drury, there was no impropriety and therefore no reason why she should not move on to the post she now holds. Furthermore, according to the account in the Western Mail yesterday, the biggest creditor of the now defunct company, Kemitron, was her and her husband. They lost money as well. This would have been all very well if it was not for the comments of the Assembly Government Spokesperson. In defending the decision he gave a stock answer that implied that all the panel were aware of the full circumstances of Kemitron and its parent company, SJMJ Limited. He also referred to the fact that there was a Welsh Liberal Democrat on that panel. My recollection of this matter was that there was reference in Sheila Drury's application to the fact that she had been a director of a company that had gone into administration shortly after she had left it. She also expounded on how she dealt with the publicity around that issue. However, there were no details made available to panel members about the circumstances of the case as suggested in the officials remarks and I didn't find out about them until afterwards.

I took exception to being drawn into the defensive spin on behalf of the Government and e-mailed the Education Minister immediately to say so. When she had failed to respond to my e-mail by early afternoon I wrote to the Western Mail to set the record straight. This finally provoked a response from the Minister and a conversation over the phone, which in my view amounted to her haranguing me about the literal interpretation of her spokesperson's words. I made it clear that the context of those remarks made them unacceptable to me and that I did not take kindly to being used as part of Government spin without being consulted first. As it happens it is all a big storm in a very small teacup but it does say something about the style of the Welsh Labour Government and the Minister that I was dragged into it in that way.

Monday, October 20, 2003

BBC survey

I have just been rung by the BBC to enquire if I employ a member of my family in my constituency office or at the Assembly. The answer is no, but do I detect a witchhunt developing? Are they trying to manufacture a Standards Committee investigation to mirror the Westminster one into Iain Duncan Smith? Must be a slow news day.

Inappropriate comment

Somebody remarked today that the Prime Minister's heart problems had surprised them as they did not know he had a heart. After chastising them for an inappropriate and tasteless remark, it occurred to me that perhaps they had confused the Prime Minister's heart with his Government's soul.

Sunday, October 19, 2003


The Government have announced emergency measures to try and avoid gridlock on Britain's motorways. They are already investing billions of pounds in new roads and now want to set up an emergency unit to troubleshoot whenever an acident occurs. It is true that the growth in car ownership has led to a massive strain being put on the Country's roads. I experienced it myself when trying to get to Peterborough on Friday. However, there is still massive underinvestment in public transport, particularly our railways. The Transport Minister has said that he wants cost savings before meeting demands for the huge injection of capital required by the rail network. How many more lines does he want to close? How much more does he want to cut back on maintenance? He would do well of course to insist that the rail companies reinvest all their profits into the service that they allegedly supply. The payment of dividends to shareholders and the imposition of fines for poor performance out of the large subsidies paid by the Government amounts to a drain on the operating capital of the railways and must have contributed to the deteriorating service most passengers experience. The problem with our railways is that the way that they are run is fragmented, they lack clear leadership or a central strategy and there is an urgent need for investment in their infrastructure, including essential maintenance, new lines, proper links with buses and airlines and more frequent and cheaper trains. That will not happen under the present privatised system.

News stunts

David Blaine has finished his 44 days without food stuck in a box suspended above London. Why? It is not clever and it adds nothing to the sum total of human wisdom. He has however, secured a huge amount of publicity for himself and er, that is it. We cannot blame the media, they only report what people are interested in, and regardless of the scorn that the majority may pour on this stunt, there is a sneaking fascination in the whole grisly experience, rather like watching a public hanging. Speaking of public executions I am still reeling from the first part of television's dramatisation of the life of Henry VIII last week. The second part is on tonight. By far the most unsettling part of this programme was the portrayal of the public beheadings of Charles Dance's character and Anne Boleyn. However, despite the great efforts to achieve some level of realism the whole effect was undermined by the characterisation of the King as an Essex wide-boy. Watch it and weep!

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Senate snubs Bush

The Guardian reports that President Bush's authority is being questioned after eight Republican Senators ignored his personal pleas and a small temper tantrum and voted to defy him by turning half his $20bn Iraq reconstruction budget into a loan. This is apparently a further sign of a flailing administration in which key Cabinet members are setting their own agenda in conflict with each other, whilst the President looks on helplessly. The leaking of the name of an undercover CIA officer has added fuel to the fire. Clearly, it is too early to say how all this will affect next year's Presidential election but it does contribute to the background tone against which that election will be fought. I feel better already.

U.S. Election 2004

The Guardian have launched a blog tracking the 2004 race for the White House. Find it here.

Friday, October 17, 2003

The Welsh are everywhere

Five gruelling hours on the motorway and various A-roads driving to Peterborough for a training event. After the last session we retired to the bar, as you do, for a few drinks. I looked up and was surprised to see Lembit Opik walk in. He had been at an astronomical event in Cambridge, presumably talking about asteroids. It is true what they say; wheresoever one member of the Welsh Liberal Democrats shall go others shall follow.

