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Monday, July 31, 2006

Most annoying

Today's Western Mail contains an intriquing survey. They have listed the top ten things most likely to make our blood boil;

Unwanted phone calls or knocks on the front door by pushy salesmen topped the list, closely followed by getting stuck behind a caravan on a busy motorway.

Celebrities named in the top 10 include singer James Blunt at No 4 and Big Brother couple Chantelle and Preston, who were ranked as the eighth most annoying thing about contemporary life.

Even my former History tutor gets in on the act:

Cultural historian Professor Peter Stead said cold-calling is offensive because the home should remain sacrosanct from unwanted intrusions.

He said, "They always seem to call at an awkward time, such as in the early evening when you're making plans.

What is most astonishing is not the dislike of cold-callers, caravans, queue-jumpers, James Blunt and traffic wardens but that politicians do not feature in the top ten at all. Possibly we are included amongst that group who people would least like to see on their doorstep, but if that is the case then it should not fall to Peter Stead to complain as well. After all, he once stood for Labour in the Barry constituency and presumably appeared on many doorsteps as people were preparing their tea.

My personal hatred is stepping in dog poo and owners who do not clean up after their dogs. Judging by the comments on this blog on Friday and feedback elsewhere I suspect that many Liberal Democrats have me firmly in their top ten of irritants.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Information overload

I have now been waiting five months for a substantive response to a simple freedom of information request to the Wales Office asking for details of government surveys of Swansea Guildhall back in 1998, when it was being considered as the home of the National Assembly for Wales.

If Lord Falconer were to get his way however, I could well find myself having to pay for this unbelievable inaction. I say unbelievable because despite devolution taking powers and responsibility off it the Wales Office has increased its staff by 50% - from 36 to 55 - inside five years and is still growing. Despite this there is still no single staff member with responsibility for dealing with freedom of information requests.

There is no doubt that introducing a fee may well reduce the number of enquiries and weed out some of the more whimsical requests, but if the objective is to save the blushes of government bodies then on balance it would seem to be a bad thing. Having unleashed the genie Government should not be allowed to hide behind a tariff to benefit from his services.

Summer holiday

Talking about influence The Sunday Times reports that Tony Blair is taking up the cause of extending the 50 year royalty protection period on sound recordings to the European standard of 70 years:

At the meeting of the national executive committee on July 19 last year Blair said that despite the “dominating global headlines” and recent terror attacks, Labour must not lose sight of the domestic agenda.

In the midst of such high-profile issues as the liberalisation of the Post Office and public apathy to elections, Blair “addressed concerns” about copyright laws “whereby Cliff Richard and the Rolling Stones only receive 50 years’ protection compared with 70 years in the rest of Europe”, according to one member’s detailed written record.

Cliff Richard, who is reputedly worth £40m, has described copyright payments as a “pension” for musicians and said: “Every three months from the beginning of 2008, I will lose a song.”

Having the Prime Minister promoting this cause must give it a very good chance of succeeding. The likes of Cliff Richard and Mick Jagger will be able to enjoy their luxurious lifestyle well into their nineties without any loss of income and may even be able to pass on the royalty payments to their heirs.

It is of course purely a coincidence that the Blairs have been able to make use of Cliff Richard's £3m Barbados villa for the last three years for up to three weeks at a time. Clearly, the six bedrooms, a tennis court and a pool give the Prime Minister plenty of time to relax and think through his domestic agenda. It is good as well that rather than take advantage of the facilities for free, Mr. Blair ensures that an appropriate donation is made to charity each time he goes there.

Cohen's moment of insanity

Nick Cohen in today's Observer is absolutely right when he writes that political advertising on British TV will unleash corporate and political monsters that will hijack rational argument and debate.

Unlimited spending by big corporations on TV advertising is capable of changing the language of any single issue so as to swing the argument their way. They will be able to target individual politicians who, out of principle, take an opposing view and they will be able to use television to feed, sustain and reinforce already-out-of-control lobbying at all the seats of power in the UK. In other words, it will be one more way of enabling rich people and big business to buy influence.

However, Cohen loses it later on in his column when he allows his irrational hatred of the Liberal Democrats to get the better of him, by alleging that Michael Brown was using the party to launder dirty money. Where is his proof? He has none.

The whole purpose of laundering money is to enable the person feeding the cash into the system to benefit from it legitimately at the end of the process. There was no prospect of this happening with Michael Brown. He gave the money to the Liberal Democrats with no chance of it being returned and with it being made clear to him that he could expect no reward for the donation. What Michael Brown's motives were I cannot say, but his subsequent travails have nothing to do with my party nor is there any evidence that the money he gave to us is tainted in any way.

What has been established but not reported is that all the donations from 5th Avenue Partners Ltd were made from a UK company that was carrying out business in the UK and operating from London premises at the time. That has now been confirmed beyond doubt. All the possible, reasonable and proper checks were made by the party within the thirty-day period of receiving a donation that is allowed under electoral law.

There are two main differences between the Liberal Democrats' handling of these donations and that of funding given to the other major parties. Firstly, all these donations were fully and properly disclosed to the Electoral Commission. Secondly, there was never any suggestion of any reward or honour for Mr Michael Brown. Our opponents will no doubt continue to try and beat us over the head with this association but all they have to work with is innuendo and smears. It is a shame that a respected columnist such as Nick Cohen should feel that he has to stoop to that level as well.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

New hurdle for Government on ID cards

Thanks to Lynne Featherstone who draws our attention to new poll from ICM that shows a majority against ID cards for the first time:

The latest poll shows that 47% of people think the introduction of ID cards would be a good idea, 51% think they would be a bad idea - a straight 5% swing compared to the last ICM/No2ID poll in February and the first time (apart from a very strangely worded BPIX question a year ago) that a poll has shown a majority opposed.

ICM also asked about attitudes towards the National Identity Scheme and the proposal that “everyone is required to attend an interview to give personal details about themselves for use by the police, tax authorities, and all other government departments.” 41% of people thought this was a good idea, 56% thought it a bad idea.

Like Lynne, I am very taken with the suggestion by a Home Office official that the poll might have been more positive for Labour's pet scheme if it had "focused on the benefits of ID cards.” Given that these so-called benefits have been systematically demolished by the scheme's opponents over the last few years, it is difficult to say what alternative question the pollsters might have asked.

The actual question is "The Government has proposed the introduction of identity cards that, in combination with your passport, will cost around £93. From what you have seen or heard do you think that this proposal is (a) a very good idea; (b) a good idea; (c) a bad idea; or (d) a very bad idea." In itself this question is very neutral, has been asked consistently in all previous polls by this company and actually understates the cost of an ID card. Can't see what they are complaining about really.


Farewell to the Chief

I missed the final two episodes of West Wing on More4 last night as I was out in Cardiff celebrating the final days of freedom of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Leader, Mike German. He is getting married next Saturday. However, I intend to catch up with them tomorrow. Still I quite enjoyed this preview in yesterday's Daily Mirror:

And what a comfort it has been during that time to know that the most powerful man in the free world was Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, a man who'd never say "Yo, Blair!", who could confidently point to Kazakhstan on a map and respond to any global crisis with a pithy quotation from the Bible.

Even his scandals - covering up his own illness - were heroic and huggable.

His staffers - chosen for their ability to think on their feet as all discussions were conducted at a brisk march through the corridors of power - governed out of a sense of duty and decency, and not because they were power-crazed sociopaths. And tonight they're inaugurating Bartlet's successor, Matt Santos, whose first presidential act will be to compose a love sonnet to his pristine blonde wife on the carpet of the Oval Office.

I will miss this portrayal of the 'perfect' Presidency. It was a beacon of hope in an imperfect and troubled World. Oh well, back to reality.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Passion in the cow shed

Who would have thought that Welsh Black Cattle could arouse such passions? The Royal Welsh Show suddenly appears in a completely different light:

Witnesses said the woman was hosed down during the performance with water normally used to wash and feed the cattle.

One witness, who did not want to be named, said security guards rushed to the scene late on Tuesday, but had difficulty grabbing the woman because the water had made her skin slippery.

Another said the woman's thong, discarded during the act, was returned to her on the end of a pitch fork used to muck out the cattle lines.

