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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Open revolt

It seems that David Cameron is not the only Tory leader to be having problems with his grass roots if this letter in the Western Mail is anything to go by:

SIR - Although I am a Conservative I cannot share Nick Bourne's enthusiasm for devolution.

Mr Bourne and his gang in the Assembly may have embraced devolution but most party members here in South East Wales have not.

It is pleasing that the party has put forward policies on the health service and education, although these can easily be delivered by a Conservative government at Westminster.

I do not agree with the policy on proportional representation. This is a sop to the Liberal Democrats and one that does not find favour with Conservative councillors. Many of us in the party still hope the party leadership will see sense and allow us the opportunity to have a referendum on the future of the Assembly with the option for its abolition.

Conservative member of Newport City Council, Allt-Yr-Yn Road, Newport

Will Nick Bourne spend the Assembly election campaign looking over his shoulder fear of being stabbed in the back by his own activists?

Researching Taboos

From this week's Times Higher Education Supplement:

Social taboos and a lack of funding have turned parts of the multi-billion pound global pornography industry into no-go areas for research, scholars said this week.

Academics spoke to The Times Higher about the difficulties of teaching and research in the field. They argued that there was an urgent need for more critical engagement with pornography.

It is a tough old world.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Proxy election

A number of us predicted at the beginning of the year that the last Assembly Term could degenerate into a verbal bloodbath as parties vied for political advantage in the run-up to the elections. I am pleased to report that for the most part we were wrong and that things did not get too out of hand.

Inevitably however, that did not apply to the last week and there were one or two bizarre questions to the First Minister that sounded a bit like husting speeches. A good example was the question asked by Nick Bourne on Tuesday:

Nick Bourne: Good afternoon, First Minister. On your watch, since 1999, waiting lists have gone up by more than 40 per cent, more than half of the adult population does not have access to an NHS dentist, NHS trusts are riddled with debt, the school funding gap with England has continued to widen, and council tax bills have almost doubled. However, I do not want to ask you about any of those issues now, as I know that we will lock horns on those issues on the campaign trail. I want to ask you about an issue on which there is probably a degree of consensus across the Assembly, namely attacks on public servants, whether they are teachers or nurses and other medics. It is a real issue that is becoming more serious, so what is the Government doing to tackle it? The figures that relate specifically to the NHS and to schools show that the number of violent attacks is going up.

And it carried on in that vein for several minutes. It took the debate on Tir Mynydd on Wednesday to really liven things up though. However, many of us think that Kirsty Williams was fighting the wrong election:

I disagree with Mick Bates’s remark that the Minister is weak and incompetent; I do not believe that for a minute. The Minister is, however, ambitious and clever. [Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’] He also finds himself in the unenviable position of being Minister with responsibility for agriculture in a Labour Welsh Assembly Government. While Andrew Davies hoovers up the trade union vote in anticipation of Rhodri’s departure, Carwyn has to do something to catch up. I argue that in cutting this money and in acting in this way, the Minister seeks to counteract Andrew’s trade union vote by currying favour with his backbenches. What is an ambitious young man to do?

The Labour leadership contest of course comes afterwards. So many elections, so little time.

Dirty tricks

This morning's Western Mail reports on a scurrilious leaflet, which was widely cirulated around the South Wales West region earlier this week. The paper reports that Welsh Conservatives have referred the malicious pamphlet about one of its National Assembly candidates to the Electoral Commission and to the police.

The paper tells us that an anonymously-produced leaflet, sent to AMs, councillors and journalists, makes unfounded personal allegations about Chris Smart, who is second on the party's regional list in South Wales West:

The leaflet claims it will be distributed to nearly 400,000 voters in the region.

A spokesman for the Welsh Conservative Party said, "We are referring a malicious, anonymous leaflet regarding one of our candidates to South Wales Police and the Electoral Commission, and are asking them to investigate the source of its defamatory content."

Mr Smart, a broadcaster who runs a Bridgend news agency, said he was appalled that details of a court appearance he made 34 years ago had been distorted.

The leaflet suggests Mr Smart was investigated for alleged offences involving young boys.

In fact, he was bound over to keep the peace after a series of bizarre incidents where he was said to have posed as a school inspector.

Port Talbot magistrates were told Mr Smart stopped children in streets at Margam, Aberavon and Sandfields and asked them why they were not in school.

In each instance the children had full authority to be out of school.

On one occasion Mr Smart was alleged to have made children bend and touch their toes and threatened to spank them with a cricket bat.

Mr Smart, who at the time was 22, was bound over in the sum of £100 to keep the peace for two years.

In December 1998 similar false allegations were made in anonymous letters in the run-up to the first Assembly election, when Mr Smart was also a candidate.

Yesterday he said, "The leaflet contains a series of lies and bears no relation to what actually happened. I am appalled that this minor matter has been resurrected after all these years.

"I was over-zealous at the time and I don't deny that.

"But there was absolutely no sexual element in what I did - I was motivated purely by a desire to stop truancy."

It is an offence to distribute untruthful or anonymous leaflets during an election campaign.

Everybody was shocked at the contents of this publication. This sort of tactic has no place in an election campaign, it undermines the whole political process. I am happy therefore, to help by putting the record straight for anybody who has received the leaflet but may not have seen the newspaper report.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

More budget blues

I am grateful for Stephen Tall who has drawn our attention to this piece from today's Financial Times report of the evidence given by Treasury officials to MPs on the Treasury committee examining the 2007 budget:

Officials were also willing to concede … that 5.3m families would lose from the budget changes; that government spending plans did not forsee the take-up rate of working tax credit rising from its current dismal 25 per cent; and that there would be no money in the autumn comprehensive spending review dedicated to fighting child poverty.

Not a good start to a Gordon's bid to be Prime Minister.

Tories disappoint on PR

It is not my intention to spend all my time on this blog talking about fair voting for local government, but it is worth noting that the promised damoscene conversion of the Welsh Conservatives on this issue appears not to have happened.

I only have reports in the Western Mail to go on of course, so it is possible that a closer reading of the actual Tory manifesto might produce a different answer, but I think that is unlikely. The newspaper tells us that the Tories are open to changes in electoral arrangements but only if a local referendum votes in favour. There is no indication of what is needed to trigger such a referendum or what options will be on offer to the electorate. In truth such a referendum is likely to produce a level of apathy not seen since, well, the devolution vote in1997. The outcome could be twenty two different voting systems.

The Tories may argue that this is the very essence of localism, I would say that it is fence-sitting of the worst kind. There are real benefits to be gained for local democracy from subjecting it to a fair voting system. If the Assembly were to fail to take a lead in legislating for this but instead treats it as some sort of social experiment then those benefits will be lost.

My fear now is that there will not be a clear manifesto majority in favour of such a change in the new Assembly and the opportunity will be lost for another four years.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Plaid Cymru manifesto launch

The photograph is of Jenny Randerson AM illustrating the great strides being made by Cardiff Council in improving recycling in the City.

Judging by her very valid comments on Plaid Cymru's manifesto this morning it is likely that the green bags contained copies of that rather glossy document.

Jenny said: "This is a manifesto without substance. It covers 36 pages, but many of those are pictures of models. Are they too embarrased of their candidates to show people what they look like?

"More worrying than the lack of detail is the lack of financial literacy. Plaid's spending proposals are based on spending every extra penny the Assembly receives on their wide range of gimmicks. They have forgotten that teachers and nurses will be expecting pay rises, that heating and lighting bills will go up. To fund their gimmicks, there will have to be a real terms cut in spending on health and education.

"They have forgotten about inflation. No government - even in an independent nation - can credibly assume zero inflation. Their manifesto reveals their lack of credibility."

