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Friday, June 30, 2006

Blogging Wimbledon

Britain's latest great hope, Andy Murray, has a blog. Good for him, a tennis star who takes his fans seriously. The whole country is rooting for him against Andy Roddick. But surely 3,276 comments to a single post is obscene.

Hat tip to Holyrood Chronicles.

Bursting bubbles

The consequences of yesterday's by-elections will reverberate for some time. In Wales Labour failed to win back the seats they had lost to the Peter Law insurgency by quite spectacular majorities in the context of the history of Blaenau Gwent.

This area is Labour heartland, the home of Aneurin Bevan and the power-base of Michael Foot. These results will have far-reaching consequences, not least on the balance of power in the Welsh Assembly. If Rhodri Morgan was holding on before because Peter Law and David Davies were forced to balance their time between Westminster and Cardiff, he will find it even more difficult to get his way now that Peter's widow is there full-time.

Bromley and Chislehurst was simply a sensation. In what was the seventeenth safest Tory seat in the whole country, the Conservatives only clung on after a recount. In fact, they had the worst by-election result in a seat they held since Wirral South, in the depths of John Major's unpopularity. The story isn't much better for Labour either. They sunk to fourth place, losing two-thirds of their votes. It is the first time the party in government has finished fourth in an English by-election since Liverpool Walton, way back in 1991.

In many ways this result is a welcome relief for the Ming Campbell leadership. He has been beseiged over the first few weeks because of poor performances in the House of Commons and his low visibility. There were signs that he was starting to come back from that. Prime Minister's questions were ceasing to be such an ordeal, he took the initiative on taxation and other policy issues and the Liberal Democrats had started to reverse their small decline in the polls. Bromley and Chislehurst has the potential to fuel that mini-revival and to give us the attention we need to keep climbing.

How this will impact on Cameron's bubble has yet to be seen, but if he built his opinion poll lead on the basis of perceived success in the local elections then a setback like this must augur badly for his future. A few weeks ago a Liberal Democrat Councillor defected to the Tories in a fit of pique at his failure to be re-selected as our candidate in Swansea West. This result could well cause him to think this morning that that was not such a good career move.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

What a WAG!

Nice little piece in today's Western Mail based on a completely inconsequential comparison of acronyms:

Do you suffer confusion when bombarded with information about the WAG (Welsh Assembly Government) and WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends of England players)?

Our handy guide can help you:

The WAG acronym came into being in May 1999 when the first Assembly Ministers were elected. The WAGs have been around for longer - well, some of them. But the acronym has only stuck during the current World Cup.

The WAG spends its time talking, sitting in committees and making policies. The WAGs spend time talking, sitting on sunloungers and making Cosmopolitans.

To become a member of the WAG you have to be elected and belong to the majority party. To become a member of the WAGs you just have to go to lots of major parties.

The WAG calls its current home the Senedd building in Cardiff Bay, which caused rows by costing £67m.

The WAGs' recent home was the Brenner's Park Hotel in Baden Baden, Germany, where rows raged over the price of room service.

WAG leader Rhodri Morgan was late for the Queen recently, blaming train delays. WAGs leader Victoria Beckham was late for the entire World Cup, blaming airplane delays caused by engine failure.

The WAG has a budget of around £13bn. The WAGs probably have a clothes shopping budget that stretches further than this.

Do you not think that some journalists have too much time on their hands? Some of them are too clever for their own good.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

More voting cock-ups

Brian Gibbon's faux pas last week, in which he opposed a public enquiry into the ambulance service and then accidentally voted for it, seems to be catching.

In yesterday's Plenary we had a long and involved debate on nine separate items of legislation, each requiring two votes, together with a series of amendments. The subject was the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, a cause that did not entirely attract the sympathy and support of the Tories.

They tabled an amendment effectively dissing the whole notion and earned suitable retorts from other parties about Rachmanism etc. Their amendment was as follows:

add a new point at the end of the motion: supports greater protection for vulnerable people living in HMOs, but believes that excessively burdensome regulations could restrict the availability of affordable rented accommodation and increase the cost of housing for those on low incomes.

In support of his point of view, the Tory Social Justice Spokesperson, Mark Isherwood, (an oxymoron if ever I saw one) outlined a long and detailed argument about how the new regime will impose costs on reputable landlords and consequently drive up rents. His views obviously had an impact on his eight colleagues because when it came to voting on this Conservative amendment all of them abstained. Mark Isherwood was the only person to vote in favour.

Thus the final voting was For 1, Abstain 8, Against 44. Somehow the entire Tory group had conspired together to press the wrong button. Perhaps they need to join Brian Gibbons in voting classes.

Food for thought

A Senior Welsh doctor has accused companies who bombard children with junk food adverts of participating in "one of the worst forms of profit making":

Jon Osborne's comments come as doctors have backed calls for a blanket ban on all advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks to children.

The move, supported by an overwhelming number of delegates at the BMA's annual meeting in Belfast yesterday, goes considerably further than the 9pm watershed for junk food adverts proposed by the Food Standards Agency earlier this month.

Doctors backed the blanket ban, describing it as a vital weapon in the fight against childhood obesity and its long-term health consequences. They said the volume of adverts promoting high- calorie foods such as burgers and crisps, and drinks was directly linked to the growing levels of childhood obesity tin the UK.

Mr Osborne, chair of the BMA's Welsh joint consultants' committee, said, "Targeting children in advertising campaigns for unhealthy foods could be described as one of the worst forms of profit making, especially when there is good evidence that we have rising levels of Type 2 diabetes, childhood obesity, and their long-term health problems."

There is a wealth of emerging evidence to suggest that children's poor diets are, at least partially, influenced by the huge amount of advertising of high-sugar and high-fat foods aimed directly at them. Research by the Welsh Consumer Council found that parents believe foods which have brightly coloured packaging and are endorsed by celebrities, coupled with free gifts linked with film or cartoon characters, have a very influential effect on young children.

Let us hope that those Assembly Members who are enjoying McDonald's hospitality in August raise this issue with them.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

I am going to betray my age now by alluding to a famous running joke from Monty Python. In particular the way that the Spanish Inquisition used to crash into every joke as follows:

The door flies open and Cardinal Ximinez of Spain (Palin) enters, flanked by two junior cardinals. Cardinal Biggles (Jones) has goggles pushed over his forehead. Cardinal Fang (Gilliam) is just Cardinal Fang)
Ximinez: NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise ... surprise and fear ... fear and surprise .... Our two weapons are fear and surprise ... and ruthless efficiency .... Our *three* weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency ... and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. ... Our *four*...no ... *Amongst* our weapons .... Amongst our weaponry ... are such elements as fear, surprise .... I'll come in again.
(Exit and exeunt)

And so on. You get the idea. What brought this to mind was the announcement by the Home Secretary that a national "respect squad" is being launched to help in the battle against anti-social behaviour. Local councils, MPs and police chiefs will be able to call in the squad to help tackle cases of "yobbishness":

Mr Reid said it would offer the chance of swift resolution to challenging problems where other means appeared to have been exhausted.

It will also intervene where there is evidence of insufficient action being taken by local agencies.

Mr Reid said: "Anti-social behaviour ruins lives and fragments communities - particularly those in some of the most deprived areas of our country.

"We should and will be unremitting in our efforts to drive up standards of behaviour and enforce a culture of respect, for the benefit of all."

Each squad's recommendations will be passed to the chairman of the local crime and disorder reduction partnership.

A copy of the squad's assessment will be made available to the public to reinforce residents' power to demand action.

It just seems so gimmicky. Although the spread of best practice and support is to be encouraged, this squad will hardly have the time or the resources to really deal with the complex problems facing many communities. If the Home Secretary is serious about tackling Anti-Social behaviour he should increase the resources available to Crime and Disorder Partnerships and start funding more frontline Police Officers. It might also help that if this squad is going to deal with Wales that it includes somebody who has knowledge of what it is like to live here, especially given the Home Office's past record on these matters.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The art of opposition

I was going to post on the latest example of Labour's candidates in the Blaenau Gwent by-elections campaigning against their own government and, in this case the last Labour manifesto. Labour candidate Owen Smith, has said that if there were a vote in the House of Commons tomorrow to replace Trident, he would vote against it.

However, this is getting a bit boring now so I will let you all draw your own conclusions.

Recipe for confusion

Tell me I have missed something here. Tory leader, David Cameron, wants to devise a "British bill of rights" to replace the Human Rights Act. At the same time he says that the UK will remain a signatory to the European convention on human rights, allowing citizens to continue to challenge British law in the European court in Strasbourg.

