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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gwent Levels

I have written before about the tensions between Plaid Cymru activists and their Transport Minister over the proposed M4 extension across the Gwent Levels. Clearly, the Deputy First Minister will have to balance his own party's policy against the less environmentally friendly demands of his Labour colleagues when he makes his decision as to whether to give the go-ahead to this road or not.

I have now had a message from the Campaign Against the Levels Motorway to say that Plaid Cymru's National Council voted unanimously to oppose the new M4 at the weekend. That poses a new dilemma for Ieuan Wyn Jones. As Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price says in another context an important principle is the democratic nature of a party where it’s essential that leaders follow the policy decided upon by the ordinary members.

Will Ieuan defy his own party and give the go-ahead anyway?


The Sunday Times reports that Scotland Yard is in turmoil after senior police officials criticised temporary Metropolitan Police Chief, Sir Paul Stephenson and admitted its handling of the arrest of a Tory MP had been “catastrophic”. In fact most of the Sunday papers are full of articles questioning Police tactics and in particular the decision to allow officers to raid the Commons office of Damien Green.

Peddling back just a little bit from my initial reaction on Friday I think that Matt Withers is right in his efforts to put this incident into context in this morning's Wales on Sunday. He points out that for all the hyperbole on the part of opposition politicians Britain cannot be compared to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe or Josef Stalin's USSR as some have attempted to do:

Mugabe has rigged elections, attacked civil society, killed and maimed opponents and suspended the rule of law. Opponents of his regime are routinely arrested and many have been tortured and burnt alive by his personal militia.

In the Soviet Union under Stalin millions of people who were suspected of being such a threat were executed or exiled to Gulag labour camps in remote areas of Siberia or Central Asia, where many more died of disease, malnutrition and exposure. Estimates of the number of deaths associated with his Great Purge run from the official figure of 681,692 to nearly two million.

In Britain, an obscure shadow minister was arrested, questioned and released without charge.

A commentor on my last post on this blog was right in saying that the issue here is the use of the Official Secrets Act and the way it is used to suppress information that should be in the public domain. Some poor judgement has been shown by the Metropolitan Police, by the Home Office Official who started the inquiry off and by the House of Commons authorities but the biggest losers in this whole affair are those who believe in British democracy.

There may be a Freedom of Information Act but compared to its American cousin it is not fit for purpose. If opposition spokespeople need to rely on illicit leaks to reveal poor government decisions and mismanagement then our Parliamentary system and the scrutiny it supports needs to be overhauled. Perhaps when all the dust has settled over the arrest of Damian Green those shouting the loudest will turn their attention to tackling that problem.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

When worlds collide

Former Counsel General Winston Roddick has joined the ranks of those who are warning that the present constitutional settlement is unsustainable.

Delivering the ninth annual lecture of the Centre for Welsh Legal Affairs at Aberystwyth University, Mr. Roddick said tensions between the two seats of government were likely to worsen before they improved.

Winston Roddick questioned whether the next devolution settlement should comprise full legislative responsibility, devolution of the civil service, police service and the administration of justice.

“My concerns are that as there is very little experience of the administration of justice within the Assembly Government or amongst the members of the All Wales Convention, there might not be effective discussion about some of those wider aspects of real devolution,” he said. “All the more reason why these questions need to be addressed publicly.

“Imagine the rate of change in our laws if the Assembly were to have primary legislative competence on the scale enjoyed by the Parliament of Scotland and the Assembly of Northern Ireland.

“The devolution of primary legislative powers to Wales on that scale would have a major impact not only as to the content of our laws and their differences from the laws of other parts of the United Kingdom but also for the machinery of justice in Wales – it would have an enormous effect on all aspects of legal Wales.”

Is there anybody outside the ranks of Labour MPs who believes that the 2006 Government of Wales Act is fit for purpose?

Trying to save Woolies

As thousands of workers await news of their fate the Guardian has details on what is going on with Woolworths and the reality of Labour Britain in the middle of a depression:

The collapse of Woolworths is causing havoc across the retail sector in the run-up to Christmas, with suppliers fearing they will not get paid and other retailers facing stock shortages amid uncertainty about the future of the group's distribution operations.

The news comes as administrators Deloitte prepare to spend the weekend sifting through more than 200 expressions of interest in the bust business. They are understood to range from offers for individual stores to about a dozen overtures for the entire business. Interest is understood to have come from some supermarkets, with Carphone Warehouse said to be looking at parts of the portfolio.

BBC Worldwide is looking at buying Woolworths out of its 2entertain DVD publishing

Deloitte has pledged to keep Woolworths stores open into the new year. But as well as being a retail outlet, Woolworths is a big distributor of CDs, DVDs and video games to supermarkets through its Entertainment UK subsidiary, and of books to independent outlets through Bertram Group, which it bought last year.

Both play a crucial role in supplying stores in the run-up to Christmas. Asda said last night it has started putting contingency plans into action to ensure that its supply chain does not collapse. A spokesman for Morrisons said its stores have also "made alternative supply arrangements".

But other suppliers are already suffering from Woolworths' collapse. Yesterday independent DVD company Metrodome announced it is owed £320,000 by Entertainment UK, one of its largest customers. Metrodome is understood to have done particularly well with DVD sales of last year's release In The Name of the King.

The retail sector is under enormous pressure at one of its busiest trading periods and many thousands of people will have their Christmas ruined by the consequent uncertainties. As if to underline the problems yesterday's South Wales Echo published details of the 2,699 permanent job losses and threatened losses in South Wales in the last month alone.

It is a grim situation and not one that is going to be addressed by economic summits. Many shops are already discounting goods making the cut in VAT superfluous. If people are going to be encouraged to go out and spend then they need some economic certainty and money in their pockets. That is why the Liberal Democrats have been calling for income tax cuts for lower paid workers, raising tax thresholds and for banks to start lending to business again so as to help them get through this crisis.

Friday, November 28, 2008

And then there were three

Bethan Jenkins, John Dixon and now Adam Price MP have all come out in opposition to the One Wales Government's proposal to introduce top-up fees for Welsh students in Welsh universities. Adam writes on his blog:

We agreed to a review of the policy on the grounds that it would be irresponsible not to even discuss the matter in light of the fact that the Westminster Government might raise the cap of £3000 on the level of fees. But most importantly of all, there was no agreement to respond in the way the Minister has suggested.

This position doesn’t deny that there is an issue surrounding how we should close the funding gap between Welsh and English universities. And yet, there are important principles at stake. Firstly, our own policy: why should the fee paid by a person for higher education be determined by their parents wages - even if that person isn’t dependable on them financially? There is an argument in favour of a graduate tax where a student contributes back to a university in line with what they can afford to pay personally, and not what their parents can pay. This kind of hypothecated tax might also be beneficial as it would create an incentive for universities to invest their efforts into promoting the careers of their former students for the rest of their lives. The Assembly’s Government could ask the Holtham Commission on funding to look into this an option. Certainly, Westminster hasn’t funded Wales properly, preferring rather to tie its money to expensive projects, such as the Olympics, and taking money and investment out of Wales in order to be able to do so.

The second important principle is one of democracy. The democratic nature of a party where it’s essential that leaders follow the policy decided upon by the ordinary members. And democracy in general. “Vote Plaid, Labour lied” was the chant on the lips of nationalists whilst referring to the mess made in Iraq and Labour’s u-turn on tuition fees. Plaid Cymru’s constitution - in letter and in spirit - does not allow us to make the same mistake.

I agree with him but do the Welsh Labour Party and their Ministers? Will Plaid let Labour get away with implementing these proposals and if they do then what value can we place on their election promises? The unity of the One Wales Government is under severe pressure on this issue.

Is small better?

I have a lot of sympathy with the Welsh Assembly's Rural Affairs Sub-Committee in its conclusions on the future of small schools. Ultimately the structure of education in a particular area is the responsibility of the local authority but the quality of that education must be the overriding factor.

With falling pupil numbers and hundreds of sub-standard school buildings all around Wales change is inevitable. That change must take place in full consultation with local communities and having regard to good educational principles. Above all the process must be transparent and accountable at local and national level. That is why I welcome the recommendation of the sub-committee that the Assembly Government should consider transferring its right to hear appeals to an independent arbitrator.

