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Wednesday, November 30, 2005


One of the issues that has provoked much debate within the Assembly's House Committee is the building's fire alarm system. The House Committee is responsible for administering the affairs of the Parliamentary side of the Assembly including its buildings and estates. As such when a rather confusing fire drill took place a few months ago they asked for a report.

The system that operates here is a two stage one. When an alarm sounds the area closest to the possible fire hears a continuous wailing indicating that staff should evacuate. The rest of the building hears an intermittent sound telling them to stay put and stand-by for further instructions. This is all very well but familiarity with the fire drill has not been a high priority for many employees here and so what tends to happen is that the whole building evacuates regardless.

It was suggested at the House Committee that there needed to be better education and possibly tannoy announcements to instruct staff as to the situation and the action they should take. This appeared to settle the matter until yesterday when, just as the Education Minister was about to launch into a speech on childcare, the fire alarm went off.

As it was an intermittent alarm on the ground floor most of us stayed put, whilst a large number of members looked to the Deputy Presiding Officer for instructions. At this point some Labour members took matters into their own hands and led the evacuation of the chamber. The sitting was suspended.

The alarm originated on the ground floor and in theory we should have been able to continue with the debate until contrary instructions were received. The problem was that although blue flashing lights in the chamber went off as expected to indicate an alert, we could also hear the alarm and as such it was impossible to proceed with the debate, even if we had wanted to. As somebody said to me on the way back into the chamber, I am sure that the House Committee will want to discuss this as well.

Best dressed

Christmas it appears is the season of awards. The BBC programme AM/PM will be issuing its twice-yearly awards to Welsh politicians today, whilst later on this evening HTV Wales will be doing the same thing. Meanwhile, the Daily Post has e-mailed AMs asking for nominations for Politician of the Year, Male AM of the Year, Female AM of the Year and Quote of the Year.

According to the BBC, the best-dressed politician of the year is the Social Justice Minister, Edwina Hart. The judges were particularly taken with her striking blue-dress-and-gloves combo at the red-carpet Royal Variety Performance last week. She beat some tough competition to take this prize including Welsh Secretary Peter Hain. South Wales East Tory, William Graham was also shortlisted, presumably helped by his habit of wearing a fresh orchid as a buttonhole each day, plucked from his own greenhouses. Our youngest member Laura Anne Jones was also there, though her preference in clothes is more understated. She prefers simple black and white outfits rather than flamboyance.

Unsurprisingly, Peter Law was Politician of the Year, whilst Tory AM and MP, David Davies picked up the gong for most outspoken politician. Congratulations must go to Leighton Andrews who was made Communicator of the Year for his blogging. I am told that the judges were impressed by the way that he used his blog to report on the Cardiff City FC financial crisis.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Budget deal is reached

So the reports were true and the opposition parties and the government finally came up with a deal on the budget today that will put millions of pounds into key public services. In all the new budget provides:

Council tax – £100 for pensioner households in 2006/7 whose homes have risen by more than one council tax band due to revaluation.

A further £10m will be made available over two years for pensioners to provide home energy schemes to cut household bills and for improved security on their properties.

Higher education funding – an extra £5mn in the first year to help close the funding gap between Welsh and English universities, with a minimum of another £3m in year two.

Small schools – a £4.1m fund for small schools across Wales.

School nutrition - £3.1m to provide for more nutritious school dinners and healthier food in school vending machines.

School funding – schools to be allowed to retain efficiency savings.

Rail services – a commitment to pre-feasibility studies to improve services on routes throughout Wales, plus the purchase of additional rolling stock for the Aberystwyth-Cambrian coast-Shrewsbury and Heart of Wales lines.

All of this is very welcome and provides a good example of how cross-party agreement can be reached without the need for formal coalitions. I am particularly pleased by the deal for education, which has always been a high priority for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Thumping the Argies!

Through the good offices of Dave Weeden I have come across this fascinating story from the book "Rendezvous -- The psychoanalysis of François Mitterrand" by Ali Magoudi. Mr. Magoudi met the late French president up to twice a week in secrecy at his Paris practice from 1982 to 1984.

The book, to be published on Friday, is one of several on France's first Socialist president to mark the 10th anniversary of his death on January 8 1996. This episode about Mitterand's relationship with Margaret Thatcher is fascinating and not a little disturbing:

"Excuse me. I had a difference to settle with the Iron Lady. That Thatcher, what an impossible woman!" the president said as he arrived, more than 45 minutes late, on May 7 1982. "With her four nuclear submarines in the south Atlantic, she's threatening to unleash an atomic weapon against Argentina if I don't provide her with the secret codes that will make the missiles we sold the Argentinians deaf and blind." He reminded Magoudi that on May 4 an Exocet missile had struck HMS Sheffield. "To make matters worse, it was fired from a Super-Etendard jet," he said. "All the matériel was French!

"In words that the psychoanalyst has sworn to the publisher, Meren Sell, are genuine, the president continued: "She's livid. She blames me personally for this new Trafalgar ... I was obliged to give in. She's got them now, the codes.

"Mitterrand - who once described Thatcher as "the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe" -- went on: "One cannot win against the insular syndrome of an unbridled Englishwoman. Provoke a nuclear war for a few islands inhabited by three sheep as hairy as they are freezing! But it's a good job I gave way. Otherwise, I assure you, the Lady's metallic finger would have hit the button.

"France, he insisted, would have the last word. "I'll build a tunnel under the Channel. I'll succeed where Napoleon III failed. And do you know why she'll accept my tunnel? I'll flatter her shopkeeper's spirit. I'll tell her it won't cost the Crown a penny."

Whether you believe that Thatcher would have nuked the Argentinian capital is a matter of judgement. However it was certainly running through the minds of some Tory MPs at the time. There is a story that during a packed 1983 General Election eve-of-poll hustings in Welshpool the losing Tory MP, Delwyn Williams, publically stated that the Government should have nuked Buenes Aries. It is an urban myth in Montgomery that Delwyn Williams' ranting and rabid performance that night persuaded enough Labour voters to vote for Alex Carlile, the Liberal candidate, and cost the Tories the seat by 600 votes.

Budget deal possible

Today's Western Mail reports that extra cash for pensioners could clinch agreement tonight between Rhodri Morgan and the opposition party leaders over next year's Assembly budget. They believe that Labour will suggest a £100 payment to all pensioner households to offset the effects of council tax rebanding. This offer will be made, they say, in response to opposition demands that taxpayers in Wales should be assisted with the impact of revaluation following the abandonment of a similar exercise in England.

Of course any deal will have to accomodate the other demands in the amendment to the draft budget as well, namely adequate provision for a small schools fund, to begin to address the historic funding gap between universities in England and Wales, to include adequate provision to develop Wales' railway system and to help frontline education services.

It would be nice to be able to confirm or deny this story but it is some time since the Liberal Democrats group had any update on these talks. The sharing of information with those who have to vote for or against this deal does not seem to be a priority. I suspect that other groups, not least Labour, have the same problem. However, it is worth noting the comments in the Western Mail's opinion column:

"By failing to offer anything to those hit by rocketing council tax bills following revaluation, Labour played into the hands of the opposition. If pensioners now benefit as a result of the brinkmanship, it will be difficult for Labour to claim the credit."

The piece talks about Labour's 'hubris' in failing to recognise the precarious position it was in after the 2003 Assembly elections and seeking 'to operate as if it had a majority comparable to that won by Labour at Westminster in 1997 and 2001.' They conclude:

"Coalition politics will be the order of the day at the Assembly and the sooner those parties that have yet to wake up to that fact do so the better. For Labour and the Conservatives, it means accepting the need to work with other parties on a permanent basis, and for Plaid Cymru it means maturing from a group more comfortable with the irresponsible certainties of student politics into a genuine party of potential government. The Liberal Democrats are ahead of the pack - on this issue at least."

We will see. The key to this whole coalition issue is the nature of the arrangement we are asked to enter into. I have already said that I believe that the present situation whereby a minority government is tempered by the opposition on issues where there is common ground is an acceptable alternative to a formal opposition coalition government. If Labour recognise that reality and work with it then it can be an enduring arrangement. However, formal coalitions require shared instincts and common approaches that will get them through matters unforeseen by a partnership agreement. That is why I cannot yet see any party that could enter into a formal coalition with the Welsh Conservatives and that is why I could not support such an arrangement for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Llygad Preifat

Private Eye appear to have got themselves a source in the Welsh Assembly if the current edition's HP sauce is anything to go by. They report that the £278,000 tank trap designed to stop suicide bombers getting anywhere near the new building has a fatal flaw. No one seems to have noticed the flat, wide pavement to the side of the road - plenty of space for most vehicles, which would have no difficulty mounting the kerb, to nip around the trap.

