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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Spinning the headlines

The Wales on Sunday have made a big thing today about the cost to the Assembly, local Councils and quangos of running a modern day public relations operation. They have estimated that £4 million of public money is being spent on such activity around Wales, employing former journalists (including some who worked for the Western Mail) and PR professionals to put a gloss on the way that Wales is being run.

The newspaper also lists what £4 million could buy in terms of medical treatment, police officers etc. It is an easy hit and entirely superficial in its simplicity. The contributions from Ieuan Wyn Jones of Plaid Cymru and Nick Bourne from the Tories, fall into the same category, although at least the Conservative leader is prepared to admit that his group employ their own press officer from public funds before deriding the Assembly Government for doing the same, albeit on a bigger scale. For the record the Plaid Cymru and Welsh Liberal Democrats groups also employ media officers, paid for out of Assembly allowances.

I do not doubt that this is becoming a growth industry and could be scaled down. However, it should be acknowledged that in the face of a 24 hour rolling news agenda the employment of such professionals is becoming a necessity for all public bodies. I am sure that the Wales on Sunday would be the first to complain if, having lodged a request for information, they were told that the Assembly or a local Council were unable to respond because all their employees were busy providing services for local people and they no longer employed people who deal with such queries.

Equally, any body who delivers services needs to communicate with its customers. They do this through a variety of methods, including press releases, briefings for the media, dedicated newspapers delivered door to door, leaflets, posters and via the internet to name but a few. Staff must be employed to ensure that this activity is effective and cost-efficient. This is not just about spin, it is about public information and at times, public safety. It should also be noted that a significant amount of the copy used by all media outlets comes from these PR departments. This really is biting the hand that feeds them.

It is easy to criticise and I am not going to detract from the Wales on Sunday's exclusive, however given the complex world we live in this newspaper is doing nobody any favours by this sort of sensationalism. A more measured response acknowledging the realities and questioning the output and value for money of these PR professionals would have earned more respect.

Finding truth in the runes

Who says that the art of writing eye-catching press releases are a thing of the past? If this example from the Liberal Democrats Transport Spokesperson is anything to go by then we are just about to enter a golden age:

Stonehenge bypass review must leave no stone unturned in bid for a solution

...Commenting, Liberal Democrat Shadow Transport Secretary, Tom Brake MP said:

"It is disappointing that the Highways Agency's initial estimate of scheme costs was wildly over-optimistic. The Government must leave no stone unturned in its bid to find a solution. Any solution must acknowledge Stonehenge's world significance and actually enhances the environment rather than degrade it further still."

We must not seek to put a brake on such enthusiasm.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Loneliness of the long distance runner

In a move that illustrates perfectly the law of diminishing returns, Robert Kilroy-Silk has quit Veritas to spend more time with his new Sun Tan Party. Comments from historians are welcome as to whether he now holds the record for belonging to and subsequently quitting the most political parties whilst being an elected politician. David Owen must be running him close but for once I think that the former SDP Leader has been eclipsed.

Friday, July 29, 2005

New technology blues

I have spent most of the evening struggling with the Assembly laptop that I have the use of whilst I remain a member of that austere body. On more than one occasion I have called it a 'useless piece of junk' as it has taken an age to perform even the simplest of tasks. At increasingly more frequent intervals it decides for itself to terminate the antiquated dial-up connection it operates on, apparently out of sheer malice. In the end I gave up trying to read my e-mails and went to use my own computer which operates off the more user-friendly broadband.

Now that I have got the laptop working for a short while I have found one e-mail that illustrates that it is not just the Assembly that is having problems with new technology. It seems that Swansea's DVLA is also experiencing some unexpected downtime.

A colleague of mine e-mailed them earlier this week to find out how to correct a typo on his vehicle registration form. Instead of the answer he was expecting, he got this:

We are currently installing a new e-mail system which will provide a better service to our customers. Unfortunately, we cannot deal with your enquiry. You may wish to search for an answer to your query on our website http://www.dvla.gov.uk

Do-it-yourself is all the rage in customer service circles I am told!


It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, so now that Plaid Cymru have all but adopted Liberal Democrats policy on how to fund a Federal Britain, we should be quite pleased with ourselves. If they can now bring themselves to accept that this is not just about fair play for Wales but a matter that is driven by the need for constitutional consistency across the whole of the UK then we will be making progress.

The role of protest

Anybody who has visited the National Assembly for Wales when it is sitting will notice straight away the large variety of protestors who gather there. We have had hunger-strikers, demonstrations, lobbies and a wide-range of colourful and imaginative banners draped across the pedestrian guard-rails outside. When I called in earlier this week all of these had packed up for the summer. They will be back in September.

It is my view that this is a good thing. Protest has an important place in a democratic society. It really can change things, it can help hold politicians and governments to account and it can shape public opinion. The worse thing that a Parliamentary body can do is to seek to repress such activity.

Similar encampments have grown around the House of Commons in recent years. Some of the more enduring have been focussed on the Iraq war. However, instead of tolerating this as an essentially democratic act, New Labour has sought to follow the example of other regimes and suppress this dissent. They passed an Act of Parliament ruling that from 1 August 2005 all protests in a half-mile zone in Westminster, London, must have prior permission from police.

Now, they have had their comeuppance. Will Howells has drawn my attention to this item on the BBC website. It seems that the man who prompted the Government to act by holding a four-year anti-war protest outside Parliament, has won a legal battle to continue his vigil. High court judges ruled by a 2-1 majority that secondary legislation could not be used to catch Mr Haw, who sleeps in the square in front of a large display of anti-war banners, placards and flags. They also granted a declaration that Mr Haw is not required to seek authorisation to continue his protest.

Lady Justice Smith, sitting with Mr Justice McCombe and Mr Justice Simon, said the new law did not catch Mr Haw because of a drafting error.

She said she was surprised that it had been suggested that such an order could be used "to criminalise conduct which would not otherwise be criminal".

It is enough to make me want to cheer.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Blogging Western Mail style

The dead-tree press are certainly hitting back at the rise of blogs and instant on-line communication. In an article today the head of content at the Western Mail's website argues that the instant gratification afforded to bloggers and the owners of camera phones is leading to excesses and irresponsible behaviour:

It's hardly surprising that we're now witnessing the rise of the citizen snapper - camera phones are part of most people's everyday armoury.

They've given a shot in the arm to TV and online news coverage but at a price: taste.

Just as bloggers find it all too easy to spew out libel and defamation, so camera-phone snappers adopt the worst paparazzi tendencies.

We should not forget who it is who feeds off these paparazzi tendencies of course, it is the very media that puts the food on the table of the writer of this piece. They invented the paparazzi and they will pay good money for the sort of pictures and articles that Simon Newsam so derides. It is also the case that the media will steal stories from blogs and use them, often without acknowledgement or attribution. Bloggers are also as subject to the libel law as he is.

What he is bemoaning in fact is human nature and how the growth of voyeurism in our society is undermining journalistic standards. Newspapers are as prone to publish sensational and speculative items as are bloggers. The difference is the press is supposed to be self-regulated and to have professional standards. Alas that does not stop their excesses.

If we are to have decency filters as Mr. Newsam advocates then they must apply to the mainstream media as well. However, the sort of censorship he is advocating has never worked for the dead-tree press so how can he expect it to operate in the anarchic world of the internet? As ever the most effective censors when it comes to decency and taste are the general public themselves. If they believe that a newspaper has gone too far then they will say so. If a blogger crosses the line they there can be consequences for them as well.

Cuts or savings

Martin Shipton asks a very pertinent question in this morning's Western Mail - 'are we returning to the Thatcher years with cuts, cuts, cuts in the public sector?' What has prompted this query is the proposal by the Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust to close services and wards so as to eradicate a £6 million deficit.

It is certainly the case that under the Chancellor's Spending Reviews we have come to expect huge increases in public expenditure. The indications now are that this is starting to dry up and we are having to target spending much better.

The Gershon review and its equivalent in Wales envisaged year on year efficiency savings of 1% across the public sector so as to reinvest that money in vital front line services. However, the reality in Wales is that the Assembly Government has enforced that agenda by withholding the projected savings from bodies it funds, such as Local Government, so as to reinvest in its own priorities.