I also welcome the suggestion that local authorities should take the consultation process with local communities seriously and that the effect of reorganisation on the Welsh Language should be a major determinant.

The Committee is right to say that there is no evidence to say that the quality of education in a small school is better than that is a larger establishment. Research I have seen indicates that the main determinant in the success of a school is the quality of the leadership provided by the head teacher and his or her management team.

The key part of any reorganisation in my view is to ensure that high standards are not compromised by the proposed changes. That is not easy but it reinforces the point made by the sub-committee that the education of children must be the paramount consideration.

An abuse of process

It is noticeable that whenever the Government seeks to introduce an anti-terror measure or something that will reduce our liberties in the so-called 'national interest', we are reassured that checks and balances will be put in place so as to avoid new powers being abused. Either Parliament itself will oversee the process, or Ministers or we are told that we can trust the Police to be responsible.

There is something very British about such assurances. Instinctively we think of ourselves as the good guys who respect and practice fair play. Accordingly we place our trust in the Government and the authorities to uphold our values and our rights. In reality neither can be relied on to do 'their duty' in this regard with the consequence that detailed and time-consuming scrutiny is needed to ensure that the rights of ordinary citizens are upheld. What is worrying is the number of times these brakes on the abuse of power fail.

When the Police start to undermine the constitutional rights of MPs we know that things have got out of control. Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemming on his blog suggests that whistleblowing to MPs is implicitly protected as part of the 1688 Bill of Rights, however that has not stopped a senior Conservative MP being arrested for doing his job by publishing important government information in the public interest.

This government does not seem to care what rights it tramples in pursuit of its agenda. We are told that the Prime Minister was not aware of the intended arrest of Damien Green and yet the Mayor of London was, leading one to question whether it was authorised at a high ministerial level and if not why not? When were Ministers told? We need to know.

It is a fact too that other long-established rights have been ignored by this government through actions such as the bugging of conversations between a lawyer and client and the bugging of an MP in discussion with his constituent.

What added insult to injury in the arrest of Damien Green was the involvement of anti-terrorist police. It seems that any abuse can now be justified by the terrorist threat. If this is the case then the terrorists really have succeeded in destroying our democracy.

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson, Chris Huhne pinpoints the problem with the Damien Green arrest when he says: "Receiving information from Government departments in the public interest and publicising it is a key part of any MP's role. This is the most worrying development for many years, with the potential to shift power even more conclusively from Parliament to the Government. It is also extraordinary considering Gordon Brown himself as Shadow Chancellor received and publicised many leaked official documents. It seems that either the law needs to be changed, or the police have overstepped the mark."

Perhaps Mr. Huhne should go further and put this incident in context as one of a systematic series of events in which power has been abused by the government and their agencies. Goodness only knows how they will proceed once they have a national database and ID cards to help them.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Questions to make your mouth water

From yesterday's Plenary:

David Melding: I have said this before, but it it is worth repeating: I think that you are a splendid big cheese; I am a mere cheese aficionado. [Laughter.] Cheese producers are often small enterprises and marketing is difficult when you have many producers at the real quality end. The Welsh Assembly Government was right to attract the British Cheese Awards to Cardiff earlier in the autumn. What further ventures along that line will you propose?

I will just remind you of what the judges said about Pont Gar, which was the Welsh cheese of the year:

'a large deep wheel covered with a thick, firm fitting, soft white mould. It has a soft, custard texture and the interior is deliciously smooth and creamy and feels wickedly rich and the garlic and herbs are wonderfully subtle.’

Do you not want to eat pounds of the stuff? That is the sort of publicity that we need.

Elin Jones: Unfortunately, sometimes I do eat pounds of the stuff. On a serious note, Welsh cheeses are among the best in the world: both the smaller artisan cheeses that are sold in places all around the world, including Harrods and other major retailers, and the bulk cheeses produced by some of our larger co-operatives in Wales. We need to ensure that we retain and develop our entire cheese sector, because there is nothing better than a bit of cheese and bread.

One Wales Agreement under pressure

With the Labour Plaid Cymru One Wales Government having abandoned their opposition to top up fees, with the argument over the Housing LCO all but conceded and with the Welsh Language LCO still to be published, it is difficult to think how the coalition agreement can come under any more pressure. However, timing of the referendum on more powers for the Assembly may well be the extra heat that will cause the pot to boil over.

I do not believe that any of these issues will destroy the partnership government, both sides are too fond of the trappings of office for that to happen, but together they will form an increasing undercurrent of tension that will continually undermine relations between the two sides in the run -up to the 2011 Assembly elections.

This morning's Western Mail believes that the indefinite postponement of the referendum to well past the promised 2011 date is a real possibility. They have been examining the small print of the e-mail sent around to Labour AMs telling them to have nothing to do with Bethan Jenkins and her initiative to set up a 'yes' campaign at some stage in the distant future.

Although the statement says that “The Assembly Labour group remains committed to proceeding to a successful outcome of a referendum for full law-making powers as soon as practicable, in line with the One Wales programme for Government” it misses off the nine crucial extra words in the One Wales' Agreement which concludes, “as soon as practicable, at or before the end of the Assembly term”.

This is enough for Cynog Dafis to embark on a small rant about the need to go to the country sooner rather than later. It may not be much but these small irritations do have a habit of getting under the skin and developing into a full scale sore.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A run of misfortune

I am on the BBC programme AM/PM today (BBC2 Wales 11am to 1pm if you are interested) discussing a whole range of issues including Welsh Questions in the House of Commons and Prime Ministers Questions. No doubt the credit crunch and the pre-budget report will feature in our deliberations.

One of the features myself and Plaid AM, Helen Mary Jones, will be asked to comment on is an evaluation of who in Welsh politics is having a good week and who is not. Well after the report of the Assembly's Finance Committee was published today my nomination for a bad week would have to be Education Minister, Jane Hutt.

Technically, the Learning and Skills (Wales) Measure (to all intentions and purposes our equivalent of an Act of Parliament) is being piloted through committee by a Deputy Minister but it is the Education Minister who retains overall responsibility and it is her budgetting decisions that are once more under fire.

The measure makes provision for schools and colleges to share resources to give 14 to b19 year olds more study choices but the Assembly Finance Committee insists that it is not fit for purpose. I understand that the Measure Committee, who are taking evidence from the education and training sector on the efficacy of the proposal, are rapidly coming to the same conclusion.

The finance committee say that ministers have not demonstrated that their claims the system could be provided largely within existing budgets are realistic. The committee's report asserts that too many of the Welsh Assembly Government's financial calculations are based on "estimates and assumptions". They say that "little if any work appears to have been done on ascertaining the true costs of implementing such a major new venture in education" and they conclude that it is "therefore unable to examine these calculations and has to conclude that it cannot reliably assess the impact of the proposed Learning and Skills (Wales) Measure". This is an all party committee with a majority of government members.

This is not the first time that Jane Hutt has found herself in this situation. She famously had to extend the roll-out of the Foundation Phase by a year after reluctantly accepting representations from local government, headteachers, teaching unions and opposition politicians that she had underfunded it. She also reiterated a promise of her predecessor that all schools in Wales would be fit for purpose by 2010 despite there being no realistic prospect of this happening and a major shortage of government cash to do the job.

As Health Minister she carried out a wholescale reform of the National Health Service only to see her successor and Ministerial colleague, Edwina Hart dismantle the reforms eight years later as not fit for purpose. She presided over huge rises in NHS waiting times and despite talking the talk failed to secure the investment in the health service needed to modernise and reform it adequately.

In many ways her career in government has been a run of misfortune with one exception, her period as business manager when she soothed troubled relations with opposition parties and enabled Rhodri Morgan to sustain a minority government for a full four years between 2003 and 2007.

Jane's strength is as a people person and you will not find anybody in the Assembly who dislikes her as an individual or has a bad word to say about her personally. She is an exccedingly hard-working Minister whose instincts are to bring people together and to seek consensus at every opportunity. Despite rejecting my attempt at a private member's measure to improve youth facilities around Wales she has invited me to join her Ministerial task and finish group drawing up new guidance for local authorities on the youth service. That is typical of her approach.

Unfortunately, it seems that Jane's strengths are not best utilised in a high-spending department. There is no doubt that she belongs in the cabinet but health and education have both proved her undoing. Maybe it is time for a reshuffle.

