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Friday, December 31, 2004


It is always nice to have the policy of the Liberal Democrats validated by leading members of other parties, even if they are out-of-step with their own orthodoxy and with the rest of mankind for that matter. For this reason I shall not be advocating that John Redwood switch to us just because he agrees that ID cards are far less important in fighting crime than boosting police numbers. With thanks to Nick Barlow for the link.


New Blogger

A new recruit has joined the distinguished ranks of Liberal Democrat bloggers - step forward John Hemming, Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council, PPC for Birmingham Yardley and long-time scourge of the Liberal Democrat Watch website.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

One party tyranny?

The Assembly Local Government Minister, Sue Essex, has announced that she expects the ruling Labour groups in the three Councils of Caerphilly, Newport and Torfaen to give up chairs of scrutiny committees and allow the opposition to have them instead. She has given them until their annual meetings in May to comply or she will lobby Westminster for a change in the law to force them to comply with her guidance. It is about time. Mind you, it is sometimes difficult to get the opposition to play ball with political balance for these committee chairs. In Swansea for example, the new Welsh Liberal Democrat-led Administration offered chairs to the opposition Labour group only to have the offer thrown back in their face.


I don't mind long car journeys providing that I am doing the driving and I have a good selection of rock music to keep me going. The three and a half hour journey from the Wirral back to Swansea this morning was therefore quite bearable. I had the opportunity to listen to the CDs that my wife and I had got from my family for Christmas, whilst enjoying the very pleasant Welsh countryside. The gem amongst this collection turned out to be the new album by Liverpool band, The Zutons.

The highlight of the journey was, as ever, the small village somewhere between Newtown and Llandrindod Wells whose name I can never remember. It is on the A483 and signposts itself very firmly from both directions as "UK Village of the Year 1998". Presumably, nobody ever thought that by leaving this up six years later the sign would engender questions such as "who won in the subsequent years?" and "what happened to them since?" I know that I am being unkind but these things have just got to be asked.

The downside of being away for four days from Boxing Day is that on one's return there is an awful lot of food remaining in the fridge to be consumed quickly. The upside is that the act of eating the left-over meat enables us to quickly make peace with the cat and compensate it for being left in the hands of a neighbour for so long.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Minister to strike a blow against GM-free Wales

Reports in today's papers that the UK Environment Secretary is to abolish the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission is a major blow to Wales' aspiration to remain GM-free. This commission was established by the government to monitor ethical and social issues linked to GM crops. However it is to be disbanded after its members insisted that conventional and organic farmers should be protected from contamination by GM crops - and be compensated if safeguards fail.

The commission has made life difficult for Margaret Beckett because it wants strict rules to protect farmers who do not want to grow GM crops, and restitution if unforeseen environmental damage occurs as a result of GM crops. It demanded wide separation between GM and conventional crops to prevent cross-contamination, which would render conventional crops unsaleable to supermarkets. It also recommended a compensation scheme for conventional and organic farmers, underwritten by the government.

All of this is music to the ears of the majority of Welsh Assembly Members of course, who have voted on a number of occasions to write these very safeguards into WAG policy on GM crops. The proposed abolition of the commission and the reported determination of DEFRA to go ahead with the commercial cultivation of GM crops in the UK could place Wales on a collision course with the UK Government and test the devolution settlement to the full.


It is impossible to imagine the sheer horror of 60,000 deaths from a single natural disaster. As further details emerge, including the fact that one third of the dead may be children, that the numbers may rise further and that disease could kill as many people again if fresh water and medicine do not reach stricken areas soon, the act of connection becomes ever more difficult.

Some of the UK media have sought to bring home the reality of this tragedy by concentrating on stories of British casualties in the hope that it will help us comprehend it better. However, in doing that they have distracted attention from the scale of the disaster, whilst giving the impression of self-indulgence. The pictures of bodies and devastation in the broadsheets, and television reports showing wrecked luxurious holiday destinations, do not begin to convey the enormity of this event. I do not have the words nor, it seems, does anybody else. As with Dave Weeden, we must rely on eyewitness accounts to get anywhere near understanding the impact of this earthquake on those who experienced it.

The task for now appears to be clear. The rest of the World must seek to prevent further deaths by getting adequate aid and support to the region. The role of leadership in this lies with the wealthier countries who must assume a co-ordinated and determined responsibility for dealing with the disaster. They too, will still be struggling to come to terms with the scale of the task ahead of them but, unlike us armchair witnesses, they will be doing so quickly so as to ensure that the aid that they give will be timely and effective.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Hunting and Feeding

I am spending a few days at my mother's house in sleepy Saughall Massie. This semi-rural Wirral village near Moreton, has become the home of a several thousand commuters, closeted in identi-kit houses around a few remaining farms and some spectacularly beautiful old cottages. Incredibly, the boundaries of the village are still defined by green fields, although there have been attempts in recent months to change that. A planning application to build on the old nursery off Garden Hey Road was turned down by the local Council.

Perhaps Saughall Massie's greatest claim to fame was that until recently it was represented on the Council by a former member of the popular combo known as The Spinners. When he relinquished his seat, held on behalf of the Labour Party, the ward reverted completely to type and it now has three Conservatives representing it. It remains though within the not-so marginal Parliamentary seat of Wallasey, currently held with a 12,000 plus majority by Angela Eagle.

I discovered today that Saughall Massie is bucking the trend in another way. At a time when fox-hunts are staging large meets around the Country before the sport is deservedly cast into oblivion, locals are feeding a colony of foxes nearby with scraps from their dinner tables to help them survive the winter. This is perhaps a more imaginative and less-cruel way to take the foxes' minds off the local chickens.

Monday, December 27, 2004

A question of public interest

A young man emerges from a nightclub, the worse for drink. He espies a photographer seeking to immortalise the moment on film. He reacts like many young men have done before him and will do after him. He lunges forward, smashes the camera into the photographer's face, splitting his lip and shouts a string of obscenities at him. Naturally, the Police are informed and refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service.

This is precisely the sort of drunken yobbishness that the Government are seeking to clamp down on. Many young men in that same situation would face charges or, at best a caution. Inevitably, they would come away from it with a criminal record. However, because this drunken yob happens to be Prince Harry, it is deemed to be not in the public interest to take the matter any further.

So how exactly do we define "public interest" in this case? Presumably, a good definition would be that Prince Harry is a high profile public figure who is third in line to the throne. He has been born into privilege and wealth. He is articulate and educated and about to join the armed services. A 19 year old from a Council estate in South London on the verge of signing up to the army would not be so fortunate. Even in the twenty first century it seems that different standards apply to different people according to their status and wealth.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Those third term blues

For those of us who have been around politics for sometime there is something depressingly familiar about the story in today's Sunday Times that Labour are developing policies for their General Election manifesto to give the elderly vouchers or a smart card to pay for non-NHS services such as meals-on-wheels and long-term care. OAPs would be encouraged to spend the vouchers with private companies rather than rely on local authorities.

This is because an almost identical process of policy development was on-going in the lead-up to Margaret Thatchers' third term, involving proposals for education and nursery vouchers amongst others. Is it the case that all Governments start moving to the right in their eighth year in the search for fresh ideas and a new appeal? Is this a sign that rather than stick with what we have got we need to look for something different and if so what is that alternative?

I think that I speak for most of Britain when I say that not only is a Michael Howard Government an unpalatable fiction but an unrealistic possibility also. There is no doubt in my mind that the Liberal Democrats will perform better than they have done since 1922 and may even become the main opposition. That appears to be the fear of many Labour and Tory apparatchiks as well judging by the number and quality of the attacks on us. However, despite being the effective opposition, I believe that it is doubtful at this stage that we can overcome the electoral arithmetic and go the extra mile to replace Tony Blair and New Labour in the hallowed corridors of power. As the election approaches and the polls change I may be proved wrong on that score but we will wait and see.