The Society might be better off just putting it down to experience and move on.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Time for Ming to shape up

When Charles Kennedy was forced out by MPs against the wishes of the membership, they gave as their reason that the party was going nowhere. They were dissatisfied with Charles' leadership style and with the impact of his 'health' issues.

Now we have the MPs' choice as leader and yet, despite successes in Dunfermline and Bromley, our opinion poll ratings are stagnating and slipping back. Ming has made little impact with the public at large. The Parliamentary Party has effectively taken charge of our policy direction and strategy, whilst the leadership has established a lock on the party organisation irrespective of the party's democratic structures.

Ming is playing for very high stakes and in doing so has placed a great deal of his personal authority on the line. If things go wrong then there is nobody else to blame, he has made sure of that by the way he has gathered all the threads around him.

The next few months are going to be critical. In a week or two we will be publishing tax plans that have largely been drawn up by the Treasury Team. Worthy as they are, these proposals seem unfocussed and lack a clear narrative. It is my hope that once we see the full details that will change. However, it did not help that Ming felt it necessary to reveal details before the Commission had reported or the democratically-elected Policy Committee had decided whether to accept them or not.

The debate will, of course be critical but so too will Ming's performance at the Conference. We need to get some bounce in the polls out of that week in Brighton. When Simon Hughes said that Ming had until the end of the Conference season to prove himself he was absolutely right. So far the only people who appear to be totally content with the leader are the MPs. They have to realise that, important as they are, they are not the Party. Having experienced a coup de grace at the top, we are entitled to expect results. It is now time for Ming Campbell to start delivering on his promises and the expectations of success that are associated with him.

Royal Welsh Show

I am halfway through two successive days at the Royal Welsh Show. It is well worth the experience, especially in this weather. The only problem is that I needed to be reasonable smart, although informal, and as a result I was sweltering all yesterday.

The whole of Welsh civic society is at this event not to mention hundreds of traders and tens of thousands of people. Amongst others I paid a visit to Chwarae Teg and Keep Wales Tidy and had a go at generating electricity by peddling on a fixed bicycle for a minute. Apparently, I produced the equivalent of 9,350 watts which is not bad, but well below some other AMs. David Davies AM MP, I believe, managed 12,500 watts. I am determined to go back today and break the 10,000 watts barrier, which is enough electricity to power a microwave. Thank goodness I don't have to do this every time I need a cup of tea.

Update: The pig in the picture was my lunch.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mining for noodles

The Advertising Standards Authority has found that the Pot Noodle advert that showed miners getting strands of Pot Noodle from a 'noodle mine' in Crumlin, Wales is not offensive or racist. They have rejected 81 separate complaints about the advertisement and quite right too.

It is strange that so many people found it necessary to complain to the ASA. If they had gone to North Wales Police instead then they might have found themselves being taken much more seriously.

Election night blues

For those of us who experienced a 24 hour count in 1999, the idea that election night might be deferred to enable postal votes to be better verified holds no fears. If we have to wait a bit longer to ensure that there is no fraud then so be it. I am not sure that the media or the public will be so patient however.

Back in 1999, local Councils were trying to count elections for their own chambers whilst at the same time dealing with two ballot papers and an alien electoral system for the Assembly. At about 4am it was decided that we should all go home and come back in five hours. My result was eventually declared at 5.30pm on the Friday.

I kept getting phone calls from friends and now-former work colleagues asking me how it was going. At one point the TV commentator, looking at pictures from Swansea Guildhall and no doubt devoid of much else to say, remarked that 'the Liberal Democrat candidate is looking very very nervous'. Considering that I had resigned my job to stand and that the resurgent Plaid vote had upset all the electoral calculations on the list, he was very much understating the case.

Now that I am much older I need my sleep, so by all means start the count at 9am the following day, but for goodness sake get it over with by teatime.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dismal Summer ahead for Labour Assembly Government?

It may be a glorious summer but today it turned pretty dismal for the Labour Assembly Government.

The Western Mail reports that despite efrfectively sacking Gerant Talfan Davies as chair of the Arts Council for Wales and replacing him with his own nominee, the Culture Minister still cannot get his way on the direct funding of Wales' top six arts companies.

Under Alun Pugh's plan, the Arts Council would no longer be responsible for funding Welsh National Opera, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, literary body Welsh Academi, dance group Diversions, Clwyd Theatr Cymru and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru. Together the six companies accounted for £8.2m of the Arts Council's £23.5m grants budget last year. However, in its submission to the Wales Art Review Panel, the Arts Council has rejected the proposals.

The Health Minister is also having a difficult summer. First, he is faced with huge controversy in his own area over plans to relocate neurosurgery from Morriston Hospital to Cardiff, now he has lost another Ambulance Trust Chief Executive. To lose one may be considered unfortunate, to lose a second is almost certainly careless. Let us hope that things brighten up for him and for the health service in Wales.

Making history

The granting of the royal consent for the Government of Wales Bill today is undoubtedly an historic moment. The spin is that this Act of Parliament will settle Wales' constitutional position for a generation. I am not so sure.

There is still a rocky road ahead until Wales has parity with Scotland and, even though, as Dafydd Elis-Thomas said this morning, all the tools are available in the Act to get us to where we want to go, there is always politics to get in the way.

Specifically, this Act of Parliament is built on the notion of a successful partnership between Cardiff Bay and Westminster. We have to ask for the powers and Parliament must grant them to us, except that they don't. The real test is when the two governments are of different political persuasions, then we will see how far that partnership and the trust that is inherent in it will stretch.

In the meantime, we all have manifestos to write that will encompass our ambitions for Wales and utilise these powers to the full. What will hold us all back is the uncertainty about how fast and how far we will be allowed to run in the first term. That is something we will have to find out for ourselves through trial and error.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Governing Wales

When the Assembly resumes after the summer recess one of its first debates will be on the Government's forward work programme - a sort of Queen's speech debate without the Queen. Nobody is really expecting any great things of this work programme, after all the Labour Assembly Government ran out of steam a long time ago and are now seeking to find things to say to the electorate for the next set of elections in May 2007.

Nevertheless, Rhodri Morgan held a press conference today in which he gave a flavour of his message for the next 9 months:

"I make a pledge today that, whatever the outcome of that election, Welsh Labour will never take part in any Assembly Government which includes the Conservative Party. I know I don't need to make such a pledge because my body and soul would not allow it anyway, but I make it anyway.

"Our aim is to win a clear, working majority, so that the Labour partnership between Wales, Westminster and the ordinary people of our nation, that partnership which has delivered so much already, can continue to do so in future.

"The people of Wales could wake up on the Friday after the election, when it's too late to undo the votes cast, however much they may be horrified by the unintended consequence of what they've done.

"There will, I know, be many committed supporters of both the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru who will be absolutely horrified that their leaders down at Cardiff Bay are in such close contact with the Conservatives in Wales - colluding with them, voting with them, taking their instructions from them. But that is what has been going on.

"And that - in secret, and without ever being willing to admit it - is what they may well be planning for the future.

"They may think they have a date with destiny, but what they plan to offer the voters is just another episode of anti-democratic Blind Date.

"My challenge to the 'socialist' Party of Plaid Cymru and the self-described 'most socially progressive party in British politics', Welsh Liberal Democrats - their descriptions, not mine, taken from their 2005 election manifestos is simply this: "Welsh Labour is 100% committed not to enter government with the Tories: will you be doing the same? Don't hold your breath, my friends. I suspect you'll be able to read War and Peace or even write War and Peace before you hear any answer."

Instead of setting out the policies that he hopes to put into effect over the next four years; instead of responding to the passage of the Government of Wales Bill today with a list of primary legislation he wants to enact; instead of setting out a vision for Wales, Rhodri Morgan bundled us all into his Tardis and took us back to 1997. A vote for Labour is a vote against the Tories. The only problem is that nine years on most people believe that New Labour are Tories as well.

As Mike German put it in his response to this rather feeble gauntlet: “Rhodri knows that the Tories are not the only force of conservatism in Wales. The conservative streak that runs through the Labour Party saw them water down the Richard Commission proposals for devolution; block moves to introduce fair votes for our councils; and saw them turn their back on setting maximum school class sizes of 25. The stick-in-the-mud tendency in the Labour Party are the real conservatives in Wales.

