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Friday, February 29, 2008

Expressing an opinion

I never know what to think when opinion poll surveys are published. Most of the time I try not to take any notice, after all they are just a snapshot of opinion and quickly become obsolete, if they were ever relevant in the first place.

In many instances they are open to question because of the size of the sample or the method used to collect them. Nevertheless, I cannot help but be intrigued by the details of the poll published on the front page of the Western Mail this morning.

They tell us that more than six in 10 people in Wales do not know the country is run by a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. Around 26% of those asked believe Labour is in power on its own, with 10% thinking the party is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. A further 8% think Plaid Cymru is governing on its own, while 3% believe the Liberal Democrats are running Wales, with 2% thinking other parties are in charge. A further 13% said they did not know who was in power.

In many ways these figures are no great shock. After all large parts of Wales do not get Welsh media at all, whilst general interest in politics and respect for politicians is at an all-time low. In this context it is very surprising indeed that there should have been a small increase to 49% of those questioned who think that the Assembly should have the same powers as the Scottish Parliament.

The referendum, if it ever comes, will be a real challenge.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Passion in Plenary

Whoever said that there is no passion in Welsh Assembly Plenary meetings was clearly wrong as Eleanor Burnham proved yesterday:

There are issues to do with Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, and, in many respects, you may be right. Perhaps it should be blown up and started from scratch. [ASSEMBLY MEMBERS: ‘Oh.’] Sorry, I will rephrase that—perhaps it should be started from scratch, as was said earlier. I beg your pardon. I do not want to cause offence to anyone, so I apologise. I sometimes get quite passionate about what I am saying and perhaps I do not say the right thing.

Still, wanting to blow up a hospital is perhaps a little extreme.

Supporting the innocent

Whilst some police officers continue to call for a national DNA database, a case has started in the European Court of Human Rights that may make such arguments academic. The Times reports that two Britons, who were cleared of crimes, brought a case to the court yesterday to have their DNA samples destroyed.

I have a huge amount of sympathy with this position. I think that it is right that retaining such information casts suspicion on people who have been acquitted of crimes or who have their cases dropped.

The paper tells us that the case comes just days after the convictions of two killers in Britain as a result of DNA matches. Steve Wright, the Suffolk Strangler, and Mark Dixie, who killed Sally Anne Bowman, were caught because their DNA had been taken in connection with unrelated offences.

Arguments that a universal DNA database would have led to earlier convictions do not stand up to scrutiny. All that is required is a database of those convicted of serious criminal offences. This is because both convicted men already had a criminal record. If their DNA had been taken at the time and kept then in at least one case they would have been caught earlier.

We really must avoid being caught up in the fog of misinformation on this matter. The state does not need to retain records of the DNA of innocent people, not least because they cannot be trusted to keep it secure.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Freedom of information

I could not resist borrowing this from Kerron Cross. What do you do if you suspect or discover fraud? Fortunately, the HM Revenue and Customs Excise website has the answer here.

Campaigning in Gwynedd

Martin Eaglestone draws our attention to the new unofficial Plaid Cymru web site, also known as Cangen Bontnewydd. If this passage is anything to go by then battle lines are being well and truely drawn up in Gwynedd:

This campaign will be a tough one. One of the reasons is the creation of Llais y Bobl, but even though they are taking pride in the threat they are posing to the one party able to build an independent Wales, a much bigger threat is that Plaid Cymru have run Gwynedd for quite a few years – and it is unavoidable that we must work harder for votes each time. People must remember that Llais y Bobl are experts in nothing, with no ideas beyond a bizzare and confused statements on a single issue, who lack much experience beyond proving their inability to make consistent decisions.

How the voters will react to such arguments have to be seen.


The Daily Post reports that Health minister Edwina Hart is today expected to announce the findings of a crucial review into the future of Llandudno hospital which will confirm the loss of acute services for coronary care patients. In return she is expected to reveal plans for a range of other enhanced or expanded services for Llandudno hospital, including a response to calls for more rehabilitation and diagnostic facilities.

Is this going to be another one of those watershed moments when Plaid Cymru realise that a stance they took in opposition does not translate into government action? We will have to see. I am sure it will be alright on the night.

Update: it seems that the report was not as bad as feared but that nevertheless we are to have another review. Another postponed decision by the One Wales Government.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Is Rhondda Labour AM and Government Minister, Leighton Andrews about to do an about-turn and return to his Liberal roots. I only ask because the former Liberal PPC and Gillingham Town Football Club supporter is now advertising his blog on Liberal Democrat Voice.

I am not sure how these things work but I believe that the owners of this site get a payment for every click. Please correct me if I am wrong. Nice of him to donate.

March of the newts

Today's Western Mail reports that rare newts are being “parachuted” onto controversial development sites far from their natural habitats in a bid to influence planning disputes:

Millions of pounds have been spent providing alternative habitats for great crested newts and other protected species found on sites earmarked for construction.

But experts last night said the small amphibians were now actively being used as “weapons” in bitter planning tussles.

Scott Felton, a former water keeper of Colwyn Bay, helped a local residents’ association develop plans to turn the neglected Eirias Park lake into a fishery.

However, stocking the lake with fish has been put on hold after great crested newts, protected under the European Habitats Directive, were spotted there.

Mr Felton, who managed lake fisheries in Merseyside, claimed the newts may have been introduced by someone who objected either to angling or to an alternative proposal to drain the lake and build on its site. He said the newts’ nearest known breeding site was four miles away, past urban streets.

“You’re talking about newts not only travelling that distance, but travelling in sufficient numbers to create a viable population,” said Mr Felton, whose father was a zoologist. “Everything is wrong about the habitat in Eirias Park. These newts colonise ponds like the Polynesians colonised the Pacific by island hopping.”

Great crested newts would have to run a gauntlet of predators to reach their new North Wales home. “There are places where they can get out of the lake at Eirias Park, but they’d have to cross hundreds of yards of mown grass to get to the nearest cover. If a gull saw one it would eat it straight away. The place is overrun with rats, which eat newts and frogs.

“Great crested newts lay their eggs singly and fold a leaf around the egg for protection. They have to have the right sort of weed in the pond. As far as I’m aware, that sort of weed isn’t found in Eirias Park lake. I think these newts have been put there.

“I would love to see great crested newts all over the place. They’re an important part of the wildlife of this country, but they shouldn’t be used as weapons.

“It’s amazing how these animals are so scarce yet they inevitably appear where people are objecting to development. I’m sure that in some cases they’re being moved, which isn’t ethical.”

His claims were echoed by a Welsh property developer who claimed great crested newts were now appearing wherever his company planned to build. The developer, who did not want to be named, said, “We do have suspicions. We put two and two together. We’re seen as the big bad developers. It’s getting more difficult. The newts appear to be everywhere.”

The appearance of newts can spell huge losses to developers. This month Cheshire councillors wrote to the Government questioning habitat rules after their council spent £60,000 rehousing four great crested newts. Last month Leicestershire council announced a three-month delay to a £15m road scheme while great crested newts are moved, at a cost of up to £1.7m. And 26 new homes in Trefnant, Denbighshire, were delayed six months while a £140,000 habitat was created for two great crested newts.

Could this be a biblical manifestation or just the start of a great-crested newt revival? Somebody should fund a study.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Assembly Quiz Part Two

Another 20 questions from the quiz put together by John Jenkins from the BMA. Part one is here, answers are in the comments.

21. Who said: “I’m on a performance-related pay with the electorate”?

22. Which AM is a trained industrial fire-fighter?

23. Which AM worked in an Elderly Mentally Infirm unit?

24. Who was the first AM to give birth during her period of office?

25. Who became a politician after observing the miner’s strike at first hand?

26. When asked what he wanted to be when he was growing up, answered: “Everything! Something different every couple of years. Engine driver….. Atomic scientist…Comedian”. ?

