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

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Poaching the poacher

Oh dear! What chance do we have of cleaning up the political system and putting expenses and allowances onto an acceptable, transparent and accountable basis when headlines such as this one in the Independent on Sunday are generated?

They say that Sir Ian Kennedy, who has been put in charge of policing MPs' expenses took hundreds of door-to-door taxi journeys between home and work when he was boss of a health watchdog – and left taxpayers to pick up the bill.

Apparently, Sir Ian claimed almost £16,000 on private-hire vehicles to transport him around London during less than five years as the £170,000-a-year chairman of the Healthcare Commission.

Of course taking a taxi in London is much more of a normal activity than elsewhere outside of the capital but even so, if this description is accurate, one is led to question whether much cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives could have been found:

Although many of Sir Ian's taxi journeys were to meetings and other official engagements, the vast majority – more than 200 every year – were trips between his home in North London and the commission's HQ in the City. The fares ranged from around £17 for ordinary private-hire cabs, to £35 for "VIP" bookings on account with a premium cab service. The journey would take less than 40 minutes on the Underground – and even now costs only £2.30 with a pre-paid Oyster card.

For all the disparagement sometimes directed at London Transport by Londoners themselves, they have a far superior public transport system than many parts of the UK.

The saddest part of this story is that it gives those MPs who want to resist change a target to aim at. A number still resent the changes proposed to their allowances regime and intend to fight a rearguard action. This sort of controversy just plays into their hands.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Grumpy old man

Astonishing article in yesterday's Daily Telegraph concerning new research conclusions that grumpiness could be a sign of being higher up the evolutionary ladder than people who are easy-going.

They say that researchers have provided scientific weight to the writer George Bernhard Shaw's famous saying that "all progress depends on the unreasonable man".

They looked at two different kinds of monkey – the familiar chimpanzee and the less evolved but much more easy going bonobo, two of the closest living relatives to human beings.

Chimpanzees are accepted as more evolved than bonobos in terms of physical appearance, behaviour and social structure.

But chimps are also much more aggressive, particularly as they get older, when they become less tolerant of each other, share less and show more signs of violence to others.

Adult bonobos, on the other hand, are more Peter Pan-like. They retain the same levels of playfulness and behaviour they showed as juveniles, said the research by Harvard University for the online journal Current Biology.

The two types of ape are very close to each other, genetically, but the clear differences are believed to be down to simple evolution, said lead researcher Victoria Wobber.

I am fairly sceptical as to whether research on the socialisation of chimpanzees can apply to human beings but then I am not a scientist. Nevertheless, if I do come across as a bit grumpy today I will immediately point to this research as my justifiation rather than the fact that today is my 50th birthday. I am just going to think of it as 49 plus one.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The real face of the Tory party?

The reported comments of David Davies, the Tory MP for Monmouthshire that some communities had "imported backward, medieval and barbaric" views about women has produced a justifiable but predictable response.

In this morning's Western Mail the great and the good have quite rightly lined up to criticise Mr. Davies' views and to call on David Cameron to sack him as an MP. The views of two female politicians are particularly pertinent:

Jenny Willott, Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central said: "To make the suggestion that certain religions or communities are more prone to raping women because of their attitudes is very dangerous and I am disappointed that a Member of Parliament would make that connection with seemingly little evidence to back it up."

Plaid Cymru Welsh Assembly Member Nerys Evans said violence against women knew no racial, religious or class boundaries.

She said the comments "do nothing to help the cause of victims of violence against women and serve only to reinforce racist stereotypes. These are incredibly irresponsible and inflammatory comments."

Personally, although I believe David Davies is absolutely wrong in what he has said, I hope that he is allowed to continue as an MP. That is because for all their protestations, Mr. Davies represents and serves as a reminder of, the unreconstructed Toryism that Cameron is desperately trying to eradicate from his party but which persists in surviving and flourishing amongst very large numbers of Conservative members. It is a reminder of how skin deep Cameron's reforms are.

That this is the case is best illustrated by the reaction of one Conservative PPC who sits on the left of his party and who very much wants the backwoodsmen to shut up. René Kinzett, their candidate for Swansea West tweeted his discomfort with the off-message remarks last night:

sorry, but why is David TC Davies MP such a flaming pain in the arse? Rape linked to race? Go back to selling tea

It is true of course that there are many barbaric views of women prevalent in our society but these are not limited to any community or race. There is no better way to illustrate this than through the conclusions of two reports commissioned by the Rhondda Cynon Taff Substance Misuse Action Team and produced under the NACRO Cymru banner, which I blogged about back at the start of this social media venture in August 2003:

The reports are full of sobering facts and it is impossible to convey the full flavour of them here, however I have set out some of the headlines that will make us all stop and think. The one that made me pause for thought was to do with alcohol. The report states that a recent 'quick and dirty' survey done by RCT police showed that whenever there is a Welsh International Rugby match, violence towards women doubled, whenever Wales lost it quadrupled and when Wales lost to England it was multiplied by eight.

As I later clarified:

rugby does not stand alone in this and in fact there was an element of unfairness in singling out this game alone. Binge drinking is associated with Friday and Saturday nights, most sporting events and many other occasions including hen and stag nights. It is not the event that is the problem it is the mentality that "getting off your face" is both hard and the cool thing to do. If we are to tackle alcohol abuse and reduce the level of violent crime accordingly then we have to deal with that culture and educate people away from the idea that prowess in holding ones alcohol (or not) is a suitable goal in life. It is not.

The fact is that violence against women exists all around us. It is not limited to any one group. Until we deal with its root causes then we will continue to get unsavoury and unacceptable incidents and no doubt the repeated off-message comments of David Davies as well.

Update: René has added to his comments:

@TomosL How can someone be so crass as to blame rape on ethnicity and be a serious-minded Parliamentarian in the 21stC?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Public sector cuts bite hard

This morning's Western Mail carries the less than cheerful news that local Councils in Wales who are struggling to make ends meet could shed as many as 10,000 jobs in Wales over the next four years.

The paper says that at least two Welsh councils are understood to be examining the possibility of “hundreds” of job cuts in the short-term, with fears that budget deficits could quadruple over the next three years. Local government experts have warned of the biggest squeeze on public services in a generation.

The report points out that the consequences of the banking crisis, which have already caused significant job losses in the private sector, are expected to feed through to councils during the financial year that starts in April.

Council chief executives and finance directors are briefing local politicians on the options open to them in a climate where experts are predicting the need for bigger cuts than had previously been expected.

This is not unexpected but nevertheless it will impact on everybody in Wales. Setting Council budgets will become more challenging if not impossible and some very painful decisions will have to be made. I have already seen reports from more Councils than the two referred to, who anticipate shedding hundreds of jobs and this is irrespective of the controlling party or parties.

I suppose we can do little more at present than to watch this space.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Turning a drama into a crisis

It is difficult to know what exactly is going on over the resolution due to be tabled for debate on 9th February regarding a referendum on moving the Assembly from part three to part four of the Government of Wales Act.

From what I can see, the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Tories all want this motion to be the trigger vote that will schedule the plebiscite for October of this year. I suspect that this is also the position of the majority of the Labour group as well, and yet the new First Minster refuses to be drawn on his position and will not say whether he will be tabling such a resolution.

The uncertainty that has been generated has got so bad that Plaid Cymru have resorted to that age-old negotiating trick of making threats in the press. Maybe they even mean it this time.

Jonathan Edwards, Plaid’s parliamentary candidate for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, like many of his collegaues, places the blame for the indecision firmly at the feet of Labour MPs and teh Secretary of State for Wales in particular.

He said: “Hardly a week goes by without Labour Unionist MPs trying to undermine the authority of the First Minister. Carwyn Jones needs to stamp out this latest attempt to de-rail the referendum trigger vote and establish his authority on his own party.”

An annonymous Plaid Cymnru source added: “Peter Hain has made no secret of his opposition to an early referendum, constantly saying he believes it would be lost. That kind of defeatist talk is the last thing we need.

“We also know that many Welsh Labour MPs are not keen on the Assembly getting more powers. They should remember that their party signed up to the One Wales agreement, which carries a firm commitment both to hold a referendum and to campaign in favour of primary lawmaking powers.”