This is the problem with commenting on work-in-progress, as you never know what else is planned for the area. The article also misses the real flaw. The intention is to block off the wide expanse of pavement at the side of the tank trap with very heavy planters, designed to delay a tank. What this means however, is that any terrorist intent on sacrificing his or her life to strike a blow against Welsh democracy would then be forced to let off the bomb at the tank trap itself. This would inevitably lead to the near destruction of the present Assembly building containing all the offices of Assembly Members and staff.

As Assembly Members will stay in these offices once the new building is opened then this has caused some considerable concern amongst a number of them. It is understood that contingency measures are being put in place to prevent this scenario being played out as well.

Private Eye's second article is on the seating plan for the new chamber. I have to admit that I have only glanced at this and not had time to study it in some detail. Everybody is intent however on avoiding the fiasco that occurred over the rearrangement of seating in the present chamber back in October 2003. According to Private Eye, when Peter Hain attends the official opening of the new building on 1 March he will be seated not with the ruling Labour group but at the end of the Plaid Cymru front bench. This will presumably be his place whenever he sits in on Plenary, currently once a year for the Queen's speech.

I suspect Mr. Hain will be very unhappy at this prospect but the issue may be out of his hands. As before, the seating arrangements are being decided by a small sub-committee and I doubt if even Labour will risk another 700 amendments by forcing the issue to a vote so as to save the Secretary of State's blushes. Who the unfortunate Plaid AM is who has to sit next to Mr. Hain has yet to be revealed but we will all be watching closely for any signs of small talk.

N.B. If Private Eye are thinking of launching a Welsh edition then they should not adopt the title of this posting. I am informed that it is not a meaningful translation although it is good enough for my purposes.

Update: I was told yesterday (Tuesday 29 November) that there is in fact no place allocated for the Secretary of State for Wales in the new chamber. He will apparently have to use a seat earmarked for the Counsel General. If the Assembly's law officer is present then Mr. Hain will be asked to snuggle up at the front with the Presiding Officer. Now, that will be entertaining.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


This piece in today's Guardian on the excuses used to justify not having a TV licence is almost as good as the Jasper Carrott sketch on Australian motor insurance claims. My favourite is the viewer who claimed: "I don't need a TV licence because I only watch Australian soaps and as far as I'm aware you don't need a licence in Australia."

Friday, November 25, 2005

Too big?

The former Labour leader of Bridgend Council tries to jump start a debate on the size and effectiveness of Welsh Unitary Authorities today. He argues that the last round of local government reorganisation in the mid-90s created unitary authorities that were mostly far too small to be efficient.

"If the number was reduced from 22 to less than 10, it would be possible to make huge savings in administration. Currently we have 22 chief executives paid £110,000, 22 directors of education paid £90,000 and so on. We also have far too many councillors. With a smaller number of local authorities, it would be possible to save millions on directors' salaries, procurement, back office functions and IT."

There is no doubt that he has identified a matter that is causing problems for some areas, but is big really beautiful? More importantly should reorganisation be the answer to everything? Structural changes are hugely disruptive, very expensive and can take up to a decade or more to work through properly. Local Government was re-organised in 1972 and 1995, it is far too early to even start thinking about doing it again.

This sort of thing sounds good but there are no easy solutions. Some tinkering perhaps, but ultimately the WLGA have it right. Joint working, the pooling of expertise and resources and collaboration can go a long way to making Councils more efficient whilst keeping them small enough to be accessible and responsive to local needs.

Bring on the snow

Sitting in the Assembly chamber on Wednesday it was hard to imagine Wales moving closer to the arctic circle than it is already. It has been cold but not that cold. Waking up this morning to several inches of snow the comparison that was made by Plaid Cymru AM Dai Lloyd between Wales and Greenland seemed more apt. Dai though was talking about systems of government and the way that they are financed, not the weather:

David Lloyd: Denmark, as you know, provides funding for Greenland on a needs-based formula, which is reassessed every three years. However, Wales continues to be funded without any assessment of need. How can you justify that?

Sue Essex: I was with you when that was mentioned; I remember how keen you were to hear that. ‘Where Greenland goes, Wales will follow’ was your motto after that.

There is no doubt that in terms of temperature Wales really is following, however for the Labour Party that is as far as they are prepared to go. Despite this Mike German did his best to push at the door only to find it was firmly bolted:

The Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Group (Michael German): I was also there, Minister, but I will not mention Greenland. Can you tell us what attracts you to maintaining the current Barnett formula?

Sue Essex: We have gone over this ground before, but I will repeat what I find attractive. We know about some worries that people have; Dai has just expressed his worry. The formula gives us certainty that, virtually immediately after Gordon Brown’s announcement, we get a clear view of what money will be coming to Wales. We check that, but it does give us a clear view. That certainty on money through the system is important. As you will know, we have tried to make the local government formula a needs-based formula, but it is incredibly complicated. As time goes on, it becomes more and more complicated. Changes to the formula have enormous repercussions, as it changes distribution. There are downsides to that.

The second issue—and this is worth saying—is that some people would say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Over the years, the Barnett formula has delivered considerable sums of money to Wales.

As far as the Finance Minister is concerned risk-aversion is the abiding principle that should apply to funding devolution not fairness.

The amount of money that the Assembly Government has to spend is crucial in determining their approach to public services. How much they can invest in the Welsh infrastructure and in attracting jobs to Wales is a vital plank of any economic strategy. Thus the launch of the Government's new economic plan, ‘Wales: A Vibrant Economy’, or WAVE for short, is an event worth noting. The problem was that the launch took place outside of the Assembly and there was no opportunity to question the Minister on it.

This fact drew much comment during the debate on State Aid on Wednesday afternoon. A number of members questioned the priorities in the document, whilst others expressed scepticism as to its efficacy in solving the problems of the Welsh economy. Kirsty Williams in particular continued her verbal duel with Minister by starting her speech with a small piece of verse. If the Minister was waving, she said, then it was because he is drowning:

Kirsty Williams: I will begin by abusing the genius of Stevie Smith,

‘Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning’.
‘Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning’.

The Minister for Economic Development and Transport is drowning in a sea of self-spin and congratulation, and is simply not aware of the situation that large parts of the Welsh economy find themselves in.

Later in the day William Graham returned to the subject of drugs. He is to be congratulated for perservering with this important subject despite taking some stick from people such as myself for staging a press conference featuring the unlikely juxtaposition of himself and the lead singer from Motorhead. At that event William was taken a bit unawares when Lemmy announced that the best way to deal with heroin abuse is to legalise it. This is not a view that he subscribes to but he was game enough to use the event to his advantage by staging a short debate entitled "Heroin—Is Lemmy Right?" He tackled the issue head-on:

I focused upon heroin because one realisation that I share with Lemmy is that of all of the substances that people abuse, heroin kills. Each heroin-related death is a tragedy and each one is avoidable. In the face of such an alarming state of affairs, it is our duty to examine whether the existing policies and arrangements for dealing with this and other hard drugs are truly working.

We must question why heroin retains its appeal to young people, despite more information about the negative effects of drugs being available now than ever before. We must also question why it is so readily available on our streets, despite the best efforts of our excellent police service. We need to ensure that we reduce the volume of drugs available from illegal sources, and their ease of access.

One in 10 teenagers said that they would accept the offer of a drug they had never taken before from a friend at a party, as they would feel uncomfortable or not know how to say ‘no’. Nearly 10 per cent said that they would be happy to be swept along with the crowd, saying ‘yes’ to look cool or not to feel left out. The safety of the wider community is paramount in any consideration of drugs policy, and the disastrous consequences of full legalisation are obvious to all.

His conclusion was cogent and to the point:

Unfortunately, there is no panacea for the ills of heroin abuse either on an individual or society basis. The process of rehabilitation is physically and mentally draining, feelings that are only compounded by the individuals concerned being labelled ‘users’ or ‘junkies’. While I acknowledge that a radical shift in public opinion is unlikely, we can play our part. It is imperative that we alter sentencing guidelines to move away from the temptation merely to sentence those involved in heroin use to jail, and instead send the individuals concerned on carefully designed rehabilitation programmes and to treatment centres. Sadly, drugs remain freely available in prisons. Such a policy could provide those who would have merely returned to society as hardened criminals with a chance of a decent life, and could yield significant results in tracking down the dealers that fuel this evil trade. Furthermore, it could go some way to altering the dominant view that heroin users are criminals with no hope for the future.

I pay tribute to Edwina Hart for demonstrating an acceptance of the need to consider the widest possible views to address this problem. She has directed scarce resources towards further education and rehabilitation, together with supporting initiatives to enhance economic activities that direct people away from isolation and substance abuse. We must consider every option to address this problem, understanding that we need to offer specific treatments as an alternative to prison. Drug addiction is a medical problem; people need doctors, not prison guards.

I will end my presentation as Lemmy ended his, by saying that heroin addicts will never rehabilitate until someone gives them a chance.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Unrest on the backbenches

There was some significant unrest on the opposition backbenches yesterday afternoon during questions to the Finance Minister as the whole session was effectively hi-jacked by the party leaders.

