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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Politics with a twist

Welsh politics has taken a rather bizarre turn in recent days, Labour Assembly Ministers have started to campaign against and criticise their own Government.

Firstly, there was the admission by Economic Development Minister, Andrew Davies, yesterday, that the Welsh Development Agency, which he is responsible for, is performing badly. 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.

Incredibly, Mr. Davies told the Assembly that he was not aware of this failure and then went on to pass all the blame onto the quango even though he is the accountable Minister. He went further by suggesting that the WDA's failure justified bringing it into the Assembly. That may well be so, but he should not forget that it is his failure too and the fact that he was not aware of what was going on raises questions about his own tentative grasp of the economic development portfolio.

Secondly, there was the equally strange scenario of three Swansea Labour AMs (including two Ministers) slamming the management and performance of the Swansea NHS Trust, even though the Chair and Board of that Trust were appointed by the Assembly and they are directly answerable to the Labour Assembly Health Minister for their actions. Such a public attack on the competence of a Cabinet colleague must be unprecedented in British politics.

The same thing has happened with schools. Here Government Ministers have protested against school closures and even stood on picket lines when the proposals have emerged as a result of Labour Assembly policy in relation to funding and surplus places.

What seems to be happening is that having tried to put clear red water between themselves and the UK Government, Labour are now seeking new ways to distance themselves from an unpopular Government, even when it is the one in which they serve. They are counting on the public not to associate the actions of quangos with Ministers and they are choosing public servants as targets, safe in the knowledge that they cannot answer back. In this way they can pose as champions of the public even though they are accountable for the failures they are criticising. It is at times like this that Abraham Lincoln comes into his own.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Shock and awe

The Tory AM for Mid and West Wales, Glyn Davies, often finds himself out of sorts with the political world he inhabits. Well that is what he tells us anyway. His usually erudite speeches are packed full of phrases such as "I was deeply disappointed", "I was shocked" and "this is utterly incomprehensible". Yesterday was no different, however, unusually for Glyn, his outrage spilled over into a series of cliches:

The purpose of our motion is to stop the Assembly Government wielding its incorporation agenda as an ideological sledgehammer to inflict seriously damaging consequences on a genuinely successful Welsh story, which over the past 10 years has greatly benefited the Welsh environment.

and then back to form:

I was deeply disappointed to hear the Minister tell us, in a committee meeting last week, that he wanted the CCW to return to its former, limited, regulatory role. Tir Gofal has been a brilliant success story, which Wales can be truly proud of. It is widely described as the best agri-environment scheme in Europe, and probably in the world, and it has exceptionally low administration costs.

...........I was shocked when I first heard that the Government intended to put all this at risk by taking responsibility for delivering Tir Gofal away from the Countryside Council for Wales. About 60 project officers work within CCW, delivering this scheme, transforming the way in which the countryside is farmed and underpinning the partnership relationship that the CCW now enjoys with individuals and businesses that manage the land of Wales. The Government wants to transfer these 60 officers into the civil service. That is all that we are talking about: 60 project officers. This is utterly incomprehensible. It is driven by a misguided, misplaced ideology. We see a willingness to sacrifice a world-renowned, made-in-Wales agri-environment scheme on the altar of ideology.

Glyn finished off with a real flourish:

The Minister seems to have two reasons for this castration of the CCW as we know it. He has looked entirely unconvincing when advancing these reasons, and I strongly suspect that the First Minister has a firm grip on the Minister’s arm—halfway up his back; or perhaps it might be his officials.

....... This theoretical tidying-up argument is being used by the Minister to cloak the total absence of any reason that stands up to detailed inspection.

.......I strongly suspect that the Minister has been searching for some fig leaf to cover his inadequacy and to justify the unjustifiable.

By the time he had finished I was seriously concerned that he had misplaced his thesaurus.

Jigsaw politics

One of the biggest problems for politicians is communicating complex ideas in a way that is easily understood and media friendly. Thus, when Peter Hain announced his plans for giving the Welsh Assembly more powers the Liberal Democrats Leader, Mike German, found a way to explain it.

He suggested that if the Assembly is to accumulate responsibilities then there will come a time when there will be only a few powers that it does not have. Would a referendum then be needed to acquire those last few powers? At what level would a referendum be triggered?

It is a bit of an anorak-point I know, but Mike had a very useful analogy which seemed to work quite well. He compared the accumulation of powers to a jigsaw. Each piece put in place represents an additonal Assembly responsibility. When the jigsaw is complete then the Assembly will be a fully-fledged Parliament. If there is only a few pieces needed to complete the jigsaw will that trigger a referendum or will it be too late? Peter Hain understood the point and acknowledged that it was one worth considering.

By the time Mike came to try out his analogy on the First Minister however, things did not seem so clear:

Michael German: Perhaps I could take you back to the interesting answers that the Secretary of State for Wales gave last week to questions on the White Paper. In response to one of my questions, he said of the transferring of powers through Orders in Council:

‘we will have a jigsaw of powers, with pieces missing.’

That was an interesting way of putting it. He then moved on to justify why a referendum at that point in the timetable would be right. Do you agree that whether you are in favour of referenda or not, it would be an odd time to have a referendum? Can you imagine the question: ‘Are you in favour of the Assembly jigsaw being almost complete, or entirely complete?’ Do you think that that would be a recipe for the referendum to be on something other than the future of devolution for the people of Wales?

The First Minister: I am not sure that the Secretary of State would quite accept the logic of how that was put. The question surely is as to whether an enhancement of the legislative powers of the Assembly is done by incremental means, involving Parliament at each stage, so that it does not fundamentally determine by whom we are governed in Wales, or whether it is done on a fundamental basis, and that is a shift to something quite different from the model that was put to the people of Wales in 1997, and a completely new arrangement in terms of the balance between Parliament and the Assembly.

Michael German: I was trying to get from you a view, given your standpoint that referenda should be used sparingly, on whether, if you had got to the position where most of the jigsaw of powers was in place, and there were a small number of pieces missing, it would be appropriate to have a referendum. You might have 50 to 70 per cent of the full primary legislative powers that you need. Would it then be appropriate to say that a referendum is needed for the remaining chunk, or do you think that it is a logical next step, as I think that the Richard commission would have said, and that you should just move straight on to full legislative powers? Is that not a logical next step, without having a referendum?

The First Minister: I think that you are getting obsessed with the word ‘jigsaw’ here, just because the Secretary of State used it, and are building a huge mountain out of that particular molehill. What is important in relation to the comparison with the Richard commission’s proposals is that the interim stage, which is missing from the Richard commission’s proposals, but which is at the heart of the White Paper proposals, does enable you to come forward four years, from 2011 to 2007, and avoids those big, fundamental changes and questions that, if they were to arise, would tend to be linked to a referendum.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Human rights for politicians

I always wondered if I would get a chance to sue the government for breaching my human rights. Sure, there have been times when I have been outraged by their illiberal tendencies, but never have I been motivated enough to empty my bank account and reach for a lawyer.

Now it appears that the Government's White paper on devolution may be a prime candidate for a law suit. The Assembly's Presiding Officer believes that plans to stop candidates standing for the Assembly elections in both constituency and regional seats, could be a breach of human rights. He may well be right and I am sure that it will be contested vigorously in the House of Lords, not least by him.

My problem is that if you were to ask any normal human being (that is somebody not involved in politics), whether they believed that politicians have rights or not, they would inevitably answer in the negative. That is why I cannot see anybody going to the wall to stop this particular provision of a new Government of Wales Act, especially when there are many issues contained in it.

It would be nice if they did and I am sure that the PO will do his best, but at the end of the day it is the powers the Assembly will get, how quickly they will get them and who writes our standing orders that will take priority. Still if we had a sensible voting system that treated all AMs equally whilst ensuring that the outcome reflected the way people voted then we would all benefit.

Be nice to Lembit day

Just for David Cornock I have decided that this is 'be nice to Lembit Opik day'. David seems to think that my criticism of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader in previous posts was because I objected to him commenting on devolved mattters. That is not correct. My complaint was that Lembit was making up policy on a devolved matter without consulting with the relevant spokesperson. By contrast I am of course a model of good practice! I may comment on non-devolved matters but normally I do not make it up as I go along, I try to stick to party policy. (Yes those last two sentences were written tongue in cheek).

