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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Labour in trouble again

As if Ministers haven't got enough to do dodging fox hunters and Fathers for Justice protestors they are now having to travel to safe Labour constituencies to shore up their vote in the face disaffected Parliamentarians. The imposition of an all-women shortlist there looks like leading to an independent challenge from the sitting Assembly Member. I am heartbroken!

How to extract your own DNA

Courtesy of Radio Wales this morning - swill your mouth out rigorously with salty water. Spit the solution into a glass containing washing up liquid diluted with water. Add cold, strong gin. After a few minutes the washing up liquid will start to separate and thin white spirals of DNA will become evident. Awesome.

Monday, November 29, 2004

"Dark forces" gather

David Blunkett has told the Daily Mirror that he fears "dark forces" may use his love affair to wreck his career. It really is beyond parody.

Betrayal puts Swansea's health services at threat

The decision by the Health Minister to close down paediatric neurosurgery at Swansea's Morriston Hospital and centralise the service in Cardiff has caused huge consternation locally. I think that the clinical case for a centralised service has been made but the choice of location is not just bizarre but threatens the future of other specialist health services in Swansea.

The Minister and Health Commission Wales argue that the present service is not safe as it does not deal with a sufficient number of operations. Yet they are proposing that an emergency service remains at Morriston with even fewer procedures to sustain it safely. This appears to many to be a sop that will soon disappear along with the mainstream service.

The biggest question mark hangs over the appropriateness of Cardiff as the venue for the new centralised service. Not only is Cardiff closer to the bigger Bristol operation and therefore more vulnberable to takeover, but geographically Morriston is more central to the target population and more accessible. Yet the Health Commission Wales review did not consider that option in any detail.

Now there is a threat to the future of Morriston Hospitals Burns' unit. Next month a review will decide whether the Wales Burns Centre in Swansea becomes a centre of excellence or is downgraded. As the Western Mail reports, if the decision goes against Swansea and we are not awarded centre of excellence status, then patients from South Wales may have to be transferred out of Wales to the nearest centre with an available bed. This might be Bristol but it is more likely to be one of the other major English cities.

The decision of the Health Minister and those local Labour AMs who supported her makes that outcome more likely. It seems that their agenda is to turn Wales into a nation of District General Hospitals with patients facing long journeys to English cities for more specialist treatment. The review of the Burns service will the first test as to whether that nightmare is at all likely. Let us hope that for once those conducting the review put the future of the Welsh NHS and the interests of patients first and classify Morriston as the centre of excellence it already is.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Plagiarism and all that

When I was in the education system plagiarism was one of the worse sins you could commit. The hugely destabilising philosophy dispute at Swansea University in the 1990s centred on higher degrees allegedly being awarded to students who had copied the work of others. A US Democrat presidential nomination campaign fell apart because the potential nominee plagiarised a speech by Neil Kinnock. It is a little shocking therefore to find that the inspectors themselves are adopting this practice. There are clear issues of accountability raised by this matter.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

More violence

To be frank I am getting bored of the campaign of violent protest against Government Ministers in support of fox hunting. The latest took place on Thursday in Cardiff. During this demonstration, three police officers were injured, eggs were thrown, a member of the public was allegedly assaulted, homophobic remarks were aimed at Rhondda Labour MP, Chris Bryant, and there are reports of racist abuse being directed at an Asian Police Officer.

It seems that the Countryside Alliance have condemned these acts of violence but have warned that more demonstrations could follow. Because, by their own admission they cannot control the actions of their supporters, more demonstrations will lead to more violence of the sort that they say they condemn. These people are walking a tightrope of acceptability and my advice to any mainstream politician who continues to support this organisation is to reconsider that support quickly.

Proud of Britain

New Labour have launched a website aimed at cornering the nationalist vote. They want us to e-mail them: "We want to know what makes you proud of Britain. Whether it's the staff at your local hospital or teachers at a great school near you, share the stories from your community. There is so much to be proud of in Britain. So let's hear about it." The problem is, as Matthew Turner reports they are only posting comments that they agree with. This has prompted others to set up alternative sites along the same lines. Chris Lightfoot has produced www.proudofbritain.net whilst www.proud-of-britain.org.uk is a particularly effective parody including:

We want to know what makes you proud of Britain. Whether it's:
invading another country to get rid of weapons of mass destruction that weren't there;
contracts for ripoff PPPs being given to Labour's friends in industry;

David Blunkett spending 50 grand of YOUR money on hiring a PR man to 'market' ID cards to you.

Their disclaimer sums up the whole New Labour exercise brilliantly:

Disclaimer: The Labwar Party may edit your comments beyond recognition and can guarantee that any emails that are even a tiny bit negative about New Labour will NOT be published.

We cannot guarantee that every contribution will be posted on the site, as that would imply some sort of commitment to freedom of speech on our part. And we can't have that or Mr Blunkett will get upset!

When selecting contributions to post on the page we try to reflect the range of pro-Blair opinions that have been expressed and the geographical spread of participants. We will not publish anything that is obscene, racist, sexist or homophobic, unless it was written by Rocco Buttiglione. Nor will we publish anything that is potentially defamatory, unless it concerns George Galloway.

To maximise the chance of your contribution being published please be fulsome in your praise of Mr Blair and New Labour.

Thanks very much.

Opening night

In the end the Wales Millennium Centre opening Gala night was better than I expected. It achieved what it set out to do in a spectacular fashion helped considerably by the setting of the magnificent auditorium.

The interior of the building is incredible, almost futuristic in appearance. Certainly, when the house lights were off, the auditorium reminded me of scenes from the recent Star Wars films when the council of the republic meet in a space full of suspended circular pods to discuss various impending crises. It is not recommended for anybody suffering from vertigo, particularly the upper circle.

The evening set out to celebrate the lives of five outstanding Welsh artists - Dame Shirley Bassey, Alun Hoddinott, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Sian Phillips and Richard Burton. It was comfortable, unchallenging entertainment, a bit like the Royal Variety Shows that used to form much of the weekend entertainment on TV in the 1970s. It might well have benefited from some edge - an appearance by Goldie Lookin' Chain, for example. Highlight of the evening by far was Nana Mouskouri singing All through the night - in Welsh!

Friday, November 26, 2004

Culturenet Cymru 100 Welsh Heroes Internet Poll

I have today written a letter to the Auditor General. Extracts are below:

I am writing to formally request that you investigate the conduct of the above internet poll which was financed by £154,000 of public money from the Welsh Assembly Government.

I, and a number of other AMs, have been contacted by the former IT Manager of the National Library of Wales, Mr David Jones, who was responsible for running the website and conducting the poll. I understand that Mr Jones parted from his employer under a bit of a cloud (and in fact has set up a website to publicly discuss the details of his dismissal). However, the allegations that he has made about the poll are serious and substantial. He alleges that the on-line poll was fixed to secure a particular result and that he was ordered to manipulate the data in such a way so as to make this possible.

Naturally, I have brought this to the attention of the Culture Minister and asked him to establish the truth of the matter by arranging for an independent computer expert to examine the programme and the database. This he has refused to do, relying instead on a cursory investigation by the Chair of Culturenet Cymru.

I am not satisfied that the investigation of this matter has been fully independent nor do I believe that the very detailed allegations provided by Mr David Jones has been properly answered.

I am writing to you therefore to request that you intervene in this matter and carry out the thorough examination of the database needed to finally put this matter to rest. Thank you.

From Millennium to mollusc

I spent the morning in the South West Wales Regional Committee in the Millennium Hall in Laugharne discussing childcare - a very pleasant venue in my favourite Welsh town. This evening I am at the more formal opening Gala night at the Wales Millennium Centre, otherwise known as the Mollusc on account of its resemblance to said crustacean. Not too sure about the programme. It seems to be the usual mix of middle brow, middle class kitsch. A good rock band would be nice. More tomorrow.

Mine all mine

I spent a large chunk of last night at a very lively public meeting in Coity, near Bridgend. The local chapel hall was packed to the rafters with local people demanding answers to a whole series of traffic problems in their historic, medieval village.