Let battle begin!

The new conservatives

I am under no illusions that the cause of fair voting in local government is anything other than a minority concern. However, each and every one of us has an interest in how accountable and effective our local council is. In this regard, the general principle that the make-up of that Council should reflect the way people voted seems to me to be important.

There are still one party states in local authorities around Wales, though they are less in number than they were. Where they exist or have existed then Councils have been able to operate almost independently of effective scrutiny or the wishes of the electorate. That is something that Liberal Democrats and other parties would want to change. Not, it seems, New Labour.

Today's Western Mail reports that Wales Labour's manifesto for the National Assembly election will repeat the party's opposition to proportional representation in council elections. Incredibly they argue that moving away from the current voting system would undermine the direct accountability of councillors to the communities they serve and would damage the effectiveness of local government. Utter nonsense.

Those of us who advocate fair voting believe that a system such as STV will achieve more open and representative Councils whilst at the same time ensuring that Councillors retain and work within a community or communities as they do now. It would help tremendously if the Government abolished the cabinet system of local governance as well.

On this issue New Labour are the new conservatives of Welsh politics, defending entrenched positions for reasons of self-interest. They may well find themselves isolated and alone as a result on 4th May.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Faceless Tories

Now these are my sort of Conservatives. Who said that Cameron's party is suffering an identity crisis?

Hat tip to Mark Pack on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Stepping outside the boundaries

The man who was so insistent that the forthcoming Assembly elections should be fought on Welsh issues and who announced that he had no opinion on the Iraq war because it fell outside his area of responsibility, has intervened once more in a UK matter.

According to the Western Mail website Rhodri Morgan has warned off any Cabinet heavyweights who might be considering a challenge to Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership:

Mr Morgan told the ePolitix.com website, "The thing that has worried me all along was if there was going to be a heavyweight, knock-down, dragged-out, 15 round fight between a so-called 'uber-Blairite' and Gordon Brown.

"Then the attention of Labour Party members, newspapers and commentators would be entirely on whether it was this uber-Blairite, anti-Brown candidate or Gordon Brown.

"It wouldn't matter if that was before, during or after the election, it is all people would be talking about. It would give the impression of Labour as a house divided against itself and that would be bad for us."

Of course the fact that such division might distract from his own re-election campaign never crossed his mind.

Paying for devolution

Like other bloggers I received a press release from Lee Waters of Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, urging us to establish the truth about the Barnett formula. This was picked up by the Western Mail this morning and has already been raised in the chamber today as part of First Minister's question time.

Sustrans have joined with the British Medical Association and the National Association of Headteachers, to call for an independent inquiry into the Barnett formula, the method used to decide how much money Wales gets.

The reform of the Barnet formula is not a subject that has come up on the doorsteps so far, nor is it likely to set people's imaginations on fire, however it is absolutely crucial in determining how much money the Assembly has to spend on education and health amongst many other matters.

Party lines are sharply drawn on this subject with the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru in favour of reform and Labour and the Tories opposed. An independent review to finally establish if a case exists for reform would therefore be welcome. Alas, it may take a coalition deal to get such an investigation onto the political agenda.

Update: Lee Waters writes further on this initiative on the Guardian's Comment is Free.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The power of incumbency

An interesting post from Greg Hands MP over at Conservative Home on the proposed additional £10,000 per annum communications allowance for MPs and on party funding in particular. This communications allowance is one item of expenditure that will not feature in the Assembly. We also have stricter rules on postage.

In general I agree with him on the extra allowance. It has the potential to bring politics into disrepute by using public money to reinforce incumbency. What is worse is that on the basis of the House of Commons' present track record there will be no transparency on how that money is being spent.

Greg Hands points out the extortionate amount of money already being spent by some MPs on postage - £25,146 last year in Andrew Dismore's case, equal to sending 83,000 letters, or 612 for every day Parliament sat last year. And yet if one were to ask the authorities for a breakdown of that expenditure under the Freedom of Information Act, as I have done with my local MPs, they will refuse the request. How will we be able to hold our MPs to account for how they spend this additional allowance if they manage it behind a veil of secrecy?

Greg Hands goes on to discuss the levy that many local parties, including the Conservatives, operate on very generous Councillors' allowances so as to fund political activity. In many ways this is not as bad, as at least the money is paid directly to the Councillor concerned who then makes a choice as to whether to donate it or not, however it must be acknowledged that it is another form of state funding.

I have never been opposed to the state funding of political parties. It strikes me that it is preferable to wealthy individuals being able to buy influence or position. However, what is needed is transparency. There is too much back-door funding going on through allowances, short money, money for policy development etc and no up-front arrangements where we can be clear as to the criteria that is being applied and how the money is being spent. If we can introduce that reform then we will be on the right path.

The rate for the job

On Saturday morning I had the privilege of joining the Education Minister and the Welsh Conservative Education Spokesperson in taking part in a hustings at an NUT Cymru event in Cardiff's Marriott Hotel. One of the questions asked was about the possibility of Wales creating its own terms and conditions for teachers, separate from England.

In all my discussions with teachers around Wales I am very clear that there is no appetite for this sort of devolution. Teachers are concerned that if such a proposal were to be introduced then, because of Wales' record of low pay, they would be paid less than their colleagues over the border. They also foresee that teachers on both sides of Offa's Dyke will have less job opportunities if they are employed on different terms and conditions. I was happy to give my assurance that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have no plans to bring forward such a notion.

How then to react to this morning's news that Welsh civil servants face being paid thousands of pounds less than their colleagues in southern England just because of where they live, under a new salary structure revealed last night? According to the Western Mail, more than 1,500 court workers in Wales would be the first civil servants to lose out to their English counterparts if Department of Constitutional Affairs goes ahead with their plans:

Union leaders warned that if the proposals to pay workers according to where they live are adopted across the civil service, more than 300,000 people in Wales could be affected.

They protested over the plans by the Department for Constitutional Affairs to impose a system which they said would leave workers in some areas at a disadvantage, leaving its staff in Wales languishing in the bottom two bands of a five-band system.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) said the "unprecedented" plans would lead to a "North-South divide" between southern England and the rest of the UK among staff who work in magistrates, Crown and county courts.

The starting salary for workers in Wales and northern England would be around £11,700 compared with £14,400 for employees in other parts of the country, said the union.

I think that we need to be very clear on this. Devolution is about people having greater control over the local decision making that affects their life. It is a means for individual nations or regions to do things differently for the benefit of their citizens. It does not involve dismantling national pay agreements so that people get different rates for doing the same job. Not, at least, without their consent.

I do not believe that these proposals are related to devolution in any way. They have been drawn up by civil servants living in the South East of England so as to benefit their own area. They are trying to tackle recruitment and retention problems by drawing in cash from other regions when the obvious solution is relocation and, when that is not possible, more resources to generally lift up the level of civil service pay to a more reasonable level.

I am one hundred per cent behind the PCS in fighting these proposals. Regional pay would do major damage to the Welsh economy at a time when we need to attract more high paid, high quality jobs. It will undermine the Objective One status of the area and generally lower the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of people.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The battle for hearts and minds

Gordon Brown's disastrous budget PR gaffe has led to some interesting consequences. I have already reported on this blog how it has led to his approval ratings dropping below those of the Prime Minister himself, now it seems that Blair is using the opening this creates to try and push one of his protégés into directly challenging Gordon for the leadership.

Whether David Milliband actually wants the job badly enough is another matter, but if he runs he could well create a major upset. If he loses of course then the Environment Secretary may well find himself out in the cold for a bit. At that point he may wish to follow the example of other cabinet members and make a bit of money out of government policies.

