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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Great Campaign Photographs, Part Three

This photograph accompanied a press release in which the Brecon & Radnorshire Welsh Liberal Democrat MP, Roger Williams, welcomed signs that new rules for the sale of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) introduced by the UK’s Competition Commission are producing reductions in the price of LPG to householders in his constituency.

I know that farmers can become attached to their animals but such affection for an LPG tank is unprecedented in my experience.

Well deserved awards

I was not able to get to the ITV Wales sponsored Welsh Political Awards last night as I was engaged in a marathon two and a half hour public meeting in my Council ward instead. However, reading the outcome this morning, it is very difficult to disagree with many of the decisions taken by the judges.

Whether you love him or hate him, Peter Hain has dominated Welsh politics in the last year. The Government of Wales Act may be flawed but it is a masterful political fix in Labour Party terms, whilst there can be little doubt that progress has been made towards a lasting political settlement in Northern Ireland, even if it is a common hatred of the Secretary of State that is driving forward politicians on all sides of the sectarian divide. There really could have been no other winner for the Welsh Politician of the Year award.

It has been noted that Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member, Kirsty Williams, was given the acolade of the Member to watch award. Judges considered that she has become a serious contender for her group's leadership. Let us hope that when the opportunity presents itself for her to bid for this position the next time, she actually takes it.

Typos and other errors

I have to admit that there have been times when I have rushed a press release, made a silly mistake, sent it out before noticing and had to issue an embarrassing correction to all and sundry as a consequence.

I do not wish therefore to draw any inference from this rather amusing correction that was sent out today by a North Wales AM other than the fact that I felt the need to share:


Please note: This amends the previous press release, as Richard Brunstrum's official title is of course Chief Constable Burnstrum, not Superintendant Brunstrum.

Just for the record by the way, it is Superintendent and the Chief Constable of North Wales spells his name Brunstrom.

Not taking advice

This morning's Western Mail reports that legal officers on Blaenau Gwent Council are trying to prevent a local Councillor from voting on an important matter of policy affecting his ward because he has been actively campaigning on the issue.

Sadly, this sort of nonsense is becoming all too prevalent in local government as officers seek to use the law to tie the hands of elected representatives in an effort to stop them campaigning on matters of importance to their constituents. If anything legal advice like this is a complete negation of the stated role of Councillors as community representatives and should be stamped on by the Assembly Government.

It is already the case in planning that a Councillor must not participate in a planning decision if he or she has pre-determined the outcome of an application. This is now part of the code of conduct for Councillors and goes hand-in-glove with the other part of that code that there should be no party whip or collusion on a planning application. The Government has been able to enforce this because planning is considered to be a quasi-judicial process in which the rights of the applicant have to be protected on an equal basis to those of the community.

However, other policy matters, including the closure of old people's homes as in Blaenau Gwent, are not in that category and nor should they be allowed to be so categorised. If this trend continues and if politicians allow this legal mindset to prevail then councils will become officer-led automations with little or no political direction, alienated from local communities and treating backbench Councillors as little more than voting fodder. That must not be allowed to happen.

Joined up Government

The projected loss of nearly a 1,000 Welsh jobs from Revenue and Customs over the next five years is a particular blow. These cuts have nothing to do with providing a better service to Welsh people and everything to do with arbitrary targets set by the Chancellor. Jobs will be lost across the region I represent, with 120 going in Bridgend alone. This type of crude ‘efficiency saving’ makes no sense, especially in parts of Wales which already have low levels of employment, and we will see a worsening of the service provided to people claiming tax credits and to the small business sector.

This announcement also contrasts sharply with assurances given by the First Minister at the Wales TUC Conference last May when he told delegates that there would be a "net increase" in the number of civil servants employed in Wales. It seems that the Labour Government has no regard to the devastating impact that these job cuts will have on deprived Objective One areas. HMRC’s decision will undermine the efforts of the Assembly Government to regenerate the local economy and yet the First Minister is apparently watching passively whilst in a condition of self-denial.

It is little wonder therefore that Ministers who know Wales best in Government are getting twitchy about the plans. According to the Western Mail, Junior Wales Office Minister Nick Ainger told MPs yesterday, "I have already written [to the Treasury] on behalf of this department expressing concern about the number of jobs included and where they are included. Obviously there will be ongoing discussions on that." Wales would benefit from a more streamlined bureaucracy, Mr Ainger said, but added, "The problem is where these jobs are being taken from."

Nice to see that we joined-up Government is as healthy as ever!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Regulating blogs

There is already comment elsewhere in the blogosphere on the proposal by Press Complaints Commission director Tim Toulmin that there should be a voluntary code of conduct for blogs that will provide a form of redress for people angered at content.

I certainly agree with him that there should be no government regulation of the internet, as it should a place "in which views bloom". Although how exactly government would regulate something as ephemeral as the internet has yet to be established.

One thing I do know is that if regulation was possible some members of my own group and members of Glyn Davies' group would jump at the chance to apply it to each of our blogs

Debating the Queen

Other bloggers from amongst the Assembly Members have already commented on the Queen's Speech debate in yesterday's Plenary so I will not go on at length. It is worth noting though that it was a lively debate with a lot of good contributions from the backbenches.

Inevitably, in such a politically charged debate some of the point scoring was unsubtle, not least that from Lynne Neagle, who is rapidly getting herself a reputation as Rhodri's hit-woman:

Lynne Neagle: I welcome the Secretary of State to the National Assembly and join colleagues in wishing his wife a speedy recovery.

Time is short in this debate as we are duty-bound to discuss the barmy raft of amendments tabled by this intriguing coalition of libertarians, reactionaries, Thatcherites and Cameron clones.

Most of us were unsure what to find most objectionable in this statement, the idea that just to table an amendment to a Labour Government motion should be a hanging offence or the terms in which she described an imaginary coalition of opposition parties, a concept Labour are keen to play up so as to motivate their core support.

My immediate reaction was to question who the Cameron clones were on the Tory benches. It had certainly become clear just before Lynne spoke that David Davies was not amongst them:

Jenny Randerson: Welsh Liberal Democrats wish to concentrate on what could have been if we had had a more imaginative Government. I shared some of the optimism on that May morning in 1997, and for the first year the Labour Government lived up to that optimism—we had a devolution referendum and proportional representation for the European Parliament, and so on. However, we now have a Government that will be remembered for the invasion of Iraq, the Daily-Mail-approach to law and order and mental health problems, and the half-baked concessions on devolution issues.

David Davies rose

Jenny Randerson: I will give way.

David Davies: I am grateful to the Member for giving way, but is she not paying the Labour Government a compliment by talking about a Daily-Mail-approach to law and order? That is exactly what we want and is exactly what is lacking from this Government. [Laughter.]

What was intriquing was the way that the opposition parties failed to get so many of their amendments passed. A quick count had established that there were 29 opposition members present and 28 Labour AMs. Yet the first three amendments were tied at 28 each, with the Presiding Officer casting his vote against in accordance with protocol.

A look at the record this morning reveals that Eleanor Burnham failed to record a vote on the first two amendments, whilst Owen John Thomas from Plaid Cymru did not vote on the third. It is on such failures of the digit finger that Government's survive or fall.

Is Rhodri fit for purpose?

The claim yesterday by the First Minister that Welsh Liberal Democrat Councils are to blame for his government’s failure to meet its target on getting all school buildings fit for purpose by 2010 was just absurd.

The Labour Assembly Government made the promise in its 2003 manifesto but has recently abandoned it in favour of the less specific target of working with Councils to achieve the objective of making schools fit for purpose ‘as soon as possible’.

The Government made £630m available for school buildings between 2003 and 2007 all of which appears to have been spent by local authorities on that purpose. However, an authorative study by accountants Pricewaterhouse Coopers on behalf of the Welsh Local Government Association found a further £749m gap between available resources and required funding. Their figures were based on a comprehensive assessment of the maintenance backlog and ‘fit for purpose’ requirements of all 22 local authorities in Wales.

Only four of the 22 local authorities in Wales are led by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, whilst Pricewaterhouse Coopers are clear that the failure is widespread. The fact is that Labour overreached themselves in setting a target, which they could not achieve. They did not have the information to understand how much it was going to cost, they had not talked to Councils beforehand to establish their plans to reorganise schools so as to deal with surplus places and they failed to put sufficient cash into the system to pay for the work.

After six years as First Minister, Rhodri Morgan is blaming anybody but himself for his government’s failures. He should apologise to parents, pupils and teachers for raising expectations and then letting them down. This was his promise and he was responsible for delivering it, nobody else.

