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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cameron exposes his own weaknesses on expenses vote

According to The Times today's vote on MP's accomodation allowances could be more difficult for the Prime Minister than he envisaged, even with the flat rate allowances taken out.

David Cameron has withdrawn his support over plans to force MPs to declare how much they earn from jobs outside Parliament and intends to order his frontbenchers to abstain during today's vote. The paper says that this measure is the biggest remaining element of Gordon Brown's expenses reform package.

What is interesting about this of course is what it says about the Tories. Cameron has already had to back down on plans to make his Shadow Cabinet give up outside work. His plan to get his team to vote to refer the issue to Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life is an interesting ploy but it is contrary to the spirit of a free vote and in reality the main motive appears to be to buy him six months to avoid another mutiny amongst his own team.

If he plays it correctly this could be just what the Prime Minister needs to salvage something from this mess.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Taking responsibility in the media

I spent a fascinating three hours last night in the company of GPs and Immunologists as well as one journalist discussing the issue of vaccination.

The case for vaccination is of course overwhelming and the clinicians there were very generous in praising the Assembly Government for its far-sightedness in investing in the HPV vaccine and administering it to girls in their schools. As one contributor said, the benefits of this investment may not be seen for 30 years and could lead to a halving of deaths from cervical cancer. It is the sort of long-term investment that politicians are wrongly considered to shy away from and proved in his view that the vast majority of us enter public life with the intention of improving the lives of others.

The most controversial topic of the evening however was the role and responsibilities of the media in the MMR controversy. A view was expressed that it is the role of newspapers and other media to act responsibly and not to stir up fears that can lead to people refusing important vaccinations.

On the other hand it was pointed out that the Andrew Wakefield study that sparked the MMR controversy was published in the Lancet and was not seriously challenged with any vigour by the medical profession for some time. The role of journalists and their editors is to sell newspapers and to attract listeners and viewers not to act as a propaganda vehicle of the state.

It was said that people need to take responsibility for their own health and that of their children and get all the facts themselves, not rely on the media. But it was also pointed out that people need to be able to have confidence in the advice they receive and things are no longer black and white in medicine (or politics for that matter). Even doctors sometimes have doubts and their patients sense that and respond accordingly. We have lived through an anti-science age and we may still be in it.

That may be an unfair and distorted view of the evening but it sums up some of the questions and issues that remained in my mind as I left. Much more was said and far more eloquently than I could convey here. Some important and thought-provoking philosophical matters were brought up that could keep us all talking for hours. Feel free to chip in.

Picking up the gauntlet

Adam Price MP thinks that the Welsh Liberal Democrats are irrelevant, yet despite that he has now blogged about us on two successive days.

He talks about a process of opposition to the abolition of the tuition fee grant that he and two Plaid Cymru AMs took part in, forgetting that they were operating within the government system. In such circumstances it is not easy for an opposition party to join in that process unless we are invited to do so. There was no such invite.

Nevertheless, the Welsh Liberal Democrats are the only party opposing this policy in the Assembly and continue to do so. Adam should not dismiss the efficacy of our efforts so easily, there is still some time before a final vote is taken.

The purpose of this post is not to reply to Adam Price however, I would not want to bolster his sense of self-importance, it is to highlight a new initiative in the campaign to protect students from the damage that Labour and Plaid Cymru are determined to visit upon them.

Adam effectively invites the Welsh Liberal Democrats to join with him and other dissidents in this cause. It is a call for insurrection within his own party but that is not a matter for us. Now Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Kirsty Williams has picked up his gauntlet and asked Adam to contact her to put together a cross-party campaign. I am told that the phones in her office are staffed and ready.

Figures indicate mounting problems for One Wales' tuition fees policy

This morning's Western Mail contains an interesting article on the impact of debt on students. They tell us that new Assembly Government statistics show that a third of Welsh students have considered dropping out of university as a result of mounting financial pressures.

Almost three in five full-time students felt financial stress had a negative effect on their academic progress, and more than a quarter said concerns over debt nearly stopped them going to university altogether.

The figures are mirrored for part-time students. Almost 50% of part-time students indicated that issues over the availability of funding had led to them studying part-time, with 35% of full-time and 28% of part-time students admitting the availability of funding affected their decisions about higher education. The figures show that the estimated debt of full-time students graduating in 2008 was about £7,200.

It would be interesting to see a similar survey of those who chose not to go to university to see how the fear of debt affected their decision and look at the socio-economic background of those potential students. Other surveys I have seen indicates that those from deprived areas or single parent households are more debt averse.

NUS Wales reiterated their demand for a National Bursary Scheme yesterday, something that I would like to see in place if it is affordable from the Welsh block grant, but their opposition to the abolition of the Assembly's tuition fee grant has been lukewarm, even though the prospect of paying even more money out for fees and thus adding to the burden of debt will contribute to the problem and may well be the final straw for some students.

And this is the point. The One Wales Government's decision to abandon the tuition fee grant will add to the burden of debt. I would expect a decision like that from Labour, after all they have already gone back on a manifesto promise once to introduce fees in the first place, but I had hoped for more from Plaid Cymru.

Whatever the views and actions of individual members of Plaid, they are now members of a party that has sold out Welsh students and that is something we are not going to let them forget.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fighting for on-line privacy

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokeswoman Baroness Sue Miller, has raised some very serious questions about the relationship between the controversial internet advertising firm Phorm and the Home Office.

The BBC report that Phorm serves up adverts related to a user's web browsing history that it monitors by taking a copy of the places they go and search terms they look for. Adverts related to that history are put on any websites that have signed up to use Phorm.

So far BT has signed up to use the system, and carried out a series of trials, some of which were conducted without the consent of its users, sparking an outcry among privacy advocates.

The European Commission has also separately started legal action against the UK over the use of Phorm.

E-mails from legal representatives of Phorm released under the FOI Act show the company repeatedly asking the Home Office if it "has no objection to the marketing and operation of the Phorm product in the UK".

The Home Office has previously denied that it has provided "any advice to Phorm directly relating to possible criminal liability for the operation of their advertising platform in the UK".

However, e-mail exchanges over a series of months between the department and the firm show the Home Office asking the firm what it thinks of the advice it is drawing up in relation to behavioural targeted advertising, and making specific reference to Phorm's technology.

Baronness Miller said: "The fact the Home Office asks the very company they are worried is actually falling outside the laws whether the draft interpretation of the law is correct is completely bizarre."

"I couldn't be more surprised [that] the very department drawing up policy to protect people's privacy is being that cynical.

"Anything the Home Office now says about Phorm is completely tainted."


Is this the end for ID cards?

Encouraging news in this morning's Independent that senior cabinet ministers are privately discussing a plan to scrap the Government's £5bn identity cards programme as part of cuts to public spending:

The ministers believe that some "sacred cows" will have to be sacrificed in the effort to reduce Britain's debt mountain. They are raising fresh questions over the future of the ID card programme as the Cabinet faces renewed pressure to find economies beyond a promised £9bn in "efficiency savings".

"My sense is that ID cards will not go ahead," a senior Cabinet Minister said. "We have to find savings somewhere, and it would be better to shelve schemes like this that aren't popular."

A ComRes poll for The Independent today finds 55 per cent of voters favour public spending cuts to reduce Britain's debts, against 38 per cent who want taxes to be increased. It also finds that the Tory lead over Labour has widened from 12 to 19 points since the Budget.

Issuing ID cards will cost more than £5bn over the next decade while scrapping the scheme now would leave the taxpayer with a relatively small compensation bill to pay.

Cabinet sceptics are preparing to use the public spending crunch to push for the scheme to be abandoned before the first cards are issued to British nationals this winter.

The Home Office has put the cost of introducing ID cards for Britons at £4.7bn over the next decade and the additional cost of introducing them for foreign nationals at £326m. Vince Cable has also highlighted the ID card project and Trident as potential savings that will enable the Government to balance their books.

In my view the Government should never have committed to either. I would have preferred Ministers to have seen the error of their ways and accepted that they were wrong but if it is financial reasons that finally kills off the schemes then so be it. Abandoning the ID card project now will be the right decision even if it has been taken for the wrong reason.


Monday, April 27, 2009

In a hole and digging

I am beginning to wonder how Gordon Brown got to be Prime Minister. It was certainly not for his political skills if this latest episode in the MPs' expenses saga is any judge. He is now officially standing in a hole and digging furiously.

