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Saturday, February 28, 2009

The art of opposition

The leader of the four strong Conservative Group on Swansea Council is in a hurry. He wants to be running things and making decisions. His view is that Scrutiny and other Committees are a waste of time and that his energies are best directed towards holding the executive to account.

He believes, as do many more of us, that the best model for a local Council was the former Committee system, whereby multi-party meetings actually made decisions. Unfortunately, that system was abolished by an Act of Parliament in 2000.

There is an alternative model, involving a multi-party board that has been adopted by a few councils in Wales, but Swansea opted for Cabinet government many years ago and Assembly Government regulations make it all but impossible to change mid-stream. Besides the level of acrimony and petty back-biting on Swansea Council leads one to think that the idea of cross party co-operation in such a system is just a pipe-dream. Nobody in their right mind would consider even proposing it whilst Councillors continue to bite chunks out of each other in the way they are doing in Swansea.

Councillor Kinzett of course, has other reasons for standing down from Council Committees. He has to work for a living and has a full-time job based in London. That is his business and that of his electors. Other Councillors need to work away from time to time as well. What is important is not that they need to absent themselves from Swansea, but that they continue to do their job of representing their electorate. Nobody has suggested that Councillor Kinzett or any other Councillor is falling down in that regard.

However, the purpose of this post is not to highlight the various disputes that dominate Council life in Swansea, it is challenge the assertion by the Conservative Group leader in today's South Wales Evening Post that the committees he has resigned from are not important.

Councillor Kinzett says: "The vast majority of these committee meetings are a complete waste of time. They are unproductive and nothing ever gets done. I plan to stay on the ones that are of use but the others are little more than just talking shops." He attacked his colleagues as a group of "past-it" over-60s who have never left Swansea. For the record the other three members of the Conservative Group are over-60, whilst the vast majority of the Council's cabinet are still of working age.

The Committees that Councillor Kinzett has resigned from include the Appointments Committee, which is responsible for employing the officers that the Tory leader often criticises publicly, the Disciplinary Committee, which he says is 'useless' even though it is a key part of the personnel function exercised by Councillors and actually makes decisions, and the Environment Scrutiny Board. He has also quit the Finance Overview board, which makes recommendations on Council finances and efficiencies and the member support group, which helps to determine what level of support members get to do their job.

The point is that under the Cabinet system that has been imposed on Councils by Westminster, the role of scrutiny is absolutely crucial to check the power of the Executive. If Councillors opt out from that then they are failing in their role to hold the Cabinet to account in the sort of detailed way that is not possible at full Council meetings.

Opposition and backbench Councillors may not take decisions for the most part but they do have a huge influence on the way those decisions are taken and can contribute enormously to the efficiency and effectiveness of the local authority by their participation in this process. This is part of their wider duty to the whole local authority area and is the basis of their public service.

To dismiss that role so easily as the Tory Group Leader has done is to undermine the interests of his voters and that of the wider public good. By all means come off the committees if you do not have the time to do the job justice but do not expect us to believe that you are doing so on the grounds of fake altruism when your public duty is clearly to work within an imperfect system and make it better.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Neglecting further education

I spent much of today visiting Further Education Colleges in my region so that I could discuss the impact of Welsh Government cuts on them.

Despite the fact that the Government's Education Department received a 5.5% uplift in its funding in the next financial year they have delivered a cut in the money they are putting into further education. There is in fact £3 million less to spend on this service in 2009-2010 than is available this year.

As a result Bridgend College is having to cut £1 million from its £25 million budget, Swansea College is facing an unprecedented cut in core funding of 7.5 per cent, Neath Port Talbot College faces an equally serious cut of 5.5 per cent while Coleg Sir Gâr faces a cut of 6.92 per cent.

Everyone accepts that financial times are tight, but in the case of further education, the settlement must be viewed in an overall context. The pay parity deal of last year has put extra pressures on further education, which is something that further education has understood and shown it is willing to deal with in a fair way. However, just to maintain pay parity, further education would have to dish out almost £7 million extra in 2008-09 to fund an inflationary rise, that is if inflation remains low.

It is astonishing that when everyone accepts that we need to upskill the workforce, deal with the recession through diversification and increase provision for on-the-job training, Labour and Plaid Cymru are slashing budgets for the institutions that are best placed to deal with these matters.

What is worse is that colleges still do not have all the information they need to set their budgets next year. They have been told how much money they have but not the targets they need to meet. Thus they cannot plan their courses and do not know which staff if any they may need to make redundant.

The Government argue that FE Colleges will benefit from the £48 million Proact scheme, designed to keep people in work by subsidising their wages whilst offering them training. The problem is that only half of this money will go towards training, the rest will be used to pay wages, and of that £24 million it is likely that only about 10% will find its way towards colleges. That money will not replace core funding as there will be costs in delivering that training with the result that colleges face real-term cuts.

Even the Government's apprenticeship scheme looks to be inadequate to fill the gap. It is rumoured that the fund of £20 million for this programme will actually turn out to be £10 millon whilst again the money is unlikely to replace lost core funding.

Once more this is a matter of wrong-headed Government priorities removing opportunities for the vulnerable and undermining their own efforts to help people through poor economic times. Ironically, the government is putting on a debate on Tuesday in which they claim to be leading Wales out of the recession. Not on this evidence they are not.

A surveillance culture

The Times reports remarks by the Information Commissioner complaining that laws that allow officials to monitor the behaviour of millions of Britons risk “hardwiring surveillance” into the British way of life.

Richard Thomas believes that “creeping surveillance” in the public and private sectors has gone “too far, too fast” and risks undermining democracy. He has warned that proposals to allow widespread data sharing between Whitehall and the private sector are too far-reaching and that plans to create a giant database of every telephone call, e-mail and text message risk turning everyone into a suspect:

“In the last 10 or 15 years a great deal of surveillance in public and private places has been extended without sufficient thought to the risks and consequences,” said Mr Thomas. “Our society is based on liberty and democracy. I do not want to see excessive surveillance hardwired into British society.”

The paper says that last year Mr Thomas recommended to ministers that data sharing be allowed only in carefully defined circumstances such as law enforcement, improving public services and for research. They ignored his advice. Now, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw is to do something about it.

His critique of the Government's justification for this bill is quite telling: He dismissed Jacqui Smith's assurances that officials would have access only to data on who had contacted whom, rather than the content of the communication. “That A has telephoned B on a particular date from a particular location is actually quite intrusive,” he said. “If an MP logged on to a site selling Viagra, that tells you quite a lot. If a 16-year-old girl goes on to a website about abortion that tells you an awful lot about her too. I don't think there's a black-and-white distinction between traffic data and content.”

Mr Thomas made clear that he did not object to the monitoring of those suspected of involvement in terrorism and serious crime. “But I think that's a very different situation from monitoring the communications of the entire population,” he said. “We've got to have a much clearer distinction between those who are suspects and everybody else and I think we're at risk of making everybody a suspect if we go too far down this road.”

Nice to see that we have a watchdog with some teeth and a fairly significant bark at that.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Bourne Sanction (or the afternoon of the long knives)

As I left the Assembly at 3pm this afternoon rumours were flying around of blood being shed in the Tory Party offices. A reshuffle was under way and a number of Conservative AMs were observed looking grim faced and visibly upset.

Talk is that Jonathan Morgan was offered Education, refused and now has no front bench position at all. Will he still remain as Chair of the Health, Wellbeing and Local Government Committee?

Former fuel protester Brynle Willians is alleged to have been given transport. I suppose that means he will have to learn that the job is about keeping things moving, not bringing the country to a halt.

Talk is that the men to watch are Andrew R.T. Davies and Darren Millar. Has Nick Bourne taken his revenge for the months of anguish his group have visited upon him? According to Betsan Powys we need to wait until tomorrow morning before we have the full details.

Update: Brynle Williams gets to keep Rural Affairs after all. Meanwhile, Freedom Central has an interesting take on why Jonathan Morgan lost his health job.

The realities of power

John Dixon has an interesting post on the realities of working within a coalition government. In many ways he is right. Forming alliances with other parties involves making compromises and on occasions swallowing policies you are not comfortable with. The nub of his argument lies in this passage:

So, the right question is not 'How can you stay in government when they do something contrary to your party's policies?', but more 'How do you decide which issues are important enough to threaten the agreement which you have reached?'