By-election successes

I am not going to make a habit of reporting local Council by-elections here, especially outside Wales. Those of you who are interested in Welsh Council by-elections can, of course, go to the Flashpoints section of this website where I have a table of all Welsh Principal Council by-elections since 1999. This will be updated shortly. The two by-elections in the North of England last night are worth recording. In both cases the Liberal Democrats have sent the BNP packing in areas where that party were starting to build a presence. In Mixenden, Halifax, Jennifer Pearson held the seat narrowly gained by her late husband a few months ago in a ward in which the BNP already have a Councillor. She increased the Liberal Democrat majority with 1210 votes against the BNP's 801 votes. Meanwhile, in the Lanehead ward of Burnley, a by-election caused by the resignation of a BNP Councillor, saw that party lose a seat for the first time. The Liberal Democrats polled 1070 votes, Labour were second with 464 votes and the BNP third with 357. A good night for democracy all round!

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Mr Charisma

The Glamorgan Gazette reports that South Wales West Tory AM, Alun Cairns, has been judged the most charismatic candidate in May's Assembly elections. Apparently, the vote came from six internal monitors of S4C's output - all students at Aberystwyth University. He beat First Minister, Rhodri Morgan into second place. The reassuring part of this is that Alun was only being judged against other Welsh speakers. Nevertheless, it is still a kick in the teeth for the remaining 59 AMs if Alun Cairns is considered to be the most charismatic of all of us. Alun is reported to have commented, on being told of the vote, that he was "staggered". I should think so!

Is that a camera I see?

The Assembly's House Committee held its first meeting in public today. This has come about after pressure from a number of people, including myself. This Committee deals with the day to day running of the Assembly, including catering, building issues and IT. My only doubt in advocating open meetings has been that perhaps it might be too dull for anybody to consider watching. Certainly, the agenda today was very sanitised. The Committee had only agreed to one open meeting a year if they could be assured that the matters discussed were not too "sensitive". The most interesting moment came at the end when we discussed Plenary Session Question Time for the House Committee. Oral questions are allowed but members are discouraged from tabling them due to previous embarrassments about time being taken up discussing the positioning of doors to the toilets amongst others. Nevertheless, some were tabled for yesterday and duly answered. The Conservative Member on the Committee, William Graham, was anxious to restore party discipline on this matter. He was, however, sensitive to the bad publicity that such a point could engender - "AM tries to stifle questions" etc. So before raising the issue he made sure that there were no members of the public present. He completely forget that proceedings were being televised!

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Anybody for £20,000

So in the end the Welsh Labour group forced through the legislation that will enable long-serving Councillors to stand down next year with a pay off of up to £20,000. Only those Councillors who have served 16 years or more are entitled to the money. They can receive £1,000 for every year of service up to a maximum of £20,000. In return they must not stand at the 2004 election but there is nothing to stop them re-standing after that. Lots of talk about making space for new blood and compensating Councillors for years of sacrifice. It is as if Labour had turned a blind eye to the fact that most Councillors now receive more than adequate remuneration for the work they do. And as for new blood, it will take more than a few vacancies to make Welsh Councils attractive to the young, ethnic minorities, women and middle-aged professionals. For a start they should hold their meetings at reasonable times. At the moment most Councils operate as if they were the exclusive preserve of the retired, the unemployed and the unemployable. The scheme will cost the Assembly between £3 million and £4 million at a time when Labour are cutting £16 million off student access funds and failing to properly fund the Teacher's Workload Agreement.

The scheme was originally proposed in lieu of a pension scheme, which is on its way but won't be in place in time for the next elections. The idea was of a one-off scheme to compensate aging politicians for not having a pension and for the sacrifices they had made during their working life including a reduced work pension due to spending so much time in meetings and not attending at their paid employment. However, by the time it had got to the Assembly Plenary all reference to pensioners had disappeared and there is now no lower age threshold. This means that Councillors as young as 40 could claim the money. The Welsh Liberal Democrats put an amendment down to re-instate the minimum qualifying age of 65 but were then accused of being ageist. I suppose that when Labour get around to introducing pensions for Councillors they won't specify an age then either? What nonsense! Many members of the public will see this scheme for what it is, a golden egg for a lot of Labour geese.

Bat out of Hell!

Brian Gibbons, the Labour AM for Aberavon, leapt up today at the end of a slanging match between Labour and Plaid Cymru over the record of Rhondda Cynon Taff Council, to prove that he is in touch with popular culture, though not from this decade. Addressing the Minister he started, "As Meatloaf said, 'you have taken the words right out of my mouth.'" It is arguable that Meatloaf was not thinking about the revenue support grant for Welsh Councils when he sang those words but Brian did succeed in getting our attention. I look forward to other 1980s rock stars featuring in future contributions in the chamber. Bonnie Tyler anybody?

Spin or substance?

It seems that General Wesley Clark has raised the stakes in the battle for the Presidency. He is starting to play Bush at his own game by redefining the President's form of patriotism into one where the courage to speak out is not condemned but praised. He has even coined a name for it - New American Patriotism. This is all very clever stuff and shows that the good General is no slouch when it comes to campaigning and the "political game". The problem is that so much of American politics is spin over substance that it is often difficult to know what these twists in the election game really mean for policy. Clark has however, got the tone right and he is starting to hit notes that may resonate with the American people. Maybe there is a chance yet to kick Bush out of the White House in next year's elections.