They are putting it about that there is a serious possibility that Plaid Cymru will walk out of the Assembly Government coalition. All of this makes one wonder why Carwyn Jones has created this rod for his own back so soon. He is in danger of losing both the referendum and his majority. Who would have thought that somebody so renowned for being laid back could create such a crisis without even trying?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I suppose it does take time to change signs but I would have thought that Plaid Cymru would be in a hurry to disassociate themselves from their former AM, Mohammed Ashgar, who has now joined the Tories. This was taken in Newport on Sunday night.

If only badgers could read

The English Secretary of State for environment, food and rural affairs, Hilary Benn MP, has indirectly set out a very strong case as to why his Welsh equivalent is wrong over the badger cull in yesterday's Guardian. It is almost as if he is offering sanctuary to those in North Pembrokeshire being lined up for extermination:

My decision against a badger cull was made after careful consideration of the scientific evidence, practicality and public acceptability, following discussions with farmers, vets and wildlife groups. We have tried badger culling, but the conclusion of the Independent Scientific Group – based on the evidence from these trials – was that badger culling "cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control" of TB in cattle in Britain.

We are therefore trying an alternative approach to the problem, by investing £20m over three years to develop badger and cattle vaccines. We will start vaccinating badgers in six areas of England, working with farmers, later this year. We are also taking steps to try to reduce the incidence and spread of bovine TB, working with the industry and vets through the Bovine TB Eradication Group, and I have accepted all the recommendations of its first report. This includes providing better support to affected farmers.

I would love to be a fly on the wall if he ever had this discussion with Elin Jones.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Liberal Democrats poised to gain from Iraq Inquiry

This morning's Times speculates that it is the Liberal Democrats who stand to benefit more than any other party at this year’s general election from the fallout of the Chilcot inquiry. They say:

As the only one of the three main political parties to have voted against the war in 2003, the Lib Dems are best placed to appeal to voters who deserted Labour in the 2005 election because of the Iraqi invasion and remind them of their defined stance.

Labour strategists concede that there is a risk that voters who deserted Labour in 2005 could be prevented from returning to the fold by the Chilcot inquiry. There are particular worries in seats in larger cities, especially London, with a high proportion of middle-class, dual-income families, often living in suburbs, who work in public services.

“Typically they will be the head of department in a school and to a man and woman they deserted us at the last election,” one Labour strategist said. “It is not at all clear what they will do and whether they will listen to the case that this election is about other issues.”

Surprisingly perhaps, Labour detects signs that British Muslims are more likely to forgive the party for its Iraq past. In general, Muslim voters are less well off than the first group and, say Labour campaign chiefs, more open to the argument that they will lose out under a Tory government. Seats such as Birmingham Hodge Hill, held by Liam Byrne, will provide a fascinating answer to the question of whether fear of cuts to public services outweighs Iraq. Perhaps the best hope for Gordon Brown, as allies privately admit, is that voters see Chilcot as a “Tony Blair thing”. This week, and the former Prime Minister’s performance, is likely to be critical in settling that question.

The paper concludes that Gordon Brown is taking a calculated risk in giving evidence to Chilcott, but had he not done so, he faced giving the Lib Dems an easy way of keeping the issue open throughout the election campaign.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

For Wales, no longer read England

Just as it seemed that the English health service were about to follow Wales once more and introduce free prescriptions it seems that the Prime Minister has backed down, for now.

Today's Observer says that Gordon Brown is facing a backlash from charities representing up to 15 million people with long-term health conditions after it emerged a promise to give them all free prescriptions is likely to be shelved until after the general election.

They point out that the prime minister made the pledge to people with conditions such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes and depression in his speech at the Labour party conference in September 2008. Instead of implementing the change for all those patients, it is now expected to be included in the party's manifesto:

A coalition of 20 health charities fears that, with Labour behind in the opinion polls and the Tories giving no firm commitment to the plan, the promise will never be realised. Mikis Euripides, director of policy and public affairs for Asthma UK, which is leading the coalition, said: "If the Labour party decides to put something in the manifesto instead of acting now, that would be a complete failure on the part of the prime minister to keep a promise."

Mariam Kemple, policy and campaigns officer at Mind, a mental health charity, said: "We represent many millions of people and, if this does not happen, we will be up in arms."

The coalition, which also includes the British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK, the Stroke Association and Rethink, is calling on its members to begin a campaign of direct action this week, writing to local MPs and the prime minister to demand the promise be fulfilled before the election.

Meanwhile, 172 MPs have signed an early day motion urging the prime minister to implement the policy. They say they fear "the recession has made it harder for large numbers of people with long-term conditions to pay for their prescriptions and that many are going without vital medicines". They claim "the government has identified savings from the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme of around £550m per year from 2010, which will be more than sufficient to cover the £250m-£350m cost".

Both groups have expressed concern that a major review of prescription charges by Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, has not been published by ministers. The report, which is expected to call for charges to be dropped for millions, was supposed to come out before Christmas.

The spin doctors are of course out in force. The paper quotes party sources as pointing out that Brown promised first to abolish charges for cancer patients in April 2009. They say that the pledge for those with long-term conditions was for a later date – and only when savings had been made by shifting to cheaper generic drugs. I think that those who were expecting more will be very disappointed by that answer.

Hidden talents

As this is a Welsh blog I thought it might be worth repeating an article that came to my attention in the latest edition of Private Eye. They write about barrister Gareth Hughes, the Conservative candidate for Wrexham, which is 200 miles from his London office. They say that he is a man who relishes long odds, which might explain why he is fighting Wrexham for the Tories:

As his profile on Conservatives.com says: "Since 2002 he has been with Messrs Jeffrey Green Russell in Soho practising in these fields of law [licensing, gambling and planning]. Clients include those in entertainment, sport and gaming industry as well as residential groups."

Why so coy? One of Mr. Hughes' main talents is finding loopholes to objections to licensing applications for lap-dancing joints. As he proudly declared in an interview with the bar and restaurant trade title 'Theme Magazine' in 2008: "I have been advising clients who want to open London's first fish and strip shop - a chippy that turns into a lap-dancing venue at night with naked waitresses serving saveloy and chips. The fact the proposed venue is in the shadow of the Bishop of Southwark's residence has not deterred my clients."

He also acted for the Rembrandt Club, a large lap-dancing establishment which obtained its licence in 2006 despite an enormous coalition of local objections. His interests, of course, extend beyond vigorously fighting the corner of Britain's sadly under-represented sleaze industry, as he explained: "I'm proud we obtained the first 24-hour pub licence in Lambeth - made all the sweeter as the premises are opposite the Lambeth Town Council building." And Mr. Hughes' achievements do not end there. His finest efforts allow him to fight the cause of equality in the name of the brotherhood of man and (woman): "I also helped secure a 24-hour licence for the first transvestite/transsexual club in Tower Hamlets, against significant local objections. Residents claimed schoolchildren would be disturbed by seeing men dressed as women in the street - in fact there's no law against it."

How interesting to see that the Conservative Party select candidates who are not afraid to take their leader's interest in family values and stretch it to include lap dancing clubs next door to the homes of churchmen.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tory Poster

With thanks to Dalekat

Spy in the sky

Well it is 26 years late but if these plans by the police come about then George Orwell's nightmare world of constant surveillance will finally have come true.

The Guardian reports that 'Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the ­"routine" monitoring of antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.'

They say that the arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which produces a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for war zones, is adapting the military-style planes for a consortium of government agencies led by Kent police.

They add that five other police forces have signed up to the scheme, which is considered a pilot preceding the countrywide adoption of the technology for "surveillance, monitoring and evidence gathering". The stated mission of the South Coast Partnership, a Home Office-backed project, is to introduce drones "into the routine work of the police, border authorities and other government agencies" across the UK:

BAE drones are programmed to take off and land on their own, stay airborne for up to 15 hours and reach heights of 20,000ft, making them invisible from the ground.

Far more sophisticated than the remote-controlled rotor-blade robots that hover 50-metres above the ground – which police already use – BAE UAVs are programmed to undertake specific operations. They can, for example, deviate from a routine flightpath after encountering suspicious ­activity on the ground, or undertake numerous reconnaissance tasks simultaneously.

The surveillance data is fed back to control rooms via monitoring equipment such as high-definition cameras, radar devices and infrared sensors.

What is most worrying is the way this capacity is being introduced into police operations secretly and without any public debate as to its appropriateness. The fact that so much secrecy surrounds the project implies that its intent goes beyond day-to-day policing. This is yet another step towards the erosion of our civil liberties under this Labour government.