As I did not get back onto the motorway until after 10pm I missed the opening episode of Mine all Mine, a comedy drama, filmed in Swansea. I have taped it though, and intend to catch up over the weekend. As with the film, Twin Towns, the main initial interest will be in identifying all the areas of Swansea where filming took place. This is easier said than done as Directors tend to adopt unusual angles and one is often left racking ones brain trying to work out where a particular, very familiar, area is. All the indications are that the series has done Swansea proud and that it is a real showroom for the City. Catch it while you can.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


The debate on the Assembly's periodic timetable sounds really dull but actually it has produced some real gems over the last 18 months as the opposition have gone into pitched battle with the Labour Government on the frequency of Committee meetings.

To sum up: in the first Assembly committees met on a two week cycle, many though found it difficult to get all the work they were required to do into the time available and also opted for additional formal meetings. Following the elections Labour secured a bare majority of 30 seats out of 60 and decided for various reasons that they were spending too much time in Committee meetings and not enough time amongst the people of Wales. They forced through a three week Committee cycle.

This gave even less time for the opposition to scrutinise the Government and for the formulation of policy. To opposition members it appeared that Labour were trying to avoid effective scrutiny and that they were more concerned with working in their constituencies so as to keep their seats than attend the meetings they are paid to come to. This feeling grew as Labour backbenchers resisted attempts even to use up the optional time allocated for extra formal meetings, to the extent that at the last additional Education Committee, not a single Labour AM showed up.

The Business Minister came under sustained pressure to change things, especially after the Richard Commission noted the lack of effective scrutiny in committee meetings and the fact that the Welsh Assembly sits in committee for much less time than the Scottish Parliament. She promised a review but then decided that she could not do this as she could not get agreement on the conclusion that she believed that this review needed to reach. For some members yesterday it was just too much:

Eleanor Burnham: How can we not pre-empt this? An announcement was made by the First Minister in June, which has probably upset most people who work in all these bodies that will now be soaked into the Assembly. Any decent manager would know that it unsettles and, frankly, unhinges people. It is our duty in opposition to take you to task over these important issues.

It took Conservative South Wales Central AM, David Melding, however, to sum up the whole farcical situation:

David Melding: I have observed three things in this rather sad spectacle over the last 20 minutes. First, a review does not have to review anything. It can just review your earlier commitment to have the review. If the review is such that you believe that the conclusions would be adverse, then you can withdraw your commitment to have a review but still have declared that you have reviewed it in the first place, in that you asked yourselves whether you needed the review.

Then, the Labour Party gave one of its stalwarts, Ann Jones—a person that I deeply respect—the task of convincing us that meeting every three weeks is more than meeting every two weeks. Let us just hope that Ann is never made Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, because we will have to redefine all the mathematics text books.

However, the most chilling remark was made by Peter Law, whose contribution was not up to his usual witty or amusing standard. There was something deeply disturbing about his remark, made in an intervention on another Member, that we should stop criticising the Business Minister because she is there to defend the Labour Party’s business. Is that not what we have had this afternoon? Labour Members have behaved like rather vindictive members of a political party. They have behaved like members of the Labour Party instead of members of the governing party. There is a difference between the two because, if you are in the governing party, you have wider interests, the first of which is the public interest, and not the Labour Party’s interest. It may be a fiction that parties that eventually get to elected office start to decay after a while and lose public trust. In not promoting the public interest, you have done great violence to the institution of the National Assembly. I ask you to review yourselves and the absurdity of saying that the scrutiny role is fine just because Labour Party Members are happy with it. I remind you that, as supporters of the governing party, you are already supporting the Government, which controls nearly all the business that comes before Plenary.

The principal means of holding you to account and of scrutinising you is through the work of the committees. If the committees do not perform their scrutiny role effectively, then the Government can go unchecked, which works against you eventually as policies remain untested and you overextend yourselves. That, eventually, will bring rewards for the opposition parties in future elections. However, to tell us that we should be satisfied with scrutiny in its current form, and should not presume to say any different because to do so would mean being nasty to the Labour Party—not holding the Government to account, but being nasty to the Labour Party—is a constitutional absurdity that you ought to repent.

Not cricket!

For once Conservative Monmouth AM gets it spot on:

David Davies: We were told that there were weapons of mass destruction; there were no weapons of mass destruction. The Prime Minister told us that we were getting rid of an evil dictator; he was evil, but there are evil dictators in North Korea and Burma, and we have done nothing about them. There is an evil dictator in Zimbabwe, but we are not sending in the troops; we are sending in the cricket team.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Safer or not?

The assertion by Peter Hain that Britain would be safer from a terrorist attack under Labour than any other party is just incredible. Putting aside the fact that the invasion of Iraq under a Labour Prime Minister has led to a growth in terrorism and a more dangerous world, to seek party political advantage like this is deplorable. Hain has really overstepped the mark. This is the clearest signal yet that New Labour are to embrace the tactics of fear adopted by George W. Bush in the Presidential elections earlier this month.

The claim by a spokesman that the issue would only become party political if the opposition parties disagreed with the government just adds fuel to the fire. It seems that the Orwellian nightmare of a one party state where dissent will not be tolerated has arrived.

The ginger revolution

Vindication at last! A positive ginger role-model is born. My staff members though are less complimentary. On being alerted to the article, one e-mailed me to say "Let me see if I have this right. Ginger people have got a role model who is (a) mad, and (b) has a pair of magic pants.... "

Personally I have never understood what the problem is with redheads though in my childhood I did go through a stage of wanting to dye my hair black - something I changed my mind about after watching Anne of Green Gables on the TV. Sandra Gidley MP, another redhead, alerted me to this website as part of her own discussion of this phenomenon. For these people being ginger is a way of life.

As if to rub it in the Western Mail records the attitude of other Countries to redheads:

Percentages of redheads in different countries range from single digits to a fraction of 1%.

Redheads generally are more numerous in northern latitudes, but also appear among Hungarians, Egyptians, Israelis and certain Nigerian tribes.

In France, to be redheaded is thought to be a fate so dire that some women have formed a Proud to be Red association.

In Denmark it is an honour to have a redheaded child.

In Corsica, if you pass one in the street you spit and turn around.

In Poland, "if you pass three redheads you'll win the state lottery," claims Sylvia Stevez, the Parisian founder of Association Francaise des Rousses.

Harvard dermatologist Madhu Pathak calls redheads "three-time losers" because their red pigment is an inadequate filter of sunlight and their skin is more susceptible to sunburn, skin cancer and wrinkling with age.

I do not think I will be holidaying in Corsica anytime soon!

Update: For those redheads looking for validation there is also redandproud.com.

A matter of interpretation

There are times in politics when faced with a difficult question a politician will go off onto their own agenda and answer a question he or she has not been asked. The First Minister produced a perfect example of that yesterday when I questioned him on top-up fee. I asked:

Will the First Minister make a statement on the meaning of the term ‘demand-led’ in relation to the Assembly learning grant? (OAQ39626)

The First Minister (Rhodri Morgan): It means just what it says on the tin. All students who apply for the Assembly learning grant and meet the eligibility criteria will receive the appropriate level of award. The same will apply to the education maintenance allowances announced last week, which will also be demand-led.

Peter Black: I always understood, in terms of the budget, that ‘demand-led’ meant that where you had an increase in demand, you had to provide the money for it. However, despite a 13 per cent increase in demand for Assembly learning grants, the budget has been cut. Do you not believe that it would be better to use any surplus in the budget to increase the amount of grant payable to students and to widen the eligibility for it?

So far so good. Rhodri gave a reasonable answer to that supplementary but then he went off the rails a bit:

You must remember that you do not set a budget in the same way with regard to demand-led services. What you have, in essence, is a guesstimate and not a budget. You do not set the amount that you will spend, saying that you will not spend any more. It is a guess of what the demand will be. When we introduced the Assembly learning grant, we wildly overestimated the number of people who would apply for it. The reason for that was that, in higher education, people were used to applying for student grants, but the same was not true in further education. We have struggled to market the scheme to eligible students in further education, but it is starting to come through now. We believe that we have made an accurate estimate but, in the end, it is no more than that.

