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Friday, November 30, 2007

Under Review

Hat Tip to Aberavon and Neath Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrat News


Now here is an interesting dilemma for the Deputy First Minister. He has just taken responsibility for the National Botanic Garden of Wales as Rhodri Glyn Thomas is barred from dealing with this issue on account of being the constituency AM.

The National Botanic Garden has a debt of £1.7 million, which it is hoping that the Welsh Government will pay off. By a happy coincidence this is almost exactly the amount of money that the WLGA believes will be sufficient to lift the Revenue Support Grant increase for Powys, Conwy and Anglesey from around 1% to 1.5%.

Let us hope that Ieuan Wyn does not have to choose between the two.

Budgets and the blame game

Another day, another letter from Plaid Cymru AM, Dai Lloyd in the Western Mail seeking to defend the Government's budget. It was a very tight settlement, don't you know, and all the evil Labour Government's fault in Westminster. Thank goodness for Plaid Cymru and the review that has been set up into the Barnett formula, which will deliver unlimited manna to Wales for years to come.

Never mind that the funding formula review came about as a result of a Welsh Liberal Democrat motion, Dai has elevated it to the status of a nationalist Holy Grail. Important as it is that we try, as Normal Mouth explains the outcome of this review may prove as equally unsatisfactory as that of the quest for the mythical chalice.

Dai Lloyd would also like the opposition to put forward their own alternatives to his party's budget, which seems like a reasonable proposition until one realises that standing orders prevents the budget being amended.

Unfortunately for Dai, his crusade to defend the indefensible is a lonely task. Not only are other Government backbenchers in open revolt about the allocations of funding to disabled children, but all parties (including Labour and Plaid) have united at a local government level to condemn One Wales' churlish attitude to Council taxpayers and vital local services:

The Labour leader of the Welsh Local Government Association has launched a scathing attack on WAG in a letter to all councillors.

Derek Vaughan – also leader of Neath Port Talbot council – accuses it of raising the budgets of its favourite schemes while forcing local government into a “dire predicament”.

The Assembly Government’s draft Budget gives councils an average rise in funding of 2.3%. Council chiefs argue this will not allow them to keep up with inflation and will result in job cuts and tax rises.

Mr Vaughan writes, “This is an ‘us and them’ budget. The services that have received ‘generous’ settlements tend to be those that are directly managed by the Assembly, rather than run by third parties like local councils.

“There is a large growth in the central administration cost of the Assembly over the next three years and next year’s increases for selected service including health (4.2%), environment, sustainability and housing (14%), rural affairs (9.5%) and heritage (5.2%).

“Examine the increases on individual budget lines and you will see increases for local government services barely touching inflation while Assembly services are generally above 4%.”

The Assembly Government argues that councils will receive extra funding to carry out specific projects, equating to an overall increase of 3%.

However, Mr Vaughan continues, “The outcome of the poor settlement will be that council tax payers will be expected to make good the shortfall caused by the Assembly Government’s decisions. Furthermore, no council is expected to avoid job losses and cuts in services.

“For education and social services in particular this is a massive problem. The gap in funding children between England and Wales will grow at pace and already sees a difference of £355 per pupil in 2006-07.”

The Assembly Government's estimate of a 3% increase is just spin. It is based on a calculation that includes all the specific grants that are being given to local Councils to promote Government policies even though those grants cannot be spent on other services and will not impact on the level of Council tax. The bald facts are that the Assembly Government had a 3.4% uplift to its grant, inflation is running at 2.7%, local government received an average increase of 2.3%.

As if to underline the severity of the problem, the Government's Director of Finance told the Finance Committee this week that the budget had been set on the assumption that the cost of public sector pay will rise by 4% next year. She argued that this had been built into all budgets. It has not.

Given that 80-85% of the money spent by local Councils goes to pay their staff, it would be expected that they too should have had sufficient money from WAG to meet a 4% increase in their pay bill. The 2.3% they got instead does not cover it and no efficiency drive in the world is going to cover that funding gap without vital services being hit, redundancies and higher Council Tax bills. Brave as he is, Dai Lloyd is whistling in the wind if he thinks his party is going to come out of this one smelling of roses.

Coming clean

Last night's news that Peter Hain had failed to register a £5,000 deputy leadership campaign donation, due to an "administrative error" was a bit of a shock, but unlike other bloggers I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. A mistake was made, he has owned up to it. Let us move on.

In many ways, Mr. Hain's confession is a side show to the main action. Interesting as it is that the undeclared loan came from Labour fundraiser, Jon Mendelsohn months before he started to work for the party, there is no suggestion that it was not Mr. Mendelsohn's money nor that he was acting for anybody else. From what I know of Peter Hain, he would not countenance any sort of subterfuge. He has always set a very high standard in the way that he conducts himself in public life and he expects a similarly high standard from those who work with him and for him.

What is getting interesting is the way that the Harriet Harman donation scandal is developing. Her aides have now pointed the finger at Gordon Brown's leadership election campaign coordinator as the person who suggested that they ask Janet Kidd for a donation to her campaign. This was despite the fact that Gordon Brown's campaign had rejected a cheque from Janet Kidd.

By implicating the Prime Minister's aides in this way Ms Harman's team have linked her fate to his. It is now so much harder to sack her, though she is by no means, fireproof. The BBC Newsnight claim that Ms. Harman's Deputy Leadership campaign took out a series of loans that were not declared to the Electoral Commission must raise further doubts about her position at the heart of government.

Newport West MP, Paul Flynn, conducted a robust defence of his party on Good Morning Wales a few moments ago, in which he argued that these were not police matters. He listed a whole string of indiscretions by other parties (replicated on his blog) and generally avoided answering any direct questions on the whole affair. On his blog Paul admits to being "irritated, bewildered and ashamed that by our stupidity not our greed, we have embarrassed ourselves." Alas, he did not go so far on the radio.

Judging by the comments of listeners Mr. Flynn did not do Labour any favours. He came across as partisan and evasive. Anybody would have thought that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000 did not apply to Labour, even though it was their legislation. The point is, you cannot make the misreporting of political donations a criminal offence, and then argue that these are political battles that should not be referred to the Police as Paul Flynn is doing. An Act of Parliament that was introduced to clean up politics is now being used as a political weapon to beat opponents over the head with. It does not bode well for the future.


The immediate past Labour Leader of Swansea Council, who is also a former Lord Mayor of the City, has been banned by the Adjudication Panel for Wales from holding public office for two and a half years.

Amongst other offences, the Panel found that he had broken rules by writing to a local newspaper using false names. Council computers being used by the former Councillor were found to contain 253 documents, mostly letters to the Swansea Evening Post. "Although the police examination showed Mr Bailey as being the author, the documents purported to have originated from various residents of Swansea," stated the report.

"In some cases the addresses did not exist or the postcodes did not match them, or the true residents had no knowledge of the letters."

In his own submission to the panel, Mr Bailey claimed that writing letters to the press under pseudonyms "was widespread practice in political life in Wales".

Really? I wonder how the South Wales Evening Post will feel about being taken for a ride in this way.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Senedd on tour

I am told that the scale model of the Senedd building in which we hold all our meetings has arrived in the Pompidou Centre in Paris where it forms part of the Richard Rogers exhibition. The exhibition also includes a video feed of Assembly proceedings.

Who says that AMs are incapable of commanding a wider audience?

Hain in Cardiff to slag off the Tories

Peter Hain took time out of his busy schedule to come to Cardiff Bay yesterday to try and restore confidence in the shaky Legislative Competence Order procedure that he built into the Government of Wales Act so as to keep Labour MPs happy.

Mr. Hain told us he would not block any transfer of power, or insist on detailed explanations from the Assembly Government as to what it would do with any new powers. But he said a growing mindset which saw MPs as merely a hindrance also had to go:

“The mentality that sees Parliament as an inconvenience will itself act as a roadblock to devolution’s progress,” said Mr. Hain.

Mr Hain said, “Let me be clear that there is no case whatsoever for the Assembly to be required to supply every detail of future, perhaps unforeseen, Assembly Measures [laws].

“But, by equal measure, Parliament cannot rubber stamp or let anything through on the nod. Each request for legislative competence will be subject to scrutiny, as the Government made clear during the passage of the 2006 Act.”

He added, “The Governments and legislatures in Cardiff and London need to work amicably and collegiately to make these new processes work as intended, with informed and on-going discussion the basis for our effective collaboration.

