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Friday, October 27, 2006

Probably the best region in the World.

I am proud to be an Assembly Member whose region is virtually coterminous with that covered by the Ospreys. Based at the Liberty Stadium this is one regional rugby side that seems to be going places this season.

I was quite amused therefore to see that the region has been renamed for Wednesday's match against Australia. I am now the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for Ospreylia. Beats South Wales West as a name anyday.

Rhodri to the rescue

According to this morning's Western Mail Rhodri Morgan has warned Labour Party members that they have six months to save Wales’s public services. Apparently, he believes that the only alternative to him as First Minister is a Tory-led coalition of Opposition parties. A Carly Simon song that springs to mind.

Rhodri's warning is ominously similar to that given by Tony Blair back in 1997. Then, the Labour Leader told the voting public that they only had 48 hours to save the NHS.

If Rhodri reduces our public services to anything like the condition New Labour has left the Welsh NHS in, then we really are in for a winter of discontent should he resume the First Ministership in May.

Another one!

There is something seriously awry in the Welsh Assembly Conservative Group. They all appear to have caught the blogging bug. The latest to succumb is Mid and West Wales AM, Lisa Francis, who in her first post admits to 'slightly ludite- tendencies'.

This could explain why she relied on her staff to e-mail us with news of this latest venture rather than doing it herself.

So much money!

The House of Commons has published MPs expenses for April 2005 to March 2006. A total of £85 million in all, but that is the price of democracy.

By far the most interesting column in the list is 7a: postage costs associated with the use of House of Commons Stationery. The variations in expenditure under this heading is massive. How, for example can an MP justify spending £25,146 on stamps in a year when another MP spent only £79? We could ask of course but, as I said yesterday, they will not tell us.

Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain once more comes near the top of the list for postage costs amongst Welsh MPs with an expenditure of £7,512. This is a tidy sum in itself. In contrast his next door neighbour, Hywel Francis of Aberavon, spent only £2,869 under this heading. Maybe Mr. Hain would like to voluntarily detail why he needed to spend almost £5,000 more on stamps than nearly every other Welsh MP. After all he is quick enough to criticise AMs.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


I have already had at least one phone call asking why I have not yet posted on the latest offering from rent-a-gob MP, Peter Hain. The answer is that I have been busy, but also that I don't know whether I can really be bothered. However, here I am so I might as well join in the discussion.

Peter Hain really has no idea what a Regional Assembly Member does. The question that has to be asked therefore is why does he parade his ignorance at every opportunity. If he actually believes that we are merely add-ons then why did he not use the recent Government of Wales Bill to abolish us? The fact is that he is trying to unpick the political consensus that defined the make-up of the Assembly back in 1997 by stealth. That is something he cannot be allowed to do.

I have argued in the past that as Regional Assembly Members have to cover an area seven or eight times larger than a constituency member then this more than makes up for any difference in workload and justifies the equity of treatment they receive on allowances. Equally, you cannot write rules to protect your own Assembly Members from being challenged politically. You might as well abolish elections altogether or, if you wished to be more subtle, build an electoral advantage into incumbency as they have done in America.

MPs already have that advantage with very generous allowances and much greater latitude in how they use them than Assembly Members. Peter Hain himself spends a great deal on postage, but when you put in a Freedom of Information request to find out where the money has gone you hit a brick wall. I know, I have tried. I have appealed and am awaiting the outcome of that appeal.

As a Regional Member I actually do a great deal of casework and I hold surgeries. In fact I am holding two surgeries in Peter Hain's constituency tomorrow afternoon. Interestingly, a lot of the referrals I get from Neath are from people who have been to their MP and have been dissatisfied at the response they had. In one case, I ascertained that Mr. Hain had written to the wrong person and as a result had not been able to give the assurances his constituent sought. When I wrote to the right authority I managed to resolve the issue within a few weeks.

As for the powers of the Assembly, Mr. Hain's stance is just outrageous. He is demonstrating all the control-freakery that lost Labour votes in 1999, but which they were supposed to have left behind them. What he is effectively saying is that MPs will block a legislative request from a freshly mandated government that does not fit into Labours agenda. So much for devolution.

In just a few sentences the Secretary of State for Wales has underlined all that is wrong with the Government of Wales Act. It effectively appoints him as the Viceroy of Wales and he will use that power to only let the Assembly do what he is comfortable with. Far from empowering the Assembly the Act has recast Wales as Peter Hain's personal colony.

Nowwhere is this better illustrated than in the announcement yesterday that the Assembly will in future be able to reshape local government without seeking parliamentary approval. In itself the legislation that is proposed for England will undermine democratic accountability still further by concentrating power in the hands of a few individuals. Scrutiny and transparency have been sacrificed in pursuit of 'strong' government.

Thank goodness the Welsh Assembly will be able to do its own thing. However, the very pointed exclusion of electoral reform for local Councils from the powers that are to be transferred is meant to send a message to the two parties who believe that this is necessary and who may have a significant say in the next Welsh government. Labour are effectively saying that they will block any request from the Assembly to implement such a change. In doing so they are hoping to dictate the terms of any future coalition. What they may get instead is a constitutional crisis and unstable government as Labour are left to govern alone with even fewer seats than they have at present. Where will Peter Hain be then?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

How many?

Kerron Cross has discovered from this site that there are no people with the same name as him in the United States of America.

It seems that out of 299,968,595 adults in the USA, 361 of them are named Peter Black. The site's list of famous people with my surname includes Jack Black, Karen Black and Sirius Black. Funny that, I thought Sirius Black was a fictional character in Harry Potter.

Just for the record the site states that there is nobody called Rhodri Morgan in the USA, largely because it says that his christian name is unknown over there. Maybe that will change after the next Ryder Cup in Kentucky.

Ryder Cup

There has been a lot of discussion in the media about the cost of the Welsh Assembly Government's delegation to the Ryder Cup in Ireland. Independent AM, Trish Law was the first to raise it in the Assembly however, with a question about the next tournament:

Trish Law: Is it the Welsh Assembly Government’s intention to send a delegation to the thirty-seventh Ryder Cup in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2008? OAQ1963(FM)

The First Minister: I would expect us to do so, for the same reason that Governor Ernie Fletcher and his delegation from Kentucky were in the K Club in Ireland a couple of weeks ago. Indeed, the event in Ireland provided us with fantastic opportunities to raise Wales’ profile as a business and leisure destination on a global stage and to create jobs. To a lesser extent, the event in Kentucky will do the same.

Trish followed this up with a supplementary asking that any subsequent delegation will be more prudent. There is little hope that this wil happen as the First Minister made clear:

Trish Law: Will the First Minister give an assurance that the Assembly Government will be more prudent with public expenditure for the 2008 trip to America than it was in spending £236,000 to treat 30 delegates to a jaunt in Ireland for this year’s Ryder Cup?

The First Minister: It just depends what you think was happening. In this case, I never saw any golf being played. I was meeting with business executives all the time, and one of those meetings resulted in the announcement of 300 new jobs two weeks ago. I hope that some of your constituents will be able to access some of those jobs when the company opens.

So the First Minister went all that way and did not see any golf at all. Very commendable.


Yesterday was the day of the budget and every Assembly Member was there. It seemed reasonable therefore that the opposition might use this opportunity to influence Government business for the next three weeks by voting down the Business Statement. In this instance the opposition business managers concentrated on trying to force the Government to bring forward the date that we will debate the local government settlement until before Christmas.

When it came to the vote however the opposition's 30-29 advantage had turned into a 30-28 Government majority. In his blog last night Alun Cairns owns up to pressing the wrong button. Like the Health Minister in the debate on an inquiry into the Ambulance Service earlier this year Alun had a momentary lapse of concentration and allowed his finger to stray. It goes to show that those who mock the loudest often find their scorn back-firing on them.

Maths are not my strongest subject but even with Alun's miscue the vote should still have been a 29-29 tie. The only thing I can think of then is that another member of the opposition failed to vote altogether. I will report more when the record of proceedings is available, however in the meantime I will offer a small piece of advice to Alun Cairns: if you switch your mobile off whilst you are in the chamber you will find it easier to concentrate.

Update: It was Eleanor Burnham who failed to vote.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Another farce in Cardiff Bay

Oh, for goodness sake!