Lembit and the Daily Sport

Lembit Őpik attracts a lot of abuse for his column in the Daily Sport and it is true, sometimes he says things which are off-the-wall, risqué, over-the-top or just plain wrong. That is what politics is all about, we cannot agree all the time, even within the same political party.

What I have noticed however, is that when he writes sensible stuff in this column or even sets out controversial views that amount to mainstream liberal orthodoxy, nobody ever comments on it. People are looking for ammunition to throw at a good constituency MP and a good Liberal in the hope of doing him down.

This is particularly true of some of his opponents in the General Election who seem prepared to abandon any pretence at liberal values themselves to comment unfavourably on Lembit's private life and his choice of partner. That is not a plea for privacy for Lembit by the way, I accept that he has forsaken that right some time ago, but it a request for some of those candidates to step back a bit and think about how they would feel if they were being publicly criticised in the same way for their choice of partner. They would feel violated and upset. I would not blame them.

This week's Daily Sport column is an example of how an MP can use a vehicle in a popularist magazine, whose readers do not normally do politics, to get across some serious and thought-provoking views. Lembit talks about Haiti and urges his readers to cut out a couple of pints this weekend and give the money to the aid appeal. He talks about Tony Blair giving evidence to the Chilcott enquiry and he also writes this:

THE UK Independence party caused a rumpus this week by calling for a total ban on women wearing burkas. They say this piece of clothing – which completely covers a Muslim lady’s face – is a sign of a “divided Britain”. No, no, no! The fact people are allowed to wear their own religious clothes shows just how tolerant and inclusive Britain is. If we use UKIP’s logic to ban burkas we’ll have to follow it up with a ban on turbans, skull-caps, crucifixes and whatever it is that Jedi Knights wear. We might as well go even further and just give everyone a string vest, rolled up trousers and a hanky for their head so that we can all look “British”. Diversity is the spice of life – it’s one of the things that makes Britain a good place to be. It might be okay to ask people to take off face coverings when they enter a bank or passport control. But you’d need to be a berk to ban the burka!

That is entirely in line with what Sarah Teather and others said on Question Time on Thursday but, more importantly, it is addressed to those who would not dream of watching that programme and who might be taken in by UKIP and the BNP rhetoric on this issue, using language that they can relate to. It is at times like these that Lembit shows the value of his column. He should do it more often.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Protest at the Assembly

Busy day at the Assembly yesterday culminating in a protest by several hundred ex-Visteon workers on the Senedd steps, drawing attention to the loss of part of their pensions after the UK company went into liquidation last year.

The union are meeting with Ford in New York later today in a last ditch attempt to avoid legal action against the company because the pensioners believe that Ford guaranteed them their full pension rights when the car giant created Visteon in 2000.

Swansea workers like their colleagues in the other plants in Belfast, Enfield and Basildon, which were spun off at the same time, were persuaded to transfer their pension to Visteon because they believed that they were safe. However, when Visteon UK went into administration last spring, the pension fund was put forward for assessment to go into the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) which will result in severe pension reductions.

Most pensioners will only get 90% of what they are entitled to but those who have taken early retirement on enhanced terms will lose much more. There are 3,000 pensioners in all, 700 of which are from South Wales. Despite the Swansea Plant being taken over by Linamar in 2008, Swansea pensioners are all affected in the same way.

I have already met with the Pension Protection Fund to discuss this issue and was told that as part of the investigation process before the pension is taken into the scheme, they will look at the circumstances by which the pension fund has gone into deficit and how the company went into insolvency. If they can find a way to ensure pensioners do not lose out then they will do so.

They also said that if there is on-going legal action that looks as if it could be successful in making the pension scheme viable then it is possible that the Pension Protection Fund will hold off dissolving the scheme and taking it under its wing until that action has come to a conclusion.

There is still a long way to go in this saga but the widespread political support that was evident yesterday was encouraging. Legal action by the pensioners though looks very likely if Ford does not step in to help.

Update: my contribution is below:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ring tones

Does Wallander have the most annoying ring tone ever? Judge for yourself. Not that I can talk, my ringtone is Top Cat!

Another excellent video from Simon Dyda.

Labour face up to the reality they created

Interesting article in yesterday's Daily Telegraph in which Treasury Minister, Ian Pearson warns that spending cuts planned to reduce the public deficit are going to be “extremely painful". He has also shocked MPs in Labour heartland constituencies by saying the cuts would create “very difficult circumstances” in many already struggling communities:

Mr Pearson’s intervention yesterday will be seen as an attempt by the Chancellor to insist that Labour goes into the election with credible deficit reduction plans.

He told MPs: “As a Government we have to make a judgment as to what’s in the country's best interests overall, and it is clearly the case that what we are proposing is going to be extremely painful.

“I think it’s going to be tougher to deliver than pretty much any of us here in this House really understands.”

He was challenged by Katy Clark, Labour MP, about the “massive impact” such a policy would have on communities struggling through the recession and offered a gloomy outlook for many parts of the country.

Mr Pearson said: “You are right to point out the potentially very difficult circumstances that it will create in many communities in the country. We have to be extremely mindful of that as a Government when we are calibrating policy, when we are making decisions.”

This admission very much reflects previous warnings by the Chancellor of the Exchequer but contradicts the more upbeat message of the Prime Minister. It is a sign that the economic realists are in the ascendant within the Government, recognising that the electorate will not be fooled by any party who pretends putting right Labour's mess will be easy or can be done painlessly.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brown is to blame, say Hoon

I watched Prime Minister's Question Time today from the BBC studios in Ty Hywel as part of the AM PM programme on BBC2. I was quite surprised that although some very relevant issues were raised, none of the opposition MPs tried to hold the Prime Minister to account for his role in withholding much needed funds from our troops in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Today's Independent reports on former Defence Minister, Geoff Hoon's evidence to the Chilcot inquiry that the Ministry of Defence had "asked for significantly more money than we eventually received" from the Treasury in July 2002, less than a year before the invasion. He added that spending cuts imposed on the military by Mr Brown had led to the shortage of helicopters experienced by British troops operating in Afghanistan.

Mr Hoon also revealed that Tony Blair had held him back from ordering crucial equipment. He said Mr Blair feared that the secret military planning would become public if orders were placed too early. Delays meant that troops were hindered by shortages of body armour, boots and desert uniforms:

In his evidence to the Iraq inquiry, Mr Hoon said that accounting changes introduced by Mr Brown six months after the invasion of Iraq had led to "difficult" spending cuts and a budget under "severe constraint". As a result, spending on helicopters was cut.

Troops in Afghanistan have had to rely on lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers, putting them at greater risk from roadside bombs. "Had that budget been spent in the way that we thought we should spend it, then those helicopters would probably be coming into service any time now," Mr Hoon said.

Problems arose over funding the British operations in Iraq as the Treasury quibbled over providing the money needed for maintaining some new equipment and training troops to use it. "Once you acquire a piece of equipment it has to be supported and maintained – there has to be training," he said. "I think there were some discussions with the Treasury about whether the budget could be increased to allow for that maintenance and that was an area of difficulty."

This is devastating evidence and needs answers from the government and from Gordon Brown in particular.

In the news

Peter May's campaign to win Swansea West for the Liberal Democrats is going from strength to strength. Already a great deal of literature has gone out underlining the closeness of this contest between Labour and the Lib Dems. The latest full colour magazine has not gone unremarked in other media either.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The definition of marriage

David Cameron's explanation of the Conservative Party's policy on tax breaks for married people is rapidly assuming the coherence and clarity of Charles Kennedy's exposition on local income tax at the last General Election. The difference is that the local income tax policy stacks up despite its poor championing whereas the Tories are standing in a large hole and digging furiously.

We are now being told that an incoming Tory Government cannot introduce this tax change straight away and that they do not yet know how the policy would be implemented. That is fine. It is a difficult economic situation after all and these things can be quite hard sums for anybody with a lesser intellect than Vince Cable.

However, where our credulity is stretched most is in asking us to believe that the policy is aimed at sending a message to voters, not at changing their financial circumstances. It is no longer a bribe to enter a hetersexual marriage but a recognition that this is the Tory Party's preferred form of union. The Tories, we are told want to create “a ‘we’ society rather than a ‘me’ society,” promoting stable families and social responsibility.