The situation as I see it is that desperate to seize the initiative on this issue (and possibly to distract attention from his dire budget) the Prime Minister went onto YouTube in advance of a meeting with the other party leaders to set out his stall on expenses as a done deal in the hope that he could then railroad Clegg and Cameron into accepting his proposals.

However, he had not done his homework either with the opposition parties or with his own backbenchers. The daily accomodation allowance he proposed is effectively a blank cheque for MPs, an extra payment for showing up to work without having to tender receipts or prove that they even used the money for what it was intended.

It is the discredited European Gravy Train imported to Westminster and as such is a worst system than the one already in place, if that is possible. It lacks transparency and accountability and Clegg and Cameron were right to reject it.

Instead of negotiating and reaching a consensus view the Prime Minister appears to have dug his heels in. He has now put forward modifications to his original proposals in the hope of making them more palatable. Instead he has made things worse.

We are now told that MPs are to be offered a special one-off payment of £5,000 to cover the three-month summer holiday when they would be unable to claim the new attendance allowance. There is even talk of MPs now having to produce receipts after all, but that these receipts will be unrelated to the amount they can claim. In that case what is the point?

Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker is perhaps being too kind when he says: "It is indefensible to bring in a system that is even less transparent than the discredited system we have. Even if the vote is passed the issue will not go away. It is an own goal of epic proportions on the Prime Minister's behalf. As for the idea of a one-off payment, it is further evidence that if you build a home on shaky foundations it gets shakier every storey you go up."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Will Brown back down on MPs' expenses?

Today's Observer suggests that it has finally dawned on Gordon Brown that he may not get his proposed changes to MPs' second homes allowances through the House of Commons.

They say that Ministers are now frantically seeking a compromise deal. One cabinet aide said the government faced a "humiliating defeat" if it put the measures to a free vote, adding: "Even our lot won't have it."

The Prime Minister's problem appears to be that he does not understand the nature of consensus, when to lead and when to seek agreement. In this instance it was essential that he hammered out a compromise solution with other Party leaders and sought to consult and listen to backbench MPs so as to ensure that they were on board.

Instead, he rushed to YouTube with a measure that effectively imports the unaccountable and opaque European free-for-all to Westminister. If he does experience a humiliating climb-down on this issue it will be nothing less than he deserves.

Twitter claims another victim

The BBC report that an attempt by a Shropshire magistrate to bring some transparency and accountability to his role has led to his resignation.

IT consultant Steve Molyneux, from Telford, Shropshire, posted messages on Twitter about cases at the town's magistrates' court. He said everything he reported had already been said in open court and he had done nothing illegal. However, following a complaint from an individual within the court system, Mr. Molyneux resigned:

He later told BBC Radio Five Live that he accepted he had to be "careful of the language" he used, but did not accept he should not use the technology.

In fact, he argued, his feed was providing people with a service.

"I use it to communicate with the public. The people who read the Twitter read the same thing in the newspaper that evening.

"The fact [is] I used a piece of technology that allowed others [to know about the case outcome] that may not have read the local newspaper but were just as interested. I saw no harm in it."

He said he believed the judicial system needed to embrace technology to ensure transparency so that the public could see "justice has been done".

And why not?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Petitioning to get rid of Brown

There are good examples of e-government and there are bad ones. The Number 10 petition site is one of the worst. It allows people to let off steam but it does not go anywhere. There is no transparent process for feeding petitions into the mechanism of government or for demonstrating how they are being considered nor for what the outcome is. That is a direct contrast to the Welsh Assembly's own e-petition site.

This petition calling on the Prime Minister to resign is doubly certain to be ignored therefore, even though it has already attracted 5,400 plus signatures and is threatening to be the next big internet viral after Susan Doyle.

Enjoy it while you can. You have until 22 October to sign it.

Fighting Smears

Labour leadership contender, Huw Lewis has joined in my criticism of anonymous smears today with a report in this morning's Western Mail of a speech he gave in Aberavon last night.

He told activists that Welsh politics is contaminated with a dangerous obsession with attacking personalities at the expense of promoting ideas. He went on to say that rampant attacks on leading figures within the Welsh political establishment are so routine a scandal along the lines of Downing Street’s “smeargate” e-mail controversy would barely register:

Mr Lewis said: “There is something rotten at the heart of Welsh politics today.

“The battle for ideas has been subsumed by the battle of personalities, and we must use the McBride affair as a vital wake-up call.

“The actions that made up ‘smeargate’ were outrageous, totally unforgivable, but the idea that this is confined to one room, to one party, indeed to Westminster alone is clearly nonsense. In fact I would say that had this scandal been uncovered in Wales, nobody in the know in Cardiff Bay would have been surprised in the slightest.

“I accept totally the argument from journalists that off the record briefing is important, even vital, to political discourse, but it should be in addition to, not instead of, a proper debate on ideas.

“Personal and anonymous attacks drive far too much of political argument in Wales; ideas count for too little.

“We need to reverse that otherwise we will never deliver the devolution dividend this country so badly needs.”

Citing recent examples where he said anonymous smears had overshadowed politically important debate, Mr Lewis continued: “Think about the driving force behind the Nick Bourne iPod stories, or the disgraceful slurs aimed at Kirsty Williams during the Lib Dem leadership contest, the anonymously-run Plaid attack blogs, or the negative internal briefing suffered for years by Ieuan Wyn Jones.

“These are all stories generated internally by political parties, anonymously run through the media. What does it add to people’s lives in Wales?"

Huw is absolutely right. The Cardiff Bay bubble is very small and the people inside it sometimes lose perspective. It is only right that we are subject to a reality check every now and again.

Brown gaff in Swansea

You would think that if the Prime Minister is going to come to Wales then he will at least do his homework. Alas, it appears that is not the case.

Gordon Brown was in Swansea's Brangwyn Hall last night to address the Welsh Labour Party Conference. Afterwards he gave interviews with journalists and was quizzed on how his criticism of the Conservatives as the party of cuts squared with “efficiency savings” totalling hundreds of millions of pounds that the Welsh Government will have to impose as a result of a downwards adjustment in the amount of money coming from the Treasury:

Asked whether he would be prepared to revise the Barnett Formula, which determines how much money Wales gets from the Treasury on a population-based calculation, and which some argue has robbed Wales of hundreds of millions of pounds a year, Mr Brown said: “Public spending in the UK should be allocated on the basis of need – that is the Barnett principle. It has always been understood that Barnett was based on spending on need.

This is in fact wrong. The Barnet formula is a population-based formula that allocates a fixed percentage of government expenditure on devolved matters to Wales. At present that percentage is roughly 5.9% on the basis that Wales has 5.9% of the UK population living within its borders.

In fact the Holtham review, which Mr. Brown referred to is examining whether it is feasible to change this to a needs-based formula. The Prime Minister should go to the bottom of the class. And to think he was Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten years.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Black holes

It always takes a few days to take stock of a budget and get a feel for how it is going to play out in the country and for the economy itself. Many of the papers are spouting nonsense about the new 50% tax rate today, largely because it is their proprietors who will have to pay extra. However, the big controversy has to be over the accuracy of the Chancellor's forecasts. Are we in a bigger mess than he has said?

Today's Guardian certainly thinks so. They quote a report by The Institute for Fiscal Studies which warns that even big spending cuts in health and schools may not be enough to fill the structural deficit in the nation's finances:

Robert Chote, the institute's director, said that by 2017-18 the loss through tax increases and cuts in public spending would be equivalent to £2,840 a year for every family in the country - only half of which has been accounted for by the government.

The IFS calculated that there is a £45bn black hole in the finances, requiring further tax rises of £1,430 per family, or massive spending cuts.

They continue:

The chancellor avoided mention of spending cuts in his budget speech, concentrating on a 0.7% a year increase in spending from 2011, which excludes investment in key areas such as schools and hospitals. But the IFS pointed to the 17% annual cuts in investment spending from 2011-12 which will see it halve in three years, concluding that this will mean total spending will fall by 0.1% a year over that period.

Once the effect of the 8% annual growth in debt interest payments and rising spending on unemployment benefit are stripped out, spending across government departments will have to fall by an average of 2.3% a year in real terms, said IFS economist Gemma Tetlow. Cuts of this order were last seen in the 70s.

She added that with the government pledged to continue increasing spending on overseas aid, it was likely that all other departments would face spending cuts. "Health, education, law and order would all experience real cuts."

Chote said it looked likely that the bulk of the savings required over the coming eight years would mainly come from spending cuts rather than new taxes.