Rant mode off!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A question of perspective

Things are so busy nowadays that I had to spend some time this morning actually making space in my diary to do Christmas shopping.

The run-up to the Christmas recess is always hectic with many bodies and organisations keen to secure access to us to press home their point. Tonight for example there is a lobby by Welsh Hospices. Alas, I have a meeting of the Panel of Chairs which I have to be at instead. Nevertheless, I will do my best to make my support for their cause known before the other meeting begins.

Last night I had five meetings in quick succession, all of them overlapping with each other. Tomorrow night I need to be in five meetings in three separate Towns and Cities at the same time. It is likely that I will choose to go to a public meeting in my ward about road safety, and so I spent some time this morning getting the an update on plans to increase traffic calming there before Christmas, including the most extensive 20mph zone ever seen in Swansea. The HTV Political awards will have to do without me, especially as they have not seen fit to give me anything yet again!

Of course the fact that this is the last Christmas before the Assembly elections means that things are more hectic than usual. All of the parties are putting the finishing touches to their manifestos and are being lobbied vigorously by various interest groups. Debate in the chamber is also edgier and today's discussion on the Queen's speech featuring the Secretary of State for Wales will be a bit of a battleground.

Personally, I enjoy this job most when I am this busy. It is tiring but satisfying. One of the other tasks I had to undertake this morning was to make sure that my time was well used during the Christmas recess as well. There will be little or no rest and that is the way that I like it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Funding devolution

The warning by the Institute of Welsh Affairs that the Assembly faces a much tougher financial regime in its third term than in the previous two is very timely. They argue that Treasury forecasts show that year on year increases in the Assembly's block grant during the third term will drop from the current 3% a year to less than 2%, leaving very little room for manoeuvre. The average increase between 2000 and 2005 had been 6.6%.

The point that there is an urgent need to establish an Assembly Finance Committee, where spending decisions would face rigorous scrutiny is also well made. There is no doubt that the institution would have benefitted from such a Committee from its inception and it was a mistake for Ron Davies to leave out such provision from his original Government of Wales Bill.

This omission is being redressed from next May but it may already be too late. Labour's fundamental review of the Assembly's budget and prioritisation exercise, which took place two or three years ago, effectively froze half of the budget headings in the then £11 billion budget, amounting to real term cuts. The scrutiny of that process was minimal, not because the opposition and the media were ineffective but because the opportunities to go into the changes in any depth were just not there.

The IWA's warning is also a wake-up call for parties like Plaid Cymru who have already come up with a list of half-costed measures on the basis of them being paid for out of growth in the Assembly's budget. On these figures not only will that growth not be there but what increases we do get will be need to be used to maintain services. I have already indicated that Plaid are in danger of bankrupting the Assembly with unachieveable promises, this publication underlines that point.

This does not mean that there will be no potential for new initiatives, just that we will have to work harder and make more difficult decisions in bringing them about. It is incumbent on all the parties that they are rigorous in how they cost their manifestos and realistic in what they promise. To do otherwise will leave pledges unfulfilled and undermine the democratic process still further.

The power and the glory

Surely even the Police must realise that their latest demand to be able to arrest protesters for causing offence through the words they chant and the slogans on their placards and headbands is a step too far. Their justification that there is a "growing national and international perception" that the police have been too soft on extremist protesters, which has led to rising anger across the country is just too lame for words.

They argue: "The result has been to create an imbalance in public perception that is manifesting itself in passionate responses from elements of the community not traditionally given to publicly protesting. What we are seeing in effect is a rise in the politicisation of middle England and the emergence of a significant challenge for capital city policing."

Their proposal says that "There must be a clear message that we will not allow any extremist group to display banners or make public statements that clearly cause offence within the existing law."

There is a famous 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' sketch in which a policeman is carpeted by his superior for persistently arresting a black man because he considered that the victim was 'looking at him in a funny way'. Is this the sort of policing we are now being offered?

The director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, is quite right when she says that the proposal "misunderstands the nature of law and free expression in a democracy and casts the police as censors in chief. It aims to protect people from 'offence' rather than harm, slates the CPS and muses wildly on 'public perceptions'."

The Police already have sufficient powers to arrest those people who are considered to be causing an incitement to civil disorder, violence or racial hatred. To add a new offence to that list would undermine the very basis of free speech and place the Police as judge and jury over our freedoms and our democratic rights. Even extremists have the right to peacefully state their views, that is the basis of democracy. It is bad enough that we can no longer peacefully gather to express our views outside the British Parliament without that restriction being extended to cover the whole country.

These sorts of powers are inappropriate and unnecessary. They would become the paving stones of a police state and an excuse to suppress dissent whereever it rears its head. The worrying thing is that they might prove attractive to an increasingly beleaguered New Labour Government. They would do well to remember that one day the boot will be on the other foot.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Walking in the footsteps of Hague, IDS and Howard

I don't usually comment on polls. The problem is that within a week or two whatever I have said becomes out of date with the publication of a new survey. Indeed, because polls use different samples and methods they truly are snapshots that could well change within a week or two.

What is normally reliable however are those trends that can be ascertained consistently from polling data. Thus, the Conservatives this morning may well be taking comfort from a poll that shows David Cameron ahead of Gordon Brown but all the detail worth taking notice of is in the Observer.

The problem with the Conservative's reliance on selective data from the Gfk NOP poll is that it deals with a hypothetical situation. Voters may well be wary of Gordon Brown and prefer the known quantity that is David Cameron, but until the Chancellor of the Exchequer is ensconsed in number 10 Downing Street, it is impossible to establish the impact he will have.

The Observer on the other hand has identified a trend that must be sending shivers down the backs of bosses in Conservative Central Office. Their polling data reveals that David Cameron's satisfaction ratings amongst British voters have plummeted lower than Tony Blair's, a sure-sign indication that people can see through the Tory re-branding exercise and are not convinced:

'...attempts to woo women and young people with initiatives such as promising tax relief on childcare, recruiting more female MPs or sympathising with hoodies appear to have failed, with the two per cent rise in Tory support since the general election - when Michael Howard was in charge - coming mostly from men and the middle-aged.

The revelation that only 25 per cent of the electorate consider themselves 'satisfied' with Cameron's performance as leader of the opposition - rising only to 45 per cent among Tory voters, down from 60 per cent in February - will be a blow to his inner circle, given that it suggests a similar trajectory to his failed predecessors Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague.

The most common reason for dissatisfaction was lack of clarity about his policies.
Damagingly, voters who previously approved of Cameron are now starting to turn against him, according to Mori founder Sir Robert Worcester. 'David Cameron's sliding satisfaction levels are comparable to his predecessors,' he said. 'Since his election as Tory leader, nearly all the "don't knows" who have made up their minds have decided they are dissatisfied with his performance. This month there has been a shift, and he is beginning to turn off those who had thought they were satisfied with the job he's been doing.

The findings are particularly bad given that the most important issues now listed by the public - defence and terrorism, immigration and crime - have traditionally been Labour's weak points.'

The paper reports that backbench Tory MPs are becoming increasingly nervous over the impact of their leader's repositioning on issues such as defence and terrorism, immigration and crime, including his speech on understanding the needs of young offenders, mocked by Labour as exhorting people to 'hug a hoodie'. The article believes that the finding that Cameron has failed to convince women will be of particular concern, since the father of three was expected to appeal to female voters.

This poll underlines a general feeling about Cameron that he has no substance. His attempt to mimic Tony Blair's image and approach at a time when the Prime Minister is distrusted by a large part of the population could well be a strategic miscalculation that will backfire onto the Tories. Celebrations at Conservative Home are exceedingly premature.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A radical future

I am always suspicious of former Government Ministers who discover their radicalism after they have left office. The question that always hangs in the air is, if they truly believe that the path they are now espousing is the way forward why did they not say so in Government and act on it?

Of course nobody knows what went on behind the closed doors of the very many cabinet committees or, indeed, in various policy forums set up to plan the Government's agenda. From my own experience of government as Deputy Minister I am acutely aware that a number of changes that emerged from the 2000-2003 Welsh Partnership Government did not go as far as many of my party would have liked and in some cases went in completely the wrong direction.

At least Charles Clarke did not commit the sin of some of his colleagues of talking left whilst in Government and acting right. The latest decision on Trident has more than exposed those Cabinet members who have done this. They know who they are. It does seem rather peculiar for example that somebody can move so quickly from being a member of CND to supporting an independent nuclear deterrent, but I suppose needs must and there are wider issues at stake, including the Deputy Leadership.