That is what David Blunkett appears to have done in accepting a job with Texas-based security firm Entrust, which specialises in securing digital information and combating identity theft, earlier this month. The firm already provides software for the Spanish national ID card system and has formally registered an interest in the British project.

The Observer reports that Blunkett is bound by a two-year ban on lobbying British ministers and officials from the date he resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary in November 2005. That does not expire until this November.

His spokeswoman insisted yesterday that he would not be working in Britain for the company and would only advise on overseas work.

Blunkett was one of the government's biggest defenders of identity cards when at the Home Office, before resigning over his involvement in a visa obtained for his lover's nanny. He maintained his interest in the scheme when he re-entered the cabinet as Work and Pensions Secretary: ID cards are potentially useful in the fight against benefit fraud.

He has described ID cards as 'not a luxury or a whim - it is a necessity'. Two weeks before he started the job, he wrote in his column for the Sun that ID cards would 'protect our identity from fraudsters, stop illegal foreigners in their tracks, save billions being leeched from our welfare system and beat organised crime'.

Entrust will find such experience and commitment very useful indeed, though most of us will be more sceptical about Blunkett's involvement in such a company.


Eight days to go

With just eight days to go until the smoking ban is introduced here the Wales on Sunday leads on the shock horror story that the Assembly Government is asking drinkers to report people breaking the new smoking ban by ringing an anonymous shop-a-smoker hotline.

As Wales' smoking ban is based almost entirely on that in force in Ireland then this development is not entirely unexpected. On the other side of the Irish Sea this hotline is known as the 'snitch-line'. I wonder what it will come to be called here.

Sunday Madness

A new angle on the film '300'. I don't think I am going to see it. However, if it really were this entertaining....

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The independence option

I have just heard Dafydd Iwan tell Radio Wales that Plaid Cymru believe that the Welsh Assembly Government should be able to opt out of the Trident programme and have control over defence.

No doubt this will be in their manifesto when it is published.

Too clever by half

Another busy day starting with an NUT Cymru Conference in Cardiff and then back to Swansea to greet Charles Kennedy and Lembit Őpik, who are visiting as part of their two day campaign tour around Wales.

I was talking to some Labour MPs on Thursday night and made the suggestion that Gordon Brown had tried to be too clever in his budget and that this had rebounded on him. One of the MPs agreed with me and suggested that his advisors should have foreseen this and planned accordingly. They expressed astonishment that this had not been done.

Whether this will affect Gordon's coronation as Labour leader has yet to be seen, but if this poll, reported in today's Sun has anything to do with it, there could be a number of MPs reconsidering their options this weekend.

The poll found that Gordon Brown’s popularity nosedived after Wednesday’s Budget. The number of voters who believe he would be a good Prime Minister dropped to 30 per cent from 40 per cent in December. The Populus poll also revealed that 18 to 24-year-olds have least faith in him being a successful Premier.

Interesting times indeed.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Martha Jones

Although there is another week of the Assembly term left politicians have been out and about on the streets of their constituency and region for some weeks. Most of us are fitting in the campaigning around our other duties. Last night for example I attended a dinner at Swansea's Mansion House to commemorate twenty five years of the City having a Lord Mayor.

It was a black tie event so, as I did not have time to change, I was forced to spend the couple of hours canvassing I did beforehand going door to door in my dinner jacket suit and dress shirt. It did elicit some comments.

The event that many of us are waiting for however, is not election day but the new Dr. Who series. The countdown has already begun to the first episode a week tomorrow. I cannot wait.


It would not be an election if there was not some row about political correctness and bang on schedule David Davies AM MP obliges. This time it is over an Assembly Government memo that suggests that the use of the phrase "purdah" to describe the period of leading up to an election when politically contentious announcements should not be made is inappropriate as it may offend some ethnic minorities.

The Western Mail reveals that in Persian, "purdah" literally means "curtain" and refers to the practice of preventing men from seeing women. Apparently, it takes two forms - physical segregation of the sexes, and the requirement for women to cover their bodies and conceal their form. Purdah exists in various forms in the Islamic world and in India.

Dr Mohammad Seddon, of the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University, tells us that its use in the corridors of power stems from the time of British imperialism and that therefore it may well give offence.

Surely there must be other issues the Tories can talk about, like their policies for example.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The smiling Chancellor

There were a lot of smiling Labour AMs in the Assembly yesterday. Many were looking forward to getting back to their constituencies so as to try and sell Gordon Brown's 'tax-cutting' budget. I suspect however that once they look at the budget in the cold light of day then like the rest of us they will be wondering what exactly it is they have to sell.

This morning's Guardian sums it up, effectively what the Chancellor has done is to double the bottom rate of income tax. Not so much a tax cut as a sleight of hand that will marginally benefit those earning between £15,000 and £42,000 at the expense of the poor. Let the experts explain:

From April 2008 the 22% rate will be cut to 20% but the 10% band will be swept away. In simple terms, all basic-rate taxpayers will be worse off by £223 a year from the loss of the 10% tax band but will start gaining from the cut in basic rate to 20%, depending on how much they earn. In the same year, national insurance rates will also be adjusted, which could mean some losses for middle-income earners.

But in the hours after the speech, accountancy firms crunching the numbers came out with differing scenarios as to who may be the winners and losers.

BDO Stoy Hayward said that on an income tax-only basis (excluding tax credits) a single person earning £15,000 a year would be £23 worse off a year, while someone earning £30,000 would be £278 a year better off. But because of moves to align national insurance with income tax bands, earners in the £38,000-£42,000 bracket will see little or no tax benefits from yesterday's cuts.

Ronnie McCombe, a KPMG partner, said: "What the chancellor has done here is a classic case of smoke and mirrors. The 2% reduction in income tax will seem like great news to everyone but the much less prominently publicised increases in national insurance and the abolition of the 10% starting-rate band will in many cases offset the savings."

The Chancellor seems to be relying on tax credits to make up the difference for low earners but anybody who has any dealings with this system will know that it is largely unworkable. It is mired in a huge bureaucracy in which thousands of civil servants seem to spend all their time chasing over-payments caused by the sheer complexity of the system.

What those Labour AMs have left to sell is a huge smoke and mirrors con-trick based around an easy headline tax-cut. However, when people start to look into it in more detail they may have some very difficult questions to ask Labour Party canvassers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The blame game

This is just a small point, but should the current Labour Assembly Education Minister really be blaming her Labour predecessor for the failure to invest in school buildings? In yesterday's Plenary session Jane Davidson did just that when she said:

When I became Minister, the amount of money spent on school buildings was a pittance compared with what we are spending today.

As she succeeded Rosemary Butler who had been the responsible Labour Assembly Minister for a year and prior to that Alun Michael who was the responsible Secretary of State for Wales from 1997 to 1999, it is worth asking the question why it took so long for Labour to address this problem?

Could it be that the Government only started to take this issue seriously when they went into Partnership Government with the Welsh Liberal Democrats in September 2000 with a commitment to start investing in school buildings? I think that could have been the case.

No wonder Jane is not that popular with her Labour colleagues when she publicly blames them for previous failings in this way.

Running on empty

We have already had the scandal of an empty passenger jet being flown from Cardiff to Heathrow and back six times a week for five months so as to retain a runway slot at the London airport, now we have the Assembly Government using public money to run empty trains.

The Western Mail reports that Labour Ministers in Cardiff Bay will be paying Arriva Trains Wales an undisclosed sum for a train service that won't be carrying passengers:

Delays in construction work on the reopening Cardiff-Ebbw Vale line means that trains will not be able to run from July as planned. It is likely that passengers will not be able to use the route until October.