We may well be stuck with the right-wing agenda being laid out for a third New Labour term therefore. That is not to judge it before I have seen it as some ideas may well have merit, but it does bode ill for the future of democracy that authoritarian, centralising ideas seem to be dominating debate. The only consolation is that the last time this happened the third-term Government rejected its authoritarianism and its leader and moved back to the centre ground in the face of electoral oblivion. Whether Labour would follow this pattern I do not know.

What is most concerning about the direction New Labour is moving in is its obsession with Central Government as the solution to local problems. This battle is not just about public services but local democracy as well. There are already proposals on the table to effectively take the funding of schools in England out of the hands of Local Education Authorities, as if Ruth Kelly and her Opus Dei friends are in a better position to make decisions on the future of schools than the local politicians who are elected by the parents and teachers concerned and who serve on their governing bodies. Now, we have proposals that will take the care of the elderly out of the hands of local Councils and put it into the private sector with all the additional costs and inefficiencies that this will bring.

There is a huge difference between a local Council deciding to let a contract for a particular service to an outside provider on the grounds of the cost and the quality of service available and the sort of free-for-all voucher system being proposed by New Labour. The main difference is the additional financial burden on the Council taxpayer that will be imposed by the bureaucracy behind such a voucher scheme, as was illustrated by the ill-fated nursery vouchers in the 1990s. But also, there is the danger that in taking these services into an open market-place where choice is the determining factor, that the quality of provision will suffer whilst the cost soars. The decision to set up a Welsh Assembly in 1997 to protect Wales against the ravages of an out-of-touch right wing UK Government has never seemed so relevant.

Whatever, New Labour decides to put into its third-term manifesto, the main casualty seems to be democracy. That is not because the realistic choice of government is so limited but that the government we may end up with does not trust local people to make real democratic choices for themselves. For Tony Blair and New Labour it seems that the choice of the market place has precedence over that of the ballot box.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Merry Christmas

I know that a lot of people are expecting me to post today so I am not going to disappoint them if only to draw attention to this remarkable Christmas message from the Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats courtesy of Simon Titley:

"Incredibly, there are still some people in 21st century Britain who actually don't believe in the existence of Santa Claus! I'm not one of them. I love Christmas. From Christmas trees to panic present shopping, I choose to sing Christmas carols and offer festive cheer to total strangers on the way home.
To those Yuletide Refuseniks who say "Nuts to the Yuletide," I say "hey there, someone needs a hug!". It's all a matter of attitude, and it seems a great shame to spend the time wondering about looking grumpy, and offering people a dose of humbug instead of mulled wine."

Personally, I am one of those people who firmly believe that Lembit Opik exists despite all the evidence to the contrary. I do not share his passion for yuletide nor his desire to hug refuseniks but, he is real. Merry Christmas everybody.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Only the freedoms they allow us

The stories of civil servants frantically shredding documents in advance of the commencement of the Freedom of Information Act underlines how paranoid New Labour has become and how secrecy has become institutionalised at the heart of Government. There is no evidence that this is happening in the Welsh Assembly, though to be fair I do not believe that anybody has asked the question. On the contrary the Welsh Assembly Government put in place very early on a comprehensive code on freedom of information that has so far worked very well. This has been revised in accordance with the Act and we will now have to see whether information remain accessible to us.

The real panic of course has been in certain parts of the Assembly Parliamentary Service and specifically members of the House Committee. There have been concerns that details of expense claims by Assembly Members will become an in-demand item and ingenious minds have been put to use in the hope of minimising the damage. As I understand it receipts supplied to the Fees Office by AMs to verify expenses will, in future, be returned to the member instead of being retained in the records as now. This will put the onus on the enquirer to direct their request to the member rather than the Assembly Parliamentary Service if they want anything more than outline information. Whether the member keeps the paperwork or destroys it straight away is a matter for them, their conscience and the taxman.

My view is that this course of action is unnecessary. Of course there is a danger that we will be inundated with trivial news stories about expense claims rather than the issues, but that is unavoidable. The important thing is that AMs expenses are audited and verified, in that way we can get some assurance that public money is being spent according to the rules.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

For the Record (Part Two)

In a speech to the Labour Party Conference on 3 October 1995 Tony Blair outlined out he was going to be tough on crime. This included a passage on ID cards:

"We all suffer crime, the poorest and vulnerable most of all, it is the duty of government to protect them. But we can make choices in spending too. And instead of wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on compulsory ID cards as the Tory Right demand, let that money provide thousands of extra police officers on the beat in our local communities. But the truth is that the best two crime prevention policies are a job and a stable family."


Courts of convenience

Surprise, surprise, the Government has announced that it will not oppose the Countryside Alliance if it seeks an injunction delaying the ban on hunting. This court action must be manna from heaven for them, delaying the ban until after the General Election. Now why can't they show the same respect for the courts with regards to the indefinite detention of foreign terror suspects? Has New Labour got no respect for the law?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Police in a pickle

I know that it is not done for someone in my position to find the funny side of this. But the idea of bailiffs arriving unexpectedly at the Bridgend HQ of South Wales Police, entering the building and then labelling items of equipment for removal did bring a smile to my face. As one insider said it must have been like a scene from an Ealing comedy. I am sorry I was not there to see it.

Welsh CHAVS?

Following my short posting on the etymology of slang word CHAV earlier this month, the Western Mail draws our attention to this website seeking to identify CHAV-hotspots around the UK. It seems that Wales has come out as a nation of chavs and "chav-nots" on this web site dedicated to rooting out members of the baseball-capped, shellsuit-wearing underclass - but the we are left trailing by the "chaviest" towns in England.

The Western Mail reports: "The former mining and rugby powerhouse of Neath is described as being peopled by "scrawny, pasty, hooded and Burberry- capped scrotes trawling the streets. It's like the lost world."

In Rhyl, "Townies mainly flock on a Saturday night. They are characterised by driving up and down Rhyl Prom in a clapped out Vauxhall Nova. This Nova will no doubt have a big stupid exhaust, a big 'sub' that will deaden any occupants of the Nova, and/or a purple light underneath it."

And Caerphilly earns the unflattering epithet "Caerfilthy" on the site, with descriptions of "collections of prams (not seen one with Lexus lights yet but it's only a matter of time) gathering outside Argos where 15-year-old mothers compare earrings - the most attractive pair seen yet were giant gold hoops with "Laura" emblazoned across them."

Having looked though the site I noticed that there were no Welsh Towns in the top 10. Then again the site seems to have been set up just to slag off various places. I did not recognise this description of Swansea for example. Still, it is all a bit of fun, I suppose.

Just for the record

A letter in the Neath Guardian on 16 December from Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, hits the right note. He says:

"The idea that hospital waiting lists in Wales won't matter in the next general election or that they are not too high is ludicrous. As is your suggestion I think otherwise.

Even though 250,000 more patients are being seen today in Wales under Labour than under the Tories, waiting lists are too high - especially compared to England where they are plummeting down to just 18 weeks from the time you see a GP.

And I continue to press the Welsh Assembly Government to do much better."

Do you think somebody has told Jane Hutt this news?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Flying Lembits

As soon as I saw this piece on the BBC website about an MP seeking to save Concorde I assumed that the campaigner in question was Lembit Opik. I was right. Rumours that he wants commercial services on Concorde to resume from Welshpool airport appear to be untrue.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Unsurprisingly, given the Conservative Party's conversion to the cause, the Identity Card Bill passed its second reading easily by 385 votes to 93. The main feature of this vote was the failure of many Tory and Labour MPs to show up at all. Rather unsurprisingly a significant number of these are known to be opposed to this Bill. So much for conviction politics.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Patronising Guardian stuck in mud

Swansea and Cardiff actually pioneered something good and worthwhile at the weekend. Faced with an influx of party-goers into their City Centres determined to have one last booze-up before Christmas they decided that they should learn the lessons of the past and make provision for any bumps and scrapes. Essentially, the casualty departments of the respective Cities set up triage units near to all the action so as to take the pressure off the main A&E service back at base.

The idea was to assess and treat anybody who was injured during the celebrations on site and only if necessary to send them onto the hospital. Not only did it work well but it also generated a huge amount of nationwide publicity. Hopefully other areas will follow suit next year.