Meanwhile the President has raised the macho stakes by announcing plans to head out to California to meet the Terminator. Sigh!

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Too high for Lurve

News that smoking cannabis can cause a fall in fertility has set me thinking. Gez Smith, on his blog has sought to debunk the research and I am not going to even attempt to comment on that. My scientific knowledge is far too limited, though it strikes me that most drugs will have some effect on one's bodily functions and health if taken in sufficent quantity, whether cannabis, alcohol or tobacco. No, what caused me to smile was the assertion on the radio that cannabis caused the sperm to get very hyperactive and that after that it just loses momentum. For anybody who has seen Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask", in which Allen plays a neurotic sperm worrying about what might be on the other side - "what if he is wearing a condom" etc. (you get the idea) - the thought of a sperm, high on cannabis, too "chilled" to go out and make the effort to fertilise the female egg was too good an image to resist.

Who is the fairest of them all?

The Western Mail this morning features "Wales' 50 Sexiest Women" with the promise that they will feature the men next week. The 24 year old Conservative AM, Laura Anne Jones, is placed at number 11. The other AM to feature is Kirsty Williams, however the newspaper committed the cardinal sin of getting her age wrong by adding on two years more than is warranted.

Monday, October 13, 2003


Charles Kennedy has reshuffled his Shadow Cabinet and all the coverage seems to imply that we are going after the Conservatives by adjusting our stance to right-of-centre-free-market-libertarianism. Oh dear!!! I suspect that this view is an oversimplification of the reality, it will certainly not be an easy path for the Parliamentary Party to tread if that is their intent. The spin has been swallowed hook, line and sinker by the media. Never mind it doesn't do any harm to be taken seriously as a potential Official Opposition.

I am grateful to Nick Barlow for this link to a typical view on the reshuffle and to Tim Hames for this wonderful description of Iain Duncan Smith contained therein: "Mr Duncan Smith has rendered himself slightly ridiculous. He combines the rhetoric of Charles Bronson in the Deathwish films with the demeanour of Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. This is not an election-winning formula."

Government split on ID cards good for democracy

Of course if you are a spin doctor then no government split is good for democracy. However, what is good is not that there is a split but that it has come about over the fundamentally flawed and illiberal proposal of ID cards. Being New Labour of course the civil liberties context does not appear to be an issue. Instead Jack Straw, the previous Home Secretary (who we only realised was a woolly liberal when he was succeeded by Blunkett), has attacked compulsory identity cards because he does not believe that they will solve the problem they are designed for, namely combatting terrorism.

Those who remember the rather quaint cardboard ID cards that were issued during the war do not always know what the fuss is about when people like me object to their re-introduction. They also seem to forget the uproar that led to them being abolished in the first place. Any new compulsory ID card, however, will be hi-tech and will enable access to a whole load of information about bank accounts, medical records, social security etc through a smart chip and a suitable machine reader. We will be charged £40 for them, a fee that will amount to a flat rate tax akin to the Poll Tax.

People say that if you have done nothing wrong then there is nothing to worry about, but the fact is that the security services and the police already carry out routine surveillance on innocent citizens for political purposes. These cards will enable them to easily track the movement of every individual in the Country and to gather unprecedented information on their private lives that is no business of the state.

The issue that I think has got Jack Straw hot under the collar however is the fact that no matter how sophisticated the cards are, they will still be perceptible to forgery, they will not catch a single terrorist or criminal and they will cost a fortune to introduce, money that could be spent on a more effective police force. The fact is that if you want to catch terrorists then there is no substitute for intelligence, and whatever else these cards will do, they will not inform on the plans and thoughts of their owners nor will they think for us, well not yet anyway.


Sunday, October 12, 2003


The Observer publishes a "subjective" list of the top hundred novels of all time and invites us to write in and disagree with them. The effect is to bring on a yearning for the time when I had time to read literature rather than committee agendas and strategy papers. What is worse I have only read two of the top twenty five and seventeen of the hundred. Of course if I count novels I started but didn't finish such as "The Brothers' Karamazov" and "Ulysses", then I would be much nearer twenty per cent. This would go up significantly if I were allowed to include the film or TV adaptation. There are some strange choices however. Why, for example, put Conrad's "Nostromo" in there, but not "The Secret Agent" or "Heart of Darkness"? Why put "1984" in there but not "Animal Farm", especially as "Gulliver's Travels" is included? Oh, and how can anybody justfiy putting "Wind in the Willows" ahead of "The Rainbow", "The Trial", "Scoop", "1984" and "Catch 22", except through a sentimental yearning for one's youth?

Hanging on the telephone

I swear there must be somebody monitoring my internet use. I have just signed up for the Telephone Preference Service so as to cut back on the number of telephone marketing calls and texts I have been receiving. Of course the downside to this is that it also cuts out political telephone canvassing, but everybody seems to know how I vote already. Anyway, there is a six week period before the registration takes effect. Suddenly, I am inundated with calls as if they all know that it is their last chance to get at me. Who told them?