27. Who was described by the Western Mail as: ‘not shy in putting her views across, but seen by many as off the wall’?

28. Who was described by the Western Mail as a ‘Tory with a conscience who should lighten up’?

29. Why did Brynle Williams AM achieve national prominence before his election to the Assembly?

30. Asked what would be the first law he would pass if he ran Wales, answered: “Permanent summer sunshine!” Who is he?

31. Which AM is an accomplished soprano who won prizes at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod?

32. Who was the only AM to get 10 marks out of 10 for his performance in the Assembly?

33. Name the AMs who lost their seats at the May 2007 election?

34. Who worked for the UK Atomic Energy Authority before becoming an AM?

35. Which AM has seven brothers and sisters?

36. Who said: “Rhodri Morgan is to statecraft what Jade Goody is to geography.”?

37. Which former AM won two bardic chairs for literature?

38. Name the AMs who retired in May 2007

39. Who wrote the well known poem: Where are you now Kate Adie? ?

40. Which AM had an disagreement with actor Rhys Ifans over the Iraq war?

Let battle commence

Labour's reaction to Nick Clegg's Welsh Conference speech at the weekend is actually quite heartening. It shows that they are worried by the threat that the Welsh Liberal Democrats pose to their strongholds around Wales. It also confirms that Nick's criticism of their record has hit home.

The Liberal Democrat leader asked the question: “What has 100 years of Labour dominance in Wales delivered? Families are trapped in poverty. A boy born in Merthyr will die five years before a boy born in Ceredigion.” He argued that Liberals were the original champions of devolution and the Welsh language and had succeeded in disestablishing the Church in Wales.

This generated a predictably outraged response from Huw Lewis AM, Dai Havard MP and Paul Flynn MP all of whom actually struggle to defend Labour's failure to make any inroads into their target of eliminating poverty.

It is important though that we keep our feet on the ground when we criticise the government. It is perfectly legitimate to point out, as Party President Christine Humphreys did at the weekend, that Plaid Cymru has failed to stamp any distinctive mark on the 'One Wales' Government. It is also right to say, as Mike German did, that Plaid has been left “high and dry” by Labour having been “lured in by the bait of a referendum”, which will not now be delivered. However, to then claim that the Rainbow Coalition document was "the best programme for government this country never had" is a step too far.

There is no doubt in my mind that this document contained some very attractive policies but there were also a few things in there that I and other Liberal Democrats thought were unpalatable. More importantly, there is no evidence that it hung together as a 'programme for Government'. Questions were raised at the time about how affordable and deliverable it was. The fate of the 'One Wales' coalition agreement has reinforced those doubts and if anything vindicated criticisms of the rainbow proposals.

It is time for members of all parties to put the disappointments of last May and June behind them and move on. Reflecting aloud in this way on what might have been helps nobody and distracts from the task at hand, that of rebuilding the party and of campaigning on our positive policies and very real achievements in May's elections.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Key One Wales pledge to be ditched?

The Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy, has taken one step further than he has gone before in going on the record to rule out a referendum on law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly before the 2011 elections.

In an interview with the Wales on Sunday, Mr. Murphy said he did not think the referendum would take place by 2011:

His comments are bound to infuriate Plaid supporters who regard the commitment as central to the agreement.

Mr Murphy said: “The argument was there’s no point in going for a referendum on powers unless you think there’s some appetite for it out there.

“Only when that concludes its examination – I don’t know how long it will take, but it’s got to be a proper one – only then can we have a good idea.

“I probably share Peter Hain’s view that I don’t think that process is likely to be completed by 2011.

“There’s no point in going through the whole process, which is extremely expensive anyway, unless there’s some view that it’s going to actually happen in terms of the outcome.”

Mr Murphy accepted the commitment was key in Plaid electing to join Labour rather than a ‘rainbow coalition’ with the Tories and Lib Dems.

He said: “It’s part of the negotiations which led up to the formation of the coalition, it’s politics, that’s what goes on.”

The possibility that a referendum would be delivered by 2011 was of course a major factor in Plaid Cymru's decision to ditch the rainbow coalition and sign up with Labour. It is likely that they are too committed to that agreement to change course now but I suspect that this will not stop many nationalists expressing their discontent both privately and publicly at the way they have been taken for a ride by their partners

This is especially so when the Secretary of State also starts speculating on possible alternative coalitions. The message is clear, Labour believe that they have Plaid over a barrel and they are making sure that we understand that as well.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


It is only when I got here that I realised how much I miss Llandudno. I spent so many holidays here as a child that I feel that I know the town backwards. Yet it has changed and largely for the better.

What has not changed is the marvellous sweep of the north shore as it nestles up towards the Great Orme. When I first started coming here there was no cable car and Alex Munro was running talent shows in the Happy Valley. I stepped outside Venue Cymru for a few minutes earlier on to admire it, but had to retreat back to the conference so as to avoid being blown off the promenade.

The town remains a popular holiday destination as far as I aware and has acquired quite a lot of new shops, whilst many hotels have modernised so as to meet the expectations of conference goers and holidaymakers.

One question remains though: why can I not get Welsh TV stations in my hotel?

One of those Conferences

It is Saturday morning in Llandudno so it must be the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference and somehow I just know it is going to be one of those conferences when what is being discussed in the media bears no relation to talking points amongst the representatives.

The Western Mail sets the mood with a two page profile of Welsh Party leader, Mike German in which their main focus is on when is he going to stand down and who will succeed him. Discussions I have had with other journalists confirm this trend and yet the entire party is united in its determination to put any such thoughts behind them and to concentrate instead on the huge opportunities that await us in May's local council elections.

We are defending the leadership of four councils representing nearly one million people and we are targeting seats in areas where we have made little impact before but fully expect to make gains this time. We are confident that we have a record to be proud of and that if we can get our message across that we will hold onto what we have and build upon it.

It is also evident that Labour and Plaid Cymru have made a rod for their own backs in the way that they have treated local government since forming the One Wales government. The Western Mail reports on unprecedented language being used by local Council leaders about their dissatisfaction with the way they the Welsh Government now views local democracy:

WLGA presiding officer and Carmarthenshire county councillor Meryl Gravell told yesterday’s full meeting of the body in Cardiff, “We have been trying to build a relationship with the Welsh Assembly Government.

“With the last administration we were getting there. But this new administration in Cardiff is certainly not listening and the relationship is particularly fragile.

“I hope it does not come to a divorce. I don’t know how many friends we have in the Assembly and that goes across party lines.”

WLGA chief executive Steve Thomas said devolution was not working as it should.

“What we see is not devolution but centralisation in a devolved system,” he warned.

Members said they were particularly concerned that the WAG did not appreciate how much cash was needed to run local services.

Services would be cut and council tax raised as a result of the 2.4% increase in next year’s budget, which did not even meet inflation, members said.

Rodney Berman, leader of Wales’s largest local authority, Cardiff County Council, claimed the WAG did not understand the role of local government. “What is going on with the relationship between the WAG and local authorities?” he asked. “We are being treated shamelessly by the WAG. We will have to really lobby them hard. They have to decide whether local services are a priority or not. We need to get them to understand what local government is and what it does. I’m not sure it does at the moment.”

It is my experience that Council leaders are right to be worried. In the early days of the Assembly there was clear mutual respect and co-operation between the Welsh Government and local councils. There was a real understanding of subsidiarity within Welsh governance and Assembly initiatives sought to take that into account.

Now, whether it is through a derisory below-inflation financial settlement, or a more directive approach to government, Councils are being treated as the Government's whipping boy and a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. Ministers may be listening but they do not understand what they are being told about the way local government works and the needs of local democracy. Whether that is deliberate or not is difficult to ascertain but I suspect that in some cases it is. It is almost as if we have gone back to the bad-old pre-devolution days, possibly even pre-1997 in some cases.

And that is where the Welsh Liberal Democrats come in. We understand local democracy and we are commited to it. It is in our philosophy and our values. We are not perfect either but when it comes to the crunch we are more likely to place our trust in local people than in technocrats and government officials and in May's elections that will count for a lot.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Plaid squabble amongst themselves

The One Wales' Government decision to renege on its commitment to fund a Welsh Language daily newspaper is apparently causing waves within Plaid Cymru, with former MP and AM, Cynog Dafis wading into the fray.