The outcome is that local government in particular are effectively being forced to make cuts in key services without any prospect of retaining that money for reinvestment. A good example of that is this story about Flintshire County Council yesterday - a Labour-run Authority, just in case you might think I am making excuses for Councils run by the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Despite the fact that the health service has received substantial injections of cash as part of this process, much of that has been eaten up by new contracts for GPs, consultants etc whilst the failure to tackle long-term structural issues means that many Trusts are not getting value from the resources they have at their disposal. The outcome is the sort of cuts proposed by Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust yesterday.

Having raised expectations the Labour Assembly Government is now being forced to oversee a period of retrenchment and painful reorganisation. As a result the cuts that Martin Shipton highlights are very much back on the agenda.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

In the Bay

I am spending today in my Cardiff Bay office catching up on correspondence and other work. I have not seen any other AMs yet, though no doubt there will be one or two here, and a lot of offices seem deserted and in darkness. The same is true of the journalists and TV studios.

I was shocked, following my earlier diatribe about the smoking room, to find that I can now smell the smoke on the third floor, two floors up via the high atrium by the entrance to the building. This is clearly a healh hazard that needs tackling sooner rather than later.

I had a casual conversation with a member of staff about this who told me that since the smoking room was removed from the Government's Cathays Park offices, a number of civil servants have taken to standing on the public highway to have a cigarette, much to the chagrin of other office workers. One enterprising individual even brought a deckchair.

I have no wish to impose this fate on the Cardiff Bay smokers. Some provision does need to be made for them but this should be outdoor shelters as is modern practice in many workplaces.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Following the verdict of Judge Richard Mawrey that elections in two Birmingham wards should be re-run, a date has been set and the campaigns have now got underway.

In determining the case the judge described the evidence of electoral fraud that was presented to him as sufficient to "disgrace a banana republic". Both the pro-Kashmir People's Justice Party (PJP) and the Liberal Democrats claimed local Labour activists used forgery and deception to collect votes - something the candidates denied.

The Guardian reported on 5 April that 'early on a June morning last year, four police officers drew up outside a warehouse on a deserted trading estate in Birmingham. Inside they found several men sitting at a table with postal ballots piled in front of them.

"I saw plenty of ballot papers with crosses on them and I saw unsealed envelopes that were of A5 size," one of the constables said later.

What they were witnessing, elections commissioner Richard Mawrey, QC said yesterday, was the three Labour candidates for the Aston ward in Birmingham caught "red handed" carrying out postal voting fraud by altering ballot papers or filling in blank papers they had collected from householders.'

Nick Barlow draws our attention to this account by a voter in Birmingham's Aston ward of Labour's astonishing lack of shame in the new campaign:

We got a letter from the two Labour MPs whose constituencies overlap the Aston ward today. More entertaining than Bad Girls, it was. Have some edited highlights.

'We are particularly proud that [...] the communities in Aston Ward normally give a majority to Labour at election time - as they did last year in the election that is now being re-run.'

Aw. The Labour Party council candidates put in so much individual hard work to secure that majority, after all. You'd have to be a right heartless bitch not to be impressed by their sterling efforts.

'However, the ["electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic"] problem arose mainly because many voters who wanted to vote Labour wanted to vote by post. This was often because of long and anti-social working hours in low-paid jobs.'

Well, now there's a bit that was left out of A-Level Government and Politics. I guess external examinations really are dumbing down. All this time, and I never knew that

poor people + postal voting = electoral fraud

It's an automatic process that kicks in as soon as the numbers of poor people and postal ballots reach critical mass, you know. Nothing to do with council candidates sitting in a warehouse at night filling in postal ballots in their own favour at all. Nothing anyone could do about it, as long as those pesky poor people persist in voting by post.

The letter goes on to claim that in the previous election 'Not everybody understood the proper procedures or the postal vote rules.' Well, yes - the Labour Party for one. But do not fear apparently it is all the Liberal Democrats fault:

'The Liberals then exploited what had gone wrong to get the election re-run.'

The fact that the elections were declared null and void by a judge does not seem to trouble them nor does the fact that they may have had a small hand in the circumstances that led to the election being re-run. The letter asserts that 'democracy is at stake in Aston Ward in this election' and demands that voters should not 'allow the outcome of an election to be decided by a small minority who are voting by post.'

It isn't those who vote by post who are the problem it is those who seek to interfere with that process. Incredible!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Plaid's leadership crisis continues

Dafydd Iwan continued with his sure-footed leadership of Plaid Cymru today by provoking a major row within Plaid Cymru. The Western Mail reports that the Assembly Presiding Officer was said to be furious after Mr. Iwan wrote to him suggesting he should opt to be Plaid's candidate in the new seat of Aberconwy.

Plaid faces a serious dilemma in North-West Wales, the only part of the country where major boundary changes come into effect in time for the Assembly elections in 2007. The party currently holds the seats of Caernarfon and Meirionnydd at both Westminster and Cardiff Bay. In 1999 it won the neighbouring AM seat of Conwy, but lost it by 72 votes to Labour in 2003.

All three seats are now to be dismembered after the acceptance of recommendations made by the Boundary Commission. New constituencies called Arfon, Dwyfor and Aberconwy will take their place.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas is naturally eyeing up the safe seat of Dwyfor and will no doubt be canvassing the membership vigorously to support him in this ambition. He might view the Party President's intervention as seeking to circumvent that process. Dafydd Iwan's brother, Alun Ffred Jones could be one of the Presiding Officer's rivals for the Dwyfor seat. Either way it does not look good for the Party of Wales though I thought this photographic parody was a bit cruel.

Sunday, July 24, 2005


In the Observer today, Andrew Rawnsley is absolutely right to focus on some of the underlying causes of the terrorism facing us in London and elsewhere. He outlines the reasons why Ministers need to be more open with the British public on this issue:

No one knows precisely what is going on in the heads of the successful and failed suicide bombers who have attacked London over the past fortnight. We won't know until we can explore their poisoned minds. What is absolutely certain is that no one, cabinet ministers included, can be absolutely certain that Iraq has nothing to do with it. It is just not credible.

It is also futile. That argument has already been lost with the majority of the public whose common sense tells them that the war probably has made Britain more of a target. Sixty per cent of respondents to a Communications Research poll for Sky News 'agreed' or 'strongly agreed' that there was a link between the war and the bombings. An earlier ICM poll for the Guardian had 64 per cent of respondents believing that Tony Blair bore some responsibility for the attacks on London because of the invasion of Iraq.

Trying to shout down anyone who mentions the war isn't working and doesn't deserve to work for the government. Ministers are going to have to fashion a more reasoned and sophisticated argument. It would be more grown up and plausible to accept that this was one of the many risks that had to be balanced when the decision to go to war was made, something which Mr Blair did acknowledge when he gave evidence to the Butler inquiry.

It is possible to think that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the probability of terror attacks on Britain and at the same time believe that removing the Taliban base of al-Qaeda and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein were long-term goods that will ultimately make that risk justifiable.

I reckon the public can hold those two ideas in their heads at the same time. I think that many of the public already do. That would help explain the paradox that most people make a connection with Iraq even as they also award higher approval ratings to the man who took Britain into the war.

That respect won't be sustained by telling the public that they are idiots to think there can be any link with the war. This simply makes Tony Blair and his ministers look delusional.

Labour MP, Shahid Malik, writes today that we must confront head-on those few who preach violence and hatred in the name of Islam and, in doing so, poison the minds of vulnerable young men.

In his Observer article he states that "those of us in leadership roles must make it clear to our young people that in a democracy the way we express such feelings is by debate and through democratic institutions, not through violence. We must drag them into the political mainstream."

Unfortunately, the disillusionment with mainstream politics is not just felt by young Muslims, it is shared by nearly half of the electorate, if the turnout last May is anything to go by. Equally, those of us in non-Muslim communities have a responsibility to rein in our extremists as well. The growth of the BNP as a political force, the day-to-day low level racism that many Muslims encounter, the diatribes about asylum seekers and immigration from supposedly responsible politicians and journalists can all contribute to a siege-mentality, that neither explains nor justifies violence, but does contribute to the alienation that breeds discontent.

