Monday, February 28, 2005
Who you gonna call...?
I suspect that this has something to do with BT's abortive attempt to close thousands of rural phone boxes last year. In many instances they were foiled because Community and County Councils lodged statutory objections which, under their social obligations, BT were obliged to conform with. Roger Williams MP and Kirsty Williams AM certainly managed to save nearly 1100 phone boxes in Brecon and Radnorshire in this way.
BT's problem is that it costs them about £2,000 a year to keep each of the 70,000 phone boxes open. At the same time the growth of mobile phones and the fact that most people have a landline in their own homes has led to a massively reduced use of these phone boxes. However, as Roger Williams points out:
"Whilst mobile phones might have replaced call boxes in urban areas, payphones still represent a vital lifeline in regions with poor or no reception. Brecon and Radnorshire is such a huge and often isolated area that it is essential for people to have access to call boxes in the case of an emergency or for general day-to-day use (especially when it takes the BT engineer twice as long as it should to repair a faulty landline!)."
The fact is that there are large tracts of rural Wales where it is impossible to get a mobile phone signal and some of these areas boast the most beautiful and most treacherous landscapes in the UK. Whatever happens OFCOM must not give into this pressure. Local Councils should retain a veto on the scrapping of a phone box on social and economic grounds.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Helena Kennedy on house arrest
What we should be reaffirming is that people should be detained only pending a criminal charge. If people are suspected of terrorism, they should be investigated thoroughly and if there is evidence they should be put on trial. If not, but suspicion remains, they should be kept under surveillance. Instead we have a misconceived suggestion by some decent parliamentarians that all will be well if a judge authorises the house arrest or control order.
Sugar-coating the unpalatable by suggesting all will be well if a judge makes the order is to forget that it may not feel significantly different if it is Mr Justice Floggem or the Home Secretary who issues an order if you still don't know the nature of the allegation or the evidence on which it is based.
Sometimes, judges can be unwittingly collusive in the erosion of the rule of law by allowing themselves to be co-opted into processes where the genuine balancing of the security of the state and human-rights considerations becomes impossible. Often they, too, do not have access to all the information. By taking on the role of control-order dispenser in camera, the judges would provide a veneer of legitimacy to processes which fall short of international standards of human rights. Judicial authorisation doesn't improve bad law.
How much of this is Labour spin to galvanise their core vote, it is difficult to say. These private polls do not leak by accident. Certainly, Labour strategists will not be unhappy to see headlines like these at this stage of the pre-election campaign, when they still have plenty of time to put their plans into action and to amend them if necessary. I would be astonished anyway, if they had even contemplated the sort of presidential campaign that this poll rejects.
The clue is in the sub-text: 'Over the course of the campaign it will become clear this is as much a team effort as it is presidential,' said one senior strategist'; and 'Brown is due to make a key speech in Wolverhampton tomorrow, pledging to put education and adult skills at the heart of his Budget. Three senior women ministers will also unveil new pledges on maternity pay, leave and part-time working........Brown's friends, however, insist he is not sulking and has done 'everything he has been asked to do and more'.
The General Election campaign is well and truly underway.
Compassion by-pass hits Prince of Wales
Saturday, February 26, 2005
France 18 Wales 24
Academi intend to give the role to a poet who will write about the political and cultural life of Wales. The National Poet's work will form the focus of verse writing in Wales. He or she will also take part in readings and in ceremonies and official occasions.
...."The poet will boost the profile of poetry, benefiting audiences throughout Wales and encourage participation in literature activities amongst young people by visiting schools and taking workshops."
The paper lists a number of poets who might be considered for the role including Gwyneth Lewis, Grahame Davies, Menna Elfyn, Gillian Clarke and Porthcawl-based Robert Minhinnick. There is no mention of Swansea poets, Nigel Jenkins or Peter Thabit Jones however. Let us hope that whoever sits on the panel to choose this person each year has a slightly deeper knowledge of contemporary Welsh literature than the Western Mail.
It seems that Carmarthenshire Council, who are consulting quite widely on the strategic and detailed aspects of their plans are in the wrong, whereas Denbighshire, who failed to consult properly and were forced to withdraw their proposals are a model of good practice. Cwmdeithas education spokesperson, Fffed Ffrancis explains (I think):
Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg has called on Carmarthenshire County Council to follow the example of Denbighshire County Council which has withdrawn the threat to close a number of Welsh medium village schools.
"It (Denbighshire) has decided instead to consult fully with local communities."
In Carmarthenshire, bosses have promised consultation but Cymdeithas says it fears this will be a "sham" as decisions have already been made.
This is a no-win situation for Carmarthenshire. They promise to consult but are suspected of having already made up their mind. What happens when Denbighshire carry out their consultation and then come back with fresh proposals? Will they then be accused of pre-empting the statutory consultation process by having made up their mind?
Cwmdeithas seem to be using the word 'consultation' in an absolutist way - there is opposition so the plans must be abandoned. Unfortunately that is not how the real world works. Proper consultation is used to test proposals to see how sound they are and to modify or change them before they can be implemented. Sometimes it does result in a return to the drawing board. Consultation cannot, however, change the hard economic and policy realities that public bodies have to deal with and which lead to these proposals in the first place.
An ASBO too far?
The bench was told that Kim Sutton, 23, had attempted suicide four times.
She was rescued from the river Avon three times, had been found "hanging by her fingertips" from a railway bridge, and was repeatedly spotted loitering at the top of multi-storey car parks.
The court heard that Sutton caused panic when she was spotted in the Avon last summer. Two bystanders were about to jump in when police arrived and hauled her to safety.
In August she was found clinging to the parapet of a railway bridge. Train services were halted and she was rescued.
In November Sutton was rescued from the Avon twice in two hours. On the second occasion she told the gardener who had dived in to rescue her to leave her alone.