So a large part of the Assembly budget-setting process is guesswork? To top it off he concluded by interpreting my plea to widen the eligibility for Assembly Learning Grants and to increase the amount of the grant as an attack on students.

However many students apply, they will get it. Do not worry about that, and do not worry students about it either.

I think that even under Jane Hutt's health service it is possible to get your ears syringed now, Rhodri!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Chocolate and all that

I had always wondered why people who gave up smoking often resorted to chocolate. The obvious reason was that it was displacement activity, but it seems that there may have been a more fundamental sub-conscious reason as well - chocolate helps alleviate the smokers' cough.

This is good news for all of us of course, especially those who are prone to the odd winter snuffle. This sort of medicine I can deal with. Personally, I have always preferred white chocolate but there is no indication whether this contains the same magical properties. I suppose that if it doesn't I will have to just eat the other sort. Either way I am a winner!

Monday, November 22, 2004

Tories busted

Thanks to the Honourable Fiend for the news that Busted look to be on the verge of breaking up. It really is not going very well for the Tories is it?

Labour to promise more laws just for Wales

I do not want to appear ungrateful here, nor do I want to pretend that this news is unwelcome, but wouldn't it be easier just to give the Welsh Assembly the powers to pass these laws themselves?

Wales 25 New Zealand 26

'As our brave Welsh players nurse their battle-worn bodies after a monumental effort against the All-Blacks, the nation can celebrate that its rugby mojo has at last returned. The Western Mail called for manna from heaven with a rousing front page of inspirational quotes before Saturday's game. And the bombastic performance of a lone Welsh singer moments before kick-off on Saturday has been hailed an almighty success that kick-started a revival in national spirit.'

It was the Western Mail wot dunnit!

Sunday, November 21, 2004

No respect

Thanks to Gavin Whenman for the link to George Galloway's official site on which Google are advertising the thankyoutony website. This site enables you to register your thanks to Tony Blair for his vigorous support of the the 'United States in the disarmament of Iraq.' Irony is obviously not lost on the computer programme that matches up the ads to the site content. Further irony is provided by Gorgeous George himself with a T-shirt range that underlines the role of Respect as a vanity vehicle to try and keep Galloway in Parliament.


The time has come to adopt the Mollusc as a Welsh icon. I write this out of the perverse pride of knowing that such an act will irritate the English immensely. They may be situated in Cardiff but we now have a National Stadium and a National Concert Hall that knocks spots off anything that the Sais can put up on the other side of Offas Dyke and, no matter how much they copy us, we got them first.

I write this in the context of an article in today's Observer where Judith Isherwood, the Australian chief executive of the new Wales Millennium Centre, rightly lambasts the English for being snobby about Wales. I have to say that having been born and brought up in the North of England it is the case that the southerners look down on other regions as well, but I digress. Having been here for 26 years I consider myself Welsh and am quite happy to make common cause with Ms. Isherwood.

Those Londoners who think that their City is the centre of the English-speaking universe have a very rude awakening in front of them. It is nearly a decade since the birth of Cool Cymru and Anglo-Welsh culture has come of age!

Posted by Hello

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Attention seekers go too far

Margaret Hodge is not my favourite MP by a long way but I am outraged by the latest stunt by Fathers for Misogyny. Handcuffing oneself to somebody in this way is assault in my view and I hope that the CPS prosecute the culprits. These protests have ceased to be peaceful or even amusing, they have strayed into violence. Now that we have both F4J and the fox-hunters stalking Ministers it must be incumbent on the Police to ensure that they are adequately protected at all time. We cannot have our democracy subverted by people who do not understand its value and who are not prepared to accept its rules.

Cave Canum

Swansea does not have many gated developments so I was fascinated when I ended up leafletting one this morning. It was not, however, the electric gates with voice entry that intriqued me the most, but the fact that one intercom had an answer machine. Still, at least I did not replicate my experience of a few years ago in another affluent part of the City, where I encountered three houses with signs warning visitors to "beware of the dog" in Latin.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The cost of democracy

For those of you watching costs it seems that the price of abolishing the WDA, the Wales Tourist Board and ELWa is the equivalent to half a new Assembly Chamber. It is still early days of course and no decisions have been taken on how this little bonfire is to be structured. As such the publication of these costs may be premature. However, I was in a meeting with ELWa today and it became clear that they and the other Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies scheduled for abolition will also incur substantial costs in preparing for it. I think that we need to watch that space for further developments.

A Prince speaks

Prince Charles says that the schools system offers pupils too much aspiration and refuses to admit failures. He stated that our learning culture leads young people to believe that they can succeed at anything without talent or hard work. I think that is called the hereditary principle. After all it is not as if members of the royal family get any special privileges in the education system is it? Perhaps now that fox-hunting has been banned the good Prince will stick to his promise and emigrate to Klosters.

Talking of fox-hunting Martyn Shrewsbury provides the definitive line for those stuck in an elevator with members of the Countryside Alliance.

Those new building blues

Most of the Welsh media reported yesterday that the costs of the new Assembly chamber building are spinning out of control. They have now placed the total cost of this project at £67.5 million. The problem is that despite the sensationalism most of these costs were already in the public domain. These include the £7.5 million that was spent prior to the suspension of the contract and the re-tendering exercise and the £40.9 million that is the fixed price to build the thing.

The £10 million fitting-out costs have not been made public before, nor have the other variations to the contract that make up the difference, however it is a bit rich of the Welsh Conservatives to criticise these. After all they were represented on the Committee that agreed the budget for furniture, ICT and fittings and signed up to them.

I think the point that needs to be made however, is that this building is not for the politicians. It is a public building and belongs to all of Wales. It will be a showcase from which we can promote our nation to the outside world. It demonstrates that we mean business and that we are serious about attracting investment and jobs. After all it is easier to make a pitch for Wales from an impressive purpose-built building than it is from the comverted computer room we currently use for a chamber.

Suicide Terrorism

Rather worryingly an e-mail arrives today inviting me to a presentation by the Chief Constable of South Wales Police on Suicide Terrorism. It is to take place in the Assembly on 23 November and all Members and their support staff have been invited. This event is being sponsored by the Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration.

This is not a topic that has been at the forefront of discussion in the Assembly in recent months as we do not have responsibility for the authorities that would deal with it. Indeed there are many other police issues that we can influence that might benefit from such a presentation. Still we mustn't bury our heads in the sand. The only question is, what does the Minister know that has prompted the organisation of this event?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

More heroes

I put aside two hours this morning to go to the members library and trawl through hundreds of pages of correspondence relating to the 100 Welsh Heroes controversy. Instead, I was presented with a thin envelope, clearly marked for my eyes only. In it were a dozen or so e-mails from the former IT manager at Culturenet Cymru alleging impropriety, one or two mails on the line to take in the press and er.. that was it.

I find it difficult to believe that this is the sum total of everything that I had requested. I am now going to seriously consider how to take this issue forward. I do not believe that I have had satisfactory answers to the questions that I have posed nor do I think that the whole truth has yet come out.

A question of context

No doubt I will be accused of being mean-spirited in using this quotation from Mark Isherwood in yesterday's Plenary but I do feel that if we fail to keep things in proportion then we do a disservice to those we represent.

During the debate on the Children Commissioner's report Mark raised a very disturbing and valid case of a family in his constituency who are living in difficult conditions. Efforts are clearly being made to resolve their case but the proposals so far are not satisfactory to the family or to Mark.

In January, and again in May, I referred to the plight of the Finegan family, who live near me in Flintshire, and who have given me permission to use their name today. Their children are being raised in substandard and sub-human conditions since the county council enforced a demolition order against the house next door. Their health and wellbeing is poor, and it is only the intervention of the children’s commissioner that has given this family hope. However, the council is still ducking, diving and delaying over its proposal that two children should share a bedroom that is too small for a standard single bed because of the weakness of the commissioner’s powers when they come up against determined opposition.