A tradition has grown up in the Assembly that on First Minister's Questions, in the interests of effective scrutiny, the party leaders will be able to ask two or three supplementaries on a question of their choice. Quite whether this system produces any light is a matter of opinion, often there is just a heated row and nobody is any the wiser. However, almost surreptiously the party leaders have extended this privilege to questions to other Ministers on a Wednesday afternoon as well. The result is that less time is available to backbench AMs to drive home their own points, even when they serve on the relevant subject committee and have a specialist knowledge.

Yesterday, this 'abuse of procedure' was taken to extremes when on one question the Plaid Cymru leader asked three supplementaries closely followed by the Tory Leader with an enormous five additional questions. What was worse was that he asked two supplementaries on one subject and then switched to a completely unrelated topic for his next three. The Presiding Officer looked perplexed, those of us wishing to get in on this question or subsequent ones were enormously frustrated.

I suggested to the PO that we should change the procedure so as to enable the party leaders to have their extra supplementaries to the First Minister but then to extend this privilege to the relevant party spokespeople only on questions to other Ministers. I hope he listens because otherwise we are in danger of turning question time into a party leader ego-fest.

Who should I vote for quiz

Your expected outcome: Liberal Democrat

Your actual outcome:

Labour -5
Conservative -59
Liberal Democrat 119
UKIP -29
Green 87

You should vote: Liberal Democrat

The LibDems take a strong stand against tax cuts and a strong one in favour of public services: they would make long-term residential care for the elderly free across the UK, and scrap university tuition fees. They are in favour of a ban on smoking in public places, but would relax laws on cannabis. They propose to change vehicle taxation to be based on usage rather than ownership.

Take the test at Who Should You Vote For

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Pushing back the Quango state

The debate on the legislation that will finally abolish ACCAC, ELWa, WDA and WTB yesterday was fairly low key in comparison to the heat that has been generated since the First Minister first mooted the idea over 16 months ago.

On ELWa the opposition raised again the issue of sixth forms. By and large we have found a solution to the problem of the Minister's civil servants proposing a reorganisation following merger, which will then be adjudicated on by her. This scenario raised the potential of the Education Minister acting as a judge and jury on what are quasi-judicial matters, something that a court may not look very favourably on. The solution was to have the First Minister review the outcome of the consultation and to take the final decision.

However, there was still unease that the power ELWa has to open or close sixth forms (normally the latter) independently of a local education authority will transfer unamended to the Assembly Government, giving them the right to trample over local accountability. This was not about removing the strategic overview but making sure that there was a genuine partnership in which all parties were treated equally and that no one felt that they were working with a gun to their head. As a result we tabled a detailed amendment to hand this power back to LEAs.

In the end that amendment was not moved as at the eleventh hour the Minister came up with a better proposal. She suggested that the Assembly Government bring forward for consultation proposals to delegate to local authorities, under section 41 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, responsibility for developing proposals, in partnership with all interested parties, for the future organisation of post-16 provision in maintained schools, which includes faith and foundation schools and further education. This went significantly further than the amendment and so I was pleased to withdraw our alternative.

After that all of the heat was taken out of the ELWa debate, however Leighton Andrews was determined to be controversial nevertheless:

Leighton Andrews: ELWa goes to the quango graveyard entirely unlamented by me. I arrived here as the constituency Member for the Pop Factory, I spent the first 18 months here as a member of the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee and I have spent my entire time here as a member of the Audit Committee. I witnessed a shocking abnegation of leadership over the whole situation with regard to the Pop Factory at the beginning. In my time on the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee, I and many others, struggled for a long time to get sense into the national planning and funding system to ensure that there were proper cushioning and dampening measures and, above all, that factors such as deprivation were properly taken into consideration in the new system.

Leighton is right of course that ELWa is an unelected quango but it operates within the policy framework set for it by the Welsh Assembly Government and often under specific directions from that Government and its officials. Since the Pop factory debacle management and staff have worked incredibly hard to turn the organisation around. They have ensured that it fully complies with all government and civil service regulations, they have focussed its work on the very real deficiencies that exist in our education and training provision across Wales and they have performed miracles in getting the planning and funding framework into place despite the hugely competing demands of government, providers and the sector.

It is right that Leighton and others scrutinise that work intensely and seek to ensure that the interests of learners and other constituents are represented but if there has been any abnegation of leadership then the responsibility for that lies very firmly with the Minister. To criticise people who are effectively civil servants in this way is unacceptable. Even before merger there is a very clear line of accountability in place, what happens after that has yet to be seen.

I for one, am concerned that Assembly Members will not have the same access to information or advice, that we will not be able to quiz officials in the same way or get the off-the-record briefings that help to inform our contribution. The merger may be a good day for democracy but it may well be a very poor one indeed for transparency and accountability.

Two jobs or one?

The appearance of the Prime Minister in front of his twice-yearly scrutiny committee threw up at least one interesting issue.

Tory MP, Sir Patrick McCormack was interested in Tony's view as to whether it was possible for one man to be both Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland. Obviously, the answer was yes. However, what was not made clear was why, given the Prime Minister's view that "because of devolution in Wales and Scotland there is a very much reduced requirement [in Whitehall]", the Wales Office budget doubled between 1999 and 2005.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Revisiting the past

I had a fascinating conversation with a group of students in the Assembly today. They were there on a fact finding tour and as is the custom were given the opportunity to engage with local AMs in the visitor's gallery of the main chamber.

There were two colleges represented, Gorseinon and one in Cardiff so there were a fair number of AMs there to take part in the discussion. Some of the Cardiff students in particular were intent on revisiting the referendum result from 1997. They were querying how we believed we had a mandate to do anything on the basis of the support of only 26% of the electorate.

It is an old discussion and I do not see the point in rehearsing it again. The question did occur to me however, that if the positive support of such a small proportion of the electorate is considered sufficient to undermine the legitimacy of an institution then what does this say for Tony Blair's administration, which secured the support of only 21% of those entitled to vote last May?

One of the other issues raised was that of all-women shortlists. The Western Mail reported this morning that some women AMs are strongly of the view that quotas and all-women shortlists must continue to be used to select Labour candidates for the National Assembly. It was this policy of course that led to them losing Blaenau Gwent. Whether Labour has learnt any lessons from this experience has to be seen but the article suggests that some of them would do it all again no matter what the consequences.

Whither Tiger Bay

Rhodri Morgan makes the very good point that the presence of the National Assembly and the transformation of the Cardiff Bay area into an exclusive housing scheme and tourist destination has done nothing to help the adjacent Tiger Bay, the most deprived community in Wales.

What Cardiff Bay illustrates above anything else is that you cannot regenerate a community by erecting a prosperous infrastructure around it. Government needs to engage with local people and help them to take advantage of the opportunities that this sort of investment offers. Cardiff Bay also underlines the point that the lack of affordable housing is not just a rural issue. It impacts on our towns and cities too.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Nasty, parochial and partisan

A leading devolution expert has joined in the debate on reforms to the Assembly's voting system with a devastating attack on the motives of the Wales Labour Party in promoting change.

In the annual Institute of Welsh Politics Lecture, Professor Robert Hazell argues that banning Assembly candidates from standing in constituencies and on the PR regional lists - as proposed by Welsh Secretary Peter Hain - will run into trouble in the House of Lords.

Prof Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit within University College London, will also tell the audience at Aberystwyth University that Mr Hain's view that no more devolution legislation will be necessary after the forthcoming Government of Wales Bill is "wishful thinking".

And there is also a warning that the so-called "Brown boom" in generous funding settlements for the Assembly and the Scottish Parliament is coming to an end.

Prof Hazell will say, "The Lords are likely to be critical of the proposed change to the electoral system in Wales. This is nasty, parochial and seemingly driven by partisan motives. Labour want to prevent Assembly candidates from standing in a constituency as well as on a party's regional list.

The Electoral Commission has been particularly damning about the lack of evidence in the government's proposals, saying that concerns about dual candidacy did not emerge in any of their research about voting in the Welsh Assembly election.

"The Electoral Commission also reminds us that the same electoral arrangements apply in Scotland. Here they are being examined by the Arbuthnott Inquiry, primarily appointed to look at electoral boundaries, but also looking at electoral systems. It has shown little interest in a ban on dual candidacy."

There is little in this analysis that I disagree with. The Assembly's electoral system was designed by Labour to provide an element of proportionality whilst retaining an in-built bias in their favour. When they saw that it was becoming a threat to their hegemony in Wales they decided to castrate it further. The only motive behind this change is self-interest. If they had wanted to produce a more equitable system in which all AMs were elected on a comparable basis then they would have opted for the single transferable vote system based on multi-member constituencies.

