.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Back soon

Friday, October 24, 2008

To blog or not to blog - the movies

A rather long video split into six featuring the opening remarks of the six speakers in Tuesday's debate on blogging in the Assembly.

In order, there is me, Eleanor Burnham AM, BBC blogger Betsan Powys, Annabelle Harlle from the Electoral Reform Society, Matt Wardman of the Wardman Wire and Victoria Winckler, who is Director of the Bevan Foundation. Daran Hill of Positif Politics is in the chair.

Other coverage of the debate can be found on Bethan Jenkins' blog here and here, on Betsan Powys' blog, from Victoria Winckler, Matt Wardman and Dianne Selden amongst many others. We really have consumed ourselves this time.

A Welsh on-line presence

I have been sent a paper arguing that the Welsh Assembly Government needs to take urgent action if they are to secure .cym as a top level domain for Wales.

The paper points out the most recent figures, which show that UK on-line shoppers spent £42 billion in 2007, the Welsh share was £1.5 billion. The majority of this is spent with organisations outside of Wales. They say that the economic outflow from Wales is worrying, with many Welsh shoppers using out of Wales internet sites and far fewer buyers from outside Wales purchasing from Welsh firms.

A YouGov survey found that 62% of Internet users believe that a country code TLD shows a local company and .com/.org/.net shows one that is likely to be international. Internet users are six times more likely to choose their country code than a .com/.org/.net address when looking at search engine results. An internet TLD for Wales will funnel Welsh buyers towards Welsh service and product providers. It is not unrealistic to estimate that Welsh internal ecommerce by 2015 could reach a £1Bn per annum if the Welsh internet infrastructure is in place.

Tourism is one important element of the Welsh economy. Under the current Internet arrangements, when visitors find on the Internet that their chosen hotel or B&B is fully booked, they are unlikely to discover that the premises next door has vacancies. Welsh tourist web sites are scattered across many top level domains. If Welsh hotel and B&B web sites are clustered on a Welsh TLD, search engines will gather similar establishments to the same results page. Clustering increases positive hits and with it Welsh business.

I have supported this campaign from the outset. I believe that it is important that Welsh firms and Welsh civic society, including the National Assembly for Wales, are able to register a Welsh presence on the internet.

We are rapidly approaching the time when key decisions need to be taken if we are to secure the .cym domain, otherwise we will have to wait six more years before we get another opportunity. The Welsh Assembly Government need to be more pro-active in this regard and demonstrate that they are on top of this application. A subject for questions after the half-term recess I believe.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Blogging Hiatus

It has been a busy 24 hours made worse by the problems I am having uploading the video from Tuesday's To blog or not to blog event. The file is too big and I need to find a way to break it up into smaller videos but have not had the time to do this as yet. Once I have overcome this technical issue I will post on that debate.

In the meantime it is only fair to point out that blogging will be light to non-existent until the beginning of next month. Do not fear (or rejoice too soon), I will be back.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A vote for real change

Vaughan Roderick has provided his own unique commentary on Kirsty William's Liberal Democrat News column here.

Simon Dyda has translated the post for non-Welsh speakers.

Life on Mars

Has Islwyn Labour MP Don Touhig been caught in a time warp. Some of his political opponents certainly think so.

They have taken exception to a leaflet he has distributed around his constituency in which he wrote: “There is no doubt we face testing economic circumstances with rising fuel and food bills and the effects of the global credit crunch. Many people are concerned about jobs. Housewives worry about food prices and blokes who need their car for work are angry about rising petrol prices.”

Kirsty Williams saw the absurdity of his remarks: “I think it’s quite shocking that someone in his position is so out of touch with the realities of life in Wales that he thinks it appropriate to put things that way.

“The last time I looked, there were plenty of women driving cars. I have to drive my car to work, and I dare say many women are worried about petrol prices.

“It’s been a long time since a lot of women had a choice about going to work. For many, it is an economic necessity. It’s also ridiculous to imply only women are worried about the household budget. Mr Touhig needs a reality check.”

Rumours that Mr. Touhig is to star in the successor series to 'Life on Mars' and 'Ashes to Ashes' cannot be confirmed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The fight for e-democracy

The Daily Post this morning carries news of the latest controversy from Flintshire Council. It seems that they are going to spend £100,000 to provide councillors with laptop computers so as to save up to £13,000 every year in printing and postage costs of agendas and reports.

This has attracted the ire of Alyn and Deeside Labour Assembly Member, Carl Sargeant who says that he hopes that the executive sees sense and kicks these computers into touch.

Now it is not for me to comment on the way that a local council runs its affairs but this sort of criticism is fairly easy copy. Most Councils now lend a computer to their Councillors to facilitate the better running of business and to enable improved communications within the organisation and with constituents. In fact the Assembly does the same for its members.

Will Carl Sargeant now be returning all the ICT equipment he has the use of whilst he remains an Assembly Member?

File under quirky

James Graham draws attention to the fact that that the British Humanist Association has raised over £23,000 on Justgiving to fund 30 buses running across the capital for four weeks in the run-up to Christmas with the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

In fact they only needed £5,500 as Professor Richard Dawkins, bestselling author of The God Delusion, had agreed to match all donations up to a maximum of £5,500, giving them a total of £11,000 if they reached the full amount.

Writing on the justgiving page they say: 'With your help, we can brighten people's days on the way to work, help raise awareness of atheism in the UK, and hopefully encourage more people to come out as atheists. We can also counter the religious adverts which are currently running on London buses, and help people think for themselves.

As Richard Dawkins says: "This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think - and thinking is anathema to religion."'

Wouldn't all this money committed on both sides of the argument have been better spent on actually helping people have a good Christmas, the homeless for example?


Plaid Cymru Assembly Member, Dai Lloyd has a letter in this morning's Western Mail attacking me and Swansea Councillor Stuart Rice for daring to criticise the One Wales Government budget.

He calls for a rational and mature response to the One Wales' Government's budget from myself and other opposition politicians. I agree. Perhaps we could start with Dai and his colleagues ceasing to blame Westminster for all their failings, whilst taking credit for anything that goes right. They cannot have it both ways.

Dai Lloyd once more draws attention to the fixed budget available to the Assembly Government and yet that sum is due to increase by 4.6% next year. In contrast the grant being made to local Councils by Labour and their Plaid Cymru partners will only rise by 2.8%. That is the lowest increase for any individual budget under the control of the Welsh Assembly.

Such a small rise is a deliberate policy choice on the part of Labour and Plaid Cymru, it reflects their priorities not those of the Westminster Government. It also means that they have effectively passed on a huge proportion of the cost of funding local services to Council taxpayers, who will see bigger tax rises as a result.

Dai Lloyd also criticises me for suggesting that the One Wales Government has failed to give more money to affordable housing, yet the facts speak for themselves. The One Wales Agreement identified this area as a major priority. It said that Social Housing Grant should increase from the 2007/8 baseline 'by £9.5m in-year adjustment each year'. They managed to do that this year, but next year the budget for this area of work is static, a real term cut.

Not only have Labour and Plaid let down Council taxpayers but they have failed to deliver on their own promises.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Give that man a Blue Peter badge

If one of the qualifications to be Party President is intimate knowledge of Blue Peter then Lembit will win hands down:

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): ... Blue Peter was important to me as a child ... I remember those wonderful moments with the elephant, the gentleman sniffing, John Noakes, the dogs — what were their names?

Lembit Opik: The Blue Peter dogs since the inception of the programme were called Petra, Patch, Shep, Goldie, Bonnie, Mabel and Lucy. There was also a dog called Meg, but it was not an official Blue Peter dog. It belonged to Matt Baker and frequently appeared on the show, so including that one, there were eight dogs.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Hazelhurst): Order. That is a detail which could possibly be left for Committee.

