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Friday, September 30, 2005

Looking under the bed

For those who like some certainty in their politics I offer this book by Katharine DeBrecht. According to the blurb "Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed" is a full-colour illustrated book and a fun way for parents to teach young children the valuable lessons of conservatism.

Written in simple text, readers can follow along with Tommy and Lou as they open a lemonade stand to earn money for a swing set. But when liberals start demanding that Tommy and Lou pay half their money in taxes, take down their picture of Jesus, and serve broccoli with every glass of lemonade, the young brothers experience the downside to living in Liberaland.

The pitch goes on to claim that the book is perfect for parents who seek to share their traditional values with their children, as well as adults who wish to give a humorous gift to a friend. Designed at a reading level of 4-8 it is a must-read handbook for all Tory leadership candidates.

You could not make it up!

Tackling the New Labour culture

Walter Wolfgang, the 82 year old man who was unceremoniously bundled out of the labour Party's Conference for utilising his right to free speech gave an impromptu press conference yesterday. The Guardian takes up the story:

The scene was more Kate Moss than Kier Hardie. Then, to cries of "welcome back Walter" from a small crowd of supporters, he began to speak, his voice retaining a trace of his German origins. "What happened to me yesterday isn't really important," he said - but the lunatic scene all around him disproved the claim. Trapped inside a surging prison of cameramen he denouncing Labour for being "irresponsible enough to hire heavies. The party has to be open, it has to debate important issues," he said.

His message was simple and it stung Labour where it hurt. He wanted "a culture which is open and open to argument. This we are in danger of losing". He was certainly winning as he rolled forward in a media ruck that came close to crushing him and everyone else.

We already know that Labour are treating our civil liberties in the same cavalier and authoritarian way. Perhaps we should have guessed that they would do this by the way they run their own party. Walter Wolfgang should know better. He is not in danger of losing the fight for an open culture, he has already lost it.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Put up or shut up

Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, has been at it again. He used a press conference at the Labour Party Conference to announce that next year's Government of Wales Bill will be changed to force the Assembly to draw up a new Code of Conduct to prevent the 20 regional members claiming to represent individual constituencies. He also wants to see a crackdown on the expenses paid to regional AMs.

This must be the most blatant example yet of a Government legislating to interfere in the democratic process for purely party political reasons. These are the actions of a third world dictatorship.

Mr Hain said, 'I'm announcing today that the Wales Bill will ensure that Assembly Members cannot misrepresent their mandate. No more list members dishonestly posing as constituency AMs.

'It is also high time list members stopped abusing taxpayers' money running rival constituency offices to the local members they were defeated by, effectively tax-funded campaign offices. It is an abuse of democracy and the Assembly should act to stamp it out.'

Once more Mr. Hain has failed to come up with any evidence to back up his claims. All public monies spent by AMs on their offices and expenses are audited and subject to strict rules. There are few if any incidences of list AMs masquerading as a constituency representative. What examples there are reside in the fevered imagination of paranoid Labour politicians. The Secretary of State for Wales needs to put up or shut up.

This time though it is personal. In his briefing Mr. Hain went out of his way to name me as an offender. He accused me of falsely describing myself as being the constituency AM for Neath. This is such a ludicrous accusation that it barely deserves an answer. However, for the record I cannot recollect any instance when I have done such a thing.

A glance at my website will reveal that in all instances I describe myself on my press releases as the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Member for South Wales West. My surgery posters carry the same description. I am based in Swansea, which is were I get most of my press coverage and casework from, but I also work in Gower, Neath, Aberavon, Bridgend and Ogmore and hold surgeries throughout my region. Roughly half a million people live in that area. I share those constituents with the other three regional members and their constituency AM. Maybe that is the real problem.

If Mr. Hain believes that I have misrepresented myself then he should provide evidence. If he cannot do so then I expect him to apologise. I am not really holding my breath but aren't these sort of games below the dignity of a UK cabinet minister? Would he not be better off legislating to give the Assembly the powers it needs to improve the lives of the people of Wales instead of fixating on party political jealousies?


The Freedom of Information Act has done a great deal to expose previously hidden information about the process of government. It has also revealed the lengths that some Ministers and civil servants will go to avoid revealing things that they would prefer to keep secret, though to be fair in many cases they do have a legitimate reason.

Jenny Randerson yesterday uncovered a real gem. It is best described in her own words:

Jenny Randerson: I raise a point of order under Standing Order No. 6.36. I submitted a question under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to the Minister for Economic Development and Transport some time ago. I have had a reply in which I am told by the official concerned that not all the documents that I have requested can be provided. The reason given is:

‘the documents relate to discussions between Ministers and officials, who are encouraged to be imaginative and consider innovative ideas. The exposure of some of these discussions to the public domain, via a freedom of information request, may lead to individuals or Cabinet being targeted for ridicule through the media. Such a prospect would, or would be likely to, inhibit the free and frank exchange of ideas’.

You have previously ruled on the issue of questions and freedom of information, Presiding Officer, therefore is it your view that it is a a legitimate exemption from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that information should not be supplied because a Minister may be held up to ridicule as a result?

Alas the Presiding Officer was unable to help. Presumably, he thought that the Minister concerned was perfectly capable of subjecting himself to ridicule without help from the Chair.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Post punk

Yesterday Tony Blair mounted the Conference platform to the sound of Sham 69's "If the kids are united". No doubt this seemed like a good idea at the time but does the party which seeks to position itself on the side of the common man against yobbery and binge drinking fully understand the nature of the beast it has embraced?

This 1970s band had a dedicated skinhead following and produced such gems as "Borstal breakout". The lyrics of the song "Evil Way" celebrated the sort of lifestyle that New Labour tells us they want to end:

Been in the pub since half past five
All day long I've laughed and cried
I'm like you I need a drink or two
Mum's down the bingo it's Friday night
Dad's down the dogtrack
I hope he has a fight
I'm alright I know what I want tonight

I'm gonna get my end away
I'm gonna get my end away
I'm gonna get my evil way

I don't know what I'm doing
But I don't care
I'd better go to the loo
I'm just about to ...bleugh
But I'm like you I need a drink or two
I wanna girl but there's nothing in here
Just old men and pints of beer
But I'll be alright if I get what I want tonight

Just to round off this trip down memory lane I leave you with the masterpiece called "Sunday morning nightmare". Is this how the Labour Conference is destined to end?

I've been drinking too many pints of lager
I've been getting into to many bleedin' fights
I came home with sick all down me trousers
I've got lovebites all around me neck

With so much choice I cannot understand how it is they chose the song that they did.

Budgeting in the real world

We are in for an interesting few weeks in the Assembly. The opposition parties flexed their muscles again yesterday in rejecting the Government's Business Statement and forcing a debate on the E.coli crisis. Today it is likely that they will force the Labour Administration into holding some form of public inquiry on this issue.

Also yesterday the Government published its draft budget for the next three years. It was quickly noted by the media and politicians that there were a number of interesting omissions from that document. First up was the failure to include any money to meet the Higher Education funding gap between Wales and England. This is despite the fact that this was a commitment coming out of the deal struck on student support earlier this year.

Also missing was any further help for Council taxpayers who are faced with larger bills due to rebanding, a Labour experiment that was subsequently abandoned in England because it was such a disaster here. It has to be said as well that the amount of extra cash for local government itself is largely inadequate and that many Councils will be struggling to make ends meet next year in the face of this allocation.

The Western Mail focussed on the free school breakfasts issue in its coverage. They noted that the budget only provided enough money to enable 80% of primary schools to participate. This is despite the fact that Labour's key pledge in 2003 was that there will be "free breakfasts for all primary school kids". They also questioned the clinical priority of reducing prescription charges further which, they said 'seems to reflect distorted priorities in the health service where hospital waiting times remain significantly longer than England.'

There are a number of other issues arising from this budget not least the need for more front-line funding for schools and investment in school buildings. It is inevitable that the opposition will use its voting clout to seek to amend it. That will be a first for the Welsh Assembly and how the government responds will be instructive to say the least.

Trusting the members

So the Conservatives will have to rely on their grassroots members to choose their new leader after all. Well, that should cause a few more candidates to come out of the woodwork. Iain Duncan Smith anybody?

Telling it as it is?

In his speech to the Labour Party Conference yesterday the Home Secretary rather incredibly claimed that ID cards will help control the Big Brother state:

"It will not create the Big Brother state - it will help to control it," he told the Brighton gathering. "It will not remove civil liberties but will give an individual greater control over his identity."