“Just as the National Assembly is now maturing as a legislature, the relationship between our two Governments and with Parliament will need to be mature as well.”

Mr. Hain, who is of course a constituent of mine, blamed the Tories for all the problems that LCOs were facing in the Houses of Parliament. Even though this is largely true it was not very amicable or collegiate of him to point it out. In fact, as Mike German said, if the Secretary of State had established these parameters for the consideration of LCOs at the time the Government of Wales Act went through, then things might have been considerably smoother subsequently.

Everybody is getting frustrated at the length of the whole process and nothing was said yesterday that reassured me or others that it is a workable one in the long term. In fact the more we try to do with it, the more the Government of Wales Act seems unfit for purpose. The clear implication in Peter Hain's speech was that as long as the Welsh Government agree everything with him beforehand then all will be fine. That is no way to run a devolved government.

Further such a process is only practical as long as there is a good relationship between the two sets of Ministers. Once there is a different government in either Cardiff or Westminster with ideologically opposed views then things will get very spikey indeed. We are all waiting to see how much of the Welsh Language LCO survives this mechanism.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Harman in trouble

Has Harriet Harman been hung out to dry by the Prime Minister? The Guardian reports that Labour's deputy leader and party chairwoman, is clinging to the support of Downing Street after it emerged that her deputy leadership campaign took money from the woman who had acted six times as an unlawful conduit for funds secretly given to Labour by a businessman. Harman took £5,000 from Janet Kidd to pay off her campaign debts, and yesterday repaid the cash after she apologised to the cabinet for her error.

However, not only has Gordon Brown made it known that he turned down a similar donation but at yesterday's press conference he only expressed his personal confidence in Harman after seven requests to do so by journalists. It is the sort of loyalty and support that a failing football manager might expect of his club chairman.

What is becoming clear is that the Prime Minister is not in charge of events. The scandals over Northern Rock, the missing 25 million HMRC records, QinetiQ and now the dodgy donations are all dictating his agenda and pushing him onto the back foot and judging by this piece on Liberal Democrat Voice there is more to come.

Mark Pack congratulates Baroness Jay for her perceptiveness in spotting that donations from Janet Kidd were not all they appeared. Mark concludes however by pointing out the obvious discrepancy:

It does all leave one odd inconsistency though. According to Baroness Jay, David Abrahams approached her about donating “discretely” (i.e. via Janet Kidd). Yet according to Gordon Brown in his press conference today, it was Janet Kidd who approached his leadership campaign to donate funds (and was rejected, even though at the time she was on record as being a major Labour donor). Why would David Abrahams have approached the Harriet Harman campaign personally but the Gordon Brown campaign via an intermediary? Life is sometimes messy and inconsistent; or is there more to come out on this?

Gordon Brown still has many questions to answer both about this affair and also as to when he is going to reform political funding so as to limit spending and the value of people's donations? It seems to me that the introduction of an element of state funding is the only way to restore the integrity of the political process.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Vote for a sustainable transport network

Voting is now open online in “The People’s £50 million” competition for the Big Lottery at http://www.thepeoples50million.org.uk/. I am supporting Sustrans' ‘Connect2’ programme as it is the only bid that will directly benefit Wales as well as providing a strong environmental case.

This project is an ambitious UK-wide project that will enable millions of people to make everyday journeys in a way that is good for their health and the environment. It will, if successful, transform local travel in 79 cities, towns and villages across the UK by creating new walking and cycling routes, bringing in a grant of up to £50 million.

New bridges and crossings will be created over the busy roads, railway lines and rivers that currently stop people getting around by foot or bike. Each crossing will link to a network of walking and cycling routes, making it possible for people to get directly and safely to the shops, school, work, parks and beyond. Connect2 will help put people back in touch with their local area, their family and their friends.

The following schemes are planned within Wales (with full details available at http://www.sustransconnect2.org.uk/):

Pontypridd: University Links and Connections
Rhyl: Bridge at Foryd Harbour, River Clwyd
Port Talbot to Cwmafan and Afan Forest Park
Newport to Caerleon
Monmouth: Local Connections
Merthyr Tydfil: Penydarren Tramway
Gowerton, Penclawdd and Crofty
Conwy and Penmaenmawr
Clydach: Afon Tawe Bridge
Carmarthen: Riverside Links
Cardiff: The Ely River Connection

This proposal will not only benefit the people who live close to the proposed schemes, but people across the whole of Wales. Obesity and climate change are big challenges, but with the introduction of schemes such as these we can each play our part in tackling them. The more we can get ourselves active in our everyday lives, and the more opportunities we have to travel under our own power for local journeys, the more chance we all have of changing our world.

Sustrans needs a great deal of support to make this project a reality. Connect2 is competing on TV against other projects in the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘The People’s £50 Million Contest’. The winner will be chosen in December on an ITV programme Living Landmarks: The People's Millions through a televised public vote.

Please consider casting a vote in favour of the scheme this December. Voting will only take place online at http://www.thepeoples50million.org.uk/, and by telephone vote following the TV show on ITV1 in December, so I would urge you all to cast your vote as soon as possible.

More coalition theories

This morning's Western Mail reports on an article by BBC Welsh Affairs Editor, Vaughan Roderick for the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ Agenda journal.

Vaughan argues there were two reasons behind Plaid’s decision to go into coalition with Labour rather than support the rainbow alternative. The first, he says, is that they regarded the Welsh Liberal Democrats as unreliable after our national executive failed to back the rainbow deal. The second reason he believes can be traced back more than 30 years:

He writes, “The second reason for Plaid’s decision is to do with guts, or the lack of them. A little-remembered event from the 1970s is still seared into the memories of Plaid’s leadership.

“In 1976 it briefly appeared that the party had made its longed for political breakthrough in the Valleys, taking control of Merthyr and Rhymney Valley Councils. The latter experience proved productive. A minority administration reached an accommodation with Labour, and Plaid has remained a major force in Caerphilly ever since.

“In Merthyr Plaid crashed and burned, mired in a swamp of scandal, inexperience and obstructive council officers. It has never recovered.

“As a party of perpetual opposition, Plaid simply didn’t feel ready to lead a government. The Rainbow could have proved to be Merthyr. A deal with Labour was the Rhymney Valley option.”

Personally, I am not so sure about this. My view is that Plaid Cymru chose to reject the rainbow coalition because they believed that they had a better chance of getting a referendum on more powers for the Assembly with Labour.

Vaughan adds: “Despite their at times farcical actions, the Liberal Democrats can and will recover. The local government base looks pretty solid and a gradual expansion at that level of government should eventually feed through into Assembly list seats. The party has work to do, though, to convince the other Assembly groups that it could be a credible and reliable partner.”

I agree with that analysis. Part of the mistrust felt towards us is rooted in a belief that our Assembly Leader does not have the support of his party and so could not deliver on a deal. I think we have proved in the past that we could deliver in such circumstances nevertheless, we are not going to really be in a position to negotiate again until we have a leader who has a recent democratic mandate and the authority that comes with that.

Cracks in the coalition?

Things must be a bit fraught on the fifth floor of Assembly House this morning after Labour AM, Alun Davies launched into Plaid Cymru in the Western Mail.

Alun has written to the Electoral Commission to demand that some of this year’s National Assembly election results be investigated following a ruling that Plaid Cymru’s three MPs misused public money for campaigning purposes:

Last week the Standards and Privileges Committee of the House of Commons issued a report saying Plaid MPs Elfyn Llwyd, Adam Price and Hywel Williams should not have used their communications allowances to take out newspaper advertisements during the run-up to May’s election campaign.

In a letter to Glyn Mathias, the electoral commissioner for Wales, Alun Davies, a regional AM for Mid and West Wales, said, “The Standards and Privileges Committee have found that the adverts were effectively political campaigning.

“While I understand that Plaid Cymru will now be forced to repay the taxpayers’ money and apologise to the House of Commons, I also believe that this raises several wider and more fundamental issues. It has undermined the integrity of the Assembly elections in May and will impact public confidence in the results of those elections.

“This decision of the parliamentary authorities follows the Electoral Commission’s own ruling that Plaid Cymru did not declare this expenditure as a part of their financial returns. This position is strengthened by the finding that the timing of these adverts, ‘was clearly related to the Assembly elections, and any attempt to pretend otherwise is disingenuous’.