This latest spat between the Presiding Officer and his Deputy does nobody any good at all. Even the Labour Party, whose budget may well be passed after all as a result, cannot relish many more newspaper stories like this:

Presiding Officer Dafydd Elis-Thomas and his Deputy John Marek have not been on speaking terms for months in a dispute over the Assembly's internal workings.

Now a row over who should chair today's crucial debate on the Assembly's draft Budget threatens to plunge the body into chaos.

Opposition AMs outnumber Labour by two seats, and they are hoping to vote down the draft Budget document, seeking amendments of their own.

But Lord Elis-Thomas, a Plaid Cymru AM, has asked Dr Marek of the Forward Wales party to chair the Budget debate. If Dr Marek agrees to do so, the Opposition will lose its voting advantage over Labour and the draft Budget could squeeze through.

Everybody is losing patience with this on-going disagreement and the inability of the PO and the DPO to work together. I had an interesting conversation with a government minister earlier today in which it was made clear that, having lost their majority, there was now no obstacle to the Labour Group supporting a no confidence vote in one or both of the two men.

Whatever happens, something needs to be resolved soon.

Monday, October 23, 2006

More blog censorship

Today's Guardian reports blog censorship of an altogether different kind to that being experienced by the Chief Constable of North Wales.

They tell us that Sudan is to expel the UN's top official in the country after he reported two military defeats for the government and other embarrassing details in the largely invisible war in the western region of Darfur:

Journalists and aid workers have minimal access to the conflict zone to check claims and counter claims by government and rebel commanders as well as displaced villagers, but Jan Pronk used his authority as Kofi Annan's special representative to make sensitive statements on his weblog.

This month he reported heavy government casualties, the sacking of several generals and the mobilising of Arab militias to make up for a fall in army morale after frightened troops mutinied.

His remarks were quickly denounced by the Sudanese army which described Mr Pronk as a security threat and the foreign ministry has told him to leave the country by midday Wednesday. A spokesperson for Mr Pronk confirmed he would be leaving Khartoum but added: "He will be going to New York for consultations with the secretary-general."

Mr. Pronk's site is clearly an excellent example of the use of a blog to expose injustice and attrocities to the wider world, whilst putting pressure on the rest of us to do something to end suffering. In this instance Mr. Pronk has got into places that journalists could not and told the truth.

Behind closed doors

This morning's Western Mail covers my concerns that decisions about Swansea's new super-hospital have been taken already without the proper engagement of the NHS Trust's partners or the public.

One of the reasons this matters lies in the potential location. Swansea has been traditionally served by two hospitals at Singleton in the west and at Morriston in the east. The building of a brand new facility at the Felindre site, just off junction 46 (where the Eisteddfod was held for those who went to it) may well have some support. However, this site has been designated by the Welsh Assembly Government as a business park and may not be available.

This leaves the Trust with one other realistic option, to close down Singleton altogether and relocate it on the Morriston Hospital site. That would generate massive resistance from people living in the west of the City and on Gower. It is for that reason that I believe that we need to have a public debate on the options now so as to try and build a consensus around the way forward. That debate cannot take place whilst the Trust are refusing to be open about their intentions.

In particular, the public will need some reassurances on the provision of adequate transport links and guarantees on the treatment of emergency cases being rushed to hospital from Gower and west Swansea. According to Swansea NHS Trust's Associate Director of Corporate Services, Steve Combe, there is already a wide range of close working underway with partners on this issue.

If that is the case then maybe he had better tell those partners, most of whom are under the impression that the Felindre site is the main option. He might also wish to explain why services are already being transferred from Singleton to Morriston without the public engagement he promises.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Good grief, Charlie Brown!

Ok, Ok, I know I said I was going to get on with some work, and I have made quite a bit of progress in the last few hours. However, I took a small break for lunch and then found this video referenced on Tom Watson's blog. It is a typical negative attack ad from the US elections but it is also quite entertaining.

Like Tom I am intriqued by the names of the candidates. Lt. Colonel (U.S. Airforce, retired) Charlie Brown is running for Congress in the California 4th Congressional District against incumbent Republican John Doolittle.

Missed opportunity

I have just discovered that 4th to 10th October was National Chocolate Week. Somebody might have told me.

Still I have Torchwood to look forward to tonight. In the meantime I have blogged too much this weekend already and need to get on with some work.

Blogging for Wales

Suddenly, Welsh political life has grown in stature with a flurry of new blogs from Parliamentarians springing up like April daffodils (yes, I know, I have been reading too many of Glyn Davies' posts). Most of these new blogs come from the Tories who have suddenly embraced the medium with all the enthusiasm of converts. I have added most of them to my links but here is a quick rundown of the new kids on the block.

Amongst the Assembly Members, Alun Cairns has now joined Nick Bourne, Glyn Davies and David Davies with his own blog. Alun's offerings so far are as strident and as narrowly focussed as he often is in Committee and the Chamber, but there is still time for him to settle into the medium.

It is worth noting that Glyn Davies has not just taken up blogging but he has gone overboard with three other blogs, in addition to his Cardiff Bay reflections, he has one in Welsh, and two others focussing on sport and gardening. The tip on how to use a lawn mower to plant a mobile phone is particularly worth reading.

The one curiosity I spotted on Glyn's blogs by the way was in the links. He has been very assiduous in listing all the Welsh Tory blogs but for some reason has omitted to link to that run by his Assembly Leader, Nick Bourne. Is that a pointed omission or a genuine error? I think we should be told.

Still on Tory Parliamentarians I see that Stephen Crabb MP has a blog as well, which he updates weekly. This means that two thirds of the Welsh Tory Parliamentary Party are bloggers. The exception is David Jones, the member for Clwyd West. This is a shame as I am sure he has a lot to offer us on the subject of 'what is a decent watch'.

As if you had not had enough of the Tories there is also a Tory campaign blog and blogs from the Tory candidates for Bridgend and Aberconwy. It has to be said that with the exception of Glyn Davies and the campaign blog, which is run by former South Wales Echo journalist and Tory Press Officer, Richard Hazlewood, all of these blogs are as dull as dishwater. But at least they are there.

With Labour also being well represented by Leighton Andrews and Alun Pugh and Plaid Cymru by Leanne Wood, Welsh Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians really need to pull their fingers out. We are being left behind and it is not good. Perhaps it would help if they started off by admitting that it is not blogs that they have a problem with, but this specific blog.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Lembit was right

As Lembit takes my comments about him on this blog with such good grace I thought it was worth reproducing the headline from this post on the Lunartalks blog. No doubt it will give him a warm fuzzy feeling the next time he clicks onto here and will ease the trepidation with which he engages with his keyboard everytime he decides that he had better check what I have been saying.

Peter McGrath draws attention to this article from Reuters as proof of Lembit's farsightedness. Their reporter records that a fire that destroyed a cottage near Bonn and injured a 77-year-old man was probably caused by a meteor. The only problem is that Lembit keeps warning us about comets, not meteors.

There, now I have gone and spoiled the mood.

Censoring blogs

I see that the inevitable has happened and that members of the North Wales Police Authority are to try and reign in Chief Constable, Richard Brunstrom's blog. Some Welsh Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians must be quite envious that authority members have this option.

Unsurprisingly, the chief perpetrator of this attempted censorship is a leading Conservative Assembly candidate who has taken exception to what I consider to be outspoken, but nevertheless fairly mild remarks, about a speeding motorist. I do not have to agree with Richard Brunstrom to defend his right to put his point of view. Why should a Chief Constable not be able to make his views known in support of Police Authority policy?

Mr Millar, who is taking on Culture Minister Alun Pugh in the Clwyd West seat next year, said, "The use of blogs by senior police officers in North Wales is clearly causing considerable offence to some residents who have expressed serious concern to me about the way in which, the chief constable in particular, is using them to court controversy and media attention.

"While I accept that blogs can be a useful tool in communicating with the public, I am certain that calling people nimbys and idiots does nothing to improve the image of our senior officers and certainly does not give the air of professionalism that people should rightly expect from the police."

He added, "The type of language which sometimes appears in these blogs is usually reserved for either the playground, or the memoirs and diaries of senior civil servants long after they have departed from office."

The value of Richard Brunstrom's blog is that it gives people an insight into his job and into him as a person. It humanises the North Wales Police Force. If he was not allowed to be himself then it would defeat the whole purpose. By comparison Mr. Millar sounds like a pompous arse.