Having been in a coaliton government I can testify that his analysis is spot on. However, he has missed out one crucial ingredient, the taking of responsibility for decisions made by the government irrespective of whether they are made by your ministers or not.

At present Plaid Cymru are in the curious position of trying to take credit for the good decisions whilst seeking to distance themselves from the unpopular ones or those that are contrary to their policies. It is as if they are a semi-detached branch of the government, not an integral part of it.

The latest development is the apparent separation of Plaid Cymru into two parties, the activists and the Assembly Members. In this way they hope to be able to campaign against decisions that their elected members are a party to.

It is dishonest and it is unprincipled. If, as John Dixon invites his colleagues to consider, the introduction of top-up fees in Wales is not important enough to cause them to walk out of the coalition then the least they can do as a party is to stop pretending that they had nothing to do with the decision.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Plaid Cymru keep digging on tuition fees

A Welsh Noted translation of a Politics Cymru post reveals that Plaid Cymru Assembly Members are becoming more committed to the introduction of top-up fees for Welsh students despite their manifesto promises to the contrary. All is not sweetness and light within their group however:

In a press conference yesterday Elin Jones confirmed that she and her fellow Plaid ministers at the Assembly are planning to back the Government's plans to introduce top-up fees. This is in spite of the fact that the party voted against such a move in Aberystwyth on Saturday.

We also found out that two Plaid Assembly Members had asked to be excused from any future votes.........Elin Jones said that "the majority" of the Assembly group were supportive of the idea.

This has the potential to be very embarrassing for the party.

More lost data

BBC Wales reports that more than 100 computer disks containing personal information about patients were lost at Glan Clwyd hospital in Denbighshire last month. The disks contained old data, from the period 1995 to 2005 and were to be destroyed. However, they are believed to have been disposed of "inadvertently" with other waste though nobody can say for certain.

There are many questions that need to be answered about this incident. Why were the disks not encrypted or password protected? How much information is on these disks? Have the patients whose details have been lost been notified?

This is yet another example of why personal data should be kept secure. We have seen so many separate pieces of information lost over the past few years and the more data that is kept on us the greater the risk of sensitive information being lost.

I am very concerned that this loss will shake confidence in the health service to hold and process confidential and sensitive data about patients. We need assurances from the Minister as soon as possible that procedures have been put in place to protect remaining records held by the Welsh NHS and that this potentially catastrophic loss cannot reoccur.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Straw puts Iraq back onto the agenda

The decision by Justice Secretary, Jack Straw to veto the publication of minutes of key Cabinet meetings held in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems almost certain to make the war an issue again.

The BBC report that Straw is to use a clause in the Freedom of Information Act to block the release of details of meetings in which the war's legality was discussed:

Releasing the papers would do "serious damage" to Cabinet government, he said, and outweighed public interest needs.

The Information Tribunal ruled last month that they should be published.

They had rejected a government appeal against the Information Commissioner's ruling that the papers be published because decisions taken in the run-up to 2003 invasion of Iraq were "momentous" and controversial.

There is a balance to be struck between openness and maintaining aspects of our structure of democratic government

The government could have appealed against the Information Tribunal's decision in the High Court, but has decided instead to use the ministerial veto for the first time since the Freedom of Information laws came into force.

Mr Straw told MPs he had not taken the decision - which had to be approved by Cabinet - to block the minutes "lightly".

But he said it was "necessary" in the interest of protecting the confidentiality of ministerial discussions which underpinned Cabinet government and collective responsibility.

"There is a balance to be struck between openness and maintaining aspects of our structure of democratic government," he said.

"The damage that disclosure of the minutes in this instance would do far outweighs any corresponding public interest in their disclosure."

Not surprisingly, the Justice Secetary has won the support of the Conservatives for his decision. They joined with the Government to vote in favour of this illegal war.

When Jack Straw says that publication will cause damage he is right but it is the Labour Party and the Government who will suffer the most. No wonder he overruled publication. David Howarth is quite right when he says that the decision is "more to do with preventing embarrassment than protecting the system of government".

He believes that it is in the public's interest to know that the Cabinet, as a decision-making body, had "collapsed" in the run-up to war and been supplanted by a handful of key individuals around the then prime minister Tony Blair.

Now the Labour Party are trying to brush the whole affair under the carpet.

Government missteps on crime agenda

Whilst one branch of the government pushes its ID card agenda with unsupportable claims that they will make us all safer, another branch introduces cuts that could lead to a growing fear of crime and less safe streets.

It is well-known that Labour has funded its bailout of the banks by cutting the funds available to local councils, according to The Times Police Authorities are not immune from these cuts either. They say that faced with reductions in their funding large numbers of police forces are planning to cut thousands of officers despite the threat of a recession-driven surge in crime and disorder:

Representatives from dozens of police forces contacted by The Times last night gave a grim picture of falling numbers and “significant and painful” cuts.

One of Britain’s most experienced chief constables said that forces were being dangerously weakened at a time when a strong police force could be essential to “hold the line”. Timothy Brain, Chief Constable of Gloucestershire since 2001, said: “There is a risk of increased crime and disorder as a result of the effect of recession and many police forces will be made weaker as a result of the latest grant and council tax settlements.

Here in South Wales the Police Authority faces £14 million worth of cuts and has already failed to set its Council Tax once because of the conflict between breaking Assembly Government capping rules and losing vital services. The Chief Constable has threatened to stop patrolling the M4 if she is forced to cut back anymore. They meet again tonight for a second attempt.

As Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, says: “Jacqui Smith warned that crime could rise during a recession. If the Home Office is not careful, it will find itself sleepwalking into a crimewave.”

Government make u-turn on surveillance state?

Today's Independent reports that the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, will make a U-turn over sweeping new powers which were to allow public bodies to swap the data they hold on individuals.

It seems that the Government is worried about growing criticism that it is creating a “Big Brother Britain”, so Mr Straw is to rewrite his Coroners and Justice Bill to build in new safeguards to protect the public.

Whether these safeguards go far enough we will have to see, however the fact that they are being considered is welcome. Will the government now backtrack on other 'big brother' measures such as the very costly introduction of ID cards?


Monday, February 23, 2009

Gamekeeper turns poacher

I never ceased to be amazed at the capacity of former Ministers to perform a full circle on policies and principles they held as sacrosanct when in office but now consider as inappropriate and dangerous.

I suppose that if you do not have the constant attention of civil servants and the media as you did when you held office then you have to be a bit creative so as to stay in the spotlight. In David Blunkett's case that involves embracing his former opponents on the civil liberties front so as to appear radical and left wing.

According to this morning's Independent, Mr. Blunkett, who introduced the idea of identity cards when Home Secretary, will issue a stark warning to the Government that it is in danger of abusing its power by taking Britain towards a “Big Brother” state. He will urge ministers to rethink policy and counter criticism from civil liberties campaigners that Labour is creating a “surveillance society.”

He is even quoted as saying: “The strength of our democracy is that we are able to challenge when the well-meaning, but sometimes misguided, take their own knowledge of the threats we face to be justification for protecting our mutual interest at the expense of our individual freedom. If we tolerate the intolerable, the intolerable gradually becomes the norm.”

A closer analysis of what Mr. Blunkett is actually saying however, presents a slightly different picture. He is now against a national ID card scheme though he agrees that they should be compulsory for foreign nationals and wants all UK citizens to be forced to own a passport. I would suggest that is largely the same scheme in another format.

He is in favour of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 but thinks that local Councils, not the UK Government note, have abused its provisions. He wants the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, to water down provisions in the Coroners and Justice Bill on data sharing between public bodies not because they are fundamentally wrong, but because they are likely to be misused. And he “remains to be convinced” about plans of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, for a giant central database to store records of phone calls, text messages and the websites people access.

His argument is that people’s rights are already being breached – not by the Government but by “private enterprise surveillance and intrusion, coupled with data theft, fraud and information and data insecurity”.

Essentially, Mr. Blunkett's argument is that the Government has done no wrong. It has all the right intentions but others have taken its laws and misused or misinterpreted them. These are the views of a pragmatist and a consummate politician who is seeking to reposition himself within the Labour Party not a civil libertarian.

Welcome as it is that Mr. Blunkett has joined those warning against the surveillance state, it is difficult to ignore his own record when in government and hard to see how he would do anything differently if he were to be given his old job back tomorrow.