So we are going to have two conventions on human rights, most probably saying roughly the same thing and cases that would currently be dealt with in the British courts will now be determined in Brussels? How does that make things any clearer. For once Lord Tebbit is absolutely right (albeit for the wrong reasons). These plans are muddled and unworkable. I would add that they are unnecessary as well:

Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, told Radio 4's World This Weekend: "I fundamentally disagree with him when he talks about the convention being a foreign set of rights. This was largely drafted by British lawyers and surely it represents the things that are British values. The right to fair trial, freedom of speech, freedom of association - which of these is David Cameron going to junk?"

Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, said: "The problem is striking the right balance ... You don't rewrite basic human rights because they seem inconvenient."

I think that about sums up the case against Cameron.

Update: Richard Allan very effectively rips apart Cameron's proposals on his blog, whilst Will Howells takes a different tack, underlining the Tory Leader's confusion on this issue through parody:

You may recall that we Conservatives previously suggested we’d scrap the Human Rights Act. This, it turned out, would be problematic as we back the European Convention on Human Rights. So, we’ve come up with a great way of resolving this: repeal the Human Rights Act, but replace it with something called the British Bill of Rights - a sort of “Human Rights Act”.

But our version would be different - oh yes. For a start, it wouldn’t apply to “humans” but to “British people”. No more of this Johnny Foreigner using our own laws against us nonsense. It will be for British people to use in British courts. By using the word “British” several times, we have convinced The Sun, formerly opposed to human rights, to back us. Clever, eh?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. The Human Rights Act is already a British law, codifying a largely British view of human rights, and what’s more the UK already has a Bill of Rights. Ours will be better than that, though. Ours will be a British Bill of Rights. There, I said it.

What will be in our British Bill of Rights? All the good stuff that makes us British. Obviously I can’t yet precisely say what this will be - these things have to be looked at - but I plan to set some lawyers on to the case. Lawyers are, of course, the best people to define Britishness, because having spent so much time in criminal courts they’re familiar with British life first hand. So big up the lawyers.

Some people - let’s call them pro-Europe crime-loving terrorists - will critcise me for being so vague. They may even suggest that this is a desperate attempt to have a policy on something without actually putting forward a proposal at all. Well tish, I say. Tish and pish. I shall deal with that criticism by giving an example of what I would change.

Section 12, for example, of the Human Rights Act 1998 enshrines Freedom of Expression into British law. This sort of recklessness allows Jonathan Ross to be rude about myself and Mrs Thatcher. Well that’s not very British, is it? So Section 12 would be replaced by something more precise, detailing rights and responsibilities. For example, “Subjects shall have the right to go to Wimbledon and to make lovely jam, and the responsibility not to say “wank” to the Leader of the Opposition on BBC One.” The current law is just too vague.

As it stands, the Human Rights Act upholds the rights of foreign criminals to murder us in our beds. I can’t remember which clause precisely does it, but we all know it does. My new British Bill of Rights will make clear - probably, once we’ve decided what’s in it - that we have the right not to be murdered in our beds by foreign criminals, and to demand that any violent death to which we find ourself subject to should be at the hands of proper British criminals.

Mock the English stunt condemned

Today's Western Mail reports that an "anti-English" stunt prompted by England football supporters displaying the Cross of St George in Wales has been condemned as "absolutely crazy."

The outcry developed after "anti-colonisation movement" Cymuned paraded a mock St George through the Gwynedd town of Abersoch to protest their view that because of the proliferation of St. George flags that Wales is starting to look more like England all the time.

Clwyd West Conservative MP David Jones said that English visitors would be at best confused, at worst insulted by Cymuned's stunt. Labour AM Leighton Andrews said, "Silly stunts like this are damaging to the Welsh tourist industry. They send out the message that English people are not welcome in Wales." Even Plaid Cymru AM Owen John Thomas, said that he could not support anything that involved abuse.

What a lot of fuss about nothing much at all. People are entitled to express their point of view. Although I do not share Cymuned's view, I would rather that we had witty, peaceful and lawful protests such as this than the sort of vandalism that we have seen against Giles Sports in Aberystwyth or even violence as has happened elsewhere. Some politicians just need to chill out a bit.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Tories not so cool after all

I am obliged to Harry's Place for this wonderful extract from Hansard, which illustrates perfectly how trying to be cool and trendy can backfire on a politician when they are not really in touch. Personally, I think that Iain Wright over-egged his point a little but you get the drift:

Theresa May:...Finally, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the influence of popular culture on political life? I am sure that many hon. Members will be saddened to hear about the demise of “Top of the Pops”, which has played such a role in the cultural life of the nation. Of course, pop songs can be very relevant to politics. For example, given the Home Secretary’s recent problems, I wonder whether he should listen to the U2 track “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Perhaps we could have a touch of Dire Straits for the Deputy Prime Minister with the track “Money for Nothing”. I suppose that the Chancellor might look to Diana Ross with “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. Perhaps the Prime Minister would like the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. Talking of clashes, perhaps the Chancellor would describe his relationship with the Prime Minister with the White Stripes track “Every Day I Love You Less and Less”. Or, given the Chancellor’s commitment to new Labour, maybe his track for him and the Prime Minister should be Elton John’s “Friends Never Say Goodbye”......

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): Before I ask my question, I should point out to the House that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was incorrect, because “Every Day I Love You Less and Less” is sung by the Kaiser Chiefs rather than the White Stripes, which demonstrates that in popular culture, as in other things, the Conservative party has got it completely wrong. With reference to the right hon. Lady, I am tempted to refer to the Artic Monkeys’ song, “Mardy bum”, but I shall be more gracious, and say, “I bet you look good on the dance floor”.

I reproduce this not just because it is mildly amusing but also because it makes a useful point about Cameron's new Conservative Party, they are just not in tune with the modern, hip political force he is trying to create.

There is no better illustration of this phenomena than the reaction of senior Tories to Cameron's appearance on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. The Mail on Sunday has labelled the programme 'Obscene', whilst Lord Tebbit and Gerald Howarth MP have demanded Ross's head on a platter. His crime? Insulting the memory of Mrs Thatcher, whilst engaging in lewd banter with the leader of a political party. Well, what did they expect?

I am not writing this to defend Jonathan Ross, but to point out the likelihood that until Cameron's appearance on his show most Tories would have had little or no idea exactly what that programme's standard is or why it attracts so many of the young voters whose support they hanker after. In fact given their apparent desire to turn the BBC into a 24 hours, seven day a week version of the Sound of Music, a lot of these Tories are out-of-touch with most of the programming content that proves so popular with that part of the population whom Cameron is targeting.

What is clear is that Cameron is trying to reinvent the Conservative Party but is failing to take his colleagues with him both on style and substance. Perhaps next time he tries to be cool on TV he should issue a warning to all Conservative Party members so that they know what to expect and include a glossary as well, just in case.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The fight for a Welsh Parliament

Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas, and First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, have a common cause, to get the Government of Wales Bill into law as soon as possible.

In the case of the Presiding Officer, this desire is so strong that he is prepared to sacrifice some strongly held beliefs to achieve this goal. This has led to accusations of treachery, both from his own party and the Tories.

Nobody is quite sure whether Peter Hain's claim that delays in the House of Lords will cause the loss of the Government of Wales Bill altogether is just bluff or genuine concern. The opposition parties are treating it as a tactic designed to put the maximum pressure on them to agree to the unacceptable. However Dafydd Elis-Thomas takes a different view. He is worried that Hain may be right and that the Bill could be lost if the Lords continue to oppose changes to the voting system.

Accordingly, he has argued that the new voting rules should be accepted so that progress can be made on the giving the Assembly the powers it needs to make a difference to Wales:

The House of Lords and the Commons are locked in a dispute over one element of the plans, which would stop candidates standing in constituencies and on the regional list.

Peers want the idea ditched, but they may not finish debating the issue before the summer. Labour MPs want to keep it, not least as it was a manifesto commitment, and may find themselves voting late into the night on the days before the summer holidays.

The Government has warned that leaving the whole thing until the autumn is not an option as there will be little space in a crowded parliamentary timetable.

Assembly Presiding Officer Lord Elis-Thomas has called for the row to be settled - despite his own party's opposition to the new voting rules - so the rest of the Bill, which gives the Assembly more power, can be saved.

But furious Conservatives, who also oppose Labour's plans, have accused him of "going too far in sacrificing principle for pragmatism".

Lord Elis-Thomas used a BBC Wales interview to call for the parliamentary row to be come to an end. He said, "We need to be pragmatic and have this thing properly established. I will be there and I will be supporting the Government if it comes to the ping-pong because I see no point in extending this debate because it could endanger getting our new constitutional settlement in place."