N.B. One of the advantages of Mr. Brunstrom's blog is that it gives him the flexibility to draw attention to and comment on poor behaviour such as this example of lunatic driving by two motorcyclists on the A55.

Crucial budget votes

Next week sees the Labour Assembly Government's draft budget come to Plenary. The opposition parties have tabled a joint amendment centred on a number of key areas. These include schools, ambulances and transport. The opposition's amendment is:

The National Assembly for Wales declines to take note of the draft budget for the Welsh Assembly Government for the financial years 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10 laid in the Table Office on 17 October 2006 by the Minister for Finance, Local Government and Public Services, as it fails to make either adequate provision, or any at all, for the following matters:
a) a sum equivalent to the 1% efficiency savings of all schools’ delegated budgets which should be returned to the schools
b) the budget of Tir Mynydd to be restored to the level set in 2005-6
c) closing the higher education funding gap
d) an increase in the budget allocated for transport grants
e) an increase in the budget allocated to the Ambulance Service
f) an increase in the allowances paid to foster carers
g) financial assistance to community radio stations
h) financial assistance to local authorities to overcome the difficulties they face over:
i. landfill sites
ii. the capital costs of improving care homes
i) transitional relief to local authorities on the withdrawal of rural rate relief
j) the employment of cognitive behaviour therapists
k) financial assistance to provide for play areas for disabled children
l) financial assistance to establish refuges for women who suffer domestic violence in those local authority areas where none currently exist
m) further financial support for the improvement of rail infrastructure
Accordingly the National Assembly for Wales instructs the Finance Minister to lay a revised draft budget to take full account of the matters set out in (a) to (m) above.

As this morning's Western Mail makes clear the opposition leaders are quite determined not to be fobbed off this year, especially as some of the promises made during budget negotiations last time were not honoured. One of these was closing the funding gap in higher education.

What has upset the opposition leaders most is the way that Labour has pressed ahead with the budget as if it had a huge majority, ignoring all opposition requests for changes and failing to take consultation meetings seriously. As the letter says:

"In particular we regret the manner in which the budget process has been addressed this year.

"We had understood, and had each of us accepted, a firm intention to be involved in the budget process at an early stage."

That did not happen. Inevitably, this row is heightened by the imminent election and the need for both sides to carve out their own position. However, I do not believe that many voters will be impressed with Labour's megaphone attitude to minority government and the arrogance they are displaying in thinking that they can ride roughshod over very genuine concerns.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Film Buff

For all of ten seconds I had seriously considered spending my Saturday evening watching Sophia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette' but the reviews soon convinced me otherwise.

This reviewer might have got have his point over better if he had been less circumspect in his view of the film and its director. Hat tip to Tim Worstall for bringing it to my attention.

One comment on the Drink-soaked Trotskite Popinjays for War blogspot hinted that there may be inherent dangers in asking for your money back. Watch the video and beware.

The mad aunt in the attic

Tomos Livingstone in the Western Mail this morning says that the Tories have been treating their own tax commission report as if it had been drawn up by the mad aunt in the attic. He argues that tax is starting to become an election issue once more and that, despite the fact that David Cameron and George Osborne wish to rule out the idea so as to appear less right wing, they may well be missing the mood of the Country. We will see.

The problem is that the Tories' proposals lack credibility because they are uncosted and will rightly be seen as serving self-interest. The Guardian leader sums it up:

He (George Osborne) has hardly been helped by Lord Forsyth's wrongheaded report, which lacks any sort of subtlety. It is true that Mr Brown has asked the tax system to do a lot, and this has contributed to its complexity. Simplification could limit avoidance and remove economic distortions, which should be fertile territory for the Tories. The report stresses the rhetoric, but the dash to offer eye-catching tax cuts has produced shallow solutions. An obvious option, as the Liberal Democrats argue, is reversing Mr Brown's capital gains tax changes - which aimed to boost investment, but are hard to understand for all but the rich who, with good advice, can exploit them - to fund general tax cuts. Instead, Lord Forsyth proposes even bigger rewards for select investors.

The commission's aim might have been to consolidate the message that the Conservatives will put economic stability before tax reductions. It does the opposite, proposing cuts while downplaying the impact on public spending, arguing that the plans will so boost the economy that they will partially self-finance. This is Ronald Reagan's voodoo economics. Meanwhile changes to business taxation would be worth most to the very wealthy, and the report floats a cut to the top rate of income tax that would only help the rich.

All this taints the Tory claim to have the interests of all citizens at heart. Having summoned up a report he disagrees with, the onus is on the shadow chancellor to tell voters what he wants instead. His rejection of the red meat of tax cuts is welcome. But it is not enough to make an economic policy. Lord Forsyth has had his say. Now it is Mr Osborne's turn.

I would argue that tax is the issue on which the next General Election will be fought, however that discussion will centre not on tax as an economic driver but as a means of penalising polluters, rewarding those who live in an environmentally friendly way and tackling social injustice.

The Liberal Democrats have already drawn up a set of proposals around those principles, taking some of the poorest people out of tax and removing some of the burden on middle-income families. In return they expect those with more wealth and polluters to pay more.

As the Guardian says, the real question thrown up by the Tories' Tax Commission is if these are not the proposals you are going to adopt as your policy then what will they be? Where is the beef, George?

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Heard on a Radio Four Quiz programme: Cats have lived with humans for 4,000 years. For 2,000 of those years they have been next door pretending that they have not been fed.

And who knew that Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap?


There is a school of thought that says that Culture Minister, Alun Pugh is not going to be allowed to forget his little faux pas of paying £3,000 to put a picture of himself playing scrabble on his Christmas cards. This is from yesterday's Plenary:

Jonathan Morgan: Will you join me in welcoming the industrial heritage exhibition at National Museum Wales, and are you aware that the museum stocks some excellent Christmas cards in its

Alun Pugh: I have not yet seen the exhibition, but I will certainly pop into the shop. [Laughter.]

Where is South Wales again?

I read this piece in the Guardian about the prosecution of a man who put the wrong kind of rubbish into a recycling bag and was left with one nagging question. Why did the paper feel it was necessary to point out to their readers that Swansea is in South Wales?

Could it have been put in their to help the sub-editors? After all the Guardian has never previously shown much knowledge or understanding of what goes on this side of the Severn Bridge.

Defending the Welsh Bac

What are these people on? It is easy to be negative. I can pick holes in any topic if I wanted to. However, for once it would be nice if newspapers like the Western Mail could recognise a success story when they see it.

Let's face it the University of Buckingham is not the most inclusive institution in Higher Education. To base a story about the Welsh Baccalaureate on the views of a senior director of Britain's only private University is like asking Genghis Khan to comment on the Geneva Convention. It is the implication that those who do not make University are failures that really irks me.

The Welsh Bacc is designed to be studied alongside A-levels. It's emphasis is on key skills. To achieve the Welsh Baccalaureate Advanced Diploma, students have to complete a compulsory Core as well as Options of a minimum of two GCE A-levels or an equivalent qualification. The Core has four components - six Key Skills; Wales, Europe and the World; Work-related Education; and Personal and Social Education. Once that level has been awarded it is accepted by UCAS as worth 120 points, the equivalent of a grade A, A-Level.

Most students will do more than two A-Levels alongside the Bacc . They do not have to go onto University however, even though the majority of admission tutors, once they understand what is required to get the qualification, will reduce the required grades needed for admission as a result of a student acquiring it.

The key issue here is that the Welsh Bacc gives students the sort of key skills that many employers (and Universities) complain are lacking in today's youngsters. It gives them experience of the world of work and it allows students to acquire different disciplines that will hold them in good stead on a degree course. Maybe Professor Alan Smithers should come to Wales and see for himself.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Oops, now they have gone and done it.

The premature publication of the Tory Tax Reform Commission report has put David Cameron on a direct collision course with his party. The report proposes cuts in personal and business taxes - including reducing basic income tax to 20% and a £21 billion bill for any incoming Tory Government to meet without any idea of where that money will come from. It could well lead to massive cuts in public spending on key services such as education and health.

The Tory leader has said he will not promise tax cuts unless they can be paid for and said economic stability should be the priority. In the light of this report he may find sustaining that position to be more and more difficult.

Return of the redhead

Bob Piper is right, redheads will soon be hitting back.

However, whilst we are waiting how about a nice cup of tea and a ginger person?