“I hope that Plaid Cymru will now be compelled to submit full and accurate financial returns for last May’sAssembly elections.”

Mr Davies went on to refer to the Electoral Commission’s concern about the use by Plaid of slogans on the ballot paper. A number of Plaid candidates included statements like “Save Withybush Hospital” in their ballot paper descriptions. According to Mr Davies, this was, “designed, in my view, to mislead the electorate – or at the very least to campaign within the confines of the polling station which is contrary to electoral law.

“Taken together I believe that these issues – the misuse of public money, the failure to provide full and accurate financial returns and the abuse of the ballot paper – establish a pattern of behaviour which is contrary to both the letter and spirit of the law.

“It also raises real questions as to the outcome of the election in those constituencies where these issues may have affected the result of the election. I am therefore asking you to urgently investigate the outcome of the Assembly election in a number of Welsh seats where these illegal activities may have had a bearing on the outcome of those elections.

“I believe that the Electoral Commission should establish a full review of the results of the election with a view to declaring the results in constituency and regional seats null and void if there is any evidence that this has had a material impact on the result of the poll.

“Without this investigation I do not believe that we can restore public trust in the political and electoral process.

“I share the very real concerns of many people that this election may have been stolen from the people of Wales by the illegitimate activities of Plaid Cymru.”

Apparently, Alun believes that the result in six seats could have been influenced by these adverts. Plaid are taking it all in their stride but somehow I cannot see the Deputy First Minister presenting the Mid and West Wales AM with a complimentary One Wales Government mug in the near future.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Labour General Secretary resigns

Is this the fresh start we were promised or just more of the same? Labour general secretary Peter Watt has resigned following the revelation that a property developer made donations to the party via three associates. Mr Watt told a meeting of officers of Labour's National Executive Committee he had known about the arrangement.

Surely the case for further reform of party funding has now become overwhelming.

No mugs

Betsan Powys reports that a special 'One Wales/Cymru'n Un' mug has been made to commemorate the historic union of Labour and Plaid Cymru:

A Minister came down to do a round of interviews last week and left his half-drunk mug of tea behind. His 'One Wales/Cymru'n Un' mug that is. Yes, there's a coalition mug and when we discovered it, it was half-empty/half-full (take your pick).

One Wales in green, Cymru'n Un in red above a colourful wave of a healthy nation swimming, cycling, walking, windsurfing and ... building aircraft engines. No tea drinking. No made in China stamp. And no obvious cracks. Not yet.

There will be a special club tie next.

The search for women

The delay in selecting a Welsh Liberal Democrat candidate list for the 2009 European elections makes the Western Mail this morning. They report that the process has been suspended because all of the five applicants are men, at least one of whom comes from an ethnic minority. Three women have been approached to stand and they are currently considering that request.

For some reason this decision has generated much excitement at the Western Mail. Their editorial effectively accuses us of excessive and unnecessary political correctness:

Press-ganging women into putting their names forward, as the Welsh Liberal Democrats now appear to be doing, is an extraordinary way to deal with perceived discrimination.

What is the point of having a woman on a candidates’ shortlist if she is only there because she is a woman, not because she has an ambition to be the candidate?

It is tempting to argue that this is not simply political correctness taken to the nth degree, but that it devalues the democratic process and is actually insulting to women.

The ideal situation, and the most equal, surely, is to have all selections founded on genuine equality.

If the best candidate is a woman, she should win selection on merit, not because of a rule that disqualifies a more suitable man.

Let us be clear about this, there is no suggestion of anybody being press-ganged, no positive discrimination and no favouritism towards a particular sex. All the party is seeking to do is to give members a choice. At the end of the day the best candidate will top the list irrespective of their gender.

This so-called controversy does underline a particular problem with gender politics. That is if we are to get more women candidates then we need to encourage them to put their name forward in the first place. That means considerable work developing and training candidates as well as proper support mechanisms.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats actually have some very good women candidates and a large number of younger members coming through the ranks. My theory in this case is that being a European MP is less family friendly than most other political posts, whilst the possibility of campaigning in a Wales-wide constituency can be quite daunting. It is little wonder than women and quite a few men are not enthused by the prospect. That is why the party needs to improve the back-up it can give to all its candidates.

Meanwhile at a different level the poll bounce I reported on Saturday has started to show itself at the ballot box. And it is Cameron's Tories who have lost out.

The party took two council seats from Tories on Thursday. Timothy Huggan won at Manor, Forest Heath District, Suffolk, where Conservatives were unopposed in May. Whilst a second gain came at Rhiw, Conwy County Borough, north Wales, where Trevor

Liberal Democrats also scored a landslide victory to defend a previously knife-edge marginal at Norfolk County Council’s Aylsham division where the previous contest was on the same day as the last general election. Congratulations to all involved.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A matter of competence

Andrew Rawnsley has an interesting analysis of Gordon Brown's problems in this morning's Observer. Having built his political reputation on his competence, the Prime Minister is finding his strongest suit being undermined by a series of errors and scandals that have left the government reeling and public trust in freefall:

As Chancellor, Gordon Brown gained a Macavity-like reputation for disappearing at times of trouble. As Prime Minister, he is discovering there is nowhere to hide. Before he moved into Number 10, I remarked that he would be one of the most dominant Prime Ministers of all time. He is now experiencing the disadvantage of looming so large over the cabinet. His colleagues are too slight to provide him with cover. Alistair Darling does not have sufficient independent stature to be a heat shield for the Prime Minister. The Conservatives will go straight for Gordon Brown. It is not the man who has been Chancellor for five months that the Tories are after; they want to ruin the reputation of the man who was Chancellor for 10 years.

His record at the Treasury is the foundation on which the entire edifice rests. So it is a serious worry for him that this is prompting a general reappraisal of what he did there. Did the regulatory structure that he invented contribute to the run on the bank? Did his merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise create the conditions that led to the scandal of the lost discs?

Mr Brown can say that it is unfair to hold him personally responsible when a foolish bank over-extends itself or idiotic civil servants breach security procedures. What he can't deny is that he was the creator of the systems that allowed this to happen. What he can't refute is that he has been in charge of them for more than a decade.

People have said many rude things about him over the years - bully, control-freak, Stalinist. Intended as insults, they were also compliments. It is always better for a leader to be thought of as tough than as the opposite. It is just two months ago - though it seems a lifetime - that a confident Labour party met for its conference under the slogan: 'The strength to succeed'. Solidity was the Brown brand. Reassurance and reliability was his political USP, his offer to the country in an uncertain and challenging world. Before his honeymoon turned into a nightmare, he won a lot of praise for his handling of the terror threats and floods in his early days at Number 10.

Hilarious as it may now appear, it was on competence that he planned to fight the election that he bottled.

Some will contend that Gordon Brown's reputation for competence was always a myth; at any rate, that it was not the whole story. The Revenue has now lost two chairmen in less than two years. Paul Gray's resignation came a little over a year after the departure of Sir David Varney because of billions of losses due to fraud and incompetence in the administration of tax credits (Architect: James Gordon Brown).

Even if his competence was over-sold, that was the legend Labour MPs were buying into when they gave him the keys to Number 10 without a challenge. They were aware that Gordon Brown did not have the easy charisma of Tony Blair. The lack of thespian ability was precisely the point of Mr Brown. His cheerleaders said we would get solid, dependable, purposeful government. A bit dull it might be, but it would be effective. The Saatchi ad agency won Labour's account by pitching with the slogan: 'Not flash, just Gordon'. The Prime Minister liked that so much he personally approved giving them the business.

Experience was supposed to be his most potent weapon against a Tory rival never tested by office. It is going to be a whole lot harder now for Mr Brown to play the competence card against David Cameron. Worse for him, it has also resurrected the character question. Before he got to Number 10, some senior colleagues - Tony Blair was one - wondered whether Mr Brown had the personality to be a successful PM. He put that to bed in his opening period in Downing Street. Now the old question has been given new and dangerous life. There was the clumsy briefing at the expense of David Miliband, which infuriated the Foreign Secretary, and the manner in which Admiral West was squelched for saying the wrong thing about anti-terror laws. Some of the many enemies that Mr Brown has made over the years have been taking their revenge. Rarely, if ever, has a Prime Minister been so directly attacked by the armed forces as he was assaulted by the five former defence chiefs who flew into the Lords to carpet bomb both his character and his decisions. All that adds to the sense of a government losing its way and its authority. There's something much worse than being seen as a control freak. That is being seen as an out-of-control freak.