According to the BBC he is one of a number of Plaid voices to attack the move not to give more funds to Y Byd, accusing Heritage Minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas of "betraying" a pledge to set up a Welsh language newspaper:

Mr Dafis and a number of other long-standing Plaid supporters have written to Mr Thomas, accusing him of "betraying a manifesto commitment" to establish a Welsh-language daily.

Plaid's former culture spokesman Owen John Thomas told BBC Wales' Dragon's Eye that his party's ministers should heed the warning from disappointed grassroots members.

As I have said before, irrespective of the case for this newspaper and its affordability, Plaid Cymru are in trouble because they failed to consider that case before promising to deliver the undeliverable. How many more promises in One Wales cannot be afforded? We will wait and see.

Putting things into perspective

As the media frenzy continues around the number of teen suicides in the County Borough of Bridgend (note: not the town), it is worth recording that the area's suicide rate whilst high, is less than other counties in Wales like Carmarthen and Neath Port Talbot.

With thanks to party member and Council candidate, Gary Lewis for reminding me of those statistics.

The use of language

There are times in politics when apparently innocuous language can hide some pretty appalling acts. The phrase 'extraordinary rendition' is a case in point. As a language construct it is fairly meaningless, however as it is practised by the United States and their allies it amounts to the illegal kidnapping and torture of individuals in breach of their rights and of international law.

That so many people have come to accept its use without a mass demonstration of outrage outside the American Embassy underlines how innoculated we have become to some of the attrocities going on around us. It is almost as if we have lost our innocence as a society.

I make these comments because, although the media has reported a government admission that British facilities were used by the US to transport terrorist suspects at least twice, despite repeated government denials – including by Tony Blair - that the UK had any involvement in extraordinary rendition flights, it is hardly headline news.

Moreover the Foreign Secretary apologised not for the fact that two US flights carrying terrorist suspects refuelled at the airbase on the British Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia in 2002 but because the government had previously denied it. Apparently, there was an administrative error.

Tell that to the two suspects who were violently kidnapped and tortured and who will never be given the opportunity of a fair trial or the ability to put their case to a jury of their peers. Is it any wonder that we are so cynical about government?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Profits before people

The recent massive profits posted by British Gas owner, Centrica, underline once more the need for effective regulation of energy companies. According to their announcement they made £571 million profit last year, up from £95m on 2006. This is a 540% increase at a time when prices for British Gas customers have recently risen by 15%.

It is scandalous that energy companies are making such huge profits at the expense of their customers, many of whom are struggling to pay their fuel bills. The recent hikes in gas and electricity prices are hitting some of the most vulnerable people in our society and adding to fuel poverty. Last year 1,400 people died in Wales from cold-related illnesses. With many more elderly people switching off their heating to make ends meet there is a danger that this figure could rise.

I have noticed that when there has been an increase in wholesale gas prices then the energy companies are very quick to protect their profits by passing on that cost to their customers. However, when wholesale gas prices fall they are far more reticent to cut prices. There is now an urgent need for the Government to more effectively regulate the energy companies so as ensure that price rises are kept proportionate and to cut profiteering at the expense of customers.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Good lines

Good line in tonight's Torchwood. As the team desperately try to defeat death one of them is busy looking on the internet for clues. "I am trying to find the phrase 'I have searched the earth my hunger knows no bounds' but I keep being redirected to weightwatchers', he says.

Blogging Awards

The Liberal Democrat Campaign for Gender Balance has published the shortlist for its blog awards for female bloggers. Wales gets a mention twice in the category of best blog by a female non-Liberal Democrat. They are Bethan Jenkins and Betsan Powys.

The award ceremony takes place at our Spring Conference in Liverpool on Saturday 8th March 2008, between 8.00 pm and 9.30 pm, at Canada Suite, Crowne Plaza Hotel. I will post further if one of them win.

Tories in confusion again

David Cameron's ambition to redress the balance so that the English might enjoy some of the benefits of devolution have hit the rocks after the man tasked with finding a solution for the Tories dismissed the idea of an English-only committee at Westminster.

The Western Mail reports that former Chancellor Ken Clarke believes that there is a more straightforward solution. Unfortunately, his plan to allow only English MPs to vote on English-only legislation is not as straightforward as it might seem. Mr. Clarke appears to have missed the fact that just because a clause in a bill purports to only impact upon one part of the nation, that does not mean that it does not have implications elsewhere.

The oft-quoted example of tuition fees is a case in point. Many people argue that it was wrong that legislation impacting only upon England should have been passed due to the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs. However, although the devolved nations are following their own course the cost of negating English legislation is immense. That is because the Higher Education systems of the three countries are intertwined, more so in the case of England and Wales with 50% of students in Welsh HEIs coming from across the border.

My point is that even in devolved matters what happens in one nation impacts on the others. It is in fact very difficult to find any legislation that can stand alone in the way that Ken Clarke envisages. Maybe the Tories should go back to the drawing board again and try and find some more democratic solutions such as an English Parliament or Regional Assemblies with real powers and responsibilities.

Oh no he can't!

As Barrack Obama's campaign goes from strength to strength, another man's Presidential ambitions have seemingly hit the rocks. The Guardian reports that Tony Blair's hopes of becoming Europe's first president are running into mounting opposition across the EU, with Germany determined to stymie the former prime minister.

They tell us that a "Stop Blair" website run by pro-Europeans has launched a petition against him; a transnational, cross-party caucus in the European parliament is forming to campaign against a Blair presidency; senior officials in Brussels are privately dismissive about the new post going to a Britain; and senior diplomats in European capitals also doubt that Blair is the right person for the post being created under Europe's new reform treaty.

Angela Merkel is said to be particularly sceptical about Blair's candidacy. I always liked the Germans.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Labour clamp down on dissent?

Today's Western Mail reports that a move to allow Welsh Labour’s conference to discuss the war in Iraq and other controversial issues was defeated yesterday:

Grassroots activists have long argued that rules stating only devolved matters can be discussed at Welsh conferences are an anomaly.

The issue proved highly divisive at the 2003 conference, held just weeks before the invasion of Iraq.

All discussion of the subject was prohibited.

Three local parties, Neath, Cardiff West and Swansea West, put forward proposals to change the rules, but this was rejected by a 3-1 majority.

The activists argued that other parties were able to discuss foreign affairs at their Welsh conferences while Labour was not.

“This conference runs the risk of irrelevance,” said Ann Griffith from Swansea West.

But Graham Smith, a member of the Welsh party executive, said, “It would set Welsh Labour against the rest of the party.”

Oh dear! We could not have that could we.

Monday, February 18, 2008

In denial

Although this morning's Western Mail reveals that the repair backlog in Welsh schools has risen by more than £200m in 18 months, the question has to be asked as to whether the Welsh Government is still in denial on this crisis.

Government figures tell us that they face an £818m backlog in school repairs and maintenance. Conveniently, it has pledged to spend £708m over the next four years. Yet a Pricewaterhouse Coopers report for the Welsh Local Government Association in June/July 2006 put the backlog at £1.6 billion, at that time a difference in resources required and funding available of £749 million. Since then a large number of local Councils have completed their asset management plans inevitably pushing the final bill upwards.

My best guess is that we now need more than £2 billion to make all Welsh schools fit for purpose, a target which, as late as 3 October 2007, the Education Minister believed was achievable by 2010. Realistically, she needs to work in partnership with local Councils to find an additional £1.3 billion to get anywhere near that target. To do so by 2010 is clearly not possible.

The Minister and her government are living in cloud cuckoo land both on their targets and the level of funding they are providing. The sad outcome is that it is children's education which will suffer as a result.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Swansea on the celeb map

The Swansea bay area can boast already of Catherine Zeta Jones, Katharine Jenkins, Max Boyce, Mary Hopkin, Richard Burton, Ivor Emmanuel, Rob Brydon, Anthony Hopkins, Paul Potts, Michael Sheen, Gavin Henson (and by association Charlotte Church), Peg Entwistle, Dylan Thomas, Pete Ham and Mike Gibbins of Badfinger, the rock group Man, Terry Williams of Dire Straits, Mal Pope, Russell T Davies, Sir Harry Secombe and Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to name but a few. Yesterday we got Jordan.