Hat Tip: Rob Newman

Our maiden aunt

The Presiding Officer's letter to the Secretary of State for Wales chastising the Welsh Affairs Select Committee for their treatment of the Affordable Housing Legislative Competence Order has grown into a major row. It is of course a process issue of little interest to the general public but that does not detract from its importance. Whether and how the Assembly is able to acquire powers is key to the future of devolution and to the ability of that institution to influence the quality of life of Welsh people.

The PO himself was on the Politics Show yesterday and Good Morning Wales today. Meanwhile former Welsh First Secretary, Alun Michael has hit back claiming on Radio Wales that there is in fact a good deal of consensus between AMs and MPs from all parties that represent Wales in parliament about these matters. I wonder what planet he has been inhabiting recently.

This lack of understanding about roles appears to go to the heart of the problem. Conservative MP, David Jones illustrates it well on his blog where he accuses Dafydd Elis Thomas of erupting in paroxysms of high indignation in the style of Kenneth Williams in Carry on Cleo. Like Alun Michael and others he argues that the LCO that has been recommended by the committee will enable WAG to do precisely what it says it wants to do and that therefore there should be no problem.

What he really means is that MPs' recommendations fit in with what they think the Welsh Government wants to do irrespective of the fact that the paperwork before them says something different. In fact the intentions of the Government are laid out in the LCO itself and by seeking to restrict its scope the Welsh Affairs Select Committee is intervening in matters over which it has no constititutional jurisdiction. The Government of Wales Act 2006 is quite clear on that point.

MPs are acting like an interfering maiden aunt, they may think that they are helping but in fact they are making things worse. I think that the Presiding Officer is right, they are too close to the action. They are approaching LCOs from the viewpoint of self-interested Welsh politicians and thus seeking to micro-manage the process, when it would be far more appropriate for them to take a higher-minded constitutional approach. Their role is to determine whether the order falls within the scope of what is allowed by the Act, nothing more.

Meanwhile Glyn Davies offers another solution. Like me and many others he has been arguing for some time that the LCO process is unworkable and will lead to these sorts of conflicts. Nevertheless, I do not think that a period of purdah, in which the Assembly Government avoids submitting contentious proposals to Westminster, is an appropriate way forward. The One Wales Government has a mandate too and they have every right to pursue it. It is not for MPs to try and frustrate that process.

Bethan Jenkins asks what will happen when the Welsh Language Legislative Competence Order makes it to Westminster? It is a fair point. I will await that moment with interest though, come to think of it Bethan, when exactly will we be seeing this Welsh Language LCO in the Assembly? I suspect that there will be problems with Labour in Cardiff Bay on that one as well.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Colin Powell endorses Barrack Obama

I doubt whether this is a turning point in the US Presidential campaign, that appears to have been the appointment of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate. Once the conference bounce had settled down, that decision turned the polls in Obama's favour, a point not lost on Colin Powell, who cites it as a question mark over the Republican candidate's judgement. General Powell's endorsement of Barrack Obama is on the video below.

My view is that Obama is in a winning position and that barring a disaster, will pull it off on Tuesday November 4th. However, others have a different view and nobody yet knows whether there will be a Bradley effect or not.

As you would expect I am keeping my fingers crossed for an Obama win. Let us hope that he can win it and win it well.

The onward march of the surveillance state

According to The Sunday Times everybody who buys a mobile telephone will be forced to register their identity on a national database under government plans to extend massively the powers of state surveillance. They say that phone buyers will have to present a passport or other official form of identification at the point of purchase.

This compulsory national register for the owners of all 72 million mobile phones in Britain would be part of a much bigger database to combat terrorism and crime. The reason is to monitor the owners of Britain’s estimated 40 million prepaid mobile phones, which can be purchased with cash by customers who do not wish to give their names, addresses or credit card details. These pay-as-you-go phones are popular with criminals and terrorists because their anonymity shields their activities from the authorities, but they are also used by thousands of law-abiding citizens who wish to communicate in private.

The purpose of this database is to monitor and store the internet browsing habits, e-mail and telephone records of everyone in Britain. That is a disproportionate response to the threat we face and in effect a capitulation to it. What the Government is saying is that the terrorists have succeeded in destroying our basic liberties and our way of life. Even senior officials in the Home Office are reported to have privately warned that the database scheme is impractical, disproportionate and potentially unlawful.

As some of the comments to this article suggest, the real terrorists will find a way around these measures, using stolen phones instead for example. It is law abiding citizens who will be most inconvenienced and whose privacy will be compromised by these measures.


Credit crunch hitting home

Today's Wales on Sunday brandishes figures from Shelter Cymru showing that a struggling homeowner faces eviction every 13 minutes because they cannot keep up with crippling mortgage repayments.

They say that Wales is suffering disproportionately more than England: Homeowners are struggling so much that repossessions have rocketed to a 15-year high; Court actions have shot up by a staggering 200% in 12 months; Eight times more people are being booted out of their homes than last year in parts of the nation; and Wales is now the second least affordable place to live in the whole of the UK.

The Deputy Housing Minister was giving evidence to the Communities and Culture Committee last week and outlined some of the measures that the Welsh Government are taking to try and help. They are doing their best in difficult circumstances but as I said then, we need to better publicise how people can access mortgage rescue and other support services. Early intervention is imperative but in my experience advice services are so snowed under with emergency cases they do not have the resources to do prevention work as well.

What is more the paper highlights some of the dodgier mortgage rescue schemes being run by private companies that can leave a family living in their own home on a short-term tenancy and in danger of eviction at any time. It is because I believe that people need to be kept away from these schemes if at all possible that I want to see more pro-active marketing of the Welsh Government's programmes. Let us hope that they take up the challenge.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Presiding Officer chastises Commons Committee

A recommendation by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee that the proposed Affordable Housing Legislative Competence Order be revised so that the Assembly cannot scrap the right to buy has attracted the attention of the Assembly's Presiding Officer.

Dafydd Elis Thomas has written to the Secretary of State for Wales to emphasise his constitutional concerns about the Committee's approach to the legislative order. The full text of his letter is as follows:

I feel that I must write to you about the contents of the report from the Welsh Affairs Select Committee (WASC) on the Proposed Housing Order since you referred it for scrutiny. WASC in this report has decided to adopt a restrictive approach to the transfer of powers to NAW. I do not address policy issues which are not for me, but I must emphasise my constitutional concerns about the whole approach as evidenced by this report.

WASC appears to believe that it is appropriate for it to recommend restricting the scope of a Proposed Order to ensure that NAW should not seek to legislate in future in a way that appears to go beyond the specific intention of the current Welsh Government.

It also seems to assert the view that legislating by framework powers in UK bills is somehow constitutionally more appropriate than seeking powers by Proposed Orders, as specifically legislated for by Parliament in GOWA 2006.

WASC's assumption that its function should extend to questioning whether a Proposed Measure is consistent with the framework of Government policy or its attempt to scrutinise the 'effectiveness' of a Proposed Measure is an intervention which is contrary to my reading of Devolution Guidance Notes and repeated assurances given by successive UK and Welsh Ministers in debates in Parliament and NAW. As I have emphasised previously WASC's approach is seriously at variance with that of the House of Lord's Constitution Committee, which can only lead me to ask which approach is closer to the intention of Parliament when it legislated, and whether WASC's approach is motivated by a principled constitutional approach to making devolution work, to which we are both committed?

It is a serious point and one that the UK Government and the Welsh Affairs Committee needs to answer. The Government's problem is that it is not just backbench MPs who have played this game. It has also been attempted by Government Ministers, such as when a Wales Office Minister sought to speak on behalf of the Assembly Government on how the same piece of legislation will be used.