My main problem with Mr. Clarke however, is not his sudden boldness but that he is not being very radical at all. He may well be espousing heresies within his own party but proposals to introduce Westminster Select Committees for some English regions, the alternative vote for Westminister elections, lowering the voting age to 16 (as already done on the Isle of Man), and a mainly elected second chamber still sit squarely within a political comfort zone when it comes to serious constitutional reform.

There is no attempt to truly empower people in any of these reforms. Further devolution of power is restricted to the Westminster old boys club, patronage will still prevail in appointing those members of the second chamber who are not elected and the alternative vote is the reform that will most favour Labour and is not a properly proportional voting system. Even the move to lower the voting age is just an acknowledgement of a growing political orthodoxy.

Still, Mr. Clarke is at least travelling in the right direction. What a shame he was unable to implement any of these proposals when he was Home Secretary.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Identity theft

Although I am an avid user of and enthusiast for new technology I am by no means blind to its drawbacks. This article in the Guardian about identity theft therefore is very disturbing, so much so that it is worth quoting extensively:

Six months ago, with the help of a rather scary computer expert, I deconstructed the life of an airline passenger simply by using information garnered from a boarding-pass stub he had thrown into a dustbin on the Heathrow Express. By using his British Airways frequent-flyer number and buying a ticket in his name on the airline's website, we were able to access his personal data, passport number, date of birth and nationality. Based on this information, using publicly available databases, we found out where he lived, his profession, all his academic qualifications and even how much his house was worth.

It would have been only a short hop to stealing his identity, committing fraud in his name and generally ruining his life.

Great news then, we thought, that the UK had just begun to issue new, ultra-secure passports, incorporating tiny microchips to store the holder's details and a digital description of their physical features (known in the jargon as biometrics). These, the argument went, would make identity theft much more difficult and pave the way for the government's proposed ID cards in 2008 or 2009.

Today, some three million such passports have been issued, and they don't look so secure. I am sitting with my scary computer man and we have just sucked out all the supposedly secure data and biometric information from three new passports and displayed it all on a laptop computer.

The UK Identity and Passport Service website says the new documents are protected by "an advanced digital encryption technique". So how come we have the information? What could criminals or terrorists do with it? And what could it mean for the passports and the ID cards that are meant to follow?

It is not just information that is at stake. It would be possible to forge even these passports:

Several months ago, Lukas Grunwald, founder of DN-Systems Enterprise Solutions in Germany, conducted a similar attack to ours on a German biometric passport and succeeded in cloning its RFID chip. He believes unscrupulous criminals or terrorists would find this technology very useful.

"If you can read the chip, then you can clone it," he says. "You could use this to clone a passport that would exploit the system to illegally enter another country." (We did not clone any of our passport chips on the assumption that to do so would be illegal.)

Grunwald adds: "The problems could get worse when they put fingerprint biometrics on to the passports. There are established ways of making forged fingerprints. In the future, the authorities would like to have automated border controls, and such forged fingerprints [stuck on to fingers] would probably fool them."

But what about facial recognition systems (your biometric passport contains precise measurements of key points on your face and head)? "Yes," says Grunwald, "but they are not yet in operation at airports and the technology throws up between 20 and 25% false negatives or false positives. It isn't reliable."

Neither is the human eye, according to research conducted by a team of psychologists from the University of Westminster in 1996. Remember, information - such as a new picture - cannot be added to a cloned chip, so anyone using it to make a counterfeit passport would have to use one that bore a reasonable resemblance to themselves.

But during Westminster University's study, which examined whether putting people's images on credit cards might reduce fraud, supermarket staff drafted in for tests had great difficulty matching faces to pictures. The conclusion was that pictures would not improve security and they were never introduced on credit cards. This means that each time you hand over your passport at, say, a hotel reception or car-rental office abroad to be "photocopied", it could be cloned with equipment like ours. This could have been done with an old passport, but since the new biometric passports are supposed to be secure they are more likely to be accepted without question at borders.

Given the results of the Westminster study, if a terrorist bore a slight resemblance to you - and grew a beard, perhaps - he would have a good chance of getting through a border. Because his chip is cloned, with the necessary digital signatures, and because you have not reported your passport stolen - you still have it! - his machine-readable travel document will get him wherever he wants to go, using your identity.

The rather scary thing about this experiment is that once ID cards are introduced the potential to do the same thing increases exponentially. This undermines yet further Government claims for ID cards, particularly concerning terrorism as the article makes clear:

The problems we have identified with RFID chips in passports raise all sorts of questions about the UK's proposed ID card scheme, which will use the same technology. The government has not said exactly what will be contained in the ID card's chip, but there will be a National Identity Register that could contain around 50 pieces of information about you, ranging from your name, age, and all your addresses, to your national insurance number and biometric details. Eventually, you may need one to access healthcare. It could even replace the passport.

Already, then, criminals and terrorists will have identified just how useful cloned ID cards might be. It would be folly to think their best minds are not on the case.

The Home Office insists that UK passports are secure and among the best in the world, but not everyone agrees. Last week, an EU-funded body entitled the Future of Identity in the Information Society (Fidis) issued a declaration on machine-readable travel documents such as RFID-chipped passports and ID cards. It said the technology was "poorly conceived" and added: "European governments have effectively forced citizens to adopt new ... documents which dramatically decrease their security and privacy and increase risk of identity theft."

The government is now facing demands from the Liberal Democrats and anti-ID card groups for a recall of the passports so that simple devices such as foil covers can be installed - at enormous cost. Such covers would at least stop chips being scanned remotely, though they wouldn't prevent an unscrupulous hotel receptionist from opening the passport and sucking out its contents the way we did.

It may be that at some point in the future the government will accept that putting RFID chips in to passports is ill-conceived and unnecessary. Until then, the only people likely to embrace this kind of technology are those with mischief in mind.

It seems that biometric passports and ID cards are not so much a solution, but another opportunity for criminals and terrorists.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

True confessions

From Catherine Thomas' Short Debate in Plenary yesterday. The subject was "Children in Wales—Seen, But Are they Heard?":

Peter Black: I thank Catherine for raising this subject in Plenary. She raised a wide range of issues, and it is impossible to go through them all in the minute that I have in which to discuss this. I join Catherine in welcoming the school councils’ initiative. When I left school 28 years ago, my school had a school council, on which I served, and the school even had a sixth-form governor at the time, so it was a very advanced school. The council instilled in us a sense of civic and community responsibility, and a desire to get involved, and look what happened to me—that is possibly a cautionary tale associated with the school council. This is a welcome introduction across Wales.

Wales has almost caught up.

The use of public funds

Fascinating article in today's Times in which Jon Trickett, the chairman of the Compass Parliamentary Group, is reported to have urged Peter Watt, the General Secretary of the Labour Party, to investigate whether members of the Cabinet are misusing “government apparatus”, paid by public funds, to support their campaign:

In his letter Mr. Trickett says that MPs are concerned about the separation between “government apparatus” and candidates’ campaigns. He believes that special advisers should not be used to promote and run political campaigns, although he emphasised that he was not aware of any individual cases:

“You cannot have people who are paid for by the taxpayer for one purpose being used for another purpose,” he told The Times. The special advisers to Mr Johnson, Mr Benn and Mr Hain are involved with the deputy leadership race directly, answering media inquiries. Ms Harman fields calls herself. This could bring the special advisers into conflict with the code of the Cabinet Office, which governs the conduct of special advisers.

This states: “Special advisers should not use official resources for party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the Government and the department in which they work. It is this which justifies their being paid from public funds and being able to use public resources, and explains why their participation in party politics is carefully limited. They should act in a way which upholds the political impartiality of civil servants and does not conflict with the civil service code. They should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes.”
Peter Hain, who represents the Neath constituency within my region, has always been very scrupulous with public money. He has been critical in the past of regional AMs who he believes are misusing public funds although he has never put forward any evidence to support this assertion.

Mr. Hain was once again amongst one of the highest consumers of postage and stationary from the House of Commons in the latest list of Welsh MPs' expenses. Although all this expenditure was undeniably above board and within the rules we are prevented from seeing how the money was spent as the House of Commons continually refuse requests for more detail.

I am happy that no accusations of impropriety are being directed at any of the deputy leadership candidates. In the circumstances though greater transparency would be very helpful to everybody.


I was so fascinated by the conundrum set by yesterday's Guardian Diary that I carried out my own research. Admittedly this amounted to about 5 minutes on google and wikipedia but it was a learning experience nevertheless.