“Welsh Liberal Democrats have a clear position for the 2007 election. We will fight to win as many seats as possible, based on our programme, our ideas and our beliefs. We will campaign positively on our policies, and our commitment to making the most of the new powers available to the Assembly. Our message will be one of hope of a brighter future for Wales, not fear of the Tory past.”

I am already on the record as saying that I would not support a coalition led by a Conservative First Minister. I say that for two reasons. The first is that I do not have any philosophical common ground with the Tories and could not work with them in that situation. Secondly, I do not believe that my party has any philosophical common ground with the Conservatives either and accordingly such a coalition would inevitably founder.

My objections are not rooted in fear or negativity, but in a strong commitment to Liberalism. It seems that the First Minister's only commitment is to conjuring up bogeyman and urging us all to join him in a madcap dash for safety. Perhaps somebody should tell him that the lights have come on at last.

Politics should be about hope not fear, about making people's lives better and about putting differences aside when necessary to work together in the common good. There is no place for tribalism in that sort of society.

Getting political

There is some speculation today that if Animal Defenders International win their case to lift the ban on "political" advertising on radio and TV then Britain will rapidly sink into the sort of media frenzy we see in America, whereby political parties and pressure groups effectively buy elections through their purchase of airtime.

ADI argue that the ban is in breach of article 10 of the European convention and it seems that there is European case law to back up their submission:

ADI, a peaceful animal rights campaign group, was told it could not advertise on TV against the use of primates by commercial companies for advertising and in zoos. If the high court declares that the ban is incompatible with article 10 it would force the government to change the law sooner or later, though ministers could delay taking action and wait for ADI to take the case to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.

The Strasbourg court is almost certain to agree that the ban should be lifted because it has already declared a similar proscription in Switzerland a breach of article 10 in a case brought by an animal rights group. Campaigning organisations can now advertise freely in most other European and Commonwealth countries. In a three-day hearing, Lord Justice Auld and Mr Justice Ouseley will take evidence from Amnesty and the RSPCA about their experiences of the ban and from academic experts about the impact of television and radio advertising.

Tamsin Allen of the solicitors Bindman & Partners, which represents ADI, said: "The current ban on political advertising means that even campaigning organisations with no connection to any political party may not use broadcast media to raise money or to campaign on issues. This leads to unfairness.

"BP are permitted to advertise their green credentials on TV but environmental organisations are not permitted to criticise the oil industry for its role in climate change in the same media. We are hopeful that the challenge will succeed and open the way for thousands of organisations to advertise on TV and radio and to benefit from the new developments in interactive TV."

Whether a successful challenge will open the door to advertising by political parties is another matter. It must be acknowledged however, that single issue campaigning is always aimed at changing the opinion of government. It does this by bringing political pressure to bear on Ministers and by enlisting support from the opposition. Thus, its impact is party political. In those circumstances it is inevitable that the Government will argue at some stage for a right to reply and the opposition parties will then demand their tenpennyworth.

From then on in it is a slippery slope: party political broadcasts will be obsolete and political spin doctors and agents will be seeking to buy airtime to get their message across. The sterile blame game of the House of Commons will invade our television and radio time, it will infiltrate the internet and we will have to spend more time talking to each other to avoid it all. Who would have thought that TV could stimulate the art of conversation in such a way?

Seriously, though the one issue of concern here relates not to the principle of political advertising but how the various parties will pay for it. America is notorious for the way that lobbyists and big business buy influence. American politicians devote a huge amount of their time to raising money to run their offices and to campaign for re-election. That is not something I want to see here.

We are already witnessing inquiries into allegations that people were rewarded for donations and loans with peerages. When the amount of money that a political party needs to raise to compete is doubled or tripled so as to pay for airtime then goodness only knows what will be on offer to meet difficult fundraising targets. If ADI win this case then the Government need to do some serious thinking about how they are going to respond to it and how they are going to tighten broadcasting and political funding regulations to prevent this sort of free-for-all.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fighting for our rural Post Offices

The Sunday Telegraph reports that this week could be a crunch time for Britain's network of rural Post Offices, with the meeting of a Cabinet committee, under the chairmanship of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, to discuss the size of the rural operation.

Britain's smallest rural post offices are visited so infrequently that they lose money on every transaction. In a recent Westminster debate Jim -Fitzpatrick, the employment relations minister, told MPs: "Fewer than 16 people a week use the 800 smallest rural post offices, at a loss of £17 per visit."

Last week Mr Fitzpatrick refused to give any indication of the size of the potential cull. But he told the Commons trade and industry committee that the Government had to consider evidence given by Royal Mail showing that a commercially viable network would consist of 4,000 post offices.

"Sadly, I don't think it is sustainable to be able to continue with 14,500 sub-post offices across the country," he said. "People just are not using the post offices and the sub-post offices as they used to. There's a whole variety of ways for people to access services now."

Whether this is a sign that the Government is about to pull its subsidy of the rural network and signal the closure of 10,000 offices in villages all around the UK has to be seen. If it is then many people will be deprived not only of the services they currently enjoy but a visible and vibrant focal point for the community they live in.

What angers many people is that it is the Government that is directly responsible for bringing the Post Office network to the edge of this particular abyss:

Adam Crozier, the chief executive of Royal Mail, attributed the loss of revenue in part to the fall in government work, set to drop to less than 10 per cent of the Post Office's turnover in five years, compared with 60 per cent five years ago.

At present 4.3 million people receive their benefit payments through the Post Office card account system. The Department of Work and Pensions has decided not to renew the card account in 2010.

"Last year the Post Office lost £2 million per week; this year, through losing the pension benefit, we will lose £4 million per week. That is an immediate effect of the decision," said Mr Crozier.

There has been a deliberate Labour Government policy of running down Post Offices. Their actions has already led to the closure of thousands of branches. In 2003, 345 Post Offices in the UK closed, in 2004 another 1,278 went, whilst in 2005 a further 1,352 shut their door for the last time. Labour have forced the Post Office to bear the cost of a failed computer project that was initiated by Ministers, and they have effectively slashed the amount of business passing over Post Office counters by forcing people to accept the payment of pensions and benefits directly into their bank accounts and taking away transactions involving Passports and TV licences.

The abolition of the Post Office card account altogether in 2010 will be the final straw for many urban Post Offices. If the rural subsidy is cut or reduced then thousands of rural branches will join them in closing. A great institution and a major social service will have been brought to its knees by Labour ineptitude. That is the real legacy of Tony Blair.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

On blogging

The appearance of a blog written by the Chief Constable for North Wales continues to attract interest. I have just done an interview with Good Morning Wales on the phenomenon of blogging. What they seemed to want to know above everything else is how we think of things to write about. Clearly, they have not read many blogs, least of all the political ones.

Blogging has moved beyond the realms of a personal on-line diary, though thousands of people still use it in that way. In many ways blogs are setting the agenda, as well as reacting to news elsewhere. They will not replace radio, television and newspapers, but they have added an extra dimension to the news media that is allowing many more people to interact with current affairs.

On the way out I bumped into Lord Anderson, the former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and immediate past MP for Swansea East. He told me that since 'retiring' to the House of Lords he has become BBC Wales' unofficial foreign correspondent. I suggested to him that we needed more blogs from the House of Lords but he did not seem keen. He believes that he is too old for this new-fangled internet stuff, I think he is too modest. Perhaps he should look at Lord Tim Garden's blog, which deals with a lot of the subject matter he specialises in.

What is missing from the blogosphere is more MPs, AMs, MSPs, GLAMS, Lords and other elected people using it to interact with their constituents. If the Chief Constable of North Wales can see the benefits then why cannot others?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Relationship breakdown

For insiders the most interesting piece in this morning's Western Mail is their analysis of the breakdown in the relationship between Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas and his Deputy, John Marek:

One AM said, "Dafydd and John aren't really on personal speaking terms. This has been going on for the last four or five months. They have a big disagreement over how the members' side of the Assembly will be run in the future, after the new powers come in next May.

