Monday, November 30, 2009
WAG fails to lead again
It is no real surprise therefore to find another news story in the same paper in which the Welsh Government is failing dismally to meet those expectations. Unfortunately, even at this late stage of the day the paper has failed to post this story on their website.
The report tells us that taxpayers are to subsidise a bigger aircraft to fly between North and South Wales, even though passenger numbers are falling. At the same time trains between the two regions have seen a 25% increase in passenger numbers this year.
Environmentalists quite rightly accuse the Welsh Government of hypocrisy for promising to cut carbon emissions whilst subsidising internal flights on what has popularly become known as Ieuan Air, in spite of there being a greener alternative.
Last December, Arriva Trains cut North-South rail journey times and introduced an 'express' service with first class seating, a restaurant car and tables for business travellers. The Welsh Government pay Arriva £1.7m a year for the express, compared to £1.2m a year for the air service and civilian terminal at RAF Valley. Between Bangor and Cardiff, where this train service competes directly with Ieuan Air, there has been a 21% increase in rail passengers this year.
The obvious green solution to this is to withdraw the £1.2m subsidy to the air service and use the money to further improve the rail link, including putting in place the structural changes needed for it to stop at Wrexham.
Alas that seems too green a solution for a Government that is making a point of sending a Minister to Copenhagen to underline its commitment to tackling climate change and which recently supported a Welsh Liberal Democrat motion to cut emissions by 40%. The grass really is greener on the other side.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Sometimes you just cannot make it up.
Non-Doms for Cameron
In a disclosure that risks embarrassing the Conservative party, he confirmed that he is a “non-dom” who can legitimately escape paying tax on his inheritance from his late father, Sir James Goldsmith. Much of it is held offshore.
This weekend Goldsmith, the Tory candidate for Richmond Park, told The Sunday Times that he plans to give up his non-dom status next year. The general election must be held by June.
The Tories have criticised non-doms for avoiding tax. George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, has pledged to impose a £25,000 annual levy on their wealth. Lord Ashcroft, the party’s biggest donor, is under pressure to confirm his tax status to comply with promises made when he took a peerage.
The Sunday Times says that Goldsmith Senior was Anglo-French but that Zac was brought up in the UK, mostly in the southwest London area where he is now standing for election. His campaign website states: “Zac grew up in Richmond and went to school in Richmond. He has lived in Richmond most of his life.”
Perhaps he should now add to that claim the fact that his status means that he has so far failed to pay tax in Richmond on the hundreds of millions of pounds of income earned offshore, nor has he paid capital gains or inheritance tax on his overseas assets.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
The Welsh Assembly leads the way on expenses - again
The measure, which will go before an Assembly Committee for scrutiny shortly proposes:
The establishment of a five-member remuneration board;
The transfer of responsibility for AMs’ salaries, allowances and pensions from the National Assembly for Wales to the board;
The selection of potential board members by the clerk of the Assembly, with appointments made by the Assembly Commission;
The setting of a fixed five-year term for the board, with membership limited to two terms; and
The restriction on the board to only set pay once every four years.
This is one initiative the House of Commons should follow as soon as possible.
Boris is the man!
I feel safer already!
Friday, November 27, 2009
An extraordinary lapse of judgement
On Wednesday Edwina Hart issued a press statement in her capacity as the AM for Gower which made untrue allegations about Swansea Council and, in my view compromised her future dealings with that City's social services department.
In this statement she expressed her 'serious concern' about proposals to consult on the closure of two children's homes in Swansea. She alleged that both facilities have been largely unused for some months and that this has resulted in children being placed out of county. She said that this practice is discouraged in WAG guidelines, a statement which in itself is a misunderstanding of the Government publication, Safer Lives Brighter Futures.
Mrs. Hart also alleged that, on occasions, children who have had to be removed from their homes in an emergency have been forced to spend the night with a social worker in a motorway café because there has been no emergency accommodation. This is an allegation that has been categorically denied by the Council.
When that denial was put to her office they said that the claim had been relayed to them in a meeting with 17 members of staff who work in those homes and therefore it must be true. They also said that they had e-mailed the relevant cabinet member on the day before they issued their statement to ask him to comment but had not received a reply. As a result they went ahead and made the allegation publicly.
Neither of these actions make the claim any more likely to be true, particularly as Edwina Hart alleges that it has happened more than once. If it had happened at all then the social worker concerned would have been perfectly entitled to have published that fact under whistle-blowing legislation. They did not.
If it happened then it would have amounted to a serious breach of social care guidelines and would possibly have been illegal. In such circumstances an experienced and responsible politician would have taken the allegation to the head of paid service at the Council, the Social Services Inspectorate and the Police. The fact that the Health and Social Services Minister has done none of these things indicates that she does not have any evidence of the event happening and is instead relying on hearsay to try and smear the Council.
Given that Edwina Hart has the ultimate responsibility for oversight of social services in the cabinet that is a pretty damning failure on her part. Not only has she misunderstood her own guidelines but she has failed to act in accordance with her duty as a Minister in taking these matters through the proper channels, preferring instead to go straight to the local paper.
Furthermore when challenged to substantiate her allegations she not only failed to do so but put out a further statement in which she stated that accusations that she was playing politics with the treatment of vulnerable children are "pretty rich coming from an authority with Swansea's appalling record in Children's Services."
That is another remarkable statement. It comes a month before the Council's Children's Services are due to be inspected by a body that is overseen by Edwina Hart. And yet she appears to have already judged the department prior to the inspectors even arriving at the civic centre. Can the professionals who work in Swansea Social Services expect to receive fair treatment now?
It is true that the Minister has put an intervention board into place because the City's Children's Services were judged to be poor but then there are many other Councils with equally poor services and for common reasons. It is also the case that significant improvements have been made in Swansea in recent months, all of which have been dismissed by the Minister.
With regards to the issue of the Children's Homes, both the Social Care Inspectorate and National Children's Homes have said that these two homes are not fit for purpose. The Welsh Government's intervention board has urged the council to do something about this and as a result officers are redesigning the service, publishing a 90 day consultation notice on closure and putting in place alternative provision. At present these homes are under-utilised whilst a brand new facility that meets all of the inspectorate's requirements has just been opened.