What is worse is that because the cost is estimated at £3.2 billion then the tax break is to be restricted to couples with children under three years old. Thus you have to have children to qualify.

Those who cannot have or do not want children, whose relationship has broken up and are left struggling as a single parent or just prefer to engage in a stable relationship with a member of the same sex are to be excluded. This is a tax with more exemptions than inclusions. It is discriminatory and it is selective. It is the worst kind of social engineering, an attempt to impose a social norm with scant rewards, no vision and no understanding of 21st Century society.

Maybe one of the reasons Cameron is now trying to park it is because he understands that it will alienate large sections of the electorate. His problem is that his party will not let him jettison it altogether because he is not in control of his own destiny.

Badger cull protesters come to the Assembly

I was in the Assembly for some meetings yesterday when it was drawn to my attention that a small group of protestors had travelled down to Cardiff Bay from Pembrokeshire to make their opposition known to the proposed badger cull in their community. As I had a gap in my diary I went down to join them.

The group of thirty or so protestors included farmers from North Pembrokeshire and were carrying placards and dressed as badgers. They staged a small theatrical event for the BBC camera in which somebody dressed as a badger was put in a cage and ceremonially shot.

Talking to the farmers it became evident that although many were unwilling to speak out for fear of offending their neighbours there is a great deal of unease at the cull. A lot of farmers are aware of sets on their land and are confident that the badgers there do not have TB. They worry that government agents coming onto their land to exterminate the badgers will compromise their bio-security, and that the cull will cause churn amongst the badger population driving some onto their land who are infected.

George Monbiot has an excellent article in today's Guardian in which he challenges many of the assumptions on which the cull is based. He starts by stating that 2010 is the International Year of ­Biodiversity. The Welsh assembly is celebrating the occasion by launching a project to exterminate the badger. He continues:

In 2007, after nine years of research, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB sent its final report to the UK government. It discovered that "badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain". Rather than suppressing the disease, killing badgers appears to spread it.

The researchers had killed badgers across 30 areas, each of 100 square kilometres. They found that when the badgers were culled in response to local outbreaks of TB, the slaughter "increased, rather than reduced" the incidence of the disease in cattle: the level of infection rose by some 20%. When badgers were killed proactively (culled annually, regardless of whether cattle were infected), the incidence of TB inside the killing zone was reduced by 23% – but the incidence outside increased by 25%. The reason is that the killing changes the behaviour of the badgers: they travel more and mix more, either to escape the slaughter or to investigate the ecological space it opens up. The economic costs of proactive culling, the study found, were 40 times greater than the benefits.

But the old reflex dies hard. As the scientific group pointed out, "agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming ­scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control". It noted "considerable reluctance to accept and embrace ­scientific findings". The Welsh government shares this reluctance. In announcing her extermination policy last week, Elin Jones claimed that the cull would be conducted according to "the requirements outlined by the ­Independent Scientific Group". But the ISG couldn't have made itself clearer: badger culling of any kind won't work. Instead, governments should do more to control the way that cattle are kept, tested and moved. This was a message that farmers and the Welsh government didn't want to hear.

The policy Elin Jones announced last week is even worse than this suggests. Her culling experiment is actually testing two variables: exterminating badgers and better management of cattle. Yet there are no experimental controls (study areas in which one or both methods are not being tried), so there is no means of telling which of the two measures is working, or whether changes in the incidence of the disease have anything to do with the experiment. There's a scientific term for a study that simultaneously tests two variables while using no controls: worthless. The Welsh experiment has nothing to do with science and everything to do with appeasing farmers.

It is a compelling argument that is worth considering as we move towards the judicial review challenging this decision, launched by the Badger Trust.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Man or Mouse? The power of Twitter.

I saw this on Twitter last night but apart from casting out of my mind the image of the Speaker of the House of Commons chasing a mouse around his kitchen in full ceremonial garb, I thought nothing more of it.

However, it seems that what the Speaker's wife tweets is news and so the Daily Telegraph has the full story just hours after it happened:

After spotting the rodent run under the dishwasher in the apartment, Mrs Bercow sent out a tweet appealing for advice as ''the mouse catcher man doesn't work on Sundays''.

Suggestions ranged from using the Commons mace to a chocolate-baited humane trap - but the Bercows only had Quality Street left over from Christmas it transpired.

A spokesman said the last information he had was that the offending mouse had evaded capture and disappeared somewhere in the couple's family accommodation above the formal residence.

Mice were a particular problem at the Palace of Westminster, he said, as it was built on land reclaimed from the neighbouring Thames.

Such is the nature of 24 hour rolling news, I suppose.

Brown's secret pot of cash

I must confess that I have not been following very closely the revelations of former Labour general secretary Peter Watt in his book, which is being serialised in the Mail on Sunday. However, this report in yesterday's Observer caught my eye this morning and intriqued me.

Mr. Watt alleges that Gordon Brown kept a secret Labour fund allegedly used to finance projects while his supporters were trying to unseat Tony Blair. He wrote: "This was money we could not dip into since it was set aside for the chancellor's own projects … The money was registered as a donation to the party in the normal way. But instead of going into the overall pot the cash went into a separate account which we called the 'fund with no name'."

What is not clear is how this money was spent and who it benefited. The Tories are arguing that it should have been registered with the Commons authorities as a "personal benefit". Maybe it is time we were told.

Labour fails to tackle wealth gap

This morning's Western Mail reports Government figures that reveal that personal wealth in Wales amounts to nearly £500bn – but well over half of that is held by just a fifth of the population.

The Office of National Statistics say that the most affluent sector in Wales possesses an average wealth of more than £1.1m each – compared to just £9,000 each among the poorest fifth. The average family in the country’s wealthiest 20% could give £1 to every other household in the country – and still be nearly 10 times as wealthy as those in the poorest 20% of the population.

The details are stark. These figures are compiled by calculating the wealth accrued by Welsh households across four areas: property, cash, physical assets and pension equity.

For the wealthiest group in Wales – with each 20% amounting to some 256,000 households – the pension fund is £147.2bn.

Yet the poorest 256,000 families have combined pension contributions of just £500m. In property terms, whilst the poorest group struggles under the burden of a collective £300m debt, the most affluent sector possess combined property assets of £24.4bn. Overall, 62% of Welsh wealth is owned by just 20% of the population, while the worst off fifth possess 0.5%.

There is of course nothing wrong with creating wealth, the prosperity of our economy depends on it. However, the significance of these figures lies not so much in how well the richest in Wales are doing but in the fate of the poorest in our society.

It is difficult to imagine how any household can survive on an accumulated wealth of £9,000. As Dylan Jones-Evans says, our objective must be to raise the standards of living of the fifth of our population who are amongst the poorest in the UK. Such an achievement would benefit both them and our economy.

The fact that we are still here after nearly 13 years of Labour Government is a damning indictment of their failure to tackle poverty both in Wales and the UK.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Drinking problem

I think I have already made my scepticism known about the efficacy of a minimum pricing regime for alcohol and whether it will really have an impact on binge drinking and alcohol-related illnesses.

I certainly believe that there should be changes to the licensing laws and to the way that booze is sold in supermarkets etc to make it more difficult for under-age drinkers to acquire it, but all the evidence points to demand for alcohol being fairly resistant to price increases and I find it difficult to see how a minimum price will break through many of the cultural norms associated with excessive drinking.

This article on the BBC illustrates that better than anything I can say. They report that adults in Scotland are drinking the equivalent of 46 bottles of vodka each in a year. It said sales for the year to September 2009 averaged 12.2 litres of pure alcohol per person over the age of 18.

The Scottish government said the figure, which had remained static since 2005, was the equivalent of 537 pints or 130 bottles of wine per person.

Now I do not believe that the price of alcohol has remained static since 2005, in fact it has increased and yet it seems to have little or no effect on the amount of alcohol consumed. A small statistic that underlines my belief in the inelasticity of demand for the stuff.

The Scottish government take the opposite view. They believe that these figures underline the need for their policy of a minimum pricing regime but frankly the evidence for this looks scant. Free will is a very difficult thing to legislate out of existence.

Instead the government appears to be taking the easy option so as to avoid the harder and more expensive route proposed by the opposition of looking at the root causes of alcohol abuse.