"John Marek thinks the Government is trying to take over what is now the Assembly Parliamentary Service, while Dafydd El has been trying to get a workable system in place. Depending what time it is, you'll find one or other of them in the members' tearoom, briefing anyone who will listen.

"Dafydd El, who chairs the Shadow Commission that is preparing for next year's changes, is angry he's not been put on the Standing Orders Committee, while John feels sidelined because he's not on the Shadow Commission and wanted to be on the Standing Orders Committee too."

Another AM said, "There's scarcely a person here with whom the Presiding Officer hasn't fallen out. He now barely talks to Paul Silk, the Clerk to the Assembly, and there's a real issue with the staff in the Assembly Parliamentary Service, many of whom feel frozen out by him. Many don't like the fact that the Shadow Assembly Commission, which he is chairing, is being serviced not by the APS, but by staff from the Assembly Government.

"Dafydd Elis-Thomas and John Marek are two very idiosyncratic characters and both have strong views. The PO has been at loggerheads with his own party and there have been rumours going around that he has done a deal with Labour for them to support him for a third term as PO. There's certainly some kind of power struggle going on.

"I don't know what is happening - I can't work it out. I thought the PO was het up about the opening of the Senedd, which was a very big thing, and that he would calm down once that was over. But he hasn't.

"Whatever else can be said about Dafydd, however, he is the one person in the Assembly who had a clear and practical vision about how this place should function. A lot of us said we wanted a proper parliament: he is probably the only one who knows how to deliver it."

Fascinating stuff. If it is true then I will have to dig out my tin hat for the next time I visit the Presiding Office.

Smoking gun

The Welsh Assembly Government have to be congratulated on moving forward with their proposed ban on smoking in public places. It now seems possible that this will be in place before England (and also before the next Assembly elections).

A consultation has been launched along with a website seeking people's views on the details. However, it looks that what is eventually is put in place will very much mirror the ban in Ireland. Smokers breaking the ban would face a £50 on-the-spot fine - while the owner of the premises would have to pay £2,500.

A lot of people are concerned about how it will be policed but that has not proved to be a problem in Ireland where landlords enforce it in the same way as they enforce other licensing rules.

Happy Birthday

This blog reaches its third birthday today. Since I started it on 21 July 2003 I have posted 1,903 times and have had over 100,000 hits. To be precise, as I only have statistics going back to December 2003, I have had 110, 871 hits in 32 months.

This is the second longest running blog by an elected representative, surpassed only by Tom Watson. I will now sit back and watch everybody prove me wrong on that assertion.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Policing the blogsphere

This morning's Western Mail reports that the Chief Constable of North Wales now has his own blog. It took some finding but in the end I located it here.

Personally, I think that this is an excellent initiative. It gives people a real insight into the life of a significant public figure as well as de-mystifying the job of Chief Constable. This sort of transparency and accountability should be encouraged. Other people in public life should follow suit instead of looking down their nose at the genre.

Indulge me

As a scouser myself I feel able to post this photograph, which is the best of a collection I received by e-mail today.

It is billed as a scouse keyboard. Humour me.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dumping Welsh?

Today's Western Mail has one of the most inaccurate and misleading headlines on its front page for some time. It bears no relation to the story, which is about the future of the bi-lingual Plenary record of proceedings after May 2007. There is no intention to 'dump Welsh'.

It is worth recording that at the moment we do not provide a bi-lingual record of Committee proceedings. It is also worth noting that the number of meetings of Plenary and Committees will increase after 2007. There are issues about capacity as well as cost. There are after all only so many translators in Wales and ever since 1999, this has been an area where we have struggled to fill posts.

The paper believes that the Presiding Officer is suggesting diverting the £200,000 plus worth of savings into translating legal documents. That is not my understanding. I believe that the proposal relates to the discussion of legislation. As all of these Bills will be bi-lingual then the line-by-line scrutiny will also be bil-lingual. It is often the case that these sessions are used to inform interpretation of legislation in the courts. A bi-lingual record of proceedings in this case is therefore unavoidable.

The debate is not just about the most effective use of resource. It centres on what a truly bi-lingual legislature is. What purpose does a bi-lingual record of proceedings have? Surely, the point is to enable people to participate in the language of their choice and as such, interpretation should be the priority.

People are very quick to either assume that we have unlimited financial resources or to suggest that we focus savings elsewhere. The first is not the case whilst the second is not very constructive. As we move into the era of greater powers we will have to make some difficult choices. Perhaps it is right that we have a debate to inform those choices now. It is just a shame that the sub-text of this article is not about the future of the Welsh Language at all. It is the increasingly difficult relations between the Presiding Officer and his Deputy. An issue that has now spilt out into the press.

Band of Brothers

When the Assembly was established in 1999 we were at the centre of the Welsh universe. Admittedly, it was a fairly small universe but it was one that we dominated nevertheless. This had its disadvantages as well as benefits. For a start it meant that all our growing pains and every inch of our learning curve were out there for the public to scrutinise in minute detail. That made it much harder to gain acceptance for the institution. It also meant that there was an intense interest in every penny spent, whether it was on expenses or services.

This feeding frenzy was fuelled by a small group of journalists permanently based on the fourth floor. Most of them had a page of Assembly news to fill each day, some of them had columns in which they recorded the quirkier side of life down the bay. For a short time it was devolution that was setting the news agenda.

All of that has changed now of course. The only newspaper that retains a permanent presence in the Assembly is the Daily Post. All the rest have withdrawn their journalists and are now treating stories on their news value. Papers like the Western Mail are seeking to set the agenda more and to use their journalistic resource to scrutinise rather than to report.

The fourth floor is now a pretty forelorn place. Apart from the Daily Post there is one freelance journalist there, the Press Association, and the BBC and HTV Assembly studios. The South Wales Argus, the South Wales Evening Post, the Western Mail, and the South Wales Echo are all unrepresented. I believe that Golwg has a journalist here but cannot say without checking whether he is a permanent presence or just comes in when needed.

Most of the original journalists have moved on as well. Many of the Western Mail journalists who were here now work for the BBC, whilst one has left to become freelance. Others have gone onto better things.

The trend that got me thinking about all this is that of the original band of journalists migrating to the other side. One is working as Press Officer for the Tories, one for the Liberal Democrats and another, broadcast journalist, is working for Plaid Cymru. A broadcast journalist is now working for a Labour AM, whilst I hear that the former Evening Post Political Editor is on his way back here to work for Independent AM, Trish Law. What an incestuous lot we are.

Update: I am assured that the Golwg journalist is a permanent presence here. My apologies to Carwyn for implying otherwise.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Half measures will undermine devolution

Tory Leader David Cameron's insistence that he will push ahead with his plan to bar Welsh MPs from voting on England- only issues, underlines how little he understands about devolution in Wales.

There are two principal and one minor objections to the proposal. The first is that Welsh devolution is not a settled event as with Scotland. Over the next decade the Assembly will accumulate powers at an uneven rate, but even where they assume responsibility for a service they might not take it all on. Thus there will be a large number of Bills that continue to have an impact on both England and Wales, even though large chunks of the subject matter have already passed to the Assembly to deal with. It will not be easy to resolve that and there will be circumstances where particular clauses might impact on Wales but Welsh MPs are excluded from voting because of a poor understanding of asymmetric devolution by whoever arbitrates on these matters.

Secondly, whenever legislation has an impact on public spending, even where it is quite clearly England-only, it will also impact on the money available to Wales through the block grant. This is because Wales receives a 5.9% consequential of any spending increase or reduction on devolved matters. Thus Welsh MPs may be barred from voting on a measure that might slash millions of pounds off the cash the Assembly has to spend in their constituency.

Finally, there is the issue of border MPs, whose constituents use English services (and vice versa) because they are more convenient for them. They could well find themselves unable to influence the future of those services and thus be unable to properly represent their voters.

David Cameron is taking a black and white view of a complex constitutional issue purely to attract votes in Middle England. Jealousy and envy are not good a basis for policy nor for determining the future of our constitution.

The Tory leader is in danger of turning Tony Blair's half-hearted mess into a complete hotch-potch. If he is really serious about achieving equality for MPs and dealing with the West Lothian question in a comprehensive manner then he has only one way to go and that is forward. Further devolution, that will give English regions parity with Scotland and Wales, will produce a genuinely Federal Britain and consign the West Lothian question to the dustbin of history.