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Spin control in Welsh Labour

Reports of the latest censoring of Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, by the Downing Street spin machine have stirred some memories. The Western Mail recounts how back in July, Mr. Hain sought to make some very valid points about income tax, by suggesting that high earners may need to pay more. He was reportedly slapped down by the Prime Minister following objections from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Both this incident and the one reported today have been justified by the Ministerial code, which states that Ministers are not meant to deviate from official Government policy. Back in July, the Welsh Firts Minister, Rhodri Morgan is quoted as saying that "It should be possible to have a debate on the way that the Government raises revenue through tax. It's an incredibly important issue and a suggestion for a debate should not be met with this level of hysteria." This closing of ranks in Wales, involving a First Minister, who has been famous in the past for being off-message was no surprise to anybody. It is however instructive to observe how Rhodri runs his own Government. There are not too many off-message speeches from Cabinet Ministers there. That could be, of course, because they all agree, but an incident that involved me when I was a Deputy Minister leads me to think otherwise. Control freakery is as alive and well in Rhodri Morgan's Government as it is at Westminster.

A decision was taken by the then Minister for Planning that in my view would jeopardise the important development of a film studio in my region. The refusal to allow a new junction on the M4 to facilitate traffic to "Valleywood" at Llanilid seemed to many to make its development very problematic indeed. As a local member I put out a press release criticising the decision. The next thing I know my mobile rings while I am on a train. It is the First Minister berating me for breaking the Ministerial code and speaking out on behalf of my constituents. It was made clear to me that my freedom to represent my constituents in the way I thought best was inconsistent with the Ministerial code. As it happened this conflict did not occur again so I was not put in the position whereby I would tell Rhodri where to stick his job, but the whole incident was instructive to me as to the real nature of Welsh Labour and of Rhodri Morgan. Perhaps Mr. Morgan should look to his own style of Government and its similarity with the Prime Minister's before encouraging UK Ministers to break the ministerial code, otherwise some of his own Ministers may take him literally.

Furniture blues

The whole chamber was puzzled on Wednesday by a suggestion by Conservative leader, Nick Bourne, that part of the cost of the new Assembly building included buying furniture for the homes of AMs and Civil Servants. On the face of it the idea is preposterous if only because it would never get past the scrutiny of the press, never mind the Auditor General. We should not forget though, that as part of the allowances for Assembly Members, those who live a certain distance from Cardiff are permitted to use public money to buy a home in Cardiff and to furnish it. This is a provision I have never taken advantage of as on principle I do not consider it a good use of public money when I am able to commute fairly comfortably from Swansea. If I need to stay overnight in a hotel then I will, but this is usually only once a week, if that. In many instances the purchase of a home in Cardiff for a particular Assembly Member in this way, can actually save money, especially when that member may need to stay over for three or four nights a week due to the demands of the job and the distance of his or her constituency from Cardiff. It also follows the usual practice of Westminster. Like Westminster, however, there is no limit on the profit that can be accumulated on such a home by an Assembly Member. This can lead to the value of these homes exceeding the original purchase price by six figures, a benefit that may apply equally to members of Nick Bourne's Tory group as well as to all the others. Perhaps it is time for the Assembly to build a clawback clause into the allowances so that if a member should profit excessively on the sale of a Cardiff home, in which the mortgage has been paid from public money, they should be forced to share that excess with the Exchequer.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Tory splits

Following on from John Redwood's outburst calling for a referendum on the continuing existence of the Welsh Assembly, Carol Hyde, the Chair of the Tories in Wales, pitches in. She pronounces that the Welsh Assembly Government is making such a mess of Health and Education that responsibility for these services should be taken off them and given back to Westminster. It could be that she is trying to make a rather clumsy political point or that her centralising instincts got the better of her, but she has given no reason why the fundamental structural problems with the NHS in Wales, which the Assembly inherited from the Tories, can be better fixed from 150 miles further away than at present. This is especially so, when some of her colleagues are discovering localism for the first time in their lives and the virtue of taking services out of the hands of politicians and putting them under the tutelage of the local communities who make use of them. If the Conservative party is a coalition of views then it is beginning to come apart at the seams. The knee-jerk popularists are caught up in a pitched battle with the thinkers and modernisers whilst the leadership looks on helplessly. Is this really the beginning of the end of the Tory Party?

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Mixed Metaphor of the Week

North Wales Tory AM, Mark Isherwood, excelled in the Chamber yesterday with a mixed metaphor that I doubt if even Rhodri Morgan could surpass. Speaking on 'The Mid-term Review of Structural Funds Programmes', he said "I am concerned that some contributions from the Labour Members have led me to agree with David Prentiss, the leader of Unison, when he said that Labour was lost in a fog of spin. Like a flock of ostriches led by Pontius Pilate, you bury your head in the sand, while he washes his hands of responsibility." Do I see a one-legged canard swimming in circles?

Levelling the woods

An e-mail arrives from the Forestry and Timber Association inviting me to a debate at the end of October in Llandrindod Wells. The debate is entitled "A level playing field for forestry". It is true that many of the playing fields we use today were once covered with trees but do we really want to level more forests for the sake of sport? Can they see the wood for the trees?