It is my view that it is inappropriate for the Welsh Affairs Committee to try to run the Assembly Government's Housing policy from Westminster, however the unsustainable LCO system has led MPs to believe that they can get away with this sort of behaviour. Maybe they can. That is why we need to have the full law-making powers envisaged by the Government of Wales Act 2006 as soon as possible.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Battle of the Titans?

According to the Western Mail there is a power struggle going on in Swansea. They report on proposals by Swansea University Vice Chancellor, Richard Davies to amalgamate his institution with Swansea Metropolitan University and possibility Lampeter and Trinity College as well.

The gestation of this idea is interesting. I do not know the precise details but I am aware of when it first saw the light of day and I can guess the rest.

The document concerned was e-mailed to College Council members within hours of the ceremony to confer university status on the Metropolitan College. In fact I remember reading it on my Blackberry as I left that event. It was not the most subtle of manouervres to say the least.

I did not comment at the time as the document was confidential but now somebody has mysteriously leaked the details to the press, over a month later. My view when I first saw the e-mail was that this 'new strategic direction' for Swansea University was a spoiling tactic with no realistic prospect of success. I have not changed my mind on that.

In fact, given the advanced plans that Swansea University has for a second campus and other developments the proposal appears to me to be an unnecessary distraction. I think that the Vice Chancellor could have benefited from taking some soundings from people who have their feet on the ground before commiting anything to paper.

Still, I did enjoy the response from Swansea Metropolitan University Vice Chancellor, David Warner. He said: “There is no discussion. This is a unilateral document produced by Swansea University. I say categorically that Swansea Metropolitan does not want to take over Swansea University.” Touché.

Campaign with a difference

Given the number of real medical facilities that have moved from South Wales to Bristol there is a certain irony in the fact that the BBC intend to relocate the filming of drama series 'Casualty' from that City to Cardiff in 2012.

However, their announcement has not gone without comment and today's Western Mail reports on a determined “Keep Casualty in Bristol” campaign which has begun across the Severn Bridge. They say that the issue could even be raised in Parliament.

They are perfectly entitled to their view but could we please keep these things in perspective? After all it is not as if the BBC are planning on closing a real hospital.

Note: This is my 3,500th post.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plenary Quotes of the day

From yesterday:

"On service delivery in general, are you able to ensure that public safety will be at the forefront of local authorities’ minds, given that some of them, unfortunately, are deciding to turn off the lights? [Laughter.]

I mean turning off the lights at night—as is happening in Powys."

"Throughout history, there have been a great many people of note whom you might not normally think of as having dyslexia: Albert Einstein, General George Patton, Winston Churchill, Michael Heseltine—and me."

No names. Both I believe were tongue in cheek.

Audit Commission caught?

According to the Daily Telegraph the Audit Commission has refused to deny that it has £10 million caught up in Icelandic banks. Just how wide-ranging is this problem?

John Cleese on Sarah Palin

Prescott on Cherie

I must admit that I am bored of all the Prescott-Blair stuff. I could not bring myself to read the respective autobiographies of either the former Deputy Prime Minister or the wife of the former PM earlier this year, still less go and see them in Hay-on-Wye. Nevertheless, if this account of a forthcoming BBC programme is anything to go by, it may be worth setting the video recorder for future viewing.

BBC2 are to air a programme called Prescott: The Class System And Me to be broadcast on 27 October. In it a fairly frank John Prescott is placed in certain situations and his reaction recorded. It shows the Labour MP as hugely insecure, enjoying the trappings of power and his resentment of Cherie Blair for refusing access to him and his wife to certain prestigious occasions.

He also admits to badgering Tony Blair for an invitation to Chequers. "I did say to Tony once, 'Surely you must have state dinners there? Pauline would like to come to a state dinner'."

But his plea was in vain. Prescott says in the programme he assumes the reason must be that "she [Cherie] did the list", because "despite what Cherie might say about her class background there weren't many of them [working class people] going to Chequers anyway". Mr Prescott is also filmed eating fish and chips and having a chat with three unemployed young women on a south London council estate, during which he confesses that he does not know the meaning of the word "chav".

One girl asks: "Do you like Tony Blair?" Prescott replies: "I worked with him for 10 years." But when asked if he liked Mrs Blair, he says "No" and, asked if he is worried about Mrs Blair's autobiography coming out at the same time as his, he quips: "It might send me to sleep but it's not keeping me awake."

And he recounts a conversation he had with the PM's office before a meal with the Blairs and the Browns. He says Blair's office said they would not be dressing for dinner but wearing chinos. "What the hell are chinos? Pauline was told she could dress casual but my wife has never dressed casual in her life," he says in the documentary.

As an insight into the outer sanctum of New Labour, the documentary sounds priceless. Let us hope that it lives up to expectations.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Building Support

Cardiff Welsh Liberal Democrat Councillor Gareth Aubrey makes a compelling case for supporting Kirsty Williams to be Welsh Liberal Democrat leader on his excellent blog.

Now if I could only work out how to get the campaign logo onto my sidebar.

Update: Another blogger, Councillor Frank Little of Neath Port Talbot signs up too. Thanks to Jennie Rigg for help with the logo, html is a foreign language to me.

A spoonful of sugar

Further to yesterday's piece about Rhondda Cynon Taf banning sixth formers at Tonypandy Community College from putting sugar in their tea, they have apparently relented. The Council has now lifted the ban and replaced it with a two spoonfuls-only rule.

I am not sure which is the worst example of a nanny-state, telling you that you cannot have sugar or rationing it on your behalf.

Watchdog bites

Lord Carlile of Berriew is much maligned by some Liberal Democrats for his role as the independent reviewer of anti-terrorist laws, however this article in the Independent demonstrates that he remains a liberal to the core.

Alex Carlile has condemned government plans to create a giant "Big Brother" database holding information about every phone call, email and internet visit made in the UK. He said the "raw idea" of the database was "awful" and called for controls to stop government agencies using it to conduct fishing expeditions into the private lives of the public.

He is not alone in his concern as the article makes clear:

Under the proposal, internet service providers and telecoms companies would hand over millions of phone and internet records to the Home Office, which would store them for at least 12 months so that the police and security services could access them. It is understood that more than £1bn has been earmarked for the database.

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, has described the plans as "a step too far for the British way of life". Yesterday his office added: "It is clear that more needs to be done to protect people's personal information, but creating big databases... means you can never eliminate the risk that the data will fall into the wrong hands."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, said: "This is another example of the Government's obsession with gathering as much information on each of us as possible in case it might prove useful in the future. Like the discredited ID card scheme this will have a massive impact on our privacy but will do nothing to make us safer."

Lord Carlile acknowledged the value of using phone and internet intelligence in fighting crime, but he said it would be wrong to go as far as the US Patriot Acts. "[They] go much further so that they [US data searches] include everyone who has made contact with a terror suspect... There must be codes of practice... In counter-terrorism collation is everything but raw data only has a limited use."

Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Government must justify the case for any such massive increase in state acquisition, sharing and retention of data, spell out the safeguards to prevent abuse and – given its appalling record – explain how it will protect the integrity of any database holding sensitive personal data."

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Ministers simply can't be trusted with confidential data of this sort, as it has shown again and again."

Surely the government cannot believe that they will get this latest awful idea through both Houses of Parliament.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Are we what we eat?

First it was Ceredigion Council denying their pupils the opportunity to consume Marmite with their free breakfasts, now we have Rhondda Cynon Taf banning sixth formers at Tonypandy Community College from putting sugar in their tea. We also have an incidence of bought-in tomato ketchup being taken off the menu at Vale of Glamorgan primary schools.

Tomorrow the Assembly is debating a private members measure being brought forward by my Welsh Liberal Democrat colleague Jenny Randerson. Her objective as I understand it is to enable the Assembly to issue statutory guidance to schools to ensure that the food they serve is healthy. I will vote for that measure because it does not prevent pupils making their own choice as to what they eat. Education is one thing, proscription is quite another.