The one point of contention is how much resistance will be put up in the House of Lords to this "nasty, parochial and partisan" change. There are some very big issues in the White paper that may well merit more attention from their lordships. And let us face it you can only sustain a position in defence of the 'human rights' of politicians for so long. The voting change is a Labour manifesto commitment and the Secretary of State for Wales has said that it is non-negotiable. That is a great shame as it indicates a lack of imagination as well as a degree of vindictiveness. However, the odds are that on this matter the Government's view will prevail.

The other interesting point thrown up in Professor Hazell's lecture is the inter-relationship between Scotland and Wales as different ends of the same devolution settlement. It is an important point and one that does not often receive much attention:

Prof Hazell will also underline the curious lack of affinity between the Scottish Parliament and the Assembly, saying, "Scotland has shown little support or solidarity with Wales."

He will ask, "Will Scotland support stronger powers for Wales, and support a confident and generous settlement based on the model of the Scotland Act: or is the dynamic of devolution a jealous dynamic, a game of leapfrog in which the Scots seek permanently to keep one step ahead?"

What happens with regards to Wales does have huge implications for Scotland especially with regards to funding. Any reform of the Barnett formula could well see generously-funded Scotland losing out for example, whilst Wales would gain. Scotland themselves want changes to their settlement so as to clarify a number of their powers. There does not appear to be much sign of that happening at the moment.

I do not believe that the Scots will seek to check Wales' laborious march towards the status of a full Parliament, but I do think that there are anti-devolutionists there who will not want to see the new Parliament of Wales Bill become the precursor of more Scottish legislation taking them in the direction of greater independence.

Arming the police

This morning's Western Mail reports the views of the South Wales Police Federation Secretary and a former Police Superintentent that armed police are inevitable. Regardless of my outrage at the killing of PC Sharon Beshenivsky, I certainly hope not and I suspect that goes for the vast majority of the British public as well.

Whereas, it is right that there are armed response teams to back up conventional police officers in the event of firearms being used, the routine arming of all Police Officers will actually provoke an escalation of gun crime and more Police deaths from shootings. In particular the startling statistic from the USA is how many Police Officers are shot by their own guns.

The issue of the death penalty is not so clear cut and I am not particularly happy about the way my comments have been interpreted in the article. When asked whether the death penalty should be reintroduced for those who murdered police officers I actually said that I cannot see how we can distinguish between different types of murder. Whether it is a child, a police officer or a 30 year old male, the offence is equally as grave and repugnant and a common code should apply to how it is dealt with by the courts.

The phrase "I cannot see the need to distinguish between different types of murder" was mistranscribed by the journalist. Clearly, there is always a need to look at the circumstances of a crime. Ultimately, though I am opposed to the death penalty because it is both barbaric and ineffective. A study of countries who operate the ultimate sanction reveals that the vast majority have high levels of violent crime and that most of them are experiencing an increase in murders. It is not the death penalty that is the deterrent it is getting caught and once you have caught a violent criminal there are many other ways to protect society from him or her than killing them.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Top money

For those interested in the way that political parties are funded and who cannot be bothered trawling through the Electoral Commission website I would recommend this site run by the New Politics Network.

From a Welsh perspective it is interesting to note that Forward Wales has received just over £30,000 by way of donations from its sole Assembly Member, Dr. John Marek. In fact Dr. Marek appears to be its sole funder.

Those of you who enjoy going to the Glastonbury Festival will be interested in the fact that Glastonbury Festivals Limited gave £5,000 to the South West England Green Party in 2004, whilst it seems that despite the trend for a number of high profile donors to contribute to the Labour Party and then subsequently find themselves in the House of Lords, their major donors remain the Trade Unions.

Fellow travellers

Returning to my theme of politicians liking to travel the Observer reports this morning that the most recent government figures cost Tony Blair's 21 foreign trips in the past financial year at more than £800,000. The solution being put forward by 'efficiency-guru' Sir Peter Gershon, is to purchase three aircraft to carry ministers and senior members of the royal family.

Gershon of course was the man who mooted a 1% year-on-year efficiency saving in public expenditure that in local government terms at least has led to real cuts in services. In Wales the Assembly Government is holding back £33m next year from local Councils so as to force them to make these cuts, effectively giving them no room for manoeurvre or the opportunity to re-invest the money into front-line priority services.

From this report it appears that Sir Peter Gershon's idea of a priority front-line service is a fleet of personal jets for the great and the good. Possibly because the idea has been nicknamed 'Blair Force One' by the Observer, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has quite rightly vetoed the idea. A victory for prudence I believe.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Tax and spend

The spin on the Liberal Democrats tax commission is that they are going to come up with a tax-neutral" strategy which will alarm MPs and party activists on the Liberal Democrats left who gave the leadership a bloody nose on spending issues at this year's Blackpool conference. However, when one reads the details there is nothing there that I could not sign up to and I believe that goes for the vast majority of the rest of the party as well.

In particular the commitment to progressive taxation will remain:

That does not mean the party will ditch its commitment to a 50p rate of income tax on "the rich" - probably those earning more than £100,000 a year, on Mr Cable's "very reasonable definition" - or draw back from green taxes on targets like aircraft emissions.

It may also stand by controversial pledges to drop student tuition fees, replace council tax with local income tax, and extend free personal care to the elderly in England - all mocked as hopelessly unrealistic and "middle-class welfare" by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

All of our so-called 'controversial' pledges were principled and clear vote winners at the last election and it is right that we should not be in any hurry to drop them.

First cuckoo

The Western Mail reports that daffodils blooming well out of season is an early warning sign climate change is playing havoc with our seasons. In a scene that normally heralds the first signs of spring, they feature a photograph of bright golden daffs photographed yesterday near Saundersfoot despite the fact severe frosts have hit many parts of Wales over the past three nights. It is only a matter of time before The Times will be featuring letters heralding the first cuckoo of spring in the depths of winter.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Travelling to see the World

If there is one thing that the recent publication of the updated MPs' register of interests has revealed, it is that politicians like to travel, as of course do their spouses. Right there at the top of the pile is the Prime Ministers' free 26-day stay at singer Sir Cliff Richard's Barbados villa in August along with his wife's speaking engagements in Washington, Australia, New Zealand and Florida. Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, has also been indulging his Formula One passion with free hospitality in Monaco and at Silverstone

Incidentally, I noticed in the list that Tory leadership contender, David Davis, published a list of donors to his campaign, which included Robin Birley, owner of Annabel's nightclub in London. This is the club in which David Blunkett first met the 29 year old blonde who subsequently caused substantial embarrassment for him. When Blunkett was Home Secretary, David Davis was his Tory shadow. It is on such coincidences that conspiracy theories are built.

Assembly Members live so much more mundane lives. Occasionally, one or two of them get to travel somewhere exotic with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association like the Falkland Islands, Lesotho or Canada but mostly they live out their travelling fantasies on the Welsh railway network, such as it is. With such limited horizons it is inevitable that their experiences will turn them into an authority on the subject and like the pub bore they will insist on droning on and on about the problems that they face getting to Cardiff Bay each week.

Questions to the Assembly Minister for Economic Development and Transport are an obvious time to pour out these accumulated frustrations, though that does not stop some AMs having their two pennyworth on other Ministers' question time sessions as well. What has sharpened the appetite of some members is that the Assembly is soon to get new powers over the railways. Thus on Wednesday when we reached question eight on the future of rail services in Wales, we all knew what to expect.

South Wales West Plaid Cymru Assembly Member, Janet Davies, started the ball rolling with a demand that the Minister use his soon to be acquired powers to achieve a step change and much-needed improvements to infrastructure, rolling stock and services. For her trouble she got a lecture on what the government was already doing:

Andrew Davies: We are already significantly improving rail services in Wales. We have reopened the passenger services on the Vale of Glamorgan line and, by early 2007, we will have passenger services on the Ebbw Vale line for the first time since the Beeching cuts. We have invested an additional £50 million in the Valley lines to improve the capacity and frequency of services. In December, Arriva Trains Wales will introduce a standard pattern timetable, which will improve the performance and delivery of services. Network Rail has also invested £400 million to upgrade the signalling on the Great Western line between Port Talbot and the Severn tunnel. That is a substantial investment, and I am sure that we will see a significant improvement in the level and the frequency of services provided over the next few years.

Leighton Andrews piled in next on the standard of the service offered by Arriva Trains to his constituents in the Rhondda. Plaid Cymru Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, then leapt to his feet to join in the attack on Arriva, however rather surprisingly for such a frequent traveller he seemed to lose his way a bit:

Ieuan Wyn Jones: I am sure that the Minister is aware that the improvement in the service between north and south Wales as a result of changes in the timetable from December will be welcomed, but he is also aware that we not only need more regular services but also faster services—and I would like to emphasise this—between north and south. It is a very lengthy train journey, especially if people want to undertake business in Cardiff and return to north Wales on the same day. I cannot understand how people can travel from Holyhead to London, for example, more quickly than from Holyhead to Cardiff. I do not understand why Arriva Trains insists that all Cardiff-bound trains have such frequent stops; that adds a lot of time to the length of the journey. Will the Minister discuss this issue with Arriva Trains so that we have a service that will unite north and south Wales, and so that people feel comfortable with this journey?