Essentially, I believe that the Presiding Officer is right. Although Labour are fundamentally wrong on this issue, the argument over the voting system is essentially a distraction from the real issues in the Bill. That does not mean however, that we should give up hope of changing the bar on dual candidacy just yet. It is far too early to admit defeat in a ping-pong action that has not even started and which may well secure other concessions. Dafydd Elis-Thomas is wrong to offer the government support on this issue at this stage and is in danger of undermining the proper scrutiny of the Bill at Third Reading stage in the Lords.

Big Mac and the football tournament

An e-mail arrived yesterday inviting Assembly Members to come forward and play in their own version of the Charity Shield. The catch is that the event is sponsored by McDonalds Restaurants, purveyors of fast food and less than healthy eating options. The attached letter is designed to entice us into participating:

The Parliamentary Shield and the FA Community Shield 12 & 13 August 2006

It is with great pleasure that I invite you to join colleagues from Westminster, the Scottish Parliament and Stormont in the 5th Parliamentary Shield football tournament which will be held at Leckwith Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday 12 August before attending the FA Community Shield match between Liverpool and Chelsea at the Millennium Stadium the following day.

This is a great occasion – a chance to settle old scores and, most importantly, a superb opportunity for you to come together from across the regions and win money for charity.

This year we are delighted to have achieved our goal of creating 10,000 new grassroots community football coaches across the UK. The programme has provided over 5.6 million coaching opportunities for children and distributed over £2 million worth of kit and equipment to grassroots teams.

There is no doubt that it is a good cause but those who take part will not exactly be slumming it if the itinerary is anything to go by:

Saturday 12 August

10.30-11.30 Check in at the Hilton, Cardiff
12.00 Meet chaperone in hotel atrium
12.15 Buses leave depart the Hilton for Leckwith Stadium
13.00 Team Photos
13.20 Captain’s draw
13.30 Warm-up session with McDonald’s coach

The tournament will take the form of two semi final matches (20 minutes each way) and a 3rd place play-off (10 minutes each way) followed by the Final (20 minutes each way)

13.45 Kick off – 1st semi final
14.05 Half time
14.35 1st semi final finish
14.45 Kick off – 2nd semi final
15.05 Half time
15.35 2nd semi final finish
15.45 Kick off – the play off
15.55 Half time
16.10 Play off finish
16.20 Kick off – Final
16.40 Half time
17.05 Full time
17.20 Presentation of Trophy by Sir Geoff Hurst
17.50 Showers and change
18.05 Buses return to Hilton
19.30 Drinks reception in Hilton Atrium
20.00 Parliamentary Shield 2006 dinner – Razzi Restaurant, Hilton
20.15 Welcome speech and formal trophy presentation to winning captain and player

of the tournament
00.00 Piano Bar closes

Sunday 13 August

08.00-10.00 Breakfast served in the Razzi Restaurant, Hilton
10.40 Meet in the hotel Atrium for transfer to the Millennium Stadium
11.00 The FA Club opens – drinks reception
12.15 Welcome from the stage
12.30 Lunch is served
14.00 Pre-match build up / entertainment
14.20 Everyone to make their way into the stadium
15.00 Kick off
16.45 Post-match hospitality at the FA Club
19.00 FA Club shuts

I am not planning to go but I look forward to reading the declarations of interest of those who do.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Intimidating the Beeb

When the Tories were in power they pursued a constant campaign against the BBC. The purpose was to intimidate the broadcaster into giving them more favourable coverage, to cause BBC management to question every critical piece on the Government and pull their punches and to try and get an easier ride for Ministers on current affairs programmes.

Now we have a Labour MP accusing BBC Wales of bias in favour of Plaid Cymru just under 11 months from a Welsh General Election. His comments apparently reflect the views of many Labour AMs, who are said to believe that they get a raw deal from the BBC. Let us hope that they are not adopting the same tactics.

Hide and seek in the Lords

Labour are particularly sensitive about the fate of their losing candidate in the Blaenau Gwent constituency in last year's General Election.

Having imposed Maggie Jones on the Blaenau Gwent Labour Party through an all-woman shortlist, they saw the constituency turn independent by 9,000 votes.

Now with only days to go to a by-election that could well give them back the seat the last thing they need is Maggie Jones reappearing on the scene wearing ermine.

As a result it has now been announced that she will not be introduced to the House of Lords until after next week's by-election even though she was due to take her seat there next Tuesday - two days before the double by-election to replace the late Mr Law.

A Labour spokesman said, 'This matter has nothing to do with the Blaenau Gwent by-election.'

Yeh, right!

Labour blunder into own goal scenario

This morning's Western Mail has more on Labour's gaffe on motorbike scrambling and tackling local yobs. It now transpires that the working relationship between police and council in Blaenau Gwent is in a "state of collapse" leading us all to the obvious question of 'if the leader of the Council and Labour Assembly candidate is so concerned then why has he not done something about it before?'

The newspaper says that the police are accusing the council, led by Labour candidate John Hopkins, of ducking its legal duty to tackle crime and disorder:

The revelation emerged in copies of a recent exchange of letters between Mr Hopkins, who hopes to win a place in the National Assembly next Thursday, and Inspector Iain Thomas of Gwent Police, who is stationed at Brynmawr.

Insp Thomas wrote to Mr Hopkins on June 15 after an article in the weekly Abergavenny Chronicle in which the council leader was quoted suggesting not enough was being done by the police to tackle local yobs.

Mr Hopkins called for a motorbike police unit to be established locally to chase anti-social youths. As we reported yesterday, the police say such a unit should be paid for by the council, although it has no plans to do so.

In his letter to Mr Hopkins, Insp Thomas stated, "The article was grossly misleading and painted a wholly inaccurate picture of Brynmawr.

"The biggest concern in Brynmawr is the fear of crime and this article could play a significant part in exacerbating this problem.

"The article makes no mention of the lack of partnership working within Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council and the police, nor the concerns that I raised with you in January 2006. I am disappointed that action has yet to be taken to address these issues.

"I reiterate my belief that partnership working between the police and Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council is in a state of collapse and that you are failing to implement Section 17 of the Crime and Disorder Act in an effective manner."

This is part of Labour's problem. They have run the Council in the Blaenau Gwent area for as long as anybody can remember, they have been in Government since 1997 and yet there are still huge social problems. They cannot pretend that none of this is their fault.

Tony Blair today has been leading the call for the legal system to put the victim first and yet his government has probably passed more pieces of legislation on crime and disorder than any before it. If he really believes this then why has he not done anything about it before?

For all their posturing, their attempts to label others as soft on crime and for all the measures passed through Parliament, Labour have failed to match their rhetoric on law and order. This latest embarrassment could well seal their fate in at least one of the two by-elections in Blaenau Gwent.

A night at the opera

For some this picture may represent the hell of having to watch an Assembly Plenary session from the public gallery. For others however, it is a classic image from some of the more difficult operas, a part of Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Conservative AM, David Melding is a very cultured sort of fellow and enjoys displaying his encyclopedic knowledge and large cultural hinterland in the chamber. In doing so he often enlivens the sessions. Thus on Wednesday he posed a very tricky question to the Culture Minister:

Q5 David Melding: What measures are in place to support the development of opera in South Wales Central? OAQ0848(CWS)

Alun Pugh: The development of opera in Wales, including South Wales Central, is supported through a range of activities, from the internationally recognised Welsh National Opera to local operatic groups.

David Melding: Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Wales Millennium Centre for holding a whole Ring Cycle in November? I understand that the whole cycle sold out in a morning, which shows you what a wonderful initiative this is. I have signed up to that myself, so I declare an interest. Do you also agree that after the full rigours of a Ring Cycle, one might need to be soothed with a little more Mozart in future seasons.

Another Assembly Member who was seeking to enliven Wednesday's Plenary was Mick Bates, whose short debate on 'Supermarkets - Jolly Green Giants or Incredible Hulks' has been much trailed, not least on this blog.

I was tempted to quote the whole speech, so effective was it, but have settled for this passage:

For those who do not know, the Incredible Hulk is a raging creature with enormous strength, much like me. [Laughter.] Just as he caused destruction and carnage wherever he went, so can supermarkets be seen to cause destruction wherever they go. On the other hand, the Green Giant is a symbol for greenness and goodness. Although just as big, if not bigger than, the Incredible Hulk, he leaves no damage in his wake. Therefore, the vision is clear; we want to change supermarkets from incredible hulks to green giants, by encouraging them to see issues of recycling, local food and fair trade as a market advantage. I want to encourage them to compete with one another by establishing which one sells the most local food, which one is recycling the most waste and which one sells the most fair-trade products, but how do I achieve this?