Burgers at dawn

When is a burger van not a burger van? When it is in Bedwas apparently. At least that was the point that got members very heated in yesterday's Welsh Liberal Democrat debate on the quality of food:

Jonathan Morgan: I am grateful to Mike German for giving way. Mike, you are one of the Members representing the South Wales East region, which includes the Caerphilly constituency. Do you share my concern that Labour politicians are not practising what they preach, and that, in Caerphilly, they have sanctioned the siting of a burger van on a school playground?

Michael German: I sometimes wish that Members on the Labour side would observe the regulations that their Secretary of State for Education and Skills in England has laid down for them, with clear bullet points on foods that should not be sold in schools—including burgers. Perhaps there is a lesson there. Something is wrong with the legislation in Wales if they are not following the legislation in England.

Jeff Cuthbert: Thank you for allowing me to give way, Mike. It is just that I am reading the truth. Would you like to congratulate Caerphilly County Borough Council on agreeing— at the request of the headmistress of the school concerned, who was troubled by the amount of pupils leaving the school premises at lunch time—to provide a mobile snack box, as it is called, which provides not only wholesome burgers, but also toasted sandwiches, paninis, wraps, baguettes, fresh fruit, water, fruit juice, and fair-trade tea and coffee? Do you support that or not?

Michael German: If it looks like a burger, it is a burger; if it looks like a burger van, it is a burger van. Your colleagues in England have realised that, because they have used the legislation, which we have not yet used in Wales, to do precisely that. The legislation has already been put in place in England, and I think that we ought to follow it. I will move on now, because I want to make some progress—I have only just dealt with the burger van in Bedwas.

Personally, I blame Jamie Oliver. If he had not politicised food then the children of Bedwas could now be happily eating their burger and chips without the hint of controversy. (I am being ironic by the way!) Still you cannot deny that Jeff Cuthbert is not a trier. That was the second intervention he made in the debate on that subject.

Caption competition

I never thought of Lembit as a mad scientist before. This photograph is meant to illustrate a press release in which he is promoting technologies such as geothermal, wind, tidal, hydrogen and solar power.

In actual fact it looks like he is auditioning for a part in the Rocky Horror Show. Let me have your suggestions for captions in the comments.

Budget Shenanigans

Rhodri Morgan has set his Government on a collision course with the opposition over the budget. Despite holding talks with the other leaders he has failed to take on board any of their suggestions and seems content to play politics with the Assembly's finances.

His attitude means that we will be forced to table amendments so as to try and get extra money for schools, ambulances and Higher Education.

If all this leads to a stand-off and the Government fail to get their budget through then they will only have themself to blame.

There will be trouble ahead

The Presiding Officer commemorates his 60th birthday today with an interview with the Western Mail in which he calls on the Westminster Government to ease the transfer of powers to Cardiff Bay by allowing Orders in Council to go through on the nod.

Rather predictably, Peter Hain is in no mood to roll over and play ball. His response indicates that requests for additional powers could meet concerted resistance from MPs and only grudging support from the Government:

Secretary of State Peter Hain's Wales Office last night repeated its official line in response to Lord Elis-Thomas's comments. A spokesman said, 'The Government of Wales Act grants the Assembly much greater power to determine the detail of devolved laws for Wales. Parliament will continue to decide the principle of giving new powers to the Assembly, in line with the settlement that the people of Wales voted for in 1997.

'We anticipate that MPs will conduct detailed scrutiny of proposals for new powers, just as they do now. In particular, they will play an active role in examining the broad principles and the scope of the powers. It will not just be a question of Parliament rubber-stamping requests from the Assembly.'

If the elections on May 3rd result in a different party running the Assembly to that in power in Westminster then this sort of attitude could well lead to an early clash of wills and a minor constitutional crisis. At that stage the rather fragile compromise Peter Hain and Rhodri Morgan put together in the Government of Wales Act so as to keep Labour MPs happy, may unravel. The Act gives Hain all the powers of a Viceroy. He could well end up using them.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A life in the day

I have written my entry for the History Matters website only to find that it needs to be less than 4,000 characters. I have reproduced the unabridged version below:

As a member of the Welsh Assembly, a history graduate and a regular blogger I have taken a keen interest in the 'History Matters: Pass it on' mass blog being promoted by the National Trust and English Heritage. I have been blogging for over three years now and have the second longest running blog of any political representative. The first thing I did this morning therefore was to post about the mass blog. The time against this post is shown as 6.20am but actually I cheated a bit and wrote it the night before.

By 8.15am I had managed to struggle through Swansea traffic, made worse by on-going roadworks, and reached the BBC studios in Alexander Road just in time for an interview on the 'mass blog'. I had been asked to contribute because of my position as a pioneer of the art of political blogging in Wales. OK, I may have exaggerated that a bit, but the BBC researchers do tend to flatter you so as to persuade you to come on their programmes at unearthly hours of the morning.

In the interview I made the point that the internet was a largely classless medium that was not just confined to the young. It seems to me that this exercise in blogging our day would not just establish an insightful record for future generations but also raise an awareness of and interest in history generally.

Following the interview there was another drive through difficult and unsympathetic traffic conditions as I made my way to the Senedd building in Cardiff Bay for a number of meetings. It took an hour altogether as it was not until I got to Bridgend that traffic started to flow properly on the M4. The A4232 from Junction 33 down to the Bay was very busy as usual and the poor weather conditions did not help.

On arriving in my office I was confronted by a large pile of post that had built up over the weekend. Assembly Members tend to spend only three days in Cardiff in meetings, with Mondays and Fridays, as well as weekends often being filled with constituency engagements. It is often the case that I work a solid 70 hours over seven days each week and rarely have time for a day off. I am not unique in that regard.

Most of the post consisted of glossy reports from various Welsh and UK organisations, invitations to meeting and events, and a fair number of letters from constituents about problems or issues they wish to draw to my attention. There was a letter in there for example, about a housing problem being faced by one of my constituents. I gave instructions to my caseworker to write to the local Council's tenancy relations officer asking him to intervene on a number of alleged breaches of tenancy law. There was an invitation to the Annual General Meeting of the Swansea Council for Voluntary Services and a letter from the Environment Minister replying to a query I had raised with him about biomass crops.

One of the best jobs as an Assembly Member is greeting visitors from our constituency or region to the new Senedd building. Accordingly, no sooner had I got my mail into some sort of order than I was needed in the Chamber Gallery to talk to an Aberkenfig Senior Citizens' Group. I was also due to talk to Brynhyfryd School from Swansea later in the morning but they arrived early and so I missed them due to being in another meeting.

After addressing the senior citizen's group I came back to my office where I had a scheduled meeting with the Clerk to the Assembly's Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee. I have been chair of this Committee since 2003 and hold a weekly planning meeting to discuss the agenda and other matters. Today, we just needed to confirm that everything was in order for tomorrow morning's meeting and I needed to sign a letter to the British Ambassador to Denmark to thank him and his staff for facilitating the Committee's recent visit there, as well as for his hospitalty.

Straight onto another meeting, this time of the six strong Welsh Liberal Democrat group. We went through the Plenary agenda for today and tomorrow afternoon and agreed how we will vote and who will speak on each item. We also divied up supplementary questions to the First Minister and other Ministers and discussed the Assembly Government's draft budget, which has been tabled today. The Government does not have a majority and so depends on the opposition to get its budget through. The Party leaders have already held a number of meetings to discuss what should be in the budget but the Government have taken no account of our views. This means that there will inevitably be a joint opposition amendment and confrontation next week. At the top of the shopping list we are presenting is more money for schools. That is my personal top priority.

By 1pm I am in another meeting. This time it is a pre-meeting of the First Minister's Scrutiny Committee. The purpose is to decide what topic we will be quizzing him on in the next meeting in early January. My suggestion of the future of public services is adopted. Fortunately, there are sandwiches provided so I am able to grab something to eat.

Back in the office I finish dealing with my correspondence and make my way down to the chamber for the afternoon's Plenary session. I have a question at number 10 to the First Minister on the cost to Welsh Police forces of the Government's abortive merger proposals. The First Minister tells me that the Home Office has agreed to meet the cost in full, which catches me a bit on the hop, but I recover enough to manage to ask him a supplementary urging his government to closely monitor the promise so as to ensure no Police Authority is short-changed.