We really do live in interesting times.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The 10 worst pop lyrics

Jonathan Calder may have started something by drawing our attention to this item on the BBC website giving us Marc Riley's top ten worst pop lyrics. Jonathan wishes space could have been found for the opening couplet from "The Bad Old Days" by Co-Co. My personal preference would be for Bobby Vee's 'Stayin' in' which started thus:

I punched my buddy in the nose after lunch
Now I'm in trouble 'cause the dean saw the punch
He was tellin' things that were not true about her
So I let him have it in the cafeteria

It goes a bit downhill after that.

Today in the polls

politicalbetting asks the question are the Liberal Democrats on 21% or 23% in the latest Guardian ICM poll? No doubt somebody will be along in due course to offer a clarification. Still, it is a nice dilemma to be in after such a diffident few months. One is almost tempted to request an extension of the leadership contest and, by default, the continuation of Vince Cable's outstanding performance as our Acting Leader.

Labour, on the other hand must be wishing it were all over. As Tomos Livingstone points out in today's Western Mail, Gordon Brown, faced with headlines over Northern Rock, Qinetiq, the missing discs and military funding, and all fingers pointing at him as the man who presided over policies that directly led to these disasters, is on a very slippery slope.

And shouldn't the Tories be doing better? As the Guardian points out, they have failed to take advantage of Brown's most recent woes: Voters are yet to be convinced by David Cameron and that there remains a powerful anti-Tory majority among the electorate. Both major parties slumped in this week's poll, but the Tories extended their lead by one point as their support fell by one point less than Labour. The Tories are on 37% (down three points), and Labour on 31% (down four).

I know that it is only a poll but I feel so cheered that I may brave the cold and go and deliver some leaflets.

Being stupid

Referring to this post on his Radio Wales programme, 'Called to Order' last night, Patrick Hannan, told us that it is possible to be both stupid and grown-up.

Well, yes!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Fisking the budget

I am substituting for Jenny Randerson on the Assembly's Finance Committee on Tuesday as members continue to try and make sense of one of the least transparent budgets since the Assembly was set up. It is so opaque in fact that even leading members of Plaid Cymru are having trouble with it.

Sanddef carries a translation of a recent post by BBC Welsh Affairs Correspondent, Vaughan Roderick in which he reveals that Adam Price got a bit carried away in claiming successes for the Nationalists. Writing on his blog, Adam said:

"Poring over the details of the One Wales budget you'll find there's twenty four specific commitments in line with Plaid's election manifesto. As someone closely involved in the manifesto process there's a real sense of achievement that these ideas have made that journey from pledge to policy."

Amongst the 24 things Adam listed are:

"2. £1.75 million over 3 years to pilot a free lap-top scheme for pupils"

However, as Vaughan points out there is no sum earmarked for this scheme in the budget although, according to officers and ministers, some £700,000 will be spent over the next three years, with the money coming from the education budget. It is no wonder that post has now disappeared from Adam's blog.

Plaid MPs are not the only ones who are using the opacity of the budget to their advantage. On Wednesday the Welsh Liberal Democrats staged a debate calling for the re-introduction of the Post Office Development Fund. During my speech the Deputy Minister intervened to say that the fund will be re-introduced in the next financial year. However, it does not feature in the budget for any of the next three years. Something else to ask the Minister in committee.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Politics and Post Offices

If anybody tries to tell you that the closure of Post Offices has nothing to do with the Government then just refer them to this article.

The Telegraph reports that the Government has suspended the consultation process in the three weeks leading up to local authority elections in England and Wales on May 2 next year.

The Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform insists that the suspension is simply part of routine pre-election preparations where government announcements are put on hold:

A spokesman said: "Due to the application of normal purdah procedures which apply during election periods, no public consultations will take place and no network change announcements will be made between April 7 and May 2 next year."

The spokesman added that the consultations would be brought forward in some areas, while in others they would be delayed until after May 2.

If that is the case then they have proved beyond doubt that each and every Post Office closure is being directed by Ministers and has nothing to do with the business needs of Post Office Counters.

More devolution concerns

If I was concerned at the inability of some MPs to grasp the basic principles behind the Government of Wales Act 2006 then this article in today's Western Mail must cause further doubts about what exactly is going on down in Westminster.

Yesterday the Prime Minister raised eyebrows when he suggested the Barnett formula was based on spending needs. Asked about it at Prime Minister’s Questions, he said, “The Barnett formula is for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is not for one part of the United Kingdom, it covers all parts of the UK ... based on the needs of each different part.”

Considering that Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten years that is a breathtaking mistake for him to make. As the Western Mail explains the Barnett formula – by which Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are allocated sums by the Treasury on the basis of their population size, calculated by reference to public spending in England – has long been a matter of contention. Need has never featured as part of this formula.

Perhaps all that Treasury resistance to its review was based on a misunderstanding by them of how it worked after all.

MPs lose the plot again

It is not often that I feel sorry for Jane Hutt but even she must be feeling a bit frustrated at having to explain the Legislative Competence Order process to a Committee of MPs, some of whom seem intent on undermining the spirit if not the letter of the 2006 Government of Wales Act.

The Western Mail reports that MPs have demanded to know why the process for transferring powers from Westminster to Cardiff Bay is “too vague”; why the Assembly LCO committee finished its scrutiny of the Orders in Council before the Welsh Affairs Select Committee had begun their own inquiry; and why the whole Order in Council process was kicked off by First Minister Rhodri Morgan in the summer before any consultation with Whitehall.

I can understand the desire for joint scrutiny but I also know that this is not always possible and as the volume of LCOs increases it will prove to be more and more difficult. I can understand also that early on in this process MPs will want to be more thorough in their questioning as both they and we build up a better understanding of the potential and limitations of the Act. However, some of the questioning seems designed to try and restrict the Assembly's room for manoeuvre within the area of competence they are legislating for.

The Conservatives in particular appear to want to keep as much of the process as possible at Westminster. They want to be able to define and possibly also pre-approve how the Assembly legislates. Conservative MP, David Jones for example is quoted as saying: “It is still too opaque. I am still concerned that what the Assembly intends to do with the powers is not clearly defined. I don’t believe it’s any role of parliament to make laws that are not capable of being understood.”

The fact is that although the Government of Wales Act was not clear enough on this matter it did establish a clear principle that it is the Assembly which passes the laws not Parliament. It is MPs' role to enable that process. This may be a new concept for many MPs but the sooner they accept it the better. They should not use their position to undermine the Act as some are seeking to do.

If this carries on then the only conclusion left to many of us is that our initial judgement that the Government of Wales Act is not fit for purpose was correct.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More on blogs

The BBC website has now covered the story of the Standards Committee's discussion of members' blogs, extensively quoting from this post. The item is also being covered by ITV Wales' Waterfront programme, AM PM on BBC Wales and Good Evening Wales on Radio Wales at 5.35pm tonight.

The Chair of the Committee, Jeff Cuthbert is quoted as trying to justify the agenda item. He says: "issues such as what responsibility AMs had for remarks posted on their blogs would be considered.

...."the last three cases referred to the committee all involved AMs' blogs, although they had all been resolved.

...."Who takes responsibility for the remarks that are posted on a blogsite? Regardless of who is actually the author of it, what responsibility, legal or otherwise, rests on the Assembly Member? It's issues like that."

Frankly, he did not need a Committee discussion to establish the answer to that, he could have asked any one of the blogging AMs. The responsibility for all the contents of an AM's blog, including the comments, rests with the AM. That is why we moderate them, or in some cases do not allow them at all.

We are not stupid. We are grown-up politicians, fully aware of the contents of the code of conduct and are capable of regulating ourselves. If we make a mistake then we take responsibility for that and suffer the consequences.

A blog is just another communication tool, like a press release, a normal website, a speech or a newspaper article. If the Standards Committee are so worried about our well-being then why don't they extend their discussion to include other media as well?

Lost in the post

All media are leading today on the startling and difficult to believe news of the Government losing 25 million personal records in the post.

The Guardian describes the error as a fundamental breach of faith and says that it opens up the threat of mass identity fraud and theft from personal bank accounts. The Telegraph says that Chancellor, Alistair Darling is fighting for his job, whilst The Times describes the incident as a catastrophic breach of personal security.

