.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Monday, October 31, 2005

To drink or not to drink

It is not really surprising that many people are finding it difficult to swallow the Government's latest anti-social behaviour measure. The proposal to ban drinking on public transport will certainly have an impact on match days, it will mean that those who are going to get tanked-up will do so before they get on the train. However, there are some legitimate questions to be asked about Labour's priorities here when they open up pubs 24 hours a day and then argue that a marginal measure such as this is needed to combat binge drinking.

As if to underline the impression that the Government is making up policy on the hoof in an effort to appear tough the police say that they have not been consulted on this proposal at all. They did not ask for it as they were under the impression that the public transport companies themselves, can institute such a ban without any changes in the law. They are most probably right.

The leaked paper that includes this proposal has 40 ideas in it, thrown up by a brainstorming session on anti-social behaviour. Other suggestions include a new offence for parents whose children play truant; a suggestion that people who breach asbos should lose their council homes and be sent for rehabilitation; and the appointment of community "sheriffs" to police their own neighbourhoods.

The Government has approached things arse-backwards. Instead of talking to the Police and local Councils to gather evidence, identify problems and take soundings on potential solutions they have started with public perceptions drawn from focus groups and opinion polls and then set out to deliver political fixes rather than good legislation. This is government through the media. It is no wonder that long-established Ministers and party loyalists are lukewarm towards the paper.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Labour in crisis?

How things change. Only a few weeks ago Tony Blair appeared to be secure in his job and there was talk of him hanging on until 2008 or 2009. People were even speculating that Gordon Brown might not succeed him after all. It is possibly that speculation that has lead to the present crisis. After all, the earlier Tony quits then the more likely it is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will move into Number 10 and the longer he will have to establish himself before facing the electorate.

According to The Sunday Times today rumours are circulating that some Labour MPs are seeking signatures for a motion of no confidence in the prime minister. It is suggested they may include some who in the past have been loyal to Blair.

Those looking for further evidence of weakness need only point to the education white paper. As the first 5,000 copies came off the presses, officials were distraught to discover it was littered with typographical errors. Somebody hadn’t bothered to check.

“There is a sense of drift and losing grip at the centre,” says one Whitehall insider. “We are lurching from one row to another. There is a sense of making policy on the hoof, with different ministers all grinding their axes.”

Personally, I do not believe that any such motion will see the light of day but the fact that it is being reported indicates that it is not just Cabinet Members who are briefing against each other. Their allies in the Labour Parliamentary Party are also joining in. Equally, even though the controversies that have led to this unrest are those centring on the Education White Paper, smoking in public places and today, benefit reform, the real sub-text is the manoeurvring that is going on around the succession. Gordon Brown is staying above the fray but others are doing his job for him, even though their motives may not be so clear.

My money is on Tony Blair staying on to beat Margaret Thatcher's record as Britain's longest serving Prime Minister in modern times. It may well be a tumultous few years but barring a crisis of Poll Tax proportions I do not believe that he can be forced to go against his will. We will see. I have been wrong before, perhaps I will be wrong again.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Having their cake and eating it

Rather unaccountably the Western Mail devotes most of page three of this morning's edition to the decline of high tea and in particular to cakes of the Mr. Kipling variety.

It seems everyone from our political leaders downwards are ditching the Cherry Bakewells and Battenberg for a more healthy lifestyle.

Yesterday RHM, the company that owns Mr Kipling, conceded that an £8m revamp for the product had failed to produce a rise in sales. To make matters worse, sales of Cadbury cakes, also owned by RHM, were also down. Shares in the company duly fell 7%.

Cake industry analysts, including bankers Credit Suisse First Boston, warned that the industry was not expected to pick up until at least February - even with the traditional Christmas boom in confectionery fast approaching.

The figures are the latest bad news for cake lovers, who over the past few years have seen their favourite snack fall out of favour under a welter of health promotion initiatives and diet programmes. A survey of social attitudes taken recently by the ONS showed a decline in interest in eating cakes and sweets; 6% of women and 3% of men said they had cut them out of their diet. And Education Minister Jane Davidson is one of many senior politicians to have banned the biscuit tin from the Ministerial meeting room - officials, AMs and visiting dignitaries are offered fruit instead.

It is true that there is commendable self-restraint in the Assembly these days. One Cabinet Minister used to offer cream cakes at all her meetings in the early days but has apparently since moved on. The Education Minister may offer fruit in the fifth floor meeting room but at meetings of the Committee which scrutinises her chocolate biscuits are still on offer. We may have to review that.

The part of this article that caught my attention was the short profile of two Welsh politicians at the end. Tory AM and chair of the Assembly's catering sub-committee, David Melding, confesses to a love of creme custard and caramel washed down by a sweet sherry whilst media tart, Lembit Opik (I only put that in because it fitted in with the cake theme Lembit, honest!) tells us that he does not have a sweet tooth:

Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomery: "I'm afraid I'm part of the problem rather than part of the solution because I haven't got a very sweet tooth. I'd rather have a pickled herring than a chocolate cake. It's an Estonian delicacy; I like things with vinegar.

"If Mr Kipling wants me as a customer he'll have to produce something like that, or maybe anchovy clairs, although he would probably have to keep the production line short.

"I do, however, employ a group of staff who seem to prefer cake. The other day I observed one of my new members of staff eat five medium-sized chocolate cakes in eight minutes, so she's trying exceedingly hard."

Such frankness is beyond parody! I shall refrain from describing the chocolate eating habits of my own staff as I do not want to expose them to that sort of public scrutiny. Shame on you Lembit! :-)

Friday, October 28, 2005

Unlikely duo

Having got back from a short break to find over 300 e-mails waiting for me I have been slowly working my way through them for most of the day. There is the usual host of press releases, circulars from lobby and special interest groups, casework and quite a few invitations. One of these invitations caused me to look twice in case I had misread it.

It seems that the South Wales East Conservative Assembly Member, William Graham, is hosting a media briefing with Lemmy from Motorhead on Thursday 3 November at 12 noon. At this briefing Lemmy will be putting across the message that "heroin kills people".

This is all very commendable and I hope that it has the desired impact. It is just that I had not envisaged William Graham to be a Motorhead fan or even to mix in the same circles. It goes to show, even the wildest rockers are becoming respectable these days. I just hope that they don't start the media briefing off by playing the Motorhead hit, "Poison". It might water down the message somewhat.

Update: This media briefing is now taking place at 3pm on the same day in Committee Room 5 in the Assembly. Could it be possible that 12 noon was just a little bit early in the day for a rock star?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The war on 'fatties'

I note from The Times this morning that Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, wants to introduce working practices that will deter overweight people from applying for jobs in its stores.

In an offensive against obesity, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, plans to make physical exercise a part of every employee’s working day, helping to dissuade unhealthy jobseekers from joining the company.

The strategy, disclosed in a leaked memo from a senior executive to the Wal-Mart board, proposes that all roles should encourage physical activity, such as trolley-stacking for cashiers in its supermarkets.

It also suggests that a culture change to promote health and tackle obesity would reduce absenteeism, improve efficiency, cut costs such as healthcare payouts and drive out the lazy.

It is tempting to comment that Walmart could make an important contribution to the health of the population generally if it only sold healthy foods. However, such a strategy would clearly hit their profits. In any case this move is solely about reducing sickness amongst their staff so as to cut costs.

It will be interesting to see if Asda follow suit. As a subsidiary of Walmart they may not have much choice. Certainly, if Asda insist on a certain level of physical activity from staff they may well fall foul of the Disabled Discrimination Act. One to watch perhaps?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Government loses itself in its own fog

The mess that the Government has got itself into over a smoking ban in England is entirely of its own making. Whilst Ministers argued amongst themselves they forgot the golden rule of any reform, if it is not based on clear and unequivocable principle then it becomes shabby and indefensible.

It is tempting to say that the muddle we are now being presented with has been cobbled together in smoke-filled rooms by Ministers who thought that they were acting in the best interests of the public but who, in their desire to avoid being accused of implementing a nanny state, have achieved just that. Instead of introducing a smoking ban in workplaces so as to protect the health and safety of workers they are reduced to justifying their proposals in terms of restricting the liberties of smokers.