I have to speak in a debate on the Youth and Community Work Education and Training (Inspection)(Wales) Regulations 2006, the Welsh Liberal Democrat debate on the quality of food and the debate on safeguarding vulnerable children, however I have a very bad cold and my voice is a bit dodgy. I talk to the other Party's Education Spokespeople about the first debate. We have all had representations from Higher Education Wales expressing concern about the regulations and I am anxious to hear what others think about the issue. After a brief discussion with my group agree to vote in favour but seek assurances from the Minister on what consultations she has had on the issue.

I then spoke for ten minutes in moving the Welsh Liberal Democrat minority debate on Food Quality. The motion reads: 'To propose that the National Assembly for Wales: 1. Calls on the Assembly Government to develop andpresent for consultation by the end of the year a wide-ranging "Quality of Food" strategy to improve the quality of food consumed in Wales. Such a strategy should embrace: a) Making Food Studies part of the National Curriculum, teaching children about nutrition as well how to cook healthy food; b) Improving the nutritional standard of school meals and meals provided in hospitals; c) Healthy eating schemes aimed at areas of social deprivation; d) Reducing the levels of pesticides and toxins in food and e) Further encouraging the production and consumption of organic food.

There are a number of amendments and I have to contend with interventions about a school in Caerphilly but I manage to get through it alright despite my faltering voice. By the time of the third speech however, I do not feel able to sustain a speech so I pull my name from consideration.

My last duty of the day is a meeting of the Assembly's Shadow Commisson. This is the body which will take over the running of the Assembly Parliamentary Service after next May's elections so we are spending a lot of time planning for that event. These meetings are held behind closed doors and unauthorised disclosure of what goes on there can have dire consequences. However, we do publish our minutes and papers on the internet after a certain period of time. Some of the issues we are currently grappling with include the development of the ICT service, how we promote the new Assembly and organisational structures.

It is now 7.52pm. I have an early meeting tomorrow morning so I intend to spend the night in Cardiff. This does not mean that I can relax however, as I still have a rather thick agenda paper to read before I retire for the night.

Blogging for Wales

Leighton Andrews has an interesting viewpoint on Welsh Assembly bloggers, albeit one that is slanted towards his particular prejudices. I think that it is widely accepted that despite concerted efforts by Labour bloggers to get their act together that, with one or two exceptions, they are still trailing the other two parties in the use of this medium.

One of Leighton's misconceptions is that there is a clear difference between those bloggers who represent constituencies and those who are regional members: for constituency members, the constituency side is more important than the general political commentary, and that shows in our posts.

Regional members such as myself do engage with local issues in the same way as constituency members, the difference is that we work on a wider front and so may not have the same ability to deal with each issue in the same depth.

Labour have consistently sought to misrepresent the work of regional members, to the point of even seeking to gerrymander the electoral system so as to try and afford some protection to Labour constituency AMs. I consider Leighton's comments to form part of the background noise created by his party so as to try and justify that change.

Update: Leighton has just e-mailed me across the chamber to say that this post is quite grumpy. He may be right. I have a cold and am not feeling 100%. To make it worse I have to make three speeches in the chamber today.

Leighton says that he was not trying to do down regional members this time. He was simply saying that inevitably if you are a constituency AM you are more likely to be concerned about local issues in your blogging. I do not totally accept that for the reasons outlined above. However, what I should add is that Leighton and I may have different objectives for our respective blogs and that could account for the point he is making.

I try to use my blog to put across wider political views, to entertain wherever possible and as a campaigning resource. It is not meant to reflect my work as a constituency representative. I would suggest that this is the difference between the two blogs rather than the way that we do our jobs.

Mass blog

I am on Radio Wales in two hours time talking about the greatest mass “blog” ever. The event is being headed up by a group of charities lead by the National Trust and English Heritage:

The charities, under the umbrella of the History Matters campaign, want to bring together schoolchildren, celebrities and indeed everyone living in the country on Oct 17 to contribute to a unique record of the present which will be an invaluable resource to histrians in the future as they seek a deeper insight into early 21st century life.

The campaign hopes that hundreds of thousands of people will record their experiences that day as a “blog”, short for weblog, or internet diary.

The date was chosen specifically because it is an ordinary Tuesday in autumn and not the anniversary of anything special in the nation’s history.

But by asking people to record their impressions of life in Britain on that day, the charities behind the History Matters campaign are hoping to record a vast snapshot of how the country feels in one 24-hour period day and preserve it forever at the British Library.

All 29,000 schools in Britain will be invited to take part in the project, with a leaflet sent to teachers which has been supported by The Daily Telegraph.

Well-known people supporting the idea include Tony Benn, Bill Bryson, the actors Stephen Fry, Tony Robinson and Derek Jacobi and Nick Barratt, the genealogist behind BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are? programme and this newspaper’s Family Detective.

To take part you need to write a diary of your day and send it as an email to the website here. The result may well resemble some sort of on-line time capsule, which is just as well as I doubt if I will have time to do more than read a mere fraction of it.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Missing out on Stirling

This is the new terminal at Madrid Airport that beat the Senedd to win the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize for the top British-designed building.

I cannot say that I have ever been there. However, it was also designed by Richard Rogers. The difference is that this one does not look like Tescos in Swansea Marina.

Better luck next time.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Leadership shenanigans

It that time of the Parliamentary cycle when the Welsh Liberal Democrats re-elect their Leader. Naturally, Lembit Opik is re-standing but there are rumours of at least two other nomination forms circulating.

Whether these forms are submitted by the 1,15pm deadline today is another matter. My bet is that the AMs concerned are just winding Lembit up and that he will end up as the only nominee. Then again...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Minimum age

I am at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference in Aberystwyth where we have just voted to follow the English Party in imposing a minimum age of 10 for party members who wish to vote in party candidate selections.

This is one of those provisions that is largely academic but we do have young members and it is important that there are clearly defined rules. So, why 10? Well apparently it is the age of criminal responsibility.

Make of that what you will.

Laying it on the line

'No deals, no discussions, no distractions, vows Mike German'.

At last, the Welsh Liberal Democrats have set out a public position on talk about coalitions that we can all unite behind. Can we now get on with the election, please?

Meanwhile, another politician gets off the fence and makes it clear where the Assembly Government stands. Social Justice Minister, Edwina Hart, writes in the Western Mail letters column on stock transfer:

"Local authorities cannot defer action in the hope that there will be additional Assembly Government funding. It is not there. They need to address how they will fund the improvements to their housing stock to meet the quality standard - either through their existing resources or through transfer to newly formed housing associations. These transfers will have to be to a registered social landlord so that the financial benefits available from the UK Government are accessed and the Assembly Government can exercise its role as a regulator.

"I have made strenuous representations to Treasury seeking a change in the local authority borrowing rules to allow them to borrow directly from lenders in the same way as registered social landlords are able to, but this has been refused. This means, for most local authorities in Wales stock transfer is the only way that the Welsh Housing Quality Standard can be achieved whilst ensuring affordable rents for tenants."

Friday, October 13, 2006


Having taken the rather dubious decision of extraditing the Nat West Three to the USA on charges of illegally gaining money via international banking systems, Britain might naturally expect the same consideration. However, the extradition treaty only works one way.

Will the United States reciprocate by allowing the Marines involved in the unlawful killing of ITN reporter Terry Lloyd to be tried in Britain? No, I thought not. It will be interesting to see how persistent and determined the British Government are in securing an extradition.

Poor Fred

Fred Elliott is barely dead in his grave and yet Assembly Members are claiming his endorsement for the promotion of Welsh beef. In question time on Wednesday the Labour AM, Christine Gwyther showed a frighteningly detailed knowledge of the soap. Alas, the Minister was not so clued up:

Christine Gwyther: Will you join me in congratulating Meat Promotion Wales on its innovative use of product placement? I was watching Coronation Street on Sunday night, as you do, and there was a very long and poignant scene between Fred and Ashley in Fred Elliott’s butchers shop, where there was a poster promoting Welsh beef that the camera lingered on lovingly for a good three or four minutes. That was very clever marketing on someone’s part, and I would like them to be congratulated.

Carwyn Jones: I must bow to your superior knowledge of Coronation Street—I watch it if I am forced to do so.

Who says that politicians are out of touch with popular culture? I say, who says that politicians are out of touch with popular culture? Well, obviously Carwyn is but then he is a Minister!

