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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

100 reasons to love the Welsh Assembly

It is no wonder that Welsh Assembly Tory Leader, Nick Bourne, has become a convert to full law-making powers for Wales. He has obviously been reading the website of my friend Aled Edwards.

Aled has long been an enthusiast for devolution and has done a fantastic job in selling its benefits to a wider audience. He has now published 'Welsh Devolution's 100 main achievements' . These include a greater redistribution of wealth, a children's commissioner, considerable advantages for Welsh students, free travel and swimming for pensioners, the Wales Millennium Centre, Iaith Pawb, the Ryder Cup, a smoke free Wales, free admission to Welsh museums, leading the way on digital hearing aids and of course, rekindled links with Patagonia.

Read the list. It will take your breath away. And what better time to publish it, on the eve of the opening of the Senedd on St. David's Day? Now, Aled, could you do something to improve the performance of the Welsh Rugby team as well?

Blondes not welcome here

The Western Mail reports that the days of the blonde are numbered. According to scientists, within 200 years the image of a natural blonde bombshell could be a thing of the past, as a genetic quirk means fewer and fewer are being born. The last blonde is predicted to be born in 2200 Finland, the country with the highest proportion of blondes.

Apparently, the blonde gene is regressive, which explains a great deal. Let us hope that us redheads (or strawberry blondes as some of us prefer to be called) will survive this evolutionary cull.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Power to the people

On the basis that there should be great rejoicing at a sinner repenting and entering the gates of heaven then today's conversion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reducing the voting age to 16 and local empowerment must be welcome.

He says the executive must give up power, and again backs changes to the unelected House of Lords. Labour dropped the idea of voting at 16 after the proposal was rejected by the Electoral Commission, but Mr Brown's aides say the chancellor is in favour, so long as it is part of a package of "citizenship education" in schools.

The chancellor's ideas were inspired by a tour of Britain in which he claims to have discovered "a new country being born". "We must address what today holds Britain back - low turnouts, youth disengagement, falling party membership and a long-term decline in trust - problems that owe more to our political system than our civic culture," he says.

Those of us who have been campaigning for these reforms all our political life however need to note the caveats, a sign that when it comes to actually legislating for change the Government is likely to back off. Mr. Brown is in favour of enfranchising 16 and 17 year olds only if he can be convinced that they understand what they are voting for.

I have news for him, disinterest, apathy and incomprehension is not age specific. The point is that we have to trust people to vote for their own reasons, to let them learn how to use power in their own way and to let them come to their own understanding of the political system and those who inhabit it. That is real empowerment. We should not go down the route of introducing a political diploma as a gateway to voting.

Secondly, the Chancellor is right that there is disengagement and distrust of politicians. I have speculated before that these trends took a sharp upward turn around the time that Parliament began live television broadcasts and people saw MPs at work for the first time, however there is of course much more to it than this.

Liberal Democrats always face a danger that their advocacy of electoral reform can be viewed as a panacea that will change all the country's ills. Indeed many seem to believe that this is the case. It is not. Nevertheless, the package that the Power Commission has put together is one that will start to address many of the issues that we are concerned with:

· Individual donations to parties to be capped at £10,000, and those from organisations at £100 a member
· First past the post to be replaced with a voting system boosting the chances of small parties and independent candidates
· 70% of members in the House of Lords to be elected. Only over-40s eligible, to ensure they have experience of life outside politics
· Each voter to allocate £3 of public money to a party
· Citizens to gain the right to initiate new laws and public inquiries
· Ministerial meetings with lobbyists and representatives of business to be logged and listed monthly

The proposals on party funding and on lobbyists are extremely important. As a politician I have a deep suspicion of people who hire out their access and knowledge. I believe that others would do well to share that mistrust. Equally, if there is one thing that turns people off, it is the sight of rich people using donations to political parties to obtain influence and peerages. These things need to be regulated but there also needs to be some form of public funding so that parties are less tempted to find loopholes around the regulations.

That the report recognises that first past the post voting for the House of Commons has had its day is welcome, what is not so good is that it does not go so far as to explicitly recommend proportional representation. Gordon Brown it seems, can not even sign up to that compromise. He says Labour must be prepared to reopen the debate on electoral reform for the House of Commons, a proposal he has previously opposed. In other words, make encouraging noises and then shelve the idea altogether. It is no wonder that people are cynical about politicians.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Cajoling turns to threats

Peter Hain's optimism about the four Welsh Police Authorities agreeing to voluntarily 'merge' to form one all-Wales force has now turned to threats. According to the BBC Mr. Hain has asserted that there is now a "danger" of the Welsh police authorities missing out on financial incentives.

Commenting on funding for the mergers, he said: "There is money up front. It has been provided.

"It may even be possible to increase it if there's serious negotiation, but if the authorities sit on their hands and refuse to do anything then the Home Office and the Government is left with no alternative but to legislate.

"I don't think that's in the interests of policing in Wales."

Mr Hain also urged the authorities to negotiate with the government.

He added: "The best way to get the best deal is to go in and negotiate, not to sit back and refuse to do so. So that's my best advice to the police authorities.

The four Police Authorities refused to give up their status voluntarily because they had not had answers to a whole series of complex but vital questions on the proposed merger. They were particularly concerned at the lack of guarantees on funding the cost of setting up the new Police force. All-in-all the deafening silence from the Home Office on these issues seemed to indicate that they were working off the back of an envelope and had not thought through their own proposals.

Now, Peter Hain is effectively saying that police authorities should abandon their responsibilities to Council taxpayers, take a stab in the dark and trust the Government, regardless of the fact that all the evidence indicates that to do so would amount to a dereliction of duty. If they do not play ball and the Government has to legislate then all the money that was supposedly on the table could mysteriously disappear.

If it sounds like a threat and it looks like a threat then it is a threat. Isn't this sort of thing illegal? Should not a nearby Chief Constable be alerted and asked to investigate?

Broken promises?

The whole party is looking forward to next weekend when the new Liberal Democrat leader will address the Federal Party Conference at Harrogate for the first time. But will that individual, whoever it is, start his tenure with a broken promise?

At the Cardiff hustings a few weeks ago, Lembit Öpik asked the last question of all three candidates. Would they give an undertaking, he queried, to attend the Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference on 10th to 12th March in Wrexham and all subsequent spring conferences? Simon Hughes, Chris Huhne and Ming Campbell all answered in the affirmative. In fact all of them expressed surprise that they were even being asked such a question and indicated that they would see it as the duty of the Federal Party Leader to attend all National and Regional Conferences.

I now understand that the Welsh Party has been told by either the Leader's Office or Party HQ that whoever the new Leader is, he will not be able to travel to Wrexham on those dates. We therefore look to the victor to make his first leadership decision and to overrule the bureaucrats on this issue. After all they did promise!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Too close to call?

With only days to go to the close of voting today's Guardian reports that a significant number of Liberal Democrat members have yet to make a choice for any of the three leadership candidates.

Views do not appear to be as polarised as during the previous contest (except amongst bloggers of course) and nobody has a clue who is ahead. An indication is provided in another exit poll of members leaving the London hustings. This gave Chris Huhne (36%) the most first preferences closely followed by Ming Campbell (29%) and Simon Hughes (21%). However, even here there is a sizeable number of undecideds (14%).

It seems that the declaration at 3pm on Thursday will be must-see TV. Shame I will be chairing an Education Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee in the Assembly at the time.

Note: When the Guardian journalist says no central membership data is available she means that it is not available to her, pollsters or indeed, the three candidates.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Lest we forget why we are there

I am told that a senior Welsh Liberal Democrat member went with his family to take a look around the new Senedd building in Cardiff Bay recently.

Being a fan of new architecture and iconic buidlings, he was very impressed, especially by the wonderful view of the water from the inside of the building, and the feeling of space and openness. He was also impressed to receive a cheery 'hello' from none other than the Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas, who happened to be in the entrance, filming with some media outlet or other.

However, things took a turn for the worse when my friend and his family left the building. His three year old daughter saw the red carpet that had been put in place ready for the Queen next week (or was it just a practice?). Not surprisingly, she ran excitedly to try it out. There were no ropes or signs giving the signal to keep off, but the 3 year old was shouted at aggressively by a uniformed Assembly security person (not a police officer, and her parents were given a withering look by a female official.

Perhaps they now wish they had been a little more courteous and considerate with the 3 year old, as my friend was - I hear - robust and to the point in his response: 'If the carpet is good enough for the Queen, its good enough for a citizen of Wales, OK?' The two offiicials just looked sheepish, and had nothing to say - well, there really isn't any answer to that, is there? The atmosphere was rather frosty, to say the least. My friend believes that we have some way to go before we really can boast of a people's Senedd...

Separated at birth...

Party without a name

Plaid Cymru are set to re-launch themselves today by abandoning their "Triban" emblem and colour and adopting the singular name of 'Plaid'. Cymru is of course Welsh for 'Wales'. That has not prevented the party ditching this part of their name.