In Orwellian terms that is known as 'doublethink'.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Winning Ceredigion

I am not going to comment on the £2.5 million donation to the Liberal Democrats campaign fund as I do not yet know all the circumstances and so I am unable to form a judgement about it. However, Plaid Cymru's have now complained that we may well have used the money to win Ceredigion. Again I do not know if this is true or not, though I am happy to take my party's spokesperson's word that none of the Michael Brown money was used for this purpose.

Whether this is "foreign" money as Elin Jones asserts is a matter for the Electoral Commission to determine and I am surprised that she is prepared to pre-judge due process in this matter. However, I am interested in her view on political parties receiving money from tax exiles. These are people who are British citizens but who have taken up residence abroad so that they do not have to pay the same taxes as we do. One such tax exile is Sean Connery, who gives very generously to Plaid Cymru's sister party, the SNP.

As I have said in the past, until there is proper reform of political donations accompanied by state funding, then there will always be questions about large donations and their impact on the political process.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The drugs don't work

So just how worried are Labour by the Liberal Democrats threat? Well judging by this picture of Labour AM Leighton Andrews' office door down in the Bay, they are very worried indeed. So much so, in fact, that they are happy to resort to accusing us of being drug dealers on the basis of their distorted and entirely opportunistic critique of the modest and well-argued anti-drugs policy adopted by Liberal Democrats Conference a few years ago. A policy, by the way that the Home Secretary now appears to be in tune with. He has recently been quoted as saying that we should find alternatives to prison for drug addicts.

This is precisely the level of debate that Labour has resorted to in by-elections and elsewhere. It owes more to the politics of the gutter than to rational discussion. God only knows what people like Leighton Andrews think of intelligent Labour Parliamentarians such as Paul Flynn, who have consistently argued for a far more liberal position than anything we have advocated as a Party. Thanks to Paul's 1999 book "Dragons led by Poodles" we do however know what he thinks of Leighton. He writes that the now-Rhondda AM is an "Oleaginous, accommodating, feline, apprentice shift-shaper." I don't think there is room for all that on my office door.

Tony, Tony, Tony, out, out, out

How things change. Prior to 1997 coachloads of trade unionists used to travel down to Tory Party Conference to protest against the latest injustice being done to them by the Government of the day. Often these coach parties involved Labour MPs with a constituency or other interest.

Now that New Labour are in power such trips have been less frequent, but this year we have workers from the threatened Dara aircraft maintenance works at St Athan making the journey to Brighton to lobby for the future of their workplace. And lo and behold, Tory AM Alun Cairns wants to go along as well. Dara is situated in the constituency he is seeking to win at Parliamentary level (rather than his Assembly region). The problem is that Amicus have withdrawn his invitation to travel on the coach.

Alun is a resourceful chap and no doubt he will find his way to Brighton regardless. Let us hope that he does not forget those crucial votes in the Assembly this week. It is not going to be so easy to filibuster whilst he returns from the south coast as it was when he was making his way back from City Hall.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Marshmallow Government

Will Hutton argues in the Observer this morning that the New Labour Government has started to lose its way already:

An air of funk is beginning to settle on New Labour. It may have won a historic third term only months ago, but the electoral system disguises the political reality that its Commons majority is built on only 35 per cent of the popular vote. The party is atrophying; membership has halved since 1997. Without some regained momentum and renewed sense of purpose, any kind of Conservative revival could presage a Labour defeat at the next election.

None of this is new of course. A lot can happen in a four year term and it is very rare for a defining event such as Black Wednesday to seal the fate of Government so early on after it has secured a mandate, no matter how fragile that might be. However, the value of Will Hutton's piece is in how it identifies some key issues and challenges the Government to get to grips with them or else die a slow lingering death.

He believes that 'Labour's long-standing hesitancy about how much its middle-class constituency will accept in a push for social justice or wider change, is imparting a fear of any form of decisive but unpopular action - unless it be confronting trade unions. Last week's decision to defer council tax revaluation for another four years was a tipping point. The explanation that revaluation should take place in the context of a wider review of local government structure fooled nobody; the real reason was fear of council tax rises.'

Pensions, housing and energy require urgent attention but key decisions are being put off. A review of energy options has been kicked into the long grass;, a review of pensions policy, which was led by former CBI chief Adair Turner and is due to report this autumn, is likely to be deferred for a fourth term; whilst proposals to deal with rising house prices and a shortage of affordable housing appear to non-existent.

Even in those areas in which the government has prioritised, outcomes are disappointing - prompting not a redoubling of effort, but apparent doubt about the wisdom of the original intentions.

The top universities are allowed to resist the modest fairness of equal access from state school applicants as 'social engineering'. The child trust fund is inadequately subscribed; billions are wasted in the misdesigned working family tax credit; the results from SureStart are ambiguous.

Bit by bit, progressive action to promote equality of opportunity and reduce poverty is being discredited and delegitimised: the energy to turn the narrative round seems lacking. To cap the sense of immobility, Gordon Brown has had to cut his growth forecast for this year by more than a third. The projected tax base will be lower, and the comprehensive spending review in 2007 even tighter.

Instead we have more city academies, more autonomy for hospitals, more provision of health by private and voluntary providers. All this is in the name of promoting choice and contestability, and a supposedly necessary fight with unloved public sector unions. Somehow New Labour are missing the point on public services, that accessibility and quality are the attributes that the public most want from them. Mr. Hutton's conclusion is damning:

Labour strategists should take note. When the party was attacked for its attachment to spin, there was an implicit respect that it both wanted power and knew what to do with it. Now, there is the first sign of genuine mockery. It is right to hold on to the centre of politics, but indecision, deferral and immobility are not the way to secure that objective.

A do-nothing Prime Minister in charge of a marshmallow government will be mocked into political oblivion. It is not too late to turn it around - but, if we see more months of this, New Labour's trajectory, like John Major's, will be locked into decline.

Peter Lilley sings

The Politics Show are running an on-line poll to find the most embarrassing conference moment. Peter Lilley singing to the Tory Party Conference is my favourite to win, though Iain Duncan Smith announcing that the 'quiet man is turning up the volume' has to be a close second. I was actually present when David Steel told the 1981 Liberal Conference to 'go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government'. It has been much parodied within the party since. Go and cast your vote now.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Legislating with dummies

So that is how grown-up Government works? You produce a set of proposals designed to appease your own party rather than operate in the interests of the people of Wales. You add in a change to the electoral system for the sake of undermining the opposition and shoring up the political position of Labour AMs. And then, at the first sign of dissent, you accuse the other parties of 'kindergarten politics' and tell them it is time to grow up!

So as to shore up his own position Peter Hain then adds in for good measure the possibility that the Tories may seek to wreck the Bill altogether and demands that Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats rally behind his half-hearted attempts at modernisation, regardless of their own views, so as to head off the right wing at the pass. So much for mature debate and legislative scrutiny.

Actually, this is par for the course with Peter Hain as is the way that he suggests changing the proposals. It now seems that we are to have a pre-legislative scrutiny stage added in at Westminster so that MPs can examine Assembly Bills in detail. This effectively puts the Assembly back under the thumb of Westminster and more dependent than ever on Welsh Labour MPs for any proposals to be approved. It is giving an element of primary law-making powers with one hand and taking it away with another.

If Peter Hain waters this proposal down any more then it really will be not worth having. He cannot seriously expect to push through this sort of legislation without dissent and without each line being challenged and scrutinised. He cannot seriously expect opposition parties to put their own ambitions for Wales to one side to back the compromise he came up with to quell dissent within the Labour Party. And he surely must realise that slagging off the institution he is seeking to reform is no way to win friends and influence people.

This is the arrogance of power. It is the arrogance of somebody who believes that grown-up Government is about retaining control and stifling opposition. It is about showing the baby the dummy but not letting him get his lips anywhere near the teat.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Since the enormous amount of speculation in the media about the Plaid Cymru leadership, and in particular the off-the-record briefings being given to the Western Mail's Chief Reporter, Martyn Shipton, the Assembly Plenary sessions have acquired a sub-text of their own. On Tuesday the Presiding Officer had his own little dig with an oblique reference to the fact that he might be commenting on the Devolution White Paper in a different role. On Wednesday, the current Plaid Cymru Assembly leader got his own back:

Sue Essex: .........In terms of your freedom of information request, we had a request from Martin Shipton—I do not know whether he is your surrogate these days, Ieuan—and we answered the question, and did so quite truthfully in terms of the question that came forward.