Schools need to work with pupils not force them to comply. I am afraid that the nanny state is flourishing under this Labour-Plaid Government. I am disappointed that local Councils are joining them in this narrow interpretation of the healthy eating agenda.

Another one departs

Betsan Powys reports on her blog that hot on the heels of Jane Davidson, Labour's number one European list candidate and MEP, Eluned Morgan is also standing down to spend more time with her family.

In her statement Eluned says: "I have had the tremendous honour of representing Wales in the European Parliament at a time of rapid change and development. However, after fifteen years with a constantly punishing schedule in Brussels and Strasbourg, and the huge task of representing the whole of Wales in addition to the need to better balance work and family life, I believe that it is time to hand on this privileged post."

There is no reason to believe that either Jane Davidson or Eluned Morgan are anything other than sincere in their desire to secure a better work-life balance. Certainly, when I was Chair of the Assembly's Education Committee and Jane was Education Minister, she often referred to this issue and the fact that she had to spend so much time away from home.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that it is far easier to spend time with a young family when one is living in Cardiff and a full-time politician in that City than it is flying off to Brussels and Strasbourg each week. Betsan's suggestion that we keep an eye out for incidences of Eluned Morgan shopping in Ponty Market is well-worth pursuing. It is also worth watching out for her in Cardiff West over the next year or two as well.

Meanwhile we wait with anticipation to find out if Neath Port Talbot Council Leader, Derek Vaughan will be leaving his council colleagues with the headache of sorting out their £20 million investment in Icelandic banks and jetting off to Brussels to take Eluned's place in June 2009.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Scrutinising the investments

Although I have a lot of sympathy for local Councils who invested millions of pounds of public money in Icelandic banks in accordance with Government guidelines and then got their fingers burnt, today's Times points out that it is not so black and white in some cases. That is why I believe that each Council needs to be considered on its own merits and government aid given if it is required and only if no fault can be found on the part of the Council concerned.

Talking to a friend at the weekend, he pointed out that the credit ratings on the Icelandic banks shifted in an unfavourable way earlier this year. The Times confirms this. They say that on January 30, Moody’s Investors Service warned that it was planning to cut ratings on the main Icelandic banks. It downgraded the biggest, Glitnir, Kaupthing and Landsbanki, from C to C-minus a month later. In April, Standard & Poor’s raised concerns about Glitnir, downgrading it from A-minus to BBB-plus, “the lowest rating at the time of any western European bank”.

Councils claim that they were unaware of the warnings by Moody’s and S&P, following instead the more optimistic ratings by Fitch. However, Mark Horsfield, director of Arlingclose, an adviser to the public sector, said he had long been telling the 45 councils on the firm’s books of the dangers: “These banks have been getting steadily worse for quite a long time.”

That may well have been too late for some Councils who will already have committed themselves to long term investments, but any Council who invested after that date needs to justify why it did so. Clearly, any Councillor serving in an authority in financial crisis as a result of these investments needs to be asking questions:

What sort of investments did the Council have and how much was placed in each account?
When did they make them and for what period?
What advice did they take and which ratings assessment did they use?
Was due diligence exercised?
Does the Council's investment policy include a wide-range of checks on institutions before commiting money and if not, why not?
If investments were made subsequent to January 3oth 2008 then why were warnings by experts ignored?
Has a thorough review of other Council investments been instigated and money moved to safer havens? If not, why not?

I am sure that there are many other questions that need answering as well but these are the general ones that immediately come to mind.

In addition to probing due diligence Councillors will no doubt also be asking what the impact of a potential loss of investments will have on services. One paper suggested this morning that some of the investments may well have been capital and that therefore their loss would not affect service delivery. With all due respect that is nonsense.

Councils generally borrow to pay for capital projects. If they have stored that money in a high-interest paying bank until it is needed and that account is frozen they may not be able to complete the project. The Council will have to find the money from elsewhere, they will still need to pay interest on the loan and they will lose interest on the investment that will have been budgeted for as part of their revenue expenditure.

In some cases the frozen investment may be reserves which means that it is not needed straight away but there will still be a loss of income from interest. In other cases the money may be cash earmarked for salaries or other payments.

In all of these examples there will be an impact on frontline services. It is the role of scrutiny to get to the bottom of that and hold the Executive to account. Once a full picture has been built up then there may be a plea to Government to assist.

I expect a lot of emergency scrutiny committees to be convened over the next few days. If these meetings do not take place then Ministers will be entitled to ask 'why not?'

The Blair legacy

Like Banquo's ghost the embarrassments and scandals of the Blair government keep coming back to haunt Gordon Brown.

This time it is the infamous Ecclestone affair in which, within five months of coming to power, the government announced proposals to exempt formula one from the ban on tobacco advertising. Three weeks earlier Tony Blair had met formula one boss Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), in Downing Street. Ecclestone had donated £1m to Labour in January of that year.

Today's Guardian reports that Blair's account of events, that it was a collective decision made in the normal way, may not tell the whole story:

Government papers challenge Blair's account because they show that the day after his Ecclestone meeting, Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, wrote to Tessa Jowell, then health minister, to say: "The prime minister would like your ministers to look for ways of finding a permanent derogation for sport, in particular F1."

Jowell wrote to Blair on October 24 setting out a series of options including an exemption. No 10 replied on October 29: "His [the prime minister's] view remains that we should seek to negotiate a permanent exemption for Formula 1, backed up by the voluntary agreement with the FIA."

The government informed the EU on November 5 that it wanted to exempt motor racing from the ban. Labour contacted the standards watchdog on November 7 to ask for his advice on the donation from Ecclestone, a move that was to embarrass Gordon Brown because he told the Today programme three days later that he did not know whether the multi-millionaire had donated to Labour.

Two senior Tory MPs are to raise the matter with the Speaker today, claiming that the papers show that they were misled when they questioned the Prime Minister in 1997.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

In which I declare my support for Ros Scott

I have held off announcing who I will be supporting for Party President so far mostly because I have been genuinely undecided. However, I have now made up my mind. This has nothing to do with Lembit's attitude and demeanor in Welsh Party Conference yesterday, which in my view was appalling, but everything to do with who will be best for the party.

I think that both Ros and Lembit would make outstanding Party Presidents but it seems to me that Ros has better thought through the role and how she will deal with it. Her focus is on the members, rather than the party establishment and I think that is the right way to approach this job.

When I get my ballot paper I will be casting my vote for Ros.

Searching for an identity

Sometimes being a liberal can be a lonely place and no more so when pushing one's principles forward in the face of apparently unmoving public opinion. I was heartened therefore to see this small grassroots revolt growing up amongst groups chosen as guinea pigs to trial ID cards.

According to the Observer, plans to build support for identity cards by introducing them among 'guinea pig' groups, such as airport staff and students, are in crisis after 10,000 airline pilots vowed to take legal action to block them and opposition swept through Britain's universities and councils.

Balpa, which represents more than 10,000 pilots working on 28 airlines, insists that ID cards will 'do nothing' to enhance airport or flight security, and it fears that information about its members stored on a National Identity Register could be abused.

Perhaps they are thinking about the admission by former Home Office Minister, Tony McNulty that the government has been guilty of "overselling" the case for a compulsory national identity card scheme in Britain. He conceded that it will not prove a panacea for fraud, terrorism or the abuse of public services.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mike German stands down as leader

...and Jenny Randerson announces that she will be standing.

The question is which news will make the headlines tomorrow, that or the fact that Environment Minister, Jane Davidson has decided to call it a day? She will not be contesting Pontypridd at the next Assembly elections.