So far, all efforts to turn supermarkets into green giants have failed. Many have tried. The Office of Fair Trading has produced a number of reports and, in May 2006, suggested that the power of the supermarket may have an adverse effect on consumers. Subsequently, the Competition Commission is carrying out a review of the adverse effects of supermarkets and their impact on the grocery market. That is not to mention the work of many lobby groups such as Friends of the Earth and Action Aid. We have all continually called for the supermarkets to clean up their act by selling more locally sourced food and fair-trade products and limiting the amount of packaging on their products. After all these reports and criticisms, why has there been no real action?

Significantly, Mick was not decrying the evils of globalism and multi-national retailers, instead he was arguing that supermarkets are in a unique position to use their size and purchasing power to reduce their environmental footprint by acting in greener way. In other words they can act like local shops, whilst still retaining the economies of scale that makes them so popular with consumers.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Labour scramble for credibility

Labour are also in trouble in Blaenau Gwent where their tactic of campaigning as if they were in opposition has started to backfire on them.

Their Assembly candidate, John Hopkins, has said that he wants a police motorbike unit to crack down on yobs. The police say the council will have to pay for it. The cash-strapped council says it has no plans for it. And yet Mr. Hopkins is the leader of the council.

His Welsh Liberal Democrat opponent, Steve Bard, has a good line on this small inconsistency:

He said, "Labour have again been rumbled for their 'sham-opposition' tactics in Blaenau Gwent.

"Having already been too ashamed to back many of Tony Blair's policies, John Hopkins now finds himself stranded from his council and the local police.

"He puts great store by his record in Blaenau Gwent, but the truth is that the only record worse than his is the latest single from the Crazy Frog.

"As with their campaign to double the number of community support officers in the area, John Hopkins won't put his money where his mouth is.

"They run the Assembly and the Council, they could double the number of Community Safety Officers now if they were serious.

"This is simply cheap, shameless, opportunism - that's what CSO means to Labour in Blaenau Gwent."

It seems that Labour's tough line on anti-social behaviour is just that - it is all talk. When it comes to the crunch they do not use the power they already exercise to make a difference.

Ambulance story rolls on

The Welsh media cannot put down the story about the Health Minister triggering an inquiry into his own department by pressing the wrong voting button. They have now switched their attention to former ambulance chief Roger Thayne who resigned in May, warning that 500 lives were at risk each year unless there was investment and who called for an inquiry himself.

In the chamber on Tuesday the First Minister rather foolishly tried to deflect criticism by attributing unsubstantiated motives to Mr. Thayne for his resignation. He said that Mr Thayne had not been in post long enough to understand the problems facing the ambulance trust and that the pressures of commuting from Staffordshire had contributed to his resignation.

Mr. Thayne has now directly contradicted this, pointing out that he was called in by the Welsh Assembly Government at the beginning of last year to carry out an assessment of the service prior to taking charge of it.

Rhodri Morgan has now been forced to back down, but the whole episode does illustrate the complete chaos that prevails in his government, as well as the way that Labour have lost their grip on the way that the Welsh Health Service is being run.

Pulling the strings

This morning's Independent carries an interesting piece on Lembit Opik's long suffering consort, Sian Lloyd, that indicates that she is less than impressed with her partner's leader so far:

Despite being engaged since May 2004, Sian Lloyd has yet to "name a date" to get spliced to matinee idol Lembit Opik.

It's already well overdue, though. For Lloyd shows every sign of making a cracking MP's wife.

Speaking at the Macmillan Lords versus Commons tug-of-war on Tuesday, the weather-girl managed - in five splendid minutes - to both tell me about future hubby's medical problems, and insult his party leader.

"Lembit isn't taking part," she said. "He gets out of everything like this because he's got a bad back.

"In fact, I don't think any Liberal Democrats are taking part. That doesn't bode well. Perhaps Menzies Campbell should be - after all, he must be better at tug-of war than he is at PMQs."

Obviously this is an old story as Ming has improved massively in recent weeks. Still, we have to wonder whether Lembit will now be summoned to the Leader's office for talks.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Serious matters

It was inevitable really that Rhodri Morgan's tardiness at the Queen's 80th birthday celebrations would come up in the chamber yesterday, and as certain as night follows day, they did.

First up was Rhodri Glyn Thomas, who prefaced his question about the health service with a pointed reference both to the event and the half-empty Labour benches behind the First Minister:

Rhodri Glyn Thomas: It is nice to see that you have turned up on time this afternoon, although many of your colleagues seem to be following your example and leaving it a bit late.

However, it took Leanne Wood to really twist the knife in, even if the Presiding Officer did take offence at her remarks:

Leanne Wood: I offer you congratulations, first of all, on your clear display of anti-deference to the monarch last week. I thoroughly approve.

The Presiding Officer: Order. This question is not about the monarchy; it is about serious matters.

This just left one question: If the monarchy is not a serious matter, then what is?

Legal problems threaten to derail the incredible hulk

Mick Bates's revolutionary short debate this afternoon entitled 'Supermarkets - Jolly Green Giants or Incredible Hulks?' has hit some problems.

Already some members have questioned whether the use of a powerpoint presentation is appropriate - are we a debating chamber or a lecture theatre? On top of that the Assembly's legal bods posed the question last night as to whether Mick had permission from the copyright holders to use various images on his slides.

According to the legal advice a specific exemption was built into the Copyright Design and Patents Act 1988 to deal with Parliamentary proceedings which makes it clear that any acts carried out in the course of such proceedings do not infringe copyright. It seems that this includes the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament but not the Welsh Assembly. This is because they forgot to include a provision in the Government of Wales Act.

The recommendation is that we take a cautionary approach but I understand that as the risk is low, because it is difficult to see what loss the owners of the copyright will have suffered if the images are used, then the decision has been taken to allow the powerpoint presentation. I cannot wait.

The wrong button

What is it about the Assembly's voting system that causes apparently intelligent and capable Assembly Members to fall apart when faced with the prospect of using it? Yesterday's debacle in which the Health Minister vehemently opposed a public inquiry into the Wales Ambulance Service and then voted for it is just the latest in a long line of such incidents since we moved into the Senedd.

Earlier in the day we had a vote on the Government's Business Statement, which should have resulted in a 28-28 tie. The guidance says that the Presiding Officer would then have cast his vote against, thus forcing the Government to go back to the drawing board. However, the vote was won by the Business Minister by 28 votes to 27 due to the failure of David Davies MP AM to press his voting button, even though he was there.

A Welsh Liberal Democrat amendment to the motion calling for a public inquiry into the ambulance service was passed by 28 votes to 27. In this instance, Conservative AM Brynle Williams failed to get back to the chamber in time for either vote, however Labour's Val Lloyd inadvertently voted with the opposition to ensure the success of the proposition.

The voting on the main ambulance motion was slightly more complicated than a simple mistake by the Health Minister. Again Brynle Williams was absent but his oversight was cancelled out by the failure of the Business Minister to record a vote. As a result it was left to the Health Minister to decide the outcome.

Some members are all too ready to blame the electronic voting system but my theory is that these oversights are purely the result of a lack of concentration. That was the reason I voted incorrectly on amendment four to the Social Justice Annual Report. Mistakes are also made in the more deliberative Westminster lobby voting system, with MPs walking through the wrong lobby inadvertently due to being deep in conversation or because they are rushing to catch the vote before the lobby doors close.

It is also significant that the vast majority of those voting the wrong way are not Welsh speakers. They need to rely on the simultaneous translation to follow proceedings when the Presiding Officer is in the chair. It is actually quite easy to be distracted and lose the drift of proceedings at these times, especially when events are moving quickly. That is why the worst offenders are often Ministers. Still, better luck next time.

For all the details of voting yesterday click here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Do sheep vote?

The Labour candidates in Blaenau Gwent must be crying into their beer tonight after it transpired that they have not just upset local farmers but they have offended the sheep as well A press release from the Farmers Union of Wales has been circulated demanding an apology.

Headlined 'Election candidates told to apologise for sheep slur', the missive went on to accuse Labour's candidates, John Hopkins and Owen Smith, of releasing campaign material blaming farmers for problems that are caused by vandals:

The leaflet, which bears the title "Action on Sheep Nuisance", calls for "action to stop sheep from straying on to roads, parks and gardens".

But rather than blame the yobs who damage farm property by ripping up fences and stealing gates, the leaflet implies that "irresponsible farmers" are the main cause of the problem and demands that spot fines be imposed on them.

"Although they rightly condemn the yobs and gangs who ruin the lives of hard-working families in another part of the leaflet, as soon as they talk about roaming sheep the blame shifts entirely onto the farmer," said Lorraine Howells, chairman of the FUW’s Common Land Committee.