National Poetry Day

As it is National Poetry Day and other bloggers are featuring some of their favourite poems, I thought I would join in. My choice is a Swansea poet, who is not Dylan Thomas. In fact, in my view his work outshines that of Dylan's even though he lived in his shadow. The poem is by Vernon Watkins.

Come, come, more loved than many days,
More dear than many mornings, come.
Without you idle is the praise
Of light on grass or rose in bloom.

Without you empty run the hours.
When you are here they fly too soon.
You pass, and withered are the flowers,
Their sunlight and their nectar gone.

Who would have thought a single step
And voice could widow all the ground
And bring a garland to my sleep
Brighter than all the day had found?

Political quote of the day

Is awarded to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who successfully demonstrated how in touch with the socially excluded he is with the statement, "Money doesn't make you happy. I now have $50m but I was just as happy when I had $48m."

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Travelling man

It seems that I have been unfair in suggesting that the two absent Tories are still at their Conference in Blackpool. Alun Cairns, who is often very vocal about Minister's joy rides abroad, is in fact in Bangladesh with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. He is accompanied by at least one Labour AM. I am not going to deride the value of these trips but I do feel that going on them in term time does not do the Assembly any favours in terms of winning public support. Equally, when the Labour group have such a narrow majority, should the opposition be helping them so much in conducting business as usual by pairing off in this way? After all Labour have hardly been models of co-operation and enlightenment in reducing Committee meetings and using every trick in the book to cut back the scrutiny of Ministers. Another CPA trip is planned this term to Canada and I understand that a Plaid Cymru member will be going, thus releasing a Labour AM to attend too. By all means go on trips in the recess, but this just smacks of the abdication of all responsibility to be an effective opposition.

California dreaming

So Arnie's famous line that "I'll be back" has proved true. He has shrugged off the groping allegations and stormed to victory with a resounding 47% of the vote. "The running man" has "terminated" Gray Davis. Yes, OK, enough puns! The biggest concern about this predictable victory is what it will do for the survival chances of Dubya in the Presidential elections next year. We have already seen how control of the Governor's mansion in Florida can be used to good advantage, is this result a portent of a swing to the Republicans in America's biggest state or is it just showbiz gone wrong? We will have to see.

Singing in the Valleys

Meanwhile back in the Land of Song things are less than harmonious between Blaenau Gwent Labour Party and their Welsh brethren. The local party voted last night to defy the national decree that Llew Smith shall be succeeded by a women selected from an all-woman shortlist. The local AM, Peter Law, has threatened to stand in a move that could see the party lose the seat once held by Nye Bevan and Michael Foot. Polls indicate that he will win. Either way, his standing will torpedo Rhodri Morgan's majority in the Assembly. It seems that Wales Labour have failed to take account of the mistakes leading up to their disaster in the Assembly elections in 1999. Like the Bourbons, they have learnt nothing and forgotten everything.

Performing for our public

BBC Wales have now withdrawn a series of tribute programmes to Welsh folk singer, Dafydd Iwan, due to be broadcast on Radio Wales, on the grounds that he is now President of Plaid Cymru. Quite right too. If they had gone ahead the other parties would have been more than entitled to equal airtime. We would have had to listen to programmes dedicated to the wit of Nick Bourne, to memory man, Rhodri Morgan, and of course the mouth organ of Lembit Opik. It is too much to contemplate. I suppose I could have offered them a poetry reading.

Same old Tories

John Redwood tells a Tory party fringe that if he had his way then there would be a new referendum on the continued existence of the Welsh Assembly. This is immediately condemned by Welsh Tory Leader, Nick Bourne, who brands him as "out of step with Wales and party policy". Nick could easily have added "out of step with Planet Earth" in there as well but we will leave the Vulcan jokes alone for now. The fact remains that despite Oliver Letwin's enthusiasm for devolving the control of the Police to locally elected politicians the Tories are still badly divided on devolution. They have never been confortable with a democratic institution that swept aside the patronage with which they ruled Wales for so long.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Back in the Chamber

Only 8 of the 11 Tories have shown up for Plenary in the Assembly today, so much for effective opposition and keeping Labour on their toes. Some have remained in Blackpool at the Tory Conference, in contrast to our mad dash back from Brighton two weeks previously and Labour's full-turn out last week. I understand that North Wales Tory AM, Brynlie Williams, has been in America since we returned from recess but he is due back tomorrow. I am assured that rumours that he has been campaigning for Arnie "badly behaved" Schwarzenegger are untrue.

I am wearing my Golden Gate Bridge tie as California is voting today but I am not anticipating that the result will be as bright. Gray Davis may not be the most desirable politician I have ever encountered but he is by far a better choice for Governor in my view than the Terminator. Still if Arnie is elected we may be spared having to suffer more of his films for sometime to come.

In conversation with the Assembly;s youngest member, Tory AM Laura Anne Jones, she reveals that a relation of hers was the last person to be hung for sheep stealing in Scotland. A minor infringement I suppose compared to the sins visited upon Wales by her party before she was eligible to vote.

Men get own kindegarten while women shop

I reproduce this article from the Reuters website without comment.

Tue October 7, 2003 10:36 AM ET

"BERLIN (Reuters) - German women fed up with their partners' grumbling on weekend shopping trips can now dump them at a special kindergarten for men offering beer and entertainment.