A driver by any other name

The South Wales Evening Post reveals that the staff being recruited to drive the new Metro bus in Swansea are to be known as 'pilots'. Tickets will be collected by 'service hosts'.

You could not make it up.

Court jester?

Former junior Minister Chris Mullin has published his diaries and judging from this article in the Western Mail they sound like a good read.

He describes John Prescott's Department of Environment, Transport and Regions as the 'Department of Folding Deckchairs' and says that his main role was to laugh sychophantically at the former Deputy Prime Minister's jokes.

I wonder who on the fifth floor of Tŷ Hywel is designated to laugh at Rhodri Morgan's jokes?

Yet another Plaid Cymru split

And a broken promise as well. Plaid Cymru Ministers are set to allow Labour to introduce top-up fees in Wales despite the opposition of their own party.

Are there any principles they will not sell-out on to stay in government?

Update: More on this from Freedom Central here.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Labour European campaign flatlines

There is a fascinating insight in the Wales on Sunday today into Wales Labour's campaign to hold their two seats in the European Parliament.

Matt Withers reports from Brussels that everybody, MEPs, support staff, and the Brussels press corps, believes that the forthcoming poll is going to be an absolute disaster for Labour, not only across Britain as a whole, but here in Wales.

Labour, he says are concerned about the impact of a low turnout on their vote, about the fact that they are 20 points behind the Tories in the polls and that their lead candidates are largely unknown amongst the Welsh electorate, though to be fair that seems to apply to all of the four main parties:

This wouldn’t be such a huge problem if the Labour election machine of old could be cranked into action, but the murmurs of discontent about the efficiency of the party’s operation, based in Cardiff’s Transport House, are threatening to become deafening.

“People talk about the Labour election ‘machine’,” one high-ranking Welsh Labour figure said to me last week. “I tell them – machine? It’s six people.”

The party launched its campaign last week by slicing a cake – because by voting Labour, Wales will get a bigger slice of, er, Europe or something – but behind the scenes all is not well, even leaving aside the fact Rhodri Morgan couldn’t speak at the launch because he’d cut his lip (allegedly on a bread roll).

At least one candidate is complaining of having to spend all their weekends and evenings, around a day job, preparing and planning campaigning material and events, such is the lack of central assistance.

Allied to this is the baffling assertion among some that Labour don’t want to campaign. There is a growing frustration in party circles, both inside and outside the Assembly, that too many in Welsh Labour are nervous about going on the attack, especially if it involves taking off the gloves against their Assembly coalition partners, Plaid Cymru.

Not surprisingly, many people think this is bonkers. During the negotiations over the make-up of the coalition cabinet in 2007, I reported here how one Labour AM had told me how Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones must not be given the economy portfolio as “he’ll take credit for everything that goes right and blame Westminster for everything that goes wrong”.

Said AM turned out to be quite the soothsayer: the financial crisis has allowed Mr Jones to play to the media gallery while Labour campaign with all the vigour and swagger of a Trappist monk. Officially, the coalition agreement means that Labour will be as robust in their campaigning at other levels as ever – in reality, few can remember the party so timid in its fighting.

What is surprising however is Matt Withers view that Labour will not lose their second seat. He says that most people find it difficult to believe either Plaid or the Tories will get more votes than Labour in June, giving them two seats. In that he is right. The Tories were 120,039 votes behind Labour at the last European elections, whilst Plaid have a bigger mountain to climb of 137,922 votes. But that is not the only scenario in which Labour may lose its second seat.

There is a very real likelihood that Labour will lose votes in June, most probably due to people staying at home, though many will switch. There are also 96,677 UKIP votes, many of which will not stay with that party. I think it is realistic to assume that Labour will lose 60,000 of its votes, leaving it with a total of 237,810. Some might say that is a conservative estimate. That would leave the Welsh Liberal Democrats needing another 22,790 votes to win the fourth seat.

Frankly, I could dream up a lot of scenarios in which Labour lose their second seat to any one of three parties but I would not want to pre-empt what the voters do. I suggest that political columnists do the same. After all they have been wrong before, notably about Ceredigion at the last General Election, and they can be wrong again.

Socks the Cat R.I.P

The newspapers are reporting this morning that Socks, the cat that moved from the governor’s mansion in Arkansas to the White House with the Clintons has died at the grand old age of 20.

According to this report, Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary, and her husband, Bob, took over care of Socks after the Clintons left the White House. It was near their home in Maryland that Socks was put to sleep Friday morning. "He could no longer stand and wasn’t eating," according to family friend and presidential historian Barry Landau.

Though much was made of the fact that Buddy, the family’s beloved brown Labrador retriever – who died after being hit by a car in 2002 – remained with the Clintons while Socks did not, Landau says, "The truth be known, Betty asked if Socks could come live with her. The Clintons didn’t abandon Socks. They were totally conflicted. It broke their hearts, but they knew it would be the right thing for Socks’ welfare.”

The report continues: In the years since he left the White House, Landau says, "Socks had an incredible life. Betty cooked for Socks," he said, noting the cat loved chicken. He was also the subject (along with the family dog) of a book by Hillary Clinton titled 'Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets'. On Thursday, Currie took Socks for one last walk; she plans to have the cat cremated.

Another meme

I have succumbed to a request by Neath Port Talbot Councillor and Welsh Liberal Democrat blogger, Frank Little to complete his 20 questions, which he has published here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Is it me or are things getting just a little bit panicky in the Number 10 bunker? We have now had days of speculation as to who will succeed Gordon Brown either when he loses the General Election or even before.

Today's Independent does not fill one with confidence that things are under control in the Labour camp. They report that the Party's General Election co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander has warned that Labour is heading for opposition unless cabinet ministers stop manoeuvring for position:

Douglas Alexander protested that the infighting had angered and dismayed Labour activists who wanted ministers to concentrate on steering Britain through the recession.

His candid admission of the tensions around the cabinet table follows a week of growing speculation about Gordon Brown’s successor after the election.

Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, has been accused by cabinet colleagues of undermining Mr Brown by appearing to position herself for a future leadership bid.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has faced charges that he is raising his profile for the same reason, while Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, is being championed by many Labour MPs for being best-placed to take on David Cameron. Yvette Cooper, the Treasury Chief Secretary and Mr Balls’ wife, has even been floated as a surprise candidate for the leadership.

Hazel Blears has also piled in: “All this political positioning just helps the Tories,” she said. “My message to my colleagues is simple: get a grip. Our first loyalty is to the British people. If they think that we are more interested in our own jobs than theirs, they will not forgive us. If the mindset is all about what happens after some future election defeat, then the game’s up.”

The paper says that Labour’s nightmare scenario is that the party comes third behind the Liberal Democrats in the local elections and European elections in June. They believe that could trigger speculation of a final bid to unseat Mr Brown, in what would be an effort to limit the damage in the general election, which must be held by June 2010.

This seems quite a good scenario to me and one that is increasingly looking likely in the absence of any leadership from Gordon Brown himself.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The attack on our civil liberties

This morning's Independent provides an easy guide to the extent that civil liberties have been compromised in this country. They say that a new audit of laws introduced since Labour won the 1997 General Election reveals that almost 60 new powers contained in more than 25 Acts of Parliament have whittled away at freedoms and broken pledges set out in the Human Rights Act and Magna Carta:

The dossier, compiled by the Convention on Modern Liberty, criticises police powers to detain terror suspects for 28 days without charge, new stop-and-search powers handed to police (allowing them to stop people without reason at airports and other designated areas), and restrictions on the right of peaceful protest.

It is the first time such a picture of the erosion of rights under Labour has been published. The rise in surveillance in Britain is also documented, including new laws allowing individuals to be electronically tagged, and the legal interception of letters, emails and phone calls.

Control orders, designed to confine terrorist suspects who have not been found guilty, are also cited. The orders, created under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2005, can include the power of house arrest and electronic tagging.

"The right to privacy has been eroded, perhaps permanently, by broad powers to intercept, collect, store and share our private information," the dossier states.

The Coroners and Justice Bill, currently going through Parliament, is accused of seeking to hand the state the power to prevent embarrassing revelations of Government failure becoming public. Coroners are currently able to criticise the Government and any of its agencies that cause a death. But the Bill would hand the state new powers to suspend inquests, or force them into secret. It would also allow Government agencies to share personal data.