Is this the first instance of a nationalist party seeking to disassociate themselves from the Country in which they take so much pride in their promotional material?

The Nationalists are now to be known simply as 'Plaid' or 'Party' in English. Presumably, they are hoping that we will identify ourselves with the blandness of this label or at best, confuse them with all the other political parties and cast our vote accordingly.


So the Home Secretary's deadline has arrived and not one of the four Welsh Police Authorities are prepared to voluntarily sign up to his new all-Wales Police force, despite the earlier confidence of Peter Hain.

Charles Clarke is now set to force the merger onto us on Wednesday. I presume that he does not see the irony of a Westminster-based Home Secretary choosing St. David's Day to impose his will on Wales. New Labour do not appear to do irony.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Betting on failure

When it was announced on the radio this morning that builders working on Wembley Stadium are thought to have won thousands of pounds by betting against the venue being ready in time for the FA Cup I thought I had misheard. However, apparently it is true.

Although London's loss is Cardiff's gain surely there must be questions asked as to why exactly work has fallen behind schedule on Wembley once again and whether these particular bets are valid or even ethical.

Fighting for democracy

Research by the Liberal Democrats has revealed that the Government has spent £32m preparing for ID cards before they have even become law. This is despite the fact that the ID Cards Bill is still being scrutinised by Parliament where it has been opposed by Labour rebels, Tories and Liberal Democrats.

In other news the Government is currently piloting the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill through Parliament. As David Howarth MP writes this hides an astonishing proposal. 'It gives ministers power to alter any law passed by Parliament. The only limitations are that new crimes cannot be created if the penalty is greater than two years in prison and that it cannot increase taxation. But any other law can be changed, no matter how important. All ministers will have to do is propose an order, wait a few weeks and, voilà, the law is changed.'

Danny Finkelstein has also written in The Times about this:

In my nightmare, Tony Blair finally decides that he is fed-up with putting Bills before Parliament. He has so much to do and so little time. Don’t you realise how busy he is? He’s had enough of close shaves and of having to cut short trips abroad. He decides to put a Bill to End All Bills before the Commons, one that gives him and his ministers power to introduce and amend any legislation in future without going through all those boring stages in Parliament.

That’s not the end of my feverish fantasy. The new law is proposed and hardly anyone notices. John Redwood complains, of course, and a couple of Liberal Democrats, but by and large it is ignored. The Labour rebels are nowhere to be seen. The business lobby announces that it is about time all those politicians streamlined things, cutting out time-wasting debates. In a half empty Commons chamber, a junior minister puts down any objections with a few partisan wisecracks. Then the Bill to End All Bills is nodded through the Houses of Parliament, taking with it a few hundred years of Parliamentary democracy.

Both the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill and the expenditure of vast sums of money on a measure that has not yet been approved by Parliament are related. They add up to a contempt for the Parliamentary process from Ministers who are fed up of losing the argument. It is a step towards this Country being run by Executive powers from a government that is already guilty of playing fast and loose with the democratic process. It is something that we should resist with every fibre of our being.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

In the Guardian

I was quite shocked this morning on turning to page six of the G2 section of the Guardian to see myself centre stage of a large photograph spread over two pages. The photograph illustrates a piece by John Harris on the Liberal Democrat leadership contest.

Although the caption claims that the photograph is of Simon Hughes addressing party members in Port Talbot, it is actually a press conference in Swansea. I am sitting at the top table with Simon and his National Agent, Swansea Liberal Democrat Chris Davies. Obviously, the sub-editor had problems distinguishing between population centres once he or she got over the Severn Bridge.

More interestingly (depending on your persepective) is this Guardian article on e-democracy. I was quite taken by the conclusion:

A new study, Political Blogs - Craze or Convention? published by the Hansard Society charity, says that blogs are a potent new force, but advises politicians not to get carried away. "Politicians, who are used to shouting through megaphones and broadcasting through microphones, will not find it easy to adjust to a communicative ecology where the stage belongs to everybody," it warns.

"The problem facing politicians who blog is that they are professionally implicated in the very culture that blogging seeks to transcend," says the report. "Blogging politicians are always going to be seen as a little bit like those old Communist apparatchiks who had to sit in the front row at rock concerts and pretend to swing to the beat."

I think that this is a cynical view of blogging politicians, many of whom are entirely comfortable with the medium, the technology and with other bloggers. Still, I can think of some who that caricature might fit.

The 'Mrs Windsor' demo

When the Queen officially opened the second Assembly back in May 2003, arch-republican Leanne Wood stayed at home and worked. I can even recall the photo-call as journalists interviewed her on what looked like her patio. Next week however, when the Queen is back to officially open the new Assembly building, Leanne is going to be in Cardiff.

According to the Guardian's Backbencher column she and her friends will be gathering at 10am to 'protest "Mrs Windsor's" official opening of the Welsh Assembly'. This is confirmed by her own website on which she states:

We may not be able to stop Mrs Windsor opening Wales’ new symbol of openness and transparency, but we can make it clear we are not happy. Campaigners calling for real openness and accountability and for the Assembly to be given the powers to address Wales’ problems will be demonstrating outside the new Assembly building on the morning of March 1st. For more information contact cardiffsocialforum@yahoo.co.uk.

Now that should be worth watching.

The royal dissident

This morning's Guardian reports that Prince Charles regards himself as a "dissident working against the prevailing political consensus", who scatters furious letters to ministers on contentious issues and denounces elected leaders of other countries.

The views and practices of the heir to the throne were detailed in a remarkable witness statement by his former deputy private secretary and spin doctor, Mark Bolland, who claimed the prince routinely meddled in political issues and wrote sometimes in extreme terms to ministers, MPs and others in positions of political power and influence.

The question is whether Charles should be at liberty to use his influence in this way. As an unelected member of the so-called 'ruling class' he can hardly claim that his views have any legitimacy or that they are representative of ordinary people.

Often the poltical consensus exists because it commands majority support. If the Prince of Wales cannot demonstrate that he too has popular backing for his views then he should stop abusing his position in this way. In other words, stand for election or shut-up!

Merge in haste, repent at leisure

Further to my post yesterday on Peter Hain's over-confidence that he can conclude the process of agreeing a single all-Wales Police force by Friday, the House of Commons Welsh affairs committee has now got in on the act.

They have accused the UK Government of adopting a "one-size-fits-all" approach to merging Wales' four police forces and they say that Welsh Secretary Peter Hain has damaged the consultation process by saying he approved of an all-Wales option before the evidence had been collated. This is a particularly damning verdict considering the Committee is chaired by a Labour MP and has a Labour majority.

Meanwhile, opposition politicians in Westminster and in Cardiff Bay have warned the merger could mean higher taxes. A leaked Welsh Assembly Government estimate last week said the cost to council taxpayers in the South Wales Police area could increase by 17% under a single force. There have also been fears that resources will diverted away from the north and rural areas and given instead to towns and cities in the south.

Although Peter Hain accepted that some of the criticisms in this report were valid in his Radio Wales interview this morning, he was nevertheless, unrepentant. At one stage he even said that he did not believe that a proper three month consultation period would make any difference as the Government would still have gone ahead with the merger on their terms. This is not leadership, it is arrogance.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A question of language

It is not often that I am surprised by a political interview but Wyn Roberts' revelations in this morning's Western Mail have startled me somewhat. Lord Roberts of Conwy, as he now is, served as the Conservatives' Welsh Minister of State under four Secretaries of State for Wales between 1987 and 1994. He is now saying that the reason he was never given the top job was due to the fact that he was a Welsh speaker:

Giving his own perspective on the situation to ITV1Wales' Waterfront programme, he said, "If a person speaks a language that you don't know and so on, it does tend to segregate him."

Normally, the complaint is that people have been passed over for a job because they cannot speak Welsh, but if the Tories were really as paranoid as this statement indicates then it is no wonder that they have been out of the reckoning in Wales for so long.

Personally, I always thought that Wyn Roberts was passed over for Secretary of State for Wales because he was not Cabinet material, but what do I know?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Policing the Police

North Wales Police Authority has rejected the Government's plans for a single all-Wales police force. South Wales, Gwent and Dyfed Powys are due to follow suit. Yet Peter Hain is adamant that a deal will be reached by Friday.

Either he knows something we don't or he is seriously deluding himself. If the Government wants this merger then they are going to have to force it upon the four police authorities and pray that the subsequent hike in Council Tax does not undermine the whole project. This is a no-win situation for the Labour Government and the Secretary of State for Wales knows it.

Parking for free

The Assembly Parliamentary Service and the House Committee have been wrestling with the problem of staff car parking for years now. The issue is that we do not have enough car parking spaces down Cardiff Bay, whilst those we are using are under threat of being developed in the near future. We also have a duty to sustainable development, which means that we should be encouraging staff to use public transport. Unfortunately, although they are improving the trains and buses running to and from the Assembly are not always available when they are needed.