A Government in disarray

Guido broke the story and now the dead tree press are taking it up. The Treasury was last night forced to deny that Alistair Darling was drawing up secret plans to raise VAT to 18.5% in the next parliament in an attempt to fill the black hole in the government's finances after a document outlining an intention to raise VAT to a record rate was put on a website.

Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesperson, Vince Cable was quick to make the obvious point: “At a time of economic emergency we need a clear-headed Government with a sound economic strategy; instead we are seeing tax policy being made up on the hoof. Ministers were clearly planning to sell the reduction in VAT on the basis that it would help millions of struggling families, when actually it was going to be nothing more than a shield for a permanent VAT rise. The fact that the Government can’t even get its briefing documents right doesn’t bode well for their future management of the economy”.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Having your cake and eating it.

There was a sense of self-denial on the Plaid Cymru side of the Assembly chamber today as they sat there and watched their One Wales Government effectively propose the introduction of top-up tuition fees for Welsh students from 2010. Something that Plaid Cymru have fought against for years.

Instead we are going to get a confused means-tested bursary system and a supposed investigation into student debt. The Government's problem is that, as in England, the bursary system will not prevent poorer debt-averse students being put off going to University by the prospect of paying £3,000 plus annual fees on top of all the other costs. Whilst, it is unlikely the Assembly Government will be able to find their way around European rules that say that if they pay off the debt of Welsh students then they will need to do the same for students from the continent as well. Plaid have sold out and they know it.

Despite this there are some Plaid AMs who like to play games and pretend that somehow they and their party are separate from the Government. Bethan Jenkins is one such Assembly Member. She has posted on her website today a convincing critique of the Government's new policy as if she were a member of the opposition:

I fear that the recommendations of this statement, due to its Anglo-centric paradigm, could undermine this progress in Wales, as it could set a precedent that all future changes in England must result in similar changes in Wales. This has consequences if uncapped top up fees for the top 15 English universities are introduced following the review of the current system in England which will start next year. Will institutions like Cardiff, as part of the Russell group of Universities, insist on charging 5k, 10k, or 15k uncapped fees? Does anyone seriously believe that top up fees will be capped at the current level? The reality is that the acceptance of the key proposal to introduce top up fees could leave Welsh universities and students open to market forces - whereby educational advancement for many may well be determined by ability to pay and not academic ability.

This statement also appears to indicate confusion in the direction of the Welsh Assembly Government. On the one hand universality is promoted in policy areas such as free prescriptions and bus passes for the elderly, yet in the Higher Education sector the government is proposing to end the universality of the current fee grant system, concluding that a larger percentage of Welsh domiciled students will have to pay higher fees after 2011 based on means testing.

Bethan Jenkins really needs to make her mind up. Is she a part of this government or not? Plaid cannot claim credit for all the good things they do in government and disown the bits they do not like. They cannot have their cake and eat it.

Update: Plaid Cymru Chair, John Dixon is another one who is in denial. He even believes that the amount of resource going to student support will remain the same under the new proposals as promised under the One Wales Agreement. This is not the case. In fact £30 million is being taken out of student support to fund the universities themselves.

Spending the money

Now that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has had his moment and initiated the fiscal stimulus he promised it is left to the Welsh Assembly to spend the £140 million capital funding that will acrue to us under the Barnett Formula.

The Secretary of State for Wales has already made his view known. He says that the money can be used this year and next on road building and social housing. Perhaps he has not realised that the decision as to what this money is spent on is not his but the Welsh Government's.

Personally, I would prefer a substantial chunk of this cash to be used to upgrade our schools. Despite claims of investment by Government Ministers the fact remains that the vast majority of our school buildings are in a dreadful state. Previous government targets to have all schools fit for purpose by 2010 have been missed by a mile and many teachers and pupils are working in unacceptable conditions.

A properly-funded crusade by the Welsh Government to sort this out in partnership with local government would be very welcome. Unless there is more capital funding forthcoming from WAG then most local Councils will not be in a position to deliver ambitious improvement programmes. That is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats have tabled a debate tomorrow calling for this investment.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Tories and devolution

According to the Daily Post David Cameron has pronounced on the future of Welsh devolution from a conference in London. Who says that nobody understands irony these days?

Mr. Cameron claims that the creation of the Welsh Assembly has not given people in North Wales the sense they control their own destiny. He may well be right to an extent but then did a succession of Tory Welsh Office overlords parachuted in from England do any better? It was the way that the Tories ran Wales between 1979 and 1997 that gave the impetus to devolution in the first place.

Mr. Cameron wants to make sure that 'devolution is real' before introducing any changes. What he fails to understand is that without full law-making powers the Assembly cannot deliver the reforms that are needed to make devolution work.

Analyse that

Charlotte Gore has started something with her discovery of this tool that allegedly analyses on how male or female a blogger's writing style is.

According to Charlotte it is about 'how often you use the word, "I" because, apparently, women will avoid this word and prefer to refer to others, or omit the use of "I" altogether. Also women are, apparently, more likely to add qualifiers - such as, "I feel" or "I believe" or "I think" and, "don't you think?" and "isn't it?" - or, I suppose, taking the first into account they'll say, "do you feel?" or "do you believe?".'

Apparently, Gender Analyzer says that this blog is 57% certain to be written by a man, however it is quite gender neutral. However, the site believes that Miss Wagstaff is 87% certain to have been written by a man. Valleys Mam is allegedly 76% male whilst the blog of Bethan Jenkins AM is 55% likely to be written by a man though that is also fairly gender neutral.

You win some, you lose some.

Fighting Student debt

The news is dominated by Gordon Brown's proposed tax package this morning and in particular the prospect of deferred tax rises for those earning more than £150,000.

If, as suggested the Government's tax cuts focus on reducing the rate of VAT then I will be disappointed. VAT is not imposed on basics such as food and clothes so it is likely that those struggling to make ends meet on or below the poverty line will not benefit from this cut. There are also questions as to whether all of the reduction will be passed onto shoppers.

It seems to me that a straight income tax cut or the raising of income tax allowances would have a bigger impact on consumer spending, whilst helping those who are worst off.

I wanted to concentrate however on another announcement taking place tomorrow in the Welsh Assembly. At some time tomorrow afternoon the Education Minister will get to her feet and outline the Welsh Government's conclusions on the funding of higher education. It is likely that this will include her approach to student debt and to tuition fees and, although we can guess, nobody yet knows what she might say.

With this in mind I was intriqued by two articles in the newspaper of Swansea University Students' Union, Waterfront. The first describes how NUS representatives, including president Ben Gray, invited students to write their debt on a sticky note and post it on one of two pin-up walls. Almost £3m-worth of debt was on display from just one per cent of the student population.

That is a huge problem and one that some will seek to exploit. Hence the second article that students at the same university have been targeted by an escort agency:

Posters were put up in the campus and surrounding areas appealing for students to call a number given on the poster for more details. The Waterfront posed as an interested student. When asked whether escorts were expected to have sex with customers the answer was: “Yes, sometimes.”

The man who answered the phone went on to say: “Sometimes you get the ones who want personal services.“ If you’re not interested in that it’s fine, but the money is better. The money comes in then if you offer ‘professional’ services but the money is still good if you just go out for dinner.”

He went on to explain why the company is targeting students and appealed for us to get others involved. “Students might be interested because they might not be from round here, they won’t have any ties,” he said. “If you have any friends who might be interested, male or female, let me know.”

Potential escorts were expected to pay £10 a month or £40 for the year, for the agency to advertise their services on their website, which we were told will be launched in a fortnight, as well as in the local press.

The Students’ Union has warned students they could be putting their safety in danger if they engage in escorting.

The Welsh Assembly Government do not have the resources to make any sort of impact on the sort of debt illustrated by Waterfront nor can they provide the level of grant support that will mean that students are not tempted by the money made available from working as an escort, but they can make things easier if they get the financial package right. My fear is that tomorrow's statement will involve a scaling back of support for students. We will see.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Running the Police

Today's Observer reports on the views of the Electoral Reform Society that directly elected Police Authorities will fall under the control of the Tories in vast swathes of the country. Elsewhere there are concerns that the BNP will win seats on these authorities.