I am sure that the Police and Magistrates are acting to protect the public from putting themselves at risk in seeking to rescue Ms Sutton but one has to ask if this is the most appropriate course of action. Somebody who is that intent on killing themselves may not particularly care about the threat of imprisonment on the basis that she will not be around to suffer the consequences. Alternatively, if Ms. Sutton is doing all this to attract attention to a particular issue in her life then it would seem that perhaps she needs medical help rather than to be criminalised.
In the old days surely, this sort of attention-seeking behaviour would have led to the perpetrator being sectioned for treatment. It is no wonder that ASBOs are getting a bad name.
Friday, February 25, 2005
Council Tax blues
If Mr. Hain is so concerned then perhaps he will look again at introducing a local income tax, which at least has the merit of being based on people's ability to pay. His argument that it will lead to cuts in services has no merit at all. If anything services are being cut around Wales because of Labour's spending restrictions and under-funding.
A letter from a senior official in the Assembly's education division confirmed Education Minister Jane Davidson had received legal advice over the matter and that further advice had been provided to an official by the Office of the Counsel General.
The letter says officials "volunteered a submission in May 2004 which examined the details of the manifesto commitment to provide free breakfasts, in particular as regards legal powers".
After considering the submission, the Minister decided to make the scheme optional.
This is the problem with throwing together a manifesto from the backs of several envelopes and doing the costing and legal work later.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
The return of Dr. Pangloss
David Melding: Like many other Members, I was struck by how the First Minister described his visit to the accident and emergency department at the University Hospital of Wales. He said something along the lines of it being the most interesting half-hour of his political life, that he was pleased that his visit confirmed that his Government’s policies were the right ones, and that they were on track to sort out the health service. The First Minister probably found it fascinating because, in his interpretation, it confirmed that he was doing the right thing. There was not much intellectual curiosity or analysis happening; it was as if the famous Dr Pangloss had visited Lisbon in the 1750s after the earthquake and said, ‘I am happy to confirm that we do indeed live in the best of all possible worlds’. However, most people in the outside world regard this as fairly flimsy thinking and not what we need to firm up the health service, to make it excellent and able to manage the flows through secondary care.
Despite some prompting and a bit of a gaff when he said that it was just such a situation as you would expect in January, at least the First Minister went to the accident and emergency department in question. Brian Gibbons also spent a fair part of last week visiting various accident and emergency departments—I am not sure how many, but he was pictured in the local evening paper that I read, and I suspect in others also. I do not knock it, because I am glad that he is doing it. I have been told by some health staff that you can now see a queue of ministerial cars outside each accident and emergency department, and that that queue is only outnumbered by the number of ambulances waiting to disgorge their poor patients. At least when Brian visits, given his professional background, he can lend a hand, whereas I do not know what people must say when they cannot get a hospital bed and then they have Rhodri Morgan gawking at them. That is something for us to think about.
In his reply today, the Minister for Health and Social Services must tell us whether these problems are somehow going to be tackled by current general policies, that the solution is inevitable and will come piecemeal and fairly soon, or whether he has to have a special policy, consider the current situation in accident and emergency units, acknowledge that it is dysfunctional, acknowledge that the current state of patient flows cannot be sustained, and that we need to take corrective action now. Unless you give us the assurance that that is your diagnosis, Minister, you will certainly not have the confidence of this side of the Assembly that you are taking this problem seriously.
There really was no way back after that.
Throwing down the gauntlet
David Davies: Despite Communities First projects, there are still significant areas of poverty in Wales, including in rural areas such as Monmouthshire. Do you have any plans to visit Monmouthshire over the next few months, and, if so, will you allow me to show you the poverty that exists there?
Edwina Hart: I would be delighted to accept any invitation from the Assembly Member for Monmouth to visit the area.
As he sat down David muttered under his breath, "I suppose I will have to find somewhere for her to visit now."
One gauntlet that has been thrown down far too many times to mention since 1999 is the challenge to Ministers to justify the funding of the Government's Objective One programme. Yesterday was no exception, but Ieuan Wyn Jones' challenge was reinvigorated by documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. Nevertheless, there was a strong feeling of deja vu:
The Leader of the Opposition (Ieuan Wyn Jones): I think that you have acknowledged, Minister, that levels of economic inactivity are at their highest, and stubbornly high, in those areas where we should have benefited from Objective 1 funds. I would have expected, given the massive injection of over £1 billion during the period that you have indicated, that those areas would have benefited more substantially than you seem to suggest. We know that you were a key member of Alun Michael’s Government that was negotiating for those structural funds in 1999, during the time leading up to the vote of no confidence in Alun Michael, in January and February 2000. We regularly made the case that, in order to make the maximum use of Objective 1 funding, the European component had to be over and above the block and that there had to be additional funds for match funding. Now we hear that that was also Alun Michael’s view, because in a letter that he sent to Andrew Smith on 24 January 2000 he states: ‘we could then consider the additional match funding cover we need by way of an addition to the block.’ Did you agree with Alun Michael at the time?
Andrew Davies: It is interesting that Plaid Cymru is a party based in the past and is condemned to live in the past. You seem to be constantly rehearsing events of five or six years ago.
Presumably for next week's questions we will be reliving the Labour Leadership contest of 1999.
Is this a dagger I see before me?
I was struck by how closely his analysis resembled that of the Liberal Democrats:
Mr Smith rounded on a party he believes is increasingly in step with the Conservatives, by introducing top-up fees for university students, house arrest for terror suspects and privatisation of public services.
He said, "This Government hasn't even the courage or good political sense to tax those earning over £100,000 at a modest 50% rate.
"So inequality is safe in New Labour's hands."
Mr. Smith is, of course, standing down at the next election and is to be succeeded as Labour candidate by the product of an all-female shortlist. This has brought great disquiet to Blaenau Gwent and split the constituency Labour Party down the middle. It is strongly believed that local Labour AM, Peter Law, a close ally of Mr. Smith, will stand as an independent.