Of course now we are getting into the realm of Barnetised expenditure, that is those areas of government spending which Wales and Scotland get a share of. The impact on devolved services could be devastating. Labour's black hole could well turn out to be an abyss as far as the Welsh Assembly is concerned.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Welsh Party Political Broadcast April 2009

The other-worldliness of Plaid Cymru

I am slowly coming to terms with Twitter and in particular its ability to provide a platform for late night sound-bites that do not look so clever in the light of day. Thus I was not really surprised to see a couple of messages come through last night from Plaid Cymru's Chief Executive, Gwenllian Lansdowne in response to the budget.

Her view was that the Chancellor's actions had endorsed the need for Plaid Cymru's proposal that billions of pounds extra need to be invested in Wales, though she expressed it in a more personal way:

Was it Kirsty Williams who said last Saturday: "Wales doesn't need cheap Plaid rallying cries for billions of pounds extra from Westminster?

Wonder what Kirsty Williams is saying today???

My response was that
perhaps Kirsty is saying that she has been proved right and that Plaid Cymru are living in cloud-cuckoo land if they think that that sort of money is available to the Treasury to invest in Wales. The Chancellor has just announced record borrowing levels for goodness sake, £175 billion this year alone.

And that was the point, because what Kirsty Williams actually said was "Wales doesn't need cheap rallying cries from Plaid for billions of pounds extra from Westminster when the money is not available." In other words let us have some realism in this debate not political posturing. Posturing by the way that was made worse by the fact that shortly after this demand Plaid Cymru launched a new website calling for full independence from the Treasury and the rest of the UK.

At least the need for realism is recognised by some Plaid Cymru politicians. Caernarfon MP, Hywel Williams for example has just been on Radio Wales acknowledging that, unpalatable as they are, cuts in public spending are necessary. He also questioned the effectiveness of the new 50p tax rate for high earners.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats recognise that public services in Wales are underfunded and that is why we have consistently supported a review of the Barnett formula so as to make it needs-based. Indeed, in his response to the budget our Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Roger Williams, said as much, adding that "it is hard to see how these cuts can be applied in a way that doesn't affect frontline services."

We will support any realistic proposals that brings more cash to Wales but so far Plaid Cymru have not come up with any. The only alternative I have seen is on Leanne Wood's blog in which she argues that the Chancellor could have saved billions of pounds by scrapping plans to introduce ID cards and replace the Trident nuclear missile system. I agree but alas neither suggestion will throw up much money in the near future. Most of the expenditure on Trident for example is due after 2014 as I understand it.

We are where we are. Labour have really screwed up the economy and as a result the Welsh Government has £416 million less to spend next year than it had planned for. By all means let us put Labour on the spot for this but can we also keep our feet on the ground as to what is possible and what should have been done to put it right?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reforming the expense system

Gordon Brown's announcement yesterday that he is to bring forward proposals to reform MPs' accomodation allowances may have taken many people by surprise but the two key questions that need to be asked are: "is this a serious proposal?" and "will it make any difference?".

The fact that the proposal came from the Prime Minister of course makes it a serious one. However, this is not a simple matter as The Times points out. There is the possibility that some MPs will actually benefit from the changes whilst the public perception will be that, like the European Parliament, MPs will just be paid extra for turning up.

Do not get me wrong, reform is needed. In particular I welcome the fact that Ministers making use of grace and favour homes will not be eligible for the allowance and also that it will not apply to London MPs. However, this can hardly be the final word on this particular allowance until we see the details.

What is more important is assessing how serious Gordon Brown is. He sprang this proposal unilaterally just before a difficult budget and the day before a meeting with other party leaders to discuss solutions to this mess. He cannot rely on party whips to get his proposals through, he needs to build consensus. So why set himself up by putting his authority behind changes before he has discussed them with the other parties? Once more we see Labour's definition of consensus come into play, they believe that it involves other parties agreeing with them.

Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron have already expressed reservations about these suggestions. They have not been kept in the loop. They suspect a stitch-up. The proposals are incomplete and need work.

In this instance leadership should not have been about taking the initiative up front but bringing people together and getting agreement on reform. The danger now is that the Prime Minister will be tied inflexibly into his own proposals and not be willing to listen to others. If he does that the reputation of Parliament will suffer further.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Budget could see drastic cuts in Welsh services

As if things could not look any gloomier financially this morning's Western Mail offers the prospect of a £1 billion cut in the Welsh Assembly's budget by 2014. They have calculated that this is the Barnett consequential of the £15 billion worth of savings that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is poised to find as part of tomorrow's budget.

What the paper fails to mention of course is that this is the worst-case scenario and that in actual fact the impact on Wales depends on where the cuts are made. If, for example the Government decided to reach its target by abandoning the Trident missile system then the Welsh budget would emerge unscathed.

It is a simplistic and inaccurate representation of the Barnett formula to say that we receive a straightforward 5.9% of all UK Government expenditure. It is in fact 5.9% of expenditure on devolved matters. Thus, if the government decides to protect education and health the impact on the Assembly's budget will be lessened.

It still does not look particularly good for Welsh services but I suggest that the Western Mail needs to listen to the speech and read the detail before jumping in at the deep end with predictions of gloom and doom.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lembit on Conference

Just to prove that he was there, on good form and at the centre of things, here Lembit gives his verdict on the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference on 17th to 19th April 2009

More tension on the Welsh Language LCO

No sooner do I criticise Welsh Ramblings for their outrageous personalisation of politics than I am referring to one of their posts as an example of further splits within the One Wales Government. It is not the accuracy of the post in question that is important here but the mistrust that it demonstrates building up within Plaid Cymru about their Labour allies.

The Plaid Cymru staffers who write this blog are asking whether the Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy, is seeking to fix his consultation on the Welsh Language legislative Competence Order so as to get the result he wants. Their conclusion is based on the list of organisations Mr. Murphy chose to consult with, which they argue is biased towards the devo-sceptic.

It is interesting that rather than use the official channels to sort this out with their governmental allies, Plaid Cymru prefer to use a semi-official blog to lambast the responsible UK Government Minister. I wonder if the Plaid Cymru Heritage Minister knows that his party colleagues are undermining his efforts to keep the show on the road in this way.

The need for impartial policing

I have said before that in my view the role of the police in any democratic society is to facilitate demonstrations not to stifle them or to take sides. This is clearly too idealistic because frankly the record of the boys in blue is not good.

In a comment to a previous post Jennie reminded me of the partisan role of the police in the miners' strike in the 1980s. It was an unfortunate episode in the history of our democracy that I had hoped was behind us. Apparently, that is not the case.

This morning's Guardian offers more food for thought. In this case they say that it was Government officials who handed confidential police intelligence about environmental activists to the energy giant E.ON before a planned peaceful demonstration:

Intelligence passed to the energy firm by officials from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) included detailed information about the movements of protesters and their meetings. E.ON was also given a secret strategy document written by environmental campaigners and information from the Police National Information and Coordination Centre (PNICC), which gathers national and international intelligence for emergency planning.

At first officials at BERR refused to release the emails, despite a request under the Freedom of Information Act from the Liberal Democrats. The decision was reversed on appeal and although large sections have been blacked out, they show:

• BERR officials passed a strategy document belonging to the "environmental protest community" to E.ON, saying: "If you haven't seen this then you will be interested in its contents."

• Government officials forwarded a Metropolitan police intelligence document to E.ON, detailing the movements and whereabouts of climate protesters in the run-up to demonstration.

• E.ON passed its planning strategy for the protest to the department's civil servants, adding: "Contact numbers will follow."

• BERR and E.ON tried to share information about their media strategies before the protest, and civil servants asked the energy company for press contacts for EDF, BP and Kent police.

The picture that is presented is one of collusion between government and police to undermine a legitimate protest. It is not one I am comfortable with especially in light of the dubious police tactics at the Kingsnorth camp. My concerns are summed up by two comments in the report:

David Howarth MP, who obtained the emails, said they suggested BERR had attempted to politicise the police, using their intelligence to attempt to disrupt a peaceful protest. "It is as though BERR was treating the police as an extension of E.ON's private security operation," he said. "The question is how did that [police] intelligence get to BERR? Did it come via the Home Office or straight from police? And once they'd got this intelligence, what did they do with it?"

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said the sharing of police intelligence between BERR and E.ON was a serious abuse of power. "The government is in danger of turning police constables into little more than bouncers and private security guards for big business. Police should be used to protect potential victims but also to facilitate people's right to protest," she said.