We have looked at introducing car parking charges for staff but so far have not gone down that route. There have been other considerations as well such as the retention of staff. One of the reasons why the Assembly Parliamentary Service budget has been underspent for years now is because we have not been able to fill all the vacancies.

Now however, the Welsh Assembly Government has grasped the nettle and told civil servants working in their building in Cathays Park that they will have to pay £12 a week to park their cars under the old Welsh Office building where they work:

Furious civil servants are threatening to withdraw all "goodwill" from Assembly bosses after being told they will have to pay £12 a week to park their cars under the old Welsh Office in Cathays Park, Cardiff. The car park, with 400 spaces, has been free since the building went up in 1979.

If staff goodwill is withdrawn, it will be difficult to implement the merger of three major quangos with the Assembly Government. The WDA, Wales Tourist Board and the training body Elwa. It will also jeopardise plans to relocate staff to new Assembly Government offices in Aberystwyth and Llandudno.

On Wednesday, members of the PCS union employed by the Assembly Government in Cathays Park meet to discuss a hard-hitting motion, which deplores the plan to impose the charge from May despite a petition by 1,150 staff.

The motion says, "Imposing charges will be detrimental and unfair on staff based at Cathays Park, since there are no immediate plans to introduce charging elsewhere. Charging will not apply to Assembly Members or Ministers.

"Our lowest paid members will find it particularly difficult to afford the charges. At £2.40 per day it would work out at £528 per year, which is 4% of the salary of those at the minimum of the Team Support grade.

"While supporting the Assembly Government's Green Travel aims, this meeting believes that these can be better met by initiatives such as giving more incentives to car-sharing, increasing financial assistance to improving public transport, and pursuing park and ride facilities with Cardiff City Council and other major employers."

What has particularly riled staff is that Assembly Members and Ministers will continue to be able to park for free. Although there are only three or four spaces at Cathays Park where AMs can leave their cars, and many do not go there anyway, it does seem to me that staff have a point. If we are serious about penalising car use then we cannot exempt ourselves from this new regime.

Ordinary Assembly Members will not have much say in what is being proposed for Cathays Park. It is a government decision. However, there does need to be a serious re-think if AMs and Ministers are to be treated differently from those who work for them.

Quail Hunt

For those struggling to understand how Dick Cheney missed the quail and shot his friend instead then you may wish to try this little game. Personally, I thought it a bit harsh that he should be hunting Dan Quail. Was it the failure to spell of potato correctly that did it?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

More revolting Tories

The Observer carries more news of how the Conservative Party is drifting towards open revolt over David Cameron's opportunistic plans to run to centre ground and rebrand them as liberal. They report that a wealthy Tory donor is to cancel a pledge of £250,000 amid growing unrest on the right of the party.

The protest by the unnamed industrialist was revealed to The Observer last night by one of a number of party backers with whom he discussed his move. The colleague said it reflected 'concern and unhappiness' over Cameron's policy shifts in a number of areas, including a downgrading of the party's commitment to reduce taxes and the abandonment of long-held Tory positions, including support of business.

Cameron, who is on paternity leave after the birth of his son Arthur Elwen, appears to be enjoying a honeymoon period with the public and the source said most critics felt they should publicly back him. But he added: 'We're in a dilemma. We're Conservatives and we want a Conservative to win. But he is drifting a long way away.'

This week Robin Harris, Margaret Thatcher's former speechwriter who first hired Cameron to work for the Tories, will make public such concerns with a warning that the new direction is being treated with 'thinly disguised contempt' by Tory opinion-formers. In an article in Prospect magazine, he says: 'Above all, he should be having sleepless nights about what he is doing to bedrock Conservative support in the country.'

It is becoming clear quite rapidly that the only way to lead the current Conservative Party is from the right. Any attempt to do otherwise may well come unstuck, as Cameron is finding out.

What's in a name?

This morning's Wales on Sunday reports that Marks and Spencers' has tried to rename the traditional Welsh cake. They have been discovered marketing this Welsh delight as 'Currant Drop Scones'.

When tackled by BBC Wales programme 'X-Ray' a spokesperson said: "Previously, this product was only available in Wales, Scotland and the South West - we wanted to offer this delicious product to our customers throughout the UK and have therefore used the more recognisable name of 'Currant Drop Scone'."

A former National Chef of Wales is quoted in the paper as explaining that the two products are very different. A Welsh cake is made from dough he says, whilst a drop scone is made from batter and is more of a pancake. Marks and Spencer has relented and will be using the correct name from now on. If you see them, buy some. They are delicious.

All this renaming of food products is very topical of course. However, the two most recent examples came about for ideological rather than marketing reasons. The Americans renamed French fries as 'Freedom fries' to protest against French opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Now the Iranians have got in on the act:

Tehran, 7 Feb. (AKI) - Iran has decided to rename Danish pastries "Mohammedan" pastry - a new twist in the crisis which has triggered protest by Muslims throughout the world against cartoons of Mohammed first published in Denmark. The name change recalls when some Americans started calling French fries, "Freedom fries" to protest France's opposition to the United States-led invasion of Iraq.

I suppose renaming Danish pastries avoids the sacrifice of boycotting them altogether, but what a fuss and what does it achieve?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Baiting Tories

For those who joined the Conservatives because they thought they were the natural home of homophobic misongynists, Stephen Crabb MP has some bad news for you. He wants to stop the selection process for Conservative Welsh Assembly list candidates so that they can find more women. If only he could replace all the members as well, he might be getting somewhere close to a real liberal party.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Don't do it Simon!

“Hughes takes off for Wales with Air Lembit”

The Liberal Democrat Leadership campaign lands in Welshpool on Monday when Simon Hughes becomes the latest Liberal Democrat to experience “Air Lembit”.

Lembit Öpik, MP for Montgomeryshire, says “I’ll be flying Simon Hughes from Edinburgh to Welshpool Airport. After landing and talking to the press at the airport, he’ll visit Welshpool’s Livestock Market with Mick Bates AM, and Lib Dem members from around the County. Then it’s on to Sleap Airport, North of Shrewsbury, to meet Liberal Democrats in that area."

Politically correct?

It is not often that the Welsh Assembly makes National UK news but today is an exception. New guidance published by Education Minister, Jane Davidson, has made headlines in all the tabloid press, including the Mirror and the Sun.

CHILDREN are to be BANNED from kissing in school plays.

The barmy new rule could mean productions of classics like Romeo and Juliet being axed because of love scenes vital to the plot.

Education watchdogs said the measure was designed to prevent abuse of pupils.

But teachers and MPs blasted it as yet more daft interference by officials. They said there was no point in staging a romance unless pupils could act the love scenes.

The history behind this new guidance is important. It was drawn up and issued as a direct result of the Clwych report, published by the Welsh Children's Commissioner after an extensive public inquiry. That inquiry looked at the way that a drama teacher in a Welsh school abused his position by forcing children to act out inappropriate dramatic scenes for his own sexual gratification. The report made a number of recommendations including one that called for Government guidance to prevent drama lessons being abused in this way again.

Rather typically, the tabloids have picked up on one point in that guidance and taken it out of context. They have also translated it into their own inimitable language so as to imply that teachers have no discretion in how it is to be applied. Teachers are of course able to apply different interpretations to different age groups in accordance with their professional judgement.

It is worth noting that none of these tabloids covered either the Children's Commissioner's inquiry or the publication of his report. All of them pretend to be very concerned about child abuse and paedophiles, but when it comes to the crunch it seems that they are prepared to allow loopholes in teaching guidance to remain even though such gaps may benefit child abusers.

On a lesser point it is evident that The Sun is still struggling with devolution. Faced with an education story that relates entirely to Wales and which falls wholly within the powers of the Welsh Assembly they automatically go to the English Education Minister for comment and are happy to take her assurances about the curriculum as if they apply to Wales as well, even though she has no say in those matters.

Tories in disarray (again)

David Cameron's new style Conservative Party struck again last night when a Conservative candidate for the 2007 assembly elections who once said gays had a "medical mental condition" quit, a day after being selected.

John Jenkins, 25, blamed "speculation" about the comments on a website three years ago for his decision to resign "in the interests of the party". He was to stand in Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South next year.

As interesting as this decision is, there do remain some unanswered questions that lead me to believe that this 'resignation' had nothing to do with principle and everything to do with avoiding an unpleasant public relations disaster. Firstly, if John Jenkins is so unacceptable in today's Tory Party then why is he allowed to continue as an official Conservative on Carmarthenshire County Council and as Deputy Chair of his regional party organisation? Secondly, why was he approved as a candidate in the first place and allowed to go all the way through shortlisting and ultimately selection?