Anyway, in today's Western Mail, Lembit has an excellent article on ID cards. You could not get a cigarette paper between Lembit and me on this issue. Perhaps though my name is not so easy to misspell:

And what about errors? The Government has a terrible record with new computer systems. What happens to people whose details are entered in error? With a name like Lembit Opik, I'm used to misspellings. Goodness knows the dangers facing me. Goodbye Lembit pik, hello Lemsip Optic? Very funny - until they cut off your benefits because of a data input error.

What worries both of us is the flimsy justification being put up by the Government for this scheme:

It's clear Labour's love of ID cards is a love of super-simple answers to complex problems. Recently, Labour politicians talked of banning "hoodies." If ministers believe changing a young person's jumper will change a young person's behaviour, it's hardly surprising they believe a bit of plastic will make us secure.

ID cards actually take the problem a stage further. They invert the relationship between the state and the individual: instead of the state having to justify itself to you, you have to justify your identity to the state. And you pay for the privilege - up to £100 per ID card - a tax on being you.

According to Radio Wales, the Home Secretary has announced that the price of an ID card is to be capped. Presumably, this means that the Government has abandoned its insistence that the scheme should be self-financing. It will be interesting to see how much the taxpayer will have to fork out to get the technology working - and how many police officers that money could fund!

Monday, June 27, 2005

More on ID cards

When the Government starts to offer concessions then it is clear that it is in trouble on an issue, however to backtrack before the Bill has even reached the floor of the House of Commons is quite exceptional. Thus the Home Secretary's response to the London School of Economics' claim that the ID card scheme could cost £18bn - triple government estimates of £6bn - is quite extraordinary.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, predicted ID cards would prove to be Tony Blair's poll tax. "Businesses and the unions hate them. Minority communities fear them. Nine out of ten of us don't want to pay for them," she said. Conscious of this, Charles Clarke is now suggesting that the flat rate charge could be discounted for pensioners. There is no indication whether a means-testing will apply for others nor how that would be paid for given the Chancellor's insistence that the scheme is self-financing.

It is obvious that the Government is starting to flounder on this issue already.


Sunday, June 26, 2005

Church hits out at Zimbabwe deportations

I really have got to stop reading tabloid newspapers. My first reaction on reading this in the Observer this morning was to wonder why Charlotte Church's views on Zimbabwe should attract the interest of such a serious newspaper.

Putting that trivia to one side this issue is actually a very serious one. Speaking to members of an asylum seeker support group in Swansea on Friday I got the impression that the Home Office has stopped giving many asylum applications serious consideration despite the very desperate and genuine circumstances of the applicants. The rejection rate is apparently rocketing, whilst their willingness to send people back to certain imprisonment, torture and death is disturbing.

One support worker told me that she believes that the poorly paid civil servants who process the applications are burnt out trying to balance the harrowing facts they are confronted with daily against impossible rejection targets. She thinks that political imperatives are overriding compassion and justice.

This article on the Institute of Race Relations website backs up the Observer's story. They report that ninety-seven Zimbabwean asylum seekers, in detention centres across England, have gone on hunger strike to protest against the increasing number of deportations to Harare.

One of the hunger-strikers, Tafara Nhenghu, told IRR News that the aim of the hunger strike was to raise public awareness about both Mugabe's regime and Britain's asylum system. 'We need British people to know about this', he said. 'The immigration authorities just grab you in the morning and take you to the plane, without you even having time to contact solicitors or make arrangements. Detainees are affected psychologically by having to wait for weeks and months, without being told what is happening. There is widespread anxiety and tension.'

Tafara is being held at Harmondsworth detention centre, where asylum seekers' applications are 'fast-tracked'. He faces deportation back to Harare in the next few days. 'It is dangerous for any deportations to take place right now', says Tafara. 'In Zimbabwe, it is hard to know what is happening to returned asylum seekers. We are asking for a review of the deportation policy.'

These deportations are taking place despite the fact that the foreign secretary himself does not believe that Zimbabwe is a safe place for dissenters:

The statement issued last week by foreign secretary Jack Straw could not be clearer. 'Over the last three weeks the Mugabe regime has launched a brutal crackdown on some of the most vulnerable Zimbabweans', he said. 'Over 30,000 have been arrested, with over 40,000 households (approximately 200,000 people) affected with their homes and businesses callously destroyed. There are also reports of children being detained in prison and separated from their parents. The crackdown continues to spread across the country to many urban and some rural areas. Armed police have swiftly crushed any resistance with teargas.' Straw went on to call on the international community to maximise the pressure on Mugabe to 'end this brutality'.

And yet, the treatment of asylum seekers by the Home Office is verging on the inhumane:

In recent weeks, the rate of deportation is thought to have increased. Zimbabweans, who have been reporting each week as required to immigration officials, have been put in detention without warning and told that they are to be deported. The result has been a growing climate of fear among Zimbabwean asylum seekers, particularly as news of the clampdown in Zimbabwe spreads. Within detention centres, there seems to be growing tensions between staff and detainees. A statement issued last Thursday by Zimbabweans at Harmondswoth alleged that detainees have been 'verbally and physically abused by the officers'. In one incident, a detainee was allegedly strip-searched in the canteen in front of female officers during mealtime.

It is not just Zimbabwean nationals who are being treated like this. Asylum seekers from other countries are also facing deportation to Countries which are not safe for them. This week I am accompanying two Iranian asylum seekers to see their solicitor to try and establish what legal remedies are left to them to prevent them being deported back to Iran.

Mehri Karbasirajai is a highly educated and deeply principled woman, who was employed as a teacher in a maternity hospital in Iran. Alarmed at the injustices women were experiencing under the current regime, she established and led a human rights organisation that demonstrated for a liberalisation of society and for greater professional and educational opportunities for women. The response of the authorities was violent and intimidatory. Mehri and some of her colleagues were arrested and one of them was killed in custody. In the same period, Mehri's husband, who had been imprisoned for four years in the 1980s for political activities, was detained by the security forces, and is still in prison. Frightened by the state's treatment of her family and fearing for her life, Mehri managed to flee the country with her daughter. The situation remains the same for political organisers like Mehri, with imprisonment, torture and execution continuing.

Despite the strength of their case Mehri and her daughter have been refused Humanitarian Protection. They have had poor legal advice and now face being sent back to the regime they fled from despite the fact that asylum seekers are not meant to be returned to Iran.

The problem with legal advice seems to be a common one. As the Institute of Race Relations reports full access to legal aid has now been denied by the government:

In April 2004, the government proclaimed that new measures would derail the 'gravy train' of public funding for immigration and asylum legal representatives. Through the Legal Services Commission (LSC), they enforced drastic funding cuts by making profound changes to the LSC administrative systems in immigration and asylum cases. The LSC argued that meritorious claims, the most vulnerable of applicants and the best quality legal representatives would not be disadvantaged by the new system.

One year on, BID (Bail for Immigration Detainees) and Asylum Aid present the front-line experiences of asylum seekers, migrants, human rights and refugee organisations and legal representatives showing that, across England and Wales, it is increasingly difficult for asylum seekers and immigrants, including the most vulnerable, to access good-quality legal advice and representation.

Many asylum seekers are being left to represent themselves, as large numbers of quality law firms pull out of asylum and immigration work or significantly reduce the amount of publicly funded work that they take on. The culture of refusal and bureaucracy at the LSC has obstructed and eroded the provision of good quality legal advice. According to the Justice Denied dossier, not-for-profit legal advice services, which generally also rely on LSC funding for casework, allege that LSC decisions are made in a quasi-judicial capacity. They maintain that the imposition of severe (and often apparently arbitrary and ill-reasoned) limitations on casework seriously undermines their capacity to give good-quality legal representation to the increasing numbers turning to them for advice and representation.

Among those having such difficulties are victims of torture, the traumatised and those with mental health needs, young people who came to the UK as unaccompanied minors, those who are HIV-positive and the terminally ill, victims of trafficking, and other vulnerable people, large numbers of whom are detained. Under the LSC constraints, practitioners are more likely to take on cases that are less complex rather than cases of the most needy or vulnerable.

Faced with an increasingly complex and confusing system, arbitrary decision-making and the seeming indifference of the authorities to their case, genuine asylum seekers are being denied the opportunity to receive the advice and assistance needed to put their case. This is a huge issue and cannot be ignored by MPs much longer.

Greg who?

According to today's Wales on Sunday, former BBC chief, Greg Dyke, believes that the recent Dr. Who series spent too much time in Cardiff. Apparently, he thinks that BBC Wales were trying to save money and that the obsession with the Welsh capital belied the Doctor's status as a time traveller:

"Given that the Doctor is a time traveller able to go anywhere at any time, he did end up on Earth a disappointing number of times during the 13 episodes and, even worse, he kept turning up in Cardiff.