It is time to reassert the need for the police to be an impartial force for good in our society and to root out those who abuse their authority at whatever level.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Back from Conference

I am back home after a very busy weekend at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference. I have tried to capture the mood of the event on a series of videos I have posted here and on the Freedom Central blog.

Needless to say the party was in good heart. In fact the place was buzzing. There were so many young people there and a mood of optimism that is bound to hold us in good stead in the forthcoming European Election campaign, which I am chairing for the party in Wales.

The Nick Clegg and Kirsty question and answer session on Friday evening was good natured, lively and interesting, whilst Kirsty's keynote speech was outstanding and impressed all those who saw it, whether party member or not.

We debated and passed policy on small businesses, affordable housing, homophobic bullying, the GB rally, Europe and sex education amongst others, whilst we also launched consultations on prescription charges, long term care and student finance. A number of people commented that of all the parties we are the only ones who still use our Conference to allow our members to debate and decide policy. It is little wonder that the party's membership in Wales has risen by 10% since January.

There were speeches too from Roger Williams MP and Party President Christine Humphreys, whilst we also used the weekend to relaunch the Welsh branch of Liberal Youth.

As if to round off a perfect weekend, I went to see the excellent and very funny film, In the Loop before driving back to Swansea If you get a chance to see this film then do so. Then I got home to find that Everton had beaten Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final. Outstanding!

Affordable Housing

Me moving the debate on affordable housing at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference on Saturday 18 April 2009. Note the handheld camera technique first made famous with Hill Street Blues. Perhaps we will use a tripod next time or a cameraman who has not been to the social the night before :-)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Clegg and Kirsty on young people

From the Question and answer session at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference on 17 April 2009

Kirsty on carers

From the Question and answer session at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference on 17 April 2009

Nick Clegg on the right to protest

From the Question and answer session at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference on 17 April 2009

Are the police becoming politicised?

Today's Times reports that the Police who arrested the Conservative frontbencher Damian Green trawled his private e-mails looking for information on Britain’s leading civil liberties campaigner, Shami Chakrabarti:

Police who arrested the Conservative frontbencher Damian Green trawled his private e-mails looking for information on Britain’s leading civil liberties campaigner.

Officers from Scotland Yard’s anti-terror squad searched the computer seized from his parliamentary office using the key words “Shami Chakrabarti” – even though the Liberty director had nothing to do with the leaking of Home Office documents that prompted the investigation.

The paper continues:

Ms Chakrabarti said she had never been approached by the police as part of their inquiry and was alarmed to learn that her name had been used as a key search word. “I think this raises very serious questions about just how politicised, even McCarthyite, this operation was,” she said.

The Government was accused last year of trying to “smear” the Liberty director after Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, said that she had “late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls” with David Davis, the former Shadow Home Secretary who resigned over the 42-day detention row.

The arrest of Damian Green is dubious enough but this information puts a different perspective on it. It is not a good time for the Metropolitian Police and the Home Secretary. The latest news about Ian Tomlinson is just shocking and raises more questions about the way that demonstrations are policed in London. The tactics used by the Police were openly political in my view. Their role should be to facilitate protest not to suppress it.

The Government appears to be keen to use the Police as an extension of the body politic. The revelation of Damian Green that he was threatened with life imprisonment during the interview following his arrest indicates that some officers are embracing that role rather too enthusiastically.

Nick Clegg on MPs expenses

From the Question and answer session at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference on 17 April 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009

Data Retention laws rejected

The Freedom Bill site reports that a poll carried out by PoliticsHome, has found that a massive 60 per cent of Britons are opposed to a Government directive that will see all phone calls, e-mails and internet activity stored for a year on behalf of the government. Only 23% of those polled were in favour of the scheme.

A staggering 63% of those asked believe that the government already holds too much information on individuals with 56% increasingly concerned about the development of a ‘Big Brother state’. Only 33% consider current levels of data retention to be ‘about right’.

Other key findings were that a total of 58% of people agree with the statement: ‘There is no such thing as secure data storage. It inevitably gets into the wrong hands.’ Participants cited the Government’s horrendous track record with data blunders as the main reason for their opposition.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: ‘This survey demonstrates what we have said for some time, that the government has lost touch with public opinion on the importance of personal privacy. This is the clearest signal that it’s high time the supertanker was turned around.'


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Managing the crisis

Those Labour Party members who thought that the continuing controversy over e-mails between Damian McBride and Derek Draper was out-of-control and doing their party irreparable damage will be relieved to know that the head of the Civil Service has stepped in to block an inquiry into whether other ministers or special advisers were involved in the attempt to smear senior Conservatives.

This is just as well as according to the Independent rumours are swirling around Westminster that more damaging emails, which would embarrass the Prime Minister, are about to be leaked. They say that Labour MPs are appalled by the scandal and some are warning that further revelations could trigger a crisis of confidence in Mr Brown's leadership.

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, admitted that Mr. McBride's activities amounted to a "clear and serious breach" of the code of conduct for special advisers. He announced that in future, any special advisers who prepare or send out "inappropriate material" will be automatically dismissed. However, as the Independent points out the code already states that advisers should avoid "personal attacks", should "conduct themselves with integrity and honesty" and not use official resources for party political work.

Has the Cabinet Secretary drawn a line in the sand so as to create some space for the government to recover? We will see. Certainly, the jettisoning of Derek Draper by the General Secretary of the Labour Party last night is a clear attempt to pull the party back from the brink. How successful that is depends on the reaction of the British public to the affair. I suspect that it will be politics that is the loser from this scandal rather than just the Labour Party specifically.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

And then there were two

No sooner had Labour interweb guru David Taylor set a trend with a controversial Twitter post than others start to follow suit.

This time it is Conservative Cardiff North AM, Jonathan Morgan, who used Twitter to link to scenes of drunken revellers in Cardiff. Labour Cardiff South and Penarth AM, Lorraine Barrett thinks it is a disgrace. She believes that Jonathan is running the City down.

Jonathan Morgan has no intention of apologising. He says that it is important that we should not ignore these social problems. He argues that Lorraine and her Labour colleagues should be doing more to tackle binge-drinking.

So far so predictable. Can we all calm down now please?

Justifying the wages of spin

I do not know why the Welsh Government needs to spend £1.2 million on its press office in addition to the £500,000 it is spending on Special Advisors, some of whom are journalists. However, in spending this money they are very much following a public sector trend.

The Taxpayer's Alliance, who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing, believe that the best PR is free and that it is found by giving a good service to the public. They may be right, but in an age where we have a 24 hour rolling news service and continuous freedom of information requests in the hope of tripping up organisations, it is not possible. Groups like the Taxpayer's Alliance are partly responsible for the growth of these units.

The Tories too, putting out a press release attacking the Government for excesses are using a taxpayer-funded press operation to do so. They have recognised that they cannot do their job properly unless they are telling people about their work. In the last financial year the Welsh Conservative Group received about £200,000 of taxpayers' money to fund their central support staff, including their press operation. Other parties received money too.

We are in an increasingly customer-focussed age in which all organisations are concentrating on delivering the best possible service. Unfortunately, that means telling people what they are getting as well as giving it to them. If these 'spin-merchants', as their detractors like to call them, did not exist we would have to invent them simply because the reputation of the organisations concerned would be under threat from the culture we have created around ourselves.

The spin doctors are feeding on and are fed by the highly desirable openness and accountability that can now be found in public life around the UK.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sorry is the hardest word

Gordon Brown has written to all the libelled Conservative MPs telling them how much he regrets the slurs that appeared against them in e-mails sent by his special advisor.

According to Paul Flynn on Radio Wales this morning that amounts to an apology. However it is not enough for the MPs concerned. In the meantime I have now heard two members of the Government contradict Mr. Flynn by telling the media that the Prime Minister has nothing to apologise for as he was not responsible for the e-mails.

Technically, of course that is correct. However, Damian McBride was the Prime Minister's own Special Advisor and as such Gordon Brown is responsible for Mr. McBride's actions and behaviour in that role. As a line manager the buck clearly stops with the PM and as such an apology is very much in order.

Euro mess

I have a great deal of time for Wrexham Assembly Member, Lesley Griffiths who, despite her tendency to occasionally lapse into the role of Government apologist in the chamber, is a genuine supporter of devolution and not afraid to speak out against the government line on powers and the need for a referendum.