In many cases these measures are unnecessary and ineffective. They are concerned more with extending the power of the state than advancing the safety of individual citizens.


More Plaid Confusion

A letter to this morning's Western Mail from John Dixon, the Chair of Plaid Cymru and Plaid Cymru Environment Spokesperson, Leanne Wood seeks to bring some clarity to their party's policy on nuclear power. Unfortunately, all they have succeeded in doing is to raise more questions about Plaid Cymru's position on this issue and that of their leader.

The letter itself seems unequivocal enough: At Plaid Cymru’s 2007 conference the party membership passed a motion reiterating the party’s “total opposition to the construction of any new nuclear power stations in Wales”.

Our principles are clear. Wales should decide whether a new nuclear power station comes to Wales. But this decision will be taken in London.

If we had the powers to make these decision in Wales, a new Wylfa would not be built.

So Plaid Cymru are opposed to the building of a replacement to Wylfa. Instead they want to see the UK Government invest in renewables on Anglesey:

However, it is fair to say that Ynys Môn has specific economic problems which must be addressed.

That is why we believe that there are vast opportunities for green-collar jobs which could be realised there, and across Wales, via an Obama-style green new deal.

There is an urgent need to vastly expand renewable energy from marine, solar and wind sources, small-scale and large.

Why not invest in jobs in these technologies to regenerate Ynys Mon?

In my view they make some valid points, so why is the Leader of Plaid Cymru not making them as well? Is it because he is in favour of a new nuclear power plant on the island?

I am more than happy to acknowledge that as the local member Ieuan Wyn Jones must represent the views and interests of his constituents but he is also a political figurehead and his views cannot be so easily divorced from those of his party.

Plaid Cymru are trying to have their cake and eat it on this issue. They are either opposed to nuclear power or they are not. If they are going to allow their leader to take an alternative view then that is fine, but do not try and pretend then that everything is black and white and that the party as a whole is on the side of the angels on this issue. That is clearly not the case.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Plaid Cymru and Labour at war?

Well that is what the South Wales Echo thinks anyway. They say that a furious row is brewing between the two parties over the proposed defence traning Academy at St. Athan.

Then tensions that have existed between the Labour and Plaid Cymru ever since this project was announced have started to bubble to the surface with the news that the planning application will be lodged in the spring:

Labour councillors have taken exception to a series of statement made by Plaid politicians, including councillor Nic Hodges, a Vale councillor and leader of the Plaid group on Barry Town Council.

Labour Councillor and former RAF St Athan worker, Rob Curtis, said: “I’m sick and tired of hearing numerous Plaid Cymru politicians criticising and running down the golden opportunity of having the multi-billion-pound Defence Training Academy located in Wales.

“Numerous negative anti-academy comments were made by their president and former vice -president, Dafydd Iwan and Jill Evans MEP.

The latest attack has come from Barry Plaid Cymru Councillor Steffan Wiliam, who appeared on a recent BBC report saying that well-paid positions would go to people from outside the Vale, with local people left to do ‘menial jobs’.

Mr Curtis reserved particular criticism for Coun Hodges.

He said: “Coun Hodges has already been quoted as saying the academy would be an ‘isolated gated village’ and also added that ‘nearby towns would see an increase in squaddie rowdiness and drop-outs from the academy’.

“These are irresponsible and naive comments. The training academy will provide vital jobs for the South Wales region for generations to come.”

Of course the really interesting fact about this whole controversy is that it is Plaid Cymru Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, who is the Minister responsible for delivering this scheme. No doubt he will want to respond concerns within his own party about a lack of detailed information coming out about it, cost overruns, and the alleged creation of a secure zone from which locals will be excluded.

Perhaps he might also explain to his Assembly Members, MEP, Party President, councillors and activists at the same time the economic realities of attracting such a big investment to Wales, not least the large number of jobs associated with it. Or does he not want to rock the boat with his colleagues?

The cost of the surveillance state

Yesterday's Times reports on estimates by the Convention on Modern Liberty that spending on computer systems ranging from the NHS Spine to the ID card register will amount to £34 billion over the next ten years.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the former Lord Chief Justice and a supporter of the Convention on Modern Liberty, believes that citizens should use the Human Rights Act to challenge the spread of the surveillance society:

“Perhaps the British are content to be the most spied-upon people in the democratic world,” he wrote in The Guardian. “But this would be surprising given their traditional belief that the state should mind its own business. The right to respect for private and family life embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights is not an ideal weapon to counter the growth of a surveillance society, but failing adequate regulatory oversight, it may be the best weapon there is.”

With a Home Office working party drawing up options for the surveillance of telephone calls, e-mails and text messages, including a huge government database our liberties and our freedoms can only diminish in future years.


This woman ain't subtle

This morning's Daily Telegraph takes a dim view of the ham-fisted manoeuvring going on in the Harriet Harman camp to succeed Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party. Andrew Pierce provides a useful pen-picture of how her efforts are viewed within the Prime Minister's inner circle:

One of Gordon Brown’s key aides received an intriguing message on his mobile phone yesterday, requesting a call to discuss “that deluded woman”. The aide knew exactly to whom the caller was referring. “Harriet’s really lost it,” was the first thing he said, when they eventually caught up.

The exchange was typical of the incredulous conversations that have been taking place at Westminster in the last few days about the increasingly ham-fisted attempts of Harriet Harman to portray herself – as the Tories power ahead in the polls – as Brown’s eventual successor. This particular call was triggered by a report in The Daily Telegraph that, in her guise as Equalities Minister, the 58 year old wants to hold a women’s conference in the run-up to the G20 summit in London in April, which is expected to be attended by President Obama.

The summit is crucial to Brown’s attempts to portray himself as a major player on the world stage, so Cabinet ministers’ energies are supposed to be devoted to bolstering his position, rather than furthering their personal agendas.

The disclosure of the latest freelance operation by Harman, following her grandstanding over bankers’ bonuses, has exasperated her long-suffering ministerial colleagues. “I expect she thinks Michelle Obama will pop in for a girlie cup of tea and photo shoot,” was a typically icy observation.

Although it has become more blatant, such self-promotion is nothing new. Each week, at Prime Minister’s Questions, it is Harman who semi-elbows her way to a place at Brown’s right hand, to the evident amusement of more senior colleagues, such as Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary.

Last year, her effort to reignite the class war at the Trades Union Congress,by claiming that social class still divided Britain, infuriated ministers. It was followed, a few weeks later, by a hitherto unreported rebuff from the Brown camp. As deputy leader, Harman confidently expected to be introducing Brown before his set-piece speech at the party conference, and was taken aback when Sarah Brown walked on stage to introduce her husband. It was a petty act designed not just to irritate Harman, who has never been a soulmate of Brown’s, but also to put her firmly in her place – which, according to most Labour MPs, is nowhere near the leadership of the Labour Party.

It is a real hatchet job and well worth a read just for the insight it gives into what is going on behind the scenes in the Cabinet room.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The fear of terror

If anybody is going to be in a credible position to attack the government's exploitation of the fear of terrorism so as to bring in laws that restrict civil liberties then it is the former head of MI5. And that is precisely what Stella Rimington has done:

Dame Stella, who stood down as the director general of the security service in 1996, has previously been critical of the government's policies, including its attempts to extend pre-charge detention for terror suspects to 42 days and the controversial plan to introduce ID cards.

"It would be better that the government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism - that we live in fear and under a police state," she told the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia.

She said the British security services were "no angels," but they did not kill people.

"The US has gone too far with Guantanamo and the tortures," she said.

"MI5 does not do that. Furthermore it has achieved the opposite effect - there are more and more suicide terrorists finding a greater justification."

At the same time a study has been published by the International Commission of Jurists that accuses the US and the UK of undermining the framework of international law. Former Irish president Mary Robinson, the president of the ICJ said: "Seven years after 9/11 it is time to take stock and to repeal abusive laws and policies enacted in recent years. Human rights and international humanitarian law provide a strong and flexible framework to address terrorist threats."

Liberty have set out a list of some of the recent developments which it believes represents "a creeping encroachment on our fundamental rights":
Stella Rimington and Mary Robinson are not flaky radicals that can be dismissed by the Government as soft on terrorism. They are substantial figures in their own right.