"Of course any connection with the fact that the series was made by BBC Wales, and that for the production team, Cardiff was a cheaper location is purely coincidental."

Greg Dyke, of course, lives in London. Any connection with that fact and his criticism of the Dr. Who series is entirely coincidental.

Personally, I was just relieved that Dr. Who was not filmed in a sand pit or quarry as it seemed to be when it was in the hands of a London-based production team. At least this last series featured real people with real lives even if some of the plots were a bit far-fetched. I thought Cardiff made for a very good location and was a very convincing stand-in for London. I also believe that the fact that the producers made use of Swansea and Newport for filming helped to spread the benefits around South Wales and that the Swansea Marina area was a magnificent location for one of the best episodes.

Greg Dyke needs to wake up to the fact that the world is not centred on London. The rest of Britain has something to offer as well and the recent series of Doctor Who demonstrated that magnificently.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The fight against ID cards

At last there is some sign of life in the Parliamentary Labour Party in the battle to stop the Government's madcap ID card scheme. The Guardian reports that the leftwing Campaign Group of MPs will be challenging the cost, effectiveness and illiberality of the scheme.

Twenty-one such MPs have signed a Commons "reasoned amendment" which seeks to reject the bill on the grounds that it will "make no signficant contribution to reduction or eradication of terrorism, illegal immigration or illegal employment" - nor provide data safeguards, realistic costs or address scope for error in the new biometric technologies".

Meanwhile, the Transport and General Workers Union has joined the fray. They have issued an analysis of the bill's weakness, which says the scheme will prove "costly and impractical, make it more difficult for everyone to access public services" and be a menace to both public sector workers, who will have to deal with angry members of the public, and to race relations.


Frankenstein Government shows true colours

If anybody ever thought that this UK Labour Government has green credentials then they would have been disabused of that notion yesterday when a British Environment Minister tried to persuade the European Community to lift its ban on GM crops and food.

The decision will make it easier for the Welsh Assembly to maintain its own anti-GM stance in line with public opinion. However, it seems that such concern cuts no ice with Elliot Morley, the Minister concerned. As Friends of the Earth's UK campaigner on the GM issue, Emily Diamand, said:

"Today's vote is a vote for common sense, and a victory for European consumers, who are overwhelmingly opposed to GM food.

"The actions of the UK today have been appalling.

"It is bad enough that Elliot Morley should ignore public opinion on this important issue. But it is outrageous that he should try to prevent other countries saying no to GM.

"His actions will do nothing to improve the UK's battered reputation on this issue, or help its poor image in Europe."

Clear water

It seems that it is not just Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats who are having problems educating their MPs on the realities of devolution. We have always known that many Conservative MPs have had some difficulty in accepting the Welsh Assembly and in many cases they have carried on as if it did not exist. Now Nick Bourne, the Welsh Conservative's Assembly Leader, has fired a shot across their bows.

As the Western Mail puts it: 'He has finally cracked under the strain of trying to explain the basics of GCSE devolution to his Westminster colleagues. Welsh Conservative Assembly leader Nick Bourne is to publicly complain about the failure of his Westminster colleagues to know, much less care, about the devolution dividend.

Six years of devolved government in Wales and Scotland has fuelled Tory demands for an English Parliament, but has done little to ensure the Westminster parliamentary party understands the complexities of the UK power split.

Still the Conservatives are not alone in this.

Some Westminster hacks display the shakiest understanding of devolution, while the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, told a Welsh journalist he could not comment on events in Blaenau Gwent because he was a "national politician."'

I hope that Lembit Opik, Elfyn Llwyd, Peter Hain and the rest are taking notes.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The first spin doctor

Did Moses conduct the first referendum? Biblical texts indicate that he almost certainly did not. After all the ten commandments were imposed on his people, they did not have a chance to accept or reject them in a plebiscite. However, according to Rhodri Morgan on Wednesday, the commandments comprise the ideal constitution on which to base a vote.

The First Minister was commenting in the Assembly on the outcome of the French Referendum on the European Constitution and the fact that every voter was issued with a copy of the aforesaid document, roughly the size of a telephone directory. No wonder they voted 'Non':

I agree with you about the fundamental mistake that was made in presenting a big book of rules to people. In some ways, you have to admire the confidence of the French Government in sending something as thick as a telephone directory to every single voter in France, and expecting them to come out and say, ‘This is pretty big, so we will vote for it’. A big book of rules will not go down well in the context of a referendum; if you are going to bring in rules, you should, like the ten commandments that were handed down on two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai, keep it simple. The ten commandments cover criminal law, agriculture policy and family life in probably no more than 100 words in total. Something like that would have a much better chance of being voted through.

The question then is: was Moses the first spin doctor? He certainly knew how to win over the electorate when it came to adopting a controversial new set of rules. Maybe the European leaders should go back to basics and emulate his methods.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Under-dressed of Clwyd West

The Western Mail highlights a controversy that arose yesterday in Plenary, whether or not an Assembly Member needs to wear a tie in the chamber. This arose following a point of order as to whether it was alright for Culture Minister Alun Pugh to sit in the chamber with an open-neck shirt.

Lord Elis-Thomas decided that in warmer weather it was acceptable for AMs not to wear ties. However, he said his personal preference was for jackets and ties and he stressed he personally would not sit in the Chamber without a tie.

Whether or not Alun Pugh had failed to wear a tie because of the heat is open to debate. The chamber is in fact air-conditioned. Indeed I had been told earlier that day that the member for Clwyd West was walking around in a distinctive multi-coloured striped open-necked shirt because he could not find a tie to match it. This has never been something I have worried about.

Testing the security

It is becoming common nowadays for newspapers to send a journalist undercover into some royal palace or government building with a large parcel labelled 'bomb' just to see how far they get. Fortunately, no one seems to have done it at the Assembly just yet.

Security is, in fact, very tight here. All visitors have to go through a metal detector and their bags are scanned for anything suspicious. In addition we have our own Police Station plus trained staff who are primed to help sort out any incidents. In theory therefore we should not have to worry too much.

It is with that in mind that I record an incident yesterday involving one of the Assembly Member's support staff. This person is leaving shortly but for some reason beyond my understanding has taken to bringing a plastic water pistol into work. On Wednesday however, she forgot her pass and had to come in through the scanners.

All was well until her handbag was scanned. There, clearly shown on the screen, was the outline of her water pistol looking for all intents and purposes like a German Luger pistol. There was a moment of tension on her part, wondering whether she would be asked to open her bag and explain what was in there, when she was waived through without any questions being asked. The person staffing the scanner did not even ask to see the offending item.

It is possible that she was known to the staff and that they assumed there was an innocent explanation, however that offers no assurances for the rest of us. Let us hope that if there is a real terrorist (or even a journalist posing as one) then they will not get beyond this scanning point.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Poor maligned Mary Stuart

Somebody commented the other day that there is only three weeks left before the Assembly breaks up for summer recess. If that is the case then we need to relish the finer moments of Plenary sessions whilst we can, after all the next lot will not be held until September.

Plenary can be raucous too, of course. Today was a good example of that and I plead guilty in provoking half an hour of heated and angry exchanges on the subject of variable top-up fees with a throwaway remark that was in retrospect out-of-order, though a jolly good debating point at the time. We will have to wait for the record of proceedings to see how that moment has been inscribed for posterity.

Yesterday was a bit quieter but there were still a number of off-record remarks made from a sedentary position otherwise known as heckling. This prompted the Presiding Officer to rule that "The First Minister need take no notice of interruptions from Alun Cairns." Alas, the record was much kinder to my fellow South Wales West regional member, transcribing it as "The First Minister need take no notice of interruptions, even when they are made by Alun Cairns."

As usual we had to rely on Tory AM, David Melding to inject a bit of cultural gravitas into the proceedings:

I welcome the Secretary of State to the Assembly, and I congratulate him on breaking the world record for mentioning John Redwood the most times in our proceedings. John Redwood seems to play the same role in the Assembly’s history as Mary Stuart does in the history of England. Like that Queen, he is rather misunderstood. [Laughter.] However, that is not a theme that I could profitably develop today.