My only reservation was that all the publicity must have given people elsewhere the impression that we are major troublespots. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my experience Swansea and Cardiff on a Friday or a Saturday night are no worse than any other provincial town or City and a lot better than some. This was backed up by the fact that the two units only treated 27 patients between them.

The one thing that the publicity did do however, was to tempt the Guardian back over Offa's dyke. You may recall that the last time they paid any attention to Wales was back in October when Wales were playing England at football. Their reporter swaggered in armed with a swathe of pre-assumptions and promptly got all his facts wrong. This time their representative on earth arrived in the capital city armed with a handbook of purple prose and a patronising attitude that could kill at twenty paces.

Reading through the article I felt as if she was describing some frontier town in the wild west. This is a flavour of her writing at its most condescending:

All around others staggered; dazed and confused, some crying and bloodied, like survivors in the aftermath of a disaster. But there had been no bomb, no train crash or motorway pile up. This was the fallout from the last Saturday night before Christmas when hundreds of young men and women, their flimsy tops no barrier to the freezing temperatures, swarmed from bar to club to bar in search of pleasure.

Parked on a strip of Cardiff city centre known as "animal farm", Mr Loveless, a paramedic with 18 years experience, had the unenviable task of picking up the pieces.

Honestly, if she thinks this is bad she should get out more. Perhaps she should leave behind her swanky Hampstead wine bar one Friday night and go and join the crowds in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or even parts of London and see what a real disaster zone looks like. If this is the sort of snobbish, down-your-nose attitude that the Guardian takes to the Welsh then maybe we should start a campaign to have them exiled from the country for good.

Censoring the censors

Simon Titley makes a very valid point about Saturday night's violent protest by a group of Sikhs complaining about a play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. His plea for tolerance and freedom of expression is echoed by Liberal Democrat MP, Dr. Evan Harris, today.

The other side of religious freedom of course is freedom of speech. If people have the right to worship without persecution or restriction, as they should do, then they must accept that other people have an equal right to comment on their beliefs and even cause offence if that is their wish. Those offended have the right of peaceful protest but they do not have the right of censorship or to take unlawful and violent action. As Simon says, that is what living in a democracy is all about.

The lead item in today's Western Mail underlined this point for me and raised further issues about the appropriate response to criticism. It seems that the newspaper of St. Andrew's University, "The Saint", has been temporarily shut down. The president of the university Student's Association has told editorial staff they are banned from their office. It is understood they will not be allowed to return until they have completed "diversity awareness training" at the university's human resources department. Their sin was to make anti-Welsh comments in the newspaper.

"The comments were made after two anti-blasphemy campaigners travelled from Wales to St Andrews to protest against a production of Corpus Christi, a play which depicts Jesus Christ as a homosexual and the son of an alcoholic.

Jo Kerr, the editor of The Saint, wrote in her column, "At first it all sounded like something from a Monty Python sketch, participants in a comedy portraying Jesus as a gay son of an alcoholic are attacked by a not so merry band of fundamentalist Christians from Wales.

"It's almost beyond belief (apart from the fact that I have secretly suspected the Welsh of evil doings ever since they spawned the cater-wauling Charlotte Church)."

She speculated if the same scenario had been portrayed on erstwhile soap opera Brookside, "It would have pulled audiences of over 10 million and had grannies writing in from all over Wales with their blue rinses in a twist".

......"Failing that slim possibility I could always join the Welsh Christians on their quest for the Holy Grail - complete with the Manic Street Preachers and their lucky leeks of course."

The Western Mail report continues:

In a statement, Student's Association president Simon Atkins said, "The Saint's last two issues have included a number of offensive comments as well as misleading statements concerning, amongst other groups, the University's [lesbian, gay and bisexual] students, dyslexics and the Welsh, which resulted in a number of complaints having been received [by the Students' Services Committee]."

Magazine staff will be allowed to return to their office once they have undergone diversity awareness training, overhauled their constitution and ensured that a single member of staff takes responsibility for what is published. They must also sign up to the association's equal opportunities regulations and will be expected to send a copy of each edition to the university press office for checking.

Now, I am not going to defend the anti-Welsh stereotypes printed in this newspaper nor do I sign up to any other comments they may have printed previously, but given that the intent here was not to incite hatred but to entertain and provoke discussion, I do defend their right to print it. It seems to me that the anti-Welsh stereotypes they used were more witty and original than those usually bandied about and fall far short of the racism that one of the demonstrators accused them of.

The action of the authorities in closing down this paper is over-the-top and unnecessary. They are censoring free speech in the name of political correctness and what is worse they are suppressing good quality and humorous writing. The requirement that each edition of the newspaper must be checked in advance by the university press office is an intolerable act of oppression. It is tantamount to requiring that each edition of The Spectator must be cleared by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool or that the South Wales Evening Post should be checked by the Leader of Swansea Council before publication.

If tolerance and freedom of expression are the cornerstones of our democracy then so too is a sense of humour and the ability to laugh off criticism. If people did not take themselves so seriously then perhaps we would all live in a much better world.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Christmas Carol

It may be that it is getting closer to Christmas and that I have not started my present shopping yet, but the political climate is starting to get more and more surreal.

The Observer this morning is full of details about the modern day Mellors getting his comeuppance from Lady Chatterley. If D.H. Lawrence had been even remotely party political, he could have written the downfall of David Blunkett, working class victim of rich mistress, in far more convincing prose, but I doubt that even he would have envisaged 'the working class lad who is the voice of ordinary people' using the mass media to paint himself as a victim of a conspiracy by the great and the good.

It seems from Blunkett's account that Kimberley Quinn is a women of great personal charisma with the ability to charm the independent investigator into believing her account of events. Perhaps we should wait for the report before drawing any such conclusions and give more credit to the integrity of Alan Budd. Whatever the outcome, it seems that those concerned for the emotional welfare of David Blunkett have good reason.

To cap it all 350 supporters of Fathers for Justice marched through central London yesterday carrying banners featuring a picture of the former Home Secretary in a Santa hat. It seems that this group have adopted Mr. Blunkett as their hero in recognition of his court battle for access to the two year old son of Kimberly Quinn. Is it any wonder that Mr. Blunkett is in despair?

All we need now is for Richard Attenborough to appear on New York's 34th Street dressed in a red coat and beard claiming his name is Chris Cringle and we will know that this is not real life after all but some strange nightmare from which we will soon awake.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The language of spin

If you read the Labour Party's response to Adam Price here, you may spot the use of a phrase that is becoming common currency amongst Labour politicians. I noticed that during Peter Hain's contributions to the Assembly's debate on the Queen's speech that he referred several times to the benefits that government policy will be bringing to "hard-working families".

This phrase works on so many levels. It creates an image that people want to identify with, specifically Labour's target groups in middle England, but also the working class voters who have traditionally supported Labour through thick and thin. It is also an exclusive phrase, deliberately allowing people to distinguish themselves from an imagined underclass of scroungers, asylum seekers, criminals and yobs. In that sense Labour is using it to position themselves as a party who are on the side of everything that is decent, honest and industrious and against those who, for one reason or another, do not contribute to society. It is very subtle and quite insidious.

It is a legitimate political position for a party to take though far from an honest one. Labour are using this rhetoric to avoid scrutiny of their policies and actions regarding those people who, for some reason or another, are not able to become "hard-working families". They are able to use the phrase, for example, to escape having to talk about the demonisation of those on disabled living allowance, to surreptiously legitimise those who express concerns about asylum and to silently endorse those voices of dissent on the payment of benefits to the unemployed, whilst relying on those marginalised people to vote them back into office.

Great communicator hits out at devolution

The man voted best Welsh communicator by an anonymous panel of BBC judges has been making the most of his gift to tell the nation what a disaster the Welsh Assembly has become. Most of them will most probably agree with him, but for totally different though equally invalid reasons.