Ieuan Wyn Jones: I am not so sure whether I would regard Martin Shipton as my surrogate—he may be a surrogate for others, but not for me. Let me come back to—[Interruption.]

All the excitement however was centred around an otherwise innocuous debate on the delegation of functions under the Inquiries Act 2005 to the First Minister. Although the opposition was one down they had worked out that if a vote on a delegation was tied then the Presiding Officer was obliged to cast his vote against it. Thus it was agreed that very real concern that decisions on whether or not to hold a public inquiry should be made by a cross party group rather than a single Minister could be driven home by refusing to delegate the power to the First Minister.

As members delivered their speeches, it was discovered that one AM was not present and was likely to miss the vote. It seems that Alun Cairns was talking at a business lunch in City Hall and had not yet returned. Efforts were made to contact him with an urgent demand that he come back immediately, whilst other opposition members were drafted in to pad out the debate. Deputy Presiding Officer, John Marek, summed up the mood perfectly with his opening remarks:

John Marek: I did not intend to speak on this matter, but having heard the leaders of the opposition parties make speeches with substance in them, I feel that I have to come in and support them, because this is an important issue.

What he really meant to say of course was that "I did not intend to speak on this matter, but having noticed that Alun Cairns is not yet back I felt that it was necessary to spin out the debate so as to enable him to be in the chamber for the vote." In the end Alun did enter the chamber breathless and just in time to ensure that the delegation motion fell. However the discussion had gone on for so long that the division bell needed to be rung anyway so as to give the Presiding Officer time for a comfort break before the next item on the devolution white paper, which he was proposing and summing up on.

Go Neil, go

My plan to discuss some of the more amusing moments from Wednesday's Plenary debate has had to be put on hold due to the fact that my Assembly computer is currently inaccessible and I cannot get at the notes I e-mailed myself from the chamber. Instead I have found more nonsense from arch-unionist Neil Kinnock.

In between telling us the rather obvious news that Tony Blair will not step down as Prime Minister until 2008, Lord Kinnock also reaffirmed his opposition to giving full law-making powers to Cardiff Bay:

'I would say that the proposal to change the nature of devolution by providing tax-raising powers and law making powers would require another referendum and I would need a lot of reassurance that such devolution would not work to the disadvantage of Wales.'

His instinct was to be 'strongly against' such a change, he said.

Given that the proposed White paper will transfer primary law making powers across to the Assembly piecemeal, neither Lord Kinnock nor Peter Hain are clear as to what happens when that process is all but complete and a referendum has not yet been triggered. Will they insist on a vote to decide whether the remaining few powers over say, transport, are transferred or will it be too late by then?

Not only does their position leave the Assembly in the position of going on bended knee to Westminster for the tools to do the job it was elected for, but it will actually deny the Welsh people a vote on whether it is appropriate for those powers to be transferred to us.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Fighting for Wales

There is an interesting article in this morning's Guardian from Hywel Williams about Tony Blair and Wales. It discusses not so much Tony Blair's attitude to the Welsh as his sense of powerlessness as the devolution process moved forward out of his control. It has been inspired by the publication of the diary of his former press aide Lance Price and in particular the Prime Minister's reaction as the election results came in for the first Assembly elections.

It's a difficult experience when you're used to getting your way and start encountering resistance. The decision by the Welsh electorate not to give the Labour party a majority in the elections for the new assembly must have seemed quite unaccountable to big daddy - as well as an act of ingratitude. For decades the smiling, compliant songsters next door had always been well up for it: voting how they were told to and delivering cartload majorities for Labour. They didn't ask for much in return from English Labour or from England itself - just a few pious cliches about the glory of Keir and the grandiosity of Nye would do very nicely.

Hywel is convinced that part of Blair's anger is rooted in the cultural differences between England and Wales. I am not so sure. The Welsh people did not reject Labour in 1999 because they wanted to reassert their Welshness, they did so because having been given some control over their own destiny they were not going to let some control freak in London take it away from them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


On the day that AMs and the Press were invited to view the new chamber building prior to it being fitted out, much of the early discussion in the Assembly Plenary seemed to centre on rats and other small furry animals.

We had all convened after the summer recess, fresh and raring to go. I say all, but already there is a tendency for some opposition members to go missing when needed. David Davies AM MP was not in the chamber until later on. The rumour was that he was on a Parliamentary trip to Uganda, of which the least said the better, however it transpired that he had returned from that excursion on Sunday. Shortly after he arrived a Plaid Cymru member disappeared to travel to meet the SNP in Scotland, thus missing a series of votes on the Social Justice Report.

The First Minister was in a combative mood. However, we had to wait until question four before the legendary rat and its drainpipe made an appearance in response to a question from Leanne Wood on the Welsh Baccalaureate:

You must not follow the media in going like a rat up a drainpipe on the basis that, if there is any way possible, you should knock a Welsh initiative. That would mean that a Welsh initiative could not possibly be successful. You are the last person I would have thought would follow, lemming-like, that leap over the precipice, in saying, ‘Oh, this can’t be a good thing’. Just read in detail what those two headteachers say in their recent letters of protest against the media’s mishandling of this issue.

I have to confess that I do not know enough about the subject to say whether lemmings are related to rats but you get the picture. By question six an entirely different small creature had entered the First Minister's lexicon, this time in response to a question from Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, Mike German, on the Government Devolution White Paper and the reorganisation of Police forces:

The First Minister: If you want to resist Kirsty Williams’s leadership challenge, the fewer references to guinea pigs that you make the better, Mike.

Question seven was about employment levels in South East Wales but the rat reappeared nevertheless:

The First Minister: I am afraid, Jenny, that you have just displayed the-rat-up-a-drainpipe-attracted-to-a-negative-news-headline phenomenon even though, once again, there is no factual basis.

The afternoon then drifted into points of order in which Alun Cairns made a faux pas in the use of politically incorrect language and was pulled up on it by the Presiding Officer:

Alun Cairns: I raise a point of order under Standing Order No. 7 in relation to the response from the First Minister to my question about the economic development strategy, ‘A Winning Wales’. I fear that he may have inadvertently misled the Chamber when he denied the target of 90 per cent of UK gross domestic product. I remind him of his statement on Thursday, 13 December 2001, when he said

‘I realise that it is ambitious. Many things must go right for us to be able to achieve that target of 90 per cent of UK average GDP per capita’.

Therefore, he either inadvertently misled the Chamber, or it could well have been a senior moment.

The Presiding Officer: Order. On the first point, the First Minister would neither advertently nor inadvertently mislead the Chamber, neither would any other Minister or Member. I ask you to reconsider, at your tender age, the reference to ‘a senior moment’, which I could construe as disorderly and verging on the ageist.

Finally, we all enjoyed the Presiding Officer having a little bit of fun at the expense of his own party and speculation that he might emerge as its leader early next year:

The Presiding Officer: I read certain comments fully in the very well redesigned The Guardian, but it is not a matter for me to comment on any alleged remarks. I will await the publication of the volume, and even then it would not be a matter for me, at least not while I am sitting here. [Laughter.]

Clearly, he is looking forward to the freedom of expression that Party leadership might bring.

Scared to be interesting?

The Western Mail this morning reports remarks from Lembit Opik who believes that politicians have become 'too scared' to express ideas outside the mainstream of their parties' thinking. Lembit told a fringe meeting at Conference that politics was often dull because of politicians themselves and said that the Liberal Democrats is at risk of "painting itself grey".

Lembit confesses that he only realised his own problem when Sian Lloyd found him watching a video of party political broadcasts. Truly, Lembit deserves to own the Electoral Commission's 'Political Anorak' far more than I do.

"What's wrong with us?" he said. "Are we so afraid of debate we're not even willing to have it in our own party? How will we ever find the breakthroughs if we're not willing to talk about breaks with what's gone before?

"To give us back our right to challenge old thinking, to scrap and argue, and then to decide is the way to get people interested. And if the Lib Dems won't do it, we're painting ourselves grey along with the rest.

"And there's another thing missing. Our spirit. The playful and energising adventure spirit which drew us into politics like moths to a stormlamp, and which evokes dreams of changing the world.

"That's got to come with a warmth and a smile It's not something you can teach. But it's a spirit you can free. Political debate needs a dose of honesty."

Lembit is absolutely right. One way that he can start to free up debate in the party is to get himself a blog and start to share his thoughts with us on a daily basis. However, the one thing that the Conference has shown is that the Party is not afraid of an open and robust debate.