Any legislation that continues to allow smoking where people work cannot be anything to do with health or safety. Unless the Government relent then the new legislation will be picked apart, firstly in Parliament and then in the Country at large as landlords and others drive a coach and horses through its loopholes and its unenforceability.

The criticism that the Government will receive from the medical profession is totally deserved. A ban in New York City has cut smoking by 15 per cent in two years. A total workplace ban in Ireland has proven to be an overwhelming success. Scotland has opted for the same, whilst Northern Ireland and Wales will soon follow. The New Labour Government have not just left England out on a limb but have made themselves a laughing stock in the process.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Reform needed on political donations

This article in The Independent on Sunday underlines the two basic failures of New Labour's constitutional reforms - the reluctance to introduce a fully elected House of Lords that is above Prime Ministerial patronage and accusations of positions being bought and outright resistance to reforming the finance of political parties so as to prevent suspicions of influence being bought by wealthy donors.

Until those changes are brought in then none of the political parties will be seen to be above suspicion. If the Government is really concerned with improving standards in public life and tackling widespread disillusionment with politicians then these two issues need to be very high on their agenda.

Bird Flu

Now if a politican had written this letter from yesterday's Guardian then he or she would have been quite rightly villified for failing to take the threat of bird flu seriously:

"Are we absolutely certain the parrot is dead? Maybe it's just resting. It could also be pining for the fjords. (I know, I know - couldn't resist.)

Mike Bitwistle

Maybe we have some work to do to ensure that the full seriousness of this threat is appreciated by one and all.

Relatives reunited

I am taking advantage of my short break to try and catch up with my reading. In particular I am about eight issues of Private Eye behind the current edition. If you have heard this before therefore you will have to make allowances.

I was fascinated to read that the National Archives have sold off the website that enables on-line access to the 1901 census. Apparently, this has been bought by Friends Reunited. Presumably the site will shortly be rebranded as 'ancestors reunited'.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Half term recess is upon us and I am going to break a golden rule. I will not be posting for at least seven days. Please come back near the end of next week. I am enjoying myself too much to abandon blogging now.

Drugs on Sunday

Nobody could ever accuse the Wales on Sunday of being original. About halfway through yesterday's Plenary Session I received an e-mail from one of their reporters. I reproduce it below:

To all Welsh MPs & AMs

My name is Marc Baker and I am a journalist at Wales on Sunday newspaper in Cardiff.
I am e-mailing you to ask whether you have, in your lifetime, ever taken Class A, B or C drugs?

Could you please state when you took such drugs and of which kind they were. If you are unwilling to answer this question, could you please state why?

Marc Baker
Wales on Sunday

My betting is that most will not bother to reply. Still it is refreshing to see that investigative journalism is alive and well. In the old days such reporters spent days researching their topic, gathering evidence, hunting out sleaze and interviewing the underclasses of British society. They even staked out politicians in the hope of catching them embracing their mistress or inhaling something they shouldn't.

Now they ask us gently to put our head in the stocks and give up facts voluntarily that we would clearly not have told a living soul otherwise. It is a more pleasant and comfortable way of proceeding, but does it get results? We shall see.

Note: Just for the record (and because I know you will ask in the comments section anyway) I have never even smoked a cigarette, let alone used any illegal substances.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The social life of an Assembly Member

Yesterday's Plenary was dull in comparison to recent meetings. In particular the recent pattern of minority party debates leading to Government defeats was broken, following the tabling of a motion by the Tories that was so bland that even Labour found it within themselves to vote for it.

Given that half term is almost upon us a bit of fatique on the part of the various parties is forgiveable. There was an element of winding down in some members' contributions and even references to leisure pursuits of the sort that single out politicians as unique. Caerphilly AM, Jeff Cuthbert started it all off by telling us about his choice of evening companions:

Jeff Cuthbert: First Minister, do you agree with me that the statement made at last night’s annual awards of the Heating and Ventilation Contractors’ Association—[Laughter.] I do not see what is amusing about that. It was an excellent evening to award apprentices—[Interruption.]

This was a matter he referred to again today, when it was obvious that he still could not see what had caused the merriment amongst opposition members. Personally, I think it was the monotone way he related the tale that made it funny, as if he were duplicating a Monty Python sketch, but enough of the Spanish Inquisition for now.

When it came to sum up the Tory debate on nurse-led walk-in centres, David Melding also had his mind on leisure pursuits, this time it was golf:

David Melding: I cannot remember how many golf clubs you can have in a golf bag—I think that it is 14—but the Minister is a seven-club golfer at present, which is probably being generous. He does not have a driver or a putter, which puts him at a disadvantage.

One wag suggested that perhaps the Labour Health Minister was wielding a red wedge but as somebody who agrees with W.C. Fields that a game of golf ruins a good walk, the whole dialogue was lost on me. What I did understand however was David's backhanded compliment towards his colleague, David Davies AM MP:

My great friend, David Davies, referred to ‘brass primates’; I am not quite sure whether he meant bishops or our simian friends, but it was a typically robust contribution, which ran the risk of stimulating pedantic Labour opposition to our motion. However, thankfully, that did not come about. The consensus that has been established has survived even one of David’s purlers as far as a partisan contribution is concerned. We are very proud of him for the way that he can put our case so directly.

Clearly, if oratorical performance is a factor in the Tory leadership contest, then the wrong David Davies is standing for election.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

On-line fantasies

I have avoided putting too many of the on-line quizzes available on the internet onto this blog including this "Which West Wing character are you?" one that I found on A Liberal Dose this morning. However, this Fantasy Health Minister game is of a wholly different class. Try it and see if you can make Britain a healthier place to live in, whilst retaining your popularity. Shame there is no Welsh version.

Terrorist or not!

Yesterday's Times reported that a 34-year-old property developer has joined the ranks of Britain’s most unlikely terrorist suspects after being held for hours for trespassing on a cycle path.

'Ms Cameron was being hailed yesterday as Scotland’s answer to Walter Wolfgang, the 82-year-old heckler manhandled out of the Labour Party conference last month. She was arrested under the Terrorism Act for walking along a cycle path in the harbour area of Dundee.'

I must admit that I was mildly surprised that Ms Cameron was not served with an ASBO but assumed that as it was Scotland there were slightly different rules in place on these orders. Perhaps ASBOs and the Anti-Terrorism Act will become interchangeable in future. In fact maybe the Anti-Terrorism Act is now the standard piece of legislation to be used whenever the authorities don't like the look of you.

No smoke without fire

I note that there is at least one policy of the Assembly Government that Peter Hain does agree with. He is to institute a ban on smoking in all workplaces in Northern Ireland, including bars and restaurants, from April 2007.

Since the Assembly voted to do the same all AMs have been bombarded with letters from both sides of the argument. Many of them contain polls conducted with the specific aim of providing a result sympathetic to the objectives of the funder.

Back in September I received the latest of these polls from the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association. It claimed that only 3% of the population wanted to see a smoking ban. Today I received a correction from the same source. It seem that they had inadvertently quoted data obtained from heavy smokers and attributed it to the population as a whole. Thus it was 3% of heavy smokers who wanted to see a smoking ban. The figure for the whole population was in fact 31%. Aren't statistics fun?

Monday, October 17, 2005

Speaking different languages

It is actually rather sad that things have got to this stage. The Western Mail this morning reports that Culture Minister, Alun Pugh, is due to speak at the inaugural meeting of a new Welsh Language Forum in Y Ganolfan Arts Centre, Porthmadog on Thursday evening. Two hours have been set aside to hear the public's views about the development of the language.

The Forum is considered by Mr. Pugh to be a "listening shop", which could facilitate a new dialogue between politicians and the public. But the development of future policy will remain the responsibility of the Assembly Government. So far so good. It is just a shame that this 'forum' is subject to the usual caveats from a New Labour Minister - he has to remain in control. He has said that he will almost certainly walk out of the first meeting if protesters cause disruption

Whether this proves to be a genuine listening exercise or a cosmetic front has yet to be seen. Certainly, its success or otherwise depends on all sides of the issue behaving responsibly and with mutual respect for each other. That is why I agree with the Labour Government spokesperson that Cymdeithas have a right to protest, but it's a question of how far the protest goes. "They can have their say and then shut up and let others make a contribution." However, to go into a meeting threatening to walk out if things do not go according to plan is no way to establish trust. It is almost as if the Minister is inviting failure from the start.