Unfortunately, Mr. Price has fallen into the trap of judging us against the unachievable and unrealistic rhetoric of Ron Davies and others during the devolution referendum. His views may also come as a surprise to the Plaid Cymru Assembly group, many of whom have supported the changes that he condemns.

Mr. Price is quoted as saying, "Devolution was supposed to be the catalyst for this new kind of politics. Sadly it has failed to transform the culture of politics." Well what did he expect? If he spent any time watching the debates and the committees of the National Assembly then Mr. Price would see that proceedings are less formal and more consensual than Westminster. In that sense the ambition to be different has been achieved. However, the only way to create a "new kind of politics" would be to exclude politicians from it. Even then, in time, it would become more and more recognisable as the sort of politics we know and love.

Mr. Price continues: "In slavishly following the Westminster model, our democracy in Wales has imported all the worst features of the Westminster charade: the near-complete concentration of power in the hands of the executive, with an assembly symbolically important, but in reality increasingly irrelevant."

Well, yes! But what was the alternative? The hybrid model of committee system and cabinet envisaged by the Parliament of Wales Act was not working. From day one all the powers were delegated to the Cabinet with the proviso that nothing in that delegation will undermine the pre-eminence of the Assembly. Since then we have been involved in a continuous struggle to separate out the actions of the Government from that of the Assembly itself so as not to bring the whole institution crashing down as a result of the failures of Ministers.

In contrast to Mr. Price's own rhetoric, that dismantling of the Corporate status of the Assembly, and the confirmation of the executive's power as a Welsh Government, has actually freed up the Assembly to do its job of scrutiny, policy development and legislating. It has made for a more effective opposition and it has increased the pre-eminence of the committees.

Admittedly, in doing that we are aping the Westminster model, but we are trying to do so in a more consensual way. Our problem is not the route we have chosen but that as yet we are nowhere near as effective as Westminster in our scrutiny and in holding the executive to account. These changes have had the support of all the parties in the Assembly, including Plaid Cymru. Perhaps Mr. Price needs to talk to his own colleagues about their reasons for embarking on this particular journey.

Finally, the big questions thrown up by Mr. Price's rant are, if he believes Westminster is such a charade then why is he there and what would he put in its place? Being such an effective communicator I am sure he will tell us in due course.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Running the local Council

A new blog has been brought to my attention purporting to be written by insiders in the Swansea Council Administration. As a member of that administration myself I am pleased to see that so far it seems to be supportive but I will be keeping an eye on it. I have added a link to my blog roll but in the meantime you can get to it by clicking here.

Lessons of devolution

It is the case that no matter how long we have devolved administrations that there will always be English politicians that do not get it. Such politicians will consider it their duty to interfere in Welsh affairs, suggest that we might benefit from doing things a particular way because it works in England or worse, seek to impose on Wales an English framework or policy because they feel that they have jurisdiction over us. To those politicians I should say that even if you come to Cardiff to make these statements that does not make them any more devolution-friendly.

I do not consider Liberal Democrat MP, Ed Davey, to be such a politician as I respect him greatly and consider him to be a champion of devolution. But he is human and even he can have lapses caused by not thinking through fully the consequences of what he is saying. Thus, his pronouncement yesterday that Wales should follow the example of England in introducing Comprehensive Performance Assessments for local Councils and then produce performance league tables, must rank as a major gaff.

There are a number of reasons why this is so. The first of these is that the diverse nature of Welsh Councils makes comparison meaningless. There simply isn't enough of them to produce a league table of similarly sized and comparable local authorities. Secondly, the idea that comprehensive performance assessments should be used as a tool for Assembly interference in the way that Councils are run goes against the whole ethos of devolution and local determination that has been an important principle for the Welsh Assembly Government from day one. The Government of Wales Act is founded on the basis of partnership not dictatorship. The fact that a system would be useful to identify good performance by Liberal Democrat run Councils and poor achievement by Labour is not a justification for it. In fact it is bad policy-making.

Thirdly, question marks have to be raised about the effectiveness of the CPA process itself. Admittedly, it focuses the minds of Councillors on their own performance and offers an independent peer review to provoke critical questions and drive forward improvements. However, it is open to a Council to seek this voluntarily anyway as Swansea did a few years ago. There is an argument that the CPA process is unnecessarily time-consuming, that it diverts staff resources away from providing services and that it acts as a means of undermining local democratic accountability.

All three of these points are valid reasons why Liberal Democrats would oppose such a process. The ends do not always justify the means. However, Mr. Davey's gaff goes even deeper. He says "The fact is that people in Wales are being used as guinea pigs for a policy that holds serious dangers for Labour." The system he is criticising is called the Wales Programme for Improvement. As the Welsh Assembly Government spokesperson says, under this system "all local authorities in Wales report publicly on their performance, using a common means of measuring it and subject to a common regime of audit and inspection. All local authorities publish an annual improvement plan, and are under a statutory duty to do so. The plan sets out their performance in detail and the steps they intend to take to improve it. The formal views of the Audit Commission and other regulators are also made public, for instance in the form of the Commission's detailed Audit Letter to each authority, social services and education inspection reports." This is a system that reduces bureaucracy and regulation, something that Liberal Democrats oppose in other policy areas.

Not only is that a liberal and enabling approach which, if it works properly, can provide information so as to allow voters to effectively judge the performance of their Council and vote accordingly, it is also an approach that was introduced in Wales by the Labour-Welsh Liberal Democrat Partnership Government with the full agreement of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and their Local Government Deputy Minister (who happened to be me). This dangerous experiment that Mr. Davey is so keen to condemn therefore was put in place by his own party in partnership with Labour.

The Welsh Assembly Spokesperson concludes by saying: "It is not for us to comment on the merits or otherwise of the English Comprehensive Performance Assessment system." Perhaps the same discipline should be adopted by English politicians coming to Wales.

Blunkett's legacy

"It calls into question the very existence of an ancient liberty of which this country has until now been very proud: freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention."

"This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups to kill or destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation."

"Whether we should survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt we shall survive al-Qaida. The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of the nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it."

"Terrorist crime, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a
civil community."

The ink is barely dry on the exchange of letters and David Blunkett's legacy has come back to bite the Government already. There has been much discussion on this site about New Labour's quasi-racist attitudes so it should not have come as a surprise to find that seven senior judges state that this legislation discriminated against foreign nationals because there are no similar powers to lock up British nationals. Indeed the government has now admitted that such a power would be difficult to justify. A law that discriminates against some ethnic communities and not others is indefensible.

It is a telling indictment that this scathing law lords judgment condemning the indefinite detention of foreign terror suspects as a threat to the life of the nation has left anti-terrorist laws in tatters. And yet the Guardian reports that "24 hours after David Blunkett, the law's sponsor, was forced to resign as home secretary, Downing St and the new home secretary, Charles Clarke decided to tough it out. They would study the judgment - but made it plain they are more likely to renew the controversial laws than modify them."

Opposing these laws in their current form is not being soft on terrorism it is about ensuring that terrorists do not win the argument by forcing us to subvert our democracy, the rule of law and the liberties that we have cherished for centuries. We have willingly signed up to a convention that guarantees human rights. That was not an act of a previous government but of this one, the same one who then sought to undermine the treaty it had signed. New Labour cannot have it both ways.

The Law Lords are quite clear as to how these laws need to be amended so as to bring them back within human rights' law. They do not have to be scapped completely, but made more transparent, less inherently racist and open to scrutiny. That leaves in place a framework that can be used effectively to combat terrorism. If they defy this judgement then the Government is handing victory to Osama Bin Laden on a plate.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Free Gifts

Monmouth Conservative Assembly Member, David Davies, is at it again, using effective tabloidese to make a telling political point. David, of course, once commented on the Education Minister's love of the limelight, special occasions and the television camera by alleging that if a school "opened a tin of peaches" then Jane Davidson would be there like a shot.

Today, referring to the Labour Assembly Government initiative of introducing free school breakfasts for every primary school child, David passes comment on the number of visits to the 47 pilot schools by Labour Government Ministers since the initiative started. "Assembly Ministers are turning up so frequently at schools to share free breakfasts with children," he said "that cereal manufacturers are planning to give away plastic models of politicians with every packet."