Monday, July 17, 2006

I fought the Law but the Law won!

Labour's Assembly candidate in the Blaenau Gwent by-election has announced that he is standing down and will let somebody else have a crack at the seat next year.

Mr Hopkins, the leader of the local council, said: "I enjoyed the by-election campaign, despite not being elected.

"I do feel however that now I have fought the by-election campaign it is up to someone else to have a go.

"But there is important work to do for Blaenau Gwent and I fully intend carrying on as council leader.

Let us hope that as Council leader he is able to deal with some of the law and order issues he highlighted as a candidate last month. Specifically, he might try repairing the relationship between his Council and the Police, described by the local Inspector as in a 'state of collapse'.

Labour Finance Minister, Sue Essex, paid tribute to Mr. Hopkins:

Assembly Finance Minister Sue Essex, who plans to stand down next year, said: "We are all extremely proud of the job John did as the Labour Assembly candidate in the by-election.

"Labour did significantly close the gap on the independents and that was in large part due to the enthusiasm and vision of John."

Really? Technically, the Assembly result must go down as a Labour loss. After all at the previous election Labour won the seat. But, honestly, this was the seat of Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot. It was one of Labour's safest seats. Who do they think they are fooling by trying to pretend that their candidate did well to reduce a non-existent majority?


It is the first day proper of recess and already I have wall-to-wall meetings that will keep me busy to well past 9pm. These include visits to constituents, a briefing on transport policies in Swansea and a meeting with Post Office workers about plans to close Swansea City Centre's only Crown Post Office.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has been busy trying to protect his inheritance. In an interview with the BBC's Politics Show yesterday he insisted that his Government's ID card is still on track and will go ahead according to the original timetable. We will see.

The Prime Minister also made the extraordinary claim that even though donations could be linked to peerages, nobody in the Labour party had broken the rules on fundraising or nominations for honours:

He argued that people who helped "pay [a party's] bills" should be able to serve in the Lords because many places were reserved for party supporters.


The prime minister told BBC1's Politics Show: "I don't believe that anybody in the Labour party has broken the rules in relation to this." He said the Conservatives were also under investigation and stressed that Labour reforms had made donations more transparent and removed his powers of patronage over Lords appointments. But he added: "It's sometimes excluded from the public's mind ... That there are places in the House of Lords are reserved for party nominees.

"These are not honours, they're working peerages, reserved for party supporters, Conservative supporters, Labour supporters, Liberal Democrat supporters. In my view, it is absurd to say that if someone supports a political party financially - helps it pay its bills, run its election campaign - that they should be debarred from ... those places reserved specifically for party supporters." The appointments commission agreed in 2003 that when donors were recommended for peerages "it would need to be convinced that the person would still have been nominated if he or she had not made a donation". Dr Patel and Sir Gulam have both said Lord Levy told them not to mention the loans on their nomination forms.

Blair's scenario may well be his preferred outcome but he has failed to carry out the necessary reforms to allow it to operate in that way. In particular there is still an appointments commission, which is working to the old rules, whilst Acts of Parliament remain in place that make it illegal to sell peerages. If there really are places in the House of Lords reserved for party supporters and donors then why put obstacles in the way of its efficient working by leaving those safeguards intact?

The reality is that the Prime Minister has been caught out by his own half-thought through and incomplete reforms. He has tried to create a system of patronage whereby he, and other party leaders, can reward their cronies and in doing so has effectively usurped the British constitution.

Whilst we rely on a system of appointment to fill the House of Lords these abuses will continue, no matter which party is in government. People will be able to buy position and influence. That is why the case for some form of state funding of political parties and an elected second chamber is becoming more and more overwhelming.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Another scandal

This morning's Sunday newspapers are full of alleged scandals involving John Prescott and the loans for peerages affair. The Observer however, contains news of another scandal of at least equal import, and one that could have a huge impact on all of our lives.

They report that the security of the police National DNA Database is in question following the disclosure of confidential emails which reveal that a private firm has secretly been keeping the genetic samples and personal details of hundreds of thousands of arrested people.

Police forces use the company LGC to analyse DNA samples taken from people they arrest. LGC then supplies the information to the National DNA Database. Yet rather than destroy this afterwards, the firm has kept copies, together with highly personal demographic details of the individuals including their names, ages, skin colour and addresses.

In a separate twist, evidence has emerged that the Home Office has given permission for a controversial genetic study to be undertaken using the DNA samples on the police database to see if it is possible to predict a suspect's ethnic background or skin colour from them. Permission has been given for the DNA being collected on the police database to be used in 20 research studies.

Personally, I am not sure whether I am more shocked at the fact that a copy of the largest DNA database in the World is being retained by a private company or that they have been authorised to use the samples to establish crime patterns related to ethnicity and skin colour.

Those who commissioned this exercise may well be looking for something that can assist them in the fight against crime but their actions are the first steps in a process that could well lead to full-on eugenics. This is not a route that anybody should be taking.

As for the security of the DNA database, the Home Office may be relaxed about this but unless they are able to offer cast iron reassurances that samples, especially those taken from children, will be destroyed once the purpose they were taken for has been exhausted, then they will find an increasing reluctance from people to co-operate by providing samples during investigations.

Tories fail the self-interest test

Nobody should really be surprised that Tory plans to restrict the voting rights of Scottish MPs will not extend to Northern Ireland, even though there will be very similar law-making powers once their Assembly is re-established at Stormont.

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary David Liddington has confirmed that the Tories will still allow Ulster MPs the right to vote on English matters for at least two years of a future Conservative government.

Surely, this different approach can have nothing to do with the fact that Scottish MPs tend to be mostly Labour, Liberal Democrats and SNP, whilst at least ten of the Northern Irish MPs may well be counted upon to put Cameron into Number Ten.


I am not sure which we should be most outraged at: that the Italian players managed to break the World Cup trophy on the way home or that they were only allowed to take away a gold plated replica - and clearly had not been told!

Good for FIFA that they managed to think ahead for a change and took sensible precautions.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Another Labour spat

Of course all parties have tensions, especially between elected politicians in different legislatures, but this little spat between the Labour MP, Don Touhig and Welsh Education Minister, Jane Davidson is one of the most entertaining ones.

At the heart of the disagreement is a long-running dispute over who exactly is responsible for the way that our schools are funded. The simple answer of course is that it is local Councils. They are the ones who manage education in their area, they distribute the resources and they set the organisational context in which headteachers and governors operate. They are also accountable to the local electorate for their actions. However, the Welsh Assembly Government has a role in this as well. They set policy and the curriculum. They determine the quantum of the resources available to local Councils and they use various mechanisms, including direct grants, audit, inspection and general political direction to influence the decisions of local education authorities.

When it comes to problems the Assembly Government cannot wait to pass the buck to local Councils. However, when it comes to successes it is Assembly Ministers who are first in front of the cameras, taking credit for a new school, visiting high performing classes or just putting out statements praising the success of O-Level and A-Level students.

The Committee that looked at the funding of schools considered that the Education Minister needed to be much more hands-on in many areas where she currently passes the buck. They wanted to see more transparency in funding, to have a distribution formula based on real costs not historical spending patterns, to have more sustainability when dishing out grants and to provide more funding certainty to headteachers. All of that is on the desk of Jane Davidson at the moment awaiting her decision and all of that would have a direct bearing on the plight of schools in the Caerphilly Council area.

Don Touhig therefore, has a very valid point when he complains at the fact that the Education Minister will not meet him. His wider point however goes to show that there is no love lost amongst political allies:

He added, "Secondary school heads in my constituency tell me that there is a growing disparity between what they receive and what schools in others parts of the United Kingdom receive.

"Given that the Assembly Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills refused to meet them, refuses to meet me and even refuses to meet the Assembly Member for Islwyn, Irene James, an annual debate will mean that those of us in the UK Parliament can scrutinise what is being done with the generous settlement that we provide."

Labour MPs have devolved power and responsibility from Westminster but they do not trust their party colleagues to exercise it and want a direct influence over how the money is spent. The worrying thing is that this may well presage wider disputes if the Governments in Cardiff and Westminster come under competing political control.