Labour Ministers are guilty of using the terrorist threat to bring in laws above and beyond what was necessary. They are ineffectual and authoritarian.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Job creation

The Financial Times reports that bankers who lost their jobs in the credit crunch are to be offered work in the Treasury as Alistair Darling beefs up his department to try to keep pace with the financial crisis.

You could not make it up.

Cameron, bored or boring?

David Cameron breezed into Barry yesterday and announced that he was bored with the debate on more powers for the Assembly. Well, yes it is dragging on a bit. However, that is not what the Tory leader meant. He was actually trying to avoid talking about the obvious splits that still dog his party on this issue.

It seems that Mr. Cameron himself has lined up behind the South East Wales Tories who have opposed the Assembly and the devolution agenda from the start. When he was asked if a full law-making Parliament would bring more prosperity to Wales, he said no. He went on to say that he did not support a full law-making Parliament for Wales and that we have to “make the current settlement work”.

Where this leaves Nick Bourne and his pro-devolution, pro-more powers Conservative Group of Assembly Members is a moot point. For despite his protestations of support for the Welsh Conservative Leader, David Cameron did him no favours last night.

Slow news day

A rumour has reached me of a little mishap at this morning's launch of the Labour Party's European election candidates in Newport. I am told Rhodri Morgan arrived late and then missed the speeches as he cut his lip on a bread roll. Could happen to anybody I suppose.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pilots ground ID card scheme

The Times reports that the Labour Government's ID card scheme has hit another snag with the British Airline Pilots Association saying that its members, who comprise 84 per cent of the commercial pilots in Britain, will not co-operate with Home Office plans to make airside workers “guinea pigs” for the cards:

Manchester and London City airports have agreed to take part in an 18-month evaluation of the benefits of identity cards, starting in the autumn. Balpa has told the airports and the Identity and Passport Service that pilots would refuse to take part. This would mean pilots would not be given airside passes and could not fly.

Balpa said that ID cards would have “absolutely no value” for security and that pilots were being coerced into accepting the scheme.

This must be a major blow for the Government who, recognising that they do not have the general support to make ID cards compulsory, are trying to introduce them by stealth. As the Brtish Airline Pilots Association say:

“It is clear that the Government's staged introduction of biometric identity cards first to overseas students, then to migrant workers and then for aviation workers, represents a way of picking off what are seen as easy targets.”

Can the Government really persist with this expensive and pernicious scheme in the face of such resistance?


Sunday, February 15, 2009

More trouble in the House of Lords.

Today's Independent on Sunday reports:

A Labour peer caught up in the "lords-for-hire" affair asked a government minister to arrange a meeting with his client, after her department rejected its controversial plans for a £400m gas storage plant.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn approached Baroness Andrews in October 2007 to ask if the American firm Canatxx could meet the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), following the rejection of the plans for an underground facility in Fleetwood, Lancashire. Less than two months later, Canatxx representatives met DCLG "policy officials" to discuss government policy on gas storage facilities. The firm has since resubmitted the planning application and has expressed confidence that the proposal will be accepted.

The episode lifts the lid on the remarkably direct contact between a minister and a peer acting for a client, in one of the most sensitive areas of government.

The need for repetition

Please excuse me if I am repeating myself or going over old ground in this post but sometimes an area of public policy reappears like the proverbial bad penny, that is so pernicious, illiberal and nonsensical that it warrants dredging up some old posts, shaking the dust off still perfectly valid arguments and throwing them full force in the direction of those propagating the nonsense I and many others have objected to and continue to oppose.

Thus were my feelings when I read this article in today's Observer that refers to a consultation to a a small water fluoridation scheme covering 200,000 people in Southampton and southwest Hampshire, which will help shape public attitudes to far bigger proposals countrywide.

The paper says that attempts to increase fluoridation stalled for more than a generation after local councils lost control over public health in 1974 and water supplies were privatised, but a law change at the end of 2003 allowed health authorities to order, rather than ask, water companies to add fluoride. So far about 5.5 million people, a ninth of the population in England, live in areas with added fluoride and another 500,000 with equivalent levels where the chemical occurs naturally. The Scottish government decided against letting local authorities decide on adding the chemical more than four years ago. The Isle of Man dropped the idea last summer.

As I wrote on 1 April 2005: We are all fond of instant solutions these days and often we will embrace a particular course of action because it seems painless, easy to achieve and most efficacious in every way. The reality is very different, because every action, particularly in the field of medicine, has a reaction.

In large enough doses fluoride is a poison. I read an article sometime ago that argued that fluoride affects the thyroid gland, causing teeth to grow more slowly. This therefore, also delays tooth decay. The author asserted that the real cause of cavities in teeth is the over-consumption of sugar in foods and drinks.

The average person consumes 150 pounds of sugar each year, that is the equivalent of approximately seventy five one kilogram bags or 33 tablespoons each day. Action to reduce the amount of sugar in processed food could have a dramatic effect on tooth decay without adding any unwanted substance to people's diet, but nobody seems to be advocating that.

The author of this article continued by asserting that fluroide suppresses the immune system and affects enzymes, disrupting many body functions. Fluoride poisoning can be seen through headaches, skin rashes, nausea, joint pains, mouth ulcers and allergic type reactions. In the long term it can lead to glaucoma, diabetes, kidney failure, arthritis, osteoporosis, cancer and heart attacks. Infant mortality is increased and I.Q. is impaired. He asserted that the old, the young and the ill are most at risk.

Adding fluoride to our water supply is an infringement of our civil liberties. I do not believe that it is the business of government to create a “nanny state”. I believe that people should be able to choose their own lifestyles and the form of medication they receive, not have it administered against their will through their taps.

This is not an anti-science argument. On 9 February last year Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science column of the Guardian effectively debunked the pseudo-scientific arguments used to defend mass-fluoridation:

General Jack D Ripper developed his theories about environmental poisoning and bodily fluids when he experienced a pervasive sense of emptiness during the physical act of love. He instantly identified the cause, as documented in Dr Strangelove: "Do you realise that in addition to fluoridating water, there are studies under way to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, ice cream? Ice cream, Mandrake? Children's ice cream! You know when fluoridation began? 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh?

"It's obvious, isn't it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard-core Commie works."

Bill Etherington MP calls fluoride "poison". Nazis supposedly used it to subdue people in concentration camps. According to a former Guardian alternative health columnist, fluoride is "in the same league as lead and arsenic".

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

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

Let us hope that those opposing this in Hampshire win. If they do not then we may find ourselves fighting the same fight in our own community.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

All-Wales Convention keeps its secrets

The Western Mail reports that opinion poll research for the All Wales Convention shows strong support for giving the National Assembly primary law-making powers. However, details remain a secret because they have to be subjected to a Government Social Research protocol first.

Does this mean that the results cannot yet be trusted? If so why leak them in the first place? Surely, the powers that be are not trying to distract attention from the fact that the Convention is about to collapse when its high profile chair takes up a new job in Bosnia.

So far all we have had for our million pound investment is a few curry evenings and a half-finished unverified poll that somebody leaked to the Western Mail. That is hardly value for money and it is no substitute for a proper all-party campaign that is actually going to go out into Welsh communities and make the case for change.

The scream in Harrogate

The doorbell rings at some unearthy hour of the morning. It is the postman bearing half a rain forest cunningly disguised as the agenda papers for the Federal Liberal Democrat Conference at the beginning of March.

It contains the usual fare of mostly English motions together with a guest speaker slot for Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Kirsty Williams on the Sunday morning. Star billing however (apart from Nick Clegg, obviously) is a speech on Saturday lunchtime from former Vermont Governor and Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean.

They kept that quiet, or was I not paying attention again?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Chris Huhne was wrong to support the ban on Geert Wilders

It has been a busy few days and as a consequence I have not had the time to catch up with the details of the decision by the Home Secretary to prevent Dutch Freedom Party MP Geert Wilders from entering the country.

My instincts as ever in these situations is that this sort of ban is counter-productive. Fundamentally, it is wrong to seek to prevent somebody from expressing their point of view, no matter how offensive. That is an illiberal and anti-democratic act. If Geert Wilders has broken the law then arrest him and let him answer to the courts, otherwise leave him go about his business.

Even though Mr. Wilders himself does not believe in freedom of speech that is no reason to sink to his level. Once you start to apply qualitative tests to somebody's rights then you are on a very slippery slope and possibly sliding towards precisely the sort of society Geert Wilders advocates.