In the meantime, however, because of contractual obligations, the Assembly Government will have to pay the wages of staff who are being recruited to run the new line, which is seen as a vital tool in regenerating the economy of one of Wales' poorest areas.

The symbol of a ghost train aimlessly travelling up and down the Gwent valleys could well come to symbolise Rhodri Morgan's government.

10,000 reasons why ID cards won't work

The Independent follows up the story about 10,000 fraudulently obtained passports by pointing out that many of these will have fallen into the hands of terrorists. Despite claims by the Government that they are introducing measures to deal with this problem, their record so far does not lead one to have any confidence that the issuing of ID cards will be any more secure.

The danger is that the level of confidence being put in the security of an ID card system could legitimise those which have been obtained fraudulently and lead to complacency.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Attempts to filter out hoax e-mails from the Assembly system have been less than successful it has transpired. The e-mail I received today actually came through in triplicate. I thought the attempt to disguise its intent was clumsy but also slightly amusing:

Dear Mr. Peter,

I am really sorry if this mail gets to you without any notice for It has become really difficult for me to get a reliable person to assist me because of the rate of scams that I hear about.

This letter may come to you as a surprise if you have not heard my story but please don't see it as a hoax mail, borne out of my sincere desire for assistance, I had to contact you believing you will be able to assist me.

Yeah, right! She just wants my bank account details like everybody else. Dream on!

Confusion reigns

I have to admit that I am getting more and more bemused by the claims and counter-claims being made by Labour and Plaid Cymru over their respective pledges to end child poverty by 2020.

You would have thought that as both parties have made the same promise that there would not be much disagreement between them on this issue. And yet we are treated to an unholy row about whose commitment is the most efficacious.

Having made the promise herself to end child poverty, Leanne Wood then says that it is politically irresponsible to be basing an Assembly campaign on a commitment that can only be delivered by London. Isn't that what she has done? I thought Huw Lewis summed up the situation quite well:

"It should also be pointed out that this is their (Plaid Cymru's) third or fourth position on child poverty in a matter of months. In the Assembly chamber, I heard their Social Justice spokesperson actually state that only independence can lift Welsh children out of poverty. A number of months later in a Save the Children event, again in the Assembly, the same spokesperson committed Plaid to Labour's plan to eradicate child poverty. And again in Friday's Western Mail, Plaid Cymru committed itself to ending child poverty in Wales by 2020 - what has happened over the weekend to suddenly make that a bad idea? The claim that the Assembly cannot have an impact on poverty rates is absolutely berserk. Increasing employment rates, for example, have been absolutely central to the fall in the number of children living in poverty since Labour came to power. Perhaps the nationalists don't consider the following policy areas important to the poverty agenda, but I'd suggest that improving childcare, employment rates, education, social services and tackling health inequalities are fundamental to our goal."

I think the reality is that whereas the Assembly can do a great deal to tackle child poverty it cannot eradicate it completely without the co-operation of the UK Government in terms of implementing complementary measures involving taxation and benefits. If we are to learn anything from this spat it must be that we should not raise unrealistic expectations during this campaign. To do so is to discredit politics and politicians even more.

New powers for all

I was not able to hang around after the Swansea University College Council meeting yesterday to hear the First Minister deliver the National Centre for Public Policy's annual public lecture, but judging by reports in today's Western Mail it was quite a thoughtful talk.

It was good that Rhodri Morgan was able to criticise the initial devolution settlement for Wales and also that he has expressed an intention to make the maximum use of the Assembly's new powers. It is to be hoped of course that if he were to return to his present post then that would involve accommodating measures brought forward by individual AMs and Committees. If we have a resource, we should use it for the benefit of all of Wales and Labour's legendary control freakery should not get in the way of that.

Of course the big obstacle to all of this ambition is the very Order in Council route that Rhodri promotes and the Secretary of State for Wales and his fellow Welsh Labour MPs. How fast we can run and how ambitious we can be depends on what Parliament will allow us to do. If Peter Hain, in his viceroy role decides that he does not like a measure and blocks it, then we may find that the second devolution settlement is as equally as ineffective as the first.

Monday, March 19, 2007

I don't believe it!

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales and my constituent, Peter Hain, has launched his campaign website today with the claim that he has more MPs openly supporting him than any other candidate.

His website features a video interview with 'One Foot in the Grave' star, Richard Wilson. Mr Hain has also reputedly launched pages on My Space and Facebook, however when I went looking for him in the latter site all I could find was a rather bizarre tribute page featuring this photograph.

Still, if he has become the subject of satire then he must have arrived.

N.B. Peter Hain also says on his website that he has a blog however I cannot find a link to it anywhere. If it is on his My Space page then it is hidden behind an invitation only barrier. Presumably, he is worried that despite 'having a reputation for speaking his mind and talking frankly about his views on a range of issues' anything he writes will be misrepresented. If anybody can find this blog please send me the address.

Update: Thanks to David Taylor and my two commentors below I have now found the blog. My excuse is that I was in a hurry and missed what in retrospect is a fairly obvious button at the top of the right hand column of Hain's site. The first entry is 'well-spun'. Is there an RSS feed?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

In debt

The news that NHS debt has now reached £130 million in Wales raises a number of fundamental questions about what is to be done.

It is not as simple as stepping in and paying off the debt as that would penalise those Trusts such as Bro Morgannwg who are debt-free. Such an action would also ignore the fundamental problem of current deficits. The fact that Trusts continue to add to the debt mountain year-on-year indicates either that they are badly managed or that they are underfunded.

Wanless of course declared that the solution lies in re-structuring but unless there is some funding to enable that to take place by investing in alternative services to those that are about to be closed, then it is difficult to see how that will gain public acceptance. There is also the large number of central government initiatives which many Trusts say are underfunded.

It is not a problem that I envy anybody having to tackle, nevertheless that is what needs to be done and like other parties we are ready to give it a go. As manifestos are published in the next few weeks we will all be trying to convince voters that we have the answer. It will be an interesting debate.

The Doctor versus Catherine Tate - a reprise

Absolutely brilliant!

Saturday, March 17, 2007


I am indebted to Matt Withers for drawing my attention to this article in The Independent, based on the day reporter, Deborah Ross spent with Lembit Öpik in the House of Commons.

As you would expect with a tabloid newspaper like the Independent, Ms. Ross seeks to get to the bottom of some really weighty political issues:

I am interested in getting the measure of Lembit Öpik. What kind of a man is he, really? What does he believe in? What policies does he support (aside from being keen on getting the Government to spend millions deflecting asteroids)? Is he foolish? Or smart? Humble or self-aggrandising? Did Sian do those fluttery hands in bed and, if so, did they tickle or soothe? What if I was to invite him to Touch My Bum? Are he and Gabi engaged? She was, after all, recently pictured in a tabloid wearing an engagement ring, wasn't she?

Nevertheless, and only because I know that my own readership would much prefer the gossipy stuff to reading about Lembit's politics, there are some interesting insights in the article that may well come back to haunt our Welsh Leader in the months ahead. The problem is that they are not his words but that of the reporter.

Matt Withers has referred to the choicest one, namely "I don't know what's in it for Gabi, but I will say that his Westminster nickname is "Tripod". I think I'll leave that hanging, so to speak." but there is also the revelation that Gabi is a good cook - "She's great at stir fries", that they don't live together - he has a place in London and a house in his constituency - and that Lembit sends his mother copies of Hansard with his speeches in them.