"No mention is made in the sheep section of stopping the vandalism and antisocial behaviour that is the real cause of the problem.

"The reasoning is on a par with blaming a hit and run victim for being in the path of a speeding stolen car. It doesn’t make sense," she said.

The press release continues to quote Miss Howells:

"As candidates in the Blaeanau Gwent elections, I am surprised that they chose to scapegoat a section of the community who are just as much victims in this issue as anyone else."

During yesterdays meeting in Ebbw Vale it was agreed that site meetings would be held in problem areas where fences and other farm property had been vandalised, said Miss Howells.

"I hope that Messrs Smith and Hopkins decide to enlighten themselves by attending these meetings, if they are elected – it will give them a chance to apologise to the victims of vandalism that they have so grossly insulted."

It is a very serious issue and I have every sympathy with local farmers who are the victims of such mindless vandalism, however I cannot get the image out of my mind of Owen Smith and John Hopkins apologising to each sheep individually.

Chasing headlines

Has the Home Secretary gone too far in his attempt to ingratiate himself and his government with the News of the World and the Sun. One senior Police Officer certainly seems to think so.

Terry Grange, the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys Police, has accused the Home Office of altering its policy on the hoof at the behest of the News of the World:

Mr Grange told the BBC's World Tonight programme last night, "The last three years has been a litany of abandonment of any real strategic design in the Home Office in the management of sex offenders in favour of trying to find out what one particular tabloid newspaper wants and then complying with their wishes".

Although disagreements between politicians and the police are not uncommon, such a public and sustained dressing down from such a senior figure will cause alarm in Whitehall. Widely-respected Mr Grange is also the spokesman on child abuse policy for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

He said policies had "all been brought about by the media putting pressure on the Government and the Government responding".

He said only the News of the World had any real strategic intent. "The Government is attending meetings at the behest of a newspaper and then altering its approach overnight.

"This Government has for the last couple of years accepted the principle. Rather like people who are blackmailed do, that they are prepared to be blackmailed.

"When you're blackmailed, a good blackmailer asks you for £10,000 and not for a million because you haven't got a million. But now you've agreed to the principle, you'll give him money so he comes back a month later. And slowly but surely he strips you of every penny you've got."

Strong stuff indeed and views that need to be taken notice of. Even Labour must have realised by now that Government by headline is not good government.

Summer silly period comes early

The summer period of no news and pointless speculation has come early with an article in today's Western Mail urging possible successors to Rhodri Morgan as First Minister to come out of the woodwork and start their campaigns now.

The article is based on comments by my former tutor Professor Peter Stead, for whom I have the utmost respect. Peter is right in arguing that a political vacuum is developing around the First Minister but I think he has allowed his academic interest to overcome political realities in asking for early declarations from contenders for the post. Still, his comments are intriquing:

"I would have expected Rhodri to have gone by now," said Mr Stead, a former history lecturer at University of Wales, Swansea and now a visiting professor at the University of Glamorgan.

"I suspect a main reason why he is still First Minister is because there is no obvious successor.
"One of the problems is that most members of the Cabinet are not natural communicators. I meet them socially and have urged them to do more communicating.

"What we need is a debate on the succession.

"I'm not attacking Rhodri - I believe he has done an honourable job. But it's time the Labour Party gave some thought to who should take over. At the moment, there seems to be a reluctance to have such a debate."

I believe that the reluctance to have a debate has something to do with an impending election and the dire electoral consequences within the party for any candidate who is seen to be rocking the boat before that event. It is quite evident though that there is manoeuvring going on within the Labour Party itself for the all-out war that will erupt once AMs resume their seats in May 2007.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Interesting news

From the Swansea Council Labour Opposition blog:

"Peter Black, who is actually running things after all"

You learn something new everyday. If only it were true!

Return to sender

I have been a bit pre-occupied today, not least by some major dental work, and so have not had much opportunity to post. I am indebted therefore to Daniel Davies for doing all the hard work and posting this story, which I only had second hand from my staff anyway. Then again it looks like he relied on the same source as me:

AMs should this week receive invitations from Welsh Secretary Peter Hain to his summer reception on July 25. However the invitations have been put in the wrong envelopes.Rhodri Morgan's has gone to Lib Dem AM Peter Black while, we're told, Mr Black's has gone to Tory AM Glyn Davies. Plaid AM Dai Lloyd was shocked to find an invitation for Brynle Williams when he opened his.

"Maybe it’s fancy dress and you have to come as the person whose invite you receive?," a Lib Dem source says.Sadly not. The Wales Office says it's a "clerical error." I'm reminded of the Tory MP who sent me a Christmas card postmarked January 2006.

I do think that it is a good thing that so many Welsh journalists are blogging now. Anyway the upshot of this is that around about 6pm tonight we all received an e-mailed apology from the Wales Office:

It has come to our attention that a number of the invitations issued last Friday to the Secretary of State's Summer reception were misdirected. Please accept our apologies for this error. The summer reception will take place at 6.30pm on Tuesday 25th July in the new Assembly building, all Assembly Members are cordially invited to attend.

Once again, please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused. We hope to see as many of you there as possible.

Let us hope that Peter Hain offers suitable fare as compensation for the error. After all his budget is big enough.

Wrong logo

One has to ask oneself whether the so-called festival of football currently being played out in Germany is about the game itself or the profits that can be made from it. I pose this rather obvious question because of the treatment of more than a 1,000 Dutch fans last Friday. They were forced to watch their team play Ivory Coast in their underpants because their patriotic orange lederhosen carried the name of a beer that was not amongst one of the World Cup's official sponsors.

The more pertinent question might be 'has the world gone mad?' It is one thing to dictate the signage around the ground and the labels on the clothes worn by players and officials, it is quite another when individual fans have their liberties infringed so as to protect commercial contracts entered into by other parties. It seems that the game has forgotten that it is there to entertain the fans. Instead it is exploiting them.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

More sport

The act of embracing sport as a means to political progress is rapidly becoming a regular Plaid Cymru ploy. We have already seen their number one list candidate in South Wales West struggle to identify Swansea City's opponents in a crucial game, now her boss, Leanne Wood, has used an apparent gaffe by the Labour MP for Rhondda to beat him over the head.

Plaid Cymru were outraged at the Rhondda MP's remarks in Parliament on Wednesday in an address about digital television service in his constituency.

In his address, Bryant said: "Everybody wants to go digital in Rhondda because they want to watch Channel 4 instead of - or at least as well as - S4C, and they want to watch some decent rugby."

Of course Mr. Bryant is absolutely right in saying that the only way of getting choice on TV nowadays is to pay out for a digital service. Leanne Wood is also correct in saying that Government legislation has allowed that to happen, but I am not clear what alternative she is offering nor how she believes that Government could have done anything else in the face of overwhelming market forces.

As Chris Bryant says the one thing that might help is a free satellite service off the BBC, ITV and Channel Four, which will benefit those who cannot afford the alternative. Perhaps the Government could facilitate such a development. Meanwhile, less of the gibes against Welsh rugby.

Flying the flag

Amidst all the controversy about the flag of St.George being flown around Wales, these remarks in the House of Commons appear to have been overlooked:

Mr. Hain: I thought, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you were going to remind all Members that there is a World cup match coming up; but to respond specifically to the hon. Lady’s rather graceless jibe, I will, of course, be supporting England with enthusiasm. I am flying an England flag, not out of my house in Wales, but out of my flat in London. Of course several Chelsea players are playing for the England team, and I will be watching them with enthusiasm if she allows me to do so and if hon. Members are co-operative on this matter. Of course the match starts at 5 pm—I just remind the House.

The point here is not that the Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland is supporting England, that is a perfectly defensible position especially given Peter Hain's questionable allegiance to Chelsea. For me the significance lies in the admission of the Secretary of State's double life. In England, he openly flys the St George flag on his property, whilst in Wales he is far more discreet and keeps his preferences closer to his chest.

Now, I am happy to admit that I am supporting England in this World Cup, but I am not one for flying flags. In fact, I rarely even wear rosettes during elections. But if a significant political figure, and one who has been tipped as a future Deputy Prime Minister, is going to wrap himself in the flag and in the future prospects of the England football team then the least we should expect is consistency. Stop wimping out Mr. Hain. Have the courage of your convictions and show the people of Neath how you feel as well.

The absurdity of polls

Why do newspapers run on-line polls and surveys? They are often unrepresentative, easily manipulated and open to abuse, even by the newspaper themselves. They can give a quick and easy headline but who really believes their outcome other than the gullible?