The possible outcome of an election should not be a consideration as to whether to have it or not. That is called gerrymandering. However, one does have to question whether directly elected Police Authorities will make any difference to the way that our communities are policed or even to how the constabularly is run.

The Home Secretary will doubtless wish to reserve for herself the power to sack Chief Constables whilst operational decisions will remain with senior management in the Police force and out of reach of the politicians. That is how it should be.

In fact I cannot see how the directly elected Police Authority members role will be any different to that of the present membership of such bodies. As now they will largely be concerned with budgetary control and community liaison, as well as providing a political guide to the Chief Constable on key decisions.

For some reason, the Liberal Democrats voted to support this move at its September conference. In my view they were wrong to do so. There are already directly elected members on Police Authorities, they are called Councillors. These Councillors provide a democratic input but they also offer an important link with the local Councils they serve on and other bodies. In other words there is a cross fertilisation of representation that adds value to their role and to the Police Authority. That link will be lost with direct elections.

My view is that the best way to democratise police authorities is to remove the appointed members and increase slightly the number of Councillors on them so as to get a better cross-section of community and political opinion. I believe that these views also have support within the Welsh Assembly Government.

It is my intention to bring a motion to the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference along these lines, distancing ourselves from the Federal Party's policy.

Sharpened claws at dawn

Matt Withers continues to get cattier and cattier in his weekly columns in the Wales on Sunday as this example proves:

But realistically, [Leighton] Andrews was never a serious bet for the leadership. Undoubtedly a very clever man, with an astute understanding of the media one would expect of a former head of public affairs for the BBC, Andrews affects the air of a particularly grumpy GP.

He would probably have done very well as a technocratic politician in the former East Germany but would struggle as a successor to professional man-of-the-people Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister who walks a fine line between Lech Walesa and Ken Dodd.

And that is before we read his latest musings on Lembit Öpik.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hunting for the 'Anti-Welsh'

Huw Lewis is absolutely correct in his assertion today that accusations of being 'anti-Welsh' amount to the sort of unacceptable smear that closes down debate. It is the sort of tactic that Plaid Cymru have been fond of using though members of all parties have also indulged in similar accusations of one sort or the other in an attempt to gain political advantage.

If there is one thing that the developing consensus in the Welsh Assembly has established it is that all parties represented in it are commited to the devolution project in one form or another. Some are more divided than others on how that project should proceed, others have different views of the outcomes that they wish to see from the process, but all have the best interest of Wales at heart.

The use of such phrases consistently moves debate onto a nationalist agenda. The implication is that because somebody opposes a particular policy or does not want to go as far as others in implementing reform then they are acting against the Welsh interest. What they may or may not want to do will have merits and demerits and it is possible that some will take the view that their proposals will do damage to a particular community or communities but that should not call into question their patriotism. At least not without good cause.

Re-reading the reports of Rhodri Morgan's chapter in the Institute of Welsh Affairs book, I did not get the impression that he was saying Labour lost votes because they were seen as anti-Welsh but that they had not embraced the Welsh language agenda sufficiently to either attract or retain support in parts of Wales. He also pointed out the way that the Labour Party has effectively marginalised itself as a party of the valleys by refusing to sufficiently embrace change.

My view is that Labour lost votes in West and Mid Wales because of the way they were pursuing reform of the health service. They failed to listen to people's concerns and did not respond to the widespread belief that the proposed changes would lead to a worse service. In effect voters did not buy their claims that there was an arms-length relationship between the health bodies who wanted to close hospitals and the Labour Government. They were right not to do so as post-election events have demonstrated.

There are lessons for all of us in how we engage with communities and how we shape and reform services so as to retain confidence in them. In this context though we should learn to focus the debate on the issues and not indulge in the personalised accusations of the sort Huw Lewis protests about. If we fail to do that then we devalue politics and the political process.

Recession bites

The news that repossession actions in Wales have risen by more than one fifth in a year is disturbing but not unexpected. Over 8,000 homes are under threat. The figures are especially bad in Merthyr Tydfil and in parts of Mid and North Wales. The Conwy and Colwyn County Court has seen a 77% rise in repossession cases over the year.Merthyr County Court has seen a 41% rise, while the figures for Wrexham and Carmarthen are both up 40%. It offers me no confort to record that these figures are still not as bad as the 1990s but they are getting there.

Of course not all court actions lead to the loss of a home. Roughly four in ten are suspended for further action such as the renegotiation of the mortgage or to allow time for an external intervention.

The Welsh Assembly Government has a mortgage rescue scheme in place that may help but details about its existence or how to access it are still too little known. Many people remain in denial of their worsening situation until it is too late. The one thing that needs to be added to the Government's strategy for alleviating this appalling situation is some direct interaction with the courts so as to increase the number of repossession orders deferred for alleviative action.

I raised this with the Deputy Housing Minister in Committee some weeks ago. I look forward to seeing whether she has been able to do something about it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

More on the BNP

Today's Guardian reports that the leaked British National party membership list contains the names of individuals who are former members of all the mainstream political parties in England:

A former constituency chairman for the Conservatives, a former Labour prospective parliamentary candidate, and a church minister who had been at various times a Green, a Conservative and a Liberal Democrat, all went public on why they had switched parties in the wake of the leaking of a BNP members' list.

Lionel Buck said he was chairman of Ashfield Conservative association in Nottinghamshire for about four years, joining the BNP two years ago. He told the Guardian: "The way the country is at the moment, there is no major party, whether it be Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat, looking after the indigenous population."

Andrew Emerson said he had been due to fight Chichester in Sussex for the Labour party in 1997 before illness ruled him out, but joined the BNP in 2005, when he had been the party's candidate for Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.

He had since tried to get elected to Chichester council, in his last attempt last month gaining 12.3% of the vote in the ward. The main reason for changing parties was "my unhappiness with the [Labour] party's open-door immigration policy, making no attempt whatever to control immigration ... and to properly control our borders".

John Stanton, who heads the Rock Dene Christian Fellowship in his home town in Rochford, Essex, with a congregation of 22, had also been a Green, a member of Ukip, a Lib Dem councillor in the 1990s and a member of the Conservatives in the 1970s.

He told the Press Association that "the flood of immigration" was a problem, as was Islam and the European Union.

He said he had been with the BNP for eight months.

It is worrying that such individuals have been taken in by the half-truths and nonsense spouted by the BNP on immigration. It is difficult to understand what they were doing in their previous parties in the first place. Their views underline the fundamental racism that permeates the BNP's policies.

Another day, another letter

This morning's Western Mail publishes another letter critical of my decision to invite Patrick Jones to read his poetry in the National Assembly building, this time by a Brian Churchill of Abergele.

Mr. Churchill thinks that he knows my writings and publications inside out, hence his assertion that he does not 'remember these brave outraged defenders of free speech saying anything in support of Tom Wellingham when, in 2006 he was suspended after the student newspaper he edited, Gair Rhydd published the infamous Danish images of Mohammed.'

Alas, he has not carried out much research. As anybody who uses the search facility on my blog will be able to see I was equally as outspoken on this act of censorship as I have been in defence of Patrick Jones' right to free speech.

On 8th February 2006 I wrote: 'although the re-publication of this cartoon may have caused offence, it was used in a perfectly legitimate way and the paper's editor had every right to publish it. The actions of the student union run contrary to basic rights of freedom of expression and of the press.'

I also endorsed the words of fellow blogger Oliver Kamm when he commented: 'The cartoons are indifferent, crude and unfunny, and ought not to have found editorial space when submitted. Now that they have caused widespread offence, it is imperative that they be widely published and circulated. The defence of a free society is the defence of its procedures, not its output. Some of that output will be offensive and much will be valueless. We have a right to criticise it, and a moral obligation never, never to complain that our hurt feelings require its suppression.'

On 12 February 2006 I criticised a Liberal Democrat MP who labelled the publication of the cartoons as racist. At that time I said: 'There is nothing racist about these cartoons. They may be poorly drawn, unfunny and offend religious sensibilities but they do not single out any race for criticism. Indeed, given the reaction against them it would be an afront to freedom of speech and liberal values if newspapers did not republish them.'

Perhaps correspondents to the Western Mail and others who have e-mailed me should check their facts before making goundless assertions in future.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Paying your bills with a drawing of a spider

This is actually quite funny. It is however getting sillier and sillier.