It is for this reason that I think that Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne is absolutely wrong to back the Home Secretary in this matter. According to Liberal Democrat Voice he described the film Dutch MP Geert Wilders planned to show to members of the House of Lords as “revolting”, and said there was a clear dividing line, “complete freedom of speech up to the point where you threaten others”. However, as I understand it there is no question that Mr. Wilders threatened anybody directly or broke the law.

Chris Huhne's revulsion is understandable but his stance is not a liberal one, being offended by someone is no reason to seek to suppress their rights. All that has been achieved here is more publicity for Geert Wilders and his obnoxious views.

Judge and Jury

Jenny Randerson's complaint that the First Minister breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct by pre-judging a consultation on a school reorganisation in his constituency has been rejected - by Rhodri Morgan.

It seems that Rhodri is the appropriate person to complain to when the Ministerial code is breached and he is the person who decides whether he has acted inappropriately or not.

No doubt he will ensure that he remains at arms length from any decision on schools in his Cardiff West constituency.

Update: Jenny Randerson has again written to the First Minister, outlining which sections of the Ministerial code she believes he may have broken and has asked for a formal investigation to take place.

She has cited two sections which underline the importance of Ministers not making comments on such events in their Ministerial capacity.

She said "I am determined that this is resolved as I believe the First Minister may have compromised due process in the case of school reorganisation in Cardiff which will eventually need to be approved by a member of his cabinet.

"I am concerned about the fact that the First Minister is expected to deal with complaints about himself and his reply to me yesterday underlines that issue. I will be raising this as a separate matter.

"Sections 4.7 and 4.8 of the code clearly show that in their capacity as Ministers, members of the Government must not comment on individual cases which their cabinet colleagues are involved in, as in this case.

"I hope that the First Minister will now understand the seriousness of this complaint and that it will be investigated quickly."

Meanwhile, things are obviously getting tense over this matter on the fifth floor of Tŷ Hywel between the two coalition partners if this article in the South Wales Echo is anything to go by.

They report that Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones has issued a veiled warning to Cardiff Council’s deputy leader Neil McEvoy to tone down his attacks on Rhodri Morgan:

Mr Jones is understood to be disappointed by the heated language used in the row over the mooted closure of a Cardiff primary school with a mix of ethnic minority and white pupils.

....In a statement issued through a spokeswoman yesterday, Mr Jones distanced himself from the criticism of Mr Morgan and called for a return to a constructive and sensible debate.

He said: “This is now in the hands of the independent Commission for Equality and Human Rights and it will be a matter for the commission to decide whether or not to hold an investigation.

“In the meantime we should return to the position where a constructive and sensible debate is held about the proposed reorganisation of schools in Cardiff.”

Perhaps he might like to make the same plea to the First Minister and his employee, Labour Councillor Ramesh Patel, whose tone and language have helped to turn a difficult consultation involving tough decisions into a major incident.

Another day, another key Plaid policy abandoned?

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the blogosphere a little spat is developing between two Plaid Cymru Parliamentarians over indications that the nationalists are going to allow Labour to introduce top-up fees for Welsh students.

Adam Price MP writes on his blog: The consultation on Jane Hutt’s controversial plans to introduce ‘top-up’ tuition fees belatedly into Wales ends on Monday. I doubt that my party will make a formal submission but I’m certain that the issue will come up in what will undoubtedly prove an interesting meeting of the party’s National Council on the 21st February. The proposals mirror closely the recommendations of Part One of Merfyn Jones’ review of higher education. But since the remit was written by the Minister you can’t help thinking that the ink on this particular policy was pretty dry some time ago - whatever the results of the consultation. There is much emphasis on the need to ”be alert to the ‘England and Wales’ nature of the HE marketplace and the importance of English students to the Welsh HE sector”. This is not a statement that should sit comfortably with a Government that has Plaid Cymru ministers within it for all kinds of reasons: education is a public service, a public good not a mere ‘product’ to be bought or sold like detergent; universities are public institutions with social, cultural and economic as well as educational purposes; they need to relate to their locality or region and, in our case, nation, not just function as commercial entities in some amorphous England-and-Wales educational landscape.

He prefers to move instead towards a progressive and hypothecated graduate tax payable over twenty or twenty five years, however this idea fails to meet the approval of Bethan Jenkins AM:

The consultation comes to an end on Monday, and I have to say that I am disapointed that we, in Plaid, are not responding to the consultation as I was led to believe from our National Council meeting before Christmas. I was not on the group, and therefore did not have an input in to the discussion. I will now draft a letter and send it in as part of my own individual response as an AM.

Personally, I thought that it would have been an obvious opportunity for us to reaffirm our stance on top-up fees by responding, and our plegdge in 7 4 07 against the introduction of top-up fees in Wales. Adam indicates that there may be a discussion in our National Council on the topic, but there was a discussion in the last National Council which consisted of us agreeing to set up a consultation group to respond. What can we discuss in the National Council that will be guaranteed to be taken on board by the Minister and her officials if we do not provide formal evidence?

She continues: Adam notes on his blog that ’since the remit was written by the Minister you can’t help thinking that the ink on this particular policy was pretty dry some time ago - whatever the results of the consultation’. I’d like to think that this wasn’t the case, and that the Minister will look at all the consultation responses in a neutral capacity, yet as I have said before, the consultation was announced at a time of year when it was very inconvenient for student bodies to respond, and the timeline was not extended to reflect the desire to encourage more input from the wider population, or promoted as such.

Have Plaid Cymru rolled over again and allowed Labour to proceed with another key policy reversal? Clearly, neither Bethan or Adam are happy about it but it does look like their Ministers are prepared to abandon Welsh students to the Westminster agenda on top-up fees so as to maintain their seats in government limousines.

How many more totemic policy positions will Plaid abandon before they wake up and realise that they are being taken for a ride by the Wales Labour Party?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Has One Wales changed anything?

If the One Wales agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru is famous for anything amongst us anoraks it is its opposition to public private finance.

Despite the looming £500 million cuts that the Assembly Government may shortly have to make to key services, Plaid Cymru politicians still roam around Wales claiming that they have persuaded the government to rule out private finance options in the delivery of public services.

Disappointingly the only reference to this I can find in the document itself is the section on health where it states: We will rule out the use of Private Finance Initiative in the Welsh health service during the third term. Still it is an article of faith that must not be challenged or is it?

Plaid Cymru Assembly Member, Leanne Wood must have been shocked when she discovered that the Assembly Government had nevertheless gone ahead and re-established a new public-private partnership unit, so much so that she asked a question about it yesterday:

Leanne Wood: Can you tell us what the thinking was behind the establishment of a new public-private partnership unit, five years after your predecessor, Sue Essex, wound up a similar unit? Do you agree that, at a time when the private sector has become dependent on state handouts, due in large part to its own recklessness and greed, Welsh public services would be exposed to unacceptable risk if anything were done to make them more dependent on private capital now? Furthermore, will you give an assurance that no existing public sector staff will be transferred, under any partnership deal, to either a private or a third sector organisation?

She did not get the answer she was looking for:

Andrew Davies: I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no change to our existing policy. However, as the Minister with responsibility for finance, I am determined that we will make the maximum and most effective use of our resources, particularly our capital resources. As we know as a result of the recent pre-budget report, it is a possibility that our capital allocation will be reduced substantially. Therefore, it is even more important that we make the maximum use of our resources. The public sector generally, across the UK, has not been good at using capital. In many cases, we do not have the skills and expertise required to make the best use of our capital expenditure, and there is a whole range of programmes, information communications and technology projects, and e-government and other projects where the public sector does not have the skills and expertise required. The idea behind setting up the partnership Wales unit, as I have called the public-private partnership unit, is to ensure that we have that expertise, and are able to deal with the private sector and other public sector bodies in a realistic way, ensuring that we make the maximum use of our resources. To recap, we have not changed our policy; however, it is about making the maximum use of the resources that may be at our disposal.

Of course this unit and this approach would not have been agreed without the consent of Plaid Cymru Ministers, something that the Finance Minister confirmed later on, but the really devasting news for Plaid members must be the statement that Assembly Government policy has not changed.

In other words the One Wales Agreement has not made the slightest difference and that if private finance proves to be a viable way forward then it will be used. With the All Wales Convention looking increasingly like it is dead in the water and with a whole host of other policy failures Plaid Cymru must be wondering what it is that they have signed up for.