It is just possible that Llew's outburst is the first salvo in the battle for him to be succeeded by his favoured candidate and that it was designed to help set the agenda for Peter Law's campaign.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
The Rooney effect
In my limited experience of young people, they will use any excuse to justify bad behaviour but no adult will accept that youngsters can abrogate responsibility in this way and nor should they. There have always been sports people who are considered to act in a manner that may be believed to be inappropriate, whether it is Ille Nastase, John McEnroe or Stan Collymore. No doubt young people have used them as an excuse for bad behaviour too.
Teachers and parents either have authority or they do not. It is not easy I know, but they must be able to counter these so-called role models by instilling appropriate values in their charges. Just as children should not be able to cite Wayne Rooney to justify misbehaving, so teachers and parents should not use poor refereeing as a reason for the greater ills of society, it goes much deeper than that.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Is there life on Mars?
Pull it down!
I cannot comment as I have not been there, however the premise behind the Channel 4 series,"Demolition", is intriquing. It seems that the idea is to identify Britain's worst eyesore and then to actually pull it down.
The Western Mail enters into the spirit of things this morning by asking various "personalities" to nominate their personal eyesore. I found it difficult to agree with the choice of AM, Alun Cairns. Swansea County Hall has its detractors but it is actually quite attractive in a quirky sort of way. Plans to open it up as a proper civic centre could well seal its fate as a popular destination for the citizens of Swansea.
I certainly agreed with Sian Lloyd about Neath Civic Centre. This is an appalling example of sixties architecture that should have been demolished years ago. Plaudits are due to Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council for their plans to replace and, hopefully, pull it down in due course. Equally, the DVLA is hardly the Guggenheim and, in its present location, dominates the north of Swansea and the M4. I understand that this building is due to be refurbished soon and that relocation to another part of Swansea may be one alternative option.
Finally, the issue of Toys R Us. Former Neath Mayor and Liberal Democrat Councillor John Warman, is right, as buildings they are unattractive and functional. They also attract a lot of trade. Like McDonalds, Toys R Us seem to have uniform buildings that they will plonk just anywhere, regardless of the context. These examples of nineties architecture have already cast a blight on the urban landscapes of the future. Let us not pull them down just yet but could we please have a compulsory re-education course for those responsible for creating them?
Monday, February 21, 2005
Public Service Announcement
One Labour candidate who may require training in how to use such material is Sue Hayman, who is fighting Preseli Pembrokeshire. When she posted a letter to voters in her prospective constituency she forgot to fill in the blanks properly. She wrote to tell the good people of Pembrokeshire about Tory plans to cut £35m from public services and suggested that they think about "what they would mean here in Clwyd West". She put a contact address on the leaflet that was situated in the North East of England and she printed it in Surrey.
Basic errors in literature are easy to make and sometimes they can draw attention to the content and make it more interesting. In this case, I suspect that Ms. Hayman wishes she had employed the services of a good proof-reader.
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Setting the standard
This descent into yah-boo politics so early on does not bode well for a constructive and adult disussion of the issues. Nor does the predictability of Welsh Labour's defence. They have hit back by saying that Plaid are "whingeing for Wales".
As slogans go neither come anywhere near matching that used by the Liberal Party in October 1974, when they urged the British electorate to go for "one more heave". Still at least the latter was positive and optimistic, the current crop are almost guaranteed to alienate a large number of voters.
Roll on March 19th!
Hunting and opportunists
The Observer reports today that, "During a hunting demonstration outside the Labour party spring conference nine days ago, far-right activists handed out literature talking about halting the 'assault on rural Britain'. The leaflets referred to a pro-country lobbying group called Land and People, which is the rural affairs circle of the BNP. They read: 'The preservation of our natural environment is a fundamental principle of British nationalism.'"
Clearly some very loose definitions are being used with regards to "natural environment" and "fundamental principle".
Saturday, February 19, 2005
Secondly, I note that the First Minister has joined in with Tony Blair in calling on Ken Livingstone to apologise for his 'Nazi' comment to a Jewish reporter. The Mayor of London though seems to be resolute in his refusal to comply with his party leader's request and it may be up to the Standards Board of England to resolve the matter. The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, and Jewish community leaders have also said that Mr Livingstone should apologise. However, Tory MP, Boris Johnson, has taken a contrary view. He believes that Mr. Livingstone should not say sorry but "stick to his guns". Well that is a turn-up for the books, Boris and Ken agreeing on something. Perhaps when Ken does relent he can ask Boris for a loan of the sackcloth and ashes that the MP took to Liverpool with him.
Friday, February 18, 2005
On-line and wired
- The numbers accessing and contacting parliament and MPs online are small and are mainly drawn from traditionally engaged and active citizens.
- There are high public expectations for more online activity by MPs and the HoC as an institution.
- Technology matters, as long-term internet users and especially broadband users benefit most from virtual representation, and have higher attitudes concerning the online supply of institutional transactions.
- Parliaments are not reaping the full benefits of ICTs: there is an untapped reservoir for political engagement via institutions.
- The planned, careful supply of virtual representation matters, as devolved parliaments reap a digital dividend, at least in terms of public visibility, which still eludes the HoC.
- Despite a widespread support for a range of online services and participatory initiatives, the public are distrustful of casting their ballots online, three years after the first e-voting pilots in the UK.
There is also a list of AM websites. Exploration of some of these reveals that they vary in quality.
To an extent all of the party leaders are playing this game. Tone was followed onto the set of Coronation Street by Michael Howard, whilst Charles Kennedy, rather unwisely in my view, appeared briefly in the Eastenders Christmas panto. But how does all this help people to take their politicians seriously? For that matter, how does the dumbing down of politics in this way advance political debate in this country?