I sincerely hope that this meeting works out. Both Cwmdeithas yr Iaith and the Welsh Assembly Government have built barriers to a constructive dialogue with their actions over the last few months. This is an opportunity to break down those barriers and to talk openly to each other about their wishes and their plans for the Welsh Language. The important thing is that both sides need to be prepared to listen, they have to accept that their opponents hold passionate convictions and that occasionally things might get a bit rowdy and they need to make allowances for that. We will see if that proves at all possible on Thursday.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The copycat felonies

For those of you who have problems understanding irony this morning's Observer has an excellent example. They report that Tony Blair accused the Tory leadership contenders of stealing New Labour's values, policies and even its phrasebook yesterday.

All the Tory leadership candidates have stressed the need to improve public services and connect with ordinary voters. One - David Cameron - has been quoted as telling a private gathering he is the 'true heir' to Blair.

The Tories were adopting 'many of the attitudes and even the phrases and policies we have pioneered,' Blair said. 'They are trying to reach the centre ground. Good: let them try. But when they arrive, they will find us already there, with the ground staked out.'

He warned his own party that it must resist reacting to a Tory move towards the centre by lurching to the left.

Whether trying to reclaim ground they once occupied from a New Labour Party modelled on the Tories counts as stealing is open to debate. What is depressing is that both parties believe that this is the only way to win elections.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Branding Wales

When the First Minister announced that he was getting rid of the WDA name and logo following the merger of this organisation with the Welsh Assembly Government, he was insistent that the brand that we are selling is "Wales". We can all therefore be excused being a little confused this morning at the news in the Western Mail that a secret strategy has been adopted to drop the word "Wales" from the titles of our national museums.

Robyn Gwyn, director of communications at the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, explained the new approach, "We have been looking at the way we brand and promote our museums very carefully in recent months, and had been preparing to go public in November.

"Over the summer we have been testing ideas with focus groups involving visitors and 41 members of staff. The response we have had is very positive.

"Overall we hope to have a clearer identity for the seven museums that we run. In Welsh, the family of institutions will be known as Amgueddfa Cymru and in English, National Museums Wales.

"People who are not Welsh- speakers are becoming increasingly familiar with Cymru as the name of the country and we would encourage people to use it.

"In terms of the individual museums, we believe there is no longer any need to have 'Wales' or 'Welsh' in the title. We are conscious of the fact that 30% of the people in Wales are not Welsh and we believe it is more appropriate that the term 'National' should be used.

This is an interesting argument of course and it does have merits. The issue though is how we can use our museums to sell Wales to visitors abroad when individually, they do not identify themselves as belonging here. Some consistency would be nice.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Blog Cymru

I have added an icon in the right hand column of this blog for BlogCymru, a blog aggregator set up by Aran Jones to collect English language blogs about Wales. He also runs blogiadur.com, which aggregates Welsh-language blogs. Lots of interesting blogs on there though mine does not appear to feature as yet.

Coalition and tough decisions

It is always dangerous to rely on a newspaper interview as source material when commenting. Often reasons of space will mean that coherent and well-argued views are edited and the end product becomes something it is not. Even when the journalist and his sub-editor gets it right the politician in question will react to the slightest criticism with the age-old cry that he or she was "quoted out of context."

My caveat in commenting on this Western Mail interview with Lembit Opik therefore is that I am referring to what appeared in print, I was not present when he said it. Of course that should not prevent my speaking out nor should it place any obligation on me to check first as to whether what is in print is accurate or not. The public will read what I do and will form their own opinions from that. The terms of the debate have been set by the newspaper's interpretation of what was said not by the actual words themselves.

From what I can see Lembit made two basic points in his interview: (1) that the Liberal Democrats should resolve their policy differences and lose their timidity; and (2) that in Wales the party should prepare for a return to government - probably in a revival of the 2000-03 coalition with Labour - after the 2007 Assembly elections. Both of those points have more to do with the media's agenda than to what is happening in the party.

Firstly, as Lembit is giving this interview in preparation for a Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference it is surprising that he should refer to "policy differences" at all. The consternation over the so-called "Orange Book" group of MPs has not penetrated into Wales, largely because those sort of differences of approach do not exist here (and to be fair I believe that he was trying to make that point). It is debatable even such differences are present to any great degree in the Federal Party. There are a small group of MPs who take a particular view but, as the September Party Conference showed, their views are marginalised within the wider party and even amongst the 62 strong Parliamentary Party. To raise it again in the context of a Welsh Conference is not only unnecessary but it does the Party at large no favours at all.

Some people may think that strong leadership is about raising spectres and then dispelling them but in reality that sort of gimmick raises questions about judgement. Thus the comment "I think I am impatient with anyone who argues for our limitations, and I think the Welsh Liberal Democrats have been under-confident about what we can achieve. I can't be bothered with people telling me what we can't do. I haven't got the time or inclination to hold ourselves back" is not just nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense. That is because until Lembit raised it there was nobody arguing for our limitations, under-confidence has certainly not been a feature of our party, who have consistently punched above our weight.

Who are these people who have been telling Lembit "what we can't do"? Who is it who is trying to hold the party back? Why should the Leader of the Welsh Party slag off his colleagues in this way, especially as he appears to be the only person who is of this view? Is this a man who does not believe in listening to his colleagues or is this a leader who has unrealistic ambitions. The comment is so stupid that I cannot believe that Lembit was quoted accurately.

The second issue is that of coalition. It will of course be up to the Assembly Group and the wider party after 2007 to decide if that is a realistic option. As somebody who does not believe in holding the party back I believe that it will not be necessary as we will have a majority as of right. However, the idea that such a coalition should be with the Labour Party does not necessarily stack up. To be fair this seems to have been thrown in as an assumption by the reporter, but Labour have demonstrated conclusively in the last two years that they are not an inclusive party. They have burnt so many boats that it would be difficult to revive the old Partnership Government. Equally, for me, working with the Tories is currently not an option either. There are too many ideological differences, too many principles that would have to be compromised. That may change but I cannot currently see circumstances in which it would.

The future of Welsh politics is uncertain and rests in the hands of the electorate and an electoral system designed to favour the Labour Party. There are more options than coalition government involving the Liberal Democrats and we would do well to recognise that. Our leaders too should not make the mistake of promoting such an option at this stage. There is still so much to play for.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Just business

In the end the Welsh Assembly Government got this week's Business Statement through largely unamended at the second attempt by the simple method of bringing it back to the chamber on the Wednesday when the MPs had gone back to Westminster for Prime Minister's Question Time. They will not find it so easy next time.

It took Conservative AM, David Melding, to drive home to them the reality of their position and the fact that even though they may have entered the second Assembly with half the seats, they certainly did not have the support of half of the electorate:

David Melding: Minister, your party seems incapable of grasping the fact that it is in a minority here. It is a great honour to form a Government, and my party would dearly wish to do so at some point, but I dare say that we will have to do a lot of work before we are in that position. However, it is a great honour. When you are in a minority position, you are in a potentially fragile situation and your business can be denied. It is appropriate for you to respond with more generosity than you have done on this occasion. It is pointless to pretend, like Gerhard Schröder did in Germany, that you somehow won the election. You had 40 per cent of the vote, and you are now down to 29—[Interruption.] No, including the constituency vote, you polled 40 per cent at the last Assembly elections. You are already in a minority position as far as the electorate is concerned, and you are now in a minority in terms of your seats as well.

The Presiding Officer: Order. David Melding, we are discussing the business statement, not the results of elections in the Ukraine or Germany.

David Melding: I am most grateful for that guidance, but I was coming to the fact that we want a debate on what the Electoral Commission has said about the Labour Party’s partisan, flawed and peculiar policies on voting reform. What arrogance for a minority party to come up with trash like that. The people of Wales expect it to be debated, and debated soon. We will not support a business statement until there is movement on this crucial issue.