She packed them in at W.H. Smith's when she showed up in curlers to sign her latest book. Of more significance however is this article in today's Wales on Sunday:

Film stars will descend on a Welsh village for the world premiere of a lost film.

Kenneth Branagh, who stars in Alien Love Triangle, will be attending its opening at La Charrette in Gorseinon, near Swansea.

The movie, directed by Trainspotting’s Danny Boyle, also features Courtney Cox and Heather Graham.

Gorseinon’s own pocket-sized picture palace, made from a converted train carriage, is located in a back garden and played to packed houses of 23 people since 1953. But it is being forced to close its doors because it has fallen into disrepair.

As a fitting send-off, film critic and writer Mark Kermode, of BBC2’s The Culture Show, has arranged for Boyle’s never-released, 30-minute film to get its first showing there on February 23.

I wonder where we can get tickets.

Je ne regrette rien

No doubt both Labour and Plaid Cymru will be playing down the significance of Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy's speech to the Wales Labour Conference yesterday. According to the Wales on Sunday he told delegates that pushing for a referendum on a Welsh Parliament should not be Labour’s priority:

Mr Murphy, in his first speech to the Welsh Labour Conference since his return to frontline politics, said the party should concentrate on improving public services rather than providing more devolution.

His remarks are likely to infuriate Plaid supporters, who regard the referendum commitment as key to supporting the deal.

He told the conference: “I have been called a ‘devo-sceptic’. No. I’m a ‘devo-realist’

“The All-Wales Convention will be testing the waters about a referendum on Assembly powers. It is understandable that people debate these issues.

“However, as a party committed to social justice, we should always keep the services that matter most to people at the forefront of our thinking – schools and hospitals, tackling crime and bringing jobs to Wales. It is these things that people care about most, and so it’s delivering these services that should be a priority.”

Given that Plaid Cymru walked away from the rainbow coalition because they thought that they had a better chance of securing a referendum with Labour, they may well be wondering if they made the right decision.

Valentine's Day in America

Hat Tip: Daily Kos

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The downside of 24/7 rolling news

How to get yourself taken seriously in today's modern news-media dominated Britain, in which journalists are struggling to fill twenty four hours of airtime, seven days a week - form a think tank and put out any old nonsense, the more controversial the better.

Admittedly, the Royal United Services Institute is not any old think-tank but, as the Guardian observes today, it is essentially a naval and military research institute which dates back to the colonial era. Its sudden interest in social cohesion is praiseworthy, but does it have the knowledge and the expertise to be deal with this subject in any authoritive way? Joseph Harker thinks not and I am with him on this:

The Royal United Services Institute report, drawn up by a panel dominated by military historians and former top civil servants and forces chiefs, said Britain has become a "soft touch" in combating the threat of terrorism, owing to "our loss of cultural self-confidence". It went on: "In misplaced deference to 'multiculturalism', [the majority has] failed to lay down the line to immigrant communities."

At best such language and attitudes are a throwback to the intolerant days of the 70s and 80s. At worst, they have the colonial air of white masters barking orders at the "uncivilised". The phrase "immigrant communities" itself has come to be the modern-day euphemism for black or brown people - never used for the Australians of Earls Court, for instance. Worse, it traps all racial minorities as permanent outsiders, the not quite British, regardless of how many generations have been born here.

Ranting old colonels, are, of course, entitled to their opinion, even if their take on modern Britain sounds like Alf Garnett with a degree. The real problem is when they are treated as experts and given acres of media space. The Rusi report was splashed across the front pages of both the Daily Mail and the Telegraph yesterday, the former giving it the banner headline "Soft Touch UK". It was given two slots on Radio 4's Today programme, including an interview with its author, who claimed without challenge that Britain is "at war but with a peacetime mentality". Talk of an enemy within, against a background where communities are so demonised, is not only insensitive but hugely reckless.

He concludes:

At a basic level, minorities born here want to belong in this country. Problems arise when they are denied opportunities and treated as second-class citizens, to be dictated to by others who feel an entitlement to bully and condescend. From this breeds a sense of alienation, which erupted among British-born black people in inner-city riots two decades ago and has now embedded itself within many young Asians.

Politicians, though, prefer to ignore this and pin the blame on multiculturalism - which at its heart is simply a policy of trying to encourage the whole population to understand and respect the cultures of our minorities. They are more interested in sounding tough to the majority white population, whose votes they crave. Trevor Phillips, the equalities commission chief, disastrously went along with this agenda, and his comments criticising multiculturalism have guaranteed him an honorary mention in every reactionary political speech since, from New Labour to Norman Tebbit.

If we are to make intercommunity relationships more harmonious, the issues of inequality and marginalisation have to be fully addressed. On the other hand, if Britain's future security lies in the hands of the top brass and the career bureaucrats, God help us.

And so say all of us.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Only Rhodri!

Wales' First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, is advertising for a constituency assistant on the Work for an MP site. In typical style he uses some humour to make a political point:

Rhodri Morgan AM (Cardiff West)
£16805 - £24865, pro rata.

As no member of my family is available to work for me, I am advertising for a member of staff to assist me in my constituency duties working at the Assembly in liaison with the main Cardiff West constituency office in Transport House.

If you are interested then start here.

Hat Tip: Southpaw Grammar

Y Byd

The future of news may well lie with the internet and there are may be questions about how independent any newspaper that relies on huge sums of public money can be, but the people at Y Byd are having none of it.

They appear to have abandoned attempts to establish a daily Welsh Language newspaper in the face of the Assembly Government's decision not to give them the funding they believe that they needed. Their press release confirms their unequivocal view that Ministers have broken a key One Wales pledge:

A statement by Ned Thomas, Chair, Dyddiol Cyf.

In light of the Assembly Government’s recent statement on the funding of the Welsh press, it will not be possible for Dyddiol Cyf. to establish a Welsh-language daily newspaper.

Even though Dyddiol Cyf. has not so far presented its full business plan to the Assembly Government, it was absolutely clear to the Government that an annual grant of as little as £200,000 would be insufficient to establish a Welsh-language daily newspaper – Dyddiol Cyf. had said as much, as had Dr Tony Bianchi in his report.

We are firmly of the opinion, therefore, that the Minister for Heritage’s decision does not fulfil the Assembly Government’s commitment, as written in its One Wales document:

“We will expand the funding and support for Welsh-medium magazines and newspapers, including the establishment of a Welsh-language daily newspaper.”

The board of Dyddiol Cyf. is considering a number of other positive ideas which could give a much-needed boost to the Welsh press.

We will be asking the company’s shareholders to consider these options.

Following the Minister’s announcement, Y Byd’s Editor, Aled Price, has tendered his resignation. We would like to thank him very much for his work, and his dedication to the establishment of a Welsh-language daily newspaper.

Whatever the merits and demerits of the case, it is clear that Plaid Cymru have not won any friends with this decision.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fighting to restore a free education

Tempting as it is to say 'I told you so', it is perhaps more appropriate to reflect on the very sobering results of the latest research into the impact of Labour's punitive and unfair tuition fee regime on higher education.

The Guardian reports that a Staffordshire University study has shown that many students from poor backgrounds are being put off university because they are afraid of getting into debt. Very few of them know about bursaries or maintenance grants on offer. Nearly two-thirds of pupils who decided not to seek higher education cited anxieties about money as their reason.

The number of students planning to study at universities close by, so they can live with their families, has risen from 18% in 1998 to 56% today, the research shows. By comparison, pupils from independent schools are now significantly more likely to move to a university in a different city, opening up the option of Oxbridge and other leading institutions, says the influential charity the Sutton Trust.

Its findings set the government's fee-charging regime at odds with ministers' ambitions to "unlock the potential" of children in the poorest areas of the country and boost the number of them attending top universities, student leaders claim.