I suppose it will make a change from a spiderman web launcher

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

No mobile phones here

I have been waiting all day before posting this in the hope that one of the new Wales Tourist Board posters becomes available in electronic form to either link to or post on this blog. Alas it does not appear to be the case. However, there is no doubt that this extension of the 'Big Country' theme is both imaginative and bold.

As the Western Mail says: 'A little more subversive than we have come to expect from the WTB's successful but straightforward Big Country ads, the campaign aims to have fun and play with stereotypes, turn positives and negatives on their head and say it like it really is.' The article then goes on to describe my favourite poster:

'One of the best examples of this attitude is demonstrated in perhaps the most striking of four posters - a glorious picturesque view of Snowdonia. Under the headline "Area of outstandingly bad mobile reception", it becomes apparent that the WTB knows that cell phones are not always working when they should be.' The advert goes on: 'Travellers riding up the Snowdonia mountain railway may experience communication problems. Your boss can't reach you. Even dogged telesales reps struggle. Damn those impenetrable mountain passes. Damn them."

All we need now is a bit of joined up thinking. Perhaps the WTB can send this poster to British Telecom, who are proposing to remove thousands of telephone kiosks from these sort of rural areas all around Wales and who have clearly missed the point.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Air on a G string

Francesca highlights a Guardian editorial about a new subsidised air service between South and North Wales. They report: "Mr Davies' solution is to introduce subsidised flights on a twice-daily basis from Swansea and Cardiff to Anglesey - where there happens to be a ready-made airport, but which is a centre for agriculture and tourism rather than industry. He believes an air link, using small turboprop aircraft provided by a private carrier and subsidised by a total of about a million pounds a year (or, according to Friends of the Earth, about £50 per passenger), will "increase choice". But the most likely beneficiaries of increased choice will be the assembly members themselves. Critics describe the plan for what has already been dubbed "AM air" as a waste of public funds that would help far more people if it was spent less glamorously on improving rail links."

I have to say that I believe that they have a point. This is hardly an environmentally friendly option and there are much better ways of using this money to improve links. The issue of north-south communication is undoubtedly an important one but it is something that exercises the minds of the chattering classes rather than of those who tend to look to different regional centres for their work, leisure and political focus. As the Guardian says "For reasons of topography and economic development, Wales's transport links traditionally run along a west-east axis, the M4 in the south, the A55 in the north."

I would far rather continue to improve pinch points on the A470 and A483 and use this money to subsidise a good rail service and I speak as somebody who has family in the north and who travels up there fairly regularly.

More protest

I returned from a trip to London this morning to see that there are accusations being bandied about that ITV Wales colluded with Fathers for Misogyny in a recent protest at the Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff Bay. The Western Mail reports that earlier this month a number of Fathers 4 Justice activists attempted to climb up the atrium in the Assembly building. They were forcibly ejected from the building, as was ITV Wales journalist Geraint Evans, who was making a programme about the group, and a PhD student from Warwick University who was waiting to meet the Assembly Conservative leader Nick Bourne.

Tonight the Welsh language current affairs programme Y Byd ar Bedwar, which is made by ITV Wales for S4C, will screen footage that raises serious questions about the way matters were handled after the Fathers 4 Justice campaigners began their protest. The Clerk to the Assembly has now written to ITV Wales to raise concerns over the role of Y Byd ar Bedwar in the protest. A spokesperson is quoted as saying, "While peaceful protest causes us no problem, we would take a very grave view of any collusion with an attempt by protesters to disrupt the normal operation of the Assembly or to commit public order offences. The Clerk has not yet received a reply to his letter."

The Warwick University student who was also ejected has put his version of events on his blog. No doubt we will be getting a report on the incident at a future House Committee.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Four letter words after dinner

OK, even I am now getting bored of the MrsWindsor affair but it would be remiss of me not to record the latest and hopefully, final incident in the saga. The Western Mail this morning reports that relations between Plaid Cymru peer Lord Elis-Thomas and Rhondda AM Leighton Andrews have been under severe strain since the Assembly's Queen's Speech plenary debate on December 1.

It seems that the Presiding Officer felt he had been "stitched up" by Mr Andrews. It is normal in circumstances like this, that where an AM has said something in the Chamber that is considered offensive then the point of order will be raised immediately. The PO however, takes the view that Leighton Andrews waited until he was back in the chair before raising the matter so as to cause him maximum political embarrassment as a Plaid Cymru AM.

The Western Mail takes up the story: "We understand that Lord Elis-Thomas took the opportunity to raise his concerns with Mr Andrews during a private meeting at the Assembly last Tuesday. That evening, and coincidentally, the Presiding Officer and Mr Andrews both ate at La Brasserie in Cardiff. As Mr Andrews was leaving, he passed close to the table where Lord Elis- Thomas was dining with a journalist."

"A witness told the Western Mail, "Lord Elis-Thomas said something lighthearted to Mr Andrews, along the lines of, 'Have you had a good republican dinner?' It is believed that Mr Andrews obviously wasn't in the mood for banter, because he is reported to have immediately turned to the Presiding Officer and told him to '**** off'. It wasn't pleasant at all."

Leighton is in the process of setting up his own blog so no doubt we will soon have access to his thoughts on this issue. In the meantime I think it is time we all moved on.

CHAVS and other buzzwords of the year

The Daily Telegraph solves one mystery for me by discussing the etymology of the slang word CHAV. Presumably as the Telegraph is required reading for former and present members of Cheltenham Ladies' College, many of their readers will already know this, but there will no doubt be many former Colonels and current Judges who will be encountering this word for the first time. The Telegraph explains:

When you see a stunted teenager, apparently jobless, hanging around outside McDonald's dressed in a Burberry baseball cap, Ben Sherman shirt, ultra-white Reebok trainers and dripping in bling (cheap, tasteless and usually gold-coloured jewellery), he will almost certainly be a chav.

If he has difficulty framing the words "you gotta problem mate?" then he will definitely be a chav. Very short hair and souped-up Vauxhall Novas are chav, as is functional illiteracy, a burgeoning career in petty crime and the wearing of one's mobile telephone around the neck.

Chavs are most at home in run-down, small-town shopping precincts, smoking and shouting at their mates. A teenage single mum chewing gum or drawing on a cigarette as she pushes her baby, Keanu, to McDonald's to meet the chav she believes to be his father is a chavette.

CHAV apparently stands for "Cheltenham Average". It is such a condescending, class-based term, I do not think that I will be applying it to anybody very soon. However, if the Telegraph really wants to do the English Language a service perhaps its next etymological feature could define precisely what qualities are required for a band to be classed as "Indie" and why!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Supermarkets and the nanny

I am still trying to resist the temptation of commenting on the David Blunkett affair on the grounds that what he does in his private life is none of my business. However, there are clearly issues of public interest arising from it and seen from the point of view of a hack like myself, there are matters of political interest as well.

The odds must now be against Blunkett surviving this crisis. Slagging off his colleagues in a recently published biography has effectively eroded support for him within the Cabinet and amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party. Now it seems that even his own officials may be briefing against him by alleging that he took the application from his lovers' nanny to a meeting with top level civil servants and used it to illustrate a lack of progress on cutting the waiting times for visas. Even the usually ineffectual Tories are starting to sense blood. At this rate the outcome of the inquiry by Sir Alan Budd may prove to be a side show. The fatal blow may well come instead from the relentless political and media pressure.

As David Blunkett is off-limit I wanted to draw attention to the perils of the internet instead. The Sunday Times reports that people buying their weekly groceries on-line may well be the subject of a rip-off. They say that the Office of Fair Trading has confirmed that it is investigating allegations that some supermarkets are charging higher prices than are advertised on their sites; charging for a premium product and supplying a regular item; charging more for online products than those in store; and using websites to off-load food close to its sell-by date.