The Guardian diarist referred to BBC2's documentary last week on the history of university challenge in which a contestant was clearly shown putting finger to buzzer and giving the answer "Michael Howard and Britney Spears." What was the question?

The best that I could come up with was that Michael Howard was once labelled a 'Toxic Tory' by Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker. Britney Spears of course once had a hit single called 'Toxic'. This though is far too obscure a connection even for University Challenge.

The correct answer is apparently that both Michael Howard and Britney Spears were declared persona non grata by the Republican Party in 2004. Mr. Howard gave offence for voicing doubts about the wisdon of the war in Iraq (though that did not stop him voting in favour of it) whilst Britney was just condemned for her "all-round white-trashiness."

It is through pieces like this that one gets a rounded education.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Home Buyer

Buying one's first home in Wales can be a very significant and joyous event for many people, but does it really merit five pages in the Western Mail?

Twenty Seven AMs to rule them all

Glyn Davies has already commented on the problems that Rhodri Morgan will face if he seeks to lead a minority Government with just 27 AMs after the next election. The first obstacle would seem to be his unrealistic optimism that there will be so many Labour Assembly Members.

As I remember it the procedure for electing a First Minister is not straightforward. The two possible scenarios will be a straight vote between Rhodri Morgan and A.N. Other or the more likely possibility that it will be a question of confirming or voting against the single nomination of the present incumbent. If it is the latter then Rhodri Morgan need only secure a majority of those voting. He does not need more than 50% of AMs to support him to keep his job.

The possibilities are endless and I do not see the point of speculating now. After all it will be the voters who will decide on the choices faced by the next Asseembly, not me.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How many measures?

The Presiding Officer's belief that the newly empowered Assembly should hit the ground running after next May's elections and produce at least 18 primary legislative measures has been widely trashed in the press today.

In the Western Mail, senior Labour figures played down the idea that 18 pieces of legislation would be put before MPs in 2007-08:

"We've been working on the assumption of about four or five," said one. "This is a little bit wide of the mark from Dafydd Elis-Thomas. It's worth remembering that he's quite far away from the process of deciding how the new system will work."

My understanding is that the process of securing an Order in Council may be quite lengthy and will involve public consultation. This will mean that it will take some time for the Assembly to be in the position of implementing new measures, which from the point of view of quality and impact may not be a bad thing.

I certainly hope that we do not start setting targets for the number of measures produced in a year. Government by targets can be very bad government if the right processes are not in place. Arguments about the number of laws are missing the key point. The important thing is that each Order in Council gives Wales the maximum freedom to run its own affairs. The question is not how many new powers Wales has, but how broad they are, and what can be done with them.

Protecting dogs

A request from a constituent for information on the number of stray dogs put down by each Welsh local authority in the last financial year has produced some disturbing results. The Assembly library provided me with statistics that showed a huge disparity in practice across Wales.

Cardiff tops the league with 45 dogs destroyed in that period. The footnote tells me that they only put down dogs on vet's orders, as do Gwynedd (9 dogs detroyed last year), though not every Council is as forthcoming with this information. Next are Caerphilly (34 dogs put down), Torfaen (31), Rhondda Cynon Taf (30) and Neath Port Talbot (28), closely followed by Conwy (19), Newport (17), Merthyr Tydfil (16), Ynys Mon (12), Vale of Glamorgan (11) and Wrexham (10).

By way of contrast, Bridgend, Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Monmouthshire and Swansea submitted a nil return. They put down no dogs at all in this period. The Assembly library inform me that Carmarthenshire, Swansea and the Vale of Glamorgan have non-destruct policies. They will not put down healthy, re-homeable dogs. Dogs are only put down on vet's orders. Perhaps this is a policy that needs to be adopted more widely.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Making a complaint

As an elected politician one of the best parts of my job is trying to resolve people's problems and complaints. There is nothing more satisfying than successfully helping somebody in this way.

Like every other Assembly Member I do occasionally get regular complaints from particular individuals or cases that seem very trivial in nature. This does not stop me dealing with each one thoroughly or to the utmost of my ability. After all everybody has a valid point of view and deserves proper representation.

The video above was brought to my attention by an e-mail correspondent. It is the Finnish version with sub-titles and contains a list of complaints that are mostly beyond the wit of any AM or MP to resolve. Nevertheless it is very funny, more so than the Birmingham equivalent in my view.

Tackling poverty

There is no doubt in my mind that defeating child poverty is one of the big issues confronting politicians today. That is why I hope that other parties will take up the cause in the same way that Labour have done for their Assembly manifesto, albeit imperfectly.

It is worth noting that Labour's aspiration has been formulated in the context of them having already been in government for nine years, raising the question of what has been done so far and how effective has it been?

Furthermore as Keith Towler from Save the Children points out in today's Western Mail many of the tools of government that need adjusting to eliminate child poverty lie with the UK Government and not with the Assembly. His organisation's research sets out the shocking truth of poverty in Wales today:

Parents in Wales today are having to choose between heating their homes or giving their children nutritious meals, as they struggle desperately to pay for basic necessities.
Save the Children commissioned face-to-face research with 200 low income families in Wales, and the results reveal:

95% of low income parents in Wales have gone without to make sure their children have enough;

Eight out of 10 said their children have missed out on activities such as after-school clubs, school trips, and inviting friends for tea;

More than one in 10 low income families have resorted to borrowing from loan sharks to make ends meet.

Keith Towler, Save the Children's programme director in Wales, said, "It is outrageous that there are children going to school in Wales without a warm coat this winter. We've spoken to parents who've had to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children properly. Children living in Wales today are clearly missing out on a happy, healthy childhood."

A commitment from the Assembly Government to deal with this will be no good unless there are also changes to the tax and benefit systems. Save the Children's idea of a £200 seasonal grant from the UK Government for the poorest families is a start but the disincentives to work currently built into the benefits system need to be eliminated as well. Measures should also be taken to remove the poorest people from paying tax altogether, something that the Liberal Democrats have commited themselves to and which is incorporated in our current tax proposals.

What is in a name?

For those wondering about the trend of naming children after figures from popular culture or literarure it seems that the trend is not new. A letter in today's Times Newspaper points out that those children who have been called Kylie, Gandalf or Reebok can take comfort from the fact that it has been happening for a long time.

Lucinda Ganderton from Richmond, Surrey tells us that the 1871 census for England includes 46 Horatio Nelsons, 23 Percy Shelleys and 1,967 Elizabeth Bennetts. They were joined in 1881 by two Oliver Twists and two Bill Sykes. Five years after the Crimean War, no fewer than 23 babies had been christened Florence Nightingale and by 1901 there were 217 girls and women named in her honour.

Who would have thought it?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kitten shield

I do enjoy these re-writes of history. Hat tip to Tygerland.

Demanding value for money

Talking of value for money I note that the new marketplace in education created by Tony Blair's tuition fee regime is having unexpected consequences in terms of the expectations of students. Undergraduates are to draw up charters detailing what they expect from universities in return for their fees - including having more time with lecturers.

The move follows a National Union of Students' poll of more than 3,000 students at 40 universities which reveals anger among first-years that they receive the same education as their older peers, but pay far more. In return for their fees of up to £3,000 a year, they want guarantees that they will be well taught.

The 'student rights charters' would act like a warranty. 'Do vice-chancellors seriously think that in a year that has seen fees increase they can cut back on contact time, provision and resources?' asked NUS vice-president Wes Streeting. 'It is unfortunate that students feel like customers, but it is an inevitable result of the system pushing the costs of university on to them.'

The NUS will urge individual student unions to negotiate the agreements with their universities. First to be targeted will be those planning to ask undergraduates to sign contracts promising to turn up for lectures. Now it is their turn to deliver, the students will argue.

It is not clear how this will pan out in Wales where Welsh students attending colleges in the Principality have their fees subsidised by the Assembly. However half of the students in Welsh Higher Institutions are from England and they are paying the full £3,000 fee so I suspect pressure on colleges will be as equally intense here as in England.

If this movement makes the Government think again about lifting the cap on tuition fees in 2009 then it would have done a lot of good.

Paying for the Olympics

If the building of Wembley was a farce then the staging of the 2012 Olympics could well turn into a blockbuster. Today's Observer reports that the cost of putting on this prestigous event has increased from the robust and rigorous £2.4bn figure given at the time of the bid to well over £8bn and that by the time all is done and dusted the Country could well find itself with a £10bn bill. That is an awful lot of lottery money.