It is my view, for what it is worth, that people want to be engaged in discussion on the issues. They want to feel that they have a real choice when they come to elect a Government and that this choice should not come down to which party leader is the most effective mannequin. Yes, they want to feel that they can relate to the Prime Minister but more importantly they want to be able to trust him or her and have some confidence that when it comes to important decisions he or she will do the right thing. How does this new approach deliver that confidence?
Not so smart
Thursday, February 17, 2005
One of the Trade Unionists lives near the border with Northern Ireland and he reported that when the ban first came in, his local pubs suffered a fall-off in trade on a Sunday lunchtime as families went North instead. However this has now been largely corrected. He also told us that people have been travelling to England or to the North and finding it difficult to adjust to smoking in the pubs there. Most of them prefer the fresh air in the pubs even if they smoke themselves.
Mandate produced some very useful survey results. They told us that since the ban opinion polls had found 82% support for it. 95% say that it is a positive health measure, 90% say that it benefits workers, 82% say that it benefits everybody and 78% said that their experience of restaurants had improved. 70% told pollsters that their experience of pubs had improved and 53% are more inclined to eat in pubs. It seems that trade has actually increased in pubs that serve food.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
More smoking stuff
Some useful statistics were offered that provided a counterweight to the evidence offered by the Licensed Vintners yesterday. We were told that pub sales in Ireland peaked around about 2001 and that there has been a downward trend ever since, regardless of the smoking ban. That trend did not change because a workplace ban was put in place. We were also told that tobacco sales had declined by 10% in 2003 and by 16% in 2004 and that the number of people in the Republic who smoke was also falling. In the last tax year there was a drop of 100 million Euros in tax revenues from tobacco.
We were anxious to discuss the economic impact of the ban but what was becoming clear was that there were other factors involved in the closure of pubs and job losses. In many instances, we were told, the hospitality industry had failed to adapt to people’s expectations and that drink prices in pubs are substantially more expensive that off-license prices. Clearly we are going to have to do a fair amount of research to verify the contradictory statements that witnesses have given to us.
One thing that was said to us today rang true. That is that the main factor that influences expenditure in the hospitality industry is the level of disposable income available to customers. Other factors such as smoking bans are secondary to this and are by no means as significant. The other interesting feature of the visit was the way that, having finally accepted the ban, Dublin pub landlords sought to make the most of it. They organised an advertising campaign with the slogan:
"The atmosphere has just got better here – Dublin pubs, the best in the world."
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
The Irish Experience
On landing in Cork the parting shot from the air stewardess was to inform us all that "Smoking is prohibited in public places in the Republic of Ireland". There was little time to reflect on this, as once we had deposited our luggage in the airport hotel, we were straight onto a bus and heading for the town of Mallow.
The eleven members of the Vintners Federation of Ireland we met were keen to explain how they perceived the ban on smoking in the workplace had hit their businesses. They told us that in Cork and Kerry, 80 licensed premises had gone out of business since the ban was brought in. They told us that they had not been consulted on the changes and they explained how they were seeking to accommodate smokers outside their pubs with shelters and heaters.
Their case was summed up by one of the publicans who said that at Irish weddings these days most of the guests would be singing in the garden whilst the non-smokers minded the bags. They also suggested that the ban had led to an increase in drinking in the home and that this had, in turn, resulted in more domestic violence and house fires.
Tomorrow we are going to Dublin to hear the other side of the story and perhaps get some statistics to validate or otherwise what we were told today. We are also going to be joined by HTV who are keen to do a feature on the issue, based around our visit.
Monday, February 14, 2005
Clark bows to the inevitable
The Home Secretary is now saying that he has "never actually used the phrase house arrest". Strictly speaking he is correct. However what he did say about these control orders is a matter of record and amounts to the same thing:
"There would be a range of controls restricting movement and association or other communication with named individuals; the imposition of curfews and/or tagging; and restrictions on access to telecommunications, the internet and other technology. At the top end, control orders would include a requirement to remain at their premises. The controls to be imposed under the new scheme will not include detention in prison, although I intend that breach of a control order should be a criminal offence, triable in the usual way through the criminal courts and punishable by imprisonment."
The proposals were, of course, unworkable and impracticable and this has been demonstrated by the fears of the security services that suspects' homes could become recruiting centres for Islamist fundamentalists.
The Home Secretary is now to hold talks with the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats on a way forward. Charles Kennedy's view on this matter are also a matter of record. He is quoted as saying: "We must never have the position in this country where a politician can decide whether you walk free or are put under house arrest. That must be a judicial decision." Civil liberty and security are not mutually exclusive and once you try fighting the latter by compromising the former then you are capitulating to terrorism.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Wooden spoon territory
A duty to enforce the law
Any law can become difficult to enforce in the face of mass disobedience and those who support hunting are counting on that fact to try and force a rethink from the Government. However, I believe that they will be gravely disappointed. Whatever their reservations the Police have a duty to enforce the law. Even if the Police are unable to catch everybody, those who are found to be in breach of the new legislation must be prosecuted and the courts must ensure that the penalties imposed on them are sufficient to deter others.
It may take some time to sink in, but I believe that, in due course, those defying the law by hunting with dogs will become the exception rather than the norm. To achieve that the law enforcement agencies need to play their part.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Labour and anti-semitism
FE sector under siege
When the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee went to see ELWa it was made plain to us that the vast majority of this funding had gone into achieving pay parity between lecturers and teachers. Indeed this money had been earmarked for that with all-party agreement. What did not have all-party agreement however was the failure to provide sufficient increases for colleges on top of that funding so as to enable them to meet other pay and inflation demands and to allow for the expansion in numbers being promoted by the Government. Inevitably, that situation was going to throw up deficits and this is what has happened.
Many of the Colleges who have deficits have been given a financial clean bill of health in the way that they are run. This is not the problem. ELWa officials told us that they did not believe that the present level of funding for FE is sustainable in the long-term. It seems that publicly at least the Minister is not prepared to accept that despite the evidence presented to her.