The theme was the Queen's speech and most of the debate centred on the Government's White paper proposing greater powers for the Assembly. The idea is that any final transfer will not take place until there has been a referendum, but that vote can only be triggered by a resolution of the Assembly supported by two thirds of the members and by a simple majority in the House of Parliament. David Melding thought that the delay was absurd and made it clear where he stood within his own party:

On the points that have caused sharp division, I will start, naturally, with the referendum. Why not call a referendum now? Why are we afraid of the people? I was distraught to hear the Secretary of State say that he thinks that we would fail to win a referendum. That is an awful judgment on his party’s Assembly Government, and it is not satisfactory to say that, some time between 2011 and 2015, we may be in a position where we are mature enough to ask the people of Wales whether we can pass our own laws such as Alderney, Jersey, Guernsey or some other continental colossus.

Leighton Andrews: At the last election, the Conservatives proposed a multiple-choice preferendum on the Assembly’s future. Are you now adding a new choice to that, based on the views expressed by the new Conservative Member of Parliament for Monmouth that certain powers should be repatriated back from the Assembly to Westminster?

David Melding: I only wish that I could give you an audio tape of some of the private discussions that we had in our group meetings, but, alas, that is not possible. However, I do not hold very similar views.

Devolution as it currently stands in Wales is a halfway house. The White Paper puts new windows into the halfway house, but it does not change its structure. In the light of experience, we can now make a judgment on whether the structure is robust, and we ought to get on with that work. We know why the question will not be put to the people of Wales: it is because they will say ‘yes’ to primary powers and there will be a consequential cut in the number of Members of Parliament. That would badly affect the Labour Party, which suffered badly in the general election, and did not secure a majority of votes in England. It is an ominous warning that itself will have consequences for devolution.

On the issue of the Assembly's electoral system David was quite clear about the absurdity of the Government's proposals:

The situation with regional Members is simply disgraceful in terms of the Labour Party’s proposals. If the Assembly’s system needs radical reform, why not in London? Why not in Scotland? Indeed, why not in the Federal Republic of Germany? Under this system, Herr Kohl would never have been allowed to stand in his Rhineland home town, where he often lost, and then get elected on the list. What a meagre, pathetic vision, to chase down this road and condemn the system that you introduced, instead of adopting a more reasonable response by, perhaps, negotiating a protocol, which would have been fair. There are some difficulties with the present system—[Interruption.]

I have quoted this speech extensively as it addresses many of the issues the opposition have with the Government's White Paper. The way it deals with the voting system is its worst feature. The proposals to prevent people from standing both on the list and in a constituency is shot through with self-interest. It is tinkering with the system, when a move to election by the single transferable vote system would solve all the problems that have been raised whilst retaining the important constituency link.

Re-learning devolution

It appears that the rigours of a General Election campaign has caused a number of MPs and journalists to forget which institutions make which decisions under the devolution settlement.

On Monday the Western Mail carried an article exploring the possibility of Wales losing European funding for its most deprived communities. The article speculated that Rhodri Morgan will face the same fate as his predecessor, a no confidence motion tabled and passed by the opposition parties. Although the Tory Assembly leader was quoted, the journalist concerned chose to seek comment from the Plaid Cymru Parliamentary Leader, Elfyn Llwyd and Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Lembit Opik, instead of asking those in the Assembly who will actually be casting the crucial vote, if it comes.

Elfyn Llwyd told the Western Mail that he was "sure" that his Assembly colleague would be thinking about a no-confidence vote. Obviously, he had not asked. Lembit Opik went further. he said that it is "quite possible" a vote of confidence could be called. Alun Michael lost his job for failing to deliver on Objective One. Rhodri Morgan hasn't done any better. Rhodri must recognise he is on borrowed time. He is no longer the master of his own destiny." I can confirm that Lembit certainly did not check with us before he made those comments.

Yesterday, the Western Mail was at it again. Amidst further speculation about a no-confidence motion they again quoted Elfyn Llwyd, speaking on behalf of his party's AMs. This time he was more unequivocal: 'Mr Llwyd said yesterday European aid was such a 'fundamentally important issue' it could lead to a no-confidence motion in Mr Morgan's leadership.'

And now, today we have a further article, this time on the dilemma facing parents, who, wanting to treat their children to a holiday either here or abroad face a Hobson's choice between paying through the nose, or risking grades by taking them out of school during term time. Education and School holidays are a devolved issue but the journalist concerned once again chooses to ignore this and looks to Westminster for comment. Ribble Valley Tory MP, Nigel Evans, who does not even represent a Welsh constituency is quoted along with Lembit Opik, again.

Lembit musters all the authority at his command as Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and of the second largest Welsh Parliamentary Party to make policy on the hoof, apparently never once stopping to think that it might be a good idea to consult with his party's Assembly Members, whose job it is to actually speak and vote on this issue.

Lembit's proposed solution of staggering school holidays is certainly an interesting suggestion but I have my doubts about whether it would reduce the price of peak time holidays. There is already some variation across Wales on the start and finish times for school holidays and I am not sure what room there is for further manoeuvre short of operating a four term school year.

Ironically, the solution to this problem may lie in a non-devolved responsibility, namely more effective regulation of the holiday industry to prevent excessive profiteering during school holidays. However, as this remains a matter for the UK Parliament it would not be appropriate for me to propose it without first consulting with my MP colleagues. Perhaps they would like to adopt a similar discipline.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Welsh solution

The big event today of course was the all-party agreement on a way-forward over variable top-up fees for students. After nearly a month of negotiations all four parties agreed on six basic principles to help Welsh students studying in Wales. These are:

There are some key issues addressed in these six principles not least the funding gap between Higher Education Institutions in England and Wales and the funding of part-time students. The agreement does not amount to everything that we want but it is a distinctive Welsh solution and a kick in the teeth for the Westminster Labour Government.

Coalition or bust?

Plaid Cymru today have finally ruled out ruled out entering a coalition government with any other party in the Welsh assembly. They have said that they will not even discuss a deal with another party before the assembly elections in 2007. This will be a huge blow to all those journalists who were filling their allotted column inches with gossip and speculation. It also leaves Peter Law with one less weapon to threaten the First Minister with.

This stance was predictable and completely logical. With less than two years to go to the Assembly elections all the opposition parties want to concentrate on promoting their policies. Any talk of coalition will come after the elections if the result dictates that such an arrangement is necessary. I have been arguing for some time that the Welsh Liberal Democrats group should take a similar public stand but others have wanted to adopt a wait and see attitude instead.

Interestingly, this announcement came on the same day that the Western Mail reported that Rhodri Morgan might be no-confidenced over the issue of Objective One European funding. The article quotes Plaid Cymru Parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd, as saying that "European aid was such a 'fundamentally important issue' it could lead to a no-confidence motion in Mr Morgan's leadership." He is joined in this by Plaid Cymru's Deputy President and MEP, Jill Evans.

This seems to directly contradict the party's stance on coalition. A successful no-confidence motion could only have one of two outcomes - a new Labour First Minister or Labour resigning from Government and handing it over to us. Intriquingly, no Plaid Cymru AM is quoted in the article, leading one to the conclusion that perhaps they were not asked before their MPs went off and decided things for them. Is the Party of Wales more disfunctional that we thought?

Monday, June 20, 2005

On the couch

There are times when you just cannot swim against the tide, when the public speaks and no matter how uncomfortable you are with what they say you have to accept that their will is settled and nothing will change it. Thus it is that farmers demonstrating to remove the term "couch potato" from the dictionary because they fear its negative connotations are putting people off buying the vegetable are being rather too ambitious.

The reason why they will not succeed with this campaign was outlined by John Simpson, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who said the phrase was first included in 1993. The first record of it was in an article in the Los Angeles Times in 1979. He said: "When people blame words they are actually blaming the society that uses them. Dictionaries just reflect the words that society uses. We monitor words in the language and what's out there. Our dictionaries describe - not prescribe."

I think we can all accept that in most of their incarnations potatos are a healthy food which is low in fat and high in vitamin C. However, nothing is going to divert us from the fact that in its uncooked state it is an ugly little critter that looks very much like an overweight and lazy person slouched on a couch in front of the TV.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

No room at the inn

Now this is serious! The Wales on Sunday reports that there could be no room at the inn for festive revellers this Christmas thanks to a licensing shambles. Experts have warned that a third of Welsh pubs face being shut down for the party season as just 7% across the nation have applied for new licences - with the clock ticking towards an August deadline. If they fail thousands of pubs across "booze-loving Wales" face being shutdown.