There is a general feeling that this failure could be Labour's Black Wednesday, the day on 16 September 1992 when the Conservatives were forced to withdraw the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and wrecked their reputation for economic competence. Certainly, it is the case that the combination of this and the Northern Rock disaster is creating the impression of an accident-prone government and one whose judgement is suspect.

I watched the report on Newsnight last night and was very struck by the comments of the computer security expert. He argued that the current policy of the government of amassing huge amounts of data in one place and allowing wide spread access to it by thousands of employees is a disaster waiting to happen.

The Revenue and Customs incident has shown that the government cannot be trusted to handle our personal data on a large scale, but it is the security expert's argument that in my view that will finally sound the death knell for the National ID database and ID cards. That is because he has demonstrated that no matter how robust the system the sheer size of the database and its accessibility means that the information held on it will be constantly at risk. Surely the government now needs to pull back from this ill-conceived policy.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Policing Dyfed Powys

Having just finished Alison Halford's book, "Leeks from the Backbenches", I now know a lot more about the workings of Police Authorities. I was still surprised though that Dyfed Powys Police Authority agreed to let their Chief Constable take early retirement, effectively stopping part of an IPPC investigation.

There is no doubt that Terry Grange was an effective and well-liked Chief Constable. It was therefore a shock to find that he was the Dyfed-Powys police officer who was being investigated regarding misuse of the police computer system and alleged financial irregularities. Although the Police Authority's decision means that the first part of the investigation will now be dropped the IPPC will still be looking into the financial issues.

Good practice as I understand it is that public servants should not be allowed to take early retirement when they are facing an investigation into their conduct. Instead the mechanism of a neutral suspension should be pursued.

This belief is supported by the comments of Helen Mary Jones, who told the Western Mail that when serious allegations are made against police officers, they are usually not allowed to retire because internal decisions could be taken that might impinge on their pension entitlement. It also removes the possibility of dismissal or other disciplinary sanctions.

She adds: "It is vital for the confidence of the public in our police service that any decisions are made with the maximum possible transparency. I shall be making that point forcibly to the police authority.”

I am astonished that Dyfed Powys Police Authority believe that their actions are appropriate. They have introduced opacity into the process and prevented the full consideration of an allegation that it is in the public interest to clear up. It is too late to go back on that now of course but it would be useful if the Police Authority gave us the benefit of an explanation nevertheless.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Guilty as charged

The BBC are reporting that three Plaid Cymru MPs have been found guilty of spending taxpayers' money improperly after taking out adverts which broke parliamentary rules. Elfyn Llwyd, Adam Price and Hywel Williams have been told to repay the cost of the "campaigning" adverts.

Plaid Cymru will now need to submit an accurate election expense return to the Electoral Commission that includes the cost of these advertisments,

Because the £10,000 allowance that 'allows MPs to promote themselves and their work in the constituency' is still in its infancy the guilty trio will just get away with a slap on the wrist. However, this case shows how that allowance might be misused. Future cases will inevitably throw up a number of grey areas that give the impression of impropriety even though the rules have been followed.

It would probably be best for everybody if the allowance was just scrapped as a failed experiment.

The impact of the London Olympics

Those of us who were concentrating on loss of lottery money to Welsh organisations as a result of the funding arrangements for the 2012 London Olympics were in for a shock this morning. It seems that some private sector bodies are reviewing their funding policies as well.

Lloyds TSB has sponsored the Gymanfa Ganu every year since 1979. But they have now told the National Eisteddfod that funding will not continue next year due to the bank’s financial commitment to the Olympics.

There is a real danger that this decision could set the trend for other private sponsors of Welsh national events, arts and sporting projects. Other organisations which are dependent on private sponsorship include the Urdd Eisteddfod, Llangollen International Eisteddfod, Royal Welsh Show, Hay Literary Festival, and Cardiff Singer of the Year to name but a few.

In particular there must be concern that the £6 million shortfall in private sponsorship for the Wales Millennium Centre will not now be met. We need some assurances from the Assembly Government on this issue particularly as there is a danger that in some instances the Welsh taxpayer will be left to make up any shortfall.

More tensions within the One Wales coalition

Labour AM, Huw Lewis, has gone public with his concerns about the One Wales' government's budget today and in particular, that his party's partnership with Plaid Cymru is diluting their commitment to eradicating child poverty:

Mr Lewis, who was recently appointed chairman of the Assembly’s expert group on child poverty in Wales, said that without clear spending plans for proposals like the wrap-around “Dignity” family support programme, many of Wales’s most vulnerable children would stay trapped in a cycle of poverty.

He said, “I’ve been continually asking colleagues in Government about the Dignity Programme since May, and I’ve not received any firm guarantees. My feeling is that if there really was money for the programme we would be singing about it from the rooftops, but the silence has been telling.

“The budget is still in draft stage, so we have three weeks to turn this around. We won many headlines and plaudits in the spring for having the courage to make eradicating poverty our defining vision in Wales. Now we reach the autumn and those claims look pretty hollow. Without changing the way we spend the public’s money, we are not going to achieve this target.”

It is good to see that some Labour members are not afraid to speak out on important issues of principle, even when they are in conflict with their own government.

Regulating the bloggers

The Welsh Assembly's Standards' Committee is meeting on Wednesday evening to discuss, amongst other things, the use of blog sites by members. The agenda tells us that the Committee is invited to consider the issue of Members publishing to blog sites and the potential for this to result in breaches of the Code of Conduct, and consider whether to issue a note to Members regarding the use of blogs.

People often complain about the creation of a nanny state. It seems that the nanny state culture is alive and well within the National Assembly for Wales itself. What will they seek to issue guidance on next, press releases, pamphlets, how to frame an attack on your own party leader, lectures to the Institute of Welsh Politics?

By all means act when a breach of the code of conduct has occurred, but this committee must accept that AMs are grown ups and capable of taking responsibility for their own actions. They are clearly struggling to fill their agenda time.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Fan mail

The Observer reports that Alistair Darling's cat, Sybil is receiving large volume of letters from other cats. Many apparently enclose photographs and put their paw-prints at the bottom.

Not to be outdone, Sybil, has had some lovely cards made with her picture on them, together with a paw-print, to send out as replies.

It is nice to see that one member of Gordon Brown's government is getting fan mail. Sybil even has her own Facebook page.

The wrong sort of reptile

This morning's Wales on Sunday reports that new fears have emerged that the £30m rail link between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff will not be ready on time. The hourly service was expected to start rolling on 14th December but it is rumoured that there have been further setbacks caused by colonies of slow worms near the tracks of the new link.

Slow worms have of course been granted protected status, alongside all other native British reptile species. The slow worm has been decreasing in numbers, and under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is illegal to intentionally kill, injure, sell or advertise to sell them.

If these rumours prove to be true then it could be a further embarrassment for the Welsh Government, who pledged that the line would be open before the end of the year. It had been originally scheduled to be opened by Prince Charles last week but was not ready. I am sure that all efforts will be made to ensure that the Deputy First Minister is able to do the job instead next month.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The things they say

The Editor of the South Wales Evening Post has an interesting piece in his column today that is worth quoting in full:

It's not easy running a country. You have to make tough decisions. It's not a bit like being part of the opposition.

The Assembly Government has been accused of short-changing councils by announcing a below-inflation increase in their annual funding.

Criticism of the settlement seems to have enraged Plaid Cymru AM Dai Lloyd, who has launched a stinging attack on those who complain in "negative tones without any alternatives being put forward....The Lib Dems and the Tories are simply playing grandstanding politics. To simply call for more money is not responsible."

Perhaps something like this annoyed the good doctor: "The local government settlement figure is totally inadequate....(the Assembly Government) can't balance the books, so the people of Wales are expected to cough up."

Who said that?

Councillor Derek Vaughan, Neath Port Talbot Council leader. And stalwart of Plaid's senior Government partner, Labour.

Swansea Labour's spin site, Inside Out at Swansea, has another version. I cannot find the exact reference in which Dai Lloyd lambasted the Lib-Lab led administration at Cardiff Bay for a “derisory” council funding settlement, however I have found a subsequent article on the BBC website from November 2004, which is fairly typical of the genre.

Here, Dai Lloyd is quoted as saying: "This latest local government settlement is disappointing. It will be particularly difficult for local government to meet its service commitments in this settlement.

"Local government, unlike the National Assembly for Wales, has the power to raise its own tax - council tax.