The opposition of most of the Muslim community to the war contributes to that discontent. It is not the cause of terrorism but it does contribute to the radicalism that makes recruitment to extremist causes easier. Whilst politicians publicly refuse to recognise that link then their attempts to bring young Muslims into the political mainstream will be met with scepticism.

The question of how we engage with these militant young Muslims is also highly pertinent. Abdul-Rehman Malik has a fascinating piece in the Observer in which he explains that task forces, meetings with moderate Muslim leaders and even fatwas against terrorist violence may not be enough.

Most of the titular leaders who gathered last Tuesday represent only fragments of a complex community - 56 ethnicities speaking almost 100 languages, by one count. Most are at their best when condemning terrorism. Few have been able to put forward a vision of British Islam that is convincing to the most marginalised, disadvantaged and prone to militancy. It's not a question of whether they deserve a voice at the table, but whether they are trusted by the Muslims they claim to speak for.

He says that it is foolish to speak of a 'Muslim community' as if it were undifferentiated and homogeneous.

In towns like Oldham, there are parallel communities - Pakistani and Bangladeshi, divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. How can any organisation claim to represent both communities nationally, when they are divided locally? Well-publicised visits to Leeds in the aftermath of the bombings to meet still more community representatives cannot make up for regular, sustained contact with Muslim communities at street level.

Even last week's welcome fatwas against terrorist violence should be regarded with caution. Fatwas are non-binding opinions and most imams in Britain do not have the power to interpret doctrine. Mosques have little actual authority in the lives of ordinary Muslims and the edicts of imams can be ignored or followed as Muslims wish. With most mosques not accessible to women and with more young people, like the bombers, seeking guidance outside them, Britain's mosques are caught in a crisis of relevance.

It is the street-level voluntary and community sector organisations that represent the British Islam's hidden civil society, working to meet the needs of neighbourhoods struggling with violence, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy. These are the front lines of the fight against militancy and desperation.

For Abdul-Rehman Malik this is not a hopeless task. He agrees that Muslims do need to confront militant ideologies, but argues that politicians should be careful before putting fingers in Islam's theological pie. "It was Ronald Reagan's policies in the 1980s," he says, "that strengthened Afghanistan's mujahideen, through their Arab backers, many of whom promoted a violent brand of Islamic liberation theology that eventually spawned al-Qaeda."

Muslims who think that the recent attacks have nothing to do with Islam are simply in denial, he says. Since the 1960s, a literalist, puritanical form of Islam has been gaining ground in Britain. Well funded and promoted in slickly produced manuals of 'correct' doctrine and 'authentic' practice, this aberrant theology saw to remove the celebration of difference and flexibility of law that lies at the heart of Islam's classical past. Gone were the interpretive ambiguities, replaced by certainties of right and wrong, good Muslim and bad.

It was under the watch of Muslim organisations that this form of Islam became increasingly popular and mainstream. The deteriorating political situation of the Muslim world, coupled with the rise of, at first largely peaceful, Islamist movements, has added a dangerous dimension to this reformist Islam.

Spurred by strident religious tracts and dreams of a utopian Islamic state, some doctrinal zealots have turned their thoughts to the ummah, the global Muslim community, seen not as a spiritual brotherhood, but reimagined as a political one in opposition to an immoral, imperialist and decadent West. Such literalism allowed for a hatred of 'the other' that was hitherto unknown in Muslim civilisation.

The community-based approach that Abdul-Rehman Malik advocates, by-passing figureheads, is not an easy option for politicians looking for quick fixes but it is one that needs to be vigorously pursued. Such a policy needs to be adopted without passing judgement on the Muslim communities as a whole. There is no better way to alienate young radicals than to allow them to believe that their concerns are not being listened to or that in attempting to reach out to them we fail to acknowledge and understand what it is that fuels their discontent.


The consequences of 7/7, as it is being called, and the abortive attempts to follow-up those horrendous attacks with others a week later, continue to reverberate. As the Observer reports today, fears of an anti-Muslim backlash have been realised in a 500-per-cent rise in faith-hate crimes in the past two weeks.

More than 1,000 race and faith hate incidents have been reported to police across the country since the London bombings, though community leaders believe the actual number of incidents is at least four times higher.

Most of the reported crimes are 'low-level' attacks such as graffiti and verbal abuse. However, race monitoring groups across the UK have seen a significant increase in the number of reports of arson attacks on mosques and Muslim women being spat at in the street or not being allowed on buses because they were wearing headscarves.

Police are investigating several serious assaults and one murder related to the backlash. Although most incidents have taken place in and around London, police or community groups across the country have reported a rise in Islamophobic-motivated attacks.

A race body in Wales has recorded that the rate of abuse has increased from 10 incidents in a month to more than 30 in the two weeks following the 7 July attacks. In Glasgow, a woman sharing the same surname as one of the bombers said her children had been spat on.

News items such as this one in today's Wales on Sunday do not assist in building understanding between communities. They report that a radical Muslim cleric who supports suicide bombers is behind the curriculum at a top Islamic college in Wales. Courses run by the European Institute of Human Sciences draw on the teachings of Egyptian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who the Home Office is currently deciding whether to ban from Britain.

The institute, in Llanybydder, opened six years ago, and offers courses in Arabic and Islamic studies as well as training Muslim holy men called imams. It has 80 full-time students paying up to £4,000 a year each.

The courses were drawn up by a council of scholars chaired by Mr al-Qaradawi, who has praised Palestinian suicide bombers and denounced homosexuality as a disease.

The Wales on Sunday lists some of the more extreme moral stances taken by Mr al-Qaradawi, without mentioning that many of them are also shared by born-again Christians in Britain and America. They then string together a number of tenuous links to try and paint a picture of the college as a hotbed of extremism and terrorism. The article seeks to impose its own values on the Muslims who run this school in a way that can only provoke misunderstanding about its purpose and its intent.

In the piece both Plaid AM, Janet Ryder, and I, stress that Islam is a peaceful religion that does not condone violence. The Charity Commission makes the very reasonable point that there is no evidence of wrong-doing that they can investigate, whilst Raja Gul Raiz, Wales' representative on the Muslim Council of Britain, insists that Mr. al-Qaradawi is not an extemist and says that he has condemned the London attacks.

I do not know what goes on in this school and I am not prepared to form judgements or jump on bandwagons without definite proof. If there is terrorist activity there then the security forces will be aware of it and will deal with it. If what is being taught is considered inappropriate by some then we should all remember that not only do the Charity Commissioners have the power of intervention but also that we still live in a society where there is freedom of speech and thought. Only if that freedom impinges on others or promotes or leads to unlawful activity should we intervene.

Whatever the truth, we should all be aware that stories such as these and the way that we respond to them as politicians, have consequences for the Muslim community. People will form judgements from our reactions and sometimes they will take matters into their own hands. The vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving, law-abiding citizens. They know that it is in all of our interests to stamp out violence wherever it rears its head. As an integral part of British society they are more than ready to take on that responsibility.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Brave new world

Thanks to James Graham for drawing my attention to the fact that the Westminster Parliament has stepped into the brave new world of e-democracy.

A press release from the newly reconstituted Welsh Affairs Committee reveals that under the Chairmanship of Aberavon MP, Dr. Hywel Francis, the committee is to get straight down to work with a major inquiry into the Government's White Paper: Better Governance for Wales. Interested parties are invited to submit evidence to the Clerk of the Committee. The press release continues:

"If possible, please supply an electronic version in MS Word or Rich Text format, either by e-mail to welshcom@parliament.uk or on a disk. If submitting by e-mail or e-mail attachment, a letter should also be sent validating the e-mail."

I wonder if they will allow us to validate the e-mail by pigeon post.

Light blue touch paper...