Although I have no direct experience of the licensing process I believe that it is fraught with red tape. I also understand that Councils themselves would struggle to cope if the flood of applications they had anticipated actually came to pass. Nevertheless, it is disturbing that the licensing trade finds itself in this situation and it is surely up to national government to review what is happening so that the near-apocalyptic scenario being mooted by the Wales on Sunday does not come to pass.

Tony Blair's smoking gun

If this report in the Observer this morning is right then the Prime Minister may well be taking an important stand on principle. Yes, I had to read that twice as well.

The Welsh Assembly has already voted for a complete ban on smoking in public places on health and safety grounds. We are anticipating that a soon-to-be published Health Bill will propose giving us the powers to implement that ban.

When the Committee to investigate smoking in public places was looking at this issue we were very clear that the sort of partial ban being mooted by the UK Government was both unworkable and will do nothing to protect the health of employees. If the Prime Minister has now come round to our point of view then that is very welcome. It will mean a more consistent regime across the whole of the UK and it will make it easier for us to implement our ban on our eastern borders.

Update: In the end then Tony backed down and opted for a half-hearted measure. Even on this issue he has no courage in his convictions. The good news is that the Assembly will be getting the power to do its own thing. Let us hope that we do not fail the test and that in Wales at least the health of workers is protected regardless of whether food is being served.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

When truth is relative

This report in the Guardian hints at changes in technology that will alter the relationship between the user and their software. Not only is Google planning to rank news stories according to their accuracy and reliability as well as their topicality, but other developments are in hand that will allow generic programmes to be moulded to our needs. Microsoft is planning to put tools based around a concept known as "implicit query" in its next version of Windows, due to be launched next year, in which search technology will start to second guess users' preferences by analysing their online activity and even their hard drives.

If this sounds Orwellian then that is because it is, except that Eric Blair 's nightmare vision was of the state using the mass media to manipulate and control our lives. He never considered the possibility of international corporations subtly customising our technology so as to influence and organise our life choices, possibly using on-line broadband connections to collect and record our preferences for onward sale for marketing purposes, whilst at the same time determining for us which news items we should believe and which we should not.

If you interpose the state into that equation, link it to the ability to track our vehicle movements by satellite and to download a mass of information about us through a national database and ID cards, then you have something far worse and far more intrusive than anything that Orwell could have imagined. It may be a paranoid vision but it is looming in the very near future. We should remember that not all technological developments are benign and that useful as computers are they are already becoming a window into our lives through which many people are starting to look.


Friday, June 17, 2005

Access for heavyweights

In questions to the Business Minister on her responsibilities for equality issues on Wednesday, Tory AM David Melding underlined the agony of political failure, whilst at the same time making a very serious point about access to polling stations. Accessibility is not just about ramps and wider doors. Voters have to be able to open the doors in the first place:

David Melding: Minister, in a vain attempt to defeat your friend John Smith and replace him with my colleague, Alun Cairns, I did a bit of telling in the Vale of Glamorgan. One polling station that I attended had a formidable set of double doors, which anyone under welterweight would have had difficulty negotiating. Is this not part of the problem? In this case, you could get up the ramp, but you could not open the door.

Jane Hutt: Absolutely. I undertook my Scope Cymru survey at my local polling station, which, I am sure, was not far from yours, David, knowing where we both live in Barry. I was able to see some improvements, but not all were within the clear guidelines. Referring to my answer to Mike German, we must now ensure that, under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, the public duty includes access to polling stations, and that the Electoral Commission’s recommendations are implemented.

Headline of the week

The headline of the week has to be this in the Independent yesterday - Fired: a human cannonball who would not fly. Alas, the story did not live up to its billing:

He is accustomed to hurtling through the air at 60mph in a daily death-defying act as a human cannonball. But the circus stuntman Todd Christian was without a job yesterday because of his fear of flying.

Christian, 26, said he fell out with his employers, Cottle & Austen circus, when they tried to send him to a special training camp in Brazil after he injured himself several times during the act. "I know it sounds silly because I'm a human cannonball, but I don't like long flights and if I'm on a plane for a long time I start to panic," he said.

Mr. Christian is now considering a claim for unfair dismissal as all his job has ever demanded in the past is short haul flights!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

ID card hell

Of course you could just go onto Simon Titley's blog and play these two commentaries on ID cards from there, but if you are not in the habit of visiting that excellent site on a daily basis as I am then can I suggest that you visit them here? Once you have done that go and read Liberal Dissenter anyway. It will be worth the time and effort.

Laugh at this re-write of Gilbert and Sullivan and then consider the implications of all that computer technology with this American nightmare.


Testing positive

It must have seemed such an easy way to get a bit of publicity, get Gwent Police to bring their latest weapon in the fight against drugs, the Ion Track Trace Detector Machine, into the Assembly and persuade AMs to line up to be tested in front of the cameras. Unfortunately, these stunts can often backfire.

Both Conservative AM, William Graham, who arranged the demonstration, and Assembly Social Justice Minister, Edwina Hart, tested positive for drugs. By the time the news filtered into the chamber the national media were making enquiries and some AMs were having difficulty keeping a straight face.

It has to be said that both Edwina and William are vehemently anti-drugs and would not go within ten feet of a banned substance, so how this positive result was reached left many people bemused. The official explanation is that almost everybody in Wales will have hard drugs on their hands at some point. The problem has reached the point that bank notes, taps and door handles in pubs, nightclubs and even the offices of Wales have traces of class A narcotics.

This then raises other questions. In particular, 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 Police argue that it is a matter of interpretation but then that brings the issue back to intuition and you cannot spend thousands of pounds on a machine to get that quality.

What William Graham actually demonstrated was that the Police have effectively wasted their money on a useless piece of junk. It cannot produce evidence that is admissable in court nor can it distinguish between somebody who has handled a contaminated five pound note and a persistent drug user. Still the press loved it!

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Tuesday afternoon fever

The moment of light relief in yesterday's Plenary came during a statement on the Welsh Assembly Government`s response to the Culture, Welsh Language and Sport Committee’s Report on the Contribution of Arts and Sports to Community Regeneration.

Alun Pugh, the Culture Minister, had arrived for the session dressed in a flared white pin stripe suit, brown shirt and brown tie. Up until the statement nobody had dared to mention it but then Welsh Liberal Democrats Culture Spokesperson, Eleanor Burnham, stepped into the breach:

Eleanor Burnham: Minister, I would first like to commend you on your Saturday Night Fever attire......

Alun Pugh: I do not know about Saturday Night Fever, but ‘Staying Alive’—in the health sense and in the wider cultural sense—is an important feature of Assembly Government policy.

Shortly afterwards the Monmouth AM and MP, David Davies, entered the chamber wearing a dinner jacket and bow tie. Suddenly we had moved from John Travolta to Fred Astaire and yet nobody even attempted to start the dancing.

School funding issues

The Assembly's decision yesterday to set up a Committee to investigate the way that Welsh schools are funded was an important step forward in the scrutiny process. The sort of time that is required to conduct an in-depth review of this nature is simply not available to the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee. It is also the first Assembly scrutiny committee that does not involve the membership of the Minister, a principle already enshrined in local government legislation.

The significance of this vote of course is that it is another defeat for the Government and yet there is not a mention of it in the Western Mail, the supposed national newspaper of Wales. It is possible that the media is beginning to get blasé already or maybe school funding is not considered news. Either way there is more to come, with a Tory Party minority debate due in two weeks time.

Speed Camera roulette

The Department of Transport are to carry out research to determine whether speed cameras cause as many accidents as they prevent.

The investigation has been prompted by the latest figures which show road deaths fell at 100 camera sites but rose at 77 others. Safety experts are starting to echo what drivers have been saying for some time, that at Britain's 6,000 cameras, drivers may simply slow down on approach and put their foot down afterwards. There are also concerns that motorists may be steering clear of cameras by using alternative routes.

I have always been astonished that the policy of installing speed cameras on trunk roads in particular, has been pursued so vigorously without the benefit of this sort of research. A lot of statements have been made in their defence without evidence to back them up, whilst claims by motorists that are based on real and substantial anecdotal evidence have been dismissed out of hand. Let us hope that this research provides some more authorative answers and that whatever conclusions it reaches are acted upon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Latest ladies kitchen accessory

I offer this without comment. Thanks to Claire Smalley for bringing it to my attention.

Labour local party revolts

The Islwyn Constituency Labour Party has revolted against the decision by party bosses to expel a member for speaking her mind. They have voted "overwhelmingly" to fight for Elena Evans - kicked out for criticising party bosses over all-women shortlists and are to lodge a formal protest with Labour's National Executive Committee over Ms Evans's expulsion.