Hat Tip: Dizzy Thinks

The right to offend

A Carolyn Davison from Carmarthen takes issue with my views on freedom of speech in today's Western Mail. She is entitled to her opinion.

She asks what example I am setting to 'our youth' by inviting Patrick Jones into the National Assembly:

Surely promoting responsibility and a caring attitude towards others should be a priority rather than putting others down to make oneself feel better! If this man is a Christian, as he claims he is, then he should be putting others’ thoughts, feelings and beliefs before himself.

Christian Voice did not consider the feelings of others when they sought to prevent a poetry reading in Cardiff Waterstones.

I am not doing this for myself nor do I really like or approve of the poems. I am doing it because I believe that in a democratic society people should not be bullied into silence. That is an important value to promote to young people. It is taking responsibility for the freedoms that we all take for granted.

Ms. Davison also asks who is covering the poet's expenses, me or the taxpayers? What expenses? There is no cost to staging this event and any expense incurred by Patrick Jones will be met by himself.

Baked Alaska

The BBC report that veteran Republican Senator, Ted Stevens has finally lost his bid for a seventh term in office after a knife-edge race against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. The Democratic candidate led the Senate's longest-serving Republican by 3,724 after Tuesday's count, with only 2,500 overseas votes to be tallied.

It is the first time Alaska has elected a Democrat to the Senate for 30 years. Mr. Begich's election also means that a possible route for Sarah Palin to get to Washington DC has been closed down.

Mr Stevens was convicted last month of lying about gifts he had received from an oil company. If he had won re-election he would almost certainly have been thrown out of the Senate by his colleagues creating a special election that Ms. Palin would have been favourite to win.

It is on such events that political careers are built (or not).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Twenty Seven steps

Tomos Livingstone publishes Plaid Cymru MP, Hywel Williams' list of the 27 stages that any Legislative Competence Order has to go through before it becomes law.

The disturbing thing is that at the end of this tortuous process not a single aspect of Welsh life will have changed or been improved. All that will have happened is that some limited power will have been transferred to the Welsh Assembly. To do anything with this power the Assembly will have to produce a measure that could take another six months and numerous further stages to become law.

What a way to run a country!

BNP Membership list published on-line

The Times reports that the entire membership list of the BNP has been published on the internet leading to concerns amongst members that they might be targeted by the party's opponents:

More than 12,000 names, home addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail contact details were included in a major breach of data protection. The names and ages of schoolchildren with family memberships were disclosed. Some supporters were listed with comments such as “discretion required — employment concerns”. A number had their hobbies recorded.

The paper says that the list describes the occupations of some members that are deemed to be sensitive or of use to the BNP, such as NHS doctor, teacher, journalist, vicar, company director, scientist, engineer or construction manager. Others are listed as public speakers. They say that the list appears to include several former police officers. Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, said: “Membership or promotion of the BNP by any member of the Police Service is prohibited.”

They add that there is no ban on teachers, doctors and nurses joining the BNP, but its racist reputation is seen as incompatible with frontline public service.

A number of bloggers have already referred to this and one has even posted it on a purpose-made blogsite. That site has not been removed. I have no intention of linking to it if it is still available as membership of the BNP is not illegal and people are entitled to their privacy, however the episode is nevertheless a major embarrassment for the party.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reforming Barnett

Interesting article in this morning's Western Mail on moves to reform the funding formula which determines how much the Welsh Assembly Government has to spend on services.

The paper tells us that an independent body, known as the Calman Commission, is investigating possible changes in the way the Scottish Government is funded. Its recommendations could lead to a wholesale shake-up affecting all the countries of the UK.

They go on to explain that one of the options being mooted would involve replacing the Barnett formula with a new arrangement under which countries would get a funding allocation based on the tax revenue gathered within their borders.

They say that without any adjustment for social need, that could lead to a substantial reduction in the amount of Treasury money coming to Wales, because of the nation’s relatively low tax base. It is feared that the UK government would be tempted to follow such a course of action because of the perception in England that the Celtic nations are effectively being subsidised.

In many ways this highlights the dangers of looking at the funding formula afresh, however it has to happen because of the disparity that exists in Wales between need and the ability to fund services to tackle poverty and other problems.

The Assembly Government needs to argue strongly for a proper formula based on the comparative need of Wales together with powers to vary taxes and to borrow money. Unless we get a balanced solution that is fair to the whole of the UK then any reform will be a disaster for Wales and elsewhere.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Follow our leader

This morning's Western Mail gives us a flavour of a new book being launched today by the Institute of Welsh Affairs containing chapters by representatives of each of the four parties in Wales.

The chapter that attracts the most attention is that by Labour First Minister, Rhodri Morgan. He repeats earlier assertions that his party’s poor performance at the ballot box in Wales in recent years is because the party is not seen as sufficiently Welsh. He argues that Labour were punished in West Wales, both North and South, for their apparent opposition to the Welsh language. He says that they were considered by many to be a party of the valleys rather than one that can represent the whole of Wales.

To an extent Rhodri is right though we cannot overlook the proposed changes to the NHS that were on the table before 2007 and their impact on Labour's performance. Rightly or wrongly these proposals were perceived as hitting West Wales more harshly than any other area of Wales and underlined for many electors the failure of Labour to understand the needs of rural West Wales.

The First Minister's problem however is taking his party with him. All the signs are that the Welsh Language LCO when it is published will meet opposition from Labour MPs in Westminster, an act that will send out all the wrong messages to Welsh speaking Wales.

I was interested too in Rhodri's suggestion that Labour should consider allowing local authorities to hold referendums on introducing a proportional representation of electing councillors. He believes that such a move would allow Labour to get a valuable local government base in West Wales.

This was of course Conservative policy at the last Assembly elections and yet when I put forward legislation that would have given the Assembly the power to introduce such a system the Tories sat on their hands and Labour voted against. The exceptions to this were Rhodri Morgan and Jane Hutt both of whom supported my legislation but later claimed that they had pressed the wrong button by mistake.

The point is that it is all very well floating these ideas but if you are not going to vote for them when you have a chance then nobody is going to believe that you are being sincere. It is also a problem for Labour that they are proposing this change out of self-interest rather than on the merits of the proposal.

Rhodri Morgan may well have identified some of the issues that Labour need to address but he has not demonstrated that he can take his party with him on this path. The question of whether Labour can learn the lessons and bring in the changes will be crucial in determining if they move forward or fall back further at the next Assembly elections.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Statement by Cinnamon Press

Cinnamon Press has issued a video response to the cancellation of Patrick Jones' poetry reading at Cardiff Waterstones. The first part of the video is a bit over the top, including describing Mr. Jones' poems as Swiftian satire about religion. Swift must be spinning in his grave.

Personally, I consider the idea of launching a contest calling on people to post satirical poems about religion is missing the point.

This should not be an anti-religion crusade it is about reasserting people's freedom to speak out and deliver controversial points of view in public without being censored or shouted down.

The second part of the video is an official statement by the publishers and answers directly the allegation by Waterstones that Patrick Jones orchestrated the protests that led to the cancellation of his event.

Interestingly the statement is read out by an ordained Minister of religion.

More than a King?

In a piece that undoubtedly counts as testing the mood of the nation today's Sunday Times tells us that members of Prince Charles’s inner circle are preparing the ground for him to break the monarch’s traditional vow of silence when he is king.

The Prince's friend and biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby says that “there are now discreet moves afoot to redefine the future role of the sovereign so that it would allow King Charles III to speak out on matters of national and international importance in ways that at the moment would be unthinkable”.

“To breach this convention, however cautiously, would represent a seismic shift in the role of the sovereign,” says Dimbleby. It “has the potential to be constitutionally and politically explosive”.

He writes that Charles, as king, would not speak out as provocatively as he does now on subjects ranging from education to climate change.

“But those who believe that Britain needs an ‘active’ sovereign for the 21st century claim that it would be a waste of his experience and accumulated wisdom for it to be straitjacketed within the confines of an annual Christmas message or his weekly audience with the prime minister,” says Dimbleby.

“Prince Charles, they continue, would inherit a very different world from that bequeathed to his mother. Because the ideological chasms of the 20th century have been bridged, today’s politicians are driven to compete for power by packaging together marginally different varieties of the same produce as they scrabble for votes on the centre ground. It is thus virtually impossible to have any horizon beyond the next election. As a result, there is a vacuum of national leadership.