If David Cameron really wants to send a message about the way he is allegedly changing his party then he needs to address those issues as well. One of the reasons why he will not do so lies in the decision to select John Jenkins. For, despite having full knowledge of his views and his past indiscretion, the Conservative Members of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire still chose him to represent them. Perhaps a more root and branch purge is needed!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Smoking ban revisited

There has been much discussion on other Liberal Democrat blogs about the vote to ban smoking in public places and I have largely abused my position by posting lengthy comments to them. It seemed right therefore to place my latest missive here so that it can be debated.

The caveat here is that what is being proposed for Wales is far better defined and, in my view, more defensible than what was passed in Westminster for England. That is because here we have been very specific that we are intending to pass health and safety legislation that will protect workers and that as such the debate about private clubs, bars etc does not come into it.

Some have argued that lots of people do risky jobs. The Health and Safety Executive they say, seeks to minimise workplace risks, but some are inevitable. And in many cases the risk in a job may be compensated for by differential wages. Surely a better, more liberal approach would be to seek to create a more level playing field where employees have the collective teeth to demand such premiums. If 80% of the potential market wants smoke-free bars and restaurants, this should be incentive enough to provide them, plus a premium wage for people who work in smokey ones to further level the playing field and you've got a properly liberal solution.

I would reply that the difference between us is that I do not believe in applying the employment methods of a 19th century mill-owner to the 21st Century. Yes, a lot of people do risky jobs but the whole point of employment law. health and safety, measures and good practice is to reduce the risk. A work-place smoking ban falls into that category. That is why it is a liberal measure because it has regards to the rights of those least able to resist harm.

At the end of the day you cannot use market forces to either compensate for risk in this field or to mitigate against it. The market reacts completely different in the entertainment and hospitality industry than it does in a north sea oil field. In the latter you have a limited, highly skilled workforce, in the former you have a plentiful supply of largely unskilled people who can quickly be trained up. The only outcome of applying a risk-based minimum wage to bar staff will be to bankrupt businesses. If you expect them to do it voluntarily they will not because they will lose money. The other outcome is that many people who struggle to find other jobs will find that they have to choose between compromising their health or not working. That is not a liberal choice.

Where smoke-free bars have set up they have struggled to compete because non-smokers have chosen to accompany their smoking friends, even though they would prefer to go elsewhere. That is why there is no level playing field. This legislation will enable all businesses to operate on an equal basis.The point is that this is about balance.

I would not propose a total ban because that would outlaw a legal activity that can be carried out in a way that it does not cause a detriment to others. I do however support a workplace ban because I believe that the rights and health of workers who have no real alternative choice need to be protected. I am backing my convictions.

Let us also be clear, this is not about the smell of cigarette smoke, it is about the very harmful carcinogens and toxins that cannot be removed from an atmosphere by ventilation. Do not think that just because the smell of smoke has been minmimised that it is now safe, it is not.As for the claims that there is no proven causal relationship between second hand smoke and ill-health/death, only the tobacco industry is saying this now.

This is (a rather lengthy) extract from the report of the Welsh Assembly Committee set up to look at this issue:

"The Health Risks of Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS)

3.2 Most of the evidence cited to show that ETS is detrimental to health centred on six key documents. The authors of the documents have used evidence from numerous studies that have been peer reviewed and have carried out empirical analyses to show causal evidence of the health impacts. These five studies were produced over a period of six years and their findings each replicate those of the other reports.

3.3 The 1997 report of the California Environmental Protection Agency concluded that there was sufficient weight of evidence of a causal relationship between ETS exposure and developmental problems in babies; sudden infant death syndrome; some respiratory illnesses; lung and nasal sinus cancer; and cardiovascular disease. The report also found suggestive evidence of a causal link with spontaneous abortion, cervical cancer and further respiratory related problems.

3.4 In 1998 the Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health (SCOTH) published a report commissioned by the four UK Health Departments. This concluded that ETS exposure:• is a cause of lung cancer and, in those with long term exposure, the increased risk is in the order of 20-30%;• is a cause of ischaemic heart diseases, and if current published estimates of magnitude of relative risk were validated, such exposure would represent a substantial public health hazard;• is a cause of serious respiratory illness and asthmatic attacks in infants and children when parents smoke in their presence;• is associated with sudden infant death syndrome, the main cause of post-neonatal death in the first year of life. The association is judged to be one of cause and effect; is likely to be a causal association with middle ear disease in children, linked with parental smoking.

3.5 SCOTH issued an update report on 16 November 2004 reviewing evidence since its report of 1998.5 It concluded that knowledge of the hazardous nature of second-hand smoke has consolidated over the previous five years, and that this evidence confirms that second-hand smoke is a serious public health risk.

3.6 In 1999 the World Health Organisation published its conclusions following consultation on environmental tobacco smoke and child health. It found that:ETS is a real and substantial threat to child health, causing death and suffering throughout the world. ETS exposure causes a wide variety of adverse health effects in children, including lower respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis, coughing and wheezing, worsening of asthma, and middle ear disease. Children’s exposure to environmental tobacco smoke may also contribute to cardiovascular disease in adulthood and to neurobehavioural impairment.

3.7 The report also concluded that maternal smoking during pregnancy is a major cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and other well-documented health effects, including reduced birth weight and decreased lung function. In addition, the consultation noted that ETS exposure among non-smoking pregnant women can cause a decrease in birth weight and that infant exposure to ETS may contribute to the risk of SIDS.

3.8 In his report for 2002 the Chief Medical Officer for England included a section on ETS. His introduction to the section stated:

Exposure to other people's cigarette smoke (second-hand smoke, passive smoking, environmental tobacco smoke) can: increase the risk of contracting smoking related diseases such as cancer and heart disease; place extra stress on the heart and affect the body's ability to take in and use oxygen; trigger asthma attacks; increase the chances of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS); and harm children and babies even more than adults.

3.9 In 2002 the British Medical Association’s (BMA) Board of Science and Education published a report in collaboration with the Tobacco Control Resource Centre. The report summarised the scientific and medical knowledge on the nature and scale of the health effects of passive smoking: in adults, second-hand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer by some 20-30 per cent and the risk of coronary heart disease by 25-35 per cent. In children, exposure to second-hand smoke increases the risk of lower respiratory tract illnesses, asthma, middle-ear infection and sudden infant death syndrome.

Certain population groups are particularly vulnerable: children, pregnant women, people with existing cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease, and those with asthma and other respiratory disorders. Moreover, those in lower socioeconomic groups are at greater risk of exposure than those in better-off groups. There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke, and adverse effects can be seen at low levels of exposure.

3.10 Ash Wales and the paper from the University of Aberdeen referred to the report of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, produced in 2002 and published in 2004 by the World Health Organisation, which reviewed links between passive smoking and cancer and concluded that tobacco smoke is carcinogenic to humans. This report presents international scientific concensus.

3.11 The following studies are also significant.

3.12 A study in Helena, Montana USA, looked at whether there was change in hospital admissions for myocardial infarction (heart attack) while a local law banning smoking in public and in workplaces was in effect. This found that during the six months in which the ban was in place the number of admissions of people from Helena fell significantly, while those admitted to the same hospital from outside Helena rose. When the ban was removed, the number of admissions from Helena increased. A commentary on the study suggested that although the study was small it focussed attention on a subset of literature on secondhand smoke and its consequences. The literature seems to indicate that relatively small exposures to toxins in tobacco smoke seem to cause unexpectedly large increases in the risk of acute cardiovascular disease.

3.13 The Scottish MONICA study showed the effects of non-smokers exposed to ETS mainly at work having a significant reduction in pulmonary function.

3.14 A study showing that workers in premises permitting customer smoking reported a higher prevalence of respiratory and irritation symptoms than workers in smoke-free workplaces. Concentrations of salivary cotinine found in exposed workers in this study have been associated with substantial involuntary risks for cancer and heart disease.

3.15 Professor David Cohen of the University of Glamorgan, has undertaken a study modelling the economic and health impact of a ban on smoking in public places. The model predicts: The estimated effect of eliminating exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) in public places in Wales is an annual reduction in deaths from lung cancer and coronary heart disease of 253 with a possible additional reduction in deaths from stroke and respiratory diseases of 153.There may be an additional annual reduction in deaths of between 60 and 180 if active smoking is reduced as a result of the smoking ban.

3.16 The report of the Office of Tobacco Control, Ireland, on the first year of smoke-free workplaces says:• that in a study of pubs in Dublin where exposure levels in 24 pubs before and after the ban have been analysed, there has been a significant reduction in particulate levels – Ave PM10 by 53 per cent and Ave PM2.5 by 87.6 per cent; a study of 81 bar workers before the introduction of the smoke-free law and a year later indicates a reduction in breath carbon monoxide levels. The results show that for the 56 workers whose tests have been completed and analysed there has been a 45 per cent reduction in non-smokers and a 36 per cent reduction in ex-smokers.