Confused of Westminster and Cardiff

The announcement yesterday that the Welsh Development Agency brand name is to be scrapped and much of Wales' industrial policy torn up when the quango merges with the Assembly Government met with a predictable reaction in the chamber. Economic Development Minister, Andrew Davies, was grilled on the proposal. Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, Mike German, in particular was scathing about the proposal in the chamber:

Michael German: I suppose that you could say that ‘Welsh Assembly Government’ does not have quite the same ring to it as ‘Welsh Development Agency’. While it is right that you are trying to promote Wales, there is widespread agreement—particularly in the overseas market—that the WDA is well-known and much appreciated as a brand. Surely there must some way to use the brand name to continue the good work that it has brought to Wales, without losing the objective of promoting Wales. Are the two not reconcilable?

and in the press:

Mike German, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Assembly, said, "News that the WDA brand is to be scrapped amazes me. WDA is a world-renowned name. It is one of Wales' best-known brands. Any big enterprise entering into a merger would keep and develop its best brand names, not consign them to history."

Mr German, a former Economic Development Minister, added, "In Rhodri Morgan's haste to bring these bodies under Assembly control, there is a danger that Wales' reputation as a place to do business is done lasting damage."

His criticism however, met with a robust defence:

Andrew Davies: You could make the same argument about tourism: I have heard the argument from the opposition that the brand is the Wales Tourist Board and that we should protect it. It is not, and even the Wales Tourist Board would argue that. The brand is Wales. I hold to what I have said to you before. The WDA and the Wales Tourist Board and ELWa have done some extremely good work, but in terms of a new Welsh public service, a focus on promoting Wales overseas, and branding what we do within the UK and Wales, the brand is Wales, and not a particular organisational name or logo.

Michael German: If the brand is Wales, how will you use the word ‘Wales’ when you talk to companies? Do you say, ‘I am from Wales’? Perhaps you could explain it a bit more.

Andrew Davies: I am trying to make a distinction between the brand and the name or logo. I know that you are struggling with this concept, Mike, but that is the fundamental difference. When you were a Minister on an overseas visit, you did not promote a particular organisation. For example, in America you did not promote Wales as a location for inward investors—you sold or promoted the benefits of Wales—an excellent world-class workforce within the European Union—or you promoted Wales to visitors as a unique country with a unique culture. The overall brand is Wales, but the messages below that about the qualities that we can offer will be part of the marketing that we will devise.

So far, so good we thought. This was just one more episode in the drama known as "Rhodri's bonfire of the quangos", in which even those opposition members who support the concept in principle still have doubts about the process and some of the detailed proposals.

By the end of the day all that had changed. It had become apparent that it was not only the opposition parties who were concerned by this proposal, the Secretary of State for Wales also has serious reservations:

....the idea has already caused unease among senior politicians from all parties who worry the WDA's global reputation for attracting companies to Wales will be damaged.

Mr Hain said, "This is a world-wide brand, the most successful development agency there has ever been. The Welsh Assembly Government needs to think long and hard before considering whether to ditch it."

The WDA brand was known across the world and brought trade opportunities for Wales, he said. "I hope a way will be found in the reorganisation of economic policy and support, which I understand the reasons for, that the WDA brand will be kept."

I heard Andrew Davies on the radio this morning. Again, he put up a solid but unconvincing case for his proposals. However, this time he was treating the Secretary of State for Wales as a member of the opposition and it was clear that Peter Hain's intervention had put him into much difficulty as a Minister.

It is no longer enough for Andrew to hide behind the fact that this is a devolved matter and that the decision lies in Cardiff, he now needs to directly answer the criticism that the change will undermine the brand and weaken Wales' efforts to attract jobs and investment. The egg on his face has been thrown by his Ministerial colleague in Gwydr House.

International Traders

Spotted recently on the eastside of Swansea. The lettering on the side reads "New York-Paris-Port Tennant".

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Blogging from the chamber

Well here we go. I am sitting in the chamber with my new Blackberry, Edwina Hart is answering questions on alcohol and drug abuse and there is barely a handful of Labour AMs here. I am down to ask a supplementary on question seven on social housing for older people. I am starting to get used to this device.

Welsh Language Board debate

Somebody asked me the other day when I thought that campaigning would start in earnest for the 2007 Assembly elections. I gave some non-committal answer to the effect that there is a long way to go yet. I was wrong. Things are now getting so heated in the chamber that one would think that we are already in the middle of the election.

The problem of course is that the Government has lost its majority and the opposition is using every opportunity to take advantage of that fact to get through measures that it believes are both popular and necessary. The budget crisis is currently simmering in the background, with some members talking about throwing it out altogether if the Government do not sit down and negotiate in a meaningful way. In the meantime the order of business is increasingly being dictated by the opposition parties, whilst votes on long-running areas of disagreement are swinging against the Government.

Yesterday the subject was the future of the Welsh Language Board. The Government has announced its intention take in-house all the functions of this body it can without using primary legislation. The opposition believe that this is ill-thought out and want to see more detail on how the new arrangements will work. Accordingly, they tabled a motion calling on WAG to postpone the merger until the Assembly approves a motion which satisfactorily deals with the operation of the regulatory functions of the Board and the powers of monitoring the plans of local education authorities for the promotion of the language.

I have to admit that the debate was fairly dull, and that is not just because I chaired half of it, but the fact that Labour failed to field a single speaker other than the Minister to reply to any of the opposition's arguments meant that it was very one-sided. When the Minister did stand up to speak however, things got very lively indeed:

I do not know who the Plaid Cymru mastermind was who drew this motion up for debate.

Ieuan Wyn Jones: Will you give way?

Alun Pugh: No; I need to make headway. I have given way on several occasions. Perhaps it was to you, Ieuan.

Ieuan Wyn Jones: You have to give way to the mastermind, Minister.

Alun Pugh: I will give way to the mastermind.

Ieuan Wyn Jones: You know full well, Minister, what the impact of this motion will be if it is passed today. The Government will have to lay a motion before the Assembly setting out exactly what the regulatory functions will be under the new system, what the dyfarnydd’s role will be, and what the plans will be to develop and promote the Welsh language in our schools. Do you accept that that is what the outcome of the debate will be, and will you be prepared to bring that motion forward?

Alun Pugh: I am glad that we have identified the mastermind of this motion—occupation: leader of Plaid Cymru; specialist subject: holding together a failing political party.

It is obvious that the Assembly Government will have to ensure that all parts of the Welsh Language Board are merged into the Assembly Government before we wind it up, and the whole Assembly will have the final say, through a full legal process culminating with a vote in the Assembly.

This motion has nothing to do with the Welsh language—it is all about minority Government, and the opportunity for the Tories and Plaid to engage in mischief-making. This is the Tories and Plaid jumping into bed yet again with each other for a series of one-afternoon stands—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. I do not know where all this excitement has come from. I do not believe that the Minister is giving way.

Alun Pugh: They may have the odd lovers’ tiff; I know that Helen Mary and David Davies had one over the weekend, but they are friends reunited this afternoon for their latest tryst together.

David Davies: The Minister may not understand coalition politics, but I am delighted that Plaid Cymru is now working with a centre-right party. We welcome that, and we look forward to working with it again in future.

Alun Pugh: You have only confirmed what those of us on the Labour side of the Chamber have always believed—the Tories and Plaid are working together as one.

Leighton Andrews: On Sunday, some of us saw David Davies saying that he is always getting phone calls from Plaid Cymru Members on his mobile, to ask him to come down to vote with them. Who do you think had the Plaid Cymru mobile this weekend?

Alun Pugh: I have no idea, but I know that there is close co-operation.

Helen Mary Jones rose

Alun Pugh: There we go; now we know who has the phone number.

Helen Mary Jones: As the Minister was courteous enough to refer to me by name, I assure him, and other Assembly Members, that there are a great many ways to describe my relationship with David Davies, but a love affair would not be one of them.

Alun Pugh: Let us wrap this up; let us see what happens to the voting behaviour of the two independent Members in a few minutes. We have our old friend, John Marek, who has already voted with the Tories and Plaid this afternoon on the business statement. We know that he has been involved with a few dodgy parties recently. In this respect, he is the Robert Kilroy-Silk of Welsh politics, minus the suntan and the charisma.

Finally, there is our old friend at the back, Peter Law, the sage of Blaenau Gwent. We know that he sits with the Tories, we know he votes with the Tories, and we know from his track record that he signs amendments for the Tories, and then he tells the people of Blaenau Gwent that he is a socialist. By their deeds, ye shall know them.

All good knockabout stuff of course but hardly an advert for a mature democracy.