“In such circumstances, they argue, it would be missing a trick for him to be required to take a vow of monarchical silence. Believing that he has his finger on the popular pulse, they think that he would be uniquely placed to offer reassurance and hope to the British people.”

Dimbleby reveals: “This is not an issue that the prince likes to discuss in such terms even with his most trusted intimates.” But “he has latterly intimated to one or two of his confidants that he would like his present role to evolve so that once he inherits the crown, his knowledge and experience, his contacts and his unique ability to ‘convene’ others in the national interest could be put to good use rather than go to waste”.

Writing in today’s News Review, Dimbleby says Charles would speak “for the nation and to the nation” in a role similar to that of the Irish and German presidents.

Of course the big difference between the Monarch and the Irish and German Presidents is that the latter are elected. If Charles feels that he wants to speak his mind as head of state then he should stand for election like everybody else.

He may be in line to succeed to this position by an accident of his birth but that does not give him the authority to contradict those who have been voted into office by the people. Nor does it give him any legitimacy to 'speak for the nation'.

If there really is a 'vacuum of national leadership' then an elected Presidency in place of an hereditary monarchy might be one way to bridge that gap. If Charles stands for such a post then we will see how much he really has his finger on the popular pulse.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Somewhat unlikely!

An excellent editorial in this morning's Western Mail on the banning of Patrick Jones' poetry reading at Waterstones:

“Do we live in Iran?” asked a bewildered Mr Jones.

No, we do not, and this censorship should not have been allowed to happen. Waterstone’s must have been aware of the content of Mr Jones’ poetry – it is still for sale in their shops – so someone must have been satisfied that the work was appropriate for a public reading.

Stephen Green, the man behind Christian Voice, has a right to object to the contents of Mr Jones’ work, but Mr Green and his followers do not have the right to prevent others from reading, buying or listening to it. Mr Jones invokes the example of Iran; there are plenty of other eerie historical parallels that spring to mind.

One of the pillars on which our way of life is built is that the free exchange of ideas allows opposing points of view to be put and argued in a public or a private arena. The strength of an idea can be enough for it to carry the day – and even to go on and change society.

Mr Green may feel he has right on his side: the way to test this is through discussion and debate, not through disruption. If he thinks his ideas are the stronger, let him put them in a reasonable and calm manner.


Mr Jones should read his poems at the Senedd. Mr Green and his organisation should protest outside, if they so wish, without trying to disrupt the event. Both men will then be exercising rights that previous generations fought and died for – free expression and the freedom to protest.

I am a bit bewildered at the description of myself as a 'somewhat unlikely figure' but I suppose that you have to take the rough with the smooth in this business. It is the sort of description you might use for a fictional or mythical character.

Yes, on this particular comment I am not being serious so please do not take it as if I am.

Rugby Mums

Sarah Palin famously branded herself as a 'hockey mum' and asserted that the only difference between her and a pitbull was that she wore lipstick. Now Labour MEP, Eluned Morgan has taken up the cry with an assertion that 'rugby mams and schoolyard chat' are crucial to Labour winning back support in Wales.

Remarkably she goes on to hit out at the relevance of some of Welsh Labour's key giveaway policies:

“Let’s look at some of the policies we were offering. A free bus pass for pensioners has been a real blessing to thousands, but the fact is that a high proportion of pensioners who are reliable Assembly voters own cars and might not feel directly affected by the free bus pass offer. This is particularly true in rural areas.

“Similarly, an offer of financial assistance to help deprived children buy school uniforms might chime with our core vote, but would not be relevant to the same extent in many marginal seats.

“Of course we should not abandon these policies, but we must think of extra ones to specifically appeal beyond our core vote.

“Many of the working class have become middle class. While their parents would not have gone to university many of their children would be expected to attend.

“Their horizons are broader, their ambitions wider. We need to respond to these changing needs, the needs of families where both parents work, the needs of single-parent families, the needs of a 24-hour society, the needs of an ageing population.

“Labour must get in touch with the ‘rugby mam’ and the schoolyard chat in order to ensure identification with women who simply want the best for their children and their families.”

I suppose they could always invest in cores services by making sure that local Councils have a reasonable financial settlement so as to avoid cutting education, social service and highway budgets. Or is that approach not high profile enough?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Poetry reading at the Assembly

I was most probably a bit harsh on Waterstones yesterday. After all it was not their fault that a group of fundamentalist Christians were poised to descend on their store and disrupt a poetry reading.

I can understand that they would not want their staff and their premises subjected to the sort of disruption that this fringe group were threatening. Christian Voice's actions on the other hand amount to the sort of moral bullying and censorship that has no place in a democratic society.

Stephen Green and his supporters have every right to object to the contents of Patrick Jones' book, but they do not have the right to prevent other people buying it, reading it or listening to its author read from it.

In the end I got in touch with Patrick Jones and offered to organise a poetry reading for him in the Assembly. I felt that it was important to make the point that artists should not have their voice stifled irrespective of whether one agrees with them or not.

The reading will take place in the Assembly on Thursday December 11th at 12 noon. Stephen Green is not invited.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On the Post Office Card Account

There is a certain irony in the UK Government creating the post office card account as a stop gap measure to protect post offices from its own policy of taking Government services away from them, only to find that it may not be able to re-award the contract to the Post Office because of competition rules. In this sense, the UK Government was the creator of its own mess.

Today's decision to cancel the procurement exercise and to award an extension of the contract to the Post Office until 2015 is a sensible way forward and demonstrates that the government has woken up to the huge opposition to their decimation of the Post Office network.

This leaves one basic question: if it was so easy to do it this way then why start the procurement exercise in the first place with its implicit threat to 3,000 Post Office branches and the massive electoral unpopularity that goes with that?


If the BBC is right then an major impasse has developed within the Labour Plaid Cymru One Wales Government over the Affordable Housing Legislative Competence Order.

They claim that Rhodri Morgan has agreed to the emasculation of this order in line with the Welsh Affairs Select Committee report without clearing it with Plaid Cymru Ministers first, including the Deputy Housing Minister. It is reported that Plaid are refusing to accept this decision.

No doubt some compromise will be reached but it will involve one side having to accept a humiliating climbdown and if it is Plaid who have to give in then that does not bode well for the Welsh Language LCO nor for a pre-2011 referendum.

Although some have labelled this a constitutional crisis, it may not qualify as such on the grounds that technically we do not have a written constitution. What we do have is a hotch potch of arrangements, some enshrined in law, others set up as protocols. This row has illustrated that these arrangements are not working and in particular that the 2006 Government of Wales Act is not fit for purpose.

Members of the Welsh Affairs Committee have argued that the Assembly is getting what it asked for but that is not the case. The Assembly asked for what is contained in the LCO and although Ministers may only wish to use those powers in a limited way in the first instance, they may have other plans in the near future.

In particular, although nobody wishes to abolish the right to buy altogether, the Legislative Committee set up by the Assembly to look at this order established that there is a case to amend the way that the right to buy operates so as to keep more properties in the public sector and to enable capital receipts to be used to build more social housing. If the LCO is scaled back then those powers may be lost to the Minister as well.

Would an emasculated order allow the Minister to remove the right to buy on new build properties for example? Will the Assembly still be able to legislate in relation to stock transfer? The Assembly Government is in the process of drawing up a ten year housing strategy, they may well need additional powers to deliver this.

The problem with the Welsh Affairs Select Committee approach is that if Ministers need to go back and produce a new LCO every time they want to do something then that could build a two year delay into each policy change. It would be like government in slow motion. That is why each LCO needs to have the widest possible powers so that Government can respond quickly to circumstances.

When this LCO was first conceived the UK Labour Government were denying that a credit crunch could ever happen. We are now in the middle of a recession and in need of urgent government action. Surely MPs can see the merits in Welsh ministers being able to legislate quickly in response to events. Their actions only put obstacles in the way of effective action on the part of the Welsh Assembly Government.

Crystal Balls

What to make of Tessa Jowell's pronouncement that Britain would not have bid to host the 2012 Olympics if the Government had known that a recession was approaching? Is this code for we would not have bid if we had realised that Government incompetence would see the costs spiralling out of control to nearly four times the original estimate?