The mandarins hit back

If 'Yes, Prime Minister' is to be believed (and everybody I have heard on the issue acknowledges that it is eerily accurate), it is often the case that top civil servants believe that it is they who are running the country, not the politicians. In some instances this is the case, in others it is very far from the truth, but in a large number of real life situations the reality must fall between the two.

It would be very easy therefore to dismiss this report in the Sunday Times as frustrated Mandarins venting their grievances at an outgoing and unpopular Prime Minister. The chances are that it does contain some of that resentment but by-and-large the story paints a damning and damaging picture of the Brown government:

The report, Shaping Up: A Whitehall for the Future, was overseen by Sir Michael Bichard, a former permanent secretary, and will be published tomorrow. Some of the startlingly frank observations by civil servants include:

- Downing Street lacks a coherent strategy and is reduced to issuing “barmy ideas” as it squabbles with the Treasury. Giving No 10 greater powers would inflict only more harm on the country.

- Ministers have lost their grip: “The machine is starting to pull away from them. There is a sense that you are at the end of an era.”

- The Treasury has given up on its duty to control public spending because it has been “hijacked and turned into a social policy department, a welfare department, a reducing international debt department, an everything-under-the-sun department”.

The most damning criticism is contained in the interviews with nameless civil servants at the end of the story:

“It’s no great secret that Gordon is not strategic,” one figure told The Sunday Times, while another said Downing Street and its secretariats were “a cacophony of silence and confusion”. A third remarked: “The centre [No 10] is certainly dysfunctional and the Cabinet Office is fragmented.”

The report concludes: “The office of the British prime minister holds a concentration of formal power greater than that of almost any other country in the developed world.

“In contrast, the fragmentation and lack of co-ordination at the centre of the civil service — the Treasury, No 10 and the Cabinet Office — leads to an administrative centre that is relatively weak. This curious situation has created a strategic gap at the heart of British government which inhibits the ability to set overall government priorities and translate them into action.”

In unpublished research gathered by the institute, the director-general in one Whitehall department said: “What comes out of No 10 is lots of barmy ideas. It’s the worst possible kind of policy making, which is ‘here is a problem, let’s have a kneejerk reaction to it tomorrow on what we’re going to announce’ and quite frankly the less contact with No 10 the better.”

A former government figure said that at one stage the Treasury felt it could rein in Downing Street only by sending memos totting up the amount of spending commitments that No 10 had made each week. Another director-general told the institute: “All the worst bits of policy making come from the centre. It’s these people who think you change the world by publishing a strategy. And you don’t change a thing by publishing a strategy, it makes no difference whatsoever.”

The report finds: “There is a gap at the centre of Whitehall — a conspicuous lack of a single coherent strategy for government as a whole.”

It also says quite a lot about the state of mind of the Prime Minister and his entourage:

One retired mandarin who has worked for every premier since Margaret Thatcher said the bunker mentality was worse than at any stage under the Tories or Blair. He said: “It’s worse than under previous prime ministers. With Blair they did invite you to meetings, but not with Brown. They contracted into a little bunker.”

He added: “I had a very good working relationship with Downing Street under Blair but that changed when Brown came in and it contracted to a very small circle of people. You just got orders from Downing Street, not consultation, and that is still continuing today.”

I suspect we will have to judge for ourselves who to believe, the civil servants or the government's denials. I think that there are so personal agendas at work here that it will be difficult to make that call objectively.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tory health spokesperson in cash row

Today's Times says that the Conservative health team is being funded by the wife of the chairman of one of Britain’s largest private hospital companies.

They say that, according to official registers, Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, received £21,000 in November from Caroline Nash, wife of John Nash, the chairman of Care UK. Mrs Nash works with her husband running a charity to help the underprivileged young. The charity also sponsors an academy school in Pimlico, Central London.

Care UK runs a network of GP practices, NHS walk-in centres, out-of-hours services and NHS treatment centres. The company says that 96 per cent of its business, amounting to more than £400 million last year, came from the NHS.

The paper adds that Care UK would be well placed to benefit from a Conservative promise to make it easier for private providers to perform more NHS work: The Tory draft manifesto, released last week, says: “We will open up the NHS to include new independent and voluntary-sector providers — if they can deliver a service that patients want, to a high standard and within the NHS tariff, they should be allowed to do so.”

The Times reports that Mrs Nash is a regular Tory donor, who together with her husband, has given a further £107,000 since 2006, most often contributing to the campaign to unseat the Labour MP in Hammersmith, Andrew Slaughter.

Mr Nash, 60, last gave money in December 2006, according to the Electoral Commission. He was the founder, in 1988, of the private equity fund Sovereign Capital, which owns several healthcare companies, as well as the independent schools group Alpha Plus. The couple have not previously given to Mr Lansley’s office.

Clearly, no rules or laws have been broken here and everything is above board but even the appearance of a conflict of interest does not instil confidence in the future of the NHS under the Tories. It also highlights once more the need to reform the funding of political parties.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Light relief


Liberal Democrat-led Council is praised for being Liberal

Liberal Democrat-led Swansea Council has been praised by Amateur Photographer magazine for bucking the trend amongst Councils who try to restrict photographs in public places.

The magazine reports: Amid continued controversy surrounding the attitude of many officials towards photographers, an amateur has praised the approach of his local council as a 'breath of fresh air'.

Swansea Council posted a sign outside its 'Winter Wonderland' warning people that the event was likely to attract photographers. It stated: 'Please be aware that a high level of photography by members of the public is likely at this event. Thank you for your co-operation.'

Dominic Burscough, who took a snapshot of the sign, welcomed the 'enlightened attitude' of council officials.

In an email to Amateur Photographer magazine Burscough wrote: 'Although plenty of other people were taking photos, usually with mobile phones, I was the only one using a digital SLR with a tripod. And I didn't have any problems or strange looks from the public except, ironically, from kids who were intent on getting into the shot and making silly faces.'

He added: 'All in all I had a fairly successful shoot, despite having been a little nervous of the crowds' reaction - and any overzealous officials - in light of so many reports of incidents between photographers and the authorities in similar circumstances… A breath of fresh air…'

Last November Swansea Council revised its rules on taking pictures in public after photographers complained that its Data Protection guidelines were unfair.

The council had called on local amateur and professional photographers to help it draw up new guidelines on photography after the council's initial draft failed to make clear that images taken for personal use do not risk breaching the Data Protection Act.

The photo is by Dominic Burscough

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why most asylum seekers are genuine

Interesting research by Prof Heaven Crawley, of Swansea University's migration policy research centre today, which concludes that most asylum seekers are primarily concerned with escaping from persecution or war, and less than one-third of the research participants specifically wanted to come to the UK.

Rather than being economic migrants who had made their decision based on information about asylum systems, employment opportunities and access to welfare benefits as some people believe, three-quarters of the participants had no knowledge of welfare benefits and support before coming to the UK:

"These findings also strongly suggest that creating a tougher asylum system and harsher policies will not deter people fleeing persecution and violence in their own countries from coming to the UK," said Prof Crawley.

"Asylum policy making should be based on solid evidence such as that provided in this report rather than on unfounded assumptions and misperceptions about the reasons why people come here.

"This is the only way to ensure that the system is as accessible and humane as possible for people seeking protection."

Irrespective of the tabloid perception of asylum and immigration, Britain must not lose its reputation as a liberal and compassionate country which provides assistance to those fleeing persecution, a role that we have played for centuries and on which we built our economic wealth.

Minister jumps the gun on badger cull

I do not like being at odds with my party leader but sometimes it is inevitable. The Liberal Democrats are, after all a liberal party in which the individual views and opinions of members are respected and diversity encouraged.

That is why it has been possible to accomodate differing opinions within the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly group on the proposed badger cull in North Pembrokeshire. Those members representing the more rural areas have taken on board the views of many farmers, whilst others of us have looked at the evidence and taken a contrary view.

That process has been helped by the fact that the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not have a policy on this cull. Tackling bovine TB has been, up until now, an operational matter to be dealt with by Ministers in accordance with the best advice available. The fact that Ministers are now embarking on a scientifically-suspect trial that seems to belie the available evidence has changed that dynamic.

I was appalled therefore to see a press release that purported to speak on behalf of the party and backed the cull. This press release was not issued on behalf of the two Assembly Members for Powys, but on their behalf in their capacity as Leader and Rural Affairs Spokesperson. It also explicitly said in several places that the Welsh Liberal Democrats welcomed the decision to proceed with a cull. That is not true.