3.17 A study undertaken for Smokefree London, published in the British Medical Journal estimated deaths from passive smoking in the UK. It found that passive smoking at work was likely to be responsible for 617 deaths a year, including 54 in the hospitality industry. This would equate to one-fifth of all deaths from passive smoking in the general population aged between 20 and 64 years and up to half of such deaths of employees in the hospitality industry.16

3.18 Of those organisations which gave evidence to the Committee, only FOREST, the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association,18 and the National Association of Cigarette Machine Operators contended that there is no evidence that ETS could be significantly detrimental to the health of non-smokers.

3.19 Four scientific studies were cited in support of this view. The Committee noted that three of these were produced in the early 1990s before much of the evidence of harm had been established. However, one longitudinal study which followed a large cohort was published in 2003 by the British Medical Journal. The cohort comprised over 188,000 adults who were followed from late 1959 until 1998, with particular focus on 35,500 who had never smoked but had spouses with smoking habits. The report concluded that:

The results [of the study] do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality, although they do not rule out a small effect. The association between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed."

Finally, on the issue of ventilation the Committee reported:

"The British Medical Association (BMA) claimed that ventilation cannot protect against the health risk of passive smoking. They advised the Committee that ventilation does not remove the fine particulate matter that is breathed most deeply into the lungs and into the thorax and that filtered tobacco smoke has the same potential to ncause cancer in a cell system as unfiltered tobacco smoke. Their view was supported by, among others, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the Public HealthAssociation Cymru and Ash Wales. Ash Wales and Professor Gerard Hastings contended that it would take an air flow comparable to a wind tunnel or tornado to be in any way effective."

Reneging on manifesto promises

Yesterday I got to try out the Presiding Officer's chair for a few minutes so as to give John Marek a break. This is a privilege made available to Committee Chairs, who are allowed to stand in for 15 minutes when neither the PO or the DPO are available. Up front everything is paperless, with lists of speakers and a script available electronically on the desk computer.

In a way I was glad that I was not asked to chair the statement on free personal care for the disabled as this got fairly lively and for good reason. A Government Minister came to the chamber to tell us that he was going to break a manifesto promise and he could barely bring himself to apologise.

The issue is that Labour stood in 2003 promising free home care for the disabled. But now they are tearing up their manifesto, pledge by pledge. Their failure to establish whether their promises could be delivered has effectively resulted in the betrayal of disabled people, their carers and their families.

The package of measures the minister announced will undoubtedly help many people but it falls a long way short of what we were expecting. It is a major blow to a group of people who were expecting to hear good news. This is in complete contrast with the Liberal Democrats who campaigned at the 2005 general election promising to provide free personal care, costed the proposal to make sure it could be afforded, and have delivered it in Scotland where we are in government.

Even within the health budget, we have seen a failure to prioritise. The view taken by Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson, Jenny Randerson yesterday was that this specific promise to give free personal care to disabled people should have been a greater priority for this Labour government than free prescriptions to all - even the wealthy and relatively healthy.

The question now is who will be able to trust Labour when it comes to their 2007 Manifesto pledges?

Anoraks unlimited

Tuesday's Plenary session was worth noting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the chamber was no longer freezing cold, in fact it was too hot. Secondly, members had started to find their form again after the initial shock of taking occupation of new surroundings. Thirdly, the PO was ill, thus scuppering any attempt by the opposition to win votes, as John Marek had to chair for the whole time.

The session had the feel of one of those reality shows, the ones that do not feature George Galloway. In fact we even had an offer from the First Minister to an opposition AM to help him change careers:

Alun Cairns: A number of schools are looking forward to the announcement that the Minister for Economic Development and Transport will be making shortly. Will you join me in seeking to raise the profile of lollipop men and women? Hardly a week passes in which a school or a parent is not in contact with my office seeking support to recruit a lollipop man or woman for the school. It may be an issue of salary levels, status, or a whole range of other factors, but these people offer an important, valuable service and deserve every form of credit, support and assistance that we can give them.

The First Minister: It says in my brief that we are aware that Penyrheol primary school has written to Alun Cairns seeking assistance in filling a school-crossing control vacancy. I was not sure what that meant as regards Alun Cairns’s political future.

Clearly, it is up to the voters of South Wales West to determine whether Alun Cairns needs to become a lollipop man in order to make ends meet. No doubt they will pass judgement on this in May 2007. However, the likelihood is that if Alun ceases to be a full-time politician he will go back into banking. After all isn't there a minimum height requirement to be a lollipop man?

Still lifestyle choices were the theme of the day as Health Minister, Brian Gibbons, discovered:

The Minister for Health and Social Services (Brian Gibbons): It is nice to be solicited to a ménage à trois with the Liberal Democrats and the Tories—perish the thought.

Jonathan Morgan: That is four.

Brian Gibbons: A ménage à quatre—merci bien

The biggest change however was suggested to my group by the leader of Plaid Cymru. He was a bit upset that we had tabled amendments to his motion and seemed to think that we should keep our nose out in future. He has another think coming:

Finally, I say kindly to the Liberal Democrats that they may have wanted to help us with our motion, but we do not need any help, thank you.

Mick Bates rose—

Ieuan Wyn Jones: No, I will not give way. You have had your go, Mick.

Let me just make one plea to the Liberal Democrats. If you have something interesting to say in your amendments, then say it, but, for goodness’ sake, when there are seven amendments to our motion, is it not time that you removed some of your anoraks? [Applause.]

Personally, I am not giving up my anorak for anybody.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

No smoke without fire

The vote in favour of a complete smoking ban in England in the House of Commons last night is a major step forward, even though its reasoning is ill-defined. The issue, as I reminded one of my parliamentary colleagues, should not be about making health choices for people, but about the health and safety of employees in their place of work.

This morning's Western Mail seeks to raise the timing of the ban in Wales, suggesting that we might put it off until after the Assembly elections. There may well be politicians who would take account of such considerations. However, the report of the Committee on Smoking in Public Places was very clear about the timescale and the lessons to be learnt from Ireland.

In the Irish Republic there was a delay of at least a year between getting the legislation onto the statute book and the implementation of a ban. One of the reasons for this was the need for the ban to hit home immediately. It was essential that all the regulations were in place, that the relevant authorities were adequately resourced to enforce it, that a public information campaign was put in place and that current campaigns to assist people give up the weed were beefed up. The other consideration was that the ban should be introduced in good weather so as to help people get used to taking their habit outside.

The evidence in Ireland is that the ban caused a reduction in cigarette sales, an increase in the number of people giving up smoking and no effective increase in people smoking at home as is feared by some opponents.

In Wales, we have to wait for the current bill to make the statute book before drawing up our own legislation. It is unlikely therefore that this will even be debated until autumn 2006. I cannot see a ban being implemented in Wales therefore much before summer 2007. When it does happen it will be very welcome.

Ruddock quits

Wales coach, Mike Ruddock, has quit for family reasons. If he was a politician nobody would believe him.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Final word

This is my last word on the naming of the new Assembly building. I think that we really need to move on now and discuss real issues. Such as perhaps that the chamber computers are still incapable of accessing the internet and that there is a two minute time lag between the division bell being rung in the Senedd and it ringing in AMs offices.

I have now had a copy of the e-mail that the Presiding Officer sent to all members of the House Committee on 22 June 2004. These include the then Labour Business Minister, Karen Sinclair, Labour AMs Janice Gregory and Lorraine Barrett and Tory AM William Graham. Attached to the e-mail is a document outlining the proposed names including Senedd, Neuadd, Oriel and Siambr. The e-mail says:

"Following the usage of 'Neuadd' for Milling Area in our present building it was suggested that I apply my literary brain (or what is left of it) to suggest Welsh-language names with some cultural and historical resonance (but fairly pronouncable for English-language speakers) to describe some of the larger spaces in the new building. I will be happy to expand on meanings in House Committee!"

At the subsequent House Committee it was agreed that Party groups would be consulted on these issues before a decision was taken. So, if members are unhappy with the name then they only have themselves to blame.

Monday, February 13, 2006

In the thick of it

Jonathan Calder on Liberal England draws attention to this article in the Daily Mail. It is a fascinating insight into the political process from the point of view of an HQ insider. Given all the lectures we have received from the Secretary of State for Wales on the alleged (but untrue) abuse of public money by regional AMs, it is worth noting that the Assembly's House Committee has specifically outlawed this sort of behaviour (and reaffirmed that decision within the last month):

One of my tasks as a regional organiser was to arrange large mailshots to constituents in marginal seats to find out who were potential Labour supporters.

We would prepare an innocuous letter from an MP about a general subject – anti-social behaviour, street lighting or parking – and attach a voting intention survey.

Since we held MPs' signatures and photos on a digital database, we were able to create these communications without even contacting them. And we would use the Parliamentary postage allowance, which meant the taxpayer picked up the bill. It was a naughty thing to do, since this allowance was intended only for Parliamentary rather than party political business, but we did it all the time.