On Wednesday the Minister sought to hide behind the new planning and funding framework, but all that does is distribute the same amount of cash in a different way. If more money is diverted to FE then it is at the expense of sixth forms or work-based training. The Welsh Assembly Government seeks to portray itself as committed to lifelong learning and indeed, have met a number of their targets in that field, and yet that commitment has to be called into question when they underfund an important sector like FE.
Friday, February 11, 2005
Politics for adults
Mr Hain said the Tories were failing to tackle Labour on "bread and butter issues," branded the Liberal Democrats "shamelessly opportunistic" and accused Plaid Cymru of losing its way altogether.
As always Mr. Hain just cannot help himself. Perhaps if he was sincere in what he was saying then we could make a real start on discussing issues in a more grown up way.
A tale of two weddings
In an effort to upstage the royal couple (or was it the other way around), Lembit and Sian revealed their wedding plans on the same day. Apparently, they will be tying the knot on October 5th in Powis Castle. The Western Mail carries full details but alas, I cannot find a link.
The two points of interest include the fact that Mari Thomas from Llanelli, a National Eisteddfod gold medal winner, will create the wedding bands and Sian's accessories. Sian will inscribe words in Estonian for Lembit's ring and he will inscribe similar words in Welsh for her's.
A love song, Bugeilio'r Gwenith Gwyn will be sung at the wedding by a friend of Sian. I am told that this choice of song is interesting as it is about unrequited love and death. I am sure that it is a very beautiful and haunting ballad though. Meanwhile, spare a thought for poor Charlotte Church. She has split up with her live-in boyfriend and moved back in with her mam.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
Plaid Cymru hit socialist brick wall
The Minister tells us that the UK Government is successful in its actions to eradicate child poverty. Can she therefore explain why one of Tony Blair’s closest advisers, Lord Gidden, the architect of the third way, says that Labour has not done enough for the poor? He says, ‘New Labour should make a commitment to a renewed egalitarianism.’
Gwenda Thomas: Will you give way?
Rhodri Glyn Thomas: Let me just finish the quotation, so that you are in a position to respond to it. 'There is something out of kilter to New Labour’s perspective. It has given so much commitment to public services but there is no parallel integrated commitment really to secure a more socially just society.’ Perhaps you would like to respond to those comments, Gwenda.
Gwenda Thomas: Yes. On being socially just, I refer to your fourth amendment and to the views of a senior member of your party, Eurfyl ap Gwynedd, who was charged with the thankless task of reviewing your wish-list of a draft general election manifesto. He admitted that, under Labour, there has been significant redistribution. Was your senior party member wrong, or will you now vote against your own amendment?
Rhodri Glyn Thomas: I was not aware that Eurfyl ap Gwilym—and it would be nice if you got his name right, if you are going to refer to him—held any office in Plaid Cymru.
David Melding: He does not now. [Laughter.]
There was no way back after that.
Council Tax blues
Firstly, the fact of revaluation will lead to higher bills for approximately one third of Welsh Council Taxpayers anyway, regardless of what the local Council does. In Cardiff that figure is even higher, 86,000 households or two thirds of all Council taxpayers, have gone up one band or more as the result of the revaluation. If Cardiff Council were to deliver no increase on the Council Tax at all, those people would still face a ten or twenty per cent increase in their bills. There are no excuses, that fact is out of the Council's control and is directly attributable to the actions of the Welsh Assembly Government.
This is because Council Tax itself is flawed. It does not take into account ability to pay but concentrates on property prices, which can fluctuate out of all proportion to wage inflation. Regular revaluation is a feature of any property tax, that is why we would argue every time that it should be replaced by a fairer local income tax that relates to the ability to pay.
Labour are of course, desperate to avoid the blame for these higher bills, especially in the two marginal seats of Cardiff North and Cardiff Central, which will be the hardest hit by the revaluation. They are seeking to limit Council Tax increases so as not to pile on the agony, and they are seeking to shift the blame through disingenuous statements by Ministers such as that quoted above.
This brings us to the second reason as to why Andrew Davies' statement is financially illiterate. It is because his Government has threatened to cap Councils in an effort to limit the damage. The problem is that while they talk about keeping Council Tax bill rises below 5%, the basis of their capping criteria is the limitation of Council spending increases. As a result, a Council like Swansea is able to deliver a Council Tax uplift of 2.5% whilst raising spending by 4.5%. To achieve this they have had to cut £7 million from spending and put in £5 million from the reserves. The Labour opposition in Swansea want to restore some of those cuts, but if they do so then the Council will be capped by a Labour Minister. It is a no-win situation for them.
In Cardiff the Council are aiming for a 2.93% Council Tax increase but because their spending will rise by more than 5% they are under threat of capping. Capping will effectively deliver an overall reduction in Council Tax and yet Cardiff taxpayers will still face massively increased bills because of the revaluation. In this respect Labour have scored an own goal in the Capital City. When they go on the doorsteps and have to explain the big Council Tax bills to voters they will not be able to blame the Council, after all Cardiff will have cut the amount it levies. People will be very clear that the reason why they are being hit so hard financially is the unfair Council Tax and a Welsh Assembly Government who, instead of abolishing it as the Liberal Democrats argued at the time, decided to run a revaluation exercise instead.
Caught in a landslide - no escape from reality!
I have unashamedly stolen this reworked Labour poster from the Labour Watch website as it is so funny!
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
The questions that were on my mind revolved around the impact of these proposals on the price of catfood and how some classic films might have had to be re-made if passports were in place at the time. Police would have been able to trace the owner of the horse's head in 'The Godfather' for example, 'National Velvet' might have become the story of one girl's struggle against European bureaucrats, and who could predict how D.H. Lawrence might have had to re-write 'The Rocking Horse Winner'?