Questions around this event outside of London will now inevitably move from 'how can we get a benefit from it?' to 'will we ever see any lottery funded projects other than the Olympics again?' There were already concerns from many bodies who were dependent on lottery money that their income would dry up as a result of the need to fund the Olympics. Those concerns must be multiplying now. Perhaps the Welsh Culture Minister can put our minds at rest? We will see.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Nostalgia isnt what it used to be

Reading Greg Hurst's biography of Charles Kennedy has made me a tad nostalgic for the old days of the Liberal SDP Alliance and seeing as how Stephen Tall has already posted John Cleese's rambling dissertation on extremism it occurred to me that an alternative view was needed.

'Venal, stupid and mendacious'?

I have been resisting commenting on the little rant against bloggers by the Prime Minister's outgoing chief strategy advisor but on re-reading it I thought that it was worth making a single point.

Tom Watson has already underlined the fact that there are many substantial political bloggers who do not fall into Matthew Taylor's characterisation of them. However, if Mr. Taylor is serious in his challenge to bloggers that they should help people "try to understand the real trade-offs that politicians face and the real dilemmas that citizens face" then there is only one way forward. The politicians themselves should embrace the medium and use their own blogs in an interesting and diverse way to inform their electorate about those trade-offs and dilemmas. It is no good lecturing others if you are not prepared to take the plunge yourself.

On the subject of blogs I made a point of listening to Radio Wales' Call to Order on-line shortly after reading Glyn Davies' account of his appearance on the programme. Presenter, Patrick Hannan, in his usual sneering manner read out selected extracts from my blog and that of Tory Leader, Nick Bourne, so as to illustrate his point that we are dealing with trivialities and are not worth taking seriously. It certainly amused my wife anyway.

The point that Patrick missed is that we seek to make our blogs so distinctive because we want to attract interest and so that people will also read the more serious and more political posts. Where is the harm in actually illustrating that politicians are human as well? After all, contrary to the view apparently being expounded by Mr. Hannan, there is more to life than politics, even for politicians!

What I found quite amusing was the reaction of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Leader who, when challenged to agree with Patrick Hannan's point of view, was virtually monosyllabic. I think that he was concerned that he was going to be called upon to defend my blogging activity and was still struggling to come up with a neutral form of words when he was asked something completely different. Form your own judgement, the discussion on blogging is in the last five minutes of the programme.

Despite having introduced me to e-mail many years ago when I was in an extreme luddite phase, Mike is now in denial over the importance of the internet to modern political discourse. Fortunately, he has people around him who will do that sort of thing for him.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Assembly to support DotCym campaign

The Assembly's House Committee has voted to support the campaign to get DotCym accepted as a Top Level Domain so as to enhance Welsh culture and identity on the world wide web. It would mean that organisations, companies and individuals would have the option to replace .uk with .cym.

The Committee met last week to consider the matter and supported my plea to back the campaign. As is made clear in the Assembly's press release and in this article, the Presiding Officer is fully behind the move:

The Assembly’s Presiding Officer, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, said: I believe that a dotcym sponsored top level domain could play an important role in promoting Welsh culture and language in the UK and abroad. As well as Welsh language sites it could also be used for sites in another language which are of Welsh interest. Since .cat has been introduced as a TLD in Catalonia, there has been an increase of 33% in the number of sites using Catalan, so it would it seem that the adoption of .cym would be an effective way of promoting the Welsh language and Welsh identity. It would also be a part of the democratisation of the web."

Details of the campaign can be found here.

In search of a hero

Politicians generate many mixed feelings. On the one hand we are probably one of the top five most hated professions, considered to be at various times dishonest, self-seeking, dissembling, verbose or just plain unreliable. At other times we are community or national leaders, social workers, problem solvers, campaigners and even heroes. More often than not people will start off looking for the latter and end up having their expectations dashed. That is because like everybody else, we are just human and no matter how high up the ladder we have climbed, we will eventually reach the limit of our influence.

Politicians themselves are not exempt from this yearning for a hero. Listening to parliamentary debates you can hear it in their voices, pleading some minister or another to intervene and sort out a national problem, demanding that the Prime Minister fly over to Washington and sort out the US President or even asking for a telling intervention in an important local issue. Like the electorate though we are often disappointed.

In the chamber yesterday Labour Assembly Member Lorraine Barrett at least found something that the Environment Minister could do, the problem was that her question was about something else and that might take a little longer:

Lorraine Barrett: Increased levels of recycling depend largely on an easy system for householders. Will you review the way in which some local authorities manage their recycling? In the Vale of Glamorgan, we now have to wash and squash tins and cans, which I find quite difficult to do. We also cannot put out Tetra cartons for recycling. The easier we make it for people to recycle, the sooner we will reach those targets, so will you keep an eye on the way that local authorities are developing their systems?

What the record does not show is that even though Carwyn Jones did not offer to come and squash Lorraine's tins and cans for her, other members did. There were heroes in the chamber after all. Christine Gwyther even pointed out how therapeutic such activity was:

Christine Gwyther: Squashing cans is a good method of stress relief and I would recommend it to any Member after a Plenary meeting. We have heard from other Members that peer pressure is important in terms of recycling and that children can influence their parents. They can also influence councils, Assembly Members and Ministers. Will you join me in congratulating the young students at Templeton Primary School in Pembrokeshire, who welcomed you to their school recently and showed you and me exactly how we should be recycling?

As if to defy the trend the Environment Minister used question time to cast himself as an anti-hero by confirming that he was unable to intervene to help residents living around Hafod Quarry in Wrexham, where rubbish from England is being tipped daily. There were some however who doubted whether he had even visited the place, an impression that he quickly dispelled, stunning the Assembly into admiring silence and then spontaneous applause as a result:

Janet Ryder: Fly-tipping is otherwise known as the illegal dumping of waste. Many people in Wrexham view the ongoing dumping of waste in the Hafod tip as illegal. Unfortunately, due to your decision this morning, that illegal process seems to have been given legitimacy and it can be carried on. As part of that decision-making process, you informed me that, on 12 October, you entered the site and inspected it. Could you confirm that you did enter the site?

Carwyn Jones: Where can I start, Janet? First, the tipping is not illegal. I came from Wrexham general railway station. I had a driver and an assistant private secretary with me. I entered Johnstown and as you approach the railway bridge in Johnstown in the direction of the dual carriageway, on the right-hand side there is a street called Heol yr Orsaf. If you go up Heol yr Orsaf, which is uphill, the landfill site is on your left-hand side where the road curves away from it. Laughter.]

However, if you go underneath the railway bridge, on the right-hand side is the entrance to the landfill site, which is quite hidden and you can miss it easily. On the left-hand side is a country lane and a builders’ yard, which we went to when we missed the turning. However, if you come back, you can enter the landfill site without challenge; the road snakes to the right and then to the left and you enter a flat area, where, at ten o’clock, the landfill site is located.

When you leave the landfill site, turn right and then right again, you enter a lane. On the left-hand side there is a field; on the right-hand side there is barbed wire and trees and the boundary of the landfill site. That road, incidentally, goes uphill. Therefore, yes; I did visit the landfill site.

With one bound Carwyn had placed himself back at the head of the queue to succeed Rhodri Morgan, for the one thing that Labour members would know in voting for him was that he might not be a hero, but you would always be able to rely on him to give you directions if you were lost.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Pregnant pause

The new Chief Executive of Bridgend County Borough Council is to go on maternity leave just three months after she starts in her new role.

Commenting on the news Dr Jo Farrar said "Bridgend council is a family-friendly employer with many policies that support a good work-life balance." The Council leader, Cheryl Green added "Jo has the full support of myself and cabinet and we congratulate her on her happy news. Tried and tested maternity procedures will be put in place to ensure the continuing day-to-day smooth running of the authority and the services we provide."

Bridgend's Labour MP has a different view however:

Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon said: "It is sad news for the people of Bridgend, who desperately need her leadership at the council. It is particularly unfortunate that she is starting off her new role in this way."

How very enlightened. How very New Labour!

A feud to end them all

The Welsh papers report again on the feud between Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis-Thomas and his Deputy, John Marek, which spilled out into the chamber yesterday in an embarrassing exchange that once more brought the Assembly into disrepute.

This time it was John Marek, determined to raise the departure of Assembly Clerk Paul Silk, who used a motion to appoint the new Chief Executive so as to attack the PO. As soon as he raised it he was ruled out of order and then when the Presiding Officer moved to a vote demanded several times that Dafydd Elis-Thomas clarify whether he was being gagged or not.