She is absolutely right this morning to highlight an example of where the government has got it wrong over European funding. She has told the media that Wales could miss out on millions of pounds of investment because the UK does not appear on a European website designed to make cross-border business easier.

She wants the Assembly Government to make representations to their UK equivalents to put right this omission. How refreshing to see a Labour politician pointing out the inadequacies of a Labour Government. Let us hope that they listen.

Breaking new ground

Anybody who has anything to do with blogs has slipped up at some stage or another and got into trouble. The latest controversy with regards to e-mails sent from Number 10. Downing Street is only one of many, though the first to go all the way to the top.

Now, new ground has been broken with controversy over the use of Twitter. In this case, David Taylor, one of the Labour people behind the Aneurin Glyndwr blog has put his foot in it over a comment he made about Liverpool losing to Chelsea in the European Cup.

David celebrated Chelsea's victory by replicating an offensive terrace chant used to taunt Liverpool fans over the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 people died. He has now apologised, telling the Western Mail that he had no idea of the context in which the chant was used.

He has also blogged on the issue on Aneurin Glyndwr in which he repeats his apology. However he then goes on to ruin it somewhat with a half-hearted justification at the end:

There is long running rivalry between Man Utd and Liverpool that existed before Hillsborough, I still support Man Utd and want them to win the league. It is really disappointing that someone is clearly trying to use the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy to score political points.

Perhaps he would have been better off not blogging on the subject at all.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fighting subversion

As if to prove that nothing much has changed today's Times newspaper has an interesting article on subversion and protest in the 1970s and the Government's rather authoritarian and over-the-top reaction to what turned out to be nothing more than a harmless protest by school children:

With their long hair, loose ties and flared trousers, the Pupil Power radicals wanted to overthrow the oppression of the cane and the conformity of school uniforms.

Special Branch and the Government saw them as pawns in a communist plot to undermine the nation between double maths and PE.

Confidential police and Whitehall papers released under the Freedom of Information Act show the official concern at the rise of subversive pupil groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Thousands of boys and girls were recruited to the movement, leading to classroom strikes and violent protests. The Schools’ Action Union and the National Union of School Students appeared to threaten the British way of life, demanding an end to corporal punishment, the introduction of free dinners and, for the over-16s, contraception.

Having seen left-wing students bring down the French Government, the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, was taking no risks and ordered MI5 to monitor the revolutionaries, who included boys from Eton and Harrow.

I first became politically active in the early 1970s. I was canvassing for the Liberal Party in the February 1974 General Election at the age of 14. Yet, I missed all this fun by a few years.

The paper tells us that an education official reported to the Prime Minister that there was “significant, but rather ill-defined and inarticulate, discontent” among children. “Some boys and girls are already beginning to develop political attitudes in an immature way, and are affected by the example of militancy set by older students and by adults, including their own teachers,” he added.

Investigations by Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, then at the height of its battle with the IRA, revealed that the National Union of School Students’ campaign was backed by the Young Communist League, the Trotskyist Young Socialists and the Young Liberals. Officials were shaken enough to consider restricting entrance to sixth forms.

A protest involving 10,000 truanting pupils was planned for May 1972 in London but according to Special Branch only 1,500 turned up: It started in confusion with different groups gathering on opposite sides of the Thames before they joined to march past County Hall on the South Bank with protesters chanting “Uniforms out” and “Caning out”.

Later the pupils split, with half marching to Hyde Park for a brief demonstration while others remained on the South Bank, where they were involved in scuffles with police while chanting: “Attack the pigs.”

A Scotland Yard report revealed that the protesters had planned to hand a letter of protest to County Hall, home to the Inner London Education Authority, but “subsequently discovered the letter had been lost”.

More missing data

According to today's Daily Express a laptop containing the names of SAS soldiers and their top-secret training exercises has gone missing.

The computer, which was not encrypted, disappeared while being used during a recent exercise in Britain by the Signals Regiment, who were attached to the elite force based in Hereford. It is said to hold sensitive information about the regiment’s military and counter-terrorism manoeuvres.

Does the government not learn anything from its past mistakes?


Sunday, April 12, 2009

In praise of Vince

Amol Rajan has as edifying post on the Independent website from Thursday under the headline 'How Cable is spooking Tory grassroots'. It is worth quoting in full:

Vince Cable has written a marvellously lucid book called The Storm, which I shall review here presently.

Over on the ConservativeHome website, Philip Dunne MP has put up a post with the headline: "There's nothing invincible about Vince".

This states the obvious, of course.

And reading through the rather flimsy evidence Dunne provides, it soon emerges that the post is really an attack on the Liberal Democrats rather than their Treasury spokesman.

The Tories are spooked by Dr Cable, which is why they're caught between showering him with praise (as Alan Duncan has) and trying to launch a counter-attack, as this post and various musings by Iain Dale,
such as this, both show.

This is as much about George Osborne as it is about Dr Cable. Tories know how lacking in gravitas Osborne seems to the public. They ought to ask themselves if Osborne could have written The Storm himself. If they're honest with themselves, they won't like the answer.

On politics and those e-mails

With the whole of politics seemingly mired in sleaze and scandal over expense claims and dirty tricks I think that it is only right that I try to strike a positive note this morning. After all this devalued currency that we call politics is the basis of our democracy.

Once we start to lose confidence in the democratic process and start to embrace individuals and parties who claim to offer a quick fix, but in fact represent a descent into a moralising authoritarian abyss, then our very freedoms come under threat.

Politics has become populated by a breed of activist who does not believe in boundaries, who thinks that anything is fair game if it gains them an advantage and who puts the personal above the best interests of the people they are supposed to represent.

Many of these are unelected, some are self appointed. They inhabit the fringes of power, they lurk both openly and anonymously on the internet and they use its reach to break into the mainstream media. It does not benefit any elected politician in my view to try and grab hold of their tail in the hope of scoring a hit on their opponents. All they are doing is alienating people still further.

My constituents want to hear what I and my party will do to improve the quality of their lives, to tackle the recession and to provide decent schools and hospitals for their family. Our role is to debate those issues and to find solutions. I am sad this morning that we have become embroiled instead in a frenzied blood-letting that achieves nothing and undermines that vital conversation with our electors.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Taking Photographs

The controversy over government legislation that makes it illegal to elicit or attempt to elicit information about an individual who is or has been a member of the armed forces, intelligence services, or a police officer in Great Britain and also to publish such information continues to rumble on.

I suspect that debate about this legislation will grow simply because it is clearly misunderstood by both the public and the Police themselves and as a consequence their application of it will lead to incidents that will put the assault on Ian Tomlinson during G20 protests at the beginning of this month into some perspective.

The legislation itself clearly falls on the authoritarian side of the axis so cogently described by Alix Mortimer yesterday, a point that is further illustrated by Marc Vallée on the Guardian Comment is free pages last month:

In a nutshell, you could be arrested for taking and publishing a picture of a police officer if the police think it is "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism". Your defence if charged by the crown prosecution service would be to prove that you had a "reasonable excuse" to take the picture in the first place.

I can see it now: "If you don't stop taking pictures of me hitting this protester on the head, I'm going to nick you under section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008." When you add this to the comments made by Vernon Coaker, the minister for policing, in a letter to the National Union of Journalists in December, things don't look good.

The Coaker letter laid out when the police could "limit" photography in a public place. He wrote: "This may be on the grounds of national security or there may be situations in which the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order situations or inflame an already tense situation or raise security considerations. Additionally, the police may require a person to move on in order to prevent a breach of the peace or to avoid a public order situation or for the person's own safety and welfare or for the safety and welfare of others."

I have to say I find the for your own safety and welfare line a bit hard to swallow. Documenting political dissent in Britain is under attack and just in time for the political and industrial fall out from the recession. Think G20 in April or the Lindsey refinery dispute over the last few weeks.

Henry Porter took up the cudgel on his own blog on Thursday. He outlines the case of a young woman who tried to film her boyfriend being searched for drugs whilst travelling on the London Underground. Five Police Officers attempted to physically confiscate her phone despite there being no legal grounds for them to do so. When she asked for their names only one was prepared to do so. She has now made an official complaint. Mr. Porter sought clarification from the Home Office on the use of this law and records what he was told:

The Home Office has clarified new terrors laws concerning photography for liberty central and from what Atkinson has told me it seems clear that she was perfectly within her right to use a camera. "Taking photographs of police officers will not (except in very exceptional circumstances) be caught by this new offence.The new offence is intended to help protect those in the front line of our counter-terrorism operations from terrorist attack.