That is the great thing about these pieces they always throw up useful present ideas. As it is Mothers' Day tomorrow I had better get to work looking through the Assembly Record of Proceedings for an appropriate speech to e-mail home.

Sun, sea and sand

The pressure of campaigning on top of my usual busy schedule as an AM is already beginning to have an impact on the time I have available for blogging. I have also developed a new obsession, the weather forecast.

If global warming is going to produce better campaigning weather then maybe Rhodri Morgan had a point. No, I don't mean that at all. In fact the weather appears to be as contrary as it always is during an election campaign, with the sole exception of 1984 when a heatwave meant that I emerged from a bruising contest lobster-red and with an 1100 majority.

Anyway, today's Western Mail at least predicts that the next three days will be sunny, even if it is likely to snow on Tuesday! So I am off out to make the best of the good weather whilst it is available.

Friday, March 16, 2007

State funding

Sir Hayden Phillips' review of party funding is out in the open at last and all the headlines are focussing on the recommendation to limit donations from individuals or organisations to a maximum of £50,000. This will have major implications for Labour, who may find the bulk of their funding from Trade Unions cut off. There are also proposals to limit national election expenditure so as to level the playing field.

Sir Hayden Phillips has not been able to secure all-party support for these proposals, largely because of the implications for the Government. However, he has suggested a way through the mire for Labour, namely that unions should be free to pay affiliation fees to a political party if decisions are transparent and the payments can be “traced back to individual members”. This does of course mean that individual trade union members will in future have to opt into these payments and offers the prospect that some might wish to direct their contribution to other parties.

The price for these changes is an increase in state funding to political parties of up to £23 million, to make up for the short-fall in their revenue. This will work on the basis of matching donations of at least £5 from registered party supporters with £5 in state funding and by giving parties 50p a year state funding per vote in general elections and 25p per vote in European, Scottish and Welsh polls.

I hope that there will be a minimum threshold or a requirement that a party has elected MPs, AMS, MLAs, MSPs or MEPs to qualify for this funding. I would also hope that when funding is allocated on the basis of votes in a devolved election then the money is ring-fenced to be spent within the nation on whose election the calculation has been made.

There is a lot of work still to be done on these proposals, not least in securing a consensus on the way forward. Their importance is in the way that they can prevent the sort of abuse being investigated by the police in the loans for peerages affair, which is undermining what public trust remains in the electoral process. On balance I believe that we are on the right path.

Rate of pay

An e-mail arrives to say that Assembly Members will be getting a 0.66% pay increase on 1 April. Personally, I have no problem with that as I believe that we are more than adequately remunerated for the work we do. It would be nice to know however that any money saved might be used to fund better pay rises for key workers such as nurses. Somehow, I do not think that is Government's intention.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Global warming revisited

Rhodri Morgan will be heartened to learn that he has at least one soul mate in the Liberal Democrats when it comes to his view that Wales will benefit from global warming.

In the current edition of Private Eye, the Rotten Boroughs column reports on the views of Lewes, Sussex Liberal Democrat Councillor, Marina Pepper. According to the Eye Councillor Pepper is a former Page Three girl, white witch and current agony aunt for the New Statesman.

They say that she told a local freesheet that global warning is a very bad thing, although it does have one advantage. In the unseasonably mild weather she writes: "I wear no underwear beneath my short cotton skirt."

I do not recommend that Rhodri Morgan follows suit.

A failure of devolution

We are all of course looking forward to having additional powers for the Welsh Assembly after May's elections but in the meantime it would be useful if we exercised the ones that we have especially when they re-inforce current policies.

The recruitment and retention of nurses in the Welsh NHS has always been a challenge but improvements in pay and conditions have helped. However, the decision of the Welsh Assembly Government to follow England's lead and stagger a derisory and below inflation 2.5% pay rise for nurses throughout the year will hit morale badly. This is especially so when the Labour-Liberal Democrat Partnership Government in Scotland is doing it differently.

As Welsh Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson, Jenny Randerson says: 'While I am sure that nurses in Wales will be pleased for their Scottish colleagues I can't help wondering why Wales can't manage the same.

'For every £100 earned by nurses in Scotland from April 1, their colleagues in Wales will receive £99.02, for the same work.

'Nurses are being asked to do more and more in the NHS and it is difficult to retain and recruit nurses. Delaying their pay rise is a cheap way for Gordon Brown to save a few pennies, but will do nothing to boost morale in the sector.'

Specialist lung nurse Helen Caddick, is quite clear about the impact that the Assembly Government's decision will have on her and her colleagues:

The 27-year-old, an RCN member who is based at the Newport Chest Clinic, at St Woolos Hospital, said, 'The pay offer has really reduced our morale, making us feel quite under-valued and very disrespected, as if we are insignificant employees within the public sector because equivalent public sector workers have higher start wages and less responsibilities.'

Ms Caddick, who earns less than £24,000 a year after seven years in the profession said she felt 'angry' at the Assembly Government's decision not to follow Scotland's lead.

'There is meant to be a new national pay scale, equality of access to healthcare and pay for the nursing staff,' she said. 'But such disparity makes you feel used and undervalued and treated without respect.

'The fact that one health minister can appear to support us and another show such little it makes you wonder whether we are that insignificant in the general scheme of things.'

She added, 'In my heart of hearts I could never leave nursing - the remuneration is nothing but the emotional reward you get from patients makes you feel valued.

'But if this continues that way it is and my circumstances change, I will have to look for something more highly paid and that means management, but I'm a hands-on nurse.'

Yet another own-goal by Wales Labour and one that will impact on many key workers. They really need to think again on this.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Reforming the Lords

Two big votes today, one on Trident and the other in the House of Lords on whether their lordships are prepared to support reform. The BBC report that peers are expected to reject MPs' proposals.

We can at least be certain of one vote for democracy. The Presiding Officer announced yesterday that he would not be in Plenary today as he is heading to Westminster to cast his vote for both an 80% and 100% elected house.

Of interest

An interesting postbag this morning including:

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chinese whispers

For some reason Ellee Seymour's blog is banned in China but according to this test (and my statistics) mine is not. According to the Guardian the Chinese authorities will ban the opening of new internet cafes from this July in a government campaign to clamp down on online addiction and juvenile crime.

I am not sure whether to be offended that my views are not considered subversive enough to be outlawed, or pleased that I have somehow slipped through the net and can continue to influence Chinese youth with my ramblings on such diverse and esoteric topics as the Cheeky Girls and Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy.

Rats jumping ship

Yes, I know the analogy in the title to this piece is a little unkind. After all, many of the MPs abandoning the Government whip are honourable and primcipled men and women, whose conscience has determined that they cannot support the present regime over the renewal of Trident. However, the idea that Blair's ship may be sinking does ring true.

It seems to me and many others that the vote on Trident tomorrow night is unnecessarily premature. There is no need to make a decision yet and I personally would prefer a government to have won a general election with a commitment to renewal in its manifesto before going down this road. Even then, there is logic in leaving the decision to the last practical moment so as to assess the international situation first.

The BBC report that at least one senior government minister has handed in his red box as a result of this vote. Deputy leader of the Commons Nigel Griffiths has resigned "with a heavy heart but a clear conscience." Jim Devine, a parliamentary private secretary, has also indicated he will resign over the issue. The Western Mail adds that at least six Welsh Labour MPs are preparing to defy the Government on this issue as well. If it were not for the support of the Tories the motion might well be lost.

It is a high price to pay to secure Tony Blair's legacy.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Hitching a lift

I am still bemused by a discussion I had over the weekend with BBC Welsh affairs editor, Vaughan Roderick.