I don't know about you but I am running out of new things to say about Leanne-Gate. Not so, the Western Mail, who carry a rather strange apology at the top of their letters page this morning. Under the heading "Wood fuel worries", suggesting an obsession with bio-mass rather than political intrique, the newspaper's editor steps in to apologise on behalf of Labour AM, Huw Lewis, for his rather intemperate comments yesterday:

THE Western Mail apologises for certain words used in a letter from Huw Lewis AM in yesterday's edition.

The Western Mail does not associate itself with such remarks.

We have issued an unconditional apology to Leanne Wood Plaid Cymru - The Party of Wales Assembly Member for South Wales Central.

This does not prevent them maintaining a link to the offending letter on their website of course, enabling us all to see for ourselves what it was that Huw said that caused the Western Mail's legal team to jump up and down in panic. If somebody does work out which remark precipitated the apology could they please let me know.

If only the scandals in the Welsh Assembly were half as exciting as those in Westminster, then we too might be looking forward to a new play called "Who's the Daddy?" opening in one of our theatres. The Wales Millennium Centre would be the ideal venue. Would we also have the threat of litigation to add spice to the satire?

Friday, July 22, 2005

Summer Holidays

Now this is a good example of responsible journalism - not:

Our AMs and MPs insist they will be spending their ridiculously long summer breaks catching up on important constituency work. Most people will treat that with the scepticism it deserves. Our elected representatives set poor examples by putting in such short working periods. It is hardly surprising that so few of us can be bothered to vote for them.

This comment was the follow-up to an article looking at what two of South Wales West's AMs will be doing during the summer recess. Rather strangely the article focusses on myself and Alun Cairns and fails to deal at all with the other two regional AMs or the seven constituency AMs and MPs. I am beginning to feel paranoid.

The article itself is balanced and at least nods to the fact that our nine weeks, and the MPs' eleven weeks recess are far from holidays. The comment piece however, takes the easy, popularist route. In doing so it just adds to the cynicism about politicians and the political process amongst the public. Ironically, this newspaper will also be urging people to go out and vote when the next set of elections come upon us.

The author of this comment paragraph knows full well that the role of a politician encompasses more than just the formal Plenary and Committee meetings. We have both an increasing constituency and regional workload and formal and informal meetings associated with our national role. It is those tasks that will fill up our summer, just as they fill up the constituency days in term time.

Alun Cairns does not help either by playing to the gallery with his comment that "It seems ironical that while we are having a big debate on extending the powers of the Assembly, we are giving people the impression we can afford to shut up shop in Cardiff Bay for nine weeks." Presumably, he is still smarting from failing to get elected to Parliament last May when he would have been entitled to an additional two weeks holiday.

I am quoted as saying that I am combining the opportunity to catch up with constituency casework with a number of visits around my constituency and arranging a number of constituency surgeries. What I actually told the Evening Post was:

"I am combining the opportunity to catch up on constituency casework with a number of visits around my constituency and constituency surgeries. Visits and meetings I have organised so far include Swansea Prison, the Bays Project, a local school development day a briefing meeting on Swansea City Centre and a meeting on child advocacy. As part of my role as Chair of Education I am visiting a number of Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies on scrutiny visits including the GTCW, HEFCW and most probably ELWa. I am taking a week's holiday in Dublin, going to the Reading Festival for a weekend and spending the first few days of the Liberal Democrats Conference in Blackpool before coming back on the Tuesday for Plenary. It is likely that more events will be put in my diary in due course."

For the record during this first week of recess I have spent two days catching up with local casework from home and my constituency office and a day in Cardiff Bay clearing up all the correspondence that has accumulated there. I spent a day at the Royal Welsh Show attending various events, I held two surgeries today and have attended meetings on Swansea Council's Community Plan, with parents in Bridgend to discuss the proposed closure of Moderate Learning Difficulty classes, with an HTV researcher looking at the record of Japanese companies in South Wales and with one of my local constituency parties. I also spent some time in my constituency office today with an Assembly computer engineer who was installing new equipment for the use of my staff.

Tomorrow afternoon I will be presenting certificates to volunteers and carers (just in case anybody thinks I am sneaking off to watch the Swansea vs Fulham game at the new stadium). I fully intend to be at the first proper game of the season against Tranmere Rovers however.

Labour power-grab

Summer madness took over Welsh politics yesterday, overshadowed only by far more serious events in London.

Peter Hain has now officially lost the plot with his latest rant against regional assembly members. His assertion that the expenses system for regional Assembly Members is being "widely and systematically abused" is not backed up with any evidence whatsoever, other than the general insecurities of Labour constituency members who do not like sharing their patch with anybody.

Even the claim that regional members use their allowances to "poke their noses into constituency members' affairs" and target key seats for party advantage is just hearsay based on the fact that some regional members have worked and stood for constituencies. The reality is that because the list, which we depend on to get elected, is decided by the party, then regional members cannot afford to favour one area of their region over another. Their members quite rightly expect them to work uniformly hard across the whole region.

And can Mr. Hain and others seriously put their hand on their heart and say that constituency members do not sometimes pick and choose what issues they can exploit for party advantage. If the behaviour of the two Swansea Labour Assembly Members over the proposed closure of Dylan Thomas School is anything to go by then it is clear that some issues become more important for them too, because they provide an opportunity to attack the opposition.

Fortunately, we have Labour AM, Huw Lewis, to thank for revealing his party's real agenda. In a letter to the Western Mail today he quite rightly castigates Leanne Wood for her comments but then goes on to argue for a reform of the Assembly voting system that would effectively abolish the list seats altogether and produce an Assembly consisting of just the 40 constituency members.

We should not forget that the reason why the inadequate voting system we use for Assembly elections was introduced was to build a consensus in favour of devolution. Not only were people concerned that the Assembly would become an unrepresentative Labour dominated citadel, but there were also worries about adequate representation from rural and north Wales as well. Under Huw Lewis' scheme Labour would have 30 of the 40 seats on less than 40% of the vote. North Wales and Mid and West Wales would be largely disenfranchised and the other parties would be massively under-represented.

Furthermore, at a time when the Assembly is acquiring new powers and responsibilities and when we are struggling to cope with the workload we have due to the inadequate three weekly committee cycle imposed by Labour, a reduction in the number of AMs to 40 flies in the face of commonsense (and the Richard Commission proposals).

Huw Lewis' agenda (and it seems that of Peter Hain) is one in which Labour dominate Welsh politics unchallenged by any other party, effectively a one-party state. That is not democracy nor is it sustainable in a devolved settlement that is meant to empower all of the people of Wales, not just those who vote Labour!

Thursday, July 21, 2005

One for Lembit

This is good. Use the arrows to move the Apollo 11 landing site to the centre of the picture and keep it there whilst maximising the magnification.

Labour's voting myth

An interesting article in the Guardian this morning reports that C-Change, a Tory pressure group, believes that most of the 31 seats the Tories gained in the May election changed hands because Labour voters switched to the Liberal Democrats, not because they embraced the Conservatives.

This has been taken by some as an endorsement of Labour's tactics in the last week of the General Election, when claims by Tony Blair and others that a vote for the Liberal Democrats will let in the Tories, largely stemmed any last minute swing to Charles Kennedy and my party.

The problem for Labour's spin doctors is that a close analysis of the results demonstrates that this hypothesis is wrong and that the line they were peddling was nothing more than a cynical manoeuvre designed to shore up their vote. As the Guardian article makes clear the actual impact of switching from Labour to the Liberal Democrats was to er.... elect more Liberal Democrats MPs.

Mr Boles pointed out that former Tory seats which had fallen to Labour, such as Manchester Withington, Cambridge and Birmingham Yardley, are now in Lib Dem hands.

The Lib Dems have also seized the second place from the Tories in numerous seats, particularly in northern English cities.

Although there was a general swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats this was not uniform throughout the Country and individual constituencies reacted in different ways. It is true that in some seats such as Shipley, the Conservatives regained the seat with a 0.9% majority, largely because Labour lost 5.8% of their vote and the Liberal Democrats went up by 3.8%. But to argue, as Labour did, that this effect was universal and was a reason for not switching voting preference is both wrong and dishonest.