Although this is a personal statement from her as a local AM, I consider that the Minister's statements have called into question whether she can act impartially in judging the efficacy of the Councils' children's services department. Up until this moment I have been happy to support the decision to put an intervention board into Swansea Council to sort out children's services. I still support the work they are doing. But judging by the Minister's behaviour this week it seems that we would be right to question whether that decision was influenced by party political factors.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Over the top
By far the harshest were spoken by Conservative North Wales AM, Mark Isherwood, who got rather personal:
It is an honour to follow Rhodri Morgan in his last debate on a Queen’s Speech as First Minister, although I suspect that he may not like everything that I have to say. I also welcome back Peter Hain, whose perma-tanned retread resurrected the undead.
He was forced to withdraw the allusion.
That tainted evidence
The Independent reports that intelligence showing that Saddam Hussein's WMD had been dismantled was received by the Government just days before Tony Blair sent troops into the country.
Senior Officials have told the Inquiry that Ministers were also given repeated warnings that intelligence gathered on Iraq's weapons programmes was unreliable. However, Mr Blair told the Commons that Saddam Hussein did have chemical and biological weapons as he prepared the way for the invasion in March 2003.
This evidence goes to the heart of the matter as to whether the country and the House of Commons were mislead about the reasons that we went to war. There is no doubt that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein as the ruler of Iraq, but regime change was not the stated objective of the invasion. If it were then there would have been a wholly different dynamic and the United Nations and the House of Commons may not have been so compliant.
There are also questions of course about the fact that there was no exit plan. That was a major omission that has cost countless lives. No amount of spin can excuse those Labour and Conservative MPs who voted for this war.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Keeping it in the family.
They point out that that 18 millionaire members of the shadow cabinet will save up to £520,000 each under this flagship policy. Amongst those benefiting will be shadow chancellor George Osborne, shadow foreign secretary William Hague and Mr Cameron.
They go on to reveal that 18 out of the 32 members of the shadow cabinet will be better off by at least £120,000, whilst the estates of Mr Cameron, shadow foreign secretary William Hague and shadow chancellor George Osborne will all benefit by more than £500,000 each. In total, they say Mr Cameron's allies will make more than £7 million from the plans.
Whilst the Liberal Democrats put forward plans to take some of the poorest workers out of tax altogether the Tories are promoting as their flagship policy the idea of making the rich richer. It is no wonder that voters remain unconvinced as to whether they can trust David Cameron and his team to run Britain.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Are the police deliberatively building up the DNA database?
They say that three quarters of young black men are on the database. According to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and this risks stigmatising a whole section of society. The report also criticises the piecemeal development of the database and questions how effective it is in helping the police to investigate and solve crimes:
Jonathan Montgomery, commission chairman, said that “function creep” over the years had transformed a database of offenders into one of suspects. Almost one million innocent people are now on the DNA database.
Professor Montgomery said: “It’s now become pretty much routine to take DNA samples on arrest, so large numbers of people on the DNA database will be there not because they have been convicted, but because they’ve been arrested.”
Recorded crime has fallen every year since 2004-05, but the number of people arrested in England and Wales annually is rising. Latest figures show that arrests rose by 6 per cent to 1.43 million in 2005 and a further 4 per cent to 1.48 million in 2006-07.
Professor Montgomery said there was some evidence that people were arrested to retain the DNA information even though they might not have been arrested in other circumstance.
He said that a retired senior police officer told the commission: “It is now the norm to arrest offenders for everything if there is a power to do so. It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons . . . is so that DNA can be obtained.” He said that the tradition of only arresting someone when dealing with serious offences had collapsed.
The commission report said that the database should be placed on a clear statutory basis and overseen by an independent authority. That is a recommendation I support.
The Referendum question
According to legal advice circulated to all Assembly Members, if that happens then it is almost certain that a referendum will not be held within the timescale envisaged by the One Wales Agreement. That advice suggests that:
overall, the approximate interval between an Assembly resolution and the holding of a referendum would be about 8 to 9 months. This coincides with the view of the All Wales Convention that:
“The process for calling and holding a referendum takes approximately nine months in total.” (Paragraph 5.2.3 of the Convention’s report) However, this estimate has to be modified by reference to two factors:
- the scope which there would undoubtedly be for abridging some elements of the time-table (for example by holding a public consultation on the Order which lasted for less than 3 months and/or by reducing the time between laying a draft Order and its consideration by Commons and Lords) but, on the other hand;
- the impact of the dissolution of Parliament – which must take place no later than 10 May 2010.
Plaid Cymru are very annoyed and behind the scenes are pointing out that their votes are needed to elect the new First Minister. Some Labour members have thrown fat on the fire by underlining that their priority is not a referendum.
No doubt everything will calm down in due course and the One Wales Government will continue as before. However, the possibility of a minority Labour Government hobbling on alone until 2011 is very real and can still not be ruled out. Many in Plaid Cymru must now be regretting the decision they took in 2007 to throw their lot in with Labour.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Cats against Climate Change
Not another hung Parliament story
The latest fuss about Nick Clegg's assertion that in the event of nobody getting a majority then the party which has got the strongest mandate from the British people will have the first right to seek to govern is just a flash in the pan. Labour MPs and others have been quick to suggest that the Liberal Democrats intend to throw their lot in with the Tories, but putting aside their own defeatism in saying so, such a suggestion is presumptuous.
It is up to the British people to say who will have the strongest mandate, not Nick Clegg or anybody else. It would be completely wrong for any political party to seek to pre-empt that judgement. It would also be wrong for a political leader to seek to ignore the voters' verdict or to try and subvert it by refusing to recognise the right of the strongest party to try and form a government.
In many ways Clegg's comment is a statement of the bleedin' obvious. It should not be taken as sign of intent on the part of the Liberal Democrats to throw our lot in with anybody. Those decisions are for after the election when we can see what people have voted for. In the meantime we have our own distinct policies and a very talented team of MPs who are more than capable of forming a government in their own right.