"The women are issued a receipt for their partners when they hand them in and can pick them up again when they return it to us later," Alexander Stein, manager of the 'Nox Bar' in the northern city of Hamburg told Reuters on Tuesday.

The men are given a name badge on arrival and for 10 euros ($11.80) they get two beers, a hot meal, televised football and games.

Stein said the idea for the Saturday afternoon men's creche, or "Maennergarten," came from a female customer who thought it would be a good way of getting shot of her husband so she could shop in peace.

"She found it all too stressful and thought this might be the solution. Both were very happy with the way it turned out.

"Last week the men had a remote control car to play with. Next week there's going to be a mini racetrack," said Stein.

They are also offering a drilling workshop.

"It beats sitting around in shoe shops, that's for sure," one man told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper."

Monday, October 06, 2003

Take me to your leader

An interesting poll in the Independent today indicates that more people consider the Liberal Democrats to be the effective opposition to New Labour than they do the Tories. When asked to name the Leader of the Tories just 53% of all voters and 71% of Tory supporters correctly identified Iain Duncan Smith. Some 45% of all voters and more scarily, 28% of Tory supporters, were unaware that IDS was Her Majesty's Leader of the Opposition. In fact 2% of the public thought that William Hague was still at the helm. Naturally, these figures give me and my fellow Liberal Democrats a warm feeling but we know that there is still a long haul ahead and that we should not count our blessings yet. Nevertheless, they are very worrying for the Tories and potentially more damaging for them in the long term. The knives are out for Iain Duncan Smith but he is a creature of his party and although the MPs may well opt for somebody more electable if there is a contest, the grassroots members by no means have the same survival instincts. It seems that the one member one vote internal democracy that the Tories have belatedly introduced to their party could well prove to be its undoing simply by removing the veil that successive leaders drew across the right wing and inedible views of their members so as to make themselves more electable.

But who do the voters back?

By far the most interesting survey however, was reported in the Western Mail. They report that a survey by the think tank Reform found that 47% of the people they questioned did not identify with any party. This discovery underlines the anti-politics feeling amongst the electorate as well as the reluctance to go out and vote. The poll goes on to highlight that these non-committed people had strong views on reforming public services and state education as well as health care. This possibly reflects a dissatisfaction with the state of these vital public services rather than an outbreak of market economics amongst the wider electorate. For me the survey says that there really is all to play for but that it will be difficult for any of the conventional parties to break out of the common perceptions that people have of them to take advantage of that. People are looking for real debate on the issues, for solutions but not promises. They want a Party and politicians who are prepared to listen and to take account of their views rather than fall back on the old excuses and stock answers. I am not convinced that any party has yet got there. If that is the case then there is a real danger that opportunists like the BNP will fill the gap and that many people will not vote at all. The warning signs are out there. We have to listen and act on them.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Tony's Trolleys

Is Sainsbury's taking lessons off Millbank and New Labour? I only ask because of a notice in my local store. It exhorts customers, "Has your trolley got a mind of its own? Then tag it."

A taxing decision

Just when we thought that the Tories couldn't get any more confused with their economic policies their leader and their Shadow Chancellor come up with a classic. Firstly, we have Iain Duncan Smith advocating tax cuts, not through economic growth but by cutting "bureaucracy and waste in public services". The problem is that he does not say what exactly will be cut, nor how he defines waste and bureaucracy. For example, are the extra civilians taken on to help police with essential paperwork and enable them to get back onto the beat classed as bureaucrats and if so will they be targetted for cuts? These sort of vague utterances are unworthy of an opposition leader, which could explain why Iain Duncan Smith is an unworthy opposition leader. For me it brings back memories of the decimation of public services during the Tory years of Government. Nothing it seems has changed, these services are not safe in Tory hands, their leader has confirmed this. As if sensing that this might be the interpretation of his leader's remarks the Shadow Chancellor wades in by saying that he could not guarantee tax cuts after all. Presumably, he has realised that promises to abolish top-up fees and increase pensions substantially have a cost which will have to be met from somewhere and that it is not good politics to run with the fox and with the hounds. What this illustrates above all else is that the Tories are no longer a serious party of Government. Their most senior politicians cannot agree what the main planks of their policy are and when they do come up with an idea it is invariably borrowed from somebody else (usually the Liberal Democrats), uncosted and completely contrary to everything they did when they were in Government and had the chance to put these things right. They are a party of opportunism at every level.

Land of the free

I am indebted to Nick Barlow for drawing my attention to this quote from George W. Bush. It is taken from a speech he made in Wisconsin on 3 October. In it he said, "free nations are peaceful nations. Free nations don't attack each other. Free nations don't develop weapons of mass destruction". Well that is OK then. Clearly, America and Britain do not have weapons of mass destruction or so George would have us believe. Perhaps we should ask the United Nations to verify that.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

This town ain't big enough for the both of us

Reports in the paper this morning that the Conservatives are now proposing to break up the Police force into 139 constituent units, each headed by a directly elected Sherriff. What is this obsession with leadership by a lone figurehead? The Tories were opposed to directly elected mayors, so why do they want to respond to the lack of interest in the political system by creating more posts for election when there are already proposals for bodies that will do the job for them? All the signs are that the 139 areas will be a fragmentation too far. It makes more sense to devolve powers over the Police to directly elected Regional and National Assemblies or Parliaments who have other powers, such as health, education, transport, fire etc, that they can link in with their responsibilities for crime and disorder to get a broad cross-cutting oversight and delivery of vital services. The strategic approach that these bodies will be able to take together with the improved accountability will make the modern Police force far more sensitive to the needs of our society. In the meantime speculation will be rife as to who may stand for such posts. I nominate Iain Duncan Smith for Deputy Dawg.