Talk afterwards amongst Labour AMs placed the blame for this latest spat on the DPO. Many would like to remove him from that post but do not feel able to do so due to the martyr-factor he would undoubtedly invoke. The opposition parties do not wish to initiate this action either. They need to keep John Marek on board if they are to retain their majority, even if they are unable to use it most of the time because of poor group discipline. The Presiding Officer is considered untouchable. Apart from being a bit too outspoken, he has really only been doing his job.

We are therefore left with this situation unresolved with the expectation that it will continue right up until we recess at the end of March 2007. That cannot be good for the reputation of the Welsh Assembly or our chances of convincing people to vote on the basis that we have the powers and the purpose to improve the quality of their lives.

Waxing lyrically on crime

I know that it is fashionable to dislike politicians but Dyfed Powys Chief Constable, Terry Grange, has taken the art form to new lengths with his assertion that we are all hairy chested neanderthals beating our chest about crime rather than giving the Police the resources to get on with the job.

In terms of the Queen's speech he is most probably correct. Let us hope that he is not thinking about compulsory waxing as a solution. Now that really would be pain for gain.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Missing Link

It should have been the perfect day.

The opposition had voted down the Business Statement yesterday so as to force the First Minister to come to the chamber and explain how the new Government of Wales Act will work in relation to primary legislation.

Their concern had arisen following comments from the Secretary of State for Wales that he will effectively block Orders in Council that allow the Assembly to do things he does not like. The example he gave was a Bill to introduce fair voting for local Council elections.

Today the Government had to bring back an amended Business Statement that in theory accommodates the opposition's concerns. However, they did not do so and as the three opposition parties had the numbers they wanted to press the point by rejecting the Business Statement again.

As debate got underway it was noticed that Conservative AM, Jonathan Morgan was not present. The bell was rung in the hope that the missing politician would reappear. He did not do so and the government won the vote.

This raises one very important question: If the Conservatives cannot get their members into the chamber for votes like this how can they hope to sustain any sort of government, Tory-led or otherwise? They have not got the group discipline for opposition never mind government.

Update: As if to compound the Conservative's loss of credibility, when it came to voting on the cross-opposition party motion to halt the current partial reconfiguration process so as to produce new guidance for Local Health Boards and Health Trusts on consultation and on the needs of local communities, only four Tories were present in the chamber to vote. Seven of their AMs were missing.

So much for their claim to be leading the defence of the Welsh NHS.

A dragon roars

Could it be the environmental purity of the new chamber that is getting members excited or is it just the closeness of Christmas? Either way, the debate on the Business Statement get quite passionate yesterday and no more so than the Business Minister herself. She had obviously been enthused by the First Minister's performance in questions earlier:

The Business Minister (Jane Hutt): It is interesting, Ieuan, Lisa and Kirsty, to see how excited you get about political speeches. I get most excited by the First Minister’s political speeches; not only did the First Minister, a few weeks ago, make a ‘Wales can do it’ speech, but at the weekend he made a ‘the Welsh dragon is roaring’ speech. The Welsh dragon is roaring because we have gone from a situation—and I do not mind repeating what he said—of having over 120,000 people on the dole under the Tories to 44,000 being in that situation now. There are 131,000 more jobs in Wales now than when the Assembly came into being. There has been an 11 per cent increase, while it is 7 per cent in the rest of the UK. We are top of the league in the UK for increasing employment, with a 12 per cent rise in jobs in west Wales and the Valleys, but only 7 per cent in the UK. On every front, the Welsh dragon is roaring—that is what we should be discussing.

Search as we might we could not find any proposal on the three week forward look of a Government motion on the nature of a dragon's roar. However, the Minister was ready with further clarification:

I was pleased to hear the confidence of Carl Sargeant, who is so proud— [Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’] He is so proud of his local authority—Flintshire County Council—and he is proud of his constituency’s construction industry and companies. That is what we need: recognition that the Welsh dragon is roaring, that Wales can do it, and that the Committee on Standing Orders will take us through to deliver on the Government of Wales 2006 with people elected to the Assembly.

Carl Sargeant and the dragon, now there is a tale to scare the kids with. One person who is unlikely to be daunted by the wrath of the dragon is North Wales Conservative AM, Brynle Williams. He was more concerned with getting mountain bikes off forestry roads:

However, the issue of rights of way concerns me. Significant damage is being done to a number of bridleways and mountain paths. I would like to see councils and private businesses helping to provide facilities for off-road motorcyclists, and even those who ride mountain bikes. We are now seeing problems on Offa’s Dyke with damage being done by mountain cyclists. Can we please get them on to forestry roads? I see the Minister shaking his head in disagreement, but as someone who lives and farms on the Clwydian range, I can say that the evidence is there. All I ask is that we provide facilities for enthusiasts. All too often, we speak in the Chamber about trying to make the nation healthier. As far as cycling goes, I am not much of an advert, but that is beside the point. There are a number of issues and this Act will help this situation.

Sponsoring Brynle Williams to ride a bicycle would be well worth the money.


The debate on the location of Adult Neurosurgery took place yesterday and there were 22 votes across party in favour of locating the new merged unit in Morriston Hospital. Although the motion and the amendment to throw out the Health Commission Wales recommendations were rejected the strength of feeling in South West Wales was made very clear.

The Health Minister has asked HCW to revisit the proposals to take account of additional issues but there is still a long way to go if we are to win this battle. There is a view that Cardiff has been acting as a huge black hole on the south east corner of Wales sucking in services and resources for too long. Occasionally, a morsel escapes the gravitational pull and settles elsewhere in Wales but such incidents are all too infrequent. It would be nice if the final decision on adult neurosurgery was one of those which settled outside of the Cardiff area of influence.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

John's big carbon footprint

An e-mail arrives urging me to look at a new blog called John Marek's Big Carbon Footprint. The e-mail tells me that the blog will chart the extraordinary travels (and other political shenanigans) of a certain - JOHN MAREK - Welsh Assembly Member for Wrexham, North Wales.

It goes on: "The blog aims to guide you through the political wilderness, where John Marek AM currently reigns supreme...

There will be features on....

* his amazing journeys around the globe
* his sudden interest in his constituents... and,
* his ever-decreasing lack of political 'touch' in both Cardiff Bay and in his constituency."

The one thing that seems certain is that it is not being written nor has it been authorised by the Deputy Presiding Officer himself.

Update: The blog appears to have been deleted, however, the Western Mail reports that the DPO is accusing Labour of being responsible for it. He says that they are running a dirty tricks campaign against him.

In response Labour state categorically that none of its employees were involved. A strange response in itself that begs two questions: was it put together by a non-employee? And, why put it in those terms? Is there a particular employee who might be in the frame who they are protecting? OK, that is three questions but you know what I meant.

If this sort of campaign continues, as characterised too by this video on youtube, then John Marek will be able to call on the under-dog card once more so as to secure re-election.

Double bluff

The Western Mail carries an interesting interpretation of Peter Hain's remarks that the UK Government will not allow the Assembly to legislate to introduce proportional representation for local government in Wales. Essentially, they believe that the Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland is playing an elaborate game of double bluff:

We should remember, however, the context in which Mr Hain's apparent threat is made. Welsh Labour is embarking on a difficult election campaign in which it could easily lose power. Most observers would assess its chance of winning an overall majority at less than 50/50. Whatever Mr Hain and Mr Morgan say publicly now, they realise that their party's only realistic way of staying in power is through a coalition with Liberal Democrats.

If the Lib-Dems can be persuaded, or browbeaten, into thinking their goal of PR is wholly unattainable, they might not be minded to deprive Labour of its role in government. The prospect of a rainbow coalition with opposition parties might seem less attractive if the Lib-Dems believed it could not deliver PR anyway. Then they might be tempted to link up with Welsh Labour after all.

The only thing that is worth saying about this bizarre suggestion is that the author of this piece is whistling in the dark. The Welsh Liberal Democrats, as they demonstrated in the last partnership government, are not in the business of seeking power for its own sake. Our objective will be to implement as many of our policies as possible and we will not be abandoning important principles just to save Labour's hide.

Our message next year will be that the more votes the Welsh Liberal Democrats get the more of our policies can be put into place in Government. We are not in the business of squaring Peter Hain's circles for him. If he wants to negotiate then he cannot set preconditions and it is rather strange that the Western Mail thinks that he can.