"For an offence to be committed there would have to be a reasonable suspicion that the photograph was intended to be used to provide practical assistance to terrorists."

In any case Atkinson claims that she and her boyfriend were told that the police were searching for drugs. What is important is that the physical treatment she received appeared to be unjustified. The police had no right to demand her phone or any of her details. The law requires them to give their names, the police station they come from and tell people why they are being stopped. Atkinson said that none of this happened, and she has lodged a formal complaint.

The more general point is the failure of the police to respect the rights of innocent people, whether they happen to be caught up in a protest, legitimately demonstrating or legally using a camera. The disturbing treatment of a young woman in a tube station is no different from approaching a man from behind and pushing him aggressively to the ground. The behaviour comes from the same hostile attitude to the public that seems to be common among undertrained, young police officers.

This advice is worth bearing in mind the next time anybody exercises their democratic right to protest or to record what they consider to be excessive behaviour on the part of a police officer.


Alternative energy crisis

Talking of wind turbines today's Times reports that the amount invested in British renewable energy schemes, including wind, solar and wave power, fell from £377 million during the first three months of last year to £79 million during the same period this year.

Their source is figures from New Energy Finance, a research group that monitors industry trends. They say that the statistics have raised fresh questions over the Government’s ability to fulfil its pledge to slash Britain’s carbon emissions and produce more than one third of the country’s electricity from green energy by 2020:

Adam Bruce, the chairman of the British Wind Energy Association, (BWEA), said that the figures reflected the need for the Chancellor to introduce new measures to support the industry, which is struggling to secure finance because of the credit crunch. It is also suffering from the weak pound, which has driven up the cost of turbines and other equipment — most of which is produced outside Britain — and the falling price of coal, oil and gas.

There were signs yesterday that the Government was considering the inclusion of measures in the April 22 Budget to prevent the cancellation of large projects such as the London Array, a £3 billion scheme to build the world’s largest offshore wind farm in the Thames Estuary, which Gordon Brown has backed.

Its developers are already seeking a bailout from the European Investment Bank to allow the scheme to proceed. Its 341 turbines would produce enough electricity for 750,000 homes.

Paul Golby, chief executive of E.ON UK, one of Britain’s “big six” energy companies and one of the project’s backers, told The Times he now thought that it would be impossible for the country to meet its target of generating 15 per cent of total energy from renewable sources by 2020, which amounts to 35 per cent of its electricity. The target is a key part of Britain’s promise to cut its carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

I realise that this post is bound to attract a host of comments from the usual suspects on wind power but this is a serious problem. We cannot ignore our obligations to the planet and the best way to achieve them is to secure a good mix of provision including wind, tidal, coal and maybe even nuclear. The key is to make sure that developments are in the right place and that they are appropriate for the area in which they are sited. That is not an easy balance to achieve.

Let those who oppose subsidies to wind power not forget that the nuclear industry receives even more public money. It is surely right that Government invests some of our taxes in providing power to make our economy go whilst at the same time securing our environmental future.

However, the one thing they should be doing is ensuring that this investment benefits us and not our competitors and that means developing our own home-grown industries to produce the turbines and other equipment that makes alternative energy go. Such an initiative is long overdue.

Necessary evils?

I was quite amused by a letter in this morning's Western Mail in which a correspondent lamented the current trends in opinion polls that indicate that a 'yes' vote is likely in any referendum to enable the Assembly to dismantle the Legislative Competence Order system and utilise its full powers under the Government of Wales Act 2006:

Doubtless, the All Wales Convention, encouraged by these results, will continue to conduct similar surveys in the months ahead in an effort to convince the people of Wales that they have fully embraced the notion of a full law-making Assembly in Cardiff Bay.

Under such pressures, devo-sceptics will need to learn to live in uneasy co-existence with the pro-devolutionists in the same way as one has learned to adapt to the presence of offending leylandii trees or invasive wind turbines – they are there, but one would wish they would go away.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Stroke services

I spent a fascinating and highly educational hour yesterday morning at a support group for stroke victims run by the Stroke Association. It was a sobering experience as the reality of underfunded NHS services was made clear to me.

Since devolution 80,000 people in Wales have had a stroke. For 30,000 of those victims the experience was fatal. Stroke is the major cause of disability in Wales. It kills three times as many women as breast cancer.Yet proper education about the symptoms and prompt action could avert many of those strokes. Equally, if a victim recieves a scan within three hours of the stroke, followed by thrombolysis and supportive hyperacute care then not only will the survival rate increase markedly but many patients will also escape years of therapy and rehabilitation to recover their full range of faculties.

I understand that my local NHS Trust has put in a bid for £3.3 million to bring its own stroke services up to scratch but there is only £2.5 million available for the whole of Wales. Scotland has recently invested £50 million in its services and is way ahead of the other nations and regions in prevention and treatment services.

The work being carried out at the support centre I visited is outstanding. Many victims there are starting to live a more normal life as a result of the therapy and support they get there. But more investment is needed in Speech and Language Therapists and other therapy services if we are to make a real difference.

I am not sure though if the NHS will support one unusual part of the centre's programme. On Fridays a small party from the support group go to the local firing range where some of them practise with automatic weapons. I decided to give that one a miss.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Twitter revolution

As a new convert to Twitter I am only just coming to terms with it and its value. I have yet to be convinced. However, any application that can send the Russian and Moldovan authorities into such a tizzy, whilst at the same time spontaneously empowering thousands of people must be worth a second look.

Today's Independent tells us that Russia is furious with the European Union over the Twitter Revolution as the current crisis in Moldova is being dubbed. It turns out that Russia is actually annoyed at the role of Romania in these protests and has accused them of backing a coup attempt. They have expelled the Romanian ambassador.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement that said "any attempts to play on the emotions of the young people who make up the majority of the crowds, especially from outside the country, is not just reckless and reprehensible, but also short-sighted." The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called the protests "outrageous" and the Duma called on the EU to condemn the protests.

The paper's description of how the internet has been used to organise the protests however, will give any authoritarian regime (and most democratic governments for the matter) pause for thought. The potential is enormous:

Young Moldovans discussed their next moves online as the role social networking sites played in organising the protests became clear.

Not too long ago, revolutions were named after colours or flowers – Orange for Ukraine, Rose for Georgia, Tulip for Kyrgyzstan. But in a sign that technology is now fuelling opposition to post-Soviet regimes as much as romantic ideals, the protests in Moldova have been dubbed the "Twitter Revolution".

In the list of most popular Twitter searches yesterday, along with contestants from Pop Idol and other television-related inanity, was "#pman" the abbreviation for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, the Romanian name for the main square in Chisinau and the epicentre of the protests.

Every minute new posts were made in English and Romanian, with acquaintances and sympathisers keeping each other up to date on the situation in different parts of the country.

"North of Moldova TV IS OFF!!! but we have THE ALMIGHTY INTERNET! Let us use it to communicate peacefully for freedom!!" wrote one Twitter user yesterday afternoon, mirroring the many reports that television networks had been shut down in an attempt to stop the violence.

Others complained that their employers were not letting them join the protests; some simply posted rousing messages calling for freedom and a change of government.

Many of the "tweets" on Twitter, and blog posts on other internet sites, expressed dismay at the violent turn of events and suspicion that the authorities had provoked the violent clashes. Natalia Morar, a prominent Moldovan journalist and a leader of one of the youth groups behind the protests, posted a statement on her blog denouncing the violence.

She said the protests, organised under the slogan "I am not a Communist!", were organised online: "Six of us distributed information on the internet, Facebook, blogs, by SMS and email.

"All the organisation was through the internet, and 15,000 people came on to the street."

I would guess that the authorities were pretty frustrated trying to keep track of all this activity. They were most probably peeved too at the way that supporters in the west joined in on Twitter and elsewhere. Will we now see a Chinese-style clampdown on the internet in former eastern bloc countries such as Moldova and Russia?

A solution on MPs' second homes?

Today's Times reports on Nick Clegg's proposed solution to the way some MPs have abused the expenses system to acquire property at the taxpayers' expense. Nick says that MPs should be forced to sell their second homes and return most of the profits to the taxpayer:

Under Mr Clegg’s proposals, to be put forward at a meeting with the Labour and Conservative leaders, MPs would no longer be able to claim mortgage interest payments on expenses and would be compensated only for rental payments.