On Good Morning Wales on Friday he was previewing the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference and referred to predictions I had made on this blog as to the outcome of the forthcoming elections. With characteristic, but misplaced generosity, Vaughan praised my knowledge of proportional representation systems, describing me as 'having a brain the size of a planet' on such matters. Unfortunately, I misheard him and thought he said that I had 'a brain the size of Thanet'.

It was only in conversation with Vaughan on Saturday that I finally cleared the matter up. I am still not clear however at how I should feel at being compared to Marvin the paranoid android.

Race row Tory could return

Surely it is symptomatic of how little the Conservative Party has changed that a Tory of David Davis' seniority can predict the eventual return of Patrick Mercer to the front bench almost as if nothing of consequence had happened.

Patrick Mercer's comments were not in the same league as Enoch Powell's back in the 1960s, but they were nevertheless inappropriate and showed a view of racism that is unacceptable in twenty first century Britain.

Irrespective of the situation as it exists in the armed forces, Mr. Mercer's job was to show leadership by condemning racism in all its forms. Instead he reinforced it. That was why he had to go, and it is also why he should not be given another front bench job.

To suggest as David Davis did that Patrick Mercer had just made a simple mistake is a mis-judgement of the situation. The sacking of Mercer should not have been a face-saving exercise, it should have been a signal of fundamental change in the Tory Party.

David Davis' defence of Mercer has illustrated how far away from such a re-invention the Tory Party really is. Cameron will have to conduct a night of the long knives to even get close to acceptability.

Ghost in the machine

This morning's Western Mail reports that an empty passenger jet has been flown from Cardiff to Heathrow and back six times a week for the past five months simply to retain a runway slot at the London airport:

The 124-seat British Airways Airbuses, under contract to BMed, have flown the 240-mile round trip six times a week since last October, (daily flight times vary) with each flight producing more than five tonnes of carbon dioxide.

They are estimated to have produced the same level of emissions as 36,000 cars undertaking the journey on the M4, despite not transporting any passengers.

This story is put into the context of the plans by the Conservative Party to give every person in the country an annual carbon allowance, designed to encourage greater personal environmental responsibility among frequent flyers.

Their problem though is that such taxation would not have impacted on British Airways' irresponsible 'ghost flights' because there were no passengers involved. In this regard I would refer any Conservative reading this to the Liberal Democrat stance of taxing the aircraft not the passenger.

Our policy may or may not have prevented the practice of flying empty planes between Cardiff and Heathrow but it would have significantly added to the cost for the airline. As such it would be a far more effective environmental tax.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Wales loses the lottery

The admission by UK government Ministers that the cost of the 2012 Olympics is to hit £9bn, and that it could go even higher, is bad news for Wales.

The Observer reports that Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has lost her battle with Chancellor Gordon Brown to limit the amount of National Lottery funding to £1.5bn. This leaves the prospect that many good causes around Wales could lose vital funding so as to bail the Government out.

The time must surely now have come for Wales' Culture Minister to start publicly standing up to Westminster on this issue. The Government has to find a way to protect vital community projects from the fall-out of this funding fiasco.

Taking flight

Welsh Liberal Democrats yesterday voted to remove subsidies from Ieuan Air, the new Welsh Assembly sponsored air service between Cardiff and Yny Mon.

This service has been criticised because of its cost, the damage it will cause to our environment and the fact that it is so inaccessible that practically the only person who could take regular advantage of it is the Assembly Member for Anglesey.

As our Ceredigion candidate, John Davies, said: “Why are we spending money on an air service when our train service is in dire straits across the whole of Wales?”

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Taking advantage of a break in the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference I find, via Liberal England, that a group called "The Strange Death of Liberal England" is playing Cardiff Barfly on Tuesday.

I am sure that the name of this band has more to do with George Dangerfield's book than with the possible fate of Jonathan Calder's blog, but it is fascinating nevertheless. Should we form a group called the inevitable rebirth of Liberal Wales?


The Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference in Swansea got off to a good start last night with a lively rally containing some outstanding speeches. Kirsty Williams in particular excelled but then so did prospective AMs, John Dixon and John Davies.

Last week of course, the Welsh Tories held their conference in Sophia Gardens in Cardiff and their Welsh Assembly Leader, Nick Bourne was booked for not displaying a valid tax disc. The fact that we have chosen as our venue the DVLA Conference Centre appears to be a remarkable coincidence.

What it says about the future relationship between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Tories is difficult to work out. Nevertheless we have all checked to make sure that our tax discs are up-to-date and properly displayed.

Thinking about it now, I could have offered to hand deliver Nick's fine for him and saved him the postage.

Friday, March 09, 2007


The Western Mail yesterday carried a two page feature on possible coalition permutations after the Assembly elections. It has got to the stage now where none of the parties really want to talk about who they will or will not work with on May 4th. The important thing is that we maximise our votes.

As I told an interviewer earlier this week, the more votes and the more seats that the Welsh Liberal Democrats get then the stronger will be our hand when it comes to getting our policies implemented. That is what really matters, not bums on limousine seats.

As the paper points out there has been speculation as to whether the Welsh Liberal Democrats will ditch PR for local government so as to secure a deal:

It's also interesting to note that no one on the Labour side has explicitly ruled this out (although plenty of AMs and activists would not be over the moon, exactly), while the Lib-Dems have toned down the rhetoric on PR in local government. Mike German, leader of the Lib-Dems in the Assembly, suggested not so long ago that Mr Morgan "shouldn't even pick up the phone" unless PR was on the table. Now it would "certainly not a very helpful way of negotiating" to put one policy at the top of the wish-list.

Mike German however, made it clear on Dragon's Eye last night that PR was very much a priority for us. It will form an important part of any deal which involves the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and that is how it should be.

On Waterfront Jenny Randerson was quite right to also highlight the other issues we will want to put on the table, including our policies on health, education, crime and the environment. She downplayed the PR element but she knows full well that it will have to be part of any package.

If there is a deal then it will need to be ratified by party members at a special conference. They will want to see a whole raft of our policies in any partnership agreement we negotiate but if PR for local government were not in there, as it has been implemented in Scotland, then the chances are that the deal would be rejected outright.

Man in blue

Tory AM and MP for Monmouthshire, David Davies, likes to dress up in uniform. He is a former member of the Territorial Army and now he is flirting with the Police.

His latest adventure, he told us in the chamber on Wednesday, is to sign up as a special constable with the British Transport Police. This was confirmed in the Western Mail, who informed us that he will gain a valuable insight into fighting crime by doing one or two eight-hour shifts a month.

This is all very well, but does he have to boast about it in such graphic terms:

David Davies: I am grateful. I declare an interest as a warranted special constable, and as someone who is trained to use an extendable baton— [Laughter.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. I cannot hear what the special constable is saying. [Laughter.]

David Davies: There is a serious point here; it is not a double entendre, tempting though it is to go down that path. A taser gun is actually far less dangerous for the police officer and the person on whom it is used than the extendable iron baton that all police officers carry.

Labour AM, Ann Jones was not amused. She told David where to put his extendable baton. Next time David wear the uniform. You may well get a better reception.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

That's Entertainment

The Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference comes to Swansea tomorrow and last minute preparations are underway.

On the Friday night, following the rally with Sir Menzies Campbell, the local party is organising a social. However a few days ago we suddenly realised that nobody had booked any entertainment.

Immediately, a message went out to Welsh Party Leader, Lembit Opik: 'Entertainment needed on Friday night. Bring Cheeky Girl. Leave harmonica at home.'

We are still waiting for a reply.

Goodbye to the Lords

The papers are full of yesterday's historic vote in the House of Commons to create a second chamber. However, headlines such as this in The Times may well be premature. This is not so much goodbye to the Lords as a serving of notice of intent.