If anything this protest underlines the authoritarian nature of New Labour. They cannot stand dissent and will act to punish it whenever it rears its head. Breaking party rules is one thing, but writing a mildly critical letter is quite another. If the way they run their party is reflected in the way that they run the country then we all have a great deal to worry about.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Whose Identity?

This morning's Times undermines those who would argue that a National Identity Card will help guard against fraud. On the contrary, an expert concludes that the ID card will assist in identity theft:

Dr James Backhouse, a director of the London School of Economics Information Systems Integrity Group, said that identity cards would instead become the new master key for identity fraudsters, who would be able to acquire the cards using stolen documents. An identity theft takes place every four minutes and costs the country an estimated £1.3 billion a year.

It is one of the fastest-growing crimes in Britain. Fraudsters typically use discarded utility bills or bank statements of their victims to apply for loans and credit cards. Mr Backhouse said it would be impossible for the Government to stop fraudsters from applying for identity cards using fake documents.

Once a successful application has been made, an identity fraudster will have his own biometric details imprinted on an ID card displaying fake or stolen personal information.

Dr. Backhouse has also raised the possibility that flaws in the technology will actually hinder people from using the ID card as an easy and reliable form of identity to secure loans, open bank accounts etc. This is a standard argument used by those who are happy to carry this card for the sake of convenience, however what might happen in reality is that failures in the biometric data or discrepancies on the system could lead to legitimate applicants being refused credit.

Dr Backhouse also raised doubts that banks and credit card companies would reject all applications from people whose ID card details failed to match their details on the national database. He said: “The ability to match up biometric records accurately to every person is not there at the moment. There will be flaws and lenders will have to ask themselves what an acceptable failure rate is. They risk losing a lot of business by rejecting every application from a person whose card details do not stack up with what is on the Government’s database.”

All the evidence is that the government are deluding themselves when they claim that these cards will prevent impersonation and fraud. The opposite may prove to be true.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Sian Lloyd the musical

I have just had this article in Friday's Independent drawn to my attention but, alas, there is no on-line version. It appears that composer Stuart Wood is seeking to stage a musical on the London stage based on the character of Sian Lloyd, weathergirl and fiance of Lembit Opik MP. He has even persuaded Sian to narrate a CD of the show, which is to be called Melody. The central character eventually ends up with a DJ called Bob! This might pose a bit of a worry for Lembit but according to the article he is 'cool' about the project and pretty relieved that there is to be no character based on him. I wonder if Bob the DJ will be portrayed as a harmonica player?

Surfing through the first weeks

The Observer today seeks to get to grips with the new intake of Conservative MPs and in particular what hope they offer for the future of their party. Amongst those featured is David Davies MP AM, who reveals a bit more about his misspent youth.

David Davies, the new Monmouthshire MP and former Welsh Assembly member, was puzzlingly described by one national newspaper as 'even more right-wing than his near-namesake [David Davis]'. But Davies told The Observer, without serious fear of contradiction, that he was 'probably the only new Conservative MP who used to wear earrings'.

Davies roamed the world after leaving school, working briefly harvesting grapes and tobacco, before getting a job at a backpackers' hostel in Queensland. He recalls that he used to pinch himself when he reflected he 'was actually making a living by taking surfers into bars every evening, with about a hundred dollars' worth of booze - on account'. Now 34, he still surfs whenever he gets a chance but is more preoccupied with how the Tories can again become a party of government.

'We have to look at areas of social deprivation,' he says. 'We have to demonstrate that a right-of-centre party can offer something to the least well-off. We must be a party for all of Britain.'

David's commitment to tackling social deprivation is of course admirable and there is no doubt that he talks a good game. However, he has consistently opposed changes to the funding formula for local government in Wales, which were designed to provide more resources for Councils representing socially deprived areas. In that case rurality seemed to be his overriding principle.

The one thing the article does not mention is that David has acquired the nickname Top Cat at Westminster. This is because he has asked for his middle two initials to be referred to in the chamber so as to distinguish himself from Tory leadership contender David Davis. Thus whenever he is called to contribute the Speaker announces David T.C. Davies. Perhaps this is a habit that should be continued in the Assembly chamber as well.

Special Needs

The trip to Edinburgh was useful because it let us put into context some of the evidence that has been given to us as a committee on the statementing of children with Special Educational Needs. It was also topical in the light of comments by Baroness Warnock that she has changed her mind on the system she helped to put in place thirty years ago.

'Thirty years ago it seemed right that there be no stigma in education and that everyone should get the same start in life, but there are problems in mixing everyone together. I was never happy about the inclusion of children with severe autistic problems in schools, for example, and I certainly don't think it is working today.'

Similarly, the business of 'statementing' - the official defining of a child's special needs - is not working, she added. All too often, local authorities use the statementing system as a way of avoiding their obligations, which pits parents against council disability experts. 'We need something better,' she said.

This is precisely what the committee is looking at and it is likely that we will invite Baroness Warnock to give evidence to us. Scotland has just passed an Act of Parliament replacing their Record of Needs with a Co-ordinated Support Plan for children with multiple needs involving the intervention of more than one agency. They have also put in place support for children with Additional Needs. What we found was that although there are some features of their new system that we will want to look at for Wales, by and large the changes they have brought about are very much a catching-up exercise with the rest of the UK.

These conclusions are still tentative and are based on in-depth discussions with Scottish Executive Officials, representatives of Edinburgh Council, a Scottish academic and the Scottish Parliament's Education Committee. We also visited two local schools to see what they were doing and were very impressed with some of the innovative approaches to inclusion that they were taking. I think that all-in-all we believe that our review needs more time to consider all the options and to look at the approach of others.

In the meantime if you want to contribute your thoughts to this review you can do so here. This site is now fully DDA compliant I am told.

Pictures from Edinburgh

There is a danger that this blog could become a photo album of course but that is not the intention here. The Welsh Assembly's Education and Lifelong Learning Committee visited Edinburgh on Thursday and Friday this week to see for themselves what the Scottish Parliament was doing about children with special educational needs.

The top picture shows members of the Committee with some of our hosts at the bottom of the steps in the new Scottish Parliament building leading from the garden lobby to the chamber. This is a popular venue for TV interviews.

The second picture is the garden lobby itself and gives a good idea of the revolutionary architecture that has been applied to this building. All of us were impressed by it. We appeciate that it was expensive but it creates a context that gives everybody who enters it the clear understanding that they are in a National Parliament. We will have to see whether the Assembly's new building is able to do the same.

The Scottish Parliament chamber is equally as impressive and stylised. Each desk has the facility to plug in a laptop, a built-in speaker and voting apparatus as well as a lectern. The seats in the public gallery at the back of the photograph are designed so that when they are not occupied they form the silhouettes of people.

The final picture shows one of the Committee Rooms complete with tear-shaped built-in tables. The whole room is bright and airy with plenty of room for observers. A stark contrast to our present facilities in the Welsh Assembly.

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Saturday, June 11, 2005

The power of veto

I see that New Labour have once more allowed their fear of the electorate to overcome any principles they might have once had regarding devolution. The Western Mail this morning reports that Tony Blair and John Prescott personally vetoed giving the National Assembly the power to make its own laws.

Instead, a government White Paper likely to be published next Thursday will propose a "fast track" system under which legislation proposed by the Assembly would be subject to approval by the Secretary of State for Wales and by both Houses of Parliament. While the hope would be that proposed laws would be "nodded through", Westminster would retain a right of veto.

Sources have told us that both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister were of the opinion that a referendum on further powers for the Assembly should not be held. Their minds were made up after the heavy defeat of the proposed assembly for north east England in a referendum last November.

Plaid Cymru's Assembly Opposition leader Ieuan Wyn Jones is quite right when he says that, "Even with some fast-track procedure, the Assembly will still be at the beck and call of Westminster, and entirely dependent on the whim of the Secretary of State and the Government. If the Assembly wants to diverge from the policy line of Westminster, it's likely to be forbidden from doing so."

Labour are constantly boasting that devolution would not have been possible without them. That may be true but what they have given us is a hybrid with insufficient powers. The present arrangements are not a solution but a staging post and if Labour are not prepared to allow us to move forward then they will also be responsible for strangling the project altogether.