In a direct snub to the handful of MPs and the media who have been trying to talk us onto a right wing agenda, conference representatives firstly rejected moves to make us more Euro-sceptic, and then yesterday they voted to throw out proposals to part-privatise the Royal Mail. The Labour propaganda machine must be in despair.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Storms in teacups

From the wild and windy Blackpool coast straight into a "storm in a teacup", if the Western Mail is to be believed this morning. It seems that a mini-coup has been in the making over the summer with the objective of deposing Mike German as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Group.

The details of this abortive conspiracy were apparently contained in an e-mail that Mike German inadvertently posted on a Liberal Democrats internet forum and which was subsequently handed over to HTV Wales. In his e-mail Mike reported:

"KW (Kirsty Williams) wants to be leader but sometime in the future - Mick (Bates) mentions 2-4 years. Mick is supporting and encouraging her. He agrees nothing will happen in the short term, until I have finished the job, but says he told her to prepare her ground with the party. I pointed out that this should mean doing good things with the party not mounting a leadership bid straight out. I pointed out the dangers to the party as a whole of doing this. He gave me a reassurance that he understood this point and that is what Kirsty should do.

So - storm in a teacup - but naivety in the extreme to think that a campaign was the way to go about it."

This may well be the case but Kirsty's reposte also needs to be noted. She told the Western Mail that "It is naive for any leader not to reflect on how they are doing in the party and how their leadership is being received by members of the party."

Lessons clearly need to be learnt on all sides not least in how to use new technology in a non-accident-prone way. More importantly, the reasons for any unrest should also be noted. There is widespread suspicion within the wider party at the much-touted rainbow coalition that will apparently take-over after the 2007 Assembly elections if Labour do not secure a majority. It is considered by many that a lot of the groundwork for such a coalition has already been done despite the fact that the Welsh Liberal Democrats Group have not discussed it at all.

Indeed I was told by one party insider in Blackpool, who assumed that I was in on the talks, that the plan was to install the current Presiding Officer as First Minister, with the leader of the largest coalition party as his Deputy. I cannot say if Dafydd Elis-Thomas is aware of that assumption as nobody has seen fit to tell me what talks have gone on between the opposition party leaders or what conclusions have been reached.

In such an atmosphere it is no wonder that things are getting fraught and that members of the party feel excluded and uneasy about what is being planned. Perhaps Kirsty is offering good advice after all. A debate now on the direction we are going in would be very welcome.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The joys of Conference

Having only just started to really enjoy Conference it is almost time to leave. Together with all of the other Welsh Liberal Democrats AMs I am travelling back very early tomorrow morning and braving the M6 at rush hour so as to get back to Cardiff Bay in time for the first Plenary session of the new term.

The few days I have been here have had their interesting moments. The first one concerned the Conference passes. Many people would dispute the fact that AMs are Parliamentarians, nevertheless that is how the Liberal Democrats class us for Conference purposes. This means that we get the same privileges as MPs in terms of use of facilities, access to otherwise restricted areas etc. However, to secure that access we need Parliamentarian badges.

When I registered on Saturday I found that these badges were not forthcoming. It appeared that the computer software used to generate them was refusing to recognise that AMs and MSPs were in fact Parliamentarians. It was also having problems with those MPs who had previously been an MEP.

Not having gone to the Spring Conference in March I was also unprepared for the changes in the security arrangements. Barcodes on badges are now scanned as we enter the hall, whilst they are also apparently required wear in the main conference hotel. Not realising this I turned up to the Imperial last night and was immediately challenged. The first person I asked to vouch for me declined to do so. Fortunately, I found a former member of the Welsh Liberal Democrats who was prepared to put his neck on the line and confirm that I was a party member.

I was concerned as to why I had not been informed of the need to wear a badge in the Imperial Hotel. I was told that the information was contained in the letter that accompanied the badge when it was sent to us prior to Conference. Unfortunately, the Party had omitted to send mine in this way, even though I had pre-registered. Eventually, I found the information in the booklet entitled "A Conference Guide" - on page 69!

Being in Blackpool the weather is not the best at this time of the year. On Saturday night it was particularly dreary and I got quite wet as I set out on the 20 minute walk between the Conference Centre and my hotel. As I got to the North Pier it occurred to me that I should catch a tram which I did. It was only later (and with less than 12 hours to go before I leave) that I discovered that the local Council was providing free tram tickets for delegates.

Of course if I had thought I would have brought with me suitable wet weather gear. Fortunately, I have just won a windcheater by scoring 7 out of 8 in the quiz on the Electoral Commission stand. This jacket appears to have been made for Conference reps. Putting aside the distinctive Electoral Commission logo on the front, it has emblazoned across the back in large letters the words "Political Anorak". Must have seen me coming!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Being soft on drug dealers

I have lost count of the number of attacks that have been made on the Liberal Democrats regarding their policy of substance misuse. In particular we have come under attack for this one line in our policy:

"ending the use of imprisonment for possession for own use of illegal drugs of any class"

In moving the motion that led to the adoption of this policy the then Liberal Democrats Home Affairs Spokesperson, Simon Hughes, said:

Treatment and prevention should be the priority for individuals who use drugs. By contrast, the criminal law should be directed at the organised thugs and pushers who run the illegal drugs trade. Harmful drug use should be responded to primarily as a health issue.

We need a more intelligent response to the users, and potential users, of drugs - we should be getting users off drugs not into prison. Education and treatment need to be the priority. There is nothing more self defeating than making those who seek or are referred for treatment for their drug problems to wait weeks and often months. It is simply madness when it is not just in the individual’s in interest to get treatment as soon as possible, it is also in society’s interest to break the cycle which links drugs and crime.

By contrast, the sharp end of the criminal law should be focused on the rough end of the drugs problem. As we are regularly told the criminal justice resources are overstretched. The overstretched police, the courts and prisons should be used to deal with the organised, often ruthless and relentless criminals who make their livings from harmful trade. To help break the link between drug users and the crime they resort to to pay for their habits, and to break the link between drug users and the criminals who sell their drugs. Specifically, to focus treatment on users and break that link, we propose specialist heroin prescription and treatment clinics we are proposing that simple possession alone of class B or C drugs will not result in a prison sentence, and we propose focusing a greater proportion of resources on treatment and education Specifically to focus the criminal law on the real criminals.

Labour have made a real meal of this, often misrepresenting our position, often adopting a popularist stance for their own political advantage. In by-elections in particular they have driven home the message that in their opinion, the Liberal Democrats are soft on drugs.

Well now it appears that Labour have joined the fold. The Independent on Sunday this morning reports that:

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, will tomorrow call for offenders with mental health problems and drug addicts to be spared jail in a bid to reduce the escalating prison population.

The article goes on to report that:

A Home Office source said that Mr Clarke will use a speech to the Prison Reform Trust in London to argue that community punishments are not a soft option and that they must be used more widely for low-level offenders. He will also stress that new ways must be found to stop people offending in the first place.

It is sad that this is not part of a more reasoned approach to drugs policy but at least Labour are now on the right track.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Guinea pigs

I am on my way to Blackpool for the Liberal Democrats Conference and using a very slow dial-up connection so blogging will be light for a bit. However, I could not help but notice this in today's Times.

There is already suspicion that Wales was used as a guinea pig for Council Tax re-banding. The decision by the Tony Blair to to postpone the revaluation of property bands in England, due in 2007, seems to confirm that this was in fact the case. It appears that ministers have been stung by the political backlash from revaluation in Wales last April, which led to 33 per cent of homes being put on a higher band and only 8 per cent on a lower band.

Liberal Democrats MP, Sarah Teather, got it about right when she said that “Council tax is in a desperate mess, bottling out of revaluation isn’t going to solve anything. By opting out of meaningful reform, the Government is letting down the millions of pensioners and low-paid workers who struggle month after month to pay their council tax bills.”

The Government's problem is that they cannot see beyond tinkering with a fundamentally unfair system. Although they seem prepared to sacrifice Wales on the altar of experimentation, the voters of Middle England have proved a much more precious commodity for them. However, even they will soon catch on to the fact that the existing system of local Government taxation is unsustainable and start to demand changes. Fortunately for Tony Blair, that is one problem he is able to leave to Gordon Brown to sort out.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Promoting bloggers

Jonathan Calder has used the pre-Conference edition of Liberal Democrats News to promote the world of Liberal Democrats blogging. There are now so many of my fellow party members using the internet in this way that it is impossible to put all of them on my links. Every time I visit the libdem blogs aggregated site I find a new blogger has appeared. Yesterday I discovered Simon Mollan's new blog. Another excellent collaboration is the Apollo Project, whilst Stephen Glenn is giving us a blow-by-blow account from the front line with his posts on the Livingston by-election.