In this context the use of the phrase "sub-standard" may be acceptable but "sub-human"? If living next door to a condemned house in Flintshire is sub-human then how do we describe the awful conditions endured by the people of Darfur in Sudan?

Meanwhile, Conservative AM and would-be-MP for Monmouthshire, David Davies, was on form:

David Davies: I agree with that last comment about the way in which Peter Clarke has represented the cause of young people in Wales. I give this report a qualified welcome, because I have not always agreed with everything that Peter Clarke has said, for example, his views on discipline and on whether there are any circumstances under which it is acceptable to smack children. It is interesting that this report contains so much about bullying, which is an issue in good schools as well as bad.

Christine Chapman: Will you give way?

David Davies: I will give way, but I will just finish my point. I like to give way to Labour Party Members, and I respect those who are able to make interventions. Some children who are bullies might benefit from the sort of discipline that the children’s commissioner sometimes tries to prevent.

Christine Chapman: Do you agree that there is a possibility—and I believe that research has been done on this—that bullying stems from children being beaten at home?

David Davies: I am not aware of that research, but I should think that that is likely. However, without a doubt—and I have seen this work effectively—the threat of physical action will stop children from bullying. Members may shake their heads, but I remember being punched in the face on one occasion by an older boy when waiting to get a glass of water when I first went to Bassaleg Comprehensive School, and the teacher went up to the person concerned, shook him three times and told him that he ever did that again, he would, and I quote, ‘bloody well kick you through the wall backwards’. I assure you that never did it again. Therefore, it was brutal but rather effective. Had that teacher been found doing that, he would have been disciplined and kicked out of his job, but he was a good teacher, and people did not mess around in his classes.

Irony discovers David Blunkett

I first saw this on Labour Watch but it has since been spotted all over the blogosphere. The Home Secretary, who plans to make us all carry an ID card complete with biometric data and the potential to allow the authorities instant access to any computerised record held on us, is attacking supermarket loyalty cards.

Mr Blunkett is quoted as saying that: "There is a real issue about how that should be overseen and supervised". He suggested broadening the debate about the "very limited access to and use of information in terms of ID cards" to look at protecting privacy in such cases. "It is a really good opportunity now to start debating what is known about us, by whom, who supervises and oversees it and how we can get a grip on it". Exactly!

Putting to one side the fact that people have a choice whether or not to hold a store loyalty card, these are of course regulated under the Data Protection Act, information cannot be shared without permission and people can inspect the database relating to themselves. The same cannot be said for Blunkett's ID cards.


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The murky world of Welsh heroes

I have now received replies to my request for more information on allegations that the 100 Welsh Heroes poll was rigged in favour of Aneurin Bevan. A huge amount of material has been lodged in the Assembly library and I intend to spend tomorrow morning looking through it. I have been told however, that I am not allowed to copy, remove from the library or let anyone else see them.

I have also received a redacted version of the letter from the Chair of Culturenet Cymru to the Assembly Director for Culture, Welsh Language and Sport in which he explains why he believes that these allegations are untrue. Apparently, a copy of the relevant parts of the letter will also be available on the Assembly's Website here. However, when I looked there was just a summary and no link to the actual letter.

Essentially, the letter says that when the Chair became aware of accusations that the results of the 100 Welsh Heroes poll had been manipulated then he conducted an enquiry by speaking individually to the Culturenet staff involved in the project. As a result he came to the conclusion that votes that were clearly fraudulent because for example, they were multiple votes from the same source, has been properly discounted. He also concluded that "no other manipulation had occurred".On learning of my written questions on the issue he conducted a second investigation by interviewing the relevant staff. Again he could find no evidence that there was any action taken to manipulate the figures. He concludes by saying that "there remains the possibility that such manipulation, that is, manipulation for purposes other than to combat 'fraud', was conducted, by the only person who had access throughout this period to the recording of votes. If this did happen, it was certainly without the authority of the Board, and I am satisfied, without the authorisation of the Director."

I have no reason whatsoever to doubt the integrity of the Chair of Culturenet Cymru nor his sincerity. However, it does seem to me that the only way that we are ever going to know for certain what happened is if the database undergoes independent examination. Why this has not happened is beyond my understanding. Perhaps I will know more tomorrow.

Language of the Arts

The Welsh Liberal Democrat debate on the future of the Arts Council of Wales yesterday was notable for the use of language by members if for nothing else. North Wales member, Eleanor Burnham, led the debate for us and was soon in full flow:

On 14 July, the First Minister lit the so-called bonfire of the quangos, not with a match, but with a stick of dynamite, and ‘boom’, the fate of the Welsh Development Agency, the Wales Tourist Board and Education and Learning Wales was sealed. However, the rest of Wales’s quangos escaped the flames for the time being. The dynamite under the big three went off as soon as it was primed. In terms of the rest, Rhodri settled for a ticking time bomb with a detonation time that is unknown, except, perhaps, to Rhodri Morgan and the Cabinet, who are not telling.

She went on:

Government can, and should, provide policy and strategic direction, as it does now, but it should not make daily decisions on arts funding, and there should not be full politicisation of the arts. We know that the value of art cannot be measured exclusively in terms of gross domestic product, which is a crude measure that looks at the dollar rather than the douleur, and the euro rather than euphoria.

Never one to turn down a challenge the First Minister took up the cudgels:

The Liberal Democrats really must sort themselves out as to what their policy is. Eleanor Burnham’s wonderfully explosive initial opening shot setting out the motion was simply a series of—a daisy chain, if you will—interlinked Aunt Sallies.

If this series of flowery interludes is an example of what we can expect from political control of the Arts then maybe the case for retaining the Arts Council of Wales has been made.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Smoking Ban

There I was thinking that the work we are doing on the Assembly's Smoking in Public Places Committee will lead nowhere and suddenly it is game on. It seems that the Government White Paper on smoking could lead to Wales having the power to devise its own legislation. This will almost certainly lead to a complete ban on smoking in public places here. These are interesting times.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Keep it up, Boris

I have so far refrained from commenting on the Boris Johnson affair as frankly, his personal life has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with Michael Howard either, which could explain why Boris refused to confirm the rumours to him.

The Guardian has it about right:

As for his sex life, it is a fact, however regrettable, that not all statesmen, actual or prospective, lead virtuous private lives, lives that are not our business. Mr Howard has chosen to make an issue of it by asking questions that were best left unasked when the prurient tabloid pack decided to savage Boris as an MP, not indulge him as an editor. Mr Johnson appears to have misled his leader by omission as John Profumo did Harold Macmillan in an earlier, more tragic case of phoney moralising. It reinforces doubts about Mr Howard's tactical judgement. He would have been smarter to stick with last week's line: Keep it up, Boris.

What has prompted me to post this however was a question posed on Radio Wales this morning. "Do you have to be boring to succeed in politics?" they asked. I certainly hope not! Yet politics is full of colourful characters whose careers have ended in disgrace. Ron Davies and Jeffery Archer to name but two, are modern politicians whose private behaviour has led them to resignation. Ironically, the greyest of the grey, John Major, survived as a worthy but dull Prime Minister only for us to find out later that he had been entertaining the irrepressible Edwina Curry behind closed doors for more years than we care to think about.

I do not know what lessons to learn from this except that I suspect that in most instances it is the media, not the voters, who determine the fate of such politicians. They want them to be human, but not too human. The quickest and harshest judge is a journalist after a good story, not the voter seeking a well-funded health service. This is evident by those politicians who have stood up to the press, retained the support of their parties and have gone on to prosper, even to seem more interesting, following scandal. Paddy Ashdown, Cecil Parkinson, Robin Cook, Steve Norris are such men.

One trend I have commented on before is the increased personalisation of politics. In a media age, in which everybody knows everything within minutes of it becoming public knowledge, the political process has become more soap opera and less debate. Political parties are adopting American tactics and focussing in on the perceived personal weaknesses of candidates rather then the policies they propose. We even have a valid debate about whether we should have gone to war in Iraq being turned into a personal crusade against the Prime Minister through the very American device of impeachment.