Rudolph is the delivery mechanism for WMDs

Jack Straw believes that weapons of mass destruction will still be found in Iraq. If they quiz the American armed forces then he may be right. The question is that even if they do find traces of a programme to develop such weapons there is no way that they will be able to demonstrate that at any time such weapons could have been deployed within 45 minutes, 45 years possibly. Face it Jack, you have been rumbled. The whole basis of the dossier on which the Government set out its stall to attack Iraq has proved to be false. The Foreign Secretary will be telling us that he believes that Santa Claus can be located in Iraq next.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Taking the Assembly out to the people

A number of people raise doubts about the value of the Assembly's Regional Committees. Many see them as a talking shop with no real role in the decision making process. However, since we have made a huge effort to link in the agenda items with matters being discussed by subject committees and in particular the policy reviews, they have taken on a new significance as the eyes and ears of the Assembly. They are the natural means by which we carry out consultations. Open Mic sessions are one of the legacies of the early days but have proved to be a useful tool by which to achieve the input we need. These were started by me when I was first chair of the South West Wales Regional Committee in 1999. They have since been refined and are now integrated with the business. Thus at the meeting I chaired in St. David's today, presenters on the subject of affordable housing in rural communities were questioned by both AMs and the audience and there were a number of useful and informed contributions from the floor. North Wales has always been most successful in attracting audience members, largely due to the fact that they have little opportunity otherwise to engage with the Assembly, and their question times with the First Minister have also packed them in. I personally would like to see these repeated in every region. At the meeting in St David's today we had 80 members of the public. A sign if anything that these committees are more relevant than ever and that whatever people think about the Assembly, they still want to engage with it and they recognise its influence on every aspect of their lives.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Room with a view

I have written already at my despair at the anonymous red brick wall that has been erected opposite my office window, not out of any angst that privileges might have been withdrawn, but in a state of despondency at the lack of aesthetics in modern architecture. Before I start to sound like Prince Charles and begin a detailed description of the ugly carbuncle that is the Wales Millennium Centre I will get to my point. BBC Wales journalist, David Cornock, who I have referred to below took pity on my plight. Or rather he didn't! In his blog on Monday 29 September he wrote: "Mr Black is aghast that the building of the Wales Millennium Centre has ruined the view from his Assembly office. He says he's been left with a view of a "bland brick wall that would not look out of place as part of a penal institution". I'll resist the temptation to drag up that old joke about politicians not looking out of the window in the morning, lest they have nothing to do after lunch." I e-mailed David today to establish whether he ever had the time to glance out of his own window. His reply restored my faith in poetic justice - "We have no windows - the BBC conference office is a converted basement car park!"

Clash of wills

There continues to be a clash of wills on the Education and Lifelong learning Committee, which I chair. Both of the disputes go back to the decision by the Labour Group to reduce the frequency of meetings to one every three weeks. They had previously met fortnightly and the change has caused a huge headache in fitting in all of the business. One of the consequences of the change was that we had to rethink when the Minister would bring the Committee her regular report. Prior to the new timetable the Minister brought a report once a month and answered questions for 45 minutes. When I was made Chair I was determined to extend this to an hour if I could as I knew that many of the items in her report were never questioned due to lack of time. I take the view that Committees are the most effective way to scrutinise Ministers if they are working correctly. The switch to three-weekly meetings meant that this was impractical so instead we now have a 45 minute slot every meeting, which is actually an increase in the total scrutiny time on the last Assembly. Yesterday, I allowed the Minister's report to overrun by 5 minutes on the grounds that it was 20 pages long, we had not got past page three and I knew that there was some slack in the agenda. The Minister was not happy and berated me for my laxness. She quoted examples from previous chairs who had ruled with an iron hand and pulled down the guillotine right on the 45 minutes. I made it clear that I was going to chair the Committee my way and that I have a duty to protect the rights of members to scrutinise the Minister. I do not respond well to browbeating.

The second dispute is over the extra meeting slots put in the timetable for Committees. Education and Lifelong Learning has been allocated two of these this term and even though they are optional I have taken the view that if we are to have any chance of carrying out our review into Special Education Needs then we need to take up both of the slots. This is not a view shared by the Labour Party who believe that those of us who are seeking to hold these meetings are trying to undermine their new relaxed timetable. At yesterday's Committee I decided that we needed to make progress and put the matter to the vote. The outcome was a tie - five all, so I used my casting vote in favour of the extra meeting in accordance with the guidance approved by the Panel of Chairs. This led to protests by Labour members and a suggestion that they would take it up with the Presiding Officer. Sometimes I wonder why they think they were elected. Labour have now used every device possible to reduce the amount of scrutiny Ministers get in Committee including cutting out meetings and reducing the time on agendas for this activity. These procedural tricks are beginning to get tiresome. We have important business to conduct and we need the time to do it.