Blogging is a useful means of communicating our ideas and policies to the outside world. They can enable a two-way communication process between elected representatives and their constituents and they can provide a forum for people like me to comment on current events and draw people's attention to issues that I believe are important. The new sites that are growing up have added to that list. Some of them are now providing a forum for philosophical discussion and the dissemination of new ideas. The political pamphlet of old has been replaced by blogs.

Limiting our freedoms

Personally, I have grave reservations about a number of the measures being proposed by the Home Secretary to tackle terrorism.

As Simon Titley said in a recent post, there is a fallacy parroted endlessly by New Labour's ministers that "public security and civil liberties exist in inverse proportion and that, if we want to protect one, we must sacrifice the other. As I said in an earlier posting, this notion of a trade-off recalls that infamous declaration, "In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it.

"There are two other fallacies at work; that our basic liberties are the gift of the government, to be granted or withdrawn at will, and that whenever terrorists attack, the first thing we need is more laws. The usual motive behind such demands for new repressive legislation is either administrative convenience or a desire to create a bogus impression of action, and often both.

No-one has made a convincing case that our existing liberties make us more vulnerable or that "eroding" them will solve the problem of terrorism. All that such eroding would do is hand victory to the terrorists on a plate. Our civil liberties are not some expendable ornament bolted-on to our society; they are our society."

The proposal to introduce a new offence of encouraging and glorifying terrorism falls into this trap. It involves two offences both carrying a jail sentence of up to seven years and covers published statements, including internet ones, which amount to the "direct or indirect encouragement" of terrorist acts or those which "glorify, exalt, or celebrate" such acts. It does not cover statements on events of more than 20 years ago. Some events are absent from the limit, 9/11 is "listed", the 1916 Easter Rising is not.

This one exception underlines how absurd the new law is. In its time the 1916 Easter Rising was considered to be a major act of terrorism, so much so that 14 of the 16 ring-leaders were executed. Now, the British state has caught up with the Irish view that it was an historic act that directly led to the setting up of the modern Irish State. History is full of examples of terrorists that have since been accepted as mainstream politicians by the establishment. As Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, says the offence of "glorification" is so broad it means the Home Secretary is now acquiring powers to determine which historical figures are terrorists and which freedom fighters.

Although, I cannot forsee a time when 9/11 or the London bombings of 7 July will ever be considered in the same way as the Easter rising, they will inevitably form part of history courses at some time in the future. Will the objective discussion of them (if such a thing is possible) be hampered by this proposed legislation? More to the point, should democratic Governments legislate to restrict thought and the freedom to express it?

Nobody wants to see terrorist acts glorified or encouraged, however the way that this offence is defined is crucial. It can be pretty wide-ranging and certainly open to wide interpretation. It could be used to restrict legitimate dissent. For example, the Government may seek to imprison or deport people whose views it believes are unacceptable, but who have no direct or apparent connection with terrorism or that sort of extremism whatsoever. Would a demonstration (no matter how small or misguided) in support of those people fall foul of this law? Will opposition to some anti-terrorism measures be an offence? And how exactly do they propose to police the internet?

In responding to terrorism by restricting our liberties the government is handing victory to the terrorists. They are allowing terrorist acts to define the sort of society we live in. In such circumstances surely the Home Secretary should be prosecuted under his own legislation.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Pigeons, meet cat!

The Western Mail has well and truly put a cat amongst the pigeons gathering for the Plaid Cymru annual conference in Aberystwyth today. The supposed challenge of Dafydd Elis-Thomas for the leadership of his party is all anybody can talk about. Even their Assembly Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, is being forced to use his Conference speech to appeal for unity within his own party rather than set out his stall for the elections in 2007.

Ieuan's troubles do not end there however. According to the Western Mail this morning, Ladbrokes have made former Tory AM, Peter Rogers, the favourite to win Ynys Mon off the Plaid leader. This is the one and only development that Ieuan should not lose any sleep over. Ladbroke's track record on these things is not brilliant to say the least.

As if to up the pressure even more, Dafydd Elis-Thomas, has just been on Radio Wales where he 'refused to rule out a challenge for the Plaid Cymru leadership next year'. It must be Christmas!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Low key fuel protests

There are many things that can be said about the current round of fuel protests. One of these is that for the last five years the level of taxation on fuel has remained unchanged. Rising prices have been caused by demand and supply issues outside of the control of any one government. And yet the response of the protestors to the high cost of diesel and petrol has been to focus their discontent onto a taxation policy they have been happy to tolerate for half a decade.

Their frustration is understandable but so is the Government policy of keeping taxation at a level, which will discourage the profligate use of scarce resources, something the Americans have not yet come to terms with.

When the pickets gathered outside oil refineries in September 2000 there was a fairly large section of public opinion who sympathised with their cause. That support slowly disappeared as the inconvenience of people having to use public transport rather than their own vehicles started to bite. This time, I sense that most of the public feel that the protestors have missed the point and I believe that there is no appetite for another confrontation on the same scale. That is certainly borne out by the low turn-out for protests today.

On Friday, a convoy of lorries is scheduled to drive along the M4 from Carmarthen to Newport at 20mph. We will have to see if the police take any action for dangerous driving by virtue of going too slow as they have in the past against individual motorists. However, the thought did occur to me that the protestors timing was quite ironic.

On the same day South Wales will be playing host to the GB Rally. Traditionally, this event has been marked by a plethora of speed camera vans along the M4 and record numbers of tickets being issued to competitors and spectators as they travel between venues. Quite what these speed camera vans will make of a convoy of lorries travelling at 20mph has to be seen.

An embarrassment of leaders

Having effectively installed Dafydd Wigley as their fifth leader a few days ago Plaid Cymru walked straight into a major crisis this morning with speculation that the Assembly Presiding Officer will shortly be assuming the role of Group Leader in place of the beleagured Ieuan Wyn Jones.

Whoever briefed the Western Mail is certainly an admirer of the qualities of Dafydd Elis-Thomas:

DAFYDD ELIS-THOMAS is being lined up to save his party through a spectacular comeback as leader within months.

Leading Plaid Cymru figures are now ready to embrace their former president as the Renaissance Man to lead them into the National Assembly election campaign against Labour in 2007.

The last three years have been disastrous for Plaid, and on current form it would be likely to lose its role as the main opposition party to the Conservatives.

Under the rescue plan, Ieuan Wyn Jones will step down as Plaid's Assembly leader next year, and Lord Elis-Thomas, left, will quit as Presiding Officer to stand for the vacant post.
One of the Plaid strategists behind the move said, "Dafydd is an excellent politician with an enormous amount of experience and popular appeal. He first entered the House of Commons over 30 years ago, he has been in the House of Lords since 1992, and for more than six years he has been presiding over the Assembly.

"He has chaired a major public body - the Welsh Language Board - and is a credible candidate for First Minister who is respected beyond Plaid Cymru. If, as is very likely, Labour fails to win an overall majority in 2007, Dafydd would be very well placed to lead a coalition government comprising the opposition parties.

This can only play badly for Plaid Cymru. As they start their annual conference it seems that they are on the verge of self-destruction. Nor is this the sort of publicity they will be seeking so close to the Assembly elections. The anonymous briefer is an expert in knowing which buttons to press to secure the maximum damage. The position of Ieuan Wyn Jones must now be in doubt:

"Ieuan Wyn Jones is a good number two, but he has not been a successful leader. He has good qualities as an organiser and negotiator, but in terms of public appeal he is not in the same league as Dafydd Elis-Thomas. By stepping down from the Assembly leadership, Ieuan would be able to concentrate on retaining his seat at Ynys Mon."

I suspect that a particularly hot curry was consumed by whoever formulated this character assasination.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Found courtesy of the Western Mail. This glow-in-the-dark Ant Farm is not my idea of a suitable household or office accessory. If you disagree then you can acquire one here.

Grey paper?

The Western Mail reports on the National Assembly's response to the Devolution White Paper with the headline "White Paper? It's more like the Grey Paper". I am sure that it sounded good when the sub-editor thought of it but I could not tell you what it means.