Entertaining as all this is I suspect that it is also turning people off politics and leading to lower participation rates in elections. Electors want to be treated with respect. They are adults who know that their politicians are fallible. Their vote however, will, by-and-large, be influenced not by private behaviour but by policies and results. Bill Clinton was the embodiment of that principle. Despite all that he did, he remained popular and if he could have run, would have won a third term. He, more than any other politician, is the proof that you do not have to be boring to succeed.

Is it Christmas already?

Reading this article about the new Band Aid I suddenly felt very old. Did I really need to know that Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol was just eight years old when I first heard the original single in 1984 or that a large number of the artists this time around were not even born then? I quite enjoyed this little gem however:

Where once there was incomprehension, now there was awareness, "a cultural and political resonance there wasn't 20 years ago," according to Geldolf. Asked to record a personal message in 1984, Spandau Ballet's sax player famously said "hi" to all their fans in Africa and promised to tour Ethiopia the following year. This year, all the artists knew what it was about, apart from 17-year-old Joss Stone, who wasn't quite sure who the scruffy Irishman was. Geldof said Stone's dad insisted she turn up.

Here come the recriminations

The Washington Post carries some interesting analysis of why Kerry lost. Essentially they believe that what mesage he had was unfocussed, whilst his campaign was chaotic. They are a bit harsh on Theresa Heinz Kerry in my view. She is described as 'a disruptive force.....who often looked "sullen," was deemed a "hypochondriac" by the staff and had a knack for "silencing a cheering crowd."' Only in America would a candidate's spouse and family be expected to act as a political extension of the candidate. Who could blame her if she found the whole experience alien and dispiriting?

As you need to register to see the article I have copied some extracts below. The findings of reporters from Newsweek are particularly interesting:

• Kerry was both "cranky" and more indecisive than he was portrayed by the media. "I couldn't get the man to make decisions," said former campaign manager Jim Jordan. As late as days before the Democratic convention, Kerry was still "dithering" and presiding over endless discussions on whether to abandon public financing for the fall campaign before deciding against private fundraising. Top aides grew so tired of Kerry continuing to seek advice on issues they considered settled that they took away his cell phone.

• Kerry "never did learn how to deliver a speech" and was privately counseled by Washington speech coach Michael Sheehan on shifting to "a more conversational style." Ted Kennedy told Kerry he used "too much Senatese," and the candidate's daughter, Alexandra, tried to get Steven Spielberg to intervene. Kerry would cross out his speechwriters' most pithy lines as too "slogany."

• Teresa Kerry was a major "distraction" who "demanded everyone's attention, including her husband's." During the primaries she told Jordan: "I want you to issue a challenge for me to debate Howard Dean." On a Grand Canyon hike meant to provide footage of a happy family vacation, "Teresa was soon complaining of migraines" as the candidate kept pulling along "his sullen wife and children." Later, Kerry confidant John Sasso told her that she was being too critical of her husband and depressing his spirits. Reporters said last week that the billionaire heiress was banished to travel on her own before they could write about her impact.

• By the fall, Kerry was "unhappy" with senior advisers Robert Shrum and Tad Devine and "annoyed" with communications director Stephanie Cutter, described as too slow-moving and the target of frequent complaints by the traveling press corps. Several Kerry aides call the depiction of Cutter unfair, with senior adviser Joe Lockhart saying: "She had a Herculean task and overall did a very good job."

Ryan Lizza of the New Republic magazine has a less soap-opera-ish analysis that seems more pertinent to the issue:

"The largest caucus of recriminators, one that spans ideological boundaries and includes critics from every corner of the party, argues that Kerry failed to offer a compelling message. As Kerry seemed to realize in his speech Saturday night, the no-message critique is congealing into conventional wisdom. I heard it in every conceivable permutation from almost everyone I interviewed. 'I don't know that we ever knew what it was we were saying about George W. Bush,' says one senior member of the team, whose job it was to come up with a message about Bush.

"It was a problem that plagued the campaign as soon as they stumbled, penniless, from the primaries into the general election. 'When we got into the general, nobody knew how to go against Bush,' says a senior campaign official. '[Senior adviser Bob] Shrum and [pollster Mark] Mellman built this strategy against Bush, 'Stronger at home, respected in the world.' What does that mean? We never even had strategy memos.' By the fall, things were no better. 'If there was a clear message in September about why you elect Kerry and defeat Bush, most of the people in the campaign were unaware of it,' says one senior strategist hired late in the campaign."

I am sure that there is much more to come but the question that all the critics need to answer is could any candidate have beaten Bush? In retrospect, I do not think so.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Mobile Phone Masts

A test case regarding the siting of a mobile phone mast near to a school casts a whole new light on the disreputable tactics deployed by Labour during the Hodge Hill by-election.

Liberal Democrat MP, Phil Willis, is of course quite right when he says that the Appeal Court judges had "swept aside" the recommendations of the Stewart Report on mobile phone safety, which called for changes to planning arrangements to improve local consultation. He is also right to say that this decision has given mobile phone operators "freedom to site masts on or near school playing fields throughout the United Kingdom. The decision of the appeal court ... is a body blow to concerned parents throughout the country."

However, the words of the judge are worth noting. He said: "It remains central government's responsibility to decide what measures are necessary to protect public health." He went on to rule that a planning decision was not the place for determining health safeguards.

On June 27th I wrote:

"the Labour Party in Government has created an atmosphere whereby mobile phone companies work in a largely free-market economy. In doing so they have encouraged them to seek to maximise their profits regardless of the ethics of their activity, whilst Labour Government Ministers continue to insist that mobile phone masts are safe (in stark contrast to the literature put out by the Labour Party in Hodge Hill). In fact Labour have sold new generation licences to mobile phone companies in return for billions of pounds in the full knowledge that the new technology will mean a tripling of phone masts and that the companies will be forced to seek unsuitable sites for them in an attempt to maximise market share and recover their outlay."

We should be in no doubt that it is Labour Government policy that is leading to the siting of these mobile masts near to schools. If they wanted to prevent it then they would legislate accordingly and not leave Councils and local people to struggle with vague and conflicting guidelines in an attempt to protect their community from inappropriate development.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Poetry in Motion

Any sports fan will tell you that the best poetry is to be found on the field of play and maybe that is how Wales' new football manager, John Toshack, should leave it.

In 1976 John published a book of poems and pictures called "Gosh it's Tosh" complete with a forward by that other great literary giant, Kevin Keegan. Now that he is the manager of Wales Toshack's publisher, Duckworth, has said it might consider reprinting the volume.

With such gems as:
"We're coming in to land at Speke,
My legs are feeling very weak.
We've just returned from Barcelona,
And now I'm going for a sauna."

it is not surprising that Professor of Poetry, Tony Curtis, has described Tosh as as "an enthusiastic amateur rhymester" rather than a serious bard. There is one couplet that indicates how Toshack will be managing Wales:
"Wales come out in brand new kit
But I don't play cos' I'm not fit."

Let us hope that the team stay fit and start winning games again. In the meantime if Toshack is looking for further inspiration for his writing he might want to look to our celtic cousins in Scotland and Dundee's finest poet, William Topaz McGonagall.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Journeys Abroad

The National Assembly for Wales has published details of the overseas trips taken by its members in the last financial year.

Individual trips include a five day visit by Nick Bourne to the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm at a cost to the taxpayer of £1467.37 and a trip to Dublin by Glyn Davies at a cost of £684.59 to have discussions with Irish Farming Unions regarding Bovine TB and discussions with the Irish Language Board regarding minority languages.

Owen John Thomas went to Brussels at a cost of £536.41 to submit a petition to the European Parliament on ASW pension entitlements, whilst Mick Bates spent £230.29 going to Berlin to speak at the European Council for Renewable Energy Conference. Christine Chapman, Catherine Thomas and Eleanor Burnham spent £1996.84 going to Stockholm to meet with a Minister regarding legislation on the physical punishment of children whilst John Griffiths went to Lisbon at a cost of £1209.84 to meet officials and politicians so as to learn about community regeneration and social inclusion in Portugal.