Knitting needles at dawn

My absence in Scotland has delayed this post by a few days but I felt that it was important to record one of the more touching moments of Wednesday's Plenary. Recent statistics have shown that the most popular A-level subject in Wales is history. This is a reassuring sign that civilisation still flourishes strongly here. As if to underline that fact, Kirsty Williams opened her speech on the merger of Welsh Quangos into the Labour Assembly Government with an historical analogy:

On 14 July last year, the First Minister decided to stage his own storming of the Bastille, but rather than saying ‘Off with their heads’ to the aristocrats, he decided that it was the quangos that he wanted to send to the guillotine, with Andrew Davies, in the supporting role of Madame Defage, knitting by the side of it.

This mutual affection between Kirsty and the Economic Development Minister has never been apparent in the chamber before. I understand that it was followed up by a tongue-in-cheek e-mail exchange complete with suggestions as to how he could best use his knitting needles.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Men in their underpants

Proof that posing on a website in your underpants is not a bar to promotion emerges today. The Guardian Diary reports that Rhonnda MP, Chris Bryant, has been made a PPS to Lord Falconer in the Department of Constitutional Affairs. Presumably, the memory of Chris' faux pas was erased by his intense loyalty to the Tony Blair. He has voted against the government only nine times out of a possible 1,007 divisions, the second most loyal of all Labour MPs. Chris was also the MP of course, who asserted on Newsnight that no one at No. 10 smeared David Kelly until after he was dead.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Batman begins

Sitting in Edinburgh between meetings wth Scottish Government officials and visits to local schools, I feel a bit isolated from what is going on in Wales. I am told that there is speculation that Rhodri Morgan may have to resign because of the variable fees issue and the fact that he has lost his majority. Given that this gossip has come from some rather intemperate remarks by Peter Law I am inclined to dismiss it for the time being as general background noise, especially as he appears to have made up the bit about an opposition coalition. The media is apparently spinning it for all it is worth but then this is the sort of conflict that they thrive on anyway.

The most astonishing news of the day is that of the splinter group of Fathers4Justice being set up by Batman and Robin. Rumours that it is to be called 'Fathers in funny costumes 4 direct action' do not appear to be true on the grounds that it is not succinct enough, 'nutters in underpants' may be more appropriate.

The irony is that the real Fathers4Justice seem to have got somewhere with Cafcass and look close to actually securing a better deal for their membership. The fact that this will mean that opportunities to dress up and climb public buildings will now be much more limited is possibly why the break away group is being formed.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

ID Cards revisited

In the end the Assembly voted to reject the use of ID cards to access services paid for out of the Welsh block grant. They only did so though because Labour abstained on the question. The opposition's majority of one disappeared when Peter Law decided that appearing in Cardiff for a few appointments was sufficient to discharge his duties as an AM, and shot back to London without even appearing in the chamber. Clearly, the strain of doing two full-time jobs is beginning to tell.

The debate was passionate and partisan. I would like to say that this was the case on both sides but Labour left the chamber in droves and allowed the Public Services Minister to take the brunt of the responsibility for putting their case. The highlight was Welsh Liberal Democrats AM, Mick Bates, who, in proposing the motion, stretched his case just a teeny-weeny bit too far:

The alternative title for this debate could be ‘ID Cards—senseless bureaucracy’, or ‘Will you need an ID card to use a public loo?’. Yes, there is a disaster on the cards.

Still, it made the point!


This is a question, discuss.

There are times in Plenary when one wonders whether members are asking a question or setting an essay topic:

Mark Isherwood: How have you responded to the recommendation by the workshop on meeting local housing needs in north-west Wales, held on 25 January and sponsored by Business in the Community and the Principality Building Society, that the Welsh Assembly Government needs to provide clear national guidance on solutions to affordable housing needs relating to private funding solutions, the value of land for affordable housing and the links between affordable housing, employment and economic development? In your response, please explain what impact, if any, Gordon Brown’s plans to establish a new shared-ownership scheme will have in Wales.

The Welsh dilemma

Reports in the Western Mail this morning, that the Labour pledge to defer the implementation of top-up fees in Wales until after the 2007 Assembly elections will mean that the Welsh block grant will be subsidising English students to the tune of £14 million, illustrates the dilemma facing us as we try to reach an agreement on this issue.

The subsidy to English and other students arises out of the introduction of top-up fees in England next year. Students going to universities in England will have to take out a loan of £3,000 a year from the government-funded Students Loan Company. The cash will be paid directly to the institutions where they are studying. But in Wales, where no students will be paying top-up fees during the academic year 2006-07, the extra £3,000 per student will be paid out of the Assembly Government's core budget.

Because 38% of students at Welsh Higher Education Institutions come from England then any blanket exemption such as this will lead to a Welsh subsidy for English students. This may also act as an incentive to students from across the border to apply to our universities at the expense of Welsh students. If this policy were to be carried forward unchanged then in three or four years the total cost could be as much as £150 million.

Talks are on-going but it is likely that they will centre around Welsh domiciled students studying in Welsh HEIs rather than all students purely for those financial reasons. The policy of top-up fees is a UK Labour one. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to protect all students from this iniquitous burden.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

ASBO roulette

The whole subject of ASBOs has been in the news today following a report from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research which found more than 66% of people thought prevention was the best way to tackle rowdiness and vandalism.

I support the use of ASBOs when they are utilised properly and as part of a process that includes prevention and working with potential recipients on a voluntary basis. That is how the Police forces in South and Mid and West Wales operate and as a result they have a smaller than average number of ASBOs but achieve the same results as other forces in terms of dealing with anti-social behaviour.

The Guardian this morning deals with this matter in some detail:

'while those whose lives are made a misery from antisocial neighbours feel Asbos fall short of the protection they need, many lawyers believe the orders are too easy to get. Roger Smith, director of the law reform group Justice, calls Asbos a "jurisprudential Frankenstein". He argues that they are an uneasy legal hybrid which effectively criminalises people for behaviour that is not criminal. Orders can be made solely on the basis of hearsay evidence, even though breach of one can result in five years in jail. "They require someone to act 'in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress to one or more persons not of the same household as himself'," Smith says. "The alarm may be conjectural, not actual, or the police may just say it is likely."

The article goes on to highlight the dangers when the authorities fail to use this tool in a responsible way:

"This year Asbos have gone out of control," says Harry Fletcher, Napo's assistant general secretary. "It appears that some councils and police forces are using them to get rid of any sort of unacceptable behaviour, whether it is eccentric or anti-social." Some 2,600 orders have been made since November 2003, with councils such as Camden and Manchester blazing the way. (Manchester's website proudly claims that it "now leads the UK in the use of Asbos".)

"You are five times more likely to be Asbo-ed in Manchester than Liverpool," reckons Fletcher who calls them "a cheap way of avoiding criminal prosecutions". Applications by councils, police - or both - for orders are almost always successful. According to Fletcher, the success rate for applications is 97%. "I don't think there is a hit rate like that for any other measure in the criminal justice system."

Some of the examples they give really are astonishing:

In the past few months the boundaries of what constitutes anti-social behaviour have been stretched. Orders have been served on a Norfolk farmer after his pigs ran amok in neighbours' gardens and on a Scottish woman banning her from answering her front door in her underwear. She faces jail if she is seen in her garden or windows in knickers and bra (neighbours have been equipped with "Asbo diaries" to record the event). In March, magistrates in Bath served an Asbo on a 23-year old woman who repeatedly tried to kill herself. She has been rescued from the River Avon three times, found "hanging by her fingertips" from a railway bridge and has been loitering at the top of multistorey car parks. The magistrates considered it an appropriate response to issue an Asbo banning the suicidal woman from going near railway lines, rivers, or bridges.

The relentless march of the Asbo was dealt a blow last month by a judge who threw out an attempt by the Ministry of Defence to issue an order against Quaker peace campaigner Lindis Percy. There was applause when Judge Roy Anderson dismissed it as an effort "to use a club to beat down the expression of legitimate comment and the expression of views on matters of public concern".

But relatively harmless activities can still be treated harshly. Matt Foot, a criminal defence lawyer at Michael Fisher solicitors in central London, recently represented a one-legged beggar with learning difficulties who had breached his order and ended up in prison. "His order stipulated that he shouldn't show his stump while begging," he says. "I thought in a civilised society that's going too far." Begging is not an imprisonable offence, he points out, and yet his client faced five years for breaching his order.