"Faced with a disappointing settlement, pressure will be on councillors to raise the council tax to preserve and develop services, such as social, education and housing. 'Massive double whammy'

"The choice will be a difficult one of raising council tax, or cutting services, or raiding council reserves.

"For local taxpayers already faced with a significant tax hike by council tax re-banding and revaluation, they will face a double whammy of an increase in council tax or a cut in services."

Presumably none of that counts as grandstanding politics.

Another People's party

I am not going to reveal the name of the senior Plaid Cymru member who was jumping with joy in the members' tea room on Wednesday at the news that Seimon Glyn has left the party and hooked up instead with a grouping calling themselves Llais y Bobl. Needless to say Mr. Glyn's departure will certainly lead bring joy to some Plaid members.

Quite how long their celebrations will go on for has to be seen. Plaid Cymru certainly seem to have created a difficult situation for themselves in Gwynedd. I suspect that Seimon Glyn's view that “I joined Plaid to defend communities. Now I'm having to leave Plaid to do the same thing,” could well resonate with many voters next May. As the Western Mail says the party faces being portrayed during the coming election campaign as the destroyer of the rural communities it has championed for decades.

I am not going to pass judgement either on Plaid Cymru's school closure plans as Gwynedd is not in my area and I fully understand the pressures the Council are facing, as well as the impact of their decisions on embattled communities. I will note however the irony of a party, that has attacked Swansea Council for closing an unsustainable community school in the Swansea Valley, now proposing to close community schools elsewhere in Wales.

It is also worth noting the further impact of the budget settlement on Gwynedd. This will inevitably increase the pace of school closures but for once Plaid Cymru cannot blame the government. They are the government.

Crazy Eight

I have been tagged by Dylan Jones-Evans to do this test, so I will give it a go:

8 things I am passionate about:

Helping others
Fighting injustice
Rights and liberties
Good music
Science Fiction

8 things I want to do before I die:

Watch Wales play in a football World Cup finals
Be a Minister in a Welsh Liberal Democrat Government
Explore more of Europe
Travel in North America
See the Swans play in the Premiership
Visit Iceland
Read all the books I haven't had time to look at for years
Live a long and fruitful life

8 things I say often:

Such is life
Bloody Tories
I don't believe it
What time is Star Trek/Stargate on TV?
What is this rubbish?
Can I have a cup of tea please?
Has the cat had its food yet?

8 books I've read recently or am still reading:

Leeks from the Back Benches - Alison Halford
John F. Kennedy: An unfinished life -Robert Dallek
Reinventing the State - Edited by Duncan Brack, Richard Grayson and David Howarth
A History of Modern Britain - Andrew Marr
Last Tango in Aberystwyth - Malcolm Pryce
Bash the Rich - Ian Bone
Weight - Jeanette Winterson
Party Nation, Ireland's General Elections - Damian Corless

8 songs I could listen to over and over and do:

Pressure Point - The Zutons
This Town ain't big enough for the both of us - Sparkes
Should I stay or should I go - The Clash
Mardy Bum - Arctic Monkeys
Strange Little Girl - The Stranglers
Sk8er Boi - Avril Lavigne
All my Life - Foo Fighters
Down in the Tube Station at Midnight - The Jam

8 things that attract me to my best friends:

Good sense of humour
Basic humanity
A shared anger at injustice
A liberal outlook

8 people I think should do Crazy 8s

David Cornock
Martin Eaglestone
Aled Edwards
Betsan Powys
Jonathan Calder
Anders Hanson
Alix Mortimer
Chris Black

Friday, November 16, 2007

Having your cake and eating it

Have Plaid Cymru set up an official opposition within government? I only ask because I have just heard Helen Mary Jones described on the Radio Wales phone-in as the Shadow Minister for Health and Social Services. Does Edwina Hart know? I think we should be told.

Who are you going to call?

I am visiting the Cardiff 101 centre, which takes calls on low-level crime, in a few weeks time. This timing is fortuitous as it may well not be there a few months later. The Home Office has announced that it will be cutting funding to the scheme at the end of the financial year. Instead it will divert the money to public protection and national security.

Residents using the call centre can report non-emergency crime, annoyance, anti-social behaviour, as well as problems such as fly-tipping and dumped vehicles. It has taken around 170,000 calls since 2006 and been praised by police chiefs for helping prioritise resources, so officers can concentrate on more urgent and serious crimes. A recent study showed there was a 90% satisfaction rating from residents using the service.

If this service continues it may well divert much-needed resources from policing in South Wales. If it goes then we could see more calls to the 999 number and longer waiting times (if that is possible) for people trying to get through to the police. The government needs to think again.

Peace dividend?

The relentless bombardment of initiatives from Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price and the Party's Vice-President, Jill Evans MEP over the last few months has been difficult to keep up with. To be fair, no matter how much one disagrees with some or all of these proposals, we have to acknowledge that they are setting the news agenda. The question mark that hangs over this whole process however, has to be to what extent it is benefiting them.

My guess is that the latest prouncement by Jill Evans will do them damage. No matter how much she is keeping to her principles (and I admire her for that), to suggest that Wales turns its back on 5,000 jobs because of their military connections is just not going to go down well with the vast majority of the electorate.

Her vision of an independent Wales that has slashed spending on defence and pulled out of Nato may well appeal to some, but in reality all we will be doing is looking to the largesse of what is left of the UK to protect us. There is not much independence in that.

John Smith is right when he describes these views as 'dangerous nonsense'. If Plaid Cymru adopt them as official policy then it will put their Welsh Ministers in a very difficult situation indeed.

Update: Labour AM Huw Lewis is quite unequivocal on the specific point of Ieuan Wyn Jones' responsibility to speak out on this issue.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Question Time

I am watching Question Time at the moment (it is half an hour later in Wales). I recall a previous discussion about the qualities we should be looking for in a future Liberal Democrat leader. One person summed up his thoughts in two words - young and sober.

An audience member has just had a prolonged go about the way that Charles Kennedy was forced to vacate the leadership. What he said very much reflects the anger still felt by a substantial minority within the party regarding the way that our MPs behaved at that time.

In many ways the Menzies Campbell leadership was unable to deal with that anger because he took his position as a direct consequence of Kennedy's departure. The events leading up to his leadership contest created expectations that neither Ming nor any other leader could possibly live up to.

Those expectations placed a huge amount of pressure on Ming's leadership and contributed to his eventual resignation. It is to his credit that despite that pressure Ming did so well to redefine the party and to improve its organisation and professionalism.

The leadership contest that we are now engaged in is an opportunity to move on. It is a chance to build on the policy and organisational work overseen by Ming and to reach out and attract new voters and supporters. Whoever wins will be in a position to finally jettison the baggage of Kennedy's departure and lead in their own right.

No change

Lynne Featherstone draws our attention to this piece in the Financial Times describing life under Prime Minister Brown:

He has been in Number 10 less than six months but, to the horror of civil servants, he has already hunkered down and cut most communication with the rest of government. Insiders say that no papers, no ideas and no decisions are getting through the barbed wire – only announcements from the leader that have been discussed with no one outside Mr Brown’s inner circle.

As a result, the corridors of power have become the corridors of impotence. Whitehall teems with unhappy cabinet ministers who have not been consulted or even informed about proposals that concern them – little details such as the date of the Budget, troop withdrawals in Iraq or the cancelling of the general election.

Equally significant yet unnoticed by outsiders is the impact on officials who find they are as much out of the loop as ever they were in the days of Tony Blair. With their ministers sidelined, their own expertise – and sometimes months of work on new proposals – is being ignored.

They are not too kind about Brown's possible successors either.

More casualties

It seems that substance misusers are to be another casualty of the Labour-Plaid Government with news today that local health boards (LHBs) will cut the number of beds they provide for residential detox treatment in Wrexham to 13.

Cais, a charity, which runs Hafan Wen, a purpose-built centre treating people addicted to drugs and alcohol, has warned that people will die waiting to access drug and alcohol detox treatment. Although the LHBs say that this is part of a move to more community based treatment, Cais says that up until the end of August there were 120 people in North Wales who need this facility. They added that the long waiting list proved there was a need to provide more, and not fewer, beds for North Wales patients at Hafan Wen.

The Social Justice Minister will now be up before the Communities and Culture Committee on 28th November to answer questions on the budget. Perhaps he can give some idea of the future direction of the Welsh Government on this issue.