Filming Dr. Who

One for the Dr. Who fans. Actually this is not a very good photograph. It is the best I could do with a camera phone in bright sunlight.

The contraption shielded by sheets and information boards is the centrepiece of the Dr. Who filming currently going on in the Senedd. The building is standing in for some sort of futuristic house but that is all I know of the storyline.

I popped over there after all my meetings on Tuesday night and the place was a hive of activity. The building was brightly lit up, with white panels on the big front windows. A group of actors were sitting around a table in dinner jackets chatting, whilst all the extras and techicians were occupying the rest of the third floor cafe. An illuminated large white balloon was floating just below the ceiling. I did not see anybody I recognised and there was no filming activity going on whilst I was there. I believe that they will be there until the end of this week.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Another Tory u-turn?

The Conservative MP for Pembrokeshire complains in this morning's Western Mail that two companies in the County are generating nearly £7m a day in tax, yet the area suffers from second-class services.

Stephen Crabb said that the tax bills of the Chevron refinery in Pembroke and the Total site in Milford Haven, provide enough funds through taxes and duty on oil barrels to meet, theoretically, almost half the entire Welsh NHS annual budget.

This is an interesting point, however it is worth recording that at least some of those taxes, the companies' business rates, fail to benefit Pembrokeshire in full, because of a decision taken by a past Conservative Government. They changed the system whereby a Council received all the business rates generated locally and introduced instead a national pool, which distributes the money back to Councils by means of a formula. Is this another Tory u-turn?


About twenty years ago I saw Tranmere Rovers lose at home to Chester. An own goal, lobbed over the goalkeepers head from near the halfway line, was all that separated the two teams. That was the worst own goal I have ever seen until last night.

Thank goodness Wales came good at last!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tea room

Much anxiety for members as, for the second day running, the tea room next door to the chamber is closed for cleaning. It appears that persons unknown stuffed paper towels down the Senedd toilets, causing a flood, the contents of which do not bear thinking about.

I suspect that those suffering the most from this loss of service are the whips, who cannot now track down AMs for votes as easily as they did previously.

Pushing the train

In the light of the issues raised frequently in Plenary sessions one would be forgiven for asking why it is that Assembly Members seem so obsessed with substance misuse and trains. The answer of course is that these are amongst the many issues raised with us by our constituents. In some cases however, the obsession has more to do with the relevant AMs' own experiences.

Nobody would suggest that a wild night out is something that either William Graham or Rhodri Morgan have much experience of but that did not stop them discussing what one might look like:

William Graham: A little while ago, you described life on the streets of Wales as being:

‘pretty wild out there at the moment.’

One outcome of Wales’s being allowed to become ‘pretty wild’ is that over 75 per cent of incidents involving the police and ambulance services on weekends are the result of substance abuse. Alcohol deaths have increased by 125 per cent in recent years and there remain, sadly, increasing assaults upon paramedics, police and accident and emergency staff. Can you demonstrate how your policies will address these problems?

The First Minister: I emphasise that I was not referring to all hours of the day but simply to Friday and Saturday nights. It is very pleasant out there at any time other than those two sections of the week when people go in for binge-drinking and other things, which can result in some people getting into fights, getting injured and falling over and then going to accident and emergency units, waking up half-cut and not knowing where they are and thinking that they ought to assault the various people who are trying to help them, which is a sad state of affairs and is totally unacceptable to the NHS and to all of us in the Assembly. However, it happens because that is the effect of alcohol, and especially alcohol and drug cocktails. If I had converted the figures that I gave earlier into financial form, they would probably show something akin to a 90 per cent increase in funding for these two categories of expenditure over the past three years in order to ensure that we have a method in place. However, it requires people to be willing to recognise their own problems; we cannot drag people onto these programmes but, on the other hand, the capacity is there for everybody who wants to avail themselves of a way of getting away from an over-dependence on alcohol and drugs.

Clearly, William is still suffering the after-effects of his traumatic press conference with Lemmy from Motorhead. One person who undergoes a traumatic experience every week is Eleanor Burnham. She is never shy of bringing to the chamber tales of her train journeys between Cardiff and North Wales:

Eleanor Burnham: I was at the Shrewsbury-Chester Rail Users’ Association meeting last night. As a gentleman said, whose name I shall not reveal in case he loses his job, there is no point in his encouraging people to use the railway if, when they use it, the service is absolutely appalling. He is paid by partnerships somewhere in Wales to do with trains, and I thought that his comment was indicative of my experience and the experience of my long-suffering constituents, who will probably vote with their feet, or will not bother to vote at all next year.
It is a long way from north Wales to the Assembly, Minister, and, quite frankly, saying that you will consider introducing business class is just not acceptable. I do not want business class; I just want clean, reliable trains that are on time and that go faster than they do now—sometimes, I want to get out and push them.

It takes five hours to travel from Holyhead to Cardiff. I do not mind admitting that, like a lot of people, I was up at 5 a.m. this morning, and I was on the platform, bright and breezy, at 6 a.m. in case I missed the train. As usual, people were coming up to me explaining how appalled they were with the service. You have been taken for a ride by Arriva, and it is about time that you stopped it. If the Tibetans, with oxygen masks, can have a decent service in the Himalayas, I am sure that we can manage it in Wales. Minister, get your finger out and do something positive; otherwise, next year, people in North Wales will wonder what the hell we are doing in the Assembly. Forgive my language.

Answer that! Carl Sargeant certainly had an answer:

Carl Sargeant: Minister, I welcome the statement made today, particularly the announcement on the Wrexham to Bidston line. It is key for the economy of Flintshire and Wrexham to build into the economy of the north west of England, and I think that the electrification of that line would be of benefit. I note from your comments that huge investment is being made on the Ebbw vale line and I would like to see similar investment on the Wrexham to Bidston line, particularly with regard to electrification.

My colleague, Eleanor Burnham, made an interesting comment about pushing the train. That would certainly be worth watching if Brynle and I were sitting on it. [Laughter.]

If Carl is suggesting that this should be a new spectator sport then he may be able to shift some tickets.

Great campaign photographs part two

This is the photograph being sent out by Welsh Liberal Democrat MPs as part of their campaign for a Climate Change Bill.

I have to admit that I had to ask who the person in the mask was meant to be. Apparently, it was the Queen.

Still, at least the placard is being held up the correct way around.

Too much egg

I believe that there is such a thing as 'over-egging the pudding' and Tory AM and blogger, Glyn Davies, comes perilously close to this state in this morning's Western Mail. He argues that next May's National Assembly election may be the only chance ever for the Conservative Party to play a part in governing Wales and that the Tories, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats have a national duty to bury their differences and remove Labour from power.

I have speculated before that one of the reasons why the Conservatives keep playing this coalition card is because they believe it gives them credibility as an alternative Welsh Government. However, the latest missive from Glyn is beginning to turn the refrain into desperate pleading.

My understanding is that when Nick Bourne first floated the possibility of a Tory-led coalition on last week's Waterfront, he received a very angry phone call from Plaid Cymru Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones. Whether this call came about because Nick had let the cat out of the bag or simply because Ieuan was annoyed that the Tory Leader was giving a false impression of talks going on between the opposition party leaders, I do not know.

For our part, the Liberal Democrat Party Leadership privately deny that any talks have been going on in preparation for a coalition, but they seem curiously reluctant to make this declaration in public or to rule out serving in a coalition under a Tory First Minister. Such an announcement would be useful in my view simply because it give a clear indication of the direction of travel of the party.

Glyn is right when he says that many opposition AMs find the concept of working with the Tories as impossible to even contemplate. He is wrong however to assume that the Conservatives will be the second largest group after the next Assembly elections. That is far from a foregone conclusion.

My view is that a coalition of some sort may be necessary after next May. To deny that would be to defy the electoral arithmetic. Labour are inevitably going to lose seats and may be reduced in size so much as to make a minority government unfeasible. However, it is premature to be talking about what would happen if this scenario comes about now and nobody should be engaged in talks or manoeurvring for position in a possible coalition until the electorate has spoken.

This process should not be about getting into power but about implementing policies and improving the quality of life of the Welsh population. It should be about ensuring that the new Assembly benefits from stable government so that it can use the new powers to their full effect. That means that we all have to go out and persuade people of the efficacy and attractiveness of our own policies so as to maximise our own vote. We also have to convince people that the Assembly is relevant to their lives and that they should go out and cast their ballot so as to influence its future composition and policies. What flows from that process needs to be put aside until the people's verdict is in.