A random sample of nine more of the seats that the Tories gained from Labour reveals that in all but one of them the increase in the Liberal Democrats vote was less than the Conservative's majority. In Bexley Heath and Crayford for example the Tories increased their vote share by 6.4%, whilst Labour dropped by 8% and the Liberal Democrats went up by 1%. The Tory majority was 10.7%. In this and in other seats such as Hornchurch there was a straight transference of votes from the Labour Party to the Conservatives.

Labour held onto Government because the opposition was not seen as a viable alternative. What the General Election result actually shows is that voting patterns are now complex and diverse, varying from region to region and even within regions. It is impossible now to accurately make generalisations as to the impact of voting changes, as Labour attempted last time. To continue to do so despite the evidence to the contrary is just plain misleading.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

All work and no play

This slanging match between the Secretary of State for Wales and the Deputy Presiding Officer is really getting silly. Who works hardest - MPs or AMs? I do not know. I think that the Assembly Plenary and Committee meetings do not meet often enough but I also know that as an AM the job can be seven days, 70 plus hours a week. I am sure that being an MP is equally demanding. Would it not be better if we all just got on with the job instead of trying to score points off each other on who is better value for money?

Searching for a role

One has to feel some sympathy for Plaid Cymru AM, Leanne Wood. She is the subject of a shock horror expose in today's Western Mail but when you read the article in full it becomes apparent that the reporter has completely swallowed the Labour spin and slightly misrepresented the leaked document that has caused all the fuss.

This whole affair has played into the hands of the Labour campaign to discredit and undermine Regional AMs. In some ways Leanne's proposal, no matter how misguided, is a response to that. That is not to say that I support the proposals that Leanne has put forward, I do not, but we do need to view them in context.

I think that the main problem with Leanne's proposals, the media coverage and with Labour's spin is that it confuses the promotion of the party with the advocacy of the political aims of the party. It is of course illegal to use publicly-funded resources for party political purposes. However, all AMs and MPs are elected on a political platform and with an agenda that they have a mandate to promote. Public resources are provided to support them in that role. Thus, it is perfectly legitimate to employ somebody to liase with the media on behalf of the elected representative or to research a particular issue that will benefit the MP or AM's constituents or enable him or her to make an effective contribution in a debate or campaign. Even constituency casework can have political overtones and benefits, though that is not the purpose of it and nor should it be.

As a Regional AM I hold regular surgeries all across the area I represent. I encourage and seek out casework on behalf of constituents and I get involved in campaigns on a range of issues. I will meet with and talk to interest groups, whether local or national, and I work within my education portfolio to scrutinise the Assembly Minister, help develop policy and also to promote my own party political views on these matters. I do not see the need to evaluate and prioritise my activities according to whether they "translate into enough votes". I am here to do a job and I will do it irrespective of whether the person I am helping votes for me or not. I treat my region as a giant constituency, which is no doubt why the constituency AMs feel threatened.

Labour have made a lot of fuss in recent years about Regional AMs. They have criticised and belittled us even though we are effectively their invention, being the consequence of the half-baked electoral system they thought up for the Assembly. Labour clearly do not want us to act as constituency AMs but they are not very forthcoming on the role they envisage us playing. So, when Leanne Wood advocates a different approach, albeit one that does not stand up to scrutiny, she is at least responding to that criticism. What she gets as a reward is an unashamedly partisan attack on her personally and on Regional AMs generally.

If we are to make a distinction between constituency and regional AMs as Labour advocate then perhaps the latter do need to take a more strategic approach and operate on a wider regional basis. Such an approach may actually require more resources for support purposes in terms of offices, staff and travel. However, it is a legitimate way forward, making the best of a bad job. More sensibly we should change the PR system so that we have multi-member constituencies elected on the basis of the single transferable vote. This would at least ensure that all AMs are seen as equal and treated as such.

What really irks me about the Western Mail article though is the response of Peter Hain:

Mr Hain said the leaked memo was "copper-bottom proof of precisely the abuses which have angered not just Labour Party members but people right across Wales and beyond".

"Leanne Wood has been caught in possession of a smoking gun," he added, "There should now be an investigation into the role of regional AMs and the way they use their allowances.

"Taxpayers' money is being manipulated for clear party advantage," he said. "Leanne Wood's comments bring into complete disrepute the role of elected regional representatives, who ought to be serving everyone, regardless of party affiliation."

He is right that taxpayers' money should not be 'manipulated for clear party advantage', he is right too that 'elected regional representatives...ought to be serving everyone, regardless of party affiliation." What he does not have is any 'copper-bottom proof' of abuses of the system because if he did he would have referred it to the Assembly's Standards Committee. These abuses, which are meant to have 'angered' Labour Party members and 'people right across Wales and beyond' do not exist. What is angering Labour Party members is an indefensible electoral system that their MPs voted for.

This disingenuous hyperbole gets worse - Mr. Hain wants an enquiry into the role of regional AMs and the way they use their allowances. He is Secretary of State for Wales, why doesn't he set one up? Perhaps he is afraid that such an enquiry will find that any abuses that do exist also apply to constituency AMs. Perhaps he is afraid of a comparison between Cardiff Bay and Westminster. Maybe he is worried that such an enquiry will mirror the Richard Commission in proposing a proper overhaul of the electoral system.

MPs have access to public funding for an annual report and the cost of mailing it to every elector in their constituency. They have access to public funds to pay for unsolicited individual mailshots advertising their surgeries and their other activities as an MP. Some MPs have run up huge postage bills in activity that will support their future re-election. None of these expenses are available to AMs, whether constituency or Regional representatives. We have very strict rules on what we can and cannot spend public money on. If anything needs enquiring into it is how MPs spend public money. Maybe we should open up the whole system for public scrutiny.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Hunting for the numbers

From a press release issued today:

Roger Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Brecon and Radnorshire has signed the petition launched yesterday by the Middle Way Group at the Royal Welsh Show to encourage the Welsh Assembly to bid for the powers in Westminster to modify the Hunting Act 2004.

The petition will be presented to the Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside, Carwyn Jones.

Speaking at the Royal Welsh Showground, Roger Williams, said:

“This petition will be an important test for the ability of the Welsh Assembly to acquire powers to modify the Hunting Act, which is set to have a profound impact on the economy, the environment and local traditions in Wales. It will also be an important test for the Labour government which, barely two months after having set out the next phase of the devolution settlement, will be hard pressed to refuse delegating a piece of animal welfare legislation which although controversial, comes under the original devolution settlement of 1998."

Well yes! The Presiding Officer said something similar in a speech to a National Trust reception in the Royal Welsh showground today. Assuming we do acquire the powers then who is to say that there will be a majority in the National Assembly for such a modification? This is a very thin thread to be clinging onto.

ID card dividend fantasy

A general trawl through various websites this morning threw up a rather bizarre Plaid Cymru press release. Issued on 29 June the release claimed that Wales could receive a rebate of up to £300 per person because 'the Assembly has voted not to introduce ID cards'.

The argument is that as Wales receives a consequential 5.9% Barnett share of any increase in public expenditure on devolved services, then we will also receive a similar share of the cost of introducing ID cards. Plaid reason that as the Assembly has voted not to allow ID cards to be used to access devolved services then that is the same thing as a complete veto on the proposal. Subsequently, they believe that the cash will be available to spend on other services provided by the Assembly such as education and health.

This is complete fantasy of course. The introduction of ID cards is not a devolved matter, therefore there will be no Barnett consequential and the Assembly will not see a penny of any increase in public expenditure related to this project. Although we can prevent ID cards being used to access services we pay for, we cannot stop them being introduced in the UK or Wales.

Plaid Cymru may be unhappy with the present constitutional and financial settlement but that is no reason to pretend that the Welsh Assembly has more influence than we actually do.


The sensible wing

This is a delayed post on the death of Ted Heath. Like Councillor Gareth Davies I have mixed memories of Heath's premiership. On the one hand I can still vividly recall the three day week and the miners' strike that led to his downfall, on the other it was during this period that I first became politically active, canvassing at the age of 14 in the 1974 elections for the then Liberal Party.