In praise of the narcissistic

Rather amusing letter in today's Guardian:

Russell Brand (G2, ad nauseam, November 13) is clearly very excited about himself, and writes about it very well, but, I must say, I find my own narcissism infinitely more compelling.
Gil Elliot

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Affordable Housing

So what has happened to the Welsh Government's Legislative Competence Order on Affordable Housing? It was due to come before us on the first Tuesday of the term in September. It was pulled from the agenda and has not been seen since.

Martin Shipton in today's Western Mail believes that this LCO is another casualty of an on-going spat between Cathays Park and Westminster on how widely drawn these orders can be. He says that a political source told him that, “It seems that Whitehall thinks the proposal coming from the Assembly Government is too broad.”

This is the second legislative request from the Assembly to be delayed by Whitehall objections. In September we revealed how a proposal to grant the Assembly powers to legislate over environmental matters was facing problems because Whitehall officials considered it too broadly drawn.

In the meantime there appears to be no activity at all from the Welsh Government to start to address the huge problems facing people seeking to get onto the housing ladder.

It is becoming more and more apparent that the LCO system created by the Government of Wales Act 2006 is not working. There must be more flexibility on the part of Whitehall or a major overhaul of the whole system. Perhaps we can just move straight to a referendum on primary law-making powers and put the whole apparatus out of its misery.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Award time

With both ITV Wales and BBC Wales due to make their annual awards shortly, Miss Wagstaff offers the alternative version. This includes awards for the following:

1. Most overrated AM/MP;
2. Most invisible Cabinet Minister;
3. Politician most likely to talk about policy rather than coalition/constitution;
4. Most sycophantic politician during plenary;
5. Politician most likely to be dragged from the Senedd and flogged on the entrance steps;
6. Politician most likely to have done more for policy than any member of the Cabinet; and
7. Politician most likely to have nearly understood what's going on with the budget.

If there are real trophies associated with these then let us hope that the winners do not drop and break them on the way home.

Paying the price

The Welsh Local Government Association told the Assembly Finance Committee today that Council taxes in Wales could rise by between 8-10% next year:

WLGA leader Derek Vaughan maintained the planned increase had been "met with fury right across local government."

"The increase of 2.2% in our RSG (Revenue Support Grant) was the lowest we've seen in living memory," he said.

"To balance the books next year they (councils) really will need to increase the council tax by 8-10%, and we've had some local authorities telling us that already," he added.

Councils will find out tomorrow how much they are likely to get but the WLGA said that some were expecting a funding increase of only 1%, a cut in real terms of 2.4%. Powys is expected to get the lowest settlement among the twenty two Welsh local authorities - possibly in the region of 1%. It was also suggested that a total of three local authorities were likely to face a settlement below 1.5%.

In response Plaid Cymru AM Mohammad Asghar accused the WLGA of scaremongering and called on local authorities to start making real efficiency savings. If these predictions prove to be correct then the Labour-Plaid Government will have to do much better than that in explaining to voters why they have forced up their council tax levels and cut their services.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ministers evade scrutiny again

The warning in this morning's Western Mail that cuts in government plans to slash health research funding in Wales could lead to patients being denied life-saving drugs is a good example of the mess that the One Wales Government has got itself into over the budget.

Whilst, Professor John Williams, director of Word, the Assembly Government’s body which commissions and funds health and social-care research and development, has tendered his resignation over the cuts, the government is insisting that it is sticking to the commitment in the Labour-Plaid One Wales agreement to work to create a National Institute for Health Research. They say that issue affects more than one portfolio and discussions between ministers on further allocations for medical research and development are still ongoing.

That may well be the case of course, however the opacity of the budget itself makes it impossible to properly scrutinise the process so as to establish what exactly the government's plans are. That is the role of the Committees and I have already commented on what a good job the newly created Finance Committee has done in wheedling out of the Finance Minister the exact status of the announced budget rises for certain services. In his replies to that Committee though the Minister made it clear that he could not answer on his colleagues individual portfolios. They would do that themselves when they appear before their respective scrutiny committees.

That is the theory at least, but in reality it appears that the very tight timetable that the government has set for this budget and the Ministers' own diaries will prevent that happening in many instances. The Local Government Minister for example, at the time of writing this, is unavailable to appear before the Health, Wellbeing and Local Government Committee this week, the last opportunity that those AMs will have to quiz him on his spending plans before the final budget is laid.

Similarly, the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government and the Deputy Minister for Housing have declined the invitation to appear before the Communities and Culture Committee on Wednesday to answer the numerous questions that members have on their budgets, not least regarding affordable housing, community safety and Communities First. It is not as if Ministers did not expect to be invited, after all they set the timetable so they should have ensured that their diaries were kept free.

The whole business leaves a very bad taste in the mouth giving the impression that Ministers are evading effective scrutiny or at best do not think that it is important enough to change their diaries. If this is the way that the One Wales government plans to proceed in the future then I fear for the future of our fledgling democracy. If Committees need to use their powers to summonse Ministers to appear before them then it does not give a very good account of the attitude of the Government to this Assembly and the devolution project.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Referendum blues

Writing on Liberal Democrat Voice, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, has announced that the party will tomorrow table an amendment to the Government’s parliamentary motion proposing the Queen’s Speech, which will call for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

I am no great fan of referendums. It seems to me that they act contrary to the principles of a representative democracy, in which elected politicians are required to exercise their judgement on the basis of the facts in front of them following an informed debate. I do not believe either that such mechanisms are particularly democratic nor empowering.

In fact, by narrowing an issue down to a single question and through the need to simplify arguments so as to get them across to the widest possible audience, the process can often lead to uninformed discussion and the removal of choice. As the outcome of these things tends to rely on the format of the question, referendums are open to manipulation, whilst in many cases well-funded interest groups are able to hijack the agenda through their spending power alone.

The demand for a referendum on the European Reform Treaty is a case in point. Anti-Europeans, knowing that they will not win a plebiscite on Britain's continued membership of the European Community, have focussed instead on a treaty, which brings in essential reforms so as to enable an much-extended union to continue to operate. The present constitution is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed one way or another, but it is not the first such change since the the British people last voted in 1976.

There have been many reforms that have seen the EU widen both its membership and share sovereignty. As Vince Cable points out these include Mrs Thatcher’s Single European Act through to a succession of treaties agreed by both Conservative and Labour governments. The EU has changed beyond recognition from the EEC that Britain originally joined in 1973. None of this has been subject to a referendum:

The Conservative Party promoted closer European integration – without referendums – while in office. In opposition they have indulged in the worst kind of anti-European populism, calling for referendums on individual treaties to mask their own divisions and the wish of many of their own MPs to leave the European Union altogether.

Similarly, the Labour Party has been less than honest. Since 1997 they too have given away powers, but refused to engage the public in a proper debate about the direction of the EU. Gordon Brown appears scared to make the case for Europe, though we hope that he will accept our challenge to do so.

We are not uncritical supporters of the European Union. We want it to concentrate its energies on genuine cross-border issues like the threat of climate change and promoting of free trade with countries outside its borders, It should also reform many of its own internal policies and practices.

However, the EU has brought a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity to Europe and it has successfully integrated new member states that were once dictatorships in Southern and Eastern Europe. The Liberal Democrats believe that Britain’s best interests will be served by being positive members of the Union, while seeking to improve it.

Referendums, whether they relate to Europe or to the UK's own constitution, have been cynically used to paper over splits within political parties rather than to offer people a real choice on the way forward. I am not suggesting that the present proposal from Vince Cable is any different. However, what Vince is suggesting is that if we are to have a vote then let us at least concentrate on the real issue at stake - our future within Europe.

Do we want to be in or not? If we do want to remain members then we must define the terms on which we wish to participate. That should include an acceptance that governance structures must be fit for purpose and it must also recognise that there are many positive benefits to be gained from membership. However, as Vince says there are things that the EU can do much better, including its own accountability and transparency and we should not be shy of saying so.

Personally, I am happy with the amendment my party has tabled. It moves us away from a proxy debate and focuses instead on Britain's role in Europe and the wider world. You cannot debate a vision when you are discussing the sub-clauses of a treaty that most people will not have read, and referendums, if they are about anything, should be about vision. If we are to go to the polls, let us at least cast a vote on our future and that of our country.