The Culture, Welsh Language and Sport Committee spent £772.81 going to Bordeaux, though they were rather trumped by the £3,451.57 spent by the European Committee on its trip to Brussels. The Presiding Officer spent two days in Venice at the Calre Conference at a cost of £553.68, however his Deputy went one better by attending the same Conference, three months later in Florence, at a cost of £900.49.

Finally, the record records that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association sent John Griffiths and Alun Cairns to Bangladesh at a cost of £6057.12 for the 49th Annual Conference on Partnership for Global Peace and Prosperity. Jeff Cuthbert took the CPA ticket to Canada at the more modest cost of £638.50 for the 3rd Parliamentary Seminar on strengthening Democracy and the Role of Parliamentarians: Challenges and Solutions. Mike German, though, drew the short straw, with an exhausting trip to the Falkland Islands in mid-February at a cost of £3471.76.

I really must get out more.

Conspiracy Theory

Jonathan Calder points us towards an article in The Washington Dispatch that suggests that the electronic voting machines used in Ohio may not have reflected the way that people voted:

"In one voting precinct in Gahanna, Ohio, 4,258 voters supposedly cast an electronic ballot for George Bush while only 260 voted for John Kerry. While it is vaguely possible that over 94% of voters in the precinct supported George W. Bush, it is a hard number to believe considering that only 638 voters were counted at the polling center."

I suppose that we will be hearing a lot more about such things in months to come.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The politics of morality

Simon Titley blogs about the 'values-based campaigns strategy' adopted by the Republican Party in the race for US President. He has argued previously that this sort of campaigning is not sustainable in a more liberal and socially-aware Britain.

Simon quotes Edward Leigh as one Tory who has drawn the wrong lesson from America by aping George W. Bush and promoting "old-fashioned family values". His conclusion that if you "Strip away the cant about 'family values' ...you quickly get to the simple truth: right-wing Tories hate gay people. It's pure bigotry. Its only practical effect is to make more people miserable." is difficult to disagree with.

Well, as yesterday's debate on equality of opportunity proved, Wales has its own version of Mr. Leigh, and if he wins Monmouth then David Davies will soon be heading for Westminster:

David Davies: My experience of the Committee on Equality of Opportunity was that it consists of largely well-meaning people, but that there was a danger of its becoming a minor part of a large bandwagon, numbering countless publicly funded bodies, all of which claim to work for equality. Too often, instead of wanting equality, these organisations appear to be demanding preferential treatment for a favoured few.

One of the biggest examples of where they have all got it wrong is the huge emphasis which is now placed on what is called ‘celebrating diversity’. In reality, celebrating diversity means using taxpayers’ money to eulogise virtually any culture or religion other than the British culture or Christianity, which is an intrinsic part of our culture even for those who do not believe in God. That approach has been hugely damaging and it has allowed those who wish to settle in this country to believe that they are under no obligation to integrate or even to make concessions to the host community. When so much public money is spent repeatedly telling people that there is no need for them to pay the slightest heed to the traditions of the indigenous community, it is hardly surprising that a growing proportion feel no need to do so. Rather than coming to regard themselves as British, too many people in this country define themselves by the nationality of the countries that they left behind, seeing themselves as simply living in Britain but not in any way a part of this country.

..........There is another issue of concern, which is that the emphasis on cultural diversity has created a growing sense of resentment among some British people who see the equality organisations not as vehicles for creating a fairer society, but as pressure groups for certain interests. We hear about demands that the Royal Mail should refrain from putting nativity scenes on stamps—

I cannot help feeling that this attempt to hijack the moral agenda by certain Tories is aimed more at their own party than at the electorate itself.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Mrs Motivator

It is self-evident that Labour's Assembly Social Justice Minister, Edwina Hart, will enjoy this piece:

Edwina Hart - doncha just love her? I do. Today I aim to motivate you all into thinking that support for the Edwinas of this country could ensure a glorious future for the Welsh Nation.

Yes, folks, I am urging you to back our broads with balls. And I'm not confining this argument to our political future; it is surely the key to our sporting success, too.

The Western Mail has not been too kind to Edwina of late but they seem to have made it up to her in spades today.

A free lunch?

Now this really did wet my appetite for more. From yesterday's Plenary Session, a point made by Alyn and Deeside Labour AM, Carl Sargeant, to the Business Minister:

Carl Sargeant: I will make that reference again in case the Minister did not quite hear me. I was referring to Assembly subsidies to public or private bodies, in particular because of a request from the Conservative Party for cheaper tickets or subsidies for tickets for major sporting events. I find it quite astounding that a party that believes in a free market should want the Government to set ticket prices for a private company.

Perhaps somebody could let me know to what he was referring.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Labour has announced that it is to run much of its election campaign from offices next door to the new Tory HQ in central London. Read all about it here. Now that will be cosy.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Moment of truth

Meanwhile the moment we have all been dreading has arrived - the publication of the Autism Cymru nude calendar starring AM, Rhodri Glyn Thomas. Well actually, he is a bit player, but he is there. Get it now while stocks last.

The calendar costs £10 plus postage and packing and will be available from a variety of Welsh bookshops throughout Wales and online from tomorrow at www.ebay.co.uk. It will be launched at the Capsule Gallery inCardiff tomorrow night. An exhibition of the portraits is at the gallery until November 27.

Update: Just in case you cannot get to the gallery I have hotlinked the offending photograph for you. I still urge you to give money to Autism Cymru. Be warned, people of a nervous disposition should not click here.

R.I.P. Crazy Horse

Now this is very sad. Emlyn Hughes was one of the football greats. He helped Liverepool to four league titles, two European Cups, an FA Cup victory and two Uefa Cup titles. He was the first player to lift the European Cup for them after the victory over Borussia Moenchengladbach in 1977. A classic game, which is still talked about. His death was a great shock.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Sorry Everybody

Just come back from a fascinating evening watching Mark Thomas at Swansea Grand Theatre. Most of the show focussed on his campaign against multi-national corporations, the Iraq war and class.

I particularly enjoyed his agreement that the campaign to ban fox-hunting was about class war - "Once we have got rid of fox hunting we are coming after opera and polo" - and also the tee shirt idea - "Native Americans - fighting terrorism since 1492". Check out this website, recommended by him, for those who like to see Americans apologising.

Arts and artists

I do not buy into the notion that abolishing Arts Council Wales (ACW) and bringing its functions into the Welsh Assembly is the end of the artistic world as we know it. Those who believe that it is want to have their cake and eat it. They want to receive public money to sponsor their art but they apparently do not want to be held accountable for how they spend it.

There is no evidence that the administration of arts spending by a department of the Assembly will squash creativity or even bring artists under government control. Artists have always accepted that there are limits on their artistry by virtue of the fact that they are dependent on patronage. Only the exceptional amongst them have been able to break free of that restraint. Nevertheless, no responsible politician is going to go against the advice of his or her civil servants and refuse to fund a worthwhile project. This has been proved time and time again across Wales, where municipal theatres have resisted public pressure to show very controversial performances. Equally, Council-owned galleries have displayed highly charged exhibits, such as the crucifixion of Dylan Thomas in Swansea, despite public protest.

If those who believe that the Assembly is about to abolish Arts Council Wales think that this body is above political influence then they are very naive indeed. Not only does the Assembly appoint Arts Council Wales' Chair and its board, but Ministers have a major informal say on the appointment of its Chief Executive and control its overall budget. It is only a small step from that situation to removing the appearance of independence. The artistic director of Music Theatre Wales has got a valid point that is worth considering. He said:

"Of course the arm's length principle is a concern, but how often is it really going to make a difference, day to day? Up until about a year ago we felt that the quality of decision making and leadership in Arts Council Wales was very poor. We lost confidence in them; many decisions felt arbitrary, especially in theatre, where knives were cutting through things without consideration or consultation. Accusations of incompetence were rightly made." He said that he hoped the arts could have a "stronger voice" in government if the Arts Council were stripped away, finding a place at the centre of power "to argue for the arts in Wales, for the genuinely contemporary Welsh arts, not the old leeks and choirs. After all, the assembly wants to play its part fully on the European stage."