As a result Jenny Randerson and I, were forced to put out our own release disassociating ourselves from this statement. We had both voted against the cull and remain opposed to it. Our view is that the Rural Affairs Minister should not have given the go ahead for a cull of badgers in the North Pembrokeshire area whilst a judicial view of the decision is still pending.

The culling of badgers has been tried elsewhere and abandoned. Even the Republic of Ireland is considering abandoning its cull because, although a reduction in bTB rates in cattle has been evident, the rate of decline has been no better than in Northern Ireland where effective management of herds and control has also had an impact.

In England, on the basis of the same evidence available to our Minister, a decision has been taken not to have a cull. Why is it that two different Ministers can come to different conclusions when faced with the same facts?

The Minister should respect the judicial process and halt her preparations until the latest challenge is resolved.

Update: one of the blogging Plaid Cymru staffers suggests that because there is a disagreement within the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group then this means that we are no longer able to criticise similar disputes within Plaid. On matters that are not official Plaid Cymru policy he has a fair point. However, where there is official policy and leading members of the nationalist party take opposing views then that is a different matter.

That is clearly the case where the Leader of Plaid Cymru remains opposed to his party's official line on nuclear power, where high ranking party officers and elected Parliamentarians oppose decisions being taken by their own Ministers such as over St. Athan and where official Plaid Cymru policy on tuition fees is overridden once the party is in government and members cast out for complaining about it.

All of those are significant splits that involve departures from democratically agreed lines and are fair game for criticism.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The wisdom of Carwyn Jones

The new First Minister took his first question session yesterday. It was a competent performance but lacking in serious substance. In fact at times I thought some of his answers were quite bland, at other times just bizarre. No doubt he will improve with time.

One example was the way he dealt with questions about the Welsh Government-sponsored Ieuan Air service between Cardiff and Ynys Mon. Asked by Jenny Randerson whether he would review the service he gave an answer that was both banal and obscure:

Jenny Randerson: First Minister, I begin by congratulating you on your appointment. With that, I will get straight down to business. As this is a new dawn with new priorities, will you agree to begin by acting immediately to end the scandalous spending on the north-south air link? While every passenger pays about £40 per ticket, be they the Deputy First Minister and Minister for the Economy and Transport or anyone else, your Government spends £80 per ticket on it in subsidies. That means that the highest ratio of transport subsidy that your Government provides across the piece goes to the most polluting form of transport available. Given the financial situation that we face and that your first act as First Minister was to go to Copenhagen and to promise us that Wales would do the right thing, it is time to act. Will you commit to reviewing that gross waste of money and to diverting that money, perhaps to the north-south rail link instead? Will this be a new dawn of honesty and of putting people first, or will it be more of the same?

The First Minister: First of all, you must consider the number of car journeys that are saved because of that air service. It is not a question of people not travelling. People on Anglesey will either take the car and drive or take the option of air travel, which replaces a number of car journeys.

There are so many holes in that argument that it is difficult to know where to start. It is sufficient to say I think that in addition to the aeroplanes the Welsh Government also subsidise a train service. That is a more environmentally friendly alternative to a car journey.

When I asked him about a key government report into the condition of the Welsh NHS estate, a report that was covered by the Welsh media over Christmas and New Year, he not only seemed unaware of its existence but sought to deflect responsibility for the mess away from his Government. He even demanded examples, when the report and the background papers contain a detailed analysis of all the problems. It almost verged on complacency:

Peter Black: I add my voice to those congratulating you on taking up your new post and on your first question time. I will ask you about the recent report of the Welsh Health Estates, which has identified an increase of up to £500 million in the amount of money needed to address the backlog in repairs for hospitals and other buildings around Wales. The amount includes an increase of £7.6 million in high-risk maintenance to £82.2 million; an increase of £1 million in the cost of complying with the fire code to £12 million; and a bill of £18.9 million to meet the requirements of disability discrimination laws. Will you be addressing this issue in your early days as First Minister, and will you be talking to the Minister for health about how you can target the capital money you have in the budget already at dealing with the worst instances, particularly regarding compliance with the disability discrimination legislation and the fire code?

The First Minister: We would need to see examples of that to assess the situation. A large number of capital projects have been taken forward in recent times, including substantial investment all over Wales—Ysbyty Aneurin Bevan, the Cynon valley community hospital and the new local hospital in Caerphilly, among others. If there is a need to examine the need for capital repairs in the future, that can be looked at by the appropriate authorities—by the local health boards—and then brought to the attention of the Minister for health to see if there is anything that can be done.

Let us hope he will be better prepared next time.

A heartbeat away

The Times carries a serialisation of Race of a Lifetime, a new book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin which offers an insight into how fortunate we were not to find John McCain and Sarah Palin in the White House this time last year.

The book reveals that advisers to John McCain were taken aback by how little Mrs Palin knew about politics and history when she was confirmed as Mr McCain's Republican running mate after a cursory, 12-hour selection process:

Heilemann and Halperin write: "Palin couldn't explain why North Korea and South Korea were separate nations. She didn't know what the Fed [the Federal Reserve] did. Asked who attacked America on 9/11, she suggested several times that it was Saddam Hussein. Asked to identify the enemy that her son would be fighting in Iraq, she drew a blank. Later, on the plane, Palin said to her team: 'I wish I'd paid more attention to this stuff'."

They coninue: "She continued to stumble over an unavoidable element: her rival's name. Over and over, Palin referred to Obama's running mate as 'Senator Obiden' – or was it 'O'Biden'? – and the corrections weren't sticking." In the event, Mrs Palin famously strode on stage, stuck her hand out and said: "Hey, can I call you Joe?"

Soon Mrs Palin began to show a still more disturbing propensity, the authors write. "It wasn't long before the signs appeared that Palin was going rogue. She thrashed Obama for 'palling around with terrorists'. Palin said that Obama's pastor, Rev Jeremiah Wright, should be fair game and implicitly criticised McCain for not leading the charge."

They write that Mr McCain was shielded from the full force of his own campaign team's dismay at Mrs Palin's unfitness for office, but that his staffers held serious discussions about what to do if he won the election, placing Mrs Palin's hands on the levers of power.

"Some in McCainworld were ridden with guilt over elevating Palin to within striking distance of the White House," the authors claim, adding that while Mrs Palin's fans in the US public continued to cheer her on, the national media and political establishments – once so ready to give her a chance – dismissed her as "a hick on a high wire".

Still there is always 2012.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A matter of Trust

This morning's Western Mail reports on comments by the Welsh Government's former Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee in which he made the astonishing claim that UK Ministers do not trust their Welsh counterparts with sensitive information.

I suppose that is fair enough when it comes to highly sensitive state matters but as Sir Jon Shortridge makes clear, it can impact on the business of government here in Wales as well as cause confusion due to the failure of Whitehall civil servants to understand the devolution settlement and the context in which they work.

In his written submission Sir Jon laid out a series of difficulties, both current and ongoing, which he believed were hampering relations between Whitehall and Wales.

They included cases of Whitehall not making it clear in announcements when policies applied to England only and also failing to notify the assembly government of major announcements in advance.

He was particularly critical of last year's launch of the UK Government's flagship set of policy proposals entitled "Building Britain's Future".

He said many of the policies were relevant only to England, but that he believed UK ministers had simply decided to ignore this.

We all have these problems of course within our own political parties but we are addressing it. Surely it is time for Whitehall to wake up to the realities of devolution as well.

Behind the times

A photo borrowed from the Twitter account of Simon Evans to illustrate Carwyn Jones' debut First Minister's Question Time.

As Simon says somebody in the BBC needs to catch up with current events.

Weatherman walking

Having spent the Labour leadership hustings telling the same joke about people mistaking him for BBC weatherman Derek Brockway, Carwyn Jones' first plenary statement as First Minister today, is on the weather.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Too early for savage cuts say Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats sought to distance themselves last night from the Labour-Tory competition to see who was prepared to cut the most from public spending.

Responding to comments by David Cameron on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that he remained committed to starting to cut the £178bn deficit this year and intended to reduce it by more than Labour's plan to bring it down to £96bn by 2013-14, Vince Cable said: "Rushing into expenditure cuts in 2010-11 would carry a greater risk of precipitating a deeper recession."