Contradictory messages

I am fully aware that irony does not work well on blogs so please bear with me here. Today's Western Mail reports that Conservative Shadow Justice Minister Eleanor Laing told the House of Commons during a debate about who should sit on the Electoral Commission, that all politicians should be elected under the traditional first-past-the-post system.

This immediately caused a flurry activity in Wales with the realisation amongst journalists and politicians that such a change in policy would devastate the Welsh Conservative Group, many of whom including their leader were elected under a system of proportional representation. The Welsh Tory press machine cranked into action:

A Welsh Conservative spokesman said: “Eleanor Laing was very clearly speaking in the context of the nomination of Electoral Commissioners. There is, as the Liberal Democrats know full well, no proposal from the Conservative Party to alter the list system for the National Assembly. We believe strongly in devolution and have been active in ensuring devolution works for the people of Wales.

Well yes, except that Electoral Commissioners are not elected, Assembly Members are and clearly there is now a proposal from a senior Conservative to change our voting system. Realising the weakness of his argument the spokesman went onto the offensive:

“It is not difficult to see why the Lib Dems are the fourth party in Wales. Instead of this childish sniping it is time they focussed on issues that really matter such as the recession Labour has led us into.”

In a week in which the Welsh Conservative Leader has been universally mocked for getting into childish sniping with the First Minister over who did and did not attend a meeting and in which the Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader has been praised for the way she focussed on the issues and in particular the impact of the recession, this line is extremely rich indeed.

Time for the Welsh Tories to stop digging perhaps.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Curry in Bosnia?

The BBC reveal that curry-King and Chair of the All-Wales Convention on further Assembly powers, Sir Emyr Jones Parry has been lined up to up-sticks and head off to Bosnia in the former Paddy Ashdown role of EU Special Representative.

He is one of several candidates for the job, with EU foreign ministers hoping to agree on their nomination at a meeting on 23 February. His candidacy brings into doubt the future of the key Convention, that was brokered by Labour and Plaid negotiators so as to avoid making any divisive commitment to anything meaningful on the powers of the Assembly.

The promise to deliver a referendum before 2011 is dependent on the successful conclusion of this Convention, which to everybody else is just an expensive talking shop. It is costing £1 million at a time when key education and social care budgets are being cut all over Wales and when most of its work had been done by the Richard Commission before it.

Furthermore, Mr. Jones Parry was the personal choice of First Minister, Rhodri Morgan and his loss will be a huge personal blow both to the integrity of the One Wales agreement and to the First Minister himself.

On a BBC programme earlier today one Labour AM suggested that perhaps Mr. Jones Parry could do both jobs simultaneously, rather like Dean Saunders combines the role of manager of Wrexham Football Club with his role with the Wales football team. However, Bosnia is substantially further away from Wales than Cardiff is from Wrexham and this does not appear a practical alternative.

Comments on Betsan Powys' blog on this issue are instructive with Stonemason seeming to sum up the mood: 'Diplomats generally know when to withdraw, and Sir Emyr Jones Parry is a man who can recognise a duck dead in the water.' We await developments with interest.

Kirsty scores a direct hit

First Minister's questions yesterday produced a fascinating exercise from the Welsh Conservative Leader in how not to scrutinise the government.

Nick Bourne raised process issues about the Fourth Economic Summit and bombed badly. In contrast Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Kirsty Williams was in the zone, asking direct, pertinent questions about the issues that matter to people all over Wales. Betsan Powys takes up the story:

Today I bet you would have winced had you watched First Minister's Questions. No near misses here, rather direct hits. Nick Bourne took the full force of asking the wrong question, based on the wrong information to a First Minister who swept him aside.

Why, asked Mr Bourne, had business leaders not had a chance to speak at the Economic Summit in Broughton on Friday?

Rhodri Morgan was picking up pace as he came down the tracks. What tittle tattle! He was in the chair himself and distinctly remembered inviting representatives from business to talk. Come on Nick, he goaded, you've got to do better than that. Balderdash!

Why oh why, asked Mr Bourne, had Jane Hutt, the Minister in charge of Lifelong Learning and Skills, not been at the Summit? Why wasn't she there to answer questions?

Then came the moment of impact. Bad news for Mr Bourne. She had been there. What's more she'd taken part, answered questions, the lot. A waste of two questions. 2-0 to the First Minister. "Poppycock! Not good enough Nick" he blared. The staunchest of Mr Bourne's supporters sank in their seats.

"When the boys have stopped arguing over who was or wasn't there ..." It was Kirsty Williams' turn. More bad news for Mr Bourne. Her questions were sharp, useful and scored direct hits. Had the Assembly Government talked to banks about the availability of credit? Had the First Minister made representations to the EU on state aid rules that govern the interest rates at which Finance Wales - who are there to help small and medium size businesses - can borrow? Would he do either of these things before the next Summit?

There was no answer from the First Minister.

Are the Conservatives beginning to lose their way in the face of a revitalised Welsh Liberal Democrat opposition?

As Betsan points out this episode has not done much to help Nick Bourne to hold onto his job.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Border issues

Letting the train take the strain has taken on a new dimension with the revelation that First Great Western, who operate the Swansea to Paddington mainline service are not that clear as to where the border between England and Wales is.

This is puzzling as from their perspective once they have entered and emerged from the occasionally flooded Severn tunnel they have crossed the devolution rubicon.

Nevertheless, the latest edition of First Great Western’s on-board magazine for rail passengers contains a full page picture of Cardiff Castle as part of a feature advertising walks in England:

Beneath a colour picture of the castle’s medieval keep – and with the Red Dragon flag limp and barely visible against its pole – a caption reads: “Walks of life – Seeing England by foot is the best way to sample other people’s experiences of life. We set the pace with five of the best themed walks.”

The first of the walks, featured on the opposite page, is a stroll around the parks and gardens of Cardiff – without once mentioning Wales or that Cardiff is its capital city.

Oh dear!

Who was really incompetent?

So where do I start with Peter Hain's complaint in this morning's Western Mail that the Electoral Commission is 'incompetent'?

He told MPs yesterday that he thinks the Electoral Commission needs to be much more accountable and needs different leadership: “I must say, and I won’t go into detail, I found it to be incompetent, dysfunctional and unworldly, politically.”

He added: “I just could not believe some of the things that I experienced... there are countless examples I could quote about my own unhappy experience which just prove to me that the commission has very little idea about the political world that it was regulating.”

The police did not welcome their increasing role in political investigations, Mr Hain suggested, saying: “We are in danger of following almost the American course of politics in which we just pollute politics with all this extraneous interference.”

I have said in the past that I consider Mr. Hain to be honest and a highly competent Minister but if a charge of naivety is to be levied then he must be in the queue as a recipient of that tag. After all he was found by the Standards Commissioner to have failed to declare over £100,000 of campaign donations, has admitted that he was not in control of his own campaign and was forced to apologise to the Commons for the oversight.

To be frank the legislation as drafted did not leave the Electoral Commission any choice but to refer the matter to the police. When that law was put in place Mr. Hain was in government. He and his party were the architects of their own misfortune. Essentially, Hain fell foul of rules that he and his party constructed.

Changes are being pushed for and it is not before time but it seems that the Government are not so keen. Maybe Mr. Hain's time would be better spent directing his ire at the relevant Cabinet Minister instead of hitting out at an organisation charged with doing a job without adequate powers to do it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

First Minister speaks for Wales

Rhodri Morgan gets to grips with the real issue affecting all Welsh citizens:

First Minister Rhodri Morgan hailed yesterday’s victory, but called for improvements in Wales’ goal kicking – they missed 11 points – ahead of Saturday’s clash with England.

Tackling excessive bonuses

The Financial Times reports a Vince Cable anecdote that in the early 18th century, after the bursting of the South Sea bubble, a parliamentary resolution proposed that bankers be tied up in sacks filled with snakes and thrown into the Thames.

Even the Liberal Democrats would not advocate such a drastic measure as a solution to excessive bonuses. There is no doubt that something must be done. It does not help though if the Treasury's own team are also getting big bonuses. The Times takes up the story:

UK Financial Investments Ltd (UKFI), the Treasury-run body created by Alistair Darling to manage the state’s stake in the banks, is set to approve more than £1 billion in bonuses for bankers bailed out by the taxpayer. The Royal Bank of Scotland, which is 70 per cent owned by the state, wants to pay staff close to £1 billion in bonuses. UKFI is also being asked to approve bonus payments in another part-nationalised lender, Lloyds Banking Group.