It took Mick Bates, however to really enter into the spirit of things:
On the consultation, you stand there and tell us that work is ongoing to address our amendment 1. However, the consultation started in 2000, and the statutory six-week consultation on this regulation was undertaken at that time. The concerns raised during that consultation included additional bureaucracy, cross-border issues, welfare on commons, and the cost burden placed on owners. You did nothing until 17 January 2005, which is when you held a workshop—one month before the legislation is to be enacted. If that is not complacency, tell me what is. I once described you as Dr Dolittle, but you are now becoming Dr Do Nothing.
It seems that we were all talking to the animals yesterday.
First off was the Business Statement:
Carl Sargeant: You will not get doom and gloom from me, Business Minister, but a little light relief. Could you find time to debate the provision of additional funding for sporting activities and facilities in Wales? Colin Jackson opened a new facility in Deeside College last week, which provides a wonderful opportunity for the constituents of north and north-west Wales. Could you also find time for us to debate free swimming and free bus passes along with everything else that is being provided for free by the Labour Welsh Assembly Government?
Carl then moved on from the free-for-all that is the Welsh Assembly Government to deliver some 'killer-lines' on free school breakfasts. Firstly in response to Mark Isherwood:
Although I thank my friend, the Labour Member for Alyn and Deeside, for his kind offer of a free breakfast this morning, he is using the price of a piece of toast to cover his modesty. [Laughter.] He has much to be modest about, because it is the primary school children and our mutual constituents in Alyn and Deeside and Delyn who receive the lowest funding in England and Wales.
Carl Sargeant: I thank the regional Member for north Wales for giving way. As for covering my modesty, he may have meant a bloomer, not a piece of toast.
And then to Nick Bourne:
Carl Sargeant, who is shaking is head, was on hand to demonstrate the value of a free breakfast in the Assembly restaurant today, we were told, at 11 a.m.. I have news for you, Carl—the restaurant stops serving breakfast at 10.30 a.m. Furthermore, I do not know when your flying start happens, Carl, but my staff and all my Assembly Members were at work far earlier than 11 a.m., therefore I am not surprised that you changed your mind about it.
Carl Sargeant: I was here at 7.30 a.m. and did not see you about. I thought that I would extend my breakfast period to 11.15 a.m. to open it up for all your Members. Not one of you showed up for a nutritional breakfast in the restaurant this morning. I hope that when you go home tonight Nick, and lay your head on the pillow, you will wake up to find the news headlines have changed from ‘Maggie Thatcher the milk snatcher’ to ‘Nick Bourne and the cereal killers’.
If he is not careful he will start to rival Lembit Opik for the number of mentions here.
Update: It seems Carl has pulled off a double. He is also quoted by Leighton Andrews.
Wot no Blog!
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Five more years?
I think the key point I would like to make about Rhodri's reign is that the real period of activity and accomplishment came during the Partnership Government with the Welsh Liberal Democrats. It is only now, as the end of the second year of a Labour-only Government approaches, that they are beginning to pick up the pace again and start to make some impact.
As I read the article I also recalled one of the Freedom of Information requests that I did not report in my previous post. Apparently, a request has been submitted for a copy of Alun Michael's resignation letter. When this was reported to the House Committee last week officials were still looking for it.
Monday, February 07, 2005
A life in the day of
I started off the day by meeting the Swansea Bay Racial Equality Council to discuss historic issues relating to the local Council and its approach to race equality issues. This was very useful and I went away with a list of action points to take up with various officers in the local authority. The issue seems to be that nothing has moved forward since the Council's racial equality strategy, first drawn up in 2002. There is no action plan and funding for the SBREC has also been static. This has left a huge job for the new Administration to do, but it needs to be kick-started.
My second meeting of the day was in Plasmarl, Swansea, where residents have commissioned a study of local youngsters and their needs. The purpose was to thrash out a way forward for the ideas and issues that were highlighted by the survey. The collection of teachers, politicians, Council Officers and youth workers divided up into small discussion groups to see what they could come up with. Afterwards we devoured a very tasty buffet lunch put on by local volunteers.
Straight into the car to head for Crymlyn Burrows and a tour of the Materials Recycling and Energy to Waste plant situated there. This has been a very controversial development because of the incinerator attached at the end of the process. I spent a large amount of time fighting it in conjunction with local residents and that fight formed a major part of the backdrop to the Swansea East Assembly by-election in 2001.
The plant has been out of action for the best part of 18 months following a fire in the composting section and it is only now that operator HLC is getting it back on line. When I arrived the incinerator was still being fired up, a process that could take until the end of February. Newly arrived domestic waste was being sorted by a Lithuanian workforce but the sorting plant was temporarily out of action - diesel fumes had activated the fire alarms and automatically shut down the plant. This was sorted by the time our tour came to an end.
My purpose for going to the plant was to see where the recommissioning process was at but also to find out more about the Objective One application to extend it so as to take another 100,000 tonnes of waste. It was an educational experience but one that is worth keeping an eye on.
From here I got straight into my car and onto Neath to meet the Superintendent of Police to discuss Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and other matters and then back to Swansea for a meeting with residents in Landore to listen to their views on traffic matters. Tomorrow is just as hectic with non stop meetings from 9.30am to 8.30pm. It is one of the reasons why I enjoy this job so much.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Lord Levy, the party’s chief fundraiser and a leading figure in the Jewish community, has warned that important New Labour donors are “disturbed” at the party’s recent use of anti-semitic images in posters.
Accentuating the positive
He also comments on the incredible sight of a Labour Government, six points ahead in the polls, adopting defensive tactics and negative attacks to deflect attention from its own vulnerabilities:
The Labour campaign has so far been characterised by negative attacks on Michael Howard and 'Tory cuts' and defensive tactics designed to blunt the saliency of issues where the government feels vulnerable. The Conservatives promote a change in the law on the degree of violence a householder can mete out to intruders, so the government produces a new good-housekeeping guide about how to bash a burglar.