Our fight in 2010 will be to maximise the Liberal Democrat vote and the number of MPs we can secure, not to prop up one of the other parties.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
The Iraq deception....
Tony Blair, the former prime minister, misled MPs and the public throughout 2002 when he claimed that Britain’s objective was “disarmament, not regime change” and that there had been no planning for military action. In fact, British military planning for a full invasion and regime change began in February 2002.
The need to conceal this from Parliament and all but “very small numbers” of officials “constrained” the planning process. The result was a “rushed”operation “lacking in coherence and resources” which caused “significant risk” to troops and “critical failure” in the post-war period.
Operations were so under-resourced that some troops went into action with only five bullets each. Others had to deploy to war on civilian airlines, taking their equipment as hand luggage. Some troops had weapons confiscated by airport security.
Commanders reported that the Army’s main radio system “tended to drop out at around noon each day because of the heat”. One described the supply chain as “absolutely appalling”, saying: “I know for a fact that there was one container full of skis in the desert.”
The Foreign Office unit to plan for postwar Iraq was set up only in late February, 2003, three weeks before the war started.
The plans “contained no detail once Baghdad had fallen”, causing a “notable loss of momentum” which was exploited by insurgents. Field commanders raged at Whitehall’s “appalling” and “horrifying” lack of support for reconstruction, with one top officer saying that the Government “missed a golden opportunity” to win Iraqi support. Another commander said: “It was not unlike 1750s colonialism where the military had to do everything ourselves.”
The paper says that the leaked documents bring into question statements that Mr Blair made to Parliament in the build up to the invasion: On July 16 2002, amid growing media speculation about Britain’s future role in Iraq, Mr Blair was asked: “Are we then preparing for possible military action in Iraq?” He replied: “No.”
They raise many other questions about the way that the British people were deceived about this war. With the Chilcott Inquiry due to start public hearings next week many will be expecting it to look at all of these aspects of the war and report publicly on them. Failure to do so will condemn that inquiry as a whitewash. We must now wait and see what emerges from it.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Politics and the law
Some might say that they have been watching too many Batman films (yes, I know Commissioner Gordon wasn't elected) but for the Association of Chief Police Officers it is a bit more serious than that. They believe that the Tory proposals will damage the fight against crime and cause resignations from the service.
The incoming president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde has warned that some of his members will quit because they believe the plans represent political interference.
Labour have already dropped plans for direct elections to Police Authorities because of the fear of extremists winning the elections. The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne is also sceptical. He is quoted as saying: "Sir Hugh Orde was right to highlight the dangers of the Conservatives' plans to politicise the control of the police.
"The last thing British police need is an elected sheriff leading the shootout at the OK Corral. Accountability must come from a broad-based police authority elected to represent all strands of the local community."
There is already an element of local accountability through the role of police authorities of course and the Home Secretary is answerable to Parliament for his job in overseeing the Police. I would argue that there is a case for devolving more powers over justice and the police to the Welsh Assembly Government but apart from that the general principle that needs to be applied in my view is: 'if it ain't broke don't try and fix it.'
The digital future that divides us
The report found 67% of households in Wales have a home internet connection and 94% of these internet connections are broadband. People aged 35-44 are most likely to have a home internet connection (83%) and 37% use a computer outside the home. However the one in three Welsh households which lack internet access could miss vital information and better deals in goods and services.
The study found a "significant minority" of consumers, 41%, who did not access the internet choose not to do so, while 19% said they did not need it. It concluded that low levels of literacy may also be a deterrent to using the internet.
The report cited the Basic Skills Agency which suggested that 25% of the population of Wales have literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. It also referred to figures suggesting 72,000 people - 4% of the adult population - have the lowest level of literacy, where they can understand short texts and common signs and symbols. It concluded: "Addressing the educational requirements of people with low literacy levels is essential for achieving greater levels of digital participation."
I do not think that there are any easy answers to this other than to improve education in both literacy and IT, expand the availability of high speed broadband across Wales, improve access to computers to those who cannot afford them and ensure that information is available in other formats. I look forward to the Welsh Government's response.
Friday, November 20, 2009
A European farce
I can also see that there is a case for a permanent President of the European Council and a High Commissioner and support the creation of those posts, but the method of appointment and the way that this has been carved up behind closed doors does give me pause for thought.
Personally, I believe that the 27 members of the European Community have done their cause no favours by the events of the last 24 hours. It is not that the eventual appointees are unknown to the vast majority of the UK and European electorate and in one case has never held elected office, but that the collective heads of state have shown the whole process up to be secretive, undemocratic and exclusive.
None of the candidates were required to publish a manifesto or to make their case to the public at hustings or otherwise. Indeed it seems that one of them did not even realise she was a candidate until the last minute. Whilst the fact that there is no ratification process in the democratically-elected European Parliament underlines what a farce this process was.
Being pro-European should mean that we can be critical friends. When these posts next become vacant we need to have more transparency and accountability. Perhaps the appointment should be made by the European Parliament itself. At the very least MEPs should be given the chance to scrutinise the candidates, question the final appointee and vote to ratify them or otherwise. If that does not happen then what is the point of having MEPs in the first place?
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Nevertheless there have been one or two memorable contributions including the time Dafydd Wigley led a walkout of the Plaid Cymru group in the early days of the Assembly.
Yesterday's short debate however was as equally entertaining with Labour AM, Alun Davies leading an all-out assault on the Deputy First Minister and with Ieuan Wyn Jones laying the blame for government failures at the feet of those of his Labour cabinet colleagues, who had been in charge of transport before him.
Alun Davies' central charge was that before the One Wales Government the heads of the valleys dualling programme was due to be completed in 2015, since the leader of Plaid Cymru came into post though, the Mid and West Wales AM alleged that this deadline had slipped to 2020.
Alun concluded that the evidence "exposes, describes and highlights some very serious inconsistencies from the Deputy First Minister. Despite our personal differences on this issue and our wider political differences, I believe that the Deputy First Minister is an honourable man. However, he must explain these inconsistencies and account for the different explanations that he has offered Members. There is a serious danger that people here and elsewhere have been misled by the statements that have been made and that the policies of previous Governments have been misrepresented. This is an issue for the whole Government, and it is one that it must address. It has the potential to damage the credibility and integrity of the Government, and it is time that these questions were answered."