Government figures out today suggest a 7% rise in the number of students applying to university - taking applications to record levels - but opposition MPs say the statistics mask a stagnation in the number of pupils from low-income homes applying - and in particular, boys.

The Sutton Trust research, seen by the Guardian, concludes that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have fewer options, while students at independent schools told the researchers their decisions were based on the "reputations" of the institution, rather than the costs.

The introduction of the market into higher education has favoured the better off at the expense of the poor. It has removed the principle that education should be freely available to all and as a consequence it will have a direct impact on our economy by reducing opportunity for some of our brightest youngsters. The Government needs to rethink this policy.


Well done to Plaid Cymru

It is unusual for this blog to praise Plaid Cymru but today I am going to make an exception. The occasion is the little Valentine's Day gift to their Labour coalition partners - an easy to use website which enables trade unionists to stop making contributions to Labour-affiliated political funds.

It has certainly been the case for too long that Trade Unionists paying into a political fund have, in many cases, been unwittingly subsidising the Labour Party. A great number of them are not aware of this fact nor of how to navigate the red tape that has often been put in place to deter them from opting out.

Certainly, when I was a member of NUPE in the 1980s it took months for me to successfully execute what should have been a relatively simple opt-out procedure, largely due to inertia on the part of branch officers. Things may well have changed since then but that does not mean that the opt-out process is any easier.

Meanwhile, in the same article Rhodri Morgan declares war on the Welsh Liberal Democrats. His assertion that the four councils we lead in Wales cannot be 'regarded 'as a byword for good governance over the last four years' does not ring true for me or the many hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the work we have done in Swansea, Cardiff, Bridgend and Wrexham.

In my view we have a good story to tell in each of those four councils of achievement, good governance and major improvements in services without the sort of punitive Council Tax increases characteristic of Labour Administrations. In many cases we have had to put right decades of Labour incompetence first. We are ready for the battle and Labour should be warned that they will not take back these areas easily.

Update: On Radio Wales this morning Martin Eaglestone accused Plaid Cymru of staging a pre-Conference stunt. That is not the sort of activity that Martin himself would ever get involved in. Oh no!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Getting carried away.

This quote from Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith in The Times is a classic:

Gordon Brown had successfully managed both to build on the experience that he has as being part of the Labour Government over the last 10 years and to register to the British people that there was a change of emphasis and that there were new challenges that his premiership was going to be able to address”.

She added: “He combines the best of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama"

What planet is she living on?

Hat Tip: Blairwatch.

Cold Turkey

As an Assembly Member I have use of a Blackberry so that my constituents can contact me wherever I am and so I can work from virtually any place. Personally, I prefer to be in front of a computer when dealing with e-mails as I have more functionality.

Some have embraced this technology more than others but none of us, I hope, have reached the level of dependence on these devices found in the United States.

It must have been particularly hard on all those hard-pressed executives when the service failed as it did in North America on Monday. The reaction to the outage is typical:

Carmi Levy, senior vice-president of strategic consulting at AR Communications, said reliability is a serious concern for companies like RIM because if problems become routine, they can drive customers away.

"It's a big issue and it's a growing issue," Levy said, adding that huge outages could prove to be "a major Achilles' heel" for RIM.

RIM notified its clients of the outage in an e-mail sent to large clients, saying: "This is an emergency notification regarding the current BlackBerry Infrastructure outage."

The last big outage in April 2007 provoked an angry backlash from more compulsive users, who have dubbed the device "CrackBerry" due to its drug-like addictiveness. At the time, co-Chief Executive Jim Balsillie said such incidents were "very rare" and RIM was taking steps to prevent it from happening again.

RIM's worldwide subscriber base reached about 12 million people by late last year, mainly executives, politicians, lawyers and other professionals who rely on the BlackBerry to send secure e-mails. Sleeker new models are also catching on with students and others outside professional circles.

Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, said, "While the outage did confirm our widespread addiction to BlackBerry service, fortunately it did not cause more than a temporary inconvenience."

Voters go to the polls today in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, the latest battleground in a tight race between Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in November's election.

U.S. mobile phone service provider Verizon Wireless said the outage was affecting all carriers' BlackBerry e-mail service in North America. It said Verizon Wireless customers can still make calls on their BlackBerry.

Some appeared to enjoy a respite from the device.

"It made my life a little bit easier, since I didn't have to reply," Liberal Party spokesman Jean-Francois Del Torchio said from Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

"But when I arrived at my desktop and I saw all the e-mails I received, I was like, 'Oh, I still need to work'," he added.

As the Assembly Commissioner with responsibility for ICT I just know I will get lots of anguished calls from AMs if it happens here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


James Graham has pinpointed the real problem with the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech on Sharia law. He tells us that Rowan Williams has argued for a system of exceptionalism, whereby atheists (or, as he put it in his speech on Thursday, sterile positivists) must abide by the rule of law while anyone of faith can negotiate whatever opt-outs they wish. At the same time, of course, he insists that the Church should be established and retain its existing seats in the House of Lords....In short, he believes absolutely in equal rights with the modest proviso that the religious are more equal than the rest of us.

James also points out that for all the Archbishop’s exhortation about the importance of human rights, it was the Church of England that demanded to be exempted from such rights when the Human Rights Bill was being debated in 1998.

Personally, I am still laughing at an earlier post on the excellent Quaequam blog in which James suggests an opening line for the Archbishop so as to break the ice when he addresses the General Synod:

When I set out to write a speech about major religions operating their own quasi-legal systems, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

Censoring the interweb

I was stuck at the back of an inordinately long queue in the central Post Office yesterday so naturally I picked up the in-house magazine, put there to divert customers' attention from the fact that their lunch break is being frittered away, whilst half of the counter positions remain unstaffed.

Inside was a feature asking people's views as to whether the internet should be censored. Presumably, the editor felt that it would make a good talking point. Unfortunately, none of the proffered arguments convinced me.

I am not a believer in banning things without a very good reason. My starting point in all such discussions is that people need to take responsibility for their own choices and that it is only when in doing so they impinge on the rights and choices of others that we should consider regulation.

There is of course a need to ensure that material only reaches those for whom it is appropriate. Thus we must protect children by classifying films and limiting access to some websites. What has sparked this debate however, is the fact that the chaotic world of the interweb largely defies such restrictions.

Machines can be treated so that certain sites are unavailable but many kids know how to get around these barriers. Internet providers can be penalised but many are out of reach in other countries. What is more, even the most careful parent cannot watch their child all the time, especially when there are unsupervised internet cafes around the corner from their home.

This is not an argument for censorship. It is a plea for realism. The international nature of the internet makes it almost impossible to regulate. Our only remedy is education and supervision. We may have to accept that children might gain access to unsuitable sites so we need to ensure that they can put what they see in context and that they understand fully the dangers that lurk on such sites. Alas, that education needs to be provided for most parents as well.

We cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Instead we need to learn to live with it and to get the best out of it. If we are positive about its benefits then the dark side of the interweb can be kept on the fringes where it belongs.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Who is bugging who?

It seems that Labour's obsession with surveillance may come back to bite them if stories alleging that conversations between suspects and their lawyers in Woodhill Prison have been routinely bugged turn out to be true.

The Guardian states that a legal precedent has established that the deliberate bugging of conversations with lawyers constitutes such an affront to the rule of law that trials should be halted and any convictions obtained overturned. They speculate that if the story stands up then this ruling, in the court of appeal in 2005, may mean that dozens of terrorist trials could be aborted and the Soham murderer, Ian Huntley, go free.

The source, who spoke to the Daily Telegraph, may have communicated with Mark Kearney, the former detective sergeant who exposed the bugging of the Labour MP Sadiq Khan on a prison visit to a constituent. Kearney is due to appear at Kingston crown court today on unrelated charges of leaking information to the media. At least 10 solicitors were bugged at Woodhill, where Huntley was held in the run-up to his trial in 2003, the source has alleged.