What bemused me about the demand for a debate on the Assembly's block grant was that it is apparently made in ignorance of how the cash is allocated now and what will happen in the future. There is a funding formula of sorts which means that Wales automatically gets 5.9% of expenditure on devolved matters in Westminster. There is no process by which the block grant is agreed, which can come under scrutiny as far as I am aware.

One way that this could change is if there is a reform of the Barnett formula so that a Commission of the States and Regions distributes the money according to a needs-based formula. That process may be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny and maybe this is one reason why the Assembly Government is so opposed to it. They do not trust their own colleagues to give them what Wales is due.

Once the Government of Wales Bill comes into force all of the money for the block grant will be paid into a consolidated fund and this cash will be distributed by resolution of the Assembly. I understand that other Government departments also work from a consolidated fund but I am not clear whether this new process will enable MPs to scrutinise the money more effectively or not. That is something Mr. Touhig may wish to explore. In the meantime his complaint is perfectly justified:

Mr Touhig told the Western Mail, "I was surprised my request for a meeting was rejected. In my time as a Minister I never refused a meeting with an MP or an AM."

He said he thought relations between AMs and MPs were generally good, and was not telling the Assembly Government how to spend its money.

Why didn't Jane Davidson just take the meeting?

Still the disagreement has brought out into the open one of the reasons why AMs wish to change the way that the Assembly Government passes down money to schools, that even we are unable to scrutinise it because the mechanisms are confused and opaque:

A spokeswoman said schools' funding was allocated from Cardiff Bay to local councils as part of their annual settlement, and was not ring-fenced.

She said, "The Finance Minister has overall responsibility in terms of how the local government settlement money is allocated, it does not fall to the Education Minister's portfolio.

"The Assembly Government does not set the education budgets - that responsibility falls to the local authorities and therefore discussions about levels in individual authorities is a matter between schools and the LEA. That is why the Minister does not meet individual groups of head teachers and always asks AMs and MPs to make their representations direct to the local authority."

The Education Committee cannot scrutinise school funding because it falls under local government and the Local Government Committee cannot do the job because they are not responsible for education. If either of us get close to asking difficult questions we are referred to the local Councils. No wonder Labour MPs and AMs are so frustrated.

Finally, I am utterly astonished at the parting remarks of the Leader of the Commons:

Leader of the Commons Jack Straw said, "We did not make a one-off decision to devolve power to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

"Although we devolved power to them, we continue to exercise a great deal of control over what they can do through the block grant."

In theory his claim that the Government continue to exercise control over the way that Wales and Scotland spend the money is absolute nonsense. Devolution means that they give us the money and we decide how it is allocated. How is it that such a senior member of the UK Government does not understand how the devolution process works?

However, a more suspicious mind than mine might think that such a statement poses other questions. Are Rhodri Morgan's strings really being pulled from London? Has Jack Straw let the cat out of the bag? I think we should be told.

The art of debate

This morning's Western Mail poses the question 'What happened to the great debater?' In doing so they draw an unfavourable analogy between the quality of debate in the Welsh Assembly chamber and the World Schools Debating Championships. They also refer to the quality of speeches delivered by Aneurin Bevan, Neil Kinnock and David Lloyd George.

My instincts of course are to defend the National Assembly but like any institution the level of debate there is variable. The Western Mail itself quotes some examples of members interacting that do not give a good impression but like any snapshot that is not the whole picture. In fact I think it would be fair to say that there is some good oratory in Assembly debates just as there is bad.

The first caveat that should be drawn in all of this is that there are different types of rhetoric for different occasions. The speeches of Neil Kinnock to rallies stuffed with supporters or to Labour Conferences would not be appropriate in a small chamber of 60 members and, indeed, they would sound out of place there. Equally, the sort of speech one would give in supporting a detailed report on school funding with 27 recommendations would go down like a lead balloon at a public meeting.

In the chamber the most effective members are those who can put together a well-argued case, fluently, with good humour and a bit of hwyl. The least effective are those who deliver a well-prepared speech full of debating points and flowery language, the sort of speech in fact that may well get a huge round of applause at a meeting of the faithful.

I would also disagree with the analysis by Steve Morgan that there is nobody other than Rhodri Morgan amongst the 60 AMs who has the ability to inspire people. Even Rhodri has his off-days, whilst at their best I am sure that there are at least half a dozen other members of all parties who can both convince and inspire in the right context.

In my view one of the most effective chamber performers is the Conservative David Melding. This is part of his speech from the debate on the First Minister's report on Wednesday. Even in reading it, one can see that it is spoken with authority and good humour, whilst his grasp of the subject ensures that he is listened to by everybody:

The Beecham report is excellent and the Executive deserves some credit for allowing Sir Jeremy and his team to produce this report and to challenge it. Challenge ought to be at the heart of good government. Beecham recommends concentrating on leadership at all levels, involving all players and political parties in government at the Assembly, at the UK level and locally. The heart of his message is that we need to get more for the Welsh pound. We can have arid debates about whether the Barnett formula ought to be reformed or abandoned and whether a new magic formula based on need that would be comprehensively accepted across the UK should be brought in, but that does not answer the question about how we are to make public spending as efficient and effective as possible. That ought to be at the forefront of our minds. Beecham says that we must travel faster and further. I think that that is a mild criticism—it is a tasteful criticism—and one that I hope that the Government will take seriously as it does not necessarily undermine its authority, but it does say that we have to aim for the best, if we are to put the improvement of public services at the heart of the devolution project.

I was pleased to hear what the First Minister said about the need for a larger private sector. He said that that sector is growing, although I think that he was very particular about the measurement that he used. It is interesting that he is talking the private sector up, and I hope that he will continue to do so, because Beecham says that, in public service delivery, we need a mixed economy that makes more use of the private sector and the voluntary sector. I think that that would help. If we could see people moving from the public sector to the private sector and vice versa, and have that sort of dynamic, that would be healthy for the whole economy and we might get away from our obsession with seeing things as public or private, because there can be a good mix.

By contrast the contrived rhetoric of his Conservative colleague, Mark Isherwood, reads well the first time through, but falls flat in the chamber, mostly because it is too personal but also because he is not talking to AMs but to the world outside:

Mark Isherwood: In the House of Commons, Rhodri Morgan earned the title of wondrous Welsh word fountain. He has the gift—more than any other person—of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought. He has the brain of a sponge but the delivery of an England football team in penalty time. If nothing else, his annual report deserves an award for creative writing to hang alongside his second golden bull award for gobbledegook, awarded by the Plain English Campaign last December. This foot-in-mouth accolade was perhaps trumped only by his inability to give a straight answer on the BBC’s Question Time. This is the man who had to be escorted from the North East Wales Institute in Wrexham, after his attempts to stage-manage a Welsh Assembly Government question time turned the audience hostile. This is the man who was late for the Queen’s eightieth birthday and the international eisteddfod, and who is late for his own overdue resignation.

In my view it is contributions like that which give politics a bad name and which lead people to conclude that the quality of debate in the Assembly is poor. It is not.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Money first

I was quite bemused yesterday to see two important announcements by Labour Assembly Government Ministers less than 24 hours after the final Plenary session before recess. These amounted to a major Transport Strategy consultation, and a health initiative described in the press as an 'A&E revolution'.

In many ways it was strangely convenient that two major initiatives have been launched at the very moment that Ministers can evade scrutiny for the nine full weeks of the recess. Had either been announced just one day earlier then the Ministers concerned could have appeared before the Assembly and explained fully what they were intending to do.

Effectively they have tried to bypass the proper attention of Assembly Members in order to spin their own message. The health plans - which seek to transform A&E departments - has been published when the Assembly's health committee, and all the opposition party health spokespeople, are out of the country.

From my initial reading, there appears to be much common sense behind both documents. But it will be two months now before I am able to ask either Minister about it in person. It begs the question, what are they afraid of?

One thing that Andrew Davies may be afraid of is how the rhetoric in his transport strategy does not match up to the way that he treats his constituents. His dismal record of investing in public transport schemes in his own City of Swansea is an example of an area where he and the Government can do better.