Rewriting history

The David Zucker Albright Ad

Thanks to Dizzy for drawing my attention to this ad made by David Zucker, apparently for the GOP congressional campaign. It shows the depths that Republican strategists have sunk to in an attempt to turn around their slump in the polls. Dizzy tells us that the ad was pulled because, given recent developments in North Korea, it might be considered to "hot". Maybe that should read 'embarrassing'.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

EXCLUSIVE - New blogger on the block?

Despite only starting recently Welsh Conservative blogger Glyn Davies has embraced the medium enthusiastically, even getting a fair amount of publicity for his efforts. Is he about to be eclipsed by his leader though?

I have just stumbled across a blog site under development in the name of Nick Bourne. It can be found here. I do not believe that he will be going off message much. Has he been influenced by David Cameron's ventures into internet technology or is this just a token effort set up for the election period?

What are the chances of Nick video blogging from the kitchen sink?

Scrabbling for high ground

Today's Western Mail records the increasingly desperate attempts by the First Minister to dig his government out of the hole it has got itself into over Alun Pugh's Christmas cards:

The Assembly Government was forced to admit that more than £3,000 of the cost represented legal fees on checking out copyright law, even though the company which makes Scrabble had waived its right to a fee.

Opposition politicians have strongly criticised the scandal, which was first reported in the Western Mail on Saturday.

Last night the Assembly Government issued a "statement of clarification" after earlier confirming to the Western Mail that Scrabble manufacturers Mattel had charged a licence fee for reproducing the picture on the card.

An Assembly Government statement said, "The Welsh Assembly Government would like to make it clear that while the cost of £3,500 for the Welsh Assembly Government's Minister for Culture's Christmas card were broadly correct, Mattel did not receive a payment of any kind at any stage as was previously reported.

The Government have admitted that the actual cost of the Christmas card was £3,325, which included printing costs of £180, £88 for photography, and £3,057 in legal fees. The legal fees were incurred as a result of advice from solicitors representing the Welsh Assembly on copyright and licence issues.

The First Minister told Radio Wales yesterday that "Before signing legal contracts or documents we seek legal advice. In this case, as the document related solely to intellectual property rights, the normal procedures were followed and specialist external legal advice was sought to make sure that we did not open ourselves up to legal action in the future."

All of this is hardly the point. The excuse being given is that the cards promoted the Welsh language. Despite re-reading all the verbiage on this issue I still cannot see how. A purely rhetorical question comes to mind: how many points does one get in a game of Scrabble for the word 'indefensible'?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Hate my Tory

I know this is very childish but it does guarantee hours of amusement. Visit Hate My Tory.Com now.

Government by press release

Following Friday's announcement (whilst the Education Committee were out of the country) that the Assembly Government are abolishing coursework in GCSEs I note that this morning's Western Mail contains yet another initiative by the Education Minister. This time she is proposing giving additional support for gifted pupils.

The paper describes this as a £50,000 aid package but there are no more details than that and I am unable to cast any light as once again this proposal has never been before the Education Committee for scrutiny. It was also interesting that one Cabinet member I spoke to at the weekend was unaware of the proposal on GCSEs. Like the Education Committee the first time this Minister knew of the new policy was when they saw it in the press.

Ministers are not meant to by-pass the Assembly in this way. They are supposed to be accountable for their decisions and subject to scrutiny. However, increasingly that process is being ignored as Jane Davidson, in particular, opts instead to go to the media direct where she can control the flow of information and avoid the awkward questions. It also means that she can by-pass Labour's in-built minority status in Plenary, or so she seems to think.

This sort of arrogance is unacceptable and I have e-mailed the Presiding Officer to ask him to consider the position. I have also asked for an urgent question on the GCSE issue and will be pressing for a statement from the Minister at the earliest possible time.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Exciting or excitable

Due to my absence over the last few days I have not been able to post anything on Wednesday's Plenary debates. What I can say however is that those who thought that the Minister for Enterprise, Innovation and Networks, might lack the charisma to do the First Minister's job, would have been surprised at his question time performance.

Andrew Davies was assured, authorative and, according to the Presiding Officer, exciting:

Andrew Davies: We do support—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. The Minister is about to begin his answer. He has answered questions for a long period. [Interruption.] Order. I have allowed this to go on, because the Minister has wide-ranging responsibilities, and he has excited a lot of—[Laughter.] Order. He has excited a lot of demands for accountability from Members. I am therefore exercising my discretion to allow Members to question the Minister. If Members do not wish to question the Minister, they know what to do—they should not send me their names.

No doubt Andrew will be revising his campaign plans already. Watch out for Labour Party members being urged to vote for the 'Exciting Andrew Davies' for leader.

Writing about Blogging

Catching up with the papers I discovered an interesting article in Saturday's Western Mail about the use of blogs by the political parties. The author is kind enough to refer to this blog as one of the most popular in Wales. We will see.

Where I will take issue with the article is its premise that blogging has been embraced by the political parties as the way forward. Whereas all the main parties have started to get into internet media in a big way the truth is that those at the top, and many politicians for that matter remain suspicious of blogging simply because they cannot control its content and its direction. By their nature blogs are too individualistic to be anything more than the personal fiefdom of the politician writing them.

This is not a problem if they are being written by the Party leaders but this is not the case and I suspect that if they all did decide that it was the way forward then they would delegate an aide to write it for them. That really defeats the purpose.

There is another article on blogging on the site of Agence France Presse, written by Phil Hazlewood, the brother of the Welsh Conservative's Chief Press Officer. It is posted on 1 October 2008 and is entitled "Party politics goes high-tech in the battle for new, younger votes". Unfortunately, to read it you have to pay. As it mentions this site and quotes myself, Iain Dale and Labour's official Conference blogger, Jonathan Roberts, then I imagine that you may consider it worth the money. If so go to www.afp.com and search the news articles posted under the UK banner.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


Whilst the entire Education Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee, including all the opposition Education Spokespeople are in Denmark on a fact-finding trip the Minister makes a major announcement abolishing coursework for GCSEs. Coincidence? You tell me.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology it did not stop us commenting, but it would have been so much better if we could have scrutinised the proposal properly in Committee or by way of a statement in Plenary. It seems that we are firmly ensconced in the era of Government by press release.

Scrambled priorities

Lembit Őpik has famously claimed that his name was devised in a scrabble competition. Now the Culture Minister, Alun Pugh, has proved that scrabble is not necessarily a good game to get yourself into.

Today's Western Mail reports that Mr. Pugh spent £2,000 of public money getting permission to use a picture of himself alongside the board game Scrabble on his official Christmas card. The paper says that:

"the Assembly Government defended the spending, saying Mr Pugh, whose portfolio also includes responsibility for the Welsh language, was promoting the Welsh version of the game.

The total cost of Mr Pugh's 2005 Christmas card was £3,500, of which £2,000 was a licence fee paid to Mattel, the American group that owns the board game."

By anybody's standards this is an indefensible waste of public money. It benefits nobody and if anything, brings politicians and the Welsh Assembly into disrepute. The only bright side for the Minister appears to have been the rather ineffectual response of the opposition.

Plaid Cymru's Culture spokesperson said he will have to get in touch with his leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, to see if he should be calling for the Minister's resignation. Whilst the best we could come up with appears to have been a rather ineffectual pun that took our case nowhere.

In my view this is a resigning matter. There has already been too much bungling in the Culture portfolio in this Assembly. To have thrown away valuable resources in this way on a vanity exercise surely has to be the last straw.

The art of taxation

As we head out of Copenhagen I leave with another interesting fact about Denmark.

A recent poll found that seventy four per cent of Danes believe that they pay too little in tax. Amongst the supporters of the right wing ruling coalition those who subscribe to this view amount to fifty four per cent. David Cameron must be jealous.

The photo shows Jeff Cuthbert, Owen John Thomas, Janet Ryder and Christine Chapman getting acquainted with Copenhagen's famous mermaid statue.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Rainbow Coalition

I am sitting in my hotel room in Copenhagen just before engaging on a full day of meetings and fact-finding visits as part of the Education Committee's policy review of Special Educational Needs Post 16. As such I am a bit isolated from what is going on in Wales, having only e-mail, limited access to the internet and BBC World to catch up with Welsh news.