The Tories go large on immigration; this week, Labour will make its own noise on the subject. The Conservatives make an issue of school discipline; so does Labour. The Prime Minister's allies are quite frank about it: 'The strategy is to try to close down weak areas before moving on to the more positive areas.'
Although I dislike negative, personality-based campaigning, like Andrew Rawnsley I recognise that it is a fact of life, simply because it is effective:
The character of the opposing leader is fair game. I will be amazed if the Tories do not unleash a sustained assault on Tony Blair as a man who cannot be trusted. It is equally legitimate for Labour to attack the record of the Tory government of which Michael Howard was a prominent member. For many years after the winter of discontent, the Tories went on using it to bash Labour. I am neither surprised nor shocked that both parties are seeking to exploit the freedom of information legislation to dig up stuff to hurl at each other. Politics, especially at election times, is not for wusses.
His most telling point however is on the state of the Conservatives:
Both parties originally planned to fight this election in new ways. Both are already falling back into old habits. The Tories were supposed to have learnt the errors of William Hague's catastrophic 2001 campaign. The consensus among Conservatives after that landslide defeat was that they were massacred because they had failed to understand and engage with the voters' concerns about public services.
They would not make the same mistake again, so the Tories told themselves. It is true they have moved on in some respects. They go into this election saying that they can match Labour spending on hospitals and schools. But it is not health and education that the Tories have chosen to big up. They have returned to those favourites of Mr Hague last time around: to crime, to immigration and, more modestly, to tax cuts. It is to those subjects that the Tories have devoted most energy and attention since the new year.
It is difficult to argue with Andrew Rawnsley's conclusion. The use of negative and personality based campaigning techniques is wearing out voters and in turn the methods themselves become less effective. We need some originality and zest in our slogans and messages, not tired predictability. When, as Guy Fawkes and Honourable Fiend point out, Labour's main campaign slogan is not even grammatically correct, you must wonder what politics is coming to.
I know that it is unfashionable and that it does not fit well with the focus groups and marketing methods that ensure that the message is delivered to the maximum number of people as often as possible, but it would be nice to return to the days when politicians argued their case and treated the voters as adults.
Hello Magazine strike again
Unfortunately, my attempt to replicate this feat a few months later at a Welsh Liberal Democrat dinner fell flat and I struggled to get to the winning bid of £1.50. Even then the successful bidder failed to pay up.
If Lembit and Sian are to make a habit of this photoshoot thing then I suspect that even the party faithful will consider the published outcome to be devalued. This will leave me with having to think of some other fundraising ideas. Perhaps I could auction off pieces of meteorite.
Saturday, February 05, 2005
Digging for victory
Labour diggers are trying to discover if Mr Howard fast-tracked a passport for a family friend when he was home secretary. They are also seeking the help of gay campaigners to uncover Mr Howard's record on section 28, the notorious clause banning the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools.
In the other corner, the Tories have their own targets. A Tory press release, being circulated by Labour, lists questions submitted by Mr Lewis including: "When was Gordon Brown told that Tony Blair wanted a third term and what was his reaction?"
Mr Lewis also wants to know "what the government really thinks" about the Butler and Hutton inquiries, if there was a cover-up over the foot-and-mouth epidemic and other "unsavoury and embarrassing" incidents.
The leaked Labour memo suggests that a former minister, Peter Kilfoyle, was being encouraged to pursue inquiries about the release of a relative of Mr Howard who had been charged with drug offences.
No wonder people are put off politics. Perhaps if we all concentrated on debating the issues and less on the personalities concerned we might encourage voters to turn out and vote.
Friday, February 04, 2005
Freedom of Information
The Freedom of Information Act is becoming a valuable tool in the armoury of journalists and politicians to find out what is going on. As a matter of interest I have now had the reply to a written question detailing the information requests received by the Assembly Parliamentary Service in the first month of the Act's operation. These include requests for:
- The number of complaints made against Ministers.
- Correspondence between the Presiding Officer and third parties.
- Names of individuals who have dined with the Presiding Officer at taxpayer's expense.
- Information relating to Scarweather Sands.
- Number of warnings given to Assembly Members on personal conduct and behaviour.
- Details of gifts given to the Presiding Office by visiting dignitaries.
- More detailed level of expenses for four Assembly Members.
- Assembly Members expenses from 1999 in the published format.
Where's Big Ears?
The Western Mail describes this pack as "An astonishing idiot's guide to general election campaigning, which treats Labour candidates like children." It goes on to describe this important campaigning tool as containing letters, press releases and telephone scripts for the party's election hopefuls, telling them just to fill in the blank spaces left for their own names and constituencies.
Somehow David Davies finds it more "reminiscent of Toytown, home to Noddy and all his friends," though, long time ago as it was, I cannot recall any of the characters of these books ever delivering leaflets or doing anything remotely democratic. His view that Labour treats their candidates like little kids however does not surprise me. New Labour have always talked down to the voters in this way.
Anybody who has been politically active will know that these sorts of packs are standard fare in most of the parties nowadays. Having all the templates published in the press however was a stroke of genius as it has the effect of neutralising them if they are used by candidates.
The issue with Labour's campaign pack it seems to me is that it does not appear to be very devolution friendly. That is their problem of course but it does highlight a major beef in their attitude to Wales.
Thursday, February 03, 2005
A cultured moment
David Melding: Do you not agree that one of the more regrettable consequences of the reformation is that we lost great visual culture and the glories of public art in so many cathedrals, monasteries and other places of worship and public areas? Today, far too many public places look bleak and drab. They are calling out for art and to be regarded as blank canvasses, and for the modern equivalent of icons to saints, which would be statues to public figures. We want to revel in the glory of Welsh culture.
The Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Group (Michael German): To explore this area where you are no longer in as much denial as perhaps others in your party are, could you tell us, if the second offer scheme could be implemented better, what do you intend to do to make it better in order that more can be included in it?
Brian Gibbons: I do not deny that I am not in denial.