The contest for the Welsh Liberal Democrat Leadership is now sharply defined. We can either have more of the same or a new start with Kirsty Williams, a fresh young leader who embraces change and who can take the party into the future.

Meanwhile, we still have a fair few constitutional amendments to get through in the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference tomorrow, as well as a motion on the impact of the Icelandic bank collapse on local Councils and the third sector.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Reorganising the deckchairs

Just before my session at the Welsh Local Government Association Conference this morning Finance Minister, Andrew Davies joined a panel to talk about local councils working together. The last question to the Minister asked what would happen if local Councils do not work together sufficiently to achieve efficiencies expected by government. Would the Assembly Government initiate another reorganisation?

The Minister asserted categorically that no reorganisation of Welsh local government is planned this side of the 2011 Assembly elections. He then went on to list all the downsides of structural reorganisation, including cost, disruption and distracting the attention of staff and Councillors from delivering services.

It was very convincing. I wonder if he has given the same speech to the Health Minister, who is proposing to solve all the health service's woes by abolishing 22 Local Health Boards plus a number of Trusts and creating seven all purpose health trusts instead.

One Wales Government backs away

So now we know. Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy said yesterday that plans for a referendum on extra powers for the Assembly should take a back seat while politicians deal with the economic crisis.

For Plaid Cymru, Hywel Williams MP said the economic crisis shouldn’t detract from the case for greater devolution but he conceded there was little purpose in a holding a referendum that would lead to a “no” vote. “There’s no reason to jump off a cliff if you haven’t got any wings,” he said.

Both seem happy to let the Convention continue its work of wandering aimlessly around Wales looking for a means of letting Labour off the hook on the commitment to have a plebiscite before 2011, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this body is no more than a talking shop.

If the two governing parties were serious about getting the powers that would enable the Assembly to better able address the problems faced by Welsh people then they would be campaigning for it in a cross-party body, not sniping from the sidelines.

The Secretary of State's words sound like an excuse for inaction, not a reason. Nobody is suggesting that we have a referendum now but in a years time it may be possible and we need to prepare. If parties can work together to get through an economic crisis then they can co-operate on the future of Wales as well.

I am in Llandudno at the moment, for the Welsh Local Government Association Conference. Paul Murphy is here too and he has been conducting some talks with local Council leaders about their investments in Icelandic banks.

There were some very dazed looking local politicians at last night's dinner, which does not surprise me in the least. They were already facing a very difficult grant settlement from the Labour-Plaid Government, that will force Council Tax up and lead to real cuts in services. Now they find that substantial resources are unavailable to them and may be lost for good.

I am taking part in a panel later today discussing the merits of blogging alongside Glyn Davies, and Lee Waters. It is meant to be a light-hearted endpiece to the Conference. I would be surprised if many of the delegates are in the mood.

Paul Murphy has just told Radio Wales that it is the Assembly Government's responsibility to ride to the rescue of stricken Welsh Councils, not Westminster. That contradicts the line taken by the Finance Minister in his answers to an Assembly Committee yesterday. The last thing that local councils need is the two arms of national government playing pass the buck whilst their finances go into meltdown.

The freezing of Icelandic assets by the UK Government is a useful bargaining tool and one that may get results, but in the meantime the Welsh Government need to be working actively with each of the affected Councils and Police Authorities in Wales to identify the extent of their exposure and the possible impact on their ability to deliver services. They need to be pressing the UK Government to provide funds so that they can target help to those Councils in greatest need.

We need some action not talk. Those who are reliant on key services cannot afford to wait for the politicians to decide whose responsibility it is to do something about this mess.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Iceland and Wales

A few months ago, the sole surviving Plaid Cymru member of Swansea Council wrote in the South Wales Evening Post that Wales could be equal to Iceland in terms of independence and prosperity. I wonder how he feels now.

The fact the seven Welsh Councils, have millions of pounds of public money tied up in failed Icelandic banks has caused much comment in the media. It was even raised in the Assembly's Finance Committee this morning even though the Welsh Government have no responsibility for this issue.

One member asked the Finance Minister and his Director if the Assembly Government has any money tied up in Icelandic banks. The answer is 'no'. We do not invest money in that way but draw it down from the Treasury as we need it. What was puzzling was that the Director of Finance did not know which bank the Government use to pay its bills, nor did she know which bank Assembly Quangos use or if they have any connections with Iceland. The Committee will be getting a written answer on that.

On Radio Wales this morning, I thought that the presenter was unnecessarily harsh when interviewing the Chief Executive of the Welsh Local Government Association. She seemed to think that the Councils involved should have seen this coming and pulled their money out. Only half an hour earlier she or her colleague had interviewed an ordinary investor who did transfer his money out last weekend, only to have the Icelandic bank cancel the transfer and hold onto the cash.

There was also some incredulity at the idea that local Councils have cash to invest. After all, are they not strapped for cash? The answer is that Councils are multi-million pound businesses who collect their income in large lumps and then spend it over the period of a year. Thus they invest balances until they are needed, generating additional income to pay for services.

Both of the Icelandic Banks were classed as ultra safe by experts and thus there was no reason why the Councils should not have used them. Even Councillors do not have crystal balls and often these investments are time restricted so they could not disinvest even if they wanted to. Unfortunately, the seven Welsh Councils are victims of the credit crunch like many others and the money may well be lost unless the Government intervenes to help them.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A quasi-judicial capacity

The Assembly has been busier than usual this week as we once more enter new territory, what is known as a Standing Order 25 Committee to consider a petition by Pembrokeshire County Council against a Welsh Assembly Government scheme to build a three lane highway out west. I am not completely familiar with the issues but I believe that the Council want a dual carriageway instead.

What this means is that a special committee of Assembly Members has been established to consider the submissions from both parties, the Council and the Government. The members are sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity in the same way as they might be if they were considering a planning appeal and that means that they cannot pre-judge the issue. They need to listen to all the evidence before making up their minds.

The hearing is costing a fortune to stage. As well as a solid week of Assembly time, including support staff, facilities etc, both sides are represented by high quality QCs, and they do not come cheap. The last thing we needed was a delay, which would lead to a lost day in the hearing at the cost of thousands of pounds of public money but that is what we got today.

Why did that happen? I cannot do better than to reproduce the appropriate section of the record of proceedings:

MR RODDICK: I make this application with considerable regret, and I make it after the most careful consideration. But were it not for its importance, I would not be making it. It is one that affects the validity of the hearing despite the passage you have just read out, and I am not sure, Madam Chair, that you can give me the assurance as to how another member's mind remains open or becomes closed. That is a matter for the individual. Therefore, I am going to ask -- my application is, and it is a very invidious one -- that Mr Asghar Withdraws. His intervention yesterday during the evidence of Mr David White on behalf of Pembroke demonstrated: a mind made up, bias and prejudice. It was nothing less than an outburst, and was not made through the Chair. It was, if I might say, in proceedings of this kind, highly unusual, and of a kind I have never seen before in the whole of my professional career at the Bar.

It was very strong language, and left one in no doubt that here was a member of the Committee who had made up his mind to reject PCC's case before its completion and before considering of the closing submissions.

THE CHAIRMAN: Thank you. I note your comments, Mr Roddick.

MR RODDICK: I haven't finished.

THE CHAIRMAN: If you continue then, please.

MR RODDICK: He was in breach of one of the fundamental requirements of someone sitting in a judicial or quasi-judicial capacity, which this committee is doing, namely the duty 1 to keep an open mind, 2 not to prejudge or to use the Latin version of that, prejudiciae(?), and 3 let the petitioner put his case. Very important is the principle not just that justice be done, but it should be seen to be done, and I'm afraid what we saw yestrday demonstrated it was not being done and despite the assurance that you have given me today, it doesn't appear to be done. He also demonstrated a serious misunderstanding of his role when he said the role was to scrutinise PCC's witnesses. The Committee is not sitting as a scrutiny committee. It is sitting judicially. Pembroke is not here to account for its conduct or its public decisions. It is here to prosecute a petition which the law grants it the right to do. So he was -- there might be certain consequences to this. That is a matter for the standing orders, but that is my application and I make it seriously for those very serious reasons.