Perhaps MPs should get their own prcedures right before accusing others. Still, at least we now have an account that reinforces our suspicions as to how it is possible for some MPs to build up excessively large postage costs in their allowances.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Three key days

Following his Party's humiliating defeat at the Dunfermline by-election on Thursday, Tony Blair faces three key days that will make or break his premiership.

On Monday, there is a vote on the use of compulsory rather than voluntary ID cards and the use of a central database of biometric profiles of everybody in the UK, which is not kept in any other country or required by the USA for passports. When the Commons last voted on this in October 20o5, thirty two Labour MPs rebelled in six votes and the government's lowest majority was 25. What will happen now that the Government has been defeated twice within the last few weeks will be of interest to everybody.

On Tuesday, the Commons will be voting on the smoking clauses of the Health Bill. The issue here is whether smoking should be banned in all clubs and bars. The Government has pre-empted a defeat by granting a free vote and I believe that this applies to all parties. It is therefore impossible to predict how this vote will turn out.

Finally, on Wednesday the Commons will be deciding whether to accept the amendment inserted by the House of Lords to the Glorification of Terrorism Bill. The Lords have inserted the so-called weaker phrase of 'indirect incitement to terrorism'. When the House of Commons last voted on this in November 2005 the Government majority was cut to one.

Suddenly, we are living in interesting times.


More on those cartoons

This morning's Wales on Sunday reports that the editor of the Welsh student newspaper, which printed one of the controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed has apologised. Tom Wellington is quoted as saying that: "The cartoon was not reproduced as part of some frivolous defence of freedom of speech but was a genuine mistake on our part which arose from a desire to give context to a small and balanced world news piece reporting the developing international situation surrounding the cartoons."

Although I would take issue with the idea that any defence of freedom of speech can be frivolous, I understand totally the pressures that are on Mr. Wellington to issue this apology. He has been suspended from college and as far as he is concerned his whole career is at stake. The fault lies with those who have put him in this position.

What I do not understand and will not defend are the quotes from Liberal Democrat MP, Sarah Teather, in the same article. She is quoted as describing the cartoons as "a juvenile posturing execise", but then goes on to say: "Nothing was done to further the cause of liberal values or freedom of speech - the publication of the cartoons was just plain racist."

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing racist about these cartoons. They may be poorly drawn, unfunny and offend religious sensibilities but they do not single out any race for criticism. Indeed, given the reaction against them it would be an afront to freedom of speech and liberal values if newspapers did not republish them. This sort of posturing by a senior Liberal Democrat MP does no good to our cause and certainly does not help us in opposing the more illiberal measures in the Glorification of Terrorism Bill.

Senedd - for the record

Leighton Andrews reproduces the minute of the House Committee from 23 June 2005 in which the decision to name the new building Senedd was taken.

His view is that the minute is unclear and confusing and that accordingly those members who were at the meeting were not clear that a decision was actually taken. I was clear and even referred to the new names in a comment on this blog sometime afterwards. However, just so the record is clear here is an extract from the report referred to in the minute:

Naming of Spaces within the Building

2. The Committee received details of names for defined spaces within the new building at its
meeting in June 2004 as follows:-

· Senedd (describing the building as a whole)
· Siambr (the chamber)
· Cwrt (the open area and canyons outside the Siambr and Committee Rooms)
· Neuadd (the hall at the front of the building overlooking the bay)
· Oriel (the gallery which includes the public café and overlooks the Neuadd, Cwrt and


For consistency, these names will be used in future papers to committee and in public information.

The minutes of the meeting of 24 June 2004 say the following:

The Presiding Officer had e-mailed Assembly Members with proposed names for rooms in the new Chamber building. Members were asked to consult with groups.

I do not have a copy of this e-mail nor do I recall it, though it was a long time ago. I was not present at the meeting of 24 June 2004, Mike German substituted for me. I have now e-mailed the PO's office to see if they can send me the e-mail referred to.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

That name

For goodness sake, give it a rest! This morning's Western Mail continues its obsession with the name of the new building, as if it really mattered. To be fair, this is also an issue for the BBC and other media organisations.

The background is that the Assembly's House Committee agreed on 23 June 2005 to call the new building "Senedd". The decision was taken without dissent and involved all parties, including the Government's Business Manager, the Tory Chief Whip, myself and a number of other AMs.

Some Labour AMs have now taken this matter up. seemingly appalled at the fact that the name is monoglot Welsh but also at its implication that the new building will be housing a Parliament with primary law-making powers. What they seem to have missed is that the ultimate objective of the Government of Wales Bill is precisely that.

There are a number of examples of public buildings having monoglot Welsh names. In Swansea, for example, the tax office is situated in Tŷ Nant, whilst the Wales Land Registry is housed in Tŷ Cwm Tawe and its partner institution in Swansea High Street is in Tŷ Bryn Glas. It is worth pointing out as well that there are number of nouns in common usage in the English language that are not English but which do not require translation. Bungalow is a good example of this.

The real agenda in this row is Labour's dislike of Plaid Cymru and in particular, the Presiding Officer. They are trying to drive a wedge between Dafydd Elis Thomas and his party, but they are also sending a message to their heartlands that a vote for Plaid Cymru will lead to bilingualism and the Welsh language being shoved down their throat. It is a sign of how inept the Party of Wales is that they continue to feed this agenda by their actions and by their reaction to it, a mistake that Dafydd Wigley managed to avoid when he led them.

Just as predictable is the news that Plaid Cymru AM, Leanne Wood, is to boycott the official opening of the new building at which, we are told, the Queen is to refer to it as the Senedd. Leanne of course, can do as she wishes, but why exactly this is news anymore defeats me. My view for what it is worth is that regardless of what we think about the monarch she remains the head of state and that as such it is appropriate that she opens such a powerful symbol of Welsh democracy.

In commenting on her decision Leanne says that she is "encouraged that those who contacted me to support me were nearly all young people. Support for the monarchy seems to be a generational thing, maybe something to do with the war." Alas, it is not as simple as that. The monarchy has been through some very rough patches in the last few hundred years, including times when there was a majority for its abolition. It is historically unlikely that just because a lot of young people in Wales dislike it now that they will grow up seeking its abolition. You cannot just sit back and allow demographic trends to do your job for you, especially when you actually have no scientifically verifiable data to back up your own assumptions, you have to win the argument and use the system to get the changes through. More importantly, you have to show that such an act will benefit people overall and that it is of greater priority than good health care, improved housing and education.

Dunfermline revisited

In his analysis of the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, the Western Mail's Political Editor, Tomos Livingstone, has fallen for some of the spin being put about by the other parties. How else to explain a sensational and unexpected result by a leaderless party in some disarray?

Just as journalists did not believe us when we said we were going to win Ceredigion last May, so they dismissed our claims that we were on the verge of an historic result in Scotland. However, this success cannot just be put down to our "formidable by-election machine" as Tomos Livingstone indicates for, important as effective organisation is, it is quite clear that in both cases people voted for us because they liked our message and because they identified with what we stand for. All the fuss about sexual scandals and the party being in freefall has been proved to be the sole obsession of the Westminster village and just went over their heads. Once again, the political hacks and the scribblers have been proved to be out-of-touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

Secondly, the Labour-inspired spin that they lost the seat because of local issues does not add up either. Yes, there were local issues that proved to be a factor in helping people to decide how to vote and yes, there was a protest vote as well. However, we must not forget that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was evident throughout the campaign, pushing Labour's record in Government, whilst the Liberal Democrats themselves, also promoted their own national agenda. The was as much a rejection of Gordon Brown and his 'New Labour project' and as much an endorsement of Liberal Democrat policies and principles, as it was a protest against the Forth Bridge tolls or the state of Dunfermline town centre.

Finally, Tomos Livingstone draws attention to Charles Kennedy's visit to the constituency and his popularity in Scotland as a key factor. Putting aside the fact that this conflicts with his later claim that it was all about local issues, organisation and Labour failing to get their vote out, it is interesting to see this being talked about as decisive. The sub-text of course is that we would be better off with Charles reinstalled as leader. Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats have moved on, so has Charles Kennedy and so have the voters. I could just as easily point to the many visits by neighbouring MP, Menzies Campbell, or Simon Hughes and Chris Huhne as key moments in the campaign. All of this is nonsense. The Liberal Democrat campaign was a team effort and if there is any one person who should be singled out as being key to its success it is the candidate, Willie Rennie, who proved to be very capable, likeable, popular and above all, eminently electable.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Dunfermline and West Fife

The result is in:

Willie Rennie Scottish Liberal Democrats 12,391
Labour 10,591
SNP 7,261
Tories 2,702

It is a sensational result for the Liberal Democrats. A majority of 1,800. As Willie Rennie says this is a powerful message to Number Ten and Number Eleven Downing Street. Labour need to start listening to people. The Liberal Democrats have shown that they are the main challengers to Labour in their heartlands. This by-election has shown that the Conservatives are irrelevant across much of Britain. One thing has not changed under David Cameron, that is losing.