A good example of the absurdity of these polls is the one currently running on the icwales website. They are asking people who will win Blaenau Gwent. So far the voting is:

Independent Trish Law 10.47%
New Labour 6.40%
The Tories 74.81%
The Lib-Dems 6.59%
Plaid Cymru 1.36%
Someone else 0.39%

I voted of course, but if the result ends up anything like that I will close down this blog immediately.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A loss of confidence

When MPs were plotting to get rid of Margaret Thatcher, she always had the knowledge that whatever her Parliamentary Party thought, the vast majority of Conservative members and activists backed her to the hilt.

Alas, in Tony Blair's case, the Labour Party do not seem to want or appreciate him either. A poll has found that two-thirds of Labour's remaining members want Tony Blair to stand down by the autumn conference next year, and believe he does not trust the party sufficiently to involve members in policy making. Half of Labour's membership also feel policy is exclusively made in Downing Street by the prime minister and his advisers. Only half the party believe the government has been mostly faithful to its fundamental values.

Things are not looking good for the Prime Minister or his party.

Standing in a hole, digging.

Plaid Cymru's South Wales West regional list number one, Bethan Jenkins, has not recovered from her embarrassment at confusing Swansea City's opponents in the play-off finals, even though she claimed to be there. Wiser heads in her party might have advised her to let it go and move on, but if they did then she clearly ignored them.

She has written to tonight's Evening Post to apologise:

I Would like to apologise for stating that I was in the Burnley match as opposed to the Barnsley match against the Swans (Post, June 10)! I was drowning my sorrows at the result while writing the letter, and seem to have lost my track somewhat! I'm sure the Swans would beat Burnley, anyhow!

Burnley are already in the Championship. There is nothing like rubbing it in. Because the Swans lost to Barnsley they will not have the opportunity next season to prove whether Bethan's punditry is accurate or not. However, her letter clearly gives the impression that not only does she not know this but that football is an alien concept to her, albeit one she is struggling to come to terms with for electoral reasons.

Meanwhile, here are two pieces of advice for Bethan which I offer for free:

1. Do not write to the Evening Post whilst "drowning your sorrows". Sobriety is normally recommended for such activity, as it is for most of the activities associated with being an Assembly Member.

2. When in a hole, stop digging.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Lost in Wales

On Tuesday the Assembly will be debating a motion calling for an inquiry into the Welsh Ambulance service. This is a hot topic in Wales at the moment, especially after its former boss went to the press claiming the service is in a dire state and blaming the Labour Assembly Government for under-investment:

The service is struggling to hit its targets for responding to 999 emergency calls and needs an estimated £35m of investment in staff, vehicles and communications equipment, including advance satellite navigation.

The crisis in the service was brought to a head last month when Roger Thayne, its interim chief executive, stepped down after just two months in post.

Mr Thayne later told a television programme that the failings in the ambulance service were costing 500 people their lives every year.

Just how urgent this issue is can be illustrated by the latest statistics. In the quarter ending March 2006 there were just under 70,000 emergency calls, up 4% on the same period last year; 81.4% of responses to all emergency calls arrived within the target times; 56.7% of first responses to immediately life-threatening emergency (Category A) calls arrived within eight minutes; 61.8% within nine minutes and 67.1% within 10 minutes; 68.5% of urgent journeys arrived not more than 15 minutes later than the requested arrival time.

And then just to underline the problem today's Western Mail reports that paramedics are buying their own sat-nav equipment for ambulances. There are people's lives at risk here. I would say that an inquiry and some form of commitment by the Government to implement its findings is more than justified.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Apology required?

Will Eleanor Burnham have to apologise to the Presiding Officer for using inappropriate language in the chamber?

Nine days ago the Welsh Liberal Democrat MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, Roger Williams, demanded that Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Wales Office, Nick Ainger, "cut through the crap" and ensure that Miners get the compensation that they deserve. Given the huge injustice being experienced by miners on this issue his emotive language was well-justified, however he was pulled up on it by the Speaker and later wrote a letter of apology about the way he conducted himself.

Yesterday in the chamber, the 'crap' word was evident again. This time it was Eleanor Burnham describing one of her infamous train journeys. Carl Sargeant was quick on the ball with a rather ungracious retort but how will the Presiding Officer view the incident when he looks through the record of proceedings?

Eleanor Burnham: Will you give way?

Carl Sargeant: Yes, in a minute; stop shouting. [Laughter.]

Delays cost money, and efficient transport links are a crucial factor in investment decisions. We need to bring Wales closer to existing potential markets through transport improvements, and to ensure a truly mobile workforce. However, all decisions relating to transport need to be more sensitive to the communities on which any construction will impact—I am refering in particular to the way in which the A55 and A494 trunk road impacts parts of my constituency.

Eleanor Burnham: How embarrassed would you have felt, as I did a few weeks ago with a Dutch businessman, when the crap rolling stock was in such bad repair that one loo was locked and the other one was blocked? What does that tell a businessman from Holland about transport in Wales?

Carl Sargeant: I am sure that the Dutch businessman was embarrassed to be travelling with you.

Later on in that debate Eleanor had another chance to put her point of view and rather got her metaphors mixed up:

Eleanor Burnham: Thank you for calling me to speak, even if is only for a short interjection.

It is notable that the tracking indicators for sustainable development in annex B are still in the development phase. The Welsh Liberal Democrats would like to see an indicator similar to that used in Scotland, where its Government publishes an annual index that divides carbon dioxide emissions as the equivalent mass of carbon by total gross value added. I believe that sustainable development is crucial to the future of Wales and its people, and a green jobs strategy is certainly crucial to enabling both those balls to stay in the air. Minister, where is your green jobs strategy?

For one moment I thought she was going to ask him where his green balls where?

Rhodri late again

Sometimes one has to conclude that the First Minister cannot help himself. Having been late to meet the Queen at the Royal Welsh Show last year he was able to joke about it in front of her at the official opening of the Senedd on 1st March.

Now he has done it again. He was due to join the monarch and 2,000 guests from around the World in St. Paul's Cathedral today to celebrate the Queen's 8oth Birthday. Unfortunately, he was late again and had to sneak into the back of the Cathedral just before HRH. They will be talking about this for months.

Jolly Green Giant

Following this week's demonstration of new technology in the chamber we are to see yet another next week. The Presiding Officer has given permission for Mick Bates to make a Powerpoint presentation as part of his re-arranged Short Debate "Supermarkets – Jolly Green Giants or Incredible Hulks?" on Wednesday 21 June.

There are some people who might consider that this moves the new debating chamber into the realms of a lecture theatre and makes it less of a Parliamentary arena. We will have to see.

In the meantime, if Mick is short of slides I have found one he can use.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A socialist solution

It is often the case that question time in the Assembly fails to fulfill its functions because members insist on making speeches rather than asking questions. As a result we are often treated to long, sometimes-tedious discourses, read out by a member from a closely typed script. There is also a tendency for members to bring casework to the chamber but, instead of using it to illustrate a point they read out the letter they should have written to the Minister in the first place.

This happened yesterday with firstly, an essay by Lisa Francis on the experiences of a constituent from Aberystwyth who was holidaying in Gwynedd and then, an overlong question from Rosemary Butler. In the end the Presiding Officer suggested a solution:

The Presiding Officer: Order. This seems to be catching. I would like a question.

Rosemary Butler: I am trying to be concise.

The Presiding Officer: May I suggest that you ask the question and then e-mail the First Minister with the rest of the evidence?

By far the most interesting discussion of yesterday's session however, was the contribution of Environment Minister, Carwyn Jones, on the nature of farming. He started off by responding to the suggestion by Mick Bates that he was seeking to move from headboy in the chamber to headmaster:

To deal with Mick Bates’s supposition, I assure you, Llywydd, that I am not after your job as headmaster of this place. That was an evil comment that he made, and I certainly disagree with it. I seem to remember a great deal of grandstanding here by Mick Bates a fortnight ago; he seemed to give the impression that, somehow, he was the voice of calm and reason while everything raged about him. That was far from being the case, as he played to his own little gallery. He talks about socialism, but we are talking about an industry that is about as close to socialism as you can get, in many ways, because it is an economy that is subsidised, and needs state aid in order to survive. I do not disagree with that at the moment, and that has been accepted for a number of years across Europe. The farmers of Wales should be grateful that there is a socialist aspect to farming policy.

David Melding: I am grateful for that stunning insight, which had escaped most of us. Will you please tell your colleague, Huw Lewis, that he must support this form of mechanism in support of the rural economy from now on?

Carwyn Jones: Socialism must always be revised if it is to be relevant, which many of us in the Chamber believe in order for it to be relevant for the future. That is true of farming, as it is of any other part of the economy.

The Presiding Officer: Order. We are entering into philosophical fields that are not our major issues, however enjoyable they may be.