There is still a long way to go before we get a fully elected chamber and that journey has to overcome the obstacle of a new Prime Minister, the government timetable, political will to make progress and whether yesterday's vote was a genuine majority or bolstered by tactical voting. We also have to take account of the fact that the Lords in particular are experts in defending an entrenched position.

Still, at least we are on the right path and moving forwards.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Cat and mouse

Last week's Times Education Supplement had an interesting article on how pupil hackers are breaching computer firewalls to access forbidden material. It seems that many youngsters are finding ever more ingenious ways to look at websites they have been locked out from and to wreak havoc on school computer systems.

The paper says that networks are becoming more vulnerable as pupils increasingly have access via their laptops. In one school a teacher found that a pupil had hacked into her e-mail account and sent a message to her boyfriend dumping him. In another a Year 10 pupil downloaded software to hack into the system and leave obscene messages on computer screens.

It is common knowledge that young people are light years ahead of most adults in terms of their knowledge of computers. Even so, it was a surprise to find the TES turn to a 17 year old deputy head boy for advice. Simon Bangs is apparently a computer expert who advises software companies on security.

He told the paper that schools are underestimating pupils. "Some are picking up the skills of someone who has been working in the industry for three years or more. It's going to be a battle between the students and the companies building security systems over who can make the better hack or patch."

Steve Gold, a specialist internet security journalist, sums up the problem. He said that many monitoring systems were beyond the budget of schools and internet managers often lacked the expertise to use them.

Where exactly, this leaves Plaid Cymru's idea of giving a laptop to every school child, is uncertain. There are clearly security and child protection issues to be addressed in this policy, that could make it unworkable.

An Independent by any other name

Forward Wales' rather independent Assembly Member, John Marek, continues to get up the nose of his Labour opponents with his admittedly eccentric approach to the Assembly electoral system.

In today's Western Mail, his Labour opponent, Lesley Griffiths, accused the Assembly's Deputy Presiding Officer of deceiving his constituents by posing in a photograph as a party leader while standing for election as an Independent.

As the paper explains, Mr. Marek appeared as the leader of Forward Wales in a picture with other party leaders aimed at encouraging voter registration. Yet in May's election he will be seeking to retain his Wrexham seat as an Independent.

Naturally, Ms. Griffiths is outraged:

"John Marek is trying to take the people of Wrexham for a ride. Now we have photographic proof. I am furious he thinks he can get away with such a blatant attempt to hide his true colours.

"Voters expect and deserve honesty when they go to the polls on May 3. I know what I stand for. I am the Labour candidate in Wrexham, standing for tough measures against anti-social behaviour, investment in health and better local jobs.

"I call upon the Electoral Commission to clamp down on this cavalier approach to democracy that threatens to make a mockery of our electoral system in Wales."

Bizarre as John Marek's decision is, I do not think that the Labour Party, who has consistently tried to gerrymander the electoral system for their own advantage, can claim the moral high ground in this argument.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Quote of the day

Tory AM, Brynle Williams to First Minister, Rhodri Morgan a few minutes ago: "There is a considerable downward pressure on upland farms."

An excellent point well made. We know what he mean't anyway.

Caption Competition

The debut of the new Cheeky Girls single was not an overwhelming success. Any other caption suggestions welcome.

A positive outlook

A nice bit of bravado from Business Minister, Jane Hutt, this morning as she insisted that Labour will not countenance anything other than regaining its Assembly majority in the run-up to May’s election:

She dismissed suggestions of poor polling data and allegations that Labour’s tactic of concentrating its fire on the Tories’ record in office was creating a negative campaign.

“There is no talk of anything but us coming through as we did in 2003,” she told the Assembly Government’s weekly press briefing."

Whether Labour seriously believe any of this is doubtful but they have to keep up the pretence so as to reassure their own voters and Parliamentarians and to get out the vote. However, Jane did stretch credibility a bit too far in her claim that Labour will be indulging in positive campaigning.

Nominations have not even opened yet and already Labour are producing an American-style attack ad for Youtube. Many of us may well be able to identify with the sentiments in this video but one cannot help thinking that Labour would have been better off concentrating on their own policies rather than slagging off the opposition.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The mythical coalition

I was not there but if Sir Menzies Campbell was really setting down his terms and conditions for a coalition with Labour yesterday then I suspect that the price is significantly higher than any future Labour Leader would be prepared to pay.

Even without proportional representation, and that would definitely be in there, the idea that Gordon Brown might effectively reverse many of the policies that he and Tony Blair have implemented over the last ten years is fanciful.

What Ming was in fact doing was setting out our stall. It was just unfortunate that the rhetorical device he used and the spinning of an over-zealous party official led journalists to interpret his words differently. It is a lesson in effective news management that the party must learn.

The Guardian quotes a party official as saying that the five tests were not a policy list but a 'value system'. There must have been a clue in that phrase surely as to what Ming was trying to do. The tests are; ending Labour's attack on civil liberties; tackling climate change; breaking the poverty trap; decentralising power; and "rebalancing" foreign policy to show greater independence from the United States. I am told that Ming specifically cited the need to scrap ID cards, ditch council tax, and rule out an attack on Iran.

The fact that PR was not in that list is not significant. Apparently, a large part of the speech was devoted to that subject and it would be taken as read that we would require it in any coalition deal. After all the first past the post system does not look kindly on such alliances and if we were to take that risk we would want to ensure that subsequent elections were fought under a fair process in which the outcome reflects how people have voted.

But the main reason why I do not believe that this speech was an invitation to the Chancellor to talk is that a shrewd and experienced strategist like Sir Menzies Campbell, would not commit himself to such a course until he needs to do so. It helps as well that all the MPs within his inner circle are also denying it. The Liberal Democrats in the next General Election will be going to the voters with a distinct set of policies and an invitation to people to vote positively to maximise our influence so as to provide the best possible opportunity to put those policies into effect. We will be doing the same in Wales in May.

As in Wales, even with a balanced Parliament it does not follow that a coalition is inevitable. There are many other options and a number of scenarios in which we can achieve our political goals. For Liberal Democrats, the priority is not bums on the seats of government limousines, it is the chance to implement policies that we have been honing for decades. We are not going to blow that by prematurely inviting Tony Blair's as-yet-unelected successor to talks now.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Home Office Watch

As if to add to John Reid's woes the Liberal Democrats have launched their own account of the record of his department under both him and his predecessors.

Home Office Watch blog is described as a single repository of all the shambolic errors and mistakes made by the British Home Office compiled from Parliamentary Questions, news reports, and tip-offs by the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs team.

They will be busy.

The perils of the interweb

When you use the interweb as much as I do it is important that you become aware of the dangers that it poses to your political and personal credibility. Every word needs to be scrutinised and a certain amount of self-censorship needs to be exercised. That includes not making up stories so as to look cool to your mates.

This is a lesson that Wales youngest Councillor, Chris Chapman, has learnt the hard way. Fortunately, for him he is only 18 and so can pass off his faux pas as a youthful indiscretion. He will recover sufficiently to build a political career for himself if that is what he wants and if he takes the project seriously enough over the next few years.

Although I am in favour of 16 years olds being able to vote and of lowering the age at which people can stand for election, there is the need for the occasional reality check. That includes more elderly politicians not setting young candidates up to be knocked down by their rivals. The problem with youthful proteges is that they can sometimes go bad, as I know from my own experiences in nurturing young politicians in the past.