Question Time

11.15pm: So how does this live blogging thing work then? Question Time is on the TV, my ballot paper is sitting unfilled-in on the coffee table. Ming Campbell has just dodged the straight question as to whether he pushed Charles Kennedy towards resignation. I would have preferred a straight answer but that is something we have not yet had on this issue. All three candidates agree that Charles' legacy is invaluable and that he remains as popular as ever. However, we must move on. Chris Huhne empathises by finding an alcoholic relative. Simon Hughes gets a round of applause for looking forward to the time when Charles can come back and regretting the nature of his assasination.

11.20pm: Chris Huhne seems less sure of himself tonight than he was last week. Simon goes into the confessional about his judgement in the way that he handled the announcement of his own sexuality and then lists the campaigns he has been involved in and his acts of personal courage. He asks people to judge him on his record. Ming appears more at ease and more authorative than he did when I saw him at the Cardiff hustings on Monday.

11.25pm: Somebody in the audience tries to raise the Bermondsey by-election and is put down. At last we are onto some real issues - how can Britain withdraw honourably from Iraq? Simon Hughes emphases the illegality of the war and says we must pull out by the end of the year. The rule of law is paramount he says. Ming Campbell points out that UN resolution 1546 legitimises the present occupation. He wants to secure the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi Government before pulling out. We must work with the conditions on the ground instead of setting unrealistic deadlines, he says. I am sure this is contrary to what he has said in the past. Chris Huhne says Iraq is different because the illegality of the invasion has tarred us. We are part of the problem not the solution he says. His experience of business is that if you do not set a deadline it will not happen. Ming replies that it is not business - he is right. This is an issue that Simon and Chris cannot win on in this contest. Ming differentiates us from Labour by setting out clearly the conditions that need to be fulfilled so as to pull the troops out.

11.35pm: Question about the widest possible distribution of wealth. Chris Huhne wants to take people out of income tax altogether at the bottom and ensure those who are better off pay more. This is his issue and he tries to blind us with science. Simon appeals to the core Liberal vote by quoting the preamble to the Liberal Democrats constitution. He talks about people, about social justice and about how we can use the tax system to help them. This is vintage Simon, it is why he is able to appeal to so many people. He wants to stick to principles rather than listen to focus groups and gets applause for his point. Chris Huhne is moving around too much at the lectern for my liking. He is swaying. He re-emphasises his philosophy of fair taxation rather than high taxation. It is a bit glib to be honest. Ming Campbell goes back to basics and churns out the Orange book mantra of encouraging opportunity whilst pulling out some detailed anecdote about how investment in housing will help to put right injustice. Ming says that there is no future for the Liberal Democrats in being to the left of Labour. We are a centre-left party he says. Blair has squeezed values out of politics. We need to redress that. Chris Huhne agrees. He has a go at Cameron. Simon Hughes agrees. We must not have another right wing party.

11.45pm: My cat decides that it wants to take the place of my laptop on my lap. It settles for second best and sits on the arm of the chair instead.

11.47pm: Question about hung parliaments,. Ming backs Paddy Ashdown's judgement in talking to Blair in 1996-7. That will not please the activists. Chris Huhne says he has no fear of working with other parties but does not want to be a second-class Labour person or Tory. Wants to maintain our principles and not be distracted from our core message. Suggests that Labour and Tories might have more in common. He is trying too hard and coming across as strident. Ming sets down a test - if Queen's speech does not address key issues of health and education he will vote against it. No mention of electoral reform, he will be unpopular with some. Simon says our job is to reach out to people, maximise the number of Liberal Democrat MPs (in three figures, he says) and influence every vote. There will be no coalition until and unless we get a fairly representative Parliament. Our job is to deliver our policies.

11.53pm: Question about local Council. Ming points out that in Scotland we have PR, nobody points out that in Harlow we do not. Ming says we have achieved concrete successes in Scotland. Now we are discussing proportional representation, well half of the audience are Liberal Democrats after all.

11.55pm: Is experience of Parliamentary politics a help or a hindrance in running a political party? Dimbleby goes straight to Chris Huhne. Chris stresses his experience in the real world. Simon points out that he and Ming have also had lives outside politics. The length of time they have spent in Parliament does matter he says. Huhne has an effective reposte about him quizzing Ministers as a journalist. Ming however, takes Simon's point and builds on it. What is important is being able to judge the mood of Parliament he says. Simon talks about the growing gap between politicians and real people. He wants Parliament to be more representative of Britain. Ming says that energy, values and judgement are important. There is no room for caution.

12.00am: A member of the audience says that parties must work together to give us effective government. We do not need a succession of elections. Chris Huhne says that Parliament can work on an issue by issue basis. However, the European Parliament is not Westminster. Chris Huhne refers to the Yougov poll and claims to be the front-runner. He is not the one attacking the others he says.

12.05pm: What is your biggest mistake? Chris Huhne says how he misjudged the European Parliament. Ming says that he thought that reason would prevail in Parliament. He sets out his misgivings about the march against the war, he did not want to appear to be anti-American. Hughes says that party made a mistake in not having a core statement of values in 2005 General Election. He takes collective responsibility for that.

Overall impression was that Campbell and Hughes performed well. Huhne's inexperience counted against him. How will this impact on the election? Goodness only knows.

12.15pm: Switch over to News 24, the Liberal Democrats may have won the Dunfermline by-election. If they have, even if they have only run Labour close, it will be a momentous result. A leaderless party, supposedly in crisis overturning a 11,500 Labour majority? The party is clearly bigger than any one leader. Neither Labour nor the Tories can count on us self-destructing. Three party politics is here to stay.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

New Technology

One of the features of the new chamber is the vast array of new technology at our disposal. Every seat has the usual electronic voting buttons and access to simultaneous translation. We also have a computer with full access to our e-mail and the internet. Unfortunately, the internet has not been working properly this week and so it has been off-line.

Naturally, we are all getting used to this new equipment, whilst at the same time finding our way around. The first member who fell victim to the unfamiliarity of new surroundings however, was North Wales Tory, Brynle Williams. Rushing back to vote on the Police settlement yesterday, Brynle lunged at the equipment and pressed the relevant button just in time before the vote closed. Settling in his chair and catching his breath he suddenly realised he had voted in the wrong seat. He had cast a vote on behalf of the absent David Davies.

Brynle stood up immediately to confess his mistake and the record was duly corrected. However, for some reason the Record of Proceedings have omitted all reference to his point of order. Is it that we seeking to maintain an illusion of infallibiility for AMs? I think we should be told.

Naming dolls

It seems that Ann Summers has also fallen foul of the Muslim community. Today's Independent reports that the latest public figure to stand accused of defiling the Prophet Mohamed is not some Danish cartoonist, or French newspaper editor, but a hapless British Page 3 girl called Emma B:

Yesterday, the erotic retailer Ann Summers unveiled Miss B as the "face" of its new range of products.

Not 24 hours later, she finds herself on the front line of Islamic protest after Muslim leaders discovered that the range includes a new blow-up doll, called "Mustafa Shag".

Unfortunately, Mustafa was one of the names given to the Prophet Mohamed. Bestowing it upon, in the words of its catalogue, "an inflatable escort for your hen-night adventures" is considered highly offensive.

The Manchester Central Mosque has already written to the firm, calling on it to withdraw the product.

A friend of mine has suggested that this could get very tricky as apparently the Prophet has many many names. Just how tricky it can get is indicated by the reaction of the Chief Executive of Ann Summers:

"We don't want to offend, but this feels like political correctness gone mad," she said. "If anyone has a better name for a blow-up doll, please let us know."

All suggestions should be passed directly to Ann Summers. Thank you.

Three horse race

With just hours to go to Question Time it is too close to call. Today's Guardian reports that large numbers of Liberal Democrat members are still undecided. I suspect that the Question Time special tonight will help most to make up their mind. At present I believe that anyone of the three candidates can win.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Learning to love the colour grey

Assembly Members are slowly getting used to the new chamber but it may take many weeks before they finally settle in. The one issue we all have are the acoustics - not that they are bad but that they are too good. The slightest whisper can be clearly heard the other side of the room, conversations in the inner corridor behind members can also be picked up, whilst hecklers within the chamber itself become disembodied voices booming all around us.

The complaint that I hear everywhere is about the cameras. Every time a new speaker gets up they rattle around the upper edge of the chamber so as to get the best shot. These cameras are mounted on a rail and set back below the lower edge of the public gallery. When they move they do so like the hare at a greyhound track and make a not dissimilar whirring noise. It is very distracting. Somebody needs to oil them for future meetings.

The ambient temperature of the chamber is also too low for many of us, whilst the footbridge between the Senedd and Crickhowell House and the associated corridors maintain a constant arctic winter. David Cornock has already written on his blog that because members sit at desks, rather than on benches, there is no chance for Westminster-style "doughnutting" where politicians crowd into shot to be seen nodding vigorously in agreement with colleagues. This is actually not true. Not only is the presence of other members behind you crucial when speaking but their absence can make a speaker look very lonely indeed.