In the Welsh Police forces there is some perspective applied to the use of these orders. Popular as they might be with the general public there needs to be a recognition elsewhere that they are not a panacea to all ills and that in some circumstances their use can perpetrate a grave injustice that cannot be defended.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Knowing the cost

It has to be said that the Western Mail's big story this morning on the cost of Higher Education in Wales shed more heat than light on the subject. The problem was that they based their research on answers to Assembly Questions, which are notorious for taking a political position rather then delivering facts.

Thus the full cost of not having top-up fees in Wales was put at £122.2m in year four without making it clear that this applies to both English and Welsh domiciled students rather than just the latter, as the Assembly resolution sought the week before last. The figures also included the cost of paying the fees for Welsh domiciled students in English and Scottish HEIs, a proposal that may prove problematic because of European law. What they did not include was the amount of money the Assembly will receive from the Westminster Government as a Barnett-consequential of the Higher Education Act, which money can be off-set against the cost of any Welsh solution.

All in all the article felt like it had been placed by a Government spin doctor seeking to play hard ball in advance of this morning's meeting of the three opposition party leaders with the First Minister. Further meetings are planned but it would not be helpful for me to use this blog to seek to assist my side in the talks, just as it is unhelpful for the Government to spin to the media in this way.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Rat trap?

In the end I did not go to the Bob Geldof event at the Hay Festival. It was not that I was trying to avoid him but I had tickets for a clashing event. Nevertheless, his Live8 event and the million protestors descending on Edinburgh idea do seem to be entering choppy waters.

Geldof's defence of his position in the wake of criticism by DJ Andy Kershaw at the absence of black musicians at events staged to benefit Africans is bizarre. He apparently told The Independent on Sunday that he had to concentrate on names known in G8 countries to pile on political pressure. Geldof seems to be losing touch with reality here.

His Live Aid concerts had impact because they raised awareness amongst the public and pulled in a lot of money to carry out practical improvements. If they had changed things politically then he would not now be pressing a million concerned citizens to march on the Scottish capital. Similarly, the Live8 events will also raise awareness and they will ensure that the issue of aid is one that politicians take note of. Yet, this matter was already on the agenda for G8 and it has all the political clout it is going to get there.

Rather importantly, none of these events is going to move the United States in its position on aid and, let's face it, when it comes to the next General Election very few of those protesting now and attending these concerts will change their vote because of this issue. That does not mean that the events and the protests are futile, they are not.

The concerts can be a showcase for European and African talent and they will succeed in putting poverty and the response of the developed world to it high in most people's consciousness. They will succeed not because the artists are known to out-of-touch middle aged white politicians, but because the event itself will strike a chord with ordinary people. It is for that reason that Geldof's insistence on "known names" and an almost exclusively white line-up is dangerous nonsense.

The 'long march to freedom' on July 6th is also worth doing despite the threat by anarchist groups to hi-jack it. Ordinary people very rarely turn up for these sort of protests. It is when they do, such as with the Countryside Alliance and the first anti-Iraq war demonstrations, that politicians feel that they have to take notice. A million people in Edinburgh will give Gordon Brown a tiny bit more credibility in arguing his position at G8 even if the demonstration itself does not prove decisive in getting everything that its organisers want from the summit.

Clare Short was rather interesting on this subject at Hay yesterday. She argued that a compromise deal will be struck that will be spun as a great victory for people power by Gordon Brown and his allies. In reality though the ground gained will be minimal and a lot of work will be left undone. She was sceptical as to whether Gleneagles could produce anything like the scale of response that Africa really needs.

A question of accountability

The Independent on Sunday reports this morning that Peter Mandelson is pressing for new GM foods and crops to be eaten and planted across Europe, even though governments cannot agree on whether to introduce them. Apparently, the trade commissioner's department wants to speed up the use of GMs, despite widespread public opposition, and is insisting on their being imposed by the Commission on unwilling governments.

This news is unwelcome and should be resisted by the British Government. It shows once more how out-of-touch Eurocrats and the Governments who support them are with public opinion across Europe.

What it also does is to underline a point made in a session I attended yesterday in Hay-on-Wye. The event was called "A jury of my peers?" and featured three eminent human rights barristers including Helena Kennedy and Sadakat Kadri. One of them (I think it was Helena Kennedy) described the experience of trying to sue the European Commission. It proved impossible as the Commission apparently stands apart from the normal judicial and governmental process.

I heard the new European Constitution described this morning as a dead duck which can still bite. It is presumably now chasing the circle-swimming one-legged duck set free in London a few years ago by Rhodri Morgan. However, as that constitution does not address the issue of the accountability of the Commission so as to allow this sort of action by Mandelson to be challenged, perhaps it would be best reined in for a while and rewritten before being unleashed once more onto an unsuspecting public.

"One last blast before we go"

According to today's Wales on Sunday the WDA, the government quango responsible for boosting jobs in Wales, has blown almost £150,000 of public money on a six-month blitz entertaining clients.

These 'events' took place between November 2004 and April 2005 and were largely put on for businesses and politicians. They included almost £28,000 on a trip to the Hong Kong Sevens to "target Chinese and Australian multipliers and business projects", £9,500 on three visits to America to watch the Miami Dolphins football and Boston Celtics basketball teams, and £15,000 on hospitality for London firms at the Wales v England Six Nations tie.

These facts have emerged through a Freedom of Information request which has underlined how accessible such information is. How this corporate hospitality will be handled once the WDA has been merged into government and whether the details will be so readily available for scrutiny has yet to be seen.

Although I rarely accept such hospitality myself, I note that it is part of the normal way of doing business. However, Tory economic development spokesperson, Alun Cairns, is particularly scathing:

"When hundreds of WDA staff are facing redundancy as a result of the merger with the Welsh Assembly Government, it will be difficult for the Agency to explain why thousands of pounds are being spent on events such as the Miami Dolphins.

"This is more akin to a holiday treat rather than the promotion of Wales as an inward investment opportunity.

"There is no doubt some hospitality is needed but it seems to me that the line has been crossed and hospitality for investors is now a perk for WDA executives."

Alun is also parsimonious in his acceptance of hospitality. His register of interests merely lists a "TMA event and hospitality" and "overnight accommodation, hospitality and match tickets for the Community Shield following 'Parliamentary Shield' charity football match sponsored by McDonalds." Oh, yes, and a visit to the Falklands Islands paid for by the Falkland Island Government.

The real issue on the WDA hospitality however, is that raised by Jenny Randerson. "It's not the amount of money they spent, it's a question of whether we're getting a return on that money." No doubt the Minister will be answering questions on that in due course.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

A weekend of literature

I am about to set off for Hay-on-Wye to see the Guardian Hay Festival. According to the Western Mail, Bob Geldof will be there today and will be using his appearance to justify his call for a million protestors to descend on Edinburgh during the G8 summit. Given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has endorsed this plea I don't see why everybody is looking to St. Bob for an explanation. Nevertheless it will be an event worth seeing.

As it happens my day is pretty well planned out anyway. We are starting at 1pm with Helena Kennedy and Sadakat Kadri talking about the workings of the law in the context of human rights, moving on to hear Clare Short at 4pm and finishing off with John Harris, Polly Toynbee and David Walker on the Fabian Society Platform seeking to answer the question "Is Labour working?" at 9.50pm. It should be an interesting day.

The one thing I must avoid doing is to buy more books. I already have a huge pile of unread volumes awaiting a holiday or something for me to tackle them. If I get anymore then I am going to have run a book fair to create some storage space.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The iron is king

Was I the only one to find this article in today's Western Mail disturbing? It seems that the world of ironing is to be given a new masculine identity in response to growing demand from male customers.

Terms such as "Turbo Pro Express Steam Generator", "Power Steam" and "Ultimate Control" are used to describe irons costing up to £229 in the current Argos catalogue. The new edition, published next month, will contain even more of these "male" phrases although traditional descriptions aimed primarily to appeal to women such as "quick", "convenient" and "easy iron" will still feature.

According to Argos' "iron buyer", Eddie Kemp, "Women want to get rid of creases while men want to destroy them. "Men see the iron as a power tool and so demand features which emphasise power, control and force. Women, on the other hand, just want to have crinkle-free clothes."

I don't think we even want to get into 'extreme ironing', in which people tackle creased clothes whilst perched on top of a cliff or in some other perilous situation. I mean it is a chore, right? Something we all have to do. What is the big deal?

Perhaps we will have product placement next. When was the last time anybody saw Clint Eastwood wielding a Murphy Richards Turbo Pro Express Steam Generator whilst squaring up to Lee Van Cleef?

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