He also suggested he did not agree with Cameron's claim that spending should be cut more deeply than the government proposes. Cable told MPs: "My party takes the view that the government's eight-year plan, with a four-year halving of the deficit, is a reasonable starting point.

"My judgment is that we will probably discover that it is not enough, but we have to start somewhere and it is a reasonable working assumption."

The Guardian says that in a statement today, Cable tried to give his party some room for manoeuvre, even though he again condemned the Tory leader's plan to cut the deficit earlier and deeper than Labour. He said: "This tired repetition of the Tory line leads us into a very undesirable debate in which the speed and the extent of deficit reduction is being decided not on the basis of how the economy is looking and performing, but on the basis of political soundbites and dogma.

"The time to start cutting the budget deficit and its speed must be decided by a series of objective tests which include the rate of recovery, the level of unemployment, the availability of credit to businesses and the government's ability to borrow in international markets on good terms.

"The sooner we get this debate on to a rational footing, the better the prospects for Britain's recovery."

Cable has sided with the CBI in saying that the policy of deficit cutting known as fiscal consolidation is unlikely to start this year, and has said it will be a near-miracle if growth reaches the levels the Treasury is forecasting for 2011-12, and beyond. He pointed out that Treasury growth forecasts are dependent on exports, a relatively small part of the economy. He also says that a new government would have to give more details of a deficit ­reduction plan to give it greater credibility with the markets.

Nick Clegg is also set to give a major speech today in which he will say: "People know that the country faces one of the greatest crises in our public finances in generations. They know that difficult decisions must be taken," he will say. "So they want politicians to spell out their priorities, spell out the choices, rather than live in denial about the dilemmas we face."

He will say the Lib Dems have gone further than any other party in spelling out how to cut the deficit: a 10% levy on banks' profits as long as the banks are underwritten by the taxpayer; no to the like-for-like replacement of Trident; an end to tax credits for families on above-average incomes; cancelling the government's baby bonds; and a £400 cap on all public sector pay increases.

He will add: "Shopping lists of pledges don't wash any more. The politics of plenty are over. Voters will have no time for implausible promises. But neither are they interested in relentless prophecies of doom and despair. The party that will win the argument this year is the party which finds a way of marrying credibility and hope, restraint and generosity, discipline and compassion."

Once more the Liberal Democrats have positioned themselves as the party of economic competence who understand the importance of maintaining important frontline public services.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

In the snow and the ice

Having spent a couple of hours yesterday effectively digging my car out of a lane at the top of a hill in Cwmbran I have every sympathy for those whose travel plans have been disrupted by the weather.

I had no choice but to take my car into the hell hole in which it ended. I had to transport an elderly relative with a broken ankle, who could not get down to a clearer road. There are many others in a similar position.

I am old enough to remember similar experiences in 1981, when Britain had one of the coldest and snowiest months of the last century. The night of the 12th to 13th December 1981 was a record breaker with temperatures plunging below 18C, whilst a large part of the country was snowbound for more than three weeks.

I mention this to illustrate that no matter how bad things are now, they have been worse and, if anything, the response of the Government and local Councils has been better than it was then.

Schools were closed then too, though most of the weather coincided with the Christmas and New Year holidays. Bread and milk were failing to get through ungritted main roads, whole communities were cut off and I recall one instance where a snow plough was abandoned after failing to clear the snow in front of it. Road and rail transport was seriously dislocated, airports were closed and electricity and telephone services were disrupted for thousands of customers. The Queen was stranded for several hours in a Cotswold pub.

It is undoubtedly bad now. Yes, pavements and side streets have remained ungritted, Councils are running out of grit, parents are getting frustrated at the fact that they cannot send their kids to schools and we have even seen some airports closed for a few hours but nothing on a scale with 1981.

The reason is that Councils are better prepared and better organised than they were then despite what is said in the press. Council workmen have been working around the clock to keep key routes open and they have succeeded. They should be thanked more often for their hard work. And despite grumbles from some politicians Councils did have much higher stocks of grit at the start of this than they have had previously at the beginning of winter.

The problem is that this winter has lasted longer than anticipated and no amount of planning can have anticipated that. Councils also have to strike a balance between how much they invest in such preparations against the likelihood of it being needed and spending on other areas such as road maintenance, though the snow will send that bill through the roof as well. In addition there is only so much storage space. It is a crystal ball exercise but it seems that some politicians with the benefit of hindsight do not see it that way.

The fact that there is only one major supplier of road salt in the UK, in Cheshire does not help, nor does the fact that deliveries to Councils seem to have dried up over Christmas and New Year. Now there is a shortage of grit salt but to be fair to all concerned I think everything possible is being done to deal with that. I am certainly not going to claim I could do any better.

It is for these reasons that I find the remarks of the Welsh Conservative Transport spokesperson so bizarre in this morning's Wales on Sunday:

The lack of salt across the country was last night blasted by Wales’ shadow minister for rural affairs Brynle Williams, who warned the lack of grit was already causing chaos.

“The Welsh Assembly are hiding and keep saying ‘we had this and we had that,” said the Conservative Assembly Member.

“But we knew the weather was coming and it’s unacceptable what’s going on. There has been no forward planning.

“We have had two weeks of bad weather and the country is coming to a standstill.

“How did we manage back in the 1960s and ’70s?

“The roads have been chaos and there will be a lot more chaos if the weather carries on like this.”

The simple answer is that we did not cope and that we are coping better now than we did then. This weather is not normal for Britain, nor is it easily predicted far enough in advance to take the sort of extraordinary measures Brynle envisages. It is obvious that he and his party have been out of power for some considerable time.

I do not believe that if David Cameron or Nick Bourne were running things today that grit would miraculously appear out of thin air or that their crystal ball would be any better than anybody else's. I know it is asking a lot but surely some politicians would do better to engage their brain before pronouncing on these things.

Tory blogger and pundit predicts Lib Dems to hold both their Powys seats

Tory blogger and political commentator, Iain Dale has published his predictions for the General Election and surprised himself at how well the Liberal Democrats have come out of the exercise. He predicts the Liberal Democrats will win 69 seats, a net gain of seven.

This is a shock to some people but not to many Liberal Democrats who have thought for some time that we can come out of this election with more MPs than we went in to it. This is not to say that I agree with all of Iain's predictions. His assumptions for Wales for example, in my view underestimates the Welsh Liberal Democrats' potential.

I think that we will hold Ceredigion against the Plaid Cymru challenge and gain one or both of Swansea West and Newport East.

What is interesting is how Iain has finally put his own party in their place with regards to their ambitions in Powys. The Welsh Conservatives have long been touting the possibility that they will take both Montgomery and Brecon and Radnorshire off us, however it seems that Iain Dale does not buy the hype.

He has suggested that the Liberal Democrats will win three seats, which include those we hold minus Ceredigion. That will be a great disappointment to Glyn Davies and Suzy Davies, neither of whom it seems can even convince their own party that they have a chance of winning.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Labour's savage cuts

Labour has had a good go at Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats after he warned that there may need to be 'savage cuts' to rebalance Britain's budget, and in many ways Nick's poor choice of language invited such attacks.

However, the latest pronouncement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicates that Labour are planning far worse cuts than anything envisaged by the Liberal Democrats, who were it seems just being honest with the electorate about the dire situation the country finds itself in.

In today's Times the paper reports that Alistair Darling has warned that Britain faces its toughest spending cuts for 20 years if Labour continues in office. The Chancellor, indicating a dramatic shift in his party’s election strategy, told the paper that severe spending restraints are “non-negotiable” if he is to bring down the £178 billion budget deficit.

“My priority is to get borrowing down. Once recovery is established we have to act,” the Chancellor said.

“The next spending review will be the toughest we have had for 20 years . . . to me, cutting the borrowing was never negotiable. Gordon accepts that, he knows that.”

The Chancellor’s language about cuts in his interview would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago. He says that Labour will be more realistic than the Tories, who still have to explain how they will pay for their concessions on marriage tax allowances and inheritance tax.

“We are saying to people there are some things that matter [which] we need to protect. But the next spending review will be tough. There will be programmes that need to be cut. It will be the toughest for 20 years,” Mr Darling said.

Now that it is Labour talking about cuts too the whole narrative of the General Election will change.


With thanks to Liberal Democrat News

Friday, January 08, 2010

Whoops! There goes another one.

Having made a mess of explaining his party's policies on marriage earlier this week, the Conservative leader has now started dropping some of his key policies as the realisation dawns that they may not be deliverable in the current climate.