Andrew Davies: Why does the service have to stop so frequently? The reason is that it has to pick up passengers. [Laughter.]

Unfortunately, Ieuan did not know when he was beaten and persisted at length with his account of inconvenience and misfortune. However by now his plea for trains in North Wales to stop less often so as to get to their destination quicker, regardless of how many passengers were consequently stranded, were falling on deaf ears. We turned instead to the mysterious case of Llanharan station and why, despite promises that it would be re-opened by the end of 2005, the business case was still sitting on the Minister's desk awaiting a decision.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Gravy train

On a more mundane note the Western Mail devotes most of page three this morning to a campaign by Assembly Member support staff to get some decent food into our canteen. I could not agree more. The range of exotic and largely experimental dishes served up on a Tuesday and a Wednesday are largely indigestible as far as I am concerned, whilst if you go in there on other weekdays the choice and the available quantities are limited. Some plain nutritional cooking would not go amiss.

As for the members' dining room, I can see that it is useful to entertain guests but if it does have a separate menu then how can that be justified. When I eat a proper meal in the Assembly I always eat with the staff so I have to confess that my knowledge of the 'members' menu' is limited, however I can see no justification for us to be treated any differently in the choices of available food than anybody else who works in Cardiff Bay.

Another nail in the coffin

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberties pressure group Liberty, is absolutely right - the comments by former MI5 chief Stella Rimington yesterday are "another nail in the coffin of the massive identity card folly."

Dame Rimington told the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Birmingham that "ID cards have possibly some purpose. But I don't think that anybody in the intelligence services, particularly in my former service, would be pressing for ID cards.

"My angle on ID cards is that they may be of some use but only if they can be made unforgeable - and all our other documentation is quite easy to forge. If we have ID cards at vast expense and people can go into a back room and forge them they are going to be absolutely useless.

"ID cards may be helpful in all kinds of things but I don't think they are necessarily going to make us any safer."

Downing Street's response is to describe Stella Rimington as a private individual who is entitled to her views. Well yes, she is. But she is also a former spook who has had extensive experience of fighting terrorism at the highest level. Whatever happened to evidence-based government?


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Binge politicking

With a vote due in the House of Commons later that day on 24 hour opening, AMs yesterday were indulging in binge-politicking. This involves raising a series of in-jokes and obscure political points mixed in with local issues until we all drop to the ground from exhaustion. At least Kirsty Williams' intervention was in keeping with the alcohol-related theme of the day, even if she wanted to save the last pub in the village rather than get it to call last orders earlier:

Kirsty Williams: You may or may not be aware of the case of the Old Barn Inn in Three Cocks, which developers wished to knock down in order to build houses on the site. Powys County Council twice objected to and turned down those proposals, believing that the last pub in the village was an important rural facility. Despite that, the applicant went to appeal and the planning inspectorate found in his favour and gave him permission to knock down the pub. Luckily, the applicant has subsequently sold the pub and it will survive. However, do you not believe that a village pub is an important facility in many rural communities, and planning policy should reflect that?

Rhodri Morgan was very supportive, as well he should be. After all it is not often you get to call into a pub on official business:

The First Minister: I will call in there the next time I am in Three Cocks. That is the key to it. I would not put a pub above the village school or the village post office, but if there were a four-legged stool here, it would be made up of a church or chapel, a pub, a post office and a village school. Not every community will be able to sustain all four, but the more new housing that you direct into settlements, clearly, the better off you are.

The one thing that many Assembly Members are getting tired of is being lectured by Ministers on how all their decisions are evidence-based. A lot of us groan outwardly whenever we are told that "I am an evidence-based Minister" to justify why he or she cannot do something or to support a decision, especially when the subsequent action does not appear to substantiate the claim. This exchange was typically of the genre:

Laura Anne Jones: You are on record as saying that bad pupil behaviour and discipline are not a problem in Wales. However, every day, teachers are verbally or physically abused, pupils are bullied and there is destruction across classrooms in Wales. The measures that you have stated are not strong enough. What are you doing to protect teachers, pupils and education in Wales? It is a huge problem—I know it, and unions, parents, teachers and pupils across Wales know it. Why do you not know it?

Jane Davidson: It is because I work on the basis of evidence, Laura. From looking at the work of schools in Wales, and in my regular discussions with the unions, I know that there are issues around pupil behaviour, which is why we issued a consultation on inclusion and pupil support at the beginning of May this year. I recommend that you read that document. The final guidance document will be produced in spring 2006. I have already indicated that I am happy to look at the ‘Learning Behaviour’ report, which I also recommend that you read, and which was published alongside the White Paper in England. We will look at the issues to be incorporated into legislation through the new Education Bill. I have already indicated both in committee and publicly that we will look with interest at legislative proposals in this context.

William Graham: In my respectful submission for evidence, would you consider this? In 2003-04, 16,950 pupils were suspended from Welsh schools, which equates to 87 pupils a day, yet you say that discipline is not a problem in schools. Surely it is your attitude that has contributed to the disasters that we have heard about in recent attacks in schools.

A member of the opposition submitting evidence, it was bound to happen eventually. Still at least William Graham has a good command of plain English. That could not be said about the 14-19 Learning Pathways report that was published yesterday. A number of members, including myself, commented on the fact that this report was stuffed full of jargon. One member however decided that the point needed to be driven home:

Mark Isherwood......The report concluded that the 14-19 agenda is not being addressed by the Welsh Assembly Government, which has instead taken a long and expensive time to regurgitate what people already know and to confirm what was said in its previous report, four years earlier. If Wales is to achieve growth and close the prosperity gap, our education system must stop betraying this lost generation. Even the areas of Wales that boast of low unemployment, such as Flintshire and Wrexham, suffer from high economic inactivity among the young. Eighty per cent of applicants for the Airbus apprenticeship scheme fail their basic literacy and numeracy tests. However, rather than tackle this, we are presented today with a list of recommendations that suggest that Sir Humphrey fathered a brood of Welsh children who are now alive and well and working for the Welsh Assembly Government.

What, for instance, does the section on transparency and strategic continuity of funding actually mean? Is it just another attempt to conceal the fact that, once again, the Welsh Assembly Government is putting policy before planning, procedure and pricing—and clear red water between Labour in London and Rhodri in Cardiff?

To be lectured by Mark Ishwerwood on the art of clear and simple language is a bit rich especially as the lecture itself did not achieve those standards. Even the Education Minister looked shocked.

UFO spotting

The Western Mail reports that dozens of UFOs that the Ministry of Defence cannot explain have been sighted in Wales and a lot of these have been seen above Swansea. Rumours that these unexplained objectives are in fact a series of kites being flown by the University management team cannot be confirmed or denied.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Top three

This is really turning into a day of lists. As the Cardiff film festival is on at the moment Wales' top politicians have been invited to list their favourite film. Accordingly, Labour First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, Welsh Tory Leader, Nick Bourne, Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, Mike German and Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis-Thomas will be special guests at 8.30pm tonight at Cineworld to explain their choices.

Of the four films I have to confess that I have only seen one all the way through. I have only ever caught the end of Nick Bourne's choice of Casablanca on television and really must find time to sit down and watch the whole thing. I meant to catch 'The Thin Red Line' when it was in the cinema but didn't get the chance in the end. Nevertheless it is the worthy choice of Dafydd Elis-Thomas. I can heartily recommend Rhodri Morgan's choice of 'Rabbit Proof Fence' but I have never seen 'The Third Man', picked by Mike German. For the record my top film is 'Cabaret' but then I was never asked.

Following on from these revelations, Mick Bates and Lorraine Barrett have published their book of AM's top tunes. There are some interesting choices in there including the First Minister opting for 'I tort I saw a puddy tat cweeping up on me' by Mel Blanc and Nick Bourne putting Carly Simon's 'You're so vain' as his number one. However, if I tell you anymore then you will not want to contact BBC Wales to part with your money and as all the proceeds go to children in need that would be unkind.

The BBC though have an interesting round-up, featuring their political pop honours:

The Non-Partisan Award: Conservative Glyn Davies, who picks Yma o Hyd by Plaid Cymru president Dafydd Iwan - even if he does spoil it slightly by adding: "He's a good singer and should concentrate on what he's good at!"

The Partisan It's My Party and I'll Make a Political Point if I Want to Award, Pt One: Plaid Cymru's Dai Lloyd and Janet Davies, who each choose three Dafydd Iwan songs. Runners-up: Plaid's Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Owen John Thomas (one Dafydd Iwan song each)

The Partisan It's My Party etc... Award, Pt Two: Labour's Ann Jones (Things Can Only Get Better - "reminder of the 1997 general election" and The Internationale - "reminds me of why we should all be socialists"). Runner-up: Labour's John Griffiths (The Internationale - "song of international socialism".