Alas, as philosophical discussions go it was a good debating point but hardly a coherent analysis of European agricultural policy, which has been largely dictated by National self-interest and back-room deals for many decades.

Pay-off of the Quangos

This morning's Western Mail reports that golden goodbyes to senior WDA executives were 'hidden' by the Assembly Government after it promised scrapping the agency was not about cutting jobs:

Redundancies were supposed to be avoided when the WDA merged with the Welsh Assembly Government, but in 'a significant' number of cases staff were given high severance payments. This happened in contravention of procedures agreed with the unions.

The report continues:

'a significant number' of WDA employees were given ad hoc redundancy payments before the agreed merger process had even been implemented.

This has not been reported to AMs by the Assembly Government, which yesterday denied that there was anything irregular about the redundancies and said payments had been scrutinised.

But a source close to events said, 'It would appear that hundreds of thousands of pounds in taxpayers' money has been paid out in contravention of the agreement that staff would be redeployed.

'This was not supposed to be a redundancy situation, and there were no agreed criteria to determine who should go. This seems to have been done on an ad hoc basis, arousing concern about why certain people were given severance payments, some of whom have gone on to very well paid jobs elsewhere with no time gap.'

Ironically, this was precisely the sort of situation that helped the First Minister make his name as an MP back in the 1990s, when he led the charge against irregular payments made to an earlier generation of WDA employees.

In this instance the Assembly Government are arguing that these payments have been the subject of scrutiny by the WDA Audit Committee, Internal Audit and Wales Audit Office. I do not believe that the Rhodri Morgan of the 1990s would have accepted that this was adequate in terms of transparency and accountability then, I am sure he does not expect us to accept it now.

A very moral play

This is not meant to be a review. It is a record of my impressions after watching Jerry Springer:The Opera last night.

My first reaction was that this is a very moral play. It is a parody of the Jerry Springer style of television, but it also makes the serious point that for many people this sort of public confession and confrontation gives them some purpose in life. It is almost as if achieving their 15 minutes of infamy justifies their existence. The central thrust is that television has taken the place of God in providing meaning to people's lives.

In making that point JS:TO uses language and imagery that might offend a lot of people. It is also very funny. I loved the Ku Klux Klan chorus line for example. The singing was excellent as well. And yes, it does not show the reverence to the Jesus Christ figure that some think is his due, but it adopts this tone to make a point, not about religion but about society itself. The second half TV show set in hell parodies how Jerry Springer's audience might view the classic battle between good and evil. It even has a little homily from Jerry himself at the end in which he tells us that there are no moral absolutes, only shades of grey.

My view is that those people who are demonstrating against this opera should go and see it. The language and some of the characterisations may not be to their liking but they will be able to find in it a message that resonates, that we need something substantial to anchor our lives.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Yesterday was a big day for Jerry Springer:The Opera. It opened in Cardiff and attracted hundreds of demonstrators. The media discussed the merits and demerits of staging it ad nauseum. The result was record ticket sales.

The protestors seemed satisfied at the turnout for their sing song outside the WMC, but even they must realise that all they have achieved is to increase the size of the audience and prolong the show's life. Is that really what they set out to do? I doubt it.

I have to admit that I cracked and bought two tickets myself. I have no great appetite to see it but if so many people believe that it should be banned then I have a duty to attend. I am going tonight. I will report my impressions tomorrow.

Update: It appears that the 700 or so protestors on Monday night included the BNP.

Who are you going to call?

In what must be a huge about turn, the high pitched tone, developed to repel teenagers, has now officially become a ring tone used by teenagers for their mobile phones in situations where they do not want to attract the attention of adults. I never cease to be amazed by people's ingenuity.

British Sign Language

The new chamber's technology is being put to good use as I write. The Business Minister is giving a statement on British Sign Language whilst a BSL interpreter operates from the adjacent building. Her interpretation is being broadcast on the screens in the chamber and as a separate feed onto the small screens in the public gallery. A model of good practice that should be copied by other Parliaments.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Summer is here

Yes, it is my cat. Sorry about the format. I only had a pocket camera to hand.

Stop moaning

Maybe we misheard. When the Home Office mooted the idea that 'people should stop moaning and take action themselves' they were not addressing the issue of anti-social behaviour at all. Instead they were issuing a rallying cry to Labour MPs over the Prime Minister.

Getting personal

The level of personal animosity between opposing sides of the former Blaenau Gwent Labour Party revealed in this morning's Western Mail cannot be healthy for politics, for democracy, or for the people concerned.

Just how deep the bitterness in the Independent camp is has been revealed in the decision by Peter Law's widow to publish details of a private conversation between the First Minister and her over whether he should attend her husband's funeral or not:

Mrs Law, who is standing in the Assembly by-election caused by her husband's death, told the Western Mail, "When the email request came through I discussed it with my children and we decided we didn't want Rhodri there because of the way he had treated Peter. That's why we sent the message back saying we would rather he didn't attend.

"When Rhodri rang me up, he said he thought that as First Minister he ought to be there. I repeated that the wish of the family was that he shouldn't attend, but said that as the church was a public place we obviously couldn't stop him going if he insisted on turning up.

"I think it's terrible that he decided to come anyway. So far as I am concerned, it was no more than a PR stunt for him. Rhodri Morgan showed what he thought of Peter when he was alive.

"I couldn't accept his reasoning that he had to be there because he was First Minister. As First Minister he should have attended the commemoration of the D-Day landings in Normandy, but chose to go to a golf tournament instead."

In a separate article the newspaper reveals some of the background to the disagreement that has become a blood feud:

Mr Law considered that Mr Morgan's decision to sack him amounted to an insult to Blaenau Gwent, so closely did he identify his own position with that of his constituency.

As a backbencher, he became a strong critic of the First Minister, both in Labour group meetings and publicly. Mr Law was briefly suspended from the Labour group for voting against the decision to spend public money on the Wales Millennium Centre. Shortly afterwards, he indicated in an interview the level of his disillusionment with Mr Morgan's leadership. He said, "What I will always object to is the way the soul of my party was prostituted to the Liberal Democrats so Rhodri Morgan could have a personal comfort zone."

In my view normal political discourse cannot properly take place in such an atmosphere. There has to be some mutual respect and co-operation between opposing politicians if government is to work effectively and efficiently. That is true whether one has a 100 vote majority or no majority at all. To be a politician one needs an ego, and that means that sometimes one does take an otherwise rational political decision personally, but one cannot operate on that basis and continue to effectively represent one's constituents. Politics is about more than fine oratory and point-scoring invective.

It is certainly the case, in my view, that the people of Blaenau Gwent cannot decide their future representation by judging opposing candidates on the basis of who did what, who said what and who they think was right in such an intensely personal disagreement. At this stage the candidates should be arguing about their relative positions on the health service, education, Post Offices, transport, the environment and a whole range of other issues. If they cannot operate on this level then the electorate must draw their own conclusions.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Welsh - again!

According to Atticus in the Sunday Times, the Welsh have been getting up Tony Blair's nose again:

A “save our seats” delegation asked Blair for the merest hint about when he would be walking into the electoral sunset. Amid rising concern about Labour prospects in the assembly elections next May, MPs Albert Owen and Paul Flynn urged Blair to set out a clear timetable.

“The thrust of it was that he needs to clarify,” says an MP who was present at the private meeting. “Two MPs said this very openly.” But Blair sent them away disappointed, saying he wouldn’t reveal more about his plans as this would play into the hands of the Tories.

For the sake of the workload of North Wales Police let us hope that the Prime Minister was more circumspect in his choice of language this time.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

World cup news

Well, this is a turn-up for the books. Those Welsh football fans who have decided to support Trindad and Tobago rather than England must be dancing in the streets. England struggled to maintain a one goal lead against Paraquay, whilst a ten man Trinidad and Tobago team held Sweden to a goalless draw.

Pundits who are expecting England to easily take three points in their next game and qualify may do well not to count their chickens too soon.

False dawn

When you are a young politician seeking to establish your name it is natural that you will take every opportunity to get yourself to the forefront of the public's mind. Thus it has been with Plaid Cymru's number one list candidate in South Wales West, Bethan Jenkins. Judging from an item in the editor's column of the South Wales Evening Post tonight however, she needs to take just a little bit more care in future if people are to take her seriously. The editor writes:

"Plaid Cymru regional list candidate for South West Wales Bethan Jenkins wrote to me congratulating the Swans on their performance in the play-off final against Burnley.

Like Bethan I was there, and I also enjoyed the atmosphere created by the Swans' fans. Like Bethan, I agree that we must remain positive despite the disappointment.