Since its creation UKFI has hired around a dozen senior bankers and other financial experts. They include John Kingman, a senior Treasury official, John Crompton, formerly managing director of Merrill Lynch, and the banking analyst Tim Sykes. The Government has so far refused to say what UKFI’s staff are paid, but a spokesman yesterday admitted it intends to run a bonus scheme. The full details had yet to be finalised, he said.

Such a revelation surely helps to put the Chancellors review into the way banks are run into context. This is one bubble that needs bursting.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

A failing government

It is not often that somebody can tell the UK Government that 'they told them so' but that appears to be the case today, with revelations in national newspapers that the government's flagship policy to revolutionise welfare by paying private companies to find jobs for the unemployed is in crisis. Firms say that there are too many people out of work and too few vacancies to make it viable.

It is not me that is claiming the benefit of foresight in this instance however, I am doing so on behalf of the Bevan Foundation who, on 10 December last year wrote on their blog that 'the idea that all these claimants need is a shove and the threat of removing their benefits is wrong'. They continued: 'There isn't a hope of getting this number of people into work unless the Government realises that it has a responsibility to provide jobs or meaningful training.'

Author, Victoria Winckler pointed out that 'In October, in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, there were 25,000 people who were either unemployed or were economically inactive but wanted to work. That's a small town full of people out of work.

At the same time, the Job Centre had just 1,567 vacancies registered with them in these areas. That's 16 people chasing every job.

Although job centres don't cover all vacancies, they are the main source for people being 'helped into work'. And if that is not bad enough, nearly a quarter of the vacancies were sales reps or assistants jobs (many of which are commission only), and nearly a fifth were cleaners or security guards. Many of these vacancies do not pay enough or offer enough hours to provide a living wage.'

The private companies who have been bidding for the job of getting claimants back to work want more money upfront. They believe that the contract is much harder to deliver now than it was when they first bid for it.

With unemployment about to pass the two million mark for the first time in more than a decade and with the possibility that it will be three million before the end of this year I can see their point.

Getting people back to work may well prove tougher than Ministers anticipated. The government for example will have to help to attract new jobs instead of relying on the inadequate number that are currently available. There will also have to be sufficient funding for training and education to upskill the workforce something that is sadly lacking in Wales.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Lost to science

Today's Guardian has a cautionary tale about a research scientist who had a fascination with the dietary habits of lizards:

For centuries the steaming jungles of the globe and the slithering, scuttling but often unseen creatures that inhabit them have beckoned mysteriously to adventurers, biologists and botanists. But it was not a myth or legend, nor a rare bird or secretive serpent that lured Daniel Bennett to the rainforests of the Philippines. It was lizard poo. Kilos and kilos of it.

After five years spent in hot and difficult pursuit of the rare butaan lizard, cousin to the mighty komodo dragon, the PhD student had managed to collect 35kg (77lb) of its faeces.

Which perhaps explains why he was so furious to return to Leeds University for his third year only to discover that a lab technician had thrown out his sack of samples.

"I was surprised to find my desk space occupied by another student," he said. "My personal effects had been carefully stowed in boxes, but there was no sign of my 35kg bag of lizard shit."

Bennett told the Times Higher Education supplement: "To some people it might have been just a bag of lizard shit, but to me it represented seven years of painstaking work searching the rainforest with a team of reformed poachers to find the faeces of one of the world's largest, rarest and most mysterious lizards."

I know how he feels. When I was a student I returned home only to find that my mother had thrown out my collection of Marvel comics including what by now might be a valuable first edition.

Back to Laugharne

Today's Western Mail has details of this years Laugharne Weekend Festival. They report that organisers have pulled off the coup of bringing the likes of surviving members of legendary punk band The Clash and Kinks founder Ray Davies to the Town made famous for its Dylan Thomas connection.

The highlights of last year were the two concerts by Patti Smith, one in the Laugharne Millennium Hall and the other in Dylan Thomas' boathouse. The latter venue is very exclusive as I believe that it is difficult to get more than 25 people in there at a squeeze. Needless to say I was unable to get tickets for either.

Patti Smith is returning this year and will be joined by the leader of the Great Train Robbery, Bruce Reynolds, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, comedians Alexi Sayle and Keith Allen and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin writer Louis De Bernières. Other artists are Simon Armitage, A. L. Kennedy, DBC Pierre, Mark Steel and Willy Vlautin.

There is a weekend ticket on sale on the website now whilst tickets for individual events will go on sale next Friday.

Working with the Police

Last week I attended my local PACT (Police and Communities Together) meeting at which community police officers are able to get feedback from those they serve and set their priorities for the month ahead.

These meetings take place every month and I always make an effort to attend. They are an invaluable opportunity to make contact with officers and to talk through some of the problems my neighbours and I encounter every day.

At the last meeting about a dozen residents struggled through the snow to raise their concerns and to ask the Inspector questions about the number of Police Officers and PCSOs he was deploying in the area as well as raising a whole host of issues to do with anti-social behaviour and parking.

In my view these meetings should be one tool in the Police's armoury, providing useful feedback and interaction with those they are paid to protect. However, I have concerns at the way they seem to dominate the Police's work.

The one thing that these meetings cannot do is to provide strategic direction to the Police force. They feed into their strategy but they cannot replace the proper analysis of trends that allows senior management to deploy their resources effectively.

The meetings are a part of local policing, but we are only allowed to set three priorities and sometimes there are more issues than that. Do the ones that have not been prioritised get overlooked?

What irritates me is that whenever I write to the Chief Superintendent or one of his management team the letter is always postcripted with a request that I should encourage my constituent to engage with the PACT meetings 'so that such issues may be prioritised in context'. I had one such letter today.

Well of course I always encourage my constituents to go to these meetings but if they do not wish to do so then that is their right. They should not be treated as second class because they are unwilling or unable to tramp through the snow on the evening of the first Monday of February to attend a meeting in a draughty hall nor should their problems be any less of a priority for the police than others especially when the issue fits in with the force's strategic goals. And what if they go and their problem is perceived as less important than others? They are then in the same boat, a second class citizen not getting the service they deserve from the Police force.

I very much want these meetings to continue. They provide a useful engagement with the various agencies concerned. But they must be treated for what they are, one input amongst many others.

PACT meetings must not be used to exclude people from having their policing needs met nor should they be the only determinant of the priorities of hard-working and dedicated local officers, assuming that we have enough to deliver a decent service in the first place. Everybody deserves to have their say, whether they can get to meetings or not and the Police should make allowances for that.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Those ipods

On a lighter note proposals by the Conservatives will give greater powers to teachers including the ability to confiscate iPods and mobile phones from disruptive children.

It is not clear whether this will apply in Wales but if so the Welsh Conservative Leader, Nick Bourne and his Local Government Spokesperson, Alun Cairns will need to behave in Plenary sessions lest the Presiding Officer uses the same sanction against them.

N.B. It is a fact that whenever a mobile phone goes off in the Chamber it invariably belongs to a Conservative Assembly Member. This has not always been the case though.

I was once interrupted in mid-speech in the old chamber by the First Minister's phone going off. When I offered to pause so that he could answer it I was told that it is out-of-order to refer to a ringing phone on the record.

Watching you, watching me

Those who are concerned at the gradual erosion of our civil liberties under this Labour Government (and their Tory predecessors) will be interested in this report in today's Guardian. The paper tells us that a House of Lords report has concluded that the steady expansion of the "surveillance society" risks undermining fundamental freedoms including the right to privacy.

They argue that Britain leads the world in the use of CCTV, with an estimated 4 million cameras, and in building a national DNA database, with more than 7% of the population already logged compared with 0.5% in the America. They warn that the national DNA database could be used for "malign purposes", challenge whether CCTV cuts crime and question whether local authorities should be allowed to use surveillance powers at all.

Their constitution committee makes more than 40 recommendations to protect individual privacy, including the deletion of all profiles from the national DNA database except for those of convicted criminals and a call for the mandatory encryption of personal data held by public and private organisations that are legally obliged to hold it.

Definitely food for thought.


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