The Punk's Not Dead Award: Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood, who was once thrown out of the assembly chamber for calling the Queen "Mrs Windsor," picks God Save the Queen, by the Sex Pistols.

The Refreshing Honesty Award: Conservative Mark Isherwood, whose selection includes "A Welsh folk song - I always sing it when I'm drunk which is why I can't remember the title!"

Clear red water?

The attack by Rhondda MP, Chris Bryant, on the Labour Assembly Government this morning was predictable but unexpected. Mr. Bryant wants the First Minister to adopt more of the "choice" agenda in health and education favoured for England by Prime Minister Tony Blair. He believes that unless this is done then his constituents will suffer from inferior services. The evidence for this view is uncertain to say the least and there are indications that this approach is not favoured by the Welsh electorate, but he is entitled to his point of view.

Chris Bryant's pamphlet will make interesting reading, however, it shows that many Labour MPs still have problems grasping what devolution is all about. Given that the privatising agenda that Chris Bryant wants the Welsh Assembly to adopt is only being championed here by the Welsh Conservative Group, then the solution seems obvious. At the next Assembly elections he should vote with his conscience and put his cross next to the name of his local Tory candidate.

Monday, November 14, 2005

University for sale?

The South Wales Evening Post has followed up Saturday's story about the possibility of Swansea University moving to Llanelli with speculation that the students' village in Killay will be sold off for £25 million. They say that cash is urgently needed to fund the college's academic expansion plans and yet tehir previous story concentrated on the £32m cost of maintaining and replacing clapped-out 1960s buildings on the main campus. Somebody needs to make up their mind.

The strange thing about all of this press speculation is that it appears to have been fanned by the previously publicity-adverse management team without any reference whatsoever to the College's ruling Council. The consultant's report that mooted these radical changes has not been put before the College Council nor have we yet received a copy of it. Mushroom management is one thing but when the governors have to rely on the local press to find out what is going on then you wonder who really is in charge.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

A question of identity

The Observer reports that the Prime Minister's next crisis will be over identity cards. It seems that when the Bill gets to the House of Lords this week peers will seek to render the scheme toothless by blocking plans to make the cards compulsory for every citizen and sabotaging the requirement to make Britons store their personal details on a national register, which would underpin the cards.

Rebel Tory and Liberal Democrat peers are expected to win a vote on amendments which would allow a vote in both houses before every citizen could be forced to have a card. This would make it far more difficult for the government to move from a voluntary scheme to a compulsory one - and easier for any future administration, whether led by the Tories or by Gordon Brown, to abandon the plans.

Doubts are also being raised about the overall cost of the scheme. Following a briefing from Home Office minister Andy Burnham last week, experts at the London School of Economics now predict the final cost to the taxpayer could reach £40 billion. They said the government's own estimate of the cost of the scheme - £5.8bn - excluded the cost of rolling the scheme out across government departments and public bodies.

In a letter to Burnham seen by The Observer, Professor Ian Angell, the convenor of the LSE's expert panel, states: 'We now understand that the projected cost ... applies only to the costs incurred by the Home Office.'

The LSE's previous estimate of the cost of ID cards back in June was £19 billion, three times the £6 billion predicted by the Government. On a self-financing basis that would make the cost of acquiring an I.D. card something in the region of £300. On their latest estimate the cost of an individual I.D. card could be as much as £600.

It is true of course that the Government has said that what the ordinary citizen pays for an I.D. card will be capped but can even they justify spending £40 billion on this scheme, roughly equivalent to 13.5p on the standard rate of income tax?


Britblog round-up

Tim Worstall has published his 39th round-up of the best of British blogging. Read it here.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Southend 1 Swansea 2


Tube tips for women

This morning's Guardian highlights a fairly patronising piece of literature from Transport for London designed to help women get the best out of journeys on the Tube.

Now I hold a fairly controversial view that despite the shortcomings of their transport system most Londoners do not appreciate what they have got. It is true that the tube network can do with substantial investment but even with all the problems of breakdowns, bomb alerts and overcrowding the benefits of regular and fairly frequent trains combined with a substantial bus service can not be bettered in most of the rest of Britain.

Nevertheless, Zoe Williams does have a point when she objects to the sheer offensive of this TfL leaflet:

The offensive bit is the stuff surrounding it, divided by bullet points in the shape of lipsticks, covered in swirling graphics to recreate the atmosphere of a tube map, in pretty pinks and purples. Apparently, it was written "by women for women" - before I even got to the words, I was irritated by this. I don't even think it's acceptable to address teenagers in pink and lipstick, but at the very least patronise teenage boys to the same degree with graphic footballs and hamburgers and other reductive, I'm-just-stomach-and-ball-games imagery. Nobody, not in a million years, would talk to a cross-section of adult males like that.

Wait for their top tips - "Carry a snack like a cereal bar with you" say these "women". (Who are they? Why do we need a cereal bar? Might our blood sugar levels plummet because our corsets are too tight? Is it because of the silly faddy diets we're all on?) "If anyone makes you feel uncomfortable, hop off and get in the next carriage." (Hop? Is it touchy to point out that the only people who are ever instructed to "hop" or, for that matter, "pop" are those considered, usually by medical support staff, to be mentally subnormal?) "Want to meet in a more glamorous location than the tube station? Tubeguru lists bars..." (Why, thank you kindly. Delicate lady sensibilities find it hard to negotiate the ugly functionality of the tube interior. We like pretty drinks! Make them pinker! How can we reapply our lipsticks, besides, under ugly fluorescent light? Oh, be still my plunging blood sugar. Where's a cereal bar when I need it?)

We know that it's all too easy for the tube to rock you to sleep... if you think you might nod off, take a cab." (We can file "nod off" with "hop" and "pop"... and, for God's sake, are we now too vulnerable to our untrained physical urges actually to take public transport?) "Things like twisted ankles can be a real pain" (as a non-feminist objection, is that supposed to be some kind of sub-word play?) "so mind your step - especially if you're wearing your party shoes." Party shoes! We might fall off our party shoes! But our mummies will be with us, surely? What if we have a little accident?

I suppose that the leaflets are not widely available in tube stations because they no longer have waste bins in which outraged commuters can deposit them.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Fair comment

Congratulations to Lewisham Lib Dems who have taken on the BNP again and won, this time in the Royal Courts of Justice.

Tess Culnane, the candidate in a by-election in Nov 2002, sued the Liberal Democrats for defamation over an item in an A3 leaflet. Her action was against Mark Morris, the candidate and Vijay Naidu the agent. The offending article read:

Don't be fooled by the BNP

The BNP are keen to persuade local residents that they are a respectable political party who will stand up for your interests. Don't be taken in!

Since the BNP became active in Downham, local people tell us they have felt more intimidated and less safe, particularly at night. There has been an increase in racist graffiti and residents have reported a number of racially motivated attacks on people and their homes. One local resident reported being followed by a gang of youths chanting racial abuse and 'BNP' and having objects thrown at him whilst trying to do his shopping.

The BNP are a blight on our area - and think how much worse it would be if they got elected! Downham would be seen by outsiders as a no-go area and house prices would fall as people would no longer be interested in moving in to our community.

Time after time, respected bodies, such as the BBC, have discovered members of the BNP with links to football hooliganism and other violent activities. And this is a party that claims to want a crackdown on crime!

Facts about the BNP leadership:

Fact: 5 out of the 15 members of the BNP Advisory Council have criminal convictions
Fact: 10 out of 27 BNP regional Party Organisers have criminal convictions.

Their offences include:

A petrol bomb attack. Possession weapons. Possession of drugs. Violent attacks. Public disorder. Criminal damage. Offences under the Explosives Act. Attacking a teacher.

When you go to vote on November 7th, ask yourself - is this the kind of person you want as your elected councillor?

The final sentence was the issue. The jury's verdict was as follows:

1. Yes, the article referred to Tess Culnane.
2. Yes, it was defamatory.
3. It was comment and not fact.
4. It was fair and honest comment ie. Yes it was pretty awful, but it was justified.

There was a separate charge of 'Malice' for Mark Morris, with the allegation that he was reckless in not caring whether or the information in the article was true or not. This was also thrown out. The Liberal Democrats won on all counts and all costs were awarded against Culnane.

An excellent result

The oldest swinger in town

There has been a lot of discussion about the infamous Blackberrys that were issued to each Assembly member. Shortly, after I used mine to blog from the chamber an edict arrived from the Presiding Officer forbidding such activity. This was despite the fact that the PO himself had been observed referring to his device whilst in the chair the previous day.