The fact is that the infrastructure work involved in staging the Olympics is precisely the sort of government capital expenditure we need to help the construction industry survive this depression and enable unemployment figures to be kept down.

The problem is that in order to deliver the Government is diverting resources from elsewhere in the Country and are in any case spending the money in the wrong place. That part of East London certainly needs the investment but it is likely that other regions need it more.

However this is spun the issue is not that we are building Olympic facilities during a recession but that the government have mismanaged the project from day one.


Just seen the latest line up for 'I'm a Celebrity get me out of here' and much relieved at the absence of certain names. I note that Robert Kilroy-Silk will be on the programme and that there is a bit of a fuss about him neglecting his duties as an MEP.

I had not even realised he was still an MEP!

Waterstones capitulate to censorship

I am astonished that Waterstones have capitulated to the narrow bigotry of Stephen Green's Christian Voice and cancelled a reading by Welsh Poet, Patrick Jones. Their actions amount to moral cowardice and censorship irrespective of whether they still have the book on sale or not.

Stephen Green of course has every right to object to the contents of this book but he does not have the right to prevent other people reading it or listening to its author read from it.

I have a good mind to buy a copy of this book as a show of solidarity but I will not be going to Waterstones to make the purchase.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dot Cym campaign continued

I said in this post that I would ask questions of the Government on the Dot Cym campaign for a Welsh top level domain. Accordingly I tabled a question to the Deputy First Minister and received this answer today:

Peter Black (South Wales West): Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Assembly Government’s support for the dotCym campaign. OAQ0728(ECT)

Ieuan Wyn Jones: In August I announced £20,000 funding to help the dotCym campaign prepare a bid to secure a top level internet domain in line with the One Wales commitment. My officials are working with the dotCym campaigners to refine their business plan.

Caption competition

I have permission from Eleanor Burnham to offer this as a caption competition so I expect some restraint from contributors.

The need to invest

In many ways it is not the age of our school buildings that is the issue but whether they are fit for purpose. It is possible to get by in a 100 year old school building that has been modernised and can accommodate the curriculum, though it is also true to say that many schools do not meet that criteria and either need to be replaced or updated at significant cost.

Having said that the Tory Shadow Education Minister is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the Assembly Government have not been addressing this issue adequately. I am pleased to have him join me in a crusade I embarked on in 1999.

The Labour Assembly Government promised to put a specific sum in over the four years of the last Assembly but fell short. Instead they are counting the amount Councils have invested themselves together with private finance funding in an effort to cover up their own inadequacies. A billion pounds may have been invested in schools since 1999 but most of this came from local authorities not from the Assembly Government.

I am a member of a local Council which inherited a £150 million backlog of repairs and modernisation from the previous Labour Administration. We have recently published an ambitious strategy to tackle this problem but without a significant uplift in Assembly funding it cannot be delivered.

The Government are sitting on a £400m capital pot that remains unallocated. We are all waiting with baited breath to see what they are going to do with this money. If a large chunk is not spent on school buildings then in my view the Labour Plaid Cymru One Wales Government will have failed in their duty of care to teachers, pupils, their parents and local communities. Let us hope that the Education Minister has the clout to get a decent share of ths fund.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A breath of fresh air

I was at Kirsty Williams' manifesto launch at the Wales Millennium Centre yesterday and was impressed with both the document and with Kirsty's presentation of it. The manifesto can be read here.

As I have said in a previous post it is not the role of leader to impose policy onto the party however Kirsty did pull out some key issues that she wishes to lead on, including simplifying local government funding, attacking the erosion of civil liberties and building a green economy. She also re-emphasised the key message that in voting for her she is asking party members to put in place a leader for the long term. She said that we need to embrace change and a new generation of leaders.

Rather predictably, her opponent responded by adopting the Gordon Brown refrain that this is no time for apprenticeships. In doing so she does Kirsty a great disservice. The Brecon and Radnorshire AM has been a member of the Assembly since 1999, she worked as a key part of the group when we were in government, has chaired the important Assembly Health and Social Services Committee and has had a major impact in the Assembly. There is no doubt that Kirsty is ready to hit the ground running as leader even if the first thing she does is to enter negotiations for a new coalition.

Personally, I think that the chances of such negotiations are negligible. Jenny's claim that party members "could well be electing someone who might be in the cabinet and Deputy First Minister within a few months’ time" is a misreading of the situation and appears to have been made solely to promote her own over-inflated view of herself as the Welsh Party's answer to John McCain. In fact Kirsty is perfectly capable of taking on either of these roles and would do so with competence and panache.

The one advantage Kirsty does have is her ability to unite the group behind her. By instinct she is a conciliator and has always been at the centre of efforts to resolve disagreements within the group. In fact the present leader relies on her to do this job as he is not comfortable with it himself.

In contrast when the leadership was discussed by the group in the run-up to the October 2007 Welsh Party Conference, it was Jenny Randerson who threatened to make the group unworkable if Mike German was opposed. It is difficult to see how this action fits in with the role of leader or how she can mould the Assembly Group into an effective team when she has done nothing to resolve the resentment that her actions generated.

In her manifesto, Jenny claims that the last Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Manifesto was a failure. She is right and yet she spent hours working on it with Mike German and was instrumental in blocking a number of radical proposals on the Party's Policy Committee.

She also claims in a recent leaflet that she negotiated us into government in 2000. That is not how I remember it at all. Jenny was certainly part of the negotiating team but I did most of the work on the finance side, helping to bring the various interests together into a workable document, whilst the final coalition document was concluded between Mike German and Rhodri Morgan.

It is true that Jenny played a key role in the creation of the Rainbow Agreement but that document, like the One Wales Agreement was largely undeliverable. More to the point Jenny admits herself that she failed in the leadership role of persuading the Party's Executive of its merits. In fact a majority in favour was turned into a stalemate by the end of the meeting.

That was unfortunate because the party needed to vote on the document itself, which it eventually did. However, the reason that the mechanism was in place at all was because the group and the party executive had been misled as to the degree of discussion that took place before the Assembly elections with all the other parties and felt the need to avoid being railroaded into an agreement without the opportunity to consider it properly.

We cannot afford to have that sort of secrecy and mistrust again. Members need to be engaged in the process and the new leader needs to reach out and involve them in the running of the party. We should be open to all options when the opportunity to negotiate comes around again but we must also be realistic in the final proposals and open with the membership as to the options available to us.

When Jenny emphasises her experience she underlines her closeness to the present leadership and the fact that she is the continuity candidate. Kirsty is the only option for those who want to see change, who want to see the party more focussed on winning across the whole of Wales, who want to see us make an impact in the national media and who want to see a distinctive edge to our campaigning.

Kirsty is rooted in both urban and rural Wales, she has the experience to take us forward, and she can provide the inspiration and the direction that we need.

Monday, November 10, 2008

So how much trouble is One Wales in?

Although I have blogged on the rumblings about the future of the One Wales Coalition Government I have played down talk that it might be entering a potentially fatal crisis.

In my last entry I concluded that 'if Plaid Cymru get the Welsh Language LCO they will be prepared to accept some form of fudge on the referendum, but if Labour MPs start interfering with that LCO in the same way that they did over affordable housing then all bets are off. A warning shot has been sent across their bows.'

However, this latest post by Plaid Cymru National Chair, John Dixon suggests that I have been too cautious and that things are more dire than I had suggested. He says that I have understated the importance of the position that Plaid Cymru are in on the Housing LCO. He also rejects my supposition that Plaid will accept a fudge on the referendum in return for Labour delivering the Welsh Language LCO:

I remain confident that the referendum will be held - and as I have said before, if I believed that the leadership of Plaid was in any way back-tracking on the commitment to hold a referendum, then I would find my current role impossible to sustain.

Writing about the Housing LCO, Mr. Dixon says: 'the real tension here is not between Plaid and Labour in the Assembly, but between Labour AMs and some Labour MPs – but there is a knock-on danger to relationships between the two parties if Labour fail to achieve a satisfactory resolution of those internal tensions.'

This puts the coalition in a very interesting position. Relations remain reasonably good between the two party's AMs in Cardiff Bay, with both sides focussed on delivering what they can of the One Wales Agreement. However, the message now coming from senior Plaid Cymru figures is that despite this apparent harmony, the future of the coalition rests in the hands of Labour MPs.