The article itself is much clearer. The sub-committee, which drew up the Assembly's response, makes it clear that there are many unanswered questions about how the proposed new legislative system will work:

Looking at the mechanics of how the new system might operate, the committee fears that too much power may lie with Assembly Ministers rather than with AMs as a whole.

The report says, "It would be preposterous for Welsh Ministers to have more powers to make secondary legislation than their Whitehall equivalents."

As an example of an area where the White Paper leaves many important questions unanswered, the report refers to the uncertainty over how wide an Order in Council might be, "The White Paper sets out 'a range of possibilities illustrated... by examples from Wales-only legislation that has been passed at Westminster since devolution'. These are 'something very specific, such as the functions of the Ombudsmen in Wales... something rather wider, such as the protection and welfare of children... (or) something considerably wider, such as the structure of the NHS in Wales'. But while these examples are helpful, they are examples of specific legislation which has been passed. None of these pieces of legislation gave general and continuing powers to the Assembly to legislate in these areas, whereas this would be the effect of Orders in Council. What would be helpful would be for the Government to use these three examples and to provide mock-ups of what the Orders in Council would have said in each case."

The committee is concerned that doubts over how wide an Order in Council would be acceptable to Westminster could waste a lot of time at the Assembly, "What we would clearly want to avoid is a great deal of otiose work being done in Cardiff only for the idea to be turned down in London, whether by the Secretary of State or Parliament."

So far as future possible conflicts between the Assembly and Whitehall are concerned, the report says, "If proposals for Orders in Council form part of the manifesto on which political parties fight the 2007 and subsequent Assembly elections, then the Secretary of State or Parliament are moving on to tricky ground if they are seen to trump that mandate."

It is clear that many of the sub-committee's members believe that we are being sold a pup and that far from being a step forward, the additional powers the Government wish to give to the Assembly are too weak and will cause huge problems in the future. When these limited powers are considered in conjunction with the proposal that the Secretary of State for Wales will draft the new standing orders for the Assembly, it begins to look as if the whole project is more an exercise in taming a 'turbulent priest' than about enabling a Welsh legislative body to govern effectively.

Blast from the past

Plaid Cymru have brought their most successful leader back into the limelight by making him an honorary Party President. Rumours continue to proliferate, of course, that Dafydd Wigley is looking for a way to be re-elected to the National Assembly for Wales. As a result it is widely considered that his new position has been put in place to give him a platform from which to pursue those ambitions. This will also enable Plaid to capitalise on his popularity.

One commentator on Radio Wales this morning said that the Party was looking to the past for its future. On this basis will the other parties be bringing back those leaders who brought them most success in Government into an honorary role? Labour already have Tony Blair in place of course. The Tories will no doubt hold a 12 month selection process in which Margaret Thatcher battles with Winston Churchill over the most appropriate electoral college mechanism. As for the Liberal Democrats, well there is always Gladstone!

Update: Dafydd Wigley has said he "cannot foresee circumstances" which would lead him to stand in the 2007 assembly elections. This is very much the Heseltine formula. We will just have to wait and see how it develops.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The pain of having red hair

The new-look Guardian reports this morning that people with ginger hair are more sensitive than most. A study released yesterday shows that the presence of a ginger gene means many redheads need extra doses of anaesthetic during surgery because they suffer pain more acutely.

Researchers think that the ginger gene, known as MC1R, may cause the temperature-detecting gene to become over-activated, making redheads more sensitive to the cold. It is hoped that this research can be used to develop better pain-relieving drugs and anaesthetics.

Anything that we redheads can do to help of course, but could somebody please turn the heating up.

The Ashes at last!

Nobody can under-estimate the achievement of the English Cricket Team in winning the Ashes back after 18 years against the best Test team in the World. Furthermore they did it in style and were clearly the best team in the series. The one thing this last Test confirmed for me was that whoever it was who said that cricket is a game of 15 halves was absolutely right.

Security shambles

The South Wales Echo reports that a huge security blunder has meant hundreds of staff at the National Assembly have NOT been checked for links to terrorist groups. Apparently, for five years Government vetting has not not been routinely carried out at here, which means hundreds of civil servants with access to confidential files and documents have not been given security clearance.

As we are back next week I expect somebody will be asking questions about this. Obviously we need to get our act together and quickly.

Gadgets and horses

The Western Mail this morning features the £9 billion that British adults spend each year on gadgets they do not use. The list includes bread makers, coffee machines and electric knives as well as sandwich makers, foot spas, toasters and bathroom scales.

I certainly associate with some of these items and can add some of my own to the list. The juicer for example, which sounded like a healthy initiative at the time but which takes much longer in the morning to use than just opening a carton and even longer to clean. We are all obsessed with gadgets, personally I am fascinated by them. So much so that there used to be a shop in Swansea selling nothing else. Strangely it closed over a year ago. Perhaps the key to selling them is not to let on that they are gadgets but to make people believe that they are essential life-affirming accessories.

Talking of consumer spending habits who would have believed that a book on horsemanship could sell a million copies. Perhaps we should provide free copies to those people who allow their horses to wander the streets and graze in local parks.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Duplicitous and intimidating?

The BBC report that former Metropolitan Police Chief, Lord Stevens, has attacked David Blunkett in his memoirs, claiming people found him "duplicitous and intimidating". Mr Blunkett's response was to say that Lord Stevens had been an excellent commissioner and to wish him well in seeking to sell his book. Do I detect another ritual being acted out on the public stage?

Blogging for the media

David Davies AM MP has proved once again that if you write something really controversial on a blog then the media will pick it up and run with it. As is usual with David, it was political correctness that has provided him with a target.

This time David raised issues concerning a £48,000 lottery grant to make a film about the "traditions" of gypsy travellers. The film will be shown to schoolchildren in Hampshire. As Rod Liddle relates in today's Sunday Times, this provoked its own over-the-top reaction that really just played into David's hands.

I am sure that we all enjoyed watching the row but I, for one, just found it predictable. It was almost as if both David and Plaid's Helen Mary Jones switched to automatic pilot as they scrambled to opposite ends of the fence. If this is the quality of political debate in this country then no wonder people are bored of it.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Minister speaks

Welsh Education Minister, Jane Davidson, today sought to bring some clarity to the debate on powers that will pass to her in April, to close down sixth forms around Wales. However, her letter to the Western Mail raised more questions than it answered.

She is now arguing that "Elwa's power to propose changes to sixth form provision under the Learning and Skills Act covers circumstances in which such reorganisations may embrace more than one local authority or involve a foundation or voluntary aided school or a further education institution. Such proposals would be beyond the powers of any one local authority to decide; but they would still need to be made with the support of the local authorities concerned if they were to have any realistic prospect of being approved."

Indeed she said something similar in June 2004, when she introduced these regulations. However, she also said that this was just one example of when that power might be used. The regulations will also "allow ELWa to propose sector-wide reorganisations covering sixth forms in schools as well as further education institutions."

In other words they will be able to apply them within one local authority area as part of a general re-organisation of 16-19 provision, whether the local Council likes it or not. I say this because, if ELWa is going to work in partnership with local education authorities on this matter, as the Minister asserts, then why does it need the power at all? It could just ask the democratically accountable local Council to carry out the consultation and issue the orders in the normal way. The answer must be that the Minister envisages circumstances in which ELWa will override the wishes of an LEA. Indeed, in a meeting I had with ELWa officials prior to this legislation being passed, I was told that the body needed this power because they were not confident that local Councils would take tough decisions as required by ELWa. Once ELWa or the Government makes such a decision on behalf of an LEA they are effectively taking powers off local government.

The most disturbing part of the Minister's letter is in her assertion that civil servants, who are answerable to her and report to her on everything they do, can act independently of her on controversial proposals that will generate much public discussion and debate. She says:

"I, as Minister, will consider any objections to such proposals in exactly the same way as if the proposals had been made by the local authorities themselves. I will not be involved in the preliminary stages of bringing forward or consulting on proposals: this will be handled by Assembly officials under formal delegation arrangements and in co-operation with the LEAs and other local stakeholders"

If there was a legally independent body making these proposals such as a quango or a local Council then we could accept this. However, I am not convinced that the Minister or her civil servants can work at arms-length in this way, nor do I believe that such a decision will survive a judicial review made on the basis that the Minister and her department had acted as judge and jury on a reorganisation proposal. This is a dangerous quagmire that the government has stumbled into. The more the Minister protests the deeper she sinks into it.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Propagating the myth

I could not resist stealing this delightful juxtaposition of caption and picture from Dave.