Dafydd Elis Thomas is fairly computer literate. That is not something that can be said about Mick Bates. Mick is well known for his love of Bob Dylan, his infectious enthusiasm, and for generally being the oldest swinger in town. On Wednesday however, he confessed that his age was catching up with him and that as a result he was having trouble mastering this new-fangled technology:

Mick Bates: No doubt that is welcome. However, I am sure that you are aware that the average age of a councillor is 57 years. Being 58 years of age, I know the challenges that new technology can bring. Just last week, I received a BlackBerry. I was training, and I still have a long way to go before I understand it. Many councillors receive no training at all in new technology. What steps will you take to ensure that councillors in Wales have access to the necessary training, so that they can best serve the communities that have elected them?

Sue Essex: I was not aware that 57 was the great dividing gulf between those who can do and those who cannot; if so, I am in trouble. I have just said that we have a members’ charter. I do not know whether it includes IT, but I suspect that it would—most authorities now include that early on in inductions, but I will make sure and get back to you. If it is BlackBerry tested, I will check that out.

Kirsty Williams on the other hand had much baser matters on her mind. Having suggested only five weeks previously that the Economic Development Minister needs a prescription for viagra before entering negotiations on his department's budget, she was now comparing him to a lovesick teenager:

I note from this statement that you refer to a partnership between yourself and the Ministry of Defence on at least four occasions. In doing so, Andrew, you appear to be almost like a love-sick teenager in the school playground, except that the object of your interest simply is not interested. The MOD is simply not interested in your grand plans for this particular site. You have to take some responsibility for your inability to sell this project to your Westminster colleagues. Time and again, you tell us that this is an example of Labour in Wales working with Labour in Westminster. What happened this time, Minister? You were in the perfect position to safeguard these jobs and to build on them for the future of these communities, but you have not been able to do so.

Later on she abandoned any pretence at subtlety and confessed that he was just one big turn-off:

I hope that you will take away the message that saving energy is the single most important thing that we can do to help Wales. It will reduce bills for pensioners, cut costs for business and public sector operators such as schools and hospitals. If you could convince people to turn off—which perhaps you do every time you get up to speak in the Chamber—that would be the greatest service that you could deliver to Wales.

Andrew Davies is used to insults in the chamber but these are of a wholly different class.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Booby prize

Whilst the House of Lords remains unreformed and its membership determined by Party patronage it's credibility will always be questioned. The latest batch of peers, the names of whom are leaking out at a rate of knots, underlines this point. Amongst them are people who have given hundreds of thousands of pounds between them to the Labour and Conservative Parties. Their peerages undermine the political process.

The other interesting leak is that one of the new Peers is to be Maggie Jones, the woman who lost Labour's safest seat in Wales last May. To be fair it was not entirely her doing. The events leading up to that defeat are well-documented and it is fair to say that the vast majority of the blame for a 19,000 Labour majority becoming a 9,000 margin of victory for Independent, Peter Law, has to lie with the Wales Labour Party. Nevertheless, the enoblement of Maggie Jones does give the impression that her peerage is the booby prize, and what does that say about the House of Lords?

Update: James Graham has an interesting take on Maggie Jones and the Terrorism vote:

Strange bedfellows

The consequences of the Government's defeat on the Anti-Terrorism Bill yesterday are still not clear, particularly with regards to the future of the Prime Minister. It is possible that he will soldier on but the indications are that things are not going to get any easier for him and that in the case of some of his planned reforms on education he will need to rely on Tory votes to get them passed.

I had a look at the list of the 49 Labour MPs who voted against the Government and was surprised to see that it only contained three from Wales - Cardiff North MP, Julie Morgan; Newport West MP, Paul Flynn; and my own MP in Swansea East, Sian James. I was surprised to see that arch-rebel Martin Caton, the MP for Gower, was not amongst them but found him eventually amongst the list of MPs who did not vote. An indication of how badly Tony Blair has done in making his case for the 90 day detention period was that amongst those in the No lobby was that notorious anti-terrorist MP, Ian Paisley. If the Prime Minister could not convince Ian Paisley to vote with him on this issue then maybe he should resign.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Last orders

The weekly Business statement is an opportunity for a member of each party to stand up and reel off a list of issues that they want to see come before us over the next three weeks. Since the Government lost its majority they have been quite good in acceding to these demands but occasionally the opposition will force a vote anyway just to remind Labour who is really in charge. When the Business statement is voted down then the Business Minister is obliged to come back with a new one, often taking account of the objections that led to the vote in the first place.

Yesterday was one of those occasions when there was no challenge. This was more through chance than judgement as the Tories were keen to get on their feet and have a go at the Government. Unfortunately for them they did not have the support of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru this time and they could not muster the ten members needed to force a vote because Alun Cairns had not got back from a funeral in time.

The issue that was animating the Tories so much was the timetable of committee meetings for next term. After two years of arguing about the three week gap between subject committee meetings imposed by Labour a compromise has been reached. From January these committee meetings will return to fortnightly meetings. The quid quo pro however is that timetabled additional meetings on Thursdays will be abandoned and the membership of the committees will be reduced from ten members to eight.

The effect of these changes is that in reality the number of hours the committees are timetabled to meet will be slightly up and that the present arrangement whereas there are two Plaid Cymru members and two Conservative members on each Committee will also change. Instead each Committee will contain two of one party and one of the other. This means that some opposition members will lose coveted committee places.

The problem facing business managers was how they would decide which Committee has two Conservatives on it and which will have two Plaid Cymru members. Fortunately, the Tories made things easy for them by being as difficult as possible and refusing to engage in the process. As a result the Government gave Plaid Cymru choice and naturally they chose the most prestigious committees to maximise their representation. One of the consequences of this is that the Health Committee, which is chaired by Tory AM, David Melding, will no longer have amongst its membership the Tory health spokesperson, Jonathan Morgan. No wonder they were unhappy.

Because of the Tories self-inflicted inactivity the Business statement passed without incident until that was Labour's Carl Sergeant got to his feet. He ran through a list of issues he wanted the Government to look at mostly of a self-congratulatory nature. However, tucked in there was a demand that Plenary debate the ability of regional members to take part in its proceedings:

Carl Sargeant: Minister, will you consider allocating some time to discuss economic performance in Wales? I bring this to your attention because of the Wales Fast Growth 50 businesses, particularly Edwards Homes Ltd in my constituency, at Connah’s Quay, which came fourth in Wales and first in the north Wales region.

I would also welcome a discussion, as would my colleague, David Melding, on the electoral arrangements of this establishment, following the suggestion about regional Members and their ability to take part in the Chamber. I would welcome a debate on that.

As Carl did not comment further on this we were unable to get to the bottom of this latest development in the Labour backbencher's obsession with list AMs, a category created by a Labour Government. However it is clear that a number of the Labour group have concluded that disenfranchising us is the best way to recreate a Labour majority.

At least one member of the opposition has taken this to heart as later that evening, as I was coming out of the members' tearoom, I found a notice pinned to the first floor noticeboard containing a very heartfelt piece of verse about the matter. I emphasise that the authorship of this unique contribution to the debate has nothing to do with me, however I will not embarrass the person I suspect of writing it by naming him or her here. Needless to say there is one AM who spends a large amount of time in Plenary writing doggerel and that person must be favourite. It is entitled Sargeant Carl's Orders:

Democracy is Dictatorship
Say Sargeant Carl's orders
Notions of fair representation
Must end at our borders

Minorities rule, or else
When they are Labour
All others emasculated
By their despotic sabre

The regionally elected
Must be selected out
And silenced in debate
By the dogmatically devout

I am sure you will all recognise the style. There is definitely a bit of 'four legs good, two legs better' about it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Room with a view

I believe that I have read comment elsewhere on the so-called proposal to put houses in England with a good view into a higher council tax band, but I cannot recall where at the moment. Nevertheless the reaction of the Tories here contains all the hallmark of the opportunism and inconsistency for which they are becoming known.

They are now claiming that this is a modern day window tax but what did they expect when they introduced Council Tax in the first place? Any property tax has to relate to the value of the land or building that it is levied against. This means that revaluation is inevitable. If you do not have revaluation then it ceases to be a proper property tax. Equally, when you value a property you need to take into account its location and its aspect. That is what a prospective purchaser will do and in a free market it is demand that determines the value.

Ever since revaluation came onto the agenda the Tories have been ducking and diving to find a line which blames the Government for the level of the tax whilst not undermining the principles behind it. As a result they have been both dishonest and disingenuous. It is all very well to say, as they have done in Wales, that the Government have used the revaluation to hide huge hikes in Council Tax, but in fact they are separate issues. Whereas the revaluation was a consequence of the Tories introducing the tax in the first place, so the high levels of tax can be attributed to the gearing effect caused when the Tories took business rates off local government.

Both Labour and the Tories need to accept that the problem is not caused by changes to the way Council Tax operates but to the principles on which the tax operates. Any property tax is going to be full of such anomolies. It is intrinsically a regressive tax. The only solution is to replace it with one that relates to the ability to pay. At least then the basic principle behind it will be fairness, a concept that is long overdue in local Government finance.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Blogging in print

Tim Worstall has asked me to plug his forthcoming book containing the best of British blogging, which comes out in two weeks time. I am happy to do so as I understand that it contains one of my entries. To order the book go here.