In return the Deputy First Minister was equally as robust. He said that Alun Davies had overlooked the publication of two key documents by the previous Labour Government "entitled 'Heads We Win’ and 'Turning Heads’, both of which state that the road should be completed by 2020." He went on:
"Let us get this on the record once again. In my time as Minister, there has been no slippage whatsoever in the programme for the Heads of the Valleys road or in the end date for it. That is highly unusual, because all the roads schemes in the trunk road forward programme are within time envelopes. The reason for that is that road programmes very often have some slippage. Some programmes are brought forward; others are delayed. I am not responsible for anything else in relation to that road."
This is one of the most public rifts yet in One Wales Government and shows that some Labour AMs are getting impatient at having to put up with Plaid Cymru as allies. They are champing at the bit to have a go at Plaid Ministers. That was also evident from tweets posted by Alun Davies during Plenary in particular:
On Planet Plaid Cymru little Ieuan battles away for Wales. What fiction. PC have really made themselves look ridiculous; and
Plaid Cymru making fools of themselves in the budget debate.
On balance it seems that this round was won by Ieuan Wyn Jones but that does not take account of the damage that has been caused to inter-party relations. It is also little comfort to the good citizens of Porthmadog who are going to be kept waiting for their by-pass after the Deputy First Minister told Plenary "if you were to ask me when the Porthmadog bypass will be completed, I could not tell you, because there is no end date for it."
The full debate can be watched here:
The elephant in the room
It would have been useful therefore to have had her Majesty make a clear statement of intent as part of her speech. After all the whole thing only lasted six minutes, it is not as if she was pushed for time. Sir Christopher Kelly himself, certainly thinks so.
He said that it was important for the new Parliament due to be elected next spring to start with a "clean sheet" and he protested that the "relatively straightforward" legislation essential to establishing the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which will police MPs' expenses, was absent from the package.
The Independent believes that the Prime Minister has decided that legislation on expenses would distract from Labour's key pre-election messages on education, social care and curbing bankers' bonuses. If this is the case then Gordon Brown is more out of touch than I thought.
The one subject which is occupying most people's minds is the expenses' issue. It will not go away until is properly dealt with. If we go into the General Election with no 'closure' on this issue then a very expensive price will be paid by those perceived to be obstacles to reform.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
A damp squib
Is that it? I could have told them that for much less than the £1 million we have spent on this talking shop and without wasting two years in which we could have been making the case on an all-party basis for abolishing the costly and time-wasting LCO process that has effectively stymied the Welsh legislative process.
This exercise has not so much advanced devolution as held it back. Plaid Cymru in particular should hang their head in shame for allowing themselves to be manoeuvred into such a political cul-de-sac.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Adam speaks and a nation holds its breath
The Western Mail of course has gone a bundle on their favourite son. What will they do when he goes off to America? But the comments on their website are not so generous with one contributer suggesting that the Plaid Cymru MP is a 'one-eyed separatist' whilst another suggests that the 'guff' delivered in the lecture is the 'equivalent of taking crack for an impressionable and insecure Welsh nationalist.'
I would not go so far though I have to confess that I found the contents of the lecture to be bizarre and factually suspect. The size of the chip on Adam Price's shoulder grows bigger by the day and now that he does not have to seek re-election he does not seem to care how much he shows it off.
Adam's basic premise that Wales is a post-colonial country that has not yet thrown off the yoke of colonialism would not be recognised by the vast majority of the population. He says that the 'deepest legacy left by English imperialism on Wales is psychological'. "In political terms," he says, "we develop a begging bowl mentality, because we have become resigned to the reality of our own domination." He goes on "we abdicate responsibility for our own future because we doubt our ability to act constructively and change our situation."
Obviously, Adam has been listening to contributions by Plaid Cymru Assembly Members in the Senedd, where anything that goes wrong is the responsibility of the Westminster Government, whilst the difficult decisions they are being forced to make on the budget is all the fault of the Barnett formula.
Adam goes on to elaborate on the Welsh nation's 'profound sense of inferiority', and 'lack of confidence' which he says has produced a 'deep insecurity' that lies at the heart of Wales' "still tentative" embrace of devolution and its rejection of political independence.
So there we have it. According to the unofficial leader of Plaid Cymru, the whole independence agenda has stalled because the Welsh people are too 'psychologically scarred' to embrace it.
Talk about being in denial. I would not be surprised if many in Plaid Cymru agree with me that a prolonged spell in America is exactly what Adam needs right now.
Monday, November 16, 2009
A Welsh Obama?
Barack Obama spoke to a group of Chinese students on Sunday night at a town hall in Shanghai where he was asked about Twitter. He replied: "I have never used Twitter but I'm an advocate of technology and not restricting internet access." This is despite the fact that he has an active Twitter account.
In the Spin Doctor column of yesterday's Wales on Sunday, Matt Withers reveals a similar denial. He reports that at last week’s hustings for the Welsh Labour leadership in Swansea talk turned to politicians’ use of social networking websites.
Carwyn Jones announced that, to reach out to voters, he used Facebook, but not Twitter. This will be news to those who follow Mr Jones’ two, separate Twitter feeds, one personal and one specifically for his leadership campaign.
Mind you, Carwyn has form on this. His current rather quiet blog is the second that that he has had in his name. There was a previous incarnation in which he mostly concentrated on the work he was doing in his constituency, or at least that is what it looked like. Because, he once told me that he had been unaware of the blog's existence for some time and had only just discovered it.
Both politicians clearly employ people to do all this new technology stuff for them. It would just be nice if they were aware that they were doing it.
The cost of authoritarianism
Last month it emerged some 28 million people would have to sign up for an ID card in order to cover the cost of the scheme.
The Identity and Passport Service spent a £42 million on developing both the ID cards and biometric passport programmes in the six months since March this year.
That was equivalent of £229,508 every day – the highest amount of spending on the joint scheme so far.