Picking blackberries

As the Western Mail reports this morning, all AMs are to be given the use of a blackberry to aid their work. The downside for many members is that they might have to start reading their own e-mails. I have always done this and responded in person as well. Just as I operate a clear desk policy I very rarely have more than a handful of e-mails in my in-box at any one time. How a blackberry will help me improve on that I do not know, though at least I will be able to blog remotely.

When I do get my blackberry I will aim to be the first AM to blog from the chamber. Should be am experience for me anyway!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

All publicity is good publicity

The shadow Jessica Morden blog complains that the Newport East MP "appears to be as rare as a badger around Ron Davies." Clearly the author of this piece has not seen this morning's Western Mail where Jessica is listed as number 31 in the paper's list of Wales' sexiest women for 2005.

Nobody I have spoken to is quite sure why the Western Mail continues with this feature, what its point is, who chooses the top 50 or what criteria they apply. Nevertheless, all publicity is good publicity it seems as far as the lucky 50 are concerned.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Protest and paint

The Western Mail reports this morning that Assembly officials in Cardiff Bay have been put on alert to repel Welsh language protestors armed with paint brushes and a collection of pithy slogans. Once more the source of the story is a leaked e-mail:

The e-mail says, "We have received information from South Wales Police instructing the Welsh Assembly Government of a substantial threat from Welsh language protesters.

"They have already daubed graffiti at Cathays Park.

"They have issued a statement of intent to enter Welsh Assembly Government buildings and daub paint once inside.

"You need to make staff aware of this and the need for vigilance is paramount. If you suspect anyone is about to behave in this manner, lock the entrance and inform the police on 999."

Cymdeithas yr Iaith has recently stepped up its campaign for a new Welsh Language Act that would extend language rights into the private sector.

The idea of such an extension is not supported by the Assembly Government and there seems little prospect of legislation along the lines suggested.

Given the number of media stories that originate from leaked e-mails I am astonished that there is anybody still using this method of communication. The prospect of being locked in Crickhowell House whilst protestors re-decorate the exterior is not one that appeals to me.

The question that all this poses however is why the Assembly Government do not at least meet with Cwmdeithas yr Iaith to listen to their point of view. They may not like their methods but that should not prevent a dialogue being established.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Cameron looks for the 'big Mo'

Mmm, judging from these poll results the Tories think that they have a Tony Blair mark II in the making in David Cameron. Things really are getting interesting.

No smoking gun

Encouraging news in the Observer this morning, who report that Tony Blair is prepared to allow his Health Secretary to pursue a complete ban on smoking in public places. This is a health and safety measure and is the only workable way to introduce such a ban. Partial bans will not work because they are unenforceable and, as the paper says, would have been circumvented by the simple method of pubs ceasing to serve food.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The tide is not for turning

Martin Kettle in the Guardian this morning writes that the Conservative Conference has started to turn the tide in their favour. However, there is a catch:

But the die is not yet cast. The Tories are massing on the banks of the Rubicon without yet having crossed it. There is still a lot to do. The polls remain very bad - the Tories have flatlined for a decade and more, only rarely hoisting their ratings above 35%. A survey by Populus in the Times this week underlined how much work they have to do to persuade the undecideds. Three out of four non-Tory voters think the Tories would not do a good job of running the country. The same proportion think the Tories are stuck in the past.

Turning those numbers around will be neither easy nor quick. It will take more than a good conference and a few days of media approval even to begin the process, much less complete it. The whole thing could unravel as easily as it has briefly cohered at the conference this week. In particular, the leadership contest could produce a result that could sap much of the energy that has been generated at Blackpool.

Essentially, he argues that the Tories need to elect David Cameron to have any chance of turning things around and yet the way things are going they may well end up with Liam Fox. Even if they get the leadership right it is unlikely that they will win a majority in 2009. The only thing for it is to start to demolish some long-held shibboleths - such as their opposition to electoral reform for example:

And even then they need to be realistic. Some Tories left Blackpool under the impression that it was next stop Downing Street. Even if they make the right call this autumn, the Tories need to understand that their most realistic goal in 2009 is probably to remove Labour's majority. A hung parliament is likely to be as good as it gets for the Tories next time. But to get into government they would need to talk about electoral reform to the Liberal Democrats. That hardly seems the Tory mood of the moment. I counted just 23 people, none of them a sitting MP, at the lunchtime fringe meeting on electoral reform this week. It was a conference to remember. But now it's back to earth.

Thank goodness they have left key decisions like these in the hands of their members. If they continue to act true to form it will be 2019 before the Tories get a sniff of power once more!

Friday, October 07, 2005

George of the Crusaders

George Bush has claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, effectively repeating his gaff of a few years ago when he announced that the war on Islamic fundamentalism was a crusade. The problem is that these voices keep putting ideas into his head! Are they speaking to Tony Blair as well?

Labour are gerrymandering says watchdog

Government watchdog, the Electoral Commission, has raised some fundamental questions about Labour's plans to exclude candidates from fighting both a constituency and the list at the next Assembly elections. They say:

"At present some high-profile candidates stand for election in constituencies with the fall-back of election through the regional list. A party may be unlikely, under this proposal, to risk a high quality candidate to challenge in a constituency election; opposition parties may be obliged to run their major players in regional lists to ensure election. This may impact adversely on the quality of some constituency contests, where opposition candidates may be perceived to be 'second string'. This in turn is likely to favour sitting candidates. There is a perception that the change proposed favours incumbency and the current party of Assembly Government that holds the large majority of constituency seats."

"...we would caution against any change that is perceived to be partisan and could add to the prevailing distrust of politicians."

Peter Hain remains determined to press on with the change nevertheless.


A couple of interesting blog posts has set me thinking about Labour's current tactics. Since 1999 Labour have been on the back foot regarding the Welsh Nationalists. Unexpectedly, they lost some of their safest seats and failed to get the majority they had anticipated in the first National Assembly. The fight back for them has been long and hard. The Labour politicians in the front line of that struggle have been the most vehement about Plaid's failings. They have organised leaflet drops and canvassing, they have dug deep for dirt and they have taken every opportunity to expose every possible Nationalist failing. This is the price you pay for daring to challenge Labour's hegemony in Wales.

With Plaid Cymru seemingly in disarray and slipping in the polls, Labour believe that they are at last getting the upper hand. Their problem however is that the other two parties are also pushing them hard. They have lost control of four major Councils to coalitions led by the Liberal Democrats, whilst the Tories took three seats off them in the General Election. They have also lost their majority in the National Assembly with the defection of Peter Law to the opposition. The danger for them is that they will not regain that majority in 2007 and may even lose ground to opposition parties in that election. Now they cannot even get their budget through the Assembly without a process of negotiation and concession.

One of the tactics Labour are adopting in an effort to avoid this fate is to change the electoral rules in their favour. They believe that if they prevent established list AMs from standing in marginal constituencies then they may be able to hold onto them. They have also resorted to seeking out the old pre-1999 certainties that served them so well. They reason that Wales is as rabidly anti-Tory as they are and would do everything possible to prevent the Conservatives ever getting their hands on the levers of power. They may be right.

Accordingly, they are starting to talk the Tories up once more and are seeking to portray them as the main threat. Plaid Cymru have become the lesser evil. They are now to be portrayed as Nationalist Tories, a party who can no longer win power under their own steam but who will put the Tories in charge of Wales so as to get a share of the cake for themselves.

Thus it is that the Natwatch site yesterday virtually quoted in full the speech delivered by Welsh Tory Leader, Nick Bourne, to his Conference this week:

The nationalists' in-fighting, shambolic policy agenda and chaotic leadership is giving the Welsh Conservatives a golden opportunity in the run-up to the next assembly elections, Nick Bourne AM says.

The Mid and West Wales AM accused Plaid of offering "tired opposition" and predicted that the Welsh Conservatives will overtake the nationalists in 2007.

Mr Bourne claims that Plaid has taken its rural heartlands for granted for too long - insisting that conservative-minded voters are looking for a credible alternative to Labour.

And he insists that Plaid has proved itself ill-equipped to offer the strong opposition, proper scrutiny and new ideas needed to challenge Labour.

Rather strangely, Leighton Andrews AM has taken to putting forward similar arguments on his blog. His budget speech underlined Labour's new tactics for 2007:

What is happening today, of course, is that the opposition is kicking off the 2007 election campaign 18 months early. I think that we are entitled, therefore, to reflect on what is likely to be the main opposition in 2007. I only heard two serious speeches today from the opposition benches, and they came from the Tory Party. We know that they have led the opposition today.