As such I have not been able to watch last night's Waterfront. All I know of it is an e-mail that I received before it went out telling me that Tory Leader Nick Bourne is to claim on the programme that talks have been going on for some time to establish a 'rainbow coalition government' of the opposition parties in the Assembly after the next election. However, he claims that jobs have not been 'divvied out'. I should think not.

The official Welsh Liberal Democrat response to this claim is that "All politicians in all parties talk about policies on an informal basis. Uniquely, the Welsh Lib Dems cannot agree any deal with any other party or parties without the endorsement of members in Wales. We expect to have more AMs after the election than we have now, so it would make no sense at all to do a deal now." You will note that it does not amount to a denial.

If these talks have been going on then they have not been reported to the Welsh Liberal Democrat group. In fact when it has been raised we have been told that there are no negotiations. Judging from the response of the Plaid Cymru AMs on this trip they are in the same position.

It is clearly in Nick Bourne's interest to talk up the idea of the Tories being in government after the next election as part of a coalition. After all there is no other way that they will achieve this and the voters know it. Such talk gives the Tories credibility as a potential governing party. It is for this reason that I believe that it would be madness for Plaid and the Welsh Liberal Democrats to even contemplate engaging in such talks. It is only right that we let the voters have their say before we start to consider coalitions, if at all.

I am sure that both Welsh Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru Assembly Members will want to to establish the truth of it all next week. If it transpires that we have been treated like mushrooms by our respective party leaderships then there will be some very unhappy politicians in Cardiff Bay.

Note: This is a reconstructed version of the original post. For some reason my Blackberry only published the first paragraph, something I only discovered on getting home. The Daily Post article on this story can be found here.

Danish pastries

I was told last night that Denmark is the only Country that does not call Danish Pastries by their known name. They call them Viennese Pastries. Why not just call them pastries and have done with it?

Thursday, October 05, 2006


The fallout from an impromptu striptease carried out by a young woman in a cattle shed during the Royal Welsh Show continues to reverberate in the Welsh press.

The woman in question was an employee of a large cattle breeder. She performed her act during a party held to celebrate winning a valuable contract. I understand that she no longer works for the company in question.

As a result of her actions there was a disciplinary hearing against her employer to see if he should remain a member of the Welsh Black Society. All in all the whole incident was treated by that society as if it marked the end of civilisation as we know it.

In this context today's letter in the Western Mail should perhaps be treated as tongue-in-cheek. These are my favourite passages:

"Licentious behaviour has no place within the context or proximity of cattle, especially when world-class reputations are at stake - but it is important to remember that the outlandish "dance" was not sanctioned by the Royal Welsh itself.

That the thong was returned to the muddied young woman "on the end of a pitchfork" is strongly indicative of Royal Welsh authorities' desire to bring the regrettable proceedings to an end.

The Western Mail reports that the Welsh Black Society has opted "to cloak the striptease in mystery". It is to be hoped that a veil can indeed be drawn and efforts made to repair damage to the dignity and splendour of the Welsh Black brand."

If we are going to get months of entertainment like this every time perhaps the Royal Welsh authorities should make the striptease an annual event.

The undiscovered country

I am in transit to Copenhagen as part of fact-finding tour by the Education Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee into Special Educational Needs. We are conducting phase three of our review looking at transition from school to adulthood and believe that there are some important lessons we can learn from how it is done out there. Blogging may be light for a few days.

As it is National Poetry Day however, it would be remiss of me not to post some suitable text. As I am on my way to Denmark I have chosen Hamlet's soliloquy from Act Three Scene Two of the play. It just seemed appropriate somehow:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.

Debunking the President

All The President's Lies

Debunking the Bush cover-up.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Party politics

Perhaps because it is still Conference season and Assembly Members have had other outlets for their views Plenary has not yet descended into the party political free-all that it became in 2003 and which we are all expecting it to become as the elections draw closer. However, First Minister's questions yesterday gave us a hint of things to come:

Q2 Jonathan Morgan: Has the Welsh Assembly Government set a date by which Wales will no longer need European aid? OAQ1863(FM)

The First Minister: This is a curious question, Jonathan, as it recalls the era when John Redwood was Secretary of State for Wales and refused to apply for European aid. We all remember that. We took a different view—the former Secretary of State, Ron Davies, said that we should apply for European aid if we can get it. John Redwood could have done exactly the same but choose not to do so, because of his visceral dislike of Europe or whatever, and missed out on probably £1-billion-worth in assistance for Wales. We will not go down that road; I give you my guarantee that if we think that we are eligible for European aid, we will go out and grab it. Having seen John Redwood on the television last night, I do not think that anyone in Wales wants him back.

Jonathan Morgan: I am grateful to the First Minister for the lack of a succinct answer to the question. Perhaps we could try something different, Rhodri. Last week we discussed the priorities and themes for the convergence programme, which is due to come in shortly, and I raised at the time my concerns about how European structural funds money, particularly under priority 3, could be spent. As you know from our discussions last week, an aspect of that convergence programme aims to ensure that money can be spent on delivering the ‘Making the Connections’ strategy, which is a Labour Welsh Assembly Government strategy. Do you accept that there could be much concern, not just within the Chamber but outside it, about the appropriateness of using European structural funds to deliver what is, essentially, an Assembly Government strategy to try to make public services more accessible? Many outside the Chamber may feel that the money spent on that strategy should come from the Assembly Government, and not the European structural funds.

The First Minister: My answer is the same as previously. You did not like the answer, because it referred to John Redwood, but I am not the one who brought him back—David Cameron did. Similarly, we did not put this category into the European aids schemes, Europe did. John Redwood said, ‘No, we do not want that European aid’, but if Europe puts that in, we are going to apply for it. Can you not get it into your head that our job is to grab whatever European aid we are entitled to, and see whether we can use it constructively for the benefit of Wales? That is what we are doing, and what we did in 1997-98, and what the Irish Government has done. If the money is there, we will use it constructively to build up the economy.

Having seen the First Minister start the sniping others then joined in:

Jeff Cuthbert: Given that David Cameron was a special adviser to Norman Lamont at the time of Black Wednesday, which led to a £3 billion deficit in the British economy—interestingly, the same sum that we have invested in Wales during the first round of Objective 1—and given that it was the Conservative Government that brought the economy of Wales to the situation whereby it qualified for Objective 1 status in the first place, are you thinking what I am thinking? [Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’] If the Conservatives had a stake in the Government of Wales, Wales might qualify for European aid for a long time to come.

The First Minister: Indeed. You can tell from the noises off, Jeff, that the Conservatives’ proposals for Wales rely upon the people of Wales having a short memory. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the people of Wales have a long memory. They remember only too well that if you go back just 20 years, unemployment was four times higher than it is today. If you take the average during the 18 years of the last Conservative Government, unemployment was three times higher than it is today. We are recreating a full employment society—we are not there yet, as I said earlier, but we are getting there, through the net 126,000 jobs that we have managed to create in Wales since the Assembly came into existence.

However, some are better at this game than others. Alun Cairn's contribution later on for example was a triumph of spin over substance and the First Minister saw through it straight away:

Alun Cairns: The Assembly has a statutory duty for sustainability, and controlling carbon emissions is extremely important in that regard. However, do you not accept that your Government has played with policies to reduce carbon emissions—as is demonstrated by the figures—rather than really getting to grips with the issue as David Cameron and the Welsh Conservative Party are?

The First Minister: Oh dear: that was how to play politics with an issue laid bare, I think it is fair to say. It is true that the figures for Wales compared to the figures for 1990 do not look as good as those in Scotland or England. The reason for that is simple: the decline of the manufacturing industry in Scotland has been more rapid than in Wales. At other times, you have accused us of overseeing a rapid decline in the manufacturing industry, but it is precisely because the manufacturing industry has not declined as rapidly as it has in Scotland that our figures look worse than those for Scotland, because we still have more industry left than it does pro-rata to the size of our economy. It is true that the figures for England look better, but that is due to North sea oil and gas, which we would like to have off the Welsh coast but do not. There has been a bigger switch from coal-fired electricity generation to gas-fired generation in England, which was much slower in coming to Wales because the gas is on the wrong side of the country. It is a very simple geographical reason.

I thought Rhodri let the Tories off lightly on the lack of any meaningful proposals from them on green issues, especially given the differences that exist between Alun Cairns and David Cameron on wind farms.

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