In 2008/09, a total of £81.5 million was spent – the equivalent of £223,288 a day.
Between April 2003 and April 2006, a grand total of £41.1 million was spent – just £37,534 a day, although costs were always expected to rise as the programme expanded and began to roll out.
In the current financial climate and when the case for ID cards has been completely discredited it is difficult to see how the Government can justify this expenditure.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Not in our name?
They tell us that a report by Oxfam reveals how women and children in Afghanistan are bearing the brunt of the ongoing conflict, undermining the international community's claims that they are the very people being helped by the West's activities. The paper suggests that the contents of the report will add to mounting concerns among the public, and in some quarters of the military and the House of Commons, that the US and the UK are fighting an ill-conceived and ill-judged war that has left as many as 32,000 Afghans dead and 235,000 displaced.
If Gordon Brown wants to find one of those concerned citizens then he need look no further than his own cabinet. According to yesterday's Times the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, became the first Cabinet minister to openly question the Government’s strategy. He called for greater clarity over the mission, saying: “We need to get a grip on it.”
The Times says that although he disagrees with the former Foreign Office minister Kim Howells who believes that troops should be withdrawn, Mr. Hain says that the public will not tolerate a long campaign: “My timetable is this: we can’t be there for ever and we can’t leave now,” he says. “When people starting putting 20 years on it, that is unacceptable. I’m not going to give a limit but we don’t want a long time frame.”
Mr Hain echoes concerns expressed in The Times last week by Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon about the credibility of the Afghan Government after a rigged election, and warns that corruption risks undermining the military campaign. “You need a legitimate system of government, we don’t have that at moment and it has to be sorted,” he says. “The whole credibility of our attempt to create a democratic system of politics is under threat if there isn’t a principle of good government embedded.”
Peter Hain, at least, appears to be listening to public opinion because what this military intervention needs now is a rethink on its objectives, the methods being used, the logistical support for troops and some form of exit strategy.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Water, water everywhere
Could the monsoon-like weather we are now experiencing be a retaliatory strike by the Clangers?
Government lose the plot on DNA database
Up to a million people are on the national DNA database who have never been charged or convicted for an offence. There are now more than 5.3 million profiles on the system, making it the largest of its kind in the world. It was only a few days ago that I blogged that the Government latest plans to store innocent people’s data for six years will allow police to label them “half guilty”.
Now, it seems that anybody who has been placed on this database and who is completely innocent of any crime will have to fight the police to get themselves removed from it, and that this fight may include court action. Whatever happened to the principle of innocent before proven guilty? Since when has the possession of personal information been a reason to introduce a new tax?
Friday, November 13, 2009
Canadian Dead Cat story
Announcing the death of his cat, who was named after his political hero, Mr. Baird sent a message reading: "Thatcher has died" but the text led to the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper being informed that 84-year-old former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had passed away.
The confusion spread around a gala event in Toronto, where some 1,700 luminaries were gathered at a black tie event.
Calls to puzzled officials in both 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace followed.
Embarrassed aide Dimitri Soudas had reportedly already started preparing an official statement mourning the passing of the Iron Lady.
He was told that Baroness Thatcher - who just a few days ago attended a Remembrance Day service at London's Westminster Abbey - was alive and healthy.
"If the cat wasn't dead, I'd have killed it by now," Mr Soudas is reported to have said of the 16-year-old grey tabby.
Why is everybody blaming the cat?
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Interfering in the scrutiny process?
It was reported on the programme that Plaid Cymru AM, Chris Franks had refused to sign up to the report after tabling, and failing to get accepted, a number of amendments that would have toned down criticism of the government.
Alun Davies told viewers that Plaid Cymru have behaved extraordinarily badly in trying to insert amendments into the report that have come from the wider party and not from the Committee members themselves. He said that this has raised questions about the integrity of the Committee system.
If this is the case then it is very serious. Plaid Cymru have consistently failed to get the purpose of scrutiny. They have been over-sensitive to criticism and at times some of their Ministers have gone to unbelievable lengths to avoid being questioned on key issues.
They now stand accused of interfering in the process of scrutiny, presumably to make themselves look better and to seek to justify their very poor record in government. I think that the charges laid by Alun Davies need a detailed response from the Leader of Plaid Cymru.
Ministerial answer of the week
Edwina Hart: No.
Half guilty not innocent
In this morning's Western Mail, Jenny quite rightly claims that the latest Government plans to store innocent people’s data for six years will allow police to label them “half guilty”. The Home Office is proposing that adults who are arrested but not convicted of a serious crime will have their profiles held for six years on the database.
Jenny says: “The Government is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. These proposals will allow the police to label anyone cautioned, warned or arrested as ‘half guilty’ even if they are later found to be innocent.
“This changes the founding pillar of our criminal justice system; that you are innocent until proven guilty. The Government has no right to do this.”
She points out that this latest package of reforms is more or less identical to those that were criticised by DNA experts and thrown out by the House of Lords only a month ago:
“The proposals to keep innocent children on the DNA database for up to six years are frankly appalling.
“There is absolutely no reason why we can’t have the same system that exists in Scotland. I sincerely hope that these proposals get the mangling they deserve when the Government tries to force them through Parliament.”
Jenny is totally right. The fight that she and our party have put up to protect civil liberties against a centralising and authoritarian Labour Government is a persuasive rebuttal to those who question what the Liberal Democrats are for.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
In particular, I referred to the fact that all of the candidates had stressed the importance of education and training and that at least one candidate, Carwyn Jones has specifically pledged that, under his leadership, spending on education will be increased by at least one per cent above the block grant allocation.
In response to the question as to whether he will be adjusting his draft budget accordingly the Finance Minister was quite scathing. He did not use the phrase 'semi-detached member of the cabinet' again but he was very clear that anybody proposing different priorities would need to specify where the money will come from.
Over to you Carwyn.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Privatising Big Brother
All telecoms companies and internet service providers will be required by law to keep a record of every customer's personal communications, showing who they are contacting, when, where and which websites they are visiting.
Despite widespread opposition over Britain's growing surveillance society, 653 public bodies will be given access to the confidential information, including police, local councils, the Financial Services Authority, the Ambulance Service, fire authorities and even prison governors.