A leader by any other name

Another interesting letter in yesterday's Western Mail from Tory Councillor Peter Davies of Newport, father of David Davies MP, contained the following gem:

For your correspondent’s information, Nicholas Bourne is not the leader of the Welsh Conservative Party, he is merely the leader of the group of twelve Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, similar to the way those of us who are councillors elect one of our number to be the leader of our group in those bodies. I can further assure your correspondent that a number of Conservatives who voted in favour of the Assembly last time have now changed their minds and will be voting against whenever the referendum comes along.

I am not sure if Nick Bourne would agree with that assessment of his position.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Coalition blues

There is more trouble for the One Wales Government this morning as Plaid Cymru stepped up the pressure on Labour to deliver on the 217 promises in the coalition document and in particular the commitment to a referendum on full law-making powers by 2011.

Former Plaid Cymru president, Dafydd Wigley, has warned that the days of the Labour-Plaid coalition could be numbered because of concerns over both constitutional issues and the funding of the National Assembly.

“When the coalition government was established, there were misgivings about the adequacy of the funding of public services in Wales.

“So a central commitment in the coalition agreement was to review Assembly funding and finance, including the appropriateness of the controversial Barnett Formula.”

He said, “Last month’s UK Comprehensive Spending Review was regarded in Wales as an opportunity for Gordon Brown’s Government to indicate its understanding of the financial pressures on the Assembly. In fact, the financial settlement on Wales is one of the tightest in living memory.

“All this will put immense pressure on the coalition. The Plaid Cymru AMs might have been willing to accept delays to some of the spending-dependent commitments, if Labour showed its determination to drive forward with the parts of the agreement that didn’t entail significant new spending – such as holding a referendum on the new primary law-making powers.

“But Welsh Secretary Peter Hain’s recent comments that he does not expect that referendum to be held in the lifetime of this Assembly goes to the heart of the agreement between Labour and Plaid.

“If Labour starts backtracking on both constitutional promises and spending pledges, the days of the coalition government in Cardiff Bay might be numbered.”

In some ways this warning is revisiting old ground as Peter Hain has already stepped back from the comments referred to, however it does reflect a level of anxiety at the highest levels of Plaid Cymru as to whether Labour can be trusted or not. How this will go down with Labour AMs is unknown. A number of them are beginning to get a little weary of all this high drama every week.

Wales Office Ministers keep digging

Liberal Democrat AM, Jenny Randerson, has obviously hit a sore point in her criticism of the huge increase in the Wales Office budget. Not only did she provoke Peter Hain to come onto Radio Wales yesterday and make some very personal and insulting comments about her, but now his junior Minister, Huw Irranca-Davies, has stepped into the row.

The Minister accused his department's critics of being “poorly-informed” and of attacking the work of civil servants:

Mr. Irranca-Davies said the department was taking on extra work to ensure the new Orders in Council process – the gradual, and novel, transfer of powers to Cardiff Bay – worked smoothly.

“It requires skilled, professional, committed people behind the scenes,” he said.

“I take offence when politicians, for a cheap political point, refer to hard-working committed individuals as ‘layers of mandarins’.

“To attack the Wales Office in such a flippant and poorly informed manner is to directly attack the devolution process, and to attack the needs and aspirations of the Welsh people.

“I will be generous, and suggest that attacks on the Wales Office are due to fellow politicians being poorly informed."

Mr. Irranca-Davies is certainly protesting too much. The point is that the Government of Wales Act is a mess. It may well be devolving additional powers to the Welsh Assembly but it is doing so in the most inefficient and ineffective way possible. It is causing additional layers of bureaucracy to be created both in the Assembly and in the Wales Office so as to administer Legislative Competence Orders and it is directly responsible for this latest example of empire building at Gwydr House.

Far from 'directly attacking the devolution process and the needs and aspirations of the Welsh people', Jenny Randerson is part of a group of people who want to see this process move forward more quickly and without us having to go cap-in-hand to a bunch of cranky MPs every time we want to do some good. If anybody is holding up the devolution process it is them.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Janus-faced Tories

The schizophrenia of the Welsh Tories was on full display earlier this week as the Assembly's first Legislative Competence Order reached the Welsh Affairs Select Committee for debate.

The Order on additional learning needs will enable the Assembly to legislate so as to implement the three reports of the Education Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee on Additional Education Needs, drawn up over the four years of the last Assembly. It will need to be voted on by both Houses of Parliament before the power to pass laws in that area is given to the Assembly Government.

Tory MPs however were far from satisfied with this prospect. They said that the whole process was flawed as only the principle of devolving the power – rather than what laws may emerge at the end of the process – was under discussion.

David Jones, the Tory MP for Clwyd West, said afterwards, “I find the approach that we cannot second-guess the reasons that Welsh Assembly Ministers are asking for additional powers to be completely unsatisfactory. As additional powers are being sought, we should know what they are being sought for.”

Such a view of course is contrary to the whole rationale of devolution, that the Welsh Assembly should be free to decide its own course on appropriate matters without outside interference. It was almost as if the Tories want to reverse the devolution process. In fairness of course, the procedure contained in Government of Wales Act 2006 does invite this sort of reaction from devo-sceptics, simply because that is the way Labour designed the process.

In stark contrast to David Jones' view, the Welsh Conservative Leader, Nick Bourne, wrote on his blog yesterday that the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group are in favour of further devolution:

My own view, shared by the Group, is twofold:-

1. In many areas we need full powers to be able to work effectively, and we are hampered at the moment in not having those powers.

2. We should not swim against the tide of history. There is support for full legislative powers, and given that we have devolution we have to make sure that it works effectively for a strong Wales within a strong Britain. We need to work with the grain.

A similar position is taken by candidates in some of our target seats for Westminster.

In the light of this the question that has to be asked is who is the true face of the Conservative Party in Wales? Is it Nick Bourne or David Jones? Until the Tories resolve that issue then they will continue to attract scepticism as to how genuine their damoscene conversion to the cause of devolution really is.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The real story

The new scrutiny arrangements for the budget really kicked-in today with Assembly Members on the Finance Committee making the most of their opportunity to get beneath the skin of the Government's financial plans for the next three years.

The BBC report that having established that the increases announced by the Finance Minister were in 'cash' terms before the 2.7% inflation rate was taken into account, the Committee have unravelled the Labour-Plaid spin. They have demonstrated to the public that far from the budget being good news as the Government would have us believe, there are in fact real term cuts in key services.

Core funding for local government and social justice will be cut by 0.6% in real terms in 2008/9 - and stay broadly flat in the two years after that, vindication for the WLGA and a bit of a body blow to Andrew Davies, who claimed on Tuesday that the central funding for Councils "will grow by more than 3.2 per cent in 2008-09, not 2.2 per cent as quoted by the Welsh Local Government Association. That figure is very close to our overall growth in spending of 3.4 per cent."

It seems that is only true if you lump in hypothocated grants that cannot be used as general revenue to offset the Council Tax. And when inflation is taken into account that 3.4% increase in the budget in 2008/9 is just 0.7%.

The Committee established that the increase in health and social services next year is in fact just 1.5%, whilst economy and transport budget will receive a modest cash boost of 1.3% in the first year, 2008/9 but in 2009/10 it will be cut by 1.8% and by 1.7% the year after. The education budget faces a real term cut.

Spin or substance

I have just been listening to Peter Hain on Radio Wales attempting to defend the doubling of his Wales' Office budget next year from £4.68m to £8.44m. The fact that he felt it necessary to resort to the personal abuse of his critics spoke volumes.

He argues that he needs the money to pilot Assembly Legislative Competence Orders through Parliament and to develop policy, yet his budget falls back to £4.4m in 2010 at a time when arguably the Assembly Government will be up to full speed and pushing LCOs through in greater numbers than now.

Jenny Randerson, who highlighted the increase, said that she is shocked that so much additional money is going to the Wales Office when it's such a tough settlement for everyone else. "Council tax payers are facing a hike in bills, yet Peter Hain's department is getting a massive increase in its budget," she said.

Peter Hain is right that £3.76m is not a huge amount of money when compared to the £14 billion that the Welsh Government has to spend on services, but it is a substantial amount nevertheless and needs to be justified far more convincingly than he managed this morning.

Tellingly, Mr. Hain does not even seem to have convinced his Plaid Cymru allies of the efficacy of the increase. Their finance spokesman, Alun Ffred Jones, said he would be looking for clarification on how the Wales Office money will be spent; "At a time when the budget is so tight [in Wales], we need to ensure that value for money is achieved across all government departments."

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