Ted Heath was also directly responsible for my first fully fledged political campaign, the 1976 referendum on European Union membership in which I and others fought to defend the vision that he had signed up to on our behalf.

Perhaps because my formative years politically post-dated the 1970 election and the period that saw him become the first 'modern Conservative leader', my memories of Ted Heath are dominated by his adoption of the longest sulk in political history following his defeat by Margaret Thatcher for the Tory leadership in 1975.

Some commentators have sought to blame him for creating the atmosphere that allowed Thatcher and her right wing agenda to come to the fore. For me, it was his subsequent retreat into semi-detached oppositionism that left the sensible wing of the Tory Party high and dry and allowed Thatcher to pick them off one by one. If he had hung in there and acted as a rallying point for the Conservative wets then they may well have been able to moderate Thatcher's excesses.

Tony Benn described Heath as being politically to the left of Tony Blair but frankly that is just standard knocking copy. The story I like most is this one from the BBC article on the tributes:

When asked in a TV interview if it was true that when Mrs Thatcher was herself deposed he said "rejoice, rejoice," he joked: "I think I said it three times."

Monday, July 18, 2005


If our lives are defined by the free market economy we live in then the fact that Amazon are selling George Orwell's '1984' at a 20% discount at a time when our liberties are being curtailed as never before and the surveillance society is permeating every aspect of our existence must indicate a worrying indifference on the part of society. Either that or people have stopped reading books not written by J.K. Rowling.

George Orwell did not choose the year 1984 at random, though for all intents and purposes he might as well have done. He chose it because he finished writing the book in 1948 and reversing the last two digits of that year offered a time period sufficiently well-advanced into the future, without appearing too unattainable. The book though was not about the future, it was about the developing cold war and it was also about the nature of totalitarianism and about the emerging post-war British society in which Orwell lived.

This view is reinforced by the piece in today's Guardian, which reveals that a secret Metropolitan police file, newly released at the National Archives, shows that Orwell was himself the subject of repeated special branch reports for more than 12 years of his life. It is possible to argue that Orwell was unaware of such surveillance but this appears to be unlikely given his later collusion with the security services when, in 1948, he supplied a list of 86 "Stalinist fellow travellers" to a Foreign Office anti-communist propaganda unit.

With the increasing use of CCTV, biometric ID cards, the abolition of trial by jury in some cases, the introduction of detention without trial and many other worrying trends Orwell's work has never seemed so apposite.


Sunday, July 17, 2005

Laying down the Law

Good grief! Peter Law MP AM is to set up yet another new political party. "People feel that they want to have the opportunity to vote for views traditionally held by Labour in public office," he said. Presumably these 'traditional' views include selecting Peter Law to fight elections and avoiding women-only short lists.

Why is it that politicians who quit their party over fundamental disagreements feel that it is necessary to set up another one in their own image? There was Robert Kilroy-Silk and Veritas, George Galloway and Respect, John Marek and Forward Wales and now Peter Law and whatever he decides to call his grouping. In many ways it is like a comfort blanket, there to offer assurance that they have done the right thing, but also a vehicle for their bid for World domination. It really is a small world!

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Lots of smoke, no fire

It is now four months and seven days since National No-Smoking day and despite the fact that the Assembly has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on smoking in public places, its own building still maintains a smoking room.

I reported on this issue on 10 March when I wrote: 'The smoking room in the Assembly building is situated next to the Fees Office and not only can the smoke be smelt in the corridor and by the lift, but it can also be smelt in the Fees Office itself. The effects of second hand tobacco smoke and the fact that ventilation is ineffective in removing the most damaging particles is well-documented. We are therefore failing in our duty to protect the health of our staff, visitors and Assembly Members from the pollution generated by this room.'

Despite the fact that I have argued for some time that this must change many obstacles have been put in the way of removing this hazard by some members of the House Committee. The latest is a staff survey which, we are told, is needed so that we can consult before any change is made. The results of that survey were reported to the House Committee on Thursday. It showed substantial support for closing the existing smoking room and installing shelters outside for smokers instead. That is common practice now in many workplaces.

Because the report came late the Deputy Presiding Officer insisted that any discussion on it be deferred until the next meeting in October. More delay, and yet there is a consensus on the Committee for this change, which was first mooted last year, so there is no reason why officials should be unprepared for it nor that they should not go away and work up a paper to enable it to be implemented almost immediately the Committee give them the green light. That option was not taken up.

In contrast, the Welsh Assembly Government have already taken action on this. All of their offices are now entirely smoke-free, in keeping with their support for a public ban in workplaces.

Because the House Committee meets in private it is possible to block a reform such as this more easily. I suggested in March that questions should be asked as to the motives of those who were putting obstacles in the way of this change. I would suggest now that the First Minister should make it clear to the Presiding Officer, his Deputy and officials what an embarrassment the House Committee's reluctance to act is to the rest of the Assembly.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Liberal Democrats win Cheadle

Congratulations are due to Mark Hunter and his team, who retained Cheadle for the Liberal Democrats with a 3,657 majority and an increased share of the vote. I spent a day up there and discovered that one of the problems of campaigning in leafy suburbs is the excessive amount of pollen.

I was astonished by the sheer nastiness of the Tory campaign, not because I think Tories are nice and cuddly (they are not), but because it was obviously counter-productive. The vicious smears that they sought to spread about Mark Hunter combined with their clumsy attempts at a tactical voting argument on every leaflet almost certainly contributed to Labour losing their deposit as supporters of the Government Party switched to the Liberal Democrats to ensure that decency prevailed.

Even Conservatives were appalled by the messages their party were propagating, as is made clear by this site:

Earlier this week The Times foresaw the reasons for the Tory defeat:

”In Stockport’s affluent commuter belt, where residents are likened by some to the characters in Footballers’ Wives, there were signs that the Tories may have been too aggressive. One leaflet superimposed a local newspaper report of a rape over a headline saying “shocking crime record of Mark Hunter”, the Lib Dem candidate and leader of Stockport council. His party threatened legal action. Another ran a headline “Hunter in school cash scandal”, attributed to the Stockport Express, whose sister paper denounced it as a misrepresentation and attacked the Tory campaign in a front page editorial.”

The Stockport Times actually described the Tory campaign as "electioneering of the worst kind."

I know of two Tory MPs who refused to deliver one of the more controversial leaflets. They are writing to Party Chairman Francis Maude to complain about the campaign.

This aggressive American-style campaigning does nothing to restore trust in politics or politicians. The Cheadle result demonstrates that voters do not like political parties to play the man, they want to talk about policy not have smears pushed through their letterboxes every day.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Final Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is now a matter that the First Minister needs to answer questions on, but alas there are no Plenary sessions until September at which it can be raised.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Job finding

It was ironic in view of today's announcement that Rhodri Morgan was talking about job-finding agencies yesterday. Not that he will be looking for a job of course when he stands down. However, he was clearly much more on form than he had been for some weeks:

The First Minister: I am afraid that your timing is all wrong, Mike. Think how long it takes for a project to move from the time the job-finding agency—the ‘punter hunters’ as you might say

It may be that 'punter hunters' is a common phrase for these agencies but it is not one I have come across before.

Lame duck finds new legs

It is becoming a convention in the Assembly that the Government uses the last Plenary day of the summer term to unwrap a news story that will dominate the headlines for some time. Last year it was the abolition of the WDA, Wales Tourist Board and ELWa, this year Rhodri Morgan has announced he will be standing down as First Minister - in 2009!

This assumes that he will still be First Minister after the next Assembly elections of course, but we will not go into that now. Rhodri's calculation is that whatever happens, the opposition will not be able to agree to a coalition after 2007, whilst he is not interested in doing that again. Accordingly, he will stay on at the head of a minority administration.

Rhodri's best known quip is the one he used on Newsnight when, in response to a question that had an obvious answer, he asked "does a one-legged duck swim in circles?" Already, the media have labelled him as a one-legged lame duck, but if anything this announcement will reinforce his position up to the 2007 elections by dampening down speculation and focussing the minds of his cabinet members on winning votes. It is only after 2007 that the in-fighting and manoeuvring will begin in earnest. That will be worth watching.