They will not require the permission of a judge or a magistrate to access the information, but simply the authorisation of a senior police officer or the equivalent of a deputy head of department at a local authority.
The decision to press ahead has come despite and admission by the Home Office that only a third of respondents to its six-month consultation on the issue supported its proposals, with 50 per cent fearing that the scheme lacked sufficient safeguards to protect the highly personal data from abuse.
Furthermore the communications providers themselves have questioned the cost of the scheme and whether it is even technically feasible.
The paper tells us that the latest figures on the use of the RIPA legislation by public bodies, show that state bodies including town halls made 519,260 requests last year - one every minute - to spy on the phone records and email accounts of members of the public.
They say that the number of requests has risen by 44 per cent in two years to a rate of 1,422 new cases every day, leading to claims of an abuse of using the powers for trivial matters such as littering and dog fouling.
The decision may have been delayed but the Big Brother state is going ahead anyway no matter it seems what we may think.
A nuclear error
That is especially so in Wales where the official view of the Welsh Government is that there should be a public consultation on the replacement nuclear power station at Wylfa B and that if possible an alternative form of energy generation should be put in place instead. That is also the official view of Plaid Cymru, though the Deputy First Minister and Nationalist Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones takes a contrary position.
Miliband's announcement though gives the Welsh Government no room for manoeurve. A new planning commission will make decisions on the proposals "within a year" of receiving them. So there will be no official public enquiry and the views of the Assembly Government and local Councils will just be advisory.
It is just a shame that Ed Miliband does not appreciate the impact of the new regime. When he was asked by Welsh Liberal Democrat MP, Roger Williams whether he had consulted with the Welsh Government, the Secretary of State responded that he believed the matter to be devolved.
Alas that is not the case. Not only will Labour's planning commission trump any powers held by WAG, but the Westminster Government has consistently refused to devolve responsibility for power generation over 50 megawatts to Wales. Given that Ed Miliband was party to that decision not so long ago one would have thought that he might have known that.
Monday, November 09, 2009
The significance of Twitter
Millions discussed Trafigura on Twitter. By the time Trafigura hired someone who understood social media, just three days later on October 16th, their staid YouTube response was only able to garner a few hundred views. Many simply weren’t interested in the story any more, and those who were interested weren’t inclined to help the company out by passing on the existence of the video. They’d burned millions of bridges with millions of people, simply by being slow to react.
Every party, and every candidate, has to decide now whether they’re going to understand and engage with social media, or fear it. It’s a nightmare for political parties to get their heads around – social media has no respect for constituency or regional boundaries, no understanding of the need for parties with complex structures to navigate their internal democratic processes before they pronounce, and in particular, no mercy for those who cannot respond somehow, in some way, immediately.
If the parties haven’t understood it already, they need to now. The General Election of 2010 is already the Internet election – the power of one foolish remark by a tired key figure, amplified by Twitter, could cause your national campaign to implode if you aren’t ready. There is no choice whether or not to engage online, the playing field has been swapped from under the feet of the political parties while their attention was focused on the Lobby.
Tories' European embarrassment
The Sunday Times reports that in an attempt to contain embarrassing outbursts from its new partners on the east European right, the Tory party has sent its media minders to control their public image.
Conservative press officers have take over management of the media appearances of Michal Kaminski, the Polish MEP whose views are at the centre of the controversy, and are said to hand-pick his interviews, which are conducted in the presence of at least two Tory advisers. A Conservative official now runs the ECR’s press operation.
They further report that Edward McMillan-Scott, formerly a senior Tory MEP, expelled from the party after successfully running against Kaminski for the post of a vice-president of the European parliament, has said that the policy extended beyond Kaminski to other east European MEPs from ECR.
The paper also tells us that some Conservatives are trying to establish a new pan-European party that would be eligible for up to €1m (£893,000) in EU funding. The party, called Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, could enable its MEPs to receive up to €15,000 (£13,400) on top of their current pay. They say that as many as 10 Tory MEPs are said to have refused to sign up to the new party.
It seems that Cameron has opened Pandora's box and cannot get the lid back on.
Sunday, November 08, 2009
They say that in a week when organised student pub crawls are again in the media spotlight, the true extent of violence and criminality at Welsh universities can be revealed to be far more disturbing:
Our investigation found that, behind the respectable facade of the nation’s higher education industry, students are:
Routinely threatening staff;
Assaulting their peers;
Being hauled before the courts to face criminal charges.
Among the most worrying cases in the student disciplinary records unearthed by a Freedom of Information request were a student caught with a firearm and another threatening to kill his peers.
They are right when they say that the litany of eight alleged assaults, five harassment cases and several occasions where students have terrorised their peers or university employees over a three year period is very disturbing and cannot be tolerated. They are also right when they say that Universities must operate a zero-tolerance policy against plagiarism and other forms of cheating.
Katie Dalton, the President of NUS Wales, is quoting as saying that: “Violence and threats on campus cannot be tolerated, and the safety of students and staff is of the upmost importance. However, we must remember that the vast majority of students are not violent, never threaten their tutors or fellow students, and contribute massive amounts intellectually, culturally and financially to the university and local community. It is important that the acts of a minority do not overshadow the excellent work of the majority of students, who attend university to learn and to further themselves in life.”
She has a point. I do not have time to individually research the number of students at each of the eight universities cited but I can make a very conservative estimate that in any one year there will be more than 72,000 students enrolled at these institutions. Over a three year period that may amount to 120,000 or more individual students in all.
So in the interests of assessing the 'true extent' of this misbehaviour I would suggest that the 50 incidents of unacceptable anti-social behaviour uncovered by the paper involved 0.04% or less of the total student population, whilst the 1,500 or so cases of cheating amounts to less than 1.25% of enrolled students.
One case is of course one too many, but we really must be careful not to draw a picture of social anarchy at our educational institutions, as the Wales on Sunday has done, from the completely unacceptable behaviour of a very small number of students.