Trouble on the border

It is rapidy becoming clear that not only do the Office of National Statistics not seem to understand Wales and its politics but they get into trouble whenever they come near here. Firstly, there was the tick-box issue and now there is this. I am impressed by their persistence.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Double Jeopardy

Last year the Assembly Government pushed through a new system under which responsibility for merging and closing sixth forms was transferred from local authorities to Elwa. The change was justified on the basis that Elwa was responsible for all post-16 education in Wales apart from universities and their equivalents. At the time, I and other Education Spokespersons opposed the proposal as we believed that it would create a democratic deficit, in which an unelected quango would be able to overrule the wishes of a local Council on the future of schools under its control.

When the proposal to abolish ELWa was mooted one of the first questions we asked was how the power, only recently transferred to them, to abolish sixth forms would subsequently be operated. Would it be the case, we asked, that the Minister would henceforth be making recommendations to herself? If that was so then the situation would not just be unsatisfactory but the usual safeguards, whereby the Minister acted as a reviewer and the point of appeal for proposals being put forward by another authority, would not apply. Effectively, the merger would invest in the Minister unprecedented powers. As The Western Mail says this morning:

The concerns are more than theoretical in a climate where budgets are tight and official reports have suggested it is cheaper to provide A-level courses in colleges of further education than in sixth forms. Many sixth forms are already having to cope with funding cuts imposed by Elwa, the quango that will cease to exist next April.

However, the newspaper has been no more successful than we were in getting answers. The best that the Assembly Government can do in response to their enquiry is to say that, "The Welsh Assembly Government is actively considering how proposals for sixth form reorganisation would be managed when Elwa is merged with the Assembly Government. While detailed procedures are still a matter of consideration, it is likely that Assembly officials will act as the formal conduit for the process currently led by Elwa and, where justified by the independent Estyn review, would draw up formal proposals for public consultation. Any decision would be referred to the Minister for final determination."

It is not constitutionally acceptable for these decisions to be taken by the Minister on the advice of her officials without a proper review process or an avenue of appeal. That was not how it was envisaged it would work of course, but the apparently ill-thought out merger process has inadvertently led us there anyway and from the explanation given by the Government spokesperson nobody has yet found a way out of the constitutional cul-de-sac they have taken us into if, indeed, there is any will to do so.

Fighting for bare chests

When a press release proclaiming 'Victory For Bare-Chested Workers - Lynne' popped into my in-box, I naturally went out of my way to read it. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

It is clearly the most bizarre press release of the month, much more off the wall than the one issued previously from Lembit Opik's office in which the MP reaffirmed 'his commitment to community dialogue over by-pass without interference from outside.' This last release contained the news that Lembit had taken his neighbouring MP over a by-pass site in his light aircraft, not a tool available to most campaigners.

Liz Lynne's press release revealed that the decision on whether bare-chested builders and other outdoor workers will have to cover up has been left to national governments after a vote in the European Parliament. MEPs apparently backed a compromise negotiated by the Liberal Democrat MEP, who acts as the shadow rapporteur for something called the Optical Radiation Directive, to allow member states to decide whether to introduce the anti-sun directive. And quite right too!

Liz is quoted as saying, "This is a victory for common sense, it is no business of the EU to decide whether workers can wear shorts and be bare-chested. I wanted to take natural radiation out of the directive completely but we now have the next best thing, leaving it up to Member States, to decide whether they legislate or not, all other references to natural radiation have been taken out.

"A sensible directive to protect workers from artificial radiation could have been ruined by the ludicrous proposal to legislate on the sun. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy.

"All people should be made aware of the dangers of the sun, but to tell employers to do this is taking the nanny knows best mentality too far".

Well, yes. But why were the European Parliament even discussing such an issue and should nanny be let loose in the member states at all? It is a sad time indeed when a decision by workers as to whether to keep their shirts on or not should be subject to European health and safety legislation. Surely, there are other ways to educate workers as to the risks, whilst at the same time protecting the rest of us from the sight of all that bare flesh.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

No more experiments?

Plans by the Government to try and revive democracy by replacing ballot boxes with online e-elections have been abandoned. The change of heart came after trials of e-voting in local council elections showed systems were expensive, unreliable and open to abuse.

Is this a u-turn forced on the government by the abuse their so-called reforms have attracted? Let us hope so. In the meantime if they really want to increase turnouts and encourage better engagement with the electorate then they might want to consider introducing the single transferable vote method of proportional representation for all Elections.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Fanning the flames

Welsh Liberal Democrats peer, Richard Livsey, is featured in the Western Mail this morning arguing that the Government's failure to give the Welsh Assembly primary law-making powers will fan the flames of Welsh nationalism. His submission to the Secretary of State for Wales states that:

"The proposals in the White Paper do move matters forward, but eventually are likely to result in deadlock and dissent between the National Assembly and Westminster. Ultimately, this will fan the flames of Welsh nationalism.

"There will never be a better time to reform the Assembly and replace it with a Parliament similar to the Scottish model. MPs should show far more vision and realise that the granting of primary legislation to the Assembly does not undermine their roles."

Richard's arguments on powers are totally sound, whilst the spectre he conjures up of a revitalised nationalist movement growing out of legislative deadlock is an interesting one. The calculation is quite fine and depends to a large extent on why a deadlock has occurred and how clever the Westminster government has been in engineering it. Nevertheless, that fact that a deadlock will occur at some stage or another is inevitable.

Labour MPs will no doubt point to the fact that the highpoint of Plaid Cymru's popularity came in the first Assembly elections and will argue that it is greater powers for a devolved Welsh Government that makes them more relevant. I would dispute this. The existence of Plaid Cymru can only be justified in its campaigning for independence and devolution. If the UK Government gives Wales a proper devolved settlement that enables us to run our domestic affairs and allows us a fair financial settlement then, in the minds of the vast majority of voters, the raison d'etre for a Welsh nationalist party largely disappears.

In the conclusion to his submission, Richard is spot-on:

"The model of democratic governance proposed in this White Paper is an unsustainable compromise, and would perpetuate the production of hybrid England and Wales Bills.

"There may be a modest increase in 'all Wales' Bills, but the reality would result in the Assembly being unable to produce clear, coherent legislation for Wales. The original 1998 Wales Act (setting up the Assembly) was a compromise. These proposals incorporate yet another.

"Time is not on our side, and Wales deserves better."

Monday, September 05, 2005

It is not cricket

I confess that I watched England's last 20 runs in their final innings of the fourth test through my fingers. It was a very tense moment, and although I knew in my heart that England should win it from that position, it was never a foregone conclusion. I may have less time to watch the fifth test, which starts on Thursday but I will feel obligated to create some space in my diary in the early evening, especially if England look like regaining the Ashes.

What I, and many others, are less happy about is the fact that this week may be the last occasion on which we can watch Test cricket on terrestrial television. Channel 4 has attracted up to eight million viewers during its coverage of the Ashes series, but from next year cricket fans will have to turn to Sky, which won broadcast rights for Test matches in a £220m deal which will run to 2009.

Personally, I think that this is a disgrace and I am pleased to see that Sports Minister, Tessa Jowell is hinting that Test match cricket could be reserved for terrestrial television in the future. My only concern is the vague way in which she phrased this 'hint':

"We have what are called listed events. Those listed events can be reviewed. There is always the possibility of a review, not just in relation to cricket but in relation to other listed events."

This is not so much a commitment as the sort of verbal sleight of hand employed by Ministers when they are backed into a corner. Perhaps she would like to prove my cynicism wrong by announcing a very definite review with a timetable.

Buying in Wales

I avoided commenting on this article yesterday as I did not think that I could offer anything new. However, when I stumbled across it again on the Western Mail's website today it occurred to me that the Wales on Sunday had missed a rather important point.

There will always be differing opinions on the cost of appropriately furnishing an iconic building of course, but the one point of principle that the Assembly has sought to be faithful to throughout this and the associated contracts is that the new building will feature the best of Wales. At every stage efforts have been made to source materials in Wales and to use Welsh contractors. How ironic therefore that the Wales on Sunday should be encouraging us to go to a Swedish company for our furniture.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Stitching up the critics

I remember that during the Thatcher Governments that every now and again politicians such as Norman Tebbitt would launch a sustained attack on the BBC for its left wing and anti-government bias. The impact of these bursts of activity would be to mute the broadcaster and give government politicians a much easier ride on programmes such as Radio Four's Today.