A retrial would be ruled out because the whole prosecution would be tainted. If deliberate police bugging of Huntley's conversations with his lawyer were proved, he would almost certainly be freed by the appeal court and escape a retrial, according to criminal lawyers.

The whistleblower has claimed that solicitors including Gareth Peirce and Mudassar Arani, who act for a number of terrorist suspects, had their conversations with their clients recorded by police.

Last night Peirce, also the solicitor for Babar Ahmed, the constituent Khan was visiting, said she had written to the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, and the justice minister, Jack Straw, demanding to know whether any of her visits to clients in prison had been bugged. She has also written to the chief surveillance commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, who is inquiring into the bugging of the MP.

The seriousness of this situation cannot be overstated. If the Government has crossed the line then they may well pay a very high price. Even if such bugging turns out to be the work of a loner I doubt if the responsible Government Ministers could survive the resulting scandal. The consequences for our justice system and society are just too great.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne, writes on this subject on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The perils of office

Are we starting to see the beginning of an erosion in support for Plaid Cymru amongst Welsh speakers as a result of them being in government.

My reason for asking is this piece in the Wales on Sunday, which tells us that furious Welsh language campaigners have accused the Assembly Government of breaking its promises after it announced a cash deal for a new Welsh newspaper well below what they wanted.

We are told that Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg have written to Plaid Cymru heritage Minister, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, accusing him of breaking the promise to pay for a Welsh-language daily, which was in the One Wales document agreed by the Labour-Plaid coalition. The amount of money Mr. Thomas has put into the project, although significant, is not enough to get the paper off the ground.

“The commitment to a daily newspaper in Welsh is clear in the agreement,” said Cymdeithas chair Hywel Griffiths.

“Many people in Wales supported the Labour/Plaid coalition based on the commitments made in the One Wales agreement.

“A few months later, both Plaid and Labour have broken their promise to the people of Wales.”

The lesson for Plaid Cymru must be not to promise things they cannot deliver. This is one development that is worth watching.

Our multi-ethnic state

I am not entirely clear what Monmouth Conservative MP, David Davies is trying to achieve in this morning's Wales on Sunday, other than perhaps to maintain his high public profile. He has commented on figures that reveal that Welsh police forces have spent more than £2m on language translators since the start of the Millennium. Even the use of the word Millennium implies some apocalyptic event when it is nothing of the sort.

The paper reveals that the police have been forced to spend increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money on interpreters for obscure languages such as Sylheti, Tongan and Berber. But, they say, the true figure is likely to be much higher as the nation’s largest force – South Wales Police – could only provide figures for the past two years.

Predictably, David Davies claims that this expenditure is a waste of money:

“As soon as you arrest people who speak perfectly good English they clam up at a moment’s notice,” said Mr Davies, who is also a special constable.

“It’s just yet another cost of mass immigration.

“It’s ridiculous for the Government to say immigration has been good from an economic point of view when they have not been able to add up the costs – and translation is one of them.

“It’s a huge cost and a large part of the police budget when they should be putting police out on the beat.

“Some are coming from Eastern Europe and causing immense problems and demanding translation as soon as they are arrested.”

What is not so clear is how David would do anything differently. Presumably, he would close off all our borders and throw out anybody who cannot speak perfect English.

To be fair to David, he is a pretty good linguist himself. He learnt Welsh from scratch and has taught himself Hungarian so as to better communicate with his in-laws. However, even he must realise that we cannot turn back the clock. We live in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society and we should enjoy all the benefits that this brings to us as well as bearing the costs. It is true that our economy is better off for having migrants working within it. We need to be policed effectively and therefore we need to pay for this translation.

Personally, I thought that the spokesperson from North Wales Police offered a pretty effective riposte to David's over-the-top characterisation of English-speaking Eastern European gangsters reverting to their native tongue as soon as they entered a police station. She pointed out that these translators are sometimes employed to help victims as well.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The fluoride state

As the Government finds more and more ways to curtail our liberties, the Health Secretary chips in with his own brand of interference in the way that we live our lives. The problem, as Ben Goldacre points out in his Guardian Bad Science column, is that there is no evidence that the addition of fluoride to our water supply will have the beneficial effects claimed for it:

The reality is that anyone making any confident statement on fluoride speaks way beyond the evidence. In 1999 the Department of Health commissioned the centre for reviews and dissemination at York University to do a systematic review of fluoridation and its effects on dental health. Little new work has been done since. In the review, 3,200 research papers, mostly of very poor quality, were unearthed. The ones that met the minimum quality threshold suggested there was vaguely, possibly, around a 15% increase in the number of children without dental caries in areas with fluoridated water, but the studies generally couldn't exclude other explanations for the variance. Of course, the big idea with fluoride in water is that it can reduce social inequalities in dental health since everyone drinks it. But there isn't much evidence on that either.

So when the British Dental Association says there is "overwhelming evidence" that adding fluoride to water helps fight tooth decay, it is in danger of stepping into line with Ripper. And when Johnson says fluoridation is an effective, relatively easy way to help address health inequalities, he is really just pushing an old-fashioned line which says complex social problems can be addressed with £50m worth of atoms.

I have argued before that fluoridation is a cop-out, which enables government to avoid dealing with the real problems in our dental services and in health education. Now it seems that the arguments being deployed in favour of this mass medication are unproven as well. And then there is the downside:

But since I'm in the mood for scaremongering, let's not forget the potential harm. A study from Taiwan found a high incidence of bladder cancer in women from areas where the natural fluoride content in water was high. It might have been a chance finding; but it could be real.

The problem is one of small effect sizes. Fluoride and bladder cancer would be a pig to research as the effect size is small, the exposure runs over half a century, and the outcome - bladder cancer - takes a lifetime to reveal itself. Welcome to the finer details behind "more research is needed". And the numbers can get very scary, very quickly: in the UK a 10% increase in risk would give you 1,000 extra new cases of bladder cancer a year.

This move must be resisted at all costs.

Oven-ready Republicans

All ready the puns are coming thick and fast. Even the Guardian cannot help themselves with this video feature headed "McCain chips away at conservative base".

Friday, February 08, 2008

Chickens coming home to roost?

The one feature of note in this year's London Mayoral elections is the way that the media have focussed on Ken Livingstone and the way that he has run the City over the last eight years. This article in the Guardian is a case in point. They are reporting a three hour scrutiny session by GLA members but there are other articles such as this one as well.

Recent investigations are focusing on Lee Jasper:

Yesterday assembly members unveiled an 800-page "summary document" including emails and letters that opponents of Livingstone claim proves that Jasper breached the rules. In two gruelling sessions, senior figures from the LDA, the Greater London Authority and Livingstone were grilled about the allegations of fraud and corruption.

The questions that need answering are:

Do emails released yesterday between Jasper and LDA officials prove that Livingstone's race adviser ordered LDA officials to halt eviction proceedings against the Brixton Base project?

Did he declare his role as patron of Brixton Base to the LDA and the GLA?

Is there a comprehensive audit trail for the money spent on the projects?

Was the money given to these projects spent effectively?

The mayor's office insists there is no proof of any wrongdoing and points out that the money involved in all 12 allegations amounts to just .05% of the LDA's total budget. It also highlights an internal review by the LDA last month which cleared Jasper of improperly influencing allocation of funds.

Livingstone has stood by his adviser as allegations of cronyism were made, and many of Jasper's supporters have pointed to his record of work on behalf of minorities, especially his role as chair of the lay advisory group on Operation Trident, the Metropolitan police unit which investigates gun crime in the black community. They say the criticisms are an attack on the black voluntary sector.

His accusers insist the issue has nothing to do with race or targeting Livingstone, but is about procedures and the stewardship of public money.

The police investigation into six of the projects is continuing and now assembly members have thousands of pages of emails, letters and documents to work through as they check allegations that could have a major impact on the mayoral election.

All of this is making the London Mayoral election almost as interesting as the US Democratic Presidential Primaries, especially as Boris Johnson does not appear to be up to the challenge of exploiting the controversy. These are interesting times indeed.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The cost of staying warm

This morning's Independent confirms what we have suspected for some time, that some gas and electricity suppliers are operating a two-tier pricing structure which leaves at least 13 million households paying more for energy than the cheapest deals on the market.