MPs who already have properties would be given 36 months before Parliament refused to fund their mortgage interest payments. MPs who then sold their second homes would be forced to return to the taxpayer a proportion of the mortgage interest they had claimed, out of the profit.

The precise formula to determine how much MPs should return has yet to be finalised, with party officials still examining how best to deal with houses in negative equity.

The Liberal Democrat leader is determined, however, to lay down the principle that MPs should not continue to profit from huge capital gains at the taxpayers’ expense. Research in 2006 by House of Commons authorities found that 485 MPs — three quarters of the total — claimed mortgage interest payments. MPs have benefited considerably from the tripling of property prices since 1997, which have pushed up the average price of a Westminster flat from £171,000 to £543,000 last year. Despite being able to claim more than £20,000 a year for mortgage interest payments, MPs can keep any profit from second home sales when they leave Parliament.

The proposals have not yet been approved by the whole Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, and are likely to be greeted with horror by many MPs.

As far as I aware Assembly Members work to different rules to MPs on accomodation and I doubt whether any of the excesses so far exposed at Westminster are being practised here in Cardiff Bay. Nevertheless, Nick's solution is one that I have advocated for the Welsh Assembly as well.

Our review of the expense system is due to be published later this year and could lead to changes in the rules for expense claims. We are already practising greater transparency than Parliament, having published a detailed breakdown of members' claims for the last two years. From the summer we intend to publish these on a monthly basis. It is hoped that this improved transparency will impose a greater discipline on members in what they claim for.

Parliament will do well to follow suit.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Serious questions that must be answered

This is the footage of the incident that led directly to the death of Ian Tomlinson at a G20 protest in London last Wednesday. It raises serious questions about police tactics and conduct that must be answered through a full independent inquiry.

Mr. Tomlinson's family deserve answers as to how he died. The public deserve answers as to what exactly went on that day, who was responsible and what is going to be done about it.

I know that this has been said on so many occasions with similar incidents but we really do need to ensure that lessons are learned and the possibility of a repeat is minimised.

Are the Tories getting careless?

Being ahead in the polls for so long is obviously going to the Conservative's head if their latest gaffes are to be believed. Their problem is that they do not have the sort of unassailable lead enjoyed by Tony Blair in 1997 and that any sign that they are returning to type will just reinforce the mistrust that people still feel towards them and eat into their lead. It really is the case that for David Cameron careless talk will cost votes.

Thus the Tory Leader needs reports like this one in today's Independent like a hole in the head. Talk about reversing the hunting ban, even through a free vote only really plays to the Conservative core vote. Even in the countryside there is a substantial body of opinion opposed to hunting with dogs. According to the League Against Cruel Sports 75 per cent of the public and 59 per cent of Tory voters back the hunting ban.

It may well be that the current Act needs changing to make it more workable but it is little wonder that faced with opinion polls like these the Tory leadership are keen not to be seen to be forcing through a straight repeal.

The other gaffe is a bit more serious for Cameron. Shadow Chancellor George Osborne's assertion that a future Conservative Government could scrap three year pay deals for public sector workers threatens to destabilise current agreements and lead to industrial unrest. It is little wonder that the Tories have been forced to issue a cast-iron guarantee that three-year pay deals for nurses, teachers and police would not be torn up by a Cameron administration.

The paper has a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to the mixed messages currently emanating from Cameron's redoubt in Notting Hill:

Mixed messages? The Tories' clunky footwork

Inheritance tax Kenneth Clarke, the shadow Business Secretary, downgraded the Tory proposal to abolish death duties on estates worth less than £1m to an "aspiration". But David Cameron insisted it was a firm commitment for the first five years of a Tory government.

Fox hunting Edward Garnier, a shadow Justice minister, firmly backed a repeal of the 2004 Hunting Act. The party stressed the issue was not a priority – and MPs would be given a free vote.

Pay George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, said a Tory government could scrap three-year pay agreements for public sector workers. Aides had to clarify that he only meant future deals.

NHS Daniel Hannan, a Euro MP, claimed the NHS had been a "mistake for 60 years". Tory sources stressed Mr Cameron did not agree.

The only saving grace for Cameron is that Gordon Brown is doing even worse and that so far the Tory leader has not be called into the court of public opinion to account for his party's inconsistencies. Can he ride this luck into the next general election? I suspect he will not even want to try and will pressing his colleagues to rein in their excesses.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Jobs for the Tories

Following her triumph at the Welsh Conservative Conference in which she promised to pop into Wales once or twice a year to answer AM's questions if she becomes Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan has hit the headlines again with a job advert to work in her office.

Cheryl is advertising for a research assistant jointly with the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell. It sounds like a big job, encompassing as it does two countries and an asymetric devolution settlement.

The ideal candidate needs to have excellent communication and interpersonal skills, a keen interest in politics and current affairs, an attention to detail, proficiency with IT and prior experience of working in an office environment. But fear not knowledge of devolution, Scotland or Wales is only desirable, not essential.

The fact that the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales believes that knowledge of devolution is optional for her staff is worrying. It indicates that the election of a Conservative Government could well see a return to the colonialism that was so apparent under Margaret Thatcher's and John Major's Welsh Office, with Government Ministers making token visits to answer a few questions before retreating back to London where they will take all the decisions on behalf of the Assembly. Discuss.

Urgent action needed on MPs expenses

This morning's Times reports on a rather predictable poll that reveals that over two thirds of voters think that all or a majority of MPs abuse their expenses and allowances. Some 27 per cent say that all or nearly all MPs abuse the system, and 42 per cent think that a majority of MPs do so. By contrast, 20 per cent say that “a majority of MPs do not abuse the system, but many do”, while just 8 per cent say that very few MPs do.

In many ways MPs have brought this on themselves. They have relied on a lack of transparency so as to get away with murder. The steady drizzle of leaks has eroded public confidence in politicians.

Harriet Harman is promising reform but that is still some way off. The Commons authorities are promising publication in the summer but that seems a lifetime away in media terms. Unless drastic action is taken to lance this boil quickly then politics and the political system will suffer and that cannot be good for democracy.

Monday, April 06, 2009

A fish by any other name

I was quite amused this morning by this story in the Independent informing us that Sainsbury's has renamed Pollack as Colin because, it said, potential buyers were too embarrassed to ask for pollack, a cheap and plentiful cod substitute. Colin is to be pronounced "colan", after the French term for cooked pollack. I am glad they explained that.

Interestingly, cod has the opposite problem, it is popular but supply is declining. Surely the solution is to rename cod as pollack and with a bit of luck demand will readjust itself accordingly.

Whose facts?

Under the headline, 'Comment is free, but facts are scared', former First Secretary and the ex-Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Michael argues in the letters page of this morning's Western Mail that 'passing powers to the Welsh Assembly through Legislative Competence Orders is a Welsh success story'.

Alun has long subscribed to the view that if you repeat a story often enough then people are more likely to believe it. Unfortunately, as with the 1999 Assembly Elections, which he spearheaded for Labour, he is often proved wrong.

The problem with the assertions in Mr. Michael's letter is not the claim that the Welsh Affairs Select Committee is engaging in effective scrutiny, it clearly is, but that the system of drawing down powers via an expensive and time-consuming Legislative Competence Order process is fit for purpose in the first place.

Alun's semantics cannot hide the fact that he is arguing in favour of the process rather than the outcomes. Scrutiny is most effective when it holds Ministers to account on their promises so that public services are improved.

The Legislative Competence Process is a hot-air factory without any meaningful product. Yes, the Assembly gets some more powers but in the process we have engaged in dozens of meetings and discussions, consultations and negotiations that can take up to two years and at the end of it no new law had been made. The creation of new legislation is stage two of an interminable process.

It is for that reason that we need a 'yes' vote in a referendum. Such a plebiscite will not give the Assembly new powers. Its practical effect will be to dismantle the clumsy Legislative Competence Order apparatus and allow the Assembly to utilise the powers that it already has under the Government of Wales Act 2006 without having to go on bended knee to the likes of Alun Michael.

Mr. Michael's letter is the best advertisement yet for why the referendum needs to come sooner rather than later so that we can remove the interference of MPs and let the Assembly get on with what it was elected for - improving the lives of people living and working in Wales.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Year zero starts tomorrow

The Sunday Telegraph reports that details of every email sent and website visited by people in Britain are to be stored for use by the state from tomorrow as part of what campaigners claim is a massive assault on privacy:

Police and the security services will be able to access the information to combat crime and terrorism.