More leadership speculation

The Western Mail devotes an entire page this morning to who might succeed Rhodri Morgan as First Minister. Nothing really new there except a realisation at last that a coalition of the opposition parties is not an option now and will be very difficult after the 2007 elections:

Mr Bourne is included in our list because if current voting trends continue, the Conservatives could overtake Plaid Cymru in 2007 to become the second largest party in the Assembly.

It is also very likely that Labour will not secure an overall majority, thus leaving open the possibility for an opposition alliance to take control of the Assembly Government.

By convention, if such an alliance were to be formed, the leader of the largest opposition party would usually expect to be elected First Minister.

The prospect of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats countenancing such a move is, however, extremely unlikely.

There are many assumptions in this passage which may not come to pass. Perhaps the best thing is that people should stop speculating and just get on with the job at hand.

Spinning affordable housing

Waking up on Monday to news of an Assembly Government initiative on affordable housing was an encouraging experience. Some of us have been pushing for this for some time and it was pleasing to that at last see some of the ideas we have come up with are being adopted.

Measures such as updating planning guidance to ensure that the planning system plays its part in delivering more affordable housing across Wales have been suggested by my Liberal Democrat colleague Mick Bates for some time. Partnership working to produce local housing assessments, which will provide the joint evidence base for housing strategies and local development plans and which will include identifying the number of affordable and market homes required in an area are just commonsense. Whilst forcing local authorities to set an affordable housing target in their local development plans, and explain how they will achieve and monitor their target is an important innovation.

We also welcomed the provision that where the local housing assessment has identified an acute need for affordable housing, they may allocate sites solely for affordable homes in their local development plans. Equally, Mick Bates has also been advocating the greater use of an exception to the usual rules, whereby land, which would not otherwise be released for housing, can be used for affordable housing.

What was missing from this statement was anything difficult or which would cost money, despite the rather bizarre claim that an extra £37 million had been ploughed into this initiative. Well this was certainly how the media read it and nobody from the Labour Assembly Government sought to discourage them from this view.

Further scrutiny of this claim revealed that it was in fact a re-packaging of a budget increase in the Social Housing Grant approved by the Assembly last year. The Social Housing Grant is capital money used by Housing Associations to build new properties for rent. It is also the budget heading from which Homebuy is funded. This is a scheme that enables people to buy homes in partnership with a housing association, often saving up to 50% of the initial cost. It is an excellent way of helping families in high demand areas get on the housing ladder though generally it can only be applied by rural councils at the 50% rate.

It is a fact that last years £37 million uplift, welcome as it is, did not restore the Social Housing Grant budget in real terms to earlier levels. It is also a fact that despite the claims in the Government press release, not all of the extra money will go to affordable housing either. £4 million of it, for example, is committed to funding supported housing schemes for substance misusers and young offenders, whilst £20 million of that money is to be allocated for older person's housing. Furthermore, the proposals did not commit the Government to two very important reforms.

There was no commitment to separating out the Homebuy budget from the Social Housing Grant so as to prevent Councils having to choose between funding house purchase and building new homes to rent. Such a separation needs to involve the provision of fairly substantial additional resources for Homebuy. There was also no provision for a key workers scheme in urban areas to help low paid public sector workers such as nurses and teachers get on the housing ladder.

It would have been nice to draw these points out in Plenary or in the relevant Assembly Committees but the Government has chosen to prevent that from happening. So much for transparency and accountability. It seems that we have now entered the era of government by press release.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Putting the wind up the Tories

Today is quite important for those with strong views on wind farms. The Welsh Assembly Government will be publishing it Technical Advice Note 8 identifying large tracts of land for development. It is understood that they are opting for large scale sites. The aim is to increase the amount of energy from renewable sources by 10% over the next five years.

This creates a dilemma for all of us of course. Do we support sound environmental arguments that say that we need to turn to alternative energy sources if we want to mitigate the impact of climate change? Do we argue, as many have, that on-shore wind is not the sole answer but that other sources of energy such as biomass, hydro-power and solar should be used instead? Or do we argue that the Welsh landscape is sacrosanct and that it should be protected from the devastation that wind turbines will bring?

One person who seemed fairly sure of his ground on Radio Wales this morning was Tory Environmental Spokesperson, Glyn Davies. He told listeners that the landscape should be protected and that other alternatives must be explored instead. What he did not say however, though Plaid AM, Helen Mary Jones, alluded to it, is that he has a family interest in wind farm development.

As this news item explains Glyn is facing a "huge personal problem" after a company approached him about placing a wind farm on his land in mid Wales. Glyn, who says he will not be getting any payment if the scheme goes ahead, compared his dilemma to that being faced by people across Wales:

"On the one hand it's a beautiful landscape - it's always been a spot I love," he said.

"But there are a lot of other people involved - as well as three neighbouring farmers who have a huge number of family living in the area - and they're very keen it should go ahead.

"I've opted out and said that it's an issue for the planning authority."

Well that is OK then!

Monday, July 11, 2005

Big spender floored by big hitter

Shirley Bassey's rather uncalled for remarks about 'our Charlotte', her binge drinking and her new singing style, have been roundly demolished by the formidable Carolyn Hitt in today's Western Mail.

Carolyn starts by identifying what these two Cymric celebrity goddesses have in common:

While Shirl and Charl may be separated by almost 50 years, I've always thought they have a lot in common - forceful personalities with genuine charisma and that peculiarly Cardiff brand of feistiness. They share a talent for singing big belters; they're both gay icons and they both had star billing in the 1999 Rugby World Cup ceremonies.

But the experience of singing for the Rugby World Cup ceremony may well have driven a wedge between them:

The Pocket Size Diva was only 13 at the time, but she stole the sparkle from the Queen of Tiger Bay by simply singing. Who can forget Bassey's out of synch miming that day? Not to mention the moment of melodrama when she received her public with outstretched arms. She was so busy basking she nearly tripped over a schoolboy rugby player. It would have taken hours to extract him from that giant flag dress.

She continues:

Bassey isn't impressed, having obviously fallen for the tabloid tales of the vices of an angel, "I think Charlotte has let herself down. When I was that age, there was no such thing as binge drinking. It was totally different. We had an adventure. We used to say, 'Let's go to a dance and see what gorgeous fellows we can meet.' Now, girls like Charlotte say, 'Let's go and see how many drinks we can knock back.' I think it is dreadful."

This from the woman who hasn't exactly lived the convent life herself. Pregnant at 17, Bassey endured a tempestuous relationship with boyfriend Pepe Davis who once tried to stab her in a jealous rage; married the openly gay film director Kenneth Hulme twice and had an affair with Peter Finch.

By contrast, Charlotte's excess Cheeky Vimto consumption is the picture of innocence. She hasn't done too badly on the meeting gorgeous fellows front either. And while we're on the subject of appropriate behaviour for a 19-year-old, a surfeit of bling, animal prints and thigh-high slits isn't Dame Classy when you're pushing 70.

Obviously, Carolyn Hitt is not somebody you want to get on the wrong side of!

Sunday, July 10, 2005


Yesterday was interesting. I went to the Neath Carnival and ended up in a cage. It was all in a good cause. Amnesty International were highlighting the plight of prisoners of conscience all over the world and had arranged for a number of people to spend 15 minutes each in a wooden cage. Apparently, I was following in the footsteps of the likes of Peter Hain. Gwenda Thomas and Brian Gibbons who have all been 'prisoners' at past fairs. The cage was the coolest place on the field and I could easily have stayed there much longer than the designated 15 minutes.

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Grand gesture

A small piece in the Wales on Sunday reveals that the Secretary of State for Wales will tomorrow hail the National Assembly for its 'groundbreaking' introduction of student grants. This is despite the fact that Peter Hain was part of the UK Government which scrapped them.

My money is on the fact that Mr. Hain does not mention that student grants were introduced by the Welsh Liberal Democrats-Labour Partnership Government, nor that they came about from a Rees Commission Report put into the Partnership Agreement by my party. I suspect he will not mention either that the policy was only agreed by the Partnership Government against the objections of the Education Minister.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Inside the Senedd

The House Committee had a tour of the new Assembly Chamber Building or Senedd last Wednesday evening. I have posted some pictures here and have attempted to remember where in the building they were taken but cannot guarantee complete accuracy.