I saw televised pictures on a number of occasions today in which a member was speaking, apparently alone in the chamber. Due to the wide camera angle all the seats in front, behind and at the side of him were visible. Even though there were at least 20 other members in the chamber at the time, the fact that none of them were seated adjacent to him made him look like 'Billy-no-mates'. Now that is bad publicity and it is something that the Business Managers are going to have to address by getting members to stay in the chamber more often.

The one good thing about the new building is the view across 'Cardiff Bay' from the reception area and from the public cafe area on the top floor. This cafe has proved very popular for visitors, AMs and staff alike and so far seems to be doing a roaring trade. What patrons do not know however is that the very nice cakes are between 50p and £1 cheaper in the exclusive Members Tearoom behind the Siambr. That is something that cannot be allowed to continue.

Of course once we had got going the Plenary fell into its usual pattern. The First Minister in particular seemed to be enjoying himself at his new portable, transparent plastic lectern. So much so in fact that he tried to trigger another Liberal Democrat leadership contest in one of his replies to Mike German:

The First Minister: ........It is very important to say that we will carry out the same exercise, and, if need be, we will go back to the Treasury, but there is no case for doing so at the moment. I would have thought that you would follow-up the comments of your Liberal Democrat colleague or rival—or whatever Kirsty is these days—and refer to the east Wales issue. That is the number one priority—getting everything ready for a flying start on 1 January, and sorting out the amount of money that we can get into east Wales.

Unfortunately for him his own gaffes of the week before kept coming back to haunt him:

Elin Jones: Those people from Ceredigion who were in the audience for the Question Time programme last Thursday were keen to hear your views on the war in Iraq. Have you now had an opportunity to consider the issue?

The First Minister: I believe that this goes to the heart of the devolution settlement under which we work. I am not going to say that I have better ideas than Tony Blair in relation to his duties, and, likewise, he does not try to second-guess what I do here in relation to my duties—


The Presiding Officer: Order. I do not believe that the war in Iraq arises from a question on Communities First in Ceredigion.

Still he gave as good as he got:

Leanne Wood: I will not ask you the obvious international disaster question; you had enough of a disaster with that one last week in Aberystwyth. Welsh members of the disasters emergency committee are currently discussing the setting up of a disasters emergency committee Cymru which, I understand, your Government has supported. What practical measures can you take to support those people in Wales and their families who are affected by international disasters and what can you do to ensure that skilled professional workers are freed-up to work in those countries where disasters take place?

The First Minister: I notice that you did not respond to the point that John Griffiths made earlier about your views on free speech and the British National Party. Perhaps you would like to tell him what your views are and whether you still hold the views that you expressed last week.

Voting at 16

The Isle of Man is to become the first part of the British Isles to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. Manx politicians hope the move will encourage more youngsters to get involved in politics. The amendment means that around 2,000 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to vote in elections.

Where the Isle of Man leads Britain should follow.

Those cartoons

The editor of Cardiff University's student newspaper, Gair Rhydd, has been suspended after publishing one of the caricatures, which sparked protests across the world when it was previously published by a Danish newspaper. I understand that it was done so in the context of a legitimate news story detailing the aftermath of the original publication of the cartoons.

According to the South Wales Echo the Students' Union has justified their action in taking disciplinary action and pulping the entire edition of the newspaper by accusing the editor of actioning irresponsibly:

A spokeswoman for the Cardiff University Students' Union apologised for any offence caused by the cartoon and said: 'The editorial team enjoys the normal independence associated with the press in the UK and is expected to exercise those freedoms with responsibility, due care and judgement.'

Clearly, they have changed the normally understood meanings of 'freedom' and 'independence'. It seems to me that although the re-publication of this cartoon may have caused offence, it was used in a perfectly legitimate way and the paper's editor had every right to publish it. The actions of the student union run contrary to basic rights of freedom of expression and of the press.

As Oliver Kamm puts it:

There is a common view that, while publication of the original cartoons was justified, their emergence as a cause of friction entails that they should not be republished. As Parris notes, this has it the wrong way round. The cartoons are indifferent, crude and unfunny, and ought not to have found editorial space when submitted. Now that they have caused widespread offence, it is imperative that they be widely published and circulated. The defence of a free society is the defence of its procedures, not its output. Some of that output will be offensive and much will be valueless. We have a right to criticise it, and a moral obligation never, never to complain that our hurt feelings require its suppression.

On this, he is absolutely right.

Opinion Polls

Two interesting polls today. First of all the Times publishes its rather unscientific exit poll of 171 Liberal Democrat members after Monday's Cardiff Leadership hustings meeting. They find that 52 of those asked would give Chris Huhne their first preference, 42 would vote for Menzies Campbell and 32 for Simon Hughes. Somebody should explain to the journalists how to transfer second preference votes under an AV system however, though it is clear that Chris Huhne gains most on that measure as well.

What this poll suggests to me is that there is a lot of support amongst the membership for Ming, which may be enough to see him elected. That is because the general consensus amongst those I spoke to at the hustings was that he had under-performed against expectations on the night and was generally disappointing. Despite that he still polled strongly.

I am not surprised that so many members opted for Chris Huhne at the meeting. He certainly exceeded expectations and was marginally the best performer ahead of Simon Hughes. I have to say though that amongst the hundred or so armchair members I have spoken to across South Wales West over the last two weeks, Simon Hughes remains ahead of the other two.

The second poll is published by Populus. It shows that despite the problems being experienced by the Liberal Democrats, Cameron's Tories still cannot pull sufficiently far enough ahead of Labour to make any difference to a general election vote. In fact the Liberal Democrats are up 2% on 18%, the Tories are on 37% (up one point) and Labour are down three points on 36%. This is particularly good news for my party, who may well experience a further boost in support after a strong showing in the Dunfermline by-election on Thursday. We will also benefit from electing a new leader in March, when views about our lack of unity will change.

How the Times can conclude that the Liberal Democrats are being squeezed by the Tories defeats me. It seems that quite different phenomenon are at work in which overall both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are taking votes off Labour but not each other. If anything the Tories are failing to live up to their own hype. Has the public seen through Cameron already?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Today is the day that we move into the new Chamber. I have just been over there with the Committee Secretariat to look at the layouts for Education Committee meetings from 2 March. I have to say that the huge amount of slate is as unremittingly grey and cold as I remember it from last time. I have suggested carpets and tapestries but have branded a philistine for my troubles. I think that I will therefore just shut up for the time being.

There is one interesting rumour doing the rounds however. Apparently, when the security forces went into the building to do their checks they discovered evidence of explosive everywhere. It was only after a little bit of thought that somebody twigged that explosives had been used to mine the slate and that what they were detecting were residual traces of that activity.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Golden Goodbyes revisited

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I opposed the proposal by the Labour Assembly Government to introduce 'golden goodbyes' for Councillors. The idea was that older Councillors would be encouraged to step down to make way for new blood. In reality however, the implementation of this idea was a farce.

The genesis of this policy lies in discussions in the Assembly's Local Government Committee. It was proposed to introduce a pension scheme for Councillors so as to compensate them for the general loss of salary, career opportunities and pension rights arising from the sacrifices associated with public service. This is something that I still support.

It was considered that if a pension scheme is in place then there would be a more natural process of succession within political parties, with older Councillors stepping down more easily to make way for others. However, it was not possible to get this in place in time for the 2004 elections so the proposal was to provide a one-off golden goodbye payment for Councillors of pensionable age. This I also supported.

Where it went wrong was in the Labour Government refusing to attach a minimum age to the payment. As a result it became nothing more than a lucrative redundancy payment, and a number of younger more able Councillors took advantage of it so as to assist them in changing career. What is worse is that some of the pensioners who did stand down were replaced by people even older than they were. It is for these reasons that the Liberal Democrats opposed the final scheme.

Now the Western Mail reports that the total effect of the payment has been to reduce the average age of a Welsh Councillor from 62 to 61. Most are still white, male and in their 60s. It is not of course, as if the 'golden goodbyes' policy can even claim credit for that. It was never intended in its original form to socially engineer political intake. Labour's problem is that they took that aim as an objective and they have been found wanting.

The 'golden goodbyes' were only adopted by eight of Wales' 22 Councils and even in those Councils such as Swansea where the average age subsequently went down this came about only because older Labour Councillors lost their seat to younger candidates of other parties. I used to be the third youngest Councillor on Swansea Council at the age of 44. I am now the eleventh or twelfth youngest. All of those 8 or 9 new Councillors are Liberal Democrats or Plaid Cymru. None got there as a result of a former Councillor taking a 'golden goodbye'.

Perhaps it is time that Labour apologised for wasting £1.6 million of public money in this way.

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