Saturday, November 07, 2009
Sparks fly in Labour leadership contest
Both Carwyn Jones and Edwina Hart seem convinced that we cannot proceed without full consultation within the Wales Labour Party, whilst Huw Lewis wants to defeat the Tories first. Meanwhile the world moves on.
What they all need to understand is that this is not a decision for Labour alone. Yes it would help if we can have a unified Labour Party behind the 'yes' campaign but there are other parties involved as well and they need to be involved in the decision-making process.
I am astonished that none of the candidates appear to have learnt the lessons of the 1997 referendum when Labour resisted a cross party campaign such as that in Scotland and only just squeaked home by a few hundred votes. If they act in such an arrogant and monopolistic way again then the vote will be lost and the devolution process set back years.
But by far the most interesting political news today are the sparks that are flying around in the Labour leadership contest. A suggestion by Carwyn Jones that the Welsh Government's policy towards public service delivery is less than adequate was met with a sharp rebuke from the man responsible for delivering it, Finance Minister, Andrew Davies. Andrew is also Edwina Hart's campaign manager.
What Carwyn said was: “We cannot allow bureaucratic processes or systemic boundaries to undermine delivery. Our current structures of governance in the public service – in local authorities and health services for example – must be platforms for delivery, not stand-alone empires. Otherwise the people will demand more radical change.”
Referring to two reports that recommended more collaborative working in the Welsh public sector, he added: “Five years after the Making the Connections report was published, people are impatient for change. Three years after the Beecham report, it is time for the Local Service Boards (LSBs) to show they are delivering.
“Are they meaningful structures to advance public service collaboration or are they simply sticking-plaster? Are they driving real change in service delivery, or are they just talking shops?
“Beecham called for common principles of citizen-centred, efficient and accountable services in a small country, and for more ambitious leadership at national and local level. If elected Labour leader in the Assembly, I will lead a review next year of progress against the Beecham targets.”
In response Andrew Davies suggested that Carwyn is not a team player. He told the Western Mail: “I presume Carwyn is still a member of the Cabinet, even if he is semi-detached. I value his contribution to the role of public service delivery – the first I am aware that he has made."
The point is though that Carwyn Jones is right. The Local Service Boards have failed to make much of an impact, recent evidence to the Audit Committee has indicated that the efficiency savings required of public sector bodies are not being made, whilst Welsh Government spending priorities continue to miss the mark.
There is the proposed 5% cut in funding for Higher and Further education at a time when we need to be investing in skills and training for example, the evidence of NHS Finance Directors that up to £1 billion of Health spending is being misdirected and the failure to secure any financial benefits by reducing red tape and management costs as a result of the recent reorganisation of the Welsh Health service.
There is also the continuing evidence of crumbling school buildings and hospitals, whilst capital funding is directed to pet projects by Ministers and cities like Swansea are starved of the resources that they should be entitled to on any fair per capita distribution basis.
It is little wonder that the Finance Minister is having a rough time defending his budget in Committee at present, often as a result of criticism by his own side. And yet he is right about one thing, Carwyn Jones has been a member of the Government for nine years. He cannot escape his share of responsibility for the mess he may, or may not inherit as First Minister.
This is more than just a spat between cabinet colleagues. It reveals fundamental splits within the Government itself, but more importantly it shows that the overwhelming pattern in recent times is one of Ministers avoiding hard decisions and failing to deliver on their own rhetoric. Why should it be any different after 9th December?
Friday, November 06, 2009
The appliance of science
According to the Guardian, Lord Drayson has committed the government to producing guidelines by Christmas to ensure the independence of its scientific advisers. Although he defends the right of the Government to ignore David Nutt's advice, the promise of new guidelines amounts to an admission that the sacking was wrong:
He said the events of the past few days had brought the concerns of scientists and their relationship with government to the top of the agenda. "If I had been consulted by the home secretary [before he sacked David Nutt], I would have had an opportunity to have said to him that there is a rumbling concern within the academic community with regards to the independence of scientific advice."
Drayson was in Japan last week when Nutt was sacked and returned to the UK on Tuesday. He has spent the past few days in meetings with cabinet colleagues, government science advisers and members of the scientific community in an attempt to find out why he was not consulted about the sacking and also how the government could come up with a solution.
The minister's initial response, leaked in an email earlier this week, was to say he was "pretty appalled" by the decision. But he later said that both the home secretary and the prime minister had assured him they understood the importance of independent scientific advice and academic freedom.
It seems that Labour have forgotten how to present a united front, either that or the government really is starting to disintegrate under the weight of its own contradictions. It is just as well that the Government has somebody like Lord Drayson to bring the scientific commuity back on board otherwise the whole system of independent advice would fold beneath them.
The wrong trousers
However, there have also been a significant number of e-mails asking AMs to act in our capacity as MSPs to seek amendments to the Marine (Scotland) Bill, currently going through the Scottish Parliament.
The e-mails say that a Scottish Marine Bill that supports real recovery must include:
1. Recovery - A duty on Scottish Ministers to improve the health of Scotland’s seas, in line with international commitments.
2. Planning - A duty for plans to include clear objectives, along with policies and programmes to deliver those objectives. A duty to ensure that Scottish Marine Regions cover the whole Scottish marine area (0-12 nautical miles).
3. Protection - A duty on Scottish Ministers to create an ecologically-coherent network of Marine Protected Areas
It goes on to say that there must also be joined-up operations between the Marine (Scotland) Bill and fisheries legislation to help deliver restoration.
My correspondents conclude by saying that they look forward to hearing about what action I will take to help improve this bill.
Alas, devolution means that Welsh Assembly Members do not interfere in the affairs of England or Scotland and we expect that they will leave us alone too. As I am not an MSP I cannot help.
However, knowing that I have some Scottish readers, then perhaps the reproduction of the e-mail on this blog will get the message across to some people who do have influence.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
Ashdown on Afghanistan
"Failure in Afghanistan - and we are quite close to it in my view - or withdrawal would have baleful consequences including abandoning the clear majority of Afghans who want us to be there.
"It would allow al-Qaeda to expand from a small area of northern Pakistan where they are under pressure to a larger area of Afghanistan where they are not.