In the picture above the party of AMs, officials and foremen explore the corridor and offices at the rear of the new chamber.

This is a very stark view from the space between the front of the Senedd and the harbour walls. As you can see the most distinct part of the new building is its roof.

I am sure that Jane Hutt, the Assembly Business Minister will not thank me for posting this picture, however it offers another perspective on the roof and how it dominates the landscape at the front of the building.

Janice Gregory and Lorraine Barrett in the public gallery above the main Chamber. The glass panels to the left of the photograph form a roof over the chamber.

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Re-writing History

An interesting letter in today's Western Mail catches my eye. It is worth quoting in full:

SIR - Writing about tuition fees on his new Rhondda blog on July 6, Labour Assembly Member Leighton Andrews said that "Eighty-five per cent of full-time Rhondda students study at Welsh institutions, so they will benefit from what is being proposed in respect of fees. Over half currently get the full public contribution to tuition fees, and 19% get partial contributions."

This seems to be in stark contrast to his comments during the debate on top-up fees which saw his New Labour Government forced to capitulate under opposition pressure. Then an almost apoplectic Mr Andrews claimed that it was "a bung for the better-off, a bribe for the better-off and a backhander for the better-off" because students from richer families would also benefit from having to pay top-up fees.

He went on to say that "They care nothing for improving participation in the communities that I and my colleagues represent. They come here today to defend class politics - middle class politics."

So having berated opposition members for daring to flex their muscles, his hypocrisy seemingly knows no bounds as he then claims that "Welsh Labour was elected in the 2003 Assembly elections on a pledge not to introduce top-up fees in Wales before 2007.

We have kept that pledge and gone beyond it."

Mr Andrews seems to be a mite confused to put it politely.

Chair RCT Liberal Democrats, Wern Street, Clydach Vale

It seems that the compromise forced on Labour by the opposition has now been transmuted into a Labour success, building on previous pledges. How quickly history is re-written!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Spontaneity and the First Minister

A number of Assembly Members used Wednesday's debate on the First Minister's Annual Report to practise their one-liners. It is a dying art but if any institution can breath new life into it then the Welsh Assembly can. First up was Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, Mike German:

Your annual report gives us a moment to reflect on your actions over the preceding 12 months. The piecemeal populism that defines your Government is ticking along. You like to tell us about the progress that you have made on the feel-good pledges that you wheeled out for the 2003 election, but, as far as I can see, there is little to show for your set of intentions. Your top-ten pledges are still there. Most are still not enacted beyond a pilot scheme here and there. You have more pilots than a top-gun academy, but few of your ideas have yet taken off.

He was swiftly followed by another Welsh Liberal Democrat AM:

Jenny Randerson: This is a very thin document on very thick paper. If you strip out the spin, and take away the achievements that date back to the partnership Government, what do you have? Not very much. There have been two years of treading water by this Labour Assembly Government, and two years of dog paddling around in a circle—there are no Olympic swimmers in that Cabinet.

It was all good stuff but then the debate developed its own story-arc. It all started with an intervention by Neath Labour AM, Gwenda Thomas:

Gwenda Thomas: Are you aware that at the end of the last week’s first meeting of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister, the public, of which there were quite a few present, burst into spontaneous applause? I have not experienced that since the onset of the Assembly. Do you agree, therefore, that that shows how in tune with the people of Wales the First Minister is, and that his appeal to the people of Wales far exceeds that of other leaders in the Assembly?

Having been at the Committee Gwenda refers to I would have been surprised if the spontaneous applause had been for the First Minister, his policies or his enunciation of them. It was a new Committee experimenting in a different kind of scrutiny and there was an audience who had a particular interest in the subject under discussion. The two hours of intensive questioning that constituted its first meeting was compelling entertainment in its own way and no doubt it was that which attracted the applause.

Nevertheless, the first thought that came into my head was that perhaps spontaneous combustion might be a more appropriate response to the First Minister. Others questioned whether it would now be compulsory to react in this way whenever Rhodri Morgan entered the room. This was a point taken up by Tory AM, Glyn Davies:

Mrs Gwenda Thomas talks about the bursting out of spontaneous applause when the First Minister appears. That sort of practice is an honourable tradition in one-party states; it is a bit unusual in Wales.

By that time however, Rhodri Morgan had somehow lost his sense of humour.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

A tragedy unfolds

This is not a news site so I will not attempt to do what others can do better. I have been keeping abreast of the awful news from London all day. It seems that each time I return to it the number of casualties has risen. My helplessness is encapsulated by the fact that there is nothing I can say that will undo what has been done or that will help anybody come to terms with it.

The one thing I am having difficulty with is the way that television journalists in particular are filling in the gaps in their rolling news coverage by seeking out unsavoury facts. I have just seen a doctor being interviewed. She was at the BMA offices near to one of the blasts and came out to help with her colleagues. Victims were taken to a nearby courtyard for triage and assistance. Having extracted these details the journalist pushed the obviously distressed doctor for information about any fatalities. He signed off the piece by announcing that there had been no confirmed casualties from that blast as yet. It was real ambulance-chasing stuff.

As in New York and Madrid, the terrorists will find that Londoners do not like being intimidated in this way. The blogosphere is full of individual stories such as this of near misses and interrupted journeys. I have only looked at a few but already I have come across one person who lives in Edgeware Road and who left for work early, thus missing the blast near to her home. Various MPs such as David Davies, John Hemming, and Julie Morgan have given their view from Westminster whilst some blogging London Councillors such as Mary Reid have also chipped in with their own personal stories.

Like John Hemming I cannot better the words spoken by Ken Livingstone about this outrage:

"I hope you will understand if, after the statement I make, I’m not in a position to take questions and I do not want anything I do or say to cause confusion or misunderstanding in the effort now being undertaken by our emergency services to rescue and save those Londoners who’ve been subject to this cowardly attack. Our thoughts are with those Londoners who have been injured. Our thoughts and the efforts of the administration at City Hall will be to care for them and to care for those who have lost loved ones, and there has been loss of life. I want to thank the emergency services for the way they’ve responded.

"Following the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th in America we conducted a series of exercises in London in order to be prepared for just such an attack. One of those exercises which was done by the government, my office and the emergency and security services was based on the possibility of multiple explosions on the transport system during the Friday rush hour and so the plan that followed from that exercise is being executed today and with remarkable efficiency and courage, and I praise those staff who are doing that. I‘d like to thank Londoners for the calm way they have responded to this cowardly attack and echo [word unclear – sounds like] the advice of Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of police – do not travel, take the advice of the police, stay at home, wait if you are not at home until you hear over the radio or television the advice of the police about how you will proceed to get home later today.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that this is a terrorist attack, as has been claimed. We did hope in the first few minutes after hearing the events on the Underground that it might simply be a maintenance tragedy. That was not the case. I have been able to stay in touch through the very excellent communications that were established for the eventuality that I might be out of the city at the time of a terrorist attack and they have worked with remarkable effectiveness, and I will continue to be in touch until I board the plane that takes me back to London in the next few hours. I want to say one thing specifically to the world today. This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old – indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion whatever. That isn’t an ideology, it isn’t even a perverted faith – it is just… indiscriminate attempt at mass murder and we know what the objective is. They seek to divide Londoners. They seek to turn Londoners against each other. I said yesterday to the IOC – this city of London is the greatest in the world because everybody lives side by side in harmony and Londoners will not be divided by this cowardly attack. They will stand together in solidarity around those who have been injured, those who have been bereaved and that is why I’m proud to be the mayor of that city.

"Finally, I wish to speak through you directly to those who came to London today to take life. I know that you personally do not fear to give your own life in exchange for taking others – is why you are so dangerous – but I know you do fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail. In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential. They choose to come to London as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don’t want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our cities where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail."

There is no need to say any more at this time except to remind you once again that you can record your own tributes on this site.

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