Buying groceries on-line is certainly convenient but it is not very environmentally-friendly - it increases the number of vehicle journeys for a start. It is possible that this latest investigation may set back the cause of on-line shopping but that seems unlikely. Presumably those buying goods in this way are aware of the problems but they still go back and do it again. No doubt they do want value for money but if they do not get it many seem to consider it a price worth paying for the convenience of avoiding the weekly trek to the supermarket. Bizarre!

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Market-led academia

Interesting meeting of the Court of the University of Wales Swansea this morning in which, for the first time for ages, there was real debate and dissent about the actions of the College Management in closing down the Philosophy Department and effectively dismantling Chemistry. The Vice-Chancellor's report illustrated better than I could how all the activities of the University, and by implication Higher Education in general, is now becoming market-led, with academic considerations becoming secondary.

The problem is that despite the economy being driven forward by high value science-led innovations, Universities are having to react to increased student demand for media studies and other subjects ahead of chemistry, physics and maths. This will become more marked once variable tuition fees are in place. I have huge concerns about this, as do many others. If colleges like Swansea and Exeter can close down chemistry and other colleges follow suit as seems likely then our economic future looks very bleak indeed.


Mrs Windsor (Part Three)

The row over Leanne Wood's ejection from the chamber for calling the Queen "Mrs Windsor" rumbles on in the letters page of the Western Mail. It now appears that the letter writer, Ian Brown, who wrote on 4 December that Leighton Andrews should be given a knighthood for his sycophancy, may well be Leanne's partner. Further letters appear today, one from Labour AM, Jeff Cuthbert. Jeff is exceedingly generous in conceding that he defends Leanne's right "to say what she believes in, except that is, for her 'smart-alec' remark about the Queen." He concludes that "Leanne Wood's statement was not just discourteous, it betrayed the real contempt that the Nationalists have for everything British."

It occurred to me that perhaps things are getting a bit out-of-hand over a misconception. It is clearly discourteous to call the Queen, Mrs Windsor. After all this is not her real name. So, as a public service I have included below a guide to how she might be addressed if she were just a commoner like me and many others.

The Queen's family name, inherited from her grandfather, George V, is actually von Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha. This was changed to Windsor in 1917. If, however, she was to take her husband's name, as is traditional in many circumstances then her surname would be von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Please get it right in future.

Government say means justify the end

The decision by the Labour Government to ignore the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and its devastating critique of the postal voting pilots last June again calls into question the democratic credentials of some Ministers.

The Electoral Commission report on the local and European elections in June highlighted incidents where tens of thousands of ballot papers went astray and printers were unable to cope with the tight timetable. They said that largely unsubstantiated allegations of fraud were compounded by widespread voter confusion, and these problems had undermined public confidence.

Yet the Government still clings to the hope that postal voting will increase turnout and seem prepared to ignore the evidence that their present approach undermines the integrity of the democratic process. It is almost as if the fact that we are an established democracy innoculates us from the sort of fraud and abuse prevalent in other countries. It does not and the Government needs to acknowledge that and act accordingly.

The fact is that turnout was variable around the UK and that increases in the number of people voting was also evident in areas that did not have a postal voting pilot. Oliver Heald, the Conservative shadow constitutional affairs secretary, is absolutely right when he says that: "The government's reckless fiddling with the electoral system has undermined the integrity of Britain's electoral system. There is a risk that the kind of intimidation and fraud that was common in the 18th and early 19th centuries becomes widespread in the future."

It is time that the Government recognised that there is no easy way to increase turnout at elections. Turnout is directly related to confidence in the political system and in the politicians who operate within it. Changing the voting system so as to ensure that the outcome reflects the way that people vote is a start but we also need to find ways to rebuild trust in the politicians themselves. That will not be easy and it could be argued that the relentless scrutiny of a cynical mass media, obsessed with personality, scandal and negativity, makes it almost impossible.

This is not a rant against the media as they have a job to do as well. It is an acknowledgement that in learning to work within the framework the media have created, politicians are losing touch with what is important and are putting image ahead of substance. In ignoring the recommendations of the Electoral Commission the Government is also falling into that trap.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Democracy Day

I spent this morning in a local Comprehensive School assisting them with their Democracy Day. This turned out to involve taking three classes of 15 year olds for about 55 minutes each. Filling this much time is not easy so I took along a role-playing educational pack devised by members of the Bridgend Liberal Democrats centred on the 1906 General Election. The idea is to generate discussion about the importance of voting in the light of the limited electorate at that time. Everybody is given a character and then we tell them whether they are eligible to vote or not. Normally, the session then turns into a discussion about the suffragettes and the voting age.

After taking my three classes I was exhausted. I have a huge amount of respect for those people who teach as a profession. I do not think I could do it.

Twin Santa Towns

Courtesy of Jonathan Calder, this is very much a Welsh story - a world record santa run degenerating into a brawl involving CS gas and batons. You can read more here. Has Newtown seen anything like this before? Thank goodness the two Assembly Members involved in the run, not to mention the local MP and his attendant weather girl, were not caught up in the incident.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Lines in the sand

It is funny how even the most mundane debate on the Approval of the Common Agricultural Policy Schemes (Cross Compliance) (Wales) Regulations 2004 can degenerate into a discussion on issues of nationhood:

David Davies: I join in the broad welcome for the policy of making payments in a slightly different way in Wales, based on what people have earned historically. However, I have two concerns about this. The first relates to those who grow crops that have previously been unsupported, in particular crops such as blackberries, because blackberry farmers will often rotate every 10 years or so, by growing crops that would otherwise have been supported. As I understand it, under the current regulations, those farmers will be at a huge disadvantage because they would not necessarily have been growing those crops in the last three years. They will discover that their colleagues across the border in England will be receiving support for growing crops for which they will not receive support, which will put them at a financial disadvantage.

Helen Mary raised the point about people who have land that straddles both sides of the England-Wales border. That is a big issue for people who live in Monmouthshire, Brecon, Radnorshire and right the way up the border of Wales—if you want to call it a border, of course; some people would prefer to refer to it as an administrative line in the sand.

Ieuan Wyn Jones: Will you give way?

David Davies: I am asking for trouble here, but I will give way to the leader of Plaid Cymru.

Ieuan Wyn Jones: Do you not remember your history lessons, David? Some of it is called Offa’s Dyke.

David Davies: I accept that, but it was built by the ancient King of Mercia to keep the Welsh out, I think, rather than to keep the English in. However, I fear that we are diverging a little from the debate on cross compliance.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Politician of the Year

Come rain or shine the BBC2 Wales programme AM-PM broadcasts news of the Welsh Assembly to its tens of listeners every Tuesday and Wednesday between 11am and 1pm. This year they decided to hold what will hopefully be an annual awards ceremony for Welsh politicians. I say hopefully because I think it is good to focus people's minds on the political process every now and again.

Anyway there were five categories as follows:

Local Welsh Campaigner of the year - Blaenau Gwent AM, Peter Law
Most sartorial Welsh politician of the year - Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis-Thomas
Best Welsh Communicator - Carmarthen East and Dinefwr MP, Adam Price
Most outspoken Welsh politician of the year - Monmouth AM, David Davies
Welsh Politician of the year - Carmarthen East and Dinefwr MP, Adam Price

For some strange reason I was nominated for best communicator and most sartorial politician. Clearly, my ties were a bit too adventurous for the judges who opted for the safe bet in the form of the Presiding Officer. This did not stop the programme rounding off the feature with a montage of some of my brighter neck pieces.

Update: The Western Mail reports on the awards but concentrates on the trivial issues. The deserved award for Adam Price as Welsh Politician of the year for example is not even mentioned. Instead they devote the best part of a page to the sartorial habits of the Presiding Officer. For reasons best known to themselves they have also airbrushed me out as one of the nominees. Presumably, they were dazzled by my Christmas tie.