In search of a hero

If you are going to cast yourself as a martyr and go to prison for your beliefs it helps if you have the support of your family. Unfortunately, that is one thing that Richard Fitzmaurice neglected to secure as he refused to pay his Council Tax to the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk on the grounds that it is a war hero and a pensioner. He also objects to the Council paying the legal expenses of their leader in a failed complaint against him under the Local Government code of conduct. Mr. Fitzmaurice's wife though is not sympathetic:

“He’s an idiot,” she said. “He has rung me from the cells and he’s full of himself. But he has put me through a lot and at my age I can’t be doing with it.

“I’m certainly not going to visit him. I can’t drive. I depend on him. I’m really rather angry with him. He thinks it’s going to be a laugh. He’s a silly old . . . oh, I nearly sweared.”

Oh dear!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Eye on Wales

Could you be the Samuel Pepys of cyberspace?

From police chiefs and politicians, to students and teenagers, millions of people worldwide are taking up writing weblogs, or internet diaries, enabling them to speak to the world at a keystroke.

Latest reports from internet experts indicate that 100,000 new blogs are created daily, and 1.3 million new posts made on existing blogs - currently thought to number around 57 million.

And as the mainsteam media gradually wakes up to the potential of blogs for informing the news agenda, their influence is growing. Some have even been published in book form.

Meanwhile youngsters are also taking to the blogosphere and joining up to social networking sites such as MySpace, Bebo and Youtube in their millions, sharing photographs and personal information with a worldwide audience at the press of a button.

Tonight's Eye on Wales hears from Welsh bloggers and asks, what are the risks surrounding this explosion of freedom of speech and self-expression?

Veteran presenter, Peter Johnson, has used his weekly half hour Radio Wales documentary programme, Eye on Wales, tonight to look at the Welsh blogging scene. Listen to it here, it will be on the web for the next seven days.

Amongst the featured bloggers are the Chief Constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, Chris Cope, Annie Rhiannon, a Welsh girl living in Iceland and yours truly.


I have just found time to catch up with yesterday's episode of Torchwood and finally worked out what it is that is bothering me about it.

With Dr. Who the doctor comes in and sorts out the mess and the leaves without any thought as to what he has left behind. We are able to suspend disbelief to accept this because we have moved on with the Tardis.

In the case of the Torchwood Institute however, they are rooted in their community, people are being killed all around them or being attacked very publicly by aliens. How can they hush all that up? They are still there the next week but there never seems to be any consequences. My disbelief is beginning to grow very ragged.

Taking the goat

The Guardian reports that up to a quarter of all the wild goats living in Snowdonia are to be culled to allow sheep to graze more freely, to protect young trees and even to avoid car accidents.

Apparently, feral goat numbers have almost doubled in the last five years to around 500. The animals are accused of coming down off the high mountains, marauding through gardens and eating flowers, knocking down walls and eating saplings in protected woods.

Briefing papers prepared by the park authorities say that conservation efforts are being compromised by the goats. "[They] can potentially kill entire cohorts of trees. They can severely affect tree regeneration. There is also evidence that they do cause short-term localised loss of forage to farmers.

"Goats have been fenced out of sensitive areas, captured and removed. However, fencing is largely ineffective, live capture results in significant stress to the animals and finding 'homes' for the captured goats is becoming increasingly difficult." The cull, conducted secretly last week in Coed Dinorwic forest, overlooking Snowdon, is expected to be followed by major culls next year on National Trust land and in the Rhinog mountains, some of the wildest country in Britain.

"There is no intention to remove them [completely], but we need to deal with their growing numbers," said a spokesman for the Countryside Council for Wales at the weekend. "Local residents are worried about damage to their gardens and the real danger posed by the goats' feeding habits around highways." But there is concern that the rare goats are being persecuted by the authorities and being unfairly blamed for damage done by sheep, horses, rabbits and - mainly - man.

The paper lists a number of other animals who are subject to threatened culls including badgers, who have unfairly been blamed for the spread of bovine TB, grey squirrels, hedgehogs, deer, seals, seagulls, mink, crows, magpies, boar and ruddy duck.

It seems that having moulded nature to its own needs, man must kill helpless animals to keep it that way. I was particularly struck by the comments of a Manchester pensioner, who was enjoying a day in the Coed Dinorwic Forest. Speaking about claims that goats are responsible to damage to a random sample of 50 saplings under about 10 years old, John Francis said: "That's nothing to the damage that people are doing. Yet we don't cull them."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Zuton Fever

What a great day. I spent the afternoon delivering 750 leaflets and then drove to Newport to see The Zutons live. I know that people are complaining about traffic in Swansea but they should try driving in Newport. There are roadworks everywhere and not a carpark in sight.

The concert was fab. The Zutons have such a wide range of music and they really want to engage with the audience. If the photo looks a bit strange it is because it was taken with an inadequate camera phone. However, I think it has a sort of surreal air about it and captures the energy of the band quite nicely.

Now I am knackered. I am definitely getting too old for all this activity.

Bleeding Hearts

Somehow it is quite disturbing to find out that Home Secretary, John Reid, is on the more cautious wait-and-see side in the debate on whether to respond to acquittal of Nick Griffin with new race hate laws.

Personally, I agree with Lord Lester that such legislation is unnecessary, especially when an existing race and religious hatred law has not really had time to prove itself. There is a real danger that trying to legislate for one particular case could have wider repercussions for the rights and liberties of ordinary people. The leader in the Observer sums it up well:

The problem is not a shortage of law. Quite the contrary. It is a long-established principle that incitement to murder is unacceptable; likewise incitement to race hatred. This year, incitement to religious hatred was banned, as was 'glorifying acts of terrorism'. It is sensible that rhetoric impelling someone to commit violence sometimes be deemed criminal. But the law should avoid criminalising ideas and beliefs, even unpleasant ones. Police are already over-empowered to interpret all sorts of opinions as crimes, unhealthy in a democracy. The government has invented enough thought crimes to curtail our freedom of expression. Mr Brown and Lord Falconer are plain wrong if they think we need more.


As if to reinforce my point yesterday that politician's enjoying hospitality at sporting events can cause problems, the Wales on Sunday reports that officials scored a humiliating own goal when they were exposed for entertaining VIPs at two Millennium Stadium boxes, which have cost the taxpayer £500,000.

The boxes were leased by the Welsh Development Agency and Wales Tourist Board - quangos which no longer exist as they are now part of the Assembly Government. In an effort to take the sting out of a potential scandal the First Minister last night announced that the boxes - located in prime position on the half-way line - will instead be used to reward charitable groups once the Six Nations 2007 tournament kicks off in February:

"When required, the boxes will continue to be used to attract key business investors into Wales, but our intention from February 2007 forward is also to use these excellent hospitality facilities at the stadium as a way of recognising and rewarding those citizens who have made a contribution to the community going beyond the call of duty," Mr Morgan said.

The public will be asked to nominate deserving groups or individuals.

Now there is something that is worth monitoring.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The wrong Thomas

Politicians are often envious of the amount of public participation in reality TV shows such as Big Brother. These programmes attract millions of voters and, more significantly, the profile of these voters reflects a group of people who do not normally participate in elections.

The two votes are of course not comparable, and nor should they be. The business of electing political representatives, who are charged with using their intellect and judgement to legislate and govern, is nothing like the beauty contest that reality show contestants submit themselves to. The outcome of the first is complex, achieving only gradual change, whilst the latter provides instant results and often black and white choices.

In these circumstances politicians who try to switch over to the reality show genre often offer themselves up for ridicule, whilst also potentially confusing the process of government with entertainment. George Galloway is the prime example of this. He went onto Celebrity Big Brother in the hope of getting his message across to a wider audience only to find that the producers were not interested in allowing him to espouse his views, they wanted to entertain the viewers.

The latest example of a politician being pushed aside in favour of a local celebrity therefore should surprise nobody. After all who wants to come and see a mere Assembly Member switch on the Christmas lights at the local Asda when a Big Brother contestant is available instead?

Nobody is suggesting that Labour AM, Catherine Thomas was seeking publicity in initially agreeing to carry out the task, although with a majority of only 21 she needs all the exposure she can get, however she is entitled to feel a little hard done by at being elbowed aside to so as to accommodate Imogen Thomas instead.

Still she does have the consolation of leading a team of six Cairngorm reindeer into the St Elli Shopping Centre for their switching-on of lights on Wednesday, November 15. Presumably, all the available celebrities drew the line at this opportunity.