They tell us that utilities operators such as Npower and EDF have been found to have kept online deals low to attract "price-sensitive" consumers while raising the cost for those paying by direct debit or quarterly payments:

When the biggest supplier, British Gas, raised its prices 15 per cent for millions on 18 January, the company failed to publicise the fact that it was not increasing tariffs for customers who manage their accounts online.

A medium user on the Click Energy 4 tariff would save more than £300 a year, paying £742 compared with £1,055 for a quarterly bill, according to research by the price comparison website uSwitch.com. Online tariffs offered by the other big five energy companies offer discounts of between £98 and £214.

Ofgem, the energy regulator, estimates that customers could save £1bn a year by switching to cheaper deals while one industry expert claims the selective overcharging is as high as £5.8bn. The 13 million consumers who have stuck with their existing supplier since privatisation in 1999 are most at risk of overpaying. However, the regulator is urging all customers to check whether they can switch to a cheaper deal, cutting 10 per cent off their bill – about £100.

Many customers with families or houses of above-average size will save up to £400.

Some of the most vulnerable customers will be using pre-payment meters. The paper confirms that they are being royally screwed-over: Customers on pre-payment meters are paying the most for their power even though they usually have lower incomes than those using direct debit. In the most extreme case, a north-east England prepayment customer with British Gas and Npower can over-pay by £486 more a year, according to Energywatch, the industry watchdog.

Coming on top of the news that consumers in Wales are paying up to 18% more for electricity than customers in England the case for tighter regulation has now become over-whelming. Whether that happens will depend on the outcome of the inquiry by the House of Commons' Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Select Committee and whether the Competition Commission takes up the call by Energywatch to look into the industry.

Surely the government cannot hold off acting for much longer, even if it is only to put those on pre-payment meters onto a level playing field with everybody else.

Blogging AMs

As Glyn Davies points out, the Standards' Committee guidance to Assembly Members on the use of blogs has now been published. Reading through the note it was difficult not to feel that they were protesting just a little bit too much.

In the second paragraph they assert: 'From the outset, we would like to stress that we do not intend to suggest that the use of Blogs by Members be prohibited in any way.' Just four paragraphs later they tell us again: 'Members should not be discouraged from using Blogs – this note is simply trying to make members aware of the potential hazards of using the sites inappropriately.'

All-in-all one could not help but get the impression that what they are really saying is that: 'We don't like blogs and we dislike bloggers even more, however we cannot do anything to stop you. If you must persist with this odious activity then watch out, because we are going to get you.'

So much for openness, transparency and the use of new technology.

Note for the Standards Committee: You should be aware that this entry contains a small measure of irony, and is largely written tongue-in-cheek. I am sure that you will understand.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Fighting ID cards

A new poll in today's Guardian newspaper reports that the number of people strongly opposed to the introduction of a national identity card scheme has risen sharply:

Those campaigning against ID cards said last night that the poll, with results showing that 25% of the public are deeply opposed to the idea, raises the prospect that the potential number of those likely to refuse to register for the card has risen. If the poll's findings were reflected in the wider population, as many as 10 million people may be expected to refuse to comply.

The ICM survey also shows that a majority of the British people say they are "uncomfortable" with the idea that personal data provided to the government for one purpose should be shared between all Whitehall-run public services.

The poll, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, shows that British public opinion is deeply split over the introduction of identity cards, with 50% against the idea and 47% in favour.

Recent disputes over the further delays to have hit the project have strengthened opposition to the scheme, with those who think it is "a very bad" idea rising from 17% last September to 25% now. This compares with only 12% who think that pressing ahead with ID cards, which will cost around £93 per person when combined with a passport, is a "very good idea".

The report suggests that in the aftermath of the government's recent embarrassing losses of confidential personal data, public opinion appears to have turned sharply against the idea of sharing information within Whitehall and the creeping introduction of the "Big Brother" state.

Fifty two per cent say they feel uncomfortable with allowing "personal information that is provided to one government department to be shared between all government departments that provide public services".

This is the first empirical indication of how the Government's mishandling of our data has impacted on their plans and it is not good news for those who wish to impose a compulsory or otherwise ID card scheme.


Know our Assembly

Just for a bit of fun, below are the first 20 questions in a quiz devised by John Jenkins of the BMA about the Assembly and its members. The answers are in the comments. I will publish the remaining 140 questions spasmodically in due course.

1. Who is captain of the Assembly football team?

2. Which AM enjoys traditional Dixieland Jazz from the 1920s?

3. Which AM still has a French pen-friend?

4. Who would like to be a stage manager if he/she gave up being an AM?

5. Which AM has been a lobbyist for the tobacco industry?

6. Who has asked more written questions than any other AM?

7. Who suffered a heart attack at Easter 2006?

8. Which AM stages an attempt to become president of her party in October 2006?

9. Which AM always wears a fresh flower in his lapel?

10. Who chaired the Assembly Committee on the Inquiry into the E.coli outbreak in November 2005?

11. Name the two non-Labour members to have served in the cabinet before the current One Wales government..

12. Who is the only AM to have lost his seat in the Assembly and then returned to represent a new constituency?

13. Which AM was a sometime saxophonist?

14. Which AM was leg spinner bowler?

15. Which AM has been the leader of a Welsh County Council?

16. Who was voted the Politician to Watch at the ITV Wales Political Awards in 2006?

17. Who is chair of the cross party group on Healthy Living?

18. Which AM has a big interest in animal welfare?

19. Who was described as ‘not considered herself a mainstream politician’?

20. Which AM is devoted to comedy sketch writing?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Portrait of Tony 'Dorian Gray' Blair

So if Tony Blair starts to look younger, we will know why. It is the portrait in the attic!

Hat tip to Oscar Wilde.

Mixed messages on the smacking ban

The last time the smacking ban was discussed in the Welsh Assembly there was a small but vocal minority who spoke and voted against it. There has been a fuss recently about whether the Assembly should have the power to introduce such a ban itself, however not all AMs on the government's side appear to be in favour.

This extract from the transcript of the Assembly's Finance Committee on 17 January suggests that not only does a leading Plaid Cymru member still believe in old fashioned punishment but also he has a rather unusual view of the way that social services help vulnerable children:

Mohammad Asghar: I know that, in local government, social services take the biggest chunk of the budget. Ethnic minority children are taken away unnecessarily. If a parent hits a child, the child is taken away; there have been many such cases in Newport. It would save local authorities and the Government tens of thousand of pounds if they did not keep children in different boarding places and spend money on keeping them away from their families. The family hits the child to discipline them. In the long run, these children are becoming criminal, and ethnic minorities are bearing the brunt of this. The law is one thing, but reality is another. The social and moral responsibility belongs to us, as parents, so why can you not give councils some hard-line instructions not to take ethnic minority children unnecessarily to children’s homes, because their parents want to discipline them in that way.

It is unlikely that these were the sort of efficiency savings the Finance Minister was referring to when he said that local councils need to cut their cloth according to their means.

Bragging rights

With thanks to Jonathan Morgan AM.

Who are you going to call?

The Register reports that South Wales police force has published a list of top time-wasting 999 calls during the past year in an attempt to convince people not to pick up the phone unless it's really necessary. Some of the examples they give are horrendous:

The highlight of 2007 came when one woman demanded officers come and cuff her boyfriend because he'd put her hamster out in the rain. Another caller explained: “My husband has the TV remote and won’t let me watch EastEnders.”

The list continues with the anxious citizen who admitted: “I don’t have £1 for a supermarket trolley”, and one flustered bookworm who offered: “A friend has my library card, can you come and arrest her?”

Our fave, though, is the bloke who enquired: “Can the police come round and take my mother-in-law away? She has been here for 18 days.”

The police are now to change the way they greet callers by announcing “South Wales Police, what is your emergency?”, which they hope will prompt the person on the other end of the line to ponder whether or not their situation really is a matter of life or death.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Who is bugging who?