Uum, just one thing, Bethan. We were actually playing Barnsley."

Oh dear!

Networks and representation

It is considered that it was the Greeks who created democracy, now a Cardiff University Professor is speculating that they may have invented the computer as well.

The Welsh Assembly has famously laid claim to being one of the most hi-tech democratic institutions in the World. This is despite the fact that the technology does not work properly most of the time. It is bad enough having to work with networked computers but when they are combined with a double firewalls, severe system paranoia and broadband links in constituency offices that have all the consistency and speed of treacle then it is little wonder that AMs and their staff are so frustrated by it all.

If the Greeks sought to combine the two as well then it is little wonder that their democracy was short-lived.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Flying the flag

The Police are sometimes accused of acting in a heavy handed manner but Clive Wolfendale, the Deputy Chief Constable of North Wales, has taken the concept to a new extreme. His warning that people flying the English flag during the World Cup were failing to act in a decent and courteous manner is way over the top. Mind you North Wales Police have form on these issues.

It seems that we are being overrun with an unnecessary and disproportionate political correctness in a way that it is undermining the equality agenda. I know that Wales is a largely tolerant society. Some people may not like overt displays of Englishness but they are not going to turn it into a vendetta.

Mr. Wolfendale needs to chill out a bit and stop creating problems where there are none.

Women first

I have already commented on the system used by Plaid Cymru to select their regional lists, so that women are put in the number one position regardless of their merits or, it seems, the number of votes they get. You may recall that in my own region of South Wales West the Plaid Cymru selection meeting was attended by 89 members. Sixty two of them voted to re-select Dr. Dai Lloyd, 14 voted for Bethan Jenkins. As a result Bethan Jenkins was given the number one slot whilst sitting member Dai Lloyd faces a tough battle to retain his seat at number two.

According to today's Western Mail there is also unrest in North Wales where former MP, AM and Party President, Dafydd Wigley secured the number two spot with 75 votes, whilst the current sitting AM, Janet Rider was placed above him, despite only getting a reputed 20 votes. Now, Janet is a fairly effective Assembly Member, but the outcome of her selection process means that, short of losing their current Assembly Leader in Ynys Mon, the Party of Wales will have to do without the experience and gravitas in the chamber that Dafydd Wigley offers them. Understandably, not everybody is happy with that prospect.

The nuclear option

The opposition of the Assembly Government and at least three of the four parties in the Welsh Assembly to any more nuclear power stations in Wales seems destined to come to nought. The Prime Minister used his weekly question time on Wednesday to make it clear that Wales cannot be treated as a special case when it comes to making a decision on building new nuclear power stations.

This is the third big issue on which Labour in Cardiff Bay are at odds with their compatriots in Westminster. The other two are the loss of the Post Office Card Account and the creation of a single police force. In all three cases however, it looks like it will be Rhodri Morgan who will be on the losing side.

Rhodri has been keen in the past to put clear red water between Wales Labour and New Labour and these disagreements may well be seen to be part of that mood music. However there is a difference between policy distinctions that take into account Welsh needs and aspirations and seeking to disown those bits that Wales Labour think will lose votes.

At some stage Rhodri Morgan has to decide whether Wales Labour is a separate and independent political party or part of the UK movement. If it is the latter then he has to accept responsibility along with UK Ministers for the actions of his Labour government on UK issues.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Another War

The Western Mail is doing its best today to keep the Blaenau Gwent by-election interesting by seeking to pin down the Labour Parliamentary Candidate over his view on the Iraq war. (Meanwhile, Blogger does its level best to stop me posting this comment)

The paper is accusing Owen Smith of misleading what few viewers Waterfront had left after 15 minutes or so of its dreadful by-election special, by claiming that the Western Mail had failed to include in a published interview with him his assertion that he would have voted against the war. Chief Reporter, Martin Shipton, sent him a transcript of the discussion to prove that this was not the case.

It is hardly the most startling of news stories, but nevertheless the Western Mail seeks to make a good fist of it by wheeling out all Mr. Smith's opponents for their 15 minutes of glory. I may be biased but I thought the most cutting remarks came from the Liberal Democrat candidate, Amy Kitcher:

Liberal Democrat candidate Amy Kitcher said, "Owen Smith is the 'take the money and run' candidate. There seem to be no end of Tony Blair policies he wants to run away from. He's happy to take Labour money to bankroll his campaign but won't return the favour by backing Labour policies.

"On Waterfront it was clear Owen Smith's default position was to oppose Labour Government policies. No wonder he wanted to claim he'd have voted against the illegal and unjust invasion of Iraq. Having been playing Labour policy pick and mix during this campaign, I'm sure it's confusing for Mr Smith to remember which, if any, he supports."

The only problem is that whereas the people of Blaenau Gwent will have very strong views on the war, I think it is unlikely that this little spat will even impinge on their consciousness. It is very much a story for the chattering classes. Everybody expects politicians to obfuscate a bit so the fact that one has been caught out doing it is not really groundbreaking.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


There was a moment of confusion in yesterday's Plenary when the Deputy Presiding Officer had to clear up a misappehension that some people might have had that the Assembly may be a circus. As it happened it occurred during my speech on the Post Office and, even though I had a colourful tie on, I did not think that it amounted to a full blown clown's outfit.

I was just starting to get into my stride when Mick Bates hung up a poster behind me calling for local Post Offices to be saved:

Peter Black: I will start with a quote, by Tony Blair, as it happens. In June 2000, he wrote:

‘Britain’s post offices are a vital part of the fabric of our country. While 28 million people are served every week at Post Office counters, post offices are more—much more—than just businesses. Especially in rural areas, and in disadvantaged parts of our towns and cities—’

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. I am sorry to interrupt you, Peter, but, Mick, it is not necessary to hold up that placard. This is not a circus; this is a National Assembly debate. Can you put it down, please?

Peter Black: It probably clashed with my tie, anyway.

For one dreadful moment I thought the DPO was going to tell me that it was out of order to quote Tony Blair in the chamber. Conservatve AM, Jonathan Morgan, had a different sort of problem in a later debate on the safety of public sector workers. He launched into a graphic description of the problems caused by drink related violence:

Jonathan Morgan: I welcome this debate, and I echo Sandy Mewies’s view that this is about supporting front-line staff. That is a stark recognition of where we are in terms of the national health service, because we know that the number of incidents of violence against members of medical teams has increased. In the past year, roughly 290 attacks were carried out against ambulance staff, 134 of which resulted in injury. Often, ambulance staff face difficult circumstances because they have to deal with a variety of dangerous situations, which is somewhat different to the experiences of other front-line medical staff.


The number of attacks in Wales has increased to just short of 5,000, although, admittedly, these include a whole range of attacks that could be committed. The fact that the Minister for Health and Social Services says that the issue is as much about prevention as it is about trying to prosecute people, once offences have been committed, demonstrates a lack of understanding. In many circumstances, there will be people for whom violence is commonplace, whether it involves mouthing off at a member of medical staff or being drunk or high on drugs. You cannot do much to prevent those people from committing acts of violence, but we must ensure that NHS trusts prosecute them, that such people feel the full weight of the law, and that such incidents are not just dismissed because these people are drunk or high on drugs. I welcome anything that we can do to ensure that NHS trusts protect members of staff who work in our hospitals, but we need to examine the level of security arrangements that exist within hospitals in Wales. That is essential if we are to promote a zero-tolerance attitude.

Those of us with long memories thought back to a previous member of Mr. Morgan's own Conservative Group who had a drink problem, though he never indulged in the sort of antics described here. Nevertheless, Jonathan had a harsh remedy:

People in the medical profession face a range of abuse and attacks. Ambulance staff are perhaps put in the most dangerous situations, and they are ill-equipped to deal with the situations that they face. I wish to make a suggestion to the Minister for Health and Social Services, which he may not like, which is that I think that ambulance staff should be equipped with CS gas. That may sound rather extreme, but if you consider the variety of circumstances in which NHS ambulance staff are expected to operate, such as looking after people who have been injured in some post-football-match riot, they need effective measures to ensure that they are not attacked. That may be a measure that the Assembly Government could consider, but, by and large, we have a long way to go with this issue, because NHS staff are still very much under threat in hospitals. When they are there to deliver front-line care, the training for which has been provided for many years, and have demonstrated the extent of their commitment, it is our duty to ensure that they are protected to the ultimate level of the law in terms of prosecuting those people who offend, and to ensure that we support the victims via the various means at our disposal.

I wonder if he asked the ambulance staff if they want to be equipped with CS gas. It rather sounded like they are operating in the middle of a war zone. Maybe, he should talk to his colleague David Davies AM MP on the provision of Tasers for NHS staff.

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