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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Seagulls and one-legged ducks

One of the joys of First Minister’s question time is the sheer variety of topics covered as members try to pin him down on something, anything of substance. Yesterday was no exception.

Mid and West Wales Conservative, Lisa Francis, was particularly exercised by the subject of rubbish. She had heard that at least half of the Councils in Wales were intending to switch to fortnightly refuse collections and was concerned at the opportunities this would offer to various scavengers:

Lisa Francis: I was concerned by the findings of a BBC Wales survey, which showed that half of the councils in Wales intend to end weekly refuse collections. Recycling is obviously important, but collecting rubbish once every fortnight could pose serious hygiene problems, especially in coastal towns with a preponderance of seagulls, no wheelie-bin provision and many fast-food outlets. What discussions have you had with county councils about the serious hygiene risks posed by leftover commercial waste in our seaside towns?

The Assembly Government has never been accused of seeking to increase the number of seagulls before so this was a first. In some areas it is often horses who scavenge off bin bags, clearly seaside towns have a worse problem.

Kirsty Williams had matters of much weightier concern on her mind. She wanted to be sure that the continuation of European funding benefits East Wales as well as more traditional areas of deprivation. Her key point was that these decisions may well owe more to political patronage than economic reality:

Kirsty Williams:
In your reply to John Griffiths, you recognised the ongoing importance of European funding for parts of south Newport and south Cardiff. Given that average earnings in Powys are £50 per week lower than the Welsh average, do you understand the importance of ongoing European funding for Powys as well? I take it that, in your negotiations with London, you will be lobbying for all of east Wales and will not just try to defend the seats of Labour politicians.

The First Minister was having none of it:

The First Minister: That is a bit over the top, Kirsty. I think that you should have another think about that when you read it in the Record tomorrow. I was answering John Griffiths, and I was referring to the fact that we now have a hard negotiation ahead of us with the Treasury in terms of how much of east Wales follow-on funding we can get. It will not be at all comparable with the £1.3 billion that has come to Wales as a whole for Objective 1, which I am sure you celebrate like everyone else, but it is restricted to two thirds of Wales in geographical area and population coverage. I have emphasised to the Assembly until I am almost blue—not politically, but in the face—how important this negotiation is in getting the additional money for east Wales. It will be for as wide an area as we can get, and it will be for as much as we can get, and we will be in competition with Scotland and England for it.

Meanwhile, Tory leader Nick Bourne was exercised by the mysterious self-correcting Labour website. It seems that the Government have broken or abandoned so many promises that they have sought to hide their 2003 commitments from public view:

The Leader of the Welsh Conservatives (Nick Bourne): The First Minister is on shaky ground when he talks about leaders of parties and trust. I do not need to give him a list of broken pledges, although I am happy to do so if he wants one. Last night, I thought I would look again at the Labour manifesto; I love a good mystery. [Laughter.] On page 4, it says that Labour will scrap homecare charges for disabled people. You have apologised for that, but when you talk about trust and leaders, just remember that cynical breach of faith with a vulnerable group undertaken by the Labour Party in the second Assembly. Let me also raise a matter that was touched on last week. You and the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning said that we were misinterpreting what was promised with regard to free school breakfasts. There is only one reference to it in the manifesto. It says that there will be free breakfasts for all—I emphasise ‘all’—primary school kids. Three per cent are taking advantage of it, while the word ‘all’ appears in the manifesto. Mysteriously, the Labour Party’s 10 top commitments have disappeared from the website. Perhaps the First Minister would like to tell us why. [Laughter.]

I raised the issue of Labour’s pledge to get all school buildings fit for purpose by 2010 and was astonished to find the First Minister blaming local Councils for the fact that they will fail to meet this target. After all they made the promise in the full knowledge that it will be up to local government to deliver on it. The First Minister was also being a little misleading in failing to point out that lack of government funding is a key factor and that the school improvement grant has been cut by more than third next year.

The last word however must lie with the First Minister:

I think that Elin Jones made the point that that £450 million could have gone on health or anything else, but obviously the issue is that if you had another £450 million from somewhere else, you have got another £450 million, but what does that tell you? That is like saying, if my aunty was a bloke, she would be my uncle.

Equally, if his aunt was a one-legged duck, then she would be going round in circles. Rather like this government in fact.
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