The bugging of a Labour MP's conversation with his constituent is an exceedingly serious matter, not because it infringes on the privacy of an MP (though that is a major consideration) but because it goes to the very heart of our Parliamentary democracy and undermines the essential pastoral role undertaken by all elected politicians.

Somebody who comes to their elected representative for help, no matter what their problem is or what they have been accused of, should be entitled to confidentiality. They should be allowed to receive advice without the state eavesdropping or interfering in that process.

The fact that Babar Ahmed is a terrorist suspect is immaterial to this argument. He has not been found guilty of anything, nor has he even been charged. In this country we have a tradition that somebody is innocent until proven otherwise. The fact that the MP concerned is one of the few Muslim members of the Houses of Parliament sends a disturbing message to that community.

It is crucial that we now establish who authorised this bug and that they account for their actions. Already I have seen suggestions that it may be the work of a foreign power, that is the United States. If that is the case then that is even more serious as it impinges on our sovereignty as well as our rights. The Prime Minister needs to make an urgent statement so that we can get to the bottom of this whole affair.

Data sequel

Somehow we knew that it would not just be the data that went missing. A small piece in the paper this morning reveals that more than 100,000 families have not received the promised letter of apology after their personal details were lost by HM Revenue and Customs last year.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer had pledged that each of the 7.25 million affected households whose child benefit details were on the two missing computer discs would get a personal letter explaining what had happened and apologising for it.

Alas 100,000 or 1.4% of the letters were returned unopened because the address held by the government was either incorrect or out of date. Just as well they don't run the country......

Sunday, February 03, 2008


The media really has got the bit between their collective teeth today with revelations galore about which MP is employing which member of their family and a few instances of some strange goings-on with the Parliamentary expenses system.

As if he did not have enough to worry about The Sunday Telegraph reveals that Peter Hain employs his 80-year-old mother on a Commons salary of £5,400 a year. She has been his part-time secretary for 16 years. Anybody who has met Adelaine Hain, will know that not only is she a charming, intelligent and highly capable individual but that even at the age of 80 she would knock spots off many younger people in this role.

The article goes on to list other MPs who employ family members, including Mr. Cameron himself:

Mr Steen, the MP for Totnes, admitted that his daughter worked for him, but rather than being a scandalous situation like Mr Conway's his daughter was in fact being "underpaid". "Her work represents good value because she is willing to be flexible with her hours. I will be paying her more in future."

Other MPs employing family members include the Labour MP Dawn Butler, whose brother Tennyson is a case worker, and the senior Tory MP Sir George Young, whose daughter Camilla is a full-time Commons worker.

With so many MPs potentially under scrutiny, panic gripped the Commons last week. Even as he tried to fight back over the Conway affair, David Cameron, the Tory leader, was not immune to scrutiny of his own affairs.

While there is nothing to suggest any wrongdoing on his part, the fact that even Mr Cameron employs a family member - his sister-in-law Alice Sheffield as his correspondence secretary - shows just how awkward the issue has become.

They say that panic has gripped the Commons tearoom with Labour MPs turning on John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw who wrote to the Electoral Commission complaining about irregularities in Tory funding a few weeks ago:

As one Labour MP said: "This isn't just hurting the Tories. It's damaging all of us, politics in general, and that's no good for anybody. It will mean people just condemn us all and we end up with apathy and disengagement."

Meanwhile the Mail on Sunday catalogues the rather bizarre staffing arrangements of Bob Spinks, the Tory MP for Castle Point in Essex. They tell us that he employed his lover's daughter when she was still a sixth-form pupil:

Ashleigh Sharp has been Bob Spink's parliamentary assistant since 2006, when she was just 17 and enrolled at a sixth-form college in Benfleet, Essex.

Miss Sharp, the daughter of Mr Spink's former partner, Gail Boland, is now paid more than £5,000 a year by the MP – despite also being a student at Buckingham University.

Furthermore, he also employs his ex-wife, Janet, whom he divorced in 2002 and who now carries out her duties from Dorset, and his daughter, Charlotte:

Mr Spink said he had ensured that all his staffing arrangements were legitimate and said he would campaign for more transparency over MPs' allowances.

He said he continued to employ his ex-wife, despite her move to the West Country, because she was a "professionally qualified secretary and PA".

"I got specific clearance from the Fees Office for her continued employment, in Dorset. This arrangement is widely known in my constituency," he added.

He also employs his daughter, Charlotte, on a casual basis and paid her £4,400 in the past financial year.

Finally, for now anyway, the Mail on Sunday also reveal that Conservative MPs Nicholas and Ann Winterton have claimed £165,000 in Commons expenses for their £700,000 second home six years after they paid off their mortgage. They switched their fashionable London apartment to a family trust and used their parliamentary allowances to avoid death duty. It is alleged that, using a loophole in Commons rules, they claim more than £30,000 a year in "rent" from the public purse, which is paid to a family trust set up for their two children.

The paper explains that: The extraordinary arrangement has allowed them to benefit in two ways.

Their family has obtained £165,826 in "rent" for a home which they bought outright in 2002. And they stand to make a saving of up to £280,000 in their death-duty liability.

Sir Nicholas yesterday insisted he had done nothing wrong and that the "rent" payment and the family trust deal had been approved by the Commons authorities.

However, he said it was drawn up before checks on handouts for MPs' second homes were tightened up – and would probably not be allowed if it had been put forward now.

He said: "I am not dishonest. We don't own the flat, because once it is handed over, it becomes the property of the beneficiaries of the trust [his children].

"I see nothing unethical or wrong in it. It was agreed by the Commons Fees office – I happen to rent a property that I bought outright."

Although all of these arrangements are within the rules, they do highlight a lack of transparency and consistency in the process. Clearly there is a need to regularise the way that MPs employ their staff, ensuring that there are agreed salary scales and that recruitment and employment methods follow good equal opportunity principles.

It is also necessary, in my view, to change the way that the authorities pay for a members' accommodation whilst in London. It is clearly right that this sort of assistance continues but no member should be allowed to profit from it. A balance has to be struck between best value for the taxpayer and the needs of individual MPs. Some of this is already in place in the Welsh Assembly but we can do much more as well.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

A bid for power

This morning's Guardian devotes its front page to making our blood run cold with the revelation that Tony Blair doesn't just want to become European President but actually wants some real power to go with it:

Tony Blair has been holding discussions with some of his oldest allies on how he could mount a campaign later this year to become full-time president of the EU council, the prestigious new job characterised as "president of Europe". Blair, currently the Middle East envoy for the US, Russia, EU and the UN, has told friends he has made no final decision, but is increasingly willing to put himself forward for the job if it comes with real powers to intervene in defence and trade affairs.

The idea that this unelected post should have such powers would be anathema to most ordinary people. That the first person to hold such a post might be Tony Blair could well start a popular revolt, with the Prime Minister himself leading the storming of the barricades.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Whose reality?

The Guardian reports that disgraced Tory MP, Derek Conway has been suspended from the House of Commons for ten days for an offence that would surely have got anybody else sacked. Duncan Borrowman, the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Old Bexley and Sidcup, has referred the matter to the police.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Guardian Marina Hyde speculates that Mr. Conway's son, Henry, may well end up on reality TV within six months. The worrying thing is we just know that she is not joking.

Lembit lookalike

Jonathan Calder draws our attention to an article in the Powys County Times revealing "the only official Lembit Opik lookalike in the UK".

Neil May lives in Leicester and first discovered his resemblance to the Montgomery MP during Lembit's courtship of Sian Lloyd. The paper reports:

The only problem is Neil's never had a booking, the demand for a Lembit lookalike just doesn't seem to be there – yet.

"To be honest, this is the first phone call I have ever had," he told the County Times, "Maybe if he became leader of the Liberal Democrats or became more well known? If it happens it happens, I will take it as it comes, it's never going to be a major earner."

Well why would anybody book him when Lembit is so readily available for appearances in person anywhere in the Country? I wonder if the other Cheeky Girl is still single.

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