If Labour representatives in Westminster continue to frustrate the ambitions of Welsh Ministers in terms of the Housing LCO, the Welsh Language LCO and the referendum then Plaid Cymru will walk. Rhodri Morgan has staked a lot on building this coalition but we are rapidly approaching the point where its future is out of his hands. It is little wonder that rumours abound of senior Labour figures in Wales seeking alternative options just in case the coalition falls apart.

Opening up the Assembly

Tempting as it is to write at length on Environment Minister, Jane Davidson's batty idea to use regional list seats to to encourage celebrities, sport stars and businesspeople to join the Welsh assembly as a form of secondment, I really cannot motivate myself to do so.

There are a whole host of reasons why this is not the way forward, not least because it re-writes the Government of Wales Act which adopted the d'hondt top up system as a means of achieving political and geographical balance (Although a proper STV system of PR would have been much more sensible).

Jane suggests that her proposal will help boost the range and appeal of the Assembly but I do not see her putting forward the same idea for the House of Commons. I do not want to come across like the professional politician I undoubtedly am but if all these people want to contribute then they should stand for election in their own right, either by joining a political party or putting themselves forward as an independent. That is democracy.

Despite my disapproval I did though feel that the comment about Jane Davidson on the occasionally-Labour-supporting blog Inside Out at Swansea and elsewhere was a tad bitchy. They concluded:

Without making any up-front mention of the arrangements for ‘appointments’ to the House of Lords, La Davidson, asks:

"Could parties support the idea of using their own top-up lists not only to support equality, but to bring talented non-politicians into the Assembly e.g. top business people, entrepreneurs, successful principals of colleges, vice-chancellors of universities, environmentalists, third sector chief executives, sports stars, media stars … the list goes on”

Whilst left pondering as whether the above bit of rhetorical gives a hint in the direction of her planned careers moves we can’t somehow help feel that the question reinforces a widely held conviction that her enduring contribution to the Welsh political scene will be her retirement.

Could it be that the Environment Minister is not flavour-of-the day with some members of the Swansea Labour Party?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Christmas Gifts

Joe Calzaghe's victory last night was well-deserved and a source of pride for Wales. It has been really heartening to see Welsh Sportsmen and women do so well this year. However, I am not so sure about Calzaghe's next venture.

According to the Sunday Mirror, the 37 year old Welsh boxing champion is joining with the Stereophonics to record a track in the hope of making it to the Christmas number one in the pop charts.

Joe will have competition though. Mancunian Ricky "The Hitman" Hatton has joined with Oasis brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher to help him claim the top spot with Hi Ho Ricky Hatton, a take on the 1967 hit Hi Ho Silver Lining.

It does not bear thinking about.

Some good news

If the Sunday Times is right then beleaguered students may have some good news next year. The paper reports on a speech by David Eastwood, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England in which he urges universities to dampen their expectations with regards to the current £3,145 cap on University Tuition Fees.

Mr. Eastwood told HEFCE’s annual general meeting in London, that it is "inconceivable that the cap will rise significantly before 2013.”

Because raising the cap would require students to take out bigger student loans, this could result in a considerable extra cost to the Government because it subsidises the loans by pegging them to inflation.

The London School of Economics has estimated that if tuition fees and student loans were raised to £5,000 a year, the projected cost to the Treasury of subsidising student loans would increase to £1.5 billion. Fees of £8,000 would push the cost to £2 billion.

Professor Eastwood’s comments suggest that the Government would be unable to afford any extra subsidies while the conditions of the financial crisis remain. “Wider constraints make it unlikely that the cap would be raised in the near future,” he said. His comments provide the strongest suggestion yet that the 2009 review of tuition fees is unlikely to report until after the next general election, possibly in 2010. That would give the Government another three years to consult on and introduce legislation to increase fees by 2013.

Although this is a devolved issue such a decision in England will make life much easier for the Welsh Assembly Government as well. Fees do exist in Wales, it is just that the Government pay them on behalf of Welsh students attending Welsh Universities. If fees went up in England then it is inconceivable that Welsh HEIs would be prevented from following suit. After all half of their students come from the other side of Offa's Dyke and any attempt to restrict their income would prevent Universities here from keeping up with their English counterparts.

The dilemma facing the Welsh Government would be whether they could afford to keep the present regime by paying the increased amount on behalf of Welsh students. I would argue that they should but that decision may well be deferred now for another five years.

The other side of this coin is that a freeze on fees may well give the Welsh Government the opportunity to address the fact that Welsh Universities get £41 million a year less than their English counterparts with which to deliver education and research.

Meanwhile, we should not forget the bad news: a survey for NatWest bank has calculated that the actual cost of completing a degree is much higher than the £20,000 estimated by the National Union of Students, at about £33,500. This includes fees, rent, food and luxuries such as alcohol and cigarettes.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Ros Scott wins Liberal Democrat Presidency

Although I supported Ros Scott for President, I did not foresee a result such as the one that was announced half an hour ago. In fact when I was asked by a journalist yesterday I said I had no idea how things were going but had the feeling that Lembit might just sneak it. How wrong can you be:

The result is as follows:

Ros Scott: 20,736 votes (72%)
Lembit Opik: 6247 votes (22%)
Chandila Fernando 1799 votes (6%)

Crisis? What crisis?

So what is really going on with the One Wales agreement? Is it in trouble as Martin Shipton surmises today or are Plaid Cymru just turning the screw a bit harder so as to get Labour to play ball? I wrote earlier this week about the tensions that currently exist within the coalition government and amongst the governing parties, now that dialogue has spilt out into the dead tree press.

The Western Mail tells us that concern is mounting within the National Assembly’s junior partner of government that Labour is not keeping to the spirit of the agreement in two key areas. There are fears that Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy will back the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee in a stand-off with the Assembly Government over a proposal to transfer lawmaking powers covering affordable housing to Cardiff Bay. Whilst Plaid is equally concerned by the growing assumption that a referendum will not be held on primary lawmaking powers during the current Assembly term, which lasts until 2011:

One senior Plaid figure told the Western Mail: “It would not be appropriate to issue threats to Labour, but we have a lot of serious thinking to do unless things change.

“Some of us are beginning to feel we were sold a pup at the One Wales negotiations last year.

“It was not envisioned that Labour MPs would be as obstructive as they are being in dealing with applications for LCOs made by the Assembly.

“It also seems that Labour may have made a decision that there should not be a referendum before 2011.

“We are still a few stages away from considering pulling out of the coalition, but a point will come, possibly within the next few weeks, when that may become an option.”

Strong words and ones that reflect the more measured response to my blog posting by Plaid Cymru Chair, John Dixon:

I actually think that Rhodri Morgan was - and is - sincere in his commitment, along with a number of other people in the Labour Party. But the running is being made by those who seem to believe that they can simply tear up or ignore the commitments that were made, not just by Rhodri Morgan and the AMs, but by the whole party in a special conference.

I'm not currently convinced that they understand either the importance of the commitment they made to the agreement that was reached or the likely consequences, not just in the short term, but for any sort of inter-party trust in the longer term, of not honouring their pledges.

Mr. Dixon is quoted by Martin Shipton too in similar terms:

Plaid national chair John Dixon said: “My starting point is that I do trust Rhodri Morgan. I have known him for a long time and I think he is a sincere and committed devolutionist.

“When he signed up to the One Wales agreement, I am sure he was entirely sincere and knew what he was doing.

“I think however there were a lot of people in the Labour Party who signed up to the deal on an a la carte basis rather than a table d’hote one, thinking they could pick and choose the bits they liked.”

Mr Dixon said Labour MPs seemed to think they had a right to scrutinise any future Welsh laws – known as Measures – that the Assembly Government might wish to introduce after an LCO had been passed.

“If MPs are going to be scrutinising Measures, what’s the point of involving the Assembly at all?” he said.

His view appears to be that the two crunch issues for Plaid are the pending LCO relating to Welsh language rights and the need to have a referendum. I suspect that if Plaid Cymru get the Welsh Language LCO they will be prepared to accept some form of fudge on the referendum, but if Labour MPs start interfering with that LCO in the same way that they did over affordable housing then all bets are off.

A warning shot has been sent across their bows. Will they take any notice and if they do not what will Plaid Cymru do? We will see.

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