Hundreds of public bodies and quangos, including local councils, will also be able to access the data to investigate flytipping and other less serious crimes.

It was previously thought that only the large companies would be required to take part, covering 95 per cent of Britain's internet usage, but a Home Office spokesman has confirmed it will be applied "across the board" to even the smallest company.

Privacy campaigners say the move to force telecoms companies to store the data is the first step towards the controversial central database at the heart of the Home Office's Intercept Modernisation Programme, which will gather far more detailed information on Britain's online activities.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said: "I don't think people are aware of the implications of this move. It means that everything we do online or on the phone will be known to the authorities.

"They are using this to produce probably the world's most comprehensive surveillance system.

"This is a disgraceful example of the covert influence that Brussels has across our freedoms and liberties. The entire episode has been marked by a litany of secret dealings, vicious political games and a complete absence of transparency."

Phil Noble of privacy group NO2ID, said: "This is the kind of technology that the Stasi would have dreamed of.

"We are facing a co-ordinated strategy to track everyone's communications, creating a dossier on every person's relationships and transactions.

"It is clearly preparatory work for the as-yet un-revealed plans for intercept modernisation."

It will cost millions of pounds of taxpayers money to maintain this database and yet it is unlikely that anybody will be safer as a result. No doubt the next we will hear about this project is when the information that is being stored goes missing.


Some Sunday fun

This is quite amusing. Hat tip to Tom Harris

Why Welsh Labour are failing to make best use of the new media

Welsh Labour's presence on the internet is a long-standing joke. At best they have two sites of any significance and worth.

Newport MP, Paul Flynn is an early pioneer and continues to offer a blog and website of a high standard, whilst Marcus Warner stands alone as an independent-minded Labour blogger. Considering that the party is the dominant political force in Wales they should be doing much better.

Why they are not doing so is apparent from a very revealing blog entry by Paul Flynn this morning. Writing about an away-weekend of MPs and AMs he says:

We had a splendid, well-informed pep talk on the use of hi-tech communications by MPs. The advice was don’t blog or use twitter. Blogs provides hostages to fortune and tweeting is for idiots. Using a lively website was encouraged and Facebook. Mature MPs and AMs present said they found Facebook an alien hostile habitat.

Welsh Labour are afraid of the internet because they cannot control it and they do not trust their elected representatives to use it in a way that Party HQ might approve of. In other words they are control freaks who are out-of-touch with the twenty-first century.

Then again, if Aneurin Glyndwr is the best they can do when they try to produce an officially-sanctioned blog, it is no wonder that their members are so distrustful of the web.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Fighting for Swansea Schools

On Thursday, I had a quick meeting with the Welsh Education Minister to demand an explanation as to why Swansea was at the bottom of her list for handing out capital grants to repair local schools.

I am concerned that out of £114 million handed out to Councils just over a week ago, Swansea only received £2.8 million, of which £1.1 million is new money in 2009-10. This was despite submitting a list of fully-worked up bids, the vast majority of which met the Minister’s strict criteria for funding.

It is bizarre, in my view that despite Swansea being one of the few Councils with a full assessment of the condition of its local schools and a clear plan as to how to proceed to tackle a £147 million backlog, the Government treat it so badly. We are Wales’ second City and the third largest Council and yet the capital grant that has been made available to us is derisory. Furthermore there was not a penny to help the City’s two Further Education Colleges either.

One of the decisions I was questioning was the failure to provide any money for the project at Pontarddulais Primary School, which was second on the Council’s list of priorities and met all the Minister’s criteria. I have been promised a written note on that issue.

Although the Minister promised that Swansea would do better in the next tranche of funding in June I am concerned that she has failed to grasp the urgency of the need to invest in the City’s schools. There appears to be less money available for school buildings than there was last year and some of us have the very real impression that this issue is no longer a priority for the Welsh Government.

It is time that the Welsh Cabinet Ministers who represent Swansea also weighed in and demanded an explanation as to why the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government are refusing to provide money to invest in the City’s schools.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Hyprocrite Plaid and Labour protesting

What they said and what they did.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Extending the mandate

Former Tory Minister, Lord Garel-Jones has told the All-Wales Convention that Welsh people who live outside the country, but who have a family connection with Wales, should be able to vote in any referendum on dismantling the LCO process and enabling the Assembly to access its full law-making powers as set out in the Government of Wales Act 2006.

It is the case of course that overseas voters do not have a vote in Assembly elections. Does the good Lord know this? As Glyn Mathias says, the normal franchises should apply. It is not as if those living outside the Country are affected by Assembly issues. Even arch-sceptic David Davies MP, does not agree with his party colleague.

I would be interested in the views of others on this.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hypocrisy on Further education

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have been fighting against the Labour-Plaid Cymru cuts in further education for some months now. Fforwm estimate that these cuts could lead to the loss of 500 jobs across Wales. Sixth forms are badly affected as well.

In my own region there has been a reduction of core funding for Swansea College of 7.5%, for Neath Port Talbot of 5.55% and for Coleg Sir Gar of 6.92%. Bridgend College also faces reducing its £25 million budget by £1.2 million. When you take everything together, including promised pay increases, inflation and the negative settlement, the real cut is probably not far off 10%.

Job losses are now being announced and both lecturers and students are understandably angry. This has prodded backbench AMs in both Labour and Plaid Cymru into action. Yesterday Helen Mary Jones, who represents Llanelli demanded a statement from the Leader of the House:

Helen Mary Jones: Leader of the House, can the Government give consideration to bringing forward an urgent statement on the impacts on employment of the proposed changes to further education funding? We would all accept that there was a need to change the funding formula, but in some colleges this change has been made so suddenly that it is having a direct impact, with 80 jobs threatened in my constituency, for example. I would be grateful if the Deputy Minister responsible could make a statement to the Chamber as to how he proposes to mitigate the effects of the changes that he may feel that it is necessary to make.

This is all well and good however, but these cuts and the proposed job losses stem directly from budget decisions made by the Government parties, which Helen Mary Jones supported through her vote in the chamber.

Today, there was a well-attended demonstration outside the Senedd against these cuts. A number of backbench Government Assembly Members spoke in support of the protestors including Helen Mary Jones, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Alun Davies and Joyce Watson. They told the protestors that they opposed the cuts in further education. It was a Damoscene conversion.

On 11 March the Welsh Liberal Democrats tabled a motion to Plenary that read: the National Assembly for Wales calls on the Welsh Assembly Government to re-examine its financial support for post-16 education. Amongst those voting against that motion were Helen Mary Jones, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Alun Davies and Joyce Watson.

The sheer hypocrisy of their stance is breathtaking.

Old enemies

The by-now infamous video on the Aneurin Glyndwr blog site may have signalled the re-opening of hostilities between Labour and Plaid Cymru in advance of the European elections but surely nobody expected relations to deteriorate as quickly as they now appear to have done.

Yesterday Plaid Cymru Assembly Member, Leanne Wood invited us all to sign up to a statement of opinion commemorating Welsh volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War on the 70th anniversary of it ending, which happens to be today. The motion read:

Commemorating Welsh anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War

This Assembly:

Notes that the 1st April will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War, and acknowledges the sacrifices made by the Welsh volunteers who went to fight fascism;

Reaffirms its opposition to fascism;

Wishes to commemorate people from Wales who volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain;

Supports the installation of a permanent memorial at the Senedd.

Leighton Andrews, who is a Deputy Minister and who reports to Plaid Cymru Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones was quick to respond:


Forgive me, but 70 years ago weren’t Plaid Cymru’s leaders supporting Franco?



We eagerly await round three.

Update: the conversation between Leighton and Plaid Cymru AMs and their staff is beginning to get nasty:

From Helen Mary Jones - Cheap shot Leighton. How long ago is it that you were a Lib Dem? Helen Mary

And then Leighton Andrews:

Ha Ha.

I defer to Gwyn Alf Williams, a fomer Plaid Vice President, in When Was Wales? (Penguin) when he argued: "During the 1930s Plaid became even more of a right wing force. Its journal refused to resist Hitler or Mussolini, ignored or tolerated anti-Semitism and, in effect, came out in support of Franco. In 1941 Saunders Lewis’ pamphlet "The Church and the World" explicitly rejected the war against Nazi Germany while in 1944 Ambrose Bebb condemned the plot to assassinate Hitler."

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