Earlier this afternoon Plenary voted to replace Mohammed Ashgar on the Committee after he voluntarily stood down.

Chocolate bean

Having just become a Facebook friend of Captain Beany, otherwise known as the very orange charity fundraiser and perennial election candidate, Barry Kirk from Port Talbot, it would be remiss not to mention this little spat in the pages of the today's Western Mail:

Selfridges, based in a vast art-deco headquarters which is the largest building in London’s Oxford Street, has just begun selling a luxury chocolate range named Credit Crunch.

But Captain Beany, who operates from his flat on Port Talbot’s Sandfields housing estate, claims he got there first and the upmarket department store has infringed his trademark.

Beany, 54, who changed his name by deed poll from Barry Kirk 15 years ago, filed a trademark application for credit crunch with regard to chocolate in August this year.

The application – trademark number 2491835 – is confirmed on the public website of the UK Intellectual Property Office based in Newport with no counter applications on the site from Selfridges or the manufacturers of the luxury range, The Chocolate Society.

At his home close to the Port Talbot seafront yesterday the veteran fund raiser proudly showed examples of his Credit Crunch chocolate bars, a small sample of which were manufactured for him by Scottish company Groovy Chocolate Ltd.

Captain Beany – whose slogan is “The half-baked but full-blown fundraiser” – has since been giving his bars away free.

But Selfridges – whose slogan is “The customer is always right” – is selling its 150g bags for £3.99.

James Auton, spokesman for The Chocolate Society, based in London, admitted yesterday he had never heard of Captain Beany.

He said: “Our luxury range for Selfridges does not involve bars, they are bags of chocolate enrobed honeycomb. I think that’s quite different.

“We were going to register it as Hokey Pokey but thought Credit Crunch was more appropriate given the current economic crisis.”

Captain Beany may have a case. Miles Rees, of the UK Intellectual Property Office marketing department, told the paper that once applied for, trademarks were protected in the goods and services area they were filed for. He confirmed that the trademark should apply to all types of chocolate products.

Captain Beany has said that he is outraged at hearing that Selfridges had brought out Credit Crunch chocolate: “I was actually eating one of my bars when I read about it in the Western Mail. I’m livid". He added: “I’m prepared to demonstrate outside Selfridges and The Chocolate Society." If he sets up a charity sponsorship site for his demonstration then I will contribute.

Yes for Wales - make it happen!

I will be making a speech in Plenary later on today calling on a cross-party 'Yes!' campaign to be established in preparation for a future referendum to give the Welsh Assembly full law-making powers within the confines set by the Government of Wales Act 2006. The full speech can be read here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

James Bond in the Assembly?

Betsan Powys blogs about the budget this morning and in particular Finance Minister Andrew Davies' description of the pot of money the Assembly receives from the Treasury as the "quantum of resource to deliver public services".

That phrase is curiously close to the name of the new James Bond film. Then again, given all the briefings about cuts in funding, maybe 'a quantum of solace' might be a good way to describe the cash available to the Welsh Assembly Government this year.

Instilling confidence

One of the key roles of Chancellor of the Exchequer is to maintain the confidence of those who drive forward the economy. Failure to do that could see extraordinary pressure being placed on the pound and on our financial systems.

It is possible that Alistair Darling failed that test yesterday.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Tories did not break electoral law

The decision by the Electoral Commission to clear the Conservative party of breaking electoral law by using a commercial company as a front to provide millions of pounds of services to Tories fighting marginal seats is no surprise.

After all the Labour Party's argument that the scale of pre-election donations, running in excess of £1m, to the centre would have meant the Conservative party had broken electoral law by breaching legally binding spending limits when it fought the 2005 general election is nonsense. The law is very clear as to when and in what circumstances spending limits kick in for elections and general campaigning outside of an election period does not count. If it did then it would be necessary to count MP's Communications Allowance in this calculation.

What is more disturbing about this decision is that it may enable donors to hide their identity by chanelling funds through a limited company that is itself a 'regulated donee'. The Labour spokesperson was absolutely right to question how this decision impacts on transparency in the political process, however I am not so sure that the Electoral Commission has the tools to do anything about it.

It seems to me that the Tories have found a loophole in the law that can only be closed by more legislation. Nobody has the stomach for that at the moment, especially given the government's track record in not understanding the political process that elects it, as is evident from the legislation that set up the Electoral Commission in the first place.

To blog or not to blog?

The Bevan Foundation and Positif Politics is to stage a debate in the Assembly from 6pm to 7.30pm on Tuesday 21 October 2008 on the value of political blogging.

Speaking in favour are myself and BBC blogger Betsan Powys. Opposed are Eleanor Burnham AM and Annabelle Harlle from the Electoral Reform Society. In the chair is Victoria Winckler, who is Director of the Bevan Foundation.

A summer of own goals

So Welsh Tory Leader, Nick Bourne gave in to the pressure from his own party and went onto the Politics Show yesterday to apologise for apologising about that dossier.

In the most public act of penance since Henry II humbled himself at Thomas Beckett's tomb in 1174, Mr. Bourne donned his hairshirt and said sorry for authorising the document in the first place, sorry for giving the impression that it had nothing to do with him, sorry to all the AMs, MPs and party officials who squirmed on the wrong side of a TV camera defending the dossier, and sorry to the staff who wrote the thing and dumped him in the mire in the first place. In return his party has promised not to oust him as leader. So that is OK then.

You can watch it again here if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The Western Mail assigned the task to Carolyn Hitt of pointing out precisely where the Tories had gone wrong in writing their 39 page hatchet job:

The shallowness of judging a person’s worth by his or her physical appearance was even enshrined in a political dossier last week.

Unsurprisingly it was a Tory document. Appearance is all to the Conservatives.

All that style over content rubbish comes in useful when you haven’t got any policies worth plugging.

But what was Nick Bourne thinking authorising that 39-page “Clown Prince of Wales” dossier criticising the dress sense and hairstyle of Rhodri Morgan.

One of the reasons people actually warm to the First Minister is precisely because his wardrobe hasn’t undergone a New Labour makeover.

He may never be a candidate for GQ’s Best Dressed list but in a world of slickly-suited spin this gives him a certain authenticity.

Yet the document cited the wearing of a “woolly red jumper and beige cargo pants” at a function in honour of former Swansea West Labour MP Donald Anderson in 2005 as if this was a damning indictment of Morgan’s capabilities.

The Welsh Conservatives should know more than most sartorial elegance and political nous do not always go hand in hand.

With his penchant for brightly- coloured cords, Alun Cairns was one of the nattiest dressers in the Senedd but it didn’t stop him making that excruciating “greasy wop” gaffe.

And why knock the Rhodri barnet? It’s his trademark.

He’s a 69-year-old political leader, for heaven’s sake, not some narcissistic TV presenter with a bathroom cabinet full of Frizzease.

If we are going to reduce the serious business of Welsh politics to hairstyles, however, then give me a Rhodri ’fro over a Nick Bourne comb-over any day. But I’d still prefer to get my once- goofy teeth into a debate with a little more substance.

Tory AM, Jonathan Morgan concedes, in talking to the Western Mail, that it has not been his party's 'greatest week', but in fact it has not really been a good summer for the Welsh Tories.

The public relations offensive they had planned for the recess effectively stumbled from gaffe to gaffe, tripping over itself on several occasions. In addition to the dodgy dossier, they tried to pre-empt the Commission's publication of members' expense claims with their own edited version, leading to a week of speculation as to why exactly Nick Bourne had spent £1,500 in the bathroom of his Cardiff home.