"It would mean the inevitable collapse of the Pakistan government and jihadi hands far too close to nuclear weapons. It would mean deepening the instability of the world's most unstable region and it would mean a mortal blow to Nato.
"It would also mean a severe blow to our moderate Islamic friends who are courageously fighting a battle against jihadism and medievalism in their own religion in favour of its true values of tolerance and civilisation.
"These are consequences that ought to be in our mind."
I reported a few months ago on the more detailed thoughts of Paddy on Afghanistan, as recorded in his autobiography here.
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
The badger cull debate
Thanks to the wonders of BBC Democracy Live I am able to bring you the entire debate for your edification and delight.
Government backtracks on another illiberal law
Local authorities have used legislation intended to tackle terrorism and serious crime to deal with minor offences such as dog fouling.
However, under the Minister's plans relatively junior council officials will lose their power to authorise surveillance operations on behalf of local authorities. Only council chief executives and officials at director level will now have the right to order investigations involving techniques such as eavesdropping, tracking vehicles and secret filming.
Codes of practice will outline the offences for which surveillance can be used and make it clear that local councils should not deploy it for minor or trivial cases. The Home Secretary though, stopped short of meeting demands from the Local Government Association for greater involvement by councillors and the public in authorising and overseeing Ripa powers. They had called for local people to be co-opted on to a committee overseeing surveillance and also for senior local councillors to be responsible for authorising surveillance.
So once more the Government stop short of a proper reform that would involve greater scrutiny of the way that these powers are used. Clearly, any liberalising influence is just skin deep.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
I promise to use the facility sparingly.
General Election campaign kicks off
The two alleged that Tory plans to slash the number of MPs by 10% would have a catastrophic impact on Wales leading to massive constituencies and fewer AMs. Actually I am not sure that the latter charge is true as the reduction in the number of Scottish MPs did not lead to a commensurate reduction in the quantum of MSPs.
Nevertheless, the charge by Rhodri Morgan and Peter Hain has merit, though good luck with persuading people that cutting the number of politicians is a bad thing. This is because Cameron's proposals are half-hearted and ill-thought through.
The Liberal Democrats also want to cut the number of MPs but they are proposing to do so in the context of giving the Welsh Assembly full law making powers (with the possibility of more AMs) and the introduction of the single transferable vote system in multi-member constituencies as a means of electing our MPs (and AMs).
That would be a real reform ensuring better accountability, a fairer outcome to elections and better value for money. What a shame that neither Labour nor Conservatives are prepared to be really radical about this issue.
Monday, November 02, 2009
Vote imminent on badgers
I have been astounded not by the number of e-mails and letters I have received opposing this cull, but by the large number that have come from North Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion itself, most from landowners and some from people with livestock of their own or significant experience of managing cattle.
The claimed overwhelming support for this cull in the North Pembrokeshire area is clearly as substantial as a sea mist with many residents concerned that the cull is taking place without clear scientific evidence to support it, that it threatens the integrity of the natural environment in which they live and that the legislation empowers government agents to enter onto their land and carry out the cull without their consent.
Plaid bloggers who clearly think that the cull is an electoral asset to them in constituencies like Ceredigion may need to re-think. The Minister could lose support in her own constituency over this issue, not just amongst students and young people but also from landowners and country dwellers in areas where she has got support in the past.
A further complication for the Minister has emerged today in the form of a letter from solicitors acting for the The Badger Trust and threatening to judicially review her decision on the grounds that it cannot be justified under the Animal Health Act. In their statement they say:
The Trust’s position is that badgers, a protected species, cannot be killed unless, under the Animal Health Act, it is to eliminate or substantially reduce the spread of disease, that it is both necessary and the most appropriate way but without causing unnecessary suffering. In this case, the Trust says, any benefit would be at best very marginal and the cost in terms of badgers killed and the impact on other species would be substantial. Consequently, a disproportionate cull of badgers would be against the principal purpose of the Act.
The Trust also challenges the contention that the cull would be within geographical boundaries which impede badger movement. The “Intensive Action Plan Area” is in North Pembrokeshire, one of the least isolated parts of Wales according to a Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) survey commissioned by the Minister.
The UK ratified the “Bern” Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats of 1979. Article 8 prohibits activity causing local disappearance or serious disturbance to badgers. The Trust asked the Minister what percentage of badgers were to be killed over the four-year period, but she replied on 15 September that initial surveys had not been done, exact numbers were unknown and there had been no ecological surveys. Without this information it is impossible for the Welsh Assembly Government to know whether it is risking the local disappearance or serious disturbance to badgers.
There is no adequate evidence on which the Minister could reasonably conclude that her order would achieve the requirements set out in the Animal Health Act 1981: “eliminate or substantially reduce” the incidence of disease; satisfy the test of necessity; and avoid the risk of spreading disease . The order cannot, then, be valid under section 21 of the Act and would be wholly contrary to the policy of the Act itself. Furthermore, no evidence has been provided to say it would not be in breach of the Bern Convention.
It is a matter of public record that the farming community of Wales, on whom the Minister relies for support, has been vociferous in its calls for a badger cull. The Trust is sympathetic to the plight of all farmers suffering from the consequences of bovine tuberculosis, but such distress does not entitle the Minister to disregard the scientific evidence or act in breach of statute.
Despite all of this I fully expect the Assembly on Wednesday to vote to affirm the cull and the Minister to press ahead with this ill-advised course of action.
Sunday, November 01, 2009
Horses for courses
The paper says that the peer, who pumps millions of pounds into marginal seats but refuses to say whether he pays tax in Britain, is flying William Hague around the world and went with him on his recent trip to the US, during which Hague met Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and other key US figures.
Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Lord Oakeshott sums up the views of many of us when he says that Ashcroft's role is a matter of deep concern and shows that Cameron's claims to be promoting transparency at all levels of the Conservative party were "bogus".
"Why is Lord Ashcroft at the heart of Hague's discussions in the US? The shadow foreign secretary taking a free trip on Ashcroft Airways is distasteful enough. But having Lord Ashcroft as a key player is worse. Refusing to say whether he pays full British taxes and his extreme anti-European views should disqualify him from any government position."