The Leader of Plaid Cymru took up the cudgels a few minutes later but soon met his match:
Ieuan Wyn Jones: During a meeting with Welsh Labour MPs on Monday, you told them that you would be spending one day a week on cutting waiting lists in Wales. What will you do with the rest of your time?
Brian Gibbons: I anticipated that that question would arise. Given that this was reported in the press, it must be true. Therefore, I checked my diary to ensure that today was one of those days on which I could deal with waiting lists, and I am glad to confirm that I am free from my work commitments to do that. You should not believe everything you read in the newspapers, Ieuan. Although the meeting with the parliamentary Labour Party was a private one, it is my attention to give a considerable amount of my time to addressing waiting times and lists, and to protect time for tackling this challenge, so that it is given the amount of time it needs.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Punxsutawney Phil comes out of hibernation
David Davies: Your last manifesto said that all primary school children would receive a free school breakfast. Did you cost that manifesto commitment? Will you implement it? Will we see pupils with egg on their plates or Ministers with egg on their faces?
Words, mere words
A good example of this was the exchange at First Minister's questions yesterday on the crisis facing accident and emergency services in Cardiff. Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Mike German, was on his feet demanding a report on Rhodri Morgan's visit to this unit last week. He started off though with a general point on the Welsh health service:
The Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group (Michael German): One of the areas where there is no shortage of diversity is the criticism of the health service by Labour MPs. Yesterday, the Minister for Health and Social Services, Dr Brian Gibbons, met Labour MPs in London. One of the MPs described Dr Gibbons as being less in denial than his predecessor. Are you less in denial now about the health service?
The First Minister: Those words mean nothing [long pause followed by laughter from opposition AMs] when you think about the real progress that we are making. I am more interested in figures and achievements than in words. If you consider the number of people who were waiting over 18 months in December 2003, around 5,700 people were waiting for in-patient treatment. That figure is now around 600, which is a welcome reduction. The number of people waiting over 12 months has fallen sharply from around 11,000 to 6,500. Likewise, the number of those waiting over 18 months for out-patient treatment has also fallen from around 8,000 to 6,000. Those are the figures. Do not worry about the jargon, Mike; no-one is interested in that. People are interested in what the NHS is doing to bring down waiting lists. I have given you the figures, and they are pretty impressive. They confirm what I said, namely that Jane Hutt came to the end of her period as Minister for Health and Social Services and handed on the baton to Brian Gibbons from a position of strength.
Michael German: You must still be in denial because if you add together the figures for in-patients and out-patients the total number is more than it was previously. You visited the University Hospital of Wales accident and emergency unit on Thursday, which was a panic visit to see what was going on. Do you still stand by what you said in the Chamber last week, which was that the situation there was normal for the time of year? What action will you now take to satisfy the nurses and the other medical professionals in that unit who are concerned that you gave no response other than saying that the situation was normal?
The First Minister: In answer to a question that you asked, Mike, I said that we were seeing a particularly acute version of the January problem—I am sure that you will have the text in front of you. I stand by what I said. I am sure that you will agree that that is what I said because it appears in the Record. I visited the University Hospital of Wales three times last week—two visits were to the accident and emergency unit. I learnt a great deal from the nurses and doctors and from the paramedics with whom I spoke on the forecourt. If I were to change my response last week, I would place considerably less emphasis on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as I do not think that that is such a major factor. The figures—and I think that we are only interested in figures here—indicate that peak periods, when the accident and emergency unit fills to bursting point, often happen in January as nine of the 14 such days over the past four years have occurred during that month. The facts are clear in that regard, and no amount of jargon or idiotic debating points of no interest to anyone can get you away from that. I would increase the emphasis that I placed last week on delayed transfers of care and possibly the dislocation caused by the new out-of-hours arrangements. I would also reduce the emphasis that I placed on the COPD problem.
Michael German: That is an interesting answer because, as you know, there were patients coming in and triaging at one end of the scale and there were delayed transfers at the other. The Assembly’s Health and Social Care Department has now told me that only two people had delayed transfers of care at the University Hospital of Wales as a result of social care issues. The line that you took last week was that Cardiff County Council was to blame for everything. The figures provided by your department show that that is not the case. What steps will you take and what will the Minister for Health and Social Services be doing on the days on which he will not be dealing with waiting lists—I do not know what he will be doing for six days of the week—to improve the situation at the UHW accident and emergency unit so that patients will not be left on trolleys out in the cold?
Laughter is the best medicine?
All of the meeting rooms have apparently been booked all-day, a feat that in itself is worthy of note. AMs, their staff and civil servants can avail themselves of diabetes testing and support, blood pressure checks and advice, smoking cessation advice and tests, lung function testing and advice (presumably this is akin to the old New Labour joke about the pager messages to Labour MPs to keep breathing), body mass index readings, binge drinking tests (No, I don't believe that this is a competition to see who can drink the others under the table), and advice on salt intake with 'Sid the slug'. This last one may be worth a visit, though I hope that there is not a real slug involved as it could prove fatal for it.
In addition there is also laughter therapy, Tai Chi, relaxation therapy and exercise help. All of this leads up to a policy talk and the launch of an All-Party Group on healthy living. It must amount to the most comprehensive launch of such a group in the history of the Welsh Assembly. All of this is being co-ordinated by the Caerphilly Labour AM, Jeff Cuthbert, the self-designated health guru of the Assembly, with a mission to get us all fit. Rumours that his previous job involved running a boot camp are unfounded.
Just to make sure that we all feel included, each Assembly Member has been given a rather garish pedometer/FM radio so that we can exercise to our favourite local radio station. I did point out that I cannot pick up Swansea Sound and The Wave or Bridge FM in Cardiff Bay but this did not seem to make a difference. My previous experience with pedometers has not been good. On an Assembly Day I have struggled to get about 5,000 steps. I do not intend to try and improve on that record today.