Once the official list was out they allowed a Conservative AM to be photographed in front of his publicly-funded £1,000 surround-sound flat screen TV and hi-fi system whilst offering the ludicrous excuse that he had bought it to watch DVDs sent to his Assembly Office. As if to compound this error they then allowed the same AM to further rub it in with an interview from their UK Conference in Birmingham, in which he told viewers that he would not be heeding David Cameron's advice and ditching the aforesaid flat-screen TV.

In fact of all the parties it was the Tories who seemed the most smug about how they had used their allowances, and the least apologetic. It is for this reason that all anybody can remember of their Welsh summer offensive is the way they handled the allowances' issue.

Now they have all the media talking about splits within their Assembly group and public attempts to oust their leader. Thank goodness it happens in other groups as well.

Tomorrow there will be an attempt to replace Nick Bourne's closest ally, William Graham, as group chair amongst criticism that the South Wales West AM is guilty of preventing the discussion of issues that may prove problematic for the leadership.

William is clearly unhappy that this power struggle is in the public domain. He told the Western Mail: “I was disappointed by the level of discussion in the press of what were really confidential matters... To suggest that discussions have been strangled [is] quite inaccurate.”

I should leave the final word on this matter with Nick Bourne: Wearing a plaster over a cut to his head sustained in a fall in a shower while on holiday in Croatia, he said: “I’m not infallible. You can see from the scars and bruises I do slip up, but, as I say, we move on and I do very much regret this episode.”

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Saturday Night Live - Tina Fey Does Sarah Palin (Debate vs. Joseph Biden)

Hat Tip to Iain Dale and yes, Palin's line about gay marriage is very funny - "Marriage is a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers"

One Wales u-turn?

Glyn Davies got quite excited last night about the contents of this morning's News of the World, urging us all to go out and buy it because it contains 'a really juicy story' about Welsh politics. Well I did not buy it but I did look on-line and sure enough there was the story Glyn was alluding too, though whether it lives up to its billing is doubtful.

If we are to believe the piece health chiefs are set to pull the plug on free prescriptions in Wales, because they are too expensive. Apparently, the policy has cost far more than the anticipated £30 million. We are also told that doctors have been dishing out prescriptions for normal over-the-counter products such as vaseline, milk of magnesia and aspirin, whilst thousands of English people have also taken advantage of the scheme by registering with Welsh doctors.

Well, yes, all of these issues have been highlighted by both the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Tories for some time and yet the One Wales Government have shown no inclination towards scrapping the scheme. Instead, they have dug their heels in and are more determined than ever to see it through. Despite this Glyn Davies is prepared to accept the story at face value, and why shouldn't he? After all its author is Jamie Lyons, a journalist who was once based in the Welsh Assembly, reporting on devolved matters.

So what is the source of the story and what is their motivation in putting it out into the public domain in this way? Read on:

The crisis will spark fears in Scotland and Northern Ireland over their own plans to scrap charges.

Scotland is phasing them out by 2011, and Northern Ireland last week announced it would cut charges before abolishing them in 2010.

That would leave England as the only part of the UK where patients would still have to pay.

A senior Whitehall source said: “In Wales they are running out of money for this and can’t continue.

“They are going to have to pull the plug on it. It’s the last thing anyone wants to do but the financial realities are so serious that they’re having to consider it.”

The story has originated from a 'senior Whitehall source'!

Now, I would not dream of telling an experience journalist how to write his stories, but surely he was just a tiny bit suspicious that he was being briefed on this story in Whitehall, when all the policy and administrative responsibility lies in Cardiff Bay and when the Health Minister has a reputation for telling the Westminster Government where to stick their interfering ways.

Surely, he spotted the concern that if Scotland and Northern Ireland follow suit then England will be left out on a limb and that UK Ministers will be under enormous pressure to introduce free prescriptions in the Home Counties as well. Perhaps he has also noted the past attacks on Welsh Government health policies coming from UK Health Minister, Ben Bradshaw, who presumably has a similar agenda.

I am no fan of free prescriptions, believing that they offer unnecessary perks for the wealthy and that they have put the Welsh budget under some pressure along with all the other giveaways, but I am not advocating getting rid of the policy now that it is in place. Any changes will need to emerge from evidence-based reviews.

The real story here is not the so-called threat to free prescriptions but the growing rift between Labour in Westminster and Welsh Labour over the devolved policy agenda. Instead of UK Ministers making divisive statements, we now have off-the-record Whitehall briefings with the objective of undermining Rhodri Morgan's Government. It is not just the Tories who are divided over the impact of devolution, but Labour as well.

Long hot summers?

This morning's Observer reports on research which predicts that Britain's rivers could nearly run dry because long hot summers caused by climate change will not be sufficiently compensated by wetter winters.

Now, I do not wish to trivialise this issue in any way, but when exactly are we getting the long hot summers? Isn't this a rather simplistic view of the impact of climate change?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Ron on 'Bobby'*

Former Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies has told the Western Mail that he 'was “absolutely stunned” when he heard that Peter Mandelson was returning to the Cabinet.'

Mr Davies said: “Everyone knows about Mandelson’s capacity for manipulation, and Gordon Brown has always given the impression that he wanted to move away from the spin of the Blair years. I just don’t see any logic in bringing him back.

“His role was to act not only as an outrider for Blair, but as a lightning conductor. He would float ideas in informal briefings with journalists, hinting they were what Blair intended to do in order to gauge the reaction. When journalists tried to get on-the-record statements from Blair, they wouldn’t get anywhere.

“I just don’t buy the suggestion that he’s got some kind of unique expertise for the government job he’s getting that isn’t available from anyone else in Britain. Given Gordon Brown’s current difficulties, I can’t imagine he wants anything more from Mandelson than advice on improving his image, how to fight Cameron, how to seize on his weaknesses and how to use the buzz words of the day to advantage.”

Exactly why Gordon Brown did not ask Ron Davies to come back to the Cabinet and save his government is a puzzle that we may never get the answer to.

*'Bobby' was of course the code name adopted by Peter Mandelson in his communications with Tony Blair so as to avoid Gordon Brown getting any idea that the two were talking.


I blame Charlotte Gore. I have not been able to get this song out of my head since yesterday afternoon.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Bourne sanction

I was walking to my office in the Assembly yesterday morning only to be stopped in my tracks by the reappearance of a full size cardboard cutout of Tory leader Nick Bourne. It was standing inside Tory AM, Angela Burns' open office and has been fully restored to health after the incident last year when it lost its head at the ITV Politician of the Year Awards. The only thing that the effigy was missing was a black eye and a plaster on its forehead.

That may seem to be an unnecessarily personal comment and normally I would not have made it, however it appears that the real bruising on the Tory leader is less visible if this news story is any guide. The BBC tell us that Nick Bourne has dissociated himself from a dossier issued by his own party attacking First Minister Rhodri Morgan:

Tories had issued a 39-page dossier on Mr Morgan calling him the "Clown Prince of Wales" and even criticising his dress sense and hairstyle.

However, Mr Bourne said it went too far, it was not issued by him, and he had "made his peace" with Mr Morgan.

What is intriquing about this statement is that it is immediately followed by confirmation from 'Tory sources' that Mr Bourne had signed off the dossier. Mr. Bourne's former colleague and leading Welsh Conservative, Glyn Davies also wades in. He wrote on his blog last night that he considers the dossier to be 'an outstanding piece of work, and congratulate those who, with so much effort and skill, prepared such a good comprehensive demolition of Rhodri Morgan's record.' Most commentators however focus on his analogy that 'as a rugby player, I never remember seeing my captain walking away when there was flak about.' There is a clear message for the Welsh Tory leader there.