This is what is happening today: the Tories are the real opposition in the Assembly, and Plaid Cymru is following their every word.

Today, the Tories are preparing the way for their role as the main opposition after 2007. We all saw Nick Bourne on that well-known BBC programme, ‘Smug on Sunday’. We all know that he is the organ grinder today, and he has a right gang of monkeys to play with. Nick Bourne and Ieuan Wyn Jones—Wales’s worst nightmare made flesh; not so much a coalition of the willing as a coalition of the chilling. They do not want to be caught together, though. It is like that old song by the Police—‘Don’t stand, don’t stand so close to me’. This is Plaid Cymru’s last stand; we all know that there will be a new leader of the opposition in 2007, and he is sitting on the Tory benches. His name is Glyn Davies.

How the public will react to these tactics is difficult to say. The evidence of the General Election is that uniform swings and momentum no longer applies in the same way. People are increasingly voting for different reasons in different parts of the Country. We are not so much getting regional trends as sub-regional trends.

In an Assembly election, where turnout is lower and people will be more relaxed about abandoning long-held allegiances, individual constituencies and regions could see some unpredictable results. The signs are that Plaid Cymru will be less of a beneficiary of those voting patterns than the Liberal Democrats, Tories and Independents, but if Labour is to hold on in its marginals it will have to dig deep locally rather than rely on the Welsh media and party loyalties as they have done in the past. The Tory scare tactics will be a key part of their local campaigning as will the negative tactics Labour have borrowed from America.

For a minority of the electorate this sort of partisan and essentially destructive approach will strike a chord and they will think twice before abandoning their previous support for Labour. Others however, will look for positive messages. They will want to see what the other parties have to offer before they vote and will treat Labour's sterile tactics with suspicion. They will consider that parties working together for the benefit of Wales may actually be a good thing.

Personally, I do not believe that people are yet ready for a Tory-led coalition government in Wales and that such a creature would require so many fundamental compromises in terms of political philosophy and principles by other parties that it would prove impractical and undesirable. I also believe that assumptions that the Tories will be second party in Wales could yet prove to be wide of the mark. If the General Election result were to be repeated in 18 months time then it will be the Welsh Liberal Democrats who will be competing strongly for that status.

What we are feeling our way towards now, is a wholly different creature - a National Assembly with a minority government moderated by opposition votes whenever they can achieve a consensus amongst themselves.

That solution may not appeal to anybody but it is workable if people don't get too hung up about control, it is fairly transparent, it is a model that requires parties to work together in the best interests of the nation and it ensures that public opinion has a greater say in government decisions. For all Labour's scaremongering it may be this scenario that they face again after 2007 rather than the Tory bogeyman that they would prefer. Such is the nature of pluralist politics in the twenty first century.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Government spin

It is true of course that when you are in Government you need to sell your policies. It is also true that sometimes loyal backbenchers can get a bit carried away in performing this task. Thus it was yesterday, when the Labour AM for Caerphilly, Jeff Cuthbert, decided to try and convince us that students graduating with a debt of between £12,000 to £20,000 was actually a good thing:

The report by the Deputy Minister for social justice has already highlighted the fear of debt in deprived communities, so there is a job of work to do to ensure that these students see loans not as a debt, but as an investment in their future. Students must be fully informed of the benefits that higher education can bring and not be scared away by the fear of debt. Communities First partnerships could help a great deal in spreading the word among low-participation groups.

I am not sure that the National Union of Students or their members will view this "investment" in quite the same way.

National Poetry Day

It is National Poetry Day so I am entering into the spirit of things by quoting from one of my favourite poets, W.B. Yeats. This is the final verse from his poem "Easter, 1916":

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Budget blues

The spat in yesterday's Plenary over the Government's draft budget receives a lot of coverage this morning. On 'Good Morning Wales' Finance Minister, Sue Essex, told listeners that the opposition had thrown a spanner in the works by amending the Government's motion and forcing negotiations on their spending plans. However, this outcome was not unexpected on the government side, nor is it the cataclysm that they are claiming. That is because the Assembly has until 10th December to approve the final budget and, because they were expecting some delay, the Government had tabled the draft earlier than usual.

Claims that the negotiations will delay funding for front line services is frankly nonsense, but they are part of the war of words that has raged around this issue nevertheless. Much of Labour's opposition to the amendment yesterday centred on demands that we provide costed alternatives to their budget. Alas, they were missing the point. The amendment was never about putting up a rival budget, it was always about forcing the government to negotiate so as to achieve a consensual outcome. This had to be done by way of open debate in the Assembly so that opposition parties could get some credit for any changes that resulted. This is because when negotiations have taken place in the past on budgets the Labour Party has very much spun the outcome in their favour.

The two hour debate was certainly heated and entertaining. Labour's other tack was to try and shame the supposed socialists on the opposition benches into abandoning their pact with the devil aka the Tory group. Huw Lewis in particular was scathing about Peter Law's part in this:

Let us look at the Tory party’s stance. This is the party that ran an election campaign not so far back in our memories based on cutting back public services. Now they have a wish list of extended public expenditure in this area, that area and whichever area might win them a seat at the next election.

Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats, John Marek and Peter Law are lining up in an unholy alliance behind their Conservative muckers. There are only two alternatives here: either you are entering a coalition of convenience with the Conservative Party—and I speak particularly to Plaid Cymru and Peter Law on this issue—or you genuinely believe that the Welsh Conservatives have, overnight, seen the light when it comes to decent public provision—

David Davies and Jenny Randerson rose—

The Presiding Officer: Order. One at a time, please.

David Davies: Is it not the case that, if there is a coalition, it is a coalition of the interests of all those who do not want to see the health service being run down, who are sick of seeing their small schools shut down and who want to see a fairer council tax for all council tax payers? If so, we are proud to be part of that coalition of interests.

Huw Lewis: It is a coalition of interests all right, but not the interests of my constituents or the constituents of any Member who represents deprived communities. This is about taking money away from frontline services, such as those provided by our new initiatives on early years intervention in deprived communities, and stuffing that money towards vested interests and groups that may give some electoral payback to opposition parties over time.

By far the worst attitude today is that of Peter Law—

Peter Law rose—

Huw Lewis: I will let you in in a minute—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order, Huw Lewis has not yet given way. Peter Law, please resume your seat—[Interruption.] None of that was recorded because the microphone was switched off.

Huw Lewis: I am relieved to hear it. I want to know whether the independent Member for Blaenau Gwent will inform the people of his constituency of his new joint working relationship with the Conservative Party. I wonder whether that is what they had in mind when they voted for him at the last election.

Peter Law rose—

Huw Lewis: I will give way in a moment. Undoing a Labour budget and our measures for social justice—is that what they had in mind in Blaenau Gwent when he spat such vitriol at Welsh Labour during his election campaign? Can we now look forward to Peter Law signing joint amendments with the Conservatives at Westminster, too? Is that what the people of Blaenau Gwent can look forward to? [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. Huw Lewis is not giving way.

Huw Lewis: Can we take it that today’s Peter Law/Tory party alliance is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or is it just a one-night stand? I give way.

Alas, as can be seen Peter's response was mostly not on the record as he resorted to heckling off-mike, though he did get in eventually:

Peter Law: I thank the Member for giving way. What I seek is fair play for my constituents; I seek it from a minority Government, as part of a majority opposition. That is what you must start to remember, because if you are not delivering, someone else will have to do so. That is what the people of Blaenau Gwent expect, and that is why I am standing here speaking about it—or at least I hope that I will be in a minute, Llywydd. We have an awful lot more that you have to provide.

Torfaen AM, Lynne Neagle, resorted to accusing the opposition of "pork-barrel politics". This elicted a witty but rather predictable response from David "the gypsy king" Davies:

Overall, this budget reflects our commitment to tackling inequality in Wales—inequalities, it seems, that the opposition parties risk exacerbating with their back-of-a-fag-packet, uncosted wish list. If anyone wonders why we have not yet seen the rise of the much-vaunted rainbow coalition, this list of vagaries, loosely disguised as a budget amendment, is the best indication to date. The opposition parties are intent on dragging Wales into the pork-barrel politics of the worst kind. They are intent on securing a few bungs that they can boast about in their election leaflets with no intention of securing the best settlement for the most deprived communities in Wales.