Peter Hain

I was starting to feel sorry for Peter Hain. No, really. So he tries to be New Labour in Westminster by defending Foundation Hospitals and Top-up Fees, whilst supporting Rhodri Morgan's "Classic Labour" ( a bit like classic cola, but more corrosive) in Wales in opposing those very policies, so what? Well actually it is quite important. The South Wales Evening Post picked up on this today with an article highlighting Mr. Hain's inconsistencies. They lined up local politicians to have a go at knocking him down. I was quoted as saying that "Peter Hain appears to have two personae - one for each side of the Severn Bridge." Plaid Cymru's Dai Lloyd rather originally called him a "yes-man", whilst Tory group leader, Nick Bourne, waded in with reference to his Janus-type qualities. "Is he a Blairite, a Morganite - or just plain ambitious?" asked Nick.

Any vestige of sympathy for Peter Hain I might have had disappeared when I read his speech to the Labour Party Conference. He was quoted as saying "Charles Kennedy is right wing in the shires and left wing in the cities. No wonder he can't walk in a straight line." Now the stance that the Liberal Democrats take on various issues may be fair game but the analogy was a deliberate reference to malicious and untrue rumours about Charles' alleged drinking habits and attempted character assassination put about to undermine him as a successful leader of a popular third party. If as Leader of the House of Commons, Mr. Hain can't keep out of the gutter then he deserves no sympathy whatsoever.

Those seats!

A small sub-committee took fifteen minutes this morning to decide who sits where in the Assembly chamber - no motions, no need for 700 amendments. Now why couldn't we have done that in the first place?

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Another blog

For Welsh news buffs my attention has been drawn to a blog written by BBC Wales journalist David Cornock. It is linked to the BBC Wales website. David is BBC Wales' Westminster correspondent and general good guy. He has penned the Welsh journalists contribution at Welsh night at the Liberal Democrats' Federal Party Conference in the past and is renowned for his acerbic wit. Check it out.


An invitation arrives from the Leader of Cardiff Council, Councillor Russell Goodway, to attend a dinner in honour of Leader of the House of Commons and Secretary of State for Wales, Rt. Honourable Peter Hain following a meeting of the Cardiff Business Club. My two favourite people! Clearly, Peter Hain is on an upward career path. Russell Goodway, however, faces a vote of no confidence from the Cardiff Central Labour Party following the Welsh Liberal Democrat victory in the Pentwyn by-election last month. In such circumstances he will need all the friends he can get, especially if those friends are in the ascendant.

Captain Cat and friend

The Assembly's Presiding Officer, Daffydd Elis-Thomas and Swansea Actress, Pat Hughes, commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dylan Thomas' death with a reading from "Under Milkwood" in the Assembly's Milling Area.
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A film for our times

The Assembly's news summary reports an article in the Daily Express that Ioan Grufydd, Matthew Rhys and Michael Steen are to star in a new Welsh film, that will be a cross between Braveheart and the Magnificent Seven. This is clearly going to be a film about the Welsh Assembly Government and the struggle for devolution. Personally, I would opt for Antony Hopkins to play Ron Davies, the philosopher king but I am having difficulties matching up the rest of the cast. Non libellous suggestions are welcome and will be posted here.

Through a glass darkly

In the chamber yesterday I noted that the glass barrier between the audience and the AMs has been erected. It was very difficult to get used to. I kept expecting to see fish swimming on the other side. No doubt the audience were looking for sharks but had to settle for rather overlarge salmon.

Not so rosy in the garden

So the National Botanic Gardens in Llanarthne, near Carmarthen are in trouble. It seems that they need £300,000 from the Welsh Assembly in revenue support or they will close. The First Minister has said no to this and the Assembly has already put one and a quarter of a million pounds into this attraction to keep it afloat. Is it to be a bottomless pit or can we get it into a solvent situation by pledging a small annual grant? I recall when this first opened using Millennium Commission funding. The pledge then was that this will be one dome that does not cost the public purse huge sums of cash. Alas, like the bigger, but less attractive dome in Greenwich, the financial projections and forecasts have turned out to have been based on sand. We cannot let it go bust, nor can we afford to lose the jobs and the prestige it brings to Carmarthenshire. Personally, I wouldn't pay to go there. After all it is just plants and I am not a gardening person. But we do need to market it better and we do need to learn from the successes of the Eden Project in Cornwall. Instead of pronouncing a Gaullist "non", perhaps Rhodri Morgan and his Government should be looking at finding a way forward along those lines and ensure that this dome at least will survive for the foreseeable future.

A message to the politicians?

Driving to the Assembly this morning I notice that the glazing on the front of the Wales Millennium Centre is being fitted. Rather peculiarly the window frames are being designed so as to spell out letters. So far we have an "F", "O", "F" and "F". Is this the verdict of the developers on the National Assembly?
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