He welcomed the notion that the arts should be more accountable to the Welsh people. "It's hard to argue why the arts should be any different from health and education."

None of this is an argument for taking the step of bringing ACW into the Assembly of course, that case has still to be made. I just wish that those who are propagating these scare stories would make a better case. If, for example, they stopped dissing the politicians and defending the status quo, and concentrated instead on the case for a more vibrant interaction in decision-making between artists and the public, through a reformed and independent body, I might have more sympathy.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Is killing habit forming?

The first sign that the whole fox-hunting debate was getting out of hand came when certain supporters of this inhumane sport warned of violence in the countryside if the Government used the Parliament Act to get their way. It now seems that those who live by violence and killing may be prepared to apply their sport more liberally.

Otis Ferry, somebody who has enjoyed a privileged up-bringing, is now warning that "deepening resentment towards the government could result in people being killed." He goes on: "Feelings are running high. People are starting to realise a ban might happen and people might get assassinated. But I would feel terrible if anyone assassinated someone like Alun Michael. It would be a disgrace if anything violent happens." Well, yes!

The Observer goes on to report that "Effigies of Michael, along with Tony Blair, were torched by hunters at bonfires in Leicestershire on Friday. Evidence of the tactics used to intimidate anti-hunt MPs has grown more apparent as the prospect of a ban draws closer. Observer inquiries have discovered that 13 MPs who support the hunting Bill have been targeted by extremist groups. One claims that his family has been intimidated and he has had manure dumped in his garden. Another reported that a lump of concrete had been thrown through a window of his constituency office, while others have stopped holding surgeries or walking out alone at night after being harassed. Michael himself has been pelted with eggs and is routinely heckled by pro-hunt supporters on public appearances."

It is likely of course, that talk of assassination is the result of a fevered imagination on the part of an immature and self-centred young man. It makes headlines obviously. However, the level of intimidation and violence being perpetrated by leading hunt supporters against politicians and others opposed to their view is unacceptable and needs to be reined-in.

These people would be the first to condemn acts of violence by the IRA or some other terrorist group; they would rage against anti-poll tax protestors, anti-war demonstrators or those who use largely legitimate means to make anti-establishment points, however they cannot see that they have overstepped the mark themselves and continue to do so. They are not so much defending a way of life they are seeking to preserve their own sense of superiority and their own privileges. It is they who have invoked the term "fascist" to describe a Parliamentary process and yet, as a student of history, I can see that it is they who are the ones adopting the tactics of such groups.

This is more disturbing because of the links between many of these people and the royal family. Prince Charles seems determined to stray more and more into the realm of party politics by continuing to hunt. In doing so he is merely demonstrating his unsuitability to succeed to the throne. At the same time, although members of the royal family would clearly not condone tactics that lead to violence and law-breaking, a number of them appear to be content to be associated with people who would. Because the royal family are unelected they are not accountable for their actions and some of them at least, believe that this means that they can do what they want. Is it not time that they were made accountable?

By all means let us have a debate but let us do so within the context of the civilised and democratic society that we have championed throughout the World. Let us see not thuggery and criminal-behaviour take the place of peaceful discussion.

Saturday, November 06, 2004


Some Conservative MPs are putting it about that the 'No' vote in the North East of England makes a further referendum in Wales less likely. Some are even saying that the whole devolution project is now dead in the water and that the government should proceed immediately to poll the Welsh and Scottish to consider scrapping their devolved bodies altogether.

I am not too sure how the eleven Conservative members of the Welsh Assembly will react to calls from their own party to abolish them. After all if there was no Welsh Assembly then Conservatism here would be dead in the water. However, whereas I do not agree with Nigel Evans MP that "the embarrassing rejection of a North East Assembly made a referendum in Wales far less likely", I do think that the one lesson that the Wales Labour Party do need to draw from this debacle is that if they seek to shortchange the Welsh people on powers then they will get a bloody nose. A further fudge, such as that being mooted by the First Minister could get very short shrift indeed in a referendum.

Meanwhile the Western Mail has asked Ross Smith, who works for The Journal newspaper in Newcastle, to come up with ten reasons why the people of the North East voted 'No'. Top of this list is overexposure to John Prescott, the lack of powers, the fact that no extra funding was attached to the devolution package, but that an increase in Council Tax was a virtually certain outcome of a 'Yes' vote, and the fact that the new Assembly was linked to an unpopular reform of local government. He also highlighted the lukewarm support of local Labour MPs, including the Prime Minister himself. Perhaps John Prescott is in more trouble than we first thought.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Will Prescott roll with this punch?

The writing had been on the cards for some time with regards to the referendum to set up a North East England Regional Assembly. Nevertheless, the margin of victory for the 'No' campaign was huge. This is a massive blow for John Prescott, who had staked a lot of political capital on the outcome of this vote. However, as I have commented elsewhere, and as Francesca also says, he had failed to learn the lessons of the Welsh Referendum and the National Assembly for Wales and left himself wide open to the accusation that his proposed new body was nothing more than a talking shop. If he had put forward a meaningful body with real and clearly defined powers and campaigned on the issue rather than on his own spin then I believe he might of had a chance of getting it approved. As it is, the timidity and control-freakery that characterised this sad attempt at devolution was its undoing.

Thursday, November 04, 2004


World Radiography Day is on Monday 8 November. Transparency is spreading it seems.

Posted by Hello

Gravy train?

It is difficult to know what to say about the vote in the House of Commons yesterday to increase MPs' staff allowances to £80,460 as the Welsh Assembly will be facing a similar decision in a few months time. This move will cost the taxpayer £3 million.

Clearly, the timing is insensitive and the decision is contrary to the recommendation of the Senior Salaries Review Board, the independent body set up to keep these issues out of the political domain. The money will not go into MPs' pockets of course as it will be used to pay staff, nevertheless it does seem to be an unreasonable course to pursue given that the SSRB themselves did not believe there was any justification for exceeding the levels of payment that they proposed.

We shall see what the Assembly's SSRB report recommends in due course.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Oliver Twist?

Meanwhile the Economic Development Minister has been thinking up some interesting positions for Plaid Cymru:

The Minister for Economic Development and Transport (Andrew Davies): On seeing the Plaid Cymru motion and amendment for this debate, I thought ‘Here we go again’; it is typical of the nationalists with their dispiriting, backward-looking, begging-bowl mentality.

Presumably, if you are begging while looking backwards you are in danger of having the proceeds of your labours stolen


I have to own up and say that I did not write this press release nor its heading but I enjoyed it all the same:

Scrap toast for pupils, give local authorities the ‘bread’ - Black

Education spokesperson Peter Black has branded the free school breakfast scheme "an expensive gimmick", as the Labour Assembly Government launched its scheme.

My colleague suggested that the headline may read better as "Scrape toast for pupils". The scheme may be over-cooked but it is not that over-cooked!

Best of England?

I recall a few years ago being outraged on a visit to Tintagel in Cornwall at an English Heritage poster that included Wales and sites under the control of Cadw as part of their fiefdom. I can understand the anger therefore at a holiday brochure that seeks to claim Owain Glyndwr and the National Eisteddfod as classic English icons. Perhaps the owners of English Country Cottages should come to Wales and see for themselves that we are proud Celts, not English serfs.

Assembly votes to condemn principle of variable top-up fees

At last there is some signs of life amongst the serried ranks of Labour AMs in the National Assembly for Wales. An amendment tabled by the Welsh Liberal Democrats yesterday to condemn variable top-up fees in principle was passed by 31 votes to 28.

This was achieved by an act of rebellion on the part of Blaenau Gwent Labour AM, Peter Law, and by the failure of Assembly Minister, Andrew Davies, to press the right button.

The dilemma facing the Assembly Education Minister now, is how to take forward her Government's agenda. She has already said that the Rees Commission has been set up to recommend the most appropriate fee structure for Welsh Universities rather than to determine whether fees are necessary or not. She is therefore committed to top-up fees after 2007.