David Davies: What we are getting from Labour is porky-pie politics. [Laughter.]

Neath AM, Gwenda Thomas had a nice line:

Gwenda Thomas: How do you explain your party’s actions, in that you are, once again, prepared to give unqualified support to the Tories? You might not have the courage to move in with them permanently, but you are certainly pleased to spend the odd night.
accused Plaid Cymru of not so much as getting into bed with the Tories as spending the odd night.

Whilst Leighton Andrews had one of his famous rants:

What is happening today, of course, is that the opposition is kicking off the 2007 election campaign 18 months early. I think that we are entitled, therefore, to reflect on what is likely to be the main opposition in 2007. I only heard two serious speeches today from the opposition benches, and they came from the Tory Party. We know that they have led the opposition today.

This is what is happening today: the Tories are the real opposition in the Assembly, and Plaid Cymru is following their every word.

Today, the Tories are preparing the way for their role as the main opposition after 2007. We all saw Nick Bourne on that well-known BBC programme, ‘Smug on Sunday’. We all know that he is the organ grinder today, and he has a right gang of monkeys to play with. Nick Bourne and Ieuan Wyn Jones—Wales’s worst nightmare made flesh; not so much a coalition of the willing as a coalition of the chilling. They do not want to be caught together, though. It is like that old song by the Police—‘Don’t stand, don’t stand so close to me’. This is Plaid Cymru’s last stand; we all know that there will be a new leader of the opposition in 2007, and he is sitting on the Tory benches. His name is Glyn Davies.

Today Plaid Cymru is lining up with the Tories. It is finished in the Rhondda from here on; it is finished in the Valleys from here on, and it is hanging onto the Tories’ coat tails. The opposition may have the votes today, but it will lose votes in 2007 by its antics.

John Marek gave as good as he got:

John Marek: I wish to speak to the amendment that bears my name, but before I do, I would like to ask this: what are the arguments that the Government side has been putting forward? I have only been able to detect two. One, which has been put very badly by Leighton Andrews and Huw Lewis, is that we are voting with the Tories. I do not play party politics with the welfare of Welsh people. [Laughter.] You may laugh, but the record will show that playing party politics does not attract Welsh people to the Assembly. When Labour realises that and speaks seriously, it will realise that our amendment is aimed at helping Welsh people. The Labour Party wants to beggar council tax payers in Wales; we are saying that it should not be doing that.

Secondly, what does it matter if Plaid Cymru, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrat Party, Forward Wales and Peter Law happen to agree that we should be doing something for council tax payers in Wales? I put the Welsh people first, not party politics. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. I would like to hear this interesting speech.

John Marek: My long years in the Labour Party have shown me that it is irrevocably split. Half of its members regard the Tories as the enemy, and the other half regard Plaid Cymru as the enemy. I speak from experience.

Whilst Plaid Cymru's Janet Davies neatly turned the tables on the Labour conspiracy theory by pointing out that on the amendments on reviewing the Barnett formula, Labour and Tories were in fact in cahoots in seeking to defeat it.

For me, the outstanding contribution came from Kirsty Williams. She started off with an excellent joke at the Economic Development Minister's expense:

Kirsty Williams: A budget area that has had little attention this afternoon is that of economic development and transport. It has become obvious over recent years that the Minister for Economic Development and Transport is rather adept at stealing other people’s responsibilities, gathering them to his own portfolio. In doing that, however, he has singularly failed to match that ability with the ability to bring resources along with those responsibilities. Indeed, if one were to suggest that the ability to win resources for one’s own portfolio was a kind of virility test, I would suggest that the Minister for Economic Development and Transport needs to take lessons from Dr Brian Gibbons, or, failing that, at least get himself a prescription for Viagra for the next budget round.

She then went on to lambast the Labour Party whilst getting a few digs in at anybody on her own side who might contemplate turning an agreement of convenience amongst the opposition parties into a more permanent partnership:

The economic development and transport budget fails to establish the right base for economic development in the principality. Looking at the budget, you can see that the knowledge bank—the great big economic development idea of the Labour Government’s manifesto—has only just been realised. There are cuts in the entrepreneurship budget lines, and the business birth rate strategy is also a victim. There is little evidence of a plan to pick up the slack if Objective 1 and other European funding comes to an end, or of how we would fill the gap that that would leave. The freezing of the local transport budget is a blow for a scheme that, the First Minister admits, is already in trouble.

Huw, you are right: this is an unholy alliance today, and it does not sit easy with me to line up with a bunch of Conservatives to propose amendments. However, it comes to something when I am forced to do so because of the failure of a Labour Welsh Assembly Government budget. There is no social justice in a free school breakfast for your child or mine when there are children in my constituency who are taught in classrooms in which they cannot see the blackboard. There is no social justice in a free prescription for you and me when the hospice users in my constituency will see their grant cut off totally this year. That is not social justice. There is no social justice in a whizz-bang air link between north and south Wales that will pollute our environment, when people in the Valleys cannot catch a train to get to the cities to get a job. It is your failure to bring forward a budget that truly reflects the needs of Wales that has caused this unholy alliance today. There is no social justice for pensioners in Llandrindod Wells who find that their council tax band has jumped up by two notches while their ability to pay has not changed one iota. There is no social justice in any of those examples.

Do you want to know where the budget cuts could come from? Scrap your free school breakfasts, s
crap your free prescriptions for everybody, scrap north-south air links and put the money into front-line services, such as proper classrooms for our children, proper health services—which is not the position in which we find ourselves—and proper transport links. If you do that, the unholy alliance will fall apart, which is something for which I would be grateful. However, until you shape up, there is no alternative.

For once the heat did produce some light.

Monmouthshire blues

The Western Mail this morning, like many other papers, has lots on the Tory leadership contest. However, there is also an item on another interesting contest within the Conservative party - the battle to succeed David "the gypsy king" Davies as AM for Monmouthshire.

Rather strangely, since David decided to run for Parliament, one AM in particular has increased her references to Monmouthshire in the chamber and seems to be spending a disproportionate amount of her time there. However, according to the Western Mail Laura Anne Jones faces stiff competition for the Tory nomination, and not just from the other candidates.

The paper alleges that Tory Assembly Group Leader, Nick Bourne, is favouring researcher and Monmouthshire Councillor, Nick Ramsey, for the job. Another person in the running is local Councillor, Peter Fox. Apparently, this contest is also turning into a battle for the soul of the Conservative Party, or at least its Welsh branch. The Western Mail says that whereas Nick Bourne wants the party to become more Welsh and to push for the National Assembly to have more powers, the wing of the Welsh Tory party represented by the gypsy king, takes the contrary view.

Nobody is saying who David Davies is backing in this contest but it seems that an anonymous letter has been received by the Tory leader, signed by a "Monmouth member" which criticises Laura Anne Jones for cancelling appointments. The author believes that David is pushing her as his favoured successor. This can only get better.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The place to be seen

Well, if David Blunkett is not going to Annabel's again then I will have to cancel my plans to take my wife there. Clearly, the place is just not cool anymore!

Monday, October 03, 2005

A picture can tell a story

Interesting article in the Guardian this morning about the new found aversion of Government and the Police to photographers.

The deletion of all the photographs on MP, Austin Mitchell's camera by a police officer at Labour Party Conference is already documented elsewhere. Many of us had just taken it as an example of New Labour's control freakery. However, the article puts forward evidence that leads me to believe that this tendency is becoming more widespread and suggests a rather disturbing attempt by some police officers to exceed their powers so as to restrict long-held liberties:

"Basically the police don't want you there," says Peter Macdiarmuid of Getty. "They will try and control access to any major incident, as you'd expect. What's changed since 7/7 is that it appears we're excluded from where the public are standing. The anti-terrorism act has been given as a reason for us to be removed. There's been various incidents of colleagues being poked in the chest with guns."

The deputy chair of the BPPA, Ed Mulholland, claims police cordons are "set up arbitrarily" and the public are allowed to gawp at incidents even as his colleagues are prevented from photographing them.