Fig leaves

The elegance of Conservative North Wales AM, Mark Isherwood, dazzled us again yesterday, this time on the scintillating subject of Major Expenditure Group Transfers. Mark was exercised by the extra money that had just been promised to local government. Like me he believes that it is not enough to avoid large Council Tax increases next April. I, however, do not have his devastating turn of phrase:

"I am pleased that that money is going to local government, but I regret that the amount remains a fig leaf on an elephant. Our bottom-line concern is that no matter how this Minister slices the cake, the First Minister and his Cabinet have, more than any Government, the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought and the largest amount of expenditure into the smallest amount of delivery. Wales remains trapped between a borrow-now, tax-later Chancellor and a spend-more, deliver-less Welsh Assembly Government."

After all that I thought it was a trifle unfair for the Finance Minister to accuse him of an "incoherent contribution".

Chris Pond in deep water

Over the course of two years or so a large number of opposition politicians have sought to highlight the Labour Government's disastrous Post Office closure policy and the impact it is having on pensioners in particular. We have pointed specifically at the way that the Post Office card account has been introduced. This card enables pensioners to continue collecting their pension at the Post Office and helps to keep a level of business that may prevent a branch from closing.

The problem is that whenever people phoned up to apply for one of these cards the Department of Work and Pensions did everything they could to make it difficult for them and to persuade them to use another method to collect their money instead. This was a consistent complaint and is not the impression of one or two individuals. As a result the Social Justice and Regeneration Committee in the Assembly asked their Minister to take this issue up with the DWP. She reported this morning on the response:

"I have received a number of concerns from Assembly Members and constituents about the way in which the Department for Work and Pensions has managed the introduction of the direct payments system for pensions and benefits. Particular comment was made about the information customers are receiving in order for them to make an informed choice. I subsequently made representations to Central Government and have now received a response from Chris Pond, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions. I thought Committee members would like to be aware of his comments, which contain advice which you might wish to refer to in the event of your receiving complaints from constituents.

Mr Pond was sorry to read that constituents feel intimidated by the information they are receiving about Direct Payment. He said that the Department carries out regular evaluation of calls made by or received in the Customer Conversion Centre (CCC) and assured me that there was no element of coercion in the way customers are spoken to.

However, he recognised that lessons learned over the period of conversion to direct payments have shown that it is important to take customers through Informed Choice discussion to ensure that they have all the information they need to make a decision about which account best meets their needs. For instance, he said, if a customer calls the CCC requesting a Post Office card account, they are asked what it is about getting their money at the Post Office that is important to them. Customers are then asked if they are aware of the other methods of getting their money at the Post Office, such as certain current accounts and many basic bank accounts. He said, a surprising number of customers requesting the card account are not aware of these options and some already have an account that they could be using at the Post Office. They are pleased to have this pointed out to them as it saves them the effort of having to open another account with another card to keep and PIN to remember. He also commented that the transactions generated by use of these other accounts being accessed at the Post Office also help to support the Post Office network."

Essentially, Mr. Pond denied that there was any intimidation, apologised if people felt that there had been and then justified precisely the sort of intimidation that had been complained of. So much for a caring, listening government.

Another Labour MP joins criticism of Hutt

Following on from criticism of the health policies of the Welsh Assembly Government by Cardiff Central Labour MP, Jon Owen Jones, arch-loyalist Chris Bryant has now decided to join in the party by shooting at an open goal. He has highlighted the case of two Welsh police officers hurt in the line of duty three years ago, who are still waiting for the orthopaedic treatment needed to return to work.

In an attack on the Assembly Government's health record, Mr Bryant said failure to reduce waiting lists was a lapse in "moral duty" and said people fighting ill health to return to work deserved a "health service they can be proud of".

He is right but why say it now? Clearly, there is a General Election looming and Mr. Bryant may want to insure himself against a backlash on the underpants fiasco but does he really feel that unsafe in his Rhondda heartland?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Bats in Swansea

Homelessness is, of course, a major problem and it often hits the headlines about Christmas time. Equally, the protection of our environment and endangered species often secures a sympathetic hearing from the public. The expenditure of £10,000 of public money to provide winter accomodation for a colony of bats therefore seems like a surefire winner.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Advice from the Green Goddess

Having been told that binge drinking and binge eating are bad for our health, we are now advised not to indulge in binge exercising either. OK, then!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Science under attack

The fight to save Swansea University's Chemistry Department was put into context today by an article in the Sunday Times that predicts that almost a third of physics departments face closure because of student shortages and funding cuts. The article records that 18 physics departments— more than 30% of the total— have closed since 1997. Twenty-eight chemistry departments have closed in the past nine years. The plan to close Exeter’s chemistry department prompted an outcry from scientists last week while the Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto handed back his honorary degree to the university in protest. By 2010, there could be just six chemistry departments left from the present 40.

This in no-way exonerates Swansea University from the consequences of its decision. Rather it highlights the slippery slope that they, and other colleges, have stepped onto. We are now coming to the stage where we will be having to import our scientists:

David Southwood, director of science at the European Space Agency and a former professor of physics at Imperial College, London, said: “We are seeing the trend in north America, where physicists are being imported. All the young physicists are from Asia and that is likely to happen in Europe. It is a serious threat in the UK that we will not have an adequately trained core of physicists.”

This threat to our science base is directly attributable to Government, who have failed to invest in science teaching and research. New rules have skewed funding towards top-rated institutions. The 16 departments graded 4 rather than 5 or 5* for physics have had their research funding cut by half. The Sunday Times reports that the news that 16 of the Country's 50 physics departments are at risk comes only days after Gordon Brown unveiled his plan to boost the country’s “scientific genius”.

There is also a further threat to these departments and that is variable tuition fees. This Labour policy will introduce a market place into education that will lead to students choosing more popular courses. Those opting for science will tend to choose the top-rated departments leaving the others to wither on the vine. As funding follows the student Universities will be forced to narrow the range of subjects they offer, depriving more disadvantaged local students, who cannot afford to go away to College, of a viable choice. Not only will top-up fees deter poorer students from going to college but they will limit the choice of subjects students can choose to do at their local university. A double whammy on access.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Practising what we preach

This is an interesting item: Liberal Democrat, Donnachadh McCarthy, the author of "Saving the Planet without Costing the Earth - 500 simple steps to a greener lifestyle" (Fusion Press 2004), has produced a comparison of how four political parties measure up to their own rhetoric on climate change.

The 4 parties were measured out of a score of ten on the following criteria:

Do you use a renewable electricity supplier for your HQ?
Do you have any renewable electricity facilities installed on your HQ?
Do you have a renewable energy affinity scheme for your members? Do you
promote such a renewable affinity scheme to the public?

The parties scored as follows:

Labour : 0
Conservatives: 0.5
Green Party: 4
Liberal Democrats: 5

Commenting on the outcome of his survey, Donnachadh said:

"With George Bush back in charge of US energy policy, it is clear the rest of the world is going to have to provide the leadership on this issue. It is thus essential that all of Britain's political parties provide leadership at home on this issue which all of their leaderships have recently acknowledged is one of the most urgent facing our planet.

"This report shows that both the Tories and Labour have both hardly even started the process of tackling their own headquarters global warming emissions. The Greens and Liberal Democrats have made reasonable efforts but there remains a lot more both of them could do. All the parties need now to really sort out their own houses and then collectively they could lead the country to tackle this crisis with the far greater sense of urgency that the issue demands, if our children are not to be faced with devastating consequences of climate change."

Arise Sir Latent

A lot of blogs have picked up on the Mrs Windsor story in the last few days. My favourite is Councillor Bob Piper who expresses what many are thinking in clear and unambigous terms:

The Welsh Assembly is suspended because a Labour Member objected to the Queen being referred to as "Mrs Windsor". Love a bloody duck...how much further into the abyss will some of these people drag the Party of Hardie, Bevan and Benn. I'm at my wits end!

Meanwhile the Western Mail letters page this morning has further reaction to Leanne Wood's suspension from the Assembly Chamber on Wednesday. One reader writes in to say:

Perhaps Lord Elis-Thomas was worried that he wouldn't be welcome in Buck House to compare ermine robes if he didn't discipline his fellow Plaid MP.

Leanne is a courageous fighter for the people of Wales. Lord Elis-Thomas is a sad apologist for an old and dying feudal order that should have been scrapped centuries ago.