It is nice for any party to acquire a better image by attracting young people to stand for positions of responsibility and it certainly warms the soul to be able to point to somebody who is bucking the trend of youthful apathy, but the downside of all this is that they are still young and liable to make the same sort of mistakes as others of their age group. It is also the case that often their political views remain incompletely formed and that as they mature they start to view the world differently. It is at that point that they may well go off in a different direction, leaving their former mentors high and dry.

It is probably best therefore if young politicians are not held up as some sort of model citizen or ground-breaking exemplar until they have at least had a chance to prove themselves. Otherwise large dollops of egg may well be served up and as Tory Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan will know, that is not good for the complexion.

The DNA of a Labour politician

Former Home Secretary and possible Leadership contender, Charles Clarke, has demonstrated just how much he has lost the plot yesterday with a call for DNA details to be put on the identity cards database – despite warnings it will be accessed by crooks.

Mr. Clarke's contribution drew from the Home Office the frank admission that their scheme is already flawed. A spokesperson admitted that fraudsters can already scan biometric passports without our knowledge.

Tory MP, Grant Shapps summed up the concerns: “Imagine what will happen if all your information, everything about who you are is stored in one place.

"It raises the prospect that information will be skimmed straight off your ID card as you walk down the street, simply by someone brushing past you.

“If your credit card gets stolen, the card can be stopped with relative ease. What are you going to do if someone steals all your personal details and your DNA profile?”

It is becoming clearer every day that not only will ID cards provide no additional security or protection for individuals or the state but that they may actually offer a fast track method of identity theft that can be exploited by criminals.


Bloggers of Wales unite

The media's fascination with blogging continues today with a piece on the Welsh segement of the Politics Show featuring yours truly, Luke Young, Glyn Davies and an unmasked Blamerbell. But why not Chanticleer?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The devil rides again

With so much to do before the Assembly elections and so little time to do it in, I have skipped the Party Conference in Harrogate this year and will be spending the weekend out and about delivering leaflets and meeting constituents. As it is I will be fully occupied next week with the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference in Swansea. I could not afford two successive weekends of conferencing.

If I had gone up north of course I might have missed this gem in today's Western Mail in which the Welsh Christian Party claims that having a red dragon - an animal it believes symbolises the devil - on the national flag is at odds with Wales' position as a Christian nation.

Admittedly, the cross of St. David flag is appearing more and more at sporting events and is even showing up on the occasional flagpole, but does that make the dragon demonic? Welsh historian, John Davies, says that the dragon pre-dates christianity and was widely used by the Romans. It was flown at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor to stress his Welsh roots.

I have a vague recollection of some Arthurian or other legend about a red and white dragon being locked in eternal combat in the bowls of the earth, symbolising the conflict between Wales and England. I am sure I have got that wrong but no doubt somebody will be along soon to correct me. Still at least the Western Mail has found a bishop who is prepared to defend Y Ddraig Goch.

This just leaves one final point: The Welsh Assembly Government uses a dragon as its trademark, as does the non-executive side of the Assembly. Does that mean that we are also displaying symbols of the devil? If so, what does that say about us? And would the Wales Christian Party really want to stand for election to such a body?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Hendrix outed

Today's Western Mail reports that the so-called Jimmy Hendrix recording of the Welsh National Anthem, reported on this blog here, was in fact a hoax:

The wailing, authentic sounding rendition of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau stirred up a hornet's nest in the world of rock aficionados and collectors.

More than 30m of them contacted a website run by former record producer Martin Davies, who said he found the recording on a old tape recorder left over from the 1970s.

Cardiff-born Mr Davies, 50, said yesterday, "They were desperate for scraps of information about it, asking things like 'Was Jimi able to speak any Welsh?' "

The tape was even played on the BBC's flagship news programme Newsnight and hundreds of newspapers around the world, including the Western Mail, carried stories on the mystery.

Yesterday however Mr Davies admitted he had made the whole thing up.

It was not the late Jimi Hendrix who played the guitar version of the anthem but Mr Davies's friend John Ellis, who had previously been in the punk band The Vibrators and also played with Peter Gabriel.

Still it was a nice thought while it lasted.

Three Feathers light

Today's story that the Prince of Wales has issued a decree for Welsh companies to stop selling items bearing the three feathers insignia is just bizarre.

I do not think that anybody can argue that the three feathers belong to the Royal family but they have come to be symbolic of Wales and in particular of Welsh rugby. This royal directive appears to be a heavy-handed attempt to put some distance between the Prince and the Welsh people.

At a time when the monarchy is seeking to be more open and modern such a decree can only be seen as a step backwards. To penalise those who are selling symbols that may be viewed as promoting the royal family sends the message that the monarchy no longer want to engage with their 'subjects'. What an own goal.

A bribe or a quick fix?

I am sure that those who receive the Welsh Conservatives £100 discount on their Council Tax will be very grateful for the assistance. However, this latest announcement is very much a quick and dirty fix from a party, which introduced the tax in the first place and do not want to admit that they were wrong.

The total cost of this policy is about £31 million a year, which is a significant public subsidy that might be better invested in schools or hospitals. The problem is that this discount will not change the unfair nature of the tax, nor will it be able to prevent the problem of unaffordable tax levels impacting on people with fixed incomes arising again in a few years time, as inflation and tough public spending settlements take their toll on the amount Councils levy on their citizens.

There is a case for some public subsidy to ease the transition to a fairer and more redistributive local tax that will assist those with fixed incomes and ensure that people who earn more pay more. That is the only realistic and long term solution to the problem. Anything else is just a cynical bribe to hide the Tories' own culpability in the creation of this mess.

No smoke without fire

Amongst all the news of Charlotte Church's pregnancy (do all expectant mums now get a letter of congratulations from the First Minister or just the famous ones?) the BBC reports that one in three landlords have said that they are not ready for the public smoking ban, which begins here a month today.

Only 69 of the 100 pubs across Wales contacted by BBC Radio Cymru for the snap survey said they were prepared for the new law. This was one of the concerns that I raised during the debate on the regulations.

In Ireland businesses had an entire year to prepare for the ban and as a result it was introduced fairly smoothly. Although I am not expecting too many problems in April I do believe that more could have been done earlier to ensure that those on the front line, namely the pubs, will have everything in place on 2 April. This was an important recommendation in the Committee report I helped to write. It appears to have been ignored.

On the plus side we are told that the ban has 90% support amongst members of the general public and even a majority of smokers are looking forward to it. I am certainly eager to be able to go into a pub again without emerging smelling like an old ash tray.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Coalition Politics

It is true then? Labour really are gearing up for a spell in opposition.

Tory splits

The reason why Conservative AM, David Melding was looking so stressed the other day has become more evident this morning with this article about splits in the Welsh Tory Party over policy.

Firstly, Preseli Pembrokeshire MP Stephen Crabb clashed with Conservative Assembly Leader, Nick Bourne, over his group's support for a Bank Holiday on St David's Day. He issued a statement saying, "St David's Day is a unique day in the school calendar and is enormously popular with children as well as their parents and teachers. While making St David's Day a public holiday would be popular with some people, it would probably lead to a drop in the number of opportunities Welsh children have to really learn about their national heritage."

Secondly, there is growing unease within the Tory grassroots about the commitment to introduce proprortional representation for Council elections:

Some activists are suggesting that the party may struggle to get sufficient numbers of volunteers if the manifesto is not altered.

David Fouweather, a councillor and chairman of Newport West Conservatives, said, "I can't get a good number of people out working on the campaign. This is a wet liberal manifesto that they don't want to sell on the doorstep."

It is likely that Nick Bourne will prevail on these issues but it cannot bode well for him if, in the course of doing so, he alienates a large number of his key activists.

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