According to the Independent, David Cameron has embarked on a a "softly, softly" rewrite of his party's programme for government because of the economic crisis it might inherit.

The Tory leader said he was no longer committed to providing an extra 5,000 prison places or to abolishing income tax on savings for people paying the basic rate of tax.

Tory insiders admit that the party's draft election manifesto, which is being rolled out on an issue-by-issue basis this month, is being used to water down expensive policy commitments.

All that Cameron is succeeding in doing though is confirming claims by Labour on Monday that there is a £34bn "black hole" in the Tories' spending plans. Although the Tories strongly denied the charge, some of the policies being jettisoned did feature in a 148-page dossier issued by the Chancellor, Alistair Darling. They include a £2.6bn plan to reduce tax for savers:

Yesterday he said a long-standing Tory pledge to provide an extra 5,000 prison places, which Labour opposed, had been "partly done" by the Government. Instead, he promised to abolish the early release scheme for prisoners and for courts to set out a minimum and maximum jail sentence. The 5,000 extra places, promised in 2008, could have cost £170m. But 3,500 would have been funded by the sale of city prisons and property values have declined since.

Mr Cameron also conceded the Tories had downgraded a pledge to provide 45,000 single rooms in NHS hospitals within five years. He described it as "an aspiration" but added: "It is not a pledge we can guarantee for a [five-year] parliament."

However, Mr Cameron stood by plans for a two-year freeze in council tax, dubbed the most unpopular tax by the Tories, funded by cutting government spending on advertising and consultants.

The Tory leader admitted he had "messed up" this week over his party's commitment to recognise marriage in the tax system, but insisted it would be delivered within a parliament. "We have to be very careful about the commitment and pledges we make but that is a pledge we feel we are able to make," he told BBC Radio 4.

He said: "I give dozens of interviews every week and on Monday I messed up and there is no other way of putting it. I was thinking about all sorts of different things, and I misdescribed our policy. I immediately corrected that. But in my view there's only one thing worse than messing up, and that is messing up and not admitting to it."

Suddenly, David Cameron no longer looks so sure-footed.

The future of the Welsh Language on TV

Former Conservative Welsh Office Minister and the last person to be elected as Leader of the Welsh Tory Assembly Group, Rod Richards sticks his oar in again this morning, with the proposal that Welsh Language Channel, S4C should be disbanded.

Mr. Richards, who was a minister in the Welsh Office in John Major’s Government from 1994 until 1996, said millions of pounds could be saved by closing the channel and transferring Welsh language programming back to BBC Wales.

Currently, S4C receives around £120m of public money, both directly from the UK Government and from the BBC in contracted Welsh language programming. In 2008, its viewing share was 2.7% of the TV programmes watched in Wales.

Mr. Richards, who beat Nick Bourne for the Tory Leadership in 1998, believes that too much money is being spent on a bloated bureaucracy including salaries for high-flying executives and suggests that as the channel does not actually make any programmes itself, but commissions them from the BBC and elsewhere, it serves no useful purpose. He wants the Welsh language content to be transferred to BBC Wales.

Much as he may wish to bang this drum, Mr. Richards is behind the times. I certainly agree with him that there needs to be more intense scrutiny of S4C and the way that it spends public money, but to close it down would significantly reduce the amount of Welsh Language programming that is broadcast and effectively send what is left to the graveyard slot. I believe that there is cross-party support for that view, including the Welsh Conservatives.

Where I do agree with Rod Richards and Labour MP Chris Bryant is in the proposal that the responsibility for and the funding of S4C be transferred to the Welsh Government. At least that would allow greater scrutiny and transparency and perhaps enable us to pin down exactly how £120 million of public money is spent and whether it is producing value for money.

Like many others I do not believe that the DCMS is doing this job effectively and that they cannot do so because they are based in London and do not fully understand the context in which the channel operates. Moving that responsibility to Cardiff might improve that situation.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

A Dr. Who ginger group!

The Guardian reports that the running joke in Dr. Who about him wanting to regenerate as ginger has been misunderstood and led to a number of complaints:

The BBC received 143 complaints from viewers after Smith, newly regenerated from David Tennant in the New Year's Day edition of the show, looked at his new head of hair and said: "Still not ginger". But the BBC today said those viewers who thought the remark was anti-ginger and might encourage playground bullying have got the wrong end of the stick. You see, the Doctor wants to be ginger. "We would like to reassure viewers that Doctor Who doesn't have an anti-ginger agenda whatsoever," it said in a solemn-looking statement on the BBC website. "This was a reprise of the line in the Christmas Invasion episode in 2005, when David Tennant discovers that he's not ginger, and here he is, missing out again - disappointed he's still not ginger." Still, you could imagine how some sensitive viewers got the wrong end of the stick.

As someone who is proudly ginger myself I was not in the least bit offended but if Russell T Davies wanted a red-headed Dr. Who why did he not cast one.

The appliance of science

Interesting debate in today's Independent on the future of science funding in England in which a number of prominent academics are protesting about plans to change the rules on scientific funding.

They are concerned that making university research more accountable to the wider economy will stifle the sort of curiosity-driven research that has led to groundbreaking discoveries and Nobel prizes:

More than 18,000 academics have signed a petition condemning the proposed changes. They include Nobel prize winners Sir Tim Hunt, Sir John Walker, Sir Harold Kroto and Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, as well as leading scientists such as Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor Steven Rose and Professor Steve Jones.

In a separate poll of nearly 600 university professors, two-thirds said that they oppose funding changes that would force 25 per cent of future research to be assessed on economic impacts rather than scientific excellence alone.

A third said they would consider moving to another country if the changes came into effect and half said that the proposals would change the way they hired or fired staff in their departments.

The changes are being orchestrated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England under a government initiative to make public funding for scientific research more relevant to the wider economy and society.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England believes that their new "research excellence framework", which will replace the current research assessment exercise, will develop and sustain "a dynamic and internationally competitive research sector that makes a major contribution to economic prosperity, national well-being and the expansion and dissemination of knowledge".

They propose to give significant additional recognition "where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life."

However the scientists argue that this additional restriction on what gets funded will 'suffocate the sort of blue-sky, curiosity-driven research that has produced some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in the history of British science, from the discovery of the DNA double helix to the invention of the computer protocol behind the world wide web.'

They say that the proposed change to research funding is "profoundly misconceived" because it is primarily for industry and not for government to be thinking of ways of gaining economic benefit from science.

In many ways this could turn out to be just a storm in a tea cup. Research has always depended on external funding and scientists have often relied on commercial sources to provide the cash with the result that they have had to adapt their work accordingly. Is it too much to ask that some of the publicly funded research is conducted on the same terms? It is also right though that government should not interfere in academic freedom.

There is a balancing act here that may well prove to be attainable when both sides move away from the literal interpretation of the words in the HEFCE policy document.

Although these provisions do not apply to Wales the debate itself is still relevant to us. We do not produce enough patents in our universities and we do have the objective of developing a high value economy based on innovation and research. As such the Welsh Government and HEFCW also need to think how they can use the funding they put into research to achieve these goals. It is possible that a similar policy will appear here in the near future.

It is also the case that Welsh Universities do not limit their search for funding to within the Welsh borders. There is some crossover and that means that what happens in England has an impact here too. I look forward to the relevant Welsh Minister's take on this issue.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Brown must go

One tweet I read earlier on rather cruelly suggested that if Geoff Hoon says you are doing a bad job then you must be doing something right. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the view of the majority of the country who most probably agree with the former Minister and his sidekick, Patricia Hewitt that Gordon Brown must go.

However, as far as the country is concerned they want this event to occur through an election not another bloodless coup within the Labour Party. Still Charles Clarke and Frank Field are on board with this attempt to rally support to oust the PM so it must be a goer.

From what I have seen of the coverage so far most MPs do not want anything to do with it and are hoping that it will go away. There can be no denying though that this is a bombshell and will do the Labour Party no good at all.

The letter itself is posted on the Guido Fawkes website here. It is a call for a no confidence vote in Gordon Brown by MPs by secret ballot. The irony however is in the penultimate sentence where Hoon and Hewitt say:

In what will inevitably be a difficult and demanding election campaign, we must have a determined and united parliamentary party.

They have chosen a route designed to achieve precisely the opposite outcome.

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