So what is going on? Has Nick Bourne been set up by members of his own party? Is there a subtle campaign to undermine his authority by putting out an over-the-top attack document in his name and without his agreement? Why are 'Tory sources' contradicting him through anonymous briefings?

There have been rumours that some Tory AMs are impatient to have their chance to lead the group. It is also the case that leading Welsh Conservatives have been unhappy for some time with Nick Bourne's pro-devolution stance. If, as it is suggested, the report by Lord Roberts of Conwy will recommend that the Assembly stays as it is, thus opposing any moves to seek further powers for the Senedd, it could leave Nick Bourne isolated within his own party. Perhaps those briefing against him are anticipating that very eventuality.

Then again maybe the issue will come to a head earlier. The BBC and many of the blogs are full of news about a crunch meeting this weekend in which the plotters-in-chief will map out Nick Bourne's downfall. Commentators are talking about attempts to force out the Welsh Tory leader as early as next week. They are saying that Nick's credibility has been shot to pieces by attempting to distance himself from the Rhodri dossier, even though his fingerprints are all over it. Will he go quietly or will he fight to stay on? We watch and wait.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Bizarre goings on over the WMC

The Auditor General's report on the Wales Millennium Centre reveals some very major weaknesses in the way that the Assembly Government has managed its huge investment in the facility. In particular, Ministers and officials failed to keep an eye on the business risks once it opened:

Mr Colman said: “The Wales Millennium Centre was a high-risk, complex project, and although the public bodies funding it followed good practice in many areas, particularly through joint monitoring, there were some fundamental weaknesses.

“The project would have been better served if the Welsh Assembly Government had paid equal attention to addressing the risks involved in funding a successful business as they did to addressing the risks in funding the construction.”

He said the Assembly Government had failed to keep up-to-date records on the WMC’s performance. He added: “The civil servants took a view the material they would otherwise have to hold was commercially sensitive and therefore was at risk of having to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act if anyone asked for it.

“Well, we think that is an extremely bad reason for not keeping proper records; an extremely bad reason for not carrying out effective monitoring.

This report states: “Although officials told us that they could access records held at the WMC on request, we have seen no evidence that they did so.”

The fact that officials failed to keep proper records because they were afraid of the Freedom of Information Act is just bizarre. How many other projects are they taking the same approach to? We need some answers.

What was equally bizarre was the performance of the former Culture Minister, Alun Pugh on the radio this morning. As far as he is concerned it was all the fault of his predecessor, Welsh Liberal Democrat AM, Jenny Randerson. He pointed out quite correctly that the centre's original business plan underestimated the cost of running the facility.

Putting aside the issues of collective responsibility which makes the Labour Ministers at the time as equally culpable for this business plan, any proper examination of the facts reveal that Mr. Pugh is being fairly conservative in his choice of facts.

The business plan was very clear in saying that although it contained an estimate of costs it was impossible to accurately predict what they would be until the centre had opened and been in operation for a few years. At that point it was down to the government and the WMC to adjust their calculations and take the appropriate action. It seems that this decision was put off until this year, after Mr. Pugh had lost his seat.

It is also worth pointing out that the business plan was remarkably accurate in predicting revenue, something that many other business plans for similar projects have failed to replicate. Furthermore, the part of the WMC Jenny Randerson was directly responsible for, namely its construction, is highlighted as an area of good practice.

The Centre opened in November 2004, over a year and a half after Jenny Randerson had ceased to be Culture Minister. Alun Pugh had had ample time to get his feet under the table by then and sort out any problems he may have inherited. According to the auditor's report he clearly failed to do so. Instead he has tried to pass the buck, something that does him no credit at all.

Sebastian Coe denies insult to Wales

Sebastian Coe has denied that he has disregarded fears by the Welsh and Scottish Football Associations that the formation of a British soccer team for the 2012 Olympics will undermine their status within FIFA and could lead to individual national teams being excluded from international competitions.

Lord Coe is alleged to have waved aside objections with an expletive, an act that he denies. Damon Lord has the cached version of thelondonpaper's original story, which has now disappeared from its website.

Whether or not Lord Coe used the anglo-saxon expletive he is accused of deploying, the impact of the decision to proceed with a GB team amounts to much the same thing. In this case the action speaks as loudly as the words. The London Organising Committee have effectively put up two fingers to legitimate concerns about the consequences of their actions.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The price of independence?

This morning's Western Mail carries news of an interesting report by the consultancy Oxford Economics, which tells us that Wales pays £9bn a year less in taxes than it gets back in public spending:

According to UK Government statistics analysed by the researchers, people and businesses living and operating in Wales pay £19.3bn in taxes but receive £28.4bn in public services and benefits, a difference of £9.1bn.

The report states: “As in previous years, the analysis shows that it is only the wider South East of England (Greater London, the South East and the Eastern Region) that made a positive net contribution, of £37.7bn, to the UK public finances in 2006-07, with the Northern regions, the Midlands and the South West joining Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland as a net drain on the Exchequer.

The response of the Plaid Spokesperson faced with these inconvenient facts is to try and muddy the waters but all they succeed in doing is to raise more questions:

A Plaid Cymru spokesman said: “This difference of £9.1bn is the higher end of this estimate provided by this think-tank and it could, in reality, be significantly lower. It is also the case that some of the unidentifiable government expenditure may not have been spent in a way which directly benefits the people of Wales such as regenerating parts of London for the Olympics.

“What is interesting from this is that every single penny spent by the Assembly Government on services in Wales is raised by the Welsh taxpayer, which dispels the myth that those services are subsidised by those on the other side of Offa’s Dyke."

It is certainly the case that the Assembly Government's expenditure could be contained by the taxation raised this side of Offa's Dyke, however that is hardly the point. An independent Wales would need to spend additional money on social security and a whole range of other presently-non-devolved functions.

Of course we could meet the £9 billion spending gap by borrowing money, raising taxes, cutting public expenditure, increasing the wealth of the country and the consequent tax take or a mixture of all four, but how realistic or sustainable are these options? In the short to medium term Wales would struggle to maintain even our present levels of economic prosperity.

I am not closing the door on Independence but I am still awaiting some idea from those who advocate it of how we will achieve and sustain it. Hard facts are needed, not romantic assertions of nationhood. This study throws down the gauntlet, will Plaid Cymru pick it up?

Trouble with the Nats?

Being in government has not stopped Plaid Cymru Assembly Members asking feisty questions in Plenary, though nobody could have matched Alun Davies excoriation of Leader of the House, Carwyn Jones yesterday on the subject of cuts in ITV Wales' public service content:

Alun Davies: I wish to return to the subject raised by Nerys Evans, namely the announcement by ITV, following last week’s statement from Ofcom. I am afraid, Leader of the House, that the response to that request was somewhat inadequate. There is a crisis facing English-language television in Wales at the moment, and we need a statement from the Government on the approach that it is taking to this. We have had a response to the Broadcasting Committee’s report from the Government, which I have found to be somewhat timid in approach. I hope that the Government will not sit back and allow English-language television to disappear from ITV without a squeak. It is important, not only to save the jobs of the people who are to be sacked, but to guarantee space for the cultural expression of people in this country, who require a reflection of their lives on the television screen. The Government needs to respond to this urgently and needs to move from rhetoric to action.

This attracted the cheers of the Conservatives, much to Alun's discomfort. Nevertheless, Plaid Cymru's Chris Franks seemed determined to provide further entertainment with a question that implied that he sympathised with those Labour members unhappy with the Labour-Plaid coalition:

Will you arrange for a statement on the economic impact of continued problems with the NATS? [Interruption.]

Carwyn Jones: I did not quite hear the last word but I am sure that you meant the national air traffic control system.

And with that answer all the opportunities to have some fun at the One Wales' Government's expense evaporated.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?