Recent Transport grant allocations gave Swansea Council only £5.7 million of the £16 million it asked for to rebuild the Quadrant bus station, complete the bus link to the City Centre from the Fabian Way Park and Ride site, build another Park and Ride site at Fforestfach and complete City Centre bus links. By contrast Rhondda Cynon Taf Council got £39 million to build the Porth relief road whilst Neath Port Talbot got almost all the £10.8m it asked for, mostly to spend on their peripheral distributor road.

Considering Mr. Davies claims to want to get cars off the road he is spending an awful lot of money on new road schemes. I do not object to that where these schemes help a community suffering severe congestion and pollution, however I do object to his failure to find money to realise his own vision of better public transport in the City he represents.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Marek quits

The Assembly's House Committee met this morning to consider the Assembly Parliamentary Service's budget for next year. In many ways this was the most difficult budget we have ever had to set. Not only do we need to include significant new pressures such as the costs of separating the Assembly from the Government, IT set-up costs and new financial systems for example, but we also need to ensure that whatever Committee structure is agreed on once the Government of Wales Bill becomes law is serviced properly, and that we beef up the legal and research support for members so that we are properly equipped to deal with the new era of primary legislation.

The House Committee is responsible under standing orders for laying this budget by the end of September, however because they will cease to exist shortly after the Assembly elections they will only have a role in implementing it for five of the 52 weeks of the 2007-08 financial year. Instead the new Assembly Commission will take over responsibility for the budget and for the administration of the whole Assembly side. As a result the shadow commission has done a lot of work in drawing up its own budget.

One of the key considerations in preparing the Commission's draft budget was to contain costs and to ensure that the increase was kept at or below the rate of inflation. This is not going to be easy and it will entail making some savings. The Shadow Commission will be working on these over the summer. The consequence of this process however, was that there was some conflict at this morning's meeting between the Commission and the Deputy Presiding Officer. He had an alternative budget, which he believed would avoid making these savings, however he was outvoted.

I have now learnt that as a consequence of that decision the DPO has resigned as Chair of the House Committee. I am sure there must be more to it than this but we will have to wait and see how this situation develops and what else comes out.

Update: Despite having confirmed John Marek's resignation with two different sources it seems that he has not yet left the chair of House Committee. I am told that he is still considering his position.

A question of competence

It has long been apparent that the various u-turns in the Home Office have been raising serious questions about the competence of this Labour Government. The fiasco over ID cards and the foreign prisioners affair are two particular examples. However, we now need to add to that catalogue the abandonment of plans to merge the four Welsh police forces.

This was the policy that was thought so important that the Secretary of State for Wales took it upon himself to pre-empt the consultation and announce it as a done deal. He was then forced to watch as the whole proposal unravelled in the face of countless questions about its implementation and who would meet its cost. That it has been laid to rest is a good thing. However, the way that this came about raises doubts about Peter Hain's judgement as well as that of Charles Clarke and various civil servants.

The downside for the government (which, perversely, helps Hain) is that this u-turn has come about on a very bad news day. This time there is no tragedy that spin doctors can try to bury the announcement under, but a potential crisis of government that threatens the position of the Prime Minister and must surely accelerate the introduction of state-funding for political parties as part of further reform on donations and loans.

It is true that Lord Levy has not been charged or even tried, however his arrest must surely presage the interviewing of Tony Blair and possible further action. Even if the Police take it no further the position of the Prime Minister is looking more and more untenable. This is no longer a matter of the competence of the Government, but of its moral integrity. It can surely be no coincidence that Gordon Brown is nowhere to be seen at the moment.


Headline in this weeks Port Talbot Guardian:

"Website pervert slipped through the net".

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Cardiff Bay kiss

I finally got to ask the First Minister about the Home Office's National Respect Squad yesterday. In particular I wanted to know what input his government had had and how well equipped it is to deal with Welsh circumstances. Rather predictably he had not heard of it.

What had started off as a straightforward question degenerated somewhat when North Wales Conservative member, Mark Isherwood, brought his own peculiar brand of rhetoric to the issue:

Mark Isherwood: As you know, anti-social behaviour damages the lives of many, and often leaves older and more vulnerable people living in fear and despair. However, it is a matter of huge concern that almost half of all anti-social behaviour Orders issued to young people aged between 10 and 17 have been breached on more than one occasion, and that 35 per cent of ASBOs given to those aged under 17 involve children with a diagnosed mental health disorder, or an accepted learning difficulty. Therefore, what action do you propose—at Home Office and devolved level—to reverse this deteriorating position, so that you may truly be tough not only on crime but on the causes of crime?

The First Minister: It is important that we give equal weight to both those strictures. I do not know whether you would be able to enlighten us as to whether you adhere to the John Major philosophy of ‘understand a little less, and condemn a little more’, or to the new ‘let us get to understand the hoodies’ philosophy, which is, apparently, the new policy of your leader. It is important that we understand why young people feel that they want to rebel through anti-social behaviour, and to see whether we can divert them away from it by music programmes, sports programmes, or some other way of getting rid of that surplus energy before it diverts into the ways that have become a nuisance to pensioners and other people trying to live their lives.

At this point the Labour Party's answer to Zinedine Zidane got to his feet and delivered a 'Cardiff Bay kiss' to David Cameron and his 'hug a hoodie' campaign:

Carl Sargeant: The ‘hug a hoodie’ campaign seems to be rubbing off on Nick Bourne’s team and Peter Black—they are soft on crime, again. You do not have to be young or old to behave in an anti-social way; the issue is about dealing with anti-social behaviour as a whole. Do you believe that opposition AMs should distance themselves from the Westminster policy? What we should be doing in Wales is looking after the people and ensuring that anti-social behaviour does not affect them, whether they are hoodies or not.

The First Minister: I agree. We just want to ensure that the environment in which young people grow up is one in which they do not feel attracted to anti-social behaviour, and that, when they gather in large and sometimes threatening numbers in front of a Spar shop, and therefore discourage a pensioner from feeling safe enough to go out to buy a few necessities at 8 p.m., somehow or other they understand why they are threatening those pensioners and making them feel that the streets do not belong to law-abiding people any more. It is a difficult issue, because young people feel like congregating, but, on the other hand, it makes pensioners’ lives a misery. We must broker between the generations, to ensure that everyone is regarded as a full citizen, without causing problems to other citizens in Wales.

Quite why I was dragged into this little spat I do not know. I never even mentioned hoodies and neither has my Party leader. However, there is no doubt that this macho posturing on the part of Labour politicians is getting out of control.

There is no longer any real debate about how to deal with the problems of particular communities, instead we have politicians competing to see who can sound the toughest. The objective is not to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour but to scare people witless and then to demonise the opposition. It is a tremendously dishonest tactic.

It is especially hypocritical when the First Minister is able to join in with this game despite the fact that he does not know any of the details of the latest Home Office initiative or how it impacts on his government and its agenda.


The claim by a Civil Service Trade Union that the Assembly Government plans to cut 1,200 jobs over the next three years came as quite a shock to many people yesterday. This was especially so as it was backed up by minutes of a private meeting within the depths of Cathays Park. The Government was having none of it however even though they refused to deny it.

I tried to raise it in Plenary yesterday during the Business Statement. The Business Minister said that she does not intend to respond to a press story based on a leaked document. So I asked her if it is not true would she say so today. If she could not, then would she schedule a statement at the earliest opportunity so we can ask the relevant minister questions about it.

Jane Hutt replied: “It would be a full time job to rebut all the stories in the Western Mail… we do not recognise these figures at all.” The government’s non-denial denial can give little confidence to civil servants in Wales. Still it was not as bad as the gobbledook that the First Minister came up with in his press briefing earlier in the day:

He told reporters, "This is based on an allegation or a kind of conversion figure done by civil servants based on departmental running costs. All I can say is, there is never a time in which we don't exert downward pressure on departmental running costs.

"In a week when the Beecham Review (on public services in Wales) is published, we will be very conscious of the fact that we have to show the same amount of leadership as local government does and as the NHS does, on reducing the overhead costs of providing public services, because everybody wants the maximum level of conversion from money spent on the overheads into money spent on front line services.