Oh and while you are at it check this out - a wikipedia for blogs.

Ferrets in need

This is a big issue in the North West of England and Portugal it seems:

7 November 2005

A bid by a North West Euro-MP to allow British ferret owners to take theirpets to Portugal has failed.

Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies was asked to take up the case 2 years ago when it became clear that the new EU pets' passport scheme would apply to ferrets as well as to cats and dogs.
Ferret owners here in the North West expressed concern that in Portugal ferrets are not regarded as domestic animals and it is illegal to keep them as pets. The animals can be used only for hunting purposes and must have a government permit.

Mr Davies was asked to warn British ferret owners that their animals couldbe seized and killed if they make the mistake of taking them on holiday to Portugal.

In a letter shown to the MEP a distraught Portuguese ferret owner, who keeps pet ferrets in secret, wrote: “We still live in the shadow and every time I see a police car parked near my house I think, this is it, they are coming for my ferrets.”

Mr Davies called on the Portuguese government to change its rules and giveferret fanciers in the country the same rights as elsewhere in Europe. Heasked the European Parliament’s petition’s committee to judge whether thePortugal was breaking the rules of the pets’ passport scheme.
But now the Parliament has ruled against the claim that the country islimiting the free movement of pets across the EU. It says that Portugal is within its rights to maintain that ferrets cannot be ‘pets’ in that country.

Mr Davies described the ruling as a massive blow to Portuguese ferret owners.

He said: "I accept that the EU should only get involved in matters of cross border importance but if there was any scientific justification for banning the keeping of ferrets other countries would have done the same long ago.”

The MEP’s call for free movement of ferrets had the backing of North Westanimal rescue charity 'Ferrets in Need'. Their spokesperson, Ruth Corbett, was frustrated to hear of the news.
She said: “I can honestly say that I am disappointed that people cannottravel with their ferrets to Portugal. I visited Lisbon a few years ago onbusiness and thought that Portugal was a place where I would really like to live, but with 14 ferretty friends that would be impossible.”

There are thought to be only about 300 people discretely keeping pet ferrets in Portugal compared to an estimated 1 million in Britain. The Pet Passport scheme builds on British practice to end quarantine arrangements across Europe for pets that have been vaccinated against rabies.

Our survey says...

Whilst the Western Mail reported this morning that more than one in three children (36%) could not correctly identify the main ingredient of chips as potatoes and 37% failed to identify that cheese was mostly made of milk, the Welsh Conservatives faced their own ignorance barrier. The question posed by the Chair of Newport West Conservatives, was "who is Nick Bourne?".

David Fouweather, who is also a City Councillor, called on the Welsh Tory Assembly Leader to offer himself for re-election to that post.

Mr Bourne, a former law professor and deputy principal of Swansea Institute, became leader of the Tories' now 11-strong National Assembly group after the previous leader, Rod Richards, stepped down after being charged with assaulting a woman. He was later acquitted.

Yesterday, Mr Richards claimed he had only intended to relinquish the post on a temporary basis.

"When I was found not guilty, Bourne should have offered to submit himself for election and given me the chance to stand against him," he said. "Instead he clung on to the leadership. I was advised at the time that I would have good grounds to mount a legal challenge, but I had other things on my mind."

Mr Richards, who had defeated Mr Bourne 2-1 in an earlier members' ballot for the leadership of the party in Wales, was later expelled from the Assembly group, resigning as an AM shortly before being declared bankrupt.

Mr Fouweather, a Newport councillor, said, "Nick Bourne has never been endorsed by the party membership in Wales as leader. I don't think he should have just taken over when Rod Richards stepped down. Party members should now have the opportunity to decide whether they want him to carry on, or whether they want someone else to have a chance.

If by now you are wondering why Nick Bourne would even want to contemplate leading this disparate group of malcontents then you are not alone. The real problem however turns out not just to be Nick Bourne but the Welsh Assembly itself:

"I think it is time for someone else to take over the leadership. I don't think Nick Bourne has any popular appeal. He's not Welsh. People talk about Rhodri Morgan, they even talk about Mike German, but they don't talk about Nick Bourne. He seems to be spending his time making deals to defeat Labour with the other opposition leaders, but he doesn't push for what a lot of people want, a referendum where people would have an option to scrap the Assembly."

Quite how a bias against Nick for not being Welsh fits in with a desire to submit Wales to English rule again defeats me.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The day Blair abolished elections

With thanks to Nick Barlow. It is a spoof but it is a very effective one:

Mr Blair said that the police had advised him that elections would be dangerous. "They would divert attention from the war on terror", he said. "If the public chose a new government, that would be a victory for terrorism. We must not take that chance. Holding elections would be contrary to the strong advice given to us by our security services and our police, and I am simply not prepared to do it."

Of course when Labour seek to promote their agenda with dodgy questionaires such as this then it is clear that they are capable of anything. Questions such as "Do you think police should have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists?" are so open-ended and subject to many interpretations that you just know that they are going to use the results to support measures that they haven't asked about. As Lynne Featherstone says, the obvious answer to the question is 'yes' but that does not necessarily mean that we will support 90 days detention without trial. It would be far more honest if they just asked about the specific measures in the Bill.

Update: Recess Monkey says that the Labour website questionaire is a perfect example of 'astroturfing', the art of generating a fake grassroots campaign. He suggest some questions that didn't quite make the cut:

1. "Do you think the police should unlimited powers to make sure the enemies of the civilised west can't eat your babies?"
2. "Do you think the Home Secretary should have the power to keep baby eaters and suspected baby eaters in prison as long as he likes?"
3. "Do you think any MP who votes against the Baby Eaters Bill should be detained indefinitely for incitement to baby eating?"

His destiny in his own hands

Simon Jenkins in this morning's Sunday Times outlines the reasons why Tony Blair will stay Prime Minister until the very last minute:

For a healthy prime minister to resign early in a parliament with no pressing engagement in the offing would be astonishing. Blair has not only announced his determination to stay but has set out the business that remains to be completed. To leave it unfinished on his desk would be more than a U-turn, it would be an admission of failure, a humiliation. The flurry of new Blair biographies in the bookshops this Christmas (the best from Peter Riddell and Anthony Seldon) all say the same. Blair regards his legacy as incomplete, his vocation unfulfilled. The symphony has yet to move from andante to allegro, let alone to coda.

In other words it is hard to envisage circumstances in which Blair voluntarily steps down from office in the near future. He may be careless of the careers of his colleagues but even the most virulent press frenzy is unlikely to budge him. This means that if Blair is to go and Brown assume the crown, he will have to be pushed.

This is as implausible as voluntary resignation. Labour leaders are near impregnable in office. Unlike the Tories, the party has no tradition of ruthlessness towards its leaders. None has been toppled or even formally challenged in half a century.

This analysis very much echoes my own last Sunday. The way that Tony Blair has reformed the constitution of the Labour Party and his own Parliamentary Party effectively leaves him unchallengeable. What is most interesting about Simon Jenkins' piece however is his analysis of political accountability:

Britain’s political ethos is wholly eccentric. A minister may take Britain to war on a lie, blow billions on health computers and tax credits, waste grotesque sums on ID cards and Eurofighters. For all this he may walk down Whitehall with his head held high. But if he fails to declare a mortgage loan or a two-bit consultancy the Furies descend in synthetic rage and drive him from office. Cause a fatal pile-up on the M1 and you may leave your insurer’s name; stop one minute on a yellow line and you are in the slammer.

Last week’s events showed yet again the poverty of British democratic accountability. The cliché holds that the personal trustworthiness of ministers is the guarantor of their public competence. Private trust is code for public trust. This is humbug. The job of parliament and the press is to scrutinise a minister’s public duties. Their private ones are no collateral. British ministers are nowadays deposed, usually in a theatrical frenzy of pavements and doorways, because the political community has abandoned its day job. It scrutinises the executive by media proxy.

In this I believe that Jenkins is wholly right. All politicians now take their lead from the media, who are able to use the resources and their access to one-on-one scrutiny sessions with Ministers and other politicians to get at the truth and ask the difficult questions in a way that will really bite home. Those resources and that sort of access is not generally available to the opposition in a Parliamentary context. It is the media that builds up the case and creates the climate of no-confidence that tells a politician or his/her party that he/she must go. So it was with Thatcher, with many of John Major's Ministers, with Mandelson and with Blunkett.

I do not think that this is an abrogation of responsibility on the part of politicians. What I do believe is that it is a reflection of the times we live in, where public opinion is formed through an unelected media and led by it. A politician can only ignore that voice for so long before he or she has to accede to it. It underlines the growing strength of the Executive, the weakening of Parliament as a scrutiny body and a reduction in the influence of backbench MPs. All of these factors amount to a decline of the democratic process. Our Parliamentary democracy is in danger of being made redundant by the mass multi-media society we now live in.


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