Clearly the lessons of that tactic were not lost on New Labour, who very quickly adopted the same methods. The Government's response to the Andrew Gilligan affair was a classic example of ignoring the facts in favour of attacking the reporter, his methods and his employer. They succeeded in sowing enough doubt in the minds of the public to enable them to effectively ride out the storm. Peter Mandelson summed up the Government's response in this morning's Observer:

'I went on Today during the controversy over [Andrew] Gilligan, the radio journalist behind the report. But I didn't take on Gilligan - I took on what Humphrys had said in his introduction to the report,' Mandelson said.

As John Humphrys allegedly said recently, whatever you thought about Andrew Gilligan, his essential premise that the government had sexed up the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was correct. They did not exist at the time that they were being used as a justification for going to war.

John Humphrys has been taking more flak for telling it like it is. According to one paper in an after-dinner speech to the Communication Directors' Forum on 8 June he made disparaging remarks about Tony Blair, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown and Alastair Campbell, Downing Street's former communications chief. He also allegedly endorsed Andrew Gilligan's Today report.

Predictably, the attacks have focussed not on what Humphrys said but on whether it was appropriate that he made the remarks at all. Critics have focussed on his employers and are putting pressure on them to silence him. It is through these methods that free speech is curtailed. The Government can easily dismiss similar views from another politician, who may not attract the same coverage, but they cannot so easily ignore an intelligent and independent commentator who the public respect.

It is most probably also the case that if the BBC had not been asked to investigate this matter then the remarks would never have got even a fraction of this publicity. This is another warning shot across the broadcasters bows, keep your people on the side of government or else! Our democracy is greatly devalued by the suppression of debate in this way.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The faces of Janus

The Western Mail speculates this morning that the decision by Plaid Cymru to install a woman to head each of their regional lists will deprive the Assembly of a comeback by Dafydd Wigley.

More than 30 years after they both entered Parliament, the immediate future of Plaid can still be said to depend on Dafydd Wigley and Dafydd Elis-Thomas. For decades they have been mostly at loggerheads, largely as a result of their differences in style.

Yet together they stand head and shoulders above all their party colleagues at the Assembly, both in terms of political experience and popular appeal. If Plaid Cymru cannot find a way to ensure that these two great talents both have smooth paths into the Assembly in 2007, the party's decline as a significant force will surely continue.

There are of course other avenues by which Dafydd Wigley can secure his return, such as for example the number two slot in South Wales Central, which is to be vacated by Owen John Thomas. He may even do well enough to win the new marginal seat of Aberconwy if he was prepared to put his pride to one side and put in the work. What this article shows however is that the media's perception of Plaid Cymru remains one of a declining force. They believe that the only hope for the Party is to entrust its future in the two Dafydds and yet Plaid itself seems to be trying to put that era behind it. How this will play out in 2007 has yet to be seen.

What is also interesting about this decision is its impact on South Wales West. In this region the second Plaid Cymru member, Dai Lloyd, scraped back in as the fourth list member to be elected. His colleague, Janet Davies, has announced that she is to retire next time, however instead of Dai assuming the number one slot on the list, he will have to sit back and watch another female candidate installed above him. At a time when Plaid's support is slipping that may be enough to lose him his seat. That cannot be a comfortable situation for him.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Watch out for those knives

The Western Mail reports this morning, with rather a bit too much glee I thought, that the knives are out for Tory AM, Glyn Davies. Glyn takes himself very seriously as is evident from his comment:

"I would be very surprised and disappointed if anything like this was happening. I believe in the party I am a popular AM and don't believe there are any grounds for deselecting me."

To be fair he has made some thoughtful and interesting contributions in the Assembly, although his refusal on occasion to be easily whipped on votes has led to some 'misunderstandings' on the Tory benches (I sit just behind him). His main contribution to these columns has come about from his championing the 'nutrititional value' of McDonalds' meals. This is a man who enjoys his beef.

Glyn sees himself as a potential Welsh Tory Leader and that obviously unsettles Nick Bourne. It is therefore interesting to see the firm defence of his position coming from the Tory Assembly Group:

"These allegations are ridiculous and completely without foundation. Glyn Davies is a hard-working, highly-effective and valued member of the Welsh Conservative group in the National Assembly.

"We look forward to him continuing to play a key role as a member of the Assembly group after the 2007 elections."

Perhaps the spokesperson was trying a little too hard.

So, where are the helicopters?

Simon Titley quotes extensively from Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times on the incompetence of the Bush government:

Before 9/11 the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. "The New Orleans hurricane scenario," The Houston Chronicle wrote in December 2001, "may be the deadliest of all." It described a potential catastrophe very much like the one now happening.

So why were New Orleans and the nation so unprepared? After 9/11, hard questions were deferred in the name of national unity, then buried under a thick coat of whitewash. This time, we need accountability.

It seems that there is much criticism of the slow reaction of the Federal Government to the crisis in New Orleans:

First question: Why have aid and security taken so long to arrive? Katrina hit five days ago - and it was already clear by last Friday that Katrina could do immense damage along the Gulf Coast. Yet the response you'd expect from an advanced country never happened. Thousands of Americans are dead or dying, not because they refused to evacuate, but because they were too poor or too sick to get out without help - and help wasn't provided. Many have yet to receive any help at all.

There will and should be many questions about the response of state and local governments; in particular, couldn't they have done more to help the poor and sick escape? But the evidence points, above all, to a stunning lack of both preparation and urgency in the federal government's response.

Even military resources in the right place weren't ordered into action. "On Wednesday," said an editorial in
The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., "reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!"

Maybe administration officials believed that the local National Guard could keep order and deliver relief. But many members of the National Guard and much of its equipment - including high-water vehicles - are in Iraq. "The National Guard needs that equipment back home to support the homeland security mission," a Louisiana Guard officer told reporters several weeks ago.

Michael Moore is on the same track but his response is a bit more pointed:

Dear Mr. Bush,

Any idea where all our helicopters are? It's Day 5 of Hurricane Katrina and thousands remain stranded in New Orleans and need to be airlifted. Where on earth could you have misplaced all our military choppers? Do you need help finding them? I once lost my car in a Sears parking lot. Man, was that a drag.

Also, any idea where all our national guard soldiers are? We could really use them right now for the type of thing they signed up to do like helping with national disasters. How come they weren't there to begin with?

Last Thursday I was in south Florida and sat outside while the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed over my head. It was only a Category 1 then but it was pretty nasty. Eleven people died and, as of today, there were still homes without power. That night the weatherman said this storm was on its way to New Orleans. That was Thursday! Did anybody tell you? I know you didn't want to interrupt your vacation and I know how you don't like to get bad news. Plus, you had fundraisers to go to and mothers of dead soldiers to ignore and smear. You sure showed her!

I especially like how, the day after the hurricane, instead of flying to Louisiana, you flew to San Diego to party with your business peeps. Don't let people criticize you for this -- after all, the hurricane was over and what the heck could you do, put your finger in the dike?

And don't listen to those who, in the coming days, will reveal how you specifically reduced the Army Corps of Engineers' budget for New Orleans this summer for the third year in a row. You just tell them that even if you hadn't cut the money to fix those levees, there weren't going to be any Army engineers to fix them anyway because you had a much more important construction job for them -- BUILDING DEMOCRACY IN IRAQ!

On Day 3, when you finally left your vacation home, I have to say I was moved by how you had your Air Force One pilot descend from the clouds as you flew over New Orleans so you could catch a quick look of the disaster. Hey, I know you couldn't stop and grab a bullhorn and stand on some rubble and act like a commander in chief. Been there done that.

There will be those who will try to politicize this tragedy and try to use it against you. Just have your people keep pointing that out. Respond to nothing. Even those pesky scientists who predicted this would happen because the water in the Gulf of Mexico is getting hotter and hotter making a storm like this inevitable. Ignore them and all their global warming Chicken Littles. There is nothing unusual about a hurricane that was so wide it would be like having one F-4 tornado that stretched from New York to Cleveland.

No, Mr. Bush, you just stay the course. It's not your fault that 30 percent of New Orleans lives in poverty or that tens of thousands had no transportation to get out of town. C'mon, they're black! I mean, it's not like this happened to Kennebunkport. Can you imagine leaving white people on their roofs for five days? Don't make me laugh! Race has nothing -- NOTHING -- to do with this!

You hang in there, Mr. Bush. Just try to find a few of our Army helicopters and send them there. Pretend the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are near Tikrit.

It is tough at the top!

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