The irony is that they're both in the same party - what sort of party is that?

A second letter congratulates Leighton on his achievement in rather ironic tones:

Leighton Andrews is to be congratulated for his intervention against Leanne Wood, who had the courage to call the occupant of Buckingham Palace by her name, rather than by her title.

He achieved what many of us have been aiming at without success: he showed himself to be a sycophant, along with the majority of his colleagues on all sides of the Welsh Assembly; he gave Ms Wood a platform from which to debate a very serious issue that goes to the root of inequality in the United Kingdom; and he diverted attention away from a speech which aimed at nothing less than scare-mongering - George W Bush style - in the run up to the 2005 election.

Excellent work! He deserves a knighthood!

I am sure Leighton will just settle for a place on the front bench at the moment.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Loadsa money?

The Western Mail reports that the Chancellor's pre-budget report means that Council Tax increases in Wales next April will be cushioned by a £40m package designed to bring bills down. In fact only about £8 million of the consequential coming to Wales relates to the money allocated by the Chancellor towards mitigating Council Tax bills.

The total package is worth £40 million to the Welsh Assembly but if we were to follow the pattern of spending adopted by the Chancellor this would be spread over a number of service areas. We should beware of the spin therefore and wait for the Assembly Finance Minister to make her decision as to how to spend the cash. After all it is up to the Assembly to say how this little windfall is allocated.

Judging by this report of a growing funding gap between schools in Wales and England, and my own knowledge of the problems facing local Councils this year in making ends meet, I would hope that the Finance Minister does give a large chunk of the £40 million to local government. If we are to keep Council Tax increases at a reasonable level and preserve services then more grant is needed in the final revenue settlement on 12 January 2005.

Update: As the Government spinning frenzy gets underway in the wake of the Chancellor's pre-budget report it becomes clear that claims by the Secretary of State for Wales that this is a package that will help keep Council Tax bills down are far wide of the mark. In the Western Mail Mr. Hain identifies a total of £20 million that will assist local Councils in this task. As I have mentioned above £7.4 million of this is new money. In the case of Swansea that will give us about £500,000 extra, the equivalent of roughly £6 off a band D Council Tax or a 1% cut in bills. More likely it will mean £500,000 less that we will have to cut to achieve a reasonable tax bill.

Mr. Hain then goes on to list other money that local government will be getting. This includes £11 million to ensure that no household in Wales moves up more than one band following revaluation and an extra £1.8m to give Welsh councils an overall budget rise of 5%. Well, the £11 million has already been announced and will not go anywhere near services, nor will it be available to help cut bills. Instead it will be used to mitigate the impact of Labour's disastrous re-banding exercise, an exercise that has consolidated the unfair nature of Council Tax. Not sure what the £1.8m is but I assume it is part of the existing settlement and in any case it will have a minimal impact on Council's budgets.

Mr. Hain's article sets out for the Assembly how it should spend the extra money it is getting but then concludes that there is £40.2m available to cut Council Tax bills. As some of this involves the double counting I have already referred to above, this claim is dubious. Equally, if all the money is spent in that way then the benefits for childcare and training the Secretary of State has claimed credit for will not emerge.

He is trying to have his cake and eat it, whilst telling the Assembly Government how to go about its business. Perhaps he would be better to butt out for a while and let us decide what exactly this pre-budget report means for Wales and how it can be translated into improved funding for local councils and other services.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

And here's to you, Mrs. Windsor

The Assembly achieved a new low yesterday with a Plaid Cymru AM being excluded for the last half hour of the session because she referred to the Queen as Mrs. Windsor. Interestingly the objection came not from the Tories - those I spoke to seemed largely indifferent about it - but from Rhondda Labour Assembly Member, Leighton Andrews:

Leighton Andrews: I regret having to raise the issue but, during the course of the previous debate, Leanne Wood referred to the Queen as ‘Mrs Windsor’. Will you take advice as to whether this is in order? I am sure that in a week when the Queen has been in Cardiff to open the Wales Millennium Centre, my constituents, and others, will consider the remark to be childish and offensive.
The Presiding Officer: I was pleased to welcome Her Majesty the Queen to the Wales Millennium Centre, as I have been pleased to welcome her to the National Assembly. I did not hear the remark, but I have consulted the record and taken further advice, and I would be grateful if Leanne Wood could withdraw the remark, on grounds of discourtesy.
Leanne Wood: I dispute the fact that it is discourteous, Presiding Officer.
The Presiding Officer: You cannot dispute it, because it is my ruling.
Leanne Wood: I am not minded to withdraw the remark, Presiding Officer.
The Presiding Officer: In which case, I must ask you to withdraw from proceedings for the remainder of the day, in accordance with Standing Order No. 7.8.

There had been a lot of discourtesy expressed in the previous three hours of course leading at one point to the Presiding Officer telling us that "I will not have the Assembly deteriorate to the level of the House of Commons." Nobody however, was thrown out for that.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Travels abroad

The most original contribution to yesterday's Assembly budget debate came from Labour's Newport East Assembly Member, John Griffiths. He advocated the possibility of the Welsh Assembly having an International Development budget. He said:

Undoubtedly, a budget would be an important step forward. It could do many things—facilitate the exchange of skills and experience between Wales and the developing world, consider the content of the school curriculum, fair trade, procurement policy, corporate responsibility, co-ordination of emergency appeal responses in Wales, and look at how we can help non-governmental organisation capacity. Therefore, much can be done. We could also re-brand some existing budgetary provision, such as that for Dolen Cymru, which has been operating since 1985. It organises teacher exchanges and inputs into school curricula. We could also prioritise one or two countries. Lesotho would be a prime example.

There are some who would argue that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which sends AMs to conferences all around the world, is our equivalent to an international development organisation. The problem is I am not sure who benefits the most from it.

John also revealed that Gareth Thomas, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development, had visited the Norwegian Church in Cardiff bay. Some of us were unsure whether this was because he had been confused by the name and had thought that he was in fact going to Norway instead. To be fair as Gareth is a Welsh MP I think we can be certain that he knew exactly where he was visiting and why.

Update: An e-mail has arrived from a very alert Assembly Researcher to ask whether John Griffiths may have been referring to Gareth Thomas, the MP for Harrow West. Well the answer is that I do not know. If he was then this changes the whole tone of my mitigation.

Damp squib or bonfire

It used to be said that Wales was the land of Quangos. Under the Tories we had more quangocrats per head than any other part of the UK. It was the scandal around the existence of these bodies and the allegation that they were being used as a part of a colonial government that partly drove the campaign to set up the Welsh Assembly. Now that we are slowly dismantling these structures and allegedly democratising Welsh government the biggest growth area has become cliches.

Reaction to yesterday's announcement that three more major Quangos are to be abolished has been hyperbolic. Plaid Cymru's leader told the First Minister that, "You said that we were going to have a bonfire of the quangos, but it is obvious that you have left your matchbox at home." Tory leader, Nick Bourne was obviously feeling hungry. He called the statement a "dog's dinner not to mention a pig's breakfast." The Welsh Liberal Democrat leader said that, "This squib isn't so much damp, as positively soaking wet."

Mike German raised the very valid point of scrutiny. He questioned how AMs and subject committees would be able to scrutinise any bodies which have been taken in to the Assembly Government. At present committees can call in quango bosses to answer questions, but civil servants can only answer questions through the relevant Assembly Minister. He continued, "You have acted like the Grand Old Duke of York, First Minister. You marched up to the top of the hill, and now you are climbing down."

The press officer responsible for Mike's statement though, did get carried away, pronouncing that "The NHS in Wales needs another re-organisation like a whole (sic) in the head."

There are a lot of unanswered questions about this reorganisation. Most of them centre on cost and scrutiny. It may be that we will resolve these issues in due course, but I cannot help but feel that if the Pop factory scandal had reared its head after ELWa had been taken into the Government, then we would not have got the same number of answers, would not have been able to scrutinise it so thoroughly and would not have been able to hold anyone to account for it in the same way.

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