"You can't make any kind of conversion therefore of any reduction in running costs, meaning a reduction in civil service jobs, because it might be a reduction in the number of civil service jobs in the departmental running cost line and an increase in the number of civil servants - there could be the same civil servants with the appropriate amount of retraining working on programmes, they'd be switched to the front line, as it were.

"But we have always said, for instance, post the mergers, we never said there would be no efficiency savings arising from the mergers, but we have said we thought it could be managed without any compulsory redundancies, so there is nothing new or newsworthy in this story."

So that is clear then. They are making cuts and the story maybe true but they cannot say for certain yet. I am sure that all the affected civil servants are as confused as we are.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Insulting the Welsh

So, North Wales Police have abandoned their ill-advised investigation into claims that Tony Blair insulted and swore at the Welsh. I should think so. The BBC reveal that the cost of this ten month indulgence was £1,656.51.

The fact that North Wales Police have costed it down to the last 51p is in itself deeply worrying. Can an organisation have obsessive compulsion disorder? If so then Mr. Brunstrom's force must be prime candidates. A prescription for a more strategic outlook and a dose of commonsense might help.

Another u-turn?

The media this morning is full of speculation that the Home Office is about to do another u-turn and abandon the controversial Police merger proposals that, up until a few days ago, they were proclaiming as essential to the security of the nation. How things change.

The Western Mail reports that Home Secretary John Reid will make an announcement on Wednesday. This follows the withdrawal of co-operation by the Lancashire and Cumbria Police Authorities who, up until now, had been prepared to voluntarily merge. It seems that the terms of that merger, and in particular the financial settlement, were not to their liking. This bodes ill for promises that the Home Office will pick up the tab on the Welsh merger.

If these rumours are true and there is a u-turn then it may not be the first. A u-turn on ID cards is also being mooted. Will John Reid have any New Labour policies left to implement?


Monday, July 10, 2006

What is in a name?

The House Committee will be discussing the provision of a seperate website for the Assembly Parliamentary Service on Thursday. An important part of that discussion is what name to adopt for the site that will fully reflect the status of the National Assembly for Wales. The paper records that alas www.nafw.org is not available. It is currently being used by the North Ayreshire Fiddle Workshop.

That headbutt

Henceforth, Zinedine Zidane's peculiar way of interacting with an Italian opponent shall be known as the 'Marseille Kiss'. After that France deserved to lose. What the French Coach thinks he is doing seeking to excuse this behaviour I do not know. There is no justification for that sort of behaviour.

Reforming Public Services

I will be travelling to and from London all day so there will be little or no opportunity to comment on the Beecham Review when it is unveiled later on. However, a number of points arise from this preview on the BBC's website.

The Welsh Assembly Government is quite right when it says that services need to be more responsive to public demand and more efficient. However, setting an arbitrary efficiency target of £2 billion by the end of the decade and then withholding the money at source will not produce that outcome. It deprives Councils of the opportunity to invest to save, prevents them planning over a long period of time to deliver sustainable efficiencies and forces short-term cuts in vital services that have nothing whatsoever to do with efficiency or effectiveness of delivery. If the Government want to deliver the Beecham agenda then they need to work with Councils not dictate to them.

To be fair, many Councils are aready starting to deliver this agenda but are being happened by the Assembly Government's approach to the Gershon Savings Review.

Plaid Cymru's Helen Mary Jones says of public services that "(There is) a lack of accountability, too many decision-making structures, much too complex." Whilst Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Leader, Mike German, states that "I don't want to see local councils reorganise yet again because that's a massive disruption but I think they've got to hear this warning and I think Sir Jeremy Beecham will be giving them a pretty sound warning. If they don't pull their finger out then they will get reorganised."

My view is that the Assembly Government has a bigger problem than local Councils in this regard. They need to get their act together in terms of accountability and transparency as well as in delivering effective and efficient services. The Welsh NHS is a basket case for a start. How we can start dictating to local Councils when we have not got it right ourselves I do not know.

It is a not a liberal approach to use a big stick to deliver on this agenda. Threats will only bring resistance. This has to be a partnership or nothing. And as for reorganisation and mergers, well if you want to introduce organisational lethargy and the ossification of public services for the next decade then go ahead. There may well be a case to reduce the number of councils by merging some of the smallest but we have to recognise that such a process will be painful and difficult. It will put the Beecham agenda in those areas onto the back-burner for years as officers and members come to terms with the cultural and organisational issues that such a process will throw up.

Some less threats and more understanding would be very welcome and a whole lot more productive, as would a recognition that local Councillors are also democratically accountable and deserve more respect because of that.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Big Mac stakes

With the Charity Shield only weeks away I am told that the Welsh Assembly team that will be playing in the fifth McDonald's sponsored Parliamentary Shield has already started practise sessions. What has not been revealed is which fast food restaurant they are practising in.

Government up a blind alley on ID cards

This morning's Sunday Times carries good news about the future of the Government's ID card proposals. They report that the flagship identity cards scheme is set to fail and may not be introduced for a generation.

The problems are so serious that ministers have been forced to draw up plans for a scaled-down “face-saving” version to meet their pledge of phasing in the cards from 2008.

However, civil servants say there is no evidence that even this compromise is “remotely feasible” and accuse ministers of “ignoring reality” by pressing ahead.

One official warns of a “botched operation” that could put back the introduction of ID cards for a generation. He added: “I conclude that we are setting ourselves up to fail.” Another admits he is planning Home Office strategy around the possibility that the scheme could be “canned completely”.

In one e-mail the prime minister is personally blamed for the fiasco with his proposal for a scaled-down or “early variant” version. “It was a Mr Blair apparently who wanted the ‘early variant’ card. Not my idea,” writes a top Home Office civil servant.

This is genuinely good news for anybody who cares about civil liberties. It has already been demonstrated that the proposals will add nothing to the fight against terrorism, illegal immigration and crime, despite the claims of some Ministers. Now that the civil servants have recognised that the scheme was never really workable it is time for the politicians to follow suit.

The latest independent costing for ID cards stands at £19 billion making them unaffordable both to the Government and citizens, who it is planned should pay for their own card. Do the Government really want to go into the next election with this new 'poll tax' as the centrepiece of their manifesto?

When John Reid said that the Home Office was not fit for purpose he was clearly wide of the mark. It is the Prime Minister and a succession of Home Secretaries who have been proven to be not fit for purpose and this fiasco is the latest manifestation of that.


Tardis rules

The last episode of the current series of Dr. Who was awesome and well-worth waiting for. BBC Wales and Russell T. Davies fully deserve all the accolades they have received for this long-awaited revival. As ever however, there is always somebody waiting in the wings to spoil it by taking the phenomenon that little bit too far.

Matt Withers of the Wales on Sunday is, as ever, in there with the scoop. He reports this morning that Plaid Cymru AM, Leanne Wood, is demanding that mini Tardises are placed all around Wales to attract Doctor Who fans to the country.

As a number of scenes from the present series were shot in the Gower Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty I suspect that the planners (and the locals) would have a great deal to say about such a proposition. It plumbs new depths in tackiness.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Facts for anoraks

Now this is good. A series of fascinating but largely irrelevant facts from Prospect magazine:

I think I may make this a running series.

Stealing the towels

Those who have left a hotel with the towels smuggled away in their suitcase will be relieved to know that they are in good company. It seems that Wimbldeon players have been up to the same tricks:

They earn millions of pounds a year, but it seems Wimbledon's top tennis players can't resist stealing the tournament's official towels.

The All England Club has lost hundreds of the distinctive towels it provides for players to use during their rest breaks on court.

Once smuggled off court in their gym bags they appear to make great gifts for friends and family.

All the details are on the blog of Bob and Mike Bryan for 6th July:

My tennis bag is stuffed. I brought home 5 big bottles of water and 4 official Wimbledon towels. These towels (see photo of me and coach Dave) have been a long tradition at Wimbledon and players make a habit of stealing as many as they can get their hands on. They make great gifts.

For every match there are two new towels on your chair. When the match finishes, the ball boys try to snatch them from you, but if you shove them deep in your bag and run, they're yours. I played two mixed doubles matches today... I was two for two with the matches, but more importantly, I was 4 for 4 with the towels.

The players are actually allowed to keep two official towels, any more they should buy for £24 each. Still, not all of them are multi-millionaires.

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