It may well be that the Rees Commission will not opt for a variable fee structure but if they do then the Minister may find problems getting it through the Assembly. This is one issue that is not going to go away.


Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Feeling sheepish

I know that I shouldn't highlight this article as it will just bring accusations of stereotyping but who can resist the image of a sheep attacking its own reflection in a shiny car door? Thank goodness it happened in Leeds and not Wales.

Casinos and the working class

In an effort to take my mind off the voting in the United States I am going to be a little bit controversial. Although I fully understand the issues regarding gambling addiction that led Labour MPs to vote against their own Government's Gambling Bill last night it does seem to me that a lot of humbug was spoken on this issue.

The bulk of the opposition (and I do not exclude my own party in this) seems to have been founded on a form of puritanism, whilst speeches that warned of the vulnerability of ordinary working people to the temptation offered by slot machines and mega-casinos were, quite frankly, patronising.

Some of the worst examples were: "I see too many queues of people in shops who, to be honest, cannot afford to waste their money spending it on lottery tickets." and "there is a world of difference between ordinary folk who want to go to bingo halls and the proliferation of mega-casinos". There were many more.

There were of course some valid points as well, in particular the need to keep organised crime out of this market and the issue of local control, but on balance I do not have many problems with the Bill at this stage. As the objectors themselves pointed out, 90% of the legislation amounted to welcome regulation.

People chose whether to gamble or not. Addictive personalities could just as well focus on some other issue if gambling were not available to them. And in any case if these MPs were so interested in tackling addiction why are they not doing something about the huge problem society faces with alcohol and the easy availablity of that substance?

It is also the case that if these mega-casinos are properly planned and they do not grow in number too quickly, then they can anchor regeneration measures. This may not be suitable in areas like Powys but in Swansea a 55,000 square foot casino is already planned as part of the development of Wind Street. Together with a 12 screen cinema these two schemes will help to make the new development economically viable, remove an area of dereliction, bring much-needed investment to the City and create valuable jobs.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Bonfire Night

With Halloween behind us we now have the prospect of a week and a half of intensive fireworks in our local communities. I thought it would be useful therefore to reproduce this note from the Assembly Minister for Finance, Local Government and Public Services on the new Firework Regulations and Anti -Social Behaviour Measures.

Firework Regulations 2004 and Anti-Social Behaviour Measures

New laws which aim to improve safety and crack down on anti-social behaviour ahead of this year's firework season came into force on 8 June 2004, 7 August 2004 and 11 October 2004. These are the latest in a number of regulations to change the regulatory framework covering the supply and use of fireworks in England and Wales.

Further information is available at http://www.dti.gov.uk/fireworks


Under firework regulations it is now illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to possess adult fireworks in a public place;

for anyone other than a fireworks professional to possess category 4 (high-powered display) fireworks;

to let off fireworks between 11pm and 7am (except on a permitted fireworks night, see below);

for retailers to sell fireworks that are louder than 120 decibels; and

for fireworks to be on general sale except during specified periods (e.g. 15 October to 10 November; 26 December to 31 December; the three days preceding the Chinese New Year and Diwali).


The curfew is generally from 11pm to 7am but the start of the curfew will be later for some occasions during the year when fireworks are normally used for traditional or cultural events (a permitted fireworks night). These are Diwali Night, the Chinese New Year and New Year's Eve, when the curfew will not start until 1am. On 5 November the curfew will begin at midnight.


Under Home Office anti-social behaviour measures, introduced on 11 October, the police will be able to issue Penalty Notices for Disorder (£80 fine) for three new firework offences

possession of a category 4 (high-powered display) firework by any member of the public unless authorised;

any person under 18 years of age found with an adult firework in a public place; and

use of an adult firework between the hours of 11pm and 7am (with the exception of 5 November, New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year and Diwali).

Penalty Notices for Disorder can already be issued for throwing a firework in a public place. Offenders who refuse to pay the £80 fine will face an increased fine of £120 and court action.

Police forces around the country are being encouraged to use the anti-social behaviour measures to clamp down on loutish behaviour involving fireworks in the run up to this year’s bonfire night.

For the most serious offences, including breaking the curfew, the police will retain the power to prosecute offenders with penalties of a £5,000 fine and/or six months in prison.


The changes also include a new licensing system for those supplying fireworks all year round - whether retail or wholesale, and improved controls on the import of fireworks. Both of these measures will come into force on 1 January 2005.

Licences are granted by the appropriate local authority, which must refuse a licence unless the applicant complies with relevant statutory requirements concerning the keeping of fireworks and may refuse a licence (or revoke a licence previously granted) if the applicant has committed any fireworks related offences. A local licensing authority may charge a fee not exceeding £500 a year in connection with the granting of a licence under this regulation. The DTI estimate that in England, Scotland and Wales 3,000 suppliers will apply for a licence.

There will be short periods during the year where fireworks may be sold without a licence. These are:

5 November (3 weeks before and 5 days after)
New Year’s Eve (December 26 up to and including 1 January)
Chinese New Year (4 days before, including the day of the Chinese New Year);and
Diwali (4 days before, including Diwali)

Regarding the costs to Local Authorities, the Local Authority Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) has not requested additional funding for this particular measure. They have advised that the cost of a licence will adequately cover both the costs of administration and enforcement.


The import measures described below are unlikely to affect Wales, as the majority of fireworks are imported through Felixstowe. However, for completeness, information is included about the new requirements.

Importers of fireworks will be required to give information about themselves, the storage place and onward supply of fireworks to the H. M. Customs and Excise Commissioners. LACORS will be advising on the costs associated with the processing of information passed on from Customs and Excise to local licensing authorities i.e. the Health and Safety Executive, Trading Standards Offices and the Fire and Rescue Service. It is envisaged that the Trading Standards Office at Felixstowe (Suffolk Trading Standards) will be responsible for gathering and distributing this information.

Future Regulations

On 3 January 2005, the firework industry’s ban on supplying air bombs to the general public will be enshrined in law – at present there is a voluntary ban.

Chewing the cud

It is too early in the morning for this article to appear on the Western Mail website but I could not wait. There was a time when the New Labour Government were very keen on tackling the causes of crime as well as the criminals themselves. Nowadays, of course, they prefer to play to the gallery and opt for simplistic, knee-jerk solutions in the hope of portraying themselves as Britain's answer to the Terminator. It was refreshing therefore to see that they are still commissioning research so as to understand the psyche of the Country's most notorious criminals. Thus Cardiff MP and UK Environment Minister, Alun Michael, today released a study showing why people do not bother disposing of their gum properly.

Do not get me wrong. The incorrect disposal of chewing gum is a huge environmental problem. Anybody who has tried to clean up after a Blue Light Disco for 7 to 11 year olds, as I have done, will know that the worst possible task is removing this vile stuff from an otherwise perfectly polished dance floor. Swansea Council invested millions of pounds some years ago in transforming Castle Square into a granite amphitheatre only to find that it developed a rash of discarded chewing gum. They had to invest in a special machine to remove it.

The reasons for people failing to put their gum in the bin are though quite entertaining. According to the research this group of 'gummies' fall into five groups. The first is known as "excuses, excuses", they know they are doing wrong so they drop the gum discreetly and feel guilty afterwards. The second "bravado" group enjoy spitting and kicking their unwanted gum with little regard for the environment. Third up are the "selfish cleaners" who do not want the gum anywhere near them after they have finished with it. The fourth type is the "revolted" group whose disposal is influenced by their disgust at getting chewing gum stuck in their hair or on their shoes. Finally, there is the "whatever" group who do not know or care about the consequences of their discarded gum.

Mr. Michael tells us that this research will "provide us with the information we need to target those who drop gum with a coordinated campaign." He does not say how but there is a clue in his final sentence: "The behaviours and attitudes are complex but the simple message is 'Don't drop your used gum - stick it in a bin'."

I have often thought that if I were not a politician I would like to be a consultant. I am adept at labelling behaviour and I am an expert in stating the bleeding obvious. If I can master the jargon then I can make a fortune.

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