As politicians we often have privileged access to people, places and events that others do not. Naturally, this can lead to envy and resentment, particularly if a politician acquires a prime seat at an international game for free and has hospitality thrown in to boot. As I have said previously, I tend not to take up the vast majority of these opportunities. This, though is not a general rule for others. If it were then the offers would dry up.

Politicians are also expected to have some grasp of popular culture, even though they may not have the time or inclination for this. Many will work very hard to master a basic knowledge of the sort of things that helps the tabloids to sell newspapers, even though their understanding of the genre remains cursory. I still have fond memories for example, of the senior politician who spent an afternoon during an election campaign learning the names of the Spice Girls by rote so that he would not be caught out at a press conference. Others do not try to pretend at all.

The Conservative AM, David Melding, is at least refreshingly honest in these matters, as he demonstrated in questions to the Enterprise Minister on Wednesday:

David Melding: As someone who for many years thought that Ant and Dec was one person, I am not brilliant on popular culture, but Torchwood has made Cardiff into a great star—we already had Dr Who—and it is attracting many tourists. Cardiff, in general, is appearing in the popularity charts of UK and European cities. It is important that we market Cardiff aggressively to attract more tourists, and, on the back of that, see the links to promoting tourism in Wales in general.

Andrew Davies: Yes, very much so. I was delighted to open BBC Wales’s new drama complex in Treforest earlier this year, where much of the Dr Who series and the new Torchwood series were filmed; I was delighted that I was able to open the Tardis set, and meet Dr Who in person. [Interruption.] I had a sonic screwdriver, which did not actually do anything. I am delighted that Dr Who is written by Swansea-born Russell T Davies. The programme has done a great job in terms of promoting Wales, particularly Swansea and Cardiff and the beautiful surrounding countryside, and Torchwood is doing the same. The creative industries are important to us, not only in terms of developing Welsh talent, but also as a way of promoting all that is best about Wales. I have been in discussions with all the broadcasters in Wales, as well as the independent television producers, to get as much of the filming of Welsh products as possible done in Wales.

This exchange was of course a delight for many of us in the chamber, not just for David Melding's frank admission that he had once though Ant and Dec to be one person, but also for Andrew Davies' almost starstruck tone as he informed us breathlessly that he had been on the Dr. Who set and that he had met the great man himself, a statement that he later repeated just to underline the achievement.

Many of us were left pondering what would have happened if the Minister had got his hands on the Tardis. How things might have been different in the Welsh Assembly. The disaster of Alun Michael's leadership might have been avoided and Labour may have secured a majority in the Assembly in 1999, Labour might have supported Peter Law for Deputy Presiding Officer and prevented losing their majority last year, whilst Rhodri Morgan may have decided to go to Normandy for the D-Day commemoration instead of attending a Ryder Cup event, thus saving himself a lot of grief. It is flights of fancy like this that gets us through the day.

Later on things became a little more serious with an exchange during the Business Statement that began to rehearse some of the arguments that will be used in the forthcoming Welsh General Election. Welsh Liberal Democrat Business Manager Kirsty Williams had a small run in with the Presiding Officer as she sought to capitalise on Plaid Cymru's u-turn over the demand for a statement on the Wales Screen Commission by referring to their Deputy Leader's preference for a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition after the next election:

Kirsty Williams: As Lisa has just said, the basis on which we voted against the business statement yesterday, and the reason why it failed, was because of the absence of an oral statement on the Wales Screen Commission. Therefore, the Minister can hardly be surprised today that not including it in her business statement has not somehow elicited the support of Assembly Members. I do not know what Plaid Cymru is doing. It did not support the business statement yesterday because of the absence of that statement, so I do not know why it feels that it can support the revised business statement today, but then that is a matter for—

The Presiding Officer: Order. The Business Minister has no responsibility for Plaid Cymru.

Kirsty Williams: Not yet. I accept that, at this precise instance, the Business Minister does not have any say-so over the goings-on in Plaid Cymru—and you would know more than most what that is like, Presiding Officer.

The Presiding Officer: Order. As Assembly Members know well, I play very little part in the affairs of Plaid Cymru, and certainly none when I am sitting here.

Kirsty Williams: I could not agree more, Presiding Officer.

The Business Minister, therefore, cannot be surprised that we are not supporting the revised business statement today. The Minister for Enterprise, Innovation and Networks answered some questions this afternoon, but that is no substitute for an opportunity to clearly examine the issues involved. In fact, his performance this afternoon raised more questions than were answered. Therefore, we are not able to support this statement.

Helen Mary Jones: I have no idea what we have done to make Kirsty Williams so grumpy; I am sorry that she is in such a bad mood. I reiterate your point, Presiding Officer, that there are three opposition parties, as well as independent Members, in the Chamber, and we are under no obligation always to act in accord, particularly when we happen not to agree.

We share the regret that there is no statement on the Wales Screen Commission and I further feel—

Kirsty Williams rose—

Helen Mary Jones: As far as I am aware, Presiding Officer, it is not possible to make interventions in these situations.

The Presiding Officer: Was someone trying to make one?

Helen Mary Jones: Yes, the Liberal Democrats’ slightly grumpy business manager. [Laughter.]

The Presiding Officer: Then she should sit down forthwith.

Helen Mary Jones: I would happily give way to her, but, as I understand it, I am not allowed to do that.

Nobody has ever accused Helen Mary Jones of being starstruck.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Redwood factor

Labour peer Lord Richard of Ammanford, who is the former Leader of the House of Lords, has picked up my refrain from 18th October about the very real problems and conflicts that the Government of Wales Act will bring.

In today's Western Mail he warns that the new settlement could lead to clashes between Cardiff Bay and Westminster. Effectively, he says that there will be "too much scrutiny by Westminster and not enough autonomy in Cardiff." It is worth quoting his comments in full:

He said, "My problem with the Act is really twofold: first, that it does not go far enough in the legislative competence that is devolved, and secondly that the mechanism for that devolution is extraordinarily complicated and does not produce a clear degree of separation between Westminster and Cardiff."

Lord Richard set out the four steps involved in passing new Welsh laws, and said, "I have several problems with these procedures.

"As far as step one is concerned, it seemed to me right and inevitable that the proposed Order in Council should emerge as a result of discussions between the Assembly Government and the Government in Westminster.

"After consideration by the Secretary of State, that Order in Council would then go to pre-legislative scrutiny. What is not clear, however, is the precise way in which, and the extent to which, this scrutiny would actually take place.

"Certainly there was a view expressed by a number of Welsh MPs that they would be able to amend the draft Order in Council and that they would have the power to enquire into the policy of the Assembly on which the Order in Council was based.

"I feel that this provision, if used over-brutally, would result in too much scrutiny by Westminster and not enough autonomy in Cardiff.

"Moreover, the mechanism for scrutiny is again unclear. One is not sure whether all MPs and not just those on the Welsh Affairs Committee will be able to contribute, nor how.

"Nor is one at all clear how there could be joint legislative scrutiny with the House of Lords. Nor am I clear as to the way in which the Assembly's views will remain clear in that scrutiny process.

"The next step also seems to me to be one which is capable of generating considerable friction. The Welsh Assembly Government will have to revise the proposed Order in Council in the light of the comments received from the scrutiny process.

"In a situation in which the Assembly Government is firm on what it wanted and the Westminster Parliament did not fully agree, then the Assembly Government would be put in the extremely difficult position of either losing the Order totally or having to back down on the extent of legislation which it was convinced it needed.

"This procedure could work reasonably well if the Administrations in Cardiff and London were of the same political persuasion. What cannot be dealt with in this way is a situation in which the Government in London and the Assembly Government in Cardiff differed strongly on policy."

Lord Richard believes that the real danger will arise if a John Redwood figure ever becomes Secretary of State for Wales again. However, it is clear that the scenario he paints could well happen as early as next May if a non-Labour Government took the reins of power in Cardiff Bay.

Fighting for wind

This is the infamous 'nude' calendar produced for Awel Aman Tawe to promote wind power and featuring naked Plaid Cymru AM, Rhodri Glyn Thomas. Apologies for the lack of warning.

A number of people have commented to me on the unfortunate juxtaposition of the naturist AM and the slogan 'Yes 2 wind'. I have had to point out to them that the calendar is concerned with alternative energy and has nothing whatsoever to do with flatulence. Oh, yes!


The BBC report that John Marek has finally resigned as Chair of the House Committee. Apparently, it has been confirmed by an Assembly Parliamentary Service spokesperson.

In what must be the longest resignation ever the Deputy Presiding Officer finally handed in a letter........uh...sorry...I must have dozed off. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

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