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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Final Day

In the end the last Plenary session before the long summer recess turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. This was disappointing as it had showed such promise earlier that day.

The key debate was on the WDA and the issue that I reported on here last Thursday and on 30th June. The opposition were keen to hold the Economic Development Minister to account for the fact that Wales has slumped to ninth in the UK inward investment league for 2005 after topping the list the previous year. The number of new jobs created in Wales by overseas investors fell 36% over the 2004-2005 period, while the UK total rose 31% to a new record level. There was a lot more as well including the way the Minister has gone about the merger of the WDA into the Assembly Government. However, in the end the whole debate generated more heat than light.

The Tories had struck upon a brilliant wheeze to drive home their point. They tabled an amendment seeking to establish a special sub-Committee to review every conceivable aspect of the management and political direction of the WDA. The problem was that they were forced to withdraw it at the last moment as the opposition majority did not materialise. Everything seemed to be in place; David Davies AM/MP was in the Assembly building (but not the chamber as far as I saw), presumably to repatriate health for Westminster; Plaid AM, Leanne Wood was in the Milling Area with her baby but neither were required to vote, as Peter Law failed to show up.

As predicted the session overran with the consequence that the Annual Report of the Audit Committee and the short debate on higher education were pulled from the agenda to be re-scheduled next term. There were some interesting exchanges on the Social Justice Minister's Question time however.

The first of these related to the incident where two AMs tested positive for drugs outside the Assembly chamber. Plaid Cymru AM, Jocelyn Davies, was anxious to get to the bottom of the question I posed here on 16 June - if the machine is going to find drugs on the hands and clothes of perfectly innocent people then what is the point of buying it? The answer she got was far from satisfactory, particularly from the point of view of miscarriages of justice:

Jocelyn Davies: You will know from direct experience that the machine used to detect the presence of drugs on the hands can be oversensitive. There is a danger that people who have not handled illegal substances will test positive. What use is being made of these machines, and how will you ensure that people are not affected by false positive tests?

Edwina Hart: These machines, on which William Graham was able to arrange a presentation in the Assembly Neuadd, are important. They are useful machines for the police in detecting the presence of cannabis. If you can have a small positive reading on this machine as a result of just touching something, it highlights to the public how much cannabis must be about. The police find this to be a useful machine, and I am happy to support the police in how they feel it is necessary to use it.

The second important question related to the matter I discussed yesterday - just who had spun the announcement of an affordable housing toolkit into the realms of fantasy:

Q4 Mick Bates: Will the Minister make a statement on affordable housing in Wales? OAQ0314(SJR)

Edwina Hart: This week, we are commencing consultation on a comprehensive package of measures including our affordable housing toolkit, revisions to ‘Planning Policy Wales’ and guidance on local housing assessment.

Mick Bates: As part of that announcement, you mentioned £30 million. Could you clarify whether that money is already in the budget, or is it new money? Furthermore, is £24 million of that already allocated for issues other than affordable housing?

Edwina Hart: I am quite confused by all the discussion on this. After the comments made in the Chamber yesterday, I went back to my office to check exactly what I had signed off in terms of press releases and other communications. It is clear that the press release that I had authorised showed the social housing grant figures for 2004-05, and how that was increasing to £96.4 million. I am afraid that the rest is conjecture and spin, but not on my part.

It is nice to know that the Minister agrees with me on how this issue has been presented. Her claim that a large part of the story in the press was the result of "conjecture and spin, but not on my part", is unprecedented in my view. Clearly, the text of the press release approved by the Minister could easily have led journalists, who did not know the detail of the Assembly's budget, to incorrectly believe that there was an additional £37 million of new money for affordable housing being made available. However, the implication in the Minister's statement was that she had subsequently lost control of the story as unknown Government spin-doctors misled journalists through unsustainable hype.

This is now a matter that the First Minister needs to answer questions on, but alas there are no Plenary sessions until September at which it can be raised.
Re: the drugs detector answer - we don't know, as a consequence, how much cannabis is about because we don't have lots of other information like: sensitivity of machine; persistence of cannabis traces on variety of surfaces; how recently the false positives came in contact; etc,etc.

But even if we did, ok, well, now we know. And the point of buying the machines is...?
"there are no Plenary sessions until September at which it can be raised"

Nice long summer holiday for you then Peter, since you have not got a constituency to go back to.
I have a region comprising seven constituencies and have already held two surgeries with more planned. I have meetings all next week and in the weeks ahead, a large amount of constituency casework and just about time for one weeks holiday. I don't know what you think regional members do but we work as hard as constituency members and have similar workloads.
So Peter, go on, put me out of my misery. Are you going to stand on the list again?
What do you think? In fact, why do you care?
What do I think? I don't know, I would respect you far more if you stood in a constituency.

What do I care? I care because I care who represents the people of South West Wales in the Assembly.

So tell us Peter, what's it going to be? The people of South West Wales have to right to know.
I do not understand this obsession with Regional members. Labour designed a system whereby there is two routes to becoming an Assembly Member. The Presiding officer has ruled that both constituency and regional members should be treated equally. Either route is equally valid.

I would respect you and your party far more if, instead of harping on about this issue, you abandoned this inequitous and ridiculous system and instigated a proper reform so as to elect all members on an equal and proportionate basis i.e. STV on multi-member constituencies.

I am glad that you care who represents South Wales West even if you have no link whatsoever with the area and cannot even get the name of the region right. However, the privilege of deciding who should be those representatives lies with the electorate, either by voting in a constituency or by voting for a party in the regional lists.

I will make my decision known where I am standing once I have decided.
You should come clean now.

The people of South Wales West demand to know.
You are delusional, David
Delusional? Huh?

So you don't think your "constituents" care about your intentions?
I am sure that they have far more important things to concern themselves with at the moment. I am just interested in how you became the spokesperson for all 400,000 of them.
Do I take it from this that you are dismissing the Assembly as unimportant.

The people of South West Wales are friendly and approachable, but what they do demand is straight answers from everyone - they know when they're being taken for a ride.
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