Moore says photographers' relations with senior Met officers, particularly assistant commissioner Brian Paddick, are good."The trouble is at the more junior level," he says. "I think it's paranoia, ignorance and dislike." When he complained to Brian Cox, the Met's chief press officer, that photographers were being denied proper access to the sites of the July bombings, he says Cox acted quickly and sent three officers to ensure they could photograph the scenes. "But when they left it reverted to the same as before."

It is when basic liberties are eroded in this way that we know that the terrorists are winning.

The things that they say (three)

I have just heard the new Kate Bush single, "King of the Mountain", on Virgin Radio. As a long-time fan of her music I had already downloaded it over the weekend. I am now looking forward to the release of her new album, "Aerial", in November, the first in 12 years.

At the conclusion of the track I was astonished to hear the DJ claim that Kate Bush was the "original Bjork". He then went on to state that she is related to US President George W Bush and that as a result she may one day inherit the Presidency. I was both speechless and horrified on both counts. Is this DJ the best that radio can offer these days?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

David the gypsy

One Tory who cannot recognise when it is that he is drowning is the MP and AM for Monmouthshire, David Davies.

David is renowned for his hatred of political correctness, effectively walking out of the Assembly's Equal Opportunity Committee after a row over the way that he questioned the gay rights organisation, Stonewall Cymru. Indeed, I believe that his party leader removed him so as to avoid further controversy, something that David courts assiduously.

It is arguable that whilst he was on the Equal Opportunity Committee there was a sort of symbiotic relationship between David and the other members. His attempts to debunk their political correctness led to an increasingly adverse reaction from them, which in turn spurred David on to more extreme statements. It was a downward spiral of mutual intolerance that at one stage looked as if it could not be broken.

Coming off the Committee has not tamed David in any way as was demonstrated by this post on his blog attacking the awarding of a £48,000 lottery grant to make a film about the traditions of gypsy travellers. This in turn led to a reaction from Plaid Cymru's Helen Mary Jones and this sort of press coverage. Rather predictably Helen Mary's reaction and that of others just encouraged David to go further.

As a result we now have the front page of today's Wales on Sunday taken up by David's latest stunt - he has decided to register himself as a gypsy so that he can continue to speak out against them without being accused of discrimination. The reaction of the chair of the gypsy council seemed positively mild in comparison:

But his latest plan last night caused the chairman of the Gypsy Council, to describe the Tory as a "cretin".

Charles Smith said Mr Davies was talking "utter shit", adding: "He's a complete idiot and he doesn't know what he's talking about."

He said: "If he wants to try being a traveller, I'd love him to do it.

"He can sell his house and have nowhere where he can legally live. I dare him to do it, because the man is a complete idiot. This just shows how out of touch the Tories really are.

"Attacking gypsies is seen as acceptable racism, but I dare him to be a gypsy or a traveller for a year, to give up his affluent lifestyle and his privileged position."

Whatever else David is, he is not thick. However, it seems to me that he would do well to pause a bit and consider what it is that he is trying to achieve by these stunts and how he is perceived by the rest of the population. I, for one, would have hoped that his election as an MP might have matured him and cured him of the need to pursue headlines regardless of the consequences. Instead it has turned him even more into the sort of rent-a-quote bore that is more at home in the sixth form common room than in the outside world.

If he ever wants to be taken seriously as a national politician David would do well to put the over-clever quips and stunts to one side and concentrate instead on dealing with his constituents and with the issues that they raise in a more serious and considered way. His current behaviour is undermining any good work he may be doing in his own constituency by losing him respect. He is starting to carve out a role as the class clown.

Who will save this drowning party?

The analogy is so obvious that it seems a shame to even make it, but what the hell. The BBC report that a Conservative MP has turned lifesaver when he dragged a drowning man to safety. Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield, helped 18-year-old student Jack Shelley rescue a man, known only as Ian, from Minster Pool in Lichfield's centre.

Meanwhile, in Blackpool five men are vying for the right to try and pull the Conservative Party out of the sea, where it is slowly drowning. Has anybody warned them about the undercurrents? This is one rescue that may prove to be too late.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Tackling poverty

There was an interesting example in today's Western Mail of a homegrown politician getting caught up in her own momentum in the process of writing a letter and making nonsense claims that do not stand up to scrutiny.

The antipathy between Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood and most Labour AMs is, of course, well known. It is no surprise therefore to find them slagging each other off in the letters pages of Wales' newspapers. In this morning's offering Leanne hits out at a claim, made by a Labour AM, 'that no one ever claimed that Communities First was the answer to poverty'. She quite rightly points to an Assembly Government Press Release from December 2000 that states that "Communities First is central to the Assembly's overall plan to combat poverty in Wales."

However, she then gets carried away in her own efforts to re-write history, and indeed the policies of her political opponents:

On Objective One, New Labour is again trying to rewrite history. Wales would not have got the European cash in the first place if Plaid Cymru had not forced the resignation of the First Minister. It is amazing how important moments of Assembly history are glossed over by New Labour when it suits them.

And if he agrees that Objective One is so important to fight poverty, as I do, then why are Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories in agreement at Westminster that it should be abolished?

If she had been paying attention at the time Leanne would know of course that the motion that led to Alun Michael's resignation was supported by all three opposition parties. If it had not been then it would have been ineffective. To claim it as a sole Plaid Cymru effort is just ludicrous. Subsequent revelations indicate that despite the fact that he was about to be no-confidenced Alun Michael wanted to stay on as First Minister and would have had himself re-nominated for the post. It was only because his own Labour Group failed to support him in this endeavour that he accepted the inevitable and resigned before the motion could take effect.

Secondly, Wales was always going to get the European Objective One money. The point of controversy was whether it would count as additional to the block grant or not and whether we would also get an additional allocation of cash to match-fund projects. The Chancellor eventually agreed to the first point, but not the second.

Finally, where Leanne gets the idea from that Labour, Tories and the Liberal Democrats have reached an agreement at Westminster that Objective One should be abolished, I do not know. No such agreement exists and I can inform her that as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned our commitment to Objective One funding remains as strong as ever. This was evidenced by the overwhelming vote at our Conference that rejected the idea of limiting the European budget, a move that, if it was ever implemented, might deny cash to European structural funds.

Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable, is on record as opposing the re-patriation of European Structural Funds by Gordon Brown. In a Liberal Democrats press release he is quoted as saying:

"I am backing the campaign to keep these funds for the areas which most need them – Gordon Brown can’t give the same guarantees of local investment. My suspicion is that he wants to get his hands on the money. It’s vital that the European budget is used more efficiently but this can be achieved without cutting the EU’s programme of assistance to hard-pressed areas like Devon and Cornwall."

Leanne really should restrain herself from putting her political fantasies to paper until she has checked her facts.

The things that they say (two)

I refer to a statement of such offensiveness and wrong-headedness that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the person making it is a danger to society and should be removed from public life indefinitely for his and our safety. Rather worryingly the author of the remarks in question is a senior Republican, who has served at the highest levels of the US Government, as education secretary under Ronald Reagan and drugs czar under the first George Bush.

William Bennett is quoted as saying that "If you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose; you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." If these are "conservative values" then you can stick 'em where the sun don't shine. The man has lost the plot, big-time.

The things that they say (one)

The Guardian this morning reports that the biggest union for headteachers is holding a conference sponsored by fast-food giants McDonald's, just days after the education secretary, Ruth Kelly, banned burgers, fizzy drinks and junk food from school canteens.

At least NAHT general secretary, Mick Brooks, has the grace to admit that there has been some concern among his members about the sponsorship deal but then slips into spin mode in an attempt to justify the indefensible.

"We have been considering our policy in relation to this, especially in the light of the focus on healthy school meals," said Mr Brooks. "But after meeting McDonald's UK director, we were convinced that they are trying to offer healthier choices."

The spokesperson from McDonalds however cannot see what all the fuss is about:

"There is no reason why you can't eat at McDonald's as part of a balanced diet. Our children's menu has 108 combinations, 76 of which contain at least one of the recommended five-a-day fruit or vegetable portions."

This statement is so full of holes that it is difficult to know where to start. Suffice to say that even if a youngster chose one of the 76 combinations that contained at least one fruit or vegetable portion it is likely that the remaining contents of that meal would not be part of any nutritionist's idea of a balanced diet. Somehow I am unconvinced by the explanation.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?